Remembering James Foley: "The Beauties of Cooptown"
James Foley was an American journalist, video reporter, Teach for America educator, and creative writer. On August 19, 2014, James was murdered by ISIS in Syria, becoming the first American citizen to be killed by ISIS as a response to the American airstrikes in Iraq.
Here at Hayden's Ferry Review, we were shocked and saddened to hear about this tragedy. In 2001, HFR published James' story, "The Beauties of Cooptown," as part of issue 27. He shared the pages with writers such as Lydia Davis, Eamon Grennan, and George Saunders.
In honor of James Foley and his family, and as a reminder of his creative talent, we'd like to share James' lovely and moving story. Please enjoy "The Beauties of Cooptown" and visit the James W. Foley Legacy Fund to learn how you can do more.
The Beauties of Cooptown
Mother’s clientele show exceptional interest in third world conditions following natural disasters. I watch the Catholic Charities group in their matching sweatshirts and sun visors. Bus boarding begins at 8:00 AM. I see them filing into the bus from our balcony at the Boca Grande. A hurricane hit last week. The tour will follow the refugees migrating down the Cooptown. Cooptown, where the relief comes in gallons of purified water and non-perishable food aid.
The Boca Grande is where we stay when the tours come. It has two pools, one surrounded in reeded bamboo, the other done like a coral reef with plastic fish embedded in the cement. The Boca has the usual amenities of upper echelon resort hotels, bath tub Jacuzzis and six packs in the drink bar. Billy’s hand covers the Bud and weis of one of the six pack cans. His fingers are as thick as bratwurst. He had to make a plaster cast of them to be fitted for golf clubs. He’s half way finished with the beer in four gulps and keeps asking why I need a nose job.
I tell him because it’s ugly. He tells me it looks distinguishing, like the kind players get when they spear tackle and the helmet cuts a distinguishing mark across their nose. I tell him that this is my chance for corrective procedures. Billy says, “What corrective procedures? It’s only a bump and you can get plenty of guys as it is.” AS if I’m looking for the type of guys you find on a third world island. I’m only fifteen. “Why does it matter then?” he says. I’m an opportunist and he knows it.
I hold out a melted California license. It says Samuel Reinhart. In the photo ID he’s balding, bespectacled and doctor-like. He’s here on the island. Here to help the lowest of the low. Mother keeps her ear to the comings and goings of all the island’s non-refugees. She let it slip that he was a surgeon to the stars before some trouble with developers and banks brought him to his spiritual senses. Mother’s bus tour of Cooptown left him weeping into the back of his seat cushion. On the last day of the tour, Dr. Reinhart lit a butane lighter under his wallet and wondered off the bus. Mother noted his non-compliance with the tour’s low-impact policies. She brought it to his attention as he muttered something about materialist shackles. He told mother to take all his luggage and pile it at the feet of the most unattractive street dweller. Mother gave him her cell phone number. She told him to call it by sundown. I have all his melted credit cards. They say Gold Preferred.
You don’t hear about the doctor. At night the capital is a massive blackness punctured by feeble campfires. Radio Libre was unprooted when all the lights went out. Hurricane Jumbo, I called it. The news of his deeds does not reach the electronic gates of our generator-powered hotel. I search for it. I’ve seen things on the Cooptown tour. Signs of his work. Cheekbones transplants from a Parisian runaway to standing water holes. Women pouting at knee deep trash with impossibly full lips. Women with augmented breasts hanging from squalored chicken wire cublicles. They are the beauties of Cooptown. They are penance for all that Hollywood.
I tell Billy about the beauties. He says I have a fixation. He says if he tried hard enough, he could envision 18 plush greens through the haze of a devastated third world island. He’d be playing a wind-swept 18th with a knowledgeable caddie and a view of all the embargoed ships. The island’s only course was ravaged last week. Billy is trying not to infect me with his disappointment. Instead, he’s been drinking a lot. He’s on his last can of Budweiser.
Mother’s access to the lower Caribbean has brought Reality Tours a regular clientele of Christian Evangelicals and photojournalists. The other tours won’t go as third world, Billy says. He uses a laser pointer to trace around the embroidered “Jefe” sewn into Mother’s safari jacket hanging from the walk-in closet. Mother sends her color brochures from direct mailing lists to churches all over the States. “Do Something Good,” they say in glossy print.
The bus returns at five for the evening buffet. I pry the King Cobra driver from Billy’s hand and try to wake him from his drinking stupor. He winds up for a swing with the extra long shaft before he realizes it’s me. The women from Milwaukee’s Catholic Charities wear purple sweatshirts with white doves on them. Mrs. Sarandon gives us a wave. She’s an old parishioner come to check on Mother’s work. Her hair looks like she’s been sucked through a vacuum. Her varicose veins are prominent road markings turning towards the buffet line.
Mrs. Sarandon sits at our table. Billy is drinking large quantities of bottled water. “It’s just unbelievable how much we have and how much they do without.” She says. “Today we saw a family roasting a goat inside the ruins of their shack. When the bus pulled over for the journalist people to get their lenses our on them, the father made me an offering of grizzled fat. Do you know how little fat there was on the thing to being with?” she asks me.
Grizzled fat. Mrs. Sarandon goes on and on, the flab on her arms waddles with each gesture. “Still they have this glow about them,” she says. Her plate of rast beef and scalloped potatoes gets flies in it. The flies that hide between flown-in flower bunches and devices that smell live vanilla-cinnamon when plugged into an electrical outlet.
This island’s infectious in the worst ways. Mange dogs run through the remains of the hill shacks. They’re starving now, snapping for the cow dung that used to steam at their noses. The cows all white and bloated on the beach. Thrown from the hill shacks into the bay with the first hurricane strength winds. The dogs won’t last long. They’re lonely and have splintered wood in their teeth.
Mrs. Sarandon’s a bleeding heart of the first order, the type that says the blacker the better. The type that would change the sheets on her college daughter’s bed for a refugee, and make her daughter sleep on the couch during Christmas vacation. She asks if she can see the girl that I’ve been describing. She wants to bring one home with her. Billy stops moving the scalloped potatoes into his mouth at such a high rate. He mumbles, “What girl?” Mrs. Sarandon tries not to look at his fisted grip on the fork as it shifts and scrapes the potatoes. I tell Billy she wants to meet Fenee. “Billy has earned the only handicap on the island,” I say. “Handicap,” she says. “I’m her offensive line,” he says, “look at the nose.” I pretend to blow my nose and Mrs. Sarandon comments on how attractive I look in Egyptian linen.
Mother is a stickler for regulations. Our relationship with the few plush resorts on the island depends on it. She spends a week in New York City going over clientele orientation packets. Any conspiracy to remove natives from the population is prohibited, in bold letters. “Whatever your reasons for purveying third world culture,” mother says, “natives are not to be fraternized with. Otherwise, plenty of your Evangelicals would be straying into mud huts just long enough to ingest an unclassified tapeworm and die in three short weeks.” This brings a few morbid laughs from the photojournalists smoking foreing-type cigarettes in the back of the orientation room.
Mrs. Sarandon wants a girl. The girl I can think of, the only one with particular refugee potential is Fenee, the under-fed street girl who sells postcards on the tour bus. She slips under the bus driver’s arm and goes for the bus seats reserved for clientele. She holds up postcards, running up the aisle shouting, “sexy men, look at sexy men. One for one dollar.” The clientele look straight ahead. They have internalized mother’s low impact tourism talk.
Fenee is black as night and has walnut-size boils on her neck. Her nose is feline perfect, her cheeks too high for island breeding. The photojournalists calibrate their lenses and attempt a few pictures. They gleam at the contrasts, her native body pressed against reclinable seats. She knows I will give her the money. My contribution to native co-dependency is a dollar for Brad Pitt in a skinny T-shirt. Mother glares at my inappropriate example. She muffles the microphone against her safari jacket as the bus driver escorts Fenee from my seat.
Feene has a face that cuts a shame inside me. A smile that makes me forget her musty odor. She is a beauty of cooptown. The resort employees have a made smile. A be good and give me one of those crisp dollars smile. It comes in wide, white teeth when your bags are placed on the bell hop trolley, while wearing white soufflé chef hats during the serving of evening buffets. Fenee looks at me like I could grant her the right to live and breathe. She doesn’t know what she has. She smiles clutching my dollar while she is being escorted off the bus. The sound of her flat feet dragging against the high traction rubber matting makes clientele stiffen in their seats.
Mother has a familial policies. They are the special rules she has made for Billy and me. We are not to compromise our security by engaging in any unofficial tours. I don’t intend to break the policies until I see my opportunity. I solicit the Boca Grande shuttle driver to take me into the capital. The capital with no electricity. No electricity and no illuminated landing zone for the Red Cross shipments. Armed bands roam the streets in search of food. Anything resembling Japanese electronics has been looted. He will take me if I pay him. I pay him mucho.
The shuttle driver waits fro me at the place where Fenee sneaks on the bus. Where the concrete meets the water in a jagged mess, what was called a harbor. The remains of shipping crates are here, the wooden slats scattered like whale’s bones. Crowds of men have piled them together to make fires in the dusk, fires with no food on them. The non-perishable food aid has gone away. Fenee holds up a bare chested Stallone postcard to the under-inflated refugees.
There is a light in her eyes when she sees me. I give her a can of Coke from the drink bar. She stares at its redness, the puts it up her dress. She calls me purty girl. “Purty girl wants sexy men?” She holds up the Stallone postcard. “Dr. Samuel Reinhart,” I say. She stares at me. I point to her nose and say words like surgeon and reconstruction. She understands nothing.
One of the men from the crowd swings his machete into the crate wood. I point ot the machete and make a slicing motion under cheeks. She shakes her head. I say the word doctor. She turns her face from me, I know she understands. The men are talking together. They keep eyeing the shuttle. They have their hungry eyes on me. I look well-nourished. I’ve never been considered even close to fat, but none of them have ever eaten at the evening buffet.
I hear the sound of the shuttle driver breaking out a shotgun and pointing it through the extra-tinted windows. He tells me to get in. The man with the machete turns. I tell Fenee I want her to take me to the doctor. “No doctor, “ the shuttle driver says, “time to go home.” I get in the shuttle. Fenee shines as we burn rubber.
I want a surgeon. The kind that will craft a smooth-barreled nose with rounded nostrils that flare with impunity. The kind that keeps cartilage in his refrigerator and plays at carving perfect features over a solid kitchen table. The kind that cadres a Polaroid album of all his previous work, the next-day photos: two black eyes and a shield of white plastic, develop into the after-photos: the bloom of classic features. I’ll select the Polaroid of the smooth-haired, Jewisih girl who wears a diamond pin stuck in her left nostril. That nose will be mine, like when I was eight years old and didn’t stop to look at myself in the mirror, for days maybe.
Billy says the only thing the doctor will do after months i nCooptown is trade my kidneys for dollars. I will wake up rom a drug-induced sleep with dirty stitches. I tell him it’s my only chance at physical perfection. He tells me he’ll show me physical perfection. Billy’s heard the military junta has commandeered a putting green that wasn’t dismantled by the hurricane. A doctor must know of fabled greens.
The sun burns down past the debris-clotted palms. Mrs. Saradon’s still hot to rescue a refugee. We move in closing darkness outside the generator-powered lights. But the Boca shuttle man refuses to take us considering his previous risks and the radio bulletin informing looters that they are to be shot on sight. The military has moved into the capital and Mother has had all clientele sign State of Emergency release forms.
Billy and I sneak Mrs. Sarandon into a cab. She is uncomfortable riding between Billy and me. She holds her white purse close against the pleats of her blue skirt and asks me if the girl has any family or communicable diseases. Her purse carries a letter from the bishop of Milwaukee. The bishop who has helped to relocate numerous refugees. She will take Fenee to the embassy and wait there until the papers are processed. Fenee will enlarge on bratwurst and sauerkraut in the Wisconsin room of the embassy. Her boils will be drained of the diseases in a fully-insured clinic.
The three of us cram in the back seat of the taxi. The motor hums against the rutted road. We ride by a bare chested boy carrying a single piece of cardboard wit h Red Cross marked on it. The cardboard red crosses that lie nailed to rooftops. I shrink at the fish and disease smell seeping in through the cracked windows. Mrs. Sarandon’s Hair goes limp. Rouge blots on her cheeks like red stains. I uncrumple Mother’s card, her name, her e-mail, her cell phone number. I wonder what to do with it.
We are looking for Fenee through the fires by the water’s edge. Other uncontrolled fires, have begun in the capital. In Fenee’s usual place stands an armored vehicle with an attached battering ram. Several members of the anti-looter battalion in full riot gear are stationed at its sides. Billy says he recognizes one of them. I say, how? You can’t see his face. He says he’s sure of it, one of them played the back nine on a makeshift course Billy constructed in his spare time. “You can tell by how he holds the gun,” Billy says. He steps out of the cab, pulls up his Bermuda shorts and walks towards the one wearing the rubber gas mask. The soldier lowers his gun. They pat each other on the back. Billy mocks playing a tough lie with the soldier’s submachine gun stock. They are both laughing. Mrs. Sarandon blots at her rouge. We hear sporadic gunfire.
I see a flaming bottle in the air. A gasoline-filled bottle stuffed with a lighted T-shirt. It falls towards us. The bottle hits the cab. The roof is on fire. I can’t feel anything but a tingling in my nose as it swells from the impact. I think I’m in a state of shock. I feel Mrs. Sarandon dragging me out of the flaming cab. Her vinyl Reeboks kick in the driver’s side window. She says, “your Mother knows I’m no choir wimp,” and sets down to do mouth-to-mouth on the cab driver’s bloated lips. The riot-geared soldiers fire rubber bullets into the smoke. Billy settles in a three-point stance but loses hold of the sub-machine gun. A fumble. Recovering it by the trigger, he wastes the entire coup into the tires of the smoldering taxi.
The smoke from the burning tires and the greased heat on the guns fills my lungs. I feel my plan losing ground. The soldiers help Mrs. Sarandon and the cab driver into the armored vehicle. Billy holds the sub-machine gun like a driver. He is swinging it through the smoke. He tells me to get in the vehicle. I shake my head, I see Fenee’s bony frame in a sack dress. She looks at me and begins to run through narrow buildings. I chase her across the open-fire zone. Billy yells after me. I have lost my mother’s card.
The shambled buildings crowd Fenee and me into a narrow path. A black stream stagnates beside Sandbags. Fenee runs ahead through the smoke, past the melted fifty-gallon drums. Her callused feet slow when we hear the echo of more gunfire. The bullets clap louder as they pass into the buildings’ hollow insides. It’s all I can do to avoid a mental picture of my nose. I touch it, feeling its swollen, banana shape. I fall to the sand bags in depression. My white linen pants soak black in the stream.
Fenee walks back down the smoky path. I tell her I need to see the doctor. Her nose quivers. “I will take you if you come quickly,” she says. Her speech is more perfect than before. She waits with her hands on her hips as I get to my feet. “Follow me and don’t stop,” she says. We climb through a window into one of the hollowed out buildings. Inside is an ice cream cart leaning on one bicycle wheel. Neapolitan flavored wrappers stick to my shoes in brown, white, and pink. We pass through hthe back door into a dirt alley. Strong odors come up at me from burning garbage that smolders on either side of us. Fenee points ahead to a fence.
On the other side is Cooptown. Cooptown, the Red Cross relief station. A cage of wire surrounds it. Billy told me it was made of hardware gauge chicken wire. The crate wood frames encased in the chicken wire have families inside them. The Red Cross built enough cubicles for twenty families. I can see their huddled blackness in two-storied rows. Outside the cubicles, crowds of refugees surge together like waves.
Fenee pulls up the rusted lip of the cage. I slip underneath it. In the crowd of the refugees towers a white-skinned man. They press towards him, climbing over and around each other. Fenee puts both hands on my back and plows me through their dusty smells. The man in the white bathrobe looks at the ground. He wears gold-rimmed glasses. The California driver’s license is his. Below him in the packed dirt is the body of a woman. The most beautiful woman I have ever seen. She is solemn and noble like hieroglyphs of an Egyptian Queen. A high-caliber bullet has pierced her forehead. He sees me and looks away. He looks back and asks ”Why?” ”Does she look like a looter?” he asks. ”This is beauty here, this beauty in the muck.” Then there is a sound of heavy rumbling.
The armored vehicle runs through the outer cage. It quakes and rumbles the packed dirt. The crowd splits in two and the doctor is left to face the blunt surface of the battering ram. He steps over the body, his glasses are fogged. He bends to lift her as the crowd begins stoning the vehicle. The clodded dirt and rocks fall off the armor like plinking rain on a tin roof. I help him with her bare arm. We drag her to the first chicken wire cublicle, onto the floor of bare two by fours. His mad scientist eyes shift over her. The bullet in her forehead is like a spiritual red dot. She seems not dea, meditating with closed eyes and silent lips. Meditating on where her beauty got her.
”She was my lover,” he tells me. ”The most beautiful thing I’ve ever had.”
”You made her very beautiful,” I say.
”Made her beautiful,” he says, ”she made me feel like a tired old man with new skin. She sucked my life and gave it new breath.”
”Your surgery is amazing,” I tell him.
”Surgery, I haven’t cut a thing since I was defrocked. I buried my knives under Saint Theresa in the square. I injected all my anesthesia into the first dying woman I saw. They cancelled all my credit cards and put my condo up.” His red eyes blaze at me.
Fenee runs in and drops to the group. ”They shoot gas at us,” she whispers. White stuff comes out of her mouth. Convulsions begin to shake her body. The doctor tears his robe to the waist. He scrapes his index finger inside her mouth. A fog of white gas seeps through the spaces of chicken wire. I hear the screams of them through the fog. High-pitched screams, wailing and angry that will keep me up at night. A terrible thirst scratches at my throat, my eyes tear. I can’t use them. The doctor gives me a piece of his cloth.
Someone else is inside the cubicle. A man in a rubber mask has me. He holds my body in his thick arms, pulling me against an extended stomach. I see Bermuda shorts. Billy, his hands tight as vices around me. Fenne? The doctor’s knuckles are over his face, he bends to Fenne’s still black-as-nightness.
Billy is forcing me down into the armored vehicle. As I sink below the metal surface, I see the doctor running half-naked through the haze. His ribs pink against the red flares. Fenee in his arms. He runs up the burning runaway, headed for the ocean. Headed for the only clean air on the island.
The island is on fire in the morning sunlight. No news makes it past the electronic gates. From the balcony, smoke chars the horizon. Billy is out trying to piece the smog with a bucket full of balls. Mother checks on me. Te-checking the surgical tape across my cheeks. I hardly feel my nose. I hardly care.
Mother looks hard into my face for things. She asks what she has done wrong as a mother. She wants to know if Fenee was the girl always getting on the bus. She wonders why she never recognized her. ”She’s beautiful,” I tell her.
”You’re beautiful,” she says, ”and I don’t want you to do that again.” Tomorrow the bus will go on tour of smoking Cooptown. I will go down to the edge of the harbor. I will look for Fenee.