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[JULY 2017.]

Gateway to the West

Driving from Dayton to St. Louis under the inimical sun, I see plenty of that countryside which the weekend magazine articles are still trying to unlock—what do they want??? and how do they live???—but I have no keys to it, and just see sun baking cornfields, sun baking long low factories and prisons, giant weather-scarred disused vats and bits of shaded forest that start to evoke familiar Western feelings before sputtering back to flat fields. Marlowe knows more than I do; when he was practicing law he went to see clients in that prison, and he’s glad he doesn’t have to do it any more.

The neighborhoods of St. Louis seem dead when you walk around them: empty cracked sidewalks, huge trees, cicada slur, the occasional lawn sprinkler spitting unattended and gates on side streets to keep the people in the next neighborhood from driving through. After five or six blocks there will be a bar on the corner, air-conditioned with no customers inside. A dozen local beers, all good. Around five o’clock people suddenly start appearing at the door, as if out of the trees. They all know the bartender and each other, sometimes there are actual family relations, and a civic life gets going of the sort I never knew in the college towns and metropolitan corridors where I’ve done my drinking. On my own I’m leery of the social stream, but my friends have the gift of gab and we start meeting the characters. There’s the seventy-year-old woman who buys us shots and tells us in anatomical detail just what she’s going to do for her eighty-nine-year-old husband when she gets home to him. There’s the ecology professor from Puerto Rico who says that from an economic standpoint, pollinators other than honeybees don’t mean jack shit, and starts salsa dancing when the right song comes on the jukebox. There’s his impromptu salsa partner (¡Baile, chica!), a white woman who, hearing that we’re writers, says that she too is writing a book with the help of a coaching service. After completing the last stage (“Prune, polish and publish!”), she’ll have it available for purchase on Amazon, print-on-demand. It’s about communications for nonprofits, which too often, she says, have a “codependent” relationship with their donors. Her pitch is much better than any of us can give for own work.

At a hookah lounge downtown two black men of different generations, strangers to each other, end up at our table. The older has stories of numerous girlfriends, playing the drums in a dozen bands, a past of murder and dope dealing which he claims to have forsworn only when he was at the point of killing his own father for smoking through a mountain of crack. Nowadays he’s a nurse and caretaker for schizophrenic patients and people in hospice; he’s proud of his work and makes a point of buying his own Budweisers. He decides that a Marlowe looks like Robin Williams and gets everyone calling him “Mork” for the rest of the night; he thinks I look like a Monkee and takes it as confirmation when I admit to playing guitar. He wants to talk a lot about the Bible, the only cure for a world where “everything is bull-shit... the white man is the devil. I don’t mean all y’all. But God has no color—He is color-full.” He has no objection to being recorded and in fact seems disappointed that we aren’t recording him. He objects to clandestine taping laws (“Why should I, as a human being, not be able to record my conversation with you? Why, when you all out there on the street recording me everywhere!”) And as much as we try to redirect him, he keeps returning to discrimination, by which he means the incident on our first entering the hookah lounge where the staff tried to steer him away for fear that he’d frighten us off. Our other tablemate holds on to his patience for a while but finally loses it: “My God, can we not ever have any conversation except the race conversation?” The conversation he wants to have is about beer. He comes from Georgia, has worked a while in St. Louis as a liquor distributor and knows his stuff; what he wants to do is move to a different town and open a brewery. It’s a matter of finding the right town; you need a market that isn’t saturated already, and you need good water. Is it reservoir, aquifer, spring water?—that’s what makes the difference, that and finding a yeast culture you like. The rest of it anyone can do. We start throwing names of states at him. “ Wyoming? Sure, maybe it’s the place, except seriously, who the fuck goes to Wyoming?

Every time I visit a new American city it seems more like other American cities and less like the countryside around. You wouldn’t get news out of these neighborhoods—no scary riots, no trendsetting restaurant scene—but as we scuttled from one air-conditioned haunt to another I kept thinking of Delany’s Bellona under its giant sun, and everyone there trying to carry on a decent life alongside everyone else, with more or less awareness of citizenry and self.


Mornings the early cloud layer dims and cools everything on the block except the neighbors’ jacaranda tree and its carpet of petals, which give back the half light in electric violet.

But there was no cloud layer this morning, and Albany Hill’s eucalyptus dome was the first thing to catch the dawn full face. Because I had a rolling suitcase with me it looked like the forest hills in Korea, which is to say, in that light, like a Joseon painting touched up in red and green.

Nothing can’t be a Joseon painting in this old panoramic theater of the world. I’m alive and going to Dayton.

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