Remember that word--you're going to need it
Hans puts two plates down on the table and says, "Cosmos, you're in worse trouble than you thought. We've got to talk."
"Sure, Dad." As usual his father has saved the most serious conversation until dinner. Cosmos sits down at the oak kitchen table and pushes his hair back away from his face. Hans slides the salad bowl mounded with fresh greens toward Cosmos, then digs into a platter of Dungeness crab. He pressures a crab leg to split between his large thumb and forefinger and shakes jagged chunks of crabmeat onto his salad.
"They're talking Juvie," says Hans. "They're talking six months."
"What? Says who?"
"Says Noreen. You couldn't have a better PO, but she says the jig is up. The prosecutor wants to nail you good. Make an example. Noreen says the Commissioner is going to go along with it. Six months. Maybe longer."
"What's going on with this stupid system? It's not as if I stabbed somebody."
"Shut up," says Hans. "I know it's not fair. Never said it was. They say it's the accumulation thing. You know how many times you've been in trouble since you were fourteen? Would you believe thirteen? Thirteen. Want to count them?"
"Most of it was all that little shit. The cops were just bored. Rambo muthers."
"Shut up and listen," says Hans. "Commissioner Levy is calling it the 'hole syndrome.' He's talking a pattern of non-compliance. He's talking 'habitual offender.' Son, if we don't do something, you will go to Juvie."
Since the divorce three years ago, Cosmos and his father have been living in a small Victorian house, two city blocks from the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Little blank spots of silence are pretty common over dinner, and Cosmos enters one of those blank spots now. He stares at his plate. He stares at the large salad bowl his father shoves toward him. His father made that salad bowl. His father made almost everything wooden that Cosmos can see from the table. His father made the table.
The sharp sound of another splintering crab leg brings Cosmos to attention. "All right," he says. "I'm listening."
Hans takes a bite of what has become his crabmeat salad, chews and swallows, then puts his fork down. "I'm not going to have you locked up with a bunch of violent weirdos," says Hans. "No De Haag goes to jail."
Cosmos does not change his grim expression. "Thanks," he says.
"So here's what we do," Hans goes on. "We've filed a petition for a youth-at-risk hearing with Commissioner Levy on Friday. We're going to admit all the old stuff and, sure, your second-time graffiti offense in Seattle, and the little matter of the water gun you pointed at that psycho on the ferry. Yes! Yes! It's bad, you know. Don't deny it's bad. We plead guilty guilty guilty!"
"’Guilty guilty guilty’ doesn’t sound like my kind of song," says Cosmos.
Hans chomps hard on another mouthful of crab and lettuce. Cosmos can tell by the way his dad’s eyebrows are coming together in a wrinkle over his nose that he's getting madder and madder. And not at Cosmos.
"The cops are going nuts these days," says Hans. "When I was a kid on the farm in Iowa, we stole watermelons out of farmers' fields, tipped outhouses on Halloween, stuck corncobs in people's mufflers, hid behind trees and threw tomatoes at cars when we went into town on Saturday nights, drank sloe gin mixed in with our Cokes right in front of the cops, went tearing through farmers' fields at night with spotlights hunting jackrabbits, spray-painted our names on every rock and overpass in Iowa, drove eighty miles an hour down gravel roads. And that's just for starters. Jeez! When I think about it. And I never got a ticket for anything! Never got in trouble with the law. Not once!"
"Yeah, and today they'll cuff a kid for cutting across somebody's lawn at night. Spruce got cited for jump-starting his dad's car--had one foot out of the door trying to get the car to roll forward, and they ticketed him!
Can you believe it!?"
"I know, I know," says Hans. "Today everything's turned on its head. The country is trying to criminalize its youth! That's what's happening!" Hans guzzles his mineral water and slams it down on the table.
Cosmos loves to hear his dad go on one of his diatribes. "Amen," he says.
"Remember that word," says Hans. "You're going to need it."
"What word? Amen?"
"Amen. You see, I've got this idea for an alternative sentence for you. It's the only thing I can think of to get around this stupid system that would want to put you in Juvie."
"Amen," Cosmos says again. "You mean like community service? Amen! Last time I did community service it was for the women's shelter. That was cool. I learned a lot."
"No, I mean as in 'For Jesus' sake, amen.' "
"What do you mean, 'For Jesus' sake, amen'?"
Hans gets up and walks to the sliding glass doors that open from the kitchen onto a large wooden deck. Hans is a big guy, a good six foot three when he unslouches his shoulders. He has wild curly blond hair and a Santa Claus beard that's more red than blond. He's wearing what he usually wears: a red plaid shirt and baggy jeans, caulk boots, and a red kerchief around his forehead. His hands are huge and his long arms angle up to narrow shoulders. He's pear-shaped but strong as a forklift, and he's Port Swan's finest woodworker. Standing in front of the glass doors, he looks like a scruffy king with brilliantly red rhododendron bushes as his crown. Even with his lighter build and much smaller stature, Cosmos knows he still looks like a chip off the old block, right now a shriveled chip off the old block.
Hans turns back to Cosmos. "I'm going to propose to the Commissioner that you spend your senior year in high school living with your uncle and aunt on the farm in Iowa and going to the Dutch Center Christian Academy. You remember your uncle Henry and aunt Minnie from our summer visits, right? My big brother, you know. They're De Haags and they're in their fifties, no kids left in the house, nice people. Real nice."
Like a cartoon character who does not yet know he's just run over a cliff, Cosmos hovers for a few seconds, his face expressionless, then plunges. "What?!" he yells. "Are you nuts, Dad?"
"Think about it," says Hans quickly. "Nine months of wide-open spaces in Iowa would beat six months locked up with a bunch of bad-ass delinquents in Washington."
Cosmos holds out his palms toward his father's face and shakes them the way he might if someone were coming at him with a gun. "No no no, Dad, you're not thinking," he says. "You wouldn't send me to those religious freaks in Iowa! All they do is pray and eat!"
"And work and live a decent country life. That's the old De Haag country, Coz. It will put you in touch with your roots. Our roots."
All the rhododendrons outside the kitchen could turn to ash just then and not register on Cosmos's mind. He lifts up his arms and whacks them down on the table. "That's crazy! No way in hell!" He jumps up from the table and bolts out the door. He steps up on the bench on the edge of the deck and looks over the rhododendron bushes, past the neighboring houses, to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, where a large Japanese freighter eases through the water toward Seattle.
This is home. This is Port Swan. This is the place where people like his father fled to get away from uptight worlds like the one in Iowa where he grew up. The rebels, the seekers, the dropouts, all perched out here in their own world on a little finger of a peninsula hooked into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. That's what his father wanted. That's what he wants too, to be a chip off the old block.
Cosmos holds out his arms. "Dad!" he yells. "This is home! I'd rather be in jail here than free in some Bible-thumping cow barn in Iowa!"
Cosmos leaps off the deck and runs across the yard, past Hans's woodworking shop, down the sidewalk, and straight for Main Street, Port Swan. Hans does not try to stop him. After one block at top speed, Cosmos stops to whack the fender of a car that has driven in front of him at the intersection. "Hey, jerk, ever seen a crosswalk? Crosswalk?" he yells and points at the white crossing lines, then, seeing the car has a Minnesota license plate, gives the bald-headed driver and his wife the finger. The wife gasps. "Yeah!" Cosmos sneers at them, and continues at a full run down the long slope toward the business district and the waterfront.
It's a warm August day, and the downtown sidewalks are like a scurrying ant colony of visitors, everything from yuppie sailors in snow-white deck shoes to the nicey-nice families with their groomed kids to a whole assortment of the hiking-and-camping set who look like they just fell out of an Eddie Bauer catalogue.
"Pollution! Pollution!" Cosmos shouts as he works his way through the tourists. A few turn to look at him in his baggy clothes and shoes taped together with duct tape, his matted hair flapping against his face like a dishrag. Cosmos has no use for their stares right now. He knows where he's going: straight to the apartment of his girlfriend, Salal.
A few of his friends are on a street corner forcing tourists to take a little detour around their game of hacky-sack. Cosmos ignores them too and presses on toward the street-entrance stairway to Salal's apartment above Wendy's Wine Cellar.
"Hey, Coz!" comes a voice over the heads of two little kids with big ice-cream cones. It's his friends Rhody and Spruce--the other two members of his band, the OughtaBs. They're at their usual spot, hanging out on the bench in front of CC's Ice Cream. Spruce has dyed his hair orange. Rhody has on his crossbones T-shirt, and they both wear wrap-around sunglasses. They don't look like they're breaking any laws, but they are preserving their reputation as part of what the local merchants call "The Bad for Business kids."
Cosmos holds up his hands the way he did to his father: "Not now, not now," he says, and keeps going,
"Don't forget we're jamming Saturday night at eight," says Spruce.
Cosmos keeps pushing his way along, and finally up the stairs to his refuge, Salal. He smells incense as he approaches the door but doesn't smell any marijuana smoke. He raps gently, then whispers earnestly, "Salal, Salal, I've got to see you."
When she opens the door, Cosmos beholds the person who to him is the most beautiful woman on earth. She is six feet tall and weighs 105 pounds. When she moves, she moves like a graceful twig. To Cosmos, she is elegance, sheer and magical elegance. He loves it when she clicks her tongue stud against her teeth. He loves to watch her use her tongue stud to carve a little furrow through an ice-cream cone when she licks it.
"What's up?" she says in her dark, liquid voice. "I've got company."
Cosmos looks across the room toward the windows that face Main Street. Soft teardroppy music is playing, and on the couch sits a brick of a woman in jeans and a man's workshirt. It's Bridgette. Cosmos hardly knows her, and wouldn't want to.
"Sorry," he says, "but I've got to see you. They're going to send me to Juvie unless we do something."
"Look," says Salal, and as her face hardens she looks even more beautiful, "can't it wait?" She furrows her brow in a way that doesn't tell whether she's impatient with him or sympathetic.
"No," he pleads. "My dad wants me to go to Iowa instead of Juvie. It's all too crazy."
"Let's step outside," she whispers. She closes the door behind her. "That's terrible, but didn't you sort of expect something heavy would come down after your last two citations?"
"No," he says. "I've never done anything violent. I didn't think they could do this to you unless you're a violent creep."
"I'm really sorry," says Salal, "but there's no way I can help you."
She has never sounded so cruel before, though her warm voice is still soothing even as the words sound distant and cold. Salal is Cosmos's dark angel who came down from alternative-rock heaven over a year ago and volunteered to be the manager of the OughtaBs. Spruce and Rhody think she's a great manager but Cosmos thinks she is more than that. She's five years older than Cosmos and his first and only lover.
"Salal, I need you now. I need your love now. I don'twant to go to Juvie. I don't want to go to Iowa. Just hold me." He looks into her eyes, a few inches higher than his own. She shows no sign of anything. Not one of her three sets of earrings so much as quivers. "Please?"
"Cosmos," she says, "I can't save you. I can't be your mommy." She rubs her long fingers across her long forehead. "I know we have to talk, because I think it's time that
things should be different between us."
"You're quitting the OughtaBs? Just dumping us?"
"No," she says. "I want to be your manager. It's just that things between you and me need to be different."
Salal's words make him feel like a person lost at sea who has just grabbed for a life raft that deflates at his touch. But this is not the first time in his life he has had to take a deep breath and continue on the strength he has left. He stares at her. Her expression does not change. "All right," he says softly. "All right, I hear you." He starts down the stairs. He stops and looks back. "Will you be at the practice session Saturday night?"
"Of course," she says.
"All right," he says. He forces his eyes to look away from her long, elegant beauty at the top of the stairs, and leaves.
On his way home, he moves even more slowly than the gawking and cumbersome tourists. Passing the show window of the Wood House, he stops to watch a middle-aged man dressed in a white cap, white shirt, and white pants admiring a miniature wooden sailboat. Cosmos knows that boat, watched it rise up from the sea of sawdust in his father's workshop. He knows the price tag too--$650, and if it sells, his father will make $325. It could be the only good news of the day.
When he gets home, he finds someone sitting in the chair he vacated at the kitchen table, none other than his probation officer, Noreen. Hans sits across from her. They have the look of adults who have been talking serious business about young people.
Noreen is a frizzy-haired redhead who always looks as if she just stuck her finger in an electrical socket, and she can live up to the reputation of the fiery redhead. But not now. She doesn't look like she's about to scold him. She seems defeated, as if she has lost a battle for a client.
Cosmos pulls up a third chair and sits down at the table with them. "I'm ready to hear more about your crazy Iowa idea," he says.
"We've been talking about that," says Noreen.
"There is precedent for alternative sentences for juveniles in Washington," says Hans. "Remember those Indian boys who got an alternative sentence to go live on their native island for a year? They were just going home to the origins of their Native American souls. We're going to propose to the Commissioner that you go back to the land of my people, your people, and live a year with your relatives in Iowa. And I think it will be good for you to spend one year as a De Haag, among De Haags, in the land where the De Haag soul has been nurtured for over a century. I think it will not be all bad. I think it will help you find yourself spiritually."
"I'm not going to find myself spiritually in the stupid cornfields of Iowa," says Cosmos. "Hey, if I could go live in the fir trees on a San Juan Island like those Indian kids, that would be cool. Catch my own fish. Camp out for a year. Yeah, that's spiritual. But Iowa? Iowa? Did you really say Iowa?"
"Look at your alternatives, Coz. Close your eyes and imagine two scenes. In one you get up at six in the morning and stand at attention outside your door after cleaning your room and getting it ready for inspection. You go outside after breakfast. You can see the fence that you're not allowed to go past. A couple of tough big-city kids come up to you and say, 'You're going to be our dog.'"
"All right, all right, cut it out," says Cosmos. "Give me the other picture."
"In the other picture," says Hans, "there's a beautiful country house with trees around it and with beautiful white buildings and cows and pigs in the farmyards. You can look out forever across a rolling green world of alfalfa and bean and cornfields. You have a quiet room of your own upstairs in the house. You go out and work with pigs and cattle in the morning, take a bus to school, make decent friends, come home, have a wholesome dinner. Have a normal life in a new place. Consider it a vacation!"
"Yeah, right. If it's so nice, why would the court let me go? Tell me that one."
"It's the land of our people, the heritage of our people. And it's the most religious community left on the face of the earth."
"The most religious community since those cult crazies in Waco," says Cosmos.
"Coz, this is our only chance to keep you out of Juvie. And the parallel to those Indian kids, you know, I think it's real. I can make a case for it."
"So when did you get a law degree?"
"Listen to your father for a change," says Noreen.
"You've been there," says Hans. "I don't have to tell you. Everyone goes to church. Nobody swears in public. Stores are closed on Sundays. No theaters in town. Only one bar and twelve churches. Christian high school that's bigger than the public school. It's as strange and rooted in tradition as any Indian culture. I already talked to your uncle Henry about it. I told him everything. He says they would love to have you stay with them. Henry's been worried about us. Not just because of the divorce, but because your mother has gone off the deep end and moved to Mexico to study with some strange guru. Your uncle Henry thinks that God told me to call him for your sake. He thinks this was meant to be. He thinks it is God's will."
"You make him sound even kookier than I remember him, Dad. And you're the one who always tells me how bad it was growing up around there. You moved all the way across the country to get away from that scene. Roots. Sounds more like a cemetery for the brain-dead."
"It's our tradition, Cosmos, it's our tradition. It's our people. Just settle down and listen. I'll make some tea. Chamomile. Calm our nerves."
They silently wait for the water to boil. Hans stands over the stove thinking. He puts three cups on the table and pours. "Having a tradition is not all bad," he says. "Even if you reject it. Having a tradition and rejecting it is better than having no tradition at all. Having a tradition gives you a core, gives you something to build around. Gives you character."
"Gives you a brain that won't think and gives you right-wing politics," says Cosmos. "Isn't that what you told me? They're all religious-freak right-wingers, right? Hypocritical, right-wing, money-grubbing--let's see, I think you had a few more words for 'our people.' Oh yeah, self-righteous and judgmental. Weren't those your words?"
"Knock it off. I don't expect you to go back there and buy into the whole package," says Hans, "but nobody can know where he's going if he doesn't know where he's from. Go back there and get in touch with the De Haag name and the Dutch community in Iowa. Those are your roots."
"My roots are with fir trees, not cornstalks," says Cosmos.
"What you're doing now demonstrates why you always get in trouble," says Noreen. "It's your mouth."
"When you come back from Iowa, you'll know who you are," says Hans. "And you'll know what you want to do with your life. Maybe college. Maybe music. Who knows? But you'll know, I guarantee it."
Cosmos puts his head in his hands, and his brain shoots him a meteor shower of laughing, scorning faces--cops, court officials, ugly women, and farmers in big blue gas-guzzling cars looking out their windows and pointing at him as if he were some kind of freak left behind by the circus.
"It's not fair," says Cosmos. "It's just not fair."
"Sounds to me like everybody is trying to give you a fair shake," says Noreen. "When are you ever going to learn to appreciate it?"
"Coz?" says Hans.
"Your uncle Henry is flying out so he can be at the hearing on Friday and help us make the case for an alternative sentence."
"Shut up," says Hans. "We're going to beat this thing."