Scoundrel Time

A Standing Offer

Jack has a job.  It’s the sort of job where he doesn’t get to tell many people what to do or what not to do. Say he’s a travel agent or an insurance claim adjuster or a legal clerk, and he’s probably quite good at whatever this job is. Presume that Jack is very good at his job. Jack finds satisfaction in his work, and he receives frequent validation in quarterly performance reviews, maybe even the occasional commission or bonus, depending on the particulars of his situation. But again, Jack’s job doesn’t empower him to direct others, to tell them what to do.Jack is a large man. Broad. He played football in high school, his coworkers think. Or hockey, if this is the upper Midwest. Certainly, his presence could be taken as intimidating, if he were the sort of person who ever needed to intimidate, or cajole, or bully. Jack’s temperament, though, is pacific. His coworkers likely forget about his size when he’s behind a desk, tapping away at whatever it is he does. Jack likes to wear well-fitting clothes. He polishes his wing-tip shoes every night, while his wife reads trade journals and market reports.

Jack has a family. His wife is likely very pretty, and she works a high-powered job. Corporate law, perhaps, or else she is some sort of executive. Maybe she even makes more money than he does–a lot more. Whether or not that is true, Jack loves his wife, has to remind her several times a day of his gratitude for this love, of which he does not feel quite worthy. He has either 2 or 3 children, at least one daughter, and his dog is big and impractical. It is certain that Jack feels a swelling of pride when he surveys the family at Sunday brunch, or during movie night, or in the rearview mirror of the mini-van as they take the scenic road to the lake. It is doubly certain that the pinnacle of Jack’s pride is his boy, a sinewy, lean child who has wide eloquent eyes that are either green or dove-gray. When Jack sees the boy asleep on the couch, or lounging in the sun, he feels a bubble grows in his chest. This feeling expands to the extremities of his body until he has to force himself not to shout in his baritone that this boy has brightened the world, to behold what a child Jack and his wife (whose name could possibly be Linda) bore in the course of their loving marriage.

When the boy misbehaves, when he breaks a window or teases the neighbor girl or hurts her cat (which he may or may not have done), Jack stares into those possibly-dove-gray eyes and can’t help but forgive him. Instantly, without any time for regret or shame to course from father to son, Jack forgives him. This is the spirit of his generous, consuming love. It warrants another reminder, at this juncture, that Jack’s job does not have him exerting power over others.

There are strange truths about Jack’s life, things he tells to no one. For example, both of Jack’s parents, all four of his grandparents, and one of his little cousins, died on a Sunday. It’s really quite preposterous for him to say that he knows he, too, will one day die on a Sunday. Nevertheless, he knows it to be quite true.

Another strange truth: all three (or both) of Jack’s children were conceived on nights when, surprising both himself and his wife, he gripped her neck during sex and choked her. On no other occasion in their marriage had their lovemaking been violent. Nevertheless, Jack was seized by a sudden, nauseating urge to clasp his large hands around her windpipe and squeeze it shut, to watch her face flush with warm blood. The second time his wife even passed out. Nine months later, the boy came into the world, screaming and beet red.

It is therefore understandable that Jack associates violence with potent creative power. Something sacred, something implicitly sexual.

These are things that Jack refuses to discuss or acknowledge with anyone, least of all Linda. To say something is to make it doubly true, and as things stood, all of this seemed merely probable.

Jack’s life is very happy until a jarring event. The specifics of this event are murky, but a few factors seem likely. First of all, this event pertained to the boy and some acts he’d committed. What’s important is that he did not act just once, but indeed wove his behavior into a pattern. Furthermore, these acts happened at school when the boy was out of Jack’s sight, instilling a sense of hopelessness in the father. Jack began to think of himself as a single, unlucky permutation in the great logic tree of his life. And as a permutation, things didn’t seem quite as bad, for they could have turned out differently. If you took the median probable outcome, Jack’s life was normal, joyous, peaceful.

The boy’s set of acts were directed toward others. Maybe just one other. These acts were malicious, pre-meditated, and ultimately violent. The sort of stuff that just seems impossible coming from a thin boy with large, innocent eyes. But that innocence, paired with the brazenness of his actions, made him that much guiltier; he seemed manipulative, false. If, perhaps, these acts were committed against just one other, it was likely toward a girl in his class by the name of Jennifer.

Jack receives the news at work, seated behind his desk with his thumbs drumming on the space bar. If Jack’s position permits him a secretary, he receives a forwarded call. His secretary’s voice is casual, blithely unaware of the situation. If he does not have a secretary, Jack picks up the phone himself, saying “this is he,” in an interrogative tone. The voice on the other end is hollow, unnerved.

Jack learns of his son’s behavior in a lengthy monologue interspersed with asides, reminding Jack that there is much that has to be discussed face to face, that the principal can only say so much over the phone. He stares into his worn keyboard. Half the letters are faded from his heavy fingers’ confidently pounding out memos and reports year after year. His left wingtip taps the edge of the desk, an old, restless habit. He asks no questions. He conjures the image of his boy as a toddler. His feet would patter the living room with little thumps, and he’d squeal in delight as he ran after his older sister. His voice, oddly low, would slur and lisp with a happy intelligence. This boy couldn’t have done something so openly violent. Certainly, Jack concludes, it was some other boy.

That night, Jack arrives home in a dark, opaque silence. He enters his living room, where the boy is waiting, perhaps sitting on the sofa next to Linda, or otherwise already on his feet. The boy grows rigid when Jack walks into the room. “I didn’t do anything,” he says at once. “Jennifer did it to herself. It wasn’t me.” His voice is high and clear, with none of the rich timbre of his toddlerhood. If Jack hesitates, it is only momentarily, before walking straight past the two of them, up into the marital room, and shutting the door.

When Jack was an adolescent, maybe 15 or 16, he got into a fight. Quite possibly it was at a sports game. Football, maybe, or hockey, if this is Minnesota or Wisconsin. If it were indeed a hockey fight, Jack perhaps slammed another player into the glass, feeling his foe squish under his bulk and collapse concussed. Or maybe Jack ripped off his helmet, inviting blows but also permitting his own. Maybe he smashed the other’s face repeatedly, not stopping when his knuckles grew sore and sticky with blood. Whatever the circumstance, surely for the first time Jack felt how he could muster his considerable size toward violence. How he could weaponize the skill and dexterity he’d learned in his athletics. How he could retool both his body and mind for this purpose. And surely, once he felt this, he knew that his opponent would crumple under his rage. Jack felt all of this just once when he was a boy. Just once.

For all the grateful love he felt for his wife, much of it he owed to her body. Specifically, the slender, taut profile; her sheer smallness. But with her smallness, perhaps because of it, came an unmatched ferocity and cunning in business. Linda oversaw corporate mergers, thorny litigious situations, complicated, protracted personnel issues. Linda managed with an iron fist. She didn’t mince words. Jack loved her ruthlessness. Linda could crush people and mean them no harm. She slashed and crawled her way up the corporate ladder, and she did it all with a near indifference that he found sexy. With her, there was no ambiguity. All of this with a physical slightness that made Jack feel even larger, more ungainly, more uncontrollable.

That the boy had taken after her, not him, in appearance was a point of pride for Jack. The boy was slender, small, intelligent. He had none of Jack’s brutishness, even if they shared that same proclivity for impenetrable, brooding silence. To Jack, the boy’s frame, his very face was proof of his goodness. He was his mother’s child, which made him precious.

It takes Jack a very long time to return to the living room. He asks Linda to leave him with the boy, or else, the boy is already alone. Jack sits tensely on the coffee table, directly across from his son. The boy is now so far back into the couch that the purple cushions threaten to absorb him. For all his slouching, the boy does not look guilty. His face is composed into a neutral, death-like calm. Secretly, Jack knows that at the slightest remorse, he would forgive everything. But there is none.

When the principal had mentioned the animals (and the longer the boy stays in our focus, the clearer it is that animals were involved in this particular instance) Jack wasn’t surprised. Rather, Jack had discovered a strange brew of emotions he had on hand for such news. Not surprise, guilt, nor anger, but an odd nervousness. It was what one perhaps would expect when a close friend learned an embarrassing, damning secret. What this secret might be, Jack couldn’t have said. He’d only wanted the principal to stop talking before she’d reached the heart of it.

Jack lets out a long sigh. He suddenly feels how very large he is. Positively massive, a hoarder’s embarrassment of flesh. His legs spread like a fundament; his forearms rest on his inner thighs like steel rods. His body, in that moment, feels decadent, like a great gilded palace on the eve of a people’s revolt. It is this splendor of personhood that informs Jack that this moment bears a terrific weight.

The first option: Jack yells at the boy. Perhaps this feels like, when walking down a flight of stairs at night, expecting one more step and discovering that there is none. That is to say, Jack discovers he already has reached the top of the staircase in a little, disorienting lurch. His words, at first terse and carefully demarcated, soon spool out in a furious tangle. He looks the boy square in the eye, and his anger grows. In this scenario, Jack becomes his body, a corporeal rage that surges through his muscle and his marrow. His speech is quick and clipped with vehemence. A spittle peppers his mouth, and he is the spittle. He’s also the blood rising in his cheeks; the quadriceps clenching; the fists, which are made of thick fingers with abundant nails. Jack is surprised to discover how easy all of this is, how utterly natural it is to shout with his full voice. The boy burrows deeper into the cushions, but he is pinioned under Jack’s stare. Jack wants the boy to feel trapped. He wants the boy to seek an escape and not find it. Jack wants himself understood: he could show mercy in any variety of ways, but he rejects them. He is choosing fire. And when Linda enters the room with a timidity (that does not become her), it is just as easy to turn and hiss that he is dealing with it. Jack is the hiss and all of its venom.

The second option: Jack shifts his large body with ponderous grace, joining the boy on the couch. Having decided not to cow, intimidate, nor cajole, Jack stares at the blank T.V. screen for some faint clue as to how to proceed. In a whirl of contingencies, he considers stories he might tell the boy to win his trust. These occur to him like so many ill-fitting shoes. His mind avoids a youthful tragedy, perhaps concerning bikes. Each option seems hopelessly wrong.

It’s possible that Jack, reeling from his nervousness, pounces on one of these stories. Indeed, it shouldn’t surprise us at all if Jack were to reel off a lengthy tale about an injury he observed as a child, a jarring event of his own past that might pair with his current sense of jar. More possibly still, the story might involve a pet, or a childhood crush, or any other topic that might address the problem more directly. Although, when you think about it, to reduce the event to these base elements is an even greater abstraction. Perhaps Jack says nothing at all.

In lieu of rage, Jack watches the blank T.V. out of habit. The scene becomes strangely normal, both father and son gazing raptly upon the screen. In absence of the familiar, outdated sitcom Jack prefers, his focus grows only more fixed. The periphery of the room seems to draw toward the T.V., as if the pair are creating a gravitational field. The adjacent chairs, made of a stiff ugly fabric, loom over the television. Their print resembles a jungle floor, and the room seems suddenly humid. Jack feels a rapid dislocation, as if his body is quickly becoming something separate from himself. Jack feels his very Jackness sucked toward the television, becoming distant and abstract in the tropicalizing room. And through it all, Jack cannot bring himself to look at the boy, to say a single word. He may as well be on the other side of the television screen. When Linda comes in to guide their son by the arm up into his room, Jack remains in the same posture, unblinking.

Is one of these options preferable? It seems instinctually important that Jack’s Jackness has a destiny, perhaps a particular location, that is desirable. This location should relate to the boy, in particular, this malignant falseness that Jack wishes to purge. And it’s true; in one scenario, the family dog mysteriously drowns in the town pond the following month. In the other scenario, the dog lives a rewarding and long life, dying peacefully under a vet’s needle at the ripe old age of 18.

Jack has a life and it’s the sort of life in which he could tell you a favorite T.V show, a list of fast-casual restaurant near his home, an opinion on tax law. It’s the sort of life in which his body seems amusingly unnecessary, like one giant appendix. But an appendix has a function, even if lost and disused. From time to time, the thought occurs to Jack that he could use his body, even if the specifics seem vague. A standing offer, if you will, for something more forceful.





Image By: