BOOK OF O’KELLS SHORT STORY: THOMAS EDISON MEETS HIS BASTARD SON
Copyright © 2017
All Rights Reserved
From The Novel BOOK OF O’KELLS: SINS OF THE FLESH
Jake O’Kell had never seen a house like this in his life, not even from the street: a house big enough to hold the biggest family and all of its branches, with one sprawling wing opening up into the limb of another, each hallway home to silver bowls and chalices as fine and as thin as so many wafers. The house seemed to him more like a museum than a home, room after room left immaculate for the dead at a cost to the living, though both species remained largely unseen.
“Come on then — what are you staring at?” Penelope Dwyer said to the boy. “The Archbishop runs a tight ship, you know.”
“He doesn’t call himself The Archbishop, you know.”
“And he’s not Your Grace or anybody else’s any more,” Jake O’Kell said.
“And what makes you so smart?”
“You’ll see,” Jake O’Kell said.
“We’ll see you in The Home soon enough, that’s what we’ll see.”
“What’s a Home?” Jake O’Kell said.
“The Home for them what nobody wants.”
“I’m not going into any Home, then.”
“We’ll see about that, smart boy!”
“I am smart.”
“Smart boys in this city shut the hell up!”
“That’s stupid,” Jake O’Kell said, “Father Will said I could stay here anyway, until he found the right home for me.”
“The right Home, smarty-face. For orphans.”
They came to a room small enough to be a closet for brooms, with a rolled-up mattress on the floor and a window not about to open.
“And just where do you think you’re going?” Penelope Dwyer said.
“With you,” Jake O’Kell said.
“What in the name of God for?”
“To find Edison,” he said.
“And how does Mr. Nothing from Nowhere find out about such a great man.”
“We got papers, you know.”
“I seen your papers up canal,” Penelope Dwyer said. “Papers not fit to wrap a fish up in. Or a fowl.”
“My mother met him once. My mother knew him. Before I was born.”
“Ain’t that just nothing for starters? Do you know what he looks like? That might be of some help.”
“I don’t remember.”
“A big nose like a hound dog’s,” she said. “A big sad rubbery face. And a haircut that doesn’t look cut. Why he’s ugly enough to be your father!”
“Maybe you should go to hell,” Jake O’Kell said too low for her to hear.
They went back down a back stairs that wound down on into the kitchen. A cast-iron pot with a mouth the size of a cannon was steaming on a cast-iron stove. The boy could smell boiled-down mutton: the sour seasick tang bubbled up into his throat. Penelope Dwyer swirled the stew with a wooden spoon the size of a good-sized oar.
“Have a cup,” she said. “You’re crazy enough.”
“Scat! Scat!” Penelope Dwyer screamed at the mad hatters mashed against the kitchen window. “Worse than cats, they are, because they can be quiet, like mice in a church.”
Jake O’Kell saw the first mad hatter he had ever seen, a blown-up face from the funny papers with rubbery upturned lips next to where his left ear should have been. Both of the hatters eyes were too white, too bug-eyed for sight, as if they both now bobbed half-heartedly on the broken coil of a spring.
“Look!” Jake O’Kell said.
“All alike, them hatters,” Penelope Dwyer said. “Faces like nightmares — or worse. From the shakes, don’t you know. You’ll get that way, too, stick around here for too long. All the men do, except the priests. My husband was one. Dead now, thank God. Drowned in the black dye — black as night he was that night in Clancy’s Home, like a ’coon laid out for all the world to see. Shook to death on the job, he did, or I would of killed him by now. He was one of the lucky ones.”
“You don’t know the half of it. Here — “ She handed him the spoon. “Make something of yourself. I’ll be back when I find the great man.”
The boy took the spoon and dug around in soft mutton and carrots hard as logs and potatoes like rocks. He waited until Penelope Dwyer had left the kitchen, and then he went the other way, down one wing and up another, nosing through the neverending nooks of the Archbishop’s home.
The boy knew that the great man was always in the papers, saying something about The Future or the future of his Works.
But where would a great man go to hide from the world?
If I were a great man, the boy thought, then I would find a place to think — a place long enough to lie down in, and wide enough to shut out the world.
“ — zzzzzzzzzZZZZZZZZZ — “
The boy heard a line of Z’s — but what could they be? — these Z’s hissing as if teeth bit into wood?
The boy followed the Z/sawing to the front of a closet door. He opened the heavy door but he saw nothing but musty cassocks and faded habits. Behind the robes, it looked as though a dusty rug had been rolled up and tossed against the foot of the closet without a thought.
Then the rug flopped over like a fish — the boy jumped up like he had been hooked.
For a moment, the boy was sure he had seen a ghost. But the rug flipped back over again with a grunt, and then the boy could hear what sounded like the crack of a spine. In the dark his eyes could make out a head and two boney shoulders — the body of a great big man using a big thick book as a pillow. The boy could see the virgin spine of the book was unlined, as if no one in the Archbishop’s house had ever opened up The Holy Bible.
The great big man pushed himself up from the floor and up to a great height in the hall.
“Birds chirping yet?” he said to the boy. “Fish biting?” He rubbed his eyes with thick, balled-up fists. “Speak up, son, get a load off your mind. What time is it — ? — never you mind — just give me my bearings straight — A-yem, PEE-yem — Year of Our Lord, et cetera et cetera — hell, no matter whichways, as long as they ain’t broke ground on that Cathedral yet. I’m ferocious hungry, son. Time to wake up and smell the bacon” — he sniffed the air like a hungry dog — “even when it smells like stew!”
“Are you — ?”
“What a sleep I had, son — slept as sound as a bug in a barrel of morphine. Slept splendid. Evidently I was inoculated with insomnic bactilli when a baby. Are you a dreamer, son? I dreamed that I was in the depth of space on a bleak and gigantic planet with the solitary soul of the great Napoleon as the sole inhabitant. I dreamed that he was amid the howl of the tempest and the lashing of gigantic waves high up on a jutting promontory, gazing out among the worlds and stars that stud the depths of infinity. Miles above him circled and swept the sky with ponderous wing the imperial condor, bearing in his talons a message — ”
The boy followed the great big man’s eyes upwards, as though he too might see a condor or two —
“ — then the scene busted — thought I was looking out upon the sea. Suddenly the air was filled with millions of little cherubs as one sees in Raphael’s pictures. Each, I thought, was about the size of a fly. They were perfectly formed and seemed semi-transparent. Each swept down to the surface of the sea, reached out both their tiny hands, and grabbed a very small drop of water, and flew upwards, where they assembled and appeared to form a cloud.”
“Really?” the boy said.
“Just what I dreamed up,” the great big man said. “What’s your name, son?”
“Of course now. Are you a boy that changes his name every day?”
“I didn’t used to be.”
“I’m in the same boat, of course. Or was. Changed my name some, too — else I mean people changed it up for me. Named me Thomas then called me Al then dropped them both like a hot spud — like I wasn’t half the man I was used to supposed to be, which I suppose I’m not. Now they got me down to one name, and not too many cee-gars, either.”
The great big man bit off the end of the cigar. He up-snorted with a loud koo-kooossshhh and then he held the snot up in there where nose met throat on the way to his chest.
“Me ready to spit and not a spittoon in sight! I don’t believe in the damn things anywho. There’s never a spittoon around when a man needs one, you know. It’s a proven scientific fact. Why I’ve run a few experiments on it myself — whenever I need to spit, that is.”
He let go with a stream of nicotinny spit that hit the spine of The Holy Bible on the floor of the closet.
“A man who has to swallow his own spit is a man without freedom,” the great big man said. “And a man without freedom ain’t worth a spit.”
So it was the great Edison — the boy could see that he had to be the great man, if not what the boy thought the face of greatness had to be.
“What did you say your name was, son?”
“Got to speak up, son. I don’t hear too good. Tell the truth, I don’t hear the half of it.”
“You going to keep that name for a while?”
“I used to be a Thomas, too,” the boy said. “But Jake’s my name now. Someone gave it to me. For good.”
“Where are you from, son, for better for worse?”
“Up canal. The last town.”
“Oh I’ve been to that town, yesirreee — been and gone, like a ghost. Thought it might be a site for my first Works until I had seen enough. You remind me of someone I knew there once upon a lonesome — a very pretty someone — but that’s another story — and it’s not even one I’ve ever told my Mina, tell you that. She’s my second Missus, you know. Funny how a man’s mind works. Orphan?”
“In a way, sir,” the boy said.
“You’re a good boy,” Edison said. “Anybody can see that. But when did the light go out, son?”
“I can see you’re carrying something around inside of you, son. I can see it’s a heavy load. Tell me and I might even hear it, deef as I am.”
Edison bent over from the top of his head, like there was a great creaking lever that lowered his ear to the boy’s mouth like a hearing trumpet.
“I want to make things,” the boy said.
“What kinds of things?”
“Things that make the world the kind of place it could be.”
“A boy after my own heart, eh?”
“Can you teach me how?”
The cranky lever pulled up on Edison’s craggy head.
“I can tell you this, son, if you have the ears to hear it. In trying to perfect a thing, I sometimes run straight up against a granite wall a hundred feet high.” Edison put his hands up high, against the wall that existed only in his mind. “If, after trying and trying again, I can’t get over it, I turn to something else. Then, some day — it may be months or it may be years later — something is discovered either by myself or someone else, or something happens in some part of the world, which I recognize may help me to scale at least part of that wall. Do you follow me, son?”
“I think so.”
“I never allow myself to become discouraged under any circumstances. I recall that after we had conducted thousands of experiments on a certain project without solving the problem, one of my associates expressed discouragement and disgust over having failed ‘to find out anything.’ I cheerily assured him that we had learned something. For we had learned for a certainty that the thing couldn’t be done that way, and that we would have to try some other way. We sometimes learn a lot from our failures if we have put into the effort the best thought and work we are capable of. If you never quit, you can never lose — do you understand, son?”
“All right then, Mister Jake O’Kell or whomever you may turn out to be. There’s your first lesson. Now here’s one more — ” Edison reached down and picked up the big thick book off the floor of the closet.
“Never sleep on a Bible. They call it The Good Book” — he wiped the nicotinny spittle from the spine with the sleeve of his greatcoat — “but it’s not much good for sleeping, tell you that. Leastways not a new Bible, and it doesn’t look to me like this one’s been cracked by saint or sinner. I like a Bible that’s been thumbed through ten or eleven thousand times — the kind that kind of fluffs up the Scripture like a feather pillow. That way the Old Testament just kind of seeps into your cranium like water running through dirt to make mud.”
He shoved the big book at the boy and the boy took the weight of it into both of his arms.
“There’s a lesson or three in there too,” Edison said, “if you can find it. Something about a big flood — pretty good tale, ask me. Wished I’d of writ it. Larger than life, that one. And then there’s the one about the loaves and them fishes — makes me hungry just to think about it. Course people take what’s in there and gum it up. They think that this world was created for them exclusively, and that a large portion of the Creator’s time was specially devoted to hearing requests, criticism, and complaints about the imperfection of the natural laws which regulate this mud ball.”
“What do you mean?” Jake O’Kell said.
“What a wonderfully small idea mankind has of The Almighty!” Edison lifted his hands up and out like he was a preacher. “My impression is that He has made unchangeable laws to govern this and billions of other worlds, and that He has forgotten even the existence of this little mote of ours ages ago. Why can’t man follow up and practice the teachings of his own conscience, mind his business, and not stick his nose into affairs that will be attended to without any volunteer advice?”
“Will you teach me?” Jake O’Kell said. “Please, Mr. Edison.”
“We can work something out — maybe. Course, that’s up to your pigheaded Right Holy Eminence, but if we can build my Sound Works here, then there’ll be work enough for every man woman child cat dog crow mule or baby lamb. Anything that walks talks caws crows baaas barks meows. Believe you me, son — that means you.”
“What’s a Sound Works?” “Schenectady’s the favorite, of course, because they already got my Machine Works — I guess that’s no secret if you read The World. But I like the Hat City, myself, for the Sound Works. The hatters look and act the way I dream. And I love to dream.”
From across the house, the boy heard a cry from the kitchen that had to be Penelope Dwyer.
“I’ve heard that before, deef as I am,” Edison said. “The demonic laughter of the amatory family cat.”
The boy made his way back through the Archbishop’s residence with The Good Book held against his chest — and with Edison humming all the while behind him like a schoolboy. When they came to the kitchen, the mutton was bubbling over like sewage backed up on its way to the sea: seared carrots without color, potatoes gone soft as spoiled summer squash, chunks of mutton steamed down to sinew.
Penelope Dwyer was standing up on a table, swatting at the stew with a broom as if carrots and potatoes were so many city mice. The boy could hear the muffled hoots and cackles of the mad hatters through the window: their rubbery faces smuffed up against the glass like hungry insects waiting to be mashed.
“Damn you, boy!” Penelope Dwyer shrieked between swats. “I tell you to stir a simple stew and what do you do?”
“I found him.”
“Me.” Edison came into the room bent over at the neck.
“Saints be praised!” Penelope Dwyer shouted.
“Over my dead body,” Thomas Edison said.