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There Are Things Awry Here

Searching for story in a land of babble

by Lia Purpura

Published in the November/December 2010 issue of Orion magazine




I FOUND A PERIMETER, THANK GOD, and I’m walking. I’m making an hour of it, finding a way to get my breathing going hard. These four big lots with big-box stores must compass a mile. Measuring helps. I am here (quick check: yes, panting and sweaty) but it feels like nowhere, is so without character that the character I am hardly registers at all. So I’ll get to work, in the way I know how:

Here is a farmer entering the black field. He’s a proper farmer, bowlegged and leathery, with a serviceable rope looped over his arm. But the farmer comes out of a logo’d truck and the rope links up to a ChemLawn can and off he goes to tend the weeds asserting through the asphalt. He pisses I don’t know where during his long day in the sun. His hat’s a tattered, red GO BAMA cap. His tin lunch pail is a bag from Popeyes, just down the road (I mean highway).

Here is a rancher coming over a rise, backlit and stiff, sure hands on the reins, eye for the dips that would wreck a fetlock. He’s nearly cantering over the brown grass, cropped short to begin with, but hey, he’s on contract, it’s the fifteenth of the month, so he comes to harrow the grass at the edge of the lot. The rancher rides masterfully and the mower goes fast; he turns sharply, leans into the bit, and the beast resists not at all.

Here are the animals branded and waiting, they’re tired, they stopped where the grass was fresh and a pond provided. It’s dusk coming on, a slight chill picking up that turns them toward home, but they don’t raise their heads, catch a scent of dog, of roundup coming. The herd’s mixed. “MsBob” is all in with “Luvbun” and “GoTide.” “Bubbaboy,” “Nully,” and “Sphinx” are there, too. The stock are purebred Camaros, Explorers, Elantras, Legends. Docile and ragged; worn, overfed.

More is wrong.

The flags are frozen. They’re fifty feet high but don’t move in wind and they carry no sentiment, like “these we hoist high over our small town/farm/ranch to keep alive spirit, memory, fervor . . . ” The flags have names: Ryan’s, Outback, Hooters (best saloon in town, I’d say, judging by all the horses tied up out front). IHOP. Waffle House. Wal-Mart on a far—I’d like to say hill but that’s out of the question, the hill’s been dozed, subdued into rise.

Here is a field between parking lots—real grass and dirt with bottles tossed in, amber longnecks, flat clears of hard stuff. The word artifact comes, but it’s bumped out by garbage, the depths are all wrong, and in a matter of weeks it will all be turned over. Not a field’s breaking. Not loamy and clod-filled. More Tyvek and tar. By which things are wrapped, laid in, erected. How easily the new names for “seasons” come forth: undeveloped, developing, development, developed. Skirting the site, I lose options like fallow, that yearlong rest wherein land regains strength. I’m losing the language for thoughts about gleaning. Crop goes to cropping as in Photoshop fixing. (And Photoshopping—wow, that gets confusing.)

Here is a farm woman, her shawl held against wind. It’s late February in Tuscaloosa and the tornadoes that hit farther south last week are still lending their kick. She leans into the gust as she crosses, with bags, the black earth (that black below tar), the damp earth (I say earth out of habit, I see), but it’s very well marked, white lines intersect, and the acre or so she’s covered (I’m holding on here, with acre as measure) is field distance, but it’s not a field anymore. She’s juggling bags and pinning her name tag, she works at the Cobb, the town’s multiplex, and she’s late for her shift. On my next turn around the series of lots (where, remember, I’m walking, trying to get my own body into the scene), she’ll be behind glass, with money and tickets. Smoothing her hair. Gulping her Big Gulp. Settling. (Settler. Settlement. Sigh.)

A bit farther on, here is a mailbox with its red flag flipped up, in front of the Marriott, my closest neighbor (I’m a Hilton Tuscaloosa guest for a week). It’s a wooden mailbox on a wooden post, which means “rustic”— and truly, it is weatherworn. Around each fire hydrant—the hotels here in parking-lot land are each fitted with two stumpy blue ones—grows a thicket of bushes. To hide the hydrant. Though in any small town, hydrants are red and free-standing on actual street corners. This greenery means to convey “tended garden.” Which makes the hydrant a reverse sort of flower, one that emits water. Which I guess fits the whole upended scene.

Here are four tall trees in a tangly grove—former trees because now they’re dead, though a grove, I know, accommodates all forms of growth and decomposition, all cycles and stages. Long, bare branches and rough, broken ones alternate all the way down. It’s the kind of ex-tree that might draw an owl (that’s what I’m conjuring, a native barred owl), it’s got to be full of grubs just beginning to stir, and it offers a safe, clear view of the land. In the air is the scent of burning something. Highway and rubber. Diesel and speed. In fact, it’s all over—a smell, if I’d known as a kid, I’d hardly notice, or only on days when the wind kicked up. Poor farm wife in her booth, her hair tangled and blown. Gusts helping my rancher into his stable, right up the ramp and the tailgate slams shut. And my farmer—he’s holding his rope low and firm while it leaks a bright poison as yellow and brief as a corn snake, sunning, then startled, then disappearing back into the ground.

Here in the lot is some corrugated cardboard I thought was an animal’s vertebrae (sign of hope, life in burrows!). Here the Brink’s truck is outside the Cobb, and the driver is armed, as he’s been since transfers of loot began. Here, with a thought to my love up north, I pluck a dandelion (it escaped the farmer), the gesture complete as it’s always been, small, flowery symbol of tender missing. I passed a shard of—it looked like pottery (domestic life / human scale!)—but close up was a shorn chunk of thick plastic.

And before the Committee on Irrevocable Mistakes chose this to do to the land—plant tar, seed commerce—here was what?

What was here, that a body moved through it?

Back in my room I can’t shake the sensation (despite my dandelion in a plastic cup, curtains wide open, basket of apples to naturalize things). A strangeness, an insistence is hovering. The strangeness makes me say aloud to myself—something had to be here, something had been.

Something made me make stand-ins, cutouts, cartoons. It made me possessive, led me to say “my rancher, my farmer, my good farmer’s wife”—mine, because I had to make them. From scratch. Out of something. Had to make them look like. A past. “The past.” I conjured clichés (they come fashioned with roots). I had to make something, because the land couldn’t do it. The land gave nothing. Gave nothing up. There was no plan, no narrative here, or tether-back-to. Just boxes to eat in. Big boxes for shopping. One boxy theater with nine movies plexed in. The parking lots gaped. Snipped, sprayed, and divided. Unpeopled. Tidied for no one.

Real land is never sad in its vastness, lost in its solitude. Left alone, cycles dress and undress it, chill-and-warm so it peaks, hardens, slides, swells. Real land hosts—voles, foxes, cicadas. Fires, moss, thunder. Rolls or gets steep. Sinks, sops, and sprouts. But this land didn’t read. It babbled the way useless things babble—fuzzy bees with felt smiles, bejeweled and baubley occasional plaques, ConGRADulation mugs/frames/figurines. Capped, crusted, contained, so laden with stuff—how can it breathe?

Here, surely, went people with thoughts, in the past—and not as I conjured them, fleet, makeshifty odes, dumb stock-assumptions, citified cartoons, with force of wind and vast stretch of blacktop shaping my story of them very poorly. (Points, maybe, for hale traits I assigned: reticence, dignity, industriousness, skill!) My folks were as flat as those cowboy silhouettes slouched up against mailboxes, but the drive to olden them, tie them back to the earth, give them good pastoral work was real.

Let me start over, since this is America, land of beginnings. I’ll try again, since after one night’s stay, here doesn’t clarify at all. Let me start very simply with my simple problem:

Here, it’s February, 2008, and I can’t figure out how to get my body to land in a land where the present’s not speaking. Where stories won’t take, and walking is sliding. I found a cadence to quiet the chatter, a word useful for focus and pacing out steps—refuse, which I used as both re-FUSE and REF-use, resistance-meets-garbage, iambic/trochaic, sing-songy, buoyant—but alas, it ordered not much. So today I go searching in earnest. To the library first (always, always), then around the corner to Special Collections where I blurt my question to the expert on duty: At the site of the Cobb—that whole south side of town (“mess of emptiness,” I’m conveying with pauses)—by the Big K and Hooters (“that awful nowhere” suggested by sighs), before all that, what was there? Ah, she says, disappearing in the back, then returning with a stack of yellowing magazines. Here, try these.

I find a clear table, spread the magazines out and turn the dry pages.

Once it was February 1942 here. It was British Cadet Class 42E at the Alabama Institute of Aeronautics, a wartime flying school operating in cooperation with the U.S. Army Air Corps. Here First Captain Wheeler wrote in Fins and Feathers, the cadets’ magazine, a note of gratitude to the American trainers “for interpreting their training system in a manner intelligible to we British Cadets.”

Here, in their monthly, the cadets and their officers noted the welcomed, small acts of American civility and laughed over their own displacement (moors! Tuscaloosa!), all in the literary conventions of the time—yearbooky, vignettish, clean-cut and well mannered.

And just for a moment, the ugliness recedes (note of gratitude for the cadets, as they hover around, high in the blue, learning dials and gauges and jostling each other; note of—I can’t help it—pleasure, as I read to myself and their lovely accents kick in). The pour of blacktop, the gray icing of curb, I’m being assured now, isn’t the earth. That’s its burnt crust. That’s its sackcloth for unholy times, before the rapture comes and restores, assumes the earth back to woods, fields, shores where I might ramble and stroll—little myth I can’t help invoking, which more commonly goes, in my head, wordlessly: it’ll get better, it’ll be righted, cleaned, and made pure, it will, how bad could it be, see how perfectly blue the sky is! (That’s stock-Lia talking, brightly, brightly because the ugliness hurts, the wincing is constant; that’s the me rucksacked up and ready for hiking, neverminding the dark and gathering clouds, grabbing a poncho, and let’s go everyone!)

Here, near the Cobb, is the land where Mac wrote, in Fins and Feathers, a little piece called “Our London”:

I remember the sun setting over the last rugged corner of Britain in a blaze of crimson magnificence, that we saw when the ship sailed in August. I remember seeing the lights of Toronto start to blink from a small island on Lake Ontario. But best of all—I remember London.
Though I am many thousands of miles away, I see her constantly, not as she stands now, bruised and battered, but as she was when I spent my adolescent initiation within her walls; and I am sorry that I was not able to appreciate her then as I do now. For in those days, Regent Street just signified to me the roads that led from Piccadilly Circus to Oxford Street. Charing Cross was just a station that served my purpose in going south. The same applied to Fleet Street, Cheapside and Soho, and a host of other fine places . . .

Here, my students and I are reading Virginia Woolf, who worked in Mac’s London, right through the war, this very same war, on her own piece, “A Sketch of the Past.” Almost every entry begins with a mere nod to the war outside her window. Instead, it’s her past, her lost houses, land, family—whole eras gone, irreplaceably gone—that demand recounting: 

As we sat down to lunch two days ago . . . John came in, looked white about the gills, his pale eyes paler than usual, and said the French have stopped fighting. Today the dictators dictate their terms to France. Meanwhile, on the very hot morning, with a blue bottle buzzing and a toothless organ grinding and the men calling strawberries in the Square, I sit in my room at 37 Mecklenburgh Square and turn to my father.
. . . Yesterday . . . five German raiders passed so close over Monks House that they brushed the tree at the gate. But being alive today, and having a waste hour on my hands . . . I will go on with this story . . .

Here, it’s London for us, when we gather, my students and I, three hours each night to talk about books, language, art—forms of flight, forms of landing. With my cadets, it’s getting less strange. All this sitting and reading together helps.

Here, Ryan, one of my hosts, brought me an umbrella since I came unprepared for sudden storms. Here, Group Captain Leonard Thorne notes, as I do, the Tuscaloosa residents’ “wonderful hospitality and friendship.”

Nights, here, I am much impressed by my Hilton stack-up of pillows. (I can easily be made to feel rich by an abundance of bedclothes, plumping them while watching bad, late-night TV, letting the excess fall to the floor.) Seems I would have played nicely with RAF Hazlehurst who “still thinks a pillow is a weapon and not a headrest.” We’d have blurred the room with soft, flying weapons. “Born and bred in Derbyshire. Educated at Winchester. ‘Dick’ to his buddies . . .” He’s the bareheaded one, no leather helmet-and-goggle set, or dress cap all the others wear, in their Fins and Feathers photo.

And here is E. G. Gordon, transferred from the Royal Artillery Anti-Aircraft, born in London, educated at Kingsbury School, Middlesex, whose chief sport is boxing, who “claims to be the shortest man in the R.A.F. and so lives in constant dread of six-foot blind dates.” Here, layered over the land, are his jitters, which, from his photo, it seems he makes light of: his flight cap is precipitously tilted, one side of his mouth hiked, mischievous, laughing, his tie expertly knotted, his meticulous uniform sharp pressed and not especially diminutive looking. Whatever he left behind of himself, whatever I sensed on my walk, subatomic, molecularly present—that which I now know to call E. G.—was right here. Was so young. In the photo, he’s no more than twenty. If he’s alive now, he’s older than my father.

Here, I walk into class thinking, Really I have nothing to say to these people, the proper study of writing is reading, is well-managed awe, desire to make a thing, stamina for finishing, adoration of  language, and so on about reverie, solitude, etc. Here, sitting down, I’m going over my secret: I don’t want to be inspiring, I just want to write and they, too, should want that—let’s all agree to go home and work hard. I walk in, I see people with books, stacks of books I’ve asked them to read. Besides Woolf, there’s James Agee (let’s take that out, class), who lived with and wrote of the poorest white sharecroppers of Alabama (nice convergence—Alabama!) and whose force of nature, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, was published in 1941, as he might add, Year of Our Lord, to dignify the event. Event: I choose my word carefully, friends, for, as Agee writes, “this is a book only by necessity . . . let’s turn to page xi . . .” Now I’m cooking. I, in my flight suit (black sweater and jeans), look into the faces of my cadets. Everyone’s eager. We walk to the runway. We find the ignition.

Here, I am escorted to the Dreamland for barbecue, and with Brian, my student, eat my first banana pudding. Here, A. T. Grime, Flight Lieutenant, wrote, “Anxious experiments are being carried out by the devoted Mr. Davies, our Dietician, with the object of providing an acceptable Yorkshire Pudding a la Tuscaloosa, to satisfy the palates of our gourmets. This I think is typical,” he continued, “of the efforts made by all at this school . . . to make your pilgrimage a memorable experience.” The banana pudding is so sweet, so custardy, full of bananas and cakey white fluff, so heavy and childish, if I’d grown up with it, I’d miss it too, when abroad.

Here, in 2008, the assistant in charge of visitors is a “Fifi.” (That’s Ryan.) Here, in 1942, the novices en route to becoming pilots first class were “Dodos.” Fifis and Dodos. What a menagerie this land raised up.

Here, the novices have their own games: flag football with elaborate e-mail invitations. “As you can see, we at the UAEDFL—University of Alabama English Department Football League—are incredibly dedicated to our sport; we always give 110% and we play hurt . . . come play this Saturday at 11 and feel the RUSH.” Here the cadets’ training program offered “archery, horseshoes, swimming, tennis, tumbling, softball, volleyball, boxing, relays, calisthenics and for recreation golf, checkers (Chinese and regular), chess, cards, music, reading, singing and movies.” Posted at 10:59 one night: “After incessant whining on the listserv and the occasional snide (yet sheepish!) remarks in the graduate student lounge, the English Department comes up with an unbelievable plan to raise money by playing flag-football. . . . Can this ragtag band of writers, researchers, instructors and critiquers settle their views on Derrida before it’s too late?” And stanza one of an eleven-stanza poem called “Cadence, Exercise,” by cadet J. S. Peck, goes:

Throughout the U.S. Armies wide
Stand formations side by side
Their contempt they’ll never hide
for Calisthenics!

Here’s Flight Lieutenant Garthwaite, RAF Administrative Officer, in his monthly bulletin “Over to London”: “To those at home we send our sincerest hopes for the future. Although not on the field of battle ourselves, we do but gird ourselves for the great and final overthrow of Naziism. Let us hope and trust the coming year will see this war through . . . and . . . not a little by the fruits of our learning over here.”

Yes, here they learned their recitations: maximum speeds and service ceilings; flight ranges, fuel capacities, and armaments carried by the Arvo Lancasters, Armstrong Whitleys, and Bristol Beaufighters they’d be flying over the skies at home, soon, soon.

I knew in this vacancy something asserted. Something strange—that is, real—and insistent was here. The land didn’t mean to be torn and tar covered, wasn’t meant to sprout stock farmers, farm women, and ranchers. The land asked to be considered, and seriously. The land wanted to speak—past the bunkers of rolled insulation, past the earth-eating backhoes and yellow concoction my farmer (okay, working stiff, bare hands in the poison, then wiping his nose) force-fed the grass. Here, the land must have been green by the runways. Some of the big trees still here must have seen it. Yes, it must’ve been lush once, before hotels started turf wars along Marriott/Hilton lines, and thick vines choked the trees, and the tractors came and the hot blacktop poured, so the SKUs of Big K—hundreds of thousands—might take root and flourish. 

I was returned—but not to an Eden, for there were airstrips and the screams of takeoffs, supply roads were laid down for fuel and equipment, the contrails of jets streaked the air, burned, scented, inscribed the quiet so the feel of the whole experience—the desire to serve, the fear of serving—would return whenever humidity, fuel, barbecue combined rightly for the novices.

I was returned, but more in this way: someone dreamed of getting the word, high over Berlin, to top-speed it east toward the Polish border, the Führer, he’s there!, it’s the hamlet of Gierloz, fix your sights, son, load, steady, and—. Someone considered the glory, the fame, posing for photos with requisite wounds. Family pride, shining future. The world’s gratitude. Because the boys must have thought it, because I had the thought, it must have been lingering. The thoughts must have held on, hovering, jittery, wanting some rest. Such thoughts were preserved, but nowhere on the land. Nothing cadet was marked here, not poems or pudding, jaunty caps, homesickness. Instead, here were lots, grids, boxes, all manner of automata—doors that opened without human touch allowing the body to float right on in and get down to the business of buying.

Here’s where the splintered, close barracks were raised—and then razed, ploughed under into a new kind of cloverleaf: blacktopped, clovery only from air.

When the land would not speak and my characters failed, when the land was muffled and my characters stock, this piece was born.

Here is my seed. Here is my search, trail, map of convergences.

Here is the thing I made in place of—what, exactly?

What did I find myself wanting? Something simple and telling—say a shop revealing the “character of the people upon whom the town depended for its existence.” Even better (and this from Thomas Hardy’s England), “a class of objects displayed in a shop window . . . scythes, reap-hooks, sheep-shears, bell-hooks, spades, mattocks and hoes at the ironmongers; beehives, butter firkins, churns, milking stools and pails, hay rakes, field flagons and seed lips at the cooper’s, cart ropes and plough harnesses at the saddler’s; carts, wheelbarrows, and mill gear at the wheelwrights and machinist’s; horse embrocations at the chemist’s; at the glover’s and leathercutter’s, hedging gloves, thatcher’s knee-caps, ploughman’s leggings, villager’s patterns and clogs . . .” Oh, boots to lace up against scalding and scraping! Commerce boiled, reconstituted—oh, made rhythmic with breath, heavy with being—even objects transparent as the jewel-colored jars of preserves in the pantries of farmhouses I’ve known—apricot suns, the flushed hot-dawn tomatoes, deep dusk-purple plums put up, sealed, stored away, would shine with this presence.

I wanted a footpath, a field-edge—a sidewalk. People at ease with neighbors and chatting. A simple plaque at the site of—whatever: Here the cadets of 42E sat to eat their first grits. Scrap of wing or propeller on the Hilton’s faux mantle. Fins and Feathers next to every Gideon’s Bible.

What did I find? Some Februaries that matched—one then and one now; some novices each with their good fights and good words, their gratitudes, civilities, and homey soft puddings.

I wanted to know what happened here, on land like this.

Now I know.

People learn to fly through it. And then they go home.

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Lia Purpura’s books include the collection of essays On Looking, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the poetry collection King Baby. She is writer in residence at Loyola University in Baltimore, Maryland.

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