Herewith a new short story by Greg Gerke, a writer out of the tradition of Gordon Lish, the second generation, sentences that ring of Gary Lutz; characters reminiscent of Sam Lipsyte; the whole exuding panache and cool and the inner seediness of the soul, ever hopeful.
Last month Greg Gerke, David Winters and Jason Lucarelli published “Learning from Lish, a Roundtable on Style in Fiction” at The Literarian (published by the Center for Fiction in New York) — Gordon Lish, the tradition, Lish’s aesthetic and his influence, the place of art in life; I am still mulling over this amazing conversation. One thing Gerke wrote especially hit home:
Isn’t the way of literature to tap into the source self, since writing bores into the pit of the brain better than any other process? Maybe that “last thing you would ever want anyone to know” is exactly the first thing any reader wants to know—otherwise, what is the point? The world is so full of deception that not to spread oneself out naked on the page or the screen or the canvas is senseless.
Think about this as you read the story.
Though they had been friends for ten years, Bret never fully trusted Ted. They would make fun of the same people, praise a select set of dead artists, and stuff themselves with Indian food, but about women they did not agree.
Short with a gecko-shaped face, Ted could talk and after a few laughs and drinks, even men wanted to rub his bald head. We like this every day guy, this new century Ralph Kramden, they thought. Maybe if we touch him we’ll find a hundred dollar bill in the gutter.
On Fridays, Ted would hoist a drink, twist his thin lips, and stretch his red cheeks to construct something resembling cute. “To all my friends,” he said sanctimoniously, aping a movie scene, though he’d long forgotten the title, even the story. “Let’s just say I invented it. Where’d you get that shirt?”
Nervous since childhood, Bret came at things like he continually walked the side of a 2×4. “What do you mean you forgot the Frisbee, did someone steal it?” he would say, wrinkling his forehead under straw-colored hair spidering out from his crown. People tolerated him because of Ted, but couples who knew them whispered about Bret before they went to bed. If he did finally lose it, they hoped to God they wouldn’t be around.
Bret’s plight. That phrase stuck in Ted’s head one morning after he completed a cardio workout at the gym. He approached the new girl at the front desk. “One of my best friends is so shy, babe. What do you say about a guy who likes to put a time table on when he’ll sleep with someone?”
She turned a magazine page and avoided Ted’s oily face by moving her lazy eyes to the far wall of gold-plated trophies. “I’d say nothing.”
Ted wiped his neck with a towel. “He’s great. He’ll make you frittata for no reason. He’d drive twenty miles to help me with my car—the man is a living, breathing, fucking AAA.” After a harsh laugh, he quickly judged her bicep tattoo of the grim reaper a worthy effort.
“Yeah, well.” She went back to the magazine.
“Where do you live, Martha?”
“On a street you may know, but will never visit.”
One afternoon before they played tennis, the two friends sat on Bret’s porch drinking lemonade with a splash of rum. Bret had found a set of childhood pictures. He bunched his shirt sleeves and grinned, “Look, this was me as the sad clown. Don’t I look ridiculous? My mom spent two weeks making the costume.”
Ted pouted his lips in appraisal, “Your eyes are pretty expressive—they say I hate Halloween, I hate my mom, and I hate my life.”
Bret gathered the stack of Kodak processed photos into his lap and ordered them neatly. “Don’t be a dick.”
“What? You told me those things about your childhood, bro. It was a tear-stained day in the mighty month of May.”
Bret scowled. “I only told you half the story.”
“Why only half? Am I half a friend?”
Bret laughed. “Hey, arsehole, why do you always deliver the punch lines?”
“Cause you’re the straight man.” Ted burped and hearing a car’s passing music, shook his arms to the groove.
Bret put the photographs back in a bubble envelope. “I’ll show you some other time when we don’t have a big match pending. Now, who is this woman? You said she played tennis at Irvine?”
Checking the money in his wallet, Ted said, “Sherri or Sharon. I don’t know, it begins with Sh. And no, I don’t know if she played tennis there or knew someone on the team. All I know is she’s wanted to play for months. Does massage. You know she’s trying to find her way here.” Ted made a wind sound. “The skin, I’m telling you. She could be in a mag a couple notches below Vogue.” He stretched his arms proudly. “Maybe one notch.”
The trio hit balls for less than a half hour. Bret wanted to let them play one on one and sat down for five minutes. We’ll go out, get some drinks, and then they’ll go and sleep together, he thought. What do I really want in my goddamn life?
The ball bounced off his foot and Sherri bounded over. As she blocked his sun, she twirled her old racket, still carrying a smudge of cob-web just below the strings. “Is our little ball boy tired already?”
“I just want to watch the professionals.”
Sherri giggled and he smelt her apricot body wash. Ten years ago, after she finished high school in Seattle, she had joined the army. She’d been in Oakland only three months. A middle-eastern restaurant venture in Portland had failed and now she lived here with her sister. She was lonely and when she smiled her gums showed. Dropping Cézanne’s name made Bret want to take her in a corner and rub colors into her muscular chest.
Ted announced the Giants had won in extra innings and then kissed his cell phone.
They drove into Berkeley and after three rounds of mojitos on a patio with Tibetan prayer flags waving, Bret started doing impressions. He tilted his head and spoke in a baby-like staccato, “Yeah, gotta see Wapner at 4:00, then Jep-Jep-Jeopardy.”
“Rainman, ole!” Ted cackled, calling their waitress to also salute Bret’s skill.
It had been months since Bret didn’t feel terribly dependent or stricken by a sense of not belonging. For one grand moment he didn’t care about childhood or not being able to swim. He pictured pummeling his abusive father and being celebrated for it with a ticker-tape parade on Fifth Avenue. His blood ran faster and all the ideas and words that could never get out in time were readily available, like they hung on a snazzy tool belt. Four hours ago he had cursed the wireless signal in his house. Now his life was heaven.
When Sherri touched his knee, he knew he’d gone about the enterprise all wrong. Be a loud ass like his beefy friend, not a timid, sulking bore who dusts when he can’t think of anything better to do. Be sloppy and ruin the tawdry perceptions people hold to. Invite them to be entranced by your feelings. Give them what they can’t give themselves.
Sherri reeled from his Katherine Hepburn, holding his shoulder for support. “My parents took me to On Golden Pond. I was five. I totally hated it.”
Bret’s eyes lit up. “Mine took me, too.” Then he stalled like his battery had died, like he didn’t believe his bullshit anymore. He looked to Ted who grinned devilishly while composing a text that would surely make someone miserable.
Sherri went to the bathroom and Ted snapped his fingers. “You have a mini-stroke?”
“Fuck off. I’m having fun.”
“I know you are, but she likes you and you have to close it. Talk her up. Tell her she has strong legs.”
“Why?” Bret snorted. “Why legs? She has strong everything. A strong, warm per— And I’m goddamn thirty-two, dad. I don’t need pointers.”
Ted sat back and made the peace symbol. “Loving you, brother.”
When Sherri returned, Bret yelled, “Basta!” She smiled and the tip of her tongue showed like a cat in the midst of licking itself.
Bret motioned toward her with his drink. “You must have jogged a bunch in the army, right?”
Ted went to a birthday party, and Bret and Sherri walked into the hills of the campus at dusk. Giant fir trees swayed. Heat bugs rattled. They scooted to a prominence overlooking the football stadium and sat down to kiss. With his hands fastened to her breasts, he ejaculated. Quietly, he sunk his head into his armpit, but she yanked his chin up and opened her eyes to him. “I have an incredible feeling about you, Bret. I want you to come to my bedroom.”
His face finally softened.
She nibbled at his ear and whispered, “I just put on clean sheets.”
In the morning they couldn’t stop laughing. They’d made love all night and the world smelt raw and unrelenting like it had been created a few hours ago. When Sherri went to the bathroom, he pressed the pillow to his face to keep her sweet scent in his head. Joyously he lunged over the bed and noticed a hairpin underneath, along with some popcorn kernels. Also a white object that after he dug it up turned out to be her vibrator. A yellowy streak on the side momentarily disgusted him. He shrugged his shoulders and put it back. There were probably stale tissues under his bed.
Sherri came back gleaming, her skin golden. Everything she had stood out before him in the daylight. She sang, I want to thank you, for giving me the best day of my life.
“Please,” he said, raising his arm like a matador.
Her sister was gone for the weekend and later they sat in the living room naked—cuddling and listening to music. “I wanna hear all about the army,” he said brightly.
“No, you don’t and I don’t really want to talk about it, baby. It’s very overrated. Nothing big happened. It’s just like living. You work, then you party and have fun.” She took an apple slice off the coffee table and wiped up a spot of cinnamon.
Bret did a double take. “What is it? Two o’clock and all we’ve had is an apple?” They laughed and hugged. Outside a dog barked.
“You like chihuahuas?” she said.
He stared at her genitals, judging her labia’s breezy swirl the greatest work of art in North America. “Chihuahuas are number one.”
She looked across the room. “I want to get a dog, but I don’t have any money.
“My sister’s getting me some stuff, but I’ve got to get a real job. I live off of two massages a week. That restaurant debt,” and she shuddered. She turned up the sound on one of the few cds she had brought from Portland—Coltrane’s Giant Steps. “No worries,” she said and she danced back to the couch.
“Let’s get a pizza!” he shouted.
Sherri leapt for the telephone book while howling like an Indian and Bret closed his eyes in triumph.
When the doorbell rang Sherri went to get some clothes. Normally skittish about showing his rail thin body to the public, Bret threw a towel around his waist. “Oh, just use my wallet. It’s on the kitchen table,” she yelled from the bedroom. He would insist on getting dinner.
He took the wallet and opened the door to a short, pimpled delivery driver with a pale face. Part of Bret wanted Sherri to show herself behind him so the teen could see more of his new life. Her wallet had a ten and a clip of twenties with handwriting on the back of the outside bill. Bret’s eyes buoyed slantwise. He took a twenty from the middle and impatiently tossed it to the driver. After he closed the door, he read the note on the last bill. You’re the best. Tubby
Sherri ran in, dressed in a white bikini and clapped her hands as she jumped up and down. “I smell artichokes!”
He turned the clip and showed her.
“Oh, just an old friend.”
“He owed you money?”
“Yeah,” she said. She reached for the bills, but he pulled them away.
There was a fork in the river and Bret could have taken the way that didn’t lead to the falls, but he knew she lied. He’d been made to pick at the slightest mark on the wall. Bret wiped his face and handed her the money—all four cold, heartless twenties.
Sherri kept staring at him and then opened the pizza, but he slapped the cardboard shut. “When did you meet Ted?” he said.
“This year.” Her head lowered like a dog. “Two years ago in Portland. We had a short thing, it was nothing. It was when the restaurant—”
“Stop talking.” Bret tried to step outside himself. The cords in his throat were going stiff and his right leg began to shake.
“Okay, Bret.” She felt the bikini’s pinching fabric on her once sleek body and crossed her arms over her breasts. “You alright?”
He sat down on the carpet and bunched the towel out to cover his parts. Silent tears slid off him. “He fucking paid you to sleep with me.”
“No!” she said. “No. I’m giving it back. It’s a misunderstanding.”
He beat the floor at his side.
“Stop, Bret. I like you. It’s not what you think.” She reached toward him.
“No,” he said. “It’s worse.”
Bret confronted Ted at his house. An embarrassing scene. Ted had offered himself to be pummeled. “Take me out, man. Do it. It was rotten, but I tried to help. I thought I was doing good.”
Six months later Ted again called and they exchanged pleasantries but when he tried to get him to go out, Bret laughed. “I can’t forgive you, Ted. I’m sorry.”
“Can’t or won’t?”
“Cut the shit. We’re friends for a long time. You’re my brother,” Ted said mincingly.
Bret would often go to dinner by himself. It calmed him in some way. Chinese, Thai food—anything. He watched the slight waitresses and thought, Why can’t I let it go? I’d be happier. Bret once asked his waitress the same question. A smile raised her eyes and she walked to the back, returning with two spring rolls.
Ted had been out till dawn carousing. He bought a soda and drove up the foggy coast into Marin and parked at Muir Beach. Two couples had slept there and they were just waking up. A man with a bushy beard ceremoniously poured milk into cereal bowls while one of the women began tumbling on the shore. Dressed in purple yoga pants, she performed very precise somersaults and headstands, posing after each like an Olympian gymnast.
Ted sat on his patch of cold sand and felt the weakened sun on his neck. The limber woman sauntered before him—he wanted that dance. Twisting slightly, his bones ached and he ground his fingertips in the sand to erase last night’s woman. Then he stroked his growing belly like a slothful king.
The surf crashed loudly, almost otherworldly. Booming and bright white. A scene he hadn’t appreciated in years. Though fifty yards away from the group, he yelled and pointed at the ocean, raising his soda and laughing. They nodded briefly and went back to their breakfast. The woman in purple hadn’t noticed at all, she went onto cartwheels.
He’d had every kind of woman there was to have and they all felt amazing. Each time. The supply staying steady, with the women getting younger, but more disenfranchised, more insecure. He could easily relax. But he couldn’t. As the woman rolled about and yipped, as gulls strode the shoreline like pontiffs—he knew there was something in his life he hadn’t learned and women couldn’t help him with it. Massive and unwieldy, it kept stable at the top of his vision like a boulder fastened to his forehead. He couldn’t sit right until he faced it, but he didn’t exactly know what it was.
Ted burped and nodded, trying to assure himself everything would work. He looked for a big rock to toss into the ocean. He settled for a small black pebble.