I. The Freak Circus
The freak circus is in town. Fairchild street, February 1974,
up the ice-patched, sloping walk and up the front steps into
the cobwebby and dirty entryway full of spooky old denim jackets
and jeans scattered every which way. The crooked staircase
up to the landing. And behold: tall Alfred Wain, leers over
the bannister. He throws his maniac's laugh.
"Well, well, what do we have here? An invasion of Fodells?
Welcome. Welcome to the Hacienda Lacrimosa!"
His laughter crashes into itself like a man falling down a staircase.
The Fodells, in matching green parkas, climb eagerly toward it.
In the living room: a daybed, ferns, a table and three chairs,
pillows scattered on the dustballs of the floor, an unwashed
window framing the leafless, twisted trees, the howl of wind,
a tear of ice on the windowpane, a concentration of gray daylight
like an obsessive thought. Daylight. Daylight. Daylight.
The sound of someone's car starting with difficulty. Convulsion.
Cough. Fever. The press of accelerator. Varoom.
Someone gets to leave. Mrs. & Mr. Fodell remove their identical
parkas. They are wearing matching bowling shirts, red with white
sports stripes. They have matching pot bellies and fuzzy pink troll's hair.
"Are we making enough money, Alfred?" Mr. Fodell ventures
and rolls his eyes around like a toy alligator and smiles. Look out below!
"Why this feeling of unworthiness?" Alfred is working on his PhD
in modern fiction and has a teaching fellowship at the university.
"Why always this feeling of unworthiness? There's a flaw
in the whole plan." Alfred's face is taut. He has to leave the room,
through his corridor of 4000 books, to the bathroom where he keeps
a bottle of Valium. Missy once had fuzzy pink troll's hair, but she dyed it black.
Her belly is big and round as if she swallowed a basketball.
"That's Alfred's, isn't it?"
"Of course, it's Alfred's."
Mrs. & Mr. Fodell are not relieved.
Missy strokes her belly and toys with an ashtray where three charred
roaches rest. A marmalade kitten bats at the dangling leaf of a fern.
Judy Collins sings she's looked at life from both sides now. Softly.
Softly. The turntable provides a turning world upon which this world is an overlay.
"What are you going to do then?"
"I mean will he marry you?"
"Why does he have to marry me? Why do I have to marry him?"
Mrs. & Mr. Fodell are not relieved.
"Tell Alfred to get a grip and we'll go out for lunch."
"Get a grip, Alfred. We're going out for lunch."
The canyon of books is quiet for a moment
and then it says, "I'm not hungry."
II. You Can't Blame Yourself for Trying
You can't blame yourself for trying, Alfred. There is a whole
catalog of dead animals along the highway: frost-bitten kittens,
about fifty of them, flattened on the medium for a 70 mile stretch;
a young deer-it lay in the lane already dead-Mr. Fodell
couldn't avoid clunking over it, it scraping the undercarriage
with a bony thunk, it being expelled by the rear tires to a heap
on the gravel shoulder; there are dead, frozen racoons; skunks
and opossums; a carcass (Alfred could swear) of an orangutan;
fox kits; man cubs; black plastic bags of ambiguous shapes;
abandoned bowling ball carriers; squid; soft shelled crabs;
polar bears; seals; mastodons and saber-toothed tigers;
the rare North American kangaroo; rattle snakes; falcons;
vultures and all kinds of glistening black viscera. Just another
pleasant drive in the country. Finally, they arrive at the Okiyokel
Inn. They are seated. They order. The spaghetti skillet
is terrifying. Alfred twirls at it with his fork as his long black
hair falls over his face. "The child would be deprived of its basic
rights and privileges as a human being."
"That's not true," Missy pipes in. "Our child would still have
all its so called rights and privileges. The law…"
Our child. When the day began, Alfred had prioritized. This was
something learned through a complex series of rewards and punishments.
It was not instinctual. When the day began, he swallowed water.
He noted that the sun had risen and already had accomplished
a great deal. He was jealous. He combed and pulled back his hair
into a ponytail before the bathroom mirror and didn't call himself
any harsh names. He was feeling optimistic. The hallway reeked
of racoon urine, but he tried to ignore it. Outside the air was fresh
and the bears were already chasing a little blonde girl through
the leafless thicket that bordered their parking lot. He walked
outside and got in his car. It felt good to be there. Productive.
Aimless. Real. He drove to his morning class. Introduction to Literature.
So there. He asked his students for important details. He smelled
the bottoms of his feet. He put himself in a peaceful place.
He had a lot of questions. He recognized the tags on the winter-dead
roses the university was trying to grow. Big window.
A kid played a shivering guitar
by the railroad station. The freight
rolled through, spray-painted
with unreadable graffiti. He discovered
his hyphen. He had lessons in ignorance to teach.
On the way home, he switched radio stations-left wing,
right wing, oldies, newies-who had the voice? There was this movie
he remembered with an angel locked in a spare room.
A confused man had cut off two of the angel's fingers. They never grew
back. Did he have the voice? He drove and drove and couldn't see
the stars through the daylight. He wondered who had rights to the voice.
"The child would be deprived of its basic rights and privileges
as a human being." "He would not. I would still be his father."
Alfred decides to order a drink. A whisky and soda. Something
just north of reality sparkles like a guillotine. He walks around
the spaces that the restaurant tables occupy. Sentence: live forever
in endless space. He listed hiking as one of his favorite hobbies.
Missy's tummy hangs out like the hood of a ‘68 VW Beetle.
He remembered his friends, Sherri and Randy Diamond. Old friends.
Losers. He saw the gravel of the driveway and Randy siphoning gas
out of someone's Chrysler so he'd have enough to get to Pizza Hut.
That's the year he got fired for letting Sherri through the all-you-can-eat
buffet for free. The dope. Why didn't he just pay for her?
They got married and had a brat who stuck a fork in the sleeping beagle.
God, the world was falling into Hell and Randy only cared about Star Trek
and Taco Flavored Doritos and Bugles and Randy and Sherri lived
blocks away but visited the old man almost every night. They ate
homemade tacos and drank Pepsi and chewed on daikon radishes.
They believed in Billy Graham and the editors of Playboy.
The old man listened to the police radio while he took a shit.
He had a belt with bullets in it and a gun he called Molly.
He slept naked. The police radio babbled to itself all night long
and to bullets and to Molly. Everyone slept in the house
right along with the dead parakeet and the photos of all the slaves,
frowning, and Jesus kneeling in Gethsemane.
"The child would be deprived of its basic rights and privileges as a human being."
"He would not."
III. Sleeping Well
Alfred Wain rarely slept well. Alfred hadn't slept well
the night before. It didn't matter what time of night it was.
When one can't sleep, one chooses an impersonal pronoun.
He guessed there was a ledge by the window where
English majors perched. Irregular spelling. Irregular grammar.
Burn the toast. Get on with your life. Impersonal iguana.
What hatches from your belly sticks to the nearest leaf.
You'd be better off essaying for no pay. Don't want to think
about it-the bubbles one fills up.
"Hey! Don't you think you should lay off a while?"
It was a morning, a Saturday, nothing to do. Marijuana smoke
trailed from Missy's lips in a sensuous arch to the ashtray.
"Awwwww. Is daddy worried about his little baby?"
Missy rubbed her torso. She wasn't so big then. She barely showed.
"Daddy is worried about his widdle, widdle baby. That's so sweet.
So sweet," she said and rolled on top of Alfred.
Missy's tummy. He had a reasonable idea about it. He skipped a line,
in fact, to fill it in. He was not too mad about anything much
and maybe that was the problem. He needed to take his pen
to the Chinese pen repairman.
And then there it was, Thursday already-another sleepless night-
4:30 am. He filled up on cold samosa, some hot pepper cheese
and crackers and a glass of milk. Hello stomach.
He always knew the word "ache" lived in stomach.
His mother taught it to him when she handed down heart disease
and constipation. He figured he was dealt the genes
he was to cover any future sins he might commit.
Then his punishment would always be there. But don't get him wrong.
It wasn't that kind of day at all. Far from gloomy, in fact-
the sun making the small patches of snow flare into his eyes.
Even the birds were shutting up. Fantastic day. He imagined
his future kid going out and spelling things in a big snow,
punctuating them with half moon smiles. He heard one plane-
single engine Piper Cub-drone in for a landing a mile off.
Someone coming home, perhaps, after a pointless roundabout
in the sky. His back said, "Don't forget me, you animal,"
and so it sent an ache to bless him and to connect
in a point behind his right nipple and make him think-T
his is It! Pocahontas, Jafar, here I are!
"You don't want your baby," Mr. Fodell says, ratcheting
his neck up like a game cock, "to be called a bastard."
Alfred stares coldly at the Fodells. Alfred, as it happens, is a bastard
and he remembers the precise evening he figured it out. He was 12.
Ozymandias Diamond, Randy's father, sat under his cone of light,
and dragged on his Chesterfield. As he held the cigarette in idle,
the smoke twisted into the lamp bulb and disappeared,
just like magic. Ozymandias listened to the police scanner-
he was a policeman himself and understood their codes,
knew when a squad car was approaching a robbery in progress,
knew then the suspect was armed, knew when an officer had gone
in over his head and couldn't expect backup in time. He listened.
He knew some of these cops by voice-he had a highly trained ear.
He had been a radio man in World War II, some twenty odd years ago,
on a flying fortress. He learned to distinguish voices over radio crackle
as if they had been announced from a pulpit on a blue Sunday morning.
Alfred and Randy were going to watch the Creature Feature
after the Ten O'Clock news. A bowl of popcorn was brought in
and tall tin cups of Pepsi with ice. It would be a sleepless night
on the living room carpet in slick green camping bags.
"How's your daddy doing, Alfred?" Ozymandias had little beady demon eyes.
"He's doing the night shift at the iron works now."
"No, I don't mean him. I mean your real old man."
Alfred sat up and looked confusedly from Ozymandias to his wife, Tormine.
"Ozymandias, shut your head." Tormine slapped Ozymandias across the ear.
Ozymandias laughed softly.
Except for Ozymandias's dim lamp, the television
was the only other illumination and it was 10:20
and the weather man was standing behind a map of glass,
inking in temperatures for each state. It was 89 in Phoenix.
Ozymandias commented on that. They visited Phoenix last year.
They liked the dryness. Ozymandias's police scanner
was soft but pronounced-everyone in the room could hear it.
The parakeet chattered beneath his covered cage. Shut up
and go to sleep, Ozymandias said to the bird. The bird chirped,
uh-oh, and then was quiet. Everyone laughed. Everyone but Alfred.
"The child would be deprived of its basic rights and privileges as a human being."
"He would not. I would still be his father."
IV. Futuristic Cities
Alfred knew in the old days the TVs had tubes that would glow
like futuristic cities. Robby the robot lived there and he always
went a tad berserk and murdered, with an electrified claw, a space marine.
The planet would always be harsh and barely habitable,
with an atmosphere that made your lungs burn like weed.
The news was simple with the weather drawn
with a grease pencil on a glass map. The milk commercials
made your eyes feel cool. The banks reminded you how
many sedatives it would take to forget your cash flow
problems and suggested quick and easy loans for Buster's surgery.
The police department assured you they were there to protect
and serve and bash and lacerate. Within walking distance
was the civil defense siren and the bus stop and the Safeway
with its coffee grinder and big chunks of frozen chili. Everything
needed to sustain life on a hostile planet.
V. The Rose Garden
Alfred and the Fodells wander in the winter-dead
rose garden in the courtyard of the inn after lunch.
"Most of all, I don't want my grandchild to go through life labeled a bastard."
You mean, like his grandpa? Alfred thinks to himself.
What do you think of Alfred Wain? Good citizen. Good hand
in a fight. Hard drinker. Big eater. Lover of life. Ran
with the bulls in Pamplona. Swam the channel. Pamphleteer.
As good as any. Sat on the toilet too longand got hemorrhoids.
Peed in a cup at the free clinic-
found a magazine full of skeletons-drank much of the free
coffee for lunch-panicked and threw up. Rode the bus
to the river. Prayed on the lip of the dam. Prayed to the bald
bureaucrat circling above. Wish came true. Changed
into a leprechaun and moved to the twin cities of Coraltown
and Hawkville. Became twins, held two jobs-one at the Pizza Hut
and one at the University of Armageddon-listened to the song
that said the same thing over and over. Always kept a $20 bill
in his shoe. Married the clock in the courthouse. Married her,
just as he should have. When Alfred was 12, the gumball
machines were filled with clear plastic capsules,
each containing a troll or a bat. And there would always be
a little man on the bench outside the store, smiling and trembling
and sucking on an ancient cigar. The world made so much
sense back then. Alfred's mother had said to him, "They are wrong,"
and she wiped his eyes with Kleenex. "That word doesn't apply to you.
Your father is the man who works and takes care of us.
That's who your father is now."
"But he said…"
"Alfred, when I had you I was very young
and I thought and did a lot of things that weren't perfect.
But you are. And what matters is the way things are now.
Do you understand, sweety?"
Alfred said he understood.
Alfred, Missy and the Fodells are in the courtyard
and Alfred spies Missy smiling, her attention caught
on two boys playing on the snow-patched winter grass.
One boy is convulsed in laughter and is rolling on the ground.
The other boy is jumping in and out of a demarcation
of shadow a slowly overpassing cloud is making.
In the shadow the boy imitates a crippled old man and quavers,
"I live in darkness." In the sunlight the boy snaps into a monkey-
like vigor and shouts, "I live in light!" It is the continual
transformation between the two extremes that makes
the other boy roll on the ground and laugh. I live in darkness
I live in light I live in darkness I live in light I live in darkness I live in light…
Missy laughs. She claps and cheers, "Yay!"
Alfred is warmed as he watches Missy's laughter
and he remembers spring and how the robin's song
seemed to dip and scoop things out of the air-things it didn't return,
because it was consumed in the song. He had sweated hard last night-
some dream had gotten deep inside him and had a hard time
finding its way out again. He could never remember them.
The next person walking down through the acacia trees
to the temple could have been his dream. Her stride
was always longer than his-it would have taken great effort
to catch up and it would have taken a huge amount
of foolish desire. When Alfred was nineteen he had plenty
of both. But now all he got was the sweating-time came
to him in its personal form and asked if he had enough.
He knew he had to, at some point, get in the car and drive-
most likely to the river where he thought the muse resided.
It always took a couple hours in the morning to get the goo
off his eyes so he could see. While he waited, he had some
green tea and put on a mask Missy had made out of black
felt and cyan feathers. Mardi Gras. But a silent Mardi Gras,
and alone. She was still sleeping. It was still too early
in the morning. He knew it was all an evasion and a delay,
he just couldn't put his finger on what he was evading
or delaying. The robin's chants marched forward
in his memory, but with velvet shoes like Pachelbel's
Canon in D major. The rats licked the air. He was,
he concluded, responsible.