“Manifesto,” by Padgett Powell


I wake up trepid. Do you wake up trepid?

I fear I do. What does “trepanning” mean? Maybe I wake up trepanning. I wake up trepanning if it means shaking from trepidation.

Are we but recently afraid, or were we always afraid but too slow or blustery or full of hormones to know it?

We have always been afraid. We are only now sufficiently feeble to visibly shake. We quaked all along but were steadied by testosterone and received bravura. We looked fine.

We stood firm.

We shouted Hello! Stand and deliver! If it were a man before us, we said Cross me and I will kill you! If it were a woman, we said Take off your clothes!

Now we jump off the trail and hide in the woods if anyone approaches.

Lest a woman say unto us Cross me and I will kill you, or a man Take off your clothes.


Out the window I not infrequently see chipmunks.

A chipmunk is professionally trepid all its life.

A chipmunk is a cute and honest poor soul that does not presume.



What do you know about the desert?


Okay. End of subject.

Should we go?

Yes. We should go.

To revel in our not knowingness.

To be put off by the desert because we do not understand its desertness and are frightened by it and disgusted by our not knowingness.

But then is it not the case that after we are frightened and disgusted we will fall under the illusion that we have learned something about the desert and be less unhappy with it?

Yes. Our tiny growing familiarity alone, as we sit there or walk around parched and frightened, will convince us we now know more than we did before the onset of the fear and the disgust, and we will feel better about the desert.

Veterans of an hour in the desert we will like it, a little bit.

Yes. When you see a Gila monster emerge like a bizarre beaded purse you will love him as if he is your own mother. You will imprint on him as does a gosling on the first thing that it sees move and you will have a mother and not be sore afraid as you were even though they say your mother can kill you if you let her chew on you.

God, in His infinite wisdom, has seen to it that our mothers do not chew on us when we are infants but wait until we are older and can take it.

Or at least can resist it and issue poisons of our own.

A sidewinder touches the ground with only ten percent of himself, if that. He does not get burnt and he does not bog down in all that sand.

He knows the desert.

He knows no fear and no disgust.

Do you ever have a longing for a good, fast car?

Sometimes. I like the restored hot rod.

I saw a man on television presented with the surprise gift of his junk car fully restored. He wept before it. The mechanics who did the work laughed, gratified and sympathetic, to see this man weep before his new hot rod. All he could say was, “It’s everything,” and sniffle. He opened the hood and beheld the specialness under there and fell back in a whole new paroxysm of ecstasy.

He’s an idiot. I envy him.

I regard him a larger idiot than you do and I envy him more.

He is a kind of sidewinder, is he not?

Well, that seems a bit of a stretch, metaphorically, but I will call the weeping idiot we admire a sidewinder if you will. What harm could lie in that?



Will we be able to cross the river and rest in the shade of the trees, is what I am wondering.

You mean as opposed to wondering if we should, or if it will occur to us to want to do that, or—

No, I mean, precisely, Will we be able to cross a river and rest in the shade of the trees. I grant that we are too daft to have it occur to us. Perhaps you have not noticed, but the river is a concrete ditch now, usually, if it is not altogether underground beneath roads, and the trees are an automobile dealership.

A man would need say today, after his arm is blown off, Let us cross that watercontrol canal there and repel the salesmen and crawl under the F150s, where I wish to die.

We are living when before we would not have lived, and now we are dying where we would not have died.

That is almost epitaphic.

When he should have not, he lived;

Where he should have not, he died.

It will perplex the cemetery goer.

The cemetery goer, in my experience, is already perplexed. I see no harm in keeping him that way. I need some coffee, my friend.

I am in want of recreational drugs, untattered clothes, psychological counsel, carnal affection, a dog, and a child upon which to lavish trinkets and advice.

I fear for this child.

Not more than I.



What is Life like once it fully collapses around you, sir?

Has it fully collapsed around me?

You were averring this last night after your thimble of wine.

My thimble of wine has made my head hurt.

I refilled it for you several times, imprudently. At your insistence.

I insist on nothing anymore. I don’t have it in me to insist.

That’s what you say, sir. But after a thimble you will insist on another.

I dispute it, and it is not in me anymore to dispute, either.

You said, My trumpet of vino is exhausted, Charles, fill it quick because Life has collapsed around me. Julia Child is dead. Fill it before I join her. I felt unable not to comply with this request, sir, as you had phrased it and supported it.

The ghost of Julia Child is a powerful force.

Yes. You once used the ghost of Crazy Horse to similar effect.

I think of them together. Julia cooks prodigiously, drinks, accepts photographers. Crazy Horse sups succinctly, plans military campaigns, eschews photographers. They both die. Life has collapsed.

I can’t continue to pretend to be your manservant. Or catamite.

It challenges me too.

You addressed me as “Charles.”

I was thinking of Ray Charles, who has also died and contributed directly to the collapse of Life as we thought we knew it.

You pour a little wine for me tonight.

Will do.

“Manifesto” appeared in the inaugural edition of Little Star and now returns in clouds of glory as part of Powell’s new novel-in-conversation, You and Me.

Powell’s story “The New World” appeared in Little Star #3.

Padgett Powell is the author of five novels, most recently The Interrogative Mood, which surprised some with its success given that it was composed entirely of questions.  (Some remarks on this here.) His first novel, Edisto, was nominated for the National Book Award. He lives in Gainesville, Florida, where he teaches writing at MFA@FLA, the writing program of the University of Florida.

Hear Padgett Powell read from The Interrogative Mood here