Chapter One-The Garden of Earthly Delights
Malcolm climbed out of a cab and floated wearily past the white moving van he’d rented earlier in the day. Around the side of the house he discovered his mother with a spade in one hand and a flashlight in the other. Her pajama top was filthy up to the elbow, but since she was kneeling over her flowerbed on a flattened cardboard box, the bottoms were clean. This was June Katz, the matriarch, the gardener. This was what Malcolm expected to see most nights when he came home. Another child would’ve imagined the neighbors peeking out their windows night after night and died of embarrassment, but he’d seen her in this sort of outfit and in this sort of position all his life. So if he was annoyed to find his mother digging in the dark, he hid it well.
“How was your night?” she asked.
“Ugh, Donny Lu’s idea of bon voyage was a strip club. He thinks it’s his job to make a man out of me.”
“If you ask me, that sounds kind of sweet.”
“The guy needs to be put away on a desert island. Then he might be safe.”
“But where the fun in that?” she asked, taking off a gardening glove and wiping her brow with the back of her hand.
June’s black hair and pale gray eyes sparkled through the darkness. She was tall, with a straight back, slim hips and the easy gait of an athlete. Not just someone who ran like a deer and dismantled men on the tennis court, she was a woman who could climb a mountain and not even break a sweat. She was an intimidating figure, but despite her stature and law degree, Malcolm was so used to seeing her in sweatpants and men’s shirts that he struggled to think of her as anything other than a mom. He saw her mostly as his relatives did—as a woman who tended the hearth with poise and who taught both her boys that manners always came before pride.
“Donny Lu’s not my idea of fun. But don’t worry, the last time I saw him he was very happy and very safe. I dropped him at his mom’s”
June nodded at the reassuring news, and because Malcolm also seemed happy and safe, she went back to her digging.
Inside the house her boy straightened the chairs around the kitchen table, washed some dirty glasses, and tossed a few broken crackers into the trash. The radio was on, playing a sad song he hadn’t heard in years. He leaned against the sink and listened for a minute. While he was gazing at the things on the counters, aligning each misplaced object with the spot it usually occupied, he noticed the dog tags—Katz, Abraham, 041-27-3616, Jewish. Malcolm picked them up and wondered why they were taped together. So they wouldn’t be noisy? Maybe, but hadn’t his father driven a truck during the war? Hadn’t he stayed far away from the fighting? Wondering whether June would have an explanation before he left in the morning, Malcolm left the dog tags on the counter and climbed the stairs to his room.
When his mother came back into the house an hour later, he was still awake. Another sad song was playing on the radio. She let out a sigh, turned it off and headed slowly upstairs. Malcolm heard her running the water and changing into clean pajamas. But soon the house grew quiet, and he stared at the ceiling until his head filled with hazy pictures of his father in uniform. The boy was still staring into the haze, thinking about dog tags and moving vans and what it took to be a man, when daylight began poking her slender fingers through the shades of his room.
In the scant hour of sleep he was able to steal, Malcolm dreamed of the sea—waves washing across the top of deep water, a small boat with a few lusty shipmates, a favorable breeze, deep green stretching in every direction. He woke with a vague memory of salt air and thought of Emerson, whose words rose to him like a giant fish. Society is a wave. The wave moves onward, but the water of which it is composed does not. The same particle does not rise from the valley to the ridge. Its unity is only phenomenal. The persons who make up a nation to-day, next year die, and their experience with them.
Malcolm had read Self-Reliance during his sophomore year at Vassar, at a time when he drifted about the world without a rudder and his imagination had become overwhelmed by the clutter in his life. As he read, he remembered looking up “phenomenal” in one of the seven dictionaries he kept in his room and wondering what Emerson was saying about the senses, the awkward teenage libido, the shapeless memories of his father, and life on the crest of the wave. The passage returned on his mid-term exam, where he was asked to analyze its meaning. The past is a distraction, he wrote despite the fact that the past was piled to the ceiling of his dorm room. Fixating on it anchors us to old ideas and estranges us from ourselves.
In her only comment on his test, his professor wrote, But what about property, government and the lessons of history? What about the Holocaust and knowing where you come from? Malcolm wrote back—just above his B-minus and a request to write more neatly—I’m Jewish, I vote and I don’t own anything. I get it. Also, I don’t have to be a genius to know I came from a woman.
At the end of his next class, the professor pulled him aside as the other students filed out of the room. As he waited, Malcolm became aware of his professor’s dancing. It wasn’t really dancing, per se, it was actually more like swaying as if in the distance she heard congas, guitars, maybe marimbas. Her weight shifted from right to left, left to right, and her hips made ever so gentle, almost invisible, circles that Malcolm could only describe as sultry.
He was disarmed, enthralled, aroused, quite possibly the most desperate nineteen-year old in the State of New York, so when the door closed and she told him he was coarse, his young heart was pierced. All he could do was apologize for his offensive comment and shove handfuls of scrap paper from the wastebasket into his already bulging backpack.
“Look, honey,” said the professor, taking him gently by the elbow and then placing her other hand on his shoulder, “you’re a strong thinker. I just don’t want you to paint yourself into a corner.”
Gazing into her understanding brown eyes, Malcolm thanked her, but he couldn’t forget that she’d called him coarse. Crude, vulgar, rude, common? There are times when young men take pride in being called such things, but this was not one of those times. He wanted to challenge her or at least seek clarification. But Professor Sears, cut that impulse short with an observation.
“Also, Malcolm, I am aware that college students find wrinkled clothes aesthetically pleasing, but I can’t help thinking you’ve worn the same shirt to class for the past three weeks. Is everything okay with you?”
No teacher had ever commented on his clothing. No teacher had ever touched his elbow and his shoulder and looked into his eyes. And wait, no teacher had ever danced for him. He thought of calling June for an explanation, but when he returned to his dorm, her threw his shirt into the garbage and alphabetized his bookcase instead. Clearly, something was stirring deep in his belly. He felt danger, panic, lust, and he knew only one way to fight it. In his closet were thirteen oxford shirts he had never worn because the two by four space was packed so tightly that every article of clothing was wrinkled beyond recognition. After sorting through his collection of shirts, he selected the finest, took it to the laundry room, where under the glare of a naked bulb he smoothed away its creases. Then he read the last sixty pages of Walden, reread some Emerson and went back to his room for a fitful but somehow exciting night of sleep.