Excerpt from Cool Nation

This is the tenth section from the fourth chapter of the novel. All other excerpts are on the sidebar.

Lives Forming

Cary came home after the Holidays, to try again to make a start and find his place in the world. He took Jackie�s room in Jackie�s absence, living there with his open suitcase and Fantastic Four comics and bottles of Old Spice and Vitalis and Listerine. He arranged his things like he had arranged his room in St. Joe, the hair goop and after-shave intended to give him the appearance of a man, the comics betraying the boy that he was, and would always be.
In the evenings he would sit at the dinner table with us, big like Dad, with a face and eyes like Dad, but nothing like Dad. Quiet, shy, unsure of himself, he would sit there and try to join the conversation. But he didn�t seem to know how, and we didn�t know how to bring him in.
�Well,� Dad would say at last, �you�re looking good.�
Cary would gaze down at his plate, stir his peas around, and say, �Thanks.�
�Have you thought about what you want to do?�
�Not really.� A kid�s smile, a kid�s laugh, then Cary looking up and saying, �I�d kind of like to draw comics. I mean, I think that�d be fun.� Cary had no artistic abilities, not that we knew of anyway, and it was apparent that he didn�t think he would need any.
Dad glanced at Mom, Mom at Dad, then Dad said, �Well, should we go down to the Art Institute and have a look around?�
Again a kid�s smile, a kid�s laugh, then, �Naw. I don�t think so. I wouldn�t fit in there.� And just as quickly as cartooning had come up, it went back down.
Then they�d struggle for something else to talk about.
For awhile Cary tried working at The Place, going out with one of the crews as an installer, working with fiberglass batts all day. But it was miserable work, and the crews were made up of tough, unsympathetic men who didn�t understand Cary�s problems, and didn�t want to. He was ridiculed as the boss�s kid, criticized for being a poor installer, and in general derided in ways that many other young men would have overcome, or seen as a challenge, but which he could not.
In the evenings he would sit with Dad in the living room and read the Star with him, but really not understand it, or the issues in it, or why he should read it instead of the comics he loved. Dad couldn�t understand why anyone who was twenty-two would want to read comics, and could barely tolerate Cary�s poor performance at work, let alone his still living at home. He was losing patience with his eldest son.
Tired of the asylum, tired of Cary going back there, tired of him failing to shoulder responsibility for himself and to simply live, Dad didn�t know what to do with him anymore. He knew Cary was ill, but there were times when he didn�t quite believe it, or didn�t want to, or didn�t want to believe that someone like Cary was actually descended of him�especially after all the things that Jackie had put him through. The whole, long-lived ordeal had begun to wear him out. He wanted Cary to grow up. Cary I�m sure just wanted to be left alone to live in the basement bedroom for the rest of his years.
After he quit The Place Dad told him he would have to move out. Mom said no, he wasn�t ready yet. Dad told her he would have to damned well get ready, because it wasn�t going to do him any good to keep staying at home, and to always have home to fall back on. It was time, he said, that Cary learned to fall back on himself.
In March Dad presented him with the ultimatum: it was time to become a man. I don�t think he put it quite that way, but that was the gist of it, Cary knew it, and I�m sure it scared him.
What, he likely wondered, was a man? A successful guy who smelled of Old Spice and belonged to the country club and had a wife and kids and a large house in the suburbs? Or was it a guy who was tough enough to install fiberglass year after year, saving what he could, not necessarily having a large house but having a house anyway and likely a wife and kids too�as well as a willingness to cold-cock anyone who gave him any shit? Was it the guys in the Marlboro ads? The Budweiser ads? The Van Heusen ads? And if it was them did they also have suicidal depressions? Did they have insects crawling on their arms that were never there? Voices too that were never there, but were? Was it an everyday struggle for them just to get out of bed and face the reject facing them in the mirror? What was a man?
I�m sure he didn�t know. But I�m also sure he thought that every man he met was one, that he would never be one of them, and that he had been excluded from the club. He had known he would be from the beginning. I know he did because when I was a boy I had a good look at that same exclusion, and it terrified me, and I knew I would do whatever it took to avoid that kind of exile. I didn�t necessarily want to belong to the club, I certainly didn�t want someone else�s definition of manhood, but I had to know that I could gain membership if ever I applied, even if I never would. Cary was never able to summon that kind of independence, and Dad, no matter how he tried, could never seem to teach him how to do it.
In March Cary called one of his old asylum friends, who had left the asylum and moved to Miami, hoping for a softer world in the sun. The friend said he could help Cary get a job driving a cab. Dad bought him a plane ticket, gave him five hundred bucks so he could land on his feet, and drove him to the airport. They drove there alone. Mom couldn�t bear watching him leave like that, knowing what he was facing. The rest of us didn�t really understand, and were too young and self-involved to care. We had our own everyday challenges to deal with. Cary, who was so much older than us, was an enigma; we assumed we would be able to take care of himself.
I knew, after he left, that I would be allowed to move into the basement bedroom if I chose to. It was a large room with a bathroom, a door that opened outside to the redbud tree, and windows that looked out across the backyard. It would be mine if I wanted it. I didn�t want it. It scared me, or something that seemed leftover there scared me, and I wanted nothing to do with it. Cary and Jackie were my brothers, and I loved them, but I wanted to be different from them. I didn�t want to go the way they had, and at age eight I already began formulating ways to ensure I never would.
I never asked to have the room, it was never offered, and, except for occasional visits from Jackie or Uncle Galen, it was never occupied again.

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