Marcia had several dozen little people living inside her head. She didn’t know they were there, of course, but at night while she slept they would crawl out of her ears onto the bed and talk to me. Their appearance was initially somewhat disturbing, but I came to enjoy their company, and as we became more acquainted they informed me that they did not actually like Marcia. In this regard I found common ground with the little people, for though Marcia was my girlfriend, I didn’t like her very much, either.
Marcia, you see, was very cold and very mean. After I had been laid off from work, Marcia had only made the sad, depressing time even worse. She called me a loser, said I was useless, and laughed that I would never do anything good with my life. So, when the little people from Marcia’s head told me that they had been slowly poisoning her for years, I laughed.
One night the little people invited me to meet their queen inside Marcia’s head. I accepted. They gave me a tiny thimble full of a red elixir. I drank the elixir and fell asleep. When I woke up I was a little person, too, and followed them into the dark, cold complex of caves inside Marcia’s head.
The queen lived at the heart of the caves in a dark chamber from which she poisoned Marcia. The queen never left that chamber because she hated Marcia even more than the other little people and delighted in poisoning her whenever she could.
Within the queen’s chamber was a well, and inside the well lived a little girl. All day long the queen shouted insults at the little girl in the well. This was how the queen poisoned Marcia, she explained, for the little girl at the bottom of the well was a little version of Marcia.
Every few seconds as we spoke the queen launched derisions down at the little girl. Quit crying, she hissed. You’re fat, ugly, and stupid. No one loves you and no one will ever love you. The queen sneered with malicious joy as the little Marcia sobbed and cried down in the darkness.
The queen asked if I would poison Marcia in the outside world, just as the queen poisoned the little Marcia inside the well. Together we could make Marcia even sicker, the queen explained. If Marcia was sicker she would sleep more often, which would mean that I would not have to listen to her insults as much, and would be able to talk with the little people more often.
I said that I would consider the queen’s proposal and stepped outside the chamber to think things over. I did not want to poison anybody, but Marcia had treated me very badly, and I enjoyed talking with the little people–they were my only friends.
The sound of running water echoing through the depths of the caves caught my attention. I followed the sound deep into the darkness until I reached a voluminous cavern with a waterfall cascading down one wall. A dusty movie projector sat on a rock at the center of the cavern. I turned the machine on. With a click and a whir it began to project a movie onto the waterfall.
The characters in the movie were all the little people from Marcia’s head, except that in the movie they were full human size. They spoke into the camera as though addressing a person, saying cruel, hurtful, and vicious things. I soon realized that the movie was Marcia’s memories, and the characters were all people who had hurt her in her life. The queen was in the movie more than anyone else. She was Marcia’s mother.
It occurred to me for the first time that I had no right to hate Marcia, because I didn’t understand all the pain that she had known, nor did I know who she might have been if she did not have all those little people poisoning her inside her head.
I went back to the queen’s chamber, grabbed the queen by the neck, and threw her out into tunnels. The little people tried to stop me, but they were actually very weak, and I was able to overwhelm them with ease. The little people, it turns out, were only good at appearing to be strong.
I called down to the little Marcia in the well. Don’t listen to the queen, I said. You are a beautiful person. You deserve to love and to be loved. The crying at the bottom of the well stopped. A moment later the little Marcia climbed out. She looked very beautiful, and very powerful.
The queen returned to subdue the little Marcia, but the girl picked the queen up and tossed her down into the well. The other little people were awed by the little Marcia’s strength and bowed to her in obedience. Her first order was that they dig a tunnel up to the surface so that she could live outside in the sunlight. She declared that she was the new queen, and that her rule would be a much brighter, warmer one than her predecessor’s.
I never returned to Marcia’s head after that night, but I still see the little girl that climbed out of the well every day. I see her every time that Marcia laughs, and every time that Marcia is kind to someone. Marcia does both of those things often, now. She does those things so often, in fact, that I often forget that there was ever a time when she did not do those things.
It turns out that all that Marcia needed was for someone to quiet the little people inside her head, to remind the little girl inside of her that there is a light outside the well, and to tell her that she is worthy of it.
Jim could hear the busboys clustered in the kitchen daring each other to ask him. The redheaded lawyers’ son that looked like he was chewing on a fart whenever he smiled took up the challenge and approached the dish machine.
"Hey, man," the kid said, "we were just wondering, how old are you?" He glanced over his shoulder at his tittering comrades.
"Twenty seven, I think."
"And you’re still a fucking dishwasher?" the kid belted. His friends hooted with laughter and skipped around like lobotomized finches.
Jim stacked plates on the dish rack and shrugged. "There just isn’t enough work for gravediggers these days. Not enough people dying, I guess."
The kid’s face screwed up in confusion. "Oh," he said, backing away to rejoin his chortling entourage.
In the midst of the laughter the title for Jim's book came to, out of nowhere, like a raw nerve set on fire. At that very moment, the only one in the last two weeks that he hadn't been thinking at all about it, the title just hit him. He wanted to shout in ecstasy and relief, but he said nothing. He forced himself to be calm, ran the last of the dishes through the machine, and wiped it down.
He threw his apron in the dirty apron bag and went to the head cook scraping carbon off the grills. "Is it cool if I take off early tonight?"
Carl didn't look up from his work. "I don’t give a shit what you do, just get off my goddamn line."
Bussers and servers milled around, flirting, counting tips as Jim headed to the backdoor.
The pretty young hostess with the green eyes and olive skin called out, "Cheer up! You should smile more."
Jim smiled over his shoulder at her.
The hostels spun around to the others and squealed, "Oh my God, did you see his goddamn teeth?" Jim stepped outside with the sound of laughter behind him.
Cool night air. Cars sped past the restaurant, tires making wet sounds on the roadway. Mist was draped like cobwebs over the sky. Rain puddles reflected neon signs of fast food places, bars, and gas stations, and the entire parking lot looked the way the city must look through a spider’s eyes.
He reached his motel at the end of the strip. The Evergreen Heights sign had died weeks before, but the Hourly Rates sign still burned bright.
Jim's room was the last one on the bottom floor, next to where the dumpsters were kept. He opened the door to find that rain had flooded the dumpsters again and sent a wave of detritus under the gap beneath his door, leaving behind three cigarette butts in a pile of coffee grounds. He kicked the butts outside and closed the door.
It was a tiny room. The bed took up the majority of the space. There was a metal foldout chair next to the bed, a lamp with no lampshade next to the chair, and that was all.
The carpet made squishing sounds under his feet as he walked over to the lamp. When he turned the light on a centipede startled from its place on the mattress and skittered down the side of the bed, across the floor, and through a crack in the baseboard. Jim watched where it went and took a piece of gum out of his pocket, chewed it, plugged the crack in the baseboard and smiled.
He got a cardboard box from under his bed and took his typewriter and a stack of papers out of it. He sat on his foldout chair and put the typewriter and the papers on the bed like a desk.
The sounds of a professional wrestling match came through the wall from the room next door. He could hear a man and woman talking as they watched it. The woman would scream, "Kill him! Kill that motherfucker!" Her man would mumble shut up and she would get quiet again, but a moment later the fracas on the television would pick up and she was screaming, "Kill him! Kill that motherfucker!"
Shut up, the man would mumble.
A train rumbled around the bend in the valley behind the motel. Jim smiled and closed his eyes as it approached. The train's rumblings ran through the walls and the floor and up through his chair and him. The lamp danced lightly on the floor and the bulb shivered in its socket making a sound like chattering teeth.
Jim took a deep breath and held it, pulling the train rumblings and the trash water and the gasoline smell from the highway deep into his lungs and holding it there. Held it and tasted it and let it sink into the cells of his being and told himself to never forget. Never forget.
He opened his eyes and smiled on what would be the last night he would ever spend in that room, exactly one year after moving in and starting the novel, the book done now and only needing a title. He'd been trying to think of the title for three days with no luck.
It had finally come to him when the busboy had approached him. Like electricity it had come, and the moment it did he knew it was right, and more than right, it was the only possible title for the book and had always been the only possible title. From the very first night he spent in that room, one year ago, awakened by a cockroach crawling over his face, it had been the only one.
It had been there all along, through 365 nights of sitting alone listening to the train rumblings echo down the long valley at midnight. Smell of fear like diesel in the sheets. Nights surrounded by busboys snickering at life, never wondering for a moment what any of it meant.
Pretty young hostesses with malicious and malignant laughter. Garbage water in the carpet and centipedes in the walls.
365 nights alone in this with nothing but words and dreams to sustain him. Bombs exploding over the earth, waves of famine on newspaper's back pages. Cold nights on a damp mattress. Gun shots and drunks screaming through his walls.
365 nights of pounding on a typewriter in a room not suited for rent. Writing something no one else may ever read, paying dues to an art that might never earn him a dime.
365 hungry nights refusing to yield, trying to do right by the dead writers that were his only family.
Until now, at the end of all those nights, the book done and a new morning waiting. All along there had only ever been one possible title for the book. Always only one.
He breathed it all in…the train rumblings, the trash water, the gasoline smell of the highway. He pulled it all deep into his lungs and held it there and promised that he would never forget.
All along, through three hundred nights, there had only ever been one possible title for his book.
Always only one.
He rolled the paper into his typewriter and typed: Love.
Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree is a challenging read. Nothing in the novel is given easily to the reader. The diction is archaic, words are sometimes wholly fabricated, and the symbolism draws from such a broad range of cultural sources that it is nearly impossible to make sense of. Even more confounding than the literary tools employed in the novel are the decisions made by the novel’s protagonist, Cornelius Suttree, whose inexplicably erratic lifestyle is made all the more frustrating by the fact that we are rarely given even a passing glimpse inside his head. The general oddity and interpretive challenges presented by Suttree probably explain why the novel has never enjoyed a popular readership, and why it has received relatively little critical attention. On cursory examination, the book gives the impression of a semi-comedic tale about an impoverished, alcoholic fisherman getting into legal trouble with a cast of illiterate, violent degenerates. But such a crude assessment of Suttree is no more accurate than saying that Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is a story about an itinerant seaman following a crazed captain on a doomed quest to harpoon an anthropomorphized whale. Both novels aspire for something much higher than they initially present.
Beyond their general thematic scope, Suttree and Moby Dick share several similarities. Both novels trace the life of outcasts who strike out into foreign lands in search of a truth that is as difficult to obtain as it is to express. Along the way, they become caught up in the quests of maniacal, heroically-defiant figures waging personal wars against indestructible foes. By the end of their journey, the seekers find that the knowledge they hoped to attain is beyond their ability to grasp. However, though the journey may fall short of its lofty goals, it helps them achieve greater self-understanding and reconciliation with the human world from which they had originally fled.
Because they bear so many similarities to each other, comparing Moby Dick with Suttree is useful in that we can draw upon the considerable critical work that has been done on the former to illuminate the latter. Melville’s magnum opus and its attendant scholarly work are effective lenses through which to view Suttree, allowing us to discover new layers of meaning buried in the narrative, to arrive at a greater understanding of its protagonist, and hopefully to find a deeper appreciation for its high ambitions.
The importance of Moby Dick to McCarthy’s writing has been noted in the past. As Amy Hungerford instructs, Moby Dick is “probably the single most important book for McCarthy besides the Bible, as a source for language, character ideas, and moral questions. All kinds of things come from Moby Dick” (Hungerford). McCarthy himself has discussed his penchant for building on the great works of literature. In a New York Times interview he stated, “The ugly fact is that books are made of books. The novels depends for its life on the novels that have been written (before)” (Woodward). In that same interview he identified the “good” writers as Melville, Dostoyevsky, and Faulkner (Woodward). Given McCarthy’s reclusiveness, it is unlikely that we will ever get a definitive confirmation proving that he constructed Suttree with Moby Dick in mind, but whether the influence was conscious or unconscious is not a matter for concern here. What matters is that there are enough similarities between the novels that their association becomes self-evident. The proof is in the pudding.
Moby Dick’s Ishmael and Suttree’s Cornelius Suttree are both wanderers and outcasts, seekers bent on discovering the meaning of life and the secrets of their own being. Each character belongs to that group of figures identified by Samuel Coleridge when he wrote, “There have been men in all ages who have been impelled as by an instinct to propose their own nature as a problem, and who devote their attempts to its solution” (Bowen 13). Sut’s ever-restless nature explains the frequent inconsistencies and contradictions in his philosophical perspective, and might also explain why he has elicited such a disparate range of interpretations from critics. Spanning the entire spectrum of spiritual and psychological development, Sut has been called an alcoholic nihilist (Bell), an enlightened bodhisattva (Spencer), and a “black parody of Thoreau (Canfield), among other things. Throughout the novel he sometimes resembles all of those things; at other times he resembles none. But Sut is not psychically complete. Like Ishmael, he is an errant seeker whose identity is still a work in progress. For the seeker, the inner journey always permeates the outer, so that as deeply as he travels into the wilderness, he travels that deeply into himself. What he looks for outside of himself is always mirrored within. Driven by an obsessive need to know, to viscerally understand things which he cannot even adequately name, the seeker’s core beliefs and motivations are forever moving and mutating. Everything else is negotiable in their pursuit for understanding, including the ego-identifications that people normally habituate as the ‘self.’
Moby Dick and Suttree are more than the accounts of a seeker’s adventure. The books are constructed in such a way that the reading experience itself becomes a kind of truth-seeking by proxy. Both novels have been perceived as being flabby with extraneous content. Some have said that Moby Dick is in need of a good editor, full as the novel is with seemingly superfluous meditations on cetology, strange encounters with ships that do nothing to drive the plot forward, and long monologues about everything from economics to epistemology. Likewise, Suttree is full of side stories so fractured they can’t even be called subplots, pages-long details of detritus and ruin, and ruminations on astrology and geology. There is a purposeful affect achieved by the tangled, overgrown narrative style of the novels, however. To appreciate that effect, we need to step back for the broad perspective and take in the books in their totality, not in their dissected parts.
Moby Dick and Suttree rely on suggestion to achieve an impression of the otherworldly. If Ishmael’s chief fears were explained to be existential meaningless and being eaten by a giant whale, the effect would be quickly lost. The most persistent human fear is fear of the unknown, and the two unknowable things are death and what is after death. In order to play upon this deep, psychological fear, Moby Dick never consigns its narrator’s fear to anything so crude and simple as physical danger. Instead, there is some unnamed maliciousness always at work. The sense of fateful inevitability and omnipresent threat is palpable in Moby Dick from the moment that Elijah emerges from the fog upon the docks to prophecy:
Well, well, what’s signed, is signed; and what’s to be, will be; and then again, perhaps it wont be, after all. Any how, it’s all fixed and arranged a’ready; and some sailors or other must go with (Ahab), I suppose…God pity them! (Melville 102).
Elijah is talking about something that goes beyond the dangers of the sea. He is hinting at a damnation already writ by the gods. Similarly peripheral insinuations of danger “accumulate through the book to build an impression of cosmic horror that is the stronger because the reader cannot put his finger on its exact source and attempt to refute it once and for all” (Walcutt). The fact that we do not now what we are afraid of is the key to the novel’s unsettling ambience.
Employing the same techniques used to imbue “cosmic terror,” Moby Dick is filled throughout with a sense of impending epiphany and divine revelation. It feels as though there is always some mystical truth waiting just beyond the next wave crest, but the mystical truth never quite comes. Ishmael always falls slightly short of grasping the profundity suggested by the things he sees in the ocean, but the sense that profound understanding lies just ahead never quite falters. The novel is so successful in this regard that even knowing the voyage’s fatal ending, we return to the story again with the certainty that some profound insight must surely lie within the pages. The stylistic choice of the novel is essential to its success, as it becomes in itself a literary expression of the ambiguous, mysterious wonder-world that Ishmael has gone in search of.
The lessons of the wonder-world transcend logic and reason. Once analyzed and compartmentalized, they become only facts or ideas, losing their sense of profundity. IN this way, the shapelessness of Moby Dick’s storytelling is indicative of its success, not its failure. The philosopher is tasked with expressing reality in an easily understood way; the artist is tasked with packaging reality in a way that preserves its sense of profundity. In the profound reality of Moby Dick, nothing can be taken for granted–the sacred and the profane permeate each other at all times. David Walcutt writes:
"When art is complex it may be difficult, and therefore obscure; but this is because it is trying to communicate profundities and complexities. Great art does not try to reduce the mysteries of the world and of life to childish simplicities. It must be complex when it is dealing with profound and mysterious things” (Walcutt).
The highest achievement for an artist is not to provide answers, but to provide a perpetual question. Moby Dick’s mazelike construction is critical to its artistic success. Anything less would render it just another adventure novel. “Like the whale,” Andrew Delbanco explains, Moby Dick “must, if we truly wish to read it, ‘remain unpainted to the last’” (Delbanco xxvii).
Suttree uses some of the same techniques as Moby Dick, though this can be harder to see because the characters and situations it deals with are considerably cruder than those dealt with in Melville’s work. Suttree’s Tennessee River is choked with every bit as much death and malice as Ishmael’s oceans. Bodies float to the river’s surface, there are midnight stabbings in town, and a shadowy “Other” forever pursues Sut through his waking and dreaming life. Suttree employs a wide array of literary allusions and symbols taken seemingly at random from Christian, Classical, Celtic, and Voodoo mythologies, creating the general impression that every supernatural agent in existence has a vested interest in the ruination of the human race. Like Moby Dick, Suttree uses its peripheral suggestions to create a sense of “cosmic horror.” Additionally, in order to create a sense of the profound, Suttree focuses intensely on physical details of the natural world. Looking at just one, average paragraph, a simple walk over a mudflat reveals, among other things, a “crusted stone strewn with spiderskeins of slender nylon fishline,” slugs that “recoiled and flexed mutely under the agony of the sun,” gars laying “like dogs” with “heavy shapes of primitive rapacity,” and a “hogsnake snubnosed and bloated…coiled and sleeping in the dry ruins of a skiff” (McCarthy 121). Taken cumulatively through the text, these details have the effect of transforming the ordinary into a representation of the unfathomable intricacy with which the world has been made. The intricacy imbues a sense of wonder, perhaps also a sense of the sublime, as we are faced with the incredible breadth of time that shapes such things. Just as the construction of Moby Dick transforms the ocean into the universe and the Pequod into the world, the construction of Suttree transforms Knoxville, Tennessee into a mythical space stage upon which the fates of souls will be decided.
Suttree and Ishmael are not natives of their respective wonder-worlds. Each one comes from an ordinary, materially comfortable world, with prospects for greater comfort if they so choose. Ishmael has worked as a schoolteacher in the past, yet has chosen the hard and dangerous labor of whaling. Similarly, Sut has chosen to leave a wealthy family in order to live in poverty among Knoxville’s underclass. A simple explanation for Sut’s decision would be that he is trying to escape social responsibility, but that would not account for all the time and energy he spends helping the more incompetent and troubled inhabitants of the McNally Flats slum. Another simple explanation would be that Sut is a morally conscious individual who has chosen to discard material wealth in order to practice compassion among the needy, but that would not account for the fact that he has abandoned his wife and son. The one hint that we get of Sut’s motivations come in the form of a letter from his father:
"In my father’s last letter he said that the world is run by those willing to take the responsibility for running it. If it is life you feel you are missing I can tell you where to find it. In the law courts, in business, in government. There is nothing occurring in the streets. Nothing but a dumbshow composed of the helpless and impotent” (McCarthy 14).
The letter indicates that there has some dialogue between Sut and his father about the nature of “life,” and that they have arrived at opposing conclusions. For Sut, the banks of the fetid Tennessee River resemble something closer to his notion of life than does a corporate office or a judge’s seat. To understand Sut’s unusual reasoning, we can look to analysis of Ishmael’s motivations.
Ishmael is an intelligent, well-read individual. His claimed school teaching credentials suggest prospects for a life far less demanding than sailing, and far less demeaning than the odd jobs he proudly attests to taking. But Ishmael is not concerned with material comfort or with social standing. The normal workaday world repels him precisely because it is so comfortable and orderly. For Ishmael, the city is a land of the dead and the dying, a place bloated with bloodless commerce, nihilistic scientism, and hypocritical religious institutions. The weight of the life promised by such a place drives Ishmael towards suicidal despair, as he tells us:
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the fear of every funeral I meet…I account it high time to get to sea as soon as possible. This is my substitute for pistol and ball (Melville 1).
Ishmael’s flippant tone conceals the gravity of what he is discussing, but ultimately “for Ishmael, the sea voyage is the only logical sequel except for suicide to a life which seems to be getting ‘gray and grizzled’” (Sherill 133).
Sut suffers from the same existential misery as Ishmael. For him, “the middle-class professional and business realms are no more vibrant than the church, being equally regimented, bureaucratic, and exclusionary; all are creations of false, anchoritic powers” (Luce 258). Like all seekers, Sut is repelled by the socially normative life of civilization, as it cuts him off from the sacred. Material comforts are not only unneeded on his journey, they are a detriment to it. Set apart from his concerns for those material comforts, Sut has no need to fret over a career. He would likely agree with Ishmael’s declaration that, “For my part, I abominate all honorable respectable toils, trials, and tribulations of every kind whatsoever” (Melville 5). Sut’s disdain for economic practicality is so complete that, upon receiving the Indian Michael’s gift of a remarkably-effective fishing bait, he refuses it because “the odor of it, the gagging vomit reek, was more than he could stand” (McCarthy 222). Living in abject poverty, he is unwilling to bear a temporary olfactory irritant in order to increase his financial gain.
Sut is similarly contemptuous of organized religions as he is careerism, particularly Catholicism. A good share of this disdain stems from his distaste for his father’s hypocrisy. Sut’s father is a respected member of society and a devout Catholic, but he mistreats his own family for perceived genetic inferiorities. He assumes his wife’s ignorance because she came from a lower socioeconomic rung than he did, and treats all those who share her blood as inferiors. Sut tries to explain his father’s cruelty to his Uncle John:
Look, said Suttree, leaning forward. When a man marries beneath him his children are beneath him. If he thinks that way at all. If you weren’t a drunk he might see me with different eyes. As it is, my case was always doubtful. I was expected to turn out badly. My grandfather used to say Blood will tell (McCarthy 19).
It is probably not coincidental that of all the Christians who proselytize to the fallen inhabitants of McNally Flats, none are ever shown doing anything of earthly good for them. It is the outcast Sut alone who tends to the deeply flawed figures like Gene Harrogate and the ragpicker.
The greatest threat that civilized life poses to Ishmael and Sut might not be its bureaucracy or its hypocrisy, but in its tendency towards the regimentation of thinking itself. Both protagonists hold an Emersonian view of human nature, assuming that if freed from the corruption of creed and flag, a man will act with a natural goodness and instinctive grace. Ishmael and Sut want to cleanse themselves of the murk and soil of reason in order to return to a more spontaneous way of being. It is a Romantic longing most emblematically expressed by Thoreau:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. (Thoreau 62-62)
Ishmael and Sut both suspect an “insufficiency of the speculative intellect as a guide to essential truth,” and have determined that “Reason may at its best serve us to discover the errors of others, but it will not lead us to truth. For ‘truth is in things, and not in words.’” (Bowen 82).
Despite his voyage, Ishmael does not at first escape the confounding need for analysis. To him, the whale “portends the ungraspable phantom of life” (Sherill 139), yet he spends a good part of the novel trying to classify the anatomy and physiology of the whale as a means of understanding it. His reductionist approach fails:
"All of these forms of scientific inquiry–linguistic, bibliographical, and naturalist–are finally failures, “the classification of the constituents of chaos,” and he must finally own, with one of the authorities he quotes, that there is an “impenetrable veil covering our knowledge of the cetacea” (Sherill 146).
Sut has already arrived at his distrust of science’s unsatisfactory limitations before his novel begins, as he relates early in the novel:
“From all old seamy throats of elders, musty books, I’ve salvaged not a word. In a dream I walked with my grandfather by a dark lake and the old man’s talk was filled with incertitude. I saw how all things false fall from the dead” (McCarthy 14).
The nihilistic despair wrought by civilized life, that “woe that is madness” (Melville 465), impels Ishmael to strike out to sea. For him, the “voyage is for recuperation: he wants not to recover from some physical ailment but, rather, to recover himself in relation to the holy by meditating on oceanic revelations” (Sherrill 134). Yearning to see the “great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open” (Melville 8), Ishmael is willing to stake his life on an encounter with the miraculous. Such a quest demands that he abandons, physically and psychologically, his ties to human society. Merlin Bowen writes, “The ties that hold us to the breathing human beings whom we love are the same ties, the head realizes, that fetter us to compromises and half-truths of the past: there can be no freeing ourselves of the one and clinging to the other” (Bowen 26–27). For his part, Sut has numerous drunken adventures with Oceanfrog, J Bone, and Trippingthrougthedew, but all of these are only brief interludes in the extended, solitary meditation that he has undertaken.
Ishmael seeks his transcendence on the open sea; Sut opts for the less wonder-world-like slums of Knoxville. But the physical sea of Moby Dick is not as important to the seeker as the danger, rawness, and opportunity for solitude that it affords. As Paul Brodtkorb writes:
“One goes to sea intending to get away from the mood in which land encompasses the familiar, the boring, the superficial, the static, the deadly, the too definitely formed, because the sea provides the elemental contrast with the land” (Brodtkorb 20).
For Sut, the depraved honesty of McNally Flats is as far from the refined hypocrisy of his father’s world as he can get, and serves his philosophical needs perfectly.
Ishmael and Sut’s longing for a more natural connection to nature is exemplified in their relationships with two characters who symbolize the fullest realization of that naturalness–Queequeg and Michael. At various points Ishmael tries to counsel his friend Queequeg against some of his more egregious “savagery,” but throughout the novel he never loses his intense fascination and admiration for the Pacific Islander. Queequeg accepts reality as it is. He takes the presence of higher powers as a given, but does not seem overly troubled by the idea that they do not have his welfare in mind. The master harpooner is a heathen according to Christian standards, yet he displays a level of selflessness, self-control, and courtesy beyond anyone else in the novel. Queequeg is alive in every moment in a way that Ishmael, behind his veil of reason, is not. Partly because of his immersion in the present, Queequeg’s dexterity and skill with the harpoon are uncanny, graceful and perfect as the movements of a cat. Also unlike Ishmael, the Pacific Islander appears to harbor no concerns about death. When his time comes to die he accepts it without fear or complaint. At peace with himself and the universe, Queequeg is the physical manifestation of all the things that Ishmael is striving for.
Where Ishmael has Queeqeug, Sut has Michael, a Native American that shows up one day at the fish market with an 87-pound catfish, the largest that anyone has ever seen (McCarthy 220). Where Queeques possessed preternatural skill with harpoon, Michael displays a similar acuity at fishing. Unlike Sut and the other fishermen who drop several lines into the water at once hoping for a bit, Michael uses only one, yet achieves markedly better results. He needs no rationalization to accept the talismanic powers of random objects that come by his way. Of a pair of doll eyes fastened to his coat, Suttree asks, “What do those signify? The Indian looked down. He touched the doll’s eyes. Them? I don’t know. Good luck” (McCarthy 239). Michael lives in a magical world that Sut envies, and one he aspires to. Above all else, Sut is fascinated with Michael’s knowledge of hunting and cooking turtle, an arcane skill which seems to have been lost to the residents of Knoxville. With the exception of Ab Jones, Michael is the only character in the novel that Sut asks for advice. However, despite his many attempts, Sut is never able to achieve the kind of wonder-world that Michael represents. There is an impenetrable barrier between them; even if Sut were to ask Michael’s philosophies, the fisherman would be unable to express them. His spiritual state is natural to him, not something rational that he can instruct on. In the end, the same thing that Ishmael says of Queequeg can be said of Michael: “in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume; but whose mysteries not even himself could read” (Melville 524).
Sut’s attempt to regain some imagined form of naturalism is doomed from the start. He cannot escape the burdens of his knowledge, no matter how badly he may wish to. His failure culminates with the hapless undertaking of his vision quest in the mountains of Gatlinburg. We do not know how long his quest lasts, only that it is long enough to threaten his sanity, and long enough that “his beard grew long and his clothes feel from him like the leaves” (McCarthy 285). For this indeterminate amount of time, Sut does not seem to discover much of anything. He has multiple visions, but each is merely an hallucination that adds no personal insight. From the very arrival in the woods, it seems that Sut is not welcome there. He curiously turns a stone over only to find staring back at him a snake with the same indifferent menace that Sut has been fleeing. He “could not tell if” the snake “watched him or not, little brother death with his quartz goat’s eyes. He lowered the stone with care” (McCarthy 284). Throughout his wilderness foray, Sut’s anxieties about death are only magnified, as “He saw with a madman’s clarity the perishability of his flesh” (McCarthy 287). Most frightening of all, the shadowy Other that has followed him throughout the novel seems to finally be gaining ground:
In these silent sunless galleries he’d come to feel that another went before him and each glade he entered seemed just quit by a figure who’d been sitting there and risen and gone on. Some doublegoer, some othersutrree eluded him in these woods and he feared that should that figure fail to rise and steal away and were he therefore to come to himself in this obscure wood he’d be neither mended nor made whole but rather set mindless to dodder drooling with his ghostly clone from sun to sun across a hostile hemisphere forever (McCarthy 287).
Sut eventually abandons his vision quest, winding up half mad with starvation and thirst, crying pitifully to a crass waitress in a cheap restaurant. He nearly dies in pursuit of an instinctive embrace of life that is just not possible for him, anymore–if it ever was.
Ishmael’s quest for transcendence is as frustrating and failed as Sut’s. He enjoys numerous glimpses into the wonder-world, but can never quite fully penetrate the depths. His and Sut’s failures result not from lack of effort, but from the paradox that results whenever someone seeks to fully grasp the breadth of the infinite. Ishmael hints at part of the paradox when he explores the myth of Narcissus:
And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all (Melville 5).
Our vision of reality is forever distorted by our own reflection. When we gaze into the water, we gaze also into ourselves. Upon everything we see, our eyes impress our own psychic contents. If one fixates the water too long, he risks becoming drowned in himself.
Ishmael and Sut are further doomed to failure by the sheer limitations of their intellects, which is to say of all human intellect. Our minds are not made to grasp the infinite. Any truth that we can enjoy can only be tasted in parts. Both protagonists want to grasp everything simultaneously, to see not only how every part of the machine works together but why every part of the machine works together. The immensity of the concept is more than they can comprehend. Moby Dick’s Pip is the only person in either novel who gets a prolonged view of this deep machinery of reality, and for that witness he pays with his sanity:
Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the misermerman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, G0d-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. So man’s insanity is heaven’s sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to the celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God. (Melville 453–454).
Ishmael and Sut’s mistake is in misunderstanding the magnitude of what they are after and the limitations of their ability to perceive it. It is like they are trying to see all sides of a basketball at once.
Shortly before leaving Knoxville, after he nearly escapes dying from a prolonged and unnamed illness, Sut is told that God must have been watching over him. In response, Sut replies “You would not believe what watches. He is not a thing. Nothing ever stops moving” (McCarthy 461). Sut has caught a glimpse of the truth he was seeking, and of that thing that drove Pip mad. It was not what Sut intended to find, but it does indicate that he has finally found something. The god-thing he has discovered is a cosmic process, not a human-like figure concerned with his welfare. But at least he has seen something, and even if he does not hold a special place with it, he at least fits neatly into its greater design. Sut’s near-death experience is the final straw in his decision to leave Knoxville, but it is not that alone that compels him to travel on. It is also the deaths of two friends.
Ab Jones is to Suttree what Captain Ahab is to Moby Dick, a crazed fanatic waging war against an unbeatable foe. Ab is a physically imposing black man who battles the police of Knoxville in his private quest for revenge. Where Ahab had his leg bitten off by the whale, Ab was shot by a white man when he was fourteen years old. The source of both men’s rage goes beyond their physical scars. The attacks were an affront to their basic human dignity on some fundamental, metaphysical level that only they can understand. Despite the fact that Ab and Ahab’s quests are obviously doomed to end in tragedy, Sut and Ishmael find an appeal in them that is at least temporarily undeniable.
Caught up in Ahab’s fervor, Ishmael declares during their crazed hunt: “I, Ishmael, was one of that crew; my shouts had gone up with the rest; my oath had been welded with theirs…A wild, mystical, sympathetical feeling was in me; Ahab’s quenchless feud seemed mine” (Melville 194). Despite all of his attempts to observe life objectively and to escape the futile enterprises of men, Ishmael is yet drawn inexorably into Ahab’s mission.
Sut’s relationship with Ab Jones is very similar to Ishmael’s relationship with Ahab. Erik Hage writes:
Ab’s shortened appellation also calls to mind Ahab, form one of McCarthy’s favorite works, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Ab’s obsession with the massive ‘unbending pale’ calls to mind Ahab’s obsessive quest for the white leviathan. Here, an analogy can be drawn between the white whale and the Knoxville judicial body politic that Ab confronts–this particular usage of body politic having its roots in Thomas Hobbes’ fittingly title treatise Leviathan (Hage 20).
While a black man’s rage towards the white establishment of 1950s Tennessee is hardly an enigma, Ab’s hatred crosses into obsessive territory. His rage goes so far that even when he suspects his days are numbered, Ab asks the Voodoo priestess Miss Mother not to extend his days but to make sure that the policeman named Quinn goes with him. “I aint interested (in my future),” Ab says, “I just don’t want to leave Quinn here and me gone” (Suttree 280).
Sut respect for Ab is obvious. He talks differently to Ab than he does to anyone else in the novel, including Michael. He addresses Ab with respect, and talks to others about him with something approaching reverence. Sut knows Ab cannot win, but something in Ab’s fight appeals to him. The ‘white’ law that is bent on destroying Ab is not exclusive to the colored man. Like the continuous stories and false sightings of Moby Dick in Melville’s work, there are subtle insinuations of the law’s malignant presence throughout Suttree. Common passages relate things like: “He walked Gay Street, pausing by store windows, fine goods kept in glass. A police cruiser passed slowly. He moved on, from out of his eyecorner watching them watch” (McCarthy 29). Despite the omnipresent police harassment, Sut never resists verbally or physically. It is only when Ab becomes locked in his final, fatal confrontation that Sut lashes back.
Sut finds his friend beaten nearly to death in an alley. Police arrive. Sut tries to usher Ab off, but the man will have none of it. We know before the conclusion that this is Ab’s last stand: “But the black had begun to become erect with a strength and a grace contrived out of absolute nothingness and Suttree said: Ab, and the black said: Go on.” Sut still tries to convince the police to leave, but the battler will have none of it. Ab curses the police and turns to run down the alley. While the police give chase, Sut gets into the squad car, rides it around town for a while, and then sinks it into a river. Ab is killed that night, and Sut’s pointless act of rebellion accomplishes nothing. But the important thing to note is that something in Ab’s defiance sparked resistance in Sut for the first and only time in the novel–a resistance resembling purpose.
Ahab is widely considered to be a symbol of heroic defiance, whether that defiance is against an indifferent God or against the nonexistence of God. For Suttree, Ab Jones is a symbol of the same. Each one is doomed to die in their quest, yet they represent the antithesis of an important shortcoming inherent in Ishmael and Sut–the will to act. Ishmael and Sut are lost in contemplation. They are looking for reasons to live, as though those reasons can be arrived at the way one solves a math formula. At some point, all life starts with the will to act. That will might be irrational in a purposeless universe, but it is still the only choice other than suicide. Sut finds his will to act after witnessing the deaths and imprisonments of his friends, and the razing of McNally Flats. Happening near the same time as Ab Jones, the death of the ragpicker seems to be the event that solidifies Sut’s decision to leave Knoxville and start to live again.
Sut finds the ragpicker dead in his bed beneath the overpass. The ragpicker is important to Sut as a friend, and important to the novel because he takes Sut’s nihilism to its extremist degree. Routinely the ragpicker talks of suicide and a general disdain for God and life. We are never exactly certain why Sut is so drawn to this hopeless figure, but he is. In their usual suicidal discussions, Sut often agrees with the ragpicker, or at least does not attempt to refute him. Yet when faced with the old man’s corpse, Sut declares in tears, “You have no right to represent people this way…A man is all men. You have no right to your wretchedness” (McCarthy 422). The death seems to bring Sut’s boiling internal world to critical mass. We are not certain where he is headed, but wherever he is going he is doing so dressed in “new trousers of tan chino. A new shirt open at the neck. His face and arms were suntanned and his hair crudely barbered and he wore cheap new brown leather shoes the toes of which he dusted, one, the other, against the back of his trouser legs. He looked like someone just out of the army or jail” (McCarthy 470). Cheap though the threads may be, Sut has come dressed as a man ready to reenter society and start living again.
In addition to the will to act, Sut learns another important lesson on his journey. He comes to realize that no man is an island unto himself, no matter how badly he might try to be. Our identity does not exist wholly separate from our fellow human beings; instead, our identity relies for its life upon our fellow human beings. To try to cut oneself free from the gravity of human coexistence is to continuously wander unmoored from our own selfhood. While the promise of the adventure into the wonder-world may be at times irresistible, in the end “a comparable sterility awaits those of us who would rest in a simple contemplation of self. For our identity is something that takes shape for us only through interaction with all of which opposes it. Neither in life nor in art are we sufficient to ourselves” (Bowen, 46).
Ishmael finds his reunion with humanity while extracting sperm from a whale aboard the Pequod. He recalls:
I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborer’s hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say,–Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves into the very milk and sperm of kindness (Melville 456).
Homoeroticism aside, the epiphany that Ishmael experiences while working on the ship shows him how deeply tied he is to his fellow man, and how essential they are to anything that might be called ‘meaning.’
While Sut lies close to death during his last days in Knoxville, he wakes from a fever dream to utter, “I know all souls are one and all souls lonely” (McCarthy 459). In the commonality of human suffering, Sut has found the connection to the human race that he had been missing. Perhaps man is abandoned by God, or perhaps there is no God at all, but even so the one certainty is that we are all in this together. The universe may indeed be absurd, but like Camus, Sut has decided that suicide is not an acceptable choice. Irrational though it might be, he has decided to live, to participate in the human drama, no matter how full of folly it may be. Sut’s discovery might seem pale when considering the sacrifices he has made to attain it, but for him at least it is an answer, and to a seeker so bent on understanding, any answer if infinitely better than none.
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Literature Resource Center. 12 September 12 2012.
1. That morning, Toby Wilson decided to go on a vision quest just like the Native American shamans of old used to do. The only problem was that he didn’t know what one was actually supposed to do on a vision quest, so he just sat on a log in the woods for a few hours swatting mosquitoes, picking his nose, and waiting for enlightenment to come. Three hours later, it still had not arrived.
The August heat slowly cooked him inside his tee shirt and jeans. By early afternoon, unable to bear the discomfort any longer, he headed down the mountain to find a cooler place in which to achieve transcendence.
After twenty minutes of walking, Toby’s head started to reel and he nearly fell over. Excited that the discombobulated sensation was signaling the arrival of a spiritual epiphany, Toby braced himself against a pine tree and waited. When he realized that the sensation was simply dizziness brought on by two days without food, he slid down to the ground in dejection.
After a year of bouncing around American in self-imposed homelessness looking for wisdom, he’d found nothing. Now, nearly twenty years old, he had no college or work experience fit for a resume–just a lot of drug and drink stories, and an extensive reading list of esoteric authors that no one but other unemployed vagabonds gave a shit about.
He’d brought himself to starvation and dehydration, a kid from a wealthy family born with all of the advantages that most people in the world could only dream about. Father: head of institutional research at Sackinaw University. Mother: prominent art dealer known for discovering the great outsider artist Shane Caldwell, who had become an international sensation for cropping images of rotting meat over the photographed faces of celebrities and politicians in a series of prints entitled ‘The Festering Meat Protocols.’
All his life Toby had yearned for something more than his parent’s upper middle class existence. He was not sure what more meant, but he’d set out to wander the world like a tramp to figure it out. The idea of spending his life building an investment portfolio and throwing dinner parties for vacuous intellectuals sickened him. He also wasn’t fond of the prospect of waking up early to go to work every day.
Toby lurched to his feet and shambled down the slope, kicking dead branches over the forest floor. The problem wasn’t that there was nothing more out there. No, it couldn’t be. He simply hadn’t yet sacrificed enough. God does not answer men with full stomachs.
He reached the city park at the base of the mountain. It was Saturday and the lawn was full of barbeque cookers, Frisbee throwers, and enthusiastic dogs on leashes. The park-goers wrinkled their noses at Toby’s approach, and he realized that he hadn’t been maintaining his physical appearance very well as of late. His greasy hair was matted to his forehead and several days of sweat had left a salt-ring around the collar of his dirt-streaked shirt. Too tired to do anything about it, Toby stumbled past their screw-faced expressions and fell down face-up in the grass.
The sun quickly baked him into delirium. Not quite asleep or awake, he sank into a kind of nether-fog while the sounds of the park ebbed and flowed around him. Thoughts detached from his awareness and floated about like disembodied voices. You could die without food or water in this heat, you know, one voice said. “Well,” he thought in response, “God can either enlighten me or kill me, but I’m not giving up until he does one of them.”
He slipped in and out of sleep and a state of semi-consciousness, the sounds of the park-goers ebbing and flowing around him like distorted ocean waves.
Someone called his name. After a few moments he realized that the voice was not in his mind and opened his eyes to find Chucky and Knock-Knock standing over him. Chucky was scrawny and wore a tattered Civil War officer’s hat. Knock-Knock was a hulking figure with no teeth and the brain-eaten eyes of a true, too-far-gone alcoholic.
“You look like broiled lobster,” Chucky said.
Toby looked at his sunburned arms. “Shit.” The park was empty and the sun low in the sky. He’d been out there for hours.
“Yea, shit.” Chucky nodded. “We’re going to drink a bottle of Bentley’s finest under that culvert over there. Wanna come with?”
“I can’t,” Toby said. “I’m on a vision quest.”
"No shit?” Chucky nodded towards Knock-Knock. “Knock-Knock used to go on vision quests all the time. Isn't that right, Knock-Knock?" Knock-Knock grinned toothlessly and nodded. "So why no booze?"
Toby hesitated. "I thought you couldn’t drink on a vision quest."
Chucky waved off the notion. "No, man, you just can't eat food or anything like that. Booze is okay. It might even help."
Toby mulled over the advice. Chucky and Knock-Knock had been emancipated from society for far longer than he, and he valued their wisdom. He agreed to drink the Bentley’s and the three of them filed under the culvert where mosquitoes swarmed madly.
“Hurry up,” Chucky urged as he passed the bottle, “These little buzzing fuckers will drain out blood before the alcohol gets into it.”
Bentley’s vodka wasn’t much better than rubbing alcohol, and Toby gagged with every swallow. For the sake of wisdom, he forced the stuff down. As soon as the bottle was done they ran out into the sun swatting mosquitoes.
The alcohol overwhelmed Toby almost immediately. Gravity shifted violently in random directions and the Earth seemed suddenly slanted, jerking him about like a marionette in the hands of some deranged puppeteer. Again and again, he found himself plastered to the Earth.
The trio headed into town. Night settled in. Toby shouted incoherent prophecies at people on the street. He felt full of spiritual insight, and the need to share that insight with the world. One woman, in particular, caught his attention. She was a beautiful, smiling brunette, but Toby felt certain that he detected a secret sadness within her.
He staggered up to the girl slurring senseless poetry. She cringed and recoiled in horror, trying to maneuver away from him. Toby, oblivious to her fear and disgust, cornered the girl against the side of the building.
The world lurched wildly and he reached out to steady himself against the girl. As he did so, his stomach turned violently and a stream of vodka and bile protected from his mouth. Toby braced himself on the girl’s shoulder as he retched and sputtered vodka-bile. The girl simply stood there and screamed.
A stocky guy in an Arizona Cardinals jersey emerged from the crowd that had gathered around the strange assault and unleashed a five punch combination. The first blow knocked Toby over, the next four struck as he fell.
Chucky and Knock-Knock were nowhere in sight. Toby lay watching pedestrians walk around him, probing absently with his tongue at the slot of his newly-missing front tooth. The sound of police sirens approached. Some distant part of his mind realized they were coming for him. He stumbled to his feet and ran.
He bolted through alleyways and parking lots as the cop car zipped about trying to trap him. What he lacked in grace and coordination, he made up for with total recklessness and disregard for personal safety. By cutting in front of moving traffic and leaping over a six-foot-tall drop at the end of a parking garage, he managed to elude the police and reach the houses at the edge of town.
Cutting through backyards in the dark, Toby ran full speed into a knee-high cement planter that sent him flipping through the air and onto his back. He regained his feet, made a few more steps, and caught a clothesline to the neck that threw him back to the ground. Somehow, finally, he reached the woods and escaped into the trees.
The adrenaline and the vodka faded as he walked through the woods, and immense pain rang like hundreds of shrieking alarms throughout his body. He was cut, bruised, and busted everywhere.
The discomfort grew, and the time passed, until he found himself stumbling out of the wood and onto a set of train tracks, facing a tiny house with an enormous woman smoking a cigarette on the front porch.
“Who’s there?” the woman asked.
Toby stepped into the illumination of her porch light.
The woman’s immensity jiggled with laughter. “Damn, honey, train run you over?”
“I got sucker punched.”
“Only a sucker gets sucker punched, honey.”
Toby poked at his missing tooth. “You’re awake awful late.”
The woman took a drag and flicked her cigarette off the porch. “Honey,” she said, “the party never stops at Big Mona’s house. Come on in.” Her body barely cleared the doorframe as she walked inside. Toby followed.
On the couch in the living room, two scraggly, bearded men slept amidst wine jugs, fast food wrappers, and pizza boxes. A little radio on the floor played Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World.”
Big Mona kicked them. “Wake up. We’ve got company.”
They grumbled and stirred. One guy sleepily located a bottle with some wine left in it and was about to take a drink, but Big Mona snatched it from his hand and gave it to Toby.
"That's Carl and that's Bigby,” Big Mona explained. “They stay here all the time because they know that Big Mona parties like nobody's business. Isn’t that right, boys?" The boys said nothing, and Big Mona erupted into another long bout of booming laughter.
After Toby finished the bottle, Big Mona rooted through the mess to find others. Toby finished those, too. Soon he felt warm and mellow again.
Carl and Bigby drifted back to sleep without saying another word. Big Mona talked and talked, saying things like, "That’s right, honey, every man's got the blues, and every woman's got the paintbrush,” and, “All the milk in the world can’t help a cow dying of thirst.” She was fond of asking questions with no intention of having them answered. "What's wrong, honey?” she’d ask, then hug him close and brush his hair from his head. “I know, honey. Big Mona always knows."
Toby’s pain faded. He liked the woman’s laugh and the way her big, warm body felt beside him.
“That’s right, honey.” Big Mona pulled him into her great bulk. “That’s right.”
The night gradually blurred around the edges, and then disappeared altogether.
2. Toby woke in a narrow bed with pain like fireworks shooting through his skull. The mattress sagged at his side and a gigantic bulk pressed against his back. With an uneasy feeling, Toby realized that the bulk was breathing.
Vague images of the night before flitted through his memory, a series of cinematic shorts showing Chucky and Knock-Knock, the screaming woman on the street, a pugilistic Cardinals jersey, cops, and then wrestling in bed with Big Mona.
That wasn’t wrestling, Toby realized. That wasn’t wrestling.
Toby slid out of bed and gathered his clothes from the floor. He slipped the crusty articles on, gagging on the smell, and headed for the door. He had almost made it when Big Mona laughed.
“Where you going, honey?”
Unsure of the answer, Toby said the first thing that came to mind. “Home.”
The bedsprings creaked as she shifted her weight. “What were you looking for last night, honey? You kept saying you were looking for something more, but you never said more of what.”
Toby thought for a moment. He was too tired to lie or think of something profound, so he just said, “I have no idea.”
Big Mona boomed laughter. “Well, honey, then maybe you found it.”
“Maybe,” Toby said.
He walked out of the house and followed the train tracks towards town. Big Mona’s laughter echoed behind him for a long time as he went.
Lenny and Wes were out of their element and they knew it. The restaurant was one of those slick, uptown places where the food looks too nice to eat. Well-dressed business types pecked away at laptops while hipsters slouched arrogantly into their seats, flaunting the fact that they had nothing better to do. Lenny and Wes sat at the very heart of the scene with tile grout and carpet glue spattered all over their faded jeans and tee shirts, studying their menus incredulously.
“What the hell’s with this menu?” Wes sneered. “All the food has something weird on it. They can’t just make a goddamn hamburger?”
“I like it,” Lenny drawled, eyeballing the women at their tables. "Classy broads."
Wes shook his head. "That’s all you ever think about.”
“Women are nothing but trouble.”
Bryon grinned. "If you’re not in some kind of trouble, you’re not living."
"When the hell is Bill getting here?"
Right on cue, Bill burst through the front door. Built like a cue ball with biceps, pale stomach poking out from beneath his tee shirt like an enormous hardboiled egg, he stopped inside the entryway and frantically scanned the tables. His left eye was haloed by a fresh, swollen bruise, and everyone in the restaurant turned to appraise the mad-looking character that had exploded into their midst. He located his friends and barreled towards them, oblivious to the fact that he nearly bowled over the hostess moving to intercept him.
Lenny laughed. "What the hell happened to your eye?"
"You didn't hear?" Bill sat down. Beads of sweat peppered his forehead. "I might be going to prison. I probably am."
"Getting your ass kicked is illegal now?" Wes smiled, revealing the dark lines between his teeth where his fillings showed through.
"I’m serious, man," Bill said. "They’re charging me with assault. They say I’m probably going to do time.”
Lenny shrugged. "Won’t be the first time."
"That's why I don't want to go back," Bill pleaded. "I’m not a kid, anymore. I've got a business now. It’s not right. The guy was shooting his mouth off. I didn't do anything wrong.”
"Nothing except forgetting to keep your hands up."
Lenny and Wes chuckled.
The waitress came and took their orders. She was a redhead somewhere in her thirties, with wide hips curving nicely under her apron and a smile that hinted at all the best kinds of trouble. After taking their orders she asked if they needed anything else.
"Just your phone number,” Wes drawled.
She smiled. "In your dreams.”
Lenny nodded. “Alright. I’ll take a beer. Something dark."
The waitress sauntered off and Lenny watched her all the way to the kitchen. “Now that’s a goddamn woman.” She returned a few moments later with the beer and Lenny drained half his glass in one gulp. "On second thought, bring us a pitcher."
"Are you sure?"
Lenny looked to Wes and Bill. They shook their heads. “Just one.”
The waitress left to get the pitcher. "We've got a job to do," Wes said without much concern.
"Yea, well, maybe I'm done working for the day,” Lenny said. “Maybe I'll have a few drinks right here and talk to that redhead some more. You guys get a look at her nametag?"
Bill shook his head. "I can't believe I might be going to jail. Goddamn, it was just a fight."
“Quit being so dramatic, you big baby.”
The waitress dropped off the pitcher and Lenny read her nametag. "Hello, Amy. What time do you get off?"
"Around five.” She cocked her head to the side and squinted suspiciously, “Why?”
"Can I buy you a drink at five-o-one?"
"Maybe." She shrugged. “But then again, maybe not. Guess you’ll just have to wait and see.”
"I can make it to five o’clock. No problem."
"I could be lying.” She shrugged again and walked away.
"I trust you."
The waitress smiled over her shoulder. "That was your first mistake."
"Goddamn." Lenny squirmed in his seat, panting as though on the verge of combustion. "That’s some kind of woman."
"I watched Tombstone last night," Bill said. "That’s a great movie."
Wes nodded. "One of the best Westerns ever made." Lenny scoffed contemptuously, as though the truth of the statement was so obvious that it was sheer stupidity to even bother stating it.
"Things were so different in the Old West," Bill mused. "If somebody called you a son of a bitch for no reason, you could step outside like two men and nobody did anything to stop it.”
Wes nodded. "If I could live in any time in history, I'd live in the Old West."
"That's what I'm saying." Bill pointed at the air as though to punctuate his remark. "Things were different then. Men were men. They had a code of honor.”
"Hell yes, they had a code of honor," Wes said. "All you had in those days was your damn gun and your honor.”
Bill leaned forward, his bruised eye growing wistful. "If I was alive back then, I would have been a cowboy. A gunfighter. My face would be all leathery from the sun. I'd have a rifle over my shoulder and six shooters and spurs and all of that.”
"Real gunfighters didn't wear spurs," Wes interjected sagely. "Their enemies would hear them sneaking up on them if they did. And cowboys weren't gunfighters. Cowboys worked for a living. The gunfighters were the outlaws and the lawmen."
Bill waved the comment off and kept his eyes fixed straight ahead. In that moment, wide open plains, wild horses, and howling coyotes were almost visible in his eyes. "I don't care about the gun fighting, man. I just mean that I would sleep under the stars and be free. I wouldn't look for any fights, but if I had to fight, there wouldn't be anybody there to tell me I was wrong."
“Sounds good, but those times are long gone.” Wes nodded towards Lenny. “We got the flooring in that new bank almost finished. A week ahead of schedule. Ain’t that right, Lenny?"
"I guess." Lenny looked around for the waitress. "What time is it?"
"Quarter to one."
"I'm sticking around until five.”
"She's putting you on, man,” Wes said. “Waitresses don't get off at that time. I know–I was married to one for eight years. They switch out at like two or three, after lunch is over. She'll split out the back door and leave you sitting here like a fool."
Bryon waved him off. "What do you know? Amy isn't your ex-wife."
"I'll bet she gets high rollers in this place asking her out every day. You think she wants to mess with some guy that's covered in grout and drives a twenty-year-old pickup truck?"
"Maybe she's looking for a little excitement."
"Drinking beer with you qualifies as excitement?"
Lenny folded his hands behind his head and leaned back in his chair. “Yes it does, my friend. Yes it does.”
Bill shook his head in sad wonder. "Goddamn, though, can you imagine living like that? Living free. Like a man."
Wes’ eyes narrowed in reverie. "Yea, I think about it sometimes. Sometimes I think about it a lot. I would have liked to have been a cowboy. I mean a real cowboy, just moving horses, fixing fences, stuff like that."
"That's what I mean. Goddamn, a cowboy. None of this bullshit you've got today. Nobody breathing down your neck every minute with this paper or that paper."
"You can still be a cowboy," Lenny said. "In Wyoming I think it is. I saw it on TV."
"It’s not the same," Wes explained. "They use pickups and stuff and it’s mostly just to keep the family tradition alive. They move cattle on trucks and trains, now. Nobody really needs cowboys, anymore."
Amy set their meals down and Lenny pointed at his watch.
"You're persistent," she said.
"Yes I am.”
"Can you hold out until five o’clock?”
“I can hold out a lot longer than that for a woman like you.”
Amy covered her face in mock modesty and walked back to the kitchen laughing.
The three friends ate their meals and watched basketball highlights on the television behind the bar. They talked about the bookstore job and Bill's night in a holding cell. After they were finished, Wes popped a toothpick in his mouth and said he was going back to work.
"I should get going, too," Bill said. "Make some money while I can. Goddamn, I can't believe I’m going to jail over this."
"It'll blow over," Lenny said. "It's not like you killed the guy."
Wes and Lenny looked up and simultaneously. "Not yet?”
"He’s hurt pretty bad, I guess.” Bill looked down like a guilty child. “I feel bad about it, but he hit me first. He was shooting his mouth off and I asked him to step outside and he just hit me. Young guys, man, they never want to fight fair, anymore.” He shook his head at the sad state of the world. "It didn't hurt. It left a bruise, but it didn't hurt at all. I hit him with a right straight and he went down like a sack of shit."
"You're telling me you almost killed him with one punch?” Lenny asked. “I've seen your punches, and I doubt that."
"No. I only knocked him down with one punch, but the back of his head hit that metal rail that you rest your feet on when you're sitting at the bar. He’s still in the hospital."
"Shit," Lenny said. The three friends fell into a long silence.
“Wait a minute.” Wes held up a finger and squinted in concentration, summoning the full might of his deductive powers. “Now, you said that you never laid a hand on him until he hit you first?”
Bill looked up hopefully, like a Death Row inmate just informed he was getting a new trial. “Of course not.”
“And after he punched you, all you did was punch him back?”
Bill held up his hands deferentially. “That’s all I did.”
Wes stroked his chin in thought while Bill waited for the verdict in wide-eyed anticipation. “It was self-defense with reasonable force,” Wes declared. “They can’t put you away for that.”
Bill let out a long sigh of relief. “I knew it. Thanks, man.” He reflected for a moment. “But, you know, it’s not even doing time that bothers me the most. I just can't believe I might go at all. I mean, the guy started trouble with me. All I did was defend myself. A guy can't even have a code of honor, anymore. The world just doesn't make sense. Everybody's gone crazy."
Wes stood up from the table. "Yea, it’s all bullshit. But what are you going to do about it?"
“A man can't just be a man, anymore. There's just too much goddamn paperwork."
Wes and Bill stood walked outside talking about Tombstone, the Old West, and codes of honor. Lenny checked his watch, settled into his seat, and drank his beer. A few minutes later Amy came to clear the table. “You’re not going with your friends?”
“Nah,” he answered. “All they ever do is talk about cowboys.”
“What’s wrong with that?” Amy asked. “All men love cowboys.”
“Amy,” Lenny said, draining another beer and holding up the pitcher for a refill, “I am a cowboy.”