WHIRLAWAY MAN

He was laughing wildly, so much so that she put down her dishtowel and went to the front room to see what was happening. She had expected him to be looking at one of his endless collection of electronic gizmos but he wasn’t. He was holding her book on Canadian literature which she had acquired up there a few years earlier in a doomed teaching job.

“What is it?” she asked.

He could hardly stop laughing. “It’s this quote from Stephen Leacock about jumping on a horse and riding off in all directions. It’s a perfect description of my family.”

“You’ll have to tell me. Let me finish the dishes first.”

But now he was sober. The laughing had drained off enough energy for him to feel that skeletons in his closet elbowing each other, jangling, knee-capping, even the baby who died so soon after birth, starting a wave of guilt and blame that could only be handled with total denial that it ever lived at all.

His main defense against the waves of misery had been super-rational analysis, dispassion. Becoming a distant critic unplugged from any of the emotional short-circuits. It wasn’t easy, partly because the main demand of the rest of the family was that he should be special, a famous man that the rest of them could claim like a badge because they could say, “Oh, I knew him when. . .” or “I changed his diapers.” Or “I encouraged him when no one else would.” None of this was true, of course, much less rational.

But he still had had secret delusions of being powerful, a genius, an artist of transformative skill. There was no focus, but that was the logical result of riding off in all directions. So he had thought maybe if he found a totally different community, made a new family out of those he had some affinity for — shared their loves, their skills, connecting into something larger than any individual. But it turned out that they rode off in all directions, too. No sooner did they begin to bond among them, immediately someone would challenge the group, start a fight, and have an excuse to leave.

He chose a partner — doesn’t matter whether it was a man or woman. Pretty soon they were shouting — or worse, hoarding bitter accusations and threatening to leave — or even worse, just disappearing so that he was tortured with fantasies of death or capture or just the idea that he had imagined the whole damn fiasco from the beginning.

What he attracted then, naturally, was naive young women (or men — gender doesn’t matter) who swore they would never leave, never betray, never even argue — though he saw in their eyes their desperate desire to escape.

Maybe he should offer to help finish the dishes.

“Too late. All done now.”

When they were in bed, she with her book and he with his thoughts, she put down the book and said, “Tell me now what all that laughter was about. Tell me about your family.” Too late. The door had closed.

For the rest of the night the phantoms rode through his head. His father, drunk but still powerful and in control, went through in one direction, his black stallion rearing so that the silver trappings of controlling a horse all jangled and flashed. Was that lightning among the rolling clouds?

His mother in a old-fashioned open sportscar with a long chiffon scarf around her neck that blew straight out in the wind she was making, until there was an eddy making the scarf whip too close to the wheels so that, like Isadora Duncan, it tangled, went taut and broke her neck.

The baby in a buggy, like the famous scene in the Russian (was it Russian?) movie rolling down the long stairs of some official building, bumping along straight ahead and never tipping to one side or another, so that the baby didn’t fall out but couldn’t be seen either, so maybe it wasn’t even there.

When he woke, he was exhausted and she was gone. Pulling on jeans, he went down the stairs bare-chested and smelled coffee, followed it into the kitchen with its long sweep of windows above the drainboard and counter. It was quite English, this way of making a kitchen merge with a garden by keeping out the rain with glass but calling the sunlight to pattern the floor and walls.

She was out there with her book, her inevitable book, sitting with one leg hooked over the arm of the yard chair, the sun making her hair into an aureole. He felt he loved her and then instantly was jealous of her ability to be where she was. That book — wasn’t it an evasion of him? Or was it an anchor, a safe place for her to return when his need of her was over — a book that was a book mark.

“What is there to eat?” he called. He loved to interrupt her, to claim her back from that world that was only in her head, to check where he was on her priority list, to see how many “bars” of power on this little gizmo that was their relationship. By the time she came, smiling, with the cat twining around her bare feet, barely avoiding being stepped on, he was in his chair in the front room reading the online NYTimes on his new tablet.

Or pretending to. The ghosts of his dreams were still fighting it out in his head. Sometimes he had fantasies of some brain surgeon drilling a hole in his skull so they could all fly out like cartoon characters, blobs that trail off into a point at the bottom like dialogue balloons. His mother slammed the front door as hard as she could as she raced for the car before his father could stop her. His father went out the back with a six-pack of beer and got onto his riding mower. He would stay out there in the big field behind the house, roaring back and forth, getting besotted.

What could he do? The pattern was deep inside him, riding off in all directions. There was no cure, no respite.

She knew that, accepted it, put down cat food in a saucer, picked up her book which she had left face down on the table, wiped off the page a spot of blood-red jam that she hadn’t seen was on the table from her own breakfast.

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