If it weren’t for the devastating attacks on Christian prejudice by so many of Virgie’s friends Bill would’ve been tempted over the years to succumb to the admonishing Calvinist Christ of the Dymes or the sheer Lutheran faith of Rita Hapflik. The community he had known as a child in the 1940’s was mostly evangelical and a pervasive influence on him no matter how much he denied it. A person’s beliefs were patterned into his choice of words, and Bill could tell practically anyone’s religious denomination based on their demeanor, choice of clothes, the cars they drove, the types of jobs they performed. And from his childhood were the memories of Rupert’s constant haranguing about morality. Virgie used to say it was because his mother was an evangelical.
Clara talked little with Rupert, although he seemed to be far more reasonable then he let on. In some ways, Clara admired Rupert for his noble nature, and he had accepted her presence knowing what she was to Virgie. She didn’t, however, foresee him selling his business and moving away from a seven year old son. It just strengthened her resolve to fight the male dominated society that existed everywhere. Politics was too slow in letting women have more control of their own destinies. She continued the political activism of her mother and grandmother, writing speeches and campaigning for progressive candidates in elections in Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Chicago.
Clara loved Virgie’s vivacious movements, the way she shook her shoulders and smiled with her arresting hazel eyes. Virgie didn’t seem to mind hearing Clara talk endlessly about legal cases involving women’s rights. Virgie swept Clara along with her energy, the turn of a hand, the leaning of a hip, a bite of the lip. It wasn’t so much what she said when Virgie talked that drew attention to her but the energy she conveyed. She drew pictures and painted while Clara talked. Sometimes, even Rupert listened. Clara was a smart woman, he conceded. And if she dressed like a woman she would look mighty smart, he thought on more than one occasion while admiring a calf or a bicep.
The One Who Taught You Everything
Clara was 65 now as she approached Bill in the driveway in February of 1980. Bill watched the Cadillac sputter up to the garage while he finished a cigarette. He looked old to her; with lines around his eyes and a sagging face. She was thinking about how she had missed his good years when she said hello. She seemed only a little older with the same strong and sure step, long straight dark hair, now dyed, and piercing dark brown eyes. She was crisply dressed in a blue suit and white collar, holding her purse high under her arm. She had a problem with her Cadillac over heating.
“Never a good thing when the car gets hot,” Bill told her. He brought it into the garage and checked it over while she smoked a cigarette in the doorway. She asked how he had been; did he enjoy his life; what did he do in his spare time? He answered her just like he did as a little boy, stuttering to gather his thoughts, demure in voice. The car would need a new head gasket; she would have to leave it. She said she would call him in the morning but he said, “better make it three days.” He offered her a ride but she called someone who came from Virgie’s place and picked her up in a Rolls Royce.
When her car was ready Clara paid the bill and gave him a card. She told him that if he ever wrote a novel to send it to the woman on the card. She was an editor who could help him develop as a writer and maybe help him get published. Bill told her that the more he wrote the more frustrated he got. He didn’t have the experiences of a Henry Miller or Norman Mailer or Ernest Hemingway. He couldn’t talk about knowing people or places if he had never known many people or places. Clara spread open her arms in the back doorway of the garage looking into the salvage yard in back and said, “you have all of this to write about. Every one of those wrecks out there has a story; every part on the shelf, every tool in the toolbox. It’s all just waiting for you to make sense of it.”
Clara left a generous tip with the bill and a pat on the shoulder. He felt like a big boy and laughed to himself at the absurdity of the significance of what had just happened. The world had an order to it and it didn’t have to come with murderous loyalty toward any one symbol or redeemer. He was part of the greater environment, and that environment was recognizing him.
But Bill could only continue to conceive dialogues between his own first and third person as he tried to put his characters into situations. His characters seemed to lack a space for their own existence, or the complexity for their own motives. He had grown up an outsider in a jungle, had never defined his own space, and he had trouble sculpting environment for his characters.
He decided he was thinking about it too much one day as he twirled a maple twig between his fingers. An actor has to improvise sometimes. Bill imagined himself an actor who had to play a lawyer. He would have to take depositions, write contracts, chase clients. He began to write a story of losing a client after incurring thousands of dollars in expenses. Bill began to throw more minor tragedies in the way of his character, a divorce, a daughter, a dubious business deal. Bill lost a little euphoria when he realized he had written a made for TV movie, but he was still excited to have explored a character for the first time, to breath the air with the lawyer as he sees his daughter for the first time in three years.
He read what he had written over the past two years and it all sounded like the confidential journalizing of an innocent who was now being mocked by the super ego that was reading. He had no understanding of family dynamic, relating better to Thurber’s short stories and Masters’ Spoon River Anthology. He’d read voraciously for two years and wrote reams of dialogue, building around the story lines of solitary heroes who were dying out in the American economic system; farmers, wood cutters, family hardware store owners and small town grocers. Even the small banker was selling out to the far away owner. The world was closer to everyone’s back door. Cars and trucks were far more efficient now. The industrial workers of America were being displaced by overseas labor; farmers were giving way to corporate land owning giants. Everyone was marginalized in every area of life, facing the reality of their existence on their own terms and trying to make sense of it all.
The sons and daughters of the Van Innerns, the Davis’, the Eaglethorns took the places of their parents as the older generations faded away. Some classmates of Bill’s, people he had known as boys and girls were becoming grandparents, and though the children inherited their parents’ Calvinist and Lutheran ideals they didn’t go to church as often as their parents had.
Calvin Dyme Sr. was still alive, in his 80s now, and Calvin Jr. had taken up the mantle of everyone’s savior from his father. Like his father before him, his self esteem was enhanced when he was recognized as a man of God, and he relished the role of standard bearer for morality, the shepherd, the family man. Bill was hearing the same allegiance to creed, the same way of rolling everyone’s personal reality into one over arching religious theme whenever one of the Cals came for business. But Bill was more tolerant of them as the years passed. They’d continued to do business with him even after he blew up at Jr. for insinuating he was down on his luck. And they were far removed from the predatory politician who professed to be doing the will of God.
Cal Jr. took it as his duty to save Bill and often brought his car to be serviced. He stood around and talked about the gospel of Christ, the ways of men, the innate sinner that had to be redeemed by accepting Christ. Old Cal would bring his ’57 Chevy in for a tuneup every Spring, usually around Easter when it was particularly important to remind Bill of Christ’s sacrifice. Cal Jr. would follow up a few weeks later, bringing the aches and pains of his two cars to Bill for servicing while he gave Bill a sermon about what Christ’s sacrifice was supposed to mean to Bill.
Hell, Bill had been listening to them for so many years they were sort of like old friends. They no longer seemed like they were looking down on him but were genuinely concerned for the well being of someone in their circle of acquaintances. Maybe it was out of a sense of duty more than a love for their fellow man but as long as a man kept the decorum of civility and compassion alive by playing the part there was a chance that he could actually feel in his heart the love he so much desired to feel and express. Bill had always talked to a God but he wasn’t so sure that it wasn’t just an imaginary friend, a hope rather than a belief. At times he would witness patterns of coincidence in his favor and sometimes not. Whatever God was, it was made personal because of the imagination. The narrator’s voice was constantly putting the world in order.
The two Cals argued with him that his connection with God was real and that God was living in him but he refused to acknowledge it. Bill said that he made a living, a dirty one, but a living that satisfied him. He noticed that the Cals were dressed in clean clothes washed by their wives, were well fed by their wives, and were acceptable family men because of their wives. All family men were made family friendly by the women or they had no family; at least it seemed so to Bill. He thought of Clara and how much he admired her. He would’ve done anything she asked him to do when he was a little boy, and he felt the same way when she’d handed him the card of a book editor.
Dev was always a voice of reason. “Aw, come on, now. Don’t be getting religious just because you’re getting old,” he said after Bill told him that he didn’t mind that the Cals were always trying to save him and that maybe their family lives weren’t so bad after all. ”You’ve gotta remember who you are. Remember, it isn’t how others see you, it’s how you see you. Are you happy? If not, figure out why. Do what you have to do but don’t start going to church looking for a woman NOW.”
Bill wasn’t going to church; he was just feeling lonely, thinking about dying alone. But, Dev said, “would you rather spend the rest of your life learning what a fuck up you are? You’re already too hard on yourself. That ain’t you, man.” Bill knew Dev was right.
Clara stopped in a few months later in June. The trees and underbrush from the ditch in the road covered the fence around the salvage yard and Bill didn’t see her drive past. When Clara turned the corner she caught a glimpse of him walking to the garage and decided to stop and see him. Bill took a drink from his coffee and was startled, turning to greet Clara who was standing at attention ten feet away with her hands on her hips and with straight lips. She’d had an argument with Virgie and was going back to Chicago. She didn’t have a problem with her car; she just wanted to stop and say hi.
Bill told her he was lonely but didn’t think he wanted to have a wife; maybe if he was younger. “You never really liked women anyway,” she said. Bill was red faced. “What, you think all of a sudden you’re going to play house and be a man? Bill, you don’t have it in you. And you shouldn’t take it personal. Just accept it. I can’t imagine how miserable it would be for a woman to live with you. And don’t say you could learn. You have to feel the part. And you never could. Not with a woman at least.”
Bill didn’t have anything to say to that. She said it in that all knowing way of hers. But he didn’t like men either. They both knew of Benny’s assaults with Bill and both weren’t sure why Bill hadn’t kicked Benny’s ass. At times, Bill thought of himself like Lawrence of Arabia giving his Turkish captor a strange smile as he is being raped; it didn’t mean he was homosexual. When he recapitulated Benny’s sexual assaults upon him as a teenager he realized he hadn’t fought out of a sense of duty to his mother. He didn’t want to accept what he knew; that his mother knew of the assaults and bargained for them.