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Brock Clarke 


I was in the darkroom with my editor. It was Tuesday, the day my wife finally ended our marriage, and the day after one of my many accidents. It was also the day after Memorial Day, and my editor was busy developing pictures of a parade, a crumbling monument of a man and a horse, a small American flag sticking out of a Panama hat. The pictures were to be part of the afternoon special edition, which was entitled: "The Memorial Day Experience in Smalltown, U.S.A." My editor was whistling "I Walk the Line." He was truly loving those photographs.

"I'm really cooking with gas in here," he said.

"That's a good idea," I told him. Then I waited for him to offer me some of his bourbon, which we believed to be true, stout heart of our great newspaper heritage. My editor and I are traditionalists: that is, we drink, just like the newsmen of yore. But at all else journalistic we are inadequate, grammar poor and not very proud, nor tough, and we are terrified of the hard boiled and are incapable of cutting to the chase. The chase here is that I waited until my editor finished developing his pictures, which was when he gave me a drink of Old Granddad from his dinged-up aluminum flask. The bourbon was warm and a little metallic. I handed the flask back to my editor, and he drank and I watched him. I regret to tell you that there wasn't much human left to look at.

"How do you stay so thin?" I asked him.

"Peas. All I eat is peas."

"Let's get a look at those teeth," I said. "Don't they turn your teeth all green, those peas?"

"You've got some funny ideas, my friend," he said, putting his hand on my shoulder. The flag was waving at us from the developing bin and my editor waved back. My editor, Phil, has been in charge of the Little Falls (N.Y.) Mountain Times for fifty two years. He is eighty five years-old and truly proud of his age. When he hired me two years ago, Phil asked me what my goals were. I had no goals at all, but I lied and said that I wanted to help those who needed help, photograph both the triumphant and tragic, and win the general acclaim of the newspaper community. My editor said I was aiming too high. His was a success story, he said, because the only goal he'd ever had was to live to a reasonably old age. Phil then told me that he only hired people like himself, folks who couldn't do the job well, but could do it for a long time.

"Are you the kind of person we're looking for?" he asked me.

I told him I was, and used the phrases "long-term commitment" and "company man."

"Super," my editor said.

I was drinking with my editor that morning because of my wife. I drink with my editor most every morning, for pretty much any reason you can think of. But that morning I was at it because my wife blew up at me on account of our car, which I dragged home all covered with chicken fat. I parked it under an exhaust fan at the Kentucky Fried Chicken. It took five minutes all in all, which is an eternity in the tragic scheme of things.

"You put that car where you shouldn't have," Ellen said when she saw it slicked-up in the driveway.

"Correct," I told her. I had known about the exhaust fan. Everyone knows. It is the most common kind of knowledge.

"Tell me you did it out of spite, you awful bastard," she begged me. "I can't take one more accident in this world."

I couldn't lie to her. I told her I flat out forgot. Which really set her off. The chicken fat took on a marital weight that the old Colonel himself couldn't have imagined.

I dragged myself into work that next day on foot, and in a new state of regret.

"I need to be some kind of new man," I told my editor and he gave me another drink.

"That'll cure what ails you," he said.

"Yes," I said.

"That used to be a saying."

"It still is," I told him. Then he left to be an editor. It was ten thirty in the morning and the pictures were done except for the printing and as the saying does not go, I felt very little of all right. I was all alone in the darkroom and still had to type up the farm report. There had been no good rain in the Adirondacks for two months, and all the severe Christian farmers were talking suicide and blue murder. I was afraid of what had to be said and that I was the one to say it.

I had for some time believed that my editor was homosexual, and the story of that belief is also the story of another accident. I came home one night four months ago and found my wife in bed, reading. I bent down, kissed her, and said, "El, the chief is a gay," and she looked at me in such a way that I couldn't tell who she was blaming and for what reasons.

"That's your opinion," she said.

I was confused by this comment. The words "duh" and "wha?" came to mind.

"Leon," she said, "Opinions are like assholes: everybody has one. Understand?"

"I guess so," I said.

"And this is the last time you'll share this opinion with anyone?"

"Sure," I said, wanting to make peace. "I promise."

El regarded me carefully, her sea green eyes searching and flashing in the light of the bed-side lamp. When I showed no sign of weakness or deceit, she smiled and kissed me sweetly on the cheek. It seemed like a marital crisis had been avoided.

Forty eight hours later, I was in the Geegaw Lounge, hiding from the kind of winter night that we in upstate New York are so famous for. I was shooting pool with three good citizens named Boomer, Flex, and Geeker, high school buddies of mine who had kept their high school nicknames, and who had also continued to drive Ford 4 x 4 trucks, work for the country road crew, and publicly mourn our morally suspect and light-hitting heroes, the New York Yankees. The night stretched on and we generally behaved the way alcohol counselors and Hollywood road movies say men like us do. There was mention of the working man, Caribbean booze-cruises, and the alcohol content of Canadian beer. Boomer claimed we should heed the genius of classic rock lyrics, and ignore the refined scratch-and-sniff that is poetry. Geeker agreed, and argued that the crash and scream of Led Zeppelin compared favorably to the yawp of Mr. Walt Whitman, the whine of Mr. Eliot.

"Amen to that," Boomer said.

All this sound wisdom and fine human companionship left me feeling rich and untroubled. Around one in the morning I leaned over to someone--Flex, I believe--and told him my theory about my editor's sex life. After the story was told, I immediately felt less rich and more troubled, and I didn't know what made me tell it. To be true, I still don't know.

"Hot damn," Flex said, his big chest and shoulders doing a little dance inside his mesh New York Giants practice jersey. "Is it the truth?"

It took two days for the news to travel all the way through our town of five thousand beating hearts and loose lips, and then back to my wife.

"If I've heard the story," she said to me, "that means your editor has got wind of it, too, you know."

"It just slipped out."

"How could you?" she said.

"It was an accident," I said.

At this point, we'd been married a year and were loving each other for the usual reasons of trust and desire. We had gotten married because of love, but also because we wanted security and responsibility. El said that the physical attraction and clever talk that is new romance was good but volatile, and mostly temporary.

"I want something more and better," she said the night we were engaged.

I agreed and told her that marriage would be our stable thing in an unstable world.

During that first year, El endured misplaced income tax papers, knocked-over geranium pots, missed car payments, broken condoms, lost airplane tickets, and the like. Once, during a generous Thanksgiving dinner at El's parents' house, I held forth on the flag-burning controversy, on which I was a liberal. I had somehow forgotten that El's father was a veteran of two foreign wars; on his desk down at the Ford dealership, he showcased a picture of himself sitting on top of a Sherman tank. In the picture, as in real life, El's father sported a crew cut, a military scowl, and a good, straight spine. I acquired several nicknames that night, including "Uncle Fidel" and "King of the Pussies." El's father declared that I sucked all the joy out of his wife's creamed onions. "God," he said, "you make even the cranberry roll taste burnt."

I apologized for all these things by saying they were accidents, and El acted saintly and accepted the apologies. This one-sided give and take changed when I claimed my slip up about the chief was an accident: in fact, it was exactly at that moment that honesty became ugly, attraction became revulsion, and that El stopped wanting my male companionship. The problem was I still loved her and for a long while lobbied for my worthiness as a life-partner. Which made her hate me even more.

Eventually, we went to a marriage counselor, Dr. Purdy, who is now also among those El distrusts. El explained to him the terms of our general decline, beginning with my many failures and ending with my inability to anticipate those failures. When the counselor asked her to explain my behavior, El suggested mild alcoholism, a short attention span, and, in the case of my editor, simple meanness of spirit.

"I just don't think Leon wants to be a better person," she said.

In response, I explained to Dr. Purdy the physical details of my life as a professional--the overlong handshakes, dinner invitations, back slaps, and numerous other things which best remain under the hat of therapy. Dr. Purdy heard us out and then said: "I don't think he's gay. He's just old. That explains almost everything, you know. There's not a damn thing we can do about getting old."

El sat there clench-jawed. She was chewing on her resentment. But I thought I spied some wisdom therein and about.

"All these things I can't change," I told the counselor. "It's got so I can't stand it."

He nodded. El stood up. She's a tall woman, which is why she became a librarian at the elementary school. Those kids are so needy when it comes to getting their top-shelf books on the Erie Canal and those genius junior detective novels. El has a world of patience and a fantastic reach. But she could have been anything. I admired her as she unfolded herself, smoothed her long cotton dress and said: "You are both hateful. Morons, too." Then she left us sitting there with our hands on our knees and we sat and finally I got up and there was no need for any watch looking or throat clearing and I did not beat my breast at being a small fool at the mercy of a larger power.

Our time was up.

I didn't plan for life to be this way, nigh thirty and unlovable and no sense of how I got here. Looking back, I realize I didn't plan almost anything. And one thing I didn't plan on doing is settling: settling for a job I do not care about; for the destruction of a once-good marriage; for adult life in the small, static town of my youth; for the clichés of mediocrity and failure that come with small-town living. I didn't plan on settling for any of these things. But neither did I plan on not settling. On this I have heard two things: Never settle and Sometimes you have to settle. The problem is not that you don't know when to settle, but that you don't know when you already have.

Another thing I didn't plan on was being seventeen years old and hurtling toward the transplanted sweet home of Stafford Philpott. Stafford Philpott was the new girl in my high school. She was blonde, hailed from Tupelo, Mississippi, and said the words "Sir" and "Honey" and "Good Lord" with an lilting accent that nearly melted my inner core. Stafford moved to Little Falls right before my junior prom. There was always a beautiful new girl at these dances, someone who had no regard for long-standing high school romance, prom etiquette, or full-throttle puppy love; someone who always left the prom with her mystique intact, but with everyone else's sense of self-worth in ruins. I had heard around school that Stafford was, in fact, planning on going to the dance, and so history told me that she would break the back of my junior prom, but I did not expect to profit from the back breaking. I expected to get drunk; I expected my date not to. She was scarily efficient and fair minded in her sobriety. She expected that her fondness for hyperbole would make her a really fine real estate agent.

I planned on her trying to confiscate my car keys.

"You'll thank me in the morning," is what I expected her to say.

She did.

"He doesn't even want to see you in the morning," is what I did not expect Stafford Philpott to say to my date, but Stafford did the unexpected. She spoke the truth. At that point in history, the Little Falls Mountie junior prom was not equipped for the truth. The prom went up in the flames of discord, but I was already gone.

It was when I was in the car, steaming full bore through that black night, that I finally planned on tearing one off with old Stafford Philpott.

I ended up settling for the torching of her rich father's horse barn instead.

What happened was that Stafford deposited me in the barn, and went to talk to her father, who was a lawyer or doctor or some such thing. I laid back on a bale of hay. I fell asleep with my cigarette, and woke to my own barn burning, set not out of greed nor as a weapon of class warfare nor even because the world had forgotten about valor. It was set because I just don't understand how tragedy works.

Stafford's father tore in with a horse blanket and I walked out of the barn and stood with Stafford and waited for him. Finally he came out. The horse blanket was considerably diminished. The barn was smoking miserably. I extended my hand, which the father stared at and then deferred for all time. Then he looked at his daughter and said, "My love, your friend here is a lout."

"I already knew that," she told him.

Three years later, I was in Pennsylvania, descending the stairs of my sorry fraternity with a professor's daughter from Lexington, Virginia. At the foot of the stairs was a puddle of vomit, surrounded by four boys who were louts. They were looking at the puke and discussing the who, the why, and the what now. One of those louts was advising a smaller one that he better haul ass and find him a mop.

To prove I was no lout, I released this girl from the near South and soared Errol Flynn-like over the puddle. Errol Flynn was no puddle jumper. It goes without saying, I did not make it. I was lying back-down in the thick of it, my right hand bloodied from a broken bottle of beer, and unlike Romeo without the dignity of the suicide pact, when the girl leaned over me and said, "Leon, we are from different worlds."

"I already knew that," I told her.

But the truth is I didn't know. I never would have known if she hadn't told me herself. What I do know is that I promised my roommate I would buy him a new white Arrow shirt. That promise remains unfulfilled. Instead, I fled school for home and for a job as a reporter for which I had no qualifications and needed none, to a beautiful girl named El who woke slowly to the agony of my all dumb accidents, but with no less pain because of the speed.

The end of El's and my marriage started as someone else's disaster and then became our own.

When I got out of the darkroom, my editor was running around in circles looking furious. Everyone else was standing over at the window.

"Where's my camera?" he asked me. "What in the hell did you do with my camera?"

"You don't have a camera," I told him, which was the truth as I knew it.

"The hell I don't," he said. "The hell I don't have a camera." He sounded like he had reached the outer limits of agitation and I am sorry to say that I stood and wondered what would happen if he just fell over and died right there. I also wondered if I would be the new editor if he did. None of this makes me feel good as a human. He did not die and I did not become the editor, for which the news is likely a little better off. The only other thing I can tell you is that he worried around for that damn camera a minute more and then sat down and stared at his computer screen. It was blue.

"Here comes the ambulance," someone said at the window. I walked over.

Three floors down there was the ambulance that had just pulled in. There was also a Chevy Nova with its driver's side door wide open and this poor man lying on his back right there on Ann Street. Then there were all these people standing around who had nothing to do with anything.

When I got outside the man was still lying there and the car door remained open. The keys were in the ignition and there was a dinging sound hassling me from inside the car. I took the keys out of the ignition and put them on the front seat of the car. Then I walked over to the paramedics. They were standing in a circle, talking, which is exactly what most people will do when they could be out there saving lives.

"There is a man on the ground over there," I told them.

"The battery was dead," one of them said. "Terry forgot to charge it." He stared at another paramedic, who I took to be Terry.

"I did not," Terry said. "It was someone else."

"Anyway," said the first man, "that's why we're late. The battery."

"What's wrong with him?" I asked, pointing at the body on the street.

"Use your imagination," the first one said. "It looks like an accident. Maybe it was a heart attack."

I took another look at the car. Its right side was resting against a street light. I don't know how I could have missed it in the first place. My brain must have been pickled from an excess of alcohol and husbandly grief. There was a big dent in the fender and a headlight was laid out all over the sidewalk.

"Did the crash cause the heart attack or the reverse?" I wanted to know.

"Who are you?" Terry said.

I began to hate him because I knew I had asked a good question.

"You're some piece of work," I told him. "You and that asshole battery." He ignored me and went back to talking with the other paramedics.

When you are alone and feeling completely helpless, as I was at that moment, you must properly assess your situation if you are ever to feel less lonely, less helpless. So I assessed: there was me and there was the dead man. The dead man had nothing, but I at least had a camera. So I stepped back and started taking pictures of him. I took them for the dead man, for the living me, for El. I took them to prove I was a useful and reliable member of the conscious world. Plus, I was so happy to have hard evidence of an accident that was worse than my own. Taking those pictures, I gave that man a history and my own poor self a sense of purpose.

But a man grabbed me from behind before I could finish taking the whole roll. I turned to face him.

"What do you think you're doing?" the man asked me. I had never seen him before. He had light blonde hair and a red, brilliant face.

"Nothing," I said.

"Nothing," he said. "You were taking those pictures."

"Oh yes," I said.

"You can't take pictures like that. I don't care what kind of person you are."

I just stared at him the way people do when their outwardly neutral deed has been exposed for the selfish act that it is.

"What are you talking about?" I said.

"That was the mayor you were taking pictures of," he said.

"No it wasn't," I said, but I wasn't too damn sure. It's true, I had seen the mayor plenty, but you never know how death will change someone.

The red-faced man looked back at the dead man and then back at me. His eyes spoke of sorrow and desperation.

"O.K." he said. "It's not the mayor. It's my father."

He started crying right then. That's when I felt some control over the whole situation.

"I'm sorry," I told him. "Your father."

"You can't print those pictures," he said. "That's nothing that belongs in the paper."

"You're wrong," I said. "You can't tell me the mayor's dead and then tell me you're lying and then start asking me for favors. I can't give you any credit here."

"Who needs to see that stuff?" he asked, still crying. "There is nothing important about it." He had a point, I realize that. But still, it made me feel so good and so accomplished taking those pictures, and I wasn't going to just give up that good feeling. So I walked away from the man and his dead father, went inside, developed the pictures, and sent them down to layout. Then, I went home.

I told El the whole story, except for the last part, once I got home. She listened carefully like it might mean something. When I was done she looked at me and asked, "So what did you do?"

"What did I do," I said. "What's right is right. I gave him back the pictures of his father."

El didn't say anything. I'll bet that she didn't even search out those pictures in the paper the next day, didn't need to see the proof that my history of accident and disruption had become a present of intentional deceit. El sat there a while and then she stood up and walked toward me. Would you believe me if I said I saw the ghosts of our lives and love begging and choking in the shrinking space between us? Would it help if I said that were there a pill against accidental evil, rank insecurity, and plain human weakness, I would take it without water or hesitation? And would it be too much if I told you that El was a lesson in the strait and narrow, that her legs, walking toward me, cut through the air of my low intentions?

What I mean is that she slapped me across the face and I agreed with her.

We have since moved out but not on, as people are rumored to do. When I'm not working I sit around, watch t.v., and wonder how people like El seem to know things that I, as an eyewitness, do not. I figure if they were there, then they could say something. I figure I should tell her so. On the news last night, there was a story about three teenage kids in Florida. Those kids went out, got a little drunk, and stole a couple of stop signs. Then they went home. Two hours later, an eighteen wheeler rolled on through an intersection where one of those stop signs was not, and killed a different car load of slightly drunk Florida teenagers. The day after, everyone was sick and grieving over the dead kids, so they went and charged the sign stealers with murder.

Oh, those poor fucking sign stealers.

Is this fair? Those three kids go to bed thinking they've committed one small evil, and wake up to find that they've accidentally fallen into a larger one. Is this justice? Why is it that those kids get blamed for the accident and not the intent? Is this how the world is supposed to work? Late last night, I figured that if El hadn't heard this story, then she needed to. So I picked up the phone and called her.

"El," I said. "This is Leon."

"I don't believe you," she said. Then she hung up.

Brock Clarke was raised in upstate New York and now lives in Clemson, SC, with his wife and son. He has worked as a newspaper reporter and in a fiberglass plant, and currently teaches at Clemson University. His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in New England Review, Blip Magazine Archive, American Fiction, Massachusetts Review, and the Journal, among other places, and his short story collection What We Won't Do has been awarded the 2000 Mary McCarthy Prize for Short Fiction, and will be published by Sarabande Books in 2001.


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