Imaginary Oklahoma is an ongoing project in which some of today’s most important and influential writers combine with artists to provide a fictional take on this place we call home. Through a wide variety of voices, styles and literary devices, these works prove that “Oklahoma” is much more than a place, it’s an idea.
Let me explain something: Oklahoma was not my idea.
It happened this way. We were having hamburgers at Sonny’s Grill in Soho, on Chater Street, four of us from work, all except Feng, who insists on eating spaghetti bolognese whenever we go out for Western food. Spaghetti bolognese, which, fortunately, every non-Chinese restaurant has in Hong Kong, except McDonald’s. What do you do at McDonald’s, I asked him, and he said, I never go to McDonald’s. The whole place always stinks of cheese.
He has a pathological fear of cheese. Makes the waitress swear that the bolognese has no cheese in it, or on it, and waves away the little bowl of parmesan anxiously, as if it’s plutonium. He hates cheese the way Swedes hate MSG.
I should say that we’re a little United Nations in our office, not that there’s anything so unusual about it these days. Brits, Malays, Taiwanese, French, Mainlanders, and Queenie, our secretary, the one lonely local girl. But no Americans. Americans, Nathan says, can’t invent brands. They are brands. It’s like asking an elephant to be a zoologist.
Nathan is from New Zealand, started out as a Barry Manilow impersonator in Tokyo, but made his fortune in a string of backpacker bars in Pattaya. His book, This Is Not My Life: Adventures of a Brand Consultant, is a bestseller in Hyderabad.
So in this case the company is from Xiamen. Big deal, you say, another denim plant in Xiamen. But no, there’s serious money behind this one. Same money that came up with the Nikes that even the Nike CEO couldn’t tell weren’t real. And some kind of top designer from San Francisco, a jeans guru, who happens to be originally Fujianese. A little ethnic solidarity happening up there. They’ve got all these patterns—Abercrombie, Hollister, Levis. Don’t ask me how it happens. And they want a complete turnaround, the whole package, mock-ups, billboards, models, everything, in ten days. So: Oklahoma.
Yvan was the first one to say the word. He had a pocket-sized atlas he’d picked up at Page One, a French atlas, and he was reading out all these place names in a horrible Serge Gainsbourg voice, so that they reminded you of Gauloises and incest. Toh-pee-kaaah. Deh Mwahn. Dahnver. Ohh…kalahohmaah.
Try saying it in Chinese, Janice said. She’s from Newcastle, a skeptic. But no, Feng said, that’s the point. We can’t pronounce Bain de Soleil either. We can’t pronounce Bordeaux.
It sounded so—chewy. That’s what I liked about it. All those round vowels and one crazy dipthong. Kla. It sounded like someone yelling something over a great distance. Hey, Francis said, staring at his phone, it turns out there’s a famous opera about it. And he played a little of one of the songs over his tinny speaker. I recognized it from my Miles Davis records. If I Were A Bell. So, I thought, that’s Oklahoma.
It wasn’t long after the big release, the fashion show, the carbide lamps, the pulsing bottles of cheap San Andreas Valley champagne, that I started having the nightmares. I was in a cornfield being kicked by elephants. I was pursued down a dirt road by naked men on motorcycles. Someone kept talking about being raped by the wind. I came down with a nasty flu, and all I could think about, in all those hours of heaving over the tiles, was cheese. Cheese melted over salads, cheese poured onto ice. French fries coated in chocolate and dipped in cheese.
That was all I could think of, when I ventured back out onto the streets, and saw the word stitched across a thousand curving rear ends. Elephants and cornfields and rivers of cheese.
I had another nightmare just last night in which all my money, every bill, every credit card, every bank statement, was made of corn. You could eat it.
The problem with a name is that you can’t unsay it. I live in Oklahoma now. The fields have closed in around me, and I can’t go back.
Jess Row is the author of two collections of stories, The Train to Lo Wu and Nobody Ever Gets Lost, which Library Journal recently described as “one of the six best works of fiction about September 11th.” His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Tin House, Granta, Conjunctions, and three times in The Best American Short Stories. He teaches at the College of New Jersey and the Vermont College of Fine Arts.