Oregon (and fiction) is weird (just how it should be)
Author’s note: Humor, satire, adventure, fantasy, crime, really weird shit — all genres of fiction I feel pretty comfortable swimming around in. On the other hand, the nebulous thing known as “literary fiction” (for which I don’t believe a single person on the planet has a firm definition … it’s a know-it-when-you-see-it kind of thing or a label earned if the writing/writer seem intelligent enough) is entirely alien to me. In my humble opinion, fiction intended to be literary feels unforgivably put on and obnoxiously pretentious. However, fiction that you know is “literary” when you read it tends to be very enjoyable. So I hesitate to say the manuscript from which the following passage was pinched is from my first crack at “literary fiction,” but I was trying to write a novel-length work that played in the worlds of theme and imagery and metaphor more than I’ve done before. The problem I’m having is that making writing more intelligent is REALLY DIFFICULT (It’s like you need to be smart to do it, or something)! Maybe I’ve discovered why so many works marketed as “literary fiction” feel like they’re trying too hard. Below, I’m sharing one scene from this particular manuscript that I feel good doesn’t try to be literary fiction at all, and yet in the grander scheme of the book does a lot of work advancing themes and character development (hopefully without the reader ever knowing because the last thing I ever want a reader thinking is, “Hey, nice character development bro!.”) As always, thanks for reading — Jay
The folks in the capital of Texas like to say “Keep Austin Weird,” but they might blanche if they knew just how weird weird could get. The people of Eugene know the limitlessness of the thing. Eugenites embrace it with a colorful flourish.
It’s not that embracing weirdness and diversity is unique to Eugene. It’s a flavor of the Pacific Northwest as distinctive to the whole region as the hoppy bitterness of their pale ales. Similar cultures thrive in Portland, Seattle, and a good many of the seaside towns that dot the coast as far down as Humboldt Bay in California. They generally have many things in common. Passionate love of the environment, nature, trees you hug, trees you smoke. But the color of it is a slightly different tint of weird in each town.
Art and Amelia prided themselves on being open-minded. But amid the amazing dance of weirdness moving around them as they strolled down the street to Ninkasi Brewing Company’s downtown tasting room, they couldn’t help but judge. Dressed in their yuppie hiking duds, Eugene judged them right back.
Sitting outside having a pint together were two women: a neonblue-haired goth punk tattooed from neck to toe, dressed all in black and beetlejuice leggings, and a naturally bluegrey-haired hippie all in flannels and hemp. Like twins, their heads turned in tandem to take in Art and Amelia walking up the street. They turned back toward each other and passed mischievous grins. In unison, the goth and the hippie fought to stifle harmonic snorts of derision in their pints. Then they noticed Apple. They faced each other again, took mirroring sips of beer, and agreed that they must be OK if they owned a pitty without ever saying a word. Symbiotic weirdness telepathy. It’s science. They continued to eye the newcomers as they meandered onto the tasting room’s patio and sidled up to the outdoor tap bar.
“What do you have?” Art asked. “We’re just visiting, but we heard Ninkasi is great.”
She stared at Art a moment. Choked down a sigh. Then she recited the beer list in the exact order they were written in large pink and white chalk letters on a chalkboard over her shoulder. “Total Domination IPA, Tricerahops Double IPA, Quantum Pale Ale, Spring Reign American Pale Ale, Maiden The Shade IPA.”
“Folks really like their pale ales up here. Do you have anything that’s not super hoppy? My wife’s not a big fan of hoppy beers.”
“I’ll have the Tricerahops, please,” Amelia said.
“OK, never mind. My wife will have the Tricerahops. In that case, I’m not a big fan of hoppy beers.”
“Sure. Sounds great.”
“Vanilla Oatis or regular Oatis?”
Art asked her what the difference was, but the bartender had stopped paying attention. Her pale cheeks were suddenly flush and her eyes were sparkling as she asked a guy with a matching stocking cap and cascading dreadlocks if the dog was his. Apple was winning over more locals. She’d be ready to run for political office before the day was done. In a town like Eugene, she might could win.
When their beers were finally in hand, Art and Amelia slid in at a communal high top table next to the synthetic blue-hair goth punk and naturally bluegrey-hair hippie.
“Did you know we just met today at a coffee shop? We’re both lesbians and we both play the ukulele. You’re not a lesbian, are you?” the hippie said to Art as he sat down next to her.
Art stammered for a reply. “I’m a guy. I can’t be a lesbian.”
“Oh honey, you can be anything you want to be. We don’t believe in assigning gender classifications here,” the woman said. Her voice was cheerful.
“I, um, no then, unfortunately, I am not a lesbian. I appreciate and respect vaginas, though. I mean my wife’s vagina. I mean all vaginas, but I’m exclusive to my wife’s.”
“Oh God, you’re an idiot,” Amelia said.
The older woman laughed. “I’m just taking the piss out of you, young fella. Nothing’s more entertaining for an old dyke than a young straight guy. See what I mean, Jean?” Jean was the blue-haired goth.
“I guess you could consider it charming. But they’re so awkward about everything. That’s what turned me off about men. The awkwardness, not penises. Dicks are ok,” Jean said.
“I’m still sitting right here, you know.”
“Are we making you uncomfortable, honey? I’m sorry. Eugene restaurants don’t have special seating sections for discriminators.”
Amelia sat back and enjoyed the show as Art drowned himself in shallow water.
“I didn’t mean it like that.”
“Oh my, relax, honey. You’re too easy. I’m Betty and this beautiful angel is Jean. Like I said, we just met today, but we share the same twisted sense of humor. You’re just going to have to deal with it until you can down that sissy beer of yours. What is that, Oatis?”
“May gays forgive me for calling you a sissy. I’ve insulted us all. So what brings you to Eugene, Mr. Man? You’re not from around here.”
“We’re on a road trip for a few weeks. I guess we’re going for sort of a reset in life, trying to focus on what’s important.”
“And what have you found out?”
“What’s important in life.”
“I’m not sure yet.”
Amelia reached out to touch Art’s hand. “We’re figuring things out as we go. It’s just hard to put in words.”
“Well,” Betty said. “Eugene is a good place to learn about what’s important in life. It’ll teach you a few things. Love Mother Nature, first. Materialism is a disease, second. Just look around. People are poor here, but we’re happy. We’ve got old shit cars and we live in old shit houses, but we take care of each other. We’ve got enough thrift stores to clothe us all. The cost of living is so low we can still afford an overpriced beer at Ninkasi. And all the entertainment is free. Just go for a hike in the woods. Nothing could be better.”
“What about you?” Art asked Jean. “What do you like to do?”
“Are you talking to me, uterus defiler?”
Art was stunned into silence. Jean burst out laughing.
“Oh my God, Betty, that is fun. Holy shit, dude, lighten up. I hike, too. You don’t think I like to hike because of how I look. I get it. You’re from someplace on the East Coast, right?”
“New Jersey. Near Princeton.”
“Exactly. It doesn’t matter what anybody looks like out here. We’re here to live the lifestyle. I spend a little more time fucking and Betty spends a little more time hiking, but I think we like them the same. The only people who don’t live the lifestyle are some of the yuppie sellouts. You’re not a sellout, are you?”
“I’m unemployed. We all are, even the dog.”
“Good for you,” Jean said. “Yuppie jobs are shackles. They weigh you down. It happened to my parents. Hey, are you going to drink that Tricerahops?”
Amelia shook her head no. It didn’t look like the beer had been touched. Art questioned her with a raised eyebrow. She shrugged her shoulders and his face transformed into patronizing ‘I-told-you-so’ mode.
“It’s all yours, Jean. My wife does not come with the beer.”
Art stammered again, unable to crack the code of acceptable lesbian humor.
“You know what, Art, I’m actually pretty hungry,” Amelia said. “Why don’t we head out for dinner?”
Art wasn’t quite sure what the urgency was all about. They had virtually just gotten there, but the tone in her voice made his heart skip two beats and then squeeze through a painful murmur to get back on track. He made his apologies to Betty and Jean and was surprised by the warmth of their farewell.
Betty smothered Art with a musty hug when he stood up, her ancient flannel transmitting its peculiar scent of natural body odor and fresh herbs onto his shirt. In the town of Eugene, a shared beer and a little understanding is all it takes to earn a new friend.