Excerpt from Cool Nation

If you’re not into fiction, and are only interested in my observations on the Artist’s Life, then skip this and go to yesterday’s post. Otherwise, below is another excerpt from the third chapter of Cool Nation. The previous excerpts are posted on the sidebar, lower right. I’m supposed to post these Fridays, but from here on I think I’ll opt for Sundays. Better that way.

The Invasion (part 4)

The way he would come to my room each night, to sit and talk
about nothing: his dreams or mine, or when we�d go hunting next, or how was
school? He�d sit on the edge of my narrow bed, his weight warping it down,
and with a hand on my head, or sometimes a hand in mine, he�d sit and talk
to me about simple things. He was good at that. Then finally he�d tell me
he loved me, say goodnight, switch out the light, and move on to Allen�s
room, then Jean�s, then Stephanie�s. With Jackie the expression was
different, since he was a teenager now, but the sentiment no less sincere.
Each night I could hear him doing it, until he�d done the same for us all.

After he had finished, Mom would do it also.

It was the way they did it, the way they gave and gave, that
made me feel that eventually I would deal with Hastings and his like, that I
would find my place in the world, and that they would help me find it.

It was the occasional embrace for no reason, or a hand mussing
my hair, or a kiss from out of nowhere�those endless expressions that gave us a reserve of warmth to return to each day, after dealing with the tragedies and cruelties that, in some instances, are the world. The world could visit on us whatever it wanted�its beauty, its harshness, its kindness, its hatred, but after that visitation was over, we always returned to the strength of his embrace, and the fragrance of her warmth. That told us, without anyone ever really having to tell us, that in time we would learn to deal with the order of things, learn to accept life�s realities�both the wonderful and the hideous�and determine which of those
aspects we would strive for. In truth, we already knew which aspect, but often we needed their reassurance in the pursuit of it. They gave it, and they gave it in undivided measure.

Years later, we would learn to give it back.

Stephanie on Blaze, Jean on Shasta, me on Nancy Jane. We came
out of the corral bareback and rode down Indian Boulevard to 103rd, where we waited for a break among the whooshing cars. The break came and we coaxed them across the asphalt, they shying a little at the slick of the pavement, then the cars closed the gap behind us and the country opened up and the houses fell behind. We took Mission down past Saddle and Sirloin, then waded them across Indian Creek and at last galloped up into the hills: the trails that went for miles.

The girls were better on their horses than I ever was on Nancy.
I understood our horses� being, the girls their purpose. At nine and eleven they were already naturals, jumping, galloping, entering the shows. My jumps were graceless and forlorn of purpose. Even Nancy seemed to know this, but also seemed to forgive me for it, as if she understood the quiet of my insecurities.

She would never throw me or stop at a jump or roll back on me as
Bullet had Jenny Baker, leaving her crushed in the corral at Indian Valley,
her mouth agape, her eyes open, her body convulsing while her mother ran
across the corral, screaming. The shock the next day at school: one of us had died. That wasn�t supposed to happen. I knew Nancy would never do that, and that I would never need fear her as long as I respected her limits. And an old plug like Nancy had plenty of limits.

We rode all day, taking lunch for a buck each at the Hasty House
on State Line. We rode up there among the Chevelles and Mustangs and called
the order in, the girl brought it out, petting the horses as we paid, then
we rode back across the street and ate in a field there, leaving the horses
to graze.

I watched them graze, and as I watched Jean said to Stephanie,
�Which one do you think is cuter?�

�Paul.�

�I think George is.�

�Last week you said John.�

�So?�

�I don�t think any of them are cute,� I said.

�We didn�t ask you.�

�Well I�m telling you.�

They ignored me. I was a younger brother. I was to be ignored.

�Last week you said John,� Stephanie said.

�Well last month you said Ringo.�

�So?�

�Well you did.�

I listened to all this as I finished my shake and wadded up the
wax paper. Then I stood. �Come on. Are we going or what?�

The horses had grazed away across the field.

My sisters both looked up. �So, which one�s your favorite?�
Jean said.

�I don�t have a favorite.�

�Yes you do.�

�No I don�t.�

�You do though. I know you do.�

�The hell I do. Now let�s go.�

She stopped sucking her shake and looked at me. �I�ll tell
Dad.�

�You do and I�ll kick your little ass.�

�I�ll tell him that too.�

She wouldn�t though. She never did. It was only her way of
keeping what she feared a bad habit in me from growing worse.

�Oh stop it. Both of you,� Stephanie said. �For Christ�s
sake.�

She got up, took our refuse, carried it across the street and
came back. Being eleven she was the oldest, and it was up to her to keep
order.

Already Stephanie had the looks that would later become legend.
You could see it just beginning to blossom on her: blonde hair, slender
hips, stunning eyes. Jean had looks too but not like Stephanie�s; not the
heat, not the eyes, and never that unnameable burning quality that already
was drawing older boys to our house like toms, that would bring her to lose
her virginity by the time she was fourteen, that would make her jaded by
sixteen, and that would lead her from one wealthy man to the next, and from
one coast to the other, for a great deal of her life. Beauty, she would
later say, had always been her greatest curse. But there were also
blessings; our parents were two of them.

Stephanie went to one of the private schools, Barstow, known as
Miss Barstow�s when Jean Harlow attended it, when it was downtown. Mom
sent her there as she had sent each of us for our first two years of school.
Stephanie had stayed on though. She was the one who was dyslexic, so she
was allowed to stay, since Mom wanted to make sure she got the kind of
education that would counterbalance the disability. I don�t know much about
the disability, but I�ve always felt that her brashness, her confidence, and
her assertiveness were her way of offsetting the fact that she could barely
read.

Jean�s beauty was different: less harsh, more warm, more rounded. Her looks fitted her personality, and underscored the essential compassion of which she was composed. Like Allen and me she attended the public school, since our parents weren�t sufficiently wealthy to keep all of us at the private one. At nine Jean was only two years older than I, and already had the fine, loving qualities that would later carry her through mess after succeeding mess, and bum after bum, for years to
come. Those were good things to have; she would need them all.

We rode all the rest of the day, recrossing Indian Creek by late
afternoon, and so back to the front lines of the suburbs. In the corral we
combed and fed them, leaving them with fresh water and oats before going in
and asking was dinner ready; We could smell a chicken in the oven and saw the
potatoes on the stove.

�Do you see your father home yet?� Mom said, meaning no one ate
until he was.

So we sat down with Allen�who was only five and not yet allowed
to ride with us�to watch the Stooges, and were watching them still when we
heard Dad�s wagon coming down the drive.

He came in with hugs for us all and said Man, let�s eat, and we
sat down and he carved up the chicken and gave each of us pieces except Mom,
who only ate a salad, having ceased to eat meat the year before. The
practice still puzzled Dad but he no longer ridiculed it, and dinner that
night was without debate. Without Jackie too. He was already out, although
no one seemed to know where, or when he would be home.

After dinner I confessed to Jean that John was my favorite,
although before it had been George, but that now it was definitely John, and
she said, �I knew it.� She had the new forty-five, �Please Please Me,� and
we had Seth over to listen to it, and to it and to it. Then we flipped it
over to hear �Love Me Do,� but didn�t like that as much and listened to the
other side again.

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