Monday, March 17, 2014


I want to show you how Mr. Stark became a racist, indeed, a “vile racist,” as a result of a cushion soaked in cat urine and the intervention of a plump, blonde lady-realtor. A combination of accidents and inattention transformed Mr. Stark into a racist. Isn’t this how it happens to all of us?

First, however, I will need to convince you that Mr. Stark was not a racist before accident nudged him into that category.

A little after 9-11, Mr. Stark had plane tickets to San Francisco. His brother lived in that city and had invited him to visit. Images of jets slicing through skyscrapers upset Mr. Stark and so he decided to drive from his home in the Midwest to California. The weather in San Francisco was cold and rainy and the huge sequoias in the parks looked strangely fierce and sullen, shedding water in heavy silvery cascades. On the ferry to Alcatraz, the bay was choppy and Mr. Stark shivered in the cold sea-spray. Back on the mainland, the smell of seafood frying in grease at the docks made Mr. Stark feel nauseous. He decided to cut short his visit to San Francisco and drive back home through the Sierra Nevada mountains and the Owens Valley. Mr. Stark told his brother that he wanted to see Death Valley. “Not a good idea,” Mr. Stark’s brother told him. “Those places age you prematurely.”

Mr. Stark drove east, past flat Sacramento, glittering like mica chips under the long green upward ramp of the Sierra Nevada. He crossed the mountains on the freeway and spent the night in Reno. The casinos disgusted him and he left town before dawn, driving south on 395 under the snowy summits of the mountains. The high peaks caught the sunrise and showed the way to a celestial country that was rose and pink among the clouds. The highway was mostly empty and ran across broad terraces sparsely forested, dropping in steps down barren desert. There was a lot of time for reflection and Mr. Stark thought about his ex-wife and all the mistakes that he had made in his life. The night before, he had drank some whiskey in his motel room and he was a little hungover and, therefore, sentimental.

A few miles north of Lone Pine, the place where Mr. Stark planned to eat lunch, a redwood and green national park sign announced Manzanar Historic Site. Mr. Stark had nowhere in particular that he had to be and was not on a schedule and, he recalled that his ex-wife had always been irritated, even appalled, when he deviated from their plan for the day, drawn aside by some roadside attraction or an interesting, if bumpy, country lane, and so, announcing to himself, that his ex-wife no longer controlled his agenda, he pulled off the main road and drove past the guardpost (vacant) into the parking lot in front of the Manzanar visitor center. He didn’t know anything about the place and wondered if it were an old gold mine, or, perhaps, the ruins of an Spanish mission.

Although the desert landscape looked hot and sunscorched, it was cool outside his car, sweet wintry winds blowing down from the high ridges a few miles to the west. The peaks were notched like the blade of a hacksaw drawn across the belly of some grey clouds caught in the serrated ridge and, perhaps, it was snowing a little at higher elevations – from time to time, the clouds parted to reveal pinnacles of snowy rock overhead. Manzanar turned out to be an interment camp where Japanese-Americans had been confined for several years during World War Two. The Visitor Center was fabricated from brutal-looking concrete and beams of structural steel that you might find supporting the span of a bridge and it was, apparently, the center of the community that had once existed on the site. Exhibits showed Japanese people huddled in miserable-looking barracks, many of the internees smiling incongruously, even, hopefully, at the camera. There was a mock-up of a small, primitive hospital, some dioramas showing the lay-out of the camp, and examples of crafts and industries in which the confined Japanese had worked – pictures showed people gardening and picking fruit from battered trees and there were some kilns were locally made pottery had been fired and a small textile factory that produced blankets and tents for the war effort. An executive order decreeing the confinement of the Japanese-Americans was reprinted on an exhibit near the front of the visitor center, the letters blown-up so that they were hand-high and reproduced on a diagonal panel like a flat used as scenery in a stage-play. Glass cases showed some of plates and ceramics made on site, some of them stenciled Manzanar Industries and there were long printed captions next to some of the old photographs, personal accounts coupled with pictures of dignified-looking Asian men wearing business suits and ties, their wives dressed in their Sunday best with sun-bonnets on their heads. Some of the pictures showed businesses that had been confiscated from the Japanese-Americans and there were accounts of rioting and old newspaper headlines containing ethnic slurs and, in a recording to which you could listen on headphones, a woman with an old voice scratched like an antique record, described the heat and the dust, the terrible dust that had swirled around the concentration camp.

The visitor center was empty except for a middle-aged woman wearing a National Park Service uniform. A couple of times she approached Mr. Stark and asked him if he had any questions and she seemed disappointed when he waved her away, politely but firmly, saying that he thought he understood what he was seeing. He went into a darkened theater and, alone in the gloom, sitting on a little pew without a backrest, watched a movie about the camp at Manzanar. It was unexpectedly moving and he felt his eyes dampen a little.

A loop road ran between shattered pads of concrete set among the cactus and sage and there were markers explaining what buildings had once rested on those slabs. Birds were roosting in a few blistered-looking fruit trees and there were some low cinder-block walls encircled by withered weeds, some pits and the wreckage of the old infirmary – some tin and lathe crushed like a beetle against the floor of the desert. On the western edge of the site, a field-stone wall enclosed cemetery where there were a few poured-cement gravestones, a few marked with Japanese characters. A monument thrust a flattened thumb up in the direction of Mount Whitney and an flag battered the pole on which it was mounted. The cemetery was empty: family members had retrieved the corpses buried there and taken them to Oakland or San Jose or Los Angeles to be buried beside their kin who had died in peace-time or on battlefields in the South Pacific.

Mr. Stark paced the cemetery from end to end and, then, walked across the crushed gravel to his car. It was probably the effects of the alcohol from the night before, but he felt depressed and ashamed. He recalled the afternoon, when he was a little boy, and his father had lectured him on sex – it was the same sort of feeling, a kind of dismal, humiliating misery: so this was what people were really like. He sat for a long time in his car, collecting his thoughts, and rubbing at his eyes and, above him, seeming close enough to almost touch with his hands, were the peaks of the high Sierra chiseled by ice and catching leaden, grey snowclouds in their teeth.

Lone Pine was nine miles and he stopped there to eat lunch at a cafĂ© on Main Street. The waitress said that he should drive into the foothills to see the badlands where Star Wars had been filmed. “Many famous Hollywood movies were shot here,” she said. “Movies with John Wayne and Lee Marvin.” “Really,” Mr. Stark replied. She refilled his coffee. He told her that he had been at Manzanar. “That’s a miserable place,” the waitress said. “It is,” Mr. Stark said, agreeing with her. “They make a big thing about those Japanese,” she said. “But you know the camp was only open eighteen months or something. My people come from around here and LA took all our water and ruined our farms and orchards. And you don’t really hear a word about that.” Mr. Stark said that he had seen a little display about “water wars in the Owens Valley.” “Oh,” she said. “I haven’t been up there for years.”

Lone Pine’s chamber of commerce operated a kiosk next to the town’s meat locker. Mr. Stark went there and was handed a xeroxed map showing movie locations around town. The toner in which the map was printed hadn’t set properly and the words on the xerox rubbed off on his fingers, coating them with a greasy soot. He drove up the ridge overlooking the village to a barren plain where knobby, house-sized rock formations crowded together, eroded outcrops that looked like goblins or half-melted chess pieces. Gravel lanes looped through the maze of stone pillars, tracks leading to vistas where cameras had once filmed gunfights and horse chases and robots scuttling through the talus scaling off the big hoodoos. The mountains seemed very close to the desolate rock gardens, an impenetrable wall of black cliffs and high peaks white with the winter’s first snow. Mr. Stark got out of his car and walked up to one of the formations, a squat granite pinnacle shaped like a wine bottle. He touched the rock, but it didn’t touch him back – it was inert and the only vibration that he felt in the stone was from his own blood and heartbeat. He couldn’t shake the feeling of sorrow that had gripped him at Manzanar. It seemed shameful to him that Hollywood movie stars and their crews had worked here less than ten miles from the camp in the valley. A cold wind swept down from the mountains. Mr. Stark turned his car around and drove down, across the barren, waterless valley toward more wrinkled mountains, another range, dusted white with early snowfall, the westernmost escarpments hiding Death Valley.

When Mr. Stark’s father died, he left a life-estate in his home to his girlfriend. It was a modest house in a modest neighborhood where there was a church and an elementary school. Hispanic and Asian children walked to the school wearing rumpled, colorful backpacks between their shoulders. There were no sidewalks in the neighborhood and so the children walked on the street which was safe enough because there wasn’t much traffic coming and going. As the older people in the neighborhood died or moved away, their places were taken by recent immigrants. A nearby freeway chugged like an old steam engine, a rhythmic mechanical sound made by trucks and cars climbing a hill. While his father was alive, Mr. Stark had visited the little split-level home only a couple times and, then, after the old man died, not at all. Mr. Stark’s sister was more tolerant of their father’s girlfriend and she came to see her from time to time. But these visits ended when Mr. Stark’s sister became ill and died as a result of breast cancer. A few years passed and the girlfriend went into a nursing home and, then, died as well and so the house was vacant.

Mr. Stark hired a realtor and they toured the home together. The realtor was a plump woman with hair dyed blonde and, although she was middle-aged, she walked with a seductive sway. Mr. Stark felt a faint attraction to her and there was something slightly exciting about meeting her mid-afternoon, curbside at the house, and, then, waiting as she unlocked the door to enter the dwelling where it was all silence and shadows, furniture shoved against walls haphazardly, some rooms completely empty and others jammed with stuff, expanses of shag carpet boozy and decadent and soft as rabbit fur – it was an invitation to dally, to recline on the floor/ The plump, blonde realtor spoke with a southern drawl and she seemed warm as an oven so that her perfume, which was overpowering and floral, steamed from her breasts and armpits. This was fortunate because the girlfriend had kept cats in the house and some of the rooms reeked of urine.

“Everything has to go,” the realtor said. “I’ll arrange for a dumpster and you have to strip the place and throw all this junk away and, then, we’ll get the air deodorized and see what we can do to sell this place.” She sniffed the air resentfully. “Nothing’s been done,” she told him. “The kitchen is antiquated.” She suggested an asking price for the home. It seemed an insult to Mr. Stark but he admired her boldness, her audacity in meeting him in the middle of the sunny afternoon, and, then, retiring with him to this rendevous of shadows and dim, foul-smelling chambers. The junk that his father’s girlfriend had left cluttering the house vibrated with a faint, disreputable intimacy – her secrets were all exposed in the cans in the pantry and the stacks of People magazine in the toilet, the stuff hoarded on shelves and the old furniture that had never been any good and that was now worse and the garments hanging in the closets vaguely watchful as if each faded button were a half-blind eye.

The dumpster was like a giant scoop of a shovel and it had been dragged to the front of the house where it sat, gutted and awaiting the garbage that Mr. Stark would throw there. He worked all weekend dragging things out of the house and pitching them into the dumpster. Some of the furniture he salvaged and set at the edge of the street, assuming that there were poor people in the vicinity and that, under the cover of darkness, they would take the chairs and table and the recliner offered to them. The beige sofa in the living room was completely steeped in cat urine and the smell of its cushions was so strong that it almost gagged Mr. Stark. He toppled the sofa into the dumpster and, then, tossed the acrid cushions after it so that they tiled the rough metal belly of scoop. Some neighborhood children, dark-eyed and curious, stood in their yards to watch him working.

In the dining room, there was a built-in hutch, a glass case containing several shelves. On the shelves, Mr. Stark found bouquets of plastic flowers, mostly roses and tulips, a collection of souvenir tea pots from Las Vegas and Orlando, a dozen or so Pez dispensers shaped like cartoon characters, a pale ceramic princess and a fat Black woman, painted in violent reds and blues, wearing a bright bandana and standing like a mother hen among three smaller figures, little nappy-headed boys with wide-eyes and scarlet heart-shaped lips. Mr. Stark found a cardboard box and he seized the Black woman, setting the ceramic figure on its side among t he dusty plastic flowers and the tea pots. The figure was surprisingly cool to the touch and heavier than he expected. It had a chilly malignant density and the pottery figures of the children were like stones retrieved from the bottom of an icy stream. Mr. Stark thought that the Black woman and her children, rolling their painted eyes, were horrible in some way that he couldn’t quite identify – shameful and wicked things that reminded him of his father’s girlfriend, the smell of the cigarettes that she used to smoke and her faint, disinterested drawl and her hands with gaudy painted fingernails clutching his father’s shirt sleeve, a gesture of unashamed and possessive entitlement that had always annoyed Mr. Stark, making him think mournfully of his shy and unassuming mother. The ceramic figures should be shattered into a hundred pieces. That was only fitting.

Mr. Stark carried the figurines to the dumpster and tilted the box over the metal rim. He expected the ceramic pieces to shatter on the container’s scuffed steel. But the mammy and her children landed on the cushion impregnated with cat piss and didn’t break. Instead, they lay there, glinting in the sun, wide-eyes turned upward in their jet-black faces. The blonde realtor pulled up to the front of the house in her Lincoln Continental with vanity plates. She stepped out of the car and stood on the lawn scrutinizing the house. Mr. Stark was surprised at the vehemence of his gesture hurling the ceramic figure into the dumpster and so he turned and looked at the realtor a bit shame-faced.

“How is it going?” she asked him.

“Just throwing away junk,” he said.

“Very good,” she replied. She walked over to the dumpster and peered over its side.

“Are you tossing the mammy and her pics?” the realtor asked.


“Picaninnies, little Negro children,” she explained.

“Yeah,” Mr. Stark said. “They’re awful things.”

“Collectible,” the realtor told him. She cast an appraising eye on the ceramic figures bedded on the sofa cushions in the bottom of the dumpster.

“Who would collect something like that?”

“I don’t know,” the realtor said. “People do. It’s strange, isn’t it?”

She paused: “I’ll tell you what. If I shinny in there and retrieve that mammy and her picaninnies, will you let me have them for $20 bucks.”

Mr. Stark thought it would be embarrassing to stand by while the plump blonde realtor in her tight, white jeans clambered into the dumpster. “I’ll retrieve them for you,” he said. The realtor went to her car and removed her purse and fished around in it for a twenty dollar bill. Mr. Stark hoisted himself over the side of the dumpster, almost falling on the figurines as he dropped into the big metal scoop.

“Are you okay?” the realtor asked him. He picked up the icy cold ceramic figures and handed them over the rim of the dumpster to the realtor. She smiled and slipped him the twenty dollar bill. The sides of the dumpster were surprisingly slippery and hard to scale and Mr. Stark bruised his shins on the rim of the bucket . He twisted himself over the edge of the dumpster grimacing in pain. Then, with the realtor, he went into the house and they walked through the rooms that he had been emptying. The carpet showed some stains that had not been visible when the furniture was in place and one of the windows in the spare bedroom was cracked. “We’ve got to get the stink out of here,” the realtor told him. She cradled the mammy and her picaninnies in her arms.

Later that afternoon, Mr. Stark found another ceramic figure, a fourth Black child, wide-eyed with a look of unconsolable panic painted on his face. The little statuette was hiding behind a sheaf of legal documents shoved against the back of the shelf, mostly pleadings relating to the divorce of his father’s girlfriend. He picked up the little figure and held it between his fingertips as if it were a dead rat. At first, he thought he would smash the ceramic child in the dumpster, but, instead, he wrapped it in some newspaper and put it in his car. Mr. Stark thought that he would check on E-Bay to see what the thing was worth.

To his surprise, Mr. Stark found that figurines similar to the ceramic boy perched on his desk beside his computer sold for as much as sixty or seventy dollars. Of course, there were many variables and some of the figures languished unsold under bids of fifteen dollars or less – the price seemed to depend upon the age of the object and its condition and was also dependant upon certain marks hidden in the painted surface. He held the little black boy up to the light, turning it over and over to search for identifying marks. The paint wrapped tightly around the little figure, girdling the ceramic with a continuous glaze, and Mr. Stark couldn’t locate any of the features indicative of the object’s market value. He squinted into the little black face with its terrified oval eyes and round red lips. Perhaps, his specimen was unique, one of a kind. An intact family of the little figures – mammy with her two children (in mint condition) – was offered for sale for $600. Mr. Stark peered at the black boy and, then, looked into his computer screen as if it were a deep pit and, then, suddenly, he felt a kind of dizziness. He stood up and stretched and felt the blood rushing to the edge of his body. The realtor had taken advantage of him. His face flushed and his ears were red and shame brought sweat to his brow and ribs. Mr. Stark squeezed the little ceramic figure in his fist. “...if he hollers let him go,” Mr. Stark remembered the rhyme and half-heard it, words whispering in his mind, an old playground chant: eenie, meenie, minee, moe... I am the victim of discrimination, he thought, she has taken advantage of me. The computer taunted Mr. Stark with more prices and a dizzying array of niggers, picaninnies, spear-chuckers, jigs and spooks, jazzed-up in porcelain and china or painted kaolin, or cast in iron, and he felt the injustice of the situation keenly – after all, the plump blonde woman was his agent and owed him a duty of loyalty and it was profoundly wrong, he thought, for the realtor to have applied her specialized knowledge in such a way so as to harm her client.

At first, Mr. Stark was tempted to call the Realtor, denounce her business ethics, and, then, terminate his listing with her. But, before taking that measure, he decided to gather some additional information. At the outskirts of town, a K-Mart had failed and the big building stood vacant at the horizon of a large parking lot . For several years, parents had used the empty and crinkled parking lot for teaching their kids how to drive – it was a place where you could instruct a frightened teenager to put the car in gear without running the risk of an accident involving anything other than a few widely separated light posts (and those were dented and abraded). On weekends, local people sold produce from folding tables under awnings and there were battered-looking pickup trucks parked at the rear of the farmer’s market, along the curb in front of the shuttered facade of the store. Most of the vendors were Laotian refugees who had roto-tilled their backyards into vegetable gardens to farm vegetables and fruits. But, sometimes, there were other booths at the edge of the market, small huts made from canvas and two-by-fours from which people sold antiques and tee-shirts emblazoned with images of rock stars and motorcycles rallies, plaster busts of dragons and naked girls, jade and crystal pipes, used toys and bicycles and old magazines and, sometimes, even offered guns for sale, pistols and hunting rifles displayed on tables covered with black velvet with gleaming knives. Mr. Stark recalled that he had seen some African-American memorabilia offered for sale in that flea-market and so he decided to take the little ceramic black boy there in the hope that someone would appraise that object for him.

Spring was in progress and the potholes in the K-Mart parking lot were brimming full of cold, dark water and the farmer’s market was small, mostly hydroponic tomatoes and oriental eggplants and root vegetables that looked as if they had been in storage for a long time and were the worse for wear. At the outskirts of the produce booths, a man was seated at a long cafeteria table with folding legs. Over his shoulder, a mustard-yellow pennant kicked and bucked in the breeze – it was marked with the word’s “Herman’s Collectibles”. On the table, the man had some medallions in shrink-wrapped plastic, each tagged with a tiny white label marked with a price. He had a few military helmets and some baggies full of bath salts and morning glory seeds, three water-pipes of ornate-looking blown glass, the epaulettes from Nazi uniforms and a stack of broad, furry red caps bearing a yellow star in their brim. A label next to the haberdashery proclaimed “Red Army Forage Caps.” At the corner of Herman’s table, Mr. Stark saw a ceramic picaninny figure, about the size of the statuette wrapped in newspaper that he was carrying in the pocket of his London Fog coat. Herman was smoking a cigarette and doodling on a legal pad. He was emaciated with a bony face decorated with a great, bushy moustache that seemed too broad and dramatic for his receding jaw-line, his underbite, and his narrow cheeks. Mr. Stark noticed that Herman had rings on every finger, several death’s heads adorning his knuckles and a variety of turquoise stones entrapping his digits. Herman had dark eyes that looked as if they were dulled by some sort of anesthetic.

Mr. Stark stood a few steps from Herman, inspecting his wares. He didn’t dare approach the ceramic picaninny too closely – the thing looked as if it were poised on the very edge of the table, as if to invite destruction by being swept onto the cracked asphalt by someone’s coat-sleeves.

Herman said: “I got lots more stuff than I’m showin’ here today. Very rare stuff. I got sources and can get...well, you name it.” He winked at Mr. Stark.

Mr. Stark said: “Well, I’m interested in that little...” He gestured in the direction of the precariously positioned ceramic figure.

“My pic?” Herman asked. “Uh-huh,” Mr. Stark replied. He paused: “What is a thing like that worth?”

Herman blew a smoke ring: “Well, I would say it’s worth what you are willing to pay and what I am willing to accept.” “I see,” Mr. Stark said.

Most of the other objects on the table seemed to be military – there were buttons marked with swastikas, an iron-cross dangling from a black ribbon, a stack of small, lead-colored medals also criss-crossed with swastikas and some photo albums, open to yellowing Polaroids showing parades and banners and black cars open to cheering crowds where the great leader stood stiffly his arm raised in a fascist salute.

“It’s mostly World War Two memorabilia,” Mr. Stark observed. “National Socialist regalia,” Herman said, nodding his head in agreement. “So the African-American – “ Herman interrupted Mr. Stark: “it’s war-related too. You see this pic was made in Occupied Germany.” “Really?” “Oh yes,” Herman said. “It was fired in kilns in Dessau and hand-painted there. You see, after the war, lots of American pottery firms out-sourced to occupied Germany. It was part of the Marshall Plan.” “So this thing was made by former Nazis?” Mr. Stark asked. “That’s an excellent question,” Herman said. “You can tell it’s German-made, fired in Dessau, by the painting on the figure. It’s made by people who had a knowledge...experience with fine Dresden ceramics, Meissen-ware, you see. So the painting is very delicate and precise. And, you know what?” “What?” Mr Stark asked. “Some of these things, if you break them open – they’re hollow you see – if you crack them in two, you’ll find a very neatly drawn swastika and the letters ‘H.H.’ Put there by the German who produced the picaninny.” “You don’t say,” Mr. Stark said. “Yes, it’s true. The ‘H.H.’, of course, is an abbreviation for ‘Heil Hitler’.” “A thing like that must be very, very valuable,” Mr. Stark said. “You know, so much history.” “Right,” Herman said. “But to find out if you’ve got one with the swastika and pro-Hitler message hidden inside, you have to break the things open and that, well you know, destroys them. You have to break them open and, then, maybe glue it back together and that ruins the piece.” Mr. Stark nodded.

“Are you generally interested in African-American memorabilia?” Herman asked. “Most people in the market for these kinds of things are Black themselves, you know.” “I wasn’t aware of that,” Mr. Stark replied. “But if you’re interested,” Herman said. “I’ve got a lot of much more...let me say...aggressive, you know, aggressively offensive stuff in my inventory.” “Really.” “Oh, yes,” Herman said. “If you give me a confidential email, I can send you my catalog.” “What do you have?” “Well, for one thing,” Herman said. “I’ve got loads of fine vintage flatware bought off Coon Chicken Inn when the place closed” “What’s that?” Mr. Stark asked. “Oh, very, very rare and terribly racist – a Pullman porter winking at you with the big flat nose and the lips you know and the nappy hair – very, very funny. It was an old franchise chain, a chain of restaurants owned by some Mormons in Salt Lake City. Those things are really rare.” “What do you call them again?” Mr. Stark asked. “Coon Chicken Inn flatware, extremely rare.”

“Is this stuff real?” Mr. Stark asked, gesturing at the objects on the table. “My merch is all absolutely authentic,” Herman said. “But let me tell you, pilgrim...” Herman paused. “Almost everything you see on the market is faked.” “Is that true?” “Absolutely,” Herman said. “I’d say 90 percent of the Coon Chicken Inn plates offered for sale are forgeries.” “Is that legal?” “Sure,” Herman said. “The company’s been out of business since 1956. There’s no one left to enforce the trademark.” “I see,” Mr. Stark replied. “Most of them have the insignia, you know the famous logo, stuck as a decal on top of the glaze. That’s absurd, a really crude fake. The first time someone puts a knife or fork to the plate, or washes it, the decal just scabs right off. Totally fake and crudely done at that,” Herman said.

“Can you tell a fake if you see it?” Mr. Stark asked. “Of course,” Herman answered, “otherwise I wouldn’t be in this business for long.” “I suppose...” Mr. Stark said.

“See, almost all the really offensive stuff, the totally racist stuff is faked,” Herman said. “I don’t think people were all that racist back then. In fact, you know what I think, people are worse today, more bigoted, I mean they’re producing copies of racist stuff, forgeries of stuff that never even existed as originals. If you’re in my business, you get skeptical. Most stuff that’s purported to be old, to come from the past – it’s all been manufactured in the last ten years. People are producing copies, but, it turns out, there’s no originals. There never were any originals. That’s why I collect these old polaroids. I mean, they show the leader, Der Fuehrer, and his people who obviously love him, and they took these polaroids, these little snapshots, as his limousine went by or at rallies. You can’t fake this stuff. It’s all absolutely real.” Mr. Stark nodded appreciatively.

“But you can fake a photograph, can’t you?” Mr. Stark asked. “Of course,” Herman said. “Look at all the pictures of the so-called ‘Holocaust’ – they’re mostly crude fakes, photo-shopped, or superimpositions.” “Is that true?” “Oh, yes,” Herman said. “I’ve trained myself to detect faked pictures. You know how you can tell that the so-called ‘Holocaust’ never happened?” “How?’ “Because no merch ever comes up for sale, there’s no souvenirs on the market, none at all.” “That’s odd,” Mr. Stark agreed. Herman nodded: “Look at the pictures. You see these distinctive striped uniforms, you see these hats, these government issue clogs – all sorts of stuff that you would have guessed that American servicemen would have swiped as souvenirs. Physical remnants, right? Shower-heads from the gas chambers, laundry, you know? But you don’t ever see any of this stuff for sale. I know – I’ve been in this market for twenty years now, and no Holocaust memorabilia ever comes up for sale.” “So what do you make of that?” Mr. Stark asked. “It was made up, it’s fictional, pro-Zionist propaganda,” Herman said. “Is that what you believe?” “It’s what I believe,” Herman said. “Why don’t people manufacture fakes?” Mr. Stark asked. “You know...I can’t answer that,” Herman replied. He paused: “I suppose there has to be some kind of truth to an event before you can make up something about it.” Mr. Stark said: “It’s confusing. You’re saying that most of what happened in the past isn’t true, because there are fakes, right?” “Right,” Herman answered. “The fake shows the original doesn’t exist.” “I don’t know if I exactly follow,” Mr. Stark said. “It’s just logic,” Herman replied. “But you’re saying the Holocaust didn’t happen because there are no fakes of concentration camp souvenirs?” “Right,” Herman said. “Because there were no concentration camps.” Mr. Stark looked away to the booth next to Herman’s table. An old man wearing an eye-patch was selling confederate flags and money.

Mr. Stark took the ceramic figure from his pocket and unwrapped the newspaper in which it was shrouded. He displayed the little picaninny. Herman bent forward to scrutinize the statuette.

“Authentic or fake?” Mr. Stark asked.

“It’s a fake,” Herman said. “You might get some suckers to bite on Ebay but it’s a modern fantasy object, a reproduction of an original that doesn’t exist.”

“Are you sure?” Mr. Stark asked.

“Of course,” Herman said. “I could maybe unload it on Ebay. I’d give you fifteen bucks for it.”

“No,” Mr. Stark said. “I just wanted to find out what’s worth.”

A cloud passed over the sun and the air chilled. Herman said that some plainclothes cops were circulating in the crowd. He took the baggies full of bath salts and morning glory seeds off the table and set them on the ground between his feet. It looked like it was going to drizzle. Mr. Stark shook hands with Herman and said that he would look at his website on the Internet: “I’m interested in the Coon Chicken Inn chinaware,” he told Herman. Herman grinned at him and winked again.

On his way to the car, Mr. Stark carefully mummy-wrapped the newspaper back around the little ceramic figure and, then, he put the cocoon into the side-pocket of his London Fog trenchcoat. A Dollar Store was located at the opposite end of the big parking lot. Mr. Stark walked back to his car and, then, drove it a couple hundred feet to that store. He went inside. The place smelled of spilled detergent and wet fabric and Aerosmith was playing over a loudspeaker near the cash register. Shelves of crockery extended along a narrow aisle, tilting forward as if about to spill plates and cups onto the heads of the shoppers pushing their squeaky carts through the merchandise. Many of the shoppers seemed to be crippled in some way, or very elderly in shabby clothing, and they leaned against their carts as if they were walkers supporting them upright as they shuffled past the shelving heaped with bargains. Mr. Stark picked out six identical plates made of white china. The plates were surprisingly heavy and covered with a thick translucent glaze – china marked “Made in China” – and they cost 89 cents a piece. Mr. Stark appreciated the lucid geometry and cool solidity of the plates, their density, and slippery finish and lunar radiance.

At home, he surfed the Internet until he found pictures of serving platters from the defunct Coon Chicken Inn. The images showed cream-colored china framing a perfectly round black face embossed in the plate’s center. The face had blubbery lips and a broad, flat nose, firehouse red nappy hair tucked under a Pullman porter’s cap above and below a square chocolate-colored jaw, one eye wide open, luminous white encircling a crescent iris, the other squeezed shut in an obscene, insinuating wink. Mr. Stark gasped at the impudence of the image. It marked the center of the plate like some nasty mollusc, an inedible, half-rotten piece of fruit or an egg that had been overfried and glued to the ceramic. The words Coon Chicken Inn were braided around the emblem of the winking Pullman porter.

Mr. Stark printed the image, manipulating its size until the emblem was about an inch in diameter. Over the next couple nights, he carefully tinted the trademark so that it matched the colors in the photographs shown on the internet. Then, he glued the picture into the center of one of the plates that he had purchased from the Dollar Store. After the glue had thoroughly dried – he let the plate dry for several days – he purchased a clear glaze from a hobby shop and applied that finish over the serving surface of the plate, sealing the image of the African-American porter into ceramic. When the job was done, he baked the plate at 400 degrees for a half-hour. The result was impressive – the plate that he had acquired from the Dollar Store appeared, for all intents and purposes, to be identical with the image of the collectible Coon Chicken Inn serving ware offered for sale on Ebay. He admired his handiwork for a few minutes, holding the plate up to the light and looking at the decal that he had fixed in the enamel-like glaze from several different angles. Then, he called the Realtor and told her that he had found another item of African-American memorabilia in the effects that his step-mother had packed away in one of the boxes that he had retrieved from the house. “Are you interested?” he asked her.

“What is it?” she said.

“Something from a place called Coon Chicken Inn,” Mr. Stark told her. “It’s horrible. I was going to toss it, but, then, I thought of you.”

The plump blonde realtor said that those kinds of plates were very common, but that she would buy it from him for 20 dollars. Mr. Stark said he thought it was worth sixty dollars. To his surprise, the realtor agreed to buy the plate on those terms.

Early summer was wet and the rare sunny days were sweltering. Mr. Stark liked to ride his bike in the early evening, touring the alleyways between the rows of houses where there were old sheds and woodpiles and, sometimes, an outraged dog hurling itself against a chainlink fence in a backyard. The alleyways were pitted with ugly potholes, an intermediate zone where objects were exiled, sometimes for years, before finally being discarded. He liked to look at the distressed pontoon boats on their perforated floats, car-bodies on concrete blocks and crashed motorcycles, abandoned shutters and window-frames, garbage bins sitting among flower-boxes with little fans of broken glass around their bases. Things that people had once desired, but which were no longer needed fascinated him. It seemed to Mr. Stark that people held onto things that they should have long ago discarded because the residue of ancient desires still clung to them. He supposed that it was the same with respect to ancient and obsessive hatreds.

When it rained, or when the humidity was too intense, Mr. Stark worked inside, perfecting his techniques with respect to transferring images to the plates that he bought at the Dollar Store. He maintained a strict accounting of all expenses incurred in his enterprise and listed charges, as well as receipts when he sold items, on an Excel spreadsheet. He labeled the spreadsheet CoonChix after his most popular item, the Coon Chicken Inn serving platters. In June, when the wet and sultry weather kept him indoors most evenings, he fabricated a dozen plates and sold nine of them. Curiously, it seemed that the higher price that he sought for the item, the more readily it sold. Mr. Stark didn’t really need the money and the prices paid by collectors was secondary to his actual interest, applying his skills and craftsmanship to making objects indistinguishable from the originals that he imitated. Of course, Mr. Stark wasn’t exactly sure what the originals really were like – all of the exemplars that he mimicked were artifacts depicted on the internet or in the pages of magazines catering to collectors and what the actual things were like, their texture and weight in the hand and aura, remained unknown to him. Mr. Stark felt that his activities were benevolent – he was meeting, and assuaging, a need and not harming anyone and, in fact, perhaps, his work exposed racism that had existed long-ago and that people had forgotten as irrelevent, or misremembered as benign, but which deserved to displayed and exposed and condemned. Mostly, though, Mr. Stark took pleasure in the glazes and the hand-tinting of photocopied labels, his handiwork and the use of his oven as a kind of kiln, and the computer advertisements that he carefully crafted, sometimes, even inventing little biographies for the objects, places where they had been secreted against the hazards of time, old maiden aunts and hoarder uncles and other fictional collateral relatives with their caches of collectible ceramics discovered in storage lockers and attics.

One afternoon in July, Mr. Stark received an email from a customer. The email said: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Your alleged “Coon Chicken Inn” plate was marked “Made in China”. “Made in China”? Are you kidding me? Try again, asshole. Mr. Stark read the message three or four times and his face flushed and he was so angry that he threw a plate across the room where it shattered. When he stooped to clean up the shattered crockery, his posture made him feel peculiarly abject and embarrassed He went to the craft store and bought some white pottery glaze and, carefully, painted over the “Made in China” mark on the bottom of the plate. Then, he spent a couple days laboriously cutting a felt stencil. When he was done, he used the stencil to spray paint a cerulean blue mark on the back of the plates. Mr. Stark finished six plates in this way, marking each of them MANZANAR INDUSTRIES. He was very proud of his handiwork. Now, the Coon Chicken Inn plate was not only an indictment of racism against African Americans but, also, an artifact condemning the persecution of Japanese-Americans during World War Two. He posted an eBay listing for two of the plates, indicating that they were particularly rare because the ceramics had been cast at the Manzanar internment camp. On that basis, he doubled his asking price for the plates and, immediately, received several bids.

It was football weather, clear and cold with the leaves brittle with color but still mostly clinging to the trees and, in the morning, school buses explored the neighborhood where Mr. Stark lived and he heard the voices of little boys and girls calling to one another at dawn. His spread sheet, CoonChix showed solid profits and the plates marked MANZANAR INDUSTRIES were selling well, fetching a good price, and, one email posting, claimed that several of the Coon Chicken Inn artifacts had been donated to the National Park Service and, in fact, were on display in the visitor center at the historical site, gossip that no one else confirmed, but which made Mr. Stark feel very proud of his handiwork and justified with respect to the time that he had spent perfecting his craft. Some of his plates were shown in photographs published in a leading catalog of Black Memorabilia and, more than a few of the inquiries that he received about objects offered for sale, were from Asian-Americans, including a representative of the Museum of Tolerance, a well-known institution in Los Angeles. Mr. Stark told the woman from the museum who called him that he would donate one of the plates produced in the interment camp at Manzanar because, as he said, “not enough people know this shameful history and I want to make it known to all.”

One evening, Mr. Stark opened an email from a prospective buyer, someone who gave their name as “Laki Mae Rerum.” Her message said that she was an agent for a well-known celebrity, someone who could not afford to spend the time or risk the publicity, of making purchases of this kind on his own behalf. Ms. Rerum provided a phone number and asked that Mr. Stark call her. He was suspicious of contacts of this sort and preferred to sell his artifacts by internet auction, but this message intrigued him and so he called the cell-phone number in the email.

Ms. Rerum had a girlish voiced pitched to a level of enthusiasm that Mr. Stark found more than a little daunting. “Are you the Coon Chicken Inn man?” Laki Mae Rerum asked him. Mr. Stark answered that he was. Ms. Rerum said: “I represent a guy who is pretty famous. You’d know the name instantly if I told you. He’s in the NBA, a basketball player – I can’t give the name and I won’t if you ask me, people like that are very jealous of their privacy.” Mr. Stark said that he understood. “This gentleman,” Ms. Rerum said, “is giving a birthday party dinner for a good friend and he’s going to hire a caterer and have fried chicken and all the fixings. My client wants to serve the feast on Coon Chicken Inn plates. He needs to buy, what do you have? – at least, half a dozen? Do you have those?” Mr. Stark said that he would have to check with his source, that he had a source for the plates with an inventory, and that he thought it would be feasible to sell Ms. Rerum those items. “Are these the Manzanar Industries plates? You know, the ones that you’ve been advertising?” she asked. “Yes,” Mr. Stark said. “That’s all we have left and so, of course, they’re a little spendy, compared to the others.” “It doesn’t matter,” Ms. Lakri Mae Rerum said. “When can you get them?” she asked. “Give me a week,” Mr. Stark told her. He named a price. Without hesitation, she said: “Get me six or eight, if you can, and my client will buy them.” Mr. Stark asked her about shipping. “Oh no,” she said. “I’ll come to you and pick them up. We don’t want to run the risk of the china getting broken in shipping.” Mr. Stark stammered a little. Her enthusiasm made him uneasy. “Where can I meet you?” Ms. Rerum asked. “Just tell me where I can go to meet you and make the exchange.” Mr. Stark thought for a while. Then, he said: “There’s an old K-Mart. It’s abandoned. But people meet there for a flea market and so –“ ”That sounds perfect,” Ms. Rerum replied. Mr. Stark said he would email the address to her and that she could google the location. “One week?” she asked. “This is for a birthday and we can’t afford to not make the deadline.” “Give me ten days,” Mr. Stark said.

That afternoon, he sent an email to Laki Mae Rerum with the address for the old K-Mart parking lot. He said that he would meet her on the afternoon of the last farmer’s market for the year at 3:30 pm. “Will this work for you?” he inquired. She emailed that the time and place were fine and asked how she would recognize him. Mr. Stark sent her a message and said that he would be carrying the Coon Chicken Inn plates in two boxes that had formerly contained Omaha Steaks. “I will be near the pumpkins,” Mr. Stark wrote. She replied: “Do you have any other interesting things for sale? For instance, KKK memorabilia?” “Nope,” Mr. Stark replied. “Just CoonChix Inn.”

He made the plates carefully and admired his work. He had ceased to see the plates as freakish and belligerent, but, instead, admired his own craftsmanship and skill and thought that the objects were things of beauty, albeit a peculiar and idiosyncratic beauty. On the morning that he was to transact the sale with Ms. Laki Mae Rerum, she sent him an email saying that other business had delayed her – “Will you meet me at about 8:00 pm?” Mr. Stark was intrigued. There was a whiff of romance about the deferred meeting and he sent her a message asking where he should go to find her. “Same place,” she told him by email. “It will be dark,” Mr. Stark wrote to her. “Not a problem,” she responded.

The meeting cast an anticipatory shadow over the day. With the exception of the plump lady realtor, Mr. Stark had never met any of his customers in the flesh. The idea of encountering the mysterious Ms. Rerum in the old K-Mart parking lot under a melancholy harvest moon made Mr. Stark feel faintly feverish. He drank too much coffee and his hands trembled slightly as he packed the Coon Chicken Inn plates, each lovingly wrapped in newsprint, into the box in which the steaks had been shipped. Dead leaves skittered across the alleyways and clogged the drains where the streets intersected and, on a distant athletic field, he heard whistles blown and the sound of girls cheering. When it was dark, the wind tilted and seem to blow from a different, more menacing direction and it became quite cold. Mr. Stark opened a closet where he stored garments between seasons and put on his London Fog coat. He had not worn the coat for several months and it smelled neglected, dusty with a faint perfume from the mothballs that he kept in the pockets of some of the woollen sweaters hanging in the closet. Mr. Stark tucked the box labeled Omaha Steaks under his arm. He caught his reflection in the darkened kitchen window and, for a moment, indulged the thought that he looked a little bit like a spy, like Robert Mitchum wearily suiting-up for another adventure in the shadows.

The K-Mart parking lot extended into the darkness, a grey mat of concrete slabs cracked into the jigsaw puzzle-pieces. An abandoned car was parked in the weeds next to the lot and nearby strip-malls glittered along the boulevard, ribbons of light where traffic was moving and voices sounded, workers at the fast-food drive-throughs taking orders, and a candlebra of tall bright lights marked a cloverleaf on the freeway a half-mile away. The moon was overhead, looking suitably haggard for the end of October. The lights posted at intervals in the K-Mart parking lot were all extinguished and bedraggled, steel stalks looked like asparagus poking up into the windy darkness. Mr. Stark saw a battered-looking Jeep Cherokee sitting in the center of the K-Mart parking lot like a meteorite fallen from the sky. He drove in a wide loop around the Jeep, spiraling inward to park with his driver’s window a half-dozen feet from the driver’s side of the jeep. The headlights on the jeep flashed on and illuminated a long, dusty pathway leading from the Cherokee’s fender to nowhere in particular, the beams simply fading away in the remote
darkness at the edge of the lot.

“Are you Ms. Rerum?”

“Close enough,” a voice said from within the dark interior of the Jeep.

Mr. Stark put his car in park and shut off the engine. Then, he stepped out between the vehicles, his door remaining open so that the dome-lights cast a dim yellow light on him. The woman in the Cherokee also opened her door wide and the dome-light from her vehicle intersected with the light coming from Mr. Stark’s car, intersected, but did not exactly add any more radiance to the space between the cars which remained gloomy and dim. Mr. Stark saw that the woman was young, wearing a shapeless coat that seemed too heavy for her body and too warm for the night. Her face had high-cheek bones and was wrapped in a coil of black hair and she looked exotic, a mixture of races, with a broad, flat nose and Asian eyes. It was too dark to assess the color of her skin. Her heavy coat gave her a hulking aspect and Mr. Stark thought that she looked like one of Genghis Khan’s squat, tough cavalry-men.

“Do you have the things?” she asked Mr. Stark in a crisp, barking tone.

“Of course,” he said. He turned from her and reached onto the front seat of the Jeep to remove the steak box from his car.

“Frozen meat,” the woman said.

“It’s just the box,” Mr. Stark told her.

“I hope you didn’t tell anyone about this transaction,” Ms. Laki Mae Rerum said.

“Not a soul,” Mr. Stark replied.

“We can’t afford any publicity. People misunderstand these kinds of things.”

“Yes, they do,” Mr. Stark agreed with her.

“Let me see what they look like,” she asked.

Mr. Stark opened the box, sliding the cardboard tabs apart and removed one of the plates wrapped in newspaper. He handed her the plate and she peeled the newspaper away, dropping it into the wind which whisked the paper away.

“Very good,” Ms. Rerum said. “Very, very racist.”

Ms. Rerum made an approving sound, clucking her lips and tongue. Then, she let the plate fall through her fingers and it shattered on the concrete at her feet. Mr. Stark lunged to catch the plate but was too slow. Ms. Rerum kicked at the shards and sent them scuttling under the Jeep Cherokee.

“So sorry,” she said. “So very sorry.”

Mr. Stark stepped back and looked at her, but her short figure remained obscure to him and didn’t come into focus. Her face seemed immobile.

“Here’s what you should say,” Ms. Rerum spoke. “Say ‘Pretty to touch, pretty to hold, but if you break it, it’s sold’. Right?”

“It’s okay,” Mr. Stark said. “We can figure something out.”

“Please let me see another,” Ms. Rerum asked. Mr. Stark handed her another plate. She unwrapped it and, then, hurled the plate like a frisbee. He heard the ceramic smashing on the concrete.

“What are you doing?”

“You’re a racist. You’re a vile racist,” Ms. Rerum said. “I’m taking away the profit-motive. You see. Bigotry is based on economics. Take away the profit-motive and, maybe, that will be the end of prejudice.”

“I don’t think so,” Mr. Stark said.

He turned and put the opened steak box back in his car. Ms. Rerun laughed loudly and tapped him on the shoulder with something hard.

“Look what I have,” she said. “I’ve brought a genuine Japanese samurai sword. Taken from a dead Nip, I don’t know, on Leyte or Guadalcanal or Okinawa, maybe. I brought it to trade with you.”

Mr. Stark saw that she was holding the blade against this shoulder. Moonlight silvered the metal.
“Now, please give me the rest of the plates so I can smash them,” Ms. Rerum said.

“What’s the point?”

“I’m not going to let you get away with exploiting racism for profit,” she said. “You’re exploiting my people.”

“You don’t look Black to me,” Mr. Stark said.

“Race is imaginary,” Ms. Rerum said. “You don’t know what’s in my DNA.”

“I don’t,” Mr. Stark admitted.

“My great-grandparents had a service station in Bakersfield,” Ms. Rerum said. “The police came, there was a knock on the door in the middle of the night, and, with just one suitcase apiece, they were sent to Manzanar. My great-grandma used to cry when she remembered the dust, the dust blowing through the barracks out there.”

“I’m sorry,” Mr. Stark said.

“No, you’re not,” Ms. Rerum said. “You’re a vile racist. I should cut you to pieces with this blade.”

Mr. Stark wasn’t afraid of her. It seemed preposterous. He stepped back toward the car. The blade hovering in front of his eyes, trembling a little in her grip, didn’t seem authentic. The metal had a pale buttery look.

“I’m going to leave now,” Mr. Stark said. He put his hand in his pocket and felt something there, something hard and cold wrapped in paper.

“Not without giving me the other plates,” Ms. Rerum said.

“Why would I do that?”

“If you don’t,” she said. “I’ll behead you. I’ll gut you like a fish.”

“I don’t believe you,” Mr. Stark said.

“Look around,” she replied. “Who’s coming to your rescue?”

“Whatever,” Mr. Stark said.

He handed her the steak box and she pulled out the plates, one after another, this time not bothering to unwrap them. She pitched the plates between them and, then, kicked and stomped at them. Mr. Stark heard the china shattering. He felt a familiar sense of rage and oppression, a heavy suffocating anger that wrapped his chest in tight bands and took away his breath. He knew that he could overpower the young woman and take the sword away from her, but he also suspected that if he acted in that way, he would use the blade to cut her and would likely cut himself as well in the process and the blood would be slippery as ice between them and this was something that he wanted to avoid at all costs.

“You couldn’t sell these anyhow,” Ms. Laki Mae Rerum said.

“What do you mean?”

“My grandma told me. She whispered it to me. It’s a secret. The women who worked in the ceramic industry at Manzanar. They took arsenic that was used in some of the other workshops, for electroplating, I think, at the camp. They mixed the arsenic in the glaze so that anyone who ate off these plates would get sick, would get deathly ill – they would puke and have bloody diarrhea and their hair would fall out. That was their revenge.”

“That’s not true,” Mr. Stark said.

“You’re a liar, you’re a racist liar,” Ms. Rerum said.

“It’s a fantasy object,” he said. “A counterfeit. As far as I know there never was any pottery made at Manzanar. I don’t know if something called Manzanar Industries even existed.”

“You’re denying my heritage,” Ms. Rerum said. She flailed at the air between them with the samurai sword. “It says right on the plate. Manzanar Industries.”

“It’s a counterfeit,” Mr. Stark said again.

“You’re a vile racist liar,’ Ms. Rerum said. She hit Mr. Stark several times with the sword. He was surprised that it didn’t cut him. Perhaps, the sword was a facsimile itself, merely made of wood or plastic. He raised his forearm to fend off a blow and she slashed at him with a vicious, chopping motion. The blade caught his wrist and he yelped and fell back into the front seat of his car, clawing at the door to shut it against her.

The Jeep Cherokee bucked and squealed away, fishtailing across the lot. Mr. Stark clutched his injured wrist close to his belly. It throbbed, but he was not cut. He moved his fingers. All of them bent and flexed. In the dome-light, he could see that the side of his wrist was turning bruise-purple and swelling. In the attack, she must have struck him across the face, because his nose was bleeding. He groped in his pockets for a kleenex or napkin. In his left pocket, he found an object wrapped in paper. He took it out and set it on the car seat next to him. It was the ceramic picaninny, apparently broken into two pieces in its cocoon of paper.

Mr. Stark drove home. He was breathing heavily when he entered his house. He sat at his kitchen table with his head bowed a little, the trench-coat slung over a chair next to him. Ms. Rerum’s hacking blows had split the little figure into two halves. Mr. Stark inspected them under the light. In one half of the broken ceramic figure, there was a tiny swastika etched into the hollow clay. In spidery letters, someone had sketched the letters “H. H.” inside the other half of the statuette. Mr. Stark’s wounded hand was numb and he couldn’t feel the tips of his fingers. He looked at the insignia inside the picaninny for a long time.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Blizzard

The Blizzard

The blizzard was coming. The storm’s approach was on the news, on the radio, featured in the newspapers and on web-sites. Schools preemptively canceled their classes and daycares were closed and church dinners and confirmation classes were postponed. On the morning before the storm everyone went to the grocery store on the edge of town and bought their provisions and a sinister east wind blew across the icy parking lot and twisted plumes of snow off the big mounds that had been plowed into the lot’s far corners. An east wind meant calamity, that someone was going to die. At least, that’s what some people said.

The sky remained clear and blue for several hours after the blizzard was supposed to have commenced. The storm was cranky, irritable and took its time arriving, wandering out of the west like a big and powerful old man with Alzheimer’s disease. As the afternoon advanced into evening, the wind swiveled around, a gale blowing out of the northwest Then, suddenly, sleet fell like a rain of bombs, projectiles falling from the clouds on plumb lines straight to the ground, ice that was too heavy to be dislodged by the strong wind so that it dropped vertically through the storm and covered the snow already heaped on the ground with grey, mucousy slush. The temperature plunged and the sleet became feathery and light and, then, the snow was blown horizontally across the white fields, swirling in curlicues and vortices between the houses.

George took his dog for a walk. It was fine and exciting thing to walk the streets of his neighborhood in the blizzard. He was dressed warmly and the bitter winds didn’t penetrate through his Carhart coat or his mittens and scarf and his dog, a handsome Labrador bitch, enjoyed the storm. She pranced through the drifts and nipped at the wind that lacquered her back and flanks with a white crust of snow.

The sidewalks were clogged with snow slumped between the dirty glacial ridges made by a season’s accumlation of snow-blowing and so George led his dog down the middle of the street, between the homes lining the lane and their garages in their peaked white caps. At the end of the avenue, a turbulent cloud of blowing snow rose into the sky, a cyclone whirling through an intersection where sometimes the headlights of a car shone briefly, tentatively, as if the vehicle were a man bearing a faint and guttering torch through a tunnel where the wind was moving like a piston. Drifts crisscrossed the street and crept along the right-of-way like flocks of sheep. The ice underfoot was irregular and unpredictable, hidden under tufts and sheets of snow. In some places, the tires of cautiously passing cars crushed the snow into a marble glaze and it was slippery there and the snow leaped and danced across those white floors like ballerinas on a dimly lit stage. The piles of snow standing sentinel at the intersections flared like white bonfires, blazing in the wind, and when George hiked across those cross-roads, the dog shuddered under the impact of the wind and whirled in circles to keep her nose and eyes away from the piercing blast from the northwest. Walking in the storm was like mountaineering: although the streets were level, they were wild with snowdrifts and each step seemed an ascent toward some kind of summit where the wind roared perilously and the danger was great and exhilarating.

There was no traffic on the residential streets. A few cars parked next to the snowdrifts towering over the curbs were motionless and corraled by heaps of plow-snow, buried to their hubcaps. Something sputtered behind George and he looked over his shoulder to see a lone car, low-slung, surfing through the deep snow. George yanked his dog to the side of the road, standing knee-deep in snow and waiting for the vehicle to slowly churn past him. But the car stopped beside George and stood half-buried in the snow, trembling a little. The roof of the vehicle was thatched with snow and the wipers cut a half-circle in the snow clinging to the windshield so that the driver peered out into the white chaos as if from inside a warm, dark cave. The passenger window creaked a little and descended and a girl inside leaned forward to speak to George. The dog lunged and tugged to attract George’s attention back to her walk and away from the car that was sputtering there in the drifts.

“We’re lost,” the girl said. She seemed to be Mexican with black hair twisted around her face and there were red inflamed pimples on her cheeks. The man behind the driver’s wheel glanced over toward George with a look of dull incomprehension. Neither of the people in the car were dressed for the storm – they seemed to be wearing work-clothes and were without hats or stocking caps.

The girl named an address. “Could you tell us how to get there?” George was puzzled. The address didn’t seem familiar to him – it wasn’t a street number or an avenue, but rather a “place”. George thought for a moment and tried to recall where he had noticed an address of that kind, but, for a moment, the wind and the blowing snow and the dog tugging at her leash disoriented him and his mind was blank.

“I think I can help you,” George said. “Are you from around here?” the girl asked. “I’ve lived here all my life,” George said. “I know where everything is.” “Oh, thank you, thank you,” the girl said. The man beside her, flexed his hands on the steering wheel as if he were in a hurry.

“That’s an odd address,” George said. He bent forward toward the car all shaggy with snow. For a moment, he thought of the east wind that had come out of the sunrise and, then, pivoted and he considered the four cardinal directions and the quadrants of the town that governed the numbering of streets. “Did you say ‘southwest’?” George asked. The girl produced a sliver of paper and read the address from it. “Yes,” she said, repeating the house number and the name of the place that was neither a street nor an avenue.

The wind made a taunting sound and flung some handfuls of snow between George and the girl and he thought he smelled a faint odor of alcohol in the car, something floral and sweet in the air oozing through the half-open window. “Okay,” George said. “I think I know where it is.” He imagined the streets crisscrossing under the dome of the blizzard, the landmarks entangled in pennants of blowing snow, the drifts rising like barricades in the middle of highways, semi-trucks crashed into ditches and the police cars and ambulances forging their way through the storm. “Here it is,” George said. “You’re in the wrong side of town. You have to go around the block and, then, drive four or five more blocks to the main road, the one-way and, then, take the one-way a mile, maybe, more past the stoplights to the lake and the dam. Look at the street numbers there. That will guide you to the address.” George thought of the stoplights flashing in the white torch of the wind and the frozen lake buried under ice and snow slit open here and there by the tracks of snowmobiles and the concrete wall of the dam covered with a glaze of ice. It seemed a long and improbable journey, more than a mile, almost two miles, perhaps, with the storm shoving and pulling to nudge you off track. The girl looked puzzled and so George repeated his instructions. “You need to be in the southwest part of town,” George said. “This is not the southwest.” The girl said something in Spanish to the driver. “Thank you so very much,” she told George and, then, the window ascended in its groove and some snow caked on the glass detached itself and slid down the side of the car and, then, the vehicle rocked forward, dividing the drifts under its front fender. Following his instructions, the car signaled and turned to go around the block.

George walked another block. Blown snow sprayed into his eyes and a siren sounded somewhere, the wailing tone kicked up and down by the gale. Something was bothering him. At the next intersection, he stood where the wind was blowing the snow in rising columns and looked at the street sign: it was marked “SW.” His face flushed. – Why did I tell them they were in the wrong quadrant of town? George thought. He looked down the street to where the wall of blowing snow closed the road. It occurred to him that the address that they had been seeking was only a couple blocks away, not across town on the slick, snow-clogged avenues, nowhere near the frozen lake and the dam armored in ice. – What have I done? George thought. He walked another block and the green street sign over his shoulder marking the next intersection seemed to mock him. The leash dropped through his fingers and fell into the snow at his feet and the dog dashed in tight circles around him, rejoicing in the storm. George kicked at the dog, but she pranced out of range. – What have I done? he thought again. It was astonishing to him that he had misled the people in the car. The blizzard howled and seemed to have turned the town inside-out and, perhaps, all directions were somehow reversed but the street signs confounded this theory – they marked the places where roads crossed distinctly and imperturbably: there was no doubt – he was in the southwest and had lived in the southwest neighborhood in the small city for twenty-five years and, then, with a sickening sensation, he could see in his mind’s eye the exact address that the people had been seeking -- there it was, the little lane diagonal to the avenues and streets because running parallel to the course of a river and he imagined the trees shuddering in the storm and the white trench of the frozen stream and the several houses on that road showing windows lit the color of amber and honey. – What have I done? George thought.

He turned around to make his way back to his home. How will I be punished? Surely, this kind of failing, this fundamental error will have to recompensed in some way, some sort of compensation will have to be paid or some kind suffering endured on my part – that is how George thought about the situation and his mind darkened with a sense of guilt and the storm was shut-out of his thoughts now, continuing like a brute, clockwork automaton far outside the range of his thoughts. He plodded through the drifts dragging the dog behind him. Then, his house loomed overhead.

Later that night, George was watching TV. His dog was stretched out at his feet. George’s wife was looking at Facebook on her smart-phone, sitting at the kitchen table in the other room. George had not mentioned the episode with the lost Mexicans in the car to his wife. The storm howled outside and battered the windows.

George’s wife said that more snow was predicted for the weekend. “It will be bitterly cold,” she said. “And there is supposed be another storm coming. They are predicting another eight inches of snow.”

“That’s four days from now,” George said. “That’s what they are saying. I’m getting a weather-alert on my phone,” his wife said. “This winter will never end,” George said sadly. “Another blizzard...” George’s wife repeated.

“That’s bullshit,” George said suddenly. “No one can know that,” he added. “You don’t need to get mad at me,” George’s wife replied. George interrupted her speaking loudly – “it’s all bullshit,” he said, “no one can predict the weather. No one can successfully predict anything. We just don’t know about things like that.”

“I think they can predict a storm,” George’s wife replied. “You’re naive,” George said. “You just believe whatever you’re told. You’re gullible.” “I don’t think I’m gullible,” George’s wife said angrily. “You do what people tell you to do,” George said. “You are always being misled.” “Who’s misleading me?” George’s wife asked him. “The assholes who post that shit on your phone,” George said. “Listen to me,” he repeated, “no one can know anything about anything.”

“You’re crazy,” George’s wife said.

George reached down to pet his dog. “I’m so goddamn sick of this winter,” George said. Tears glistened in his eyes.