CSULA Department of English | Statement 2004

They Say the Angle of Obliquity is Lessening

Barri Clark

       Quilts are in the news.  The AIDS Quilt has traveled from Maine to Mexico and there’s a large exhibit of American Quilts at a local museum.  Besides keeping the body warm, quilts make nice decorative wall hangings.  Quilts are used to tell histories. 

They’re good for journeys and protection.

     I have a jacket made of various shapes sewn together.  It is reversible and has pockets on both sides and an entrance on the back through which it can be folded thus converting into a large, bulky shoulder bag.

     In my job I’m constantly being interrupted, either by someone walking in, the telephone or by a sudden call to a meeting.   No sooner do I start to get into something than I have to redirect my mind to something else.  Now they want me to carry a cell phone.  Everybody’s on call but what we need are more than patches of peace.

     I took my ninety-three year old mother to her Las Artistas Luncheon and Quilting Demonstration.  The demonstrator passed around a box of chocolates.  We were each to take one, examine it and tell what attracted us to the one selected.  She said we could eat them later.  It’s very hard to stay on the surface with chocolate.  I know what I like and don’t like.  I like dark chocolate and marzipan: I don’t like caramel.  But both are rectangular and unless I can decipher the swirly hieroglyph on top there’s a good chance I’ll get caramel.

     I’ve never mastered the skill.  But to be honest, I never thought it important.  Now I’m beginning to wonder.  In the world I knew, pieces fit together.  It never worried me.  But apparently there’s another world where the stitches come apart all the time.

     So one evening while repairing the seams of my quilt jacket, I thought I’d sail the See’s and try to crack the chocolate code.  I had a box on the coffee table beside my sewing things, the inside of the lid like a map available for easy reference.  You know, the cipher key.  For company and additional mental stimulation I had clicked on the television.  A series of Public Television programs paraded by.  There was one on Emmett Till and another about Bayard Rustin.

     I was ten when Emmett Till, a Chicago boy was brutally murdered for whistling at a white woman in Money, Mississippi.

               Mississippi is an Algonquian word

               Akin to Ojibwa

               It means big river.

     Emmett Till’s mother was stalwart.  Although his face was beaten unrecognizable, she identified the body by his father’s ring.  This gave the defense an idea.  They would claim it was all a charade, proposing that the NAACP found an imposter body and placed the ring on his finger.  Emmett Till’s father, a soldier who died overseas during World War II gave his life for his country.  All that came back from Europe was the ring.

     My father was in the army but he never wore a ring.  He didn’t give his life for his country.

            The name Chicago comes from a Native American word

            Meaning place of skunk smells or powerful.

     Are you noticing the naming?  I’ll bet the only truly American name is Azusa, which stands for A to Z in the USA.  Including Alaska from the Aleut, A-la-as-ka meaning “the great country” and Hawaii, from Hawaeki meaning “homeland” the so-called United States of America is like a great quilted tapestry.  Come to think of it, that applies to the earth entirely, bodies of water and landmasses in between.

     Emmett Till’s mother insisted on an open casket so everyone would see what the white men had done to her son.

     I was re-stitching the seams of my quilted cotton jacket, reconnecting the blue to the purple.  On the other side I had stitched the rose to the green.  It’s reversible or did I already say that?  The jacket has two hip pockets and two breast pockets on each side.  The breast pockets are rectangular.  Each hip pocket is made of three partially overlapping panels.  There are many stitches and many threads and over time many had broken.

     J. Edgar Hoover had a fat dossier on Bayard Rustin.  The FBI had even recorded his beautiful singing voice.  He was black, he was handsome, he was articulate.  He was a Quaker, had been a Communist.  He was gay.  Two of his long time lovers spoke about him – how they met.  Bayard Rustin was one of the organizers of the Civil Rights Movement.

     We’ve been having demonstrations again, just like during the Civil Right Movement and the Vietnamese War.  Apparently the Vietnamese say “The American War” whether in English, Vietnamese or French I don’t know.  But it’s not reversible.  What I mean is, for us it was over there.  For them it was right here.  When you look from the other side of the mirror the image is not just reversed: like passing through The Looking Glass it is transformed into a world of absences and negatives, fields of red and brown where spaces of green once were.

     As I mentioned, the back of this jacket bears a panel, which makes one large pocket into which the jacket can be folded satchel-like.  What is the value?  I mean, if the weather is hot, if you’re marching, you can tie the jacket around your waist by the sleeves.  If you are climbing a mountain you can fold it up and hook it over your shoulder. But it might dangle dangerously.  On second thought if you were to fall and you fell on it, you might be saved.  No.  I still think it’s of no benefit, until proven otherwise of course.

     It was Kalahala’s birthday.  She lived in Santa Monica: no ocean view: inland on Twenty Sixth Street.

     Around 8:00 p.m. the sky was still light with rose but was swiftly purpling and we were walking east.  There was one star.  We had eaten at Remi’s Restaurant on the Third Street Promenade.  It’s no longer there: don’t look for it.  We were walking back to her place along Broadway, which was a somewhat industrial street, mostly offices, no night – life to speak of.  It was a Sunday.

     We were walking without obliquity.

     We once walked from Hollywood to the ocean and back, about 22 miles.  It took nine hours.  The idea was to see if we could walk the marathon or survive an evacuation.  We stopped for a hamburger at Zucky’s.  It’s no longer there, either, but the graffiti-laden boarded windows are.

     Obliquity.  I got the word from Mark Twain.  It means a deviation from moral rectitude or sound thinking, an obscure or confusing statement.  There’s a lot of obliquity around these days.  It also refers to the angle between the planes of the earth’s equator and orbit around the sun having a mean value of approximately 23 degrees.  Actually that was back in 1972.  Apparently this angle has been diminishing.  I wonder if that’s something to be concerned about.

     I like to travel light, no back or fanny pack, no purse, nothing visible, just my little brown leather coin purse for carrying things.  It can hold my i.d., a credit card and some quarters.  I also often carry a small book, in case I get caught in a line somewhere or a double helix.

     Did you know that the total DNA in your body could stretch from here to the moon three thousand times?  I heard it on PBS so it must be true.  Also, did you know that DNA has proven through markers on the Y chromosome in the male that the diaspora of the human race began with the Lisongo Bushman of Namibia about 50,000 years ago?  Also PBS.  And did you know that through the mitochondria of the female, we’re all related?  Some of you did know.  Knowledge changes things.

     Kala and I were just crossing an alley around 17th street when a car suddenly stopped and two guys jumped out and started running at us.  They came right up to us and paired off as if to tango but instead “Gimme your purse” was the dance they did.

     “I’ve got a gun,” one said, pointing his left coat pocket at me.

     I was wearing the aforementioned jacket and started patting my hips with both hands to find the aforementioned little brown leather coin purse.  I could feel it under my right hand but when I went into my three-paneled pocket I soon realized it must be on the reverse side as I couldn’t actually grasp it.

     “Come on bitch, gimme your purse.”

     His right hand was held palm upward, fingers curling at me.  Peripherally, I saw Kala slide the shoulder strap of her bag over her head, but I was staring at the gun.  Instead of a round rim, I distinctly saw a tiny pointed impression.  I queried him.

     “You say you have a gun?”

     He didn’t answer, but asked with alarm,

     “You have a gun?”

     I was trying to be patient.  But even as I spoke I questioned my own perversity.  Did I really care?  I was simply making conversation while trying to comply with his request.  Almost absent-mindedly I replied, “No.  You have the gun.”

     It was a matter of concavity.  There was none.  Even a bottle cap from a liquid paper jar would have made a better barrel impression.  It was becoming obvious that I was staring at a finger.  I also became aware that my bladder sphincter had opened and warm liquid was coursing down my leg.

     Kala’s guy with her purse in hand tuned in and being a keen judge of obliquity and master of  decision-making, held up his trophy.  We got one.

     “Let’s go.”

     They ran back to the car.

     After a minute of stunned and somewhat soaking silence, we continued walking.  No, we didn’t get the license number or even a good description of the car.  It could have been a gold Chevy circa 1972, who knows.  In two days, Kala got her purse back from a security guard who found it in a dumpster.  Only the cash was missing.  That I hadn’t relinquished my small fortune of quarters I had only my complicated quilted jacket with the multiple pockets, reversible, to thank and while it always reminds me of that confusing experience and how I so unexpectedly peed in my pants, I also recall how it’s layers and yes, it’s own intrinsic confusion served a purpose beyond imagining.

     Once I found a cell phone lying on the pavement by the curb.  It must have fallen out of a car.  Set on vibrate, it went off in my pocket.  The owner was calling.

     “Hello.  Do you have my phone?”

     “Hello.  Yes, I do.”

     It’s all a swirly hieroglyph to me.

     Two thousand generations ago ten or twenty people walked out of Africa.  No map, no cell phone.  And they say the angle of obliquity is lessening.