In Charles Portis’ True Grit, a sentenced man on the gallows says, “I killed the wrong man and that is why I am here…I see men out there in that crowd that is worse than me.”
The killer’s claim rings true. All kinds populate a crowd. Or maybe I just know his instinct. I too used to weigh my behavior against the people much like me, those who treated their bodies like some sort of dark experiment. If I had treated myself to less favorable but more honest comparisons, my drinking, drug abuse, and the lies that propped them up might have been too much to bear. However, I looked for justification, not recrimination.
But this part is not about me, not yet. True Grit is the tale of a young girl, Mattie Ross, recounted by an older Mattie. When Mattie is only fourteen, her father is murdered and Mattie vows revenge on the “coward Tom Chaney,” who did the murdering. Mattie sets off from her house in Arkansas to oversee justice being served. Mattie immediately gets the upper hand of grown men, speaking in circles around a horse trader who her late father did business with. Even though an older Mattie recounts the story, the power of her voice echoes through the then and now.
After Mattie inquires about the U.S. marshals in town, she seeks out Rooster Cogburn who is described as the “meanest one,” fearless though he “loves to pull a cork.” Mattie gets her first sight of Rooster in court, where he describes shooting two outlaws and their father. The one living outlaw’s lawyer calls Cogburn “an assassin…clothed with the authority of an honorable court.” There’s more than a hint of truth to it, we come to learn, but even without knowing what’s to come, it’s as obvious as it was then as it is now that power protects even the corrupted and broken, often with a vengeance as if to prove the innocence of everyone else involved in the operation.
Dr. Hamilton Wright told the New York Times in 1911, “The history of the opium fight forms a queer illustration of our own National blindness to our own faults…and emphasizes our National tendency to see, with an amazing clarity, the sins of others, while remaining blind to our own viciousness.” Though Congress had previously taxed imported opium rather than regulate it flowing into the country and many states had passed laws concerning opium on their own, reform measures were proposed during the 62nd Congress, but those who profited—from importers to physicians and pharmacists—opposed and defeated the bill. Producers of the drugs include E. Merck and Company, which produced morphine and later cocaine, and Bayer, who brought Americans heroin pills in the 1890s.
Though rooted in Puritanical notions of abstinence, America seemed to be able to forgive itself for drug usage if it had an initial medical use, like cocaine did as a topical anesthesia. Soon enough the drug would be normalized and enter as another product to serve what had become the one true religion of the nation: capitalism. Dr. Wright said, “Contractors of labor in the South, under the impression that cocaine stimulates the negro laborers to a greater output of work, wink at the distribution of the drug to them.” If drugs made a person more productive, then the harms habituation and dependence brought could be overlooked. Yet it never took too long for the drug, when being used by minorities, to become a social ill that threatened the very stability of society.
David Courtwright, in Dark Paradise, blames the doctors for over-prescription at the end of the 19th century. Their addicted patients were often upper and middle-class women. As America moved into the 20th century and education improved for the upper and middle classes, the make-up of the addict population shifted toward the lower class and became overly male. This led to the thinking of an addict as “an unstable and compulsive personality better left to the management of the police.” This shift mirrors the opiate crisis in America in the 21st century, where the addiction moved from lower class addicts buying street heroin to the over-prescription of manufactured opiates, which tended to make addicts of, again, the upper and middle classes. All of a sudden, America’s drug problem became an epidemic, a national nightmare. As Courtwright writes, “What we think about addiction very much depends on who is addicted.”
“I hope you don’t think I’m going to keep you in whiskey,” Mattie tells Rooster as they are debating the price she will pay for the capture of Tom Chaney.
“I don’t have to buy that, I confiscate it,” he replies.
My dad had left home at eighteen and never returned, not in all the days I knew him, except for funerals and one visit to his sister we’d made for a long weekend. Back in the early eighties, he lived in Northeast Philadelphia, working for a carpet measuring service. He had no real family except for his buddies. Him and his friends spent most of their time drinking in their favorite dive bar or playing baseball, probably drinking in the dugouts between at-bats.
One of his friends worked as a cop in Northeast Philly. He would come into the bar in the evenings, where my dad and all his friends gathered, and upturn his pockets on the bar top. All the drugs he’d confiscated that day would scatter among the empty pitchers and full ash trays. My dad and his buddies then set to divvying up the daily haul. I always wondered how they decided who got what. Perhaps bills changed hands, or bets on games of darts or whatever game played on TV decided the take, or maybe even Marx haunted that dingy dive: from each according to his needs. No matter how they decided, they’d do those drugs as free men without worrying about what happened to the people who had previously owned them, their highs practically sponsored by state power.
Only one kid I grew up with became a cop. We played baseball for our high school team together and though we always got along, we didn’t keep in touch, so it came as a surprise when I saw his face staring at me from an article in The Philadelphia Inquirer that said him and his partner had been arrested for shaking down a guy for his pills.
As for myself, I’ve had a handful of interactions with cops that should not have ended with me simply being told to leave. I used to think stories of not getting arrested were funny when the person telling them should have, clearly and obviously, been arrested. Years later, I stopped telling my tales of debauchery that ended with red-and-blue lights swirling in the night because they seemed less funny, which is how I told them, and more harmful, like I had been bragging about my privilege. I finally realized chances were, if I’d looked differently, those same exact same situations would have ended with me being searched instead of given some half-hearted verbal warning. And, after the cops found whatever I had on me at the time, which was never a lot of pot but was always some pot, I would have been cuffed and caged, at least for a night. Beyond that, I would have had to deal with the fallout: possession charges, lawyer fees, a criminal record. And certainly, to put it mildly, awkward dealings with my family and future employers.
Perhaps there is a fallout from not dealing with fallout. I could live without consequence or so I thought. Still not many days weren’t by that I did not reproach myself about my behavior. Addict, I called myself. Worthless drunk. I’d spend mornings recreating fogged scenes where I said outlandish shit, hoping that everyone else had been as far gone as I had. I’d work back from the last thing I remembered until the very beginning of the evening, even before it, when I was at the store, worried about if I had enough alcohol to get to where I was going. Even from nights I could barely remember, I found many opportunities for self-criticism.
This entire line of thought is more foolishness, of course. There is blame, but not to lend to any system, especially one so rooted in prejudice. My luck was my luck and all I had learned of myself should have been enough to drive change. The wheel turned and I with it, naturally, since I was the one doing the turning. I thought I would magically mature but the older Sam matched the younger Sam drink for drink, hit for hit, line for line, pill for pill.
A third party, LaBoeuf, shows up to Mattie’s boardinghouse, also on the hunt for Tom Chaney because he’d shot a Texas state senator. LaBoeuf is a younger man than Rooster, nicer looking, but Mattie and him do not get along so pleasantly. She finds him a “vain and cocky devil, and tells LaBoeuf that her and Rooster do not need his assistance.
LaBoeuf goes behind Mattie’s back and finds Rooster. LaBoeuf tells Rooster that the Governor of Texas has put a five-hundred-dollar reward on Chaney, far more than the one hundred Mattie has offered Rooster. Rooster says, “Well, it sounds good but I have tried to collect bounties from states and railroads too. They will lie to you quicker than a man will. You do good to get half what they say they will pay. Sometimes you get nothing.” However, the state senator’s family has also offered fifteen hundred dollars, which Rooster finds he can’t refuse. Mattie remains firm that she does not want Chaney to see justice in Texas, but Arkansas. She wants him to know he is being punished for her father’s death, and not the death of anyone else. Rooster is unable or unwilling to understand, seeing justice as justice, no matter where or how it’s served.
I wonder what it means to be hard-wired. Even as an infinitely complex organism I do not understand, there is some nature to me. What of it? I always thought myself talented, in a way, blessed with a functioning mind. Then, I worried for years about what I was doing to that mind while I continued to do my best to get as out of it as possible.
Younger me, long before I ever found booze or drugs, always wanted a way to erase my mind so I could experience certain pieces of art again. I felt this craving reading Narnia, Lord of the Rings, and King’s Dark Tower series. Upon finishing, I wanted to relive them all for the first time so badly. Then I went and made myself far more adept at forgetting things and I did this, stupidly, before I realized the depth one might add by repeated readings.
I’ve put on plenty of movies I thought I never saw before, only to realize—over halfway through—that I’d seen them. In some state or another. It’s like remembering a dream deep into the afternoon, or how I thought I saw clearly until the fog lifted.
Mattie speaks with a Native American woman who surprises her by being a Presbyterian. Mattie then quotes specific Bible verses on the topic of “election,” which maintains that certain groups and people are favored by God. Some of us are destined for eternal salvation, while others…I suppose it’s just not meant to be. Mattie says, “I confess it is a hard doctrine, running contrary to our earthly ideas of fair play, but I can see no way around it.”
Of course, this means that the Native American woman was predestined to be saved from her heathen ways by someone who had already been saved themselves. In my interpretations of the Bible, which are admittedly noobish and shallow even after twelve years of Catholic school, Jesus loved the reformed ones most. Walking the path of righteousness mattered to Jesus so far more after one had tasted true hedonism. Good news for me, I suppose, but if I’m once-an-addict, always-an-addict like recovery preaches, then even though I’m no longer giving into every desire pinging around my animal brain there remains the pressing worry that teetering on the precipice brings. Can I decide to be saved forever myself—or must I give myself over to something greater? Won’t that twist me back around to where I was?
When Mattie sees a man dying, what she sees in his eyes is confusion. Though perhaps this is because he is a thief and she thinks he can’t rely on redemption. Yet, Mattie soon learns more about Rooster. After the war, he stole four thousand dollars from a Federal agent and later, needing another stake, robbed a bank. He twists it, as is his way, by saying, “You can’t rob a thief, can you?”
“It is all stealing,” Mattie insists.
“That was the position they took in New Mexico,” Rooster relents. He continued living outside the law until he shot a man and lived as an outlaw until a Federal marshal captured him. Luckily for Rooster, that Federal marshal happened to be an old friend from the war. In fact, the one he robbed the Federal agent with those years back. So instead of being arrested, Rooster is hired on and made a deputy marshal.
My dad once told me a story about an old friend of his. Like all his old friends, they were lost to time even then, when my dad was alive. The only people he seemed to know were me and the rest of my immediate family. This old friend shot himself—my dad told me it was an accident handling a gun, as if to scare me off purchasing one myself, but now I wonder if it was a suicide attempt—but somehow the bullet passed through his head without killing him or even harming his mental faculties. “Went up through his chin, ricocheted off one side of his skull, and went clear through the other.” Somehow, my dad said, he was fine. Since then, I have always wondered both about the efficacy of firearms and of stories. The one aiming can only dictate so much, for even if we have the end in mind it remains a mystery where it may finally come to rest.
After my father’s death, we committed him to the deep. Well, the Navy did. That’s their term for a burial at sea. We were sent pictures of the ceremony months later. A group of young-faced boys, far from home, folded a flag to send home with the pictures and pitched his ashes overboard. From there, he rode the current until it set him down. I have a map with a pin in it, approximating his final resting place.
When Mattie is seized by the bandits after wounding Tom Chaney with a shot, she asks their leader if he needs a good lawyer.
“I need a good judge,” he replies.
The bandits ride off, leaving Mattie with the wounded Tom Chaney. Rooster cuts off the bandits on the road out while LaBoeuf rides into the mostly abandoned camp to rescue Mattie. Rooster shoots two bandits while another escapes, but with the leader still mounted Rooster goes down under his horse. LaBoeuf is forced to turn his attention to the distant gunfight and Mattie, after being awed by LaBoeuf’s live-saving marksmanship, writes, “Now the prisoner has an advantage over his keeper in this respect, that he is always thinking of escape and watching for opportunities, while the keeper does not constantly think of keeping him.”
It only takes a flash to go from keeper to prisoner, or maybe it takes no time at all and only a realization about the nature of the cage.
This mishap doesn’t cost Mattie her life, but it costs her an arm. She’s eventually saved by Rooster and LeBoeuf for good, shifting positions for the final time. From perspective near the end of the novel, Mattie reflects on where she ended up as Rooster, she thinks, is about to ride into town with an old Wild West show to play the greatest hits of the now-gone-past generation. Speaking of her brother and sister, Mattie says, “I have never held it against either one of them for leaving me at home to look after Mama, and they know it, for I have told them.” It’s a gut punch, the last thing you expect for Mattie: the fun being over. Is there really nothing else to do but sit around and tell stories about it?
The tent has emptied out; the carnival moved on. The audience grew tired of yet another act. The only sign of them is the grass, stamped but largely alive.
I hold on to memory. I don’t try to get it all down right, only to get it down at all. I fear the window; I don’t know what I have today that will slip through my fingers. Of that, I don’t know what I’ll be able to save and what will be lost regardless.
Thoughts rattle. I let the competition unravel naturally and count the days the same. There are so many of them like so many others: good, bad, everything in between. There’s nothing special about me. Time belongs to everyone, though not equally. Sometimes four months is four months. Sometimes a life stretches on forever.