Anansi Boys (American Gods #2)


by Neil Gaiman

CHAPTER ONE

WHICH IS MOSTLY ABOUT NAMES AND FAMILY RELATIONSHIPS

It begins, as most things begin, with a song.

In the beginning, after all, were the words, and they came with a tune. That was how the world was made, how the void was divided, how the lands and the stars and the dreams and the little gods and the animals, how all of them came into the world.

They were sung.

The great beasts were sung into existence, after the Singer had done with the planets and the hills and the trees and the oceans and the lesser beasts. The cliffs that bound existence were sung, and the hunting grounds, and the dark.

Songs remain. They last. The right song can turn an emperor into a laughingstock, can bring down dynasties. A song can last long after the events and the people in it are dust and dreams and gone. That's the power of songs.

There are other things you can do with songs. They do not only make worlds or recreate existence. Fat Charlie Nancy's father, for example, was simply using them to have what he hoped and expected would be a marvelous night out.

Before Fat Charlie's father had come into the bar, the barman had been of the opinion that the whole karaoke evening was going to be an utter bust; but then the little old man had sashayed into the room, walked past the table of several blonde women with the fresh sunburns and smiles of tourists, who were sitting by the little makeshift stage in the corner. He had tipped his hat to them, for he wore a hat, a spotless green fedora, and lemon-yellow gloves, and then he walked over to their table. They giggled.

"Are you enjoyin' yourselves, ladies?" he asked.

They continued to giggle and told him they were having a good time, thank you, and that they were here on vacation. He said to them, it gets better, just you wait.

He was older than they were, much, much older, but he was charm itself, like something from a bygone age when fine manners and courtly gestures were worth something. The barman relaxed. With someone like this in the bar, it was going to be a good evening.

There was karaoke. There was dancing. The old man got up to sing, on the makeshift stage, not once, that evening, but twice. He had a fine voice, and an excellent smile, and feet that twinkled when he danced. The first time he got up to sing, he sang "What's New Pussycat?" The second time he got up to sing, he ruined Fat Charlie's life.

Fat Charlie was only ever fat for a handful of years, from shortly before the age of ten, which was when his mother announced to the world that if there was one thing she was over and done with (and if the gentleman in question had any argument with it he could just stick it you know where) it was her marriage to that elderly goat that she had made the unfortunate mistake of marrying and she would be leaving in the morning for somewhere a long way away and he had better not try to follow, to the age of fourteen, when Fat Charlie grew a bit and exercised a little more. He was not fat. Truth to tell, he was not really even chubby, simply slightly soft-looking around the edges. But the name Fat Charlie clung to him, like chewing gum to the sole of a tennis shoe. He would introduce himself as Charles or, in his early twenties, Chaz, or, in writing, as C. Nancy, but it was no use: the name would creep in, infiltrating the new part of his life just as cockroaches invade the cracks and the world behind the fridge in a new kitchen, and like it or not - and he didn't - he would be Fat Charlie again.

It was, he knew, irrationally, because his father had given him the nickname, and when his father gave things names, they stuck.

There was a dog who had lived in the house across the way, in the Florida street on which Fat Charlie had grown up. It was a chestnut-colored boxer, long-legged and pointy-eared with a face that looked like the beast had, as a puppy, run face-first into a wall. Its head was raised, its tail nub erect. It was, unmistakably, an aristocrat amongst canines. It had entered dog shows. It had rosettes for Best of Breed and for Best in Class and even one rosette marked Best in Show. This dog rejoiced in the name of Campbell's Macinrory Arbuthnot the Seventh, and its owners, when they were feeling familiar, called it Kai. This lasted until the day that Fat Charlie's father, sitting out on their dilapidated porch swing, sipping his beer, noticed the dog as it ambled back and forth across the neighbor's yard, on a leash that ran from a palm tree to a fence post.

"Hell of a goofy dog," said Fat Charlie's father. "Like that friend of Donald Duck's. Hey Goofy."

And what once had been Best in Show suddenly slipped and shifted. For Fat Charlie, it was as if he saw the dog through his father's eyes, and darned if he wasn't a pretty goofy dog, all things considered. Almost rubbery.

It didn't take long for the name to spread up and down the street. Campbell's Macinrory Arbuthnot the Seventh's owners struggled with it, but they might as well have stood their ground and argued with a hurricane. Total strangers would pat the once proud boxer's head, and say, "Hello, Goofy. How's a boy?" The dog's owners stopped entering him in dog shows soon after that. They didn't have the heart. "Goofy-looking dog," said the judges.

Fat Charlie's father's names for things stuck. That was just how it was.

That was far from the worst thing about Fat Charlie's father.

There had been, during the years that Fat Charlie was growing up, a number of candidates for the worst thing about his father: his roving eye and equally as adventurous fingers, at least according to the young ladies of the area, who would complain to Fat Charlie's mother, and then there would be trouble; the little black cigarillos, which he called cheroots, which he smoked, the smell of which clung to everything he touched; his fondness for a peculiar shuffling form of tap dancing only ever fashionable, Fat Charlie suspected, for half an hour in Harlem in the1920 s; his total and invincible ignorance about current world affairs, combined with his apparent conviction that sitcoms were half-hour-long insights into the lives and struggles of real people. These, individually, as far as Fat Charlie was concerned, were none of them the worst thing about Fat Charlie's father, although each of them had contributed to the worst thing.

The worst thing about Fat Charlie's father was simply this: He was embarrassing.

Of course, everyone's parents are embarrassing. It goes with the territory. The nature of parents is to embarrass merely by existing, just as it is the nature of children of a certain age to cringe with embarrassment, shame, and mortification should their parents so much as speak to them on the street.

Fat Charlie's father, of course, had elevated this to an art form, and he rejoiced in it, just as he rejoiced in practical jokes, from the simple - Fat Charlie would never forget the first time he had climbed into an apple-pie bed - to the unimaginably complex.

"Like what?" asked Rosie, Fat Charlie's fiancée, one evening, when Fat Charlie, who normally did not talk about his father, had attempted, stumblingly, to explain why he believed that simply inviting his father to their upcoming wedding would be a horrendously bad idea. They were in a small wine bar in South London at the time. Fat Charlie had long been of the opinion that four thousand miles and the Atlantic Ocean were both good things to keep between himself and his father.

"Well-" said Fat Charlie, and he remembered a parade of indignities, each one of which made his toes curl involuntarily. He settled upon one of them. "Well, when I changed schools, when I was a kid, my dad made a point of telling me how much he had always looked forward to Presidents' Day, when he was a boy, because it's the law that on Presidents' Day, the kids who go to school dressed as their favorite presidents get a big bag of candy."

"Oh. That's a nice law," said Rosie. "I wish we had something like that in England." Rosie had never been out of the U.K., if you didn't count a Club18 -30 holiday to an island in, she was fairly certain, the Mediterranean. She had warm brown eyes and a good heart, even if geography was not her strongest suit.

"It's not a nice law," said Fat Charlie. "It's not a law at all. He made it up. Most states don't even have school on Presidents' Day, and even for the ones that do, there is no tradition of going to school on Presidents' Day dressed as your favorite president. Kids dressed as presidents do not get big bags of candy by an act of Congress, nor is your popularity in the years ahead, all through middle school and high school, decided entirely by which president you decided to dress as - the average kids dress as the obvious presidents, the Lincolns and Washingtons and Jeffersons, but the ones who would become popular, they dressed as John Quincy Adams or Warren Gamaliel Harding, or someone like that. And it's bad luck to talk about it before the day. Or rather it isn't, but he said it was."

"Boys and girls dress up as presidents?"

"Oh yes. Boys and girls. So I spent the week before Presidents' Day reading everything there was to read about presidents in the World Book Encyclopedia, trying to choose the right one."

"Didn't you ever suspect that he was pulling your leg?"

Fat Charlie shook his head. "It's not something you think about, when my dad starts to work you over. He's the finest liar you'll ever meet. He's convincing."

Rosie took a sip of her Chardonnay. "So which President did you go to school as?"

"Taft. He was the twenty-seventh president. I wore a brown suit my father had found somewhere, with the legs all rolled up and a pillow stuffed down the front. I had a painted-on moustache. My dad took me to school himself that day. I walked in so proudly. The other kids just screamed and pointed, and somewhere in there I locked myself in a cubicle in the boys' room and cried. They wouldn't let me go home to change. I went through the day like that. It was Hell."

"You should have made something up," said Rosie. "You were going to a costume party afterwards or something. Or just told them the truth."

"Yeah," said Fat Charlie meaningfully and gloomily, remembering.

"What did your dad say, when you got home?"

"Oh, he hooted with laughter. Chuckled and chortled and, and chittered and all that. Then he told me that maybe they didn't do that Presidents' Day stuff anymore. Now, why didn't we go down to the beach together and look for mermaids?"

"Look for - mermaids?"

"We'd go down to the beach, and walk along it, and he'd be as embarrassing as any human being on the face of this planet has ever been - he'd start singing, and he'd start doing a shuffling sort of sand-dance on the sand, and he'd just talk to people as he went - people he didn't even know, people he'd never met, and I hated it, except he told me there were mermaids out there in the Atlantic, and if I looked fast enough and sharp enough, I'd see one.

" 'There!' he'd say. 'Did you see her? She was a big ol' redhead, with a green tail.' And I looked, and I looked, but I never did."

He shook his head. Then he took a handful of mixed nuts from the bowl on the table and began to toss them into his mouth, chomping down on them as if each nut was a twenty-year-old indignity that could never be erased.

"Well," said Rosie, brightly, "I think he sounds lovely, a real character! We have to get him to come over for the wedding. He'd be the life and soul of the party."

Which, Fat Charlie explained, after briefly choking on a Brazil nut, was really the last thing you wanted at your wedding, after all, wasn't it, your father turning up and being the life and soul of the party? He said that his father was, he had no doubt, still the most embarrassing person on God's Green Earth. He added that he was perfectly happy not to have seen the old goat for several years, and that the best thing his mother ever did was to leave his father and come to England to stay with her Aunt Alanna. He buttressed this by stating categorically that he was damned, double-damned, and quite possibly even thrice-damned if he was going to invite his father. In fact, said Fat Charlie in closing, the best thing about getting married was not having to invite his dad to their wedding.

And then Fat Charlie saw the expression on Rosie's face and the icy glint in her normally friendly eyes, and he corrected himself hurriedly, explaining that he meant the second-best, but it was already much too late.

"You'll just have to get used to the idea," said Rosie. "After all, a wedding is a marvelous opportunity for mending fences and building bridges. It's your opportunity to show him that there are no hard feelings."

"But there are hard feelings," said Fat Charlie. "Lots."

"Do you have an address for him?" asked Rosie. "Or a phone number? You probably ought to phone him. A letter's a bit impersonal when your only son is getting married- you are his only son, aren't you? Does he have e-mail?"

"Yes. I'm his only son. I have no idea if he has e-mail or not. Probably not," said Fat Charlie. Letters were good things, he thought. They could get lost in the post for a start.

"Well, you must have an address or a phone number."

"I don't," said Fat Charlie, honestly. Maybe his father had moved away. He could have left Florida and gone somewhere they didn't have telephones. Or addresses.

"Well," said Rosie, sharply, "who does?"

"Mrs. Higgler," said Fat Charlie, and all the fight went out of him.

Rosie smiled sweetly. "And who is Mrs. Higgler?" she asked.

"Friend of the family," said Fat Charlie. "When I was growing up, she used to live next door."

He had spoken to Mrs. Higgler several years earlier, when his mother was dying. He had, at his mother's request, telephoned Mrs. Higgler to pass on the message to Fat Charlie's father, and to tell him to get in touch. And several days later there had been a message on Fat Charlie's answering machine, left while he was at work, in a voice that was unmistakably his father's, even if it did sound rather older and a little drunk.