CONJUNCTIONS:57, Kin (Fall 2011)
Shhhhhh, Arthur’s Studying
Can Catiline be cleared?
The reputation of the Roman conspirator assigned to infamy
in the polemics of Cicero has been reclaimed …
—Fall River Herald NewsSeptember 25, 1968
Arthur’s triumphant appearance in Fall River. He gave a short speech at his alma mater, BMC Durfee High School, noting that the destruction of Catiline’s reputation was the result of the same sort of mudslinging that characterizes the politics of today. “And you think the Romans were violent? Maybe we ought to look at ourselves in this year, 1968 … It is not a man who is heard but his critics. Because critics always shout louder and use more colorful language. Elections bring out the poet in politicians, don’t they? Take, for instance, the consular elections of 64 BC when Cicero called Piso (father of Caesar’s last wife, Calpurnia), among other things, brute, plague, butcher, linkboy of Catiline, lump of carrion, drunken fool, inhuman lunatic, feces, epicurean pig, assassin, temple robber, plunderer of Macedonia, infuriated pirate egged on by desire for booty and rapine … And yet, it must be said that, compared to Catiline, Piso was a lunch counter.”
This was followed by a strangely long pause. Arthur leaned over the podium, gaped at his audience, and waited. He repeated it. “Piso was a lunch counter.” His sad, pasty face, his eyes imploring. (Cousin Ida nudged Cousin Frieda and whispered, Must he make those awful lists?) It was Walt who finally, mercifully, laughed. Ah, a lunch counter! Piso was a lunch counter! My brother the scholar was never known for his sense of humor. You sell furniture, you gotta have a sense of humor. Are you finished with this speech, Arthur?
And yet one night, about a month or so later, it was Walt who, after dinner, went and took the book off the shelf in the living room where Sarah had safely stored it for posterity. He carried it upstairs to his study in the flat of his hand like a waiter carrying drinks. Then he locked the door and went to Rome. Night was thinning into morning by the time Catiline uttered the last of his famous last words: But if fortune frowns on your bravery, take care not to die unavenged. Do not be captured and slaughtered like cattle, but fighting like heroes leave the enemy a bloody and tearful victory.
Walt hears trumpets. If fortune frowns … Viva Catiline! Viva the traitor!
Furthermore, as my brother argues, no self-respecting republic should be without a little healthy rebellion. It keeps everybody honest and with a blowhard like Cicero believing every word that rolled off his golden tongue no matter how ridiculous—somebody had to draw a line across the forum with his sword. Even, yes, if it costs your life. Walt slides off his chair and onto the carpet. He stares at the ceiling. His study is a box that envelopes him, protects him. There are days he mourns this room, wonders how it will go on without him when he’s gone. Yet right now the distance between himself on the floor and the ceiling is intolerable.
I’m lying in a grave in my own house. To think there are people who believe that when it’s all over the angels sing and we float up higher and higher … They don’t doubt. They believe. Before I put on my other sock, I’ve doubted the entire day.
After the Battle of Pistoria, they brought Catiline’s severed head back to Rome in a basket.
This has to mean something.
Once, in this very room, a jay rammed into the window. Then he backed up and flew into it again. Again. Again. Again, until he finally dropped into the dirt by the side of the house. And they say only man is heroic enough to pursue lost causes.
This morning, my people sleep. My own brother, the scholar, has faith enough—believes in enough—to devote his life to raising an ancient debaucher from the dead; he sleeps in leafy Brooklyn. My wife and daughter sleep across the hall. The dawn sun claws upward. I sink into carpet. How can I arise to protect my people if I don’t even own a sword?
How can you shout farewell if you never go anywhere?
Peter Orner is the author of Esther Stories (Mariner) and the novels The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo and Love and Shame and Love (both Little, Brown).