I read and reread the newspaper clipping my mother had sent from my hometown paper and heard that question echoing down the long corridors of the past. As I tried to absorb the details of the terrible event reported in the clipping, I was aware that I had not thought of Ashby Niles for many years, nor had I thought of the question that had once infuriated me.
“Why can’t you be like Ashby Niles?” How many times had I heard that? Bad enough that it was so often said by my mother when she was reprimanding me for some rudeness, but girls I dated in neighboring towns were likely to ask this question if I failed to come around to their side of the car and hold the door while they alighted.
Nor was I the only boy to suffer under this comparison. Parents all over town burdened their sons with this question. Even boys of neighboring towns were not immune to the comparison by their parents and girlfriends.
Ashby Niles Goodman, grandson of the richest and most powerful local man, at sixteen was indeed an apparent model for a young man. He was tall, slender but muscular, and he carried himself proudly erect showing some effect of his military prep school. His fair skin showed no sign of the pimples, blackheads, and acne that were the common lot. His deep blue eyes were direct and confident. His slightly unruly shock of blonde hair was carefully controlled in a single wave that was quite natural. But the admonitions from parents and dates were due to his manners. His actions as perceived by adults and girls were impeccably proper and correct. He always did and said exactly the polite and gracious thing in a smooth and natural way that turned the hearts of girls and astonished parents who were accustomed to their suitors and their sons behaving with loutish awkwardness.
“Why can’t you be like Ashby Niles?” How often the question resounded in the little town.
Rich, handsome, polite. Too good to be true? Yes, too good to be true. What galled me and others was that it was not true, and we knew that parents and girlfriends were lucky we were not like Ashby Niles. We knew him as dangerous, vicious, foolhardy, and perhaps a little insane. By all odds he was, in many ways, the worst of all the young men and most of us knew it, but how could we say this to parents and girlfriends?
“Of course,” I thought, as I read the clipping, “the whole town has long since found out what the young men knew about Ashby Niles.” The clipping stated that Ashby Niles Goodman, 31, had been shot and killed in a house trailer by policemen who had attempted to arrest him on a drug charge. The clipping said he had only recently been released from prison on parole after serving six years for the murder of a druggist in an attempted drug robbery.
I felt a sorrow but no surprise at the story. “He finally did it,” was my primary reaction. It had not really occurred to me before that if there is such a thing as a death wish, Ashby Niles had had it. In fact, exemplified it.
When I had read Sartoris, I had thought of Ashby Niles. There is a southern tradition of wild young gentlemen hell-bent for destruction. Usually I feel that even Faulkner fails to make them real and comprehensible, and I have maintained to myself and others that such madmen are Faulknerian myths, but I don’t know. Ashby Niles was at least as reckless and unrestrained as young Bayard. Unlike Bayard, Ashby Niles had no obvious reason for his death-seeking, uncontrollable dissolution. In a way that makes him more typical of the traditional self-destructing young southern gentleman but a much harder character for a novelist to find motivation for. Also, Ashby Niles, except for his physical beauty and his surface courtesy, did not fulfill the role of an admirable character gone suddenly sour.
The tragedy in Sartoris is the change in Bayard as a result of the death of his brother. The tragedy in Ashby Niles was the contrast in what he was to what he might have been and seemed to most people, to be. And, as we always think, so easily could have been. We are not so stupid that we have accepted the cinematic equation that beauty plus money equals misery, and when this seems to occur in real life, we logically resent the fact. Probably on the basis that we are sure it is only the lack of these elements that makes us live in misery.
Everything that Ashby Niles did was in character and was consistent with his attitude. It was only the facade that made his behavior seem anomalous. And the facade that so deceived adults and girls was not intended by him to deceive them; it was automatic and sincere, it was not a pretense or a false face. That is why it was so persuasive and misleading.
To this day, when people are unusually polite or overly solicitous, I become wary and suspicious of them. I know that extreme politeness is likely the result of a feeling of insecurity, but recalling Ashby Niles, I often wonder if it might be a cover for more dreadful characteristics. “Maybe you are like Ashby Niles,” I sometimes think.
Though I spent many hours in his company, I never knew much about Ashby Niles. It is odd to me now, but the boys I grew up with were not really friends, and I can’t think of one that I really knew. I think it is a difference in attitude. Now when I become acquainted with someone, I may consciously wonder about him and think, “What makes him tick?” but the companions of my youth were simply there and were not analyzed, probed, or even wondered about. One did not, but for a few, especially like or dislike them but simply accepted them.
I do not now recall anything about him before he and I were about sixteen. This may be because he attended a private school, lived in a different part of town, and our families were not on the same social level. At about sixteen, I started running around with Ashby Niles as a result of my friendship with Stan Konner. Stan had been abandoned by his father and left with his grandmother when his mother had died when he was two or three years old. When Stan was sixteen, his father, who had long since remarried but had no children in the second marriage, re-discovered Stan and finding it much more to his taste to be paternal to a nearly grown son than to a demanding infant, embarked on an apparently completely successful attempt to buy the love he had not earned by opening a cornucopia for Stan, who had until then been as poor as I was. The most important bribe was a brand new car, a Graham, which would, and often did, go a hundred miles per hour.
Possession of a car of his own at sixteen put Stan in a nearly empty set in our town, but a few boys, including Ashby Niles, could frequently obtain the family car for an afternoon’s or evening’s outing. Thus Stan became a peer of Ashby Niles’s, and I was dragged along by my not very close friendship with Stan. I soon found out the dangers associated with being in the company of Ashby Niles, but my position was very simple: I would have befriended the devil himself to have occasional access to a car. For reasons not clear, it was very important to date girls in towns fifteen to forty miles away, and for that one clearly had to double date with someone who had the use of a car.
One of my first memories of Ashby Niles is an event that clearly portended trouble. One evening as we were about to leave for a neighboring town, he decided to stop at his house and change his shirt. The house was empty and he found a crisp white shirt and brought it out into the living room to put it on in front of a large mirror. We were talking and laughing together as he buttoned his shirt but as he tried to button his collar, the button broke in two in his hand. His laughter was instantly replaced by a black scowl. He ripped open the shirt with buttons flying, took it off, and tore it into four or five pieces. He then calmly got out another shirt and put it on without incident. This was my first glimpse of what I learned was his primary characteristic – his lack of restraint. What he felt like doing, he did. And to hell with the consequences.
On a more terrible level, in a rage one day he started hitting with his fist a plaster wall in his home and continued hitting it until he had broken two fingers and was bleeding badly enough to require a tourniquet. It did not matter to him whether it was someone else or himself who suffered as a result of his actions.
One thing sure, of all the people in town, his parents were never heard asking, “Why can’t you be like Ashby Niles?” They knew they had trouble and were surprised at nothing he did.
One night they had forbidden him to take the car but knowing that forbidding was a futile gesture, his father had removed the distributor rotor. It happened that Ashby Niles’s grandfather who lived nearby had the identical model car, so Ashby Niles removed the distributor rotor from his grandfather’s car, jump-wired his father’s car, and off we went.
One of the very few occasions on which his mother said anything to me was to reprimand me for my part in this. “I wouldn’t have thought that a boy who was going to be a minister would do a thing like that,” she said, I never knew why she thought I intended to be a minister, but I rather thought it was her idea of what an ambitious lower class boy could aspire to. There was something like that in her manner toward me.
That there was trouble in the family had been more than demonstrated to me on a previous occasion. I can’t remember where we were going or why, but I was in the front seat between Ashby Niles, who was driving, and his father, while his mother and two other women were in the back seat. Ashby Niles’s father was a short, spare, almost bald man who was reputed to neither do work of any kind nor ever to earn a nickel. As we went down a long hill with the road winding sharply, he kept telling Ashby Niles that he was driving too fast. When Ashby Niles paid no attention, he reached across me, turned off the ignition, and removed the key. Ashby Niles simply threw the car out of gear and let it continue to coast at a very high speed. His father then leaned across me and slapped his son sharply across the face. Ashby Niles jammed on the brakes, slewed to a stop in the road in the middle of a blind curve, jumped out of the car, came to the passenger side, pulled his father out of the car, and started tussling with him. While the other women screamed, his mother separated her son and her husband. Everybody got back into the car, and we continued the trip as if nothing had happened. No worry about that family saying, “Why can’t you be like Ashby Niles?”
That Ashby Niles had trouble with his family was no surprise to me. He had been sent to Westbridge Military School for the past two school years. Although he was quite aware and appreciative of the glamour value of his uniform with its dark blue, red-lined cape, he made no secret of his hatred for the school, itself, and for its semi-prison, pseudo-military atmosphere and regulations. The school’s existence was based on providing a socially acceptable solution for sons unwanted or uncontrollable at home. There was probably not a boy in the whole school who did not feel rejected by, and at war with, his parents.
Ashby Niles and Stan played with their cars as if they were simply toys. Ashby Niles’s car was a 1938 Oldsmobile and Stan’s was a 1938 Graham. Both boys became excellent drivers, but they were much given to daredevil stunts. One of their tricks was to drive at 80 miles per hour with one car following the other so closely that now and then they would bump slightly. An even more dangerous stunt was to drive side by side at high speed on a two lane road and let the cars they met take whatever evasive action deemed necessary. This usually consisted in running off the road onto the shoulder. Though they did such things almost constantly, neither ever damaged his car, nor did the police ever catch them. The drivers who were run off the road by them never seemed to have time to get their tag numbers or to recognize them in spite of the boys doing such things around our hometown where they were well known. I’ve often been grateful that the game “chicken” in which young men drove cars toward each other, each with a wheel on the road’s centerline, had not at that time been discovered. When one contestant is like Ashby Niles, that game is no longer an idiotic test of nerve. It is suicide.
Although Ashby Niles’s mother and father often indicated subtly that they were aware of the difference in their and my social standing, in all fairness, I must say that Ashby Niles seemed totally unaware of it. He was quite conscious of my limited funds and, in our double-dating, was careful to see that I was not put into an embarrassing position. When he found that I did not have an overcoat, he simply brought one along for me. In spite of this, we never became real friends, we never exchanged a confidence. It seems odd to me now that although both of us were leading lives of misery and conflict in our homes, not a word was ever said about it between us. I never had an an inkling of what his trouble was. I did know that it was serious. Unlike that of most young people, it was not his talk that was wild, it was his actions. Knowing him has always made me a bit wary of people in whom I detect signs of irrationality. The knowledge that under a thin veneer of good manners and affability there may be a heedless, smoldering savage is a sobering thought. The frequency with which small arguments end in violence is evidence that these people are not as rare as one might wish.
After I left town for college, I don’t think I ever more than spoke to Ashby Niles. He did visit me once with a group of other hometown boys on the occasion of a big football game.
He seemed to be losing some of his civilized facade and, at least when drinking, showed much more flamboyant behavior than before. He was by no means the only drunken visitor in my room that evening, but he distinguished himself by drinking lighter fluid (holding the can high and squirting a stream into his mouth, much like drinking wine from a bota) and by attempting to throw a bottle of whisky through my window. The lighter fluid didn’t seem to hurt him, and his aim was so poor that the bottle of bourbon hit the steel centerpost of my window and broke only the bottle. Whisky ran down over the window sill and onto a hot radiator and created quite an atmosphere in the snug room.
I don’t think I was ever in his company again and saw him only at a distance. I did, however, keep more or less informed about him through mutual acquaintances.
He had never been more than a casual drinker but now he had occasionally to be sent to a private hospital to be “dried out.” I was told that he invariably began drinking again on his first day at home.
The most astonishing story whispered around town was about Ashby Niles and the sheriff’s daughter. Boyd McFaye had been sheriff of the county as long as any of us could remember. He was a bluff, red-haired, red-freckled giant of a man who carried a blackjack in his back pocket and a revolver butt forward on his left hip. He was a much feared man: quick with his blackjack, quick with his pistol. He had shot a number of people in the line of duty. Most people felt he had done it with pleasure.
His daughter Susanna had his red hair and freckles, but on her they looked good enough to attract the attention of a swarm of boys all of whom were encouraged by her and rebuffed by her father. At seventeen she was not allowed to have dates and, indeed, was forbidden even to allow boys to walk home with her after school. The predictable result of his repression was that Susanna was indisputably boy crazy.
The rumor was that Ashby Niles was now and then, in the depth of the night, climbing a huge oak tree in the sheriff’s yard from which he was admitted into Susanna’s second floor bedroom. “He’s out of his mind,” boys would breathe, as they savored the story.
Strangely enough, for our little town, no one ever found out if the story was true. No one was about to ask Ashby Niles about it, and no one wanted to be in Sheriff McFaye’s line of fire when he heard about it.
It is true that one year later Ashby Niles and Susanna were married. Two years later that unfortunate girl was killed when her car struck the abutment of a bridge. It was popularly thought to be suicide. Ashby Niles came to his wife’s funeral escorted by two prison guards.
By the time of his marriage, his bent for self-destruction had become common knowledge, and it was evident that his decline was accelerating. His escapades, mainly drunken driving, were seeping into out-of-town newspapers although the local one, out of deference or plain fear of his family, ignored the stories.
When his driver’s permit was suspended, he bought a small airplane and flew it with the same drunken recklessness. A few flying episodes, buzzing cars on the highway and the like, soon cost him his pilot’s license.
At about this time I went off to the army, and my mother moved from my hometown, so that I completely lost touch with, and actually nearly forgot, Ashby Niles. When I next heard of him, he was in prison and his wife was dead.
And now this clipping signifies that Ashby Niles has succeeded in destroying himself as he had, for so many years, evidently sought to do. I can imagine him dead. What I cannot imagine is Ashby Niles in handcuffs at his wife’s funeral. I cannot imagine Ashby Niles in prison. I cannot imagine Ashby Niles restrained.
Thus far in my life, I have learned remarkably little, but I believe I have learned never to say to a child of mine, “Why can’t you be like – ?”
Hand set in Deepdene. Display type is Raleigh Cursive. Initial is Gill Floriated. Inks are Van Son 40904 Black and Delft Blue, Kelsey Yellow used for lino tint blocks. Paper stock is in two shades and two weights intended, but not actually expected, to be kept separate in collation. Oh, well. Published and printed by Jake Warner in an edition of 470 copies on a 10×15 Chandler and Price press.
The Boxwood Press
Greenbelt, Maryland 20770