segunda-feira, 10 de novembro de 2014
The Alaska of Giants and Gods
By Dave Eggers
There is proud happiness, happiness born of doing admirable things in the light of day, years of good work, and afterward being tired and content and surrounded by family and friends, enjoying a sumptuous meal, ready for a deserved rest—sleep or death, it would not matter.
Then there is the happiness of one’s personal slum. The happiness of being alone, and tipsy on red wine, in the passenger seat of an ancient recreational vehicle parked in a campground outside Seward, Alaska, staring into a scribble of black trees, unable to go to sleep for fear that at any moment someone will get past the toy lock on the R.V. door and murder you and your two small children, sleeping in the alcove above.
This was Josie’s situation. They’d landed in Anchorage yesterday, a gray day without promise or beauty, but the moment she’d stepped off the plane she’d found herself inspired. “O.K., guys,” she’d said to her exhausted, unhappy children. They had never expressed any interest in Alaska, and now here they were. “Here we are!” she’d said, and she’d done a celebratory little march. Neither child had smiled.
She’d piled them into this rented R.V. and driven off, no plan in mind. The manufacturers had named the vehicle the Chateau, but that was thirty years ago, and now it was falling apart and dangerous to its passengers and to all who shared the highway with it. But after a day on the road her kids seemed fine with the crumbling machine, the close quarters, the chaos. Her kids were strange but good. There was Paul, seven years old, a gentle, slow-moving boy with the cold caring eyes of an ice priest. He was far more reasonable and kind and wise than his mother, but then there was Ana, only four, a constant threat to the social contract. She was a black-eyed animal with a burst of irrationally red hair and a knack for assessing the most breakable object in any room and then breaking it.
The Lower Forty-eight was full of cowards and thieves and it was time for mountains and people of truth and courage. So Alaska. She had been a dentist and was no longer a dentist. She’d been sued by a desperate woman who claimed that Josie should have seen the tumor on her tongue during a routine cleaning. Unwilling to fight a dying woman, Josie surrendered. Take it all, she’d said, and the dying woman had done just that. And then the father of Josie’s children, her ex-husband, a spineless, loose-bowelled man, had, improbably, found a new, second woman to marry him. He wanted the kids there, but Josie, who’d got nothing from him for years, thought, Well, no. And what could better grant her invisibility than this, a rolling home, a white R.V. in a state with a million other white R.V.s? He could never find her.
But she had yet to see the Alaska of giants and gods. What she had seen so far did not feel like frontier. It felt like Kentucky, only colder and far more expensive. Where was the Alaska of magic and clarity and pure air? This place was choked with the haze of some far-off forest fire, and it was not majestic, no. It was cluttered and tough. And where were the heroes? Find me someone bold, she asked the dark trees before her. Find me someone of substance, she asked the mountains beyond.
She had been born a blank. Her parents were blanks. All her relatives were blanks, though many were addicts, and she had a cousin who identified as an anarchist. But otherwise Josie’s people were blanks. They were from nowhere. To be American is to be blank, and a true American is truly blank. So Josie was a truly great American.
Still, she’d heard occasional and vague references to Denmark. Once or twice she heard her parents mention some connection to Finland. Her parents knew nothing about these nationalities, these cultures. They cooked no national dishes, they taught Josie no customs, and they had no relatives who cooked national dishes or had customs. They had no clothes, no flags, no banners, no sayings, no ancestral lands or villages or folktales. When she was thirty-two, and had wanted to visit some village, somewhere, where her people had come from, none of her relatives had any idea at all where to go. One uncle thought he could be helpful. Everyone in our family speaks English, he said. Maybe you should go to England?
The next day was nothing, nothing at all, only the bright sun and the cold wind coming desperately over the obsidian water. They slept in and walked around. They discovered a train car set up by the shore which the kids wanted to explore but found was closed. They went into town, into Seward, a mix of actual fishermen and fish, and souvenir shops selling shirts bearing cartoons of moose. They meandered down the boardwalk, and for a time watched a happy little tugboat chugging to and fro across Resurrection Bay. Josie was drawn to it and wasn’t sure why.
Her son was speaking to otters.
The bay was full of otters, and Paul was worried the tug would run them over. But the animals moved themselves effortlessly out of the path of the tug and then reformed, six of them floating like furry detritus amid a mess of chartreuse seaweed. The otters were absurdly cute, stupidly cute, swimming on their backs, holding actual rocks on their bellies, using these rocks to break open shellfish and then enjoying their meals like mustachioed men. Such an animal could not be conceived by any self-respecting Creator. Only a God made in our image could go for that level of animal kitsch.
Now an older man sitting on a bench was looking at Josie’s children.
“You kids like magic?” the man asked. He seemed to be leering. These lonely old men, Josie thought, with their wet lips and small eyes, their necks barely holding up their heavy heads full of their many mistakes and the funerals of friends.
Josie nudged Paul. “Answer the nice man.”
“I guess,” Paul said to the mountains beyond the man.
Now the old man was delighted. His face came alive, he lost twenty years, forgot all the funerals. “Well, I happen to know there’s a magic show tonight on our ship.”
“You own a ship?” Josie asked.
“No, no. I’m just a passenger. I’m Charlie,” he said, and extended his hand, a pink and purple tangle of bones and veins. “Haven’t you seen the Princess docked here? It’s hard to miss.”
Josie came to understand that this stranger was inviting them, her and her two kids, all of them unknown to this man, onto the cruise ship docked in Seward, where, that evening, there would be an elaborate magic show featuring a half-dozen acts, including, the old man was thrilled to convey, a magician from Luxembourg. “Luxembourg,” he said, “can you imagine?”
“I want to go!” Ana said. Josie didn’t think it mattered much that Ana wanted to go—she had no intention of following this man onto a magic-show ship—but when Ana said those words Charlie’s face took on a glow so powerful Josie thought he might ignite.
Josie didn’t want to disappoint this man and her daughter, who continued to talk about the show, and who were virtually floating upward with joy and inspiration. But was she really about to follow an old man onto a cruise ship in Seward, Alaska, to see a Luxembourgian magic show?
“We’re allowed to have guests, I think,” the man said as they walked up the gangplank. The kids were astounded, stepping slowly, carefully, as if they were walking on the moon, holding the ropes on either side. But now their host, this man in his seventies or eighties, was suddenly unsure if he could have friends over. He stopped in the middle of the gangplank. A few dozen elderly passengers in windbreakers went around them, carrying their small bags of Seward souvenirs. “Let me talk to this man,” Charlie said, and motioned to them to hang a few yards back.
So Josie stopped, and her kids peered down into the black water between the dock and the gleaming white ship. Josie watched as Charlie approached a man in a uniform. Charlie and the man swung around a few times to inspect Josie and her children. Finally Charlie turned back, waving to them, a relieved smile overtaking his face. He called them to come aboard.
The ship was garish and loud, and crowded, full of glass and screens—the décor was casino crossed with Red Lobster crossed with the court of Louis XIV. The kids were loving it. Ana was running everywhere, touching delicate things, bumping into people, making elderly women and men gasp and reach for walls.
“I think it starts in twenty minutes,” Charlie said, and then again looked lost. “Let me see if we need tickets.” He wandered off, and Josie knew she was a fool. Parenting was chiefly about keeping one’s children away from unnecessary dangers, avoidable traumas, and disappointments, and here she had dragged them to Alaska, and had driven them, and their feces—the R.V.’s bathroom meant convenience but also the transportation of human waste—around the worst parts of the state, and then to Seward, where no one had recommended they go, and now she had them following a lonely man onto a ship designed, it seemed, by the insane. All to see magic. Luxembourgian magic. Josie paged through the years of her life, trying to remember a decision she had made that she was proud of, and she found nothing.
Finally Charlie returned, holding the tickets in his hand like a bouquet. “Are we ready?”
There was an escalator, an escalator inside a ship. Charlie was ahead of them, and rode upward while looking back at them, smiling but nervous, as if worried they might flee.
The theatre seated at least five hundred and all within was burgundy—it was like being inside someone’s liver. They sat in a half-moon booth near the back, Paul next to Charlie. A waitress in bright red hurried by, but Charlie made no move to order anything. Josie asked for lemonades for the kids and a glass of Pinot Noir for herself. The drinks arrived and the lights went down. Josie relaxed, anticipating a few hours of not having to do anything but sit and watch in silence.
Charlie had a different plan. The show started, and Josie realized that Charlie intended to talk throughout. And the words he most wanted to say were “See that?” Charlie would see something that every member of the audience had seen, and then would ask Josie and her kids if they’d seen it, too. Ana would say, “See what?,” and Charlie would then explain what he had seen, talking through the next five minutes of the show. They made a beautiful pair.
The first magician, a pretty man in a tight silk shirt, had, it seemed, been told to make his act more personal, so his monologue returned again and again to the theme of how he had always welcomed magic into his life. He’d opened the door to magic, said hello to magic. He’d learned to appreciate magic in his life. Did he say he was married to magic? Maybe he did. It all made little sense, and the audience seemed lost. “Life is full of magic if you look for it,” the magician noted, breathlessly, because he was moving around the stage in a thousand tiny steps, as a woman in a sparkly one-piece bathing suit vamped behind him with long strides.
The pretty magician produced some kind of flower from behind a curtain, and Josie struggled to see this as magical. She and Charlie clapped, but few members of the audience joined them. Her children didn’t clap; they never clapped unless she told them to. Were they not taught clapping in school? The magician was not impressing this audience, though who could be easier to impress than five hundred elderly people in windbreakers? But they were waiting for something better than carnations produced from behind curtains.
Josie began to feel for this man. He’d been a magician in grade school, no doubt. He’d been pretty then, too, with lashes so long she could see them now, fifty feet away, and as an adolescent, apart from his peers but not concerned about this, he had driven with his mother forty miles to the nearest city, to get the right equipment for his shows, the right boxes—with wheels!—the velvet bags, the collapsing canes. He’d loved his mother then and had known how to say so, with conviction, perhaps with a flourish, and his unguarded love for her had made his friendlessness unimportant to him and to her, and now she was so proud that he had made it, was a professional magician, travelling the world making magic, welcoming magic into his life. And after all that, Josie thought, these elderly assholes won’t clap for him.
Josie downed half her Pinot and gave the pretty magician a whoop. If no one else appreciated him, she would. Every time he asked for applause, which was often, she yelled and whooped and clapped. She found the waitress, ordered again, and downed a second glass. She cheered louder and whooped again. Her children looked at her, unsure if she was being funny. Charlie turned to her and smiled nervously.
Now the long-legged woman was helping the pretty magician into a big red box. Now she was turning it around and around. It was on wheels! Everything in the act had to be on wheels, so it could be turned around. It was a rule of magic that all boxes must be turned around and around, to prove there were no strings, that no one was hiding just behind. But if something wasn’t turned around would the audience revolt? Did they ever ask, Excuse me, why hasn’t someone turned the box around? Turn the box around! My God, turn that box around!
Now the sparkly assistant opened the box. The pretty man was not in the box! Josie whooped again, clapping over her head. Where had he gone? The suspense was fantastic.
And now he was next to them! Suddenly a spotlight was on their table, or near it, because the pretty man was next to them. “Holy shit,” Josie said, loud enough that the pretty man, whose hands were outstretched, again asking for applause, heard her. He smiled. Josie clapped louder, but again the rest of the audience didn’t seem to care. He was up there, she wanted to yell to them, now he’s here! You fuckers.
Up close, she saw that the magician was wearing a tremendous amount of makeup. Eyeliner, blush, maybe even lipstick, all seemingly applied by a child. Then the spotlight went dark, and he stayed for a moment next to their table, hands up, while a second magician appeared onstage. Josie wanted to say something to the pretty man, to his heaving silken silhouette a few feet away, but by the time she arrived at the right words—“We loved you”—he was gone.
She turned to the stage. The new magician was less pretty.
“This is the one from Luxembourg,” Charlie whispered.
“Hello everyone!” the new magician roared, and explained he was from Michigan.
“Oh,” Charlie said, sighing.
The Michigan magician, in a white shirt and stretchy black pants, was soon in a straitjacket, hanging upside down twenty feet above the stage. With his breath labored and his arms crossed like a chrysalis, he told the audience that if he did not escape from the straitjacket in a certain amount of time something unfortunate would happen to him. Josie, trying to get the attention of the waitress, had not caught exactly what that consequence was. She ordered a third Pinot, and soon some part of the contraption holding the magician was on fire. Was that intentional? It seemed intentional. Then he was struggling in an inelegant way, ramming his shoulders against the canvas jacket, and then, aha, he was free, and was standing on the ground. An explosion flowered above him, but he was safe and not on fire.
Josie thought this trick pretty good, and clapped heartily, but again the crowd was not impressed. What were they waiting for? she wondered. Bastards! Then she knew: they were waiting for the magician from Luxembourg. They did not want domestic magic. They wanted magic from abroad.
The man from Michigan stood at the edge of the stage, bowing again and again as the applause dissipated until he was bowing in silence. Josie thought of his poor mother, and hoped she was not on this cruise. But she knew there was a very good chance that the Michigan magician’s mother was on this cruise. Like the pretty magician’s mother, she was proud, she was retired, she travelled the world clapping for her son. How could she not be on this cruise?
Now a new magician appeared. He had a high head of gleaming yellow hair and his pants were somehow tighter than the pants of his predecessors. Josie had not thought this possible.
“I hope this guy’s from Luxembourg,” Charlie said, too loudly.
“Hallo,” the magician said, and Josie was fairly sure he was from somewhere else. Perhaps Luxembourg? The magician explained that he spoke six languages and had been everywhere. He asked if anyone in the audience had been to Luxembourg, and a smattering of applause surprised him. Josie decided to clap, too, and did so loudly. “Yes!” she yelled. “I’ve been there!” Her children were horrified. “Yes!” she yelled again. “And it was great!”
“Lots of visitors to Luxembourg, I am pleased,” the magician said, though he didn’t seem to believe those who had applauded, least of all Josie. But by now, her spirit dancing in the glorious light of her third glass of wine, Josie believed she had been to Luxembourg. In her youth, she’d backpacked through Europe for three months, and wasn’t Luxembourg right there in the middle of the continent? Surely she’d been there. Did that one train, the main train, go to Luxembourg? Of course it did. She pictured a beer garden. In a castle. On a hill. By the sea. What sea? Some sea.
The magician from Luxembourg did his tricks, which seemed more sophisticated than those of his predecessors. Maybe because they involved roses? Before him there had been merely carnations. The roses, this was a step up. Women holding roses appeared in boxes, boxes on wheels, and the man from Luxembourg turned these boxes around and around. Then he opened the boxes, and the women were not there; they were somewhere else. Behind screens! In the audience!
Josie clapped and hollered. He was wonderful. The wine was wonderful. What a good world this was, with magic like this on ships like this. What an impressive species they were, humans, who could build a ship like this, who could do magic like this, who could clap listlessly even for the magician from Luxembourg. These fucking assholes, Josie thought, trying to single-handedly make up for their sickening lack of enthusiasm. Why come to a magic show if you don’t want to be entertained? Clap, you criminals! Even Charlie wasn’t clapping enough. She leaned over to him. “Not good enough for you?” she snarled, but he didn’t hear.
Now Luxembourg was gone and another man was making his way onto the stage. He was rumpled, his hair reaching upward in seven different directions, and he was easily twenty years older than the others. Another man. Where were the women? Were women not capable of magic? Josie tried to remember having seen or heard of any female magician and couldn’t. My God, she thought! How can that be? What about Lady Magic? Why do we accept all these men, all these silken heavy-breathing men? And now this one, this crumpled one—he made no effort at all to be pretty like the others. He had no lovely assistant, and, it soon became clear, he didn’t intend to do any magic. She looked for the waitress. Where was the waitress?
There was only the rumpled man standing at the edge of the stage. He was telling the audience that he’d worked for some time at a post office, and had memorized most Zip Codes.
He’ll get murdered, Josie thought. What kind of world is this, when a man from the post office follows Luxembourgian magic, and why were they, she and her kids, on this ship in the first place? With incredible clarity she knew, then, that the answer to her life was that at every opportunity she’d made precisely the wrong choice. She had been a dentist for a decade but for most of that time had not wanted to be a dentist. What could she do now?
Then it came to her. She was sure, at that moment, that she was meant to be a tugboat captain. My God, she thought, my God. At thirty-eight, she finally knew! She would lead the ships to safety. That was why she’d come to Seward! There had to be a tugboat school in town. It all made sense. She could do that, and her days would be varied but always heroic.
She looked at her children, and saw that Paul was now leaning against Charlie, asleep. Her son was asleep against this strange old man, and they were in Seward, Alaska. For the first time, she realized that Seward sounded like “sewer,” and thought this an unfortunate thing, given that Seward as a place was very dramatic, and very clean, and she thought it very beautiful, maybe the most beautiful place she’d ever been. It was here that she would stay, and train to become a tugboat captain at the school that she would find tomorrow. All was aligned, all was right. And now, looking at her son sleeping against this man, this old man who was leaning forward, listening to this other man talk about the post office, she felt her eyes welling up. She took a final sip from her third Pinot and wondered if she’d ever been happier. No, never. Impossible. This old man had found them, and it could not be coincidence. This town was now their home, the site of this ordained and holy reunion, and all the people around them were congregants, all of them exalted and now part of her life, her new life, the life she was meant for. Tugboat captain. Oh, yes, it had all been worth it. She sat back, knowing she’d arrived at her destiny.
Onstage, the post-office man was telling the audience that for any of them who gave him a postal code he could tell them what town they were from.
Josie assumed that this was some sort of a comedy bit, that he was kidding about the postal job, but immediately someone stood up and yelled, “59715!”
“Bozeman, Montana,” he said. “West side of town.”
The crowd erupted. The cheers were deafening. None of the magicians had elicited this kind of enthusiasm, nothing close. Now ten people were standing up, shouting out their Zip Codes.
Josie, despairing of the waitress’s return, downed half a glass of water, and that act, the dilution of the holy wine within her, took her away from the golden light of grace she’d felt moments before, and now she was sober or something like it. Tugboat captain? A voice was now speaking to her. What kind of imbecile are you? She didn’t like this new voice. This was the voice that had told her to become a dentist, that had told her to marry that man, the loose-bowelled man, the voice that every month told her to pay her water bill. She was being pulled back from the light, like an almost-angel now being led back to the mundanity of earthly existence. The light was shrinking to a pinhole and the world around her was darkening to an everywhere burgundy. She was back inside the liver-colored room, and a man was talking about Zip Codes.
“62914,” she squealed.
“Cairo, Illinois,” he said, explaining that though it was spelled like the city in Egypt, it was pronounced “kay-ro,” the Illinois way. “Nice town,” he said.
The audience screamed, hooted. It was a travesty. Now Paul was awake, groggy and wondering what all the noise was about. Josie couldn’t bear it. The noise was not about fire and magic and tugboats: it was about Zip Codes.
“33950!” someone yelled.
“Punta Gorda, Florida,” the man said.
The crowd roared again. Ana looked around, unable to figure out what was happening. What was happening? Postal codes were making these people lose their minds. They all wanted to have their town named by the rumpled man with the microphone. They yelled their five digits and he guessed Shoshone, Idaho; New Paltz, New York; and Gary, Indiana. It was a melee. Josie feared that people would storm the stage and rip his clothes off. Go back to sleep, Paul, Josie wanted to say. She wanted to flee. Everything about all this was wrong, but she couldn’t leave, because now Charlie was standing up.
“63005!” he called out.
The spotlight found him and he repeated the numbers: “63005!”
“Chesterfield, Missouri,” the postal man said.
Charlie’s mouth dropped open. The spotlight stayed on him for a few seconds, and Charlie’s mouth remained agape, a black cave in the white light. Finally the light moved on, he was in darkness again, and—as if a spirit had held him aloft and suddenly let go—he sat down.
“Hear that?” he said to Paul. He turned to Josie and Ana, his eyes wet and his hands trembling. “Hear that? That man knows where I come from.” ♦
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 21:25