Authors: Bryan Hurt
Tags: #General Fiction
She enters an elegant white marble bar filled with men, some headless, some not, those with heads wearing black fedoras, lit cigarettes in the shadows beneath their brims. There are mutterings, the scratch of matches, clinking glasses, chairs scraping, all fading as she enters, a glacial silence falling. She crosses the white room under her broad-brimmed black hat, hands in trench coat pockets, black heels ticktocking on the marble floor, toward a black leather door at the other side. The men, those headless, those not, their white shirt collars crisp and gleaming, rise to follow her. She pauses at the door as the men gather menacingly around her; then she opens the door and steps into the next room, the men pushing through behind her. But only she arrives on the other side, a severe and solitary figure as before. It is a glossy white marble bar much like the other one, with motionless men scattered about, some with heads, some without, faint barroom sounds fading away to a taut silence. Her measured tread on the marble floor fills the silence the way a heartbeat might resound in a hollow stone breast. A headless man rises to block her passage, two men with heads and hats, cigarettes aglow beneath the brims, a second headless man, a third. She passes through them as though they were not there to the black leather door at the other side, where she pauses. The men crowd up around her, threateningly as before. She steps through to the next room; they step through. But only the men arrive on the other side. They stumble about in seeing and unseeing confusion, knocking over tables, chairs, each other. They turn back toward the door. She is standing there, just beyond the threshold in the room that they have left, scarved and hatted. She closes the door. They press against it, pounding on it silently or on each other as darkness descends.
She moves down a dark street lined by parked cars, her way lit only by the occasional streetlamp, each dropping a small puddle of wet light for her to step through. As she passes, headless men and others with heads in black fedoras step out of the parked cars and follow her in and out of the light of the lamps. She turns down an unlit alleyway, heels clocking hollowly, now little more than the shadow of a moving shadow, the men behind her jostling one another between the dark brick walls, their shirt collars eerily luminous. Where the alley opens out onto the lamplit street, she pauses. Behind her, the walls of the alley, grating harshly, slam together on her pursuers. She crosses the empty night street (distantly, sirens cry and fade away) to the next alley, followed by another lot of men in belted black with and without heads and hats, many emerging from parked cars, streaming in from all directions. This time, at the far end, she turns to watch impassively from under her wide soft hat brim as the brick walls crash shut. In the docklands, they follow her out to the end of the pier, her heels thudding on the wet wood to guide them in the dark. Some of them are now pressed flat, looking like paper cutouts of men in belted trench coats, some of these with heads and hats, some also without. She steps silently aside. The headless ones, unseeing, both flat and full, tumble off the end of the pier, and those with heads, pushed along by the confused headless ones, tumble in, too. The water is soon filled with drowned men. The flat ones float on top along with bobbing fedoras, their bodies rippling rhythmically as the waves roll under them and softly lap the pier.
In the rail yard, she crosses the tracks in total silence, the hatted and headless men following, the flat ones wrinkled and waterlogged, the full ones bloated, and they are crushed by a train roaring suddenly out of the night.
She stands in pale light against a brick wall as if pinned there, her face shadowed by the wide soft brim of her black hat, hands in her black trench coat pockets. Somewhere, hungry men are growling and muttering. Her shadow darkens in contrast to the rapidly brightening wall. She steps out of the dazzling light as the men pursuing her step into it, and a large truck, horn blasting, tires screeching, crashes explosively into the wall, its own headlights extinguished by the impact, dark descending amid an invisible rain of falling brick and felt fedoras.
Everywhere there are men under streetlamps, stepping out of parked cars, those with heads lighting cigarettes, all of them roaming the docklands, moving in and out of bars, patrolling the rail yards, and scurryingâseeing and unseeingâthrough the bleak labyrinthine streets of the night city. There is an occasional ominous rumble, underfoot or overhead, and the distant wail of sirens can be heard, the crumpling of crashing cars, the muffled
of dull explosions. Also, from time to time, never far away, the echoey hammering of heels on pavement, which causes the men to pull up short, cock their ears if they have them, turn toward the clocking heels, then continue, redirected, when they stop. The men are headless or else they wear black fedoras, brims pulled down over lit cigarettes; they are wet and ripply if flat like cutout men or bloated if not, and all now carry silvery handguns in their black-gloved hands. Remotely, shots can be heard, the whine of ricocheting bullets. Sometimes a man falls clutching his chest, but after a moment rises again to continue his mazy pursuit. Drawn by the pulsating footsteps, the men converge upon a small barren lot from which lamped streets radiate damply in all directions. She appears out of the ubiquitous shadows, first in one of the wet streets, then another, the men firing upon her wherever and whenever she is seen. She appears in two streets at once, dually approaching the men in the empty lot, then three, five, eight, all of them. There is a rattle of gunfire in all directions, the glittery shattering of glass, the dull thuck of bullets striking bodies; she is fragmenting, disintegrating in all the streets, while the menâflat, full, hatted, headlessâtopple, one after another, surrendering their small measure of dignity to the black city streets. She walks, whole again, among their sad crumpled bodies, glass crunching underfoot; then, as the streetlamps brighten briefly, only to fade again, she disappears into the descending night. The men are all dead. No, they are not. They rise once more, step under streetlamps, light cigarettes in cupped black-gloved hands, tug their hat brims down if they have them, adjust their black silk ties in their gleaming shirt collars, cock their ears. In the silence, the clocking heels resume.
My school librarian was first to tell me about Jean Seberg. Miss Breedlove, her cat-eye specs suggesting a whiff of counter-cultural recalcitrance, recognized in me a sullen fellow soul, and she pulled a book from the shelf to show me: here was Jean on
The Ed Sullivan Show
, and here were Jean's bewildered parents; here was Jean arriving in Paris; here was Jean burned at the stake. Jean was from Marshalltown, a Saturday morning bike ride from our town of Edna, the prettiest girl in Iowa, and of all the pretty girls in America she was chosen to play Joan of Arc. She lived in Paris and she married a famous writer. She was a movie star. And you can't blame Miss Breedlove for withholding the restâthe dead child; the wicked
harassment; Jean's own boozy, blubbery decline; the death in a white Renault, obstructively parked in a Paris alleyway, her body in such an advanced state of decrepitude it had to be scooped, not lifted, into the gendarmes' body bag. The librarian wanted to show me there was life beyond Edna.
And I was hooked. Unbelievable that the same late fifties Paris that produced Brigitte Bardotâthat portable mattress, who spent her days curled up and waitingâalso gave us Jean Seberg, darting around the arrondissements in her beep-beep CitroÃ«n, leaving her lover at the curb, lightly adjusting the rearview mirror with a “Sorry, darling,” and a revealing flick of the wrist. Lithe and slightly androgynous. She was as much a product of Iowa as of Paris. Here from the humus with the corn and soy and swine she grew, her Nordic blood the same as mine.
I left Edna the day after I graduated from high school and today I am back, twenty years older. Early mornings I hear from across town the hoarse shriek of pigs about to be gutted. Sometimes I wake up terrified that I will die in Iowa, although I'm only thirty-eight. Jean Seberg died at forty, and when I was a teenager that seemed like a good long lifeâwho wouldn't want to die upon finding herself forty? Now I'm close enough to smell the blood. I lie in bed and listen to the hogs, and I count all the bad choices that forced me back to Edna.
On the night of the Iowa caucuses, Edna seemed like a good idea. I was living in Russian Hill and had been handed my eviction notice, and calculated how far east I'd have to go to find a place my proofreader's wages could afford. There on the TV was our mayor; there was our town, and our state that put Obama into play. I left California in the afterstink of Proposition 8, heading for something brighter, same as I'd once left Iowa for San Francisco. Someplace spacious, quiet, a chance to write the book on Jean Seberg I'd always wanted to, the unburdening of her legacy.
This morning in May I turned on my computer and struggled with Jean's story, getting hung up in the place I always got hung up. Her friendship with Hakim Jamal, such an itchy self-promoter even the Black Panthers ejected him. Jean met him on a plane. Now, to most people, the very fact that he was flying first class would be enough to trigger a note of caution. Or later, when he accepted her offer of a ride in Sammy Davis Jr.'s Learjet, or when he lounged in Davis's Lake Tahoe retreat, claiming it as his safe house, hectoring Jean about his several enemies.
Yikes, Jean. Try (and I do) to see this misstep in its historical context, the heady lure of Black Power, this is the moment she betrays herself. I just can't channel her intentions. What I channel is a powerful thirst for a caramel macchiato. Lucky for me, one of Edna's new acquisitions is a Starbucks. Not an actual Starbucks, but a Starbucks kiosk in the supermarket, with a couple of the trademark burgundy comfy chairs adding authenticity. I wouldn't have been caught in a Starbucks in San Francisco, but I'm grateful there's one in Edna. When I was in high school the only place to get “gourmet coffee” was a Christian tchotchke shop that kept a thermos of lukewarm hazelnut and a sleeve of Styrofoam cups amid the doilies and angels.
At one time elms and oaks lined the streets of Edna, but they have been dismantled by disease and by guys in orange vests, bobbing overhead in cherry pickers. Trash treesâhackberries, locusts, Arizona ashâhave replaced them; the sidewalk is littered with spongy green pods and the yolky innards of cardinal eggs. I moved into a cottage five blocks from downtown; walking, and maybe someday bicycling, was part of the vision of my small-town repatriation. I'd forgotten how clammy and cold a Midwestern spring could be, crystallized fog bearing down hard. Already the cherry pickers were out, amputating limbs still in bud. The thrum of a bass came from somewhere, it got louder and louder, and then, there was a tattoo of horns.
I turned the corner of Decatur Street and ran into a parade, led by three brown-skinned girls in white spangled leotards, chubby girls with sincere smiles. A few dozen people, old people and little kids, stood about the sidewalk, waving. Rows of trumpeters, twelve or thirteen years old, marched while they followed the music on their lyres. A few trombones, a lone girl in a French braid blowing a tuba, and then, five men in dark shirts with embroidered yokes playing mandolins.
I had forgotten. It was Cinco de Mayo.
Then came the floats, a truck from Mama Rosita's, a ragtop Caddy from Esquivel's, the fire engine and a couple of squad cars, strobes flashing. At last, in a white Ford pickup, our mayor, Charlie Burt, waved both arms, wildly, as if he were drowning, followed only by a couple of farm tractors dragging Porta-Johnnies.
Charlie Burt was not your typical small-town mayor. Anyway, not what I thought of as a mayor. He wasn't a guy in a cheap suit and a comb-over, some petty-level bureaucrat who went into public service to work off a bankruptcy. Charlie didn't own a suit, and if he had hair I never saw it. He always wrapped his skull in a bandana, biker style, changing the bandana as the mood suited him, and today he wore a Snoopy and Woodstock pattern. He had on his usual Lee jeans with a watch fob, denim jacket, and a John Cougar Mellencamp T that dated back to
“Whoa, whoa,” he said, staggering as the Ford halted. “If it isn't Odile Dahlquist.”
I came up alongside the truck and shook his hand. The door to a Porta-Johnny flung open and a boy in a striped shirt hopped out with a trombone in his hand.
“You all right there, Javi?” the mayor asked.
“I got stuck in there when the parade started,” Javi mumbled, trotting past us.
“Happy Cinco de Mayo,” Charlie Burt said to me. “You know, I heard you were in town, what was it, I think Florence Rasmussen over there on Lombard said she had run into your mother, at the Lutheran church I guess it was.”
“If it was church, it wasn't my mother.” Why did I argue? Iowans could go on all day about the minutiae of hearsay.
“Well then it was some such, I guess the potluck they had for the crisis shelter.”
“I'll tell you what,” the mayor said, “we're only going to be parading for another two blocks, what do you say I buy you a corunda and an agua fresca at the fairgrounds.”
With a lurch, he was off. The parade headed up to the fairgrounds and I followed, like a stray hound. That corunda sounded good but I really wanted that macchiato.
What if Jean Seberg's passions had been allowed to flare up and die, as a man's would be? Maybe there would be no infant buried under the Marshalltown willows, no abandoned Renault. Jean herself, in her seventies and thick with brie, would be wearing muumuus in a Parisian apartment and granting the occasional interview to the perseverant Godard fan or Belmondo biographer. It pleases me to think that the baby, Nina Gary, would have grown like other second-generation Euramericans, dour like her father, plucky like her mother, maybe an actress, choosing roles in communally made Danish films or playing heroin-addicted bounty hunters in gritty indie flicks.