excerpt – Dancing Naked
It’s like when your sperm is inserted into a woman’s egg: You anticipate that the resulting product will have all the features you intended. You don’t expect your child to be constituted differently from yourself. Blake mystified Terry. The boy, it seemed, had missed a link somewhere, suffered a DNA oversight that left him unprepared for the world. He was a turtle with no shell, a tiger with no claws, a fish with no gills. He could perform wonderfully, but was little interested in the spoils of victory. He easily over- achieved, and not once did he approximate his potential. His ample intelligence dragged him about, hither and thither—yes, hither and thither—after a thousand foolish pursuits, creations of fantasy. Blake wanted little to do with the real world.
Terry was Blake’s father. He feared for his child’s survival. What’s a realist father to do with an idealist son? No, not simply an idealist son, an idealist-romantic son? A child who began a “Why not?” before considering “Why?” A child who completed school lessons under duress, and only to prevent recourse from parents and teachers? A child who wasted his mind drawing monsters and wizards, sketching satirical cartoons to amuse friends (satirical cartoons as early as the third grade)? A child who spent too much time reading books about lives no one lived, adventures no one could hope to experience? A child uncompetitive, un-driven by success and entirely willing to exchange tangible kudos, distinctions, and prizes, for whimsical notions as though trading real bills for Monopoly money?
During Blake’s sixth-grade school year, Terry attempted to realign the boy’s priorities. Terry and Blake had reached a critical juncture.
“I’ve just learned something I don’t understand,” Terry tried to tell his son. Blake was in the livingroom awkwardly gyrating his pre-pubescence to music; he was bent on learning to dance to the Smashing Pumpkins. His eyes were squeezed closed in concentration or meditation, Terry could never tell which. The music was too loud. Rayne sat cross-legged on the floor between the couch and the coffee table correcting essays. She paused occasionally to yell out dance suggestions. Looking up by accident (certainly she couldn’t have heard Terry speak), she noticed her husband was trying to say something.
“What?” she mouthed.
“I said,” yelling louder than necessary above the music, “that I’ve just heard something I find hard to believe.”
Blake’s eyes shuttered wide. But it was just his father yelling, so he danced on, his face contorted.
“Turn down the music, Blake,” Rayne called. “I think your father wants to speak.” Blake shimmied to the stereo and turned it down.
“Your teacher called,” Terry told Blake. “She said you withdrew from the spelling-bee finals. She’d counted on you going all the way to the state competition, maybe farther.”
“Let someone else go,” Blake said. He was practicing some palsy-stricken step, over and over and over.
“I don’t understand this,” Terry said. “This is a big opportunity. There’s a scholarship at stake. Your teacher doesn’t think anyone else at your school could even get past All-City.”
“I’m not interested.” Blake began pirouetting on the hardwood floor.
“That’s not the point,” Terry said. “A lot of people are counting on you.”
“Let them count on somebody else.” Blake pushed himself around and around like a lopsided top. Thumping to a dizzy stop, he began gyrating again.
Rayne, as usual, entered to run interference. “Why the sudden disinterest in the spelling-bee, honey? We thought you were looking forward to the spelling-bee.”
“The spelling-bee’s okay,” Blake said.
“Then what’s wrong with you ?” Terry said, though he regretted it the minute the words were on their way.
Rayne gave Terry her Neanderthal glare: chin down, lots of forehead. “Careful, Terry. This is Blake’s spelling-bee, not yours.” She turned back to Blake, who, hurt, had stopped dancing. He watched his parents, bewilderment burning like a colored flare on the white beach of his face. “If there’s nothing wrong with the spelling-bee,” Rayne asked, “why the change of plans?”
“Because it doesn’t mean anything to me. Nothing like it means to Alex Crandle, anyway.” In grade school Alex Crandle was Blake’s best friend, and a smart boy, perhaps the second smartest child in the sixth grade. Unfortunately for Alex—and despite an admirable drive—he always seemed to come in second, panting and coughing, right behind Blake.
“You’re going to give up the chance to go to Washington, D.C., to be on TV, to win a scholarship, just because it means a lot to Alex Crandle?”
“Well, yeah,” Blake said. “Alex hasn’t ever beaten me at anything.”
Terry was speechless, completely disarmed. He turned to Rayne for help. Wide-eyed, she considered Blake, her hand over her mouth to hide a smile. A smile of more than tacit approval.
“Why not enter the spelling-bee and then just miss a word so Alex can win?” Rayne asked. Classic Rayne maneuver—avoid the issues, objectify. She was more interested in exploring Blake’s behavior than in straightening it out.
“We were going to do that,” Blake said. “But I always beat him. Everyone would know.”
“We?” Rayne asked. “The two of you talked this over?”
“He asked you to do this?” Terry moaned.
“It was my idea.” Blake could be tenacious, but only when the tenacity (given the object of his pursuit) was entirely absurd. “It’s just a stupid spelling-bee! We already know I’d win, so why should I do it when Alex really wants to?”
“I’ll give you a thousand reasons,” Terry said. Opportunities were disintegrating like paper money on a fire.
“Terry,” Rayne warned. “Think about Alex. They’ve already talked it over. Blake’s already made his decision.”
“Well, I haven’t made mine,” Terry declared. “What’s he going to do, hand away his future piece by piece to every Alex Crandle who comes along? Doesn’t Alex have any self-respect?”
“The boy’s only in sixth grade,” Rayne said.
Terry rolled his eyes.
“He still has to beat everybody else,” Blake said.
“You’re going to be in that spelling-bee.” It was Terry’s edict. Blake would have to obey.
Blake stared at Terry, an echoing of features. “You can’t make me spell.”
“What did you say?” Terry demanded, but he’d heard. And, of course, he knew Blake was right: he couldn’t make his son spell. This twelve-year-old person who’d always been an appendix to Terry, contingent upon him for sustenance and existence and identity, could through no means be governed if he chose not to. Blake could have the last word, would have the last word. He could make any foolish choice he desired.
“You’re overreacting,” Rayne said.
Terry’s face was red. Fingers firm, he kneaded his temples and felt the blood pulsing. He refused to believe he was overreacting, He was responding to an unacceptable possibility, a possibility he dutifully, until the day of Blake’s death, attempted to disprove: that Blake’s behavior, regardless of its reflection upon the boy’s extra need for guidance, was beyond a father’s control. The child’s survival was at stake here! How could Terry not be terrified?—he was suddenly without the tool he needed to keep his child alive!
“I think you’ve done a very admirable thing,” Rayne told Blake. “I hope Alex does well.”
“Why do you do this to me?” Terry asked Rayne. Blake grinned, his face a flower of victory.
“Why do you side with him?” Terry posed these questions dejectedly, with the heavy glumness of exclusion and defeat. “Don’t I have a say?”
“It’s too late,” Rayne said. “Blake’s made his decision. He can’t back out on Alex now.”
She grabbed Blake’s hand. He’d gravitated to her during the course of the debate, settled next to her between the couch and the coffee table. She pulled him close and kissed him on the side of the head. Blake never, even as a teenager, resisted a kiss from his mother. “Why don’t you turn off the stereo and let your dad and me visit alone.” Obediently, Blake turned off the stereo and raced up the stairs.
“Check on your sister,” Terry called after him. “Clean your room.”
“Relax, Terry,” Rayne said.
“You’re going to ruin the boy. He lacks drive as it is.”
“He’s twelve years old. He’s a child.” She dropped her pencil onto the coffee table. “He’ll be fine.”
“He’s a mama’s boy.”
“The expert declares.”
“I may’ve been a mama’s boy, but I had drive. I was interested in surviving.”
“Interested in surviving your father.”
“This is typical,” Terry grumbled. Rayne said nothing. “Sometimes I wonder if you’re married to me or him. I wonder who you think’s the child.”
“Oh, Terry,” she said, gathering her papers together, standing up, moving away from the table. “I don’t think I’m up for pouting tonight. But if you’ll wait until the kids are in bed, I’ll show you who’s the husband.” She gently patted Terry s crotch in passing, on her way to the kitchen table to finish grading papers. Terry stood there feeling abandoned, patronized, half aroused. He wondered how the hell he was going to keep his son alive.
* * * * *
So it isn’t so surprising to Terry that Blake died prematurely, in the throes of some fantasy, trying to avoid the real world. Blake had his mother, after all, to assure him he needed no reality.
Terry watches Rayne. It’s the realities of the world for her now, Blake’s box dangling not so many feet above the vault in which it will all be sealed for good. She isn’t doing as well as before. She stands pressing Mindy against her, the palms of her hands over Mindy’s flat chest, drawing, pulling, fusing the smaller shoulders into the larger ribcage, the young head into the young-middle-aged breasts. Rayne and Mindy are connected, and it takes all four of their legs to stand, and then only with the assistance of Alice on one side, Mother on the other. Rayne and Mindy stare ahead at the same undefined point. They could be an act, these two, with their uniform performance, their re-definition and repetition.
“Before offering the benediction upon the grave,” the minister begins, “let us speak briefly of our Lord and Savior’s sacrifice, of his mercy and grace which offers all reconciliation and peace. Let us take comfort in his resurrection and in the coming resurrection of Blake Walker and of all mankind …”
When Terry and Rayne first discovered they were going to have a child, a friend told them to choose their OB/GYN carefully because it was he or she who would escort their child into the world. The friend said, “You want to have a doctor you like, because every time you see that doctor you’ll feel an obligation, a twinge of gratitude and debt and embarrassment. There’s something fundamentally intimate, more intimate even than sex, about the delivery of a child. You want to suffer that moment with a person you like.” At the time the advice seemed unorthodox. Terry would’ve chosen based upon capability, giving little thought to likability. He wouldn’t have made the two equal because he didn’t yet understand the chemistry. But their friend was right. The Walkers still send their OB/GYNs Christmas cards each year. They’re bound to the doctors who escorted their children into the world. And by extension, Terry wonders if they’ll be bound to this man who escorts their child out of the world. Terry can’t imagine it. He doesn’t feel anything for this minister, other than glad that he’s not Mormon. Terry doesn’t hear the man’s words, only his voice. Terry won’t feel gratitude and debt, though he’ll feel embarrassment. They won’t likely send this man a Christmas card.
Blake’s final pigeon hole, the one in which he must stay forever, gapes seven feet by five feet and drops six feet. That’s 210 cubic feet of displaced dirt, 362,880 cubic inches. A rhombus, a rectangle (every square a rectangle but not every rectangle a square), a cube, a container of geometric knowns. Terry’s impressed with the precision of these graves. He wants to meet the men who dig them. The corners are sharp and the walls are straight, perpendicular to one another, as though cut with a giant cookie cutter forged especially for stamping graves. Terry wants to ask questions of the men who stamp out graves.
“Does every casket require the same sized vault, and does every vault require the same sized grave? Or is every casket different, every vault and thus every grave? It would seem,” he would continue objectively, as Rayne might do, “that each casket—so much a statement of the inhabitant thereof—would be different, individual in size, fabric, and labor to represent the life but mostly the death of the owner. An horrendous task, digging so many custom graves for so many custom vaults for so many custom caskets, but appropriate, nonetheless, if one takes the time to consider the custom lives.” But, realistically, he’d come back to the issue at hand—he’s speaking, after all, of a pigeon hole, a compartment of classification, a classification by similarity. “Do categorically similar people end up in categorically similar graves?” he’d ask. “For someone in the know, is it only necessary to read the obituary or the police report (depending upon which, if either, is correct) to know the exact size of the grave, perhaps the exact coffin? Take, for example, my father and my son: Both died at the tip end of ejaculation, their lives spit from them like their seeds. Seeds which outlived them by hours, most likely. They ended it in the same coffin, in a vault in a hole of identical size. Doesn’t it seem possible,” Terry would implore his grave diggers, “that I speak a fundamental truth? That the ways of our lives and deaths predestine us to the kinds and sizes and appearances we’ll last be remembered by?”
And the grave diggers would say, “It’s all standardized, buddy: adults, children, infants. Big, medium, small. It’s right here.” They’d poke at their charts. “We dig the hole, we lower the stiff, we throw in the dirt. A couple of months the dirt settles, gets hard and chummy with the world, and you can’t even find the edge of the hole. Three sizes, one of ’em fits ‘most everybody. When it’s under the ground, nobody remembers the difference, anyway.”
“But I do,” Terry would say. “I never forget a numerical value.” The grave diggers wouldn’t understand, so Terry would try, “There seems no justice in the standardized approach.” The grave diggers wouldn’t get that either, so Terry would nod his head and say, “Well, you dig very nice pigeon holes nonetheless, very sharp and very straight.” And though the conversation would be over, Terry would appreciate these men, if for nothing else, for the precision with which they perform their standardized task.
“Amen,” says the wall of people surrounding Blake’s grave.