The Wonder That Was Ours (book excerpt)

This excerpt is from Alice Hatcher’s novel, The Wonder That Was Ours, forthcoming September 2018 from Dzanc Books.

 

The day of Professor Cleave’s arrest began like any other. He awoke before his wife and daughter, and after a quick breakfast of tea and bread, he sprayed his cab with Roach Out! and turned on its radio to drown out the sounds we made crawling for cover.

“Someday, the meek shall inherit the Earth,” he said, snapping a plastic cap onto an aerosol can. “But today is not that day.”

That day was the last he’d later count among the happiest days of his life. On the night that ended these, his most hopeful days, he was driving along the harbor, where Portsmouth’s shops gave way to the collapsing houses of Tindertown. The woman stumbled into the street, and he might have hit her, if not for her arresting pallor. As he later recounted to a jury, she slurred no more than most late-night passengers when she gave him an address. In the back of his cab, she rested her head against the window. He spoke once or twice to stir her, drawing from a worn repertoire designed to hold the waning attentions of nodding drunks. When the odor of urine filled his cab, he pulled onto the shoulder, turned on his dome light, and took in the bluish cast of her skin. All he remembered of the drive to the hospital were the streaking headlights of passing cars. In the lobby, he screamed for help, knowing she was already dead.

The police came to his house at dawn. The woman had been an American heiress enamored with cocaine, and amicable international relations demanded the appearance of justice. Professor Cleave was the perfect patsy. He was sitting at the table, drinking rum straight from a bottle when the police arrived. While Cora and Irma cowered in their nightclothes, the police overturned every piece of furniture in the house, rifled drawers, and produced tiny bags of white powder.

At a farcical trial held after the bruises on Professor Cleave’s face faded, a prosecutor depicted him as a sociopath. Through tracts such as Kapital, Cabs and the Coming Crisis, he asserted, the defendant had promoted extremist ideologies of the most corrosive nature. Reading from a notecard, he provided the jury with an abbreviated catalogue of titles in Professor Cleave’s collection of books. Lamentable works such as Crime and Punishment, As I Lay Dying, Slaughterhouse Five, and The Naked and the Dead, he argued, provided clear evidence of a criminal mind and morbid predisposition, while Civilization and its Discontents disparaged the foundations of society.

“He waged a single-handed attack on our nation’s values. He is a social abdomination.”

“Abomination,” Professor Cleave blurted, drawing a small burst of applause from the crowded gallery.

“Did you hear that, you stupid fat goat?” Topsy shouted in an ill-advised show of support. “My son is a social abomination.”

Professor Cleave’s fate was sealed, not by his pedantic outburst, taken as evidence of his blithe disregard for the judicial process, or by Topsy’s impromptu testimonial, but rather the delicate sobs of the heiress’s well-preserved mother, who insisted her daughter had never ingested any drug before making the defendant’s acquaintance. The hastily assembled jury spent less than one hour in deliberation.

“Crime and communism are no strangers,” the judge said before sentencing Professor Cleave to ten years in prison. “And they have no place on this island.”

Cora crossed herself. Irma shrieked. Topsy lowered his face into his hands. Idiots rule, we thought from the rafters. We’d seen it all before.

Professor Cleave spent his first hours in prison sitting on the cot bolted to the wall of his cell. In alternating states of shock and agitation, he picked at the seams of his orange jumpsuit and read graffiti containing misspelled claims to notoriety and references to sexual positions that defied his comprehension—violent and vulgar statements that underscored the extent of his alienation from prison society. Panicked, he lapsed into territorial behavior, measuring the dimensions of his cell and taking inventory of its scant contents. He examined his urine-stained mattress and pressed his face against a grated window, fingered a roll of coarse paper beside a steel toilet bowl and weighed a bar of soap in his palm. We scaled pocked concrete walls and circled the drain in a tiny sink, wondering at the boldness of his intrusion.

He shuddered at the sounds of us clawing through cracks and clogged pipes, stripped a shoe from his foot and threw it at the sink. We scuttled down the drain, and by the time we reappeared, he’d spread a thin blanket over his mattress and stretched out on his back. Until the naked bulb above his head flickered and died, he kept his eyes squeezed shut, too overwhelmed to battle those of us brushing against his neck to take in his scent. Frankly, we considered him hopelessly unqualified for prison society.

The following day, though, he joined a roll call of pickpockets and male prostitutes, artless forgers, small-time drug dealers and wet-brained brawlers, and to our amazement, he familiarized himself with routines that would guide his passage through a version of hell with intellectual isolation at its core. Beside men too muddled to masticate, he ate boiled cassava and bits of vermin with a plastic spoon. On a kitchen detail, he mopped lumps of gruel from flagstone floors. In a rudimentary workshop, he glued wooden legs to coconut piggy banks destined for duty-free shops. He suffered the company of convicts given to abusing fixatives—people even we’d learned to avoid. The spasms of your average huffer can be unpredictable, and for fear of thrashing limbs, we kept to the workshop’s far corners. From a safe distance, then, we heard Professor Cleave deliver his first prison lecture.

“Let me tell you, that’s no good for the brain,” he said to a baby-faced burglar flaring his raw nostrils over a tube of glue.

“Helped me kick drink,” interjected a toothless man struggling to open a can of epoxy.

Professor Cleave lifted a finger and started in about “enslavement to infernal adhesives.” We should have read the writing on the wall and skittered like hell!

During calisthenics, he upheld pretenses of exercise, marching back and forth across the courtyard under the watch of impassive guards, led and followed by huffers too dazed to remember their crimes. Amidst twitching souls lost in phantasmagorical scenes, he rubbed his fingers to strip away flecks of dried glue and tried to suppress memories of a ghostly woman caught in headlights. Only packages sent by his daughter sustained his spirit. Every evening, he lost himself in books Irma had pulled from rotting boxes behind Portsmouth’s shuttered library. His world, during these respites from reality, expanded to fit the dimensions of his roving imagination. Transported, he read aloud.

“‘The frontier trail snaked past copses of tall cottonwoods along the arroyo and into the scorched desert,’” he read from The Treasures of Apache Canyon. “‘Suddenly, he saw the dark war-painted stranger sitting on a dappled palomino. He clutched his reins and prepared to defend his saddlebags of gold with his short life.’”

Those of us lazing on the sink turned in Professor Cleave’s direction and twitched. He clutched his book and leaned toward us, unnerved by our electrified antennae. After a moment, he settled back on his cot and contemplated the possibility of insanity’s onset. If only we’d calmed ourselves then. Anyone who has read The Treasures of Apache Canyon can certainly understand our enthusiasm. The following night, he started reading where he’d left off, and we gathered on the sink. He watched our antennae strain toward the book and dragged his palm down the side of his face.

“‘He surveyed the bloody horizon obliterated by saguaro and lowered his rifle, ready to do violence to the feathered stranger until he realized the stranger was his old guide and friend,’” he read, tacking back and forth between narrative and exposition. “It’s a desert, you see, and the sun has gone to his head, although you can interpret this as you wish.”

The Treasures of Apache Canyon wasn’t a complex novel, for fuck’s sake, but we could hardly complain, for no one else had ever bothered to read to us. In any case, he was in the throes of adjustment to prison society, so we went easy on him.

Professor Cleave’s fear that loneliness had corrupted his senses waxed and waned. At times, he dreaded the advent of madness. At others, he placed his faith in the soundness of his mind, duly recording our physical responses to different literary genres. Bound by the limits of speculation, he eventually conceded an inability to explain our behavior, contented himself with our ostensible gestures of interest, and nurtured hopes of someday delivering recitations to more sophisticated listeners.

“The lowest aspects of things always seduce the unschooled masses,” he declared, when we disappeared down the drain during Sartre’s No Exit. “American cowboys and gunshots, I see, are your opiates.”

As if we needed a depressing play about three miserably contentious humans facing an eternity of imprisonment together in a tiny room! About humans’ inability to escape each other’s judgments! If humans want to spout “Solidarity Never,” to crave and then detest the company of others, who can blame us if we throw up our antennae and lament the strange ways of the world?

However frustrated by our inconstancy, Professor Cleave read aloud every night until the light went out. In darkness, he weighed the relative merits of literary interpretations, addressing his conclusions to those of us perched on the folds of his blanket. Then he whispered thanks to his daughter and thought of his wife more fondly than he ever would again.

Prison only added to Professor Cleave’s intellectual pedigree. The steady arrival of Irma’s packages established his reputation as an eccentric bibliophile.

“Why you always carrying those?” asked a terminal insomniac with speckled teeth. He pointed to the book in Professor Cleave’s hand. “Just words, words, words. Can’t lay down with words. Can’t eat words. Don’t your girl send things a man can use?”

Black Jacobins is about the Haitian Revolution. A slave uprising that gave birth to a republic.”

“Nothing to do with us. Except it’s dead. Dead paper. Dead words.”

Professor Cleave extended the book. “You should read and digest it.”

Two days later, he found several pages of the book, slick with excrement, lying in the courtyard. After that, he concealed his intellectual endeavors from all but us, fearing that in his retreat from glue addicts, he was stepping ever closer to his own form of madness.

Twenty-nine months into his sentence, he stopped receiving packages from his daughter and violently creased letters from his wife. Professor Cleave—all of us—missed the former more than the latter. Cora had always confined her brief remarks to village scandals, recounted in the pithiest of terms, and to the weather, as if she and Professor Cleave no longer beheld the same sky. In her final missive, she stated without explanation that Irma had moved to New York.

From the moment the letter slipped from his fingertips, Professor Cleave underwent a metamorphosis. He picked at the pads of his fingers, as if he might slough off the sickness surrounding him. He paced with renewed intensity, as if he might keep the walls of his cell at bay. He reread well-worn books, fixating on their authors’ most trenchant observations and darkest insights into the human soul. He entertained desperate thoughts and held wandering conversations with himself. He might have fallen apart, if not for a storm of Biblical proportions that brought salvation, if only to Fort St. George’s inmates. Thirty-seven months into his prison tenure, news of an incoming hurricane began to circulate among the guards, and then the alternately glazed and animated convicts in the workshop.

“The storm will sweep everyone into the sea,” one hopeful sociopath said, struggling to affix a pirate flag to a plastic Spanish galleon. “Drown everyone.”

Professor Cleave stared at the sticky ejaculate drying at the tip of a metal tube in his hand, and that evening stood at his window and watched the sky darken.

“Maybe it’s good she went away.” He placed his fingers on the sill. We rose on our hind legs and peered through the grating. “She’ll have a life we never will.”

Thirty-six hours before landfall, he awoke to the sound of whistles. He dressed in darkness, and moments later fell into a line of inmates stumbling into the glare of spotlights. Surrounded by apprehensive, freshly deputized guards, he watched a cement trunk dump sand in the center of the prison yard. He was leaning forward, hoping to glimpse a familiar face, when a guard pressed a shovel into his hand.

“By day’s end, there shouldn’t be a single bit of sand left in that pile.”

“Left of that pile,” Professor Cleave muttered as the guard moved down the line. “If there were no sand remaining, there would be no pile to call by the name.”

“No sandbags in Portsmouth,” the man beside him said. “They don’t have nothing ready.”

“They don’t have anything ready,” Professor Cleave stated. “The double negative suggests they have something ready.”

The befuddled huffer held a crumpled tube of glue beneath his nose, a whistle sounded, and the benighted citizens selected to save Portsmouth began shoveling sand into burlap sacks. To the sound of swells breaking against the cliffs below the prison, Professor Cleave turned to the pile of sand.

All afternoon, the wind gathered force, and the smell of seaweed filled the air. The prison’s most cognitively addled addicts shoveled erratically and whistled through rotted teeth. Fearing the insidious creep of madness, Professor Cleave watched them in terror. That night, he suffered violent twitches that jerked him from the edge of sleep every few minutes. Anticipating flood surges in every drainpipe on the island, we hardly fared better.

He awoke the next morning with a dim sense of his surroundings. A sheet of cloud had obliterated the horizon. In the harbor, whitecaps formed beneath heavy drizzle and dying grey light. Professor Cleave was straining to see through the window grating when a siren sounded in the distance and the world outside vanished behind a wash of rain.

We emerged from the shadows beneath the sink, and he regarded us in the gloom. “Together, we are left to our own devices.”

 


Alice Hatcher’s novel, The Wonder That Was Oursfrom Dzanc Books, is forthcoming in September 2018, and now available to pre-order on the Dzanc Books website.

This novel excerpt appears with permission of Dzanc Books. Copyright 2018 Alice Hatcher.


About the Author

Alice Hatcher.pngAlice Hatcher’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, The Beloit Fiction Journal, Notre Dame Review, Fiction International, Lascaux Review, Fourth Genre, Contrary, Chautauqua and Gargoyle, among other journals. Her novel, The Wonder That Was Ours, winner of Dzanc Books’ 2017 Fiction Prize and currently long-listed for the Center of Fiction’s First Novel Award, will be published in September of 2018. Hatcher lives in Tucson, AZ. Her work can be found at www.alice-hatcher.com.

 

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