Nagoya Writes

February 10, 2008

An American Prayer by Tim Hoffman

Filed under: Hoffman,Issue: 2002,Prose — usbengoshi @ 11:31 am

Today is the day and now is finally the time for a letter, with the sun just gone down and away from us here in Fairhope, another late spring golden afternoon gone shot all purple and orange and fading. Time, well past time, to send you a little note, what I’ve been wanting to say for’how long has it been, bro’?’seems like a long time. The kids are growing, like weeds as they say. Seems like as I get older and weaker and collect aches and pinched nerves and bruises, the kids are learning to walk and getting bigger and stronger. And smarter. A recent scene from our happy home: just the other evening, the youngest one said to me after a prolonged struggle to get him to take a bath together with me, he said, ‘Daddy’s bad! I want a different Daddy!’ That was a new one. And I gotta say it stung. A couple of Daddy’s tears plopped down to mix in with the bathwater. Still, I tried to see it as a sign of growth and budding independence. His mother has also taught him to scold me for my bad language in the car when I cuss at some idiot whose driving has pissed me off. ‘Don’t say that, Daddy! That’s a bad word!’ Well, for my part, I’ve also taught him to cuss. Imagine little Christopher, as Mr. Slowpoke finally signals and turns left, clearing out the lane for us, saying with a villainous snarl, ‘Bye-bye, SUCKER!’

The older boys and Sarah are all fine. Several more weeks and they’ll all be free for the summer. And me as well. Girlfriends and boyfriends are either in the picture or not at any given time, relationships are continuing along fine with them or are either in an immediate state of disruption. The word ‘flux’ is what I’m thinking of just now. Like the weather. Perhaps a toteboard on the fridge with little magnets and cartoon faces in rows and columns would help.

I guess that you’ve been hearing about all of the craziness going on down here. How could you not? I mean, they’ve got TVs even up there, right? ‘We now have the ability,’ Joe Scientist says, ‘to deliver newspapers to the moon and beam hourly headline news to the Crab Nebula or some such crazy place in way outer space. Even to the Algonquin wilderness.’ Hell, The Fairhope Herald has had to move their usual, you know, 4-H bake sale and the new citywide garbage collection schedule stories from their crusty, old spaces on the front page. They’ve buried them’to use newspaper parlance’on the inside of the paper deep.

Still, in a way, I’m relieved that you aren’t here to see all this, that you’re up in New Haven, safe. In your fuzzy warm slippers, sipping your hot cocoa’it’s still cold up there, right? Still any snow left?’peering out the cabin window and seeing moose or raccoon and shit out by the lakeside, coming for a drink in the early morning. I miss you dearly, brother, but knowing you are there out of danger comforts me.

Well, I gotta tell you, Jack stopped by the other day. Miyoko was not thrilled. I was in the work shed, listening to the ball game, planing a bit of the edge off of our bedroom door which had gone to squeaking over the winter, and she comes out and says, ‘Your painter friend is here. And he’s got booze.’ She can’t remember or doesn’t want to say his actual name. He’s always my ‘painter friend’.

‘Jack’s here? Hon, it’s probably just wine. You know Jack. And wine’s not booze.’

‘He’s got two bottles,’ she said. ‘I don’t like drinking around the kids.’

I stripped off one more thin curlicue and checked my work. Satisfied, I started putting the tools back on the pegboard or back in the chest and flipped off the radio. Work was over for today. Time to play. I picked up the door, leaned it against the side of the shed outside, and locked up while Miyoko stood there staring at me, the way you size up an innocent-looking bank of clouds on the horizon to see how bad it’s likely to storm. ‘I’m taking the kids to Mom’s,’ she decided, ‘and have dinner over there. I know what you guys will be having for dinner. We’ll be back later. Try not to break anything.’

‘We’ll be good, hon. I haven’t seen old Jack in a long time. I wonder what’s up.’

Well, one thing I knew, as do you, I’m sure, is that Jack was also finished with his work for a while. Painting Jack was gone and Cartoon Jack was with us. Sides of himself he’d once explained to me and which soon made themselves very clear as I witnessed him going through a series of cycles, years and years with only two seasons each. That’s the way he is and has been ever since we met at OU; an intense period of isolation during which he’Painting Jack’would stew and produce a large number of pieces (as he always referred to his paintings) followed by an interlude lasting from several days to a few weeks in which he’Cartoon Jack’would emerge from the stacks of canvases hollowed out but refreshed, cleaned up and showered and ready to be social and look for trouble, hit the bars, party heavily, stay up all night talking art and philosophy and try to get close to a woman for a spell, keeping it up until something kicked, only then to drop everything and hide his animated, ebullient self away for his next painting spurt.

‘The evil Doctor Scratch pulled away the blood-red velvet curtain to reveal the Death Ray Machine,’ I heard Jack’s voice booming from inside as I carried the repaired door in through front door of the house. I didn’t see his old Impala in the driveway; either it was broken down or he had just decided to walk the six miles from his farmhouse in Minerva to my place for the good it would do him.

‘‘Now,’ the doctor screamed, ‘the world will taste the fear and bow before the worm! Mu-he-he-he-haaa!’’ Jack was sitting in my armchair, doing his old radio theater bit and acting everything out with gestures and wild expressions for the kids and Miyoko as they were preparing to head over to Mom’s for a few hours of peace. The two bottles of wine sitting on the hearth, as yet unopened. He looked young and clean and well-rested, looking like a lumberjack sitting there in his old, red-checkered flannel shirt, and his face was scrubbed and clean. He turned and saw me there in the doorway. Miyoko and the kids as well stopped and turned their attention to me.

‘Timmy! Hey man!’ Jack bellowed. ‘Wha’cha got there?’ I suddenly felt tilted off balance for a second, and not completely because I was standing there holding a door. Jack could hold a room full of people rapt and become the center of it so well and shoot a direct question at you so line drive that even, as now with me, he could make you feel to be the stranger in your own home.

‘I’ve been fixing this door and listening to the Indians out in the shed. Why don’t you help me hang this back up upstairs?’

‘I’m just finishing up this story for your beautiful wife and children,’ Jack gushed. ‘Dr. Scratch has revealed the deadly machine, and our hero is only now beginning to understand the seriousness of the situation which threatens not only his own smalltown life but also the state of happiness and well-being for the whole wide, weird world. But what remains can wait for a later installment, as I see that everyone is getting ready to leave. I pray I haven’t caused any trouble.’

‘Not at all Jack,’ Miyoko hurried to say. ‘You know how much the kids love to have a visit from their Uncle Jack. We’ll leave you boys alone to talk, though, and Mom’s waiting. Tim, it looks like we’ll all be heading out to dinner over at the Wagon Wheel.’

They left a few minutes later, and Jack fished a corkscrew out of one of the drawers in the kitchen and opened the first bottle. He didn’t bother with a glass but just carried the bottle upstairs in one hand and held up one end of the door with the other, and we climbed the stairs to put the door back up. Five minutes later, we were back in the living room; Jack with his wine and I with a beer from the kitchen.

The talking began. Jack took a long pull from the bottle and told me the good news: an exhibition of his work at the Wyatt Museum of Contemporary American Art in Chicago was in the works. Indeed much of the past several months in which we had seen each other was spent working to create many of the pieces for this show. Also, one of his more ambitious recent pieces, a large multi-panel painting which I had never seen but which Jack told me was titled Angels of Pawtucketville had recently been sold to adorn the lobby of the headquarters of State Farm Insurance in Bloomington, Indiana. Jack was on a wave of good luck, and the Impala’yes, it had broken down’was soon to be replaced with something more trustworthy

He asked me about you, and we talked about how even though you were roughing it up there that it all must be beautiful and a sort of boring, brutal paradise in which sweat and hard work is seen as much more directly connected to one’s survival. Like, you’ve spent the whole day chopping and stacking wood, and now it was time to enjoy a roaring fire as the night grew cold and windy outside.

Jack uncorked the second bottle and started in on me, how the teaching was going, how this school year was winding down, what I had the students reading, and what sorts of minds and hearts occupied the six rows of desks that lined the hardwood floors of Room #157 at Immaculate Conception Grade School.

‘Ah, to be a student,’ Jack moaned. ‘The quest for truth. I’ve read your poets, Timmy. They have a lot to say.’

‘My poets?’

‘You’re the Wordman, right?’ he said, leveling an accusatory finger at my face. ‘So, riddle me this, Mr. Crowe. Who wrote these words: The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.

‘Robert Frost,’ I answered. ‘After Apple Picking. Come on, Jack. Don’t try to stump me with one of own my favorites.’

‘The Wordman guesses it correctly. The first one’s easy, to make you feel smart. How about this: I’ll always be a word man, better than a bird man.’

‘I got no idea . . . Dr. Seuss? You, Jack. Is that one of yours?

‘Nope. Jim Morrison, from An American Prayer. One of my favorites.’

It went on like this until the wine and beer were gone. Then we decided to leave before Miyoko and the kids came home and leaving would be more difficult. Jack apologized again for disrupting my family this evening.

‘Jack, don’t sweat it. It’s not a school night,’ I told him as I left a note on the kitchen table letting Miyoko know that I’d be back later. And off we were to you may have guessed where. Yes, The Welcome Inn, not my favorite of Fairhope’s three bars, but from what Jack told me in the car on the way there, the only of them that would let Jack enter.

Things at the bar started off well enough. We were warmly greeted and found stools at the bar. The talked continued. We ordered pitcher after pitcher, eventually found an empty booth, and sat in it with our backs to the wall and our legs stretched out, playing cribbage.

We closed down The Welcome after buying a six-pack carryout just after they called for last rounds. The drive to Jack’s place was slow. Jack spent most of the ride slouched over smoking a cigarette, trying to find something on the radio. The Philco dial looked votive and warm. Jack was humming an old tune softly, and it was like he was twisting the dial to miraculously find that one impossible station that could somehow be playing that very same tune at the same time.

‘My cigarette burns me,’ he crooned. ‘I wake with a start. My hand doesn’t hurt, but there’s pain in my heart.’

We got to his place, and I shut off the engine and killed the lights. We stood for several moments pissing into the weeds and reeling under the black, blanket sky.

‘Timmy, you should be getting home,’ Jack apologized. ‘It’s late.’

‘How about we finish these brews first,’ I offered. ‘Then I’ll hit the road.’

Inside, there were paint-splattered and smeared floors, glass jars on most of the tables that were either for juice, ashes, brushes, or thinner and canvases stacked five six seven deep against most walls.

Jack flopped down on the sofa and held his can of beer on his stomach with his cigarette smoking in the other hand. I moved a couple sketches and a copy of a newspaper from the seat of an armchair and cracked open one of the last beers.

‘Here’s one for you, Timmy.’ Jack’s eyes were closed. ‘This is how sad, beautiful and unknowable the mystery of life is. It kills me that I’ll never know.’

I waited. ‘What are you talking about, man? You’re drifting.’ What ever this concerned, I thought, clearly this was the last thread of talk for the evening, if Jack could make it through to the end.

‘Listen. Last Thanksgiving Eve’can I say that? ‘I was driving up to my Mom’s for the big meal. Holly was coming up from South Carolina, and Steve and Paige were flying in from D.C. My trip is much shorter just the three hours from Minerva to Louistown. Rt. 30. Straight shot.’

He blanked his cigarette and drank the rest of the beer and placed it carefully next to a jar of brushes. He continued.

‘I’m driving and this snowstorm starts up. The traffic is heavy enough already with folks heading home, and now it slows down even more for safety’s sake. I’d just finished smoking a joint, and the effect of this snow falling and shooting straight at my windshield and the snow kicked up from the car in front of me had me pretty wired.’

‘You didn’t have an accident, did you?’

‘No no no no. Just listen. I’m just . . . jittery. Anyway, I pass this car on my left that I remember because the hazard lights were flashing. I saw a woman with shoulder-length hair at the wheel. I passed her and a dozen other cars. Well, I’m going along for a few miles, and it’s starting to get darker. I’m still an hour of so from Louistown, and now I see her in the rearview. Same car, hazards flashing, silhouette of a woman with shoulder-length hair. Except now, she flashes her brights at me every once in a while. She even signals with her blinker waves her hand, and points to the side of the road. This goes on for a few miles, and I start thinking that maybe there’s something wrong with the Impala, like, I’m leaking fuel or something’s dragging, or, I don’t know. Finally, I say hell with it, and I signal to pull over. I see that the lady behind me has done the same. So, we pull over, and she’s parked like fifty feet behind me, which is kind of strange.’

‘So whad’ja do?’ I leaned forward in my chair and waited for Jack to answer. There was a moment where I thought that Jack had fallen asleep. ‘Jack! Don’t leave me hanging man. What happened?’

‘Well, I got out of my car and walked back to the woman’s car through the driving snow. Cars are zipping by, and I looked back at the Impala. My car looked fine. When I stepped up to her window, she rolled it down. ‘You all right?’ I asked. She looked up at me. She was clearly upset and stressed out. I had no idea where she was from or where she was going. You know what she said?’

‘No, what?’

‘She said, ‘Kiss me.’’

‘Kiss me?’

‘Yep, just like this, ‘Kiss me.’ So, I leaned down and gave her a kiss. A nice and innocent kiss. Then I asked her again if she was alright. She said ‘Yes’. ‘Are you sure?’ She said ‘Yes’. So . . .

‘So what happened?’

‘So I said goodbye and walked back to my car and got back on the road and finished the trip home.

‘That is fucking strange.’

‘Yes,’ Jack whispered. ‘Strange and sad and beautiful and unknowable. Hmmmm . . .’ Jack got quiet and said finally, ‘What happened there? I’ll never really know.’

I waited. He was asleep.

I covered Jack with a blanket and drove home. I had done a good job with the door and had slipped in the bedroom like a cat. Miyoko was warm and snoring softly.

I thought of you before I fell asleep, brother, and the day you left. Standing on the platform shaking hands, and you getting on the train. How the Amtrak looked climbing up the hill a dropping down over like boxes going slowly into the ground.

We keep waiting for your reply and know you would write if you could. Everyone talks about you, and Miyoko and I sometimes look up at the Moon or to space and say that David is looking at this same sky. I pray that you are and know it to be true. Even from Fairhope, Ohio, Canada is not that far.

* “An American Prayer” is an extract from a novel in progress.

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