Johnny Payne

Updated: Nov 2

The Taming Power of the Small

David was one year younger than me: a poet and free spirit.  We grew up in different cities—me in Lexington, he in Battle Creek—but we saw one another at family reunions.  We climbed a tree in my grandmother’s front yard to smoke a cigarette and got queasy.  Our fathers laughed at us.  His was the straight arrow, once a soldier in Okinawa, distant like all of the Payne men, but a good man.  He became a professor of computer science at the local community college, long before computers were a part of daily life, much less attached to Silicon Valley glamor or dotcom billionaires.   

His wife Millie, a country girl with the same faraway look as her husband Jimmie, made apple butter, pickled squash from her kitchen garden, grew basil on the windowsill, and sewed dresses from McCall’s patterns.  Even before their son’s death, they seemed to have gone through some searing passage together, one that would never be disclosed.  Pious and parsimonious they were, not apt to invite you to visit, but if you did venture, they would serve a small plate of kale and corn from the garden, and an eight-ounce portion of skinless grilled chicken, with a glass of unsweetened iced tea.  Their Christmas card, the two of them gazing straight ahead at the camera, constituted an update of American Gothic, only with cable-knit sweaters.  

David and I watched the moon landing in 1969 on their little black and white television.  They took us to a Michigan orchard to pick apples, which I found so exciting that I made myself sick eating them from the tree.  I saw him from time to time, but the next encounter that I remember was when both of us stayed at my cousin Betty’s house in Disputanta, the little Kentucky farming town where Jimmie and my dad had been born, way up a holler.  An extraordinary woman who wrote plays and wove tapestries on her two looms, Betty had moved to Arizona to pursue a tormented hippie life, having vivid dreams about indigenous warriors rowing her in a bark along the coastline of Peru.  The three of us, the artists in the family, had all been born under the sign of Saturn.   

As David and I sat on the front porch in the deep silence of a starry, Kentucky night, replete with willow-hidden frogs singing, neither of us could have guessed that he was at the front edge of becoming fatally bipolar.  We slouched in rocking chairs, long of hair and loose of jean, two intellectual dudes who had turned into young men with no idea what was coming next.  As we smoked marijuana, surrounded by cornfields and the undulations of the foothills known as Bear Mountain, David showed a touch of prescience when he remarked, without elaborating, “You know, we Paynes are a moody bunch.”  We laughed together, playing at innocence, as if our willful lack of knowingness alone might exempt us from the family curse.  David began to talk about his favorite subject, science fiction, and his favorite novel, Stranger from a Strange Land.   


Smith is an intelligent creature with the ancestry of a man, but he is more Martian than man.  Until we came along, he had never laid eyes on a man.  He thinks like a Martian, feels like a Martian.   


The image of him I carry, like a portrait in a locket, was how he looked that night—his face lean but round, benevolent, like a friar’s, as if he had mercy to dispense.  We talked until four in the morning—only a guess, for there was no clock.  We scrambled eggs with milk and cheese and had to scrape the burnt toast, leaving ashes in the sink.  You wouldn’t have guessed from that simple meal that both of us would turn into talented and devoted cooks.  In my fantasy, we would open a restaurant together and quarrel in the kitchen while amused sous-chefs chopped cabbage and rolled out pastry. 

We were apart for many years, and didn’t correspond much. But once, my then-wife Miriam and I had our plane rerouted due to weather and instead of spending the night in the airport, we took the El to David and Robin's apartment. From the beginning I liked Robin, who would dote on any person with whom she was conversing, as if she were a second-grade teacher sent to buck them up.   

David was always trying to live as close to the lake as he could, and as his income went up, he would find someplace closer still.  You could measure his happiness in city blocks.  If he could have transformed into a gull, he would have done so, and taken up residence on a shoreline rock.  As he made pizza dough, massaging yeast and grain, I looked at him and saw how beautiful he was—not physically imposing, in fact short and a little stocky, but his mass of black hair around spectacles, the ever-present smile, and his tendency to chatter about art, literature and politics, all while asking you with genuine interest about your own life, lent him a charm under-lit with mischief.   I was a PhD student at Stanford, and though I didn’t know it, would soon work as a professor of literature at Northwestern University, right up the lakefront from him, yet he owned many more books than me, and I do believe he was better read.  If not, he simply remembered every word of every page that he devoured.  His skill for pulling a verse out of the air surpassed that of a Baptist preacher. 

Yet devoured isn’t the right word.  He had taken a degree in Japanese studies at the University of Chicago, before studying law at Loyola.  He had the perspective of a miniaturist, an attention to detail, and faith in the taming power of the small.   


Dense clouds, no rain from our western region 

The wind drives across heaven 

Thus the superior man 

Refines the outward aspect of his nature. 


His hexagram from the I’Ching was 9.  My hexagram was 26, the taming power of the great.  I had set myself a reasonably memorable destiny, having published a major work in Quechua ethnographic fieldwork by age 25, gotten into a top school, married a smart, gorgeous wife, produced a golden daughter and landed my dream job. 


Heaven within the mountain: 

Thus the superior man acquaints himself  

with many sayings of antiquity 

And many deeds of the past 

in order to strengthen his character thereby. 


By the time we arrived in Evanston, David worked as a young attorney in a prestigious law practice at the top of the Xerox Building.  He had moved within two blocks of the lakefront, and the vista from his office also looked out onto the watery horizon beyond which lay the dunes of Saugatuck.  I invited him up to my office at the top of University Hall, the oldest building on campus.  It wasn’t the Xerox Building, but made of Gothic granite, and if I stood on a chair on tiptoe, I could peer out the high window to the marina.  I made him climb on the chair, so I wouldn’t have to give up bragging rights, but he was too short, and so the lake view, according to him, was mere conjecture, one of my theories. 

Then the decline began.  The last clean memory I have is of three-year-old Sonja, Miriam and me at his long, narrow apartment lined with bookshelves, he in the kitchen making chili from ground beef, cubed pork and veal.  I don’t remember what music he had playing, but let’s say it was Dixieland jazz or Nixon in China.   He’d had a play produced by a small local troupe.  He played the ukulele for Sonja and danced around her like a troubadour while making up a happy song.  Robin and Miriam looked on, laughing and Sonja’s sky-blue eyes adored him.  I put myself at the edge of this tableau, observing.   I only want to be in the scene if it can last forever—before my breakdown, before our divorce, before Sonja’s rape, before David committed suicide by drinking so much whisky and vodka that his throat literally exploded after he had lost everything, including Robin, his job, his apartment and all that was left of his intellect were paranoid-delusional poems he read to me over the phone. 

I could see his death coming from a long way off, but it still arrived as a surprise when Miriam called me in my hotel room in Mexico City to tell me he had killed himself.  I had a taxi driver take me to the Plaza Mayor, where a national mariachi festival was happening, and I cried for an hour while trumpets rang with notes of jubilation from every direction.   

The first sign of slipping was that we would go to visit him, or to take him and Robin out to dinner, and he would cancel almost every time at the last minute, with no explanation given.  Finally, I took to visiting him late in the evening, by surprise.  The first time he looked like he wanted to run, but he and I walked up and down Belmont Street, past the Thai restaurants and theaters, while he chain-smoked pipe tobacco.  I wasn’t a smoker, but I enjoyed the fragrant cloud of mahogany and cherry.   

I thought of him as eccentric, another product of weird America with a factory setting slightly off; another Michigan apple from the family tree of misshapen fruit.  Then came the hospitalizations.  First, he was an inpatient, later, an outpatient.  They tried many combinations of meds on David, including lithium, but all they did was slow his descent into reclusive paranoia.  Strangely, I’d weathered a severe depression, mostly by force of will and alternative medicine, so I thought I was okay.  Each time I saw my cousin, he looked a little more disheveled and a little less enthusiastic about opera and novels.  He no longer asked about me, or my family, and when my books came out, he didn’t read them or attend my bookstore readings at Barbara’s and Borders.  We still took midnight strolls from time to time, while he chain-smoked Pall Malls.  He was usually stoned and half-drunk, or had taken amphetamines, Quaaludes or God knows what else.  I reasoned with him that drugs and booze were keeping his meds from working, but his answers were fatalistic.  “They’re not working already.” 

One day Robin called me, weeping.  “Don’t think I’m a bad person.  I have to leave him, Johnny.  I can’t live with the abuse.  He’s not even trying to get well.”  I had never seen David angry, but now I imagined him in a white rage, hurling handfuls of books to the floor, flinging a cook pot against the wall and watching it ricochet. 

I moved to Florida with my family.  The next time I saw David, he was living alone in a grubby little rented room fifteen blocks further west, an infinity from the lake shore.  He cooked off a hot plate, one step from vagrancy.  The hallway was sour and he didn’t smell too good either.  He had been working as a paralegal, I knew this from our long-distance conversations, but now he was unemployed.  His blue eyes, so much like Sonja’s, had turned bleary.  He hadn’t shaved in several days.  He had no bookshelves and scarcely any books.  I gave him money, which he took without comment.  David put the best face on the situation that he could.  Ray Bradbury’s name was evoked, and that of Doris Lessing, as if they were to be our fellow travelers to another world on a space ship.  We tried to do our former neighborhood prowl, but there was no heart in him.  His grin looked a shadow parody of the angelic smile he gave me on that starry night on Betty’s plank porch on Clear Creek, where heavy summer rains had raised the fragrance of hay and loam. 

The year before I left Chicago, my musical theater collaboration, The Devil in Disputanta, had been performed in the Mullady Theater at Loyola, where David went to law school.  It was a success, as university productions go, packed every night.  The play is set in the valley of Clear Creek, its protagonist modeled on Betty’s father, Uncle John.  I based it on our family history and the legend that the Devil returns each year at harvest time to walk across the treetops and choose a new woman as his concubine. The oral history from which I derived it, the very words of our ancestors and their neighbors, simply didn’t seem to matter anymore.  In some way, I had hoped that turning that past, that place of pain and enchantment into theater would have a magical power to save David, as I took the hollows, fields, and farms of our Kentucky, and rebuilt them around him, in Chicago, right on the lakefront.  The thunderheads would roll in over Lake Michigan, kicking up long rolling waves against the breakers.  The wind would drive across heaven, refining David’s inward nature. 

Yet though he struggled and struggled, he didn’t make it.  He began to call onetime friends long distance, from a touch-tone landline.  He called famous people as well as anonymous ones.  Sometimes they answered.  I don’t know how he got the home numbers of celebrities.  He called politicians.  David ran up hundreds or perhaps thousands of dollars in bills until at last the telephone company took away his privileges.  He called me in Boca Raton, reversing the charges.  At first, I listened to his conspiracy theories, rants of anguish, his delusional imaginings and his poetry of angels and apocalypse.  I kept trying to push him back toward his intellectual brilliance, his sweet nature, or any vestige of his sanity.  Miriam, I have to say, was more patient and resigned.  She would take the receiver from me and listen to his lengthy poetry readings, saying little, giving him encouragement as if he were a struggling and earnest new student and she the teacher.  One day I locked myself in the study and raged against him over the phone, until Miriam pounded on the door with such force that I was forced to calm myself down.   

 I told her that I wanted David to move in with us.  She replied at once that we lived in a tiny house with two small children and having David living with us, supposing he would even come, would be destructive to our life, terrifying for our children, and would do no good whatsoever.   

She was right.  I should have been focused on my own slowly disintegrating marriage.  I really thought I could save my cousin. 

Except I couldn’t. 

David’s sister Becky married a chef graduated from culinary school, who also happened to be a con man.  This son-in-law persuaded my Uncle Jimmie and Aunt Millie, the health-conscious stoics who had been watching their son slip away, to invest in a new restaurant he wanted to open.  They trusted the son-in-law enough to put their life savings into the business.  They also thought it would give David somewhere to work, since he had returned to Battle Creek and was too far gone, too scary, to hold a job anywhere.  So, he helped out when he could.  Meanwhile, their son-in-law was embezzling all the restaurant’s money, some of it to buy cocaine.  Weeks before bankruptcy, David took the key to the restaurant, returned at night and pulled up a stool near the bar stock.  He opened a bottle of vodka and drank.  By morning, he had died of ruptured esophageal varices at the age of 42. 

It is puzzling to think about how little, in truth, we saw one another during our lifetime together.  Yet he is the only brother of blood I ever had.  We were the only two males left to carry on the family name.  Then there was one of us.  For years, I thought of him every single day, until over time, I would forget to remember, and I would feel angry with him for not coming back like a banshee to remind me.   


Empty-handed  

I entered the world

Barefoot I leave it.

My coming, my going--

Two simple happenings  

that got entangled. 


Those are the words of the jisei that Kozan Ichikyo wrote, on February 12, 1360, hours before his death.  It is said that he expired with his brush in his hand, sitting upright. 


Johnny Payne's most recent published novels are THE HARD SIDE OF THE RIVER and CONFESSIONS OF A GENTLEMAN KILLER. He has most recently directed his plays DEATH BY ZEPHYR and CANNIBALS for Slingshot Players, Los Angeles. He directs the MFA in Creative Writing at Mount Saint Mary's University, Los Angeles.



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