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By Tobias Griffin
I had joined a writing workshop in Gresham taught by one Ursula Byrne because I was lonely and wanted to meet people—but I had expected only people like me, not skinny hipsters like Kim. She wore these narrow jeans that rose up into a khaki jacket with a small Union Jack over the left breast pocket. Was it military in origin? I couldn’t really tell. Her hair was long and black, clearly dyed. Her face was a very pale white, which made the makeup on her lips and eyes stand out all the more. Was her face naturally pallid, or made up that way? I couldn’t tell. Because of her, I decided to go back the next week.
It was raining hard that night, and route twenty-six never looked blurrier or darker. I felt my car lurch weirdly and grind to a halt. My engine had died. I tried to coast onto the shoulder but I couldn’t make it all the way so the right side of my car was still perilously close to the passing traffic.
After about twenty minutes, a truck stopped. It was a bulbous, rusty hulk that looked like something R. Crumb had drawn. The passenger side door creaked open and I had to hop up onto the high passenger seat.
“Thanks so much for stopping.”
“My name’s Aneurin. What’s yours?”
“Grayson Woodward,” he drawled. “You can call me Gray.”
“You going to Gresham?”
“I was. But now it’s too late.”
“You want to go back to Portland?”
“How did you know I was from Portland?”
“I can just kinda tell. You look like you want to go home.”
“You don’t sound too enthused about it.”
“I don’t know—it’s just that I’m sort of shaken up, after this experience. I sort of don’t want to be alone right now.”
“Well, it’s kind of a hassle, me drivin’ all the way into the city. If you don’t mind, maybe you could bunk at my place tonight and I’ll ride you on in first thing in the morning, when I go to work.”
“Yeah—thanks. That’s really nice of you.”
“Don’t mention it.”
We drove for about ten more minutes, but it was so dark outside that I couldn’t even see where we were going. I couldn’t even see any houses by the side of the road. Maybe there were no houses on the side of the road. Maybe we were driving out into the country. I didn’t care where we were driving. All I knew was that I didn’t have to go back to my stinking studio apartment in Northwest and that I soon I would be somewhere where it would be warm and dry.
We pulled into his—I don’t know what to call it. I suppose I could call it a house, but even in the darkness I could see that it was more than one house. What should I call it? A compound? There was a main house, another ancillary house across from it, a small barn, and a stable plus a dusty paddock. We went into what appeared to be the main house. The inside was grimy and there was dirt all over the windows. It was clear that the place hadn’t been cleaned in a long time. But in the place of furniture there were stacks and stacks of books all over the place. What bookcases there were were packed, some end-on-end, some stacked sideways with the spines looking out.
“Like to read, huh?”
I picked up a book. It was an edition of Herodotus in the original ancient Greek.
“You can read this?”
“How did you learn to read this?”
“I taught myself.”
“How did you do that?”
“I got a dictionary—the Liddell and Scott one—and I got out a old New Testament, and started lookin’ up the words, one by one. ‘Course, Liddell and Scott is a Attic dictionary and the gospels are in koine Greek, so there was a little bit of discrepancy—but I managed. Once I got through the gospels I started on the harder texts.”
“That’s quite a story.”
“I’m heavily involved with stories myself, right now.”
“You writing a memoir?”
“I’m trying my hand at fiction.”
“Mark Twain said all fiction is just nonfiction, dressed up.”
I didn’t know that, but it made sense to me. After Gray drove me back home the next morning, I spent the next few days retooling my fiction to impress paleface. I still had no way of driving back to Gresham: my car was on the side of the road, a useless, driverless hulk. I didn’t belong to triple A and I didn’t have enough money to hire a tow truck driver independently to hoist it out of the grassy mud that lined the sides of the interstate. So I had to hitchhike all the way to Ursula’s house, which meant that I was a little late when I got there.
“Why are you so late?” asked paleface.
“Oh, my car’s just … in the shop.”
“How did you get here then?”
“Oh. Where did you hitchhike from?”
“I live in Northwest. You could carpool with me.”
I was excited that I would be carpooling with Kimberly, or Kim, as she told me to call her. She was the only other person close to my age in the group. Being members of the same regular gathering of people, Kim and I had lots to talk about—gossip, who was a good writer, who was a bad writer, who should just give up entirely. Luckily, according to her, I fell into the first category, and I was sure to let her know that she did too. The only unfortunate thing was the timing of Ursula’s group. It started at just around seven and, it being winter-time, the sky began to get dark at around six thirty, the time we were usually heading right into the middle of downtown Gresham. The first time Kim gave me a ride she started looking around nervously, shuddering at the town she was speeding through.
“What’s the matter?” I said.
“It’s this place.”
“What’s the matter with it?”
“It gives me the creeps.”
“Do you know what kind of people live around here?”
“Rednecks,” she hissed, pushing the word out between a very narrow gap between her two front teeth. “People who hate people like you and me.”
I sat and thought for a moment. I almost said something before she said:
“I always feel like I have a target on my back every time I drive through here.”
It occurred to me that I could have easily debunked her claim by referencing Gray. But then, I didn’t know anything about his cultural or political orientation. Sure, he read books, and could speak at least seven languages, many of them dead, but that alone was actually no guarantee of his political orthodoxy. How many of us have heard, time and again, the story of the SS officers who were arrested at their posts at Buchenwald and Auschwitz with editions of Goethe and Schiller still in their pockets? Culture and intelligence did not, unfortunately, prove that a person was moral or even basically correct. Before citing Gray as an example I decided to sound him out about his politics and general social orientation.
I hitchhiked out to Gray’s compound early the next morning, during a break in the rain where the Oregon sky was organized into three horizontal stripes of different-colored clouds, lowering over the landscape like the stacked blocks of a Mark Rothko painting. When I arrived at his door, he did not look surprised to see me; he merely grunted and opened the rusty screen door to let me in. Once I drew him out he talked easily. From our conversation it became abundantly clear that, in so far as Gray was interested in politics, he leaned leftward in most of his beliefs. Vietnam had made him fervently anti-war; while basically subscribing to most of the tenets of capitalism, he knew enough about America’s economic situation to believe that we could tax 90% of the top 1%’s income to pay for social programs and they would still be fabulously wealthy. It was a fact: despite being a “redneck,” as Kim would say, he was as liberal as Alan Alda.
As I rode with Kim the next Thursday night, I trembled in anticipation of her imminent correction. I didn’t have to say anything—all I had to was wait for the sky to begin to darken as we rolled through Gresham’s outskirts and she would utter her weekly diatribe against its citizens. But that night, we got almost halfway through downtown and Kim still had said nothing. What if she didn’t bring up the barbarism and heathenishness of the townsfolk? Then my interview with Gray would have been for nothing. I looked over at her. I saw no sign of fear on her soft, white face—it was totally imperturbable. Finally I couldn’t take any more, and so I broached the subject.
“This isn’t so bad.”
“This town. I’ve been thinking about moving here.”
“Well, Northwest is getting more and more expensive, and I kind of like it out here.”
“What do you like about it?”
“But these people are fascists.”
“They can’t all be.”
“Yes they can. They’re all rednecks who would just as soon kill a guy like you as look at him.”
“What kind of guy am I?”
“You know—a guy like you. One of us.”
“You mean someone educated?”
“Someone who is against war?”
“Someone who believes in taxing the rich to pay for services for the less fortunate?”
“This town is full of people like that.”
“How do you know?”
“I have a friend who lives here. He knows six languages and he’s a liberal.”
“Is he from here?”
“He lives here.”
“That doesn’t mean he’s from here.”
“But he has a country accent.”
“That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe he’s from Northern Virginia, near D.C. Or he could be from a Southern college town, like Austin Texas, or Athens, Georgia. You can have that accent and still be a cool person—it’s just that most of them aren’t.”
Here I had gone to all this trouble to disprove Kim’s regionalist, classist assumptions, and with a slightly better knowledge of Southern geography and ethnography she had destroyed my carefully-wrought argument. I was angry for the duration of that night’s workshop. I could not even concentrate on everyone’s harsh critique of my short story. During these blistering, deeply hurtful comments, Kim had remained silent. I thought I’d approach her about my work during the car-ride back.
“So Kim … ”
“What did you think of my story?”
“I didn’t like it.”
“You didn’t like it?”
“I guess what I mean is, I don’t like him.”
“Who? The main character? But he’s different now.”
“I don’t like him now, either.”
“Because now he’s kind of a…I don’t know, a…”
“But you didn’t like him when he was the other way.”
“I like what I like.”
And so it was clear—I could not please my target audience, no matter what I did. I was a failure as a writer. Why was I unable to create male characters that resonated with female needs and desires? Because of my own inability to connect with women in real life. Then it was true—you really could only “write what you know.” And since I didn’t know anything about love or relationships, it was evident that the only way that I could get ahead as a writer was by somehow getting as close to a real, visceral experience of them as I could. My only chance was to make something happen with Kim. Not with me, of course—that was impossible—but if I could get her into a hot relationship with someone else, she could tell me about it and I could write it up into something great. But it couldn’t be an affair with just anybody—the union had to be one between complete opposites, as all great romances are. After a few days of planning, I had things all set up to make it all happen.
That Thursday, I showed up at Kim’s place on 23rd and Johnson in a car I had borrowed from a friend. I parked, went up to her doorway, and pushed the intercom button.
“Hi Kim. I’m here.”
“Okay, I’ll come down.”
“Don’t bring your keys. I’m driving tonight.”
“Just come down,” I said before getting back into the car, a little more harshly than I had meant to. I wanted the whole operation to go smoothly, and I didn’t need to get into a nagging tussle with Kim.
When she got in, she looked around the interior and said “nice car.”
“It’s not mine.”
“I figured that,” she said, as though it were obvious that someone like me could not afford a well-kept up classic British racing green Carmengia. Still, I did not react. I didn’t want a scene. I wanted everything to go perfectly, without a hitch.
“Why did you decide to pick me up tonight?”
“I just wanted to pay you back for all the rides you’d given me.”
“Oh. Well, thanks, Aneurin. That’s very nice of you.”
She sounded sincere. It almost made me feel guilty for manipulating her the way I was about to. But it had to be done— for art’s sake.
We rode in silence out of Portland through the humped green hills surrounding Gresham. Finally we reached the spot where I had instructed Gray to wait for me. I rolled down my window, smelled the air, and noticed that a dreamy, soft twilight was spreading out over the town.
I jerked the wheel over to the left until the driver-side tires ground against the curb, stopping the car with a jolt before turning to look at Kim. She looked two-parts annoyed and one-part scared.
“Why’ve we stopped here?”
“I said get out!”
I had to lurch awkwardly across her and manually unlock the passenger side door before I could kick her out. Really I kind of bustled her out, and Kim, being too bewildered to put up any real resistance, left the car almost of her own free will. Stunned, she stood outside the passenger-side window looking in. I could not hear her protest as I drove away: I could only see her mouth the words “What is your problem?” I picked up speed, ruminating on the scene that was to transpire: abandoned by me, Kim would run into Gray. Since Gray was, as I knew, very kind to stranded strangers, he would offer to help her. Kim, touched by the gesture, would take her first steps on the journey away from her unreasoned prejudices and toward the kind of love that people would want to read about.
I put the pedal to the floor and raced toward the spot up the street I had scouted out earlier: from there I would be mostly invisible to her and Gray while still being able to observe their interaction. But before I could even get there, I heard a gunshot.
I knew it wasn’t a firecracker or a car backing up—why people say it sounds like that I couldn’t say. I made a U-turn and drove back to where Kim stood. Her mouth was open and she had a flat, dull expression on her face. She held a pistol, a revolver of some kind, in her slim, long-fingered right hand. I got out of the car and stared hard at her.
“What the hell?”
“Yeah, it’s me. What the hell?”
I was laser- focused on Kim, but it was Gray who was lying on the sidewalk with a giant bloody hole in his chest. I lunged toward him and did what I had seen people do on TV—checked his pulse, put my fingers underneath his nostrils to see if he was breathing, rested my ear against his ribcage to listen for a heartbeat. But these were all empty theatrical gestures. I knew he was dead the minute I saw him. I closed my eyes, opened them quickly, and started screaming at Kim.
“Why did you do this?”
“He was coming at me.”
“You’ve ruined everything. You were supposed to get over your snobbery and fall in love with him.”
“Fall in love? What for?”
“So I could talk you about it later, write it up into a story, and finally get something published, for a change.”
“Yeah, me. Where did you get that gun?”
“I carry it. For protection.”
“Who told you you could carry a gun?”
“Bernie. Bernie said it was okay.”
Well there you had it: “Bernie said it was okay.” It was clear that Kim would not, or could not, learn anything from the elaborate narrative labyrinth in which I had deposited her. There was no story here—no lesson to be learned, no coming together of two individuals from different walks of life to find true love. There was only the sound of whooping sirens and three people standing on the surface of this planet, one dead, one useless, and one profoundly ignorant and hypocritical. And the worst thing was, I couldn’t tell which of us was which.