Way Down In the Prince Emmanuel's Land

Impelled, driven away from his desk and the study of a history he could no longer comprehend or even cared to, by a small spot that expanded, grew, shouldered against the facts he had stored in his brain; the constant pushing made sleep impossible, even when sleep was assisted by--or perhaps itself driven away--by several slugs from a bottle of cheap bourbon. A ring of light glowed in the east past the Charles, like the necklace of a dark lady, and that told him it was dawn or otherwise he might not have known because time, like history, had broken down for Bell--time became irrelevant to the text of events that private myth, the personal subtext of events, had replaced. Down the wet streets of Cambridge Bell walked, but he walked, careless of time and of history, down down into the fading gray all-nite movie theatre pool hall used car lot out front of Dreamland, a Jungian slide show punctuated by snatched conversations and bits of song, run by the Prince Emmanuel himself, down in the Prince Emmanuel's land. Dreamland.

Of his great-great grandfather James McLean Bell, called by the other settlers of Pikeville, Kentucky "Jaybird" because he was always jabbering about some wrongness the world had done to him, and some wrongness was always being done, it seemed, in that east Kentucky town, in 1840 no longer the frontier but still a place where a man could make a decent living making malt whiskey and selling it to the survivors of the Iroqois Five Nations, and nobody would care until the night when Jaybird Bell, liquored up on his own hooch, killed a man in a knife fight. Then he would have to flee, back across the line into western Virginia, up into one of those hollows where a man had kin. The only excitement of the trip, made in mid-winter on horseback, was that it would kill the two children he had even while his wife gave birth to another, whom Jaybird named William McLean Bell, after his own father.

And when those hill people in 1861 seceded from Virginia, herself seceded from the Union of Abraham Lincoln, William Bell would be offered a commission by the Restored Government of Virginia, by his own governor Francis Boreman and the legislature that met at Wheeling, despite the eye he had lost in a fight that followed a poker game in Martinsburg, because it was acknowledged that William Bell knew every backroad and trail in the state. A commission he would turn down, because unlike most of the people of the new state caught in the grip of the third Great Awakening William Bell liked the feeling of insecurity, the feeling of not knowing whether he was north or south or blue or gray, and became a captain in a raiding force that was an adjunct to Stonewall Jackson's third cavalry, simply because he could make more money. After Jackson's death, he killed a fellow officer in a quarrel; William Bell was ordered to be shot by his commander-in-chief, in a letter in Lee's own hand, January 14, 1864, in a camp outside Lexington. Instead, he escaped by knifing his guard and lived to greatly approve of the Radical Republicans and American expansion. He named his son Seward Alaska Bell after that Secretary of State and his purchase of territory from the Russians, and died in 1902, after twice being turned down for enlistment in the Spanish-American War.

Laskey Bell was studious, quiet; his father jeeringly called him a "clerk," and that's what he became--a clerk in the Osborne Lumber Company, jeered at there by his boss Eddie Osborne because he blushed at the racy calendars Osborne hung on the wall of the office they both shared. Thirty years later, when Osborne came to him for a loan that would enable him to move into the expanding natural gas industry of the Kanawha Valley, with the promise of a full partnership, Laskey Bell set a further condition--he wanted Osborne's daughter's hand in marriage as part of the deal, which Osborne gave, laughing that his clerk would be so bold. The girl, Tora Lucille, 30 years younger than her fiance, educated at Agnes Scott in Atlanta and just back from a tour of Europe, had other ideas; after bearing Laskey a son, Ralph Emerson Bell, she ran away with a four-fingered gambler one night on the six o'clock boat to Louisville. Laskey Bell, now a rich man, sent his son to Andover and forgot about his wife, living alone in the majestic house he had built for her out of white oak and limestone, sinking into the dyspeptic fog of good whiskey that provided him with his own private Dreamland.

Ralph Bell finished his studies at Harvard and the University of Virginia Law School and settled down in that same old house, even though nobody gave him any business after that day in 1955 when he stood on the steps of the county court house and vowed that Kanawha County schools would goddam well integrate; two years later his son Thomas Scott Bell was born and Ralph still slept with a pistol under his blanket, the same one he would use to blow his brains out with, six months to the day after taking out $250,000 insurance policy that would send his own son to Cambridge, six months being the required time period before suicide could be considered as a legitimate cause of death by the insurance company. Thomas Scott Bell was named as the sole beneficiary.

The Dreamland that Bell walked was like none of the Dreamlands his fathers had. Dreamland focused on his friend Jimmy Seabolt, dead at 18 three days before high school graduation in the hot auditorium of the high school named after his great-grandfather's friend and commanding officer Stonewall Jackson, dead in a low-rent poolhall called Syl's Place because two men from the same refrigerator assembly line in Akron had come to visit relations in West Virginia and in an argument shot Jimmy, leaving Bell to identify the body.

There were happier things too, about Dreamland--nights in cars with girls whose names were Diana Leigh and Valerie Lynn, girls whose names ran together if their faces did not; of hunting in crisp mornings for pheasant and grouse on ground that crackled as you walked over it. But Dreamland remained gray; gray shadows broken and heightened by little bands of neon, when the Bells of the past spoke to Thomas Scott Bell at Harvard, calling in his own mind to him above the clutter and emotion of being tremendously alone in a tone of evil desperation, as if he was their last foothold in the world beyond Dreamland, beyond the world where the Prince Emmanuel reigned supreme, and they now required something from him. Thomas Scott Bell walked in the rain of a Cambridge winter day, unconcerned about an exam later that same day, listening to the Bells of the past but at the same time drawn on to his private Dreamland that was his alone, which they neither understood or could affect, from which his own voice told him he would leave soon, that it was not his time. Dreamland would wait.

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