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Agrippa

by William Gibson


I hesitated before untying the bow that bound this book together. A black book: ALBUMS CA. AGRIPPA Order Extra Leaves By Letter and Name A Kodak album of time-burned black construction paper The string he tied Has been unravelled by years and the dry weather of trunks Like a lady's shoestring from the First World War Its metal ferrules eaten by oxygen Until they resemble cigarette-ash Inside the cover he inscribed something in soft graphite Now lost Then his name W.F. Gibson Jr. and something, comma, 1924 Then he glued his Kodak prints down And wrote under them In chalk-like white pencil: "Papa's saw mill, Aug. 1919." A flat-roofed shack Against a mountain ridge In the foreground are tumbled boards and offcuts He must have smelled the pitch, In August The sweet hot reek Of the electric saw Biting into decades Next the spaniel Moko "Moko 1919" Poses on small bench or table Before a backyard tree His coat is lustrous The grass needs cutting Beyond the tree, In eerie Kodak clarity, Are the summer backstairs of Wheeling, West Virginia Someone's left a wooden stepladder out "Aunt Fran and [obscured]" Although he isn't, this gent He has a "G" belt-buckle A lapel-device of Masonic origin A patent propelling-pencil A fountain-pen And the flowers they pose behind so solidly Are rooted in an upright length of whitewashed concrete sewer-pipe. Daddy had a horse named Dixie "Ford on Dixie 1917" A saddle-blanket marked with a single star Corduroy jodpurs A western saddle And a cloth cap Proud and happy As any boy could be "Arthur and Ford fishing 1919" Shot by an adult (Witness the steady hand that captures the wildflowers the shadows on their broad straw hats reflections of a split-rail fence) standing opposite them, on the far side of the pond, amid the snake-doctors and the mud, Kodak in hand, Ford Sr.? And "Moma July, 1919" strolls beside the pond, in white big city shoes, Purse tucked behind her, While either Ford or Arthur, still straw-hatted, approaches a canvas-topped touring car. "Moma and Mrs. Graham at fish hatchery 1919" Moma and Mrs. G. sit atop a graceful concrete arch. "Arthur on Dixie", likewise 1919, rather ill at ease. On the roof behind the barn, behind him, can be made out this cryptic mark: H.V.J.M.[?] "Papa's Mill 1919", my grandfather most regal amid a wrack of cut lumber, might as easily be the record of some later demolition, and His cotton sleeves are rolled to but not past the elbow, striped, with a white neckband for the attachment of a collar. Behind him stands a cone of sawdust some thirty feet in height. (How that feels to tumble down, or smells when it is wet) II. The mechanism: stamped black tin, Leatherette over cardboard, bits of boxwood, A lens The shutter falls Forever Dividing that from this. Now in high-ceiling bedrooms, unoccupied, unvisited, in the bottom drawers of veneered bureaus in cool chemical darkness curl commemorative montages of the country's World War dead, just as I myself discovered one other summer in an attic trunk, and beneath that every boy's best treasure of tarnished actual ammunition real little bits of war but also the mechanism itself. The blued finish of firearms is a process, controlled, derived from common rust, but there under so rare and uncommon a patina that many years untouched until I took it up and turning, entranced, down the unpainted stair, to the hallway where I swear I never heard the first shot. The copper-jacketed slug recovered from the bathroom's cardboard cylinder of Morton's Salt was undeformed save for the faint bright marks of lands and grooves so hot, stilled energy, it blistered my hand. The gun lay on the dusty carpet. Returning in utter awe I took it so carefully up That the second shot, equally unintended, notched the hardwood bannister and brought a strange bright smell of ancient sap to life in a beam of dusty sunlight. Absolutely alone in awareness of the mechanism. Like the first time you put your mouth on a woman. III. "Ice Gorge at Wheeling 1917" Iron bridge in the distance, Beyond it a city. Hotels where pimps went about their business on the sidewalks of a lost world. But the foreground is in focus, this corner of carpenter's Gothic, these backyards running down to the freeze. "Steamboat on Ohio River", its smoke foul and dark, its year unknown, beyond it the far bank overgrown with factories. "Our Wytheville House Sept. 1921" They have moved down from Wheeling and my father wears his city clothes. Main Street is unpaved and an electric streetlamp is slung high in the frame, centered above the tracked dust on a slack wire, suggesting the way it might pitch in a strong wind, the shadows that might throw. The house is heavy, unattractive, sheathed in stucco, not native to the region. My grandfather, who sold supplies to contractors, was prone to modern materials, which he used with wholesaler's enthusiasm. In 1921 he replaced the section of brick sidewalk in front of his house with the broad smooth slab of poured concrete, signing this improvement with a flourish, "W.F. Gibson 1921". He believed in concrete and plywood particularly. Seventy years later his signature remains, the slab floating perfectly level and charmless between mossy stretches of sweet uneven brick that knew the iron shoes of Yankee horses. "Mama Jan. 1922" has come out to sweep the concrete with a broom. Her boots are fastened with buttons requiring a special instrument. Ice gorge again, the Ohio, 1917. The mechanism closes. A torn clipping offers a 1957 DeSOTO FIREDOME, 4-door Sedan, torqueflite radio, heater and power steering and brakes, new w.s.w. premium tires. One owner. $1,595. IV He made it to the age of torqueflite radio but not much past that, and never in that town. That was mine to know, Main Street lined with Rocket Eighty-eights, the dimestore floored with wooden planks pies under plastic in the Soda Shop, and the mystery untold, the other thing, sensed in the creaking of a sign after midnight when nobody else was there. In the talc-fine dust beneath the platform of the Norfolk & Western lay indian-head pennies undisturbed since the dawn of man. In the banks and courthouse, a fossil time prevailed, limestone centuries. When I went up to Toronto in the draft, my Local Board was there on Main Street, above a store that bought and sold pistols. I'd once traded that man a derringer for a Walther P-38. The pistols were in the window behind an amber roller-blind like sunglasses. I was seventeen or so but basically I guess you just had to be a white boy. I'd hike out to a shale pit and run ten dollars worth of 9mm through it, so worn you hardly had to pull the trigger. Bored, tried shooting down into a distant stream but one of them came back at me off a round of river rock clipping walnut twigs from a branch two feet above my head. So that I remembered the mechanism. V. In the all night bus station they sold scrambled eggs to state troopers the long skinny clasp-knives called fruit knives which were pearl handled watermelon-slicers and hillbilly novelties in brown varnished wood which were made in Japan. First I'd be sent there at night only if Mom's carton of Camels ran out, but gradually I came to value the submarine light, the alien reek of the long human haul, the strangers straight down from Port Authority headed for Nashville, Memphis, Miami. Sometimes the Sheriff watched them get off making sure they got back on. When the colored restroom was no longer required they knocked open the cinderblock and extended the magazine rack to new dimensions, a cool fluorescent cave of dreams smelling faintly and forever of disinfectant, perhaps as well of the travelled fears of those dark uncounted others who, moving as though contours of hot iron, were made thus to dance or not to dance as the law saw fit. There it was that I was marked out as a writer, having discovered in that alcove copies of certain magazines esoteric and precious, and, yes, I knew then, knew utterly, the deal done in my heart forever, though how I knew not, nor ever have. Walking home through all the streets unmoving so quiet I could hear the timers of the traffic lights a block away: the mechanism. Nobody else, just the silence spreading out to where the long trucks groaned on the highway their vast brute souls in want. VI. There must have been a true last time I saw the station but I don't remember I remember the stiff black horsehide coat gift in Tucson of a kid named Natkin I remember the cold I remember the Army duffle that was lost and the black man in Buffalo trying to sell me a fine diamond ring, and in the coffee shop in Washington I'd eavesdropped on a man wearing a black tie embroidered with red roses that I have looked for ever since. They must have asked me something at the border I was admitted somehow and behind me swung the stamped tin shutter across the very sky and I went free to find myself mazed in Victorian brick amid sweet tea with milk and smoke from a cigarette called a Black Cat and every unknown brand of chocolate and girls with blunt-cut bangs not even Americans looking down from high narrow windows on the melting snow of the city undreamed and on the revealed grace of the mechanism, no round trip. They tore down the bus station there's chainlink there no buses stop at all and I'm walking through Chiyoda-ku in a typhoon the fine rain horizontal umbrella everted in the storm's Pacific breath tonight red lanterns are battered, laughing, in the mechanism.