ROUNDABOUT THE POINT at which there’s no one left in Dodge City except stuffed Cavernous, the Editors, each lumpy with novel in his own way — and some gone female, crowding the Wayfarer’s Tavern with the rest of us, barking out phrases at no one and nothing between one drink and the second — a citywide blood drive is called.

 

A stocktaking, a time to juice ourselves out and see what’s afloat in us.

 

I wouldn’t volunteer, but it’s mandatory and I’m not in fighting shape.

 

On the day of, I wake up early in my Room, eat a sweet breakfast of fruit and sugar, do a kind of prayer / meditation regimen like I did in the basement of my childhood home at dawn before I took the SAT’s … then I put away all my editing tools (though no Cavernous is with me now — the last one claimed his Reinforcement would be a few weeks in coming, as he’d been engaged by another novel across the country when the call came), and cap all my bottles of Barbicide, the chemical smell so familiar it has a laxative effect, and shower and check my visible veins, counting how many I have left.

 

WHEN I exit the lobby, I can’t remember the last time I did so in daylight. It feels like a season has shifted, like the last one was one long night and this one is, by the looks of it, shaping up to be one long day.

 

On the walk to the hospital, I fall in with hordes of Cavernous, the Editors, exiting the houses they’ve started to live in now that the prior population of Dodge City is over with. I look at them, not too inconspicuously, and try to remember which parts of the novel are stuffed into which body. The procession reminds me of the Funeral of Harry Crews, which I haven’t thought about in well over a year.

 

THEN, LIKE I JUST FRITTERED AWAY ALL THE PREP TIME I’D BEEN ALLOTTED, I’m lying on a bed with a needle in my forearm and blood’s shooting out into a tube.

 

I’m swooning hard. The ceiling looks like one big ceiling fan.

 

I follow its rotation as the sound of blood fills my ears and I see it all running together into an uncovered pool in the center of the room … and what is this room? It’s like the whole hospital is just one empty interior … flowing together into one stew, despite how, I believe, blood drives are meant to be run with each blood being stored and tagged separately, according to type, genre, etc.

 

All this blood-mixing puts me in a Faulkner cast of mind (which I picture like a helmet, slamming down over my head and neck), and now all I can see is:

 

An old man in a mansion in an archaic Mississippi, capacious grounds gone to seed, a long-dead wife buried out back, three beautiful and slightly insane daughters aged 14 to 17.

 

The old man roams the hallways of his once-great mansion wearing a Chinese silk nightshirt, blue and crimson, muttering, bumping into statues and rotting chests.

 

Paintings hang crooked from the walls and the walls themselves sit crooked on their floors, soft as wet cork.

 

The old man sees Death in every crud-covered window and dusty glass door, taunting him with the baleful wiping-away of his life and its failure to make a mark, even an indentation, on this estate inherited from his father and grandfather and on and on, all more notorious figures than he.

 

In moods like this he passes his daughters in the halls, drifting in gowns on feet that seem barely to touch floor, and he plays at pretending he cannot tell them apart, and then wonders, indeed, whether he can.

 

ON ONE SUCH A DAY — and they’re all like this — a terminal idea blooms up in him:

 

I will end my life an Incest Father, surrounded by children who are also my grandchildren, my daughters defiled and damned.

 

A parting bid at lasting shame.

 

There is a long and vaunted tradition, in his Southern gothic mind — I think in my blood drive stupor — of old men implanting in their young daughters the children who will one day to inherit the estate, and one day bury their mothers on its grounds.

 

Indeed, such is the story of my own parentage, thinks the old man, as if this were a fact he’d long forgotten and just now remembered.

 

If I can bring this shame upon myself, I will die with a measure of dignity within the tradition I belong to, he thinks.

 

SO HE GIVES IT A TRY.

 

Starting that evening, after dinner and cocktails, he fucks each of his daughters, each in a different place — pantry, basement stairwell, laundry room — whispering to each not to tell the others, trying to work into his tone a note of threat that he and she both know he cannot back up.

 

The daughters suffer his incursions with a kind of formalized and ironic disdain, playing at trauma and disgust, aware of the cliche in his behavior, the conformity to stereotype, and their own roles in the classic scandal.

 

Each pretends to promise not to tell her sisters, and then tells her sisters, and this too, of course, is part of it.

 

The atmosphere in the house stabilizes for a while, the old man doing his best to keep his strength and stay consistent, waiting for one or two or all of his daughters to take pregnant and for the shame-babies to start their months-long Southward crawl.

 

But it doesn’t happen.

 

He’s just too old; he’s waited too long, spent too many years wandering in celibate delusion, forestalling the idea he should have had as soon as the first daughter reached puberty.

 

There is nothing, it would appear, of the genuine Incest Father left in him.

 

He starts drinking heavily and eating rare meat at every meal, but his potency will not increase. He can hear his daughters laughing at him in the echoes of the house, and it’s little more than a mockery, now, whenever he corners one of them and rucks his nightshirt up.

 

HE ADMITS DEFEAT, LIES DOWN, PREPARES TO DIE.

 

He lies there a long time, but Death will not take him. He stands above the frail old man and says, “Prove to me you’re worth it.”

 

Here, at the bottom of his life, the old man uncovers an idea. A last resort, certainly, but a viable option nonetheless.

 

He sits up, showers, and leaves the house for the first time in a decade.

 

Asks the shed-dwelling groundskeeper to ready the Cadillac and drives off to the next town, seven miles north, toward Memphis, across a broad tract of swampland.

 

Here, the old man fetches a young man, strong, healthy, naive.

 

THE YOUNG MAN IS INSTALLED IN THE HOUSE, and — my head slipping off my paper pillow on the blood drive gurney, blood still shooting from my arm — I watch as the old man sits the young man down at the dinner table with his three daughters and explains how it’s going to be:

 

“You will fuck them as me,” he explains, handing the young man the silk nightshirt to wear, “and they will become pregnant with my children, and I will be the Incest Father after all, and after I die, you will go into a grave in the basement and remain in there forever, so that my daughters may be left alone in this big house to grow old with these children fathered in shame, losing hold, year by year, of the memory of anyone but their Father … you, young man, will become to them a vague fantasy, a kind of long-lost Incubus … any questions?”

 

The young man and the three daughters shake their heads.

 

“Then you may begin,” says the old man.

 

THEY DO. The house fills with sex-noise and nine months later four babies arrive: one each for two of the daughters, and twins for the youngest.

 

The old man calls the Church and says he’s dying and would like a pastor to pay him a last visit. The Church says one will be right over.

 

“Okay,” says the old man. “A witness is coming. Ladies, please arrange to be around with your babies. And you,” he says to the young man, “are finished here. Please crawl into your grave in the basement now.”

 

The young man, though something of a simpleton, appears to understand.

 

The old man prepares to meet his demise, scorned in the eyes of the Church as yet another Incest Father from a long line of them, a notoriety he’s certain he deserves at the end of such a long and lonely life.

 

BUT WHEN THE PASTOR ARRIVES, things go wrong:

 

The old man begins dying on the divan, and the pastor comes to his side and opens his briefcase, and the daughters, on cue, emerge with their babies, and the pastor, also on cue, puts two and two together, whitening with shock …

 

BUT THEN the young man enters the room, in good cheer, drinking milk from a gallon bottle in his boxers, his massively chiseled, tattooed torso in full view, and the lustiness with which the daughters regard him, combined with the degree of resemblance in the babies’ faces, reorders the pastor’s assumptions entirely.

 

“Ah,” says the pastor, relieved. “I didn’t know the babies’ father was … at home. For a moment, sir,” he says, gazing now lovingly at the old man, “I’d wrongly assumed that … ”

 

AND THUS THE OLD MAN DIES, from shame, but a genuine rather than a generic shame, a shame of impotence, a true shame that Death cannot expiate, a damning shame, SHAME-SHAME RATHER THAN PRIDE-SHAME, mortally humiliated by the pastor’s Last Rites.

 

When he’s buried in the backyard later that day, he is not at all looking forward to meeting his forebears in hell, all those legitimate Incest Fathers lined up to receive him, wrongly believing that he is one of them … he wonders, as the dirt falls on his face and lands in his mouth, whether it is possible to lie in hell, or if down there all things are transparent.

 

*****

I WAKE UP as the needle comes out of my arm, and, eating the Snickers bar the nurse hands me, waddle over to the pool where all the drawn blood has collected, the Faulkner helmet loosening somewhat but still heavy on my head and neck.

 

Through its eyeholes I gaze at the pool, mottled with veins of red and black novel-plasma from all the Editors, swampy and hot, steaming up at me. I open a window and a few leaves and sticks blow in, and bees and mosquitoes, all easing into the blood, helping to stir its many substances into one.

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