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Creatures of This Place


ISSUE:  Winter 1973


I have come to visit Texas, the bayou country. If I sit here the whole week and look at it, it won’t impress me any more than it does right now, and right now I am not impressed. It was foolish to come.
              
It will be beautiful, he said. It will be grand. 

We will have the house all to ourselves, he said.

He didn’t mention the roaches, even though hereabouts even the best houses have roaches, he tells me. He didn’t mention the spiders. Or the mosquitoes that scream in my ears all night long. And he didn’t mention the peculiar cat, which he calls Tortoise, that pokes its face at me from its place on top the air conditioner, staring in the window there, when I’m dressing or whatever, with its face divided just like that.

A cat whose face is divided like that makes me try to remember an old maxim, one that warns a person off.

The cat has just done a beastly thing. It has killed the little lizard that has been playing the last few days in the ivy around the window. The cat has taunted the lizard with claw pricks, and I never really saw how it was the cat killed the lizard. Whether it cracked its spine with a bite or not, I do not know. I am not sure the cat could kill with just the claw pricks. But it has killed. The lizard is quite dead.

And now the cat looks in at me through the grimy sash that hasn’t been lowered to be washed for—how many years. It is saying something to me, but I cannot hear its words.

Its whiskers lean forward, then twitch.

I feel the spiders and roaches are watching me too. They are creatures of this place, and this place is his.

I should never have come, but I have said I would stay the week and if I am to keep my sanity in the meantime, I must give order to what happens and occupy myself with other than straight thinking. I hope he does not find me doing this. I have never seen Jordan mad, but I suspect that he has a terrible temper when it gets set off. People who laugh easily are usually terribly violent, and he laughs easily. He has never been mad at me, but he probably would be if he saw this.

The real irony of my situation is I’m not sure, basically, how or why I got into it. I agreed to come. To visit his home. To meet his friends. To see places he always talks of. To meet his family. I remember details well, but details are not basics.

*

I do not want to go to the beach and look at grains of sand. Infinities depress me.

I do not want to go to the beach and look at the innards of the ocean, the men of war.

I would perhaps enjoy a walk through the dunes, where the surf’s roar is not so loud.

They tell me there is a kind of grass called sea oats that has a poetic function. The sea oats establish quickly and they stabilize the dune. The sea oats grow on the top of the dune. Once it is certain the dune will not blow away, the other plants crowd the sea oats out. Perhaps I do not want to see the sea oats.

Once before I saw the innards of the ocean on the beach and did not know what they were. They looked like great multi-baby-colored unstuffed sausages. Some kind of living tissue balloon with all this improbable blue glop hanging off one side. They littered the beach. The ocean had a party, and this was the garbage. Then I saw a long line of pickup trucks way down the beach, coming toward me. They swerved right and left. The soft sand, I thought. Then I could see they were deliberately cutting back and forth across the beach. The lead pickup truck was heading for the biggest jellyfish it could find. Those that it missed, one following would hit.

When the trucks ran over the jellyfish, they popped the air sacs. It was a game. The men of war sounded like gentle firecrackers.

The footprints of the birds were numerous.

*

It would be better to go to the beach again than to go back to anywhere where his friends are. I am supposed to be thoroughly impressed, with this house with its roaches and spiders and murderous cat, with the land, with the pictures of his father being decorated as commodore of the local coast guard auxiliary, with his mother’s scrapbooks from trips around the world. I look out at what remains of the land sold off little by little, and I am not impressed. He has driven with me out to the limits of what used to be their land, what his mother inherited, and I would not be proud. I would keep it a secret. What I would keep a secret and what I would be proud of matters little to him, and that is why there is little reason to be here.

I really cannot understand it, why he has me here. What has he planned for me, why has he brought me to this place?

Perhaps he plans to kill me and feed me to the minnows in the bayou. Perhaps I will fertilize unannounced the roots of some live oak. The flora of Texas. It goes to extremes, just like Jordan, and though it is taken for granted that I will be impressed by extremes, I am not.

Country clubs are white wicker madhouses.

*

I have been scrutinized.

It is not perfectly clear that I have been brought down here at all for Jordan’s possible physical delectation, but instead for close examination by his set, as they say. We’ve been members of the same set since—how long has it been? high school? grammar school? haven’t we, Jordan? Jordan smiles and twirls his moustache.

Poor Jordan. Jordan’s moustache is an affectation. Some men can get away with certain affectations, just as some women can get away with bleaching their hair. But Jordan doesn’t really have the guts to go all the way with the suave man bit. So his anomalous moustache just grows and grows and he works on it day after day (the twirling part may be a genuine habit already) but his sideburns are cowardly and he is just miserable trying to carry it all off.

I had never thought much of people being part of a set before. Just dishes. But these people are really part of a set, dishes or people, it makes little difference. They’re made of the same stuff, they wear the same emblems, cashmere and silk, vicuña and trips and toys and family concerns.

Today I was scrutinized by a woman named Madge. She is definitely one of Jordan’s set and has been since high school. She invited us to have lunch with her at the golf club, and I didn’t know what she wanted to have lunch at the golf club for, so I agreed to go with Jordan. She wanted to have lunch at the golf club so she could demonstrate how important she was at the golf club and how elegant her tastes were and how very much Jordan thought of her opinions. Her opinion of me is not very high, that much is certain.

I counted the knots between the pearls in her choker. That was the most pleasant available occupation. There was nothing in their conversation for me. Jordan has apparently told everyone that I am very brilliant and artistic and, therefore, likely to be a little on the eccentric side. Nothing is really further from the truth. Jordan is obtuse if he cannot understand that, but he may not. I take refuge in eccentricity when it is the only feasible course of action. Usually I do not find it necessary to appear eccentric or preoccupied. I would much rather soak in the immediacy of time and place and the people around, but when none of these are beautiful, I must retreat. It is easier doing this, I have found, than being nasty or curt and then explaining to myself and others later. And I always have to.

There were, by my estimate (since I could not see the back of Madge’s neck) eighty-three knots in her choker.

She did not address herself to me, except to say hellohownicetomeetyou and goodbyehownicetomeetyou. Madge talked of the ballet and of old friends I did not know and what was new at Neiman’s and divorces, hers and others.

Our table cloth at the golf club had a frayed southeastern corner.

*

On the way back from the golf club Jordan indulged me in a pure whim. I wanted to stop and ride a merry-go-round in a tiny amusement park. There seem to be a lot of them here. We stopped and I chose a grey horse. Jordan did not ride. Jordan plays polo, Madge said, but Jordan would not ride the horse next to me, which was vacant. He watched, looking very embarrassed.

Jordan does not know enough even to know what he should be embarrassed about and what he should enjoy. Jordan would stand out in the rain.

For all the amusement parks they seem to have, it is odd that there is no brass ring. It must be a geographic matter. I was at the mercy of Jordan’s embarrassment and we left the park after only one ride.

In the car he told me that whites do not go to that kind of park in Texas unless one is taking children. The parks are for and by the Mexicans. He says Messcans. He does not like the Messcans, but I have heard him say he admires the way the Messcan men treat their women.

It would be very difficult thinking my own thoughts if I belonged to him.

*

The cat is looking in at me again. He finds me more interesting than I find him, and the only reason I look at him at all is that he presents himself so obviously before my window. If I am to see anything at all, I must see him too. Unless I press my nose up against the glass at the far edge of the window, the opposite edge from where he happens to be. The cat has apparently finally finished with the lizard. I cannot see it anywhere. No, wait, he has something curled up in his front claw. He drops it and I see it is the limp carcass of the lizard, its tail partway broken off.

He thinks that he is bringing the lizard back to life, tossing it around like that, playing with it.

He pretends he has something there.

Does he really think it is trying to elude him?

*

There are in the neighborhood of three thousand framed and glassed-in photographs of family, friends, pets, trips, graduations, weddings, babies, birthday parties, bon voyages, and more of the same. They are lining the walls of this den, as it is known in this house. 

I am searching among the pictures. Mother and Dad at Amalfi. Sister on Graduation Day, white hat and robe. Mother and Dad in a Gondola. Brother Skiing in Gstaad. New Year’s Eve at the Golf Club. Same décor, fifteen years ago. Brother Getting Ph.D. The Same Baby. 247 times. The Zeitgeist.

It has an alarming coherence, when displayed like this. The cycles of fashion are visible. The upward and onward. The growth of intellect, the accumulation of culture, the winning of honors, the consumption. The Commodore’s Trophy. Mother Winning the Dominoes Tournament on the SS Italia.Dad Winning the Eleuthera Limbo Contest. Brother with His Swordfish. Babies. The Perpetuation of the Faith. First Communions. Knowing What It’s All About.

I am looking among all the pictures for something special. Examining them. They are under my closest scrutiny. I have assumed the rôle of bitch at the golf club. These pictures are nobody. I am looking for Jordan’s ex-wife. Someone always standing close to him, someone with long hair, someone dependent. I do not know for a fact that Jordan has ever been married. He has never told me that he was, but I cannot imagine someone as confident of himself as Jordan not being married and as self-centered not having been divorced.

Jordan asks me what I am doing looking at all the pictures so carefully. I tell him I am an amateur phrenologist.

*

I wish it were true. I wish this were not.

*

I know none of the rules of dominoes. Sorry.

I know none of the rules of polite conversation with this kind of person. I am not sure that there can be polite conversation with this kind of person, except on his own terms, or hers. Whatever’s. I am sure that there can be calm and businesslike talk. I am sure that we can civilly discuss, admiringly, the quality of one’s copper gutters on one’s quality house. I know for a fact that the optimal graces of one’s speaker system can be discussed, from several altogether practical standpoints, including the most practical of all, economical. I know that the land around us can be discussed, not for the beauty of its timber or its quietness, but in its economic and historic context: that it is the real legacy of the queen bee herself, and that over the years it has been a buffer in times of tribulation.

I have not yet met the commodore and his wife. I am tiring of the mental rehearsals.

*

Outside I walk among the liriope and know that things are essentially silken and wonderful. That streams are the truth and that fish and mayflies know it. That there is wisdom among the bamboo stalks everyone tries to kill. If I do not translate, it is my own shortcoming. I have been given the dictionary, a rare volume: Nature-Mind and Mind-Nature, complete with Irregular Verbs. If I can make no sense of it, it is my problem.

But it is not my problem. I have never had any trouble translating. For myself. I think I have understood the xylem and the phloem of the elms. I think with time I could understand the courting of the live oaks. The meandering of a cat’s eyes while he sleeps means. The shapes of clouds keep the narrative viable.

The liriope is about to come into flower. Spikes are shooting up the center of each planting, then there will be the little blue flowers I have never seen hut have seen pictures of and have read about. There will at least be some kind of flower. These certainties are comforting. But the liriope is a very special kind of grass and I think Jordan or his mother or whoever it is here who would get flustered about these things would get flustered if they saw me walking in the liriope. I saw the cat jumping from liriope clump to liriope clump, and he seemed to enjoy it. I think Jordan would be very stingy to disallow me this small enjoyment. I do not think Jordan himself could do any better than to walk among the liriope with me, but I do not think Jordan will ever know it. If only he could consult the flowers and the muds in the bayous and the cypress trunks.

*

Think about it, Jordan.

It’s not all that obscure.

Just think in terms of you and me. That shouldn’t overtax your mind.

What we have is what some people call a relationship. 

That’s what some people call it.

I call it foolishness, a waste of time for both of us.

And you, here among the Spanish moss, pretending to be courting me. If I were given to hysterics, I would laugh.

I have noticed that there are two distinct kinds of Spanish moss.

You, among your golf club set, pretending to show me off. But wondering.

You, puttering around your mother’s kitchen, impressing me with your bachelor cooking. Jordan, it’s supposed to be the other way around.

If you could think about the message of the liriope and Spanish oaks and cypress through all the nights they have practiced being. And then tell me what you think.

I am no better.

It should have better sense.

It should not have gotten to this point. I should have said no the first time. I should have, but I was lonely. Loneliness can be lovely, but only for a time. That should have been it. It wasn’t. You had flair, I told myself. You thought you had flair, I thought to myself.

It hasn’t been worth the effort, Jordan. Better now than ten years from now.

I found out today in the tone of your mother’s voice. Nothing she said. She knows better. The tone. I won’t sound like that.

I would rather watch the cat weave through the doorway and mark it with his muzzle. First one side, then the other.

The cat, whom I find odious and beastly, is at least true to what’s inside him. He is his only commitment.

Do dominoes players have commitments?

*

Jordan tells me he believes I am placing entirely too much emphasis on the cat incident. The one where the cat killed the lizard. For nothing.

Jordan believes, he told me today, that I am a pantheist. Or perhaps just a deist. He would not explain the difference. I am not sure he could.

Jordan tells me cats often kill for sport. It is their way of enjoying themselves, he says.

I don’t think anybody should enjoy killing. I don’t think anybody should kill, under any circumstances. When I was small I used to have nightmares about having unintentionally killed someone, and then I was shut away in prison for the rest of my life. There was no explaining.

There was no liriope, no Texas morning like a bathroom full of steam.

*

So I have met Jordan’s parents, and they have met me. They are not mine.

I have met Jordan’s mother and analyzed the timbre and resonance of her voice. I shall not forget it.

I have met Jordan’s father, the commodore, and he is a photograph.

*

Jordan has taken the cat to the bayou, tied a rope and a brick around its neck, and drowned it.

He told me he thought the cat upset me too much, it was better this way, and it was after all just a cat.

*

Today I am leaving and should have left long ago, should never have come except without coming I would not have seen the lizard die a mysterious death on the claws of the cat, would not have seen liriope spikes and two kinds of Spanish moss, hanging and ball, would not have known what strong presences those broad cypress are; would not have felt dead heat stop me or shivered at the ripples mayflies cause on the bayou; questioned the souls of all the departed oysters whose shells make roads and roadbeds, Why? These roads are the whitest anywhere. And there is no more silent sand anywhere than on Padre, where hawks and rattlers and mice and all are ghostly figments, as this is a ghostly figment, until, like all hawks and snakes, cats and oysters and lizards, it can be seen and recognized.

*

Jordan I see you.

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