There is very little in fiction that is better than a good curse. Here we have an excerpt from a novel we must all be on the watch for: Vanishing Act, by Emily Kiernan. In this excerpt, myth and manhood mix and the past is ever-present. Kiernan tells us a tale, one that rings true as it explores the nature of tale-telling. –Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor
Fenstick Lattimore III was born an hour before dawn on November 1st, 1962, in a small third story apartment on 151st St. in the Bronx. Shortly before this event, a man named Phillip Krabunski crashed his milk delivery van into telephone pole, killing himself instantly and flooding the street with broken glass and spilled milk. A major transformer was damaged in the accident, and power was not restored to the immediate area for nearly twelve hours. It was for this reason that Fenstick Lattimore III was born in the dark.
Fenstick’s mother, Nora Fronheiser, heard the crash in the middle of a contraction, and for a moment thought the noise had come from inside herself. She sat up in the bed and let out a cry of horror as she grabbed for her mother’s hand. Then the lights went out and she was sure that she had gone blind, that she was dying.
Nora hadn’t been able to afford even the cab to the hospital—much less the doctor’s fee—and so had contented herself with the assistance of her mother (who had given birth eight times, and was therefore an established expert) and the weak encouragements of Fenstick Lattimore II, who was ensconced in an arm-chair across the room, too squeamish to be of any use. He welcomed the crash as an unassailable excuse to leave the room, and quickly grabbed up his coat and headed for the stairs, unconcerned by Nora’s sudden screams, and her mother’s gentle clucking.
Fenstick Lattimore II was unemployed at the time of his only son’s birth, but for 10 years prior he had maintained a comfortable post as a mail carrier in a friendly, if not affluent, Bronx neighborhood. He was a gregarious man with a tendency to live beyond his means, but with more than enough friends to support him in his occasional arrears. He was a confirmed bachelor, though he was popular with ladies and whores alike. He was utterly shocked to find himself, at 44, a father (or nearly one), having always lived by the philosophy of free will and feeling himself to be distinctly unencumbered by the demands of history.
Fenstick II gave a little shudder at the thought of his child, whom he knew to be careening down Nora’s birth canal in a great bloody, greasy scrum of biology. Fenstick II disliked physical messiness, and wished that his presence were not required at this event. He felt embarrassed by the whole process, not just for himself, but for Nora as well. She was a remarkably pretty woman, and unintelligent. To see her as he just had—bloated, and sweaty, and screaming—was not only physically repellent, but seemed in some way to debase her, to force her into a role utterly unsuited to her particular talents and attributes. He could hardly believe that sleeping with her, which had seemed at the time such an aesthetically pleasing endeavor, was the very thing that had brought this about.
Nora had moved into an apartment in the middle of his route about a year before. It was Nora’s first time living alone, and it was clear that she was nervous and lonely. When he had knocked on her door to hand her a package too large to fit in her downstairs box, she had greeted him in a short yellow night dress and immediately invited him in for tea without bothering to change. Being something other than an idiot, he had agreed. They’d chatted, had tea, and eaten the cookies that her mother had sent her (though she lived only a short subway ride away,) and Fenstick II found her sweet, if somewhat vague.
Her mother kept sending packages, so the visits became regular. Many days Fenstick II would bring over the manuscript of his unfinished biography of Fenstick the First and read her passages. This impressed her greatly, and she soon seemed to consider him something of an intellectual. She required very little of him, and she was very pretty, so he soon felt secure in terming their arrangement “love.” The only problem was that his increasingly lengthy stays with Nora were beginning to create a bottleneck in the postal system. Some of the customers at the end of the route were going without mail a few days a week; there were bound to be complaints, but Fenstick II was well liked, and no one made too much noise about it at first. Then one day he’d come by the apartment to find Nora sitting in her big chair in front of the door, dressed in black as if she was going to a funeral.
“What?” he’d said.
“I’m knocked up, that’s what,” she’d said.
“You said you were on those pills,” he’d yelled.
“I am,” she’d yelled back. “I guess they don’t work.”
It turned out she hadn’t been getting the pills from a doctor at all, but from a girlfriend of hers who was stealing them from the pharmacy where she worked. Apparently, the pharmacist had gotten wind of it, and replaced the whole stock with pre-natal vitamins, explaining away the change in appearance as a new brand.
Fenstick and Nora knew fighting about it wouldn’t help matters much, but they fought anyway, trying to parcel out blame. She demanded that he marry her, and when he refused, she grabbed his mailbag and threw it out the window. The next day, Fenstick II went into work to find that he’d been fired.
Still, she was very pretty, and he had decided that he loved her, so he stayed. They moved into a spare room in her mother’s apartment and he tried to sleep with her often before she got too big, at which point he had started looking for work. Now the lights were out, and she was upstairs bleeding and oozing, yelling out filthy words, and giving birth to his bastard.
He couldn’t help but wonder how his own father must have felt in the same situation. If Fenstick II was an independent man, Fenstick I had been a truly an island, a Great American of the original, mythological mold. An Alaskan bastard son of a wandering trapper and a poor, wall-eyed trader’s daughter, he went on to become a hero in the Spanish American war, a gambler of some renown, and a part-time steel tycoon. He was a man whose hands were always firmly on the reins of destiny. So to find himself, at the late age of 44, and quite by mistake, the father of a bastard son he had no intention of supporting must have been something of a blow. Of course, since the news reached him almost a year after its inception, in a small cabin in the Alaskan wilderness from which he would never return, it is unlikely that his style was cramped.
Fenstick II had never felt slighted by his father’s abandonment; in fact, he loved him all the more ardently for it, and for his near-legendary rejection of all forms of compromise. Much of this admiration was passed down to him from his mother, a rebellious daughter of Boston royalty who was commonly accepted to be the dearest friend and closest confidant that Fenstick the First had ever had. Still, when she spoke of him (which she very often did, twice daily, at least) her tone was one of awe, not familiarity. She evidently knew him well enough not to expect that he would come back from Alaska and make an honest woman of her. Instead, she happily raised her bastard with the sense that he was sprung from a Godly lineage and surrounded him with relics and legends of his illustrious, irascible father.
Fenstick II had spent much of his adult life in an attempt to write his father’s biography, a largely unsuccessful venture stymied by the great man’s frequent relocations and general air of mystery. The last straw had been a very expensive trip Fenstick II had taken to Alaska a few years back, which had turned up absolutely no relevant information (though he had met a very attractive local girl and gotten drunk with her several times). Though he promised himself he’d give it another go sometime, he doubted Nora would let him get away until the child was in school, if at all.
His research had made him intimately aware of the many ways in which he fell short of his father. He seemed to himself a heavily watered-down version of the great man, having been kept out of war by poor lungs, and out of business by a wandering mind and a general lack of courage. His inheritance consisted largely of a stubborn streak, a gift for raconteuring, and of course, his father’s one great mistake, a single, mid-life bastard.
It was raining hard when Fenstick II stepped outside, but the headlights from the wrecked truck were still shining ominously through the mist, revealing a swath of shattered glass and bent metal, soaking in the gutters full of brown water, dead leaves, trickles of milk and blood. In front of the truck a power line, torn down and ripped in half, was whipping and seizing through the air, spitting blue sparks.
Fenstick II did not dare step off the porch into the water that flowed down the sidewalk, but instead stood watching, horrified and amazed, unable to call for help, knowing that no one would hear who could be any more use than himself. From where he stood, he could see the driver’s face, drooped forward behind the shattered window, looking utterly relaxed and perhaps slightly bemused, as if waiting to see what might happen next. It did not look like the face of a man who in any way believed he was about to be crushed to death by a telephone pole, or who believed that it was possible to die as a middle-aged man delivering milk an hour before dawn.
Nora did not see her son clearly until morning. His father never saw him at all. Nora heard him come back into the apartment just as she began to push, assured by her mother that all darkness and horror was external. She yelled to him to bring a candle, and though she heard him rattling about in the next room, he did not come in time. Her mother had yelled “Boy!” and the boy had cried, and then she had heard the apartment door click. When she sent her mother to bring him in, he was gone.
That Fenstick II had left Nora surprised no one—not, at least, in the content of the action. There had, in fact, been considerable surprise that he had lasted as long as he did. But the timing—not to mention the sheer balls—of the event impressed itself on the communal memory of the neighborhood. As Fenstick III grew up, this was always the story he heard about his father. It was, apparently, his most inspired moment.
Nora did not tell her son many stories about his father. She preferred not to mention him at all, adhering to what she referred to as “the thumper principle” after the rabbit in Bambi: if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. That her son bore the family name was not, Nora insisted, a tribute to his father, but rather to his grandfather, the Great American Legend himself, stories of whom had left Nora suitably thunderstruck. Her own family, Rhine Valley Germans who had immigrated to Pennsylvania sometime before the first World War, was noticeably short on known history—much less illustrious personages—so she was more than happy to associate herself with a bit of true American glory, even if it were only through the bastard son of a lying, spineless bastard.
Nora often recited stories of Fenstick I at bedtime, though Fenstick II had taken the biography with him when he left. Through the years, the stories became increasingly confused and jumbled together with the tall tales of other great Americans; J.P. Morgan, Davy Crockett, Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Foster, and Paul Bunyan. When he was too young to know the difference, Fenstick III received the full benefit of these tales, his famous grandfather elevating him above the morass of poverty and superstition that might otherwise have been the sum of his inheritance. He imagined that everyone knew who his grandfather was, and that in sharing his name he was differentiated from the other children around him, whom he generally disliked. He identified himself with the children in fairy-tales—crown princes and sons of gods who were forced to live, for a time, in a sad and degraded state before their true identities could be known.
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Fenstick III’s favorite story about his grandfather was one of the earliest, about a time before the Great Man’s true potential was realized. Though his mother sometimes liked to begin stories of Fenstick I’s childhood with comments about his unheard of stature or remarkable cleverness, most of the tales seemed to indicate that if he had remarkable traits as a boy, they went unnoticed by his family and the small, transient group of traders in which he lived. In fact, it seemed he was a small, quiet child, peculiar among the rough and tumble men who were about the only white inhabitants of Alaska at that time.
Fenstick I’s grandfather was a proud but unpopular ex-army lieutenant who ran a trading post at the ragged edge of absolute wilderness. The few white men with whom he had contact took a great joy in the shame that had been brought on the man’s family by the birth of a bastard to his only daughter. They often jokingly referred to Fenstick’s disappeared father (whose real name was never mentioned) as “Seward,” mostly so they could call Fenstick “Seward’s Folly,” and his mother “Seward’s Icebox.” There were no other children at the post, and the few, shy native children who sometimes accompanied their mothers when they came to offer furs and meat seemed to have been instructed not to approach him. As a child, Fenstick spent his days tracking animals across the waste that lay outside the post and occasionally carrying home the useless skins of muskrats he had mangled with his home-made pocketknife. It seemed eminently unlikely that he would ever become anything more than what he was.
Then, when the boy was 15, an entire new frontier opened up ahead of him. A group of prospectors came into the post one day to buy supplies, led by a huge, drawn-faced man named Macartlin. He was an older man, or seemed so to Fenstick, and he moved with a weary elegance that drew his men into line behind him with a force not unrelated to love, or at least to a fierce loyalty. Though Fenstick had seen such men all his life, he had never noticed them in the way he did that day. Their dirty clothes and ragged faces seemed to speak not only of hard life and thankless work, but of the glamorous twinkle of gold, and of the endless countryside, the huge expanse where a man could make himself homeless and utterly unknown. After the men left, Fenstick stole a flask of his grandfather’s expensive whiskey and set out to follow them. Moving unencumbered over well-known ground, he caught up with them at their camp the next morning.
They were hard, rugged men, and though he did not feel afraid as he walked towards their smoldering fire pit, past their snarling, emaciated dogs, he did not expect that they would take him in easily either. He expected to prove himself, guided only by a strange and unconfirmed feeling that he had some ability, some natural magnitude that had not yet emerged, except so far as to drive him through a cold night with a small hope and a growling hunger.
Macartlin sat alone at the fire pit, a tin cup of something, probably coffee, steaming in his hands. He turned to look as Fenstick approached, but made no outward sign of acknowledgment. Without a word, Fenstick seated himself on the ground beside Macartlin, and, projecting a stoic camaraderie, passed him the flask. Macartlin took it and turned it around in his hands a few times before slowly opening it and taking a long drink, staring off across the plains, towards the pale place in the sky that the sun had left behind in its rising. He took another long pull, then upended the rest into his cup, handing the empty flask back to Fenstick.
“Thanks, boy,” he said, still not looking. “Come back with the rest of the bottle and I’ll let you come with us.” He turned with a slight smile that told Fenstick there was a boy like him at every post, that he’d made no impression at all.
“I will do that, sir,” he said, standing up and reaching out a hand, which Macartlin neglected to shake. “I certainly will do that.” Then he’d turned without a backwards glance and headed out across the plains in the direction he had come from.
Nora could not remember what exactly he had done to get the bottle of whiskey, if she had ever, indeed, heard that part of the story. She would always pause at this point in the telling and take a long breath, as if to leave space for the missing words, before going on to explain that the next time the prospectors saw Fenstick, two weeks and nearly 100 miles later, he was covered from head to toe in black and green bruises and holding a full bottle of Jim Beam Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey.
This time he came at evening and the camp was full. The men pulled him down to sit with them by the fire, passing the bottle around and joking raucously. After a few swigs, all the men were laughing, loud and red-faced, crying, and it was some minutes before Fenstick realized that their laughter had turned towards him. Macartlin stood holding the bottle in his hand, rocking unsteadily over the fire.
“Cheers to our young friend,” he said. “I’ve never met a boy so stupid he’d walk this far just to bring me a little present.”
Fenstick understood now that Macartlin had been lying to him and laughing at him—that he had no intentions of letting him stay with them. He made no sign of his anger; something during those two week’s wanderings had changed him, and his eyes had acquired the wild look that would never quite leave them. Instead, he waited until the bottle had made its way back around to him, then stood calmly, walked towards the drunken, laughing man, and smashed the bottle against his head, throwing a spray of blood and bourbon onto the fire.
“Do not play with me,” Fenstick said to Macartlin, who was barely sensible on the ground, “and do not lie to me ever again. I will prove the truest friend you have ever had.”
He walked slowly away from the fire and disappeared into the darkness with the men staring after him, too shocked to follow. Yet two days later, when they went to move camp, they found that Fenstick had joined them again. They did not ask him to go, or make any comment about what had transpired; instead, they simply allowed him to join in their band, and served him the silent respect that would be his due for the rest of his days.
“And a good thing, too,” Nora would always end the tale, “for he’d save their lives and make them rich men before the year was out.” It was a sort of cliffhanger, meant, apparently, to entice her son into asking for the next story—but he already knew the next story, knew all the stories that were his right and heritage.
As the stories of Fenstick I went this was not, perhaps, a particularly good one; it lacked the sheer magnificence and heroism of his later (supposed) deeds. But it was the one Fenstick III loved most, for it seemed to hold, in one moment, the promise of everything that The Great Man would soon become: his righteousness and violence, tenacity and earnestness. It seemed to promise to his meek, degraded grandson the possibility of greatness distilled by long, floundering latency.
At first Fenstick III was able to disregard the misattribution of his grandfather’s deeds, and his curious absence from the school books, as simple errors, or perhaps acts of jealousy on the part of other historical figures. For a time, he even considered the possibility that his grandfather may have made use of aliases, but he was not much comforted by the thought that the stories were created in any name other than the one he shared, and he dismissed the notion quickly. It was the bottle of whiskey that finally shifted the weight of the evidence and set Fenstick III’s belief into its final stage of unraveling. His mother had always been quite specific about the whiskey, pronouncing Jim Beam as if it were an essential detail without which all sense and meaning would be lost. So, when Fenstick III learned (from the label, after a casual perusal of his mother’s liquor cabinet) that the Jim Beam company did not take its name until after prohibition, he was horrified. It was a small detail, but it dissolved the very last of his faith.
Fenstick III was now forced to come to two simultaneous and excruciating realizations: that his grandfather was not nearly so important or famous as he had thought, and that his mother was not very smart. This was the first real tragedy of his life, and the end of his interest in Nora. She, for her part, did not seem to notice or much care about her son’s sudden disassociation from her. She had never been maternal, and other than serving as a conduit for grandfather stories she had never had as central a role in his upbringing as his grandmother, who had at least an air of arcane knowledge, if no greater intellectual capacities than her daughter.
His grandmother was a quiet woman with a deeply wrinkled face and long hair that had stayed mysteriously dark well into her old age. Her eyes were small and deep and gave her the look of someone always concentrating. She had an odd accent, and made vague, unverifiable claims to gypsy blood somewhere back in the mire of history. Fenstick III loved her inordinately and believed that she was magical, if only in small, witchy ways. Though her powers were less magnificent than those he had attributed to his grandfather, her tiny hands were adept at making mustard plasters for chest colds (of which he had many), and funny smelling jellies decorated with flower petals. These were the necessary, daily magics that he doubted his grandfather knew anything about, that were, in fact, quite divorced from the essence of the Great American.
It was his grandmother who had first begun to refer to the family curse with which he was presumed to be afflicted. The coincidence of the Fensticks—that they each sired just one son, a bastard whom they would not raise, in their forty-fourth year—was elevated to the revered status of family curse when III was ten years old. He, his mother, and grandmother had been buying grapefruits from the greengrocer down the street, and, as usual, his grandmother had been chatting with the girl behind the counter, a mod-ish blond who was obviously only half-listening.
“My Nora is so pretty,” his grandmother had said, apropos of nothing. “I don’t know why she doesn’t get married. She could marry whoever she wanted, any man would have her. The last had a curse on him: a great family that produced no fathers for their sons.” Then she had paused and taken Fenstick III’s chin between her thumb and forefinger. “Aye,” she said, staring into his face. “Aye, aye, aye.” It seemed, even then, an outlandish explanation for a common slight, but Nora had just stood there, nodding, as if it were simply the fact of the matter.
In retrospect, Fenstick III could see how much his love for his grandmother was a projection of his own making, and how much she was really just an ordinary old woman who cared for children, was good around the house, and willingly believed in any easy rationalization that would help her through a poor and pointless life. Still, her little features and dour dresses seemed reason enough for a fierce filial affection, and when, at nearly thirty, Fenstick III learned that she had died suddenly, he was heartbroken. In some ways he felt the loss more in a cultural sense than a personal one; he felt as if a certain sweetness and knowledge had gone out of the world forever. His grandmother did not seem to him so much dead as extinct, like passenger pigeons and the library at Alexandria. His mother’s death, two years later, he did not mourn nearly so deeply, though it did closely coincide with his second suicide attempt.
As for the curse, Fenstick III could hardly consider it on its own merits. As an adult, he consciously believed the idea to be silly and juvenile, yet he could not fully discount it. Like the belief in heaven (also passed down from his grandmother) he could call it idiotic, but could not call it false until it became false for him.
As a boy, suffering under this magical heredity had come easily to him. The idea that he was cursed had, in both chronology and substance, replaced the idea that he was blessed. The beliefs were of the same sort, if opposite, and when the positive had crumbled, he had seized desperately onto its darker twin. Though he could no longer believe that his grandfather had passed on a hereditary incandescence, the curse allowed him to carry on the more important belief that his life was controlled by a greater force then the one he, himself, possessed—that he was somehow, essentially, unique.
By the time he was 44, Fenstick III didn’t really believe any of these grandfather stories anymore, didn’t even like them, except for one: the last one. Fenstick III did not remember under what circumstances Nora had told him the story, and did not know how she could have ever learned it. At times he wondered if he had somehow concocted itself for himself, a fitting end for a cursed man’s life.
Fenstick Lattimore the First died an old, confused man in a remote Alaskan cabin. He had decided years before to be friendless, so no one was with him when he died, bleeding to death from a relatively minor wound he was, apparently, too insensible to staunch. A week before his death he had received a final visitor: a young man from Juneau who sometimes made the trip down to the cabin, hoping to get an interview out of the old man for some local history project.
On that last visit, the man had found Fenstick I sitting up in front of his stove (he was usually in bed, those days) with two mugs of coffee sitting on the low table in front of him. He seemed in an unusually good mood, and the younger man had asked him why.
“I’ve just been visiting with my boy,” Fenstick had said, gesturing to the cups.
The young man had given him a look, and Fenstick had seemed for a moment cowed, furrowing his brow as if trying to remember a forgotten word.
“My boy,” he repeated, trying to connect the words to something concrete. “I’ve never seen my boy. No, of course I haven’t.” But he was still staring down at the second cup of coffee with a look of utter consternation.
The young man soon changed the subject, steering Fenstick’s conversation to remembrances of his early life on the Alaskan frontier, his prospecting career, the gold rush—but the old man’s mind kept slipping back to the imagined visit, saying, “Yes, yes, just before you arrived. I was glad to see him. He won’t have gone far yet.” He described his boy, his age and weight, the color of his eyes, and his style of clothes.
“I told him I was sorry he hadn’t come sooner.” Then he went on to describe a childhood he had not witnessed, weaving memories of Boston and the boy’s mother with imaginations of trips and birthdays, boyhood friends and schoolyard fights.
“But sir,” the young man kept saying, “you’ve never met your son.”
“No,” Fenstick would say, “of course I haven’t.” But then his eyes would go dreamy again and he’d say, “I was so glad he’d come. He looks like me. Just like me. He’s somewhere here still, I think.”
Before he left, the young man picked up the two mugs of coffee and carried them to the basin for washing. They were cold to the touch, and dead ants floated in the dregs.