As We Approach Babel

by Stanley Jenkins

This story orginally appeared in 32 Pages.


"On my American plains I feel the struggling afflictions
Endur'd by roots that writhe their arms into the nether deep:"

William Blake

Tell. What shall I tell? Tell of the conflict of passion and security from a long time ago. I went fishing with my Dad once. The knife in cold water. And the liquid smear of red. Do you remember the snake? Long and black. Curved like the waves. It snatches the guts and is gone.

Clean the fish and sing old songs.

 

Michigan. The land has gone elsewhere. This is what I was thinking from my window seat at the back of the bus. I wasn't thinking about my father or my new life in New York, or even about cancer or the fact that this time my father would surely die. I was thinking about Michigan and its expressionless face, as tender and as taunting as an autistic child's.

Meanwhile, in Howell my father's body was transforming itself into a vast network of darkening tumors—"melanomas" they are called. He was turning black from the inside out as if already his body were returning to dirt. I imagined soy beans and field corn cropping up between his ribs and his joints.

When my aunt called, I boarded the bus at Port Authority. I hadn't been back in seven years—in fact, since I'd left home for college in the Northern Ohio flatlands.

 

Consider for a moment the problem of origins. How can it be that we come from one place and not another? My people were all shiftless wanderers before they settled in Howell. No landowners these folk, but all second and third sons and daughters without birthright. A rootless nation, and yet something drew them here to this place. Between Lansing and Detroit, in the center of a right hand's palm, which has neither love nor life lines, a fortuneteller's nightmare.

 

My father's face was lost to me on the bus but I could still see the rest of him in my mind, rocking on the porch, his back to the land, his face to the house, chin slightly lifted, hands empty. Rock. Rock. Rock. And me in the yard watching, and behind me the stupid emptiness of Howell and beyond that a presence, an awareness. Watching. Watching. Watching. But on the bus: Word disease. But on the bus. The telling. The re-telling. This is the story. To tell, to re-tell, to re-member the limbs that were broken when Babel first fell: Return. But on the bus I was thinking about Michigan and I was thinking about a face beneath a mask and other things which invisibly distend smooth surfaces. Michelangelo's slaves yearning for escape from marble prisons. I was returning.

And old songs.

 

Out of the cradle endlessly rock....Rock....Rocking/A reminiscence sing....

That from Walt Whitman.

 

J. Calvin Biggs. It's a signed name but it's mine. And in time it comes to identify something immanent but ineffable. My mother named me after her own grandfather, John Calvin, deacon in the Presbyterian Church and vicious-faced corn liquor dealer who would not take his wife to see the doctor and who would not acknowledge her fits until at last she had to have a hysterectomy because in Howell in those days an old woman's fear and epilepsy were the result of a wandering womb—hysteria they called it. Poppa I called him. He lived a long time and then he died. They gave me his name.

I grew up in Howell, Michigan—roughly in the middle of the state between Lansing and Detroit. Home of a former Grand Wizard of the KKK, and in the outskirts: strange utopian communities of rabid NRA and State's Rights devotees. The people here are fundamentally the product of an American religious impulse. But a mutant impulse. A Spirit turned violent and moving across the face of the swamp. Those damned yankees moving from their Vermont and New York farms, their eyes heavy-lidded with Puritan dreams of the Shining City on the Hill—and later the effluvia from the Canal Boom washed ashore like a tide pool far from the Great Lakes—and still later the mass exodus from the forever carpetbagger South and from dead Appalachian hills—these people, my people, came here and went no further. It is as if the land itself has gone to sleep. It's the dreams that make us crazy out here.

I grew up in the house on the hill in Howell. Civil War heroes lived there before me. My father was an important man in town. President of the Rotary Club. I had a name, a history, a place in Howell. I wanted more. A future.

 

Bury my body Lord, I don't care where—say/Bury my body Lord, I don't care where—say/Bury my body cause my soul is going to live with God/O yeah.

 

But on the bus. Partial memory. And so the beginnings of return and the re-covering of the original face. Tell. What shall I tell? Tell of sad Enkidu and of standing in proud Gilgamesh's shadow. Remember. I remembered. Paula Cassiday. She came to Howell from suburban Detroit when I was a senior in high school. She'd run away three times and her parents felt that the quietness and stability of a small town would take away her restlessness. She wore patchouli oil, smoked clove cigarettes, had frizzy hair and knew things she'd never learned from TV. Like a well-thumbed volume of the Marquis de Sade in a pastor's library, she called everything around her into question, including me. It was between her thighs and on the back of a silent Michigan landscape that I first learned the possibility of being other than who you are.

"Do you want a cigarette?"

"I don't smoke."

She smiled at me.

"How do you know, have you ever tried?"

One Friday night in the early fall, Paula borrowed her father's car, picked me up from the house on the hill, where my own father sat rocking and drinking in silence and took me out here to this faceless Michigan swampland. She sat me down next to a dead tree and I could smell her hair and my shoulders were trembling though the night was warm.

"You're afraid of me aren't you?"

I didn't say anything.

"I thought you were different."

"Different from what?"

She smiled again.

"Why don't you kiss me?"

Her thighs beneath her faded jeans, her breasts beneath her evergreen sweater, the touch of her palm scandalizing my knee, moving closer—cars on icy curves—moving closer—I tasted her tongue.

"See, that wasn't so bad was it?"

I couldn't catch my breath.

"Just relax Calvin—people do it all the time."

"What if you get pregnant?"

"I'm on the pill."

She sat watching me.

"Haven't you ever wanted to just say fuck it all and go for it, Calvin?"

I nodded.

She lay down beside me. She unsnapped her jeans and spread her legs. Her underwear was white and glowing in the moon. I touched her breast. Her lips were warm. She sighed and I lay with her. The night was cool on my bare legs and her back was arched. Remember. I remember.

 

Howell. And as we approach. I wanted more.

 

Tell. What shall I tell? Tell of exile in the city and stage repetitions. Tell of the new life in the land east of Eden. Remember. I remembered. Every weekend in New York, the lights would come up on a stage empty except for me in a chair with my cowboy hat down over my eyes. It was always the same. The truly American myth of the lone gun. Authority and lawlessness with a badge. I was the sheriff.

On stage in the city I did not think of my origins. I had no origins. Mime, my chosen medium, was perfect for avoidance—a void dance where white-faced ghosts walk against invisible winds in highly stylized gestures. And I too was merely myth in my white-out face—the archetypal loner in my chair. Perhaps I was aging—perhaps I was the original aging shootist waiting for that new young gun who would take me out to make a name for himself. A notch on a pistol belt. Marcel Marceau does Shane.

The lights would come up on me alone on stage. This was my showcase. In the troupe I was the slapstick artist, the Buster-Keaton-faced silent movie star. There is something about my face which allows for the humor of expressionlessness. The lack of response to all stage-calamities.

Christie would enter at this point, whooping wildly and silently and riding her mime horse. Among all the members of the troupe she was the purest mime. Her life on and off stage was a subversive mimicry of established forms. She kept stealing the grant money to buy drugs. Not for herself, of course, but to pass them out on the streets. With an eruption she would enter and shatter the silence and the pathos of the lone gun. She was the loose cannon, wild one, shooting up the town—and I was the tired and sadly inadequate lawman.

The humor was conventional. My horse would not stand still for my mounting. I could not draw my gun without shooting myself in the foot. We raced through the stage town, a Marx brothers version of "Gunfight at the OK Corral". And I, the tired and once proud hero of the American West, milked laughter through incompetence and stone-faced resolution.

But of course, the piece ends with me bringing the outlaw to justice, and of course it ends with me back in my chair, a reclining figure. Christie, the wild one, is subdued—for the moment.

Remember. I remember.

 

J. Calvin Biggs. I left Howell. After college in the Northern Ohio flatlands I came to New York. The denial of origins itself. New York is the city of bad consciences and expatriates. I was a mime in the city. But as we approach and on the bus: Return. I was on the bus and I was returning. Memory. It's the embodiment of loss and impermanence, but still the Theseus thread leading home. You should have seen me among my fine fellow travellers. American pilgrims. There is a restlessness in our America as if a whole nation were overtired and unable to relinquish itself to sleep. Memory and word disease. Motion. Everyone on the bus was going home. Going through the motions of a habitual Homestead Act.

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