A family unit is suppose to be one place where a member can go to experience love and healing. It is suppose to be a place where members come together for nurturing and support. But when one or more members of the family unit themselves are seriously damaged, then that family unit itself becomes dysfunctional. And the pain and suffering quietly continues for each of the members. It is a more common reality than our mass-media induced society cares to show us but it is one that William Kowalski has skillfully crafted in his book The Hundred Hearts.
A month after they’ve consigned the remains of his grandmother, Helen, to the flames of the crematorium, Jeremy sits in his car in the parking lot of Sam “The Patriot” Singh’s Fortress of America Motel, a crumpled note in his hand. The not had arrived today in his faculty mailbox. It’s written in pencil on a piece o ragged-edged notebook paper. The handwriting is decidedly feminine. He knows whose it is. In just a few weeks, he’s learned to discern the penmanship of most of his nearly forty students. He’s wrestled with himself over whether he should open it, sensing that whatever it said, it would get him into trouble. But in the battle between curiosity and discretion that took place in his mind, curiosity had discretion on the ropes.
Room 358. I need you, Jeremy.
You’re the only one who can help.
Help with what, he doesn’t know. Merely being in possession of this note makes Jeremy nervous. He’s already received a lecture from Peter Porteus, principal of Elysium High School on the importance of propriety: don’t let yourself be caught alone with a female student, for God’s sake, and if you do keep doors open, keep hands to self, et cetera. It is preferable to wrap yourself hermetically in plastic and stay on the other side of the room
Kowalski has a direct yet sincere writing style and this book is a perfect example of it. The story deals with Jeremy Merkin, a former soldier whose tour of duty in Afghanistan had traumatic events that his body and mind have issues still dealing with. He has returned to his hometown of Elysium, California but the town has no mythical or realistic hopes for him or its citizens for an ideal life. It is a fading community on the edge of the desert whose citizens merely exist in a state of shock, waiting for the results of a broken promise to come true. Jeremy lives in the basement of his grandparent’s home along with his mother and a mentally-challenged cousin and works as a high-school teacher. He is constantly self-medicating on marijuana to deal with the pain and anxiety he suffers from which in it self leads to interests results.
Downstairs, he makes himself comfortable on his mattress and eats his double-frosted sugar bombs while watching the latest Japanimation classic Rico’s Dropboxed him. Then he pours himself a cup of tea. Now that he has a job, the guilty edge these mornings used to have has faded. He leans back against his pillow with a sense of pleasantly high contentment. Nowhere to go, nowhere to be, nothing to do. Monday is a light-year away. If he were a truly dedicated teacher, which he isn’t, he’d already be thinking about what he was going to teach next week. Tomorrow night he’ll hop on Google and see what lesson plans exist out there for him to steal.
The last three weeks have been a panicky time. He hasn’t been teaching; he’s been doing his best imitation of a teacher. Porteus knew he didn’t have any experience when he hired him, but he’d assured him he’d be fine, that he could tell he’d be a natural in the classroom. He can see this was a blatant lie; Porteus was desperate for a warm body.
In his naivete, Jeremy had believed he could simply engage his students in Socratic dialogues of the sort he and Smarty used to have, and together they would wing their way through the world of knowledge, delighting in the mysteries of the universe. Maybe he could even teach them about the Fibonacci sequence. He’d forgotten the crushing load of ennui that high school students carried with them everywhere, the blank stares, the hostile resistance to doing absolutely anything. He’d hoped to find out what interested them and build a curriculum of sorts around that, but he’d realized within about two minutes that they weren’t interested in anything, at least nothing he was allowed to discuss.
He’d also thought, for some insane reason, that the students would respect him because he was young. Instead, they seemed to think this meant they could get away with anything. On the first day of school they’d aligned themselves into groups, boys on one side, girls on the other, cool kids in the back, dweebs in the front, and had begun to talk amongst themselves as if he wasn’t even there. Engage them, Porteus had said; teaching is infotainment. But Jeremy was not an infotainer. In his vocabulary, to engage meant to lay down heavy fire, to shoot to kill. During his very first class he’d felt a panic attach coming on, and he’d only been able to prevent it by pretending that getting to the end of the period was an objective, and that his job was to attack and hold objective until reinforcements arrived. He’s still not sure how he’d made it this far. sometimes he looks at their glazed-over faces and thinks, If only you could see what I have seen. But he’d been trained to see those things so other people didn’t have to see them. That was the role of the army: not to fight for freedom, whatever that nonsense meant, but to see the unseeable, do the undoable, and later to try to forget the unforgettable. And to somehow try to fit back into a society that had no clue.
I usually hate using $50 psychological terms but Kowalski has written something here that reflects the zeitgeist – the spirit of the times. Jeremy is an adult trying to fit in someplace but it doesn’t happen. He is missing the guidance, the social network and simply the love to survive to be a positive member of society. He exists and that is it. He is like so many people in real life but one that rarely discussed or portrayed in mass media.
Jeremy remembers that birthday party clearly. Abortive is a charitable way to describe it. Wilkins had appeared out of nowhere, uninvited, his presence unnerving everyone – most of all Rita. His birthday present to Jeremy had been a rock. Not a particularly pretty or interesting rock, just a rock like you might find anywhere, but which for Wilkins apparently had some sort of symbolic significance. He’d tried for several minutes to explain it to Jeremy, with no success. Then he’d wrapped himself in a bedsheet and spent the afternoon in a corner, glowering at the other partygoers, all boys who were tripping balls on sugar and making tremendous amounts of noise. When they’d asked who Wilkins was, Jeremy pretended not to know. The highlight of the party was when the police arrived. It transpired that they had been called by Al, and they led Wilkins away, sobbing. Jeremy had been very popular after that, because no one else had ever had a police birthday party before.
“It’s okay,” Jeremy says. “Hardly anybody has fathers anymore.”
“Sad but true. You’re not angry?”
“I guess I would be, except that so much other shi-stuff . . . has happened that . . .well, it’s all relative, you know?”
“So you didn’t come here for a confrontation?”
“A confrontation? No. Why would I do that?’
“You know. Son accuses father of being a bad father. Of being absent, abusive, egocentric. All of which I’m guilty of. Father repents, begs forgiveness. Father and son hug. Emotional string music on the soundtrack. The audience sniffles and goes home feeling redeemed.”
Maybe in some other, forgotten era of his life, Jeremy has harbored such thoughts. Maybe there was a time when he was angry at his father for not being a father. But all this is so far in the past that he doesn’t even remember it. It all ceased to matter a long time ago.
William Kowalski has documented an unexplored yet common state of life in his book The Hundred Hearts. It is a touching and poignant read for our anxious and lonely times.