Counting the Cars on the New Jersey Turnpike

Most nights, I read to my kids at bedtime.  Because they are ten-year-old twins with separate and competing interests, I have to read them separate things — usually a sports book for Caleb and some sort of adventure book for Sam.  We've read all the Harry Potters, George Vecsey's Baseball: A History of America's Favorite Game, most of the Star Wars novelizations, The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron by Howard Bryant, Colin Meloy's Wildwood series, and the very weird-but-cool FreeDarko Presents the Undisputed Guide to Pro-Basketball History.

Last year, I also folded in James West Davidson's A Little History of the United States, in part because the Jim Crow chapters of Bryant's stirring biography of Hank Aaron raised a lot of questions for the kids about issues of race in American history.  It's a lovely book, with the kind of economy of language and story-telling that would allow someone to compress 500+ years of North American history into about 300 pages.  It begins with the soaring birds seen by Columbus as he approached the continent in 1492 and ends with the dying birds seen by Rachel Carson in 1962, though the book reaches back further than Columbus and farther than Carson in between.  It's even-handed, throughout, with particular attention to the twinned (and also separate and competing) American values of "freedom" and "equality"— as excellent an introductory history for kids as any I could imagine.  It was a pleasure to read aloud — I felt, at times, like David McCullough narrating PBS' American Experience.

We didn't get to Davidson every night, or even most nights, because we could only read it once the other two chapter books had seen fair representation AND if both kids were still awake.  But when we at last came to the fortieth and final chapter last night, it was hard not to reflect on what was happening concurrently at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, on the divisiveness and hate-mongering at last week's Republican convention, and on the opposition to America's first African-American presidency.  In a final look at lingering conflicts from our national history, Davidson writes:
Puritans dreamed of a holy commonwealth where the saints would rule and the strangers in their midst would learn righteousness.  Jonathan Edwards saw the Great Awakening as the first fruit of “those glorious times” predicted in scripture, when divisions and conflicts would disappear.  These dreams of unity and harmony have propelled the peoples of America for centuries.

But the divisions didn’t disappear.  Madison thought long and hard about that problem as he worked on the Constitution.  A republic would always have divisions, he decided – factions, he called them. And they arose not just because people came from different parts of the world.  The causes of faction were “sown in the nature of man.”  Humans make mistakes in reasoning things out.  Their passions are easily aroused.  They are influenced by “self-love,” which blinds them to the viewpoints of others.  More important, people naturally divide because of their different circumstances in life.  Most often, said Madison, divisions arise because of “the various and unequal distribution of property.” . . . It was wishful thinking to believe that humans would ever find a golden age so gentle, a millennium so peaceful, or a commonwealth so holy that disagreements would disappear.  Or, as Madison put it, no government would ever manage to give “every citizen the same opinions, the same passions and the same interests.”

No, if there was to be a “more perfect union” binding together the people and provinces of the United States, it would have to come from crafting a government that allowed factions to work out their different interests – through debate, through a fair system of representation, through compromise, through laws passed.
This is the kind of government I believe in — the kind that does what private citizens can't be trusted to do, because of our self-love and our factionalism, and the kind that engages in debate and compromise.  The young woman I saw on cable news last night who displayed her Bernie Sanders tattoo and said she could vote for no one else is given over to self-love and factionalism, and I don't think you could find a better illustration of blinding "self-love" than the RNC's candidate, whose name is his brand and vice versa. Actual debate, meanwhile, doesn't really happen — the Republican-led senate has been avoiding it for years, and we're all well settled into our
own closed-system modes of news delivery.  I'm in the MSNBC faction, and the NPR/NYTimes faction.  I'm sure I know at least a couple of people who are at least considering voting for Trump, but they aren't people with whom I ever talk politics.  Or anything, much.  I certainly know people who are considering voting for Green Party candidates (something I did myself in 2000) or perhaps not voting, because Hilary's centrist/hawkish/corporatist past isn't something they feel deserves compromise or concession.
Sam, Caleb, and a friend watch the July 3 fireworks at the lakefront.
I fervently hope that Secretary Clinton's campaign will reach out to Senator Sanders' faction through debate, representation, and compromise, and not only to make those voters feel they can come into the larger tent despite the seriousness of their tattoos and convictions.

The Beckum Little League All-Stars take the field following a summer storm


The Tigers Have Spoken

As reported in the New York Times, national corespondent for The Atlantic and National Book Award nominee Ta-Nehesi Coates is writing an upcoming 12-issue run of Marvel's Black Panther.  We've given Matrix Jedi, Elvis Costello doppleganger, and esteemed professor Dr. Cornel West, an outspoken critic of Coates, an opportunity to preview some of the early issues:

Brother Coates’ new issues of Black Panther are full of BAM and POW, but they hardly measure up to James Baldwin’s historic run on the comic back in the Mighty Marching Marvel Society days of the salubrious seventies.  Baldwin’s excoriation of the exploitive American eye towards brother T’Challa’s native Wakanda and the imperialist strip mining of its vibranium resouces led to collective action, and may even have inspired the organization that came to share the hero’s name.  Coates’ Panther, meanwhile, makes no critique of the Black president in power, or the rampant capitalist wage inequity evident in the disparity between the tony Starks and the proletariat Parkers.  He hasn’t familiarized himself with our hero brethren who have struggled alongside us: Black Goliath, Black Lightning, Black Talon, Black Manta, Black Vulcan, black Power Man, and (somehow) the Bronze Tiger.  Until he’s studied these afro’d and afro-centric heroes of the four-color struggle, Coates will remain a mere darling of Stan Lee-liberals and jackbooted Kirbyism.  Also, as brother Jonathan Lethem proved with his 2007 attempted revival of Omega the Unknown, no one wants this shit.  Finally, in what can be attributed only to Coates' youth and an unwillingness to examine our era's omnipresent neocon ogliarchy, brother Ta-Nehesi completely misunderstands the villain he employs against brother T'Challa.  As any scholar must recognize, Klaw lost his powers in a fight with Carnage in Amazing Spider Man #676, but here he appears again as a bigoted imperialist with a vibranium-powered sonic laser rather than as a being of pure sound as he’s appeared since his fight in Dazzler #11.  Please send my no-prize to the efficiency apartment I'm sharing with John Edwards in Topeka, KS.


North American Anthology
of Pop Music Literature

Four:  "When They Ring Those Golden Bells," (Trad.)

Oranges and lemons,
Say the bells of St. Clements
You owe me five farthings
Say the bells of St. Martin's
From a traditional English children's rhyme first printed in Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book, circa 1744. The tune of this rhyme is meant to be reminiscent of change ringing (which, per Wikipedia, is the art of ringing a set of tuned bells in a series of mathematical patterns.  That is, the sound of St. Clements' bells make the sound of the words "oranges and lemons."
Throw the vandals in court
Say the bells of Newport
All will be well if-if-if
Cry the green bells of Cardiff
Why so worried, sisters, why?
Sang the silver bells of Wye
And what will you give me?
Say the sad bells of Rhymney
Pete Seeger's folk song, "The Bells of Rhymney," utilized part of a 1938 poem by Welsh poet Idris Davies. That poem, "Gwalia Deserta," dealt with a Welsh coal mining disaster and a failed 1926 general strike. The poem moves the bells of London to South Wales.
You owe me a move
Say the bells of St. Groove
Come on and show me
Say the bells of old Bowie
When I am fitter
Say the bells of Gary Glitter
No one but you and I
Say the bells of Prince Far-I
The Clash's "Clash City Rockers" bases part of their song on these prior two, appointing the status of august old church bells to Birmingham's The Move and Australia's The Groove, as well as David Bowie, future pederast Gary Glitter, and the Jamaican deejay Prince-Far-I.  (Tommy Thumb: You ain't happy less you got one.) Some say this song borrows a guitar riff from The Who's "I Can't Explain."
Cause it ain't the glory days
With Bruce Springsteen
I'm not a virgin so I know
I'll make Madonna scream
You hate Michael and Prince
All the way, ever since
If their beats were made of meat
Then they would have to be mince
Rock the bells
Unless you were to find the 12" extended single version of this song, which emerged on Def Jam in 1985, you wouldn't actually hear any bells on LL Cool J's "Rock The Bells."
Ring them bells, ye heathen
From the city that dreams
Ring them bells from the sanctuaries
Cross the valleys and streams
For they're deep and they're wide
And the world on its side
And time is running backwards
And so is the bride.
Bob Dylan's "Ring Them Bells" appears on his 1989 record Oh Mercy, following his born again period.  Dylan told the New Yorker in 1997: "Here's the thing with me and the religious thing. This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don't find it anywhere else. Songs like 'Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain' or 'I Saw the Light'—that's my religion. I don't adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I've learned more from the songs than I've learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs."


North American Anthology
of Pop Music Literature

Three:  John Henry and John Hurt

John Henry was a steel-drivin' man, swinging his nine-pound hammer to clear the C&O Railway's Big Bend Tunnel near Talcott, West Virginia.  Henry drove steel drills into the rock-side, making the holes for the explosives that will later blast that rock away.  In 1872, with work on the tunnel nearly completed, an agent for a steam drill company brought a drill to the tunnel for demonstration purposes.  John Henry took a lot of pride in his work and didn't care to have that machine taking the work of men like him.  A contest was set up between the steam drill and John Henry, a contest that lasted a day and a half.  John Henry had outpaced that steam drill, but it cost him his life.

Furry Lewis, "John Henry," recorded for Vocalion Records in Chicago, IL, 1927. 

But also: John Henry was prisoner #497 at the Virginia penitentiary, on work-release for the C&O, working beside the steam drills on the Lewis Tunnel that was underway near Millboro, VA, in 1873.  Henry swung his hammer so fast and powerful, the men of the line organized a race between the man and their best steam drill.  When he died in 1873-- his hammer in his hands -- he was buried in the sand along the rail lines running behind the prison.

Or even still: John Henry was born a slave in 1850, to P.A.L Dabney of Georgia.  Danny's son went on to be chief engineer for the C&W Railway, and John Henry went along as a freedman to work the Oak Mountain Tunnel near Leeds, AL, in 1887.  There, he was challenged to see if he could beat that ol' steam drill, and by now you know the rest of it.

John Henry, one of these men or none of them, becomes a story passed through folk tales and songs, something born native to this country, invested with a full history of slavery and conscription and labor, American exceptionalism in overalls.  A tale becomes a legend becomes a metaphor, eclipsing any attempt at biography.  A man ain't nothin' but a man, poor boy.

John Smith Hurt was born on July 3, 1893, or he was born on March 8, 1892.  He lived in rural Mississippi, where he taught himself to play guitar in a finger-picked style that syncopates like ragtime piano.  He worked as a farmhand put played his old-time music for house parties and country dances.  A fiddle playing friend won a contest to record for "race records" studio Okeh, and upon a recommendation, "Mississippi" John Hurt got an opportunity in 1928 to record his songs in Memphis and New York City.  He recorded 12 songs across six 78 rpm records.  They were a commercial failure -- the Great Depression soon led Okeh out of business and Hurt returned to his hometown to work as a sharecropper.

One of the songs Hurt recorded in 1928 was "Spike Driver Blues," which incorporates the legend of John Henry in both a real sense and as a kind of metaphor for what hard work's going to get you.  A spike driver sets the spikes on both sides of a rail, cementing train tracks in place, something of a different job than Henry was previously said to have. "Spike Driver Blues" and its variant, "Take This Hammer," both branch out from the tale of John Henry to something more -- reflecting on what John Henry means, perhaps.

Mississippi John Hurt, "Spike Driver Blues," Okeh Records, 1928.

In 1952, Moses Asch's Folkways records released The Anthology of American Folk Music, a collection of 1927-1932 recordings assembled by bohemian collector Harry Smith.  Included on the three LPs in the box were two songs from John Hurt, "Frankie" (which we'll discuss another day) and "Spike Driver Blues."  The Anthology birthed the great folk revival of 50's and 60's, influencing new folk artists like Dave Van Ronk, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan.

A fan of the Anthology, Tom Byrd Hoskins, became determined to find out what had become of Mississippi John Hurt.   After hearing a 1928 song of Hurt's ("Avalon Blues") that contains the lyric "Avalon, my home town / always on my mind," Hoskins scoured maps of Mississippi but could not find an Avalon there.  There was an Avalon in Georgia, but no John Hurt there.  Finally, an 1895 atlas showed a little hamlet of Avalon, later incorporated into Grenada, MS.  A girlfriend volunteered a car, and in 1963 the two of them tracked him down Hurt, then 72 or 73.  Hoskins and his associates gave Hurt a guitar, arranged a new home in Washington, D.C., and drew him out into the limelight of MacDougal and Bleeker Streets, the Newport Folk Festival, and television appearances on the Tonight Show and on Pete Seeger's 1965 PBS show Rainbow Quest:

"Spike Driver Blues," Mississippi John Hurt, Rainbow Quest (TV Show), 1965.

By 1966, John Hurt was wore out, tired of the bookings and attention, and wanted to go home.  He snuck away from celebrity and, back in Avalon on November 2, 1966, he died with a hammer in his hands.

There is no beating the steam drill, is there?  John Henry may have run the race against the machine, but it cost him his life.  So: steam drill wins. On the other hand, John Henry still exists in the American folk realm, while steam drills have gone the way of dynamite, locomotives, and large public works programs.  It is not uncomplicated: bringing a black man out of obscurity to perform for white bohemians and their obsession with authenticity and old, weird America.  The hammer brings the railroad, the railroad takes the people through, tuned out to electric guitar.

Dave Van Ronk, author of The Mayor of MacDougal Street and the basis for the title character in the Coen Brother's Inside Llewyn Davis, led me to Mississippi John Hurt through his version of "Spike Driver Blues" on a 1997 tribute album to Harry Smith's Anthology.  Something about Van Ronk's Brooklyn-ish asthmatic/emphysemic wheeze makes the track stand out starkly, and in his version the lyric "This old hammer killed John Henry / But it won't kill me" sounds to my ear like: "This old hammer killed John Henry / Who killed me?"  Van Ronk died in February 2002.

"Spike Driver Blues," Dave Van Ronk, Down in Washington Square: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection, 2013


North American Anthology
of Pop Music Literature

Two:  Bayard Godsave's "White Man in Hammersmith"

Bayard Godsave's short novel*, "White Man in Hammersmith," which appears in Torture Tree, is dedicated in part "to Town."  That's me.
*I prefer the term "short novel" to "novella," because novella strikes the same reactive nerve in me as do most portmanteaus:  webisode, guesstimate, and the now thankfully obsolete cassingle.  These words create bullshit specificity -- do we really need a word to indicate a thing and its form all in one go? Even short novel seems unnecessary and arbitrary:  is Of Mice and Men called a short novel?  Or Bright Lights, Big City? Anyway: I will refer to Godsave's "W.M. in H." as a story from here on.
It is a great story full of great writing, and I'm proud to be identified as its ideal audience (if that's what a dedication is meant to do...?).  The story is narrated by a expat American running a small recording studio in Trinidad, and his ancillary connection to an attempted coup there by radical muslims in 1996.

The title comes from The Clash's "(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais," which the band released as a single in June 1978.  It also appears on the US version of their eponymous 1977 debut album, which wasn't released in the States until 1979.  "(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais" is the best Clash song, a song that well illustrates their mesh of politics and punk, a song that cements them as The Only Band That Matters.  I presume Bayard dedicated "W.M. in H." to me because he know how much I love "(W.M.) in H. P.," and how much I revere the song's co-author, Joe Strummer.  However, there are aspects to both the song and its namesake story that touch on issues of (White Man) privilege and cultural appropriation that also -- perhaps not as consciously -- might play into the dedication and the thematic unity between the song, the story, and its dedicatee (i.e., yrs trly.)

The song "(W.M.) in H.P." is about a white Londoner (Strummer, himself the son of a British foreign service diplomat) who attends a a reggae concert at the Palais, hoping to absorb some of the danger and rebellion of Jamaican music but ultimately let down by the show's shallow glitz and showmanship: ...but it was Four Tops all night / with encores from stage right.  The singer then turns that thought onto the shallowness of the by-then-fully-mature London punk scene -- they're all too busy fighting / for a good place under the lighting -- when they should be using punk's energy for forward political movement: the new groups are not concerned / with what there is to be learned / They've got Burton suits, you think its funny / turning rebellion into money. By song's end, the singer himself gives up and gives in: I'm the all-night drug-prowling wolf / who looks so sick in the sun / I'm the white man in the Palais / To go looking for fun.  It's sort of Thomas Frank's Commodify Your Dissent in a four-minute pop song.

The narrator in Godsave's novel is essentially taking on the same mission as Strummer in the song: he uses his white American privilege to make a personal paradise of Trinidad in the '90s, appropriating what he prefers from the culture (music, weed, an atmosphere of danger and dissent) without really understanding what he's doing.  (Cf. Strummer on the recording of Sandinista!, the Clash's Jamaican dub and US hip-hop influenced album named after socialist Nicaraguan rebels:  "I smoked so much pot, I'm surprised I haven't turned into a bush.")  At the same time, the Trinidadian mystic/musician Master Z, with whom our narrator is obsessed and embroiled, is appropriating western/America hip hop in it's 90's/Pantherish guise of radical militarism, just as Strummer reports finding Leroy Smart and Delroy Wilson taking on aspects of the stalwart oldies-circuit Four Tops.

"W.M. in H"'s narrator's white/rich/expat privilege is most evident in that the novel places him always in contexts of recall and reaction: his privilege prevents him from doing anything but react.  Most of his interactions with Master Z happen through media -- observing his radicalism through a control room's window, watching the coup on television.  Our narrator can only consume culture, he can't really engage with it.   He's the audience to history, like Strummer at the Palais or standing by as Caribbean youth challenged UK bobbies at the Notting Hill riots in 1976 (cf. The Clash, "White Riot.")  This is part of what privilege does -- puts you behind the window, puts you in front of the screen, makes you audience or consumer rather than actor or maker.  It makes you a book's dedicatee, perhaps, but not its author.

Neither "W.M. in H"'s narrator, nor "(W.M.) in H.P"'s narrator, nor I  (fan of both) can be free of allegations of privilege and cultural appropriation.  The life I live, the music I prefer, are things given to me, handed down or handed over.  Even my kids are mine through a kind of cultural appropriation, though its not pleasant to dwell on that thought.  One doesn't like to think of oneself as more Four Tops than drug-prowling wolf, even here in my lower-middle forties.

Junior Murvin said: All the peacemakers turn war officers.
Eddy Grant said: Well, I'm running -- police on my back.
Willie Williams said: A lotta people won't get no justice tonight, so a lotta people going to have to stand up and fight.
Lloyd Price said: Stagger Lee threw seven, Billy swore that he threw eight.
James Wayne said:  Down the road, came Junco Partner -- he was loaded as can be.

Joe Strummer, who also said these things, died in December 2002.  The Hammersmith Palais closed down in 2007 and was demolished in June 2012.

--- --- ---

p.s. Order Bayard Godsave's Torture Tree here or ask for it at your local bookseller's.  Both of the short novels within are tremendously good and well worth your time, attention, and dirty ill-gotten lucre.


North American Anthology
of Pop Music Literature

One:  Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" #12 & 35

Jack Dove dj'd under a name that would later embarrass him, having chosen a tag that was cutting edge at its invention but dulled and gummy by the middle of the next year.  He might have done better by "dj jack dove," in e.e. cummings uncaps, which through its obviousness and utility would have stayed sharper in the knifeblock than the name he'd stretched for.  It was under this name, the one he'd wince to hear when he'd run into patrons of the dance club in later years -- always at the grocery store or the mall, wherever the lights were too bright, and always when his kids were misbehaving, the auld acquaintance being the absolute worst kind -- under this name he'd posted to the internet a mash-up of Bob Dylan's thing about "everybody must get stoned" and Sly Stone's thing about "I-high love everyday people."

It had come to him in his sleep, or from the verge of wakefulness anyway -- connecting those two songs, and he'd worked on a title before he'd manipulated the music into any form of actuality.  Downloading, cutting up, recalling a short story from his high school literature textbook, all of it coming together without really thinking about it, almost in the way he read those stories in high schools, watching the words without recognizing that he wasn't actually reading, seeing without comprehending, turning back to see where he'd stopped paying attention.  What is there to know about zen that one cannot better intuit about zen?  

Dylan's song is, on the level most often appreciated, about getting high.  It's also about a certain kind of inevitability, of outside forces working upon the individual:  they will stone you when you are walking home, but you needn't feel so all alone -- they do this shit to e'erbody.  Stone's song, meanwhile, is about acceptance and diversity, different strokes that move the world, but it's also kind of a resignation to our separateness, to man's inability to figure out what bag you're in.  It's also about getting high.  Only in that every Sly Stone song is about getting high.

None of these levels factored into Jack Dove's work with the two songs in ProTools -- to the extent that he sought meaning at all, he meant only to recreate the idea that had come to him in sleep, the creation of a sound he'd heard in a dream, a sound that did not exist and wasn't even a sound.  But its interesting to consider that Jack Dove took two songs that are celebratory on their topmost layer ("What do call what's above the subtext?") then merged them into something about the inevitability of division, persecution, and violence.   The addition of the Shirley Jackson story, in the form of the composition's title and that doubled meaning of "to stone," underscores all of this in a way that, again, the mash-up artist -- the author, or collagist -- was entirely unaware but for which he must still be held responsible.

The song he'd created -- or merged, or stole: these are someone else's argument to make with you -- this song made from other songs about stoning and people and everybody, this song has long since disappeared from digital space, from peer-to-peer file sharing sites, or wherever such things once had their loci. The source file must have lived on some long-wiped hard drive, the weblink broken and 404'ing to nowhere and nothing.  Before winking out, and according to server analytics themselves now overwritten with now-now-now, the file was downloaded two hundred and thirty seven times.  Its possible, one supposes, that copies may still exist, floating out on the ethers and iClouds, ready for recharge on a Gen2 mp3 player in the lowermost desk drawer in an ex-girlfriend's guest room, just as it is possible that it is gone entirely.  Like the sound of an airplane too far away to see, its jet trail only ones and zeroes.

Stranger still: when Jack Dove merged the Stone horns of Cynthia and Jerry with the Dylan horns of Doc Butler and Charlie McCoy, he also merged -- in ways too elaborate to detail -- distant branches of his family tree, as one of the horn players of the Family Stone was a shirt-tail relation of his maternal uncle and one of Dylan's players had once been married to a second cousin-once-removed, but mapping this out is oblique and hard to follow.  And, frankly, as Jack Dove was no more aware of this than any other layer of meaning beneath what can be felt in one's funk and heard through one's earbuds, to make anything more of this particular coincidence would be to strain credulity.

Some time later, Jack Dove was recognized by his long-lapsed dj tag in a southside Super Target by a man only slightly younger than he, but a younger man all the same, one who'd so far resisted any urge to change his clothes or hairstyle or metaphysics from how'd they'd been situated way back in his dancehall days.  "Yo: dope, that was dope," this younger man said, in relation to the digital construction or the dj or that period in which they once shared common space.  Then a handshake too intricate to recall and a question:  "You holding?"  Jack Dove looked to his small children in the cart as if he were afraid they might be hip to the lingo, as if they'd knew the soundtrack, as if they too might be hiding pebbles in their balled-up fists.


Second Hand News (Part Three)

And now the thrilling conclusion to...
Wade's Husk

In the comfort of the living room, the telethon went coasting into its final hour.  The host, clearly crushed by the low totals on the tally board, loosened his necktie and lowered himself onto the studio's platform steps.  "These kids," he said, leaning his head onto his microphone hand, "who will help them, if not you?  And when, if not now?"  And then more video clips of the children, many of them as old as me, striving to play, to laugh and smile and plead with dewy eyes.  Did they have any idea how lucky they were, those kids, for their care and attention, for their stirring afflictions?  At the end, with music swelling and toll-free numbers scrolling, one little boy who seemed half made of metal was caught giggling at the spoonful of applesauce held out for him by a red-sweatshirted volunteer.  She pressed her finger to his nose like a button.  What could be more lovely?

When it was at last all over, my brother's rumpled castoff husk reflected in the darkened TV screen.

I got the shirt off first, unbuttoning the cuffs and jerking the cotton from the arms when it snagged on a crack or a cuticle.  Little bits of him flaked off like dust, scratching the tenderness out of my own hands.  Next went the shoes and the socks, the pants and finally the underwear: every part of him yellow and gruesome, coiled like rotted rope.  I bunched his clothes and carried them to the laundry chute, leaving his shoes neatly aligned by his bedroom door as if it were St. Nicholas' Day.

Maneuvering the husk into one of the foggy biomed bags the city provides for Tuesday pickups, I noticed the Sail Club bracelet still wound around his stiff wrist.  I yanked fiercely -- tried my best to twist his rigored fingers -- but in the end it took the garden shears from the garage.  Stabbing through the thin underside of the wrist with the wide lower jaw of the shears and working ruggedly through the his arm, ripping the skin rather than cleaving it.

Detached, Wade's arm was lighter than I'd expected, and despite the toughness of the outer layer, the inside was still damp and not as obscenely jaundiced.  I ran a finger down the glossy inner arm, collecting some moisture off the insides like the dew that develops on refrigerated cling wrap.  The hollow inside smelled a good deal like my gym locker, like a camp mattress.  Holding his skin to the light showed the sinewy indentations of veins and muscles.  I'd never before noticed the cross-hatched and wavy texture of all skin -- his and mine both.  I'd though fingerprints were limited to the fingers.  But no: we are everywhere covered by swirls and roadmap routes and ravines.  There is no silk to skin at all.

I found I could fit my hand into his, and I wore his skin as a glove while I sealed the body bag and ran the vacuum, which rattled over his spot on the rug as if it were sucking up tacks.  His fingers seemed to tingle over mine, they seemed both fragile and mean, fingers that must have scuttled quickly through snow, wanting to both retreat to a mitten and yet go on packing a better snowball.  This was, wasn't it, his winter skin?

Lugging the bag downstairs and outside, I let his head waffle and thump against each step but the last.  I waited there at the curb for the moment my father's wagon would turn up the drive, waited in the stamping cold and its slight scent of spring.  Wade, I imagined, would be sitting up front in the passenger seat, and I would meet him with a wave as he sought out the bundled refuse of his former self.

the end
last of three parts


Second Hand News (Part Two)

We now return you to...
Wade's Husk

It had happened for the first time on my ninth birthday, in front of all my friends from the third grade.  That was back when there weren't that many people shedding, when they didn't know if it could be catching.  People thought it was a thing caught by touch, like leopardsy or cooties.

So there was Jon and Chad Schmidt and Chad Schmidt's brother all gathered around the dining room table, candles barely in my cake and not even lit, and Wade starts shaking and picking at himself, all the mothers gasping and pushing their kids to the front door.  Chad Schmidt's brother had to be pulled by his collar.  My parents -- no one knew anything then -- sped him off to the hospital and I was left alone, nine years old, with my yellow cake and wrapped presents.  Wade had never been satisfied with just his own birthday, he always wanted mine as well; ever since, his wasted husks have haunted me at nighttimes, ruining perfectly good dreams with their bitter laughs and soggy motion.


His shell was still lying tangled on the floor of the den the next morning when I checked in on the telethon -- the hosts were sleepy and slow to respond to a chirping girl in metal crutches.  My parents were in the kitchen, racing the paper and sipping coffee.  "Wade shed," I told them.  "And then just left himself right there on the floor."

"Aww," my mother said, setting her mug on the breakfast nook bench, "my poor poor baby."  But I am the younger, I am the baby, and I very nearly said so, but all I had by then was the back of her bathrobe.  My father meanwhile looked up from the Arts & Leisure section to consider me over the top of his glasses.  "A family," he said, his attention back on the paper, "shares responsibilities.  It'd be nice if you pitched in once in a while."

But no way was I going to have anything to do with that thing.  It was his skin, after all: what could belong to him more?  So I retreated to my room, between the bed and the wall, looking over some Incredible Hulks and listening to the voices in Wade's room as they cracked right through the plaster.  My mother promised him anything he wanted from the grocery store in that sweet sort of tone I only hear after the school's Spring concert and the winter one.  "Are you comfortable?" she asked, and "Not even Alpha-Bits?  Not even Marathons?"  And then my father too:  "Nothing at all, champ?"

Before long, Father was at my door, more familiar in his way.  "Come out of there," he told me, "and let's get this den cleaned up."  Wade stood directly behind him, pink as Valentine candy, a vicious grin cutting across his tight new skin.

They took him to the mall, my parents, for new soccer cleats and probably ice cream, leaving me to dispose of his remains.  I warmed some water in the Radarange and stirred in a packet of cocca and crispy marshmallows.  I had a Diet Slice and some cheese crackers.  I put the telethon on the kitchen's black-and-white, and I tried to imagine a house not so haunted.

---to be concluded---
second of three parts