Nothing is less real than realism
ON THE DAY BEFORE THE LAST DAY, HATHORIA VERNON CONSIDERS A NEW IDEA: THAT HER NOVEL-IN PROGRESS SUCKS. The celebrity author who flips through her six hundred-paged manuscript implies as much. I don’t know Sis, he says, in a pose of writerly solidarity. I just feel there’s no room for aporia in this piece. It’s too focused and the young girl is so…heroic. He stares at the surface of a latte as he speaks. She wonders if that word, aporia, is an omen, a linguistic hoodoo he’s pulled out of his coffee. She nods like she understands while staring at his goatee. It glistens like it’s been brushed with baby oil. When her turn is over she counts how many other female writers hover in the Hilton banquet room, waiting to chat with this guy. Thirty-five, at least. She looks up the word aporia when she returns to her hotel room.
______The literary agents at the Writers of Color Conference point to other problems with her novel, about a girl coming of age in 1980s Detroit, like:
______1. It isn’t Romance.
______2. It lacks drugs, sex, hip-hop, guns.
______3. Believability! Black kids blissed-out on German disco? What was this, magical realism?
______Hathoria is bone-tired by the end of the conference. She spends the last day curled in her hotel bed with her Hello my name is Hattie sticker glued to her chest. Hattie is the name she goes by and the name she’ll use when she publishes, whenever that is. Her parents, in choosing the name Hathoria, were not trying to be mean. They were sixties intellectuals. They named her after the Egyptian goddess Hathor, the goddess with the head of a cow. Curled in the sheets she thinks of this: Jervis paid a thousand dollars for her to fly out to Pacific Palisades, he will want a full report of the conference, and what can she say? Although she’s enjoyed the food and the bougainvillea-laced landscape, she leaves feeling less like she’s gotten advice and more like she’s just been hustled.
______She feels fat.
______What did they think? Jervis asks when he picks her up at Detroit’s International Airport. Are they going to publish you?
______They didn’t like it.
______It’s a long story, Hattie says. She decides that she’s intended this pun. How are the kids? she asks.
______They missed you.
______Where are they?
______I paid Kim to watch them this afternoon. Baby, I can’t believe they didn’t like your story, Jervis says. He adds an old school Chumps! as his final comment which reminds Hattie why she still loves him.
______They walk past a line of rumpled travelers waiting to get through airport security. People are pissed off, and it shows in the way that they shift as they stand, in the way that they kick their luggage on the brown-speckled floor. There is a woman, so mad her neck veins resemble elevator cables, who has had a bottle of designer perfume seized by TSA. Ma’am, the security officer says to her, liquids can only be three ounces. The woman accuses them of seizing only the luxury items. What happens to my perfume once you’ve got it? she asks. This perfume cost me two hundred twenty five dollars with tax and I know y’all don’t just throw it away! Hattie wonders why a person who can afford two hundred dollar cologne hasn’t taken more vacations and isn’t acquainted with the TSA flight rules. But she realizes her question is a dumb one. The woman is like everyone else: a clerk who spent one-third of her paycheck on the cologne. People buy what they can’t afford; it’s an American thing. It’s been four years since Hattie worked, first by choice to raise their kids, but now, though she and Jervis have not discussed it, she stays home to keep up appearances.
______After a walk that seems without end, Jervis and Hattie emerge from the concourse, then from the baggage room, to enter the maze of the parking structure. Jervis has parked at the outer edges as usual, and after another long walk Hattie can see (finally!) the bulging curves of her husband’s truck. He’s parked on an angle and far away from neighboring cars so that no one can nick the exterior.
______They travel the I-96 and John C. Lodge freeways in silence. Jervis plays with the satellite radio and checks his online navigation system. Hattie eats two packages of Red Vines that she purchased during her layover in the Dallas airport. Later, she’ll remember some article she read about red dye # 40 reducing brain weight and vaginal patency in laboratory rats.
She thinks about her novel, a month later, as they vacation in Arizona. As she rides in a rented minivan, Hattie stares through the window, imagining. She asks herself questions that she’s read in craft of writing books like, What does her protagonist want? What are her protagonist’s fears?
______They are in Phoenix to visit Jervis’ mom but they have also planned to go north, to the high country, for some time at a mountainside resort.
______Look alive! Jervis says, startling Hattie. She’s ignoring him again.
______What is it? she asks.
______Earth to Hat, he says. Come in Hattie, come in.
______She exhales. I’m here, she says flatly.
______Their twins, Malik and Maya, are in the second row throwing raisins into every upholstered crevice of the van. Malik has all of the looks, the lashes and thick hair, while his sister struggles to grow a decent ponytail. But she is smart with a mouth on her which, when it’s all said and done, will be better gifts for her girl than beauty. Their youngest child, whom they call Freddie Jackson, is asleep in his car seat. His massive babyhead drops to one side.
______Is your mother watching the kids when we drive up north? Hattie asks.
______She can’t, Jervis says. She’s in a golf tournament tomorrow.
______How are we going to relax if the kids are with us? How am I supposed to write?
______Jervis runs his hand over the shiny bulb that is his head. He’s losing his hair and in preemptive lawyerly style, he shaves his head bald every day before the hairline gets the best of him. Hattie has noticed other signs of aging on Jervis, like his rounding gut, but she never complains. She’s fifteen pounds overweight herself.
______I asked you to check with Kim, Jervis reminds her, to see if she could travel with us. Remember?
______Who was going to pay a nanny to fly out to Arizona? We have to stop wasting money like that, Hattie says. This time it is Jervis who exhales. I don’t know how else you’re going to find the time to write, he says.
______Writing had been fun when Hattie, at 33, first took it up. She had been the most outspoken member of her book club; her co-members deferred to her close readings and high brow interpretations of the novels that they read. It didn’t matter that for each selection, Hattie would read every critical review she could find online from The New York Times Book Review to BookSense and then repeat those opinions as her own. Nor did it matter (or occur) to the other women in the club that Hattie’s understanding of the plot and themes were culled from her perusal of SparkNotes. Just as the book club women deferred to her, Hattie deferred to the book critics. She never questioned a critic or SparkNotes and as a result never developed her own sense of what worked and didn’t work in a novel. Now, three and a half years after being encouraged by others to write—Hattie, you should write! You should do it. You’re a writer. Girl, you’ll be on Oprah—Hattie understood that she didn’t know how to build a novel, word by word, from the ground up and with infrastructure. Hell, she hadn’t even known what aporia meant! Her manuscript was a wasteland of half-baked ideas. The writing workshop she took at Oakland County Commumity College only confused her more. The instructor had mastered one response, a slight smile as if she’d just smelled oven-baked cookies, while the participants, other late-in-life writers who knew less than Hattie did about writing, waited their turn to make snarky remarks about the manuscript up for review. You should turn your novel into a vampire story, a retired electrician had told her.
Mama Vernon meets them on the patio of the Horsethief Pub & Grill. It is a restaurant that’s painted the color of cantaloupe and honeydew melons. It’s attached to a golf club. The patrons, including Jervis’ mom, are retirees who dress in the latest golf attire. Mama Vernon has just finished nine holes and she wears a yellow dress that shows off her toned legs. She is a well-preserved woman who loves a perverse tale. During lunch, she talks about her neighbor who ran over his wife with a golf cart.
______Don’t you repeat this, Mama tells them, but he don’t seem cut up about it at all.
______How did it happen? Hattie asks.
______He was backing up, didn’t see her, and get this—the cart didn’t beep. That’s what you call a design defect, right Jervis?
______Jervis is in Ford Motor Company’s products liability legal group. He pushes a forkful of chicken burrito into his mouth and chews. Depends, he says.
______Mama leans in close to Hattie. One of the retirees published a poem in the Sun Lakes Gazette, she says. I’ll get her number so you can contact her. She might could give you some advice, you know, about publishing.
______The exhaustion Hattie felt at the writing conference returns. She’s aware of her lack of concentration during lunch and the tightening muscles in her neck. Her vision starts to blur. It occurs to her that she might be crazy, that her eyes and mind are betraying her. There’s a dim panic—a feeling she’s had, in the past, when stray dogs have spotted her first. She begins to sweat and she gets a nose full of her own armpit odor. She makes a fuzzy mental note: Deodorant does not work in the desert.
______As her peripheral vision goes dark, Freddie Jackson leans over and nuzzles her breast. He wants to nurse. She places his head beneath her shirt and he latches onto her nipple, stinging it. This sensation, and the feeling of calm that follows it, is rooted in her affection for her hungry child. She thanks God for the reptilian brain. She’s still functioning. She hasn’t completely unraveled.
After lunch, they drop Mama off at her retirement community. The houses there look like squat sand tortoises lined up close together. Mama’s house is no different than the others. It is beige, with rocks instead of grass, and a clay-tiled roof. The ceilings are high, which give the illusion of more space than there really is. Jervis’ mom doesn’t need much room. Mr. Vernon died years ago.
______Mama fumbles with the keys as she lets them inside. She goes immediately into her kitchen and to the “goodies” cupboard above her microwave. Now don’t eat all of this at once, she tells the kids as she hands them peanut-butter crackers and a box of Nilla Wafers. It’s for your ride to Sedona.
______The kitchen is black and tan like the rest of her house. Mama’s instincts are to blend southwest and African motifs in her furnishings and in the way that she dresses. At church on Sundays, she wears headwraps made from mudcloth and chunky, turquoise jewelry. You’re so stylish, the other retirees tell her. To Hattie, the woman looks like a mash of ethnic confusion—like a Pier One store. ‘Bye grandma,’ the kids say as they leave. They’re already opening their snacks and pushing bright orange crackers into their mouths. The elder woman stands on rocks near a leaning saguaro. She is a blur of brown and yellow as their minivan pulls off.
I don’t want to do the tourist stuff, Hattie tells Jervis. They’ve started the two hour drive to Sedona but their check-in isn’t for hours so they’re discussing what they’ll do to kill time. Hattie knows her comment annoys Jervis since he loves all things vacation.
______That’s fine, he says. We can drive to the Hopi reservation and look around. Maybe after that you’ll be grateful for civilization.
______Hopi reservation? she says. You know how to get there?
______He holds up a map of the Sonoran desert.
Freddie Jackson nurses in her lap in the front seat. It amuses her how much the baby resembles his R&B namesake. Hattie hears the twins arguing and biting each other in the second row. She turns around in her seat and slaps their knees with her free hand.
______Stop touching each other, she says. I mean it.
______When things quiet down, she buckles the baby next to the twins. She listens for his heavy breathing which will mean that he’s asleep and that she can steal a few moments to think through her story. If she can find the strength, her story is on the verge of breaking open and revealing the world exactly as she sees it. These are the moments that she lives for though she pretends, especially at Ford Motor Company parties, that –SMILE J--she is living for her family. Hattie pushes back into her seat and attempts to get comfortable. She tries to think of how to complicate her novel’s heroine. She watches the sky, which is close, seeming to rest on top of the earth.
______You revised any of the novel yet? It’s Jervis’ voice again.
______When have I had time to write? When I was packing sippy cups and potty seats?
______She hates that she is bitter. She hates even more that Jervis has become a bullying writing coach. It happened when Freddie was born. Hattie understands that as their family has grown, their money has gotten funny. She needs to make a living as a writer or to re-enter the workforce again.
______Eeeeeww, Maya says. It stinks in here. Malik quickly joins in. Freddie pooped! Freddie pooped! Freddie pooped! Freddie pooped!
______Hattie climbs into the second row and puts her nose to the baby’s diaper. He’s done a number in his sleep, or in the restaurant, or at his grandmother’s house, who knows? Want me to pull over so you can change him? Jervis asks. No, I don’t want to wake him up for that, Hattie says.
______He shouldn’t sit in that stuff, Jervis says.
______Jervis looks over his shoulder at the baby. I’ll pull over, it’s not a problem.
______I said I don’t want to wake him.
______And I don’t want to smell you-know-what for another hour.
______I don’t want to smell you-know-what either, Maya says.
______They are at the edges of the reservation, driving through miles of vacant land. Every half-mile, they pass a house that has tires weighing down its tin roof, to protect the shelter from nature’s whims. Hattie returns to her seat. They drive by a house with a cage in the front yard. The cage is constructed with branches, rope, and inside there is a large eagle. As they pass, the bird sits up and spreads its wings. Hattie is watching the bird when a group of kids run, zigzagging, toward the van.
______Watch out for the kids, she says.
______I see them, Hat.
______The children carry bundles of wood carvings in their arms. Jervis accelerates the van so that they never get within yelling distance.
______Jervis can you slow down?
______Mommy, Maya touched me!
______He touched me first!
______Be quiet, Hattie says. Jervis, can you slow down?
______I’m not driving that fast, Hattie.
______Freddie wakes up and begins to cry. Hattie climbs again into the second row. She lifts him from his seat. She is about to unsnap his pants when the van jerks throwing her into the back of the passenger seat. She hears Maya’s screams. Maya sounds, like the monkey in Faces of Death; the one that is clubbed by restaurant patrons who will later eat his brains. She hasn’t thought of this movie in years. In college, she made a weekend ritual of watching the movie and laughing at the wasted lives. Hattie lifts her head to see Jervis looking ahead with his eyes wide open. Through the windshield, a hazel-eyed cow turns to look at the family. It gives a lover’s wink as the van drives into its side.
______The animal disappears. No, they’re climbing over it, crushing cow bones into the earth. The van rocks at extreme angles, its center of gravity now gone. Hattie listens to the screaming of her children and the awful lowing of the cow. Eventually the van is forced, like the bovine, onto its bulbous side.
______Had this scene been workshopped at the community college, the retired electrician would have asked two questions: Can a van climb a cow? Do cows low or moo?
When Hattie awakes, she is riding in the flatbed of a pickup truck. There are two Indian men, one fat and one skinny, riding inside the truck. A black woman rides next to Hattie in the truck’s bed. She has broad cheeks, a white afro, and she is missing one of her legs. I’m so tired of riding, she says when she notices Hatttie staring at her. We need to stop for a minute. Aren’t you tired of riding?
______The woman turns to the men inside of the truck. Hey! she shouts. Let’s stop at the Prickly Pear!
______The truck pulls up to an adobe building without a door. It’s dark inside. Hattie can smell cigarettes and stale beer. The smell, too, brings back memories from her college years when the bars had the stench of yeasty ale absorbed into the wood floor. She wishes she’d known then that her college years would be as good as it gets. She would have slept around more.
______The skinny guy gets out of the truck. He wears a straw hat and his narrow face ends in a scraggly-haired chin. He has a moustache with hair so sparse, it isn’t worth the trouble. The man throws a prosthetic leg onto the flatbed. Put your thing on, he says to the woman. He looks at Hattie. You hit that cow hard, he says. Cows are so dumb.
Hattie watches the woman strap the leg onto her stump and scoot to the edge of the bed. The man helps her to the ground and then holds her as she walks.
______They don’t move, he continues. That’s how stupid they are. They just stand there. And at night out here, man, you can forget driving fast. Those fuckers stand around in the pitch black and if it weren’t for their eyes, you wouldn’t see the fuckers. You’d nail them every time.
______Their eyes? the woman says.
______Yeah, their eyes glow in the dark, the skinny man says.
______No they don’t, the fat one says.
______They are brothers, they tell Hattie. The woman is a friend of theirs.
______Don’t you want to rest? the woman is asking Hattie. She is walking in a hop-clump fashion as the smaller brother holds onto her waist.
______Where is Jervis? Hattie asks. Where are my kids?
______At the res hospital, the skinny one says. My name’s Wynn, by the way. This is Marlin and that over there is Arleta.
______Take me to the hospital to see my kids.
______In a minute, sugar, Arleta says. Let’s sit down and have a drink first.
Marlin takes a hold of Hattie’s arm as they walk into the Prickly Pear. It isn’t a bar, as Hattie had initially thought, but a store with kokopelis and wood carvings similar to the ones the running children had cradled in their arms. Behind this room is another room. Hattie sees people back there smoking and drinking. She tries to free her arm but Marlin keeps his grip. Homeboy is as tall as he is wide. He’s browner than Arleta, but with straight hair that he wears in a ponytail.
______They walk past a blond woman with rugged skin who appears to be the store’s proprietor. She waves as they pass by her to enter the second room. In the corner of the room is a bucket with bottles of beer on ice. They sit down. Marlin grabs two beers in each hand and brings them to their table. Hattie begins to cry.
______Oh look, honey, Arleta says, things could be worse.
______What happened to my family?
______They’re gone, Arleta says. Isn’t that what you wanted, sugar? For them to be gone so that you could write?
______Hattie stares at Arleta. She is aware of the heat again and of the sweating that she can’t control. A ceiling fan whirls above, moving the dusty air around.
______Arleta takes a swig of her beer then lets out a loving belch. I’ve been waiting for you to write me into one of your stories, she says. Look—my hair turned white I’ve been waiting so long.
______She don’t write about people like you, Wynn says. She’s a classy woman.
______Look who’s talking. You and Marlin ain’t been in a story for years.
______That’s not true. Marlin was in that Sherman Alexie story.
______Oh that’s right—when was that, 1992?
Marlin drains his beer in a noisy guzzle. Arleta places her moist hand over Hattie’s. Look, I need work, she says. I’m tired of being around characters waiting for a gig. These people get funky when unemployed.
______Who gets funky? Wynn says.
______Whatever, Marlin says.
______You all are characters?
______Well of course, honey, Arleta says. And I want you to know I can play a young girl or young woman, whatever you decide.
______You can’t play no young woman, Marlin says. He and Wynn start to giggle, and Marlin gets so tickled, he places his head face down on the table to laugh. Arleta rolls her eyes.
______Marlin, I know you’re not laughing, she says. Somebody has to write about Sasquatch before you’ll get any work.
______All three of them laugh now; it’s laughter that sounds like street fighting. Is my family at the hospital? Hattie asks.
______Is my family at the hospital? Marlin mimics.
______Drink your beer, Wynn says.
______No, Hattie tells him, I need you to listen to me.
______Arleta flicks dirt from beneath her fingernail. That’s not what we do, sugar.
Marlin goes to get more beer, but when he discovers that there is none, he lifts the metal bucket with ice and throws it against the wall. Cold water splashes on the men who are sitting nearby and they fly out of their seats and begin fighting him. Marlin wrestles two men at once. They thrash about in the water and knock over chairs.
______Wynn watches the scuffle. Bad behavior, he says, shaking his head. That’s why it’s so hard for my brother to get work. Louise Erdrich wrote him into a scene at a sweat lodge and Marlin throws a Coors onto the stone pit. Erdrich highlighted his paragraph and deleted the whole thing out.
______Arleta touches Hattie’s upper arm. I want to be in the story about the girl from Detroit, she says.
______I’m about done with that story, Hattie tells her. I can’t make it work.
______I want to be the character who owns the jazz bar where the Techno deejays hang out. The one who dances and kicks her legs between jazz sets.
______Come on you can’t play that role with one leg, Wynn says. What happened to your leg anyways?
______I lost it in a Flannery O’Connor story.
______Dude, I heard she was rough with us, Wynn says.
______Hattie is crying again, big ugly tears that wet her shirt. Her breasts are leaking milk. I’m having a hard time with my novel, she says. I was hoping for some inspiration in Sedona. Jervis had read about the vortexes here.
______Yeah that’s some gringo tourist bullshit, Wynn says, No offense.
______Why don’t you write while we’re here? Arleta says. Write for a couple of hours and then we’ll take you to the hospital.
______But I don’t have paper or a computer.
______Think-write, Arleta says.
Arleta and Wynn leave the table and join people who are sitting nearby. The proprietor comes in and tells them to keep it down she has a tour group shopping up front. No one listens. Hattie sits alone with her bottle of beer. The drops of water on the glass are cool. She watches Marlin lift a man off the floor by his neck making the man’s face turn the rough red of a pomegranate. The man’s friend hits Marlin with a chair. Hattie can hear bits of conversation from other tables. She feels the whirl of the fan as it moves the heated air and she feels her breasts straining against the fabric of her bra, sore and heavy to the touch.