Chapter Two: Central Casting
Tushy had gone and Betty had suffered her stroke the very next year. Matty Sue had transferred her attention to her friend to help ward off the grief she felt from the loss of her husband. The two women talked about things once Betty had her seven words in place. They spent long afternoons in the village of Blue Moons’ outpatient rehab unit with Matty Sue talking about their situations and Betty punctuating serious discussion with the periodic “I say!” The two women laughed at their state. I mean, after all, afflictions that normally occur only once in a blue moon had, as a matter of course…
“Ought to name us the town mascots,” said Matty Sue.
“Mascots! God damn!” Betty said, with the wriest of left-sided smiles. That smile had been a long time coming.
Then, just when things seemed to be settling down, a new decade rolled into town and gave Betty another quick slap across the face.
Pontiac had at least waited until the family got through Christmas before disappearing in the first days of the year. He listened to Betty yell out her words over supper, as usual, then left the house the next morning without a word or a piece of luggage. At first, she thought it was her spinach Madeleine. Pontiac hated greens of any sort. But when he hadn’t come back a week later, all Betty could think of was that she was glad that she had bought him the camel hair jacket. It was expensive, but three sizes too small. She knew that, and had only brought the smaller jacket home from the store so Pontiac would have something under the tree -- his properly-fitted coat would have been ready at the tailor in about twenty-one days. Now she was able to cancel the jacket and return the smaller substitute. He had left it, and her, behind as useless encumbrances to his life.
Easter of that same year, she received the only communication she would ever receive from her locally-departed husband.
I hope you are well. Enclosed is twenty dollars for the last payment on my golf clubs, which I took with me. I’m sorry to have left so abruptly, but I couldn’t listen to one more goddamn yell. I couldn’t sit there for one more “I say”. You’re still a beautiful woman, in spite of your affliction, and I’m sure someone else will come along to fill your life. As soon as I can raise some money I’ll pay for a divorce. Though that may take some time, as I haven’t been able to find a job, and the market is hard for someone with just a high school diploma. Even a decorated veteran.
Well, that’s it, I only got one thing left to tell you, and that’s
“I say SHIT.”
Though it had a Shreveport, Louisiana, postmark, the unsigned, typewritten letter was crumpled and had been folded in half. Betty suspected he had sent it to one of his friends in Shreveport and asked them to forward it along, to keep her from knowing his true whereabouts. She also figured that the lack of a handwritten signature was probably yet another ploy in Pontiac’s paranoid mind, designed to keep him safe from her wrath. Obviously, something bitter had been brewing with her husband long before she had noticed any signs that something was wrong.
At least most of the kids were already out on their own. Four had quickly left Blue Moons and let their mother know upon their departure that this was a permanent situation. They wouldn’t be coming back. Everybody was gone now except the runt of the litter, the craziest and the sweetest natured baby she had borne, Buick Roadmaster. Even as off-kilter as that boy was, he had always been the apple of her eye. He was smart, too, armed with scholarly insight (however twisted) and an incredible memory, though she was not sure that the poor child would ever make it out on his own. That prospect did not bother her. She enjoyed his company.
What the hell.
A few weeks after Pontiac’s letter, Betty began feeling purged of her ex, and told her friend. In return Matty Sue offered tobacco to Betty as a substitute for the company of men. She had seen a magazine advertisement that offered “increasingly positive mental health and a fine sense of life fulfillment” as a result of tobacco use. The ad strongly implied that both of these desirable states could come quickly. All that was required was the inhalation of smoke from small paper cylinders of burning leaves. This did not sound altogether unreasonable to the two lonely women. They both remembered being elated around the smoldering campfire at Yellow Bird Girls’ Camp.
Within three months they were chain-smoking.
The next year was much better, outside of the sporadic coughing and morning wheezes.
* * *
The thoughtful Baskin genes had been deposited via father Pontiac Baskin directly into the interest-bearing DNA accounts of straight-and-oh-so-good sons Hudson and Packard Baskin. The beauty and calm strength of their mother’s Daniels blood had taken its own sweet time meandering to the much-less-than-straight but still-taking-no-chances vaults of well-formed daughters Studebaker and Cadillac Seville Baskin.
As fifth and last of the brood, Buick Roadmaster Baskin’s genetic bankbook held only his mother’s green eyes and his father’s quiet, slightly monomaniacal eccentricity. Betty claimed that’s where Buick’s need to live others’ lives had its genetic roots, with Pontiac.
Once, before her husband took the opportunity to run off, she had pointed at the boy, who was enduring an apocalyptically visionary week in the spirit of William Blake, and then pointed sternly at Pontiac, affirming the connection with a solemnly pronounced “Bing-bong,” the most intense words left to her post-stroke vocabulary. But in her heart of hearts Betty wondered if the same controlled madness, the determined sexual will that had in her youth driven her into beauty contests and the forefront of men’s attention, might be at fault.
Buick, better than anyone, would intuitively come to know what a strain making children had been on his mother. Having himself been closely in attendance as the terminal result of that process. Betty’s birthing period had lasted only six years, but it had been a rough six for her. With barely a breather after high school graduation, she was fertilized, healed, and fertilized again and again in rapid progression. After the Buick Roadmaster rolled out, she hadn’t even asked Pontiac’s opinion. She had acted unilaterally and shut the factory down. The four previous Baskin models had caused her peace of mind, good humor, and interest in sex all to dwindle drastically.
Her stroke hadn’t helped to restore any of that loss. The kids grew up just fine and jumped right into the world nonetheless, leaving their home in Blue Moons, Texas, as quickly as they could decipher a life mission and raise the cash for a ticket. The first four let their parents guide their lives until they accomplished all that family and Blue Moons required of respectable progeny. They finished high school. Come that event, the rented graduation gowns were barely back in the boxes before the once-dependent baby Baskins fled the nest a-howling. That was before Betty had her stroke and decided to forgo most family obligations. Buick, at the tail end of Betty’s interest in child-rearing, hadn’t anywhere near as long a break-in period as his siblings. As far back as he could remember, his mother was letting him make his own decisions, though this was largely a result of her preoccupation with her own acute physical and matrimonial troubles. His father hid, seven days a week, behind a stout simulated wood-grain desk at the insurance office in town. So growing up and finding role models was pretty much left to Buick. Which was OK by him. The boy made a life’s calling out of the search.
Since he began reading at age four, Buick had been examining the lives of wildly diverse artists. He tried to focus on moments of inspiration, as the point in human life when an individual persona was at its highest concentration. His parents had thought his studies healthy and even inspired at first. He had learned to read quickly from the fairly normal authors of children’s fiction and was soon taking in entire shelves in the dusty Biography section of the Blue Moons Municipal Library. He inhaled, with nary a necrological sneeze, the sometimes sordid ashes of people who had made their marks. But the Baskins came to wish their youngest son had fewer sources of arcane knowledge and experience. They encouraged him to take on more undeceased friends, boys who might be interested in bicycles and footballs. Girls who might be interested in learning to dance. Buick was, for the most part, unmoved by their pleas. He continued his fascination with the dead, whom he considered livelier than most of his contemporaries.
He test-drove everybody worthwhile, climbed in their skins, tinkered with the engines, speculated on what made them tick and ping, got another world view or two from all the maps in the glove box. He loved all the left turns in James Joyce, reading Ulysses when he was only six years old. He loved the early Hitchcock film scripts, and acted as if his day were being directed with revelatory stage instructions and storyboards, rather than lived formlessly.
One fall morning, over a breakfast of Sugar Corn Pops and banana slices, the juvenile Buick Roadmaster Baskin and his mother were the two principals in an emotional, goofy scene that foreshadowed much of his future – what you’d have to call Act Two. This is pretty close to the dialogue of that particular daybreak. Odd sounding, but odd seems a family trait nowadays. Two Baskins left in the house, one living with seven phrases and the other with seven current inhabitants.
6. INT. KITCHEN -- DAY
BUICK, 7, sits eating at the kitchen table, his cereal bowl surrounded by a milk-stained copy of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. His mother BETTY, 30, washes dishes at the sink. BUICK SUDDENLY LOOKS UP.
Mommy, do you think my mind not, well, wandering, but shall we say unsteady?
(still immersed in her dishwashing)
Unsteady? I say shit.
(orating with spoon in hand)
Ahhhh, thank you, but while I do appreciate your confidence, I myself am not convinced, and I think we should bring common sense to bear on my problem, if indeed I do have one, which of course might be all the meanderings of a childlike mind lost in the mazes of this definitively childlike and unsteady world, not that I think such a thing is in any way out of tune with nature but a trifle funkyish#...
BUICK TAKES A DEEP SLURP of Sugar-Pop-flavored milk.
... at least in the manner in which it tends to affect my second-grade homeroom teacher who has now decided that I shall be required to sit in the rear of the class, in a section of the room once occupied by a rather dismal world globe -- whose borders within the continent of Africa are totally askew, I might add, this being only what I would consider normal for a world biosphere acquired without passing of a single shilling, but instead brought to our seat of learning by the accumulation of 200 Zero Candy Bar coupons amidst numerous sugar poisonings I am sure…
(more SLURP PUNCTUATION)
… and all the while I am required to attend in complete silence unless Miss Craven has the wherewithal to ask my opinion, or if I do in fact raise my hand, having stumbled upon the answer to some life-crucial four-letter spelling problem, which is usually to do with mammals, she has the good grace to allow me the privilege of spelling the word “pony” for which I am to be ever grateful.
(catching something familiar)
Pony. I say!
At the first go-off, I thought it was my own original way of addressing her, since she seemed to wither into tight screwed-up knots of an instant before my eyes every time I simply and correctly called her “Woman”, the correctness of which I have since begun to suspect on more than one count -- she does have a moustache of sorts -- though I must admit don’t give a shite one way or the other.
(conceding to his mother)
I know I shouldn’t swear and I am dreadfully sorry if I’ve upset you, Mommy, only it’s terribly hard keeping the blandiloquence of “See bloody Spot run” at bay when you’ve other more important questions on your mind, since I am after all only involved in a very preliminary attempt to become an all-round worthy being of the human kind.
(finally worried and totally confused)
Mind! Kind! Bing-bong!
She RUSHES TO HIS SIDE and GRABS HIS HEAD with both hands.
FADE TO BLACK.
Betty was sure he had a fever and kept Buick home from school that day, warning her son against any further literary infection. In hopes of creating a more contemporary diversion, she gave him a box of new baseball cards. He unwrapped them carefully, chewed the accompanying rectangle of gum, and used the cardboard pictures as bookmarks in a volume of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Roger Maris stared at meter and matter unlikely to be of immediate application to America’s pastime.
And so life proceeded at the Baskin residence.
Buick enjoyed living in the lives of those he researched. He gave himself to each subject fully and without limitation. He became the person. Sex or age or national origin did not matter to him. He soon began to do multiples, his hungry psyche becoming the gathering place for any number of philosophers, painters, writers or cultural explorers.
For a long while he fell in with the surly bad dogs of the Lost Generation. They hung out and related to each other, sipped a cup or two of espresso in the Buick coffeehouse. Smuggled in a pint of cheap cognac to fortify the crème brûlé and stimulate dissension.
Most people would find it difficult to like, on a personal level, a single one of those self-absorbed poops, but it was his life. Occasionally.
Unfortunately, Buick re-enacted one of the defining moments of this era while seated in seventh grade detention hall. Aloud.
22. INT. CLOSERIE DES LILAS BISTRO, PARIS -- DAY
Two oddly-dressed men, an older woman and a young man SIT AT A SIDEWALK TABLE in rapt discussion of what appears to be deep subject matter. The WOMAN DOMINATES conversation.
... Buick, you must forgo the purchase of jeans and use the money you save for purchasing Pablo’s work. Clothes are unimportant.
(covertly speaking behind his hand to the young man)
And you would listen to a woman who dresses as she does? She gives the definition to pasado de moda -- a mal fagoté -- you know this English term, how you say “dowdy”? I, myself, would rather buy the new pants. Button-fly, of course. And is there time for yet another distingué of beer?
F SCOTT FITZGERALD
Pablo, you do whatcha wanta, but you simply mussna lemme have nuther drinky.
And this is what you Americans emulate? This?
(grabbing Fitzgerald’s hands)
Look. Look at the child’s fingers! He couldn’t even pull his own champagne cork with these little pale twigs.
And I suppose you’d know all about that, spending all the money we peons hand over to you so gratefully for your work. Drinking yourself silly. And buying not a single dram of refreshment for those of us who support you.
I really think we’d all have a lot more fun if we could be a tad nicer during these visits.
(sipping his beer as he watches Fitzgerald nod off)
I don’t know. Let’s ask the rich Amèricain writer to buy a round, why don’t we? After all, isn’t he working for Hollywood now? He makes almost as much money as if he were working the streets of Paris.
Pablo, we may ask you to leave if you keep being so nasty to Scotty.
No soy trasnochador, de todos modos; me acuesto temprano.
We know you’re not a night owl, Monsieur Picasso, and if you must go home, please do us the courtesy of telling us goodbye in French or English. You know my feelings on the primitive nature of your Spanish tongue.
Is that what it was? Spanish? I don’t speak Spanish.
But he, unfortunately, does, my dear Buick.
SOUND OF BISTRO RISES, audio LAP DISSOLVES to next scene over picture cut.
“Baskin, will you bring your little freak show to a close and shut the fuck up?” said eighth grader -- and detention hall monitor -- Hank “The Orangutan” Wasciewicsz.
Stein fled in horror, bad wardrobe and all. Fitzgerald slept off his hangover through the next two days of detention.
Buick loved his adventures, but the temporarily metamorphosed and multi-charactered Baskin boy naturally intersected the lives of those people actually around him in the mid-twentieth century. Those ensconced in the flesh of reality were sometimes not so fond of his gift. Such was his devotion to the search that he seldom noticed any sign of discord.
He did make several friends in the process, though. At one point his mother’s friend Matty Sue volunteered to take over Children’s Storytelling Night at the village Library. She encouraged Buick to attend. Especially since he was always in the building anyway. Young Buick was then changing characters every day, and often more frequently, once entertaining three different Elizabethan playwrights during the short span of his elementary school lunch hour. Matty Sue’s Storytelling Night was the perfect forum for the developing boy. His “performance” became a regular feature of each Thursday’s session, and was admired by those of his peer group who had not yet, through hormonal imbalance and regionally-defined hair growth, lost interest in the arts.
As a direct result of this emergence from the reading closet, Buick came to meet his best friend, Freedy Gluckman. Buick was surprised to learn that Freedy and family had been living next door to the Baskins for the entire eleven years of his life. Freedy liked to read, too. With a boldness brought on by each other’s encouragement, Freedy and Buick broadened their range of activity. Which was, as is natural for developing human males, soon to include females to the exclusion of much else.
As high school slowly passed, Buick’s visitors had to adapt to a vocal range that was truly a work-in-progress.
French poets found Buick’s puberty not at all to their liking.
Read chapter three of the story...