On Von Chiffonby Alec Niedenthal
We were in constant awe of him—Von Chiffon, this fidgeting boy with a voice that rose without ceasing, a voice that when he began speaking, trundled until it had done. And then his face remained, impassive, only waiting to speak again. His mouth would shrink into a minus sign. His white face with its burgeoning beard would only look at all inquisitive, at all full of wonder, after he said his piece. But what a baby beard it was. We discerned his facial hair from a distance before we could see the features of his tiny body—say, we were playing tennis and there he was, at the chain-link fence, a shadow except for the stunted swaths of hair on his face, crawling above his lip and dipping under his chin; not because there was so much of it but because it was so terribly light, so there and then not. His facial hair was nothing if not a sort of fungus, spores of the coming struggle with manhood, wandering wisps that passed around his narrow face like bacteria in the bloodstream. Those little hairs were the signs of a man racing toward us.
This is, of course, an unceremonious way to tell a story that has no point beyond what Von Chiffon would sometimes say, the divings into soul and risings into blue sky that he would spring upon us with all the effort of stepping into an icy pool on a warm day. Von Chiffon was born on July 6, 1990: two days after July 4th, a date on which Americans celebrate the foundation of their country, great or not as it may be. But the question as to our nation’s relative greatness was just what we wanted Von Chiffon to answer. He was in his form and figure, in the sweater-vests of his late father that could hardly hope to contain his constant motion, in the relentless swirling of his hands as he spoke—in all of this, he was judgment itself.
Von Chiffon was born to two parents, Frieda and Dave, who lacked any airy awareness of love: they simply had a marriage, and so a child, and that child was Von Chiffon. Frieda maligned her husband while he was alive by calling him Emperor Dave. They’d be at Olive Garden or The Cheesecake Factory and passing the basket of hot buttery breadsticks back and forth, Dave offering some reason, some shameful genesis, for the system in which he and his type—men with his own easy white glow—no longer fit, and by which they no longer felt understood.
“Let’s count the lazies in here,” he’d say, opening up after draining a Diet Coke. “There’s a table full of lazies,” he’d add. “Five whole lazies at one table,” he’d continue, nodding forward, a slick shag of black-dyed hair falling forward. This motion was meant to indicate that Von Chiffon and Frieda, who sat on the wine-colored vinyl booth across from him, should, in plain and shameless sight, turn around and take in the exotic vista of a lazy-looking family. A breadstick held like a lance in his fist, Von Chiffon would not turn until his father would say again, perhaps twice more: “Look at those lazies behind you who can’t do anything but eat and reproduce.” Von Chiffon would look on, dutiful and silent. Frieda would not. “Alright, Emperor Dave, your chicken parmesan is on its way,” she’d say, tearing a breadstick in two and then, resigned, wring out the remains with either hand until her fingers were stained by grease and green oil. Von Chiffon would look, entranced as if by the magic that he’d performed without wanting to, for seconds, at a family of five or six, fat, terribly fat, just haplessly fat and making sounds in some savage lingo that wasn’t speech but not really silence, words with clipped wings that were, to him, a way of saying love or something like it with, instead of a father’s raw voice—which did indeed say love in some cancerous sense of the word—instead of that voice, a throbbing chorus of yes. Von Chiffon looked at this family of five or six, these crouching forms that didn’t have his father’s glistening white but a jaundiced glow; watched them clobber their mouths with breadsticks and chicken parmesan in the corner of an Olive Garden in east Texas on a dry windless night in early autumn. After these two or three seconds Frieda would physically pull on the banquette’s red leather seat. Dave would flag down a server and ask for another Diet Coke, but this time, he would add, “make it a Sprite,” laughing, then, for very nearly no reason besides the fact that he said something.
Von Chiffon’s father died on a cool spring day in 2004 at an oil refinery plant, where he worked as a foreman for nearly a decade. It was no accident: it was the vengeful past, a pistol produced under galloping clouds. Dave was showing the bitumen-spewing towers to some pale grandee, an investment banker with high stakes in natural gas who wore snakeskin boots with pinwheel spurs. Investment was a word that Dave had never used and refused to understand. Dave was talking faster than most people can think. A light highland wind spread between the two men as they walked from a storage facility to a factory, towers fuming behind them, the banker in a grey suit. Dave was cloaked in coveralls. The investment banker—call him Travis; that’s a name for many men—made interjections about tax brackets or returns between Dave’s long speeches about the efficiency of natural gas. So we had two men talking past each other, with hot roaring wind between them. One must recall that not all speech is communication.
At one point in this interchange between the two men, Dave was shot. It’s hard to reconcile the facts with what happened: a squarish broad man named Gabe stood on an escarpment roughly one hundred feet to the right of the two men and fired several times. He successfully sent a round through Dave’s eye while the other bullets cracked the concrete under him. The penetrating round didn’t cause his eye to roll out. Instead, the bulb was ripped apart by the impact. It disappeared completely. The hole filled with blood as Dave’s body dropped to the ground, a river of dark red rushing down the back of his head and staining his black-dyed hair. He crashed to the concrete shoulder-first. Crimson tacked horizontally down his cheek as gravity and the warm rushing wind put him on the concrete, the investment banker craning over him.
Travis stood in the light breeze and clear sunlight, having been interrupted in the middle of saying the word “investment,” which had never happened to him before. Investment had always been a word that made him feel safe, but now, with a dying man at his feet, it had no such effect. Nonplussed, Travis saw the silhouette of the assassin, Gabe, disappear over a tableland in the distance. Travis squatted over Dave’s coverall-cloaked board of a body and asked the corpse, “What should I do? Call an ambulance?”
The investigation into Dave’s death was quick and resolute. Gabe was apprehended at a rest stop five miles from the oil refinery. He had locked himself into a men’s room stall. A SWAT team scattered into the bathroom and, cocking their guns toward the exit, silently ordered its three other occupants to leave, one of whom was still urinating. He waddled out with his thing springing out from his zipper. “Lay down your weapon,” the SWAT captain commanded to Gabe, who was squatting over a toilet. Gabe farted sonorously in response, but then, acquiescing, he set his gun down on the gunk-crusted tile floor. The captain kicked in the stall door, breaking the metal latch, which then crashed into Gabe’s cranium, knocking him unconscious. He was, just so, apprehended, pants bunched at his knobby ankles, head bowed.
The following day, our Vice Principal, who made muffled morning announcements over the intercom, consigned our Moment of Silence to Dave’s memory. Von Chiffon was absent from school for only one day: one terrible day during which not one of us said a word.
The reason for Gabe’s revenge was later promulgated in the local papers. Gabe and Dave had been close friends in high school thirty-odd years before the murder; they were both medal-winning members of the wrestling team. Unknown to Gabe, in high school Dave had managed coitus with Gabe’s so-called steady, whom he (Gabe) had married one year before he gunned down his quondam friend and wrestling partner. His wife had informed him in couples therapy, which they had entered after three loud months of marriage with a son, as Gabe complained when he took the stand to (unavailingly) plead insanity, “in the oven.”
There were rumors in town about Von Chiffon’s mother, Frieda—rumblings, among our parents and peers, that Frieda had written to Gabe while he was on death row; that she’d penned letters to him till the day the state of Texas administered a lethal injection. No one knew what the missives said. Our parents would ask, “Isn’t it weird that she’d write the guy who killed her husband?” and we’d happily ignore them. According to the man who operated the state prison’s mailroom, she sent a letter every month until the day she accepted the bailiff’s invitation to watch Gabe’s execution. We did everything we could to keep the rumor of Frieda’s letter-writing from Von Chiffon: asking our parents to forget they’d ever learned about the alleged letters, threatening kids at school with violence if they mentioned this correspondence while around Von Chiffon, and even enforcing silence on the subject among ourselves; for I know that a few of us, recalcitrant, wanted to know whether it was true. But he never mentioned his mother. Rather, when Von Chiffon spoke to us, his discourse spun itself around the stuff of the spirit.
Von Chiffon would tell us what he thought about things. What Von Chiffon thought about things—politics, sex, God, art—was usually what we thought, too, or what we thought we’d always thought. We had this way of saying, as he inhaled between hosannas, “Exactly” all at once or of making muted gestures of assent: the toes of our sneakers tapping the floor, our hands wheeling with his like swimmers in the same lane, our common laughter at his comical pauses—funny because why would Von Chiffon ever stop explaining? Von Chiffon would tell us why poor people are poor as we walked in a line behind him on the sidewalk that circled the sward as he, backwards, led us and talked and talked about life’s abyss, and just so we would leer at couples wrung together on the grass, those bodies who cared only for the silence of another’s shape, and sneer at parents with their children who knew nothing but how to dress and tend and clean their wordless automatons; stripping into briefs in the locker room after gym, sweat-less yet red-faced because Coach handed him another detention for refusing to run laps, he would tell us how Thomas Jefferson, the great Framer, was a worldly saint whose word had snapped history in two, his young gut inching proudly past his yellowed waistband, below his belly a trail of early hairs that marched forth into his crotch. His stout figure that spun its arms and flung itself forward was, so it seemed to us, poised to turn into a god, or an all-abolishing beast. Von Chiffon was something fiercer than a mere boy in that locker room after gym class, breaking off a lecture to worm his way into a red Spiderman shirt that was a size too small for him.
He would bring up Bush at parties in high school. This was 2006, and as we went to AP classes and thought about where Von Chiffon would go to college, the country was, so it seemed, torn between those who believed in right and the vice grip of justice—who knew right for what it was—and the meek who hated their flag, our flag, that waved and still waves beyond all borders. Bush’s war sickened some, but we clamored for more: Al Qaeda and Sadaam, Von Chiffon said, should not only know our name and the tread of our tanks but should let democracy be their guides out of obscurity, the desert wind whipping our flags as the conquering cries of our men echo from the hills like liturgy.
One of those parties I’ll always remember because it was the first time I had ever felt alone. On a warm spring Saturday we were at a soccer player’s house. Thundering at us from a window bench, Von Chiffon sat with his feet perched on the glass surface of a coffee table—with no cans or bottles on it because the party more or less ignored us: they envied the attention that Von Chiffon lavished on us. We stood around him like a living fence. Bush, to him, was Napoleon with a heart; and Von Chiffon, to us, was Bush with a tongue of gunmetal, of graphite, both weapon and bullet. And suddenly, spontaneously, without any warning, we began chanting: not about Bush, Napoleon, or about the absolute power of the Executive Branch. We chanted Von Chiffon’s name in unison. I’m not sure at what point we started or who initiated it—I’m not even sure that we didn’t all begin at once—but Von Chiffon himself didn’t offer to stop us. “Von Chif-fon! Von Chif-fon! Von Chif-fon!” we chanted as one. He stood there as if contemplating his own image, his head cocked, fingers probing the shadow of a moustache that stole like a faded rainbow across his upper lip. He held a full tumbler of scotch in his other hand; he didn’t drink because he claimed that his soul was already wet, but holding the tumbler seemed to give his other arm more room to reel.
So we stood there saying his name: because our joy and fervor were so undeniable, he might have even said it once or twice. And then he hushed us. No, not hushed: he silenced us with a flourish of his free arm. We stopped cheering immediately and heard nothing but the rumble of rap and the drunken half-speech from other rooms (we were in what Von Chiffon called the foyer: none of us knew the word, but it seemed to describe the room well). Shot-glasses landed on granite countertops, and men and women told secrets glibly to each other: a moment too perfect for one of Von Chiffon’s long, lyric reflections on moral degeneracy and youth. Mute, we looked inquisitively at him. And then we saw her lumber toward the door, leaving the party—likely, we later speculated, because no one wanted her there. She had a wad of golden hair and a frighteningly reflexive look on her face, the cuffs and knees of her white jeans torn vainly and her clear eyes shining like fish-scales. And then we saw him looking at her. Not looking at her, no: collapsing all space between his soul and her body with his wide-open eyes, as if the earth were being swallowed by a star but he was still praying, believing, wanting to live as every other living thing resigned itself to flaming fate.
“Hello there! You know who I am!” Von Chiffon yelled across the room.
“What the hell did you just say?” she said, turning her lit-up face with its wrinkled brow toward him, anxious waved furrowed in her brow.
“You know who I am. I’m the son of the man who died three years ago. My mother is Frieda, and we live on Evergreen Street. Who are your parents?” he asked politely.
“Two things: you’re a terrifying person and I was just leaving this party before it wastes any more of my time. I’ll see you fascist pieces of shit at school. So long,” she said, leaving the door open behind her. She went up the flagstone walk. We heard her footsteps clicking away as she dissolved into the night.
“Woman!” Von Chiffon bellowed as headlights glanced over the bay windows. “You will know me!” Then he took a long draft of scotch and, finding it undrinkable even in despair, let it fall from his mouth and, dribbling, stain the faint fur of his chin.
Her name was Cordelia. She came from the sort of family that turns one’s stomach: raving unstable father, a brother beyond all comprehension, mother dead for some reason—there were never any eulogies in the newspapers, any bowings of the head at school in her memory: she was just dead. Cordelia herself was tragic, a killing field for all good feeling: that custard-colored hair and those teeth that screamed for braces. That Von Chiffon wanted anything at all to do with her was like a weed wacker loving a plant. But why he chose to crave her then is easily explained. Von Chiffon, sworn as he was to us, had never noticed her. We took every class with him and made sure to sit—the desks being always arrayed in columns—in a quadrangle around his chosen seat. In doing so we sheltered him from the sad apparitions of our classmates.
In public our formations were highly mobile. As circumstance demanded, we changed our shape from quadrangle to circle to an audience with him in sharp relief (in which case, because he walked backward while talking, his field of vision was still presumably restricted to us). But plays sometimes end; shapes are sometimes no more, or grow flat, and fortresses sometimes fall and stay like the smoldering ghosts of a kingdom. In other words, we failed at times and let the world leak in between our bodies: one of us would kneel to tie Von Chiffon’s shining white Nikes at the tennis court, another would hustle to the lunchroom when it was spicy fried chicken day and snag a sandwich for him. At moments like those we risked Von Chiffon’s charisma shooting forth and attracting new admirers.
Never did we dream, though, that Von Chiffon would long for someone else; only that others would want him. I do not want to say on that night it was I who let Von Chiffon see the despicable woman—that I was the culprit. But I know that, when I heard her heels treading the foyer, I turned to take in whatever blameworthy form had come so carelessly close. Perhaps my brief lapse in attention turned Von Chiffon to Cordelia, that wormwood of a woman with enlightened eyes roving the room but far too condescending to land on Von Chiffon.
After school on Monday, Von Chiffon followed her home. We all followed her home. We went in single-file down the sidewalk roughly thirty feet behind him, just within earshot. At lunch, in between bites of pizza, damp with grease and splotched with chunks of pepperoni, he had asked us, “Dear friends who are so kind, will you be truant if I ask you to? Will you so sagely step back for a moment and allow me to seduce this miracle, this shapely and perfectly proportioned woman who I know adores me just as I do her, but who is clearly hesitant because she needs me to make a show of my devotion? She needs to trust me, men: she needs to know that I trust her in turn. This is why I will accompany her home after school—to show her that she can have such a man as me; that there is nothing to fear, though love can be fearsome. It’s as if she has killed me but, by dying, I have become hers. Every sentence I say is like a line in a love letter that she is writing.” We consented to be spectators rather than cast and crew, but I wondered about the reference to a love letter at the end of this homily. Von Chiffon looked down at his half-eaten pizza, steeped in orange grease, as he let it go. He even blushed a little. The skin beneath his fledgling beard overflowed with red as he nervously rubbed the notch of skin behind his ear. It was as if he knew about his mother’s letters to Gabe—like he was trying to tell us, through the cipher of his love, that he knew about their correspondence (which may or may not have been love-like in nature); that we had totally failed in our attempt to conceal it. I asked myself how Von Chiffon could have found out. Maybe Frieda herself had disclosed it; none of us knew what their relationship was like. But it was possible that a kid at school had told him. After all, I broke our cover and let Von Chiffon lock eyes with Cordelia. Who’s to say there weren’t other lapses in attention for which I couldn’t account? Perhaps the secret of his mother’s many letters to Gabe was writhing in Von Chiffon’s speech, quivering behind his hair-flecked lips. But maybe I was being paranoid.
Leaving school that afternoon, we followed Von Chiffon and Cordelia down a long avenue, past the YMCA and the public library and a concrete row of ethnic shops, the houses shrinking and getting less spectacular as we proceeded. Cordelia would turn around from time to time and spit in Von Chiffon’s direction. “Fuck off!” she would say, astounding us all. And then again, “Fuck off!”—even a third time her voice unleashed such shrill words. Von Chiffon said nothing but her name in many heartbreaking ways: “Cordelia! Cordelia!” his voice straining as he said it with his arms extended and his hands raised high in supplication.
Thunderheads swarmed the sky, grey amoebic clouds guttering on the horizon. Von Chiffon wore cargo shorts with countless pockets that ballooned around his goose-stepping legs and a Scarface t-shirt that belonged to his father, so loose that it billowed like a robe. He said her name so many times that birds might have begun to sing if there had been birds on that long, impoverished street; the trees might have spelled it out if there had been trees there with dead branches to bend, but there were only shrubs shrouded by dust. Finally we approached a one-story house, its slate roof missing shingles, the iron siding blighted by age, a dark timber porch on the railing of which sat a silver-haired aquiline man. It was Cordelia’s forty-something-year-old brother, Chet. The yellow yard was thick with weeds, the house covered in trumpet vine. Chet himself was a sort of fungus, smoking with—so we saw as we came closer—with one leg draped over the rail and the other flat on the porch’s rotting floor. His long cigar flashed in our faces, smoke crawling out of the ember, their house wrapped in the stench of cheap tobacco.
Von Chiffon, now moaning Cordelia’s name, stood in their gravel driveway behind a sorry grey Accord with a demolished fender. Cordelia walked onto the porch and stopped next to Chet, her back turned to us. She whispered to him for a moment and then turned around. “Leave me alone, you morons!” she said and then passed through the screen door and into her wretched house.
We were startled by the sound of what was a carburetor backfiring or a gun going off; it was Chet, speaking. No, rather than speaking he was exploding all speech. Odd it was that he seemed completely calm, gripping his cigar between his index and middle fingers and resting it with those fingers against his brown leather belt, a last phantom plume of smoke coming from his now-silhouetted figure as the thunderheads traveled on above us. He ran one hand through his matted grey hair as he bellowed, smoke spilling out of his nostrils: “Are you Von Chiffon?”
“I am Von Chiffon, son of the man Dave, who was killed in cold blood by the coward Gabe,” Von Chiffon said.
“You belong nowhere near Cordelia. Our father is ill. He is a lunatic. Fatherless yourself, you understand what that means: it means nowhere to go, nothing to say. Love and belief in anything beyond the fact of your father’s madness or impending death—they seem to be the same—are not possible: they are dreams you may have, but that, every time your father says some nonsense or accuses you of something you haven’t done, vanish into so much smoke. Leave: feel for Cordelia, if you love her. Perhaps another time—perhaps in another life,” he said.
The sidewalk seemed to tremble as he spoke: leaves seemed to loop through the air even though there were no trees. Smoke continued to roll up from the railing where his leg hung.
“I demand Cordelia,” Von Chiffon said, purple veins throbbing and tightening in the hollow of his neck, his eyes no longer like the celestial orbs they usually were but now two unlivable worlds, Von Chiffon’s inner fire blasting through those two pastures of blue. It began to rain. All at once we opened our umbrellas. Rain had been predicted. We brought umbrellas to school. Von Chiffon, absorbed in his feelings for Cordelia, had forgotten his.
Chet took a push-button knife from his pocket. The glistening blade came out, and Von Chiffon’s skin looked chalky in the rain, drops falling from his arms and into his extended hands, palms open to the sky. “If you ever use her name again—and I will hear it—I will kill you with this. If you even think her name, recall her image, you are already dead. I swear,” Chet exclaimed.
I scurried over to Von Chiffon, nearly slipping twice in the fresh mud. The rain was really coming down. Assuming that he found the rain unpleasant, I held my umbrella over his delta of a head, water racing down his face so fast that his oddly hairless face seemed to arrest it. I then realized that he had shaved.
He turned and intoned, “Fuck you!” He pushed me into the warm mud. I peered upward, squirming in the brown guts of the thick grass. He ran as fast as the rain was falling, bounding through the weeds, kicking his heels up. He ran up the other side of the street, back the way we came, toward his own house, toward Frieda, the mother none of us had met, whom he never mentioned, who was strictly nothing to us but the rash of Von Chiffon’s life, Frieda. I lay in the mud and watched him vanish, so soaked that he was water itself, into the grey horizon—past the cinderblock shops and ramshackle houses—as it continued to pour. The umbrella was rammed into the ground. The rainwater drained into my mouth—sweet and cold.
“Do you boys want to come in out of the rain and eat some pork sandwiches?” Chet asked us, his blade retracting and his voice softer now, almost normal. The compassion there was almost sickening, so we said no; though not impolitely. I thanked him for his kindness. I declared, elevating myself on my elbows as I lay in the mud, we had much on our minds and wouldn’t be the best houseguests at the moment. I helped myself up, rolling over and plunging my hands into the mud and pushing my feet back like a four-legged animal and I slid slightly as I rose and wiped the mud from my palms onto the thighs of my jeans. I picked up my umbrella and joined the others on the sidewalk as the gutter streamed with one long vein of water. Chet re-lit his cigar and shrugged. The ash sprinkled onto the tawny grass. “I know it sounds like nothing much to you boys, but it’s not all hell. Some of it is an organ, in here, in here,” he said—pointing at something, I couldn’t see what, on his visage while bringing this nonsense out—as we formed a single-file line again on the sidewalk and began to march forward: not back, not toward our high school and homes although that would have rallied us had we been weaker, but forward, our umbrellas raised with vigor, deeper into that horrible region. I don’t believe what we did then; we chanted Von Chiffon, over and over, long into the enveloping blue of evening, casting his name into the rain that somehow only pelted more intensely as our voices soared ever-higher and our chants quickened and flew into the wet night like fire resisting rain with an upset crackle. “Von Chif-fon! Von Chif-fon!”
Oh, how horrible we were! We chanted his name, the name of our fallen angel, our umbrellas like upside-down fountains, until we reached a sprawling galleria—illuminated with the electric yellow-blues and backlit reds, of Best Buy, SuperTarget and PetSmart—to eat at an Olive Garden in memory of our friend’s dead father. I remarked to everyone as we waited, my voice trembling, that this was somewhat like the Moment of Silence after Von Chiffon’s father died. For we were all silent. “Why can’t we seem to talk when he’s gone?” I asked, holding the red buzzer in my hand. “Why can’t we say a goddamn word when he’s not here?” All of the other boys looked at me, dumb and glassy-eyed. Strains of Italian music, accordions and husky vocals, rattled through the loudspeakers.
Not a few seconds after I turned and looked at all of those boys behind me, the buzzer vibrated in my hand. A red light circulated under the bumps that crested its border. The hostess came toward us with a stack of menus. “We’re up,” I told everyone with a sweep of my arm to round them up. The boys formed a line behind me.
ALEC NIEDENTHAL is a recent graduate of Brown University's MFA program in Literary Arts. He has published fiction in the Brooklyn Rail, The Toast, Agriculture Reader, Vol 1. Brooklyn, and other venues. He is currently working on a novel about anti-Semitism and sex.