Authors: Colson Whitehead
“What’s the conference?”
“More people coming in to talk to Lucky about business opportunities. He’s always bringing people in here,” Muttonchops said. “They’re all over the place now.” Inside the cocktail shaker some sort of process was happening. “That’s what I thought you were here for, until I heard you talking to them.”
“Time of prosperity.”
Muttonchops snorted. “That’s what Regina says. That’s what Lucky says.” The bartender dropped a cherry into the yellow drink. The red reminded him of the time he broke open an egg and saw something inside that might have lived. “Winthrop Cocktail,” the bartender said.
“What do you say?”
“I say, I say I’ve worked here ever since I was a boy. Used to have a shoeshine over in the men’s and that’s where I got my start. Like my father and his father. And then they moved out here, behind this bar. They were bartenders behind this very bar and now I’m here, too. My family goes back to the first settlers.”
“Wow.” He took a sip.
“This was a colored town once,” he said. “Founded by free black men and women, did you know that?”
“No.” One look at the faces on the walls of the room told him that it must have been a long time ago. Minor and major Wigglesworths, and all points in between. “I read something about barbed wire,” he said.
. That was later. No. This here was founded by free black men. They came from Georgia and set up here and built themselves a new life. It was after that Old Man Winthrop came here with his factory and put it on the map. He came here after.”
He wondered what was in the drink. He’d only had a few sips and his head was already heavy, his neck a little rubbery. He wanted to blame it on jet lag, but he’d only traveled one time zone over. No, he was suffering his usual case of ST. Standard Torpor. This was more human contact than he’d had in months. And also, he had to concede, the Winthrops really had their magic potions down pat.
“You know how old this hotel is?” the bartender asked. In a moment the man’s face had softened. He could no longer say that Muttonchops looked angry, but he couldn’t name the man’s new expression either. “One hundred and thirty-two years old,” the bartender said. “Other places out on the street there, they close. You see them close and some new store opens up in their place. Some of the old-timers, they’ve had that store for years. They can use the money and retire. Wouldn’t sell out for all the money in the world a few years ago but they look up and down the block and they can see what’s coming. So it’s changing. But this place isn’t going anywhere.”
“What do you mean?” For a second he thought the bartender was referring to the hotel, but of course there was something more.
Muttonchops shifted on his feet. “Regina’s a good woman. I voted for her. I’ll vote for her again. Our families, we’re intertwined. But what they’re trying to do. This is Winthrop. Always will be Winthrop. Shit around here never changes. You can change the name but you can’t change the place. It stays the same.”
It all swam.
He had limped in. He staggered out.
. . . . . . . .
He had no purpose, he had no vocation. He had a job, which he lost, and so he answered the ad in the paper. The advertisement did not use the words
because the big men upstairs knew that the esoteric is often scary. So the ad promised the chance to get in on the ground floor of an exciting new field and left it at that. With the red pen he had stolen on his last day at his last job, he circled the ad. Here’s to new beginnings.
It was a midtown job so he told himself first thing that if he got the job it would only be something to tide him over until he got a more permanent gig. Midtown. Midtown the abstraction was nightmare enough, bat-winged and freaky. To actually set foot in the place was almost too much for his mind to process. He had a certain temperament. But he put on some midtown clothes and showed up at the appointed time.
It was one of those buildings where there was one bank of elevators for one half of the building and another set of elevators for the other half. It was hard to escape the idea that the world of the elevators not taken was better, more glamorous, with butlers and canapés and such. He pushed in glass doors. As he waited in reception, his future colleagues walked past, up and down the halls. They were on the inside and he was not. Where were they going, where did that corridor lead? It was the last time he would experience mystery in that building.
After a while he was taken to the conference room. Abe Appleby, the lowest man on the totem pole, the latest hire, asked him if he knew what a nomenclature consultant was. He told him he didn’t, and Abe shrugged and told him it was a fancy way of saying they thought up names. Then he left him alone with the aptitude test.
The test was odd. On one of the sheets there was a smiling bear flailing its paws on a pyramid and they asked him to name it. There was a nonthreatening androgynous blob with vague limbs and they asked him to name it. A sleek television-type pastel object, a bicycle built for three, a children’s ball that looked like it had a little tumor bulging out of it. A subsection of pills—there was no telling what they did, what ailment they alleviated or cured. He filled in the blank spaces.
There were normal everyday things with pretty much fixed names that they asked him to rename. This is an octagon. What would you call it? More things: stapler, ashtray, tree. The hardest thing was the chair, but he filled in the blank spaces.
Then to reverse it, they gave him a list of product names and asked him to think of what they might be attached to, a fruit drink or a running shoe. It was all pretty obvious stuff. He put in things off the top of his head. When he was finished, he dropped the test in a big pile of other tests on the receptionist’s desk.
He went home. Before the evening news he loosened his tie and drank beer out of a can.
They called him in the next day.
He sat in Roger Tipple’s office for the first time. Roger observed him over the neat divide of the desk. He picked up his aptitude test and nodded. Then he said, “You’re a Quincy man. What year?”
They talked about the old school for the next twenty minutes. Their conversation was facilitated by the fact that the same deathless geezers who had been around during Roger’s time were still wheezing around during his time. As luck would have it. He was a Quincy man, and it turned out the firm had been founded by Quincy men. The name meant something. He fit right in.
. . . . . . . .
He suspected the Winthrop Cocktail supplied many aliases, but the one he found most compelling was
. This passport led him places. For a time. When he blinked and twitched awake at two in the morning, he knew he’d be up for hours.
Caught in the a.m. in a hired room. He roused the man at the front desk after fourteen rings, hoisting the handlebar receiver to his ear. It was one of those old telephones that was all classy curves, white with brass trim; somebody had probably received news of Lincoln’s assassination through it. The man at the registration desk said he’d send up the only thing he could make at this hour: a cucumber sandwich.
Travel had rumpled his clothes, sleeping in them had left him hamperish. Groggy, paste-mouthed, he imagined he waited for an audience with the king. He carried urgent dispatches for the man in charge. The royal crest was everywhere, on the ashtray, on the brittle ballpoints and the stationery, the sheets and the towels. Upside down on the cover of the Guest Services folder, the gold Winthrop
was the McDonald’s
. Let us summon the graduate students to study the recurring theme of the golden arch in nature.
In college he had lived next to the Winthrop Library, so when he initially heard the name of the town, his first association was of shelves and shelves of the Classics, the histories of the dead, what we needed to read in order to become real citizens of this country. Then came images of mummified white people and their staggering approach, parchment tongues aching to rasp
. Then: a brand of tooth polish used before World War One, a patent medicine popular before the government cracked down on certain excitatory ingredients. He turned the idea over in his head and decided that if he were to put the name to contemporary use, it would be for a new kind of loofah, a commercial brand, one for institutional use in retirement homes. Scrub that dead skin away.
He let the guy in when he heard the faint double knock. If Muttonchops had started out as a shoeshine boy in the men’s room, this was the man who had screwed the shoeshine stand into the bathroom tile. He had obviously been haunting the hotel for a while. As the white man heaved the cart across the carpet, his bones creaked and cracked so much that they sounded like kindling catching fire. Well, we all have our boulders to push up mountainsides, he thought. The man called him sir, and he tipped him. The sandwich lay autopsied on the plate, crusts excised, cut into triangles, leaking horseradish.
He wondered if he could do what they were asking of him. There was still a chance he might get off the hook if they didn’t agree to his stipulation. It was simple, albeit a tad unusual. If the clients were going to hire him, they had to let the name stand for a minimum of one year. They could change it after that, but only after a year had passed.
When he composed this little fine print, his intention was that it would force them to consider the process—his process—with the appropriate gravity. These people were not his usual corporate clients. Corporate clients knew the rules of the game, and it was rare that they refused to accept one of his names. Oh, it happened occasionally that a client lacked the necessary imagination, or suffered from long-standing character deficits, or maybe there was some backroom intrigue that suddenly put this or that project on hold. In a case like this, however, especially when dealing with such a green group, the chance of encountering that random
factor was considerably higher. The object in question was a town. There was family and clan to think about, and their bickering. There was heritage and history involved, and their inscrutable demands. It simply made sense. He was a pro, they had called him in for a reason, and he did not want to waste his time.
As he sat on the edge of the bed, hunkered over the cart, it occurred to him that by forcing such exacting conditions on his clients, he hoped to use their refusal as an excuse. To hide his fear behind the impassive façade of the uncompromising professional. The sad shake of the head that said: I have a list of principles. By removing the possibility of failure, he could return home to his convalescence rooms and continue to sulk, pretending that he still possessed his power. Word would get back to the firm and his colleagues would say, Man that guy is tough.
Before they adjourned, he had asked the mayor, “How am I supposed to come to a conclusion?”
And she said, “Do what you usually do. You’re the expert.”
He had traveled abroad. In European hotels he watched European TV and on it European commercials. Be a tourist, walk the narrow streets, see one old church you’ve seen them all, but the commercials. It didn’t matter if you didn’t understand the language, a good name cut through. Does it sound like candy, does it sound like perfume, does it sound like a fancy car you would like to be seen in. These things cut across cultures. In European hotels he could get five countries’ programming in five different languages but it felt like home because he understood the names.
He had never seen a cucumber sandwich before. He was in foreign territory but the television brought him back, reassuring his ears with the common roots of their languages. He turned on the television and ate his cucumber sandwich a triangle at a time. And he felt better, sitting there with the sound off, as the light entwined itself along surfaces like blue vines. When he was finished, conditions or no, he unpacked.
. . . . . . . .
He had a new desk and a couple of new ties. He was on time and pretended to go-getting.
He got into the swing of things. New guys like him worked in teams. The top guys, the wage earners, worked solo, but most of the jobs were executed by teams, around a big desk in one of the conference rooms, and they brainstormed. They huddled over the material the client gave them, they sipped mineral water and sent people for doughnuts. Perhaps there was a slide of the particular thing projected on the wall so they could see it right there before them in its frustrated glory, and one of the team would lazily guide a laser pointer around contours. Sometimes a representative of the aluminum company or tampon company or manufacturer of plastic wedges might show up to explain matters in person. What it was and where they were trying to go. These representatives were too earnest, got on their nerves, threw off the rhythm of the meetings. There was a rhythm to the meetings. They got into a fever and testified, shouting out the words of imaginary languages, the names of polystyrene gods and Day-Glo deities. The contributions were doomed or had tiny imperfections and they kept going until they came up with the right name.
At first he kept his mouth shut because he still saw the job as an interim gig. He wasn’t cut out for corporate life. He believed himself to be of a different caliber than those men. Jocky white guys. He didn’t need the same things. The cheap posturing. The signature colognes. The obscure wafting. They scrambled and wanted to be heard by the men who wrote performance reviews and determined bonuses. They wore suspenders. So he sat and watched and whatever names he had he kept to himself. He listened. And if what they came up with was terrible, was prosaic, or even more unforgivable, something else’s name, he figured that’s the way things work in this crazy job. No skin off his back. Their hapless little creations flopped around like fish on asphalt and he couldn’t care less.
But the names. After two weeks of listening he was full of them. Every day the door cracked another half inch and he could see beyond the tiny rooms he had stumbled around in his whole life. He pictured it like this: The door opened up on a magnificent and secret landscape. His interior. He clambered over rocks and mountain ranges composed of odd and alien minerals, he stepped around strange flora, saplings that curtsied eccentrically, low shrubs that extended bizarre fronds. This unreckoned land of his possessed colors he had never seen before. Flowers burst petals in arrangements never considered by the natural world, summoned out of dirt like stained glass. These beautiful hidden things scrolled to the horizon and he walked among them. He could wander through them, stooping, collecting, acquainting himself with them until the day he died and he would never know them all. He had a territory within himself and he would bring back specimens to the old world. These most excellent dispatches. His names.