Chapter 5 (Crocodile Words)
August 17, 2010 § Leave a comment
Driving through Sunbreak City neighborhoods Capital Hill City, Ballard City, Freemont City, Queen Anne City, University City, Joffrey felt a bit like God surveying his creation, commending here, approving there or sometimes disapproving. But walking in his own neighborhood, Rainier City, he felt companionable, like Walt Whitman, blessing every manifestation of human endeavor, feeling at one with everything human. As he passed each house a bolt of empathy flared in his chest. He just knew he could enter any house and become a lifelong friend of the owner or family.
Then Joffrey discovered Rainier Avenue, the long stretch between Graham and Henderson. It offered the most staggering view—on clear days—of Mount Rainier in the city. The shadow of its vastness would easily contain a European country or two. He was only stopped cold by certain black drug street salesmen. We were a long way from the cool black dudes on the album covers of his uncles’ jazz records. These street dudes had dead patches, like the blank marble eyes of statues, where their eyes were. The black dope dealer: hard faced, doesn’t move when you approach. Looks like he’s been suckled on cement. He is the nuclear core of American society, the thing in itself around which society is built, accommodating him or avoiding him. His anger knocks entire commuter neighborhoods together, vast developments with water, sewage, electricity and maybe damns and nuclear plants, so eager are whites to flee from him. From whence this saggy-pants nihilism, patterned hooded sweatshirts, the crisp, flat-billed baseball hat, backwards, sideways? Joffrey couldn’t feign too much ignorance. They are a tribe, my tribe, after all: druggie-wuggie moms, invisible dads. The abandoned ones. Kids as serenely checked off for erasure as any stack of boxes vacating a loading dock. Joffrey felt they weren’t living so much as pre-dead. Only the ground willing to embrace them whole. The Rainier dudes. Their free swagger, their pocket flags, gang colors, the nowhere energy of nothing. Maybe the generation coming out of slavery, and the one after, setting up in the teeth of American hatred couldn’t afford nihilism straight. Nihilism would have been a luxury. After slavery blacks had to follow the bouncing ball of American life, fighting its wars, marking the color line, marking time. After the civil rights era blacks could relax a bit, let the poison of Death’s close breathing descend upon this generation.
Then Joffrey’s sense of resistance kicked in: why should Death win? Show me the contending force from which the dudes are snapping back. This force Joffrey could not locate in Sunbreak City. Apart from the bars across the small shop windows and ground floor apartment windows he had spotted no degraded slum. Libraries flourished as did mini grocery stores. Halal markets, car repair shops. Was there something to see behind Sunbreak City’s benignity? The embrace of Death scared him and attracted him. But had one of the boys ever run a log sort yard, ever worked a green chain or supervised a barking crew? Had they ever worked the log pond at a great saw mill? Joffrey wanted to connect with them but he didn’t do dope, the charming guest who always takes more than he gives. Maybe the street dudes perceived his nonchalance or the choices open to him. The free swing in his own walk would offend them. He wanted to tell them that Death didn’t need a hand from them. The span of Death’s domain allowed for no apprentices. Maybe this coiled violence rushed to fill the blank created by the Sunbreak City rich, withholding, as they did, from all, the magnitude of their accomplishment.
One Saturday afternoon on a Rainier corner he walked past a very dark black young man (Does blackness, textured skin, invite roaming spirits?) with a baseball cap pressed down over a nest of dreads. He seemed absorbed in watching or perhaps counting cars in the street. It was an act. “Are you stoppin’ or shoppin’ niggah?” He spoke briskly, knowingly to Joffrey. Taken back, Joffrey did not have a ready reply. “Clear the corner, niggah. If you ain’t here for nothin’ keep it moving.”
Joffrey tried to pick out—again along Rainier Avenue—between Graham and Henderson—he wanted to see if he could pick out the real whores from the police decoys. The purse always the purse! Waiting and not waiting by the bus stop. Usually he could. The decoys were too good to be true. They had clean hair and didn’t carry the spirit of burnt whoredom to its logical end: the kind of physical self-looting you see in real street whores.
On one of his neighborhood walks down a side street near Aki Kurose field Joffrey saw a Muslim father call out to his son from the front door at dinner time. The boy was about ten and wore a white long gown we associate with North Africa or the Middle East. The boy was happy and he was leaping with his two legs together, leaping like a seal towards the house. The father was impatient but you also thought you saw great affection in the father’s face. Joffrey wondered that he belonged to a country that had this kind of love happening.
Later that morning Joffrey came upon a row of wooden houses seemingly unmaintained for decades, mossy and sunken on the north sides. One such house had a Sears chain link fence around the front yard. On a narrow slice of cracked sidewalk leading to the slanted front steps a black girl was jumping rope. She wore shorts and she was long legged and sang to herself in time with her bouncing feet. She must have been twelve or thirteen and she seemed possessed of so much innocent energy and hapless joy that Joffrey took a moment to marvel. He had to tell himself to move on: he didn’t want to get tagged as a neighborhood perv. She reminded him that he and his sister had lived moments of kid-bliss, usually in summer, not really knowing the world. Joffrey walked on but he kept thinking about the young girl. She moves to life as though she were rich, he reflected. The mind of poverty has not encased her head. He imagined her later that night as she watched a National Geographic special on the ancient gardens of Babylon. Let’s say she does well in school; she will go on to study the world and history and geography. Perhaps she will travel and visit the world’s great cities. But she will always be precluded from knowing that her very own city, Sunbreak City, hosts dwellings as majestic as the castles of the kings and rulers of old. Living in Sunbreak City, her own city, the neighborhood of Highland City will be a distant rumor for her. And by design. She would be denied the knowledge of monumental greatness that existed in her own town because the forces of money and power had designed that she not know them. No TV, Radio or movie ever talked about the palaces of Highland City, not even in passing. This is the effrontery of the Sunbreak City rich: they hide their munificence—palace, castle, estate, manor—from the children.
Sometimes Joffrey heard a rooster crowing when he walked the neighborhood. How would they survive the raccoons or the feral cats? Sometimes he heard the piano being practiced.
This was his neighborhood after all. Rottweiler and baby stroller white couples. Competition some mornings seemed for the tallest dog in America. The wife, obviously in control of everything, the husband, tamed and pushing the baby stroller. And dogs and owners dogs and oweners andmoredogsandoweners.
He fully intended to suck the city dry. It was his city now. He had a headquarters: Dayfresh House.
The building was originally a two-story hotel, The Robertson (The Jewell of Rainier City), built for traveling salesmen back in the 1920s. Nescient heirs, bloated lawyers and tenuous records all fumbled across the decades to turn the place into an unofficial museum with Sunbreak City tagged as the ultimate title holder. The city was about to declare the old hotel an historic landmark when federal money available for drug rehab caused the mayor to cry out one morning, “Find the buildings, find the addicts and put them together—now!” To the press he pronounced more soberly: “This is a perfect opportunity for public and private partnership in the service of our communities in order to meyhram gran benhriff blanaahh…”
They christened it, Dayfresh House.
Joffrey lived for free at Dayfresh House in exchange for working the night desk five nights a week. He was to monitor who came in and out, but really making sure the residents (or inmates as Joffrey thought of them) didn’t go out for too long. Going out meant that the residents were going out for drugs or whoring. Some were prohibited from leaving the building without a case worker.
He answered directly to the supervisor, Ben Marble, who everyone called ‘Commander’ because he was a retired navy commander and because he carried still the air of a man used to having hundreds of young people obey his every wish. He wore a small pony tail. Everyone figured he missed out on pony tails when he fought in Vietnam and now he was catching up. He had large forearms and while he didn’t talk much about Vietnam rumor had it he worked the swift boats and liked to ambush and gut his prey with a commando knife. Somehow the residents felt safe and comfortable with a guy who was once slathered up to his elbows in human guts and organs.
The smoky chandelier, the blotchy light over the small rotunda lobby, the brass umbrella stand, the slices of himself in narrow mirrors along the walls, the high-grade oak flooring cracking underfoot, the wing chairs and coffee table fastened into the rug with metal tabs and the large oil painting (nailed fast as well) of a peasant woman crossing the Pont Neuf at dusk—all this floating on a cherry red carpet appealed to Joffrey’s sense big city living. “Shabby gentility at its finest,” he whispered, walking into Dayfresh House for the first time.
Joffrey had a studio apartment with a bay window that overlooked Rainier Avenue. His room—every room in fact—held fine odd touches: a small cubby-door outside the room’s entrance that once must have served as a delivery for milk bottles, beveled glass cupboards with small glass knobs, a pantry cupboard with an open air vent to the outside and a large metal framed Murphy Bed that unfolded from inside a large closet.
The residents looked as varied as any group of adults walking to and fro in a grocery parking lot. In reality many came from jail or parole programs and all had committed themselves to a three month stay. They took part in therapy sessions, one-on-one counseling, group outings and general down time. Joffrey was so green that during his first week he thought all the residents drank a special kind of strong tea from special small cups; then he realized they were all walking around with urine samples. Anyway, Dayfresh House, present:
Hamilton “Bing” Bale
One night as Joffrey walked down the first floor hall at Dayfresh House he heard a voice proclaim, “I’d never commit suicide during baseball season!” It was Ray who said it, as he found out later. Ray, Ken and Nolan formed a trinity of dudes who slumbered in the Dayfresh House common room watching sports on TV every chance they got. Didn’t matter what sport as long as some ball was in play. These would have been the guys you meet at every party, swirling beer, wasted on pot and cocaine, who talk in logical, crystalline sentences about baseball minutiae. After exhaling bong clouds thick as hurled gallons of milk they could carry on like this:
“…no you’re wrong. The guy who stole the most bases in his rookie year was William Ellsworth “Dummy” Hoy. 82 fucking bases. He led the National League.”
“Not bad. Ruth only stole 10 his rookie year.”
“Guess how many Ty Cobb stole? His rookie year. Zero.”
“Know why they called him ‘Dummy’? He was deaf.”
“No shit. He was also really short. The fans would wave their hats at him instead of clapping…they still use some hand signals…”
Joffrey and the TV room guys didn’t hit it off because he didn’t want to stand around in forced bonhomie bull-shitting about sports. There they sat, a three-headed, lumpy, long, plaid sofa, snarling at every entrant, demanding payment in the coin of sports blather. Joffrey didn’t pay; he just nodded at the heads and bounded up the stairs to his room.
Joffrey arrived at the Commander’s office-bedroom, a narrow and Spartan thing and Joffrey wondered if it was his imagination that it seemed outfitted like a bunk on a big ship. Joffrey sat in a spare but comfortable chair (was it a designer chair? Italian made?). There was a framed picture of the Commander’s wife and family from when his five boys were young and unmarried. A contemporary portrait would have packed the frame with a bunch of grandkids. There wasn’t much else in the office. A couple navy flags and some insignia in a display that he didn’t really understand. The Commander sat at his desk filling out some paperwork which he quickly stuffed into a filing cabinet.
“Joffrey.” The Commander swung his chair around addressed him.
Joffrey smiled to signal he was alert and paying attention. How could he not? Hairy, big forearms. Serene bulk. You couldn’t imagine besting him in hand-to-hand combat.
“I hear you called in an airstrike on yourself.” Most everybody at Dayfresh House indulged the Commander’s Vietnam era phrasings. With some frequency they heard some new arrival described as having that Thousand Yard Stare. Once he broke up a fight and finished it with both inmates shaking hands while the commander repeated, Peace in Our Time, Peace in Our Time. And once we heard him yelling on the phone at some board member of Dayfresh House behind his closed office door, I will destroy this village to save it! But just now Joffrey was trying to parse the Commander’s airstrike analogy.
“Your Koran thing.”
“Yeah. Just a lark.”
The Commander’s eyes had become two portholes, large pitiless openings onto a dark interior that made Joffrey move in his chair. “It was just a lark,” Joffrey repeated. “Muslims, Islam was on my mind because you see them all over the neighborhood.”
“You come across as Mr. Mellow Dude,” the Commander said. “But I know that the cuddliest, furriest animals in the wild, they have the sharpest claws. With your Korans you’ve taken a real slash at Muslims—“
“I didn’t have particular Muslims in mind,” said Joffrey. “I just wanted to poke some fun at Islam in general—”
“Islam is too abstract.” The Commander didn’t like being interrupted. “I don’t believe it or let’s say it is hard for me to believe you didn’t know you would draw blood. There was plenty of thought and malice there.”
Joffrey noticed the lumpy wrinkles, like the too many coats of paint on a ship’s hull, around the Commander’s porthole eyes.
“I’m not finished with the subject,” said the Commander. “Let’s get ready for Talk Night.”
Joffrey had to be there at Dayfresh House Wednesday night for Talk Night and for evening bed-check. He wouldn’t miss Talk Night for anything. He helped with small chores that the commander couldn’t be bothered with.
Joffrey’s furnished his room was with odd bits and ends from the thrift store. He got around this by telling his visitors that it was modular furniture. “See? It’s modular.”
Guys in drug treatment like to talk. They like to smoke and they like to talk. You share a cigarette and everyone becomes sociable. And conversation takes its way. Easy malleable and sometimes entertaining. Like this: it happened to be Gay Pride weekend and the Pride marchers took over the neighborhood for the weekend leading some of the panhandling house staff to resent the antics of Sunbreak City’s gay population.
Larry, a certified forklift driver, said apropos of nothing: “I ain’t no faggot.” The strength and sheer falsity of the statement among a bunch of drug addicts made them roll their eyes. Drug addicts know that all manner of behavior has flowed through you. On drugs life lives you. Passed by, passed through, thanks to dope. If nothing else, dope makes you sell anything, your body, dope makes you suck cock.
But gays were on the minds of some of the house members so the conversation flowed that way.
“You really hate fags?” Martin asked. “Really? Well, try this. What if you were stuck on a desert island. Would you rather be stuck on that island with a big fat ugly woman or with a young slender good looking boy, say, a 15 or 16 year old boy with smooth skin and nice lips and clear eyes? A hairless smooth skinned youth?
“It always intrigues me that in nine cases out of ten the angry homophobe chooses the boy. They always qualify it by saying ‘I’d have to be the dominant partner though. No takin’ it up the ass.’”
Moist laughter, and then foot stomping laughter.
Then Terry said, “But hold on. Young slender guys grow up. The get big and they get muscles. What happens when your slender boy grows up on the mythical Desert Island and gets strong and the life of the Desert Island toughens him up and maybe he didn’t really appreciate getting drilled by you all those years—but what could he do about it? But now he’s grown and he’s big and strong and he’s coming after you and he turns you into a punk? How about that, huh? Your boy will want to be the macho and he’ll be on your ass turning you into a sawhorse and that’s how you will live out the end of your days, as a pin cushion for a young angry homosexual boy. You’ll go through those adolescent years when he can get it up 15 times a day; your ass will feel like a red jalapeno pepper—
At this the crowd—group conversation—moaned and called for a time out. Laughter and moaning at the imagined pair.
“Not so fast.” This was Jack, a former claims adjuster. Jack said, “Let’s say, for whatever reason, you have chosen for your Desert Island companion our fat ugly woman. And let’s say in your arrogance you haven’t been able to touch her—even on the Desert Island. What if the hardships of island life makes your fat ugly woman slim down. Turns out she’d got great cans. She slims down to reveal a great bod with breasts like a pair of otters coming at you. But then this now stacked goddess remembers. She remembers that you almost rejected her for the boy outright. She remembers that you really didn’t want to be on the Desert Island with her. She remembers that you didn’t touch her for years. She then takes her knockers over to the other side of the island. She’s healthy now, mentally and physically (and stacked) and she hates your guts because you sat on the island and ignored her all those years. Now she’s looking great but she hates your guts. Maybe she wants to kill you. That’s it. To entertain herself, to pass time, she plots out how to murder you. Or maybe she’ll agree to do it but she only agrees to do it if she can chain you to a tree and whip you with branches or something.”
At this the knot of ex-addicts laughed and shook their heads and dispersed and called out good night to each other.
On his way to his room Joffrey noticed Willard’s door was open. Willard was a Special Ed teacher with a large gray walrus moustache. He seemed perpetually wounded. He didn’t like small talk. He always wanted to get real heavy right off the bat. Joffrey slightly paused at Willard’s door and Willard, sitting in a folding chair, the only chair in his room, was off:
“The mystery of my life is why the rich don’t treat the poor better in Latin America. You can’t account for it, Joffrey. I joined the Peace Corps when I was young; I was a few years younger than you with a BA in math and a teaching certificate. I was sent to the Central American border of Nacosta and El Chingo. They wanted me to help do a survey of water tables in a very poor area. I didn’t understand such poverty then and I don’t understand it now. It left an invisible railroad spike in my skull all these years; it’s been over forty years. The rural dirt roads were a joke, the heavy rains carved them up like Swiss cheese. But I traveled by motor bike through the nearly impassable countryside surrounding a small volcanic chain. There was often no electricity or if the village was close enough to a sugar refinery then they might have a single cable like a ratty shoelace looping through the village. The kids, I can never forget the kids. They were beautiful and dirty, some wore no pants, some walked around stark naked. Some were starving. There were no schools and most had to work cutting or loading sugar cane or whatever seasonal crop needed harvesting. They were all hungry. A few lucky ones had shoes. So here is a village built on eroded humps of hard dirt. The houses were dirt brick with thatched roofs. But get this: many of the houses held priceless Mayan antiquities within. The fathers clinked them up with their machetes while digging in the fields. Beautifully carved whistles or small masks, maybe thousands of years old; going back to the time of the Mayans. Once I tried to talk to a couple fathers of the kids running around with these priceless ancient artifacts but they didn’t want to give them up. They had been approached before. They had some idea of their value. I did not want to be a colonialist ogre so I didn’t push it.
Before long I went to the nearest Catholic church and tried to talk to the priest about conditions in the village and he agreed to help me. He was a Spaniard and talked with a Madrid accent and I wondered if he felt he was living way back in the colonial days. Surely he knew that his parish was destitute? I gave most of my Peace Corps wages to the families and I tried to organized a once-a-week clinic, going to fetch a doctor from the nearest town about three hours away. I became the nurse, taking names and keeping records and learning to give shots and set up IVs. The women in their 20s looked like 50 and those in their 30s like 60s. It was ghastly and I didn’t understand it. At the clinic one afternoon a young soldier appeared in the doorway. He was super friendly and looked all around and smiled and shook my hand a few times. He had a machine pistol strapped across his back. He came back the next week but without smiles or handshakes and told me to follow him. He took me to a small police shack about 20 minutes away. I was shown a bare cement floor with an electric battery and poles and I’m not ashamed to admit I shit my pants. I wasn’t tortured but I was roughed up and told where to get off. So much for the water land table study that the Peace Corps had contracted me for. My superiors moved me to the nearest big town to teach statistics at a university extension campus.
In the town I remember beautiful girls, like coming upon a clutch of perfect black berries or huckleberries in late summer. Each one aglow and perfect to the eyes. I didn’t screw around with any of my students; you would be surprised at how circumspect young men can be, at a time of peak lust, when they give themselves to ideals. I was there to help and not to exploit. But she, Mercedes, came up to me when I was waiting for my motorcycle to get fixed, she was my mechanic’s niece, and she offered me coffee. Wow. She had a smile like a honey pot and nothing a young man could keep his hands off of.
She worked in a candy factory and I would pick her up on my motorcycle after her evening shift. She was poor but she had manners and naturally wanted to shower after work but I told her no. The air conditioning wasn’t all that great at the factory. And she sweated and her skin had a fine film almost like cotton candy, a film of sugar. I remember sucking all the sweetness off her skin, everywhere at night. I licked all the sugary sweat from her tits, her body. She was embarrassed about her tits because she had had a daughter. She thought they had been discolored and misshapen; that was my first inkling of the private thoughts of man and woman kind. Here I thought I was in paradise and she was feeling all self-conscious about her titties. When you really dip into the intimacies of men and women they are much sadder and harder on themselves than you can imagine.
Meantime I hadn’t forgot about the village and my clinic project. At the university I introduced myself to some students at the faculty of medicine and made arrangements for them to visit the clinic. I would loan them my motorcycle and pay them a stipend from my Peace Corps salary. Things went swimmingly for about a month before a government judiciale and a low-level functionary from the American Embassy showed up at the university with an airplane ticket and a lifetime invitation not to visit the country again. The government judiciale was your standard-issue police goon. These guys are easily recognizable wherever governments have their thumbs on the national windpipe: the shirt is one size too big, the coat a size too small and the pants an inch too short. Their shoes are invariably clodhopping, easy men to laugh at but they are lethal and they wear a perpetual scowl when forced away from their comfort zone of the torture cell. He drifted between anger and depression that he couldn’t fry my balls with a tractor battery. The embassy drone, a kid with tab collars, pimples and a cowlick, kept the judiciale goon on a leash and scolded me for getting involved in local politics. You’re not here to get involved in politics, he kept repeating.
I didn’t get to say goodbye to Mercedes. I don’t want to be like so many addicts and blame loss for dope. I won’t demean something so beautiful. Dope just happens; Mercedes was a sparkling miracle. If I were to see her again and even if she were worn and misshapen with age I would fall on her with love, the love that fills the universe and gives me those days of grace, my best days, when I dream of Mercedes and her sugary tits and dream of licking sugar off her everywhere.”