Photo by Leeca Desforges
Upon graduating from college, I was hired to respond to the disgruntled queries of hundreds of small leaseholders from Texas and Oklahoma—reiterating the many decades Union Natural Gas had remaining on their property's mineral rights and the pittance rent per acre due them. Clarence Perrod, my boss and a graduate of the Tri-State's worst college, Waynesville, was a pompous man of unctuous reserve. Television's The Love Boat was all the rage back then, and Perrod was cocking up his family for a vacation to the West Coast to view the vessel. Weeks before his scheduled departure, he talked about little else. I'd begun feeling claustrophobic.
Bearing an uncanny likeness to Cole Porter but without hair, he palavered into a monstrous Dictaphone perched on his desk. I'd pass his glass-enclosed office. There, seesawing in his chair, staring off into space, Perrod, suddenly inspired, would plunge his face into the black rubber cup attached to the recorder's flexible tubing. Sally, his secretary, did the transcribing.
On the morning of his departure, the duo loaded the Dictaphone into an Army surplus shoulder bag, then strapped it—bandolier-style—to his torso. The device must have weighed thirty pounds.
"You all be mighty productive in my absence," he instructed. "I'll bring back some photographs of the Love Boat, its crew, and a running commentary on everything Esther, me, and the children see." He patted his pouch. "Good-bye, 'n' be sure to give Sally a rest."
To the office personnel's consternation, my colleague, Coughlin, and I laughed as Clarence marched to the door.
"What do you say, Daugherty—let's get the hell out of here. Who'll give a shit?"
Whiling the afternoon away in a tavern at the base of Union Gas, smirking about Perrod reconnoitering the Love Boat with what looked like a ventilator strapped to his chest, Coughlin suddenly announced we were going to the Hill.
"It's where all the action is."
"Oh shit, I'll pass, Coughlin. You go."
"Daugherty—you say you write?"
"You call yourself a writer and don't know what's on the dark side of Steeltown? Ever seen any trollops close up?"
Coughlin laughed, generously paid our tab, and ushered me to his car. Office buildings had emptied. In the evening's half-light, traffic signals blinked on and off to an occasional vehicle. He steered us to the edge of the city, then up a gravel road with a precipitous falloff—downtown Steeltown to our right, and a cluster of bungalows on the driver's side. The neighborhood looked abandoned.
"They gotta make sure we ain't fuzz." Coughlin pulled over on the shoulder.
We lit cigarettes. Figures began to move out of the shadows and converge in a clique near the car. Coughlin rolled his window down.
"What you boys here for?" one called.
"What are you selling?"
"The house with the coral fence." A beret and goatee approached. "Brown sugar. You won't be disappointed." We both strained our necks.
In turn, each came to the automobile with his spiel, pointing out the distinguishing characteristics of the bungalow he wished us to visit. The final pimp whispered into the window, "China."
"What?" Coughlin said.
"I don't get it, man."
"Nothin' to get, dude. She speak all languages. Caused Joltin' Joe to leave his white-ass woman home. First house under the streetlight."
"What's the fare?"
"Treat her like the lady she think she is—five skins."
Coughlin got out of the car. The men skipped backward, gesturing that we follow. Coughlin crossed the street, then stopped. "Goddamn it, Daugherty, is it the money you're worried about?"
I had remained in the car.
"Hart Crane wouldn't be whacking off in a goddamned sedan!" he shot.
The other knocks resignedly climbed back onto their porches when I followed Coughlin to the house under the streetlight. Ours, nattily attired in a tan gabardine suit, cocoa silk shirt, and brown-and-white shoes, approached a portly woman in a black caftan, leaning in an open doorway.
"What is it?" she asked.
"Gentlemen callers from down Steeltown, Miss Clara." The madam dourly dipped her hand into her bosom, palming green to our escort—who bowed deluxe, then slid back into the bordello's shadows.
A motley array of straight-backed chairs lined the notcherie's cramped and windowless room. A long hallway of partitioned cubicles, each opening draped by chintz, lay before us.
Clara eyed Coughlin. "You been here before, right?"
He feigned surprise.
"Your tickets 'n' passport all ready?" she guffawed. "Mr. Eddie here been 'round the world more times than Jimmy Hilton," she announced to nobody.
Clara looked sloe-eyed at me. "What brings you to my house, Joe DiMaggio?"
"China," I said.
Clara raised her eyebrows and stared at Coughlin, who shrugged.
"She be ready for you soon, boy."
It was like waiting for the doctor in a cubicle, except instead of the examining table, a metal cot sat jammed alongside a nightstand with a porcelain basin. No religious icons adorned the walls. Not even a stiff chair under the overhead light.
Suppose I contract a sexually transmitted disease. All because of Perrod and his damn Dictaphone. I had a dead-end job with a dolt for a boss and coworkers who were sheep. All of Steeltown seemed intent on sticking like flies to the status quo. The metaphysical Union Natural Gas Company. Mr. Anonymous.
It was Coughlin, the fly in the ointment, who mocked all of it. Perrod's secretary. "Sally's as obtuse as Clarence, but a good poke." He didn't care if his wife was interested in sex. Here I was being dragged into this bungalow culture overlooking a city that had begun to metamorphose from a smoke-and-fire eater into an aluminum moon-and-sun catcher.
Three units down, Coughlin was getting his trip around the world.
Barely five feet six inches, spool-black hair, nut-brown skin yet Asian, and attired in a carmine sarong, China stepped into the cubicle. I could easily visualize her standing opposite me in doctor's whites or a fellow graduate philosophy student, perhaps.
"What's your name?"
I fumbled in my pocket for money.
"Too soon," she whispered. "Oh, we are going straight tonight, love?" she announced, winking, encouraging me to speak up.
"Yes!" I blurted.
"How much you got?"
"Five," I said.
In mock surprise, she angled her arm at her waist while unbuttoning my trousers. "They tell you I give head for five scoot out there on that damn street... broadcasting it to the whole damn city?"
"You can sit here and talk, China, for all I care," I said.
"Oh, Jesus," she sighed, soaping up my genitalia with warm, sudsy water.
Brief moments later I glanced out the window. The metropolis below looked brighter than the stars. I saw no smokestacks or steel mills, but aluminum and stainless steel towers groped the night sky. I saw floodlights bathe the firmament of heaven. I saw tugboats with their glittering lamps on the Monongahela and the Allegheny sail toward the crotch of the mighty Ohio. And the ribbons of bridges carrying headlit cars back and forth over the twin waters. I turned to glance at China.
"I'm your first?" she asked.
Coughlin thought I should be thumping on the dashboard. As we circled back down into the city toward my car in silence, he disgustedly pronounced:
"You're fucking in love."
I didn't respond.
"I can't believe it," he fumed. "You're a dumber shit than Clarence Perrod. I take you to a cathouse, and you come out with a heart heavier than Primo Carnera's balls. Oh, damn, Daugherty. She's a whore. A cathouse hooker who gives head for a living. Back there right now China's trumpeting some scumbag."
"Drop it, Coughlin."
"You gonna see her again?"
"No." It was a lie.
"You planning on writing a story?"
"There's my car," I said. "I'll see you in the morning."
"Bring pictures of the Love Boat!" he cried.
She could have been an acolyte in the Episcopal Church, a Smith alumna doing social work. It got to the point where she no longer accepted my fivers. Mostly, we'd meet at the start of her shift and seldom engage in any lovemaking.
"Causing her to go morose on me, Mr. Eddie," Clara scolded. "A dark day when you come around."
China told me to ignore her, yet declined my request to visit her outside the bordello.
"What do you do for a living?"
I explained I was a technical writer, describing for her the difference between my kind of scribbling and that of authors like Hart Crane or Nathaniel West, whom I deeply admired. One evening, to my surprise, she handed me her dog-eared copy of West's Miss Lonelyhearts & The Day of the Locust.
"Had you read these earlier?" I asked.
"No. Tell me others."
I talked about Baldwin, Carson McCullers, and Tennessee Williams. Each rendezvous, we'd sit for the allotted time with the open texts between us, quietly sharing insights. She was particularly fond of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and Up in Giovanni's Room.
"It's how it feels to me every night in here, Tom. Warped. And Mr. Williams and Mr. Baldwin—they speak like women to me... climb into my skin, see with my eyes."
Capote's Other Voices Other Rooms—the photograph of the blond boy-author reclining Camille-like on the novel's back cover—greatly amused her. "It's how I pose on the cot for my customers, too," she said. "He got a cold pussy just like me."
She took my fingers, traced her mouth, then opened her blouse, drawing my face against her breasts. "Oh, Jesus," she whispered, "would that the mind could caress you, Tom. Nothing left to feed a boy like you."
They were cool as window glass.
That evening Miss Clara stood outside the curtain. "Joe DiMaggio's in the lobby, China," she importuned. "Get ready."
I looked away as Steeltown succumbed to darkness. "Best you stay away from here now, Mr. Eddie. I'll read your books one day." She ran warm water in the chipped porcelain pan.
At the covering, she put her mouth to mine. "The locusts are always heaviest before the harvest," she whispered.
For one entire year, I wore the bandoliered heart on my chest. I left the Gas Company, unable to bear witnessing the return of Mr. Perrod from The Love Boat—his breathing words into the metallic-gray, cum-oxygen Dictaphone.
Coughlin stabbing buxom Sally each week to return home to his chaste wife. It felt as if we were all on some kind of nitrous oxide turning the world upside down. I presumed China was back to her ebullient self, watching her natty pimp guide the summer locusts to the house just under the streetlight.
Hart Crane had casually taken off his sport jacket to climb overboard one balmy afternoon. Could a purulent heart contracted in a brothel cause me to John Berryman a bridge parapet?
Virtually three years to the day after Coughlin and I took the trip to the Hill, a high school in Steeltown hired me to teach the mechanics of writing to "starred" classes—a code for pupils who fell below the standard IQ threshold. While all of the students were black, the teachers and school administrators were flour-sack white.
By whatever method I tried to encourage my three-star class (those with the lowest IQs) to write, I failed. I held contests for those who told the most interesting yarn. The stories were humorous and rich with the dialect of the community, but placing words on paper held no interest for anybody.
"Too much like hard labor, Mr. Daugherty."
Perhaps I can pique their interest in a book, I thought—jump-start their writing that way. "Stories are often layered like an onion, class. Writers use symbols, pictures, to convey ideas much deeper than what their words are letting on." I passed out copies of Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea.
Initially, we talked about the old fisherman. "Do you know a Santiago?" A couple of students stirred. "What's this thing Santiago's got with Joe DiMaggio?" They shrugged. "Why do he and the kid, Manolin, get along so well together?" Yes, there were Santiagos in some of their lives. A grandfather, perhaps a neighbor or an aunt who listened to them, showed them respect.
"We look out for them," one offered.
One young man's face lit up after a class, reading to me parts of the book he'd underlined. "Why is Santiago alone in the boat, Mr. Daugherty? This story's not only about an old man fishing, is it?"
The students read aloud and the morning we arrived at the section where Santiago "awoke with the line burning through his right hand," this boy, Williams, looked agitated. The mighty marlin had burst out of the ocean to fall, causing the line to uncoil rapidly, wounding Santiago's hands, drawing him facedown into the bow of the boat—"and his face was in the cut slice of dolphin and he could not move."
"The boat is the belly of a woman, Mr. Daugherty!" Williams rose out of his desk. "The fishing line's her cord. Santiago's being born again in the sea. I've watched my Mamma give birth."
"Yeah, all that blood and his nose in the fish," one of his classmates drawled. The room burst into bawdy laughter.
"Hold it," I called and quickly passed out papers. "In your own words write—just like you speak. What do you see happening in these pages?"
"The old man just caught a damn big fish, Daugherty, 'n' it's aimin' to catch him. Shit, there ain't no... what you call 'em... symbols?" Elizabeth Sims, often surly, protested.
That evening I took the papers home. A few contained only a sentence fragment, a couple of fallen words, suggesting Santiago wanted to be a hero. Others parroted what Hubbard Williams had said. Several pages were blank except for the pupil's name. None grasped the boy's metaphor. But Williams described a birth out his mother's bottom onto her bare mattress, a "flesh rope," and his stillborn brother at its tether. He related it to Santiago's gripping the fishing line with bloody hands, being pulled headfirst, his face smothering in filleted dolphin in the bow of the skiff—to become the "Yankee Clipper."
Despite the paper's tortured syntax, misspellings, and sentence fragments, he'd sustained Hemingway's urgent beat. I was overwhelmed.
"Read this and tell me Hubbard Williams is a three-star," I challenged the school's principal. She agreed and immediately issued his transfer to my regular class.
The close of the academic year was marked by an open house. Williams and I had spent many late afternoons together, getting him up to speed on the mechanics of writing. Increasingly, his sentences carried more weight—and he had begun selecting authors on his own. That last day, somewhat embarrassed, he alerted me that his mother wished to come by to thank me.
"It's not my idea, Mr. Daugherty."
"Why shouldn't she be proud?" I replied. "I'll be delighted to meet her."
School closing, as always, was a joyous occasion. I returned to the classroom after dinner and met a handful of parents—but no Hubbard or his mother. At nine o'clock, about to switch off the lights, I looked up and saw him standing awkwardly in the doorway.
"Is everything all right?" I asked.
He motioned toward the hallway.
"My mother," he says.
China pierced the shadows.
"Mama, this is Tom Daugherty."
Standing radiant against the streaked chalkboard walls—a cluster of mock orange, gathered en route, in her hair—she betrayed no secrets save a poppy red mandarin jacket with black knot enclosures. "You have turned the light on in my son's mind, sir."
"He is a very bright young man," I answered. "Why nobody else ever saw it... I don't understand."
"He's alive now," she beamed, "chattering late into the night about writers you've turned him on to. Now he even tutors me!"
The three of us laughed. The boy glanced shyly at his shoes.
"Joe DiMaggio," she mouthed. As if it were a woman's name.
Hubbard coaxed her back. "Come, Mother," he said, drawing her out into the dark hallway. I switched off the lights. Unnerved by the syringa's trace, I sat down in Williams' chair and gazed out the casement windows.
Not one star in the heavens.