E
Jan/Feb 1999 Feature

As We Approach (After Babel)

by Stanley Jenkins


 

On my American plains I feel the struggling afflictions
Endur'd by roots that writhe their arms into the nether deep.
       —(William Blake)

 

Tell. What shall I tell? Tell of the conflict of passion and security from a long time ago. I went fishing with my Dad once. The knife in cold water. And the liquid smear of red. Do you remember the snake? Long and black. Curved like the waves. It snatches the guts and is gone.

Clean the fish and sing old songs.

 

Michigan. The land has gone elsewhere. This is what I was thinking from my window seat at the back of the bus. I wasn't thinking about my father or my new life in New York, or even about cancer or the fact that this time my father would surely die. I was thinking about Michigan and its expressionless face, as tender and as taunting as an autistic child's.

Meanwhile, in Howell my father's body was transforming itself into a vast network of darkening tumors—"melanomas" they are called. He was turning black from the inside out as if already his body were returning to dirt. I imagined soy beans and field corn cropping up between his ribs and his joints.

When my aunt called, I boarded the bus at Port Authority. I hadn't been back in seven years—in fact, since I'd left home for college in the Northern Ohio flatlands.

 

Consider for a moment the problem of origins. How can it be that we come from one place and not another? My people were all shiftless wanderers before they settled in Howell. No landowners these folk, but all second and third sons and daughters without birthright. A rootless nation, and yet something drew them here to this place. Between Lansing and Detroit, in the center of a right hand's palm, which has neither love nor life lines, a fortuneteller's nightmare.

 

My father's face was lost to me on the bus but I could still see the rest of him in my mind, rocking on the porch, his back to the land, his face to the house, chin slightly lifted, hands empty. Rock. Rock. Rock. And me in the yard watching, and behind me the stupid emptiness of Howell and beyond that a presence, an awareness. Watching. Watching. Watching. But on the bus: Word disease. But on the bus. The telling. The re-telling. This is the story. To tell, to re-tell, to re-member the limbs that were broken when Babel first fell: Return. But on the bus I was thinking about Michigan and I was thinking about a face beneath a mask and other things which invisibly distend smooth surfaces. Michelangelo's slaves yearning for escape from marble prisons. I was returning.

And old songs.

 

Out of the cradle endlessly rock....Rock....Rocking/A reminiscence sing....

That from Walt Whitman.

 

J. Calvin Biggs. It's a signed name but it's mine. And in time it comes to identify something immanent but ineffable. My mother named me after her own grandfather, John Calvin, deacon in the Presbyterian Church and vicious-faced corn liquor dealer who would not take his wife to see the doctor and who would not acknowledge her fits until at last she had to have a hysterectomy because in Howell in those days an old woman's fear and epilepsy were the result of a wandering womb—hysteria they called it. Poppa I called him. He lived a long time and then he died. They gave me his name.

I grew up in Howell, Michigan—roughly in the middle of the state between Lansing and Detroit. Home of a former Grand Wizard of the KKK, and in the outskirts: strange utopian communities of rabid NRA and State's Rights devotees. The people here are fundamentally the product of an American religious impulse. But a mutant impulse. A Spirit turned violent and moving across the face of the swamp. Those damned yankees moving from their Vermont and New York farms, their eyes heavy-lidded with Puritan dreams of the Shining City on the Hill—and later the effluvia from the Canal Boom washed ashore like a tide pool far from the Great Lakes—and still later the mass exodus from the forever carpetbagger South and from dead Appalachian hills—these people, my people, came here and went no further. It is as if the land itself has gone to sleep. It's the dreams that make us crazy out here.

I grew up in the house on the hill in Howell. Civil War heroes lived there before me. My father was an important man in town. President of the Rotary Club. I had a name, a history, a place in Howell. I wanted more. A future.

 

Bury my body Lord, I don't care where—say/Bury my body Lord, I don't care where—say/Bury my body cause my soul is going to live with God/O yeah.

 

But on the bus. Partial memory. And so the beginnings of return and the re-covering of the original face. Tell. What shall I tell? Tell of sad Enkidu and of standing in proud Gilgamesh's shadow. Remember. I remembered. Paula Cassiday. She came to Howell from suburban Detroit when I was a senior in high school. She'd run away three times and her parents felt that the quietness and stability of a small town would take away her restlessness. She wore patchouli oil, smoked clove cigarettes, had frizzy hair and knew things she'd never learned from TV. Like a well-thumbed volume of the Marquis de Sade in a pastor's library, she called everything around her into question, including me. It was between her thighs and on the back of a silent Michigan landscape that I first learned the possibility of being other than who you are.

"Do you want a cigarette?"

"I don't smoke."

She smiled at me.

"How do you know, have you ever tried?"

One Friday night in the early fall, Paula borrowed her father's car, picked me up from the house on the hill, where my own father sat rocking and drinking in silence and took me out here to this faceless Michigan swampland. She sat me down next to a dead tree and I could smell her hair and my shoulders were trembling though the night was warm.

"You're afraid of me aren't you?"

I didn't say anything.

"I thought you were different."

"Different from what?"

She smiled again.

"Why don't you kiss me?"

Her thighs beneath her faded jeans, her breasts beneath her evergreen sweater, the touch of her palm scandalizing my knee, moving closer—cars on icy curves—moving closer—I tasted her tongue.

"See, that wasn't so bad was it?"

I couldn't catch my breath.

"Just relax Calvin—people do it all the time."

"What if you get pregnant?"

"I'm on the pill."

She sat watching me.

"Haven't you ever wanted to just say fuck it all and go for it, Calvin?"

I nodded.

She lay down beside me. She unsnapped her jeans and spread her legs. Her underwear was white and glowing in the moon. I touched her breast. Her lips were warm. She sighed and I lay with her. The night was cool on my bare legs and her back was arched. Remember. I remember.

 

Howell. And as we approach. I wanted more.

 

Tell. What shall I tell? Tell of exile in the city and stage repetitions. Tell of the new life in the land east of Eden. Remember. I remembered. Every weekend in New York, the lights would come up on a stage empty except for me in a chair with my cowboy hat down over my eyes. It was always the same. The truly American myth of the lone gun. Authority and lawlessness with a badge. I was the sheriff.

On stage in the city I did not think of my origins. I had no origins. Mime, my chosen medium, was perfect for avoidance—a void dance where white-faced ghosts walk against invisible winds in highly stylized gestures. And I too was merely myth in my white-out face—the archetypal loner in my chair. Perhaps I was aging—perhaps I was the original aging shootist waiting for that new young gun who would take me out to make a name for himself. A notch on a pistol belt. Marcel Marceau does Shane.

The lights would come up on me alone on stage. This was my showcase. In the troupe I was the slapstick artist, the Buster-Keaton-faced silent movie star. There is something about my face which allows for the humor of expressionlessness. The lack of response to all stage-calamities.

Christie would enter at this point, whooping wildly and silently and riding her mime horse. Among all the members of the troupe she was the purest mime. Her life on and off stage was a subversive mimicry of established forms. She kept stealing the grant money to buy drugs. Not for herself, of course, but to pass them out on the streets. With an eruption she would enter and shatter the silence and the pathos of the lone gun. She was the loose cannon, wild one, shooting up the town—and I was the tired and sadly inadequate lawman.

The humor was conventional. My horse would not stand still for my mounting. I could not draw my gun without shooting myself in the foot. We raced through the stage town, a Marx brothers version of "Gunfight at the OK Corral". And I, the tired and once proud hero of the American West, milked laughter through incompetence and stone-faced resolution.

But of course, the piece ends with me bringing the outlaw to justice, and of course it ends with me back in my chair, a reclining figure. Christie, the wild one, is subdued—for the moment.

Remember. I remember.

 

J. Calvin Biggs. I left Howell. After college in the Northern Ohio flatlands I came to New York. The denial of origins itself. New York is the city of bad consciences and expatriates. I was a mime in the city. But as we approach and on the bus: Return. I was on the bus and I was returning. Memory. It's the embodiment of loss and impermanence, but still the Theseus thread leading home. You should have seen me among my fine fellow travellers. American pilgrims. There is a restlessness in our America as if a whole nation were overtired and unable to relinquish itself to sleep. Memory and word disease. Motion. Everyone on the bus was going home. Going through the motions of a habitual Homestead Act.

 

And as we approach. Tell. What shall I tell? Tell of the wound and of the need for masks. The garden.

"Dad?"

We're at the bottom of the hill now in the backyard. The garden.

"Dad?"

A small plot. Radishes. Tomatos. Cucumbers.

"Dad?"

Imagine now the father before the fall. Limbs like mountain roots, trunk rising to the heavens piercing the cloud's veil. On these shoulders rest the sky's beams, on these feet the ocean's bottom. Tower of Ivory. American Atlas. But do you remember learning that every ring in a tree's trunk represents a year? And do you remember realizing that you had to cut down the tree to count the rings? My father.

"Dad? Are you alright? What's wrong? Dad?"

He's clutching at his chest now. He's dropping his hoe. His face. Twitch. Twitch. Twitch. And a word tries to be born in his mouth. "D-d-d-d-d. D-d-d-d-d." I'm standing there. I'm feeling things. I'm trying to run to him. I'm appalled. Twitch. Twitch. Twitch. And a word. He's down. He's breathing hard. Eyes rolling wildly. The fall. And beyond, an awareness. Watching. Watching. Watching. Horse and rider into the sea.

My father had a minor stroke when he was forty-one years old. There was little permanent damage, a slight paralysis of the face and speech was difficult. Word disease. I guess I took it seriously. These things too. My sad America. A strange literalness. We were going to be the Shining City on the Hill. Every night my father sat on the porch, every light in the house lit, his back to the land, his hands empty. Rock. Rock. Rock. Out of the cradle endlessly rock-a....

 

....my soul in the bosom of Abraham/Rock-a my soul in the bosom of Abraham/Rock-a my soul in the bosom of Abraham/O rock-a my soul.

 

Just like an old song.

 

I wanted more. And as we approach.

 

I wanted more and more and more. What good is a history and a home if it's a judgment? There was college, education and the promise of a thousand delights if I would only dare to demand that they be there. To dream and to want to be more than you are. That's the American birthright, isn't it? I created myself anew and became a stranger to Howell. I denied the sentence of origins and Babel. ("Haven't you ever wanted to just say fuck it all and go for it?") Desire.

"Getting a little too big for your britches, I would say," my father would say in his slurring slow-speech.

Those were hard times for us then. My father grew sullen and withdrawn; my mother, so curiously the absent woman in my memory—the missing womb—she sewed in her room and watched "Laverne and Shirley" on a portable set, her jaw clenching more firmly with each stitch. I read forbidden books and learned to build escape ladders from rubblewords. I was above it all. He is rising.

"Don't think you're too big for me to whip you young man, and I'll do it too if you don't watch that mouth of yours." Slur. Slur. Slur-slow-speech. And me all the time watching his mouth and flexing my tongue and growing deft of speech. I will not stumble and stutter and start and stop. Taunt taunt tease tease tease please Daddy please speak speak speak. Rock. Strange flowers grow in the silence. Your face is frozen. Old songs.

 

Lead me, Jesus, lead me/Why don't you lead me in the middle of the air/And if my wings should fail me/Won't you buy me another pair.

 

Tell. What shall I tell? Tell of Icarus flights and Daedalus dreams. And as we approach. But still on the bus. We shall return. Behind the firehouse and beyond the abandoned railroad tracks—even then the trains refused to run through Howell—St. Clare's.

I did not know then, because Catholics and Protestants did not share their mysteries, but it had been a seminary at one time, dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi's spiritual consort—Clare, the clear one. I did not know the inner algebra of the myriad orders or the charters or names of the religious of Howell. For me it was a sad and forgotten garden. Weeds grew in the porticos. Sad, somnambulant, stone statutes stood like pillars of salt—don't look back—surrounded by milkweed and dented beer cans. This was my first theater, my first stage, among the headless Madonnas and Risen Lords with broken lilies. Far, far from the Vatican—my own St. Damiano's.

And strange, strange hagiographies.

 

One day when Francis went out to meditate in the fields, he walked beside the church of San Damiano which was threatening to collapse because of extreme age. Inspired by the Spirit, he went inside to pray. Prostrate before an image of the Crucified, he was filled with no little consolation as he prayed. While his tear-filled eyes were gazing at the Lord's cross, he heard with his bodily ears a voice coming from the cross, telling him three times: 'Francis, go and repair my house which, as you see, is falling completely into ruin.' (St. Bonaventure, The Life of St. Francis)

 

Repair my house.

 

You see that was still before the fall. I would run down the hill full tilt, arms revolving, a giant turned into a windmill. I would dash into streets without looking. I would bark back at dogs. I would sing radio songs. I would run and run and run until I reached Clare—the clear one. And there. Wild plays and melodramas with me as the perpetual lead. Solemn ritual theater. And the sparrows were my audience.

I don't know if this is peculiar. I think that most children must act out the plays of their age. Cowboys and Indians. Cops and Robbers. War games. I did silly vaudeville routines that I half-invented, half-stole from the Charlie Chaplin shorts my mother rented from the Helen Plum Public Library on rainy Mondays in July. The tramp. God's little poor man. Poverello. Joculare. I did not know then that my silent-movie hero was the American reincarnation of Francis, dead saint and brother to me. This would have to wait for college in the Northern Ohio flatlands. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Now our America is littered with the remains of the religions of our ancestors. Scratch the surface and saints and prophets crop up. (Behold: Archetypal Mormons say lost tribes of Israel here—and Jesus too!) But I did not know that then. For me, it was a secluded stage, an arena in which to play. Clare—the clear one.

And so the beginning of the dream of imagination even before the fall—though I did not understand this at the time. To re-create, to re-present, to re-member: Repair the house. There is healing and reconstruction in our plays. To live your life as if it were a movie, as if it were silver-screened and larger than life. J. Calvin Biggs. Or so the promise goes.

 

But you are not finished. Tell. What shall I tell? Resume the tale of wings as of eagles and the revelation of recognition borne aloft. Another stage in a far, far city. The city. New York. The piece has ended. The lights have come down and I am supposed to leave the stage. I sit in my American slouch chair.

"Calvin." Stage whispers. "What the fuck are you doing?"

I am sitting.

"Calvin."

This is the part I don't like to tell. Sluggish slur slow speech.

"Calvin."

I am sitting.

In the darkness of a completed piece, in the anticipation of the next sketch.

Christie comes back now silently and she takes my hand. And she leads me gently. And I cannot talk because I have five holy holes in my body now and there are plants growing out of my flesh. And I can see soy beans and field corn. And I am leaking rich, rich loamy loamy soil soil. I am above it all. Strange flowers grow in the silence.

 

On stage in New York I had an anxiety attack. I'd heard of it happening to others. The heart. Pounding. The inability to move. Panic. Your face is frozen. I couldn't move. Struck. Stroke. Strike. And beyond. Watchingwatchingwatching. Behind stage in Christie's lawless arms I trembled. Return to land. Earth. Howell. Icarus, the land is calling. Bury my body in the bosom of Father Abraham.

 

J. Calvin Biggs. And as we approach. These things too. To tell the story and to redeem what is lost in memory. Imagination. It's the canopy and the silver screen over the vast expanses, gaps: perhaps, themselves, the result of the glaciers that gouged out the face of this land so long ago. But on the bus I was still waiting for the fullness of the vision to come round. Beatific. And Jefferson's dream. You should have seen me. The sin is not in wanting too much. (Is it?) It's just that you have to return to purify the eyes. But on the bus. I believe. I think I believe. And as we approach. My lips are unclean. A fiery coal, Lord. Me and Isaiah.

A word that cleans.

 

Northern Ohio flatlands. Cleveland. Elyria. The industrial north is like a vast graveyard for weight-lifting equipment. Back in Michigan in the seventies there were bumper stickers on foreign-made cars that said, "Last one out of Detroit, please turn out the lights". And in Cleveland the river burns. America pumped herself up in these regions and then left. Who killed Lake Erie?

But out here also are the Amish. Ohio. They still raise barns. Still ride horse and buggyed into town. Still scrape clods from their shoes at the back porch. Our America will never be a rural Eden again but the rubble from the original walls remains. Impossible, perhaps. Reactionary, perhaps. But still. Who will wake up the land? Strengthen what remains. Re-member.

Finney College is out here as well. Named after Charles Grandison Finney, the greatest of the nineteenth century revivalists. They say he nearly single-handedly set Western New York a-blaze—the Burned Over District. Scorched earth. Well, that is, him and the Holy Ghost. And his college in the undeveloped lands of the midwest. It was a utopian experiment of sorts. Utopia—from the Greek, ou topos meaning literally "no place." And I guess Finney, Ohio is about the closest to "no place" you can get anymore. But the mandate, the destiny, the will and the call to transform the world into a fiery blaze of Love and Justice; that still remains out there amidst the closed auto plants and steel mills. It's like a little piece of the Old Testament among a late-coming people. Those who have always already exodused. After Babel, the pilgrim's long hard climb to Pentecost. Tongues as of fire.

 

On the bus as we approach I had to change in Cleveland. All told it takes about eighteen hours from New York to Lansing. Greyhound doesn't stop in Howell anymore and you have to change again in Detroit. Travel. You can't get there from here. In the station, waiting to go, still occupied with the hidden face of Michigan and my father rockrockrock, I remembered Ohio.

 

Tell. What shall I tell? Tell of the advent of black snakes and adult cancers in the dream. Remember. I remembered. Aia Caldwell. She was in my Intro. to Drama class, wore purple laces in her shoes and white cotton dresses. She was Desdemona to my Othello in the scene we prepared for class. And Iago. In our rivers. And in the white streams of our coupling.

"Calvin?"

I am standing.

"Calvin? What are you doing?"

I am standing.

Tappan square with the memorial arch, monument to American missionaries killed in the Boxer Rebellion. It's night now.

"Aren't you going to say anything?"

I can't talk. My face is frozen.

She is crying now.

"What are we going to do?"

My face is frozen.

And then the sudden vision of serpents winding writhing arms into the nether deep. My American plains. Like eels. Like black worms. Like grasping, clutching, yearning, wantwantwant desire arms and they are encircling the nethernether of my lovely Aia.

"I am so sorry."

Her eyes flashing now to meet mine.

"You fucker!" She's hitting, pummel, pound, my flush face—we are both ashamed. To know that there are consequences. "What are you sorry about?" Pummel my face. Hit me. And I will know your outrage, your feline Kali scream in the insensate Chaplin bones of my face. "What are you sorry about?"

"I don't know." I am not lifting my arms to defend my face. Her fury. She is sobbing deep in her breasts which will leak Mamamilk and stain her white cotton dresses before the serpent's squeeze. "I don't know." We both know.

"I am pregnant."

 

Afterwards. Tell. What shall I tell? Tell of the silence imposed and the fiery sword of shame blocking off all return. Mimes in America. My mute American Messiah. My new bus was ready to continue its journey. Resume. Redeem what is lost and remember what is broken. Home to Howell and learn what must be forgiven. And what must be forgotten. From my bus I see the soil rising. And Jefferson's vision. I see too much. Milkweed.

 

But you are not finished. Tell. What shall I tell? The old bodily nightmare. Resurrection in the garden. I am ten years old. My Mom and Dad. Good people. I am at the kitchen table. Why after all these years?

"Calvin?"

"Yes."

"You are so quiet."

It's Mom. She's good people. Fecund soil—ripe ripe—things grow good in our garden.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

"Why didn't you tell me before?"

"Oh Calvin." Sadly shaking her head. "We didn't want..."

"Want what?"

I am very nearly livid. Things grow good in that garden. Bad crop I guess. Could have been me.

And later that night, Mom and Dad in bed now. Sleeping maybe. And I am awake and at the window. Watching. Watching. Watching. Francis grow good. I am at the window. Watch. Could have been me. The garden. And the moon shows me the soy beans and the field corn from the fields. Francis lives with the worm. Things grow down there too, you know. Calvin, you are so quiet.

 

When I was ten years old my mother told me of my older brother, Francis. Original mime. Born dead. Stillborn. Buried thirteen years and yet things grow so good in our garden in Howell. I did not sleep for weeks. Soy beans and field corn. Return. I am leaking loamy loamy. Poppa, great-grandfather, you took away Mama's great-grandmotherly womb and I am. J. Calvin soil soil Biggs. Should have been me. Worms down there too, you know. Leaky loam loam. He will come back and take what is his. He is rising!

 

And when we changed again in Detroit I had a sandwich wrapped in cellophane from the machine because I was very hungry and it is hard work remembering and knowing and being healed and maybe I don't want to do this anymore because sometimes it's better notknowingnotcaringnotseeing. The face of. But as we approach and on the bus. Judgment and Howell.

 

J. Calvin Biggs. Memories and dreams. Like all the broken pieces and if you could only put them together again. Humptey Dumptey. I grew up in Howell, Michigan—roughly in the middle of the state. My father's face was hidden and paralyzed. I played in abandoned seminaries. Gardens everywhere in my Michigan with their promise of ripeness and return—but now only separation and exile. Speech lost to the mime. And what about my saintbrother Francis of Assisi-on-the-Howell? These things too. A place for everything. A home, if we only have the courage. And desire is the snake thread which holds it all together.

Haven't you ever wanted to just say fuck it all and go for it?

 

And again. On the bus there is the curious sensation that you have always been approaching this point and that all that has gone before has been the dramatic pretext, the plot, the excuse to do what must be done. Return. The Kingdom is at hand! Redemption. Recollection. Sing the old songs again. The only ones that matter. On the bus we tell the stories that have always been told. Babble on after Babylon. Rock. Rock. Rock. Endlessly, my sad America. End.

 

In New York I had come to the realization that a future without roots was like that magic herb of immortality that proud Gilgamesh found then and lost now and forever. Do you know that story? It has always been told. We tell it here and we tell it there. Tell. What shall I tell? Tell of the man who knew everything, of Gilgamesh the Babylonian king. Brave warrior. Statesman. Two thirds divine, one mortal. Conqueror of all things but death. Remember. I remembered.

"Gilgamesh?"

He is sitting.

"Gilgamesh?"

It's the primordial waters. We're in the boat. Dusk now. He has descended and returned, his great beard dripping. His empty hand stretched out over the waters. Trembling. Trembling. Trembling.

"Gilgamesh? It is getting dark. We should go now."

Trembling. Trembling. Trembling.

And the ghost memory of the serpent rising out of the waters and the snatched magic.

"Gilgamesh..."

"Hush."

"But...."

"Hush."

As the sun sets, the shadows over the water grow long.

 

My sad Gilgamesh. To the very ends of the earth he travelled to find the magic plant that would replenish all that was lost. Eternal Youth. Immortality. Ponce de Leon looked for it here in our America. To never die. Be new again always. And so here in the very center of the world, in the middle of the ancient waters, the brave king descended. Plunge, plosh, plash. Sink. Sink. Sink. And there at the very bottom. The magic herb.

Heart pound. Lungs to burst. Air swollen in the head. He surfaces! Sputter, sputter, sputter. To always be born again. He has the magic. And now he is in the boat and now he is exulting, broad chest and arms like branches. Proud, proud, brave Gilgamesh.

But then, silent, contoured like the waves themselves. The black snake. The hand of Gilgamesh stretched across the waters. Furious now, magnificent—though so sad to say, so sad to say—the serpent snatches away the magic—now and forever—and returns with it to the abyss. Loss. Separation. Return to earth. Ripped from its roots the magic must die and so too dreams and visions and hopes and ecstatic verities until we are become mere-mimes, mere-ghosts, mimic, mimic, mimic. A void dance. End. But now. Begin. Speak. Tell. Remember. I remember. (Is the sin in wanting too much or in not having the courage of your desires?) I was going home. Find out what must be forgiven. And what must be forgotten. (I believe. Only sometimes I can't get the words right.) The snake. (Must we learn to love the snakes also?) Desire kills. Desire gives life.

 

Howell. I wanted more. But in New York I learned that you had to go back before you could go on. Return again. Howell. Raise the dead. My sad sad dead dead Enkidubrother sleeps in your cold ground. He will come again. He is rising! Return. Repeat until it must be true.

Just like an old song.

 

Michigan. The land has gone elsewhere. This is what I was thinking from my window seat at the back of the bus. I could no longer recall my father's face. Only the image of him rocking and rocking on the porch. His back to the land. His face to the house. Every light lit now and the doorway itself glowing. Soon he would get up, walk across the porch and cross the threshold. And on the other side. And as we approach....

 

Will the circle be unbroken?/By and by, Lord, by and by/There's a better home a-waitin'/In the sky, Lord, in the sky.

 

On the bus it struck me stroke strike for the first time that my father was really going to die. Not a TV death or a shrinking black circle closing on my beloved Chaplin walking into the sunset—fade to black. But the unmentionable. Ineffable. Privates. Down, down:

 

So high can't get over it/So low can't get under it/So wide can't get 'round it/O rock-a my soul.

It was like forgetting your own name and realizing that nothing changes. After Babel words don't touch anything. But then again, after Babel some words are just too beautiful to say. They must become flesh.

 

I was looking for the complete sentence. Good grammar. Christmas on Earth.

 

And as we approach. How ironic. The bus itself broke down. Route 96, between Detroit and Lansing. (Vernacular—not yet sacred tongue: Oh 'bout eighty miles as the crow flies. Hour and a half. Sumpthin like that. But she blew just this side of D-19. We didn't get no further than Howell.) How ironic. You see, Greyhound doesn't stop in Howell anymore, you have to go all the way to Lansing—E. Lansing actually—home of Michigan State and Malcom X used to walk these roads here about too don't forget. You have to go right past the exit and then doubleback, like a snaky switchback climbing some western mountain range, though in this case, more properly some Ararat or maybe Sinai. You can't get there from here.

The bus broke down. Sudden silence. The queer sensation of coming up from air after a deep deep plunge or maybe waking up. Stillness. After the long long motion and hum of forward movement it seems almost obscene. Stop. I could smell the highway weeds and the hot pavement. "Sorry folks. Looks like we got a little delay. We got another bus comin' out for us though." And me now standing up. Backpack hanging on one shoulder. And down the aisle toward the door. "Sit down son—I can't let anybody off." And me standing there looking out through the door, closed now. "Look, I'm sorry but you're going to have to sit down. It's the law." And me just looking. Not at the driver. But that autistic face, drawn close now so you can hear its inner hum. The land is taking a journey too. We're all going home. "Are you going to sit down or what?" I'm standing. Behind me I can hear him standing up. A hand on my shoulder. Then for no reason at all. Maybe he remembers something. His hand to the handle. The door opens and I step out onto the ground earth soil soil of my Michigan origins. The driver. I don't even look back. But he's watching me as I wade through the high high highway weeds of the embankment. The door closes.

 

Tell. What shall I tell? Tell of the ancient story. The only story possible after Babel. Security and passion. Garden and snakes. These parts are broken. Who will recombine them if only for a little while? And I saw an army of ghosts, of long lost saints, Kings or Queens in their own day, some of them the dead authors of books that still live. And they were building a huge telescope from the rubble which lays strewn across this sleeping land. Words as bricks. Kabbalistic associations as mortar—and the lense? Only partly a mirror. (Funny thing. Somehow when we're not looking the myths become personal.) I walked across the sleeping wolverine face of my Michigan. Home to Howell. More ancient ritual theater now to complete the pattern then anything else. Home. Our pilgrim-strides in this America. I think of the Sioux warriors and their Ghost Dance:

 

All Indians must dance, everywhere, keep on dancing. Pretty soon in next spring Great Spirit come. He bring back game of every kind. The game be thick everywhere. All dead Indians come back and live again. Old blind Indian see again and get young and have fine time. When Great Spirit comes this way, then all the Indians go to the mountains, high up away from whites. Whites can't hurt Indians then. (Wovoka, the Paiute Messiah)

 

Broken arrow-words become flesh and dancing dancing dancing. Until Great Spirit come and make these dry bones live. Redemption. It's an old story. The only story. After Babel every word bears the muddy divine fingerprint. Tell. Dance. Walk. With every movement we try to reconstruct our tower. I believe. Someday. Someday. Anyday now.

 

My sad America. Wounded Knee. All dead now. And what must be forgiven. And what must be forgotten.

 

And so as I approached Howell I had a choice. Consider for a moment the problem of pattern. If we know the fulfillment. If we know how the story ends. Is it best to continue or to make up "new" rebel stories with the hope that they might escape the totalitarian pattern? Again. Reformulate the problem. How do we escape origins? Tragedy? And in the attempt do we become rootless, non-non-non not there entities? In the sky, Lord, in the sky? You should have seen me on stage in New York—all mime and myth—yet ultimately ultimately ghost self condemned to haunt the same old stories over and over. And this return. Wasn't it an attempt to go only so far. To acquiesce to the pattern with hopes that at the final moment. The Rosetta Stone? The original Ur-language? The original face re-covered like Jubilee in Old Testament testament—revealed like that magic coin in the magician's hand? Tell and tell again until it must be true. Impossible possibility.

 

Tell now. What shall I tell? Tell of new patterns. Not Nietzsche's unfettered unloved cold cold careening world—open sea of possibilities like Kerouac on his jaunts across our country only to end up fat bloated bitter John Bircher drunk. Dead. Dead. Dead. (This must be the John Calvin in me. The fear of chaos. The unwillingness to live without patterns. 'Cause nihilism, cousin, nihilism. You can't undo what has been done.) (But then again. Maybe. To a/void. Only repeat. Endlessly?) I think of my father now, his back to the land. No. Just say yes. And him standing up and entering that house of light and then gone gone like Francis. Like Giglamesh. Like Orpheus' wife forever. Yes. And I will follow. And I will cross the threshold too. Though ineffable. Speechless. Nameless. And I will create re-create new patterns in embracing the old. I believe/I don't believe. Unio Mystica/Exile. Scattered across the face of the earth. Children of Adam. Progeny of Eve. Allialliallcomefree.

After Babel: Pentecost. I will turn again in the doorway and face the face of the land. Again. I shall return. Singing new hymns with tongues as of fire.

 

"Francis. I guess I didn't really expect to see you."

"Well, you know how it is."

"I see you've got your silent movie star costume on."

"When in Rome..."

"I've been meaning to ask you... I mean... Do you think he'll recognize me? I've changed a lot since I left."

"I know. I know. Tell me about it."

"Well?"

"Hard to say Cal."

We walk together a while in silence. Him duck-waddle jerky like the projectionist can't keep a steady hand.

"Want to know something funny? I was always afraid when I was little that you were going to come back and—well, I guess I thought you'd be really pissed....because I lived and you didn't."

"What's so funny about that?"

I couldn't think of anything to say. Then:

"I used to play in this old seminary, you know, and it was called St. Clare's and I guess that was supposed to be your "friend" or whatever you'd call it. I never cleaned it up. It was all ruined. I thought about it. I thought I should clear the weeds or something. But I never did. I just played there. I didn't even know about you then but..." I'm crying now suddenly. Hoping he'd tell me that my plays, my Chaplin dramas, my vaudeville routines were enough. "I should've tried to make it better."

Francis didn't say anything.

"I'm really scared. Daddy's dying."

Still no response.

"Francis?"

He's gone.

Mumble, mumble me as I walk through golden meadow hair—on my way home—like a refrain in some song. Again and again and again. Crying renewal tears.

 

I entered Howell alone and saw the house on the hill alone and moved across the street alone and through the yard alone and climbed the hill alone.

 

"Calvin? I've got something for you."

Smell of soil and soy beans and field corn and grease paint.

Michigan.

Behind me. Though I do not look. Face. Original face. All my Americas.

"Calvin?"

A baby. Newborn. Playing with a snake. Laughing. Laughing. Laughing. And beautiful beautiful herbs and roots in snake's mouth. Laugh. Baby. Laugh. Laugh. Laugh. Desire kills/Desire gives life.

Home.

 

Without knocking I turn the knob. Go through the door and am swallowed in the house of lights. J. Calvin Biggs. Endlessly end. Home. Gone.

 

As We Approach (After Babel) originally appeared in 32 Pages.

Stanley Jenkins was Eclectica's Spotlight Author when this story appeared in 1997's April issue.

Two great new stories by Stanley can be found in this issue's fiction section.

 

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