Maps in a mirror, p.108

Maps in a Mirror, page 108


Maps in a Mirror

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  “There’s the road, right there, after that rock,” says Mort.

  She sped up to eighty-five.

  “What the hell’re you doing?” Mort says. “I said to pull over.” And his face got real mean looking, like it does when he’s trying to scare some sucker into backing down without a fight.

  “I know your kind,” she says, her voice all shaky. “You’ll get me off there and take my money and my car and you’ll rape me and kill me.”

  “No we won’t,” I says.

  “I’ll kill you right here,” says Mort, really getting upset, I could tell because his ears was getting red.

  “Go ahead,” she says. “At the speed I’m going if you kill me we’d smash up before you had a chance to get the car under control. Besides, I don’t think you know how to drive.”

  Course we both did, we’d been driving a tractor since we was eight. But I sure didn’t want to crash at ninety miles an hour, and tell you the truth, I didn’t like it how her hands was shaking taking those turns.

  “You’ll run out of gas pretty soon,” says Mort.

  “I get fifty miles to the gallon,” she says, and her gas gauge was up above half. “I’ll get to Las Vegas first.”

  “Slow down,” I says, because she wasn’t keeping in the lanes too good.

  She sped up to a hundred and I needed to go to the bathroom.

  “Please,” I says, “this isn’t safe.”

  “It doesn’t matter,” she says. “At this speed we’re bound to pass a highway patrolman and he’ll pull us over and I’ll tell him what you were trying to do.”

  She was right. We was over a barrel, like they say, and Mort knew it too.

  “Jeez,” he says, “I could cut you up into little pieces.”

  He always says that when he’s mad but doesn’t want to fight.

  She just shook harder and took a turn a little sharper and the car screeched a lot going around the turn. The wind had come up now cause we was driving into the storm, and I thought we’d get blown off the road in a minute.

  “Hey, please Mort, let’s quit, OK?” I says.

  Mort clicked his tongue and then he says, “Man, you got a chicken for a brother nothing goes right.” Then he put the knife back into the sheath. I didn’t even mind him calling me a chicken, just so the car slowed down.

  But she didn’t slow down and the car was up around 105, probably as fast as it could go with a headwind.

  “Hey, I put the knife away, slow down,” says Mort, and suddenly I figured out he was as scared as I was. In the old man’s Plymouth you never got much above 65, and we always went 55 if the old lady was in the car.

  “If I slow down you’ll just pull the knife out and kill me,” she says.

  “Mort’ll throw it out the window,” I says. “That way he can’t pull it out again. And then you can just let us out anywhere along here, we’ll walk.”

  Mort glares at me again, but then we took another turn that slammed us over against the doors and Mort rolled down his window and threw out his knife. That knife cost him, too, and I knew he felt bad throwing it like that, even though I knew we’d hunt for it for a month before he’d ever give up finding it.

  “OK, the knife’s gone, now pull over and let us out,” Mort says, and now his voice is shaky.

  “Uh-uh,” says the girl, and then she says, “How do I know you don’t have something else hidden in your clothes.”

  “Cause I said so,” says Mort.

  “I’m supposed to believe you?” says the girl.

  “I never told a lie in my life,” says Mort, though I figure that was about his ten millionth lie this year.

  “You just go around pulling knives on people.”

  “Hey, look,” says Mort, “we’re sorry.”

  “Yeah, we’re sorry,” I says.

  “Shutup, Runt,” he says.

  “I’ll just wait until the highway patrol stops us,” she says.

  And I noticed that her voice wasn’t shaky anymore.

  “Please,” I says. “We’ll never do it again. We just wanted the money so I could get a ten-speed bike. We wasn’t gonna kill anybody.”

  “Sure,” she says, and a gust of wind tossed us from the lefthand lane into the righthand lane, and I sure was glad we wasn’t driving in the righthand lane in the first place. “You’ve got a knife hidden somewhere else.”

  “Honest, I don’t,” he says.

  “Prove it,” she says.

  “How?” he says.

  “Take off your clothes and throw them out the window,” she says.

  “The hell I will,” says Mort.

  “That’s the only way I’ll know I’m safe,” she says. “But I’d rather wait till we pass a highway patrolman anyway.”

  “We’ll be dead before that,” I says, because right then the dust storm hit, and you couldn’t see thirty feet ahead. And this was the windingest part of I-15.

  “Take off your clothes and throw them out the window,” she says, and believe me, I just whipped off my shirt and my pants and my shoes and my socks and tossed them right out, even though when I opened the window the car filled up with dust. And after a minute Mort gritted his teeth and did the same. And there we sat in our jockey shorts, 5 for three dollars through the catalog.

  “OK,” Mort says, “now let us out.”

  “I said take off all your clothes,” she says, and I looked at her and figured out she wasn’t scared any more at all, she was just getting even for how we got her scared before. But it didn’t make no difference nohow, like the old man says, cause I’d have drunk straight 10/40 motor oil just to get out of that car in that dust storm. So I took off my shorts and tossed ’em out the window and then I leaned forward and kind of covered myself with my arms, which I folded in my lap like a little kid in Sunday School.

  But Mort didn’t make a move to take off his shorts, and by then I was so scared I started yelling at him to take off his damn shorts and then I started to cry and so he did it and threw them out the window. But he leaned forward just like I did, and covered himself, and he turned red, and just looked at the floor, and I sure as hell knew right then that he hadn’t ever seen Darcia Kleinsmidt with all her clothes off or he wouldn’t be blushing like a bad sunburn right now.

  And I stopped crying right then and for the first time in my life I felt sorry for old Mort and felt like I oughta help him. So I says, “OK, lady, you had your joke, now stop this car and let us get the hell out and get our clothes and go home.” I was madder’n hell and I glared her down as mean as I ever did the old lady when she made me help with the dishes, and she kind of looked sick and slowed down the car and stopped. It felt so good not to be going a hundred miles an hour that we just sat there for a second before she said, “Get the hell out of my car!” and then Mort and I opened the doors, even if it meant using one of our hands that was covering ourself, and we got out into the dust storm and she took off fast and there we were, stark naked on the freeway in a dust storm about fifteen miles from home and a mile from the nearest clothes.

  And then, of course, the dust storm stopped and it started to rain like crazy and Mort says, “Damn damn damn damn damn,” and I says, “I wanta find my clothes.”

  So we walked along the freeway until we saw a car coming and then we dove down off into the dirt and brush beside the road so they wouldn’t see us without any clothes on, only the dirt was mud from the rain and we was covered with it. “Damn damn damn,” says Mort, and I says, “Come on, Mort,” and he says, “You and your damn ten-speed bike.” We walked on to where we threw our underwear out the window only the wind had blown it away and we couldn’t see it anywheres and we was soaking wet.

  But we figured as how our shoes and pants wouldn’t blow as far as our shorts, so we went on, dodging down into the mud whenever a car came, which wasn’t all that often around here. When we got out of the mud then the rain would wash it off until the next time.

  Finally I found both my socks hung up on the bobwire fen
ce along the edge of the freeway only thirty feet back and my shoes was right nearby, and Mort found one of his socks and both his shoes and finally I found my shirt hung up on the bobwire, too. I put it on, even though it was cold and wet, and I didn’t feel so naked cause it was my Sunday shirt with the long tails, but poor Mort was still stark naked with mud on his feet, carrying two shoes and one sock, and when he saw me standing there in my shirt he started yelling about how I’d screwed up the whole thing and if it hadn’t been for me and my ten-speed he’d be up in the barn with Darcia Kleinsmidt right now and what the hell did he have to have such a dumb little brother for and he wished he was an only child and it was all my fault and after this went on for a while I started to cry, because I felt like it was all true and I felt bad and anyway, I’d had a bad scare, I don’t want you to think I cry alot but I think that was about the worst time in my whole life, but after a while Mort’s calling me dumb made me mad and I took off running.

  It was then that I saw both our pants out in the median strip hung up on some big sagebrush and I cut across the freeway without looking and so did Mort and just as we reached our pants we heard a car squeal to a stop and there was Sheriff Burton looking like he seen a ghost.

  We just kind of stood there holding our pants while he crossed the road.

  “Well, if it ain’t Morton and Ernest Olson,” he says, when he got over to us. “What the hell’re you doin’ stark naked in the middle of the freeway?”

  We didn’t know exactly how to explain. But I was still mad at Mort and so I played dumb, seeing as how he always said I was. “Gee, Mr. Burton,” I says in my Sunday School voice, “I don’t know. Mort here is always telling me how I’m dumb, but he told me it’d be real fun to play around like this in the freeway.”

  You shoulda seen the look on Mort’s face. But you really shoulda seen the look on Sheriff Burton’s face! He just grabbed Mort by the hair and said, “You better put those pants on fast and get in my car, boy.”

  Mort started to tell him something but the sheriff just looked at him real mad and said, “I don’t wanna hear one word, boy. Your pa’s gonna have plenty to say to you when I tell him how you been playing with your little brother.”

  So we put on our pants and carried our shoes and socks and got into Sheriff Burton’s car. The sheriff made me sit in front and he shoved Mort into the backseat and when he did I heard the sheriff say, “Fairy,” like the word was sour milk.

  Well, when we got home the old man went off to talk with the sheriff while the old lady yelled bloody murder and made us take off our clothes and have a bath, saying all the time how much clothes cost and if us kids ever had to pay for our own clothes we wouldn’t go off playing in the rain in our Sunday best.

  Then while I was in the tub with the old lady washing me like she hasn’t done in years since I was a kid, the old man came in with a real bad look on his face and said, “What happened,” and I thought of lying and then I figured that there wasn’t no way to explain how we got where we was except the truth, so I told him the whole thing, about the ten-speed and the girl in the Audi.

  When I was done, the old man said, “That true?” and I said, “Swear to God,” and the old lady said, “Don’t take the name of the Lord,” and the old man said, “Thank God, Sheriff Burton said my boy Morton was a fairy,” and the old lady said, “Now, Bill, how can I teach these boys proper with you taking the Lord’s name and saying fairy in front of them?” but the old man was out of the bathroom and off to talk to the sheriff.

  What all happened was that nothing happened except the Olds made us work all summer for nothing just to buy new Sunday clothes, which I didn’t think was fair cause we were growing out of ’em anyway and they would’ve had to buy us new ones before Christmas. Mort didn’t talk to me much for a long time, I thought he was mad but maybe he was just feeling bad about the whole thing, but anyway he’s never called me dumb since then.

  Oh, the sheriff thought the whole thing was funny as hell and inside three days the whole county knew about it and Mort and I had to lick everybody all over again and some of ’em twice before they’d shutup about it. And the Olds never let us go down by the freeway for love or money, so Mort’s knife was gone for good, and I knew he felt real bad.

  So that fall I got a job at Fernwood’s market sweeping and bagging and saved up my money so that at Christmastime I had a brand new knife for old Mort under the tree to make up for the old one, and the one I gave him was even better. But what was best of all was that the Olds gave both me and Mort ten-speed bikes that Christmas, even though it was a medium harvest, which meant that everything was OK again.

  Mort and I spent a week falling down on the road a lot learning to ride, but by the time we went back to school after New Year’s we didn’t take the bus anymore because it was a lot more fun to ride the bikes except when it snowed. And Mort stopped calling me Runt. It was Speed and Ernie from then on, mostly cause even though I was fast, Mort was faster.


  Imagine, if you will, that you are now reading the story of a young writer, myself, who decides to write a first person story about a young writer, Abe Snow, who, after years of writer’s block, realizes one day that he must write a contemporary novel, the other periods already having provided exactly enough lecture notes to fill all the class periods in a one-semester university literature course. Furthermore, as he contemplates writing it he realizes that his novel will be the perfect novel, the one embodying novelness, comprising all that is novel and nothing that is not-novel, a novel that so transcends the particular that it is both generic and sui generis.

  I, the narrator of the story you imagine you are reading (as opposed to Abe Snow, the narrator of the first-person story whose composition and publication my story is about), first thought of having a fictional character write the ideal contemporary novel while I was browsing through the lingerie department of the San Francisco Union Square Macy’s, thinking about literature while testing how well I could see my hand through a silk teddy. It occurred to me that there would be a strong market for Minimalist underwear, which could be introduced with such advertising copy as:

  Be sexy and inscrutable all at once.

  or, with an appropriate photo:

  Tonight you’re wearing Minimalist.

  He sees everything in a lingering glance

  but has no idea what he’s seeing

  or what he’s expected to do with it.

  Serious literature and marketing thus became entangled in my mind during a particularly strong hormonal flow. The result is (or will be, when I write it) my story about Abe Snow. He has long known, as all serious American writers know, that serious contemporary novels must all be about the suffering and struggles of writers (or ur-writers). He has also known, as all serious American writers know, that power and truth in serious contemporary novels derive from the author’s memories of childhood and the author’s fantasies about extramarital involvements, which we care about only to the degree that we are convinced the author is a genius whose life and mind are worthy of such minute examination.

  Abe’s life-transforming insight is that serious contemporary American literature is squarely within the genre of celebrity autobiography, which can only be successful to the degree that the author/subject is, in fact, celebrated. Therefore the serious contemporary American novelist must become famous before publishing anything, so that when his fiction-cum-celeb-bio appears the public will not expect cognitive processes to be involved in the reading of the book.

  Indeed, the book is not meant to be read. Rather it is purchased to be a talisman of the reader’s sympathy with the Celebrated One. Having been created by the celebrity, the book is the most easily obtained scrap of his or her personal detritus, giving its purchaser immeasurable powers in the arcane vodun of Celebrism, the folk religion of the American people. The book is not an end in itself; it is a channel to the god, and therefore must be endued with mystery. Any attempt to understand the novel would s
how the worshiper’s lack of faith in the Celebrated One, as if the presumptuous reader feels himself capable of judging whether the Celebrated One is worthy of celebration.

  Hence Abe Snow realizes that to take his place in the pantheon of contemporary American letters it is essential that his genius and vision be so celebrated that he need not concern himself with the tedious labor of creating stories that people might voluntarily read for pleasure.

  With this understanding, Abe’s long-time writer’s block evaporates at once, and he writes the ideal novel. Through a series of machinations that I have not yet thought of, Abe contrives to become a famous writer with a famous agent, and then his book brings more than a million dollars at auction.

  Abe’s working title, and the title he expected to see on the finished book, was, as befitted the ideal novel, F——ing Good Read. The publisher, however, presents to him the results of a survey of literary opinion-makers showing that during the coming decade they will no longer be impressed by the word f——. The publisher offers as an alternative the title Damn Fine Novel. Abe Snow finds this acceptable, and eight million copies are printed, shipped, sold, and worshipfully not read.

  In addition, Abe writes a very short story about the writing of Damn Fine Novel which is published, under the title “Damn Fine Novel,” in a magazine of unassailable literary reputation. This does not increase the audience for the ideal novel, but it does mean that Abe moves directly from the bestseller lists to the anthologies of contemporary literature assembled and xeroxed by literature professors for the edification of their graduate students, who will then write theological essays affirming that Damn Fine Novel is holy writ and should be required reading for all American students. This, plus heavy exploitation of foreign and film rights, guarantees that Abe Snow will never have to write again.

  At this point I (not the narrator of the story you imagine that you are reading, but the implied author of the story you are in fact reading) am uncertain whether all this happened within Snow’s book Damn Fine Novel or whether his book Damn Fine Novel was part of my own story “Damn Fine Novel,” which may or may not be the story that you, the inferred audience, are reading. And if you are in fact reading and attempting to understand it, I must say it shows a surprising lack of faith on your part, which hurts and disappoints me after all we’ve been through together.

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