Let them eat Blake's: An excerpt from Behind the Slickrock Curtain
A couple hours later, the ragged silhouette of Tsé Bit’a’í, or Shiprock, rose up ahead of Brautigan, obscured by the brown-yellow gauze of smog and dust and wildfire smoke. He turned eastward toward Farmington and followed the San Juan River through the borderland, where the northeastern edge of the Navajo Nation melds with the non-Indian world in an economic and cultural mishmash. Brautigan passed by a little stand selling tamales and kneel down bread; a one-stop-exploitation-economy strip mall with an OmnyEZLoan joint, a pawn shop, and a liquor store; a sprawling automobile graveyard; a slaughterhouse selling mutton; a barn with a big sign peddling chickens and Avon products; and a bright pink SEX SUPERSTORE shadowed by a huge billboard warning the superstore patrons: JESUS IS WATCHING YOU.
PAPERBACK COMING SOON TO AN INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORE NEAR YOU!
And in the spaces between were junk stores, big and small, from the sprawling salvage yard where Brautigan had once coveted a commercial airliner fuselage, to Hal Fox’s tiny hovel, located just feet from the highway, piled floor to ceiling with hoarded treasures. Malcolm and Peter used to come down here on the weekends to go shopping, Peter for objects to use in his artworks, Malcolm for old bikes that he could fix up and sell at a whopping profit to Durango yuppies. The ritual usually concluded with a visit to Mister Fox, a small, weathered, energetic, overall-wearing man of indeterminate age who specialized in bicycle parts. Invariably Malcolm would try to lowball Mister Fox on a wheel, a sprocket, or a pair of handlebars, and Mister Fox would respond with an indignant tirade: “Golly blarmit! I was on an aircraft carrier in World War Two! If it weren’t for me, you’d all be speaking Deutsch! And you want to give me five dollars for that thing!?” Fox would then threaten to shoot the two young men if they didn’t get off his property, pronto. Despite the hostility, the encounter always ended genially, more or less, with Malcolm giving Mister Fox his asking price and then some.
As he approached Mister Fox’s place, Brautigan slowed down. He needed to stretch his legs, and he had long hankered for an old typewriter. Fox was surely dead, but maybe one of his heirs had kept the family business going, and had an old Olivetti lying under a pile of Cabbage Patch Kids, View Masters, and Walkmen. Brautigan pulled the car onto the side of the road beside a row of old oil barrels and a couch and tentatively walked toward the shop. A man sat in a tattered La-Z Boy just outside the front door, taking sips out of a large, plastic cup. He looked remarkably like Mister Fox, was even wearing what looked like the same pair of overalls, only now the grooves cut into his tan face were deeper, the age spots bigger, and his once lean-frame had seemingly shrunk.
“Uh, hi,” Brautigan said. “I, ummm, was wondering if you had any old typewriters?”
The man peered intently back, as if measuring Brautigan’s worthiness to own an old typewriter. “What the hell you want an old typewriter for? Is that what the hipsters up in Durango are buying these days?”
“No, I just thought, maybe … Hey, I used to come in here a lot to buy bike parts. From Mister Fox. Are, ummm, are you his son?”
“Son? Son!? I am Mister Hal Fox, and I ain’t got no sons.”
“Oh. Jeez. I’m sorry. It’s just that when we used to come here, you said you were in World War Two, and so, you know, that was like eighty years ago or something? And so…”
“And so what?! Spit it out.”
Poster on the wall of the Ojo Encino Chapter House. Chapters are the most local political subdivision of the Navajo Nation, and they have taken a leading role in the fight against oil and gas drilling.
“Uhhh, nothing. I’ll just go in and look around, if that’s okay?”
Brautigan walked tentatively into the little structure, which was less antique store than a museum of obsolescence and entropy. In one corner several reel-to-reel tape machines leaned against a wall, collecting dust. An oil barrel was filled with old film cameras: Nikons, Canons, Pentax, and a bunch of Kodak Hawkeye Instamatic R4s — the same model as Brautigan’s very first camera, a seventh birthday gift from his grandmother, that produced washed out four-by-four inch photos.
“I had a real nice typewriter in here,” said Mister Fox, who somehow had managed to extract himself from the recliner and position himself directly behind Brautigan. The old man exuded a sour odor. “A Hermes 3000. A sixty four. I got it new for my eighteenth birthday.”
“A sixty four? Like 1964?”
“But wait. If you were eighteen…?”
“How could I have been on an aircraft carrier in the Second World War? I wasn’t, you little dumbshit. How old do you think I am?” His guffaw turned into a juicy cough. He chased the phlegm down with whatever was in the plastic cup. “Hell, I remember you, and your buddy, the tall, quiet one. I told you that story because if I told you I was in ‘Nam you’d just give me the finger and spit on me.”
“You were in Vietnam?”
“No. What makes you think that?”
“You just said,” Brautigan blurted, his frustration building. “Wait. So that whole World War Two thing was made up? Just to make us pay more for bike parts?”
“Not entirely made up. My pop was in the war. On an aircraft carrier, even. But he was a conscientious objector so they made him be a barber. After the war he opened his own barber shop in Tulsa, where I was born. But then my momma died, and my pop signed on to help build the El Paso gas pipeline and moved us out here and stayed on working as a foreman on the rigs. It’s been one hell of a ride.”
Another round of very moist coughs erupted from the old man’s chest and throat. Brautigan held his breath and sidled as far away as the tight quarters would allow, feigning interest in the contents of a box on top of another stack of boxes. The boxes were coated with thick, greasy dust. Absentmindedly, Brautigan opened the one on top. It was filled with little white objects that, in the dim light, looked like irregularly shaped pearls, or perhaps deformed marbles or even sugar candies of some sort. He picked one up, held it up to the light. “Oh Jesus!” Brautigan said, tossing it to the ground. “What the hell?! Are those human teeth?”
“Ha. Damned right they are. All those boxes. The ones that say AEC? They’re all full of teeth. Baby teeth.”
Brautigan wanted to get away from the teeth, and this place, and Mister Fox and his tuberculosis and creepy dental fetish, but Fox stood in the only pathway between Brautigan and the front door, and there was no back door.
“Yup, those are the fruits of my labor. My first ever job, that is. When I was eighteen they moved the Atomic Energy Commission offices out of what is now the hospital, and they hired me and my buddy Norm to clean out all the crap that had piled up there, those boxes of teeth included. I used the proceeds to buy that typewriter for my own birthday.”
Brautigan relaxed. A little. “So, was the atomic energy guy some sort of freak or pervert or what?”
“I’m sure he was. But that’s not why he had the teeth. See, back in the late fifties and early sixties the AEC went around to the schools around here and collected the kids’ baby teeth — after they’d fallen out, of course — and gave them a little sticker in return. They were supposed to test the teeth to see if they had been affected by the uranium in the water, or by the nuclear testing over in Nevada.”
“Uranium in the water?”
“Sure. Everyone in Farmington and Aztec and Shiprock got their drinking water out of the Animas River, and all during the war and for years afterward the uranium mill up in Durango was dumping tailings into the river. They were watering their crops with that stuff, their cows were drinking it. Hell, our whole food supply was radioactive. Anyway, in fifty-eight the public health folks caught wind of it and decided to do a bunch of tests. Teeth remember these things.”
“Sure, uranium’s daughters —radium, polonium, thorium. They seek out the bones and teeth and get stuck in there, zapping the blood and marrow and flesh with radiation.”
“Oddly enough, they didn’t bother doing the same tests for all the Navajos that lived further downstream, or the ones working in the mines.”
“And a couple of years later they came out with the results of the study. Made a big hoedown out of it, in fact. Said the studies definitively showed that the uranium tailings had done no harm, whatsoever.”
“That’s good. Right?”
“Good? What the hell is wrong with you? Look in the boxes. Obviously they never tested the teeth. They just collected them and threw them in boxes and hid them in a closet in the office. It was all a sham. A coverup! And who paid the price? We all did, Goddamnit. I knew that as soon as I found the teeth, even though I was a dumbass kid.”
“You reported it to someone, didn’t you?”
“Who was I supposed to tell? The government? A lotta good that woulda done. Look, I was saving up to go to college and get a chemistry degree so I could get a good government job. There’s no damned way I was gonna throw it all away. No one woulda believed me anyway.”
“But what about the truth?”
“Truth? Truth? You’re gonna lecture me about truth? What does that even mean? If I woulda exposed this stuff today, it would be fine. The president would just dismiss it as fake news and everyone would go along with it. But back then I’d be put on a blacklist — or worse — for trying to undermine national security. So, no, I didn’t tell anyone. But I held onto the Geiger counter I found in the office. And the teeth …”
“… because you never know who might want to buy them, right?”
“Laugh all you want, kid, but I sold a box of ‘em a few weeks ago. Same folks bought the Hermes and the Geiger counter. Five hundred clams I made on that sale. You wanna box of teeth?”
“No thanks. I got all I need. Well, it looks like you don’t have any more typewriters, and I need an eight-track tape deck like I need a box of radioactive teeth, so I’d better be heading down the road.”
Mister Fox stepped aside and Brautigan shimmied past him and walked out the door. As he was climbing into the car, he turned back to see Hal Fox looking at him in the same way that he would two decades prior when Brautigan offered him five bucks for a pair of handlebars. “Hey, Mister Fox. Do you mind me asking what kind of person buys a box of baby teeth?”
Fox looked back at him, his eyes glassy and bloodshot and yellow: “I couldn’t tell you what kind of people they were, but I can tell you that it was a really pretty lady. Didn’t catch her name, but the guy with him was Peter. Peter Simons.”
Brautigan sat down on the blazing hot seat, slammed the door shut, cranked the ignition, and sped out onto the busy highway, all the while thinking about his friends Peter and Eliza, and the peculiar proclivities that they had developed over the years.