Read Against the country Online

Authors: Ben Metcalf

Against the country

Advertising Download Read Online


Against the Countryis a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2015 by Ben Metcalf

All rights reserved.

Published in the united states by Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.

RANDOMHOUSEand theHOUSEcolophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.

LIBRARY OFCONGRESSCATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATIONDATAMetcalf, Ben.Against the country : a novel / Ben Metcalf.pages cmISBN 978-1-4000-6269-0eBook ISBN 978-0-8129-9653-11. Family life—Fiction. I. Title.PS3613.E8783A53 2014813′.6—dc232014002175

www.atrandom.com

Jacket design and illustration: Leanne Shapton

v3.1

Contents

Cover

Title Page

Copyright

BOOK ONETownTarnationFor the sake of the republicMore pessimistic circlesUglinessIllinois bullSunderA great sorceryAffrontCall it fearTrash pitA judgmentO GoochlandBlackberriesBOOK TWOPartial birthRattleBalloonsA fictional magicNational color wheelBloodless compositionBrief windowThe confluence of long roads(Gestation)The second sort of suicideNamesRiflePistolShotgunSanctuaryBOOK THREEI feared the cornAmerican expressionsMy mother’s ankleOn SundaysAs to GodFaggotryPattersonFraudulenceI was not sickenedIn my roomHarbingers allA box thrown between usThis notion of snobberyFlowerBOOK FOURLemonadeCryptArrangement is not creationHow those WitnessesBeckettNo jokeInner tube/LoonTo witJosh(On a plane)As we paused in our chewingBOOK FIVEA crueler iterationI do not refer here to timeBy his crooked ledgerImprimaturKindnessBorogoves“The patterns, incidents, and images noted do exist”An excellent theoryThere persists a desire(Forgive me)MalocchioSuch was not my intentionI had thought to fire him soonerPast performancesA velocity finally sufficientBOOK SIXHorrid twist(For those still keeping track)My subterfuge beganA taste for SousaAmericans about itGood eatingAdvocateCheeriosWonder BreadFun storyA litany hereWant of angelsIs it possibleRedemptionMy father’s axeBOOK SEVENKingAssumptionCopperheadNo truths hereCompass roseThey leapt in pairsPace/EggsA note on the textA note on the peopleA note on the dogs

Dedication

About the Author

BOOK ONE

Town

Tarnation

For the sake of the republic

More pessimistic circles

Ugliness

Illinois bull

Sunder

A great sorcery

Affront

Call it fear

Trash pit

A judgment

O Goochland

Blackberries

Town

I was worked like a jackass for the worst part of my childhood, and offered up to climate and predator and vice, and introduced to solitude, and braced against hope, and dangled before the Lord our God, and schooled in the subtle truths and blatant lies of a half life in the American countryside, all because my parents did not trust that I would mature to their specifications in town. That their plan busted would be of some comfort to me could I find fault in its formulation, but these two were not stupid: I have spoken at length with the both of them and judge each one to be of the highest wit. Nor were they cruel: my brother and sister will no doubt attest to the fact that our makers never left us hungry and that they seemed, on the whole, at least partial to us. Nor may I safely argue that their verdict on town life, whatever torments I might ascribe to the sentence, differed in any large part from my own, so negligent was town in its attitude toward us, and so sorry a welcome did our line receive there after nearly three centuries spent adrift in the New world’s vast and terrible wilderness.

Town (by which I mean the middling depots of Southern Illinois, though from what I have seen of such places elsewhere they might have served just as well) was where a former farmboy’s peers led him with little effort to conclude that scholarship money was best put toward Scotch whiskey and unfiltered cigarettes; where in the resultant fog he resolved that onlymarriage to, and abrupt procreation with, a woman met some eight weeks prior could plausibly avert commerce with the Vietcong; whereupon he watched a single child swell with remarkable ease into three and then learned from his town wife that an enormous effort would now be required to feed them all; whereupon in a panic he fell prey to what the French call a nostalgia for the mud and contrived thereafter to work only with his hands, sure that these hands would not betray him as the brain had; whereupon he discovered that town tended to confine such people to jobs concerned primarily with the assembly of prefabricated homes, whose authors balanced the monotony of their craft with a fast loyalty to amphetamine; whereupon an insipid despair left him open to, but deprived him of the imagination to accept, proposals from more motivated coworkers to help rob area fast-food establishments and drive tractor-trailers full of marijuana down into these United states from the fabled nurseries of western Canada.

Town was where a young woman, confident of her sophistication despite only a slim generation’s remove from the trees herself, married the farmboy to amputate herself, fashionably, from the trunk of her own family; and bore not the first of her children but certainly the subsequent two so that she might cauterize the wound, or else salt it; and soon enough grasped the illogic of union to a man unfamiliar with affluence and beholden to the dirt for his self-esteem and his sanity. Who was then clotheslined in her effort to aid the brood materially when, the aforementioned fine mind notwithstanding, no better task presented than secretary at the local rock radio station, WEIC, which position she would lose anyway at a time roughly concurrent with the loss of her husband’s job at UniBuilt.

Town was where this woman beheld the great locust wave of in-laws come in search of money she did not have or could not possibly spare, where out of empathy, or embarrassment, or guilt, or a confluence of these ills, she took it upon herselfto provide the odd car ride or bed, and to ignore this one’s taste for drugs, and that one’s taste for morons, and to stuff the more malnourished babies with what was at hand, and to keep abreast of each tragically unavoidable court date, until the afternoon came when she saw her husband exorcise the drunken swarm of them from his yard, after which they drove up and down the street and shouted threats to kill him, after which he shouted threats to kill them sooner, after which I find it hard to believe that my mother did not reflect upon the likelihood that she had thus far escaped this lot’s lot only by grace of the humble sums she still asked for, and received, from her kind if disappointed town parents.

Town for me will forever remain a place where one put a bag of questionable design on one’s head for Halloween, and acquired what candy as the bag allowed, and vomited in surprise and fury the next morning on the filthy tile floor outside an aunt’s efficiency apartment, wherein slept a beloved infant cousin whose metal-toothed sire was unaccounted for and who would in time (the infant) grow up to burn down his high school and find steady if unsung work as an adjunct to the beef industry. My younger sister’s memories of town may be few but surely include the day the worse-off people around the corner, whose sole consolation in life appeared to be the fried-chicken dinner an area philanthropist stood them to once each week, leashed a mutt by means of a frayed electrical cord plugged into an outdoor socket, so that the entire neighborhood might hear the poor creature’s shrieks as it caught fire and perished. She has shown a fondness for almost all God’s animals since.

Our brother alone seemed to extract some pleasure from town, being older and hence afforded friends and a paper route, and having gained for himself a measure of boyhood fame when in guile he lured the thieves of a treasured lunchbox down into the ravine through which ran the local sewage creek, and there received them cruelly with his friends’ fists and his own,not to mention the impressive might of the sewage itself. His was the earliest recognition of, and the only real objection to, the fact that our family was set to quit the company of mankind altogether if it could and plant itself once more in the desolate slough from which it had but recently crawled.

Tarnation

We would have done well to heed the dissenter, for as frail as the rest of us found town to be it was, and always had been, the one conceivable bulwark against an annihilation that has hunted every human who dared, or was by circumstance forced, to set his foot upon this treacherous soil. Did the Indian not spread himself over the new land by band and by village? Did the spaniard or the Frenchman not pause in his slaughter of the Indian to put up his forts against the bear and the water and the wind? Did the Englishman not hurriedly arrange, in his attempt to destroy the spaniard and the Frenchman (and, of course, the Indian), the huts of his vanished Roanoke, and did he not raise up his Jamestown and his Plymouth all the faster? Did the Dutchman not hoodwink the Indian so that he might secure his New Amsterdam, and did he not war with the Englishman over that slight and others, and in the end swap the whole of the operation for some sugar stalks down in Suriname? I ask you: did the plantation not arise and have its run, however truncated, because it was, in effect, less a farm than it was a township populated and maintained by slaves? did the pioneer and the prospector not normally die at once, and can it be said that the lonely homesteader who survived was anything but miserable in his barren and pitiless surrounds?

I suppose that my parents, who were not innocent of history, might have given the evidence against seclusion in theAmerican brush its due, and seen fit to discount their own hard time of it among humans, had town here not decomposed by the 1970s to the point where one could expect no more than the same polluted rill or “river” oozing through its heart or along one rib, and the same cluster of mediocre chain stores with a shared and weed-broken parking lot, and the same Democratic or Republican electoral machine, and the same contagious Kiwanis- or Rotary-club swimming pool just west of the trailer park, and the same sclerosed gauntlet of schools whose far end was a football team with no better shot at state than it had the year before, and the same bars and whores in imitation of bars and whores in larger towns, and the same summer visit from the stringy-haired druggists and statutory rapists who ran rides at the local fair, and the same debate about which street signs had by their presence or absence caused which oddly relished traffic fatalities, and the same brand-new brick pokey full of drunks and whores and high-school footballers and destitute neighbors and blood relatives as one could no doubt find in the next town over.

Yet can town’s letdown alone account for the keenness with which my mother and father envisioned the ruin of each of their children in turn by coach or cousin or carny rapist? Can it explain the ease with which they came to believe that town’s alternative was not a bug-bit hell but rather a tit-cuddled arcadia? Can it excuse the swiftness with which these people determined to hurl themselves, and their children, headlong into the national briar patch, there to itch and to bleed?

I deny it.

I deny that town is the root of all harm to these United States. I deny that our blighted communities owe nothing to the land upon which they were made. I deny that this continent, unlike all the others, wishes to graze cattle and grow foodstuffs for the benefit of its invaders. I deny that tarnation has a grip only on those Americans who lay claim to more thanone neighbor, and who direct no great suspicion at the universities, and who refuse to believe that the Revised Standard Version of the Bible was written (and then presumably revised) by the Baby Jesus, and who have yet to purchase, out of imagined or actual need, either a pickup truck or a soviet-issued machine gun. To my mind, he who turns his back on town is as prone as anyone to become evil’s eager and ignorant sponge.

For the sake of the republic

I wish for the sake of the republic that I could call our decision to flee town’s omens a mere reaction to them, but as gamely as town worked to push us away another force, of a much higher order, and with the potential to devastate all that humanity has raised up in defense of itself, tugged at us all the while, and muddled our thoughts, and drew us out into the trees to glare at omens more powerful than any we had seen with their pants off down on Main street. The very least of what awaited us, perhaps by way of reproach, were drunks with a better reason to imbibe than in town and a good deal farther to drive, and carnies whose rickety rides were less well cared for than in the populated areas but who nonetheless represented all the glamour a fourteen-year-old country girl was liable to encounter in her lifetime, and whores who were older and less toothsome renditions of that selfsame fourteen-year-old girl, and furious high-school football players whose Baptist prayers had never won them so much as a break-even season, and neighbors of such paltry means that they generally lacked the amperage required to electrocute a dog and so were left to use a firearm on it or on any other animal they happened across during the course of an otherwise empty day.

No more than ten at the time of our departure from civilization, if what we treaded in for so bleak a stretch can be said to warrant the term, I did not know, nor would I have approved,of our subscription to the very lie that had, some seven generations previous on my father’s side, and a competitive number on my mother’s, orchestrated the grand farce by which I first entered the American hoedown in the first place. That I emerged and took air in an Illinois hospital and not a cornfield I count as something of a miracle, given that my forebears were suckered out into the region not by a promise of suitable communities there, which anyway did not exist then and arguably do not exist now, but by a promise of land, countless acres of it, advertised to be rich and bountiful and blessed, if not actually occupied, by God Himself. It seems hardly to have occurred to my ancestors, or to my own parents, that this same God had for centuries shown a marked preference for town, and a tendency to yield the whole of the wild expanses to Satan, and had inspired (at least in His New England penitents) a fear and a hatred of the natural world intense enough that anyone who expressed an admiration for the woods, or a curiosity about the high grass beyond the village, was likely to be dubbed a witch and set directly on fire.

How exactly God was persuaded to leave town I do not know, but I assume He was removed by the same men, now rotted, who long ago condemned my bloodline to oblivion on behalf of the enormous real-estate hustle that today comprises the worthless plains adjacent to the Mississippi, and the obviously infertile desert beyond those plains, and the murderous mountains beyond that desert, and the perfectly alien far coast those mountains traitorously guard. He may have made a go of it on the steppe, or up in the hills, and He may eventually have come to take a stubborn pride in His predicament, as country people are wont to do, or He may have gathered Himself up and vacated the continent entirely, provided the soil had not sucked away His power to do even that. At any rate He appears to have become separated from His American flock, and He has since provided little real, as opposed to claimed, comfortto those millions of His presumed neighbors who once parted with dependable town money to work and inhabit, if never in truth to possess, an unkind land they had been told was proximate to Glory.

As an accomplice to this scheme, and perhaps a principal in it, Thomas Jefferson seems to me to have sinned cardinally, with his comfortable slaver’s dream of an agrarian wonderland and his criminal transfer of public funds to the Napoleonic war effort so as to avail us of the hectares needed to prove that dream a nightmare. I also hold accountable Daniel Boone, first realtor through the Cumberland Gap; and Fenimore Cooper, whose salesmanship of the prairie and the waterways as a playground for white boys continues to plague us with foreign-exchange students and unwatchable Hollywood films; and Mr. Greeley, who encouraged the young to believe that a westward trek would not, in fact, kill a number of them outright and deliver the rest into penury; and Mr. Audubon, whose still lifes do little to indicate that actual birds flap around overly much and tend to spread influenzas; and Messrs. Alcott and Lane and Emerson and Thoreau, who were not satisfied that the land should be thought benevolent and wise but sought also to equate these ludicrous properties with the American soul; and Senator Calhoun, who damned the nation to Armageddon (though he would not live to enjoy the scene) with his fantasy that somewhere between the smug agribusiness of the plantation and the observable grief of the tenant farm was to be found a “way of life” whose protection was worth the risk (and, as it turned out, the reality) of death and dismemberment and subjugation.

I would add to this list Mr. Whitman, who approached the senator’s war with no more insight than that both the bramble and the self should be celebrated, and came out of it with no better improvement to his art than that putrefaction and “democracy”deserved some say as well. I would also include here the worshipful Mr. Muir, and every pupil of the Hudson School, and every man named Benton who lifted voice or pen or paintbrush in the naturalist cause, and every Joel Chandler Harris who saw fit to attach pretty morals to an ugly rural past, and every Nashville Agrarian who failed, in this same facile nostalgia, to recognize Jefferson and Calhoun as madmen or liars. Special mention is due E. B. white, who prompted the rich to believe that a weekend retreat in the country qualified them for the position of calm rustic sage, and every back-to-the-land hippie who managed to further this absurd idea with his inheritance-funded commune, only to suggest something truer with his California killing spree.

Whether we were swayed by these particular boosters of the simple life or by others is for my parents to say, not me, though I do think it germane that we found ourselves banished to a desolate Virginia county at the foot of the Piedmont Plateau, to the east of Jefferson’s labor camp on Monticello, and to the west of the Confederate capital Calhoun’s rhetoric made inevitable, and to the south of the wounds Whitman peeled and scraped clean on account of the agricultural lie’s most spirited attempt yet to defend itself. Could chance alone have fetched us to such a nexus? Was it wholly arbitrary that we landed within a wind-aided scream of the very spot where the effort to farm the interior of this continent began?

I thank God, if He has not by now entirely acquiesced to the rural cause, that we ventured east and not west, as Mr. Greeley would have liked it, because I doubt I would be here to complain had the opposite occurred. That we chose to head south, though, is a blow no God who retained even the smallest affection for His American subjects would have dealt us, and that we settled in so useless a stretch of the kudzu is a masterstroke no combination of Jeffersons could feasibly havearranged. I must therefore conclude, as I was moved at least to suspect during my long years of exile from town, that the land itself, and especially the land of the Virginia Piedmont, wooded and weed-choked and encased in hard red clay where we had been led to expect some semblance of topsoil, was actively, and perhaps even knowingly, involved in our doom.

More pessimistic circles

Since those days when England’s rubbishes wagered all they had for the wisdom that they would shortly be dead in the Virginia brush, if not by native axe or flesh scoop then by the bloody flux or some other microscopic remedy to man, it has been the American’s destiny, or else simply his style, to head off into perdition unburdened with the price of a ticket home. Apparently the cost of a single rented U-Haul, as well as the gasoline required to traverse Kentucky’s failed imitation of industry (and then to negotiate the food-stampy hollers and tax-kept scenic viewpoints of the Appalachian range), sufficed to include us in this ritual of diminishment and despair. Even before they had seen for themselves the depletion along the once ballyhooed and now rightfully ignored James River, my parents were tapped out and frightened enough to make for the comparative oasis of Richmond, where a couple of weeks left to amuse ourselves in the parking lot of a waffle house near the motel, while our father looked for construction work and our mother searched in ever more pessimistic circles for an address within our means, made it clear that Richmond cared no more for us than had the decomposing forts back in Southern Illinois. We knew that within a month or two we would need to seek shelter elsewhere, most likely in one of those sad and vacant James-bound counties we had driven through on the way out and already agreed to detest.

My brother, in what I take to be a stab at kindness, has claimed that our parents could not possibly have intended for their children to come of age so removed from the basic comforts, and so divested of human decency, and were bent for the nearest Kentucky town when, somewhere between Richmond and Charlottesville, the gas money gave out. Against such a theory I would offer our sister’s insistence that throughout this dark time she was continually promised a horse, which would indicate (a) that our parents nurtured a bucolic goal all along and (b) that they meant to have some money left over once their goal had been achieved, which would further indicate (c) that they were in no way impelled but actually chose to raise us in our subsequent isolation and misery. On the other hand, since my sister never received anything like a horse in the Virginia hills, despite the fact that a pony or a half-dead mule could be had out there for as little as fifty dollars, her claims about when the promise was first made, and how often it was repeated, might be considered tainted by a formerBlack Beautyenthusiast’s understandable thirst for revenge.

I myself do not care what plans my parents made or unmade or altered or adhered to: no blame can attach to those caught fast in a pit of excrement who flail around for something by which they might pull themselves to safety, or who opt instead to remain immobile so as not to be sucked under any sooner. I do not care whether Richmond was, in fact, the sturdy overhead branch we required at the time. Richmond was, and still is, suited primarily to wealthy people able to tolerate the boredom and tastelessness and humidity that account for most of the culture there. Nor do I care if my parents neglected to make an honest grab for that branch: the countryside to the west of Richmond was clearly the better match for us, being suited primarily to poorer people who could tolerate their own measure of boredom and tastelessness and humidity, or who had no choice but to try. I can find fault with my parents only for theirfailure to hammer out the terms of our surrender with more finesse, and to recognize that the place one’s children hail from is a tattoo ever afterward, and to steer us with what strength they could still summon into a county with a more agreeable name than the one we would all come to loathe and deny.

Ugliness

That my siblings and I hail now and forever from Goochland, Virginia, and not from Powhatan, or Chesterfield, or Hanover, or Louisa, or Fluvanna, or Appomattox, or any number of decently named counties within a bankrupt gas tank’s reach of Richmond, is indeed a heavy log to bear, but even here I see evidence of a cause larger than my parents’ inability to consult a map properly and think ahead. For into this same county, which in 1743 encompassed a wider swath of uselessness than it does today, was born Thomas Jefferson himself, and it was within its present bounds that he wasted his childhood among the tobacco plants which prior to our arrival had relieved the soil of what simple nutrients it once possessed. Cornwallis passed through on his way to Yorktown, and later Sheridan on his way to Petersburg, and before him a detachment of soon-to-be-dead Union fools who believed that a tiny band of horsemen could penetrate Richmond’s western defenses and canter away with the Confederate president as a prize, but the county holds real historical worth only insofar as it witnessed the birth and early schooling of that rash ginger prophet who would, through his words and deeds and acolytes, convince millions of Americans to martyr themselves on the altar of an agrarian delusion. No more is wanted: if great holiness can be claimed for Bethlehem and Mecca because of the careers launched there, then surely I am justified in my own claim that a certain unholy uglinessemanated from within the bounds of Goochland County, and commanded our attention, and beckoned us out into those pine shadows and those unremitting fields.