Boys Go to Jupiter

The bikini isn’t even Claire’s thing. Before this winter, if you had said Confederate flag, Claire would have thought of high-school beach trips: rows and rows of tacky souvenir shops along the Ocean City Boardwalk, her best friend Angela muttering they know they lost, right? while Claire tried to remember which side of the Mason-Dixon line Maryland was on. The flag stuff is Jackson’s, and she’s mostly seeing Jackson to piss off Puppy. Puppy, Claire’s almost-stepmother, is legally named Poppy; Puppy is supposedly a childhood nickname stemming from a baby sister’s mispronunciation, but Claire suspects that Puppy has made the whole thing up. Puppy deemed it wasteful to pay twice as much for a direct flight in order for Claire to avoid a layover, and her father listens to Puppy now, so for the first half of her trip, Claire had to go the wrong direction—to Florida from Vermont via Detroit.

Jackson has a drawl and a pickup truck and, in spite of his lack of farming experience, a farmer’s tan. Claire meets him at Burger Boy, the restaurant a few miles from her father’s house. Its chipping red-and-white tiles and musk of grease give it all the glamour of a truck-stop bathroom, but it’s a respite from the lemon-scented and pristine house that brought her father to St. Petersburg for retirement. At college, Claire mostly lives off of the salad bar, but here she picks up a burger and fries to go every afternoon. It is the kind of food Puppy says she can’t eat since she turned thirty, and Puppy, having no job and, from what Claire gathers, limited ambitions beyond strolling the house in expensive loungewear, is always home to miserably watch her eat it. On her fourth Burger Boy visit, Claire picks up Jackson too. They get high and make out in the pool house that afternoon, and the next and the next and the next.

At nineteen, Jackson is six months older than Claire, but still a senior in high school. They try hanging out at his house once, but Claire feels shamed by his mother’s scrutiny, assumes she wants to know what’s damaged or defective about Claire that has her screwing a high-school boy. After that, when they cannot be alone at her house because her father is home (rarely) or Puppy is unbearable (frequently), they find places to park. He gives her the bikini at the end of the first week, after she complains that her father’s move to Florida caught her off guard—she is used to winters that at least make an effort to be winter, but her father’s new life in St. Pete is relentless sunshine, sunburn weather in December. Outside, by the pool, she has resigned herself to wearing t-shirts over one of Puppy’s old suits, which is spangled with faded glitter and sags over Claire’s bee-sting breasts. Jackson presents the bathing suit wadded up in a supermarket plastic bag, the sort of awkward non-gift you give someone in an awkward non-relationship—he bought it for five dollars on a spring break trip, he says, for a girlfriend he subsequently found blowing one of his friends in their shared motel room and broke up with.

It isn’t much—three triangles and some string—but the tag is still attached and Jackson is beaming at her.

“You’d look so hot in this,” he says.

She does look pretty hot: like someone she is not, what with the stars and bars marking her tits and crotch, but a hot someone she is not.

“You look like white trash,” Puppy says to her the first time she sees the bikini.

“You would know,” Claire says back. The bathing suit becomes a habit, even after the temperature dips. Two days before she leaves town, she throws a pair of cutoffs and a T-shirt over it before she and Jackson leave the house, but when they get to the parking space—a clearing in a half-built, abandoned subdivision—she makes a show of stripping off the shorts and shirt. In the few minutes before he takes it off and fucks her in the truck’s cab, Jackson snaps a picture of Claire, radiant and smiling and leaning against the crisp foil-flash of the bumper, the bikini’s Xs making her body a tic-tac-toe board.

She’s already forgotten about the picture when Jackson posts it on Facebook that night, tagged with her name and #mygirl. Claire doesn’t have the heart to object. On her last night in town she doesn’t even see Jackson—her father takes her out for a fancy dinner along the waterfront, just her, and then it’s goodbye. At the gate awaiting her connecting flight, Claire drapes herself over two airport chairs and checks the messages on her phone. She has eighteen new texts, most from casual acquaintances, the closest thing she has to friends at Dennis College. The messages range from hostile to bewildered, and it takes her a few minutes to decipher what has prompted them: a tweet from the account of the black girl who lives across the hall from her, which features the photo of Claire in the bikini and the commentary My hallmate just posted this picture of herself on vacation :/ .

Claire squints at the thumbnail photo of the tweet’s author, the only black girl on their dorm’s floor, and vaguely remembers her. In the frenzied first weeks at Dennis, full of getting-to-know-you games and welcomes, Claire accepted the girl’s friend request, but she wasn’t really aware that hallmate was a thing, a relationship carrying some expectation of trust or camaraderie. She is strangely embarrassed by the picture, the way it turns her into someone else. She wasn’t wearing the bikini to bother black people—for Christ’s sake, there were none in her father’s new neighborhood to bother even if she wanted to—but to bother Puppy, who is half racist anyway, which makes her aggrieved reaction doubly hilarious. Claire turns her phone off again, closes her eyes, and thinks to the mental picture of the girl whose name she cannot remember, if she has ever known it, well fuck you too.

In their old Virginia neighborhood, in the old house, the one Claire’s father sold the second she graduated, they have black neighbors. The Halls move into Claire’s subdivision the summer before she starts first grade, back when the neighborhood is still brand new: tech money is paving western Fairfax on its way out to Reston, which will be malls and mini-mansions and glossy buildings soon. Claire’s mother prefers the idea of a sprawling country house a little further out, but her father likes the idea of something you can build from the ground up, tinkering with room sizes and flooring types, and so her father gets his house and her mother gets to choose from seven different shades of granite for the counters and eight different types of wood for the floors, and everything is so new and shiny when they move in that Claire is afraid of her own house, afraid her presence will somehow dent or tarnish it.

Though Claire has always lived in Virginia, and Virginia, she knows, is technically the South, Angela is the first person Claire remembers meeting whose voice lilts: the Halls moved from South Carolina, and the whole family talks with drowsy vowels and an occasional drag that gives some words—her name, for example—a comforting dip in the middle. In Mrs. Hall’s mouth, Claire’s name is a tunnel from which a person can emerge on the other side. Claire is fascinated by their accents, and, yes, by the dark tint of their skin, but mostly she is anxious to be seen. In her own house, Claire is alone: her only sibling is a half brother, Sean, ten years older, from her father’s first marriage. Her father keeps long hours, and her mother has a certain formality; Claire loves her, but feels, in her presence, like a miniature adult, embarrassed by the silliness of her six-year-old desires.

Mrs. Hall is an elementary school teacher and has a high tolerance for the frenetic energy of children’s games. Angela’s house also has Aaron, her brother, who is only a year older than the two of them. Claire’s mother refers to Angela and Aaron as Irish twins, which confuses Claire because they are neither twins nor Irish, so she adopts Mrs. Hall’s term: stairstep siblings, one right behind the other. At that age, they are the same size, Angela tall for her age and Aaron short for his. Aaron is skinny and quiet and wears glasses that dwarf his face; Angela is a whirlwind.

Since Claire has no brother at home to torment, she and Angela torment Aaron together, chasing him around the front lawn, menacing him with handfuls of glitter and other arts and crafts detritus, taking his shoes from the row by the front door and hiding them in cupboards, in the garage, in the laundry. Claire, not yet entirely clear on the rules of family, thinks of herself as having not a half brother, but half-a-brother, and shortly after meeting the Halls she thinks of herself as having half of Angela’s too. The first summer, Angela teaches her that silly hand game, which starts my mother your mother live across the street. Though this isn’t technically true of them, it’s close enough, so they swear it is about them, and torment Aaron with its refrain—girls are dandy just like candy, boys are rotten just like cotton, girls go to college to get more knowledge, boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider. In most aspects Aaron is indifferent to their teasing, but the Jupiter taunt seems to bother him for its failures of logic. Boys, he insists, would have to be smart to go to Jupiter, and would probably go to college first. The argument has merits that Claire and Angela ignore in favor of papering the door of his room with pictures of Jupiter: crayon-drawn, ripped out of magazines, snipped out of her parents’ dusty encyclopedia set and once out of a children’s book about the solar system, stolen from her pediatrician’s office. How is the weather on Jupiter, they ask him, though he never answers. Even now Claire recognizes renderings of the planet on sight, cloud-spotted, big and bright and banded, unspectacular until you consider all it holds in orbit.

The girl across the hall doesn’t look like Angela at all. She is lighter-skinned and heavier-framed and her hair is wilder, deliberately unkempt in a way that would have made Angela’s mother raise an eyebrow. Her name, Claire eventually remembers, is Carmen. By the time Claire arrives at her dorm room, on the second floor of a row of flat brick buildings that house a third of the small college’s freshmen, there are forty-seven responses to and twenty-three retweets of Carmen’s post. Claire is surprised by the level of interest, then annoyed by it. She distrusts collective anger; Claire’s anger has always been her own. Claire prints a photo of the Confederate flag and scrawls in loopy cursive on the back Welcome back! I hope you had a great vacation. When she slips the photo under her door, she means to tell Carmen-the-hallmate to fuck off.

The next morning, the voicemail on her phone is full. She has 354 new emails, most of them from strangers. Across the hall, campus movers are noisily carting Carmen off to a new dorm. A reporter from the student paper, unable to reach her by phone, has slipped a note under Claire’s door asking for an interview. She gathers from his note that several bloggers have now picked up both the bikini photo and Carmen’s photo of last night’s postcard. She has a text from Jackson. The hashtag #badbikiniideas turns up one hundred thirty-seven results, including one with a picture of swastikas photoshopped into palm trees. An email marked urgent informs her that her academic counselor would like to speak to her. In a separate urgent email, the Office of Diversity requests her presence. Someone using the email fuckyoufuckyoufuckyou@gmail.com thinks she is a cunt. Twenty-two different rednecks from around the country have sent her supportive pictures of their penises.

It seems clear to Claire that most of the hall has taken Carmen’s side. Claire forgoes both showering and breakfast, opting instead to burrow in her room. Someone from the campus TV station has interviewed Carmen and put the clip online. In the video, Carmen stands in front of Bell Hall, one of the upperclassmen dorms, where she has apparently been relocated. She wears a Dennis College sweatshirt and wraps her arms around herself. “Up until this happened, I thought she was nice,” Carmen says. “We always smiled at each other in the hallway. But she put a hate symbol where I sleep, and she thought it was funny.” There is genuine fear in her eyes, which startles Claire.

Sean has left an angry voicemail asking her what she was thinking. Claire does not call him back. Jackson texts again to tell her he knows she’s busy but he thinks she’s awesome. Claire turns her phone off and shuts her inbox tab and spends the afternoon watching online videos of singing goats. She is on her tenth goat video when the president of the campus libertarians shows up at her door and introduces himself. His name is Robert and he lives two floors down, where he is the RA. He smiles like someone who has just won second place.

“I’m here in support of your right to free expression,” he says.

“Don’t take this personally,” Claire says, “but unless you’re here in support of my right to go to bed early, I don’t care. I don’t care about any of this. It was just a stupid picture.”

“And you shouldn’t be punished for it, but you will be if you don’t get ahead of this. My friend lives on your hall and hadn’t seen you all day, so we figured you were hiding out. We made you a care package.”

The care package consists of a foil-wrapped caramel apple from the dining hall, which has declared it carnival week at the dessert buffet, and a book on libertarian philosophy, in case she’s bored. Claire considers the offering. She is unimpressed, but also hungry, so she lets him in before his presence in her doorway becomes a spectacle.

“For the record,” he says, “I’m not a big fan of the Confederate flag myself. The Confederacy was an all-around failure of military strategy. Lost the battle when they lost the ports, if you ask me. But I’m no one to judge anyone for their support of lost causes. As far as I’m concerned, you can wear anything you want.”

Claire gathers that she is supposed to find this endearing, that she is supposed to bite the apple and lick the caramel off of her lips and ask him to tell her more about military strategy and let him plan her own response campaign, and that sometime several hours into this discussion she is supposed to end up naked out of awe or gratitude. Instead she sets the book and the apple on her desk, politely thanks him, tells him she is tired and, when he finally leaves, locks the door behind him. She eats the apple alone in bed, figuring it can cover her meals for today and maybe tomorrow—she’s still got some Burger Boy calories stored up.

When she checks her mail again before bed, there are another hundred emails. Her student account’s address has been posted on several message boards and #clairewilliamsvacationideas is a locally trending topic (Auschwitz, My Lai, Wounded Knee). She is losing on Twitter, but a group called Heritage Defenders has picked up the story and distributed it to their members, so at this point she has more supporters than detractors in her inbox. Cliff from Tennessee writes that when he was in college, his fraternity hosted an annual plantation ball for their sister sorority and everyone dressed in their frilly historical finest. One year he and his frat brother decided to cover the house’s front lawn in thousands of cotton balls, so that when they posed for pictures on its steps, the college’s mostly black janitorial staff could be seen in the background of the shot, cleaning up. PC police tried to shut down our chapter for it, but we stayed strong. Hang in there! the email concludes. There is an attachment: a picture of a boy, smiling wide in khaki pants with a button-down and vest, his arm around a laughing redhead in a corset and frilly hoop skirt, cotton balls blanketing the ground beneath them, a stooped black man in a green uniform sweeping up cotton in the background. He has a broom and a plastic trash can on wheels and his uniform is crisp and synthetic-shiny—there’s nothing historically authentic about his presence, other than his blackness. She cannot see the man’s face, but she can imagine it, and the imagining comes with a twinge of shame. But she is not Cliff, Claire reminds herself; Cliff thinking they are the same doesn’t make them the same. The next email is angry and anonymous; its writer threatens to find out where she lives and set her on fire. Claire decides she will tell anyone looking where to find her. She prints out a copy of the flag and tapes it to her dorm window. She calls the reporter from the student paper back and tells him she is simply celebrating her heritage, like any number of groups on campus encourage students to do. She affects a lilt to say so, but as soon as the words are out of her mouth she realizes that the affect is a mistake. She doesn’t sound like herself. She sounds like Angela.

The Curses: Part II

This is the house where the boy was born, and where he played on the floor as a toddler while the Civil War began. The house was not where it is today, in a small park on the banks of the Wabash. It stood about a halfmile farther north, at 318 South Second Street in downtown Terre Haute, Indiana, a couple of blocks from the river, in a row of similar-looking structures that precisely one hundred years later were scheduled to undergo demolition as part of a “slum clearance program.” But the citizens proved unwilling to let this particular house be destroyed, since it had briefly belonged to a favorite son of Indiana, or to his family. People mailed in donations as small as a dollar to the county historical society, a couple of area businesses pitched in, and a government grant came through. Finally, moving day arrived: June 5, 1963. The number-one song on the radio was “It’s My Party” by Lesley Gore, a first big American hit for a young producer named Quincy Jones. In Terre Haute, a reporter watched workmen wrap the two-story Federal house in “cables and metal strapping, as though it were a large box.” A crowd cheered. A new foundation waited at the park, where, fifty-three years later, a person can still visit.

Look up from the floor where he’s sprawled in his rag diaper with his crude toys at the family as it existed at the start of the 1860s. The boy’s mother, Sarah Maria, had grown up in Ohio, but her parents were Pennsylvania Dutch, that term “Dutch” being in this case not our surviving word meaning Hollanders but a corruption of “Deutsch”—Germans who had left the homeland, settling among their own far-flung people in Pennsylvania’s evangelical townships. Pennsylvania, founded by early Quakers, had always been friendly to breakaway sects. Moravians, Dunkards, Mennonites—the family belonged to all three, at different times. But her parents had met among the Moravians, radical Pietists from Central Europe and Saxony. By the testimony of Sarah’s daughters, she carried that mystical streak all her life. Much good in her, mixed with coldness. Considered a beauty in youth, in late-life pictures she looks out through a pleasant, round, half-smiling face. Now she is working “for fifty cents a day for Wabash avenue merchants” to make “miserably small payments” on the house. Her parents have disowned her for marrying a Catholic. There he stands, beside her, towering over the fat little boy, who later remembers him as “a religious fanatic.” He was German-born, from a place called Mayen, a small walled city in the west. When Indiana census takers came around, he identified himself as Prussian. A fiercely hard worker but contentious. The family never starved but was always poor while he ran it. The Civil War ended, and less than a year later, a board fell onto his head at the mill. After that he was thought somewhat simple-minded. “The old tyrant wore earrings and behaved like a cruel gypsy,” according to one who had known the boy. “He beat them unreasonably and made of their home a kind of noisy sepulcher.”

The boy already had a younger brother, Marcus Romanus, just a year old, and before these two, there had been three other sons, but all had died as infants. For this Sarah blamed herself. One night, in the exhaustion of young motherhood that runs to madness, she had wished herself free of the burden. Shortly after that, she saw three glowing orbs float past in a field (possibly ball-lightning, which occurs for unknown reasons with some regularity in Kentucky and Indiana) and considered it an omen. When soon thereafter her three boys died in just two years’ time, she viewed it as a fulfillment. Weeping by the third grave, she swore to God that if he would send her more babies, even as many as ten, she would never again indulge such dark and selfish thoughts. God sent her ten more exactly, boys and girls, and all of them lived. The ninth became the naturalist novelist Theodore Dreiser and changed the course of American literature, but that great and tormented man’s birth remains a decade off. The one who concerns us now is this little strapping round comedian, whom the sisters, when they arrive, will nickname Pudley. His real name, or the name we know him by, is Paul Dresser. He will grow into one of the fattest men in America, and for a time its most successful songwriter.

Trump’s Literacy

It was at once a diverting and disconcerting conversation. Last May, on assignment for Time magazine, I traveled to Trump Tower in midtown Manhattan to ask the then-presumptive Republican nominee about presidential literacy—what does a president need to know in order to govern effectively? How fluent need he be in the details of policy? How familiar with the ebb and flow of history? In our hour or so together, Donald Trump was gracious but evinced little interest in the substance of the questions, often turning, in his freewheeling, free-associating way, to his own popularity.

Had I seen Bobby Knight’s appearances for Trump in Indiana? he asked me. They were amazing, Trump reported—gold-plated. Nobody better out there than Knight. And what about Tom Brady, the New England Patriots quarterback who’d said nice things about Trump, a golfing pal, up in Massachusetts? Hadn’t seen it? Trump called out to his assistants: can they get him a copy of the Brady quote?

As we parted, Trump mused about the approaching general-election campaign: “People keep saying, ‘Donald, you’ve already made history, no matter what happens,’ but I’ll tell you this: I want to win. None of it means anything if I don’t win.” Of course, he did, and now the rest of us are left to wonder about what his victory will mean.

In our closely divided age, reactions to the news of Trump’s improbable victory ranged from the joyful to the apocalyptic. In the wake of the campaign, conventional wisdom—the phrase was John Kenneth Galbraith’s—explained the election as a great roar of populist fury at political, economic, cultural, and media elites who seemed out of touch with working-class voters whose lives have been circumscribed by the inequalities of globalization. There were other, harsher opinions, including the argument that Trump’s rise is at heart fascistic, and his election the first step toward racialist totalitarianism.

Hillary and the Grand Inquisitor

The setting, at least for the historically-minded, was a familiar one: the hall at Moscow State University in which Ronald Reagan had hailed the “Moscow spring” of two decades before, in the waning hours of the Cold War. In that classic Reagan speech, the American president struck characteristically optimistic notes. “Freedom is the right to question and change the established way of doing things,” Reagan said. “Freedom is the recognition that no single person, no single authority of government, has a monopoly on the truth, but that every individual life is infinitely precious, that every one of us put on this world has been put here for a reason and has something to offer.” Now, in the autumn of 2009, the American Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, stood before a colorful mural featuring a hammer and sickle—the bust of Lenin from Reagan’s day had been removed—to address the students not of the Soviet Union but of Russia. And while Lenin was gone, the Russian past, and her own, was very much on Clinton’s mind.

Asked from the floor about what book had “changed [her] life”—it was a university crowd, after all—the Secretary of State cited Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s epic The Brothers Karamazov. Recalling two readings of the sprawling philosophical nineteenth century novel, Clinton singled out “The Grand Inquisitor” section of the book, what Dostoyevsky’s atheistic narrator Ivan refers to as a “poem” he recites to his devout brother, Alyosha. Conventionally interpreted as a depiction of Roman Catholic certitude against a more personal and Protestant understanding of faith, the scene features a cardinal of the church describing the perils of free will to a Christ who has returned to sixteenth century Spain. A long lament that God had made faith a matter of choice, the cardinal’s monologue

A Conversation with Elisabeth Schmitz

In her role as vice president and editorial director at Grove Atlantic, Elisabeth Schmitz has commanded the admiration and trust of hundreds of writers, publishing colleagues, and aspiring literary editors. We recently met at our NYC neighborhood restaurant, Community Food and Juice, to talk about editing, publishing, and the literary passion fostered by Grove Atlantic under the intrepid leadership of its publisher, Morgan Entrekin.

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