Reverse-Gentrification of the Literary World

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An African American man confronts a heart of darkness when his family moves from Los Angeles to a small town in Norway.

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Excerpt from Limbo

Chapter 1

Landing in the midst of the descendants of vikings, the transatlantic flight with a one-year-old daughter and a wife teetering with apprehension has all but wiped out Pharaoh’s capacity to Chill out! The phrase was embraced by his wife, Hannah, during her twelve-year sojourn in California, and she continues to use it officiously. Let it go, hon is another recent favorite. She says it to maintain her own sense of serenity, something, she admits, that has not been easy aboard their flight.

“Are you sure we want to go through with this?”

“I don’t know. It’s a bit risky, but it might calm you down.”

“I’m calm,” she insists, placing her cold hands in his and resting them on her lap. Perhaps she should be wearing mittens.

“You don’t feel calm,” Pharaoh says reassuringly. He covers her hands with his and tries to squeeze his warmth through her. “Come on. This might be our only chance to do this.”

“What if we get caught?”

“We won’t. And besides, we’re married. We’ll tell them we’re on our honeymoon. What can they do to us?”

“You’re probably right,” she admits, looking with concern at Amaryllis.

“I wouldn’t worry about our baby girl. She’s out. She won’t be waking up anytime soon.”

“Okay.” She nuzzles closer to him. He feels her warmth return while she allows him to continue covering her clasped hands in his as she murmurs, “Jeg elsker deg.”

“I love you, too,” he says, kissing her lips. They are still soft and warm, and they bring back memories of when he first kissed them, when she was barely out of her teens, when it felt like she was trying him out. She bows her forehead to his lips; he kisses her once above each eyebrow and they relax, leaning on each other like newlyweds.

“I’m ready, then.”

“All right,” Pharaoh says, relieved. “Let’s go.”

“Wait a minute,” Hannah whispers. “How should we do this?”

“You go in first, then flush once and unlock the door. Then I’ll come in.” He squeezes her hands and tries to rub in more warmth.

“Have you done this before?”

“Of course not! This is my first time. Have you?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. With whom?”

“I don’t know. You’re Norwegian. You’re the one who has traveled a lot.”

“Well, I’ve never done this sort of thing before, and I’m not sure I should, married or not. We’re not teenagers, you know.”

He feels as if he is about to deflower a virgin, and it arouses him to think that Hannah continues to have that effect on him.

“Speak for yourself. You keep this up and we might be doing this in baggage claim,” he says.

Hannah places another blanket over Amaryllis and peeps above the heads of the passengers around her, hoisting herself upright from the armrests. A plump breast brushes the side of his face and remains protruding firmly at eye level. Pharaoh barely resists the urge to cover it with his mouth.

“Which one?”

“All the way back,” he says, unbuckling his seatbelt and pulling up an armrest to allow her to pass. “No need to take those shoes. You won’t be needing them.”

“Yes, I will. It’s filthy in there,” Hannah says, standing in the aisle and slipping into cabin shoes. She is an attractive woman, and has learned to intimidate people with her beauty by staring at them until they become uncomfortable. This works especially well with American women, who she claims are too jealous. Pharaoh watches as she limps down the aisle, still fitting her feet into her shoes. Her wiggle reminds him of an unsteady larva moving through a canal. She blames Amaryllis for her broad hips, but it is really her flat feet and wide, inchoate toes that are responsible. Flight attendants hustle back and forth with duty-free items and towelettes. When Hannah finally disappears behind the curtain, Pharaoh quickly follows, searching, trying to steal a desultory glimpse of his favorite flight attendant before Hannah changes her mind.

Inside, Pharaoh wastes little time. Ignoring Hannah’s fuss and her torsional movements to find a clean and comfortable spot, he enters her vagina while she balances her buttocks on the edge of the basin.

“Hush! What’s that noise?”

Pharaoh listens, still entering her slowly. “It’s the goddamn engine. We’re in the back of the plane, Hannah.” Despite his excitement, their sex is not as erotic as he had expected. He does what he can to salvage things, fixing his imagination on a member of the cabin crew.

“Take it easy,” Hannah says. “No need to get testy.”

“Sorry, hon. Why don’t you turn around?”

“No. The doctor said this way is best if I’m ovulating.”

“Fine.” Pharaoh closes his eyes and visualizes the flight attendant with graying hair and pimples, in her mid-forties. She probably has kids and a husband waiting for her in some remote part of the country. No reason to worry about ovulating. It isn’t long before her image is complete. She slides on the basin as he holds her ankles tight and apart at the hips so that her legs form the letter M, pinned to his sides. She quickly unbuttons her blouse and lifts up her bra to release placid breasts. The skin on her abdomen does not match the tanned skin on her face. Her nipples are small and erect, almost the same color of her pimples. Pharaoh releases an ankle, sending her leg askew as he palms and squeezes the soft folds of her abdomen. He continues to thrust at her flesh. Her hands are curled in a tight grip on both sides of the basin; he tries, unsuccessfully, to pry them loose so that he can control her balance. He returns to her ankles, straightens them out so that her legs now form the letter V, and then places them along his chest. His hands are free to grab the bulkhead or whatever else he can reach, and then to hug her knees to him in his final thrust. When he opens his eyes, Hannah is looking at him as if he has just awoken from a coma.

“Was she in the Navy?”

“What?” He doesn’t understand what she means at first. It was her idea that they try this up here.

“I think you’ve done this before,” she says, while they fix their clothes.

“No, I haven’t.”

“Then how did you know where to put your hands in here with your eyes closed?”

“Come on, Hannah. It’s not the first time I’ve been in the lavatory on a plane, you know.”

“That’s not what I said. You seemed to know what you’re doing in here; that’s what I’m saying.”

“I was just excited. This is exciting for me, you know.” He can tell she doesn’t believe him.

“You go out first and check on Amaryllis. I have to sit here for a few minutes and keep this stuff in me so it’ll take. I’ll be out in a minute.”

“You still love me?” Pharaoh asks, feeling the words stumble on his tongue.

“Of course I do. Now out!” Pharaoh does what he is told.

* * *

“I’m tired of being in here,” Pharaoh says. The pilot’s voice on overhead speakers welcomes passengers to the airport.

“Well, I have to admit I’m feeling a little better. You were right.” Hannah’s serenity arrives with momentous relief as the Boeing 747 docks at a gate at Gardemoen Airport, in Oslo. Superficial good-byes and good lucks fill the aisle around them as Pharaoh nudges and drags their carry-on luggage forward.

“Thank you for choosing SAS and enjoy your stay in Norway,” a flight attendant recites to him in English with a British accent. To Hannah, his flight attendant offers, “Ha det bra. Lykke til,” with the same British accent.

Baggage claim provides the most aplomb passenger with a moment for conscientious reflection. Amaryllis’s stroller is waiting at the gate just as an SAS representative at LAX had promised. Restless passengers watch impatiently as Amaryllis awakes to her surroundings with belligerent screams that echo quietly in Pharaoh’s ears. His grip tightens around the handle of the stroller.

“Relax, Amaryllis. You’re in Norway,” he says, as he inserts a pacifier in her mouth.

Sensing his anxiousness, Hannah sidles up to him and rubs the small of his back. “We’ll be outside soon.”

“I’m tired. I need a shave and shower,” he says, sniffing at the remaining odor from a powdered fresh stick of Secret he had applied to his underarms before leaving the pressurized cabin.

“We’ll be home by midnight and you can take a nice long shower.” She smiles and assures him that he smells fine. She nuzzles his cheek in a soft kiss, then beams at him mischievously. “Welcome home,” she says with an appreciative embrace.

Pharaoh contemplates his fate. He wonders whether her mischievous and ginger steps are because she’s trying to get his sperm to take or simply a sign of her belated enjoyment of their sex in the skies over Norway.

“You miss LA?” she asks.

Pharaoh has relinquished his residence in LA to take up residence in Trondheim, a city hidden behind mountains and fjords in the middle of Norway, steeped in its own dialectal, religious, and nationalistic history.

“Hell no!” Yesterday’s USA Today is current news as far as he is concerned. He read it from front to back during the flight, more focused on what he is surrendering across the Atlantic than anything in the news itself.

The conveyor belt stops. A male employee in a bright red, one-piece uniform creeps out from a hole behind the stripped flap and slides pretentiously down the ramp to separate the luggage.

After fifteen minutes, their bags still haven’t arrived.

“Where’s the luggage? In Sweden?”

“I’m sure it’ll be here soon.” Hannah is calm, optimistic.

A passenger releases her dachshund out of its traveling cage, then has a difficult time coaxing it back in. The panting dog resembles a muscular rat. A thin woman with leathery skin drags a suitcase on wheels behind her, like a self-absorbed flight attendant, then stops to talk to the dog and its owner in Norwegian. The woman is wearing a white T-shirt. On its front is a daguerreotype of a man with a wide mustache curled up at the ends. Unfurled, Pharaoh speculates, it would probably measure about eight inches across his top lip. Together, the women manage to get the dog back in its cage but remain ensconced in conversation, their guttural phonetics blurring into a monotonous tone.

Pharaoh spots their first piece of luggage. He has forgotten to stop at the automated cart vendor on the way to the baggage claim. Hannah, however, has remembered, and she struggles with two oversized carts on her way from the restroom.

“What’s the matter?” Again, she sees his distress.

An impatient woman has bumped him, more than once, as she strains to locate her suitcase among the suitcases circling by. On the third bump, he glares at her reproachfully. She responds with a timid smile. Not an adequate substitute, he thinks, for proper manners.

“Maybe I ought to get the luggage,” he says, sliding the stroller toward Hannah. As he departs, the sports section of the USA Today tucked under an arm and both carts in tow, he gives the woman a subtle yet firm bump. Her timid smile takes on an embarrassing twitch. “Oh, Unskyld meg. Excuse me,” he says sarcastically.

“Oh, that’s quite all right,” she replies in English with a British accent.

It is difficult to maneuver two luggage carts filled to capacity among busy passengers, but he manages. Hannah approaches with still another suitcase, smiling at her triumph. They have almost reached customs when Hannah stops, panic-stricken, and runs back toward the baggage claim. Pharaoh follows, half-running, half-walking. She returns immediately, pushing Amaryllis’s stroller, her face pale and embarrassed because she is aware that she may have lost his sperm as she ran.

Outside it is raining and unusually cold, even though it’s the end of July in Oslo, considered the height of summer. Sidewalks are slick and slope down toward the street, causing a constant hush from the sound of water draining over the pavement’s edge. Pharaoh is dressed in black Caterpillar boots with steel at the toe, jeans, and a white T-shirt embossed on the front with a Los Angeles Lakers emblem, and a monogram design of the letters “SHAQ” on the back. His Caterpillars were purchased in anticipation of the rough terrain he expects to traverse here. But from the looks he has received so far, Norwegians have misinterpreted his intent, taking him as the sole member of an elite infantry. Amaryllis is awake and resumes her brittle tantrums. She will not be ignored.

“What happened in there? What was that all about?” Hannah asks, stopping to sit on the wet sidewalk and elevate her feet to a bottom wrung of the luggage cart.

“That woman had no manners. She kept bumping me. What a goddamn bitch!”

“You need to take it easy. Let it go. We’re not in LA.” She shakes her head at how he is dressed. “Aren’t you cold?”

They are sheltered under an awning as they await her parents’ arrival. According to Hannah’s calculations, her parents ought to have been here by now. They were eager to see Amaryllis and had left Trondheim, Norway’s third largest city and located north of Oslo, two nights ago.

“There they are!” He points at two people dressed in summer attire. They are very small. Thor, Hannah’s father, has aged much since Pharaoh saw him last, but his wife, Trine, looks the same. They are both very healthy people, in their early sixties.

It is Pharaoh’s third visit to this little land, and his expectations upon moving here are optimistically guarded. On his first visit, Thor and Trine had taken him on an impressive tour of mountains and fjords in the middle of Norway.

Thor pretends to be a simple man. He has a large forehead with strands of grayish brown hair, and his ears are red and thick, as if frost bitten. They give him a weighty look. The masseter muscles of Thor’s jaw are large and make him appear almost hound-like. The fingers on his hands are short and thick and stubby. He is a compact man and much stronger then he appears.

“Velkommen til Norge!” Thor is thrilled to see his daughter and her family. The force from his vigorous handshake pulls Pharaoh awkwardly toward him.

“Good to be here. Thanks for meeting us at the airport. Hannah tells me it’s a long way to drive.”

It is not a problem. The weather has been great. It is summer here in Norway, Thor explains, and no one is on strike. He is referring to Pharaoh’s first visit here, when the sanitation workers were on strike. Thor had held himself personally responsible for the country’s union woes. At a popular lake near his home, garbage had lay piled under trees while children and adults frolicked in the cold water and picnicked nearby. “Norway isn’t always this dirty,” he had explained. He had talked about the fjords and snow-capped mountains and his government’s responsibility toward Norway’s fragile environment. Pharaoh had carried the image with him back to LA, but his environmental enthusiasm was no match for the rotting food and used diapers that washed back and forth along the city’s rocky shore.

Trine, Hannah’s mother, gives Pharaoh a felicitous but expeditious embrace. She has small features, which crinkle up into a warm smile. She wears expensive bifocals, with shades that she attaches to the frames periodically. There is no sun, and Pharaoh finds her reliance on the shades to be neurotic and exaggerated. She is dressed in a light blouse, khaki shorts with one-inch cuffs, and black leather shoes that would look better with a dress. Occasionally, she stops to tug on the short white socks that have slid to just above her ankles. Varicose veins are visible on both her legs but she makes no effort to hide them. They are a testament to her five decades of manual work, not her age. Her hair is thin and reddish brown.

Trine quickly embraces Hannah, then picks up Amaryllis and carries her off in her arms, smothering her with hugs and kisses. Thor tries to keep up with his short arms and legs, but he has to reach forward to rub Amaryllis’s cheek with the back of his knuckles. In her happiness and excitement, Trine has to wipe away tears that well up in her eyes. Hannah, too, is euphoric, but short of tears. She has come home to her family and her country, with a new family of her own.

Reaching Thor’s Mercedes, Trine stops to examine Amaryllis’s features. She has Pharaoh’s eyes, nose, and mouth, but her V-shaped chin and pronounced forehead belong to Hannah’s side of the family. It is conclusive. They all agree. She also has Pharaoh’s big feet. Everyone laughs. Amaryllis smiles, too, but there is no consensus on whose smile she has. Trine presents the child with a miniature Norwegian flag. When Amaryllis smiles again, Trine says, “Det er en Norsk smil,” and everyone laughs. Pharaoh pretends not to hear the entire sentence; what he has heard, he pretends not to understand. His Norwegian is underdeveloped, but it is improving rapidly. Pharaoh does not think Amaryllis has a Norwegian smile.

They are on their way north, homeward bound. When Thor believes they are far enough away from Oslo, where it is safe, they will stop for cake and coffee. Before leaving the airport, they met Beth, one of Hannah’s many Gymnasium friends. Beth grew up in Trondheim, but now lives in Oslo. Trondheim, she explains, is not big enough to fulfill her life aspirations, although she seems unclear as to what those aspirations entail. She is a large person with a definite attitude, the type of attitude you’d expect from a beautiful woman. Attractive, thinks Pharaoh, although in a homely sort of way. Pharaoh had met her for the first time when she visited Hannah during a summer in California. At the time, Beth’s attire was often a bikini top, a pair of nylon soccer shorts with a tight plastic waistband and thin stripes along the sides, and pool slippers. She was very meaty as a twenty-two-year-old, and Hannah had dismissed his observation to that effect as callous.

Beth has long brown hair that falls from her scalp to just above her lower back. It gives her an Indian appearance, in spite of her pale complexion, especially when she wears a headband. Her hair is parted in the middle and shines under the light, but the strands that hang along the length of her face are dulled by her pale skin. Her hair is lifeless, inanimate, as if in the final stages of hypoxia. She has brought Pharaoh and Hannah flowers, and a little dress and bonnet for Amaryllis. During her short visit, she is interrupted three times by the musical tones of her cellular phone, apologizing after each call but also explaining that many people in Norway have cell phones. An indirect boast, suspects Pharaoh, about the advancement of wireless technology in Norway since his first visit. Upon her arrival, Beth had first spoken Norwegian, because of the presence of Hannah’s parents. Upon their departure to walk Amaryllis, however, Beth switches to English. “So, Pharaoh, how do you like Norway?”

“The country is clean and the landscape is beautiful,” he says, remembering his earlier visits.

She apologizes for the weather and asks about new episodes of Seinfeld, Friends, Ally Mcbeal, and NYPD Blue, which were scheduled to begin in the fall. She especially likes Kramer and Phoebe, she admits. Pharaoh explains that he has very little time for television. He prefers to read.

“Oh, yeah? Like what do you read?” It had been years since her trip to California, but she still remembers some of the dialect.

“Comic books, mostly.”

She mentions that she has recently read books by Stephen King and Robin Cook. He counters with Jamaica Kincaid, V.S. Naipaul, and Derek Walcott.

“They’re Caribbean authors,” he explains, to allay her embarrassment at not recognizing the names, “not comic books.”

“That’s right,” she says, shaking her head. “You were born in Trinidad. I always forget that.”

The route to Trondheim is a natural spectacle. Rocks are high and dense. Trees are remarkably green and wet. The family travels over truss bridges and along the edges of rippling lakes. Thor clearly enjoys his role as tour guide behind the steering wheel. Trine taps Pharaoh on the shoulder and points at people submerged in water in moss-green rubber outfits, fishing for salmon. Then she raises his chin with her palm to direct his gaze toward the top of steep, rocky inclines and small waterfalls created by the melting ice. Pharaoh asks if the water might be too cold for fishing. The consummate tour guide, Thor pulls his Mercedes off the road to allow them to check.

“See there?” Thor says, pointing and laughing. “They are stupid fish. The water is shallow. Some of them are caught out there. They have no place to go. They are easy for fisherman or birds with sharp claws.”

“Someone should put them in deep water to give them a chance,” Pharaoh says, surprised at his growing awareness of nature’s cold, harsh conditions.

“It does not matter. They taste the same in shallow water or deep,” Thor says.

Hannah and Trine are busy talking in the backseat. Pharaoh realizes how dependent he still is upon Hannah to translate difficult sentences when multiple topics are being discussed, though he knows her lengthy explanations are somewhat interpretive. He apologizes for interrupting so often with his need to have things explained in English. Hannah thinks he will be proficient in Norwegian in about a year or so, but he is not so confident. “It will come,” she reassures him.

“Nei, det går bra,” Trine interjects. Thor decides to keep silent; he is not as optimistic. Pharaoh assures them that he will give it his best effort. Though he may never be fluent enough to conduct proleptic debates, he will at least be able to talk to Amaryllis.

Thor points to a distant rainbow, half of its arc a penumbra behind hilly, uneven mountains.

“It is pretty. Very pretty.” Pharaoh chooses his words carefully, simple words, words he can remember to repeat. “Are you driving toward it?”

Thor is not a skilled driver, and the E6, an old major transportation route that extends across the length of this country, is not an easy road to navigate. On the map, according to Pharaoh’s sister, Gwen, it looks like a long, serrated, uncircumcised penis with Sweden and Finland serving as scrotal sacs. For long stretches, the E6 consists of only two lanes. When signs permit him to pass other vehicles, Thor hesitates, lingering in the oncoming traffic lanes longer than is necessary, then races ahead. Once safely back in his lane, Thor’s entire body relaxes and the engine resumes its steady, reassuring hum.

Hannah repeats Pharaoh’s question in Norwgian.

“There’ll be another one. We have many rainbows here.”

Pharaoh and Thor fall silent again in the front seat as Hannah and Trine continue catching up. Neither of them knows if Beth has a boyfriend or lives alone, or where she works.

Pharaoh had noticed Trine’s sericeous upper lip upon their arrival. There was no fuzziness over her lip during his last visit. Perhaps she had shaved regularly. He wonders if she is on medication, but dares not ask. She’s too old for it to be a result of menopause, but too young for him to suspect old age. He is certain that Hannah has already contemplated her own genetic predisposition for a hairy top lip and varicose veins.

Trine has always seemed suspicious of Pharaoh’s interaction with women, and his interaction with Beth is no exception. He hears Trine whisper, then giggle.

“My mom wants to know what you think of Beth.”

“Beth is okay.” He turns and smiles at Trine. Hannah is tired from the long flight, and he knows her new role as translator must be burdensome. He wishes they were alone and he could tell her how much he loves her and her family for embracing him and Amaryllis. Hannah closes her eyes for a moment, which he interprets as a momentary plea for relief from her duties. Everyone is quiet, waiting for her to resurface.

Amaryllis is wide awake as they approach Lillehammer, home of the 1994 Winter Olympics and a source of nationalistic pride for Hannah and her parents. They remind him of all the other cities that were passed over by the Olympic Committee in favor of Lillehammer. Spores and pollen whisk about the air as Pharaoh and Thor admire the modernistic buildings and residences, which still stand as a testament to Norway’s past cultural glory. Thor suggests that Pharaoh might like to take some pictures.

“I’ve been here before.” No one seems to remember. Thor looks puzzled. The wind has blown the strands of hair back over his forehead, giving him an ichthyic appearance. He squints, trying to recall when Pharaoh was here last. Trine also has her doubts.

“It wasn’t quite completed yet, but I took pictures of the ski jump area and the hockey rink. Don’t you remember?”

“Oh, yes. Yes,” Thor finally says, turning to Trine. “But it was not as famous yet, and it was only half-built. Now it is finished. It is ready. And,” he continues, smiling and grooming his long strands of hair with his thick fingers, “it is famous. So go ahead. Take some pictures.”

“Lets get a picture of the Keillands with Amaryllis, then.”

“What about you?” Hannah says.

“I’ll take this one and you can take the next one.” Amaryllis is wearing the present she received from Beth. It is easy enough to see now what all the fuss was about. She is a beautiful baby when she’s happy and content. Her smile is infectious. Everyone smiles under the Olympic rings in Lillehammer. All Pharaoh can see is Amaryllis’s four teeth.