“Here is something that the psychologists have so far neglected: the love of ugliness for its own sake, the lust to make the world intolerable. Its habitat is the United States. Out of the melting pot emerges a race which hates beauty as it hates truth.”
–H.L. Mencken “Libido for the Ugly”
i. The China
I found my parents’ wedding china in the backyard against the fence, the Walmart storage bin that held it collapsing under the April snow. “What is this doing here?” I asked.
“She told me to get rid of it,” Daddy answered, as if it made perfect sense. Where else would you put your platinum-ringed, Japanese porcelain but out back beside a decaying rabbit hutch? The seams of the plastic container gave way as I tried to pry it from the snow bank. This had not been its first winter outside. The lid, once navy blue, had bleached a sickly green. I lifted, trying not to shatter the delicate contents, but the bottom of the bin remained in the ice. So, I changed tack and made several trips inside balancing stacks of dinner, salad, and dessert plates; the finger bowls no one in Wyoming could dream up a use for; the oval serving platter; a tea service purposeless in a Mormon home.
Time was the dishes displayed proudly in the china cabinet, triangular, nestled in a corner. The cabinet was all gold trim and scalloped edges—French Provincial in style like all the furniture first chosen to decorate the house my parents had built in the mid-1960s. Of that original décor only a gilt wall clock remained, hanging beside the stone fireplace, ivory-white like the cabinet had been, before it was replaced by a clumsy, stained wood chest, and the china packed out of sight.
In the kitchen, I unwrapped and inspected each delicate item, remarkably intact. I held a cup to the glaring fluorescents Daddy had recently installed over the table to replace the soft, energy-wasting bulbs. The light shone through the cup’s gentle curve. I decided to pack as many items in my suitcase as I could and to convince my father (already dying of cancer, though no one knew it) to ship the rest to me in New York.
I rewrapped it in the old issues of the Uinta County Herald and the Bridger Valley Pioneer Mother had used. The paper was as yellowed as the news clipping I remember of a wedding shower. In it, the bride, an educated Texan, a newcomer to town, stood beside her gifts. The cut of her hair and the angle of her pose aimed to exploit a Liz Tayloresque resemblance—a woman as seemingly out of place in that rural community of ranchers and miners as the set of elegantly simple porcelain she chose. The same set she would order, some 47 or so years later, to be put out in the snow.
ii. The Roll-Top Desk
It’s about four months later. Daddy is dead.
Driving back into southwest Wyoming with my brother, I am once again reminded of H.L. Mencken—an upsetting recollection on a number of levels. Before I found out about his troubling racism and antisemitism, I was introduced to Mencken by my most troubled lover, who would read the critic’s acerbic essays aloud to me like bedtime stories. Only one stuck: “The Libido for the Ugly,” since it so aptly described the architecture of old Pittsburgh where I lived at the time. I could not forget the essay any more than I could forget that failed relationship.
Fed by the implacable hatred Mother fostered for her adopted home, I was well into my adult years before I learned to appreciate the beauty of the stark landscape surrounding my native town. But that day as we near the top of the first of two peaks locals call “the Sisters,” I look forward to the vista—the massive opening of the sky, the interstate ribboning miles down then up, the colorless badlands stretching out on all sides. But I have forgotten how things had changed. Attempting to harvest Wyoming’s unending resource—the wind, dozens of wide-armed power generators stick out everywhere, dwarfing everything in view, even the snow-topped Uintah Mountains to the south.
As we drive the last miles into Bridger Valley, I wonder what Mencken would say if he saw it. He published “Libido” in 1926, yet in my lifetime every human structure in Wyoming seems to have grown uglier. Despite an influx of oil and fracking money, businesses are boarded up everywhere. In my childhood, before the big box discount chains opened in neighboring Evanston, local grocery stores, pharmacies, and clothing shops flourished. Now they stand empty and in disrepair. A new subdivision of nearly identical homes was built near the rodeo ground, but none of them have much of a front or back yard. When I was growing up, there were trees all over town; now my parents’ home has about the only full-grown trees left.
My brother and I are back in Wyoming to perform a near-Herculean labor—the emptying of Jensen Automotive, the shop my father ran for nearly 60 years without ever fully cleaning the place. The building is full of ancient diagnostic equipment, broken engine parts, a decrepit vat of acid for cleaning radiators. Its windows are caked inside with decades of dust mixed with sanded paint, exhaust, and engine grease.
It takes three days of throwing out junk before we reach the desk. Daddy’s youngest brother drops by as we cleared off the top, piled high with expired part catalogs, old phone books, and years of invoices.
“That thing was already old when we got it,” says Uncle Craig. “Remember picking it up with Pa before your dad got home from the army. Must’ve been ’53 or ’54. I-80 wasn’t even finished yet. We drove it back in the pickup from Salt Lake on the two-lane road. Took about three hours back then for what we can drive now in two.”
We pull the desk away from the wall and marvel at its weight. My brother turns on the air compressor to blow away the dust. None of us expects what we’re about to see: the woodwork is exquisite. Ironically, all the decades of neglect had probably preserved the rich walnut grain. Even the back was solid and fully detailed, no cheap modern plywood. A bit of lemon oil, a little elbow grease—the wood is clean. Daddy’s hands didn’t fare as well. As I held them on his final day, they were still stained from the decades of labor in that shop.
I would eventually find a mover who specialized in delivering antiques. I’d pay a hefty sum from my father’s life insurance money to have it delivered to my home in Harlem. It will take four men to load it into a trailer. I will look at it again and again panged with guilt. I was the youngest, the estranged son—ex-Mormon, gay—who had refused the last years of my parents’ lives to come home on holidays, and here I had pilfered, like the china, one of my family’s most valuable treasures.
iii. The Chandelier
I was always on the lookout for the diminishing bits of beauty in our house. I would sit under Mother’s old umbrella, looking up through its clear plastic dome at the brightly painted daisies. I used to rescue one of her only scarves and spin with it to see how the fabric flowed. But only in secret, when I knew no one was looking who could reprimand me for not acting like a boy. So, I remember well the day Daddy put in the chandelier. I had to have been pretty young, but I was thrilled. It was too big for the low-ceilinged living room, but the white stone fireplace framed it nicely. Daddy would hit his head against it when he walked by, and curse the thing and the wife who bought it. It was so bright and the candle-shaped bulbs so hard to replace that we hardly turned it on. Still I would stare at it unlit for hours; it was almost like the chandeliers in ZCMI, the grand old department store in Salt Lake. It dripped all over with glass that reminded me of lit-up windows in the big city at night. I was obsessed.
One day when no one was home, I finally mustered my courage. I balanced myself on a stool and pried one of the tiny octagonal pieces off near the top. I didn’t dare touch one of the tear-shapes, for fear it would be missed. It was just glass, painted on the back to mimic the prisms of real crystal, but I loved it. I placed it in a little plastic box, hiding it in various places in my room, taking it out on occasion to hold it and stare at the world through its pearlescent shades. The “crystal” would become part of the world imagined for a little family of pigs I made out of Plastic Tac and my sister’s nail polish. When it came time to empty out the cluttered house like we had the shop, I looked everywhere for my pigs and my little gem to no avail.
iv. The Cheese Ball
At some point, I invented a new Jensen family tradition—the Christmas cheeseball, and I was its maker. I found instructions in a recipe book somewhere. Cream cheese and grated cheddar, spices and Worchester Sauce, molded into shapes. Each year I’d get more adventurous in how I’d decorate the thing—chives, dehydrated onions, slivered almonds, parsley dried an unnatural green. I’d arrange my masterpiece on the oval platter with its platinum ring.
“You’re such a gourmet!” Mother would exclaim.
“All that work and we’re just gonna dig into it,” said my sister.
“I don’t know why we can’t just use paper plates,” said Daddy. “Save on having to run the dishwasher.”
v. David’s Bust
Tucked behind the old television (back when TVs had wooden consoles) hung a few shelves. Acting as a bookend was the head of a stern young man. Mother saw me gazing at it one day. “That’s Michelangelo’s David,” she said, but he hardly fit the image of the stone-throwing ruffian I had formed in my mind from the Bible stories. That giant killer was too much akin to the boys at schools, throwing rocks and “faggot” at me.
“You know David wrote poems,” Mother explained. “He sang them to his sheep.” I looked up Michelangelo in our little encyclopedia set. There I saw a picture of the original. Not brown with copper accents like our copy, but glowing marble. Not just a head and shoulders, but full-bodied and nude. The image stunned me and I snapped the volume shut, as if that could close off something else as well.
Try as I might, I could not forget that dangerous image. Furtively, I would take our amputated reproduction down from the shelf to trace with a finger the swirls of David’s hair, attempting to banish from my mind the thought of how those curls repeated the pattern below…
I was in my 40s before I realized I could draw. One bored evening, I took out a book of black and white photographs I bought for myself as a coming-out gift at 24. I justified the purchase to counteract years of conditioning. As though the images of nude men playing joyfully in the sand, embracing each other in the desert, could undo all the self-loathing. But even then, I could not look an attractive man in the eye without effort. Always at a slant. Always with indirection.
I chose one picture—a youth balancing his naked body skyward between two stones. I grabbed a pencil, and the image reproduced itself on the page. I was stunned. My hand already knew how to do it. The ability had lain neglected and avoided in me all along—pushed down and out of sight to protect me. This stanza from Rilke’s Duino Elegies comes to mind:
And if I cried, who’d listen to me in those angelic
orders? Even if one of them suddenly held me
to his heart, I’d vanish in his overwhelming
presence. Because beauty is nothing
but the start of terror we can hardly bear,
and we adore it because of the serene scorn
it could kill us with. Every angel is terrifying.
And so, I think of her now, of the painful privilege it was to hold her hand in the last terrifying moments of her life—a privilege all the more apparent in a world wracked by a novel coronavirus, where tens of thousands of parents died alone. I imagine her taking out that plastic bin, wrapping each plate and cup in the local news. For what was that lovely set of dishes, but a reminder? Of a failed marriage that never ended. Of the place she hated she could never leave. Of years of chronic disease and untreated mental illness. Of the children and grandchildren who could not bear her presence. Of her youngest apostate son. Of the home she dreamed of she would never create.
In his free time, Jon Jensen is a visual artist and writer. His primary passion is teaching. He has now lived longer in New York City than his native Wyoming. Jensen is also the proud adopted dad to his late parents’ dog, Bumpy.