Canvassing for School Board in a State with Struggling Schools

I parked my car and worried about leaving it and worried about the privilege of being able to leave it. I worried about my own worrying about it, and what it says about me – my doors never used to lock. Conscious of the tenderness of knuckle and how I knocked – did it sound like the cops? – I wondered if I should even think this or if its impact transcended trope? (I should not have to rehash for you the catalysts of the Black Lives Matter movement.) When I knocked, I made its noise into a sort of music, so its rhythm wouldn’t sound alarming: tat-tat tata-tat-tat tat-tat. Even when coming from loved ones, a knock is never welcoming; its thuds excite or concern us more than they calm us. The sounds are alerting. Alarming. An issue to be dealt with.

In
this Baton Rouge district, some of the houses had no doorbells. Sometimes, the
doorbells were taped over with blue masking or black electrical tape.
Sometimes, the outer coverings were broken so that the light shined behind, but
I wouldn’t press them for fear of being shocked. Sometimes, a second doorbell
with a small camera had been added. These doorbells were black and lit up blue as
they rang and they sang a small, sharp tune and surely watched me. Sometimes,
the doorbells didn’t make a sound, so I pressed my ear to the door to listen
and knocked after and felt the tenderness in my knuckle again. So many of the
doorbells didn’t work or weren’t there that a knot formed in my knuckle.
Sometimes there was a camera above the door and sometimes in place of the
camera there was a piece of paper that said, “Smile, You Are On Camera” or “We
Are Videotaping You Steal and Will be Sharing with the Police.”

Some
of the doors had second, outer metal doors over them. These were a pattern of
strips and rods through which I could see the real door and through which my
hand sometimes fit to knock on the real door. Sometimes I had to knock on the
steel frames, which made a low sound that people barely ever answered to, and
sometimes I had to knock on the mesh patterns between the frames, which made a
loud rattling sound which startled even me. Sometimes near the door there were
signs that said, “KNOCK LOUD” or “Leave packages around back.” Sometimes the
house had a gate that I could walk through to get to the door and sometimes the
gate was locked so that I had to slip the flyer on the gate and say hello and
hope that someone was home.

*

The
sidewalk broke away and gave to grass, the yards to rock and mud. A Styrofoam
sonic cup pooled its remaining blue wastes of sugar juice. I told you that I
parked my car and left it, and as I walked, I watched a man enter shirtless
into his house – he was taller than me with broad shoulders and a bald head.
His skin shone pale and white and flexed black tattoos on his back and arms. I
walked past his home, since it was not listed on the canvassing app on my phone,
and I knocked without answer at his neighbor’s door. As I moved along, a small
pickup truck idled at the street-edge of a driveway a few houses down. The
truck was white, with a rust-red fender, and the woman inside watched me. She
had been watching every house I knocked on. Her hands rested on the
steering-wheel as I approached.

“Hello.
I’m just here canvassing for the upcoming school board election.” She wore a
white shirt with no logo, not bright but not torn. Despite leaning all the way
back in the seat, her stomach pressed into the steering wheel. Her eyes, wide.
Her hair, stringy. Even though she was not on my list, in order to defuse her I
talked about the candidate I was canvassing for and about how the incumbent had
been on the job for awhile despite the fact that the schools keep
underperforming. It was my standard spiel.

“Me
and my mother have been here twenty years and watched it go to shit,” she said.
“It’s disgusting. See that man over there?” She pointed to the white man with
the tattoos. “He’s the biggest drug dealer around. And down the street, Mrs.
X’s daughter has special needs. The blacks use her as a sex toy.” I nodded.
There was nothing more to say to this woman, really. She drove off with her
truck clunking and my knuckle tender from knocking.

*

Further
down the street, I knocked on another house. The couple that lived there were
in their eighties, and so I waited awhile longer, laid a flier on the door, and
left. As I walked across the street, I heard a door opening and a man, voice
measured and low, muttering hello behind me. “I saw you leave something on my
door.”

The
man stood shorter than me, and I am a short man. His body drew thin at the
shoulders and wrists, the way older people can. He held a rake and covered his
head in a sun hat with a wide brim. Suspenders supported his tan khakis. I gave
him another flier since he did not bring the other from the door. I asked him
who he planned on voting for. I talked with him about the schools’ poor performance
in the entire city, not just in this district. He looked over the photograph of
the candidate.

“At
my age,” he said, “I’m not against anyone.”

Okay.
Wait for it. Try to smile.

He
continued, “You can’t be against anyone at my age.” He held an expression of
half hope, half fear, anxious about whether I would judge him.

“But
really, what can you do?” he said. “They’ve only made it this far and been
around this long. How much farther can we expect them to get, really?” His hand
was shaking, slightly. I suspected from age and not nervousness. I tried to
smile. I tried to tell him about the candidate’s platforms. I asked him if his
wife was available to speak and I asked him if he would like some help raking
his yard. He told me no thanks and that he would look over the flier and
consider voting for my candidate.

*

I
know that my being white allows me the privilege of being patient with a man
whose culture has engrained in him a racist worldview and an inherent bias against
minorities, women, and other ethnicities. But I also know of Daryl Davis, who dialogued
with Roger Kelly, the Grand Dragon of the KKK in Maryland, for so long that the
two men became friends and Kelly eventually quit the Klan and gave Davis his
robe. This greatly diminished the presence of the KKK in Maryland. To be clear,
I am not advocating for anyone to speak with Klansman. No one should speak with
Klansman. Davis is lucky he isn’t dead. But it worked. On the other hand, I
also remember an image from Facebook. In the picture, a young and thin black
man holds a sign at the Woman’s March. The sign read, “We’ll See All You Nice
White Ladies At The Black Lives Matter Rally, Right?” I know that the issue
requires both patience and pressure.

This
is an essay on canvassing and the state of schools in Louisiana. But the essay
is also about race because every essay ever written in the United States is
about race. If you don’t realize that, you’re part of the problem.

*

When
clouds covered the sun, and a slight drizzle, so thin it almost formed in fog,
pearled the screen of my phone, I tucked an umbrella into my armpit and grew
thankful that the heat had abated. Some days the temperature made me sweat in
places that people living in the north never realize you could feel sweat in.
And this was fall, mind you. This wasn’t even summer.

I
knocked on the outer security grate of a red brick house and no one answered.
The doorbell either didn’t work or made a sound inaudible behind the door. As I
turned, I looked across the street to the end of a lawn with no sidewalk where
someone had piled tires, broken or shattered windows, an old printer, and a
couch. The couch was leather, black with the front faded and ripped to grey.
The house behind it was tan with a black roof shaded umber by leaves and dirt.
On the roof, a grey satellite dish pointed towards the constellations above
this very down-to-earth property where someone may have resided or someone may
have abandoned.

I
snapped a picture on my phone, and as I turned around the block, since the
house sat on the corner lot, I heard men behind the fenced-in yard, not visible
from where I stood earlier. “You’re on camera, too.”

“Excuse
me?” I didn’t think anyone was home, since no one answered.

“We’ve
got picture of you, too. You and the Feds.”

In
the yard, three men huddled. The one calling me out sat in the driver’s side of
a newly restored Lincoln with bright rims. Beside the car, two men stood, one
with a small glass bottle of gin in his hand. It was before noon.

The neighborhoods in this district wavered from run-down to classic suburbia. Tall, weedy grass to manicured lawns with carefully carved hedges. On one street, I saw a house with plasterboard for windows. Someone had written in chalk on the plasterboard, “For rent, call 225…” On another street, I saw a bonsai tree larger than any I’ve witnessed outside of museums. White stone lions pillared each side of one driveway. Several broken-down cars were the statues in another driveway. One house held a large banner written in black and red paint. The font varied in styles from cursive to gothic. It read, “Happy Birthday,” “We Gain Johnson,” “Asia Kim,” “Love Won!” and “Engagement Party.” I couldn’t quite make sense of it. At another house, a sign beside the door listed in orange marker the prices of meals. Patrons could get several “Breakfast 4 Champions” platters, such as a grits, eggs, and sausage plate with coffee for $5. A fish, shrimp, or crab poboy, also $5. Hamburgers or cheeseburgers were $2. That was not a typo. Desserts ranged from pecan candies to bundt cakes. At the top of the menu, the owner had written out proverbs 3:5–6, “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thine ways acknowledge him and he shall direct thy paths.” Their slogan read, “Where every bite is like a slice of heaven.”

*

In
Louisiana, students in grade school take the LEAP test every year, which assesses
their skills in English, Math, and Social Studies. The test is scored through
five levels: advanced, mastery, basic, approaching basic, and unsatisfactory.
In order for a student to be prepared for the next grade level, he or she must
meet the level of mastery. However, for the last three years, little progress
has been made. In 2018, only 34 percent of third-through-eighth graders met
this requirement. When high-school students were added, only 43 percent of the
students scored mastery in English, and only 33 percent of the students met
this benchmark in Math, according to The Advocate.
In U.S. News and World Reports’ “Best
States for PreK-12” rankings, Louisiana comes in at 45. Wallethub, whose study factors in funding, class size, instructor
credentials and safety along with performance, rates Louisiana at 50 (out of
51, since D.C. is included).

Aware
of the poor state of their schools, the citizens I met voiced concern. One
woman who worked at the post office wanted to know what the candidate would do
about the LEAP Test. She worried that the state’s requirement that students
pass the test by a certain try held kids back and shaped the way teachers
interact with kids in the classroom. Another woman wanted to know what the
candidate would do to better the lives and working conditions of support
workers like bus drivers and janitors. Everyone talks about the teachers, she
said, but they aren’t the only ones working with these kids.

As
I answered a nineteen-year-old’s questions about her polling place, one of her
relatives, who didn’t live in the district, swayed and proclaimed that
politicians promise anything but never deliver. She said she’d called her
senator about burying her husband, but no one would help her.

Some
people didn’t answer the door even though I could hear them watching television
or talking or moving around. Sometimes the door would be open and I could see
them through the inner screen door, watching TV and ignoring me. Most yelled,
“Who is it?” through the door. Some shouted “Get off my property,” or “Not
interested” without ever knowing why I was there. Some said, “We don’t vote,”
or “I’m going to vote” in a tone as if I’d expected them not to participate. A
few teenagers told me with pride how they were going to vote for the first
time. This district resembled most districts in the U.S. Some people were
involved in their community and some weren’t, for reasons both personal and a
product of our national culture. Some held hope, while others had given up or
never cared.

*

I
knocked on the house of a middle-aged white man who burst through the door. He
said, “Is yours the candidate who said he wanted to create more opportunity for
black males?”

“What
do you mean?” I asked. The way he spoke showed his disproval of this idea.

“Last
night at the debate, one of the candidates said he wanted to create more
opportunity for black males. It did not go over well with the female
candidates.”

I
told him about the candidate’s desire to create equality for all schools and
students, but I also told him about how the highest drop-out rates are among
black boys. He may have been addressing this. The man held the flyer at eye-level
against his brick wall, squinted at it, and told me he would consider my
candidate. He remained undecided.

Later
I stopped to admire a woman’s garden. A raised bed burst with foliage and food.
On the side of her house, tomato plants dangled from hanging pots. In her yard,
a sign supporting my candidate stood. The woman appeared in her fifties, tall,
with grey hair, brown skin and freckles. She joked about the sign, as if I hadn’t
seen it. She offered me water before I left.

*

I
saw lizards, wasps, roaches. The glass covering of a porchlight contained a
graveyard of moths. Four dogs basked in the sun of a house with an eviction
notice. A woman told me the people had left them when they moved. In someone’s
driveway, a cat meandered around a turtle with a spiked tail. No body of water,
not even a culvert, was close.

*

I
met my supervisor, a young woman who worked the rest of the year for a
consulting firm in D.C., at an upscale, fairly-new Market in Mid City. The White
Star Market has coffee shops that sell cold-brew, nitrogen drips. Gov’t Taco
serves a single taco with coffee/chile rubbed beef, avocado crema, hot sauce,
and pickled red onions and jalapenos for $3.50. Chow Yum Phat serves a ramen
bowl with broth, seared pork belly, ajitama, woodear and shitake mushrooms,
enoki, mayu and scallions for $12. When my supervisor said that these neighborhoods
barely ever get canvassed, I told her that the main obstacle I was running into
was the citizens’ wariness of a young white man in their neighborhoods asking
them about voting.

As
African-Americans make up the majority of the district, its citizens
reluctantly trusted me – a white person walking into their southern
neighborhoods to ask them who they planned on voting for. Often, I got, “I’m
not going to tell you that.” “That’s my business.” “We don’t talk about that.”
Even though the picture on the flier showed that the candidate I was canvassing
for was black, these citizens were still aware of Republicans’ ongoing voter
suppression efforts. Shortly after inauguration, Kris Kobach, appointed by the
Trump Administration, headed a committee secretly aimed at creating data to
justify oppressive voter ID laws. In North Carolina, Republican senators in the
state legislature attempted to eliminate the final Saturday of early voting in
state elections. Black voters routinely show up to the polls on this day. In
Georgia, secretary of state Brian Kemp, running for Georgia Governor against
Stacey Abrams (who would have been the first black governor in US history),
used an exact-match signature system for absentee ballots. This system put the
registration of 53,000 voters on hold. When Abraham recently conceded that her
candidacy held no viable path to the governorship, she noted, correctly, that
“democracy failed Georgia” and “eight years of systematic disenfranchisement,
disinvestment, and incompetence had its desired effect on the electoral process
in Georgia.” Similarly, in Randolph County, election officials attempted to
close seven of the nine polling places. To justify these closures, the election
officials stated that the polling places do not properly accommodate Americans
with disabilities. Sixty percent of this county is black. In North Dakota, the
states supreme court upheld a controversial bill which required a street
address to be listed on state IDs. Many native peoples living on the
reservations in North Dakota use only P.O. Boxes. The examples go on and on.

Voting
is the foundation of our democracy, or our democratic republic, if you want to
get technical. This is something your high-school civics teacher will tell you,
and it’s true. Any attempt to disenfranchise Americans right to vote borders on
treason. If you don’t understand this, you’re part of the problem. So, when
people were skeptical to admit their voting intentions, I understood, and
simply told them abut my candidate, answered any questions they had, and gave
them a flier. I marked “No Response” in the app.

Near
the end of a long day, a woman peeked through the blinds and asked me who I was
and what I was doing at her home.

“My
name is Jesse. I am canvassing for the upcoming schoolboard election, ma’am.”

“Who
are you?”

I
repeated myself. I asked if X was home.

She
slightly cracked the door. “How did you get my name?”

When
I told her that both parties have voter-registration data that helps them
target supporters, she told me that she doesn’t like that her private information
is open-access. I understood her concerns. I really did. The app that I used to
find the addresses of potential voters also included the person’s name, age,
telephone number, and political affiliation. Eventually she stepped outside and
we talked not only about the candidates but also about the ability of political
parties as well as corporations to mine and database American’s personal data.
Somewhere, someone is getting paid to monitor and store records of your life – what
websites you visit, what words you type into search engines, what you purchase
and who you vote for. It’s terrifying.

At
the next address, I spoke with a woman who leaned into the half-opened door. As
I started to talk about my candidate and the state of our schools, the woman told
me that everyone in her family attended private schools. Apparently, it was not
her concern. I responded by telling her, in a way that felt almost cliché but
is still true, that the public schools are the life of the community. They are
a reflection of but also shape the values, economics, and crime-rates of an
area. These students graduate or they don’t. They go to college or they don’t.
They start businesses or they don’t. They get good jobs or they don’t. They buy
houses right beside yours or they don’t. But first, they attend our schools.

I
left the woman’s house. As it started to set, the sun abated the heat and allowed
some of the sweat on the middle of my back to dry. When I rounded a corner, I saw
a boy and two girls, probably in their early twenties, standing in the driveway,
talking. The house was not on my list, but I talked with the boy about what
happened next door. On the lot, the carcass of a house stood. Its brickwork,
painted white, stacked upwards to a burnt-away roof. Half-scorched boards leaned
into a grey carport. Parts of it were cindered and toppling over. I asked the
boy if he saw the flames. I asked the boy if anyone lived there. I asked the
boy if anyone died.

The owner was asleep inside its walls as it burned.




Riding the Canna-Bus

Opening
Day

I am standing in line in a tent waiting for a van that will take us to the fifth pot shop to open on the east coast of the United States. It is the first day of winter, four days before Christmas. The woman in front of me turns around and introduces herself. She wants to interview me for a story on her website. She is tall and thin and very pretty. She’s got long wavy red hair almost to her knees. When I decline it takes air out of her balloon but still we bond like kids waiting for the bus on the first day of kindergarten. I notice she does her interviews selfie-style, making sure she’s always in the picture. This is a magical day. Outside it is raining but inside the atmosphere is electric, alive with anticipation. People are in awe as if they can’t believe this is really happening. They are relatively quiet, though, lest the spell be broken. One guy in line tells me he went to the very first store, in a small town in central Mass. a few weeks ago and waited in line for hours. That’s in addition to the three-hour round trip. Traffic was gridlocked. Residents complained. Our weed shop is located beside the local hospital. One might think that would be a good match since cannabis products promote health and healing too, but you can’t have cars blocking access to an emergency room. So the police chief came up with this plan for customers to park three miles away at the water park. In the lot I spotted cars from Rhode Island and New Hampshire. Dozens of orange traffic cones line the road outside. They will need to come up with a new plan before the water park opens around Memorial Day. Earlier today the lines were real long but I must have come at a good time. I make it to the check-in table in less than an hour. Three employees sit there with laptop computers while space heaters whoosh out noise. My check-in guy apologizes for the wait. We’ve been waiting eighty years for this, I laugh, so fifty minutes is nothing! Everyone laughs. It’s crazy but true. Federal prohibition of weed started with the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 and in 1970 Richard Nixon outlawed all usage – even medical – when he signed the Controlled Substances Act. I suppose the government could ban chocolate or coffee or anything they want, whether it makes sense or not. The worker takes my license and enters something into the computer. Beside me, my redheaded friend is reluctant to show her license. You’re not entering license numbers, are you? she asks, because that’s illegal. In reality most of us don’t really care now that we are so close. After a shorter wait in another line we are given tickets that allow entry to the store and we climb aboard a white van for the trip to the Magic Kingdom. You have nice skin! gushes a girl sitting on the other side of my friend. And your hair is beautiful! I thought I heard the redheaded girl mention she has a holistic health company but when I ask her about it she proudly exclaims, I’m a grower! When we arrive at our destination there is a bunch of people waiting in the rain for the return trip. They are holding little black shopping bags that say Verilife. Police and security guards are everywhere. Between paying for police details, a security company, a transportation company and their own workers and expenses, this must be costing the Verilife people a fortune. We all make a beeline for the house, which sits on a small hill across the street. It is a small two-story white building with pillars and looks like a funeral home. More lines, more showing of licenses. While we wait outside, a car pulls into the tiny lot. A woman gets out, holds up a medical cannabis card and is ushered in like royalty. Finally five of us are allowed into the reception room where another worker takes our licenses and does who knows what on his tablet. It is neat and tidy here: white walls and nice wood floors. Bob Marley plays on the stereo. For our convenience there is a small ATM. This is a cash-only operation since weed is still a federal crime – a Schedule 1 drug right up there with heroin, LSD and ecstasy. On the little paper menus they pass out vape cartridges outnumber everything else. I know nothing about vaping. I settle on an eighth of an ounce of Diesel Fire for forty bucks. On the menu it’s got an S beside it for sativa to lift you up. Some of the choices have an I for indica, which has calming effects, and then there’s H for hybrid. At last the French door opens and our little group enters the selling area. It looks like a pharmacy with its shiny steel counter and neat white shelves. While chatting with a guy who seems to have extensive knowledge of the industry my friend tilts her head and swings that curtain of red hair slowly back and forth. One license check while we wait and suddenly I am at the counter. With my luck the FBI will bust down the doors just as I’m taking my money out. The clerk is very cheery and apologizes that he must check my license one last time. He puts a green and white foil pack into a little black Verilife shopping bag with handles and staples it shut with finality. It’s official: after years of buying herb on the street and constantly looking over my shoulder, I have made my first legal purchase. Reefer madness be damned! Waiting for the van in the rain, I share my umbrella with the redheaded girl. What did she buy? A pre-roll! she chirps. We get word that one of the vans has been involved in an accident, so there will be a delay. She meanders back to the white porch to schmooze with the cops hiding from the rain. A girl who lives in a neighboring town tells me she bought a vape cartridge for herself and some flower for her mom who complains that street weed is too harsh. She takes out her pen and explains how it works: the cartridge screws onto the pen and the pen’s battery creates heat that vaporizes oil in the cartridge. According to the menu, the oil is highly concentrated – at least seventy percent THC – three or four times as much as flower. She clicks a button and takes a puff. I hope you’re not driving, I say, thinking out loud. I am, she admits with a guilty grin.

Good Bones

The pothead pickup
location has changed. This time I wait in line in a tent at the old nail
factory on a cold winter’s day. A short brown Hispanic man walks in and stands
behind me. I direct him to the table up front where you have to check in and
show your driver’s license. He thanks me with a happy smile. He’s got paint on
his jacket and his jeans. A working man here for a little relief that he will
pay for with money he earned. Is he legal? Is he illegal? Does it matter? We
are given tickets that allow entry to the store. Do not lose that ticket! This
new location is only a mile from the shop. The female van driver admits she
gets bored sometimes just going back and forth, back and forth. Her teeth are
movie star white. Jimi Hendrix’s bluesy Red House reverberates through the
stereo system and it feels like we are in a concert hall. I buy a Dog Walker
Big Dog Purple Urkle pre-roll for ten dollars. It is packaged in a plastic tube
inside a professional-looking box with an embossed logo. The weed part of it
weighs three-quarters of a gram. It is rolled in very thin paper with a twist
at one end and a cardboard mouthpiece at the other. The label says it has 23.4
percent THC, which is a healthy amount. I no longer smoke so I will slit it open
and use the weed to make brownies. This is ridiculous, laughs an old lady in a
ski parka as we wait for the van that will bring us back. I thought we’d be
able to just walk in like a package store, buy the stuff and leave. That’s how
it was in Boulder, Colorado when I was there, offers a guy who looks like the
actor in Verizon’s Can You Hear Me Now? commercials. Little shops everywhere.
There was a half dozen of them near my B&B and it’s a quick in and out with
no hassle. A young black man talks excitedly about weed investment
opportunities and predicts this market will be through the roof. He bought pre-rolls
for his dad, a cancer patient. A good-looking blonde lady says weed helped her
get through her bout with cancer. I’m surprised she doesn’t have a medical
cannabis card. Gummies are her favorite. She laughs and says she tells the
children, these are not for kids! But what do kids know? I urge her to lock
them up in a safe. The gummies, not the kids! Not sure if she is the mother or
the grandmother. Depending on how the light hits her face, lines and wrinkles
appear and disappear. She could be any age. Are you doing better now? I ask.
Yes, thank you, she says, looking pleased that someone would care. In my mind I
picture a small black safe with a combination lock. Another woman bought some
edibles too and a five pack of pre-rolls. A friendly, down-to-earth woman
comfortable in her own skin. She shows me the foil pack containing a chocolate
bar. She loves chocolate (who doesn’t?) and since edibles don’t kick in right
away she tries to resist the urge to eat all the pieces at once and get too
high. So she alternates them with regular chocolate. She shows me the Brownie
Scout Dog Walker five pack of pre-rolls. They’ve got a high THC content of 30.5
percent. Five potent joints for twenty-five bucks! Thirty including the tax of twenty
percent. That tax is way too high but so far I have heard no one complain.
Everyone is just happy to get some relief. The Hispanic man with paint on his
clothing sits beside me in the van and gazes out the window. We pass a rusting
old RV surrounded by weeds in an empty lot and he gets excited. That’s a nice
bus! he says. She needs some love but that bus has good bones! You know he is a
good man, a hopeful, resourceful man who can probably fix almost anything. You
know he has love for all and you wonder, should we build the wall?




Bearing Witness by Elizabeth Warren

Read by Sabina Cameron

While searching for a fitting christmas gift for a young girl,
a woman is reminded of her experiences growing up in the southern states of America.

Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth Warren’s short stories about the subversive nature of relationships have appeared in numerous literary journals throughout Canada, Great Britain and the USA. A postgraduate of Humber College’s creative writing program, she has just completed a novel that exposes what happens in a world based on appearances when a model’s youth and beauty begin to fade. 

Sabina Cameron

Sabina Cameron works in TV, film and theatre and relished the opportunity to use a Southern accent in this piece. She looks forward to developing personal projects and pursuing her burgeoning film career. Find her at Spotlight.com.




November, Washington Square by Deborah Fielding

November, Washington Square by Edward Hopper.

A man stands out in the cold, hoping to spread the word of Jesus to passers-by.

Deborah Fielding

Since finishing her Creative Writing Masters at UEA, Deborah Fielding has been writing short stories and flash fiction. Deborah is fascinated by the relationships between the arts: her ongoing project, Two Lights, investigates the connection between the visual and written arts in its exploration of the paintings of Edward Hopper (November, Washington Square,1932-59, is part of this). In her endeavour to link word and image, Deborah has recently completed a new project with illustrations, Good Condolences, a “chapbook”. For more, see dfielding.co.uk.




Nothing Personal

In 1937, before the Great Depression released its grip on America, my father and his parents lived in a tent. In west Texas, where they were from, there were still rumors of jobs to be found in California. My grandfather and his best friend made the trip to the coast to find that the only work to be had was picking fruit for ten cents an hour. The two men, who were good pilots and better mechanics, turned their backs upon the so-called promised land and drove east to chase another rumor. They found jobs in the silver mines of southern Arizona, and sent for the rest of the family. My grandmother left her Hill Country hometown and set off for the desert with two small children and all the expectations of a normal life.

Instead of bringing them together, the Depression tore my family apart. There wasn’t enough housing for the thousands of men who showed up begging for work, and almost everyone lived in tents. It was a miserable existence: suffocating when the summer temperatures shot up to one hundred and twenty degrees, and freezing when the winter rains came howling down from Mogollon Rim. Every morning, my grandmother, infuriated at being brought down to the level of a migrant worker, would storm into the mine manager’s office. Eloquent with rage, she demanded that her family be given an adobe house. It turned out to be a drastic miscalculation. The manager got so tired of dealing with this angry young woman that he did the most expedient thing: to be rid of her once and for all, he simply fired her husband. Not surprisingly, the marriage fell apart; almost immediately, my grandmother packed up the children and drove off into the night with her husband’s best friend. My grandfather hopped a train back to Texas, where he would take his own life a few years later.

All those troubled lives were on my mind one morning in February, as I waited for a Red Line train to Union Station. The platform at North Hollywood was populated by two kinds of Angelenos: businessmen in pricey suits on their way to offices on Bunker Hill, and shabby, depressed-looking people headed for sweatshops or janitorial gigs. I was a hybrid, a woman in a suit, bound for a building I didn’t work in. In other words, I was on my way to jury duty.

Everyone complains about having to do jury service, but under normal circumstances I love it – a day off from work, endless possibilities to meet interesting people, and the chance to participate in the democratic process that makes our country great. Today, I was simply glad to have it as a distraction. As the train pulled out of the station, my eyes roamed over the dejected commuters and wondered how many of them actually had jobs. At Universal City, a mime got on the train and sat across from me unblinkingly. It was depressing to realize that a man covered in face paint and decked out in clown clothes was more successful than I was, but at that moment almost anyone could make that claim. Even Briscoe the therapy dog, who was a regular fixture at my church, had a job. As the train rumbled beneath Cahuenga Pass, I tried to ignore the glassy-eyed stare from across the aisle. My mind reeled at the thought of mortgage payments and I wondered if I’d end up living in a tent myself. If anyone on that car wondered about me, they would have placed me alongside the businessmen – a professional, one of those women who had a secure position in some important firm. An employee with a proven track record and nothing to worry about. If anyone had drawn that conclusion, they would be wrong.

The world as I knew it had ended four days earlier, as I stared at an x-ray on my computer screen. Without being asked, I had planned to work late. It wouldn’t do to leave any loose ends that would have to be resolved the following week, because after all, the Federal court had requested the pleasure of my company. It was down in the schedule, and I would be out. Boy, would I be out.

The phone rang, shattering my concentration. “Linda? This is Francine from HR. I have your supervisor here on conference.” It didn’t take an MBA to know what that meant. There was a carefully rehearsed preamble about the bad economy and how it had affected our company. And how sorry they were, but they were going to have to let me go. How much they thanked me for my many years of service. “You’re welcome,” I heard myself saying in a wooden voice. There was a lot more I didn’t hear, about the cessation of health coverage and separation papers that had to be notarized. In a five-minute phone call, twenty-four years of my life had been wiped away like a discarded lesson plan on a high-school chalkboard.

The morning that had not yet dawned up in North Hollywood had blossomed into golden effulgence by the time I got off the train and walked to the courthouse on Spring Street. It was the kind of morning that Californians brag about, a blue, smogless sky and temperatures well on the way to seventy degrees. There was a feeling in the soft morning air that lent itself to optimism. Perhaps I would get on a jury; Federal court paid more than its Superior cousin, and there would be mileage as well. Some extra money and a nice long trial – weeks, hopefully – would buffer the shock of this sudden and unasked for freedom.

Like snowbound travelers marooned in an airport, three hundred of us sat around the jury room waiting for panels to be called beneath big screen TVs turned to CNN. A financial commentator speculated on the housing crisis, the mortgage crisis, the unemployment crisis, and offered as his parting shot the notion that we were not facing a Carteresque recession, but a second Great Depression. Unpleasant images came to mind of breadlines and Dorothea Lange photos, of my grandparents and their year in Arizona. I wondered if unemployment benefits would cover my mortgage, and if not, would I end up in a tent on the banks of the dry riverbed that I saw each day from my balcony. It seemed like a good idea to put some distance between the media and myself, but every seat in the room was taken. Beside me, a pastel and polyester lady was absorbed in a Jan Karon novel. Wedged between the pages was a brass USC bookmark, and I wondered if she was from Pasadena. Perhaps she was one of those Pasadena housewives who were taken care of, financially – someone who’d had the good sense to marry well, or at the very least, came from old money and had never known a day of struggle in her life. I hated her.

At mid-morning the first panels were called. My group was whisked down to the second floor to a plush courtroom worthy of a movie set. After the charges were read to us, twelve names were announced and those called filed one by one into the jury box. My name was number seven. Lucky number seven! The plaintiff, his attorney and the prosecutor eyed us like birds of prey, already planning their preemptive strikes. “Don’t take it personally if you’re excused,” the judge warned us. “It’s just part of the process.”

That said, the twelve of us were sworn in and the grilling began. A questionnaire was passed from one juror to the next, along with a microphone. The questions were basic stuff, outlining the bare bones of our lives plus our prior juror history. But when the form came to me, it read like a litany of every failure and every bad choice ever made. “My name is Linda Critchfield. I live in Santa Clarita. I am unmarried, I have no children, and am currently unemployed.” There, in a Federal courthouse, under oath, I finally said aloud the words I’d never dreamed I would have to say.

After everyone had answered the first round of questions, the lawyers swooped in. The plaintiff’s attorney immediately focused on me, and wanted to know about my previous employment. I described the work I would never do again, preparing treatment plans for orthodontic patients, watching the expression on his face grow increasingly perplexed. After a bemused shake of the head, he moved on to the important question: “Ms. Critchfield, what are your favorite magazines?”

I understood his intention, to get a clearer reading on me, my dead career being too weird to pigeonhole. Things might have worked out differently if I had answered Reader’s Digest or Playgirl. But I didn’t; startled by the simplicity of the question, I cast him a deer-in-headlights look and blurted out the first magazine that came to mind.

“Um … Smithsonian.”

He nodded, a knowing look on his face. “Television shows?”

The American Experience isn’t the kind of program you remember in moments of stress, so after drawing a blank, I shrugged, saying that I didn’t watch much television except for the news. He thanked me and yielded the floor to the prosecuting attorney, who moved on to the next victim. As I watched, he whispered something to his client with a dismissive wave, which I interpreted to mean, “She’s so out of here.” Which it did; my name was their first strike.

Los Angeles was well into the lunch hour by the time we rejects were finally set loose. While we were in the courtroom, the day had changed. The air was too warm, and the sky had become eerily sharp. With nowhere to go and no appointments to keep, I walked around aimlessly toward the Central Library, thinking about the judge’s words: don’t take it personally. I had heard the same thing, more or less, in that last conversation with my supervisor. “I had no choice,” she said. “I had to go by seniority.” One by one, I had watched people leave. Now, it was my turn. Those twenty-four years didn’t matter. They were now ashes at my feet.

Above the skyscrapers, a 747 made a deep curve for its approach to LAX. I stopped, a lone figure among the lunching office workers of Bunker Hill and watched the plane complete its low turn in the crystalline sky. It was the kind of day that pilots refer to as “severe clear,” when everything is visible on the horizon except for undreamt-of catastrophes. I thought of all the people I knew, who in a moment had the rug pulled out from under them, so many dreams that got put on hold, and wondered how many casualties were yet to come. It would be a long time before there would be any airplanes in my future. The only travel that awaited me was a commuter train, taking me back to the Valley where no one awaited my arrival. Maybe I would encounter the mime on his way home from work. He would stare, perhaps seeing through the failure that wrapped itself around me like a serape. But it wouldn’t be anything personal.




Stories we cannot bear: Killed Negatives at Whitechapel Gallery

Most of us have gazed at the face of the Migrant Mother in Dorothea Lange’s iconic photograph or lingered over the beds, towels, and chairs in houses belonging to tenant farmers captured by Walker Evans. We know these images intimately, and this is in part because Lange and Evans were commissioned in the 1930s by the United States Farm Security Administration (FSA). They were hired to travel the country to document the lives of migrant workers during the Great Depression.

Roy Stryker headed the FSA’s documentary photography division from 1935 to 1944, founded as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. The aim of Stryker’s photography unit was to show America to Americans, to delve into the rural margins and bring the desperation out into the open – as well as justifying Roosevelt’s federal programmes.

Over 70 photographs from all 12 members of the FSA photography unit are currently on display in a small airy room in London’s Whitechapel Gallery. They are part of Killed Negatives: Unseen Images of 1930s America, a stunning exhibit curated by Nayia Yiakoumaki. These images, although populated by familiar characters, have something different about them: they have been selected from Stryker’s rejects. Rather than destroy the negatives outright, Stryker in his bureaucratic fervour had his workers puncture them with a hole punch before filing them away.

In one photograph by Carl Mydans, a group of African American land clearance workers tower above the camera, pickaxes in hand. An unsettling black sun hovers above their heads. Thanks to Stryker’s hole punching, the men have become players in an apocalyptic drama. The sun has burnt a hole in their sky.

One of Arthur Rothstein’s photographs shows a thin white woman standing with her four children. The youngest, a toddler, has a black dot where her head should be, as if marked for death. In another Rothstein, a natty black preacher in a white suit throws us a passing glance while a shirtless teenage boy stands with his hands crossed over his chest. A large black disc covers the spot where his wrists intersect. Handcuffs? Rope? Whatever it is, this boy is not free.

In reality there is no burnt out sun, no headless child, no handcuffed black teenager. The black spots on these images were created randomly, but meaning has seeped into them as much from the accidental mark of the bureaucrat-censor as from my need to make sense of them. Yiakoumaki had read that the Library of Congress was digitizing Stryker’s “killed negatives” (his term) and knew they had to be shown. “Through the crude act of censorship,” Yiakoumaki tells me, “we see them again. They become conceptual objects as much as historical images.” To build on this idea, Yiakoumaki has also included some of Stryker’s shooting scripts, documents from the FSA and the work of four contemporary artists: Etienne Chambaud, Bill McDowell, William E. Jones and Lisa Oppenheim. All the art relates to the larger FSA project and the theme of photography as propaganda.

The suffering on display here appears to be from another era: shoeless children, women with more babies than their bodies seem capable of producing, shacks made of tin, agricultural workers barely hanging on. The people in these photographs still dwell in the United States, and it isn’t the hands of Roy Stryker’s agents that are deleting strands in their narratives. It is greed, ignorance and a corporate America Roosevelt could never have imagined.

Stryker rejected these images for a host of reasons – sometimes the images were overexposed, sometimes a farmer (or “client” as he quaintly called them) didn’t look right, sometimes the composition was off. Nevertheless, he created a body of work that is unparalleled in the history of photography. Killed Negatives is a reminder that power can be used for good or ill.

The poverty is still with us, but we no longer want to see it. Unfortunately for us the black dots have prevailed, cutting out the narratives of the people whose stories we cannot bear.

kiKilled Negatives: Unseen Images of 1930s America is at Whitechapel Gallery until 26 August 2018.




Weekend Archives: Trees by Anthony Doerr

Photograph by Barbara Miers

He stops at the supply room window, a floor-to-ceiling sheet of glass, double-paned, six feet wide. The best window in the entire building. Third storey, forty feet up. He has been in here maybe three thousand times and hasn’t noticed this window once. Maybe they’ve stripped it of blinds, or hauled some obscuring shelf away.

[private]The view looks into the heart of the grand old tree which stands just behind the Company’s entrance sign. He thinks it is an oak but it might be something else. A maple? He has that dry, wooden film in his mouth that he always gets in the afternoons at work: something close to the smell of the Company cafeteria an hour after lunch, three or four engineers at long tables staring into their baked chicken.

They make memory here. Semiconductors. Every hour is a tribulation.

In the supply room, forty feet up, the branches of the tree are thin, forking into glossy twigs, and ornamented with seeds. Waving yellow ropes of light slip down through the boughs, and the leaves look to him like small hands, ten thousand of them, each moving of its own inclination, but all of them moving somehow in concert, showing their palms to the sun.

He intended to retrieve a box of purchase order blanks. Instead some thin and final membrane inside him gives way and he picks his way through the cubicles, not even pausing when Fred Simpson tries to show him a piece of paper, and goes down the fire exit and stands beneath the tree, oak or maple.

The bark presents a storm of texture—canyons and ridges and caves. A column of big black ants ascends the trunk, wallowing in its grooves.

A half hour later he is in the public library in his khakis and knit tie, with his plastic name badge still around his neck, paging through a book called Trees. Paulownia. Catalpa. The glory of cherries. Spruce. Stone Pine. Maple. There it is: Norway Maple. He has to apply for the library card.

At home his wife says, ‘You’re home early,’ and he says, ‘Yes I am.’ He fumbles through boxes in the basement. There is a 35-millimeter Nikon FG-20 buried in here somewhere, beneath football jerseys and an antler chandelier she’d made him take down.

All through dinner she asks questions about work. To pacify her, he says he has managed to collect some overdue funds from Hitachi, one of the ‘majors.’ This is an outright lie. The tree book sits on the hall table, waiting.

The house is old but new to them. They have moved to it to escape the memories, but the memories wander the halls after them, relentless, unabating: nighttime feedings, the gurgling he would make in his crib, the sour, powdery smell of his formula.

He didn’t last, their son. Gave up after ten months, called it quits. They’d used the Nikon on him plenty.

In bed he studies cracks in the ceiling paint and dreams dreams: he’ll make a book, he’ll travel the world, he’ll photograph trees, the Magic Hawthorn, the famous Pears of Bethesda. An acacia in Africa. A lenga in Patagonia. A tree book, pages of trees.

In the morning he drives to three drugstores before he finds film. Then he takes the Toyota right past the main entrance of the Company, past the Norway Maple, past the sixty-two new emails waiting for him on his desktop computer, and drives into the hills to where the Company has cut swaths to accommodate incoming powerlines.

He hikes in the steep grass in his cross-trainers, the camera banging his ribs. Thrushes sing like little waterfalls in the branches. There are hedge maples up there, and what might be a paperbark maple. Some others: a tulip tree, a cottonwood; he isn’t entirely sure. He packs a roll of film into the Nikon and trains the viewfinder up, where the smallest branches break the sky.

F-stop, film speed, focus. Exposure.

Again he has the feeling that the leaves are hands, palms-up. Entreating. Imploring. Far below him he can see the graveled roof of the nanoFab building, and the back wall on Administration, twin columns of black windows. Somewhere behind those windows Steve Keating is walking to the 10 a.m. Collections Meeting and Katie the intern is pushing buttons on the copier and Harriet Stover is pausing in a hallway, thumbing a message into her phone.

By 10:30 a.m. he has exposed four rolls. He brings it to Albertson’s One Hour, the last developer in the city, and sits waiting while the machines whirr and click and a mom runs six neon green bottles of soda through a self-service scanner.

The pictures are lousy. A bunch of branches, not all of them in focus. Nothing like he had hoped. Nothing to suggest the thrushes, the leaves, the way the trees slowly gathered their shadows beneath them like trembling networks of darkness.

But. Success does not come overnight.

For a week of dinners he is able to maintain the lie. ‘They need me to go out of town next week.’

‘No, I don’t know where the dust on the car came from.’

‘No, I don’t know why Harriet Stover called three times.’

But on Monday he returns from a morning of shooting birches above a farm (two dogs snapping at him and he’d stumbled into a bog) to find her at the table furious. ‘You went today,’ he guesses. ‘To the office.’

‘An affair,’ she says.

‘Trees.’

‘I don’t get it.’

‘What’s to get? I’m going to Salt Lake tomorrow. Not for work. Not for anything. For the aspens.’

She glares at the surface of the table and—slowly, awfully—punches holes in her sandwich with an index finger.  She says, ‘This is about Oliver.’

‘Yes. No. Maybe.’ He sighs. In the months after the death of their son, he has became a virtuoso sigher. Sighs like transcontinental airliners, sighs like great billboards, sighs like the wake of a ship in the ocean.

This particular one is a bridge, cantilevered for a moment into the space between them, then collapsing.

The lobes of her ears tremble. ‘And the paycheck?’

‘Really? The paycheck?’

‘Nine years and you up and quit? Without even discussing it?’

‘There was this window. A Norway Maple.’

‘This is not what people do.’

‘I’m trying,’ he says. ‘I’m working on it.’

That night he lies on the sofa with the camera balanced on his gut. She is at Kristie’s. Maybe Megan’s. A car passes and the arcs of its headlights sweep across the ceiling, carrying the shadows of leaves. The wind moans in the chimney. He feels it again: the urge to run. He yanks open windows and lets his heart thud against the darkness. According to Trees, there are huge groves of aspens in Utah in which each tree is a clone of every other, all of them rising from the same ultra-complicated root system, so many roots interlaced and webbed through the soil that the trees function as a single, hundred-acre organism. One plant, one hundred acres, six million kilograms. Eighty-thousand years old.

In mid-September, the book says, the leaves of these groves all lose their chlorophyll at once, flaring yellow and orange and sometimes a little red, streaks of flames on all the mountains. How can he have lived forty-four years and not seen this?

Out there Company trucks are being loaded with pallet after pallet of high-density memory. Out there clouds are scudding over the city: not a single one the same as any other. The biggest boat ever built, he thinks, was a crumb on the great blue sea. A line from a children’s book, one of Oliver’s.

On the flight to Salt Lake he trades for a window seat. The Nikon waits on his lap. There are whole mountains lined with them down there, Douglas fir, Englemann spruce, the wind breaking in their crowns, each a palace of needles.[/private]




Chino

Chino

Buying a house in the San Francisco Bay Area was filling Jessica Chang’s head with financial acronyms and 3D maps searchable by schools’ average test scores.  When she was in her twenties and dancing at New York trance clubs in sweaty barely-there outfits, high on a mix of drugs cadged off willing strangers, moving to the suburbs with a yuppie husband and toddler sounded like a death sentence.  Now that she was thirty-seven, and in the back of a midsize SUV trying to comfort her son Kirby who was screaming “Out! Out!” while strapped into his child seat, she felt like a different person had lived that blur of strange men and pulsating dance floors.  She and her husband Stan were headed into the lawns of Sunnyview that afternoon with their realtor.  Jessica hoped to find a quiet place to settle into, though she was nervous that her Korean American family wouldn’t fit in well with the gymnastics studios and pumpkin patches she saw on her last visit that far south of San Francisco. 

“You lived in Manhattan, so I didn’t expect you to have sticker shock, but I get the feeling you’re disappointed by what a million and a half buys out here,” Deborah, their twenty-something agent, said as she glanced back from the passenger seat while Stan drove.  “This house is spacious and modern, so it should be more to your liking.”

For the past few weeks, Deborah had provided much-needed professional guidance on the insanely competitive real estate market they had moved to six months ago.  With her yoga-toned body and long blond tresses, she reminded Jessica of the intimidating Wall Street junior execs she used to serve when she waitressed in New York.  Stan seemed to take every opportunity to catch glimpses of the young go-getter’s legs when he thought his wife wasn’t looking.  Despite that, Jessica liked Deborah from the first interview because she was smart enough to smooth over the uncomfortable issue of race by using code phrases that got to the point without being offensive, like “low to moderate income” or “rising rents.”  

Deborah continued, “The part of Sunnyview we’re headed to today has recently become much more international and has rapidly improving schools.”  Jessica felt at ease, as she guessed Deborah meant new money Asians were moving in, probably replacing lower middle class whites and Latinos.

Disappointed after getting outbid by foreign real estate investors and venture capitalists for houses near San Francisco that resembled glorified trailers, Jessica had heeded Deborah’s advice to be “more realistic.” Jessica let Stan extend their search much further south since he wanted cut his commute to Silicon Valley, giving him more time to fiddle with some entrancing new gadget on the couch.  Not having earned a paycheck since her wedding, she didn’t feel like she could complain much.

  “We’re hardly cool club kids who need the city,” he had said to convince her to move out of the cramped two-bedroom they’d been temporarily renting downtown.  Jessica had only smiled.  She had never told Stan about her past, afraid that he’d look at her like she was shameful, as the peppy women in his social circle of young professionals always stopped after two glasses of wine.  They had met in a Manhattan church she had joined after a coke overdose scared her into rethinking all the nights she’d snuck away from her father’s scornful eyes to meet up with smoldering rock-star wannabes.  Desperate for a change, one Sunday, she smiled back at a brash Korean preppie with a military haircut who wouldn’t stop staring at her across the pews.  When she learned that Stan was a lawyer planning to move to California to do technology deals, she started dreaming of a new life far away from the mess she’d made of herself.

When they arrived at the Sunnyview house, Jessica was surprised to see a recently renovated two-story that had panoramic bay windows and a three-car garage.  It looked like one of the dream houses featured on real estate websites that Jessica pined for.   She climbed out of the SUV thinking something must be amiss.  As Jessica lifted Kirby out of his car seat and set him down to let him walk around a little, he wandered onto a verdant front lawn that could comfortably accommodate a stick ball game. He screamed with his arms raised, “Grreeeeeennnn!”   

As Deborah led them up a red brick path to the entrance, Jessica noticed an elderly Latino man sitting on a rocking chair in the porch of the much smaller ranch house next door.  His only companion was a green oxygen tank pumping life into his skeletal frame through a dirty plastic hose in his nostrils. 

He smiled knowingly at Jessica.  “Chino family over there.  Chino family over there,” he said in a scratchy voice, pointing at each of the houses on the block.  “Chino family over there, too.  Chinos, taking over.”

As her imposing husband shot a warning glare across the driveway, Jessica put a hand on his tensed shoulder.

“Ignore him.  He’s just an old man,”  she said.  

Jessica caught a flash of uncomfortable worry on Deborah’s face as she quickly unlocked the door.

The old man continued, pointing at the desirable house in front of them, “No Chino in that house.  Nobody wants that house.  You know why?  Bad Feng Shui.” 

As he laughed, Jessica shook her head.  She didn’t care about Feng Shui any more than she cared about Wicca or Rastafari.  Kirby, however, giggled in Jessica’s arms, apparently tickled by those new strange words.  He tried them himself, yelling “Feeen Shuuuuweeeee!”

Jessica quickly forgot what had happened outside when she entered a gigantic open floor living space with vaulted ceilings.  She stepped onto hardwood floors as smooth as an ice rink and followed Deborah to an expansive family room staged with a three-piece sofa set and a giant flat-screen TV.  Jessica thought they were better off with one crazy man next door than with the warped roofs, termite-infested add-ons or closet-sized “bedrooms” that had disappointed her in other $1.5 million dollar homes.  But given all that she’d seen in San Francisco real estate, she suspected something must be wrong.

“There’s a catch, isn’t there?”  Stan said to Deborah.  As a mid-level associate at a law firm, Stan negotiated deals all day and was nicknamed the “Ball Buster.”  He didn’t know how to turn off his graceless bark, often irking Jessica, but at that moment, she appreciated that he could be so blunt, so she didn’t have to be. 

When Jessica brought Stan home for dinner four years ago, she was amused by the wide-eyed surprise on her parents’ faces as they sat at the shaky kitchen table over steaming bowls of rice.  Jessica knew her aging parents never dreamt their wayward daughter, nearly a spinster by their standards, would bring home a Korean guy with two Ivy League degrees.  She had been at war with her stump-like father as long as she could remember, staying out late since her teens, refusing to go to college, and barely hiding her drug use.  The switch beatings stopped when she hit puberty, replaced by stiff slaps to her face that barely stung by the time she was in high school.  A couple of times she had run off with scruffy white men she’d chosen for the seething red they’d put in her father’s dark eyes, only to have him relentlessly hound everyone she knew day and night until she finally gave up and returned home.  As she sat beside a Korean man who promised to take her three thousand miles away, she noticed her father beaming a smile at Jessica that was full of pride, an emotion she could not ever recall seeing on her father’s granite face.  All she could think about was her freedom.  She’d finally be allowed to go far away with his blessing, instead of being forced to carve little corners for herself in his presence.

Deborah tried to skirt Stan’s question, replying cheerily, “This is a tremendous bargain in a neighborhood on the rise.  There are a lot of professionals from diverse backgrounds here so I don’t think you’ll feel uncomfortable.”  Yuppie Asians, Deborah confirmed to Jessica.

Stan repeated himself, “But there’s something wrong, isn’t there? What’d that guy outside mean?”

Jessica watched Kirby run around the family room with his arms stretched and laughing.  Then, he gleefully hopped around on top of a fluffy white shag rug that covered the floor. 

After a few uncomfortable seconds, Deborah replied, “There’s nothing wrong with the place physically.”

Stan rolled his eyes in a show of two Ivy League degree condescension that enraged Jessica when directed at her. “Come on, Deborah.  You’re not telling me something.  We both know I can find out what it is soon enough.” 

Deborah looked at Jessica for sympathy, but she simply looked down at her son, who was now attempting the pull the rug over his head, and waited. 

Deborah spoke some lines she seemed to have rehearsed in the mirror for a moment like this, “The former owner of the house was arrested a few years ago for child molestation, and is currently serving a long prison sentence.  The mother moved away with her daughters after he was convicted. They tried to sell the house before, but when the news was fresh and the market was down during the recession, no one would buy.  Since the market is now going crazy, they decided to try again.”

Deborah paused, her eyes nervously moving back and forth between the couple to gauge their reaction.  Stan pulled his iPhone out of his pocket and fiddled a few moments.  Jessica could feel a cold seed take hold inside of her as Deborah’s words sunk in.  She looked over Stan’s shoulder, and saw a headline, “Sunnyview Man Charged with Child Molestation.” 

“Is this it?” Stan asked as he showed Deborah his phone’s screen.  She nodded.  

Jessica looked around for Kirby, who was now rolling head-first into the rug, getting little white threads stuck into his black hair.  As she went to pick him up, the house no longer felt fresh or impressive, but like a neatly coordinated deception. 

While Jessica held Kirby close to keep him from flailing his way back onto the rug, Stan summarized the rest of the article out loud, “They had three girls who were between seven and twelve years old.  He had his daughters hold sleepovers.  During the sleepovers, he’d touch them and their friends.  Happened for months until one of the friends told her mother.”

Deborah said, suddenly sounding as aggressive as Stan, “This is a terrible tragedy that’s making buyers pause a little.  If you look beyond this incident, this is probably one of the most undervalued houses in the Bay Area right now.  However, in this market, even this house will get snatched up within days if we don’t move quickly.”

With the air seeming to get colder, Jessica imagined a broken woman, probably not much older than her, who fixed and modernized every last bit of a poisoned house, hoping, as the housing market boomed, she would have the chance to unload it.

Jessica shook her head.  “I don’t like this,” she said as her hands started to feel numb.

Deborah replied, “I know this leaves a bad feeling in your gut but this happened to people you will never know.  As the neighborhood changes, everyone will forget what happened.”   

Stan took Kirby out of Jessica’s arms, and motioned for her to follow him to one of the bedrooms at the end of the hallway. 

He said over his shoulder to Deborah, “We need a moment.” 

The room contained a twin bed in the shape of a race car and dinosaur pictograms covering baby blue walls.  To Jessica it was another lie, perfectly staged for a little boy though the house had been full of girls.   Stan plopped Kirby on the ground, and the boy immediately threw himself on top of a green foam play mat with multi-colored balloon shapes. 

“No way,”  Jessica said to Stan, coldness taking over her body.  She couldn’t do it.  The old man next door, or even neighbor children who knew the house’s secret, might feed Kirby’s nightmares with horror stories about what that monster had done to those girls.  When she was a child, as she’d clutched her blanket in the dim moonlight coming into her bedroom at night, she saw shadowy ghosts of immoral girls from cautionary Korean fairy tales her father had told her before bedtime.   Kirby’s fears would be far more incarnate, an evil man sitting in prison fantasizing about what he’d done in that house. 

Stan said, “Let’s think about this rationally.”

“I don’t want to start out in this house.” 

“You think we’re ever going to find another house like this?  We keep getting outbid.  We’ve got a shot at this one because everyone else is a little scared.  Well, I’m not,” Stan declared.  Though she wanted to stand firm, she felt herself allowing him to overbear her.   

Before Jessica could respond, Kirby ran out of the room, running out of sight as he turned the corner into a family room at the far end of the hallway.  Jessica and Stan chased him, catching up as he looked outside a sliding glass door which led to a spacious backyard with a playground set.  Stan scooped the boy up as he was on his tip toes pointing at something in the distance. 

“Hut,” Kirby said.

Jessica looked out the window and saw a dilapidated windowless storage shed by the fence at the end of the grass.  Made of dull grey wood and nearly covered by hedges, it was the only part of the property that didn’t shine with pristine newness. 

In the Queens apartment she grew up in, there was a little coat closet by the front entrance that her father threw her inside as punishment whenever she talked back or refused to study.  She would struggle and scream to be let out, but the door was usually blocked by a chair from the outside.  When he saw her talking to boys he didn’t know, he hit her with a wooden stick on the back of her legs, hard enough that she’d scream as she felt needles dig into her calves and then little streams of hot blood roll down her ankles.  Her mother did nothing but shake her head as he’d then barricade her inside that dark tomb for hours.  Cold and terrified, Jessica would rub her bloody legs as she quietly wept, praying to God or whoever would listen for any escape from her hellish father.   Sometimes, feeling totally isolated, she would cope by taking one of the wire hangers in the closet and digging small grooves into the back wall.  By the time she was in middle school there were more grooves than she could count, and she would take comfort in feeling them with her fingertips in the dark, knowing she could get through another few hours in that closet, because she’d done it so many times before.  She hated her father, hated him even as he walked her down the aisle on her wedding day.  She hated him so much she thought of him when she had a tramp stamp of an orchid tattooed to her lower back, because he had told her orchids symbolized purity in Korea.  She didn’t even know how many men saw it before she married Stan, or how many times she’d said I love you even though she’d usually been too high to even know if she’d meant it.  She hated him so much she thought she’d never marry a Korean man, until she met one that offered her a new beginning. 

“Where are you going, Jessica?” Stan demanded as he wrestled with Kirby.  The toddler was pushing his father’s face away and crying, “Down! Down!”

She walked toward the shed, feeling she had to know what was inside.  Jessica could feel her husband’s eyes follow her as she walked past a manicured lawn.  When she pushed open the rickety wooden doors, she was hit with the smell of sawdust.  She looked around and, through the thin sunlight from the doorway, she saw splintery walls that looked unsafe to touch.  After a quick scan of the interior, her eyes stopped on three sets of initials lightly carved into one of the old wooden boards on the ground: KL, DL, EL.  There were three girls, she remembered.  Did those girls carve themselves into that property, in places where no one would think to look? Did they leave themselves elsewhere, perhaps some untouched crevice where only little hands could reach?

Jessica slammed the door shut.  She wanted no part of that house, not if she could find reminders of what had happened there.  She stood in front of Stan, who was attempting to distract Kirby with an app on his phone, and said, “We’re not living here.” 

He responded, “Why’d you go out there?”

“It doesn’t matter.  We’re not living here.”

“Every house has something ugly in the past.  We just don’t know about it.  Once we move in here, we make it our own.”

Jessica thought, You think you’ve made me your own, don’t you?  You don’t know what I was like before you.  You don’t know anything about me.  You don’t know what I’ve been through.  I don’t tell you because you couldn’t live with it if you knew. 

But all she said was, “No.  We’ll find something else.”

“So you think that old guy is right?  This place has bad Feng Shui?”  Stan rolled his eyes the way he had at Deborah earlier. 

“Don’t you ever roll your eyes at me!” Jessica shouted, putting a finger in Stan’s face.

Furious, she grabbed Kirby out of Stan’s arms and walked out the door as the boy started to cry.  She didn’t look back.  Without saying a word, she stormed passed Deborah, who was checking messages on her phone. 

Jessica couldn’t stand the thought of her son finding a relic of abuse in her house.  She had moved here to begin anew.  Everything had to be like the baptized, free from the pain that came before.  

When she got to the front lawn, the old man sat up in his rocking chair and stared at her like a bird dog spotting a carcass. 

“You know now, don’t you?” he said with a nod.

Stan followed outside and stomped to the driver’s side of the SUV.  As the old man retreated back into his chair, Jessica got into the backseat with Kirby.  While they drove back to San Francisco with Deborah searching through more house listings on her iPad, Jessica clung to her boy’s squirmy hand.   They would go far south or east or a “not yet gentrified” part of town if need be to find their son a blank slate to live in.   At that moment, she only wanted a place where nobody knew who she was, and where, as far as she knew, nothing bad had ever happened.




Much Bothered With Buffalo

Oregon Immigrants at End of the Day.
Oregon Immigrants at End of the Day.

What makes us start writing a diary? The dawning of another year? Or perhaps the beginning of a whole new life? I am sitting in the sunlit Paulson Reading Room at the University of Oregon in Eugene, reading the diaries of women who have been dead for over a century; women who embarked on such a great adventure that they decided it needed to be committed to paper in the pages of a daily journal. As part of my research for a novel which follows the journey of a Victorian woman from Liverpool to Oregon, I am digging into the archives to read the true stories of those who travelled the emigrant trails in the mid-nineteenth century. [private]

At each end of the Reading Room, carved in thick cedar wood, hang triptychs depicting the history of this western state. One of the images shows a wagon train negotiating the Barlow Trail at the foot of Mount Hood. It is a picturesque scene, with the tall trees, mountains and rivers which contribute to Oregon’s astonishing natural beauty. It reveals little of the nightmare of hauling wagons through impenetrable forest, across freezing rivers and down treacherous mountainsides, or the personal tragedies caused by illness, injury and death. In the 1850’s this land was yet to be ‘tamed’ by white settlers, but increasing numbers were tempted to brave the gruelling journey to the Oregon Territory as part of the ‘Manifest Destiny’ to expand the boundaries of the American nation. With the promise of cheap, or even free, land, many saw it as an opportunity not to be missed. For most, the trail began at St. Joseph, Missouri and ended two thousand miles later in the fertile Willamette Valley, Oregon. The popular image of families packed into horse-drawn wagons to cross the windswept prairies is misleading; wagons were small, no wider than a double bed, and only the sick, elderly or very young were allowed to take up precious cargo space. Everyone else walked, and the wagons were usually pulled by less romantic, but far more resilient, oxen. How do we know this? Largely by reading the letters and diaries of the emigrants themselves.

Should we read someone else’s diary? Normally, perhaps not; it’s a repository of secret thoughts, fears and dreams that are never intended to be shared unless they belong to an individual whose life is of public interest, say a politician or a film star. But what about those everyday people whose scribbles in a journal are simply meant as a private means of self-expression, a place to rant about an unfeeling lover, difficult relatives or trouble at work? Sometimes, opening the diaries of these wagon train women, I feel something of an intruder. When I read the entry for 19 May 1853 written by nineteen year old Agnes Stewart, it is hard not to be moved by the anguish she tries so hard to conceal:

“Oh, I feel so lonesome today! Sometimes I can govern myself, but not always, but I hold in pretty well considering all things.”

Agnes confides her private suffering to a journal, not wanting to be seen by her fellow travellers as a weak and complaining girl. Fixing a lantern to the ridgepole of her tent, she sits hunched over her diary at night, desperately missing family, friends and a familiar life left behind. As the entries continue, my impression of the character of this young woman becomes clearer. She is sensitive to the plight of the Native Americans, questioning their treatment by the government; and she is clearly distressed by the discovery of a woman’s corpse, dug up by wolves, blue ribbons still intact in her hair. On days when the wagon train rests, Agnes tells us she is doing laundry, or stewing apples, though she longs to swim in the creek or play leapfrog with the boys. Although it seems that this diary was written only as a private outlet for thoughts and emotions on the emigrant trail, the document was preserved long after the journey had ended, and, indeed, after its author had died. Can we assume that Agnes kept it to remember that turning point in her life? Did she intend it as a record of family history to pass on to her children and grandchildren? As the teenage Anne Frank recorded in her own diary in 1944, “I want to go on living even after death.”

Of course, there were some, like Elizabeth Wood, who started their diaries with the intention of getting published. By the mid-nineteenth century, pioneer journals had become commonplace, although those published had generally been by men. Elizabeth was unusual in that she was female and single, following in the footsteps of successful women travel writers of the time, such as Isabella Bird Bishop with her book A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains.

The original diaries written by the emigrant women were small notebooks that would take up little space. Paper and ink was in short supply on a journey across the continent that might take four months or more. Space in the wagons was reserved for food, and essentials such as bedding and cooking utensils. A journal that could slip into a pocket with a pencil would become a treasured possession. Few of these documents have survived, but many were transcribed before the contents were lost, either by the women themselves, or often by daughters, nieces or granddaughters. Here in the archives, I am reading a diary originally handwritten in 1852, and typed up some sixty years later. The ink is faded, the typing uneven and smudged, but this only serves to remind me that this was probably intended as a personal, family document. It is only with the passage of time that the accounts of ordinary people assume the importance of historical commentary.

Some of the diaries highlight the writer’s awareness that she is entering a new chapter in her life, with the potential for success or failure, happiness or grief. Writing on 4 January 1851, Jean Rio Baker starts her New Year boarding a ship from Liverpool to New Orleans, on route to Salt Lake City.

“I this day take took leave of every acquaintance I could collect together, in all human probability never to see them again on Earth. I am now (with my children) about to leave for ever my native land.”

Is she sad at these partings? It would seem so, but there is also a frisson of excitement. Later, when describing awful storms in the Atlantic, Jean writes triumphantly that she is one of the few passengers unaffected by seasickness. Her diary entries are regular, part of her daily routine. Maybe this is an antidote to boredom, or perhaps a method of alleviating fears for her children and herself. Even when her young son, Josiah, dies, she manages to record the event in her diary, noting the exact longitude and latitude where his body, sewn into a white sack, is consigned to the deep. Her grief is palpable, yet Josiah is not mentioned again after this date, his mother’s diary now preoccupied with the illness of another child. Does that daily ritual of taking up her journal help Jean to keep going, to press on with a journey despite the costs?

Jean Rio Baker’s account of life on board a ship full of Mormons heading to Salt Lake City contains fascinating insights into the life of this community. When the weather is calm, and the family are well, she has time to write of the “shameful” behaviour of Elder Booth and Sister Thorn who are thrown out of the church. We are similarly intrigued by her brief mention of three Mormon women who are cut off for “levity of behaviour (with some officers of the ship)”. There are descriptions of meals, musical evenings and stunning sunsets. On arrival in New Orleans, she uses her diary to debate the issue of slavery, and to dissect the social customs of Louisiana society. As her journey progresses up the Mississippi River to St Louis, and beyond on the Mormon Trail to Utah, Jean writes almost every day, despite broken wagon wheels, perilous ravines and unpredictable Indians. She records attending births (including that of her first grandchild) and deaths, nursing those who are injured or ill. When she finally reaches Salt Lake City, she describes her joy and gratitude to God for arriving safely. Yet we also detect a wistfulness that the adventure is over and her diary with it: “and now I suppose I have finished my ramblings for my whole life.”

Whereas Jean completes her regular diary entries despite the rigours of her daily life, other women struggle to find the time between childcare, cooking and laundry. Perhaps Jean, being a widow, has more control over what little free time she does have. Eugenia Zieber writes almost always on Sundays, when the wagon train halts to observe the Sabbath. However, there are several false starts in her journal, where all she succeeds in writing is the date. Her frustration, as well as resentment of those who have lighter responsibilities is evident:

“There is scarcely time, upon such a journey, for those who have aught (sic) that is essentially necessary to do, to keep a diary. It must be done by snatches or at any moment or not at all.”

Eugenia does not explain her motivation for her desire to write. Perhaps she wanted to capture the inhospitable mountains that threatened snow even in July, or wolves that howled on the fringes of camp at night, or the immigrant names carved on Independence Rock. All we can be confident of is that the ritual of setting down her personal thoughts and observations in a diary, on a daily, or at least regular, basis, is important to her.

The more I investigate the journals of these women who undertook the challenging immigrant trails, whether to Oregon, California or Utah, the more I recognise that they were just like us. They record the daily trials of marriage, children and neighbours, domestic chores and inclement weather. Although their diaries document a singular event that shapes their lives, they also reflect the history of an expanding nation, and the role of women within it. These are strong women, whose individual voices speak to us generations later. Glimpses of burgeoning feminism are seen in references to wearing practical ‘bloomers’ instead of trailing skirts. There are joyful descriptions of novelties such as prairie dogs, cacti and buffalo (although the latter may bother the cattle driven ahead of the wagons).

There is (perhaps unwitting) humour, such as in Mariett Foster Cummings’ diary entry in April 1852 on her way to California:

“This I expect is the beginning of trouble. I stayed at a public house and ate fried pudding.”

There is great sadness, as scribbled by another woman:

“I am sick. Sometimes I think I shall not live long. It is hard to die so young and William, my William, who will console him?”

She’s not being maudlin, just realistic; hundreds of women died on the emigrant trails, both in childbirth and of illnesses such as typhoid, malaria or dysentery. Not to mention those who drowned in raging rivers, fell under wagon wheels or were killed by hostile Indians. Acutely aware of the fragility of life, the women cling to their diaries. If they should die along the trail, and be buried in a shallow grave without a tombstone, at the mercy of wolves and buzzards, there will be nothing to show for their lives. A diary at least would leave something behind. [/private]




Book Review: Highlights Of My Last Regret by North Morgan

highlightsNorth Morgan’s second novel, Highlights Of My Last Regret, tells the story of dysfunctional Parke Hudson (the son of Maine Hudson, recognisable as the protagonist of Exit Through The Wound) and his girlfriend, Ryan. Their relationship is played out against the backdrop of a socially hungry Los Angeles, grossly amplified by Parke’s own skewed, damaged perception. From parties in LA, to Coachella, to summer in San Francisco, the bored, rich anti-hero Parke wrestles in his relationship with the essentially good, but paranoid and needy Ryan.

The reader is left to judge for himself whether the two are a good match. The coldly amusing, sociopathic Parke, who works for tech company Neon Sphere even though he lives off his trust fund, hardly seems suited to the self-worthy Ryan, originally from Albuquerque and climbing her way up the greasy pole. The two see themselves as opposites, yet they are often as much trouble as each other. They skip from one argument to the next, watched by Parke’s friend the perpetually stoned Markus, and a variety of two dimensional socialites.

A summer spent away from Ryan in San Francisco with his alcoholic, unpredictable mother changes things for Parke. His mother, suggested to us as the source of all his maladjustment, finally deals him an emotional blow that he cannot overcome, and Parke decides that he wants to be rid of Ryan once and for all. In typical style, Parke suggests a plan that even the hopeless Markus recognises as characteristically cruel:

“I’m safer suggesting a break. Then I can sneak away quietly and never talk to her again while she’s not paying attention.”

‘That seems like the Parke Hudson way”

Finally, it is Ryan that calls it a day, and Parke regrets it almost immediately. When they reunite back in LA, however, it is the same old story of discontent, until Parke must eventually own up to the character that he has played all along, and the terrible consequences it has brought him.

The novel is a kind of ‘Bildungsroman’, detailing Parke’s psychological journey through the lens of his relationship. He travels from quiet indifference, to reckless manipulation, finally arriving at a feeling which might be described as regret. It is, of course, difficult to put a finger on – Parke only comes near approximations of what might be called ‘normal feeling’. He maintains a curiously flat treatment of incidents and emotions, to the point where he often just observes:

Despite having practically cut [my father] out of her life, mom felt it was the right choice to pass his last name on to me when I was born… This type of psychological self-harm on her part must be how all people with mental issues behave.

It is unclear the point to which Parke recognises himself in this observation. On the one hand, there is a wry, knowing bitterness to his tone which speaks volumes for a self-recognition not often seen. On the other, he is so detached from normality that it is possible he doesn’t see any of himself in this statement. The reader is often unsure who knows more – himself or the maniacal, yet witty, intelligent, and somehow likeable Parke.

This sensitive and consistent handling of the voice of a man who is only just sane renders Morgan’s prose wickedly captivating; this is a novel worth reading for its complex tone perhaps more so than for its plot. Highlights is a masterful follow-up to Exit, in its telling of a seemingly unremarkable story that somehow clings to its reader long after the last page is read.




Book Review: Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole

thiefWhat is so striking about Teju Cole’s fiction is his ability to end his books with a sense of heavy emotional languor and stark finality. The final chapter of Every Day is for the Thief begins with the narrator considering the difference between labyrinths and mazes: labyrinths contain a meaningful centre, whilst mazes confuse and mislead. It is this demarcation that runs through Cole’s almost psychogeographical novels: is urban space a meaningless maze or a labyrinth with a meaningful kernel to be discovered? If Lagos is the ghost that haunts Cole’s first novel Open City, then it is the protagonist in Every Day is for the Thief.

Open City centres on Lagos-born Julius and his meandering walks through New York, following his growing alienation from both his built environment and the expat community. Cole’s childhood in Lagos is delicately sewn into the narrative of Open City through memories and stories, like his touching recollection of sneaking a bottle of ice cold Coke from the fridge on a hot day. But there is always distance – a clear demarcation between then and now, there and here.

It is what I have dreaded: a direct run-in with graft. I have mentally rehearsed a reaction for a possible encounter with such corruption at the airport in Lagos. But to walk in off a New York street and face a brazen demand for a bribe: that is a shock I am ill-prepared for.

This book, however, focusses much more heavily on the Nigeria of Cole’s childhood (the death of his Father and the fracturing of his relationship with his Mother) and the reality of modern Nigeria and all its contradictions, both politically and religiously. The unnamed narrator pities writers such as John Updike: “who have to ply their trade from sleepy American suburbs, writing divorce scenes symbolized by the very slow washing of dishes”; having watched a fight between two men of a Lagosian highway, remarking that “life hangs out here”.

When the narrator is ill, frustrated by power cuts and the loud hum of generators, Cole’s slow and unhurried exposition gets across the particularly oppressive feeling that Lagos imprints upon its inhabitants – and it is in these passages that we feel Lagos as maze. But on another occasion, when he pursues a woman he sees on a bus with a Michael Ondaatje book, it runs with precision and momentum – the city revealing itself as a labyrinth, with some glimmer of meaning at its heart.

 The kernel of Every Day is for the Thief is a very conflicted heart, between Lagos as an integral centre of the narrator’s existence, and something from which he has been detached. Or, more pithily, struggle and absence.

What if everything that is to happen has already happened, and only the consequences are playing themselves out?

There are inevitable comparisons to be made with W.G. Sebald in tone and mood, particularly in the inclusion of uncaptioned black and white photos that are dotted throughout the book. The reader is left to make up their own mind about what they mean and why he has chosen to include them. Cole started out as a photographer, and the way his narrator surveys his surroundings in both his novels nod to the detachment a photographer feels between themselves and their subject, keeping them at lens length.

It is tempting to read Every Day is for the Thief as the prelude to Open City and to see the narrator as Julius, who has moved to New York and become very successful in his field. But what does this mean then for the narrator’s authenticity, as someone who has experienced Lagos and left? This contradiction is unsettled and becomes transposed onto the reader and leaves the question of who’s past do we reflect on, the narrator’s or Nigeria itself? Surely, we cannot expect a nation’s rhythm and complexities to be solved by one author, and Cole’s accounts are contributing in the same “way a small segment of a coastline is formed with the same logic that makes the shape of the continental shelf.”




Somewhere Between The Borders: New Money

Photo by Jay Phagan (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Jay Phagan (copied from Flickr)

A series of hurdles must be overcome to reach the cloistered inner sanctum of Sherry Dedham in Dallas, Texas. I ring at the front door of her estate, and a while later I am ushered in by a young Mexican woman dressed in black who shows me to an ornately decorated dining room, hung with portrait paintings. There I sit, listening to footsteps overhead, hoping that the hole in my nose where my nose ring should be will not heal while I wait. After a while, the woman reappears through a swinging door that leads into the kitchen. We pass through the house and out toward the pool, whose surface is shimmering in the sunlight of mid-day. Two yapping dogs called Fred and Ginger circle our ankles as we cross the patio to the pool house. She leaves me at the entrance, and I venture nervously inside and up the stairs toward the closed door of Sherry’s office.

My initial interview took place at a Starbucks on fashionable Knox Avenue, where I was treated to an intense psychological probing by Sherry’s husband Roy and Maximo, their Chilean hiring manager. I had completed an eighteen-page application, including a writing sample that consisted of a detailed thank-you letter to a luxury resort. I had answered questions about my personal spirituality and agreed to fingerprinting and credit checks. I had even, at the request of Maximo, removed my nose ring, just before Roy arrived. Maximo had asked me whether I could serve—not everyone can, he added. I wasn’t sure exactly what he meant, but I figured my willingness to remove the nose ring was proof that I could. Through it all, the figures in the Help Wanted ad from the Dallas Morning News beamed at me like the headlights of a Rolls Royce: “Personal Assistant/Nanny, salary 35K+, full benefits.”

I have never earned that much money in my life. It has been a year and a half since I last had health insurance, and a recent bout of mononucleosis has exhausted most of my favours from friends in healthcare. I am a northeasterner by birth, and I have arrived in Dallas with little more than a clunky old computer I can write on and my trusty Toyota Tercel, whose dings and dents are nearly as old as I am. I need work badly—not just for the money but for my sanity too. I met my Texan boyfriend overseas, and now we are living in a cheap apartment building owned by his father. Paying the monthly rent is a stretch, even at a discount. My boyfriend is trying to make it as an artist. He isn’t contributing much to our income, but he is contributing a moody, chaotic intensity to the atmosphere. I have already applied at five employment agencies, where I heard one woman whisper behind my back: “She’s lived in London, but I don’t see much office work here.” I am beginning to realize that the “international experience” I have acquired traveling around the world for the past couple years isn’t going to mean much in Texas, or maybe anywhere.

I knock hesitantly at Sherry’s door.

“VENGA!” she screams, startling me. I turn the knob and push the door open. “You speak Spanish, right? It’s very important that you can talk to Mariana,” she fires, skipping a greeting. I nod and take a seat. She studies me across the wide expanse of her oak desk and then presses the intercom at her fingertips.

“Mariana, traigame la sopa por favor!” Sherry glances at me to see if I understand her lunch request before launching her next command.

“I can’t find my pen,” she says to the intercom, this time in English. “Where is my pen?”

“Roy, have you seen my pen?”

“Could you look in the bathroom, please, or on my dresser.”

We cannot proceed until the pen is located.

“I need my pen RIGHT NOW…Did you find it yet?”

The responses that come back are mumbled. I have never seen a person behave this way before, except in soap operas. At some point, my presence occurs to Sherry, and she begins to review my application. I tell her what she wants to hear—that my boyfriend and I are living together but mere steps from being married, that we plan to raise our children as Christians, that I will certainly be available for the next three years. When her twelve year-old daughter and a friend interrupt to ask about going for lunch at a nearby deli, Sherry refuses. “You know there’s a lot of rift-raft hanging around there,” she says. I think I have misheard her, but then she repeats it: rifT-rafT. “Absolutely not,” she continues, “You could get shot, and we’d never even know about it. No way, Ma’am. Call them up and have them deliver. And tell them we’re paying by credit card, I don’t care if they’re cash only.” Her Texas accent is resplendent—I have never heard the language spoken in such glory.

Sherry turns and looks at me as if to say, See, that’s how to deal with children. She is formidable, this bottle blonde, sausaged into a magenta blouse and dark brown pants, the tips of her fingers and barefoot toes French-manicured. Through a thick veneer of makeup, she has a face like a bulldog. Over the three hours that I spend under her microscope, she reveals to me bits and pieces of her legacy, including a father who was a multimillionaire. A local college has been named for him. She explains to me that her family could live anywhere in the world, but they choose to live in Dallas because of the people.

“The most beautiful women in the world are here,” she sighs, perhaps wistfully. “We just think it’s the best city in the world. You’ll be glad you settled down here.” I do not tell her I am not at all sure of staying here for good. Unlike New York, Sherry continues, Dallas is very open to new money. I nod, wondering if the fiver I found on the street this morning counts as new money.

In the final hour of the interview, her husband Roy joins us. He wants to tell me a little about the children. He starts with Steven, their eighteen year-old, who has just been accepted at Vanderbilt University. Roy pauses to consider his words. “Steven is a strange child,” he whispers. “He eats almost no meat whatsoever. All carbs.” This is cattle country. I make what I think is an appropriate expression of shock and dismay. He is glad that I have understood.

Roy describes Stephanie, the twelve year-old, as their “most spiritual child.” He remembers a time when she printed the Easter story from the Internet and conducted a service for the family at their ranch in the hill country.

About their seven year-old, Roy waxes most enthusiastic. “Benjy is our love bomb,” he tells me. I am not sure what this means, but it sounds frightening. Sherry adds that at five years old he had the vocabulary of a twelve-year-old (she had him tested), but that now it is probably fourteen.

An hour later, I have been dismissed by the Dedhams and am just unlocking my own front door when my cell phone rings. It is Sherry. “Can you come on back over? I forgot that the girls wanted to ask you some questions!” I drive back to the estate, and Stephanie and her friend sit me down at the dining room table to ask me where I buy my clothes and where I go to church. Luckily, I have been to a church service with my boyfriend’s family at one of the football stadium-sized mega-churches in Dallas and can name it. The image that was projected over the altar during the service—George W. Bush flanked by Abraham Lincoln and George Washington—flashes into my mind. God and country, I think. Clothes and country. Clothes and God?

The next day, I am back, under the tutelage of Maximo, who says, “I’ll tell you this: They like you. So do as I say, and you’ll have the job.” He leads me upstairs to Personal Assistant Headquarters, where he outlines my day-to-day responsibilities. He starts with an example of a recent problem: A dog collar was lost somewhere on the property. It would be up to me, Maximo explains, to delegate responsibility to solve the problem. He gives me a list of people to contact: the gardener, for one, and the girl who walks the dogs. I would provide daily updates on the search to Sherry via a detailed log of the day’s events. Another challenge is the malfunctioning of one of the fountains in front of the house. He models for me a call to Jerry Jones’ secretary “to see if they have a guy.” I can tell by the way he says it that this Jerry Jones is an important person. Later I find out he is the owner of the Dallas Cowboys football team. Maximo shows me a few templates for letters of congratulation upon acceptance to sororities. He asks me to put some Christmas pictures into an album.

“The most important thing to remember is that Sherry likes you to do all the shopping over the Internet and on the phone,” he says. He looks me in the eye to indicate the gravity of this: “She doesn’t like you going to the stores.” In my real life, I do “go to the stores.” But I vow never to do so for Sherry. He who serves shalt not question.

In the afternoon, Maximo assigns me to the task of Benjy, the “love bomb.” He gives me a checklist to complete: 1. snack 2. homework 3. 20 minutes reading 4. counting money 5. practice piano 6. bath and pyjamas by 5 pm.

At three o’clock, Benjy stands on the marble countertop in the kitchen plucking fruit from a bowl and chucking it across the room. By four, he has squirted me with cheese from a can and has told me (with relish) a disturbing story of killing his pet bird with a toy sword. I remember an article I read about the warning signs of budding psychopaths. While I try to complete the checklist by reading to him for twenty minutes, he hides behind the bed and applies glue to his hair. Afterward, I try to get him to hand over the bottle of glue, and Benjy says he is going to tell his mother not to hire me, and then I will be poor, not affluent like them. I see that Sherry was right—he does have a good vocabulary. When the piano teacher arrives, I gratefully turn him over to her and slump against the grand staircase in the front room.

As I rest on the step, an image looms above me—an oil painting of Sherry in a red dress. Diamonds glitter at her pulse points and spill down the plunging neckline of her dress. The artist has been generous to her face and to her cleavage. I have noticed that there are portraits of Sherry throughout the house. In the bathroom, there is a close-up of her face, framed by waves of blonde hair. It sits on a decorative oriental tray, surrounded by rose petals. In Benjy’s bedroom, there is another photo of Sherry in full makeup and a voluminous white nightgown, the folds of which obscure baby Benjy, who is barely visible at the bottom of the frame.

From the other room, I can hear heavy plunking on the keys of the piano, and the sound of Mariana clattering dishes in the kitchen. I imagine that Sherry is upstairs by now, having retired to her boudoir for an afternoon nap before dinner. Around her, the hive is buzzing with worker bees. I run my finger over the spot on my nose where my nose ring was. It is sore. I imagine the task ahead of me—bathing Benjy and putting him to bed—and then the long assessment of my performance by Maximo that will follow. Suddenly thirty-five thousand dollars seem beside the point. The front door is right there. I walk to it, turn the knob, and continue down the stairs and across the manicured lawn to my old Toyota, hidden in the trees.




Somewhere Between The Borders: Beach Gym, L.A.

Photo by leyla.a (copied from Flickr)
Photo by leyla.a (copied from Flickr)

Chapter 1: 85bpm

The palm tree leaves quivered dryly two stories above the promenade. A couple young girls rolled past in pink and red, skin yellowish in the humid air. Not a glimmer of sweat. They wore headphones, but managed to maintain a conversation. This was too predictable, Rich thought, as he stood on the sidewalk. Los Angeles could look like this in a music video, but surely not in reality. He took a daring step past where the girls had been only moments ago, and stared across the road towards an avenue of trees and rolling, rainbow-coloured Americans. The lights above the traffic, synchronized into blots of green. He’d always admired himself as the type of person who could cross roads without thinking. He remembered crossing on orange back in London and having his foot snatched by burning rubber, swung round like a dancer. His 5p carrier bag flew open and headphones were broken, scattered in two parts on the tarmac. Only when he reached the park and lifted a stained trouser leg could he see how his ankle was bleeding. A dizzy wave washed over, not quick enough for the phobia of automobiles to stain itself on his subconscious.

There was something he despised about the vanity of youth. Perhaps it was what eventually gave him a good reason to escape the country he was born in. Perhaps because he knew it in himself. It came with an attuned level of self-awareness that went deeper than mere superficiality. It ran deep in the veins of insecurity, seemingly beyond relief. A humility impossible to rescue save by a Zen master. Maybe the whole world felt this way. Europeans were different. He had lived in Portugal and France for a few years, and always admired the gentle vanity, which never went beyond looks or admiration for the shape of one’s own face. Selfies were abundant on the internet, lost in an ocean of data, relevant for their respective brief moments in time.

He made it across the road to safety. Tick. The palm trees made a rustling sound above him that reminded him he was in a good place, for the first time in his life. He was one of the lucky ones. Back home, his dad had hated American television. He insisted on watching Seventies British sitcoms and films all day long, forever stuck in this desaturated decade. They had to fit another television into the house just so he could peacefully watch this new wave of American programming.

Now he meandered through the crowds, surrounded by the upbeat hum of American voices. Voices he had heard so many times before, in every country he had lived. There was something secure about this accent, which made him feel both protected and optimistic at once. He took it in for a few beats, before the next image struck his eyes. There, on the beach, stretched both long and wide, was the highlight of the day. The sight was hard to miss, jutting from the sand like specks of green candy, hundreds of feet long at least. Candy was the right word. Then, as though the sound was already ingrained in his ears when the flight landed, he recognised the dance track blaring from the speakers. Four corners. 140 beats per minute. He could make out a faint sound of wheels turning, rubber on feet and the friction of sneakers. He scanned the sea of green before his eyes, trying to appreciate it but aware now of a slender figure approaching him to ruin this moment. Green top, flyer in hand, she stopped in front of him. His hand reached for the flyer, rejecting but accepting it at the same time. “Welcome to Beach Gym,” said the soft voice. Those four words. They would never leave his head.

“How much – ”

“Ten dollars a month, added benefits including a free towel, you can charge your phone – ”

The words came out of her like those on a chaotic ice cream menu.

“How does it – ”

Her blue eyes shone at him, smiling to themselves as though he wasn’t there. He didn’t mind the facade and waited for her next interruption. Interrupting must be written in the contract, he thought.

“The treadmills keep the music going so the party doesn’t stop. You work hard so you can party – ”

“What happens at night – ”

He had unexpectedly interrupted her. Was this how people assimilated into society? His thoughts now seemed to be pulled along by a string that could not be stopped. He and the girl were drawn into a game where the conversation became faster, rushing towards some impending disaster or act of love.

“At night we party.”

“How do you keep the music – ”

“You’ll have to find – ”

“Can I pay by card?”

She reached into her bag and pulled out a green towel. A clean towel. He took the thing in his hands. A couple of flecks of sand already made it second-hand, but this imperfection and the heat only made the sound of turning treadmills more exciting. Then he saw them, below the towel, down, down, another foot to the floor – oversized sandals. Instinctive horror set in. Pushing against the sandals were a pair of faded black socks, which he had not taken off since the flight. He looked at the girl now holding a credit card machine. It was too late. He entered four digits and, like a hawk, turned his head down the beach expectantly. He could not decide whether the drops of sweat now forming on his brow were from embarrassment or the sun.

“I have to go back to the – ”

She was gone, supermarket shopping for the next clumsy imbecile. He looked at a flimsy paper in his hand. Mr Richard Green. He smiled at the thought of sharing his name with the secondary colour of the machines. His new life had begun.

Chapter 2: 150bpm

The early morning was disturbed only by the sound of red plastic cups tinkering on the sand. The sun was out, but not yet high enough to invade the fresh, cool air. Rich kicked one of the plastic cups along the floor. Yesterday, after the encounter, he didn’t dare venture back onto the beach. Besides, sleep had overcome him when the jet-lag caught up. Today was a better day, a new day, as they say. He followed his trainers as he made his way towards the green machines, littered all along the beach. The speakers were silent at this time of the morning, but a few elderly participants were already on the treadmills. The machines made gentle sounds, only barely drowned out by the distant waves. Rich sensed that they would leave by nine, when the sun would be in full swing. He tried to avoid letting sand into his trainers, but knew it was inevitable. The green towel was draped across his shoulder. He almost felt exclusive, like this was his morning, his beach. He reached some turnstiles and wondered how they managed to fit this extravaganza onto the beach, and if one day it might all be washed away. Did it matter? Rich pressed his hand onto a fingerprint recognition sensor and waited. A light shone red, instructing him to move his hand ever so slightly, in which direction he was not told. Unaccustomed to the new technology, and overcome with anticipation, Rich looked around and eagerly hopped over the gate. He looked to make sure that no one had seen him, and proceeded to pick out one of the green enigmas standing in front of him. Only now did he fully comprehend how many there were. He looked down the beach, his eyes scanning the mass cemetery of treadmills, and proceeded to choose one closer to the shoreline.

He dropped his towel into a compartment on the treadmill and got his phone out. He plugged this into a socket on top and reached for his headphones, which he slotted into a gap in front of him. Reassured by technology, Rich started to input his personal data. Username, password, date of birth, home country, email address, weight and age. By the time he had finished, the speakers erupted with a morning radio jingle, reminding him that he was in LA. He took a deep breath and pressed the ‘start’ button. The treadmill set off to a walking pace. Rich pushed the lever upwards, allowing the speed to increase slowly until it reached a point where he was comfortably jogging, just fast enough to make him appear athletic should anyone be watching. He looked around. There was no one nearby, save for an old man a few treadmills back, drowsily in his own world. Now his left headphone started slowly to slip out of his ear, as he turned to face the sea again, and quickly fell dangling back and forth by his hand. He instinctively caught it and placed it back in his ear. Then Rich noticed a missing commodity, piece of the puzzle he had forgotten to factor in. Water Bottle. All he had to do was buy one bottle before heading down onto the beach. The sun was starting to warm up. It was too late. The treadmill was running. Rich decided he must go on. He had not exercised in almost a year, so it was no use stopping now. He might as well see how far he could push himself.

A sudden faintness dropped his head forward, and he forced himself to blink, before resting his hands on the side of the treadmill. As he moved his hand, he noticed his left ear condensing, an imminent fall about to recur. He put all of this to the back of his mind, under the pressure of yet another wave of dizziness. Rich focused on the horizon ahead, not sure what to do. He felt, for a brief moment, that he was doing something he had never really wanted to do. He felt a pointlessness to this mild, First-World suffering, just before a wave flashed, this time in front of him, with a bright credit-card-like glimmer of golden sunlight. ‘We’re all stuck on the treadmill’. The left headphone fell, tangled up in his hand, immediately ripping the other earpiece irritatingly from his right ear. Rich threw the unnecessary wires onto the sand and reached for the lever in front of him, just in time, before a final wave hit him. Now two steps back, struggling to reach the front of the machine, he half-leaned, half-drooped forward, desperately holding the lever down so that the machine could reach a bearable speed. He let himself slide off it and fell back onto the sand.

A swell of headache awoke him. A figure approached. The green top, slender hips and blue eyes.

“Coming to the party tonight?”

Richard looked up, sweat falling from his head like a kettle. He had never felt this embarrassingly cliched since asking for tea with milk in France, and of course the incident yesterday. She offered her hand. He politely declined. She tried again, this time offering the delicacy of a water bottle.

“We see the readings…”

He looked up at her bright face, unable to talk after swallowing some water.

“Your heart rate.” She pulled out a small tablet device. “150. You should exercise more.”

Rich nodded, then laughed. This gave way for a pause in the conversation, and for a moment, the only rush was confined to traffic on the boulevard. The multitudes, individuals with shopping bags, contracts, flowers, sprites, money, music, madness and spirit, all racing home, to work, to friends, to wives.

She offered her hand again. “Amy.”

Chapter 3: The Party

His eyes were open but he was still asleep. The sun was glazing the ceramic tiles of the hotel balcony. A paper-thin curtain rested uneasily on the bedside table, hung there by an indifferent humid draft. Rich knew that he was about to experience the full effects of post-afternoon nap sunburn. Moreover, the shape of the pillow had steadily imprinted creases onto the other half of his face. Two days left. He came here for three weeks and joined a gym. Rich remembered what it was like to wake up back in Britain, that desaturated place; experiencing the tingly sensation of post-nap with her. Now she was with someone else. It was just two months ago, but felt like a week. Move on. He anticipated some discomfort, before lifting his head. There was a tingly, itchy sensation spreading all over his face as he rose from the bed. His ears were still in another world, but sensitively picked up the distant sound of music. Rich went to the tap to slap some water over his face. Still tingly. Another splash, before leaning to clear his throat. He showered, dressed, and moved to the balcony to take his first look at the changed stretch of sand in the distance. People were gathered now, couples locked in embraces, kids unaware, watching the last orange peel sail across the horizon.

By the time he got there the sky was already an isolated blue. He made his way to the bar, which had appeared like an oasis in the middle of the sand. Where had the machines gone? Rich looked down at his feet and saw small plastic grids covering the sand. Between each plastic hollow square lay a dark world of grain and glass. The music beat in his ears as he made his way to the bar. 150bpm. Trance. A song about letting go. A long, neon, glass construction pulsating with light. People waiting for their drinks. Absurd. He found a gap in the queue and shouldered his way through. A girl screamed in his ear. She was in her early twenties, but knew herself better than he had known anyone before. How did he get here? He ordered his first two drinks and looked at her.

“Great party!” He blurted. “Haven’t been here before.”

“What?!”

“I just said it’s a great party.”

“I know! Are you from England?” He nodded. She raised her glass, smiled and flowed into the crowds.

A light show was taking place, one that lasted the duration of the night but not long enough. For a moment, at one o’clock in the morning, Rich appreciated everything for what it was. The people, the lights and the music. Then it all stopped. The crowds left. One last drink. It was over too soon. He had danced, met people he would never see again, and shared a revelry and single dream to enjoy the madness.

An older man was still standing at the bar. Rich was aware that a conversation would ensue. He looked into his wallet and enjoyed the adventure of counting his change. He lifted a few notes out and pressed them into a hand that was serving him. The man shook his head.

“Why are you here?”

Rich ignored the man as he conjured up an answer and took his drink. “Getting away from a sour event, finding myself, something…” He smiled at his own inability to construct a sentence. It didn’t seem to matter. The man laughed and nodded. He finished his bottle and looked around the beach.

“You know this won’t last forever. The machines will stop one day.”

“Are you a drinking prophet? You know the best prophets try not preaching to anyone? Isn’t that the beauty of this anyway? Celebrating now.”

“Sound like my kids.” Rich held back a smile at the thought of this. Here was the preacher judging him for leaving home, when he was out with a family at home. The man pressed on, however.

“Trust me, they’ll stop. You’ll wonder why they started.”

Rich looked blankly at his serious expression. Then, for a brief period, he lost his confidence and his way. Rich tried to laugh it off but it was too late.

Chapter 4: The Celebrity

The beach was lively today. Two days left in this place. Rich made it an obligation that day to explore the entire gym after lunch, with an hour to spare so that the food could be digested. The gym was divided into sections. Not by machinery but by the different types of people who circled it. Those who would say the place attracts a certain type of person were wrong. You came here to become a certain type of person. He wouldn’t go as far as saying there was any camaraderie between people, however. It was quite the opposite. There was instead an awareness of being part of a group – a healthy group, a lucky group. There were those who came to lose weight, those who wanted to attain a certain shape, and the ones who were there to meet attractively insecure members of the same community. Rich was not quite sure which of his simple categories he fit into, but he was surely being too kind on himself. He liked to think that he was there to lose a bit of weight and enjoy the feeling of a well-oxygenated brain after the treadmill. It was not getting any easier though.

There she was – Amy. She approached from the left and smiled again, a broad youthful smile. Rich nodded, looked around and lost his train of thought.

“How are you today?” Did she remember him or was she this friendly to everyone?

“Just browsing. I had no idea the place was so big.”

“That’s why we’re here!”

She brushed past and the hairs on their arms touched for a moment. What had she meant by that? In more ways than one, it was not the answer he was expecting to his statement about browsing, but in a way it was also the very reply he wanted. Why was anyone here? It dawned on him that perhaps the only time people paid to do work was when it benefited themselves or made them look good. All other pursuits were either for money or selfless, but that was rare in this place.

A crowd had now gathered at the entrance to Beach Gym. Rich meandered over to the edge to see what the fuss was about. Suddenly, he had the feeling that he was standing out. In a minute fit of paranoia, Rich looked over at some of the other members next to him. An intense fear had washed over him, but was gone by the time he was amongst the crowd. He was quite aware of being drawn into something exciting now, but not quite sure what it was. In that moment, a man next to him started explaining the event to his girlfriend.

“It’s him. Is it really him?” She said.

“It’s him. Must be here for the gym.”

“He doesn’t need the gym. He’s here for the film. Why would he come to a gym like this? He goes private.”

The man everyone was gazing at was a celebrity, who had come to show his face among the masses. Perhaps for some marketing raid or promotion. They were all attracted like moths now. Restless, helpless people who could not get close enough yet had no idea how to, because of the fear that they might cause a commotion themselves. Stuck between these two worlds, Rich decided to leave and made his way home. There was no point in the treadmill that day.

Chapter 5: 0bpm

The rain pattered onto the balcony of the hotel, appropriately saved for the last day Rich would spend in L.A. He had been in bed for most of the morning, trying to remember and at the same time blocking out any memories from the previous night’s party. This was now a regular event, that would end tomorrow. The downpour soon petered out into sparse drops that dripped from the balcony above. Rich lifted his head up and peered out of the window. Somewhere within he knew that he would have to go to the gym. He retrieved his trainers from the corner of the room by his belongings, which poured out of his travel bag and waited to return home.

The gym was surprisingly busy now considering it had rained all morning. It was mid-week and the beach was teeming with fitness addicts. Rich looked out towards the waves. They were slower today, almost cautiously so. He wondered who kept the treadmills dry when it rained, and then realized he had arrived too late to find out. Rich walked past machine upon machine, passing the weights section and making his way to a lone running device. He had chosen a place at the back, with a good view of all who were there that day. He started the treadmill and placed his hands on the pulse-meter. 85bpm. Rich removed the small green towel from around his neck and placed it into a compartment in front. Not wanting to delay the inevitable, he pushed the lever forward so that the machine increased its speed. In thirty seconds he was already at a fair running pace, enough to draw him out of whatever alcohol-induced haze he had found himself in that morning. He ran with ease, his feet taking their turns to smack the rubber below. The other treadmills whirred gently all around.

Rich could make out Amy two rows ahead. She seemed to embody a certain level of energy that attracted attention wherever she went. Rich never thought of himself as someone who wanted attention. Yet he still wasn’t sure why he himself had joined the gym. The conflict this created in his head distracted him for a while. He quickly managed to put the thought aside, the way he usually did when he had a hangover, for fear that any glimmer could take over as a mental reality for the rest of the day.

Amy was crouching next to a boy and giving orders to him. He was doing sit-ups in the mat section, where no one ever made eye contact. Amy was doing her job but also enjoying it. Rich watched her talk, not noticing that his treadmill was slowly increasing its pace. The humming of the machines around him changed ever-so-slightly in frequency, and everyone was unknowingly at the whim of an inevitable First-World crisis. The speed of the treadmills became noticeable. Rich kept running amongst the chaos, as the speakers blared music slightly louder than before. Rich looked around. The prison-like order of everything and bright green colours were now sickening. Everyone was plugged into their world, trying to find some significance in fitness.

Amy stood up and looked around as well. She reached for a device, her walkie-talkie, and pressed the call button. Rich watched her talk into it, soon realising that he had to jump or he would become the main part in a slapstick comedy show that was about to take place. Next to him, a man tripped and fell, swiftly swooped back onto the sand. Rich looked in front, where he now noticed a struggling elderly couple on two treadmills. They tried to hold onto the hand-rails, but the machines were ever-increasing in speed.

Rich called out to Amy, but was drowned out by the music.

The couple were now thrust backwards by machines that no longer wanted them. They disappeared onto the sand. Rich jumped off his treadmill, struggling to regain his balance on the sand, before running towards where the couple had been only moments ago. He saw them helplessly strewn on the sand, the way that kids unwillingly immerse themselves on a beach trip. The way he used to sink his feet into the beach in Britain, sharing the experience and circling his finger to make an outline of two pairs. The old man was trying to lift up his wife’s head, but blood was now trickling into the sand. Rich’s eyes met Amy’s. She cautiously looked down at the scene, energy sapped and confidence lost. The machines stopped. Amy fainted.

Epilogue

The power cut lasted three days. Most of the West Coast had been hit. Rich was never able to figure out why the treadmills increased their speed. Perhaps they had to run on back-up power. At the airport, newspapers reported that a tree had fallen on a power line and ripped it like an artery somewhere outside of the city. A few speculated divine intervention. Rich remembered it as the day the treadmills stopped.




Three Years in Arkansas

Photo by Delaney Dean (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Delaney Dean (copied from Flickr)

Three years ago: I came into Fayetteville, Arkansas, riding in an old Ford, sleep deprived, sipping whiskey from a coffee mug. I’d found my roommate’s ad on Craigslist, and he’d generously offered to collect me from Bentonville, the nearest airport in a town almost an hour away from Fayetteville. I was nervous when I saw him through the window of the arrivals lounge. There was a vacancy about his gaze, and he moved with the careful slowness of a man trying to appear sober.

Leaving the cool, air-conditioned airport, it felt as if I’d walked into an oven, the air so thick it didn’t seem real. I followed him to the Ford, relieved to see his friend behind the wheel. My roommate had just finished a round of exams; he looked as exhausted as I felt. We shared the whiskey and I gazed out of the window at the wooden houses on the edge of the woods. Most had a porch. I saw one with a rocking chair.

Our house was the same, wood panel, with a porch, and as we pulled up onto the drive I saw myself writing there, pen in one hand, whiskey in the other. We arrived at around six thirty in the evening. It was still very hot, the streets bathed in dappled light. The cicadas were singing loudly from the trees. My roommate had put a bag of fireworks on the door handle. He’d written on it in marker pen, “WELCOME TO ARKANSAS.”

It took a moment for me to focus when he opened the door, for the lounge was murky. There were dirty plates, clothes, open containers full of half eaten leftovers. “This way to your room,” he said, stepping over the debris. We went through the kitchen. I could hear our shoes peeling from the floor with each step. Dirty dishes were stacked high in the sink. There was the smell of old garbage.

My room was empty save a mattress and an American flag hanging from the wall. A trail of white powder lined the edges of the room. Borax, my roommate explained, for killing roaches. He left me to send an email to my family. When I went back into the lounge, he’d taken off his shirt and was passed out, lying facedown on the sofa.

***

The next day, I explored the town. I opened a bank account, caught off guard by the friendliness of the staff (“How are you today?”) The walk up the hill to the university in this heat was not easy. I was drenched with sweat. On the campus grounds: sprinklers feeding thirsty lawns, Greek amphitheatre of white stone, a pavement bearing the names of graduates, from the end of the nineteenth century to the present. After exploring for only a few hours, I lay down in the shadow of one of the campus buildings, taken suddenly by heat exhaustion.

Later, I sat on the porch, leafing through books on grammar, trying to remind myself of the essential rules, the parts of speech.

I was anxious about teaching. It’s a strange thing, teaching in a country you’ve lived in for only a few weeks. You consider yourself a guest. You want to study your surroundings, merely observe. And yet your job is to be an authority, to make assertions and demands.

I was to teach English Composition, a mixture of rhetoric, essay writing, and critical thinking. My classroom was in the engineering building: a harsh concrete affair my roommate told me would be the best place to take shelter from a tornado. The room was more like a lecture hall than a classroom, with seats rising from head-height to what felt like the far distance. I was nervous, watching the students filing into the room. Here, the undergraduate girls all wear running shorts and long T-shirts. The boys wear khakis, polo shirts and sunglasses. Anybody not dressed this way appears almost subversive. Although I was nervous, I was keen to know them beyond this general impression.

Some were interested in my accent (“What are you doing in Arkansas?”); others seemed suspicious, thought I spelled things wrong. Usually, this was because I used the British spelling (Once I wrote “analyse” and three young men at the back muttered, “He’s spelled it wronghe can’t spell.”) But there might have been times when I was simply so nervous I couldn’t remember how a word was spelled.

After the first couple of classes, I began to relax and enjoy myself. I took pleasure in assigning articles for the students to read, leading discussion and debate.

I’d assigned a diagnostic essay, a writing assignment I would use to get a sense of their abilities coming into the classroom. I asked students to tell me about a gift they’d received that had meant a lot to them, and the results were interesting, even moving. For one student, the gift was a photograph his girlfriend had given him of the two of them together. They’d gotten into different schools, and he wrote eloquently about the pain they’d felt parting ways. Another student talked about his gift from God – his healing hands with which he’d saved a woman’s life, curing her of her cancer.

When I mentioned the second example to my roommate, he became angry, as did some of my colleagues. Some of my fellow teachers had grown up in small towns in rural Arkansas with strict religious and often right wing political upbringings. For them, this young man represented the oppression and ignorance of a world they had struggled to escape. I was less indignant. I’d gone through a Christopher Hitchens phase. I felt I’d talked a friend out of Christianity, and, before leaving for the States, tried to talk him back into it – not Christianity, as such, but the value of keeping an open mind.

Yet I was forced to consider the issue further when we discussed the subject of gay marriage. One student, a member of a Christian fraternity, told me he was struggling to write anything other than what the bible says about homosexuality; while a bright girl, always smiling, told me she would write her essay in favour of the legalisation of same sex marriage, even though she, too, thought homosexuality was a sin.

“It’s just easier to argue,” she said. “It’ll be easier to get a good grade.”

“But what do you actually think?” I said.

“Because of my religion, I believe it’s wrong, but – ”

“But you’ll be able to argue, using logic and reason, that it should be legal?”

“Oh yeah. Pretty easily.”

In our pedagogy class, we talked about how some students came to university with preformed notions about the world that were so heavily fortified it was difficult for them to consider new ideas. We read arguments about what certain ring wing proponents saw as the “liberalisation” of students within the university. They criticised those English professors who indoctrinate students with liberal ideology. Others argued that professors have a duty to introduce students to these ideas – ideas like Marxism, progressive gender theory – to fight against what they’d been raised to believe, ideas that were then bolstered by the likes of Glenn Beck and Fox News. Opinion in the class was mixed. Some thought it was dangerous to be so explicit about your beliefs when you have the power to give an A or an F. “We’re in ideology,” said one teaching assistant, “nothing you say or do is free of it. So you might as well just be open about what you believe.”

I knew some teachers who told students the Bible was incompatible with critical thinking. I had a friend who, on his first day, said to the class, “Okay, before we begin, I want to tell you that I’m a Marxist, anti-capitalist…”

I tried to keep some distance from the ideas I presented to my own students. And for the most part, this was easy, for, in my experience, most of my students, regardless of the things they’d grown up to believe, were open to new ideas, and were rarely offensive, or reductive. But there were times when it was more difficult, as when a student gave me an essay in which he argued that AIDS was a punishment from God. He sat opposite me in my office as I read through his work, playing with his iPhone.

The academic year seemed to pass quickly. I struggled to balance teaching and writing, and wrote only a couple of short stories. The humidity lifted. The leaves on the maple trees turned red. And though the town was beautiful, the roads peppered with red leaves, I felt that things at the house were falling apart. My roommate said he needed to get out of Fayetteville. He was tired of this little college town. He’d already got a degree in fine art, now he was taking his second in chemical engineering. He was an excellent painter; but he hated what he perceived as the pretentiousness of the art world, and had been inspired by Barak Obama’s call for more engineers.

He lost sleep over worries about money. I often woke to him whistling and cooking at three in the morning, in the kitchen just beyond my bedroom door. He had to take a job to help pay for his student fees, and struggled to find time between working and catching up on sleep to study for his exams.

The house was infested with cockroaches and camel crickets. One night, I found my roommate hiding behind a chair. “It flew at me,” he said, his eyes wide. “One of them flew at my face.” We bought a dust buster and fell into the routine of vacuuming bugs from the carpet. In my bedroom, it was mostly camel crickets, genuinely frightening insects with large back legs, long antenna, and which seem to actively jump in the direction of whatever they perceive as a threat.

***

My second summer: I’d moved into another apartment in a quieter part of town. I wrote for most of the day everyday, cultivating an obsession.

Rather like teaching, travelling to a foreign country to write this intensely might be something of a paradox; locking yourself away to imagine, to render some place you already know well (all my stories were set in England), while at the same time, this new environment, fully formed, lies waiting beyond the walls of your apartment.

Because I had nothing to do but write, this summer seemed slower than the last. The weather was the same, of course, as it is every summer here: blisteringly hot, at least with the occasional thunderstorm – and then, for a moment, the air is cool, and the roads turn to rivers. Sometimes I went out onto the porch to watch the train going by, blasting its horn, or to watch a thunderstorm. In the evenings, after dinner, I’d sometimes watch the rabbits playing in the grass in the fading sunshine.

Most of my friends were out of town.

I might have gone slightly mad, found myself muttering strange, solipsistic things to the checkout girl at Wal-Mart.

It was this summer I met M, a poet in the MFA programme, who managed, somehow, to get me out of my apartment.

When we weren’t writing, or grading student papers, we went to the park to throw sticks for her blue heeler, or to the farmers market in the town square.

One night, a few months into the fall semester, we went for a drink at a bar called Roger’s Rec, a dingy, smoky place with billiards and cheap metal tables and chairs, and which was once a popular hangout for hippies during the seventies. Somehow we got onto God and religion and what it is was that each of us believed.

“I have a habit of bringing these sorts of things up,” I said. “I’m not very good at small talk. Especially not after three pints of pale ale.”

“That’s okay,” she said, “I’m the same.”

I said my father was an atheist and my mother could probably have been called a Pantheist, and so I was somewhere in between, whatever that meant.

M spoke of her strict Christian upbringing, how she’d broken free of it – like so many undergraduates – when she went to university. She was interested in returning to some sort of faith, a search for God, she said, but on her own terms.

When I met her parents, I could tell they were good people, friendly, intelligent and kind. They live on a small farm, not commercial, but producing meat and milk – sometimes pork – for them and a few others in the local community. We went there for Christmas. And I enjoyed talking to her parents about religion, about God and faith, the wood-burning stove aglow while the snow painted white the fields and mountains. M, however, kept finding excuses to leave the room.

As time went on, I began to realise why it was difficult for her to talk about this subject with her parents. She could no longer believe what they believed. She could no longer believe that what the Bible said about creation was absolutely true. In her teens, she’d been told that desire was an aspect of the devil. Sex before marriage was a sin. She’d developed a fear of hell, a fear that then took the form of a subtle, yet perpetual – and perpetually vague – anxiety.

Sometimes, I wanted to say, “listen, there’s no such thing as hell.” But I soon realised it wasn’t so simple. I became frustrated. I began to realise the damage this sort of ideology could do to children – it made me think of some of my own students – and that echoes of this trauma could remain in a person even after the brain, the logical brain, relegated much of this belief to the status of crude political dogma.

Worst of all, M struggled to feel fully accepted by her parents. They supported her, were kind and loving, but their beliefs and her inability to share them meant she felt a kind of distance. It made her desire for freedom – for a reality beyond that which was given to her when she was too young to refuse, to question, seem like a sin. For if she only believed, as they did, the distance between them could be closed.

***

Last summer, my third summer in Arkansas: M and I were kayaking across the White River.

We started at the creek, not far from her parents’ farm, where we’d been working. We took with us cans of beer, and went swimming in the creek before joining the main body of the river. The water was cold and I could feel the fish nibbling at my toes as I stood, submerged to the neck, watching the sparkling surface for snakes.

We sunned ourselves on some rocks after the first swim.

M squinted at my waist. There was a tick half buried above the waistband of my shorts, its tiny legs wriggling.

“Oh God,” I said. “It’s in my flesh. What should I do?”

“Here,” she said, “I’ll get it.”

She pulled it out with the swiftness of a professional. There was a small amount of blood. I was laughing, and sort of honoured to have been bitten by an Arkansas tick. But then I remembered something.

“Do you think I’ve got Lyme disease?” I said.

“I think you’ll be fine,” said M.

“I heard they spread Lyme disease. Is that not true?”

“I’ve known a lot of people who’ve been bitten by ticks, never known any of them with Lyme disease. I think you’re good.”

“Well,” I said, “I’ll tell you if I start to feel weird.”

She made a face, as if to make fun of me. I’d been staying in the loft of the barn; as soon as I walked in, there was a large brown spider sitting on my shoulder (the brown recluse is an Arkansas native); I found snakeskins in the woods, and M’s parents told us, when we were working: “Keep your eyes peeled for copperheads.” So far, I’d fallen victim to chiggers, which leave you in fits of itching. And now, in addition, the tick.

We took the kayaks from the bank and paddled downstream.

The woods around us were still, silent; the only sound the soft thump of an oar breaking the water, or the hiss of a can of beer being opened. We smiled at each other, communicating a sort of relief.

It had not always been easy, working on the farm. We were not allowed to share a room. And there was the emphasis on the traditional, statements about women and “their role,” or “the role of the man,” which set our teeth on edge. A pale, skinny writer, I’d been intimidated by the idea of so much physical work. M had told me, half joking, half serious, “with my dad, every new boyfriend, he has them building fence.”

At a fourth of July party a few days prior, I found myself in an argument with a retired Marine. As part of the family tradition, his son would serve too. Rudely, I addressed his son, telling him he needed to think critically about the military, about why America was at war, so he could make up his own mind. His father and I exchanged hostile words, until (luckily for me) M dragged me from the scene.

As we left the creek, we were carried along on the current, and then floating in its middle, the green forest on each side, emphasising the width of the river. We paddled to the edge so that we could look into the forest, at the vines, trees, banks rich with hidden life.

M pointed at some snapping turtles up ahead, standing perfectly still on tree roots that came up through the dark water. This became our imperative, paddling as quietly as possible so we could get close to them. Every time, the turtles seemed to feel us coming, plopped into the river, and were gone.

I’d never seen snapping turtles in the wild before. There was something delightful and funny about the way they leapt into the water as we approached, as if their bathing on the roots was an act of deepest privacy.

Each morning at six, M and I tackled odd jobs on the farm, watering the orchard, digging potatoes. M’s father taught me how to drive his tractor so I could bring hay from the fields to the barn. The heat made the work much harder than it already was, though we caught the sun, and we felt healthy. Finishing in the afternoon, I’d take an outdoor shower, only a thin wall of tin between my naked form and the Ozarks, the water fresh and cold – M would hand me a beer through the makeshift curtain of cloth. Then we’d write for a few hours, read, or nap.

For M and I, the appeal of this world lay in its sensuality, the light-headedness of physical labour and good food. One night, M’s father and I played music together on the porch (I’d taken my drum set.) We ate meals as a family, talking instead of watching TV. And, as we said grace, I began to feel the prayer connecting to something meaningful, to the toil of the day, to hands pressed into soil, to heat and sweat and the cyclical nature of this place: in the morning, the fields bathed in mist, in the evenings, the sun fading into the mountains; and perhaps most of all to the generosity of her parents. (That her father trusted me to drive his tractor seemed as much a miracle as any other.)

I felt at peace as we drifted downstream.

Then there was the sound of faint thunder in the distance.

“I’m getting tired,” said M.

“It’s going to rain,” I said.

“I know. We should hurry. I don’t want to get caught in a storm.”

I opened another beer.

And for the rest of the way, the thump of our oars in the water seemed ominous, emphasising the silence that followed, the darkness overhead.




Broken Homes and Broken People; the Meaning of ‘Family’ in This Dark Road to Mercy

Photo by Eric Ward (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Eric Ward (copied from Flickr)

“We must face the uncomfortable truth that turmoil at home all too often accounts for the turmoil we end up seeing spill onto our streets and schools…”
‘Sons of Divorce, School shooters’ The National Review Online 

Wilcox suggests that broken homes equal broken people, and that broken people break others. Although this particular article focuses on the idea that boys without authoritative role models are well placed to get caught in the Sturm und Drang of adolescence, it seems the issues these children develop can be teased to a more widespread problem; perhaps it is a perceived brokenness of the normal familial network that creates the sense of injustice and turmoil that fuels the actions of these children. Perhaps it is the social expectation of an American Dream-styled belief that two parents, a healthy marriage and two children, who go to college, plus some sort of pet is what one should receive whilst growing up, despite that this is not only a difficult balance of relationships to maintain but not the ‘norm’ for most people in America. This sense that one has been ‘left out’ or done out of what they believe that everyone else normally receives perpetuates a sense of injustice that often translates into violence within society.

Unlike Easter and Ruby, divorced children are let down by this vision more severely because they witness the breaking down of this family unit, whereas Easter and Ruby never really had a unit to lose, and therefore are not haunted by these memories of ‘normality’. This might explain the passiveness of Easter and Ruby, who, despite being surrounded by everyday violence, drugs and crime throughout This Dark Road to Mercy are the only two non-violent primary characters. Pruitt is a torturer and a murderer, Wade has committed a multi-million pound robbery, even Brady Weller is guilty of slamming Tommy Broughton’s head down on the table when he refuses to tell him about his hit on Wade. Although Easter has lemonade thrown over her hair by older children, this is more innocent high-school teasing than a serious act of provocation.

So why are these girls not more violent and bitter at the world for the awful situations in which they have been placed? Easter and Ruby built their homes in each other. They are aware of the ‘normal’ family unit; Easter nearly cries when they dye their hair brown thus making themselves look more like a normal family; the matching outfits too corroborated this sense of belonging. When Easter’s and Ruby’s mother dies, Easter is struck by how they do not match up to the ‘normal’ family lifestyle and is embarrassed of being discovered by the public services as ‘abnormal’. Easter obviously desires to obtain some sense of normality, she later tells Marcus that she wants to go to college, even though she does not really know what college would entail because it is what a normal girl would be expected to do when she reaches eighteen. When the girls move into their new foster home Easter looks round at all the things that ‘should’ be in a little girl’s room. However, the fact that they were never exposed to this family unit in the conventional sense means that Easter and Ruby are not haunted by what they think they should have because they never had that family to lose.

This led them to re-build the previous elements of their family within their relationship to each other. As discussed previously, Easter emulates a motherly function throughout the text as well as a sororal function to Ruby. This recreates the family unit of which they had become accustomed; Mom, Ruby and Easter (plus whoever ‘Mom’ was with at the time).

This shadow of a fatherly figure which so often changed shape, becomes Wade for the duration of this text. There are moments where Easter and Wade team up to ‘parent’ Ruby, such as the time that Easter partakes in Wade’s lies about what had happened to his mother in order to subdue Ruby’s anxiety, the fact that Easter and Wade discuss his stolen money, and the real versions of events whilst Ruby is absent (out of the room or in the back seat of the car). However, Easter’s and Ruby’s family unit does not have room for a permanent male figure; hence Wade’s departure at the denouement of the text, where Wade is forced to leave them to when they move in with their grandparents. The image of Brady Weller taking Wade’s seat at the baseball game when he is only absent for a few minutes is a symbolic reflection of how the male figure to Ruby and Easter, even one as ostensibly important as their birth father, can be so easily replaced.




The Three Horsemen: Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Sir Salman Rushdie at 92Y, New York

Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis and Ian McEwan at 92Y
Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis and Ian McEwan in conversation at 92 Street Y cultural centre in Manhattan. Photo courtesy of Nancy Crampton.

On Monday evening the heart of literary London was transplanted to New York. At 92nd Street Y  – a cultural and community centre on the Upper East Side – Salman Rushdie played compere to Martin Amis and Ian McEwan, who read passages from their latest novels, Lionel Asbo (2012) and Sweet Tooth (2012), and took questions from the audience. For Amis: “Has moving to Brooklyn altered your writing?For McEwan: “How has your approach to romance changed since, on your first night at university, you introduced yourself to a girl by asking if she’d f**k you?” Their answers to come.

Sir Salman (top half dressed for dinner, bottom half for basketball) began the show self-mockingly, introducing this “rare occasion” on which “the triumvirate…the heads of the families” who were once charged with “dominating and distorting British fiction” were again to share a microphone.

The three men are emblems of 1970s and ’80s literary London, an epoch in miniature full of leonine upstarts taking shots at the ‘oldsters’. But like an exploding star they have dispersed and now – perhaps more coolly – light elsewhere. Rushdie moved to Manhattan in 2000 and Amis to Brooklyn in 2011, both prompting wounded prattle in the British press. “Since Martin and I have established our beachheads in New York,” said Rushdie, “Ian has to look after England on his own” – joking that the author had bought up most of Gloucestershire in order to do so.

A tribute to Christopher Hitchens (“an empty chair”) led to an explanation of a game Amis and Hitchens played in which ‘love’ in the titles of books, films or songs is swapped for ‘hysterical sex’. Thus, Hysterical Sex in the Time of Cholera. My contribution: Hysterical Sex Will Tear Us Apart. If only a novel had been written called Unrequited Love.

Introducing Amis, Rushdie compared him to P.G. Wodehouse (on whom, he added, no one would ever challenge the authority of The Hitch). For Rushdie, both Amis and Wodehouse created voices, each of which epitomise an instantly recognisable Englishness yet are never heard in the mouths of Englishmen. They are mimicries, rather, heightened into new vocabularies.

And so enter Martin Amis to rattling applause. He raised a palm: “Stop! In the Name of Hysterical Sex.

He began by marking a difference between his native and adopted lands. “If your favourite writer – who also happened to be your long-lost brother – was reading in the next house along,” he rasped, “it would never even occur to you to go and stick your head around the door.” Americans, in contrast, “come and listen to things”.

And he quickly had the listeners laughing. The section he read from Lionel Asbo involved a dinner between Lionel and his five brothers – a racial salad of lowlifes named John, Paul, George, Ringo and Stephen. It could be useful for the population to be organised under Beatleine classifications, Amis suggested: “It might help with legal matters. For instance: ‘No, this is far too complicated a crime for a Ringo.’ He tilted his head. “My wife says I’m a Paul trying to be a John. What she doesn’t know is I’m secretly a George.”

Amis’s novel makes a circus of fatuous success, persistent sorrow and cigarette-stubbed tinned lager-grime. He argued that misery makes up the tradition, as “few writers write in white. It doesn’t show up on the page. The energy of Dickens is all in the villains and the bad stuff. The good characters are faceless”. The passage he chose described a child named Toilet, exploding silicone breasts and the consumption of forty-eight G&Ts. It is full of features.

However much of a treat it was to witness Amis read his own prose, it brought the true pleasure of live literary events into focus. I sat in row X, and watched the undefined shape of a man whose judgments have so often articulated a vague instinct of mine, and in whose writing life I have so often searched for dim parallels to my own. The tingle of disbelief on seeing the person with whom one has spent so much time in silent conversation, with whose voice one is so familiar that to encounter it in a vessel other than a book registers as a faint surprise: there is the real thrill.

Amis’s gravelly drawl has a reverberating weight which tends to induce admiring silences. It is a hard voice to follow. It was over to Ian.

“Though the Atlantic ocean now lies between us, the hysterical sex between us is undying.” Any fears departed.

McEwan snappily recited a skilful passage from Sweet Tooth. Rushdie had described McEwan as a great writer of first chapters (citing 1997’s Enduring Love) – a result, he suggested, of his early mastery of the short story. This passage demonstrated the same virtuosity. Serena Frome, an MI5 officer, reads a file containing a short story published by a possible recruit, McEwan’s challenge being to let the reader read over Serena’s shoulder. A tale of stalking and adultery, its performance was annotated by the audience’s startled whelps – none so excited as at the sudden mention of “mutant genitalia”.

During the questions McEwan confirmed that he’s no longer in the business of mild sexual harassment; the reply he received on that first night at university was: “Would you kindly f**k off?”. Amis, meanwhile, conjectured that it takes three years for a new way of life to “trickle down the spine” and present itself for fiction. “So maybe in a year,” he added, “I’ll have something to say about America.”

And would they change anything about their books? For Amis, “rewriting early novels is the depth of frivolity”; he will leave “the mess of the first four novels alone”. As for McEwan, “the commas in First Love, Last Rites… I thought it was jolly cunning to have commas instead of full stops”. Now, however, “it doesn’t look cunning at all”.

By the end, it was an unmistakable sense of fraternity that marked the evening. Their comradely wistfulness and celebration seemed to pile around them invisible memorabilia from the glory days of ’70s and ’80s London: plates at greasy spoons, literary magazines, precocious awards. The famous 1983 Granta photograph might have been strung up on the back wall. They became at times an evocation of the fairytale that, with phoney nostalgia, we trust they lived. That prime was almost about youth, about taking on the oldsters, and has become in the discussion of British fiction compartmentalised and even solidified into a period. Monday’s event, among the Upper East Side’s limousines and surely plastic primroses, raised its spectre. This is not to say that it was like some ‘legends’ exhibition football match or a Rolling Stones concert. Only that to see three of that period’s horsemen – the fourth saddle kept warm for Julian Barnes – was a peculiarly pensive retrospection, as if its tan still hung on their skin.




The Hollywood

Photo by Bob Jagendorf

Last year, a new shopping centre opened on the outskirts of London. There’s something for everyone: expensive shit, cheap shit, mid-priced shit, all laid out in a sort of class system—the shitty shops and shitty restaurants in the east wing, the classy ones in the west, and the OK ones in between. You’ll find The Hollywood, a 1950s-style American diner, right in the middle.

“Thousands of new jobs!” cried the centre’s press release. I took one of them at The Hollywood. They have branches all over the city, and they all look the same: red leather booths, hamburgers and chilli dogs served in plastic baskets, cherry pie and pancakes for dessert, waitresses with movie-star hair, pink starchy uniforms. It’s supposed to be a time warp, but they’ve scrimped on things. The music often strays into the late 1960s and beyond, and it’s pumped into the jukebox from a laptop behind the bar. It serves German craft beers, a full English breakfast, and malt vinegar for your chips—sorry, your fries. Our put-on American accents were pretty bad, even for the actors amongst us. (I was art-schooled, unfortunately.) Then there’s Lana Del Rey, that gloomy torch singer with the big lips, whom our manager Anna wants us all to emulate. She definitely wasn’t around in the 1950s.

Anna had brought in a sepia-toned picture of the singer last week and pinned it onto the dressing room wall.

“This is what you should all look like,” she said, smacking Lana in the cheek with a manicured hand. “Shiny big hair, smoky eyes, and pale lips. Sultry. Take a good look at this picture.”

We took a good look at it, and after Anna had left the room, we talked.

“She looks like she’s had a stroke.” That’s Susie, an aspiring writer.

“Does this mean we’ll get free lip jobs?” Nicola—illustrator, class of 2008.

“I hope so.” Emma, an actress who once appeared behind Jude Law’s right shoulder in a film.

“You wanna look like that?” I said.

“Yeah, why not? I might get more tips.” Emma puckered her lips into a trout pout. “How do I look?”

Later that night, Anna told me that my hair was all wrong. Not enough like Lana Del Rey, more like “someone from Friends”. No one in Friends ever had a Brigitte Bardot bouffant, but I listened to her advice and came in early the next day before the breakfast shift to study Lana’s picture. I caught the train east as the sun was coming up, and as it pulled into its final stop, I took my earphones out and looked up at the shopping centre, looming like a big white cruise ship.

At The Hollywood, Susie was already in the dressing room, curling tongs in hand, sitting in front of a mirror with a smaller picture of Lana Del Rey slotted into its corner. The room smelt of burnt hair and make-up. Half of her hair was in curlers, the other half a frizzy mess. She was on the verge of tears.

“Hey.” I sat in the chair beside her. “Are you all right?”

“Oh Beth, I just can’t get my hair right.”

“Yeah, me neither.”

“It’s just a waitressing job,” she said, tears creeping into her voice, making it gurgle. “Why do we have to make such a fucking effort?”

We’re selling dreams, not burgers.” I mimicked the low-pitched voice Anna uses when she gives us pep talks.

“I swear, no one in the other branches has to put up with this.”

“You go to the other branches?”

“A friend had her birthday at one of them. It’s the thing. Get dressed in 1950s clothes, go eat at The Hollywood.” Susie paused, wiped a tear from her cheek, and looked in the mirror at her powdery white face. “All the waitresses were dressed like Shoreditch twats.”

I pulled off my jumper and looked in the mirror. My face was blotchy and grey. Too many hot dogs and long shifts, but nothing that some make-up couldn’t fix. The table in front of us was scattered with foundation, concealer, powder, highlighting cream, eyeshadow, eyeliner, fake eyelashes, mascara, blusher, lipliner, and lipstick, all in different colours. I picked up some foundation, squirted it onto the back of my left hand, and starting dotting it onto my face. I rubbed it in, making the grey spots disappear.

“Much better.”

Susie was dabbing pink cream blusher onto her cheeks. “All this makeup is making my skin a mess.”

“Tell me about it,” I said, moving onto the highlighting cream. “At least we can just cover it up.”

“And I’m so much fatter than when we started.”

“Me too.”

“How long have we been here now?”

We’d started in the same week. I remember being happy to have found a waitressing job that paid slightly better, because then I wouldn’t have to harass my parents for rent money. “We didn’t send you to university to be a waitress, blah blah blah,” they said. They still say it now, four years after graduation, but they say it less.

“A year,” I said. “God, Susie, I was in an all-right mood before you asked.”

“Sorry,” she said, tears filling her eyes again.

“Don’t cry, you’ll ruin your makeup.”

She took a deep breath and held her tears. “It’s just that, I don’t think I’ve even made any attempt to get a real job in months,” she said. “I feel so resigned to this.”

“Have you been writing?”

She shook her head.

“What are we going to do?”

“Be waitresses forever,” she said.

“If we’re going to be waitresses forever, we might as well find jobs somewhere else. Let’s go out during our break and see if there are any vacancies.”

“Tried that last week,” she said. “But they only hire Japanese people at the Japanese restaurants, Indians at the Indian ones, Italians at the Italian ones…”

“And bimbos at the American one?”

“Yep.”

We did the rest of our make up and hair in silence, put on our pink uniforms, and clipped our name tags onto our chests: Shelley and Bobby. Anna strolled into the dressing room just in time for the breakfast shift, looking perfect. Her black hair curled softly around her shoulders, her fringe ruler-straight, her skin as smooth and tanned as a doll’s. She even walked with an awkward retro wiggle that she probably imagined was Monroe-esque. As the door closed behind her, the smell of bacon and eggs wafted in, making my stomach rumble.

“Morning, girls,” she said. “Good hair today, Beth—I like it. Now, remember to smile!”

I forced a smile and nodded. Her skin really was preposterously smooth. Susie and I had looked her up online a few weeks ago and found out that she was 33 years old—a bit old for a waitress, even if she is the head girl—but there’s not a single crease on her face. Maybe she’s taking this Hollywood thing seriously. She’s another actress, after all. Or was.

Susie and I slipped our feet into low black heels and strutted out into the restaurant. Everything looked just so: the booths, the black and white tiled floors, the vintage jukebox, humming the Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes for You”. The only obvious sign of the 21st century was the first customer: a slim young man sitting alone in one of the booths, wearing a blue striped shirt, black trousers, and cheap-looking shoes.

“Bet he works in a phone shop,” Susie whispered in my ear.

“Totally.”

I strode over, a smile pasted on my face. I said to him, in my best crap American accent, “Good morning, sir. Can I get ya some coffee?”

“Hey,” he said, looking up. “Wow, you guys really do talk in American accents.”

“Well of course,” I said. “You’re in Hollywood now!” I sounded so jaunty, I wanted to punch myself.

“Crazy,” he said. “Yeah, I’d like a flat white, and bacon with waffles and scrambled eggs, please.”

Like they served flat whites in 1950s America.

“No problem,” I said.

The restaurant was filling up with other customers, mostly workers from the shopping centre; you could tell by how depressed they looked, and the cheapness of their clothes. Anna and Susie were running around, smiling manically. When the phone shop guy’s food was ready, I brought it to his booth.

“Here you go, sir,” I said, setting down the plate.

“Have you ever been to America?” he said.

“Is that a trick question?”

“Come on, I can see through that accent a mile away. It’s awful.”

I gritted my teeth, still smiling.

“I’m from The Hollywood,” I said, “born and bred.”

“OK, sure.”

“Enjoy your meal.”

I went behind the bar, poured myself a lemonade and checked my emails on my phone–hidden behind the counter, so that Anna wouldn’t spot me. There was nothing interesting in my inbox: just massage deals from discount companies, an email from my friend Hannah about her birthday party, and a newsletter from a gallery that had once represented me. They were exhibiting some other ingénue’s work. I deleted it after reading the first line: “Gallery Wow is delighted to present the work of newly graduated artist…”

“Bobby!”

Anna’s voice. I looked up, and there she was–still smiling, always smiling–but with a look of alarm in her blue, smoky eyes.

“No cell phones in the restaurant!” she said.

“It’s a mobile, not a cell. And don’t call me Bobby when there aren’t customers around us. It’s ridiculous.”

“There are customers everywhere,” she whispered. “And they come here to escape from this shit–don’t ruin it for them. Put it away immediately, or you won’t get any shifts next week.”

“Ruining it? Look at them. They’re all on their bloody phones!”

Anna looked back at the restaurant. Fifteen or so customers were sitting at their booths, heads down, fingering their phones. One guy was even watching a film on a tablet computer while eating a doughnut.

“Well they’re the customers,” she said. “They can do what they want. Look, just help me out here. It’s my job to make sure this Hollywood is like all the other Hollywoods.”

“Well I’ve heard it’s not.”

“Well I’ve heard the people who manage the others are all going to get fired, so just appreciate that this is what I have to do. It comes all the way from the top.”

“I have ambitions beyond this,” I said, regretting it instantly.

“Don’t we all,” she said, under her breath. “But that’s life, isn’t it.”

I put my phone back into my pocket. There were some new customers to attend to: three blokes in shiny grey suits. They were looking around at the decor and cackling like teenagers on a bus. I walked over to their booth.

“Good morning, gentlemen. What can I get you?”

“Morning love,” said a burly, bald guy. “How about you on a plate?”

I laughed girlishly. “Oh, ha ha! Now, now. Some coffee, pancakes?”

“Seriously,” he said, smiling at his two feebler-looking cronies. “We want you. We’re setting up something similar to this,” he waved his arms around, “in the shopping centre, and we’ll pay you double.”

“What’s the catch?” I said.

“Look at that, boys,” he said. “Still in character, even when we’re talking business. Well, it depends on whether you think it’s a catch or not. It would involve getting your kit off. Not all of it. It’s a classy joint. Burlesque.”

“Thanks, but no thanks.”

“Lots of other girls are lining up to work with us. What are you? An artist, writer? Just like my girls. It’s a real art form, stripping.”

“Would you like any food?” I said.

“Your friend’s already ordered for us,” he said. “And we’ve signed her on too.” He winked at me.

In the dressing room, Susie was powdering her face.

“You’re going to become a stripper?” I said.

“I’m thinking about it,” she said, looking at me in the mirror with guilty eyes.

“Are you really that desperate?”

“What do you think? This place isn’t very far off from being a strip joint, is it? Haven’t you noticed, it’s just men who come in to make stupid comments while we smile at them. What’s the difference if I have my tits out?”

“There’s a big difference!”

I picked up a giant can of hairspray, shook it, and sprayed it over my head, smoothing the stray bits with my fingers. My hair felt solid and crispy, like hay.

“At least your hair looks good,” said Susie.

“Yes, at least that.”

Out in the restaurant, Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady” was playing. The strip club group were tucking into their all-American breakfasts, and the phone shop guy was calling me over to pay his bill.

“And there’s a bit extra in there for you,” he said, earnestly.

“Thanks,” I said. “Have a nice day!”

“That, you got right. That’s just how they say it out there.”

My face hurt from so much fake smiling.

“I don’t know how you girls do it, talking like that all day,” he said.

“I don’t know how you sell phones for a living,” I snapped, slipping out of character.

“There you go! Proper north London. How did you guess?”

“Your shirt.”

“We all have to get by somehow, don’t we?” he said. “I’m studying to be a psychologist.”

“You win. I’m a failed artiste.”

“Isn’t everyone? Oh, and Hendrix? Not quite right for the era.”

“Tell that to Bettie Page over there.”

“Ha! Well thanks,” he said, looking at my name tag, “Bobby.”

“It’s Beth.”

“Jesus, fake names too? I’m Alex, and I should probably go sell some phones.” He got up and put on his jacket. “See you around.”

After he left I wiped the table down, took a few more orders and went back to the dressing room to reapply my lipstick. Above the mirror, Lana Del Rey stared down at me, pouty and winsome. My lips were thinner, my nose bigger, and my eyes smaller, but everything else was just the same. Finally, I’d got it right. I dabbed on some pink lipstick, feeling satisfied, and then I remembered what it was all for: six pounds fifty an hour and free hot dogs. This wasn’t the life I had imagined at art school, when we were setting up exhibitions, going to parties and talking about the things we would do. Four years on, we still went to parties, but we had stopped talking about the future.

I brushed the hairspray out until my hair was straight and dull once more and smudged my make-up off with a baby wipe. I tied my hair into a ponytail, slipped out of my uniform and into my jeans, jumper, and trainers. I took a deep breath before walking out to the restaurant, where the jukebox was playing Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games”.

Anna couldn’t stay in character for this one. When she saw me in my normal clothes, her mouth hung open, her eyes were wide, and her skin, under all that foundation and Botox, turned purple. Susie watched from the other side of the bar, trying not to laugh.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?!” screamed Anna. “Get back into your uniform!”

The customers–all men–looked at us; their arms poised in mid-air, forks in hands, scrambled eggs dangling from the forks.

“I’ve come to my senses, that’s all,” I said, “And so should you. Have a nice day!”

I left the restaurant, my mind buzzing with freedom and fear, and walked straight into a woman pushing a pram.

“Watch where you’re going!” she barked.

As she passed, I noticed that there wasn’t a baby in the pram, just a pile of shopping bags. All around me, people were strolling from shop to shop, chatting on mobile phones, and clutching cups of coffee–their arms weighed down by bags. Who are these people? I thought. Don’t they have jobs? And then I remembered, through the adrenaline haze of my resignation: I didn’t either. This was it. This was the future, and there was no golden, redemptive pay-off in sight. More importantly, rent was due in a week and I needed a new job.

I walked through the mid-priced section of the shopping centre, with its pseudo-boutiques and ethnic restaurant franchises, right through to the east wing, which smelled of chip fat and body spray. At the very end I found the phone shop. Slumped behind the counter, wearing his striped shirt and a name tag, was Alex. When he saw me, he raised his head and smiled.

“Are there any jobs going?” I said.

“Seriously?”

“Yep. I’ve, uh, always wanted to work in a phone shop.”

I laughed. And so did he.

“Well,” he said, “you’re in luck.”




For the Love of Leftovers

This blog series has been about my discovery of UK culture, but this particular article is inspired by a recent trip home to the States – a trip that showed me I have lived in London long enough to view aspects of American culture, once normal and unobserved, in an entirely new light.

How could you waste any of this?

It happened at a restaurant. My sister Caylie was three-fourths victorious over her platter of pasta but just couldn’t finish. Soon, our over-efficient waitress would surely hover behind her, grabbing what could be tomorrow’s lunch and throwing it atop the mound of other people’s half-eaten dinners. I began to mourn for the thickening dab of garlic cream sauce and the whorls of fettuccine, and it wasn’t even my meal.

Sure enough, the waitress snuck up on us like a ninja and began to clear the plates, the greasy cutlery, an empty breadbasket. She hovered behind Caylie, and I closed my eyes so I didn’t have to watch it go. We (OK, my grandpa) had paid for the food, and I wanted to keep our leftovers. For all that was happening I might as well have emptied my grandpa’s wallet into the waitress’ hands and told her to shove that in the bin too. That’s how horrible I felt.

But then I caught a question amidst the restaurant racket, words that had become greyed out in my memory because I hadn’t heard them for so long:

“You want a to-go box for that?”

Wait, what? Where am I?

“Sure,” Caylie said. She lifted our plate away, but I didn’t care anymore that I wouldn’t be the one to eat those still perfectly edible leftovers tomorrow. I studied my surroundings: my grandpa scrutinising the bill, my dad telling a “dad-joke” to the not-impressed Caylie—and I was sure now I wasn’t dreaming. I’d gotten on the plane, sat in a cage for eight hours, gotten off the plane, and here I was with my family, happily full of pasta in the land of to-go boxes. When I saw the box—complete with cardboard flaps—floating over to the table that had asked for it, the niggling memory of my leaving a local pub in England with my risotto wrapped in a squarelet of aluminium foil, the bartender’s glare stabbing at my back, faded slightly.

Although I’m sure some restaurants in Britain offer to-go boxes, here is my logic for those who don’t. I may start a campaign.

  1. You’ve already paid for the food, so why not take it with you? (Buffets are the exception.)
  2. Without the to-go box, you may well overeat because you don’t want to waste food you’ve paid for.
  3. To-go boxes actually allow you to get two meals out of the two meals’ worth of food you’ve been served (America is not the only country that serves oversized portions). The £15 you’ve spent on dinner could also cover tomorrow’s lunch.
  4. Every year in the UK, 18 million tonnes of edible food end up in landfill. It’s worse in the States: 34 million tonnes in 2010—due to the larger population, or just over-buying? Just imagine, this figure might have been even higher, if not for to-go boxes.

Maybe this rant comes to me so easily because I grew up getting excited about leftovers. My gap year team couldn’t understand that I’d rather eat the previous night’s roast chicken for breakfast (protein, lasts you till lunch) instead of Rice Krispies (puffed air, lasts you until you arrive at the office). Some food even tastes better the second time around. When you’ve got to choose between a sandwich or yesterday’s spicy sausage and mushroom lasagne for lunch, it’s really a no-brainer.




Are You Posh?

Stand-up comedian John Bishop

Accents fascinate me. I’m guilty of half-listening to people, half trying to figure out their accent. If we watch John Bishop’s stand-up routines, my husband has to translate, since I understand maybe only every other word.

While I was in England for a gap year programme, I became aware of how accents are linked to the class system. The States has a class system as well, but if class lines were road lines, America’s seem to be dotted white, while the UK’s seem solid yellow. I never saw class separation so starkly until I came here; it seems harder to move across those lines, particularly since accents play such a major part in the social labelling process—and it’s difficult to change your accent. For this reason I will probably remain an eternal tourist.

During those eleven months, I crossed paths with the word “posh”. It doesn’t translate well. I forget my initial introduction to the concept, but I remember having many confusing conversations about it.

“So, ‘posh’. Is it a negative thing?” I was on a quest to find its exact meaning, and my husband Jon, then boyfriend, was the unfortunate recipient of my inquisitive questions.

He had to think for a minute. “It can be, I guess. Some people see it as snobbish or hoity-toity.”

“But I’ve heard people say, ‘Look at her posh shoes.’”

“Well, in that case it would mean expensive, high-quality,” he explained.

“What if someone has a posh accent?” I’d realised America doesn’t have an equivalent. “Does that mean he’s full of himself, snobbish?”

“No, not necessarily…” Jon’s cheeks filled with air, deflated. Patient Jon. “If someone’s accent is posh, they might’ve had a privileged upbringing, maybe in a posh place…”

“A posh place? Does that mean expensive? Are all posh people well off?”

Jon said possibly, although not all well-off people are posh, an example being footballers.

I could have left the conversation then, but if I did, I would have walked away only grasping that “posh” means better than not-so-“posh”.

“Are you saying that posh people are superior to those less posh?” I narrowed my eyes. He knows how I react to unjust generalisations, although I often make them myself (see my other columns).

Then before he could answer I went further and asked him the question he’d never been asked before: “Are you posh?”

He laughed. “No, of course not.” (But further research rendered me suspicious. For example, he prefers rugby over football.)

Discussions like these started in 2010 but have carried on into our marriage. The other night it resumed where it had left off, and every so often Jon would laugh at my questions, defending his hilarity with, “I’ve never had to think about this before, that’s all.” He explained that in another era, posh indicated many things about class—wealth, education, social standing—but that today’s culture doesn’t have a context for all that “posh” meant back then, so some people affix the label to a certain accent.

London Mayor Boris Johnson

“Are you posh?” That question is similar to the question, “Are you rich?” Who would say yes? They’re relative terms. Jon struggled with a definition and so resorted to examples, such as videos like Gap Yah and a Prince William interview. Examples do help, although both an isolated example and a general definition might still succeed in offending someone, somewhere. Generalisations tend to do that.

It makes me wonder, though. I ask Jon if he’s posh, and he can say no, as his poshness is debatable—there’s always someone more posh than he is. But what if someone were to ask Boris Johnson? I’m seriously curious as to what he would say.

So, how would you define posh to a non-native?




Birthday Americana

Photo by Jessica Diamond

One. I’m in a yellow highchair, the same color as the sculpted carpet. In front of me is a cake, frosted to look like flower petals. I don’t yet understand flowers or cakes. I work a blob of frosting into my mouth. Pictures of me show the kind of passion reserved for adults. Ovidian, Keatsian love.

Six. I’m at Jessica Weinbrad’s house. There is an old brown and white pony circling the patio by the pool. I don’t like Jessica. She tells everyone her name is Annabelle, not Jessica, and she pulls her pants down before opening the bathroom door. The cake comes out; it’s huge, pink, shaped like a castle, and topped with purple sugar flags. Everyone is still. Then Horace, the Weinbrad’s mastiff, breaks loose from the sunroom, making a mad dash for the castle. The best things are touching a pony’s nose and wet dogs with icing on their mouths.

On my sixteenth birthday I climb through my bedroom window, yellow panties balled up in my hand. When I can’t sleep, I stare at the ceiling, at the faintly glowing sticker stars. Will Mom find my panties if I hide them in the back of my drawer? The night flashes by. The shiver I felt when he rubbed my knee. Bob Marley. Bob Marley is the best music to lose your virginity to. Especially on the beach. My father is up, pacing around. Maybe Bob Marley is good funeral music too. It’s fine if I die now because I’ve lived.

Twenty-One. The boyfriend decided it’s diner drink night. We order everything listed on the placemats in the Greek diners that line the main drag back home. Now I’m homesick with the spins. The bartender pours Sidecars, Singapore Slings, Old Fashioneds. He’s in a good mood, so everything is a double. The Sidecar makes me want to be a lounge singer, stroking a microphone like it’s my lover. The boyfriend says something funny and we’re all laughing, laughing so hard it cramps. I lean on the wall, my face against the dark wood. An arm winds around my waist. It’s warm, heavy. I could curl up into it, wrap around it the way tree roots grow around rocks. I spend the ride home pinching the top of my nose, eyes clamped shut, breathing carefully. The boyfriend pours me into bed and says to hang a leg out over the side. It’s a waterbed. The room rolls and the bed is rocking, washing under me. I’m on the floor, the carpet, the tile, crawling. I press my cheek to cold porcelain and slur my way through the Rosary. I hug the toilet, clutching at it like a tree in a rising flood.

Thirty. “Are my tits sagging?” “Of course not. What the hell are you talking about?” “Thanks.” Thirty-three. I have no birthday. I’ll never have a birthday again. The baby has a birthday instead. The baby, who managed to get poop in her socks. In her socks. I swore I wouldn’t be one of those mothers who stops talking about things that matter. I swore I’d get a sitter and be back at work in six weeks, that I’d toss the baby in the Bjorn and take her with me. I’m supposed to be in control. That was before soap commercials made my nipples leak. The baby picks up a Cheerio between a pink-tipped thumb and forefinger. This is why you don’t murder them, maybe the only reason. It’s the baby’s birthday. I’m laughing and cleaning shit from a sock.

Forty-two. I planned on champagne. The bottle my client gave me, because his case was long and messy, and two green cards and four years later he’s family; though drinking will be like saying goodbye. The kid is doing the slumber party thing. The husband has taken the night off, even shaved, so that he can ravish me. He says ravish since finding my stash of bodice rippers. I’ve threatened him. One Screw Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Oliver Tits can find their way out of his sock drawer and into the trash. Who keeps hard copy porn anymore? He says they’re not just porn, they’re satires, and as art need to be preserved in their original format. Nothing, he says, decays like digital. I’ve been saving the champagne for when I’m ready to be ravished. After this long with a husband marital aids are required; somewhere around my daughter’s second birthday alcohol began to qualify. I need the booze because the kid is out, the husband is shaved, and despite forty-two being the new seventeen-and-a half, I think there’s a limited amount of time left before it’s not safe to fuck like you want to. And here he is, Mr. Oliver Tits, stroking his hand up the inside of my arm. His stomach presses into my back. Suddenly we’re in the years when the gut touches before the erection does. Not that my breasts aren’t three inches lower. Not that the champagne isn’t just as much for him as it is for me. Lips against my ear. A hand at my hip. “Come. Let me ravish you.”

On my daughter’s sixteenth birthday I attempt cake. I spend fifteen minutes picking eggshells from chiffon batter. Then she goes out with people she doesn’t find embarrassing. “Should I wait up with a shotgun?” the husband asks. “The boy’s named Cheever,” I say. “How bad can it be?” “People who name their kids Cheever are libertines,” he says. “Which means they breed uptight kids with purity rings,” I say. We lie in bed with the lights off, counting seconds until the house key turns in the lock. I remember where I hid my crumpled panties. Tomorrow, while the kid is at drama practice, I’ll search her room and look at the teddy bears.

Fifty-Eight. “Remember when I asked if my tits sagged?” “Which time? All the times?” “No, when I was–God, I must have been thirty.” “I remember.” “I didn’t know from sagging.” “You look good.” “I look like my mother.” “Your mother was a looker.”

Sixty-Nine. I write my name. The letters look right, but it’s wrong, the same as when I speak. I write, “I love you” to my daughter. She reads it back. “Banana. Mom? Want me to get the nurse to bring you some bananas?” The husband comes by, but I don’t want him to see my hair. It’s shaved on one side and there’s baby duck fuzz growing in over what feels like a row of giant staples. When I touch it, my daughter frowns. “They have no sense of aesthetics, Ma. None at all.” The need to ask what happened is overwhelming. I was alone, apparently, so no one can tell me. It’s a miracle that I’m alive, they say. Of course I’m alive–what else would I be? At night the machines beep, blending with the moans from the man in the next bed. He smells terrible. I don’t ask why; that would result in a late night appearance of bananas. It’s like someone dumped out my word rolodex and the only card that’s face up is banana. During the day I practice walking, swallowing, and toileting. A new word turns up. It is Yes. I say yes to everything because it’s not banana. “What’s your name?” “Yes.” The therapist tells my daughter he suspects my responses may not be meaningful. She says, “Well, Mom’s always been very agreeable.” At dinner the family of the man in the next bed visits. They have a baby, about seven months. Nurses flock to the baby, moths hovering around the only source of–well, anything. The baby looks at me. I smile. I say banana and the kid takes off laughing, the way people laughed at Carson. I’ve always had a way with the boys. You and me, kid. Team pants-shitters.

Seventy. The celebration is because I’m walking and talking and everyone remembers how grateful they are to have me. I could dance the hula naked and they’d applaud me. The husband makes a toast, but he’s cut off when the baby starts howling. Upstaged by a baby. It doesn’t matter when it’s your grandchild. You love your kids enough to kill for them, commit an ax murder, but you hate them a little too, for the things you used to be–selfish, firm, energetic. Your grandchildren get none of that. You love, not quite as fiercely, but you hate them not at all.

Seventy-Seven. It’s undignified to still have these things, isn’t it? Ah well, you don’t do it for you.

Eighty-Four. It’s a pain so sharp it passes beyond pain, twisting into startling cold. I’m crumpled on the bathroom floor. Is this how he’ll find me? Support stockings around my knees? First my toes and fingers, then other parts of me doze and drift. Once the husband stops crying–because he’s a helpless lout without me–he will blame it on the chocolate and coffee I had yesterday. I can say now, because I’m at the end of it, I should have eaten more. Made him eat more too, because it was his birthday, because cake is the last true sensual pleasure, because as terribly long as it’s been for us, it’s gone by too quickly at the good parts. The cold becomes color, yellow. Synesthesia. Good to remember the word. The brain is misfiring as it toddles off; everything sounds like the ocean. It smells like pine trees and winter. My first boyfriend’s cologne. I haven’t thought of that in years. Dying, it seems, smells like Ralph Lauren Polo. It’s silly to think of him, but it makes sense, because lust was a kind of dying too. And then I am laughing.