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Authors: John Hawkes

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Second Skin

BOOK: Second Skin
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For Charlotte and Edwin Honig

Preface:
The Lover of the Hummingbird
by Jeffrey Eugenides

This essay was read at a memorial service for John Hawkes, “Remembering The Passion Artist: A John Hawkes Tribute,” on April 13, 1999, at Brown University and is published here courtesy of the author.

Twenty years ago I arrived on this campus intent on fulfilling my father’s greatest fear (while making him pay for it) of seeing his son ruined by the Liberal Eastern Establishment. At the time, I wasn’t entirely clear what the Liberal Eastern Establishment was. If you’d have asked me to list the attributes of its members, I might have mentioned the wearing of broadcloth shirts, the tendency to have crystal decanters on the sideboard, or to speak in the manner of William Bucklcy, Jr. (no liberal but an easterner) where the facial expressions seem to arise from a convergence of intellectual effort and intestinal discomfort. One thing was certain, however. The chief recommendation of the Liberal Eastern Establishment lay in my father’s opposition to it.

I’d chosen to go to Brown chiefly because of the presence on its faculty of one John Hawkes. Hawkcs’s books, which I only dimly understood, had enchanted me ever since I’d pulled my first copy off a high school teacher’s bookshelf when I was fifteen. I don’t want to be hyperbolic about the moment but it retains in memory all the annunciatory trumpets of an epiphany. I can remember reading the words “New Directions” on the spine. I can remember studying the picture on the cover, a muscular, nearly anatomized Caribbean woman posed before a blazing sun. Most of all, I remember the intoxicating effect the prose had on me, like a dangerous, throat-burning liqueur. The narrative voice seized me in a way all the noisy art forms of the time (which have only grown noisier since then) somehow didn’t. I felt right away, reading the first paragraph of
Second Skin
, that I was in the presence of the qualities Nabokov con.sidered the hallmarks of art; curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy.

I set out on my pilgrimage my first day on College Hill. Consulting my campus map, I located the English department at Horace Mann. I eame inside and studied the directory. With growing excitement, I climbed the steps. Everything here was old in the way I wanted it to be; the stairs creaked; the radiators gave off a .smell of rust (the smell of the Ivy League). At the end of the hall, in a forlorn office clearly used only once at the beginning of each semester, .sat a man with owl-shaped eyeglasses the color of congealed honey. He looked up at me.

“Are you the lover of the hummingbird?” I asked.

After a short pause, putting aside his insistence that one should never confuse a novel’s author with its protagonist (because he could see that such a distinction would have been lost on the kid in his doorway). Jack answered, “Yes.”

And so it was that Jaeic Hawkes became for me the living embodiment of the Liberal Eastern Elite. It turned out they didn’t wear broadcloth shirts. They wore L.L. Bean turtleneeks, ehinos and tweed jackets. They didn’t speak like William Buekley, Jr. but in a voiee, well, like Jack’s, something between an eagle’s cry and the whine of a highly intelligent, asthmatic ehild … you all know the voiee, you ean hear it now, saying the things Jaek used to say. “But what about the eharaeter’s eyes? Look how the author describes his eyes. These aren’t eyes. They’re gonads! In Freudian terms the eye is always a gonad!”

Or when he forgot somebody’s name: “It’s the synapses!”

Or regarding literary poseurs: “To glorify not the writing but the writer, to be eoneerned with the role of the writer in society rather than the work itself, that is something which, I must say, I strongly resist.”

This last remark was delivered to me. Pretty soon in our dealings with each other Jack realized that my interest in him extended beyond my admiration for his books. One day during my freshman year I came into class and sat next to Jaek. I bent over to lay my books on the floor. While I was down there, I took the opportunity to stare under Jack’s seat.

In an instant Jack was shouting, “You even want to know what kind of shoes I wear?”

I was horrified at being caught, at having my idolatry exposed. Stricken, I sat back in my scat and tried for the re.st of the seminar to look anywhere but at Jack’s shoes.

Among my pitiful efforts that first semester in Beginning Fiction, I remember one moment when Jack offered me encouragement. We were given an assignment to describe a single mundane moment with utmost dramatic effect. I had described—taxidermied, really—a little girl in the act of turning on a light switch. But generous Jack found some promise.

“I love this little girl,” he shouted. “I want to
eat
this girl!”

That was a lesson I’ve never forgotten: try to make every page of prose edible.

Among the most edible pages in our literature surely are those written by John Hawkes. Open any book, anywhere, and the feast is laid out before you. I’ve always agreed with Proust’s insistence that you can measure a writer’s talent from any paragraph, in any book. Just for fun, in preparing these remarks, I opened a few of Jack’s books at random. From
The Cannibal:
“And old Herman, fully awake, touched the soft fur with his mouth, and felt the wings through the cotton dress, while in the far end of town, a brigade of men passed shallow buckets of water to quench a small fire.” From
The Blood Oranges:
“I swayed, I listened, I shaded my eyes, knowing that Catherine was indeed asleep and that Fiona’s haste was justified but futile and that the light itself had turned to wind or that the wind had somehow assumed the properties of the dawn light.” From
Sweet William:
“There I was, standing on racing turf at last. Through the shredding curtains of that brisk dawn mirage, a fusion of fog and filmy light and dark shadows, I was able to make out the quarters of the track, as well as the darkened shape of the grandstand, which was like an abandoned ship on its side.”

Not only was Jack a wonderful writer; he was a truly first-rate hypochondriac. “Nobody has a cold, do they?” was often the way he greeted our class. If a carrier were identified, Jack quarantined the poor student in a remote armchair before administering himself the booster vaccine of a glass of Soave Folonari. Of course Jack had had asthma since childhood and needed to guard against flus and colds. Nevertheless, one of the strangest things I ever learned about Jack and something that impressed upon me how contradictory and unpredictable people can be (another literary lesson, I suppose) was the following. One of the last times I saw Jack, at a lunch with Rick Moody, Jack, a man who had fled the slightest cough or sniffle, calmly mentioned over a rich dessert that doctors had just determined that his main cardiac arteries were occluded by eighty or ninety percent. He seemed—and again I have only that one afternoon to go on—almost fascinated with the diagnosis, as though the heart trouble were not his own but belonged to a character he was writing about. And so, to all the other qualities I admired about Jack Hawkes, I had to add another: courage.

That final lunch was not without its sadder aspccts. Jack was concerned about his book.
The Frog
, which had come out that year. He was afraid it wasn’t doing well enough to suit his publisher, and he asked Rick and me if there was anything we could do, down in New York, to give the book a boost. It was an uncomfortable moment, which I can only comparc, in my own experience, to the time my own father, late in life, asked to borrow money. It went against the natural order of things. And we were standing in the middle of a gravel parking lot, in Providence, which is always a sad thing, and Jack looked frail in the harsh light. But no sooner had this unease descended on us than Jack, synapses still intact, summed up the entire situation and, waving his hand, dismissed the whole idea.

In retrospect, I think he was stripping from himself the last shreds of the mantle I’d forccd on his shoulders so many years ago when I barged into his office quoting
Second Skin.
He was telling me that he was a writer and, like any writer, he worried about the fate of his books in the world. He was telling me, now that I was old enough to understand, exactly what kind of shoes he wore. And what kind of shoes, in emulating him, I had squeezed into myself.

It was my good fortune to study with the great, cantankerous Hawkes and to know him as a teacher and as a friend, to enjoy his kindness and iiumor, iiis iiistrionie self-dramatizing, his pagan vitality, and to hear, from his own lips, the natural flow of his eloquence and the utterly original workings of his fine and incomparable mind.

When I graduated, I wrote a note of thanks to Jack, most of which I’ve forgotten. The last line, however, comes back to me. “1 will always begin with what you taught me.” That is as true today, as we gather here to celebrate the man and his work, as it was in 1983.1 want to say, God Bless John Hawkes, but it doesn’t feel right. Jack was an existentialist. He told me once that he liked the idea that we create our work out of the void. So rather than address Jack in heaven. I’ll end by saluting the god he spoke of most often, the imagination, .specifically the imagination of John Hawkes, which bodied forth from the void his many brilliant books.

Naming Names

I will tell you in a few words who I am: lover of the hummingbird that darts to the flower beyond the rotted sill where my feet are propped; lover of bright needlepoint and the bright stitching fingers of humorless old ladies bent to their sweet and infamous designs; lover of parasols made from the same puffy stuff as a young girl’s underdrawers; still lover of that small naval boat which somehow survived the distressing years of my life between her decks or in her pilothouse; and also lover of poor dear black Sonny, my mess boy, fellow victim and confidant, and of my wife and child. But most of all, lover of my harmless and sanguine self.

Yet surely I am more than a man of love. It will be clear, I think, that I am a man of courage as well.

Had I been born my mother’s daughter instead of son—and the thought is not so improbable, after all, and causes me neither pain, fear nor embarrassment when I give it my casual and interested contemplation—I would not have matured into a muscular and self-willed Clytemnestra but rather into a large and innocent Iphigenia betrayed on the beach. A large and slow-eyed
and smiling Iphigenia, to be sure, even more full to the knife than that real girl struck down once on the actual shore. Yet I am convinced that in my case I should have been spared. AU but sacrificed I should have lived, somehow, in my hapless way; to bleed but not to bleed to death would have been my fate, forgiving them all while attempting to wipe the smoking knife on the bottom of my thick yellow skirt. Or had my own daughter been born my son I would have remained his ghostly guardian, true to his hollow cheeks and skinny legs and hurts, for no more than this braving his sneers, his nasty eye and the scorn of his fellow boys. For him too I would have suffered violence with my chin lifted, my smile distracted, my own large breast the swarming place of the hummingbirds terrified and treacherous at once. Just as all these years I have suffered with a certain dignity for father, wife, daughter, each of whom was his own Antigone—the sand-scratchers, the impatient sufferers of self-inflicted death, the curious adventurers for whom I remain alive. Perhaps my father thought that by shooting off the top of his head he would force me to undergo some sort of transformation. But poor man, he forgot my capacity for love.

With Hamlet I should say that once, not long ago, I became my own granddaughter’s father, giving her the warmth of my two arms and generous smile, substituting for each drop of the widow’s poison the milk of my courageous heart. At night what a silhouette I must have made, kneeling, looming beside the child as she sat the always unfamiliar white statuary of the chamber pot. She must have known, I think, what happened to her mother, her mother’s mother, her grandfather’s father, and that she herself was the final accident in this long line of what I shall call our soft and well-intentioned bastardy. In the mirror our two heads—the bald one, the little silver one—would make faces together, reflecting for our innocent amusement the unhappy expressions worn once by those whom she and I—Pixie and I— had survived. So the all-but-abandoned Pixie, and my daughter, whose death I fought against the hardest, and my weightless wife, a flower already pressed between leaves of darkness before we met—these then are my dreams, the once-living or hardly
living members of my adored and dreadful family, the cameo profiles of my beribboned brooch, the figures cut loose so terribly by that first explosion which occurred in my father’s private lavatory. I know it was meant for me, his deliberate shot. But it went wild. It carried off instead dear Cassandra and hopeless, hysterical Gertrude. Went wild and left only myself alive.

Yes, my own feet at rest on the rotted window sill. But I am no mere sickened leaf on a dead tide, no mere dead weight burdening some gaudy hammock. In body, in mind, am I not rather the aggressive personification of serenity, the eternal forward drift or handsome locomotion of peace itself? As a walker, for instance, I am a tiger. I have always walked far in my white socks, my white shoes, and the extent and manner of my walking have always been remarked upon, with admiration or maliciousness, in the past. Since childhood I have walked into a room, or out, out into the shadowed greens or dangerous sand lots of the world, holding my chin lifted, my lips pleasantly curved and my eye round, measuring my steps so that they would never falter and keeping my hands in motion at my side, wishing never to appear intimidated by the death of my parents, wishing never to conceal the shame which I thought had left its clear and rancid mark on my breast. Even today I take these same slow-paced, deliberate, impervious footsteps, using the balls of my feet in proud and sensual fashion, driving a constant rhythm and lightheartedness and a certain confidence into my stride through the uninhibited and, I might say, powerful swinging of my hips. Of course there are those who laugh. But others, like Sonny, recognize my need, my purpose, my strength and grace. Always my strength and grace.

In all likelihood my true subject may prove to be simply the wind—its changing nature, its rough and whispering characteristics, the various spices of the world which it brings together suddenly in hot or freezing gusts to alter the flavor of our inmost recollections of pleasure or pain—simply that wind to which my heart and also my skin have always been especially sensitive. Or it may prove to be the stark elongated brutal silhouette of a ship standing suddenly on the horizon of the mind and, all at
once, making me inexplicably afraid—perhaps because it is so far off that not one detail reaches the eye, nothing of name, passengers, crew, not even smoke from the stack, so that only the ugly span of pointed iron, which ought to be powerless but moves nonetheless and is charged with all the mystery and inhuman distance of the compass, exists to incite this terrible fear and longing in a man such as myself. But for now the wind trails off my fingers, the ship fades. Because I suppose that names must precede these solid worlds of my passionate time and place and action.

There was Fernandez, then, my small son-in-law, who held up his trousers with the feathery translucent skin of a rattlesnake, and who, even in his white linen suit and with Cassandra’s hand in his at the altar, continued to look like the hapless Peruvian orphan that he was. A breath smelling of hot peppers, dark and deeply socketed nostrils, flat smoky brown skull that cried for lace and candlelight, in his jacket pocket a Bible bound in white calfskin, and in his hand a bunch of somber crimson flowers—this was Fernandez, who underwent a triumphant and rebellious change of character in the wedding car (it was his own though he could not drive it, a sloping green-roofed sedan with cracked glass, musty seats, bare oily floors rent and jagged so that the road was clearly visible, the car Cassandra drove that day only with the greatest effort and determination), this then was Fernandez, who caused me, that day, to smile my most perspiring smile for the loss of my dear blonde-headed Cassandra. But even then, of course, I could not have imagined Fernandez on a bloody hotel room floor. And even now, after the fact of these events— time has worked on them like water on old knots—even now I cannot entirely castigate the memory of that Fernandez who was the groom. His favorite name for me was “good Papa Cue Ball.” For anyone else—except Cassandra, except me—that nickname would have been warning enough. But I would have welcomed Fernandez then, Fernandez with his menacing green car, his piles of tattered ration booklets, his heaps of soft smooth tires piled in the black wooden structure where the chickens scratched, even had he threatened me with the little hook-shaped
razor blade he carried next to his Bible in an Edgeworth tobacco tin. Welcomed him with opened arms, I am sure.

But two more names will complete this preliminary roster of persons whose love I have lost or whose poison I happily spent my life neutralizing with my unblemished flesh, my regal carriage, my impractical but all the more devoted being. After Fernandez there was Miranda. I hear that name—Miranda, Miranda!—and once again quicken to its false suggestiveness, feel its rhapsody of sound, the several throbs of the vowels, the very music of charity, innocence, obedience, love. For a moment I seem to see both magic island and imaginary girl. But Miranda was the widow’s name—out of what perversity, what improbable desire I am at a loss to say—and no one could have given a more ugly denial to that heartbreaking and softly fluted name than the tall and treacherous woman. Miranda. The widow. In the end I was Miranda’s match; I have had my small victory over Miranda; as father, grandfather, former naval officer and man, I found myself equal to this last indignity; to me her name means only ten months during which I attempted to prolong Cassandra’s life, ten subtle months of my final awakening. Rawboned and handsome woman, unconventional and persistent widow, old antagonist on a black Atlantic island, there she was—my monster, my Miranda, final challenge of our sad society and worthy of all the temperance and courage I could muster. Now I think of her as my black butterfly. And now—obviously—the scars are sweet.

With the mention of my mother’s prosaic name of Mildred I complete my roster, because there is no place here for Tremlow —my devil, Tremlow—or for Mac, the Catholic chaplain who saved my life. No place for them. Not yet. Of course the mere name of my mother has no special connotation, no significance, but the woman herself was the vague consoling spirit behind the terrible seasons of this life when unlikely accidents, tabloid adventures, shocking episodes, surrounded a solitary and wistful heart. Like my father she died when I was young, and I see her with most of her features indistinct. But she too was tall, stoopshouldered, forever smiling a soft questioning smile. I have no recollection of her voice—some short time after my father’s decision
in the lavatory she ceased to talk, became permanently mute—and my few visual memories of her are silent and show her only at a great distance off. Wearing her broad-brimmed white hat so immense and limpid it conceals her face and back in waves like tissue paper, she kneels in the garden strip next to the little chipped and tarnished electric sign which is the familiar urban monument of men in my father’s profession and which, in my boyhood, identified our private house as the combined residence and working place of an active small-town mortician. I see my mother kneeling, hidden by the hat, inert and sweet and ghostly in the summer sun. She seems to me to be praying rather than gardening, and my imagination supplies the black trowel untouched by her white-gloved folded hands but stabbed upright, rather, into the earth at her knees. And then, in another fragment of memory, I see her seated in the middle of our lawn on one of my father’s shellacked folding chairs and still dressed in white, still wearing the hat, while he, bareheaded and balding and in shirt sleeves, stands hosing down the long black limousine which was shabby, upholstered in red velvet except for the stiff black patent leather of the driver’s seat, and often smelled of invisible flowers—that worn and comfortable old hearse—when it doubled on Sunday afternoons as our family car. The seated woman, the dripping machine, the man working his wrist in idle circles, this is the vision lying closest to the peaceful center of my childhood. And how much it contains: not only the still day of my youth but also the devotion and modest industry of my parents which gave my early life the proportions of a working fairy tale. For the president of the local bank, an unmarried teacher in the elementary school, two brothers dramatically drowned in a scummy pond at the edge of town, the thin mother of infant twins, three beautiful members of the high school graduating class decapitated in a scarlet coupé, a girl who had sold children’s underwear in the five and dime, in our house all of them appeared, all were attended by my father and my mother as well, she in the parlor, smiling, he in the shop below, since she was always his perfect partner, the mortician’s muse, the woman who more and more grew to resemble
a gifted angel in a dreamer’s cemetery as the years passed and the number of our nonreligious ceremonies increased. A few years only—yet all my youth—were marked by the folding and unfolding of the wooden chairs and sudden oil changes in the hearse, until that day my peace and excitement ended and my mother and I were only brief visitors in another undertaker’s home.

At least I was witness to my father’s death, in a sense was the child-accomplice of whatever dark phantom might have been materializing by his side that noon hour he finally locked himself in the hot lavatory—it was a Friday in midsummer—and rushed through the bare essentials of taking his life. Witness and accomplice because I was crouched with my ear to the door and because we talked together, curious but welcome conference between father and son, and because I played my cello to him and later fished from the trembling cupfuls of water in the bottom of the toilet bowl the little unused bullet which was companion to the one he fired. At least I knew it was for my sake, despite his confusion, his anger, his pathetic cries, and received the tangible actuality of his death with shocked happiness, grateful at least for the misguided trust implicit in the real staging of that uncensored scene.

How like my mother, on the other hand, to spare me; to disappear, to vanish, gone without the hard crude accessories of sweating water jug, pulmotor, stretcher, ambulance summoned from the City Hospital; gone without vigil or funeral, without good-bys. I missed her one morning and that was all. It makes little difference now that she died only twenty miles away and in the care of a half brother. It makes no difference to me. Because I missed her, I knew at once what had happened, I was alone, I could do nothing but alternate my days between the lavatory-endless brushing of teeth, plastering down of hair—and the back of the hearse where I instinctively stretched out to await my final vision of that experience denied me in space but not in time.

And in time it came, the moment when at last I sat up like a miniature fat corpse in the back of the solemn old limousine and
found the cobwebs, the streaming motes, the worn velvet carpeting and various bits of silver and thin lengths of steel—the casket runners—all turned to dense geometric substances of light-orange, yellow, radiant pink—and in that blaze, and just as I clenched my hands and shut my eyes, knew that my father had begun my knowledge of death as a lurid truth but that my mother had extended it toward the promise of mystery—this at the instant I saw her, saw her, after all, in the vision which no catastrophe of my own has ever destroyed or dimmed.

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