I hope it's not pretentious to post this in humor, but I was on a little writing streak about a month ago and started forming ideas for a novella. I churned out the first chapter before I had to set it aside, for school began last week and I couldn't devote the time to continue it at this point. But I was pretty proud of the first chapter that I produced. My aim was to make it witty. Well, I'll let you be the judge of that.
The Spirit of St. Louis
I was born into a mediocre family and I will die a mediocre man. It is not a fact to lament; I feel only Stoic resignation. I believe in the Fates no more than I trust in my Muses, and the confidence I place in my mediocre talents to graph any meaningful part of my being on to the world, that is, to do something of value -- an act of valor, a scene that causes poor old women to weep -- is negligible. Of course, mediocrity can mean a great many things to as many different individuals, and if my own value judgments about what I might contribute to posterity are themselves subpar, then my situation is even more grim than I first considered. I must begin with definitions, form an idea of the mediocrity that keeps my soul in chains; alas, if only the mad jailer, whom I always hear but never see, hadn’t swallowed the key in a fit of laughter.
How does one begin an act of courage? I know what my dear Homer would say. Ah! I revisit the sweet days when I was a boy, my arms and legs spread out on the soft grass in front of our modest home, watching clouds slowly drift by while Mama rocked back and forth on the porch, reading her favorite Greek poets to me. I imagined that I lay there in anticipation of watching sad Phaethon recapture his former glory. Any minute now I would observe his chariot return on high. She imagined that she was waiting for the postman, to hear news of papa, but soon it became obvious that it was just for the postman.
My father, a man of few principles and even less sagacity, worked in a steel factory. You might think it distasteful to speak about my father in this manner, but, as definitions ought to be precise, I must add that he was a thoroughly base man. He stumbled upon an immense fortune before the age of twenty, following the death of my rich and honorable grandfather, who had died in a freak accident involving two Russian whores; a story for another day. My father, so I have been told, squandered his wealth on the proclivities he had inherited alongside the hefty sum, and in the end, departed quietly from his hometown of Newark in a condition that, to a more reflective mind, could only be conceived as the regrettable effects of a philandering that knew no shame. But he was not, from what I have gathered, drawn to reflection, and I’m fairly sure that he simply viewed himself as a victim of the drips. “Westward the course of empire takes its way” became his maxim, or something like that, and one of utmost importance in so far as my existence is concerned. He went off to redeem his worth elsewhere, scattering a few bastard sons and daughters throughout the Midwest, eventually stumbling upon the small town of Kansas in which my luckless, teenage mother lived. You must see where this is going and so I will spare you the boring details. Anyway, it is far from my intent to transcribe an autobiography. Who could have less to say than I do? My only purpose is to accurately convey the meagre disposition, nay, the cross that I have been “predestinated” to bear -- if I may be permitted to borrow a phrase from the theologians; to paint my sentiments with the clarity and distinction of a Zeuxis, but without suffering any illusion about the distance that has always separated the intention of my actions from their faithful execution.
There is nothing particularly interesting about how it is that my father, whom I have long since ceased to call papa, became acquainted with Mama, or how it is that a night which began with two strangers bonding over a good deal of Pabst ended in the consummation that would eventually bring me into the world. What I have always found intriguing is how it is that someone like Mama, an elegant, smart, charming girl with a solid Methodist upbringing, fell head over heels for a lout like my father. She wasn’t exactly what I would describe as a looker, not that she wasn’t pretty, but her beauty was located more in her head than on her face, written in her heart rather than across her chest. For a country girl she was surprisingly refined, possessed a love of reading, especially the classics, to the extent that she even thought of herself as a philhellene; full of witticisms and well-bred humour, she spoke with an eloquence beyond her years. Her character was as pure as the widest eyed houri and her movements as graceful as the good Lord himself. In a word, she was a delicate flower. But she was also a bit naive, no more than usual for her age, and at the time, rebellious, perhaps a bit more than usual; her curiosity couldn’t wait to be satisfied, and she was elated to discover the ease in which pollination so frequently and naturally occurs. To my father’s credit, he discerned all of this, and I do mean all of it, and decided to settle down, to actually make an attempt at raising one of his own. He found a job at a plant in nearby Topeka, only about two and half leagues from the house that he and Mama bought, and the whole arrangement filled him with such enthusiasm about his future that, contrary to his usual habits, he stuck around for another five years.
I issued forth onto this terrestrial globe approximately thirty-five weeks from the night that my parent’s met, which I was able to calculate due to the fact that I recall Mama once telling me that their initial rendezvous occurred at a Halloween party a few days before the presidential election of 1936. She was too young to vote, though even afterward time never instilled within her any sense of civic duty, but this election in particular left an impression; then-governor of Kansas, Alf Landon, who had clinched the Republican nomination, lost in an overwhelming landslide to President Roosevelt, which included a humiliating defeat in our very own state of Kansas. That’s the scope to which Mama remembered the night, or rather the morning, that she unwittingly surrendered her virginity to my father and her freedom to me.
I was ahead of schedule in more ways than one. Though I had the eyes and smile of Mama, and a head full of dark, wavy hair like my father, my appearance was small and sickly. My father, the brilliant man that he was, became struck by the ingenious notion that the doctor ought immediately call for a priest. He was to have me baptized into the traditions of his forefathers, the Catholic religion, for should I depart after having tasted of worldly airs but for the brief moment -- or, in this instance, the few days -- that I had lived under the sun, at least I would be spared eternal damnation. This was the first and last occasion that Mama heard a single word about my father’s concern for sacred rites. Since she had lately neglected the firm Christian principles upon which she had been raised, she felt her position was hardly one that left room for protest. There was nothing about infant baptism that she could find objectionable from the standpoint of her Methodist faith; it was only the concern that I might be taught to prostrate before false idols that caused her to hesitate. She relented nonetheless and the priest was called. In the days that followed the sprinkling of water on my mushy, Gentile head, my health began to improve to the point that her and my father became thoroughly convinced that, lo and behold! the miraculous must be at work! They shed tears of jubilation in each other’s arms. I suppose the measures that had pardoned me from an eternity in hellfire had not proven enough cause to rejoice. My constitution, at first so pathetic and weak, grew stronger each day. My father didn't give much thought to his Catholic faith after my miraculous recovery, but Mama practically converted on the spot and began to attend mass as one made for a life of sincere devotion to God. What a change in a year! and to trace these effects back to first causes! Thus,
“this name of my Saviour thy Son, my tender heart had piously drunk in, deeply treasured even with my mother's milk.”
My earliest recollections, contained within that fleeting void which intervenes between the beginning of life and the years when current fashions begin to dictate our so-called reasonings, were anything but mediocre. The first impression that remains of my Golden Age consists of our cat, Francis, a stray that often came around and that Mama named after the priest responsible for my baptism, although she always insisted that the inspiration came rather from an article about the 13th century mystic which she had come across shortly beforehand. She possessed too much wit for the double irony to be lost on her, the fact of which will become clearer later on; suffice to say, she would eventually come to see herself as a little bird in need of salvation. I used to chase the poor thing throughout the house, on all fours, and one day he took a swipe at my face after I had cornered him behind my father’s recliner -- that hideous, moss green recliner! -- rugged, torn, covered with gobs of hair left by Francis; I can recall in a hundred different ways the image of Francis frantically leaping out of that armchair, his instinctual reaction whenever my father drew near. I’ve since come to fancy that the great saint had more respect for the intelligence of God’s humbler creatures than he let on. Neither Francis nor my father seemed to display much fondness for the other, and from that day onward, when he scratched me pretty good (I was fortunate not to have lost an eye), I have no additional memories of Francis.
A number of other pictures from that young period, before I learned that the tongue has uses other than the demarcation of various tastes and textures, now creep back into that abyss of obscure notions which the soul affects to have once been real, notwithstanding the possibility that reality may be be no less obscure than our most vivid ideas about it. I can see myself at my old writing desk, or hear Mama singing along to a record on the phonograph that her and my father received as a wedding gift; there is papa, as he was then starting to become known to me, on his recliner, newspaper in hand, pipe in his mouth, always intimidating, even to a child who did not yet understand what it means to fear or to be feared, or the importance that such sensations bear on the world economy. My imagination is far more active than my memory, and I suspect that the longer I contemplate the subject, and the less opaque these phantasms become, the less does truth subsist in the forms they take. What? True phantasms? Ah, I digress.
I should like to put a head on these early years without getting too caught in the minutiae. My reflections on this period contain nothing but feelings of warmth and gaiety. Every night Mama would sit at my bedside, reading until I nodded off, alternating between the heroic exploits of Achilles and Odysseus -- oh! the rank ineptitude of those silly Greek gods! Who can forget the laughter that erupted on Mt. Olympus at the spectacle of Aphrodite and her lover caught in Hephaestus’ net? The other evenings would occasion the slapstick horror of that unhappy union between the petulant Hebrews and their stony-hearted god of war. I found Yahweh's readiness to indulge his chosen people difficult to reconcile with his frequent outbursts, and though I took pity on him as a sort of tragic figure, he did not stir within the depths of my soul any magnanimous passions or sympathies. The sorrowful tale of Joseph and his brothers, or the primitive (and probably non-Jewish) theodicy that forms the Book of Job; these, on the other hand, have always moved me. When I devoured the writings of St. Augustine and Leibniz as a grown man, I was underwhelmed to find the essence of their rejoinders to the so-called Epicurean paradox, the age old problem of evil, roughly the same -- and hence, equally unconvincing -- and yet all the more did it elevate the respect I felt for those ancient biblical parables and the even more rudimentary models upon which their authors improved. I shall have more to say about this in due time. Still, I must admit, there was nothing in the Holy Scriptures that enchanted me quite like the Homeric epics; I’m convinced that these otherworldly reveries which the blind bard memorialized involved something that might, without much exaggeration, truly be hailed divine.
It was around the time that Mama began to nourish my brain with these fantastical delights that my father left us. The year was 1942 and Uncle Sam required that my father go off to the Continent to kill some Nazis and Blackshirts. For an instant my father experienced what other human beings would call the pangs of conscience. I have forgotten to note that he was of Italian descent, whose own grandfather had brought the surname Selvaggio -- which I also inherited -- to the States at the end of the nineteenth-century, and that before the U.S. had declared war on the Axis powers, my father often tacitly expressed support for Mussolini and the National Fascist Party. Faced with the quandary that fighting alongside his fellow countrymen inevitably meant shedding the blood of his former countrymen, he renounced his old esprit de corps and declared himself an American patriot, transforming, before Mama’s eyes, into a man who took cheer in the fulfillment of duty, foremost of which he professed to be a newfound willingness to make, should that dreaded moment soon arrive, the ultimate sacrifice. He took Mama’s hands into his own and swore up and down that he personally would never allow either his wife or his child to succumb to the yoke of German slavery; straightaway reaffirming his allegiance to Lady Liberty, he kissed Mama goodbye, promising to write her the second he reached the battlefield. How she wept upon that morning of his departure! He must have knelt before me, and as I stared up at him in amazement, I pretend that he said (for I was only a boy and cannot recall precisely how this fateful scene unfolded),
“‘The son is far better than the father.’ May he bring back the blood-stained spoils of him whom he has laid low, and let his mother's heart be glad.’”
Mama, throwing herself at his feet, tried to speak but only managed to choke on her tears. The sadness and deflated pride that her posture bore, like the famous sculpture of Cato reading the Phaedo with his dagger in hand, pronounced to me and to the world the panegyric that she had not in herself the restraint to utter: “O cruel universe! How you mock your most timid of creatures, lavishing upon them the sweetest gifts and the fiercest desires, solely to frustrate their aims, deceive their hearts, crush their resolve, and in the end toss to the flames what little hope is left in them! And for what? So that the selfish ambitions of savage beasts can find respite in the lamentations of the weak? This world is unworthy of this brave man, if one can call him a man! In what place shall I, who now finds herself detested and cast down, among the lowest of accursed mortals, locate the fortitude necessary to withstand those miserable nights that lie ahead, divorced from my lover’s tender embraces? Woe is the woman who gets no more than a single taste before she is deprived of those inimitable charms whereof even the merest thought causes palpitations in her lonely heart! Look, child! Study the countenance of your noble father and never forget how great ‘twas the seed from whence your paltry life took root!” Instead the few discernible words that she could actually bring to the surface were, “My husband, my dear husband,” which she wailed over and over as he tried to console her, though, I also vaguely recall, his attempts to quiet her theatrics only increased them to a fervor the intensity of which I had witnessed in her but once before, during a prayer intended for the ears of St. Teresa of Ávila.
A few months went by, and Mama and I passed the long autumn days often sitting outside, her head in books, mine in her lap or on the grass nearby, waiting to hear from my father about his latest adventures. Mama soon learned that they were adventures of quite another sort, however, for though no letter arrived, the authorities appeared on our front porch one day inquiring about my father and when it was that Mama had last spoken with him. Rather than go off to fight the enemy, which he never intended to do, he had relocated to Newark, where they eventually traced him, though not before he had already fled to Canada; the duplicitous son of a bitch was a yellow-belly draft dodger. You can imagine Mama’s devastation at the news; she nearly collapsed. I was very confused the following day when she invited the postman into our home for coffee and asked me to play outside because the two of them needed to have a “grown-up talk.” After that the postman would bring me comic books every now and then, which I noticed were marked for elsewhere, and in return I let Mama and him have their grown-up talks. We didn’t much speak of my father anymore, and his pictures gradually disappeared from our home. I grew older perplexed by the curiosity that what I have always found most troubling about my father’s absence is not that I never knew whether or not I would see him again, but that I was never much troubled by the feeling that it didn’t really matter either way.
Insofar as definitions are concerned, hitherto I have furnished one leg of the mediocrity which I set about in this treatise to unchain, for as I shall oft repeat, it is not my life that I wish to compose, but a guarantee, an expression no less lively, and certainly no less poignant, than “the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints”; to deliver up before Stercutius, so to speak, by way of Crepitus’ rear, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” What is that of which I speak? The simple proposition, gentlemen, that dream or shadow, I once lived, I was more than Plato’s featherless man.
While I have always envisioned Mama as a creature of the seventh sphere, which is to say, my angel, goddess, and queen -- my feminine trinitas but less metaphysical -- she was but twenty-two when my father vanished, had no particular skill, and was rather, if I must be honest, irresponsible. I have never seen her work a day in her life, and though she managed to keep me happy throughout childhood, well, moderately happy, the few years that ensued were, in a word, unstable. I was displeased to see her attentions divided between Seymour, which is how the postman asked to be addressed (pun intended), and me. The sentiment exploded to all-out jealousy when Seymour proceeded to join us for breakfast because his visits, which usually included dinner the previous evening, sometimes ran from dusk till dawn. I protested once or twice but to no purpose, for Mama easily rebutted my complaints, appealing to whatever moral feelings nature and nurture had yet instilled in me and the sound argument that a meal or a bed was the least we could offer a man who had lent us a friendly hand; whose generosity provided us with a great many things that we would not otherwise have been able to maintain, including “the very roof over my head”; and most importantly, that which my innocence failed to apprehend and Mama made sure not to mention, namely, all of the generous ways in which this friendly hand was lent.
I suppose it is not absolutely fair to characterize Mama as having never worked a day in her life, or as lacking any unique talents, for she was by no means lazy and, indeed, moved through society with an ease that I have never known. She rarely missed the opportunity to impress upon me her core values, one of which was the belief that a beggar should always be shown the same courtesies that one would flaunt before a king, for neither, she liked to enjoin me, steers the turns of Fortune’s wheel. Of course, she spent the entirety of her forty-three years closer to the former class, and I’m inclined to think that she played a larger role in her actions than she cared to admit. Those were also different times, and although I do not doubt that Mama could have found a regular job had she sought one out, she was far too easily distracted for the kind of menial labor that attracted Rosie the Riveter types.
Before Seymour the postman made his jolly entrance, for Seymour was a jolly fellow, somewhat egg-shaped, with two chins, four-eyes, and a guffaw that to my ripe ingenuity seemed better suited on a centaur; engendering within my fancy the idea that I might be the son of Peleus, and triggering the partiality for dissociation that has been our species’ modus operandi long before I discovered its inherent usefulness: the predilection to reinvent ourselves through narrative as a means to escape from an otherwise helpless situation. I repeat, prior to Chiron’s arrival, Mama had treated her Catholic faith with an assiduousness that I would bet rivaled even the Pope. But then, and I do not know if it was the rude awakening that she experienced upon the revelation of my father's true self -- for not only did his deceptions become all the more apparent in the shape of a letter which I shall elucidate shortly, but so too did his juvenile insouciance for persons, places, and things that afforded him no obvious advantage -- or if it was a result of Seymour’s youthful indoctrination into a fiery brand of Christianity that in adulthood begat his recurrent allusions to the Vatican as the Whore of Babylon, but I noted that she no longer utilized her prayer beads, which sat on an opened book, neither of them ever touched. That book, by the way, wasn’t the Bible, as I quickly learned. It was a collection of verses written by the Roman poet Catullus; never will I forget the lines that first seized my eyes, those which begin “Carmina 16.”
Mama’s zeal for the sacraments may have suffered in the tempest that had struck but wax and wane her faith did not. Her religious impulse matched the affability of her demeanor and disposed her to a proteanism which she abbreviated by the mantra, “More deeds, less creeds.” She came to perceive with an acuity that had been wanting in earlier stages the divide that separates the barefaced ceremony of a Martha from the heartfelt fealty of a Mary. Discarding the icons that had once filled her soul with ambivalence, her Madonna statue in the front yard, the chalkware figurines above the fireplace, the Jesus of the Sacred Heart painting that hung in her bedroom, replacing the numerous crucifixes that decorated our walls, in the family room, the kitchen, and above the toilet, with simple crosses; she decided that it was time to change our diets too, that henceforth our spiritual nourishment would be the manna from which Seymour took his fill. I wondered how there could possibly be any manna left. We accompanied him to his place of worship, driving some ways opposite of the city until we were surrounded by nothing but cornfields. A carnival tent slowly came into view, and then a sign: “Welcome to the Paraclete Revival.”
That must have been in the spring of 1943, an age that seems both far removed from the present and yet in many respects but a few blinks ago, not the roughly 437 million or so that I have in truth batted since. What prevails among the hazy impressions which have endured of that obscene ruckus, which Seymour called a church service, is that I had not felt at all well that morning. Furthermore, as the young mountebank, whom I can still distinctly visualize, pranced back and forth on the creaky rostrum from which he howled, I noticed a rash beginning to develop on my arm, and it itched like hell. With the Holy Scriptures in one hand, which, by the way, he only used as a prop, knowing by heart the right passages to spout off when he needed to emphasis a keypoint, and a handkerchief drenched with the sweat of his brow in the other, the preacher began to speak in a language of which I was unfamiliar: “Boogley-foogley shaba-dazam! Tadaba-doodie balada fomeka! Meka leka, thank you Jesus! Thank you Lord!” These were among the diversions which temporarily abated my plight. There were also the equally frenzied congregants, each of whom sat on the edge of their wooden folding chairs and appeared to be in a trance, charismatically waving their hands and repeating “amen” after every two breaths. There was one woman, in the row directly behind me -- I find it strange that she too has stuck with me all these years -- whom I thought was the most gorgeous specimen that my pupils had ever set their blameless sights upon. I could not help but turn around in my seat and admire God’s marvelous craftwork; she was dressed plainly but all the more did it bring out the subtlety of her beauty; her long, straight, black hair glistened as admonishments against the wiles of the devil worked her tawny, unblemished flesh into a glow that caused my own palms to moisten. She wore a botanical-patterned maxi-skirt which revealed but her ankles -- oh, what ankles! -- and a button-down top that teased the cleft of her ample bosom, blessed perspiration drawing the fabric of her shirt as tightly as possible around the diameter of each curve and crevice. I gaped at this voluptuous masterpiece until the face attached to it darted a glance at me, a grin, nay, a wink! Ah! I briskly averted my lecherous gaze, my heart frozen, the blood in my veins rushing to my cheeks. “For her house inclineth unto death!” the charlatan with the saturated handkerchief barked.
It was a few moments after that when things got really weird, and had witnesses not been present, I might have thought that I had grown delirious with fever. Everyone, including the dainty object of my adoration and the increasingly boisterous Seymour who sat adjacent to Mama and me, started flailing about, singing, praying, clamoring in that foreign tongue of which I could make out not a sensible word. The mountebank and his appointees went up and down the center aisle, touching their votaries on the forehead or shoulder and shouting commands which sent the poor souls hurling to the ground in a deep repose. I must have scratched my arm or something because Seymour pointed at me and exclaimed, “What is that? A rash? The devil, a rash!” He brought me before one of the healers and hands were laid upon me. “Teinadore fasa, lenka miore!” The man who had taken my arm into his scrawny fingers and directed his magical utterances to my exanthema then gently pushed me backwards as one or two others guided my fall. I kept my eyelids shut and remained silent, not daring to budge though at that point my arm itched all the more violently. “He’s cured! Praise Jesus!” I heard among the acclamations. After it was all said and done and we were on our way back home, which I explicitly remember for Seymour blathered cheerfully the whole ride while Mama simply nodded along, bearing a polite smile and saying not a word except periodically to ensure that I had not suffered any trauma, I found another rash on my leg. The following day I broke out with chickenpox.
I must rewind to the week preceding my initiation into the glossolalic mysteries. Likewise, there was a unique aspect to Mama’s faith which I cannot overlook, seen by many of her co-religionists as wholly inconsistent with saintly practice; to wit, her lax sexual mores. It's not that Mama was a slut, God bless her soul! As far as I know, which, fortunately, is by no means very far, she had but a handful of lovers subsequent to my father's exodus. The trouble, rather, was that amidst these romances she remained a married woman, having never got around to filing divorce papers, that is, until prompted by lover number three; nor did she feel compelled to remarry until prompted by lover number four. The more austere members of Christ's body, if the term may be excused, those who live to condemn even the mere appearance of impropriety, often found her presence to be nothing less than a scandal. Hence, weekends became irregular in regards to how and where the Creator received his hebdomadal tribute. Aye, I’ve mingled with my fair share of quacks and theocrats, devotees and divines; we even spent an afternoon learning how to chant in Pali with Guru Thoda Bhagavan, though I later heard that his actual name was Jeff. But that, as the jurists might say, is nihil ad rem.
I was not lying when I compared the purity of Mama's character to the virgin companions hatched in the flames of Mahomet's heated visions, for the notion of continence had never specifically entered my thoughts. Still, even at the time of which I was speaking, before the Selvaggio genome had wormed its way into Shawnee County, it was, as far as I know, mostly true. Mama’s life was an embodiment of the rule, “Love and do as thou wilt,” and beyond that she didn’t much concern herself with the dos and don’ts of conventional wisdom. In principle, she viewed the apex of sensual pleasure no differently than other functions of the body, such as eating or sleeping; in other words, substantially more agreeable in the company of another. A staunch believer in both God and contraception, she suffered no qualms nor felt the slightest tincture of guilt that her mutual exchanges of physical affection could be reckoned among the depravities of the created order. Instead it was her psychotherapy, without charge, a means of spiritual liberation, the sublime coalescence of two beings and the real dissolution of her married self -- what did legal documentation matter? For assuredly she drew the line at two, reaching the conclusion, also made known to the Prophet, that to satisfy one wife is to make the other unhappy. And that brings me to the letter she had received.
Mama and I were seated at the kitchen table, enjoying lunch together as was our routine. She would walk me home from school, located some four furlongs down the street, I then being in kindergarten; make Seymour and me sandwiches and soup, his postal route allowing him to stop by during his scheduled break time; afterwards we might play a game of chess, go to the park, pore over the dramatic illustrations of heroism and ignominy expended in the usual literature, or tune in the radio to hear of more recent examples and the latest developments in the war. When I reflect upon this day, my mind conjures up Seymour sauntering into the room in his wonted burly manner, whistling “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” scratching his beard with the envelope addressed to Mama. He stands over her shoulder, she scans it, appearing puzzled, intently opens it and begins to read; he continues to rub his portly chin with a stupid look on his face that vacillates between Mama and me, meanwhile, I'm studying her carefully. She begins to blush, then I notice a tear well up in her eye. She drops the letter onto the table and rests her head in her palms. “That good-for-nothing liar,” she whispers.
My recollection of this performance is, in all honesty, quite dubious. I know that both Seymour and I were present and that Mama was upset, nay, disturbed, but nothing else about it really leaps out. The letter, anyway, had been sent from a woman in St. Louis, and in it she claimed that she had tracked down a number of my father’s other mistresses, and that the whole lot of them were organizing a revolt of some kind, a plan to locate him, or something to that effect. I do not have precise knowledge of what it is that they had planned to do next, for I never saw the letter itself. Did they intend to castrate him? Lock him in a secluded warehouse and torture him until he pled forgiveness? Perhaps, but I think mostly they just sought alimony payments.
A part of me suspects that you, O patient reader, have repeatedly asked yourself, “Why does this author indulge in such trivial details? To what purpose does he abuse these pages with his incessant prattling?” I bid you to recall the object of my endeavors, my intention to “form an idea of the mediocrity that keeps my soul in chains,” to “begin with definitions,” the first of which involved the proposition that “I was born into a mediocre family.” Truth be told, I am effortlessly led astray by trifles, which is why I never could make for anything more than a mediocre philosopher. What’s more, as I spent these last couple of weeks ruminating over the causes responsible for my current outlook and the misanthropy that pervades my condition, I espied the following considerations: 1st, I would not pen an exposé of an individual whom no one could be expected to care about. No matter how enthralling or empty-headed the world has seemed from my limited angle, it would be the height of vanity to suppose that it should interest anyone else. 2ndly, I am exceedingly vain! 3rdly, In establishing an accurate picture of the mediocrity that is so firmly entrenched within the core of my person, it would not suffice to cast but the molds of my progenitors. The characters that Mama brought into our home as I was growing up have in many respects shaped me no less than the blunt tool that God or Nature employed when it was determined that I should proceed from my father. The first of these figures was Seymour, of whom I have begun to acquaint you with and of whom I shall have more to say. The second was the St. Louisan.
A correspondence unfurled, though Mama wasn’t interested in the money. She not only ajudged the entire cause to be futile, but also, when she was informed that the society of malcontent lemans had hired a private investigator, uncovered my father’s whereabouts -- shacked up in the city of Quebec with his newest concubine, expecting twins -- and withal sent two of their own scornful emissaries to confront him, that it had devolved into sheer madness. As an aside, scarcely one malcontented leman returned from La Vieille Capitale with her pride unscathed. The other, after opening the window of her seventh-story room at the Château Frontenac, concluded the expedition with a soliloquy in which she professed her unrelenting love for my father, cursed the ills of capitalism, and then jumped to her death.
At the onset communication between Mama and her new lady friend was sparse. They would write to one another maybe once every two or three weeks. This went on for a few months until Seymour and I came to observe Mama habitually remarking that she needed to convey this or that to Takeisha, for that was the St. Louisan’s name; frivolous things, for example, that she had accidentally put her left slipper on her right foot one morning upon waking from a dream in which the wings of a griffon were torn apart before the beast was made to stand on two feet like a human being; incidents of that sort, of no importance whatsoever. It reached a fever pitch when the missives exchanged among the two inamoratas, about God knows what, started filling our mail drop on a near daily basis. Naturally, Seymour was the first to notice, though, equally heedless of the portents that declaimed his pending calamities, those secret operations that begin to unravel long in advance of the tumult that ensues, he chalked it up to girlish chatter.
Until then the rapport that Seymour and I had built was more or less a compact; keep the peace out of respect for the Queen and her corpulent suitor in return for an expansion of my liberties, for grown-up talk could take hours! with the additional bonus of a free subscription to Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories. As my father could boast of neither the courage nor perseverance of an Odysseus (his cunning I allow), shirking the manly duties that had called him to the blood-soaked beaches of Troy, instead making a beeline to the luxuriant shores of Ogygia, neither had Mama any use for the distaff and loom, and it took no time for Seymour to become my father’s usurper. I suspect that the conqueror petitioned his Lord with the not unreasonable hope that he might be placed as David was to Uriah the Hittite,
“His hands to heav’n, and this request preferr’d:
‘If any vows, almighty Jove, can bend
Thy will; if piety can pray’rs commend,
Confirm the glad presage which thou art pleas’d to send.’”
Granted that I’m confusing gods here, one way or another thy will was done, and Seymour’s will was greatly satisfied. By the New Year he had moved in and the annoyances that I once felt over proffering meals to the golden calf became the rage of a people whose lands are trampled afoot by the altruistic intentions of a foreign invader. I could be rotten. Seymour used to stuff our cupboards with snack cake, he was always eating snack cake! along with an assortment of pastries and chocolates and candied nuts. He would get real irritated if ever his confectioneries went missing, and therefore, I made it a point to steal them. Except that I would always deny it, though, not once did I lie. I would say, simply, and in the most flimsy, guiltless tone of voice that a five-year-old could muster: “No, Mister Seymour, I did not eat your snack cake... I promise!” That much, at least, was true. Au contraire, there was a pond nearby, behind our house, where a flock of geese would regularly gather. I would distribute the largesse and together the geese and I would rage.
After some months passed my animosity was pacified by that lesser passion, or the lack thereof, known as apathy. It is not that I disliked Seymour; as a matter of fact, we got along fine. It was easy to loathe his jovial mannerisms at the outset; however, and despite the endless inanities that poured forth from his restless jawbones, typically succeeded by an impetuous guffaw that caused his belly to tremor like the ancient city of Pompeii during its last official celebration of Vulcanalia; notwithstanding that, Seymour was either too good-natured or too birdbrained, maybe it was both, but the efforts which I had sustained thereto were gradually rendered null. I could not fabricate a sufficient reason to hate him.
Still, there was one incident in particular that always tainted my opinion of Seymour. It was around my sixth birthday, sometime in July, and began when the three of us were sitting around the dinner table and he said to Mama:
Have you been around the pond lately? Do those geese look different to you?
Seymour: The fattest flock of geese that I have ever seen! It got me thinking…
(Wonderful, I thought, Seymour is thinking.)
...maybe I could give this one (winking at me) that lesson on safety we were talking about.
He’s all grown up now and whatnot.
Mama: Well, he will be six-years-old next week. O, where has the time gone? Where is my
sweet little boy! Oh! (snapping her fingers) I must tell Takeisha about the preposterous
plump of our plumaged patrons...
She broke off into a ridiculous attempt at dactylic hexameter until, wrapping me in her arms, she smothered my cheeks with a flutter of kisses. When I hark back to those days, I am reminded of the idealism that I once felt, the lofty expectations which filled my soul! How grand were my aspirations, how narrow were my concerns! And over what prospects! My upcoming induction into the first grade! Truly even the remembrance of that spirit of liberality and optimism is a gift of assurance for the onerous years that follow, a benediction accorded by Nature to those privileged sons and daughters who have known warm-hearted, attentive mothers.
Then, to my horror, she told Seymour to fetch his rifle.
Seymour didn’t hunt often. A couple of occasions recall themselves, when he and a buddy would split for the weekend, but I never saw him bring anything home. The odd thing about it was that nearly every night he would sit on my father’s recliner -- that hideous armchair! poor Francis! -- and polish the barrel of Captain Quantrill, for that is how he referred to his Winchester 94. Every now and then I would catch him softly gliding his sausages of fingers along the chamber, murmuring to himself extracts he had memorized from the Bill of Rights.
It was an unusually brisk evening, the Sun’s retreat into the horizon painting the cloudy skies with a luscious assortment of colors, blue, purple, orange, and pink! A few dazzling stars could be seen in their anonymous quarters. Chiron marched me out to the pond while Mama sat on our back patio, humming, if my recollection serves me right, the melodic cadences of “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.” My knees trembled as we neared the combat zone; we came to a halt and he huddled around me. On every side the world fell silent. The solitary resonance that I could yet decipher will haunt me for the rest of my days, that jubilant cacophony which filled the air; those pitiful, cackling geese! stammering towards us with snack cake in their eyes! Placing Captain Quantrill in my arms and steadying both with his, it was then when I realized that my hearing was obstructed because Seymour had shoved cotton balls in my ears. “Now,” he commenced, “after you put these in, you grab her like this… Hey! Listen closely! You must always treat this baby as if she were loaded and you must never, never aim it at Seymour...” This went on for a minute or so until I found my face pressed against the stock and the silhouette of a whopper in my sites. I had barely the energy to pull the trigger when his chubby forefinger squeezed mine to the point that I thought a blood vessel had burst. Pop! The next thing I remember is Seymour holding a gander by its neck, a prodigious sucker, and prancing it around like a marionette puppet as he made the following reflection: “You shot it right through the wings, boy! It’s like your mother dreamt the other night! ‘Its wings were torn off and it was lifted from the ground so that it stood on two feet.’” Sobbing, I threw my earplugs on the ground and ran back to the house, my senses filled with the terrible cries that rang out against Captain Quantrill and the chortling halfwit who bore him.