Authors: Harold Brodkey
Everyone in the audience, in the crowd, who was not crippled or arthritic—the drunken midlifers and the eighty-year-olds and the stoned younger ones, countryside working class—danced stiffly wildly. We were whitely and self-consciously orgiastic. In a somewhat consciously traditional way and as rebels as well. The sexual self-revelations, such as they were, suited the room and the lake. And explained the privacy of clubs and summer places. Explained my parents’ summertime snobbery, explained night clubs and lakeside resorts in a new and somewhat comic way, a touching way, with a sense of kinship. All the things I have not lived were present. I never was Dionysian.
Bad news, broken heart, absurd tension. Still, the light among the trees and the fragments of sky, pale, glowing blue like the nylon over my head with the light in it, say it will be a pretty day.
Je m’en foutisme
—I-don’t-give-a-damn-ism: is that the note I whistle? From the time I was old enough and strong enough to have my own way at least partly, even as a boy, I have insisted on living part of each day, a moment or two, without suffering. And without cold willfulness. A civilized moment or two of freedom and of emotion.
I bought this land last year, five acres; four are wooded and steep and set among gray, lichenous rocks and closed in by a forty-foot rock face and a lower, sloping meadow—small, less than an acre, and ringed with hemlocks—and in the woods between the meadow and these rocks a small, green, wooden, three-room house with three porches and a steep, wood-shingled roof and summer-camp shutters.
I would like to do a tree census—find out how many trees I own, how many branches, how many twigs and leaves. And bugs. A quarter of a million leaves. A million leaves … I am a millionaire of rustling leaves … of grass blades. Of molecules of air … I own the air I breathe at this minute. Cubic yards of air, invisible stones of a luminous temple.
What are the statistics? Seventy-five maples, eighty beeches, seventeen oaks, seven junior oaks, seven hemlocks including one, uh, picturesque giant. And so on. But I am inventing that. Sitting now on a log, drinking coffee, having a death-time cigarette, sitting on my red-and-blue air mattress, I look around at the uneven ground and nearby cliff, the trees that grew against the rock and that are fastened to the rock, leafy pilasters. The scattered and decaying leaves on the ground. The trees I own are not quite singular for me; they are
, a generalized mass:
Do you suppose God is this way about souls? I haven’t named any of my trees. In the morning light, I look around—
the leaner, the life-is-a-beech, the straight-up maple near the boundary line to the east, the birch society, a crooked copse
.… Those aren’t names of long-term affection. The feelings I have toward them are half-baked, inchoate, are unlike any feeling I have had toward animals or people or things … the patient, fluttering trees … A wind is springing up, stirs my semi-named, half-nameless trees.… A blur of vegetation, branches thickened to the eye by their motion, the cinder roses of shadow move on the ground.… The terms come from a Spanish poem: the smear of vegetation … cinder roses.… Thought stops. The great invisible chain links of mountain wind lash at my woods. I listen with abrupt, incredible simplicity to the sound of that wind, the forceful and shifting exercise of the morning wind. All around me spread shivering whorls of tethered shadows, an infinity of motions of a million twigs. The world is active and stirs eccentrically and rustlingly, stirs differently in the blond, sunlit upper air and in the more constrained greenish lower air. Nature has said,
I will make the tethered trees wild.
Dionysiac release? I suppose so. A rehearsal for the release of seeds. An invisible embrace. The motion of the mountainside.
Clouds, too, are a smear, they move so rapidly in the wind. Capitalism has a spiritual side—a pagan spiritual side and a Christian one, one of self-examination and of values, of truths beyond truths. And it has a civilly spiritual side: a keep-your-house-pretty side, a wear-the-right-clothes side. The responsibility for the condition of the immediate world is clearly placed, whether the community uses its knowledge of such identifiable responsibility with intelligence or not. These trees will outlive me unless I become thoroughly a capitalist or a destructive dying man, rampantly assertive, and have them lumbered.
I control the fate of the trees rustling in a morning wind, in the shudder of the air. The cinder roses of the skidding and fluttering and whirling shadows are sometimes like the splashed gray letters of a restless alphabet slipping over rocks and dead branches on the ground, over wild grass in the meadow, grass stained reddish here and there by reddish seed heads, with yellow and white wildflowers visible among the grasses. A dry stream, over moss, sedum, tansy, goutweed, bluets, wild mustard, and wild phlox, rockets in openings among the trees. Shadows and leaves in their vegetable and aerial life move over me in a profound sweetening of the moment.
My life is a mess; yet I am fairly happy. Perhaps unfairly. I can’t say I understand happiness. In my case it always has an uncaring, what-the-hell element and is a form of dizzied satisfaction that is unfeeling at its center, freed from feeling, almost a cry of
The sense of completion is like a satisfaction with its spine of shameful triumph … of peace and escape. It is shallow of me and in my blood—an old traditional thing—and it is the deepest and most savage emotion I ever have, it is the deepest part of me, to be happy. It is based on my ignoring an important number of things, but I have a rebellious nature of this sort. In a pagan sense it is a serious business to be happy.
This is absurd, this sequence of thoughts. How far would I go morally, toward death, how far did I go, to own my so far unnamed, not deeply known trees? If I want money now, I have to think harder about how to negotiate, how to handle
the situations that will establish the amount of money I will have while I die. I have to figure out how to put the fear of God into the pimp-Jones and the rat-Moore.
I will probably do what is necessary—what part of my soul do I want to save at this point? What do I care about? When I was a child, no one told me what life was actually like.… I wish I had been told. Now I am waiting while the wind mumbles and stammers, twitches, as if it were alive and standing still, an immense, transparent ruminant-acrobat, a glass creature resting from its stampede of a moment ago. I wait for it to return, the large, invisible, active, somersaulting mountain wind among the trees in my wood. The brief, embracing wind.
Death? Ugliness? Who gives a goddamn fuck? Who gives a good goddamn fuck? Here it comes, the first transparent steps—and leaps—of the wind among the trees.
In the end I guess at him. I use a-sense-of-things. In a kind of clouded gray space inside my head, I guess at him. I probably can’t do this, guess at him and be right.
We are silent, one day, Jass and I, after doing dares—daring each other to
up the pipe-frame of the row of swings in Jackson Park, riding the swing up and over the bar. Then I stood on the ground and held Jass on my shoulders while he threw the swings back over the bars. He was agreeable to us covering our tracks.
We lay sprawled on the itchy grass in that park. It seems too intense to mention the odors of the ground, of the season. Such sensory reality was part of being that age, being boys. Jass’s unreliable comradeship, today’s fate of the world, the fate of the world so far, and us, him and me, lying on the grass and the odors of the grass are mixed together, unalterably.
Intense rivalry is infatuation of a kind, a sensitivity to the whole
of the other person because you want to win. I never started conversations or said things without being asked. He seems more bold. He as if moves in a field or meadow or big schoolyard of such holding back in me. He asks, “Are you scared to think about being dead?”
“I don’t know.”
“Come on. Imagine yourself buried.”
After a moment: “Naw. I don’t want to.”
I’m not always aware of color. If I relax, I feel a creeping suffusion of color into the day: blue sky, white clouds, oddly various, changeable greens—as if color itself were nervous and changeable—and greenish shadows on largely pinkish-white-beige-ocher Jass, the topography of the boy’s face. I
the existence of language, but aural color is different from visual color. It smacks of magic, and real color is just the world.
I asked Jass, “Are you frightened of being hurt—in the body?”
I had an adolescent voice: an infatuation and uncertainty toward issues of courage.
Then I hear him. First, the sound. Then the hidden mathematician-thinker-spy called memory deals with what he says and makes it orderly.
He said, “I don’t know. I don’t mind it.”
“You don’t get frightened?”
“I’m not afraid
of being hurt
I recognized that he had a manner of insensitivity and dry boldness, but it was only a manner, and it seemed sensitive and cagey in its way.
It frightened me back then, that he—and other kids—knew what they thought. I had to think a long time to know what I thought.
I said, shielding my eyes, “I’m not
I get up. I stand on the sloping and somewhat faintly spinning disklike floor of park grass, tree roots.
“I have to go home.”
In a more clearly sequential movement than mine, he got up. He has a tensed, wry, small smile—nice—
In real life, if someone wants to talk or walk or whatever with you, it can be very moving.
We walk maybe twenty yards, and then he starts taking giant steps as in Simple Simon. I start to walk with large Boy Scout hiking strides. Then, after a little while, he starts to hop; he hops up a slope in the small park and onto a six-lane boulevard, Delmar. I speed up and push him into the rear of a passing bus, and I hurry on, not worrying if he is hurt or not. I am deep inside my innocence. I hop past stone walls and up a steeply sloping macadam-and-pebble street in front of a stone church in a neighborhood of large houses. Then he passes me. Then we’re running, racing. He’s the faster sprinter. He sprints and slows, sprints and slows. I can outlast him in a mile, but he suddenly sprints far ahead, and I give up and start to walk. He’s ten, fifteen yards ahead of me. He waits for me to draw near him. He’s not breathing hard. I am. We’re near the intersection of two winding, tree-lined, lawn-skirted, large-house-lined suburban streets, a perspectival crucifix, empty of movement. When we cross the street, the scene assumes a faintly wheeling spoked motion. I am partly still out of breath.
Jass holds his arms out in the attitude of the crucifixion. He says, “Do you dislike Jesus?”
I start to count out loud, “Wuhin, tooo(eee), three-uh, foerrrr, fi-i-i(ve)—”
“Whu-it ehr-are yuh-oo dooooinbn Wo/ih/hileeee?” Wiley, my name. It is odd, what actual voices, unidealized, are like in the real air of a real day.
“I’m counting—if I count to seventeen, I get to see God.”
Honest to-ooo Gohw-idd—aw-er yew gointa see Gawh-dddd(uh) now
“It’s not a swindle, asshole. I’m not asking you for anything.”
Jass believes the world is tricky. “Are you going to see God here—right now—in University City? On Melbourne?” The name of the street.
“Nahuhhhhhhh. I won’t see God if you’re here. Wait:
now, there He is
“You masturbate too much,” Jass says, and hits me on the arm, the side of the shoulder, hard. This is a very quiet neighborhood. The intersection is silent, is empty. He looks at me from a distance. “Admit it,” he says.
He is notorious for talking dirty in the locker room and for doing dirty things and getting everyone else to do them. I shake my head.
He says abruptly, addressing my (comparative)
“You—and Winston Churchill …” Noble and unnecessarily ambitiously disciplined.
Then he jumps me and we are wrestling. He is further into exerting himself to win than I expected—the strained, wrestlingly moving, tensed-and-taut physical weight and will are a shock, are dismaying—he is right on me, right on top, like an animal, his braced haunches and physical mass, the fleshiness, wriggling
with wild, would-be-victorious purpose.
I hammer him in the face, saying, “Don’t you
He is forcing my arms down. He looms over me. He demands with a surprising amount of breath and only a little breathlessness, “What are you thinking about now? Are you looking for God?”
I frighteningly turn and twist. We’re leery of the ways we each think the other is a nut. We’re as if dressed in spikes to keep feelings off us. They leap bodilessly on us all the time anyway, feelings that seem like cat-family moods, dog moods, horse moods.