My father taught me this:
One summer morning 50 years ago, a bunch of boys from a small town south of Tulsa found in a roadside ditch a huge wooden spool, the kind power companies use to carry high-tension wire. I imagine that kids anywhere would have lingered over such a treasure, and longed for a way to claim it; but for these boys, back in the days when rural electrification was still a revolutionary movement, there was no way they could leave it behind. It was a talisman fallen from the outer world.
So they spent the rest of the day rolling it toward town. Whenever my father told this story, I thought of slaves inching forward another slab of the pyramids: the boys sweating out each swerve in the rutted roads, the air as punishingly hot as only Oklahoma air can be, and the lumbering spool itself, bigger than any of them, banging and grumbling like a captive elephant, growing more intractable the closer to home they got it. But as they struggled, they schemed about what they'd do with it; they spun grandiose fantasies, so they'd stay out there sweltering until toward dusk they had all agreed on the finest and most outlandish dream, and with a last surge of effort succeeded in safely stowing the spool in the field behind my father's house.
The next morning they started building the kite.
My father had been left on his own that early summer of the war. His older brothers were all enlisting: his mother was a widow with a clutch of young children to raise; and he was just old enough to get scooted out of the house first thing every morning so he'd stay out of everybody's hair. He became the ringleader, since he was the only one who could spend all his waking hours on the gang. But with the excitement of the war growing everywhere, the other boys were soon caught up with him in an unfocused urge for greatness. The kite project became more ambitious the more they all dreamed it together. They were hunting up possibilities full-time.
Their major shot of luck was turning up a broken-down winch behind a boarded-up garage just outside of town. The older brother of one of the boys, the only one they knew with a truck and an indulgent temper, was cajoled into helping them lug the winch back home. The spool fit it well enough that they could set out on the next step: getting line. For days they scoured the town for rope and twine and wire, from trash cans and garbage dumps, from unattended pantries and cellars watched over only by neighborhood cats, hundreds and then thousands of feet of line that they knotted and reknotted and painstakingly wound onto the spool.
Meanwhile they were finishing the kite. When I first heard this story, I pictured something half as big as the town itself; and even though it shrank down in my father's rare retellings (he never liked talking about his past to me), I'm still left with the image of an enormous construction, a big swatch of burlap nailed to a heavy wooden frame maybe 15 or 20 feet long, with yards of knotted cloth trailing behind in the dust for a tail.
They needed a windy day to launch it; they didn't have to wait long. On a fierce midsummer morning, when the plains were being scoured clean, they carried the kite out from the barn where they'd built it and hooked it to the end of the line. One of the boys was detailed to work the winch; the rest carefully maneuvered the kite out to the middle of the field. Slowly they tilted it to catch the wind. The burlap bellied and snapped; the frame creaked ominously; the line rippled wildly; and suddenly the whole thing was torn out of their hands. It went up in a spectacularly serene arc, the filthy tail gently undulating behind, while the boys running after it laughed and shouted and cheered, and the spool spun frantically in the winch with a deafening clatter. It was gorgeous. The kite dwindled, going blue as if soaked through with the air, and then began making slow sweeps across the brilliant, crowded, endlessly emptying Oklahoma sky. The kid at the winch was so awed he almost forgot to pull the lever before the line ran out. Soon they couldn't even see the kite half the time; it dodged among the black specks that came swarming into their eyes whenever they stared up into the dazzling air.
All morning they marveled at what they'd done. For a while they sprawled with their backs against the winch, listening to the line groan; but eventually they began to wonder what the kite might look like from other vantages around town. So, timidly at first, they ventured away from the field, certain that something would go wrong, that the line would snap or that someone might tamper with the winch the moment it was out of their sight. But everywhere they went, they could see between the trees and above the roofs the kite still meandering through the ragged edges of the clouds; and each time they would come back to the field to find the cable still stretching from the spool straight as a bar. They had all along wondered how long it could stay up; now there appeared to be no reason why they shouldn't leave it overnight. When the first of their neighbors drifted by and was properly awestruck, they decided to keep it there forever.
The kite was still in place the next morning, and the morning after that. My father would get up just before sunrise and go out to see how it was doing. It was a sweet and private ritual (the only kind he would ever observe). He would stand by the dew-slick spool and wait for the sky to light up; he could never predict where, but somewhere among the bays of clear air a trail of fire would suddenly ignite, while beyond that the kite would be revealed browsing indifferently among gold gulfs in the swift coral cumulus. Then the bright line would slowly come falling out of the sky toward him: like a pen running out of gold ink, spattering and skipping stretches of dull rope, swooping down with gathering power until the field was drenched in dawn light. Long after my father died, the thought finally occurred to me that the one overriding enthusiasm of his life, flying, might have come to him right there, as his mind ascended that line back up into the clouds.
The kite became a nine-day's-wonder in the town. It hung overhead like a sunlit searchlight, and drew people in from as far away as Tulsa and even beyond. My father would sometimes spend all day loitering by the fence by the road, striking up conversations with the gawkers in cars who had detoured to investigate this apparition that had appeared to them above the empty land at the end of the highway. He had his first taste of bashful boasting when the visitors asked him if it was his kite; the first proof of hometown pride when they told him they'd seen nothing so amazing anywhere else on the road.
There were a lot of travelers to talk to. All that summer there was a steady supply of odd people passing through, passing by, moving on. In the days of the Dust Bowl all anyone ever did was leave; now that the town was shakily sure of its permanence, the rest of the world was stirred by strange eddies and undertows of change. My father had never in his life seen so many eccentrics. Traveling salesmen, spiritualists, gospelers, and quacks, like the rainmakers of the old times, came trundling up in their cars, ready to sell to anyone who'd listen: to my father, to the rest of the gang, to people in the next car, to each other; they emerged from and disappeared back into the slow whirlpool of displaced people, circulating across the heartland like the gaudiest of the rumors now straggling into town, that the Japanese had invaded California, that they were about to invade Oklahoma (to capture the oilfields).
It may be that my father heard in all this extravagant talk a grander and wilder rumor. He could have imagined each sleepless night the Japanese armies massing at the horizon, zeroing in on the kite that floated so defiantly above the isolated town; or else he thought the kite might summon his own rescue, and allow him to run away with the Nature Theater of Oklahoma, a circus the size of the world. I don't know: but he only once in his life, in a rare moment of ease, described to me a nightmare he'd had, and it was from those few days. He dreamed (or maybe I dreamed that he told me) that he was clinging to the crosspiece of the kite, as it rode the hugely buffeting gusts of a storm; he saw that the writhing line was transforming itself into the funnel of a tornado.
Then he woke, and heard thunder. The weather was changing: a cold front was advancing across the plains and driving up before it a monstrous line of thunderstorms. When I heard this story, I was sitting with my father on the front porch of that same house, watching just such a line of storms come up from the southwest. The front stretched from horizon to horizon, nesting all along its brown billowing crest yellow copses of silent lightning. The impersonal fury of its assault, when it broke over the town, sent everyone scurrying for the cyclone cellars; and sure enough, after the worst of the rain was past, my father and his family heard the unmistakable express-train bellow of a tornado right overhead. They were sure they'd lost their house.
But the house came through just fine. When they emerged from the cyclone cellar a couple of hours later, they found everything perfect and in place, and a magnificent day forming: the cloudless air suffusing with cool light, the clean-washed clapboard of the house beading up with dew. My father, lost in admiration, took several moments to realize that something was missing.
He ran out into the field to see whether the kite had fallen. He was shortly joined by the other boys, who'd come dashing over when they, too, had discovered the blank spot above the town. They were prepared for the worst, or so they thought: a shattered kite and a hopelessly fouled line. What they hadn't expected was that the whole contraption would be gone. The winch, the spool, the line, and the kite: the tornado had spun a fluky loop across the field, just missing my father's house, and had taken it all. There was nothing left behind but a mad whirling scrawl in the dirt.
The winch they found upended in the mud on the other side of the road. The fence was untouched; the thing must have flown over it like a football. The spool turned up about a half-mile farther on, in a grove by the river, wedged under a fallen tree. Around it, all around everywhere, snaking across broken branches and crushed undergrowth, was the line--or most of it. When they traced it out they found at the end only a snapped strand of wire. They never found the kite. The tornado had made off with it; it had torn loose at the height of the storm and gone flailing off into the darkness.
They couldn't help dreaming what had happened to their invention: broken free and riding the thunderclouds, soaring the turbulent murk with its long wild line snapping behind--sometimes dragging across a rooftop or shattering a window--unseen or disbelieved, as it flew on out of the plains across the Missouri hills and the Mississippi River and the prairie beyond. Why not? On mornings like these, what was impossible? Already the boys were plotting an even bigger kite--which, I gathered, they ultimately did build, and it stayed up for weeks. But my father was no longer interested. He was already vowing to himself that he would do something even more amazing: he'd follow the kite into the larger world.
But what could he do? He was too young to enlist, he had no skills, and anyway the summer was almost over and his freedom gone. It was actually not for a couple of years more that he even got out on a trial run. A family friend got him a summer job on a ranch, and the day school ended he was out by the side of the road, hitching rides north and west, out of the scrubby little river valley of his hometown and across the Great Plains to Wyoming.
The Dust Bowl was a distant memory by then; the abundance of the heartland in early summer was staggering, unimaginable, oceanic. My father had never been as far as Tulsa before--now he was spending day after day traveling roads and dirt tracks that all meandered across the countless curves of slow immensity, ruffled by every stray breeze, that filled up horizon after horizon all the way west. You could never tell where you might end up if you picked the wrong road: either the land might unfold to display a hushed little town still strewn with shredded bunting from their soldiers' homecoming parade, or else it might close up and leave you stranded along some ill-defined track among the cornrows, dead-ending at a derelict gas station, windows broken, pumps busted, doors locked and rusted shut since the year you were born.
But on every road there were people hurtling off anywhere there was a place to go. My father's favorite story about those rides was one about a shoe salesman who raced from town to town throughout his enormous territory in an ornate new car. He had a mysterious device on the dashboard that kept buzzing and stuttering irritably all morning. It was a revolutionary new gizmo, an air cooler for cars; he only wished he had a piece of it, it was going to make somebody a fortune. My father had his doubts. When the guy finally got it to work, all it did was spit tepid water randomly around the car interior. My father wondered miserably what it was supposed to do: until he realized, from the guy's defiantly wishful claim that he really did feel much cooler, that this was what the machine was supposed to do. He understood then how the whole day would go: the road unwinding between two rippling green slabs of infinity, the blasting heat, the drenching from this miniature squall, and his psychotic host boasting that soon all car rides would be like this.
As for the ranch: that worked out fine. My father spent every summer there for the next several years. He saved enough money to pay for flying lessons and eventually a couple of years at a state university--until the Korean war came and he enlisted in the Air Force. Later in his life, those summers at the ranch let him claim (half-jokingly, but quite legitimately) that he had once been a cowboy. But what mattered most about the ranch is that it was where he started to read.
"We like our apartment. We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d'oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex." That's Hugh Hefner, in the first issue of Playboy. Around the same time, Mickey Spillane was muttering (on the first page of My Gun Is Quick): "There are things happening out there. They go on every day and night making Roman holidays look like school picnics. They go on right under your very nose and you never know about them. Oh yes, you can find them all right. All you have to do is look for them. But I wouldn't if I were you because you won't like what you find. Then again, I'm not you and looking for those things is my job . . . "
Once a week, one of the hands would bring back to the ranch a fat stack of magazines and shiny new paperbacks--"pocket books," they were called then, and they didn't have a price on the cover because everybody knew they cost a quarter. My father was always first in line to read them. He was too young that summer to go into town on weekends with the rest and raise a little hell, so he stayed behind in the bunkhouse and devoured detective stories, sci-fi, westerns, porno; he read social protest novels packaged as salacious sleaze; he puzzled through P.G. Wodehouse novels disguised as Agatha Christie mysteries and Agatha Christies disguised as lurid thrillers. On this desolate plateau, where to the east the lush plains petered out into scrubland like the ocean thinning on a gentle shore, where to the west the edge of the world was walled off by the heart-stoppingly high ranges of the blue Rockies, my father filled up his mental world with hard-boiled dicks and gorgeous dames and tough poetical kids from the slums and proper British butlers.
When I come upon those books now, packaged as collector's items in used-book stores, I can't help but feel the covers are all pieces of a single grand romance. The captions tell it all: My gun-butt smashed his skull! His body hurtled from the window! "Stay there," she screamed, "and watch me jump!" She screamed as Spade dashed up the stairs. She fled in terror with the killer at her heels. He shared her evil secret. Their bodies swayed to the frenzied mating rhythm of the Tamboe. They were lost in a frantic half-crazed jazz world--hungry for love. Ruthless terror ripped away the mask that hid cold fear. A blunt novel; an unusual and hard-hitting novel; a revealing novel; an arresting novel; a novel of twisted lives and tormented loves; a novel about traveling salesmen.
What is the novel about? There is a cryptic figure in every one of these images: hardly ever in the center of the composition, but somehow necessary to balance out the looming gun and threatening breasts. He can be beefy, blond, and square-jawed, or thin, dark, and Italian; the jacket can be open and the tie loose when he dashes up the stairs or hurtles from the window; and sometimes--as when he is swaying to the Tamboe--he's even taken off the tie and opened his shirt; but however he's drawn, he's instantly recognizable. He's the Regular Guy.
The story of the Regular Guy, adding all the images together, is essentially a fantasy about knowledge and social ability. The story tells of the Guy and the City, the Guy and Dames, the Guy and Depravity--all as might be imagined by an audience that knew nothing about any of them. The Guy was somebody to whom the magical dramas of the covers could happen, without his being corrupted by them: in every feverish scene without being of it; somebody who'd gone through the wrong door into a nightmare, and had to cope as best he could with good old American know-how.
Put another way, he was a private eye.
Philip Marlowe strolls into a mansion on the first page of one book and a ghetto bar on the first page of the next; Mike Hammer terrorizes aristocratic suspects and innocent blue-collar witnesses with impunity; the Continental Op knows just how to act in brothels and in foreign embassies. It was a peculiar fantasy of big-city etiquette: that a private eye could gain entry anywhere he wanted, get the answers to any questions he asked, and behave as snottily as he cared to, without worrying about what anybody thought of him.
It was, in other words, a story for rubes: for outlanders like my father: for provincial kids who envied the grace of the city crowds. The covers seem to recall a whole underground network of such readers, haunting magazine racks in dingy drugstores and all-night newsstands in depressed downtowns, readers who yearned to walk down the mean streets with a sense of belonging, with the unimaginable confidence of the seducer, the acrobatic cool of the Regular Guy wrestling the gun away from the Dame.
Could any of the actual stories live up to the images on the covers? Only one Guy ever did, as far as I've read: the first one: Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. Not the wearily cynical Spade of Bogart's movie--the amoral young stud of Dashiell Hammett's original novel, published in 1929, decades before the first pocket books appeared. This Spade is commonsensical, tough, unshockable, effortlessly able to thread the maze of corruption without being soiled by it (but always spiffily dressed); he knows his city like the back of his hand; and he is surrounded, as all the Guys on all the covers would be, by a dreamy masquerade of conspiracy and ambiguous desire.
The core of the Regular Guy myth is this: he can't be conned. In The Maltese Falcon, Spade doesn't even understand half of what the villains are up to--he's just so cocky and cool he tricks them into catching themselves in their own traps. The bad guys turn out to be the romantics, the dreamers, seduced by a fool's-gold vision: the Falcon is the Grail, a relic of European folklore that means nothing to a sharp-eyed American like Spade. Spade has no use for this or any other myth: he's a clear-headed opportunist who keeps his eye always on the main chance. He lives without faith or certainty, with nothing to go on but his own wits, always seeing the con at the heart of life. Raymond Chandler's celebrated rhapsody to the private eye, "The Simple Art of Murder," ultimately casts him as a figure of angelic invulnerability: "Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid . . . he must be the best man in the world and a man good enough for any world."
Spade's successors, from Chandler's Marlowe to Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer, elevated this cool to a mystical state of being. The plots of the Regular Guy stories of the 40s and 50s were a whirl of feverish images, looming thugs and glamorous penthouses, Chinatown drug dens and shadowy temptations--and yet the Guy was always able to make the delirium seem like the same old sideshow hoax he had exposed a thousand times before.
There was a kind of innocence in the way he saw through everything. He was so determined not to be taken in he became a byword for American philistinism. The Guy's constant stream of cynical wisecracks, his contempt for the glamour and sophistication of the villains, the way his solutions reduced everything to the most banal and animalistic motives--it all came to suggest that the Guy never understood much about the world he had conquered. Instead, he was explaining it to the readers back home in a way that flattered their ignorance: that there wasn't anything to these city slickers, their culture was a sham, their snobbery was a joke, their money unearned or stolen--and if you followed me into the city, you'd have it all in the palm of your hand.
There's one cover in particular I think of--the showpiece for a gallery of longing. It was on some book I only saw once and am half-convinced I imagined. It showed a city park, with a featureless rhomboid of green grass in the foreground and a gray mountain range of skyline in the background; looming in the right of the frame was the usual Dame--except that this time she wasn't undressed, or in a translucent nightgown, or a shriekingly red low-cut dress; and she wasn't dead, and she wasn't doing anything hysterically threatening. She was dressed as a secretary and she was pausing for a moment to adjust her stocking. But that was provocation enough for the Regular Guy. He was there in the center of the frame, sprawled insolently on a park bench, and giving a knowing wink--not to the Dame, but to us.
A photo shows my father standing in front of a fighter plane in the middle of a snowstorm, making an awkward half-turn to point at the name painted on the fuselage. The snowstorm is in Korea; the name is my mother's. "Merry Christmas from your rice-paddy ranger" is scrawled on the reverse side. My parents had met at a dance for the cadets at flight school and the girls from a nearby college; he'd tried to impress her by calling himself a cowboy--and she, being a city girl away from home for the first time, had enjoyed being impressed. They had courted the way couples always have, by promising to be faithful to each other while he was away in the war.
You can tell that lots of guys at the base must have made the same promise and sent a photo, because a corner of the tarp that protects the canopy from the snow is being unobtrusively pulled back by someone unseen: someone who's clearly had a lot of practice perching out of sight like this to help a buddy impress his girl. It's a traditional charm, and soldiers are big on tradition. As long as there have been wars, weaponry has been painted with the names of the girls back home. The charm means: my home is real and this place is an illusion; if I keep faith with the one I love, I'll be protected and come home safely.
What were they, after all, but Regular Guys--Guys who'd gone through the wrong door and been shipped off into a war? By the millions, they'd streamed out into Europe and Asia, to find ruined civilizations sunk in the chaos of history. No wonder the Regular Guy was so xenophobic. The only way he ever encountered other cultures was as phantom conspiracies on the margins of an immense occupying army.
I never heard my father say a good word about Korea. He thought the North Koreans were demons and the South Koreans were useless oafs. But his contempt for them was nothing compared to the disgust he felt for the European pilots he served with. Their customs, their food, their talk, their bathroom habits--to the end of his life, he called them animals. He came back convinced that the rest of the world wasn't worth a damn. America wasn't just the greatest country in the world, it was the only country in the world.
At the same time, for him, for all the Guys, the military would always be the measure of life. How to keep clean, how to be organized, how to be obedient, how to get around the rules--he learned his first and only lessons in adult behavior in the service. Around the house, he made service jokes like "KP" for washing the dishes and "Police the area" for "Clean up your room": as though he could only imagine a home of his own as a military base, stuck out in the middle of an alien, civilian culture. It's an attitude that saturates the Guy novels of the 50s: the service was the only time when life made sense. The Guy was forever pausing to compare the corrupt conspiracy surrounding him with the evil old days on some Pacific island, where he learned what's what. Even Mike Hammer, who was basically psychotic, assumed that the magic word "veteran" explained and excused everything: he was merely applying to the numberless enemies he found at home the same direct action he'd used overseas.
And there was something wrong back home. Wherever the veterans looked in America after World War II and Korea--whether in small-town schools or children's comic books, Hollywood movies or the State Department--they could sense it: the stench of the foreign. Nothing was American enough for them, once they got back; nothing could be trusted; nothing was the same. In a few Regular Guy stories, like Jim Thompson's A Hell of a Woman and David Goodis's The Moon in the Gutter, the Guy becomes so obsessed by this mysteriously pervasive and mounting sense of wrongness that he goes out of his mind. But most were tamer cases, on the Red Nightmare or Invasion of the Body Snatchers model: returning Guys who find a new and alien conformity that threatens to undo everything they fought for. They'd spent years solving foreigners' problems for them; now they had to wake everybody at home from their ominous complacency.
The Guy always had to be the lone hero facing down an entrenched conspiracy. It didn't really matter who the enemy was. Did the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers represent Communist infiltrators or American conformists? Who knew? All that counted was the pervasiveness of the threat. The Guy went from strength to strength in the 50s, and yet for every conspiracy he crushed, another and more elusive one loomed behind it. By the early 60s, the Guy could be a self-made Oklahoma millionaire--like James Garner in a movie like Cash McCall--and yet he was still bedeviled by a cabal of gutless Eastern aristocrats and bureaucratic pencil pushers. In the mid-60s, my father's favorite novelist, John D. MacDonald, retold the story this way: his Guy, Travis McGee, was a free-lance operator living on a houseboat off the coast of Florida who railed at the faceless white-collar corporate drones systematically stamping out the last independent individualists like himself.
I can hear the voice speaking those monologues. Garner smilingly dismissing some traditional, polite way of doing things as an irrelevant waste of money and time; McGee explaining land grabs and stock manipulations, and laying down the law about the best Mexican beer, the best arrangement for stereo speakers, the best way to drive in a traffic jam; and, eventually, Nixon in the White House tapes, muttering his ruminative hatred of the Washington insiders, and only rousing himself to expound his hardheaded assessment of what the real story was with this or that liberal conspiracy. It's my father's voice: the Oklahoma twang softened by his years in the Air Force, the provincialism partially covered over by an accretion of expertise; he's reeling off one more interminable tale of a legal scam, a sharp deal, a guy who's really got it made.
He was listening to the Guy wherever he went. After Korea he served out his time as a flight instructor, and he and my mother wandered the way military couples often do, from one Air Force base to another across the Deep South; and at every stop he left behind stacks of lurid paperbacks, the track of his restlessness. The tastes he'd formed that first summer never changed. As long as the cover was garish and the prose was monosyllabic, he'd snap it up and read it in one sitting. He burned through stacks of paperbacks almost as fast as he did cartons of cigarettes (another habit he'd picked up that summer at the ranch).
His memory was as prodigious as his appetite. Even as the covers got progressively less vivid over the years, he could tell from a glance at the first page whether he'd read it before, a month or a decade ago. What's so impressive about this is that he liked the blandest Regular Guy product. He devoured all the weary imitators of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer; he may have been the only reader in America with complete sets of Mike Shayne and Shell Scott. In the mid-60s, when secret agent briefly replaced private eye as the most desirable Guy job, he swallowed whole the listless, countless sub-Bond adventures of Matt Helm and Sam Durell and Milo March.
He always defended his taste with his lifelong insomnia: two or three times a week he'd wake up after midnight and lie sleeplessly till dawn: it was nothing for him to go through a couple of books that night (along with a pack of cigarettes) and pick up a fresh stack at a newsstand the next day. It soothed him, that constant murmur of tough talk. He needed to have it playing in his head every moment he was awake. He built up in his head a vast repertory of Regular Guy cliches: night after white night, the Guy was dragging himself through my father's mind from seductive suspect to murdered witness, triple agent to stolen bioweapon, snapping feebly at every bait, mindlessly bashing at the walls of massed conspiracy that kept him trapped, until sleep or dawn came.
But this taste for the mechanical satisfied a deeper requirement. It was as though he were deliberately picking out safe neutral books from the middle of the rack, the sort of books that wouldn't cause the clerk at the register to notice him. What he really liked was anonymity. He had a horror of standing out from the crowd: he would never complain to a waiter about the food, or root for an underdog, or take up an odd hobby, or admit to disliking a big brand name unless he could proclaim the superiority of its closest competitor. He never wanted to have to explain himself. Everything about his life had to have the self-evident righteousness of the Regular Guy. For all his hunger to be a success, he couldn't go after it directly, not if it put him too far out in front; he wanted to be part of the coming trend only if it was a sure thing.
His real preferences came out in passivity and unexpected refusal. After the Air Force, he would have most logically gone to work for one of the big airlines. He loved flying, he was a decorated fighter pilot and a flight instructor with thousands of hours in the air--the airlines were lining up to hire people like that. So it was the one thing he couldn't do. Too dull, he said. After dozens of bombing missions over enemy territory, after once having to fly home with no compass, no radio, no brakes, and fuel fumes seeping into the cockpit--he wasn't about to put on some fake uniform and spend the rest of his life nodding off at cruising altitude somewhere over the heartland. On the other hand, if he'd really wanted excitement, he could have stayed in the peacetime Air Force: some of his friends did that, and they ultimately went on to glory and had their faces put on commemorative stamps. But that wasn't for him, either. He sometimes said that he had flown with the astronauts back when they were pilots and as far as he was concerned they were crazy men who wanted to die.
But what was he qualified to do? After he was discharged, he drifted with what he knew, meandering into the fringes of the aviation industry. An old hero of his, an Air Force colonel he'd known in Korea, had retired and started his own business underwriting the little airlines, the puddle jumpers and crop dusters scattered around the midwest. My father worked for him for a couple of years, and then set up a small underwriting company of his own.
He liked that business. He was good at it--he had always been a wizard with numbers; and he had fun hopping around the countryside in a private plane. Some of my earliest memories are of the little airfields where he did his business: desolate places in remote farmland, nothing but a strip of concrete, a wind sock, a couple of hangars, and an empty office with a few vending machines and coffee-stained maps. There was a romance lingering in such places that my father loved. They made him think of the glory days of flying, before the big companies with their new jets had taken over everything; the days when planes could go up and circle the skies above America and meet nothing but wind-driven clouds. Sometimes he'd meet old men who had taken part in the great stories, flying mail routes in South America and Africa before the war: the advance wave of history, opening up whole continents to the outside world. He could listen to those guys for hours. Sometimes when we were driving back home at night from some rural airstrip we'd get stranded at a crossing by a freight train, and as the endless boxcars slid past our headlights my father would describe the burnt-out, outcast hero he'd just met, a maverick left behind by the new generation of bureaucrats, stuck out here as a pilot or a mechanic for a backwater air-freight company, in the wake of the tide of empire.
I never understood the point of these stories back then, but it's obvious to me now: he was explaining why he was giving up for good his most passionate enthusiasm, he just saw no future in it anywhere. But what he didn't say was that he had a new idea.
I once came across, in the attic of a summer cottage on the North Shore, a schedule for the commuter railroad dated 1894. It was still accurate. The stops were all the same; the times were exact to the minute. For almost a century, the trains had been threading their way at the same steady pace along their lush corridor like a chain linking exceptionally tasteful jewels. The stations for all that time had been squatting peacefully in the same pools of green shade across from the town squares; the names of the towns had never been allowed to peel off the unobtrusive signs. Every weekday morning for decades the well-dressed men were clustered on the platforms in the precise spots where the train, still two stops away, was going to open its doors. Some of the men never once looked up from their paper from the moment they bought it at the station until the train's arrival at the downtown terminal; they stuck their bright monthly passes like feathers in their hatbands so the conductors wouldn't disturb them. For all the convulsions of history that have passed them by, the loudest sound ever heard in these suburbs was the distant, faithful roar of the trains every hour, floating through open windows on summer nights.
Weekend afternoons, my father used to take us on drives around the North Shore, down brooklets of pavement that wound among the wide green islands of property, thick with trees and the high outcroppings of mansions; and he'd promise us that we'd soon be living here, because he was going to be a millionaire by the time he was 40. Sometimes long processions of cheap cars tailgated through these narrow, ingrown hedge mazes, disturbing the sparrows that normally fed on the grass growing between the bricks of the pavement--family after gawking family, with fathers at every wheel, all of them boasting about how they were going to make it. And some of the places they passed looked like they had been built for those fathers: nightmarish neo-antebellum heaps of pillars depending from kitschy curving driveways, with an untouched grand piano floating in a picture window and a little statue of a grinning black jockey holding a lamp by the entrance. For every house that sprawled at ease among old shade trees in white clapboard like a summer suit, there'd be a monstrosity like this one, designed to make any ambitious father scheme.
But I was envious, too--just of different houses. A rooftop jumble of gables and turrets; an ivy wall inset with round windows; a front porch as wide as the street: as we drove past, I was struck over and over by heartbreaking pangs, a longing for a home out of reach. You looked at some old suburban houses and you knew at once how sweet the world had been, in another life you'd somehow missed. You could tell they had attics stuffed with delicate, baffling, broken objects nobody could bear to throw away, an archaeology of a family's enthusiasms. Old furniture in every room had been beaten into postures of exquisite languor. The dusty hush of the halls on upper floors was always being heedlessly shattered by headlong children, who then went hurtling down the outsize and poorly placed staircase, wearing the rich color down from mahogany to tan to brown and back again. Everywhere there was meaningless detail--the decorative tile in the pantry; the sun-faded enamel of the flowerpots that framed the uncurled cats sleeping in the windowsills; an embroidered rug for the dog that kept lazy watch by the basement door; a fantastic, inherited bird cage for the gorgeous parrot squawking in the sun room--detail that was nowhere beautiful, except in the sense that useless decoration always does get better as it ages. And the house was aging well. The house gave off the thick reek of a living family; it said that family life was a playful improvisation within a stern and kindly tradition. It said that nothing important ever needed to change. Whole lives would pass, and the only difference at the end was that the trees were taller and the shade deeper.
Even the streets themselves were emblems of private satisfaction. They had never been intended to be used by people like us: that's why they were so scraggly and thin. They were conveniences provided for the residents, like an informal system of shared driveways. Some were even named after the daughters of the householders: Cathy Court, Amy Lane, Margaret Drive. Many were named simply Private Road--as though the addresses themselves were nobody's business. Whole suburbs were concealed within a street-grid of tree names, from Elm Street and Poplar Avenue through Acacia Road and Catalpa Boulevard to Locust Way and Arborvitae Circle. It was as though outsiders were being defied to find any destination within their private, well-tended, impossibly abundant forest; as though the only visitors ever expected were migrating birds.
When the old suburbs were built, before the turn of the century, America was still mostly open land. Apart from the sparse sprinkling of the rich along the commuter railroad corridors, almost everybody still lived in cities or small towns. So the streets of the old suburbs didn't drain into the arterial tributaries and interstates that flow now from city to city; they couldn't take you anywhere different people lived. Instead they trickled off into dirt tracks or dubious highways, and lost themselves in woods, and marshes, and wide gentle farmland. To the children of these houses, the only poor people you ever saw were the strangers you sometimes glimpsed along the road on weekend automobile outings--the people who evidently belonged to the little huddles of general stores and garages you went gaily skimming by, on the far side of some distant pasture.
The aura of seclusion and mysterious happiness survived wars and depressions, and it still lingered for a while after mid-century, at least as late as my childhood. I can remember how empty the midwest used to be--how profoundly deep and placid the darkness was on country roads at night, winding endlessly through unnamed forests and along blurry fields, measured out only by the steady alternation of white warning signs: Pass With Care--Do Not Pass--Pass With Care--Do Not Pass . . .
We lived then in a remote unincorporated area, hours away from anything but the airfield where my father had his offices. We had a tiny house on the edge of a wood, where deer would steal out to investigate the bird feeder in the backyard, raccoons would go through the trash, and foxes would sometimes flash their carnival grins amid trees lit up brilliantly by the headlights. I was so young when my father sold that house that my memories of it are mixed up with my dreams, and those are filtered through the day we moved (the most dramatic day of my life to that point); even now I think of it as a cramped place filled with stacks of boxes waiting for the moving van. It was like a way station or outpost on the frontier of the immensely windy midwestern night: a place we hurried through between long car rides and directionless plane flights, amid vast vague smudges of darkness, like peaceful cumulus adrift in a moonlit sky.
It was how I would remember a lot of houses from my childhood. They were a succession of temporary lodgings where we always seemed to be sitting idle until my father got home; he was always arriving late with his idea of a special treat, carryout from McDonald's. We were broke in those days; my father had given up his company by then; but he was on the move even more--looking for a way into the new thing.
Its promise was everywhere. Mornings at the railway station, even the somnolent commuters knew it: they were being invaded. One by one, then a few more every day, an infiltrating army of young men, in new, badly fitting suits bought off the rack, were waiting for the trains. Where were they all coming from? Nobody knew: they didn't live anywhere near here. They were already frazzled and ill at ease after the interminable drive to the station; and they were about to be humiliated by the discovery that their fellow passengers hadn't spoken a word to an unfamiliar seatmate in 30 years. In the office buildings downtown, they mercifully didn't get off the elevators at your floor; but they rode the trains home with you in the evening, before getting into their cars and disappearing back into nowhere.
My father had seen it from above, as he jumped from airfield to airfield visiting his clients. At first there had only been a few subdivisions on scattered hillsides, at respectful distances from the old suburbs: constricted mazes into which only the unlucky strayed, hanging from one slender access road off the exit of a new highway. But almost immediately there were more expansive sprawls eating up pasturage and swampland, geometric curlicues radiating out along the flat land from a thousand centers at once, like mold forming on standing tea. It was amazing how fast it was happening. He'd visit an airfield stuck out in hilly farmland and come back a few months later to find himself banking over a limitless array of ranch houses, with saplings by the curbs and picture windows and cupcake garages with three diamonds on the door.
It was the war, it was still the war. Like a bombing campaign in reverse, the GI Bill and Federal Housing Act passed in the 40s were creating subdivision after subdivision, in great broken rings around every city in America. The goal was ownership of a house for every veteran--as though our victory had been too glorious for an ordinary homecoming. Our heroes couldn't be returned to their dingy small towns, to their old neighborhoods; they deserved direct translation to Valhalla. So it was being built for them.
The inexhaustible wealth of America was turned over to developers, franchisers, packagers, and deal makers. There were hotshots everywhere--my father kept meeting them on his rounds, importantly pacing around tacky airfield waiting rooms, mouthing off in motel bars: Regular Guys on the make. They were living off loopholes and longshots, seeing bright opportunities where everybody else saw implacably dull regulations: and they were getting rich at it.
The Federal Housing Authority, which financed the development of the suburbs, was causing the houses to go up in unimaginable numbers: but still the demand wasn't sated. The unused land was left wide open to the operators. Developers who wouldn't or couldn't deal with the FHA were building whole Kleenex-box towns out of nothing, merely by cutting enough corners to be competitive without government money. Then, too, the basic FHA look wasn't for everybody--they were only willing to approve bland, middle-of-the-road designs, free of oddity or originality; so some developers were going upscale, and building "communities" of lavishly grotesque boxes sprawled over acres of ex- pasturage, in mutant styles like Tudorette, Scandinavian Sauna, Plast-o-Spain. But whether you went high or low, there was a fortune to be made--if only you could put the deal together.
This kind of thinking mesmerized my father. He could spend hours talking through baroque deals with his instant friends--Gaudi towers of kited financing, hypothetical cities he'd worked out like crossword puzzles as he surveyed the land from the air. He knew nothing about the construction business, but he could retain and understand the arcana of taxes and mortgages the way some people know sports stats (and he knew those, too). Still, I don't think he ever took any of this shared daydreaming seriously; it evaporated as soon as the bar closed or the fog lifted; until he finally met a guy who called him back the next day.
The guy could talk. He knew the inside story on everything. He had the scoop on a corrupt county board, the logic behind some new Detroit product line, or the pros and cons of collecting Oriental rugs. But he was gifted with a light touch: he would defer to you the moment he sensed that you might know more about any subject than he did (or if he sensed you'd be flattered to think so). That was in fact the problem he had right then: he knew construction, but he didn't know money. Here he had all these contacts and prospects, but he couldn't get the financing of a company together. And the damn thing was, this was the perfect time to try. The money was raining down so indiscriminately it seemed impossible to lose. The banks were eager to lend; the towns and counties desperately wanted the housing built; the veterans were ready to buy. All he needed was somebody to do the books.
He and my father weren't con men. If they were, they could have sold the lots and disappeared, the way a lot of guys did, leaving the plumbing unconnected or the streetlights unwired. But they really intended to build, and that meant they had a couple of lean years ahead of them.
My father had already figured out the best place to try one of his schemes. At once they had a trailer and a sign on a big tract of empty land on the outskirts of a remote town west of Chicago. That was all they had for a long time. My father sat in the trailer while his partner had meetings--the years went by, and there were meetings on the upper floors of banks and in the back booths of sleepy bars; in town halls after the board meeting had adjourned and in trailers on other, half-finished projects here and there across the exploding fields. Sometimes my father went along, but he was uncomfortable with some of the people he met, and he preferred to stay behind in the trailer. The only building anywhere nearby was an old gabled mansion standing by itself in an overgrown field. Since the turn of the century it had been a home for unwed mothers; even now a few girls were exiled there, and they sometimes wandered over to my father's trailer to see whether anything new was happening. He hired them to take turns answering the phone, so that nobody calling him could get through directly. He sat and smoked, and then he sat for hours doing the books; he sat working while the silence of the fields faded off and the sounds of construction faded in; and then he was rich.
Everything had worked perfectly, just as his partner had promised. They had big luxury cars and real offices and lots of people working for them; by the time I was in junior high my family got a real house in Evanston, and we took lots of exotic trips; my brother and I got lots of expensive presents for Christmas. My father was thinking up new deals full-time. But before he got into another big project, he decided to take us back to Oklahoma, so he could finally show off.
The change was happening all along the way back. A new interstate blasted like an infinite airstrip straight through the hills toward the horizon; it had been done so brutally that we kept seeing on either side of the freeway corridor the stump-ends of the old cindery roads, and boarded-up tourist traps dangling precariously on the sheared hillsides. The last time, we'd spent days in our battered family car driving up and down the hills of Missouri, coming upon weird tourist traps back in the hills--garish caverns and enigmatic barns with huge faded signs out front, like a carnival midway, the only marvels that travelers through the heartland might see in a lifetime on the road. On this trip, there were only the franchise strips, the big-name chain restaurants and gift stores sorted into slots at the ends of off ramps. Everywhere the miles had once been measured out by billboards advertising the world's largest gas-station snake farm; now they hawked drive-in multimedia shows on the Trail of Tears.
But the worst part of the trip was the car. It was my father's first brand-new, top-of-the-line car, with all kinds of special features he loved to demonstrate, like air conditioning and power windows, and a number of others he didn't quite have the hang of, since all he had to go on were sketchy briefings from his partner and the salesman. One of these was a breakthrough gimmick, a cruise control, that for some reason he couldn't get to turn on. He wouldn't let it alone. After an hour or so of his fussing, my mother made the mistake of telling him it wasn't going to work. "Yes it will," he snapped. Those were the last words spoken by anyone in the car that day. Mile after empty mile, hour after sullen hour, as we went skimming like the clouds across the shoreless oceans of farmland, the humming silence was broken only by the occasional surreptitious click of the defective switch, whenever my father decided that this time his faith would be justified.
For years when I was a kid, postcards arrived at our house in matched pairs, addressed to me and my brother: from California, from Texas, from Alabama--from anywhere along the immensely expanding front of suburban development. But the pictures were never of local landmarks or scenic views; my father never noticed or cared about those things. They were invariably shots of the motel where he was staying. They all looked like the same place: new, cheesily modernist, an open court around a swimming pool, with a view of the freeway. The cards showed the diving board at the pool, or a low angle of the imposing sign, or the blank face of balconies above the parking lot (sometimes with a ballpoint arrow pointing toward one curtained window); a few showed the spread laid out for the weekend all-you-can-eat buffet. On the flip side would be my father's spiky scrawl, recording the cleanest joke he'd heard the night before at a bar, or in the motel office that morning, as he paused before the rack of postcards at the desk. I only remember one set. My brother's card read, "Say 'toy boat' five times." The one to me finally decoded as "Sent yr. bro. a Tongue-twister."
He never did know what to say to us. From his vantages on remote strands of the interstate system, his family looked just about perfect: when he was home, it was so perfect he couldn't figure out how to fit in. Our lives, our fads, our slang--they were all unimaginable to him. He couldn't even understand our homework. I can still remember how baffled and impressed he was by my math textbook: his passion for numbers was confounded by the mysterious swirls of set theory, bright Mondrian graphics, boldface sans-serif equations scattered opposite Zen-ish photos of leaf veins and laundry lines--or had he picked up my English textbook by mistake?
The truth was, he hated it all: he mistrusted everything he thought he understood in my schoolbooks, and he despised my teachers (he thought they were commies), just as he was exasperated the few times he was coaxed into doing the shopping by the elusive but absolute difference between the breakfast cereals we'd eat and those we couldn't stand. And yet, despite these provocations, he was often more forebearing than anyone with his catastrophically short temper might be expected to be. After all, this was what he wanted for us: a new world; America remade so drastically we'd take everything about it for granted. He couldn't expect to understand it himself. So, even when he went to school on parents' night, and was inwardly seething at every unkempt teacher, every mural promoting racial tolerance, every wall display of effeminate art, he was respectful, even humble; he toured the steel-and-glass complex with the same awe he felt at Cape Kennedy.
All in all, the 60s were great days for him. His business was a huge success--more than he had ever expected, and more than he really understood. It was magical to him the way his houses sold. Just like his partner had promised him, it was impossible to lose. Their forlorn duplexes huddled out in the pasturage were snapped up as soon as they went on the market--and a couple of years later were at the center of a new suburb. The money seemed to be surging out along the same interstates he traveled, like the foaming pearls of headlights around a curve. Regular Guys were out there with their families and a few salvaged belongings, wandering the interchanges in search of a haven. Sometimes my father acted as though he were being swept ahead by this irresistible force, driven from motel to motel, off ramp to off ramp, all along the bright network of the interstate: an advance man for a tidal wave of Regular Guys.
Maybe that was why he couldn't talk to us. He was possessed by his vision; all we glimpsed were the local results. He saw that this was the Guy's moment: the Guy was erupting off the covers of paperbacks to take over the culture at large. Suddenly every movie you went to was about the Guy; every car commercial was directed toward him; he posed in the swirling center of a million cigarette ads. His taste was the final arbiter in the design of easy chairs and barbecue grills, lawn mowers and end tables. It was as though the sleekly practical look of the new suburban world was the Guy's aesthetic: as though teams of engineers had gone through the inventory of a typical house and redesigned it all using flow charts and wind tunnels. And, every day, millions of Regular Guys were bringing home a ceaseless stream of the most up-to-the-minute objects.
The criterion they followed was summed up in a single word: competence. It was something more than skill. It was the Regular Guy's measure of value, an ahistorical standard of absolute worth. Where other people looked for originality or individuality, he looked for the job being done right, with no fuss. He wanted to be able to pause in front of the patio furniture and the kids' bunk beds and admire the sleekness and practicality of the design, the way he had once done with his car or his gun.
The Guy didn't just believe that every problem had a solution, but that solutions in themselves had a kind of self-righteousness. If a thing worked, there couldn't be anything wrong with it. From the local garage to the Oval Office, you could see a meritocracy of correct solutions correctly applied. This was why the Guy's attention always seemed to wander while cracking a white-slave ring or foiling a communist insurgency; he kept looking for brand names. The murder mystery or spy thriller was always fading into a Playboy article on "The Thinking Man's Guide to Stereo Speakers." Sometimes the plot was only the thinnest pretext for the Guy to lay down the law about competence, as he encountered it in unexpected places all through the new America.
Those were great days; my father went from triumph to triumph all through the 60s. His whole life seemed to point toward that miraculous year 1969, when Apollo reached the moon and Richard Nixon entered the White House. They were the irrefutable proofs of my father's deepest beliefs. They were miracles achieved by Regular Guys; the ultimate demonstrations of what you could do if you devoted yourself to the ideal of competence.
Competence was the password with which Nixon cut his way through the webs of old-boy corruption; it was the trick that permitted James Garner to win the girl and steal the fortune from the smug aristocratic villains. It was the moral of John D. MacDonald's biggest novel, Condominium, a vast allegorical indictment of America's universal incompetence and corruption: the only characters saved from damnation are the engineers. And look what the engineers at NASA had done, with competence as their motto.
But wasn't it ultimately something more? At the back of everything the Guy did in those days, from Southeast Asia to the moon, was a kind of love. Spy or astronaut, private eye or president, what counted was your family. Wasn't that the whole point of the suburbs? It was a new world, a perfect world, with every taint of history, society, and tradition expunged. The Guy could be sure when he left for work each morning, his family had everything they could possibly need right within reach. That proved he had done his job and given them his best. They would be exactly as he left them when he got home that night.
Everywhere you looked in the suburbs you could see the Guy presiding benignly over his family. On drive-in screens that were the biggest structures for miles around, silent images glimmered: explosions, car crashes, swooping helicopters. And moving coolly at the heart of the dim chaos, recognizable even in the faint imprint of dinner jacket or scuba gear, suave as ever: the Guy at large. But in the quiet dark on either side, soft stationary lights were appearing, more and more of them, a colored maze like the markers of a limitless airport; and if you stared into them long enough, you could make out the Guy inside them, too. They twinkled everywhere in the suburban dusk: as seen from freeways at rush hours, from the grassy plots between subdivisions, from the empty parking lots of darkened industrial parks--picture windows like a million screens showing the same silent movie. Mom and the kids were arrayed in their shining living room, as the blue glow of the TV lit up the frame like the flashes and bursts of a cold fireworks show: and there at the center of the composition, proudly complacent in his aerodynamic easy chair, was triumphant Dad: the Guy at rest.
It was all one story. Ward Cleaver sitting placidly at the breakfast table with the paper, solving his family crises before he got to the sports section--he drove off in the morning and became Ben Casey or Peter Gunn. No wonder he was so calm, so disengaged. He needed his family to be excruciatingly daffy, because his real life was deadly serious.
For that suspended moment, before the Vietnam War ruined everything, it seemed that the Guy's vision really was going to remake the entire world. The sun would shine serenely over a corrugated landscape of low suburban roofs enclosing Kansas City and Nairobi; every backyard would have a satellite dish and there would be thousands of channels. Perfect material contentment, everything brand-new, a life wholly in reach--dads the world over would drive off the way American dads were doing each day, while Mom and the kids stood in the front yards, waving goodbye.
And yet if you lost your concentration the whole mirage wavered, and you uneasily became aware of how flimsy the new world really was. The plasterboard walls, the hollow doors, the dissolving concrete in the garage, the disintegrating wiring in the ceiling, the corroded plumbing, the leaking window frames, the cracks in the wall around the medicine cabinet, the loose tiles in the shower, the flooding basement, the defective sump pump, the seepage from the septic tank, the sagging roof, the buckling pavements, the shattered sidewalks, the toxicity of the water table, the defaulted bonds of the utility districts, the subdivisions abandoned because of ruinous assessments--none of that was important only so long as the residents were wrapped in the dream, preparing themselves for the next leap forward, training themselves and their children in the psychology of the isolation tank so the next generation could colonize the stars. Because otherwise, what would it amount to?
Just another hustle.
There was a night when people all over America brought their children out of bed to look at the sky. They stood in little groups in front lawns and backyards, calling to each other over fences and alleys, marveling. It was a new age: my father's time. I think of him holding me up and pointing to the south, where amid a clutter of silhouetted roofs and telephone poles bright stars were scattered above the treetops; and there, not falling, not a meteor, one star was mysteriously sliding sideways among its fellows: the first American satellite.
This was my father's great idea: he was going to build houses for the coming generation of spacemen. Wherever NASA might be setting up a big complex, wherever a university was constructing a particle accelerator, he was going to be there first. He and his partner acquired options on big plots of land near proposed sites all over the country, so that when the scientists and engineers arrived with their families, there would already be dozens of cheap, brand-new, comfortably bland ranch houses ready for them to buy. But for the scheme to work, he had to follow the space program with the eye of a gold prospector. He read scientific reports and congressional testimony. He had us gathered in front of the TV, no matter the hour, to watch every single launch and splashdown. My first sense of what TV was came from my father's fixed presence on the couch in the den, taking in those endless hours of coverage, of expert succeeding expert to analyze the current non-event, while the capsule traced its slow sine wave over the equator, a new kind of stock ticker.
I couldn't help being an authority on space myself. I knew the names of the astronauts better than the names of my relatives. But I specialized more in what one might call the secret psychic progress of NASA. The truth was, everything about space terrified me. When I first began investigating the paperbacks on my father's nightstand, the covers of the science fiction stories were so scary I couldn't bring myself to touch them. It was as though they inhabited the heart of nightmares I was barely able to remember: the lost man standing akimbo before the towers of alien fire; the pulsing geometric blobs halfway up a sinister sky; the spaceship sinking into the recesses of infinity, like my sleepless mind alone in my room at night. The sunny neutrality of NASA public relations was a deeply comforting necessity for me, since it covered over the mystery. The more pragmatic the engineers were, the more austere and desolate space became, the less I felt threatened by coolly observant aliens and doomed astronauts.
But children are often drawn to what they're afraid of: the inarticulate privacy of the fear makes it seem like a personal possession. The first grown-up books I can remember buying for myself were about flying saucers--sleazy hackwork with lots of blurry photographs, paperbacks so cheap and shoddy even my father wouldn't read them. But I was possessed by the feeling that outer space was leaking out into my neighborhood, and these were the only books I found that described it. In my mind, flying saucers could descend as easily as funnel clouds. (Years later, I discovered I wasn't alone: the mental landscape of Spielberg movies like Close Encounters and E.T. was so instantly familiar to me I thought they'd been made about my childhood.) It wasn't long afterward that I got the nerve up to start reading science fiction. I borrowed it from my father's stashes around the house (he didn't mind, he never reread anything); then I started buying it on my own (since my father's taste in science fiction was as dull as his taste in everything else). My heroes were Asimov, Bradbury, and Clarke: the specialists in nonthreatening sci-fi daydream. I felt very grown-up because I could read them without being frightened.
Stormy weekend afternoons I was up in my room falling through orbits, skimming above planetscapes, trudging across fields of alien wheat; I saw monorails built on the moon and continental game reserves on earth; there were mining colonies in the asteroids, vacation resorts on the moons of Jupiter, and cargo ships grinding in from the outer planets; and space stations like enormous malls--with tasteful greenery lining the arcades and Muzak floating through air shafts like the smiling, casually dressed residents--appeared as glittering clusters of evening stars above the low haloed rooftops of American subdivisions.
On my walk to school each day I traced out invisible trajectories along the long white sidewalks curving through the neighborhood. The lawns on either side of me were planetary surfaces, the blotchy stipples left by the leaves were nebulae; the fresh spiderwebby cracks were gravitational fields that might send me spinning or crashing into the grass. The school, of course, was the starship Enterprise. The principal's office was the bridge; the glass-and-steel hallways were crowded between periods with crewmen on alert; and anytime I went down to the school's basement, the vast dull throbbing of the heating system put me on the engineering deck as the warp drive was coming on, somewhere between stars.
As I got older, though, another story invaded my reveries.
I had been aware of war from my earliest childhood, as a mysterious, nagging constant: the droning obsession of TV news, a dinner-table conversation among grown-ups that always got out of hand. I grew up with the vague conviction that there was always a war being fought somewhere, at the edge of the world, against an elusive, ever-changing enemy. The Nazis, the Indians, the Japs, the commies, the Cong--our neighborhood gang battled all of them on successive summer days, without bothering to sort out who was who. I took it for granted that when I was old enough I would go to the war, and I sometimes pictured the journey as a long flight on military transport over a limitless spread of subdivisions, until I reached the unimaginable edge of development--where, in the half-finished streets and muddy fields of a suburb-to-be, the soldiers were fighting.
It was as though the suburb around me was taking part in a permanent, secret mobilization: enormous, desperately important, but almost entirely hidden. The placid modernist schools and smoked-glass office complexes of my suburb were classified laboratories and military training centers; somewhere in the empty fields between developments were missile silos. I had strange, half-erotic visions of invisible wars fought across the subdivisions with biological weapons: of glassy maps in underground shelters tracking the spread of plague from house to house, drifting over backyard fences, as families in countless kitchens were seized by that incomprehensible, terminal convulsion, as though the sunny emptiness of the suburban afternoon were suddenly too much to bear.
I think these fantasies were about something other than my own dread--at least the mysterious horror of biowar, so much a part of the high-tech mythology of those days, was very like the mystery underlying any suburban childhood. Growing up in the suburbs, you had no idea how anything worked, who was in charge, where they exercised their power, or why the suburbs were so magically safe while the world on TV was so frenzied. No trace of history or authority, no evidence of cause, was visible anywhere. It all held together invisibly, the way the evening air was suffused with TV signals, or the way the sourceless smell of barbecues dispersed across a million backyards.
It still amazes me, the silence of my childhood. Except at school, I hardly ever saw anybody. The streets were always deserted; the front yards were always empty; you could wander for hours through the subdivisions and see nothing but whorl after whorl of ranch houses, motionlessly marching through the bland, blank, sun-blinded afternoon. Sometimes when I was bicycling by myself, out along the unfamiliar perimeters of my neighborhood, I would begin to notice underneath the silence a mysterious, imperceptibly increasing throb, like a deepening hush. And when I followed it along an interminable row of duplexes, I was led to a plot walled off with high chain-link fences, where a scary array of transformers and power lines was humming. Did the people living on either side notice it? Was the air in their houses perpetually charged with static electricity? Or was this what you would find if you lifted up any house--a buzzing circuit board like the inside of a TV? Maybe nobody lived out here; it was haunted by spectral beings, the ghosts created by blurry signals, that would devour you if you dared to trespass.
When I was in my room on rainy days I would stare at the window screen and imagine it was a map of the suburbs. Each cell of wire that the rain filled up represented the location of somebody I knew. One particular square of water near the center of the screen, that was our home; a zone nearby where there was a dense complex of drops was the school and my friends' homes; a couple of more isolated drops could belong to my father's business associates and old Air Force buddies--they had houses in other subdivisions, mysterious ones I only saw at night; and near the edges of the screen were patchy subdivisions in other states where my grandparents and remoter cousins lived. The rest of the screen, that whole expanse of wire cells, was empty.
And yet I don't remember being bothered by my isolation when I was little. Instead I found the existence of other people a tantalizing mystery. The sight of the picture windows floating in the night was almost unbearably lovely to me, like a glimpse into somebody else's spaceship, life in Einsteinian space. It was as though the houses were bubbles: millions of bubbles, bright bubbles of separateness, rising up and floating away from each other in orderly dispersal through the dark serene air. And trembling on every bubble was an image of a family.
One evening when I was ten or eleven, as my mother drove me home through the streets of our subdivision, I found my rapture undermined by creeping disquiet. I had been all day at my best friend Richie's house, and there had just been a humiliating moment when I was leaving: my mother had been late, Richie's family was postponing dinner; they had reluctantly invited me and I had reluctantly refused. Why hadn't they wanted me to stay? And why couldn't I be there now, even though I was in the car riding away? The mysterious helplessness I felt was like the insoluble problem I already faced on sleepless nights, of how to get inside or outside myself so that time and the darkness of my bedroom would leave me alone.
I could picture the scene I'd left behind: the routine flurry of putting things away and washing up as the smells from the kitchen suffused the house. The ordinariness of it was heartbreaking; another happiness I couldn't have. Already they were appearing in the bright picture window, one more shining family, staring into the TV screen as they receded into the dark.
Years later, I dreamed I was floating over my subdivision, searching the low landscape for one particular roof. I was remembering something the way one does in dreams, with a sudden timeless urgency: something important that long ago I'd forgotten to tell Richie and his family (in the waking world I hadn't seen any of them since elementary school), and now I was going to lose my last chance. But it was already a moment too late; even as I searched I could see a car moving on the deserted streets, sweeping off from their house: the car we had when I was a kid, my mother at the wheel driving me away.
Then something in the dream changed, as though my attention were distracted, and the grid of images rippled like a candle threatening to go out. I was being drawn down from my vantage toward one roof, down past the TV antennas, through the dented slats and the attic, until I was nestled in an upstairs closet. Through the half-open door I could see Richie's bedroom; beyond it through another open door came the faint voices of his family. They were arguing and laughing in a last-minute rush to get ready for dinner. I desperately wanted to join them, but I couldn't move. I would have to wait till Richie came to bed before I could whisper to him--but I knew I couldn't do that either, because I'd have to explain how I came to be trespassing here. I felt as though I'd been trapped like this for years: a shy, unwanted ghost in somebody else's life.
I was 17 years old, and it was the night before my father's funeral.
The motel was in the middle of a fluorescent landscape of highways and franchise strips, rows of warehouses, the massed trucks of shipping companies on gulfs of asphalt, a tangle of high-tension wires and leaning poles silhouetted by lights through greenish night fog. I stood for a long time at the window, as the headlight beams from the highway rippled around the walls. There wasn't much left showing of my father's old town. But I had a feeling he wouldn't have felt lost. For all the feverish busyness of new growth, it seemed as though nothing had changed. Oklahoma's hidden geography had ceaselessly reshaped its new surfaces back into the old pattern, so that its strayed children would be able to find their way home in their sleep.
That's how it was for my father. He hadn't been back in almost a decade (and that had only been to show off at his high school reunion), but they were waiting for him.
He was their big success. He'd gone off into the larger world while they'd stayed; he'd gotten rich and they were the same as ever. They took for granted that he'd been right to go, and they were humbly proud that he'd been returned to them. That morning, before the funeral, I was taken on a tour of the town, and everywhere there were flags lowered to half mast, and stores closed so their proprietors could attend the services. The pallbearers were his high school football coach and five of his teammates. All that blank day, people kept coming up to me, peering into my face and shaking my hand, and telling me how much they'd admired my father.
After the services, there was a big meal laid out in the backyard of my grandmother's house. Lots of people showed up. As the trucks thundered by on the new highway and the soot sifted down over the high old canopy of leaves, my father's distant cousins and forgotten friends kept coming in with platters of fried chicken and bowls of roasted potatoes, burlap sacks spilling ears of corn and hampers of fresh-baked cornbread, church-social potato salad and their great-aunt's famous lasagna, cakes and pies and a dark glass rainbow of sixpacks. They sat everywhere in the narrow yard and ate and laughed and talked about everything in the world other than death. The only problem they'd admit to was the thunderstorm they could see forming in the southwest, late in the sweltering evening.
I stayed over at my grandmother's house afterward. It was a wild night; wave after wave of thunderstorms swept overhead, as though the clouds of the Great Plains were massing to invade the east. I didn't sleep much. I kept imagining my father in this house, sleepless on stormy nights, running through a worried checklist: the windows latched, the doors locked, the bucket placed under the leak in the kitchen ceiling--all the while incessantly reassessing the severity of the storm. I had done the same thing when I was a kid--except I had been mentally warding off burglars breaking in through the basement window and monsters seeping through the air-conditioning ducts. He could have been dreaming of a real danger: the tornado's regal advance on his house and he alone awake to hear it--his insomnia coming through for him, to make him the savior of his family.
On the other side of the ceiling, another storm unfolded through the free dark air. Beneath the hurtling play of its maneuvers, I pictured scenes like reports from distant provinces of an empire: fields shivering, a leaning mailbox on a hilltop silhouetted by lightning, a sudden gleam on a dulled engraving on a farmhouse wall, the rain dripping on forgotten boxes in a barn loft--the mildew creeping through stacks of race records, old photograph albums, ornate mantelpieces, gaily painted glassware, and back issues of Spicy Detective. How much longer would any tokens of the old times survive? Even now it was hard to find evidence of the past around this house: my father had paid to have the rooms remodeled, the kitchen replaced, and central heat and air installed, and in the process had obliterated the traces of his own childhood. And anyway my grandmother didn't seem to care much about mementoes. The only one I had found was a tiny photo in an American-flag frame, sitting on a knickknack table beside the big new color TV: a young man in uniform, regarding the camera with a kind of sullen nobility. It was my father's oldest brother, killed in Italy in 1943.
There was a shattering collision of thunder overhead. Back in my father's day, in weather like this, the town would be battened down like a cargo ship at sea, its people cowering in their cyclone cellars. But I knew that these days all kinds of outsiders were walking around on deck: watchmen at warehouses, truck dispatchers in their glowing glass boxes, graveyard-shift crews in the oilfields. Everywhere I had looked that day, there had been the signs of new money and new people coming in: mushroom clusters of construction along the road to the cemetery, herds of oil wells working distant pastures. The thing my father had gone into the world to find had come looking for him in his hometown.
It was like a rotten electrical cable writhing and thrashing as dozens of sparks all along its coiling length popped through the rubber sheathing. Looking back, it seems to me now that the afternoon of my father's funeral was the last calm time they would all have--the last time they could gather and mourn the way their parents had done: to spend an afternoon laughing at each other's antics like they had when they were kids, or cry for a moment privately, when the loud talk had moved down to the other end of the table. Maybe some of them, the more casual friends on their obligatory visits, were already thinking about the deals they had going, were quietly catching up with each other out by the back fence or the front hedges, to pass along the chance of a lifetime.
It was coming--as though the wave of development were flowing now through every highway and dirt road, all the way back along the track of my father's life. The land along Tornado Alley was encrusted and bejeweled by developments now, like an illuminated copy of a plain text: houses and shopping centers, engendered by the mindless current, were crystallizing out of the air. But it wasn't until ten years after my father died that the treacherous bounty of America finally flooded in on his hometown at full force.
A locust plague of oil drilling swept Oklahoma in the early 80s, the biggest boom since the turn of the century, and with it came a gorgeous forest of new construction. Fantastic new glass-and-steel office complexes were built and sometimes occupied; luxury subdivisions, prefab mansions, and mock Rodeo Drive malls were strewn across the scrubland. Hordes of irresponsible buffoons masquerading as wildcatters were spending their way through grotesquely large loans--but the money was coming in from out of state, from big banks grown wary of the third world and looking for a domestic market; and the torrent of their wealth was limitless. At the height of the madness, one trendy restaurant outside Oklahoma City ran its own air traffic control, as a swarm of brand-new company-owned helicopters hovered over its roof each night, waiting their turn to land and pick up a carryout order.
It was a year or two before the oil bubble burst. But when it did, all the people my father had left behind ended up owing more money than he ever saw in his life. His humble cousins and high school friends, the timid schoolteachers and canny garage owners, the broken-down prospectors and the used-car salesmen--the poor provincials he'd so enjoyed showing off to: they threw away their common sense just as casually as he'd thrown away his past, and turned themselves into oilmen. And they all got conned, just as he had been conned. They gloried in their time at the top--until an uneasy morning when they sensed the slide coming, drove in to work with their doubts mounting, only to discover that their wiser, more practiced partners had expertly cleaned out the accounts and moved on.
They were all lined up for weeks in front of the brand-new mall banks that the feds had seized: the hole-in-the-wall outfits that had channeled the big banks' loans out to an assortment of amateurs and losers who together almost brought down the entire American banking system. Within a couple of years, everybody ended up in bankruptcy court; the office complexes were boarded up; and the unsold subdivisions, where the sewers had never been finished and the electric grid had never gone onstream, were allowed to disintegrate in solitude.
And the Regular Guys--they were long gone. By the time the crash came, they had already dived headfirst into Sunbelt time-share condo sales or penny stocks or the savings and loan industry. The leading edge of American money had moved on, and they were riding it toward the horizon. As for the partners and associates and investors they left behind: what could the Guys say about them? They were rubes. They trusted something--their own cleverness, the system, the Guys themselves: no matter what, they trusted and they were fools.
Wasn't that just what had happened with my father, ten years before? People had warned him--he heard it for years, and he never listened. Everybody could see it coming, and everybody said so to his face. In the end, he got what everybody thought he'd get, though nobody thought he deserved. He'd set himself up in the construction business with the most cunning hustler he'd ever met, and he had never once suspected that he'd get hustled, too.
It was as though he had somehow missed the most important thing about the Regular Guy. He'd been seduced by the mystique; a real Guy was in it for the money. So if his partner came off as an unscrupulous manipulator of regulations, finances, and people--my father thought it was how a Guy was supposed to act. It never occurred to him that the Guy's greed, his duplicity, his relentless drive to screw people over for the slightest advantage--they were the whole point. The mystique was just part of the con: the easiest way of hooking true believers like my father.
Sam Spade wouldn't have been so naive. Wasn't that the real meaning of The Maltese Falcon? Honor and integrity were tactics; there were no higher loyalties; Spade wasn't heroic at all, just a Guy who couldn't be hustled. That was the Guy's only idea of metaphysics. My father had never been cut out to compete with people like that.
He'd been cheated and gulled from the start, all along, wherever he'd gone. The more he'd posed as a sharp operator, the more he came off as a gullible hick, and the easier he'd been to take. Salesmen, employees, customers, partners--anybody could do it, and everybody did. It hadn't mattered in the high times, but the moment the tide passed on, he was stranded.
His business collapsed after his partner looted it. His marriage disintegrated--in part because he couldn't tolerate the thought that my mother had been right about his partner's trustworthiness. Even as the internal rot was bringing down my father's company anyway, his old hero Nixon double-crossed him: by systematically mismanaging the economy he devastated the construction business.
And then there was Watergate. It was the most galling twist of all, I think, that as my father's own life was being ruined, he had to watch as Nixon's front of competence was stripped away by his enemies, until he looked like nothing more than another inept small-timer who'd gotten in too deep. My father took it as a personal insult. After a while, he couldn't watch the news without getting sullen and distressed, particularly because he knew how gleeful I was that he had turned out to be so wrong. It was as though his own authority over his family was eroding with Nixon's presidency.
In the end even NASA betrayed him. After the moon landing, everything was being shut down; there would be no follow-up, no space colonies, no new world--no need at all for my father's conveniently located communities. If he had managed to keep his business together, if he'd somehow survived the Nixon shenanigans and the oil embargo and the inflation of the 70s, he would still never have been able to unload his shoddy subdivisions.
The last time I saw my father alive, it was just after my parents' divorce. He'd given up his company and was going to try a straight job, running the computer division of a big east-coast construction firm. He'd bought himself a hip wardrobe to celebrate his new life. He was wearing--I can close my eyes and see it--a one-piece black-and-gray jumpsuit with a huge silver zipper up the front, as if NASA were designing for discotheques. With his dramatically increasing pudginess and his sweaty, blotchy skin, he looked so uncomfortable all I could wonder was who was conning him now: a new partner, a new girlfriend, or a sadistic salesperson who'd spotted him the moment he'd come through the door.
He never learned a thing; he was picked clean before he hit the ground.
The land has filled up now, and when I pass through suburbs where my father built I can't tell his houses apart from anybody else's. I never saw that many of them in the first place: it was always too far to go, and there wasn't anything special to look at--just row after row of tract homes, maybe a little shabbier and more cramped than the subdivisions on either side. But there was one development, his last one, that I got to know very well.
One morning about a year before he died, he announced that I was going to spend the summer working for him on his new project in Batavia. He knew I didn't want to do it, but there would be no discussion and no disagreement; I was leaving with him the day after school ended. My mother had to explain that he was disturbed by how badly we were getting along and thought if we spent a big block of time alone we might understand each other better. So while he did have a job for me, the real point was that we would share a motel room all summer, we would have breakfast and dinner together and commute to and from the site, and we would talk.
It was a bold move. By that point, we could barely stand to be in the same room with each other. Mostly we argued about politics, as was happening between parents and children all over the suburbs in those days. The years that my father saw his worldview triumph, he had become increasingly baffled and enraged by my obstinate dissent. Like a lot of Regular Guys, he knew for a fact that peaceniks and black activists were nothing more than troublemaking stooges of the Communists; and it was evident to him that the media manufactured the news to fit their liberal bias. He couldn't understand how I could possibly have fallen for their line. I, on the other hand, was becoming less intimidated by him the older I got; I had grown from a shy child into a sullen teenager, and my ingratitude and stubbornness were expanding to galactic proportions.
The drive on the freeway that first day of summer, I did everything short of bursting into tears to let him know I didn't want to be with him. But he had to have expected that. He even succeeded in drawing me out about a few things--but I kept breaking off after a few sentences as though my interrogator had tricked me. It was a long drive, though, past suburb after strange suburb, through scraps of farmland and along thin strips of forest preserve; and he was more patient than I'd seen him in years. By the time we arrived at the site, I did almost feel the beginnings of companionableness. He might have gotten through if he'd kept trying.
He thought he'd have a chance to try. Things were going well for him again. This was the first project he'd started since his partner's abrupt departure: the only deal he'd ever set up on his own. He'd played it safe. The land was just off the commercial strip, which had already seen a flurry of development, after a local college had announced its intentions to inflate itself into a big-shot state university; my father's project was a modest addition to the housing market, perfect for a flock of engineering professors. His track record made the financing a cinch; the approval of the local boards was a breeze; and he knew which contractors to hire. Now that the crews were out on the site and the houses were going up, he must have felt sure he could spend the summer largely as he pleased.
He took me on a tour of the site the first day. It was an arc of 78 duplexes extending most of the way around a low hill. The crews were moving in teams from house to house along the arc like an assembly line--one team fitting the plumbing, the next putting up plasterboard, a third installing the banisters, and so on; so that the model house at one endpoint was already finished and the plot at the other endpoint was still only a wood frame on a foundation. My father wasn't thinking of putting me in one of the crews--after all, I had no skills, and he didn't care if I learned any. Instead, I was supposed to clean up after them. When they installed the appliances in a house, they left heaps of cardboard boxes tossed into the garage. After the carpeting had been laid, there were scraps of odorous, confetti-colored padding scattered around every room. My job was to clean all that junk up. I had to stay out of everybody's way, but I should have no problem finding each day enough debris to carry out to the Dumpster, in one house or another. My father handed me a pair of gloves and told me to go to it.
Very quickly, if not on that first day, I discovered several problems with this plan. First was my own profound lack of interest in doing anything at all: I hated being stuck out there with no friends, no money, and no car, and I was determined to sabotage my father's good intentions. But even if I had wanted to work, there was nothing to do. The crews didn't leave as much debris behind as my father thought, in part because they were stealing a lot of the hardware and appliances; and they tended to clean up after themselves anyway to make their work look better. Some days, if I was lucky, I could find a good stack of cardboard and kill a whole morning carrying it piece by piece to the Dumpster; mostly I'd wander from house to house, surreptitiously following the crews' progress like a self-appointed building inspector. I spent a lot of days sitting out of sight with my back to an unfinished wall, listening to a crew laugh and curse as they desultorily worked on the adjoining house, until five o'clock when my father came around to pick me up.
After about a week, on one of our evening rides back to the motel, I nerved myself up and told him I was having a hard time finding things to do. He cut me off and with a kind of disappointed testiness repeated his original instructions: I should be able to find more than enough work each day without him holding my hand. As he was speaking, we drove into a little line of thundershowers flapping their curtains across the interstate; I waited out the rain and tried to think of a new approach. The spatter of drops on my window rippled precariously, like mountaineers clinging to a cliff face. The sudden sultriness fogged the car's interior. We drove back out into gleaming evening light; the motel and its parking lot were lushly tropical and disheveled. I muttered something about how pretty everything looked. My father suddenly said, with a kind of forced casualness, that he had to drop me off here, he had a meeting to go to and he'd join me later for dinner.
That night, for lack of anything better to do, I started reading his books.
The inevitable stack of paperbacks had been growing on the nightstand in the motel room. They were the same as ever--though the covers were now tasteful pastel abstractions, and the Guy was represented only by a handsome Braque-ish portrait on the back. But the Guy was what he was, no matter the fashion, still going through the motions effortlessly, with his sharp-eyed cynicism comfortably in place. And my father was still plowing through them at the same cruising speed, two or three a night, while I slept restlessly in the next bed and the unceasing traffic out the window dragged milky shadows around the room.
I was hooked by them. I started smuggling them out to the site under my shirt, so he wouldn't notice them on the morning commute; then I found quiet houses where the plumbing had been connected, and I holed up on the undisturbed upper floors and read until the light failed. I tried to take thin books from a rear stack, so the gaps wouldn't show. But I'm not sure he would have noticed if I'd been less careful: his reading was becoming increasingly haphazard. I was able to follow his habits closely, because he tended to destroy each book page by page as he read it, and I discovered that as the summer went on he was more and more impatient: skipping long sections, giving up halfway through, or--more frequently, and more enigmatically--leaving the last chapter unread. It was as though he knew the solution and couldn't be bothered to see if he was right.
I didn't have that problem myself. I was soon devouring them almost as quickly as he was; but I found them almost impossible to understand. The stories they told were so murky and exhausted, so vague in their particulars and so shaken by gusts of unexplained rage, that it was like listening to a drunk in a bar rant about a lifelong string of raw deals. The Guy hated his depraved aristocratic clients, he was contemptuous of middle-class conformists, he mocked the new generation of college-punk commies, he was afraid of blacks, he was bewildered and tempted by amoral hippie chicks--and his solutions to the mysteries were as numinous as the explanations in dreams. Sometimes the endings were so senseless I'd try rereading the whole book to see if I could understand it knowing who the murderer was; but that only made it worse--it was as though the words themselves were losing their meaning and sliding off the page. At that point, I'd have to give up; I'd take a nap stretched out on the newly laid carpet in one of the walk-in closets with my jacket for a pillow. I gradually lost my fear of being caught. Not once, all that summer, did my father come around to see what I was doing.
By midsummer it was obvious even to me that the project was in trouble. The real work was slowing down to a crawl; there were fewer crews out on the site at a time, and the curve of completed housing had essentially stopped about a third of the way around the hill. Some days I was the only one there. But my father was busier than ever. He could barely be troubled to be disappointed by me any longer, so eager was he to get back to work. He left me alone almost every evening, telling me to order whatever I liked from the motel's restaurant; then he'd stagger in after midnight and snore loudly till morning. At breakfast, he was either hung over or brooding; he kept drumming his fingers on the Formica in the motel cafe and on the steering wheel of his car as we drove to the site. He'd dump me off and head at once over to the office he'd rented on the town's commercial strip--where he'd spend the day on the phone with his door closed.
As the summer wore on the construction site grew more and more silent. Every day, the curtainless windows filled up with dazzling white clouds; the sunlight moved serenely across the blank eggshell walls and empty ocher carpeting; the breezes through open garages rustled the tags on rows of stoves and refrigerators, in designer colors like Mold Blue and Natural Flesh. The shadows of clouds flowed across acres of unfinished subdivisions and grassy fields left fallow in expectation of a sale to a developer. And my mind filled up with the surreal landscapes of the Guy, the floating lights of a southern California dusk wound through with the luminous strands of freeway traffic and haloed by billows of rosy smog. I had the feeling that I was on the opposite end of America from the Guy--that the suburbs were spread out like a thick uninterrupted spill of glowing flowers across the prairie from here to Los Angeles, where even now the Guy was driving aimlessly, with the silent unreeling miles of tract homes and franchise strips growing increasingly sun-blinded and tense, as though it were all hovering in the frozen moment before the bomb hit.
Then I shook myself awake and wondered what was happening. From my vantage over the site I could see a shower had passed. The retreating clouds to the east were growing blacker in the afternoon sun, and they flicked a surprising little dragontail of lightning as they disappeared into the hills. Nothing else was moving. Tarps draped over stacks of bricks puddled little gleams of rainwater in their creases; a couple of pieces of big equipment were still stuck in their newest excavation. Uneasily, like an aftereffect of the dissipating dream, I became convinced there'd been nobody around for weeks. I felt like the last astronaut on an evacuated planet. That was when I decided I had to leave.
There was a high wooden fence running the length of the property, the rear wall of 78 backyards. Hidden behind it was a trampled path the crews sometimes used. In one direction it led toward town--I figured I couldn't go that way, because I'd obviously bump into my father the one time all summer he emerged from his office in the daylight. The other way led past the model home and around the base of the hill out of sight.
It was a brilliant afternoon. Insects screamed all along the dripping hillside. The path curved down into a little marsh of waving cattails. On the far side, my shoes muddied, I hit a cindery road that led me past a derelict factory half-hidden in the reeds: I could make out in the dim windows a workbench with a styrofoam cup fossilized in the corner. Around back, beyond a rusted tumbledown fence, there was a wide grassy field scattered with wildflowers and the stakes marking the lots of a new development.
I'd found my way into an accidental seam in the regular unfolding of the suburbs. It happened occasionally--you would find stub ends and broken shards of the past, accumulating like dustballs in an unswept corner. Sometimes they led into the peculiar web of no-man's-land laid over the suburbs: the hidden zones of function and use: fenced-off plots of weeds where phone junctions were buried, or endless aisles of grass measured out by power pylons. I sat for a while in the shade of the factory, letting my shoes dry out in the sun.
Overhead in countless profusion a navy of fair-weather cumulus came sailing; they had been formed that morning by the sun warming the flat farmlands to the southwest. As I watched the shadows moving across the stakes in the field, I fell into a reverie: the stakes reminded me of something I'd read once, or dreamed I'd read, in a science fiction novel. A model suburban community in the future would have massed monitors in the surrounding fields; there'd be monitors blinking in every streetlight, and tucked under the eaves of every roof, and topping discreet posts in the corner of every backyard. They would be for controlling the weather. You would have to have monitors every few feet, maybe, just to track the microchanges of pressure and temperature as a storm moved across the suburban grid; and the information would have to flow continuously and benignly along concealed cables to some dark star of a glass-and-steel office complex, unobtrusively built in an open field like this one.
I could almost see it; we were almost there. But when I got to my feet and started across the field, something changed. The stakes and string suddenly looked forlorn. A few years ago, every scrap and postage stamp of this land had been parceled out to operators like my father. Now I had a suspicion that nothing was going to be done with it. If I came back next summer, it would still be like this, the stakes askew and the string hanging slack, the big sign faded and collapsing in its corner of the lot, the developers talking to their lawyers and the bankers trying to think about something else. It was as though the immense energy that had remade the landscape had been exhausted before the last detail work could be done.
Midway across the field, I came to a little grassy rise: the land fell slowly away on the other side toward a distant line of huge new town houses that marched across the horizon like a dwarf mountain range. Through the gaps between houses, a dark margin of trees was visible in the shimmery haze. I went forward cautiously. The plots all had big backyards carved out of the field's edge; they formed a line of close-mown grass littered here and there with tiny swimming pools, new swing sets in glittery heaps, and, in one yard, a rickety gazebo strung with balloons for a child's birthday party. It was all deserted. I took a long, surreptitious drink from a garden hose uncurled beside a toppled tricycle. A radio was on somewhere, tinny and faint, dialed to an all-news station. A silent fan of puffballs slowly unfolded over the bright western sky. There was a faint echo of sourceless thunder: looping contrails were smearing against the blue overhead, like the signatures of the guardians.
Wasn't this the frontier I'd once dreamed about? An infinite line of town houses at the edge of a remote field, and nothing but trees beyond: it was the farthest limit the suburbs had been able to reach before the war had exhausted their outward force. Maybe this was how the suburbs had all been built: in huge prefab slabs, hastily dressed with convincing details, so the successive waves of demobilized heroes would feel at home when they arrived. But this time something had gone wrong, everybody had been delayed; they were still off at the war and I was left here alone, wandering among the sets arrayed for their homecoming, a stray in an unfinished Valhalla.
The final boundary was nothing more than a deserted highway between the houses and the woods. Or so I thought: but almost as soon as I had crossed into the trees, I was stopped by a line of wire fences walling off the interior of the forest. That was the logical place to turn back, I knew. But instead I walked alongside the fence, peering at the sun-splattered darkness within, until I found a thin path leading deeper into the green.
The path came out in daylight again on an irregular strip of blacktop running along a row of unkempt hedges. I realized that I had crossed into an old suburb, an ancient suburb; the fences marked the property lines of a row of big estates. Against a background of billowing clouds, there were turrets and gables poking up through the proud old shade trees: strange Romantic excrescences from the early years of midwestern wealth. In the stillness of the afternoon, without a car or a TV antenna in sight, it was easy to imagine that the row of mansions looked exactly as it had when they were new, a century before. I had the feeling their inhabitants were the same people who'd had them built here in the middle of nowhere, out of their enthusiasm at the expansiveness of the new American empire--in those old days when the railroads were still spreading west, when my father's grandfathers were first arriving in New York from Ireland and his grandmothers were growing up in Oklahoma, back when it was still Indian territory.
The path continued on the other side of the road, through a gap in the bushes and then a pulled-back corner of another fence. I found myself in a well-tended railway corridor. There were no trains anywhere in sight, so I set off down the tracks.
Nothing about the Regular Guy was made to last. His adventures were intended for a casual destiny: to be ditched in motel drawers, or go brittle in the sun on truck dashboards. The books were so frail that the mystery could fall apart in your hands before the detective sprung the solution, in the last rational pages still clinging to the glue. With spines shattered and the gloss peeling, they'd be used as scratch pads or coasters wherever our transient fathers passed; books that collectors will now pay preposterous prices for were sopping up spilled coffee in flyblown diners, or preserving the half-finished figuring of someone in a motel room, someone worried late at night.
In a sense, the suburbs themselves, the limitless rows of cheap ranch houses, were designed as replacements for the disintegrating books. They were overnight accommodations for 50 million private eyes: they, too, were intended to leave no trace behind. When you see the video footage after a midwestern disaster, the helicopter flying over mile after mile of debris, shredded roofs and exploded kitchens, shards of paneling slipping like surfboards down a tide of appliances, you can't help thinking it's an ecological process, as impersonal as the floods wiping out farmers' shacks in transient river deltas. Nobody was supposed to stay on the prairie for that long. The hustle had been over for years; everybody was supposed to move on, chastened and wiser, and next time buy a real house with a cyclone cellar, something meant to last, the way they used to build them in Oklahoma.
For my father, the ferocity of the American landscape was ultimately a kind of faith. He had never believed that anything of his would survive him; he was sure it would all be ripped out of his hands, like a kite on a windy day. America would scour the slate clean every time. The only genuine sense of achievement you could have, then, was purely personal. That was the real moral he'd taken from the Guy: that mysteriously untouchable aura of personal integrity. That was what survived the Guy's chicanery and betrayal--a lesson in private honor, the cultivation of a mystery so inward the people around you didn't know there was anything to solve.
But the clues were all in front of me, if only I'd looked. I ought to have been able to guess what was up that summer on the construction site. His indifference to me, his increasing disregard of the project, his perpetual air of distraction, and those interminable meetings and phone calls. The solution should have been obvious.
He'd had a new idea.
All that summer, behind his closed door, he was following his partner's lead and gutting his company. He'd only started the project in the first place to get working capital; he'd never cared if the houses were finished or sold. The money he siphoned from the company accounts was reinvested in a series of corporate shells, and from there he was off on a spree of risky bets on slum properties and leveraged real estate investment trusts.
He had learned a lot from his partner: he was able to generate a fortune very quickly, at least on paper; but the money was so tangled up in peculiar deals, he wouldn't be able to spend any of it--then or ever. As far as I was ever able to figure it, sorting through the debris afterward with the family lawyer and a company accountant, he had built up a berserk, secret tower of phantom wealth solely to make good on his old promise of becoming a millionaire by the time he was 40.
He almost made it, too. He was 43 when he died, and his assets, however exiguous, probably did add up to a million dollars--at least until the IRS audited the estate. But they took everything and put his unsuspecting heirs in debt for years to pay off the rest. This was surely what he had to have known would happen. But then why did he do it? And if he was in such a frenzy to fulfill his promise, why did he keep his success a secret?
The truth was, there was another secret--one he'd been keeping for years. He had heart disease. He had refused to do anything about it. He wouldn't exercise or take any medications. He was smoking even more, at least four packs a day: that summer, there was a cigarette in his hand virtually every moment he was awake. He ate everything his doctor told him to stay away from; whenever I got into his office to see him, the ruins of a greasy carryout meal were always on his desk. He'd also begun to drink heavily. It was as though he was systematically pushing himself out of reach--ensuring that his doctor would have to give up on him just as surely as his family was doing.
This is why his final scheme was constructed the way it was. He wasn't just trying to die: he wanted to unmake himself. He wanted to fulfill his private obligations and disappear; he wanted his life's work to be achieved, no matter how, even if he was the only one who ever knew it--and then for it all to vanish the instant he looked away.
Six months after my parents' divorce, when he was alone one night in his new apartment, he got his wish. It was a massive heart attack. He'd been waiting for it. He hadn't even bothered to unpack: the apartment was stacked high with unopened cardboard boxes. Whoever found him--his landlord, his secretary, the cops, or all of them together--had stripped his body of his watch and rings and cleaned the place of everything else they could carry. They must have been disappointed when they opened up the boxes: all they found were books. Tens of thousands of books: mountains of private eye stories, sheer cliffs of spy novels, pinnacles of science fiction, trenches of westerns and inexhaustible veins of pornography: my father's secret carnival, never acknowledged or understood.
Had I ever come close to figuring it out? Did I even suspect there was a mystery? On that heedless summer afternoon, as I ambled down the tracks, idly inspecting the sprawling houses that filed past me in the sweltering hush, I was musing that my father's troubles had only really gotten out of hand a year or two before, when he'd felt rich enough to start house hunting in neighborhoods like this one for the mansion he'd promised us. It had stunned him that his new wealth wouldn't buy him into any of the old suburbs. He'd had to settle for the gate house of an estate in Winnetka--and even that was a rental. He never got over it. Everything that happened afterward seemed to have been generated out of his own rage at the discovery that he was permanently frozen out of the places he most wanted to be.
But why would that have surprised him? The one thing I'd learned that summer in my reading was that the Guy never got what he wanted. How did all the stories end? The Guy driving off, returning to his shabby apartment, contemplating his proud loneliness, while the bright heartless people behind their wrought-iron fences appeared to recede deeper into the sculpted greenery, secure in their glamorous eternal seclusion.
The Guy was always undone by his own pride. In The Maltese Falcon, Spade solves the mystery by announcing that there never had been one in the first place: he had known all along who the killer was. He had never been fooled; he hadn't needed any clues. The Guy's angelic knowledge precluded any hesitation or doubt. Put another way, the Guy needed to know, not to learn: he always already knew what anybody was going to tell him.
What this meant in practice for my father was that he couldn't be seen learning. He couldn't be perceived, even for an instant, as the inferior in any situation. So he'd never had a chance. The first avoidable humiliation, the first fancied slight, convinced him that nothing would ever change. He would never be anything more than a dumb Okie; and the only legacy he'd ever really succeed in giving me was the ability to do what I was doing now, waltzing along the train tracks: the knack for acting as though I belonged someplace I had no claim to at all.
And yet everywhere around me that afternoon were the marks of deep and incessant change. Amid the afternoon babel of birdcalls, of crickets clicking and cicadas shrieking, there floated the whining complaints of buzz saws, and I could see once or twice through the trees the quick bend and poke of cranes. The rich old suburbs along the railway corridor were being dismantled. The somnolent downtowns were being torn down and rehabbed as open-air shopping malls; the haunted houses were being clawed out of their overgrown estates and shoddy apartment blocks were being poured into the craters.
The sun shed a flock of cirrus; golden afternoon light spilled down--mellowing along the railroad ties, illuminating a fringe of yellowed weeds, and aging the green tile of a distant rooftop. The tracks went on silently. I felt as though I was being included in a secret--what my father had worked his whole life to wish away, to shield me from--the hidden movement undermining the foundations of the world. There was a web of endangered complicity that touched tile and cloud, the opening of a remote window and the startled dispersal of sparrows as a car approached. The past is a hurricane.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustrations/Tony Griff.