A True Subject

David Crouse

     
   

I know it’s the end of the week and the end of the year and the last thing you guys want to do is listen to me but Mrs. Tucker motivated me with quiet threats so here I am with my notecards and my shaky knees and my eczema running up both arms. And although you are a captive audience I want to thank you. I am a captive too in many ways, and sympathy is a two way street.

Being stared down by thirty sets of eyes can give a person fresh perspective on one’s self and surroundings. For instance, had I known I would be standing before you today I would have worn a different sweatshirt, because a silkscreen wolf baying at the moon doesn’t exactly convey the kind of austere image one would want to convey when public speaking. On the other hand I know that form and content can sometimes be strange bedfellows, so I ask you not to judge a book by its cover, so to speak, even though I know a lot of you have a strong tendency to do that anyway and some have expressed strong dislike of this sweatshirt, and the idea of spirit animals throughout this past school year. Many a locker has clattered with the sound of my body striking it after a clever hip check from a fellow student. Many books have been dumped and many high fives exchanged immediately afterward.

The greatest good for the greatest number, John Stuart Mills said, and for a while I was content to follow that philosophy since I seemed to give so much joy to the students of our high-school. But I drew the line at public speaking. Through the last two weeks I sat and watched your performances, which, by the way, have all been at the very least interesting, and often wonderful, but in no way could I see myself standing where I’m standing today. I told Mike Tristano that public speaking is the world’s greatest fear and he said “No it’s not, it’s death,” and I said “No, it’s ranked even higher than death,” and he said “No, it’s definitely death.” I can tell he still thinks it’s death –he’s giving me the eye from back there in the last row — but be that as it may, it’s definitely up there, and definitely above, say, dating or swimming, both of which also scare me very much.

I’ve made terror an integral part of my life, actually, the way some of you have with sports. It tests me in the same way.

What is the role of an audience? To sit and listen, yes, but also to hold itself at attention, and also to withhold judgment. You already look bored. Even you Mrs. Tucker. I can tell because you have that pinched smile you got during our recent death march through Thoreau and Emerson, and just for a moment you looked at the doorway, at the kid walking by out there. I bet you’re wondering why that kid with the hall pass is allowed to roam around free while you’re stuck listening to me for a half hour, but we reap what we sow and I didn’t invent this requirement. I’m just fulfilling it in the best way I can so that I don’t fail this course which for the most part I’ve actually quite enjoyed, especially the story about the “Tell-Tale Heart”.

My note cards are mixed up and I’m sorry, but my dad says God made us all as imperfect beings so we can learn and grow. He said that’s the point of existence and sometimes it’s okay to feel small, like when you’re looking up at the stars or down at your kid brother crying. Which is a hilarious insight because he’s gigantic and I don’t think he’s ever felt small in his life. I mean, he’s lifting more weights than ever and he’s forty years old. Some of you know him from that incident, which I won’t mention, involving his coming to school and threatening a few of you with bodily harm — I think his exact words might have been bust your ugly faces up — if you didn’t find another victim. Those were his words too, another victim, but this is a presentation about heroes not victims and there I have notecards full of material to cover. I don’t want you to think this presentation is about my dad, because he’s not a historical figure, and he certainly wouldn’t think of himself as any kind of hero. He’s made his mistakes. He’s the one who gave me this sweatshirt actually, when I saw him this summer in El Paso, and you might be interested in knowing that he drove all the way from there to visit you and threaten punishment during the recent incident I shouldn’t be talking about.

Not that this sweatshirt is a mistake. I love this sweatshirt.

I guess my dad had stars on his mind then because the sky there in Texas is so large, much larger than the sky here, which sounds funny coming out of a person’s mouth. It’s all the same sky, right? He was just trying to say the right thing, which is what I’m trying to do now as I flip through my notecards and shuffle my feet. Instead of saying thank you for your attention maybe I should have said I’m sorry that my dad threatened to make you even uglier, and that some of you might have realized that same lesson in smallness too quickly as you watched him come charging up to you right on school grounds. Right in your face, as the gym coaches say.

What have I learned? I learned that when your teacher tells you something is a requirement she means it, and that my actions — or inactions in this case — have consequences, even when you’ve aced every pop quiz and written several excellent papers on the work of Edgar Allen Poe and his connection to contemporary movies involving dismemberment and insanity. Consequences like receiving an F for the public speaking component of the course and then not graduating and getting stuck behind the counter at Colorful Planet ringing up hundred dollar Playmobile sets and bamboo building blocks. Not a bad part-time job, but it’s not my future.

The minute hand never moves backward and I know I should move on. Mrs. Tucker told me this morning, “Sure you’re scared but you can do it,” and I said that I wasn’t so positive about that and then it was like all the air got let out of her — she shrank two inches at her desk — but then she lifted herself up again, as we all must lift ourselves up, and she said, “You’re doing that presentation, Wesley. It’s a requirement.” And I told her that it’s not fair, and of course she said life isn’t fair and then she seemed to inflate even more, rise up and stack her spine, the way she’s doing now, in the pose of someone posing for a painting, and she added, “Face your fears.”

Always good advice, but easy for you to say Mrs. Tucker, and easy for all of you too. You’ve all finished your presentations. I remember some of your heroes. Mother Theresa and Ghandi and Rosa Parks, a couple of grandma’s and three Michael Jordans. I know my leg is shaking but it’s certainly not going to stop with all of you looking at it and I know my hands are shaking too but they aren’t going to stop either with everybody looking. Focus on the wolf if that’s what you need or the chalkboard behind me where my name is written and the name of my hero. Although I now realize that I have forgotten to put them there. Well done, self, well done.

How can any of us ever say that anything is going well? But if that’s true then how can anyone ever say anything is going badly? My particular problem is I don’t have a true subject. It’s hard to come up with one when you’re told you have to fulfill your obligations just this morning, that you’re going to have to face your fears or attend summer school. But I digress. I’ve been digressing. Because I sort of have a subject, a person who might not be my hero but who is at least interesting. For the purposes of this talk let’s just say that he is a big influence on my life and someone who should be remembered. This is supposed to be a talk about Jean Luc Godard, a very stylish man who spearheaded the French new wave and whose cigarette always looks like it’s just on the verge of dropping very gently from his frowning mouth. I have notes on him right here.

But he’s not my subject. Not really. Face your fears? Let me tell you about the way my dad chews gum while driving, only when driving. Last week when I was visiting him in El Paso — that’s where I was when I didn’t show up for classes by the way — we decided to head to Home Depot and bam, the gum was in his mouth before the keys were in the ignition. One, two, three, four slices, and the truck turned over and I swore the flapping of the gum against the roof of his mouth was louder than the engine. He looked over at me and said, “What?” Because I was giving him a look a lot like the one you guys are giving me now. What I’m saying is that Jean Luc Godard is not my hero but he looked interesting in the photographs, and the movies Breathless and Alphaville are really excellent things I’m sure most of you have never heard of, not even you Mrs. Tucker, who prides herself on being a cultured woman in an uncultured town.

What I’m also saying is that there is a causal relationship between divorce and my dad’s gum chewing. He bought stacks of wood and carried them out to the truck on his shoulder and then, smack, the gum was right back in his mouth. Face my fears, Mrs. Tucker? He’s lifting more weights. He’s jacked, as you athletes in the front rows might say, and he has a beard and a cheek full of gum. He bought me this sweatshirt and now when he calls me on the phone he asks how the dog is doing.

The dog is doing fine dad. The dog is howling at the moon in a thunderstorm. He’s always doing that and he’s fine.

Anyway. Jean Luc Godard criticized the establishment for being too conservative and not giving young and hungry directors a chance. Also he famously said, “Why must one talk? Often one shouldn’t talk, but live in silence. The more one talks, the less the words mean.” I guess my dad flapping the gum in his mouth was a kind of conversation. It developed its own rhythm as we drove, and pretty soon I could tell when the gum sat at the back of his throat or toward the front, at his teeth, if it was flat or rounded or stretched out by the muscle of his tongue. Or at least it felt that way. Godard also famously said that a story should have a beginning, middle, and an end, but not necessarily in that order, which I find comforting as I talk here with my mixed up note cards. You saw me drop them and you watched as I picked them up and began. I heard the snickers as I knelt down and then watched your faces get all serious when I stood up again and tried to find my place. Mrs. Tucker, how am I doing? I’m trying to find my place.

My dad asked me if he had embarrassed me by coming here and raining down hellfire on the crewcut heads of all you folks and I said “No, dad,” and he asked me if I was doing okay with all the changes in my life and I said, “Yes, dad,” and he asked me if we should stop for cheeseburgers at the Dairy Queen and I said “Sure, dad.”

History levels the landscape. Jean Luc Godard did not invent anything. He did not put a ball through a hoop and make millions of dollars. He grew old and ugly. He also looked like he did not care at all. This morning, during study period, I saw all the pictures and in each one he wore dark sunglasses — it seemed like the same pair of dark sunglasses had followed him through his entire life — and he smoked and made black-and-white movies with subtitles. I have to be honest and say I haven’t seen any of these movies, not even Breathless, which I discussed earlier, but my dad saw it last week and I stood in the doorway between his apartment’s living room and the kitchen and when I said, “This looks weird,” he said, “I thought you liked weird, Wesley. Don’t go and stop liking weird on me now kid.” There were beautiful French women on the screen and beautiful cars and he talked about how he was trying to improve himself and not be stupid his whole life. He said this while smiling, like he was telling me a funny story, like the one about him shooting Christmas ornaments with his air rifle when he was a kid, or the one about him coming to the bus stop and the face on the bullies — some of you are sitting here right now — when he explained to them what he would do if they did not stop what they were doing. But both of those things happened a long time ago and the movie did not seem very funny at all. It seemed serious as a colonoscopy. I guess my dad could see my expression so he stopped smiling and then the next day when he stepped out of the truck at Home Depot he spat the gum right on the parking lot, swat, and I said, “Hey man, that’s littering,” and he said, “Oh yeah. You’re right,” and he crouched down and picked up the gum, very gently, and carried it across the lot like it was something he was going to return at the front counter. Have any of you ever been to El Paso, Texas? The sky is indeed huge there, but so are the strip malls.

I can see from the clock on the wall that I’m ten minutes in with twenty minutes left and Mrs. Tucker hasn’t written a single thing down in her little black notebook. She wrote things down in it even for the Michael Jordan presentations so I’m not sure what to make of it except that maybe you have a fear too, Mrs. Tucker, and that fear is stopping you from putting pen to paper. I never thought my father was afraid of anything until that day he made me and my little brother that tree fort. I told him, dad, what’s the use. Because we were heading back to mom’s house in two days, and it was just like with the gum. He paused with the hammer on the nail and he looked like a photograph I might take labeled Still Life with Father and Hammer.

You’re coughing and shuffling your feet beneath your desks and my knee hurts and so does my eye and the big toe on my left foot is bleeding. I can feel the tip of the shoe filling up like a little damaged life boat. My mom says not to bite my toenails but I can’t help it and, show of hands, who hasn’t done that, right? Richard Flanagan? Skip Williamson? Heather Fernald? Mrs. Tucker? This sweatshirt is hot as a microwaved burrito and excuse me while I tug it off with apologies to the wolf and my father. How is the dog dad? The dog is mighty fine. He’s just coming off for a little while, the first day in a week.

Jean Luc Goddard believed that the world was black-and-white, or that black-and-white showed the truth of the world. That’s my own thought there, written by itself on this card so it must be important. I see that got your pen moving Mrs. Tucker, and while you’re writing stuff down you should add that Still Life with Father and Hammer would be a black-and-white photograph. He spent all day out there the day before we left building that thing, while I played Hot Wheels cars with my little brother, and then we stood in it and he did take a picture of us and told us to smile. He took five, six, seven pics. I think he was trying to make a certain kind of movie of his life, one where my brother and I were playing very particular roles. Smile, he kept telling us. Smile. My foot hurts and so does my knee and I can feel it coming down my lip. Another bloody nose. Excuse me. A slight hiccup in the proceedings and now my fingers are a mess, the notecards are sticky, and Mrs. Tucker, what are you writing down? Sometimes during all the presentations before me I imagined you writing poems in that notebook, not good ones, but heartfelt, about other countries maybe, or drawing bridges and little houses along a river. Places you would rather be, I guess. I would like that actually — if you did something like that. I choose to believe it.

My head is thumping but that happens sometimes during periods of intense stress like the fifteen hour drive straight north back to mom’s house in the middle of the night so we could get back here for school and when my little brother kept saying he won, he won, when playing Hot Wheels, and smacked the cars together like they were fighting. That’s not anybody’s idea of a good time. Not even him, because he was pissed off about it. He scrunched up his face like he was angry with both cars, but what can you do? My dad had a treehouse to build.

The famous expression comes to mind. Are you looking at me? Or at my band camp T-shirt? My bloody nose? Now you’re writing very fast Mrs. Tucker and if it’s ok with you I’m just going to drop some of these note cards and take a chair. Or not even bother to take a chair. I’m going to drop on one knee and then sit on the floor. I know I have a few minutes to go and I intend on using that time wisely but I’ll speak from this more restful position because I need to ease the stress on the right side of my body. Maybe a chair would help but never mind because this is good. Where was I? Jean Luc Goddard did not believe in God or capitalism. He did not believe in romance. But he believed that light falling on a face in just the right way might make it beautiful, and that immortality was still possible. He said he would live forever through his movies, but would he still believe that if he could stand here today and look at your stifled yawns? Five minutes left and I’m pushing the back of my hand against my nose. I’m on one knee. My father is looking at the photographs of us in the treehouse and thinking about what a good visit it was and my brother is smashing things together at daycare: blocks and dolls and stuffed toys. Let me settle to the ground. Let me speak from the floor, because my arm aches and my knee and I’m coughing hard. Jean Luc Goddard is a name I picked randomly because I liked the sound of it. It clearly came from somewhere else and I’m not even sure I’m pronouncing it correctly. My sweatshirt would make a good pillow if someone wants to throw it down here, or maybe not. How is the dog doing? The dog is howling at the moon against a background of lightning.

In the truck my father thought we were asleep and he brought the speedometer up to ninety, ninety-five, and let it hover there, and I am telling you that I still felt safe. We were in no danger. That’s what I’m saying. My brother slept in this car seat, his head at a ridiculous angle, and I faked my dreams. I felt motionless and alone and I didn’t want it to end. My dad said, “Adam, are you awake?” and my brother didn’t answer and then he said, “Wesley, how about you?” and I didn’t answer, and he said it again, my name, the name behind me on the board written by you Mrs. Tucker, in your best professional handwriting, and I didn’t answer again. He was satisfied with that.

Can you see me down here from your desks? Rachel Leander? Alice Fatinsky? Mrs. Tucker? I’m going to take off my sneakers and inspect this horrible toe, but maybe I should read these words first. They describe a moment in one of the movies when the handsome actor’s face clicks from pleasure to shock. We don’t see what he’s looking at. It’s just his girlfriend, his lover, as the French would say, but we don’t see what she’s doing. We find that out later. It’s his face though. That stuck with me. I can’t see my own face. You can’t see it either, as I speak from the floor. I’m imagining myself as a voiceover in a movie, speaking not from the ground but from the sky, above these thirty desks, above all of you. I have my thumb and finger on my nose and I sound silly. You’re probably laughing. But not you Mrs. Tucker. Despite your faults you would never laugh at any of us. I respect that about you and the way you once put your hand on my shoulder and told me hey, where’s your head at, like you were my coach, a coach for my brain, and also even when you told me to face my fears.

Maybe I should have just picked Michael Jordan. I can see him floating across the court, the cross dribble and then the jump and dunk. All of it in angelic slow mo. But see, who cares about him? It’s the film of him that matters, the person capturing it from behind the camera. Who would Michael Jordan be without that dude? So I’m trying to tell you the story. My mother is not a bad person. My father isn’t either. But when they see each other they are their worst selves. Especially after a long, long drive, when he is holding me in his arms and he thinks I’m asleep and they whisper to each other out in the driveway. Words I cannot share here in polite company but whispered like secrets.

Five minutes. Three. I’m counting down and I’m sure you are too. My shirt is wet and my leg is kicking and has anybody ever looked at this drop ceiling before? Because the water stains look like urine. Of course, imagine me above it, speaking to you from on high, telling you what I’m telling you. The look I’m thinking of would be described as significant and it doesn’t seem like the actor is acting anymore. He seems surprised by his own pain. Goddard has tricked him somehow, pulled his strings just right.

They stood outside her house because he’s not allowed to go in there by order of my mother and the state of New York, and he put his hand on my brother’s head and made a joke about delivering the packages safe and sound. It’s just divorce and bad feelings. It’s nothing special. It’s just a nose bleed from dry air. It’s just a pain in the toe from where you’ve bitten at the nail. It’s just stomach cramps and a slight tingle in the arms and other extremities. It’s just a voice coming from the ceiling telling you something, anything about a very important historical figure.

 

     
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David Crouse is author of the short story collections Copy Cats and The Man Back There and Other Stories. Copy Cats won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction and was nominated for the Pen-Faulkner in 2006. The Man Back There was awarded the Mary McCarthy Award in Short Fiction in 2009. His stories have been published in TriQuarterly, The Greensboro Review, Prairie Schooner, The Southwest Review, and other magazines. He currently lives in Seattle, Washington, where he teaches in the M.F.A. Program at the University of Washington. He recently completed two new collections of short fiction: I'm Here: Alaska Stories, a book about interior Alaska, and When I Was a Stranger, a book about everywhere else.