By Michael Collins
Published by Scribner
September 2002; 0743229045; 304 pages
I couldn't quite get us back without incident for the burial of my father. We ran into a little trouble along the way. It took us two stolen cars along the interstate to get us home. It's not exactly easy to go to a funeral halfway across the country when you're up to your ass in debt, when you don't have the money for an airline ticket, and you have a car with a shot gasket. You hear about bereavement fares, but have you actually ever met anybody who flew for free to bury a loved one? It's all part of some benevolent myth. Like everything else in life, there are stories within stories.
The us I am speaking of is me, my wife, and our kids, the principal characters who sustained me, if not by love, then by the sheer extent of their need for me as provider. I'd taken on the cross of parenthood with an undue sense of heroism. My wife, Honey, diagnosed it as TAS, terminal asshole syndrome. She says it is a terrible syndrome, since it usually kills those around the victim, not the victim. That sort of summed up how things were at the time we hit the road to bury my father.
I say our kids went back with us, but the elder, Robert Lee, is not mine, in the sense that I didn't beget him, as they say in the Bible. I call Robert Lee "Exhibit A" in a long line of grievances against my wife, Honey Wainscot, who still uses her ex-husband's name for the sake of Robert Lee, to give him stability, to give him a history, to help his transition into manhood, and, I also suspect, in no small measure because her ex-husband, Ken, an abject soul on death row in Georgia, is the true love of her life.
COPPER, Michigan -- The tranquillity of a sleepy backwater town was shattered when a 56-year-old man was found dead at his home. Police said the victim's son discovered the body in the family house about 1 P.M. The victim, Ward Cassidy, died as a result of a single gunshot to the head.
I said, "Thanks for goddamn calling me, Norman!"
"You've moved so many times we didn't have an address."
I said, "If I won the goddamn lottery, I bet you'd have found me!"
I could hear Martha talking in the background, asking what I wanted. She said, "This is none of his business, tell him!"
And in a way she was right and wrong at the same time. You see, in the convoluted nature of real life, things weren't so simple. My so-called father was, in fact, my uncle. When I was five years old, my parents died in a house fire, and my uncle took me in and raised me. But let's just say the arrangement was no bed of roses. And so when I announced, "I'm thinking about coming back and paying my respects," you can imagine the jaw-drop reaction I got. I said it in a contrite way, because the truth of the matter was I needed a loan to get back to Michigan. I said, "Norman, you think you could see it in your heart to fly me home?"
Norman didn't exactly say no. What he said was, "The price of hogs has bottomed out. Honest to God. I can't." Norman had a way of talking, a thick, clotted accent that made you think he was something like fifty years old, when he was only twenty-five. He was your typical rural yokel, all brute strength but dumb as shit.
I heard Norman's wife say, "Ask him what's his agenda. Ask him! No, in fact, give me the phone, Norman, let me handle this! I want to have a few choice words with him myself!"
I put on the air of the truly hurt. I said, "Is regret an agenda, Martha?" I said, "I just want to pay my respects."
Martha spelled out the word "N-O." She shouted, "Things aren't settled here. There's an investigation going on right now. We don't know exactly what's happening. Things are hectic, it's a nightmare up here. You don't need this, Frank, not with your condition."
She was, of course, referring to my history of depression, but I said, "My condition. Jesus, are you a licensed medical practitioner, Martha?"
My manager, Louis Schwartz, scowled and pointed at his watch.
Norman took the phone from Martha and tried to gloss things over. "Frank, I'm telling you, honest, Ward doesn't stand looking at. It's going to be closed casket. It has to be, with what happened, with how he was...how he was killed."
It was maybe the first moment I actually thought of Ward as a corpse, but before I could say anything, Martha said real loud, "Hang up on him right now. This is a collect call, Norman!"
Norman said, "I'm sorry, Frank...I'm sorry, but you're not welcome up here."
I said, "Norman, where there's a will, there's a relative!"
I heard Martha shout in the background, "Will...Sweet Jesus, there is no will! He cannot come up here!" and I just hung up, because the lunch hour was starting and my manager was pointing at his cheap-assed watch.
I don't think leaving New Jersey was a legitimate option when I got on the phone, but now it was my only choice if I was going to get my share of the farm.
I had the conviction to finish what was on the grill, to serve up what I had started, since we shared the tips after lunch. I browned six meat patties, toasted some buns, and stuck all of it in a plastic bag. Hunger loomed in the near future, out on the road. But I didn't escape work without one final indignity that underscored my decision to get the fuck out of there. The assistant manager, this fat shit, waddled over to me and said, "Table four wanted their steak rare." I got docked for that kind of screwup.
I walked out of Big Boy and shouted at my manager, "Come on, it's not a bad case of herpes. I swear these sores aren't even contagious!" It unnerved the shit out of the customers.
When I arrived I said simply, "My father's dead."
Honey Wainscot, my betrothed, was up in her glass case at the dispatch office, in her exalted position as dispatch agent, a voice to the dispossessed, guiding truckers through the night. A sign above her glass door said Mr. Credit is on vacation. Until further notice please deal with Mr. Cash.
Honey shifted in her turret. She had a rope of hair that went beyond the crack of her ass, her one abiding link to youth and innocence. I said to myself, looking at her, "Rapunzel! Life beyond the fairy tale," a castaway in a grim place fairy tales dared not tread. I still remember her first words to me, or maybe not exactly her first words, but thereabouts anyway: "I lost my virginity, but I still have the box it came in."
Honey saw the look on my face, and the cogs in her head began turning. "You think you might actually get something?" It was the usual tone she used with me, approximating indignation. A cigarette smoldered in the center of her face. I beckoned Honey down from her turret. She was not a woman to be fucked with. On more than one occasion she had sat on top of me in bed and brought me to the point of suffocation. Honey was dangerous, in a physical sense.
She assumed her usual position of worldly defiance, arms apart like a beleaguered Christ at some second Crucifixion, a Diet Pepsi in one hand and a cigarette in the other, a body language that said simply, "Your problem is not necessarily my problem." Honey slurped the Diet Pepsi, pulled on the cigarette, and then released a tendril of smoke out of the corner of her mouth while I spoke.
I said, "I figure I have a hell of a lot coming to me off that farm."
"Well." I hesitated for a moment. "I might have neglected to tell you a few things about my past. Not that I was hiding anything, it just didn't seem important."
Honey raised her voice. "Frank?"
"Okay. For starters, the man you always heard me call my father wasn't my father, really."
"Who the hell was he?"
It was something I didn't really want to go into right then, but if I was going to get her to leave, she had to know the truth, so I gave her the lowdown on the fire and how I'd come to live with my uncle, and just shrugged when I was finished.
Honey looked at me. "And it never crossed your mind to tell me something like that?"
I didn't answer her.
"So, what's your point now?"
"Well, the way I see it, now that my uncle's dead, I figure that farm might just belong to me, right? Or at least I should be entitled to a shitload of money when I make Norman either sell the farm or buy me out of my inheritance."
Honey just shook her head. "I don't like this...not one bit."
I talked right over her. "Come on! I don't see how the courts could legally lock me out of what would have been mine if my father had lived. I bet you dollars for doughnuts that there was nothing legally signed giving my uncle ownership, and if I started proceedings right now, I'd get the farm."
"Don't play curbside lawyer. This is all something a real lawyer should handle. I don't exactly feel comfortable taking a gamble on 'what if,' Frank. As far as I'm concerned this is something that could all be done from right here. We don't have to go there."
Before I could say anything more, Leonard, the dispatch controller, came by and eyed me. He walked with a bounce. I knew what he was going to say -- one of two things, either "Who left the birdcage open?" or "Shit, here comes trouble" -- and it ended up being, in fact, "Shit, here comes trouble."
If we had been dogs, we would have torn into each other, but we were of a higher species, so I said simply, "Leonard," stressing the L.
Leonard was already ignoring me. "We got a truck haulin' frozen chicken in a collision outside Charlotte. Refrigerator unit is busted on the rig. We got to get that chicken on ice quick. You want to take care of that, Honey?"
"Sure thing, Leonard."
Leonard just stood there. "Well?"
"I'm on it, Leonard. Honest. Two minutes."
I waited out the moment. I stared at Leonard. He was wearing an industrial gray shirt that had his name embroidered in red letters, Leonard. In fact, we all had our names embroidered onto our work shirts. That's simply where we were in life. Mine said, Frank -- Service with a Smile!
Leonard just turned and walked away. I watched him. He was thin, like a cricket, and had two perpetual spreading sweat stains emanating from his armpits that looked for all the world like two folded wings.
Honey said, "I got to take care of this right now."
I said, "You are coming with me, right?"
"Jesus, you really want to up and leave just like that? Why not use a lawyer? You still haven't answered me."
I said, "Lawyers charge by the goddamn word -- the word, Honey. Who's got that sort of money?"
"And just up and leaving like this isn't going to cost a fortune?"
"Jesus, I'm talking a windfall of cash, something that can get us set straight." I looked around me. "You know what this is here, Honey? A prison without bars!"
Honey said, "It's always a production with you, isn't it?"
I said, "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!"
"You sound like a car salesman selling beaters on a lot."
Leonard stuck his head out of a doorway and stared down at me, then his head disappeared in silence, and so did Honey.
I thought it was going to end right then and there, an unceremonious end to a meaningless union between two losers. I figured I might just snag my younger kid, Ernie, from Immaculate Conception preschool and make a break for Michigan.
But then Honey came back and said, "You still here?" which was her way of saying, "Stay." Honey gave me that bewildered look, like she didn't know what to do. She said, "In the break room, if you hit the coffee machine just when you put in a dime, you get the dime back, and you still get the coffee. It works on the candy machine, too."
I said, "This is the chance of a lifetime." I said, "This is your lucky day, that's what this is, salvation! It's like finding a lottery ticket."
Honey said, "I'm thinking, Frank...okay?"
It was the first time I had sat still all day since I'd read about my uncle. Like I said, I can't say there was ever a relationship between my uncle and me. There were things between us that had haunted me all my life, what they called suppressed memories, about the night my parents died. Shit, even saying "suppressed memories," giving it a clinical name, made me wince. If I'd heard this from anybody else, I'd have said, "How about we kick the shit out of you, and maybe that'll jog your memory!" But the simple reality was that something terrible had happened to me.
In the aftermath of the fire my uncle and I ended up giving conflicting stories about what happened the night of the fire. Shit, I was just five when my parents died, and who was ever going to believe anything I said against my uncle's account? The lines were drawn between us right from the start, the goddamn fear and eventual hatred that came to characterize our lives as I lived with him over the years. Just sitting there, looking back on things, I thought that maybe I'd been running from what had happened on that farm, maybe not consciously, but down deep, all this time. It was something that took me halfway across the country, and I mean that literally. I got my ass out of Michigan the day after I graduated high school and headed for Chicago. It was something that got me institutionalized in Chicago for a time.
If it hadn't been for the goddamn sense that I was going to get something out of that will up there, if my own sense of indignation wasn't so strong, if I didn't have a vendetta against my uncle, I might even have heeded Norman and his wife. I might have had the decency not to drag them down with me. In fact, I wanted to shore things up with Norman. All I wanted was my share. Norman was a clod, but I always remember this one time when he stood up for me. I was seven years older than him, and I guess he was about ten when one day he just grabbed Ward's arm after I'd got the leather belt from Ward. Norman said simply, "No," and though he was still only ten, he was on his way to becoming the giant he would become. I remember Ward being sort of stunned. Ward was holding the belt and he took one measured swing and hit Norman across the shoulder and chest, and Norman just flinched. It was just that solitary hit, but that single act of defiance made life bearable the last year or so I lived with Ward. I wanted to repeat that story to Norman right then, to get us back on track, but I didn't call him. In a way it was better that Martha had interfered; it made it easier to do what had to be done.
I think somewhere along the line I'd arrived at that point in life where the opinions of others didn't matter, where the humanity, if you can call it that, had been drained from me. And maybe deep down I was going back for other reasons as well. When I read that headline, Farmer Murdered by Mystery Man, I said to myself, "I have to see this mystery man with my own two eyes." A cold hand of justice had finally pulled the trigger like an act of divine retribution.
"It's not me you've got to convince, Leonard."
Leonard shook his head. "Women." He despised me. I could tell that. He just sneered and then disappeared.
The longer I waited for Honey, the more I knew I was doing the right thing. I don't know how we had lasted, really. In my head, I was trying for the right words to say to Honey when she came back, to get her to leave. It shouldn't have taken any effort, not with what had gone on with us in New Jersey, but you get used to everything in the end. I mean, I'd give you the basic set of facts, and you'd say, "I don't believe that. I don't believe you stayed. Nobody in their right mind would live like that," but we did.
Take, for instance, the year we moved into the apartment. Honey was attacked in the elevator coming up to our apartment. Two guys got hold of her. One guy had a knife to her throat, and the other had pruning shears. The guy with the pruning shears said, "You get that ring off your finger, or I'm going to cut it off. You hear me, bitch?" Honey broke her own finger getting the ring off. She heard her wedding finger snap, but she felt no pain, not then anyway. That much adrenaline was pumping through her. It was a hell of a thing to happen to a woman who had once won the state typing contest in Macon, Georgia. She talked about the contest the night she was attacked, after I picked her up from the emergency room. I felt the fingers of her good hand on my back, the rapid movement of an expert typist. She told me back then that the secret to typing was not to try and understand what you were typing, but just to let your fingers work on automatic, to process nothing. I didn't say anything, but I think that is how we live our lives, mostly, processing nothing. And of course, we stayed. There was never any suggestion of us leaving.
But all she did was get up out of bed. I saw the paleness of her rump like a huge moon, and then the nightdress fell around her. Robert Lee was still sobbing. I heard her hit him hard. I felt the impact of his body against the wall. She was saying such horrible things, in a controlled whisper, maybe just like those guys did to her in the elevator. I stared at the wall. When she hit Robert Lee like that, there was a procedure. He buried his face in the pillow. This was something she brought into the marriage, something that went on between her and Robert Lee long before I came into her life, all during the time she lived out of motels, after her ex-husband, Ken, had killed two people. There was nothing I could do. Then Honey got back into bed beside me and pulled her nightdress up around her breasts. Her thighs were damp and warm. I could feel her heart pounding under the loose weight of her breasts. I could still hear Robert Lee crying into his pillow. I heard our younger kid, Ernie, saying something to Robert Lee. I felt Honey press her back against my belly. "He's out of control, way out of control." I had my face against her damp back, and I listened to the soft, suctioning sound of our intimacy, like a child suckling in the dark.
I took her crooked ring finger, which still didn't have a ring on it, and felt her flinch.
Honey lowered her eyes. "Please..."
I said, "You came up out of Georgia, and what did you have?"
"I was younger then. It was a different time in my life."
I said, "You're still young!"
"You really think so?"
I nodded. "Have you ever thought of living out west, in California, sunshine, the ocean? If I get that money from the farm, we have a shot at something better."
"Oh, come on, Frank, how much you think that farm is going to fetch?" But before I could answer, Honey said, "Look, maybe you should just go up and see what you can do without us tagging along."
I got this sudden jolt of fear that maybe there was something going on with her and Leonard. I said, "No, we do this together, all of us, or we cut our losses right now. You go your way, and I'll go mine."
Honey stared at me. "Don't give me ultimatums, just don't. This is not just about me and you. I don't think I can do this right now."
I said, "Goddamn it! This is about Ken, isn't it?" Ken was in the last stage of legal wrangling, and dates had come and gone for his execution, but it was something that inevitably loomed.
Honey didn't look at me. "It's going to be soon. I got to consider Robert Lee. He might want to go back to see Ken when the time comes, and if we're off in Michigan -- "
I interrupted her. "If we get money, you and he can fly down to Georgia. When the time comes, maybe you'll want to go down there, and where the hell are we going to get the money if it comes to that, if you want to go down there and we have no money?"
"Jesus Christ, why does everything come all at once?"
I said again, "This is like winning the lottery, Honey. We got a chance to start over."
Leonard appeared and said nothing but looked at his watch and then at Honey and then back to his watch again, and then he was gone.
Honey looked at me. "I don't get paid for this week if we leave now. Leonard has a strict policy. Without a two-week notice, you get nothing that is coming to you."
"You two are friends, Honey. Make him see it your way. Shit, tell him you're coming back. You don't have to tell him it's forever."
"He's going to see through whatever I say. He knows already. I know by the way he's acting."
I heard Leonard shouting at Honey as I hit the brilliant light of the outside world. I heard him call me "asshole." A smell of diesel perfumed the cool air.
It was strange to engage in someone else's life for a brief time, to follow a person. We got some gas, and then went to a pharmacy in a mini mall, then on to the dry cleaner, where the woman left the car running. It was then that I took possession of the vehicle, with the forthright knowledge that the owner was insured, that there was no real crime being committed here. The cost of this single act had been reckoned in the account books of insurance ledgers. They had anticipated my actions. I was a preordained statistical probability.
Driving out of the lot, I was thinking about Ken. Unlike Honey's ex-husband, Ken, I had not killed anybody or given in to the chaos that envelops us. As ignoble loser, I had played my part in our great society, lived within the laws of the land for the most part. A lesser man, like Ken, might have sought the victim's purse into the bargain and ended up killing them. I imagined the struggle, the strangulation, the frantic kicking as life ended for some innocent, all for the sake of a few measly bucks.
For the past year, and in large part due to the approaching demise of Ken at the hands of the state of Georgia's correctional facility, I have spent maybe too much time trying to prove God doesn't exist. Most of the people I've seen commit evil have been caught, but I don't think that accounts for the presence of God, or justice, as much as it does for the general desperation of people who have nothing. Theirs is a world without irony, with the sole conviction of wanting to survive. Stupidity and desperation do not equate to evil, as some would have you believe.
Robert Lee had his Richard Nixon Pez dispenser on the table beside him. He had a strange obsession with Richard Nixon that began before I entered the equation. Honey said he'd listened to the Watergate proceedings in a motel the year Ken was arrested.
And there was Ernie sitting with a plastic dinosaur in his hands. I think it was Tyrannosaurus rex. Ernie had a hell of a lot of dinosaurs. He knew all their names -- brontosaurus, triceratops, pterodactyl. It was like some form of autism, this fixation with dinosaurs, some sublimation of the pain he felt, a pain so deep it could be expressed only through the gigantism of prehistoric creatures. It scares the shit out of me, what kids intuit, how the madness of our lives seeps into their souls. I always wanted to ask Ernie, "Is that what it sounds like when Mommy and Daddy fight?"
Honey looked at me and winked. "Ernie says he's staying here, Frank."
I nodded and said, "Sure thing. We got that extra key cut. You show him how to use the electric can opener and he's all set. He doesn't mind taking care of Juniper? Fill the water dish and clean the litter box twice a day. That about do it, Honey?"
Ernie looked bewildered for a moment.
Robert Lee said, "Ernie, stay. You got it made here."
Honey said, "Quit it, Robert Lee, you hear?"
I ignored Robert Lee. I went to shake Ernie's hand in a magnanimous gesture of imminent but amiable departure. I said, "Honey, think of the college tuition we're saving."
Ernie's lower lip got wet and started to tremble, like he was going to cry, but Honey said, "He's not said for sure he isn't going." She looked at Ernie. "So, have you decided, Ernie?"
Ernie said simply, "I'm going, Frank." He was holding one of his dinosaurs in his small hands.
Robert Lee scoffed. "Sellout!"
I checked the back of the atlas, looking at the table grid that showed the distance between major cities across America, and we played a sort of game. I gave two cities and you had to guess the distance. You won if you got within fifty miles.
Of course, Robert Lee didn't play, and Honey seemed to have no real sense that places like Helena, Montana, existed. I said, "Jesus, Helena is the state capital of Montana, Honey." I tried to show her, but all she said was, "You want a trim for the road? No point showing for a funeral looking like you do."
I smelled vodka on her breath, but she wasn't drunk. I let her snip away. I had a towel around my shoulders. She had a small bowl of water and used her fingers to dampen my hair. Then, when she was finished, she massaged my temples and squeezed the back of my neck. I could feel the tension leaving my body. I said, "You lost weight recently, Honey?"
"I don't know, you think I have?"
"I think you have. I really think so."
Honey turned her head and blew a smoke ring. That's when I saw the hickeys on her neck, three of them. She saw me looking at her. I felt my guts tighten. I said, "I wish I was a long ways away from here right now. China, maybe."
Honey said, "Just don't start, don't!"
Ernie looked at me when we got to the car like he understood this wasn't ours. I don't think he wanted to get in.
I said, "I won this in a card game, right, Honey?"
She said, "Yeah, Frank won it in a card game, Ernie."
Ernie had that kid look, like he wasn't convinced, but he got in anyway, scrambling into the back, bouncing on the seat.
Robert Lee played with the seat control unit.
I said, "That pressure in your lower back is lumbar support."
Robert Lee said, "I know, dumb shit. I know what goddamn lumbar support is. Lumbar is the lower region of the spine."
I said, "Jesus H. Christ. You hear that, Honey? Lumbar is the lower region of the spine. We got a doctor in the house."
Robert Lee looked at me. "You're never going to be my goddamn father, so stop trying."
Honey said, "Robert Lee, you watch with that chair that you don't squish Juniper, you hear?" She made a puss-puss sound, and the cat meowed somewhere in the nether regions under the seat. I knew in my heart of hearts it was only a matter of time before it lost its tail.
I felt self-assured as we arrived at the tollbooth. Robert Lee was still working the seat controls. I said, "Dr. Strangelove, you want to give it a rest?"
New York City twinkled in my rearview mirror, a distant galaxy receding. I sank slowly into the brakes, and the car slowed as we approached the tollbooth. A faceless man obscured in the bright light took my money. We were shadows inside the car. There was something prophetic about all of it, like beginning a journey across the river Styx to the land of the dead, a journey back to the center of things, to secrets I had not let myself think about in years.
© 2002 Michael Collins
The Booker and IMPAC Prize-nominated author of The Keepers of Truth delivers a haunting novel of psychological suspense about a wayward family's search for salvation in an America that has left them behind.
The solitude of the Upper Michigan Peninsula is Michael Collins's heart of darkness in this compelling story of the unquiet dead. Almost thirty years ago, when Frank Cassidy was five, his parents burned to death in a remote Michigan town. Now Frank's uncle is dead too, shot by a mysterious stranger who lies in a coma in the local hospital. Frank, working menial jobs to support his unfaithful wife and two children, takes his family north in a series of stolen cars to dispute his cousin's claim on the family farm. Once there, however, Frank also wants answers to questions about his own past: Who really set the fire that burned the family home and killed his parents? Will the stranger, who hangs between life and death, be able to shed light on long-buried secrets?
As the television blares the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, news of Jim Jones, and endless sitcom reruns, simple answers -- and the promise of the American dream -- seem to recede from Frank's grasp. Brilliant and unsettling, The Resurrectionists is an ironic yet chilling indictment of American culture in the seventies and a compassionate novel about a man struggling to overcome the crimes and burdens of his past.(back to top)
Michael Collins was born in Limerick, Ireland. He was educated in Ireland and America and received his PhD from the University of Illinois in Chicago. His book, The Man Who Dreamt of Lobsters, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 1993. His recent novel, The Keepers of Truth, was shortlisted for the 2000 Booker and 2002 IMPAC Prizes and named Irish Book of the Year.
When not writing, Collins competes in extreme sports events around the world, under the most brutal conditions. He won the Last Marathon in Antarctica in 1997 and competed in what is dubbed The World's Hardest Ski Race, a 160 kilometre Himalayan Stage Race, described as "100 miles of masochism over 5 days," winning the overal race and the Everest Marathon -- a full marathon at 12,000 feet above sea level along the India-Nepal border.
He lives in Bellingham, Washington.