Ernest White was an odd duck from the day he was born. He was always indifferent to his parents' acts of kindness. He never played with the toys they bought him, and he told stories to himself – about himself – instead. He was nice enough to his mother, but when his father talked he acted like he didn't hear him, and even when his father punished him for his dreaminess or his laziness Ernest never cried and even laughed. He fulfilled none of his father's hopes for a productive and respectable son, and Ernest wasn't even three before his father had given up on him, handing the disappointment over to his mother and turning his attention to farming again.
From Otto's Journal, 1970
I used to work as his factotum years ago.
He called himself Mr. Perfect. He was semi-well-known to the famous and semi-famous in the whirlwind pre-war world. His money had opened many doors and he had rubbed shoulders with the best and brightest of his day, and if you look at group photos of the cultural elite on the Left Bank or the salons of New York or the French Riviera you can often see his tanned bright visage in the background smiling much more genuinely than the rest, because unlike them he was free from the guilt of sponging off the honest man to pay the tab, and he was the only one in the photos who didn't think he was smarter than everyone else. He wore white suits and tried to affect a degree of European culture, and was just successful enough to fool the small-town people he'd grown up with, but probably not anybody else.
New York Times, August 13, 1939, page 48 B (beneath a lingerie ad):
"World Traveler Returns Stateside"
World traveler, theosophist, amateur archaeologist and art patron known in the expatriate community as "Mr. Perfect" stopped in New York City yesterday on his way home to rural Oklahoma after 15 years as a citizen of the world. Perfect, whose given name is Ernest White, is perhaps best remembered for the off-Broadway run of his scathing verse-drama "Prometheus Fit To Be Tied!"
During his stay in the city Perfect made sizable donations to several local cultural institutions, donated a self portrait to the Museum of Non-Objective painting, then stopped by the World's Fair and put his foot through a television being displayed in the RCA building. His valet stayed behind to pay for the damages.
Perfect would not disclose his reasons for returning to the small town of his childhood. His valet said he needed some rest.
White would leave his office at twilight and go to meet Atalanta at the interurban's depot. Atalanta supported
her father by teaching at a mission school in a small town twenty miles away. He'd meet her at the depot, the small electric train jolting into town on wobbly light rails in orange evening.
He'd wait and watch as maybe three or four people would step off then there she'd be, wearing a pale cotton dress, hips round beneath cotton, strong calves stepping down and one hand brushing back a wisp of brown hair, eyes down and maybe a little tired then looking up to see him.
They'd walk away, the depot behind them, the sound of the small odd train creaking and humming and pulling away, and Main Street mostly deserted with folks away to supper, but here and there a few children already out playing again, and breezes were just beginning to stir as the orange skies slid toward pink then purple. And Ernest White would walk beside her with this little smile coming now and again to his face, both of them looking down neither saying anything for a while, but Ernest White looking at her now and trying to catch her glance, then some small joke from him, or some funny thing he'd noticed that day and set aside in his mind like a little jewel to share with her. And when she'd look and smile and chide him for his childishness he'd put an arm around her and kiss her, and they'd walk together to his car or stroll to the hotel dining room for supper, and when he looked at her he knew he loved her very much. And after being quiet for a half-an-hour or so, just long enough to keep his insane horse play at bay while she recovered from her work, she would look up and have to agree she liked him, knowing full well that admitting as much would mean no sleep that night, as he'd pile her into his car and take her off for some all-night adventure, like to the smoky jazz halls. And the next day when she returned to the classroom she'd astonish all the children by looking like an absolutely beautiful disaster.
Introduction 1: Vacuum Tube Technology
It's 1939, and a boy on a farm without alternating current could have told you more about the world than a Ph.D. student can today. He drank in the newsreels, he scoured the magazines left in the hotel lobby or the barbershop for knowledge, he pulled in the news from the air, from the antenna of his crystal radio hooked to his window screen. He heard the voices and saw the visions in his mind and poured them into his bottomless thirst to reach out beyond the humdrum landscape visible from his window. The world was bigger in the 1930’s.
The world was bigger both in one's mind and outside it. There were more pieces to it and they didn’t need to fit together. There were quarter-mile grey dirigibles humming transatlantic routes across grey transoceanic skies to and from grey photographic skylines; there were champagne corks popping in tall business-dealing offices; there were farmers turning soil and driving home-modified Model T’s across brown acres, proud odd time-saving home-welded metal arms clawing dust inventively and effectively while horses and mules watched and twitched their ears; there were crystal radio antennas attached to window screens in a farm boy’s stuffy boxy upstairs room in Summertime, with cicadae hatching and humming in the acacia in the yawning purple-then-black world outside, and his younger brother’s already out like a light and snoring, but this boy at 13 or 14 is just beginning to realize that out in the sweetening and cooling darkness is something precious he is missing, something his heart has a hole in it for, something he is yearning to find.
And always there were the silver signals, bounced by hucksters and amateurs alike across the invisible skies - the breath of angels, the news or dreams or bragging of a ham radio operator in Enid or Sydney or Sioux City or Cleveland or St. Louis, and the soap-sponsored radio crooners and the comedians with their guffawing but genteel audiences in some unseen New York auditorium, all laughing, the jokes like razor-thin silver signals a morse code of surrender and defiance in the blackness, leisure and desperation, a silver stab easy yet resolutely made at the thing closing in, a signal fading in and out while the boy hears the distracting noise of his brother's buzzing and the prowling of cats in the field in the alley on the fire escape down on the porch getting into the garbage cans or the milk pails below, oh shut up just get to the punch line this time please and yes, the line then the laughter, crackling like tinfoil or popguns or static and the darkness pushed back for an instant, the link made with the people all of us laughing, and maybe out there one who laughs at a lot of things that he does, and maybe out there someone who wants to know him, before the sponsor's slogans send him off to fight for banks and brand name soap.
The airwaves were fairs and carnivals and home to liars - not confessors, like now, folks who drop their drawers before any camera and expose lives or souls - not confessors, liars, showmen, each with his lie, his own outlandish world bumping the gaudy farcical sphere of someone else - the wolf-boy the faith healer the pygmy shaman the snake oil mystic Hindu the anatomically-gifted farm girl the albino spelunker the cheesy British comedian with his parrot who won't talk on live radio, the bubble dancer the "Mister, I seen Jesus" transient the refugee the Shadow. Their lie with and against your lie - you're an enigma you're special a mystery no oath no credo no uniform can confine you you're a thing; you're old you're young you're dying in the farmhouse with the grandkids shooed outside, you're on a train to meet a girl you've only written letters to before, you're in a big unfamiliar city with two dollars in your pocket wondering which way to turn at the corner, you're in a line you're bunked in a mission you're in a field you hear a laugh; you're in school you're a single woman with her first real job in a new city and all the men are jerks, you're black you're Irish you're Czech you're German you're hated, you're left behind you're ditched by your friends or you've ditched them for anything new, you've moved with no clear guide though with the silver signals; you spark and fade like signals in the vacuum tubes - part of you is airy angel, and you're free.
My father and mother grew up in the 1930's, did their part in World War II, and then set about making the American Century.
From Blaise’s Journal
My name is Blaise Bohrs. I grew up in the sub-suburbs of an Oklahoma prairie petropolis in the 1980’s. I started writing this journal in prison to tell you about my life.
But first I want to posit this: there are no stories of our lives. They're things we try on like gloves, test for the fit, wear for a while, then outgrow and discard. We tell stories about ourselves but finally we just throw them away and the most they ever did was enable us to move between sources of cover.
Having said that, here's my story: My older brother Ben and his wife both had jobs in the first of this community's mega stores back in the early 1980's, and both were in their first year at the closest can't-decide-what-to-do-with-my-life community college, barely launched free from the diminishing inner-city neighborhood my family lived in then, where class-bounding blue-collar dreams blossomed.
My old man was stricter back then and so was hers and these two kids knew they mattered. They had seen friends go bad and didn't want to be losers. At that college barely more than a high school they studied all day, and then all night they worked at that first mega-bargain department store, wearing smocks and working in mile-high anonymous white aisles, she on the register he stocking shelves. They met sometime just after eleven one night when the other employees were orchestrating hijinks in the wide deserted aisles and both he and she hung back, too shy, and joked with one another to seem too occupied to be called on to participate in the foolishness. They talked about where they were from and where they were going, found that for eighteen years they'd lived in the same working-class neighborhood only three blocks apart; they mentioned their serious studies and their goals, went out that weekend, fell in love and got married six months later, and never looked back with regret. They lived every day still madly in love with each other. They had a nice house, not ostentatious but just right for them, warm, safe, small. They had a little daughter who really isn't that little anymore, and they were always growing but staying whole and certain of themselves and happy.
It must have been simpler back then. When I was a kid and my older brother would visit he would seem like nothing less or more than a mysterious happy god to me, and he could always outwrestle me with one laughing, easy pin but couldn't chip a golf ball worth a damn, and he got tired of even the most cordial visit by early evening and would shift his big shoulders uncomfortably on the sofa, herd his lovely wife and child into the car and disappear back to the glow of his own warm and orderly enclave in the inner city - a happy, geometric, centered space he understood, a place he could hold complete in his mind.
It was the model I set for myself but it never materialized.
A girl I once loved knew a similar story and she'd tell it to me as we looked out at stars from the back seat of my car, and it was her goal to live up to it so it became mine as well. And she was young and beautiful and smart like the people in the story and I was too. But we were not so lucky and it turned out we had no straight road, and we made it too fast around the first curve and one of us got lost from sight of the other, and if I chose this minute I could get up from this chair and there would be no more waiting, no more watching for her, and everything could be new. But she left and Dad died and I got lost and stuck in time, and then bad things happened.
PART I: BLAISE RETURNS TO OKLAHOMA
I just got a call from my son that Maria is extremely sick in the hospital. I am going to the US to see her right away.
I am traveling 3000 miles back from my hideout in the Philippines. I suspect I’ll never see my little village again.
I did not bother to pack anything and rushed out the door, only pausing to say goodbye to Marguerite and kiss her on the cheek. I once again hopped clandestinely aboard an Eastern European cargo plane at midnight. I sat among the nets and boxes.
Even though the pilot pushed the speed the ride was too long and I sank into morbid thoughts. When I got there my son told me the full extent of Maria’s condition, that she had been placed in a coma to insert a breathing tube down her throat.
But then the news was updated to tell me she had had a pulmonary embolism, that her blood flow stopped due to a blood clot temporarily stopping her heart, and that she was brain dead. I rushed over to the hospital to visit her but she was gone, gone.
Then for the first time in 40 years, I remembered a Bible verse, or rather it pushed itself into my brain. "Where two or more are gathered, there am I."
My son told me what church she had been going to, and I called their pastor and tried to get at least one more person to pray over her with me – not to heal her, but to commend her soul and show respect.
I called her church's pastor first. “I would like you to meet me at the hospital and pray over Maria. They are pulling the plug on her tomorrow. I am distraught. I want to pray over her to commend her spirit though she is probably already dead."
He did not answer so I called again and again, and I guess I woke him up, but he yawned and demurred.
“The hospital chaplain has prayed over her many times. I’m sorry, but there’s nothing else I can do.” Then he hung up.
Then I called all her church friends my son recommended. No agreement or no answer.
Maria, I am sorry. “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am” and I couldn't even find one. I have been calling church members all night, No one has answered my request to pray over you. Not one scripture-memorizing back-slapping shit-grinning church goer. Not one.
So it looks like I am a denomination of one. I will say prayers over you alone tonight. Fuck you, pastor. Fuck you, for not coming and then not answering my calls. Fuck you for not coming when I am sweating blood. I'll handle it myself and establish the 1001st Non-Denominational Church of the 100th Periphery of the Ozarks. It will be as legitimate as yours but without hypocrisy.
I got to the hospital just before she died, walked into the wing with its wide-halled grey-floor and a huge window at the end of the hall that somehow strangled the sunlight it let in. There was no one at the nurse’s station nor any security guard to stop me. I could have just been a skulking perv or ghoul who gets off on bodies.
And when I entered the room it was plain she was already gone. Everything about her was uneven: propped up sagging in bed like a ragdoll, mouth open but hanging on the right with a glisten of saliva, eyes open but sightless and pointed in two different directions. Her head titled to one side - dead dead. My dear girl of 17 mostly happy years. Fuckers told me too late.
I loved her abruptly with all my heart and wished we had had a chance to make up. I had not been there to defend her, which I had always done before. My role for years had been as her man and guard dog.
Padre’s Fan Boat, by Padre
Yes, Blaise fixed my car but also fixed my fan boat for me, repeatedly. I sometimes needed a fan boat to get to some of the more remote villages and dwellings in my parish – my parish is rural and therefore sprawling. Parishes are closing and the remaining ones are consolidating across more and more geography, with one central church and many sick people to visit who can’t get out to the Mass or sacraments.
We priests are old and few, and few young men are taking up the call. I don’t know what they want to be – social media Influencers? A person who uses the Internet and doles out favor or disfavor, making or breaking some entrepreneur’s line of fashion wear for dogs?
And many people whose families have been Catholic since Magellan are now switching to one or another form of Evangelical Protestantism. Their missionaries are aggressive, their theology is elastic, and they give away free stuff, including Salvation.
There is some strange tide in the blood these days. But anyone who believes once saved always saved walks a dangerous path of temptation and entitlement, and pride.
But I digress, as I do in sermons. It prompted one parishioner to give me a watch.
I could pilot the fan boat myself, navigating between the mangroves and the hanging moss and the crocodiles and the fishing Bangkas and the smugglers and the occasional Muslim terrorist. Blaise insisted I take a rifle, and he taught me how to shoot and to hit what I aimed at the first time.
On my missions I would stand in the back of my fan boat with my hand on the tiller with this enormous fan behind me not chopping me to bits by some miracle of design but propelling me across the top of the water like a water bug, an insect that could land on the water and not sink in, its six legs spread wide making little dimples on the surface. But in spite of my independence, most often I took Blaise with me. It made him feel useful, like he was my hired muscle as they say in gangster films.
He’d bring his dog along, his little Chihuahua mutt Paco, who liked to lean forward in the prow of the boat and feel the wind in his face, with his upper lip hoisted fiercely above his little crooked teeth.
Padre’s Fanboat, Continued by Marguerite, Near Malanga
As they were nearing the shore to administer the sacraments, a great explosion rocked then capsized Padre’s fanboat. Blaise heard quick, sharp yelling in an unfamiliar tongue coming from out the mangroves and moss, then saw khakied men wading into the water. They dredged up Padre and began firing at the remains of the boat.
Blaise dove underwater and stayed there for as long as he could hold his breath. There is no chance of saving others if you get yourself shot. When he surfaced the gunfire had stopped and the terrorists had gone.
Blaise climbed ashore and followed their tracks in the carpet of decaying, across the jungle, and soon emerged from the trees and vines and underbrush to see a rusting quasit hut. From there he could hear the sharp voices of several men, speaking in the same tongue as at the beach, but only one man stood guard outside. The man wore dirty, unkempt fatigue and had a rifle slung loosely across his chest. He looked bored, swatted at a fly and lit a cigarette.
Blaise retreated 20 feet back into the jungle and then circled his way to the back of the quasit hut, then to the side, then drew his hunting knife. He emerged stealthily from the trees, crept up behind the man and slit his throat clean through the man could make a sound. His body fell to the ground and Blaise paused to wipe his knife on the man’s shirt tail. There is nothing more unforgivable than a dull blade. Then he took the man’s rifle and slowly approached the door of the building.
He could hear the rising and falling and interjecting of voices. The door was slightly ajar, and he peeked in and saw five persons bound and lined up against a wall. He saw six sloppily uniformed men in a far corner, circled and shouting and gesturing. He knew he had a moment.
Blaise tossed a rock into the room because he wanted the men to see what was coming. As they looked up with open eyes and mouths, he let all hell loose with his borrowed Kalashnikov, firing in a sweeping motion until every last body hit the ground, then he continued shooting them until all his ammunition was spent. Then he untied Padre and the other captives and hustled them and away in a moored fanboat lest the terrorists have allies nearby.
But he did not do this before noticing a communication device on a table. It was styled unlike anything he’d ever seen. He hesitated then slid the headphones over his ears.
A voice in English said, “Well, did you finish it? Did you do it?” Then three heavy seconds of silence. Then “Never mind!” Then nothing.
Blaise decided not to take the with him on the assumption that whoever used it could track it. But he did smash it to pieces. Then they went back to Malanga on the fanboat, Padre at the tiller and Blaise and his dog watching to see if they were being followed.
It was a big, brutish, ugly fish that might as well have been from another era. It swam in a big glass-walled cell that spanned from floor to ceiling in the local rundown municipal zoo's aquarium. No one knew how long it had been there. You could see its photo in old news articles dating back to at least the 1930's. Other fish had come and gone. The big fish might have helped with that. The zoo itself had never been in the money but limped along on an 1/8 of a penny sales tax and never got shut down for some nostalgic reason or another although most people didn't like to go to that part of town anymore.
But George Miller did. He lived there. Oh he used to live high, but his wife left him and the economy tanked, and he had lost hope and just stopped trying and before he knew it he was living in that shabby part of town and wasting his days and then his cable got shut off and so he spent more time than he'd care to in that rundown zoo cuz if nothing else it gave an excuse to get outside and smoke. He somehow still had smoking money.
And when he went to that zoo he always saw that big smug ancient fish. Not a gar precisely, not quite a sturgeon, but kind of like both, with a the long full body of a catfish but scaly and grey with an ugly wide head. And when George look at it it looked back at him, and swam a little ways off and then would come back and look at him, and almost sneer or laugh and show supreme, sublime disdain, as if George were less than nothing and it were an elemental force.
"God," George said. "I'd love to punch that fish!" He often cocked back a fist and barely stopped himself from hitting the glass. The fish just laughed.