A family recipe, a childhood memory, a Depression-era handout
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Bobo was wrestling with a devil. Every night he woke in a sweat, still feeling the tight hands on him. The devil had bad breath. He hung out in the entrance to Boo-Boo House, their “organic communal experiment,” and gave out jewels that dissolved or exploded. He gave out poisoned fruit, luscious-looking stuff. Bobo, pushed beyond endurance, would punch the devil in the nose, then start wrestling with him. In alternate scenes they would meet on the bus; the devil would be stopping up the toilet with paper towels, and Bobo would wrestle him. The devil would be painting fake galaxies in demise on the lenses of telescopes, or pissing in the milk. Sometimes Bobo didn’t remember the dream at all, just woke with the sweat of the latest round on him, and the close lingering of the devil’s bad breath. Really bad breath.
Bobo was pretty sure he was cracking up.
He was living and sleeping in the treehouse now. He hardly ever left it. Tommie visited him regularly during the day, brought him peanut butter and rye crackers and crisp kosher dills, apricot juice, newspapers, magazines. He was worried about Bobo, who was not shaving or bathing. Bobo smelled like Tarzan, then like Cheetah. Tommie watched his friend going, little by little, nuts.
“Why are you staying in the treehouse?” he asked Bobo.
“Because it’s the only place in the world I can do no harm,” Bobo told him.
This was not true, of course. It was all playing hell with Tommie, who had seen other communal experiments fail. He had spent almost ten years in The World’s Last Moment, an apocalyptic community premised on the imminent end of the world; but at least the WLM, as they had come to call it, had been crazy from the first and made no bones about it. Bobo, on the other hand, had started with a healthier vision, and only recently lost it. It was terrible to watch a friend lose it.
He talked about it with June, who was also suffering Bobo’s crisis intensely. The two of them worked in the garden where, ironically enough, the first successful squash crop in Boo-Boo House history was just coming ripe. June had been sending short notes along to the treehouse every day with Tommie. How are you? What’s happening? Is everything okay? Bobo would ignore them, or send back cryptic quotes and snippets:
The smallest initial deviation from the truth is multiplied later a thousand-fold; what was small at the start turns out a giant at the end.
— Aristotle, On the Heavens, I, v, 271b, 8
The smallest initial deviation from the truth is multiplied later a thousand-fold; what was small at the start turns out a giant at the end.
— Aristotle, On the Heavens, I, v, 271b, 8
Mehr Licht! Mehr Licht!
Mehr Licht! Mehr Licht!
He was obviously reading Ecclesiastes, and he sent June verse after verse, written in the margins of pages torn from Time magazine: “For what hath man of all his labor, and of the vexation of his heart, wherein he hath labored under the sun?” Bobo had underlined this, circled it, then circled it in red.
“Well,” June said reasonably at last, after they had gone over it and over it, “I suppose he’s entitled to a nervous breakdown after all these years.” She picked one of the plump yellow squash and held it up for Tommie’s inspection. He made an A-OK sign, and they smiled at each other. June put the squash in the basket, and they moved on down the row. Little carrots were poking their tops up, and they picked these, too.
He was entitled to it. He had earned it, he had worked for it. He had buried two suicides and a drug overdose among his friends since starting Boo-Boo House in the late sixties. He had buried eight dogs, including Fratzie, his favorite. He had buried what was left of Ecstasy the cat after a brief cult explosion at the house had used her as a blood sacrifice. He had seen the high idealism of the communal beginnings buffeted and warped by drugs, delusion, ego, and the severity of history.
Vanity of vanities, Bobo told himself. All is vanity.
The devil began to take liberties with him. Bobo started to see him in the daytime. Dreams were one thing, daytime was another. One day Tommie climbed up the rope ladder and sat with Bobo a while. He had brought Swiss cheese and sesame crackers and a beer for Bobo. It was an exotic German beer; Reary had once bought three cases on sale. No one liked it. As the two of them sat in the treehouse, Bobo saw a flash out of the corner of his eye.
“Did you see that?” he asked Tommie.
Tommie looked at him carefully. Bobo looked like Ernest, the founder of The World’s Last Moment: deep-eyed and driven, filthy, preoccupied. “See what?”
“Uh, nothing,” Bobo said. He suspected it was the devil. He determined to hold it together for his friend’s sake. He sipped the beer and made a face. “Ugh, this is awful.”
Tommie looked reassured. Nobody liked that beer; it was a Boo-Boo House tradition.
When Tommie left, Bobo checked the whole treehouse carefully. Nothing.
“Okay,” Bobo told himself. “Hang on.”
Reary went over to the treehouse the next day, intending to cheer Bobo up, and found that Bobo had taken in the rope ladder. Reary circled the tree several times like a stymied hunting dog, then knocked on the trunk. “Hello?”
Bobo’s head appeared above him. His hair was sticking straight out, his grizzled growth of beard was laced with gray. “Eh?”
“How are you, Bobo?” Reary said.
“Fine,” Bobo said.
Reary nodded. There was a silence.
“ ‘Fine’?” Reary asked at last.
“Just fine, yeah,” Bobo said.
Another silence followed.
“Uh, anything I can get for you?”
“Not a thing,” Bobo said. “Vanity of vanities.”
Again, a silence.
“Hmm,” Reary said. “Well, see ya, then.”
“See ya,” Bobo said, and withdrew his head.
The funny thing was, life at Boo-Boo House went on without its founder quite well. Bobo kept to himself and accepted crackers and such from Tommie. He was losing weight; there would come a day when they would be able to joke about the Treehouse Diet Plan. Meanwhile, the rest of them went on with their lives. Reary and Will, seized by inspiration one rainy Saturday, went into a cleaning frenzy in the basement, and the fever spread inexplicably throughout the house, and on into the week. The place began to shape up in unexpected ways. They bought all new mattresses, which they had been meaning to do for years. They bought new sheets, and new pillows, and new pillowcases. Over the course of another incredible weekend June and Debbie and Tommie and Reary and Will removed all the old wine-stained, beer-stained, semen-stained, blood-stained, puke-stained mattresses and mats and pads that people had slept on since the sixties. They hauled them out in the yard and made a big heap. It was June’s plan to take them to the dump, but Reary, with his penchant for the archetypal, set fire to them and began to dance around the flames.
It was a fantastic blaze. It burned for hours, and while it burned, and Reary danced, the rest of them, inspired, hauled the jetsam from decades of communal living out of the bedrooms in cardboard boxes and paper bags, and added it to the flames: the old newspapers and magazines and unpaired shoes, the broken clocks and handle-less hairbrushes and very old articles of very ugly clothing with mildew, and all the debris that had simply sat as part of a cluttered landscape of unconscious accumulation for years. It burned for days.
When the bedrooms were emptied and cleaned out, they painted them: painted over the graffiti and scrawls and lewd pictures and lewder sketches and bad limericks and tick-tack-toe games, the koans and mandalas and cartoons, the self-portraits and caricatures and prayers, the obscenities, the jokes, all the graphic history of the place: submerged it in fresh paint.
June lingered at one point, paint roller in hand, over a particular section of wall near the window in what they had always called the Alphabet Soup Room. It was so named because a hippie artist called Jeb, of dubious inspiration but unquestioned calligraphic skill, had during the course of several months in 1971 drawn exquisite Gothic letters along the wall in all the colors of the rainbow. He had moved on, as most everyone did, but his legacy lingered. Over the years, people had begun to use the letters as seeds of a sort of grand crossword puzzle, completing words and linking them up in every possible direction. This had been easy in the early stages of the wall, as almost any word would do, but as the wallscape began to fill with words it became harder and harder to connect the various configurations in a meaningful way. Holes developed, obvious ongoing gaps where no word fit. It became a scrabble player’s nightmare.
The spot where June stopped was one that had bothered her for years. When she had first arrived at Boo-Boo House in 1975, she filled in a lot of the space around it with various words resonant for her at the time: Freedom, Sex, Mozart. In fact, she had done almost the entire section, so that when it reached its inevitable wordjam she had felt personally responsible. Her old words, gridlocked, stared up at her. During a legendary bad time at the House in the late seventies, she had even taken to coming to the spot with a magic marker, in a benign frenzy of cabalistic long shot wishful thinking: if only she could find the word that linked the words, and weave them all together into some inspired collage of acrostic wisdom, all would be well. But it was no use; it just got denser and more impossible.
Now she got a sweet shock. Suddenly all the letters on the wall seemed like musical notes. But more: the music worked. She looked at it, and sounded the notes to herself softly, la la la, do la do la. The melody was clean and sweet, if a little angular and modernistic. But there it was. The old words were clumped in heavier chords, givens; odd letters floated here and there, capering notes that gave the thing a playful melodic line.
She understood that it was a brief mystical experience. She was appropriately grateful, but she kept her head. She dipped the roller in the paint and applied an even coat, back and forth, until the thing was gone and the wall was the cleanest primer white.
So the place shaped up in spite of the crisis. A tremendous amount of junk got thrown out. The squash crop came in. Bobo wrestled with the devil. And, in the midst of all these varieties of redemptive activity, Commeldia Egret showed up, looking for the Derling Whirvishes. As luck would have it, the first person she ran into was Will, who had kept his sense of humor.
“The what?” Will asked.
“The Derling Whirvishes,” Commeldia Egret said, in her astounding West Virginia accent. “Ah’m looking for the Derling Whirvish religion.”
“No kidding,” Will said.
Egret showed him the rumpled mimeographed flyer, Boo-Boo House, circa 1967, proclaiming the establishment of a new psychedelic religion based upon peace, love, freedom, and the true teachings of all the world’s religions as actually meant by their founders. It was hard to decide which survival was more unlikely: that cheap piece of paper, or Boo-Boo House itself. The Whirvish religion had not survived the autumn after the Summer of Love. Will held the mangled pamphlet in his hands, awed. He himself had not come to Boo-Boo House until 1981.
“Well,” he said, “you came to the right place, all right.”
“Great,” Egret said, as if she had expected no less. She set her backpack down. They were standing in the garden. Will was holding a basket of ripe squash. They had been eating fried squash and squash soup and squash with little tiny carrots. They had tried squash pudding. They had eaten squash with succotash. The first successful squash crop in Boo-Boo House history! The mind reeled.
“Do you want some squash?” Will asked Egret now.
She shook her head. “Are you a Derling Whirvish?”
She was so innocent. It was heart-rending. Will’s heart rent. He shook his head, but an idea was shaping in his mind. Maybe it was seeing that flyer, and having a flash of the immensity of its round trip. Maybe it was the squash crop coming in, a basket of ripened produce in his hands, unprecedented. Maybe it was Egret herself, with her freckles and her accent and her pilgrim’s backpack, so fervently in search of the highest and the best. Who knows where inspiration comes from? Whatever it was, Will stood for a long moment in the placid grip of awe, and then said, “No, no, I’m not a Whirvish. But I know where one is.”
“Where?” Egret said.
Will hesitated. As a young boy he had a chemistry set. One day, in the grip of a similar inspiration, he had mixed two volatile substances together, and produced a gas that had changed the color of his eyebrows and sent him into a three-day sneezing fit.
And yet — this was life on the edge. One lived and learned.
“Is it hard to find?” Egret prompted, a little anxiously.
“Oh no,” Will said. “Not at all. It’s easy!” He pointed, beyond the house and beyond the garden, past the old posts of the failed vineyard, and just beyond the pond, to the big funky oak. “It’s right over there, in fact. First treehouse to your left.”
Bobo and the devil had reached a sort of impasse. Bobo had concluded that he was struggling with the symbolic embodiment of his own sense of unfinished, failed, or otherwise incomplete situations. The “devil” was the reverberation in his unconscious of twenty-seven failed squash crops at Boo-Boo House; it was four hundred thirty-seven people who had passed through and moved on, and three who had died. It was Fratzie and Ecstasy and all he had not been able to do for them. It was his own deep remorse for everything he had ever missed, or bungled, or spaced out on, or been insensitive to, or tried to do in a misguided or misinformed or arrogant fashion, or done badly out of laziness, or in general fucked up. It was a psychological phenomenon, and its form was simply the eccentric reflection of past cultural conditioning. A devil, after all. It was archaic. Passé. It was semiological, archetypal, and arbitrary. It was dismissible. Bobo felt that, having achieved this sophisticated level of psychological insight, he could move on with his life, a wiser man. He could let the rope ladder down and go back to Boo-Boo House. He could start eating cooked food again. He could read something besides Time magazine and Ecclesiastes. He could accept himself, his flaws, his screw-ups. He could write an entry in his journal: I learned this and that about myself recently, and it was great.
The devil felt that they should continue to wrestle.
“How come?” Bobo asked him. Since he had pulled the rope ladder up, he had been having more and more dialogue with the thing in the light of day, between falls.
The devil shrugged. Bobo snapped his fingers — begone! — in a fit of rationalistic pomp. The devil smirked, and stayed. Bobo conceded the point.
He had relaxed, however. His shame was gone. His fear that he was losing his mind was gone. And the devil wasn’t really all that great a wrestler, once you learned his moves. At the moment, Bobo had a half nelson on him, had him basically under control. He’d get loose once in a while, but Bobo was already winning two falls out of three.
“Hello?” Commeldia Egret said.
Bobo looked up. The devil took the opportunity to slip out of his grasp and go rest by the wall. He had a huge black cloak, and purple sneakers, and came across as very urbane, but he bit in close situations. Bobo had learned to avoid his teeth. Commeldia Egret, abruptly intersecting mythological space, was wearing a flannel shirt and had her auburn hair pulled back in a ponytail. The devil was grim; Commeldia was smiling.
“How did you get here?” Bobo asked carefully, looking at the rope ladder still neatly folded on the floor by the entrance. He suspected that Egret was an angel. Maybe help had arrived.
He realized he had gotten pretty far out, pretty far out indeed.
“Ah climbed the tree,” Egret said.
It was so refreshing, Bobo could have cried. Of course. “Ah,” he said. The devil was still by the wall, but Bobo ignored him. To Commeldia, he went on, “Would you like some sesame crackers and Swiss cheese?”
Commeldia Egret hesitated. Bobo looked terrible. His eyes were red and his hair was frizzed with sweat and his beard was ragged. His clothes were rumpled, and he stank. The whole treehouse stank. The cheese looked old.
“Maybe a cracker,” she said.
Bobo tried to smooth his hair into place with his hand. He offered her the plate. She accepted a single cracker and nibbled tentatively.
“I’m Bobo Hofman,” he said.
“Ah’m Commeldia Egret.”
“What an unusual name.”
I got it from a goddess in a car wreck, Egret almost said, and refrained. “Thank you.”
They munched their crackers.
“Ah hope Ah’m not disturbing you,” Egret said after a moment.
“Oh, no,” Bobo said.
“Ah knocked. Ah guess you didn’t hear.”
I was wrestling with a devil, Bobo refrained from saying. I had him in a half nelson. He said instead, “You must be a very good tree-climber.”
“Ah had a lot of brothers.”
“I see,” Bobo said. “Would you like some cheese?”
“No, thank you.” Egret hesitated, then noted, “It’s old.”
“Excuse me?” Bobo said.
“Your cheese. It’s old. It’s all dried up.”
Bobo looked at the plate. The cheese was old. It was dried up. It was practically an artifact. It was no longer edible.
Egret picked up the pieces and threw them out the door. As Bobo looked slightly distressed, she said, “The squirrels will eat it.”
“Would you like another cracker?” he said.
“No,” Egret said. “They’re stale.”
“So they are,” Bobo marveled. He watched as she threw them out the door too, moving with increasing confidence. “The squirrels,” he said.
“And it smells in here,” Egret said, on a roll now.
Of course it smells, it’s a goddamned wrestling ring. Bobo said carefully, “Uh-huh.”
“You could open the window.” This was true. The window was covered with a big piece of cardboard. The devil was squatting grimly right in front of it. As Bobo hesitated, Egret rose and removed the cardboard. The devil hastily moved. Fresh air, and the warm light of late afternoon, poured in.
“There,” Egret said with satisfaction. “Better already, isn’t it?”
The devil looked pissed off. Bobo smiled. “Better,” he said.
“You did what?” June exclaimed.
Will smiled. “I sent her to the treehouse, of course.”
“You told her Bobo was a Whirvish?!”
“It’s true enough, isn’t it? He’s the only one left. The only place it’s all still alive is in his head.”
June rolled her eyes. She was making tomato squash stew with carrots. Will had just told her the story of the arrival of Commeldia Egret, and she was concerned that he had botched it. “Subtle psychological truths are one thing. Sending a stranger in to provoke a crazy person is another.”
“He’s not crazy.”
“Right. It’s a goddamned religious crisis. Whatever you want to call it, the guy is on the brink.”
“I think Bobo is fine,” Reary said from the kitchen table, where he was peeling garlic. June always had him peel garlic when he volunteered to help in the kitchen, as it was impossible for him to burn anything while thus engaged.
“He hasn’t had a bath in three weeks,” June said. “He hasn’t eaten anything but crackers and pickles.”
“It’s a spiritually turbulent time for him,” Will countered.
“It’s a vision quest,” Reary said earnestly.
“My ass,” June said. “He’s cracking up, and has been for weeks. The only reason I let it go this far is that I thought he couldn’t hurt himself up there and that it might even help. Now Will is sending in people off the street to see if he’ll topple all the way over.”
“Oh, June, come on,” Will said. “It’s destiny.”
“It’s karma,” Reary said.
“It’s irresponsible crap,” June said.
“What’s karma?” Debbie said just then, entering with yet another basket of squash. Boo-Boo House, after years of agricultural debacles, suddenly had squash out the wazoo. “What’s crap?”
“These two guys are trying to justify the notion that since everything works out for the best, no one has to bother trying to do anything right in the meantime,” June said.
“That’s not my position,” Will said. “My position is that poetic justice is the most healing force in the universe, and that good luck should be treated with reverence and respect. I’m out there minding my own business and this girl shows up out of the blue, against all odds, casual as can be, looking for the Whirvish religion on the basis of a twenty-year-old pamphlet that Bobo put out. Meanwhile, all that’s left of the Whirvish religion just happens to be having a cosmic brawl in Bobo’s head a hundred yards away. Who am I to stand in the way of something like that? All I did was give her directions to the inevitable. First inevitable on the left, I told her. Can’t miss it.”
“Bobo’s in a brawl?” Debbie said, still blurry on the details.
“Metaphysically speaking,” Will told her.
“Bobo’s in a delicate and critical state,” June said. “And Will took it upon himself to stir the situation with a stick.”
“I think Bobo’s fine,” Reary said. “And I think Will did fine.”
“You think everything’s fine,” June said. “It’s a very high view. Meanwhile, people’s lives need attention.” Abruptly, she turned off the flame under the stew and wiped her hands on a towel. “I’m going out there.”
“To the treehouse?” Will said.
“I’ll go with you,” Debbie said promptly.
“Me too,” Reary said, glad to get away from the garlic.
June nodded. “Okay. Will?”
“What are we going to do?” Will said.
“I don’t know,” June said. “Check for survivors, I guess. See if they need more crackers and pickles.” She smiled at him suddenly. “Whatever’s inevitable, eh?”
“I’ll come too,” he said. “And let’s get Tommie.”
They had had dinner in the treehouse, just the three of them. Bobo and Egret ate by the orange crate in the center, and the devil sat by the door. There were still some pickles, and Bobo explained to Egret what “kosher” meant and why it was funny. There was one bottle of bad warm beer that had not been opened yet, and Bobo explained why this was also funny. It seemed his sense of humor was coming back, and they had several other good laughs during the course of the meal. There were even some crackers that were still good, and Egret had the end of a roll of Lifesavers. After the main course, she gave two to Bobo, one cherry flavor and one lemon, and kept two for herself. Bobo ate his cherry one and set the lemon aside for the devil. It was a habit he had gotten into while in the treehouse; it seemed only fair.
“You don’t like lemon?” Egret asked, alert to small things.
Bobo hesitated. The devil had risen and spread his cloak over the doorway, blocking the view of the sunset. The cloak, however, was not entirely opaque. Some rose light seeped through. Bobo had not noticed that before, though the devil had pulled this trick a number of times on the better sunsets.
“I like lemon a lot,” Bobo said, and popped the second Lifesaver in his mouth, poking a gaping hole in the devil’s cloak. The sunset was exquisite. The squash-laden garden, visible from here, was bathed in rich, soft light. It was all so fraught with meaning that Bobo could hardly stand it; he felt as if bandages had been removed from his eyes.
“Do you want to go for a walk?” he asked Egret, to relieve the poignancy. “A little after-dinner stroll?”
She looked surprised. “Your friend told me you hardly ever leave here. He said it was part of your religion.”
“Part of my? . . .”
“Yes,” Egret said. “Part of the Derling Whirvish religion. Do all Whirvishes live in treehouses?”
Bobo blinked. The devil took the opportunity to jump him, and a brief, fierce struggle ensued.
“What?” Egret prompted after a moment. Alarmed, she took his hand.
“Uh, nothing,” Bobo told her. He looked at her hand in his. She had big hands for a woman. Strong. He cleared his throat. “Nothing. And no, all Whirvishes don’t live in treehouses. You’ll hardly ever find a Whirvish in a treehouse.”
“Then why did your friend think? . . .”
“It was a phase,” Bobo said. “Religions evolve.”
“Ah,” she said.
He smiled. Had it really been so long since he had smiled? “In fact,” he said, “it’s evolved to the point where I’d really like to take a walk. What do you say?”
Egret smiled back. “Ah’d like that,” she said. Frizzed and mussed as he was, he was cute. And she was pretty sure she could get him to take a bath. They were still holding hands. She liked that.
“Good,” Bobo said. He released the devil’s ear, and let the rope ladder down, and they made their way out into the evening light, just in time to meet the others.