Keenan Norris’s novel Brother and the Dancer is the winner of the 2012 James D. Houston Award and was nominated for the John Leonard Prize. Keenan serves as a guest editor for the Oxford African American Studies Center and is tenured faculty at Evergreen Valley College. He is also a lecturer at California State University, East Bay. He refers to "Sanitarium City, Shangri-La and Such" as an excerpt from a novella still taking shape in his mind: an unpopular history of a people, of a place.
Yet we go on. We return and return, along our route after Los Angeles and Tijuana and before San Suerte and the towns of the deeper desert, always with the same petition to allow passage and import of alcohol into Shangri-La’s city limits. Without such provision, not only do the citizens of their municipality have to journey miles by car or other conveyance out of their desert paradise and into the saloons of San Suerte to calm their unsanctioned thirst, but once in our wicked world, disavowed by law, they must engage a class of men they neither trust nor respect. And every time their answer is the same: The chink is not welcome and neither are you, John. The people here do not want a speakeasy around every corner. The people here have chosen our town in order that they might enjoy their wealth and health in purchased peace, purchased quiet. They have bought a certain way of life. All the buying is over, you understand. The market is closed. We will have you two jailed if you are not gone by sundown.
Without their approval, we are relegated to a roundabout route: Avoiding the city’s patrols, we have trundled one back-breaking bounce after the next along rock-ridden terrain that is a cost unto itself. My spine is not what it was. I am losing my figure with every jolt. Los Angeles is awash in bathtub gin of the lowest grade, the Tijuana spirits make their way up across the border and from our merchant hands onto speakeasy shelves. If we were doing business in any East Coast city, not just New York, even Philadelphia, even shabby old Baltimore, we would not need to venture out to the hinterlands. But Los Angeles is only a big city by Western standards so we head from town to town across this bleak scape, places without names, towns that are not, properly, towns, their makeshift saloons standing half-leaning like roots unreconciled to a life above ground.
One day I simply refuse—I tell him to stop the truck, to stop the godforsaken truck. “Take me to Hollywood or Vegas, now. That, now, or I’m through, with this.”
“What kinda nonsense are you talkin, girl?” He has to stop himself from laughing. “Now c’mon, you know how it is.”
“I know,” I tell him, “but it’s just too much for me. All this travel, all the trips down into filthy Tijuana, and these leering old men in the taverns in town after godforsaken town. And despite that, you would think with men slavering after me I would feel like a woman maybe one day out of every five, but even that I can’t manage without a proper shower and bath.”
“It is hard, I’ll grant that. But my monthly nut stays large despite it. You like the money, don’t you?”
“But at what cost?”
“It were an easier trek back before, I’ll grant that. But even before, I always did business with these desert saloons. It’s no competition out here, fast money.”
“But at what cost? I ask you again. We need another. At least I do. I want to go to Hollywood. I want to be a part of something of the moment and beyond this moment! I could be an actress. I’m not too old to be beautiful.”
He stares at me, his face cragged, weather-veined, with wrinkles like roots dug in at every ridge and turn of his countenance. “You’re beautiful still. You’ll never stop being beautiful to me.”
“But I don’t want to be beautiful only to you, to be beautiful only to the miserable desert! I’d settle for San Francisco,” I allow.
He laughs; his voice peeling out like the last shriek of a gull flying away.
“What about Las Vegas?” I cry. “Have you even heard of Vegas?”
“Vegas? That little thing in the desert! Tain’t nothin out there.”
“They say that the state is considering legalized gambling.”
He does not read newspapers. He never knew my Old Man. It is useless to talk to him about the changing ways of the world. What stock market crash? he would ask. What Vegas? What new laws? History, politics, the pronouncements of great men, the momentum of the times, all of it dissolves in this desert. One can live naturally ignorant here.
“Nevada, tain’t nothin. They don’t even pave roads out that a-way. They politicians is a bunch of rubes on horseback; bibles and snake charmers, that sort of thing.”
“Belittling; always belittling, it’s what you do to me is belittle even the slightest objection.”
“That don’t even sound like you, sweetie,” he says.
“Stop!” I demand again, and to my surprise he does just that—
We shudder to a halt just before a wandering tumbleweed scissors the grille of his vehicle. He fixes me with a look I’ve not seen from him before, though I have seen it from a man or two before him. The Old Man would give me just such a look as prelude to a lecture. He would dissertate on the space between need and desire, his rhetoric delving Aristotle and Edmund Burke to counsel moderation. And though I am a woman of my passions, despite myself, and will always want what I want, the particular dispute would eventually fall secondary to the impressive reach of his philosophy. He could persuade a woman with his words as well as his deeds. John cannot. There are no words to explain his disillusionment. It is as if he is, in his silence, seeing through me and seeing through us to a core division, an empty space where our souls do not connect.
Alone, I go east. Despite all my protestations to the contrary, I am desert-bound. I do so for reasons that are somewhat beyond me, though if I am being honest, I think I am somehow spiritually drawn here. I know in my heart that I am no Hollywood girl. The Jews, who created it, will not even put themselves on screen for fear of alienating an audience, alienating America. Little chance, then, for a dark half-breed Oriental. I have too much of the world in me for the picture shows. They want rosy-cheeked, straight-framed, hearty, wholesome women with hair as bright blond as this desert sunshine. I am instead what calls them in the nighttime, the speakeasy, the dance hall, the lost street. I am the apple that they eat of even as they deny their appetite.
That is why I walk toward Vegas.
I walk past towns of two houses, a ramshackle saloon and a chicken pen. I witness a congregation holding church outside in the heat of the day below the ever more brutal sun. The priest stands upon a raised stage such as you would see in Louisiana where the houses have to survive on stilts above swamp water. He handles a rattlesnake and writhes bodily, calling to his hallucinating flock with all the practiced seduction of a brothel whore. Further on, in another inhabited stretch, I see men dressed as ghosts and a burning wooden cross and the effigy of a nigger crucified like Christ aflame.
On the very brink of these barbarities, I come upon a long row of lean-to schoolhouses and barracks enclosed by a low barbed-wire gate. At the open entranceway a wooden placard has been staved hard into the ground: The Nunn College, it reads.
I am more tired than I have ever been. My legs are weary with walking, my muscles cramp a little more with each movement, and my mind has sallied into all kinds of brightly lit hallucinations. But I will be dead and buried before I am consigned to a nunnery, I resolve. Women who dream of starring on screen and stage do not speed away to convents. The Nunn College may feed me and shelter me and keep me alive, but though I slow and consider it for a moment, I do not enter.
In the eye-aching light, I see not a single woman as I pass by. There are men with waist-length beards tending horses and bailing hay and leading cattle upland, but there are no nuns. There are men, somewhat older and better suited but just as fully bearded that walk between the workers to inspect their progress. And there are yet others sitting quiet upon rocks and horses and at a lone table at the far end of the school and each is reading the same book, Plato’s Republic. They read intently, without looking up to contemplate the woman in the tattered gown who walks past. That alone testifies to a worldlessness and intellect that is foreign to me. The book is, I know, one of the great works. I remember when the Old Man introduced me to Plato and insisted I read his Republic for my “personal enrichment.” The text delineates the philosophy, structure and governance that will in total compose the ideal society, according to Plato. I look about me, at the college of common laborers, and I think back to the recent sight of so much savage society in these barren wastes; the rituals of human sacrifice and animistic superstition, the ignorance and violence that define our outer lands. Perhaps the ghost towns and lynching festivals and the rest are all someone’s social ideal, somehow, just as Shangri-La’s spas are a kind of dream denying death. But it is all the opposite of what I would create if creation I could make. College is not in the cards for me any more than is a stint in the sanitarium.
I keep walking.
I do not know when, or if, I have passed the state line into Nevada, or if I have wandered in the wrong direction and tilted down into Arizona. I come upon the old vaquero, or he comes upon me.
He asks, in Spanish, who I am and where I am walking.
I answer, in halting and self-conscious words, that I am bound for Las Vegas.
He looks off into the distance. I can tell, at least, that my course is correct, that I am headed in the right direction. He asks me why and I tell him, now in English, something of the complexity of my motive forces and he just nods, probably not understanding a word of it.
Later, on the second saddle on the back of his horse, he will cobble together in two languages that meet somehow in a comprehension beyond words, like two souls touching, that there is a story that at the college they could tell better, but that goes something like this: Into the Mexican jungle, the Spanish explorers went. And there they beheld gigantic women black as night. One fleeting glance from such a woman was enough to condemn a man to death or to usher him into divine grace. They called the women Californios,” the vaquero claims—or at least that is what I take from what he tells me.
As we reach his little outpost, which happens to be a full-fledged town with automobiles as well as animals, with roads and storefronts and churches, I realize that to him I appear an African. My Mediterranean shade, latent and sleeping on the coast, has come out, deeply bronze in this desert. I stand alone in such darkness, every one of these people being some sort of light-skinned Mexican of one description or another, more influenced by Europe than by Indian blood.
“You are darkly beautiful,” another man tells me. “Like the girls in Veracruz.”
I know I am dark, and I also know that at the moment I am not beautiful. I am tired and dirty and dressed in a great black gown gone to rags and I am, moreover, a fugitive from this nation afraid of its own body, its urges, its sweat, its sex and spirits; its truest loves. But America is not all one. We are on the very edge of the nation anyway, in a place little known, where life is scant and easily forgotten. I can be any of many things in such a place. If here I am a black woman, if I am the Amazon or Africa itself, so be it. I need food and water and a soft bed.
With nightfall, the vaquero takes me to a host family. Señor Martinez, Señora Martinez, and their nine niños. We all pray and then eat together. They ask me who I am, where I am from, what man I was married to, what poor luck led to his passing. Our concerns, it would seem, in this brief moment, in this tiny Mexican village upon this surrendered land are not so different, language to language, and kind to kind. I ask the woman about her children and her food and I ask the man about Las Vegas, the city that is not yet a city but that the newspapers have spoken so much of. He does not know of the Los Angeles newspapers, let alone of Nevada cities that have yet to come into full-fledged being. He says that at the college there are book-learned men who can answer these sorts of questions.
But I doubt that they know much about Las Vegas at the desert college. Having seen the students there at work and at study, I would wager that as men go they are more learned than enterprising, that there is a hard division between the two types. Any city built on gambling concerns will be a city of enterprise, not wisdom, and certain men will be drawn to it, and others will, as John would say, leave it be. Señor Martinez offers to transport me to The Nunn College in the morning to meet with the book-learned men. His is a wholly giving and sincere proposal, but I think of the Old Man again and his books and his education, and I politely decline, because book-learning has gotten more people killed than enriched around here.
I want to see Las Vegas, not a schoolhouse, I refrain from saying aloud.
A bit later, dinner is finished and I help the women clean the tables and dishes. They show me to a bed and, soon enough, all the lights in the house are put out. Despite my fatigue, I have trouble sleeping. I lay awake at the bottom of a deep well within my mind. Such a place as I imagine that this city in the desert can become should not even be built this deep into the desert, but rather closer in toward the incorporated coast. West of here, before the desert but beyond Los Angeles, would be the prime site. Bootleggers have already set shop there in that stretch of ramshackle cities and towns that lead out from the big city. Route 66 is their thoroughfare. The path has been paved. Everything is ready-laid there, whether it be in Pasadena or Pomona, or Shangri-La or San Suerte. There are even those more long-visioned than petty merchants like John that are lobbying the local municipalities there to allow for casinos on their streets. They understand what a perfect location it would constitute for that kind of economy. By contrast, this desert is not a sensible place to create anything of scale and dimensions, for it kills off the fat and the rich, the very people whose money moves the market in everything from sanitariums to cattle. But California will not surrender itself to the casinos. The rich, ironically, despite themselves, will never allow it, and their word will be law. So I set myself a task: That in the morning I must convince one of these kindly vaqueros that he and I, last of the first Californians, should ride for a city that has yet to be born, or, failing that, that I will just have to commit myself to the black market and take, thief in the daylight, a horse or a motor car or the wings of an angel and make my way through the desert alone.
Sanitarium City, Shangri-La and Such
Up from Mexico, we head north and east a-ways, as they say. I’m picking up quaint phrases like this from John; local, rural idioms that do not assimilate me one iota, but that I suppose may still cultivate me insofar as everything that doesn’t kill you cultivates you. This is the path now, ever since the prohibition took hold of our lives like the helpless things that we are. We have been drinking only beer and scotch three days straight, ever since leaving for Tijuana: It takes forceful acts of memory to remind myself that it was not always like this. There was a time before. There was my Old Man. He would not think to jettison me, jettison us and our ultimate fate to these scorching outskirts. He was a gentleman of a higher order who kept me in a loft in San Francisco and taught me a lifestyle that is not easily given up, so, again, I remind myself that I have seen many, many beautiful things, even though no amount of wealth and luxury is as triumphal over human designs as this bleak desert.
I wish the Old Man was still with me. But this has been a rough trade ever since the prohibition took root and any broker within it who refuses to carry a firearm signs his own death warrant. My new man is a good man, I believe. His connections are not the caliber of the Old Man’s, but the money still comes, the speakeasies do not close, it is good enough. Still, this is rough passage this far east: As we ride, all I can do is marvel at this land, this anti-nature, this void. I imagine a thousand great cities lost to time below the dust. We are not even in the heart of it yet, the place they call Death Valley. I do not know how far we have to go, but I am not looking forward to the desert’s depths. There are no signposts to tell you where you are or how far you have come or in which direction to go. It is all feel and innate knowing to find your way this far out. All is natural law in the desert: How far can we travel in the heat of the day? How long can I survive on scotch and sweat? The mountains form a natural boundary to the east and the north, climbing dry and brown toward a precipice of murderous sun-break.
Then we come to it: Sanitarium City, Shangri-La, California. We know her by the sight of the first large white domed structure standing incongruous in its perfection amidst the bent, fire-blackened trees and starved flora. The sanitarium is the kind of thing Noah might have achieved given more than God’s grace. Shuffling in and out of the arc are old patrician gentlemen and ladies. For some reason that cannot but be strange, whatever it is, they are all wearing white. The men have on yogurt white trousers and shirts and vests and each wears a hat to protect their fair-complected skin from the sun. Some have adopted the Mexican sombrero, but even these, I see, are custom made and white as innocence itself. The women wear long, frilled dresses that I take to be of chiffon embroidery, though it is hard to tell at a distance. They are too old, all of them, for flapping and instead dress in the fashions of their youth, a dull day thankfully dying off. I have a beautiful, tightly stitched silk gown, black as the midnight hour, and embroidered with the most artful lace this side of the Mississippi; a fine flapper hat for every occasion; heels that curve me like a cat and send men cross-eyed and slack-jawed, folded and bundled in a suitcase beside the rifle in the trunk of our motor truck. There was no reason to bring them Saturday night clothes on this trip, he told me, and I nodded and expected he was telling the truth. But I brought my things anyway.
They toddle about, these rich old New Yorkers and Bostonians, breathing in the clean, sun-sterilized air. I have been reading a series of feature articles in the LA Times about these houses of health worship; how the old doyens of the East Coast have flocked here from the fetid, crammed environs to cleanse themselves. A man in a black jacket and trousers comes outside with a large medicine ball clutched to his chest and leads first one wishful patient, then another and yet another in a strenuous exercise of indeterminate purpose.
“What are they doing?” I ask John.
“I dunno,” he says, slowing the motor truck and peering out the window at the strange spectacle. Up ahead, the sanitarium grounds extend into tennis courts and a field for croquet and other amusements, and then there is a little shopping center with store fronts that cater to a host of boutique entitlements, select cheeses and wines, foreign tapestries and fine furniture, gleaming chandeliers, etcetera. “It might be hard to sell these here fancy pantses on Tijuana hooch,” he adds, his raw ‘charm’ on display. “This won’t be like cuttin a deal to run liquor in Los Angeles.”
Everywhere we go, deals must be “cut.” The mayor, the councilmen, the congressmen, the mob; nothing is free outside the law. But apparently these patrician gentlemen and ladies will be a particularly tough sell. I don’t have John’s innate sense of these things. “I thought your slogan was: Anybody and everybody falls for al-co-hol. Isn’t that our maxim?”
“Well, yeah, but I wadn’t talkin about any-nobody like these folks. These here people is a class beyond.”
They certainly are. But I am a woman who enjoys fine things. If it were not for age and ancestry and the illegitimacy of my income, I might count myself among them. But, no, I am a young woman who would not for a day pay to lock myself in a gilded cage to escape the betrayals of my body; I am no parts Anglo but rather a dark Iberian-Chinese. And I am a bootlegger, or at least mistress to such a man.
I suppose that my dark difference is both blessing and curse, for I would never have attracted John, this bootlegger’s bootlegger, if I’d been just another wizened, hard-bitten cracker woman. He is a man of wild times and wild places. He was after an exotic when he came to Los Angeles. He was looking not just for any old mistress but a woman in my style, which is to say, a lady he could not name until he found me. He must have known that in me he had found much more than a lover; that I was his crisis as well.
At the mayor’s mansion, I am so far below consideration that Mr. Councilman Jeffers, whatever respect that title is supposed to afford, looks me over but once and says to John, “Your chink can wait outside. There’s no need of her contribution in these deliberations.”
We stand on the front porch steps of the main house. We look at each other, heat-drunk and a little south of our objections. I cannot say I am too surprised. If I am not a vicious wop, I am an imbecile Spaniard, or a decadent Portuguese; if not a suspicious Mediterranean, then a perverse, evil chink. So it is. I am not one of them; so it is. I busy my eyes in the assessment of the architecture: The home is neo-classical in design, as all the homes in this town are; it affects an ornate Atlantic grace that is more than a little impressive on this brink of the conquered world.
“There’s nowhere I go,” John says, “where’n Magarida can’t come with me. That includes this city’s offices. There was a time recent where you all were bought and sold to me. Remember that.”
“I remember, and it wasn’t so recent. Everybody remembers the days when you couldn’t walk downtown without stumbling past five drunks. But times have changed. Leave the lady of the night outside.”
I would scratch his eyes out, kill him even, but for the fact that I would not know what to do next. I try to think beyond my immediate instinct. “I’ll wait outside,” I say, without a single bitter note in my tone. I put my hand to John’s shoulder and, yes, there is tension where there is muscle and something unwavering where there is bone. “I’m perfectly fine to bide my time,” I add, “as long as is needed. The heat doesn’t bother me in the least. I’m complected for it.”
Inside the hall that the open doors grant dark vista upon is a nigger butler busying himself with the formal arrangements for the meeting. He moves a table into the center of the room and places lace table mats for tea and sits teacups upon them. The tea warms in a clear glass pot that contains a pink blooming flower.
The butler walks out onto the porch steps where I find myself waiting. Closing the oaken double doors behind him, he regards me with that diffidence and dismissive air that typifies his people when given even the slightest status. They are a status-craving lot that knows nothing of power, so that you will find that they often condescend to those they have no business condescending toward. He has no idea that the laws have disfranchised us, criminalizing our enterprise. He has no idea that this disfranchisement is a tenuous thing itself and may, at local whim, or federal amendment, be reversed and he could find himself waiting on us.
“May I have a fan?” I ask.
The butler takes a moment to answer me. I am no enthusiast of the Negro, but I believe his woeful demeanor is an extreme case. He chuckles out “Sho nuff,” in reply. I do not know if that is an answer in the affirmative or negative but I just smile at him. After another moment of silent regard, he says “I’ma go fetch it, miss.”
And that, as the circularity goes, is that. I am rewarded with a cheap Oriental fan of the type that the freshly arrived sell to tourists on holiday. The oaken doors are closed and I am walled out of the negotiations of men. Occasionally, the doors disgorge a raised voice, a hint of tension and agitation, but there is no context for these symptoms of argument. I fan myself and try to think of other things, of fall in San Francisco, of the theater in New York City. It is a poor, handmade fan, nothing of the orient in its creation. I don’t know why, exactly, but I drop it on the ground, just let it fall from my hand and it goes down in all its stiff plumage. I fix the butler with a hard stare and tap my heel hard against the pavement and wait for him to pick it up.
It is a long wait.
My lover returns only slowly. I see it already; the sullen, silent end of everything, our hopes for doing business here, the eventual end of the enterprise that has supported his family for generations, those generations previous and potential themselves wasting as if castrated from his body, lynched and hung motiveless to an invisible cross. This upstart Shangri-La and its sterile powerbrokers, they have rendered their first verdict. It is suggested in his gait, sequestered in his eye-glances.