Flesh and Blood - By Michael Cunningham



I Car Ballet

II Criminal Wisdom

III Inside The Music


I’d like to thank Joel Conarroe, Ken Corbett, Stacey D’Erasmo, Stephen Kory Friedman, Jonathan Galassi, Gail Hochman, and Anne Rumsey, all of whom read this book in various stages. Also enormously helpful were Evelyn Burkhalter, Marcelle Clements, Dorian Corey, Anne D’Adesky, Paul Elie, Nick Flynn, William Forlenza, Dennis Geiger, Nick Humy, Adam Moss, Angie Xtravaganza, and the members of the House of Xtravaganza, particularly Danny and Hector. The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation provided deeply appreciated financial support, and on an unseasonably cold morning in Washington Square Park, Larry Kramer generously provided me with the title.

Once an angry man dragged his father along the ground through his own orchard. “Stop!” cried the groaning old man at last. “Stop! I did not drag my father beyond this tree”

—GERTRUDE STEIN, The Making of Americans




1935/ Constantine, eight years old, was working in his father’s garden and thinking about his own garden, a square of powdered granite he had staked out and combed into rows at the top of his family’s land. First he weeded his father’s bean rows and then he crawled among the gnarls and snags of his father’s vineyard, tying errant tendrils back to the stakes with rough brown cord that was to his mind the exact color and texture of righteous, doomed effort. When his father talked about “working ourselves to death to keep ourselves alive,” Constantine imagined this cord, coarse and strong and drab, electric with stray hairs of its own, wrapping the world up into an awkward parcel that would not submit or stay tied, just as the grapevines kept working themselves loose and shooting out at ecstatic, skyward angles. It was one of his jobs to train the vines, and he had come to despise and respect them for their wild insistence. The vines had a secret, tangled life, a slumbering will, but it was he, Constantine, who would suffer if they weren’t kept staked and orderly. His father had a merciless eye that could find one bad straw in ten bales of good intentions.

As he worked he thought of his garden, hidden away in the blare of the hilltop sun, three square feet so useless to his father’s tightly bound future that they were given over as a toy to Constantine, the youngest. The earth in his garden was little more than a quarter inch of dust caught in a declivity of rock, but he would draw fruit from it by determination and work, the push of his own will. From his mother’s kitchen he had spirited dozens of seeds, the odd ones that stuck to the knife or fell on the floor no matter how carefully she checked herself for the sin of waste. His garden lay high on a crown of scorched rock where no one bothered to go; if it produced he could tend the crop without telling anyone. He could wait until harvest time and descend triumphantly, carrying an eggplant or a pepper, perhaps a tomato. He could walk through the autumn dusk to the house where his mother would be laying out supper for his father and brothers. The light would be at his back, hammered and golden. It would cut into the dimness of the kitchen as he threw open the door. His mother and father and brothers would look at him, the runt, of whom so little was expected. When he stood in the vineyard looking down at the world—the ruins of the Papandreous’ farm, the Kalamata Company’s olive groves, the remote shimmer of town—he thought of climbing the rocks one day to find green shoots pushing through his patch of dust. The priest counseled that miracles were the result of diligence and blind faith. He was faithful.

And he was diligent. Every day he took his ration of water, drank half, and sprinkled half over his seeds. That was easy, but he needed better soil as well. The pants sewn by his mother had no pockets, and it would be impossible to steal handfuls of dirt from his father’s garden and climb with them past the goats’ shed and across the curving face of the rock without being detected. So he stole the only way he could, by bending over every evening at the end of the workday, as if tying down one last low vine, and filling his mouth with earth. The soil had a heady, fecal taste; a darkness on his tongue that was at once revolting and strangely, dangerously delicious.