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Opening shot of Written on the Wind:  a sports car races across a barren Texan landscape.  Oil derricks rise out of the ground like metallic spines, upright.  The sky is a blue that exists only in the movies — a day-for-night shot — bright as electricity, deepness as evening, and the starkness of the sky makes you think that Texas is always like this:  empty, endless, illuminated.

When I was young, my father brought home magazines from his visits to our local HMO.  National Geographic for him; Reader’s Digest for my mother; Ranger Rick for me.  I asked him to buy me a subscription, but he said no, that these copies with the address label ripped off were good enough.  One issue I recall featured pictures of the decorated pumpjacks in Luling, Texas.  They struck me as odd and beautiful, how they simultaneously mimicked nature and denuded it.  One was a smiling Monarch butterfly, its wings attached to the pump arm.  Another was made up as killer whale; the third, a zebra.  My brother had just started his degree in petroleum engineering at the Colorado School of Mines.  He would, I thought, soon be working with these strange creatures.

Douglas Sirk describes the oil well as “a rather frightening symbol of American society,” a symbol of emptiness, of loss.  Rainer Fassbinder points out how the golden miniature oil rig that the scion of the family holds in his portrait “looks like a penis substitute.”  The presence of oil is ubiquitous:  after Lauren Bacall discovers she’s pregnant, she leaves via the back alley behind the doctor’s office, and, in the upper-left corner of the frame, a grasshopper-green oil pump drains the parking lot.

After graduation, my brother got a job with Atlantic Richfield Company in Midland, Texas, and, for a while, my parents only bought gas from Arco stations on the assumption that they were somehow supporting him.  One summer, the family piled into the van to pay him a visit.  I remember the long stretches of flat, empty road, where land just seemed to fall off the horizon.  From afar, the oil derricks looked like spindly saguaros, and it wasn’t until we got close that I could see their exoskeletons.  If it weren’t for them holding the state down, it seemed, Texas might have just blown away.

The final scene of Written on the Wind, as described by Fassbinder:  “Dorothy Malone, as the last remnant of the family, has this penis in her hand…. The oil empire that Dorothy now heads is her substitute for Rock Hudson.”  Oil, the film suggests, is no substitute for life.

Of the three siblings in my family, my brother is the ‘successful’ one.  He works for BP and flies to Aberdeen, Scotland, to plan where to plant off-shore oil drills off the Vietnam coast.  He owns a large house just outside of Houston (just being about an hour’s drive), where he lives with his wife and daughter.  His wife, who also went to the Colorado School of Mines, also works in petroleum.  My parents constantly (still) worry about my sister and I, but him — his life is set.

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Matthew and I were visiting the father of one of his friends who owned a condo near Vail.  Neither he nor I skied, given our combined income at the time.  Vail Village can make you feel very poor very quickly.  Women in high heels navigate the cobblestones with effortless ease and whisk into shops with names that sound like aspirations:  Fantasia Furs, Jewels of the West, Worth Home.

At the Wedgwood storefront, I said, “Okay, let’s each pick a pattern,” because it’s a sure harbinger of doom when two gay men can’t agree on a china set.   But we concurred:  Persia.  We went into the store, were ignored by the shopkeepers, and walked back out.

*

The Wedgwood teapot (Jasperware, white-on-pale blue) that the Cary finds in All That Heaven Allows is a sure symbol of her materialism.  She’s drawn to it even though it’s in broken, and her love interest, the rugged Ron, takes it out of her hands and tells her that it was there for a reason:  it’s in pieces.  She looks at him, slightly embarrassed.  It’s only a god damn teapot, after all.

That teapot, nowadays, with its body restored, could probably fetch anywhere from $250-500 at auction.

*

Every year, Matthew’s relations in upstate New York ask him what he wants for Christmas.  They take the holiday and gift-giving very seriously, and his protests that he don’t need anything fall on deaf ears.  One year, I offered to help clear the table and stack the plates (Lenox, Eternal Gold-Banded) after dinner and was told, in no uncertain terms:  “We do not stack the plates.”

So we asked for our own china set, and not soon after, received place settings for eight (Wedgwood, India).

“One of these days,” Matthew says, “we’re actually going to use them.”

*

Ron repairs the teapot and surprises Cary with it.  It’s his invitation:  come live with me here, in this restored barn, in the forest.  But she can’t; she’ll miss her comforts, her standing in the community, her solid upper middle-class reputation.  As she gathers her coat to leave, the edge catches the teapot and it falls, breaking again—this time, irreparable.  Ron gathers the fragments and tosses them into the fireplace.

*

Yesterday, Matthew and I were in TJ Maxx, the sub-bourgeois discount store, stopping in just to stop in.  While I was deciding whether or not I needed a new tea strainer, he came up to me:  “Look what I found.”

A Wedgwood teapot (Notting Hill).  For $35.

“It can’t be real,” I said.

He turned it over.  It was, indeed, stamped Wedgwood.  He traced his finger along the platinum band ringing the teapot.  “Oh,” he said, “that’s why it’s here.”  The porcelain had a flaw, a dimpled acne scar on its side.  After Wedgwood emerged from bankruptcy proceedings in 2009, the company closed its plants in the UK and moved almost all of its production to Indonesia, where labor is approximately 85% cheaper.  At that time, as well, unemployment in Britain jumped almost 2.5% from a year earlier.

*

so much depends
upon

a blue Wedgwood
teapot

glazed with English
Breakfast

by the wood-burning
fireplace

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