Text © 2013 by George Anderson. All rights reserved.
Are you getting excited for the publication of A Chair Between The Rails? I am. I thought I would share the first chapter with you. Take a look!
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By James Feckidee
The steel planet
Events on Earth
You see, I first discovered the poet William Blake, that man chosen by whomever God thinks God is to relieve me from the agony that it is to think and feel—first discovered him when I was twelve, sitting in Uncle Phil’s study. I will always remember that day. The fire was so warm (winter, you know—a great room for winters, and wrought-iron window-framed). His voice was warm, too. And now this: Uncle Phil, dead; the funeral, tonight, in half an hour; and myself, hapless James Feckidee, a little more dead inside than I’d been yesterday, waiting to fill up the old Ford and watching the slow-turning clouds of young October.
My boy Austin was only four, but sometimes I let him roam. He stood now on the other side of the gas station gravel, holding the payphone up to his ear and listening. I must have listened like that in Uncle Phil’s study, when my mind was still malleable. Austin must be listening now to the dead phone, like his imagination was more than reality, like he knew something I didn’t—like he heard something I didn’t. He probably did.
The gas station attendant came out. He had a big scar above his left eye. He was still drunk, or maybe you would say already drunk, seeing as how it was almost dusk, and that would be a mighty hangover. Regardless, this guy needed a razor and a cup of coffee.
“Need a fillup?” he asked.
“Yes,” I muttered.
“How about a wash and a wax?”
“No thank you. We’re off to a funeral, so it doesn’t matter.”
“I’m sorry, sir.” He pumped my gas.
I stood kicking at the gravel. Austin smiled at me across the drive, holding that dead payphone up to his ear.
“The kid hears something, you know,” said the gas station attendant.
I blinked and looked at the guy. His hand was clamped on the pump, but his vacant eyes watched my boy.
“That’s a rare ability.” His empty face turned toward me, and the scar above his left eye seemed to throb.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The man shrugged. “But I do, and so does your son.” His speech was strangely clear for the bleariness of his eyes. He shut off the pump and crossed the gravel. “Hey, little guy. What do you hear in that phone?”
I dashed after him. I swept up my boy just as the creep’s hand went for him. The payphone fell hard, clanging gray against the gray metal, colorless—always colorless, this deep morass, this wading through.
“Telephone—telephone—” My boy kicked, scrambling over my shoulder, but I held him.
We stood breathing and staring at each other, the creep and me. Alien colors passed under the man’s face. At last he murmured, “You have no idea what he can do.”
“Listen.” My terror, my rage. “Tell me what I owe you, and leave us alone.”
Now the creep raised both hands, shaking his head. “All right. You’re not ready. Now, I can’t stop what’s been set in motion—though I can protect you, if you’ll trust me.”
“What do I owe you?” I didn’t care that he hadn’t filled the tank up all the way. He’d given us enough gas to get away from him.
“Sixty-seven cents,” he said.
“I’ll meet you inside.” I glared at him, holding my boy, waiting for him to leave. At last he lowered his gaze and nodded and walked past me toward the door.
“Telephone—telephone—” My boy was still throwing a tantrum.
“You can’t stop him,” said the creep as he went inside. “You can’t stop what he is.”
“What he is,” I muttered. “He’s my boy, that’s what he is.”
With the gentle force of fatherhood, I put my struggling ball of limbs into the car. Though it hurt me, I locked him in. You see, I had to. He sobbed and pounded on the window as I walked away, but it was for his own good.
Inside, I paid the creep. He measured out my coins with exacting idiocy. At last he said, “You’re a penny short, but who’s counting?” He threw all the money into the same compartment in the drawer. “Listen.” He leaned over the counter and took me with those broad, bloodshot eyes. “Something is happening which you know nothing about. Something has been loosed which you can’t stop. Your boy is special. See? You can’t keep him away from his purpose.” The creep’s gaze wandered past me to the window. I spun. My boy was at the phone again, listening.
“Shut up!” I left the idiot and stormed outside. I swept up my boy.
“Daddy, no! Telephone—”
I caught the receiver as it fell. I put it to my ear. Not a sound, not a hum, even after I dropped in a nickel as an experiment.
Back to the car. I would have to hold him in my lap. If he had figured out how to unlock the car door, there was no telling what he would do to get back to that phone while we were moving.
I clutched him to my chest with one arm and wrangled the ignition and the gearshift with the other. He was still struggling.
“Calm down. I need you to behave. We’re going to Uncle Phil’s funeral.”
But I don’t think he even knew who Uncle Phil was to me.
We were just shuffling past the knees of relatives, just settling into the pew, when the minister began to intone his dirge of comfort. I guess we were late—but couldn’t we be forgiven? What a battle, just to get there.
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to remember…”
Oh, I could remember. I remembered how Uncle Phil used to look up over the desk at me. The lenses and their thin film of opacity somehow rendered him inverse professorial, like he was the antithesis of the unapproachable scholar, though still retentive of all the knowledge. He wasn’t even my grandfather in archetype, but more like a brother-fellow-conspirator who happened to have white hair. It must have been brown once; we’re a brown-haired family.
The minister’s gaze revolved slowly around the congregation. “When a brother in the Lord passes on, we gather…”
Uncle Phil came to all the family gatherings when I was really young. If only I could have given Austin the same opportunity to get to know him. But Austin had barely even met Uncle Phil, what with the sickness that taken my uncle four years ago, strangely coinciding with the boy’s birth. Now Uncle Phil had been taken from Austin forever, just as he had been taken from me for a few years, when he had mysteriously disappeared…
“…who reigns now with Jesus Christ in the fields of eternity—that is the true Phillip Feckidee. That is the man as God made him. But that—” the minister pointed down from the pulpit to the open casket and the glorious white shock of hair—“is just the withered shell. No, do not weep for Phillip Feckidee!”
But they wept anyway, all around me. It was a quiet sound like dead leaves rustling in some abandoned gymnasium of the woods. Likewise, it had no meaning. I don’t weep, you understand; so I just sat there. I pitied them, really. To be so lost, so weak, that you can’t maintain your steely humanity. Never find me doing that.
Of course, Uncle Phil did find me that way once. He came to the diamond near sundown, driving that old jalopy bounce-banging through ruts as if on wagon wheels. I’d been catching, and I’d taken a foul ball to the cheekbone. I’m still not the same shape there. That was such a dry summer, and dust and blood makes this sort of dough. If you could feel it, like I still do. I was weeping then; don’t know if I have since. Of course, all the pains after that have been nothing but amplifications of the original, of the first time it was shown to me that I was paper and not a god, that I was flesh and not iron eternal spirit. From then on, the universe has been diligent and relentless to remind me of its arrogant superiority, and this is no exception.
The minister got down after making an open invitation. I, who read and write and don’t speak publicly, as a rule, got up and stood between the whitewashed walls from which a thousand declamations of fire and brimstone had come. I stood looking out across the flat and opaque and mundane body of the Lord, who were black-dressed and daub-eyed and ready to ring with my words; and I, reader, writer, and mock-theologian of nothingness, began to speak.
“To me, he will always be Uncle Phil. Economy of speech assumed the dropping of great. Great was a mere technicality. The fact that he was great was so fundamental that if you had to say it, if you had to call him my great-uncle, you didn’t know him at all. I just called him Uncle Phil. But you know, he always felt more like a brother than a man fifty years my senior. He never came at me with that superiority complex so natural to a writer of his intellectual and artistic prowess. He was just incredibly normal.”
My voice rang in glorious cadence across the room. I seemed to hold their emotions, these foreign things, in the palm of my hand.
“Above all, Phillip Feckidee was a mover, a man who might have changed the world. He was a man who looked elsewhere. He insisted that if we follow him into his dance, we go elsewhere with him. For that, I loved him dearly.”
I probably didn’t speak that magnificently, but you know how we represent ourselves. I got down from the podium then, something like caring and triumphant.
Then I stood in the casket line among the black-backed shapes that I should have known all my life—among those things still shuddering, still beset with that particular affliction that I do not know. I stood mingled, but walled off and outcast and safer that way. That was me, then, there. The sidelong light of the dusk-brown sun made the women’s left ears glitter and the men’s watches shine. One by one they came to the point of flowers and solemnity and lacquered wood where they got stopped up. From there on out, it was all flow, sweet forgetful flow into scattering and disintegration.
I was perfectly lucid.
Now swept up in the inexorable push of the line, I came upon him. O, the long daring face and the hardset jaw carved for derision but accustomed only to laughter. The same glasses and their opaque film, like they were dimly misted—but they were dry, it was only the light—and the eyes shut in eternal mystery behind them. That same brazen wash of white hair, unchanged in death as it had been unchangeable in life. The hands of a giant folded in wrinkled wisdom like poetry, like Blake’s hands as they must have been when Blake had lain like this, floating in flowers and white satin, as he must have, floating, just atoms now unencumbered with the higher mysteries of will and consciousness and emotion, a part of the earth now prepared for disintegration, just atoms, as they tell us, just atoms, and the rest is atom bombs.
Oh, my memories—
“Read to me, James.”
Uncle Phil leaned ravenously across the desk. Firelight flashed on his lenses, but it could not dim the hunger in his eyes.
Why do I always read? I asked. Why don’t you read?
“I can’t, dear James. I’ve lost the ability.”
How? Are you going blind?
He laughed. “Of course not! Just read to me, James. My soul is starved for words.”
Chapter one. I read to him. I loved him. Dark Urizen prepared; his ten thousands of thunders, ranged in gloomed array, stretch out across the dread world…
“Blake has a way with words, doesn’t he, James?”
“Sorry, keep going.”
I shifted the musty book and found my place. Voices of terror are heard, like thunders of autumn, when the cloud blazes over the harvests…
Maybe Blake had meant that to refer to a late summer storm, but now I would always hear in it the Japanese cities decimated, the Japanese sky ablaze. What would Uncle Phil think of us, of our country? He would never tell me now, for he had taken sick years before the bomb.
“Take pen and paper. Take this on dictation, if you don’t mind, James.”
I never minded hearing his voice or feeling his swift winged words infuse my pen with universal vibrations.
“Do you ever think about how these are just words, just letterforms, just swept ink illegible on the page?”
No, I said.
“It’s true, James. These forms have only the meaning we’ve learned to give them…”
I never thought of that, I said.
“So pay attention to the context of anything, of everything. That’s how we pass it down. That’s how we preserve intellect and meaning. Remember: without our efforts, these letters are just ink on a page.”
Just ink on a page. Just atoms. He was just atoms now, and the rest was atom bombs. They had done it over there, and it didn’t make a difference metaphysically where or who, even though I couldn’t fulfill my duty to my country. It had been done. We had done it to our planet, to our race, to ourselves.
I love you, dear uncle.
All around me, the black-clad forms moved in reverent pantomime. Mine was a timeless salutation before the casket, and no one dared interrupt me. I gazed. The stillness of his waxy face did not move. Floating in a garden of fragrance and color, he did not respond to me, and he never would again.
“What do you mean incompetent?!” Uncle Phil shouted, jumping up from behind the desk.
Mentally incompetent, I said.
“And how did the Army determine—”
“I don’t see how that could affect soldiering. You’re a strong lad. You’re intelligent. You have a mind both creative and logical.”
I’m not strong, I said. I barely passed the fitness exam.
“I’ve never heard of this mental incompetence business. You should be serving your country.”
I can’t! That’s what I’m saying!
He turned and left the room then.
“She’s really leaving?” Uncle Phil shouted, spinning to face me across the study.
I said that.
She said the word.
“My God, James. What about the boy?”
What about him? I’m not sending him to an orphanage. I’m his father.
“Doesn’t she want—”
No. And if she did, I’d tell her to—
“So you’ll be the one who—”
Yes. He’s my son.
“And why? Did she tell you?”
You know her. The damn floozie magazines—as if those were real people, as if I ever touched any of them—
“But you were looking.”
What difference does it make? It’s just art. Just paintings and photographs. I never said I didn’t love her. I never told her that.
“I think you did, James.”
He looked out the window then, doubtless at the June flowerbeds devoured under careless grass that I had forgotten to trim.
Now I would never finish the gardening for him; and even if I ever patched this up into something like a life, he would never find out. The last version of James Feckidee he had known, which he would know forever now, was the divorced, the violent, the perverted.
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Text © 2013 by George Anderson. All rights reserved.