Authors: Billy Lee Brammer
The Gay Place
Is there then any terrestrial paradise
where, amidst the whispering of the olive
leaves, people can be with whom they like
and have what they like and take their ease
in shadows and coolness?
In the fall of sixteen
In the cool of the afternoon
I saw Helena
Under a white moon —
I heard Helena
In a haunted doze
Say: “I know a gay place
— F. SCOTT FITZGERALD
are for these three
HAT MATTERS IT HOW
far we go?”
his scaly friend replied,
“There is another shore, you know,
upon the other side.
The farther off from England,
the nearer is to France;
Then turn not pale, beloved snail,
but come and join the dance.”
— The Lobster Quadrille
“I don’t want the old blues to die because if they do I’ll be dead, too, because that’s the only kind I can play and sing and I love the old style.”
BIG BILL BROONZY
HE COUNTRY IS MOST
barbarously large and final. It is too much country — boondock country — alternately drab and dazzling, spectral and remote. It is so wrongfully muddled and various that it is difficult to conceive of it as all of a piece. Though it begins simply enough, as a part of the other.
It begins, very like the other, in an ancient backwash of old dead seas and lambent estuaries, around which rise cypress and cedar and pine thickets hung with spiked vines and the cheerless festoons of Spanish moss. Farther on, the earth firms: stagnant pools are stirred by the rumble of living river, and the mild ferment of bottomland dissolves as the country begins to reveal itself in the vast hallucination of salt dome and cotton row, tree farm and rice field and irrigated pasture and the flawed dream of the cities. And away and beyond, even farther, the land continues to rise, as on a counterbalance with the water tables, and then the first faint range of the West comes into view: a great serpentine escarpment, changing colors with the hours, with the seasons, hummocky and soft-shaped at one end, rude and wind-blasted at the other, blue and green, green and gray and dune-colored, a staggered faultline extending hundreds of miles north and south.
This range is not so high as it is sudden and aberrant, a disorder in the even westerly roll of the land. One could not call it mountain, but it is a considerable hill, or set of hills, and here again the country is transformed. The land rises steeply beyond the first escarpment and everything is changed: texture, configuration, blistered façade, all of it warped and ruptured and bruise-colored. The few rivers run deep, like old wounds, boiling round the fractures and revealing folds of slate and shell and glittering blue limestone, spilling back and across and out of the hills toward the lower country.
The city lies against and below two short spiny ribs of hill. One of the little rivers runs round and about, and from the hills it is possible to view the city overall and draw therefrom an impression of sweet curving streets and graceful sweeping lawns and the unequivocally happy sound of children always at play. Closer on, the feeling is only partly confirmed, though it should seem enough to have even a part. It is a pleasant city, clean and quiet, with wide rambling walks and elaborate public gardens and elegant old homes faintly ruined in the shadow of arching poplars. Occasionally through the trees, and always from a point of higher ground, one can see the college tower and the Capitol building. On brilliant mornings the white sandstone of the tower and the Capitol’s granite dome are joined for an instant, all pink and cream, catching the first light.
On a midsummer morning not very long ago the sun advanced on the city and lit the topmost spines of hill, painting the olive drab slopes in crazy new colors, like the drawing of a spangled veil. Then the light came closer, touching the tall buildings and the fresh-washed streets. The nearly full-blown heat came with it, quick and palpitant. It was close to being desert heat: sudden, emphatic, dissolving chill and outdistancing rain …
It was neither first light nor early heat that caused the two politicians to come struggling up from sleep at that hour, but an old truck carrying migratory cotton pickers.
The younger of the two politicians was named Roy Sherwood, and he lay twisted sideways in the front seat of an automobile that was parked out front of an all-night supermarket. Arthur Fenstemaker, the other one, the older one, floundered in his bedcovers a few blocks distant in the Governor’s mansion.
The old truck banged along the streets, past dazzling store fronts and the Juicy Pig Stand and the marble façades of small banks in which deposits were insured to ten thousand dollars. The dozen children in the back of the truck had been first to come awake. They pulled aside the canvas flaps and peered out at the city, talking excitedly, whooping and hee-hawing as the old truck rolled north, straining, toward the Capitol grounds and the Governor’s mansion, where Arthur Fenstemaker slept, and the supermarket where Roy Sherwood’s car was parked.
The truck came to a sudden stop and began, with a terrible moaning of gears and transmission, to back into a parking space next to Roy Sherwood’s car.
Roy heard the commotion and blinked his sore eyes in the early light. He struggled to untangle his long legs from between the steering wheel and seat cushion, and he was able, finally, to sit up and examine the truck. He unrolled a window and leaned his head out, taking deep breaths, blinking his eyes. The children in the truck watched him gravely for a moment and then began to giggle. Their laughter subsided abruptly when Roy called out to them:
“Buena dia …”
There was silence and then a small voice answered back:
“… dia …”
Roy smiled and opened the car door. He stood on the cool pavement for a moment, weaving slightly, trying to hold his balance. He was dizzy with fatigue and an hour’s poor sleep and possibly a hangover. “One hell of an awful
,” he muttered under his breath. The children were laughing again, and fairly soon he began to feel better. The driver of the truck climbed down and came round to Roy’s side to stare at him. The fellow had a murderous look — a bandit’s look. He was wearing a wrinkled double-breasted suit coat over what appeared to be a polo shirt and uncommonly dirty and outsized denim slacks. He stared at Roy with his bandit’s eyes until Roy lifted his hand in a vague salute. Then the Mexican smiled, showing hilarious buck teeth, lifted his arm in the same indecisive gesture and almost immediately turned and walked toward the supermarket, flapping his feet in gray tennis shoes.
The children attempted to engage Roy in conversation. Roy came closer to the back of the truck, trying to understand some of it, cocking his head and listening carefully and interrupting now and then:
“Que? … Cómo? … Despacio,
The children giggled hysterically; two or three adults in the front cab stared at him, looking uneasy, and finally Roy gave it up and waved goodbye and wandered into the supermarket.
The inside of the store was aglow with yellow light. Everything was gorgeous and brightly packaged. Only the people — the cashier and the Mexican gathering breakfast staples and Roy himself — seemed out of phase with the predominating illusion. Roy looked all around, examining the market with as much wonder and concentration as might have been demonstrated in viewing Indian cave mosaics or a thousand years old cathedral. He stared all around and then he uncapped a bottle of milk and tore open a bag of cinnamon buns. He wandered over the market eating and drinking, pausing occasionally to stare enraptured at a prime cut of beef or a phonograph album or a frozen pizza or a stack of small redwood picnic tables. There seemed no limit to what the market might conceivably have in stock. Roy decided the pussy willow cuttings were his favorite; they were a little fantastic: out of season, out of habitat … He wondered if the pussy willow had been shipped fresh-frozen from the East, like oysters or cheese blintzes. He moved on; he had something else in mind.
He located this other without difficulty — a tall pasteboard box containing twenty-four ice cream cones, maple flavored. The box of cones was part of it; the plastic scoop stapled to the outside of the box solved the next most immediate problem. He carried the cones and the scoop to the cashier and then went back to pick up two half-gallon cartons of ice cream.
Outside again, at the back end of the truck, the children and two or three of the older Mexicans crowded round to watch. Roy left off serving after a while, letting one of the older girls take his place. There were a few accented whoops of
Ize-Cream … Aze Creeem,
but the children were unusually quiet for the most part, sweetly, deliriously happy waiting in line to be served. Presently, he returned to his car and sat in the driver’s seat to watch. One hell of a crazy
he reminded himself. Not to mention the
before and the night or the goddam
He turned now and looked in the back seat. It was all there … All of it … All his art objects purchased during his twelve hours travel on the day before: the button-on shoes, the iron stewpot, the corset model, the portrait of President Coolidge, the Orange Crush dispenser with its rusted spigot, part of an old upright piano. Everything except … But he remembered now. The television set, one of the earliest models, big as a draft animal, with a seven-inch picture tube … He’d left it in knee-high johnson grass fifty miles outside town. He grunted to himself, thinking of the television set: it was a terrible loss; he’d been blinded by the wine on the day before and thoughtlessly left the television behind. He grunted again and re-examined his treasure in the back seat.
The Mexican children were finished with their ice cream, and he could hear their singsong voices rising in volume. The elder, the old bandit in gray tennis shoes, came out of the supermarket carrying his grocery sack. He moved past Roy, nodding, showing his wonderful teeth.