Splintered on storm-wracked rocks.
Splayed on granite shores.
Stone scabbards pierced my groin.
Bitter winds stabbed my cheeks.
The scallops did not taste good.
You ride me like a donkey.
I carry you like a cross.
Rid me of yourself.
Rid me of myself.
I abandoned my thatch, my cobblestones, my tolerant Dutch protectors.
For barren oak trees. On empty shores. Under grey skies. The cold bites my arse.
I died in great numbers. Half of me died. Most of my women.
I am not a Sachem, God damn it! I cannot heal. I cannot lead. And God did not help us.
We have nothing to give thanks for.
I see Natives.
Squanto was not a Wampanoag.
He was a Patuxet.
Captured and sold off in Spain in a bundle,
Packaged with fish and corn.
Squanto unbundled himself.
Escaped the Spaniards.
Traveled to England.
Returned alone to the New World.
He spoke many languages but had no identity.
His people also had died.
Consumed by leptospirosis.
I come to your shores and give unto you.
Transmitted by animal urine and animal semen.
Sequelae of myocarditis, pericarditis, meningitis, uveitis.
The blinding of the eye.
Sequelae the end.
In death we knew each other.
I occupied your village and called it Plymouth.
Squanto became what I wanted him to be.
His real name was Tisquantum.
He kept me alive he was my God.
Sparks of energy foretell an awakening.
Transubstantiation of our corn bread and our corn mash into new life.
What is the quantum? There is no God is it God?
Tisquantum. My quantum.
The parcel of land Squanto seeded with maize.
A quanta of corn laded with sugar.
Transmuting matter into energy.
Elevating my death into life.
The beginning of America.
1991 / Summer
August 28, 1991
I assume you are settling in and preparing for your first classes. A few words of advice from your old man. I’ve made no secret of my distaste for your decision to accept employment at Tillamook State. The school is a backwater, a stagnant pool in a God-forsaken part of the country. You deserve better. Still, perhaps you can engage in a bit of reclamation work with the students there. Spruce up your publishing record. Then move to a place that suits your talents and your temperament.
I believe this career move represents another attempt to separate from your childhood. I am sorry, as your recent letter suggested, that as a stripling lad you did not find me an adequate father, that you found me “difficult, distant, and abusive.”
I don’t want to rehearse once again our familiar song and dance. But it might not hurt to remind you that we all try our best in this family. And so I did as your father. Your childhood and our relationship were perhaps not so grim as you remember. After all, you did choose to become a professor. I cannot believe you did so to mock me (although your scholarship suggests otherwise).
I will likely visit your school early in 1992. Hugh (or Phil, I can never remember) Smalley (a professor in the history department at Tillamook State – have you met him?) has invited me to present one of the Chalmers Lectures. As you know, these talks concern important historical moments or historical figures. David Mott with me here at Princeton) delivered the Chalmers about five years ago. While I would not ordinarily accept this invitation, it will provide me with an opportunity to see you. I will talk about my Lincoln project.
Smalley also proposed a festschrift roundtable, to be scheduled for the afternoon prior to my lecture. It would be organized as a panel on antislavery thought, with a focus on my scholarship. Merely an honorific, he has assured me. No responsibilities at all. A thoughtful touch, don’t you think? Although we were at Harvard together as graduate students, I don’t know this fellow very well. I must say, however, he is going out of his way to festoon the tarmac for my arrival (as it were). A gesture I of course appreciate.
Your mother occupies the garden as I write, subduing the earth for winter’s first gloom, as our New England brethren would say. She plants her bare feet in the dirt. She wields a large trowel in one hand and clippers in the other. A formidable sight! She just waved and yelled for me to send you her love.
I urge you to reconsider the sentiments voiced in your letter, Eli. They are not accurate and certainly not helpful.
Your Distant Dad
1 / Injuns
Eli dragged the hand dolly across the quad. He backed along the cobbled walkway, stopping sometimes to peer across his shoulder. After Berkeley, Tillamook State communicated self-contained, quiet dignity. It was a Sunday, more than a week before classes were to start. The campus was empty. Eli nodded at brownstone buildings rimming the quad, soaked in ivy, solid but unimposing, the passerines diving into the ivy and calling to each other. Flower beds, overflowing still with petunias, marigolds, and geraniums, fronted each building. Nearby, a booted campus policeman surveyed the scene from the saddle of a horse. The policeman smiled. Put a finger to his hat.
Campus police on horseback, Eli thought. What a quaint conceit. Cobbled walkways, too. Eli had only been in Portland for a few months, but the city appeared nothing, if not decorous. No one, he thought, would proclaim Tillamook State a Harvard of the Northwest. Even so, the school was clearly the product of a plan. Here, at the center of campus, a quiet order prevailed. Nothing, none of it, reminded him of Berkeley, with its branching slabs of poured concrete, scorched grey and brown. All that trash, too, blowing down Telegraph Avenue. And the police in riot gear, sprinting across campus, spilling into the streets, to quell another disturbance.
Eli examined the equestrian statue rising above him at the center of the quad. He inspected the snorting, high-stepping horse, its bulk around the chest and withers, the proud arch of its neck as it twisted against the pull of the reins. Eli squinched his face to read the etching, then stepped back to see the man it described. Joseph Faircloth this was, bestriding the horse like a colossus, reins coiled in one hand, Bible held high in the other.
Eli knew about Faircloth. Legendary Indian fighter after the Civil War, Faircloth was appointed headmaster of the Tillamook State University in the 1880s and 1890s. At that time, the Oregon Bible and Preparatory Academy.
Faircloth stood six-eight in his stocking feet. Eli wondered how the Indians of the Northwest felt. Yakama. Cayuse. Umatilla. How they felt when Faircloth, no less granitic in life, bore down upon them in the dead of winter, rode down upon them in his beaver hat and long buffalo coat like some misbegotten assemblage of totemic animal parts, blazing away with his custom Winchester repeater?
El shook his head at the irony. That Faircloth should be remembered as an educator. But here was Eli, himself brought to Tillamook State to cement dual legacies, of violence and enlightenment, as a professor in the school’s Western Culture program.
Chuck Chucka Chucka
Chuck Chucka Boom Boom da Boom
The boom box beat slammed Eli into the present tense.
Chuck Chucka Chucka Boom
Chuck Chucka Boom
At the north end of the quad, five or six black kids rode tight circles around a small fountain on their bicycles. One of them, the tallest in the group, had strapped a ghetto blaster the size of a suitcase to his handlebars. Pounding out NWA. When the boy saw Eli and the policeman, he wheeled his bike around and skid sideways to a halt. He stood, straddling the bike, lean forearms resting easily on the tape player. Skin the color of creamed coffee, fade angled radically and obliquely toward the forehead, a clear lesson in the geometry of style. The boy gazed evenly at Eli, his confidently the look of one, still fresh in youth, who didn’t worry about commanding respect from others.
Eli smiled at the boy.
The boy returned the smile. He lifted his shirt, showing Eli the snub-nose tucked in the waistband of his shorts.
Eli’s smile melted. He glanced in every direction, but the quad remained empty, and within it he now felt exposed and vulnerable. He tried to catch the eye of the mounted policeman, but found no comfort there. The cop slumped on his horse, staring into the distance, away from the youths, toward the river. Eli noticed now softness around the man’s middle, sag at his shoulders, pudginess of fingers holding the reins. The guy looked nothing like campus policemen at Berkeley, muscled and sleek, inscrutably fascist behind their mirrored sunglasses.
Eli’s instincts were to run, to dart toward the river. Instead he reached for the hand dolly. He yanked the dolly once, to get it rolling, and took a few steps backward. And then he heard the epithet, white faggot, and the bike wheels churning across the grass. He stopped again, lurching around to set the dolly in front of him like a shield.
The gang peddled furiously toward him, toward the statue of Joseph Faircloth, whooping and hollering. They rode high above their bike seats, legs pumping like fierce pistons, looping wide around the statue, hemming in Eli, with his dolly of boxes, and the cop on his horse, who was only now breaking off his reverie. Ice Cube, Baby! The tall boy circled the policeman. He juked the volume knob like a throttle, six speakers reverbing at peak wattage.
The bikes, the noise spooked the horse, its front legs rising, its mouth agape, teeth brown, palate red and frothy, terror abject and fresh. Eli barely had time to spin away from the hand dolly, barely time before the horse’s hooves crashed down upon it, crushing boxes, scattering books and paper.
The policeman fought the horse, its instincts for flight and survival, pulling tight on the reins, yanking its head, first to the right, then to the left. With kind words, he clucked in its ear, settling the horse, calming the horse. He looked over his shoulder at the kids on bikes, laughing as they rode off, west toward the river. He made no move to head them off. “Fucking kids,” he said to Eli, prone on the ground. “Playing that black shit.”
“One of those boys, the tall one, had a gun,” Eli said.
The policeman shrugged. He didn’t care. Probably a water pistol, he said, and anyway, the kids were now gone. He eased the horse away from the pile of broken boxes and stared down at Eli, half-amused. “You could use some help, though. I’ll call Maintenance.”
“Yeah, thanks,” Eli said. “Call Maintenance.”
The horse stepped in place while Eli clambered to his feet. Eli had not been so close to a horse in years. It was impossible not to marvel at the beast, its strength so precarious, a thousand pounds of muscle balanced atop tapered, flute-like legs. Eli stared into the eyes of the horse. They were beautiful, large and brown. The nose, with its plushness. Eli’s own fear. Fading into something resembling fatigue. He knelt to the ground once again, pulling scattered books into piles atop the cobbles.
* * *
McIntyre Hall squatted on the east side of the quad, one of the original buildings in the campus laid out by Faircloth and his church sponsors in 1883, distinctive even then for its mansard roof. More than a century later, possessing no elevator and few other amenities, faculty members still valued its large, high-ceilinged offices, broad windows, and worn wooden floors. McIntyre was darker, somehow, than other buildings on campus, though constructed from the same quarried brownstone, more ivy-laden, too, which offered the perspective of a building perpetually in shade, a broad animal at rest, crouched within a dense, leafy glade.
Western Culture occupied a small alcove on the third floor of McIntyre. Offices faced west, with views on the river. As a graduate student, Eli’s habitat had been a barren metal cubicle in a windowless room in the basement of the Doe Library at Berkeley, and this experience of subterranean scholastic sequestration, almost literally chained to his desk like a hunchbacked cleric, half-beast and half-man, only heightened his appreciation for his new office. Eli loved the substantiality of his new quarters, the heaviness of the wood in the window frames and in the desk and chairs, the richness of the molding, the scarred beauty of the old floor, these things testaments of his significance, evidence his work finally mattered.
Maintenance stacked Eli’s books in new boxes, carting the entire load up the two flights of stairs, aligning them just so within the alcove of the vestibule. While only a few boxes remained unopened, the heat had only intensified through the afternoon, about doing him in. So he gazed one final time around his new office, caressing the unpacked titles now in place with his eyes, his Plato and Aristotle, his Molesworth Hobbes, his eight-volume collection of Lincoln, several books by his father. These books his children.
On a shelf by itself, secured within its own glass-encased frame, there was also his 30th-birthday present from Tobias, an 1851 Harper & Brothers first edition of Moby Dick; or, The Whale.
The dealer description of the volume offered binding details. First. hardcover. good. original slate blue cloth — covers blind-stamped with a heavy rule frame and circular device in center of both boards, faded to green on spine and with ends repaired; upper corner of front cover faintly stained; original orange coated endpapers are discolored at center and have a small embossed bookseller’s ticket; very light foxing on title and other preliminary pages; ownership signature dated 1851 on the verso of the rear orange flyleaf, creasing throughout to pages at the gutter & light staining in the fore-edge margins. Housed in an attractive 1/4 green morocco slipcase.
Eli thought it not a bad description of himself at the age of 31.
“Moby Dick is the great American novel, Eli,” his father had said to Eli in the moment of gifting. “Never been equaled. Only 3,000 copies printed, and as you know it was not a commercial success. Three years later, the unsold copies were destroyed in a warehouse fire. But here is on that survived. Which I don’t mind telling you,” he added, “set me back almost two thousand dollars.”
“You shouldn’t have done this,” Eli had said.
His father had looked at him. “You’re right,” he said, “I shouldn’t have.”
Eli adjusted the volume in its case, designed to display the book with its pages opened. Idly, he leafed through the book, finally letting it fall open to Chapter 23. The Lee Shore. A short chapter, not even a page in length, but with burning language awled into his brain, and so, he imagined, auspiciously visible in the office that now housed his professional identity.
Late afternoon light, spliced with dust motes, filtering through window mullions, bent and angled toward the far corner of the office. A manila folder rested obliquely on the floor. Eli eyed it for a moment from his haunches, then sprung to his feet and retrieved the folder. He stood, back to the light, and flipped open the folder, which held a single sheet of paper. It was a diagram Eli scanned markings for several minutes, his lips moving imperceptibly, then slipped the page back into the folder and slid it into an empty desk drawer.
* * *
Eli left the office and pulled the heavy oak door shut within its casement. He noticed the name on the door. His name. He contemplated the temple-like stillness of the building, the arrival of evening, and the prospect of relief from the heat. But there in the vestibule at the bottom of the stairwell, standing like a statue, there was Shahid. He was a short man, of indeterminate racial origin, draped in a white robe and an unadorned white skullcap. He looked to be from somewhere in the Middle East. Or North Africa.
“Your nightmare, man,” he said to Eli.
“Your nightmare. Those kids. Scared you to death, didn’t they? I think they did.”
“No.” Eli laughed. “Why would they scare me?” He looked around the vestibule and out through the open doorway toward the Faircloth statue. The policeman had ridden off on his horse hours before. There was no one outside, nor in the building so far as Eli could tell. He stared directly at Shahid. “Are you trying to scare me?”
“I don’t need to try,” Shahid said. He moved closer to Eli, and Eli noticed the squared, miniaturized intensity of his face, cranium broad in proportion to its length, jaw firm, eyes set far apart. “I’m a black man. I scare you simply because I am. Just like those children.”
“This is ridiculous,” Eli said. “Please excuse me.” He moved toward the door. Shahid moved with him, angling quickly so Eli would have to squeeze past him to exit the building.
Eli paused, alarmed. “Hey guy!” he said roughly. “What’s going on here? What do you want?” Eli knew he had conceded too much to this young Arab. Or young black man. Whatever he was. Tobias would have pushed the punk aside and swept out the door.
“I’m Shahid,” Shahid said, one hand holding the door shut. “You don’t know me. I know you, though. You’re the new professor. You’re Wheeler.”
Eli wondered how Shahid knew who he was. But the connection bridged his fear. He stared evenly at Shahid. “If you want to ask about my courses, contact me tomorrow,” Eli said. “In my office.” He turned the door knob.
Shahid did not relinquish his hold on the door. His strength surprised Eli. “I wish to tell you something before you go,” he said.
Eli released the knob and fell back a step or two. “Okay. I’m listening. What do you have to say?”
“You know about the Diversity Project?”
“You know about plans to eliminate the program?”
“I hadn’t heard.”
“Well, they’re cutting us loose,” Shahid said. “By the end of the year, there won’t be one nigger left in this place.”
“I’m sorry to learn that.”
“Not as sorry as you should be.”
“Look, Shahid. Whatever your name is. Why are you telling me this? How can I help you?”
“You cannot help me. That would not be possible. That would be like trying to assist the coming storm, the billowing thunderheads, the wall of water, the brush fire in the hills. But perhaps I can help you, Professor.”
“I doubt it.” Eli moved for the door.
Shahid slipped ahead of him again and placed his hand on the knob. “You’re teaching Western Civilization. American Civilization.”
“The galaxy of stars in the white man’s firmament. Plato. Machiavelli. Jefferson. Lincoln. Am I right?” Shahid possessed the bearing of a pugilist, the cocky up thrusting of chest and chin, the fists half-clenched. Eli guessed Shahid would not mind punching the light from those stars.
“Well,” Shahid went on, “Western Civilization as you know it, Professor, as this place knows it, ends this year. My advice to you? Put your books back in their boxes right now. Take an early retirement from Tillamook State. Let the school find someone else to teach those white men. Save your skin, Wheeler.”
Eli laughed again. “You are threatening me, aren’t you?”
Shahid opened the door to the building. “Masha’Allah,” he said. “I’m just a messenger for the truth. This will be Allah’s justice. This will be Allah’s victory.” He paused on the steps, looking Eli up and down. He smiled dismissively then slipped out into the slanting sunlight, and the hard heat upon the quad.