“Team Player”

I took exactly one screenwriting course in my undergrad, and this was the final product. I had a ton of fun writing this story, but I was also painfully aware the entire time that screenwriting is just not my genre. I’m sure my professor would agree. We had a strict page limit, so it’s pretty short.

I wanted to write something funny and a little dark. My parents raised us kids on The X-Files; they carted around boxes full of episodes recorded from television to VHS for years, before the invention of DVDs (and later, streaming). My parents would tape and watch it before we could, so they could vet the episodes that they deemed “too scary,” which we just watched later when they weren’t home. We probably sacrificed quite a few home movies and recital tapes to the preservation of that show each week. It remains one of my favorite television series to this day. I wanted to write a screenplay that had a similar weird-but-cheeky, doesn’t-take-itself-too-seriously kind of feel.

I recently stumbled across this again while organizing computer files (isn’t adult life thrilling?) and it’s definitely not going anywhere else, so it might as well go here.

“Team Player”

EXT – DR. AARON BRIDGER’S RESIDENCE – DAY

Seated inside a modest sedan idling in the drive of an equally modest townhome, DR. AARON BRIDGER, a short, paunchy, and overtly earnest man in his mid-fifties, fastens his seatbelt and meticulously adjusts his rearview mirror. He puts the car in reverse.

CUT TO:

The sedan rolls slowly backwards off the driveway. An expensive imported roadster peels around the corner, gunning down the sleepy suburban lane. The sports car narrowly whips past the back end of Aaron’s sedan, the anonymous driver laying on the horn and flipping his middle finger out the window.

DRIVER

FUCKERRRRRRRRRRRRRR— (fades with distance)

CUT TO:

Aaron cringes in his seat, sheepishly smiling, waving the driver on. His fingers unconsciously straighten the color-coded row of pens nestled inside the plastic well of his shirt pocket.

AARON (to himself)

Sorry, sorry.

INT – COFFEE SHOP – DAY

Aaron waits in the queue of a bustling big-chain café. An apathetic TEENAGE BARISTA punches buttons at the register.

TEENAGE BARISTA

Hi. Waddylitbe.

AARON

Pardon?

TEENAGE BARISTA (with exaggerated inflection)

What. Will. It. Beeeee.

AARON

Oh—yes, uh—my apologies. Ah, dark roast, please, size medium, with cream. Please. Thank you.

TEENAGE BARISTA

Medium dark roast. Milk or cream?

AARON

Uh, yes. Cream. Please.

TEENAGE BARISTA

Three thirty-six.

Aaron pays with a five, and the cashier looks quite expectantly from the tip jar to Aaron as he begins to slip the dollar bill and change back into his pocket. Aaron awkwardly removes the bill and drops it into the plastic bucket. As he does, the next in queue—a HANDSOME PATRON in a sharp dark suit—nudges his way past Aaron.

HANDSOME PATRON

Dark roast. Size medium. With cream.

TEENAGE BARISTA (flirtatious, smiling)

Would you care to sample a muffin today, sir? Freshly baked.

Aaron sidles to the pickup counter and waits patiently. Patrons peck drinks off as they’re called by an equally indifferent adolescent barista.

TEENAGE BARISTA #2 (yells, deadpan)

Medium dark roast with cream on the bar.

As Aaron reaches for the cup, Handsome Patron swoops in to snatch it off the counter.

AARON

Oh—uh—I’m sorry, I think that’s my drink—

HANDSOME PATRON (examines side of cup)

Medium, dark roast, cream. Nope, mine. Thanks for the concern, though, pal.

AARON

Well, yes, but I—

Handsome Patron turns on an expensive Italian leather heel and makes his way to the exit, leaving Aaron gaping and stammering protests in his wake.

CUT TO:

EXT – LUNAR AND PLANETARY INSTITUTE (PARKING LOT) – DAY 

Aaron emerges from his sedan, briefcase and coffee in hand. The car is parked with a dozen or so others in a large rectangular plot of packed earth. Fields of dull yellow grain, sporadically punctuated by wandering cattle, expand in every direction. A handful of dusty golf carts are lined next to a small security office, the arm of a barricade blocking the pathway to a sprawling white mansion on top of a low hill. A sign in front of the small guard post is emblazoned with the NASA logo.  

As Aaron approaches the security office, BILL HAMM, a jovial African-American man in his early twenties, emerges from the opening and gives Aaron a friendly wave.

BILL

Hey, Doc. You’re late! I was starting to wonder if you called off today. You wanna ride?

AARON

No, Bill, though I appreciate the offer.

Aaron glances down suspiciously at the paunch above his belt line.

AARON (wearily)

I, ah, could use the exercise.

BILL (grins)

Ha! Well, couldn’t we all. You sure, though? Not the best day to be strolling into the office at half-past nine. The Director was in rare form this morning. All but screaming at some poor soul on the other side of his phone. Something ‘bout that Caltech project you mentioned.

AARON (alarmed)

Caltech? Do you know—Uh. Never mind. No, no ride today, Bill, thank you. No doubt that mess will be waiting for me upstairs. All the more reason to put off my arrival a few minutes more.

Aaron sighs and takes a sip of his coffee, then grimaces.

BILL

Something wrong, Doc?

AARON (wearily)

No cream.

CUT TO:

Aaron trudges up the dirt path, breathing heavily and visibly sweating under the blazing Houston sun. He pauses by the fence lining both sides of the quarter-mile stretch of road leading to the mansion. A few yards from the fence, a black HEIFER regards him with beady suspicion.

AARON (quietly and a little self-consciously)

Moo. Moooo.

The cow continues its stare, unmoving.

AARON (louder, with greater effort)

Moooooo.

HEIFER (pauses)

Moooooo.

Aaron, now smiling, turns and continues his way up toward the mansion. The cow turns and walks away from the fence, and as it does, the audience sees a complex brand—a series of small connected shapes reminiscent of common crop-circle patterns—burned on the Heifer’s rear flank.

CUT TO:

INT – LUNAR AND PLANETARY INSTITUTE – DAY

Aaron stands in an extravagantly built but governmentally furnished break room—plastic tables, cheap white fridges, microwaves, an industrial double coffee-pot—an odd juxtaposition to the silk wallpapered walls, chandeliers, vaulted ceilings. Aaron frowns at a plastic container of powdered non-dairy creamer in his hand.

JOHN DEARBORN—a bearded and burly man, frenetic with energy, 40-something and business casual—bustles into the breakroom.

JOHN

Bridger! Just the man I was looking for. You making your own hours these days or what? Haha!

John slaps Aaron meatily on the back. Aaron looks from the creamer to John, equally displeased to see them both, and says nothing. John’s slap has inadvertently knocked Aaron’s rimless bifocals halfway down his nose, and he carefully readjusts them.

JOHN (as he snatches the creamer from Aaron’s hand)

Our government repossesses a sixty-million-dollar mansion for Space Flight Simulation but can’t find the budget for real milk. Horseshit! Haha!

John slaps Aaron on the back again, seemingly serving as punctuation to each joke. John adds the creamer to his own coffee and puts it away in the cupboard without returning it to Aaron, who looks on with strangled exasperation.

JOHN

Listen, I hate to do this to you, Bridger…

AARON

I can’t work late for you, John.

JOHN

…But the girlfriend and I are headed to Surfside for the weekend…

AARON

I already covered your lab three times this month—

JOHN

What? No, Wilson’s got the lab. The fuck else are interns good for? Haha!

AARON

So…

JOHN

But I do need you to cover the past thirty days’ data entry for the Edelson test before Monday.

AARON

The past thirty days?

JOHN

You got it. Before Monday! Don’t forget! I owe you one.

John slaps Aaron on the back again as he heads briskly out of the break room.

AARON

No! John—

JOHN (waving out the door)

No doubt this’ll earn you some points with Lansing! Thanks a ton!

Aaron throws his coffee cup in a blue recycle bin.

CUT TO:

INT – DIRECTOR LANSING’S OFFICE – DAY

Aaron sits in a plastic swivel chair, across from DIRECTOR DARRYL LANSING, a sharky man, mid-sixties, with oddly oversized features. A wooden desk—not plastic, denoting his rank—separates the two men, and Lansing leans forward from his leather chair, regarding Aaron with thinly veiled disdain.

LANSING

Everyone has to pitch in a little more every now and then, Dr. Bridger. I do not think my request is unreasonable.

AARON (sulkily)

No, sir, it’s not unreasonable. It’s just… I’ve already got Dearborn’s data for the last month to get compiled—

LANSING

No one likes a martyr, Dr. Bridger.

AARON

That’s really not the—

LANSING

I think you would understand by now, Dr. Bridger, that I do not readily suffer whiners. In fact, I might go as far as saying that I hate whiners.

Lansing stares down Aaron. Aaron looks away sheepishly and goes to work straightening the pens in his pocket protector.

LANSING

I would think you would understand by now that what I need are team players. People who are team players move up in the ranks, Dr. Bridger. Your inability to properly manage your workload makes me seriously question whether you have the commitment to move onto something as big as, say… the Caltech project. I know you’re the current sweetheart for Head of Research, but my recommendation—or lack thereof—will have significant impact on your consideration for that position.

Lansing leans further over the desk, his eyes narrowing.

LANSING

So, are you a whiner, Dr. Bridger, or a team player?

CUT TO:

EXT – LUNAR AND PLANETARY INSTITUTE – NIGHT

The heavens are dark; this far away from the city, a hundred thousand stars blaze across the big Texas sky. Aaron, looking somewhat disheveled, dark circles clinging to the bottom of his eyes, raises his arms above his head in an exaggerated stretch, cracks his back, exhales heavily, and begins to shuffle down the track to the parking lot.

Aaron appears to be quite lost in his thoughts as he walks.

HEIFER (O.S.)

Mooooooo!

Aaron jumps and shrieks, quite girlishly, drawing his briefcase up to his chest for protection. He quickly realizes the origin of the disturbance and flushes with embarrassment, straightening the collar of his button-up and absently tidying the row of pens in his pocket protector. He adjusts the rimless spectacles on his face as he walks toward the fence, where the Heifer is standing.

AARON

Good god, Bess. Gave me a start. We’re both up late tonight then, eh?

As Aaron approaches the Heifer, he can see that the animal’s eyes are rolling in their sockets. Her nostrils flare wildly. Aaron places his briefcase on the ground, and approaches the animal cautiously, but with concern.

AARON (squints, whispering)

Now what’s got into you, girl?

As Aaron reaches the fence, he is abruptly surrounded by a tight circle of blindingly white light. He screams, throwing both arms in front of his face. The Heifer brays sounds of terrible, screeching panic, but does not move, her beady pupils now fixed directly above.

CUT TO:

INT – THE ALIEN SHIP – SPACE

A close-up of Aaron as he mutters in his sleep, his head cradled in some sort of firm but pliable white foam. The movement of his eyes is visible beneath the tissue of his eyelids. He starts, and as his eyes fly open, he attempts to sit up, screaming repeatedly. Aaron realizes he is restrained from the neck down, the length of his body encased in a hard, glimmering, plastic-like sleeve. His screams go up an octave and the cords on his neck grotesquely bulge as he struggles impossibly within the capsule.

A FEMININE VOICE, cool and even—nearly robotic and vaguely British—hails Aaron from an unseen intercom.

FEMME (O.S.)

Aaron Henry Bridger.

Aaron continues on his screaming.

FEMME (O.S.; monotone)

Aaron Henry Bridger. Aaron Henry Bridger. Aaron Henry Bridger.

AARON (yelling)

Yes! Where the hell am I! What happened! Where am I!

FEMME (O.S.)

Hello, Aaron Henry Bridger.

AARON (continuing to yell)

What! Who are you! Please, I don’t know exactly what happened—

Aaron gapes, his mouth gulping like a fish, as his jaw works but no sound emerges from his mouth.

FEMME (O.S.)

We apologize for the inconvenience, Aaron Henry Bridger. It is imperative that you listen attentively, so we have temporarily disabled your vocal mechanism, more for your benefit than ours. You need to be undistracted. We are also administering a mild sedative to slow your heart rate and temper your emotional stress response, which can create unnecessary confusion during direct communication—

Aaron’s expression slackens as the hysteria dissipates. The cords on his neck begin to melt back into his skin, and the flush of his face fades.

FEMME (O.S.)

—“telepathically,” as you so quaintly refer to it. The sedative will not hinder your cognition. There is a monumental decision to be made, and not much time to make it.

Aaron blinks a few times and peers curiously at the capsule around him, taking in the various displays, panels, lights.

FEMME (O.S.)

Aaron Henry Bridger, you are under the medical supervision of a Mikardian crew, currently aboard a Class 4 Research Vessel orbiting approximately 86 million miles away from your Earth. You were intercepted during a routine stop of an unlicensed interplanetary transport. You were subsequently passed into our care by the overlying authority of Quadrant 4.1.867.

The incorporeal voice pauses for a short measure of time.

FEMME (O.S.)

The release of urine is merely a physiological stress response; feelings of shame are wholly unnecessary, Aaron Henry Bridger. Perhaps a slightly elevated dose of sedative is warranted. (pause) May we continue?

Aaron closes his eyes and nods almost imperceptibly.

FEMME (O.S.)

We regret to inform you that you have been the victim of an unauthorized abduction. A group of what you would call… adolescents. Generally, they stick to unregulated species, though human abduction remains a prevalent issue within this particular galaxy. You were discovered along with several specimens of Bos Taurus, so there is a possibility you were picked up unintentionally. A prank in its nature, but a serious infraction nonetheless.

Aaron’s eyes have widened perceptibly during this exchange, more an expression of astonishment than alarm. He then furrows his brow in an expression of puzzlement.

FEMME (O.S.)

We will arrive at that point shortly. As mentioned, we are aboard a medical research vessel. We have explored your background, education, experience, and genetic history, Aaron Henry Bridger, and we believe that you would be an invaluable asset to the Human Abduction Field Team, which focuses on both the rehabilitation of unauthorized human abductees and the streamlining of authorized human abduction, as regulated under the parameters of… intergalactic law would be the closest approximation, in Human English.

Aaron’s eyes squint and he juts his chin slightly upward, an expression requesting clarification.

FEMME (O.S.)

General mischief is a common motivator—particularly among pubescents. Sexual deviancy is another. Humans are a highly regulated species, but exotic, and those with the means and connections occasionally seek out a specimen for… domestication, similar to many of your feline or canine species. And, less commonly, more nefarious desires—torture, murder, infliction of fear—are observed. (pause) Yes. “Serial killer” is an appropriate comparison.

Aaron cringes, his grimace baring his teeth.

FEMME (O.S.)

We digress, Aaron Henry Bridger. In few moments, we will link your mind with the necessary information to assist you in making the most rational decision regarding contractual employment. The choice remains yours. If you wish to be returned to your Earth, there will be little to no recollection of your experience here. Your acceptance of a role within the research community will be contracted for the entirety of your life—which will be considerably longer and more readily sustained under our care than on your planet. You will age at a fraction of your accustomed rate, and much of the deterioration of your current health can be improved or reversed entirely. We can benefit each other, Aaron Henry Bridger.

Aaron’s eyes are wide, and his mouth hangs slightly open.

FEMME (O.S.)

There may be initial discomfort as the simulation begins, but only of the psychological nature—the link can be somewhat disconcerting for those with only peripheral experience in direct communication, such as human beings. We assure you that the sensation will dissipate quickly.

CUT TO:

INT – BREAKROOM – DAY

Aaron is tucked comfortably in a sleek chair against a small white table, reading a book. His rimless bifocals are absent from his face, which has perceptibly slimmed and radiates with good health. The space he inhabits clean and modern, filled with golden syrupy late-afternoon light, emanating from rows of translucent white panels. Aaron pours thick white cream into a steaming cup of black coffee from a delicate china saucer, picks up an ornate silver spoon, and stirs.

PAN OUTWARD:

DR. CLIFFORD “KIP” RUSSELL enters, a Clark Kent lookalike of somewhat undeterminable age, dressed in slim grey separates, reminiscent of hospital scrubs. He grins and lifts a hand to Aaron as he approaches a refrigerator-sized black panel, recessed into one of the walls. Aaron returns the gesture with a lift of his coffee cup.

KIP

Aaron! Surprised to see you around the lab this hour. Are you on your way out?

As he speaks, Kip touches his fingers to a few different places on the panel, invoking superimposed digital images of different food: grilled cheese, turkey club, ham and swiss. He swipes through the first few rapidly, discarding the images with his fingertips. He stares at the floating image of an impeccably assembled Monte Cristo and nods his head.

AARON

No, no, think it’ll be a late night for me. I’m heading out on leave next week. Got a few projects to tie up loose ends on.

A small, previously invisible door rises upward from the black panel where Kip stands with a soft whoosh, and he removes a perfectly crafted sandwich, beautifully plated with a pickle and chips on a gleaming white plate.

KIP

Vacation! Good for you. Earthside?

AARON (nods, grinning)

You got it. Two straight weeks on the white sandy shores of Antigua. Booze, bikinis, and boats galore.

KIP (exiting with sandwich)

Ah, man, heaven. I’ve got two weeks until my next off-rotation. I might just have to follow your lead. In the meanwhile, I’ve got to go track down Mansfield and get my culture results before he shrugs off for the day. (waves) See you at the port, man.

Aaron waves and returns to his coffee.

CUT TO:

INT – SHIP LAB, MED DECK – NIGHT

Aaron, dressed in grey separates identical to those of Kip, dips his hands into a metal basin of viscous blue liquid. He removes his hands carefully, fingers splayed, and the blue liquid coating up to his forearms dries and seems to shrink or tighten, creating a tissue-thin blue layer, like a surgical glove. The room around him is cold, steely, sterile; various instruments, tables, and computer panels line the walls.

Aaron seems to take inventory of a nearby tray of gleaming surgical instruments, touching and straightening each tool as he goes. He selects a long, thin needle with a tear-drop shaped steel bulb at one end—something that has the appearance of an oversized antique hat pin. His index finger touches the bulb, and a drop of clear serum emerges from the end of the menacing-looking needle.

Aaron walks briskly across the room to a smooth, plastic-like capsule, identical to the one he was housed in while under medical supervision. He touches his fingertips to a few places on a nearby glowing wall panel, and the top of the capsules glides slowly downward, revealing the face and naked chest of DIRECTOR LANSING.

Lansing’s mouth gapes open and closed like a fish, but no sound emerges. Aaron leans over the capsules, the long needle raised next to his face. Lansing’s eyes threaten to bulge out of their sockets as he recognizes the face of his long-missing former employee.

AARON

So, are you a whiner, Lansing, or are you a team player?

CUT TO BLACK.

THE END

Copyright E.J.R. Webster, 2016, all rights reserved.

“Mrs. Cavanaugh”

Another workshop, another shorty, another Kate story.

I know, I know–get another protagonist, amirite? Maybe, but perhaps, dear reader, youarewrong. I write a lot of stories without Kate; I just finished one, actually, but I’d like to take a stab at shopping it and thus will hold off on posting it here. I have several more that just need editing and will get thrown up here… sooooon? And while I have a little collection of Kate stories, they’re not all the same Kate, exactly, but they also are all the same Kate… exactly. Kate alternately represents little facets of unresolved fear and injury and humiliation that take up endless space in my head; I won’t ever be entirely rid of her. The stories that feature her are just my way of making her contribute a little rent.

(Something I noticed literally just as I was composing this blog: in every Kate story I’ve written, there’s only one where she doesn’t have a guardian of some kind. She dies in that one. Hm.)

Annie was a fun character to write–I dive heavy into archetypes in all of my writing and studying, and I wanted to create a woman who embodied the transition from Mother to Crone, lifebringer to deathgiver. She was also an exploration of the feminine appropriation of traditionally masculine power: violence.

As always, thank you for reading.

“Mrs. Cavanaugh”

“I—I’m sorry,” Kate whispered. Her puffy eyes flittered up to his own and Mr. Bircher felt a whisper of pity for the mousy, disheveled girl cowering in his office. Invisible weights pulled her gaze back to the floor. “I did ask to be excused,” Kate supplied his silence, elbows pressed to her ribs, fists buried in the oversized pockets of her wooly grey cardigan.

“You are afforded ample time during the lunch period,” Mr. Bircher countered with a dismissive wave of his meaty, catcher-mitt palm.  

“I’m sorry,” Kate repeated.

Mr. Bircher sighed. His smoker’s nose long ago smothered his sense of both taste and smell, so he simply had to imagine the whiff of acridity which would no doubt emanate from the back of her damp skirt, her soaked panties. She’d cleaned herself up, anyway; he could see beads of water glinting on the brief interruption of her inner thigh: an inch of white, scrubbed pink, irritated and glowing between her socks and skirt. Mr. Bircher felt a stir in his groin which alerted his gaze back upward, but all he was looking at was the crown of the girl’s limp, brown hair. 

He swallowed before speaking, worming a finger between his stubbled red neck and the collar of his dress shirt, enjoying the throb of his own pulse. “Well, young lady, if you are not willing to cooperate with a routine investigation into the, ah, incident, we’re going to have to start talking about detention.” 

Her wounded-bird eyes flashed back to his, wide and fearful. Mr. Bircher felt himself gaining traction.

The acts of disorder which had landed decades of students in Mr. Bircher’s office were rarely inventive and, in his experience, varied little from one generation to the next. The stories which accompanied the acts, however—the dramas, the sobbing, the excuses, the ratting, the bribes, the bargaining, the alliances, the rivalries, the fears, secrets, lies, scandals—they symbolized to Mr. Bircher the hot, frenetic entropy of human nature, bubbling just beneath the crust of the social strata. Teenagers, he thought, embodied the inevitable descent of every interaction towards chaos, and Mr. Bircher was fascinated by the barely checked wildness of these unrefined beings, only a few degrees removed from animals themselves: running, shrieking, fucking, playing, spitting, cursing, pissing. Their primal essence, as he thought of it, both aroused and terrified him. They were the id, and he and his peers, the governing superego; still, he could not help but relish in their ruthless pursuits of desire-fulfillment.

However, the Cavanaugh girl wouldn’t cough up anything more than half-sentences and apologies. There were no places, names, details; he lacked his setting, his cast. The students’ acts of contrition—these office confessionals—allowed Mr. Bircher opportunities to safely indulge in their wild adolescent exoticism, like a man on safari. There was a darker need lurking below, of which Mr. Bircher was only peripherally aware; he longed to see the event reincarnated on the girl’s face, to drink in all her humiliation and fear. He especially liked the way the girls always crossed up their arms and legs as they tried not to cry, tight like little clamshells, dying to fold themselves out of existence. Just his awareness of her shameful display gave him some perverse joy, but Mr. Bircher’s stunted, bland imagination could conjure no scenario, no material whatsoever to accompany the deed, and thus he could not obtain the satisfaction this encounter should rightfully offer. It was like lighting a cigarette, yet inhaling only air.

Kate had returned to her love affair with the green carpet.

“Do you want to tell me what happened, then?” Mr. Bircher’s tongue caressed the dark bristle above his lip. He shifted his pelvis forward in his chair, relieving the press of his gut. “Did you… for example… throw your panties away? After you went to the restroom?”

“I’m sorry,” she whispered to her feet.  

Mr. Bircher sniffed. “Detention, then.” 

—–

“Do you seek permission before you urinate?”

“Excuse me?” Mr. Bircher’s wide, pink face flushed red.

“Was my question unclear?”

“Well, no—”

“She’s sixteen,” Mrs. Cavanaugh cut him off, leaning into his stare across the gleaming mahogany slab between them. She inhaled dark wood panels, leatherbound books, old tobacco, his nervous sweat. She had made her name and profession traversing the boundaries of schools, offices, precincts, courthouses—all hollow pantheons of masculine authority which made up the framework of American society. It was a familiar setting; Mrs. Cavanaugh was in her element. “I myself have spent forty years on this earth, and I can’t recall a single scenario in which more than a perfunctory excusal was necessary for such business.”

“We have to keep the children from—”

“From peeing?” She lifted a neat, arched brow. “Yes, you’ve made your agenda quite clear.”

The air that escaped from Mr. Bircher’s mouth seemed less like a sigh and more like an emergency pressure release. She watched as he brought his two clubby index fingers to a steeple at the bridge of his nose, pinching the red skin white. He closed his eyes, as if from a headache.

“Mrs. Cavanaugh,” Mr. Bircher began again, “It would simply be anarchy, were we to—”

“Anarchy? Autonomous trips to the bathroom are considered a state of lawlessness? Again, Mr. Bircher, do you seek permission before you pee?”

His internal boiler let off another burst of steam. “No.”

“Should I, then, consider you an anarchist?” 

“You’re being rather unreasonable,” he said, but his voice had lost any semblance of authority. He pooched his lower lip like a petulant child. Beads of sweat huddled in the scrub of his mustache like soldiers in a jungle. “We are simply trying to prepare them for—for real life. Adult responsibilities.”

“She wishes to become an English professor. Is pissing yourself in front of students a prerequisite to that career path?”

“I think that’s quite enou—”

“Are you a Constitutionalist, Mr. Bircher?”

“A communist?”

“A Constitutionalist, Mr. Bircher. I would expect the high school principal to understand the difference.”

“I do not understand why you insist on—on speaking in political terms.” The chair squalled as Mr. Bircher shifted beneath her clear, direct gaze. He couldn’t recall seeing her blink, not once, since she charged self-righteously into his office ten minutes prior. Mrs. Cavanaugh’s hot green stare reminded Mr. Bircher distinctly of his own mother, and he shifted again, to the chair’s repeated protests. He was desperate to be rid of her. “However, I am willing to relent on the matter of detention—” 

“Constitutionalism is the idea, often associated with the political theories of John Locke and the founders of the American democratic republic, that government can and should be limited in its powers, and that any prescribed authority or legitimacy granted to the government depends on observing these limitations. I would think such an avid reader of Locke would hold closely to such ideals. Your actions suggest otherwise.”

“I’m afraid I’m not following you,” he said carefully.

“No, you clearly are not. I have a document here, Point Venuti Academy’s Rules and Regulations. It is the most current edition, 1965, updated just last year. Would you be kind enough, Mr. Bircher, to direct me to the section where authority figures are given the right to deny schoolchildren a reasonable opportunity to evacuate their bladders and bowels?”

Mr. Bircher’s eyes fixed on the white, trifold photocopy she brandished toward his chest; a sword raised en garde. He felt slow, drugged. He could not find a logical thread to pull on, could not untangle the rat’s nest of her reasoning. He had stubbed out a freshly lit cigarette upon her intrusion; he felt a maddening desire now to take the squashed thing out of the ashtray and put it back in his mouth.

Mr. Bircher realized she was waiting for him to say something, and likewise realized, with the poetic horror of a student called to the board without an answer to the question, that he had not been paying any attention to the words coming from her small, pert mouth. The clanking machinery of his brain latched onto the last phrase it recognized.

“Ah, John Locke?” Mr. Bircher’s beady eyes remained on Mrs. Cavanaugh’s outstretched pamphlet, paper gripped delicately between thumb and index, arm untrembling. Her hand was small, almost childlike. The fine bones and translucent skin looked papery, skeletal, hovering above the lamp-warmed glow of the wood.

Philosophical Works, Volume Two.

“I beg your pardon?”

Mrs. Cavanaugh gave him a feline smile, retracting her outstretched arm and depositing the pamphlet back into her leather folio in one swift movement.

She leaned in, green eyes like weapons. Though this woman’s slim, suited figure and prim, dark bob were the direct antithesis of the buxom, hulking, fearsome figure that had been Richard Bircher’s mother, Mrs. Cavanaugh’s gaze still struck him down to a child of three, of five, of fifteen.

Caught, those mother-eyes said. Caught.

“Mr. Bircher, are you intoxicated?”

He was, in fact, though he felt he had sobered up a good measure since this woman’s egregious barrage into his office. He’d barely even had time to get started, anyway; it was only half past four, and the majority of the staff and student body had dispersed only a half an hour or so prior. Mr. Bircher thought of the scene Mrs. Cavanaugh might have charged into, say, twenty minutes later, and felt a warm roil in his guts, both thrill and shame.

“Missus, uh, Cavanaugh,” he took a breath, grounding himself, and began shuffling papers at random around the expansive desk. “I am afraid I am no longer willing to indulge you on this matter. I have made a reasonable offer to rescind Kate’s detention, which should conclude any further discussion. Now, if you’ll excuse me. I, ah, have other business to attend to.”

The casters of Mr. Bircher’s chair wailed as he shifted his considerable bulk to open the bottom drawer of his desk. He began fingering through payroll files, both to avoid Mrs. Cavanaugh’s sharp, smiling face and also to suggest some air of dismissal. His peripheral vision caught her standing as if to leave, and the feeling that rushed through his innards this time was a sweet, amber relief.

But she paused, and Mr. Bircher looked up in exasperation to see her pale hand reaching for the oversized tome on his desk. “I must admit, I haven’t come across this particular edition before—”

Mrs. Cavanaugh was wholly unprepared for the banshee screech that emanated from Mr. Bircher as his eyes traced the destination of her outstretched hand. He shot up and out from his exhausted chair, sending the wheeled thing hurtling into the bookshelves and connecting his left knee with the corner of the open desk drawer. He made a desperate grab for the same book the woman was reaching her death-like hand toward.

It was a book he had misplaced the title of until just a moment ago: Philosophical Works, Volume Two, by John Locke.

He grasped for the book, and knocked it to the floor.  

—–

Annie stared at the oversized double doors of the school through the windshield of her immaculate Chrysler—a prized item whisked from the estate of the erstwhile Mr. Cavanaugh a mere five years before. She’d kept the name, too. Like the car, Annie appreciated the practicality and use of the thing; also, like the car, it was something her husband once held dear, which now belonged to her.

Katy—well, there had been no dispute there. Katydid had always been hers.

Annie smiled, eyes still set on the doors.

October air sauntered in through the cranked-down window, all salt and fir. Within its fresh bite was the first suggestion of the steely, damp months which constituted winter in northern California. The air was heavy, pregnant with cold mist, the sky sheeted grey.

“He gives me the heebie-jeebies,” Kate had sniffed from under her floral comforter the evening before, blanket pulled all the way up to her chin, like a child. Cici’s purr ran like a steady motor by the girl’s feet, seeming to sense her need for reassurance. Kate’s doe eyes were red, miserable.

Annie was up to her elbows in closing the Barrett estate, the October tax payments being just over a week away, and had reluctantly phoned Marvin to fetch Kate in the limo. He was a familiar enough face; professional, discrete. Not that it really mattered. If thirty kids see you wet yourself, people will talk.

“He sits in on almost all the detention periods. I’m not the only one, either. I’ve heard the other girls. He’s a big creep,” she finished with a shaky exhale.

Annie had wanted to run the girl down with questions, but her Katydid was a fragile personality, even under the best of circumstances, and she instead resolved to make her observations firsthand. 

Annie Cavanaugh was rarely surprised, but even she had not been expecting the panties.

Mr. Bircher had not imparted the impression of an avid reader. Like most of her breakthrough discoveries—gold mined while pouring through letters, leases, tax records, deeds, covenants, addenda—it was merely a nag, a sense of something off, a blip in the natural chains of cause and effect to which she was so intuitively attuned.

There had been scores of books paneling Mr. Bircher’s derisorily grandiose office, but each spine gleamed seamless and smooth, as if in a bookstore, with no indication of reference or wear.

There was a single dark cavity among the shelves behind his head, and there was a single hardcover selection on his desk: Philosophical Works, Volume Two.

Something about the book. Something off.

He had been intoxicated; Annie was quite certain. Although distasteful, she recognized there was little way to prove such an issue, and even less recourse or repercussion for such behavior, even on school grounds. He had relented on the ridiculous detention assignment, and that was good enough for now; she had clearly rattled the man, and that was even better.

When he attempted to excuse himself for the last time, Annie was resolved to let Mr. Bircher off the hook, but likewise considered that a discrete yet thorough review of his background and affairs might be in order. But like the tongue’s fixation on the void of a missing tooth, her mind kept returning the book on the desk, that whiff of something rotten.

So, Annie had poked at the subject one final time before leaving—poked quite literally—and the man had screamed, lunging for the volume, his face melting from panic to stupor as he knocked it to the floor. 

There had been many talismans squirreled away in Principal Bircher’s hollow book: a tortoiseshell hair comb; an oversized marble; a small pocketknife; several wallet-sized photos which fluttered to the carpet like snow. The one which landed face-up onto the carpet showed the round, beaming face of a girl of six or seven, framed by a simple brown bob much like her own. 

It was the panties, however, that shrieked at Annie from the floor. They puddled on the dark green carpet like a stain; a dingy, over-washed white, trimmed in scalloped pink elastic, fraying here and there. They were an innocuous and universal symbol in the Sacred Order of Little Girls, but in that dim, smoke-choked office they were a blasphemy, a perversion, an accusation.

Annie had been seven, going on eight. Mama had never brought home a boyfriend, and there had been no context in which to place the dripping, suffocative affections of this new man. The showers of toys, the lingering hugs. The casual brush of his hand up her leg, her ribs, his fingers squeezing the back of her neck. The requests to come sit on his lap, as if she were still a baby.

That first nocturnal visit—and there were far, far too many before Mama caught on—Annie had spent fixed on the spill of her own white panties, peeled from her warm, sleepy body and deposited casually in one of squares of ice-blue moonlight that painted her carpet from the frame of the window.

She could not, would not, look at him. He was panting, like a dog, as Annie silently wept, paralyzed, sick with confusion and a massive, unnamed shame that threatened to crush the foundation of every joy she had ever known.

Annie had buried her panties in the yard the next day, afraid her mother might find them in the trash. She did not want to look at them, could not bear the idea of putting them anywhere near that sore, sick ache he had left.

“Those are, uh… not mine,” had been the first words stammered from Mr. Bircher’s dumbfounded face.

“No, I do not believe they are your size,” Mrs. Cavanaugh murmured, only half-aware she’d made the remark.

Lost and found, Mr. Bircher had insisted from his hands and knees, clawing items from the floor with his meaty fists and shoving them back into their wooden compartment.

Mrs. Cavanaugh had left without bothering to challenge the statement.

—–

The first fat drops streaked her windshield as Mr. Bircher’s lumbering figure stumbled down the steps to the staff parking lot. His suit-jacket shoulders were hunched against his balding head, arms shot straight down his sides, fists balled to pistons. The violent, metallic bang of his car door was felt as much as heard, and his tires gave a yelp as Mr. Bircher’s brown coupe whipped from the deserted lot. His headlights were not on.

Annie watched his eastbound descent for a few moments before starting her ignition.

They drove for twenty minutes, thirty, stretching up the coastal frontage road for ten or so miles, then taking a small fork, veering inland, toward the redwoods. She could not imagine his residence was located at such a distance from the school, which made the question of his destination all the more pressing.

Trees and fog pushed in from both sides of the road, and her wipers sluiced a predictable rhythm which comforted her in the silence: squelch-thump, squelch-thump. There were no stars. It was getting close to dinner, and she thought Kate might be missing her.

Annie maintained a steady, careful distance from the weaving red lights ahead—Mr. Bircher had, a few miles into the drive, finally snapped on his beams. Still, Annie must have spooked him, her trail perhaps too obvious on the deserted two-lane, because she watched his car take on an unexpected burst of speed.

Annie faltered for only a moment before fixing her resolve. This was no longer mere suspicion, she reasoned; not some flit of feminine intuition. She stepped on the gas, leaning toward windshield, straining to see anything but the reflection of her own headlights against the press of fog. Condensation crawled up the edges of the wet glass. The veins of her slim hands bulged with the strain of her grip on the wheel.

She gained speed, emboldened by a perceived vindication for her earlier misgivings, longing for a taste of righteous justice. Annie’s car hauled itself over the crest of a hill, and she came upon the taillights of Mr. Bircher’s coupe so suddenly she nearly rammed into him; he had, apparently, slowed back down to accommodate the poor visibility. 

However, in tragically similar fashion to the book incident, Mr. Bircher managed to act as the catalyst of his own undoing: Annie slammed on her brakes, and Mr. Bircher, startled, slammed on the gas. His engine growled for only a few moments before being overtaken by a short, metallic scream. There was a pause, then a strangely muffled thump in the shrouded distance ahead.

Annie coasted down the hill and carefully pulled off; the two-lane pass was narrow, and without guard rails in several areas. She walked the rest of the way down the road, guided by the weak, diffused patch of light emanating from below the cliff’s edge. She thought of the small nightlight, shaped like a candle, that shone demurely from the floorboard of Kate’s bedroom.

The little car had managed to slip or turn and land tail-first into the ravine below. The dirt and trunks and bushes suspending the car were illuminated in pink, one taillight burning red, the other broken, spilling white. The windshield was facing her, but she could not see well behind the glass, the glare of the still-firing headlights pointed directly in her eyes.

As Annie’s face peered over the edge, the horn began stammering in clipped, weak bursts. 

Annie withdrew a few steps, pressing her palms to her eyes to try and dispel the stars she saw as a result of peering into Mr. Bircher’s headlights. Fog clung to her hair, her face, her freezing hands, its clammy grip working its way under her clothes. Her own headlights, forty or fifty feet down the road, joined Mr. Bircher’s in illuminating the soft swirl of moisture suspended in the air. Fog always looked denser three or four feet ahead of where you stood; it had vexed her as a child, as she desperately longed to cup the thick flow of it in her palms.

Annie thought of that same child, a girl going on eight, clawing her fingers into wet mulch and hard, dark dirt, her feet and ankles soaked and itching from the cold dew of the grass, pink nightgown stuck to goosebumped, sweating skin. Her mind’s eye saw little Annie’s white cotton panties, dropped on the emerald grass next to the flower bed, waiting to be buried along with her notions of innocence, justice, and goodness in the world.

White panties, green carpet.

To her right, the horn let out three choked brays. Annie slipped off her sensible leather heels where she stood and waded cautiously along the side of the road, stepping gingerly in hopes of avoiding glass or sharp rocks, the soles of her pantyhose immediately wet and gritty.   

She located a particularly large chunk of what she thought might be granite. The rock was incredibly heavy, and she was small, but Annie found she could lift it to at least chest height.

White mist drew her in like a UFO, framed by the branches of hulking, sentinel trees brimming with artificial light. It took several minutes to carefully cradle and walk the rock to the edge; she stopped to rest for a short period midway, because she didn’t want to entirely exhaust her arms.

The horn let out a short blat as soon as Annie peered her head over the lip of the road, as if she had startled the car itself. The headlights flashed, off-on-off-on, and the whites of Mr. Bircher’s wild, rolling eyes were visible in the momentary darkness.

The snap of the great rock plummeting through the windshield was like a boot heel through thin ice. This was followed by a meaty crack that informed the small, stiff woman standing ten feet above that her rock had not missed its intended target.

Annie Cavanaugh brushed off the dirty soles of her feet with her equally dirty palms and slipped on her heels. Shrouded in the soft, swirling white, she started a careful path back toward the car.

She thought Kate might be missing her.

Copyright E.J.R. Webster, 2020, all rights reserved.

“Single Mother”

I composed this from a free-writing prompt a few days ago. I looked at it again, added punctuation, made a few edits, and thought it was generally okay. Not my finest work, but does well enough at evoking a certain feeling–we often are terrorized by things in the night, though rarely is there anything supernatural about it.

***

Every night, at nine p.m., I lose my mind.

The darkness doesn’t come as soon now, because it’s getting warm, and we all did the thing that changes our imaginary clocks; in the winter, perhaps it’s seven, or even six, and that’s much worse. But the sun stretches her arms this time of year, and for now, it happens at nine.

I work at my computer, stifling exasperation at the baby’s interruptions, pensively observing the light framed in the window shift from yellow to blue to purple. A nasty bruise, like a prophecy of my inevitable beating at the end of the day.

Eventually, I must close the computer, and put the baby to bed.

It begins.

The television is off—my meager DVD collection terminally exhausted, and there is no internet in this house, no, that is a luxury I cannot afford—and I frantically try to get my broken phone to charge, just please charge, alternately pleading and berating this inanimate thing. Sometimes having it helps, like a sort of tether, a feeble string tying me to humanity, and I am clawing for it now, feeling the oncoming storm in my brain exactly like the insistent ache of my knees when the thunderheads roll in.

But the broken phone won’t charge, and even when it does, it’s a sick and magicless talisman against the haunting. There are nights—most nights—when the faces and words staring from behind the glass only make it worse, when the imagined raft in the churning sea turns out to only be driftwood, and I sink below the surface, still clinging.

The house is empty, and dead, and undead, too. The silence boils with a cacophony of voices that, like all ghosts, and demons, and vampires, and monsters, seem to only be ever stifled by the light of the sun:

My father, and her father, and all the other men I have disappointed simply by existing—

And the ghosts of all the ones I thought I loved, or thought loved me—

And my mother, and the other mother, and all their endless questioning—

And the imagined laughter of my faraway friends, who never care enough to come—

And the buzz of my neighbor’s gossip through the walls—

And the scream in my jaw from the rotting tooth I cannot pay to fix—

And the rumble of passing traffic, confirming my isolation, because no one is coming home to me—

And the blare of plastic primary colors strewn across the floor, demanding to be picked up—

And the cold clang of the pots that have sat in the sink since last night—

And the creak of my muscles, pushed to frantic, obsessive exhaustion each and every morning—

And the red shriek of the past-due bills on the microwave—

And the flutter of book pages my mind sees but cannot read—

And the sigh from the pile of laundry, snaring my foot as I walk by—

And the crunch of the cereal below my feet, discarded, unwanted, filthy as me—

And the hiss of the tattered broom across the tile, mocking all attempts to make clean—

And the metallic screech of utensils on ceramic, trashing the food I have no will to eat—

And the clatter of the keyboard, recording worthless musings of a depraved sack of bones—

And the pounding of water on tile, as if I could scald revulsion out of my body—

And the small girl inside me, who loathes the woman I’ve become—

And the woman I’ve become, who urgently tries to soothe the small girl—

And the scratch of my nails on neck, as if I could dig them both out of me—

And the sob of the baby in her sleep, who will hate me always for saving her from her father—

And there he is again, contradicting me—

And they all crowd in at once, and I go mad, and the noise swallows me up until I drown. I am left to do nothing but wander the dark rooms, and move up and down the halls, and touch things, and cry, and pantomime the ghost I secretly wish to be. For once the haunter, and not the haunted; perhaps, as a ghost, someone would finally see me.

Every night, at nine p.m., I lose my mind.

Copyright E.J.R. Webster, 2019, all rights reserved.

“A Good Man is Hard to Find”: A Marxist Critique

Through literary theory, art is given an opportunity to take on new meaning. Literary theory challenges the critic to shed personal biases and presuppositions—a deliberate and artistic practice of cultural relativism—while critically examining “‘the best that has been thought and said in the world” through lenses that encourage profound interpretation, impart meaning, inform context, and expand worldviews (Bertens 5). Viewing the same work through alternate forms of literary theory can shed light on the values, patterns, structures, beliefs, and assumptions of any given viewpoint (Bertens 1-2). Rather than taking a piece of art at face value, literary theory encourages the interpreter to ask meaningful questions which uncover historical, social, or cultural context; to search for underlying themes and elements which refer to intentions or motivations in creating the work, whether unconscious or deliberate; and examine structures and elements in the form of the work, lending deeper understanding to what makes a piece of writing “literary”.

Literary theory and literary criticism are two different beasts, though on the surface, they can sometimes be difficult to distinguish from one another. Literary criticism focuses on the study, evaluation, and interpretation of literary works, generally with a focus on thematic elements, narrative, and characterization. Literary theory urges the critic move beyond the basic building blocks of writing and instead consider and interpret the nature, definition, and parameters of literature; the sociopolitical, economical, and cultural influences that inform a work; and the concrete form and structure of literary texts (Bertens 2-3). Where criticism often places the most emphasis on discovering meaning, much of literary theory dismisses meaning as ultimately arbitrary, and instead focuses on context. The nature of this context varies depending on what discipline of literary theory is emphasized by the interpreter. It is also pertinent to note that, like meaning, much of literary theory can also be considered as subjective to the interpreter.

Flannery O’Connor remains a highly respected American writer, particularly within the short story genre. Her work, typically categorized in the “Southern Gothic” style, often features grotesque characters, graphic violence, and dark humor; her writing deals predominantly in themes regarding religious salvation and societal alienation. In this paper, I intend to explore one of O’Connor’s most famous works, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” a short story concerning the violent death of a vacationing family by the hands of a motely crew of social outcasts. Through the lens of Marxist criticism, I intend to explore how both the protagonist (a middle-class grandmother) and the antagonist (an exiled hillbilly) of the narrative are both merely facets within the gem of O’Connor’s total worldview. The grandmother’s salvation at the time of her death is often regarded as the most significant point of the narrative; through the Marxist view, I will argue that O’Connor’s Misfit can be viewed as the most influential character of the story.

The school of thought known today as Marxism began in the mid-19th century, to the credit of German artist, writer, and philosopher Karl Marx and, to a lesser extent, his colleague, Frederic Engels. Marxism came about in reaction to the oppressive and autocratic social and economic standards that dominated Germany’s landscape during the Industrial Revolution (Bramann). Political activism was often regarded as a criminal endeavor; despite the risks, after receiving his doctorate, Marx “dedicated himself to the project of radically restructuring modern industrial society along socialist and communist lines” (Bramann). Both Marx and Engels—who first introduced Marx to the ideals of socialism and communism—became influential figures within a massive, international labor movement (Bramann). Marx played a significant role in the Revolution of 1848 as a newspaper editor; in the wake of the revolution’s defeat by the ruling monarchists, Marx fled Germany. He spent his remaining years in London, dedicating his life’s work to the study of economy, art, literature, nature, and science (Bramann). 

In the simplest terms, the tenets of Marxist criticism rely on the premise that our social being influences our social consciousness. That is to say, the dominant hegemony—the economic structure and subsequent social hierarchy—of any given historical period aggressively shapes an individual’s personal worldviews (Eagleton 2). Additionally, residual and emergent hegemonies also play a role in social consciousness during periods of radical social change, which Marx argues are necessary for the evolution of society. The “economic base” of any given society consists of the means of production (tools in various forms), commodities, technological innovations, the ways we organize (such as the manager/subordinate relationship), and the proletariat/bourgeoisie dynamic (Eagleton 2). The “ideological superstructure” includes what Marxists would broadly refer to as our “consciousness,” meaning law, education, religion, art, literature, media—the elements which comprise culture (Eagleton 2). Marxism argues that the base largely informs the superstructure—our culture is defined by our market—though the relationship can certainly be regarded as reciprocal in some respects.

This explanation in no way exhausts the vast scope of Marxist philosophy. For the purpose of this critique, there is one particular tenant of Marxism that must be examined in further detail: Marx’s Theory of Alienation. In a precapitalistic society, the laboring class held some measure of autonomy: they made/forged/grew their own products, dictated their working conditions, set their own hours, bartered and sold directly, and so on (Bramann). Under capitalist rule, workers are alienated from their labor, with little or no influence over the means, process, product, and relations of production (Bramann). Ultimately, Marx argues, this separation from work fosters separation from our entire lives, as more and more of what the laboring class does is dictated by forces other than our own will. Put succinctly, the depersonalization of mass production works to estrange humans from their instinctively creative and productive nature. The Marxist view necessitates the abolishment of capitalism in order for society to actualize human autonomy.

In order to understand how Marx’s concept of alienation applies to O’Connor’s work, the historical context of O’Connor’s life must be examined. After all, it is the overarching economical constructs which, Marx argues, directly influence our culture, including literary work. O’Connor wrote “A Good Man is Hard to Find” in 1953, at a time of massive industrial change in America. Soldiers returned en masse to the labor force at the end of World War II; economic growth soared; mass production boomed; suburbs sprawled; populations grew; television became the dominant media force in American households (Beckman). Religious devotion, as well, saw an unprecedented rise in the post-war era. Amongst the burgeoning suburbs, highways, and shopping centers, couples were married, babies were christened, and religious—namely Christian—worship became an unquestioned standard of middle-class life (Beckman).

O’Connor was an only child, born into a prominent and devoutly Roman Catholic family in Savannah, Georgia. Writing was still considered an unorthodox profession for a woman in that time; O’Connor’s university scholarship and post-graduation acceptance into the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop was a testament to her talent in this regard (Encyclopaedia Britannica). O’Connor’s father died from complications of lupus when O’Connor was thirteen, and after being awarded an MFA from University of Iowa, O’Connor’s inheritance of the same disease saw her life relocated to a small farm in Milledgeville, Georgia (Encyclopaedia Britannica). O’Connor lived modestly, continuing to write as she raised peafowl with her mother—and occasionally travelling to lecture or speak at seminars—until her untimely death in 1964, at the age of 39 (Encyclopaedia Britannica). O’Connor never married, nor had children, which were particularly stark social deviations for a young woman in the throes of the post-war baby boom.

Small farming was one of the few industries that saw massive decline in the post-war economic boom. As the middle-class grew and demand for food production exponentially increased, corporations began aggressively shaping agricultural consolidation throughout the United States, leaving family farmers to either be bought out or try their best to compete against the overwhelming forces of cheap, mass-produced livestock and crops (University of Groningen, 2012). This consolidation left many farmers displaced from an industry which traditionally was passed down through generations; perhaps O’Connor perceived herself as alienated to some extent from her true “creative” self because of the economic demands of her “laboring” self, brought about by the loss of the typically-breadwinning patriarchal family figure. This is one of many possible demonstrations of Marx’ alienation at work, similar to the social and economic alienation so often featured in O’Connor’s writing, including “A Good Man is Hard to Find”. An alternate viewpoint might be that O’Connor’s return to the farmstead was instead a fulfillment of human autonomy; through separation from the ruling class, O’Connor had gained complete freedom to dictate the means, conditions, relations, and products of her labor, both in her writing and in her farming.

O’Connor’s educational success and literary accolades could not counteract the economic depression she and her mother were pigeonholed into after her father’s death; it is likely their small peafowl farm struggled to some extent, like most others, under the corporation monopolization of farming practices. It does not seem out of the realm of possibility that O’Connor expressed some measure of her social displacement through her writing: a prestigious, devout, and yet socially rebellious woman, riddled with talent and illness alike; a woman who came from a once-prominent family and who had achieved a high level of education, eventually reduced to a bed-ridden, working-class farm life (Encyclopaedia Britannica). In a Marxist examination of “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the characterization of both the grandmother and the Misfit would suggest two conflicting and alternating worldviews that O’Connor attempted to reconcile through her craft.

O’Connor remained pious throughout the entirety of her life, her personal journals often concerning themselves obsessively with channeling her Catholic religion through her writing (O’Connor). Marx famously argued that religion was merely another man-made ideology—“ideology” specifically in the Marxist sense, encompassing all the various elements which inform our culture—dictated by the hegemonic forces of any given society, meant only to impart a false sense of purpose and moral sanction in an increasingly purposeless regime: “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people” (Marx). It is obvious from O’Connor’s journals that she felt endlessly compelled to bring her faith to the forefront of her life’s work, which suggests, at some level, there existed an internal struggle against her religion. I believe this struggle is documented in the character of the Misfit, as well as in the other violent, grotesque, cynical, and faithless characters featured in her body of work.

The character of the grandmother deals predominantly with issues of social affirmation, wealth, and status; these would suggest concerns of the bourgeoisie, or the ruling class. For example, the grandmother disparages the casual dress of her son’s wife, opting to clad herself in stately attire for a long road trip to Florida: “In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady” (O’Connor). Even at the thought of her own fragile mortality, the grandmother is entirely concerned with keeping up appearances of social hierarchy. Though putting forth all the surface appeal of a “good Christian woman,” the grandmother is generally selfish, vapid, and petulant in her actions and dialogue; she lies, panders, and has little regard for anyone but herself (Leonard 52). Even as her entire family is systemically murdered before her, the grandmother continues to plea with the Misfit only for her own life: “You wouldn’t shoot a lady, would you?” (O’Connor). O’Connor’s subversive criticism of American religious culture through the grandmother character suggests a certain level of dissatisfaction with the generally shallow religious discipline of the middle-class; perhaps, particularly when viewed in conjunction with the content of her personal journals, it also suggests a dissatisfaction in the depth of her own faith: “Oh God please make my mind clear. Please make it clean. I ask You for a greater love for my holy Mother and I ask her for a greater love for You. Please help me to get down under things and find where You are” (O’Connor).

The grandmother’s supposed salvation comes moments before she is shot dead by the Misfit; after a moment of religious doubt (“Maybe He didn’t raise the dead”) the grandmother is possessed by the spirit of Christ (O’Connor). In a stereotypically Catholic “moment of grace,” she recognizes the Misfit as simply another child of her god, and thus by her possession, a child of her own: “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” (O’Connor). The grandmother attempts to usher the fervor of her faith—perhaps literally, perhaps figuratively—upon the Misfit, who “sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest” (O’Connor). O’Connor spent much of her time defending this violent end to critics and readers alike, arguing that the murder of the grandmother was necessary to her spiritual realization: “The devil accomplishes a great deal of groundwork that seems to be necessary before grace is effective” (Leonard 52). The grandmother’s last pious exclamations and her contented post-mortem expression both offer religious affirmation and reinforcement of hegemonically-dictated roles: she finds joy in death in the recognition of her “child,” affirming her matriarchal status; she achieves deliverance from the mortal realm by the hands of a male (the Misfit) into the hands of a male (God), affirming patriarchal positions of power.

In stark contrast to the character of the grandmother, the Misfit is not in any way concerned with appearances or adherence to social norms, starting with deviations as minor as appearing to the family without a shirt on, ending with the mass-murder of the group under little to no pretense (O’Connor). Where the grandmother has wholly conceded herself to the dominant hegemony of 1950s America, the Misfit lives beyond it: working when, where, and how he pleases; living as a nomad; rejecting religion for his own moral code; learning independently; collaborating only with those he chooses; and yes, even murdering, the starkest of social deviations. The grandmother, in comparison, adheres to appearances; places upmost value on wealth and status; clings to superficial religious ideals without explicitly practicing them; and is hopelessly self-centered (Leonard 52-3). The Misfit recognizes the grandmother’s supposed spiritual awakening for what it is: “only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself” (Marx). The Misfit vehemently rejects the grandmother’s imposed salvation upon him, recognizing that her personal ideals only materialized in the ultimately selfish moment of her demise: “’She would of been a good woman,’ The Misfit said, ‘if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life’” (O’Connor).

The alienation of the Misfit in the narrative is different than alienation in the Marxist sense; however, I argue that O’Connor’s own (Marxist) alienation from her true “creative” self—through labor, through patriarchal rule, through illness—spurs the need to endlessly negotiate these barriers in the body of her work. I also argue that, through a Marxist lens, it is the Misfit who serves as the grotesque antihero of the narrative; a man who has achieved as much human autonomy as can be afforded under a ruling capitalist regime. The grandmother and her family have bowed under the weight of the dominant hegemony, and the end result is death; the protagonist is ultimately afforded nothing more than her precious “opium,” while the Misfit continues on with life as he sees fit. In a microscopic example of the societal cycle Marx predicts, the governing class is overthrown by the revolutionists. The Misfit holds no false preconceptions about the man he is, and makes little in the way of moral judgments for what he does; he allows himself simply to exist, and to exist in ultimate freedom, living closer to Marx’s ideal of “true self” than any other character of the narrative. O’Connor’s endless flirtation with the binaries of faithlessness/salvation, inclusion/alienation, and domination/subordination could all be considered as reflections of an internal struggle against her “true” self and the imposed societal standards and structures of post-war, capitalist America.

Works Cited

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Copyright E.J.R. Webster, 2019, all rights reserved.