Mrs. Mean’s dandelions

The surrender is far from unconditional. Mrs. Mean vents her hate upon the dandelions. She scours them out of the earth. She packs their bodies in a basket and they are dried and burned. She patrols with an anxious eye the bordering territory where the prevailing winds blow the soft heads from the plants of her negligent neighbor—not, of course, Mrs. Cramm, who has a hired boy, but the two young worshipers of flesh who live on her right and who never appear except to hang out towels or to speed in and out of the late afternoon in their car. Their hands are for each other. They allow the weeds all liberty. There the dandelions gloriously flourish. From their first growth across her line, she regards them with enmity. Their blooming fills her with fury and the instant the young couple drive off in their convertible, Mrs. Mean is among the bright flowers, snapping their heads until her fingers are yellow; flinging the remains, like an insult, to the ground where no one but the impervious pair could fail to feel the shame of their beheaded and shattered condition. With a grand and open gesture, unmistakable from where my wife and I boldly sit and enjoy it, and meant for the world, Mrs. Mean lifts her soiled hands above her head and shakes them rapidly.

There are too many dandelions of course. The young couple does not go out often; and while Mrs. Mean dares, during the time of the dandelions’ cottoning, to pace the property line, glaring, her arms in scorn upon her hips, her face livid with furiously staged resignation, watching helplessly the light bolls rise and float above her peonies, hover near her roses, fall like kisses upon her grass, indecently rub seed against her earth; she would not consider —honor would not permit—stepping one foot across the borders if the young couple might observe it, or speaking to them, even most tactfully, about the civic duties of householders; and indeed, she is right this once at any rate; for if those two could not see what we saw so easily, and if they were not shamed or outraged into action by Mrs. Mean’s publicly demonstrated anger against them, she might plow and salt the whole of the land their castle grows on and expect no more effect than the present indifferent silence and neglect.

So there are too many dandelions and they go speedily to seed. The seeds rise like a storm and cross in clouds against her empty threats and puny beatings of the air. Mrs. Mean, then, as with all else, sets her children to it. They chase the white chaff. It dances from their rush. Mrs. Mean screams incoherent instructions. The children run faster. They leap higher. They whirl more rapidly. They beat back the invasion. But inevitably the seeds bob beyond them and float on. Mrs. Mean is herself adept. She snatches the cotton as it passes. She crushes it; drops it in a paper bag. Her eye never misses a swatch of the white web against the grass, and after every considerable wind, she carefully rakes the ground. The children, however, soon make a game of it. They gambol brightly and my heart goes out to them, dancing there, as it goes out seldom: gay as they are within the ridiculous, happy inside the insane.

The children hesitate to destroy their favorites. Instead they begin to cheer them on, calculating distance and drift, imagining balloons on tortured courses. Who would want to bring such ships prematurely down or interfere with their naturally appointed, wind-given paths?

Mrs. Mean.

She waits, motionless. The clusters come, one drifting near. Her arm flies out. Her fingers snap. The boll disappears in the beak of her hand. The prize is stuffed in her sack. Mrs. Mean is motionless again though the sack shakes. I am reminded of lizards on rocks, my wife of meat-eating plants. Mrs. Mean’s patience here is inexhaustible, her skill astonishing, her devotion absolute. The children are gone. Their shouts make no impression on her. Mrs. Mean is caught up. She waits. She fills her sack. But at last the furious fingers close on air, the arm jerks back an empty hand, and Mrs. Mean lowers her head to her failure. Alive, she whirls. Her wide skirt lifts. It is a crude ballet, a savage pantomime; for Mrs. Mean, unlike the other mothers of my street, does not shout her most desperate and determined wishes at her children. She forewarns with a trumpet but if her warnings are not heeded, she is silent as a snake. Her head jerks, and I know, reading the signs, that Mrs. Mean is seeking a weapon. The children are now the errant chaff, the undisciplined bolls, and although they are quite small children, Mrs. Mean always augments her power with a stick or a strap and dedicates to their capture and chastisement the same energy and stubborn singleness of purpose she has given to the destruction of weeds.

No jungle hunt’s been quieter. She discovers a fallen branch, the leaves still green. She shakes it. The twigs whip and the leaves rustle. She catches sight of her oldest boy beside the barn, rigid with the wildest suspense. His boll is floundering in a current of air. It hurtles toward a hole in the barn where cats crawl. His mother hobbles on him, her branch high, stiff, noiseless, as if it were now part of the punishment that he be taken unaware, his joy snuffed with fright as much as by the indignity of being beaten about the ears with leaves.

I think she does not call them to their idiotic tasks because they might obey. Her anger is too great to stand obedience. The offense must be fed, fattened to fit the feeling, otherwise it might snap at nothing and be foolish. So it must seem that all her children have slunk quietly and cunningly away. It must seem that they have mocked her and have mocked her hate. They must, therefore, be quietly and cunningly pursued, beaten to their home, driven like the dogs: bunched on all fours, covering their behinds, protecting the backs of their bare legs from the sting of the switch and their ears with their hands; contorted like cripples, rolling and scrabbling away from the smart of the strap in jerks, wild with their arms as though shooing flies; all the while silent, engrossed, as dumb as the dumbest beasts; as if they knew no outcry could help them; refusing, like the captive, to give satisfaction to his enemy—though the youngest child is only two—and this silence as they flee from her is more terrible to me than had they screamed to curdle blood and chill the bone.

William H. Gass, Mrs. Mean, [In:] In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.

These stories emerged from my blank insides to die in another darkness

Obscurely born (rumors circulated secretly like poorly printed money: was I caesarian? a breech? were those forceps marks on the back of my little red neck? was my papa playing baseball when my mother pushed me screaming into being? was I supposed to care that I was born obscurely?) of parents who hardly honored their heritage even by the bother of forcibly forgetting it; and who had many prejudices but few beliefs (the town I grew quickly older in appeared to be full of nigs, micks, wops, spicks, bohunks, polacks, kikes; on the public walks, in the halls of the high school, one could not be too careful of the profaned lips of water fountains); thus while there was much to complain of, just as there is in any family—much to resist—it was all quite particular, palpable, concrete. Good little clerk, my father hated workers, blacks, and Jews, the way he expected women to hate worms. There wasn’t a faith to embrace or an ideology to spurn, unless perhaps it was the general suggestion of something poisonously Republican, or a periodical’s respect for certain Trade Marks. And I remember resolving, while on long walks or during summer reveries or while deep in the night’s bed, not to be like that, when that was whatever was around me: Warren, Ohio—factory smoke, depression, household gloom, resentments, illness, ugliness, despair, etcetera, and littleness, above all, smallness, the encroachment of the lean and meager. I won’t be like that, I said, and naturally I grew in special hidden ways to be more like that than anyone could possibly imagine, or myself admit. Even as a grown man I was still desperately boasting that I’d choose another cunt to come from. Well, Balzac wanted his de, and I wanted my anonymity.

School was a dull time in the beginning; I was a slow student, my achievement intermittent and unpredictable as a loose wire. I decorated my days with extravagant, outrageous lies. Yet I was reading Malory, too, and listening to Guinevere bid Launcelot adieu:

For as well as I have loved thee, mine heart will not serve me to see thee; for through thee and me is the flower of kings and knights destroyed. Therefore, Sir Launcelot, go to thy realm, and there take thee a wife, and live with her with joy and bliss, and I pray thee heartily pray for me to our Lord, that I may amend my misliving.

Amend my misliving. And everything in me then said: I want to be like that—like that aching phrase. So oddly, at a time when no one any longer allowed reading or writing to give them face, place, or history, I was forced to form myself from sounds and syllables: not merely my soul, as we used to say, but guts too, a body I knew was mine because, in response to the work which became whatever of me there was, it angrily ulcerated.

I read with the hungry rage of a forest blaze.

I wanted to be a fireman, I recall, but by eight I’d given up that very real cliché for an equally unreal one: I wanted to become a writer

… . a what? Well, a writer wasn’t whatever Warren was. A writer was whatever Malory was when he wrote down his ee’s: mine heart will not serve me to see thee. And that’s what I wanted to be—a string of stresses.

a what?

The contemporary American writer is in no way a part of the social and political scene. He is therefore not muzzled, for no one fears his bite; nor is he called upon to compose. Whatever work he does must proceed from a reckless inner need. The world does not beckon, nor does it greatly reward. This is not a boast or a complaint. It is a fact. Serious writing must nowadays be written for the sake of the art. The condition I describe is not extraordinary. Certain scientists, philosophers, historians, and many mathematicians do the same, advancing their causes as they can. One must be satisfied with that.

Unlike this preface, then, which pretends to the presence of your eye, these stories emerged from my blank insides to die in another darkness. I willed their existence, but I don’t know why. Except that in some dim way I wanted, myself, to have a soul, a special speech, a style. I wanted to feel responsible where I could bear to be responsible, and to make a sheet of steel from a flimsy page—something that would not soon weary itself out of shape as everything else I had known (I thought) always had. They appeared in the world obscurely, too—slow brief bit by bit, through gritted teeth and much despairing; and if any person were to suffer such a birth, we’d see the skull come out on Thursday, skin appear by week’s end, liver later, jaws arrive just after eating. And no one of us, least of all the owner of the opening it inched from, would know what species the creature would eventually contrive to copy and to claim. Because I wrote these stories without imagining there would be readers to sustain them, they exist now as if readerless (strange species indeed, like the flat, pigmentless fish of deep seas, or the blind, transparent shrimp of coastal caves), although a reader now and then lets light fall on them from that other, less real world of common life and pleasant ordinary things.

Occasionally one’s companion, in a rare mood of love, will say: ‘Bill, tell about the time you told off that trucker at the truck stop’; but Bill’s audience knows he’s no emperor of anecdote, like Stanley Elkin, and they will expect at best not to be bored, pallidly amused, not edified or elevated, not cemented or composed; and occasionally one’s children will still want a story told them, improvised on the spot, not merely read or from a flabby memory recited. Then they will beg far better than a dog.

Tell us a story, fawfaw. Tell us a lonely story. Tell us a long and lonely story about the sticky-handed giants who had no homes, because we want to cry. Tell us the story of the overfriendly lions. Tell us the story of the sad and barkless dog. Tell us, fawfaw, tell us, because we want to cry. Tell us of the long bridge and the short wagon and the tall tollkeeper and the tall tollkeeper’s high horse and the tiny brown tail of the tall tollkeeper’s high horse that couldn’t swish away blue flies … because we want to cry. We want to cry.

Well which? … which shall I tell you the story of to make you sad so you will cry?

Oh don’t do that, fawfaw. We want to cry. Don’t make us sad. We merely want to cry. Tell us a lonely story. Tell us about the giants. Tell us about the lions. Tell us about the dog. But do not make us sad, fawfaw, just make us cry.

Well which? … which then shall I tell you if you want to cry? … which, the story of?

Woods.

Woods. I knew it would be woods.

William H. Gass, Preface to In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.