Sport 12: Autumn 1994
Michael Henderson — Deadwood
1355, by the Iranian calendar: the Bicentennial year, antedating the energy and hostage crises—deadlocks Jesse Chrysler vowed to forestall as he ran with his WIN button, while I got writer’s block putting Sa’di’s torture poems into Ingleesh. Not to mention abetting unmentionable losers in the pen under the eagle-clamped olive branch, arrows and arcaded Et in Arcadia Ego: my hebdomadal class in the Arkadian Maximum Security Penitentiary.
Entrailed behind its mordantly inscribed portals, portending my own hostageship, I kowtowed woefully with, ‘JC’s out to be TMPMOE.’
‘Timpmowee? Hey man—’
‘What you shoo’in us, man?’
‘Give us a break, can the garbage, man!’
‘The most powerful man on earth.’ Not counting the Shah, of course— I knew that much, printing TMPMOE on the blackboard—they still had Shahs as well as chalk then, joint fossils from the late Mesozoic. ‘An acronym, see?’
‘—God’s earth, y’ll mean!’ came the Bull, under his Chicago cap.
‘Anachronym?’ It was the versifying Corn Husker who’d shucked his fecund fiancée with a husking pin and corn knife, slaying us with rashers of his attorney’s corn-yellow legal-size foolscap:
when you see
a red corn cob
driving out Drive-in porn
where we go in droves
ripe for husking
at the silky end
‘No—oh, you mean anachronism,’ I said to the anachronous lifer, one of five whites, counting me, in the locked and barred room. ‘I’m talking about an acronym, hamburgered together from first letters, kangaroo and horsemeat like CIA, FBI, ICBM, MAD—’
‘Sons of the Rev’lution, man!’
‘S.O.B., right on! An old one, like SOS, radar—that’s how that word came together, then there’s AWOL and—’
‘—well, sort of—’
‘DV, my maw puts DV in her letters ever’ line she write—’
Kezie’s mother did too, so I put it on the board: Deo volente—Latin— God willing, Jeez, I was getting more like Tyrus every day! Anything to leave tasty juxtapositions on the board to tantalise Superintendent Moroney (Corrections) at the end of a class, a bookwormy bibliomaniac’s deli! Going overboard, I added INRI = Iesus (Jesus) Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum (King of—
‘R.I.P!’ came the Bull, under his red and black cap.
So I put requiescat in pace up too, a varicose clot of vowels, marrow for bony consonants, but spelling on the vertical surface starts to crumble in cretaceous traces—
‘WIN!’ a black brother.
‘Whip Inflation Now!’
‘Of course! JC’s button! Chrysler’s—’
‘—cud the horse-sheet, man! We wanna write, man! Fug the Prezzdin of the Nighty Stays—’
‘But words are us—homo ludens, don’t you see? They die unless we have fun, fool with them—’
Even the Napper, I looked into my own mug shot, a physiognomy of bluffs and ravines, cave-ins, we were all flinty mass murderers, gutting words, beheading, battering, hulling them—
‘This ain for fun, man! We got oursells idees, man! We’re peachy keen to ride em, man!’
‘Everybody’s got ideas! More useless than chairs on the Titanic!’ The vehemence of the non-practising preacher. Overcoming an expletive, slipping towards their lingo, contagious as being at sea with sailors, but I’m meant to be a, a role model, a writer who writes, Superintendent Moroney (Corrections) said, a kinda template for them inmates as they tamp out their quota of ah, auto plates, we do em for Pennsy’vania too, clapped-out bell an all, ya know—page 107
‘Ideas are fifty to the dozen, fish in the sea, nah, tad—polly, pollywogs you call them! in the puddles on our petty little brains! Wriggling away up there, wriggle, wriggle, they feel like whales, they even spout away, but out in the open they’re pollies, dead as dead can be unless you let imagination run away with them, turn them into monsters, mutations you get by writing, not thinking, something fantastical that turns around and bites your head off and spits your ideas out like pips from a melon while it runs away with the—’
‘Shoot, man, I run in my fantsies ever’ day, ever’ day bar none!’
‘Get it down! Use the lead in your pencil! Impotence not to! Make it real!’ Am I shouting? A guard’ll burst in, I’ve seenitinthemovies—‘Writers write it! You’re more of a pain in the butt than a john that doesn’t flush until you do! Useless until you bust it out of your brainpan, the old sin bin, your house of correction, toilet training, into the wild where squonks hump the moon! More space, more freedom on a page than anywhere on earth!’
‘God’s earth!’ came the Bull.
‘Wish I’d got to San Fran, then I’d, that’d be livin, for real, real livin—’
‘I’d a liked to a got me to Frisco—’
‘Take a rain check!’
‘I got to Sol’ Lake—’
‘I’m fixin to see what all’s goin on and all out there—’
‘—they took me in in Utah—’
‘—Jesus to gosh and God I is!’
‘DV, maw she—’
‘VD! Thass all ya ever goin to carry home to your ma, if it was firewood she’d never have cause ta turn on no furnace, oh my she wouldn’—’
‘Here, listen, what’s paper but dead wood? It burns, eh? You been to Deadwood, Dakota? Well,’ I said, talking faster, mustn’t lose them, ‘there’s a grave out there,’ get that word grave out and they’ll wait, wait for the rest as though they’re in it, ‘and on the old wooden cross over it,’ slow down, slow down, ‘you-can-just-make-out-the-words: The coward never started and the weak died on the way—to Deadwood, see? It’s like that with words on paper too, the dead wood of paper, get it? Here I am all the way from the Antipodes, fingerprinted by the INS, and again to get in here, they went through my books, frisked me, that’s nothing if only you’ll bust your words out, words are free, you can’t imprison words, the guards can’t touch them, page 108 the assholes aren’t in your Dakota, the wild west of your imagination! Get your pen movin, it’s a mule, you gotta kick it along!’
Silence. For the first time, silence. The ice cracking in the river, a hundred jawbones. The beep of a truck backing up at the front rotunda, unloading a new batch, or Green Giant cans for the can, certainly no garbage truck: they were still on strike. A siren on Dubuque, what peace we had! Fifteen cagey faces looked at me, eleven black, four white, one a sinkhole sucking me in, the full fifteen a real-life rugby team. Ten murderers, some of them multiple: Napper Eartherly claimed to have napalmed 100,000 in Nam. The rest failed murderers, a final mortification. All of them on dope, hostage-takers, rioters—writers??—with nothing to lose. So long as they’re writin they’re not riotin, said Moroney. How did Elizabeth Fry get away with it, defenceless in Newgate?
‘What happened to Old Zealand?’ sprung the Napper, my doppelganger, aviator and avatar, William Wilson hiding Mr Hyde—
‘Old Ze-? Oh, that! Ha ha! They left that in, in the Netherlands—’
‘Neverneverland,’ spoke the spectre.
An easy Anglo-American disposition of vowels this time. Unsusceptible. In the Cathedral of Learning on the campus, I’d chalked Babel’s Red Cavalry up as Red Calvary, and not realised it until that warped aorist and alcaic Boieldieu pointed it out as he arrived for his graduate seminar in Milton’s prose. My undergrads left the room none the wiser, none the worser—
Now I turned to face graduates in Grand Guignol, deans of Golgotha, doctors of dismemberment, profligate professors of the sins of the Revolution, each one of them a fallen pretender to TMPMOE. Pedantic formalists of antinomianism and disfranchisement. Predatory postgrads in reliquiae, encyclopedists of buggery and thuggery, double-dealing academicians of gang rape and rule, one or two of them immortal already, within state borders anyway.page 109
Alongside the Shah’s SAVAK—the CIA, McLean, Virginia-tutored SAVAK—they were abject beginners, sighing sciolists, dabbling dilettantes, smutty toddlers scarcely ready for Kezie and Tao’s daycare.
I turned back once more to the board and desecrated it with the cross I’d found in the crucible of pine-needles and puffballs on the hill overlooking the unpainted roofing iron of Deadwood, Da.
End of silence.
‘You for real, man?’
‘You’re full of horse pucky!’
‘—skeered right out of his heered!’
‘—cur-razier’n a jailbird—’
‘So what you say your mouse-shittin name is, man? Come again?’
‘Jack,’ I said. ‘Jack Hickathrift—’
‘Evvy Jack has a Jill!’ jacked the woolly skullcap, the one who was meant to be in the know about the missing Osostowicz kid. ‘If one won’t, anudder will!’
‘Jack-off!’ hacked an Afro-capped bro.
‘Wad’s this Higthruff?’
‘Thrift,’ I said. ‘I’ll put it on the board.’ Which I did: HICKATHRIFT, Jack.
‘Hold up now!’ came the Bull. ‘Woah there—’
Anthropoidal, basketball capped, peak turned back, fee-fighing and fo-fumming, the Bull stepped over the room as I heard Howard Cosell salivating what an atherlete, one of the elite!page 110
Holding out pink palms, deceptively childlike, ‘The chalk, man,’ a butcher’s thumb stubbily bereft at midpoint.
I stood back and saw his opposite, Tyrus Tunwold so slight and fair saying to us in the institutional prism of 3PI that our lifeblood must be the red-corpuscled words we used, it isn’t English, it’s LANGUAGE!—not the King’s, not the Queen’s, OURS!—which marks us off from the apes, Milton bleeding himself onto paper through fingers of chalkstone that he couldn’t even see but suffered singing (sang Tyrus), singing through the iron boot of gout and the bane of blindness while he—Titan of our tongue!—wasn’t even as tall as me (soared Tyrus, the elastic of his jockeys ribald as he stretched tippytoes to the top of the board) and—what do you know!—Milton’s father read without specs at eighty-four!
(I still write in longhand, Tyrus, just as I reviewed Carter Brown and Mickey Spillane for you along with Greene and Golding, except that now I manage abbrvtns bereft of your beloved vowels five vowels, five senses: there you have the world!, slashing an oblique for/definite article. For a long time I kept to pencil because Hemingway sharpened a dozen to get going ‘as good as he could: if he had luck, better than be could!’ You swore words—written words!—earned that kind of luck, and told us Thoreau made pencils: how could we ever let Henry David’s pencils down?
(But now, Ty, I’ve graduated to biro. Remember when we had to dip our nibs into the prefab’s inkwells, cursing the cursive with hen tracks, pecks and droppings, caned by Jerp and Scobe—who feared you before the Devil!—for using ballpoint, the plastic plague overtaking calligraphy with caliginous extinction! Upstroke, downstroke, pothook, flourish! That was writing, they said! Not what you taught, waving the orange Penguins, seducing thirteen-year-olds with Hemingway, Golding and Greene while thirty faces blanched red.
(You’d love to know that it was Borges who told me the devil who invented ballpoint was a Hungarian named Biro: Argentine estancieros bankrolled him after his invention had been rejected as often as any masterpiece. Borges signed Ficciones for me, but his biro didn’t work, I told him what he—like Milton—could not see. Industria Argentina, no? No hay problema! Jerp and Scobe would have caned Jorge Luis, so cramped was his hand! Later I discovered the imprint of his uninked signature pressed deep in the page, so now I have the autograph of both Borges—the seen and the unseen: the whole world you lived for as you grubstaked us in the pampas of our imaginations, pointing the way west with chalk-white fingers!)page 111
Suddenly solicitous, the white who’d been aping Clint Eastwood as he shifted the unlit stub of a panatella, and who’d gained entry to the class by garroting a hispanic cabbie with a Howard Johnson coat-hanger, called me back to the Northern Hemisphere in our maternal tongue, ‘I don’t know as I would get so close to Chicago if I was you, old bud, buddy boy, least not without shovin a cork and or sudgelike plug up me ass fast! He never knowed his pa no more’n his ma woulda an she never sung for no hev’ny choir less it were on her back no more’n he—’
Raising his own chorus:
‘Can it, feeb!’
‘Slushface! Doan know nuttin tall!’
‘Way to go!’
‘I’m tellun ya!’
Methodically, undistracted, unhurried, all left hands, pink tongue deceptively artless between pink lips, remnant of chalk whiter than white in his Herculean but incomplete paw, sweat on his upper lip, down his back, down my back, letter by painstaking letter with bulging seenitinthemovies forearm, the most powerful man on God’s earth wrought the cross of my name as though he hewed it in stone: