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The fools progress, p.1
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       The Fool's Progress, p.1

           Edward Abbey
 
The Fool's Progress


  SIR SAMP: Has he not a rogue’s face?

  Speak, brother, you understand

  physiognomy; a hanging look to me.

  He has a damn’d Tyburn-face, without

  the benefit o’ the clergy.

  FORE: Hum—truly I don’t care to

  discourage a young man. He has a

  violent death in his face; but I

  hope, no danger of hanging.

  From William Congreve’s Love For Love (1698)

  Contents

  A Prelude

  1. In Medias Res, Arizona

  2. 1927-37: Stump Creek, West Virginia

  3. Henry Begins his Retreat

  4. April 1942: The Rites of Spring

  5. The Dog Returns

  6. 1943-45: Will’s War

  7. On to Gallup

  8 1945-46: Henry’s War

  9. Into the Past

  10. March 1956: The Housewarming Party

  11. The Comforters

  12. 1957: How Henry Found his Niche

  13. Motel Room

  14. 1965: Death of the Old Man

  15. Dreams

  16. 1970: Henry at Work

  17. Heart of the Heart

  18. 1940-70: The Lost Years

  19. Kansas to Missouri

  20. 1971-77: Henry in Love—an Interlude

  21. To the Mississippi

  22. 1975: Fort Lightcap, West Virginia

  23. Into the Shade

  24. Judgment Day

  25. Ocian in View

  26. Coming Home

  A Postlude

  A Prelude

  Henry…?

  Hen-reeeeee! Henry Lightcap!

  The teacher stood in the open doorway of the one-room schoolhouse, looking out. A woman in her fifties, thin, anxious, exasperated. She wore a cotton print dress that came down to her ankles, a light sweater; her pale hair was drawn tightly to a bun on the top of her head. In one hand she held a brass bell with iron tongue, the wooden handle of the bell polished by years—by decades—of use.

  She advanced to the doorstep of the building, stopped and looked up and down the dirt road before her. To the east a quarter mile away the road passed between the house and barn of the nearest farm; westward the road wound through a second-growth forest of hardwoods, disappearing into deep shade. On either side of the schoolhouse lay open fields of grass, beaten down by the running feet of children, intersected with pathways still muddy from recent rain. Both fields and roadway were empty of any human form.

  The teacher stared intently into the woods of the hillside above the road—a scrubby growth of sapling trees barely beginning to leaf out, tangled jungles of sumac and laurel, dogwood and wild grape, the rotting remnants of a split-rail fence. Nobody there? The shadows of afternoon clouds folded slowly across the hill. Impatiently, angrily, she shook the heavy bell. The jangle of brass rippled outward through the soft and humid air. Nobody answered.

  Shading her eyes with her free hand, the teacher peered far off into the shadows, toward the blue ridges of the Allegheny Mountains rising steeply into a hazy smoke-colored sky.

  Hen-reeeeeee! the woman shouted, into the silence the trees the distance. No reply. She paused, took another deep breath, chest expanding. You, Henry Lightcap! she yelled—You…get…in…here….

  She waited.

  No response but the whispering of the leaves, the insects in the brush, a breath of air in motion—and from the farm up the road the rattle of team and wagon coming off the barn ramp.

  The teacher waited. From behind the window near the door a cluster of hovering children stared out through the glass. Large-eyed faces, freckle-skinned and towheaded—solemn little girls with bright hair and ribbons, smirking little boys in bib overalls and blue chambray shirts buttoned formally to the throat.

  For one last time, as she had often done before, the teacher hollered up at the woods on the hill, pitching her voice toward the paired ears she thought were up there somewhere, toward that boy she imagined hidden under the laurels, hugging himself in mingled fear and delight. Henry! she cried—and her voice, trained by the years, carried well, carried all the way to the top of the hill—You there, Henry Lightcap!…

  And one last time she jangled the bell.

  But there was no answer from the green and vernal, the deep and haunted, the dark transpiring forests of the Appalachian hills.

  1

  In Medias Res, Arizona

  I

  …slamming the door behind her. Slams it so hard the replastered wall around the doorframe shivers into a network of fine reticulations, revealing the hand of a nonunion craftsman.

  I listen to her booted feet stomping over the graveled driveway, into the carport. (The “car-port”!) Then the vicious brittle clunk! of car door likewise slammed. God but that woman has a temper. Shocking. Now the thunderous roar of four-cylinder Nipponese motor starting up, the squeal of burning rubber, the yelp of a startled dog as she skids around the broomplant, past the dead saguaro and down the lane toward the street. Past the mailbox and fading away, out of my life again forever, into the dim inane of Tucson, Arizona.

  I see police helicopters circling—blinking red like diabolical fireflies—above our doomed damned beleaguered city. Red alert. Elaine is on the loose.

  Woman. Wo-man. Womb-man. Woe-man.

  Easy come, easy go. My first and no doubt false reaction is one of relief. An immense and overwhelming sensation of blessedness. There never was a good war or a bad peace, as Abe Lincoln or Ben Franklin said. (We had similar troubles.) I sink slowly into my easy chair, hers actually, but it’s all mine now. For the moment.

  Gloating, I look around “our” living room. Our “living” room. All those books jammed in their shelves—all that B. Traven and R. Burton and M. Montaigne and James M. Cain & Co., all them Sibelius Stravinsky Shostakovich Schubert records etc., Waylon & Willie & Hank Senior, that stereo, that 1922 Starcke upright grand, the Franklin stove and the leatherbound basket chairs from Mexico, that big solid blond slab table of California sugar pine, a masterpiece of the joiner’s art, nothing but dowel pegs and butterfly joints, not a nail or screw or touch of glue in the whole thing—wealth. I am rich, rich at least for the next few days or until her attorneys get to work on me.

  And so forth. When I hear the word “settlement” I reach for my checkbook.

  The power of property. I will sell everything in this house in the next twenty-four hours, everything not bolted down; convert our goods into something better, cash, and buy a cheap houseboat on Lake of the Ozarks. No, Lake Tahoe. I have always wanted to live on a houseboat. No rent, no mortgage payments, no gas, sewage, garbage, phone or electric bills, live on catfish and bluegill, grow a hydroponic garden of my favorite vegetables—the carrot, the potato, the bean, the turnip.

  Henry indulges himself in a favored fantasy. I shall live the clean hard cold rigors of an ascetic philosopher. A dive into the icy lake at dawn. Two quick laps around the shore. A frugal breakfast of cool water and unsalted watercress, followed by an hour of meditation. And then—then what? What then? Then I’ll row my houseboat ashore, jump into my rebuilt restored 1956 Lincoln Continental four-door convertible and speed away to the nearest legal whorehouse for some quick fun & frolick before lunch.

  The GM Frigidaire in the kitchen, that giant and neurotic machine, starts revving its engine. Sounds like a Boeing 747 warming up for takeoff. I’ve never known a refrigerator that works so hard at keeping cool. For two years I’ve been living in the same house with this monster and I’m still not accustomed to it. I never will be.

  The noise increases. An ugly hatred grasps possession of my soul. I march to the bedroom, take the revolver from under my pillow, enter the kitchen, confront the machine. Vib
rating, roaring, the Frigidaire presents to me its bland broad bronze-colored front. On the door panel a bunch of magnetic letters say, “Go to Hell Henry.” I raise the revolver—a .357 Magnum—cock the hammer, fire. Pointblank, right through its smug face. A black round hole appears in the center of the door, the letters slide down a few inches but maintain rough syntactical order:

  GO TO HELL HENRY

  Losing cool through its new nostril, the Frigidaire roars louder than before. Or am I hallucinating? Going down on one knee, taking no chances, I fire into the base—once, twice—through the grille into the motor into the bowels the guts the living quivering glands of the machine. The cogs whimper to a halt, shutting down the condenser and compressor; strands of black smoke and the smell of Freon issue from beneath. I’ve hit some vital parts. But now I hear the buzzing of a stalled electric motor. Sure, I could simply pull the plug, cut off the Frigidaire’s life support system. Would be the merciful thing to do. But I want to destroy this mad molecular motherfucker, fix it so it never breathes again, never again grates on the tranquillity of a contemplative mind. I poke the muzzle of my piece through the shattered grille, into the furry dust and black-widow cobwebs of its underparts, and point toward the motor. Pull trigger—BLAM!—and there’s the screech of lead slug, hollow-pointed and dilate, smashing through a clutch of copper coils.

  Silence.

  My ears ring but I’ve settled this bastard’s hash. I rise to my feet and tuck the revolver into my belt. Peace. Stillness. A beauteous calm reigns in my kitchen, except for the usual background noise, from the city, of a diesel freight train clattering down the rails, of the endless caravan of forty-ton Peterbilts, Kenworths, Macks, Whites, grinding along the Interstate, of air-force jets screeching through the air a hundred feet above the campus of the University of Arizona, reminding those pointy-headed professors and idle scheming students who—or rather, What—is really Boss around here. I close the kitchen windows, the better to enjoy my freedom. The refrigerator takes off again.

  The noise this time comes from the top of the machine, from the fan and defrosting mechanism, thermostatically activated, in the rear of the freezer compartment. A separate motor? Evidently. There are two rounds left in my handy handgun; I open the freezer door, shove aside the frozen chicken and frozen boxes of Lean Cuisine (Elaine’s) and blast two holes through the fan vent behind the ice trays in the back wall. The little fan scratches to a final stop. I dig a handful of ice cubes from the tray and fix myself a drink. My hands are shaking. But not from this trivial shooting.

  Sit down.

  How can she do this to me? Damn her anyway, how can she be so cruel, so heartless, so—violent? At such a time, with total disaster weighing on my heart? You picked a fine time to leave me, Elaine. How could she know about that? You had a month to tell her and you never quite got around to it. But ignorance is no excuse. Goddamn her, how could she be so cold and bitter and full of hate?

  Familiar emotions. I’ve been through this ordeal before, a number of times. I know the sequence. First the abrupt departure and my immediate sense of liberation. That passes quickly. Next comes the anger, the rage, of which our defenseless Frigidaire has been first victim. (I look around for other targets. That electric range with its console like the dashboard of an airplane? That electric water heater in the closet with no exterior temperature controls? The air-conditioning unit on the roof? How about the telephone on the wall, unplugged at the moment but always a threat?)

  Relief followed by outrage. Those are the first two stages. The third stage is the worst and it will come soon enough, about three o’clock in the morning: The Fear. The Terror. The Panic—awakening in the dark to find myself, as I had dreamed and dreaded, alone. Again.

  That will come. Meanwhile we’ve got a half quart of the Wild Turkey to see us safely past midnight. And if that fails? I draw the revolver from my belt and look it in the eye. I tilt the muzzle toward my face and try to see down into the black infinity of the rifled bore. Like this:

  Absolution. The thought of suicide, as Nietzsche says, has got me through many a bad night.

  I put my tranquilizer away. Some other time, perhaps. In fact, knowing what I know, knowing what I have been told and shown, there’s no perhaps about it. The natural right of self-slaughter. Always a viable option, a good working alternative. No other animal on earth enjoys so free a choice. No one has a right to complain about life because no one is compelled to endure it. Who said that? I’m hearing voices already.

  I look around the silent kitchen. Nobody here but me and in the freezer, beginning to thaw, the frozen chicken. Life is hard? Compared to what? Anxiety got you down? Try fear.

  She’s not coming back this time. Ahead lies another long dark night of the soul. Her parting gift: despair. And so on, that much is clear.

  Time for palliatives, ameliorants, placebos. I rise from my chair, feeling numb and wooden, and choose a record album from the shelf. Wolfgang Mozart, Gustav Mahler or Willie Nelson? Ernie Tubb or Giovanni Palestrina—old pal of mine. I feel the need for something gruesome but hearty. Soul music. I stack the spindle with the Resurrection Symphony, flip switch, turn volume up to nosebleed capacity and retire hurriedly to the shelter of the kitchen. The first great magnificent chords blast through the walls and rumble up my backbone at the rate of 331/3 revelations per minute. Good man, Gustav….

  Yanking down the bourbon bottle, I pull the cap and take a quick preliminary suck, like a calf at cow, before filling my glass. Easy on the ice. A dash of the branch from the tap, good old Tucson City Water, rich in trichloroethylene and other industrial solvents. My hand is shaking. Remember your glands. Easy, easy, got to taper off on this stuff, all things in moderation, there’s less than half a bottle left. Courage: God will provide. Paracelsus called it the elixir of life. Like him I’ll get shitfaced fallingdown snotflying toilet-hugging drunk. Reality management.

  Mahler. Bourbon whiskey. What else is available? Music begins where words leave off but even music is sometimes not enough. Trapped in my own soap opera, I yearn toward grandeur. (But not grand opera. Not those screaming sopranos, those tensile tenors, that athletic howling of the damned: musical entertainment for people who hate music.) What I want is a quiet decorous classical tragedy with a few belly laughs thrown in for fun. A farce with funeral.

  What else is available? The telephone. The telephone hangs there on the wall in mute black Bakelite. Lifeline. Hope. Reach out and grab somebody with a drowning embrace, a stranglehold of want. Goddamn their eyes. I plug the thing in and open my book of numbers. It’s Will I’d like to call, of course, but pride forbids. He ain’t heavy but he’s my brother. Maybe later. What you really need, when the horse throws you—

  The phone rings. At once, out of habit, I unplug it. When I want electronic communication I’ll initiate it myself. I’m in no mood for taking calls from unidentified parties. The ideal telephone is the one-way telephone. Don’t call me I’ll call you. Maybe.

  I find the number I’m looking for and replug the phone in. It’s ringing. Still ringing. God Almighty—maybe it’s Elaine, smitten by remorse.

  “Lightcap here.”

  “Good God Henry I’ve been trying to get you for ten minutes. Your phone’s always busy. Are you okay?”

  “Who’s this?”

  “It’s me—Joe.” (My next-door neighbor, McReynolds.) “I thought I heard gunfire.”

  “I heard it too, Joe, off in the brush out back. Some gun nut.”

  “Did you call the police?”

  “What good would that do? I went out and ran him off myself. Sicced the dog on him. Excuse me, Joe, I’ve got to hang up on you now.” I close the connection for a moment, lift the receiver and dial a number. Her phone rings. Rings again. Phone ringing in an empty room. Melanie, you tricky little fox, where are you when I want you? No answer.

  Hang up, unplug phone. Think. I could call this lawyer I know. His estranged wife is picking his bones, he’s as angry and helpless as I am. Henry, he
said, I’ll murder your wife if you’ll murder mine. We’d both have perfect alibis. Be a hundred miles away in a public gathering when the crime takes place. And not even a crime in this case, except in the narrow, legalistic sense of the word, but a public service. At least if Elaine were defunct, suddenly murdered or run over by a cement mixer, I’d not have to suffer so much from guilt. My sense of loss would be mollified with little injury to pride.

  Contemptible sentiments. Ashamed of myself, I open the bottle, pour. Whom should I call?

  Mahler plunges into his second movement, the angels appear above a thunderous barrage from the kettledrums: the march macabre in bass viols of the Dies Irae booms through the house. We’ll have no resurrection yet, not until sides three and four. Another fifteen minutes of burial alive.

  If only good sweet Kathleen was here. A reliable rainy-day woman. She could cure my blues anytime. She’d pull off my shirt and jam my head in her kitchen sink, shampoo the scruff from my scalp and soul, then drag me down to the rattan mat on the floor and knead my neck, back, shoulders, lash my bare body up and down with her mane of wet heavy maple-golden hair. When my hard-on became so enormous it was jacking me up from the floor I’d roll over, clutch her in my tentacles, force entry into the handiest orifice. Take you home again, Kathleen?

  I notice that the oven light is on. That Elaine, she’s left the oven turned on again, no wonder it’s so bloody hot in this bloody stinking kitchen. But the little red bulb gives me an idea. I’ll bake a loaf of bread. My wife has left, our dog is dying, my job hangs by a hair, God and Nature have betrayed me, there’s no Kathy here to shampoo my head, no Melanie to floss my teeth, I’ll fool them all and bake another loaf of bread. That always helps, not much but some, and right now I need whatever help I can find.

 
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