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Exquisite Corpse
Issue 8A Journal of Letters and Life

Statue of Liberty
by Robin Becker
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The Cooper twins, Tiffany and Dawn, prepared weeks in advance for their sister-bonding raft trip down the Mississippi by spending long hours watching Huckleberry Hound reruns and amassing a large, protective arsenal of beauty products. Luckily, the products were free because Tiffany, the beautiful twin, was a New York-based supermodel who had somehow managed to convince Cosmopolitan magazine to sponsor the trip in exchange for a first-person, Gonzo-style article on the adventure. As her new agent barked into his cell phone time and time again, "Tiffany has already capitalized on the natural beauty she was born with, but she's done with that, finito, through. Now it's time to show that her mind is a little hottie, too." Tiffany originally wanted to title the article, "The Mississippi's Beautiful and So Am I" but her editor preferred his own suggestion, "Stories of the Storied River: Tales from the Perspective of a Supermodel."
     Tiffany, and Cozmo, had hired a guide to take them down river, a tall, muscular, and hunky young man who claimed to be descended from cane-pickin' Louisiana slaves, but who was really a foreign exchange graduate student from a small, wealthy African nation on the Ivory Coast. He'd taken the job because he, too, planned to write an article on the adventure, a sociological treatise on the legacy of gender and race relations in the American South, tentatively titled, "Still Jim after All these Years."
     "Whoa," he said when he first got an eyeful of the beauty that is Tiffany, "I sure be likin' yo hair like yellow yarn, and yo devil-blue eyes, Miss Tiffany."
     "Please, Jim," Tiffany said, giggling, "for this trip, I'm just plain ole Tiff."
     "You couldn't never be plain to my eyes," he answered.
     "And this is my twin sister, Dawn," Tiffany said and pushed Dawn forward like a show poodle.
     Jim made his eyes bug out like he saw the slaves do in "Gone With the Wind," a movie he watched at least 50 times--for research purposes only--during his studies of the antebellum South.
      "Are you sure you two is sisters?" he asked.
      "We're fraternal," Tiffany said, "but don't you think Dawn's pretty too?"
      Jim shook his head because Dawn was no Tiffany. Where Tiffany had golden tresses streaming down her shoulders like sunlight itself, Dawn had a greasy dishwater mop-top. Tiffany was a Grecian statute; Venus at the moment she morphed into Aphrodite, on the cusp of Rome, straddling both myth and marble. She stored fat cells in gravity-defying grandeur, collecting and distributing them as if by will, siphoning them into her full breasts like bouncy water balloons and her firm buttocks. Dawn, on the other hand, was short and stumpy, like a troll, and her fat collected in her spare-tire stomach and the backs of her wrinkly thighs.
     "Is Jim your real name?" Dawn asked politely, extending her Pillsbury dough-boy hand.
     "No, ma'am," Jim replied, puffing out his chest and abs, which were sculpted as if from the hardest, smoothest onyx, "I'm James Earl King Washington, the third. At your service."
     "Nice to meet you, James," Dawn said.
      Jim was dressed in full costume for his role as minstrel, river raft captain-tattered chinos with the pants legs cut into triangles, a dirty, tuxedo-style shirt unbuttoned to the navel, and a too-small straw hat perched like a bird's nest on top of his trim, tight afro. Hidden in his pants pocket were a miniature tape-recorder, a wallet stuffed with emergency hundred-dollar bills, and a driver's license bearing his real name, Chitu Okoli.
     After staring at maps and calculating costs, the trio decided to start the raft trip in Memphis, and ignore the Minnesota origins of the river, because Minnesota was just too far, and plus, the cooler, drier weather up north is bad for the skin and hair. At Graceland, they met up with the fourth member of their crew, a freelance fashion photographer hired by Cozmo to take black and white photos of Tiffany trickling her hand on top of the muddy water, and sunbathing on the quaintly primitive wooden raft.
     "You can call me Stefan," the photographer said, "if you call me anything at all. But I prefer to keep in the background, and let the click of the shutter be my voice. To speak with me is to break the spell and the magic of fashion."
     "How come I haven't worked with you before?" Tiffany asked.
     "I've been working strictly on my artistic images for the past few years," Stefan sniffed. "My primary goal now is to hang exclusively in galleries."
      But Stefan was lying. For the past few years, he'd been photographing sausages and cheese for a mail-order catalogue. During the 80's, he was an up and comer in the fashion world, but his love of cocaine transformed him from a demanding but supportive photographer, to a controlling tyrant. He was finally blacklisted in 1989 when he made Christie Brinkley, during a shoot for Cover Girl, cry by telling her that she was so bland even her pussy needed mascara.
     Off they went, the fashion photographer dressed in fashionable black, the supermodel, her ugly twin, and the duplicitous guide. There was much fanfare when they shoved off from the Pyramid in downtown Memphis. A high-school brass band played "Take Me to the River" and the local media covered the event. It was headline news for The Memphis Star Tribune, squeezing out a report of genocide in some unpronounceable country located, ironically, next to Jim's small and prosperous homeland.
     After the christening and shove-off, the thatched-together wooden raft floated calmly down the border between Tennessee and Arkansas. Tiffany reclined on a chaise lounge, in a Tommy Hilfiger swimsuit, pen in hand, and a brand-new notebook open in her lap. Stefan ran around her taking pictures silently while Jim sat in the back, his knees drawn up to his chest, tape recorder running.
     "What should I write, Dawn?" Tiffany asked.
     "Why don't you describe the color of the water," Dawn said from her perch near the edge of the raft, "or speculate on what kinds of fish are down there? Or maybe comment on the odd juxtaposition between the lush vegetation and the factories along the banks? You know, sort of, the Mississippi of the rural past versus the industrial present."
     Dawn pointed one of her stubby fingers to a plastics plant a half-mile down river. A thick column of gray smoke spewed from a smokestack that looked to Stefan like Auschwitz and that smelled like the farts of tires. An eternal flame burned high above the factory, its orange glow licking the sky like an Olympian torch from hell.
     Tiffany snapped her fingers. "Say," she said, "I've got it! See that flame over there?"
     "We all sees it, Miss Tiff," Jim said.
     "That flame is the flame of America! It's like the torch of the Statue of Liberty--think about it--we wouldn't have alpha-hydroxy without that beautiful burning fire! And alpha-hydroxy keeps you young. There's my angle. My article will be a catalogue of the factories along the river and all the wonderful products that result from them. Stefan, get me a picture of that flame."
     "Excuse me for saying this, Miss Tiff," Jim said, rising from his seat near the rudder, "but Jim must needs begs to differ. My folks've been from roun' dis way for one hundred or more year, and we seen the death of the great river spiritÖ"
     "Yes, yes," Tiffany said, scribbling in her notebook, "this kind of folktale is exactly what I needÖ"
     "We simple folk don' like the great monster dat eats the air," Jim continued, settling into his character. "It's stinky and liable to make duh young'uns sick."
      Tiffany nodded and wrote furiously, then shook her head with joy and disbelief. She looked over at Dawn and winked. This Jim was from another era, a relic of a time long past. The raft started running faster down the holy river.
     "Yessuh," Jim continued. "It's not lak back in de days uh duh plantation when duh United States was new, and everything was like the tropics and good tuh eat."
     Then they crossed the state line into Mississippi, and the raft hit a strong cross current, turned 180 degrees and got stuck on top of an eddy, rocking back and forth.      
     "Jim!" Tiffany yelled, getting down on her hands and knees for balance. "Do something!" Jim brought out orange life-preservers for everyone.
     "Here dey is!" he announced. "Now put 'em on and pray."
     A whirlpool formed around the pathetic little raft, forcing it to spin in semi-circles, making it unable to move down the length of the river, and twisting it furiously in no direction at all. Then a large rusty barge came into view, booking down river, hauling wasted petro-chemicals long banned in Canada.
     "That barge is coming straight for us!" Tiffany yelled, and jumped up and down, waving her pen and notebook in the air, hoping that the barge captain would see her long, glistening hair in the darkening sky and stop. But the monster kept on coming straight for them, a bomb.
     "This is bullshit!" Tiffany yelled. "Jim, get us over to the bank!"
     "I don't know how, Miss Tiff," he said. "I'm jus' a po' ignorant black man."
     "But you're supposed to be wise!" Tiffany wailed.
     The barge was so close now that the raft passengers could see the rust holes all over it and the vegetation that clung to the sides underwater and the skull and crossbone cancer warnings on deck.
     "Jump!" Dawn yelled and all four dove into the coldest, muddiest, dankest and greatest of American rivers, seconds before the large barge barged straight into their raft, splintering it into a multitude. It took three full minutes for the barge, from the hole-filled, mouth-like tip to the brown and rusty ass, to pass during which nothing could be heard but the loud clanging and creaking of the ghostly ship, and the groaning of the river as it parted for it.
     When the barge was down river and the wake it left banged itself out on the shore, four heads bobbed like Styrofoam in the sudden calm.
     "The light! The light!" Dawn yelled. "Head for the light!"
     Tiffany lifted her hand above her head and made the thumbs-up sign and each bobbing figure swam alone towards the crooked finger of the chemical flame.

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