October 30, 2016

SUN STORY SUNDAYS | Eulogy: For My Dearest Taft

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Send submissions to Andres Vaamonde, alv49@cornell.edu. The audio component of this story can be found here.

Eulogy: For My Dearest Taft

I bought Taft in 2006. He was sold at a makeshift pet shack beside the I-5, about ten miles south of the Kettleman City exit, where everyone veered off the road to relieve swollen bladders and indulge barely-caffeinated Starbucks Frappuccinos. At first, the shack appeared to be a strawberry stand; it stooped in front of a seemingly endless array of manicured fields and sporting a bright red tablecloth. Large “FOR SALE” lettering had caught my eye, compelling me to make yet another stop in the hopes of sinking my teeth into ripened berries — or, at least, prolonging actually arriving at my destination.

The booth was manned by your stereotypical Californian-wannabe-redneck. His shoulders were sunburned. He crudely chewed a wad of foul tobacco. He might have been the real deal if it weren’t for the Staples paper nametag that read, “Hello, my name is… AL.” His name was written in highlighter. Real rednecks don’t use highlighters.

It quickly became evident that his shack was devoid of berries and stocked, instead, with strange merchandise. His first tried selling me on a Juventudian voodoo doll, which apparently could make any enemy “rue the day” — another telltale sign of his faux redneck-ness. I joked that I could get the battered looking rag doll for Danny; perhaps he could use it to enact the revenge he intended for the Federal Prosecutor.

Next, Al elected to show off a freshly patented bar of Pope Soap. He claimed it was made from a combination of ground rosaries, infused with shards of shredded bible and held together by a delectable smelling Eucharist paste. It “saved the sultry soul and squashed unpleasant scents,” or so claimed the label. I told him I was an atheist. He quickly dropped the bar and grunted.

“I be knowin’ what heathens wan, ya shuda jus said so!”

Al reached below the counter and produced a metal cage, awaking its sleeping inhabitant. He rested the contraption on the counter and beamed a gloating smile.

“… what is it?” I asked.

“Well ma’am, this here be a ferret, them is illegal contoraband!”

The little creature had positioned itself in a crescent moon shape and nestled its chin between two lightly furred front paws. It looked intently up at my face with a pair of pebble-sized brown eyes.

I had never done anything illegal, nor did I intend to. But something about the little animal made me feel obligated to rescue it from Al’s tchotchke emporium. I bought the ferret, and the voodoo doll and, begrudgingly, I returned to I-5. The voodoo doll would live at Taft Prison with Danny. Or, at least, this was the plan. School having beat the creativity from my brain, I decided the ferret would also be named Taft.

In preparing this eulogy I have come to realization that Taft was much more than an illegal collection of cells. He was a tabernacle of memory. Thus, I would like to share three catalogued Taftian tales.

One:

The room was circularly shaped. It resembled a large black and white cookie, with a line of flames delineating the middle. You could stand on the flames for some amount of time before they started to cauterize the soles of your feet. However, the line moved at inexplicable and immeasurable intervals. Thus, aside from having to worry about scorched feet you also had to vigilantly monitor even the slightest movements of the flame in order to remain on its neutral parallel. Otherwise you could find yourself on either the white or black half of the circle. The white half was covered with lush, off-white shag carpeting and was bordered by a mural of aboriginal flowers and kangaroo children that jumped around the opulent-looking spring meadow. This side of the room had mastered the false veneer of pleasantry, creating a poison aura that led to inevitable addiction. Conversely, the other side of the room was covered in charcoal linoleum and was filled with suffocating grey fog. The bad news was that, once you stepped into this side of the room, you could never see your way out. The good news was that you would suffocate to a quick death within moments. The white side, I should have mentioned, has a large mirror that reflects the black side. Thus, one could never be sure which side they were on. Only waiting anxiously to asphyxiate could answer this question. All this aside, trust me when I say, it is best to remain on the central fire strip. As Taft said, choose your battles. If you’re saving your lungs, who gives a rat’s (he hated vermin) ass about your feet?

Two:

This one was more of a gallery, a brightly populated homage to history’s brightest moments. Let me preface this by saying, contrary to popular belief, in order to be bright something does not need to be good. The paraphernalia that filled this room included Elvis’ favorite guitar, a Tibetan monk mandala that had been glued to a dismantled cardboard box, a spool of unfettered Chinese green tea stolen from Mao’s kidnapped geisha, the remnants of a Faberge egg smashed to smithereens by Stalin, several potted tulips that refused to drink anything besides Grey Goose, a cooler of depleted liver sacks from goose harvested for foie gras, beaks of ravens that had been removed and fashioned into nail clippers, etc. Taft said he would have photographed the loot for me if it hadn’t been for the silhouette of a honey badger that presided over the trove. He didn’t speak, but the showed claw of the badger extended its middle finger to follow Taft wherever he scampered and would start shaking the finger violently if Taft came close to actually touching any of the objects. Taft debated stealing a particularly brilliant set of curated blue eyes that bobbed in a mason jar on one of the shelves as a souvenir for me, but was worried what the honey badger projection would have to say about thievery and pondered how unpleasant it would be to become the taxidermic ferret of the vast collection.

Three:

Taft’s favorite nightlife destination was the “Porcupine Room.” It celebrated all things with a sharpened end — pencils, rose thorns, spurs, forks, straw, fingernails and so on. They were all either primrose purple or amber argyle and were artfully positioned in a series of designs that covered the walls, ranging from cascading waves to a delightful marriage of a young woman to her Chaucer sculpture, made from origami cranes of torn Canterbury Tales. The floor resembled the texture of an oversized snakeskin and was crafted from a mosaic of spoon heads that alternated between being flipped up and face down. Taft described doing a backstroke across the floor as the best massage and expression of “self-loving” anyone could ever hope for. The room also lacked a roof and, due to its close proximity to the airport, offered the entertainment of examining the bellies of descending planes as they flew overhead. He also noted that on nights when the moon was particularly bright, the planes offered much needed optical relief from its ominous glow. 

** ** ** **

I-5 is a straight highway. Its best attribute is deception. You can leave Northern California and almost immediately see the outline of mountains, marking the glorious Grapevine gateway to the South. Yet, four hours later, they are no more vivid than when you left. I wonder, from time to time, if Al still sells his goods on the side of the road to the few travelers who bother to stop their monotonous trek. I have debated returning to the highway and heading to Taft Prison to, finally, give Danny this voodoo doll. I must confess. I have kept it. I just don’t think I can bring myself to go back. If I did, I would surely feel obligated to buy another ferret. However, as a sort of compromise, I have resolved to plunge a needle through the doll’s ears to stop hearing Taft’s stories. After all, that’s what he would have wanted.

Becca Schwartz is a senior in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. Comments may be sent to associate-editor@cornellsun.com. Sun Story Sundays appears alternate Sundays this semester.

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