This Music, Excerpt II

 

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Marysville, winter 1962

Fred

When Fred got off the bus in Marysville in the early Spring of 1962, he walked first to the store; maybe he would be able to walk straight up to Jug and unload his troubles. The his mother's family name, Kavenaugh, was in green on an opaque wine pink that Jug had bought at a bargain to paint the exterior. Inside the aisles were congested with January bargain hunters. Fred always remembered the store from summer when he was a schoolboy on vacation; then the aisles between the barrels of nuts and bolts had the length and hardwood emptiness of bowling alleys. He always felt as he hurried toward the store that he would be safe there; but inside he felt an urgency to get to the end of the aisles.

His father's office had been behind a glass partition at the end of one of the aisles. Inside it had been quiet and uncluttered with a large old desk. Now it was a display place for power spray equipment.

In the new offices, the secretary said his father was "at the ranch" and his brother was out on the floor with a wholesaler. His sister-in-law, Undine, had been a secretary there.

Fred found his brother in a crowded intersection. He was gesturing to two other men who watched him attentively. With one hand he pointed at bags of seed. He held purchase requisitions with three fingers of his other hand and poked the first up his nose. He was fat; his black curly hair was greasy with oil like the sweat of commerce, the oil that the constant pressure of money drives out of the brow the way the sun drives salt water with the composition of tears out of the poor. Fred breathed a sigh of contempt and armed himself with his sharp knowledge of the difference between himself and his brother in order to step close in the eye of the world to this vulgar, dirty-fingered man. The heads of a buyer and seller bobbed and nodded as if connected by strings to Jug's hands. With one raised finger, Jug made a sign for Fred to wait. Fred obeyed. Jug's power of personality did not arise from real character, Fred told a skeptical interlocutor in the dialogue of his mind.

Jug patted the two up the aisle toward the door. He walked back to where Fred stood. Jug put his hand on Fred’s shoulder as if Fred were another salesman. Fred stood. "What brings you back among us hicks, sonny boy?" Jug said.

"I just came up to see the folks."

"Have you heard the one about the Legionnaire in China town?"

"I guess not," Fred said.

Jug drew him between two piles of sheets. "This guy is from Ohio, see, and all his life he wanted to eat some Chinese pussy. So finally the Legion convention is in San Francisco, and he figures now's his chance, so he gets elected delegate and comes out here. And he tells all his friends this is his chance. And he gets out here and he finds a house in Chinatown. He gets in there and eats out that old yellow pussy and really has a great time, you know. And he gets back with the other guys at the hotel and he tells them what a great time he had and how he's glad that he's satisfied this dream. But after a while they begin to notice that he's acting a little nervous. Then he says that he's got to go back to the cat house. So one of them asks him if he thinks he's left something behind there, but he says no, "you know how that Chinese stuff is, it's great while you eat it, but an hour later you're hungry again." Jug slapped his knee with one hand and poked Fred in the stomach with the other. Fred managed to laugh.

Fred came into the living room to find that his mother had responded to her first gray hairs by bleaching her hair white, buying a white carpet for the living room, and a blond piano. Irma Meuf was lying on her couch in a cream sweater and black slacks. She greeted him: "That dirty old raincoat is perfectly charming, do take it off."

Fred told himself that the two of them were part of a conspiracy against ordinariness, and that her remark suddenly made the raincoat no longer part of him, but something he had taken off for them to mock together. Smiling, he started to lay the tattered coat on the blond piano, thought better of it, and turned away to put it in the entrance closet.

"And how are all of your many friends at the university?" Irma asked behind him. Fred turned back and sat down.

"Okay, I guess," he said. Suddenly the whole scene seemed halfway unreal and dream-like. The rain seemed the only real sound. In a moment he realized it was because his voice was so deep. Whenever he has been away from his family house for a long time, the first time he heard his voice it sounded so deep it must be the voice of a threatening stranger. His feeling of reality snapped back.

"I suppose," Irma said, "it is the principal function of young people in universities to be okay."

Fred got up again and put his muddy shoes in the entranceway closet, then came back and sat down with his feet up on the coffee table. "Don't tell them that," he said.

"Whatever do you mean?" she said, taking her cigarette holder out of her mouth for the first time.

"Aw, you know. There are always guys who take things, you know, grades or politics or girls, so serious that when something goes wrong they think it's the end of the world."

The lady with the white cigar sneered. Fred told himself, in his inner dialogue, that she was approving. "How are those dear people who sit in the cafe where you and Bob live?"

Irma and her sister, India, had come to see him when he wasn't home. While waiting, they had struck up a conversation in the cafe. Fred wished to god they hadn't. Fred had imagined admitting to her: I go with a girl who is friends with them all, but he had avoided it so far.

"I remember a pleasant young man who asserted most forcefully something like, ‘Nono has gone beyond common sense ins the pursuit of stochastic abstraction.’ Is ‘no no’ a person or a refusal?"

"Don't ask me," Fred said.

"And an attractive young man defended ‘no no’? What has happened to them?"

"They're all still in the same vacuum-sealed can of nuts," Fred said.

Undine, Jug's wife, and Mrs. Peccary, Irmaís closest neighbor-friend dropped in without knocking.

"I heard you were here," Undine cried.

Mrs. Peccary ignored Fred. "Irma, you should have been to the fashion show at Penny's," Mrs. Peccary cried, "you hardly go out anymore."

Undine bustled into her chair and drew up her skirt around her plump knees the way she drew down the corners of her mouth.

"If I hardly go out, I hardly need fashion," Irma said. She lifted one thin, tightly velveted leg to show that in the home slacks were as unimpeachable as Dior.

"Well, I'm not sure you could go out in those...I mean, they would hamper your movements so," Undine said.

"Undine believes I have movements," Irma said to Fred. "I only have quickness."

"You guys going to be home for the weekend?" Fred asked Undine.

"No, we're going to Tahoe tonight. We'll be back late Sunday afternoon. You could stop by then. You could come to dinner."

"Yes, I wouldn't mind if it's okay with you," Fred told Undine.

"My goodness," Undine said, "what brought this on?"

"Just feeling brotherly." Fred became uneasy. Inside himself he said no to a charge that it was demeaning and disgusting for him to listen to brittle feminine chatter.

"I guess Iíll go and clean up now, and do some studying," he said loudly.

His mother smiled at him. He almost heard, in his mind, her saying something devastating. Of course she would devastate them, not him, he silently told himself.

"I guess he's been caught associating with his relatives," Undine giggled.

The sound of the shower shut out the sounds of the house. Fred began to review the progress he had made toward telling Jug, almost as if he were reviewing the muscles of the face. He had not really had an opportunity in the store. Yet, he could have made an opportunity. It was also like trying to contract his irises by will. There was a common effort of will, which seemed at once too easy to be a struggle (why should it matter?), and also impossible. He denied a reproach inside himself that it was only because of his weakness, yet his denial had no body. Now he would have to wait until Jug came back from Reno. He actually felt impatient; he could calmly say aloud what had happened. He considered getting out of the shower and hurrying down to the store where he could probably catch Jug. No, that would call attention to himself. Then, like learning the first muscle, he returned to the Sunday dinner and actually began to imagine drawing aside Jug and telling him. He suddenly felt scared to death; he felt a rush of fear like the rush of water on his naked body. He felt he could not speak to Jug of this...doing that, no matter what the consequences of his silence. He set his jaw and promised himself that he would. Sometimes inside him something told him he wouldn't. He denied his weakness, but he could catch no timber in the voice of his strength, as if he were hearing someone speak on the telephone with a handkerchief over the mouthpiece.

His sister Judith was at dinner. She looked, as usual, like a starlet. Yet her face was too hard; a German starlet. Fred imagined her privately asking him ‘Has your character formed yet?’ and his answering, ‘I don't paint my face and hang out my tits like suet for a crow.’

His father came late, after the family was half through. "The delightful thing about roast lamb and potatoes," Irma always said, "is that you can leave it in the oven for latecomers." Fred’s father was muddy from head to foot. He flopped into his chair.

"What kind of an example do those mineral-rich khaki’s set for your descendants?"

"The example of hopeless labor," Mr. Meuf replied briefly. He cut some chunks of meat, interrupted himself to get a beer from the icebox, and flopped down again.

"Well, aren't you even going to say hello to my brother," Judith said.

"Hi, Dad," Fred said.

"How are those irrepressible fig trees?" Irma asked brightly.

"Better than we deserve," Mr. Meuf said.

"Oh, I'm glad." Judith said. She got up and patted her father on the cheek.

Fred remembered his mother saying, ‘Physical contact is for minerals, not people.’ and pictured Judith pouting her lips. He told himself that he should not concern himself with such things.

At about 11:00, Judith came into his room and sat on the bed beside his study table. He was angry with her and remembered a hundred times saying in high school. ‘You know you're not supposed to disturb me.’ He did not speak or move.

After a while, she said, "my psychiatrist told me something really important about myself."

Fred had forgotten about her psychiatrist. "You're wasting her time," he said.

"I'm too extreme."

"What the fuck does that mean?"

"When I do things, I can't just do them by halves; I have to go the whole way; I have to dig their essence." She leaned forward to him.

He glanced at her for the first time. Although she was wearing an old shirt of fathers, her manner was a woman in a low dress showing off the crack between her breasts. "Like what things?" he said.

"Like reading all of Dostoyevski."

"Gosh, have you?" he said spontaneously.

"I'm doing it."

"Like what else?"

"Like playing the flower girl."

"The flower girl?"

"The flower girl, the flower girl, you dolt, I'm playing the flower girl in The Mad Woman of Chiot. I wrote you."

"Is that why you have green makeup on?"

"The others in the show are just playing their parts. They're really just pretending, but I'm doing more."

"Be serious. You're just pretending too. You're no Parisian." Fred said.

"You're right. You're right about that. You said a sensitive thing for once in your life."

"It doesn't take sensitivity to see you're no flower girl...you’re too fat."

"But I am pretending. I'm pretending more than the others. I'm digging into her; I'm getting into every last corner of the past. When I lie in bed at night, I am aware of her soul."

Fred did not look up from his anatomy. "You're such a nut." he said.

"Like kissing men?" she said.

"Oh, yeah?" Since when have you taken that up?" His sister's chastity rubbed him the wrong way.

"I haven't. That's the point. Don't you understand anything?"

"No."

"If I kissed some man, I mean really kissed him, I would have to go to bed with him. The Catholics are right about that."

"Well, that's been done."

"But I mean it's huge. You can't just do it, not if you have to do it all the way, like I do."

He looked at his sister. "Its not huge," he said, "you just do it."

"I'm sure I’d get pregnant." With the words she crossed her hands under her breasts and lifted them.

Fred felt fragmented and uncomfortable. "That's been done too," he said. The words felt funny; he was not sure for a moment if he had spoken them aloud or only in the dialogue of his thoughts.

Judith jumped up, pulled him around by the shirt front as she had when he was twelve and she was bigger than he was. "What have you done?" she yelled at him.

Everything he could imagine saying lacked conviction.

"What have you done, you bastard. What have you done to some poor girl like me?"

Fred still could not answer. He burned with shame and anger at how she treated him like a child.

"Have you? You really have, haven't you?"

"Yes, damn it, I have," he said.

"When is her time? Are you going to marry her?"

"She doesn't have a time. She's not going to have it."

"You beast," Judith said loudly.

"Shut up. Do you want the house to hear?"

"She's got to have it," she said more quietly, almost whining. "You bastard, what have you made her do?"

"I haven't made her do anything. I have enough character not to make people do things. We agreed."

"You agreed! How could she agree not to be a woman? She's got to want to have babies."

What a drag his sister was.

"Are you going to do it?" Judith asked.

"Jesus, no, do you think I'm a butcher?"

"You're a zombie like the rest of the family." Judith said. "You're a zombie. You don't want to feel anything and you don't want to be anything."

"They'd kick me out of premed so fast that I’d be gone before I started."

"You spineless creep," Judith said, "you got her into this; you ought to get her out."

"You make me sick," Fred said. He stood up. He felt sick. "You make me sick, shut up or get your ass out."

"You want me to go away?" Judith said.

"You said it!"

"You can't stand to have me tell you these things?"

"Cut the crap or do you want me to throw you out?"

"Yes, yes, I want you to throw me out."

He grabbed her by the shoulders, but she shook away. He grabbed her again by the shoulder and put his hand on the small of her back. He swung her around toward the door like a dancer. He held her tightly against him while he opened the door, then he let loose and shoved her out. The moment he let loose of her, she began to pound his chest with her fists, but when he closed the door between them she did not try to reenter. He thought of holding Lolly in his arms when she wept. He thought then of their endless scuffles in childhood, which Judith always won. He sat down again at the anatomy book. The fine structure of the nerves seemed a network of incisions.

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