The first time self met Payne was ‑ as Payne himself so recently reminded him at Dad's funeral, Henry looking unbelievably aged tottering on the edge of the pit they dug for Dad, a shambling old man penalized by the sagging muscles all that lifetime of ape's work had put on his frame, Payne at his side no longer the spotty twenty year old of memory's automatic evocation but a thick necked, swank looking - yes, swank, a word Dad might have used, a big band era word but just right to describe the slightly bogus odor of Payne's virility - almost forty year old success, a made man, with a dark suit and the spicy smell of a male cologne mixing with the good bean soup smell of his sweat on the humid May air, a black flower pinned to his lapel, nice touch, self shaking hands with him almost swimming in the warmth exuded from his broad, tanned, moist face, hot out here ain't it, you all ought to visit me down there in Miami, heck, after this, bring your wife, to Julia, you haven't even met mine yet, Cindy, self is your newest one, and Payne is I'm a little rock off the old Gibraltar when it comes to women, poking his father, maybe falling into schtick, a bit, wonder if he really talks like that, but I have something more important in my life right now than the party life, to Julia going Cindy couldn't believe that you were the Julia Labreton, I have a little girl that surely idolizes you, they would love it if you folks came down ‑ was, was when, was at fifteen, self visiting Uncle Henry for two months, July and August. In Shreveport. To work for him, that was the deal, self having come up with this idea himself. Break away from being stoned all the time, it was starting to get depressing, all him and Mark ever talked about any more. Self is into transforming reality, but he was starting to long long long for just a little of that reality to work with. Yesterday gets foggy, the day before gets even foggier, soon you don't know if it has been raining all week, it sure does feel like it. Of course he didn't mention this aspect of the case to Mom and Dad, who remained officially unaware of their son's chemical tinkering with his brain cells; who were, in fact, a little afraid to make the fact finding foray into his room, there in the basement, or to ask about his disconnection, his tranced distance from them, dinner after dinner. By the time Payne is reminding him of that summer self has ordained an official image of this time, an image of morbid inwardness, son of the Fall of the House of Usher (the Roger Corman version) without the horse to gallop around on, he likes to give people a rather exaggerated picture of dosages, of himself and Mark sitting around like Gladstone's only hippie underground, he likes to dwell on the vandalism among the synapses, oh that dopamine cowboy, there he is, yucking it up deep in the pleasure center. People who know self eventually end up knowing this shit, making jokes, snide comments, his students for instance, he must tell them, but he has been shocked at least once, years before, that there is another at least version of himself, Mom's to Julia's, her telling Julia in the kitchen (self supposedly watching the football game with Dad and Brian in the living room but no, folks, really standing in the doorway, or not exactly in it so you could see him, the old urge to sneak around kicking in whenever he came home) listening to the women talking, Mom and Julia and Dita, self always has a feeling about the women talking, like he's set on cracking that code, and Mom creating a fabulously normal self, so talkative at the dinner table, his school day, his homework on the business desk moved downstairs from Dad's office upstairs, his dates, the time he insisted on going out and working for Uncle Henry one summer, toughening himelf up for, check this out, the soccer team next fall, Mom having not a clue what a nest of pot and acid heads that soccer team really was, I mean who else plays soccer in high school in Georgia! His life, out of Mom's mouth, horribly touched by some tv oriented narrative, his rebellion cheapened, wasn't it rebellion? He would have burst in and pointed out his Luciferian sincerity, but he was afraid that they would all laugh at him. Briefly, his image of his teen‑hood was dissolved, and in its place he saw an other self, a hypothetical self fitting neatly into all the exterior points of his biography. He still, back then, standing silently just out of their sight, didn't have the distance. Now of course distance was no problem. He had distance in spades. Oddly enough, this particular moment, with its slight tinge of inexplicable humiliation, carries him back to the pure claustrophobia of fifteen, to the feeling of being glued to his high school and the streets of his subdivision after dark ‑ a subdivision now a little the worse for wear, Dad at the table predicting in ten years time it will all be black, miles from Mom and Dad's new, two acre estate, as Dad calls it half jokingly ‑ to the comic book pathos of thinking that the whole thing was some sort of conspiracy of diminishment. The limits of his world adhered to his very skin, as though they were made of flypaper.
One of the great things about being stoned with Mark was that then, they didn't.
So he hightails it, this is how he would tell it most of the time, to Louisiana, (who has he told this to?) years later, (nobody, hasn't told it in years) the day after the funeral in fact, (or thought of it in years) Payne saying you were one skinny mother weren't you, shaking his head, well those were the days, you seem to have fallen into eating habits, reaching over with one large, tanned hand and laying it on self's belly, as softly as if self were pregnant, self noticing this the thick, gold plated ring on one hairy finger, the wedding band on the other, this man, can't get over him, and also Payne accomplishing this gesture, imagine self sober with the tactile boldness, now, to reach out like that, violate someones territory almost wilfully, is this what being a saleman does for you, with such endearing gentleness self was having a hard time focusing on the way that story should go, getting one Payne from back in 1975, a gauche, sometimes violent boy he'd had a fight with the last week he worked with him, together with this man from 1992. The latter Payne was, after three days, beginning to seem alarmingly natural, the old Payne, or rather the younger Payne, older than this older version, (making, oh it hurts, the younger self only older, the age the older self carries with him having this increasingly hideous young face which the older self doesn't see, every morning, in the mirror) fading into its lineaments like some illness he'd once had, an illness that self had had to witness, both of them like revenants from some wilderness outpost met years later. Except he is not getting that vibe at all from Payne. So self has been thinking, okay, one more time, maybe this man has actually been transformed, maybe the twenty year old he was was a mistake, hasn't self himself said, like it was his credo, there is no core to your being, said this to students, to other artists, to everyone, there's only some shapeshifting emptiness, echo or psyche ... Maybe the mistake is the way self was perceiving things, ever think of that? anything is possible now that Dad is dead, he thinks, so it is the night before Payne is going to go, self says buddy, (all of them sitting out there on the porch, Mom looking up from the 'thank you so much for your thoughts in this time of grief', giving self a sharp glance over her glasses) how about you and me going out for a drink. Which Payne accepted with alacrity, sure cousin, somewhat surprising self. I'm getting a little itchy, let's do it. The man is dying to go out on the town, of course! is self's thought, climbing into his Infinity, man you must be something in sales down there, Bo (exaggerating his Southern voice, a habit he keeps falling into with Payne), this baby must cost, and Payne is boy, reversing like a heart attack up the driveway and into the street, self finding himself flailing with seat belt, I'm a dealer, I have a deal with another dealer, he's Japanese, I'm van, we cross-pollinate, forward so self braces himself in the zero to sixty, hey this is a neighborhood street, Bro, and that means I get to tool one around, it all comes out as business expense, taxes you know, let the government pay for it. Payne pronounces it gov'mint. In the back of his mind as they head south into the part of the metro area self is still familiar with it's I've found him now, that spotty boy isn't dead, that pussy hound, still sure as shit driving like the redneck I used to know, I got him! as if this was some immense victory, and he thinks I'll just watch, now, knowing that he is falling into a delusion he has experienced quite a bit, recently, that he can watch people and the force of that watching, the power of it, will force them to materialize out of the tomb of appearance they lug around, the real spirit haunting the tomb work of everyday life, ectoplasmic, blue, a wierd flicker in the air around it, climbing with immense effort out of the waylaying bandages, the cerements and ceremonies, will manifest itself, oh, not in any major change, you have to have the tracking eye for it, you have to know what signifies, here, in changes that are subtle, changes of voice, the glance out of the side of the eye, a sudden burst of out of context phrases, which self with his special gift will simply receive, tuned to this frequency, his non-intervening, thin smile plastered to his face. The spirit knows it is being ouijied out of there, and it doesn't like it. Now self knows knows that this delusion is like the one he has that he is the upside down man, a phrase he came up with years ago that haunts him, his variation on the underground man, he'll be walking along normally, la de da, and suddenly he'll think I'm the upside down man and... Well, and. Things do seem to change, he has visions and strangers come up to him in coffee houses and get intimate, sometimes electricity leaks out of his fingers and he does his best work but he also knows that, duh, things are naturally going to seem to change when you are out of wack. His big fear right now is being out of wack, wrong time for that, Mom needs, needs... something, comfort, love, he's called upon. Plus the dreadful funeral, Aunt May staring at him under the gray mass of her foul fiend hair like he was still the unforgiveable twenty-five year old, Jan avoiding him, Julia having toubles with Aunt Lane, poor thing'd gone senile, her teeth kept getting lost, not that it bothered her a bit, big smile to frighten the neighbor's kids, wandering around asking where Jack was, why isn't Jack here? And through all this he is feeling a certain palpable cry coming out from Mom, one of those batzone cries that women emit, you are around them and suddenly aware of something in your larger sense of hearing, some pang of abandonment. Unbearable to think that he was in no position to do anything for her. Although face it, it wasn't only for her, he's trying to understand, since the man whose seed he comes from is dead, just what his life amounts to as a total thing. To read it in his acts, and not imply its richness from his mere responses, from the complex entertainments of his sensibility, fuck his sensibility, there are times he hates his sensibility, he entertains himself all to much. A real masturbator, this guy, self. Come up with it, he keeps telling himself. A belief, some use to others. To an other. To one separate other. Afraid he can't. So Payne is something of a diversion. Still, self is curious, and he wants to check out whether Payne has really changed that much. Afterwards he'll figure out if that is a good thing or not. So he guides Payne to a small Country and Western inclined bar on Memorial he'd been to with Chuck Forsyth last time he'd been in Atlanta, he was wondering if Payne would start hinting around about going out to the Gold Club, Cheetah's, some tittie bar. At the same time he is uncomfortable, why slander the guy, you don't know anything about him, where do you get this attitude from? A good question, but there's no time to go into it. Not with Payne sitting across from him at a table, telling self how Cindy helped him find the Lord, making self groan, no, the same story for three days running, can't be. Finally self has to tell him I'm suffering from cognitive dissonance, here, just bear with me, puts both hands up and grabs his hair, you are telling me you are not only a Jehovah's Witness, which I respect because of your wife, she's one and you want to make her happy, I understand that, but that you are happy being one, that here you are in Atlanta away from her, Atlanta, Payne, tittie bar heaven, Payne, remember Bossier City, and you are telling me, Bo (he keeps up with the Southern crap, Bo and Buddy and Budro, where is it coming from?) all you want is to get back and go to these whatever you call them, religious orgies. Payne nods, smiling at the idea of them as religious orgies, already ‑ it has only been three days ‑ putting down self's manner of speech as one of those quirks you find at family reunions ‑ like Cousin Buster the thirty year old bedwetter, or Aunt Verna, the child severely poked who asks, Aunt Verna, why do you have a beard ‑ and altogether acting as though his religion were a major accomplishment, as though after self saw him last he'd gone on to become something as rare and admired as an astronaut, and he was letting it out modestly in order not to hurt self's inferrable sense of the comparative modesty of his accomplishments so far. Payne, in fact, come to think of it, has been exerting this certain competitiveness since he's been up here, although he lets it out in such mild doses that it is hard for self to confront, especially given that he is at the same time trying to comprehend Dad's death. Self is finding himself, lately, pointing out his own accomplishments, in a really adolescent way, too, dropping the fact that he'd been featured in various art mags, he'd been in fact only three years ago on the cover of Art + Party, one of those eighties art mags in the big newspaper format which Payne doesn't need to know is now defunct, had even found the old copy in Mom's ceramic room, waving it around, Payne just as pleased, self looking out that Julia doesn't come in upon them, can imagine her withering remarks, you are showing him that bogus article? No, unfair, he's simply being paranoid, he always gets a case of Oedipal petulance when he's in his folks new house, which he always thinks of as new even though they moved from Gladstone maybe ten years ago, the new is that it is simply not the house he grew up in. It was just that the joke about Street being a painter (what do you charge per room?) was wearing a little thin, Julia said I thought it was funny, Street, he really did think housepainter, self not so sure and also what is this with Julia's patience for this bozo, not bozo, but he would have thought she might have at least some sarcasm to direct at his let's say less than educated comments about a few things, and also he was simply surprised that Mom was making so much of Payne, I mean he was used to being in Julia's shadow, but Payne? I mean Payne is what, some fucking car salesman, Julia goes not cars, vans, customized vans, well I don't call that star quality, and his thing about Cindy, are we supposed to get down on our hands and knees, like she's the fucking Madonna, he's just catching us up on him Mom says, to lesser bitching, but okay. Okay, self goes, I'm mature, I can take this, Dad's dead and I'm worried about this? So he's making the effort, but finally he has to ask, what are you doing with this, then, self says, holding up Payne's drink, or is your church less strict on drinking. Oh, Payne says, it is one of the failings of the flesh but it isn't a major thing, Cindy drinks, saying Cindy as though she embodied the soul's ascent, I mean when we go out, never around the child, there are people who from the meetings who drink, sometimes, it is just a matter of enjoying wisely. To tell you the truth, I'd rather not. I used to love the stuff, but now the taste palls on my tongue. I'll tell you another thing, I would love to get Daddy and Ma to move down to Florida partly cause I think I could get him straight about, you know, his beering himself up, I know what he thinks, he thinks beer ain't alcohol, always says it is just beer. That is the way it goes with addicts, Street, (what, has Julia been talking to him?) it is killing both them,(what kind of look was that, I'm like Henry?) and I would never touch a drop again if my prayer is answered there. But you know Daddy, he is stubborn, he still thinks he's twenty, he thinks he's a rodeo star, he thinks he is still out there with Patton. We feel, you and Cindy self interrupts, right, we feel that he should have a community around him at his age, there is his grandchild, there are good people, retired people, we know, wonderful people his age come to the meetings, don't you think that it is never too late to change? I mean I do, I am convinced a man can be reborn at any moment in his life, don't matter if he is ninety. I tell you what, if it was anyone but me suggesting it he'd be down there now, like a shot, I mean what is there to do in that state he is living in, you know that economy has gone to Hades in a handbasket there, but he is such a proud eagle. I'm not putting him down for a second, he raised me and that was damned hard business, I know it. I respect him more than any man, I want to do as much for my Teesha. So I probably won't be giving up drink for his sake in the near future, unless there is a miracle. Even then, thing is, I might just drink then for his sake, so he doesn't feel I'm giving up anything. But maybe I'll give it up for my sake, and then, you know what, crossing his arms across his chest, when I do, you'll ask me why I am such a prude. You can't please the world. I've learned that one. I've tasted, I guess you could say, something sweeter than wine.
Self sits there, listens, tells Julia later, after Julia told him that Mom was a lot more depressed than she was letting on, self knowing that and not liking the way Julia was saying it as though self should be doing something, that he was scrambling for his memories of that summer when he went to Shreveport listening to Payne talking, it about drove him crazy.
I think Payne is very nice, says Julia, as if self was saying anything against him. Honey, I am astonished that that is Payne, I think maybe Payne is dead in a ditch and this guy, who looks just like him, has taken his place or something. It is one of those crossed destinies things, two men who look just alike, Nabokov has some story like that.
But Julia was going to sleep, making that hmm, mm sound to self's remarks which was the giveaway, leaving self to sort out that summer on his lonesome, living in Henry's house. What a house. The house had been built the year before self saw it, and the lot it was on, the acre, was still dirt and weeds and clutter, a pile of bricks here, lumber there, a heap of tarpaper and shingles over there, Henry not having bothered to even make a show of caring about a lawn, so that every time it rained, and it rained almost every day that humid summer, not a lot but punctually around three o'clock in the afternoon, the water carried soil out of the yard into the road, leaving a red stain in the road in front of the house and ruts in the yard a half a foot deep. This didn't really make Henry an eccentric, though, the guy in the neighborhood who is, for obscure reasons of his own, trying to run down property values, as the road the house was on was a rather odd offshoot of a road that ran through the pine woods outside of Shreveport in the direction of Longview, Texas, and the other four houses just never jelled, in all that waste country, as a suburb - they had that frontier feeling of maybe this is a mistake, that lassitude as to appearances, even down to what people wore, guys in what had to be boxer shorts washing the car, women wearing nightgowns or two piece bathing suits at three o'clock in the afternoon, coming out to check the mail, and so none of the lawns of the houses would have passed muster in Gladstone, Georgia, even the ones that did have grass. The house, Henry's house, was made of pink bricks. It was, self thought, extraordinarily elongated. This impression of it being longer than normal along one axis was caused perhaps by it being a single level house, and so the line of it being unrelieved by any feeling of volume or of height. Inside you immediately saw that it divided into two wings; a division not so much of architecture as of spirit, as though the very daydreams of the inhabitants of the house left a material aura and odor in the rooms of their conceiving. One wing was Aileen's and Henry's, and this consisted of their bedroom, the kitchen, the dining room, the living room, and a laundry room/tool room, all done up in patriotic motifs. Like the wall paper, which showed a pattern of American flags from every period, the round thirteen stars from the Revolutionary times to the forty-eight stars of the fifties and the fifty stars of today; there were, in addition, pictures of the presidents on the wall in the kitchen and living room, and a picture of General Patton up in their bedroom, over their bed, no less, where he presided over Henry and Aileen's own battle of the Bulge, when they were in the mood - a joke, self thought of it and thought of sharing it with someone, but there wasn't anyone. There was also a sword and a fake blunderbuss in glass and oak cases mounted on the wall in the living room behind the sofa. Self had the impression that Henry must be a veteran from World War II, the house said veteran, somehow, and so when he discovered two years later that during that time Henry was in Las Vegas, that he was in prison - that he hadn't been, as he had vaguely supposed, drafted - then it clicked that the veteran's air around Henry, that heavy silence which seemed to fall inexorably over things in his presence, the very walk of the man and the way he forked his food and the way he swallowed his drink was, really, about the discipline of confinement. Okay, he thought, that's it, the thing about Henry, the menace about him, he remembered thinking this rather sadly that night with Payne, he would have liked to have talked about it, to have been eloquent, very Southern, very much lets have two more bourbons, to have been your Daddy, Payne, Payne in this scenario a little cruder than he was, a little more pompous, from that summer I took away an impression of Henry that has, as the years have gone by and I have context to put it in, only crystallized, well you know I presume that your Daddy was in prison? Payne of course starts to splutter, that's a damn lie and you're a damn liar (yes, it would be like one of those Tennesse Williams plays they used to make into movies in the fifties and always had Paul Newman star in, here self would be, not only on one level being mean to Payne, sure, he was being mean, but trying to break through the tangle of silence, that tangle like... like Spanish moss, silence gone heavy and gray and breaking the, well the tree of life, no, the family tree, no, the Spanish moss is supposed to hint at how Southern the silence is, put an accent on it) ... you should know, Payne, both of them standing up at the table, staring into each others eyes, in this scene there's a sudden quiet, only his voice, Payne's heavy breathing, the detached click of one billiard ball knocking into another, the players motionless with their cuesticks at arms, everyone stariing, I'm sorry I have to tell you, no, cut, cut, wrong movie, what he wants really is just to say son, you remember that time in Bossier, that place, what was it, "The Fancy H"? To which Payne will say, suddenly smiling, yeah, cousin. But he is the thing people don't know about vans... and self is, oh, and, oh, really. Self just felt it back then, there he is fifteen in this strange house, this strangers' house, he was being instinctual, but now he could be discursive, now, looking back, he could understand why he'd be in the house with Payne and he'd hear the front door slam and know that Henry had come into the house and feel, suddenly, this pall of silence creep over everything, as if Henry were some violent mute come to bode no good. And, actually, Henry wasn't like that, he simply didn't talk much, but if anything, he was indulgent with Payne. Self had witnessed working out there with Henry that when he had something to say, he'd say it. If he thought someone was fucking off, he'd ball them out and they'd stay balled out until they did it right. Finally, in this wing of the house, there was a room that was off of the kitchen, a raw space, only sheetrocked, where Aileen had her washer and dryer and a large freezer in which she kept meat. In this room Henry'd set himself up a small bar, complete with a tap for his beer and a keg, which he replaced every two weeks or so, Henry making the journey into that room with an empty glass and returning with a full one four, five times during the average evening, not counting the beer at breakfast with Huevos Ranchos on Saturdays, and the other beers at odd times. Self thought damn, look at this guy go, watching Henry stolidly down glass after glass, he wrote to Mark the man has a fucking keg of beer of beer around the house, what do you think, and Mark wrote back that he was making it up, and self, on the phone to Mark, said swear to God, man, Louisiana is a trip, the whole culture here is about Jesus and liquor, hard to know where one ends and the other begins, you know? When, after getting home, he'd mentioned it to Dad, Dad had reddened a little bit and said that Henry was going to get into trouble if he kept that up. It was curious for self that Dad reddened ‑ it was always like that when he brought up Henry around Dad, it was like Dad somehow felt responsible for him, and it was also like Henry was a bit of an embarrassment.