"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

‘Crystal’ Chapter I


I have to copy this short story I wrote some years ago on a typewriter; so I will do it in about 5-6 installments:

Sam Hanks had been described as the last free soul. A drawling, wiry, five-foot-two Georgian, he had been rumored to have been a professor of pre-Colombian history, a land owner in Haiti where his mulatto wife now ran everything and threatened to kill him if he ever came back, and a car salesman in Detroit after another wife sued him for child support.

‘You just wouldn’t believe it’, he said to me. ‘She ran me out of the house before I could get my pants on.  Came after my sweet little hangars with hunger in her eyes.  The first bus out of Tallahassee had me on it going north.  Why I was half-way to Detroit before I knew where we were headed.  Always-a-dream Lurleen.  Wrapped those golden legs around me and said, “Stay with Momma”, and that’s exactly what I did, Hugh.  Exactly what I did.  God-awful place, too, Detroit.  Cold as hell with black, sooty buildings, that kind of wispy smoke comin’ up out of the factories, clankin’ and hummin’ like the city was all machines and no people…’

‘But you stayed and became a car salesman’, I said.

‘Nobody becomes a car salesman, for God’s sake.  It’s something you do if you have to.  I remember one time when I was standin’ on the lot, the wind whippin’ around me, goin’ up my pants legs and freezing my chops when this fine little honey comes prancin’ over to me and asks if I’ve got a ‘62 Plymouth. “Why, Missy”, I said. “I’ve got whatever your little heart desires”, and she comes cooin’ over real close, rubbing against my leg, grabbin’ hold, breathin’ sweet over everything.  Hot damn, if we didn’t make it in the back seat of that ol’ ‘62 Plymouth and take the sting out of Thursday.


Hanks lived in a house in suburban Madras which was as legendary as he was.  ‘Wait’ll you see his porch’ everyone had said, and I accepted his invitation with pleasure.  ‘You and me’s got to do some serious talking and serious drinking’, he told me, ‘so get your ass over here early’.  As I arrived that evening I saw Hanks hailing me from the porch. ‘Hi, Hugh’, he drawled.  ‘How’re they hangin’?’

‘Not bad, Sam.  How about you?’

‘I am hanging on – barely.’ 

I was brought up to the porch by a servant.  It was done as a native hut – thatched roof, cane bar, wooden stools, and a woven fiber mat on the floor.

‘Let me tell you’, he said, ‘I waited for this house.  Listen….can you hear them? Ah, those evening birds are so sweet; and the smell of tropical flowers.  It’s enchanting, isn’t it? I built this little thatched roof here so when I’m lying on this mat here, I can look up and through the fringed, leafy edge, I can see the stars and be on the beach, peaceful and quiet’. He paused for a moment and looked out towards the thick, tall mango trees in the road. ‘Oh, I go on about my little place; don’t mind me.  Why don’t you help yourself to a drink right there at the bar.  I’ll just sit here a and drain the last drops out of mine’.

I perched on one of the little bar stools and poured myself a Scotch.

‘Hugh, that is the finest French crystal in all of Europe.  Now, I know some people think it’s an extravagance, but I love fine things.  Hold it up to the candlelight….go ahead.  See the way the light refracts so beautifully?  And when you put your ice in, wasn’t it like chimes the way it sounded? There is nothing like being surrounded with beautiful things’.

Hanks’ house was almost completely bare except for the French crystal and the fiber mat on the floor.  Downstairs had almost no furniture.  There was one picture on the wall – a large, old photograph of a rich zamindar and his family, but nothing else.

‘You spend a lot of time up here, I guess’.

‘Hugh, there is nothing, and I mean nothing, like sleeping out up here, hearing the chirp and click of the insects, smelling the sweet night air, and waking real early in the morning to the whistlin’ of the birds.  I spend every minute I can up here.  Every minute’.

We drank until about eight-thirty when Hanks began telling me about Mexico.

‘Isn’t it the goddamnist thing the way we neglect the past? That’s why I went to Mexico, first as a student, then as a professor.  The art of Oaxaca, of Monte Alban, of Mitla.  My, oh my, that’s something!  I would sit looking at those terracottas for hours – just hours looking at the finely sculpted features, the sensitivity of the line and the expression on their faces.  Why, it was like looking into the past.  Right through their eyes and into a thousand years ago’.

‘How long did you teach?’, I asked, trying to pinpoint dates and lengths of time to try to figure out exactly how much of all this was truth. Despite the eloquence and details, he was too eccentric.  There was too much loose and untied; something slightly unhinged about it all.

‘It was a long time aqo’, he answered.  ‘I remember one class I had on the art of the altiplano, and I was describing the Toltec arts of war.  You remember, they used to dress up in animal skins and fight like the animal they represented; and I told the class, “Now that was war. Nothing so deadly serious as real men bogged down in some wet, cold foxhole, like when I was in Korea, but fighting a fantasy war.  Men filled with the spirits of animals and animal gods, running across the plain with their panther skins a-flappin’, peering out through their wild boar-head masks, and tearin’ at each other’s throats.” That was war, I told them.  It had glory and imagination and spirit.  I told them how I saw my buddies die on the snow, and how I heard that little thump of the bullet hitting their parkas, and how I watched them just sag to the ground and bleed the snow red.  “What kind of death was that?”, I asked them.  And I meant it.  I lived that history’.


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