By Alisa Slaughter
It’s late; I’m listening for the marauding bear. Maybe it’s because the summer is so cold this year in Oregon and things aren’t ripening, but my mother says he’s unusually active, more persistent than the average bear in his raids on gardens and bird feeders. After she was robbed by a neighborhood meth addict, my mother put a motion detector on her garage light and a lock on the inside of her wood bin, where the tweaker got in. The police caught him, but he’d already sold the pearls my late father gave her, on eBay. I’m sleeping on the floor in the living room; periodically I wake halfway when the light clicks on and illuminates the fir and hemlock surrounding the cabin. Tomorrow, maybe, if we’re feeling up to it, we’ll try to take our annual walk up the road, past another neighbor’s house, and face down his paranoid insistence that the road into the national forest belongs to him. He’s planted grass seed in the gravel, posted the gate, and taken to videotaping his confrontations with “trespassers,” but the county assures us it’s a public right of way.
Someone has given my mother a book of “affirmations” by the very prolific and famous Louise Hay. It is sitting here under a bag of the birdseed she can’t put out, because of the bear. It tells the reader that she (certainly a she?) is wonderful in every way (though always open to positive change), that her every decision is a good one, that everything is as it should be. The colorful little book entered this house as a gift, I suspect, from yet another neighbor, a more upstanding one, who is at this very moment monitoring an unwelcome houseguest, the mother of her grandchildren. This ex-daughter-in-law appeared last night, after an absence of a year and a half, in the company of several sinister people, and must be watched lest she get too drunk or drugged and harm or traumatize her offspring, or run away with them, or invite her friends back for more beers with the neighbor’s catastrophically alcoholic husband, or reveal to the children the distressing news that she sleeps in a park when she’s not visiting them. Like many of my mother’s friends, the neighbor woman has a soft heart and a complicated past, and does things like allow dangerous drug addicts to stay in her home in order to reconnect with the sons and daughters they abandoned. The energetic grandmothers of Clackamas County (land of my people, most famous for the trashy figure skater Tonya Harding and the iconic Mt. Hood, east of Portland) find inspirational plaques and books and cards at thrift stores and give them to each other, which is sweet in a way, but I cannot help thinking of ideas such as Louise Hay’s as a degenerative force in this context. “Here I am, world,” writes Louise Hay, “open and receptive to all good.”
People I encounter in my everyday life, when I’m not visiting my family and descending into a trauma spiral, go all misty when I say I’m from Oregon. It is indeed lovely if you’re careful: a visit to Powell’s bookstore, a drive along the coast, lunch in one of Portland’s charming old neighborhoods. If you’re not careful, you end up getting gas on 82nd Avenue at dusk, watching a ruined old man fumble with his zipper for fifteen minutes outside the locked restroom, or you take a hike in the forest and meet my mother’s psycho neighbor, or you sit in the passenger seat as I fight off a crying jag between Shasta and Roseburg. Foresters talk about the “beauty strip,” the line of trees they leave standing along the road; just over the ridge, though, there’s a clear-cut, a hungry bear, a doublewide trailer full of untreated mental illnesses.
Beautiful as it is, in other words, Oregon is a flower “with a base infection” as Shakespeare put it: Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds. I’m thinking about corruption because my work has taken me to a lot of foreign places lately, places where the weeds of corruption grow in profusion. Many of my less-traveled friends, relatives and colleagues assume that the minute I enter a foreign country outside the European Union or the Antipodes, I immediately face a thicket of shady and extortionate practices, which is not the case at all. When they read about corruption here, they tend to see the phenomenon as a dreadful alien thing that warps and dirties what is otherwise straight and pure: government operations, morals, the perspectives of hard-working and hopeful women, the breeding grounds of ocean-going wildlife. Lately, though, it feels more like something that exists all the time, and inevitably spills over, like the recent dreadfulness in the Gulf: something latent, something under easily-turned rocks. If you mess around out there, if you do anything, better install multiple safeguards or expect the worst, is the message of that spill. It’s true of oil; maybe it’s true of everything.
Or my own perspective could use some work, maybe. This morning, for example, I watched a plainclothes policeman tackle a scroungy individual on Franklin Street in Astoria, and treated it as a confirmation of my worst expectations, almost a personal affront. We’d gone there, my mother and I, to visit a friend and his partner, to admire their stunning four-story Victorian house, to eat some crab, and contemplate the Lewis and Clark expedition, and wander the fortifications at Fort Stevens, and generally to participate in the exquisiteness, which is available to all, I should not exaggerate my alienation too much. We did all of the exquisite things, but we also scrambled into our car as the violent arrest took place almost at our feet. On recent visits to Oregon, I’ve witnessed a blatant drug handoff – a diaper bag! – on a commuter train, watched as three skinny speed freaks bartered the items they’d boosted that day at several stores in downtown Portland, listened (also on a commuter train) as a father explained to his small son that Eddie doesn’t steal drugs because Eddie doesn’t steal, and fended off a street vendor who insisted that I must buy a soapstone hash pipe. My life is not exactly sheltered – I’ve lived in Southern California for 18 years, ride buses and commuter trains there, and spend time in all kinds of neighborhoods – but only in Oregon, where I was born at Portland’s Emmanuel Hospital and lived until I was of legal age to flee, have I observed that particular variety of flagrant crime combined with what I’ll call drug-induced debasement at such close quarters. I want to love Oregon the way other people love it. But I don’t. I think it is corrupt, ruined to squalor by drugs and alcoholic despair.
Beauty doesn’t help. Last night I watched the ships passing outside the window from Bill and Jack’s guest room after the obligatory drive up the coast, one of the most spectacular landscapes in the world. Enormous baskets of flowers hang from houses and street stanchions, it’s cool and green, people make beautiful gardens and objects and exquisite lives for themselves, lives free of drugs and squalor. I know this. It doesn’t help.
A small boy, a grade-schooler, is missing. His stepmother saw him last, when she dropped him at his school on Portland’s northwest side. Everyone thinks she did it. He’s been missing since June, two months. On our way home today through Portland’s ungentrified immigrant neighborhoods, my mother and I saw a billboard, an appeal for witnesses, written in Cyrillic. The police swear they will not give up until they find him, but there is an air of diffused and mysterious creepiness about the whole thing; certainly it is at least a strange coincidence that during the height of the search, last month, the Portland newspaper ran a two-day feature on the 1962 murder of my young cousin, herself a grade-schooler, who was kidnapped on her way to the store, violated, and strangled. My uncle—strictly speaking her stepfather or adoptive father—did not discuss with the reporter his own torment, where he was for a time treated as a suspect by the police, who subsequently let the case go as cold as the ditch where the killer left poor Mona’s body all those long decades ago.
On my way north a couple of days ago I detoured to the Bay Area to pick up a former student, and dropped her in Portland so that her father could take her on to Seattle. Sara taught for a time in Ukraine and Romania, but couldn’t reconcile what she was doing with her ideals: either she’s making up some deficit, teaching students at a for-profit school what they should have learned in their public schools, or she’s coddling the children of the elite who can’t adjust behaviorally to normal institutions and will never be required to learn anything, or to bribe anyone directly, themselves. She’ll teach next year at a Montessori in the Haight where, I warn her, she will encounter every dietary restriction known to humanity. We can laugh together at its pretensions, gently, because she loves the Pacific Northwest, and while we waited for her dad to arrive her spell held: Portland managed to pass as a friendly and charming place. People really do admire this region, and it is fabulous here in so many ways. I grew up with lawns for croquet and badminton, with piles of strawberries and wild blackberries and home-canned vegetables, with camping trips and football games on crisp fall afternoons. The hydrangeas are intensely blue this summer, the reservoirs are full. Portland has free concerts at the zoo and recycling demonstrations and organized bicycle rides across the bridges. Sara and I drank nice coffee and masked our campground odor with perfume samples at Nordstrom, but then she set off for the north and I called my mother and said I was on my way. During the drive east, to the base of Mt. Hood where she has lived since my father died, I looked around and thought, this is lovely, but something is closing in, this is not for me.
After all these years, we’re authorized to discuss Mona, thanks to this newspaper story. It seems to create some distance for many of us, to authorize some disclosure. A great-aunt finally talks about a cross burned in front of their house, some time in the thirties, in Missouri. They were Catholics and immigrants, and the local Klan made do with whatever despised minorities it had on hand. All four of my maternal great-grandparents also lived for a time in Western Nebraska, where the Klan had an active local chapter, and then half the family moved to Oregon, where antique covenants in neighborhoods like my mother’s ban anyone “not of the Aryan race” from buying property. The phrase is in her deed. Mona’s biological father was from what my grandmother calls “a real poor drinking family,” and there were always hints that he, or someone, brought about Mona’s death, that it was revenge or just a kind of impunity. I’m laying all these facts, all these stories out, like the endless games of solitaire my mother plays to fill wet afternoons, to try to make sense of the contradictions of this place, with its vaunted progressivism and its racist reality, but also of my family’s paranoia, our lack of trust in anything like providence.
On my run this evening an unshaven man in a two-tone maroon Bonneville turned around behind me. He’d probably just forgotten something at the Brightwood store or decided to drink another round at the tavern, but all I saw was a lowlife in a dirtbag vehicle, and for the rest of my run I raced from one inhabited-looking house to another along the rural route. Slow down, I scolded myself, relax. Is that really the choice here, the Subaru-wagon-kids-in-soccer thing, or the trendy-neighborhood-bicycle thing, or you’re down in the ditch with the broken Black Velvet bottles?
Last count I had about 200 relatives in Oregon, so it’s logical that they run that gamut. Some are in law enforcement and probation, some are in medical fields where they encounter drug abusers and other casualties, some are themselves drunks and druggies, in jail or on probation, some are doing okay and some not. One cousin is awaiting a bone marrow transplant in a hospital at the top of a hill overlooking downtown Portland, an aerie so remote and rarefied, separated by a security guard and a locked door from all contamination. He works as a horticulturalist for a small city to the south; in his hospital room he keeps photographs of trees and pocket parks he tended through the winter, before he became ill, that are now in full bloom and documented by his co-workers.
At home, among my family and despite my different last name, I am a Lane, a member of a clan touched by a bizarre and scandalous unsolved crime, not quite a “real poor drinking family,” but still a certain strata, more Tanya-Harding-country than organic-urban. Away from there, abroad, for example, I become a privileged outsider, safe from corruption, which nonetheless exists in all the places I visit. Entire states in Mexico are dominated by scandal and brutal crime. Kenya exploded in violence soon after I left, its population outraged by years of patronage and systemic inequality. My Ukrainian and Russian friends say corruption may destroy their countries. Most worrisome to them: the slow concurrent ruin of all civil systems. Schools buy accreditation, students buy grades and diplomas and recommendations. Everyone – police, doctors, teachers – is paid a pittance, if at all, and makes up the difference through off-the-books work or bribes. This summer, in the beautiful Hapsburg city of Lviv, I lived a block away from the police station and saw handcuffed men with swollen faces marched to and from waiting vehicles every morning; not all of them could have been in bar fights. One expat I talked to refuses to see any doctor who graduated after the Soviet system fell apart; a friend’s sister points with pride to her B average – only students who pay get 5s, the equivalent of an A. We have the gentleman’s C; Ukraine has the intellectual’s B. If grades and diplomas, licenses and laws, mean nothing, another friend speculates, perhaps the nation will begin to rely on people who can demonstrate competence in concrete fashion; perhaps the epidemic of corruption will leave the sufferers shaky, but with a stronger immune system, with a new kind of trust in each other and themselves, with entrepreneurial confidence. This is hard to communicate, to describe, hard to make interesting. My sister-in-law would rather talk about how, during the height of the oil spill, in response to news that human hair worked best for soaking up the contamination, people donated such a mass of cropped locks that they filled the warehouses and cleanup organizers couldn’t accept any more. She is kind of notorious for this: dubious or beside-the-point information that characterizes people as noble and competent, as a nation of recycling, lawn-mowing, library-volunteering Portlanders. Her only comment on the story about Mona: my aunt is quoted directly, saying that her parents paid for the funeral; my grandmother always said that we did. Good thing Nanny has dementia, my sister-in-law says, she’d go nuts if she read that.
My cousin who needs the bone marrow transplant operated a nursery and flower store for most of his life, and only got health insurance a year and a half ago, when he took the city job. He sees the hand of God in the timing of his catastrophic illness. This cousin is a decent, sweet man, but my own decent, sweet father died of cancer, as he knows, and I have to bite back the retort about God apparently being asleep when he needed such providential care. “My body represents perfection,” Louise Hay asks her followers to affirm. “I am vibrantly healthy.”
There are kinds and degrees of corruption, habits of mind and politicians on the take. At least I get a salary, at least my students do not need to pay or bribe me to write letters of recommendation for them or schedule their exams. On our late-night drive from Oakland, Sara wants to talk about this, asks for minute descriptions of the kind of letter I write for an exceptional person, for a moderately promising person, for a problematic person who may nonetheless deserve a chance. It isn’t just my own decision; it’s a kind of systemic agreement that letters for grad school, for jobs, for internships, are part of my duties, and not a favor I confer only on privileged or generous protégés. We both know that is not the case everywhere, and agree that people take it for granted here. When I made a decision several years ago to exclude an unreliable student from a study-abroad trip, his father tried hard to make me change my mind, including money and threats, and I had enough money and security of my own to resist. The form of corruption that troubles me in Oregon is subtler, too subtle to describe to my student, who comes from an entirely different background. It’s a sense that there are two versions of this place, one where personal degeneracy is acceptable, and one where it is not even visible. Money and class create the separation, but there’s something else going on, something I can’t locate; in any case, by birth I belong to a family that knew it was on the wrong side of the divide when Mona died, or maybe earlier, when the Klan came calling.
When I leave Oregon and drive south, when I can kiss Shasta’s sunset peak, sometimes the relief is almost physical. It’s not rational at all, but in Oregon, I’ve come to realize, I’m afraid all the time, of the drug people who live along my mother’s road, of the dope-growers and child-tormenters and chronic alcoholics who inhabit this beautiful green-smothered base of Mt. Hood, along the Salmon River. I’m afraid they, and poor dead Mona, and the poor little kidnapped boy who is certainly dead by now despite all the prayers for his safe return, represent the truth, or, in the words of my new tribe, that they at least represent a truth.
Perhaps there is another truth, even if it’s not for me, however long I study the photograph of the detective who re-opened Mona’s case, who, without any DNA evidence or even a living suspect, with nothing but a box of muddy clothing and old interview transcripts and investigative notes, finally packed everything up and traveled several hours on winding roads to the tiny town in Eastern Oregon where my aunt and uncle hid from their own notoriety forty years ago. He told them that he is sure who did the murder, a former neighbor known for “bothering” little girls. My uncle was sure a long time ago and went to the creep’s house with a gun one night, but came to his senses and let fate take its course, which it did: the killer (everyone says he’s the killer; the case is officially closed) died in a car crash soon after my uncle decided not to shoot him.
The detective has young daughters, which seems like a stupid thing for a newspaper to report to the hostile world. He is a big bear of a man, his scalp scraped clean and shiny. He looks tough, incorruptible. In Mexico, a cop like him would probably end up compromised or dead, but here he can do his job, or so I hope. I hope, too, that he has a safe vehicle for these country roads, where deer jump out unpredictably. This is a selfish hope. My brother, the one with the genteel wife, spent several years working for Multnomah County’s mental health system and explaining, as he put it, to desperate people why no one would help them. Safety for one family means leaving a lot of others behind, like the neighbor’s grandchildren, like the multitude of uninsured or just plain sick people who suffer mightily with no respite, who die every day before anyone is ready to say goodbye, but I can’t help it, I hope to God everything turns out, that my cousin’s bone marrow transplant saves his life, that the detective’s daughters, and my young nephews, and the children and grandchildren of my multitude of cousins, encounter nothing to kill or harm or even affront them, that when they grow up they may stay in this beautiful place without invisible hands clutching at them, that the voices that insist I look around for the very worst that exists are silent for them. Degenerate and blasphemer that I am, I hope that, in the words of Louise Hay, loved and trusted by millions, who wants only the best for absolutely everyone, they may create a life they love to look at.
So I’m working, really working, on a better perspective, but can’t shake the feeling that maybe that this project is itself a form of corruption. The news stories I Google up about the hair booms, for example, have all kinds of people, salons and schools, 4-H clubs and pet groomers, mailing their clippings and discarded nylon stockings to the Gulf during the month of May; it seems half the small-town papers in the country ran uplifting little news items. BP said no thanks, so the charity that organized the hairlift offered to supply cleanup materials to municipalities and conservation organizations and has posted the photos to prove it. Still, everything about it feels kind of photo-oppish, wasteful and greenwashed. BP will send its criminally negligent CEO to Russia, where, a human rights group announced this week, corruption accounts for half of the nation’s GDP. Half! Perhaps they deserve each other. The narcos have massacred dozens more people on a ranch in northern Mexico, and the newspapers speculate it’s because the victims refused to mule drugs across the border. There’s a plume of contamination half a mile under the surface of the Gulf and the neighbors are over again, pouring glasses of wine for my mother, who finally lets me dump the last one down the sink.
It’s hard, she says. The winter nights are so long here. It’s August, Mom, I say. But I know what she means. Who gave you this book, I ask, and she says it’s not from the neighbor, it’s from a different friend, one who is of course taking care of grandchildren, and also supporting – why does this not surprise me? – a mentally disabled daughter and a ne’er-do-well son-in-law. When my mother was feeling unusually depressed last winter, this friend sent her a “blue” package, full of little gifts in that shade. The Louise Hay book is a colorful, vivid robin’s-egg and cobalt. Did you lock your car, my mother asks, and gestures toward the acres of fir, hemlock, larch and pine that begin just a few feet outside her door. You never know around here. They should take that stepmother into a little room, she says, picking up the morning newspaper with its inevitable story about the missing boy, they should arrest her and beat it out of her, what she did with that kid.