I think that was when the truth first grinned at me, warm and toothless.
Scarface had already been out in VHS for some time, but because so many of them watched movies together in the bunkhouse, it seemed that the farm discovered it all at once. In a sense, it was a watershed flick for Dylan: the first time he found himself genuinely disliking a movie that everyone–and I literally mean everyone–he knew absolutely adored.
It was his first clear symptom of my disease.
His argument struck him as obvious enough: everything was ‘over-the-top’ in the movie. He was relentless in his criticisms with his longtime friends, declaring “that movie is shit, ca-caaa…” whenever it came up in conversation. He was implicitly learning that the ability to discriminate deviations between representations and reality could carve out a privileged social identity. Who was Dylan? Dylan was the guy who could see through Scarface.
His friends accepted this, understood that he was acting in a manner consistent with his unfortunate, but ultimately forgivable, character. It’s knobs all the way down. The farm, however, posed a peculiar challenge. For the primers, Scarface, a comic book discourse on extra-legal dominance hierarchies, had been sacralized as that thing that binds divisive souls. The script had become their book of prayer.
A religion of fucking one-liners.
In the morning, when you asked anyone how it was hanging, odds were you’d hear, “Every day above ground is a good day.” For some reason, “The world, Chico,” became the meaningless phrase of choice, the thing people would just say, mowing on a donut, finishing a beer, drying their hands after coming out of the can. For reasons just as mystifying, people started crying, “Whaddya want?” in response–a kind of social dyslexia that everyone tacitly agreed to understand.
There was the ever popular, “Why don’t jou try stickin’ jou head up jour ass–see if it fits?” Or, “You wanna waste my time?” and, “You gotta make the money first.” And of course, “I always tell the troot, even when I lie,” though for some reason this evolved into “I always tell the troot, even when I lie down.” It was just one of those stupid things that made everyone howl, not because it was funny in itself, but because of the crazy-ass circumstances (more Orange Owl acid) that had given birth to it.
And everyone but everyone said, “Say goodnight to the bad guy,” as they were leaving–but only so long as someone else hadn’t said it within the previous hour.
It was a coup of sorts, being the first to recognize that window of opportunity and to seize it. And nobody, of course, had the knack quite like Cutter.
“Say goodnight,” he would crack through his crazy-contagious grin. “Say goodnight to the badguy.”
How people responded to these quips became a way to gauge the ever-evolving group dynamic.
Buke’s mistake, aside from being born a knob, would be to fasten onto Scarface as a kind of flag, as something to be self-consciously touted. Everyone ignored him the first few times, the way you politely overlook your retard cousin at the Christmas dinner table. But Cutter let loose on him after a time.
Dylan often pondered people like Buke, primarily because he worried that he suffered a version of the same disease. The guy was what we Canadians like to call ‘offside.’ He was the perpetual loose thread in the weave of character and interaction that made up the priming crew, the one who just never seemed to get the warp and weft of things.
He knew this. You could see it in his face, his posture–the way he always stood as though pressing his head against some unseen canvas ceiling. He seemed to broadcast a veritable stew of unconscious bodily cues running the whole gamut of negative frequencies: self-pity, resentment, frustration, rage. Whenever the centring-out laughter waxed too bright, he had this way of taking off his glasses and squinting into what must have been a world of spilled watercolours… Dylan found it damn near heartbreaking–sometimes.
He was the man hated. The fucking goat. And yet he would try, and try, and try…
And you could feel it, the fact that he was on the outside, perpetually drawn to the light of more effortless souls. You knew that all he wanted was to be let in, nothing more, nothing less. So what do you do? You bristle.
Think, Fuck that guy…
So he would say, “The world, Chico, and everything in it,” and a spark of indignation would leap through you. Part of you would think that he’s ruining things, that he’s taking shared things, living things, and posing them like corpses. Then you would glance at the others…
“You like that line, eh, Buke?” Cutter said after one of his quotes.
“What do you mean?”
“That line. You like it?”
“That whole fucking movie! It’s awesome.”
Cutter wagged his eyes, pretended to laugh along. “Not as awesome as you, man. You just keep on rocking, Buke.”
In other words, Leave our fucking movie alone…
‘Taking a hint,’ is a big thing among us humans. Saying things without saying them automatically divides your listeners into those who ‘get it’ and those who ‘just don’t get it.’ Play games with language in mixed company, and you sort people–it really is as simple as that. This is as true of a literary masterpiece as it is of a dinner party, though I know you like to conceal this fact with any number of institutional myths.
You experience this every time you ‘click’ with somebody, the convergence of interpretative frames. Sometimes this click is existential, sometimes merely circumstantial–a matter of convenience. There were rivalries and dislikes among the primers, sure, but there was a deeper understanding, a realization that time had to be killed, so why not kill it having fun? So they carved each other, continually traded the little fuck-yous that we use to cement group identity. They made tools of the literal.
It wasn’t that Buke was oblivious: he could see enough to make innumerable clumsy attempts at the game. What he could never wrap his head around was that he could never be a player because he had been made part of the field. Every rink needs a net. When Gilles called you a fag you laughed and called him a fag back–and maybe threw in something about frogs for good measure. When Buke called you a fag you said, “What did you call me?” then laughed with the others as he beat a hasty retreat–or even better, lost his temper.
“Buke. Buke. What’s your fucking problem, man? It was just a joke…”
Peer groups are the only labyrinths without exits.
Damning you no matter what you do.
Despite his fears, Dylan was no Buke. The kinds of mistakes he made were different both in kind and origin. His problem, you might say, was that he possessed too much social circuitry rather than too little. He was quick enough, funny enough, to be accorded the status of a player, but one who was continually being caught offside. People hesitated before passing him the puck–you could see it. So for instance, when Gilles put Scarface in their beaten VCR one lunch in an attempt to decide an argument about Michele Pfeiffer’s rhinoplastic nose, Dylan made the mistake of asking, “What is it about this flick?”
“It’s cool, man.”
“Like dat part, eh? You know dat part?”
“But,” Dylan persisted, “it’s like… like a cartoon. Like the scene at the end, with the gun. C’mon. Gimme a fucking break. Like, how fucking real is that?”
Where does this contrary instinct come from?
“Who you made you a fucking critic?” Cutter cried.
We make hash of this attitude in our circles, the it-is-what-it-is. We’re so intent on circumventing it (or so disgusted by our failure to) that somehow we’ve forgotten to ask what it is. As a result we fail to realize (as so many of our students do) that we share this attitude through and through, that we object to the locus and not the application. Difference is we like to stash our it-is-what-it-is out of sight, in thickets of theory dense enough to simulate First Philosophy.
“It’s fucking ridiculous, man.”
“Ridiculous. You would know about that.”
You get this sense when you commit a grave social error. A kind of who-can-I-trust confusion, regret for backlighting. Instinctively you try to recoup your losses, either by steering clear of the issue, a tacit nonverbal admission of guilt,  or by returning to it in different ways, ways that deflate the offending incident, relieve the cloying pressure. So Dylan began referring to the primers as the “Five Al Pacinos.”
“Here comes another one. Al-fucking-Pacino.”
This seemed to work, but the memory of the difference lingered, a telling stain in the farm’s social underwear.
It was almost as bad as the time he referenced Conan in his first-year English class.
 It does what happens, it does not sin.
You like subtlety and understatement. You like those things that confirm the sensitivity of your discerning eyes. You like searching for sparks in the banalities, for the small truths you like to think strike you in small moments of your days. I mean, who looks at trees quite the way you do? You like books that remind you of you, meek and reflective, dog-paddling across the deep end, tepid with imagined passion. Authors who say what they mean, who speak directly to the point or to you, you think ham-fisted, obnoxious–and most damning of all, as literal as the alienated out-group masses you pretend to understand better than they understand themselves.
You gotta be Nietzsche to get away with shit like this…
You gotta be dead.
Decades would pass before I understood that humans, either directly or indirectly, were instinctively drawn to over-the-top representations. That the tastes Dylan had acquired in university had nothing to do with aesthetics and everything to do with dominance hierarchies. The best way to privilege your own position, to make yourself exceptional, is to isolate this or that native affinity and declare it ugly, evil, stupid, addictive, what-have-you.
Say hello to my little friend…
For years I walked down these rows, shaking my head, rolling my eyes toward heaven.
“Let me guess. It just is what it is, huh?”
You never really forget that undergraduate terror, do you? Not really. Oh, sure, you’re friendly and funny and charming and open and personable. You brag to your colleagues by voicing oblique ‘concerns’ with the ‘comfort level’ in your classes. But still, there’s that little gas flare of irritation when they voice the same old ‘ignorances.’ And you know how fucking easy it is making them feel like fools. You know it first hand. And so you indulge yourself–no one said education was easy! For them anyway.
“I-I just don’t see why it has to be so, you know, complicated…”
“Let me guess. You think I’m just making things complicated.”
You reference your relative altitude on the authority gradient in diverse ways–tone, gesture, look–whatever it takes to engender insight and submission. Before the rows, you are the King. This is what makes a classroom a classroom.
“Well… Kinda. Aren’t you?”
Everything is more complicated. So what could be wrong with teaching people this?
The problem is that the imposition of simplicity is an inevitability. It is never undone, only rearranged.
“Let me guess…”
We are so full of self-serving shit. How’s that for subtle?
Those students who instinctively write you off, who simply assume that you are gaming your institutional competencies to your own flattering advantage are probably the most astute kids in your classroom.
A bitter pill you can pretend not to chew.
It really is remarkable when you think about just how little work has been done on the sociology of you people. This is probably because we have such a hard time crawling into conceptual spaces without arguing them. We are easily embroiled. After I suffered my final skeptical turn, I found the fact that academics could still muster conviction in their own position nothing short of absurd. Who the fuck was I kidding? Did I really think my work would be anything more than a museum curiosity in a century’s time?
How about you? Do you really think that you’re on to something?
And how about this…? Do you really think this… matters?
I knew this kid growing up who used to love picking through other kid’s puke with a stick whenever opportunity afforded. Everyone would gag while he chortled, shouting things like, “Look-look! She had Cheerios for breakfast!” Always obsessed with the contents.
The fact that someone was sick never seemed to concern him. Not really.
Life is an illusion that runs at right angles to the real. At some point I think we all realize as much.
Dylan dropped acid exactly five times while hanging kiln. And even though things went relatively smoothly, each was a catastrophic mistake.
Sometimes he would pretend to be Dave Bowman suited for the vacuum, listening to the palmed music of his own breath as it moved back and forth along the gantry, loading green-glowing fuel cells. Sometime he let his body do the work, slouched back into the carriage of routine movements, day-dreaming about doe-eyed Hobbits picking their way through dark and ancient forests, or violent wayfarers cutting their way to the heights of luxurious power. Sometimes he simply jerked this way and that, numbed by the infinite variations that had infected the monotony of his job. The million slivers that furred the rungs. The white stains where hornets had once fixed their gun-clip nests. The angular momentum of falling tobacco leaves: twirl, baby, twirl… That was one of the problems with acid: all those things worn seaside smooth by repetition became abrasive with texture. You always notice too much or too little when you drop El Sid.
It could make a day seem a year.
“I see ya,” Missy would say with a frowning grin that promised an easy ride. “I know those eyes…”
Acid eyes: pupils pried wide to better soak the world.
“They make you feel naked?”
“Well, they should.”
These words are writing you this very moment. You have no control over what they do to you, how they fuck with the programming below the threshold of consciousness. You simply look, and there it is, meaning, articulated chains of it, theoretical and narrative architectures, waltzing through you like Jesus. You simply look, and there you are, written, writing.
This is complete bullshit, of course.
Let’s make up a word: determinativity.
Determinativity is simply the degree of determination, the hot potato of efficacy.
So let’s say that I have the determinativity, that I’m writing you in the course of fixing these marks on the page. Or let’s say the marks themselves have the determinativity, they write you and I simply vanish into them, a kind of Foucauldian sham meant to impose order on an unruly world o’ texts. Or let’s say that you have the determinativity, that you take the words, make of them what you will. Or let’s say your unconscious has the determinativity, that you’re simply the aporetic interstice between the text and some psychodynamic subtext. Or let’s say history has the determinativity, or that culture or society or God or language has the determinativity.
Can we say that all of these things possess determinativity? None of them?
Sure. We can mix and match, recast this and tweak that, and come up with entirely new theoretical outlooks if we want. Spin the hothouse bottle.
The bottom line is that we really don’t know what the fuck we’re talking about. For better or worse, the only kind of determinativity that we can follow with enough methodological and institutional rigor to actually resolve interpretative disputes is causality–whatever the fuck that is. And that’s a fact Jack.
This means the only relatively robust things I can say about this textual transaction are naturalistic.
My behavioural output has become your environmental input, initiating a symphony of parallel neural firings, a minuscule fraction of which find their way into your conscious experience.
You are simply the skin of this transaction.
Acid, acid, acid.
Like liquor only turned inside out along a far more manic axis of madness. The go-go-git axis.
Dylan dropped two hits the day the second thunderstorm hit. Where the first storm had simply been a gift, just enough lightning to convince Jerry to scrub their day, this one rolled in mid-morning and kept coming, wave after wave of flashing darkness–so dark they had to party with the lights turned on in the bunkroom.
The primers thoroughly owned the room by this time, so that there was a relaxed, even swaggering air. Jerry knew he wasn’t welcome, and they knew that he knew. References to the ‘fucking massah’ continually floated across the surface of their talk, spoken with as much pride as spite. They had scared the boss away from his own property, and that was no small thing.
“Say goodnight to the bad guy.”
I’ll never remember just how the arm-wrestling got started. Talk about how this or that job hardened the body in this or that way, I suppose. Typically, the consensus among primers was that kiln-hanging was a cool job because it was “like getting paid for working out.” Of course, this opinion rarely survived an actual stint in the kiln.
Either way, Dylan found himself arm-wrestling.
Sometimes acid makes everything ritualistic, so that encounters take on the air of fatalistic happenstance, like you’re a just a variable caught up in some equation. Organic chemistry. He would talk, laugh. He would blink, and there someone else would be, laughing, staring, so obviously thinking they would win. He would grab their hands mildly, let the others police all the little attempts to cheat either with grip or positioning, and then it would happen, the war of body against body, the weight of lives swinging from clutched hands.
And his bones felt like iron. Immovable.
Kyle was a cake-walk, and the first indication to the others that a surprise was in the offing. Buke, whose arms were roped in muscle, proved no real problem either, except that the combination of the acid and the guy’s bug-blinking eyes behind his glasses freaked Dylan out, made him feel like he was arm-wrestling some cartoon character. No matter whatever Buke lost–and Dylan couldn’t remember a single instance of the guy winning anything–he would shake his head as though trying the throw off bees, then say something earnest and trite, like, “Oh well, you’re obviously better at x than I am,” as if it were a catechism meant to keep far more troubling thoughts at bay. Whatever it was, it always made Dylan think about gunmen sorting the saved from the fallen in McDonalds.
In keeping with his flair for melodrama, Gilles positively threw himself into the wrestle, his face twisted into expressions only ancient Greek heros could understand. Dylan smiled, not yielding. Then with a hydraulic twist, he slowly pressed the Frenchman’s wrist back and down. Gilles hissed spit between his clenched teeth, grunted, “Tabernac! Mudderfuck!” Everyone else, the crowd of shining bouncing faces, laughed and shouted.
“Eh, you,” Gilles said shaking his head afterward. He was trembling, Dylan noticed. “You stronger dan you look. Fuck, man.”
Music. To be called such by men who had frightened him.
Thierry proved a challenge. He locked his arm, and for what seemed ten minutes the two of them sat bolted with motionless effort. Then, almost magically it seemed to Dylan, the guy’s arm began sinking, slowly sinking, before collapsing altogether. The Frenchman seemed positively overjoyed, as if a dramatic loss had been the finish line he’d been running toward all along. He shook Dylan’s hand like a politician.
“Crazeee!” he cried. “Crazee, fucking dat!”
Cutter came after the fifth primer.
“Why, hello, thailor,” he chimed the moment they locked hands. “Such beeeeg fingers you have!” Acid cackles from those bird-crowding around them. Buke in particular howled. At some point he had taken to laughing too hard at pretty much everything Cutter said. Ass-kisser.
There was surreality in their grip, almost as much as in their gazes. The skin of your palms is beaten to the consistency of leather when you work in tobacco, so that whenever you find yourself holding hands you can’t shake the sense of something insensate sheathing your palms and fingers, like gloves protecting what should not be protected. He felt the shock buried in every clasp.
They went right on right first, which Dylan won handily. Since Cutter was a leftie, they then went left on left, which Dylan won with only a little more effort.
Bang! and it ended in a head-scratching air.
For some reason Dylan was anything but surprised, as though he had come to the table with bodily knowledge that he could and would beat Cutter. Even stranger, he had the distinct sense that Cutter was not surprised either, that they had somehow both known, all along, back to that first day of irrigating–like it was written into the DNA of their future history or something. They would arm-wrestle, and Dylan would win–both arms.
The possibility that Cutter had let him win, that this explained the shoulder-shrug fatalism of his reaction, wouldn’t strike me until years later. Always these fucking games with him. Always the same unblinking reserve, the sense that he merely humoured your attempts to take credit for your actions. I mean, that was a golden day.
Strange the way some gifts can cut the heart right out of you.
The rest of the group seemed out-and-out shocked. Cutter had been their alpha-dog since the very beginning, a kind of Odysseus–thanks to his wit and a certain ferociousness in his appearance–leading with an unerring instinct for realpolitik. Even though both Cutter and Dylan knew that Dylan would win, the rest of the crew had assumed otherwise.
It was a jarring moment, in a strange way. Acid has a habit of broadcasting on communal frequencies, and for a moment the group found itself stuck between channels.
“Too bad, so sad,” Dylan offered in the arm-rubbing aftermath, grinning at his predatory friend.
“Look at the fucking guns on the guy!” Cutter chortled, talking his first effortless steps toward owning his loss. “I told ya!” he shouted into the general air, shaking his eyes at the woefully mistaken heavens. Turning to Dylan, he added, “They all thought you were queer, you know.”
The last person Dylan arm-wrestled should have been his first, Long Tom. The big native had hung back so far, obviously loathe to risk his bad-ass reputation in an actual test of strength. But the fact that Dylan had defeated everyone but him made it impossible for him to demure without the suggestion of cowardice. As the last man standing, he had no choice but to get his hands dirty.
The big native sat, yanking his head to flick the bolt of black silk that was his hair. The intimacy seemed grotesque, given that Dylan had never had anything resembling a conversation with Long Tom. So there was something strange about clasping his cool hand, an air of forbidding novelty. His palm was as leathery as the others, but far bigger.
Kyle, his face bright with manic thought, muttered strategy in Long Tom’s ear. “He tries to tire you out! You gotta crack the seal, I’m telling you. Hit him hard and big right from the get go.” The big native listened and nodded, all the while staring at Dylan in that gaze-communicating way, promising pain and humiliation.
Gilles held their interlocked fists and fingers in position, began counting. Van Halen wailed on the ghetto-blaster, barely heard under the chatter of shouting voices. Someone, somewhere, negotiated a bet.
When Gilles finally cried “Go!” the table creaked and cracked, such was the violence of Long Tom’s initial effort. For the first time, Dylan found himself on the defensive, his arm pulled past right angles.
But the iron bones were still there–so different from the cake they have become.
“C’mon, Tommy-boy!” Cutter grated with a cartoon grin. “You going to let the White-man put you down?”
These words pricked, the suggestion that bigger things–histories and hierarchies–might be wheeling behind and beneath the moment they held concentrated between them. When Dylan pulled their balled hands back even, Cutter began crying, “C’mon! C’mon! You call yourself a credit to your race?”
There was rage in the face twisted on the far side of their shaking fists, a real capacity to murder. The look of a man who could be goaded to any extreme. But none of it mattered to Dylan, least of all the strength grinding against his arm. Something, mild, even bored, watched back through his eyes.
He leaned into the big native’s grip and slowly pulled it to the bruised tabletop. The bunkhouse roared in celebration, the way everyone roars when life imitates fiction.
The underdog had swept the table.
That was the last time Long Tom looked at Dylan directly; Dylan would only ever catch his eyes at angles after that. That was when Cutter added “White-man” to his repertoire of nicknames. Before Dylan had been simply a good kid–weird but good. After that he was a good kid who in all likelihood could kick your ass if you made him angry enough. Dylan savoured the feeling, exulted in it, even though he was careful to erase its every sign of it from his expression, from everything except his hyperactive gaze.
Acid let’s you do that. Catch the subtleties–snap! And he could feel it, so real it was almost visual, tactile…
The difference between being liked and being respected.
There are facts and there are brute facts, and we are bred for the latter. They come to us first because they are always already there, waiting for us, the instinctive axioms of our nature. To be stronger is to be stronger. Like so many primary things, it simply is its own yardstick. A self-interpreting rule. Magical.
“Like stealing Ex-lax from seniors!” Dylan dared cry at one point. “I guess that’s what happens when you compete in the retirement home.”
Dylan drove home later that night, so fucked up he continually swerved from verge to verge, crying “Oops-fuck!” every time he heard the pelting staccato of grass heads against his grill. He cranked the Loverboy on his shitty Canadian Tire tape-deck, crooned, “Gotta do it my way!” into the rush of summer night air.
“Or no way at all!”
The road kept wagging like a snake, undulating bands beneath his headlights.
Smiling, driving, all the way home.
Dylan first read 1984 in 1984–in the spring before that harvest, to be exact. Reading it had occasioned much self-congratulatory class discussion. The whole point of reading 1984 in 1984, when you were 17, anyway, was to crow about how great things had turned out in comparison. No Ingsoc. No Newspeak. No Ministry of Truth. No Big Brother. No Thought Police.
Of course, university turned all that around for Dylan. Ingsoc became Corporate America. Newspeak became Sentimentalism. The Ministry of Truth became the Culture Industry. Big Brother became Capital. The Thought Police became Manufactured Consent. And Winston Smith as he is at the end of the book became damn near every human living.
At the grad parties he went to, he and others, when they weren’t trading job market atrocity tales or carefully managing the CVs everyone kept on everyone else (she’s done this and this–I gotta do that!), sometimes talked about the virtue of honesty, how the concentration of hierarchical authority in 1984 at least let you know who your enemies were. “What’s worse?” one of his friends asked. “Getting ass-raped every once in awhile, or getting groped day-in-day-out, for the rest of your natural life? The Gulag, or Disney World?”
Whenever questions like these are posed seriously, at least some explanation is required. You see, all humanities grad students go through a phase that a social psychologist might call ‘hypocrisy versus career ambition,’ where, in the course of attaining the ‘academic life’ they so covet, they have to continually savage the conditions that make that life possible. Those oblivious to the hypocrisy are usually driven into the visual arts, where they end up so poor they actually cease being hypocrites and start living the dream. Those sensitive to the hypocrisy tend to go on and thrive, girding themselves with self-deprecating asides, and trying hard to work off their bad consumer karma in the classroom, where, they tell themselves, they’re actually doing more than simply convincing the next generation to turn their backs on their culture.
To be intelligent means to see through things, and to see through things is to see how appearances deceive. Now everyone but everyone thinks they’re intelligent, but only a relatively small proportion possess the interpretative stones required to demonstrate their intelligence to themselves on a regular basis. To see how Disney World, which is obviously a wonderful place, could be worse than the Gulag, which is obviously a horrible place, requires more than a little interpretative juice.
Thanks to Capital (Big Brother), Corporate America (Ingsoc) leverages the Culture Industry (the Ministry of Truth), which, thanks to the dynamics of Manufactured Consent (the Thought Police), enforces Sentimentalism (Newspeak) among the masses, allowing Disney World to seamlessly conceal the fact of their slavery. And you have to ask yourself what’s worse, a gulag that people flee from, or a gulag that people flee too? Eh?
Eh? 1984 is 1984…
Of course, everything about modern human social organization is supercomplex, complicated far, far past the point of our intellectual resources. Which is why interpretations like the above are not so much exercises in seeing through the status quo as exercises in seeing differently, not so much attempts to identify problems as attempts to identify oneself.
Why else all the repetition? The point is being smart in a world filled with idiots.
“So… It sounded like you guys had a blast the other day.”
There was a gotta-cough edge the big man’s voice, the kind that comes from squeezing away quavers. Dylan’s face tingled for embarrassment, but whether for Jerry, Harley, or himself he would never be able to sort out.
Jerry had once again asked Dylan “for a hand” as everyone filed out of the kilnyard. Once again, they parked beneath the berms heaped about the irrigation pond, where once again Jerry produced a one grammer of oil. The two of them traded tokes from the heater of Jerry’s cigarette, back and forth. Blue-curling wires that bit your lungs.
“You know,” Dylan said with a toke-holding wheeze. “Sidney.”
“Crazy fuckers,” Jerr replied.
He said this blinking, looked away through the open driver-side window. He had the music–Huey Lewis and the News–turned low enough that you could hear the world: insects clicking through never-ending assemblies of vegetation. The stately rows of tobacco.
“You don’t know the half of it.”
Humans are such sad, stupid creatures. We hesitate in the face of the obvious simply because we are hopelessly overmatched by the social complexities that embroil us. At some level, we always seem to know that anything can happen. Any word, any action, can follow any other.
I think… I think Harley…
“I remember your dad and I…” Jerry began, launching into an outrageous story about bikes, booze, and strippers. What he was really saying was, “I found you first. You belong to me.”
Jerry wanted a confidant. A spy.
Dylan passed on the next toke. The oil was fucking kife.
“I love this song,” he said.
What is the meaning of a deluded life?
I hope by Now you realize that this question is yours, and not the other guy’s. Everybody thinks it’s the other guy who’s been duped. Why do the masses find you repellant? You tell yourself that it’s your questions they hate, when in point of fact it’s your attitude. You’re bloated my friend, unnaturally disposed to dupe yourself in artificially devious ways.
Nothing like instincts to police a sense of proportion. Feeling superior is just one of those things humans can’t help doing. Everybody thinks they have something special, some education, some experience, some native talent, that make them an exception for real.
Everybody has a story.
This is the primetime delusion, the one that leverages all the others. If you think you don’t live in a dream world, then you do. It’s axiomatic.
So stop being clever. Just because your representations purport to explain the representations of the masses doesn’t mean that you don’t use them in precisely the same ways.
Because you do.
Jerry became stranger the longer harvest waxed on. More and more he kept to his pickup truck when he wasn’t looking after other chores. He would simply cruise by the tying machine, AC-DC or Huey Lewis cranked, and just dip his head and smile his fourteen-year old smile. Then he would rip down this or that dirt lane looking for some place to hide–or so it seemed.
The sticks became noticeably lighter–too light Dylan thought–but the days never seemed to end any earlier. One Wednesday they finished at 3PM, a marvel that everyone thought would presage a turn for the better. But the guys celebrated by taking a couple bottles of whiskey out to the fields the day following. When Kyle brought them back with the last load–at around 7PM–they reeled and hooped and hollered like revolutionaries in a fallen Central American capital.
“The world, Manny! The fucking wooooorld!”
Parked some 50 yards away, Jerry watched from behind the glare of his windshield.
It took about a week to cure tobacco, so generally every farm would have around eight kilns that they would cycle through as the primers primed their way up the plant. It also meant it took about a week for a detached farmer to realize that something was going drastically wrong. Kiln-hangers who were about to quit were notorious for leaving the top rungs empty, or leaving gaps between the sticks on every rung. But usually it would be the leaf count on the sticks that would be the problem.
Emptying a kiln only took a couple of hours. Shrivelled to velvety yellow, the tobacco had lost most of its mass: leaf stems thicker than your thumb would shrink to brown toothpicks. Usually the farmer and some young, unlucky relative (drafted to learn an important life lesson) would pile the sticks onto pallets set into something called the ‘elephant wagon’ because of its elephantine proportions. The height of the sticks stacked on the pallet told no lies. Bulldozer or no, gravity always has its say.
So Jerry’s conciliatory retreat lasted only about a week. On the seventh day, the day before things got really hairy, he even declared a day of rest, saying that “everyone had worked so hard that they deserved it.” He was in full-on obligation mode by this time, ever keen to point out this or that tacit quid pro quo.
That day happened to be Saturday. The day Harley called.
The farm appeared deserted when Dylan arrived–except that Jerry’s poppy-red Dodge sat shining in the driveway. The collection of chairs lined to the side of the bunkroom door were empty. Both the junkers, the Gran Torino that Kyle had borrowed from his Aunt, and the Buick Regal that Gilles had bought in Aylmer, were gone.
“Where’s Jerry?” he asked Harley’s pensive shadow behind the screen door.
“Out drinking… Billy Eaves came and picked him up. Some NASCAR thing, I think.”
She smiled. “Heard of him, eh?”
“Jerry told Cutter and me some stories.”
“I’m sure he has…”
Dylan made a point of looking around. Somehow, it made it all the more palpable, what they were about to do. The threat of observation.
“Quiet ‘round here,” he said, faking a shrug.
She shot him an oh-well-you-know look. “They all went into Aylmer, I think. To the hotel, I imagine.” Whenever anyone pronounced ‘hotel’ as ‘ho-tell’ in Southwestern Ontario they meant drinking and hell-raising.
He nodded and swallowed at the same time–always an anxious, awkward combination.
“So we can talk,” he said.
Harley had always seemed so strong, so assured, before that night on his couch at Dad’s. The very image of the hard-rock chick: sensible, critical, very hard to impress. Soft-skin and a callous heart–exactly what the market required. Now she seemed to phase in and out of that old identity, to alternately find herself and to slip away, back into the shy, perpetually terrified teenager she once was–in my imagination at least.
The girl held hostage.
“Um… Would you like to take a crop tour?”
“Taking a crop tour” was rural code for anything involving back-road driving and substance abuse–still a respectable combination back in 1984.
“Sure,” he said. He had been hoping they would go into the house. Success screams for repetition down to all the particulars. He needed a couch…
Gilligan’s Island wouldn’t hurt.
It was funny-strange watching her drive Jerr’s pickup. Cute. The seat cranked up, her arms wide on the wheel, her half-covered thighs bouncing on the upholstery. The rows of tobacco whirred by the windows. Half-primed, you could see deep into their nethers, lines and lines of knuckled sticks bearing heads of leaves. This was the real yardstick of harvest, an army of plants slowly hiking their skirts, higher and higher, until they were nude and useless.
She drove out to the irrigation pond, parked a length or two away from where Jerry typically did. Dylan half-expected her to produce a one-grammer.
The small talk petered out before it should–the way it always did back then. Dylan wouldn’t learn how to make meaningless conversation last all evening until he became me. They sat absorbed in the silence of luminous eyes, of breathing steeped in significance.
“Look,” she finally said. “I just want to talk.”
We believe so many of the things we say.
“About Jerry. I want to talk about Jerry.”
Dylan didn’t think it was like this. He didn’t think sinners talked about the sinned against. But suddenly he realized that they do. That they always have, all the way back to Sumer.
“What do you mean?”
“This farming shit. Tobacco. It’s killing him, Dylan. All-all he does is drink and freak out.”
“What are you saying?”
What is it about a crying woman? An annoyance if you happen to be married to her, an opportunity if not. The flanking impulses of worry and compassion, the full frontal assault of sexual self-interest.
The retreat of helplessness.
Dylan gathered her in his arms, savoured the ease with which she acquiesced, the sense of little-girl compliance. She shuddered in his embrace, even as she shifted to maximize the melding of their surfaces.
Sorrow as instrument of seduction. Men are born with this knowledge–like all shortcuts to pussy.
“What am I going to do?” she murmured to his chest.
“Well… I hate to say it, but Jerry’s made his own bed.”
Eyes too wet to hold onto anger. “Has he? I mean… All he talks about is Cutter stabbing him in the back. Cutter, Cutter, and more fucking Cutter.”
“What do you think? I mean, you’re there Dylan!” She pushed him back in realization, blinked and stared. “You’re there Dylan. You hang out with them.”
“I’m just the kid. The little brother they like laughing at when they get him all stoned and shit.”
“No. This is serious. Tell me what you think, Dylan.”
He frowned, looked out to the endless rows, cooking, growing…
“Well… You see… Men and women have these interlocking parts…”
She stopped him with a manic burst of hands-to-the-face laughter. “You’re so weird,” she exclaimed.
“That’s my na–”
And somehow they were kissing, fierce in a ginger, exploratory way–words that Now seem like an odd and inopportune memory, like pulling a grocery list from your pocket in the wake of a ruinous flood. Some moments cast shadows backward. We stumble into them only to find preceding events drawn like a tail between the legs of the present. The anguish. The husband. The tobacco. These were simply excuses.
Contact was all that mattered.
It seemed her skirt had been bunched around her waist all along. He held her, back arched, the frame of him braced against the two fingers he had thrust down the front of her panties. He held her as she jerked and gasped. She came moaning into his mouth.
An otherworldly look haunted her eyes as she struggled with his fly. “He needs us,” she whispered, pulling the banana-curve of him free.
He held her hair back and watched, the stories he would tell spinning through the back of his thoughts. How married women know, the cock-is-a-cock look in their eye as they suck, the way their fingers creep behind the balls toward the asshole. How they keep sucking afterward; the wince of pleasure as they nurse you to the sponge.
The fields cooked in the sun, the world so quiet that the whisper of saliva seemed the only sound. Dylan saw the scribble of midges across the black stagnant plate of the pond. He glimpsed bees sorting through the goldenrod that wreathed the edges of the lane. Little combs of lemon yellow, bending stems into arcs.
Of all the ways to connect with the future, none is so beautiful as the flower… or so insulting as the cock.
He was oblivious, of course. He was bewildered and naive. Even the hunger that moved him operated outside his purview. She was Harley, and she had fucked him–Harley–as if things could be summed in the intensity with which we utter a name. Why did he feel what he felt? Harley. Why did he pursue gratification with such callous single-mindedness? Harley. Why did Jerry seem little more than smoke, an annoyance, yet another feminine scruple to be defused and disposed?
Harley. A cloud, vast and dark, sailing through his searchlight.
She had swallowed him whole.
It hit him as he drove the concessions home. A walloping sense of betrayal. Dirty. Sordid. It would be as close to an epiphany as he would ever come.
Fuck Jerry, anyway.
Fragments, all the way down. Broken to the very bottom. Worse than you want to imagine.
No matter how radical you pretend to be.