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Authors: Steve Erickson

These Dreams of You

BOOK: These Dreams of You
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Europa Editions
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New York NY 10011
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This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously.
Copyright © 2012 by Steve Erickson
First publication 2012 by Europa Editions
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
   Cover Art by Emanuele Ragnisco
Cover illustration by Margherita Barrera

Steve Erickson



For Lori, Miles and Silanchi

ut years later, on a night in early November, when the wind comes in like a swarm, Alexander Nordhoc sits in the rocking chair—that he borrowed but never gave back—where his wife used to breast-feed their son.

It's eight o'clock where he is, in one of the canyons on the edge of Los Angeles. It's ten o'clock in Chicago, and thousands of people sweep across the TV screen and the same park where, forty years ago, police and protesters rioted at the scene of a great national political convention, and Nordhoc's country questioned all its possibilities.

lexander's four-year-old daughter Sheba, adopted nineteen months before from an orphanage in Ethiopia, sits on his lap. Sheba is the color of the man on the television, in whose form the country now has imagined its most unfathomable possibility. Alexander, who goes by Zan, is the color of everyone else in the family, including his wife Viv and his son Parker, whose twelfth birthday happens to also be on this day.

With the announcement of the man's election, bedlam consumes the living room. “He won!” Parker explodes, leaping from the couch over a low white formica table that's in the shape of a cloud. “He won! he won! he won!” he keeps shouting, and Viv cheers too. “Zan,” Parker stops, baffled by his father's stupefaction, “he won.” He says, “Aren't you happy?”

On the television is the image of an anonymous young black woman who, in the grass of the park, has fallen to her knees and holds her face in her hands. Do I have the right, Zan wonders, as a middle-aged white man, to hold my face in my hands? and then thinks, No. And holds his face in his hands anyway, silently mortified that he might do something so trite as sob.

t's a country that does things in lurches. Born in radicalism, then reluctant for years, decades, the better part of centuries, to do anything crazy, until it does the craziest thing of all. But it's also a country—inherent in its genes—capable of imagining what cannot be imagined and then, once it's imagined, doing it.

Six years before, another president, a white privileged Texan, swaggered across the deck of an aircraft carrier in a pilot's jacket, a banner unfurled behind him proclaiming the end of a war that, in fact, was only beginning. It was an image that the country embraced almost as much as it believed it. Now, a black Hawaiian with a swahili name? It's science fiction, Zan thinks. Or at least the sort of history that puts novelists out of business.

he radio station the next day, from where Zan broadcasts four times a week a three-hour music show, he announces following the first set, “The Sam Cooke record—the greatest ever made—was for what happened last night. Forty-five years after the song was recorded . . . but then all the song says is that a change
come, not how fast, right?” By the time the song was released as a B-side, the singer was murdered in an L.A. motel under tawdry circumstances. “But is it just me,” Zan asks, “or when he goes from that bridge into the final verse, does he redeem not only anything he ever did—including whatever it was that got him shot—but everything I ever did too?”

he national anthem of dreams deferred, sung from the grave by a ghost who doesn't know he's dead. “Every­thing else,” Zan goes on, “was for the kids. The hip-hop manifesto about brushing the dirt off your shoulder, that's for my twelve-year-old son who's gone gangsta lately, though at this point I'm sure he thinks the song is impossibly old-school, being as it's more than half an hour old. And the really old-school one about the lovers at the Berlin Wall–‘What's the Berlin Wall, Poppy?'–who get to be heroes just for one day? That's for my four-year-old Ethiopian daughter, who I guess can't get enough of British extraterrestrials in dresses.”

an has no idea if anyone actually listens to him. The station has about a megawatt to its name. Viv catches the broadcasts on her car radio for the thirty seconds she's in range while driving the canyon boulevard; when she drops off Parker at school, the boy turns the radio down because the possibility some of his homies might hear it is too appalling. He furiously denies that it's his father's voice.

The four-year-old Ethiopian glam-rocker is the only one in the family not thrilled by the election result. Sheba has been the household's sole supporter of the opposing candidate, a man the age of grandfathers and the color of snow, neither of which the small girl has known.

Zan has three theories about Sheba's enthusiasm for this candidate. The first and most comfortable is that in fact he does remind her of Viv's father, who died two years before she was born and whom she sees in all the family photos. The second theory, more vexing if not too unsettling, is that she's just messing with everyone's heads.

he third and most troubling theory is that in her four-year-old soul she's already come to believe the color of snow is preferable to the color of . . . well, pick your racist poison—chocolate? coffee? mud? With what brown does she associate? Since she came to live with the Nordhocs, she's noted more than once that her skin is one color and Zan's, Viv's and Parker's another. How come, the girl asks resentfully, returning from preschool where there are no other black children, you get to have light skin while mine is darker?

ismayed, Zan isn't sure he's heard right. Was that really the way she put it? “Yours is lighter,” she points out again, pulling at his arm and thrusting her thumb in her mouth.

“It is lighter,” he says, “yours is darker and it's beautiful. Some people have light skin and some have dark. Some have light hair and some have dark.”

“The man who sings the hero song has red hair.”


“Mama has blue hair.”

“There you go. Turquoise, actually.”

“What's turquoise?”

“A kind of blue. Blue-green.”

“Is it really blue or did she make it blue?”

“She made it blue.”


“She likes it. It matches her eyes. Some people have light or dark eyes. Some people are tall and some aren't.”

s this the way to answer the question? Is it better than “Because you're black and we're white,” if she doesn't yet have a concept of black and white? Or is it an answer that only a naïve white person can give?

On the other hand, Sheba was adopted in the first place out of white naïveté, though less on the part of Viv who lived in Africa as a girl. Viv's father was the city manager of Mogadishu–between Ethiopia and the sea–a freelancer whose career back home in the Midwest was subject to local elections, hired to bring running water and passable roads to a city half a world away. For Viv that was the year (her twelfth, which is to say when she was Parker's age) of other kids' parents abducted in the night never to be seen again, public hangings that were a social occasion, the ocean's edge lined with the innards of gutted camels that attracted sharks when the reefs were breached, and, on a beach against the Indian Sea under an African moon, movies broadcast against a slab of rock. When Viv saw the movie about the monolith surrounded by apes who hurl a bone into the sky that becomes a space station, it actually was on a monolith.

o white sentimentality invents, and no hard-nosed street wisdom disputes, the preternatural awareness of the four-year-old adopted child who shares with other abandoned children a perspective verging on the otherworldly. “Oh, yeah,” says another father at Sheba's preschool when Zan identifies her as his, “the little girl who talks like she's twenty.” The night that Zan takes Parker to the emergency room with a broken hand and loses his car keys, he's still railing at the experience an hour later behind the wheel when, from her infant's seat in back, Sheba advises, “Poppy, let it go,” before plopping her thumb back in her mouth.

Sheba dazzles everyone she meets. Eyes big enough to center whole swirling solar systems, her charismatic entrance into every room brings it to a halt. Not unlike her new brother she's an irrepressible goofball, walking around with small stickers stuck to the end of her nose, spitting water across the dinner table in a stream like the stone water-breathing lion she saw in a fountain—a mimic who spins off her own original permutations. Lovingly seizing on a word like, say, buttocks, enthralled by both its emphatic sound and the unmistakable impact on those who hear it, soon she transforms everything into a variant. When her brother's feet stink, they're footocks.

Eventually the mimicry becomes not only more precocious but blacker, inevitable less because she herself is black than because her white brother—like all kids in the Twenty-First Century, or maybe all kids since the first white boy or girl heard Louis Armstrong blow his horn—is blacker: “Hey there, girlfriend,” or “What up, sweet cheeks?” to people who probably shouldn't be greeted in that fashion. When she high-fives, she follows it with the sweep of her hand across her African head and declares, “

hose few whose reaction to her is openly malevolent are all the more conspicuous for it. In a western Michigan restaurant during summer vacation a woman shoots daggers at them, and it's all Viv can think about for days, rather than the hordes who welcome the girl. “You can't get too defensive about this stuff,” Zan says, as the entire Nordhoc family tiptoes across minefields.

he sternest look Zan has gotten is on the afternoon he carried Sheba from the pediatrician's office and, having received her first round of immunization shots, she wailed in betrayal, “DOCTOR SHOCK ME, POPPY!” A black man at a bus stop on the corner closely monitored the father and daughter the entire walk to Zan's car, the two fixed in his gaze, and only as Zan struggled to strap the outraged girl into the backseat did the penny drop:
I'm a middle-aged white guy hustling a screaming little black girl out of a building.

Sometimes the color confusion has its advantages. When Sheba slams into a grocery checkout line and the person in front whirls around furiously, Zan studies the architectural wonders of the supermarket ceiling as the aggrieved party searches in vain for a wayward black mother to chastise. Then there's the time on Melrose Avenue when a young black guy comes up to Zan and says, “Hey, man, just want you to know you have two beautiful kids,” and though it's obviously Sheba who's caught his eye, Zan is touched that he includes Parker in the compliment. Now the only way that Zan knows to conclude the conversation with Sheba about the difference between his skin and hers is to say some squishy white liberal thing like, “You're beautiful,” silently adding to no one, You come up with something better. Sheba takes her thumb from her mouth, locks his eyes with hers, and draws a finger across her throat.

f course when she first starts doing the finger-cross-the-throat thing, it's alarming. Now she does it all the time, little brown buccaneer, to convey irritation at whatever parental lapse has transpired.

Zan thought they were going to get a shy little Dickensian orphan girl.
Please, sir, may I have some more?
with empty porridge bowl lifted pitifully to a merciless world; and when Viv first met her at the Ethiopian orphanage, Sheba seemed exactly that. She barely spoke, only looked at Viv when she thought Viv wasn't looking. Viv would lie with Sheba until the child fell asleep, but when she rose from bed, the girl's hand shot out and clutched the mother's wrist in a death grip.

From California to Ethiopia, Viv brought to the girl pom-poms and a toy giraffe and a photo of Zan and Viv in a bag with pictures of cherries on it. The girl cast all of it aside except for a picture of Parker that she kept day and night. She slept with it and woke to it. No one could take it from her.

BOOK: These Dreams of You
4.9Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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