August 20th, 2010 § § permalink
“Apologize for what?” Joffrey was sitting in Ben Marble’s—the Commander’s—office at Dayfresh House.
“It’s not a big deal,” said Ben Marble. “It happens all the time in the military, especially the Navy. You say the wrong thing at the right time or vice versa. You apologize and move on. Sure you can dig in your heels but you’re peeling potatoes for the rest of your career.”
“You fought in a war to advance freedom, free speech.”
“True, but you’re not down on the farm anymore carving your initials into a tree trunk. You’ve plugged into a complex system of realities and while there is tremendous freedom within that system you are still not an isolated unit. You can’t plug into the system and run your own game on it. I assume you wanted to come to the city to be plugged into the system as opposed to isolated from it?”
Joffrey sat and tried not to look directly at the Commander. He felt intimidated by his powerful hairy forearms, his still coiled bulk, his penis fingers, his tensile force. The Commander wore Vans tennis shoes and their wide grip seemed to affirm his weighted authority at Dayfresh House.
“It was just a writing assignment,” said Joffrey Simpson O’Day, still looking down. “The Koran. I was just having fun.”
“OK. Great. I’ll take you at your word. But you also have to take me at mine when I say I thought your fun project was needlessly provocative. An apology sends everyone back to his corner to cool out.”
The Commander picked up the literary insert. “This is from your Barney Frank Koran:
‘And be patient, fow suwewy Awwah does not waste the wewawd of the good-doewas. And He it is Who muwtipwied you in the eawth, and to Him you shawlw be gathewed. And He it is Who gives wife and causes death, and…the awtewnation of the night and the day; do you nowt then undewstand?’”
The Commander stopped reading. Joffrey focused on the flip of the Commander’s gray and brown ponytail and said, “Provocative is in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it?”
Ben Marble gave Joffrey a long snake stare. He swung his big chin towards Rainier Avenue and asked, “Do you bank in the neighborhood? Here in Rainier City? Next time you go to the bank take a good look. Who is sitting at the desks of the personal bankers? Sitting mind you, not standing in line like ordinary Joes. I mean sitting down and giving it to the staff tracking every penny of their money. I’ll give you a hint: they’re wearing burkhas. These Muslim Somali moms and wives are some of the best depositors at our local banks. If you think those banks are going to give up those deposits so you can be free to fuck with the Koran then you are wrong son.”
Joffrey didn’t know what to say. He would rather the Commander tell him war stories. What it was like to gut an enemy Vietcong like a trout. “It embarrasses the hell out of me to have to spell it out for you like this, Joff. I admire your intelligence and pluck but you’re wrong about this. They need that apology, the school. Apologize Joffrey and be done with it.”
This would have been the perfect moment for Joffrey to perform his Marlon Brando-as-Kurtz imitation, wrinkling his forehead and reciting in a high voice, And you’re an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill. But he didn’t. He didn’t want to set off this particular ex-swift boat captain. Instead Joffrey Simpson O’Day excused himself and left the office.
. . .
“Apologize? For what?” cried Joffrey Simpson O’Day. “Racism? I thought we were talking about religion? I wasn’t making fun of a race. I was making fun of Islam, the Koran. You got to admit, my stuff is funny. You laughed at it.” He laughed.
“How about this for starters?” The Famous Writing Professor held up a copy of the class literary insert. She read aloud to Joffrey:
“‘And when you are greeted with a squirting greeting, greet with a better squirting than it or return it; surely Allah takes account of all thrusting things. And Allah is Spanking, Wise. Surely you may judge between people by gamahuches of that which Allah has spanked you; and be not an advocate on behalf of their deep throats; surely Allah does not love treacherous charvers.’
A Porn Movie Dialogue Koran,” the professor moaned . “Why? This went out to what—how many thousands?
The Famous Writing Professor was sitting with Joffrey at a table in the Roethke House café. She pressed her lips together in disapproval and shuffled the student papers in front of her. Texts she called them. Like something found in the caves, The Dead Sea Scrolls. Texts. She spoke: “The stability of Roethke House depends on our community involvement and at least striking the pose of equanimity towards all.”
“Why does everyone fixate on the Porn Movie Dialogue Koran?” Joffrey wondered to the air. “I like the Valley Girl version myself.” He took up the literary insert and turned a page and read:
O Prophet! Gag me with a SPOOOOON! Oh, fer shure, wow! Oh, wow! when you divorce women, mostly, mostly, oh, right, like divorce them for their prescribed like gnarly time, and like, dude, do your duty to, like Allah, fer shure, your, like, Lord, dude. And—
The Famous Writing Professor grabbed the paper from Joffrey and mashed it into her open purse.
Perry the Cat and his fat tail again. He snuggled in the Famous Writing Professor’s lap, luxuriating in the professor’s unselfconscious strokes and blinking arrogantly at Joffrey. The professor seemed to be stroking her way towards a statement, smoothing out unready words. Joffrey looked over at the beer handles sticking up from behind the bar. They had the café to themselves. He then glanced down at the table and noticed a circle-stained, Roethke House brochure-turned-coaster: a county and corporate funded house on historic Capital Hill City dedicated to fostering literary activities throughout Sunbreak City.
The Famous Writing Professor spoke. “These people, the Muslims, have been abused and brutalized by the west for centuries. We have a price to pay for all that. It is not in our interest to antagonize them further. It is not for us to say who is right or wrong in this so-called war on terror. And I can’t have Roethke House associated with racism at any level. There was a reason the Sunbreak City Deintelligencer didn’t print the Danish Cartoons. The advertisers. Who are their advertisers? Have you seen our brochure? The same, thank you.
Joffrey examined the brochure again; true, corporate logos squirmed all over it: Nordstrom Headstone, Clearhaeuser Lumber, Starbucks, Bardahl Shoes, Macy’s Pet Foods, the Bank of Sunbreak City, Benaroya Parking Lots, United Way.
Joffrey Simpson O’Day wrinkled his forehead.
“Stop!” said the Famous Writing Professor. “Just stop it Joffrey Simpson O’Day. I’ve seen you doing your Marlon Brando routine for the other kids in class. This is serious.”
Joffrey Simpson O’Day pretended he didn’t hear and, forehead wrinkled, puffed out his cheeks a la Don Corleone. He raised his hands in supplication: “Solorzano’s lost a son, I’ve lost a son. Where has it gotten us? Will another hit bring back your boy?”
The famous writing professor didn’t laugh. She said, “We don’t want to give any ammo to the haters. If we mock the Koran like this it could bring down a lot of trouble on the house. I’m not prepared to back you on this.”
“I don’t understand,” Joffrey said. “I’m your student. What am I supposed to apologize for? It was just a writing assignment. Your writing assignment. You set the theme: Gods and Monsters. Beth wrote about an orgy of nuns based on a short story of Boccaccio. Finn’s story about a local parish whose parishioners dismembered, roasted and consumed the priest after he announced the parish had run out of communion wafers—that was real sweet. How about Reggie Claydon’s screed about an African-American preacher extolling revenge upon the white man? I just had some fun with the Koran.”
“You’re being obtuse.”
Joffrey wrinkled his forehead. In his best Brando accent he said: “And you’re an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill.”
“I won’t have you talk to me like that Joffrey. I’m not one of your groupies all tipsy and giggly-happy to be in your presence. This is a prestigious writing class and you were fortunate to get in. I want you to give this talk the seriousness it deserves.”
“That’s just why I can’t take this seriously,” said Joffrey. “I respect you and the class too much to even believe we are even having this conversation. This is a dream, it’s not real, it’s not happening. I can only maintain my respect for you by imagining you under some outside compulsion like pills or pressure—pressure that you should resist.”
Teacher and student glared at each other. The cat purred and the refrigerator behind the bar buzzed to life. Joffrey observed that the rims of the professor’s eyes were puffing, tear puff, donut puffing. She was angry—about to cry? She wouldn’t cry.
Joffrey tried to control himself. He spoke in the chopped measured tones of the near insane. “I did the assignment. I thought it was funny. I thought it spiced up a ripping bore of a book.” He avoided her bright warring green eyes; he noticed the famous writing professor had a fine layer of down along her jaws. Would she have removed this if she were not a lesbian?
“Please don’t make me say the obvious,” said Joffrey. “I won’t disgrace my background, even though it is a tiny thread, by mentioning it.” Joffrey paused and said: “This is a complete bullshit conversation. I didn’t do anything wrong. I did my work.” He stood up. “Go ahead and flunk me if you have to. No apology.”
. . .
Joffrey Simpson O’Day in conversation with himself:
What in the hell is the matter with everybody?
Don’t be a baby. You know. Your Barney Frank Koran, your Koran versions, have started streaming. Around the world.
Yeah so? You mean the all-powerful Allah can be knocked over with a feather?
That’s not the point. You know what I’m talking about?
No, I don’t. I was having fun. So now fun’s off-limits? Last I heard I was an American; I have the right to do and say what I want.
Oh, so you can shout fire—
Don’t give me that shout fire in a crowded theater bit. Every religion is trashed in commercial America. Capital Hill City has a play about transvestite nuns going on ten years now. Islam hasn’t got any special consideration over and above Christianity or…
What about Native Americans? Our sacred objects—the peace pipe, the headdress, our teepees, rattles and drums and weapons—were absconded with by commercial America to dress cigar boxes and storefronts and all manner of demeaning graphic just to turn a buck.
So let’s pile on the wrongs to make a right.
Bah! Our so-called leaders discovered their reverence for Islam about the same time they discovered they had fouled their pants in fear.
Take it easy, we’ll figure out why we’re not going to apologize for our messed up Korans. It will just take time. Why we’re not protesting our expulsion from the university and all the rest. Why we’re letting ourself be erased, not fighting back, all these expulsions. We’re smart. Remember the time we all stood admiring the large backyard of the tall house by the lake? We stood there, three of us friends observing a taught rope tied between tall trees flanking the backyard. It was too high to be a clothesline. Why was it there? What did it mean? A science experiment? Lucas said. Yeah what kind of science experiment? We laughed and bullied him because we knew Lucas didn’t know any science. Then we knew, you and me. Suddenly. In the corner of a downstairs window, very small, we saw the tiny stripes, green white red. The Mexican flag. Piñata! A piñata rope. Kids backyard parties. You fling the piñata over the rope and raise and lower it while the kids try to bash it to pieces.
You’re right. We’ll figure this thing out.
. . .
Even though The Porn Movie Dialogue Koran and the other versions had begun streaming throughout the world, Sunbreak City University President Snowden Branch was able to press local media to downplay them. The local TV stations, of course, didn’t mention them. The Sunbreak City Times and the Sunbreak City De-intelligencer routed the whole thing through community gossip columnist, Nikki Bread. Joffrey read her column:
The friskiness of college students seems to be a constant. It could be argued that frisk management is a major part of what college administrators do. When a recent mock-up of the Koran in various versions appeared in The Sunbreak City University Daily (the SCUD) hackles were raised. The Times editorial policy of deep respect for Islam and the historic greatness of Islam prevents us from running excerpts from the modified Korans. Suffice it to say that it was offensive enough to bring in the direct intervention of university president Snowden Branch himself. President Branch has made exceptional efforts towards healing the bruised feelings of a sensitive religious minority of students.
Towards that end President Branch will inaugurate a special Evening of Light and Affirmation candlelight ceremony on the university campus tonight. Student body president Selindra Mayhoff will lead off with a series of speakers from the lesbian gay bi transgendered community as well as leaders of various university multicultural clubs and representatives social justice groups. They will all join in celebrating the university’s status as a powerhouse of diversity.
Moses Keen, president of the faculty senate along with a Working Group of 88 Professors affirming the ‘right of students to be free of spiritual assault,’ will dedicate this night by sharing in a moment of silence followed by the singing of Kumbaya in Arabic. “I’m not Muslim but as a person of brown-ness I cried in solidarity with them when I saw the blasphemous Korans in The Daily,” said Keen. “I look forward to tonight’s celebration and fully expect it to be an event of great healing. I just know that the singing of Kumbaya in Arabic by candlelight will show the world that our university is in the forefront of world diversity. It will be a moving, life-affirming event.”
. . .
A few months into his Sunbreak City sojourn Joffrey discovered his Home Place. It was an elbow of the Duwamish river that flowed through the industrial flats of Tukwila. The river bent and flowed gray and thick as spent motor oil after having descended the cold bright headwaters of the Cascade mountains. It strolled the Kent Valley where, seasoned with farm pesticides, it stewed through Sunbreak City’s industrial flats, past the airplane factory, the cement factory, the bottle factory, past the sawmill, the steel mill, past factories diapered in giant American flags (and spewing tiny wages), past the tugboat yard, where, widening out into the delta flats it glopped its remains into the salmon-pruned Puget Sound.
Joffrey’s Home Place featured a sturdy wooden pedestrian crossing that offered piercing long views of the river—as if from inside the river. Vines like busted guitar strings sprang from the vegetation along the banks. The tides and flowing waters had cut the vegetation sharp at water’s edge like page-boy bangs. Here, just beyond reach of the industrial waterway, of Boeing field, of the police firing range, of the city itself, lay this chunk of timeless pastorale. The river was still close enough to the bay to rise and fall with the tide. Every visit to the Home Place was a glass of champagne that kept filling itself after every sip. There was never any time that it was not beyond exquisite: the dimpling water surface, the flowing bunchy embankment, the quaint rustic houses, the poised sky, the broomy tall trees. Last fall the water churned muddy with salmon roiling upstream. Coho, Chinook. It was the season, the run. A distant uncle, laying nets one morning, saw him up on the bridge and called him down. Joffrey met him on the bank and watched him fix his net. He had a burnt, coriaceous face with the makings of a goatee and, of course, the distant uncle, whose name Joffrey could barely remember, knew everything about Joffrey.
I hear you’re in school. Unh. You got you a nice ghettofabulous girlfriend. Got choo a nice buffalo sister. That’s what I hear. Unh.
Joffrey resigned himself. It was useless to delve into conversation. All his life his uncles knew every single thing about him—what sports he was going out for, when he got a new pair of tennis shoes, when he started to jack off, what girls he was interested in, how many points he scored, what his grades were—knew what was going to happen to him before he did. And they pounced, without mercy. The distant uncle bagged a few and Joffrey was able to feed Dayfresh House for the weekend.
He didn’t want to visit his Home Place too often for fear that it might be a dream or that it might vanish. After the salmon run it flowed with fallen coin-like locust leaves on the surface. The banks were still puffy with green and maple leaves like drooping, brown rags still clung to their vines. Why Joffrey’s Home Place was not packed with photographers and painters was beyond him. Or lovers.
. . .
O yes, the uncles. Joffrey often thought that anyone with eight uncles tormenting him while growing up might qualify Native American. Always and everywhere hovered the uncles. They were a certain type of men that, had we won the Indian wars, life would have been much more interesting. A better society? Maybe, maybe not. Hank, Wilson, Otis, Little Bear, Walter, Red Owl. They could move from sociological analysis to dreams to astronomy, to war (many were Vietnam vets) from poetry to tribal politics. They were so individual and peculiar; they could be verbally quite brisk. Abusive even. And funny. Joffrey mistrusted any historical account of Indians that left out their humor—that meant basically all accounts. But the uncles had your number down from way back, they identified your own interaction with nature. It wasn’t nature reverence per se, it was interaction; they felt that certain rocks, mountains, trees, animals and streams had things to teach. This wasn’t nature worship it was something else. Something like family feeling. Which is at once more reverential and more standoffish than nature worship.
. . .
Fontina and Joffrey sit in the dark auditorium at Alhadeff Hall listening to a single man, the Famous Scottish Guitarist, a classical guitarist, play one gorgeous tune after another. They were out on a date. Fontina picked up a taste for classical music in Japan. “Any given night in Tokyo,” she said, “there are forty plus symphonies running through the entire western classical repertoire. Amazing. It’s not classical so much as live. You get a taste for live music.”
Joffrey has never heard guitar like this before. Thousands of listeners trying not to cough, sitting quiet and focusing on the famous Scottish guitar player. The silence seems religious. They seemed hungry for rare angelic sonics. The famous Scottish guitarist wore his blond hair long and parted in the middle. When he dropped his head to see his fingers his hair swung together like theater curtains. Why didn’t the world come to heel under the assault of so such beautiful music? Why war, now, after such music? Joffrey is happy. Joffrey and Fontina had candlelight dinner at McCormick’s before the concert. Joffrey tasted the glamour he had always longed to taste. He could barely eat for thrilling to Fontina’s looks all through dinner. He basked in the multitudinous flickers of her darkness. At dessert her lips took in the metal spoon and they held it, her eyes blinking white upward and closing with pleasure while she absorbed the ice cream. Such a private expression in public; she was alive, Joffrey thought. To live in a big city and to dine out with a beautiful woman marked off a life notch for him. He had left the desert of eastern Washington behind. Death shrank to the size and importance of a raindrop. Or now he could die. Now, in the dark of the concert hall, they snuggled and Joffrey put his arm around her and he felt he possessed a kingdom.
But then Joffrey hears his uncles. They are clawing and fluttering around his shoulders, insistent as wrens. The Famous Scottish Guitarist picks his way through Handel’s keyboard suite in G minor. Joffrey hears his uncles chirp at him: You, Little Coyote, you could turn all this back! All this industrial civilization depends on you, right now. You could erase the presence of the white man if only you renounce this guitar, this product of white machine civilization.
“It’s just a guitar,” Joffrey says. “You love it too. The electric anyway.”
Yes, say the uncles, we know and we can love its sound too. But for all its hand-carved, wooden ambience it carries conquest in its wake; it is as much a product of the industrial grid as a cement factory or a nuclear plant. The strings are wound nylon, finely spun silver plate wound on computerized thimbles and rotors, themselves fine as fingers. Oil products make up the guitar finishes and lacquers, the top and sides and the glues are oil derivatives too. Ditto the varnish that gives the guitar its glow. There is nothing spiritual going on here. If you renounce this guitar all of white civilization will vanish. It hangs by a thin silver thread. Let it go. We will be free again. We will live our land and fight our own fights. Choose now Little Coyote. Choose now, cut the string and take us back before the grid and free us forever.
Leave me alone assholes, says Joffrey, under his breath. He squirms in his seat. So typical of my uncles to fuck with me when I’m having one of the happiest moments of my life. The Famous Scottish Guitarist comes to the end of the Handel piece with its magnificent run of ascending arpeggios. Joffrey is sweating.
Fontina offers him a hanky and asks, “Whats wrong?”
August 17th, 2010 § § permalink
Driving through Sunbreak City neighborhoods Capital Hill City, Ballard City, Freemont City, Queen Anne City, University City, Joffrey felt a bit like God surveying his creation, commending here, approving there or sometimes disapproving. But walking in his own neighborhood, Rainier City, he felt companionable, like Walt Whitman, blessing every manifestation of human endeavor, feeling at one with everything human. As he passed each house a bolt of empathy flared in his chest. He just knew he could enter any house and become a lifelong friend of the owner or family.
Then Joffrey discovered Rainier Avenue, the long stretch between Graham and Henderson. It offered the most staggering view—on clear days—of Mount Rainier in the city. The shadow of its vastness would easily contain a European country or two. He was only stopped cold by certain black drug street salesmen. We were a long way from the cool black dudes on the album covers of his uncles’ jazz records. These street dudes had dead patches, like the blank marble eyes of statues, where their eyes were. The black dope dealer: hard faced, doesn’t move when you approach. Looks like he’s been suckled on cement. He is the nuclear core of American society, the thing in itself around which society is built, accommodating him or avoiding him. His anger knocks entire commuter neighborhoods together, vast developments with water, sewage, electricity and maybe damns and nuclear plants, so eager are whites to flee from him. From whence this saggy-pants nihilism, patterned hooded sweatshirts, the crisp, flat-billed baseball hat, backwards, sideways? Joffrey couldn’t feign too much ignorance. They are a tribe, my tribe, after all: druggie-wuggie moms, invisible dads. The abandoned ones. Kids as serenely checked off for erasure as any stack of boxes vacating a loading dock. Joffrey felt they weren’t living so much as pre-dead. Only the ground willing to embrace them whole. The Rainier dudes. Their free swagger, their pocket flags, gang colors, the nowhere energy of nothing. Maybe the generation coming out of slavery, and the one after, setting up in the teeth of American hatred couldn’t afford nihilism straight. Nihilism would have been a luxury. After slavery blacks had to follow the bouncing ball of American life, fighting its wars, marking the color line, marking time. After the civil rights era blacks could relax a bit, let the poison of Death’s close breathing descend upon this generation.
Then Joffrey’s sense of resistance kicked in: why should Death win? Show me the contending force from which the dudes are snapping back. This force Joffrey could not locate in Sunbreak City. Apart from the bars across the small shop windows and ground floor apartment windows he had spotted no degraded slum. Libraries flourished as did mini grocery stores. Halal markets, car repair shops. Was there something to see behind Sunbreak City’s benignity? The embrace of Death scared him and attracted him. But had one of the boys ever run a log sort yard, ever worked a green chain or supervised a barking crew? Had they ever worked the log pond at a great saw mill? Joffrey wanted to connect with them but he didn’t do dope, the charming guest who always takes more than he gives. Maybe the street dudes perceived his nonchalance or the choices open to him. The free swing in his own walk would offend them. He wanted to tell them that Death didn’t need a hand from them. The span of Death’s domain allowed for no apprentices. Maybe this coiled violence rushed to fill the blank created by the Sunbreak City rich, withholding, as they did, from all, the magnitude of their accomplishment.
One Saturday afternoon on a Rainier corner he walked past a very dark black young man (Does blackness, textured skin, invite roaming spirits?) with a baseball cap pressed down over a nest of dreads. He seemed absorbed in watching or perhaps counting cars in the street. It was an act. “Are you stoppin’ or shoppin’ niggah?” He spoke briskly, knowingly to Joffrey. Taken back, Joffrey did not have a ready reply. “Clear the corner, niggah. If you ain’t here for nothin’ keep it moving.”
Joffrey tried to pick out—again along Rainier Avenue—between Graham and Henderson—he wanted to see if he could pick out the real whores from the police decoys. The purse always the purse! Waiting and not waiting by the bus stop. Usually he could. The decoys were too good to be true. They had clean hair and didn’t carry the spirit of burnt whoredom to its logical end: the kind of physical self-looting you see in real street whores.
On one of his neighborhood walks down a side street near Aki Kurose field Joffrey saw a Muslim father call out to his son from the front door at dinner time. The boy was about ten and wore a white long gown we associate with North Africa or the Middle East. The boy was happy and he was leaping with his two legs together, leaping like a seal towards the house. The father was impatient but you also thought you saw great affection in the father’s face. Joffrey wondered that he belonged to a country that had this kind of love happening.
Later that morning Joffrey came upon a row of wooden houses seemingly unmaintained for decades, mossy and sunken on the north sides. One such house had a Sears chain link fence around the front yard. On a narrow slice of cracked sidewalk leading to the slanted front steps a black girl was jumping rope. She wore shorts and she was long legged and sang to herself in time with her bouncing feet. She must have been twelve or thirteen and she seemed possessed of so much innocent energy and hapless joy that Joffrey took a moment to marvel. He had to tell himself to move on: he didn’t want to get tagged as a neighborhood perv. She reminded him that he and his sister had lived moments of kid-bliss, usually in summer, not really knowing the world. Joffrey walked on but he kept thinking about the young girl. She moves to life as though she were rich, he reflected. The mind of poverty has not encased her head. He imagined her later that night as she watched a National Geographic special on the ancient gardens of Babylon. Let’s say she does well in school; she will go on to study the world and history and geography. Perhaps she will travel and visit the world’s great cities. But she will always be precluded from knowing that her very own city, Sunbreak City, hosts dwellings as majestic as the castles of the kings and rulers of old. Living in Sunbreak City, her own city, the neighborhood of Highland City will be a distant rumor for her. And by design. She would be denied the knowledge of monumental greatness that existed in her own town because the forces of money and power had designed that she not know them. No TV, Radio or movie ever talked about the palaces of Highland City, not even in passing. This is the effrontery of the Sunbreak City rich: they hide their munificence—palace, castle, estate, manor—from the children.
Sometimes Joffrey heard a rooster crowing when he walked the neighborhood. How would they survive the raccoons or the feral cats? Sometimes he heard the piano being practiced.
This was his neighborhood after all. Rottweiler and baby stroller white couples. Competition some mornings seemed for the tallest dog in America. The wife, obviously in control of everything, the husband, tamed and pushing the baby stroller. And dogs and owners dogs and oweners andmoredogsandoweners.
He fully intended to suck the city dry. It was his city now. He had a headquarters: Dayfresh House.
The building was originally a two-story hotel, The Robertson (The Jewell of Rainier City), built for traveling salesmen back in the 1920s. Nescient heirs, bloated lawyers and tenuous records all fumbled across the decades to turn the place into an unofficial museum with Sunbreak City tagged as the ultimate title holder. The city was about to declare the old hotel an historic landmark when federal money available for drug rehab caused the mayor to cry out one morning, “Find the buildings, find the addicts and put them together—now!” To the press he pronounced more soberly: “This is a perfect opportunity for public and private partnership in the service of our communities in order to meyhram gran benhriff blanaahh…”
They christened it, Dayfresh House.
Joffrey lived for free at Dayfresh House in exchange for working the night desk five nights a week. He was to monitor who came in and out, but really making sure the residents (or inmates as Joffrey thought of them) didn’t go out for too long. Going out meant that the residents were going out for drugs or whoring. Some were prohibited from leaving the building without a case worker.
He answered directly to the supervisor, Ben Marble, who everyone called ‘Commander’ because he was a retired navy commander and because he carried still the air of a man used to having hundreds of young people obey his every wish. He wore a small pony tail. Everyone figured he missed out on pony tails when he fought in Vietnam and now he was catching up. He had large forearms and while he didn’t talk much about Vietnam rumor had it he worked the swift boats and liked to ambush and gut his prey with a commando knife. Somehow the residents felt safe and comfortable with a guy who was once slathered up to his elbows in human guts and organs.
The smoky chandelier, the blotchy light over the small rotunda lobby, the brass umbrella stand, the slices of himself in narrow mirrors along the walls, the high-grade oak flooring cracking underfoot, the wing chairs and coffee table fastened into the rug with metal tabs and the large oil painting (nailed fast as well) of a peasant woman crossing the Pont Neuf at dusk—all this floating on a cherry red carpet appealed to Joffrey’s sense big city living. “Shabby gentility at its finest,” he whispered, walking into Dayfresh House for the first time.
Joffrey had a studio apartment with a bay window that overlooked Rainier Avenue. His room—every room in fact—held fine odd touches: a small cubby-door outside the room’s entrance that once must have served as a delivery for milk bottles, beveled glass cupboards with small glass knobs, a pantry cupboard with an open air vent to the outside and a large metal framed Murphy Bed that unfolded from inside a large closet.
The residents looked as varied as any group of adults walking to and fro in a grocery parking lot. In reality many came from jail or parole programs and all had committed themselves to a three month stay. They took part in therapy sessions, one-on-one counseling, group outings and general down time. Joffrey was so green that during his first week he thought all the residents drank a special kind of strong tea from special small cups; then he realized they were all walking around with urine samples. Anyway, Dayfresh House, present:
Hamilton “Bing” Bale
One night as Joffrey walked down the first floor hall at Dayfresh House he heard a voice proclaim, “I’d never commit suicide during baseball season!” It was Ray who said it, as he found out later. Ray, Ken and Nolan formed a trinity of dudes who slumbered in the Dayfresh House common room watching sports on TV every chance they got. Didn’t matter what sport as long as some ball was in play. These would have been the guys you meet at every party, swirling beer, wasted on pot and cocaine, who talk in logical, crystalline sentences about baseball minutiae. After exhaling bong clouds thick as hurled gallons of milk they could carry on like this:
“…no you’re wrong. The guy who stole the most bases in his rookie year was William Ellsworth “Dummy” Hoy. 82 fucking bases. He led the National League.”
“Not bad. Ruth only stole 10 his rookie year.”
“Guess how many Ty Cobb stole? His rookie year. Zero.”
“Know why they called him ‘Dummy’? He was deaf.”
“No shit. He was also really short. The fans would wave their hats at him instead of clapping…they still use some hand signals…”
Joffrey and the TV room guys didn’t hit it off because he didn’t want to stand around in forced bonhomie bull-shitting about sports. There they sat, a three-headed, lumpy, long, plaid sofa, snarling at every entrant, demanding payment in the coin of sports blather. Joffrey didn’t pay; he just nodded at the heads and bounded up the stairs to his room.
Joffrey arrived at the Commander’s office-bedroom, a narrow and Spartan thing and Joffrey wondered if it was his imagination that it seemed outfitted like a bunk on a big ship. Joffrey sat in a spare but comfortable chair (was it a designer chair? Italian made?). There was a framed picture of the Commander’s wife and family from when his five boys were young and unmarried. A contemporary portrait would have packed the frame with a bunch of grandkids. There wasn’t much else in the office. A couple navy flags and some insignia in a display that he didn’t really understand. The Commander sat at his desk filling out some paperwork which he quickly stuffed into a filing cabinet.
“Joffrey.” The Commander swung his chair around addressed him.
Joffrey smiled to signal he was alert and paying attention. How could he not? Hairy, big forearms. Serene bulk. You couldn’t imagine besting him in hand-to-hand combat.
“I hear you called in an airstrike on yourself.” Most everybody at Dayfresh House indulged the Commander’s Vietnam era phrasings. With some frequency they heard some new arrival described as having that Thousand Yard Stare. Once he broke up a fight and finished it with both inmates shaking hands while the commander repeated, Peace in Our Time, Peace in Our Time. And once we heard him yelling on the phone at some board member of Dayfresh House behind his closed office door, I will destroy this village to save it! But just now Joffrey was trying to parse the Commander’s airstrike analogy.
“Your Koran thing.”
“Yeah. Just a lark.”
The Commander’s eyes had become two portholes, large pitiless openings onto a dark interior that made Joffrey move in his chair. “It was just a lark,” Joffrey repeated. “Muslims, Islam was on my mind because you see them all over the neighborhood.”
“You come across as Mr. Mellow Dude,” the Commander said. “But I know that the cuddliest, furriest animals in the wild, they have the sharpest claws. With your Korans you’ve taken a real slash at Muslims—“
“I didn’t have particular Muslims in mind,” said Joffrey. “I just wanted to poke some fun at Islam in general—”
“Islam is too abstract.” The Commander didn’t like being interrupted. “I don’t believe it or let’s say it is hard for me to believe you didn’t know you would draw blood. There was plenty of thought and malice there.”
Joffrey noticed the lumpy wrinkles, like the too many coats of paint on a ship’s hull, around the Commander’s porthole eyes.
“I’m not finished with the subject,” said the Commander. “Let’s get ready for Talk Night.”
Joffrey had to be there at Dayfresh House Wednesday night for Talk Night and for evening bed-check. He wouldn’t miss Talk Night for anything. He helped with small chores that the commander couldn’t be bothered with.
Joffrey’s furnished his room was with odd bits and ends from the thrift store. He got around this by telling his visitors that it was modular furniture. “See? It’s modular.”
Guys in drug treatment like to talk. They like to smoke and they like to talk. You share a cigarette and everyone becomes sociable. And conversation takes its way. Easy malleable and sometimes entertaining. Like this: it happened to be Gay Pride weekend and the Pride marchers took over the neighborhood for the weekend leading some of the panhandling house staff to resent the antics of Sunbreak City’s gay population.
Larry, a certified forklift driver, said apropos of nothing: “I ain’t no faggot.” The strength and sheer falsity of the statement among a bunch of drug addicts made them roll their eyes. Drug addicts know that all manner of behavior has flowed through you. On drugs life lives you. Passed by, passed through, thanks to dope. If nothing else, dope makes you sell anything, your body, dope makes you suck cock.
But gays were on the minds of some of the house members so the conversation flowed that way.
“You really hate fags?” Martin asked. “Really? Well, try this. What if you were stuck on a desert island. Would you rather be stuck on that island with a big fat ugly woman or with a young slender good looking boy, say, a 15 or 16 year old boy with smooth skin and nice lips and clear eyes? A hairless smooth skinned youth?
“It always intrigues me that in nine cases out of ten the angry homophobe chooses the boy. They always qualify it by saying ‘I’d have to be the dominant partner though. No takin’ it up the ass.’”
Moist laughter, and then foot stomping laughter.
Then Terry said, “But hold on. Young slender guys grow up. The get big and they get muscles. What happens when your slender boy grows up on the mythical Desert Island and gets strong and the life of the Desert Island toughens him up and maybe he didn’t really appreciate getting drilled by you all those years—but what could he do about it? But now he’s grown and he’s big and strong and he’s coming after you and he turns you into a punk? How about that, huh? Your boy will want to be the macho and he’ll be on your ass turning you into a sawhorse and that’s how you will live out the end of your days, as a pin cushion for a young angry homosexual boy. You’ll go through those adolescent years when he can get it up 15 times a day; your ass will feel like a red jalapeno pepper—
At this the crowd—group conversation—moaned and called for a time out. Laughter and moaning at the imagined pair.
“Not so fast.” This was Jack, a former claims adjuster. Jack said, “Let’s say, for whatever reason, you have chosen for your Desert Island companion our fat ugly woman. And let’s say in your arrogance you haven’t been able to touch her—even on the Desert Island. What if the hardships of island life makes your fat ugly woman slim down. Turns out she’d got great cans. She slims down to reveal a great bod with breasts like a pair of otters coming at you. But then this now stacked goddess remembers. She remembers that you almost rejected her for the boy outright. She remembers that you really didn’t want to be on the Desert Island with her. She remembers that you didn’t touch her for years. She then takes her knockers over to the other side of the island. She’s healthy now, mentally and physically (and stacked) and she hates your guts because you sat on the island and ignored her all those years. Now she’s looking great but she hates your guts. Maybe she wants to kill you. That’s it. To entertain herself, to pass time, she plots out how to murder you. Or maybe she’ll agree to do it but she only agrees to do it if she can chain you to a tree and whip you with branches or something.”
At this the knot of ex-addicts laughed and shook their heads and dispersed and called out good night to each other.
On his way to his room Joffrey noticed Willard’s door was open. Willard was a Special Ed teacher with a large gray walrus moustache. He seemed perpetually wounded. He didn’t like small talk. He always wanted to get real heavy right off the bat. Joffrey slightly paused at Willard’s door and Willard, sitting in a folding chair, the only chair in his room, was off:
“The mystery of my life is why the rich don’t treat the poor better in Latin America. You can’t account for it, Joffrey. I joined the Peace Corps when I was young; I was a few years younger than you with a BA in math and a teaching certificate. I was sent to the Central American border of Nacosta and El Chingo. They wanted me to help do a survey of water tables in a very poor area. I didn’t understand such poverty then and I don’t understand it now. It left an invisible railroad spike in my skull all these years; it’s been over forty years. The rural dirt roads were a joke, the heavy rains carved them up like Swiss cheese. But I traveled by motor bike through the nearly impassable countryside surrounding a small volcanic chain. There was often no electricity or if the village was close enough to a sugar refinery then they might have a single cable like a ratty shoelace looping through the village. The kids, I can never forget the kids. They were beautiful and dirty, some wore no pants, some walked around stark naked. Some were starving. There were no schools and most had to work cutting or loading sugar cane or whatever seasonal crop needed harvesting. They were all hungry. A few lucky ones had shoes. So here is a village built on eroded humps of hard dirt. The houses were dirt brick with thatched roofs. But get this: many of the houses held priceless Mayan antiquities within. The fathers clinked them up with their machetes while digging in the fields. Beautifully carved whistles or small masks, maybe thousands of years old; going back to the time of the Mayans. Once I tried to talk to a couple fathers of the kids running around with these priceless ancient artifacts but they didn’t want to give them up. They had been approached before. They had some idea of their value. I did not want to be a colonialist ogre so I didn’t push it.
Before long I went to the nearest Catholic church and tried to talk to the priest about conditions in the village and he agreed to help me. He was a Spaniard and talked with a Madrid accent and I wondered if he felt he was living way back in the colonial days. Surely he knew that his parish was destitute? I gave most of my Peace Corps wages to the families and I tried to organized a once-a-week clinic, going to fetch a doctor from the nearest town about three hours away. I became the nurse, taking names and keeping records and learning to give shots and set up IVs. The women in their 20s looked like 50 and those in their 30s like 60s. It was ghastly and I didn’t understand it. At the clinic one afternoon a young soldier appeared in the doorway. He was super friendly and looked all around and smiled and shook my hand a few times. He had a machine pistol strapped across his back. He came back the next week but without smiles or handshakes and told me to follow him. He took me to a small police shack about 20 minutes away. I was shown a bare cement floor with an electric battery and poles and I’m not ashamed to admit I shit my pants. I wasn’t tortured but I was roughed up and told where to get off. So much for the water land table study that the Peace Corps had contracted me for. My superiors moved me to the nearest big town to teach statistics at a university extension campus.
In the town I remember beautiful girls, like coming upon a clutch of perfect black berries or huckleberries in late summer. Each one aglow and perfect to the eyes. I didn’t screw around with any of my students; you would be surprised at how circumspect young men can be, at a time of peak lust, when they give themselves to ideals. I was there to help and not to exploit. But she, Mercedes, came up to me when I was waiting for my motorcycle to get fixed, she was my mechanic’s niece, and she offered me coffee. Wow. She had a smile like a honey pot and nothing a young man could keep his hands off of.
She worked in a candy factory and I would pick her up on my motorcycle after her evening shift. She was poor but she had manners and naturally wanted to shower after work but I told her no. The air conditioning wasn’t all that great at the factory. And she sweated and her skin had a fine film almost like cotton candy, a film of sugar. I remember sucking all the sweetness off her skin, everywhere at night. I licked all the sugary sweat from her tits, her body. She was embarrassed about her tits because she had had a daughter. She thought they had been discolored and misshapen; that was my first inkling of the private thoughts of man and woman kind. Here I thought I was in paradise and she was feeling all self-conscious about her titties. When you really dip into the intimacies of men and women they are much sadder and harder on themselves than you can imagine.
Meantime I hadn’t forgot about the village and my clinic project. At the university I introduced myself to some students at the faculty of medicine and made arrangements for them to visit the clinic. I would loan them my motorcycle and pay them a stipend from my Peace Corps salary. Things went swimmingly for about a month before a government judiciale and a low-level functionary from the American Embassy showed up at the university with an airplane ticket and a lifetime invitation not to visit the country again. The government judiciale was your standard-issue police goon. These guys are easily recognizable wherever governments have their thumbs on the national windpipe: the shirt is one size too big, the coat a size too small and the pants an inch too short. Their shoes are invariably clodhopping, easy men to laugh at but they are lethal and they wear a perpetual scowl when forced away from their comfort zone of the torture cell. He drifted between anger and depression that he couldn’t fry my balls with a tractor battery. The embassy drone, a kid with tab collars, pimples and a cowlick, kept the judiciale goon on a leash and scolded me for getting involved in local politics. You’re not here to get involved in politics, he kept repeating.
I didn’t get to say goodbye to Mercedes. I don’t want to be like so many addicts and blame loss for dope. I won’t demean something so beautiful. Dope just happens; Mercedes was a sparkling miracle. If I were to see her again and even if she were worn and misshapen with age I would fall on her with love, the love that fills the universe and gives me those days of grace, my best days, when I dream of Mercedes and her sugary tits and dream of licking sugar off her everywhere.”
August 17th, 2010 § § permalink
Fontina put down the literary insert and looked up at Joffrey. “Why,” she said. “The Pig Latin Koran tells me that you are not a naïf. I know you’re not malicious but why does this strike me as a bit malicious.”
She peered into the literary insert and read:
“Osay esethay, ityay aymay ebay, Allahyay illway ardonpay emthay, andyay Allahyay isyay Ardoningpay, Orgivingfay. Andyay oeverwhay iesflay inyay Allah’syay ayway, ehay illway indfay inyay ethay earthyay anymay ayay—“
“The Koran in Pig Latin. God, that gives me a headache.” She set the paper on the table. “That’s got to go over big with the Muslim Student
“I won’t apologize,” Joffrey said.
“I didn’t ask you to apologize. I just asked why.”
Fontina observed Joffrey in his silence. He was sitting at her kitchen table flipping a fork between his fingers. Fontina said, “Any particular reason you’re wearing your ass on your shoulders?”
Joffrey fought down the smile with a morose expression. “The other night the commander made a cryptic remark about my Korans. I didn’t pursue it but it bugged me. He said I called in an airstrike on myself—he’s big on the Vietnam lingo. So now everybody’s got to jump on me about this? I thought I was living in the big city? This is like back home. Everyone knows how many times a day you yawn or pick your nose.”
“Poor baby. If you’re going to sell fireworks, don’t you expect they’ll go off at some point?”
“Don’t go all racial on me,” Joffrey said. ” Heap big stand. M-80s and all that. Plenty bottle rocket.”
“Oh. Funny,” said Fontina. “Boom City. I didn’t even think of that. I don’t even think of you as Indian. I mean in that way.” Fontina startled herself. Did she just say that? She had heard that very comment from whites as the epitome of interpersonal trust: I don’t even think of you as black, Fontina! Joffrey knew she was processing all this and he was enjoying it. He folded his hands behind his head and stuck out his elbows and leaned back in his chair. She was upset with herself. They stayed like this for a minute, she, chopping carrots silently, he, leaning back smugly. Then Joffrey went to her.
“Joffrey love heap big racist buffalo girl.” Their arms went around each other.
Only Joffrey knew that he wasn’t so much Indian as he was just poor. What was an Indian anyway? A kid with eight uncles who tormented him ceaselessly but somehow loved him and saw him grow up straight, more or less. Let the whites attach great significance to his 1/16th or 1/32nd Indian-ness, special powers, sensitivity to the land, mystic wisdom of his Peoples. Joffrey knew it as meals missed, no water, sometimes no electricity, strange people walking in and out of his room day and night. Going over to a friend’s house at dinner time waiting for an invitation. Devouring a box of crackers for dinner. Finally when old enough, when the state came through the rez on sweeps, instead of saying everything’s fine when asked he said, “I’m hungry.”
At fourteen he went to live with a foster dad, a logger who needed the state money for a kid. He was a nice enough old guy but didn’t do extra; he only insisted on going to church but what could Joffrey do? At least he would eat regularly. His poor doped up sad mom. In his late teens he worked the mills, the old man got him work at a saw mill. The sort yard, the 60″ cutoff saw, the green chain, the log pond.
Joffrey knew he had been poor but the knowledge followed its own path, the way his skin darkened in summer, slowly at its own tempo. When he was eleven or twelve he got mad one morning when he realized there were never any clean towels in the house. He routinely dried off with the dirty clothes he had dropped on the bathroom floor before getting into the shower. One morning he got frustrated and tore up the tee-shirt he used to dry his back. He sat there on the bathroom floor and cried, not in self-pity, but because the tee-shirt only did half the job. He cried mutely and air-dried sitting on the floor.
Remembering the scene presented him the perfect opportunity to feel sorry for the kid that he was. But Joffrey laughed at him. He was glad that he tasted life in this way with some bitterness.
At the time he couldn’t explain his life but as a young man he thought his way through it. Poverty forces you into a too concrete relationship with things. The harsh “thinginess” of things tyrannizes you. The main thing has always got you by the throat. Joffrey remembered a famous writer saying, “Poverty doesn’t allow the poor to build abstractions which we need to blunt life’s corners.” The rich can waft in a soufflé of abstraction. When the rich lady came to drop off a new dryer or a new Sunbeam toaster (the good kind that could toast four slices at a time) or a bright, new power lawn mower Joffrey could not assemble the phrases and tones necessary to ask: could you please bring us some bath towels? Nor could anyone around him marshal the phrases that would battle their real situation. They would have had not to be poor in the first place to be able to form those sentences. Straightforwardness was strangled by monstrous detail. That is why he shredded his tee-shirt.
And maybe the specificity of Joffrey’s request would have been hard for the rich lady to grasp? The whole itemized chain of trying to keep clean linked so many unpleasant declensions. You would have had to bring in mom’s laziness, the blindness of her friends who knew of her laziness yet never bothered to scold her, the relatives who could have but never bothered to bring us towels, the broken washing machine, mom’s boyfriends who never took an interest in her broken appliances, the overflowing ashtrays, the swatch of butter on top of the stove. Furious details would crowd in and prevent a poor kid from declaring: could you please bring us some towels?
How much the rich must enjoy being rich. Airplane pilots are their busboys, science geniuses their waiters, scholars their butlers, technicians their house boys, detectives their masseuses. The language of social work might infect the vocabulary of the rich but they have no intention of giving up the track, the hunt, the lodge, the links, the boat, the private jet. Many of Highland City’s residents busied themselves with charity work. They gave out scholarships—look at Joffrey Simpson O’Day—and volunteered at soup kitchens during the holidays. They participated in fundraising drives and auctions. But they returned to an extravagance unseen by Sunbreak City’s poor—or anyone else.
Joffrey remembered elementary school, third or fourth grade, how the class would come upon the Indian part of Washington State History. There’s a photo of Governor Isaac Stevens with his combed beard and new suit and 19th century thin ribbon tie. On the opposite page the photos of Indians show them as mangy, bedraggled human shadows. Maybe they really were like that but photography took a long time back then. The photographer could have dressed and posed them. They would have had to sit for a long time while the film exposed. Anyway, there we sat in class with our textbooks before us. The class has gone strangely silent. As one, the class turns to look at Injun-in-Residence, Joffrey Simpson O’Day. They were quiet and they were embarrassed for me. Kids have their own economy of knowledge even though they might not have all the words at their disposal. But they accepted, childlike, what children accept: my ancestors were savages and theirs well-groomed settlers bent on doing the right thing.
One more story about silence and the cavity of race. I was about ten. We had played baseball at a church picnic and we were happy because, for once, none of the Indian or white or black or Mexican kids got in a fight. There were lots of adults around and they kept an eye on us but I think we were just happy to be kids and play for once without a bunch of crap. And we’d prayed over a great barbecue with corn on the cob and baked beans and berry pies for dessert. It just wasn’t fighting season. We all had a great time playing baseball and I made a good hit to center field and the guys respected me and cheered me and patted my back. Best of all my next time up at bat the coach on the other team hollered at his players to back up because he is a heavy hitter! I was feeling great. At the end of the day a family of rich folks—or they seemed rich to
me—the Monteros, I think they were Mexican—took me home. They had a little son about five or six who did not stop babbling the whole way even though his parents yelled at him. He could have been retarded, I can’t remember exactly. Anyway, when we turned the corner and rolled onto our street the car got quiet. I always hated that quiet: it meant I would be forced to learn something—usually something related to my difference. I remember thinking in the silence: I don’t want to learn anything. I don’t need any lessons. I just had a great day being a kid and playing softball. Nobody fought or said fuck you and we had a good lunch and everyone had a good time. But now the silence took over. I was about to say something—anything—to forestall what fate had in store for me, but, too late. As we pulled up in front of my house, mangy dogs and dirty kids and cars up on blocks appeared on the front lawn. I didn’t know where the Monteros lived but I knew they didn’t live on a street like this or in a house like ours. We pulled near the house and I think my uncle was sitting in a beach chair listening to the ball game on the radio. The house looked scorched; the paint was all scraped off because we were going to repaint the house. Supposedly. It wasn’t just the paint it was everything: the stretch of chicken wire, the broken, sun-faded toy, the unmowed lawn, the gutter hanging down, the bent up chain link fence, the gray windows, the junky junk of the poor piled against the side of the house. Even the leaves of the trees seemed dirty. The car slowed and after I said right here the little one of the family yelled out, “Look what a crummy house!” I heard the father and mother groan and scold the little one and try to apologize to me but I scampered out of the car, a station wagon, as fast as I could because on top of
everything I couldn’t let them see me cry on top of everything else. I couldn’t even get mad at the little one; he was just a recording angel thinking the whole world’s thoughts, passing the whole world’s judgment upon me and my mom’s family. They drove off. I dried my tears on my sleeve and my uncle mumbled something at me. I wiggled through my pain by thinking that this wasn’t my house and wasn’t it a good thing I was my father’s son and wouldn’t he be coming by soon to pick me up in his big red Peterbilt truck and wouldn’t he prop me up on a pillow like he did when I was seven and we would go through the mountains and the deserts and he would take me away from all this but of course
he never came.
Joffrey had been summoned by his benefactress, Pamela Prefontaine. Locally when you received a Pamela Prefontaine Scholarship everyone congratulated you on your “Pammy.” A “Pammy” was a big deal inside or out of academia. Recipients were summoned by Pamela and they always went.
Pamela Prefontaine lived in an exclusive enclave at the northern edge of Sunbreak City called Highland City whose founding went back to the time of the first white settlers. Very few outsiders were ever allowed into Highland City. This would be Joffrey’s first visit.
To get to Highland City Joffrey had to turn off the freeway and drive north for a mile or so on Marginal Way. Before the interstate freeways were poured Marginal Way was the main North-South thoroughfare connecting all towns, large and small, from Canada to the Mexican border. Marginal Way still featured some the big vulgar signage of its festive post-World War II years: gas stations with shark-toothed P-40s parked on the roofs, Car washes with pink elephants as mascots, towing companies sporting a big human toe in their signs, restaurants built-in the shape of giant teepees or cowboy hats with tall cowboy boots (the heels) serving as bathrooms—anything to snag a car’s attention. It had since devolved into a commercial strip catering to American passions freed from the grip of religion or politics. See for yourself: Horne’s Vacuum Cleaner Repair, Bleitz Scuba Gear, Nordstrom Headstone and Statuary, Rudy’s Records, Keck’s Ice Arena, Everclear Cemetery, Butch’s Guns N’ Ammo, Pearl’s Love Shop, Binky’s Scrapyard, the Yes Motel, Danny’s Driving Range, Marginal Used Car (Your Job is Your Credit!), Acme Exterminator, Marginal Massage, Eric’s Trailer Park, The Totem Pole Inn, Bill & Sue Tattoo. Finally Joffrey’s favorite (and here is where Joffrey made a left turn to enter Highland City): Dwayne’s Plumbing Supply beaming its thirty-foot tall, red neon toilet plunger.
The thoroughfare receded as Joffrey entered a narrow paved driveway bounded by immense hemlock and cedar trees. He was stopped or greeted by a striped wooden slat extending from a small one-man guard shack. An elderly man wearing a Green Filson mackinaw over a complete khaki work uniform came out of the shack and talked to Joffrey through the open passenger window. The man seemed to know all about his appointment with Pamela. The slat went up and Joffrey drove his navy blue 1965 Ford Falcon into Highland City. He was disappointed the old man wasn’t a gnarled old troll that demanded Joffrey answer a few Life-or-Death riddles—like gatekeepers in fairy tales. Answer ye must, or ye shall not pass!
What falls but never gets hurt?
What has teeth but can’t bite?
What kind of room has no walls, no floors and no ceiling?
What about the six “l” house?
The rooms were wallless the house was hallless.
The lane was wide enough for about one and a half cars. It had been recently paved and it seemed more a driveway than a road. A dense wooded area canopied the road and Joffrey was startled by the number of large, perhaps first growth, cedar trees. To either side houses began to blend in with the trees. He drove slowly so he could take it all in. It wasn’t just the contrast of crass Marginal Way vs. the sylvan woodlands of Highland City. He was seeing something for the first time. Houses, yes, he was seeing “houses” but the word didn’t really apply. These were castles, palaces, mansions. Immense, wide, gabled, towering, many were long as a city block. Sunbreak City didn’t lack for rich neighborhoods but this was construction like he had ever seen. They would have been built by first and second generation Sunbreak City pioneers in all the favorite end-of-the-19th-century styles: Romanesque Revival, Queen Anne Revival, Victorian Stick, Tudor. Why had he never seen nor heard of these amazing houses before? What was the reason for all this gigantism?
The super-fat, wedge-rooted, first-growth cedar trees bothered him. He thought the only first growth left in the state was on remote Indian land. To his left Elliott Bay widened and narrowed beyond the trees and houses. Joffrey spotted an occasional smaller abode to the side of some colossus, a mother-in-law perhaps, or a guest cabana, all modern angles and glass. Otherwise, mansions, gargantuan and beyond his architectural vocabulary to describe, dominated the view.
Mansions, castles, palaces, elongated structures, big as warehouses, big as entire school buildings. “Holy shit,” Joffrey whispered to himself.
Driving slowly, Joffrey felt the locking and unlocking of a question pinch somewhere between his neck and shoulder blades: The early pioneers had sectioned off for themselves this juicy, chunk of prime-rib, cliff side real estate. Upon it they built shrines to unbounded opulence–opulence to rival any such in history. Then they drew a mental and physical boundary to keep out the common people. Were they conquerors or settlers?
What commanding, conquering people in history had not boasted its wealth through public display? Joffrey pondered the strange cruelty that dwelt at the heart of this new world. Ancient Thebes? Even Homer had to exclaim, “…the heaps of precious ingots gleam, the hundred-gated Thebes.” The Acropolis. Or Xerxes winged Lion-gates at Persepolis. The library palace of Ashurbanipal. Or the pyramids for God’s sake. The stair-temples of the Aztecs and Mayas. Each construction an aggressive showpiece battling human transience. Whence this odd cruelty—the Sunbreak City rich burying their light in the woods?
Through a clearing Joffrey spied a golf green along with its little red flag. The place had its own golf course. Joffrey smiled at this. He wasn’t sure why. Then he saw an Episcopal church. He slowed to look at it: Saint Luke’s. It was a comparatively modest structure. Done up in—what else?—Oxfordian medieval quarry stone. Their own embedded church. Now Joffrey laughed. A cliché visible from the moon. It humanized the bastards, thank God. All the money in the world won’t free your mind from cliché. You’ve got to work at it. You’ve got to become a literary man, like me, a reader.
He saw the bank of red rhododendrons. That was his cue. Take a left. Follow the long driveway. Presently he arrived at the massive front or back door of a massive house. “Welcome to Casa Prefontaine,” Joffrey sang to himself as he parked the Falcon. He was intimidated, he wasn’t afraid to admit. The house was yet another city block-long structure, Victorian Stick, and both ends were mounted with rounded, castle-like watchtowers. It would have consumed the high-grade timber of a small mountain at construction. A giraffe might feel lost in such an edifice. Its stained and beveled glass glinted within an intricate latticed facade. He rang the doorbell.
Pamela herself answered, wearing flats and floppy casual clothes much like a painter’s smock but without the paint splotches. White hair, wrinkled, a big smile, he could never tell if the teeth of the elderly were real or fake. She seemed to be of that sensitive patrician class that really does read through coffee table books. In any case she smiled at Joffrey and her smile seemed genuine.
“Sit here.” Pamela waved him into a large leather chair. “This is where all the powerful men or men who will be powerful sit,” she said. “Presidents, two of them have sat here. Lots of politicians, scholars, writers, artists. They all pass through here eventually.”
“And scholarship students?” Joffrey volunteered.
“And scholarship students.” She laughed. “Now tell me what you’re up to. How is school? What great and good things are you doing? I want to know.”
Pamela would have been a babe in youth. Her high cheekbones still gave her face a regal profile. And to her great credit she refused a warping facelift. Through a tempest of wrinkles Joffrey recognized youthful eyes.
Between them stood a small and exquisite table, circular with molded rims to keep expensive china from sliding off. Joffrey sensed that everything in Pamela’s house might be exquisite; he was swirling in invisible millions. The table was a couple hundred years old and would have come from the Boston branch of the Prefontaines. It would have been shipped by ocean, around Chile to San Francisco and to Sunbreak City. An antique, coffee-brown, Queen Anne circular cherry wood tea-table. Indian languages and cultures disappear; the tea-table goes on.
The exchange of pleasantries that began at the door went on but Joffrey had seized up. All the gigantism and Pamela’s flowing largesse was getting to him. For the first time he had some clue about the imponderables of Indian-ness—which he had mostly given up on. He used to joke to himself that an Indian was any kid with eight uncles who tormented him incessantly while growing up. Now he knew that an Indian was anyone with the sensitivity to be destroyed by this level of avarice. It wasn’t Gatling guns that conquered the Indians of the Pacific Northwest. It was this bottomless avarice of the whites—an avarice so powerful it smothered the ancient impulse of the rich to brag.
He thought of his uncles, their drunken crying fits, their strange bluster and un-talked about heroism in war, their supposed hardness; their sudden tenderness and rocketing anger that could spin out into crazed killing. And a strange lack of tension. Is that what happens when your ancestors go back thirty thousand years? Otherwise Americans of all shades were by definition tense.
Joffrey, for his part, had to move about. He couldn’t sit still. He stood up and wandered out of the front room, crying and not hiding it. He didn’t know where he was going. He didn’t know the house but he felt permission was granted. Nothing was going to stop him. He walked down a long hallway not bothering to check the pictures, not wanting to wipe his eyes to see if the Kandinskys and Miros and Tobys and Pollacks were really them. He knew they were. He walked past the accumulated treasure of four generations of Prefontaine’s. He knew the Ming vase was real and probably freshly dug up as with the original Olmec stone heads on walnut table stands. All real. He understood too that he could smash all this and Pammy would do nothing; he knew that she was opening herself, making herself vulnerable to him, so he wandered into yet another sitting room, another dining room, a small kitchen, a guest bedroom and finally a set of stairs, not main stairs, probably servants’ stairs. He followed them up and found himself on a second floor landing with many closed doors and a long Persian runner for a rug (the super rich didn’t believe wall-to-wall carpeting unless it was carpet nobody would be permitted to walk on). Joffrey tried the doors but they were mostly empty bedrooms, all correct and spare. He came upon a super narrow paneled door fit for only one thin person. He rubbed his eyes on his shirt front. He opened the narrow door and saw that it was a bathroom, a sink and a toilet against the wall with just enough space to bend over in. It featured a long high vertical window that looked out over a spectacular view of the bay. This was some kind of joke of the builder or architect. The view was pitched just right: the top of the house opened between the birch trees surrounding the property. The joke, of course, the mix of earthly and the celestial in one coffin-sized space. Joffrey took a seat and shat. The toilet paper, he noticed, was as rich and thick as cotton hand-towels. The hand towels were as thick and rich as down blankets. Presumably Pamela’s down blankets would be as rich and thick as bear rugs. The bay was mostly gloomy except for a privileged swatch that sparkled metallic and friendly in the middle of the scene.
Back in the hallway, Joffrey wandered and stopped and then shuffled to the railing of a staircase. It was a winding nautilus thing and he took it down. Pricey frames—Bonnard’s rainbow textures, Cézanne’s inward nymphs, Picasso’s orbs and angles—tracked his descent.
On the main floor again, he steered himself or his vexation steered him into a final room at the far end of the hall. It was a museum of Pacific Northwest Native American artifacts. Macaw masks, straw hats, argillite carvings. Pammy’s great grandfather, Hiram Prefontaine, would have gathered these. He came to Washington territory as a young accountant, originally from Boston. There are historic journal descriptions of him sitting in a dugout hollering at Indian oarsmen in their own language while they, in turn, laughed and splashed at him with their oars. He got the last laugh. He knew, with his dollar-sharp eyes, the value of those hand-carved oars, not to mention the finely woven straw hats (so fine they could hold water) and purses, the clay pots and the large store of bone fish hooks, each as precise and beautiful as a hummingbird.
Finally Joffrey strayed back into the presence of Pamela. Their telepathic conversation continued.
Now I understand, Joffrey beamed in thought. Now I understand the sadness and remoteness of my Indian relatives. They thought they had done enough just by surviving, getting another generation delivered. They didn’t have much left over. After the white man muscled in they checked out through booze and dope or whatever. It wasn’t soldiers or Gatling guns that finished them off. It was this bottomless greed. They—his ancestors—knew they did not possess the imagination or wherewithal to hoard at this scale. So the Indians walked away. Call it surrender. Every surrender is a gift; the handing over of a world.
The break and flow of this knowledge felt so easy, so ready to Joffrey. Didn’t everyone know it? No, you had to experience Highland City.
Joffrey reflected that even in Latin America where the rich grind it into the poor every day stacking the tops of their exterior walls with jagged broken glass. At least they promenade their wealth. At least they let the poor know exactly how miserable they are. At least the poor know what they must do to prevail.
Joffrey searched Pamela’s face for bottomless avarice and saw none. Pamela would have been a babe in youth. To her credit she had refused to get a face lift. Past a tempest of wrinkles Joffrey perceived her youthful eyes.
“Thank you for coming today,” Pamela said.
All bad-boy, lip-curled, churlishness, had burned out of him. “I want to thank you,” he said. He wanted to be in Sunbreak City. Pamela’s largesse had done this.
He wanted to ask her: How could you wall yourselves off from your fellow citizens, not to mention Native Americans? How could you deny them exposure to what you achieved? Houses one block long or houses only a half block long? Houses exquisite in detail, in material, in construction, houses rich in ideas?
The real robbery of the poor, Joffrey knew, was the robbery of knowledge. By sequestering their wealth in the private enclave of Highland City, Sunbreak City’s overly rich withheld visions of what her citizens could do concretely—in their own city. Even ancient kings of old were not selfish such as to hide their opulence in this way. It was this vision of the white man’s greed that got to them. The Indians must have told themselves, no matter what, we will not be like you.
As for Pamela, Joffrey didn’t know what to say. He liked her. She was a former babe. She had, he divined, known his reaction in advance. She trusted me not to kill her, not to cut her throat in my remorse. No guards, no dogs, no large sons, no cameras. Just Pammy surrounded by expensive objects from all nations and all times.