Crabcakes: A Memoir

Crabcakes: A Memoir

by James Alan McPherson

ISBN: 9780684847962

Publisher Free Press

Published in Literature & Fiction/Historical

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Sample Chapter



This time they are in their own car. This time it is the watching time of night. The eyes of the four men glow wisely in the luminous darkness of the car's inside. They seem bemused by the spectacle outside their cage. It is the witching time of night, the fall-time of the clock between 1:00 A.M. and dawn. One should not be walking the streets alone. The eight eyes know that the cage of their car only seems to be containing. It is the object of their eyes that is really contained. They are ancient white cats, snow leopards, now caught up in the lure of ancestral music. They know the lazy dance of sly attention before they pounce, There is no point now in running. Running only increases excitement and prolongs the delicious pains of agony. This is the red-dirted nighttime Mississippi road. They smile. No other cars are passing now. No other people are walking. This street, 33rd, leads eventually to Barclay, on the right, and one block further on are the lights of Greenmount, and far beyond those, distant as a star, the still-lighted Baltimore Memorial Stadium. Reggie Jackson has made a winning season there. But yesterday's game is over, and most people have gone home. Those eight eyes smile with the inebriated afterglow of celebration. Blood still pounds in the reptilian recesses of their brains. The blinking yellow streetlights are illusions, the distant white-star stadium a joke. That is the red-dirted nighttime Mississippi road. This is the primeval all-ancestored fear. Between those eight eyes and this patch of sidewalk is the only real universe. Five men, four white, one black, inspect each other over open space. The eight eyes take their time, stare blankly, sway musically. Graceful cobras inviting integration into a half-remembered rhythm. Any answering movement signals acceptance of the oldest of orders. Blood will respond to blood, obeying laws so ancient they seem amusing to remember now. Ancestral gods -- Thor, Wotan, Balder -- are watching through their eight eyes. "Do the outlanders fear? What do they fear? How do they show their fear?" And the answering ancestral voices: "They don't come by ones. They don't come by twos. They come by tens..." They stare with benign bemusement out of the car windows and into the cage the flow of life has made for them. "How do the outlanders show their fear?" Now comes back the memory of walking, shackled, in a coffle, down to the seaside and ships. Now returns the memory of fire in the cabin in the wooded country of South Carolina. Seventeen ninety. There is the regret over failing to save someone as the hungry fire burns. This has been the only purpose all along. All else has been preparation and illusion. Many thousands gone. They smile and nod like playful cats and sway like cobras. "I think that Carter will win." "Cowboys and silver dollars." "Why won't you take tenure?" "Biltomeer!" "You are arrogant, sir. You should not be so arrogant." There is self-confident laughter in their smiling. They know of the veld at sunset, red with dust and reptilian antagonisms. It is life's feasting time. But Barclay Street is only three or four more blocks up 33rd, and the star-lighted stadium is many more blocks beyond. Reggie Jackson has put it in the news. The additional $1,000 is only for the house. They seem to know that Carter will not win. Now they want to know how the outlanders show their fear. The old gods are asking basic questions. But for the amused alertness of their eyes, Barclay would be an easy run up 33rd. They are, however, too attuned to instinctive instructions. They are not drunk. A tribal conference is being held around the council rock in the reptilian brain. They are weighing the wisdom of Thor. They are nodding in democratic agreement. They are voting. Essential decisions are always made in such small rooms, through nuanced gestures, eloquent spaces of silence, a subtle emotional language. It is the better policy, in such small rooms, to look their god in the face. Think now of looking down on this from the rooftops of the world. Silver dollars. Eighty-six. This is the moment when "The Good Lord" comes into clearer focus. This is the moment for smiling back. It is the moment when the council is concluded. Now they speak. They speak like children in a singsong way. "Give me a C!" C "Give me a O!" O "Give me a L!" L "Give me a T!" T "Give me a S!" S (S S S S S S!) Now they laugh, aloud for the first time. One of them salutes. Then the tires squeal, teenagerly, as the car speeds up 33rd. In the distance, far beyond the lights of Greenmount, the powder-white lights of the stadium glow in the black predawn sky. Workmen are beginning to prepare it for the fall games.

Pompey's Line.

I remember.

That was around the year that Baltimore appeared in Nina Simone's song. I played the music over and over.

And they hide their eyes

'Cause the city's dying

And they don't know why.

O, Baltimore, ain't it hard to live,

Just to live?

I remember the first of the letters that came to me in Virginia. All of them said almost the same things.

Dear James and family.

Everything is fine. Thank the Good Lord. We are all fine hope you are the same. God Bless you. By By Mrs. Channie Washington, and Herbert.

She always sends an American Express money order for $86. The checks are always cashed immediately and the money is used for small-change purposes. The writing in the letters seems amusing at first. The grammar suggests someone used to speaking orally trying hard to express in written, formal form what is usually said aloud. It is the "writerly" intention inside the oral voice that is the source of amusement. It was the formality of the oral speech in the service of the mundane. It was like the gangster Luca Brasi saying to his Godfather, "Don Corleone, I am honored and grateful that you have invited me on the day of your daughter's wedding, and I hope that their first child will be a masculine child. Don Corleone, I'm going to leave you now because I know you are busy..."

I remember laughing a lot in those days.


November 1976-February 1980

Everything is fine. Thank the Good Lord. Hope you and the family are the same. May the Lord Bless you all. Much love. By By Mrs. Channie Washington, and Herbert.


December 1976-February 1980

It is necessary to run away from all such encounters.

It is necessary to run away from all such encounters.

It is necessary to run away from all such encounters.

It is essential to run away from all such encounters.

Run away from all such encounters.

Run away.



The rent checks are now budgeted carefully for living expenses. The mortgage on the house in Baltimore is still paid each month. But, all at once, like all major debts, the money for this comes from cash advances off credit cards. This is called "kiting." People employ this linkage between past and future time in order to remain respectable during the hard times of the now, when cash no longer flows as it once did, but might flow again in some future, as it once did in the past. This is the basis of all middle-class hope. The grammar in Mrs. Washington's letters is no longer, all at once, amusing. The simple statements are welcome now, and desperately expected, during the first week of each month. The $86 has now become of secondary importance. It is now the constancy of the words in the letters, the steadiness of the life behind them, that becomes the source of a very special nurture. It is the language and the feelings behind it. As the borders of this world and its systems push closer and closer, the letters seem to flow from a place beyond all systems. A very important kind of kiting is learned here. By re-creating in the imagination the attractions of the place from which the monthly letters flow, it becomes possible to push back the foreign frontiers that are closing in on the present. This is called "survival." By employing this kiting of the imagination, the future, and its possibilities and promises, is kept alive. Some prisoners of the present circumstance dream, while locked in their time cells, of family in the outside world. Others imagine beyond the unyielding circumstance of favorite bars and drinks, specific women, a special stretch of roadway, a loyal friend, even up into the environs of heaven. If one does not have sufficient imagination to imagine something beyond the closing-in borders of the now, if one cannot kite the debt of present circumstance against the surplus of some future, one will surely begin to die. If nothing in the future of the present seems permanent and fixed, one can always focus on, in the shackled circumstances of the now, the future enjoyment of a Maryland crabcake. Such exercises of the imagination keep hope alive.

I remember my self back then, thinking, It is necessary to run away from all such encounters. But toward something.

They declared me unfit to live said into that great void my soul'd be hurled

They wanted to know why I did what I did

Sir, I guess there's just a meanness in this world.



An antique maple box, scarred and unpolished, locked. Contents chosen with care, despite great haste in packing: certificate of birth, passport, selected papers containing essential facts. Essential contraband required in luggage in all such flights: lucky coin, rabbit's foot, scripts in Medieval Latin, on rice paper, of basic contentions: vita animae, liber orbitrium, gratis. Box polished and protected over a number of years, with ever-brightening glow of magnetic field outside shelf of storage adding life. Field fed by vital human energies, settling slowly into habits of vita animae, liber orbitrium, gratis...


Name adopted from the language of indigenous people -- Sac-Fox, Mesquakie, the remnants of the Sioux, Creek, and Cherokee Nations -- meaning in the Cherokee language "the place across the river." Mississippi River. The Great Father of Waters, running like the Nile from Minnesota to New Orleans through Abraham Lincoln's Egypt. Called by the Nations "medicine country." Rather than do violence to Space considered Sacred, indigenous inhabitants led settlers across in neutrality, offering kindness to those on their way westward to Nebraska, Wyoming, the distant territories. Those who stayed on settled peacefully, for the most part. Magic in the medicine field said to have remained intact, intense enough to send magnetic messages eastward through the air. Buxton, that celebrated point of integrated lights, thrived outside Des Moines, Iowa, for several generations. German dissenters, Catholics, Anabaptists, Mormons came here during all the middle years of the nineteenth century, to escape persecution, to put down roots. Society of True Lights settled at Kalona. Germans made their community at Amana. Mormons, escaping the destruction of Nauvoo, the early Chicago of Illinois, rendezvoused in the meadows of south-central Iowa. The Reorganized continued on southwesternly, into Missouri. Others stayed on. The rest trekked due westward, pulling carts behind them, and scattering sunflower seeds, in search of their own sacred shadows. Lebanese Arabs came later to the banks of the Cedar River, probably from Detroit, and made the first Islamic mosque, the Mother Mosque in North America. The Maharishi did not begin his community at Fairfield until the later third of this present century. But the markings of Masons, once extremely active here, can still be found in old churches and graveyards, along with family names no longer current. Mysterious Black Angels and alabaster shrines can still be seen in the parks and graveyards of some of the smaller towns. The Little Brown Church, of hymnal fame, is on display at Nashua. What Cheer, Iowa, a place name taken from John Bunyan's account of the Pilgrim's progress, sometimes attracts the curiosity of tourists passing through the state. Bunyan's account is the book behind the book said to have been dictated to Mr. Mark Twain. There is some opinion that Iowa was the territory Huck Finn was lighting out for. It is said Huck was in search of something in which he could believe when he encountered the runaway slave named Jim, who was also on the run toward the Nations.

In recent years, Iowa has been announcing itself internationally, for purposes still mysterious. It is, for example, a profound puzzle why the belief in transcendence has been relocated in a "field of dreams" on a farm at Dyersville. A Chinese student of space physics recently attracted more attention to the state by combining mathematics, American Western movies, and a rough approximation of the democratic ethos in his plot for revenge. The tragedy he imposed is said to have long-term, mysterious, transcendental meanings. So, too, the farm crisis, long drought, and the flood almost immediately afterward. The hardihood of the native people, during all such trials, is widely commented upon. Opinion claims they are being prepared for something. Such tests, it has been said, try the natural habits of the population. Here, seasons regulate habits. Form here still follows function. Routine inspires the approach to style. In work toward specific ends, as in nature, the fundamental ends of life are covertly celebrated as nothing more than normal. Speech is therefore plain and muscular. Simplicity is expected, embellishment and pretension politely discouraged. Until recent years, Iowa was said to be "the best kept secret in the country." The state has benefited, thus far, from the farsightedness, or the nearsightedness, of Easterners and Westerners. Inhabitants are only somewhat aware of the irony at the center of confusion over the whereabouts of the "I" States. Though the use of irony is little understood or employed here, except among the few with intellectual pretensions, most inhabitants of the state would just as well others never learned the difference.

Population: 3.5 million, and holding steady.

Unofficial Colors: Green (especially during spring and summer), Brown (during the fall), and White (winter).

Major Products: Corn, soybeans, winter wheat, pork, cattle, civility, peace, and healing.

Future: Unknown.

I recollect that time, too.

I remember that I rested in Iowa for many years.

Copyright © 1998 by James A. McPherson


Excerpted from "Crabcakes: A Memoir" by James Alan McPherson. Copyright © 1999 by James Alan McPherson. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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