Break His Bones:
The Private Life of A Holocaust Revisionist
“But why?” they ask. The reporters. “Why do you defend Nazis? How can you justify Hitler? What does it matter to you how the Jews were murdered? Aren’t you just a tourist in somebody else’s tragedy? It’s not the gas chambers that are important. What’s important is the fact that the Jews were murdered. There are so many more important issues in the world today than if the gas chambers existed or didn’t. What are your motives? Your real motives? Free speech? Don’t try to put us on about free speech. What did the Jews ever do to you? We don’t care about your fantasy about how there are no proofs that the gas chambers existed. We’re past that. We know they existed. We want to know why you do it. Why the gas chambers? Why the Holocaust? Why the Jews?”
That’s the big question of course-why the Jews? The rest of it’s all nonsense. Smoke screens. I don’t even answer that stuff any more. If what I do were in fact about Jews I would say it is so because Jews and Jews drive the story have dominion over it and because finally it’s a Jewish story but what I do isn’t about Jews, it’s about intellectual freedom. Jews are just folk. They need intellectual freedom just like the rest of us. There’s a long tradition in Western culture prohibiting intellectual freedom with regard to stories by Jews and about Jews. It’s been a bad tradition. Until the 15th century the prohibition was maintained by the Vatican and afterwards by the Vatican in alliance with the Protestant sects. Jews had little enough to do with it.
A couple centuries ago it became possible to express doubt about the teachings of the Church. Early this century the Marxists and their progeny set out to finish the job, to destroy the Church first in Russia, then everywhere else in the world. They believed they were destroying all the old sacrosanct Jewish stories. Inwardly they were like children. While they struggled to destroy Christian monotheism in Russia they were creating the first secular monotheistic state in the West and before long we found ourselves faced with another tremendous story about Jews-and they called it “Holocaust,” and it was good. And this new story about Jews became sacrosanct like the old stories had been sacrosanct.
The more things change the more they stay the same. We’re a nation run by the One-God people, Christians and Jews. I’ve had enough of it. I’ve had enough of their natural issue, secular monotheistic tyrannies. If it isn’t the One-God people it’s the One-Leader people. Intellectual freedom is anathema to all of them. Jew and Christian, Stalinist and Nazi. It wasn’t the One-God people who urged intellectual freedom on the West. It was the Greeks. The Greeks had a thousand gods but when it came to thinking they let it rip. I don’t care what stories others choose to believe, but I do care about the right to doubt stories by or about anyone and the right to say I doubt them and the right to be wrong in what I doubt. I don’t belong to the Temple or the Church or their natural issue either. I’m a writer, not a politico. My trust is to write what I choose and to have the courage to choose.
So people ask me to explain why, if what I do isn’t about Jews but about intellectual freedom, why did I pick an angle to talk about it from so that I have to talk about Jews all the time? I don’t know. It’s been a real bother. Maybe it’s a little irrational. I have nothing against irrationality on principle. Everything deep I have ever experienced has been irrational. Or groundless or absurd or mad. Passion isn’t a product of logic. To the contrary. Writing itself is irrational the way I do it. In forty-five years as a writer I’ve had three subjects. First one, then another, and now this one. Each time I set out to record how it happened that I was swept off my feet by events. When I was twenty-one I found a way of life. When I was thirty-four I found my subject. When I was fifty I lost it again. Thumbnail sketch of an American writer.
That morning in the forest we fell out alongside the trail for a rest and some chow. There was the creek, the trail that followed alongside it, the trees, the bars of slanting sunlight with the specks drifting down, the underbrush and so on. It was a nice spring morning. I ate a can of C-rations and threw the empty over my shoulder. The sound the can made when it landed didn’t sound right. When I looked back the empty can was sitting on the quilted, uniformed chest of a Chinese infantryman.
“Hey, Decker,” I said. “Look at that.”
Decker looked back. “Dead Chink,” he said.
“I threw my empty back there and it landed right on the guy’s chest. Look at that. Right side up and everything.”
“Chink coaster,” Decker said.
“I’m gonna get a look at him.”
“Say hello for me.”
There was the brown leather chest strap, the quilted cotton cap with the earflaps tied up on top, the serene, sallow face. I circled the body carefully, my M-1 at ready. I don’t know why I was being so careful. He was missing from the belly button on down.
“Hey, Decker,” I said. “This guy is seriously disabled.”
Decker looked around again. He didn’t say anything.
“He’s been whacked in half, clean as a whistle.”
Decker said, “What the hell are you doing?”
“I’m being careful to look at him from the top end, I can tell you that much.”
I couldn’t see any wires attached to him. I couldn’t see his legs or ass anywhere either. I looked around through the trees and brush. Nothing. I felt odd.
“Decker, don’t you have any curiosity?”
“Oh yeah. I’m curious. I want to know what the hell you’re doing up there.”
“The other half’s got to be around here some place.”
“When you find it, what the hell you going to do with it? Save it?”
“I think it was artillery.”
“Get the hell back down here, will you? Before you start tripping off wires or some other goddamn thing.”
I went on looking through the trees and the underbrush but I couldn’t find any more of the Chinaman, and then the column started up again and I fell in with the squad.
“Are you satisfied?” Decker said.
“I’d like to know the answer to that one.”
“The answer is, that Chink never had no legs. He never had no ass either. It’s the latest thing in Chink infantry. He’s probably following us right now.”
The image of hundreds, maybe thousands of assless, legless Chinese infantry gliding silently through the forest all around us was hilarious.
“You won’t laugh tonight when you wake up and find that no-ass Chinaman cutting off your balls.”
“Will you quit it?” I said. I wanted to stop the laughing but it was very difficult.
That year the corpses were everywhere. Under the trees, on the ridgelines, along the trails, in the paddies, in the thatched huts and in the houses with tiled roofs. At the beginning they were in the snow and on the ice. Later they were in the mud, the swollen creeks, in the irrigation ditches. At the end they were in the dirt in the hot summer sun covered with flies.
The first corpses were three Chinese machine-gunners in a shallow hole on a ridgeline. I paused in the cold afternoon wind and looked down at them. They were charred black, like barbecue left too long on the grate. Gray dirt blew across the top of the hole and settled on the blackened heads and hands. I snapped a picture with my Brownie Box and hustled on up the ridgeline to my place in the column.
One afternoon in a rainstorm we climbed up on a small plateau where the Chinese had slaughtered a battalion of English. The English had buried their dead where they had fallen. We stayed on the plateau three days and nights. The first couple days the rain-washed out the graves of the rotting English corpses. The third day it began to wash out the Chinese graves. The Chinese had had time to bury their corpses deeper than the English had. It’s nearly always better when you win.
I didn’t have the same interest in the American corpses as I did in the Chinese and Korean. The Chinese made a corpse out of O’Neill by shooting him through his radio backpack so that he fell face down in three inches of paddy water and drowned. They made a corpse out of Steubbens when they shot off his jaw with a fifty so that he bled to death on the side of the dirt road. He couldn’t have made it without the jaw anyhow. Doug Smith became a corpse one moonless night while he stood at my side on a narrow mountain ledge. A Chinese officer with a revolver in his left hand appeared out of the blackness like an apparition and Doug took a single bullet in his heart.
Those things were all right with me. I didn’t get angry about how the Chinese made corpses out of us. Fair’s fair is how I looked at it. We nearly all looked at it that way. We made more corpses out of them than they did of us. The night Doug fell across my feet with a single heavy groan I sat over him all night, and when dawn came and I saw how yellow his face had become I thought, “That’s all right. They turn pale and we turn yellow and that’s how it works.” But when they made Captain Grey into a corpse with four machine-gun bullets in his stomach my feelings about the corpses began to change and I didn’t look at them the way I had before. They became less interesting but more meaningful.
One afternoon when we relieved the Fifth Battalion along a mountain road there were the usual corpses. One Chinese who wasn’t a corpse yet but would be very soon was sitting against an embankment with part of the top of his skull off. A Mexican kid was sitting on the embankment above him, his legs dangling over the edge, poking a straw into the open place in the skull. Each time he poked with the straw the Chinese who was becoming a corpse moaned and shrugged his shoulders.
“Don’t do that again,” I said.
“Oh, man,” the kid said, “it’s a Chink.” He gave another poke with the straw and the Chinese who was almost a corpse moaned and shrugged its shoulders. I started up the embankment.
The kid jumped up. “Man, you crazy or what?”
“Leave him alone,” I said.
“It’s a goddamn Chink,” he said. “Can’t you understand?”
I put the muzzle of my M-1 in the ear of the soon-to-be corpse. The blast tore off the back of its head. I’d wanted it to go straight through but I hadn’t done it right.
“Ah, man,” the kid said quietly. “You make me feel bad.”
There were many things in Korea I did not do right and afterwards I found out that no matter where you are or what it is you are doing it’s always difficult to get it right but that that’s what the work is.
When I was a child my one ambition always was to go to war and be killed in battle. My great hero was Roland. I’d read the Song of Roland at nine or ten and couldn’t get over it. I never wanted to be a fireman or a scientist or President. I wanted to be a great hero like Roland and fight the enemy to a standstill and be killed at the moment of my greatest feat. I daydreamed about it for years. The being killed part was very important. The way I looked at it when I was a child and all the time I was growing up was that if you are not killed when you’re trying to do something then you aren’t trying very hard or what it is you’re trying isn’t very important.
After they brought me back to the States to the hospital I had time to think about what had happened to me over there and what had happened to the others. I thought about how I hadn’t tried to do anything heroic. Real life, it seemed, had thwarted my ambition. At moments of great danger I had looked to my survival and the rest of the time I’d tried to not be any more uncomfortable than was necessary. It was as if I had suffered a failure of imagination.
And then it wasn’t as if there had been something significant about the fighting. None of us thought that. It was a real war all right, but that’s all it was. It had no significance. If it had had some significance maybe a lot of us would have behaved differently. At that time, though, I didn’t understand how important significance is. I didn’t know anyone who did.
One morning in the ward at Camp Cook I was sitting cross-legged on my bed remembering, which is how I spent a lot of my time. At a certain moment without any preliminary consideration I stepped into my slippers and walked through the cold empty wooden corridors to the Post Exchange and bought a pencil and a fifteen-cent note pad and returned to the ward.
I got up on the bed again and began to write down how it had been that last day on line, the mountainside, the Chinese bunkers, the machineguns, the blasts of the hand grenades, the blood bubbling from the hand, the white bones gleaming wetly in the sunlight, how I sat beneath the tree looking through the pine needles for the missing finger which wasn’t actually missing, I found, but only hanging down while all around the air filled up with bullets and falling branches and all the yelling and the noise.
It didn’t come out like I wanted so the next day I sat at a card table in the little recreation room at the end of the ward with the fog off the ocean washing across the windows and wrote it out again. It didn’t come out that time either. No matter how many times I tried I couldn’t make it come out. But I started writing down what I couldn’t stop remembering all the time, especially the corpses and the two dreams I dreamed all the time, and the old childhood and the father. The usual stuff. None of it came out but it was becoming very important to keep trying to get it right. I wouldn’t have been able to say why.
The hospitals lasted eight months, then I was discharged from the army. I had no plans. I moved back into the front bedroom in my parents’ house in South Central Los Angeles. I hitchhiked to Mexico City and came back. I took a job loading trucks at a milk plant. I enrolled in a drawing class. When the milk plant laid me off I found work as a brakeman for the Southern Pacific Railroad. No matter what else I did or what job I had, when I got home I’d set up the card table in the bedroom doorway and try to get it down on paper, whatever it was. Sometimes I tried to invent things but it wasn’t easy to think up stuff I hadn’t actually seen. I felt like maybe I had already written what was important even if it hadn’t come out and I was half afraid there was nothing left to write and that it was pointless to keep on trying.
One night at the Southern Pacific yard I was riding an oil tanker I couldn’t brake and I had to jump off its running board just before it slammed into the rear of a train of empty boxcars. When I hit the ground I bruised the heel on my left foot and had to quit the railroad because for a long time I couldn’t walk without a cane. I took a job driving a Good Humor ice cream truck. There was a loudspeaker on the cab and a musical recording I could switch on to get the attention of the kids while I drove slowly up and down the streets in South Central. I didn’t mind the job. I didn’t mind anything, really, but oftentimes I felt there was something inside that was coming up, something I couldn’t see or figure out but something I wanted to know about.
I wrote the Consul of Viet Nam in San Francisco to ask about the procedure for enlisting in the Viet-Namese army. I didn’t have anything against the Viet Minh but I was willing to do what was necessary. I felt it was important to start doing something. The Consul replied that there was no procedure for accepting foreigners into the Viet-Namese military.
One empty Sunday afternoon I drove my parents’ car to Playa Del Rey and parked at the curbing there and rolled down all the windows and looked out over the sand and the blue ocean. A breeze was blowing off the water and it was a nice afternoon but I could feel it coming up and I didn’t know what it was or what I should do about it. I’d taken a couple paperback books with me and I decided to open the one by William Saroyan. The first story was called “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.” The young man in the story must have been about my age, and he was a writer. Nothing was important in his life except the writing. He lived alone in a rented room and wrote every day but couldn’t get any money for his stories. He couldn’t pay the rent and much of the time he didn’t have money for food.
One Saturday afternoon after he finished writing he went out walking. When he came to a cafe he stopped and looked in through the window. He looked at the people inside eating food, people who had ordinary jobs and earned ordinary salaries and could afford to eat food in cafes. The young writer knew he didn’t want to be like them but he couldn’t stop looking at their food and imagining he had some. He walked around the neighborhood looking in all the cafe windows. He was very hungry and very weak but he was happy because he was living the life of a writer and not the ordinary life of the others. He walked slowly and uncertainly back to his room and collapsed on his bed. He grew delirious with hunger. He had already been delirious with that other hunger, the hunger to be true to himself, and now his room began to whirl through his hunger delirium. It was a wonderful story. Then the young man died. I was stunned. The young man had starved himself to death on principle. He had died for his art. It had never occurred to me it was possible to do that. No one had told me that writing could be that important. To suffer, certainly, but to die for it? It was a decision the individual writer had to make for himself. You could take the writing as far as you wanted. If you wanted, you could take it all the way. I knew that was what I wanted. I had never thought about it but I recognized it the moment I saw it. I wanted to take the writing all the way. I wanted to risk death for it.
I hadn’t noticed how hard the wind had begun to blow. It was coming in off the top of the ocean across the sand and through the rolled-down windows of the car. I sat behind the wheel in a kind of elevated stupor, the pages of Saroyan’s open book whipping in my hand. Inside, it was coming up really strong but I sensed that whatever it was it was still a long way off. I sensed that I was at the beginning of something and I was right about that all right but that afternoon I had no idea how far off the real beginning still was.
It was a beautiful warm fall evening just before sunset and Pamela and I were living in the little second floor apartment on Grace Street in Hollywood. Pamela was in the kitchen cleaning up our supper dishes and I was lying on the bed reading the paper, though my mind was on other things, on how one part of my life was finished and I was starting over with a new life but how I couldn’t get started. I had closed down the bookstore and filed bankruptcy. The “Tropic of Cancer” trial was over. I had thrown my manuscripts in a dumpster in an alley off Hollywood Boulevard, everything I had written during the previous twelve years. I’d gotten rid of everything I could get rid of. I was ready to start over but I couldn’t start because even though I told myself I had gotten rid of everything there was something tremendous in my life still and it was crushing me from the inside.
So I wasn’t reading the paper to find out anything but just to use the time. After a while I saw something from the corner of my eye. There was a peculiar looking fox in the hallway. It had translucent glass eyes the size of tennis balls. There was the impression that until I noticed it, the fox was just moping around there. But then I noticed it and it really came alive. It leaped in through the doorway, jumped over the bed and sailed out the window toward the west. For a moment I was a little set back, then I got up, opened the window, put my head out and looked up then down the street toward Franklin. I didn’t expect to see anything unusual and of course I didn’t. I was perplexed but I was kind of laughing too. The light over the hills was golden and red and the evening air was moving softly through the trees and across my face. I went to the kitchen and told Pamela what I’d seen. I didn’t know how she would take it. She laughed, which pleased me. Then she said, “Well, Poopsy, you’ve lost everything else. Why not lose your marbles too?” Then she turned and put her arms around my neck. “Oh, I’m sorry, Honey. I really am. Does he want a little special attention? Tell Pammy what he needs. Come on, tell her.” For my part, it was very often my pleasure to tell Pamala what I needed.
The next day, it was a Saturday afternoon, and we were sitting on the bed listening to Vivaldi on the radio. Pamela was sewing a garter belt but I think I was just sitting there. Before Pamela I didn’t know who Vivaldi was. Since Pamela I haven’t known a woman who’s used garter belts. When I was a boy my father used calf garters to hold up his socks. It was considered very sophisticated on our block to do that. In the bedroom I was thinking I’d like to go out on the desert maybe and camp. Alone. Then I saw myself standing under a waterfall in ancient Greece. The image was crystal clear. I don’t know how I knew it was ancient Greece. No voice spoke to tell me what I was seeing. The setting was a simple rustic clearing in a forest. It was like an illustration in a 19th-century novel. Then I realized I’d seen the same image a moment before and had forgotten about it.
Suddenly I was very alert. I decided to go in the front room and sit down to the typewriter. I would describe what I had seen with as much detail as possible. Before I got to my chair the vision of the waterfall recurred so vividly that I knew I was in the presence of something extraordinary. I could hear the water pouring and roaring down. I somehow understood I could watch the waterfall or I could avoid watching it. It was up to me. I decided to watch. I felt I had an obligation to watch. I couldn’t have said why. I also didn’t know how. I got down on the floor so that if something happened I wouldn’t fall. I put my face in my hands.
At once I saw myself standing naked beneath the falling rushing water. My body glistened whitely. My head was thrown back, my arms outstretched, the palms of my hands turned upward. My hair was uncut, there was a yellow beard and long flowing mustaches. I was smiling rapturously and as the water poured through my outstretched arms I wanted to embrace it but I didn’t. In the vision I was waiting for something. I didn’t know what. I waited a long time and when nothing happened I saw myself walk away through the trees. When I reached a glen in the forest I turned and peered back through the undergrowth. At the foot of the waterfall I saw a pool that hadn’t been there before. There was nothing unusual about the pool, yet at the sight of it, from where I lay on the floor, the blood drained from my head.
In the scene I forced myself to go back to the pool. The water was dark. But I realized that something was in there and if I wanted to know what it was I would have to go down into the darkness. In the apartment, the body began to tremble. I decided I was going to have to get out of the scene because something terrible was about to happen and at that instant I saw myself jump up and start searching through the leaves under the trees. I found a piece of rope, tied one end of it around a rock and the other to my ankle and threw the rock into the pool. It was like a scene from a Buster Keaton movie. The weight of the rock on the rope jerked me over into the water but just before I went under I grabbed a ledge that projected out over the pool and held on for all I was worth. Then I felt ashamed of the fear and I let go. I watched myself sink down through the dark water, my long golden hair trailing up behind me. In only a moment I was on the bottom of the pool. I could hardly believe how easy it had been once I’d let go. I was standing on a floor of clean white sand. The walls of the well were made of blocks of mortared stone. I looked around and waited but nothing happened. I was at a dead end. I was going to have to do something more, make an additional effort, but I didn’t know what. I saw myself scratch my head.
In the apartment I rolled over on my back. I could hear the radio playing in the bedroom. I supposed Pamela was still sitting on the edge of the bed sewing. The announcer was saying that the next recording we would hear would be a Somali corn chant. Out on the street a car shifted into low gear to climb the hill. Down in the court a water spigot was turned on. Then, in the well, right at my feet, I saw a movement in the sand. It was a hole the size a rat might use and sand was slipping down it. Seeing the sand go down the hole frightened me. There was a danger that I would slip down the hole myself. There was something underneath the bottom of the pool and now I understood I had to go down there too. A chair appeared on the sand and I sat on it, gripped the edges of the seat with both hands and braced my feet against the sand. I wasn’t going anywhere if I could help it. The hole grew larger and more sand poured down it. The hole began to whirl furiously and move toward my feet. The whole bottom of the pool was going to fall through. I sprang up from the chair toward the top of the pool but at that instant a hand reached out of the hole and grabbed my ankle. The hand was black and horny and immensely strong. An inkling of an idea crossed my mind that at the last moment, just before the hand destroyed me, I would be able to turn myself into stone or change my form but the fear was so strong that I sat up on the rug and I heard myself moan. I was aware of Pamela appearing in the doorway, pausing, then going on to the kitchen. I didn’t want her to see me lying on the floor again so I got up and sat in the red canvas chair. Outside the window a blue jay hopped along the top of a concrete block retaining wall.
Then there was an explosion in the room and the monster emerged from its hole into full view in the apartment. It was a tree with the top of its trunk blasted off. It had eyes in its flabby bark and a crown of bushy white hair. It threw its arms around me then, and when I felt its body all full of knots and twigs pressing against my flesh I swooned with terror and revulsion. I felt relieved too and utterly lost and it was as if I went out of my body and was no longer in the apartment. The tree demon transformed itself into a giant reptile that held me to its breast with stumpy, leathery arms. Its rear legs, churning in circles, clawed out my heart, entrails and genitals. Its claws shredded my thighs and I saw the femur bones glistening and white. Then the great lizard fell over backward, still clutching my body, down through the hole in the bottom of the pool into a murky darkness.
There, everything was calm. The giant lizard was gone and I was whole again. I was alone on the bottom of the sea. In the darkness my body was chalk white. Sea foliage swayed in the dark current. Eels and snakes rubbed their lengths along my back and chest, nosed into my armpits. I smiled at their antics. I was sitting on a rock, my hands clasped, my elbows on my knees, waiting, but nothing happened. I waited a long time. I peered through the darkness anxiously. In the distance I saw a cliff appear. While I watched, two caves appeared high in the face of the cliff. I understood immediately. What I had thought I would find at the bottom of the pool was now up in the cliff in one of the caves. But I was exhausted. I didn’t want any more. In the apartment, pains were shooting up through my neck into the back of the head.
Sunday afternoon we drove out to South Central to have dinner with my folks, then returned to the apartment. Toward midnight Pamela was in bed and I was sitting on the couch in the living room thinking about why it was so impossible for me to write. After a while I heard a man’s voice mutter, “You are a stupid and cowardly man.” I looked around the room but no one was there. I knew nobody was there. I didn’t believe what the voice said, either, but it pleased me that I’d heard it. I started pacing around the room. I sensed that maybe something incredible was going to happen. I looked at the clock. In ten minutes it would be midnight.
From the bedroom I heard Pamela ask if something was wrong. I said no. Out the window I saw a dawn breaking over the edge of a dark forest. On the horizon an observation balloon was moving back and forth over the trees. It was searching for something. I realized it was searching for me. I suddenly turned cold, my skin prickled, and then I couldn’t see the balloon any longer. I went to the front door, opened it and looked out. It was very dark.
From the bedroom I heard Pamela ask if I were going out.
“No, no,” I said. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“Will you stop mumbling then? It makes me think there’s an animal in the house.”
Monday morning I got up quietly, heated water for coffee, and mixed a can of frozen orange juice. I put something by Bach on the record player, then recalled that the machine was broken. It hadn’t worked for weeks. I put juice and coffee on Pamela’s night table and sat on the edge of the bed. She stretched luxuriantly. Her breasts were full and shiny.
“Well, el estupido,” she said grinning. “Do you have something against music?”
“Oh. I forgot about the radio.” I got up in a way that prevented her seeing the front of my pajama trousers. I dialed the radio to some classical music I didn’t recognize. I had an erection but I didn’t want it. I always had an erection and sometimes it was a pain in the ass.
“What’s the matter?” Pamela said. “Why are you hunched over like that?” She was grinning.
I sat down on the bed. “Like what?” I said.
“Ah, Honey,” Pamela said. She held her open arms out to me. “Come here, Sweetie. Huh? Come on.”
“Just a minute,” I said. I went in the living room as if I had something to do there. After a while I heard Pamela get out of bed and open a dresser drawer. When Pamela left for work I packed my suitcase, filled a cardboard box with books and the new manuscript and locked the typewriter in its case. Pamela’s car keys were on the dresser. I took them and five minutes later I was driving up Highland Avenue and onto the Hollywood Freeway going north. I didn’t know where I was going or what I would do when I got there. Just before dark I parked at a roadhouse on 395 in the Sierra Nevada overlooking Mono Lake. There in the cold darkening air I watched half a dozen wild horses far below on the dry lake bed, loping easily across the barren moonscape. Then I spied my bones heaped up in a wheelbarrow in one of the graveled parking spaces. They filled it half full and thought easily calculated their weight at thirty-four pounds. Piled up there in the cold, they were cracking and popping. Dogs had snatched a few and buried them. At one time the skull had been on top of the heap, but now it had fallen down to one side.
A week later I was working the night shift in Harrah’s Casino at Lake Tahoe. The first morning walking back to my cabin I saw the sky laden with the first clouds of autumn. I had failed at business, failed at marriage, at writing. I had failed in some way peculiar to myself and now, while I didn’t know what was happening with me or how much more I was going to have to see, I sensed I was about to find my subject as a writer. I was thirty-four years old and I had a pretty good idea about where the cliff with the caves and their terrible treasure really were and that at long last the journey was underway and that I would have to accept all that was going to happen now and everything I was going to see no matter what it was and not turn back because this was it.
That afternoon it rained hard and afterwards in the cabin while I lay on the bed in the dark I listened to the pine cones hitting the needle beds beneath the great dark trees.
It’s New Year’s Eve and I’ve spent the afternoon at the library in downtown Los Angeles reading Butz’s Hoax of the Twentieth Century and I feel as if I have been invaded by something tremendous. I am terribly charged and restless and crazily alert. I walk half-floatingly to where the car is parked and take the freeway to Hollywood, and when I get to the house I go straight to the kitchen cupboard and pour out about six ounces of Kaluha. That’s all there is or I’d make myself a real drink. Alicia is going to Tijuana, then on down to Rosarito for New Year’s, so I drive her back downtown to the Greyhound bus station. We’re only a few blocks from the library where I’d been reading Butz an hour ago. We miss her bus so we walk to Cole’s restaurant on East 6th and sit at the bar where my father used to drink back in the 1920s, and even before that I think, and where he used to eat in the little back room. I lift a couple rum and cokes and because Alicia doesn’t drink I lift a couple for her. I want Alicia to lift a few herself and not go to Rosarito but I won’t say so and I know she won’t do it even if I do say it so why say it? The time will come. I find it very exciting to be there with her. I’m begining to get crocked. I want to tell her about Butz and the Hoax but there’s no place to start with Alicia. I’d have to run down Western civ to prepare her for it.
What is so tremendous about Butz’s book for me isn’t that he takes a run at knocking down the gas-chamber stories but that what he has done is being kept secret by the professors and all the intellectuals who are the ones who have always made so much of the story in the first place, and of course that’s the rub. I’m even more excited by Butz than I am by Alicia, by the slender beautiful shapes of her body and her beautiful smile and the warmth there is between us. Butz is nothing to look at, his picture is in his book, but at this moment if I had to choose between Butz and Alicia I’d choose Butz hands down. Usually a thrill is a thrill but there’s nothing to compare with the thrill of an idea when its time has come.
I see Alicia off at the Greyhound station, then take the freeway and Santa Monica Boulevard out to Barney’s Beanery where I buy a fifth of burgundy. I say “Hi” happily to a tall guy with a little Hitler mustache standing next to me and he says, “Don’t say hi to me. The last guy who said hi to me in this place was a fag.”
I know I’m a little drunk so maybe I didn’t hear him right so I start to say, “Well, I’m not …” but he breaks in on me.
“Listen,” he says. “I don’t want to talk to you. Do you understand? For all I know you’re a fag too. As a matter of fact, you look like a fag.”
If I were sober I think probably there would be a scene. I think a good shot right above his belt buckle would fold the sonofabitch in half but then what? It’s New Year’s Eve. I finish the bottle and drive back to the house and help Mother get from her wheelchair into bed. I don’t come close to dropping her but she wants to know what the hell I’ve been drinking. It’s too complicated so I don’t say anything. Once I have her settled in and the lights turned low the way she likes them I drive back to Barney’s and drink Irish coffees with a red-headed woman who likes country music because it doesn’t agitate her, which is something I have never thought about. When midnight is sounded she raises her face and her mouth to me to be kissed but something holds me back. I don’t know what it is. She’s good-looking, she’s alone, she likes me, it’s New Year’s Eve and there’s her face and mouth but I can’t commit myself and I realize my heart has gone south on a Greyhound bus so I give the redhead a little nudge on her cheek feeling guilty because for all I know I’m ruining her New Year’s Eve but that’s all I have for her.
After midnight the people are coming in from all over town. The redhead is gone and I’ve forgotten about Butz and the hoax of the twentieth century. I’ve forgotten almost everything. I drink a few more Irish coffees then sensibly switch to Guiness stout because after all I still have to drive back to the house. When the bar closes it takes me about forty-five minutes to find the truck, which makes me a little uneasy because I know Mother doesn’t like being alone at night and I should be there with her but I find it and make it back to the house without killing anyone or damaging any property and park in the drive and go in the front room and pull the foam pad from behind the couch and make my bed on the floor like I do every night. It isn’t easy. I take my clothes off and put on my caftan, knocking a few things off the card table on the way. I’m wondering if there’s a beer in the fridge or maybe a little port when I hear Mother call from the bedroom.
“Bradley,” she says, “what the hell are you doing in there?”
“I’m going to bed, Ma.”
“It sounds like you’re knocking the place down.”
“Nope. Just going to bed, Ma.”
“Do you hear those people out on the street?”
“I do hear them.”
“Do you hear what they’re saying? They’re talking about how they could set off a fire with those firecrackers. They sound like they’re drunk to me.”
“Yes. Drunk. Don’t you understand English?”
I go outside barefoot wearing my caftan, which I am very attached to because Jenny gave it to me while we were still together. I’m ready for anything. My will will be done. I should have taken time to put my shoes on because I know from experience it’s no good when you are making your will be done and the other guys all have shoes on and maybe even work boots and you’re in your rubber thongs. There are eight or ten of them, attractive, well-dressed men and women laughing and talking softly and setting off their fireworks. The colors are very beautiful and radiant in the black night air. There isn’t going to be any trouble. They’re my kind of people, the kind of crowd I was a part of when Jenny and I were together but that’s gone now. I feel drawn to these new people. They can be my friends. The first one I reach I grab and kiss. He doesn’t appear to care for it. I feel a little set back, but not much. I work my way through the crowd kissing everyone in turn until I embrace a small blond woman.
“Oh,” she gasps, “for a moment you startled me.” She smells wonderful. Didn’t she see me coming? I think she did and that she was waiting for me. She’s wearing a fur over her shoulders. The way she smells, the softness of the fur, her pettiness almost overwhelm me. I kiss her again, then once more with feeling. Then I notice she resembles someone I know. She’s my neighbor’s wife. He’s an actor. They live next door. We don’t really know each other. A moment before I felt unusually distracted. Now I experience a moment of great clarity. I walk back to the house and get under my sheet.
From the bedroom I hear Mother say, “What did they say?”
“They said not to worry, Ma.”
I’m thinking about the soft little blonde’s husband. He’s what out-of-work actors call a working actor. He makes commercials. He’s Jewish. If I hadn’t kissed his wife the second and especially the third time maybe I could have told him about Butz. Maybe we could have discussed the gas-chamber controversy. Now I don’t know.
Mother says: “It makes me nervous when people talk about setting the whole place on fire. I feel so helpless.”
“They were just joking, Ma.”
The room is moving clockwise and when I close my eyelids the yellow light goes on and off in the dark, on and off. Thought is moving slowly, languidly through the new memories of the Holocaust story and how something is wrong with it and how you are not supposed to say so and how someone has got to say it anyhow because the implications of what is wrong are so tremendous.
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