Home Land

A Novel

Sam Lipsyte

Picador

Excerpt from Homeland by Sam Lipsyte. Copyright © 2004 by Sam Lipsyte. Published in 2005 by Picador, LLC. All rights reserved.


Feeling Is Not Quite the Word

It's confession time, Catamounts.
It's time you knew the cold soft facts of me. Ever since Principal Fontana found me and commenced to bless my mail slot, monthly, with the Eastern Valley High School Alumni Newsletter, I've been meaning to write my update. Sad to say, vanity slowed my hand. Let a fever for the truth speed it now. Let me stand on the rooftop of my reckoning and shout naught but the indisputable: I did not pan out.
We've got Catamount doctors, after all, Catamount lawyers, brokers, bankers well versed in the Eastern Valley purr. (Okay, maybe it was never quite a purr. Maybe more a surly mewl. But answer me this: Why did we fail so miserably to name this noise with which we spurred our sporting types to conquest? Moreover, why was the mascot of Eastern Valley an animal that prefers elevation? A catamount is a mountain cat, Catamounts!) We've got a state senator, a government chemist, a gold-glove ballplayer, not to mention, according to the latest issue of Catamount Notes, a major label recording artist in our midst.
Yes, fellow alums, we're boasting bright lights aplenty these days, serious comers, future leaders in their fields. Hell, we've even got a fellow who double-majored in philosophy and aquatic life management in college and still found time for a national squash title. Think about it, Catamounts. We didn't have squash at Eastern Valley. We didn't have tennis, either, unless you count that trick with the steel hairbrush and the catgut racquet whereby the butt skin of the weak was flayed. Point being, this boy, Will Paulsen (may he rest in peace), left our New Jersey burg without the faintest notion of squash, yet mastered it enough to beat the pants off every prep school Biff in the land, and still carry a four point zero in the question of Why Does the Universe Exist Underwater?
Is this what Principal Fontana meant by the phrase "well-rounded?"
It's fucking spherical, Catamounts.
Alas, my meager accomplishments appear pale, if not downright pasty, in comparison. I shudder at the notion of Doctor Stacy Ryson and State Senator Glen Menninger remarking on this update at some fund-raising soiree-oh, the snickers, the chortles, the wine-flushed glances, and later, perhaps, the puppyish sucking of body parts at a nearby motor lodge. Shudder, in fact, is not quite the word for the feeling. Feeling is not quite the word for the feeling. How's bathing at knifepoint in the phlegm of the dead? Is that a feeling?

This is just to explain why I haven't written in before, and to acknowledge the question you may now consider officially begged: Why in God's name is the loser doing it now?
Good query, Stacy!
What happened was that Principal Fontana got me on the telephone, a rare feat in itself these days, and informed me I was one of the few from our class (minus the dead) who had yet to file an update. I'm sure you all remember Principal Fontana fondly, as do I, and have forgiven him the peccadilloes which cost him a good deal of his pension. (Those girls, whatever their biological age, were lucky to be in America in the first place, never mind the exorbitant sums the man laid down for their services.) These days poor old Principal Fontana's "reduced administrative capacity" doesn't leave him with much on his plate save whatever bones the school board sees fit to throw him, Catamount Notes being a primary bone on the order of, say, a femur.
Perhaps I even feel some solidarity with Principal Fontana, both of us once rather promising in our way, now reassigned for reasons beyond our immediate understanding (fate, after all, is a need-to-know operation) to the category of also-rans. Men like me and Fontana, we come hard out of the blocks, maybe even lead into the first turn, but then, whammo, something happens, we pop a hammy, pull up lame, or just plain fade. Either way we have exposed our true natures, and this while wearing the appallingly skimpy outfits of the track-and-field metaphor.
Nonetheless, I submit this update not as plaint or wail at the lusterless course my life has taken, nor as a tale of cautionary note. I'm quite happy in my unhappy way. I'm more than satisfied to remain unsatisfied. You see, fellow Catamounts, I've been to the edge of the abyss on more than one unsavory occasion. The view down is darkly steep and scary, a chilling reminder that there is, in fact, an abyss. The wise turn tail, fly home, buy nachos, lime-infused. I count myself among the wise. My misadventures have taught me to covet the little things, to cherish, in short, the short straw.
Herein now I mean merely to sketch the contours of a life lived in the shadow of more celebrated Catamounts, an existence eked out in the margins of post-Eastern Valley High School America. This ain't no pity party, folks, so save your cocktail gossip for the rich and wretched of us. They want to be talked about, crave it, even. As for me, Lewis Miner, aka Teabag, class of '89, I just thought you all might relish some recent tidbits from my continuing story, aka The Big Charade.

Here's the latest by me, Valley Kitties: I rent some rooms in a house near the depot. I rarely leave them, too. When you work at home, fellow alums, discipline is the supreme virtue. Suicidal self-loathing lurks behind every coffee break. Activities must be expertly scheduled, from shopping to showers to panic attacks. Meanwhile I must make time to pine for Gwendolyn, decamped three years this June, the month we were to wed. So much for scheduling. Valley Cats who maintained vague contact with me in the midnineties may recall Gwendolyn, that doe-eyed, elklike beauty I met at an aphorism slam in Toronto. What you may not realize is how much I truly loved her, if that's the word for wanting so much to bury your head and weep upon the coppery tufts of a woman's sex while reciting "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death," you can hardly sit on the sofa with her.
Gwendolyn's gone now. The sofa's still here. It's deep and velveteen, a goodly nook for napping, or reading in magazines about Gwendolyn and Lenny, her movie star brother, love, and unacknowledged legislator of her life. They take lazy walks along the shoreline, buy antique paper lanterns for their patio. I don't begrudge them their bliss, if it's bliss. Bliss has my blessing. A patio, though, let a quake crack it open. Let the black earth eat them.
Gwendolyn always said I expected too much from the world.
"You wake up every morning like you should get a parade."
I told her I deserved one with the dreams I endure, the kind that find me sobbing myself awake, groping for last night's roach, or else standing at the fridge until dawn sucking on a frozen bagel. I mean dreams where tremendous dragons rear their spiny heads, sink tall teeth in my neck, muss my hair, sign my report card, call me "Darling," "Shmoo-Shmoo." Survive that, you should absolutely get a parade, a lavish procession, a town car motorcade through the Canyon of Heroes with our very own Catamount legend Mikey Saladin, who, if you've been following his career, has really blossomed into a fiercesome example of the hulking contemporary shortstop. (Sorry you had to sit out the World Series, Mikey! Good luck in arbitration!)
But I digress from our topic: discipline. You see, good graduates of Eastern Valley, I'm my own boss. I'm also my own sex slave. I'll squander the hours I should be working trolling the Internet for pictures of women whose leg warmers have been spattered with semen. You could call this my kink, Catamounts, and there are more specimens floating about in the ether than you may care to imagine, though not nearly enough for me. Lately I've stumbled across the same photos again and again. I'm beginning to know names, or else bestow them: Jasmine, Loretta, Brie. I'm sure those names will sound familiar to most of you, and as for Jasmine, Loretta, and Brie themselves, immortal lovelies of the Jazz Dancing Club, what can I say but, "Sorry, ladies." I've been beating off to you for half my lifetime, why should I stop now?
But fret not your frittered looks, ex-Eastern Valley girls, your time-slung slack and crinkle. When I exercise my right to self-love I run a sort of projected aging program in my mind, picture you vixens in your necessary twilight, your bodies dinged up by babies, gravity, regret. I figure it's only fair. I'm no young buck myself, though, of course, just turn to my "Intimate Portraits" page in the yearbook and you'll see that I was never anything approaching bucklike. Not unless there's such a thing in nature as a buck turtle.

But enough about boring old me. Let me update you on Gary, my best friend Gary, a guy you might remember, though judging from back editions of Catamount Notes, most don't. Gary was the one-thumbed unsung genius of our age. Perhaps you recall him from his many nicknames: Goony, Guano, Dirtfuck, Captain Thorazine. But don't let the monikers fool you. Gary, as Gary once boasted, has never stopped being Gary. He still smokes weed on the sly from his twelve-step buddies, boozes it up, too, but I'm happy to report he's off the powders. This is good news, believe me. I've seen this boy with a needle in his neck, and it wasn't like he'd burned out his arm veins, either. He just wanted to stick it in his neck.
Gary never works, needn't. He's a retractor by trade. Some of you may remember the newspaper articles, how Gary got quasi-rich suing Doc Felix, that shrink who recovered Gary's so-called memories. These were old buried traumas Guano hadn't even known were in his brain. I guess his folks had kept their ritual sex abuse pretty quiet. But after Doc Felix got in there with some hypnosis and regression therapy all the gropes and probes by candelabra light were gruesomely recalled. Gary also came to remember a twin, named either Barry or 20Octavian, slaughtered with goats in the backyard.
Gary sent notarized divorce papers to his parents, passed out informational flyers at the River Mall, some of which included stick-figure diagrams of him being entered by his father. One day, though, the pills Doc Felix had been feeding him wore off. Gary had an antirevelation. He was watching television and something he saw tripped a memory of something he'd once seen on television-a magazine show about satanic cults. The boy'd been had! Gary joined a retractors support group, sued the pants off Doc Felix, begged his folks to forgive him, even offered up his settlement money for their pain. They suggested he burn in his imaginary hell. His real brother, Todd, with no recollection of goats, concurred. Now all Gary has are me and a few sober buddies who don't know about his bong, plus enough money to just hang out for the rest of his natural life, as long as it doesn't get too natural.
But it gets me thinking, this memory game. There was a story in the paper about a child of three, or four, the son of a cop, who snatched his old man's pistol up from the kitchen table, squeezed off a round. His father was home from the night tour, kissing his wife at the stove. The bullet killed him where he stood. What kind of life will this boy live now? Those tender years are difficult enough, but how do you go about them daddyless by your own whimsical hand? Christ, the terror, the shame. Tell me how it won't all end with some wee-hour schnapps and weeping, the grown boy's own service revolver, a groveling, snot-moist suicide note.
I've got a better solution. Why not bury it? You could hire a specialist, some cowboy of the mind. He'd jam that moment so deep in the boy's noodle no amount of free association or dream therapy could ever jimmy it loose. Or better yet, just bend the truth, blow it up and twist for a new animal memory balloon.
Make Daddy hit Mommy.
Make the bullet miss.
I should go back to school and learn the brain. I know, I know, I couldn't even get through Mrs. Strobe's Bio II, but still, I bet they have new machines now, stud-finders for the walls of that gooey maze. As a brain man I'd ride from town to town, bury all the bad stuff. The atrocity gazettes could be my guide. Kid blows up the homestead with his blind mother inside. Little girl by the lake lets her toddler sister drown. I'd do the incest survivors, too, the verifieds, the real molested McCoys. Live not with the injustice, my little ones. The Erasing Angel is here.
ab"It's called denial," said Gary.
The Retractor comes over sometimes to eat my corn chips, tell me what things are called.
"That's hit or miss," I said. "I'm talking about precision repression. Laser-carving of the actual."
"Nobody knows how the mind works, man."
"Don't you have a meeting to go to?"
Well, Catamounts, Gary didn't have a meeting, so we sat around my kitchen for a while. He told me a rather sickening joke about a fellating giraffe, then devoted the next hour to his crush on Liquid Smoke, which is what he calls the counter girl at the Bean Counter, that new gourmet coffee shop next to Dino's Shoe Repair.
"Hilarious," he'd said the morning we spotted her. Whether he meant it was hilarious such beauty existed or just somewhat amusing that he'd never possess it, I didn't ask, though I figured it was both. You see too much in this world you can't have, you do start to laugh. Maybe it's a bitter laugh, but it's still a laugh. It's like what they say about bad pizza, how it's still pizza, but bad, or something.
Gary also confessed he'd been having his drug dreams again. The dream junk was blaze orange, the texture of saltwater taffy. God taught him how to cook it down.
Crazy Dirtfuck! What a doltish dreamer! But I love his Goony ass, I do.

Well, Catamounts, it's been a certifiable pleasure, but I suppose I should leave off here. Stay tuned for future installments now that this buck turtle has finally popped out of his shell. Before I sign off, however, I'd like to share a heartwarming anecdote involving a man we all know and adore. That's right, his municipal highness himself, Principal Fontana!
Last week Gary and I decided to check out this new titty bar in town. It's a decent joint called Brenda Bruno's near the River Mall. The dancers are all educated so there's no exploitation and the DJ is a connoisseur of the moody tunes I favor in the company of nude women who despise me. There we were, Gary and I, having a grand old time sipping our greyhounds, when in walked Principal Fontana. He seemed to stagger a bit, which we took for too much whisky, par for the Fontana course, until we noticed an unbelievable amount of blood pouring off the poor guy's head. His shirt collar couldn't soak it up fast enough and it was hard to believe he was still on his feet. He walked around the bar like that for a while, looking for all the world like a butchered zombie, or a man born old, full-sized, womb slime still on him. Nobody moved to help him and I could see the barback going for the telephone. Gary and I, we made an executive decision to seize Fontana by the elbows, guide him out to the parking lot.
"Get your filthy hands off me!" said Fontana.
"Principal Fontana," I said. "It's us, it's us!"
"I don't know you fucks," he said. "Your faces. Where's Loretta?"
"Jazz Loretta?" I said.
"Let him go," said Gary.
Fontana loped across the parking lot and over the guardrails of Route Nine. We watched him weave off into darkness toward the boat basin. We stood and watched the darkness where he'd been.
"You should write this up for that newsletter," said Gary.
"Are you nuts? Fontana's the editor. He'll never print it."
"He has to print it. It happened."
"So, it's an update?" I said.
"Damn right it's an update. An update is an update. The things that happen are the things that happen."
Forgive me, Principal Fontana, but Gary has a point. Updates are updates, and it is in this spirit, assuming you survived your evening of massive blood loss on the trash slopes of the boat basin, that I know you'll publish mine.