15 September, 2009

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

Lakewood, Colorado. 1924

The Ironfists are nearing the climax of their journey. The Ironfists are a classic family unit - two parents and double that in children - and solidly American. Judging by their appearances, they are a poor family. I think I even saw one of those shoes with the toe seperated from the sole, flapping up and down as the owner (one of the boy-children) walks. Disgustingly, the eldest child is pulling a portable organ behind her as they walk, even though it has no wheels. Eventually they stop on the corner of Kipling and Colfax and arrange themselves in formation around the organ, with the pulling-girl also the instrumentalist. She plays, and they all sing. Religious music. But not the exciting sort that black people play, for these poor people are white.
The corner of Kipling and Colfax is moderately busy, but the passers-by pay them no mind until a group of three cockneys (one of whom is Ray Winstone) and a Venetian stop a few metres from the group. One of the three cockneys - but not the one who is Ray Winstone - is talking on one of those very large, to our eyes embarrassing, mobile phones typical of the era, and plays no further part in the scene. The Venetian carries a very large Gladstone bag. He and the other two cockneys install themselves on the large front steps of a property, from where they can observe the family, but also indulge themselves. The cockneys produce two large marijuana cigarettes, one apiece, and light them with cheap bic lighters. The Venetian prefers cocaine, some of which he produces from the Gladstone bag. One of the cockneys - but I shan't say whether or not it was Ray Winstone - remarks on the terrible state of the family, even ruminating on their smell, even though they are sat too far away and he is just hypothesising. His speech is wry and cutting for the purpose of amusing his companions, and his voice is slow, more so given the long pauses he often creates as he takes enormous puffs of his drug and blows the smoke in to the hot air. The Venetian interjects, emboldened and aggressive from his own drug, states that while he agrees with the general state of the family, his personal opinion of the mother is much higher. He uses several dirty words to describe his feelings for her, and both the cockneys relent and agree with him.
Ray Winstone opens the Gladstone bag again and pulls from it a small leather pouch of crisps, which he opens in the standard 1924 manner; with a pair of secateurs. The crisps are somewhat smaller than crisps of today, and very inconsistent in form and texture. I cannot remember the flavour, but I am fairly sure it was either Smoke or Oriental, both of which were among the most popular crisp flavours in the hot summer of 1924.
The boy - not the one who I believe had the broken shoe, but the other, older one - looks on at the cockneys and Venetian enviously. The focus he puts in to his thoughts of the four travellers would distract him from his singing if it was not already the most perfunctory performance I could remember hearing. Other members of his family cast sidelong glances at him, and his mother of which the Venetian was so fond even tugged at his grubby and ripped shirt to try and make him sing at a level more commensurate with the efforts of the rest of his family. But in reality, his singing has been this bad for weeks. His mind has been full of daydreams of better lives, his current life disgusting him. Right now, he dreams of Venice and mobile phones, of wandering through the streets and stopping only to partake in good drugs and crisp-eating, instead of subsistence busking and portable organ maintenance.
The cockney who is not Ray Winstone and is not on the phone notices the boy's attitude and countenance, and sees through to the boy's innermost desires immediately, for they are ones he himself once had. He sees in the boy an opportunity to fill a vacancy he has been charged with filling. He pulls out a Motorola RAZR - at the time this was still a very cool phone - and writes a text message. "Found a guy for the job," it says. He selects send and scrolls through his phone book, stopping on the contact Local Mafia Boss. He looks at the boy one more time before nodding to himself and sending the message.
The boy watches this happen as he continues to pretend to sing whilst daydreaming. He notices the man looking at him, and the text message being sent, but he does not understand the significance this event will have on his life in the next months, and that many of his dreams will soon come true.


Alun Richards said...

This is more like what I had in mind! I wish I had some of those "Oriental" crisps right now.

John Everyman said...

This is fantastic. I especially love the 'Local Mafia Boss' bit, but the whole thing is great to read.