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The Father of All Things

by Tom Bissell

[Excerpt]

 

It would have been spring. The neighborhood yards still yellow and concrete-hard, the side panels of the cars you pass on the way home from work spattered with arcing crusts of road salt, the big oaks and elms that loom along Lake Shore Drive throwing down long pale rows of shadow. These trees are covered with stony gray bark, their naked branches black lightning against a deepening indigo sky. Everywhere winter’s grim spell still holds.

A Midwestern spring at the forty-sixth parallel is a different sort of season than the spring one finds even five degrees lower, in Milwaukee, say, or Chicago. In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula spring never truly arrives. It passes through for a few weeks, shrinks and smoothens the filthy fringes of snow that sit packed against the curbs, finishes with a fine icy sheen the misshapen islets of snow out in the yard that stubbornly refuse to melt, but spring does not arrive. It does not come. One receives only the suggestion of spring here, followed by a hot, windy summer. You are thinking of this as you circle around your huge yard (which takes up half the block), noting its lumpy archipelago of remaining snow, before finally pulling into the driveway. There is something exhausted about the way your station wagon’s engine sputters and dies. For a moment you sit there in the car looking at the remaining mounds of snow. On bright days, when the sunlight angles down on the ice crystals just right, the reflection can be difficult to look at.

But on this cloudy late afternoon there is but little light. Your eyes ache anyway, the silvery imminence of evening hovering above you. Where is spring? you think, now standing in your driveway, gazing upon your house, its coldly reflective windows, its closed doors. Today you have left work early and driven the long way home. It is 5 p.m. on April 29, 1975.The lights come on in the empty kitchen. You keep your hand on the circular plastic knob, fiddling with and turning the adjustor. Darker, lighter, darker. You cannot find the proper setting, going from break-room bright to dinner-party mild to opium-den dim at the speed of light. But what is the speed of darkness? The cabinetry is all chocolatey wood, the countertops a hard Formica blaze of orange, a room that seems dark even when it is blazingly illumed. At last (fuck it) you switch off the overhead light, the sound of your own heart more audible while you stand in charcoal shadow.

You stare at the kitchen table. Two ashtrays, one on each end of the table, form twin pyres of your wife Muff’s lipsticked butts. An empty baby bottle, its sides still cloudy with clinging breast milk. A tall, red-white-and-blue can of Budweiser, its top-popped aperture keyhole-shaped. You know it is urine-warm and half-full before you even touch it. Your live-in younger brother Paul’s, no doubt. (Muff claims to see Paul only when he is “drunk, sleeping, or hungover.” He is 24. What can you do?) The lazy Susan and its cargo of gift-shop jetsam, souvenirs from trips you no longer remember: expensive glass salt-and-pepper shakers Muff had to have, the floral-pattered porcelain sugar dish, the toothpick holder shaped like a rotund little monk, the plastic tray freighted with a yellow slab of room-temperature margarine. A neatly planed pile of mail awaits you on the table’s corner. All of it adding up to life, one little corner in a seven-year repository of marriage. You do not even look through the mail.

When I asked you what this time was like you said only, “I was a young guy, working hard. Always pissed off. Always. You were a trust officer at the First National Bank, managing other people’s money. They save up here in the woods. From the millionaire widows living in fireplace-heated homes to the couples sitting on $700,000 portfolios while driving rusty Ford pickups, you were learning all about the strange camouflage and various neuroses of rural wealth. What made many of your customers‚ mattress-stuffing so frustrating was that you were broke. Every morning that you parked your used Chevy station wagon beside your boss’s long cream Cadillac reminded you of this. The Bissells, of course, were reputed around town to have money--how faces changed in Escanaba when the name Bissell came flying back at them!—but over the last seven years you had watched it all go up in the low fires of your various new responsibilities.

Broke. Such a hard, simple, declarative word. You dreamed of making $20,000 a year, three times and more your current salary. Twenty thousand dollars:the number itself was talismanic, as beautiful as a finish line. It would bandage these seven years of hemorrhaging marital wounds and keep them stanched forever. Because now things were not well. “Your mother” you told me once, without bitterness, “wanted a better life” Everything at this time felt to you cold and dead, as though your touch itself were warmth-draining, death-contagious. Every room of the house was dark and angry that spring, unwarmed and unloved, but there were few places for blame to gather. Nor was there any place to hide.

You walk through your family’s ancestral, seven-bedroom house looking for your wife and sons, a journey of several minutes. To many visitors, the Bissell house, one of Escanaba’s biggest, always felt less like a home than a series of pastel caverns linked by massively arched throughways. You drift through the canary-wallpapered dining room (the chandelier so huge and gaudy it was vaguely embarrassing to pass beneath it), the green-carpeted living room (most of its antique furniture having not known human weight in years), and pass into the final and most spacious--the television room. The Bissell house’s placement on the littoral edge of town allows the television room’s four massive bay windows to look out onto Ludington Park, beyond which spans the seascape tundra of still-frozen Lake Michigan. Today the lake is a surface storm of twirling snow devils. As expected, here you find Muff and your sons. Your little sister Alicia is upstairs, in her room, listening to the Monkees (she still refuses to acknowledge they did not play their instruments), while your brother Paul, you can guess, is out with friends, most likely attached to a keg hose.

Muff is watching television with your son Johno, who at five resembles nothing so much as a pudgy, thin-haired Buddha. Muff looks beautiful, of course. How could she not? She once bested her classmate Farrah Fawcett in a junior high beauty contest in Corpus Christi, Texas. The hair your wife has bleached platinum blonde every week for the last decade achieves gravity-defying proportions, a hairspray skyscraper. She wears slightly too much powder-blue eye shadow that is carefully matched to the color of her thin turtleneck sweater. She holds Johno on her knee, lightly bouncing him--though he is too big for this--her long hard white fingernails mildly alarming whenever she pushes his hair across his forehead. She looks at you and nods hello, already expecting the worst.

At the room’s far edge, across a bay of orange carpet, almost swallowed by her recliner, Aunt Grace sits knitting. She is white-haired and thick-calved, wearing big nunnish brown shoes, a solid blue dress, and a red shawl so tasseled and incomplete-looking your initial thought is that she is knitting it upon her own shoulders. You know that amid the needles‚ steady clicking Grace is waiting for the inevitable flare of discord between you and Muff, whereupon she will quietly stand to leave and, later in the evening, offer neutral comfort to you both. With age comes wisdom: the sort of bromide one hears all the time, even as less and less clear evidence seems to support it. Grace is welcome proof that--at least sometimes, in some people--with age comes wisdom. But Grace is not much help with what vexes you today. Her own husband, Herb, died of a heart attack in his forties, still wracked by the horrors of World War One’s battlefields. Herb never spoke of the war to Grace, and thus, in your mind, she never truly knew the man she loved. War, then. Always war. In regard to the war, your war, you could very much use some human wisdom right now. You are thirty-three years old and the events of the last few weeks have not made much sense. Or rather, the events have made sense, but nothing else has.

Vietnam is a dream to you. It has been eight years since you took in its scents, felt its Asian sunlight on your white skin. The war comes to you now not as whole memory but in pieces and fragments as ragged and drifty as ash. Up half the night, turning in the wet-flannel heat, checking on sentries, checking on your gunner placements. Up early in the morning for patrols, still hot. Or sleeping all day for night patrols, hot again, these night patrols the worst, always the worst, feeling like four-hour-long panic attacks enacted within a nightmare. Your clothes rotting, your feet rotting. The ankle sores that never healed and remained as bright and wet as fresh raspberries. The sweat that was like another layer of clothing. Your smell, that deep swampy smell of your body. The mold you picked from between your toes and flicked lightheartedly at whomever was nearest. The smell of twenty Marines‚ unwashed asses and unbrushed teeth all around you, the olfactory orchestra of the jungle itself, the warm buttery smell of a cleaned M-14, the firecracker stench of gunfire. You still smell it, sometimes, when you wake up sweating, Muff having been driven to the couch hours before by your kicking. You smell it when the remnant of the malaria banished to the depths of your cells catches you with a chill that almost takes you to your knees, when your limbs thrum with a ghostly soreness, when the shrapnel wound on your neck glows with a sudden inner fire.

You left Vietnam in late 1966, a time when the word quagmire was just abandoning Roget’s as its most natural habitat. The war then was still tenable, winnable--or so it was thought. But now it was fini la guerre, the real fini, not the “peace with honor” that extricated the Americans in 1973, only two years before, but the final campaign. A headline you saw only seven days ago: “Hope Thins for Millions Adrift Across Indochina.” Your hope has thinned, too, and your very body aches of its thinning. You feel incomplete, as though within you some crucial girder of emotion has gone missing. That part of you is still in Vietnam. That part never left.



Tom Bissell is the author of Chasing the Sea and God Lives in St. Petersburg. He contributes to Harper’s Magazine, The Believer, and other publications. He lives in New York.



Tom Bissell is the author of Chasing the Sea and God Lives in St. Petersburg. He contributes to Harper’s Magazine, The Believer, and other publications. He lives in New York.