The Médoc Peninsula features a gravelly soil, which the winter wind, coming off the Atlantic Ocean, flings into the swells of rolling lowlands. Salt and grit, then, imbue themselves into the vine. The summer sun cooks the salt and grit after long, soaking rains drench the soil and the vines. The vines while away the summer by sucking everything that might be considered a nutrient into itself, the sun, the wind, and the sucking clasping hands together in a common effort to cause pollens of every sort of weed to be infused into the grapes, which are trampled and pressed, dumped into great vats to be left to the ravages of yeast consuming the sugars, then stored in wooden barrels in musty basements.
She giggled and threw a pillow at him as he left the room. She sat up and began to dress, looking into the mirror as she did. “You’re a beautiful girl,” she heard her father say. “Such a beautiful girl.” But then Mom left him, and he didn’t say much after that. “You’re a beautiful girl,” she heard the others say. “Can I buy you a drink?” At least this one was staying long enough to fix her a drink after the roll in the hay. She flung her hair over her shoulders, brushing down the unkempt sections. “He’s nice,” she said to herself. “I wonder if he’ll stay a while.” She put the brush into her purse and wiped a tear.
Very quietly she opened the bedroom door and looked for the stairs descending to the main floor. A girl’s voice floated up the stairs: “Don’t laugh,” she was saying. “That’s so mean.” Gentlemen chuckled. She padded down in bare feet, holding her shoes in one hand, her purse in the other. They greeted her warmly.
I’ll speak for myself (as so many do in these days of rank solipsism): suffering loss is met within me mostly by anger. It was in August my father died, August of 2005, just before my second son was born, John David Duke III, named in utero, a nomination my father never understood. I’m an Old Testament scholar, you see, a professor in Old Testament studies, and the old man, for some reason, even though I explained it to him, never understood why I named the firstborn Thomas, reserving the III for the second born.
In July of last year (2017), I made a special trip to Milwaukee to see the best friend I’ve ever had, a trip made at his request, for he was in the last days of his cancer. Peter took one sip of the single malt scotch I had bought for us, and he mulled over it for many hours. They had burned out his bowels, you see, in a last desperate attempt to save his life, to spare his wife of terrible grief, and to spare his three children from fatherlessness. Alas. He rewarded me for that pain by inflicting on me a terrible burden: he forced me to read John 11 in front of a thousand strangers at his funeral a few weeks later, all staring at me while I wept with Jesus. I don’t know that I can ever forgive him for that, but then again, he took that sip of scotch as a kind of sacrament between friends. He was so crazed with pain when he died, even under the skillful and merciful care of hospice, he…well, that is enough. He was 45.
After my dad died, recriminations flew: not at one another. No, my three sisters, my mother, and I were perfectly at peace with one another. We were angry at Dad. All he had to do was take his medicine. He died of a rare blood disorder, at the last, and he abjectly refused to listen to medical advice, considering them all quacks, and all their devices quackery, so he researched the internet, discovering a diet, which he modified, to ameliorate the disease, a complete failure, an absolutely complete and foolish failure, and the aftermath of his death was ruin, utter ruin. As a family, we have drifted rudderless since that day, still dreading some sudden manifestation of the consequences of his many bad decisions.
People, trying to give advice to Peter, struck him with angry fists instead: “You shouldn’t have eaten so many bratwursts.” The carcinogenic properties of bratwursts, apparently, are well-known, particularly in the causation cycle of rare, even unheard of, gall bladder cancer. “You should have drunk less beer.” And so his many friends and acquaintances struck him, again and again, until it became plain that he was going to die, and then we all cried. Most of us cried out, too, a yelp: “No!” Unanswered.
When my sister called with the news that Dad had died–he lied to everyone about his chances, but, as the oldest, and his only-begotten and beloved son, I was the only one who knew he was lying. “Fifty-fifty,” he had said, after his first attack. “The doctor gives me a fifty-fifty chance.” Yet the clots were still there, in some sort of fashion formed so that they could not be treated. Mom believed him and was shocked when he died. I was not shocked, not any more shocked than I would be to stand in the freeway to discover that I was about to be hit by a large tractor-trailer. Into a realm of darkness I was thrust, and I shouted, an outcry so formless it hearkened the primeval, but it returned to me, void.
And I was angry.
I bore my mother away from his grave while his corpse still hovered above it and the bereaved still hovered around it. The funeral director directed me to sit with her in the hearse. She was angry, shouting hysterically. Her uncivilized outbursts gave voice to our civilized tears: How could he be so stupid? Why should he have wanted to die? And I found in his papers a similar outcry: he was crying out for help in a particular matter, and no one heard him. He printed it off, a 300-word cry for help, an entire ream of paper, 500 copies, read by no one until I found them in his desk. Peter likewise, not so desperate, and not so alone, but also tortured, in a way, in words I will carry with me to my own grave, being shared in the incarnation of our friendship, the bastard.
“Thoughts and prayers.” “I’ll be praying for you.” “My heart hurts for you.” Indeed, would someone please offer up some prayers for vengeance? Can’t we take revenge? Someone is responsible for this unspeakable…thing…
What is this thing? A darkness and a fire, the sort which is surely the source of the ancient myth of the dragon-being, a myth which has been with us since we could articulate, an uncreature which breathes fire and darkness for the sake of utter destruction. Someone is responsible for the death of my father and the death of my friend (now friends), and even though I am now a veteran of the experience, I feel nowhere nearer to being inured to the injury, but, in fact, stoked by it. If I could but breathe fire…
The Evolutionary Psychologists will declare that this expression of vengeance is perhaps inculcated, as seen among the religious which have explained it in metaphysical terms, but after being confronted with the source of the expression, which is assuredly primary, and not inculcated, they will retreat to the blackberry bushes, as they always do, declaring as liberating gospel that to desire vengeance upon an unseen supernatural force is a response placed in our hearts by Evolution to cause us to form close communal bonds in defense of mutual survival.
Or some such. But what can the religious offer? What do they offer?
If I could but breathe fire, I would destroy the one who is responsible for this, for someone is behind my father’s stupidity (not to mention the actual disease), my friend’s random cancer, and all the misfortune which befalls around those actualities, the measurable and material suffering of family and friends, alongside the immeasurable torture of hopelessness. Someone is responsible, and I will kill him. When I find him, I will mount him, and beat him, and flay him, and spit on him, and wrench his flesh from him, and mock him, and berate him, and press my thumbs into his eye sockets, and whatever I can manage to do to him before I weary, all in repayment for what he has done to me.
It is wrath which is lodged within me, taking my breath away, taking my vision away, causing me to reach out to stop the world from turning, wrath, without an object.
If he ever gives me the chance to kill him, I know for certain I will. It is my nature, bound in this pitiless formlessness.
Among the many memories I have of my father, some pitiful ones abide. Among those is one: he, a leader of many people, at the tender age of 38, universally known and respected in a community numbering in the tens of thousands (everyone knew the formidable John David Duke, Sr.), stood to announce to his people that he would be departing for Alabama in order to attend his sister’s funeral, Mary Ellen, who died of lung cancer, aged 36. Bitterness of grief overtook him (no one came to him, not that I can remember, but it is a stark memory), wrenching his shoulders forward as he suppressed the horror of that endless darkness.
Would that he did hide himself within it, to be revealed gloriously at the very end of it all, as the very end of it all, a person overcoming every … thing, in a last and lasting triumph of solipsism over materialism!
“I can’t afford it,” he said. About eight years later, both mothers-in-law came together over lunch to jubilate over the accomplishment of a nest egg so that Diane could start nesting. “Is it a boy?” Diane’s mother asked. “Is it a girl?” Jack’s mother asked. “It’s a grandbaby!” they both said, and they ordered champagne.
Diane’s hand was still touching the phone when she felt something go wrong, and without a second thought, she rushed to the hospital, her Ob/gyn on the phone, but something had gone wrong. She lost the baby. It was a miscarriage.
The shock wore off, and the tears dried up, so Jack and Diane tried again. Another little baby appeared in the ultrasound, a squirming gift from God, and another miscarriage. Her Ob/gyn brought in a second doctor to examine the case. Both of them scratched their heads. “Bad luck,” they said. “There’s nothing wrong with you. It’s just bad luck.” Jack took Diane to church to pray.
Tumbling ass over teakettle upon vinyl seats in a late model sports sedan was a joy long gone, but Diane’s comportment had become health-class textbook-efficient and formal, far from enjoyable, and hardly fulfilling in a marriage marked by hard work and fidelity. One morning after, Diane was rummaging in a kitchen drawer, looking for a cereal spoon, when she happened upon one which displeased her greatly. She glared at Jack, holding it before him.
Dad shuffled out of the house, grabbing his jacket as he went out the door, started the car, and Mom hustled after him. They drove away into a light gray afternoon. Then it was a drive to a urologist. Then it was a drive to Roswell Park Cancer Institute.
Mom couldn’t bear to ride with him, so she sent him away early that morning, and I drove him. I shook his hand after his sage advice to a married man who’d fathered four children, holding his hand, really, holding it in a religious bond. It was good advice.
When I was seventeen, Mom and Dad went to Europe with my sister, leaving me behind to work, to save up for college, and to save up for my own trip to Europe after I graduated from high school. The very day they boarded the airplane, my relationship with Amy soured. We didn’t break up, but she decided to tell me she was seeing Brad. “I thought we were going steady,” I said. I tried to play it cool because Amy was tall and fair, and very hip. She put the chic in chick, man, and all of us who went for the alternative labels in our musical tastes—all of us went for Amy, so she could afford to choose. “I really did,” I said. “I thought we were going steady.”
“Is that what you want?” she said back to me, in an absolutely unforeseen response. I was bracing myself for something more along the lines of “Well, no, we aren’t going steady, you silly boy,” or “I don’t believe in such limitations.” Indeed, the latter was what I expected to hear because for Amy, it was freedom. She only wanted freedom, and I felt like I had won some sort of sweepstakes to be pulled into her orbit.
Months after our first meeting, we had our first kiss. Months.
In the main hall of the History Museum hung an oversized copy of Evelyn De Morgan’s Helen of Troy. Every man entering paused before the painting to remember, then proceeded to the exhibition areas of the museum to begin drinking and singing and forgetting. They did this forgetting for many years until Helen of Troy was no longer meaningful. Without significance, she disintegrated with time, and no artist in their midst thought to preserve her, nor any of her mothers, sisters, or daughters. Nevertheless, every man entering the museum for the annual Forgetting Exhibition became aware of a black melancholy, a constant companion brought forward in this joyous celebration, a companion to be mocked and ridiculed, and dunked and drugged, buried.
He lifted his eyes up from the path, turning his body so that the roar of the rushing waters was to his right, far below him, now louder than the applauding trees. Up he meant to climb, but he was looking for the lightning-struck stump. A generation ago it had been struck, his daddy once told him, and once it was struck by lightning, light could no longer escape, so it stood against the shadowed green of the summer woods as an obelisk, marking the way to the Indian corn grinder. He closed his eyes, remembering how his daddy held his hand and pointed. Was the obelisk up a little? Or was it straight in front of him, resting upon the top of the bluffs as he was? He remembered. He opened his eyes and peered: there it was, up a little. The top of the bluffs served as a path, but not without treachery, for the river in places suddenly snaked toward the bluffs, reaching to pull out foundational stones with a great crack of victory, leaving only the deception of safety.
To the great obelisk, now showing green, spring green in August, moss flourishing on the north side at the end of this wet summer, he climbed. Straight up the hill from the stump was the Indian corn grinder, a cup hewn into the top of a projection of bedrock, waist high on an Indian maiden, chest high on an unnipped boy named Bud. Around the corn grinder had been a village, strung out along a flat spot on this steep hill, protected below by the bluffs of the river, protected from above by sheer inclination, accessible from either side, but only in single file. Bud fingered the marks where his older uncles, who stood in his mind like a towering jury of the unjust, had tried to cut the corn grinder out of the hill in order to sell it, but had been disappointed to find that it was, indeed, a part of the foundations of the earth itself. Bud heard whispering, but he was not afraid: it was the forest, whispering to him beneath the roar of the rushing waters.
Reanna says to Charles, Jr., who is trying to eat his beef stew, “They’ve both been so different since Stephanie moved to Colorado.”
The storm rumbles and grumbles in the basement, and then a sharp crack: the unmistakable sound of the action of a shotgun being opened and closed.
Charles, Jr.’s eyes grow wide with fear. He stops eating and looks across the table at his sister. “You don’t think…”
“Don’t be silly,” Reanna whispers.
They listen to the rumbling, grumbling storm downstairs, punctuated by the action of many shotguns, rifles, and pistols being opened and closed, along with a few muffled exclamations, such as, “Enough is enough,” and “That’s the last time,” and other unintelligible oaths and curses, all uttered in exasperation, frustration, and anger. Finally, clearly, they hear, “Why bother going on like this?”
Charles reappears, holding one hand behind his back and standing stiffly erect, his eyes screwed up into dark holes. “Where’s your mother?” he demands of his children. Reanna and Charles, Jr. both freeze, staring at him.