Authors: Colson Whitehead
For Nicole Aragi
HE CAME UP WITH
the names. They were good times. He came up with the names and like any good parent he knocked them around to teach them life lessons. He bent them to see if they’d break, he dragged them behind cars by heavy metal chains, he exposed them to high temperatures for extended periods of time. Sometimes consonants broke off and left angry vowels on the laboratory tables. How else was he to know if they were ready for what the world had in store for them?
Those were good times. In the office they greeted each other with
and slapped each other on the back a lot. In the coffee room they threw the names around like weekenders tossing softballs. Clunker names fell with a thud on the ground. Hey, what do you think of this one? They brainstormed, bullshitted, performed assorted chicanery, and then sometimes they hit one out of the park. Sometimes they broke through to the other side and came up with something so spectacular and unexpected, so appropriate to the particular thing waiting, that the others could only stand in awe. You joined the hall of legends.
It was the kind of business where there were a lot of Eureka stories. Much of the work went on in the subconscious level. He was making connections between things without thinking and then,
on the subway scratching a nose, or
while stubbing a toe on the curb. Floating in neon before him was the name. When the products flopped, he told himself it was because of the marketing people. It was the stupid public. The crap-ass thing itself. Never the name because what he did was perfect.
Sometimes he had to say the name even though he knew it was fucked up, just to hear how fucked up it was. Everyone had their off days. Sometimes it was contagious. The weather turned bad and they had to suffer through a month of suffixes. Rummaging through the stores down below, they hung the staple kickers on a word: they -
’ed it, they -
’ed it, they stuck good ole -
on it. They waited for the wind.
Sometimes he came up with a name that didn’t fit the client but would one day be perfect for something else, and these he kept away from the world, reassuring them over the long years, his lovely homely daughters. When their princes arrived it was a glorious occasion. A good name did not dry up and get old. It waited for its intended.
They were good times. He was an expert in his field. Some might say a rose by any other name but he didn’t go in for that kind of crap. That was crazy talk. Bad for business, bad for morale. A rose by any other name would wilt fast, smell like bitter almonds, God help you if the thorns broke the skin. He gave them the names and he saw the packages flying over the prescription counter, he saw the greedy hands grab them from the candy rack. He saw the names on the packaging printed over and over. Even when the gum wrappers were bunched up into little beetles of foil and skittered in the gutters, he saw the name printed on it and knew it was his. When they were hauled off to the garbage dump, the names blanched in the sun on the top of the heap and remained, even though what they named had been consumed. To have a name imprinted along the bottom of a Styrofoam container: this was immortality. He could see the seagulls swooping around in depressed circles. They could not eat it at all.
. . . . . . . .
Roger Tipple did not have a weak chin so much as a very aggressive neck. When he answered Roger’s phone call, it was the first thing he remembered. He had always imagined it as a simple allocation problem from back in the womb. After the wide plain of Roger’s forehead and his portobello nose, there wasn’t much left for the lower half of his face. Even Roger’s lips were deprived; they were thin little worms that wiggled around the hole of his mouth. He thought,
for the lantern-jawed. Easy enough, but at the moment he couldn’t come up with what its opposite might be. He was concentrating on what Roger was saying. The assignment was strange.
He hadn’t kept up with Roger since his misfortune, as he called it. He hadn’t kept up with anyone from the office and for the most part, they hadn’t kept up with him. Who could blame them really, after what happened. Occasionally someone reached out to him, and when they did he shied away, made noises about changing bandages. Eventually they gave up. He wasn’t expecting the call. For a second he considered hanging up. If he’d planned it correctly, he would have been in a hermit cave in the mountains, two days’ trek from civilization, or in a cabin on the shore of a polluted lake when Roger phoned. A place where you can get the right kind of thinking done for a convalescence after a misfortune. Instead, there he was in his apartment, and they just called him up.
He was watching an old black-and-white movie on the television, the kind of flick where nothing happened unless it happened to strings. Every facial twitch had its own score. Every smile ate up two and a half pages of sheet music. Every little thing walked around with this heavy freight of meaning. In his job, which was his past present and future job even though he had suffered a misfortune, he generally tried to make things more compact. Squeeze down the salient qualities into a convenient package. A smile was shorthand for a bunch of emotion. And here in this old movie they didn’t trust that you would know the meaning of a smile so they had to get an orchestra. That’s what he was thinking about when the phone rang: wasted rented tuxes.
He could almost see the green walls of the office as Roger spoke. Roger’s door ajar and the phones on all the desks out there doing their little sonata. If a particular job was really successful the guys upstairs sent a bronze plaque to your office, with the client’s name and your name engraved on it, and below that whatever name you had come up with. Roger had a lot of plaques, from before he became a manager, from when he was a hotshot. His former boss came into focus as he listened. He saw Roger tapping his pen, crossing out talking points and notes-to-self as he explained to him how this kind of job wasn’t appropriate for the firm because of conflict of interest, and how the client had asked for a recommendation and he was top of the list. It wasn’t appropriate for them but they’d take the finder’s fee.
There was some token chitchat, too. He found out that Murck, the guy the next office over, his wife had had another baby that was just as ugly as Murck Senior. That kind of stuff, how the baseball team was doing this year. Roger got the chitchat out of the way and started to talk about the client. He had turned the sound off on the television but he could still figure out what was going on because a smile is a smile.
If Roger had called a week ago, he would have said no. He told Roger he’d do it, and when he put the phone down it came to him:
. Not his best work.
. . . . . . . .
He was into names so they called him. He was available so he went. And he went far, he took a plane, grabbed a cab to the bus station, and hopped aboard a bus that took him out of the city. He pressed his nose up to the glass to see what there was to see. The best thing about the suburbs were the garages. God bless garages. The husbands bought do-it-yourself kits from infomercials, maybe the kits had names like
Handy Hal Your Hardware Pal
, and the guys built shelves in the garage and on the shelves they put products, like cans of water-repellent leather treatment called
and boxes of nails called
Carter’s Fine Points
and something called
that will prevent droopy blades. Shelves and shelves of all that glorious stuff. He loved supermarkets. In supermarkets, all the names were crammed into their little seats, on top of each other, awaiting their final destinations.
The ride was another hour and a half but he didn’t mind. He thought about his retainer, which he had deposited that morning. It occurred to him that it was an out-of-state check and would take a few days to clear. Through the window he watched elephants stampede across the sky. As soon as he stepped out of the airport he knew it was going to rain because his foot was throbbing, and now the clouds pursued the bus on an intercept course. They finally caught up when he arrived in the town. The bus kneeled at the curb, he stepped out, and felt the first few fat drops of rain. It rained most of the time he was there, as if the clouds were reluctant to leave after racing all that way to catch him. No one else got off.
The town square was a tiny park boxed by three streets and on the final side by the slow muddy river. A neat little main drag, he thought. It was clear that they were putting some money into it. The red brick bordering the park was recently laid, obviously set down in the last year or two, and there were holes in the ground surrounded by plastic orange fencing where they were adding the next new improvement or other. All the grass in the park was impossibly level. For community service drunk drivers probably knelt with scissors.
People sprinted away from the benches to get out of the rain. They ran into doorways, hid beneath the awnings and overhangs of the stores lining the square. A lot of the stores seemed, like him, new arrivals. The same national brands found all over. They were new on the first floor, at any rate—on the second and third stories of the buildings, the original details were preserved, the old-timey shutters and eaves. He imagined crazy aunts in leg irons behind the tiny attic windows of stained glass. In between the new stores, the remaining old establishments hung in there like weeds, with their faded signs and antiquated lures. Dead flies littered the bottom of the ancient window displays, out of reach of arthritic hands.
There was this old white guy in a purple plaid sweater vest who didn’t care about the rain. The old guy was walking his dog and taking measured little steps, taking in the activity of the street. He took him for that brand of retiree who becomes a night watchman of the afternoons, patrolling the grounds, scribbling down the license plate numbers of suspicious vehicles. His dog didn’t care about the rain, either. It was one of those tiny dogs that had a fancy foreign name that assured you it was quality merchandise. As he talked to the old guy, the dog stood a few feet away and sniffed at a promising stain.
He asked him if he knew where he could find the Hotel Winthrop.
The guy looked at him through the droplets on his bifocals and said, “You’re in it, son.”
“I know I’m in Winthrop,” he said, “I’m looking for the Hotel Winthrop.” He extended the piece of paper in his hand. “Number 12 Winthrop Street.”
The old guy raised the dog leash and pointed across the park and that’s when it really started raining.
. . . . . . . .
He said to himself: Bottle a certain musty essence and call it
. Spray it around the house and your humble abode might smell like the Winthrop Suite of the Hotel Winthrop. The man at registration had told him that President So-and-so had slept there, one of those presidents that nobody has ever heard of, or everybody always forgot was a president at some point. Board of Ed types were always a bit dismayed when they needed to name a new high school and realized that all the favorite workhorses were taken, and were forced down the list to the sundry Pierces and Fillmores. As he looked around the room, he had to admit that it was quite possible that one of those so-and-so presidents had stayed there, after a listless stump speech. It was a good place to make a bad decision, and in particular, a bad decision that would affect a great many people. Considering the nature of his assignment, his quarters were appropriate.
The people of bygone days had pulled dark wood in wagons to panel the hotel walls, and now it was scraped and splitting. They had ordered red-and-orange carpet from the big city catalogs and laid it on the floor for a hundred years of feet, and now it was gauze. The armchairs, tables, and writing desk had been moved so often that the furniture legs had scraped fuzzy white halos into the floor. If he put the three lamps together, he could partially reconstruct the sylvan idyll described on their round bodies—alone, they were too chipped and defaced to relate anything more than ruin. Brittle brown spots mottled the lamp shades where the bulbs had smoldered, mishap after mishap. The previous guests had left their mark. The only thing unscathed through these accumulated misadventures was a painting that hung on one wall. Closer inspection revealed it to be a portrait of one of the Winthrop elders. Winthrop stood in a field with some hunting dogs, preserved in his kingdom. Guests came and went, guests registered, retired, and checked out, but this man remained. He never blinked.
He was relieved that it was not one of those eyes-follow-you paintings. He had recently weaned himself off Drowsatin and didn’t want to go back to using it again.
The clients had left some things for him on the wooden desk. Mayor Goode had sent up a bottle of port, Mr. Winthrop had sent him a local history written by a town librarian. Writing your town’s local history was the librarian version of climbing Everest, he figured. And Mr. Aberdeen had faxed him a welcome to their fine community, informing him that he and the mayor would meet him in the hotel bar at six o’clock. There was nothing among those things to tell him that they had agreed to his very specific conditions of employment. He frowned and looked over the room once more. He wasn’t even sure if he should unpack. The coat hangers were handcuffed to the closet, as if they had been warned in advance of some rumored compulsion of his.