A fairly secure promise. While we’re wading though final proofs of Punk City, I’ve been reminded of other works buried in Shuteye Town 1999, in the shelves of Moon Books. Just rediscovered three forgotten MS fragments in the Fiction section, proving beyond doubt that I understood the new diversity requirement in literature 15+ years ago. A word of warning. The incredibly promising teasers of the opening chapter of books that couldn’t possibly be completed by anyone are ended with what we call “Greek text.” Meaning in this case, “Arma virumque Troiae qui primes ab oris Laviniamque venit…”
I was always too proud, Mama said. It was probably a veracious assertion, but what else can you do in a hood where you’re owned by the Man. Before they sold off my father, he said to me, “Kareem—“ (He named me Kareem Abdul, but Abdul wasn’t our last name. We didn’t have last names then, back in the days before there was even a Martinlutherking, if we had even known there would be such a mentor, which we didn’t, because we weren’t allowed to go to school or take correspondence courses in Black Studies, or anything. It was for shit in 1856. But to resume our tale…) “Kareem,” quoth my father, “you’ve got to be proud. Don’t let any man dis your name, your female companion, or your wheels. That is the name of that melody.”
Ah, how young I was, how less than fully mature, mayhap even callow. For it seemed to me ironic indeed that my beloved pater would specify his wheels as a particular object of pride. I myself found them humiliating, an unending catalyst for blushes and lamentably thin excuses. What Afrian-Amerian lad past puberty could tolerate being observed in the rumble seat of an 1842 Buick? Worse, the tape player was an eight-track, and the only cartridge my father possessed was an anthology of Henry Mancini, in whose lush overuse of the violins I was certain I could hear the dark white heart of oppression.
It would not be until years—nay, decades—later that I would recall the ephemeral bliss of sharing with my father, in that ludicrous wreck of a vehicle, the liberating AM voice of our only real heroes, the stars of the suppressed and poverty-stricken Negro Leagues. Such is the miracle of radio, though. For us it was impossible to hear the worn seams of Satchel Paige’s glove, the holes in Josh Gibson’s Nike’s. It sounded altogether as wonderful and rich—yes, rich—as the broadcasts of the fabled New York Dodgers, who in those days were white as a bleached bone, with nary a thought of choosing Jackie Robinson in the college draft, or Reggie Jackson, or Hank “The Hammer” Aaron—whose names we, of course, had never heard in the cotton fields of Virginia, and wouldn’t in our lifetimes.
Thus was the wretchedness of an existence without more than a handful of positive role models. It made one feel as if there was no chance to attain stardom, to find the so-called good life out in the western paradise of Californica, where only white people were allowed to find gold and buy property in Beverly Hills. I had dreams, but they had to be kept small to avoid disappointment, or so I used to suppose.
Suppose, suppose. I have done a lot of that over the years. Suppose my Uncle Darrell hadn’t contracted AIDS, or cholera as we called it then. He was the only family my Mama had, and how she cried when he confessed that he had shared the rusty nail he used for a hypodermic with Michael, the young ne’er-do-well who lived in the next hut. “But he’s gay,” she wailed, her whole real-sized frame shaking with sobs. “You’ll catch the cholera from that N-word person!”
Yes, she was colorful in her language, at times outrageous. If I flinched at her use of the N-word, however, it couldn’t have been much more than a precocious foreboding of days I would never live to see. For in our piteous little hood, the N-word was ubiquitous, if not peripatetic. It was “N-word” this and “N-word” that, so that an outsider might have been pardoned for believing that we Afrian-Amerians had no given names, only this one all-encompassing descriptor to which we answered like so many dogs.
And so, it seems, we have completed a circle, returning once again to the matter of pride. My pride. Which was continually offended by everyone and everything. Until the day I determined upon an answer of sorts. An answer that seemed to me perfect, complete, and incontestably inevitable. Escape.
Arma virumque cano Troiae qui primus ab oris Laviniamque venit. Multa ille terris iactatis et alto. Dux femina facta. Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit…
Shit, I’m Dying
Shit, I’m Dying
I was getting restless. Bill Boggs was a friend from the days so long ago—exactly three weeks now—when I was also a broker, furiously peddling thick sheaves of paper that promised millions if the sky didn’t fall in. But the sky had fallen in, on me at least, and I knew I shouldn’t have shown such an early draft of my work to a straight, even one I liked as much as Bill.
“The thing is,” Bill said, the way the straights do, as if there were only one ‘thing,’ and they had it in the back pocket of their blue suit-pants, “You guys always seem to think that everybody famous was gay. It’s just not convincing.”
I reread the passage he was so riled up about.
“Speak for yourself, John,” murmured Pocohantas. She was a drab girl who continuously exuded a strong smell of deer meat. John Smith edged farther away from her. He didn’t want that scent of rotting venison on his suit with Miles Standish coming so soon for a visit. No, what he wanted was Miles Standish himself—and not in the company of this young woman, but alone, where he could sound out the possibility so subtly alluded to in their discourse, the possibility which had kept him awake nights dreaming of…
“John.” Pocohantas was patient but insistent. “John! Don’t you have anything to say to me?”
He turned back to her from his fevered imaginings. “Yes. I do. I feel you should know that buckskin is passé. It is no longer la mode. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, John.” And then she smiled that damned secret smile of hers, as if she knew. She didn’t know shit.
“It’s that last sentence, isn’t it?” I asked. “John Smith wouldn’t have said ‘didn’t know shit.’ You’re right. I’ll change it.”
Bill stood up, ready to return to the safe environs of his bulls and bears. “Sure,” he said. “That’ll take care of it. I’m glad to see you looking so healthy and energetic.”
“You don’t like my novel,” I said suddenly. A storm cloud I hadn’t seen coming was upon me, black and bursting with lightning, rain, and fury. “It just isn’t possible to you that we have always been around, right in the middle of things, keeping this big secret from all you dull, conventional, heterosexual mediocrities. You spend a big chunk of your lives trying not to see us at all, pretending we’re not there, and you get so good at lying to yourselves that you start thinking it’s some kind of modern fad that’s confined to a few streets and bars in New York and San Francisco. And that’s exactly the kind of narrow-minded, bigoted, delusional, bullshit myopia I’m trying to expose with my novel. And what’s more,” I screamed at him, my voice rising to a sibilant, glass breaking pitch, “I think you’re actually jealous, because while you’re stuck in that swamp of junk bonds and semi-fraudulent securities, I’m trying to do something important with the rest of my life.”
Bill waited impassively through the end of my tirade. “I know this is important to you, Edward,” he said. “I respect what you’re trying to do, and I wish you well. I really do. It’s just that maybe I can give you a helpful perspective from the other side, as it were. And as I think about it, what I’m trying to convey to you is that people in every kind of minority spend so much time thinking about the group they belong to, they wind up believing that everyone else is thinking about it all the time too, and if they don’t talk about it all the time like you do, then they must be suppressing something, or hiding something, or avoiding something. The dull truth is that dull, white, middle class guys like me spend hardly any time thinking about the lives of gays, or blacks, or women. Since we’re not gays or blacks or women, we spend most of our time thinking about what we’re going to do today and maybe what we’d like to accomplish next. So when you show me some scene with gay pilgrims or George Washington in drag, I don’t find it very convincing, that’s all. But you’re the writer. You’ll work it out somehow.”
After he left, I pouted for a while. Maybe there was something in what he said. Maybe. But then why had I seen that sudden rascal light in his eye that day when I accidentally came to work with the previous night’s mascara still in place? No. I knew my mission. I was going to blow the roof off the whole heterosexual lie before I died. That would at least make my death mean something. My death. Oh damn. That again. Frantically I sat back down at the word processor and … Arma virumque cano Troiae qui primus ab oris Laviniamque venit. Multa ille terris iactatis et alto. Dux femina facta. Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit.
Her Mother’s Daughter
Her Mother’s Daughter
My mother was Chinese. She had Chinese hair and eyes, and she spoke Chinese. She never spoke anything but Chinese. For a long time we didn’t get along. I think I resisted being Chinese. I had Chinese hair and Chinese eyes, but I didn’t know a word of Chinese. I used to look in the mirror wishing that my hair would change color and texture, that like a transforming sea it would billow into waves and shimmer in highlights and perhaps some blond streaks. When I was pensive before the mirror, my eyes became even more slitted, like the openings in an artillery bunker my first boyfriend said. He was poetic and entranced with my exoticism, but more to the point he was blond and blue-eyed and I slept with him the night before my fourteenth birthday. I told my mother all about it in English, and she shrieked at me in Chinese, but not about my lost virginity, because she didn’t understand a word of English. Instead she shrieked at me on general principles, in that voice which is the voice of all aging Chinese women, part bird of prey, part rusty bell, part bag of broken glass. Whenever she shrieked at me all I could think was that I didn’t want to sound like her when I got old. Vaguely, I suppose, I had acquired the fantasy that I would find a way to cease being Chinese long before I reached middle age.
Her name was Chou Chinchiptioua Hua, or at least that’s what it sounded like. In school I learned to write my last name as S-M-I-T-H and my schoolteacher was never the wiser. This was in Brooklyn after all, where everyone is a mongrel mix of nationalities and where the Smiths have made it their business to marry some of every kind. Every kind but Chinese that is.
After I slept with Jimmy I told my mother I was going to be a writer, because I had figured out that if I became a writer I would be emancipated and it wouldn’t matter that I had slept with a boy when I was thirteen, but if I became anything else I would also be a slut, and I still didn’t want to be a slut at the age of thirteen because I had not yet learned how much I hated being Chinese and how much I hated my mother, even though I really always loved my mother, which is hard to say even now, because I hate her so much.
I suppose that somewhere in all this I could get to the point and explain why the story of a Chinese girl who had a Chinese mother should be intrinsically interesting, interesting enough to outweigh the enormous difficulty I have in getting to the point of anything, but that is, after all, the point, because I have learned through long years of learning and practice and experience that I have nothing whatever to say if I ever do manage, somehow, to stumble onto a point, because my obsession is with one subject only, and it’s not an interesting subject, being the subject of me and what it is like to be me, and how much I have always hated being me, until I reached the point of being able to pretend that I really liked being me, because no other identity was possible, and no round-eyed fairy godmother ever showed up to translate me into a blond highlighted version of myself without a Chinese mother and without an ineradicable penchant for going on and on and on about me, or about my mother and her relatives, which is really just another way of going on about me, and so instead, I had to learn the most important of all things about writing, which is that you can change the names of everyone you know, including yourself, and suddenly all that going on and on and on you do about the most irrelevant and depressing trivia imaginable will become, in an instant, the most marvelously subtle and brilliant fiction, which is what I am writing now.
And so at the age of eight, I first discovered that Arma virumque cano Troiae qui primus ab oris Laviniamque venit. Multa ille terris iactatis et alto. Dux femina facta. Forsan et haec meminisse.