By Antoine Wilson
Houghton Mifflin HarcourtCopyright © 2012 Antoine Wilson
All right reserved.
tape 1, sides a & b
If you set aside love and friendship and the bonds of family, luck, religion, and spirituality, the desire to better mankind, and music and art, and hunting and fishing and farming, self-importance, and public and private transportation from buses to bicycles, if you set all that aside money is what makes the world go around. Or so it is said. If I wasn’t dying prematurely, if I wasn’t dying right now, if I was going to live to ripeness or rottenness instead of meeting the terminus bolted together and wrapped in plaster in the Madera Community Hospital, if I had all the time in the world, as they say, I would talk to you first of all about the joys of cycling or the life of the mind, but seeing as I could die any minute, just yesterday Dr. Singh himself said that I was lucky to be alive, I was unconscious and so didn’t hear it myself, Carmen told me, I’ll get down to so-called brass tacks.
First of all, ignore common advice such as a fool and his money are soon parted. Parting with money is half the pleasure, and earning it is the other half, there is no pleasure in holding on to it, that only stiffens the vitality, especially in large amounts, though the world will advise you otherwise, being full of people who would make plaster statues of us. Second, I haven’t made knowledge of my life yet, I’m only twenty-eight years old, when you get to be my age you’ll know how young that is, and if you’re a man of the world by then I salute you, the road isn’t wide or straight. Everything you need to know is contained in my experience somewhere, that’s my philosophy, but I’m afraid you’re going to have to make the knowledge out of it yourself. The world operates according to a mysterious logic, Juan-George, I want to illustrate some of its intricacies, so that you can stand on the shoulders of giants, not, as Paul Renfro used to say, the shoulders of ants.
For the first twenty-seven years of my life nothing happened to me. I rode my bicycle into town every day from our patch of wilderness, I rode into Madera and asked my friends if they had any work for me, everyone called me Mayor, even Tony Adinolfi, who was the real mayor, called me Mayor. Then came my so-called mistake. On the day in question I was working a construction job in Madera, or rather it was a demolition job, I was carting wheelbarrows of drywall out of a house, it is a strange thing to remove the walls from the inside of a house. At some point I noticed that my bicycle, this was my blue-flake three-speed Schwinn with the leather saddlebags, a fine machine that made the softest burring sound along the asphalt roads of Madera County, I noticed it was missing. It had happened before, it was fine with me, except this time whoever took it didn’t return it to the job site by the end of the working day and so I had to head home on foot. The construction guys were going to a bar, and I avoid bars, when you’re six and a half feet tall, drunk people always want to fight you or try to take your binoculars. Our patch of wilderness was some miles outside town on a road that didn’t lead anywhere good, there was never anybody to hitch a ride from. I walked with my hands clasped behind my back, you should always walk with your hands behind your back unless you are carrying something. People who walk with their arms swinging look like apes, my philosophy.
I noticed some gnats zigzagging over a culvert, a nearby tree let some sunlight through, it carved a cube of light out of the shade, the gnats seemed to like having it to themselves. I was watching the gnats when a vehicle appeared on the road, coming the opposite way, it was the Alvarez brothers’ pickup. Hector and Mike were two of my oldest friends, still are. Whenever we saw each other on that road we played a game called chicken, but usually I was on my bike, usually it was me and my bike that ended up in the ditch. This time Mike saw me in the road and even though I was on foot he steered that truck toward me and gunned the engine. He drove straight at me, he stayed on course until Hector’s grin turned into a look of terror, Mike’s stayed a grin, and I leaped into the ditch just in time to avoid getting hit. I dusted myself off, Greg Yerkovich and some girls were laughing in the back. Once Greg saw that I was okay, once he saw that I’d gotten up just fine, he flipped me the bird, which was our traditional hello and goodbye gesture. He tapped the back window and Mike spun the tires, gravel pinging the wheel wells like crazy. Then they were gone, leaving behind only the smell of burning oil, that head gasket was done for. I just kept on walking home. We had been playing chicken so long it had become a matter of routine, I mean no matter what happened I always ended up in the ditch, there was no real game to it, I was always the chicken.
It was getting late, the sun was dipping behind me so that my shadow grew larger and larger in front of me until it became one with the general darkness. Eventually I saw the house, or I saw the blue glow of the television in the front window, the roof was a black line dividing it from the stars. I don’t like watching television, you’re always bouncing around from one person to the next, back and forth and looking at everything from all angles, I don’t know how anybody can watch television, it seems like they made it for hummingbirds, but your grandfather George loved television, especially when he stopped leaving the house, he was always trying to convince me to watch television, he said it was my ticket to the world, he always talked about me knowing something of the world, he said you can go everywhere with television from the comfort of your own chair. I’ve never been able to watch more than five minutes without getting a headache. I should be clear that it was his body that decided to stop leaving the house, he was only a passenger in his body, his words. After he stopped leaving the house he watched a lot of television and worked on a Letter to the Editor, and I brought groceries and supplies home on my bicycle. I became a sort of caretaker to your grandfather, though I never thought about it that way until he was gone and people began to worry that he wasn’t going to be around to take care of me. As usual, they had it backwards.
I walked toward the glowing light of the television and tripped over something in the tall grass, namely my bicycle. Everything was in working order, the grass was wet but the bicycle was dry, meaning it hadn’t been sitting there long, so I knew who had taken it from the construction site, mystery solved, and as I rolled it to the porch I thought about what I would say to the Alvarez brothers, starting with they should check to see if I’m still in town before going through the trouble of returning my bicycle to the house, which was why I was distracted, which was why my thoughts were turned inward as they say when I walked into the house and saw your grandfather George’s chair empty with only his impression in it, like an invisible man. He was, or his body was, lying on the floor, the side of his face was on the carpet, one arm was under him and the other was straight out to the side. I touched him to make sure he wasn’t sleeping but it was obvious his body lacked what Scott Valdez of the Lighthouse Christian Fellowship later called a soul, the visible form of a soul being muscle tone. I got a spoon from the kitchen to be sure, held it under his nose, no fog. I left the spoon right there on the floor and went upstairs to my room. I crawled under my blankets and breathed my own air for a while, which Dr. Armando Rosenkleig later called an impressively effective homespun technique for processing feelings, his words.
When I went downstairs again my head was a black box. Many people have tried to explain my actions to me since that night and I have come to realize that what I did was surprising and even shocking to some people, but I need you to know that I was only respecting his wishes. Your grandfather had always wanted to be buried on our patch of wilderness, it was his wish to be put into the earth next to Ajax and Atlas, hunting dogs he called them, though they had never hunted a day in their lives. He used to take me outside when he was still going outside and he’d stomp his good foot and say that whatever those cretins did to this great world of ours he would be right here rotting away, stomp stomp, and there was nothing they could do about that. He was wrong, at first, but then he was right, which is better than the other way around. I had many feelings, I was overwhelmed with feelings, of course, but my actions came from duty and love and respect, not from feelings, or any hidden motive, or, obviously, but it must be mentioned in light of what came after, anything criminal. My mistake was simple, my mistake was not picking up the telephone, my mistake was picking up a shovel instead of a telephone in a moment of blind grief, or so Officer Mary put it while advocating on my behalf, her words. In fact there was no mistake, his wishes were respected, then and eventually, if they hadn’t second-guessed me, your grandfather wouldn’t have had to move around so much after he died. Also in fact I did not pick up a shovel but went out to the garage, the night air smelled like manure and almonds, I went out to the garage, which was full of wine making equipment and wood and tools, and I set about making a suitable box, a coffin, for your grand¬father’s final rest, there was nothing hasty about it, I wasn’t overcome by anything.
I am handy with wood, it is one of my qualities, and so I was able to make a suitable box out of scrap plywood reinforced with some better pieces from the wood set aside for grapevine stakes. Your grandfather’s dream, or more accurately your grandfather and grandmother’s dream, had been to make a vineyard there. I dragged him across the living room and into the kitchen, one of his loafers slid off at the threshold, I returned it to his foot. I went upstairs and got his Rotary pins and pinned them to his shirt, he hadn’t attended a meeting in ages but he always took good care of the pins. I’m not ¬going to describe the struggle it was to get him into the box or to get the box, which was then a coffin, into the hole, which was then a grave. I had to dig out a ramp and slide it down the incline, I dug all night to make that grave, stopping only to breathe my own air in my bed when I needed what Dr. Rosenkleig would later call emotional management. I don’t want to subject you to the feelings I had when I combed his hair and kissed his forehead before laying the plywood on top, I can only tell you that I didn’t want to say goodbye, I wasn’t ready. Hammering the same nail into the same wood with the same hammer feels different when you’re building a suitable box than when you’re securing the lid on a coffin. Your grandfather had more wisdom and knowledge in him than anyone I had ever met, now it was all gone, all that was left was his Letter to the Editor, which he had been writing for some time at his typewriter onto a continuous piece of computer paper we had bought at a discount auction back when he was still going out. The paper came out of one box, got covered in words, far too many for me to read, my gift has always been gab, and into another box, page after page of words, covering who knows how many topics and subjects, the whole of it preserved in that box, he kept meaning to send it, but then the next day’s Bee would arrive and a whole new set of offenses, his words, would come to his attention. I pulled some flowers from around the yard, the sun was lightening the horizon, I picked a handful of flowers and threw them onto the coffin, there was some comfort in that. I said a few words in my head, I didn’t say them out loud, I thought about all of the words other people might say, I had never been to a funeral before, I kept it simple, I said goodbye to your grandfather, then I replaced the dirt. When I was done I went around the house and sat on the front steps and thought about what would make a dignified marker for his grave.
[Hissing sound.] When your mother, that was your mother, that was Carmen, when she sits in her chair all the air goes out through tiny holes in the stitching. Last night whenever she got up for the bathroom, which was often, you push on her bladder, she says you like to keep her moving, whenever she came back and sat in the chair, hissing snakes and punctured tires invaded my dreams, it was not restful sleep, I dreamed that the air was going out of my life. This afternoon I asked her to fetch from the house this cassette recorder and the only cassettes I own, both gifts from Scott Valdez of the Lighthouse Fellowship down in Panorama City, and at first it looked like the cassettes weren’t going to work, but Felix the orderly showed us how to put medical tape over the tabs so we could record over them, he did only one, he crossed himself after, he said Carmen would have to do the rest, he couldn’t be a party to recording over the word of God. Your mother laughed and said it would be the least of her sins, and Felix repeated that he didn’t want to be involved. You’ll be able to find the word of God anywhere if you’re so inclined, Juan-George, hotel rooms for instance, just don’t expect him to make sense. She’s shaking her head at me now, the fluorescent lights are gleaming off her golden smile, or off some of her teeth, which are gold and some regular, she has nothing but tenderness in her eyes, your unluckiness in never meeting your father will be made up for by having her for a mother. She’s still shaking her head at me, the smile is gone.
Dawn broke, I watched the house’s shadow shrink toward me as the sun rose in the sky. The postman pulled up in a cloud of dust. Wilfredo drove his own truck with a postal service magnet on the side, the post office van gave him lumbar pain and motion sickness, especially on rural roads, his words. He drove up on the wrong side of the road and his arm was like a blimp delivering the mail from his window to the box, I mean his arm was fat but moved with fluidity. He kept his steering wheel almost flat like a bus driver to accommodate his belly. He was the busiest person I knew in Madera, driving around with mail to deliver and business to attend to, but he always made a point to take the time out to talk with me and your grandfather, usually he and I talked about bicycles, Wilfredo had been a champion bicycle racer before the glandular problems. I waved for him to stop a second and made my way over to the mailbox, I asked him if he knew anything about marking a grave, which didn’t seem momentous but was probably the beginning of the end of my life as Mayor. He left the truck in the road with the door open, his seat was covered with a wood bead mat and the cushion underneath was like the edge of a pancake. I had seen him out of his truck only once, it was at a grocery store in town, he was in the produce section leaning on the lettuce fridge, sweating.
When Wilfredo walked his whole body moved from side to side like he was still pedaling for the championship. We went around to the back of the house. I had left the dirty shovel leaning against the wall, Wilfredo’s eyes were glued to it, he avoided looking at the ground, he would only peek at the dirt for a second and then his eyes would go back to the shovel. He pulled a cloth out of his back pocket and wiped his forehead and upper lip and asked whether it had been an accident or natural causes. I told him how I had found your grandfather, I told him about the empty chair and the television, and your grandfather’s body on the floor, and the lack of muscle tone. After which he seemed relieved, he said that an accidental death would have been a big problem. Even so he said that life was about to become more difficult for me, and he was sorry to have to be a part of that. I felt it in my guts, I didn’t have the words for it, which is rare, I usually have the words for everything, I felt that Wilfredo and I were never going to talk about bicycles again.
Wilfredo said he had to get going, he was late on his route, he had to get the mail to people. I watched him walk back to his truck, his body twisting from side to side. I sat at the kitchen table and I noticed there were flies all over the fly strip, they had met their fates. I took down the fly strip. I opened the windows at the front of the house and the back of the house so flies could pass through unimpeded, though I didn’t think of the word unimpeded, I hadn’t yet met Paul Renfro who taught me that word. It struck me that Wilfredo had run away. He had run away like a child. Pay attention in school, Juan-George, anyone will tell you that’s good advice, but they don’t say that you should pay attention to your classmates most of all. How they act is how they will act when they grow up, only they’ll be able to disguise it better, pay attention in school and you will be able to see through the disguises. Wilfredo had run away like a boy in the school yard, which surprised me when I realized it, he and your grandfather had always been friendly. I couldn’t understand why Wilfredo wouldn’t ¬apply himself to the problem of marking your grandfather’s grave in a dignified way. I pictured him on his route, delivering the mail, continuing on, but I couldn’t picture it clearly, and when I can’t picture something clearly I know it isn’t going to come to pass.
Excerpted from Panorama City by Antoine Wilson Copyright © 2012 by Antoine Wilson. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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