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Field Work

January 17, 2013

The front door was open, but you could have heard these two bitches coming up the street all the same.  It was late.  The after-bar traffic had petered out hours ago.  Crickets one minute, and then a crescendo of hiccoughing laughter.  The screen door creaked.  My beautiful friend, Amelia, was dumping what smelled like a bag of shit soaked in old cooking sherry onto the rug in the living room.  It’s my ex-girlfriend.  There she lie, rumpled, seething.  Amelia’s eyes were whisky rheumy, but there was her trademark twinkle of amusement balanced by some kind of shame.  As if she had squandered some of my trust just pouring drink down the hole in Tabby’s face all night.  ‘Well done.”   She twinkles anew.  “You know you didn’t have to bring her here …’  No apologies.  As we spoke, the stinking pile began inching its way along the carpet toward the bedroom.  ‘I’ll send your sweatshirt around tomorrow.’  I wanted to hug her goodbye.  Couldn’t risk a hard-on.  Then I walked down the hall, checked that Tabby was breathing.  I could smell the rasp of her body desperately processing the poison out of her, immediately pulled the door shut.  Then I lie down on the rough nap of the couch and slept with the television going to cover up the sound of her snoring.  It took most of the next day to air out the bedroom.

David Stephenson photo credit

feeling peckish… ? (img credit David Stephenson)

That was six years ago.  I remember it sharply as I wake up and realise that it is my tangy bag of organs fouling up someone else’s room.  My laboured attempt to clear out whatever it was I dumped in there last night.  I’ve come across two continents to the heartland of the Midwest to teach American History at the middle school in some depressing backwater where my brother has been raising his family.  The previous teacher was hit by a bus last week and lay in some condition or another in a special nearly-dead middle-aged women’s unit of the regional hospital, seventy miles away in what the locals refer to as ‘the city,’ presumably because there are more than two stoplights.  Nonetheless, I was eager to leave the depressing backwater where I had been ensconced doing field work on ancient burial myths of some long forgotten indigenous people around Karwar, Goa.  The grant money that had taken me there was nearly gone when out of nowhere the local school corporation shot me a phone call and offered to pay the plane fare.  My little brother, bless his heart, had put my name into the hat and I fit the qualifications.  After several layovers and lots of airplane sized bottles of Jamesons, he picked me up and we drove home via the honky-tonk and about twelve pitchers of watery American beer, various grain-based liquors, scores of calloused handshakes with people named Dale, Berta.  Now I’m hungover as fuck and maybe late for school.  The more things change.

This is what they mean when they say ‘slate grey morning.’  Everything looks dead.  There’s a dust of ice covering everything.  I can see my breath.  I scrape a couple peepholes into the windshield of my brother’s pickup truck.  Chuck my leather satchel into the cab and shiver.  I wonder how soon until we get a snow delay.  The thought cracks a thin smile on my face.  Sink the key into the drive shaft, the sawing sound of the engine block turning over and rattling in its rusted housing.  Watch out for the deer, I remind myself in my brother’s voice.

The bristles of the wintering cornfields are poking up through the snow, like those hedgehog-shaped shoe cleaners you find on old people’s front porches.  So much unbroken space, you can see the horizon curve with the earth.  The sun is barely lighting up the eastern edge of the inky henna nothing where the Sunday school teaches kids that God lives with their dead grandparents and hamsters.  There are three times as many stars as I remember ever seeing in Karwar.  Too many stars.  I am glad I don’t have to guide myself by them.  The roads all lead to the gas station, the court house, the cluster of cement block buildings where the rote socialisation of the rural youth happens under the ever-watchful eyes of the US Department of Education.  Gospel music on the radio.  It’s the kind of drive that happens by itself.

I’m suddenly conscious that I’ve pulled into a parking lot, taken the key from the ignition.  Swing the door open and whisps of fast food wrappers, cigarette packets follow me out.  Animal tracks dot the snow of the parking lot – that one’s a squirrel, that’s a rabbit, those two are from deer; that set is from whoever walked from and to this space yesterday.  They crunch under my steps, icy memorials to an egress now destroyed.  I pop another Altoid.  I’m going to need some ibuprofen or something to get out of this terrible mindset.

I go through the motions of meeting some ruddy faced administrators, wizened secretaries, the principal – Missus something – shaking hands, making good impressions, being jovial.  Their coffee is fucking horrible.  Little unmarked silver body bags piled up by the drip-filter machine.  I rub my jaw and realise I have forgotten to shave the stubble from half my left cheek.  This is still better than combing through dirt mounds under a tarpaulin in the rain, sifting animal shit from sea shells.  At least I speak the language.  Enough to make small talk.  Clawing open a paper sachet of aspirin.  I toss my head back, open my eyes and she’s standing there in the doorway of the lounge.  A girl.  I hate all five feet of her.  Pale blue eyes dusted in the same ice as the cornfields.  Lank hair just like a pile of dead corn stalks.  Just shaking her head.  The principal, she addresses her, ‘Pamela, this here’s the fresh meat we got on emergency loan from the university.  Gabriel’s brother.  Can you do something right today and show him to his classroom?’  ‘Well then I’m telling the kids what really happened to the Japanese,’ and she turns to leave.  Over her shoulder in a stage-whisper of mock confidence, ‘I suggest you stop in at the gas station if you want coffee.  What they brew around here will probably make your asshole fall out.’  I wave goodbye to the people whose names I have already forgotten as I follow her down the hallway.  Mug in front of my lolling head.  Pamela.  She does Literature.  Or Language Arts.  Something.  She’s not from around here either.

I’m sure there is something here I am not recalling well.  Some kind of look that she gives me where I know she’s not the tight-kneed, church-going girl her colleagues think she is.  Something about the way she delivers the straight dope on the superintendent’s drinking habits, some hidden secret regarding the mathematics faculty; something subtle but definite that tells me sexual congress is, if not a certainty, at least within driving distance.  She shows me to the bland little orange-coloured classroom where I slowly die for the next forty minutes while I prepare my lesson plan.  She pokes her head in the door before the bell and my first set of students.  “Jesus.  You can open a window in here.”  Why hadn’t I thought of it already.  Shuffle about.  “Where did you say your brother had you out drinking?  Four Trees?  Real redneck bar.”  I hadn’t.  Good guess.  She knows my brother.  Small fucking county.  “Find me after school.  I’ll take you somewhere a bit more civilised.”  That was quick.  Whatever I say to her, the smile in her chilly dishwater eyes is genuine although the rest of her expression looks like she’s holding her nose.  Well.  All roads lead to the center of town.

The day is forgettable if only because the whole regimented world of a middle school demands that it be so.  I am sure if I think about it, I had a good time.  All five periods of kids I will be teaching for the next six to eight weeks are great – bright eyed, innocent, in the flush of early adolescence.  A few are even intelligent, asking questions, getting involved.  No muck abouts, no bullies, no bullshit artists like I was at their age.  At least none that I can tell.  I eat the cafeteria lunch in my classroom.  It tastes so fucking amazing I go back for a second tray, my body starved of nutrients.  I think we had some pork rinds and peanuts last night.  Most of my calories were liquid.  In any case, the last bell comes out of nowhere, too quickly.  I promise myself that tomorrow I will try to savour the experience, get some mindful joy out of my day.  I didn’t come here just to survive, I came to live.  Pack up the satchel.  Return the mug to the lounge.  Parting shot to the secretaries, the principal what’s-her-name.

Halfway through the parking lot, a snowball cracks me in the back of the head.  There’s a nostalgic kind of pain.  About face, unsurprisingly I see Pamela with a big dumb smirk on her face.  “You don’t follow directions real well, do you.  I’m flunking you out, dude.”  The ball is in my court.  I crank my head around; nobody is going to hear what I’m about to say.  I’m honestly kind of angry at first, then it fades and I notice something else.  The libido, the id, call it what you want.  It’s been about six months since it’s had an excuse to attack.  ‘Well who’s the attention starved, aggressive piece of ass around here?’  Very bold.  I continue, ‘I feel like being pushed around by a perfect stranger.  Know anyone?’  ‘You’re a horrible flirt.  And presumptuous.  I’ll pick you up at seven.’  She’s turned to her car door.  ‘Shave that cheek.  You look ridiculous.’  I don’t even consider to tell her where I’m staying and how to get there.  Of course she would know.  Things are so simple here, everything seems natural.

On the drive along the ‘B’ roads back to Country Breeze Drive, I wonder how hungry for company this woman can possibly be.  After all, ‘the city’ is just over an hour away.  Gasoline prices don’t seem high enough to make a booty call there prohibitively expensive, even on a teacher’s pay grade.  Is there some taint to her?  I pull up to the snow bank of a driveway.  Speak to my screaming nephews,  nieces.  The sister-in-law is already putting their supper on the table.  I shower, finish shaving, and change into some civvies.  Gabe asks what I’m up to this evening.  I fish around in the refrigerator for a beer – a plate of sliced onions in there give off a sweaty crotch smell anytime the door’s open, so I close my fist around the first bottle I smack into.  Interested in what he has to say about her, I tell him who’s taking me out, and he laughs that old man laugh of his.  He sounds just like our big, working man uncles used to.  ‘Watch out you don’t get recruited for some Sunday school bake sale.’  She’s playing up quite a convincing ‘good girl’ front, I guess to fend off all the redneck dick thumping around.  I relax.  She’s not expecting anything from me.  I’m just one among what must be a happy string of interlopers.  I guess I’m cool with it.  I swig my beer and ask my brother if he’s got any condoms.  He shoots a pop-eyed look over at his brood slopping down hamburger helper and green bean casserole; I guess I already knew the answer.

A few bottles of light beer later, I hear her Dodge crumple into the frozen driveway right on time.  We make our way up across county lines, up near the edge of the old Miami Indian reservation.  There are some closed-up gift shops and the office for the ‘Trail of Tears’ tours that will start running in late Spring.  Right now, the only thing lighted up among the looming tree line is the saloon, The Sandhill Crane, renowned, Pamela explains, for its locally-made draft lager, buffalo burgers and the well-kept felt on the billiards tables.  The air surrounding the simple wooden structure of the place is electric, the forest behind a pitch black vacuum.  ‘My buddies will be by later on.  You can tell me about your field work in Goa while we eat.’  ‘Only if you promise to tell me how I can trade softball coaching for crossing guard duty.’  We order.

After about twenty minutes, we’ve shared about as much about ourselves as you might want to when you are trying to look attractive.  She grew up in Michigan.  Rode horses as a girl, learned to hunt with a compound bow, likes line dancing.  I told her about my brother, the travel my post-doctorate work has afforded me.  When I mention the apocryphal burial cults of the Karwar Anshi, she shoots me a real weird face, so I quickly change the subject.  How horrible would it be to screw up a sure thing by being pedantic, I think.  To my credit, I leave out the “exciting” story of the time I spent a week in jail in Arizona waiting for creditor-dodging relatives to answer the telephone two time zones away, as well as any mention of my string of monogamous train wrecks during my early twenties that led to an interest in the solitary world of anthropological archaeology.  I keep discussion focused on sports and other ephemera.  Our buffalo meat appears between two buns along with heaps of coleslaw and a second pitcher of heady, yeasty tasting home brew.  Then we are playing nine ball, dancing to country tunes on the jukebox.  I’m pretty loosened up by the time her friends join us, maybe about nine thirty, two or three couples, something very dark about their complexions, their thick, inky black hair, and Pam tells me they live on the reservation.  Suddenly we’ve gone around the back of the saloon for what I assume will be a marijuana cigarette, and instead we’re all drinking tea steeped from peyote cactus out of a big, red Nalgene bottle.

I’ve gone and started to trip my balls off with some real, live Indians, the in dios of Colombe’s diary.  They’re all really friendly.  A lot of questions about how I’m finding the weather.  What Goa was like.  I steer clear of the burial cult stuff.  Then they say we’ll tromp through the forest for a bit.  Share the smell of our blood with one another.  Whatever that means.  It sounds awesome, but I realise I’m more drunk than I had thought I was.  Thoughts begin to somersault through my mind about the moon cults, the sun gods of the Karwar Anshi, how similar they must have been to these guys’ ancestors.  I make a note to ask them later when the trip slows down a bit.  Pamela’s pulling me by my hand through the shadows of the bare forest, the knotted roots and crunching of the frozen layers of leaves.  ‘Listen to the trees whisper in their sleep,’ says Paul.  He’s the one with the beads in his long hair.  We come into a clearing.  There’s no snow on the ground.

‘Where’s the snow and the ice, man?’  Nobody answers me.  I can’t see anyone’s breath anymore.  It feels kind of like there’s a bonfire somewhere close, but it’s just dark but for the stars and the yellow bull’s horns of the crescent moon.  I feel a tingle on my scalp, little icy fingers, and the deeply sexual feeling like a woman putting her tongue in my ear.  I’m all gooseflesh, and I hear a voice:  These are the remaining tribesmen of the Atchatchakangouen people, who ranged this land for a thousand years, tending to her and ministering the fauna all around you.  … the who?, I think to myself.

Paul finally answers me, his voice smacks me right in the face not just because of its assertive clarity, but mainly because it makes me aware of how hard I’m tripping right now.  Like, I just heard a fucking disembodied voice!  Two seconds ago!   ‘The rain came and took all of the snow away.  We needed her to be mud though.  So it’s all good, brother.’  Needed the mud… Her …?  I can’t manage to say anything.  My tongue is rolling around.  ‘Alalia,’ is how they refer to it.  Temporary loss of meaningful vocalisation.  I look around, but wild, neon paisley patterns cover everything, I’m disoriented.  Dizzy.  I’m stepping forward in halting, drunken movements that I’m not in control of.  That big voice starts up again – it sounds shockingly a lot like my own.  It says to me, tickling my ears, the folds in my brain filling with that orgasmic, frozen metal:

This mud contains the sins of the devil who came and cheated the very ground away from us.  The same ground we tilled our hopes and countless sacrifices down into, buried the ashes of our esteemed ancestors, and once every solstice aerated and allowed the evil spirits to flow up and into the skies; the very ground that bore all of our fruits and the life that allowed us to stop migrating and take root ourselves, to give our people a place and a culture and a history; that ground has always been full of our blood, and all the hatred it now carries.  I continue to stagger towards the middle of the ovoid clearing.  I can’t help thinking during this monologue how hokey the whole thing sounds.  My other, Sam Raimi-film voice goes on:

The white devil’s poison.  His agricultural subsidies and poisonous corn-based products and cattle feed.  A disease of his own making.  They will slurp it up until their bloated bodies burst.  And the slimy mud will pour out of their ruptured corporeal selves.  The spirit of evil will rise out of them, acrid steam floating into the heavens, the corruption of the earth, dissipated.  We will live to see this consummation of their own curse, and we will smile for a moment, by the fires, and we will dance and sing and ask her rightful gods to re-bless the earth, sanctified and once again pure.

Paul is suddenly in front of me.  His hand falls on my shoulder, and I to my knees.  The ground gives a wet smack and I feel the mud soaking through my new blue jeans.  I’m in a euphoria as I tip backwards and spread out on my back.  The heads of the couples look down on me.  The stars are swirling around.  Too many stars.  Pamela sweeps back the dead cornstalk hair from her forehead with one hand.  I swear there’s a crackle of fire.  So many things draw my attention to the vastness of everything here.

The rape of our daughters, the murder of our mothers; that is the most beautiful, truest sense of  “life” …  a struggle, a battle.  Pamela is smiling above me.  A certain prurience is in her cheeks.  It is already won.  We must simply experience the fight.  But victory is here for us. The glint of a dagger in her hand.  That familiar coital flush.  It is already here.

One Comment
  1. Michelle Obama permalink

    You could have asked me for condoms!)

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