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Jamestown a novel
By Matthew Sharpe
Soft Skull Press Copyright © 2007 Matthew Sharpe
All right reserved.
Chapter One Johnny Rolfe
To whoever is out there, if anyone is out there:
Today has been an awful day in a run of awful days as long as life so far. The thirty of us climbed aboard this bus in haste, fled down the tunnel, and came up on the river's far bank in time to see the Chrysler Building plunge into the earth. The grieving faces of my colleagues being worse to look at than that crumpling shaft of glass, brick, and steel, I used my knees to plug the sockets of my eyes, put my fingers in my ears, and clamped my nose and mouth shut with my thighs. All main entries to my head remained sealed till Delaware, where I looked up in time to see John Martin vault his seatback, steak knife aimed at George Kendall's throat. Kendall, bread knife aimed at Martin's throat, said, "How dare you say that!" Some great, quaint pre-annihilation philosopher described the movement of history as thesis, antithesis, synthesis, whereas I've seen a lot more thesis, antithesis, steak knife, bread knife. John and George jabbed each other's arms once each before a couple guys broke up the fight, not because they didn't want to see George dead, or John dead, but because we'd signed a contract with our employer stipulating no murder on the bus. Murders off the bus must be approved by a majority of the bus's five-man board of directors. We don't yet know who those five are: their names aresealed in a black box we're meant not to open till we pass from Maryland into Virginia-that is, from civilization into its counterpart, if indeed civilization's what to call what we're fleeing, or exporting, or both. I am this trip's communications specialist, having taken a degree from the Manhattan School of Communications Arts, where I received certificates in linguistics, diplomacy, typing, modern dance, telecom, short and long stick.
A mile into Delaware a log or rock got lodged in our tank tread and we came to a halt. We'd passed a trading post a mile back and all of us but three set out for it on foot. Our home having cracked sooner than we'd thought it would, we left without a lot of things we need. Those men walked up the road with what they had to trade for food: small electric things, copper, beads, knives, love; scarcity reveals the nature of exchange.
The driver and mechanic fixed the bus while I sat here and called to my thoughts. None came. I gazed out the dirty bulletproof window at two plump red hares, creatures one sees none of on the island of my birth. "Say bullet-resistant glass not bulletproof glass because there's no such thing as bulletproof glass and while that may be a technicality I wouldn't want to sell this glass to you under false pretext however slight," the used bulletproof glass salesman said to me in my role as this trip's communications specialist, back at home, three days before the earth swallowed the tower. "What will you be using the glass for?"
"For not dying," I said, and put my fist in contact with his chin, the punishment for poor sales technique in modern-day New York. Stepping over his prone form, I put as much glass in my cart as would fit. Don't judge me, if you exist. Show me a man who goes to sleep each night integrity intact and I will hit him in the chin with my fist and take his glass.
I continued to console myself with the two red hares gently munching grasses in that roadside field-though what was road and what was field was not so easy to discern. Two weeks into spring, the hares seemed unperturbed to find the trees around them dead, all leaves brown and holed and half-mashed in the earth. I liked the hares and wished them all the best, but they were plump and I was starved enough to risk ingesting what toxins they might have contained. I pulled my bodkin from my sock and stood when two brown rodents big as the hares entered the field. So low to the ground were these two new beasts that I couldn't see their legs above the brown and desiccated grass; they seemed to glide along this stiff, brown lake of blades. They tapered at the back end into bushy tails, and at the front end into meager heads each of which came to a point in a weapons-grade black nose. Their tone was frolicsome. They signaled to the hares their wish to play. The hares seemed angry. The brown rodents approached and were rebuffed, approached and were rebuffed, and by now the hares' fiery fur stood on end while their bodies shook in place. The hares were puffed up very big and red and I sensed a miscommunication between these species of dumb beasts that looked like other miscommunications I'd sensed or made. Never have I seen a hare open its mouth as wide as did the red hare who now bit the small head off the brown thing, whose red blood stained the stiff, brown grass. The second brown thing fled along the stalks, but not in time to not get caught by hare two and sheared in half. That was when I turned away and opted not to hunt the hares.
The mechanic, Jack Smith, bounded up the bus's stairs. He gave me a thumbs-up that transitioned into a wave. "Johnny! How you doing? We got the bus fixed. What's with the sick, morose look?"
"Did you see what those hares did to those-other things?"
"That's what you're upset about? That's like being upset about earthquakes, or asteroids falling into the sea, or war, or having to breathe to stay alive. Think happy thoughts."
"And what would be a happy thought for you?"
"That I'm alive."
"Don't be so pessimistic. We'll get down to Virginia, trade with the Indians-"
"Maybe someone like you'll meet a nice Indian girl and fall in love."
"What's someone like me?"
"Someone who believes in love."
"Love's like me, it does its dirty job. People like you think love's a virtue in itself. That's why I like you."
"When people say 'That's why I like you,' they're either about to swindle me or they're laboring under a grave misapprehension."
"'Laboring under a grave misapprehension,' that's cute. You contemplative types are such a gloomy bunch of freaks," he said, and pinched my cheeks and kissed my ear and stepped down off the bus.
The other guys returned. Their clothes were torn and fouled, their faces bruised. George Kendall, whose throat John Martin had tried to cut, was not among them.
"What happened to Kendall?" I said.
"The less you know, the better," Martin said.
"Did you finally succeed in killing him?"
Martin lunged at me and Jack Smith, the mechanic, blocked him. The driver started up the bus as Smith knocked Martin to the ground. "Now get up and I'll give you a hug," he said.
Martin stood, hugged Smith, and tried to stab him in the gut. Smith took his knife from him and sliced his forehead open. Night fell. We drove slowly down the blasted road. Smith stitched Martin's head and dressed the wound and fed him soup and laid him down to sleep. I don't like a bus of guys. Is there any bus of guys on which a man can hug and feed another soup without first having sliced his face?
Chapter Two Pocahontas
To the excellent person I know is reading this:
Hi! My name is Pocahontas and I'm nineteen, but Pocahontas isn't my real name. I will never say my real name. If I say my real name you will die. Anyone who hears my real name will die. Pocahontas is my nickname, it means "person who cannot be controlled by her dad." My dad didn't make up my nickname, my mom did, before she died, and he's kind of mad that that's my nickname because every time someone says it-which is any time anyone says my name because anyone who says my name name will die, which has been proven, but right now I can't talk about that because in English, which is not my mom tongue, you can talk about only one thing at a time, at most-any time anyone says my nickname they're also saying my dad can't control his daughter, and that's bad for my dad, my dad claims, because he's chief of our town and a bunch of other towns in this general area-Superchief, I think y'all might say in English.
Oh English! How I love to write to you in English, even though it is so slow to do anything in English, because English moves at the speed of talking, whereas my language moves at the speed of thinking. Thinking in English is beautiful sort of in the way it is beautiful to have smoked a big bowl of busthead. When I think of the world in English, or look at the world in English, it moves so slow, like English, and that feels good cuz life's so short! Like when I look, in English, at my two little cousins, Opechancanough and Steve, throwing a ball back and forth between them in a meadow or former parking lot, the ball slides along the air as a snail slides along the sand, and leaves a furrow of air in the air as thoughts of you, the excellent person I know is reading this, leave the faintest furrow in my brow.
I want to tell you all about the sweet but kind of weird and sad day I had today, okay? After I spent the morning working in the cornfields with my gal pals I was running around and around and around my dad's house. My dad's house is pretty neat, and contains many a mansion! It's shaped like the lowercase letter n, but as if you had a very tall stack of papers and each one had a great black letter n in the exact center of it, so that there was a big stack of n's all kind of connected to each other, and then you took a very sharp knife and cut away all the whiteness of all the paper surrounding the n's, and were left with about five hundred black n's stacked on top of one another, and then you tilted the stack so the n's were standing on their feet, so you had a tunnel of n's, which you lived in with your wife, who bore you a girl when you wanted a boy, or thought you wanted a boy, but you found you loved the girl so much you let her disobey your rules, and so on, so that's what my dad's house looks like, which I was running around and around, a thing a girl my age won't do for much longer, it just ain't right, who knows why, gonna have to find another place to run, and maybe not around but through.
Well so I'm running when this guy, my favorite second cousin, Stickboy, came up to me and asked me to take a walk with him in the woods, and I said yes, why not, it's always good to spend time with him.
Stickboy's smart, and knows things no one else knows, but few acknowledge this. His dad was killed before he was born and his mom, who is the cousin of my dad, came to live with us, and gave birth to Stickboy in our n-shaped house. Like I said, my dad had no boy, i.e., heir, so Stickboy is supposed to take over the family business, which is executive-level politics, except for the little problem that no one thinks he's up to the job. "Doesn't kick," my father said, with his hand on his cousin's womb a month before Stickboy came down the tunnel of her cunt and out into this vale of tears. "What kind of politician doesn't kick in the womb?" And many years later-now-when my father enters a room Stickboy is already in, Stickboy, without thinking, brings his hands up to his chest as if to defend his heart from a barb my dad would fling at it, and my dad says, "What are you doing, covering your breasts?" and both man and boy wince, boy cuz he wants my dad to love him, man cuz he knows he flings the barb at the heart of his adopted son cuz the boy's weakness reminds him of his own and he's therefore, in a sense, flinging a barb at his own heart. Isn't life sometimes complicated and sad?
I walked with Stickboy out into the woods. I want to write a fabulous description of the woods for you in the exciting language of English, but it's going to be hard. I don't know the English names of woodsy things. There's a kind of moss that's soft and green and smells like the neck of my mom, who died when I was one. I guess I'll call this moss mom's neck. Mom's neck drips or droops from the branches of the trees. The branches have leaves that fall off in autumn and grow back in spring. The leaves in the spring are green and round or spear-shaped or heart-shaped or radiant. The air in the woods this time of year is wet and green. When I open my mouth in the woods it fills with green. When I speak in the woods my words come out green. If I think of someone I love, my thoughts are green. The woods also have the remnants of a defunct civilization that thrived on this very spot, so for every couple dozen trees there'll be a brokedown edifice of years gone by. The woods have deadly creatures too but I'll not say their names right now.
Deeper and deeper into the forest went Stickboy and I. "I think we will not marry after all," he said, which stopped me in mid-stride.
"I think we will not marry after all."
"What will prevent us?"
"Why, whenever you talk about the future, do you sound as if you're describing a country where only sad people live?"
"To counteract the nostalgia for the future that you and everyone else around here seem to feel. To counteract the naïve idea that what makes the future good is that it's the future."
Well it hit me pretty hard when he said that about him and me not getting married, an event we'd been planning since we met at birth. I think he's right but I don't know why. Maybe he's right because he said it. Does that ever happen in English, where saying something makes it true? That happens in my language all the time so people have to be careful what they say but no one ever is, enough.
Then some time passed in the woods that I don't remember anything about, a little wedge of life that's disappeared. And then he said one more thing to me, a single word that caused a single feeling in my breast. The feeling I remember well, but not the word that was its maker. Ugh, I wish I hadn't written this. Too late now.
Chapter Three Johnny Rolfe
To the one whose existence I doubt:
We parallel the river's southward course. Our progress is glacial. Long swathes of the old road are gone. Often we know we're on what used to be the road only by the signs that remain on what used to be its side: FARMLAND-FRESH PRODUCE, BUMPER-TO-BUMPER AUTO PARTS, FRIENDLY MOTEL, MOOSE LODGE, CHRISTIANA CHICKEN SHACK, SHAFT OX CHIROPRACTIC, OASIS CAR WASH, MIRACLE DELIVERANCE TABERNACLE, SPEED LIMIT ENFORCED BY AIRCRAFT, DRUG-FREE SCHOOL ZONE: linguistic detritus of history, voices from a past we hope to reclaim, lonely notes our forebears wrote in code to tell us how to find them. WHISPERING PINES MOTEL, MASON-DIXON SPORTS COMPLEX, CRAFT EMPORIUM, SELF-EMPLOYED HEALTH INSURANCE, OTHELLO, BAIT AND TACKLE, TEMPERANCE, WILDLIFE REFUGE, FREE WATERFRONT CATALOGUE 7000 FEET.
We passed another trading post today. Everyone but Jack Smith, the red-haired mechanic, who'd had to slice John Martin's face, shunned this one. We stopped for lunch; Smith removed a red wagon full of paltry trinkets from the trailer of supplies behind the bus and went to the post alone on foot. I gazed through the scuffed-up glass at the most compelling sign of all:
I would have risked my life to find who made that sign, but the house it stood before and described had become a house-shaped square of ash, so I stayed put.
An hour later Martin, whose face there was a little less of now, said, "Let's leave without Smith."
"I'm not going anywhere," the driver said.
"Let's wait an hour, then go after him."
"Let's wait an hour, then leave."
"Let's kill him when he gets back, if he isn't already dead."
"Let's go after him now, he's been gone long enough, something bad's happened." (That was me.)
"Let's send you in after him alone," Martin said.
I said, "I know it stings to get punked by someone of a lower social station, Martin."
He came at me along the bus's wide central aisle, a blur of bandages deep brown with dried blood. I removed from my pocket the very handheld device on which I'm now describing this and jammed it in his knee. He howled and fell and howled. He wouldn't walk again for hours at least, and thus I'd saved him from a dozen fights, a munificent gesture, almost as if I'd used this thing to communicate something of value.
Against my own best sense, I want to know John Martin-not know him tactically to know what he'll do next so I can do it to him first, I mean I want to know him in the useless way people know. He's small and pale, fine-boned and quick, a meticulous dresser and a dirty fighter with a high, elegant forehead. With his speed and size, his wont to bite and scratch, he fights well in a cramped space. The syllogism of his inclusion on this trip: he's good at number crunching, he'll bite off the finger of his assailant, let's include him on this trip. And Martin's a born executive-one of that class of men who make or know the secrets that define the contour of our lives without our knowledge, secrets one hundred molecules of which the rest of us inhale with every breath. You can tell he's one of them by how he wears his suit. Even when it's soiled and scuffed, stained with blood, and stinks of fear and rage, Martin's suit attends his body as the air attends an eagle's wing.
Excerpted from Jamestown by Matthew Sharpe Copyright © 2007 by Matthew Sharpe. Excerpted by permission.
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