Chapter 7 (Crocodile Words)

August 20, 2010 § 1 Comment

“Apologize for what?” Joffrey was sitting in Ben Marble’s—the Commander’s—office at Dayfresh House.

“It’s not a big deal,” said Ben Marble. “It happens all the time in the military, especially the Navy. You say the wrong thing at the right time or vice versa. You apologize and move on. Sure you can dig in your heels but you’re peeling potatoes for the rest of your career.”

“You fought in a war to advance freedom, free speech.”

“True, but you’re not down on the farm anymore carving your initials into a tree trunk. You’ve plugged into a complex system of realities and while there is tremendous freedom within that system you are still not an isolated unit. You can’t plug into the system and run your own game on it. I assume you wanted to come to the city to be plugged into the system as opposed to isolated from it?”

Joffrey sat and tried not to look directly at the Commander. He felt intimidated by his powerful hairy forearms, his still coiled bulk, his penis fingers, his tensile force. The Commander wore Vans tennis shoes and their wide grip seemed to affirm his weighted authority at Dayfresh House.

“It was just a writing assignment,” said Joffrey Simpson O’Day, still looking down. “The Koran. I was just having fun.”

“OK. Great. I’ll take you at your word. But you also have to take me at mine when I say I thought your fun project was needlessly provocative. An apology sends everyone back to his corner to cool out.”

The Commander picked up the literary insert. “This is from your Barney Frank Koran:

‘And be patient, fow suwewy Awwah does not waste the wewawd of the good-doewas. And He it is Who muwtipwied you in the eawth, and to Him you shawlw be gathewed. And He it is Who gives wife and causes death, and…the awtewnation of the night and the day; do you nowt then undewstand?’”

The Commander stopped reading. Joffrey focused on the flip of the Commander’s gray and brown ponytail and said, “Provocative is in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it?”

Ben Marble gave Joffrey a long snake stare. He swung his big chin towards Rainier Avenue and asked, “Do you bank in the neighborhood? Here in Rainier City? Next time you go to the bank take a good look. Who is sitting at the desks of the personal bankers? Sitting mind you, not standing in line like ordinary Joes. I mean sitting down and giving it to the staff tracking every penny of their money. I’ll give you a hint: they’re wearing burkhas. These Muslim Somali moms and wives are some of the best depositors at our local banks. If you think those banks are going to give up those deposits so you can be free to fuck with the Koran then you are wrong son.”

Joffrey didn’t know what to say. He would rather the Commander tell him war stories. What it was like to gut an enemy Vietcong like a trout. “It embarrasses the hell out of me to have to spell it out for you like this, Joff. I admire your intelligence and pluck but you’re wrong about this. They need that apology, the school. Apologize Joffrey and be done with it.”

This would have been the perfect moment for Joffrey to perform his Marlon Brando-as-Kurtz imitation, wrinkling his forehead and reciting in a high voice, And you’re an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill. But he didn’t. He didn’t want to set off this particular ex-swift boat captain. Instead Joffrey Simpson O’Day excused himself and left the office.

.     .     .

“Apologize? For what?” cried Joffrey Simpson O’Day. “Racism? I thought we were talking about religion? I wasn’t making fun of a race. I was making fun of Islam, the Koran. You got to admit, my stuff is funny. You laughed at it.” He laughed.

“How about this for starters?” The Famous Writing Professor held up a copy of the class literary insert. She read aloud to Joffrey:

“‘And when you are greeted with a squirting greeting, greet with a better squirting than it or return it; surely Allah takes account of all thrusting things. And Allah is Spanking, Wise. Surely you may judge between people by gamahuches of that which Allah has spanked you; and be not an advocate on behalf of their deep throats; surely Allah does not love treacherous charvers.’

A Porn Movie Dialogue Koran,” the professor moaned . “Why? This went out to what—how many thousands?

The Famous Writing Professor was sitting with Joffrey at a table in the Roethke House café. She pressed her lips together in disapproval and shuffled the student papers in front of her. Texts she called them. Like something found in the caves, The Dead Sea Scrolls. Texts. She spoke: “The stability of Roethke House depends on our community involvement and at least striking the pose of equanimity towards all.”

“Why does everyone fixate on the Porn Movie Dialogue Koran?” Joffrey wondered to the air. “I like the Valley Girl version myself.” He took up the literary insert and turned a page and read:

O Prophet! Gag me with a SPOOOOON! Oh, fer shure, wow! Oh, wow! when you divorce women, mostly, mostly, oh, right, like divorce them for their prescribed like gnarly time, and like, dude, do your duty to, like Allah, fer shure, your, like, Lord, dude. And—

The Famous Writing Professor grabbed the paper from Joffrey and mashed it into her open purse.

Perry the Cat and his fat tail again. He snuggled in the Famous Writing Professor’s lap, luxuriating in the professor’s unselfconscious strokes and blinking arrogantly at Joffrey. The professor seemed to be stroking her way towards a statement, smoothing out unready words. Joffrey looked over at the beer handles sticking up from behind the bar. They had the café to themselves. He then glanced down at the table and noticed a circle-stained, Roethke House brochure-turned-coaster: a county and corporate funded house on historic Capital Hill City dedicated to fostering literary activities throughout Sunbreak City.

The Famous Writing Professor spoke. “These people, the Muslims, have been abused and brutalized by the west for centuries. We have a price to pay for all that. It is not in our interest to antagonize them further. It is not for us to say who is right or wrong in this so-called war on terror. And I can’t have Roethke House associated with racism at any level. There was a reason the Sunbreak City Deintelligencer didn’t print the Danish Cartoons. The advertisers. Who are their advertisers? Have you seen our brochure? The same, thank you.

Joffrey examined the brochure again; true, corporate logos squirmed all over it: Nordstrom Headstone, Clearhaeuser Lumber, Starbucks, Bardahl Shoes, Macy’s Pet Foods, the Bank of Sunbreak City, Benaroya Parking Lots, United Way.

Joffrey Simpson O’Day wrinkled his forehead.

“Stop!” said the Famous Writing Professor. “Just stop it Joffrey Simpson O’Day. I’ve seen you doing your Marlon Brando routine for the other kids in class. This is serious.”

Joffrey Simpson O’Day pretended he didn’t hear and, forehead wrinkled, puffed out his cheeks a la Don Corleone. He raised his hands in supplication: “Solorzano’s lost a son, I’ve lost a son. Where has it gotten us? Will another hit bring back your boy?”

The famous writing professor didn’t laugh. She said, “We don’t want to give any ammo to the haters. If we mock the Koran like this it could bring down a lot of trouble on the house. I’m not prepared to back you on this.”

“I don’t understand,” Joffrey said. “I’m your student. What am I supposed to apologize for? It was just a writing assignment. Your writing assignment. You set the theme: Gods and Monsters. Beth wrote about an orgy of nuns based on a short story of Boccaccio. Finn’s story about a local parish whose parishioners dismembered, roasted and consumed the priest after he announced the parish had run out of communion wafers—that was real sweet. How about Reggie Claydon’s screed about an African-American preacher extolling revenge upon the white man? I just had some fun with the Koran.”

“You’re being obtuse.”

Joffrey wrinkled his forehead. In his best Brando accent he said: “And you’re an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill.”

“I won’t have you talk to me like that Joffrey. I’m not one of your groupies all tipsy and giggly-happy to be in your presence. This is a prestigious writing class and you were fortunate to get in. I want you to give this talk the seriousness it deserves.”

“That’s just why I can’t take this seriously,” said Joffrey. “I respect you and the class too much to even believe we are even having this conversation. This is a dream, it’s not real, it’s not happening. I can only maintain my respect for you by imagining you under some outside compulsion like pills or pressure—pressure that you should resist.”

Teacher and student glared at each other. The cat purred and the refrigerator behind the bar buzzed to life. Joffrey observed that the rims of the professor’s eyes were puffing, tear puff, donut puffing. She was angry—about to cry? She wouldn’t cry.

Joffrey tried to control himself. He spoke in the chopped measured tones of the near insane. “I did the assignment. I thought it was funny. I thought it spiced up a ripping bore of a book.” He avoided her bright warring green eyes; he noticed the famous writing professor had a fine layer of down along her jaws. Would she have removed this if she were not a lesbian?

“Please don’t make me say the obvious,” said Joffrey. “I won’t disgrace my background, even though it is a tiny thread, by mentioning it.” Joffrey paused and said: “This is a complete bullshit conversation. I didn’t do anything wrong. I did my work.” He stood up. “Go ahead and flunk me if you have to. No apology.”

.     .     .

Joffrey Simpson O’Day in conversation with himself:

What in the hell is the matter with everybody?

Don’t be a baby. You know. Your Barney Frank Koran, your Koran versions, have started streaming. Around the world.

Yeah so? You mean the all-powerful Allah can be knocked over with a feather?

That’s not the point. You know what I’m talking about?

No, I don’t. I was having fun. So now fun’s off-limits? Last I heard I was an American; I have the right to do and say what I want.

Oh, so you can shout fire—

Don’t give me that shout fire in a crowded theater bit. Every religion is trashed in commercial America. Capital Hill City has a play about transvestite nuns going on ten years now. Islam hasn’t got any special consideration over and above Christianity or…

Or?

What about Native Americans? Our sacred objects—the peace pipe, the headdress, our teepees, rattles and drums and weapons—were absconded with by commercial America to dress cigar boxes and storefronts and all manner of demeaning graphic just to turn a buck.

So let’s pile on the wrongs to make a right.

Bah! Our so-called leaders discovered their reverence for Islam about the same time they discovered they had fouled their pants in fear.

Take it easy, we’ll figure out why we’re not going to apologize for our messed up Korans. It will just take time. Why we’re not protesting our expulsion from the university and all the rest. Why we’re letting ourself be erased, not fighting back, all these expulsions. We’re smart. Remember the time we all stood admiring the large backyard of the tall house by the lake? We stood there, three of us friends observing a taught rope tied between tall trees flanking the backyard. It was too high to be a clothesline. Why was it there? What did it mean? A science experiment? Lucas said. Yeah what kind of science experiment? We laughed and bullied him because we knew Lucas didn’t know any science. Then we knew, you and me. Suddenly. In the corner of a downstairs window, very small, we saw the tiny stripes, green white red. The Mexican flag. Piñata! A piñata rope. Kids backyard parties. You fling the piñata over the rope and raise and lower it while the kids try to bash it to pieces.

You’re right. We’ll figure this thing out.

.     .     .

Even though The Porn Movie Dialogue Koran and the other versions had begun streaming throughout the world, Sunbreak City University President Snowden Branch was able to press local media to downplay them. The local TV stations, of course, didn’t mention them. The Sunbreak City Times and the Sunbreak City De-intelligencer routed the whole thing through community gossip columnist, Nikki Bread. Joffrey read her column:

The friskiness of college students seems to be a constant. It could be argued that frisk management is a major part of what college administrators do. When a recent mock-up of the Koran in various versions appeared in The Sunbreak City University Daily (the SCUD) hackles were raised. The Times editorial policy of deep respect for Islam and the historic greatness of Islam prevents us from running excerpts from the modified Korans. Suffice it to say that it was offensive enough to bring in the direct intervention of university president Snowden Branch himself. President Branch has made exceptional efforts towards healing the bruised feelings of a sensitive religious minority of students.

Towards that end President Branch will inaugurate a special Evening of Light and Affirmation candlelight ceremony on the university campus tonight. Student body president Selindra Mayhoff will lead off with a series of speakers from the lesbian gay bi transgendered community as well as leaders of various university multicultural clubs and representatives social justice groups. They will all join in celebrating the university’s status as a powerhouse of diversity.

Moses Keen, president of the faculty senate along with a Working Group of 88 Professors affirming the ‘right of students to be free of spiritual assault,’ will dedicate this night by sharing in a moment of silence followed by the singing of Kumbaya in Arabic. “I’m not Muslim but as a person of brown-ness I cried in solidarity with them when I saw the blasphemous Korans in The Daily,” said Keen. “I look forward to tonight’s celebration and fully expect it to be an event of great healing. I just know that the singing of Kumbaya in Arabic by candlelight will show the world that our university is in the forefront of world diversity. It will be a moving, life-affirming event.”

.     .     .

A few months into his Sunbreak City sojourn Joffrey discovered his Home Place. It was an elbow of the Duwamish river that flowed through the industrial flats of Tukwila. The river bent and flowed gray and thick as spent motor oil after having descended the cold bright headwaters of the Cascade mountains. It  strolled the Kent Valley where, seasoned with farm pesticides, it stewed through Sunbreak City’s industrial flats, past the airplane factory, the cement factory, the bottle factory, past the sawmill, the steel mill, past factories diapered in giant American flags (and spewing tiny wages), past the tugboat yard, where, widening out into the delta flats it glopped its remains into the salmon-pruned Puget Sound.

Joffrey’s Home Place featured a sturdy wooden pedestrian crossing that offered piercing long views of the river—as if from inside the river. Vines like busted guitar strings sprang from the vegetation along the banks. The tides and flowing waters had cut the vegetation sharp at water’s edge like page-boy bangs. Here, just beyond reach of the industrial waterway, of Boeing field, of the police firing range, of the city itself, lay this chunk of timeless pastorale. The river was still close enough to the bay to rise and fall with the tide. Every visit to the Home Place was a glass of champagne that kept filling itself after every sip. There was never any time that it was not beyond exquisite: the dimpling water surface, the flowing bunchy embankment, the quaint rustic houses, the poised sky, the broomy tall trees. Last fall the water churned muddy with salmon roiling upstream. Coho, Chinook. It was the season, the run. A distant uncle, laying nets one morning, saw him up on the bridge and called him down. Joffrey met him on the bank and watched him fix his net. He had a burnt, coriaceous face with the makings of a goatee and, of course, the distant uncle, whose name Joffrey could barely remember, knew everything about Joffrey.

I hear you’re in school. Unh. You got you a nice ghettofabulous girlfriend. Got choo a nice buffalo sister. That’s what I hear. Unh.

Joffrey resigned himself. It was useless to delve into conversation. All his life his uncles knew every single thing about him—what sports he was going out for, when he got a new pair of tennis shoes, when he started to jack off, what girls he was interested in,  how many points he scored, what his grades were—knew what was going to happen to him before he did. And they pounced, without mercy. The distant uncle bagged a few and Joffrey was able to feed Dayfresh House for the weekend.

He didn’t want to visit his Home Place too often for fear that it might be a dream or that it might vanish. After the salmon run it flowed with fallen coin-like locust leaves on the surface.  The banks were still puffy with green and maple leaves like drooping, brown rags still clung to their vines. Why Joffrey’s Home Place was not packed with photographers and painters was beyond him. Or lovers.

.     .     .

O yes, the uncles. Joffrey often thought that anyone with eight uncles tormenting him while growing up might qualify Native American. Always and everywhere hovered the uncles. They were a certain type of men that, had we won the Indian wars, life would have been much more interesting. A better society? Maybe, maybe not. Hank, Wilson, Otis, Little Bear, Walter, Red Owl. They could move from sociological analysis to dreams to astronomy, to war (many were Vietnam vets) from poetry to tribal politics. They were so individual and peculiar; they could be verbally quite brisk. Abusive even. And funny. Joffrey mistrusted any historical account of Indians that left out their humor—that meant basically all accounts. But the uncles had your number down from way back, they identified your own interaction with nature. It wasn’t nature reverence per se, it was interaction; they felt that certain rocks, mountains, trees, animals and streams had things to teach. This wasn’t nature worship it was something else. Something like family feeling. Which is at once more reverential and more standoffish than nature worship.

.     .     .

Fontina and Joffrey sit in the dark auditorium at Alhadeff Hall listening to a single man, the Famous Scottish Guitarist, a classical guitarist, play one gorgeous tune after another. They were out on a date. Fontina picked up a taste for classical music in Japan. “Any given night in Tokyo,” she said, “there are forty plus symphonies running through the entire western classical repertoire. Amazing. It’s not classical so much as live. You get a taste for live music.”

Joffrey has never heard guitar like this before. Thousands of listeners trying not to cough, sitting quiet and focusing on the famous Scottish guitar player. The silence seems religious. They seemed hungry for rare angelic sonics. The famous Scottish guitarist wore his blond hair long and parted in the middle. When he dropped his head to see his fingers his hair swung together like theater curtains. Why didn’t the world come to heel under the assault of so such beautiful music? Why war, now, after such music? Joffrey is happy. Joffrey and Fontina had candlelight dinner at McCormick’s before the concert. Joffrey tasted the glamour he had always longed to taste. He could barely eat for thrilling to Fontina’s looks all through dinner. He basked in the multitudinous flickers of her darkness. At dessert her lips took in the metal spoon and they held it, her eyes blinking white upward and closing with pleasure while she absorbed the ice cream. Such a private expression in public; she was alive, Joffrey thought. To live in a big city and to dine out with a beautiful woman marked off a life notch for him. He had left the desert of eastern Washington behind. Death shrank to the size and importance of a raindrop. Or now he could die. Now, in the dark of the concert hall, they snuggled and Joffrey put his arm around her and he felt he possessed a kingdom.

But then Joffrey hears his uncles. They are clawing and fluttering around his shoulders, insistent as wrens. The Famous Scottish Guitarist picks his way through Handel’s keyboard suite in G minor. Joffrey hears his uncles chirp at him: You, Little Coyote, you could turn all this back! All this industrial civilization depends on you, right now. You could erase the presence of the white man if only you renounce this guitar, this product of white machine civilization.

“It’s just a guitar,” Joffrey says. “You love it too. The electric anyway.”

Yes, say the uncles, we know and we can love its sound too. But for all its hand-carved, wooden ambience it carries conquest in its wake; it is as much a product of the industrial grid as a cement factory or a nuclear plant. The strings are wound nylon, finely spun silver plate wound on computerized thimbles and rotors, themselves fine as fingers. Oil products make up the guitar finishes and lacquers, the top and sides and the glues are oil derivatives too. Ditto the varnish that gives the guitar its glow. There is nothing spiritual going on here. If you renounce this guitar all of white civilization will vanish. It hangs by a thin silver thread. Let it go. We will be free again. We will live our land and fight our own fights. Choose now Little Coyote. Choose now, cut the string and take us back before the grid and free us forever.

Leave me alone assholes, says Joffrey, under his breath. He squirms in his seat. So typical of my uncles to fuck with me when I’m having one of the happiest moments of my life. The Famous Scottish Guitarist comes to the end of the Handel piece with its magnificent run of ascending arpeggios. Joffrey is sweating.

Fontina offers him a hanky and asks, “Whats wrong?”

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