Weekend Reading – Calvin’s Ghost: A Novel / 7 / Brokenness Breaking

Weekend Reading – Calvin’s Ghost: A Novel / 7 / Brokenness Breaking September 6, 2019

Previously in Calvin’s Ghost6 / Northeast Corridor


“Sin is not visible,” said Tobias. This confused Eli. They strode briskly up Prospect Avenue. Another autumnal day. Another year.

“According to the Puritans, certainly, and I believe they nailed the concept, Eli, fully and properly extracting meaning from it, sin is neither an action nor an event. Nor is sin a type or category of behavior. Good intentions and a virtuous mien. They simply don’t matter. They are window dressing.” Tobias’s contempt for window dressing was palpable. “For Puritans, my son, sin is a condition. You can’t walk away from it, canceling out one action with another. Sin is riparian. It flows. It is implacable.”

“What is grace, then?”

Tobias paused. Stopping dead in his tracks. He had a habit of doing this. His body and his mind not in sync. A sudden flash of insight or a special point of emphasis hurling his body to a halt. “Well, Eli. I suppose grace is nothing more nor less than a condition of awareness. Not removing oneself from the prior condition of sin, not even succumbing to guilt, but layering this condition of sin with knowledge and responsibility. And perhaps a further layer involving the voice one gives to this knowledge and responsibility. That would be the guidance and model of prophecy. Not damming (or damning, ha-ha) sin’s riparian force but navigating it for oneself and guiding others through it.”

Eli was 16, now in his junior year at the high school. These questions pressed on his mind. He knew Tobias was not addressing ultimate matters of spiritual salvation. Tobias no more believed in God than the Wall Street banker or the High Plains drifter. But he did believe in righteousness.

The Tobias lexicon pressed upon Eli. He needed to know, with an urgency and expectancy born of a base case anxiety. How does a young man make his way in the world? Eli did understand Tobias was expressing ultimate social and historical principles – tools, really – for both identifying and establishing reality. For making oneself real. This was no trivial matter. Because, as Tobias put it, most people were not real. They were born, they lived, they died, and as blown, brown leaves they left no imprint on history.

Eli and his father stood under pooled lamplight, actual leaves, with highly specific colors, copper brown and vermillion red and Princeton orange and even a lavish plum violet, skating across their shoes and brushing the cuffs of their pants.

“So, grace is a type of humility?”

Tobias laughed and clapped Eli on the shoulder, allowing his hand to linger. “Well, Eli, I suppose it is. From the mouths of babes.” And they continued forward on Prospect.

But what Tobias didn’t realize, and probably could never fully comprehend under any circumstances, so assuming was he, so unaware was he, was that Eli was no longer a babe, he essentially did grasp the meaning of Tobias’s eschatology, and he was already, at the age of 16, carrying this message in an entirely different direction from the path blazed by his father.

* * *

On that evening, Eli and his father, pacing up Prospect Avenue together, planned to separate and divide once they crossed Washington Road, Tobias turning right toward the campus library, Eli continuing straight through the campus and then dropping down toward the campus fieldhouse.

Before parting, however, Tobias tossed a bomb into the pool of shared and sympathetic connection he and Eli had filled during their walk from house to campus. Where the walkway branched toward the library, Tobias pivoted, suddenly and almost aggressively, blocking Eli’s ability to proceed forward toward the fieldhouse. He set down his briefcase and peered intently at Eli. “There is one matter, Eli.”

Eli’s innards tightened. His throat clenched. Not quite the flinch. But not far off. He’d been hoping to escape this outing with his father unscathed, but no such luck. “What’s that?” Eli said backing away a step, beginning in real time to construct defensive bulwarks.

“I’m not happy with Lawrence’s performance in school. He’s already skipping classes, missing assignments. He’s in 9th grade. There are consequences.”

Eli said nothing. Lawrence had been heading down a dark road for a long time. Eli believed his parents were dimly aware that Lawrence’s destiny had already been determined, predestined, or fated. But while Tobias might renounce free will in his scholarship, he could not escape its temptations when it came to his family.

“Eli, son, your mother and I need your help with Lawrence.” Tobias glancing at his watch. “I know you have plans at the gymnasium, and I have a pile of work waiting for me in the library. But you need to look after Lawrence at school. At home, Lawrence is our charge. I might go so far as to say he is our burden. But we cannot follow him to school to keep in on the straight and narrow. You must serve as our proxy. Okay? Champ?” Tobias clapped his son on the shoulder, again, although this time his hand did not linger, paternal affection replaced by false bonhomie. “Lawrence needs you, son. He needs all of us.” With that, Tobias picked up his briefcase and strode into the library.

Lawrence did indeed need his family. Urged forward through middle school by the constant promise that things would be different, and better, in high school, Lawrence’s despair and confusion only deepened when, upon arriving at the high school, spirits high and hope kindled, he learned almost immediately that things would not be different after all, and that they would only be better if better actually meant worse.

* * *

High School. Day One. In the annual ritual of male hazing called Stripes, older kids stalked and attacked the freshman boys. Not necessarily with malice. But certainly, with determined, systematic, uncaring glee. And like the lion in pursuit of the antelope on the Serengeti, if one of the 9th-grade boys happened to be particularly slow or encumbered, well, he obviously received the worst of it.

This is what the older boys learned about Lawrence the first day of school that year. Lawrence was tall for his age, and gawky, his hair plastered down and spiking stiffly, his face pocked by acne, his arms loose and akimbo inside his paisley button-down. Lawrence was also bespectacled, and not in a way that could anchor assumptions about his intelligence and wit, but instead in a way that heightened his awkward discomfort and vulnerability in pretty much any situation. Lawrence was born to submit.

Eli walked to school with Lawrence that first morning, anxious to gather with his own friends, but also mindful of Lawrence’s anxiety and solicitous of ways he might reassure Lawrence and assuage his fears. Eli knew what awaited Lawrence in the parking lot. While high school was not precisely a mystery he had solved, it was a puzzle with rules and traps he at least partially understood.

Lawrence bounced beside Eli, a shambling bounce, not quite in cadence with his brother. “What will they do to me, Eli?” he said, as they darted across Nassau Street, the air already sweet with dense, overweening moisture, the perfume of late summer in New Jersey. As they leaped to the farther curb, joining a stream of other kids converging like salmon returning to their spawning grounds, younger kids strapping stiff empty backpacks and jump-slamming every sidewalk crack, shouting break yo back, bitch, older kids dangling elbows and cigarettes from open car windows, cruising low and slow, the goal, plain and simple, to be seen, to mark territory.

“Lawrence, here’s the thing,” Eli said. “It would be best if you showed up with friends, and not with your older brother. Eli knowing as he spoke, Lawrence had no friends, and that he was only shirking his own older brotherly responsibility.

“But that’s okay,” he continued. “I’ll do my best to protect you.” Knowing there was literally almost nothing he could do to protect Lawrence. “But even if I can’t keep them from messing you up, remember it’s only for one day. Tomorrow, no one will remember what happened.”

“I’ll remember,” said Lawrence. “I’ll never forget.”

“That’s a shitty attitude to take, Lawrence,” said Eli. “Remembering never helps. Just fucking move on.” Imagining Lawrence as a human punching bag frustrated Eli. His brother, absorbing the slings and arrows of life, carrying every wound as an ever-increasing heavy testament to man’s inhumanity to his fellow man.

Eli and Lawrence neared the parking lot at the rear of the high school, Lawrence’s anxiety rising, his right hand floating up near his face, fingers cupped, hovering near his nose. He raised and lowered his hand, only dimly aware of this mechanical movement. But Eli also could see the fear in his eyes, the fear levitating his hand, controlling its movements.

“Please don’t flinch, Lawrence,” Eli said gently. “No need to worry. You’ll be okay. I promise.”

Lawrence didn’t say anything. He knew he would not be okay.

* * *

The older boys rose up from parking lot shadows to pursue Lawrence that first day, cackling like crones, waving lipstick tubes swiped from their moms or sisters that morning. Eli didn’t know any of them well, but he certainly recognized their leader, who had painted his own face a particularly fiendish shade of red, his lank black hair pulled back in a ponytail.

“Mick, leave him alone.”

Mick Miller slowed his pursuit for a moment, smiling when he saw Eli. “Why should I leave him alone, man? It’s no big deal. Every new kid gets striped.”

“Because he’s my brother,” Eli said. “And he’s not like the other new kids. So, do me a favor. Leave Lawrence alone. Okay?”

Mick squared up against Eli, his lips pulled back, his smile sclerotic. “I don’t think so, man. Why should I do you any favors? Just get out of my fucking way.” He crouched a bit, bending his long legs, lowering his shoulders. Just a bit. For leverage. He then shoved Eli with both arms, slamming him in the chest, as if Eli were a tackling dummy, driving forward with his legs, Eli stumbling backward, tripping, finding himself on the pavement while the boys converged on Lawrence.

And while Lawrence initially fended off these boys, with a shy half-smile, eyes blinking madly, uncertain if the chase was mere sport or a more deadly affair, they almost instantly cornered him at the edge of the high school parking lot, near a back entrance between the school gym and the lunch room, catapulting themselves upon him from all sides, striping his face and chest with lipstick, smashing raw eggs into his hair, pummeling him with good-humored, but nonetheless relentless and painful and humiliating blows to his torso, goosing him in the ass, yanking at his underwear until the elastic snapped.

Lawrence huddled, pleading for mercy or forbearance, his hand fluttering in front of his face, the boys laughing, doing their business, until one of them struck Lawrence’s hand, punching it back toward his nose, once, twice, his glasses pin-wheeling, his world unfurling.

Eli sprinted toward Lawrence, but before he could reach his brother, Mick had directed two of his larger stooges to keep him at bay, and so it transpired, with Eli in human shackles, twisting, cursing, but entirely helpless, witness to the mortification of his brother. The older boys finished and fled the parking lot, their hoots and imprecations as they vanished a lingering coda upon this all-too-familiar ritual of debasement. Lawrence was on his hands and knees, shirtless, casting about for his glasses, which Eli quickly retrieved and handed to his brother. He didn’t know what to say.

Lawrence apparently also was beyond words, but his anger and desperation were palpable as he peered through the dirt-encrusted lenses of the glasses. Lawrence’s temper could overwhelm shame and humiliation claiming him. Exhausting enough for Eli to witness. He could scarcely fathom how exhausting and debilitating this surge of savage, competing emotional tides must be for his brother.

Eli moved to wrap his arms around his brother, but Lawrence pushed him away. “Get off me, Eli!” he shouted. “Get off me!” And then, peering at the school with its grey windows and smog-spumed brick – students filing past, clusters of friends, siblings, classmates, girls, athletes, laughing, squealing, chortling, all connected and protected by their associations with and affinities for each other – Lawrence’s face, also grey and moist, suddenly hardened.

Lawrence looked at Eli and Eli, standing close to his brother, looked closely back, and what he saw chilled his soul, the light slipping from Lawrence’s green eyes, hardening behind his glasses into a kind of basaltic obduracy. Reminding him of Tobias’s denial of his brother at the dinner table, that evening years ago, Orlando Patterson observing quizzically, this paternal aversion, this template for rejection implanted in Lawrence’s soul, a fractal pattern of brokenness breaking.


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