W.P. Norton

The Emperor Project

In W.P. Norton on February 23, 2012 at 2:41 pm


THE CALL CAME late one weekday night. It was Todd Moore with another one of his crazy schemes. He called it ”The Emperor Project,” and my father was the centerpiece of it.

The first Emperor Norton was an Englishman named Joshua Norton who came to gold-rush San Francisco in hopes of striking it rich. He made a fortune but soon lost everything speculating on rice. Norton’s mind snapped. He declared himself Emperor of America and Protector of Mexico, got a bicycle, and started pedaling around the streets of San Francisco demanding tribute. People bowed, scraped and offered free meals to their mad monarch. He died convinced of his regality.

My father never dabbled in any commodities outside a barroom or donut shop. But he was possessed of a certain sovereign scowl, accented by an imperious Beethoven brow. Throw in the salt-and-pepper hair, Yukon Jack mustache and slightly crooked 6’1” frame and you had the perfect candidate to restore the monarchy.

”The basic gestalt will be Bukowsky meets the Hapsburgs, with a healthy dose of Farouk thrown in,” Moore said. ”Rather than play against type, we’ll just toss any notions of benevolence right at the start. His Mendacity will issue his own money and stamps. He will sell deeds and titles. He will have a Web site, the better to foist other merchandise on his followers. They will be known collectively as The Whelmed.”

The longer my friend went on, the more confident I became. The coin of Norton II’s realm would be called the Bunion. Upon high-denomination Bunions would be inscribed various Latin phrases: Porcus En Volatu (When Pigs Fly), and whatever the translation is for Oh, My Aching Dogs. The Emperor would issue proclamations and offer to settle disputes between tiny Third World nations.

Then there were the titles: Supreme Leader of the Whelmed, Lord High Reprobate, Grand Ogle of Fredonia, Sun Vizer of Plymouth, Marquis du Bijou, Earl of Bedlam, Fifth of Bourbon and Zircon of Primordia, Ottoman of Futonia, Light of Entropy, Widget of God, etc., etc.

Moore had worked a lot of jobs—teenage garbage man in Chicago, restaurant worker and performance artist in Seattle, small-town underground newsweekly publisher in Galesburg, Illinois. Now he was sliding into his mid-forties and an unprecedented second year as director of the Fort Atkinson, Wis., animal shelter. But it had already become clear that his biggest talent of all was for creating situations.

Two: Lutheran grit and amazing grace

His latest handiwork was a classic case in point: the presidential campaign of his white bulldog Louis. The gambit generated thousands of dollars for the shelter and got hits on CNN, USA TODAY and Australian radio. But Moore promised the emperor gig would leave Louis le Pooch for President in the shade. By the time he got to the climax—a coronation on a shoe-shine stand in San Francisco—I was sold.

”This thing has legs,” I said. Best of all, my father wouldn’t have to do anything: just supply a photograph for the Internet page where we’d sell the ancillary product line, show up for the coronation, and start raking in the dough. But a funny thing happened on the way to that shoe-shine stand.

It was the merry month of May. Norton II was winding down his second year substitute teaching at high schools in his hometown of Pocatello, Idaho. Mormonism and survivalist ideology had long replaced the potato as the chief export in the land of Mickey Militia and Trailer Tricia. Norton hated it.

Still, he felt some kind of duty to spend time with his mother, grandma Laverne Norton, a kind and bookish woman who weathered the shortcomings of those around her with equal portions of Lutheran grit and amazing grace. She had three brothers, my aged grand uncles Luke, Luther and Lyman. The rest of the family rounded out the cast like a country-western Norman Rockwell painting on acid: my 23-year-old cousin Rachel, with her high-piled honky-tonk hair and newborn baby. Rachel’s sweet sister Katie, wise far beyond her ten years.

Their mother, my forty-something aunt Crystal, a hard-partying country woman who grinds up pills and potions for the prisoners in the county hoosegow when she’s not standing behind a bar or in front of one.

Decades ago, Glen Michael Norton had prepared for his great escape by turning inwards and away from the hardscrabble crucible of his depression-era childhood. First it was books—H.L. Mencken, Erich Maria Remarque, Joseph Conrad. Then came radio, and the blue ribbon in a high school contest for best W.C. Fields impersonation. At 20 he signed up for the Army and shipped off for West Germany, where he drove an armored personnel carrier, machine-gunned spiders, lost his virginity and got drunk for the next three years. After his discharge in 1959, my father came back to the states, took the wet tour through Chicago and Milwaukee and finally found himself attending Idaho State University in Pokey on the G.I. Bill teat.

1965 was a good year for music; for my father, who graduated and won the Idaho Writer’s League first prize for fiction; and for me, who was born. Things seemed to go downhill from there. While my mother went to Berkeley, he held a post-office job in Haight-Ashbury in ’67. They left so he could take a high school teaching job in a one-horse Wisconsin town called Tomahawk in ’68. He lost it a year later and they split up. Then came life with a gaggle of bearded Jewish radicals at a farm commune outside Madison. He passed the ’70s in a blur of beer and business, running a gypsy furniture moving company out of the back of a ’57 Chevy pickup.

Three: All that jazz

Before you could blink, it was Morning in Ronald Reagan’s America, and the future emperor’s chariot was a donut van. He spent the next decade behind the wheel. Somewhere in there he found the time to earn a second degree, this one in teaching. He spent most of the early ’90s substituting in the inner-city schools of Milwaukee, away from the yuppie smugness of Madison. When the spirit moved, he would circle back to Pocatello and live there until the Mormons and militias became too much to bear. Then it was back to Madison for the summer before another Milwaukee school year. He was going to do it all over again one last time before he retired next year. Too bad Death had other plans.

The view from his room at William S. Middleton Memorial Veteran’s Administration hospital included a sparkling view of Lake Mendota, the lush greenery of Picnic Point, and an American flag snapping in the wind. I figured they gave the good rooms to the hardest cases, and it turns out I was right: the cancer had spread so far from his esophagus that his blood had deposited the stuff everywhere.

Swimming slowly through an intravenous sea of morphine, my father got ready for his last trip. One of the first letters was to a former student from Tomahawk High School.

“Terminal with extreme prejudice,” he wrote.

One day a Medflight chopper landed on the bay outside his window.

“Black helicopter,” he murmured, looking skywards with his clear blue eyes. Visitors kept him amused, and a fast-talking, flashing-eyed Austro-Hungarian horsewoman friend of mine named Patrice brought flowers from her garden.

A week after admission the emperor got himself discharged against medical advice. Not only was the news bad, but he had lost the room with the good view. Relocated to my apartment, he began the countdown.

Death comes for some of us like a chill desert wind. Others imagine boney fingers gripping the handle of a scythe. My father saw the blond, beautiful Jessica Lange in “All That Jazz.” He was determined to meet the end with as much style as he could muster—preferably on a frozen Madison lake, in the middle of the night, with an Army .45 caliber handgun. The image would be completed by a white scarf, a split of champagne, a tattered copy of Rilke’s verse and a single red rose. Patrice promised to handle the floral arrangement.

Black overcoat, white snow, red blood, steam rising over the body on the frozen ice—it sounded beautiful as the vision was spun out over a bottle of Korbel extra dry at a dinner graced by our equestrienne colleague. They raised their glasses and he made the final toast: “Vive la morte.” He had seven days to live.

Four: Last words
Moore called again several nights later. Watching people’s parents die had developed into a kind of sideline, he explained, his Midwestern twang burbling up slowly from the bottom of a whiskey-and-water ocean. The Emperor Project was history, of course. But even this final wrinkle confirmed the essential rightness of the concept, Moore figured.

“Most people who know they’re going to die turn into wining lumps of protoplasm and primal fear,” he said. “But Norton’s going out with real courage. He’s got a ton of class. And it makes perfect sense, considering the life he led. The guy spent his life with a phenomenal amount of courage. He was a kind of POW of corporate America. He never caved. And the thing is, I’m on the same curve.” The donut curve, I said to myself.

The big plan hit a snag. This being liberal Madison, it was impossible to buy a.45 within city limits. And there was the mess to consider. Besides, the lakes wouldn’t freeze for another six months. With some reluctance, the emperor settled on an alternative to the Rommel option.

Doctor Lisa Moody of the VA was a brunette and no Jessica Lange, but she was pretty enough, and she had prescribed a sufficient quantity of sublingual morphine capsules to either keep a man in dreamland for three months or kill ten in a night.

Next weekend was Friday the 13th, followed by Flag Day on Saturday and Father’s Day on Sunday. So he had his pick of ironic dates to do the deed. In the event, fate had the last word. That Saturday afternoon he walked wrong, hurt his right leg and lay in bed suffused under a sweaty panic, tormented by the vision of being strapped to a hospital bed for half a year while he watched his body turn to dog food.

I helped him get ready: pint of Absolut vodka, drinking glass, bottle of morphine, Dramamine to settle the stomach. It was around 6 p.m. We exchanged last words.

“I love you,” he said. It was the first time he’d ever said the words to me. I went to spend the night at Patrice’s country dacha.

As he worked on the vodka and the 125 remaining capsules, the phone rang. It was a former student from the Tomahawk days.

“Funny you should call,” my father said. They talked for around half an hour.

Five: “A pleasant evening, all in all”
Around midnight I had the feeling that it was over.

Moore met the cops the next morning at my place. They found three notes. The first one was in the mailbox with the front door key. “Todd, enter with care; keys are expensive! Sorry about brunch. N.”

The second was an admonition: “I am not ending my own life out of despondency over ill health, but rather taking advantage of an incredible piece of good fortune in the form of all those dreamy little pills, in the more than hospitable setting provided by my son and his and my friends. All of these are a fat wallet found on the sidewalk with no ID in it.”

The third recorded the phone call, time of ingestion—8:15 p.m.—and some last words: “This should do it. A pleasant evening, all in all.” On this note was a drawing of a heart in the form of skull and crossbones torn into lower and upper halves.

The grizzled police sergeant nodded as Moore told the story of the Idaho fiction prize, the emperor project, the diagnosis. When he came to the donut-delivery years in Madison, the sergeant paused and looked thoughtful: “You know, I probably knew him.”

The morgue boys came and went. The deputy coroner—a sweet-voiced blonde named Kristi—took the pills and notes for evidence. I never had to see the body.

Two weeks later I wrote the obituary, which they published along with the tiny logo of an American flag. The text swooped over the highlights, avoiding too much detail and skirting the ragged edges. After all, these things are for the living, and there was always the folks back in Pocatello to consider. Besides, we Nortons always did look better on paper anyway.

(Author’s note: I wrote this in 1997, a couple of months after the events described.)

  1. I am interested in what happened to Todd Moore?


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