Nels Hanson: The Case of the Anti-hero

In Pace Requiescat

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?

—W.B. Yeats
To Poe’s so acute, so prophetic meditation of 150 years ago—that the truly extraordinary mind or spirit would necessarily find itself isolated, hated, and misunderstood by the society in which it appeared, and, especially, that news of the eminently great should not be sought in biographies but in “the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows”—the life of Joseph Clifton Case bears haunting testimony.

In all of recorded history, who but Case so intimately sensed the dread duality of all things, and so personally suffered this jarring collision of opposites, with less rancor or self-pity, less sorrow or hope?

Because he understood those emotions were barred to him, by himself from himself, for our better good . . . .
The Gethsemane of knowing in one’s deepest heart that each moment’s action will bring an unknown, nearly immediate, and always contradicting reaction; that this law is iron-clad and inescapable; and that in one’s own person one has been chosen to endure and by example bear the truth of this law into the world—such knowledge must utterly destroy or transfigure a mere mortal.
And that his destruction or the miraculous alteration and triumph of his spirit would summon its own opposite effect Case clearly saw and so with a steely passion scrupulously avoided both carelessness and the taint of transcendence . . . .

Quietly, before an instant’s decision, to see already its answering nullification, and not break or scream would require the spiritual constitution of the greatest saint. Before the most tender of love letters leaves the pen to not expect but know with certainty that the beloved will soon receive an answering obscene phone call from a stranger. Or worse, that the friendly hand placed on the head of a child incites the death of some innocent elder.

Case saw it, lived with it daily, hourly, by the minute. Recollectively, meticulously, he was exquisitely alert to the ever-threatening danger of setting off the Apocalypse, the horrible echo of love’s unfolding.
Do I dare to eat a peach?” the great poet rhetorically asks, and in dismissal I answer yes, in full knowledge of an accompanying sour odor on the air.

But to wish to give affection, to proffer aid, to rush forward with unconditional support, though the most empathetic nature urged him on, Case could not do, and did not do, out of dearer love and vigilance for the world at large, for that haughty shibboleth the well-being of all humanity.

What greater love hath a man, that he lay down his life for his brother?
At what age did he first know that he was the One? What were the awful and dim self-awakenings and naughtings, what childish appeals to modesty and self-effacement?

The daily, attendant temptations dwarf the mind. To throttle the downy chick to save the dying pup? To trip the lame boy to cure the paraplegic?

Forever unable to communicate this direct line of relation, yet knowing himself responsible and guilty . . . . How did he endure, without going mad or becoming the plaything of Evil, of the sleepless Other?

And so he made the great renunciation. What strength of nerve in so frail a vessel . . . .
Because any act would engender its perfect, antagonistic corollary, to laugh or shout or breathe too deeply would be a curse and cause us to weep or go mute or stifle in our beds, Case did nothing

Or nearly nothing, as little of nothing as one could do and not die. No, he must live, not for himself, but for us!
Like some insane, bewildered adept, the most sane and aware of men labored endlessly at complete anonymity and insignificance of both spirit and intellect, in boredom and mediocrity. If he must yearn, he would yearn microscopically, to contain the world’s wounds. How often whole evenings he spent reading long lists of random numbers I copied from the phone book.

At first thinking him a gifted child, his family had soon resigned themselves to Case’s feeblemindedness.
The day of his birth the Chinese crossed the Yalu into Korea. He saw his childhood friend struck down by a car before his eyes—Case had lingered by a white fence, smelling a yellow climbing rose. His first and only romantic tryst was the November day John Kennedy died. Though conceivably he might have prevented the Viet Nam and Yom Kippur wars by committing equivalent barbarities, he did not cause them . . . .

Case worked as a seasonal field hand, renting a small shack at the outskirts of Lemas, California, a fruit-growing area in the central San Joaquin Valley. The cold, foggy afternoon of December 7, 1996—the day my world changed suddenly forever—I saw him limping along Mountain View Avenue and stopped my aunt’s new Lincoln to offer him assistance, not realizing the narrow strip of country asphalt was my disguised Road to Damascus.

His gray eyes were intelligent and sad, he smiled, then instantly assumed a look of utter impassiveness as I felt a shooting pain race down my right leg and just as quickly disappear. Then I saw that in his callused hands he held a wounded orange kitten. We introduced ourselves and I offered to drive him to the veterinarian.

With modest dignity, in a soft, flat voice, he explained he had only a few cents and I assured him I would pay the doctor’s cost. In his patched but immaculate work clothes he gingerly eased himself down onto my aunt’s leather passenger seat. So began my too brief friendship with surely the most extraordinary unknown man in human history . . . .

Children mocked him and broke bottles in his yard, scored the fenders of his aged Dodge with epithets. Case was let go from his job, or cheated on his check. He embraced the lowest rung of the lowest ladder, where, finally, all seas find a level above the heads of the nameless poor. Indeed, who but I was there to register and report back to the world that the Elberta peach tree beyond Case’s window burst into glorious red, premature spring bloom as Case lay wracked with flu, then unaccountably withered overnight, as if frostbitten, as his fever broke?

Surely there must have crossed Case’s reason and tempted it a scene of unfathomable grandeur, that in his suicide he might save the world? I have no doubt he would have chosen death in a second, without hesitation, if his real intellect had not always been uppermost, and his nearly preternatural intuition had not revealed that his self-immolation might give birth to the Devil.

Case suffered the judgments of the ignorant and small, of those who deigned to notice and pass sentence upon him, he who alone held up the world by his staunch refusal of action and achievement!

“He prunes vines so damn slow,” one farmer complained.
“Yeah,” said another, “but he never cuts a wire.”
“What do you see in that Case person, anyway?” asked my aunt, lifting her porcelain tea cup. “He’s sooo boring, sooo tedious and commonplace. I declare, if you continue this practice of adopting stray cats, one day I’ll have you installed at King’s Rest!”
Ironies portioned to a giant resolve!

Many evenings before his smoking wood stove Case spoke solemnly, in a voice bled of all melody, in a drugged-sounding monotone, of the need for a superhuman discipline, of a constant awareness of mind, body, and soul as humanity dangled from a thread less than slender.

Once, smiling ruefully, permitting himself the most meager of gestures, Case leaned forward and with a finger righted a small beetle that had crawled from a log and somehow fallen over on its back, its tiny legs helplessly fanning the air. An instant later, from the ceiling, a moth fluttered down, drowning in his drink.

Case turned, and in his eyes I saw the agony of the ages. He returned my stare, like a god in pain, holding the heavy beam from the head of his servant. Then he grimaced, his unlined face seemed to crack like stone, form a web of eternal sadness, before a group of passing boys jeered wildly from the street and instantaneously the balancing veil of blankness fell again.

I remember the neatly made, quilt-covered military cot where he slept, how it huddled against the cinder block wall. And on the rude night table the dim clock. How it must have tolled the watches of the night! (On my mantel, I keep its burned remnant as a relic, more precious than a saint’s tooth.)

He explained that he slept little, he was terrified to dream, though from childhood he had taught himself to close his eyes and see only a large rectangle, like a domino. One half was white, one black, always, without shift or movement, in perfect proportion. Once, with the mental discipline of a yogi, Case sought our salvation in nightmares, but his fatal nature made him prone to the random vision of splendor—

He was not a god, not perfect, only a man. Blandly, he mentioned a dream he had the week before, of a sweetheart he had admired from a distance and never spoken to or approached, indeed never afterward thought of, of the bliss of unity he felt in her imagined embrace.
“Surely,” he said, “you saw Tuesday’s paper.”

No one could have missed the lurid headlines and the pictures splashed across the front pages of the tabloids, the account of the brutal attack, apparently unprovoked and at random, on the well-known movie actress—
His unmoving, gray eyes acknowledged the murder.

But what harrowing upheavals had his unstinting vigilance prevented? Potential Author of All Crimes, of all mercies, he sought to be nothing, for the good of Everyman.

Joseph Case, 59, Yesterday’s Hero, Dead in Freak Gas Explosion

So announced the paper’s unsearching obituary of October 7 (the anniversary of the death of the sad Virginian, Edgar Allan Poe), before the Third Day and the final (?) episode in the chain of singular events that has transformed the world of journalism and All Things so meticulously.

(I confess I enjoyed a grim, mirthless satisfaction, a sense of belated, just retribution, when the thumb-sized meteorite crashed through my aunt’s picture window into her bowl of tomato bisque. I watched her dripping and wailing amid sudden steam and brilliant shards, the silver spoon still raised toward her lips, before I moved to her aid—)

I had sensed Case’s end with apprehension, the day before his death, when on the news I saw his fleeting, furtive profile and heard his mumbled words of denial, as the intrusive reporters surrounded him, demanding a juicy quote:
How had he sensed the predicament of the careening bus, sprinted to catch up, jumped aboard, and above the body of the stricken driver guided the children from the path of the roaring train?

Don’t know. Luck, I guess. Gotta go now . . . .”
He had known of the impending wreck, because he had inadvertently caused it.

Towers fall and bright pavilions rise, lakes retreat underground and geysers shoot suddenly into the light. There is weeping and wailing, a gnashing of teeth. And exaltations, rapture. (Ironically, it is my aunt who has become a resident of the suddenly overflowing King’s Rest Sanitarium.) Underneath the frenzied outpourings abides the undetected, unstated shining ribbon of truth:  Case Is Dead, Now a New World Is Born!

Let us meditate on its prophet, its savior, its sacrificial lamb . . . . Its antithesis?
What were Case’s thoughts, his mind teetering like the Earth itself on its axis, at the moment of annihilation? Even then, surely, as the air flashed and turned to fire, he was thinking of us. Perhaps, even, he imagined the supremely Evil, in the ultimate act of service?
At his entombment, in the light of a New Dawn, I was the only mourner.

The End
— by Nels Hanson



Nels Hanson graduated from UC Santa Cruz and received an MFA from the U of Montana. His fiction received the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award and a citation in its Joseph Henry Jackson competition. Nels Hanson’s stories have appeared in Antioch Review, Texas Review, Black Warrior Review, Southeast Review, Long Story, Short Story, South Dakota Review, Starry Night Review and other literary journals. A story, “The Death of Zorro,” can be found on Digital Papercut Archives

Copyright© 2009, by Nels Hanson. All Rights Reserved.

Nels Hanson: The Case of the Anti-hero
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