It began in a cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Pristine night settled with autumnal resolve. An indolent canopy of celestial opulence lingered over the retiring summer. Beneath the stellar residue burned the embers of the season's last fires. Treetops stirred under a playful wind whistling huskily southwards, stealing the fading essence of warm days and humid nights, and youthful dreams floating away in bioluminescent blinks.
Enchanting the night was a familiar song, played in the rhythm rusted bed springs and a creaking frame. Under a tattered blanket of coarse wool, the Divine's perpetuating mistake iterated another verse in moans and heavy breathing. Bert Stanton, an itinerant mechanic, was supplicating himself before the latest shrine in his peregrination of connubial conquests. It would be his lone act of genius that he did not wear a prophylactic. In a life characterized by gin and cheap cigars, spent in opiate stupors, syphilitic delusion, and the sublime dregs of hotels that charged by the hour, he barely recognized the accomplishment as fleeting as the climax.
B. Cummings Dearmad sat back in his chair. Cracking his knuckles over his keyboard, he allowed himself the briefest of smiles. Openings were always the best time to bare one's knives. Ben Spelling was neither a drunk nor a doper. The closest he got to an engine, as far as Cummings knew, was on the sales floor. But an absent father is an easy target; ever moving but rarely offering a defense.
Any mirth between those curling lips quickly dissolved into a patient grimace. Above the faded sea green shell of iComp, lone vestige of his surrender to late century technology, in gilt framing, was the National Quill Honor of 2006. If he wanted to match the effort or--dare he dream?--vie for the '09 Pullman, he would have to pry out his heart and slash his arteries, pour the very best of himself into The Craft. A few sentences of gleeful malice against a man long dead was a start. But it was hardly a Pullman winner.
Cummings allowed himself a sip of tepid water. Gone was the coffee, the teas, and the whiskeys of his "write drunk" days. Foolish affectations that had cost him a wife and a decade of his time, when his superlatives were "raw" and "unbridled" instead of the plaudits he craved. It was only when he came undone in the clutches of another woman, who wanted him only for the New Gotham articles and Upper West Side cocktail parties, that he pledged himself to a more meticulous muse. Now he was "reclusive" and "Spartan." Emeritus of a MacMillan Brilliance Honor. Elder statesman of The Craft. Let Caiazzo and his wayward acolytes have their rambling sophistry and passion for life. Cummings was beholden to a hire calling, the sober taskmaster of Art.
With a second feeble crack of his knuckles, he prepared to return to the manuscript. A transition to a hard bitten childhood in Kansas City and a sacrificial burning of the only picture of a father was in the offing. Yet he found pause. Just nagging at his crow's feet was a picture of his grandson. Wrapped in a fleece, bursting with seasonal joy, he stood champion over a felled tree. Cummings smiled again, in spite of himself.
With some resolve he turned it face down. Art could not suffer joy.
A cold day in Tupelo withered on the gray horizon like a hoary grape of uncertain spirits. Young Cumberland trudged through the afternoon streets at a pace unbefitting of the winter chill. All around him shops and sidewalks exploded with the giddy chaos of dismissed school children. Friends shouted names and dictated play. Frenzied revelers cannoned past. Pennies were exchanged for gumballs and marbles. The haunting blue notes of the Jordanaires’ backup vocals poured out from a barbershop while the Favored Son crooned his seasonal sadness. Cumberland was oblivious to the cheer swelling around him. For he was without a jacket, facing a long cold walk home to a bitter Christmas break.
’What happened, baby?’ his mother wanted to know as he shuffled in from the back door. She wore concern like an apron, waiting to wipe away the stains of his day. It was the moment Cumberland both dreaded and aspired to.
’Mama, I was on the playground and I was attacked by a giant.'
His mother did not flinch from this revelation. She did not scoff nor offer incredulity. She did not say anything at all, which Cumberland took as an invitation to continue.
’He wasn’t just any giant, but the biggest one. Bigger than the junior high boys. He had three heads an-and three bodies. And he said he was going to kill me.
’Kill you?’ she gasped.
The three boys had come to him during recess. He did not know them. He didn’t really know anyone. A reserved child, he kept to himself. Something his classmates had regarded as haughty.
’Yes. Kill me. He said his name was Geryon and he was going to kill me and eat me in a soup.’
’In soup?’ she cried.
He asked them, in a way that any fourth grader might, if they wanted to play with him. They ceased their menacing scowls for a moment to share a gleeful chuckle. Play with him? Surely he must have seemed mad to his tormentors, if not entirely dim witted.
Cumberland nodded solemnly, ‘I started to run and he come after me. An’ I was almost away when he got the sleeve of my jacket.
It wasn’t much of a fight. Cumberland hadn’t even known to hit back when they first struck him. There was little defense in his flailing limbs from their schoolyard savagery. When they pried the coat from him, he hadn’t known it was their goal. And he was more than content to surrender it when he saw they would not pursue the banditry further. He did not even protest when his teacher scolded him for losing his jacket and gave him a tardy.
’And that’s how you lost your jacket, Bertie?’ his mother realized. He had no words for her then. His understanding of love was nascent. He found her gullibility to be a result of his persuasive manner as opposed to an indulgence. Cumberland thought nothing of it when she pulled him into the folds of her skirt and wrapped her arms tightly around him.
’Don’t you worry, honey,’ she said from behind a worry creased face, her dress blotted with the detritus of the diner’s late night shift, hands shriveled from dishes washed, eyes bloodied by the sleep she lost to prepare an early dinner for the husband who did not work and did not do woman’s work, neither, ‘I’ll talk to Santa. We’ll put in a special order for a new jacket just for you this Christmas. Just you wait and see.’
Cumberland hugged her back tightly. She must have known the beating he would receive later that night at the hands of his stepfather. She must have known there was always more money in the house for mash liquor than there was for new jackets. No doubt she was counting the tips she’d have to scrape together in order to buy it. But for the boy, in that moment, there was nothing but the surety of a mother’s ability to fix anything.
When the belt came off later that night, Cumberland came to understand two things. First, that so long as there was patience, there was appetite for a story. As the blows rained down heavy enough to skip a needle from the King’s rendition of “Don’t Be Cruel,” he also understood that while good things came from Tupelo, their only promise lay in escape.
Trembling hands freed themselves from the keyboard. Cummings looked up from the monitor and found himself staring out the window into the mid afternoon sun. His opus had sucked away another morning, eaten up its light and promise and given back only ink drying on a page.
In his younger days, he’d lamented the vampiric nature of The Craft. How many days and nights escaped him and left behind rubbish drafts barely fit for the trash they were dumped in? He’d look with no little jealousy upon the trades then, those who made things. Taking a sip of water was the only way to hide a mocking smile from himself. How many carpenters made furniture into their seventies? Survived their vices to become highly regarded in their work, if not more beloved for their demons? No, the time he lost was time well expended.
Cummings creaked like an old wood floor as he stood. He bent briefly over his notes.
X Blue Ridge Mountains
KC, MO not romantic enough
Topeka, KS as clichéd as Peoria
X Tupelo, MS
Boston?? New York??
Cumberland’s college years were shaping up to be dreadfully east coast. Might as well ship him off to Saigon and give him an insipid chum named Joe whose death can be a proxy for the protagonist’s own rebirth from working class proto man into the emergent counterculture intelligentsia. At least there might be movie rights in that.
No, no. That part of the tale had yet to reveal itself. It only showed that even after all these years, his first thoughts yet remained his worst.
Cummings removed himself from his study and went into the bedroom closet. From atop a shelf in the closet, he took a dust covered shoe box and brought it out to the kitchen table. Within it were yellowed sheets of paper, news clippings of births and deaths, the stilled grimaces of generations of Dearmads and Cummings. Amongst which was the only picture of his mother in her youth, as a newly inducted WAC member. She smiled widely with an exaggerated salute, her newly pressed uniform crisp and flattering against her youth.
Cummings couldn’t help but sigh. Some things couldn’t be repaid. Not in words, not in awards, not even in deeds.
May kissed the river with a shade of blue just deeper than the clear sky above. Campus was in full bloom, lush, indolent, ripe with Herrick’s invocation to gather fresh rosebuds. Spring sun glinted off the gentle swell at the banks, throwing back the mirrored images of ivy covered halls and flowering sycamore. On the east side of campus, Cumberland stared into the numbing current as it swept by.
Never again would he be beholden to such a vapid, shortsighted, overbearing, emotional succubus again.
He met her in the midst of a bennie comedown after a two week bender. She had lavender eyes and a smile like lightning. Cumberland was struck in a flash, his heart stopped, his buzz gone sideways and electric. Magdalena overcame him like a madness, feverish, inchoate, and all-consuming.
Those lavender eyes were the death of him.
Cumberland’s writing ceased. His pursuit was single minded and Quixotic, an obsessive blend of Victorian formalism and lust soaked connivance. Through force of want alone, he wore down her hesitation. He suffered her giggles to earn her necking. Endured sloppy opinions and sloppy kisses. And when he finally drank from the temple of her he savored the night of his conquest, however brief, deeply in his psyche. After a life of want, he had made a thing his.
When she left him, he was left aghast, agape, disintegrated and drowned in his own disbelief.
Another kind of binge followed that rejection. Not the one with edges rounded by benzodiazepine, but the kind that found him waist deep in the nearest skirt he could find, night after night, dulled by the strange concoction of routine and unfamiliar. Words came back to him with needle sharp precision and utter determination. Slut, he’d charge banging the keys of a Standard 8, trollop, then, swinging madly like a pendulum, he’d compose staccato diatribes against the priggishness of the educated woman.
What was she angry about, after all? A few boasts? The camaraderie amongst men of a certain age? The preservation of a reputation, minding the line between provocatively dressed and provocatively behaved, as if the appearance of things mattered more than the substance. Had she not the eyes of a poet? Could her gaze not descry the truth?
’Whore,’ he muttered into each long necked bottle, ‘twit.’ When his invective had bottomed out, he’d begin again at slut.
Cumberland was in front of Pentacrest when the note arrived by pastel cardigan courier. It was simple, urgent: I must see you. –M Hardly worth his attention, really. He was nearly over her. Seeing someone else, a swell girl who appreciated him. Yet something drove him to meet her. Ego? Foreboding? The pleasure of wallowing in her desire?
They met discreetly at a diner off East Market Street. In a corner booth, she stared into a malt while he brooded over coffee. In a delicate dance of politesse, they traded barbs and kindness, avoiding desperately whatever circumstance had brought them together. When Maggie finally broached the reason for her summons, it came with neither the triumph nor the portentousness Cumberland would have expected. It was simply so that she was late and his life was over.
Cummings ambled downstairs. He shuffled through the house in a daze, not unlike the ecstatic fog of post coital repose. It was not as if The Craft was romantic. It most certainly was not; rather, it was an aching chore. Rigorous action, repetition, the slaving over details that drained one of energy. A most onerous labor whose completion left little product, except by good fortune and stubborn madness. Yet once he arrived at a completed moment, he found the strangest euphoria. Exhausting, but uplifting too. Perhaps that was sex too, at its most basic, the way animals experienced it without the illusion of love.
A flashing red light from one of the infernal machines that had largely been forced on him caught his attention. This one recorded messages for him when he’d rather not be reminded of an exterior world. It was an autonomous secretary, bearing only news he did not care for while robbing a human of a job, and him of a dalliance.
Cummings pressed the play back button.
“Hi Benjamin, it’s Mags,” a song voice warbled from across the great impossible chasm of distant memory, “Your agent.”
He heaved a sigh of relief and disappointment. Magali was long lost to him. The mother of his child would not return, in person or on recorded tape. Even in memory, she faded and blurred, as if she could deny him access to the most personal crevices of his own being. Yet she seemed to creep upon him in the most innocuous of moments, shouting “boo!” and conjuring forth ugly memories and the bittersweet knowledge of love lost. The Bard was right, of course, and that made it all the more infuriating.
“Just calling to see how your latest ‘opus’ is coming along,” Margaret Stein crooned, oblivious to her role confirming Jung’s deepest suspicions, that patterns repeat across people and decades, summoning ghosts long thought banished, “and to let you know I got a call from the Times’s book guy, who said you missed your appointment for their Magazine article. I know you hate interviews but Cramden House has been bombarding me with requests to get you out doing advance marketing. And it’s not like you to flake, whether or not you resent the ‘unwarranted intellectual preening for the public.’ Please call me back to let me know you’re ok. Also, remember that Kelly is coming next month, and you promised you’d be taking it easy over the summer.”
Cummings guffawed at the suggestion that he would forget his grandson’s visit. A puff piece in a dinosaur of a paper, so beholden to form that it sipped, as it were, culture with its pinky out while the whole publishing world clattered, sundered, and collapsed about its head, was nowhere near to his heart as a visit from the dear boy. The calendar day circled, underlined, and writ in bold capital letters.
The first time Cumberland was fired from university, it was in the heady days of social upheaval and casual radicalism. From a certain point of view, it was surprising that the university even bothered to register his agitation among the sit-ins, lay-ins, love-ins, teach-ins, speak-ins, freak-ins, free-ins, and all other permutation of activist recombination. His offense against academia hadn’t been a fiery condemnation against war, though he was against it, nor a profound stance for racial equality, though he was for it, nor even a hesitant endorsement of feminism, which he waffled on, staking out positions in favor of sex and underwear burning but finding the patriarchy of privilege a dubious indictment of things he never felt he had. No, Cumberland stamped his pink slip with the innocuous gesture of a union petition.
The politics behind his labor organization were murky. It wasn’t Communist, hardly socialist, and, if truth be told, even somewhat disdainful of the working class from which he emerged. Rather it was a plea in defense of art, a mobilization of labor as a bulwark against encroaching empiricism, the nefarious presumption that the liberal arts could be submitted to the same rigorous measurement as the widget production of a factory floor. One cannot measure the appreciation of Hamlet in the same way one deduces the molar weight of an atom. That a university should incorporate that arrogance into a strategic plan and enforce it through the corporatization of educational discovery was the bureaucrats’ single fingered salute to what could not easily be understood. Rather than explore art, they would kill it. Surely, Cumberland dared, a plurality of learned men of integrity could be organized to thwart it.
The bureaucrats won.
The second time Cumberland was tossed out of a teaching position was under a scandal altogether more tawdry, involving a student, two broken marriages, and a second child.
When rendered by Nabokov, the forbidden pleasures seem so sweet, so seductive, so pleasingly lurid that one can be easily forgiven for the transgression. In fact, that is the single greatest achievement of the The Craft, to turn what is transgressive and subversive into the sympathetic, so that while the aesthete might tepidly condemn all manner of offense given in a work, he does so only to maintain social convention while applauding it secretly in his heart. De Sade, Voltaire, Burroughs—it is their genius. When a man of letters should read their work and come away with a serious affront with the material, the learned men frowns thoughtfully, nods indulgently, and inwardly laments the fool.
Life outside of pages, however banal and insipid it is on most sunny days, tends to elide this artistic sleight of hand, and drift into the fraught territory of guilt, consequence, and the irrevocable.
A vixen is made, perhaps, not by her temptation but by its realization. Cumberland’s first weakness came breathless during his office hours, pants about his ankles, her skirt hiked up to her waist, paper folded, curled, crumpled, and torn as he defiled the honor code during an eight a.m. thesis review. What surprised him most was the ease with which the dalliance came, rationalized itself, and banished all guilt at the release of a bra clasp. The intrigue and duplicity did not weigh on him. Small lies did not snare him. Magda’s traps for him were deftly evaded. Even when she tripped him up during the increasingly rare moments of intimacy with the accusation, he did not fall. He merely walked through it with the simple admission that his infidelity was so, he was thusly entitled through his looks, his charm, his talent. He descended into brazen and callous truth, wallowed in it, and slung fistfuls of it from his pit without suffering a challenge or blemish.
Her husband, on the other hand, was not so easily diverted. Dogged in his suspicion and determined in his protest, he finally made his complaint heard loudly enough that a charge of academic bias was levied, tried, and found to have merit. Cumberland was dismissed. Magda was lost. There was no intervention through the forces of modesty and mercy to engineer his fate back to its elected pedestal.
Cumberland could not prepare himself for the utter rejection that followed. To be a lech was one thing, perhaps forgivable, though hardly defensible among married faculty members. It was not, however, insurmountable where talent was evident. To be a labor provocateur had its allies, its principled defense, but relied on a certain unsullied character to impose itself upon the timid guardians appointed to protect, above all else, institutional tyrrany. There is no middle ground between these poles. A man may either be principled or corrupt; to admit the human condition may include both possibilities is taboo, punishable by exile and obscurity.
So it was that Cumberland found himself destitute, deprived of the life he wanted with the woman he needed, and instead thrust back into the implacable erosion of poverty and mediocrity, trapped with a Jezebel ingénue and mewling child of no account origin, each begging in their own insatiable way for that which he could not give.
Alone in an attic office, facing a gun and his Hermes, Cumberland confronted himself in the purest, most detestable form. He was a hack. Every story he had written. Every poem he had published. Every sophomoric book dissertation masquerading as cultural critique with its obscure verbiage and dismissive tone, had been the produce, the offspring, the offal of a hack, begat of hacks, a poonhound spawned by a poonhound with pretentions above his station. With a snub nose revolver and adamant resolve, he determined to defy this inner self and challenge it to achieve or embrace oblivion.
That a tainted man should achieve his art was not remarkable. The greatest leaders, warriors, thinkers ,philosophers—the very titans of history!—have all counted rapists, murderers, philanderers, pederasts, homosexuals, thieves, frauds, and heretics amongst their number. What amazed Cumberland was how long it took him to admit this fact to himself, dispense with the illusion of his reputation, and begin to create something worth seeing the light.
The child had grown tiresome. He became loutish and brooding, rarely deigning to acknowledge anything with more than a tepid non-endorsement. All the loves and the hates that were once of paramount importance had faded away. It was a second loss of innocence for Cummings. It came without warning or swansong. It provoked him deeply.
Cummings felt like a stranger in his own house. A hostile ghost had moved in a dispossessed him. His minimalist sentiments became boring. Daily writing no longer held the mesmerizing thrill for a willing spectator. His tastes were old fashioned and his accomplishments irrelevant. Dinners were quiet and tense. It was as if he had been thrust overnight into his dotage.
He had to mind the stories he told, recite them to himself, and try to imagine if he had already told them. Kelly would sigh and mutter at each utterance, moaning remonstrance at every recurrent anecdote. He clothed himself sloppily and in bright colors, wearing the incompressible banners of bands and brands that Cummings had never heard of and often confused. Where a grandson had once been now remained only a sullen goblin, regulating the affections of his grandfather with liberal use of volume controls on his headphones.
Stranger yet, the smell of young man began to infest the house, supplanting Cumming’s sense of place in a most disorienting way. Rooms in the house began to lose their complexion and familiarity. Follicles of vibrant color and robust thickness pooled around drains. Difficult labors were completed with careless vigor and petulant condescension. The house took on a breathing presence, as if the cadence of the very walls had shifted to the diffident beat of the interloper’s discontent.
A turmoil of feeling that erupted in Cummings. It seemed at once as if the chronology of time had been intruded upon. Father, son, and grandson seemed to overlap in aspect and memory, leaving an interminable labyrinth of blurred recollections and misspoken names. The pleasant summer slipped into vexed season of backbiting and mulish sentiment. Neither apology nor quarter was offered.
Towards the end of the visit, in a moment of unusual detente, the boy approached Cummings with an aged photograph he had found. Taking it in his hands, he found the wholesome face of a woman in uniform staring back at him.
“Your grandmother, of course. A fine lady,” Cummings answered dismissively. He would have shared the memory of her, but the moment for unsolicited history had passed. The boy had heard it before. Even if he had not, he would say so any way. Handing the picture back to the child, he returned to The Craft, as fickle a mistress as any, but not one who would spurn the earnest soul. The boy looked back at him with a mien impossible to place.
It came in the middle of a crack up, their worst yet. The apartment looked like it had been stepped over and kicked up. Like a scene from Watts or Newark, it was the aftermath of violence from which things do not recover—just a promise of poverty and neglect, and yet more violence to come. Amidst the shattered glassware and broken plates, under the strewn clothes from the aborted departure of one or the other (they could not, in their hangover, truly remember who had been kicked out), lie a white envelope with an embossed seal. It was an invitation to better things.
”I have a lot of people to thank. Teachers, of course. My mother. My family and friends. The many mentors I have had, willing and unwilling, and, if the lists are to be believed, my many, many fans…”
She glared ice and daggers at him as he crossed the threshold, fingers wrapped greedily around a martini glass that might as well had been his neck. He’d been tomcatting again. There was the too much perfume and not enough mess, the evidence of another man. Outwards he seethed but inside he sighed. His Delilah was not a curse upon him but upon her. She’d tempted another man who would leave her.
“If the catcalls are to be believed, I’m not much good at giving these things. I’m a writer, not a speaker. But, in life, we’re called upon often to move beyond our little realms of safety and address the greater concerns of our era. I will not pretend to offer answers—I am a man of fictions. But, perhaps, I can share lessons.”
He felt grand before them, but small as well, like a trinket idol of rare history but uncertain value. Worship and indulgence seemed to bleed into one another, and he was not very certain whether he was receiving their adoration or being glad handed to his own vivisection.
“The first is that you should never judge yourself by the people around you and the place you are. A man is more than his circumstance. He is his ambition. Agency makes the man. The will to be and the will to be more.”
She left without word or indication. Nothing was strewn or broken, no missive of ardent condemnation at hand. A pale light filled the apartment, alighted upon the vast space that existed once she had vanished. The furniture seemed so small and distant, like little uniformed islands separated by unfathomable seas. It was a sterile place. A salted earth. It was her final spite that she simply erased herself from it. To say that she had left a hole in her heart because of that would be poetic, but wrong. There had always been a hole. She was just another who fell through.
“The second, I call this the cult of the self—I say cult here, drawing on the relationship to the word cultivation—this cult of the self is perhaps the greatest asset a writer can have. I wasted many years of my life without it. Years spent worrying whether or not I was good enough, worrying about whether or not these words of mine could pay rent.”
Sputum and recrimination flew from their mouths like the venom of spitting cobras. They were eyeball to eyeball, father and son, turning deeper shades of beet colored anger. They lied to one another. Invented transgressions and embellished slights. A fatal dance of righteous assertion began from which neither could walk away intact. Intractable promises were made. Like and like were torn apart, never to speak again.
“To the untrained eye, this may be confused with selfishness. Such as it is, the artist is both of and out of humanity. His relationship is a notoriously tough one. He challenges our conceptions and is thusly challenged himself by the world around them.”
Cummings is magnanimous in rejection. For his ex-wives, he buys houses. For his sons, he shades them with a grand shadow. It is in his wake they follow, the seas behind him less difficult to navigate for he had already plotted a tranquil course to balmy dissipation. They drink and rage and curse him, even though their meager barges held afloat by Cumberland’s toil. For his grandchild he showers him with affection and teaches him his spite. He spends years immersed in his grandfather’s bias, and it forever dims the world for him.
“But unless he can draw into himself, honor himself, and even revere himself, he cannot become the god he must be in order to create the thrilling new worlds we explore. He must remind himself…”
The boy comes again. His face is alien and troubled. He hands Cumberland a picture of a smiling young woman in military garb. She is svelte in olive drab. A simple lie springs from his lips to protect himself. He does not recognize her. The boy must not know or else he… who is this boy? Why does come? What are these pleading eyes, round and full and demanding of what he cannot offer?
“From the beginning there is only I. Everything else is ephemera—all their cries, all their shouts, their noise and their hopes, all of it will cease once these eyes close, returning these spectral delusions to their proper stature; footnotes to the tale of the might and vainglory of he who creates.”