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Authors: Ian Frazier

Coyote V. Acme

BOOK: Coyote V. Acme
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COYOTE V. ACME
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Ian Frazier
 
 
 
 
Picador USA
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
New York
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.
To Saul Steinberg
A
t a signal from the sound room, the tapes stopped spinning, and one by one the big thousand-watt lights winked and darkened. Then Mary hugged Murray, and Ted came over and hugged them both, and then Lou, usually so uncomfortable with physical displays, took all three in a bear hug that had them gasping for breath through their tears. Then Grant came onto the set and announced that he had bought each of them an Arabian pony, which they could ride whenever they wanted. Then from someplace offstage two technicians came in carrying—literally carrying—Sue Ann. She had been so cheerful all day, but when she happened to see “MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW CANCELLED” in black-and-white in a newspaper headline, the full reality finally hit her, and she collapsed. Members of the live audience were weeping and calling out the names of their favorites, but security guards standing three-deep kept all but the most persistent behind the front rail. Thousands more waited outside in the rain to pay their respects to executive producer Stan Daniels; one at a time they were admitted,
given a few seconds, and ushered out. The representative from Courier-brand tub and tile cleaner provided a cake seven tiers high (one tier for each season on the network), decorated with the titles of every episode and topped with exact replicas of the main characters whittled from basswood by an old man from the Ozarks whom Murray had met while driving cross-country. Ted and Lou, who had never been much closer off camera than on, stood staring down at the buffet table, side by side. When Ted turned and haltingly offered Lou the blazer he had worn on the show since the beginning, both men's shoulders began to shake, and they sobbed openly. Then Mary made a speech. She told everybody that she loved them and would always remember them, and if they ever felt they needed her, all they had to do was think of her and she would be there. Then she repeated the whole speech in fluent sign language, her hands trembling slightly in the waning light.
Then the staff carpenters, working with a delicacy all the more touching in such burly men, dismantled the sets and loaded them into trucks for immediate removal to the Smithsonian Institution, where they would one day be put on permanent display. The air grew heavy with the scent of diesel exhaust and leave-taking as men from the telephone company seized fire axes and began chopping away the cables. Like the wings of giant birds coming to earth, the microwave towers slowly fell. The instant that groundwater reached the boiler room, four-inch rivets started to pop and fly across the now flaming studio. Heedless of the chaos around them, members of the original
cast swayed together with their arms still entwined, their eyes distant and glazed with trance. Later they would describe how they had been transported to a faraway land where they met and conversed with the stars from every program that had ever been aired, who told them not to be downcast but to rejoice. The house orchestra played every number it knew, ending with one last rendition of the famous theme song just as dawn was breaking. The entire company watched from a nearby knoll as the lot filled with ash until only the flagpole remained; then that, too, was gone. Finally, as if waking from a dream that still held them in its grip, they made their way toward the ranks of limousines waiting to take them back to the world they'd left behind, to the people they used to be.
 
 
Little brother was never quite right after that, and in the fall he was sent away. Mama doesn't make big Sunday dinners like she did before; mostly she just calls Meals on Wheels. There was a virus going around, Papa caught it, and he died last spring. Sister married a soldier and moved to Toledo. At the old home place, only Cousin Eleanor remains. Sometimes in the evenings she tries to sit in the front room, but it's no use. There was little to keep Lloyd around any longer, so he went back on the road. At an icy intersection in a distant state, a semi-trailer full of salt blocks overturned on him, it'll be two years ago this Christmas. The other Lloyd, the one Nancy married, escaped into his work, and drove his cherry picker against some high-tension wires not twenty minutes
after attending a safety lecture sponsored by the power company. With weekday attendance down, Grandy just couldn't keep the inn running the way it used to, and he had to sell out to the Flammia brothers. They stripped the furnishings and put in a snack-meats factory. Curtis figured that he might as well have the operation; he seems fine now. His wife, while admiring his courage, nevertheless felt she had no choice but to file for divorce. Trestle still takes his strolls down Main Street, but his conversation dwells increasingly on the past. Mark became a pharmacist. Galen is presumed missing. Bev traded what she could never have for what she'd never wanted in the first place, and married Chick. They shut down the pool hall, they shut down the Grange hall, they filled in the swimming hole and put a Substance Abuse Center where the old gazebo used to be. And see the tree, how big it's grown; beneath, a simple marker, with the words “Home by Midnight” and the familiar five-pointed star of a Texas Ranger. Afternoons now, Wade stacks change in piles according to size, dreaming away behind the drive-thru window. The children are long gone, vanished into sports and other outside interests. Somewhere, invisible pens compute the swirling arithmetic of loss.
 
 
And me? I'm sitting in a bar in Gander, Newfoundland, wondering how I ever got so far from that old gravel road that runs past the fields of my memories. When I look back at the happiness I knew, it appears to me now as if through the wrong end of a
telescope—tiny, remote, yet precise in every detail. I remember how we all used to assemble at the couch at five minutes to nine, each of us well supplied with blankets and refreshments to insure that we wouldn't have to budge for the next half hour. And how long those ads seemed in between! Sometimes we would joke about the “idiot box,” the “vast wasteland.” We didn't know what a wasteland was. Seems like ever since the cancellation I just can't put those times far enough behind me. Measure the distance by airports, pay phones, hotels, cities, women. Sure, there've been women—plenty of them. I'm not ashamed of their number, because it was from them I learned how much hurt there is in the world, and how much gentleness.
A while back a buddy of mine wrote to say that I should come home. Beneath his words I sensed a wistful tone, as if the person he was trying hardest to convince was himself. Of course, I had to say no. He may think that my refusal means I have no hope. In fact, the opposite is closer to the truth. For in spite of all I've been through, I find that I still believe in human beings. I just do. To pretend to enjoy the formulaic treatments of today would be to deny that. For seven years, an entire nation sat down as one, week after week, to watch a miracle. I know in my heart that it will happen again—maybe not next fall, or the fall after that, but someday. When it does, no one will have to ask me to come home, because wherever on the globe I may happen to be, I'll be home already.
D
ear Depositor:
Last quarter marked the beginning of an exciting cash-management policy here at First Tri-State Drive-Thru Banking & Trust. Under our new “Money Mover” system, we've started reassigning cash from the accounts of people it belongs to and getting it on the “move.” As you know, money that just sits around actually loses value, and must be cared for the way you would care for any helpless thing. And that means time lost, opportunities missed, and vacations postponed—some, perhaps, indefinitely. We know how hard you work for your money, and that's why it will always be welcome here. In return, your money will give us a chance to do what we do best, not only for ourselves but also for the benefit of our families and the many people who serve them.
Depositors with an interest in the smaller details of bank routine may wish to refer to the explanatory list of letter codes at the end of their statement. If we can assist in any way with inquiries about the “Money Mover” system or your statement, feel free to call the
24-hour toll-free depositors' hot-line telephone number, which we have recently given out to several people. (Please do not call the bank.)
Yours sincerely,
DOUG & DAVE FLAMMIA
Co-Chairmen,
First Tri-State
Confused about sex? Maybe what you need is the help of your own personal banker. Now, as a special service to First Tri-State Drive-Thru customers, Doug and Dave Flammia are offering their practical booklets “When to Pet, When Not to: A Guide for Young Investors,” “Estate Planning in an Era of Sexual Change,” “Some Straight Talk About IRAs and Sex,” and “Swimsuit Photos of the Very Rich,” all for just six dollars a set. Send cash only to FlammiArt, Inc., Box 1611, Radio City Station, New York, N.Y. 10101. Residents of U.S. please add 73¢ postage and handling.

W
hat's come over Janine, anyway?” Stu asks, reaching for the Chianti. He is sitting at the umbrella table on the patio, reading an article in the Sunday magazine section (“Milton Friedman, Economist for the Ages,” June 17th, page 32). I am sitting at the edge of the pool, dangling my feet and looking at the way the water makes my shins appear to bend a little bit forward. We are at my mother's third husband's summer house on Long Island, approximately a ninety-minute drive from New York City.
Stu looks at me, but I don't answer. Janine is his stepsister, and, to tell the truth, I have always found her disturbing. Stu knows that; after a moment, he fills his glass and returns to his magazine. Since Stu is in advertising, being employed by Miles & Mc-Mullan, on Sixty-fourth Street, he loves to look at the ads. He turns the pages smoothly, as if the magazine were an extension of himself.
From the portable radio sitting on the cocktail cart, the latest hit song blares:
She's ferocious,
And she knows just what it takes to make a pro blush …
“Earth calling Pam! Earth calling Pam!” Nat startles me. Nat has come onto the patio through the sliding glass doors while I was lost in my reverie. Nat is Stu's best friend from Bennington, in Vermont, and my former lover. Actually, he was my lover, then he was my former lover, then he was my lover again, and now he's my former lover again. (Stu knows nothing of this.) Nat is a carpenter, and a good one. His hands caressing the grain of fine wood furniture have a beauty all their own. Stu and I are being gentle with Nat these days, because his grandmother just died. Not his real grandmother but a regional sales representative for True Temper Hardware, whom Nat used to call Grandmother. Nat's lady, Alice, is in the hospital having a baby this morning, so Nat has both death and birth in his life.
From the Sony portable television in the cabana, the happy jingle of a tuna-fish commercial can be heard:
Yum-Yum Bumble Bee
Bumble Bee Tuna.
I love Bumble Bee
Bumble Bee Tuna
I look at Nat over my sunglasses. “Hi, Nat,” I say.
“Wrong again. Nat's gone to the station to pick up
Claudette,” Jerry says. Jerry is Nat's identical-twin brother, as well as a skilled potter.
“Jerry …” Stu says, reaching for an apple. “You didn't invite Claudette up here? Did you?”
“Well, I kind of did, actually,” Jerry says, scanning the distant tree line. Claudette is a sculptor, and a Hawaiian. Stu knows I find Hawaiians very troubling.
On the television, on “The Magilla Gorilla Show,” Magilla is trying to explain something to Mr. Peebles, the pet-store owner.
Suddenly, a memory of when I was a little girl comes to me, vaulting over the years as fresh and vivid as if it happened yesterday. One Sunday in June, when I was ten or eleven, my father (or was it my older brother; no, it was my father, I'm pretty sure) —anyway, he took me and my friend Kathy, or, rather, Beverly, in our car down Route 632 and we drove to Forster's and we got frozen custard. Either that or maybe we went to the park.
There is a crunch of gravel in the driveway. A minute later, Nat, Claudette, Aida, and René come through the hedge. Aida and René are two other people whom we know. Almost telepathically, I can feel Stu start to worry. For his sake, and for the sake of the life he has so carefully imagined for us, I smile up at them all. The look of terror on Nat's face freezes my greeting in my throat.
“Krauts!” Nat screams, tackling Claudette to the terrazzo and shielding her body with his own as the deafening blast of jet engines fills the air and twin .50-calibre machine guns stitch the wood siding above him into a splintered needlepoint of death.
“Hit the dirt!” Stu cries, but I am way ahead of him, hugging the concrete so fiercely as to weld its very soul to mine.
In the next few moments, total pandemonium takes over. Explosions are everywhere. The earth beneath me lifts and falls.
Whomp! Whomp!
Troops run by carrying rockets and mortars. Theirs or ours? I cannot tell. Ricocheting bullets sting my cheek with spurts of pulverized brick dust. Am I screaming? I must be; the universe is one endless scream, and I am part of it. More guys run by with guns and radios. One horrible thought fills my entire mind:
America is being invaded! And by Germans!
The staccato burst of a machine gun stutters out its fatal message as tracer bullets set the garden ablaze. How can it be? We defeated the Germans soundly over forty years ago! But it's true—I knew the moment the plane came over on its strafing run and I smelled that familiar Boche smell (not familiar to me, of course, because I was too young for WW II; I mean familiar to my father, who told me about it)—that smell of ether, camel dung, and boiled cabbage that the German Army carried wherever it went.
“Move out! To the trees! It's our only chance!” Nat shouts, as the rain of spent shell casings on the tile roof sounds a grim counterpoint to his hoarse command. There is a brief lull in the firing, like a rest in a famous symphony, and then all hell breaks loose again and we are on our feet, suddenly, and running. Running blindly, running and crawling and dodging through a world of fresh craters newly in bloom with orange orchids of smoky flame. Just then, I happen
to look up at the trees we are running toward, only to see them begin to topple to one side and another —an entire division of Panzer tanks, heading straight for us! With the energy born of desperation, I grab a German paratrooper who has just landed, hit him with a karate chop on the bridge of the nose, and wrestle his submachine gun away. Throwing myself flat in one of the nearby craters, I begin pumping round after round into the approaching ranks of the invader, as a brassy taste I know to be fear fills my parched and tightening throat.
 
 
When I was in the fourth grade—when I was nine years old, and ten—I sometimes used to wonder if somewhere on earth there might not be another little girl who was exactly like me in every way, who looked like me and dressed like me and talked like me and had the same barrettes and everything. And what if we went to the same school—who would be the more popular, she or I? Then, too, I used to wonder what I would do if I had a million dollars, and which movie star I would like to marry, and who would win if God and Superman got into a fight, and which horse was prettier, Misty of Chincoteague or National Velvet, and whether ballerinas had to do gym at school or could get excused. I guess every kid wonders about stuff like that. Now that I am grown, with a husband and a wife and children of my own, I can see that many of the questions I used to wonder about, while not wrong, were certainly misguided. All of us—
friends, lovers, colleagues, German troopers—are usually caught up in a scheme much larger than we imagine at the time. It's just like the webbing of the lawn chair I was sitting near right before the attack: to us, our lives seem to be straight lines, but in fact they are interwoven with other lives in a way that makes a net, or web, that maybe some greater being might use for something, just in the way we use that lawn chair. Nat loves me; I love Stu; Stu loves Claudette; Claudette loves Mr. Hurstwood (from
Sister Carrie
, by Theodore Dreiser). Weaving and reweaving, these many separate strands seek their own warp and woof. To me, it is all quite astonishing. This raid by combined German air and ground forces only serves to underscore my point.
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