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You find out about people like Nigel in little bits and pieces, anyway. It happens while you’re wondering whether the hills might in another country look like white elephants until here you are stuck in Nigel’s mother’s house on a Monday afternoon drinking tea and thinking maybe Nigel’s right—maybe fence posts are better than shepherds—maybe Nixon was really a good man and Sharon Tate is still alive and working as a stripper in one of the better nightclubs in Atlanta.
But the facts are also nevertheless the facts. Nigel had never been able to keep a job for more than a few months, and he was thirty-four the nine months that I knew him. Nigel had no friends except other drunks and not often even these, to be honest. The more Nigel disliked people the more he was despised, of course, in kind. Nigel had been in the state hospital at least once and had anyway described to you the episode of breakdown, which, not unlike good sex, simultaneously frightened and excited you. He constantly thought people were stealing his tapes of Irish drinking songs; he imagined he had illnesses doctors told him right before you he didn’t have; he had a history of fist-fights that went back to kindergarten; and in any case there were stars in his eyes you could actually see—stars you could nearly cut out with a knife and use for refrigerator magnets. There were stars in Nigel’s eyes you could paste into the little green scrapbook you kept for character sketches—stars that told the undeniable truth about him: that he’d been damaged beyond repair by his life—maybe when his father committed suicide when he was still a very little boy or when his step-father asked to see his erection when he was a teenager so he (the step- father) could foretell Nigel’s fate with it. Who knew and who could say and what kind of person were you to be wondering? Just run, sister: put Nigel safe away in your mental notebook and think about him later when you can more safely feel the guilt for gossiping about someone so low-down and lost.
(More horrible even than the character scrapbook might be your lack of guilt for hating Nigel now that he’s just a memory—your compulsion to bathe from talking about him and then remove your clothes and lay down with your husband in the big bed and pray—a feeling which leads you straightaway to one of the many ultimate questions: how is it possible to miss the fact that a man is off his rocker until it’s almost too late? Should you leave the man or attempt to heal him? Is this contempt you feel in your belly all right or does it mean you have no heart?)
Because just that quick there’s another one: your husband’s father untold in the distance of your husband’s bleak childhood eating Saltine crackers in the van while he—your husband with the soft sandy hair—eats as a little boy with his head down beside his mother in the roadside cafe. Because the father ate crackers on vacations to save himself the dime a sandwich would cost. And pulled Big Wheels and cookie sheets out of dumpsters and refused to let his wife do any grocery shopping and sent (with complaints about the cost of potato chips) any friends she may have had running the other direction. And could have closed the heating vent into your husband’s boyhood room and jogged in the afternoons after work while the light cowered in the corners of the little house until he could safely return to the T.V. with which he could fill his head hour after hour while your little boy husband watched from his blue eyes and took note of every non-move, every in-take of non-speak that your father-in-law would inflict upon him like a punch.
Because later it would return, as always heartbreak returns, and so your husband would tell it to you in bed one story at a time—this epic of how a man loses or tosses his soul to the windy wolves until the only thing left is the writer wondering what’s wrong with her to be pondering to this pathological extent what makes us lose our minds, since it’s obvious, isn’t it? Our mothers, our fathers, the way they fight in the messy kitchen—the amount of religion or the lack of vodka, the tent revivals and the K-mart sweaters piled up in the bedroom one on top of another like playing cards depicting the years passing by to the faint tune of an off-key marching band. Because it couldn’t be more clear, now could it? That the father’s father was distant and a drunk and for all we know may have used his fists; that the father-in-law was one of sixteen children and a small man, really, and unable to sing and only privately (in the backyard, with the rake in his hand) to dance—unable to smile, unable to talk—a man made brutal and then mute by the brutal, brutal world.
If one wonders at this juncture about the difference between the merely eccentric (Richard Simmons, you know: Jackson Pollock and Albert Einstein and Jimi Hendrix) and the crazy, remember what F. Scott Fitzgerald in “The Crack Up” says about himself right before he says he cracks: “I couldn’t stand the sight of Celts, English, Politicians, Strangers, Virginians, Negroes (light or dark), Hunting People, or retail clerks, and middlemen in general.” So contempt for the whole of humanity might be a clue, as well as the inability to at least make civil with the earthlings. My husband’s father, for instance, was recently asked by his neighbors to remove the aluminum cans he’d been collecting in bags against the side of his house for more than twenty years, and so with nothing to say to anyone he piled them in the back seat and trunk of his car and took them to the salvage yard, where he got paid some secret amount of money for handing them over, which to his mind no doubt established once and for all their undeniable worth as well as the wrong-headedness of tossing anything at all away, this comma included.
If it were just that—just that he had money issues (as she, the writer/voyeur, is so fond of calling them) that could be traced to the abundance of his siblings and the consequential poverty of his childhood— it (he) would not be so disturbing. She’d give him money for Christmas—she’d put money on his plate for Thanksgiving, right between the relish and the stuffing—she’d save up for his visits, buy everything herself, get a job doing graveyard at The Home Shopping Network. But what about his bowed head, the spell his tranquilizers cast, how absent he is from himself? What about the way he sits in a dark corner of her at least moderately attractive and certainly welcoming living room and picks his head until it bleeds and says nothing, nothing, nothing at all?
copyright 2015 Adrian Blevins
— Photo by Brendan Ó., courtesy Apple