Universal Atlas | A Survey Of Our Wares
Rawlings tries to get his bearings. He is sure he is in a very large building. Something in the drafts of the central air tell him there are other exits besides the one Huanatoca wants him to use. He presses his ear to the door. The same low rush of vented air pervades. But far within is a small dry scribbling noise. It would sound like someone writing with a pencil if the tempo weren’t so fast and regular. They could only be scratching series of lower case l’s or i’s. A code? Someone digging? But Rawlings, with his time-hewn professional instinct for such things, (concussed, grogged, and pre-pneumoniatic as he may be) senses the room is vacant. There is no subtle interruption to the central air’s current, no pulsingly black void of latent energy. A curtain cord swaying and dancing against the wall maybe. The fingers of a tree branch taking dictation against the outer wall? Rawlings decides to just barge in. The door is locked. No footsteps reply. No clothing rustles. But the scribbling becomes louder and faster. And another sound joins in: The gagged moaning sound. Only now it is high-pitched, guttural. ‘There is someone inside! We are trying to reach one another.’ Rawlings throws his shoulder into the door over and over. When he hears Huanatoca’s Phils squealing across the linoleum he pounds the door.
When Huanatoca hits the hallway mouth at speed like a downfield fullback she looks like a jungle casual rhino on the rampage. As Rawlings oozes down the door in utter quivering horror hoping the symptom suite of quease, fever, and concussedness will take full and irrevocable sway of his neck-down in merciful antecedent to Huanatoca’s shoulders, knees, and bile, he is once again given an inexplicable moment of clarity; the sort of attachable memory of humming cluefulness which often attends the dispassionate moments when we are forced to be resigned to our fate. The greater chaff of extraneous thought is heaved to the air, blown then burned. Vital stalks of fact and priority remain. The sun catches one and then another. There is little time before destruction, oblivion. He is once again flying through the parkblock air and remembering the commemorative buckle Seven-Foot Slim had indicated with two outsized thumbs. Rawlings had been in Slim’s office for ten minutes. They had just completed a tour of the library. Slim is about to conclude a meandering exposition on what he would like to see Rawlings (that is Pauling) take from the voluntary/work-release library experience. It isn’t a stretch for Rawlings to play indifferent here but he doesn’t want to overdo it and have Slim notice and go on some corrective tangent when he seems about ready to conclude. Slim has told Rawlings about his enthusiasm for amateur rodeo. Every year, he explains, he competes in the Local’s Jamboree Division of the Molalla Buckaroo. To do so Slim takes June off from the library, packs his Ford Bronco with the tack decorating his garage, and drives nine hours to the southeast corner of the state to train in The Burns’ Boys Bronc Bustin’ Bootcamp. Slim had concluded (if not steered the whole time) his distinctly un-self-conscious autobiographical flight with a credo: “Work hard. Play hard.” This would have been unremarkable if not for the sheer context of the six weeks that had followed. Slim was a reticent manager, easily trod upon by the careerist book jockeys with unionized assurance and not a damn’s worth of self-consciousness about it. He repeatedly deferred to staff in non-strategic ways. There was nothing of the cowboy’s confidence brandished and self-stamped by those two well-calloused and curving thumbs. No sardonic hickspit lingo of the routinely and happily back broken, just the soft dumb lilt of the put upon country fried forced to talk now to talk and occasionally write for a living . Not a hint of the absolute swaggerdoccio he showed while crossing his Astroturf backyard and measuring off the rope-lengths between the produce crate he’d been standing on and the lassoed sawhorse fifteen yards away. He was in utter stylistic opposition to the countrified hard-living (but still-God-fearing-mind-you) hand whose Harney County file corroborated with paragraphs of youthful drunk and disorderlies, peace disturbances, and speeding tickets in every other rodeo town northwest of the Platte. Not that a man couldn’t change, sure. In fact, the radicality of the transformation was almost cliché: There’d been some chasteningly felonious moment out on the circuit where Slim had vowed to reform. He’d scored a G.E.D. and logged some community college. He traded the mockingly unlassoable expanses of Oregon East for the confines of the Portland grid and then Troutdale cul de sac. He had tamped down the wild in order not to destroy himself too soon. It is a reverse-romantic trope. We look at him and think of what we lose by having a surrogate sinner be so humbled. When we spy him swatting the rear of the corn-silk blonde watching for the deck we think “at least he has his consolations, his little old freedoms.”
He’d met Mrs. Slim somewhere out on the circuit. She had followed geographical suit after a long letter or two during the second semester. She now worked at nursing home on the hill lurched over Olde Town. But the wild had remained in her eyes. She ran the home like a wagon train cookie; alternately crass and militant, but unmistakably stoked by stores of innate joie de vivre and pep to be universally respected, if not occasionally loved. She pressed her advantage with dungarees and sealed the deal with tight denim tops. She brought Harney with her and didn’t give a damn about salting her language and eating out “lazy old, mush-mouthed coots and dears” if she had to. Not once had she offered up her incongruity and visited Slim at The Troutdale Library or watched him speak (stammer is more like it) during the Troutdale Chamber of Commerce of meetings or the Troutdale Optimists luncheons. Their opposition would have been too stark. She would charm while folded into a very droopy question mark. Mrs. Slim, Queen of Corn Silk, that trademark ass-swat says you are his little stored away gem, a beneficence of a carved out home-life. Spying on them through the monocular, Rawlings couldn’t help but feel the jealous tumbles. They had a spark not one of the seven other Chambermen, 14 Optimists, the Mayor himself, and any other even tangentially connected Nobles of the Kingdom (but for the King himself) Rawlings had trained the monocular and lip-reading skills on. They were all upstandingly likely in this their bergful life. The Slims, happy as get out, only fit in because even bergs need to have their star power and sex appeal. Exceptions serve to reinforce the dominant mode.*
*Troutdale markets itself as an escape from the ideological rigamarole of Portland, where exceptionalism is the perceived (and thereby marketed) norm.
Floating through that parkblock air the first time the gesturing fingers buckleward had no cause to register. The Slims were the reassuring anomaly. Mr. Slim was, if anything, a victim of the stultifying normalizing force of the mediocre Troutdale Dream. To have the penned up cowboy foisted on his final pre-concussed thoughts seemed to be a reiteration of recent dissatisfactions. ‘You fly through the air as though this has anything to do with it.’
But sinking to the now welcoming plush of the Tapatio girl’s carpet he returns to Slim’s gesture retrospectively. There was just too much damn cord wood in those arms to so convincingly play the sap to our urban milquetoasts turned job-confident and union militant. He replays everything the former cowhand said. He remembers that during the tour Slim had pointed out the various eateries in the shopping center. “Library employees and volunteers receive a 10% discount at a number of Cherry Park restaurants.” He’d pointed out the participants, which had included Tapatio and four or five other places. “It isn’t exactly haute cuisine but it’ll give you a bellyful.” Who’s to say what influences some book time and library crewing will do for un-eddycated. But “haute?” He’d pronounced it without lick of self-consciousness, like he’d been saying it his whole life. No amount of acculturation is going to make a cowboy let that French fried word sound so crisply snapping yet subtly postponed at the ‘t’ led up to by the ghost, the mere implication of an ‘oe’ sound soft as a croissant’s innards. It had been so immaculate Rawlings’ bunk and hiccup tuned ears (humming pitch forks in even the necessary moments when his burdened brain necessarily checks out or just plain goes elsewhere) had registered not a blip of incongruity. The enunciation felt of a part with the nervous, soft spoken country lilt. But, in this blessed and bile-mixing retrospect rug and puddleward, the ‘haute’ made no sense unless Slim had a pile more eddy-cation than the file showed or the man had either oft visited, had cause to speak frequently of, or hailed near on and thereabouts in Indiana’s second city, Terre Haute, aka The Land of Bird. Moreover: Who in the heck works hard in the library? Certainly not a ranchy with exemplary hands. He should be pronouncing it like Swaff…Oat……Swafford? Cuisine? Haute? …Tapatio?
“Work hard: Play hard.”
Slim’s voice echoing in the dilution of his consciousness.
“Work hard: Play hard.”
Echoing and mixing with the sound of the gagged and whimpering ally on the other side of the wall and meshing into the staticky hush of the fibers. The dull drum of Huanatoca’s stampede. Thinking of his lone remaining friend while dimming to black.
“Covers, Tige, Old Buddy. All covers. And food poisoned to boot.”
He wondered if he was a patient in a hospital. Then he wondered why that was his first instinct. Couldn’t he be in his own bed? If he had the energy to roll on his side might he startle at the mountain of her long rolling hip? The long-linened climb to her shoulder Kilamanjaro? An exploratory elbow to the east met no resistance but who knows what quarter of the matrimonial plains he might’ve rolled to or, more likely, been pushed to.
Rocking to his left and right he tried to gain momentum. Creaking springs sounded particularly coarse in the low, close chamber. Someone could be listening on the other side of the wall. He would be discovered. But then why would someone be inside their apartment? And then he re-remembered: 14 years. Snapping his head into the last rock he half-hoped he was dreaming the bit about the fourteen years as he rolled to her side of the bed to protect her. He fell for what seemed a long time.
He woke to someone grunting nearby. They seemed to be in pain, desperate. Muffled squeals were now on his side of the wall. The high-pitched squeaking was painfully close and made his head ring. And this is a different room, isn’t it? The darkness is flat and mostly black with a sourceless line of white light beginning just above his throbbing left temple and stretching away and behind him.
He cannot move his arms or legs. Someone has restrained
him. He seems to have been rolled on his side and up against a wall. The other person in the room has been detained also. They are gagged and poking him in the shoulders and back, urging him to move. The squeaking sound becomes frenetic; a mouse in its electrified wheel. All the while a low register period bell is clanging and distorting inside his head. The beat of approaching footsteps on the other side of the wall does not build long enough to be identifiable. When the door lock above Rawlings is suddenly engaged it as though train cars have coupled just above him while he is tied to the tracks below. Rawlings jerks and spits.
“Gah! Gahhhhhh! Gahhhhhhhhhh!”
Teresa Huanatoca looks down at Rawlings flailing in her guest linen. The yelling has stopped but he continues twisting himself more tightly into the sheet and comforter. She can’t help but savor this. ‘Just look at the gringo mummy go,’ she thinks. ‘He sure can play the fool.’ When she touches the toe of her sneaker to his shoulder he hops an inch off the ground.
“Gaaaaaa! Ow-gaaafff! Gaaaaaaafff!”
Huanatoca bends down and gives Rawlings a little shove between the shoulders.
“Alright, shut up! Shut up, already!”
Rawlings spits out two more “gawfff”s and goes very still. Huanatoca carefuls a hand in to try to free his head. The linen is damp and cold. Rawlings’ breathing is heavy. Her fingers plumb for the source. They run into something cold and hard. She pulls out a small plastic white noise machine spilling out static and set to OCEAN. She unplugs it then delves back into the linen. This time her fingers shock cold at what feels like a small, long-haired animal. Not trusting the sense of it she takes a fistful and pulls. She slowly reveals a section then a chunk then a long, flowing spread of Rawlings’ scalp.
She shocks at Rawlings’ sound and then at the entire wig she is juggling in her hands.
Rawlings begins flailing again.
“Gaaaaaa! Gaaaaaa! Gaaaaaa!”
She throws the wig across the room and against the wall. Rawlings is wheezing like he is about to hyperventilate.
“Shut up-shut up-shut up! Shut up!!!”
His legs are free and cycling madly in the air. Huanatoca kicks at them, tries to pin one down but this freaks Rawlings out all the more. She cannot get a hold on him much less free him. When she tries to get Rawlings on his back so she can straddle his chest Rawlings bucks her off his hip and she is thrown into the wall. As she rubs her tenderized head Rawlings cycles away in the shussing sheets. Huanatoca stands to leave the room and lock the door behind her.
Fifteen minutes later the door unlocks. Rawlings is shirtless, bald, and shivering in bed. His back is to the wall and his arms are crossed over his chest. A quadrilateral of hall light bisects his ashen and stubbled face. He stares ruefully at Huanatoca.
The woman he knows from Tapatio, who he has only ever seen in a red apron, tan highwaters and a matching shirt, is in what he considers to be aggressively casual ware; a red plush sweatsuit with the fat yellow insignia of the Sir Philip line (so much like a fat Achilles wing) stitched to the chest. Flawlessly white, pneumatic high-tops (with the brand wing stitched in silhouette) glow from the pedestal of this Counter General in Repose. The corded hands he has only ever seen flashing and larden lie loose at her sides, palm out, her long fingers curling in jointed C’s. The counter-kitchen angularity has been lubricated by a hot shower and coordinated into loose cushion. (Rawlings flashes his nostrils in search of Ivory soap.) Also, unbent from the counter, this woman must be close to six feet tall. He’d’ve had Tapatio Huanatoca at 5’6, 5’7 tops.
An elbow-shaped chin is raised to a nearly Mussolini-ishly obtuse angle. She turns on the light and Rawlings wincingly takes in the bare blue room. Huanatoca’s chin traces slow arcs in the air to investigate the room. The linens are heaped in one corner. Maize-colored vomit is smeared and dripping down the opposite corner and collecting in a pool half-covered by Rawlings balled up shirt. Under the window small fragments of glass are mixed with the parts of what used to be the white noise machine. After processing each of these scenes Huanatoca’s head makes a little calibratory joggle before proceeding. Rawlings thinks her as capable of dispassionate cruelty as any humanoid mantis. Huanatoca bends down and rises holding out Rawlings wig. This does not change his opinion.
“Who needs bars on a third floor window?”
Huanatoca steps into the room and closes the door behind her. She looks him in the face. This is a different woman than the counter jockey. Where her body seems to exist in service of her hands, her head is run by a long, thin nose slightly bent in the middle. Its sculpted point indicates perpetual south to a small pursed mouth. High cheek bones pull the surrounding skin tight and severely to. Olive-brown eyes carry lids who fall less frequently and far more slowly than most. Thick, untended brows arch incongruously above. (They seem too soft, too generous to live among the rest.) A black helmet of jug-shaped hair tapers away from a fluted neck. Eight scissor snips around the perimeter and four straight across the bangs is her sole head-wise vanity. Rawlings fails to not find her arrestingly ugly to the point of beauty. She speaks less quickly and with less of an accent than she does behind the counter.
“Would you like a clean shirt?”
There is an unmistakable regality to the word, a savoring of her grounds and station. Clean.
“Go to Hell, lady.”
Rawlings eases himself to the edge of the bed. His arms swim through the air as he lurches to his feet. The legs are full of jelly and he is ready to puke again.
“Stay in bed.”
Her sentences blur into one word. She may as well be the OCEAN machine.
Rawlings takes a few tilting steps towards the door she is blocking. He is waving her aside with one hand and shielding himself from the nuclear sun of the bare bulb above. Huanatoca moves to the side and opens the door. Rawlings steps through.
The hallway and carpet are the same blue. Three more bare bulbs divide the stretch into regular zones of lividity and shadow. A closed door is floodlit by each. Using the wall as a crutch he gentles towards the second bulb. He realizes he is not wearing shoes when a central air vent gives him the hotfoot. When the door behind him snaps into place he does a humiliating little dance on the iron grate. If Huanatoca laughs or sucks up a breath behind him he cannot hear it over the blowing air. He rests against the second door.
“My shoes and coat.”
Huanatoca briskly drafts past him leaving Rawlings shaking. There is a residue of her back-kitchen carriage as she tally not- quite-marches down the hall. Rawlings thinks ‘She really knows how to put the ‘fuck you’ in her stride doesn’t she.’
Huanatoca places the loafers before Rawlings so that he can step into them. She practically dances behind him (‘She’s gleeful, the woman is gleeful!’) and holds his trench open tilting her head like a goddamn complacent matador. Rawlings almost backhands her when he snatches the coat from her and rips it on. He thinks he sees the woman give him an infuriating little deferential bow out of the corner of his eye.
“Go open your front door.”
Huanatoca puts an unmistakably sarcastic right angle to her elbows to double-time it down the hall, through a darkly orange-lit foyer type chamber leading, even more darkly, in three other directions, fairly hops over the threshold into the northerly chamber where her Sir Phils squeak over dark brown linoleum masquerading as brickwork, and into some unseen area that, acoustically, sounds a country away from the bosomy comfort of this warm, local Door Number 2 and the doorknob he clings to as he would a trusted confidant. The terribly distant and small sounds of twisted latches and thrown deadbolts sprouts a bilious pod of quease in the southwest intestines pressed against this now possibly complicit and very cold knob. Such are the shifting loyalties of unknowable lands. Huanatoca’s contralto echoes down the chambers in waves of piercing stabs.
“LEES-to, SANE-your PA-ling!
She is probably off with Tiger now, throwing a stick deeper into the surf than he might. The canine roommate never fully cottoned to the human woman who had introduced the predatory concussion of high heels and the gossipy birdcall of girlfriend telephony to his and Rawlings’ soft pop rhythms. Years in now and the old boy still hams up the hangdog routine every time the bedroom closet slides open; his slow, sad-mouth turn towards and indictment of the source followed by the exaggerated dip Rawlingsward as if to say ‘will you ever do something about this?’ But he’ll be avid as ever sprinting through the shallows to hurdle a sneaker wave to paddle the deeps and drag the jetsam too big for his mouth back to shore for more, please god, more. And she will be unnecessarily stern with her “Drop it! Drop it now!” and make Tiger squirm until he is absolutely still, staring down the blameless animal with a testing look only slightly less subtle than the one reserved for humans. And Rawlings will remember she has never once referred to Tiger by his name, not even once.
But there is no riled up barking pre-toss, no scattershot of surf, no hanging silence of a woman v. dog standoff, just the mesmeric surf wash…wash…washing over him in a pool of shussing sleep. But wait, there is a muffled noise at the eastern edge of this; the small metallic squeak-creak of a mechanism in need of oil. It reminds Rawlings of the rusty old seed dispenser the P & R guy pushes down the parkblocks each spring. Or the telltale strain of an Otis pulley as the elevator climbs the intervening floors, clatters by and rises, pauses…waits…and approaches again to whisper intolerant little asides about the residents and riders of the building he’s sitting stake to this time; nasal, arthritic old warhorse machines having a way of becoming near boon companions on the longer ended hauls in the yawningly depopulated halls and anonymous lobbies of the wee hours. Rawlings considers how he and his quarry are ridiculous little orts slipsliding through a mountainous city of labyrinthine steel and cog; how we assemble the parts to and push the button of the mechanisms we have hemmed ourselves in with. The beach is supposed to be a break from all that. But so unoccupied and abandoned, Rawlings feels lonely…boundless. He shrinks himself to the scale of her medieval complex and descends cool, cracked stairs into a long roofless hall blasted with sun and sparkling. A man-sized sand flea skitters away. Spear-fishing sandpipers might be about so he starts jogging. At the end of the hall is another staircase. He climbs a pail-shaped tower. The air inside is hot and close. He climbs for what seems a long time before reaching the roof. Far taller towers, all shaped like sand pails, surround him and disappear into the sky. He slides on his stomach to peek over the edge. A massive lake is rising and falling around a low hill. The western half of the lake is in shadow behind a hideous, red-painted head of a stone gargantuan. Rawlings feels queasy, bottomingly Lilipeutian. We are so pathetically tiny within our magnificent urban sculptures. He pinches at the entombing sand. We are as granular, microscopic, and diffuse but far more vulnerable. Sand is pulverized into gem, man squashed into smear. The tide might come in and she may never return. He could bottom into floating oblivion. Anything is better than being encased and abandoned. Buildings and tombs alike are false company. They exist to enclose and suffocate, not to console us of what we have lost. Does she realize he falls asleep at the beach, not to give her the gift of his vulnerability, but to give her another chance to resist the temptation to be cruel? He pictures her looking genuinely happy as she throws the ball deeper into the ocean. Rawlings shapes his hand to Tiger’s head, reaches to remove the sunglasses, and thumbs himself in the eye.
There are no sunglasses. His eyes are open to a bottomless brown dark. Then he remembers. She has never met Tiger. They don’t have a dog. He refuses to go to the beach with her anymore and only eats river-going fish. Moreover, if it had been her that buried him (again) he would not be able to move his hands like this. And come to think of it, this is not sand at all but some sort of fabric twisted around his hands. Was this some new variation of the torture? Had she hogtied him to see if he would squeal? He moved his feet. They were surrounded by the same fabric but not restrained. He took a deep breath and there was no dull crack in the sand layer, just the rustling of fabric. He listened. The shussing of the tide continued. But it did not give him the old quease. And the air did not have that blood-salt smell he associated with her and their beach days. Then he remembered more. He hadn’t seen the woman in 14 years. Momentarily, he was wrapped in the old wet blanket of depressive isolation and surrounded by his own ceaselessly non-consoling thoughts and memories. In the crucial moment where we could sink fully under he shook it off, engaged the old cover. Something’s amiss Rawlings. Look likely. There’s duty here.
He listened closely. There wasn’t a tide at all. It was more like quiet static from a radio. And the little squeaking metallic sound was still there and had become faster and more irregular sounding, even malfunctioningly frenzied. Also, and he was probably wrong here, but it sounded like there was gagged and making desperate little grunting noises. And they were not far away but at a remove, perhaps in a container or on the other side of a wall. Yes, he was inside. He looked right and left and though he could not see anything the darkness gained more shape. There was a thin grey frame about five feet away; a window with blinds perhaps. Above was a dull glow; a ceiling. His body was supported by a cushion, possibly a mattress. The static sound was underneath him and equally loud from either side of what he took to be a twin bed.
Revolution. Reformation. Massive perspectival overhaul. They cause is more desperate on an empty stomach.
Straw-sucking from a _____ beneath the eyes of the usual Tapatio woman.
She leans over the counter looking judgmental about the cloud cover in the floor-to-ceiling windows. There is a sarcastic little sneer built into the corners of her mouth that is distinctly un-Troutdalean. But he has tailed this woman and knows she lives alone on the third of a five-floor walk-up just inside the southern border. Like the pulled records of all registered Troutdaleans hers is relentlessly clean; franchise owner registered with the C of C, spotless credit history, no priors, little college, extra-currics in high school; a trail of solid, uneventful citizenry here and elsewhere. Jogs before work, drinks only occasionally, attends a non-denominational twice a month. Bi-lingual and plays it to commercial advantage with the registered seasonal workers hopscotching the kingdom borders when crop yields demand it. She’ll even drive west on SE Stark and cross the border into Gresham to eat some traditional Peruvian with others who largely share her place of birth. When she does so the little sneer loosens into occasional stretches of wide relieved smiling. The only possible angle on such a woman would be her lack of an obvious partner. Not only is this rare in The Kingdom but widely considered to be a status in need of improvement.
And it’s not like she doesn’t have the goods on that front. Bright-faced and youthful in the taut eyes and aforementioned mouth zones to contrast with the roundness of her cheeks and lips to an advanced sexual advantage. Toss in the dual-language facility and it made no sense this woman didn’t have her pick of fellow Troutdalean entrepreneurs in like physical shape, income bracket, and philosophical equanimity. Six years in The Kingdom it was a wonder she had neither a partner nor a beau to paddle the Sandy or run that rehabilitated greyhound of hers with.
The entire profile might not be so intriguing, so possibly useful in this dawn/feeling out period of the cover’s new tack, if not for that anomalous little sneer. Six years in the wind-tunnel regularity of The OK Corral should have smoothed the accumulated wrinkle into cross-hatch by now, or at least trained a little of the complicit dart and sparkle out of her black-brown eyes by now. Yes, Rawlings, this woman was just slightly different enough to be the one. Go ahead and talk to her.
“Hey um, those tamales were saltier than usual. Pretty good.”
The echo of his voice has yanked Rawlings toward the lard-tanned ceiling to watch the moron below talk to someone besides Tiger. The woman, Teresa Huanatoca is her name, Teresa replies with a single, long, deliberate blink.
“The asparagus… much better.”
The little ebony claws of her eyelashes lower, threaten to slash downward again. He looks away and sucks on the _______.
“But you couldn’t help
Rawlings has only ever shouted at Troutdaleans or grumbled as the library’s Prisonhouse Penitent Pauling. His words come out in stabbing little experiments while Teresa Huanatoca’s sneer deepens down to devilish. She is incongruous to the point of mocking, completely out of whack with that generous spirit of the Peruvian restaurant. She wipes down the counter and shoots the towel over the back of a deep fryer into the trough of the sink. When she fixes Rawlings with her eyes he looks away to suck on the _____.
Rawlings understands he is now inhabiting what is traditionally considered to be the stance of the unpracticed courter. His body is at an angle to the counter her elbow is the sculpted extension of. His apologetic, down-searching eyes flee from her bottomless whites. This, yes, this thoroughly unlikely Troutdalean has him flailing the upper restaurant air for a duct or light fixture to grab hold of. He hadn’t thought to talk to her as Prisonhouse Penitent Pauling or his loony-bomb alter-ego of the proselytizing truck bed. He hadn’t even considered her to be attractive. Yes, unquestionably so. This woman, this unabstract, fleshsome Troutdalean woman had blown any pretense he had of a dropping a cover high into the trade-drafts of Tapatio Franchise 47’s lardened sky. You are this post-concussed Rawlings. You stumble into duty without a cover and allow the slightest of unlikely women to have you flustered. Suspended like this, firmly held in thrall by the guillotine of those lashes you, you Rawlings, are the likely and she is the executioner. Teresa Huanatoca inhales long and deliberate. Rawlings goes cold. When she blinks he shudders. When she sighs he nearly faints. He puts a hand on the counter to steady himself. His head is pounding and his stomach is in a blender. He cannot think what likely statement might anchor him. He hears himself snickering toward the floor. Drool has collected at the corner of his mouth. Before he speaks a third and dizziest of all Rawlings appears in the grease smeared backboard to the woman’s deep fryer.
Rawlings slumps against the counter and reaches for a napkin dispenser. He dabs one corner of his mouth and then the other before he starts to swoon. The room pulls away from him. The three Rawlings are thrown into a blender. He looks around wildly and desperately reaches for his _____ before crumbling to the floor. Teresa Huanatoca blinks once. She then leans to watch the overturned ______ waterfall over the counter and splash against the back of Rawlings’ head. The fluttering napkin feathers down to settle on his chest.
“You know damn well how long, burracho.”
Rawlings comes to in swirling blue-black darkness.
A loud breathy shooshing surrounds him. It is summer at Cannon Beach. She must have buried him in the sand once he fell asleep. Her little joke. The tide will roll further and further inland until his tows go cold. In a minute or two the water will enter the labyrinthine sand hillock and aqueduct complex she has surrounded him with. Trickling and sloshing sounds spread inward toward his head from every side and collect into one large central channel on an incline. Water collects behind a thin sand barrier until it bursts. his chin. Usually, the initial tow cold will have brought him to and he is prepared to put on a little show when the water cascades down the ladder leading into the drowning arena collaring his head. As he spits and sputters his best horrified panic she will stand behind and above him, backlit by dusk sun, a corona behind her shadowed face, and joke about “leaving you to the crabs this time” or extort some pledge or service from him. He will wait to the very last second to relent and, say, agree to making the drive south to Depoe Bay for crabcakes at Moe’s before hooking through the slow meander home through the Tillamook National Rain Forest. She will look far more convincingly sadistic after she has dug him free than before. He will wonder over this only briefly before distracting into the admittedly sex-ritual end of the thing. Once when he would not agree to oysters in Astoria she had jogged off just as the channel gate had begun to crack. As the water slowly crept up his neck and she melted into the dusk-molten horizon he was forced to cycle through feelings of wry bemusement, growing incredulity and fury, gathering horror, terror mixed with abject hope, desperate hope (given voice in what would later be described as “pretty girlish wailing there, Rawlings”), equanimity towards death, a bitter cynicism vis a vis the overarching absurdity of his situation and, by inference, all human endeavor, the failure of the preceding to console him in the slightest way, foul-mouthed vindictive fury, and, finally, the suspicion he had always badly misunderstood and underestimated the unfathomable woman who, as the water began to tickle his lower lip, could be “drowning (herself) now for all (he) cared!” Her little snortling guffaw from behind had scared him so badly he bucked involuntarily and freed his knees from their heavy wet bondage. As the little engineered city around him crumbled and flooded over and Rawlings coughed and sputtered, all she had said was “Tssk, aw man, Rawlings, look what you’ve done. It was my finest creation yet.”
And sometimes the tow warning doesn’t work and he wakes under an endless shroud of murky water all around and clogging his burning lungs. He does not know where he is or what has happened to him. There is no tow warning or the reminder of the silhouetted woman above squeezing her spasming mouth. He cannot move his arms or legs and is increasingly certain no one but him would be foolish enough to be in the vicinity of such an idiotic and in all likelihood fatal venue. He is just beginning to give up on himself and feeling philosophical about his imminent silty-salty death when her fingernails start ripping into his thighs and knees allowing him to burst up out of the water into the stunning blues and wispy whites of another Oregon summer sky to remember he is in Florence or Seaside or Newport and a long fan of dirty blonde hair is about to be thrown over the pulsingly warm expanse of shoulder bisected by a thin red strap then tucked behind a small round left ear with a thin cur’s notch missing at one o’ clock revealing the hatefully wonderful very real consolation of her red and tear-streaked dearly freckled face. If a child does not run paddingly and laughingly closeby or a seagull does not lower by on the patrol-eyed squawk he will forget himself and explode from the sand to pin the evil, giggling woman to the ground and straddle her with his hands collaring the second striation of her impossibly dry and warm neck. She will remove the sunglasses he has forgotten he is wearing and say “Aw, poor Rawlings. Poor, poor old Rawlings.”
Monday he wakes to the usual megaphone alarum of thought prospectors and student radicals trawling the blocks below for converts. There is no wet, rough tongue on his cheek, no kibble-asking eyes, only the brief thought flashes: bomb, Dove Lewis, Troutdale.
And so his morning and life are reintroduced for him. In twenty minutes he will be in a truck trafficking with Troutdaleans and dozing with the dullards.
Somewhere roughly mid-coffee-ward the better angels kick in. Tiger will be back at his side soon. He has the consolation of a cover. And though vengeance is likely an improper, not to mention, unfamiliar m.o., he can still allow himself to be animated by the ugly hate twang stick kicking around in his stomach, not to mention the overarching disrespect shown to his little wing of the city and the meals and rites consistently being forfeited there. His stomach growls ‘and how’ as trucks and suburban tanks overloaded with caged produce, thumb-furious off-spring, and their glaze-eyed drivers.
“Must’ve been one of the old bad moods, alright, pal.” He is talking to the mat where Tiger would be. “We didn’t even eat yesterday.”
Rawlings cracks his window. Some good clean gorge air crisps his nose. He takes in five quick breaths. The old respiratory mechanism kicks in; the unbeatable, near loonish optimism hyper-oxygenates his blood. He wakes up a little to the world. A victory can be extracted from this cover. Babushka’s baked goods, though near eggless, have their own sort of tart buoyancy. His truck-bed broadsides were just starting to get some sneer-eyed traction with the locals and visitors with passes. Maybe the suspiciously bland and likely Troutdaleans are not so much a-political, non-ideatic royalists, but complexly enlightened Buddhist-types unburdened by the rigamarole of the polemic arena? Maybe they had amassed such a saintly tolerance to b.s. as to be silently thoughtful and magnanimous, not reflexively mute and withdrawn. If they spirited their strollered and otherwise pinioned children away from him in the library and lot could he blame them? I mean, just look at yourself, Rawlings, you freakin’ spittle-slopping longhair? You might as well be the aniti-Bagwan, man. Who knows what sort of ideological taint you might spread to such pinkly soft, vulnerable ears. Don’t just respect their ways but fall into them. Plummet surrenderingly, Rawlings. Get into character. Embody their mysteriously boring charm. A Troutdalean doesn’t shout much less electioneer. They are unfailingly polite, kind even kind when prodded into speech. Imagine the pliancy required to suck up your self-interest and vote as a bloc. Imagine the sway these suburban serfs hold in their white-knuckled solidarity! Get the bun full of currants and dates. Stim up with Dmitri’s Turkish coffee. Stick to the tamales at Tapatio’s. Keep the post-concussed constitution straight. Do it for Tiger and City. Such is the mechanism of the professional optimist.
As the week’s first patrons filter through the library’s various pods of halogen he silently nods a hello or two. He departs from the truck-bed loon angle. He tries to remind himself that if people’s silences are meaningless his truck-bed ravings only notch a small degree more purchase. These hurried and mute Troutdaleans aren’t about to be provoked into argument much less a showing of hands. The same goes for how he relates to his co-workers, even if only 7-foot Slim lives within The Kingdom Walls. (He has a roomy little condo with a hoop over the garage for him, his 6-foot Slim wife and their just-above-mean-heighted-but-full-of-handle-and-shooting-range teen daughters.) Lay off the break-room yarns about prison-yard humiliations and the consequent lights-off epiphanies under the sheets with his shiv of a flashlight trained on a dog-eared copy of one of the black radical inspirationalists. Come and meet these people on their level. Anyone could have a lead. Even Shanty Sam the Pirateering Aficionado (and Reference Librarian). Or Lame Leslie who’s worked so many worker’s comp angles she can’t remember which leg to favor anymore. Or Paul the Non-descript Library Page. Let these non D-towners – ‘there, I admit the bias’ – teach him a thing or two. Enough with the heavy cover histrionics.
Such is the morale weight-lifting necessary to recalibrate your cover and get into character. Rawlings had practiced this down to his marrow. It’d been how he’d dug clear of that last truly bad mood, the post-marital one which had blasted his lucky and theretofore likely and youthfully clueless ass well clear of the jolly zone. He’d put in Christ knows how many reps of visualizing himself floating out of the body of the stunned cardboard cut-out below and floating into the adjacent parcel of city cement. ‘In this segment, I will be a happier man. This is who I will be.’ And if some of the old emptiness leeches in just bend at the knees and jump, Rawlings. The city is lousy with sidewalk and you’re light as air. In this way, a cover ceases to be a cover after a while. You are simply being the new-old Rawlings. The city becomes a labyrinth of your intersecting, diverging, running parallel rays. Sure, you’re anchored to the original dot put to paper (that last knot she tightened on your tie on 1075 SW Broadway) and you walk by Lewis and Clark Towers all the time, but that three-dimension source, as it exists in time, is ever distant, at least most days, and, well, the chain is too tangled and knotted to unravel at this point, right?
But the mechanism, usually so smoothly oiled, is clanking and snagging in his gut. He just isn’t buying the kinder, gentler cover. He retreats to the cookbook/graphic novel aisle to regroup so he can mumble out of eye-shot of 7-foot Slim.
“What’s wrong with me.”
A distinctly unconfident and un-Rawlingsian voice speaks.
“We can do this. We have the charm. We can meet these people on their terms. It’s in our range.”
Rawlings doesn’t mean what he is saying. It is some tired old reflex speaking for him. He tries to float free and respond.
“What the Hell am I saying?”
But his vision blurs and he remains firmly tied to this pounding head and sour-mouthed belly. He presses the wound on his head hoping some good clarifying pain will sort out his priorities. But this only makes him list to leeward: Why was it that the Troutdale Kingdom, conjectured to be a hotbed of militantism, could be full of idealists, radicals, and loons and yet still be terribly boring? Where were they hiding? Or being hid? The Troutdale Kingdom cover had turned into one of those cynical malaises where even mystery had no purchase and the dripping futility of conjecture now framed the investigation. It had been five weeks of silence without the food of interview; a mute boredom in need of an eloquent smashing. Maybe the suburban milieu just didn’t make him tick right. No amount of equanimity can make outlet stores and fallow farmland stimulating. The game of maintaining cover, skulking through the station poses of The Reformed Penitent Among The Tomes had lost its vinegar by Week 3. He needed the hemmed in and hanging scenery of the Portland City dome, the dear hermetic kingdom of limestone parapets shot through with obvious freaks and a fools’ chorus of ad-man hawks, the concrete statuary standing immemorial sentinel beneath the lightly architected limestone canyons of late modernism and the third or fourth industrial revolution; his city pockmarked with ambitions and consolations, tinged with futurist ambition in the guise of –isms, tropes, bio-swales, and retro-rail streetcars; a city hot on LEAD certification, crowded with guerilla debaters, and vehicle-banned but for retro-scooters and bicycles yet seeming, what with the bombings stripping the pavement strata down to the brick and cobblestone days, to be as hospitable to horse and coal power as wind and sun; a timeless and displaced place for that damned unerasable anchor of a dot to be obscured by a jigsaw cube for a timeline. He could only thrive there. In a Troutdale Kingdom everything looks and sounds likely, necessary, and predictable yet feels sourceless, carried eastbound on the Columbia for the unencumbered valley greens of unmitigated nature or westbound for the confluence with the Willamette to sail south for his fair city or north to the ocean and the world. Troutdale was a high-school, a mall, a fake main street through old town, and its inhabitants. Blamelessly unextraordinary. Non-urban. The lone registered historic building was the abandoned town hall. (All civic meetings now taking place in the King Knight’s Edgefield Distillery and Spa near the southern border and The Wood Village Interstate Truck Stop.) You don’t gain traction in such a wind-swept interchange. You go where the wind blows. You save on toiletries and take out the recycling. You are laudably consistent and once or twice a month get a pass from the Principality and hit D-town for a debate and some food cart. You participate in the admirable Troutdale normalcy, so relentlessly wan-face and wind-whipped in the parking lots like consumer jetsam, so indistinct in shopping list reverie and check-out line distress, so what-you-expect-out-there as to not only not be convincing cover but suggestive that there is nothing for them to cover, not a ‘no there there’ land but a denial of even the elementary units comprising structure. They are so damn relentless he is forced to typecast them, be utterly un-Rawlings-like, and keep rubbing on the dent in his head until some other explanation can be explored. But he is a concussed, lonely crank, Tiger-less to boot with a pessimistic anchor dropped from his navel. Sift through it Rawlings. Hover the top-shelf and float over to the self-help aisle. Think. How about this.
This Kingdom is ad hoc, foisted down from someone’s imagination. ‘I just don’t believe in the place. I don’t think it is here at all. Not a ghost town. A construction. Not soulless but soul-denying. One of those plywood old west town sets. Peak around the side and there’s just desert or San Bernardino, California.’ If Troutdale Kingdom itself was a cover it was the cover of the century and every damn one of its citizens was in on the job. Sir Phillip Knight had created an unincorporated, non-corporal, corporate kingdom. In five years he had bought their fealty with tax breaks and, kingdom administrative secrecy being what it is, nothing but canted loyalty from the few Troutdaleans how’d had the chutzpah to anonymously answer a question or two from an underground journalist or undercover C.I. posing as a reformed, white-collar parking lot loon. Maybe the whole damn kingdom was rotten, not the citizens. Maybe King Knight had wanted to bring the P.B.A. to heal by undermining the machinery of commerce downtown. Maybe the economic dynamo of the ever-morphing “Ideaist Miracle” which had saved the city economy by turning the city into an ideological-entrepeneurial sideshow destination town had been planned by Advertising Magus Knight, he who had transformed mere sneakers into sexually evolved tools of recreational predation. Maybe throwing the metro area open to micro-enterprise meant there would be a limitless need for competitive advertising (a.k.a. ideaizing). But this angle had been run hard. Pulitzer journalists had been ferried in. Forensic economists airlifted. Undercover C.I.’s of even more renown than Rawlings had thumbed in on sixteen wheelers. None of them had found anything to substantiate a King Knight Conspiracy. He pressed on the dent and remained firmly anchored to the feet that him leaning against the dewey decimal series organizing ‘local celebrity sustainability cookbooks for juveniles.’
“Grist for the mill. Christ, clichés about the cliché now, Rawlings? I need a freaking tamale.”
“You alright there, Mr. Pauling?”
7-foot Slim spoke over the top shelf of the self-help aisle.
“I don’t think Tapatio opens until eleven.”
Rawlings slumped to his knees against the dewey d. series for ‘local celebrity sustainability cookbooks for juveniles bi-lingual learner.’
When Rawlings wakes he does not know what day it is.
Bleary-eyed and cold from the window draft he stands to look outside. Rain slants, gust lateral. But for the red beacons ruby-crowning the towers of The Portland State Octaquad and a few oddfellow curtain glows in the higher floors of the adjacent Deborah Kafoury Work-Life Towers, his swath of South D-town skyline is dark and still. Some of the whiskey rubber blanket hangover still hangs heavy so it can’t be Monday yet. Can’t be time to…what’s the cover this time…oh Christ…The Kingdom. The hangover pounds in time with the memory. He turns to look at Tiger’s redoundingly empty blanket.
He stands over the ticking coffeemaker.
In the half-kitchen he can see a bit further north down the parkblocks. The bomb site has thinned to three banner-wavers and a lone p.c. all leaning against a tree working on smokes and passing a flask. They abstract into the bare, swaying branches either wistfully or reminiscently. A few yards away the monitors have tied their yellow and pink sleeping bags together to warm themselves under a guano-spattered bronze of Abraham Lincoln. Early Sunday morning’s like this feel less rueful. Maybe the churchliness of the ideaist megaphone jingles summoning their D-town flocks to worship in one of the makeshift nodes of devotion; soapbox lean-to’s crowded round with transient zeitgeist hoppers, competitive pop-rock anthems booming from the floors of the City U Octaquad classrooms, warmly jovial repurposed food carts touting the sustainability jag with savory wafts and teeming free buffets, the full-on ding dong of the faux-baroque Christianity palaces of mossless brick and flawless stainglass, the bustle of the rolling murmur and gentle shoves of the coveted independent bargain hunters and ideological wayfarers unified in their qualmlessness with the old-fashioned charms of a good hard rump-shove of the sexy-smart suggestive power consolidated in the rose perfumed and powder-sugar dusted lower floors of the Pioneer Mall where playing the chin-scratching dabbler’s connoisseur as the competitive chirps and upsmanship of the leaflet touts pierce the green-glassed dome of the atrium heights clear to the We’re All American Food Court Stock Exchange where the lipid-humid air is spiked by the rapidly vascilating and readjusting fortunes of our ideaist doctrines ticking off up-to-the-minute vote/market share on a menu bigboard clotted with value meals and daily specials and the d-town ubiquitous red, white, and blue t-shirted trader-delegates of the Smith, Hales, and Brady campaigns shout bids on ideaisms small, medium, and huge as the espresso machines hiss and the griddles sizzle and we all feel unnaturally hungry to upload a juicy trend-ascendant burger, an underperforming salad that just needs a bit more salad dressing, or an immemorial chain-steak of longstanding supposed virtue into one of the broadly welcoming elective umbrella folds, for, as a Portland Bid-ness Alliance tout (very thinly undercover as a trashcan drumming and rapping street performer) shouts over some damn impressive backbeat and clacketing fury
“Sunday’s ‘Fund-day, yawl!
of buy’n’sell notions
to boost your
Sunday is a day for taking stock.
It’s not the whiskey, he thinks, but the concussion that has him feeling uncharacteristically sour toward the peaceful, even sweetly romantic little parkblock vignette below. ‘These people,’ he begins, ‘don’t even know my dog.’ He finds himself seized by an image of a long snaking cartoon fuse wrapping around the trunk of a shrapnel-gorged and still-smoking oak, then through the legs of the green-vested arborist from Park and Rec attending it, down the southbound sidewalk fronting the art museum, wrapped round the oblong, Technicolor Calder-lite sculptures in the courtyard, past his beloved shadowy vestibules suggestive of the presence and absence of the district’s lurkers and lovers, and disappearing into his own Dorm Tower G (a.k.a.: The Old Girl) lobby, past Gretchen The Work-Study Concierge, tongue-knuckled and strain-gazing into the glow of her laptop and clutching a sweating glass of Enerjetico, snaking up the elevator shaft, and exiting Rawlings’ floor to crawl under Barry Comm’s door where this not yet drunk Portland State Viking is trying to look philosophical while flipping open and shut that infernal Zippo he says “helps him concentrate” and rubbing his chin in a patently un-ironic way as if he weren’t going to just spark this fuse, cross his ankles and return to his laptop to hack into the c.c.t.v. broadcast of his infamy. But if these were the whiskey vaguenesses Rawlings would have slid out of them by now and landed in his aw-gosh smile of good ole non-professional big-heartedness feeling not just tender-hearted towards Barry Comm and his host of hustle-brained, yet largely life-naïve dormer ilk, but even nostalgic for his own likely dormer days at The Old Parkblocks U. and even impugning himself for letting his professional hyper-imaginativeness bleed into his olde tyme recreational hippydom. ‘To be young again’ he’d retro-enthuse ‘They’re too ass in-experienced to deserve suspicion yet.’ The next morning he’d recalibrate, straighten his tie, and head out for a day election coverage. amend to ‘Don’t be blind to your biases, Old Boy.’ But the truth is he had none. They only soured the nexus of his professional and recreational m.o.’s, which roughly, amounted to knowing little, distrusting everyone, and loving indiscriminately.
But he had none of the old equanimity. It’d been concussed out of him. He was lonely in a drunk dinged apartment while his truest friend suffered in an overlit dungeon full of strangers and strange smells. A maudlin arc stretched from man to beast, 30 odd blocks and back. He missed his goddamned dog! He was taking this bomb personally. There’s nothing ideological about sending a luckless mutt flying. Nuts to me. Everybody d-town knows me. And for those who don’t I’ve got the uniform written all over me. Bocce shoes or not. Plunge down on likely old Rawlings any day. There might be some grudge or politics or good ole fashioned blind animus behind that. But a biteless old cur? This could fuck with the least cynical of us.
Rawlings loved his dog and he loved his ridiculously loud and unresolvable city and some of its eateries and that was it. But the utter confusion and reflexive cross-purposedness of its animating engine; the engine of sheer of belief-holding; the credo that had morphed from “Keep Portland Weird” downgraded to “Keep Portland Interesting” to “Keep Portland In The Conversation” and had chameleoned our stuffed animal mascots from a naïve-nutso Goofy-like Jefferson Smith doll having a string pulled from his back to chuckle a verse from a local alt-country band of darlingbuds, to a bespectacled Eileen Brady wearing a blue bikini and clutching a slight and shriveled carrot in each hand, to a stiff plastic Charlie Hales in suit and tie taking one stride forward and holding a high-wire balancing pole; with all the two-year helpings of each of them, on and off for two decades, with 4 heaping helpfuls of Brandon Roy interspersed with the still legion of Portlanders driving their black-jerseyed number 7 Blazer bobbleheads to nod back agreement at our vague and trafficked thoughts or facing out to simply survey the road ahead; the whole reactionary cycle jumbled up with the economic crest-trough-trough-crest-lesser trough-trough-semi-crest and the massively libertariano-liberal ideaisms shot ineffectually but sincerely through the wave funnel to be dashed on the rocks of a good old fashioned NON-libertariano-liberal but presumptive good guy reformer and mad baller. It was never dull until it gave you a headache. This was the indefatigably optimistic Rawlings’ first bad mood since the divorce.