Breakfast: a half dozen scrambled eggs, fried salami, a glass of chocolate milk; and one trip to the toilet until his hand steadies. The half-open window bleeds light onto the floor, but the breeze today comes from the mountain, not the city; it smells clean which provides relief. Today is Labor Day and Clarence Darrow Culnane has a job on a register at The Dollar Store, part-time, but with a promise that if he worked out it would turn more.
Outside, the day is pleasantly warm, mitigated by the breeze. Gulls squawk and scoop the pavement and garbage bins for scraps at Dick’s, an outdoor hamburger joint. The cityscape pitches with the river valley’s topography. Beneath his window three rap wannabes attempt to rhyme alligator with tomato, but he no longer alternates nights on others’ sofas; it is his window.
The woman who gutted him resides in Tri-Cities with a Realtor now. That is not true. He has leaked blood and entrails for as long as he can recall. She just mercifully hosed out the remains. Even in first grade, Clarence longed for a woman to repair him, an odd thought for a 7 year old. Perhaps it was his nature’s feminine elements in search of solidarity or a Freudian hunger for a girl that might finish a boy who already considered himself only half a person.
Sunday Morning (with Apologies to Raymond Carver)
Growing up he read books and went to school and took drugs only on the weekends, which permitted him nearly the same anonymity as his absence might have. In high school, however, he rolled like a waking sleeper. He learned to laugh easily and was student enough of human nature to apprehend other’s vanities and reflect back flattering likenesses. Girls spoke their secrets to him and boys their schemes. It tethered him to others in a way he had not expected possible and required only empathy, which, strangely, he possessed in some quantity. He discovered keeping others amused or even loved was steady work that he was adept at.
His girlfriends were fortunate accidents who mistook his obscurity for depth. Each was pretty and interesting. They lied to him when it didn’t matter and told the truth when it did; selfish and generous, miles away and unattainable one moment then right there talking to him the next. They should have provided him a wonderful education, but even the most attractive people tire of gazing into a mirror.
With the most generous and honest of these, Holly, he visited Riverfront Park. The place had been constructed with great local flourish in 1974 to host a world’s fair. Nixon spoke from a dock and after they released thousands of birds.
He and Holly walked through the sculpted hills and acres of grass holding hands. She stood on her tiptoes and kissed him under the Clocktower when it rang 2 p.m. He had been kissed more passionately, but never more sweetly. From under what was once the American Pavilion, speakers hung on brackets produced carnival music and children dragged parents by the arm toward the rides and wrestled in the line afterward. He rode the Carrousel with Holly, where they chose outside horses and hooked the plastic rings with their outstretched hands, which she collected and later sent to him, one at a time, on birthdays or at Christmas, though they quit seeing one another only a month later.
That year, Clarence excelled in sports enough to make the paper occasionally. His graduating class voted him president and best personality. But his successes faded in and out like a distant radio station, while his failures produced a perfect signal. The latter appeared to him the impermanence of good fortune; the former disappointment’s certainty. He felt he had traveled his path as far as he could without repeating the circle, which he did not care to do. So one night, he devised a novel and cowardly plan for suicide: He would remain living and oppose every instinct he possessed.
Freshman year of college, he wagered and lost his financial aid check in a poker game. His grades left him on academic probation. That summer he slept in automobiles or parks when the weather was amenable. With a vagrant, he drugged a guard dog then heisted a pound of marijuana still on the vine. Too green to sell, it was sufficient to swap for meals and cheap beer, and to keep him hazily disconnected from his poor prospects in the summer heat. It seems to him a direct line from there to sitting on a windowsill in a building that catered to the indigent.
His apartment is nearly a mile from the park, but the wind and air and the hush of a Sunday morning deliver him the Carrousel’s song and the gaggle of children. It is impossible, he decides. Then he recognizes a block away the ice cream truck, a scratchy jingle playing through its bullhorn, four children behind waving dollar bills. He doesn’t believe in signs, though he would like to.
A half inch of whiskey remains in the bottle on the table, usually cause for him to mourn or compose a plan. But Clarence pours the last out his window. It splatters on the pavement below and the pocks the white boys.
“Hey,” one shouts. They look at Clarence.
“Get thee to a nunnery,” Clarence tells them.
Across the street a lark whistles. He can feel it. His life has changed.
Bruce Holbert will celebrate the release of his new novel, “The Hour of Lead,” with a book launch at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Auntie’s Bookstore, 402 W. Main Ave. Poet John Whalen will be on hand to introduce his latest collection, “In the Honor of the Spigot.”.
Lead photo credit: