My father touched me after he died. I was writing at night under a single lamp and I felt a tap on my shoulder. Or—one can never be certain in these matters–he passed through the room as nothing more than a shudder in the air, like the ripples in a pond caused by a falling leaf. I did not yet feel the cold that is supposed to accompany the dead.
I set my pen down and removed my headphones. Minutes passed and nothing happened and I was about to return to writing when the phone rang. Mary, his wife, with the news. We talked for a few minutes. A relief, really. He had been sick for months.
We finished talking and still not so much as a chill. Strange, I thought. It seemed just the right kind of moment, Virginia Woolf would have said, to contain an entire conception. But be patient, the moment seemed to be saying. You will know when the dead demand your attention by the change in temperature.
The Killer in Us
My father never knew Billy, but he knew the type, having raised me. Billy is my age, and if he is still alive, he is still in prison, and cold is all he knows. You would fear him if you knew him, and for good reason, but you direct your fear in the wrong direction. You spend your life looking over your shoulder for Billy’s like, when where you should be looking is within. The resemblance will shock you like a plunge in the ice.
According to the newspaper, Billy had come home from work one day and used the knife beside the birthday cake to cut himself a piece, which he ate, and then to stab his mother to death. He was twenty.
The law that sent Billy to prison a guilty man says I am innocent and that between the two of us there is the vastness of empty space. You and I believe this space cannot be crossed and that we are safe. We must believe this. To distance ourselves from Billy, we evaluate life through the Law of the Excluded Middle: a proposition is either true or its negation is true. Tertium non datur. We, healthy in mind and body, soul salved in righteousness, are therefore not Billy, never will be. But such spare logic excludes the middle from its calculations; it’s still there, vast, cold, near. Logic is no match for the dark, forested complexities of the human interior. (There were rumors of Billy tying cats to streetcar tracks.) In that space is where the infinite varieties of human contraries play and where the soul’s mettle fails. William Blake peoples this space in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell with the Prolific and the Devourer. The Prolific lacks restraint and overflows with the energy to create and destroy, the Devourer demands the Prolific’s passive obedience. To reconcile them, Blake says, will “destroy existence.” But they are not enemies. They live together, much as the Falstaffian giant is restrained by the chains of the cunning weak. W. H. Auden makes the Prolific the artist, the Devourer the politician, and sets them against one another as “the True Way and the false philosophies.” But each knows the other, for each contains the other. Hence, Auden’s major premise: “There are not ‘good’ and ‘evil’ existences”; his minor premise: “Active ‘evil’ is better than passive ‘good’”; his conclusion: “we, being divided beings composed of a number of selves each with its false conception of its self-interest, sin in most that we do, for we rarely act in such a way that even the false self-interests of all our different selves are satisfied.” This translates Blake’s “The Prolific would cease to be Prolific unless the Devourer as a sea received the excess of his delights.”
I remember Billy as a boy of seductive beauty, with delicate, feminine features, slim hips and limbs, a sensuous mouth.
Ivan Turgenev thought Jean-Baptiste Traupmann a boy of seductive beauty, too. In “The Execution of Traupmann” (1872), he calls attention to Traupmann’s “huge round eyes,” a voice that registers as “a pleasant, youthful baritone,” a frame “youthfully thin and slender.” His complexion is “natural, healthy, slightly rosy.” If you were to meet him on the street, “he would, no doubt, have made a good impression on you.” Such is this “overgrown boy” who had butchered the entire Kinck family—father, mother, six children, the youngest a toddler—by knife on a night in September, 1869, over a financial scheme that might have netted him at best a few hundred francs gone awry. But a photograph of Traupmann, date unknown, most probably taken not long before his execution by guillotine in January, 1870, reveals more man than boy, though he could not have been older than twenty. His eyes are neither huge nor round, but half-closed and drooping in a face otherwise notable for its frightening impassivity. A published account from 1870 (the anonymous Trial of Traupmann for the Murder of the Kinck Family, in the Commune of Pantin, Near Paris: New York, the American News Company) notes “a round German head” and “a dreamy German eye.” A thin pencil mustache, the same publication adds, “leaves most room for distrust and criticism.” His large, misshapen ears, according to one examiner’s postmortem, suggested insanity or idiocy. His feet were flat like an ape’s. What was Turgenev up to? Are killers beautiful, too? Dostoevsky dismissed “The Execution of Traupmann” as “pompous and finicky,” but Turgenev wants us to weigh fully the social and moral costs of a legally-sanctioned homicide before we pull the lever to release the blade. Because we will pull that lever, as if it were no weightier in the hand than the knife was in Traupmann’s or Billy’s.
There is only the beautiful and the ugly. Because we imagine nothing in between we see in ourselves only the beautiful.
One day in the marketplace Michel de Montaigne saw two men and a woman displaying a horribly deformed fourteen-month old child, “to get money by showing it,” he writes in “Of a Monstrous Child” (1580). The child is actually conjoined twins: “Under the breast it was joined to another child, but without a head and which had the spine of the back without motion, the rest entire.” Undoubtedly a sight difficult to gaze upon, until the mind’s eye fixes upon the disfigured souls of the three adults, who claim to be the child’s father, uncle, and aunt. The truly beautiful escapes our notice: “Those that we call monsters are not so to God, who sees in the immensity of His work the infinite forms that He has comprehended therein; and it is to be believed that this figure which astonishes us has relation to some other figure of the same kind unknown to man.” Nothing Montaigne writes in “Of a Monstrous Child” is thematically new, but the shock of self-recognition—we are Montaigne, father, uncle, aunt, monstrous child all–should strike us with tectonic force. Montaigne, who can be mistaken for a breezy and glib writer by the careless reader, is himself on full display here: the incredible powers of observation, the carefully-honed logic, the penetrating gaze into the paradox of the real, the writer who converts others’ infirmities into art, the unafraid expositor of the juxtapositions in human nature, beginning with his own, a surgical cut into ours.
We are bent and crooked by nature, assassins slipping into the convent. So long as the light remains lit in the sanctuary, the law cannot touch us.
Richard Weaver, the Asheville, North Carolina, rhetorician, would have spared little sympathy for Billy—actions have consequences–but in “Language is Sermonic,” published in 1963, not long before his death, when Billy and I were in eighth grade, Weaver suggested a more direct explanation for what Billy did than that provided by the grim separation of humanity into Prolific and Devourer. The poor kid was a product—we all were–of the modern “scientistic” approach to education, where the mission was to turn a student into a “logic machine, or at any rate an austerely unemotional thinker.” From cold pedagogy comes the frozen heart. Schools of that era force fed students a steady diet of positivism. They produced me. They produced Billy, though with Billy something went wrong. Neither of us could have told a syllogism of the first figure from an empty cardboard box, but he achieved heights in austerely unemotional thinking I could not even imagine. We were ostensible kin, without the slipperiness of blood as bond.
The Prolific at Play
It’s too bad Weaver couldn’t be with my teammates and me that Thursday, December 24, 1964, on the concrete basketball court behind the high school, when the temperature in Pittsburgh reached 70 degrees. Coming from North Carolina, he would have appreciated roundball’s curative effects, though so far as my teammates and I were concerned Billy was already beyond salvation and we loathed him like a certain secret boy’s-room sin and he couldn’t play worth a damn anyway. And here we come to the crux. Basketball, not Jesus, saves.
It would be the last halcyon December of our youth, gentle and deceptive, for the abatement of storms is always temporary. Four months earlier Lyndon Johnson had signed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the first in a string of bright shining lies that formally brought The American Century, only a few decades old, to an end with the predicted whimper. That summer people had lined up around the block to see Goldfinger; A small few stroked their chins over Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. James Bond saves the world from the Armageddon Strangelove uncorks.
We ran up and down the court until by the end of the second game our shorts and t-shirts were soaked, and by the end of the third game salt stains had formed fractal patterns on our black Converse lowtops. We wore them because the Boston Celtics wore them. The Celtics were our team, perennial NBA champs. True, we were white kids living in a white middle-class suburb, and the Celtics’ big stars, Bill Russell, Sam and K. C. Jones, Thomas “Satch” Sanders, were black, and therefore urban, alien, afar. It was the “sixth-man,” John “Hondo” Havlicek (the nickname came from a John Wayne movie), we emulated: same black sneakers but rural Ohio white skin and cornfield twang, not the most graceful of players, a ruptured duck to that air-slicing hawk Satch, but tough and indestructable, a slow white unsinkable dreadnought amid the fleet of swift sleek black corsairs.
Hondo was one of us. And it wasn’t he who had started the riots in Harlem that previous summer. A white cop named Thomas Gilligan had shot and killed a fifteen-year old black kid named James Powell with his service revolver on Thursday, July 16. (Two months later the name Gilligan was memorialized when the SS Minnow ran aground on an unnamed Pacific island soon to be named after the Minnow’s First Mate, Willy Gilligan.) We were the same age as Powell and indifferent witnesses to history, blind to its ironies. I walked past the TV broadcasting news of the riots without paying attention. But it was December, now, and we were a riot of ten, armed with jump shots and the pick and roll. We drank Kool-Aid, when that’s all it was, from rinsed-out orange-juice jugs. We rested with our hands on our hips, not our knees.
Two months earlier, Coach had made the final cuts on the same day, Tuesday, October 27, that Albert DeSalvo, the Boston Strangler, was arrested. It is said that DeSalvo found the names of his victims in the phone book. You knew you’d made the team if your name wasn’t on the list taped to the wall of the gym. To be among the unlisted was to be saved. “Salvo” comes from the Latin salve, meaning “Be in good health.” It is the vocative of salvus, “healthy,” “safe,” with roots in Sanskrit sarvah, “whole,” “intact,” “uninjured,” “uncut,” and otherwise untouched by harmful actions caused by the ill will or neglect of others. Passing one another on the streets, Romans would shout out Salve!—Health! Wholeness! By the sixteenth century, with a poisonous Christianity having poured sand into the cheery syrup of Roman genius loci, “salvo” had acquired the meaning we know today: the simultaneous discharge of firearms, or words, whose task in either case is to harm.
“Salve!” In your face, motherfucker!
Did we know the good role models from the bad, or were we just kids on a cement-slab bender? The sun was getting low and we joshed one another about missed shots or bad passes, asked who’d done the homework, played another game, and so put out of our minds the angry greetings we would face from our parents once we got home. By one, they had told us. Don’t be late, they had told us. By game four or five, now past mid-afternoon, the gravitational pull of fast breaks and the shuffle weave was too strong to resist. Orders from parents forgotten. Grandparents and aunts and uncles kept waiting. Christmas-Eve dinner growing colder, and the atmosphere with it. We didn’t know about argument by counterfactual, what we know today as “whataboutism.” What about the kids busted in the parking lot for smoking grass? What about the kids killed on the late-night drive back from West Virginia, where the drinking age was eighteen? What about a knocked-up girlfriend? What was it to be, folks? Toking? Drinking? Fucking? Rebounding? A question parents would do well to ponder. American kids not much older than we were killing and bleeding onto rice paddies thousands of miles away. I lived a mile from school. We were hitting jumpers from twenty feet. Our knees and elbows bled from diving on the concrete for loose balls. What was it to be, Lyndon? Shooting gooks or shooting hoops? The sun passed low across the southern sky painting the trees and hills a golden green and we played on. Passing and shooting and running and jumping no ballet looked smarter, crisper. Each swish was precious to us. A cross-over dribble confirmed the body’s effortless movement through the ether. Calling out a jump switch was a magical incantation.
Be home by one? Rhetoric is not the application of reason to the imagination for the better moving of the will but the rattle and hum of a sputtering logic machine.
The Devourer Remembers the Cold
The hiss in her voice and the smoke from her cigarette followed me up the stairs to my room. Back when I told her I had made the team, she had clapped her hands in glee.
“You’ll have to take a bath at your grandmother’s.”
The rolling brown winter hills and gray stone mansions held in trust by white Republicans with English and German surnames, Protestants mostly, of Mt. Lebanon receded behind me, and awaiting me were the browner hills, crowded with stick and shingle homes, lived in by Poles and Italians and Slovaks, darker-skinned Catholics and Democrats almost without exception, surnames an unpronounceable mix of consonants, of Fineview Hill, landscaped with small patches of lawn sagging under the weight of dog shit.
On overnight visits I slept in the dormered garret on the top floor. To get to it I climbed the narrow winding staircase in the dark interior of the house making sure to avoid hitting the single lightbulb hanging by a cord over the landing from a bent 16-penny nail. Here my father had stored his army uniforms and World War II souvenirs. It would be years before I learned their dark secrets, but tonight, as we gathered on Christmas Eve, more than twenty of us, in the great room on the first floor, in front of the glowing Christmas tree in the bay window, as darkness and cold closed over Fineview Hill and the city below, as the calm of the holy night descended upon us, as we talked of happier things, I knew that even twenty years ago was still too soon to ask about.
In the fall of 1964, and within two days of each other, Lyndon Johnson, who had lied us into Vietnam, and Barry Goldwater, who was calling for the use of nuclear weapons, gave campaign speeches at the Civic Arena, where the high school basketball playoffs were held. Goldwater lost, but was the world any safer? My father, a Goldwater man, must have thought so. On Sunday, December 27, the Baltimore Colts would travel to Cleveland to play the Browns for the NFL championship, and as a Christmas present for himself and me, he had bought two tickets to the game.
By Christmas afternoon the temperature had fallen into the thirties. Snow fell that night and into the early hours of the next morning. Saturday remained cloudy, and the temperature hovered near freezing. Saturday night the skies cleared and the temperature plummeted. It was still dark the next morning when we went to mass, the cold dangerous and unforgiving. I wore my Converse practice sneakers, my letter jacket over a sweater, gloves, a ski hat with tassel in the school colors of blue and gold. My father wore fur-lined hunting boots he had borrowed from an army buddy. He wore a snowsuit and tied the hood under his chin and wore a knit hat under the hood. He brought three pairs of gloves. He knew cold. He had spent the winter of 1944-45 near Bastogne, living in foxholes, always under the threat of frostbite, trench foot, and German artillery. It was the coldest winter Europe had seen in fifty years.
“You’ll wish you’d worn more clothes,” he said as he turned out of the church parking lot.
There is little that I remember of the drive to Cleveland: a tunnel of flurries, flat brown earth, gray sky. I remember nothing of the game, though footage I found on YouTube brought back the memory of a long run from scrimmage by Jim Brown, Cleveland’s star halfback. What I do remember is sitting at the top of Lakefront Stadium shivering uncontrollably in the teeth of an icy wind coming off Lake Erie. Cleveland won, 27-0. My father, bundled and warm, insisted we stay for the whole game. Walking back to the car, inadequately dressed against the blue-steel twilight sky, my breath a helmet of fog, dark and malignant thoughts filled my brain. Just get us home tonight. But tomorrow, on your way to work, a patch of ice, an errant driver coming off the night shift falls asleep at the wheel, careens into your lane. . . .
In April, 1994, thousands of men, women, and children were massacred in ethnic violence in Rwanda. On October 7 President Clinton ordered 4000 troops to Kuwait in response to Saddam Hussein’s buildup of Iraqi forces along the border, which a spokesman for the Joint Chiefs said “clearly represent a threat.” On December 11 Russian President Boris Yeltsin sent tanks and troops into Chechnya, starting what was to become the First Chechen War (December 1994-August 1996). The total number of soldiers killed and wounded from both sides is estimated at between 27,000 and 84,000. Human rights groups put the number of civilians killed at close to 100,000. More than half a million were displaced. In December I was forty-five years old and playing pick-up basketball with my faculty colleagues at the university where I teach. On Christmas day my father woke up to begin the last thirty days of his life.
We talked often on the phone. The cancer had so ravaged his body that, as Mary would later describe it, there was little left of him but a squeaky voice emanating from skin of a pallid, bluish hue. And because his body no longer produced its own heat he lay under a heavy thermal blanket. But I loved hearing that voice. It told me that he was alive, that he was living, that all his life he had been receptive to the excess of my delights.
“Remember that football game?” he asked.
“I froze my ass off,” I replied. “I was pretty pissed at you.”
He was silent for a moment. “I told you to wear warmer clothes. But you wouldn’t listen to the old man, would you?”
In a memoir he wrote in the last months of his life, he tells the story of the time he faked being blind so he wouldn’t have to go to school. His father, a plate-glass window salesman, saw through the ruse and cured his blindness with a spanking.
We talked about the day I told him I’d dropped out of college and joined the Marines. He had married Mary a week before I was to graduate from boot camp, but he sacrificed his honeymoon to come down to Parris Island for the ceremony. I showed him my orders for Vietnam, and under the South Carolina sun in the chill of a November afternoon, 1968, he folded me into his arms because he had known cold.
Frank Walters lives and writes in Auburn, Alabama. He has previously published in academic journals and has recently turned to writing (and in one instance publishing) creative nonfiction.