“I’m celebrating my country! Stop hating my freedom, you terrorist.”
Robert Rauschenberg, People For the American Way, 1991. Lithograph and screeprint. 48 x 35 1/2 in. © Robert Rauschenberg. Courtesy the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.
When John Romulus Brinkley, aka the Goat Gland Doctor, decided to publish his memoir, he hired someone else to write the book for him, and fed the man such a load of lies and half-truths that Brinkley succeeded in turning the seasoned biographer into a promising writer of fiction. But Brinkley needn’t have done so. His story required no embellishment. The book, The Life of a Man, was released long after he was already world famous, and it was a fame, as with his nickname, born of the millions of dollars he made injecting the testicles of Toggenberg goats into men to improve their virility. This was 1920s rural Kansas, a little nowhere town called Milford, but Dr. Brinkley put it on the American and world map, a destination for impotent and infertile men seeking to touch the hem of the Milford Messiah, the Ponce de León of Kansas who’d discovered the rejuvenation of man.
Brinkley was that deadly combination: lucky, smart, and ambitious. Up from nothing to millionaire in a few short years, a kind of garish, backwoods Gatsby. He got in on radio early, purchasing one of the first private stations in the country in 1923, and Brinkley was shrewd in its use. He knew he couldn’t simply advertise his procedure on the airwaves. He had to win people over, seduce them, so he filled his programming with musicians and entertainers, going on the air himself only twice a day to give “medical talks” about the wonders of his goat gland operation. The procedure took ten minutes and cost 700 dollars. People came by the trainload. He was a charlatan, of course, but, most sexual hangups being psychological, the procedure worked for many. Believing you carried the fecund potency of a bearded, randy billy goat because you had its genitals slipped into your scrotum did wonders for a man’s confidence. Seeking to regulate the field, the newly organized American Medical Association made Brinkley its top target, going after him for a decade. Finally, by 1930, the AMA had pressured the Kansas Medical Board to revoke his license to practice and the federal government to revoke his license to broadcast, shutting down what had become in a few short years the most popular radio station in the country. It was a double victory for the AMA. They’d finally got him out of the operating room and off the air. Brinkley was finished, or so they thought.
There’s more to the story, but I stop because Will asks if I’m making this up. Actually, it’s not a question—he just says that I am, but he does so in an amused way that tells me he believes every word and is only playing his part as interested listener, the receiver of a fantastic tale. Our relationship is six months old, and while the Brinkley story is true, I have already begun to tell the little lies that will become big lies. As in all my previous relationships, I’m pulling away from Will, or pushing him away from me, if there’s any difference. He recently moved into the house and will have moved out before I have the chance to finish telling him the story of the Goat Gland Doctor.
Will stands at the stove, his back to me, stirring the vodka sauce for dinner with a long wooden spoon that was once straight but has begun to warp. He repeats his question. The Italian sausage sizzles on a neighboring burner, filling the air of the kitchen with a deliciously brackish fog. A large pot of water boils, awaiting pasta, sending steam over his head, which makes him look like a character in a cartoon who’s suddenly become furious, someone who’s literally blown his lid. I sit in a chair at the small breakfast table in the corner and turn my attention to the muted television, one of those small lunch-pail-sized ones people keep in their kitchens to watch the morning shows over breakfast, the news at dinner. NBC shows W’s face, a story about his upcoming bid for reelection in the fall. He has that look of his, a pained smile that suggests he’s still slightly surprised and annoyed to find himself running the country instead of a baseball team.
“Michael,” says Will, turning. Dressed in the blue scrubs he wears each day at the clinic, he dries just the tips of the fingers of his left hand on a dish towel slung over his right shoulder. “You’re joking, right? Goat glands?”
I shake my head and he asks where I heard the story. “I knew Brinkley’s son,” I say. “Many years ago—almost thirty—but only a short while. Johnny was his name. He told me about his dad. I didn’t believe it either.” Will’s eyebrows rise, and he nods slowly. I seem to have said this in a way that insinuates Johnny and I were lovers. I do nothing to correct the misapprehension, then offer an olive branch: “Maybe that’s what’s wrong with me. Maybe I need a pair of goat nuts shot into my sack”—a reference to my suddenly vanished libido, a sore point between us.
He’s timid and it’s like he’s bringing his lips to his decrepit grandmother’s cheek at the end of a visit.
Will exhales and moves to the table, squatting so that he’s at eye level with me. I can tell he wants to kiss me, but he’s been rebuffed enough of late that he’s timid and it’s like he’s bringing his lips to his decrepit grandmother’s cheek at the end of a visit. “We’ve got to get you out of this funk,” he says. “What you need is a job. Something to keep you busy.” After twenty years at the Wichita Historical Society I was let go when the new state budget slashed our funding. The Society was told to become creative, entrepreneurial, to rely more on private donors. In response it cut its hours of operation in half and fired a third of the staff. Will moved in shortly before this happened and thinks it’s responsible for everything wrong in our relationship.
“Maybe I wasn’t meant to have a job,” I say. “Maybe I was meant to be a home economist. Remember how they used to call it that when we were kids in high school? What a strange phrase. I’ll get business cards printed up with that as my title. Michael Kupchick, Home Economist. Sounds more important than Stay-at-Home Faggot.”
Will bristles, hates when I use the word, so I find myself saying it more often than I normally would.
“Do I need to remind you what a home economist does, and which one of us is cooking dinner right now?”
“I could learn,” I say. “Or maybe I’ll start to write again. Sometimes I still feel the itch.”
“You planning on penning a bestseller?”
“Are you kidding? I’ve been producing historical copy for the museum for twenty years. I’d probably end up writing about radical farmers or exodusters.”
“Baby,” he says, “you do need to find a job. We need the money.”
We. A ripple of revulsion moves through me. I look over Will’s shoulder at the boiling pot. “Don’t overcook the penne.” He returns to the stove and I open a bottle of wine, pouring two tall glasses of Shiraz. “They were out there again,” he says as he plates the food.
“The lunatics? Still?”
Last month a group called Kansas Families for Life began keeping a daily vigil outside the clinic where Will works, holding photographs of aborted fetuses, shouting at the sunglassed women and couples speed-walking to the entranceway of the health center. As a nurse, Will bears their wrath every time he leaves the building or helps usher a patient to her car. Despite this, he is possessed of a tolerance I find as infuriating as I do ennobling.
“They’re only half-crazy,” he says. “They have their beliefs. We have ours.”
“Yeah, but theirs are wrong.” I point at the television, where the president speaks at a podium. “And they elect monsters like that.”
“Oh, the rhetoric of Good and Evil has begun!” he says dramatically. “You sound just like them.”
“Are you one of those self-hating gay Republicans? You should have told me before I let you move in.”
“You asked me to move in.”
“Did I? Sometimes I forget.”
“All right, all right. Enough.” We go silent for a spell as we eat and drink. Will doesn’t pierce the pasta with his fork. He slides the tines through the body, hooking two at a time, and swipes them through the orange sauce before bringing the fork to his mouth. He does this every time, the unvaried precision of one who makes his life in the medical field. He takes a bite and then laughs softly—a single snort through his nose—muttering something about goat glands.
“So you knew this guy’s kid. What happened to him?”
“The father or the son?”
“The son,” he says, adding flirtatiously, “Johnny.”
“He blew his brains out.”
“I’m sorry. Were you all—”
“You think George has ever heard of the Goat Gland Doctor?”
“I don’t know,” says Will, taking another one of his bites. “I’ll ask him tomorrow. Probably’d get a kick out of it. Dr. Tiller loves a good story.”
I met Johnny in the summer of 1976, the summer of Bicentennial celebrations. I was twenty-eight, newly out, high on the promise of the life ahead of me, and he was forty-nine, a drunk crumbling under the weight of previous disappointments. Naturally we met in a bar. It was a place where I’d had some luck meeting men, but from Johnny I didn’t get sex—I got stories. Back then I fancied myself a writer. After graduate school in Lawrence, I’d returned to Wichita and published a collection of short fiction. Nobody read it, and my publisher told me that if I was going to make it in this business I needed to write a novel. I was trying to figure out how to do that when I met Johnny. He’d come to Wichita for a job he’d recently lost and was trying to save enough money to send for his daughter, who many years before had gone to live with his mother in Texas. We’d spend hours in the evening sipping fifty-cent drafts and well bourbon, talking. Mostly Johnny talked and I listened. He told me all about his father, the Goat Gland Doctor. I thought he was lying, but the story checked out.
I began to think that maybe I’d write my novel about his father, and soon I was jotting down ideas on cocktail napkins and taking notes. Johnny didn’t seem to mind. In fact, he was happy for all the attention I gave him. Once I brought him a copy of my book to show I was serious. He held up the sparse, white cover with the title running red-lettered across the middle. Johnny flipped through the pages. “The Thirty-Fourth Star. What’s it about?” I told him they were stories about Kansas.
He didn’t need me to reciprocate; he needed an audience, a witness, and so I was.
“Fiction,” he said, with a look of distaste. He set the book down and slid it to me over the damp and sticky wood grain of the bar. “I don’t read make-believe and hocus-pocus. Nonfiction only. History, biography, memoir—real people doing real things!” It didn’t hurt my feelings. The stories felt distant and had already begun to bore me. Besides, I’d come to find Johnny charming, a wonderful, inebriated raconteur. The gin blossom at the tip of his small nose, the patches of thinning auburn hair where I could see his scalp, the way that stench of middle-aged despair disappeared when he was telling a story and his eyes shot wide with conviction. It was okay that our relationship was one-sided. He didn’t need me to reciprocate; he needed an audience, a witness, and so I was, if only for a short while.
One morning in late June I walk into the bedroom, toweling off after a hot shower. Will’s stretched out on top of the made bed, already dressed, leafing through a copy of Cigar Aficionado before work. For reasons I can’t fathom he’s taken an interest in cigars. At first I thought he was trying to send me some subconscious phallic message, but it seems to be his attempt to transition to middle age with class. It’s a small thing to endure, I suppose, but it strikes me as an absurd affectation, these cigars that come in colorful, vibrator-like plastic cases. He eyes me over the top of his magazine and I feel self-conscious of my nakedness. I was handsome as a young man, even into my forties, but the long-haired, lean muscularity of my youth has withered into a bald, skeletal thinness at fifty-six. Sometimes I feel like Nosferatu.
“Did you masturbate in the shower?” he says.
“No,” I say, turning around to face my dresser.
“Yes you did. I can tell by the smile on your penis.”
I look down at it as I open my socks-and-underwear drawer. He’s right. It hangs there between my legs, bobbling a little, like the head of a dog that’s successfully returned a Frisbee to its master. I did in fact masturbate in the shower. It was unplanned. I was soaping up and my hands lingered too long downstairs, and I was hard. I knew I could have gotten out of the shower and had the real thing, but I began to go limp as I debated the matter. I wanted so badly to stay in the moment—I hadn’t felt the urge in a long time—so I tried to focus on something that would keep me there, and, finally, when I had it, I came all over my hand in a matter of seconds and let the shower’s weak pressure wash it off slowly into the drain. The image that had done the trick: that staged photo-op of W in dungarees and a cowboy hat clearing brush at the ranch in Crawford.
“So what if I did?”
“So what? We haven’t had sex in five weeks!” He tosses the magazine to the side and sits up on his elbows. Then a devilish smile crosses his face. “Of course, you could come here and get me off too.”
“We’re both going to be late.”
Improvising, I step into briefs and move to the closet, where I pull a crisp, white dress shirt off its hanger and slip it on.
“Where are you going?”
“I have an interview,” I lie. “This morning. At the Kansas Aviation Museum.”
He comes toward me, his mood softened from anger into an annoyance that won’t let him get too angry with me.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn’t want to get your hopes up. What the hell do I know about airplanes?”
He smiles halfway and removes the safety pin bearing the blue ticket from the dry cleaner that’s pinned below the last button of my shirt. He tells me I’ll do great and snaps the elastic waist of my underwear before heading out.
I spend the morning at the Kansas Aviation Museum, not as an interviewee but as a patron. I walk past displays detailing Wichita’s large and largely unknown part in the history and development of American aviation, though because of my previous work at the city’s Historical Society I’ve long understood our claim to being the “Air Capital of America”: that Cessna and Beechcraft started here and later came Boeing and Learjet, the bomber contracts of World War II that brought the B-52 and doubled the city’s population practically overnight. There are replicas of some of the original planes, models of men in early flight suits. I stop before a picture of Clark Gable at the Wichita airport in 1932. He was on a stopover from New York to California. The photographer caught him with a cigarette in one hand and a bemused look on his face, a look that seems to say, Isn’t it weird to see me in Kansas?
The Goat Gland Doctor’s story, I learned, did not end in 1930 when his medical and radio licenses were stripped—not even close.
On my way home I pass by Women’s Health Care Services and park across the street. The protesters still gather near a tall chain-link fence that was installed to allow patients and workers safe passage to the building after Dr. Tiller was shot in the parking lot almost ten years ago by a woman the media called “an activist.” Will had been inside the clinic at the time, had heard the shots and called the police before rushing outside, uncertain whether the gun would be turned on him. Will was unharmed, and Dr. Tiller survived the attack, vowing to continue his work on behalf of women. Will told me the story on an early date, shortly after we were introduced by mutual friends at a party last New Year’s Eve, and I wondered aloud how he summoned the courage to continue working at the clinic, knowing there were people out there who could do such a thing. Good and honest and brave Will told me he had to—“Like George says, it’s too important not to”—and I thought I could love a man like that. I keep thinking maybe I’ll catch a glimpse of him now, walking a patient to her car or sneaking out for—what?—a cigar break, but I never do. When a man from the group spots me and starts walking toward my car, I leave.
I remember one day in the bar that summer when Johnny suddenly pointed to the television, where one of the networks was broadcasting the Democratic National Convention. It was the year in which a simple peanut farmer from Georgia was poised to win the presidency of the United States largely because of his ability to motivate untapped pockets of the electorate, knowingly or not, by professing his faith in evangelical Christianity.
“He learned that from my father,” Johnny said. I asked what he meant. “Dad was doing this,” he said, waving his bourbon and water at Carter, “forty-five years ago.”
The Goat Gland Doctor’s story, I learned, did not end in 1930 when his medical and radio licenses were stripped—not even close. Knowing that the governor appointed the state medical board, Brinkley announced within days of his defeat in court that he was entering the gubernatorial race. Revenge on his mind, he would win the election and appoint choice members to the board so that he could continue to practice in the state. Oh, and he’d be governor of Kansas. It was September, the primaries were over, but in the five weeks leading up to the election, he mounted an independent write-in campaign unlike any before.
He had advantages no other candidate had, namely a fortune in discretionary money to blow and a private radio station to get out the vote twenty-four hours a day. He appealed the revocation of his radio license, an appeal he would lose, but which nevertheless allowed him to stay on the air through the election. He spoke to his fans and followers over the airwaves, presenting himself as the underdog, the messianic outsider who was being persecuted by the establishment, just as Jesus had been. He used his private airplane to keep a campaign pledge to visit every county in the state when most politicians were still putting around in trains. He hired a New York PR firm—a new field then—to advise his campaign, to manage his image and stage photo ops for the press. He was a pioneer of the sound truck and sent his from town to town, playing recorded speeches from speakers bolted to the roof. But Brinkley’s real genius was the campaign rally. He turned his into spectacles such as had never before been seen, where little politics was spoken. Instead they were like old-time tent revivals, full of sermons, testimonials from audience plants, and performances by musicians from Brinkley’s roster of popular radio personalities. Fifty thousand people attended a rally here in Wichita, an unprecedented turnout for such an event.
The Republicans and Democrats knew they were in trouble, so they colluded to keep Brinkley from the capital. After all the standard election-day malfeasance to misdirect Brinkley voters and dump ballots, it was still too close to call, the closest election in Kansas history. So in the days afterward, as the danger of a full recount loomed, potentially exposing their fraud, the Republican and Democratic candidates made a deal. The GOP had control of the legislature, so the Dems would fill the governor’s mansion this time, and the two would duke it out again in two years when Brinkley, hopefully, had lost interest and moved on. Handshakes and champagne, smoking cigars in the smoke-filled room.
“Dad won it in 1930,” Johnny said, chewing loudly on the ice from his empty drink. “They stole it clear out from under him.” And he was right. If democracy had properly functioned, the people of Kansas would have elected the Goat Gland Doctor governor, which might not seem like a big deal, but when you consider that the man who won the gubernatorial election in ’32, Alf Landon, went on to face FDR in the national election of ’36, then you start to see the implications and possibilities of what a rich, proselytizing, anti-establishment candidate with the most powerful radio station in the country might have been able to accomplish nationally.
Ron and I rise from our lawn chairs and begin to waltz around the backyard, trying to avoid the croquet mallets and balls no one has used the entire evening, singing, as we always do, “You’re a Grand Old Fag.”
I couldn’t believe it, my hand barely able to keep up with Johnny’s dictation as I imagined the novel I’d write about Brinkley. Again Johnny pointed at the television, where Carter was smiling and waving at the large crowd before him shouting his name. “Took them a while, but they saw it worked,” he said. “Now they all follow his script.”
Will and I spend the night of July 4 over at my friend Ron’s place, grilling out and catching up as we watch fireworks from lawn chairs in his backyard. We drink light beer and white wine that chills in a red Igloo cooler of half-melted ice. It’s become a tradition of mine to spend the holiday at Ron’s. I’ve brought many boyfriends over the years. Ron recently split with his longtime partner, so it’s the first time I meet his young, new flame, Alex. Twenty-five years Ron’s junior, Alex is a knockout. Tall, blond, and fair-skinned, he seems to have fallen into a wormhole on some New York City runway and resurfaced in Wichita. When he excuses himself to go to the bathroom, we watch him leave the yard, and then turn our attention to Ron. He laughs, already buzzed, imagining what we’re thinking.
“I know,” he says. “It’s crazy. I’m old and depressed—I don’t know what he sees in me!”
“He’s magnificent,” I say.
“Is the sex as good as I’m imagining?” asks Will, elegantly sliding a cigar out of its silver case and raising it to his nose. I look at him like he’s just pulled a turd from his breast pocket. Ron shakes his head, leaning back in his chair, trying to summon the words.
“I haven’t been fucked like this in a decade.”
“I despise you,” says Will.
When Alex comes back, we continue to laugh and drink and drink, so that when the fireworks start we’re good and drunk. Ron and I rise from our lawn chairs and begin to waltz around the backyard, trying to avoid the croquet mallets and balls no one has used the entire evening, singing, as we always do, “You’re a Grand Old Fag” while the bombs burst in air above us. Grown men acting like children. Alex is amused, Will confused. He asks what the hell I’m doing. “I’m celebrating my country! Stop hating my freedom, you terrorist,” I say, and Ron cracks up as Alex joins us on the lawn. Will looks at me like, Do I even know you? then at Alex’s perfect ass, hermetically sealed in tight, dark denim. This is what Ron and I did in previous years with other men we loved longer than the ones watching us now.
It’s after midnight when Will and I arrive back home. I head to the kitchen to ward off the coming hangover and he upstairs to change. I pour us two tall glasses of water and spill six ibuprofen capsules onto the counter from the bottle I keep in the spice cabinet. I down mine and pour another glass from the tap, when Will appears in his pajamas. He comes up behind me and wraps his arms around me, kisses my neck. I don’t pull away. I feel the long-absent attraction move through me, floating up from my toes slowly like champagne bubbles. I turn around and we begin to kiss, pawing at one another, when I catch sight of the answering machine. “Look at all the messages,” I say. Fifteen, blinking red.
“Oh, no you don’t,” he says, pulling my mouth back to his.
“What if something’s wrong?” I break away from him, then turn back, adding seductively, “Or maybe it’s Alex asking to come join us.”
As I push the button on the machine, again he comes up behind me and begins rubbing my cock, breathing heavy on my neck. The messages are not from Alex. They are not from family members. One is a prerecorded message from the Democratic nominee for president, Old Stone Face, wishing us a happy Fourth of July and asking us to donate to his campaign. The other fourteen are from a man who identifies himself only as a disciple of Jesus Christ, who says Will works for a murderer and will go to hell for committing genocide against the unborn.
We’re silent a moment, and Will lets go of my hard-on.
“Can you imagine if he also knew I was gay?” he says. “Then where would he put me? Hell would be too kind.”
“Does this really not worry you?”
He starts to delete the messages.
“What are you doing? Shouldn’t we share them with the police, or keep them as evidence?” Then I say, “How the fuck did they get your number?” By which I mean: How the fuck did they get my number?
“Look, don’t get worked up,” he says, sipping his water. “This happens now and again. I used to get stuff like this occasionally, particularly around the elections. It’ll go away. George gets this all the time.”
“Yeah, and they tried to kill him, remember?”
“That was a crazy person. No one’s going to kill me, sweetheart.” He rises and embraces me. “This is what they do. They try to intimidate you, scare you so you’ll leave town. But this is the worst of it. After the election they’ll get bored and stop.”
“That’s four months away.”
“Things will be fine,” he says, taking me by the hand and leading me upstairs to the bedroom. “You need to relax.” He ushers me to the bed and begins taking off my clothes. At first it’s utilitarian, but then I realize he’s trying to start with me again. I’ve lost the mood, though. My head is foggy with drink and the aftertaste of the messages, but Will’s upon me. “Relax,” he says again. I try to roll away, but he holds me down, lowering himself to my middle. I tell him to stop, but he keeps going. “I want to make you feel good,” he says, kissing my waist and tugging at my underwear with his teeth. I squirm, and just as he’s taken me in his mouth I’m able to roll to the other side of the bed.
But, like all great tragic figures, Brinkley was really undone by hubris.
“If you want to make me feel good, rub my fucking feet,” I say and pull the comforter over my shoulder. It’s quiet, just our breathing, and then I hear him put on his clothes, followed by the sound of his footsteps padding down the stairs, the slamming of the front door.
And still Brinkley’s story wasn’t finished. The guy loses the election, can’t practice medicine in Kansas, and is barred from broadcasting on American soil, so what’s he do? It’s 1931, the Depression, and states are looking for anything that might provide an economic boost. He had his pick of several, but decided on Texas. And here’s the genius part: knowing radio waves pay no attention to lines on a map, he relocates his hospital to a little town on the Texas side of the Rio Grande and puts his radio station on the other side of the border. Angry with the United States over a recent policy disagreement, the Mexican government was more than willing to give all their wattage to this man who’d become such a pain in the Yankees’ asses. As a result, the 5,000 watts Brinkley’d had in Milford grew to 1 million in Villa Acuna, giving the Goat Gland Doctor the most powerful radio station in the world. Sheiks in Saudi Arabia, workers in Russia—on clear nights, just about anyone anywhere could pick up Doc Brinkley’s signal. Despite the hard times, his fame and fortune only increased throughout the thirties.
So what became of him? I wondered.
Perhaps understandably, Johnny was vague about his father’s demise. He’d only say he was a victim of a witch hunt by the federal government and the American Medical Association. I had to do my own research to truly find out. I learned that in the years leading up to the Second World War, Brinkley became increasingly enamored of fascism. He took his family abroad to Berlin to see the Third Reich firsthand, and at home he tiled his pool with swastikas and the Iron Cross. Increasingly, his stable of popular musicians, like the Carter Family, were bumped from the program lineup to make room for appearances by the vanguard of American fascism: William Pelley, Father Coughlin, Fritz Kuhn, Gerald Winrod. This did nothing to deter the attention of the US government and the AMA, the head of which, Morris Fishbein, was Jewish. But, like all great tragic figures, Brinkley was really undone by hubris.
In 1938 Fishbein published an article titled “Modern Medical Charlatans,” exposing Brinkley as a quack. Granted, Fishbein had been writing such articles about Brinkley for almost two decades and little had come of it, but Brinkley wanted to be done with the “dirty little Jew” who’d been pestering him all these years, so he sued for libel. Determining whether libel had occurred, however, meant examining whether the goat gland transplantation was a real and viable surgical procedure. Brinkley walked right into his own trap. Soon after he lost the case, charges of fraud came pouring in, as did the wrongful-death suits and court orders for unpaid taxes. Finally caving to US pressure, the Mexican government seized the radio station, closing it for broadcasting Nazi propaganda. Brinkley’s health worsened in the long process to adjudicate matters. Johnny was fifteen when his father died of cancer in 1942, bankrupt.
I was so excited by the prospects of my novel that I had trouble sleeping at night, turning it all over in my head, caught up in the epic sweep of a story that struck me as quintessentially American, insofar as it seemed to capture all that was great and terrible about this country. Despite his quarrels with the government, Brinkley loved the United States passionately, grateful for what it had allowed a poor kid from the mountains of North Carolina like himself to become. In fact, according to Johnny, his father often called himself an “Americanist.” Not an “American”—that wasn’t the right descriptive, didn’t quite capture the love and boosterism he felt for the United States. The Americanist. I knew this would be the title of my novel. But a problem was emerging: I couldn’t find a way into the story. Brinkley’s story was already written, and it was real. How could I improve upon, in a novel, what had actually happened, a true narrative that needed no fictionalization? Soon a writerly paralysis took hold of me, one from which I’d never recover.
On the day Will comes home early from work, I’m in the middle of what I’ve told him is my second full week at the Aviation Museum. Each previous morning I’ve showered, put on a suit, and left the house, sometimes going to museums, sometimes just driving around, and each evening I tell him about the strange lives of my invented coworkers, the comical encounters I have with patrons. It started off just as a way to get Will off my back about finding a job, then it became fun and I wanted to see how long I could pull it off before coming clean.
But on this day, when Will enters the house, he finds me sitting at the kitchen table watching the little TV.
“Busted,” I say, smiling.
“I knew it,” he says in a voice that is both surprised and not.
“Because you’re a bad liar,” he says. He turns off the TV and takes a seat across from me. “I had a feeling you’d be here. I just thought I’d find you in bed with someone else.”
“I’ve become asexual, remember?”
“Don’t joke now, Michael.”
“You came home because you thought I was cheating on you?”
“No, I came home because a bomb threat was called into the clinic. Dr. Tiller sent everyone home.” He pauses. My mouth opens, but words do not come out. “I was shaken up—we all were. I went to find you at the museum. But it was strange. Even before I went inside it was, like, I knew. I sat there, staring at the entrance of the building, and I knew: Michael’s been lying to me.”
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“Why have you been doing this?”
“I don’t always know when I’m lying.”
“Yes, you do.”
“Sometimes I do.”
“Tell me something true,” he says. “Right now.”
“I don’t like hurting people.”
“You are a grown fucking man,” he says, leaning across the table. “Tell me something.”
“I worry about you at the clinic, about these people who leave us messages and what they might do.”
“That’s sweet and unremarkable.”
“I don’t know why I don’t want to sleep with you anymore.”
“You’re doing it to push me away.”
“I don’t know why I crave closeness and then pull away when it comes, or why I’m so withholding, or why it’s so hard for me to be honest even when I know these are the reasons none of my relationships last.”
“Why did you ask me to move in if you knew this would happen?”
“I thought I loved you, and I thought that would make me change, but I don’t, and it’s only made me worse.”
“I see,” he says, rising from the table. Only now as I watch him leave the room, realizing it’s over, do I feel the desire to chase after him, but I don’t, because that will only twist the knife further. At the bottom of the staircase he stops, like he might say something, but then I hear his lumbering footsteps upstairs to the bedroom, the creak of the floorboards as he begins to pack.
After he told me his father’s life story, I saw less of Johnny. This was about the time all the packinghouses left Wichita for western Kansas, where there were no unions to deal with, and Johnny said he’d gotten a job as a foreman at one of the last remaining slaughterhouses. Then one afternoon in August he showed up at the bar. I didn’t ask whether he’d been fired or simply stopped going in, or if the job had ever actually existed. He seemed down. He tried to talk about his father again, but they were stories I’d already heard, stories he’d forgotten he told me. “Did I ever tell you how Dad was elected governor of Kansas but they stole it from him?”
I couldn’t get the picture out of my head: Johnny telling the story of his charlatan-fascist father to Che Guevara on the eve of the Cuban revolution.
I asked Johnny to tell me a story about himself, about what his life had been like. He perked up, and I realized then that throughout his life he’d been someone often asked or expected to speak about his father but never about himself. That’s when Johnny told me he’d been a Cold War intelligence officer, working for the CIA. I was dumbfounded. My favorite story was how he’d been embedded with the M-26-7 in Cuba. Desperately in need of press for the revolution, Fidel’s group of insurgents welcomed him. Most of the men had never seen an instant camera before and they asked Johnny to take their pictures to send home to family. I tried to imagine Johnny humping through the Sierra Maestra with a group of revolutionaries, memorizing fuel routes and jotting down snippets of overheard conversation to turn over to the Agency when he returned stateside. “Make sure you tell them we are not communists,” implored Fidel. Johnny became particularly close with Raúl Castro, and after a day of difficult hiking they’d drink rum under the starlight of the hot jungle. One such evening he confided in Raúl that his father had, for a time, been the most famous doctor in America. When Raúl asked what kind of doctor, Johnny demurred, but finally told him after another drink. Raúl began to laugh, spitting out the dark liquor. He said Johnny had to tell this story to their medic, calling out for him in the middle of the night, “Ernesto, ven aquí!” I couldn’t get the picture out of my head: Johnny telling the story of his charlatan-fascist father to Che Guevara on the eve of the Cuban revolution. It seemed impossible, but so had everything Johnny had told me. I didn’t know what was true anymore, or whether it mattered.
On what would turn out to be one of our last days together, Johnny asked how my novel was coming. He was calling me Mikey by then, like he was my uncle, like he’d known me a long time, though we’d been acquaintances for only five or six weeks. That’s exactly what he said: “Mikey, how’s the novel coming?” I was surprised. I could count on one hand the number of times he’d asked me a question more substantive than what I cared to drink. I was honest. I told him it wasn’t going very well. Maybe he was right, I said. Maybe I was wasting my time with fiction. How could it trump a story as wonderfully true as his father’s? “Ha! I told you,” he said, slapping me on the back. “Real people doing real things—that’s what folks want to read!”
Shortly thereafter he was gone. There was no goodbye, no final bender. He just stopped showing up at the bar. About a month afterward he put a Luger to his head and pulled the trigger, though I didn’t find out about it until much later, when I tried to track down a number or address for him to see what he was up to.
Assuming my pension from the state will still exist in a few years, I’d like to retire when I’m of age and see if I might begin to write again. I’d like to tell Johnny’s story. I filter through my memories of him on occasion, trying to remember the things he said and to imagine what his life was like before he decided to end it.
As it is now, I’ve taken part-time work in special collections at the Wichita State University library. Each day I pass by Women’s Health Care Services on my way home. I remember Will saying that the protesters would go away after the election, but it’s well into the new year and they are still holding their vigil outside the clinic. Sometimes I park and watch them, wondering if I might catch a glimpse of Will, but I never do. I look at them, these people I’ve long despised as intolerant and ignorant, and I try to imagine my way into their lives. In my mind I follow them home to their spouses and children. I sit down at their dinner tables and listen to their conversations and observe the ways in which they love one another, trying to understand how they believe in what they do, and it seems that if I could successfully do that, then I could also imagine a way in which they would act differently, would think differently, would stop their threats, pack up their vigil, and think of another means to serve and honor God. But each day when I drive by the clinic they are still there.
Andrew Malan Milward is a native of Lawrence, Kansas, and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He is the author of the story collection The Agriculture Hall of Fame, which was awarded the Juniper Prize in Fiction by the University of Massachusetts. He has served as the McCreight Fiction Fellow at the University of Wisconsin, a Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State University, and has received fellowships and awards from the Lannan Foundation, Jentel, and Yaddo. He lives in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where he teaches at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers and is editor-in-chief of Mississippi Review. “The Americanist” is from his forthcoming collection, I Was a Revolutionary (Harper, August 2015).