REVIEW AMERICANA

 

Spring 2013

Volume 8, Issue 1

http://www.americanpopularculture.com/review_americana/spring_2013/bassen.htm




L.S. BASSEN

 

Oberon

 

To arrive at Northrop Frye’s wedding ending of Comedy, villainies must be viewed askew.

For her daughter’s second wedding anniversary in July 2002, Hilde ordered a Wish List teapot of Meg’s bridal pattern, Wedgwood Oberon, a modern revision of overwrought Jacobean vines. Also in July 2002, though she had just retired, Hilde was astonished to be commissioned to rewrite the memoir of her husband’s Aunt Florence, a Scottish octogenarian widow of a Japanese aristocrat. Florence’s first husband had been a zaibatsu, educated in Japan, veneered at the University of Pennsylvania, Class of 1909, a champion who introduced golf to his native country and played with his neighbor, the young Emperor Hirohito. He was a close friend of Prime Minister (1937-39, 1940-41) Prince Fumimaro Konoe, the architect of the 1939 Nanking Massacre. This was a lot to take in and take on.
    
Florence, a Scottish nurse, resembled Carole Lombard in her movie magazine-like pictures, and her dapper husband Baron Haruki/"Harry" didn’t look his sixty-one to her twenty-five. Also included in the manuscript were other photos Florence had taken with a wedding gift camera from Baron Harry. These images of bridges and coves were confiscated by the wartime Japanese SS, the kempetai, and led to Florence’s imprisonment which (hawk) Tojo ordered to pressure (by mid-WWII more dove-ish) Prince Konoe.
     
How could Hilde refuse or resist rewriting the 1946 memoir? It had been revised in mid-1950s Manhattan, when a publisher assigned a then-unknown editor – Betty Friedan – to work with Brian’s Aunt Florence. But Friedan’s “Cinderella story” version had outraged its author, who shelved the book for decades. In 1963 NYC, when Hilde was sixteen and first met Brian’s aunt, she was warned never to ask Florence about what had happened in Japan.
    
In 1996, Hilde’s play about her Wellesley 1969's twenty-fifth (the month-before-the-first-Moon-landing) LUNAR REUNION won awards and nationwide productions. Her classmate, First Lady Hillary Clinton, saw it in D.C. and sent a note that Hilde guessed a secretary had penned. She doubted her classmate remembered her at all. “We went to different Wellesleys,” Hilde always said when asked, “even though our names were often confused. She was Hillary Rodham, and I was Hilde – "Hill-dee" – Rodman. When professors saw the name on their roster, and then I appeared in class, their hearts sank. "Not The Hill. Just Hill-D."  I had an English professor, a lesbian Icelandic scholar who looked like Popeye’s Olive Oil, who called me, "'Hill-D-alloway,' for good measure."
    
By February, 2003, Hilde had researched and rewritten Florence’s memoir (“It was like getting another Master’s, in modern Japanese history”). Florence approved it, and Hilde placed it with her agent. Then as suddenly as can be said of someone who was 88, Aunt Florence died. In her will, she left Hilde the manuscript. In May a year later, an obituary in the New York Times for Japan’s 101-year-old first post-war representative at the UN stopped Hilde cold. Florence’s Baron Harry had been chosen before this man, but he’d died of a heart attack at the very party given to celebrate his UN appointment. Hilde contacted a Times reporter who’d interviewed the centenarian’s heir, an internationally known rightwing journalist and longtime associate of then-campaigning VP Cheney. Through the Times reporter, Hilde contacted Hajime ("Jimmy") who invited her to send him Florence’s memoir.
      
As he read the attachment Hilde emailed, he wrote nostalgic replies about childhood memories of the history he had in common with Florence and Baron Harry, more often ridiculing her descriptions of people and events. He offered to recommend the memoir to his friend the emeritus Kodansha publisher -- if Hilde would make Jimmy’s rightwing edits and hand deliver the manuscript hard copy to him during his next trip to DC “in November and drink champagne” at the GOP celebration he anticipated after the 2004 re-election. Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld, Jimmy wrote, were, like the man at Kodansha, old friends. Her agent was encouraging.
    
An email pas de deux ensued. With polite verbal sidesteps following the emailed advice of the Asian Studies Chair at Harvard (whom she had contacted during research), Hilde demurred the edits she knew would have been anathema to Florence. She added her own excuses for her absence at the command performance: in November, she was moving from NYC to Rhode Island because Meg was in mid-residency and pregnant, due in March. Jimmy just as diplomatically admired her entrechat. He praised Hilde’s play Lunar Reunion, wondering if “it owed its four-plot structure to Midsummer Night's Dream?” and sent her several translated editions of his eighty-five books, including the one that denied the Peking Massacre. He reinvited Hilde to dance for the devil in May. How could she not hear echoes of Oberon? When I had at my pleasure taunted her/And she in mild terms begg'd my patience/I then did ask of her her changeling child...

Folding space, as in branes/brains, increases information storage and demonstrates that topology = geography.
    
The world truly re-iterated Mandelbrot’s fractals. After more than three decades as an editor, in retirement after 2002, Hilde had the time to learn how many names the same objects could have. On a Sunday in May 2005, the Northeast Regional from Boston to D.C. stopped for passengers where the aboriginal (rocky river) Sneechteconnet-then-Blackstone changed its name to the Providence River as it flowed into the Atlantic-called-the-Sound between Connecticut and Long Island. Hilde and Brian weren’t required to change trains at Penn Station in New York. Awaiting departures/arrivals, they sat fifty feet beneath the paradoxically horizontal body of the vertical City, familiar and missed, lying above her like a lost love, Leonardo’s pentagram-man.  She knew the weight of the City intimately, its borough-border fingertips & feet, its Manhattan lungs & lights. It felt personal when the train pulled out. After seven hours from Providence to D.C., along with other mistaken travelers, Hilde and Brian nearly disembarked at the penultimate station when the conductor called out “Washington, D.C." but it was a stop for locals who quickly directed them back onto the train.
    
But there was no mistaking the last stop at Union Station, from which they could walk to their small hotel. Trees were in full green leaf, and the air warm summer to Rhode Island’s cool spring. The hotel was better than expected; they were led to a tiny duplex, bedroom & bath upstairs, half bath & sitting room below. In the time before they were expected at dinner on Connecticut Avenue, Brian poured Hilde single malt from a flask, and she tried to calm down.
     
A cab took them to an Indian restaurant in Cleveland Park. A round table was set for nine, four couples and their Japanese host. Brian was seated with the wives of the Cheney/Rumsfeld men from the DOD, and Jimmy nodded to the solicitous maitre d’ to pull out the chair beside him for Hilde. Three shots of Glenfiddich back in the hotel room had fortified Hilde sufficiently to feel more observant than observed. Jimmy looked younger than his late seventies, his face as smooth as his manner. He was shorter than Brian, and thicker, with a squared head and jaw. He wore a dark suit and blue shirt and smelled of bergamot, like Earl Grey tea. Hilde remembered a phrase she had once questioned in an edit, “a $500 tie,” possibly verified by the navy paisley worn by her host. Clearly but curiously, Jimmy had invited her to be his guest of honor at the table on this Sunday evening.
    
The three DOD men and their tired wives looked like they were as on order as the food. The tallest and oldest of the men had wavy white hair and a deep Southern accent. Hilde figured he saluted Cheney/Rumsfeld, the other two obviously subordinates. Jimmy leaned in and whispered to Hilde, “The Vice President would have joined us but --” and waved away the rest of his insincerity. Drinks came several times before dinner. Hilde,  rarely more than a one drink pony, could not feel her teeth, but the alcohol had done little to quiet the echoes of Florence’s undiminished fears and warnings never to contact anyone in Japan.
    
Jimmy was asking her about the food, and then abruptly said, “Are you a Christian?”
    
Hilde retasted the maraschino in her Old Fashioned. Words from Macbeth sped across her mental news-crawl: "Have we eaten on the insane root/That takes the reason prisoner?" Message received, Brain. Ask, never answer questions. It can’t end badly, can it? Smile.
    
“What would Jesus say?” Hilde said.
    
“You were a classmate of the former First Lady.”
    
“We went to different Wellesleys.”
    
“How so?”
    
“Do you think birth order might play a role? Hillary is an older sister, and I’m a younger one.”
    
“Who would think you were even the same age?”
    
Hilde felt defensive, though not for herself. Jimmy’s diplomacy was as fine as forty percent of the paintings -- forgeries -- hanging in the world’s greatest museums. Focus. Hillary. Then Hilde heard herself reading aloud from her news-crawl: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them – oh, that’s Malvolio, reading from the fraudulent letter.” So maybe she was drunk, but it was the truth. She added, “Hillary is the trifecta,” and looked across the table at Brian. He was listening to one of the wives, a forty-something woman wearing a pitiful green suit. She was worrying about her children, and her husband was alternately disapproving or ignoring her. Brian said something kind, and the woman’s eyes softened. Then the man to Hilde’s left began describing the War College where he was on the part-time faculty. His accent was less pronounced but also Southern. Jimmy easily interrupted him and refilled her wine glass.
     
“Tell me about Wellesley,” he said.
     
Hilde remembered aggressive Harvard boys; she had learned bullies only respected a bigger bully. A facial expression poised between promise and derision worked best.

“Because the campuses are so beautiful, people used to say that God would send a son to Princeton and a daughter to Wellesley.”
     
“Like Eden,” Jimmy said.
     
“Without the temptation,” Hilde said, “of boys and snakes.”
     
Jimmy laughed, echoed by the DOD. Hilde thought: there used to be smoke-filled rooms where men like these moved in clouds of power and paid courtesans to punish their sins with pleasure. The twenty-first century outlawed smoking and democratized power. She said, “At our graduation, Hillary was the first student ever to be the invited speaker at a Wellesley Commencement. We cheered when she used the word ‘ecstatic’ in front of --” but Jimmy stopped her. Leaning in again, he said, “Bring me the memoir to breakfast tomorrow at my hotel at 10 a.m.”

“I have it here, now,” Hilde said. “The maitre d’ has – ”

But with the same wave, Jimmy dismissed her words and gestured a waiter over for dessert orders which only Hilde and Brian declined.

 Regarding the demolition and reconstruction of great buildings, architects must think about both aesthetics & mechanics.   
     
Facing the White House across Lafayette Square, The Hay-Adams was a boutique hotel rebuilt above the razed mansions of Henry Adams and John Hay, personal secretary to President Abraham Lincoln, and later U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, as well as Secretary of State under both William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. Together with their wives, Clara Hay and Marian (Clover) Adams, as well as noted geologist Clarence King, Hay and Adams formed a group they named the "Five of Hearts" and had custom china made in that pattern.
    
For years, the homes served as Washington's leading salons, welcoming Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, Henry James, and the sculptor August Saint-Gaudens. In 1927, a developer razed both buildings and replaced them with an Italian Renaissance-style, 138-room apartment-hotel with Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns, walnut wainscoting, and intricate ceiling treatments featuring Elizabethan and Tudor motifs. Wood paneling from the Hay residence was repurposed in the public space now known as the Hay-Adams Room.
     
Hilde didn’t ask at the desk for a taxi to the Hay-Adams. She walked outside on the warm May morning and was approached by a black man in livery offering her his limousine. When she hesitated, “That’s some fancy car,” he replied, “You’re some fancy lady,” so she accepted being gulled. On the quick trip to Lafayette Square, the chauffeur continued charming her with anecdotes about the government buildings they passed. Hilde watched suited men and women entering/exiting and thought D.C. looked like where, minus green apples, Magritte’s bowler hats must land. She gripped the cardboard box with Florence’s memoir on her lap.
     
Jimmy was not in the hotel lobby when she walked in. She looked around at the ornate wood and marble; Clover Adams had never lived here. Hilde was directed up a short flight of steps to a brilliant, nearly empty dining room made as glaring as a field of snow by tables covered in layered white linens. A waiter, also in a white jacket, led her to a table farthest from the tall, bright windows. Jimmy stood to welcome her and took the manuscript out of her hands, placing it out of sight on one of the four chairs at the table.
     
They sat. She wondered if his suite was on the fourth floor where the ghost of Clover Adams was said to walk early in the winter month she committed suicide in 1885. Gothic mood. Snap out of it.  Hilde focused on the flowers and formal table setting. Fragrant, pale pink peonies quite possibly harboring ants. Butter plates, cups and saucers. Another waiter appeared with a tray carrying both a coffee and a teapot.
    
“I know this pattern,” Hilde said. “It’s my daughter’s wedding china. Wedgwood Oberon.” 
   
Context returned. She could see Meg’s face and the baby. She calmed. This stranger was not the Japanese Sandman of her grandmother’s lullaby. Jimmy had had real plans for his current D.C. trip. To lobby for rightwing Japanese interests. For which she had been – a convenience, an amuse bouche at a dinner. She was not among the more than two birds to get with one stone. Hardly even a pebble under which Jimmy might find some dirt on Hillary that could oil future encounters with Cheney/Rumsfeld? Eagles did not fly with chicka-or-Hil-dees. Why this morning meeting? No more than that a man does not live by breakfast alone.

“Wedgwood,” Jimmy said, lifting his cup. “English china. Charles Darwin was Wedgwood’s grandson. He married his first cousin, who was also a Wedgwood grandchild. My first cousin is Yoko Ono.”

Hilde had intended complimenting the strong jasmine tea she was sipping; instead she blurted, “You must love springing that on people!”
    
Jimmy basked. “Why, do you think I am so different from my cousin?”
    
“Yoko Ono! You two are like – migratory birds! 1800 of the world’s 10,000 bird species are migratory.  Like me, the rest are called resident or sedentary.”
    
“Oh, we are more rare than 18%.”
    
“Your Thanksgiving table conversation must be epic. Florence wrote nothing about Thanksgiving in Japan. Perhaps because as a Scot she would not have missed it.”
     
“We do have a November harvest festival, Labor Thanksgiving Day. Kinro Kansha no Hi is actually a modern name for an ancient ritual called Niinamesai, our harvest festival. In the ritual, the Emperor makes the season's first offering of freshly harvested rice to the gods and then partakes of the rice himself.”
    
At which apparent cue, a waiter wheeled a silver tray of breakfast foods and served them.
   
Splitting open a steaming scone for which she had no appetite, Hilde said, “Has your trip to D.C. been -- ”   
    
“ -- lengthy.” Jimmy interrupted as he continued to concentrate on raspberries and sliced green gage plums. “There is too much piracy in the East China Sea and ongoing dispute about our Senkaku Islands.”
    
“Which the Chinese call Diaoyu.”
    
“I am surprised you follow this,” Jimmy said, refilling his cup with coffee, then hers with tea.
   
“Florence’s memoir opens Western eyes on Japan. From the moment in Shanghai in 1939, when she was a young nurse from Scotland and, ‘The military tanks rumbled into the main courtyard of the Country Hospital only that morning, in the wake of General Wu, who now lies safely tucked in bed.’”
     
“The Chinese have a different view of history. Did you know the invading American Army looted and raped? That is not reported in your history books.”
    
“In China?
    
“In Japan.”
    
“General MacArthur,” Hilde said, “ordered all such indefensible atrocities reported directly to him. As your cousin’s full page Times ads repeatedly said, unnecessary war is the worst crime.”
    
“Necessity is the mother of dissension,” Jimmy said. “At Wellesley, did you resent Mrs. Clinton?”
    
“Oh, she’ll always be Ms. Rodham to me. Truly, about Hillary – no Shakespearian lean and hungry looks from the likes of me. I identify with Pindarus’s escapist politics. "Far from this country Pindarus shall run,/Where never Roman shall take note of him. Or her.”
     
“That is impossible for any Roman Senator.”
    
“Yes, it is also good not to be king. Lear shouldn’t have divested. Hamlet cursed having to set things right.”
    
“Why do you pursue the memoir? You were not born, she was not your aunt, and now she is dead.”
   
“Well. If mortality is thesis, memory is antithesis. Synthesis? Her Scottish brogue was music.”
    
“Bagpipes?”
    
“No, Florence’s voice was lovely, like Cordelia’s. She had no idea Baron Harry was zaibatsu -- she worried he could lose his job for marrying her, a non-Japanese, so she assured him she would work to support them as a nurse. How in that teahouse in Tokyo in moonlight he took both her hands and didn’t laugh, had tears in his eyes when he said, ‘Oh, my dear, you will never need to fear that.’ I think he married Florence because she was the incarnation of an Impressionist portrait he’d bought in the 1920s from the Louvre – I never could track it down.  That painting was incinerated along with Baron Harry’s house and much of Tokyo in a May 1945 raid. Two months after the Operation Meetinghouse firebombing, worse than either Hiroshima or Nagasaki in August. I also never found the woman doctor  who’d returned from Germany after creating diets for Holocaust survivors, who saved Florence’s life when she got to LA in 1946.”
    
“Have you seen her ghost?” Jimmy said.
    
Hilde now recognized his abrupt pattern, but this veered steeply. Suddenly, he was unnerved and unnerving.
    
“Here?’ Hilde stalled. “Clover Adams only comes in early December. She hugs people and whispers, ‘What do you want?’ I once edited an article about wet macular degeneration. It affects sight. Hallucination is an entirely sane symptom.”
    
But his black eyes were focusing beyond Hilde, and his lips moved silently. Then he flattened his palms on the white tablecloth table, and said aloud, “My flight is at 3 p.m. So.”
    
Hilde moved the manuscript onto the table. As if conjured, another apparition of white-jacketed waiter stood behind her ready to draw back her chair. Jimmy’s dismissal made her giddy with relief. She nodded to the waiter, indicating the boxed memoir, and the young man assented, as if any of it mattered. Only 4% of the porous universe was what we and our dreams were made of.

No two events which are simultaneous with reference to the railway embankment are not also simultaneous relatively to the train.
    
Their Acela from D.C. to Boston was an express. As they sped north, greenery diminished in density and color saturation, and it looked like they were traveling back in time from summer to spring.    
    
“What?” Brian said.
    
“What?”
     
“You were talking in your sleep.”
     
“What was I saying?”
     
Brian folded the Times onto his lap. “You were saying no to Einstein, then Potsdam, Bloom, Professor Harold, I’m guessing. And you were smiling. Maybe you caught Jimmy’s crazy.”
    
Hilde was half asleep. “I saw Aunt Florence standing in her living room, August 1945, so hot and hungry in Japan. When Konoe secretly brought the Potsdam Declaration to read aloud to her to see if he understood every English nuance and his tiny aide who wrote later, disapproving of her short-shorts.” Her eyes opened.  She was awake. “But it’s gone now – Einstein said no. What about?”
     
“God doesn’t play dice with the universe?”
     
“Not that one. Something else.”
     
“Or you dreamed it.”
     
“But you saw the email: Bloom said I was right, Shakespeare imagined everything -- but the future.”
    
“What do you think Aunt Florence’s memoir’s chances are now?” Brian asked.
    
“Better, if she’s haunting him. If he even took it back to Japan with him. Dubious at best. A man with many ghosts. Mad as the Hatter.”
    
“It was hardly a trip to Wonderland, Alice,” Brian said.
    
“At least we kept our heads.”
    
When the train approached New York, it took a long, banking curve on unfamiliar tracks. Sunset gilded a tilted skyline against massing purple rainclouds. On her return, the City looked like a stranger to Hilde. As on their honeymoon decades before, Brian slept beside her when the train picked up speed. It became a dark and stormy night punctuated by lightning and thunder. Waves of rain gusted against black, mirroring windows. Along the Connecticut shore, Hilde couldn’t see the Sound beside the tracks or over brief bridges when the train was suspended above water. All she could see was her reflection as the Acela slowed and came to their stop in Providence.

 

 

 



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