Apparently, according to information superhighway sources, Oscar Wilde once said something to the effect of: the true artist takes no notice whatsoever of the public, the public to him are non-existent. Well, who couldn’t like such a gutsy and irreverent idealism? I think I’ve loved the idea since I was in high school and could grasp that worrying about what the neighbors say was horribly debilitating. But Wilde was also apparently famous for saying, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” Which, if you get right down to it, seems to impart the opposite rumination.
My name is Hamilcar Ball. My old man was a history major with an antiquities minor at UNC Pen-Broke. He always wanted me to go to Pen-Broke too, but as I like to say, my Pen-Broke. The old man grew up in a little town nearby called Carthage. But his old man grew up in a town further north called Bahama. It’s not pronounced like you might think because it’s actually made up of the first two letters of three prominent family names: my great-grandfather Ball, his obstinate and bossy neighbor Haywood, and their wealthy, but curiously overtly social, collector of broken farm machinery Marshall. Marshall was said to be very dark-skinned in the summer, and often held parties that focused on the use of lights or colorful powders tossed about. Folks thought Marshall was just a bit touched, especially when he grumbled unintelligible syllables under his breath, but everyone was polite enough. Marshall enjoyed celebrating everything from births to weddings, and often funded funerals as well. Many Balls are buried up on the property still owned by the Marshall family. It’s said that when my great grandfather was told one day, while visiting the big city of Raleigh, that his pal Marshall was a Hindu, he punched the dude in the face.
It wasn’t until long after Marshall and my great-grandfather had passed away that it was made clear that his name had actually been Maaheshivari which meant “Power of Shiva”. And that he was a Bengali who’d been the unusual beneficiary of a British officer who Maaheshivari had saved one night from a drunken street beating on the outskirts of Kolkata (a place called North Dumb-dumb), brutally administered by a band of thuggees who had not quite understood that the British were supposed to be their superiors. As with most such stories, the details related to a lady the officer had roundly fallen for and his preoccupation with her damned near resulted in the loss of his life. As it turned out not only did he survive with the help of Marshall but he managed to smuggle the lady, and Marshall out of West Bengal and to America where, another branch of his family had managed to set up shop on the Outer Banks of North Carolina chasing pirates and basically taking advantage of travelers as pirates themselves.
When I was fourteen I had lunch at the Carthage McDonald’s with my dad. It was a hot summer day. I could smell the cut fields, and watched the tractors hauling huge dangerous-looking gear up and down the main drag. I imagined that I was somehow returning home from a long campaign against Rome. Things my dad’s obsession with Polybius taught us. I imagined the city folk turning out to greet me along Route 24. My old man joshed me and waved his arm out and said, “Son, one day all this will be yours!” and he laughed as we went into the McDonald’s. But I wasn’t kidding, I wanted it. And that’s when he told me this entire story. He asked me not to repeat it to Mom. Mom’s a Marshall, you see, and in the summer, her skin darkens up to a nice caramel color. Mine does not, mine just burns raw like I’ve been flogged.