Poetry Feature: Monica Berlin
Featuring the poems:
- About the Nurse in Ob-Gyn
- Updike Arrives in Peoria, the City of Vowels
- The Alphabet
- Rome, Winter 1967
About the Nurse in Ob-Gyn
The lobby is packed with expecting
husbands who pull toddlers
up onto their laps, while I wait, empty.
When my name is called, she walks
me down the long corridor framed
with pictures of babies’
birthdays, diagrams of each
trimester’s developing, weary photographed
mothers, scrawled notes of thanks
pinned to the walls.
Later, this same woman pumps my arm,
fingers my wrist, asks how old
I am now, as if the question itself will edge
forward the hands of my body’s need.
I swear she mumbles old enough, leaning
all of herself toward me—her child-bearing
hips, her healthy stoic frame,
her earrings that scrape along
her clavicle—across the desk to where
I perch. Before I can answer
she wonders aloud whether I’m going
to fill that prescription again. She doesn’t
know I rehearsed this part
with my dose of morning coffee.
Even thought to pour a shot of whiskey
deep in the cup. Some proof of my resolve.
She doesn’t know something keeps
collapsing. Hasn’t she ever
had nightmares of children
she’s never conceived: hands
scrubbed to bone, reaching
through an incubator’s latex
mouth, past feeding tubes
and pulsing monitors to touch
the one-inch feet, the neonatal
glow? She turns her back
while I slip into the paper gown,
while I guide my feet
into the stirrups, tells me
about those women who leave
mugs on the roofs of their cars
and drive away. Never notice.
Would leave a baby seat too, she says,
facing me with the accusation—
the thousand mistakes I’ve never made.
Updike Arrives in Peoria, the City of Vowels
Just as I’m telling my students how,
in 1939, a speech pathologist in Iowa
trained twenty-two orphans to stutter.
My own mouth cannot utter the words
those children were never untaught.
That our tongues naturally miscalculate
fricatives, or the spaces between,
seems wretched enough, to all of us.
For the luncheon with Updike, I send
that shy boy from my morning class.
Hand over a first edition to have signed
in case, overcome by his own twitching,
he isn’t brave enough to speak.
When he returns what filled his arms,
he sputters out that every wall was a door
in the sterile room where he waited.
He thought Updike would appear
from behind one of them.
I haven’t the heart to tell him
no writer is that kind of magician.
Especially not after this day of talk upturns
Updike’s shirt collar. Creases
his throat. Swallows all those years
of practiced consonants that do not repeat.
But this boy already knows what I cannot
seem to teach, even myself: if behind every door,
in any room, the perfect shape of language
were placed on a shelf just above our heads,
always in reach, how each word would stammer
its way out into the night, weighted and sweet.
Even that boy knew
what she didn’t: sometimes
we write in the dark, on the loose
leaf flaps of ourselves,
and when the heated shower
sloughs our story off, we have to
But this is about her—a girl
who cant keep herself
from scribbling, who rids
her apartment and purse of all paper
and, like an addict, lights
every last wood product on fire
in someone else’s backyard
metal drum. Without,
she has no choice and begins
to cover herself with a sort of
watermark pressed into her
body’s parchment. Takes a job
at a library as a shelver,
a mere page, because more
than anything she likes to eye
the stone lions that flank
the entrance steps. There,
the only books she touches
are the ones people check out
or the even lonelier ones that never
check out. When she has no skin
left to write on, she paints
a love story with something
in a water-based can onto
the lions’ bellies. When
rain washes the animals’
tattoos away, I half-pray
she’ll start tearing
onionskin from unread volumes
or scrawling the margins of sacred
first editions, because I wanted her,
like me, to surrender to alphabets.
To languages she didn’t know.
To words she’d never heard. Instead,
she takes a lover—. I have to
put the story down.
Didn’t she see that ink dresses
everything around us-quickly penned
notes on hands or phrases like Forever
Harley across the biker’s chest
or a postcard’s wish I were there
imprinted in memory? How could she not
know that boy I wanted to love
introduced himself, saying I keep words
beneath my clothes?
Rome, Winter 1967
There were secrets to be explained,
some kind of mystery. On the ledge
of their rooftop veranda, my mother
is twenty-five, dressed all in kitten-black
but for the checkered scarf
at her neck, perched-one leg
crossed over the other-at the edge
My father never cared about seeing her
in clothes like this or how she looked
so young. But the older men at the bar,
their teeth sometimes missing,
made her feel welcome. Taught her
to drink Frascati in short chubby glasses.
Called her bella. Told my father
she was bambola. He only knew
enough of the language to nod.
She must’ve understood, having spent
those first years learning to be
newlywed alone in this foreign place:
buying pane on the street,
haggling over slightly bruised
produce at the corner ortolano,
saving each last coin to afford
carta da lettere for long notes
home. When I untuck
the yellowing snapshot again,
first discovered and torn
from the pages of her scrapbook
when I was just a girl, I still can’t
get close enough. On the photo’s back,
in the same hand I recognize
from birthday cards, to-do lists,
envelope corners, she scrawled
Anne in knee socks at 25!? Ira wanted
a little leg. After the divorce,
after his funeral, even now, I turn
it over, trying to decipher
what hadn’t translated. My father,
half-blindness hidden behind his thick
frames, the camera’s lens, stands
too far away. Always.
And before she pressed it
between the leaves of another
letter to the States, where she never
once complained, she thinks to notice
the scenery: how nice and green
everything still is, even in December,
disappearing behind her.
This foreword is not currently available online.
This story is not currently available online.
These things happen: my husband asks me for a divorce, and the next morning the pond is gone. He comes rushing into the bedroom that he didn’t sleep in last night, where I lie facing the wall, finally asleep after crying my goddamn eyes out all night–can you imagine asking someone for a divorce?
Wired for Life
JANIE MET THE ELECTRICIAN Charlie Song in August. The AC adapter to her laptop had frayed, and the connection kept failing. Thus, she was forced to jiggle the plug until the current returned, at which point she would have to remain very still for many minutes at a time—she worked with the laptop on her actual lap, which was ridiculous, she knew, pathetic, but there you had it-lest the sadistic plug icon disappear and the machine revert to battery mode, which was supposed to last six hours but which ran down (and this Janie had timed) in seventeen and a half minutes. It was a little like being a hostage.
Charlie Song’s shop was on a stretch of Mass Avenue that was constantly being torn up. Great chunks of asphalt lay about, while men in hard hats and dirty shirts murmured into cell phones. They were hostages, too, though they seemed somewhat liberated by their proximity to loud and senseless destruction.
Inside the shop, dozens of computers had been disemboweled. The remains were so: dusty circuit boards, magnets, stripped screws, woofers like little black eggcups. Keyboards dangled from their cords. Had Torquemada worked in the high-tech medium, this would have been his style.
From the back of the shop, Charlie Song emerged, weaving through the lifeless monitors. He was middle-aged, the color of a weak varnish. He smiled, shyly, as if embarrassed by the size of his teeth.
You need help?
Janie said yes and began to explain her situation, rather too elaborately, while Charlie Song nodded and blinked.
Right, Janie said.
Charlie played the plug between the tips of his fingers. He licked his lips.
Okay. We try. Thursday.
Oh no, Janie said. I mean, if there’s any possible way, see, all my work is on the computer, I’m a designer and I’ve got these projects, deadlines, so if there’s any way, I could even wait—
Charlie nodded. It was a complex nod, one that seemed utterly to dismiss Janie’s words and yet somehow (was it the mournful aversion of the eyes, the slightly injured stoop?) to acknowledge the panic behind them. He carried the adapter to his work table.
A pair of pliers appeared in his hand. With these he snipped the cord and peeled back the black casing to expose the wires. The spot where the connection had frayed looked like a tiny copper fright wig. Charlie gazed at it and let out a sigh and played at the filaments with rib. Then he turned on the ancient contraption—something like a whisk—at the center of his table.
Is that a welder? Janie said.
Charlie Song said, Sadder.
Sadder. Sadder gun.
Janie wanted to ask him what did he mean, sadder gun? She had head of a warm gun, a Gatling gun, even a love gun—and now she thought of Drew, her beautiful boyfriend, whose beautiful love gun she would not be sucking this evening, nor receiving inside her with delicious slow-and-hurried difficulty, but which would, instead, lie tremendous and pink across his thigh while she quietly pleasured herself and wept, there in the dark, quietly. Charlie pulled a spool of silver from his desk drawer, and right there on the label was the word he had been trying to say: solder.
He grazed the shaft of the gun against an old sponge and listened to the feint hiss. The tip came against the thread, and the solder dissolved into a shiny glob and released a coil of white smoke. Charlie touched at the glob with great tenderness. It was a tricky business, coaxing the wet solder into the space where the wires had come apart. The muscles between his knuckles tensed. His tongue dabbed, a bit rakishly, at his upper lip.
Janie felt she should use the occasion to learn a new skill. She might her own adapter the next time it broke. But there was something else. It dawned on her, as Charlie gently replaced the solder its holster and pressed the fused wires to the ohmmeter and watched the needles happily bounce, that she was … how to put this? Well, there was no other way—the flush of blood, the sudden moist warmth and down-below pulse—turned on.
* * *
He was so precise, Janie said. Like a surgeon.
Drew nodded. Isn’t it amazing, he said, how hypnotizing the simplest repetitive motions can be? I used to watch my grandpa whittle for hours.
He took a bite of fried dumpling, and Janie gazed at his glistening lips, the boyish enthusiasm of his chewing, and at his sideburns, which she’d had to beg him to grow out. They looked devastating.
Yeah, it was like he had this touch, you know. Janie paused. Almost like a sensual thing.
She wanted to elaborate, wanted this terribly, but Drew had stopped chewing. His eyes began to narrow with dread, and she knew that anything more she said would be construed as an unacknowledged passive-aggressive attack because Drew didn’t happen to feel comfortable expressing himself physically. Or as Janie sometimes put it after a glass of wine with friends: he refuses to fuck me.
Three years before, when she and Drew had met, this had not been an issue. They’d had sex then, not as much as she would have liked (never as much as she would have liked), but she felt this was somehow only fair because he was so beautiful, after all, even his cock was beautiful, venous, unwavering, with its soft swollen head like an Italian plum, and she so thrilled to the music of his body and the sweet painful inconvenience of love between them, and told herself that such gifts were not to be gone at greedily. He was a good lover, too, generous in the modern fashion, determined to bring her off, though he tended to shy from his own pleasure.
All of which memorialized the occasions when he slid come, when he would let her suck or stroke to the end, the prodigious and sticky end, which wrenched him free of his poise and brought the blood to his skin and the ooze of him down her chin or thighs and the final weepy shuddering. He held her so violently in these moments, she felt sure he would crush her ribs, that they would perish together, ecstatic and doomed.
Drew was starting in on the cashew chicken, asking her if she wanted green tea. It’s good for the lymphatic system, he said, gesturing with the pot. His eyes were so lambent, Janie wanted to poke one with a chopstick.
Whatever it was, the danger of vulnerability, some past trauma, a chemical deficit—whatever—the sex had diminished. He had grown more and more uncomfortable with contact, until she wasn’t allowed to touch him in suggestive places at all; his body would go cold and flat. She finally convinced him to attend couples therapy with Dr. Dumas, who spoke with great fluency about libido dynamics and intimacy paradigms and asked them to engage in tummy therapy (circle the lower abdomen, please, with just the tips of the thumbs), a ritual they both considered so humiliating that they had agreed, without actually discussing the matter, to stop seeing her.
Now Janie worried this topic, the Drew-won’t-fuck-me-touch-me topic, all the time, on the phone, to her friends, and when she hung up the cuff of her ear hurt. They always told her the same thing: get out, get out, get out. Or: have an affair, call an old boyfriend, that one who used to play in the new wave band, just to see, you’ve got to. They pleaded with her, keened at her, and she agreed with them, made little vows and planned her speech. But then she would actually see Drew, the cleft in his chin and the long, elegant hands, and this would completely fuck her up.
She was becoming a person she hated.
Besides, her friends, with their chintzy Cosmo-girl-empowerment shtick—she had seen them in Drew’s presence, the way they fussed and preened and found excuses to touch him. Is that a new watch? I never noticed that freckle. Once she had walked in on a scene in which Margo and Ali seemed to be asking Drew if he had ever seen their nipples, and would he like to, a charge they denied with much forced laughter.
Janie was a set designer. It was her job to make things look perfect, and that was at least part of the problem. Drew looked perfect. When they entered a party, there was always a brief hush, a flurry of swung necks and murmurs.
On Sunday mornings, he sat in the bay window with his tea and his cat, a stray he had named Clawed Rains, and the sun scrolled down his face, and Janie tried to determine if she would still love him if she were blind, and the answer was, well, she was pretty sure. Drew was funny and self-deprecating, and he could dance, he was graceful. (Often, as she set about a new design, she would envision Drew waltzing her under the house lights.) There was a decency about him. He designed curricula for at-risk kids, a little tiresome on the subject, yes, but committed. Noble.
But the point, the point, she wasn’t blind, thank God, and oh, dear God, he was good looking. He was another species. He was Elvis, Elvis in his soldier days, with the Egyptian profile and the crew cut, only Drew was pale and something Janie wanted to call ruddy, kind of pink and splotched, which sounded bad, but on him, on his particular person, his face, and the veins that stood out on his inner arms, and his calves and his muscled strawberry of an ass…
He was Scottish. Andrew Coletart, Drew. His people were ugly people, the Coletarts, mule-faced and benevolent. Every time Janie looked at Mrs. Coletart (whom she privately thought of as Mrs. Muletart), she thought: how could this be? How could this creature have sprung from your loins?
This was how she managed the whole affair: she relied on her own shame, her inexhaustible shame, and converted his rejection into something bearable by assuming that she was at fault, that she’d pushed too hard for his love or wasn’t pretty enough for him or smelled funny. He had asked her once why she didn’t wear perfume more, and now she was convinced that she smelled funny, funny down there, and washed obsessively and even douched, and it was odd, really, because her old boyfriend, not the new wave bassist but the one who taught preschool and whose fingers smelled of paste, he had told her how good she tasted, like the juice of tulips, and insisted that she taste herself on his tongue, and yeah, it was hokey—the juice of tulips, Christ—but every time he said it she felt a damp surge.
Drew had cleared the dishes and set a bowl of ice cream down in front of her. It looked like a lump of wet rust. Red bean, he said helpfully. He was into themed meals. Do you want hot fudge, babe? I can heat some.
Janie knew somewhere inside her that Drew loathed himself or didn’t really love her enough or was gay (themed meals?). But this part of her remained unconnected to the other part, which gazed at him, in his beauty and bearable kindness, and told herself to settle down if he didn’t want to hump for a while and quit being such a trollop.
In October the adapter began fritzing out again. Janie spent a week jiggling the cord and remaining frozen until some motion, a tic, a yawn, a sneeze, would cut the connection and she would curse very quietly, or sometimes louder, and once she even shoved Clawed Rains hard enough to send him thudding against the entertainment center.
Back she went to Charlie Song, but she arrived too early and had to stand on the sidewalk and watch the road crew, still joyously ripping up the street. One of the men straddled a jackhammer and flipped a switch, and suddenly the blade bit into the asphalt and the great tool sent violent shudderings through his body.
Charlie Song appeared a few minutes later, short and disheveled in the clattering sun. Wisps of black hair lay across his scalp. The flesh around his mouth was finely creased. He was nonplussed to find Janie waiting for him and entered the shop with his hands brushing the air before him, as if to clear away cobwebs.
Janie pulled out the adapter, and Charlie began his nimble inspection; he looked pained at the state of the cord, whitish at the rim of the coupler, like old licorice.
How you hold? You use rough? Janie said, No.
Charlie squinted. You hold funny?
Well, of course she did hold the machine funny, and this did lead, rather directly, to a severe bending of the cord. But she saw no reason to confess all this to Charlie Song.
The receipt says your work is under warranty, she said.
At the word warranty, Charlie shied away and his eyes welled into little pools of sullenness.
October, he said.
Janie nudged her boobs against the glass counter. The receipt says ninety days.
Charlie smiled miserably. He did not look at Janie, nor especially at her boobs, but carried the adapter with its cord dragging behind, set it down on his work table and disappeared into the back of the shop. He with his spool of solder and hunkered down before his “sadder” gun while Janie pretended not to notice. There was a delicious, excruciating aspect to the tableau.
The components in Charlie’s shop seemed now to be replicating: resistors and volt relays and hard drives in their shiny silver antimagnetized baggies, tangles of taffy-colored wire. The display rack nearest the door was stuffed with CD-ROMs covered in—Janie was almost sure of this—bird shit. On one shelf sat a small portable TV monitor. There, in the watery green light, was a man hunched over a desk, with the young woman looming over him. It took a moment for Janie to realize she was being filmed.
Charlie Song worked intently. He snipped the coupler and stripped the wires in his hands, his nicked, runty hands, moved with an extraordinary attention that seemed to Janie the most obvious and overlooked aspect of love. Charlie peered down at the thin silver bridge he had installed, the fissure was barely visible, but it was there, enough to current. He let his fingertip linger on the spot.
On with the sadder gun, and Charlie jumped up from his desk. He few moments later with a jar of water, into which he dipped the old sponge. Quite suddenly there was music in the shop as well, a Bach fugue, a mournful drift of violins, and Charlie dabbed the gun against the sponge and gathered solder at the tip, and Janie felt a sudden trill in the place where her thighs met. She understood now what they had been up to earlier; a kind of flirty spat, a kind of foreplay. The coils of smoke rose up from the dissolving solder. Charlie sneezed, three times in a row. Janie had to restrain herself from touching his cheek.
* * *
That night she went back on the promise she had made to herself, which was not to touch Drew till Halloween, nor to entice or seduce or cajole, but to let him come to her. Earlier, at Taco Loco, Drew had drunk not one, but two beers, and his mood had been buoyant as he discussed a new funding source for his truancy seminar. She was preoccupied by his breath, its bouquet of yeast and poblano chiles.
Now she slipped into bed in her camisole and reached out to touch the muscles along his spine. She was careful not to linger, to carry on her chatter. Drew listened to her and did not tense up, and he smelled sweet and gamy, and his hair was just oily enough to shine in the dull light from the alley, and he had, after all, drunk that second beer, so she let her hand slip down his back, then lip beneath the band of his boxers, at which point Drew murmured, Do you want to cuddle?
This was his new ploy: cuddling.
A stroke of genius for the truly sexually avoidant, it technically fulfilled the requirements of affection while providing none of the actual benefits. For Drew, cuddling meant she could spoon him, or he could spoon her, but if certain unspoken boundaries were crossed—say, playing with his earlobe or making a sudden grab for his scrotum—then it was no longer cuddling but had become pressure, which was bad, oh very bad, that pressure, the source of all their problems. It caused Drew to tense and begin speaking as if he were addressing a grant committee.
Still, she took the offer to cuddle. She took it and wrapped her body around his and stroked his shoulders in a manner she hoped would be deemed innocuous while simultaneously triggering the elusive chain reaction that would wake the blood within him.
She hugged Drew from behind. Her pubic bone—her poor, neglected pubic bone—pressed against his tailbone. His hair smelled like an herb garden. She kissed the back of his neck and let her lips linger until she felt the shifting muscles. He was turned on. At last he wanted her, and she reached for him, tugged at his hipbone, and the straps of her camisole slipped free, and her fingers skimmed his belly on the way down. But suddenly something clamped onto her wrist, sawed at the bone, and she heard Drew say, Dammit.
His body was a pale outline in the dark. We talked about this, he said.
Get away, Janie said, sobbing a little.
Which he did, of course, the clever bastard, and slept on the couch and in the morning sent Clawed Rains in as an emissary. Then he brought her breakfast on a tray.
I don’t want breakfast, Janie said. What do you want? he said.
She tipped the tray and watched skim milk soak her big, stupid tits.
Why are you doing this to me?
Drew sat on the edge of the bed and took her hand. I don’t know, he said quietly.
Are we ever going to touch again?
Give me time, Janie. I’m going through some changes.
What sort of changes? The sort that involve wanting to have sex with men?
Drew ran a hand through his hair, which still smelled like herbs. No, Janie. Nothing like that. I just don’t feel … He mumbled a word that sounded like sassy.
You don’t feel sassy? Is that what you said?
Sexy, Drew said. He rubbed his face with his hands. I don’t feel sexy.
Janie wanted very much to laugh. She wanted both to laugh and to run her tongue along the rim of his nostrils, which were flaring deliciously.
Is this some kind of joke, she said. Not sexy? You can’t possibly, do you have any idea, my God, you are one of the most, honey, look in the mirror.
Drew shrugged. I just don’t feel it.
Well, then let me feel it. I can prove it to you. She reached for his shoulder. We can take care of this right now. Please.
Drew refused to look at her. Instead, he began setting the overturned dishes back on the tray. That’s not how it works, honey. You have to feel it from the inside.
Janie wanted to tell him: No no. Wrong! That is how it works. Our sense of beauty comes from outside, from the world. We aren’t born feeling desirable, you lummox.
Please. Let me help you.
But his shoulder had gone dead under her touch, and now he was flashing her his adorable sulky underlip and asking: Can’t we just cuddle? Please, baby. Don’t give up on me. I’ll get it back.
* * *
Janie would realize only later that she had provoked the third visit to Charlie Song. It was the holiday season, which meant naked trees and slosh and a walloping case of seasonal affective disorder. She’d taken Drew to visit her folks for Christmas, which was really two trips, one to the Mother, the other to the Father, who, though technically cohabitating, lived on separate floors of a camphouse on Squam Lake and did not, as a rule, speak.
The mother had survived cancer. But the dark fog of decay had left her prone to eccentricity. She tottered down the shore, flanked by her Shih Tzus, cussing at the speedboats. She despaired of the rustling spruce. Winter had flayed the mountains around the lake and layered the roads with mulch. The silver bass slept in beds of frozen mud. Drew was magnificent. He chopped wood and beat hoarfrost off the granite shingles and helped the Father manage the terrifying new gas heater. He lumbered about in a mackinaw and a stocking cap with a look of dumb, radiant industry. The Mother and the Father adored Drew. They gazed at him with abject lust, competed for his attention and seemed to regard Janie as the lucky but not-quite-appreciative-enough recipient of a Lotto jackpot. They made loud, dithering comments about future family vacations. Eagerly, creepily, they transitioned from potential in-laws to groupies.
On the day after Christmas, Janie woke to the whinny of floorboards. The Mother laughed like a loon, delirious, absurd. Janie assumed she was being tossed by dreams. But then the Father produced a groan and the song of bedsprings began, and Janie decided she might just puke, that puking would certainly be justified in this instance. Drew lay on his back. His face was puffed a bit and softened around the cheekbones. She peeled back the comforter and watched his peaceful breathing. She imagined him flouncing through the Scottish highlands in a kilt, with nothing underneath, letting the fields of heather fan his lovely, pointless boner. Then she started packing.
Back in their apartment, Janie drank vodka tonics and tried not to cry. Clawed Raines mewed for attention and slid his gray gums along her knuckles. Janie tossed him away. But Clawed jumped back up and began to knead her lonesome boobs, and rather than comforting her, this persistence made Janie furious, and she flicked the cat, hard, with her index finger, right on his spongy little snout, which caused him to sneeze convulsively. This caused Janie to weep convulsively, and it began to snow outside, and the wind began to howl, and the phone rang and rang. She yanked at the coupler that attached the adapter to her laptop—viciously, rhythmically, while she made her choked little human sounds, until she felt the coupler snap.
Charlie’s shop was warm and cluttered; it smelled of cherry syrup or burned rubber, perhaps both. The man who appeared from in back was not Charlie Song but a younger, stockier fellow with an optimistic expression that Janie immediately resented. He spoke an earnest, hollow brand of English: customer servicese.
Where’s Charlie? Janie said. Who the hell are you?
It occurred to her that she had had too much to drink, though she was, pleasantly, drunk enough to forgive this perception.
The young man pushed up his spectacles. Charlie’s gone. May I help you with something?
What do you mean gone, Janie said. What does gone mean?
He’s running an errand. My name is Fred Lui. I’m his associate. Perhaps I can help you with something?
This is sort of a personal problem, Janie said. Fred cocked his head. Are you all right? he said.
Of course I’m all right. What sort of question is that? I just need a repair done, and Charlie is the one who’s done it previously, twice previously, and he asked me specifically, if I needed further assistance, as I understood the arrangement, I was to see him. Okay?
Fred held up his hands, as if he were being robbed. Okay, he said.
So Janie sat down amid the dingy keyboards and casings and springs and watched the snow fall on the road crew, who had constructed, by this time, a small crater.
The TV monitor was still on the shelf, and she glanced a few times at the tiny chrolophylled world which was her world, in which she was tucked, pretty and sad, in a far corner.
It was past five when Charlie appeared, and immediately Fred rose from behind the counter and began to speak to him in Chinese—she guessed it was Chinese. Charlie Song looked utterly ruined, with red under his eyes and his worn-out teeth.
Charlie, she said.
He was wearing a cap, some kind of foolish brimmed cap, and when he pulled it off, his hair rose up in black clefs.
Problem again? Why problem? I made good repair last time.
Janie straightened the hem of her dress. Yes. Of course you did. Charlie, please. It was my fault. I dropped the machine.
No warranty, Charlie said.
The flecks of snow on his coat had begun to soak through. Janie to throw a shawl over his shoulders.I was hoping we might discuss this—alone.
Charlie began shaking his head. No. No fix now. Very busy. You come back. January.
But Charlie, you know I wouldn’t ask unless it was an emergency. I’ll pay you. I can pay in cash. Janie took a step closer, and Charlie backed against the counter.
Holiday, he said.
Janie took another step forward, but Charlie ducked left, toward the back room, all the while shaking his head and saying: Comp USA. They have good technician there.
Please, Janie said. This won’t take long.
She began, then, to chase him, around the counter and through the thickets of zip drives and modems. Please. Charlie. Let’s not be like this. I need you—
Something caught in her throat. She was certain her face was a shiny and lurid thing. She’d put on lipstick and too much mascara, and she was wearing a gown, a fucking evening gown. The adapter was clutched to her bosom.
Fred looked on, mortified.
But Charlie, who was backed against a door which read Employe Only, with his hand on the knob, peered at Janie for a long moment. It was not a look of pity, exactly, but of some larger human recognition. Charlie scratched his nose and glanced at the floor; he muttered a few words to Fred in Chinese.
Okay, he said to Janie. We do. But last time. Last time. Of course, Janie said.
Fred said something plainly disapproving and put his windbreaker on and marched out of the shop. The two of them were, at last, alone. Charlie went to his desk, stripped the wires and fired up his sadder gun; the snow continued to fall. Outside, the workers lumbered home, and the air above the road took on the shimmer of tinsel, and Charlie twisted the strands of wire and soldered them to the bridge. Janie pulled up a stool and watched him.
Can we listen to music? she said.
Charlie shrugged. He seemed to recognize that something deeply unorthodox was transpiring and ducked into the back room. A few moments later Bach filled the store.
Janie did not speak as he worked, but she imagined what Charlie’s life might have been like, how he’d come to this country on a boat, probably a very small boat, or else wedged down at the bottom of a very large boat, and how he had struggled to open his own shop and now sent money back to his family in a place like Latsou or Kandong and how his wife had died, oh his poor wife, and this had left Charlie Song a widower and he lived in a small apartment with very few windows and had to cook for himself and sublimated all of his erotic impulses to his stunning repairs of RAM drives and disc defragmenters.
And this life, for such a considerate man, made Janie quite sad, for the alcohol inside her had begun to fade, and it left a yearning behind. Charlie was touching the wires to the ohmmeter; he didn’t notice Janie’s tears. She sniffed, finally, and he looked up in alarm.
No cry, he said. We fix. Make good connection.
He began searching the drawers of his desk and the countertop and glancing back at Janie. He was a good man—an ugly man, true, but nothing a little dental work couldn’t improve. Or maybe she would leave the teeth be. They gave him character.
Charlie returned, cradling something in his palm.
New coupler, he said. Flexible. He pressed the device with his thumb. Now you wired for life. No cry.
Janie’s heart began to jump, and she set her hand on Charlie’s cuff. He stared down at this hand while, with her other hand, Janie grazed his brow and brought her face close to his. She scooted her stool forward and took a lavish breath. Charlie remained very still, like a squirrel. The sadder gun was smoking, and Janie thought for a second about Drew, his beautiful bum, and imagined the terrible joy she might feel in soldering his hairless cleft shut, though you couldn’t really do that, could you?
Charlie was not moving.
Do you like me? Janie said. I like you, Charlie. Do you understand? She felt the tremors in his arms.
Pretty. Very pretty lady.
Would you like to touch me? I’d like that. If you’d touch me. Charlie swallowed. His throat revealed an immense suffering. Married, he said. I have wife already.
Where, Charlie? Is your wife here? No. Home. Wife home.
He leaned back, but Janie leaned forward, into his airspace, and pressed her bundled breasts against him. Her hand settled onto his thigh, and this too was shuddering, and she set her lips against the damp skin of his temples, which smelled of burnt solder, and then he was weeping, sad little barks, and saying, Please, pretty lady, please no do that, in a tone of terrible confusion.
Now Janie saw what she had done and took her hands off him, and she too began to weep. They were both there, on the green monitor, weeping.
I’m sorry, Janie said. I’m so sorry. I thought—my God, I’ve been so stupid.
Charlie Song could not stop weeping. His tools were all around him, and his hands were at a loss.
I’m sorry, Janie said again. I had no right. Please. Will you forgive me?
Charlie took a minute to settle himself. He wiped at his eyes furiously, as if they were to blame. Then he did something quite wonderful: he gave Janie a gentle little touch, just the tap of a single finger on the back of her hand, or not so much a tap as a stroke, a soft little accidental stroke, in the hope that she would stop crying, and he said, Pretty lady, pretty lady, don’t cry. I fix. Promise. Promise. There was an electricity to this gesture, a hopeful twinge, which struck Janie in her gown and smeared face as a version of herself from the outside world, the stranger world, and communicated her worth in a way that she might never have known without him. And though he couldn’t have meant so much in the one part of his gesture that was public, in the private part he was trying to communicate to her that she was a pretty lady and she would be touched and that all the happiness she desired would be hers in time, if only she could bear to wait a little, to forgive herself a bit more, and to answer, when it arrived again (at last), the sweet alarm of love.
Winner of the 2003 Editor’s Prize for Fiction
The hedge hides the five-foot chainlink fence in Manny’s backyard. Yellow-green, green, dark and soft-looking at ten P.M. He planted it when César started fifth grade, and now his boy is a senior. And a father! The hedge muffles the sounds of transmissions and airbrakes on 19th Avenue and softens the squeals of los niños in the next lot over. On a clear night like tonight, two stars visible above his rectangular plot, with a half-smoked joint and a cold mug of Gallo blanc, Manny can almost believe he is out of time.
He strums his guitar and struggles to remember a line from a lullaby about a lost goat. “Yo, Pop,” he hears from inside the house. He hears the stretch and snap of his spring door.
“Hey, kid,” Manny says. “What’re you doing here?” César moved in with his girlfriend, Sunui, and her mother three months ago, a week before the baby was born. Though he’s just ten blocks away, he has only visited twice in the last month, once to collect his barbells.
“Special homework project.” César slings his backpack onto the picnic table. “I need your help.”
“For reals, Pop. It’s for the new guidance counselor. The one with the loud shoes.”
“What she does to my clean floors.”
“She told us to interview our parents. Career Satisfaction Survey, it’s called.”
“Lead Maintenance,” says César. “Sounds better.”
Manny watches César open his notebook, pull a two-page questionnaire from the sleeve of a folder. “How’s the baby? How come you never bring her by?”
“She’s got an ear infection.”
“You told me that three weeks ago. I know something for it.”
“Abuelita gives her Tylenol.”
“Abuelita?” Manny shakes his head. He takes a long pull on his roach and two short sips from his wine. He really needn’t let himself feel irritated or hurt. What good will that do?
César asks, “How did you choose your career?”
Manny smiles. “Well, when I finished medical school and law school, top of my class-”
“Come on, Pop.”
“I felt I had many choices, but-”
“Be real. How’d you get started?”
“I had a passion for picking strawberries.”
“The whole life story?” César exhales.
“And I loved the ladies, the way they filled their baskets. Ah, the way they bent over. Yes, indeed, my first choice was love.”
“Tell me about your education. I’m kind of in a hurry. We could start there.”
“Did you get that down about my first choice?”
César reads from the page. “‘How did you learn the skills you need for your current job?”‘
“Yes!” Now César shakes his head.
“I’ve learned a few things in my life, I guess.”
“You’re a hopeless and crazy old man. You sit back here and get stoned and daydream about Mama and the old days.”
“I was trying to remember the words to a song.”
César closes his notebook but leaves the questionnaire on the table. He sips from his father’s mug. “I’ll have to catch you another time,” he says, and then, “How can you drink this?”
“Tengo la esperanza.”
Manny pushes a wide, soft broom around the perimeter of the St. Anthony’s gym. There is no need; the wood is polished clean. He is waiting to see César take his turn on the mat in the center of the floor. He hopes Sunui will show and that she’ll have his baby granddaughter in her arms. The bleat of a canned horn signals the end of a match of one-hundred-thirty-seven pounders. César is team captain. He is one hundred forty-seven, stocky but surprisingly limber. He rises from the bench and stands to face the coach. He fits his headgear snug over his ears, his curly black bangs pushed through a flap in the top. Often as he jogs to his edge of the circle he shows Manny two fingers, which means, I’ll pin this turkey in the second period. Sometimes he shows three, sometimes one. And sometimes, as in the state finals last year, he wipes one hand across the back of the other to say all bets are off. Today he looks blankly in Manny’s direction.
The opponent is anything but fluid. He leaps at the whistle, then begins a series of contorted movements of head, neck, shoulders, elbows. He looks like a chicken with hiccups. He surprises César with a headbutt to the nose. There’s a whistle, a warning, a thin line of blood descending to César’s upper lip. If anything, this should help César to focus, but on the restart he seems to be searching the stands. Maybe he’s looking for the college scout, Manny thinks. Maybe he wants to make a little suspense, give a performance. Manny squeezes his broom handle like it is el cuello del gallo. The opponent claps his hands in César’s face, then ducks below and scoops César’s right leg, pulls it tight to his chest. César goes down on his hands, attempts to sprawl flat. “He’s not getting enough sleep,” says Manny to no one.
At the start of the third period, César is trailing by five points. It is his turn to take bottom. He sits back on his haunches, scoots his hands and knees to the lines. He rolls his neck once, then lifts his head and scans the bleachers. He’ll need a reversal, or at least an escape, and quickly, but at the whistle he freezes, tries to hold his base. The opponent drives a hard deep-waist and pulls César’s right ankle high into the air. He cannot turn César or break him down, but time is on his side, and César seems without a plan.
Manny has never been invited to Sunui s mother’s house. His pride prohibits him from asking. César calls her Abuelita? Manny has seen photos, and he figures her to be about his age, fifty. She is compact, shaped like a bottle of aspirin, Manny thinks. Once he introduced himself in the parking lot at Safeway. She seemed preoccupied and not friendly, but not so unfriendly either, considering that his son has knocked up her daughter in their senior year of high school. “She seemed aloof,” Manny told his friend Joe, “like the white women who teach at St. Anthony’s.”
Once, after an extra glass of Gallo blanc, Manny confided to César that he thought Sunui would not make a strong woman or a good mother. Though he’d hardly ever heard her speak. “She’s a complainer,” he’d said. “Your mother never complained.” He wishes he could take those words back. What he’d said about Sunui may or may not have been true, but what he’d said about César’s mother was absolutely false.
It’s Friday night. He yanks twice on his combination lock out of habit, leaves his locker, his floors, St. Anthony’s for the weekend. He feels heavy. Is it because César lost a match that he should have won? Because he did not get to see the baby? Or is it what follows, his weekly visit with Joe Harper? It is all of the above and something he cant yet name. He scans down the dial on his car radio and then back up, and down again: angry snips of rap, country without a hint of soul. He finally hits upon Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl,” and for a minute and a half he feels his young pulse, his possibility. The feeling disappears when he turns the corner into Joe Harper’s housing complex. Six speed bumps, six two-story beige brick barracks. Joe’s parking space is always empty.
Manny knocks. He waits. He enters. “Joe.”
A water stain on the kitchen wall looks like Mexico, a little tail for Tijuana. Manny ritually touches the place where he grew up, fifty miles west of Mexico City. The air is thick with the odor of stale butts and urine. The living room is a perfect square, with a single square-framed aluminum window casement freckled with rust, a crack in one of the panes. Facing the window is an imitation leather sofa on four glossy gold casters, but one is bent at the stem, and the sofa tilts down toward that front corner. The coffee table is covered with the works: mirror, razor, spoon, syringe, a little intravenous morphine, a little toot of crank. A nice way to fly, Manny remembers-and a brutal way to land. “Joe?” Stick with the wine these days, the occasional bud. “Joe!”
“I’m on the can. You’re late, you bastard.”
“Traffic, I guess,” says Manny.
“You don’t have to do this.”
“Maybe you do have to do this.”
Manny shakes his head. “Where’s your chair?”
“Very stupid question. Come in here and give me a hand.”
Manny goes to the window, tries to slide it open for fresh air, but it wont slide. He leans in the bathroom doorway. His friend is standing beside the toilet, bare-assed, one round pink battering ram where a knee ought to be. The wheelchair is two or three awkward steps away. “Forgot to set the fucking brake,” Joe says. “Give her a little push this way.”
Manny does as he is told. He turns his back and waits for Joe to pull boxers and pants to his waist, then wheels Joe out into the living room.
“Kitty’s?” says Manny.
“Where else?” .
“I don’t know.” But Manny knows where he’d like to be. He’d like to buy some red and yellow tulips and drive over to Sunui’s mother’s house. He wants to punch César on the shoulder and tell him we all have bad days. He wants Abuelita/Mamasan to see that he is a good father and that if César is a good father, she’ll know where he learned. He’d like to search the baby’s face, her eyes, her smile, see if he can find traces of his dearly departed. Sixteen years ago.
And if he can’t be there, he’d like to be alone in his backyard, traveling.
“Then it’ll be Kitty’s,” says Joe.
“You don’t like Kitty’s.”
“Kitty’s is fine.”
“It gets you down is what you said.”
“Nobody likes a drunk with a good memory.”
“A one-legged drunk to boot.”
Joe lifts the mirror and a straw from the table. Three thin lines of powder. He offers, and Manny waves it off. Manny moves to the window, tries again to force it open.
“It’s busted,” says Joe. He snorts one and two in the left nostril, line three in the right. “All right,” he says, “let’s fly.”
“Let’s roll,” says Manny. They roll the hall, the ramp, down a thin cement pad between patches of dirt and dead grass. When they reach the car, Joe pivots and wriggles into the passenger seat. Manny collapses the wheelchair and shoves it into his hatchback. It fits neatly, as the stroller once did. The bike with training wheels was a pain in the ass. Skateboards, scooters, dirt bike, mountain bike. “What is this? What’s eating me?” says Manny to no one.
He starts the car.
“What the hell’s eating you?” says Joe.
Kitty’s: black-painted wood floor, buckling tongue-and-groove beneath the stools. Flat black unevenly spread over knotty pine paneling. A large mirror behind the bar is framed with a tangled string of white Christmas lights. No frills. “No checks,” says a sign above the cash register. “No credit.” There is no door on the men’s bathroom. Kitty was a big-breasted, dark-eyed woman from Ukraine when she was alive. No one knew her real name. Tonight’s whiskey jerk is a kid with a shaved head and a pierced eyebrow who looks no older than César. He turns the pages of the free weekly. He punches numbers on a cell phone. Drinks are fifty cents cheaper here than at the saloon across the street. Joe says he likes Kitty’s for “the atmosphere.”
“So?” says Joe.
“You don’t want to hear my troubles. I don’t want to talk about them.”
“Your kid moved out.”
“Give us a bourbon and a glass of Gallo,” Manny says. And then to Joe, “He did the right thing.”
“I don’t think that’s the issue.”
“What’s the issue, Dr. Seuss?”
“Now you’re old.”
“Hell, I’ve never been so free. Now I can do whatever I please.”
“That’s the issue.”
“Aw, Christ.” Manny leaves Joe at the bar. He drops four quarters in the jukebox. Conversation halts with the thrum of “Midnight Mile, ” the Stones’ best love song, according to Manny. Two speechless rounds pass before the Friday-night bartender takes over. Blond and brown with black roots. Pam. The Atmosphere.
“When you gonna stop dragging this bum around and get yourself woman?” she says to Manny. “A two-legged woman.”
Joe loves it. “Legs’s always been overrated in my book,” he says.
“You with a book?” Pam says. And to Manny, “It doesn’t feel like Friday night.”
“It feels exactly like a Friday night,” Manny says.
“Oh,” says Pam, and to Joe, “What’s with your date?”
“Poor guy’s got too much time on his hands,” Joe says. “Or not enough.”
Manny, beginning to feel the warm blur of his wine, picks through the files-what the hell to talk to Joe about. There’s Joe’s diabetes and his poor self-maintenance, always pointless, always a downer. He might still lose a toe on his remaining foot, but he knows it, hears ii three times a week from the visiting nurse. Manny could talk to him about their days together at the cocktail ice factory. The road trip to Mazatlán. He could talk about César’s wrestling, the likelihood of a college scholarship, the unlikelihood now that he could accept, with a baby. Leave that alone. There’s always, Who set Rudy up? Or had Joe gotten the inside line, announced a week ago, that Rudy, their old drinking buddy, with the best dope in the Bay area, set himself up? That he’d fallen for something up at Quentin? Love. It’s early, about two hours and eight rounds early, but Manny could cut to the point, might even shorten this miserable night. “So what’s your reason for living this week?” he says to Joe.
“Well, I’ll tell you,” Joe says. “One: they’re running forty-eight hours of Clint Eastwood on AMC.” Manny nods. “Two: ’cause Pam is alive, and I promised I’d outlive her.” Pam, unpacking a case of Coronas, seems not to hear. “And three:” Joe orders another round, sips off the top of his drink, touches Manny’s glass with his own, “because I got scared I’d never feel high again.”
Lift, twist, use the legs and not the back. Joe is snoring on the couch at five-fifteen A.M. and Manny is on the road by five-sixteen. The only twenty-four-hour plate of huevos rancheros in town is at Denny’s, and it’s out of town. He’ll make his own at home, but he doesn’t want to go home, not yet. He could drive to the ocean and wait for the sunrise, but he’s got a chill, and his heater is not working. He could fix the heater, but he needs a hose, and NAPA won’t open until ten. Not much on the radio at this hour: a conversation about original sin, a lengthy promotion for a machine that hardens abs. Sleep would be nice. He turns right and right and left, and he’d like to stop, but the lights are all blinking yellow. He coasts down Sunui’s mother’s street, pulls to the curb in front of her house. How embarrassing it would be if César spotted him. But I’m free, he thinks, I can go wherever I like. Anyway, I’ll wake up in time. He cuts the engine. He watches the door until his eyes feel like huevos picante, then tilts back his bucket seat and dozes.
Olive-green pants and shirt, olive-green plastic garbage can on wheels. It’s Monday morning, and Manny makes the rounds of classrooms and offices. He is happy that the guidance counselor, Ms. Avery, is not in yet. He takes her wastepaper and leaves a completed Career Satisfaction Survey on her desk.
He does not see César in school all day.
Tuesday, Manny sees César get on his bicycle and leave campus at two-thirty. His son will miss wrestling practice.
Wednesday there is a home match against Gonzaga. Manny is later than usual getting to the gym because the vice principal has an important opinion about floor wax. Manny knows the VP only wants to give the impression that he’s paying attention, and on some days Manny appreciates the exchanges; no one wants to think that his work is unnoticed. But today Manny is in a hurry to see his boy make him proud. He walks as quickly as he can from Robertson Hall to the gym. The pounding hurts his feet and his chest.
Through a window in the foyer Manny can see that the one-hundred-thirty-sevens are on the mat. He is not too late. He pulls his soft broom from the closet and pushes his way onto the gym floor. César is on the bench but dressed in his school clothes. He has his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. He must have the flu, Manny thinks.
Manny polishes his way to César’s friend Miguel, who is leaning against the bleachers. “Is he sick?” Manny asks. “I know something’s going around.”
“Too many burritos going around,” Miguel laughs. “Or maybe it’s Mamasans cooking. He’s four pounds over.”
What’s eating Manny? Two words, three syllables each: depression, loneliness. He knows very well what they look like. It was not his wife’s oncologist but César’s doctor, the pediatrician who’d diagnosed one-year-old César’s first earache, Dr. Philmann, who’d whispered to Manny in confidence, “She’s bound to get depressed.” And she had; her sexy brown eyes, her fierce brown eyes, her laughing brown eyes had turned opaque, yellow-flecked and gray on the surface. She’d seemed like a petulant girl, unjustly punished and refusing to leave her bedroom when the punishment was finished. She’d punish back. Everyone. Every minute.
“What can I do?” Manny had asked.
The doctor shook her head. “Take care of yourself. Really.”
“No,” Manny had said. “I want to know what I can do for her.”
“Not very much.”
“What!” he shouted, startling her. It was unlike him to shout at any one, so he remembers the encounter with Dr. Philmann vividly an often. And because of what she said: “Make her know that César wil be cared for. Make her believe it. It will help her find peace.”
Then, of course, there is Joe Harper. Some part of every Friday night (or to be accurate, Saturday morning) is devoted to his slurred and sloppy songs of depression and loneliness. The Poor Joe Show starts about one-thirty or two, when the battle for his central nervous system has been decidedly lost by the home team. Lately he’s obsessed with Pam. In the wee hours come the tears and sometimes a loss of bladder control. Never mind that Pam is married. Never mind that she is playing Friday night bartender/hostess, that her unique congeniality is part of her job, that in spite of or because of his weekly drunken advances she doesn’t want to know Joe when she’s off the clock-Jo wants her. He believes she’d want him. Or that she should. That she is withholding her expression of desire for him to punish herself. Or that she thinks it is best for him. He thinks she thinks he thinks he is undeserving and so could not accept her real affection. But of course he could, instantly. Never mind that she calls him “buffoon.” It’s the logic of his darkest hours.
With a sip of Gallo and two tokes of weed, Manny realizes that the hedge couldn’t exist without the hard metal fence behind it. It would have been trampled a thousand times.
At six-thirty Friday morning, César bicycles to Manny’s apartment. Manny invites him inside, but César is in a hurry, as always lately. He is not the jaunty, happy kid of a few months ago. He doesn’t laugh. His jock walk and the practiced homeboy gestures seem much subdued. His black curls are pressed flat on one side of his head; his face looks swollen, and his eyes dart like sparrows. “I was wondering if I left that Career Satisfaction Survey here. I cant find it. I’m supposed to turn it in today.”
“I’m sure it’ll turn up,” Manny says.
“What happened with your match, kid? I heard you were over by four pounds.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Why doesn’t it matter?”
César looks as if he might cry. He stares at Manny’s shoes, at his bicycle parked on the sidewalk. “It’s bullshit. Even if I win, I lose.”
“Maybe your team is counting on you.” Manny throws his arm around César’s shoulders. It’s an awkward hug between a father and his teenaged boy-also a father. Manny can feel César tensing, his spine rigid, head down, a very slight pull away. Manny squeezes harder. He ruffles César’s matted curls with his free hand. “You never know who’s counting on you,” he says.
Typically, when Manny sees Sunui in the halls at school, he nods. She nods. They never exchange many words. If he asks about the baby she gives a sullen, perfunctory response. “She’s doing good. She’s pretty good.” If Manny catches her alone, which is rare, she tends to be a little more forthcoming. When she is with her girlfriends, she seems not to notice Manny at all, in his olive-green work suit. So it is a big surprise when Sunui peels away from her buddies to catch Manny’s elbow at the mop sink.
“My mother saw you parked in front of the house on Saturday morning. You were sleeping.”
Manny smiles nervously. He’d like to hide in the sink.
“Can you come to dinner tonight? Mother wants you to come. So does César.”
Manny is speechless. He’d never much cared for Sunui’s appearance: slight, Asian, with bleached, magenta-tinted hair. He’d always found her hard to look at, but up close now she seems to sparkle. Is it the glossy bronze lip paint or the half-dozen copper bangles on her slim wrists? Is it motherhood?
“I’m sorry we’ve taken so long to invite you. Mother is embarrassed about the house. She’s that way. We don’t have much company.”
“What time?” says Manny.
“Dinner time, I guess.”
“I know something for ear infection,” he says proudly.
“That’s good,” says Sunui. “Bring it with you.”
Manny speeds home after work. He showers. He trims his mustache and the few extruding nose hairs. It’s a temperate January late afternoon-no thin, nervous, rust-colored clouds, as there have been the past few days, but soft white ones, now turning pink and burnished like gold or palladium. This could be another season, another country. He is shirtless in his backyard, his favorite white-on-white button-down draped across his picnic table. He sips, he tokes. The invitation seemed so warm, so genuine, so like this strange appearance of spring just before twilight, a beautiful surprise. And yet it will soon be Friday night, and he feels nagged by a sense of obligation to Joe Harper. What could he possibly owe Joe? How many times has he pondered the question?
They became friends when Manny took work at the cocktail ice plant. César was in the first grade then, and he’d made fast friends with Miguel. On Friday nights César would sleep over at Miguel’s house. Manny knew it was important for César to have a buddy and thought that he should know what a family looked like, what it was like to have a mother in the house. The first time it took some encouragement from Manny, but ever after César seemed to live for Friday nights, and when Manny retrieved him on Saturday afternoons he’ be silent and sulking.
So Manny could feel bad-never his way-or he could make a friend of his own. Joe was healthy then, or healthier. He had two legs. He had robust sense of fun. “Get a life,” he’d say. “Don’t be such an old maid, he’d say. “It was ironical,” Manny had once told César, “that that was supposed to be my time, my freedom, but really I wanted to be with you.”
There’d been road trips, a fishing trip, always booze and sometime crank, sometimes Rudy, sometimes prostitutes. Anything to melt the numbness from long hours of tossing, stacking, packing twelve-pound bags of ice. Chipping, shoveling, sweeping, shaking out their brittle knees and ankles, blowing on their fingertips; it is ironic, that if time with Joe had once meant fun and freedom, time away, it had later coin to mean exactly the opposite. And perhaps even more ironic, Manny almost understands in this strange glow of now, is that he feels les burdened as Joe’s escort and Friday-night caretaker than he did when their sole purpose was fun.
On the way to Sunui’s mother’s house, Manny stops at the farmacia botánica for hoja de ruda. Next door he buys a half gallon of Gallo blanc and a fifth of Jim Beam for Joe, for later. He hasn’t called Joe because he can anticipate the entire conversation, and he doesn’t like it. Two doors down he finds the red and yellow tulips he’d wanted.
He hasn’t thought of a good lie to explain his sleeping in front of their house-not even a bad lie. As he walks up the front steps, he feels some of his happiness dissipating, worry seeping in. I wonder if César is embarrassed by me? By this foolish, sentimental, hopeless old man. César can attend the private high school because Manny works there and Manny works there so that César can attend, but the parents of his schoolmates are not janitors. They have careers. They take vacations in Hawaii and sometimes Europe. They drive BMWs and Volvos.
The lawn in front of the house is well groomed, modest, tasteful. Sunui opens the door before he can ring the bell. She holds the baby in her arms. She signals, “Sssshh!” because the baby is sleeping and points Manny toward the kitchen. “My mother wants to talk to you,” she whispers. Manny recognizes the scent of Murphy’s Oil Soap and appreciates the luster of the oak floors. The walls are clean and bare except for three small watercolor paintings of shoreline, mountains, tall conifers: simple, meditative pieces in shades of green-gray and blue-gray. Everything feels square and orderly except for the loud and leaning tulips in his right hand. He identifies the sweet fragrance of pork dumplings, and Sunui’s mother appears.
“I am glad you could come,” she says. She extends a hand, but no smile. “I am Ki-Yang.”
“I’ve been looking forward to seeing my granddaughter,” Manny says. “I’m Manny. We met once before.”
“You work at the school?” she says.
“Is that what César told you?” Manny laughs. “I’m the janitor.” Manny wishes he hadn’t carried in the large bottle of wine. He feels nervous, and so he talks. “Where is César?” “I was admiring your wood floors.” “I hope you like tulips.” “How is the baby?” “What kind of work do you do?”
Ki-Yang moves slowly and deliberately. She reminds Manny of the school principal in the way she displays a practiced and disarming calm. “I work with juvenile delinquents. I’m a counselor, but only part-time now.” She points Manny to a seat at the small, round kitchen table. “The baby is fine, except for an ear infection, which seems to be improving.” She takes the tulips and places them in a ceramic lead-colored vase. “These are very nice.” She offers coffee or tea, “or a glass for your wine,” and then she sits and folds her hands on the table and says, “Where is César? That is what I want to talk about.”
Sunui appears in the doorway without the baby. “She’s sleep Mom. I’m going to watch a video.”
“Not too loud,” says Ki-Yang.
“I thought César would be here,” Manny says.
“You’d think so.” Ki-Yang stands to lower the heat under a pot of rice. She surprises Manny by pouring herself a glass of his wine. “I’m sorry it has taken so long to invite you. I wanted your son’s permission, but he would only ever say, ‘It isn’t a good time.”‘
“I don’t understand,” Manny says.
“Do you want to know what I think?”
“He wants you to be proud of him, but he is not proud of himself.”
Manny wants to respond, but the best he can do is excuse him to the bathroom. Ki-Yang points him to a pale louvered door, a small sparkling sink and a toilet. There is a hand-carved wooden soap dish, a set of wooden brushes and combs. On a shelf are a dozen one-in high jade figurines. Modest, dignified, vaguely feminine, high class. No, Manny thinks, César is embarrassed by me, or disappointed, the way he used to seem when he returned from a sleepover at Miguel’s. He doesn’t check me out at school anymore, not to say hi or introduce one of his friends. He hasn’t bragged or confided or tried to make me laugh, not for a long time.
The scent is Simple Green. It looks as if someone has scoured the toilet seat with Comet and removed some of the finish. When he comes of the bathroom, Ki-Yang is setting plates on the table. Sunui does not join them. Manny can hear voices from the television, sounds of squealing tires and gunshots, and he knows it is Lethal Weapon 2 or 3 or 4 that Sunui is watching. He’d prefer watching to having this conversation
“César often does not come home until very late. He seems to need to be with his friends now, which I can understand, but he leaves Sunui alone with the baby. I can’t remember the last time I saw him change a diaper.” Ki-Yang serves a dumpling and a ball of rice onto Manny’s plate. “I know it is hard for a young man to become a father, especially in this country, where young men are told they can do and be whatever they want.”
Manny bites into the dumpling. The pork filling burns his tongue. He has difficulty swallowing.
“But it is unfair to Sunui,” Ki-Yang continues. “She was a very good student. She wanted to go to college, too.”
“Yes,” Manny says, and he thinks, this must be the way to talk to juvenile delinquents: no funny business, right to the point. But where is this leading?
“Let me get to the point,” says Ki-Yang. The baby makes a brief squawk and, a moment later, a full-throated call for attention. Manny stands and follows the sound to a bedroom, a wicker bassinet. Sunui comes through the door behind him, and behind her is Ki-Yang.
“Can I hold her?” Manny says.
Sunui and Ki-Yang nod. “Either César changes his attitude,” says KiYang, “or I’m afraid I will have to ask him to leave.”
Manny looks at Sunui looking at Ki-Yang. He can read no surprise, no expression at all.
The baby is quiet in Manny’s arms, but she looks uncertain, that gummy-faced, postnap stretch and yawn that might quickly give way to an explosion of anger and tears. Manny sways to the melody of an old lullaby, something involving a lost goat. Or was it a lost boy, found by his goat? He searches the baby’s face for signs of his family, but he can find no real likeness other than the jet hair. The little girl has the features of her grandmother: straight dark lines on a pink-and-white dumpling. When her eyes open they are slate-colored and shiny like marbles. It could be a look of peace or one of silent terror. Manny sways and sings.
Two and a half hours pass with very little conversation. Manny brightens when he remembers to share his earache remedy. He pulls a rolled leaf from the small glass vial he bought at the farmacia and passes it beneath his freshly trimmed moustache as if it were a fine cigar. He offers an incantation in Spanish, the same performance he’d given years ago to amuse his miserable wife, then steeps the leaf in boiling water. Sunui laughs. Even Ki-Yang permits herself to smile. When it cools he attempts to place it in the baby’s ear. The baby wriggles and cries. She arches her back and screams. Ki-Yang tries once. The baby will not have it. Ki-Yang suggests that they try it another time. Manny agrees, but he is certain that she won’t. He cradles the infant in the kitchen, and when she fusses he paces the hall with her, humming his lullaby. Finally she settles, and he sits with her in the living room. It is Lethal Weapon IV, and Danny Glover is sincerely worried about Mel Gibson’s sanity again. Manny gives up the baby so Sunui can feed her. It is well past bedtime, and the women are preparing to retire.
Then Manny hears footsteps on the porch. “He’s here,” Sunui says.
“I’ll talk to him,” Manny says.
“Good night,” says Sunui.
“You are very good with the baby,” says Ki-Yang. “Good night.”
Manny finds César on the porch, bent in half, fussing with the lock on his bicycle. “Don’t worry,” he says, “they’ve gone to bed already.”
“What’re you doing here, Pop?”
“I was going to ask you that.”
César straightens. He seems unable to speak. Manny does not move out of the doorway. A car passes slowly down the block, the bass from its speakers throbbing so deep and so loud it makes the porch vibrate. “Take a ride with me,” Manny says. “I need your help with something.”
Manny has never been good at saying what’s wrong because too easily it comes off like complaining, and complaining is something he doesn’t like. But he’s also never been good at hiding his moods, certainly not from César. What he thinks and feels shows in the dark between his eyes, even in the half light of the porch.
They sit in Manny’s car. He pulls into traffic.
“I guess you heard some things in there,” César says.
“Maybe there’s some things you didn’t hear, too.”
Manny looks at the road as though it takes all his concentration.
“You probably don’t know that Sunui hasn’t stopped bitching since the baby was born. Or that her mother is even worse. We don’t even talk to each other anymore. Not at home or at school.”
Manny just drives.
“Hell, I know what my future looks like, Pop. But right now I miss my friends. They’re all going off to college, and where am I going to be?”
Manny hits a string of green lights, and he accelerates. He decides to head toward the ocean. What’s eating Manny is the fear that he’s the person most important in his life. In spite of, or because of—irony of ironies—eighteen years of sacrifice, he feels he’s failed to teach his kid how to be happy in the world. He parks on a narrow, dark road; all around tall reeds fold in the sea breeze. “They’re thinking about kicking you out, kid. How’d you feel about your future then?”
Now it is César’s turn to sit with his thoughts. They sit for minutes, with no sound but the occasional soft spray of sand against rubber and steel and glass. In the light of a passing car, Manny can see the earnest pain on his boy’s face. It’s the look he had at six years old, trying to do a proper push-up or lift his bike with the training wheels out of the hatchback. It’s a face he’d made often in those awkward first weeks at St. Anthony’s, unsure if he could or even wanted to fit in. Over the years Manny has learned to interpret that look as, “This hurts, but I need to do it myself.”
“I do care about the baby, Pop. I do.”
“Is it midnight?” Manny says.
“It’s past midnight.”
“Let’s go meet a friend of mine. His name is Joe Harper.”
César will recognize the name, Manny knows, but he’s never met Joe, probably never thought much about him except perhaps to notice that he seems to be his dad’s only friend. They ride in quiet, until they reach the six speedbumps. Then there’s the whine of Manny’s tired suspension, the thump and rattle of the jack and tire iron in the spare-wheel well.
“Joe,” Manny calls from the door, César standing at his side. “Joe!” He doesn’t expect an answer. “Come on,” he says to César.
The apartment smells worse than ever. César follows at Manny’s shoulder. Manny touches the spot on the water stain shaped like Mexico and says, “That’s where I grew up,” but he can see that César missed the gesture, and he wonders what the kid’ll make of the words. They find Joe face down on the couch; his hips and his legs have tilted over the edge, and his knee rests on the carpet. There is a dark stain at his crotch. Several feet away, the wheelchair is lying on its side.
“Holy shit,” says César.
“Help me get him cleaned up,” Manny says.
“Can we at least open the window?” César says.
“You can try.”
César pushes on one frame and tries pulling on the other, but no luck. He then hits the seam with the butt of his hand, and one of the frames slips into its track. It slides with ease.
“Nice going,” says Manny. “Now go run the bath. Not too deep, just to sit in.”
César does as he is told. When he returns to the living room, Manny has Joe seated upright. The wheelchair is also upright and parked beside the couch. “Help me here,” Manny says. “While I hold him up, you let down his pants.”
Joe’s buttocks and thighs are riddled with scar tissue, blotches of dark brown and blood-purple, the texture of scalded milk. César turns his head and takes a deep breath. Together they lift Joe into his chair. “Toss those wet things into the basket in the closet,” Manny says. He wheels Joe into the bathroom. “Give me a hand here, would you?” César is at Manny’s side instantly. They lower Joe into the water.
“Whadda fuck?” Joe screams.
“The water is ice cold,” Manny says. “Didn’t you ever give somebody a bath before?”
They hoist Joe out of the water. “Just turn up the hot,” Manny says as evenly as he can. They lower him back in. “I brought you some bourbon,” Manny says to Joe, “but it looks like you must have had some laying around.”
“Shit,” Joe says. “Where the fuck were ya tonight?”
They heave him out of the bath. “And who’s this?” Joe says, squinting at César. Manny is on to the next room to set out a towel a dry things.
Joe’s face shows no comprehension.
“Manny is my father,” César says.
“Oh,” Joe says, “you’re the reason.” And he calls to Manny, “This’zz why ya abandoned your old buddy. This’zz why ya … hey, ain’t ya gonna have a drink wid me?”
In front of Joe’s barrack, César lets out the breath he’d been holding for two minutes. Manny can see in the floodlight that the kid’s face is drenched. “Wow,” César says.
“That was record time,” says Manny. “Would have been even faster if I didn’t get fumbled up with those boxers.”
They lean on the roof of the car, each looking at his own folded knuckles. “They all cracked up,” César finally says. “Especially Ms. Avery.”
“The Career Satisfaction Survey. The part where you said you’d be happier in your job if the guidance counselor would get herself some different shoes.” César laughs. “She read it out loud. You should’ve seen her face.”
“I was serious,” Manny says, laughing. “Serious.”
On the ride César talks: how his friends are freaking out about college applications, how he’s going to get his weight down and his mind focused for the state tournament, how he figures he’ll get some time alone with Sunui and what he wants to say, how he plans to get a job with UPS, where the pay is hella good, and he can kick back some money to Ki-Yang for the rent. He says he wants to get a baby seat for the back of his bike and that way he can carry her around when he’s training on the hills.
“I could help with that,” Manny says.
When they reach Ki-Yang’s street, César says, “When you said we should go see your friend, I got this idea you were going to tell me you were gay or something.”
“There’s something I need to tell you, kid.” Manny laughs.
“Shut up already, Pop.” César laughs. “That, I couldn’t probably handle right now.” And when the laughter subsides and they pull up in front of the house, the quiet of the late hour is startling. There is no bus or car or even a breeze, only the ringing awareness that in a moment each will go his own way.
César says, “What?”
“What do you mean, what?” says Manny.
“Why’d you want me to see that?” César says. “To help you?”
“Can’t a father ask his son for help?”
“You never did before.” César has his fingers in the door latch, but he doesn’t pull. “Why?”
“I guess I wanted you to feel proud,” Manny says.
“Proud of me? Or you?”
“Sí,” Manny says. “Yes.”
An Interview With Richard Powers
This interview is not currently available online.
Interviewer: You were born in the Midwest and moved to Thailand at age eleven. What effect did that experience have on you as a writer?
Powers: That’s such a huge question. It presumes I could somehow know what kind of writer I would have been had I not gone. But I know it affected my entire life – linguistically, intellectually, emotionally, culturally. I lived in Bangkok from the age of eleven to sixteen, then came back to the States and finished high school in Illinois. But the years I spent overseas are so incredibly formative, the last years of childhood and the first years of young adulthood.
Poetry Feature: Bryan D. Dietrich
Featuring the poems:
- I Wonder
- Superman’s Other Secret
Diana, like any other girl with new clothes, cannot wait to try them on!
-Wonder Woman #1
Question is, would I matter if I didn’t
tout these tits? If my legs weren’t, total,
seventy-two inches of eye candy?
And get a load of the getup….Well, if
it doesn’t get you up, you’re more than
mostly dead. Whitman said there is that lot
of me and all so luscious, but then he
didn’t have to hide the lot in a hanky.
Try fighting Hirohito in heels, Nazis
in a nightie, crazed crackheads with the wind
wolf-whistling up your crack. I defy
you guys to name just one super savior,
one with a prick, who lets it all hang out.
Sure, they leap about in longhandles, uber
Underoos, but even Underdog unzips
more than me before hiking a leg.
So, okay, definitely not a dog.
It could be worse. I could look like Lois,
maybe Hawkgirl after a turkey shoot.
But when I hear that other busty bombshell say
I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way, I have
to wonder, do alien androids really need
to know I have nipples? Does Wonder Man
buy Nair by the crate? Shanna the She-Devil,
does she worry over her pits? I don’t
suppose I’ve ever had another option.
It’s all about cleavage, and I don’t just mean
what I could do with an arrow and a dozen
ax-heads. To do what I do—saving you,
in this world that would, otherwise, have me
Amazon, Amazon only—to do it dirty,
hairy, in a jumper, to do it plumper
would beg the old joke. You know, the one
about that kid. Let’s say Tim. To save himself,
his town and the like, he had to stick his finger
in the dyke. She beat the shit out of him.
I wonder if I am getting jealous of my other self.
Princess? My eye. Leaving paradise, we all
want to believe we were more before, not less.
Yes, it might be easier not to dress
ourselves in wristlets, gown, the long fall
we once wore in another land, that last life….
Easier to go forward undiminished, believing
ourselves ever larger than we were, but the thing
is, we tend like rats to follow the fife
into the mountain, run up short against the wall,
look back and see what children we were, following
too, and want never to have left. Swallowing
what we’ve chosen is hard. No, better to call
back to that other self, say, Don’t leave town,
than admit you’re more a princess, now you have no crown.
To admit I’m more princess now that I’ve no crown
is to say that what I had was not what I remember,
to believe this life, success dressed as Wonder
Woman, preempts Paradise. W. W., that clown,
bests Prince, princess? I guess I’m just confused,
tired of being more choice than myself, better than what
I was, more Goddess less the gods. Not fat,
like Etta. Not pawn, dear Steve. But used,
used to win the prince, to trump this very Prince
that I’ve become. Yet who am I to hate what I have made?
To envy myself the ticker tape, accolade, parade?
Still, when I put on those tights, saved Steve from stints
in the stockade, from Poison—oh, the perils I could list—
why was it the lie he loved and not the lonely typist?
Why the lie? Was it love? The lonely
typist? I know Kent ducks such dramas
too, but by Hecate, for him it was only
two. Me? I’m a fucking trinity. Mama’s
girl. Heroine. Mouse. Why is it us,
women, always, stuck with messier mental houses?
Triplicate Girl? Huntress? Lightning Lass?
Oh, and then if we cross the abyss,
the dark divide between simple detective
and, well, marvel, there’s Marvel Girl, née
Jean Grey, a.k.a. Phoenix, a.k.a.
Dark Phoenix, later a whole host of prospective
relations, reincarnations…. Ever only almost one.
It’s always “we,” eternity. Virgin, mother, crone.
It’s always we. Three over infinity preside.
Virgin: she before the he is seen inside.
Mother: she because the her is just a ride.
Crone: me, when at last I let the one decide.
Of course I know it’s not that simple.
The world turns on more than just a dimple,
the crack in everything. But what of the wimple,
the chador, burqua? Aren’t they there to hide the ample
firstness of what men can never be? The West—
your madness, not mine—rewrote the best-
seller of all time, biology, to make us last.
Problem is, the penis is just a clitoris
with choler. You want us. You want what you’ve lost.
But everything you do divides the conquered by the cost.
Nothing that you do divides the conquered.
The cost, yes, makes us, me, crazy. I don’t want
to be all you suspect, everything you’ve
feared since you first crawled bawling from the haunt
you call cave, the origin you want to believe
was not your mother, but then at least a third
of what I am I owe to you. And that cave
me, that cave of me, what I name Word,
the beginning, what I dragged even Steve
Trevor to, hauling him from one origin, the sea,
to another, that me, that Paradise, I can’t leave.
It can’t be covered, broken as I am broken. See,
I guess in being three—me, less than me, and the me who,
in saving you, pulls you all free—I’m only two.
In saving you, pulling you all free—I’m only two.
I am the me who left Paradise to save it,
but also she who jealously watched her man covet
me, tart in tights. So, yes, two. Or one. You
know as well as I the history of the divine,
the need for opposition, enemies, hell,
self or other. Leviathan, Yahweh’s handyman.
Seth, Osiris’ brother. Inanna and Ereshkigal.
But these are only those who complement,
shadows, the big id tease. Gilgamesh, king of ease;
Enkidu, man of moss. Frigg, woman of omen;
Hel, liaison to loss. Huck and Jim. Thelma, Louise.
None of them are only one. Yet, their troubles, mine.
So much to do, love, save. So many schizos, so little time.
So much for love. I’ve saved so many—schizos
most of the time—but not myself. Me. One version
of those other doubles doubled over with guilt, bozos
built, like Wonder, on angst and alliteration.
Peter Parker, wimp, poisoned by a spider.
Matt Murdock, blinded by radioactive canister.
Bruce Banner, werewolf, green, wanderer
in the world. Dr. Don, lame, God of Thunder.
Susan Storm, Shiera Sanders, Greer Grant,
all broken, fractured, bent. Still, as strong
as Clark Kent. Best and worst of both worlds.
Can’t we all just…. Okay, you say, just get along
little princess. But I can’t. I left leaving when I left said
princess, my “I,” leaving Paradise. We both did.
Superman’s Other Secret
It’s strange, I suppose, to find myself spellbound,
in knots, as tongue-tied by her tossed locks
as the proverbial bad boy. Lassoed, trussed up
and forced to tell the truth under the influence
of that golden rope, doped. Lost in her main
means of defense, more shackled than she
by her mettle, those magic manacles. Unable
to dodge the bullets that, heartward, seem to hum.
Mostly, she avoids them. I just let them come.
I’m supposed to be taken, I know. Good guy,
steady as the morning star, faithful as that apple
pie Lois sometimes bakes me, a fine example….
But then there’s two of me, as many (more?) of her.
Smart, savvy, strong enough to beat all she can’t
bear. As beautiful as any stag she might have done
in, outrun, caught, antlers askance, standing
in the still. Goddess? Okay, demi, but born to shame
that lack of choice, Paradise, from which she sprang.
Woman of steel, mistress of the upper air,
she knows how each of us is always already
falling. Alone with her, I seem to understand
earth, its breath, better, the orgasm of ozone
that rushes out when she describes her own
flight. Even sitting—stratus, nimbostratus,
talking—I’ve watched her turn into it, dive,
ride it the way she does her stories, worries, cares.
The shape of the wind. What her world wears.
Me, I just point and leap, but not with her.
Some days I fear that I’m invisible as the plane
she doesn’t need, a spectacle in a suit, uptight,
upright, perhaps too. Or that, though our colors clash
the same, hers cut closer to the breast. Even weaknesses …
I fear mine are mine alone. No recurring villains,
no green rocks, a decided lack of chains. And though
we both could leap this difference, in fact much less,
there is a yaw yet, deep as regret, from farmboy to finesse.
Negotiating Bride Price
Winner of the 2003 Editor’s Prize for Essay
One night, a year and a half into our Solomon Island Peace Corps service, James, the school’s vice principal, came to visit us. He announced himself near the front porch of our leaf-and-stick house.
“Who-ee-oh,” he cooed.
My husband, Larry, and I emerged from behind our single wall to greet him on the porch. The weather was clear that night, the sky velvety black against the rim of the moon. Occasional clouds cast shadows as they passed between the bright moon and the earth. The air thumped out the rambunctious night tunes, the hooting and twittering squawk! of the jungle.
James had entered from the side of our porch—a bark floor supported by bamboo-like studs and rafters. The walls behind us were large, overlapping palm fronds stitched with vine. James stood on the scraped betel-nut-bark floor a proper Melanesian distance from us, respecting an even larger personal space than Americans occupied. Women in the Solomon Islands shouldn’t address men directly when another man is around, so Larry talked to James while I admired his wide, well-callused feet, the way his toes spread out. They’d obviously never been restrained by patent leather.
“I have good news,” James said. I looked up to see a wide, overly enthusiastic smile. He seemed excited or nervous. His dark eyes didn’t match the strained joy of his face. James was from another island, Guadalcanal, and had a darker complexion than the Makirans of this island. He came from an entirely different culture and on his native island had spoken a different language than he did now, making him a sort of expatriate in his own country. Smiling while he talked, he told us that he and Kamarie were going to have a custom wedding. He thrust out his jaw, pointing his sharp chin, graced by’ a goatee, up and out toward the jungle.
“Brother George and I will travel to the ‘n’ other side,”‘ he said with another chin point, “to buy custom bride price for Kamarie.” Laughing suddenly, he slapped Larry hard on the back—a rather painful and annoying habit he’d picked up from Brother George.
“Everything will be just fine,” he said. Then he hopped off the porch and “heh heh heh’d” into the darkness.
“What the hell was that?” Larry asked me.
“Who knows,” I said, shrugging. I meant, how were we to know why James had acted so strangely about the whole thing.
After two years, we knew not to jump to conclusions; we regularly contended with unconscious cultural misunderstandings. And also, Solomon Islanders lied for kicks. It was their primary form of entertainment. During the first week of Melanesian language/culture classes, the Solomon Islander instructors spent a lot of time teaching us to say “liar” in three different languages (asuge, alolei, hagaparu). It was important that we practice the intonations: a-SUE-gay, a-LOW lay, ha-ga-PA-ru, rising, peaking and then falling. No good to have us out in the world without knowing how to call everybody a liar.
After a year and a half, we’d learned to think it, if not to say it. Whenever we heard any news, we listened with skepticism and waited until we saw proof that it was true.
We went back inside our bush house to read books. We had a recently installed solar-powered light that we used for a few hours a night. We could read, though we had to contend with sparrow-sized dive-bomber moths that thought it was the moon.
I picked up Midnight’s Children but couldn’t concentrate on Salman Rushdie’s diction. Instead, I spaced off on the woven-leaf wall and imagined Kamarie, elegantly tall, dressed in a white, flowing wedding gown that undulated in the wind on the black, sandy ocean shore, with her kinky blond hair combed proudly. If Kamarie could have peered into my mind, she would have laughed to see the bush gele I’d conjured up in a “dolly dress” on the toilet beach. It made me laugh out loud, too; some of our customs would never fit into this place. Larry looked up from his book.
“I was just thinking about a beautiful wedding on the beach,” I explained.
Larry snorted. One moonlit night a few weeks into our service, while we enthusiastically smooched on the warm, black sand of the South Pacific seashore, we noticed the moonlit silhouette of squatting people near the water at low tide.
“Didn’t the Peace Corps tell us that some villages use the beach to toilet?” Larry had whispered. Indeed, they’d even explained that saltwater and sunlight combine to kill pathogenic microbes in human shit. Marvelous idea, really, they had said.
“Yuck,” I declared. And from then on, the beach lost its romantic appeal.
Now Larry wanted to know why James and Kamarie were getting married. “Is she pregnant?” he asked. While I wondered about what
I should and shouldn’t tell, he launched a moth away from his face with his book—thwack. It landed on the floor with a thud, and our cat immediately pounced and devoured it in a single crunch, leaving the gray, dusty wings behind. We laughed.
“She is, isn’t she,” he said.
In a rural school, in the midst of thick jungle, among staff and students from all over the islands and all over the world, there were a myriad of conflicting cultural expectations regarding marriage. Brother George, a Dutch Catholic Marist, who had known James for years, had no doubts about James’s Christian duty to marry Kamarie—a patriarchal tradition both Larry and I understood. A few days later, when Brother George announced the wedding to the students in the leaf-and-stick chapel, I had a perfect picture of it in my mind, but it didn’t match what James had described.
That day a low-pressure weather system moved in and made the atmosphere thick and soggy. The dense, wet air stopped my nostrils and forced me to breathe through my mouth. Brother George’s tan face gleamed with sweat. He had been working all day, and his sandy blond hair was tousled about his face. His shirt was dirty, mostly in the center, where his middle-aged belly poked out.
“We will have a first wedding in Na’ana!” he shouted, and slapped James on the back. “James is like a son to me,” he said, tears welling up in his eyes.
I knew Brother could think of no higher honor than to marry James and Kamarie here at the center. He described, in his Dutch-accented English, a Christian wedding with a “prrrrieest,” without ever taking his unlit, soggy, hand-rolled tobacco cigarette out of his mouth. He wiggled his dirty toes in his plastic Chinese flip-flops and looked around at his students. It was clear that he loved them; he’d devoted twenty-five years of his life to Solomon Island boys like these. He giggled and wiggled his eyebrows; he was happy.
Brother George was well respected and admired by the students and staff. He’d spent countless hours planning curriculum, designing the school, writing to European funding agencies looking for more capital. He listened deeply, and his eyes lit up when he laughed. He had high expectations; he believed in what we could do and made us believe it, too. In that way, we were united at that school because of Brother George.
And he definitely had Western ideas about “progress” and his Christian duty to develop the land. Larry and I used to joke that if Brother George instructed us to clear ten thousand acres we would have picked up our machetes and gotten to work. Anyone else would have thought that this thick jungle, in the most isolated part of Makira—the most isolated island in the Solomon Islands—would never surrender to a training school. Brother George saw only need; he was going to fill it. There were no roads, docks, bridges, airports or wheels. Yet guided by George’s vision, we’d built a school in the middle of an inaccessible, sparsely populated, densely forested island. Supplies other than jungle timber we unloaded with a canoe from a cargo boat that came every six months. Staff and students plunged repeatedly through five to ten-foot surf in a tiny dinghy to unload nails, bolts, cement, petrol and rice from that ship.
After our first year, the students, staff and Larry had completed fifteen student dormitories, four toilets with septic systems and a generator building. They started to raise the roof of the future kitchen and dining hall. They used the finest hardwood lumber in the world, huge and plentiful in this jungle. In the bush they milled logs eight feet thick with a chainsaw as part of the training program. Students carried the huge boards on their shoulders from the bush to the lumberyard. After a year, the complex of permanent buildings transformed the original five leaf-and-stick houses that marked our arrival.
But not all things could be expected to change so quickly. The jungle fought back. It grew over buildings while we slept and had to be hacked back daily to maintain a slender foot trail and a clearing around our bush houses. And, like the jungle, life and culture in Makira fought us as well.
On that day when Brother George spoke glowingly of the Christian wedding he would perform, I could tell from James’s clenched-teeth smile and the worried looks on the students’ faces that it wouldn’t be as easy as that. James was from Guadalcanal; he and his family had their own cultural expectations; he was almost as much a foreigner here as we were. Kamarie was from a nearby village in Makira. It was clear from everyone’s response that “custom wedding” meant anything but “Christian wedding.”
Storm clouds loomed in the northern sky the day a runner arrived with the message from the family that a Christian wedding would not be acceptable. Weighty gloom fell upon the center. The staff was quiet, the students were quiet, and now, with the rain approaching, the jungle was quiet. Any quieting of jungle activity felt ominous. It meant only two things—earthquakes or big rains.
As the rain poured, we retreated into our houses. The downpour was pure and total. It pounded on the thatched roof so hard we had to shout over the ruckus. Soon Larry and I were too exasperated to even attempt a conversation. Finally we acquiesced to the power of the rain and waited for it to stop so we could find out how seriously Brother George was taking the news that there would be no Christian wedding.
I had known Kamarie was pregnant for a few weeks now, but I hadn’t told Larry about things the women said in the kitchen—a Makiran rule of female solidarity that I continue to hold to today. I spent the daylight (when I wasn’t teaching class) inside the bush or the kitchen with Kamarie and Helene, cousins from the same bush village, who prepared meals for Brother George and the single men on the teaching staff. The leaf-and-stick kitchens differed from the houses; they were built on the ground, each with a slit of window in the back to let out some smoke from the constant fire. There we squatted together on stump stools with machetes to peel sweet potatoes and blue yams.
Helene was incredibly strong and skilled, though she was small, under five feet tall. If it weren’t for the three tattooed black dots on her cheeks that boasted family lineage, she would have reminded me of a dark brown Shirley Temple. She had curly spirals that escaped the three cute little twist buns on her head. One time she’d even tried to fix my blond hair in the same style, appalled by the way my hair flew about even when I tied it back.
Kamarie, the more educated of the two cousins, had skin the color of creamed coffee and hair to match. She had been blond as a child, typical of Makiran children in this region: tawny brown skin, light brown, speckled eyes, blond, kinky hair. She had large breasts and unusually long, thin limbs that made her seem delicate. And she was unusual in that she had gone to school until sixth grade—astounding for any Makiran. She spoke fluent Pidgin English (so she could understand me!) and wrote English relatively well.
One day Kamarie suddenly returned from the nursing academy in the school canoe, but before I could speak with her she walked directly into the bush to pay her family compensation. I knew something was up, and Helene waited until we were alone to tell me. My curiosity was strong, since I’d written the grant and application for her to attend nursing school. But I scraped coconuts in the kitchen with Helene and waited, while she poked yams in the fire with a stick.
“Kamarie went home because she’s babule [ba-boo-layl, Karecello,” she said. (They called me Karecello instead of Rachel; my name “tasted bad-too crunchy.”)
Following Makiran custom, I didn’t respond or look up from my work. It wouldn’t be appropriate to scan her expression or ask questions. Later, when we gathered tutumbu (edible fern) near the river’s edge about a mile from school, she said, “James is the daddy.”
This piece of news surprised me. I didn’t believe it right away, but Helene had never lied to me. I snuck a look at her face to try to read it anyway. Today she looked serious. Normally, Helene was a bundle of energy, always ready to laugh and joke. It was her usual style to speak boldly. Now, she frowned, concentrating on slicing the ferns and wrapping them in leaves. She had waited to tell me the news until we were in the bush, so I was inclined to believe her. But I had never even seen James and Kamarie talk to each other. Still, I reasoned, in Makira, even husbands and wives didn’t interact during the daylight hours. I had learned early on not to show physical affection to Larry. I couldn’t touch him when I sat next to him.
My life orbited around the Makiran women’s world and Larry’s around the men. Men’s worlds and women’s worlds were separated into well-defined roles. Soon after I arrived at my site I picked a woman’s role. I had a choice. I could have lived my life there as a white woman, with a woman to do my laundry and my cooking. But I had chosen to live as a Makiran woman instead. Makiran women were proud. They worked collectively, cohesive and strong in their labor.
To Kamarie and Helene, men were another kind. They fished, hunted, took care of kids sometimes. They went to the garden sometimes and traveled to Honiara and sent money home, sometimes. They went to meetings sometimes and talked about government. Sometimes they just sat on the porch of the house they built a few years back and chewed betel nut. They did all kinds of things—sometimes. Women worked all the time, and that was the difference.
Sometimes male staff from the patriarchal islands of Malaita expected Helene or Kamarie to do something for them, like their laundry. They’d walk into the kitchen with their wad of dirty clothes. Helene and Kamarie stayed silent during their visit; they didn’t even look up from their work. When the men finally left, they laughed and laughed. After a time, the men took care of it themselves.
But they never criticized a man in front of another man. They wouldn’t step over a man or walk in front of a man or climb higher than a man. They even left the village and hung out in “menstrual huts” when they bled each month. Women in the jungles of Makira didn’t seem to have any issues with men. They liked men—especially at night. But this was when all trouble began: at night in the bush. It was called “creeping” (crawling under houses to invite a lover to “lay a leaf.” Married couples usually laid leaves in their gardens. Unmarried couples needed to be more careful because if the family found out, lovers only had a few options).
The Peace Corps had told us flatly, “Don’t creep, it’s taboo.” But it wasn’t exactly. You could creep, but if you got caught, either by a witness or a baby, you were busted. Makirans had consequences. He paid bride price—shell money (a long heirloom string of shells) or she paid red money (a short string of red shells and teeth) compensation.
Even though I was immersed in the culture, there was still a lot I didn’t understand. A few days after Kamarie had reemerged from the bush, the kitchen atmosphere became tense. I was happy to see her, but Helene wouldn’t speak at all, and I certainly wasn’t going to ask any personal questions. Helene wouldn’t even look at Kamarie; she slammed lids on pots and moved around quickly. I asked Kamarie “Western” questions about school and how she liked it. She said only that she wanted to go back, and I felt worried for her.
I owed a kind of debt to Kamarie; she’d been the first person to include me in her daily routine—or at least she talked Helene into letting me tag along. Together, they taught me to survive in the jungle. But it had taken a year and every last fat cell. I was so skinny after the first year in the Peace Corps that Helene and Kamarie teased me, saying I looked like a little girl. It was true that I didn’t have the “woman pouch” that they were so proud of. My skin was too pale. To make matters worse, my blond hair, thinning from malaria meds, curled and frizzed all over the place in the humidity. Now when I picture myself there, sitting on a stump in the middle of the jungle, I think about how odd I must have seemed to them, asking preposterous questions, always following the flow of conversation down the wrong path.
One thing was certain: they pitied my emaciated figure—my lack of femininity.
“Maybe you are too skinny to have a baby,” they would say, shaking their heads.
“I take a pill every day to stop babies.”
And they hollered, “Hagaparu.” Each time I told that “lie” they slapped their thighs and laughed until they cried.
But they didn’t always make fun of me. Kamarie also allowed me to share things that I knew about. She made me feel like a real Peace Corps volunteer. She let me instruct her in preparing proper dressings, the power of soap, malaria medication, and proper antibiotic use. Even Helene was interested in how to sew skorts; they came in mighty handy when climbing a coconut tree.
The day after Kamarie returned from her village, she didn’t come along when Helene and I gathered coconuts. Helene whacked through the bush furiously, grumpily slicing through thick, juicy stems of jungle undergrowth. I thought she was mad because Kamarie was pregnant. I knew she wasn’t looking for coconuts in there; any coconuts that dropped into such thick bush would surely have rotted. Meanwhile, I collected dried coconuts and put them in a pile near the sharpened stick she had jammed into the ground.
When I had gathered enough, I started removing the husks. Before I had finished with my first coconut, Helene snatched it out of my hands and dehusked it quickly. She’d never had much patience with my clumsy, weak attempts at coconut dehusking, but she usually restrained herself and climbed a coconut tree for fresh coconuts to drink from while I stabbed my coconut repeatedly into the stick in the ground, sometimes dislodging the stick instead of the husk. These Makiran women were so strong and skillful with machetes that even after a year of training I couldn’t compete—and I had some sizable biceps!
“Kamarie’s drinking Chinese medicine,” Helene grunted, impaling the coconut on the stick and tearing the husk off like the peel of an orange.
“Where did she get Chinese medicine?” I asked, too quickly. I wondered if Kamarie had brought it back from nursing school, some sort of prenatal concoction.
“From the store,” Helene said, her laugh bitter. When she looked at me, her expression shouted, Where else, egghead?
We had a little “store” on “campus” where we could buy rice, Milo, fabric, local tobacco, and Spam. I didn’t know they carried Chinese medicine, but after we got back from the bush I went over to the store to find some. I found only cologne labeled in Chinese. I bought it to show it to Helene.
“Yeah, that’s it,” she said. “One of those karange [crazy/stupid] women from Na’ana told her it would ‘out’ the baby.”
I hesitated. “No, I don’t think it will work,” I said.
“It didn’t work,” Helene said, “but the baby will come out wrong, too much bad luck.”
“No, I don’t think it will do that either.” I didn’t believe in bad luck. “Tell her to stop taking it.”
“She drank the whole bottle already.”
I didn’t ask why she would try to get rid of the baby, and I didn’t ask why Helene would be so angry about it. I didn’t ask anything a. all. I thought I knew: unmarried women with babies had a hard life everywhere.
The runners sent from Kamarie’s family must have expressed the selves clearly to Brother George. The family wanted compensation and there was no way around it. So Brother George artfully directed all his Christian enthusiasm and love for James and Kamarie to support a traditional Makiran wedding and official Makiran bride price. A Christian wedding just wouldn’t work in the compensation system of Makira.
Families expected bride price, which consisted of long, decorative strings of rare, hand-drilled, sanded-shell beads. The deep-sea shells were harvested by specialty divers. The rarest red shells had the highest value. Sometimes people gave pigs and chickens in addition. In Makira, the bride price compensated the family of the bride for the emotional and physical loss of a productive daughter. It was part of the compensation system—a Makiran form of social control. Any social misstep in Makira had a fee associated with it. If it wasn’t paid, the person who had committed it could expect the offended party’s brothers or uncles to beat them up.
We traveled to her village for the wedding when Kamarie was five months pregnant. We went by boat at dawn, when the air was cool and thick, the humidity so high that it condensed on my cold arms. It was the time of day when most of the obnoxious birds and bugs still slumbered. The ocean lay unusually quiet, gently lapping the shore, as if it had forgotten how to roar and pummel.
Our “wedding party” consisted of Larry, Brother George, James, his maternal uncle and me in a metal dinghy with a 45-horsepower engine (the only means of motorized transport). What I didn’t know then was that we were on a journey that would end in cultural collision (even now, ten years later, I can’t completely understand the subtleties of Makiran culture). But while I rode in the boat that morning, I didn’t know what was ahead and didn’t concern myself with the inevitable misperceptions I was soon to fall into. The salty, clear water ‘pelt warmer than the air. I liked to drag my hand in this warm, pristine sea and watch the rocky bottom pass below when we traveled. The land was so densely covered in vegetation that the mist had to sit on top like whipped topping. Thick buttons of green poked out under the white vapor. It looked like land before time.
An hour later, we pulled the canoe ashore in a lagoon surrounded by black sand and leaning rain trees. A six-inch trailhead leading straight up into jungle indicated the beginning of our hike. The canopy of jungle surrounded us in noise. The million bugs bawled, wazz-a-wazz, with such magnitude that the combined force made my ears ring. The sound pulsated and intermingled with the pounding of my own heart as I trekked up the steep hill. Frogs trilled at the top of their amphibian lungs. Birds didn’t sing in the jungle; they squawked and screamed. Wide green leaves covered the ground under the impossibly large, old rain trees. The jungle breathed; it had existed forever. It seemed happy to swallow me whole.
Kamarie had told me she was a bush gele, which meant that her village was not on the coast. What I hadn’t realized was that she was a bush woman from one of the villages “on top.” These were old traditional villages where people had lived before the British edict that required them to move to the coast and pay taxes. This village had never moved to the coast. They’d lived there since the old cannibal days. It was a good spot: hilltop villages could spot invaders, they didn’t have malaria and they could communicate via drummed messages that bounced over the jungle canopy. I had not yet seen a “real” village; expectant, I trotted barefoot up the three-mile trail to the village.
We were in good spirits. Truthfully, Larry and I were overwhelmed with the honor of being invited to a traditional wedding. I still had questions, though. I still didn’t know why Helene had been so mad about Kamarie wanting to “out” her baby. I’d never asked. And I’d never found the opportunity to ask Kamarie if she loved James. And I wasn’t sure what I was doing with a group of men. I didn’t know if I was invited because James had invited Larry or because Brother had invited Larry or because Kamarie had invited me. Later, Larry would insist it was because I was the only white woman on the island; but Kamarie would tell me that she’d wanted me to come.
James, his uncle and Brother cheerfully spoke about their bride price. They thought the traditional offering they’d brought was generous for a bride in Makira. Brother George proudly carried the ten strands of rare shells—eight feet in all—in a plastic bag. The cost of these shells equalled a year or more in wages ($200-$500 U.S. dollars). We’d also brought a hundred dollars in cash, enough for a few pigs and some chickens. I carried fifty dollars, a water bottle and my machete.
At the top of the volcanic hillside I gawked at the village and its immediate evidence of a cannibalistic past. It was surrounded by a fifteen-foot trench with sharpened spears at the bottom. Although many had fallen down, some still stuck up. Beyond the trench stood a small complex of bush houses. To get there I had to walk across a board positioned over the trench. If I’d tripped, I would have been impaled by one of those sticks.
I knew that the Solomon Islands were home to the famous headhunters of lore. Even though the Makirans didn’t have a head-hunting tradition like the other islands, they were admitted cannibals. I’d heard outrageous stories, but this was the first physical evidence I’d seen of their truth. The British had declared cannibalism illegal in the nineteenth century, but olos (village elders) still claimed to have feasted on human flesh during special occasions.
Other than the menacing sticks in the trench, this vintage village was well maintained and friendly. The bush house we were deposited in differed from the coastal houses at the center. Its sago-palm-leaf-thatched roof reached all the way to the ground. The thickness of the roof suggested permanence. The floor was compacted dirt, the house long and narrow. Woven palm mats covered betel-nut beds suspended above the ground. The only light came through the doorless doorway.
Kamarie’s family wouldn’t come through that slit of light until dusk, and we didn’t know the whereabouts of Brother, James and his uncle. If we didn’t exactly enjoy sitting together in the dark room alone for hours with nothing to look at or read, we got used to it.
“When do you think this thing will start?” Larry asked. We had adopted the leisurely pace of Makiran conversation. We did not answer each other quickly or make eye contact. In Makira, speakers look around as they talk, checking listeners periodically for reactions. At that point the listener looks away to avoid eye contact. Melanesians usually looked at each other’s toes when they talked. Even Larry and I looked at our toes. There was also an almost unbearably long pause between responses. When I’d first arrived, the pause seemed so long that I always assumed I had misspoken and repeated what I said.
This was, of course, my first custom wedding in the bushes of Makira, and I had no answer to Larry’s question. “Who knows?” I said.
“Maybe I should go see if I can help the women cook,” I said getting up.
“Maybe I’ll go see what the women are doing,” I said again, figuring I could get the scoop in the kitchen.
“God, Rach, give yourself a break.”
A break from what? I wondered. Sitting in this dark but like an idiot? I didn’t reply to Larry. He had hurt my feelings; I thought perhaps I shouldn’t have wanted to peel potatoes in a smoky kitchen. But the subtle pause between responses had become so ingrained that Larry didn’t realize I was pouting. Eventually he said, “That trench reminded me of a Hollywood movie set.”
“What’s a movie?” I asked. And we laughed at ourselves: exotic spectators at a mysterious event.
After a while people streamed into the house, startling at our presence. Many had probably never seen Caucasians. (I had met a good number of babies and toddlers who had been terrified at my appearance.)
The guests smelled of earth, wood smoke, and coconut sweat; they spoke only local language. Many of them wore just a single bolt of fabric tied around their waists. The original fabric colors had faded into brown, stained by the omnipresent mud of the jungle. They were all women, older and mostly topless. They looked exactly like the Papua, New Guinea, women I had gawked at in the National Geographic Magazine as a kid. The oldest women were toothless from years of chewing betel nut. Some had shells between their nostrils that perked up their noses. Others wore bones in large holes in their ears.
Each person who entered looked at us and laughed uproariously, while heaving giant bunches of betel nuts off their shoulders. These betel nut branches, for the “reception,” were green, fleshy nuts that intoxicate when combined with special leaves and lime ground from baked seashells. Makirans say, “Tamu Tamu Tari maki koro koro veh” (“Chewing the nut/leaf/lime every time is sweet sweet too much”).
Thirty or forty betel drunks crammed together in the small, dark space at the other end of the house. They chewed the nut for over an hour. Our party of five continued our marathon sitting on the other side of the house. We didn’t chew; I could never enjoy a drug that tasted like battery-acid-soaked cotton balls. When Kamarie came in, she sat alone in the middle of the room on a stool set against the wall. At the time, I didn’t wonder what they were doing—why there were only women at the custom wedding—because I was focused again on the question of why I had been invited.
The crowd of people enjoying themselves in another language in a dark room, lit by a single kerosene lantern, intimidated me. But I also anticipated a celebration—a happy occasion. My expectations seemed about to be met when, finally, Kamarie’s maternal uncle asked, “Why are you here?” and Brother George stood up and thanked Kamarie and her family for inviting us to their village. He spoke for a long time in his formal, broken English about what a great guy James was, and said that he was an assistant principal, and that he, Brother George, loved him like a son. He said that he didn’t know Kamarie as well, but loved her like a daughter. He was very happy to tell Kamarie’s family that they should be proud. He was here to tell them that Kamarie and James loved each other, and that their love was sacred under God.
George’s speech was very nice; it was very Western. But the mood changed on the other side of the room. The outlines of faces, indistinct the darkness, had stopped laughing. I knew they didn’t know any more about our customs than we knew about theirs. Words in Kahua flew about the room. Women spoke in harsh tones and argued extensively, repeating the word hagatara (money). I had no clue what the conflict was; they spoke too fast. It was even too dark to read their body language. I looked over to check Larry’s reaction. He smiled into the darkness. “Isn’t this great?” he said.
In the midst of these confusing negotiations Brother George (in a Western hurry, it seemed to me) stood up to present the bride price. He tied the strand of shell money to the roof rafter and began attaching the $350, rolled up and tied by a ribbon, to the strand. He chuckled like Santa handing out presents to happy children. James smiled too; he had already explained his generosity. He told us Kamarie was lucky to score herself a man from Guadalcanal. Larry added our $50 to the strand.
According to the coastal people we had asked, people didn’t even give custom money anymore. The men who lived near the training center told Brother George that they would only expect ten dollars for their daughters. But perhaps Brother George had asked the wrong people. Or perhaps he asked the right people and got the wrong answers. He’d been in Makira only a year longer than Larry and I. He’d spent most of the last two decades in Guadalcanal, a region of the Solomons accustomed to Western practices. It seems to me now that it would have made a spectacular lie: send a group of foreigners up to a traditional village, where they still tattoo their daughters’ faces, with ten bucks! The imagined consequences alone would be funny for generations. And we had fallen for the lie because we had no way of knowing otherwise. We were trying to behave appropriately—perhaps err on the generous side.
Why would they lie to us about something like this, you ask? Why wouldn’t they? Hagaparu!
Kamarie’s family greeted our offered bride price in silence. After an uncomfortable few hushed minutes, the women returned to their rowdy discussion, which continued for over an hour. The women talked fast, the way women talked in the kitchen. But now they sounded demanding; this was the real deal, and I was right in the middle.
After a long time, a woman prodded Uncle, who stood up and said, “Although the family is happy with the string of custom money, they still would like $1,550 in cash.”
We were astounded. Something had gone wrong. My ears buzzed, my mind busied itself with elementary math skills.
I asked Larry, “Why $1,950?”
“I think they added wrong.”
Kamarie’s uncle quickly corrected himself; he wanted $1,600. So this was a bartering negotiation, and we had already hung our whole wad on the rafter.
In retrospect, I see a foreign groom party connected to a school run for boys. Our “clan” owned a boat, a tractor, a store with rice and petrol, a generator, and imported teachers. We were wealthy—and white. But then I didn’t think about it that way, I had stopped viewing myself as white. I had been so completely isolated from my own culture for so long, I failed to identify myself as a Westerner.
When Brother, James and his uncle had a conference I figured they were calculating their next move. But James had his own rules, and he dropped out of the groom discussion. He moaned and wrung his hands. Brother George stood, watching him, with his arms crossed tightly across his chest. He didn’t know what to do. Uncle stood next to James and watched the other side of the room. Kamarie sat on her stool and studied the floor.
Brother called Larry over and spoke to him in hurried whispers, gesticulating—in a room full of people who never gesticulated. Larry glanced toward me while they talked. I sat still on the mat, feeling stupid. The men would make decisions without me; but I wanted to act. Should I speak up? Stay silent? Offer more money? Run?
Finally Larry came back and said, “James is pissed. He wants to run away. Brother George is trying to talk him out of it.”
“He cant leave. What about Kamarie?” I said. “Did you tell them we could give more money?”
“Of course,” he said, “But James is offended. They didn’t accept his bride price. He’s ready to run.”
We shook our heads sadly, trying to smile despite the tension in the room. It struck us both that this was a Makiran version of a shotgun wedding, with a staged groom getaway.
Just then, James stomped his foot, stood up and spoke for himself—a real no-no. “If you don’t want what I gave, I’m leaving without your daughter!” he proclaimed.
I winced. Solomon Islanders do not talk so loudly, directly, or seriously. They certainly don’t stomp their foot. Marriage was an agreement between families; the first-person pronoun had no place.
After James’s outburst, Kamarie’s family sat in silence, the matrons puffing on pipes, spitting betel juice. I could not help but wonder if her brothers waited outside with machetes. The women could pick up their own ubiquitous bush knives and slice us to bits. I feared James would snatch up the bride price; he had a nasty temper. He’d fling the entire heavy string of shells over his shoulder and stomp out into the black, thick night. And then what? I thought of oblivious foreigners I’d read about in Newsweek, caught in the center of some tribal conflict. Here I sat, just as stupid, just as vulnerable.
Puff, puff, spit, spit. My stomach cramped. Bile rose into my throat.
James sat down and bent over with his face in his hands. Kamarie left the room. Larry had another conference with Brother George.
“If you don’t have the $650 now, you can always send it later,” the uncle said, while Larry talked to Brother George.
Then James stood to join the group in their conversation. Larry’s mouth sagged at a crooked angle while James spoke. My husband looked sick.
“James said he’s leaving tonight,” Larry said when he returned. “He said he thinks we would be safe sleeping here until morning.”
“He thinks we’ll be safe? He’s going to ditch us? Leave us here and hope for benevolence?” I didn’t wait for Larry to answer. “What if we don’t want to stay? What then? Dash away across the headhunter trench? Sleep in a rain tree until dawn?”
“Geeze, Rach, it’s not that bad,” he said.
“Yes it is,” I said, and Larry held my hand in the darkness. His palms were sweaty; he’d felt what I said.
Kamarie’s uncle interrupted our panic attack. He told us a long, long story about how love is more important than money. But he also spoke firm words to James, telling him that Kamarie had a lot of land, a strong family line and a child of her line in her womb.
While he talked, I thought about James. How he had measured himself by different standards. He’d learned the Catholic ways.
Kamarie’s uncle finished with, “. . . only fifty more dollars. . .”
And Brother George took advantage of this opened door to boom, “Ve vill give jou not only fifdy doolars, but one hundred and fifdy doolars. Heh-ho-heh-heh.”
The family hooted and cheered—an explosion. This sudden joy startled and puzzled me as much as it relieved my fears. Everyone hopped up and down, shaking hands with me, Brother, Larry, James and Uncle. Then they skipped over to see the bride price close up. We had tea, we laughed and ate cold sweet potatoes.
After finishing her cold potato, Kamarie told me she was pleased with the negotiations. I studied her face and wondered if she was truly happy. We squatted together over the leaves on the floor, and I didn’t tell her that James had been ready to bolt, or what I thought of him.
That night, while I lay in my clothes on the coverless, pillowless palm mat in a room full of snoring Makiran women, I kept thinking, why so much money? It just didn’t fit with my preconceived notions.
It depended on who I asked, and to this day I’m not certain. Brother George thought they wanted to buy a new outboard motor for their canoe. Larry said we were rich white men, so why not ask for a huge wad of cash. James just shook his head and laughed queerly.
I wanted to believe Kamarie that it was a normal negotiation. But how could it be? It was anything but normal. True, only her line (mother, mother’s sisters and their daughters) attended; her mom played the crucial role in the negotiations, giving the ultimate yes or no on the “price.” Kamarie said that her family had demanded such a high bride price because of the pregnancy. The village lost two people instead of one, in a village where babies are beneficial; it’s a place without “bastards.” Clearly, they didn’t share our patriarchal assumptions; they had no cultural dictate that said a baby could be legitimized only by having a father.
What remains now is how much I had wrong; I’m probably still wrong. Everything I thought I knew, I didn’t. Why was I invited? At the time, I thought I was invited for the same reasons anyone gets invited to a wedding in America. But what happened next still makes me wonder.
The story of Kamarie and James didn’t proceed directly to happily-ever-after. Two months later, after the newlyweds moved into the house next door and the baby grew big enough to push Kamarie’s belly button out, there was trouble. Trouble in Makira usually involved complicated issues of social taboo; it meant the brothers were coming. It meant compensation would be demanded. It meant rumor had reached fraternal ears; someone had stepped out of line. It would entail action, more negotiations; depending on the deed it might cost a pig or two or ….
The day Kamarie came to tell me about the trouble, she had been sitting behind me unobserved while I started my fire in my kitchen earth oven. She’d arrived silently with no customary “who-ee-oo” announcement. So she startled me when I found her, sitting quietly on a stool. She didn’t smile at my greeting. Instead, she stood up. The baby poked straight out from her torso the way babies poke out of small mommies. Her face was flushed; beautiful in the pink afternoon glow. I felt her tension. She was a beacon of misery.
“Trouble, Karecello, something has happened,” she said finally. I asked if her labor had started early or if someone had been injured. But no, it was something else.
“My brothers are coming. They’re bringing the bride price,” she said, and then she wept bitter tears onto my shoulder. James had been involved in an adulterous relationship with a village girl. The brothers were prepared to fling the long string of shells at James’s feet—an act that would formally and shamefully end their brief union.
I hugged her that day, as her friend—someone she’d come to for comfort. But it occurs to me now—and the horror runs deep—that perhaps her tears were for me, for my complicity—the only woman who “stood up” for James.
This story is not currently available online.
Robby Travers, a boy of fourteen, took off his T-shirt and sneakers and stuck his toe in the pond at his grandparents’ farm. It was morning, and the sun was warm, but the shade of the willow tree and the water were cool. Robby hugged himself and hunched his shoulders–a reflex to cover his chest, which dipped in the middle like someone had taken an ice-cream scoop to it.
(For Greg “Groundhog” Burns and Joe Strummer)
I HAD A SAGEBRUSH ‘FRO and Led Zeppelin in my eight-track when the Sex Pistols came to town. The Kingfish, Baton Rouge, 1978. A friend had dragged me out, despite my scoffing. Punks, which I’d never seen, and English punks at that. Before the show we stopped at the bar next to the club, where one such punk was cutting up. “That’s Johnny Rotten,” my friend said, nodding toward a puny, red-haired dude in leopard-print pants. “Kinda scrawny,” I said. Rotten cackled and tossed a sandwich at one of his tablemates. Their waitress showed up in a flash. “I don’t care what kind of pistol you are,” she said. “Nobody throws food in my restaurant.” Rotten laughed madly, then went to preen himself in a Jim Beam mirror. I snorted. We settled up and left to get a good spot for the show.
The Kingfish dance pit swam with creatures like nothing I’d seen: heavy unisex mascara, safety-pinned faces, studded leather. Onstage several battered amps and a tiny drum kit squatted beneath meager lights. I shook my head and sneered. I’d seen the buffalo, rattlesnakes and ten-gallon hats of ZZ Top’s World Wide Texas Tour fill the Sugar Bowl, seen a police riot when Lynrd Skynrd didn’t show, seen Aerosmith tear up City Park Stadium twice in New Orleans. Seen Zep and their lasers, the Stones and their inflatable penis. What was this lame shit supposed to be? The Pistols ambled onstage like a … well, like a bunch of punks, except for Sid Vicious, who staggered on shirtless, I NEED A FIX scrawled in black on his bony chest. The crowd greeted them with spit and verbal abuse, idiot homage really, but Rotten leered back with a defiance that no rock ‘n’ roll crowd could penetrate. The Pistols took a moment to plug in and toss some abuse back, then launched into their first song. Steve Jones’s guitar ripped like a dull meat saw. Paul Cook battered his kit. Rotten keened unintelligible lyrics, a sound I’d never have called singing. Sid’s arms hung at his sides.
It almost took my legs from under me—the most awful, beautiful anguish of broken machinery meeting human flesh. An orgasm at the center of a warehouse collapse, a miracle, every bit as powerful as the Southern Baptist preachers who’d been telling me I was going to hell since I was seven. A grin as big as sex spread across my face. I tossed my frizzy hair, banged my palms on my thighs, stared amazed at the meltdown spilling across the stage.
Rotten leaned out at us, spewing anger and disdain, straightened and stared with jaded disapproval, then turned his back and hunkered down as spit flew. Every rock-star pose, every fast-fingered guitarist’s neck diddle, every tight-pants strut I’d ever witnessed was being bludgeoned obsolete right before my eyes. The Pistols were ugly and fun and not virtuosic at all—just honest, raw, dangerous and sick with attitude. I am an antichrist. I threw my arms skyward. I was saved.
But I wasn’t sold.
* * *
Two years earlier, I’d made the short geographical journey from industrial north Baton Rouge to college-town south Baton Rouge. The psychological journey was proving much harder. Every step I took away from my blue-collar neighborhood toward the frat-boy-ruled world of LSU seemed a betrayal of my roots. I hung in a middle distance between working-class resentment and alienation from that very same working class, from my high school cohorts who used nigger like punctuation, the macho boys who’d kick your ass for acting too smart. “Fucking Einstein” a dude had called me once, just before he connected with my jaw.
Back in the tough industrial world of Red Stick, the Pistols were like a memory of an alien visitation. I couldn’t fully accept a music nobody I knew listened to, couldn’t see that the Pistols were the exact expression of working-class cynicism and anger that I felt. I mean, if my bighaired, air-guitar-playing, flannel-shirt-and-jeans-wearing stance was cool, how could these punks be cool?
Meanwhile, a Baton Rouge scene was sprouting, mainly in a club called Damn Shame, but really anywhere the bands could get a gig. Loud, abrasive, eccentric, bizarre-looking people and bands like the Shitdogs, Jett Rink and the Solar Skates, the Times. I didn’t join in, but I kept my ears open to rogue radio signals—Elvis Costello, the Ramones, the Talking Heads. Then bands came to the Bayou, the bar where I hung. Jason and the Nashville Scorchers, the Red Rockers, the Gun Club, Translator, R.E.M. In my fiction-writing class I met a guy named Bill Davis, who led an edgy punk-pop unit called the Noise. Bill was one of the best and wildest performers I’d ever seen, bouncing and shrieking as he laid down demented Chuck Berry leads at light speed, or lying on his back with his head inside the bass drum as the rest of the band blazed through one of Bill’s smart-aleck originals. People acted crazy, shock-treatment dancing, pogoing, skanking, flailing without partners; there were no rules. After a while Bill and I got the idea we’d start a ‘zine, but when that promised to be too expensive and too much work, he came to my place near the bus station with another idea: “Let’s start a band. We’ll call it the Human Rayz. We’ll give ourselves Ray names like Ray D. Ator and use a drum machine.” We enlisted a bass player, Kevin Bourgeois, who had a four-track and a drum machine, and at our first practice wrote and recorded five songs. Next practice we wrote eight more. Then we booked a gig at a Women Against Rape rally and recruited the Noise’s drummer to supplement the drum machine. Butch the drummer showed up at the Bayou having never heard any of our songs. Bill told him, “Just play four-four fast unless I give you the sign, then play fucked-up.” During the gig, our pal Groundhog reclined onstage in a lounge chair, reading comic books. People laughed and shouted at us. I didn’t know a key or a chord. I didn’t know most of the lyrics I’d written. The assault of sound was beautiful. Within a year the Noise was dead, and the Human Rayz were recording in a country-music studio owned by a pillhead named Furr. We called him “Psychedelic,” a joke he didn’t get. We’d spasmed our way into rock ‘n’ roll.
* * *
Early on, Bill’s hyper schedule made it hard to write more songs; also, he was dissatisfied with my lack of musical knowledge. So I recruited a painter/actor/guitar player named Brian Storey to write with me. We came up with songs like “Quest of the Nubiles” and “Your Love’s a Bad Science Fiction Movie,” but Bill hated Brian’s thick-fingered playing. Practice became a battlefield of dueling amps, where I could rarely hear my vocals.
An old friend of Bill’s (we didn’t yet know he was literally delusional) lied enough about us to book the Rayz at a heavy metal club for three nights, for real money-—almost two hundred dollars. The night of the gig, Brian and Bill sniped at each other all the way to the club. When we arrived, we found an extensive list of “No’s” (No ripped jeans, No tank tops) evidently designed to keep the sleaziest bikers out. I scrounged up some paper and a marker and made signs of my own (No fun, No future) and, thinking I was cute, posted them on the sides of the stage. Before we played our first note, several long-haired dudes shot comments at me about how smart-asses got their asses whupped and how they didn’t need any queers in here (our short hair and thrift-store Lost-in-Space shirts evidently classified us), but that didn’t prepare me for the wasted guy who stumbled to the front of the stage midsong, brandished a knife and demanded we play ZZ Top. The place was filled with people, mostly jeering at us, but people nonetheless, so I just laughed and asked, was he going to kill us in front of so many witnesses. He seemed unable to process that complex a question. I turned and told the band to play ZZ Top. Everybody stumbled into “Just Got Paid”—a joke, but Bill yelled in Brian’s face, did he know how to play guitar? Brian threw his guitar at Bill and stormed out. The crowd cheered for the only time that night. I told Bill he was an asshole, but still, the whole thing seemed cool, unslick, wide open with potential.
We were fired after the first set.
* * *
Over time the lineup settled into Marina Del Ray (Bill) on guitar, E. Ray Sorehead (Ricky) on bass, Ray Penn Murder (Butch Golson) on drums and me, Ray Don Entebbe, on vocals and found percussion (cans, bottles, tables, an old Air Force marching drum, audience members). Our songs spanned a schizophrenic range of taste du jour: punk, high-tension pop, new wave, psychobilly, ska, trashadelic. The Damn Shame was long dead, and the town’s regular bars resisted booking local, original new music bands, so we were forced to create an underground scene wherever we could.
In deserted downtown Baton Rouge, a gay club called the Industry relented. The club was a block from the Mississippi River, beneath the glowing sky lit by Exxon’s and Allied’s flare stacks. Inside, a mirrored wall, a muraled ceiling and a bouncy, rickety, two-tiered stage gave the place a surreal air. After we started playing there, Saturday nights soon began to bring not only middle-aged businessmen, drag queens, a crowd with angular hair and striped, torn clothing but also a group of fundamentalist Christians who denounced fornicators and homosexuals at the bar’s entrance. To get to the door we waded through haranguing witnesses, me brandishing a velvet painting of a crying Jesus as protection. At the club’s entrance stood a dismembered mannequin nailed to a cross, which really got the Christians going. Then one night at an MDC gig, a group of hard-core punks beset the Christians, clawing at their legs and begging for salvation. Several of the punks sliced crosses into their foreheads and arms and tried to smear blood on the converters, routing them. After that, the cops pressured the Industry to send us all packing. During our final song at the club’s final gig, somebody bounced a full can of beer off my head, almost knocking me out.
* * *
We played guerrilla gigs: a skankfest at LSU’s Episcopal Church with Bobbo and Da Pigs; in the bed of a moving pickup during the Krewe of Clones’ Mardi Gras parade; at an apartment-complex courtyard in Tiger Land—until the cops came. Finally we headed south to Gonzales, to a bar that Harry Dog and the Fleas had found, a faltering strip club called the Watering Hole, on a dirt road bordering BASF Wyandotte
Chemicals, the plant where my dad had worked since the ’60s. Out there, things cut to the core. Dancers piled onto the beer-soaked floor doing the Body during our psychedelic dirge “Bodies in the House” (“there were bodies in the house/but we tried not to notice”) and squirmed on their bellies like writhing maggots when Harry Dog and the Fleas covered “Human Fly.” Misfits of all stripes, from gay rednecks to eccentric Southern gentry, thrashed, pogoed and slammed. Punks stole mike stands; psychodramas erupted between Harry Dog’s girlfriends; Marina Del Ray played guitar while doing toot in the bathroom; Ray Penn Murder forgot his drumsticks and used a broken pool cue; I flew into rages; chemical stench tinged the air. It was all excess and aggressive music, but among the drugs, booze and unstable personalities, a fractured community formed.
Amazingly, our smart-ass pop single “Chemical Kids” (“I’m just a chemical boy,/I want a chemical girl,/I think we should go together,/ Won’t you go down to Love Canal with me”) scored heavy airplay on LSU’s radio station, and we began to get gigs at respectable clubs—obviously the beginning of the end. In the years since first seeing the Sex Pistols, I’d gotten married and divorced, had dived into and been spit out of a crazed relationship and had become a college teacher of developmental reading. My lyrics had turned dark and troubled: “Morbid Curiosity,” about a man voyeuristically searching for bad news about his ex; “Running the Fuse,” about too much cocaine, angry sex and lack of communication; “Thirty Minutes,” about nuclear war and ground zero for relationships—songs that were changing the Rayz’ jokey persona. The summer our single came out, Bill wanted me to travel to college stations around the country to promote the band, but to get myself level I took a trip to Europe. When I got home two months later, Bill had started the cowpunk and rockabilly band Dash Rip Rock. Bill had seen that I wasn’t ready to go on the road, and I knew that my talent couldn’t breathe in a band with Bill. Within months, the Human Rayz had been dashed—a necessary death, but even so, no less like a brother’s betrayal to both of us.
Those years, the early to mid-’80s, crackled and depressed like no others I remember until now. Our gloom over Reagan’s presidency and a predatory America made our small scene and the music we loved a refuge. Music and bands saved and defined us: the Cramps, the Clash, X, the Damned, the Leroi Brothers, Husker Dii, the Replacements, Evan Johns and the H-Bombs, the Ramones, the Jam, Joe Ely, the Blasters, the Minutemen, Dead Kennedys, Buzzcocks, Gang of Four, and on and on. Radical, rebellious, angst-ridden, retro, hilarious music we could dance to.
By 1985 I was desperate to have another band. For a year I wooed Boykin Short, a basketball buddy who was also my favorite guitarist (formerly of the Fleas). Boykin was technically brilliant but also damaged, bright, daring and inventive in the way of the great trashabilly and R&B guitarists. Ultimately I got all the Fleas—Adam on drums, Ron on bass and, as second vocalist, Liz, a woman with a piercing, barely on-key vocal like Exene Cervenka’s of X, my favorite band at the time. All we needed was a name. Then a friend told me a story about how she’d attended a repressive new-age high school in California. There the administration had demanded that the students “not listen to rock ‘n’ roll music because, in order to be holy, you needed to focus your energies on your upper chakras, and rock ‘n’ roll made all of your energy get trapped down in your lower chakras.” We were set.
The Lower Chakras poured off-harmonies, edgy roots-rock licks, do-it-yourself ethics, plenty of Busch beer and caustic postpunk lyrics and tempo through Marshall amps and came out with “36 Flags over Jesus,” about local celebrity Jimmy Swaggart and his massive compound on the edge of town. We released “36 Flags” as a single, and its success made us eager to record an album. We needed money and didn’t want to play frat parties, so we took on other strange gigs.
A restaurant in downtown Gonzales, a provincial Cajun town, hired us to play on the street for two days and nights during the Jambalaya Festival in order to, as our employer said, “attract thirsty people.” We knew that the crowd would be a mix of families, bikers and drunks, but we knew enough Stones, Kinks, Creedence, other ’60s rock and Nuggets that we thought we wouldn’t get fired. Our stage turned out to be a ten-by-twelve flatbed trailer with shin-high railings. There was barely enough room for our equipment and PA, much less five band members, but we kept laughing, “Easy money,” as we crammed everything on and rigged the tricky power supply from the restaurant.
* * *
The first day and night were low key; most of the crowd streamed past and ignored us. Groups of bikers were the only ones who liked how odd and obnoxious we were. The restaurant’s main business didn’t seem to be food service but rather a steady trade in men who disappeared into the two-story building for long periods. Off and on, heavily made-up women came out of the restaurant to stand around the stage and smoke before disappearing inside again. We knew there was gambling in back, but what else we could only guess. Nicky, the shorter, nicer of the two brothers who’d hired us, came out once in a while to nod and tap his foot. The jambalaya was spicy, meaty. The beer was icy. The Louisiana sky hung pale and warm.
The second evening a bunch of friends from the old scene came out, so we cut loose long strings of thrashy, big-guitar originals: “Fishin in the Lake of Fire,” “Admiral Blackie,” “Tiger Beach.” We drove the families off, and when Nicky came out he didn’t nod or tap. Off to the side, a gaggle of rowdy drunks kept screaming that we sucked, but then bobbed their heads and stagger-danced every time we played. I trashtalked them, goading them to ask for “Free Bird,” then, when they finally did ask, flipping them off and saying, “Here you go, won’t cost you a thing.” Still, they were cool until the middle of “36 Flags,” when the song morphed into a requiem of “Jesus Loves the Little Children,” and the spirit possessed me.
Earlier we’d thrown a few singles to the crowd, and now the ringleader held his away from his body like a turd. Even in the dim streetlight, his complexion deepened from drunken ruddy to bloody rage. I was busy driving demons from people’s foreheads, one eye on the ringleader, when he threw the record to the ground and stomped it, grinding his heel and then grabbing it up like Moses raising the tablets above his errant flock. He sailed the record at me, then charged the flatbed. I was ready to kick him, but my brother the ex-cop and another large friend named Huckaby headed him off. I stopped my “healing” and started talking peace and love fast through the PA, trying to calm the factions as Gonzales police waded in. Finally everybody settled down, and we finished our set, but boss Nicky scowled and stood with crossed arms while his brother fumed.
“Oh, boy,” I said to Boykin as he unplugged. “Time to collect.”
“The deal maker,” he said and smiled. “If you’re not back in a half hour, we won’t be waiting.”
Nicky and his brother silently escorted me through the restaurant into a smoky room where several men were counting stacks of money. They told me to sit in a chair in a corner as they went over to the money counters. Nicky and his brother bookended an older man in sunglasses at the table, whispering to him and glancing at me, then took their seats. I remembered how that morning, driving I-10 to the gig, we’d seen a vulture on the shoulder tugging what appeared to be a long red ribbon away from a dog’s carcass. Closer, we saw that the ribbon was the dog’s intestine, stretched twenty feet and still unreeling. Our friend Beverly had gagged. I’d swallowed hard and laughed.
Nicky motioned me over. I took a seat across from him, his brother and the older man in shades.
“This is the man from New Orleans,” Nicky said. I nodded, but the man kept his visored face tilted to the money in front of him. “We agreed to four twenty-five, right?” Nicky said.
“Six seventy-five,” I said.
The dumber, bigger brother leaned toward me. “You calling Nicky a liar?”
“That’s what we agreed to,” I said.
The brother leaned closer.
“Calm down,” Nicky said to him, and the brother backed off slightly. Nicky said, “I don’t remember that agreement. I remember what I remember.” He glanced at the man from New Orleans, then fixed on me again. “What’re you gonna do if we don’t give you the six seventy-five? You gonna sue?”
You get used to being ripped off when you play rock ‘n’ roll. I knew the band wouldn’t like getting shorted, but we could all live with it. And after playing for two straight days, the great ringing in my ears had created a calm isolation. Plus, I didn’t think these people would gain from beating my ass. I shrugged.
“I’m not gonna do anything,” I said. “What can I do?” The whole table looked at me, then at each other, blanked by my response. “We played music the whole time we were supposed to. I think it’s fair you pay us what you said.”
“That ain’t what we said,” spat the older brother.
Nicky held his hand up and studied me a second. Maybe he was recalling his earlier foot-tapping, thinking of how he’d smiled during “Fortunate Son” or how I’d stopped the riot I’d almost started. Whatever his thoughts, he said, “Let me talk to the man from New Orleans. Please wait in the restaurant.”
I walked out front, amazed at having stumbled into this amateur production of The Godfather. The woman behind the counter handed me a beer and winked. “Y’all played good,” she said. I smiled and raised the bottle to her. A second later Nicky came out with a wad of cash.
“The man from New Orleans said we should split the difference. Here’s five hundred twenty-five dollars.” I almost said the difference had been split mostly his way, but I could tell from his eyes that I was lucky the Man had granted us this and not sent out the other brother. Nicky shrugged, looking strangely sorry. “Business is business,” he said.
How could I argue?
* * *
While playing in the Chakras, I had begun teaching high school. The kids were great (we even played a raucous gig in the gym for the science fiction club dance), but the teaching load was deadening. More and more I felt out of sorts, like my life was two sizes too small. I hadn’t written fiction in two years. After a weekend as Andre Dubus’s driver, I applied to the MFA program at the University of Alabama and moved to Tuscaloosa. One night in workshop my first semester, the professor, red-faced and shaking, tossed my manuscript to the center of the table. “This,” he said, “is hyperbolic crap.” That was the high point. From then on, I steeled myself for workshop with early Soul Asylum, the Ramones, the Celibate Rifles’ “Turgid Miasma of Existence”—angry fortification and purging. Weekends when I could, I drove six hours each way to Baton Rouge to gig with the Chakras. Near the end of my first year, I read Ted Solotaroff’s “Writing in the Cold” and decided to take a leave of absence to try and get the Chakras on the road.
* * *
Back in Baton Rouge I worked odd jobs and sponged from Boykin and Liz while we searched for a bass player and a drummer who could travel. We fired our friend Ron and Boykin’s brother Adam, found a great bass player, Mike “Cornbread” Traylor, and started going through drummers. Then, after months of failed drummers, I decided to go back to Alabama. Almost immediately the drummer we’d been needing, George Brown, hooked up with us. I left for school again anyway.
We recorded over the summer, and that fall my friend Geoff Schmidt made the twelve-hour drive with me two weekends to finish mixing. Our album came out underproduced (my fault) and poorly pressed (not my fault), but our small label, Martini Records, managed to get us distribution that brought reviews from around the country and strange fan mail from as far away as Bulgaria and Greece. “I very much like your yellow record,” one postcard said.
My fiction writing still bumped along, but the writers I admired at ‘Bama came down front at our gigs, swilled beer and shook booty, supporting me. Three carloads of my pals made the trek to Baton Rouge for the Chakras’ annual Electric Living Room Cool Test gig, a spoofy homage to the Merry Pranksters’ Acid Tests and an attack on the smug apathy that had begun to dominate audiences and that reminded us of the period before punk blew things open. Before the gig at the Bayou, we painted the furniture onstage tacky psychedelic colors, covered the walls in aluminum foil, rigged blacklight lamps, creating a kitschy living room where willing audience members could lounge. The band set up on the floor so people could mingle and perform with us. The only drawback was that the spilled beer on bare cement caused me to be so violently shocked that the mike stand jolted out of my hands and seconds literally disappeared. The band and a good many audience members wore pajamas and bathrobes. One dude fell off a coffee table and gashed his lip. Poet Buck Downs slept through the roar of “Phosgene Baby,” a song he’d written lyrics for but had never heard. And a wasted former Vietnam door gunner wigged out and tried, for no reason, to attack Tony Earley, who compassionately held him at arm’s length until a friend ushered the man away.
* * *
The Chakras gelled with Cornbread and George, but Boykin and Liz split as a couple, turning every gig and infrequent practice into a breakup brawl, often using embittered new songs about each other as weapons. Finally, after months of agonizing, we kicked Liz out of the band. I returned to Tuscaloosa carrying a load of guilt and, evidently, a case of bad karma. Sprinting down the basketball court, I collided with a shorter player, who’d spun and stopped unexpectedly on a fast break; his head cracked me in the throat so hard I collapsed to the floor, unable to speak, barely able to breathe. A doctor at first thought my larynx was cracked and made me sit in the infirmary for four hours in case I started suffocating, but luckily I was only bruised. Still, the blow knocked out my voice for two days and took away half of my already limited vocal range for the next two years. I had just enough left for rock ‘n’ roll.
A few weeks later I returned to Baton Rouge to croak through our first gig without Liz. The dancers squirmed on the packed floor while we grooved onstage, free at last from the domestic smolder we’d suffered through for a year. Despite my voice, it was one of those great nights, four people in perfect sync, sprinting through an obstacle course and carrying the audience with us.
Then, three-quarters through the first set, one of our bright yellow albums sailed above and into the audience. I raised my eyebrows at Boykin. Liz? Oh well. The gig was going great. Who cared if Liz gave records away? And who could blame her?
Between songs, a friend squeezed her way to the lip of the stage and pointed at a knot on her forehead. “Liz hit me with a record,” she said. Then she bent the album like a book cover. “And it’s broken down the middle.” Between sets I almost got in a fight with Liz’s new boyfriend; then we finished the set and went back to Boykin’s to unload equipment. When we got there, I stared at the boxes of albums in our practice room.
“Boykin,” I asked, “does Liz still have a house key?”
He nodded. Boykin, my girlfriend, Colleen, and I lifted record after record and examined the creases, shaking our heads. Three hundred broken records.
Colleen bent one back and forth as if playing an instrument herself. “Think of how satisfying each snap must have been,” she said.
I did. Then I thought of the hole I’d have in me if the band had kicked me out. Thought of the two other friends we’d kicked out to go on the
road, though we never really had gone on the road. Thought of how I’d felt betrayed when the band played our album-release gig without me on the night my mother died, rather than postpone it. Thought of how bands are like a marriage. The vows are your promises to meld talents and tastes to create something together, no matter how much the others might differ with your vision, no matter how much they get on your nerves. Thought how messy the divorces can be; and then, for no particular reason, remembered Nicky saying, “Business is business.” Before the next Chakras’ gig in Tuscaloosa, our friends made jewelry and Christmas ornaments from the vinyl fragments. I watched and laughed but didn’t join in. Finally my friend Val Vogrin came over to me, wearing a necklace of record shards. “It’s a good record,” she said, “but now it’s a much better story.”
After a couple more years of “reunions” and “final gigs,” the Chakras called it quits. Rock ‘n’ roll had helped me find the voice I’d lacked when I walked into the Sex Pistols’ storm so long ago—a more honest voice, no matter how flat, damaged, or off-key.
My rockadoozy wasn’t over though. Friends from several bands asked me to be Judas in their bar-band production of Jesus Christ Superstar. When that fell through, they asked me to front a band called The Irascibles, a pop-garage group that would play revved-up threechorders a la the Miracle Workers, Lyres and Cynics. “Three chords and a pile of dust,” Dan “Electro” Hall, our drummer and main songwriter, called it. We clicked right off, our T-town friends and dance-starved strangers packing in close to the stage, sweating through a ‘Bama spring and summer, bobbing their heads and swilling beer, singing along on the floor and joining us onstage for the Damned’s “Stranger on the Town” and Deep Purple’s “Hush.” During an old Human Rayz song, I encased myself in a Hefty bag and slowly stretched my way out, a crowd favorite but a little risky in ragged bar air and ninety-five degree heat.
At the end of the summer, I moved to my new teaching job in Connecticut, but I still go back once in a while to play. And it strikes me that the more I know about myself, the more I need simple, direct, live music. Music that urges expression, sweat and rowdies pressing the stage. Music like the Swinging Neckbreakers, the Woggles, Mudhoney, Sweat Bee, the Roebucks, Jot.
I go back, and sometimes the band members don’t see each other until we’re onstage at the Chukker. No practice, just some beer and loud talk for inspiration. Above the dance floor, the two-bladed fan wobbles as the heat gathers in the folds of the parachute bunched on the stage walls. I duct-tape set lists to the wall and smile, think how lucky I’ve been to live this mirror-star dream in front of like-minded people.
The crowd gathers down front, yelling at us, setting their drinks in lines on the lip of the stage. Jay plugs in and tunes his guitar. Robert adorns his organ with deodorizer crowns and adjusts his sunglasses. Brian (or Greg)—the bass player of the evening—swills beer and hangs loose until it’s time. I stand stage-front and wrestle the mike stand to make it reach as high as it can, antagonize the people in front, then turn to the band. Dan plops down behind his small, vintage drum kit, the meager stage lights reddening his face.
“One, two, three, four,” he yells, clicking his sticks.