Chapter 4 (Crocodile Words)
August 17, 2010 § 1 Comment
Fontina put down the literary insert and looked up at Joffrey. “Why,” she said. “The Pig Latin Koran tells me that you are not a naïf. I know you’re not malicious but why does this strike me as a bit malicious.”
She peered into the literary insert and read:
“Osay esethay, ityay aymay ebay, Allahyay illway ardonpay emthay, andyay Allahyay isyay Ardoningpay, Orgivingfay. Andyay oeverwhay iesflay inyay Allah’syay ayway, ehay illway indfay inyay ethay earthyay anymay ayay—“
“The Koran in Pig Latin. God, that gives me a headache.” She set the paper on the table. “That’s got to go over big with the Muslim Student
“I won’t apologize,” Joffrey said.
“I didn’t ask you to apologize. I just asked why.”
Fontina observed Joffrey in his silence. He was sitting at her kitchen table flipping a fork between his fingers. Fontina said, “Any particular reason you’re wearing your ass on your shoulders?”
Joffrey fought down the smile with a morose expression. “The other night the commander made a cryptic remark about my Korans. I didn’t pursue it but it bugged me. He said I called in an airstrike on myself—he’s big on the Vietnam lingo. So now everybody’s got to jump on me about this? I thought I was living in the big city? This is like back home. Everyone knows how many times a day you yawn or pick your nose.”
“Poor baby. If you’re going to sell fireworks, don’t you expect they’ll go off at some point?”
“Don’t go all racial on me,” Joffrey said. ” Heap big stand. M-80s and all that. Plenty bottle rocket.”
“Oh. Funny,” said Fontina. “Boom City. I didn’t even think of that. I don’t even think of you as Indian. I mean in that way.” Fontina startled herself. Did she just say that? She had heard that very comment from whites as the epitome of interpersonal trust: I don’t even think of you as black, Fontina! Joffrey knew she was processing all this and he was enjoying it. He folded his hands behind his head and stuck out his elbows and leaned back in his chair. She was upset with herself. They stayed like this for a minute, she, chopping carrots silently, he, leaning back smugly. Then Joffrey went to her.
“Joffrey love heap big racist buffalo girl.” Their arms went around each other.
Only Joffrey knew that he wasn’t so much Indian as he was just poor. What was an Indian anyway? A kid with eight uncles who tormented him ceaselessly but somehow loved him and saw him grow up straight, more or less. Let the whites attach great significance to his 1/16th or 1/32nd Indian-ness, special powers, sensitivity to the land, mystic wisdom of his Peoples. Joffrey knew it as meals missed, no water, sometimes no electricity, strange people walking in and out of his room day and night. Going over to a friend’s house at dinner time waiting for an invitation. Devouring a box of crackers for dinner. Finally when old enough, when the state came through the rez on sweeps, instead of saying everything’s fine when asked he said, “I’m hungry.”
At fourteen he went to live with a foster dad, a logger who needed the state money for a kid. He was a nice enough old guy but didn’t do extra; he only insisted on going to church but what could Joffrey do? At least he would eat regularly. His poor doped up sad mom. In his late teens he worked the mills, the old man got him work at a saw mill. The sort yard, the 60″ cutoff saw, the green chain, the log pond.
Joffrey knew he had been poor but the knowledge followed its own path, the way his skin darkened in summer, slowly at its own tempo. When he was eleven or twelve he got mad one morning when he realized there were never any clean towels in the house. He routinely dried off with the dirty clothes he had dropped on the bathroom floor before getting into the shower. One morning he got frustrated and tore up the tee-shirt he used to dry his back. He sat there on the bathroom floor and cried, not in self-pity, but because the tee-shirt only did half the job. He cried mutely and air-dried sitting on the floor.
Remembering the scene presented him the perfect opportunity to feel sorry for the kid that he was. But Joffrey laughed at him. He was glad that he tasted life in this way with some bitterness.
At the time he couldn’t explain his life but as a young man he thought his way through it. Poverty forces you into a too concrete relationship with things. The harsh “thinginess” of things tyrannizes you. The main thing has always got you by the throat. Joffrey remembered a famous writer saying, “Poverty doesn’t allow the poor to build abstractions which we need to blunt life’s corners.” The rich can waft in a soufflé of abstraction. When the rich lady came to drop off a new dryer or a new Sunbeam toaster (the good kind that could toast four slices at a time) or a bright, new power lawn mower Joffrey could not assemble the phrases and tones necessary to ask: could you please bring us some bath towels? Nor could anyone around him marshal the phrases that would battle their real situation. They would have had not to be poor in the first place to be able to form those sentences. Straightforwardness was strangled by monstrous detail. That is why he shredded his tee-shirt.
And maybe the specificity of Joffrey’s request would have been hard for the rich lady to grasp? The whole itemized chain of trying to keep clean linked so many unpleasant declensions. You would have had to bring in mom’s laziness, the blindness of her friends who knew of her laziness yet never bothered to scold her, the relatives who could have but never bothered to bring us towels, the broken washing machine, mom’s boyfriends who never took an interest in her broken appliances, the overflowing ashtrays, the swatch of butter on top of the stove. Furious details would crowd in and prevent a poor kid from declaring: could you please bring us some towels?
How much the rich must enjoy being rich. Airplane pilots are their busboys, science geniuses their waiters, scholars their butlers, technicians their house boys, detectives their masseuses. The language of social work might infect the vocabulary of the rich but they have no intention of giving up the track, the hunt, the lodge, the links, the boat, the private jet. Many of Highland City’s residents busied themselves with charity work. They gave out scholarships—look at Joffrey Simpson O’Day—and volunteered at soup kitchens during the holidays. They participated in fundraising drives and auctions. But they returned to an extravagance unseen by Sunbreak City’s poor—or anyone else.
Joffrey remembered elementary school, third or fourth grade, how the class would come upon the Indian part of Washington State History. There’s a photo of Governor Isaac Stevens with his combed beard and new suit and 19th century thin ribbon tie. On the opposite page the photos of Indians show them as mangy, bedraggled human shadows. Maybe they really were like that but photography took a long time back then. The photographer could have dressed and posed them. They would have had to sit for a long time while the film exposed. Anyway, there we sat in class with our textbooks before us. The class has gone strangely silent. As one, the class turns to look at Injun-in-Residence, Joffrey Simpson O’Day. They were quiet and they were embarrassed for me. Kids have their own economy of knowledge even though they might not have all the words at their disposal. But they accepted, childlike, what children accept: my ancestors were savages and theirs well-groomed settlers bent on doing the right thing.
One more story about silence and the cavity of race. I was about ten. We had played baseball at a church picnic and we were happy because, for once, none of the Indian or white or black or Mexican kids got in a fight. There were lots of adults around and they kept an eye on us but I think we were just happy to be kids and play for once without a bunch of crap. And we’d prayed over a great barbecue with corn on the cob and baked beans and berry pies for dessert. It just wasn’t fighting season. We all had a great time playing baseball and I made a good hit to center field and the guys respected me and cheered me and patted my back. Best of all my next time up at bat the coach on the other team hollered at his players to back up because he is a heavy hitter! I was feeling great. At the end of the day a family of rich folks—or they seemed rich to
me—the Monteros, I think they were Mexican—took me home. They had a little son about five or six who did not stop babbling the whole way even though his parents yelled at him. He could have been retarded, I can’t remember exactly. Anyway, when we turned the corner and rolled onto our street the car got quiet. I always hated that quiet: it meant I would be forced to learn something—usually something related to my difference. I remember thinking in the silence: I don’t want to learn anything. I don’t need any lessons. I just had a great day being a kid and playing softball. Nobody fought or said fuck you and we had a good lunch and everyone had a good time. But now the silence took over. I was about to say something—anything—to forestall what fate had in store for me, but, too late. As we pulled up in front of my house, mangy dogs and dirty kids and cars up on blocks appeared on the front lawn. I didn’t know where the Monteros lived but I knew they didn’t live on a street like this or in a house like ours. We pulled near the house and I think my uncle was sitting in a beach chair listening to the ball game on the radio. The house looked scorched; the paint was all scraped off because we were going to repaint the house. Supposedly. It wasn’t just the paint it was everything: the stretch of chicken wire, the broken, sun-faded toy, the unmowed lawn, the gutter hanging down, the bent up chain link fence, the gray windows, the junky junk of the poor piled against the side of the house. Even the leaves of the trees seemed dirty. The car slowed and after I said right here the little one of the family yelled out, “Look what a crummy house!” I heard the father and mother groan and scold the little one and try to apologize to me but I scampered out of the car, a station wagon, as fast as I could because on top of
everything I couldn’t let them see me cry on top of everything else. I couldn’t even get mad at the little one; he was just a recording angel thinking the whole world’s thoughts, passing the whole world’s judgment upon me and my mom’s family. They drove off. I dried my tears on my sleeve and my uncle mumbled something at me. I wiggled through my pain by thinking that this wasn’t my house and wasn’t it a good thing I was my father’s son and wouldn’t he be coming by soon to pick me up in his big red Peterbilt truck and wouldn’t he prop me up on a pillow like he did when I was seven and we would go through the mountains and the deserts and he would take me away from all this but of course
he never came.
Joffrey had been summoned by his benefactress, Pamela Prefontaine. Locally when you received a Pamela Prefontaine Scholarship everyone congratulated you on your “Pammy.” A “Pammy” was a big deal inside or out of academia. Recipients were summoned by Pamela and they always went.
Pamela Prefontaine lived in an exclusive enclave at the northern edge of Sunbreak City called Highland City whose founding went back to the time of the first white settlers. Very few outsiders were ever allowed into Highland City. This would be Joffrey’s first visit.
To get to Highland City Joffrey had to turn off the freeway and drive north for a mile or so on Marginal Way. Before the interstate freeways were poured Marginal Way was the main North-South thoroughfare connecting all towns, large and small, from Canada to the Mexican border. Marginal Way still featured some the big vulgar signage of its festive post-World War II years: gas stations with shark-toothed P-40s parked on the roofs, Car washes with pink elephants as mascots, towing companies sporting a big human toe in their signs, restaurants built-in the shape of giant teepees or cowboy hats with tall cowboy boots (the heels) serving as bathrooms—anything to snag a car’s attention. It had since devolved into a commercial strip catering to American passions freed from the grip of religion or politics. See for yourself: Horne’s Vacuum Cleaner Repair, Bleitz Scuba Gear, Nordstrom Headstone and Statuary, Rudy’s Records, Keck’s Ice Arena, Everclear Cemetery, Butch’s Guns N’ Ammo, Pearl’s Love Shop, Binky’s Scrapyard, the Yes Motel, Danny’s Driving Range, Marginal Used Car (Your Job is Your Credit!), Acme Exterminator, Marginal Massage, Eric’s Trailer Park, The Totem Pole Inn, Bill & Sue Tattoo. Finally Joffrey’s favorite (and here is where Joffrey made a left turn to enter Highland City): Dwayne’s Plumbing Supply beaming its thirty-foot tall, red neon toilet plunger.
The thoroughfare receded as Joffrey entered a narrow paved driveway bounded by immense hemlock and cedar trees. He was stopped or greeted by a striped wooden slat extending from a small one-man guard shack. An elderly man wearing a Green Filson mackinaw over a complete khaki work uniform came out of the shack and talked to Joffrey through the open passenger window. The man seemed to know all about his appointment with Pamela. The slat went up and Joffrey drove his navy blue 1965 Ford Falcon into Highland City. He was disappointed the old man wasn’t a gnarled old troll that demanded Joffrey answer a few Life-or-Death riddles—like gatekeepers in fairy tales. Answer ye must, or ye shall not pass!
What falls but never gets hurt?
What has teeth but can’t bite?
What kind of room has no walls, no floors and no ceiling?
What about the six “l” house?
The rooms were wallless the house was hallless.
The lane was wide enough for about one and a half cars. It had been recently paved and it seemed more a driveway than a road. A dense wooded area canopied the road and Joffrey was startled by the number of large, perhaps first growth, cedar trees. To either side houses began to blend in with the trees. He drove slowly so he could take it all in. It wasn’t just the contrast of crass Marginal Way vs. the sylvan woodlands of Highland City. He was seeing something for the first time. Houses, yes, he was seeing “houses” but the word didn’t really apply. These were castles, palaces, mansions. Immense, wide, gabled, towering, many were long as a city block. Sunbreak City didn’t lack for rich neighborhoods but this was construction like he had ever seen. They would have been built by first and second generation Sunbreak City pioneers in all the favorite end-of-the-19th-century styles: Romanesque Revival, Queen Anne Revival, Victorian Stick, Tudor. Why had he never seen nor heard of these amazing houses before? What was the reason for all this gigantism?
The super-fat, wedge-rooted, first-growth cedar trees bothered him. He thought the only first growth left in the state was on remote Indian land. To his left Elliott Bay widened and narrowed beyond the trees and houses. Joffrey spotted an occasional smaller abode to the side of some colossus, a mother-in-law perhaps, or a guest cabana, all modern angles and glass. Otherwise, mansions, gargantuan and beyond his architectural vocabulary to describe, dominated the view.
Mansions, castles, palaces, elongated structures, big as warehouses, big as entire school buildings. “Holy shit,” Joffrey whispered to himself.
Driving slowly, Joffrey felt the locking and unlocking of a question pinch somewhere between his neck and shoulder blades: The early pioneers had sectioned off for themselves this juicy, chunk of prime-rib, cliff side real estate. Upon it they built shrines to unbounded opulence–opulence to rival any such in history. Then they drew a mental and physical boundary to keep out the common people. Were they conquerors or settlers?
What commanding, conquering people in history had not boasted its wealth through public display? Joffrey pondered the strange cruelty that dwelt at the heart of this new world. Ancient Thebes? Even Homer had to exclaim, “…the heaps of precious ingots gleam, the hundred-gated Thebes.” The Acropolis. Or Xerxes winged Lion-gates at Persepolis. The library palace of Ashurbanipal. Or the pyramids for God’s sake. The stair-temples of the Aztecs and Mayas. Each construction an aggressive showpiece battling human transience. Whence this odd cruelty—the Sunbreak City rich burying their light in the woods?
Through a clearing Joffrey spied a golf green along with its little red flag. The place had its own golf course. Joffrey smiled at this. He wasn’t sure why. Then he saw an Episcopal church. He slowed to look at it: Saint Luke’s. It was a comparatively modest structure. Done up in—what else?—Oxfordian medieval quarry stone. Their own embedded church. Now Joffrey laughed. A cliché visible from the moon. It humanized the bastards, thank God. All the money in the world won’t free your mind from cliché. You’ve got to work at it. You’ve got to become a literary man, like me, a reader.
He saw the bank of red rhododendrons. That was his cue. Take a left. Follow the long driveway. Presently he arrived at the massive front or back door of a massive house. “Welcome to Casa Prefontaine,” Joffrey sang to himself as he parked the Falcon. He was intimidated, he wasn’t afraid to admit. The house was yet another city block-long structure, Victorian Stick, and both ends were mounted with rounded, castle-like watchtowers. It would have consumed the high-grade timber of a small mountain at construction. A giraffe might feel lost in such an edifice. Its stained and beveled glass glinted within an intricate latticed facade. He rang the doorbell.
Pamela herself answered, wearing flats and floppy casual clothes much like a painter’s smock but without the paint splotches. White hair, wrinkled, a big smile, he could never tell if the teeth of the elderly were real or fake. She seemed to be of that sensitive patrician class that really does read through coffee table books. In any case she smiled at Joffrey and her smile seemed genuine.
“Sit here.” Pamela waved him into a large leather chair. “This is where all the powerful men or men who will be powerful sit,” she said. “Presidents, two of them have sat here. Lots of politicians, scholars, writers, artists. They all pass through here eventually.”
“And scholarship students?” Joffrey volunteered.
“And scholarship students.” She laughed. “Now tell me what you’re up to. How is school? What great and good things are you doing? I want to know.”
Pamela would have been a babe in youth. Her high cheekbones still gave her face a regal profile. And to her great credit she refused a warping facelift. Through a tempest of wrinkles Joffrey recognized youthful eyes.
Between them stood a small and exquisite table, circular with molded rims to keep expensive china from sliding off. Joffrey sensed that everything in Pamela’s house might be exquisite; he was swirling in invisible millions. The table was a couple hundred years old and would have come from the Boston branch of the Prefontaines. It would have been shipped by ocean, around Chile to San Francisco and to Sunbreak City. An antique, coffee-brown, Queen Anne circular cherry wood tea-table. Indian languages and cultures disappear; the tea-table goes on.
The exchange of pleasantries that began at the door went on but Joffrey had seized up. All the gigantism and Pamela’s flowing largesse was getting to him. For the first time he had some clue about the imponderables of Indian-ness—which he had mostly given up on. He used to joke to himself that an Indian was any kid with eight uncles who tormented him incessantly while growing up. Now he knew that an Indian was anyone with the sensitivity to be destroyed by this level of avarice. It wasn’t Gatling guns that conquered the Indians of the Pacific Northwest. It was this bottomless avarice of the whites—an avarice so powerful it smothered the ancient impulse of the rich to brag.
He thought of his uncles, their drunken crying fits, their strange bluster and un-talked about heroism in war, their supposed hardness; their sudden tenderness and rocketing anger that could spin out into crazed killing. And a strange lack of tension. Is that what happens when your ancestors go back thirty thousand years? Otherwise Americans of all shades were by definition tense.
Joffrey, for his part, had to move about. He couldn’t sit still. He stood up and wandered out of the front room, crying and not hiding it. He didn’t know where he was going. He didn’t know the house but he felt permission was granted. Nothing was going to stop him. He walked down a long hallway not bothering to check the pictures, not wanting to wipe his eyes to see if the Kandinskys and Miros and Tobys and Pollacks were really them. He knew they were. He walked past the accumulated treasure of four generations of Prefontaine’s. He knew the Ming vase was real and probably freshly dug up as with the original Olmec stone heads on walnut table stands. All real. He understood too that he could smash all this and Pammy would do nothing; he knew that she was opening herself, making herself vulnerable to him, so he wandered into yet another sitting room, another dining room, a small kitchen, a guest bedroom and finally a set of stairs, not main stairs, probably servants’ stairs. He followed them up and found himself on a second floor landing with many closed doors and a long Persian runner for a rug (the super rich didn’t believe wall-to-wall carpeting unless it was carpet nobody would be permitted to walk on). Joffrey tried the doors but they were mostly empty bedrooms, all correct and spare. He came upon a super narrow paneled door fit for only one thin person. He rubbed his eyes on his shirt front. He opened the narrow door and saw that it was a bathroom, a sink and a toilet against the wall with just enough space to bend over in. It featured a long high vertical window that looked out over a spectacular view of the bay. This was some kind of joke of the builder or architect. The view was pitched just right: the top of the house opened between the birch trees surrounding the property. The joke, of course, the mix of earthly and the celestial in one coffin-sized space. Joffrey took a seat and shat. The toilet paper, he noticed, was as rich and thick as cotton hand-towels. The hand towels were as thick and rich as down blankets. Presumably Pamela’s down blankets would be as rich and thick as bear rugs. The bay was mostly gloomy except for a privileged swatch that sparkled metallic and friendly in the middle of the scene.
Back in the hallway, Joffrey wandered and stopped and then shuffled to the railing of a staircase. It was a winding nautilus thing and he took it down. Pricey frames—Bonnard’s rainbow textures, Cézanne’s inward nymphs, Picasso’s orbs and angles—tracked his descent.
On the main floor again, he steered himself or his vexation steered him into a final room at the far end of the hall. It was a museum of Pacific Northwest Native American artifacts. Macaw masks, straw hats, argillite carvings. Pammy’s great grandfather, Hiram Prefontaine, would have gathered these. He came to Washington territory as a young accountant, originally from Boston. There are historic journal descriptions of him sitting in a dugout hollering at Indian oarsmen in their own language while they, in turn, laughed and splashed at him with their oars. He got the last laugh. He knew, with his dollar-sharp eyes, the value of those hand-carved oars, not to mention the finely woven straw hats (so fine they could hold water) and purses, the clay pots and the large store of bone fish hooks, each as precise and beautiful as a hummingbird.
Finally Joffrey strayed back into the presence of Pamela. Their telepathic conversation continued.
Now I understand, Joffrey beamed in thought. Now I understand the sadness and remoteness of my Indian relatives. They thought they had done enough just by surviving, getting another generation delivered. They didn’t have much left over. After the white man muscled in they checked out through booze and dope or whatever. It wasn’t soldiers or Gatling guns that finished them off. It was this bottomless greed. They—his ancestors—knew they did not possess the imagination or wherewithal to hoard at this scale. So the Indians walked away. Call it surrender. Every surrender is a gift; the handing over of a world.
The break and flow of this knowledge felt so easy, so ready to Joffrey. Didn’t everyone know it? No, you had to experience Highland City.
Joffrey reflected that even in Latin America where the rich grind it into the poor every day stacking the tops of their exterior walls with jagged broken glass. At least they promenade their wealth. At least they let the poor know exactly how miserable they are. At least the poor know what they must do to prevail.
Joffrey searched Pamela’s face for bottomless avarice and saw none. Pamela would have been a babe in youth. To her credit she had refused to get a face lift. Past a tempest of wrinkles Joffrey perceived her youthful eyes.
“Thank you for coming today,” Pamela said.
All bad-boy, lip-curled, churlishness, had burned out of him. “I want to thank you,” he said. He wanted to be in Sunbreak City. Pamela’s largesse had done this.
He wanted to ask her: How could you wall yourselves off from your fellow citizens, not to mention Native Americans? How could you deny them exposure to what you achieved? Houses one block long or houses only a half block long? Houses exquisite in detail, in material, in construction, houses rich in ideas?
The real robbery of the poor, Joffrey knew, was the robbery of knowledge. By sequestering their wealth in the private enclave of Highland City, Sunbreak City’s overly rich withheld visions of what her citizens could do concretely—in their own city. Even ancient kings of old were not selfish such as to hide their opulence in this way. It was this vision of the white man’s greed that got to them. The Indians must have told themselves, no matter what, we will not be like you.
As for Pamela, Joffrey didn’t know what to say. He liked her. She was a former babe. She had, he divined, known his reaction in advance. She trusted me not to kill her, not to cut her throat in my remorse. No guards, no dogs, no large sons, no cameras. Just Pammy surrounded by expensive objects from all nations and all times.