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THE FALL AND RISE


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THE FALL AND RISE A NOVEL BY JOHN SPRECHER

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A sharp right swerve off State Highway NN, roughly a mile west of the five-way confluence of two streets, two avenues and one dead end that locals here refer to as downtown, veers a potholed asphalt road with no shoulders. Follow that road, it meanders you in a northwesterly route out of Jewell, Wisconsin, population 1,912, past plumb-lined rolling fields of leafy spring corn that, nurtured by April’s misty rain and May’s unusual heat, are approaching knee high a good national holiday early. There is no road sign visible marking this sharp right turn; it has been uprooted and whiplashed into a puddled culvert upon impact of a speeding fender. The signpost is elbowed near the middle and, like a grisly compound fracture, rests twisted at an unnatural angle. The word CROWBAR is embossed in paint-chipped black letters against rusted peeling white enamel, and the word ROAD, more accurately only the letters AD, are submerged in shallow brown foul runoff. At the epicenter of the intersection locals call downtown Jewell, specifically the corner of Westerly Avenue and Milburn

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Street, today’s time and temperature alternates in repetitive display — jaundiced light bulbs that illuminate their electronic message three feet high with occasional burnouts — below the towering logo for Badger State Savings & Loan, which is in fact a frighteningly large paw print befitting a horror-movie badger the size of a garbage truck. At this moment it is 8:57 am. At this moment it is 87 degrees. At this moment it is 8:57 am. The queue of impatient, idling cars on Jewell’s main feeder artery from the south — County Highway 144, a snaking singlelane funnel into which Chicago’s northern suburbs traffic is pouring from Interstate 90 — extends even at this early hour from the downtown, around and across the Walworth River, to nearly the off ramp. It wasn’t always this way in Jewell. In fact it was never this way. Everything changed three years ago, in April of 1972, when Crown Jewell Golf Resort & Spa, a luxurious 350room, four-star rustic leisure and meetings retreat on the poetic, pine-needled northern shores of Lake Walworth, opened under the hushed financial backing of Playboy Enterprises — only to garner immediate national prestige and regional novelty as a prestigious TraveLover “spotlight delight,” which was of course

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summarily followed by local angle review in Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison and Des Moines Sunday travel feature articles. Within eighteen months, developers had claimed, purchased, cheated or stolen virtually every linear foot of shoreline that 818 square acres of fresh water calculate, and put the pedal to the newlybranded “Lake Country” vacation hotel, motel and condo metal. Like hungry youngsters who occasion upon the proverbial unparented cookie jar, part-time city managers who day-jobbed at the local Ace or State Farm were only too eager to pocket gratuitous favors extended them and literally rubber stamp every feasible rezoning application or construction permit come their way. And there were many. And they came furiously. But what these amateur administrators and profiteering developers utterly failed to anticipate in their conspiratorial giddiness was the simple location of Lake Walworth and its two lower (yet equally lucrative) lakes — roughly a mile the north side of downtown as crows fly. As they would come to witness and complain of from early May to end of October, the parade of thousands of visitors from the south would ultimately conspire to constipate roads, short-temper humans and — one busted up asphalt pothole or

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graffiti-tagged park bench or rude remark after another — slowly tear away at not only the infrastructure, but the quaint, in a good way, timbre of what Jewell was. So it is this Friday morning in downtown Jewell. There is a small, grassy, curbed island that rises in the center of the fiveway stop and around which vehicles must negotiate, one way or the four other. Here, unlike elsewhere, the curbs are painted white. The island is accessible by yellow painted crosswalk at only one location, the north corner of Eastern Avenue. Persons wishing to traverse the road to the island must do so with a watchful eye for oncoming traffic from both directions, as the roundabout nature of the island presents a very abbreviated field of vision to the driver, depending on the time of day or rate of speed. There are two small street signs that advise traffic to stop for pedestrians in crosswalk, which are most often ignored. The island serves as a memorial, funded by the local American Legion, comprised of a white metal flagpole which is illuminated at night, a limestone boulder roughly the size of a picnic table and a small weathered bronze plate attached atop the stone, upon which 43 names and hometowns of those from the county

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killed in the great wars or conflicts are embossed in memory. Every day at 9.00 am, a volunteer member of Post 4112 attends the memorial and ceremoniously salutes the flag, and recites the Pledge of Allegiance. In 1942, Alan Koenig was 38 years old, a husband of 18 years and father of twin 13-year-old boys when he enlisted as a Seabee and entrusted the love of his life, Ruth, to manage his tool and die shop located in Racine. For six months, until shell fragments severed his right Achilles heel, he served in the South Pacific, most of his duty atop a bulldozer keeping Henderson Airfield on Guadacanal operational under repeated enemy bombing. Today the old veteran moves arthritically slowly. He is a frail thin man whose shoulders and neck droop under advanced bone disease or the weight of the life he has carried for 71 years, his heaviest of burdens the early evening of June 12, 1961, when the Good Lord called his precious Ruth home at the hands of a speeding drunk. Atop his head is a standard issue, American-Legion-emblemed navy blue garrison cap, upon which the lettering JEWELL WI is embroidered in gold. His thick white hair is military cut and glistens with sweat. His uniform this stifling morning consists of

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a red plaid short sleeved collared shirt, tucked neatly inside stiff blue jeans purchased recently from JC Penney, which are secured with a white plastic belt and accented with navy blue, JC Penney walking shoes. The Legion’s ceremonial, white M-30 replica rifle assumes position on his left shoulder. He pledges his allegiance. He salutes his flag. And, as this Friday precedes what he believes is his country’s most important holiday, Memorial Day, he reads silently the names of each of the 43 men who showed no greater love for another than to give up his life. The accelerating motion and haste and noise and proximity of the many machines that like gaping sharks encircle the island cause the old man to feel uneasy, almost intimidated, as he waits at the yellow stop-for-pedestrians crosswalk. Mayhem surrounds him and yet, ignores him. He has lived in a small town for almost 10 years, but he is damned sure there was a time, even in a city as big as Racine, where there was a little less hurry and a helluva lot more respect. He is damned sure. Just then, a silver expensivelooking convertible, some kind of foreign car, lurches to stop at his left hip. Two shirtless longhaired boys are in the front. Two

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bikinied girls kneel in the back. Music he neither recognizes nor likes blares. The bikinis bounce to the song. The passenger boy leans out his open window. “You wanna cross?” he shouts. The old man nods. “Tough shit!” the boy shouts. The driver squeals tires away. The girls laugh to each other. The old man fails to notice his left hand tightening around the replica trigger of his still-shouldered M-30. A horn courteously taps twice. He turns to the salutation. A maroon Buick Centurion has queued to the yellow crosswalk. The driver, a grey haired woman with glasses, beckons him with her right hand. She shakes her head in disgust. He looks down and steps into the street.

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“You believe this shit?” she asks. The innkeeper puts a second round bottle of icy Old Style on the walnut finish, scuffed and scratched wooden bar top, then removes the dead soldier and gently lobs it into a nearby plasticbagged trash container. Her name is Nells. She owns Lancaster’s Swing On Inn with her daughter Sylvia, who just turned 20 last Saturday and culminated the celebration at close by climbing into a chair and bringing down the house — to rowdy, lusty cheers and folds of dollar bills slid into her short jean cutoffs — with a bawdy, topless performance of Honky Tonk Women. She earned 29 dollars and one IOU in those three minutes and two seconds. Nells has parented Sylvia and managed the roadside bar and grill on her lonesome 10 years come next January. That was when Frank Lancaster followed his instincts to his death. It was Monday, his day off, when a sudden whiteout stormed in about the same time night was arriving its typical mid-winter afternoon early. In haste, Frank steered his Polaris snowmobile down the wrong shortcut and was near decapitated by a forgotten wire-

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strung property fence less than half a mile from home. In a way, Nells has always believed the events that day were clearly divine intervention; if Frank had returned the correct trail home, which forks at one point and paths to the bar, he might have detoured given the conditions and stomped his snowy boots into the back office — to stumble upon another “Monday delivery,” as the two often laughed, that a fresh young beer distributor driver named Travis Petermann had been visiting upon the much older Mrs. Lancaster, at her invitation, for three months. Besides the absence of Frank, not much is different about the place despite the passing of a decade. It retains the decaying, untended character of the abandoned two-bedroom single-story that Frank and Nells got pennies on the dollar out of foreclosure in 1960 and converted to their business. Inside, even in daylight, is dark and poorly lit. The thick odor almost chokes of stale beer and cigarettes and piss. Two large horizontal picture windows — one along the front by the round tables, the second on the east side where the bar turns — are clouded with an oily sentiment of grill grease and smoke. Cheap no name liquors line the mirrored back bar. Neither of the pool tables is level. The jukebox playlist

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is about five years behind the top hits. And a portable black and white TV still balances on a makeshift two-by-four brace in the corner, befitted with the same wire coat hanger rabbit ears that Frank had once bent. From that television at this moment, however, come events never before witnessed in Swing On Inn or, for that matter, the United States. “Jerry Ford hasta be the dumbest president ever,” she tells her patron. “We never lost a war, ever. Lookit us. Shame on us.” James Henley watches the special evening news report as a terrified crowd surges against an ornamental white gate then a pleading woman who cradles a baby is pulled inside then civilians with rifles and pistols manage to push back the crush and secure the gate then arms and desperate hands claw through white bars then a helicopter approaches a building then it lands rooftop then a fatigue hat with a rifle peers over a parapet then fugitives rush up stairs then a helicopter dusts off and pitches left behind trees then a different kind of chopper lands on an aircraft carrier then another crashes on landing its rotor blades cutting into the deck then servicemen manage to push it overboard into rolling

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seas then Walter Cronkite returns and says that’s the way it is. A caption at the bottom reads: Saigon Surrenders April 30 1975. “Nixon,” James states. “Nixon’s the one.” A commercial for Coca Cola appears. Spirited, youthful actors and singers, choreographed to a Dixieland-jazz-influenced melody, encourage America to look up, smile and see what we’ve got, because we’ve got a song worth singing. Nells lights a Virginia Slims with her yellow butane lighter. “Huh?” she inhales. “You sayin’ you think Tricky Dick’s still out there somewhere pullin’ the strings?” She raises her hands, two fingers extended in victory, mimicking a front-page photo she recalled of the disgraced president’s exit from the White House. “Hmm. You may be right, after all, Ford’s the genius who made sure he got off scot-free, don’t tell me those Republicans didn’t have that all cooked up ahead a’ time.” She shakes her head at the television. “Crooks and cowards, every one of ‘em. He makes a crappy car too, in my opinion.” James picks up the cold, weepy bottle of Old Style and tips the neck back. Nells puts her arm on the bar and leans her still curvy body in close with a comfortable, easy intimacy that makes

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the out-of-the-way watering hole popular, especially among men. Her black hair falls in natural curls to her shoulders which, salted in graceful strokes, works to her advantage like polish to tarnish. She brings her red-shirted, short-sleeved arm up and settles her chin into her hand. “Lookit us,” she smiles. “Talkin’ politics.” James places the beer down. His eyes are gray and cold. “It was Nixon got Jimmy killed.” He speaks with certainty, without emotion. “Nixon and the gooks who shot my boy down. And for what?” He looks at the television. A man in a tie now advertises used cars. “For what? To decide to pack it up an’ just walk away one day?” He looks down, then suddenly growls and strafes his fingernails abrasively across thinning brown hair as if scratching at bugs on his scalp. Nells stands back. A closed right fist slams the bar top. Nells jumps. A young woman with blonde hair emerges from behind the narrow door in the corner stickered OFFICE and KEEP OUT. She is tall and lean and taut and chesty in a tight black pullover decorated with a neon peace sign, tucked into snug hip huggers.

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She cradles a four-month old girl in one arm. The infant gums a noisy ring of car keys. The young woman lifts the hinged service bar bridge and leans it against the wall. “Hey momma,” she says and slides behind the bar. “Hey Mr. Henley.” Nells turns around. She whirls a finger like stirring a drink, points to the office and signals her daughter and granddaughter to retreat.

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ďƒŠ

Travel one point three miles north on Crowbar Road, there droops a rusted metal mailbox alongside a hardpan dirt driveway. The name HENLEY has been carefully painted on both sides in white capital letters that, now yellowed and fading, suggest years of weathered exposure. A grand old oak tree towers nearby as it has three generations, its muscular branches mushroom-clouding clear across Crowbar to awning this otherwise treeless stretch of back road in leafy green. Probably fifty yards on up the drive, on the right, is a tired, two-story farmhouse that stands lonely and untended: faded blue, its peeling paint curls, particularly along the southern exposure, to reveal bare wood; the small white front porch lists precariously, a forlorn garage-sale chair toppled next to the torn screen door; rooftop, a wounded antenna loosely bolted to the chimney twists and rattles as the afternoon wind blows hot from the southwest. Overgrown willow bushes sway along the front of the house; tall thorny weeds and uncut grass elsewhere decorate the perimeter.

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Beneath the dryrotting porch, concealed for the most part by the bushy overgrowth, accessed by a makeshift gate of broken lattice hinged with duct tape, is a secret crawl space known only to the oldest living son of the family. It is here where Buck has escaped this Friday afternoon, at an hour that should find him in class studying English literature. Instead the boy is rolled onto his hip, atop a discarded roof tarp that serves as his flooring; he is unzipped and masturbating to an oily, beautiful unclothed young woman sprawled across a redand-white-checkered tablecloth, wicker picnic basket beside her, food spread and fried chicken leg to her nibble. The magazine is his father’s discard from March, one of a half dozen or so he has rummaged through garbage to find and keeps captive in a plastic trash bag underneath the porch, for the moment like now when his yearn for flesh — inspired by the secrets that daily parade out of his reach, up and down the hallways of Jewell High School — overwhelm him, and he runs away as he did this noon hour from the laughing, whispering rejection, to the only place in his world where he can feel some kind of love, and touch, and release. But his emotions culminate as they always do in anger and self-loathe

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and, ultimately, a lonely despair that spits at the magazine, at the schoolgirls, at the mother who this moment waddles across the creaking floors of the house above him. He rolls onto his back, slides his white briefs up, wiggles his jeans around his waist, zips, snaps his pant button and stretches his black t-shirt as far as he can down his tall, lanky frame to hide the afterglow sense of shame that, as always, follows. He fingers his dirty long brown hair away from his mouth and wraps it behind one ear, then the other. He strokes wisps of manhood that grow feebly, almost mockingly sparse, around his lips and chin. He feels a pimple on the small yet angular nose that every male Henley bears, the poor man’s family crest. He is seventeen years old and he is exhausted, afraid of what is becoming his life. He cups a right hand behind his head and stares at the irregular slits of light that glower down between the rotting floorboards. He closes his eyes, letting go for the moment everything. His respiration slows. His jaw relaxes. He falls asleep.

Brakes wail out as the school bus approaches its turn onto Crowbar Road. They are the last stop of the route. The girl sits

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in the second bench, passenger side right. Her cartoon character metal lunch box is snug between her feet. She holds three books in the lap of her lilac-and-daisies dress: arithmetic, spelling and an illustrated picture book about horses that she has borrowed from her fourth grade lending library. Her light auburn hair — shoulder length with bangs — meanders gently across her face, disheveled by the humid, hot air that breezes in from her open window. The woman driver, a crabby old substitute she does not know, labors to rotate the large steering wheel while she grinds gears. The bus lurches forward, onward, homeward for Francine and her older brother, Franklin. She turns to locate her sibling, who though two years older than her is only a grade ahead. He cowers in the exit row; above the tall green seat backs, she is only able to see a buzz cut head. He stutters in syllables too broken for her to understand, but loudly enough for her to know he is agitated. She wonders if the three older boys from middle school who crowd in the back with him and encourage him to speak naughty words she does not like and behave like they are friends and then laugh as they pass her have teased him today. It makes her sad but when he happens to

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look up and their eyes collide, she immediately feels uneasy, in a way afraid, and quickly turns around. Frank is watching her now, she is sure, just like he watches her at night, she is sure, when the light goes off and they lie in bed. The bus driver ignores Frankie as she steps down and exits onto the gravel dirt drive. The bus idles impatiently behind her, the smell of exhaust rising like a summer rain’s steam off the hot broken asphalt road. The patchwork lawn in front of her house is a field of bright yellow lollipop-like dandelions. She hears her mother’s old wind chime, dangling in the porch, as she walks; it twinkles a familiar welcome. Suddenly there are rapid pounding footsteps behind her. She startles and turns. Frank gallops at her stuttering gun sounds, arms spread like the wings of an airplane in attack, then veers off. He cuts across the grass and up the one two three four grey wooden front porch steps, swings open the tattered screen door and bounds on inside. Her mother bellows something about coming in the back door. The playful, deep bark of a big dog echoes from behind the farmhouse. Frankie smiles. Champ must be outside. She skips up the drive, scattering loose stones and kicking up dust.

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As she passes the window above the kitchen sink, knuckles rat-a-tat against glass. “Whoa there Miss Francine,” a voice calls down through the slid-up opening. Frankie stops, peers up and tries to visor her eyes with her left hand. The high, mid-afternoon sun is a blinding reflection in the glass. It is impossible to make out any face and to try hurts her eyes. “Hi Mama,” she responds, looking down. “When you come in, put these dishes away an later you can set the table.” “Okay Mama,” she says to her feet. She walks on. When she comes upon her comfort behind the house, she smiles. He is a husky old black mutt along the shepherd breed, tethered to the only tree in the yard by a goodly length of frayed rope, a monstrous weeping willow that has prospered over the years in a swale where rainwater collects, about smack between the back stoop and the failing barn a ways beyond. Frankie calls it the Sad Tree, although sometimes at night as viewed from her bedroom window, in the moonlight, it is a scary tree. To her right, somewhat in the middle of a weed choked handful of acres bordered on the north and east by old field stone and overgrown

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shrub, is a 1965 pale blue Chevy Impala, its front tires still at a hard angle, its rear tires still interred in mud where the drunk teenaged driver slammed on the brakes, a brown sock still tied around the steering wheel at the twelve o’clock position. It has been there since she can remember. The dog is rolling on his back from side to side, playfully wrestling with a knotted up dirty towel. Frankie calls him by name. Champ is eleven or twelve years old, nobody knows, and nearly deaf; he just wandered along and settled on the porch one day, same year she was born. Only when she is standing, smiling above him, does he realize her presence. His tail wags, sweeping dirt. The girl sets her books down and kneels in to gently caress the dog’s long, smooth graying face and tell him about her day. She wears a washed-pale lilac dress patterned with small red and yellow daisies; white lace dainties her short sleeves and rounded collar. Her socks are faded pink. Her once-white gym shoes are scuffed and soiled by almost a year of school and play. She is tall for ten years old, the tallest fourth grader among the twenty-one who attend Jewell Elementary School, and thin. A few boys tease her about her height. One of them is Michael, who lives with his

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in a big new house at the end of a curvy blacktopped street. The bus winds in and around and back out similar new streets, along the way passing many other big houses that are being built, until there are no more houses and no more riders but for Frankie and Frank. She likes to see what the workers accomplish each day. She likes Michael. It is her secret. The rear wooden screen door smacks. Frankie turns to see her brother scurry his clumsy way toward the barn, tripping and almost falling as he approaches. Champ jerks up to the alert and growls, eyeing the small figure that mutters something and runs off.

The sound arouses Buck. He blinks awake. Slits of daylight fill spaces between floorboards, glaring down at him. He realizes his surroundings. He is sweating from sleep. The afternoon heat is heavy and almost suffocating, here in the crawlspace under the porch. He hears another similar squeal, closer. He scrambles to get a better look, peering out from behind old weathered lattice framework. He sees the door to the bus open. He sees his sister step down. Shit. Quickly he gathers the magazine and stuffs it in

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the plastic bag with the other months and wraps the plastic once twice around itself and hides the stash under an upended WooHoo wooden soda crate that he pushes into the shadowy spiderwebbed corner. Now his brother is running up the drive with his arms flailing; it looks as if Frank swings and misses at Frankie’s head as he passes. What the hell? A few more steps and suddenly the boy veers off, straight toward him and the front porch. Buck retreats a few crawls before he is trapped against the foundation. His heart begins to pound. But his brother clomps on, up rotting steps and over floorboards that moan with weight and into the house. His mother yells what the hell ya know better than come in the front take them dirty shoes off. Frank continues stomping around, it sounds like up the stairs. On the driveway, Frankie passes by, out of sight. Buck knows there aint a lot of time. He sneaks through the tape-hinged lattice, angles a brick in front of it to make sure the gate will not somehow swing open and expose him, fluffs willow branches in cover, then scrambles to the field side of the house and lows on toward the back. Shit. Frankie is between him and the one place he can hide for the hour or so till his afternoon bus

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would normally arrive, playing with Champ. His only way to the barn is to get his ass on the other side of the brush line and hike the perimeter until, way back out of sight, he can make his dash. Buck stands and creeps back a few steps to the open window, it is the bathroom, and listens for his mother. The television in the living room is tinny loud with game show sounds. The old lady is likely eating something on the couch. He runs like hell for the bushes maybe fifty yards due east. Buck’s black t-shirt drapes with sweat when he finally gets to the junk pile behind the barn, near the property line. It is as much a history of his family as any handwritten ancestry in the liner pages of a Bible or musty photo album put away in a box under the stairs next to his basement bedroom. The discard that rusts and rots dates to 1925, when his grandparents married and were dowried a twenty-acre parcel to homestead from Gramma Anna’s German immigrant, dairy-farming family. The house he lives in today is the house they erected, his grandfather laboring most of the carpentry by his hands. It was exactly twenty-five years later that his parents took occupancy of the empty house with their newborn son, Jason, after Gramma Anna and Grampa

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George were killed in a head-on with a drunk driver one snowy November Sunday afternoon, returning from a baptism north in Dierston. To the seventeen-year-old, Gramma is simply a black and white photograph on a wall of a round woman with horn-rimmed glasses who held his infant brother on her lap. Grampa, however, is a much more curious concept than the stern-looking, balding, black and white man in camouflage posing with his trophy buck. He is a fifty-five gallon drum on its side, the bottom rusted out; a pile of rotting wooden siding and fence posts, nails still bearing fangs; a wheelbarrow missing its wheel; a cracked toilet bowl; a dented maroon car fender; a bunch of other shit. The pile is his family and his family is debris, refuse, waste, years piled upon years, retained instead of discarded who knows why, passed from father to son and now, son to grandsons, dead or alive.

Buck looks around, claws his way through the bushes and scampers off for the small passage at the far corner of the barn where, last year, he had ripped away at rotting boards with his bare hands to escape the old man.

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THE FALL AND RISE  

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