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Magazine | New Fiction

The Athens of the West, 1894

• By

Posted 03.15.11

Arnel Plumbly can see it before it happens, and he moves out of the way just in time. The surrey’s wheels hit the puddle with a smack, and the mud splatters. Plumbly jumps back; only a few drops land on his suit pants. He wipes them away quickly with his handkerchief, and the stain is barely noticeable. Behind him, Moshe bears the brunt of the attack; his jacket is sopping and his pants drip liquid on the boards of the sidewalk.

Now Guthrie is a city, Plumbly thinks. This is a place he’d be proud to be founder of. It is hardly an example of beautiful architecture or a triumph of urban planning, but it is an honest city—or rather, a frank one. The Territory’s government lends it a note of importance. Guthrie sprang up like a geyser in one day, fully formed, and hasn’t stopped bustling since. Forget Enid. He’s not going to bother with some two-bit regional government—a bunch of elected blowhards. He’s going straight to the source—the Territory capital. He is an entrepreneur, a rancher, a creator; he aims to create a legacy, and the town he intends to form will embarrass Guthrie.

The main street is laid with bricks, and the local government has paved the sidewalks with pine boards stretched solidly over stilts. Women hide under broad hats to save their skin from the sun. They bunch their long skirts modestly in gloved hands to protect them from the mud so that just a coquettish hint of petticoat peeks out from beneath. Corsets are worn obligatorily here, and men in suits outnumber those in overalls. Society people tip their hats in public, drink socially, and debate politics.

Guthrie is a modern-day Athens of the West, Victorian England imposed upon America. Here there are restaurants and toy stores, sweet shops and a picture house. There is one building that has four floors of clothing for men and women. The top floor sells perfumes and cosmetics. Plumbly himself has bought shaving lotion and a musky fragrance on past visits. But this trip is not about pleasure.

His half Cherokee- half Jewish partner Moshe has never been to the capital, and if he is impressed it is only by its shabbiness, the main street dirty and loud. There are chickens in the road; no one has cleaned up after the wild dogs. And the puddles . . . He has never imagined an Oklahoma Territory city could be so wet, but then he steps to avoid the mucky dishwater a saloon owner flings out over the sidewalk. Moshe watches the familiar filth hit the wood and trickle down to the street. No wonder it is swampy, even in late fall.

It’s a dirty city, even compared with America’s most industrial settlements. Ramshackle buildings with bent backs are arranged in haphazard rows. The women are like horses, laced into those ridiculous cinches. One leans out her front window to smile at the men suggestively. Plumbly tips his hat, as he does to every person they pass. Like a gluttonous bird, Moshe thinks, stooping to pick up every piece of grain.

At the end of the long block, Plumbly straightens his tie and clears his throat, and the two men turn down the side street. It is early morning; the sun has just crested brightly over the ridge. Moshe squints. After a few steps, they stop in front of a large brick building with a makeshift wood sign: United States Land Office. The porch is crowded with men and women waiting to officially prove their claims, carrying envelopes not unlike Moshe’s. They sit tiredly on crates or on the ground, not caring that their skirts are gray from dirt and spatter or that everyone can see the thin soles of their shoes. On their faces Moshe reads wan frustration; their bodies are still, their eyes barely blinking. Weighted down by seals and signatures, they languish in a bureaucratic stupor of waiting.

Plumbly seems not to see them; he has the confidence of a man with an appointment, and mumbling “excuse me, pardon me” he makes his way up the steps and across the porch, where he knocks loudly on the door. There is a collective gasp as the group of supplicants sits up straighter at his audacity.

Plumbly turns the knob. The door opens slowly, creaking, so that the mystery of its interior builds. Moshe can feel the hot breath of the people behind him, pressing, anxious to see what lies within.

“Morning, sir,” Plumbly says to the man sitting at a desk inside. “I have an appointment to see a Mr. Jackson.”

“I’m Owen Jackson,” a voice calls from the inner office. A small man in a three-piece suit steps out.

“Arnel Plumbly.” Plumbly sticks out his hand, which hangs, ax-like, in Mr. Jackson’s face. He lowers it slowly, so that Owen Jackson shakes his hand somewhere near Plumbly’s belly. “This here is Haurowitz.”

Moshe shakes Mr. Jackson’s hand.

“Let’s step into my office, gentlemen.” Mr. Jackson spreads his arm. “Paddy,” he calls back, “don’t let none of the rabble in. Call your cousin if you have to.”

Mr. Jackson closes the door and points to the two chairs facing his desk. “Dumb Mick tried to form some sort of line last week, practically got us trampled by the claim-provers.” The man talks as though he is twice his size, as though he had muscle and girth to back up title. Moshe feels nervous; his stomach roils from drinking too much coffee at breakfast. He tries to remember that Plumbly needs him. Without Indian support, there can be no township claim, but this realization does nothing to calm his nervousness, his stage fright.

“What can I do for you, Mr. Plumbly?” Mr. Jackson settles at his desk, making a show of crossing one leg over the other as though he is stiff or has a full belly. Plumbly and Moshe remain standing.

“You’ve read the application, sir,” Plumbly says.

“I have.” Mr. Jackson’s voices rises at the end, more an invitation for Plumbly to remind him than a firm statement.

“We’re the ones what are applying for the townsite and the ownership after the improvement on the land.”

“What’s your flag?”

“Beg pardon?” Plumbly is confused. “I wasn’t aware there was a necessity for a flag.”

“It’s a figure of speech.” Jackson drips condescension. Moshe looks at the diploma on the wall behind him; it is from the Ohio School of Mines. He scans the room: bookshelves of law volumes and a daguerreotype of a Civil War regiment. “What’s the town’s name?”

“Called Owenasa. It means ‘home,’” Moshe says.

“In Creek?” Mr. Jackson asks.

“Cherokee.”

“How quaint,” Mr. Jackson says, a sarcastic note in his voice. “You have a map?”

“Right here, sir.” Plumbly takes the map from Moshe and spreads it out on the table. His voice warbles; he, too, sounds nervous, Moshe is surprised to hear.

Mr. Jackson perches a pair of rimless spectacles on his nose and bends closer. “That’s the new Lafayette railroad, is it?”

“Yessir, the LaLa.”

“And these are the streets?”

“Yessir. We marked the school and park and—”

“Umm hmmm.”

Moshe joins the men in looking at the map. He is unfamiliar with plans, and the concentric circles of the elevations seem like targets. He struggles to make out his house, but he can see only Fiddler’s Creek winding around as though lost.

“Let’s see the proposal again.” Plumbly hands Jackson the long document and rocks back and forth on his heels and toes.

“Go ahead and sit, Mr. Plumbly.” Jackson paces while he reviews the documents. Moshe follows him with his eyes. The man’s shoes look strange. They have heels, like women’s shoes, and small tassels. Moshe’s own scuffed boots seem lumbering in comparison.

“A couple of questions, gentlemen.” Moshe nods. Plumbly has told him to keep as quiet as possible, fulfilling the stereotype of the taciturn Indian. “LaLa is running freight on this track?”

“They’re testing the lines this week.”

“And it’s all right with him?” Jackson signals with his chin at Moshe as though he’s not in the room.

“Tracks pass right by his house. The law says that——”

“I’m aware of the law, sir.” Jackson straightens up. His tone is haughty. Plumbly hangs his head. “You’ve built these tracks, and now you’re trying to prove the claim? Or are you applying for incorporation? Either way, there’s no record of him making the run in ‘93.”

“Well, sir, now, that’s why we came to see you.” Plumbly reaches into his jacket and pulls out a large envelope tied with twine. He puts it on top of the map and slides it toward Jackson. “I was told you were a man who likes deficiency. Two birds with one stone and that sort of thing.”

Jackson takes the envelope and puts it in the wide pocket of his pants without examining it. “Where do you plan on putting the—” There is an accusatory tone to Jackson’s voice.

“Here’s another view of Owenasa town,” Plumbly interrupts. He spreads the drawing on Jackson’s desk, on top of the surveyor’s map. “One of those new ones, from up in the air like a bird would see.”
Moshe stares at the drawing, the small homes like dollhouses. How was this drawing made, as though the artist stood at a great height, as though he were God?

Jackson is somewhat less impressed. “And how much of this is built?” Jackson asks.

“A percentage.” Plumbly reaches into the other breast pocket of his jacket and removes a second envelope, which he hands to Jackson, who puts it in the other pocket of his pants.

“How many souls are there in Owenasa?”

“Fifty-three,” Plumbly says. “With one on the way.”

“Small town,” Jackson shakes his head.

“There’ve been smaller.”

There is a silence while the men regard each other warily. Moshe thinks that Plumbly will win. It all comes down to money, Moshe thinks. To those envelopes that Plumbly keeps pulling out of his jacket like birds from a magician’s cloak.

“I don’t know.” Mr. Jackson stands up. “You’re doing it all out of order.”

Moshe holds his breath. He watches as Plumbly fingers the edge of his hat. Plumbly inhales deeply. “With all due respect, sir,” he says, “it’s Oklahoma that’s done it out of order. I’m just trying to keep up.”

Mr. Jackson frowns, and there is a split second when Moshe fears it is all going up in smoke. But then Jackson’s features break into a reluctant smile.

The atmosphere changes, palpably. Plumbly sits back and assumes the generous attitude of a big winner at the poker tables. He sighs theatrically and reaches back for a third envelope, concealed in the belt above his rump.

Jackson takes it with his left hand and extends his right to shake. “You’ll have your claim approval and your townsite as soon as the paperwork is finished. Now if there’s nothing else, gentlemen . . .” Moshe and Plumbly stand up. Moshe is surprised when Jackson extends his hand for Moshe to shake. He does so, weakly.

“Nice doing business with you, sir,” Plumbly says. He backs out of the office and puts his hat on.
Moshe’s heart soars. He smiles widely, still mute, still playing his role. They nod at Paddy and step out onto the porch, where they struggle to push through the crush of people waiting. Plumbly brushes off the sleeves of his jacket. “Well, my friend,” he says, clapping Moshe on the back. “That was a highly successful venture, I’d say. And I didn’t even have to use the fourth one!” Plumbly leans over and takes another bundle out of his boot. “What do you say we take this stash and get ourselves some drinks and girls to celebrate?”

Plumbly doesn’t wait for an answer, but walks briskly down the street. He seems to know where he is going; he turns left, then right, then right again. Moshe struggles to keep up. Plumbly tucks his hat low on his head, looks furtively right then left, then ducks down a small alleyway. He stops at a door and knocks three times.

The door is opened by the largest pair of breasts Moshe has ever seen. They are immense, high up at Moshe’s eye level, barely concealed in a lacy bodice. They are attached to a congruently big woman with a bright yellow wig. “Arnel!” she says, and opens the door wider. She takes his head in her hands (her fingernails are lacquered, Moshe notices) and kisses him on both cheeks, leaving round red marks. Plumbly smacks his lips with each peck, exaggerating the kissing noises.

Moshe has never been inside a cathouse before. Even at the railroad rest stops he stayed away. This is a true house of ill repute, luxurious and velveteen. Gilded mirrors reflect an idealized version of Moshe back at him. Marble mantels and glass-plated lampshades cast a soft sheen over the parlor, and Moshe feels as though he’s stepped into a dream. He sits next to Plumbly on a red velvet couch with ornate gold trim. When he’s handed a glass, he drinks, a blast of fire that numbs his tongue and travels bullet-fast down his gullet. The dreamlike quality of the room increases. There is a film over his eyes as they line up the girls for the choosing.

“Whichever one you want,” Plumbly is saying. “But I ain’t paying for a virgin. Whichever used one you want.”
Moshe feels as though he is in a different world, and that he’d best follow Plumbly’s lead or get stuck here forever. He looks at the women arrayed before him. He chooses a girl who reminds him of his first love. They are not so similar in looks, perhaps, but her insouciant frown, her blowsy manner, recall Alice’s similar disinterest. She tells him her name is Lily, and she takes him by the hand. Moshe turns to see Plumbly pick a tiny blonde who cannot be more than seventeen and pull her onto his lap as she playfully struggles to get away.

On Lily’s bedroom walls Moshe is shocked to see pornographic drawings. Some seem Oriental—colorful and crude etchings of sexual positions. Most Moshe has never contemplated, let alone tried. Others are more baroque, sketches of women disrobing or caught in the throes of passion, men with their pants undone, panting at the women.

“Do you see something you want to do?” Lily asks. She has discarded her silk robe and wears a garter belt, panties, and camisole with brocade flowers and intricate lace.

Moshe stares, speechless.

“This isn’t your first time, is it?” The woman is from the North; Moshe can hear it in her closed vowels.

He shakes his head.

“You want me to do it for you?”

Moshe nods.

Lily steps closer and begins to unbutton Moshe’s shirt. He watches her fingers as though they are touching someone else’s body.

“Relax,” Lily says. “Don’t worry.”

Moshe stares at the woman beneath him as he enters her again and again. If he closes his eyes almost completely and blocks out the woman’s artificial moans, he can almost believe it is his own Alice he is making love to.

But even before this fiction is completely realized, it is over, and Moshe is hustled out. He sits on the velvet couch and accepts another drink from the large-breasted woman. When Plumbly hasn’t returned after an hour, Moshe stands up and wanders the streets of Guthrie until he finds their hotel.