Grace: An Excerpt from PANORAMA CITY

This weekend, we get a taste of the voice in Antoine Wilson’s Panorama CityFrom his deathbed, 28-year-old Oppen Porter—an open-hearted, bicycle-riding, binocular-toting, self-described slow absorber—unspools into a cassette recorder a tale of self-determination, from village idiot to man of the world, for the benefit of his unborn son. Written in an astonishingly charming and wise voice, Oppen’s account traces forty days and nights navigating the fast-food joints, storefront churches, and home-office psychologists of the San Fernando Valley. Ping-ponging between his watchful and sharp-tongued aunt and an outlaw philosopher with the face “of a newly hatched crocodile,” Oppen finds himself constantly in the sights of people who believe that their way is the only way for him.

♦◊♦

A few nights later, I told Aunt Liz I was going to take a walk around the block to settle my stomach, to aid my digestion, not that her cooking hadn’t been delicious, it had been, I’d just eaten it too quickly. Which was entirely true until I started down the block and noticed a glow behind the sheets hanging in the window of the milky blue house. I had tried knocking on the door several times already, after work, to speak with the inhabitants about their lawn, or about their patch of wilderness, which took up the space where others would have kept a lawn, I wanted to introduce myself as a new neighbor, and let them know how much I appreciated their not cutting the grass to within a literal inch of its life, as Aunt Liz had done and kept doing, or as her gardener kept doing, I should say, on her orders. But nobody had ever answered. This time when I knocked a fellow who looked like a young Indian chief answered the door, his name was Chuy. I complimented him on the wilderness that was his lawn, but he said the place wasn’t his, he was just visiting. He asked me where the pizza was, what had happened to the pizza. I told him I was not the pizza guy. He asked me if I was the police, I said I wasn’t. A car pulled into the driveway then, which turned out to be the pizza guy. Chuy disappeared with the pizza and someone named Nick came to the door to pay. He invited me in, it was his house, or his grandmother’s house, or it had been, before she went into a home, she had memory and balance problems. Nick’s hair was slicked back and he had a goatee, or part of a goatee, on the point of his chin, and a tiny mouth compared to the rest of his face, it was fascinating to watch him eat pizza with it. Chuy lit what he called some Buddha and smoked and passed it on to the other guy on the couch, who passed it on to Nick, who put his pizza down to have a puff, who passed it on to me. When in Rome, wear a toga, your grandfather used to say. I took a puff, I inhaled and then let it out quickly. I am not a smoker, I have never been a smoker, but I could see immediately that one of the appeals of smoking is that when you let the smoke out of your mouth you feel like a dragon. A few moments later, or a few hundred, who can say, I couldn’t remember what I’d just thought, or what I’d said, or what someone else had said, and so I spent much of my thinking trying to chase down what I’d forgotten. I became uncertain about what these people really looked like. The harder I stared the less concrete their features became, like when you try to look at a dim star dead on and it disappears on you. The rolled cigarette came around again and I was offered some more, and I pinched it between my fingers as I had seen the others do and I held it up to my eyes and looked at it closely. I wanted to penetrate, with my eyes, whatever this thing was, whatever was burning in there, but it was impossible. I could feel, I mean I could sense, how this thing was connected to maintaining one’s yard in a wild state, I understood how these guys, or how Nick, specifically, might, were this something he smoked routinely, ignore many practical aspects of life, of which gardening, or landscaping as they called it down there, was only one. I asked Nick about his lawn, I asked him what his philosophy was. Chuy said, his words, Again with the lawn? Nick shook his head at Chuy. Plain and simple, he said, his grandmother’s gardener was an asshole, he had problems with some of Nick’s plants, strictly hobby plants, and so Nick had to fi re him, which was why the lawn looked fucked, because also Nick had been too busy to mow it. Then he asked me to shit or get off the pot, his words, meaning pass the cigarette. As you can imagine, I was disappointed, as you can imagine, I was sad to discover that a respect for and fascination with nature in a natural state, or close to a natural state, was not the only reason someone might have a patch of wilderness around their house. I kept deciding to leave but my body felt like it had melted into the chair. I kept thinking I had come up with profound realizations but then found I couldn’t put them into words. I felt hungry despite my full stomach and ate a slice of pizza and watched them play a golfing game on their television. After a while, or a hundred whiles, I became concerned that if I didn’t leave soon I would never get up. On my way back to Aunt Liz’s house my mind spiraled in a million different directions as to how I would explain my extended absence, how I would explain that I had gone on an hours-long walk, how I had stayed up long past our bedtimes. Except Aunt Liz was sitting at the kitchen table doing her crossword puzzle, and she looked up and welcomed me back and asked me if I’d had a nice walk, without any concern in her voice whatsoever.

I spent an eternity brushing my teeth. I stared at the picture with footsteps on the beach, trying to unlock its secrets. I kept having realizations, and then when I tried to remember them, or recall them, in words, I mean, I couldn’t seem to put them back together. Every new piece of philosophy in my brain revealed itself to be a mirage, and yet I kept feeling I’d discovered something profound. I couldn’t lie on the inflatable mattress, it was too wobbly, I lay down on the floor instead, I liked the way it felt against my ankles and calves and shoulder blades and the back of my head. My flesh felt like it was becoming part of the floor. I thought of your grandfather, I wondered what it had felt like to lie there while his body gave out, or whether his body had given out so completely that he’d never experienced lying there at all. I wondered what he would have said about me being down in Panorama City, I think he would have supported it one hundred percent, he had always wanted me to know something of the world. And yet I wished he had been there the other night at dinner with Aunt Liz, to confirm or deny what she’d had to say about my mother, your grandmother, and her destructive nature, which was supposedly half my nature, though I’d never felt destructive, I’d never been interested in destruction.

That night I dreamed, Juan-George, that I could read as well as any scholar, everything clicked, like those dreams where suddenly you can fly, and you sort of think, oh, that’s right, now I remember how to fly. I had that feeling in the dream when I remembered, so to speak, how to read, and everything seemed clear to me, the world opened up like a book. Only to dissolve upon waking, as they say.

Premium Membership, The Good Men Project

About Antoine Wilson

ANTOINE WILSON is the author of the novel The Interloper, and his work has appeared in The Paris Review, StoryQuarterly, and Best New American Voices. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he is a contributing editor of A Public Space and the recipient of a Carol Houck Smith Fiction Fellowship from the University of Wisconsin. Wilson lives and surfs in Los Angeles. Visit www.antoinewilson.com.

Speak Your Mind