#33 The Confessor of Littlefield: Thought Made to Order

For twelve years Bill settled into routine. He watched television and read the newspaper, which he had delivered to him every day, and collected books from the local library sales. He often drew his own superheroes over the stories in the paper; an avenging angel causing a murderer to steer his car into a tree; a succubus who seduces a rapist then strangles him; a kidnapper who is killed and resurrected and killed again for each child he’d sold into sex slavery. Over the news of Watergate he drew Nixon giving the double overhead peace sign with Kissinger seated on his right, John Mitchell on his left.

Bill always read the comic section first, but he also read Jack Anderson’s column along with the local editorials. When he read the tone of the ongoing wars between Christians and Muslims, capitalists and communists, he recognized himself as an enemy to all. All used the state to control ideology for their own gain, and all were proficient at pointing out a scapegoat. He didn’t trust the process of conclusion in the papers; the narrative seemed contrived, like a song you hear for the first time but you can almost anticipate the words. The various columnists were like poets who wrote the odes to the gods of war. And the gods of war weren’t above petty favor. War was always symbolized as the forces of a God calling for the soldier’s sacrifice in some conflagration between good and evil.

The early 1970’s comic book universes of DC and Marvel inspired Bill to conjure his own universe of characters. But his were antiheroes; the unskilled laborer; the short order cook with a strict timeline; the paper delivery guy whose car breaks down once a month, usually at four o’clock in the morning; those of low position who were made available to the privileged when they needed a scapegoat.

He wrote meta narratives after reading John Barth’s In the Funhouse, writing short stories that featured ghosts and talking angels in dreams. His characters were mainly taken from mythology: a historian in the court of Julius Caesar; a step brother of Jesus; a childhood friend of Ulysses. He tried to understand Jungian archetypes and read a few books by Joseph Campbell.

On TV and in comics, justice was a constant theme. Good and evil were always and at all times grinding against one another. Bill didn’t like it; it was Rita’s and Ralph’s world packaged for consumption. Evil has been vanquished but only until the beginning of the next episode or issue.

Bill saw the practicality of civility but it didn’t mean he needed to meet standards of morality set by others. Bill couldn’t buy into a vigilante system of justice in real life. Anyone with super powers would use them to their own advantage. There was a need for self defense, but Bill held the line at stories about faith defending a soldier against bullets, especially after John remarked, “ah hell, mothers prayed for every one of their dead sons in every war. God ain’t playing no favorites; otherwise, everyone would be justified in hating him just a little.”

John’s veteran friends (around Littlefield all soldiers from all branches of service were simply referred to as “army veterans”) told Bill about John being left to die by the Vietcong. Sure, it would be easy to defer to fate, to a higher being which we weren’t supposed to question, but that wasn’t John, that was Rita.

Bill knew that he lacked Tolstoy’s narrative and plot, but he had always studied faces and body language. He borrowed from deChardin to describe the spirit of the universe alive in his characters, but the only authoritative narratives he could muster were redolent of Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man. He could describe the mind of a psychotic killer; the single minded intent of the slightest body movements, but he stumbled on theme and plot. When he looked at someone he paid attention first to the face. If it had a mean look he averted his eyes.

He watched what people did, reading what he considered the spirit that generates the motion of the bones, and using the language of deChardin in his own internal dialogue. The more he wrote, though, the more his narrative sounded prefabricated by the newspapers he read. He wanted to write something different but he didn’t have enough interaction with people; lacked the understanding of real people, not a group of people condensed and turned into straw men and groups by newspapers.

He went to the library on Mondays and Thursdays, when it stayed open until 9 P.M.. The Littlefield Public Library in the 1970’s was far superior to what it was in the late 1940’s, and Bill found himself devouring the humanities. He brought home over three thousand books from the public library book sales over the years. After reading Cliff Notes he was able to understand Emerson, Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Solzhenitsyn, and Salinger. He had always read without much care for the artistry employed by the writer, but now he realized his preference for the vocal quality of Emerson and Frost. They were the authors of syllables, not just words; and they spoke with a rustic simplicity which he had known his entire life; where existential, somewhat unsettling, grinding reality was nonetheless familiar and comfortable.

Until the late 1960’s, everything he’d ever read was interpreted into associative memory and assembled into a narrative of ready made symbolism from the evening paper. The voice of the world of fiction was more dense. It was with Henry Miller’s voice he should’ve been trying to describe things but he didn’t have Miller’s flair or bullshit ability. He was trying to describe the little cabin on the hill or the screeching of the engine hoist swaying in the yard on a cold winter day in Frost’s language, or Walt Whitman’s, not his own. His voice meandered like Thomas Wolfe or Somerset Maugham, albeit far less academically. He identified with Holden Caulfield with the way he, Bill felt, not the way the character Holden Caulfield felt. Bill read Freud and began to analyze himself too much in the characters he was creating. All of his characters sounded like mirror images of some aspect of himself instead of just being themselves. The wars of good and evil between his characters were like his own ego versus his super ego; God against Lucifer waging war for the preeminence of reason over morality because morality justified destruction if necessary.

Bill forgot most of the story almost immediately upon putting a book down, as though the patterns of syllables he’d digested were condensed and transferred to his memory for future use. He liked the tone of Sinclair Lewis and Upton Sinclair, Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski. While looking through reference books one day he came across guidelines for writing an essay and decided that he would better understand a work of literature by comparing scholars. There wasn’t any critical analysis of Miller or Bukowski but there was more than enough to study Emerson and Lewis at the Littlefield library. However, he found too much of the critical study boring and unreadable; he just wanted to find his own voice in the wilderness of experience, hear it in his inner narrator, or through a character’s point of view.

He related to Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion because he had always recognized peculiarity in the language used in different towns and clans. Each nationality shared thinking traits, followed specific speech patterns, used slogans and slang picked up in the marketplace, gossip and media.

Van Tillburg Clark’s The Ox Bow Incident used the sort of spartan fluency Bill wanted to emulate. In Clark’s story he saw a parable for his own use: not just he, but everyone had to face the lynch mob on occasion, and every avenger is assured he is right. He tells you if he is wrong, “well, then God will judge” – as if that is supposed to be reassuring, especially coming from one with a spirit of murder.

From Bill’s perspective, entertainers were used as spokespeople to capture the attention of whole communities. It was the national pastime to spend time in conspicuous leisure but to be skeptical of others who also do. Sporting events and passing time away in drinking establishments or in front of televisions was homage paid to the idol of leisure, the corporation. The corporation converts into a dollar value the attention they have gotten. Producer and consumer both try to maximize remunerative value against loss of time or money.

One of the inexorable desires of a human is to earn an income by doing something enjoyable. That had an infinitely higher value than dollars to Bill. It sure helped to be able to set one’s own hours, not have supervisors to answer to, or anyone to say “yes, sir” too. Bill didn’t have the stress of a family, the responsibility of others to look after, in health or sickness, rich or poor. Bill had the salvage yard and his comics. He’d put off a brake job here, an engine rebuild there when his comics arrived in the mail. And when he was done with them he put them in sleeves and tucked them away in boxes; Doctor Strange, the Silver Surfer, Hulk, Thor. He didn’t like alcohol or sports, finding the idea of watching men harming themselves for name recognition and status a mean form of juvenile value.

Professor Hoon, a frequent visitor of Virgie’s during Bill’s teens, had once explained Veblen to him. Bill could remember some of the terminology but he didn’t want to try to understand it too much. He was looking for ways to convey his thoughts. He just wanted to know how to describe a subject, not teach it. He still didn’t know how to research or to read interpretive literature all that well, and while he enjoyed reading novels he didn’t pay particular attention to plot, structure, or narration. Because his life had always lacked human interaction, he was more interested in the characterization and the psychology of the characters in literature. He was trying to see the “why” rather than the “how” of what others think and do. When it came to writing poetry, he made simple word associations in sing-songy rhyming sequences based on his emotions and intellect. He would sit at a card table and write couplets and quatrains in various meter but couldn’t develop beyond the extended metaphor.

*

Bill came to the conclusion he hadn’t the desire to be a great artist even if he had the education and the mental acumen to be one. But he enjoyed reading poetry and wrote it occasionally as a catharsis, torturing himself afterwards for baring his emotion. He was drawn to Rimbaud, who seemed to already capture – his translators anyway – the voice Bill wished to use to describe his own existence. Bill wanted to write a free verse yelp like Whitman. He would’ve liked to have the youthful energy and descriptive capacity of Rimbaud but the simple sentences he had picked up from Hemingway made him feel like he was plodding along the page with his club foot. Whitman could catch a wind and sail for pages, puffing out sentiment only solitude can breed but when Bill read his own short stories they seemed to drag like his sore foot through a vast Autumn of dry leaves. And when they were lively, his narratives seemed too much like the descendants of Spoon River; with much acid and little merriment.

His characters were conditioned, controlled, limited by the constituents of their environment; family, jobs, government. We were all just minerals, gases, and liquids, with our prejudices already written into our genetic sequences and shaped by rubbing against each other. He had dozens of characters developed around certain common traits he observed: bone structures people shared that gave certain men a simian look, or the high cheekbones of some women, like his mother, which gave them an air of domination. He combined body and character traits with behavior stereotypes just as he saw on television, adding acts of general kindness or cruelty, compassion or meanness, love or narcissism to populate his own Olympus of existential nobodies.

What fascinated him was the stultifying effect all family men had on him. He used to think it was the women who somehow stunted the man’s natural ability to grow, to outgrow his environment, but now he concluded that most men aren’t creative, find their vocations early, and spend their lives advancing through various forms of job security, while trying to make sure they don’t die alone. A vocation gave a man his purpose without which he was just an animal; gathering, nesting, enduring. Then death.

All about him was the play of existence; people play acting at various roles of authority and subservience while in a perpetually degraded state of inhumanity; fighting, killing, incarcerating, punishing each other. All time was consumed in the pursuit of food preparations and consumption; procuring, processing, consuming, washing. There was dishes and silverware, pots and pans; toilet paper, laxatives and antacids. There was personal hygiene necessitated by the consumption of food, water, and air. Each person saw to their own needs, participating in a greater collection of sanitation engineering. It was an inglorious state made noble by Whitman and Emerson, but more so by Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski. In men like Miller and Bukowski there was the blood of the turnip spilled on the dainty flower of the Baudelairian dandy and the bellicose Puritan.

While he shared an intuitive attachment to the Transcendentalists he questioned the value of seeing the spiritual in all things. He admired Hemingway for his ability to describe and narrate in simple sentences but he thought Hemingway sounded more like Theodore Roosevelt than Walt Whitman. Bill felt in Hemingway the male nervous male virility that seemed to court danger for no particular reason; or at least for any reason Bill could understand. Mailer seemed like a narcissistic version of Hemingway who became the prototype for generations of self advertisers in sports and politics, selling a fictional version of themselves. Where Henry Miller was fluent with life, Mailer was at odds with it, occasionally quivering toward conciliation. Miller’s writing made people know they were alive; made them able to cry for joy in sorrow; Mailer’s egoistic first person seemed mostly to advertise a cheaper version of itself.

Bill wrote like he talked, which is to say, like he did in high school, copying whole paragraphs from a text book for writing assignments. He was no scholar, no essayist. He simply played at poetry, slamming symbols off a big screen erected in his imagination for his own amusement, and roughly following patterns he heard in songs on the radio. His fiction was narrated like that of a co-editor of an encyclopedia: factual, referential, authoritative, and lacking fluidity. His narrative voice was the same voice he heard inside, silently reading history from reference books.

When Bill saw Robert Frost read The Gift Outright on the occasion of JFK’s inauguration he was enchanted to hear the voice of the man whose poetry seemed to describe the world as Bill saw it. The irony of benevolent fortune was that it would always serve as pleasant memory during the times of misfortune; that nothing could ever be as it seemed to any more than one person; that a man could measure his fortune and chances with foreshadowing, resignation and fear. Prayer was made for heroes who lacked existence. What established a man, how he earned his living, how he lived, talked, perceived things, was always said better by another with similar priorities.

Bill didn’t really want to say anything that hadn’t already been said, or prove anything, or compete for anything. It didn’t matter at all what anybody wrote or read, either of the self or the collective; what was important was conveying the spirit alive in each living organism. The fiction writer was a mirror of the ability in everyone to sweep to order their environment despite fateful influences. One day, behind the garage Bill watched a rabbit scurry under the brush to feed an acorn to another rabbit that had been crippled and was hiding; he stood there crying for 10 minutes and then closed the garage to go in and draw a picture of a rabbit feeding a walnut to another that was injured. Bill didn’t want to jar the world, he just wanted to leave a chronicle of himself as representative of one the 108 billion homo sapiens whose bones the earth had accumulated over the last 50,000 years. It was a chronicle that didn’t sensationalize the exploits of its characters; just told their stories.

The two rabbits jarred his authorial vision. Suddenly, his was a lone voice; the inelegant outsider; the ruffian who related ugliness to beauty. He disdained the facile pop beauty of glamour with its cheap sensual desire and commercial gestures of togetherness. It all seemed to say, “come, be one of us. You are no good all alone.” Everyone, it seemed, consumed beauty, gorging on its bleached stalks with all the pungency removed. The sex symbol utilized by exploiters to cajole the male into accepting the script; the guy who never raises his voice, always is kind and respectful and wholesome, a family dud treading the mill after supposed years of youthful despoliation, while she is the witchy wise TV woman, ready with wisecracks and cajolery for the parade of ass spankers – mostly men – in her midst.

Bill’s illustrative expression was best kept to simple symbols akin to kids’ coloring books; drawings of hills and farm fields as Van Gogh drew them. He thought he could understand more of Van Gogh by looking at his art than by reading about him. All academic commentary seemed stilted, manufactured to fit a premise. All the Freudian analysis that was so prevalent in any examination of art seemed a superimposition of analysis over emotion and intuition. The artist didn’t need critics who pointed out peculiarities for their own amusement, or justified incomprehensible premises. What Bill experienced as an artist, as a creator, doing and learning from his doing, involved more than discovering himself, it involved observing why people agreed and disagreed.

Bill was nagged by an excruciating self doubt that prevented him from asserting himself. No matter how much he tried he could not concentrate as a child, and he rarely met a teacher’s measurement of potential. He only remembered being reprimanded and rarely praised. He was always too slow and too stupid and he could only remember being recognized for what he didn’t do right.

Virgie never talked about Rupert. Bill thought he had forgotten his father until he was in his early 30’s, when he seemed to recall every moment he had ever spent with him. Sometimes, the rumbling of the old Hapflik house settling on its foundation, or a harsh wind on a window pane reminded Bill of Rupert stomping on the floor behind him and antagonizing him for not picking up his room or for not putting away his clothes. He did not share his father’s fastidiousness, having to be reminded to comb his hair or to wash behind his ears. And even as a 45 year old Bill would skip a day of washing more often than he wouldn’t.

Bill’s laundry pile of 1979 had evolved from the same laundry pile he brought with him in January of 1969. Since age eight, he washed his own clothes by hand and hung them somewhere in the breeze to dry. Only when Rupert had lived with them did Virgie do Bill’s laundry, tossing his clean clothes onto his dresser and telling him to fold and put them away. Bill, like his mother was always hopeful of living without stress, and to him that meant without a partner. He saw the attitudes of the family men all around him as robotic with their noble sharing of a conscience with a spouse. As early as his teens, he told himself he would never marry; it appeared to be a form of servitude for both men and women. Some served society better by not being married and nesting.

Bill was always doubtful if his thoughts were in the right key. He reasoned that a person is only capable of languge associations within the narrative of their own existence. He was also suspicious of the dubiety of his own self. There was the all knowing first person self, and there was the omniscient narrator that told him about the self and put it into perspective. Sometimes that omniscient third person can be cynical, sometimes over enthusiastic, while the first person pursued, persevered, made both reasonable and unreasonable assumptions. When Bill acted, he was first person. When he thought about what he was doing, when he became his own narrator, the third person. He was able to evaluate what he was thinking as the third person, describing the dialogue between a first and second person as they hashed out the measurement of their existence as a dichotomous symbiosis.

He is a toddler. Maybe two. Running away from his dad and laughing. The huge Rupert stumbles after him and grabs him by the arm, lifting him up and slapping his ass a half dozen times. It’s not that he didn’t deserve the punishment, it was the demonic look on Rupert’s face while punishing that seemed unnecessary. Part of the reason Bill ran around the house was because of the mean way his father looked at him when he did. As a three year old he couldn’t resist the urge to see what a toy truck would look like if it were smashed against the basement wall, or the look on Rupert’s face afterward. Bill remembered laughing as he whipped the truck against the wall. Of course, the laughing just made Rupert angrier.

Bill’s memory ground to a backwards halt around age two. And sprung forward to the present, it was the ever present voice of Rupert. He now recognized his father’s voice as that of the demon of his own self doubt. He’d always felt a menacing presence when he knocked something over or tripped over something. His own self mocking voice was his father’s, judging and chastising for not being some sort of standard bearer. The voice represented a higher form of ideals that punishes with varying degrees of shame. His whole life had been molded by the feel of Rupert’s hand upon him. Now in his late thirties, he realized just how much his daily life was shaped by it. And if Rupert was a symbol of male authority to Bill, then the female voice was represented by Virgie, Clara, and by Rita Haskins.

Bill couldn’t say that he was all that fond of talking to Rita but he was sad to see her leave, especially after he realized he would no longer see a familiar face, hear a familiar voice every day. In the few weeks before she left she fell into circumspection, recapitulating the 21 years she’d spent in Littlefield. She wasn’t interested in the industry of the salvage yard now that both Hiram and John were gone. Junk wasn’t the sort of thing ladies talked about anyway, but she had never made any distinction between the ultimate motive of both, herself and others: we were all headed to the same gate. It was just that some weren’t going to make it through. Her faith had led her to believe in the voices of the elders and her faith was a bond that was indestructible. No matter the appearance of a thing the only reality of it was where it was going.

She had a reason for being unfair to Bill before. He was effeminate, vulnerable with his body language and his soft, limping gait. Even John laughed about it. Bill used to cause snickers in middle school which he ignored with a mask of surliness. He couldn’t help the way he limped, Rita knew but it didn’t keep her from deriding him. She said it would be easy to mistake him for a girl if he didn’t start walking more like a man. But then he was loyal to Hiram for all those years and kept the business going for John after Hiram passed away. Bill knew why she was kind to him on occasion but he still didn’t like her. Not that he was unforgiving. Or was it? He couldn’t seem to ever completely shake his resentment. Given the momentum of her existence, did she have any choice but to act as she did? What sort of bond did he, Bill, have for the world anyway?

*

When his foot ached too much he rested. He offered a discount for those who removed their own parts from the vehicles in the yard; by himself he could only keep up with repairs. He’d always been stingy with money out of necessity, counting every dime like Thoreau. His body was nimble and coordinated from activity when he was younger. But now he smoked, drank too much pop and ate too many snack cakes. He mushroomed to 255lbs., which sat thick on his frame, draining him of energy and contributing to a general mood of torpor. His sagging face panted back at him in the bathroom mirror; he was winded from defecating. He was 37 but it was an old 37.

When he was younger, Bill developed a course of calisthenics, stretches and breathing exercises with the help of a Chinese/Latino female friend of Virgie’s who visited two or three times a year while Bill was in his teens. The exercises strengthened his body and gave his confidence. He’d never learned boxing or wrestling and at least he had some way to defend himself. Virgie said Bill needed to learn to stick up for himself and stand his ground. There is a line a person cannot let another person cross.

Through his 20’s and 30’s he bought Paul Bragg exercise pamphlets and did calisthenics and stretching. He had scoliosis but didn’t know it. The exercises strengthened his midsection and relieved his back strain. He focused on keeping his weight balanced throughout the day, trying not to favor his leg when he moved. Whenever he was under a car, hooking up a vehicle to the tow truck, working on someone’s brakes, or exchanging a transmission, he would be thinking, “gotta get more weight in the center of my hips, shoulders follow.” And while Mr. Beezfuddy complained about having to wait until Friday before Bill could cure that thumping noise on the floor of his Pontiac, Bill was thinking, “whenever I use my elbow I am straining my jaw. What’s up with that?” Bill wasn’t over eating and was 190lbs in 1969, even though he didn’t go for walks much anymore after he moved into the Hapflik house; his back and foot ached too much when he did that.

By his late 30s he had experienced most of his adult life as a recluse, taking part in the world vicariously through radio, television and newspapers. He smoked too many cigarettes but didn’t like drinking. He didn’t like drugs or alcohol even as a teenager but would get pot or mushrooms from Dev. In retrospect, he had always felt like he was playing an assistant to someone else’s stronger fate. But then everyone needed others to lead the way. He had been given an opportunity to age in the same playground of cars started by his father over forty years before. The service garage didn’t seem so big now as it did when Rupert built it. The Hapflik’s had been father, mother, and brother to Bill. And when Bill was self conscious about his appearance or inarticulate speech he saw Rita’s mocking face making references about homosexuality. But he also remembered the look of appreciation and kindness she gave him when he asked for more money. She often came outside to talk to him in the years after Hiram died and was generous to sell him the house and business on installments.

*

Dev wasn’t so sure as Bill that a person could take his eye off the demands of his family. But Bill’s situation was different. He only had himself. The Cal Dymes and uncle Ralph’s would vociferously disagree that a loner should be thought of as equal to the family man in the eyes of the community. “Anything worth having was something you had to pay for,” was something taught universally by all peoples everywhere regardless of nationality. Every family man had to pay for the members of his family. What “others” did a loner pay for? Everyone, thought Bill. To the government on behalf of everyone. The capitalist family was no different when they claimed the favor of Christ, then the Arabs claiming the favor of Allah, the Chinese and the Russians claiming the favor of a party leader. Everyone had allegiances in the daily mythologies fabricated from existence. There was little difference between the lives of individuals in the small towns Bill had known in Michigan, and whatever differences existed dissolved into the passing generations.

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