Through Hollowed Lands by Thomas Paul Burgess
Set in the US on 11th September 2001, Through Hollow Lands tells the story of George Bailey, a charming but feckless opportunist who finds himself trapped in the seeming purgatory of Las Vegas. He is followed there by Lou Plutus – his boss and a paedophile pornographer – from whom he has stolen a ‘Kompromat’ video of great importance to the Russian mafia. George un-expectantly encounters Jaffé Losoko there, a naïve, young Ethiopian woman whom he had got pregnant some six years before and arranged for an abortion. She now works in the Vegas sex trade.To escape, George must face his Russian pursuers – the terrifying ‘Triptych’ – head on and make amends to Jaffé. Beset by angels and demons, truth-tellers and liars, he must pay for the sins of his past in order to find salvation beyond Vegas.The book explores the trauma visited upon the American psyche in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Through Hollow Lands is the author’s compelling second novel, following the critically acclaimed White Church, Black Mountain.
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George Bailey lobbed the tightly crumpled ball of paper at the wastebasket again. It ran around the rim and bounced back out, rolling across the road maps and flight tickets strewn around
the floor and came to rest at his foot.
He stared at it with a mixture of malice and regret, then nudged it a little with his instep, before bringing the full weight of his suede loafer down on it. It disappeared underfoot, only to spring up again when he released it. It looked no different than it had when she’d first balled it and bounced it off his forehead in exasperated rage.
He sighed heavily for the umpteenth time in the two hours since she had left. Sitting on the edge of the bed, head propped in one hand, he reached down and picked up the offending item. He smoothed the wrinkled page out on his knee and read aloud the words – printed in an elaborate serif font – that he now knew off by heart.
Because I reached deep down inside you,
and struggled with the lock on the flimsy picket fence,
that separates your passion from your will, you ran away from me.
And running still, you gulp,
the oxygen of common sense and reason. Reasoning for the best.
That gate’s now firmly shut.
Be careful that the hinges do not rust.
It was supposed to be a love poem, something with which to win her back, something that showed off his new sensitive side. Something he hoped Beatrice would embrace, along with the flight itinerary and the hotel reservations. A trip out West and the promise of a new beginning for them. Love lost, love found.
It had completely the opposite effect.
The lesbian chick, Kim, the flat-chested girl with retainers and piercings who worked weekends with him at Lou’s Video Emporium, thought George’s idea to write a poem was ‘like, sooooo romantic’. He was a little weirded out by Kim: she had a tattoo of a naked Madonna on her thigh but puzzlingly always covered up the singer’s breasts with a flesh-toned sticking plaster. She was studying literature at college and had loaned him some books – W. B. Yeats, Shelley, and John Donne – but it was Kim who ended up writing most of his poem under his tentative, awkward instruction, drawing on some past heartbreak of her own involving a married woman.
As George read the poem again, he began to understand why it had been so spectacularly counterproductive. He could see more of his own hand in it than he’d intended. Had it all really just slipped in there subliminally? The veiled threat, the implication that he was stronger than her, that he could survive a separation better than her. That she was the lucky one to have him. But wasn’t that the truth? Hadn’t she always signalled her acquiescence with silence and tears?
The TV in the Comfort Inn Motel room blared on. Pyramids of tanned, leggy teens, toothy and blond, extolling the virtues of The Southern Star Cheerleaders Boot Camp in Alabama. Some podgy, balding instructors with whistles and clipboards leering and clapping from the sidelines. Nice work if you could get it, George thought.
Beatrice was from Alabama, of Sunday go-to-meeting Baptist stock, father an industrial shelving salesman, mother a home- and baby-maker. Bee had five siblings who lived within a loud holler of their mother’s voice. George had taken her away from all of that. He had played on her conventional upbringing and strong family values to lead her on a wild goose chase across seven towns and six states in as many years.
She had variously stood by her man in Little Rock, Georgia; Jackson, Tennessee; Gainesville, Florida; and now New York, New York as George meandered from one dark night of the soul to the next, seeking personal redemption by taking half-baked shots at some kind of career – film school, creative writing school, dolphin trainer school, bereavement counselling college. They’d all seemed like great ideas at the time.
It was Beatrice who held down temping jobs in dead-end secretarial positions and managed the bills so his tuition fees could be met, Beatrice who stocked the refrigerator and paid the rent. She’d taken to her bed in their apartment since their break- up the day before. That was why George was holed up in a motel – giving her her ‘space’ like she asked – but he’d persuaded her to come see him for one last stab at a reconciliation.
The cleaning cart rumbled by the window again. He heard a sigh and the sound of sucking teeth. The maid was clearly becoming annoyed at the ‘Do not disturb’ sign that still hung on George’s door. It was 4:37 p.m. and his blinds remained drawn.
The high-pressure shower was beating off the plastic bathroom curtain. He’d turned it on twenty minutes earlier but couldn’t convince his hungover bones to stand beneath the stinging needles of water. The sound made him smile. He associated it with Beatrice crooning Elvis songs in her Southern drawl while she soaped and shampooed for what seemed like an eternity, oblivious to all but her happy ablutions. He would stand by the bathroom door waiting to hear her attempts to affect the King’s distinctive riff – ‘uh-huh-huh’ – it made him laugh out loud every goddamn time.
Another jet on approach to Newark Airport rattled the window frame.
George slid onto the floor, his back against the bed, and began to sob. He didn’t know why. Deep inhalations of breath, gagging occasionally – a sound that no one would hear. He pulled the tickets closer to him with an outstretched foot: George Bailey, Beatrice Hatcher, United Airlines, Flight 93, Newark to San Francisco, departing 8:40 a.m., September 11th, 2001.
He flipped through the flight boarding cards and the car hire vouchers for the road trip down the Pacific Coast highway to LA, then on into Vegas. It was meant to be a surprise for Beatrice – the trip of a lifetime, finishing up in the city of second chances – all paid for online with her Visa and American Express cards. That would be a surprise to her too. He’d thought he could maybe pay it off by winning at the tables or roulette wheels. Besides, they’d be back home before the credit card bills arrived. And she’d have forgiven him by then for borrowing her cards; she always forgave him.
Except this time, it seemed. This time there was the not inconsiderable matter of Jaffé Losoko, the young African student whom George had befriended, fucked and left with child. This time, it felt very different.
Jaffé Losoko was a strikingly attractive young Ethiopian woman who had moved into their apartment block when they lived in Florida some years back. At the time, George, as always between jobs, spent his days in the cinema at the nearby mall or aimlessly browsing the internet at home.
He had established, through casual conversation with Jaffé, that she was claiming political asylum in the US while studying here. Her only contact with her family back in Africa was via the internet.
George liked Jaffé. Her sunny disposition, flawless ebony skin and perfect bone structure, her killer smile and broken English caused him to feel somewhat protective toward her, an unusual sentiment for him. That feeling deepened when she confided that a return to her country would mean certain imprisonment, rape and possibly death due to the political activities of her two older brothers.
Like most Americans, George engaged with Jaffé’s plight, albeit superficially, on an uninformed, wholly personal dimension. The fact that latent or open hostilities affected many African nations was of little or no interest to him. It didn’t take long, however, before he was offering the young woman access to the computer in their apartment rather than have her pay for it at the mall.
He began to take an interest in her appearance, suggesting that she abandon her long-sleeved, ankle-length dresses for more suggestive figure-hugging attire. Jaffé explained that her Muslim beliefs forbade the exposure of her perfect skin. But George waxed lyrical for an hour about how American women were graceful, distinctive, enlightened and self-regulating in these matters. Besides, how could she stand the Floridian heat in get-ups that looked like they’d been cut from old curtains?
In bed, Jaffé was tentative but trusting, naive but willing, shy but emboldened.
‘Teach me things,’ she pleaded, and lifted the duvet with one arm to invite him under.
He still sometimes thought about the shiny ebony of her long firm legs, her full breasts and hard nipples, the whites of her eyes and her white teeth standing out against the black of her skin, the elaborate cascade of her coiled and braided hair as it framed her face and fell around her shoulders. She was shaved smooth.
He had abandoned all previous boudoir conventions with Jaffé. She neither wanted nor required them. She identified early on what she liked and, after three or four afternoon ‘fact-finding’ sessions, she would roll onto her front, arch her beautifully smooth, rounded ass-cheeks toward him and smile over her shoulder. That smile. Pitched somewhere between innocence and awakening.
‘It’s sweet,’ she would moan, her intonation emerging from the dark continent in breathless discovery. ‘It’s sweet!’ Her full lips would part in pleasure and the tip of her tongue poke out, pink, between her perfect teeth.
When he’d looked at her lying asleep beside him, so young and blameless, he had almost believed they might have a life together, that their diametrically opposed worlds might be joined in an idyll of him teaching her and her soaking it all up. He would provide, nourish and stimulate her; she would care for him. No complicated power relationships, no emasculating; gender equality, man and woman. Simple.
This delusion lasted for as long as it took George to drunkenly boast of his conquest to some casual acquaintances in the local sports bar.
‘You ol’ dawg! How old did you say she was?’
‘You know what they say, Georgie – once ya have black, ya can never go back.’
‘Mick Jagger says “Black girls just wanna get fucked all night. I just don’t have that much jam.” You got that kinda jam, Georgie?’ It wasn’t long before he’d stopped using condoms, trying – at first desperately, then carelessly – to pull out in time, the danger making it hotter. And it was so very hot to be inside her: she was hotter than anything he’d ever known, as searing as sub-Saharan
Four months later, a noticeably crestfallen Jaffé informed him that, although she was some weeks late with her period, she had enrolled in a regime of vigorous physical exercise at the local gym and was confident this would alleviate the problem. George, horrified, told her that he wasn’t so sure her proposed course of action would work. So she sought to reassure him by cataloguing a list of barbaric schemes, each more extreme than the next, that might be brought into play to dislodge the … inconvenience.
He just couldn’t allow her to take such drastic measures. Even for him, amoral and without scruples, what she was suggesting seemed an altogether different class of indiscretion, beyond the pale. Abortion. Termination. Even when it was done legally it was still baby-killing. His gut ached with the worry of it, but he had to go along with what Jaffé wanted.
That evening he had borrowed Beatrice’s car and drove it to an almost-empty multistorey parking lot. There, buckled in tight, he threw the VW into reverse and slammed the rear end into the nearest concrete pillar. Then, having psyched himself up on the way home to give the performance of his life, George ranted convincingly to Beatrice about the motherfucking asshole who had rammed into her parked car and left the scene of the crime without detection. He went so far as to report the incident, within earshot of Beatrice, to the speaking clock.
By next morning, he had a cheque made out to cash and a grateful Beatrice who, as she ran out to catch the bus for work, thanked him for taking care of the repairs.
Jaffé met him at a bohemian coffee bar near the university. George was at once both dismayed and relieved to find that she was having second thoughts. Perhaps she could have the child after all and George could help raise it by providing funds, she suggested. Or maybe she could go back to Africa clandestinely, where her family might help out.
This presented George with a new dilemma. Quite prepared to pay the bill fiscally, if not morally or emotionally, he was now being asked to decide upon the life and death of his unborn child and its mother. His emotions swung backwards and forwards like a pendulum. It was more responsibility in his adult life than he could ever have imagined and it petrified him.
He had waxed lyrical for an hour on how American women were strong, individualistic, liberated and independent. He spoke of the promising career she had in front of her and how this would be put in jeopardy by the responsibilities of motherhood. He reminded her of the high expectations of her parents back in the Third World. But, he said, he didn’t want to sway her – oh no, this must be her call.
When he had finished, Jaffé agreed that this was indeed her decision and her decision alone. George felt better about that, as if it partially exonerated him from what was going to happen next. His alma mater, St Augustine’s, cast a long shadow. The Catholic- schooled George believed that if he died with venial sins on his soul, then he would only go to purgatory. But a mortal sin such as abortion? Well, it was straight to eternal damnation, do not pass Go, do not collect $200.
He knew this wasn’t the end of it. Not by a long shot. Somehow, somewhere, there would have to be atonement, restitution made,
penance endured, in this life or the next. But this did not prevent him from suggesting to Jaffé that they do it bareback, just one last time. After all, with her already being pregnant and all … well, what was there to lose? He would, of course, provide the money for the termination – he pushed a brown manila envelope across the Formica table – but he couldn’t be responsible for the outcome. That was important to him.
She decided there and then to attend a local clinic she had found in the Yellow Pages, and within three weeks had left the apartment block and disappeared, much to George’s guilty but considerable relief.
A legacy of the whole sorry episode was that George would never again eat shrimp salad, the crustaceans resembling too closely, in his mind, small foetuses.
Beatrice drove her car around for months afterwards, a piece of string holding down the flapping, clunking trunk door.
‘Goddamn mechanics … buncha crooks. You shoulda heard what they wanted to charge,’ he told her. ‘I won’t pay that price … I simply won’t pay it on principle.’
The question of the return of Beatrice’s repair money never came up again.
George threw the tickets onto the table, dried his eyes with a sleeve and lay on top of the bed. How had it come to this?
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