Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 101 1998.
Children and criminals are predisposed to imitation, obscenity, alcoholism, laziness and vanity.
Lombroso, L'uomo delinquente (1887)
I used myself as I would have let
no man use another; but needed over
me one yet harder and more ruthless,
who would have worn me to the last
fiber of my strength. . . . To eat dirt
until its taste is normal to me.
T.E. Lawrence, from the draft copy of Seven Pillars of Wisdom
I am strongly inclined to suspect that
sexual monstrosities come about through the
remarkable effect which confinement or cultivation
has on the functions of the reproductive system.
Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species (1859)
In the selva oscura that is the "Middle" East - a term invented scarcely before these events took place - the Ottoman Empire, its Sultan a thousand year old spider in a rotten web, remained loosely united until the Great War brought radical disintegration. It was an empire ruled by pashas, petty chieftains, local sheiks and vague emirs, dervishes, hunchbacks and eunuchs; madness knit together by the power of Islam and the New Turks whose hero, Enver Pasha, led his country toward the Abyss.
Then in the shimmering Arabian deserts war was born. Kitchener's war. The British brought firearms and mechanized vehicles, cannon and mines to smash the Ottoman insects still crawling about their provincial network.
Unlikely warriors with lavender faces and ethical demeanor: Wingate, Clayton, Allenby, Young, Lloyd, Stirling, Joyce, with appalling innocence and arrogance. They attempted not only to command, to rule, but to stamp British culture on the Middle East while carving "nations" of convenience out of shifting dunes, playing games with official dispatches and convening "conferences" - as they had designed and handed over vast areas of the globe already to politically malleable Arab rulers. An Empire of Ideas doomed from the start.
These powerful administrators were certainly unlike any caliphs, sultans or emirs; yet they were just as disturbing and anachronistic for the twentieth century. The rat-faced Ronald Storrs, for example, who went from glory as Governor of the Sinai to the post of "advisor" to the perverse King Zog of Albania. Then, in his mansion on Cyprus he teetered about playing God until the Greek Cypriots rammed a tree trunk through his portal. He died later of cancer of the rectum in Tangier - an appropriate locale in which to end his career, fading away in transparent jellaba and sequin sandals, seated on a chamber pot.
The young T.E. Lawrence himself figures among the important administrators; he had a brief, fluke tenure. Yet of all the men mentioned here, he is perhaps the one that the public remembers best, thanks to his genius for self-advertisement and to Lowell Thomas who "invented" Lawrence of Arabia and to whom Storrs introduced Lawrence in 1918. Brilliant, doubtless, but not really the man to govern some dry-hole appurtenance of the British Empire.
Where would Lawrence have fit, given his gifts, his tastes, his moment in history - academia? journalism? officialdom? After the glory of the Hejaz, anything would have been a bore - except perhaps a total transformation.
Helped by dear Winston, a personal friend who at a critical point in time held the post of Colonial Secretary, Lawrence was able to "disappear" into curious crevasses: the R.A.F., the Tank Corps, British Intelligence. This chameleon life was part of his sickness and may have included a discreet short assignment in America, accompanied by letters of introduction from Nancy Astor. In America he was linked with an actress, Millicent Molloy, destined for Hollywood immortality.
"Anything is possible," Lawrence wrote to Charlotte Shaw, "when words are the vehicle; and one lie is as good as another."
Karl Voucher has accurately documented many of Ross's movements after the war and his return to England, pointing up the inconsistencies of dating and hiatal periods. Jeremy Wilson of course has the last "authorized" word: but Palmer and Pike, for example, are shadow figures in his account; there is no period in which Lawrence - Ross, Shaw - was not under scrutiny. However, as Trebisch Lincoln pointed out in 1928, that scrutiny was often pockmarked with secrets. "There is no reason." he wrote, "that a man cannot invent a replacement." It might be said that Lawrence invented replacements continually after the Great War.
As well, one is tempted to discount the credibility of much that flows from the Lawrence file - especially the period after the splash of the Revolt and his posting to Karachi. There are too many letters, too many words that might have been written by anyone.
Voucher recounts Ross's famous luncheon at the Carlton Hotel with old man Doughty, in which Ross firmly stated that he was "done" with Arabia, the Seven Pillars being his vale. Voucher implies that the man was simply slithering out from under the impending accusation by Vansittart of degeneracy. For a man running for his life and his sanity - any mask might have served.
At any rate there was no going back; but neither was there any going forward. He had to find anonymity. This was strange, since his best anonymity was the role he had played as Lawrence of Arabia.
His name was Ross, John Hume Ross, I remember reading his documents when he was dead. Private Ross, he liked to be called. He always wore a weird kind of uniform (draped with a black cape-like jacket), vaguely like some uniform they wore in the Great War and which I remembered from the historical almanacs. Odd narrow feet in cracked boots, puttees. He invariably bore a look of hurt about him, a quizzical hurt look even when he laughed, as if for some reason recalling a past offence. He was British but he had learned the American lingo almost too well. He liked to tell me about a training camp called Uxbridge. It was "dirty living" there, he told me, a smash-up of self-respect. "It wasn't the fatigues," he would murmur "You know what that means - old sweats slugging us with duty. Scrubbed the butcher blood and the latrines. Odd how bits of humanity remain here and there: hairs, moons of nails, a gob of spittle, shit. Something almost funereal about it, remains of human bodies. That was 1922, but it seems a century ago, Billy. You were … ten years old in 1922?" He was hard to follow; but I followed him: I needed the money.
"I have burned the mint," he told me, puzzlingly. "G.B.S. thought it should be Preserved for the historical record or brought out in a three guinea edition as prurience; Garnett considered it a great book. Charlotte, I never knew really what Charlotte thought. I found the prose good, looking back, but it is not to be published. The Mint is my life at Uxbridge."
"Charlotte Shaw typed it; her fingers must have been shaking at times. She thought I was her exclusive. "
He was not in the real army - I knew that much. His talk about books and famous people and the war were romancing, for my benefit, I thought. His life had been like a moving picture; I never did understand what he did for a living, but he had dough, enough of it. Not that he was generous. With me he always counted out the chickenfeed parsimoniously from his old leather purse, but he paid.
We would usually meet in O'Shaughnessy's, a waterfront speakeasy with sawdust and puke on the floor, marble-topped tables where sailors and longshoremen whiled away the days over beer and whiskeys, smoking and swapping stories. I would listen to Ross's cracked ramblings, not paying much attention. I was always hungry. Ross would buy me a beer and there'd be grub at the Free Lunch. He himself would drink sarsaparilla. I never knew him to take a drink of alcohol.
He would squeeze my legs and make that crazy talk, while I drank my mug of beer and chewed bread and salami and hardboiled eggs. I sometimes recognized a name or two in his talk (I was a great reader in the public library) which seemed to surprise him at first. He thought I was just some dumb kid. I fooled him. Once in a while he would even scribble the names of books for me to look up and read. In a way, he created me; he began what couldn't be stopped.
O'Shaughnessy's was a terrific place where anything went. One day a lady dressed in a kind of kimono brazenly came in and stood at the bar. Shoving red locks away from her eyes. she demanded a beer. Just like that.
LADIES, MINORS AND MILITARY WILL NOT BE SERVED, the sign on the door said, in spite of the fact that the place was illegal to begin with. (But they served Ross and me, so the rules had already been broken.) The bartender didn't question the lady for a minute, but drew off a mug for her and she blew the foam off. A dark young Irish from the wharves came and stood beside her.
After a few minutes of cracking jokes, the workman managed to slip his paw inside the lady's kimono. I caught a glimpse of a thick mat of hair and something that was long and white.
Ross had a funny way of holding himself stiff. I never knew what he'd do - have me spit on him or beg me to let him suck my toes. It was still better than making it on the docks behind the junk, cranes, piles of broken crates. The most a dock worker ever gave me was a quarter.
"So you spend your afternoons at the public library?" Ross would say, smiling. "Watch out, my boy, or you'll ruin your mind. The fewer ideas you absorb, the better, Billy. But you can keep warm there, is that it?" He never asked where I lived; he knew I had no place to go.
Once Ross did take me to a restaurant to feed me up. I had fallen against a wall, I was so weak from hunger; so he helped me to a restaurant and ordered me a hefty beefsteak and a mug of homebrewed beer. He wasn't exactly stingy, just careful; he watched his pennies: I know now that he was rich, or could have been. When I asked for money he shook his head.
The food was cheap in the speakeasies and you could pile your plate with bologna, ham, salad, hardboiled eggs from the Free Lunch if you drank. But Ross was insistent that day that I consume red steak. He seemed to enjoy the sight of blood and grease.
"If you are really in the army," I once asked, "how come you can come into a saloon and no one say anything?"
"They wouldn't dare stop me," he answered.
The truth was - I knew - that his uniform was an absurdity; and his profession a joke. But he was, or could be rich. And I was poor. Worse, I was starving.
I wished that I could have taken a slice of fat to little Fitz, who was dying in our flop on the east side. My mouth crammed with juice and gristle, I remembered little Fitz coughing up nuggets of blood and pus, begging for soup. I would often lie awake next to him, hearing his heartbeat like the thumping of a drum. But then, when I scrounged a mouthful of food for him, the kid would just throw it up. "Sticks in me craw, Billy," he would say.
Little Fitz and I were ratted into the basement of an abandoned tenement on Cedar Street. Other kids were there; you had to watch yourself, or get knifed. Sometimes a gang brought a kid to bugger, surrounding him with gleaming brass knuckles and blades of silver as each one took a crack. They would go howling into the streets after sniffing cans of chemicals. Little Fitz whimpered with uneasiness when he heard them, as an explorer - abandoned without hope - will whimper in the Arctic at the sound of wolves.
What bothered me was Fritz's crying for his mom. I don't think he ever really had a mom, but he cried for her anyway.
Sometimes I would do something I wouldn't normally like do for some old geezer, to make some loose change. With the money I'd buy Fitz some of those little pills called PanaCurol with a lot of dope in them. It got so he'd shake himself nearly to death until I got him some PanaCurol. And all the time, with Ross, I would listen to the guy talking about famous writers that I knew about from the public library and about millionaires and powerful politicos.
"I think you want to kill me," he said one day, catching the hate in my face.
"That would, you knows be the ultimate irony."
"Your killing me."
He cocked an eyebrow. He was on his "superior" wave: to me he was like any old fairy, trying to come on like a Flaming Flapper. It was a wonder one of those Irish micks in the saloon didn't beat him to a pulp; they gave us rigid stares, Ross in his weird uniform and me in my bum's rags. Ross was asking for it.
"You do not know that you can kill until you are forced to kill."
"It is not the violent killing, but the calm killing, the one that you decide."
"Farraj was injured in the spine; it was near Faraifra, on our way back towards Aba el Lissan, and the Turks surprised us. I knelt down, trying to hide what I had to do, since we could not leave him still living there. My friend Daud will be angry with you, he said. (His friend had been killed a few days before.) Salute him for me, I said. And that was all."
Ross's face was grey
I think Ross wanted to die. Strung up, his body inflamed, streaked with blood - he was trying to force himself over a precipice, but the precipice kept retreating. The body, he once said, is a mere plaything of history. "If a single flatfish with a rudimentary backbone had not survived the Cambrian dissolution, we would only be figments of an annelid's imagination."
"What you talking about?"
"Once I have educated you, my dear boy, you will realize."
"You think I want to realize."
"Suit yourself, my little criminal."
"I'm not a criminal."
It made me sick when he called me a criminal. After all, he was the person who was committing a crime up in that attic room with its chocolate eaves and a powder of moth wings in the corners. Madmen had written poems in the toilet where we sponged off his bloody skin.
Ross said crazy things. One day, measuring the extension of my cock like a baseball bat, "Four hands and two fingers," he said. "How old are you, fifteen? It is time for your circumcision."
By the time I was fifteen going on sixteen I had already lived a dozen lives. My secret life at the public library was only one of them, and my life with little Fitz. There was this kid who sucked laborers off under bridges and on the docks, who swiped nickels and dimes and two-bit pieces; and the public lavatory kid who'd drop his loose knickers at a wink and whose thievery was timed to the moment of getting off. When you find someone like Ross, you stick to him; that's all I know. He was another one of my lives, but a better one. He talked. I listened.
I had been abandoned early and raised by a decrepit old woman in a tarpaper shack. When she died they came at me with orders for detention and sent me to reform school.
I got sent from the reform school to the General Relief Cottage, the GRC, in the county boondocks. I had been arraigned before the notorious Judge Butts, with his Christmas tinsel hair and eyes like cracked ornaments. He hated kids. He ordered me stripped to look me over, lifting my organ with a ruler and slapping me on the back side. "Ain't seen a sideshow like this whacker since Barnum and Bailey came to Slobtown," he said. "Luck stands with the GRC."
The GRC was a public torture chamber stuck on the side of an abandoned granite quarry, as far from civilization as you could get. From the GRC the juvenile criminals were sent to the local schools, a state of affairs that kept the surrounding territory in terror. Freaks with rat hair and wall eyes, knobby joints and filthy habits, came into class with sweet country bumpkins with lunch pails full of fried chicken and slices of blueberry pie. Towheads in knickers got their bib overalls pulled off in the school outhouse or got jack-knifed in the hedge ivy.
But no one from the GRC dared to mess with one of the local kids. That was Bobby McAllister, a flash beauty with limbs of steel. Bobby was short, dark, and would as soon curse you as smile at you. He was so strong he could knock a calf dead with a single blow.
That first day, when the old boys were screaming "'chicken" at me and throwing rocks, Bobby sidled over and kicked the gang leader in the balls. The others, paralyzed by fright, stopped dead. They watched the contortions of the hurt boy moaning in the dust. Ignoring them, Bobby stuck his hand out toward me. I see him now in a background of sycamore and broom, bunches of wild lilac streaming in the sunlight.
"You call me Bobby," he said. He already knew my name, having, he said, spotted me as soon as I arrived. "We'll get along together," he said; and I knew what he meant. The other GRC boys were members of what Bobby called the sideshow. Phil Harby, Donald Kootz, Willard Gore: pallid, pale-eyed dolts with matted hair, dressed in striped overalls that the county supplied us. None of them, once Bobby McAllister befriended me, dared to look cross-eyed at me or touch me.
Bobby took me to the outhouse. We pissed.
"Like I knew," he said, nodding, "why they's all been running around like fire ants in a flood. That's why. OId man Hubbard, the village barber, he'll give you a haircut and four-bits, just for a feel of that."
I gave Bobby a hand with his homework. In exchange he gave me protection and his body. He was totally independent and didn't give a shit what anyone thought. He spent nights with me in the GRC dormitory, crawling in through the window. We didn't care what the others saw, either: rigid in their beds, scared to make a peep, staring at us like statues. Fear or guilt were emotions that Bobby McAllister did without.
Miss Murdlestone ran the Relief Cottage with a crippled hand. She was malformed, as from some awful disease, and her eyes were pink. She administered beatings regularly in her office: beatings were her idea of competence. She was bound to hear about Bobby McAllister's nighttime visits eventually. Telling her about us was one way of getting back at Bobby and me. When I got her order to appear, I knew the jig was up. There sat Miss Murdlestone in her misshapen chair, her misshapen limbs twitching, and her face a doll's, one ear sticking out of her muddled hair.
"Who is this Village boy who sleeps in your bed?"
"Beg pardon, ma'am?"
"Who is this sodomite?"
"Prison is no excuse for anything, and just because you are in prison doesn't mean you are free."
"You understand me."
"I won't stand for lies, no matter how nice they are, and God will punish you by everlasting fire for something that is prohibited on pain of death. You have heard of sodomy, I suppose? It's a word, young man, that describes what I fear you are too familiar with."
She took hold of my shoulder with her crippled hand. Then, feeling my revulsion, she struck out. I fell against the oak slab of her desk and then to the floor. When she hauled me up my side was paralyzed and my nose was bleeding. With one hand around my throat, she unbuckled my pants.
The size of my prick enraged her. Screeching, she threw me over a chair and reached for her cane. I started to cry out, then stifled all sound, keeping my teeth clenched as the cane whistled down against my back side. When she had finished, my lower parts were welted and streaming.
"Draw up your trousers, young man." Then, seeing I was slow to cover myself, she smashed her knobby fist against my face. I went down again. Dazed, I heard he call for Amos, the black janitor, who - the whites of his eyes shining - dragged me off toward the bathhouse.
"Bread and water for a week!"
They were giggling in the dormitory. I slept with their eyes on me, wondering. Then the next day I stumbled off to school, where I almost swooned with the pain of sitting on a wooden bench. Spitballs, foul words, honkings, a murmur of secret glee. And in the outhouse Bobby pulled my pants down to look at the welts and dried blood. He ran his tongue over my ass. "Spit's the best cure for everything," he said. "Miss Murdlestone?"
The frightened teacher, Pansy Doolittle, rang the recess bell frantically. No one paid any attention to it, least of all Bobby and me; we were off to the creek, to the soft mud and warm weeds.
It was Amos who found Miss Murdlestone's body later. His wail - or was it a hysterical ragtime laugh? - came through the cottage like an alarm. It immobilized everyone, even those who were diddling, and doors were thrown open. Bare feet spanked along the corridors. The wail was still coming from Miss Murdlestone's office. Beyond her portal - beyond the flimsy leather of the sideshow tent (woman with three tits, lamb with two heads, Egyptian hermaphrodite, whale penis, Siamese twins) - hung the cripple. Her body, in a flowered nightgown, swung like a piece of lurid meat.
"Kill herseff?" one of the little criminals asked.
"Kill herseff," Amos answered, grinning with relief.
There was no chair around, a noose had been expertly fashioned by the woman who normally couldn't manage to tie a ribbon, and her nose was broken.
"Unfochunit crittah," Sheriff Dane pronounced, scratching his scrotum. "The wuhk with these unfochunit chillun finally got to the poah woman."
"Must say I agree," Doc Smithers said, burping corn liquor and White Owls. "I'm afraid I'll have to diagnose the situation as death by hanging, and leave it at that. What would you suggest, Sheriff Dane?"
"The Spanish 'fluenza sounds bettah, doc. Specially if the poah woman's relations are to be comfuhtid."
"Influenza it is, then. And as for these infantile witnesses - all back to bed now."
There was a staid little funeral in the village, attended by the GRC boys and a few townfolk, the kind that always attend the funerals of strangers. Pastor Dougal droned a sermon to the tune of kids giggling obscenely in the back pews. Then Miss Murdlestone's deal coffin was dropped into a hole in the ground. Out on the country fields the crocuses were blooming and the sun was a revelation in a cloud.
Dead in that little room.