Oreo, Fran Ross’s ground-breaking satire, was originally published in 1974. It is being re-issued this week by New Directions, with an introduction by Danzy Senna and a foreword by Harryette Mullen. Mat Johnson of NPR called it “one of the funniest books I have ever read” and writer Paul Beatty deemed it “hilarious.” We are honored to present an excerpt of this extraordinary novel.
— The Fiction Editors
Christine and Jimmie C.
From the Jewish side of the family Christine inherited kinky hair and dark, thin skin (she was about a 7 on the color scale and touchy). From the black side of her family she inherited sharp features, rhythm, and thin skin (she was touchy). Two years after this book ends, she would be the ideal beauty of legend and folklore — name the nationality, specify the ethnic group. Whatever your legends and folklore bring to mind for beauty of face and form, she would be it, honey. Christine was no ordinary child. She was born with a caul, which her first lusty cries rent in eight. Aside from her precocity at mirror writing, she had her mother’s love of words, their nuance and cadence, their juice and pith, their variety and precision, their rock and wry. When told at an early age that she would one day have to seek out her father to learn the secret of her birth, she said, “I am going to find that motherfucker.” In her view, the last word was merely le mot juste.
Where Christine was salty, Jimmie C. was sweet. He was a 5 on the color scale and was gentle of countenance and manner.
He had inherited his mother’s sweet voice, and he was given to making mysterious, sometimes asinine pronouncements, which he often sang. From Louise he had inherited a tendency to make up words. Thus this exchange between Louise and her grandson:
LOUISE: Dessa cream on your boondoggle? (Trans.: “Condensed milk on your boondoggle?”) How ’bout some mo’ ingers on dem dere fish eggs, sweetness? (She points to the onions on the red caviar.)
JIMMIE C. (looking sweetly at his plate): I have never had such a wonderful dish. It is like biting into tiny orange-colored grapeskins filled with cod-liver oil. (He snaps his fingers.) I know! These wonderful little things here before me in the bowl of my grandmother are like (and he sings, in the key of G) tiny little round orange jelly balls. (On a letter scale with legatos indicated by hyphens and rests by commas, this phrase would be GG-CC-G, FF, EDC.) From now on I shall call these good things trevels.
Christine loved her younger brother, but often she was exasperated by him. Every day she would sit on the bottom step in the living room and read to Jimmie C. He stopped her gently once and sang, “But nevertheless and winnie-the-pooh” — which was one of his favorite expressions — “I get Christopher Wren and Christopher Robin confused.”
Christine looked at him and, in a rare instance, made up her own word, “You are a stone scrock, boy.” The family liked Christine’s new word and gave it inflections for various occasions:
LOUISE: Mayhaps if I’m careful, I won’t scrock up dis yere recipe. Las’ time, it turned out right scrockified, dey tell me. I liked it, though. Thought it tayce real good.
JIMMIE C. (gently): Uncle Herbie can be just a tiny bit scrocky sometimes.
HELEN (by letter): The TV set in my hotel room just scrocked out.
CHRISTINE: Oh, fuck scrock!
When Christine was about two and a half, she got her nickname. It came to Louise in a dream. Louise was walking down a dusty road with Christine on a gray, overcast day, when suddenly the clouds parted and a ray of sunshine beamed down right in front of the child. Out of this beam of sunshine came a high-pitched, squeaky voice. “And her name shall be Oriole,” squeaked the voice.
When Louise woke up that morning, she went straight to her dream book. Next to the word oriole was the number 483. Louise played it in the box for three days. On the third day, it came out and she hit for five hundred dollars, her first hit in more than three weeks (the longest dry spell she could remember). She had told James about her dream on that first day, when she was hosing him off, and he had grinned. She had told her whole family and all her neighbors, as she usually did with her important dreams. Sometimes the entire neighborhood hit if they could figure out what Louise was saying.
Everyone thought that Louise had found a great nickname for Christine. People had been calling the child various things as she toddled down the street after Louise, cursing them under her breath. They called her Brown Sugar and Chocolate Drop and Honeybun. But when they looked at Christine’s rich brown color and her wide smile full of sugar-white baby teeth, they said to themselves, “Why, that child does put me in mind of an Oreo cookie — side view.” And that is how Oreo got her name. Nobody knew that Louise was saying “Oriole.” When, through a fluke, Louise found out what everyone thought she was saying, it was all right with her. “I never did like flyin‘ birds, jus’ eatin’ ones,” she said. “But I jus’ loves dem Oreos.” And this time she meant what everyone else meant.
Naming was very important in the Clark family. Here are two other instances. Herbert Butler, Louise’s wandering brother, brought back a parakeet for the children after one of his journeys. It was powder blue. Only its color (Louise’s favorite) saved the bird from her total disdain (“He ain’ eem a flyin’ bird, jus’ a settin’ one”). Oreo called the parakeet Jocko, Jimmie C. sweetly called him Sky. Louise, because she could not bother to remember either of these names, called him “bird,” not as a name but as a category, just as she called various other pets of friends and family “cat,” “dog,” and “goldfish.” She sometimes had to call all the categories before she got to the right one: “Take dat go’fish . . . I mean, cat . . . I say, dog out fo’ a walk.” After two months, in confusion over his true name, Sky-Jocko-bird died, a living (or rather, dead) example of acute muddleheadedness.
That was also the year that Oreo and Jimmie C. had the German shepherd. Everyone said he was the smartest German shepherd anyone had ever seen in the neighborhood. He could do anything — fetch the paper, roll over and play dead, shake hands. He would romp with the children for hours on end, and they would take turns riding on his powerful back. He ran back and forth between the children, his handsome eyes shining, his powerful muscles rippling as he leaped a fence to get a ball Oreo or Jimmie C. had thrown. His papers said his name was Otto, followed by a string of unpronounceable names, but the family decided to call him something else. This time they quickly agreed on a name, one that Helen suggested. They called him Fleck. “A German shepherd should have a German name,” Helen had written to them when the family consulted her, getting her jollies over the fact that she had named the princely German shepherd plain old ordinary Spot.
Louise said, “Dat Fleck, he eat like any starve-gut dog,” and she delighted in fixing him special meat dishes that no German shepherd before him had ever had, dishes like daube de boeuf à la Provençale and kofta kari. Then misfortune struck — or, rather, bit. Fleck got into the habit of biting strangers, and the Clarks had to get rid of him. The whole family was sad. Jimmie C. summed up their feelings when he said, “He was a nice guy, that Fleck. If he could cure himself of that bad biting habit, brought on by homesickness, I’m sure, he might be able to find a suitable flock — maybe out West, where the employment situation for shepherds is better — and be able to bring his wife and children over from the fatherland.”
“Auf Wiedersehen,” said Fleck when it was time to go. “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott.” (It was not clear whether he feared Bach or Luther more — the old Rodgers-or-Hart dilemma.)
Oreo and Jimmie C. had to find a new playmate.
One of their playmates was their grandfather. As soon as the children were big enough, they would tumble James to the floor and play with him as if he were a piece of eccentric cordwood. Whenever Louise waxed the kitchen floor, they would get James onto a throw rug and drag him into the kitchen, where they would give him a nice spin and watch him revolve, his half swastika doubling in the shininess.
Once when Louise saw them doing this, she admonished the rambunctious children. “Y’all play nice, you yere me? Hard head make soft behind. Don’ make me nervy. Doct’ say I got high pretension.” She went on fixing the tamago dashimaki she was taking to her friend Lurline at Mercy-Douglass Hospital. She decided to eat the omelet herself, since it would not survive the journey. Then she put on her hat and said, “Now, Oreo, you and Jimmie C. put James back in de lib’m room right now. He had ’nough ’citement fo’ one day. ’Sides, look like to me he right dizzy.” She paused to think. “I greb’mine take the G bus [l’ve a great mind to take the G bus], ’cause it fasta dan dat ol’ trolley. I will cenny be glad to see Lurline on her feet again. Thank de good Lord her sickness not ligament.”
“Malignant,” Oreo said mechanically.
“Moligment,” Louise amended. “Oreo, you in charge. Take care yo’ sweet brother and stay in de back yard.”
The children wiped the excess wax off their grandfather and put him back in his corner in the living room. They went into the back yard to play. Mrs. Dockery, their next-door neighbor, was in her yard watching her brindle tomcat fight with an alley cat. She watched for some time, then she turned to Oreo and Jimmie C. and said, “My cat’s a coward.” Jimmie C. had his fingers in his ears at the time, and he heard Mrs. Dockery’s simple sentence as “Mah cassa cowah.” Jimmie C. was delighted. He decided to use this wonderful new expression as the radical for a radical second language. “Cha-key-key-wah, mah-cassa-cowah,” he would sing mysteriously in front of strangers. “Freck-a-louse-poop!”
Oreo recognized the value of Jimmie C.’s cha-key-key-wah language over the years. For her, it served the same purpose as black slang. She often used it on shopkeepers who lapsed into Yiddish or Italian. It was her way of saying, “Talk about mother tongues — try to figure out this one, you mothers. If you guess this word, we’ll ring the changes on it until it means that. ”
Whenever they played together, if Oreo thought her brother had said something silly or stupid or sweet, she would make one of her savage “suppose” remarks. Both children had the habit of, in Jimmie C.’s phrase, “jooging” (the o’s of “good”) in their ears — to get at an itch that ran in the family. Once when they were both doing this, Jimmie C. said, quite seriously, “Let’s put our wax together and make a candle.”
Oreo answered, “Suppose you were sliding on a banister and it turned into a razor blade.”
Jimmie C. fainted.
Oreo was very sorry when that happened. She did not really want to be mean to her sweet little brother, but sometimes it was a case of simple justice. When Jimmie C. asked her whether there was such a thing as an emergency semicolon (of course!), she answered, “Suppose you were putting Visine in your eyes and it turned into sulfuric acid.”
Jimmie C. fainted.
Oreo resolved to give up her “suppose” game until she found a less deserving person to use it on.
One day Jimmie C. came to Oreo and said gently, “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” This was his derivative way of asking her to gather all the kids on the block for a special outing. Soon there were eighteen children of eighteen colors, sizes, shapes, and ages milling about in the Clarks’ back yard. (The eighty-one-year-old qualified on the grounds of demonstrable dotage.) Jimmie C. explained to them that his grandmother was at that moment making a six-foot-long hoagie à la Louise that could be cut into as many sections as there were children and that he knew of a great place to have a picnic.
All the children jumped up and down shouting that they did not want to go. Oreo gave them a threatening look, and they gave in.
Jimmie C. ran into the house and came back with a plastic bucket. He went to the side of the house and turned on the garden tap. And, lo, the bucket did fill up with foamy orange Kool-Aid.
The children gasped. Petey Brooks, the eighty-one-year-old, said wistfully, “In my yard it always comes out water.” All assembled thought they had witnessed a miracle.
But honest Jimmie C. laughed his tinkly, musical laugh and sang, “The Kool-Aid was already in the bucket.” Oreo thought her brother was a prize scrock for letting the kids know this, but she kept her peace.
And so they set off. All the children took turns carrying the Kool-Aid bucket and slopping it all over their sneakers and jeans. They had been walking for about fifteen minutes when Petey Brooks, who was in bad shape for his age, said diplomatically, “Where the fuck is this park?”
“You’ll see, you’ll see,” said Jimmie C. “It’s near nobby.”
“I don’t remember any park near here,” said Petey.
And Jimmie C. said unto them, “O ye of little faith, it’s just around the grabus.”
They turned the grabus, or corner, onto another street. A plain street. No park. “So where’s the park?” Oreo asked. Jimmie C. looked stunned. “It should be right nobby.”
But it wasn’t.
“I’m tired,” said Petey.
“So am I,” said seventeen other voices.
Oreo took over. “Let’s sit down here.” They ranged out over the steps of a row of row houses. Oreo opened her paper bag and took out her section (the best) of the hoagie à la Louise. She dipped her paper cup into the half inch of Kool-Aid that had not spilled on the way. Everyone else did the same. Then they stared at Jimmie C.
He smiled sweetly at them. Finally, when they were almost through chewing and swallowing and staring, a glow transfigured Jimmie C.’s face. “I know what!” he exclaimed. He chuckled musically to himself. “What, fool? Speak up,” said Oreo.
Jimmie C. ascended to the top step, stretched out his arms to the multitude, and sang, “I dreamt the park!”
Oreo looked at him in disgust, then she had to turn and protect him from thirty-six fists, handicapped though they were by the remnants of the hoagie à la Louise they were still clutching. Jimmie C. thoughtfully advised them to hold on to this sustenance, for they would need nourishment on the long journey back home.
Oreo expressed the sentiments of the whole group when she looked at her little brother and said slowly, “You are a yold. You and your jive dream parks.”
Oreo did not go to school. With the income from James’s backlist, Louise’s numbers, and Helen’s piano playing, the family was able to hire special tutors for Oreo. Professor Lindau, renowned linguist and blood donor, was her English tutor. He spoke in roots. He would come in after his daily blood-bank appointment mumbling, “How are you this morning, my vein, my blood?” which was not a comment on his most recent donation but a greeting to Oreo. He would then toss Oreo a volume of one of his two idols. Partridge or Onions, and Oreo would have to figure out what he meant by consulting the book. Thus his greeting was a simple “How are you this morning, macushla?” Professor Lindau talked so much about Partridge and Onions that Louise was inspired to invent perdrix en poirier à l’ oignon.
One day, Professor Lindau came in, in a bad mood. He ranted fitfully about his girlfriend. “That wedge!” he shouted. “What can one do with a wedge like that?” he asked rhetorically.
Oreo was puzzled, so the professor tossed her the desk copy of Partridge. After following a trail of false roots and camouflaged cognates, she came to Partridge’s assertion that cunt (or, as Partridge put it, “c*nt”) derived from the Latin cunnus, which was related to cuneus, or “wedge.” Eric went on to say that the word had been considered obscene since about 1700, adding that “the dramatist Fletcher, who was no prude, went no further than ‘They write sunt with a C, which is abominable’, in The Spanish Curate. Had the late Sir James Murray courageously included the word, and spelt it in full, in the great O.E.D., the situation would be different; . . . (Yet the O.E.D. gave prick: why this further injustice to women?) . . . (It is somewhat less international than f**k, q.v.)”
Oreo fell off her chair laughing at this witty entry in Partridge. When she got herself together, she shook her head. Her sprachgefühl told her that Eric was stretching a point (or, rather, a wedge) and that the professor was perpetuating Partridge’s error by persisting in this pie-eyed usage. She had never been misled by her sprachgefühl, and as she thumbed through a later edition of Partridge, she found that that worthy had corrected himself in a supplement: “cunt (p. 198) cannot be from the L. word but is certainly cognate with O.E. cwithe ‘the womb’ (with a Gothic parallel); cf. mod. English come, ex O.E. cweman. The -nt, which is difficult to explain, was already present in O.E. kunte. The radical would seem to be cu (in O.E. cwe), which app. = quintessential physical femineity . . . and partly explains why, in India, the cow is a sacred animal.”
Oreo fell off her chair laughing at the part about the cow. She was, after all, just a child in her mid-units. Then she pointed out the passage in the supplement to the professor.
“I know, I know,” he said, dismissing her quibble. “But I like the idea of wedge. It whips.” When Oreo looked puzzled again, he tossed her volume 12 of the O.E.D.
Oreo became adept at instantaneous translations of the professor’s rhizomorphs. “Mr. Benton is worn out by childbearing. Of course, his paper was an ill-starred bottle. I don’t wonder he threatened to sprinkle himself with sacrificial meal.’’
“You mean,’’ said Oreo, “that Benton is effete, his paper was a disaster, a fiasco, and he wanted to immolate himself.’’
The professor was impressed but not struck dumb. “I am phonofounded,’’ he said logodaedalyly.
Once in an adjective-adverb drill, Oreo wrote: “He felt badly.’’ The professor was furious and viciously crossed out the ly. He was ashamed of Oreo.
Oreo looked him dead in the eye and said, “I am writing a story about a repentant but recidivous rapist. In the story, this repentant rapist catches his hand in a wringer. Therefore, when he goes out, recidivously, to rape, he feels both bad and badly.”
The professor kissed Oreo on both cheeks.
Oreo was still angry with him for doubting her, and in her story about the rapist she added such abominations as: “The Empire State Building rises penisly to the sky. As architecture, manurially speaking, it stinks.” She felt it appropriate to employ genito-scatological adverbs to express academic vexation.
The professor wept and promised never to cross out her ly’s until he was sure of her intentions.
A few months later, the professor’s gait was bouncier as he came up the front steps. His blood donations seemed to be more and more a source of comfort and anemia to him. Oreo found out that much of the credit for the new Lindau belonged to his latest girlfriend, a wedge of a different fit. Oreo overheard him mumbling happily to himself about the many joyous conflations he and his new friend had had together. That one was easy for Oreo to figure out. “Conflation, from conflare, ‘to blow together,’ ” she said to herself. “Oh, shit. The professor’s just talking about plain old sixty-nine.”
Oreo’s milkman, Milton, although not officially a tutor, was one of her favorite teachers. Milton had observed much along life’s milk route and was eager to pass on his observations. As he came up the steps to leave his deposit, he would also deposit his thought for the day. Although others had doubtless made similar observations, it was from Milton the milkman that Oreo first heard (here cast in Milton’s favorite syntactical form): You ever notice that all dentists have hairy arms and a large wristwatch? You ever notice that insurance men walk fast? You ever notice that African men and women all look like men, except Masai warriors, who look like women? You ever notice that you feel guilty when a bank clerk checks up on your balance? You ever notice that you feel guilty sitting in a movie theater waiting for them to turn the lights out and start the picture?
Milton the milkman had an udderful of theories, his Grade A theory a three-stage rumination upon the supposition that short toes, kinky hair, and impacted wisdom teeth were signs that their bearers were further along on the evolutionary scale than long-toed, straight-haired, erupted-wisdom-toothed people. He came up on the porch one day, sat down, and took off his shoes and socks. He believed in visual aids to get his ideas across to modem, media-oriented youth. “Look,” he said, pointing to his feet. “See? Short toes. Now, what does this mean? This means that I am on my way to being your man of the future. You ever notice that some people have toes like fingers? Now, I ask you, do we go around grasping things with our feet any more? The answer is no. Prehensile toes went out in the year one. Therefore, anybody with long toes is like a throwback. Therefore, I, Milton, with my short toes, am practically your man of the future. Pretty soon, toes will disappear altogether and people won’t be able to walk. But that will be okay, because by then everybody will be their own helicopter. They’ll be able to take off from a standing start and propel themselves wherever they want to go with some kind of individualized motor mechanism.
“Now, kinky hair. Kinky hair — like that beautiful fuzzy cloud you have — is not really kinky. It doesn’t zig and zag. Kinky hair is actually coily. That’s right — coily. Each little hair is practically by way of being a perfect circle. Now, these millions of coils on your head are all jumbled up, coiling around each other. That’s why it hurts you to comb your hair. You’re pulling in one direction, the coils may be pulling in sixteen other directions. But — and this is the main thing — while the coils are doing that, they are also forming air pockets. Now, air pockets do several things. One, they keep your head warm in the winter. Two, they keep your head cool in the summer. And, three, they protect you from concussions by absorbing the shock of blows to the head. Therefore, kinky hair is certainly more useful than straight hair. It is obviously advanced hair. I mean, the evolutionary wheel had to take a couple of wrong turns before it came up with kinky hair.
“Now, impacted wisdom teeth. Everyone knows that wisdom teeth are disappearing altogether. We don’t need all those teeth, what with your processed foods, your tenderized meats. Our jaws are trying to tell us something. Our gums are saying, ‘Enough, already. Who needs this?’ So to make the message a little clearer, the wisdom teeth say, ‘I’ll just stay here under the gums. Nobody needs me out there anyway. Why should I sweat it, working away and only catching an edge of something here, a piece of something there?’ So to sum up,’’ he said, putting his socks and shoes back on, “short toes, kinky hair, and wisdom teeth that won’t come out — these are your three indicators as to your superior person. If you should meet anybody with all three, you’re shaking hands with the future, because such a person is so far beyond us, he or she makes the rest of us look like cavemen.’’
As Milton went off the porch, Oreo patted her kinky hair, tapped her short toes, and — with supreme confidence — looked forward to the day when her wisdom teeth refused to erupt.
Another of Oreo’s regular tutors was Douglas Floors (né Flowers), her history instructor. Floors was a man of many parts — paranoid, tap dancer, cost accountant. But the chief part was the nature hater. His history lessons were extravagantly interrupted by heartfelt asides on what he had to put up with from trees and grass. He once told Oreo that he had offered to look after a friend’s pachysandra over the weekend, an offer that was hastily withdrawn when he learned that pachysandra was a plant and not an elephant seer whom no one believed. Now he cut short a discourse on the importance of ziggurats to the average Babylonian to say with a shudder, “Last night, the sunset was particularly ugly. Nasty oranges and purples, foul pinks and blues. On my way here, I saw a bird with fat cheeks — and a chest with the coloration of an autumn leaf.” He added dolefully, “Which is all right in its place: on an autumn leaf. At least you expect that kind of ugliness from an autumn leaf.”
Floors abominated the Bay of Fundy, detested the Marianas Trench, abhorred the aurora borealis, reviled the Sargasso Sea, was chilled by the Poles, North and South, and loathed any other manifestation of Mother Nature, commonplace or remarkable. It was from him that Oreo learned historical sidelights that have been suppressed by the international botanist conspiracy (code name: Botany 500): the unsightly foliage that nearly demoralized Sparta along its line of march just before the Battle of Amphipolis; the cumulative ill effects of cumulus clouds and photosynthesis on Richard III; the cypress infestation that was the last straw to relatives of bubonic plague victims fleeing Tuscany in 1347; the vindictiveness and moral turpitude of the puny (and Punic) shrubbery at Zama, the crucial factor in Hannibal’s defeat at the hands of Scipio Africanus Major; the real story behind the Wars of the Roses.
Whenever Floors came to teach, Louise flung a drop cloth over the hedges in front of the house, pulled the shades on the window giving onto the back yard, hid the flower vases and the century plant, and took the Turner and Constable reproductions off the walls. She changed James’s sun-pattern poncho and made sure the children wore nothing depicting flowers, trees, birds, clouds, mountains, rivers, or anything else that could be construed as part of nature’s bounty. Floors would enter, take off his dark glasses, turn his chair so that he would be facing a wall, and begin. “There’s a noisome Indian summer breeze blowing out there today. Such a breeze was blowing on that November day when Charles II lay on his deathbed — and greatly influenced his decision to die and start the War of the Spanish Succession.”
An important incident in the legend of Oreo
Louise’s brother Herbert was a great traveler. On his return from Morocco or Afghanistan or Greece or Chile, he would stop by to see his sister, check on James’s immobilization, and give Oreo and Jimmie C. the presents he had brought with him from foreign shores. He was a huge man, a 1 on the color scale. He had a scar from the corner of his lip to the top of his right ear, a memento of an incident of his childhood outside the village of Gladstone, when, with a callow slip of the tongue, he called two playmates of somewhat higher color-scale value black sons of bitches. Whenever he came to the house, he would go directly to the large mirror in the dining room, pull a flask from his hip pocket, drink deeply, growl, wipe his mouth with satisfaction, and say, “I’m Big Nigger Butler.” It was strange to hear this from a man for whom Hermann Göring could serve as Doppelgänger.
Herbert would fling off his coat and take out a little black book clotted with columns of three-digit numbers, written in heavy pencil. Under or over each digit in a three-figure unit was a dot or a dash or a circle or a slanted line or a cross. Herbert took Oreo on his knee and explained to her what these mysterious markings meant. It was an elaborate system for playing the numbers, a passion he shared with his sister Louise. His diacritical marks showed him which numbers had come out, when, their pattern of recurrence (did 561 prefer to come out in December, for example?), their correlation with world events (did numbers starting with 8 always presage the fall of a South American government, for instance?), and so on through a warren of statistical complexities that only Herbert could keep track of — Herbert who could correctly multiply any figure up to five digits by any other figure up to five digits in his head. But there was one difference between Herbert and Louise. Herbert had never hit a number. Oh, he had come close — once. He had played 782 straight on the day that Louise played 782 in the box and thereby hit for seven hundred dollars when 827 came out. Other than that, he rarely had even one digit in common with the number that hit. But he kept showing Oreo his book, telling her that one of these days, when she was old enough, he would have her trace his markings in ink. He secretly believed that his niece’s palimpsest of his numerical adventures would magically change his luck. His perverse delay (for Oreo had had her eraser and ballpoint at the ready for years) was a good example of herculean self-tantalization.
On one visit, Herbert had just returned from Africa. He had flung off his coat—made of the skin of a lion he had killed in a Nairobi pet shop — and had gone to his accustomed spot in front of the mirror to do his Big Nigger Butler routine, when all of a sudden there was a commotion behind him. He did not turn around, for he could see what was happening in the mirror. He had tossed his lion coat on a chair directly behind him, its hood with the opened-jawed lion’s head nuzzling his back. Oreo, thinking that the skin covered a live lion, had jumped up on the table behind her uncle and was stalking the coat. She came up behind it slowly, her hands behind her. When she was close enough, she pulled her jump rope from behind her back, whipped it around the head and mane, and double-dutched the coat to death — or so she thought. Her uncle, watching all this in the mirror, was impressed with her bravery. “She sure got womb, that little mother,’’ he said. “I wouldn’t want to mess with her when she gets older. She is a ball buster and a half.” He told the entire neighborhood about the incident. So it was that the legend of Oreo began to grow before she had cut her second teeth.
An important letter
At about this time, Oreo received a letter from her mother that influenced her thinking a great deal. Helen’s letter had its usual quota of asides, such as her paranoia about white dentists: “Suppose your dentist is white and suppose he just happens to harbor an unconscious hatred of black people and suppose he is in a bad mood anyway when you come in. Might he not just happen to bear down on the old drill a little harder, go a little deeper than he needs to? I am just asking and don’t want you to be warped for life by this thought. Besides, you still have your perfect little milk teeth. But since I’m on dentists, I will tell you about Dr. Goodbody. Dr. Goodbody starts spraying Lavoris before you even make an appointment. His sprayer bears a striking resemblance to a flame thrower. But who can blame him for his finickyness, considering the effluvium, the untreated sewage, the ick that issues from some people’s mouths? But Dr. Goodbody has never realized that a patient who is going to a dentist is like a housewife who cleans up before the maid comes. Such goings on with water picks and dental floss and mouthwash and toothpaste — to say nothing of sandpaper!”
This digression brought Helen logically to the main topic of her letter: the oppression of women. “This is a subject I’ve given a lot of thought to, and I think I have the answer. I’ve tried to encompass in my theory all the sociological, mythological, religious, philosophical, muscular, economic, cultural, musical, physical, ethical, intellectual, metaphysical, anthropological, gynecological, historical, hormonal, environmental, judicial, legal, moral, ethnic, governmental, linguistic, psychological, schizophrenic, glottal, racial, poetic, dental [this was the logical link], artistic, military, and urinary considerations from prehistoric times to the present. I have been able to synthesize these considerations into one inescapable formulation: men can knock the shit out of women.”
Helen’s letter went on to point out the implications of her formulation for the theory of the so-called black matriarchs: it tore the theory all to hell. In a later day, Helen might have gone on to add (with a slip of the pen owing to hunger): “There’s no male chauvinist pork like a black male chauvinist pork.” Now she contented herself with pointing out how her own mother still deferred to her father even in his immobilization, keeping on the safe side in case he ever came out of it. As Louise often said, “He ain’ gon [pronounced, by Louise and others, as if it were a French word, never as “gone”] hab no scuse to box my jaws.”
Helen’s letter so impressed Oreo that it led her to do two things: adopt a motto and develop a system of self-defense. The motto was Nemo me impune lacessit — “No one attacks me with impunity.” “Ain’t no nigger gon tell me what to do. I’ll give him such a klop in the kishkas!” she said, lapsing into the inflections of her white-skinned black grandmother and (through her mother) her dark-skinned white grandfather, as she often did under stress.
She called her system of self-defense the Way of the Interstitial Thrust, or WIT. WIT was based on an Oriental dedication to attacking the body’s soft, vulnerable spaces or, au fond, to making such spaces, or interstices, where previously none had existed; where, for example, a second before there had been an expanse of smooth, nonabraded skin and sturdy, unbroken bone. To this end, Oreo developed a series of moves that made other methods of self-defense — jiu-jitsu, karate, kung-fu, savate, judo, aikido, mikado, kikuyu, kendo, hondo, and shlong — obsolete by incorporating and improving upon their most effective aspects. With such awesome moves (or, as Oreo termed them, blōs) as the hed-lok, shu-kik, i-pik, hed-brāc, i-bop, ul-na-brāc, hed-blō, fut-strīk, han-krus, tum-blō, nek-brāc, bal-brāc, bak-strīk, but-kik, the size or musculature of the opponent was virtually academic. Whether he was big or small, fat or thin, well-built or spavined, Oreo could, when she was in a state of extreme concentration known as hwip-as, engage any opponent up to three times her size and weight and whip his natural ass.
She was once inadvertently in the state of hwip-as when she was riding in her uncle’s car. A man standing on a corner as the car passed had seen her and had made sucking noises to denote his approval of her appearance. Oreo did not consciously know she had heard these primitive sounds, but as she was getting out of the car, she was in such an advanced state of hwip-as that when she yanked at the ashtray, mistakenly thinking it was a door handle, she heedlessly created for her uncle the only three-door club coupe in America.
Oreo’s tutors were on vacation. She needed something to do to occupy her fourteen-year-old mind for a few weeks, so she put an ad in the papers. Three days later, she received a phone call from what sounded like a young white man.
“May I speak to Miss Christine Clark?’’ he asked.
“This is Christine Clark.”
“Are you the girl who advertised in the Situations Wanted column of the Inquirer?”
“My name is Dr. Jafferts. I’m the medical examiner for district five. I was wondering if I could interest you in a job?”
“I hope so.”
“Your ad said you’re a recent college graduate.”
“Yes, it did say that.”
“And your field was Chinese history?”
“I see,” he said. “Well, let me tell you a little about the job we have in mind. In this job, you’d be negotiating government contracts.”
“Chinese history doesn’t exactly prepare —”
“That’s all right,” he said generously. “We would train you. This job doesn’t come under civil service. You’d be working with another woman. The job involves some traveling within a hundred-mile radius of the city. Do you drive?”
“The job pays ninety-five to start and gas-mileage money. The hours are nine to three-thirty, five days a week. How does that sound?”
“Now, here’s the catch. Would you submit to a medical examination for the job?’ ’
“Certainly. Where’s your office?”
“Well, I don’t exactly have any particular office. I have to travel all over the district. I can give you the examination over the phone.’’
Aha, thought Oreo. “Over the phone?’’ she asked.
“Yes. You’d be surprised at how thorough a phone examination can be.’’ He paused, then said, “Do you have a house or an apartment?’’
“House,” said Oreo.
“And where is that located?”
She gave him her address.
“Are you alone?”
Oreo decided to go along with him. “Why, yes.”
“I just asked because some of the questions may seem highly personal. But this is a combination psychological and medical exam, so don’t be alarmed.”
“I promise,” said Oreo.
“How old are you?”
“Eighteen,” lied Oreo.
“Are you a virgin?”
Which answer is better for a shmuck like this? she wondered, and, having decided, said, “No.”
“Would you mind telling me the color of your underclothes?”
Oreo covered her mouth to keep from giggling.
“I mean, are they white or different colors like pink, blue?”
“All white,” said Oreo.
“Um-hmm. And what material are they? Silk, rayon, cotton?”
“I see. Now, would you mind telling me all the words you know that mean sexual intercourse?”
With a wicked smile, Oreo said, “Certainly. Procreation, cohabitation, coition, coitus.”
“No, no!” He sounded terribly disappointed. Then, clearing his throat, he said calmly, “I don’t mean . . . scientific terms. I mean just any words that might come to mind or that you might hear on the streets, for instance.”
“I’m sorry,” Oreo said. “Those are the only ones I can think of right now. Could I come back to that question?”
“Of course, of course,” he snapped. “Now, have you ever admired your body in a mirror?”
“Have you ever been roused? Does music ever make you want to — ?” He broke off, then he said, “I’ve finished the psychological examination. Now I want you to take off your clothes and give yourself the medical.” After a few moments he said, “Are they off?”
“No,” said Oreo, “I’m having trouble with my wedgies.” The doctor continued, oblivious to her anachronistic answer. “Rub along the inside of your thigh and tell me when you get wet.”
Oreo put down the phone and went over to water her begonia, then she came back and coughed into the phone to let the doctor know she was there.
“Are you wet yet?” he said wistfully.
Oreo said, “You know, doctor, the trouble with masturbation is you come too fast. There’s no one for you to give directions to. You know, like ‘No, not like that, like this. No, yes, no, harder, softer, up, down. No, no. I’m losing it. Yes, yes, that’s it, stay there, right there. No, no, not like that — the way you were doing it before. Yes, that’s it.’ And there’s no one for you not to give directions to. You know what I mean, doctor?” There was a moan at the other end of the line. “I’d like to come over and give you a complete examination,” said the moaner hoarsely.
“Why don’t you do that,” said the moanee sweetly.
“I’ll bring my tools with me,” the doctor said, in one last effort at pretense.
“Tools?” said Oreo. “One will be enough. Oh, by the way, doctor, I’ve finally thought of some words. I don’t know how they slipped my mind before.” Oreo said a lot of words that begin with p and c and t and x, that rhyme with bunt and pooky and noontang.
The doctor let out a gasp as big as Masters and Johnson and said he could be at her place in an hour. Oreo told him that she would wait for him on her front porch and that she would be wearing a begonia leaf.
She went immediately to a house three doors down from her and told a neighbor, Betty Williams, that she wanted to play a trick on an acquaintance. Betty was the neighborhood nymphomaniac. For two cents she would fuck a plunger. In fact, the story of Betty and the plumber’s friend was a West Philadelphia legend. Anyone who thought that the shibboleth friend referred to a person was known to be an outsider and was therefore the object of xenophobic ridicule and scorn. Betty agreed to help her young friend Oreo.
So it was that when Dr. Jafferts came panting down the street, already slavering, it was Betty who, wearing the begonia leaf, waylaid him, as it were, on Oreo’s porch and led him to her house, where Oreo was in hiding.
After a few preliminaries involving the you-sounded-different-over-the-phone routine, the doctor — a young shmegegge who looked like the kind of person who doted on tapioca pudding, and ergo propter hoc, whose favorite Marx Brother was Gummo — was seated in a chair cruelly sited to give him a view up Betty’s short skirt. Sitting on a high stool, Betty began a rhythmic opening and closing of her legs, revealing and concealing a tangle of pubic hair. The sweat stood out on the doctor’s head after the first two open-close, open-close beats. After a while, he seemed in danger of drowning in his own juice.
But Oreo’s plan was without mercy. Simultaneously with the rhythms she was laying down from her stool, Betty began telling the doctor one of her favorite jokes. “It’s about this man and woman who go down to Florida on their fifteenth wedding anniversary. They get up in their room, and the first thing they do is take off all their clothes.”
The doctor licked his lips in anticipation, his eyes fixed on Betty’s open-close, open-close.
Betty was beginning to overheat from hearing her own story, but she went on. “And the man says to the woman, says, ‘Honey, we been married all these years now and we always do it the same way. Let’s screw a new way this time. Now, you stand over in that corner, and I’ll stand over here. Then we’ll run toward each other and meet in the middle.’ So they go to the different corners and start running toward each other. But they miss and run right past. The man is going so fast, he goes sailing out the open window. His room is on the tenth story, but he’s lucky ’cause he falls in the swimming pool. But he’s afraid to come out ’cause he don’t have no clothes on. Everybody seems to be running to the hotel and nobody’s paying him no mind, but he’s still afraid to come out the pool buck naked. Then he sees this bellhop ready to go in the hotel, and he calls him over. He says, ‘Say, bellhop, I want to get out the pool, but I can’t ’cause I ain’t got no clothes on.’ The bellhop don’t even look surprised. He says, ‘That’s all right, sir, nobody’ll pay no ’ttention to you. You just come on out.’ The man says, ‘What do you mean nobody’ll pay no ’ttention to me? I’m buck naked!’ The bellhop says, ‘I know, sir, but most of the people are up on the tenth floor trying to figure out a way to get a woman off a doorknob.’ ”
By this time both Betty and the doctor were raging beasts. As the doctor ran to the attack — or, rather, the collaboration — Oreo came out of hiding and gave him a quick shu-kik to the groin, then got his jaw in the classic nek-brāc position. With his life but a blō away, he promised Oreo he would never again annoy innocent young women by phone or in person with his snortings and slaverings. With a half-force bak-bop she propelled him off Betty’s porch and watched as he shmegeggely fled the street.
She turned back just in time to hear Betty saying plaintively, “But what about me?”
Oreo realized that it had been very brave and self-sacrificing of Betty to participate in this little hoax. But her face brightened when she saw what time it was. She gave Betty the good news. “What about you? It’s five-thirty. Your father will be home any minute now. Do what you usually do in these circumstances. Fuck him.”
Excerpted from Oreo by Fran Ross. Copyright (c) 2015 by Fran Ross. Reprinted with permission of New Directions Publishing Company.