Excerpt from Cool Nation

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

Lives Forming

On occasional Sundays at different times of the year we would drive to St. Joe to visit Cary. The drive through the Missouri hills and the little Missouri towns was cheerless�not because of the landscape, which was beautiful, but because of where we were going and what it meant. Mom�s characteristic quiet would deepen as we neared the asylum, Dad�s tough veneer soften, and we�the children�would fall silent. We knew that this was not a time to ask for favors, or to tell them that we were hungry, or to argue among ourselves. This was a time for silence, and silence only.
Then we�d get to the town and drive among its Depression-era buildings and bungalows, past the house where Bob Ford shot Jesse James, past the gloom and squalor of the bottoms, and finally up the hill through the gates of the asylum, its well kept grounds and Victorian buildings, where pajamaed inmates roamed the lawn with their orderlies and nurses.
In the main building we would wait in the high-ceilinged lobby, and listen to the distant grunts or shouts that emanated from far-away rooms, and watch as occasional drooling patients went stumbling past in the company of a nurse. If the patient were a man he might stop and stare at Stephanie with animal hunger, and if she was pissed she�d stare back, or perhaps just turn to me and whisper, �God let�s get out of here.�
Finally, after however long, Cary, with his flaccid body and pale flesh and dark-ringed eyes, would come down one of the corridors with an orderly and be turned over to us. Mom would kiss him and Dad would shake his hand and say, �Well, you�re looking good,� and Cary would smile his little kid smile and say he was feeling good, and then in a tense, bewildered group we would go out the door and across the grounds, maybe to go for a walk or on into town for lunch or for a drive to the river.
It�s not as though Cary was much like many of the others in the asylum. He didn�t grunt or drool and he was never, that I know of, stuffed into a straitjacket�although you could never be sure of what went on there in the maddening hours of night. He was coherent most of the time, and was always kind and never cruel and not without a form of intellect. Why then was he there? Only because he couldn�t make it out here. His black depressions, his hallucinations, his jumble of insecurities, his having been rejected at first by girls and then women and at last by society itself, all brought down on him a weight that, when combined with his schizophrenia, left him without a place where he could fit into our world. He simply couldn�t find anywhere to fit, just as in his own way Jackie couldn�t either.
But Jackie faked his role through bluster and bravado, where Cary faked nothing. He didn�t know how to play the role, any role; didn�t even have that basic talent that most of us fall back on each day in pretending whatever it is we pretend. And so time after time, after supposedly having gotten well, he would be released and take some dismal job and get an apartment downtown, and stock it with his comic books and TV dinners and Playboys, and try again to fit in, and sometimes it might even last a year. Then my parents would get a call from a landlord or a doctor or maybe even Cary himself, and if it was he would be sobbing and saying how he couldn�t do it, he couldn�t do it, and gravely Dad would nod and say he�d be right there, and go get him, and recommit him, and the whole thing would start again.
I never would have guessed then, at age eight, that fifteen years later Dad and I would go back to that same asylum, back to those same echoing halls, to accompany my brother�s body to Kansas City, and arrange the funeral, and then accompany the body to the Durrand plot in the Ozarks, where four generations of our people�Civil War veterans, tough frontier women, wealthy landowners, white-trash miners�were buried, and bury him among them, and say thanks that finally he was at peace. Of course you can�t guess those things, or alter the harshness of the day when finally they�re realized. I don�t doubt it�s better that you can�t.
But on occasional Sundays we would drive to St. Joe to visit Cary, and after an afternoon together leave him there, then drive home again, the tension in the car thick, Mom�s melancholy like a cloud above us, Dad forever wondering what he had done wrong, and no one able to do a damned thing about it. That was my oldest brother�s world. I loved him, but even as a child I was grateful that that world wasn�t mine.

Our stacks of forty-fives grew until forty-fives were no longer enough, and we graduated to albums: The Turtles, The Temptations, The Animals, The Mamas and the Papas. Our lives were dominated�you might even say controlled�by music. The record player in the girl�s room, the record player in the den, and, when were lucky, the big Hi-Fi in the living room: a massive piece of veneered furniture that we always turned up louder than we were supposed to. Then there were the radios, with the fast-talking DJs and the never-ending roll of hits and shows like Make it or Break It or the Top Ten at Nine or the Top Forty Countdown. We knew all the songs and we sang all the songs and it seemed there was rarely a moment when the music wasn�t jamming.
In the car Stephanie was faster with the buttons than anyone, Mom learning to tolerate it as she switched from station to station, skipping the ads, forever searching for just right the sound: The Byrds, The Buckinghams, The Association, The Monkees, all bands that Mom didn�t mind and some she even liked. But when The Doors or The Stones or, later Hendrix came on, Mom would tell her to change it or turn it off. Those were bands that frightened her, although she didn�t know exactly why.
Whenever Dad drove we listened to his Easy Listening music, and that was it.
One night though, not long after Help! came out, when we all were home and a fire was roaring in the fireplace and Dad was in his easy chair, reading, Stephanie talked him into letting her play the album on his stereo. He�d just taken a bath and was in his robe and his hair was still wet, and as he sat and watched us dancing across the room you could see the love in his eyes: we playing music he detested on his big Magnavox, he just sitting and watching as we danced.
Allen and I didn�t dance so much as shook. The girls though had all the moves down, with just the right motions of hip, leg and arm. They got them from watching shows like Hullabaloo and Shindig, which they studied with the intensity of worship.
While we danced and spun Stephanie whispered something to Jean, who whispered something back, they ran upstairs, ran back down, went behind Dad�s chair, and began combing his hair down until it covered his eyes, more or less in the mode of John Lennon. He sat there with the hair over his eyes and all of us shrieking and Stephanie running off to get Mom and bringing her back, and Mom sitting down and laughing at the sight of him, then Stephanie and Jean pulling Dad onto the floor and saying dance dance, and he breaking into something that was a cross between the Jerk and the Pony, and Stephanie saying no no, like this, and trying to show him, then finally he sweeping her aside and grabbing Mom and pulling her onto the floor as �Yesterday� came on, and the two of them, Mom somewhat embarrassed, dancing a ballroom step across the room while the rest of us watched.
It was a silent moment for them, and you could see it as they left us behind, going back to a place that was theirs alone, that no one else would ever touch, that maybe was gone now but still was alive back there somewhere, and in that sense still whole and warm and strong. They danced the entire song that way, looking only at each other and completely forgetting us.
Then �Dizzy Miss Lizzie� came on and it was rock and roll again, and they retreated to the sofa, holding hands as we broke up the room. The girls tried to get Dad to dance again but he wouldn�t. He just sat there holding Mom�s hand, sitting in a way that they hadn�t sat in a long time.
You�d never think music could do things like that, but it could, and did.

Leave a Reply