FICTION April 25, 2014

The Cultivationists

By John McManus

An excerpt from the novel The Cultivationists

Obie saw his first sign that the Lord was angry Thursday evening when he awoke from his nap to find his erstwhile girlfriend passed out beside him in her rocking chair. He’d tried to clear things up at the start of this second go-round. “Delilah,” he’d told her, “I’m writing a book, which means I like to be alone. If you’re one of these women that wants to wake up beside a man each morning, piss off,” but here she was, threatening to stay all night and onward into his writing time. What women try to make men do:

1.     Curse God and die

2.     Glance back at cities of the plain

3.     Reveal the secrets of our strength

4.  Four four four four— cut off their heads? but no, she’d made him forget his dream, so all he could locate in memory anymore was a red bandanna with a swastika. Conniving devil, he thought, stumbling to his desk. Head throbbing, he lowered himself into the swivel chair. He drank some whiskey. After half an hour he finally dipped his pen in the inkwell, but the nib caught on the jar lid and, in the second shadow of God’s mood, spilled ink on the day’s pages.

His hands black and his last jar wasted, Obie aimed his temple at the spill and slammed it down. Immediately five-point stars spun in a white swirl as the Lord said nothing. “Good Christ!” he cried. To curse God’s silence further, he took up a bottle and swigged, swigged until he could breathe. Suddenly he knew what the bandanna meant. No one mentioned the Trail of Tears these days; in Europe they’d never heard of it, unlike the Holocaust. The Trail of Tears, per capita, had been more calamitous. Millions of Jews remained alive while Cherokees were scattered in tiny clusters from the Smokies to barren Oklahoma where nothing mattered, nothing grew, and Obie drank and mourned the villainy that let his race live destitute while Israel waged wars sanctioned by the world, they having handled their affairs better, having waited until the film era. If only Andrew Jackson had killed a few thousand more. The 600,000 Rwandan dead were commonly rounded up to a whole million. Your number needed seven digits.

The third and final sign was Link’s appearance in his bedroom. The boy seemed to have grown another inch overnight; his head was barely a foot lower than the doorframe as he observed the ink on Obie’s forehead. “I need to talk.”

“Why aren’t you in bed?” asked Obie, not liking Link’s ominously low voice. Change was coming soon. Painful to recall how he’d treated his ma during puberty: three years of his selfish anger and then she’d died.

“I don’t even have a bedtime,” said Link, pushing the door wide. “You give me whiskey to keep me up at night.”

“You choose to drink.”

“You let me start.”

“I get so lonely.”

“Bullshit,” said Link, but it was true: most of the time Obie felt completely alone.

“I’m sorry,” he said, taking the fall so things could stay pleasant. Whatever Link wanted, though, it wasn’t pleasantness.

“You keep me home because you’re crazy,” Link said.

“Nobody’s crazy around here.”

“I’ve never seen a doctor.”

“We’re not rich.”

“They have free doctors.”

“Now who’s crazy?”

“I crashed through the windshield and teachers smell whiskey on me and none of what you taught for years is true.”

With a sudden jolt Obie realized what was wrong: Link had gone and found Bonnie dead.

“You’ve never done a normal thing,” Link was saying. “You drive wasted. You swear Fontana Lake is evil.”

“Your mother has told you time and time again—”

“You wrote those letters!”

“I beg your goddamn pardon?”

“You’re insane! Insane, insane, insane, insane.”

By the fifth insane, thunderheads were gathering in Obie’s mind. Prior to now his hair had stood on end just twice. The first was when he’d found his father’s appendix in the closet in a mason jar labeled appendix of Obediah Mantooth. It was his own name, not the jar’s contents, that had gripped him with terror. As for the second, Hannah had been escaping and he caught her and hurt her more than he could measure because God had demanded it in the same tone He now took when he said, “Obediah, open your desk drawer.”

Obie took out the five-million candlepower flashlight he kept in his desk, the closest thing he had to a lighthouse bulb. Wondering if his son would chant insane eternally, he drank some whiskey. “Crazy,” Link was saying now in a litany that proved God right to counsel strobing the light rapidly at him.

Obie turned it on and off and on and off, illuminating the pine wall in sickly white. It shut the boy right up. His arms fell to his sides. His pupils widened and then unfocused. He froze still. There was no danger, Obie reminded himself; there never had been. Justified. The first time, they’d been sitting in the sun while Link exegized Varieties of Religious Experience. Mid-sentence, he dropped the book, gaped at the sun. “Don’t stare at the sun,” Obie said, but Link blinked back as if they were strangers. Since then, his spells came about once a week. Doctors weren’t cheap—that was no lie—and the condition happened only in light, as if God was entering Link via the sun.

“I’m confused,” said Link, wandering away in standard fashion. Obie followed him to the kitchen with his whiskey, where they both sat down at the table.

“How do you feel now?”

“A little confused.” He was liable to give this answer fifty times.

“You were being mean to me. Do you remember about your dog?”

“Bonnie’s dead,” Link said, as if he could see this in a crystal ball. “How’d we get here?”

“We walked here.”

“From where?”

“My bedroom.”

“The bedroom isn’t here?”

“It’s down the hall.”

“Did we travel here?”

“We walked here.”

“Where’d everybody go?”