When Elizabeth McCracken signed on to judge the 2014 Texas Observer short story contest, she told us she was looking for fiction that offers what William Boyd labeled a complexity of afterthought: “When I finish a short story,” McCracken said, “I want to feel as though my brain has been struck like a gong.”
Today we present the fourth of four brain-ringing contest finalists, Elizabeth Jackson’s “Behind and Past and Front and Ahead,” which is excerpted from a piece about a character Jackson calls a “fantastical narcissist.”
Look for our winner to appear in this space Monday, and in the Observer’s annual October Books Issue.
Behind and Past and Front and Ahead
By Elizabeth Jackson
Steven stopped by to see me today; I guess he’s figured out the bus lines. His mother can do the worrying about his safety.
He seems chagrined about the arson now—which is encouraging. I had begun to think I had raised a boy with no conscience. But he’s beginning to show signs of contrition about the $50,000 damage he caused, and the melted faces of Jesus and Mary, and the burned-to-a-crisp cross above the altar. The altar, too; the liquefied pew cushions and the whole church looking torn open like there’s been a war. So I light up when I see the rings beneath his eyes from losing sleep, and his fingernails are chewed, and he keeps sighing over and over.
This seems like a hint of progress, and the mortgage (read: child psychologists) we’re paying on his superego will put him back on solid ground—this time with an awareness of the social contract. These are good things, I tell myself. But it’s hard to put in terms a 10-year-old will understand.
This is the station we have reached as a family. I occupy the place of downfall as much as he does—if not more. The ignominy, the shattered reputation, being exposed as a sociopath.
But I’m human. The rest of the time, when not confronted with Steven’s affect, I pretend I am an innocent party. I pretend I am untouched, unimplicated. I watch the sun come through floor-to-ceiling windows, I participate in group sessions like any other victim, I talk quietly with my counselors and rarely hint at rage. I walk the grounds. I’ve even ridden along for errands and held my dignity.
It’s a story I’m telling myself—I recognize that. We all have our places to inhabit.
In the real world, the place I inhabit most days is a capacious seat, usually reserved for the obese, that faces a window overlooking the parking lot. There is a deep set of woods beyond that, and my valley-sized chair is within earshot of a meditation fountain donated by employees of Kmart. So I have all the elements I need.
And I’m practicing, picturing myself fully alive again: playing tennis and yelling at kids’ soccer games, working on the leaking water heater at the house, maybe taking a cruise with my latest wife. I know I will return to these things soon enough, and will do them bigger and better than ever. I will make love to my wife like a hero and betray no regret. My laughs will go longer and my parenting will be worthy of awards.
When I was about Steven’s age, they called me a faggot every day at school. There were all kinds of things I could do with that, without having to physically react. I imagined they were calling me a cigarette, like they’re British—or else they were asking me for one, over and over, but without the customary inflection that signals a question. The part that goes up? At the end of a sentence? I imagined they had some kind of speech impediment or neurological difficulty that makes the normal singsong of our language go flat. A problem of altitude.
Other times they called me a faggot I imagined they were talking about a batch of wood. I had these conversations silently, of course. But once in a while I made the mistake of moving my hands as I thought about the cigarette or carrying branches. And it made things worse. Then I might say “Up?” if it popped out without thinking. I’d try to cover by making it sound like “Whoops!” But you cannot disguise the fact that you asked your tormentor a question, which (as with tormentors through the ages) provokes a whole new round. As if any question can only be heard as: “More, please?”
One time, I said “Up?” in my unfortunate, accidental habit, and the asshole in question lifted me above his head. This was an interesting development. He took my inquiry as a challenge or a dare, as opposed to mere insult for the sake of injury.
I said “Up?” and he looked up. The ceiling rafters weren’t far above his head. He lifted me from my waist, like I was an ice dancer. He held me up horizontally, with one hand, so I felt like a cantilever, a seesaw, a piece of architecture for one passing instant. I had the feeling we looked beautiful together—a feat of athleticism and artistry—the way people win medals. I hoped that later, when things calmed down, we could reconstruct the pose for a yearbook photo. But the moment passed, like any other. And my head cracked on his knee, and his elbow went into my ribs, and he bent my fingers backward till I squealed (another unfortunate reflex). Then he placed me very gently over the rafter, with my fingertips and toes dangling toward the floor like sheaves of drying wheat.
This was our point of departure. I told myself it could go any direction from here—ANY direction. I could become president and he would be VP. He could be my domestic, or I, his. He, mine. She, yours. You, hers. He could be like a very responsive carpet in my office. He could be best friend to my mother. I worried she soon wouldn’t have one of those, that they would all kick the bucket. Or he could be a bucket? Up? Using his mouth and orifices for storage or for transport, or cupping his body or clothes or nonporous arrangement of surfaces to hold juice, for instance, or emergency gasoline, or a large quantity of Neosporin.
Now I see my motives were actually self-serving. I was wishing with all my might that within five years our power balance would be reversed, and he’d have his turn with the specter of humiliation hanging over him every day.
I was not, for instance, imagining myself as HIS vice president or subordinate in any sense. I was not willing to be his bucket in another five years, after being flung like a harvest. But he could not know he was sacrificing future opportunities.
And now where is he? He is no one’s VP; he is no scrub or domestic servant. I think he is, worst of all, somewhere that he cannot see he is useful to anyone.
Mary Beth does her best, but she’s never understood me. It’s a situation not found in magazines or entertainment TV, so I’m not sure where she would get it. I know I sound pitiless. She’s wife number three, so I’ve learned to lower my expectations. You cannot go to the hardware store hoping to buy tomatoes, like they say in here. But I respect and love her for the many, many hand tools and small household products and countless useful things she has on offer. Key duplication, electrical tape. Yard bags.
She got me to start dance lessons with her last year, the hardware store. At first, her merely asking was enough for me to want to end the marriage. If she understood so little about me.
But I reminded myself I was trying to do things differently, that I had been known with a few months’ reflection to regret my choices—and if I was annoyed 70 percent of the time or less, it was worth practicing a little tolerance. In the past, when I reached 90 percent annoyance I felt that giving the wife at the time a chance to get out of the marriage was a favor, because she couldn’t know the alternative was a violent death. But nowadays I try to make it a game. The professionals have suggested that once in a while the thing you are really mad at is yourself. Look in the mirror, they say.
All the more reason that walking into a dance studio with a wall of mirrors on every side gave me the heebie-jeebies. Take a look in the mirror, I told myself over and over. When the teacher pissed me off, with his balls-hugging she-man pants and his florid hand gestures, I tried not to say it where he could hear.
And I came around. First it was salsa, the most unlikely of all dances for a white man to conquer. I don’t think our hips were meant to roll that way; in fact, it’s a wonder we make any babies at all. After one class, the teacher and my wife and the two other unfortunate couples reached the same conclusion: better to start with movements that could be described as more vertical. So we began a foxtrot and a waltz, alternating each week for the sake of variety.
Despite my reluctance, after a few months I felt my worries lift. For an hour and a half on Wednesdays, it was as if nothing had caught fire, no vehicles demolished. All I could see were polished floors, dance shoes, and murky figures in the mirror. I learned it was better for everyone not to pay too close attention. You can soften your focus, pretend yourself more good-looking, your wife more svelte and graceful. Let things slide. They told us not to stare at our feet while we danced, and not clench tightly, but to be clear in the ways we led our partner. And I have to admit that at times like these, Mary Beth was quite docile.
We moved on to swing and country-western. They told us in a year we might try another stab at the Latin dances. Late at night, Mary Beth would listen to rumba in the bathroom. I told her I could smell it on her, when we woke up. She said, What does rumba smell like? And I said, Rumba smells exactly like tropical shirts. She liked that. She said this is why she married me, despite all the things she’d heard and the arsonist child and the whoring-around daughter. Because at certain times in certain moods, I was capable of poetry. Take a look in the mirror.
Here at Hazy Lane Addiction and Spiritual Retreat, I’m learning more about the tricks I play with my imagination. The professionals are trying to help me, and while they’re at it, I try to figure out exactly how much I want the help. It’s like shadowboxing: each one of us in constant motion, assessing one another’s strengths and flaws. But when all you’re ever seeing is a reaction, there is no pure data. So I tell myself to soak up what I can, without knowing why.
When I have rehashed all my childhood in these interminable discussions, to the point I feel like throwing up from eating my own refuse—like you expunge it and then you eat it again, the nutrients quickly disappearing, the texture getting mealy—the asshole-in-question incident from junior high keeps resurfacing, undigested. So I sort through versions of remembering, like I’m in a grocery store examining the ingredients of different brands.
And among the options, I unearthed one version that emerged around 1986. Upon review, I’ve decided to resurrect it:
The asshole in question was in fact the great actor Burt Lancaster, puncturing my terrible, Lysol-flavored reality at the time. With his stricken eyebrows and restless panther energy, he intervened in that long-ago classroom and saved me from myself. Burt Lancaster was at the March on Washington, you know. And then in his off time, he visited my junior high in 1971, to see what he could do about me.
I was in the woodshop eating lunch with my one seventh-grade friend, Peckerhead Rollins, when Burt Lancaster appeared in a messianic pose, filling the doorway except for a gap of light along the edge. He shot across the room and introduced his higher moral authority by solemnly twisting my ears in opposite directions. The way I see it, he lasered in on the need to rattle me out of my complacency onto a close-but-not-exactly-the-same path. Then the thing happened, like I described, with him lifting me and flinging me over the rafter. And the following thing where he broke off my fingernail and maybe bruised a rib.
I’m aware that at the time, the asshole in question looked nothing like Burt Lancaster; he was as abased and pustulate as any of us. But I’ve molded my memory enough to eliminate all trace of the original.
No matter what else I have to show for in life, I feel successful in my talent for adaptation. Burt Lancaster being the perpetrator means I can see the act as benevolent, not arbitrary and cruel—the way I might if I resigned myself to a run-of-the-mill reality that yet another junior-high bully beat me up. Who wants to be on the shit end of a cliché?
I should tell Steven about finding this approach to life. I tend to forget the existential depths a 10-year-old can go through. We fall prey to the assumption that at that age, not much angst can have accumulated. His own psychologists can tackle such issues, of course, as he wrestles with what must be a spiritual crisis (why else burn a church, as opposed to the school, grandma’s house, the hardware store?). But one day we’ll have to meet man to man—not just biding our time when he visits, staring out the window together at the parking lot and line of trees.
The Hazy Lane Addiction and Spiritual Retreat has a lot to offer someone in my position. The name itself sounds ponderous enough that no one wants to ask why you’re there. I ran into a neighbor one time when we were running errands and mentioned the name. Within seconds he was stammering, trying to decide which would be worse to have to discuss—cocaine or God.
I like these qualities. I like for people to know my troubles are important, but not want to ask me a single question about it. I don’t want to be some kind of life lesson or feature in a brochure. A cautionary tale. I don’t want to be an example.