Fall 1989, Volume 6.2
Essay

GENE WASHINGTON

See other work by Gene Washington in Weber StudiesVol. 22.1 (fiction),  Vol. 18.3 (fiction),  Vol. 13.1 (fiction)

 

Qlpp

Lamont hasn't been able to decide. Either gravity is lighter here at Mesa Verde than at other places or things exist in reverse order. It may be that the source of gravity is "up there" and its counterforce "down here." Nothing, at any rate, seems to move straight down or stay in place very long. Even where he is now, the things he knows to be heavy bounce upwards sometimes and try to float. Some things seem to be more successful with floating than others, the mist from the first canyon river, for example. It appears to Lamont to have no trouble at all in going up and mixing with the ridge clouds. He sometimes changes his mind and thinks that the wind plays tricks on him.

He has about decided not to go back to Kansas. Life in Kansas is getting too linear. Everyone and everything seem to have forgotten how to go anyway but straight ahead. Nobody waits for problems to solve themselves. Nobody delays even making a decision. Maxine, Lamont's wife, is the worst. He had tried to show her how not to do anything right away. Or at least to wait for the next thing to take the place of whatever she thought ought to be done. Lamont doesn't like to talk much, so he hadn't tried to tell her what the problem was. And she couldn't seem to learn on her own from his example. Helen, their daughter, was like her too.

Qlpp had told Lamont about this place. A good place to live in. Everything is wholesome. The rain's always on time for the corn and squash; and you just sort of wait for the fish to come by. Lamont and Qlpp have a roomy alcove, one that faces into the sun. They talk, watch the sky, and go together to the local kiva. That's plenty to do in a day.

. . . . .

Lamont looked at the car. Like most models of that year, it had a box-like shape. You get a lot of trunk space with this shape, the dealer said. Room in the back for the kids. Or your mother. Makes turning to the left easier too. The bucket seats are a little extra, of course.

"Your car's top heavy, Lamont. The wind will blow the luggage away," Qlpp said.

That summer Lamont and Maxine were going to visit his mother in the Cruise-Ship Rest Home at Fahrvues, Kansas. He was expecting leisurely sex with Maxine, no teenager to drive to school, no bills to pay—his musings continued on, like the West itself, opening out, expanding with possibilities. Good food at cheap prices at truck stops. Long views across uncultivated fields to remote mountains. But Qlpp was right. The car would stand too high in the Kansas wind. It was overloaded and had a tilt to the front and left.

"Your mother needs more clothes," Maxine said. "Put these on top with the others." She walked through Qlpp and handed Lamont the box. "I'll be right back with the other one."

She never found out about Qlpp. Lamont didn't know how to tell her. By the way, he never said, There's another person here who's going with us. Where? Right there. Lamont might be pointing with his left arm toward a large space on his right side. I don't see anything, she might say. Look again. He's right there, on the rim of the canyon by the kiva. I still don't see him.

. . . . .

Lamont liked Qlpp. He was a good talker and had a point of view he couldn't get from anyone else. He was especially good for taking Maxine's conversational place whenever ideas failed him or whenever time and place made both of them forget what to do next. Maxine appeared carrying another box. "Helen called from school. They want her to take part in a sex survey."

"What did you tell her?"

"Nothing. I said I'd ask you."

"I don't want to, but I have to decide," Lamont said to Qlpp.

"Most things are settled by not deciding. The rest by not deciding too soon," Qlpp said. Qlpp must be about five feet tall, Lamont thought. His voice came from about the level of Lamont's chest. He probably had brown eyes and brown hair. He never asked many questions.

"Well. What's your answer," Maxine asked.

"Answer?"

"Helen and the survey. Put this on top."

"Qlpp says not to fix things by deciding too soon."

"What?"

"Now you're learning, Lamont," Qlpp said. "Delay. Sentences with unintelligible referents are good. But use parts of your body more. Shift your eyes down, rotate your body mysteriously to the left. Reach in your shirt pocket with your right hand for something. Adjust your belt with your left one. Kick the right front tire that looks a little low. I calculate that you can widen response time by at least three more minutes."

"Well?" Maxine asked.

"What's the survey for? Make it look like they're doing something at that school?"

"Yes or no, Lamont. Fahrvues is a long drive."

"I'll call them from the cafe."

"Delay is not always for the sake of something else, Lamont. It's also for itself." Qlpp's voice was coming from the back seat of the car.

. . . . .

Jarv's Cafe. Qlpp, Maxine, and Lamont had a table next to the window looking out at the highway. Through another window, Lamont could see a corn field. Middle-aged men with baseball caps, jeans, and boots were sitting around. Smoke from their cigarettes went up to mix with grease from the stove. A slow-moving fan rotated the mixture along the ceiling. A man behind the counter was watching the futures market on TV and frying squarish lumps of meat.

"I told you to tie the box on better," Maxine said while looking at the menu. "It's good no one saw it happen. We'd probably had have to pay a fine for littering."

"At least we got it out of town."

Maxine ordered a large steak with salad and french fries. Lamont said he would think about it.

"Anything to drink?"

"Tea for me. Coffee for him."

"It's too late for coffee," Lamont said. "But we could use another tablecloth. This one has something on it. Or maybe another table." Lamont waved some flies away. They rose over his head to join the mixture of smoke, heat, and grease rotating around the ceiling.

"We're full up. We're out of french fries. How about a twice- baked potato with sour cream and chives?"

"I'll have that too," Lamont said. At home, Maxine and Lamont usually ate out once or twice a month at places with names like The Hut, Poinbottoms, Grillo, and The Cantonese Delight. With one exception, the food ran from bad to mediocre and they shared their opinions about it with friends. "Part of the price for living here. But it's a good place to raise kids." The Midwest was full of such restaurants; for people like Lamont and Maxine, restaurants were stopping off places on the way to somewhere else, a play or party. Only for the old, widowed, and never-married were they a destination and end in themselves. The waiters, in enough time, became the substances they served, thick, heavy, and overheated. "We never use spices in our food, Lamont," Qlpp said. "We never cook the vegetables and meat longer than the time it takes a bird to fly to the other side of the canyon. Pinyon burns low and steady and its smoke goes up along the ridge to be blown away by the evening wind. Is there a name in your language for that combination of heat, smoke, and grease?"

"I don't know of one. There ought to be, if only for the next Surgeon General's report."

"I'll have fish," Lamont said to the waiter.

"No fish. Steak, pork, and sidewinder stew is all we have."

"Sidewinder stew?"

"Rattlesnake meat, potatoes, carrots, onions. Just caught, if that's the right word, by Mr. Borgata."

"Borgata?"

"The owner. He catches them off his ranch outside of town. Where are you from?"

"The Midwest."

"Then you came through it. It straddles the road out that way."

"It takes a good memory for what we came through out there."

"I'll take the pork."

"Aren't you going to eat something, Qlpp?" he asks.

"I'll wait."

The Anasazis eat outdoors in the rectangular space dividing their houses from the front line of kivas next to the rim. It is clear to Lamont that the eating area lies in the middle ground between the safe, domestic world and the outer, dangerous world protected by the kivas. The world of the rim and beyond is the world where only the adult males go to watch the alcoves opposite for new construction and to fish. Beyond the lifetime of Qlpp and even of his younger brothers, Ccx and Xnrtr, some of them will go farther down the stream to its juncture with the lake far right of the winter sun. By then, obviously, they will have forgotten their fear of the demons of the rim. And with it the need to build new kivas next to it. "I had never really thought why the kivas were built there," Qlpp says to Lamont. "We have always cooked the food and eaten it here behind them." He hands Lamont something to drink but Lamont refuses. "I've had enough."

In the last months, Maxine had been calling Lamont's mother a lot. His mother was going deaf and Maxine had to shout and repeat things. In the mother's room, the telephone picked up fragments of voices calling from below, the sound of a TV quiz show, and vague scrapings of furniture. Was she moving in her chair? Telephone conversations became events of three, not two, persons. "I hear voices in your mother's room," Maxine said. "My sister hired someone to come in and check on her," Lamont said. "She was trying to get mother to open the door for her." "Why is it so hard for your mother to open the door, Lamont?"

"How should I know?"

"She can't stay with us," Lamont said. Mother had become a topic for Lamont, his brother, and sister. It was hard because none of them would say what the others wanted to hear—that they would not have to do anything with, or for, the mother in the next few months. Their mother would not necessarily go away; she would just not say anything that would cause any of them to think that they should do something now. Her social conventionality was part of their problem. Lamont defined this as her ability to transform ordinary perceptual events into maxims of universal conduct. She had different kinds of maxims, those that pertained to her relationship with her family, her children's marital roles, and everybody's attitude toward artifacts. Everybody, to her, meant persons interacting, moving, not moving, repairing, not repairing, objects like lawn sprinklers, cars, and garden tools. So she would say, "Don't move that sprinkler next to the apple tree. It causes mildew. Don't wash the car with dishwasher soap. It spoils the surface." What this meant to Lamont was that his mother had created a world in which ordinary things stood quiet and unmoving. The world had begun, Lamont thought, right after the birth of his sister, the last child.

"How's your mother, Qlpp?" Lamont asked.

"Becoming smaller and smaller. We don't hear her moving around much and she's getting harder to see."

"Hard to see?"

"Light now passes through her and her body contours have become indistinct. She will soon be invisible and silent."

"We worry about my mother."

"Your worry will increase her size and lessen the distance between you," Qlpp said. "But it may not be your real mother, Lamont."

"The real one?"

"Everyone has two mothers, the real and the demon one. You must learn to tell the difference. Size, spatial proximity, and sound are the clues."

"My mother may be the demon mother," Lamont said to Maxine. "She may not be the real one."

"Pay the check, Lamont. We have to start moving."

. . . . .

Maxine was driving and Lamont was looking at a passing field of corn. Around the curled leaves of the corn he could see ripples of heat and small insects. Behind the corn field the land was hot and dead. The corn insects, he imagined, fed on the corn during the day and would retire at night to the dead land to sleep. Some would die in the corn in the fall and others in their sleep in the frost. "How should I know when the first frost will come?" Maxine said. "You're the gardener."

"We have winter here too," Qlpp said. "But the old days on top of the mesa were worse. We were too exposed to the snow and wind." Lamont watched as the mesa winter moved by. Snow was falling and the edges of the mesa were becoming round. Cornices co-sined the edges. "We stood in the moonlight to get warmer," Qlpp said. But the moon was below us and passing in the snow from left to right. "Not a good sign, Lamont. Keep your wife, sister, and brother always on your left. You will worry less about your mother."

News on the car radio: "Weather to continue hot and muggy. Pileup of 11 cars on I-33. Watch out for hazardous conditions. Condom company executive says that the AIDS epidemic will save the company."

"Let's look for a place to stop." Lamont turned his body left and put his arm on top of the seat. The car's engine sounded the same, but the air-conditioner had quit. "You're supposed to run the thing every month to lubricate the seals, Maxine. It's out of freon." Lamont had wanted to buy a convertible with a mileage computer, but Maxine had vetoed the idea. Now he knew he shouldn't have asked. "Before you decide to do something, do you ask?" Lamont asked Qlpp. "Not usually. But then we don't have as many things as you to ask for. And we don't have all your mutual misrepresentation."

"We can still make another 100 miles before dark, Lamont. Have something to eat." Maxine pointed to a bag of gourmet potato chips on the seat. Famous potato chips from yogurt and a salt-free procedure. Qlpp might be right. Lamont knew that his mother misrepresented his father. His father died essentially misrepresented. "Well, of course. We have some of that too," said Qlpp. "My mother tried to misrepresent my father as a shaman a few times. But he could never predict what would happen next or cure anything."

"But my father worked for a department store. How could he disprove the misrepresentations? He was a volunteer for Hospice and the Red Cross, a deacon in the church, a Mason, and he worked as Santa Claus. He entertained children in the hospital. Mother said they were her ideas."

. . . . .

"Do you have a pool?" Lamont asked. The last 100 miles may have paralyzed his left leg. It felt heavier than the right and the foot seemed to be pointing at an angle. "Can you get the luggage out of the trunk, Maxine?"

"What's wrong?"

"My leg feels funny."

"Jimmy here will get it. Single or double? The single is $37.95 and the double a little more. Both have an air-conditioner and TV."

"A double."

Three more laps across the pool, Lamont thought. Then I'll go see what's on TV. Maybe get something to eat. "The muter doesn't work, Lamont. Call the desk."

"Our muter doesn't work."

"Muter?"

"The thing that turns the sound of the TV off. We have them on all the sets at home."

"Our rooms don't have them." On the screen a reporter was interviewing an aging cowboy. The reporter was about 30 years old with long, curly hair. He wore a three-piece suit and steel-rimmed glasses. In his left hand he had what looked like a clipboard and in his right hand a pen. He and the cowboy were sitting across from each other at a low table. Behind them a TV came on and a watery male face appeared.

"Thank you for appearing on our show, Mr. Muthison. Professor Adams, whom you see on the screen behind us, joins us via satellite from the state university. His most recent book on cowboy poetry, Ballads of Sage, Saddle and Sidewinder, has just been published by Western Heritage Press, Oxford, Kansas."

Lamont stretched out on the bed slightly left of the TV. Maxine was looking through the telephone directory. "Where would you like to eat, Lamont? Would you turn the sound down?"

"Now is it true, Professor Adams, that all cowboy poetry rimes? As I understand it, most modern poetry doesn't." The cowboy, whose hat resembled those worn in silent movies, turned to look at the screen behind him. He wore a western style shirt with two pockets. Over each pocket lay a wide V-shaped flap with beads woven into the edge. "Most of it, yes. But that's not universally the case." Power to the TV died momentarily and the Professor's face went dim. "All mine rimes," the cowboy said. "Would you say that that's part of your tradition, Mr. Muthison?"

"I just write about what I see."

"It's true, of course, that cowboy poets do not, as a whole, share the tradition that, say, Dante and Homer shared with their contemporaries. That strong sense of genre is not always there." Lamont reached up to feel the old depression in his skull. Maxine, he noticed, still read from the directory. "Why don't we get something from room service?" Lamont decided to slump lower in the bed and cross his right foot over the left one.

Mr. Muthison rolled a cigarette. "Even if I knew what a genre is, I wouldn't write it. My poems are all real."

"Am I right in thinking that what you mean by genre, Professor, is the kind of text Mr. Muthison writes?" The Professor moved his lips and then disappeared from the screen. "While we wait for the Professor to come back, why don't you read one of your poems to us, Mr. Muthison."

The cowboy opened a pocket and took out a folded piece of paper. He turned toward the camera and put both elbows on the table. He raised the brim of his hat from his forehead and pushed his glasses back. "All right. I'll just read through it quick to see if it's the right one." Lamont and the reporter watched the cowboy's lips move. On the screen behind the reporter, the Professor's face tried to appear in wavy lines. "This is it," the cowboy said. "I won't read it all. 'Yesterday I lost you in the gulch / My help always in a clutch / You broke a leg both back and fore / I could not give you anymore / I had to shoot you from the door.' Ordinarily I don't rime more than two lines in a row. But these three seem to fit." The screen and lights dimmed and went out.

"Call the desk, Lamont. I want to read."

Lamont looked through the window in the direction of the swimming pool. Above and beyond it, he could see a line of pinkish clouds along a low ridge. He was standing beyond the ridge listening to the sounds of evening on the mesa. Qlpp was with him and they were looking down. Small fires burned just below and across the canyon in the facing alcoves. Wind came up from the canyon floor to push the flames of the fires around the faces and then higher toward the upper rim. On their left, and just above the level of the horizon, Lamont and Qlpp could see flashes of lightning and hear the thunder.

Lamont and Qlpp sit down on the third rim above the canyon and Qlpp starts to teach him the difference between a sound and a noise.

"A noise is the symptom of something either dangerous or potentially dangerous. A sound carries useful information. What you must always watch for is a sound that becomes noise and, conse-quently, a mean sort of danger."

"Some examples?"

"The wind behind us along the ridge is a sound. So is thunder, the sound of children's voices, and running water. A noise is a stone falling from the third rim, the breaking of a roof rafter, or un- expected predation—the insects that come to infect the squash and corn or kill our young children."

Lamont first looks left, then across the canyon to the opposite alcoves, and then right along the second rim. Just back of the rim he sees groups of men moving toward entries to the kivas. The women and small children continue to sit around the small fires just before the doors of their houses.

"We have classified all our sounds into punctual and nonpunctual. Sounds that either start and stop, increase in intensity and then decrease, or ones that neither stop, start, increase, nor decrease. A noise cannot be classified, only avoided. We learned all this from the old ones and have given it to our children."

The voices of children, Lamont hears from below, are higher in intensity than those of the adult women. A dog barks to his left and they hear a coyote beyond the sound of running water reply. Lamont leans back against an outcropping and shifts the weight of his body slightly to the right. "You are still young, Qlpp. Wait until you are my age. You won't hear as well and your classifications won't be of any use to you. I don't much buy the punctual, nonpunctual, classification anyway."

"You should. It might save you the way it did Ccx and me last week. We had gone—this was last week—along the second rim to the new petroglyph site. We had, of course, our carving tools, paints, and watch dogs. You know the place?"

"Yes. Xnrtr took me there three days ago. My general impression is that it needs a lot of work."

"We had just began to work and the sound began, down the trail towards the first rim. The sound was heavy and punctual; it would stop and then start and then stop again. I sat down and Ccx turned and put his back against a tree. The dogs lay with their ears up facing down the trail. Five minutes later we were all running safely away."

Qlpp moves his right hand over his left one to illustrate their running motion. "The heavy sound was still there but farther and farther behind us." He claps one hand in the other in lighter and lighter beats.

"A predator?"

"Yes, the clue was its punctuality. We continue to work on the petroglyph in safety."

"I intend to go look at it tomorrow."

The outcropping Lamont is sitting on becomes softer. He looks down, then left and then right. The fires are beginning to disappear. Across the canyon he thinks he can see the people asleep in their deep alcove houses. Qlpp's voice and the wind die. Lamont looks right and sees Maxine sitting straight up in bed.

"Your show's back on, Lamont. Turn the sound down." Lamont's back was numb and he could feel a dull pain in the inverted V at the top of his buttocks. He sat up abruptly and flexed his knees. "Thank you, Mr. Muthison," the reporter was saying. "Next week we continue our series on new trends in cowboy poetry with the commentary of Lamont Harmon, a resident of Mesa Verde, Colorado. Viewers are reminded that our series on cowboy poetry is available on cassette. Be sure to specify either the old, or wrangler, poets series. Just $21.37 each cassette."

"Did you lock the car, Lamont? Get the wine out of the trunk?" His eyes were closed and mouth slightly open. And just before Maxine had asked the question, Lamont had folded his hands together over his chest. The pillow was too large and it made his neck hurt, but not enough to move. In the corner of the room the air-conditioner blew on shaking the curtains. "It's too cold in here, Lamont. Can't you adjust that thing?" Outside, a party was ending in the noise of breaking glass and slamming doors. Maxine turned her head to listen. Lamont was thinking about his mother trying to hear him, but not hearing the knocking on her door. "Mrs. Harmon, are you in there?" "We'll have to do more than this, Lamont. Take turns keeping her." Outside, a drunken voice said "we'll have to find her before she gets run over."

Lamont went to sleep. In the corner of the room the air-conditioner blew on and a trucker changed gears on the highway outside. The highway toward the east went up a short hill and then down to a lake. Beyond the lake the highway ran on the level for 27 miles and there were only three gentle curves on the whole stretch. Noise from the party next door was keeping Maxine awake. She looked at Lamont sleeping and then at the wall dividing their room from that of the party. Lamont dreamed.

. . . . .

Maxine's daughter's hair and face suddenly appeared in front of the wall. "What have you done to it?" she asked. "Done to what?" "Your hair." Helen's hair hung long around both sides of her face like bleached straw. Maxine saw, at the part in the middle of the top, color shading from brown to black. "I am late for the party next door," Helen said. Maxine went back to reading. Outside there was the sound of a car backing up to turn around. Noise from the party next door increased and Maxine wondered if she should call the desk to complain. "Don't, Mother. All my friends are here," Helen said. "Meredith, Debbie, and Tammy. Jiggy is coming later with her new boy friend."

"Who else is there?"

"Some truckdrivers, miners, and off-duty clerks at Bright's department store."

"Are you drinking?"

"Just beer. We don't have to drive afterwards."

Maxine went back to reading a story entitled Murder at Mesa Verde. It was about a man and woman team who solved murders committed in prehistoric times. The man's name was Clprr and the woman's Ssnns. They were both in their early 30s and, having no children, they had great mobility; they could respond to calls very quickly. They were generally on a case within hours of being informed. And they were both highly skilled in the use of a bow and arrow, spear, and springrope, a kind of prehistoric man trap. They were the most successful husband and wife crime solvers Maxine had ever read about. Maxine was particularly fond of the team's way of working together and of their way of discussing case details with each other at night. The case they were now investigating was a particularly interesting one. Qlpp, a member of the council of the oldest ones, had been found dead in his kiva. The kiva keeper and his wife had been charged with the murder and were now being held for trial. But Clprr and Ssnns, sensing that the man and his wife had been falsely charged, were now at the Mesa to investigate.

The book's publisher, a well known house in Los Angeles, was familiar to Maxine. But the name of the author, Cblprr and his(her?) relationship to Clprr and Ssnns puzzled her. Cblprr repre- sented himself as being their friend and keeping a record of their cases—much like Watson did for Holmes. But the Anasazis reputedly had no written language. Cblprr must then be the pseudonym of a modern detective writer. But who and why the elaborate fiction of prehistoric times?

Maxine heard a click from the corner air-conditioner and felt a slight shudder run through the room. The mouse that had been trapped inside the air-conditioner for seven hours now left to return to her place behind the wall just below the outside window. "Have another drink, Helen," Maxine heard from next door. "No thanks, I have to get home."

On page 77 Maxine decided to turn back a few pages and re-read the scene in which Clprr and Ssnns discuss the position of the body in the kiva. She wished that she and Lamont could work together as well as Clprr and Ssnns do. What one does not know the other does; and what one cannot do, the other can. The author, publisher, and printer had made the scene co-terminous with chapter 3. But Maxine knew that its true beginning was in chapter 2 on page 47 and that the real ending came before the end of chapter 3 on page 51. She also knew that it was in this scene that the reader was given the clue that would eventually lead to a solution to the case.

"Good night, Helen." A door slammed next door and Maxine stopped reading. Noise from the party increased; glass shattered on a hard surface, a table overturned and waves of music seemed to ride up the wall mid-way and then fall back to floor level. Maxine went back to reading. What did she know as she re-read the scene in which Clprr and Ssnns discuss the position of the victim's body? She knew that Qlpp had held a high religious and political position at the Mesa, that he had concluded treaties with the Chacoians to the southwest and with Canyon de Chelly even farther southwest. He had made political enemies within his kiva group by his insisting on negotiations with the Cometrocs to the north rather than war and that he had angered some by introducing new rituals into kiva-ceremonies. His habit of going off by himself for hours and for quoting a person called "Lamont" made others suspect that he was not quite sane. Nobody had ever seen Lamont except Qlpp and, according to Qlpp, Qlpp's wife and oldest son. And with "Helen," Qlpp had also chosen a name for his daughter that no one had ever heard of.

. . . . .

Qlpp is in front of Lamont and they are climbing higher. "You can stay, Lamont. But don't decide now."