Literary Spotlight: Dewitt Henry

Literary Spotlight: Dewitt Henry

What is a Jerk?

“Maybe you, citizen, should be a jerk. Jerks get where they are going.”

–By Dewitt Henry this appears in Vol. IV #7

A jerk is a chisler in the traffic jam, say on the Long Island expressway. Three lanes immobile, motors revving, heat shimmering, the cars barely rolling, and the line stretching out of vision up ahead, over hill, around and up again. While on the other side, of course, the traffic snaps and whizzes past at seventy normal miles per hour.

The jerk is that guy, or that lady, that Archie Bunker, that teen babe in the red Subaru convertible, cell phone to her ear, who pulls out suddenly from behind you and accelerates up the breakdown lane, setting an example for other jerks, one, two, five, ten. 

And somewhere up ahead, then, they have to chisel back into line. They are never punished (you fume) with just desserts. No cop tickets. No irate citizens stone-walling them, refusing to let them back in line. Forcing them to wait stalled, while grim and righteous, those who have waited as they should, those who played by the rules, inch by inch, on and on, those just within the injustice visited upon them all, together, creep by toward their gradual restorations of freedom, progress, destinations — eventually. 

No. The jerks through uncaring and audacity get away with being jerks. They even feel superior (you can tell from their jerk smirks). They barge back in line just where they need to. They intimidate citizen Jones there, who feels annoyed but what’s the use? Who tries to stone-wall, tries to keep close to the bumper ahead, keep pressing close, exclusive, just as the jerk honks, jerk grapples for eye contact, jerk edges pristine paint-job and bumper (or maybe edges a junker with a nothing-to-lose bumper) against the citizen’s bumper, daring to dare — go on, run into ME, I’m barging in another inch or two, brake now and give me room or we scrape.

There, see? You blinked. You are intimidated. Whistling, perhaps flipping you the bird, the jerk rolls into line while you brake to let her or him. Jerk!!!! Jerk!!! Chisler!!!

Maybe you, citizen, should be a jerk. Jerks get where they are going. You, citizen, what about you? Handy, dandy, where’s the jerk? Conformists. Sheep. All of you, all of us, boiling out our radiators. Spending our day, our days, our lives in cooperative stasis.

Maybe. Why not? Hell. You check the car behind. You check the quickening pace of other chislers now, pulling out, rolling by, rejecting the collective folly of the law abiding. Abiding! you sneer. Abiding! Lunacy, you sneer. Now! Your turn, your break, your instant to intimidate! 

You do, you force your way into the breakdown lane, accelerate at last. You are passing the cars and families and drivers you have been watching ahead of you for trancelike, numbing, seething hours now, when the one ahead now in the breakdown lane, that Jeep Cherokee, hits brakes, slows. The surge slows. You come to a stop in the breakdown lane. Jammed with the jerks, the renegades, the take-it-into-their-own-handers. Your illegal lane of opportunism stops dead. Filled up. Oversubscribed.  Crowded and jammed. And wouldn’t you know it, just then, just then, the abiding lane of citizens you left, well, it is moving, however slowly, creeping, rolling.

That family man there, that baldy with his two-and-one-half kids, his singing wife, that guy with the windows down and no a/c — he’s been in your mirror all day, following behind you. Now he is passing, laughing out loud, laughing meanly. At YOU, you. You jerk.

Dewitt Henry: founding editor of Ploughshares literary magazine; awarded the Commonwealth Award in 1992; has authored The Marriage of Anna Maye Potts (winner of the Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel) and two memoirs,  Safe Suicide: Narratives, Essays, and Meditations and  Sweet Dreams: A Family History; edited five anthologies, including  Sorrow’s Company: Writers on Loss and Grief; graduate of Amherst College, MA, and Harvard University, MA; attended MFA program at University of Iowa; Professor Emeritus of Emerson College, MA. 


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