The Hummingwhale

Jennifer A. Connor, Writer

Category: Stories

Heart of America

All artwork on loan from the Virginia Virtual Museum of Folk Art

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detail, The Heart of America

Like Ahab, but no longer after a whale, not a scientist either: I was a human on the hunt for the heart of America.  I began in Washington.  Oh, I see you rolling your eyes, what naiveté- put it aside.  Go along with me.  You can’t find a heart without being a lover, even a heart as dried up, as desiccated as you might suppose this one to be. Who is to say it might not have been in the Smithsonian, cleverly disguised as a furnished room from the Colonial era, chairs that turn you out onto the floor, portraits and busts that eye you severely, a lamp that either bathes you in a syrup of golden light or grains each pore with shadow.  The halls and hallways of the Smithsonian as chambers and ventricles usher me in and though I make myself small I do not find the last and tiniest chamber of them all, complete with early American doll furniture.

So I became a rat and ran the sewers until I reached the shield, the coat of arms, the breast plate of Washington, the most defended and secret cell of all.  I wormed my way from the Smithsonian down through dark pipes and flushed secrets of prominent politicians until I emerged in a den of mystery: the Pentagon.

Quel disappointment.  All men and men-like people and all suits, all ties, all desks and desk jobs.  I go after the passion, the deep aaaah of inamorados, and find no lair but that of beurocrats engineer details of death for export.  As a rat I was beloved in the Pentagon, stroked and fed endless remnants of chips and snack mixes and pretzels, and sometimes the tail end of a candy bar, taught to roll over and have my belly tickled.  I knew I had to leave before they hired me and so late one night by the blue light of data crunching its teeth on death I slunk out, one last cheese doodle under my scrawny arm, yellow dust on my whiskers.

Who is physician to America? The cardiologists and cartographers will have to get together and procreate themselves a love child, and that child will have the eyes of the hawk and the hearing of a dolphin or whale.

The brain, the brain: banks of Google computers? A vast fungal system in the Oregon rainforest?  Nervous system: cell phone towers.  Pancreas: Great Dismal Swamp, VA/NC.  Belly: Texas.  Eyes, seven, silver with green flecks, eyes of a behemoth: the Great Lakes, threatened by cataracts of algae.

Now on to commuter flights I went, sometimes as stewardess, sometimes as business commuter.  By a combination of triangulation and deduction I placed the center somewhere in the midwest.  I was on the scent and this wild heart beat everywhere.  If only, if only it were beneath the floorboards, I could find it, but it is under the floorboards of America.  I employed a pacemaker, a geiger counter, a dowsing rod and a pendulum and I walked in fits and starts up and down the central plains and crossed cul de sac and pasture. In fits and starts- I start, I am struck.  The beat is striking, beating, pulsing, pounding, it requires the gerund, the echo ever after.  Again and again I woke to find myself tangled in barbed wired, hooked into clothes and beard.  My clothes tattered and my skin bled, it weathered and cracked and my leather shoes curled.  One day I woke up by the rail yard, surrounded by broken glass, and I got on the first grain car that came through- back porch riding, Chicago-bound.  Boxcar Bertha is my name and under my many coats I wear a locket with only a question inside.  In the Chicago yards I change to a Dtown line. It has come to me, where I must go, sharpened in my mind like an etch-a-sketch in reverse.  The ghosts of hobos ride with me and tell me stories, sing songs to pass the time.  When I arrive I climb the fence and walk the roadside, confident of my direction.  At the factory the locks fall open, the doors swing wide; it is like the parting of the thorny woods upon the prince’s return to the castle to wake Sleeping Beauty from her glass casket- no, that part was Snow White.  I carry a key but I don’t have to use it.  I stride through the silent production floor and a cemetery of stillborn cars in hopes that at the center of the tomb I will find a still beating heart.

Unassuming, in a small wooden casket lined with bullets, set in the center of a metal desk, chair pulled back as though whoever was keeping vigil just left.  As I look upon it, the charges detonate, and the whole factory blows.

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The Heart of America, courtesy of Virginia Virtual Museum of Folk Art

Now I travel with the wind, over all of the land, and hear all of the sighs of every heart rise out of chimneys in a flock that darkens the sky.  People think it is weather.  All of the coos become feathers, and all of the tears turn to dust and blow in the air.  When the wind settles the dust sinks into the rivers and turn to tears again and I go with them.  I flow with the rivers, I trickle from spigots and fill kettles and baths and run down drains.  I go into cells and facilitate mitosis and I also go in and through the bedrock where it is so dark I become light.  I shine out of lamps, candles and the twinkle in your eye.  I go through the dark in order to re emerge as light yet again.

And everywhere I go, I hear it in the land.  Striking. Beating. Pounding.  It is not the ticking of machinery.  I hear it in the cement fortresses of Attica and Riker’s Island and Angola, especially strong and low.  Every day, bolts are slid to and fro, locks are latched and opened.  Every day, rust.  Every day, bullets.

A red herring.  A heart in a box.  A sleight of hand, a trick.  A tick that is not a tock. I become a rat again, I sleep in a hole in the earth.  Every night I am lulled to sleep by thrum of a beating heart.

This story is the first in a series of collaborations between the hummingwhale and the Virginia Virtual Museum of Folk Art.  The art and story may or may not agree in their meaning and content.  We leave that to their discretion.

Dead Deer Blues

Every Friday and Saturday I worked in the bike shop, which was really just a large garage/ storage area with a medieval rolling door that looked out on the tracks.  The lot behind the shop doubled as an industrial storage area, with a constantly changing assembly of culverts and jersey barriers that we used as seating for movie nights.  The neighbors, an auto-detail shop, also used the lot as a driveway, so periodically everyone had to move their bikes to let a freshly painted lime-green Lamborghini go through.  There was no bathroom and no running water and only one pathetic light suspended by a cord from the ceiling, which meant that most of the shop was in darkness, especially in contrast to the bright sun outside.  Bikes hung in rows that disappeared into the back of the shop, like bats in a cave.

Additionally, when it rained a lake formed on the roof of the adjacent building, and for weeks afterwards the water ran down the back wall and seeped across the floor, so that even in the drought heat of August our cement floor was mysteriously wet.

The floor was pretty grody anyway from the accumulation of grease and dirt and the building crumbling around us.  The space was donated to us for free by Coran Capshaw, manager of the Dave Mathews Band, who was using it as a tax write-off until he could parlay it into the condo boom which had never gone bust in our town.  His other shitty, thrown-up-in-a-week high-end condos loomed just a short walk down the tracks, on the other side of the train station.  The tracks were active, coal trains coming through from West Virginia, maybe livestock too since there were cars with vents, and boxcars too.  Sometimes the drivers pulled the whistle for us, and on movie nights we had to pause the movie when the night trains went by, except for the one night when we were watching Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and in perfect synchronicity a freight train passed right as Pee Wee was riding the rails, projected on the garage door.

Since we had no plumbing we all had to sneak in to the hotel next door to use the bathroom, both adult mechanics and kids too who liked to lift a few apples and granola bars from the breakfast buffet.  We had one big jug of water to drink, a la Saturday morning soccer, and at the end of the day we cleaned up with orange mechanic’s soap and grimy rags.  The truly filthy rags that practically slithered out of your fingers we threw away; the rest we reused, like everything else.  On Fridays in the summer I closed up and then practically bathed in orange soap: arms, legs, neck, face, so that I could go to the best wine tasting in town at the crowded underground Wine Cellar.  I sipped wine with dirty nails and orange fumes rising all around me.

The hottest days of summer were amazing.  The sun rode the sky over the tracks all day, trained on the lot every minute.  Inside the bike cave the grease atomized into a fine hot mist that coated my skin.  One time I was late to open and a kid waiting in the lot passed out.  But as hot as it got, people always showed up, to fix bikes, work on bikes, talk bikes.  We filled up all of our stands and spilled out into the lot.

On the truly unbearable days I biked straight home to the rain barrel at the back of the house, my closest source of water for full immersion.  I could practically hear a sizzle as I climbed in, fully clothed.  Bliss.  I could sit in the blue plastic barrel, arms resting on the rim, and look out at the yard: the vegetable garden off to my left with too many morning glory vines bowing down the fence; the sinuous trunks and limbs of the peach trees all around.  At the edge of the yard forest took over and dropped away to the river, too low to swim in this time of year and too dirty the rest of the time.  Sewer vents lined this particular section of the river and released noxious gases all along the banks.  Just before the edge of forest was an encampment which had sprung up overnight where my ex-girlfriend had pitched her tent after she lost her apartment.  Somehow, within days, surrounding her tent she had gardens, fairy circles, and daily group therapy sessions with my housemates, all of them in lawn chairs checking in for the day before it got too hot and we all had to go lie on the tile floor inside just to survive.

Once, as a house activity, we released our goldfish into the rain barrel, just before Easter.  It seemed, somehow, ecological.  Then, on Easter weekend, heavy rains overflowed the barrel and our little fish was lost forever in the peach orchard.  That year I cooked Easter dinner for friends and served it on the long table in the main room, almost all windows that overlooked the orchard.  That Easter, also, my roommates butchered a deer in the yard, a roadkill deer that traveling primitivists found on their way up from North Carolina.  Throughout dinner blood-spattered and rain-soaked guests stepped inside the house periodically and huddled by the door to dry off, casting envious gazes at our vegetarian dinner.  The carcass hung on a beam that was just out of sight from where we ate.  Somehow it didn’t occur to them that leaving buckets of deer blood out in the heavy rain was a problem, so over the next day the rain barrel rivers were joined by rivers of blood that meandered down through the peach trees.  Someone took the deer head and mounted it over the path to the river to scare off surveyors.  Those were the years in which steeply wooded hillsides suddenly became potential building sites.  Everything became a building site.  Those woods are gone now.  The peach trees are shielded only by a thin layer of bushes and brambles beyond which a barren precipice descends to a cul-de-sac of model homes.  Some of my good friends moved into those homes.  I used to forget that the rotting deer head was there, on my way to the river, but on the return, the approach to the house, its eye-holes, its tongue visible inside the slightly open mouth, its ragged neck would suddenly loom over my head and make my heart stop.

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