“The Unsuccessful Biographer” by Dan Townsend

Part I, Chapter 1

Courageous Luke enters the arena of the Wild West Show for his final trick of the night. The dirt is loose¸ chopped in small clumps. He can feel the crowd’s staggered breath. He has been riding Philip the Horse three years, two of those years in this exact show, performing these same audacious feats of horsemanship.

Tonight in Philadelphia, Courageous Luke feels something awry in Philip the Horse’s gallop, an unusual tightness in his gait, the tendons of his shoulders rising conspicuously in his skin like the fingers of an heiress beneath her velvet cloak. Philip the Horse is an unbalanced carriage. Courageous Luke suspects his horse has gas, that someone poured beer in his trough, fed him a sausage or a nasty head of cabbage. These things had been known to occur behind the scenes at the Wild West Show.

Despite the awkwardness of Philip the Horse’s movement, their set goes well, and per their routine, Courageous Luke kicks Philip the Horse into a bouncing gallop as they circle the arena before their last trick of the evening. Courageous Luke will stand atop Philip the Horse’s saddle as he continues around the arena at an impressive speed. Courageous Luke will shoulder his Remington and shoot the door off a birdcage positioned on a three-legged stool in the center of the arena, sending three mourning doves flapping into the rafters, spraying their desultory feathers over the clapping throngs.

Bouncing through their second lap Luke uses his best Russian accent to whisper encouraging sentiments in the ear of Philip the Horse. He strokes his mane and wishes the horse a good performance by repeating what he’s picked up from the Georgian Riders who are from Georgia, Siberia, and Ukraine, nowhere near South Carolina. Courageous Luke knows very little Russian: hello, goodbye, bastard, penis that is big, penis that is small, vodka, potato, lavatory, vagina that is good, vagina that is bad.

Don’t worry, he wants to say, we’ll do great like always, but the only Russian he knows that could possibly house this thought is an old insult about a person’s mother. It has a comfortable sing-song quality that Courageous Luke imagines Philip the Horse enjoys, if for no other reason than he, himself, enjoys saying it. Courageous Luke’s bandying of this insult is permissible for two reasons. The first is that Courageous Luke has no idea what this piece of Russian means. The second reason is obvious: Philip the Horse speaks neither Russian nor English. He is a horse.


1.

Hezekiah dreamt of entering into treaties with blanket-wrapped Indians. He wanted to shoot buffalo from the mount of a charging steed. He pictured himself with a long coat flapping behind him when he robbed dining cars with Jesse James. He had heard about Indians from a traveling Methodist preacher who referred to them as the “lascivious savages of lands yonder.” The preacher gesticulated widely with his hands and eyebrows when he said “yonder,” the swinging motion of his features inculcating in young Hezekiah a spirit of curiosity, of wonder, for lands yonder.

The preacher was the most educated man Hezekiah had met, and though Hezekiah understood little of his philosophy and erudite speech, he acquired from the preacher a certain knack for mimicking facial expressions and exaggerating bodily movements to encode for his bumpkin audience a unique, wordless language.

Still, Hezekiah had asked his pa what “lascivious savages” were, and his pa had run his tongue between his top lip and his gums that were always throbbing with abscess.

His pa’s scarred fingers reached to Hezekiah’s chin and plucked a meandering hair that grew long above his Adam’s apple. (Hezekiah often toyed with these hairs during conversations in the field. It was a nervous habit. He would wrap the hair around his finger and straighten it again, staring off into what he now thought of as The Yonder, there being at this time in his life but only one yonder.) His pa made words out of a low hum like ripples are made out of still water,

He said, “I reckon them are savages that got what was coming to them.”

He twisted Hezekiah’s hair in his fingers before releasing it in the breeze. A wall of trundling purple clouds threatened to shorten their day.

Hezekiah was a tall boy, broad of chest, with a Roman nose and the well-placed cowlick of a London strongman. Philip Hezekiah Haley, dirty as he was with sweaty smears on the back of his trousers from working long days in the fields without proper undergarments, would go West one day.


14.

Courageous Luke won Philip the Horse off Ivan Who Lies Too Much. The exchange was the result of a card game that took place one night somewhere outside Boston. Ivan Who Lies Too Much had been upset and inebriated, as was his custom for that time of day.

He had stood, wobbling the small table in the middle of the dusty tent, and said, “Courageous Luke you have swindled me, and I shall vanquish you some time in the future.”

Everyone said, “Pshaw. Ivan Who Lies Too Much is exaggerating.”

Courageous Luke said, “You are drunk, and that has made you a bad card player. It is well known that I do not cheat at cards. Womenfolk love me. This includes your mother.”

Ivan Who Lies Too Much opened his mouth to say something, but everyone was laughing and no one would hear if he spoke, so he remained silent.

Before he could speak, a couple of riders sitting on the ground at the back of the tent, too drunk to attempt card games, argued briefly as to whether Ivan Who Lies Too Much should be renamed Ivan the Exaggerator, before deciding exaggeration was a form of deception falling under the definition of “Lying Too Much.” They decided the name change wasn’t necessary, but if they were going to change Ivan’s name, the most accurate name would be Ivan Who Lies Too Much, Especially By Means Of Exaggeration.

This conversation distracted the men in the tent, and Ivan Who Lies Too Much did not find a release for his anger. They all took him for a fool, his mother for a lusty trollop. That night he whispered into the darkness that he would avenge this humiliation, even though Courageous Luke had said he could ride Philip the Horse whenever he wanted. This kindness of Courageous Luke, a nicety not required of him as a stipulation of their wager, made him seem that much nobler. Ivan Who Lies Too Much seethed with anger, this rage compounding with the bitterness and negative attitude that were the hallmarks of his otherwise unremarkable personality.


Part I, Chapter 1 (second half)

When the horse stumbles, pitching forward in a cloud of hooves and dust, the crowd gasps. They have heard much of these brave Russians. They wear kerchiefs and long mustaches. Their chests are wide, their arms and shoulders bulging, unlike those of the men of Philadelphia who remain buttoned-up into the evening. At their smartly pinched gullets satin ascots dimple fashionably, billowing as if inflated by their bodies’ own systems of respiration.

Their voices choked, they tell one another that this is part of the Wild West Show, the Georgian Riders being the last act before the yowling Indians circle the arena beating their war drums. This is the last trick of that penultimate act. It is a spectacular feat of survival, like a man shot from a cannon, like an Oriental sword swallower, like anyone who entreats death to come during the cessation of applause.

It is another of their tricks, they think.

Then someone says it: It is part of the show!

Through the smoke of the bleachers and the mist of kicked-up dung and sawdust, they watch the rider climb to his feet and stumble to the wall. He holds his cheeks as if to keep his head – his vision – from undulating. His eyes are wide, his mouth quivering with the beginning of a thought. Men dispersed throughout the bleachers make innocuous comments about bells ringing and stars being seen.

He took a good wallop! These men say. He will continue to feel that when the sun crests upon the horizon marking the start of a new day!

Their comments fade when the rider attempts a few steps and falls face down into the muck of the arena floor. It is the Show’s last night in Philadelphia and a noteworthy odor rises from the dirt.

Among the commenting men in the crowd are boys who will circumvent horseback riding from this moment onward.


Prologue

Courageous Luke is being interviewed about his life in the early Westerns. His Alabama drawl is impressive, though he hasn’t seen Pickens County since his mother, who was demure and descended from wide-hipped West Alabama sharecropper stock, died back in twenty-seven. He was already a star of the Westerns by then, discovered by chance on a train bound for St. Louis. The producer who spotted him in the dining car remarked often that he had never seen a young man of such statuesque build adorn himself with a silken neckerchief. Truly, it enlivened the sober tones of reality while endowing its wearer with an ageless heroic mystique.

He would also become famous for his lacinated shirtsleeves, his lopsided smile and broad chest that drew comparisons to the swelling hull of Noah’s ark.

Now on his deathbed, after months of sickness and countless balls of blood-soaked handkerchief, the interviewer positions his microphone close to the dying man’s pillow. The interviewer’s intentions are noble, and his subject has only agreed to allow his biographer a few minutes at his bedside to reconcile misunderstandings that have, his entire life, plagued his conscience. The interviewer promises his dying subject that his story will be told fully and truly. Then he asks Courageous Luke, (as he prefers to be known) “Why is it you left the Wild West Show?”

With his mind distracted, perhaps by thoughts of his own mortality or maybe the simple crankiness of discomfort brought on by the headache pain he experienced since the day of his accident, Courageous Luke tells the interviewer, “Listen to me you ugly bastard. It’s Ivan that done in my beautiful gelding Philip the Horse, and I swear to Moses, I never meant to be disrespectful of his dear mother!”

This sends Courageous Luke into a coughing fit that signals the terminus of the interview, this denial unfortunately marking the last recorded utterance of silent film star Luke Knox, a man often seen and rarely heard.


3.

Luke Knox was born Philip Hezekiah Haley, originally from Pickens County, West Alabama, in a country wracked by poverty and red clay. The economic turmoil caused by freed men competing with poor white sharecroppers for a pitiable lot of arable land sent many young men away from their ancestral homes in search of gainful opportunity.

Hezekiah’s mother and pa farmed a corner of land that would grow cotton they picked by hand. Hezekiah slept on a mattress made from yellowed grass and did not often notice the bugs nipping the skin of his ankles or crawling in the hair on his neck. Hezekiah’s pa was a lecherous man, who sucked his gums as he pleasured himself underneath shade trees, leaving his sons to toil under the burdensome Alabama sun. Their bags of cotton were gray and of inferior quality compared to the ginned product coming off the farms upriver.

“I will leave this place, Pa.” Hezekiah said, unslinging his bag of pickings, but his father did not look up from his masturbating. “I will leave you to encumber yourself with sin.”

Hezekiah, always curious about his namesake, would go see the traveling preachers and ask them about Hezekiah from the Old Testament. In the process he’d learned much about religion and his father, whom the preachers called a “vile fornicator.”

Hezekiah never spoke to his father again. He took his cotton bag and filled it with cheese and bread made from beer his pa had let sour after losing consciousness one Sunday afternoon. He took his extra pair of coveralls and his felt hat, and he departed. He cried openly when he reached the lock and dam where a Scotch-Irish ferryman asked him if he were “Momma’s fancy lad.” If Hezekiah were not now a Methodist come through the Pentecostal fires, he would’ve snatched that coot by the throat and thrown him headlong into the wretched mud, for Hezekiah was strapping and cast a formidable silhouette.


Part I, Chapter 1, Section 3

Courageous Luke walks with a limp from this moment on. He finds it impossible to locate the balance and confidence required for many of his tricks.

As for Philip the Horse, a rusty old nail is discovered driven through his hoof. He has contracted tetanus. Courageous Luke must shoot him, but when the time comes, when they are scheduled to depart for their next performance, Courageous Luke is not courageous enough. Ivan Who Lies Too Much steps forward, setting the muzzle of his revolver under the beast’s awesome mandible and sending a cloud of cranial detritus into the bright yellow rays of early morning.

“Maybe now we can be continuing onward with our travel,” he says as Philip the Horse withers in a roadside heap.

By the time all hangovers clear that afternoon, they near the train station at the center of the city. No one knows Courageous Luke has packed his things into an old potato sack and bought a ticket to St. Louis where he will join the church of a preacher he admires. The preacher will guide him like the storied pillar of flame. Methodists prosper in Missouri.

He shoulders his potato sack and turns to the Riders who are pungent from their alcoholism. He says, “It has been a pleasure knowing all of you. I have long considered you my true family. I thank you warmly for all you have taught me. I arrived here an ignorant boy. And I am now a skilled rider and full-grown man. As you all know…” He clears the hardness from his throat and allows a few quick tears to run over his cheeks. In his best Russian he says, “Women folk love me. This includes your mother.”

He turns and leaves their caravan before he loses control of his emotions. Their laughter will haunt him until the day he dies.


Part I, Chapter 1, Section 2 (first sentence)

Before Philip the Horse stumbled, throwing him into the arena wall, Courageous Luke Haley had stood tall even among the heroes of the Wild West Show, and though his great American adventure would not end this day, he would never regain the surety of conscience – the inner calm – that once defined his character.


4.

Hezekiah met a traveling revue on the road in Crittenden County, Mississippi. This was a despicable land, inhospitable and full of the devil. The line of wagons had stopped in the rutted dust to chase down an African orangutan that had escaped its cage and made up its mind to hide in the brambles, hurling feces at the men attempting to obtain his capture.

Hezekiah, crestfallen, travel weary and homesick, exhausted of body and spirit, knew these men were his blessing from God, his saving grace.

“I will work for food and what travel accommodations you are able to provide,” he said.

The man trying to capture the orangutan kept his beard tied up with string, like sausage links made of dry brown fuzz. He laughed and said, “Help me catch this monkey, you jackass!”

Hezekiah ran heedless into the Mississippi weeds, unschooled in the guile and awesome strength of monkeys.

This was Hezekiah’s first job in the entertainment industry. It was an Amazing Act of Courage.


11.

“No,” Ivan Who Lies Too Much said, drunk yet again. “Like this. Womenfolk love me. Try that.”

Courageous Luke tried it, the syllables hard and ill-fitted to the geography of his mouth, “Women. Folk. Love. Me.”

“Good. Yes. This is better,” Ivan Who Lies Too Much Said.

“Now. This includes your mother.”

“This. Includes. Your. Mother.”

“Say it again.” Courageous Luke said it again. Ivan Who Lies Too Much laughed so that a worm of snot unfurled over his top lip.

“It is a humorous language,” Courageous Luke said as if conceding an opposing point in a casual argument.

“You have to say it when you take tickets before the show. I will teach you more riding tricks. To each person, what do you say?”

“Womenfolk love me. This includes your mother.” Ivan Who Lies Too Much laughed with the sound of flapping horse lips. He untied his kerchief and slung it around Courageous Luke’s neck.

“Every person whose ticket you take. You have to do it. You have to wear this too. You have to.”

When Ivan Who Lies Too Much rose from his stool, he stumbled into the side of the tent causing a tie-down to snap and the canvas to sag in that spot. He lay on his back and he laughed and laughed.


Part I, Chapter 1, Section Three (Last Paragraph)

Luke would often think of the camera as an admirer, a penitent sinner before the absolving hand of the Lord, the eye of God peering down Abraham’s threatening blade into the pale of Isaac’s round, boyish tummy. He would scowl upon the lascivious savages as if they were the men who drove his mother to an early grave. His story has many parts, and it is difficult to say whether it is even the story of a movie star or a congeries of disparate and often contradictory yearnings confounded in one humble body. Sitting on the train that afternoon, regaling the film producer with tales of his travels and confusions to that point, Luke sensed in himself a pull – a call – toward the films the producer described. Mimicking the frame the producer made with his thumbs and forefingers, Luke imagined a reckonable yonder through which he could see a version of his true self.


19.

At the beginning of his movie career, Luke Knox attended countless soirees, openings of nightclubs and dinner parties with famous politicians and artists. One night, slightly drunk and in need of a reason to approach a lovely young baroness from Kiev, Luke decided to ask a question he should have asked long ago. He sidled up to the baroness when she broke away to use the lavatory. She was having an affair with an old man who owned a once great newspaper now in decline. The rumor was that the newspaper man was trying to sell his company, but no one was buying. He had worked himself up from unloading dead chickens from boxcars, and he would be destitute by the end of the year. He attended parties with the baroness, an exquisite female half his age, a clothes horse in the first degree who enjoyed being seen in all the latest Paris fashions. He went to the party for her, though she would never remarry and thus abdicate her tsarist titles. Their affair was an open secret.

“Baroness,” Luke said, his Alabama accent surprising her. Luke did not speak much, and the severity of his drawl stunned the blue-blooded partygoers. “Will you tell me the meaning of a certain something? It is in your native tongue.” Luke’s cowlick had come loose and a coil of hair spun down his forehead. He licked his palm and smoothed the hair back into place as he said, “Womenfolk love me. This includes your mother.”

His pronunciation was near perfect though he had only thought those words for the last three years.

The baroness slapped him and ran to her paramour. Already roiled from bitterness and the strain of playing the garrulous optimist for the pleasure of the evening’s braggarts and pedants, the newspaper magnate charged Luke. Sharp breaths were drawn and a circle formed around the combatants. Candles fell from elaborate holders.

Although the newspaper owner didn’t have enough force to bring the cowboy to the ground, he sent Luke stumbling backward, toppling an end table, and drawing the attention and ire of all in attendance. Once Luke gained his balance, he was able to pull the newspaper man off him and punch him solidly in the face, breaking his nose with an eggshell crunch. There were smears of blood. Luke Knox – aware of his celebrity status and the moribund witnesses shrinking around their champagne flutes – slipped into his showman role, rolling his shoulders back and smirking to showcase his trademark dimples. If he didn’t say something, the newspaper man would recover, and in his desperation, connive to make Luke the villain of the scene. In that moment, he thought over all of the events and memories of his life.

He said, “There’s a man that got what was coming to him.”

In the morning, when the newspaper man’s competition broke the story of the silver screen cowboy punching out a crazy old drunk at a party, Luke became a legend. His story was told in Alabama and Siberia and Philadelphia. The story was repeated as if all who’d heard the tale had been present to witness the events unfold, as if all parties had made the personal acquaintance of the hero. It was the kind of story that was too good to resist claiming for oneself.


Dan Townsend has work forthcoming in Drunken Boat. The word he mispronounced as a child was ‘cupcake’. He called it ‘pupcake’. It was adorable.

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