After a lifetime of work, the physicist finally invented a telescope that could see the very edge of the universe. She joyfully high-fived her robot assistant, Darwin.
Would she see God at the edge of the universe? Would she see nothingness? Or some space with physical laws so different from our own that merely gazing into it would drive her mad? All were thrilling possibilities!
She peered through the eyepiece and froze in confusion.
There, at the edge of the universe, stood a sandy haired woman in a lab, watching her through a telescope.
1. My little brother Clayton always complained that he’d been born in the wrong time. In an older era, he said, he would have been a great explorer or an adventurer. No matter how many times I encouraged him to focus on making a living in the real world, he spent all his time embroiled in either his daydreams or his self-pity, drifting from one dead end job to another. Later, from petty crime to another. I spent half my life trying to keep him out of trouble, so I can’t say I was surprised when my fiancé Dezzie walked into the workshop and announced that Clayton had joined the Wolfpack. That didn’t make the news any less heartbreaking, though.
I looked up from the brass clock wheel I’d been filing teeth into. Bits of wood dust floated like infinitesimal planets through the beam of morning light streaming through the window between Dezzie and me. The ticking of forty-nine clocks reverberated through the room.
"Has he turned all the way?" I asked, relieved that my voice didn’t tremble.
Dezzie opened her mouth to answer, then closed it again. Her lips pursed together the way they always did when she felt sorry for someone.
"They don’t always turn all the way," I explained. "Sometimes they just ride with them, but don’t completely turn."
Dezzie stepped through the swarming particulate worlds and took my hands in hers. "Jim, he’s one of them," she said. "All the way."
I tried to pull away from her but she held my hands, simultaneously gentle and firm in that way only Dezzie could manage.
A pickup-truck-full of emotions hit me. My lower lip quivered. Whether it was from rage or grief, I couldn’t really say. "Did he hurt you?"
"He didn’t do anything wrong, Jim." Dezzie held my gaze in her hazel, amber-flecked eyes. "He was the same old Clayton, to be honest. Joking and laughing." She attempted to smile but instead made a choking sound, like she was about to cry, and turned away from me. "That was the worst part. He kept trying to play around, but whenever he smiled I could see all those fangs. And his hair, Jim. He’s covered in red hair and he’s got his face all done up in little rubber-band braids and it just looks so freaky."
Her body shuddered. Now it was my turn to comfort, and I hugged her from behind. One of the reasons we worked so well together was that we each knew when to pick up the other’s slack. I loved that woman more than I ever knew I was capable of loving anyone.
We were going to have a life together. Not even Clayton would stop that.
"Did you tell him where I was?"
"No. He asked where you’d moved the workshop and I told him you were still out shopping for a new place. He knew I was lying."
"Then what did he say?"
"He says he’s leaving tomorrow morning for the Triple Six Highway. He doesn’t know when he’ll be back, and he wants to say goodbye."
"What the hell is he thinking? Nobody survives the Triple Six."
She turned to face me. "He wants you to meet him tonight at Damon’s Pit. Eight o’clock."
"Of course he’d pick that dump." I went back to the brass wheel, blew some metal dust from it, and filed away at the teeth. Bad news always filled me with the need to occupy my hands. "Maybe you should stay at your mother’s house tonight."
"Not a chance. I’ll be home in bed, waiting for you. And if you don’t come home, I’ll find that werewolf brother of yours and strangle him with his own braids."
"Not werewolf," I said. "Wolfman. There’s a difference."
Dezzie smirked. "Yea, he won’t never change back to regular Clayton after the moon goes down."
I stiffened up uncontrollably at her words. She rushed over and kissed my neck. "I’m sorry. I was trying to be funny."
"You failed miserably." I kissed her back. "It’s okay, but I think I need to work alone for a bit."
She patted my hand and left, saying she’d be waiting in bed when I got home.
I lost myself in the soothing, familiar routine of my work. At that time I’d made precisely three hundred and fifteen clocks. Every single one was identical to all the others in both functionality and appearance. The challenge of maintaining that uniformity appealed to me, and I lost myself in the pleasant distraction of my labor. I couldn’t hide from the inevitable forever, though, and as dusk arrived I knew I had to face the facts, so I locked up the shop and went to my car.
I drove around Before and Afterville for a while, thinking about the past and dreading the future. The ticking of the clock-shaped houses and stores that filled the town, normally so comforting, only worsened my fear and aggravation. The entire place suddenly seemed like one gigantic reminder that nothing can stop the future—not even the past.
I finally worked up the courage to swing my car into Damon’s parking lot. My headlights fell on a motorcycle parked out front, all black and chrome with spikes running along the fenders, handlebars flailed out like bat wings. It was a Wolfpack bike. No doubt about it.
All the nerve went out of me. I pulled right back out of the lot, bought beer at a gas station, and headed up the backroads to Cherry High. From atop the wooded hill I looked out over the Stranded Void. Both moons were half-full, bright enough to reveal the edges of the Triple Six Highway running right down the center of the desert.
I drank my beer and thought about the day I’d taught Clayton how to administer purple nipple twisters. I laughed like a loon thinking of the time I tied his feet together and left him hanging from a tree branch for half an hour. Then there was the day we explored the entire length of Firewinder Gulch, something no other kids in town had the guts to do. We almost died of dehydration in the process. It was the best memory of my childhood, and front runner for best memory of my life.
Damon’s was closed by the time I drove back from Cherry High. The city was still. Only the turning of hands in the faces of a thousand giant clocks disturbed the peace. I was both relieved and saddened to find the bar shut down and Clayton gone. After close to thirty years of being brothers, the kid still had a way of mixing up my emotions.
I pulled into my driveway to find the motorcycle from Damon’s waiting at the bottom of the porch steps. I slammed the brakes and remained frozen in place, staring. Only the realization that Dezzie might be in danger snapped me out of my paralysis. I jumped out of the car and ran towards the house.
Halfway there, the sound of laughter coming out through an open window stopped me short. Clayton’s guttural, savage chortling was unnerving, but that wasn’t the thing that startled me. Rather, it was Dezzie’s high-pitched, girlish hoots.
I hadn’t heard her laugh with such carefree abandon in years.
2. I didn’t need to smell the beer on Dezzie’s breath or see the crushed cans covering the coffee table to guess that she was drunk. The way she tittered as she ran up to greet me told me everything I needed to know. The fact that she didn’t say anything about Clayton lounging on the couch with his dirty, cracked leather boots propped up on the coffee table said a lot, as well.
"He’s finally home!" Dezzie nearly bowled me over with a hug. "We’re having a party."
"Hey, bro." Clayton grinned with a wink. He was a wolfman, alright. Six feet of red hair and pointed teeth, leather jacket and grease-stained jeans. The silhouette of a wolf with bird wings was impressed upon a patch on his chest. High and wild, their motto went.
The whole scene was so strange and unexpected that it made me angry. I’d always responded to uncertainty that way. I didn’t like things that disturbed my sense of predictability. "What the hell is going on here?"
Clayton stepped towards me with his hand extended. "I just came to hang out with my bro and his fiancé before I headed out."
Dezzie rubbed the small of my back and smiled one of those smiles that says come on, smile back. "Same old Clayton."
"That’s what I’m afraid of," I said, looking at his hand without shaking it. "You need money? Is that it?"
My brother laughed. Dezzie was wrong about him being the same old Clayton. He’d changed in more ways than the obvious. The subtle, nervous awkwardness that had affected him his whole life was gone, replaced by an easy confidence.
"I’ll never turn down free money, bro," Clayton said. "But that’s not what I’m here for. As much of a crotchety old fart as you’ve turned into, I still love your geriatric ass."
Dezzie laughed. "Come on, Jim. Just relax. There’s plenty of beer."
I had no desire to relax, but I did want a beer, so I sat down on the recliner. Clayton took his place on the couch and Dezzie sat cross-legged on the floor.
Clayton cracked a beer, caught the foam and suds in his mouth, and handed it to me. His eyes hadn’t changed at all. They were the same fragile-porcelain blue as always. Boyish and wounded, they were a big reason he never got punished as severely as he might otherwise have.
Dezzie grabbed the can from my hand. "Oh, you big baby, I’ll drink it." She downed damn near the whole thing in one swallow.
Clayton cheered and howled. The sound set my hair on end, but Dezzie squealed with laughter. "I love it when he does that," she said.
"Well, you two are certainly getting along well," I said, my tone implying no end of depravity between them.
Their laughter stopped. Clayton had the nerve to shake his head and look disappointed. Dezzie’s eyes turned to angry coals.
"Unlike you," she said, "Clayton has been an absolute gentleman since he got here. It’s an insult that you would imply anything else was going on. An insult to me, and to him." She stood and headed for the adjoining bedroom. Before disappearing inside the door she added over her shoulder, "It’s good to see you again, Clayton. I had a lot of fun before your asshole brother showed up." She closed the door firmly behind her. Not a slam. That would have been too obvious for Dezzie. No, just precisely hard enough to say everything she wanted to say, and not a hair more.
"Somebody’s in trouble," Clayton said in a singsong way.
I resisted talking to him, but old habits won out in the end. "You’ve always been good at pissing my girlfriends off."
Clayton smirked. "Annie Davies."
He didn’t have to say anything more. Both of us broke up laughing. The more I tried to resist, the worse it got.
We brought the beer to the back porch and sat on the railing, side by side. Bell-crickets chimed in the warm darkness. Clayton took a deep breath. "Why did God invent any smells other than summer grass? That’s the pinnacle right there, man. No need to go further."
We talked about the random little things that had occupied our lives since I’d last seen him. As long as I didn’t look at him, I could almost forget that he was a wolfman. So I kept my gaze fixed straight ahead on Franklin’s Tower rising about a quarter mile away with its key-shaped hands turning over a blue, illuminated clock face.
I crushed an empty can and threw it out into the yard. "Why’d you do it?"
"This?" Clayton twisted a braid between his fingers. "I don’t know. I just feel better like this."
"Things were that bad?"
"Drop it, brother." He punched me in the arm and nearly knocked me off the railing, which sent my brother into hysterics. He was still laughing when he swung his feet around and offered his hand. I ignored it and stood on my own.
"You were the best big brother I could have asked for," Clayton said. "I never fit in to the straight world, man. That has nothing do with you. I thank you for everything you did for me growing up."
I considered punching him back but didn’t want to deal with the indignity of breaking my hand in the process. "Pretty cheesy, Clayton. Doesn’t sound like a wolfman-like thing to say."
Clayton shook his head. "That’s where you’re wrong, man. Being a wolfman isn’t about what people think it’s about."
"Those Wolfpack guys that beat Sam Briar half to death out by the gas pumps last summer?"
Clayton shrugged. "I don’t know, man. I wasn’t there. I’m guessing it was a complicated situation, though, like everything else."
I cracked open another beer. "You remember that day we went up Firewinder Gulch?"
"I think about it at least once every day. There were rattlesnakes freaking everywhere, remember? And those old mine shafts? That was the day I knew that I’d never be happy living a regular life in Before and Afterville. I was meant for open air." He leapt over the railing into the yard and grabbed a baseball from the grass. I followed him out and he tossed it to me.
"So, you’re blaming me taking you into the gulch for you becoming a wolfman?"
"I’m not ‘blaming’ you for anything, man, because that would imply that I regret the results. You might not love what I’ve become, brother, but I do."
The ball slipped out of my hands and went high and wide. Clayton leapt effortlessly five feet up and snatched it out of the air like it was nothing. "You know what I remember just as clearly as how I felt that day? I remember the look on your face. I never saw you smile so much. Not before or after. That’s the real reason I’m here." He winked and threw the ball high into the air.
I caught it. "You were lying?"
"Yea, I suppose I was. I want you to come with me on a three day ride."
I turned the ball in my hands, pretending to inspect it as I hid my fear. "I’d have to ask the warden first."
"Dezzie? She never struck me as the warden type, man."
"You don’t live with her."
"I don’t know, man. I don’t think you’re giving her enough credit."
"I give her plenty of credit. She’s an excellent warden."
"No offense, brother, but you’re starting to sound like a stereotype."
"Look who’s talking," I said, with no real idea what I meant by it. "What’s on the Triple Six, anyway?"
"Trouble and stuff." He smiled. "It’s hard to say, exactly. It’s a little different for everyone."
"People who go out to the Triple Six always wind up dead."
"Everyone who goes anywhere eventually winds up dead." Clayton shrugged. "But the rumors you hear about the Triple Six are passed around by people who’ve never actually been there. They don’t know what they’re talking about."
I deflected the subject with some jokes and talked about lighter things. After a few minutes I told him I was heading to bed. He said he’d be up a bit longer taking in the night and drinking beer.
Part of me shrank back in terror at the thought of the Triple Six, but another part was caught up in the moment. An adventure with my little brother, no matter how dangerous, stirred my blood. I was too old for all that, though, I told myself. I had too many responsibilities.
Dezzie was on the couch when I got inside, book opened up in her lap. "I wanted to listen to the two of you laughing," she said. "It’s been a long time since I heard that."
I sat down and took her foot into my lap.
She closed the book and set it on the coffee table. "Well, are you going with him?"
I held up my hands like an arrestee. "I had nothing to do with it, warden. I’m innocent."
Dezzie folded her hands in her lap and looked at me with one of those expressions that said she’d been waiting for a long time to say what she was about to say. "When have I ever bossed you around?"
I shrugged and smiled like a moron.
"Well, if you ever figure it out, let me know so I can stop doing that. I don’t like those kinds of women."
"So you want me to go with him?"
"That’s irrelevant, Jim. The question is if you want to go with him. Do you know why I agreed to marry you?"
"Because I’m the best clockmaster in the city."
"No." She ran her fingers through my hair. "You had a passion for life. When I laughed with you, I felt high as a cloud. But you’re losing that, Jim. You’re getting farther and farther away from that person every day, and that’s scary, because you’re still young."
"Not that young," I said, managing to be completely unfunny. I wanted to tell her she was wrong, but it was hard to do that when I knew she was right. "I’m scared, Dezzie," I said. "Of the Triple Six. Of the clocks. Of us. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do anymore."
Dezzie wrapped her arms around my neck and brought her face close to mine. "I’m going to tell you something, as your friend. I think you need to be honest with yourself. Are you letting your fears keep you from doing something you want to do? If so, then you need to ask yourself, seriously, if you’re going to be able to live with that ten years from now. I love you, but I don’t want to marry a man with regrets."
She kissed me on the forehead. "Most importantly, if you do decide to stay behind, don’t use me as your excuse, okay?"
She went to the bedroom. I picked up a can of warm beer from the coffee table. The giant clock on the face of the house sounded in harmony with and the cricket sounds from outside.
After staring into the dark for a while, I laid down on the couch to sleep. I wondered if there were many rattlesnakes on the Triple Six, and guessed there probably would be.
I always hated snakes.
3. Clayton turned the corner from the road leading out of Before and Afterville. The moment his tire touched the black asphalt of the Triple Six he opened the bike up. Against all my manly instincts, I grabbed him around his waist and screamed for him to slow down.
Clayton hit the brakes and skidded to a halt. He looked over his shoulder with a smirk.
"Too fast!" I yelled, as if the wind was still rushing past our ears.
"That’s how I always ride."
"Slow down a bit."
"I can’t go anything less than full boar, brother. It’s just not in me. Maybe you should drive."
I hadn’t ridden a bike since I was a teenager, and even then I was never very good at it. Clayton knew this, of course. "Just keep your eyes on the road," I said.
Clayton smiled and rode on.
Scattered throughout the red sands around us were multicolored geological oddities and yellow cacti covered with round flowers that looked like flashbulb bursts going off. The entire Stranded Void looked different than it did from atop Cherry High. Stark, yes, but not barren. Wildly alive, actually. Even the open spaces bristled with an invisible energy. The hair on the back of my neck stood up.
Diners and bars popped up now and then along the roadside. We pulled into a place called the Joyful Hooligan. It was built entirely of colored glass and rusted tractor parts welded together. Dune buggies, race cars, and motorcycles filled the dirt lot.
The beer tasted like lighter fluid. That’s how they promoted it, anyway. Having never consumed lighter fluid before I couldn’t say with any authority how accurate they were, but after my first sip I decided to take their word for it.
Wild characters filled the place, some dressed in mismatched leather and rags and corduroy, others in even stranger combinations of styles and eras of clothing, top hats with stiletto heels and kimonos with tribal masks. No other wolfmen were visible, but there were plenty of other odd sorts around—semi-humans with mirrors for faces, moth antennae, playing-card eyes, reptilian tails.
Raucous laughter filled the place along with smoke and music. Slowly I settled into the scene. My fear faded. The whole thing was bizarre and uncertain, two qualities I’d never felt comfortable with, but something more lurked underneath it all. The people of the Triple Six were authentic in a way I’d never seen before. A sense of easy freedom filled me and next thing I knew I was jumping up squawking and flapping my arms like a bird.
Two women with purple faces and ivory eyes jumped up and flapped with me. Cheers and applause broke out from the crowd. I was roaring with laughter and feeling more than a little high as Clayton and I walked out slapping high-fives on our way back to the bike.
The wind felt good on my face as we rode. I found myself wishing Clayton could go even faster, fast enough that we could break free of gravity completely and never fall back to the ground again.
When darkness fell, we camped atop a small rise. We built a small fire and laid down to look up at a sky absolutely bursting with stars.
"That can’t be the same sky as the one over Before and Afterville," I said.
"It’s all the same sky, brother."
"No," I said. "It’s two different skies." It was the kind of irrational sentimentality that I would scoffed at the day before. I recognized it even as I said it, but I didn’t care.
In the morning we rode to an abandoned drive-in movie theater. More than twenty Wolfpack members milled around in the empty parking lot. Many were wolfwomen, which I’d never even known existed. Upon seeing us, they roared their army of bikes into action and formed a circle around spinning at high speed, a howling cyclone of fanged, furred faces and savage eyes. They slapped both of us on our shoulders, none of them seeming to mind my non-wolfman status.
I didn’t see or hear anyone give a command but, like migrating geese responding to some secret cue, all the bikes turned at once out onto the highway. I didn’t know where we were going and wasn’t sure they did, either.
After a couple miles, another group of bikers appeared, heading towards us. The demeanor of the Wolfpack members intensified. The talking and clowning ceased.
Clayton looked at me over his shoulder. "Sidewinders," he yelled. "Hang tight."
Terror hit me for the first time since we’d first taken off. Sidewinders? I had no idea what they where, but it couldn’t possibly be good. Images of Dezzie flashed through my mind. Something else also brewed, though. Something I had a hard time admitting. I wasn’t just scared. I was excited. It hit me then how similar those two emotions actually are, two sides of a single coin. Without consciously intending to, I whooped and hollered challenges right along with the other riders.
Neither the Sidewinders nor the Wolfpack slowed as the two columns rode into each other. Riders zipped by at top speed, scaled skin colored orange, red, and yellow, slanted eyes, forked tongues. Some bikes actually collided with others and sent their riders skidding over the ground or tumbling under wheels.
The rage between both sides seemed authentic, but there were also hints of smiles on the snarling faces. The whole thing was confusing as much as it was discomforting.
After the column of Sidewinders passed, both gangs turned at once in the same direction and headed off the highway into the Stranded Void at top speed.
I shouted to Clayton, "What’s going on?"
"We’re racing to the Blue Key."
He glanced back at me with a smirk. "Why not?"
The bikes raced perilously close to one another. Now and then a member of one side bumped into the other, sometimes intentionally and sometimes accidentally, causing a rider to lose control and spill their bike. Strangest of all was the crazed hilarity and glee of the fallen ones, as if it was all just good times for them.
I looked aside and caught the golden, slanted irises of a Sidewinder watching me. Yellow stripes crisscrossed his orange face. He smiled at me and cut through the crowd in our direction. I shouted a warning to Clayton.
My brother swept with one massive, clawed hand at the Sidewinder. The challenger slipped the blow and countered with a spit of green venom that narrowly missed Clayton’s face. Drops of it fell hissing on the handlebars. Both of their attacks would have seriously wounded or even killed the other, yet both men roared with laughter and shouted rough encouragement.
A towering blue spire of stone jutting out of the ground appeared head. Only three Sidewinders remained. Of the Wolfpack, Clayton was the last representative.
Clayton booted the back tire of one bike and sent it fishtailing into a cloud of dust. Another Sidewinder moved to cut us off, cutting her wheel into Clayton’s so that the bikes became entangled and flew out of control.
I soared a few feet and skidded over the face of the desert. When I got my wits back and looked up, Clayton was howling with laughter and clutching his shin. "You crazy woman," he yelled to the Sidewinder. "You broke my damn leg!" He guffawed wildly as the Sidewinder laughed in return a few yards away, wincing at her own pain.
Miraculously, I’d escaped without any serious injury. Everything hurt and I bled in some places, but nothing was broken. My blood was up. The rush of the race was still in me. Without stopping to think, I picked up the bike, hopped on, and rode. Clayton and the Sidewinder cheered as I sped off in pursuit.
I caught up to the last Sidewinder just as he reached the Blue Key, my sheer, reckless speed making up for my lack of driving skill.
The path winding up the side of the spire was barely wide enough for two bikes. If I tried to pass by the right, I might fall over the side, which would mean death. It was madness to try it, which meant, I reasoned, that the Sidewinder would never expect it. Not from me. Not from a regular clockmaker from Before and Afterville.
I faked an attempt to pass by his left side. When he moved to block me, I cut to the right. My arm brushed against his as I sped by, but I made it.
Once clear, I opened the bike up fast as it would go. By the time I reached the flat top of the Blue Key, the only thing behind me was a cloud of dust.
I skid to a stop, stood at the edge of the Key, and howled. The sound that came out of me was deeper than my normal voice. It felt different, too.
I touched my face and felt patches of long, coarse hairs growing there.
4. That night Clayton and I built a fire from dried cactus husks.
"The hair looks good on you," Clayton said.
I rubbed the luxurious coat covering the back of my arm. "Feels pretty good, too."
He smiled and kicked some cinders around in the fire. Sparks rose up in the sky and burned out among the stars. "We’re all riding out tomorrow."
"West." Clayton shrugged. "Maybe east."
"Don’t forget north and south."
Clayton uncorked a bottle of cactus wine the Sidewinders had given us. He took a drink and handed it to me. "You coming?"
I pulled at the wine and picked thistles off my tongue. "I need to go back home. Dezzie will be waiting."
"You really think you can go back to Before and Afterville after this?"
I thought about it a minute, took another drink, and handed the bottle back. "No," I said. "But I don’t intend to."
5. And, well, that was how I came to live on the Triple Six.
I still make clocks for money, but now I work under open sky and sell on the roadside. Unlike before, each clock’s design is completely original. They all still keep perfect time, though. My work has become a bit famous. Once a month I meet a guy who sells my stuff in Before and Afterville. Demand keeps increasing.
Clayton rides in every now and then and we’ll go on a tour for a couple weeks. The little shit still likes to challenge me, and I’m constantly having to prove myself. Whether it’s racing, wrestling, or drinking, he’s always trying to get one up on me. He hasn’t won yet, though. I’ve got that big-brother power over him. He’s just too stubborn to see it.
My one complaint about being a wolfman is that all this hair can get awfully hot in the summertime. I’ve mentioned trimming it more than once, but Dezzie always says she wants me to keep it long and wild. I can’t really argue with her there. I prefer my wolfwoman’s hair long and wild, too.
In ninth grade, Toddy told everybody that Don Romeo had unleashed the rancid-egg-salad fart of death in history class, when actually it had been me. Every sixteen-year-old needs a friend like that, but such allies were doubly indispensable for Lords and Lairs role playing game enthusiasts in 1994. At that time, we geeks were like early Christians, persecuted for our beliefs. Without Toddy, I never would have survived it.
All of that changed, though, the day that Sir Drexler Impaler came along and ruined everything.
It was a Tuesday. Toddy and I had gotten word that Mark Trunlo intended to dunk both of our heads in urinals after gym class, so we decided to forego school attendance for the day. We didn’t admit to each other the real reason for our truancy, of course. We just acted as if we were tough guys who refused to assimilate into the scholastic machine. It felt a lot cooler to quote Nirvana lyrics about rebellion than it did to discuss our aversion to getting our asses kicked.
Cops often parked at the bottom of the hill near the school in order to catch skippers, and that day was no different, but Toddy and I were no mere amateurs at the craft of truancy. With the danger spots already mapped out in our minds, we used the baseball dugout and bleachers to conceal our escape route, cutting across a tract of woods to the Ransom Green neighborhood. Once there, we were out of sight of the teachers and police and had only five blocks to go to reach the train tracks.
We were joking and shoving each other around when Toddy stopped abruptly in his tracks. I followed his gaze to a garden gnome standing at the edge of a well-manicured lawn a few feet from the street, grinning.
"Look at you, you pretty thing," Toddy whispered to himself. "You pretty, pretty thing." He walked over and fell on his knees before the statue, caressing its face tenderly.
Toddy had a deep affection for garden gnomes. He had no less than ten of them stashed in his bedroom already. I often wondered how he slept with those creepy ceramic eyes watching him.
I laughed nervously, scanned the windows of the houses, and tried my best to sound cool and indifferent. "Somebody’s going to call the cops, man. Let’s go to the tracks."
Toddy sat back on his haunches and cocked his head to examine the statue. "You know, Sean, in all seriousness, this may be the ugliest garden gnome I have ever seen."
He was right. The statue’s hat, pants, and coat were all painted an identical lime green. The face was cobbled and cracked. I was in no mood to joke about it, though. Toddy had been acting increasingly erratic in the previous weeks. His volatility put me on edge, especially in broad daylight during school hours.
I pulled at the back of his shirt. "Come on, man. It’s time to go."
"Yes," Toddy whispered to the gnome. "It is time, isn’t it, old friend?" He stood and I thought we were about to leave, but in one swift motion he hoisted the statue over his head and smashed it in the street.
I looked up in shock to see a woman’s wide-eyed expression in a big picture window. A moment later, a police siren blared in the distance.
"The truancy cop," I said, as if it mattered.
Toddy took off running down the street, hooping with laughter all the way. I looked to the woman in the window one more time, trying to appear apologetic, and followed him.
Three blocks later we crashed into the foliage between two houses and slid down a leaf-covered hill to the train tracks. The siren sound neared and tires skidded to a screeching halt. We ran harder.
We continued at top speed, almost tripping every time we looked over our shoulders. After a solid mile we finally felt safe enough to slow to a walk.
"Why the hell did you do that, Toddy?"
"I couldn’t help myself." He clutched at the air over his head like a mad scientist in ecstasy. "The sight of that lime green garden gnome drove me mad with ecstasy."
His pointless daytime destruction of the ornament aggravated me, but his refusal to take it seriously annoyed me even more. "You’re a real asshole sometimes," I said.
"Watch it, skipper. I don’t want to have to smash you like I smashed that poor gnome." He shoved me so that I tripped over the train rails and almost fell.
I pretended to laugh, just like I always did when Toddy threatened me, which was something that had been happening more and more frequently.
"So, what have you been cooking up for Lords and Lairs, oh great Lair Guide?" My flattery was basically sincere, though my use of it to dispel the tension was probably more than a little cowardly. Toddy really was the best Lair Guide in school and, far as anyone knew, the world. "The party is getting pretty powerful, slaying dragons like they’re nothing. Pretty soon you’ll have to throw Nexus Darks at us."
Toddy scoffed. "Nexus Darks are nothing. You guys are going to have to fight Don Romeo’s egg-salad-fart of death."
"No one’s going to survive that." This time my laugh was authentic.
The hypothetical presence of the cop pursuing us acted like a force field pushing us farther down the tracks and away from town. Pretty soon, we were farther than we’d ever been before.
The woods lining the tracks thinned out and revealed a pothole-covered street with a row of old storefronts. Only one of the businesses seemed to be occupied. Cracks spider-webbed through the building’s exposed foundation, and a sign over the door read “Tempest Gate Games.” Like ants responding to an identical chemical command, Toddy and I hurried towards the store.
The interior was crammed full of board games and toys, all looking very old and alien. Dust-covered Jack-in-the-Boxes marked with esoteric symbols, decks of playing cards with otherworldly suits, board games with dice that looked like they’d been carved from bones. Somewhere inside the store a radio played one of those witchy old Delta Blues tunes that sound like they’ve been fermenting inside the bayou for a thousand years.
We drifted apart from each other. A museum-like silence filled the place, so pristine and delicate that a single word might shatter it. No signs marked off the sections, but the items were collected into categories. Without consciously looking for it, I found myself in the area with role playing games.
Most of the gaming systems were foreign to me. Half of them weren’t even in English. But as I picked through the tomes, I found one Lords and Lairs gaming book. It was an entire module dedicated to a figure named Sir Drexler Impaler, Beheader of All That is Good and Innocent. On the cover, a blonde-haired man with blue-fire eyes and black sigils tattooed on his neck and emblazoned in his plate mail armor hoisted a sword into the stormy sky.
"What’s that?" Toddy asked over my shoulder. Without waiting for an answer, he snatched the book from me and opened it. Handwritten red words filled black pages. Picture after picture showed Sir Drexler Impaler massacring elves, dwarfs, and humans, always with the same malicious sneer on his face. The artwork was disturbingly graphic and gory, and twice I had to avert my eyes. Toddy just whistled. "Bad ass."
Some instinct compelled me to grab the book from him. It was that same reflex that takes over when you see a child about to stick their finger in an electrical socket. But, before I could reach it, a woman’s voice startled me. "Can I help you?"
I spun around to see a stocky, bearded woman watching us. As if sensing the discomfort I felt as I tried not to react too overtly to her facial hair, she started combing her fingers through the whiskers in long, thoughtful strokes.
"How much is this module?" Toddy asked. His eyes were still glued to the cover. I didn’t think he’d even actually looked at her yet.
"It’s not for sale."
Toddy scoffed. "You might want to consider refraining from putting things on your shelves that aren’t for sale. I’m no businessman, but I do believe that’s how businesses are usually run."
The woman tipped her head aside with a cocksure smile. "Smart mouth little punk, aren’t you?" For the first time, I noticed that her eyes were two different colors. The right was hazel while the left was blue. She snatched the book from Toddy’s hand. "This particular item doesn’t like being kept out of sight. That’s the only reason it’s out here."
Toddy scoffed again. Scoffing was sort of Toddy’s trademark move. "You talk like it’s a living thing."
The woman studied Toddy through her mismatched eyes. "Be careful the games you play, kid, or else the game might play you."
Toddy snickered. "Thanks for the bearded-lady wisdom, bearded lady."
"You’re welcome." She set the book back on the shelf.
Toddy nudged my shoulder. "Didn’t you want to check out that satanic Jack-in-the-Box?"
No, I had not, actually. The satanic Jack-in-the-Box actually creeped me the hell out. But Toddy knew that, too, and was really asking for a distraction. I knew it instantly. Best friends develop a psychic rapport with each other over time. A single flick of any eyelid can communicate worlds of information. Because I wanted to be a good pal, I asked to see the satanic Jack.
The woman led me over and took it down from the shelf. I turned the box’s crank until the monstrosity sprang out with its smashed pumpkin head and jagged teeth holding a pair of bloody garden shears.
"That’s the most terrifying toy I’ve ever seen," I said.
The woman belted out a deep, good-natured laugh. It was infectious, and I laughed a little, too. "Well, you’re the one who wanted to look at it."
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Toddy tuck the book into his jacket and walk around us to the front door. I honestly didn’t know that that was his intent upon manufacturing the distraction. I couldn’t pretend I hadn’t suspected the possibility, but I had hoped I was wrong.
"This place smells like dusty pee," Toddy said over his shoulder. "I’m out of here."
Shoplifting was the most serious crime I’d ever experimented with, and the guilt I carried over that bag of candy fish still affected me, almost a full year later. So, my first instinct upon seeing Toddy actually stealing the book was to shout at him. But of course I didn’t do that. I was sixteen years old, and he was my best friend.
The woman watched Toddy’s exit intently. She took the box out of my hands and pushed the Jack back inside. "Don’t go opening a monster box unless you’re ready to deal with the monster inside."
I started to tell her that Toddy wasn’t such a bad guy, but was frozen in place by the sight of her eyes. The right was blue, and the left was hazel. I could have sworn they’d been opposite just minutes before.
"The Jack is a hundred dollars," she said.
"That’s too expensive for my blood." I backed casually towards the door, fighting the instinct to run. "Thank you, though."
"De nada. My name is Olga, by the way."
I stopped at the door. "Mine is Sean."
She twisted her beard between her fingers and smiled. "We’re open seven days a week, Sean. Stop by any time."
It was a regular enough invitation to hear from a store owner, but the way she said it seemed to insinuate something deeper. I nearly asked her what it was, but then I remembered I was an accessory to shoplifting and decided to just get the hell out of there.
Toddy stood in the middle of the train tracks with the module in hand.
"Great, man," I said. "You’re a thief now. That’s cool."
Toddy shrugged. "I would have bought it if she was selling."
"It’s not up to you to decide."
"Excuse me, fan of Bearded Lady, but you stole worms once, if I do recall."
We headed back home, not saying much. Toddy held the module loosely in his hand. It swung back and forth beside me like a scythe, Sir Drexler’s blue-fire eyes holding relentlessly on mine.
The girl’s hands wrestle nervously in her lap like blind, albino spiders as she watches us from the rear of a crowded audience. Her eyes follow us hungrily. She’s going to join us after the show. I know it. I’ve learned to spot girls like her almost immediately. It’s not difficult to do, really. I just look for the ones that remind me of myself when I was her age.
She looks sad and afraid, like most kids in dreamless coal towns. She sees a troupe of vibrant young women dancing in a world more beautiful than anything she’s ever imagined, and she sees a potential escape from her bleak destiny. There’s no way for her to know that it’s all a lie. Every last thread of it.
Pietro’s Shimmering Veil hangs before us like a wispy curtain as we dance. Colors ebb and flow in the deviled material as it visually transforms everything happening upon the stage. To the audience, it makes us dancers look like glowing, angelic ballerinas pirouetting through a world of soft fire and blossoming stars. The illusion is perfect. The truth it conceals is undetectable.
The audience doesn’t know the reality of our exhausted eyes or emaciated faces, nor the rags that ornament our bones. They can’t see the rats scuttling through the dank darkness around us. And, of course, they cannot see Pietro standing against the wall with his whispery seven-foot-frame, his surgical teeth, his silver medallion eyes gleaming as he gleefully plays at the air like a puppeteer pulling strings.
The poor little coal town girl suspects none of our deprivation. She sees only the dream that Pietro’s Veil creates. Just as I predicted, after our performance ends, she mills around waiting for the other villagers to leave.
Pietro senses her. He waits until the scene is clear and moves out the side door. As soon as he’s gone, we dancers turn to the floorboards.
Three of the girls grab the planks that we’d pulled free over prior months and set back loosely in their places at the fringes of the stage—our secret arsenal. A single nail juts out from the end of each one. I get to work on the fourth and final board.
The plank remains lodged in place, loose but refusing to come free. I worry that pulling too hard will alert Pietro. I’ve been punished once before, and I don’t know if I can survive that again.
No, that’s not true. I can survive anything. I will. Not only for me, but for the coal town girl and all the other dancers. I take a deep breath, brace my foot on the floor, and pull. This time, the plank gives.
Pietro doesn’t hear. He’s too busy charming the new girl. In the hypnotic gleam of his silver medallion eyes, her dreams are already growing from dancing to being wholly possessed by him, just as mine had. I look at the nail protruding from the end of my board. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever laid eyes on.
Fear and excitement fight for control of the dancers’ faces as we take our positions. More than either of those emotions, though, is a rage that lights their exhausted eyes like pagan’s bonfires.
Two of the girls pad over to each side of the doorway. Sonjita and I move to stand directly in front it, boards concealed behind our backs. The rest look on anxiously.
It would be easier to run, of course, but then some of us might not get away. Even if we did all manage to escape, Pietro would move on to find other girls. That is not an option. No one will ever be hurt by him again, neither friend nor stranger.
Pietro leads the newcomer by hand towards the stairs. Blood pounds in my ears. Bitter dryness coats my mouth. Through the terror, a grin forces its way onto my face. For a second, I wonder what Pietro’s corpse will look like wrapped up in his own Shimmering Veil. Can the cloth make even him beautiful?
We crouch in readiness as he nears the doorway. Two nails for the back of his knees. Two more for the silver medallion eyes from which he draws his power. Four nails in all.
Four nails for our beloved Pietro.
Sunday morning and Olympia, Washington’s Batdorf and Bronson coffeehouse is packed full of politicos in sharp suits pecking absently at laptops amidst a crowd of hipsters slouching with flair into leather recliners, flaunting the fact that they have nothing better to do.
I order a vanilla latte that is decorated with a floating cream heart by a surly girl who leaves my thank you conspicuously unacknowledged. I take a seat near a window. Beside me sits a large man in a navy blue suit and a young woman in business formal. The man has the biggest mustache I’ve ever seen that wasn’t on the face of a porn star or drug dealer. He doesn’t wear the mustache, I thought. The mustache wears him.
“The people in this country have lost their complex reasoning skills,” he grumbles. “People don’t know how to goddamn think anymore.” He jabs his finger at the side of his head over and over again as though trying to drive it through his own skull, but always at the last minute pulls himself back from the brink of self-destruction.
He realizes how loud his voice had become and lowers it, but soon works himself into a new diatribe about healthcare, taxes, and all of the dimwits in the country – by which he means, apparently, everyone but him.
The classically pretty young woman asks the mustache question after question, leaving her notebook open on the table before her but never writing anything down. She just grins and nods.
He doesn’t mean me when he talks about stupid people, her grin says. No, not me.
She has the look of a heady idealist just out of college, caught between the worlds of school and career. Her outfit is standard professional fare, but she still clings to the last vestiges of her tie-dyed integrity with a love bead bracelet, no makeup, and hair pulled back in a bun.
With the mustache raging on, I finish my coffee, scoff loudly, and walked out the door.
I look through the window as I pass to see him still talking. He watches me through the glass. I stare back until his eyes divert uncomfortably, and I feel a rush of petty victory.
As far as the young woman, all I can see is the back of her head as her brown bun bobs up and down with eager nodding, almost as if she's giving fellatio.
I feel sorry for her and head to the bus station.
My friend texted me the news. "Sit down and brace yourself," his message said. "I’ve got something very difficult to tell you."
A pause followed, probably only seconds, long enough at that point to have me ready to start hammering out demands for clarity. Or, perhaps, to even actually dial his number and call him!
"There’s a new bar where the Own Lee Place used to be."
My legs quivered. The world seemed to warp and bend around me. I fell to my knees and looked to the stars and howled. "Why, God? Why? Is nothing in this world sacred? Is nothing beyond death’s cold embrace?"
Okay, I didn’t really freak out that bad, but it really did suck. The Own Lee was more than a bar. It was a landmark, an murky oasis for ne’er-do-wells from all around the Clarks Summit area. People in town knew it universally as the Only Hole or, more often, just the Hole.
Turns out the bastards (by "bastards" I mean "new owners") had torn out the Own Lee’s smoldering, nicotine-stained heart and replaced it with something clean and fashionable. It was like hearing that a childhood friend had gotten a brain transplant. Yea, the body might be the same, but he’s not the person you once knew anymore. His soul is gone.
The Own Lee sat in the shadow of a clock tower at the corner of Depot and Spring Street, not far from the train tracks. Generation upon generation of cigarette smoke was soaked into the walls, giving the place an ancient aroma. You knew who had been there on any given night just by the smell that followed them. It lingered in clothes and hair for days. It’s been ten years since I’ve been in that place, but I swear I still sometimes catch whiffs of the Hole coming out through my pores. The new owners had to gut the whole interior of the bar just to get rid of the stench.
You want to know what kind of place the mighty, mighty Own Lee was? Every summer night when the carnival was in town, carneys would fill the bar. Dozens of them. There were many bars closer to the carnival grounds, yet the carneys always wound up there. That’s what kind of place the Own Lee was: carneys flowed there instinctively like salmon returning to the place from which they’d spawned.
And perhaps they did spawn there. Who knows, really, what manner of man or beast was born from the Hole's smokey redds.
People routinely got into fist fights over the Eagles and Giants in that bar. Cowboys jerseys nearly got multiple men killed.
The pool table, for some completely inexplicable reason, had blue felt with a rainbow strip around the edges. We affectionately called it the “gay pride pool table.”
The jukebox had W.C. McCall’s “Convoy” and, on many a night, the song could be heard filling the air.
There was no stage for the live bands. The musicians just stood and played on the floor, democratic as hell, eye to eye with the crowd.
Yea, maybe it was just another small town dive bar, but no matter how hard I try to keep this piece humorous and absurd, a bit of real melancholy keeps sneaking into my belly.
Some damn good people had some damn good times there. The Own Lee produced a lot of laughs. It produced a lot of friends.
Plenty of the nights I spent there were ones that I wished I could take back the morning after. I left many hours of embarrassing dancing in that place. It was, without a doubt, a house of bad decisions. Looking back now, though, knowing that it’s gone, I wish I could have one last hurrah at the Hole.
It would be one of those bitterly cold Northeast Pennsylvania winter nights. I’d open the door and see the Foot, that giant of a man, standing there. I’d take my wallet to show my ID and he’d just laugh.
In the backroom Wade Rose is singing “Friend of the Devil” while pool balls crack together in perfect tune to the music. Kevin’s there behind the bar, stoic as always, unreadable. Happy, sad, or mad, his face just saying, “meh.”
I’d order a Jack and Coke and take it to the end of the bar, back by the pinball machines and dart board, and I’d sit down and look out past the neon sighs in the window at the clock tower standing in the snow like Time itself looming over us all. People'd flow in through the door, old friends and strangers, everyone smiling, everyone having a good time.
I’d just sit there for a long time letting my buzz settle in. There isn’t any hurry. There’s a whole night ahead, and nights like that last as close to forever as any mortal man’s ever going to get. And that's how it would end, poised forever on the razor's edge of infinity, the warm promise of a night full of madness and bad dancing.
Of course, that one more night is just a fool’s dream. We can never go back. Things that die stay dead.
The Own Lee’s hours were numbered from the moment the foundation was set. All our lives are. The clock starts ticking the second we’re born. The only thing that really separates any of us is how many rolls of the dice we get before both sides come up blank.
Every moment we get is a blessing. That sounds like some Hallmark Special bullshit, but it’s true, and we all know it.
Of those many finite moments of my finite life, more than a few were spent laughing in the Only Hole. And you know what? It was time goddamn well spent.
So, here’s to everyone I ever shared a drink with at the Own Lee. Here’s to everyone I ever head-butted there (sorry about that, by the way). I liked most of you and loved a few. Some of you I truly despised, but this isn’t the time or place for all that. Only an asshole argues at a funeral.
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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Bell, Vareen M. “The Ambiguous Nihilism of Cormac McCarthy.” The Southern Literary Journal 15.2 (1983): 31-41. Print.
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Spencer, William C. “The Seventh Direction, or Suttree's Vision Quest.” In Myth, Legend, Dust: Critical Responses to Cormac McCarthy. Ed. Wallach, Rick. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press (2000): 100-107. Print.
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Thoreau, Henry David. Walden and Civil Disobedience. Ed. Sherman Paul, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Riverside Press (1957): 62–63.
Wallach, Rick. “Ulysses in Knoxville: Suttree’s Aegean Journey.” Appalachian Heritage. 39.1 (2011): 51-58.
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Walcutt, Charles Child. “The Soundings of Moby Dick.” Arizona Quarterly 24.2 (1968): 101-116. Literature Resource Center. Web. December 3, 2012.
Woodward, Richard B. “Cormac McCarthy’s Venomous Fiction.” The New York Times. Web. December 4, 2012.
Bloom, Harold. Cormac Mccarthy. New York, NY: Bloom's Literary Criticism, 2009. Print.
Cant, John. Cormac Mccarthy and the Myth of American Exceptionalism. New York: Routledge, 2008. Print.
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Cooper, Lydia R. No More Heroes: Narrative Perspective and Morality in Cormac Mccarthy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2011. Print.
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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.