Previously in Calvin’s Ghost – 9 / Ripped Balloon
Tobias and Martha delivered Lawrence to Boy Scout camp in New Mexico for a month that summer after Eli’s junior year. When Lawrence returned early, his aluminum pack frame mysteriously bent obliquely (like your retarded leg, he spat, after Eli queried the circumstances), and half his gear missing, they shuttled him off to an August photography camp at Marquand Park, desperate to find something, anything, that would stick, cementing both his character and his self-esteem.
Remarkably, the photography did stick. Tobias had purchased Lawrence a used Rolleiflex SL35 with an 80 mm Zeiss telephoto lens to use at photography camp. It was a sweet rig, Eli had to admit. That summer and into the fall, Lawrence visited afternoons and weekends at the Hodge Road mansion of a reclusive boy named Jasper, whose parents had fitted out a basement darkroom for their son. From the perspective of Lawrence’s family, these visits to a “dark room” did not necessarily illuminate Lawrence; he remained surly and obstreperous at home. But for the first time, an activity held his interest and, indeed, he did seem to be learning quite a bit about darkroom chemistry and making photographic prints.
Eli didn’t personally know Jasper, who attended a private day school up on the Pretty Brook Road. Lawrence had met him at a weekly teen therapy group where Tobias and Martha had enrolled Lawrence the previous spring. Jasper wore his red hair long in twin braids, his freckled face and light green eyes giving him the appearance of a half-breed shaman, and while he was only 14 years old, influence he exercised upon Lawrence offered immediate evidence of a self-assured mind and powerful will.
Despite having no personal experience with him, Eli didn’t like Jasper and did not trust this sway over Lawrence. Eli also had been dubious from the start about this therapeutic tack, although clearly his parents had reached a degree of desperation he could barely comprehend. Just before school began in September, Eli confided to his mother. “Hanging around with other losers is not going to help Lawrence, Mom,” he said. “They’ll just confirm that being a freak is his destiny.”
Martha stood up from her drafting table and folded her arms tightly against her chest. She was livid. “Eli, I’m glad you’re enjoying life these days, but you’re not Lawrence’s parent. Don’t judge our efforts to help Lawrence if you can’t offer better treatment alternatives.”
Eli had to admit this was true – his enjoyment of life was part of the problem. He and Lawrence had grown apart in the previous year. Eli was too busy for his brother, whom he’d also begun, like his father, to regard as a bummer and as a lost cause. Indeed, only the tender and firm ministrations of Martha at this point kept Lawrence coming home at all. Even then, Lawrence had begun to spend more nights at Jasper’s house, and when he was home, he’d blink furtively, hunched and anxious and volatile, pawing at his face like a deranged bear cub.
* * *
Through that summer and into the fall, Tobias corralled Eli as he tried to slip from the house, haranguing him for what seemed like (and possibly could have been) hours about the Biblical and theological meaning of Lawrence’s descent, the only way he knew to explain his world, both intellectualizing and neutering emotional responsibility. Tobias’s explanation possessed the familiar breathtaking glibness that Eli had long ago learned to discount. But he could not dismiss the poignant conclusion to which Tobias’s logic led.
Tobias had Eli’s attention. It was September of his senior year. They were seated in Tobias’s den, dinner hour anon, but the meal late this evening (Martha at the market, purchasing flour for the bread she baked nightly). And so, Tobias, with customary false bonhomie, prepared his own clinker of bourbon and dish of salted peanuts and invited Eli to join him for a drink in his den. “You’re ready to handle a beer, son,” he smiled, pulling a can of Pabst from the refrigerator, Eli wondering if his father wasn’t simply insane, as if it wasn’t obvious that his son was already drinking (and smoking pot) regularly with his buddies.
“American Puritans, Calvinists to the bone, understood the moral universe in terms of types, Eli. We know all about the use of types in Pilgrim’s Progress, of course, but really this typology permeated every aspect of their lives. Patterns imposed order and coherence, of course, but also denied much of the individuality we expose in the Lutheran understanding of grace. That is the difference, really, between Luther and Calvin, Eli – the radical individuality of Lutheranism, its perspective on sin as invisible, riparian, and all-encompassing – replaced by the stereotyping of the Calvinists, employing methods more rational than emotional.”
Bike brakes squealing, kickstand rattling, kitchen door slamming, backpack tumbling. Lawrence was home, in the kitchen. “Hello. Hello! Hello? Dad?”
Eli wished his father would acknowledge Lawrence, and beckon him, summon him, to join them. But Tobias clearly wanted the intimacy of this moment with his eldest son to linger, perhaps realizing conditions for such moments were swiftly crumbling. Tobias did not reply to Lawrence, and instead leaned toward Eli with conspiratorial intent. “Have you noticed, Eli, my son, how centrally family dramas figure in the Old Testament, while they are altogether lacking in the New Testament? Calvinism fed ravenously upon these Old Testament typological family dramas, in which sin is not an existential matter, but a physical matter, a stain, a genotype that pustulates through every family, typically taking particularly sharp form in one of the children, whose condition and behavior then activates other associated and familiar patterns used by the ministerium to instruct and warn and terrify.”
Tobias glanced from his study toward the kitchen, where Lawrence was battling the cupboards in search of snacking options. Tobias lowered his voice. “I’m afraid Lawrence – figuratively speaking, of course – was selected, dare I say chosen, to carry this stain into his generation of Wheelers.”
Eli shrank from his father, whose virtuosity at transposing all life into theology had long ago worn thin, particularly when it came to members of his own family. And maybe it was this speech, this moment, this obviously appalling disconnect from the suffering of his own younger son, that finally, and quite definitively, cracked the wall between Eli and his father, the wall against which both leaned and through which they connected and shared their umbilical affinity for language and ideas.
Eli stood, scrambling toward the door, blurting, “I gotta go, Dad.”
“Where to, son?” Tobias asked quizzically, presuming, smirking even. Tobias was aware of Eli’s infatuation with Cecilia, and if truth be told, he approved, as she was obviously both attractive and intelligent.
“Fuck, Dad, you really are the perfect asshole.” Eli fled his father’s office, nearly upending Lawrence, who stood mutely in the kitchen, muffin crumbs attacking his face, shoveling packets of sugar into a cup of coffee.
Next in Calvin’s Ghost – 11 / Good Night My Rabbit