Martin and John

Martin and John

by Dale Peck


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Dale Peck’s debut is a tour de force in which Martin and John find each other again and again: in a trailer park, a high-end jewelry store, a Kansas barn, and later, in New York City, living under the shadow of the AIDS epidemic. Though their names remain the same, their identities are constantly shifting, creating a fractured view of loss and desire in the early years of the AIDS crisis. Vaulting through self and history,

Martin and John is one of the most remarkable novels to emerge from an America ravaged by disease, and one of the finest and most complex love stories of the ’90s. Martin and John is the first volume of Gospel Harmonies, a series of seven stand-alone books (four have been written) which follow the character of John as he attempts to navigate the uneasy relationship between the self and the postmodern world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781616954840
Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 02/10/2015
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 2.10(d)

About the Author

Dale Peck is the author of twelve books in a variety of genres, including Martin and John, Hatchet Jobs, and Sprout. His fiction and criticism have earned him two O. Henry Awards, a Pushcart Prize, a Lambda Literary Award, and a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship. He lives in New York City, where he teaches in the New School’s Graduate Writing Program.

Read an Excerpt

Here is this baby

“Here is this baby, crying in my arms, and don’t he know just when to stop? He’s been crying all day, and not just in my arms. I’m a busy woman, can’t be carrying a baby around all day, and this house don’t clean itself, I’ll tell you that much. And it don’t matter if I hold him, or lay him in his crib in our room, which is quiet during the day, or put him in front of the TV—it don’t matter, he still cries. And I’ll tell you this too: there isn’t a woman I know can listen to her own baby cry for eight hours straight and not pick it up once in a while, and not get mad sometimes, and have to bite her lip to keep from yelling, and not think maybe something besides this ninety-degree heat and hundred-degree humidity is wrong. So I made the mistake of calling his father. And don’t you just know Henry? First of all he said, ‘Bea, I told you not to bother me at work.’ And then he told me, ‘Ain’t nothing wrong with John. Ain’t nothing wrong with my son.’ I tell you, sometimes it’s not too much to believe that when they cut the cord off me they attached it to him. But what’s the use in thinking like that?
       “Well, listen, I put a wet cloth on John’s head, and he pulled the end of it into his mouth and sucked on it for a little bit, and that seemed to help. But I have to tell you that he didn’t really stop crying until just now, until the car door slammed in the driveway, until the storm door slammed in the other room. And I’m not saying that John heard this, and I’m not saying  he understood it either, but I’ll be damned if he’s not shutting up at just the right time, lying in my arms with his eyes wide open and innocent like he hasn’t done a thing, and don’t he just know who’s going to get it now?

Blue wet-paint columns

This is not the worst thing I remember: coming home from school one day to find my mother in a chair, collapsed. Her skin was the color of wet ashes, her head sat like a stone on her right shoulder, and a damp bloody mass pushed at her crotch, staining a maroon patch of darkness on sky-blue pants. Her legs were spread wide, and more blood, pooling on the yellow vinyl of the chair, showed up like the red speck in a spoiled egg yolk. Her arms were open too, and rested on the chair arms, and she seemed both empty and full, like a tube of toothpaste squeezed from the middle. When I walked into the room, I was ten years old, and the sound her blood made as it dropped to the floor filled my ears. Is she still alive? I remember thinking, and then, when I noticed the slow, small movements of her chest, I thought, She still isn’t dead. I ran into the living room then, where I called my father, and I waited for him on the couch, shivering. Not seeing her was worse than seeing her, for I imagined her, imagined the mound that had been building in her abdomen for months. It had grown even as the rest of her body had shrunk, until she seemed nothing more than a skeleton covered by the thin fabric of clothing and skin. Just a skeleton, and that hard mound at her center, which my father sometimes ran his hands over as though testing a melon for ripeness. For years I saw that melon drop from my mother’s body again and again, pushing at the seam of her pants in a mess of blood and guts and lost life. Not the baby’s—my mother’s.

THIS STORY STARTED before I was aware of it. Though two people were in a position to tell it, they were both, I believe, unable to speak. How could my mother, a housewife who remembered her high school graduation as a severe bout of morning sickness, sit me on her lap and say, “John, your father is killing me,” when speaking would reveal at least some level of complicity on her part? And how could my father, a construction worker who lucked into a lot of money when he opened his own company, sit me down and say, “John, all we can do is wait for her to die,” when he knew it was his fault she was dying? So no one said anything—I wasn’t even told my mother had miscarried, and no attempt was made to explain why I’d found her sitting in her own blood. In time my father referred to it as if I knew what had happened. “When your mother lost the baby,” he’d say, as if she’d set it down, forgotten where. Other things were set down with that baby, forgotten, and one of them was the woman who bore it: my mother, whose black-and-white past was obliterated by that technicolor moment in the kitchen. A too-bright image superimposed itself on a dark one and only occasionally could a piece of that hidden picture reveal itself.
       Over time I learned that my mother’s miscarriage was the product of a muscle disorder that lay dormant for years, waiting for something like the strain of bearing a baby to flare up. Someone once told me she’d been ill after my birth, but when I asked my father about it he only said, “You got out of the hospital before she did.” Now, looking back, this and a half dozen other signals pop up like road signs pointing to her illness. She was always dropping things: glasses held in both her hands still managed to slip to the floor, and forkfuls of food spilled to her lap on the way to her mouth. If she was tired this got worse, and sometimes, late at night, her speech became slurred, though she never drank with my father. When she got pregnant, her deterioration accelerated. My father joked it off: “Rosemary,” he’d say—her name was Beatrice—“and her baby,” and on the last word he’d rub the mound of her stomach. My mother never laughed at this, I noticed at once, but it took me a while to see that my father didn’t either. She’d turn back to what she was doing, cooking dinner maybe, or copying a recipe from a magazine. Years later, a flip through her card file revealed the definite progression of her disease: her handwriting started out smooth and rolling, and then in the years just before she miscarried it began to jumble about frantically like the lines of an EKG. And then gradually, inevitably, it became as flat as stagnant water.
       In a way, all I know now is all I knew then: that she suffered from a progressive muscle disorder which destroyed her motor control and left her a quadriplegic, unable to walk or speak or hold her head up; this disease actually killed her when she was forty-four years old, but for the last twelve years of her life she was in a facility on the eastern edge of Long Island, a hospice, while my father and I lived fifteen hundred miles away in Kansas, and it often seems like she died when she was only thirty-two. She was twenty-nine when she came home from the hospital for the first time, in a wheelchair. This eventually gave way to a whining electric one, but at the time she was too weak to work a joystick and had to be pushed around by my father. When I heard the car in the driveway that day, my first impulse was to hide, but I forced myself into the living room just as the front door slammed open. All I saw was my father’s shadowy form, huge, hulking, framed by lateafternoon light, leaning over my mother. At first I thought she’d fallen, but then I realized she was sitting, and then I realized she sat in a wheelchair. Her body was displayed as it had been in the kitchen chair—legs wide, spine bent, head on one shoulder—but it seemed this time she was huddling in fear, not collapsed from weakness. Then my father stood up—he’d had to lean over her to push open the door—and the light brought out concern in his face, and fear, which he tried to smile away. “Look, Mom,” he said, “it’s John.” My mother’s head raised slowly, as if an invisible fisherman had hooked her forehead and was reeling in carefully so as not to tear the skin. She smiled and breathed a greeting so quietly that I didn’t hear it. I wish now that I’d pressed my ear against her, listening as though for a heartbeat. There were so few words afterward that I curse myself now for each one I missed while I hid in my room. But I was frightened, both by her new emaciated state, and by my father. It’s not that he threatened me, or forced me away—not physically anyway—but I could never overcome the eager, easy way he expressed his concern for her. It made me feel cold, inhuman.
       He visited her every day in the hospital; I never went. When she came home he began to work out of our house, and he cared for her alone. He’d bring her in the living room when he watched TV and hold her body while she slept or stared blankly at the wall. And I’ll never forget the way he ran to the kitchen the day I found her, tripping over things like a blind man. He stood in the door for a long time. I don’t think he noticed me—he stared only at her. Then, as if he’d fallen, he was on his knees before her, arms thrown around her waist, pants and shirtfront soiled with her blood. His sobs shook the air in the room, though they didn’t rouse her, and he kept repeating, “Oh, Bea, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” He repeated it so many times that even at ten years old I realized his apology might hold a deeper meaning, a message he directed to me as much as to my mother: he told her he was sorry, but he looked at me when he spoke, and if grief was what poured, no shone, from him with the intensity of light, then guilt—visible, visceral, unavoidable guilt—was the sun from which this other emotion radiated. Grief was the white line that ringed each pupil of my father’s wide eyes, but guilt was the dark hole that burned at their centers, and the sight of it scared me so much that I closed my eyes and curled my body into a ball, refusing to open them until long after the first of two ambulances that came for my mother during her lifetime had taken her away. When it had gone, my father put my curled-up form to bed. His breathing filled the room for a few moments after he’d set me down and then, after I heard the door close behind him, the room—and the house— seemed as quiet as the bottom of the ocean.
       And this is where everything starts, at least for me. But for my parents, I now realize, things began long before. I know because of our leather recliner. In my memory my mother is always sitting—in the kitchen chair, in her wheelchair, in my father’s recliner, where he held her when he watched TV. On the day I’m remembering, my mother sits in it alone, stiff, her hand in the air holding a lit cigarette. Her cheeks seem gaunt, her hair flat and stringy, and when she says she needs to tell me something and asks me to sit on her lap I don’t want to, I want to avoid her, the way children avoid sick people. But I go to her anyway. “You remember how we talked about having a baby brother or sister one day?” my mother says as I settle myself. And then, without waiting for an answer, she says, “I went to the doctor today. He told me I can’t have another baby.” She sucks on her cigarette, puts it out. The ashtray is full, and she has to push the butts out of the way before she can grind this one out. “It wouldn’t be good for me, he said. I could get sick, real sick.” I listen to her but don’t know what to think. Her breath smells bad, her legs feel hard—bony—beneath me. I wait for her to say something that will tell me how to feel but she just sets me down suddenly, takes the ashtray to the kitchen, empties and washes it, and then she makes me a sandwich. “Don’t worry about it,” she tells me while I eat. “Your father and I will worry about it.” That night, all night, they argue. “But we want a big family,” my father says again and again. “That doesn’t matter now,” my mother answers each time, but each time her voice is quieter, weaker, until finally it doesn’t come at all. Then there is just my father’s voice. “We want a big family,” he says one last time, and then he says, “Come on, let’s go to bed.” And in the present tense that is childhood—or, at any rate, that was my childhood—I didn’t connect those words with the ones my mother had spoken that afternoon, just as, months later, I wouldn’t connect them to my mother in the kitchen chair. I simply heard my parents arguing, and all I wanted was for them to stop. I didn’t care how they stopped, and I didn’t care why, and I certainly didn’t care what happened after they went to bed.

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