Excerpts from Fran Ross’s OREO

(back to Mullen)

Talk of roses and mikvahs reminded Oreo that it was time to change her sanitary napkin. She excused herself from the table. Oreo's menarche had been at age eight. She had been minding her own business, experimenting to see whether her pet turtle would try to mate with an army helmet, half a walnut shell, or a swatch of linoleum (the "bottom shell hypothesis"), when she felt a slight contraction in her lower abdomen. She was vague about the area–it happened so fast–but it was somewhere below the pupik and above the mons veneris. She went to the bathroom to check on a stickiness she felt–and saw the blood. "Oi gevalt," she said, "what the fuck is this shit?"

She summoned Louise, who looked at Oreo's panties and handed her a Kotex. Louise did not believe in tampons, which were too newfangled for her. "Ain't but one thing spose to go up in dere," she told Oreo. She explained to Oreo the implications of this issue and that she could expect it for three to five days in every twenty-eight. Louise was only slightly surprised that Oreo had started so young. That was the way it was with Oreo. She was, however, astonished when she saw that the gouts of blood had formed an American Beauty rose in the crotch of Oreo's panties. Her own uterine lining had always reminded her of bits of raw liver, but Oreo’s bloomer decoration looked as if it had been squeezed from a pastry bag.

"What do we call this?" Oreo asked. "Well, you kin call it fallin' off de ruff or hab'm de ragon or de cuss. But it mos' ladylike to say, ‘Grandma, I have my Purriod.’" Oreo shook her head. She looked at the red of her blood, the white of the pad, the blue of the thread running down the middle, and said, "No, I'll call it flag day."

Louise nodded her head with satisfaction. "Dat right pat'rotic of you, chile." She left Oreo in the bathroom and went to the kitchen. For some reason, she was torn between fixing calf's liver Veneziana and baking a cake. (77-78)



Mr. Soundman, Inc., was in a renovated brownstone on Lenox Avenue. Oreo could hear the strange permutations of words speeded up and slowed down, rushed backward and whisked forward, the barbaric yawp of words cut off in mid-syllable (the choked consonants, the disavowed vowels), burdened with excessive volume, affecting elusive portent Words were all over the floor. Words and time. What word was that there in corner, curled up like a fetus? And this umbilicus of sound, what caesarean intervention had ripped it untimely from its mother root? Sound boomed off the walls, rocketing around the hallways as it charged out of an open door marked CONTROL ROOM B.

Reep-warf-shuh, reep-warf-shuh, reep-warf-shuh, repeated some backward sounds as Oreo stuck her head in the door. An engineer in a desk chair wheeled among three machines–two tape decks and a master-control console–his ropy arms whipping about like licorice twists. Two pencils stuck out at forty-five degree angles from his hedgelike natural, pruned to topiary perfection and so bulbous that, along with his dark, chitinous skin and his sunglasses with huge brown convex lenses, he had the look of an undersized mock-up of a movie monster–the grasshopper that spritzed on Las Vegas. The soundman noticed Oreo on one of his whirls and motioned her into a chair. He stopped the two tape machines. Then he deftly unreeled a three-foot length of tape from one end of a reel, pulled it back and forth between the sound heads (Raugh-vooff-skunge, raugh-voof-skunge, it went as it sawed between the heads), found the spot he wanted, and made a quick slice with a razor. The piece fell to the floor amidst the curly riot of words previously dispatched. How many reep-warf-shuhs and raugh-vooff-skunges that piece represented, Oreo couldn't guess. The engineer then laid a loose end of the tape still on the reel in a groove at the front of his machine, stripped in a piece of white leader from another reel with Scotch tape and a razor, whirled the gray reels of his tape deck a few times, then stopped. He walked out of the control room, motioning Oreo to follow him.

They walked down the hall to a small office. So far neither of them had said a word. The engineer pointed to a chair next to a desk piled with a stack of oddly shaped cardboards. Oreo sat down. Since the man didn't say anything but merely looked at her expectantly–or, rather, his glasses were turned toward her–she said, "I'm Christine Clark. Is Slim Jackson around?" The man pointed to himself, then shuffled through the pile of cardboards next to him on the desk. He held one up. It was shaped like a cartoon balloon, and the message read: YOU'RE LOOKING AT HIM. "Can't you talk?" Oreo asked. He shook his head. After establishing that Slim was neither antisocial nor laryngitic but mute, Oreo asked permission to look through his balloons so that she would know the range of answers he was prepared to give. She found the usual:











She saw that he had translated the typical cartoon asterisk-spiral-star-exclamation point-scribble as a straightforward FUCK YOU, YOU MUTHA. He had a pile of blank balloons and a stack of balloons with drawings: a cocktail glass with an olive followed by a question mark; a Star of David followed by a question mark; an egg-shaped cartoon character with a surprised look on its face (the "That's funny–you don't look Jewish" follow-up to the Star of David? Oreo wondered); an inverted pyramid of three dots and an upcurving line; the three dots again with a downcurving line; a clenched fist with the middle finger raised in the "up yours" position. These last Oreo thought redundant, since Slim could easily pantomime them or use an available word balloon. True, the drawings gave him shades of translation that might be lost in the original gesture. Besides, his blank cards indicated that he was not unaware of the limitations of form balloons. Oreo conceded her argument with herself to herself. Yes, both the words and the drawings had a place.

"I was told I might be able to find Sam Schwartz here," Oreo said. Slim pulled one of his pencil antennas out of his hair, printed something on a balloon, and held it up: TRY NEXT DOOR TONIGHT. "What's next door?" He wrote and crossed out, wrote and crossed out. Then held up his cardboard voice: A WH A CAT A HOUSE OF JOY. [WH & CAT are slashed out in Ross's text] "Oh, a whorehouse," said Oreo. Slim looked at her appraisingly. He shuffled through his standard balloons and pulled out a cartoon of a bibbed man with his tongue hanging out, knife and fork at the ready over a turkey drumstick. "Likes women with big legs?" Oreo guessed. Slim looked disappointed. He shook his head as he printed and held up: LIKES DARK MEAT. So, dear old dad is already two-timing his second wife. "Do you know where I could find him now? Do you have his address?" Slim shook his head. I DON'T TRY TO KEEP TRACK OF WHITEY, he ballooned. (138-141)


Mrs. Schwartz studied Oreo's palm silently for several minutes, her eyes rapidly scanning the mounts and lines. With a long-nailed finger she traced Oreo's rascettes. A chill pimpled along Oreo's right leg and around her hairline, as it always did when she was profoundly shaken by something–good or bad. Her body registered the same sensation for Buxtehude well payed as for singing telegrams well sung, only her brain distinguishing between what she called "thrilly chills" and "chilly chills." Put on a sweater, her brain told her now.

When the woman dropped her hand as though it were a hot sea urchin, Oreo laid it to envy. She had had her palm read before and had been told that her Mounds of Jupiter, Venus, Apollo, and Lower Mars were transcendent, her lines of Mercury and Life enviable, those of the Sun, Head, and Heart virtually a crime against the rest of humanity. In short, she had a fabulous, a mythic hand–the quintessential chiromantic reading (though some might cavil at a rather too well-developed Plain of Mars)..."Is there anything you'd like to tell me about the reading? Anything special?"

The woman dismissed this possibility with a peremptory flick of the left hand. "No, no, the usual, I am afraid. You will marry a basketball player at twenty-one, have three children–two boys and a girl–and live happily ever after." Oreo knew this was a stone lie. With her hand? Amaze the Amazons, perhaps–but live happily ever after with some jive guard and three crumb snatchers? Foul! (178-179)


Note: Fran Ross’ Oreo was published by Grey Falcon Press, New York City, 1974.

(back to Mullen)


(back to top)

BIO: Harryette Mullen is the author of four poetry books, most recently Muse & Drudge (Singing Horse Press, 1995). She teaches African-American literature and creative writing at UCLA.


table of contents