Academic journal article Chicago Review


Academic journal article Chicago Review


Article excerpt

In Portland, Oregon, where it doesn't rain several dozen days a year, people know the odds and leave their windshield wipers on when they park their cars, and deep puddles rarely form on streets planned and planed for wetness, and the rain, as if in deference to engineering and expectation, never falls in sheets and torrents, but takes the form of a constant drizzle barely thicker than a mist, a drizzle that, falling through the air, pastelizes the colors of the buildings, and that having fallen, grays out and darkens those colors; in Portland, landlocked Portland, connected by a river to the sky, a very thin young man with an electric guitar in a hard-shell case walked in the gutter of Yamhill Street to even out his height advantage over the young woman beside him.

A voice so high it was more a whistle than a voice came faintly through the drizzle: "Bass-tarss!"

Billy and Melissa turned the corner and the source of the sound opened up to them: three bald male figures, one of them with an arm extended toward an old black man who was falling away from the arm, toppling lock-kneed as stiffly as a Douglas fir. The upturned hand of the old black man, falling, and the downturned hand of the young white man, felling him, were almost touching, suspended in a release that seemed a caress or a caress that seemed a release, each lingering on the moment of contact before giving the other back to the other's world.

It was a long block, and sight and sound were very slightly out of sync: Billy and Melissa saw the old man fall against a metal trash can a split-second before they heard the clatter, saw him open his mouth, like a clown in a silent movie, before his voice rang out thinly: "...young...bastards!"

"Skinheads," said Melissa. Bottom-heavy in spit-polished military boots and baggy camouflage pants, they wore khaki jackets with swastika shoulder patches. One had WHITE & PROUD stenciled across his back like the name of an athletic team.

"Watch the Strat?" said Billy, setting the guitar case at Melissa's feet.

To Melissa, who had never lost the thick-limbed, bowlegged swagger of the child athlete, Billy had always looked twiggish, kitelike; but now, as he ran away from her toward the skinheads, toward the unknown, toward the future, his orange nylon shell flew open, and the slivers of his legs beneath it seemed no more substantial than a butterfly's body between its giant wings, tiny, careening, willy-nilly, buffeted by chance. Billy's shout came back at her inarticulately down the long block.

The white-and-proud skinhead was kneeling before the old man, who was on his hands and knees and whose long jaw, lengthened by a scraggly white beard, opened longer. The youth tilted his stubbly head and parted his lips as if to give the old man a kiss or a bite on the face.

Melissa saw Billy grab the skinhead's collar from behind and yank him backward, heard herself murmur Billy's name, and heard in her murmur a warning, inaudible as all such warnings always are; heard in her own voice, it seemed to her later, a voice that was not her voice and an awareness of all that would happen next.

The skinhead, seated on the sidewalk where Billy had pulled him, drawled in a tone that did not seem entirely unfriendly, "You don't know what side you're on." He embraced Billy's legs, and Billy folded down.

Melissa got herself in the middle without knowing how. A fist among all those fists caught her on the jaw, and she staggered under the impact of the punch and of the fact that it was the first time since her tomboy days that anyone had punched her, and when, in the months to come, she would remember what happened next, she would remember that it had happened at a great distance from the place where she stood, too much in shock even to rub her jaw: at that distance, an old man crabbed off sideways on all fours and a young man she knew was standing up, waving his arms to fend off blows from three others, then falling, falling slowly, his arms moving closer to him until they covered his head, until he was down and rolling, until he stopped rolling and there were boots, only boots now, that kicked him. …

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