Patricia Eakins is the author of The Hungry Girls and Other Stories (San Francisco: Cadmus Editions, 1988). Her fiction has been published in The Iowa Review, Parnassus, and disturbed guillotine. She has just completed a novel. "White History Month" was first published in Central Park under the title "White on White."
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1. Describe your heritage profile and status prognostication:
2. Which of the following colors do you prefer? Heath _____, Raisin _____, Cashew _____, Parchment _____,Bisque _____, Citron _____, Herb _____, Desert _____, Thatch _____, Rattan _____.
3. What is your favorite dance company?
4. What brand and model is your answering machine?
5. What percentage of your clothing is natural fibers?
6. What is the difference between a Stratocaster and a Stradivarius?
7. (a) Did you ever dial 970-000H? (b) Do you think the service could be improved with a modem and virtual-reality gloves? (c) What kind of underwear does artificial intelligence consider sexy? (d) Does the answer to c depend on the number of computer languages you are literate in?
8. What brand of water do you drink?
9. Where did you get that hair cut?
10. Do you drink beer from a glass or from a can in a twisted paper bag?
11. What are you willing to give up for the sake of the ozone layer?
When your grandparents crossed the Atlantic on a ship, which they called the boat, they couldn't afford a roomette. They rode in steerage under the deck, a windowless cargo hold, sitting on their Samsonite on duck boards with bilge slopping back and forth beneath them. The lucky ones had hammocks to sleep in, but no one had privacy. They had to brush their teeth in a tin cup and wait in line to use the bathroom. If they hadn't brought their own toilet paper, they had to beg the captain for some of the straw the ship was carrying for the horses of the cossacks, which ran wild out west, where they mated with the horses of conquistadors brought over centuries earlier--but that is another story.
The cossacks had roomettes and smoked after-dinner cigars with the captain. Sometimes they raped the women in steerage, who wore babushkas to make themselves look non-funloving. When there was a storm, the cossacks' horses struggled for footing, their hooves clanging and clattering, their screaming louder than the yowling of babies writhing in the arms of mothers trying to sleep sitting up on suitcases. They stared into darkness for hours, listening to clanging hooves and sloshing bilge and the slapping of waves against the hull of the boat.
Voices murmured, the voices of restless ones telling stories or arguing with those they had left behind. And under those voices a murmur, barely audible, rose from the path the boat was taking across the sea. For even though the waters constantly moved (each droplet of the great, deep soup that covers the earth was constantly travelling in waves that crested and broke and reassembled under your grandparents' boat and other boats) still there was memory in the drenched earth beneath the sea, memory in the history of simple habitation that names and renames the soup and has been changing the earth since the birth of the first blue-green algae, the anaerobic algae that make do in the dark, as your grandparents had to when crossing in the steerage of the boat.
Staring into fetid blackness, your grandparents passed the whiney children back and forth between them--children so small and undernourished they clung to your grandparents like little possums, weeping and mewing and squirming in your grandparents' laps. The underlying murmur persisted beneath the fussing and fretting of children, beneath the cooing and preening of lovers picking lice from each others' heads, beneath the muttering of fathers, grandfathers and big uncles counting coins over and over in the dark, coins clinking and clunking as they fingered them in pockets. And the murmur was the echo of all the similar noises and cries made by sailors and settlers, soldiers and workers, farmers and merchants and wives and whores who had crossed the sea for centuries before. And echoing too the rapacious jawing and hooting of pirates, the groaning of joints of boats, the complaints of dipping and swaying masts in whistling and wailing storms--all these noises echoed a path through history over and through the sea. And among other noises the moans of the slaves on whose backs the lash fell slashing and stinging as creaking oars propelled the slavers' ships through the wake of the past.
Your grandparents may have been indentured servants, but they weren't slaves--or if they were, please skip to the next story, or the one after that. Oh well. Read on if you will. We didn't come here to give any of you a lecture--where were we?
Your grandparents were clutching prayer beads, pleading not to be chained to oars but to continue their journey under sail or steam, sitting peacefully in darkness munching hard tack and cheese rinds, stringing beads of garlic around their children's necks against the depradations of rats. The praying of your grandparents rose to heaven with the power and beauty of a choir of angels plucking harps at Christmas. They stroked the crosses they carried in their pockets, Catholic crosses with Jesus on them, and Protestant crosses with Jesus flown to the sky to trail the boat with sea gulls.
Grandma was glad the descendants of slaves in the U.S. of A. had been freed by Mr. Abraham Lincoln there on the field at Gettsyburg, where their leg irons had been melted into ploughshares. But Grandpa had heard that ex-slaves had been forced to live in rundown houses with no running water--houses like no others in America where the streets were paved with gold. And because ex-slaves were not allowed to have library cards they had taken to playing three-card monte, listening to music that loosed their passions and wore out their shoes with dancing.
Your grandparents weren't interested in passions of any kind--not lust, not greed, not anger, not revenge. They didn't dance, and their shoes didn't wear out. Your grandparents believed in self-control, in hard work and in saving money in holes in mattresses. They believed in educating children in hard schools, particularly boys. If the music of passion were going to distract the boys from math and spelling, then your grandparents wanted the music silenced, even if that meant hanging the musicians upside down till blood drained from their ears.
1. What is the difference between a deadhead, a ballhead, and a jarhead?
2. Should pre-op transsexuals use the bathroom of their gender of origin or their gender of destination? What bathroom is appropriate for post-op transsexuals? For transvestites?
3. What percentage of government jobs should be reserved for white males?
4. Which of the following would you be willing to die for: your family? your friends? peace freedom democracy capitalism? your virginity? your religion, or your lack of religion? your wallet, sucker?
5. How many dead foreigners equal one dead American?
6. Are you going to stop whatever it is you're doing, or do we have to come back there?
Your grandparents didn't know your parents would be taught the palmer method of penmanship and spend many hours of each school year making long rolls of script across page after page, like rolls of barbed wire disguised as tumbleweed rolling across an endless prairie. They didn't know this barbed wire would become a fence. And they didn't know America would line up on the desert side the Negroes (even though they had become Christians); the Jews (though they were white, had crossed the Atlantic in steerage and worked hard); the Mexicans (who preferred corn meal to flour); the Chinese (who had been given work-study grants to build America's railroads but had not had the decency to return home); the Japanese (who ate seaweed and raw fish, like seals); and whooping red Indians who couldn't handle liquor. The real Americans were on the good side of the fence, the side where the water was and carrots grew, row upon row waiting to be cut into tiny cubes, mixed with peas, and frozen.
When your grandparents saw the fence separating "haves" from "have-nots," fertile land from desert, they felt a twinge of remorse. Mostly they were glad to be on the side where the irrigation was. They thought of a saying they had coined on the way across the Atlantic--"Don't rock the boat."
Sitting in the hold of the boat, munching hard tack, smoothing their children's hair back from their brows, listening to banging hooves and slopping bilge, inhaling the tarry smell of ropes, your grandparents had been haunted by ashy, premonitory voices of slaves who had died at their oars and been slipped across the gunwhales to sink unshrouded. Yet your grandparents didn't want to be seen as troublemakers even before they reached the new land or learned the new language; they said nothing.
Soon enough they walked from the hold and down the gangplank and passed through customs blinking their eyes at daylight, turning their pockets inside out so officers could see they imported no agricultural pests. They immediately started in business, picking bottle caps and candy wrappers from the gutter. Pretty soon they pushed a wire cart from a supermarket up and down the streets, crying "Tinker, mend your pots and pans," "Rags! Old iron!" "Watermelon man!" "Ice! Ice!"
It was only a matter of time till your parents paid off the mortgage on the convenience store; they began to make a small profit selling newspapers, Coca Cola, kitty litter, greeting cards and lunch meat.
Your parents were about to trade up, adding lines of men's, ladies' and childrens' clothing, giving up lunch meat. They had purchased fireplace-tender sets as loss leaders; they were moving into storefronts adjoining their convenience store when the stock market crashed. Consumers who couldn't make payments on American Express began jumping out of windows. The rain of bodies clogged sewers and polluted rivers. The survivors fought the stench with spray deodorant, damaging the ozone layer. This lowered the air quality to an unacceptable level, so the Big Three auto manufacturers relocated to Japan, where escapees from behind the Great American Barbed-Wire Fence were setting a terrible example for tourism, trading in kimonos for pin-striped suits.
Your parents strapped your grandparents to mattresses on the roof of a Japanese-made van. They headed for Oklahoma, as did thousands of other Americans. Oklahoma had been a burger ranch, full of cattle, but the vans stampeded the cattle; they ran till they died, along with the buffalo which had once been so numerous. Oklahoma turned to a Dust Bowl from the stress of all that ranch land's being converted to a parking lot--without any blacktop--and before environmental impact had even been assessed.
In the gathering gloom, your mother tried to keep your spirits up, pretending it was a tailgate party, the roadies for Bruce Springsteen and the Grateful Dead were already stacking speakers. Your grandparents would have preferred an impromptu harmonica concert, maybe a little accordion. They wanted to eat milk toast sitting in lawn chairs with wet bandannas over their noses to keep down the dust. Your father said your grandparents had to be careful not to get trampled by tee-shirt vendors. They would be unstrapped from the van roof as soon as Bruce and the Dead started playing, which would be when they recovered from the influenza that was claiming hundreds of lives even if people wore gas masks so they wouldn't have to breathe poison air--even if they put mustard plasters all over their bodies. The fumes from the mustard corroded the tubes of the gas masks, attacking the nasal passages of slow learners. The mounted policemen could no longer practice effective crowd control. Several distinguished elderly persons had already been hanged as witches, their heads skewered on the antennae of CB radios. So your father thought your grandparents had better stay on top of the van, though your mother gave them sun visors.
Were your grandparents satisfied? Oh no! They made remarks about all they had sacrificed coming over on the boat--the chance to stay in Europe and starve until planeloads of American tourists--the children and grandchildren of immigrants who had crossed the Atlantic in steerage--revived the quaint customs of the past like sitting in cafés drinking licorice-flavored alcoholic beverages that made them want to spend money on postcards of the insect-ridden thatched-roof huts their ancestors had fled from. Americans toured the castles their grandparents had been servants in. Why, if only their families had stayed, they would have been promoted from servant to duke or prince!
Your grandparents strapped to the roof of the van waiting for the Dead to play with Bruce still resented losing their chance to be knighted. Some had never even received medals they had been promised for releasing the survivors from the concentration camp behind the European knock-off of the barbed-wire fence after World War II, when Christians everywhere finally acknowledged that kosher hotdogs were superior to all others. At that time ethnobotanists created the hybrid known as "the hanukkah bush." The Judeo-Christian tradition was invented along with the seltzer bottle made famous by Clarabel the clown on the Howdy Doody show.
Now your grandparents looked out across the parking lot and saw other grandparents strapped to the roofs of vans, abused by a decline in family values. They began refusing all nutriment, food or beverage. They asked only for a little water to moisten their parched lips; once in a while your parents reached up with a sponge soaked in apple-cider vinegar.
Meanwhile you and (Check one) your (a) brother(s)? (b) sister(s)? (c) both of the above? (d) none of the above? (e) other? (please specify) were fighting in the back of the van. You had been playing "Alphabet" with letters on the license plates of other vehicles parked in the lot that used to be Oklahoma. One of you said he or she had seen a Q and the other(s) was/were, to say the least, incredulous, particularly as the alleged Q claimant could no longer locate the alleged license plate. It was your word or your sibling's--a showdown.
"I've had about all I'm going to take," said the parent trying to refold a map. So the parent driving took off the parking brake and put the van in gear; you left the Dust Bowl without seeing the concert or the football game that was to follow.
"Wait!" you cried. "What about Grandma and Grandpa?"
"They'll love California," said your mother.
"The Gold Rush," said your father.
"Water!" cried your grandparents from atop the van.
In California, your parents homesteaded; they started an orange plantation.
"See? Lovely, lovely oranges!"
"I hate oranges," you said. And your siblings echoed. "I hate orange juice. I hate orange jello. I hate orange marmalade. I hate orange sherbet--"
"That's enough," said your father.
"Me, I hate orange life-savers," muttered Grandpa.
Your father moved your grandparents' lawn chairs out to the ends of the orange-tree rows so they could look out onto the now-electrified barbed wire fence separating desert from promised land.
"Who are those people crawling toward the irrigation ditch?" said Grandpa.
"They must think this is a public beach," said Grandma.
"Looks like they're after the oranges. Well, help yourselves, folks!"
"Those people frizzle up like burnt bacon when they touch that fence."
"If I were you I'd go back where you came from," hissed Grandpa.
"Oranges cause cancer in rats." He was already nodding off.
Your grandparents dozed in their chairs while the eyes of your parents' flamingo lawn ornaments regarded them impassively, glittering in light reflected from the garrison belts of safety patrols wearing pointed hoods sewn from flowered sheets, carrying baseball bats as they converged on the mall to guard the magnet store.
12. (a) How many friends do you have from ethnic groups other than your own? How many relatives? (b) Do you believe in the same religion your parents do? Why?
13. Name a dozen nationalities of Europe.
14. Name a dozen nationalities of the subcontinent of India:
15. Name the principal wars among African peoples of the post-colonial twentieth century.
16. What ethnic and gender groups is your cleaning technician a member of?
17. Your physician?
18. (a) Do you believe a plumber should earn as much per hour as an accountant? Why or why not? (b) To what ethnic groups do your plumber and your accountant belong? Does this have any bearing on your answer to the money question?
19. Would you swim in the same pool as a person with A.I.D.S.?
20. Would you eat from the same plate as a person with false teeth?
21. Do you believe the organs of electrocuted criminals should be contributed to innocent sick people, even if the crimes are of moral turpitude?
22. What is the difference between (a) orzo and ouzo? , (b) salaam and salami? , (c) mullah, mezzuzah, and medulla oblongata?
23. Should teen-agers be allowed to French Kiss people of their own age? Their own gender? From their own families?
24. Who invented overdubbing?
25. What punishments are suitable for mothers who call attention to flaws in their children's bodies, listen in on their telephone conversations, go through their wallets or purses looking for birth-control devices, and make them eat foods they don't like?
Remember the first time you went to the doctor, how you cried when he or she pricked your finger and drew out blood to smear on a slide, cried even harder when she or he pricked the vein in the crook of your arm to draw out a cylinder of dark red blood? Remember asking your mother what happened to the blood after it was tested? Did they use it to replace the blood of accident victims? She said there is a huge bird bath in the middle of the Pentagon with a fountain in it; they fly the blood there. You said, What kind of birds come? She said, Crows, eagles and vultures--did you think robins?
You could recall aerial photographs of the Pentagon; what was in the angular hole at the center of its polygonal donut? Was it a giant outdoors cyclotron generating atomic particles? Was some kind of worship going on there, like at Stonehenge, with children sacrificed then memorialized on milk cartons? Your mother's explanation sounded reasonable, though she was bent out of shape because your father never ate dinner with her and you kids. Still, she denied that she was lonely or depressed. She said, "Grandpa didn't eat with Grandma either, did he, Grandma? And Grandma wasn't lonely or depressed, was she, Grandma?"
Grandma said, No, and neither had her mother been, or her mother's mother. Women had been women, cheerful and thrifty in aprons with bibs since God and his family created the world. Your mother was lucky to have her man, she should stop complaining about the second job painting houses he had taken to keep up their standard of living. Hadn't he tried to buy her a fur coat? ("An end-of-season sale.") And what about that diamond ring? ("To replace the Cracker Jack favor he gave me when we made the announcement.")
"Every year he buys you flowers on your anniversary and your birthday--what kind of girl turns her nose up at flowers?"
"Some people don't know how to mind their business."
"I know when I'm not wanted. I can take a hint. I'm going now. Don't try to stop me. I would never be a burden."
Grandma hobbled over to the fence, grabbed it in both hands and sizzled to smoke and a greasy ash in the sand.
"Now look at what you've done!" scolded Grandpa. To him your mother was still a child. He started throwing oranges at her.
"Ouch! Ouch!" she called to your father--
But he couldn't hear her. He had sneaked off to his secret bathtub where he sunk himself up to his chin in nice clean, fresh, fragrant new fives cracking like ice on a hot day. He was bathing in his fedora, smoking cigars, drinking milk spiked with vodka while he did crossword puzzles without the aid of a dictionary.
He heard the oranges thudding and splotting, your mother's shocked little cries. By the time he had wrapped himself in his towel and looked out the window, your mother had shoved your grandfather into the fence. He too frizzled like a bit of onion on a short-order cook's grill. Now there were two greasy ashes in the sand. Your mother picked them up and placed them gently in a lumpy clay pot you had made in school.
"There! Now they're at peace. We'll bury them among the orange trees they loved so well."
She stuffed into the lumpy pot with the ashes some dyed carnations your father had given her; she threw the pot into the irrigation ditch.
"That's enough of that!" she said to Your Father, standing there in his towel. From now on, she wanted him to be a gentleman orange farmer. She didn't approve of the money he made covering structural defects of houses with paint.
As long as she had him reduced to his towel, she was confiscating his paint-splattered shoes, she said, the very look of which desecrated their home in the subdivision called Orange Grove Acres. She was confiscating his painty jeans and painty tee-shirt too. He could wear farmer's overalls with a button-down shirt and regimental tie, so he'd fit in with the reproduction horse engravings she had cut from magazines. She was going to enforce the cookie-jar rule, too. Over and over he had promised to deposit his money in the jar where she saved for rainy days, but he had barely been giving her enough for groceries, though he must be making more; he left at 5:00 in the morning, came back at 10:00 at night. If he was working all those hours, what were those "Fire and Ice" lip prints among the spatters of Antique White on his tee-shirt?
Amazing, he said, clutching his towel, how many denizens of Orange Grove Acres wanted red door trim, window trim, ceiling trim, sometimes entire rooms of red that looked like a hooker's underwear--Foreign Underwear. Your father preferred the white paint, like white underpants on a high-school cheerleader you only see when she jumps, but what could he do? Sometimes homeowners asked for red.
Ha, said Your Mother, pulling off your father's towel. "If you believe that Disney stuff, you'll believe anything."
"What about my finger?" you said.
"Finger and the crook of my arm where--"
But your mother and your father were busy.
26. (a) In the scene where Jesus builds his cross without the use of power tools, his loins are encased in what brand of jeans? And his mom's? (b) Would he smoke Marlboro? His mom Virginia Slim?
27. (a) Would you rather buy a used car from Ted Koppel, Yo-Yo Ma, Sandra Day O'Connor or Lech Walesa? (b) Do you think Mr. Koppel wears a hairpiece? (c) Would it affect your consumer decision if you did?
28. Remember playing kissy-face with the dog, letting him lick your lips and stick his cold wet nose between your teeth? Remember your mother saying, "Do you know where that dog's nose has been?"
29. What is the principal difference between Billie Holliday, Billy the Kid, Billy Budd, Billy Graham, Billy Idol, Billy Crystal and Billy Club?
30. What musical comedy song other than "Oklahoma" would you choose to be our new national anthem?
Your father was more and more worried about his heart. He was trying to calm it with deep breathing so he wouldn't have an attack from (Choose one) (a) the very sight of you, young man, in your $500 silk tweed sportcoat over faded black Fruit-of-the Loom; (b) the very sight of you, young woman, in your assymetric haircut and your faux-leopard tights. You were wearing a diamond in one of your pierced ears and a skull in the other, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette, which made you feel much better about your finger. You told your father you believed in wire-rimmed spectacles but not in God or war, whereupon he slapped you. You fell to the floor and sustained severe injuries to the innermost parts of your brain. That's when you grew up. You forgot about your finger and became (a) a crystal therapist specializing in past-life regression healing, (b) a college professor of market rhetoric teaching English as a second language to graduates of midwestern high schools studying to become food-service salespersons, (c) a real-estate broker and part-time masseuse, (d) an unemployed electrical engineer working as a cab driver who plays "singing strings" over four speakers and deodorizes the inside of the cab with a pine-tree shaped air freshener that dangles from the rear-view mirror, (e) other (please specify).
When your own kids were old enough, you took them to Europe. They didn't want to see any moldy old castle--they weren't interested in the boat your grandparents had taken to America. They didn't even want want to see Abbey Road, where that famous picture of the Beatles kissing Imelda Marcos was taken. They wanted to find the grave of an obscure Parisian poet named Viele-Griffin, an American who shoved the besandalled Alexandrine foot off the throat of the prostrate French verse and replaced it with the enbalmed foot of Walt Whitman in a Nike cross-training shoe.
A kid like that drinks mango nectar, not rum 'n' coke, and plays soccer, not American football. There is nothing to get him or her for Christmas. He or she doesn't want an army-surplus camouflage cap, doesn't want an umbrella with Ralph Lauren's logo, doesn't want a deck of ornamental tarot cards, doesn't want a Statue-of-Liberty paperweight. All you can give him or her is a rubbing from the grave of Frederic Chopin, or maybe Kafka, or even Gertrude Stein. Something from the Europe of statues blackened by auto exhaust and whitened by pigeon droppings that has nothing to do with your conviction that the next century belongs to the ones who live in packing crates on the desert side of the barbed-wire fence and steal juice for their TVs. They have tunneled under the wire and are snaking on their bellies across the black plastic keeping weeds down between crop rows in the fields of the Promised Land Corporation (black plastic like the trash bags in which infantry-persons come home from combat). Automatic weapons raised above their heads, they're carefully fording irrigation ditches, drawn to the magnet stores in the Orange Grove Acres mall, which they plan to liberate once and for all.