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Original Essays | May 3, 2013 2 comments
When it happens, it feels like winning the lottery. An email arrives out of the blue, from one of my publishers or a festival director or a member... Continue »
Meet Edgar Mintby Brady Udall
This is Edgar Mint's story. At one time, I was foolish enough to believe it was mine. I was, after all, the one who was writing it, wasn't I? Wasn't I the one who had created this story, and all the characters and events in it, out of the thin dust of my imagination? Hadn't I given Edgar everything, a life, a purpose, even a name? Wasn't I, when it came down it, the boss, the overseer, the one who laid down every law and called every shot?
For a while, I was happy to live under the illusion that I was indeed the god of my own little universe. Then, very early on in the course of writing this book, something funny happened: Edgar started to go his own way. He began to defy me. Like a parent watching his beloved child go down the pathways of lawlessness and indecency, I was baffled and angry. Where had I gone wrong? I had such plans for him, such hopes! But that didn't seem to matter to him at all. Instead of overcoming the odds and rising to great heights of fortune and acclaim, he stumbles along, fearful and confused and giving in to weakness at every turn. It's true: in my heart, I wanted Edgar to be a hero. The uniquely American kind of hero who vanquishes his enemies, saves the day and has just enough time to kiss the woman of his dreams while the credits roll. But Edgar is no hero. Instead, he turns out to be a liar, a thief, a delinquent, even a murderer. He is not brave or dashing. Time and again he is humiliated, kicked around, abused. But he survives. It is almost maddening the way he survives. Even when he has had enough, when he wants nothing more than to give up and escape the perilous world I created for him, he survives, he hangs on, he keeps coming back. And it is in this way that the story becomes his. He does not take control of this story in the way of a hero, does not overpower it with the sheer force of his pluck and charisma. He simply survives it.
The Theodore Roosevelt School is one part of this story that Edgar barely survives. Teddy Roosevelt, located on the Fort Apache Indian reservation in central Arizona, is not too far from the dusty little town I grew up in. The place made an impression on me the first time I visited it. I was in seventh grade, a member of the St. Johns Junior High Redskins football team, and we traveled over the White Mountains to test our mettle against the Teddy Roosevelt Rough Riders. I had never seen anything like it. Run-down, ramshackle, it had the hopeless, desultory air of a prison. We all walked around, gawking, thinking the same thing: could this possibly be the right place? The field was weed-ridden, pot-holed and marked off with day-glo orange spray paint. I couldn't decide which bothered me more: the huge clump of prickly pear cactus at the corner of one end zone, or the bits of broken glass scattered over a large portion of the midfield, glinting wickedly in the hot sun.
Our opponents, dressed in a wide array of mismatched helmets and uniforms, went through their pre-game drills, which seemed like nothing more than one round after another of smear the queer: the coach would toss the football to some poor soul who would run for his life until he was brought down and piled under by the rest of the team.
Our coach took one look at things and gathered us around for the pregame speech, which consisted of one sentence, "Okay boys, try not to fall in the cactus."
After the game, which we won by some ridiculous score (76-0? 64-3?), we headed back to the bus which was parked behind the three-story dorm building, and some of the Indian students stared down at us through the barred windows, hate in their eyes. We sat in our new Greyhound bus, laughing and horsing around, talking about what we would be getting at the McDonald's in Show Low on our way home, when a chunk of concrete smashed into the bus' windshield. Things began pelting down on us: football helmets, Coke bottles, textbooks, folding chairs. A few windows were shattered and our brand new bus got badly dented before we got away.
What I remember most about that day is the ten or twenty seconds before debris began to rain out of the windows onto our bus. I was sitting in my seat, looking up at these kids (there were dozens of them hanging out of the windows) and trying to figure out why they resented us so. I noticed one boy, in particular, who regarded me with a look that I will never forget, a look that was a mixture of world-weariness and sad disdain. He didn't like me, this was clear, but it seemed that he was just too tired and spent to work up any real hate for me. I remember that his front teeth were broken and his hair was badly cut. His hands, scabbed and dusty, loosely gripped the bars that held him in.
For some reason, the look on that boy's face has never left me; I remember it perfectly and feel it on me much of the time. I'll never know anything about that boy, but as the god of my own little universe, I decided to give him a story and a name. His story can be found in these pages and his name is Edgar Mint.