Excerpt from Cool Nation

These are the two opening sections from the fourth chapter. All other excerpts are on the sidebar, lower right.

Lives Forming

We were waiting on the lawn of the Indian Heights Country Club for Dad. We Jean, Allen, me were all in our trunks, our towels about our shoulders, our hair sun-bleached and damp. We waited and waited for him, and while we waited Matt O’Malley, an older kid who by reputation was no damned good, came along with his wetted towel. He snapped at a tree. He snapped at the grass. Then he saw Jean, his eyes brightened, and he snapped at one of her skinny thighs.
She rolled over backwards crying and I got up and tried to hit him and he laughed and threw me down, then went and sat among his worshipers, bragging.
Jean was still sniffling when Dad rolled up in the Pontiac convertible five minutes later.
What is it? he said.
She wouldn’t answer.
He touched her cheek and said, What is it, darlin? What?
She swallowed and quieted and told him, and I watched from the back seat as his face went from one shade of red to three shades darker. Then his lips tightened and so did his face.
Now you listen, he said. You stop that damned crying, and you go over there and get you a rock he pointed to where the new parking lot was being graded and you bring it back over here, and you make sure it’s a big one.
But Daddy
“Hush! Now you go do it.
She wandered off. We watched as she sorted among the rubble, and as she came struggling back with a chunk of limestone the size of a cantaloupe.
Dad jerked his head to where Matt O’Malley was sitting, his back to us. Now you go over there and you hit that sonofabitch with that rock, and let’s get on home.
She didn�t protest, she didn’t resist. In fact she laughed, then went over and threw the rock. We all watched as it thudded off his back, his chin nearly hitting the ground, he turning and looking up at her in stupefied shock: Why you little bitch.
Then he was on his feet, twisting his towel for the snap that would surely kill her, when Dad raised a mammoth arm and pointed at him. Hold it right there, boy.”
Matt O�Malley froze mid-snap.
“You done hurt her once. I’m pretty sure you don’t want to do it again. Do you?”
White-faced, frozen, shaking a little now. “No sir.”
We’ve reached an understanding then, have we?”
Yes sir.
Good. I thought we might.”
Jean got in the car, still laughing, and we drove away. At home we told Stephanie and Mom all about it. Stephanie loved it. Mom didn’t. Dad didn’t care.
We might have lived in Indian Heights, we might have had new cars and a big house and horses in the backyard, but rocks here, as in Picher, still served the purpose of meting out justice where in Dad’s view justice was due.

It was his smothering, she once told me, that she could no longer bear. The demand that she be wherever he was: outside when he was, watching television when he was, reading when he was, and most certainly in bed when he was. After sixteen years it had gotten to where she couldn’t take it anymore.
Then there was their social circle: hard-drinking contractors and their wives, people who had never heard of Ralph Waldo Emerson or William James or Mahatma Gandhi; people to whom ideas of vegetarianism and meditation were not merely alien, but inconceivable; people who if she brought up these ideas at a cocktail would respond in two ways: first with silence, then laughter.
Then there were our Indian Heights neighbors. The Hendersons, pleasant but predictable Baptists who were forever dwelling on Satan and whose children were the missionaries of the neighborhood. The D’Agostinos, Catholics who were frightfully pious on Sundays but more relaxed on other days and certainly less fear-driven than the Hendersons. The Schultzes, Lutherans who played tennis like mad and drank Scotch on their patio and whose children were beaten by their father, an ex-Marine, with German regularity (Mr. Schultz kept a Japanese rifle and sword on a peg board in his basement remnants from the price he’d paid at Iwo Jima.). There were also the Moores, retired people who had a fallout shelter beneath their patio, and who loved cats and hated children and never disguised the prejudice. Then there were a dozen or so others, but Mom had nothing in common with any of them.
Of course she socialized with our neighbors. She liked them, she had coffee with them, tolerated their various intolerances, but she couldn’t talk to them. Neither could she talk to my father, unless it was about hunting, fishing or contracting, or occasionally politics. Neither could she talk to my older brothers; one of them was already confirmed mad, and every day she feared that the other would follow suit.
With no one to talk to, surrounded only by children, she felt she was finally going mad. Then, shortly after I was born, she discovered Jack Paar.
After all of the safe, sanitized programming of the Fifties, he had shown up late one night on our screen actually discussing ideas, interviewing actors, writers, painters, many of them Brits, touching with humor on matters sexual, spiritual, aesthetic. In other words he was embracing life, and my mother in her particular suburban hell felt she had been denied this, or at least had failed in finding it.
So each night, instead of going to bed at the appointed hour, she went downstairs to the den and turned on the television, and in the semi-darkness smoked and watched. That was the only time of day that she smoked, and this was the only time in her life that she did so. Both the watching and the smoking were I suppose acts of rebellion against my father, which he did not respond to well.
I can easily see how the response would have gone:
He coming down the two flights of stairs to stand behind her, the white light of the set showing on her face, and his. Neither of them speaking.
Finally he breaking the silence: Aren’t you coming to bed?
Not yet.
Why not?
Because I want to watch this
My mother at last turning to look at him. Because it’s interesting.
And I’m not?
She shaking her head. �Oh, Floyd, of course you are. But this is a change. I just need a change.
All you need to do is come to bed. Or have you forgotten that you’re my wife?
Being your wife doesn’t make me your property.
He had no answer to that. He hadn’t been raised or trained or prepared to answer that. In the Ozarks women were the property of the men. Through no fault of his own, that’s what he had been taught. That’s what he’d expected. But he wasn’t in the Ozarks anymore.
When are you coming to bed then?
When this is over.
That’l be midnight.
That’s right.
He watched her smoke and watch, huddled in her nightgown, drawn away from him, drawing away from him. That’s when he knew I’m sure that he was losing her.
Are you going to take up smoking too? he said.
If I want to.
She exhaled, stubbed out the cigarette. I don’t know, Floyd.
He stood there, the anger finally now rising. Well I don’t know either. But I do know you’re not the same woman I married, and I’m not very happy about it.
I realize you’re not.
‘Well then I wish you’d do something about it, instead of just reading those flaky goddamn books all the time. Instead of just ignoring me. I’m trying to do something about it. She turned to him. I am.
He stared at her a little longer, then turned and started up the stairs. Not hard enough, he said. Damned well not hard enough.
The bad part, she later told me, was that many other women would have loved his smothering, his demands, all his male needs. But she wasn�t another woman. She was only herself, which was something she sometimes resented as much as he did.
When Paar went off the air in 1962 she tried to watch Carson, but it wasn’t the same. It was glib and slick and neatly packaged but, like so much television that followed, it was also desperate, mercenary, and shallow. She stopped smoking and resumed going to bed at the appointed hour, but that of course was never to be the same either.
It was the year after Paar went off that they took separate rooms, never to really, in the full sense, share the same room again, let alone the same life.

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