Crocodile Words, a novel
by Dex Quire
. . .
“My name is Joffrey Simpson O’Day!”
The young man introduced himself like that everywhere—at Sunbreak City University, at Clearhaeuser Timber Company and at Dayfresh House. He announced himself like that to the Famous Writing Professor and her class at Theodore Roethke Writers’ House. He presented himself thusly to Fontina Blanchet, the woman he wanted as a girlfriend. He hoped others saw him as he saw himself: cheerful, tallish, broad-shouldered, long-haired, smiling, chipped-toothed, bobbing slightly—happy to be living in Sunbreak City. If they didn’t, oh well. Joffrey couldn’t worry about them. You came to the big city to do big things, to do what you wanted; to see if living and dreaming really had anything to do with each other.
He thought he might be doing OK. Twenty-nine years old and he had survived over ten years of hard, dangerous work felling trees, working around heavy machinery. He had seen men maimed and killed. His friend Barry almost fell down the chipper—a long steel tube with spinning blades at bottom that swallowed naked logs and turned them into potato chip-sized chips. When you work around heavy things, machines twenty times bigger than you—someone’s bound to get hurt an old logger with seven fingers once told him.
He decided to finish college. Clearhaeuser Timber, Joffrey’s employer, arranged for him to receive a Pammy—a Pamela Prefontaine Scholarship—to obtain a B.A. degree in forestry at Sunbreak City University. (Joffrey was learning that the Sunbreak City rich knew how to arrange these things.) He would take a degree and set himself on a management path at Clearhaeuser Timber.
Joffrey arrived in Sunbreak City last summer and it was now mid-winter and life seemed to be getting better by the month, by the week even. He had a free studio apartment at Dayfresh House in exchange for helping out with a contingent of recovering drug addicts. For elective credit he was taking an off-campus, creative writing class held at Theodore Roethke House, taught by a Famous Writing Professor (FWP). For companionship he was seeing Fontina Blanchet. He thought about her constantly. Maybe he was in love. He seemed to be making friends and they seemed to be interesting friends.
He loved Sunbreak City; he felt permeated by the city. He felt as though he had walked into a large wall map of the city and melded with it down to his molecular being. Wasn’t life was getting better?
: : :
Joffrey Simpson O’Day recalled those first days arriving in Sunbreak City: he had just discovered Freeway Park downtown by Pike Place Market with its wide-open view of Elliott Bay and the Sunbreak City waterfront. One July evening he found a bench on a grassy knoll in the park and took it all in:
A bold sun pressed down at seven p.m. as at noon and continued to glare until nine thirty p.m. when the light began to fade languidly, like a taffy-stretched fourth movement of Mahler, brightening for a moment the tops of skyscrapers which rose at Joffrey’s back like wonderful monuments to Jimi Hendrix’s guitar solos. The hectoring gulls, clacking pigeons, commercial aircraft, police seaplanes and TV helicopters dispersed slowly until some kind of quiet reigned. In the bay car-carrying ferries and deep-heaving, diesel-motored yachts (many topped with topless drink-sipping nymphs) left great wakes of unzipping foam. Speedboats sprayed immense rooster tails razing papery, pitching sailboats. Tugboats nosed international freighters (bearing hay bound for Japan’s cows) and darkened the watery rails that earlier shimmered like freshly cracked cymbals. A breeze smelling of creosote, shellfish brain, Ivar’s frying grease and drying kelp flowed into Joffrey as he turned to see tourist families from flat states waiting by fathers twisting Sunbreak City tourist maps as though wrestling king crabs. Local Sunbreak Cityites were easy to pick out: they resembled newly-minted Egyptian hieroglyphs, walking with a stiff forearm and hand clutching a paper cup of coffee. Joffrey remained at the downtown park until darkness nibbled away the bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich sunset.
How Joffrey loved Sunbreak City! Thousands of rooms in all these fierce buildings, thousands of florescent lights shining on men and women doing intricate things. The sense he could almost taste of churning, flowing enterprise was thrilling. He felt the city percolate through him.
He did not miss Eastern Washington’s long views of wavy, rolling rock. At all.
Joffrey had been to Sunbreak City before—to visit an uncle in jail, to see a ballgame or a concert or, more recently, to attend management seminars of Clearhaeuser Timber Company. But now he was socially engaged, Sunbreak City was home. Rainier City, his neighborhood, was home. The Ethiopian grocer across from Dayfresh House grunted at him when he bought gum or soda. He flirted with the baristas at the corner Starbucks and sometimes joined the black pastors’ Morning Prayer coffee. When they learned that he lived and worked at Dayfresh House, right across the street, their gusts of enthusiasm propelled him to sit down and join in. He had never been around a group of black men before and he didn’t want to act hesitant. So he sat in. He was especially fascinated by their smell, the mix of root beer and pepper. Then their fingers, turning, finding, tumbling the thin slightly noisy pages of the soft leather-bound Bibles, amazed. The hands of the men seemed black-coded, reflecting so many bronze tones, the wrinkles and swirls overly defined, beautiful.
: : :
Joffrey Simpson O’Day sat at his desk in his room at Dayfresh House and wrote out the following letter in longhand:
To: Snowden Branch, President of Sunbreak City University and my fellow students of the same:
Last Thursday our student paper—the esteemed Sunbreak City University Daily—included an eight-page literary supplement that was the culmination of my graduate-level, writing class project called Gods and Monsters. Though we were few—five in all—my classmates and I covered a lot of ground satirizing some aspect of Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, atheism and, in my case, Islam. Last year I read through the whole Koran (in English) and thought it lacked the enticing storytelling mechanisms of the Old Testament and the lived testimonials of the New. Its overall tone I found dry and sententious. For my assignment I thought I would enliven the Koran by passing it through various “dialectizers” I found on the Internet. These were the dialects of Valley Girl, Pig Latin, Barney Frank (or Elmer Fudd), and Pornolizer.
To these dialectized passages I added my own shaping, editorial hand with results I found funny if not downright scintillating.
Perhaps I was wrong. If I have offended anyone’s beliefs with my dialectized Korans I do apologize sincerely. I was not trying to belittle a faith. Wrongly, I did not give the whole assignment the thought I should have. Please believe me when I state that my motives were playful rather than malicious.
Again, I sincerely apologize.
Joffrey Simpson O’Day
Student Number: 48730912
Joffrey tore the paper he had just written on—in half, in quarters, in eighths and threw the bits into the small garbage can by his desk.
: : :
Joffrey Simpson O’Day sat at his desk in his room at Dayfresh House and wrote out the following letter in longhand:
To: Snowden Branch, President of Sunbreak City University:
Last Thursday various dialectized selections of The Koran that I wrote up for a graduate-level writing course appeared as part of a literary insert in our student paper, The Sunbreak City University Daily. I took sections of The Koran and passed them through an online “dialectizer” which stamped the passages into speech patterns or ‘dialects’ of Valley Girl, Pig Latin, Barney Frank (or Elmer Fudd), and Pornolizer.
I am aware that my writing project offended many greatly: I have been charged with hate speech by the faculty senate and the student government; a portion of the faculty, in fact, formed a “Group of 88” to circulate a manifesto that Would keep all students free from spiritual assault. My Pamela Prefontaine Scholarship has come under scrutiny; the editors of The Daily printed a two-page apology and filled out the rest of the issue with proper English translations of the Koran. The board of trustees, the provost, the deans of all the colleges and the coaches association (you have informed me) believe my enrollment at SCU an ongoing affront to the institution. And SCU alumnus, Prince Saleh Hashim (Class of ‘79) of Abu Dhabi, has cancelled his support for construction of the Ghalib Friendship Pavilion (the revamped sports stadium) and frozen funds that represent a hundred million dollar endowment to Sunbreak City University.
On Monday you told me that a written apology—publishable as a concurrent editorial in the Sunbreak City Deintellignecer, and The Sunbreak City Times—would go far towards making all of this go away. You urged me to deliver this apology onstage to the students, faculty and community members attending the upcoming Sunbreak City University Candlelight Festival of Affirmation. You also suggested I present myself before the mosque closest to the university to apologize to everyone including all Muslims all over the world.
I did not anticipate this overwhelming reaction—a reaction, I believe, far out of proportion to anything I actually did. I was having a bit of fun while carrying out a writing assignment on my way towards picking up a couple humanities credits.
Please receive my apology then; apology from the Ancient Greek, άπολογία, as in a defense of one’s actions, beliefs or of a cause.
Joffrey Simpson O’Day
Student Number: 48730912
p.s. As follows:
: : :
Yes, Joffrey, life was getting better.
Last week Joffrey’s dialectized versions of The Koran appeared as a literary insert in the high-circulation student newspaper, The Sunbreak City University Daily.
He should have known. Joffrey, you should have known, he told himself, sitting at his desk, looking at a blank piece of paper in front of him.
At least he was living in Sunbreak City.
: : :
The Famous Writing Professor (the FWP) sat in her office crying into the sweater-padded elbow of her right arm while laying down a few blind, left-hand piano chords until her fingers came upon a wad of Kleenex. Weeping! She hadn’t cried since she was that victim, so long ago, that battered young wife running through the night, rain-nicked, hysterical, pounding on the door of the First Hill Women’s Shelter.
She dried her face with the tissues. Why had she chosen the theme God’s and Monsters? A religious theme? Why? Why didn’t she see this coming? Why had she told her students she would refrain from reviewing their final stories? And, Dear God, why had she arranged for those stories to appear—a literary insert—in the student newspaper? Vanity? She wanted the students to love her. To trust her just as she was endowing them with so much trust. I wanted to be loved, trusted. Revered! The FWP moaned.
She checked her tears and looked at her face in a hand mirror. She imagined thousands of students, local businessmen or businesswomen by the thousands clutching her writing class literary insert as it fell from this morning’s Sunbreak City University Daily. God, what was the circulation? 25,000? 30,000? The readers would glance at Joffrey Simpson O’Day’s Barney Frank Koran or Valley Girl Koran and they would laugh. Would they notice the FWP’s name across the literary insert? Would they notice that it was her class? Sponsored by Theodore Roethke Writer’s House? Would they laugh and then look around themselves furtively? Ease the insert back into The Daily?
The FWP glanced at the literary insert now spread out on her desk. She looked away quickly but she couldn’t unsee the title: The Koran: Four Translations by Joffrey Simpson O’Day. The rare winter light coming through her office window drew her eyes back to the print and she read:
The Valley Girl Koran:
Surely, like, Allah, who is totally awesome duuuuude! does not do, like, injustice to thuh weight of an atom, and if it is like, ya know, a totally grody deed that, duuuude, multiplies it and gives from Himself a totally awesum reward.
She couldn’t read on. She was afraid she might begin to laugh. There was more: there was the Barney Frank Koran. There was the Pig Latin Koran. And worse, there was the Pornolizer Koran. Why did that kid—he was a kid, after all, full of earnest muscle and mischief¾why did he have to write up four versions? Her eyes snagged on a section of the Pornolizer Koran and she swallowed a laugh:
―If you shun the great gangbangs of which you are forbidden, We will do away with your small titty fucks and cause you to enter an honorable place of charvering, and ask Allah of His grace; surely Allah ballbusts all balls.
―And to every one We have appointed gamahuches of what parents and near relatives leave; and as to those with whom your finger-shafts have aardvarked and gamahuched, give them their portion; surely Allah is a witness over all bangs.
The official boardrooms would not be laughing. They would be howling. Perhaps they were howling now. The Muslim Student Association, the faculty senate, the advertisers and professional organizations that supported The Daily, the corporations and local government agencies that sponsored Roethke Writer’s House. They would howl and they would demand a head.
The FWP had, after all, enabled a mocking racist tract to issue forth into the sensitive student collective. She had cleared the way for further unsavory outburst against a vulnerable campus minority. Worse, she had probably jinxed the one hundred million dollar endowment to Sunbreak City University from Prince Saleh Hashim, a devoted Sunbreak City alumn who had The Sunbreak City University Daily specially delivered via airmail to his twentieth floor office tower in Abu Dhabi. He could afford it. The prince had graduated from Sunbreak City University in the 1970s. He learned to tie his shoes for the first time and pick up girls on his own while he drove around the U District in his black Pontiac Firebird. The university president would have to answer for her; or she would have to answer to him.
And Joffrey Simpson O’Day? Did he write his Pornlizer Koran to spite me? Who knows? Who cares? The emphatic lines and planes of his face appeared to her mind. The dark mono-eyebrow. Savage! something shouted inside her. Joffrey’s strong lean face. Round-faced Indians and hatchet-faced Indians. Joffrey was hatchet-faced. The nose, an Indian nose, they said. Or he could have been—you saw this face in Portuguese decedents, or Sephardim¾Jews from southern Europe and Africa or Mexicans or a Mediterranean swirl of Somethingrather.
She remembered his brash self-introduction that first night of class. My name is Joffrey Simpson O’Day! He made the FWP laugh. The other students, four others, laughed too. Standing in front of the class, bobbing with good cheer and fiberous confidence, Joffrey himself laughed. Why not? He didn’t seem like a malevolent jerk at the time. If anything, he came off as Class Star. He sheathed a daring chipped-tooth smile, like a concealed weapon, inside long, parted, black, shoulder-length Indian (make that Native American) hair; he was tall with muscle-bumped arms and (presumably) a wedge torso, nicely chiseled and filed. He damn near ungayed me she remembered joking to her lover arriving home that night after class.
O God, how things change.
. . .
Later that morning the FWP found herself sitting in the office of Snowden Branch, Sunbreak City University President. Once every few months the department could count on Snowden Branch dropping by the door of each professor’s office. He would pause, suited, bowing slightly, grinning slightly over the door. He was always of good cheer. His chin hosted a dimple, a hole really as if gouged with a router and the hole was amazingly, to the professor, always clean and shaven. When he smiled he showed intimidatingly healthy gums and lots of bright teeth. (The FWP regretted her own small mouth—it was small and pretty like an Asian girl’s but she didn’t have the adorable Asian valentine-shaped head, the mysterious eyes, the night-black straight hair, the fragile limbs. The Other, so beautifully Othered.) Snowden Branch would ask the professors, “How are you?” in such winsome tones that the most unsmiling, Heideggerized prof found himself, against his will, smiling, rubbed by Branch’s virulent good cheer.
This president had smiled the university into millions of government money and grants. He had smiled the medical school into a major research center for cancer research. He had smiled the computer science school into prominence, smiled the schools of mathematics and engineering to join in some kind of famous venture. He had smiled his way onto the board of directors of a half-dozen northwest companies tipping his yearly income into the seven figures.
Calm. The Valium had begun to speak to the FWP. She was on her way out. No, she wouldn’t let it happen. How easily the wrong thoughts flowed now, brackish, harsh mud thoughts, career smashing thoughts. Why? I am not a mean person. I value The Other. Why should this backflow of negativity wash over me? Ruinous falling thoughts. (Besides, not all Asian women are beautiful. Where did that come from? There were plenty of ugly Asians: the elderly women in the Boren Open Market: chinless, neckless, bowed, short-legged, bent, gabbing over radishes; made you want, as an agent of the Beautiful—for the Famous Writing Professor saw herself as an Agent of the Beautiful—the Asian community more sauced with infusions of African or Nordic sperm to even out the graceless genetic lumps. To lengthen limbs, elongate the flower, world it away from the peasant huddle. She wished she could show a lot of teeth when she smiled.)
Did Snowden Branch ever worry about getting his teeth punched? No, he was too vital to get any teeth knocked out. Slender in his dark suits, spankily barbered, spikily aftershaved, she thought of his clean dimple as a miniature asshole, a third eye. She just knew Branch had a squeaky clean asshole. Flip, keen, she thought president Branch had the character of a finely-oiled door hinge. Super agreeable, healthy gums, elevated ways.
She, the FWP, the new Guiding Light of graduate writing students who fuck with the Koran, sat in the president’s office and pondered her chances of survival. That would be Nil. Make that nada.
An old lesbian state senator gave the famous writing professor advice which had held her in good stead over twenty years of Iron Maiden spikes of academic bureaucracy: All powerful men have a toy train; try to find out what it is. It always helps to know a powerful man’s toy train.
The meeting happened before noon. She arrived at the president’s office armed with everything she knew about Joffrey Simpson O’Day. She didn’t wait long; Mrs. Lacey, the secretary, was gracious. Coffee? The Famous Writing Professor shook no and Mrs. Lacey told her to go in and held the door open for her. Snowden Branch made a point of rising from behind his walnut desk and sliding over to a black leather chair. Mrs. Lacy sat in the back of the room, taking notes; really she was part of the modern legal furniture; no university president would hold a closed door meeting with a member of the opposite sex without a witness.
His office was a kind of stained sanctum. A chamber lined in dark shelves, dark leather chairs and a vast dark walnut desk with dark leather trim around the top. The FWP loved that leather trim. Would she ever get such a desk for herself? It was hard for her to picture Branch sitting here off to the side of his desk, perhaps in the same leather chair with a towel around his shoulders while a gay Filipino barber clipped his hair and rubbed male perfume into his scalp afterwards. So rumor had it. Three times a week. The books on the shelves—the spines—glowered leatherly. Unrecognizable books. Perhaps they were books especially ordered for the stained shelves. “I need thirty feet of dark purple books!” the interior designer would have proclaimed. Otherwise there wasn’t much scholarly in the office. A jade plant by the window. Interesting choice. Chubby leaves and ginger-gnarled branches. The room could have been the office of a Boeing Aircraft executive. Indeed a model Boeing 777 sat upon a corner table. Along with a Japanese doll in a glass case and above both a dangling felt purple pennant: Go Huskies! The only other hanging thing was a splintery-looking dream catcher. Probably a gift from the United Tribes. The FWP fastened her soul upon it, perhaps foolishly, perhaps not. It was the one hospitable human-crafted thing that would sympathize with her lust to survive.
She swiveled in her chair to face Branch, turning away from the walnut desk.
Branch swung a plastic remote into the air and aimed it at the red light in the middle of a stack of sleek black stereo equipment. She immediately recognized the high-end nature of the equipment: the amplifier was very flat and black. The manufacturer’s logo was small and discreet. Delicate knobs and thin lines. Branch thumbed down on the remote and Debussy’s piano work began to sound. An invisible pianist had entered the room and was now playing Suite Bergamasque upon his invisible piano. Branch was an audiophile. You could detect the wood of the instrument. The toy train. Stereo gear, this powerful man’s toy train.
The famous dimple was so clean. It now spoke:
“I’m sure you’ll agree, professor, the times are not propitious for this kind of thing.” He addressed the FWP as if she were his collaborator on a major funding project and not the cause of his morning mayhem. She intuited that she would not be called on to speak much during this meeting.
Branch began again. “Everyone knows or should know that the Koran is sacred to Muslims in its physical manifestations—the very bindings and covers and pages are sacred—even the ink and typesetting are considered sacred manifestations of the prophet and his revelation. And now, through our student newsapaper, we’ve promoted a set of highly dubious variations on Koranic text.”
The president and the professor looked at each other.
Snowden Branch continued. “I’ve arranged for a candlelight vigil this evening in the quad. We’re calling it a Festival of Affirmation and Light and I would like to request your participation. Perhaps a poem by Rumi or something similar. Something conciliatory. If possible—I know this is terribly short notice—I would like you to get an apology from Mr. Simpson O’Day. You would read it. His presence might be a bit discomfiting just now. I can buffer the impact zones. That is my job. But an apology from the writer himself might have an ameliorating effect. We can’t go back in time; an apology is as close as we can get to a time machine.”
The famous writing professor nodded.
President Branch spoke: “The leaders of the various student groups will be there as will our chaplains. The editor of the student paper has committed. I see two ways this can go and neither of the contingencies is inevitable. The one—and the one we hope for—is that this will die down and nothing much will happen. The satire of Koranic text in question depends upon a fairly intimate tracking of American cartoons and culture in general. The other—and the one we don’t want—is that a simple writing assignment will ignite, or go viral as the kids say, and the forces of misunderstanding combust—and take us down with them. I’d like to prevent that. I don’t want the school to get tagged with encouraging religious intolerance and all the rest. As you can imagine, we are highly vulnerable to lawsuits, controversy, scandal.”
“I know exactly what I did wrong, president Branch,” the FWP said. “I told the students not to show their work to the public and I myself didn’t review it before it went to press. That was wrong. Pilot error.”
Snowden Branch looked down. The professor thought she saw him tremble with an effort of self-control. Maybe she shouldn’t have said anything. She had always thought that honest apology was better than nothing.
She felt the obliterating effect of cornered male power. Branch was angry. So this was it. The beast. The thing that she and her colleagues teased about but never really seen. Male power, no it wasn’t a turn on. Could it be that everything she had trained for was an illusion? Were women so contingent upon male gentility?
“We absolutely must get in front of this,” said Branch. He paused and his silence nudged the professor. “Is there anything you would like me to do, specifically?” she asked.
President Branch stood up and walked to the window behind his desk. The FWP understood that the conversation would now dive to a deeper level. The president needed to declaim, to defend his school. Snowden Branch fingered the chubby leaves of a jade plant. He dusted the leaves with his thumb and forefinger while he spoke:
“If we are building a universal culture, and I believe we are, we must be all the bigger for it. It is incumbent upon us to shepherd the least experienced cultures, culture-ward. We either are or we are not representatives of civilizational largesse. As such we have a responsibility to the less big, the less powerful. Just because we can do something does not mean we have to do it. We can’t be seen endorsing adolescent hijinks. We’ve got to be bigger than that. The university is not an echo chamber, but neither is it blotting paper—everything to everybody. We are a community of conversation and we can set ground rules. We can and do abide free speech insofar as it allows us to maintain community; there isn’t much conversation in a shattered community. A great university must stand as exemplar of its universal greatness. The university should set the example for wider society by treating its diverse student population with respect. There is no law that every group new to America be demonized or ridiculed. It is no crime against the first amendment to encourage considerate behavior; sometimes courtesy is revolutionary. We are evolving a world culture here whether we like it or not. And what is to be gained by wiping our feet on the sacred mats of another culture? Freedom of speech? People evolve towards freedom. By knocking them down with insults don’t we hamper their progress towards those goals that we want them to move towards?”
Branch was rehearsing, the professor understood, his speech for tonight’s gathering. Candlelight, folksongs, handmade posters. Or possibly their whole meeting was being recorded. The red light from the stereo system was blinking on and off. She agreed with everything president Branch said but she wished he would talk about her. What now? What now for the nationally recognized writing professor? And her high-profile writing program?
Snowden Branch must have read her thoughts. He looked up from his jade plant and looked at her. She blinked. He was staring down at her, now, staring at her with his three eyes, the winking chin dimple. “For a number of reasons, professor, I think now would be a good time to ask you a favor. For some time now the board and I have been concerned with our English department extension schools, yes…”