Lee At­wa­ter’s Apoc­a­lyp­tic Dream (1991)

The Iowa Review - - FRONT PAGE - Camp­bell mcgrath

Some nights I dream again of how it was when I was whole and hale, un­hooked from this can­cer­ous IV, un­teth­ered, un­apolo­getic, when I was King of the 1980s, Iron Lee, World-shaper Lee, white­boy Lee with a gut­bucket Tele­caster buck­led to my hip, be­cause I’m real with the mu­sic, the blues be­long to me be­cause I de­sire their grace and hu­man­ity like a soul or the con­science I hear drip­ping all night but can­not still or tap, like the ac­cents I slip into with­out notic­ing, talk­ing jive with the broth­ers at the gas sta­tion, my beau­ti­ful soul broth­ers.

Even then I know the peo­ple will be­tray me, the pres­i­dent will not at­tend my fu­neral, as a mas­ter shies from the stench of the faith­ful dog ly­ing dead at his feet.

I know be­cause it is my prov­i­dence to have gazed into the se­cret heart of the repub­lic and seen the lies and the truths in­ter­min­gled there, my ge­nius to have un­der­stood that lies are a kind of truth if they get you what you want.

That’s how the dream be­gins, with the want­ing and the get­ting, the vic­tory of stolen kisses in Times Square, al­ready the mir­a­cle ap­pli­ances whis­per­ing chromed pro­pos­als to the roost-ready gals and home-com­ing guys newly en­listed for the Great War of Ma­te­rial Con­sump­tion, boom-boom chil­dren now sprung and run­ning loose across ful­some lawns and the finned cars evolv­ing like pre­his­toric sharks back­ward up the lad­der, Elvis emerg­ing, the hill­billy hep cat, the GI, the rocker, the lounge act, the gold-suited Protes­tant apoth­e­o­sis of the dream, there it was, pneu­matic and buffered and fluted with rock and roll,

the world I would in­herit, ac­quire, study, shape, a new world made lit­eral in the atom-spray of democ­racy, the po­lit­i­cal fact of it amid the an­ti­cli­max of Cold War, which too would end in the un­cer­tainty of vic­tory, which way to turn, the dis­il­lu­sion­ment of hege­mony, the anx­i­ety of in­flu­ence, sow­ing the soil of the con­quered with golden arches and KFC, Elvis in the house of suede with his pills and vomit, sor­row­ing Elvis, in the end, no rhythm, only blues.

His death was a fraud, of course, a myth, a spe­cial op, top clear­ance, eyes only, though the clues were ob­vi­ous, the cha­rade of the mis­spelled tomb as empty as Christ’s—suf­fice to say he slipped away, he was en­abled to slip away, to es­cape the drugs and the boys and the un­der­age girls—cia, NSA, the de­tails re­main ob­scure, the agency unim­por­tant.

He lived in a cabin in Mon­tana, he lived in Ne­vada, a her­mit in a hut of scrap wood amid the an­cient bristle­cones on desert peaks, ex­chang­ing se­crets with Basque shep­herds and Navajo shamans, ab­sorb­ing their sere wis­dom, wiz­ened now, near-im­mor­tal him­self, leathered and glo­ri­ous and tried in the stony prov­ing grounds like some Old Tes­ta­ment prophet re­turned to us, at that mo­ment, for divine and ex­quis­ite pur­pose.

And so we dressed him in a power tie and put him on the stump and the num­bers were in­sane, the polls unan­i­mous, he was univer­sally electable, any state in the union, red and white and blue, two un­event­ful years in the Se­nate and he was ripe for the top, big­ger than Kennedy, Rea­gan, Lazarus.

Some­times at the ral­lies we thought that the arena might col­lapse with the sheer im­ma­nent joy of his be­liev­ers, a kind of love I have dreamed all my life of find­ing, dreamed of cre­at­ing and re­fin­ing to suit my pur­pose, and I made no mis­takes, took no prison­ers, he smiled and nod­ded his way to the White House and then he was be­yond me.

Be­yond the grasp of the agen­cies and ca­bals and in­ter­est groups and coun­cils of power, be­yond even the money that made slaves of us all.

He was pure and in­vi­o­lable, eman­ci­pated, an em­bod­i­ment of free­dom and jus­tice and of our lives and times and what we stood for, the cho­sen son res­ur­rected and un­leashed with power to rule the globe, to guide us or free us or save us—or what?

To push the but­ton. To rain black fire from the sky. To com­mand the wait­ing squadrons to rise from the plains of Ne­braska, the Po­laris sub­marines and hard­ened si­los dis­gorg­ing their mis­siles across the pole to­ward the vast Asi­atic in­te­rior, va­por trail and mush­room cloud

our em­blem, and more, still more, ever more, not just north and east but west and south, not just the Chi­nese and the Rus­sians but the French and the Pak­ista­nis and the Brazil­ians and the Saudis, Turks and Czechs, Fi­jians, Kh­mer, Ma­sai, friend and en­emy alike con­signed to the flames, en­gulfed in the fi­nale of tracer lines across com­puter mon­i­tors,

and it was real, it was our des­tiny, cho­sen and in­evitable, and I was not weep­ing or gnash­ing my teeth there, in the black bunker, in the dark­ness be­neath Cheyenne Moun­tain, I was mad with delight, tears like slot cars rac­ing down my cheeks, not wish­ing it but none­the­less ex­pect­ing it and be­liev­ing in it, joy­ful and com­plete when Elvis be­gins to sing, in his white robes and long beard, in the cav­ern of Strate­gic Air Com­mand, not kitschy, not sad or happy or good or bad but sim­ple and just and true,

mine eyes have seen the glory, as the world ex­plodes in the fire of our right­eous­ness, he has tram­pled out the vine­yards,

and I’m with him now, ris­ing into a fun­nel of white light, ris­ing from the pale and dam­aged body, giddy with the sim­ple changes and pro­gres­sions, hump­ing out those blues chords like rev­er­en­tial moon­beams bounced off or in­gested, ris­ing from the hos­pi­tal bed with the smile of a child, play­ing my gui­tar, free at last.

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