Jun 252010

On Emma Lake

This is a poem by my friend Dave Margoshes, also a short story writer (also someone I could depend on for Best Canadian Stories in the decade of my editorship). Dave lives in Saskatchewan which is a province I used to visit a lot–those lovely summer residencies at Fort San (a retired tuberculosis hospital turned into a summer arts centre–some details from the place made it into a story of mine called “A Piece of the True Cross”) in the beautiful Qu’Appelle Valley. Every morning we were awakened by the call of bag pipes wafting over the dry hills. But he knows Vermont well, having been a guest at the Vermont Studio Center.

Author’s Note:

“Becoming a writer” is one of the poems in my collection The Horse Knows the Way, which came out last fall (from Buschek Books in Ottawa). The poem was sparked by something I read or heard – I thought by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – to the effect that “Everything I needed as a writer I had acquired by the time I was six.” In fact, I used that quote, or what I thought may have only been a paraphrase, as an epigram to the poem, and it appeared that way in The Queen’s Quarterly. Later, as I was preparing for the publication of The Horse Knows the Way, I was unable to verify the quote – now I have no idea from whence it came – and dropped the epigram. The poem, and an explanation like this about the epigram, appeared later in The Best Canadian Poetry in English, 2009, from Tightrope Books in Toronto. So I owe Marquez – or someone – a debt of gratitude.

Becoming a writer

What could be easier than learning to write?
Novels, poems, fables with and without morals,
they’re all within you, in the heart, the head,
the bowel,  the tip of the pen a diviner’s rod.
Reach inside and there they are, the people
one knows, their scandalous comments,
the silly things they do, the unforgettable feeling
of a wet eyelash on your burning cheek.
This moment, that, an eruption of violence,
a glancing away, the grandest of entrances,
the telling gesture, the banal and the beautiful,
all conspire with feeling and passion to transport,
to deliver, to inspire. Story emerges
from this cocoon, a crystalline moment, epiphanies
flashing like lightbulbs above the heads
of cartoon characters. All this within you
where you least expect  it, not so much in the head
as under the arms, glistening with sweat, stinking
with the knowledge of the body, the writer
neither practitioner nor artisan but miner, digging
within himself for riches unimagined, for salt.

—Dave Margoshes

Jun 152010

Mark Jarman Story- St. John River

Mark Anthony Jarman is an old friend dating back to our days at the Iowa Writers’  Workshop. He’s from Alberta, lives next to the Saint John River in Fredericton, New Brunswick, where he teaches at the university. He plays hockey, wrote a hockey novel, has three sons, and was a regular pick when I edited Best Canadian Stories. He is the subject of my essay “How to Read a Mark Jarman Story” which originally appeared in The New Quarterly and can be found in my essay collection Attack of the Copula Spiders. He writes the wildest, most pyrotechnic stories of anyone I know.

This story originally appeared in Darwin’s Bastards: Astounding Tales from Tomorrow, edited by Zsuzsi Gartner (Douglas & MacIntyre, 2010).



The distance I felt came not from country or people; it came from within me.
I am as distant from myself as a hawk from the moon.

James Welch, Winter in the Blood

I was lost in the stars, but not lost, my tiny craft one of many on a loop proscribed by others, two astronauts far out in a silk road universe of burning gas and red streaks, and one of us dead.

Then the land comes up at us, the speed of the land rushing up like film and our Flight Centre men at serious blinking screens.  Our valves open or don’t open, the hull holds, the centre holds, little I can do.  The dead man is not worried.  I will not worry anymore, I renounce worry (yeah, that will last about three seconds).  The angle of re-entry looks weird to my eye.  I had to haul his corpse back inside for re-entry so he wouldn’t burn up.

In the city below me traffic is backing up into the arterial avenues.  They want to see us return, to fly down like a hawk with the talons out.

“Units require assistance.  All units.”

We are three orbits late because of the clouds and high wind.  They want to be there if there is a memorable crash, our pretty shell splitting on the tarmac into several chemical flash-fires engraved on their home movies.

We were so far up there above the moon’s roads, my capsule’s burnt skin held in rivers and jetstreams that route our long-awaited re-entry.  Up there we drive green channels riven in the clouds, ride stormscud and kerosene colours in the sky, then we ease our wavering selves down, down to this outer borough, down to rumpled family rooms and black yawning garages, down to the spanking new suburb unboxed in the onion fields.

I’m a traveler, an addict.  I descend from the clouds to look for work, I was up there with the long distance snowstorms.  It’s hard to believe I’m here again, hard to believe Ava became so uncaring while I was gone from the colony.

Ava’s messages are still there.  “This message will be deleted in 2 days.”  I press 9 to save it yet again.  I save her messages every ten days, my private archives, my time capsule, a minute of her lovely voice.

“Loved your last transmission,” Ava said in September. “It made me laugh!  And I loved the pictures you sent!  I can’t wait to see you.”

But then the change in October, the October revolution.  We are changelings locked in a kingdom of aftershave ads and good shepherds, lambs and lions and the Longhorn Steakpit’s idea of a salad bar.

Her messages were so very affectionate, and we’d lasted so long, so long, but in the end our messages were not enough.  Our words were not enough.  A week of silence and then a new message.  I knew it.

“Some bad news,” as Ava termed it.  She’d met someone else, she’d had a lot to drink, one thing led to another.  And I was so close.  Only a few days more.  But she couldn’t wait for me.  So long.

In the Coconut Grove bar in the afternoon I’m feeling all right.  I’m good at clarity and appreciation, but I’m slightly out of time.  Time slows and I lurk in it, I can alter it.  Do you know that feeling?  I drink and carefully move my head to study my world.  Venetian blinds layering tiny tendrils of soft light on us, the purple tennis court on TV, an AC running low, the lack of real sky.  It all seems okay, it all seems significant, it all seems deliberate and poised for some event.  But only to me, only I know this mood, this valiant expectation, this expedition into the early realms of alcohol.

Perhaps I am not quite right, but I savour the strange interlude.  I’m a lonely satellite in space, a craft drifting alone, drinking alone.  In this room the music is fine, the hops have bite – the perfect bar moment.

Then the bartender cranks up the volume on Sports TV and snaps to his phone, “The girl who cut my hair butchered it.  I didn’t have the heart to tell her, you suck.”

And that’s the end of my spell, the end of that little mission to Mars.  And I was so enjoying it.

“Hey dog, you flew with that dead guy, didn’t you?  And then your girl dumped you.  She’s hot.  Bummer, man.”  I wait until the bartender goes to the washroom to work on his hair and I exit without paying.

Maybe not the smartest idea, but I call Ava in Spain.  She left me, but she’s the only one who will know what I mean.

“What do you want from me?  Why are you talking like this?”  Her slight laugh.

Apparently I have some anger to work out.

Turquoise mountains at the end of the street remind me of Tucson or Utah.  The mountains of the moon.  I kill time walking.  Funny to be on foot once more.  The sun and earth – what are they to me?  I still orbit Ava, but she’s not there, no there there, so to what furious solar system do I now pledge my allegiance?  I still orbit her blue-eyed summer kitchen memories and the cordwood and pulpwood childhood in the north.

Need to change that orbit, need orbit decay.

In the building where she used to live they now deal ounces and eight-balls.  I was gone, Ava’s gone, the moon has changed.

Not sure I like the messages I’m picking up re the new frontier.  No one foresaw this, crystal and crank smuggled in to the colony, dealers and Albanian stick up crews and crummy walk ups, the adamantine miners working the face under Dwarf Fortress, all the single males earning big bucks in the catacombs and mineral mines, but with nowhere to go, the shortage of places to live, the exorbitant cost of milk, the new gang unit brought in, dead bodies on the corner with splayed hands and wrists smeared red with their own blood, and bouncers at the door working hard at that Russian look.  With the economy in the toilet the Minister of Finance is studying the feasibility of holding Christmas four times a year instead of two.

At the reception for me and some other space cowboys the party crackers lie like ashes on my tongue.  The fruit salad fallen from soldered tins; taste the fruits of duty.  My long periods of radio silence and now the noise of crowds and halls of ice cubes.

My brother-in-law Horse the detective is at the reception with a woman he says has just moved to the moon from Babylon to escape the war.  Delia looks nervous, as if still in a war zone.  Her family made her leave her home, smuggled her over the border, they feared for her life if she stayed.

Forget this place, they said of the only home she’s known, it doesn’t exist anymore.

“How do you like it here so far?”

Delia says, “People are very kind to me, but it’s not what I thought.”  She shrugs.  “All my life I wanted to see the moon, stared up at it.  But I miss my home, my family, my car, my brothers, the path to the river.”

“Can they visit?”

“No, it’s impossible now.”  The family had money, but now it is all gone, they are bankrupted by the war, the stolen gold, the extortion, the journey to other lands.  Her English is very good.

“How is the new job?”

“Horse can tell you better than I.”

“Brutal,” says Horse, “A ton of movement with the gangs, a lot of old grudges, eye for an eye.  We just had a 27 before we came here.”


“It means he was already dead before we got there,” Delia tells me.  “Another young guy,” she says.  “They get younger and younger.  Children.”

Five phones ringing on the silent body, once so talkative, now so grave.  How may I direct your call?  How come it’s so easy to become a body?  He is past saving, his messages will be deleted in ten days unless someone who loves him presses save.

The woman from Babylon asks about my last trip in the light years, where I slept in far stars like fields sown with salt.

“Is it boring out there?  Is it better than here?”

“It was wild, hard to describe, almost religious.”

“What about when Curtis died?”

“I don’t know, he was just dead.”

Was it an accident or did he do it to himself?  This question is not in the press.  One time, after he was dead, I swore I heard a fly buzzing inside the windshield, that manic little taptaptap.  I turned my head slowly; there was no fly.  I had wires to my skin, an extended excellent dream.

I hear Delia speaking Arabic on her phone.  Her uncle is a consul in Vietnam with an Irish wife.  We, all of us, have come so far from home.

Very few of the December class returned alive.  There is a chance they are still out there, or else something is killing them, making them martyrs.  Or perhaps some Decembrists stumbled onto a beautiful world, and chose to not steer back to this one.  Why am I the only one who found a course home?  And to what?

It’s just survivor’s guilt, the detectives insist.  Take up golf.  Some good 18 hole courses on the moon, especially the Sea of Mares, Sea of Tranquility, condos with fake pools stocked with trout fingerlings.

“You can rent an AK at the range,” says Horse.  “Or sled down Piston Alley.”

Piston Alley is named for all the sled engines that have blown pistons on the long straight stretch.  The engine runs the best ever just before the piston shoots out like a tiny rocket.  I don’t really want an AK47.

In the NASA gymnasium the trainee astronauts play tag.  Astronauts get lots of tang; that was the old joke.  Poontang.  When I was out there I craved smoked salmon and dark beer.  The dead man went on for hours about steak and ice cream.  I have a few too many bank loans.  Curtis was outside when it happened, his air.

The woman from Babylon stares at me with her very dark eyes, says, “I wonder if perhaps you would help us in the interview room.”

Did Horse put her up to this?

He says, “The Decembrists are famous with the school-kids.”

“But with these jokers you pick up?”

Horse says, “You’ve always been better than me at reading faces.  You can let us know when it’s a crock.  We’ll have signals.”

Horse makes it seem like a job selling vacuum cleaners.

“Think about it.  Something to do.”

Something to do — he has a point.  Maybe a distraction from Ava in my head.  I have escaped gravity and achieved a kind of gravitas.  Yet I feel a broken shoe.  I can’t sleep (night and day), my mind locked on her with someone else (day and night I think of you), and the lymph nodes each side of my groin are swollen tight as stones inside a cherry; no idea what that’s about, what’s next, what’s approaching me.

They are ploughing a new road by the graveyard, by the old settlers and the new settlers in the cemetery under Meth Mountain.  The lumpy graves look to be making their slow way across the whitemoon’s dusty field, the dead in their progress to us, their magnetic message under clay walls and organic reefs and the moon’s Asiatic peaks just past the plywood windows of the closed mall.

Ava quit her job and got away, but when I filled out a Planet Change Request Form it was turned down by upstairs.  I know it’s not a planet, but that’s the form they use.  At the drive-through window on Von Braun Boulevard I order a combo and a willowy uniformed teen hands me a paper bag.

“Enjoy your meal.”

I drive to the carved-up picnic tables by Lost Lake.  Opening the bag, I find $6000.  They have handed me the day’s receipts.  Or gave something to the wrong car.  Someone will be pissed off.  And where are my fries?  I’m not driving all the way back down the mountain.

Now, how to use $6000?  Pay down the loans or just buy a giant TV?  I’ve always wanted a jukebox or to buy a bar in Nebraska.  Maybe I will.  I can learn things.  Ava said, Whosoever wants to be first must first be slave to all.  That night I sleep among the fences under stars where I rode so long.  Perfect carpentry is a thing of amazing beauty.

Downtown I see Delia walking by the Oppenheimer Fountain.  She seems shy.  I feel her lovely eyes hide something, some secret limit inside her.  Is she resigned to it?  I like the idea of a secret, like her face.

“So I can just ride along in the car?”

“Hell yeah you can ride,” says Horse.  “That’s it exactly.  A goddam team!”

I can ride, privy to the children selling ghost pills stepped on a few times, dividing the corners, eyes like radiogenic freeway lights.  It’s the Zombies versus the 68th Street runners, yellow flashes on a dark wall and the Indian Head Test Pattern, and from this world of instant grudges we pluck the sad eyed murderers and take them into Interview Room #2, where we strive to arrive at some form of truth acceptable to most of us.

Everyone loves truth.  Ava told me the truth, did she not?  She loves me, she loves me not.  It’s a gamble, shooting dice while clouds boil around the sun, goading the dominos.

Who controls the corner, the zoo?  We travel to the far corners of the universe, but we can’t control the local corner, can’t control the inside of our head.

In the interview rooms prisoners must be checked every 15 minutes.  Someone slumped there in a chair killed a son, a cousin, killed in the triple last time.  Horse walks in with his coffee.  It goes on, it goes on.

They seen you riding with Moonman and Mississippi and Ghost.

Seen me?

You been slinging dope?

I don’t know no Mississippi.

Tight bags of meth hidden in the torn baby-seat.

Where were you rolling?

Nowhere.  You know, just rolling nowhere.

By the fountain her gasmask matches her dress.  Males never quite exist for me — only women.  I don’t carry a mask; the air inside is fine, but she is very cautious and keeps it with her briefcase.

Five p.m. and the moon goes violet.  Free Fanta for all teens at the moon-base chapel.  She doesn’t drink and I am a spastic snake.

At dinner she doesn’t know she saves my life just by being there in front of me.  I’d rather she not know my sad history, my recent heartbreak.  It’s so pleasant to meet someone so soon after Ava, but still, the joy is tempered a tad by the prospect of it happening again, of another quick crowbar to the head.  But I resolve to be fun.  After the attack on the Fortran Embassy I resolve to be more fun.

Delia says she swam a lot in Babylon before the war, and she has that swimmer’s body, the wide shoulders.  She says, “I am used to pools for women only, not mixed.  I don’t want to swim in the moon-base pool.”

“Why not?”

“You’ll laugh.”

She doesn’t want to swim with strange men, but also fears catching some disease.

“I was hesitant to tell you about the pool.  I feared you’d laugh at me.”

“No, I understand perfectly.”

But now I want to see her in a pool, her wide shoulders parting the water, her in white foam, our white forms in manic buzzing bubbles, her shoulders and the curve of her back where I am allowed to massage her at night when her head aches.

Strange, Ava also had migraines, but I was rarely witness to them; she stayed alone with them in the whimpering dark and I would see her afterward.  Beside me in her room, Delia makes a sound, almost vomits over the edge of her bed, almost vomits several times from the pain, her hand to her lips, her hands to her face.

Delia is very religious, very old-fashioned, jumps away in utter panic if I say one word that is vaguely sexual, yet she delights in fashion mags and revealing bras and cleavage in silk and she allows my hands to massage her everywhere when she aches, allows my hands to roam.

“How do you know where the pain is,” she asks me, her face in pillows.

I don’t know.  I just know how to find pain.

At Delia’s kitchen table we study maps in a huge atlas, Babylon, Mesopotamia, Assur, where she says her ancestors were royalty in a small northern kingdom.  I love the small kingdom we create with each other in our intimate rooms or just walking, charged moments that feel so valuable, yet are impossible to explain to someone else.  I saw her in the store, saw her several times in the middle aisles, knew I had to say something.

“I noticed you immediately, thought you were some dark beauty from Calcutta or Bhutan.”

“You saw me several times?  I didn’t notice you.”

“But you smiled at me each time.”

“Everyone smiles at me,” she says brightly.  “And you whites all look the same,” she adds, and I realize she is not joking.

Her white apartment looks the same as the other white apartments, windows set into one wall only, a door on another wall.  I realize both women have apartments built halfway into the ground, a basement on a hill.  Yet they are so different.  Ava’s slim Nordic face pale as a pearl and her eyes large and light, sad and hopeful — and Delia’s dark flashing eyes and flying henna hair and pessimism and anger and haughtiness.  Ava was taller than me, tall as a model.  Delia is shorter; I find this comforting.

I close my eyes expecting to see Ava’s white face, but instead I’m flying again, see the silver freighter’s riveted wall, the first crash, then sideswiped by a Red Planet gypsy hack, a kind of seasickness as the Russian team ran out of racetrack, Russians still alive, but drifting far from the circular station lit up like a chandelier, their saucerful of secrets, drifting away from their cigarettes and bottles, from a woman’s glowing face.  So long!  Poka!  Do svidaniia!

The young woman in Interview Room #2 speaks flatly.

They killed my brother, they will kill me if they want.

We can help you.

She laughs at Horse.  You can’t help me.

Who to believe?  I want to believe her.  She got into a bad crowd, cooking with rubber gloves, the game.  Our worries about cholesterol seem distant and quaint.  She’s not telling us everything, but we can’t hold her.

“I’ve come into some money if you need a loan.  It’s not much.”

Delia raises her dark eyebrows in the Interview Room, as if I am trying to buy her with my paper bag of cash.  Maybe I am trying to buy her.

“And how am I supposed to pay you back?  I have no prospects.”

On her TV the handsome actor standing in for the President tells us we must increase the divorce rate to stimulate the economy.  We need more households, more chickens in the pots.  I am sorry, he says, I have only one wife to give for my country.  We switch to watch Lost in Space re-runs.

At night I ask my newest woman, my proud Cleopatra, “Is there a finite amount of love in the universe?  Or does it expand?”


“Well, I didn’t know you and no love existed, but now I love you, so there is that much more.”

“Say that again,” she asks, looking me in the eye.

I repeat my idea.

“I think you are crazy,” she says.  “Not crazy crazy, but crazy.”

I am full of love, I think, an overflowing well.  Perhaps I supply the universe with my well, perhaps I am important.  Her full hips, the universe expanding, doomed and lovely, my mouth moving everywhere on her form.   The bed is sky-blue and wheat gold.

“How many hands do you have,” she asks with a laugh in the morning, trying to escape the bed, escape my hands: “You’re like a lion!”

She is trying to get up for work.  My first time staying over.  I am out of my head, kiss me darling in bed.  Once more I can live for the moment.  But that will change in a moment.

My ex on earth watches our red moon sink past her city.  The huge glass mall and my ex on an escalator crawl in silver teeth, at times the gears of the earth visible.  We are all connected and yet are unaware.  Does Ava ever think of me when she sees us set sail?  We hang on the red moon, but Ava can’t see us riding past.

“How many girlfriends do you have?” Delia asks, tickling me.  “Many?”

“Just you.  Only you.”

“I don’t believe you.  I know you flyboys.”  She laughs a little at me.

“How about you?” I ask.  A mistake.

She turns serious, conjures a ghost I can never hope to compete with.  “My fiance was killed,” she says quietly.  “He was kidnapped at a protest and they found him in the desert.  His hands were tied with plastic.  My fiance was saving to buy me a house.  My parents told him that I wished to go to school before we married and he didn’t mind.  My parents sold their property for the ransom, but the men killed him regardless.”

I remember my parents’ treed backyard; I tilted the sodden bags of autumn leaves on end and a dark rich tea came pouring out onto the brick patio.  Do the dead watch us?  There were bobcat tracks: it hid under the porch.

Horse says, You know why we’re here?

I watch the boy’s face; he is wondering how much to admit.

Got an idea, he says.

The rash of robberies and bodies dumped in craters and the conduit to the Interview Room and my irradiated bones that have flown through space and now confined in this tiny Interview Room.

You never sell rock?

Like I told you, never.

He’s got a history.

Somebody’s took the wallet before they killed him.

Holy God.  Holy God.  Dead?

The man is dead.  We need the triggerman.

This the t’ing.  I have no friends.  I learned that.

The young man wants to pass on his impressive lesson to the interrogators, but he has misjudged, his tone is all wrong.  He thinks he is good, world-weary, but he hasn’t seen himself on camera, has no distance.  The face and the mind, O the countless cells we represent and shed, the horseshit we try to sling.

Man, they had the guns!  I was concerned with this dude shooting me in the backseat.

Down the road, what will haunt the victorious young tribes?  They’ve heard of it all, but still, nothing prepares you.

You have your ways, Delia says, you can control me.

I wish.  I can manipulate her, get some of her clothes off, but I need her more than she needs me.

She says, I don’t think I can control you.

I can’t tell if she thinks this is good or not.  We spend time together, but I have trouble reading her, can’t tell if she likes me.

Delia is not adjusting well to being here.  She hates the lunar landscape, the pale dust and dark craters past the moon’s strange-ended avenues.  She is weary of the crime, the black sky.

“The weather,” she says, “never a breeze, never normal, either one extreme or another.  Killer heat, fourteen days!  Boil to death!  Or else so cold.  Fourteen days, freeze to death!  Cold then hot, hotthen cold.  And there are no seasons.  At home summer is summer and winter is winter.  Food here has no taste, has no smell.  I hate everything and then I hate myself.  All my life I wanted to meet the man in the moon and now I’m here.”

“You met me.”

“Yes, that’s true.”

I wish she spoke with a bit more enthusiasm on that topic.

She is losing weight since moving to the moon.

This is not acceptable, she says to the waiter. You would not serve me food like this on earth.

But we’re not on earth.  Forget earth.

I’ll make you some of my own, she says to me later.  Which she does, a creamy and delicious mélange at her tiny table in the apartment.

Sunday I bring my bag of illicit cash and we shop for fresh spices.  We hold hands, touching and laughing in the store, fondling eggplants that gleam like dark ceramic lamps.  We are the happy couple you hate, tethered to each other like astronauts.  I am content in a store with her, this is all it takes, this is all we want now, red ruby grapefruit and her hard bricks of Arabic coffee wrapped in gold.

Romance and memories and heartbreak: One war blots out an earlier war, one woman blots out the previous woman’s lost sad image, one hotel room destroys the other, one new ardent airport destroys the one where I used to fly to visit her.  The only way I can get over her.  We are prisoners, me, her, bound to each other like a city to a sea, like a kidnapper to a hostage.

Why did Ava leave me when we got along so well?  It was so good.  I think I lost something human in the blue glow of that last long flight.  Will it keep happening to me?  Now I am afraid. The Russians from Baikonur Cosmodrome never returned, the sky closed over them like a silver curtain, like the wall of a freighter.

They went away and I was inside my damaged capsule, inside my head too much, teeth grinding in ecstasy, quite mad.  They had me on a loop, my destiny not up to me.  We are abandoned and rescued, over and over.  But who are our stewards?

We went backwards to the stars.  For months rumours have suggested NASA is near bankruptcy, bean counters are reorganizing; my pension is in doubt, as is the hardship pay I earned by being out there.  Now we are back to this surface, back to the long runway and smell of burnt brake pads by the marshes and Bikini Atoll.

Me alone in the photograph, the other travelers erased.  Or are they out there still, knowing not to come back?  You can’t go back to the farm once you’ve seen the bright lights, seen inside yourself.

One day I delete Ava’s sad lovely messages.  Why keep such mementos?  You burn this life like an oil lamp.  You make new mementos, wish they could compare.

I remember parking the car by the dam with Ava.  The car was so small we had to keep the doors open as I lay on top of her, but the dome light had no switch.  To keep us in darkness I tried to hold one finger on the button in the door and my other hand on Ava.  That ridiculous night still makes me laugh, but I need to forget it all, to delete every message and moment.

You are unlucky in love, Delia says.  The God is fair and distributes his gifts and clearly you have many talents, but not luck in love.

Is she right?  I had thought the opposite, that I had inexplicably good luck that way, but now I wonder; she does seem to know me better than I do myself.  I was lucky to know Ava, but now my thoughts are distilled: Ava was too tall, too pretty, too kind.

What I thought was good fortune was bad fortune.  Was I bad luck for the Russians?  Did I kill Curtis?  Strangely, I feel lucky to have met her, to have crossed paths in the long florescent aisles of the store.  With my cash from the drive-thru I buy her shoes, an ornate belt, French dresses.  She is very choosy, but I like to buy her things.

In her room when I squeeze her hard she calls me a lion.  Says I will devour her.  I want to devour her, her ample flesh.  My tiger, I call her.  My tiger from the Tigris will turn.  Friday night and we don’t talk, no plans do we make.  I thought that was kind of mandatory.  Are we a couple or not (Is you is or is you ain’t my baby)?  It is odd to not know.

Desire has caused me so much trouble in my life, but I miss it when it is not around.  Living without desire – what is the point of life without desire?

Perhaps that is a question an addict would ask.

Perhaps I am not unlike that French youth – you must have read of his sad sad plight – rejected by a circus girl with whom he was in love.  A circus girl!  I love it.  The poor French youth committed suicide by locking himself in the lions’ cage.

I was locked in a cage, tied in a chair, in a capsule’s burning skin, hairline cracks like my mother’s teacup.  A rocket standing in a pink cloud and I am sent, her pink clitoris and I am sent, 3,2,1, we have ignition, my missions hastily assembled, mixed up, my mixed feelings as I move, my performance in the radiation and redshift.  The officials and women are telling their truth about me.  I was thrown like an axe through their stars.  I was tied in a chair, a desert, waiting.  When the engines power up – what a climb, what a feeling!  And who is that third who hovers always beside you, someone near us?  When I count there are only you and I together – but who is that on the other side?  1,2,3.  3,2,1.

Why can’t Delia say something passionate to erase my nervousness?  I have to live through someone else.  Why can’t I be aloof, not care.  I used to be very good at not caring.  But when Delia hates the moon I feel she hates me, when she says she has no money and that the moon is dirty!, too hot!, too cold!, then I feel I’ve failed her with my moon.

Why does she not say, Come to me my lion, my lost astronaut, I love you more than life itself, my love for you is vaster than the reaches of the infinitely expanding universe, oh I love you so much, so very much.  But no one says this.  Her expanding clitoris under my thumb.  She is calm, she is not passionate.  But she is there, I’m happy when she is near.  After my trip I crave contact.

I am being straight with you, swear to God.  I had a couple of ounces.  He was on me – it was self defence.

Did he have a weapon, Delia asks.  How can it be self defence if he didn’t have a weapon?

Friends we question say the dead man was always joking, always had a smile.

We were sitting there, the kid says.  The gun went off, the kid says, and he fell out.

It went off.  Delia tells me they always word it in this passive way, as if no one is involved and, in a kind of magic, the gun acts on its own.

Government people contact Delia.  Don’t be afraid, the government people say to Delia, which makes her afraid.  They visit her at her apartment, claim they are concerned that a faction in the war at home may try to harm her here.

Has anyone approached her?

No, she says.  No one from home.

Has she heard from her uncle in Vietnam? they wonder.  Is he coming here?

They were very nice, she tells me, they bought me lunch.

I look at the white business card they gave her; it has a phone number and nothing else.  My hunch is that they are Intelligence rather than Immigration.  She asks questions for a living and now she is questioned by people who ask questions for a living.  Now I worry we are watched, wired, wonder if they hear me massage Delia’s shoulders and her back and below her track pants and underwear, if they hear us joke of lions and tigers.

In the interview room: He owed me money so I hit him with a hammer.  He was breathing like this, uh uh uh.

A day here is so long.  At Ava’s former apartment building I pick up my old teapot, books, and an end table from the landlord’s storage room.  The aged landlord’s stalled fashions, his fused backbone.

“Young man, can you help me with the Christmas tree?”

Of course.  I like to help.  He was one of the first here.

“The moon used to be all right,” he says.  “Now it’s all gone to hell.”

He gives me a huge apple pie from the church bake sale.  They attend church religiously, they’ll be in the heavens soon.

And poor Mister Weenie the tenant evicted from his apartment down a red hall.

What was his life like, I wonder, with a name like Weenie?

Horse laughs when I tell them, but Delia doesn’t get the humour.

Now it’s on the books as The Crown versus Weenie. How he yelled in a red hall.

“I belong in there!” he hollered, pounding at the door closed to him.  “I belong in there!”

Mister Weenie pounds at doors that once opened for him, and I wonder where we belong and who do we belong with.  In times of great stress, says science, the right brain takes over like a god and the left brain sees a god, sees a helpful companion along for the ride, an extra in the party.  Does Mister Weenie see a helpful companion?

My ex quit her job to move to Spain.  Ava has always loved the sun, the heat in Spain, the food, the language, the light.  On a weather map I see that Spain has a cold snap and I am happy, as I know Ava hates the cold.  I want her to be cold and miserable without me.  I am not proud of this part of me.

Delia reads from a childhood textbook that she found in Ava’s belongings: “Our rocket explorers will be very glad to set their feet on earth again where they don’t boil in the day and freeze at night.  Our explorers will say they found the sky inky black even in the daytime and they will tell us about the weird, oppressive stillness.”

“It’s not so bad,” I say.  “The stillness.”

“It isn’t at all beautiful like our earth,” she reads.  “It is deadly dull, hardly anything happens on the moon, nothing changes, it is as dead as any world can be.  The moon is burned out, done for.”

Delia endured a dirty war so I admire her greatly. She gets depressed, refuses to leave her room.  Where can she turn?  Her Babylon is gone, the happy place of her childhood no longer exists, friends dead or in exile or bankrupt or insane.

My dark-eyed Babylonian love, my sometimes-passionate Persian – where will she move to when she leaves me?

Out the window are astral cars and shooting stars.  Where do they race to?  I know.  I’ve been out there, nearer my god to thee, past the empty condo units, the Woodlands Nonprofit Centre for New Yearning, the Rotary Home for Blind Chicken-Licken Drivers (hey, good name for a band), the Rosenblum Retirement Home (Low Prices and Low Gravity for Your Aching Joints).

My happiest moments with my mouth just below her ample belly, I forget about outer space, her legs muffling my ears, a gourmand of her big thighs, her round hips, surrounded, grounded by her flesh; I have never liked flesh so much as with her.  The world only her in those charged moments, my brainstem and cortex and molecules’ murky motives driven by her and into her.  The devil owns me.  No devil owns me.

The valves on my heart are wide open.  I have no defences, sometimes I am overflowing with affection – and I have found this is a distinct disadvantage when dealing with others.  I never want this to end; so what do you suppose will happen?

The crowd pays good money to file into the old NASA Redstone Arena, into the band’s aural, post-industrial acres of feedback and reverb.  The band used to be someone, now they play the outposts.  We are happy to see them here.

The woman singer moans, Don’t you dog your woman, spotlights pin-wheeling in the guitarist’s reflector sunglasses.  She sings, I pity the poor immigrant.

We will remember, we will buy t shirts, souvenirs, get drunk, hold hands on the moon.  We will remember.

Later the ambulance enters the moonbase arena, amazed in pain and confusion.

The white ambulance takes away one body from us so that we can see and not see.  Carbons linger like a love song for all the coroners in the universe.  One casualty is not too bad.  Usually there are more.  An OD, too much of some new opiate, some cousin of morphine, too much of nothing.  You pay your money and you take your chances.

Who calls us?  The ambulance tolls for someone else.  Who owns the night, owns the night music of quiet tape hiss and music of quiet riches and debts in messages and missives from the crooners and coroners and distant stars?  I have learned in my travels that the circus girls own the night, and the Warriors and Ghosts and Scorpions run the corner.  They have the right messages.

And come Monday or Tuesday the interview room still waits for us, will open again its black hole, its modest grouping of table and walls and the one door.  But Delia books off work: the war, the government people, the questions.

Say that one more time?

Who do you think did this?


Dronyk says you did it.

Who’s bringing it in?

Who.  That’s a good one.  Who isn’t!  Man, who’s bringing it in.  Can I have a smoke?

The room – it’s like a spaceship for penitents; we climb in and explore a new universe, their universe.  Fingers to keyboard: does he show up on the screen?  A hit, a veritable hit, he’s in the system, the solar system.

I don’t want her to worry, but I want to know that she knows.

“Those government people asking you questions; they may not be who they say.”

“I know that,” she says.  “I wonder if they are watching us now?”

We watch Delia’s TV.  In the upscale hotel room the actor states to the reporter, Friend, for this role I had to go to some very dark places.  He was gone for a while, celluloid career gone south, the actor is hoping for an award for this project, a comeback in the movies.

Gone?  I’ll tell him about being gone.  I went up past the elms and wires, past the air, past the planets.  Where did he go?  A piano bar, a shooting gallery in the Valley, a dive motel in the wilds of Hollywood?  The actor went nowhere.

When you return to a place that is not your home, is it then your home?  I insist she go out with me and then I fall into a fight on Buckbee Street in the fake Irish bar (yes, fake Irish pubs are everywhere).

“Hey, look who crashed the party.  It’s that rug-rider cunt who sent me to jail.”  The slurring voice in the corner, a young man from the interview room.

The brief noise of his nose as I hit him and he folds.  Granted, it was a bit of sucker punch.  Why oh why didn’t I sprint out of the fake Irish pub at that point?  I stuck around to find myself charged with assault.  Aren’t you allowed one complimentary punch at Happy Hour?

Now it’s my turn to be asked the questions in Interview room #2.  I’ve been here before, know the drill, I know to stonewall, to lawyer up.

What the hell were you doing?

Wish I could help you, Horse.  Really do.  Beer later?  Chops on the grill?

Mine may be the shortest interview on record.

Delia says to me, Stand against that wall.  Face forward.

The camera flashes in my eyes.

Now please face that wall.  The camera flashes.

After the fight in the fake Irish bar Delia gets depressed and doesn’t want to see me for a week, lunar weeks, it drags on, which gets me depressed that she is depressed in her subterranean room andwon’t let me even try to cheer her up, have a laugh.

“No, I’m in a hopeless situation,” she says on the phone.  “I don’t want a temporary solution.”

“Everything is temporary.”

“That is true,” she admits.  “Everything is temporary.”

But, I wonder, what of Curtis?  Gone, permanent.  Ava?  Gone.  Is that permanent too?  I feel myself falling from the heavens.

“Are you hungry?  Let’s go out,” I beg.

“There’s nowhere to go here.  I’ve told you, I don’t want temporary solutions.”

“Can I come over?”

“I’m tired of questions.  No more questions.”

The other astronaut, Curtis – I wonder if I’ll ever know for sure whether it was a malfunction or suicide.  Curtis might have tinkered with his air and made it look like an accident, a design flaw, or his air went and it was horrible.  I often wonder where I’d like to be buried; perhaps he wanted to die out there.  Flight Centre instructed me to tether him outside to the solar array until just before we got back; didn’t want him stuck out there burning up when we made our grand entrance.  Maybe Curtis wanted to burn up, the first outer space cremation.  It’s almost poetic, but the Flight Centre would not see it as good PR.

You know who strangled the old man?  You know who did it?  A fuckin stupid crackhead!

He is pointing at himself and in tears.  It’s Ava’s landlord who is dead.

I fouled up good, says the aged addict.  Using that stuff wore me slap out.

His craggy face.  He is sincere, his hard lesson.  But he is somehow alive.  His prints don’t match his face, but I can read his mind.  By the power invested in me.  He is thinking like a cheerleader, he is thinking, I must look into the future.

Yes, I tell myself, I too must remember there is a larger world out there, a future.  I too must think like a cheerleader.

“This has worked a few times,” my lawyer says before we file into the courtroom.  “You guys are the same build. Both of you put on these glasses and sit side by side.”

The judge asks the victim, “Do you see him in the courtroom?”

“He bumped my table, he spilled my drink and then it all went dark.  I had a bad cut over my eye.  I couldn’t see nothing.  Dude was on top of me wailing all over me, and it went dark.”

Wailing?  I hit him once and he dropped.

“So you can’t point out the assailant?”

“Hell if I know.”

His girlfriend takes the stand, says, “It might be one of them over there.  I thought he was going to kill him, beating him and beating him.  I remember the third guy, that tall white-haired feller.”

They cannot ID me.  The judge throws out the case, my lawyer makes his money, the truth sets you free.

After my lawyer takes his cut I still have $3000 of the $6000 cash in the paper bag.  She’s so sad.  Delia saved me, but can she save herself?  Delia believes that her God takes care of her.  I guess I don’t need to buy a bar in Nebraska.  With my cash I buy her a ticket back home to the Hanging Gardens, a visit, but I suspect she’ll stay there or land a more lucrative job in Dubai and never return from the sky.

You are nice, she says.

Because I like you.  I like you a lot.

Thank you, she says.

She never says, I like you.  Just, Thank you.

The Interview Room is never lonely for long.  Who did it?  Why?  Someone always wants to know.  We come and go like meteors, Horse at his desk staring.

That’s the one was running.

Did you see the shooter?  Did you see?

I ran off, I didn’t see anything.

No one sees anything.

Why did she leave when I was almost there?  Who shot him?  Who was the third guy?  Don’t know a name.  I ran.  Give me your money, I heard him say, then Pop pop pop!  Man I was gone.  No need for it to go that way.  I don’t want to do nothing with nothing like that.  Maybe Eliot did it.

This is good, this is rich: a collection agency calls my voicemail using a blocked number.  The young hireling tries to be intimidating.  It may be the loansharks or skip tracers or maybe the poor Burger King clerk at the drive-thru wants his paper bag back.

“Reply to this call is mandatory,” the dork voice speaks gravely on my voicemail.  “Govern yourself accordingly,” he says, obviously proud of this final line.

Govern myself?  I love that, I enjoy that line immensely, much the way the roused lions enjoyed the French youth’s heartbreak as he walked in their cage, as he locked himself in their interviewroom.  You sense someone else with you, you’ll never walk alone, and the empty sky is never empty, it’s full of teeth.

Maybe I’ll re-up, sign on for another December flight, collect some more hazard pay, get away from everyone, from their white apartments and blue eyes and dark eyes.  Be aloof, a change of scene; maybe that will alter my luck.  I’ll cruise the moons of Jupiter or Titan’s lakes of methane, see if I can see what’s killing the others.  Once more I renounce worry!  And once more that notion will last about three seconds.

One Sunday Delia phoned at midnight, barely able to speak.

What?  I can’t hear.  Who is this?

A delay and then her accented Arabic whisper: I have headache.

I rushed over with medicine for her migraines and some groceries, sped past the walled plains and trashed plasma reactors in the Petavius crater.  I was happy to rush to her at midnight, happy that she needed me to close the distance.

In her room I saw that she had taped black garbage bags to the windows to keep light from her eyes, her tortured head.  I unpacked figs and bananas and spinach as she hurriedly cracked open painkillers.

“Thank you for this,” Delia murmured quietly with her head down, eyes hidden from me.  “I know I bother you, but this is hard pain.  Every day I will pray for you.  Every day I pray the God will give you the heaven.”

—Mark Anthony Jarman


Jun 122010



Here is a story by my friend Michael Bryson from his 2010 collection How Many Girlfriends. For several years Michael published a terrific online magazine in Toronto called The Danforth Review, which is sadly defunct although the pages now reside in the Library and Archives Canada and can still be accessed there. This was before online magazines had much legitimacy; Michael was ahead of his time, and his magazine was a useful lens on what was new and coming in the Canadian literary world while it lasted. He also writes. I put one of his stories in Best Canadian Stories (2005). And he publishes a blog called Underground Book Club.


When I was sixteen, a man spoke to my parents. A week later, he bought me a new set of clothes and I flew with him to California. His name (and I’m not making this up) was Sly. Maybe my story starts with the arrival of Sly. My parents will tell you straight out he’s an evil bastard, which is true enough, but Sly’s character was nothing if not Byzantine. He looked a bit like Santa Claus, an fact he exploited with the young and the old. It took me a long time to see the bits of him that I can claim to know, because for a long time I couldn’t see over his wake. I would look at him and see just the crest of his wave. He was my substitute father, my mentor, my guide in the world of glitter he had brought me to, and I was his servant. I was his paycheque, too, but it took me a long time to figure that out. I’m trying hard not to cloud my judgement about Sly here. I’m trying to tell you things that are simple and real. I would like to say things about Sly that even Sly would agree with, if he were here to agree with them, which he isn’t, since he’s dead.

Maybe that’s where we should start.IMG_0220

It was a dark and stormy night in New Hampshire (I’m not making this up). I was in L.A. with Lily (more on her later). Sly was in New Hampshire. I was trying desperately to get him on the phone. In recent days, we had argued. I had been in a professional slump. At the time, I blamed Sly. “Patience,” he counseled. In my condo on the outskirts of the city, Lily laid out the last of our drugs. It was approaching nightfall. Lily was still wearing her bathrobe. Beneath her robe she wore only her bikini bra. She was seventeen. I was twenty-one.

“Sly, you fucker!” I screamed into the phone. I kept getting his answering machine. He had gone to New Hampshire to meet a new client. A potential new client, anyway. I was afraid that I would lose his attention. Before he had left for the East Coast, he had been reassuring.

“I have a script on my desk right now. It’s perfect for you. The producers want you. It’s a role that could really make you.”

“Well, shit! Send it over!”

“When I get back,” he promised.

The circus was his favorite metaphor. “Life’s the Big Top, kid,” he would say. “Don’t ever forget that.”

After he died, I kept hearing his voice over and over. “Life’s the Big Top, kid. The Big Top, kid. Don’t ever forget that.”

Let me tell you one thing clear and true: I haven’t forgotten that. Life is a carnival. The carnival is the centre and source of all life. Sly taught me that, and now I’m telling it to you.

Continue reading »

Jun 112010
David Homel

David Homel on location on a film shoot in the Dominican Republic, on the Puerto Plata-Sosúa road. Photo courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada.

Here’s an excerpt from a forthcoming novel by my friend David Homel who, not coincidentally, is going to be the visiting translator at the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing winter residency (January, 2011). Go to his reading, walk up and say hello, give him the secret Numéro Cinq handshake, whisper the Words of Power. David is a novelist, translator, and screenwriter. He has won the Governor-General’s Award for Translation, not once but twice. His novel  The Speaking Cure won the Hugh McLennan Prize. Last year David and his wife, children’s book author Marie-Louise Gay, co-authored a picture book entitled Travels with my Family.

The Midway is due to be published by Cormorant Books in Toronto in September.

Excerpted from Midway

Author’s note: In this excerpt, the novel’s hero Ben Allan confronts the heart of the male mid-life crisis which manifests itself to him as the fear of death and a desire to destroy everything his life is built on. The real problem, Ben is discovering, is with death itself: it refuses to let itself be known, even after it has visited. Ben has two allies in his attempt to work out a new way of living with his wife. Unlikely allies, it’s true: a couple of plastic dinosaurs. They prove to be pretty good therapists.

“I’m afraid I’m turning into a cliché,” the stegosaurus lamented to the tyrannosaurus. “You know, the one with the discontent middle-age male. The mid-life crisis from which there is no escape. The red convertible and the blond girl with the wind in her hair.”

“Sounds delicious. But don’t worry about being a cliché: there are no new emotions,” the tyrannosaurus answered in his pontificating manner. “The genius is in how you experience them.”

“And I am experiencing them,” the stegosaurus said ruefully. “Human, all too human.”

“Are you complaining by any chance?” the tyrannosaurus asked. “Night after domestic night, isn’t that what you wanted? What you pined for, like in one of those sentimental ballads you liked to listen to when you were a teenager and that formed – deformed is more like it – your emotional universe to this very day? And now that you have a few of those wild, inconvenient emotions you once craved, you hesitate. You retreat. You are becoming human. Careful what you pray for – you just might get it.”

“I was hoping for more empathy from you,” the stegosaurus said. But even in the lower forms of vertebrate life, among the prehistoric, the extinct, empathy was hard to come by.

The tyrannosaurus snorted. “You know my nature. It’s a world I never made.”

Typical, the steg thought to himself, for his brother reptile to quote James T. Farrell, the pugnacious pride of Chicago, that tough-guy writer whom he personally considered one-dimensional. But he kept that thought to himself. He had been drinking, albeit modestly, but he didn’t trust his own thoughts after two glasses of wine. Unlike the tyranno, he was an inexperienced drinker. The stuff went to his head, and sometimes he couldn’t tell which thoughts were his, and which belonged to the wine. The effect wasn’t very pleasant.

Both dinosaurs had been drinking, though they were still within the domain of “moderate.” You couldn’t call them “social” drinkers, since their society had long since disappeared. They were just a couple of lonely guys, up late at night, egging each other on, a meditation for two, spoken out loud. They were lonesome monsters, and they knew it.

The steg was a worn green color, like the copper roof of some university pavilion in an Ivy League school. He carried his characteristic bony plates of defense on his back as if they were a burden, which they had become, now that his place in the world was assured. The tyrannosaurus had no other defense than his famous teeth and nails, powered by an aggressiveness that even scared him if he bothered to consider it. He was earth-brown, but his drab color made absolutely no difference to him. They were both banged up from a lifetime of play: the stegosaurus was missing a horn, and his companion had his tail twisted up at a jaunty angle that seemed out of character for this most fearsome of predators.

Continue reading »

Jun 082010
Canadian Icons?

Where’s Paris H?

What follows are informal thoughts on the top-ten things I learned this semester.  Caveat 1: I learned way more than ten things.  (At least eleven or twelve.)  I’m setting out to reveal the 10 most consistent mistakes I made and looking at a few outside sources to help clarify my explanation.  I hope that the NC moderator (and my former advisor) will feel free to comment, correct or criticize any of the entries for future students.  (I’m also sure that future students will be better-versed in these things, and less likely to make the same mistakes I did.)  Caveat 2:  I didn’t come from a literary background, so please don’t laugh too much if some of these seem woefully obvious.

All of these were consistently repeated problems for me this semester.  One would think, at my age, that I could have corrected them more quickly.  (Something about an old dog and new tricks.  Or is it a blue dog and old ticks?…no matter.)   Many of these kept reappearing, packet after packet.  Alas, after much navel gazing and mental anguish, I have compiled a top ten list.

I will update the post as often as I can before departing for Slovenia.  (In just over 2 weeks.)

10.  Use attributed dialogue.

Doug beat this point into me again and again.  He reminded me to consistently attribute my dialogue with specific tags.  (He said, she said, etc.)  I knew enough to avoid saying things like “He gasped,” or “She said sourly.”  Dialogue should carry the tonality of what’s being spoken.  But this idea of attribution was new to me, and Doug  seethed over unattributed dialogue, which occurred in almost all of my  stories.  He referred to it as a “disembodied voice.”  I had never been told to be so clear and consistent before, nor had I been so aware of how unattributed dialogue quickly creates abstraction and confusion for the reader.

Janet Burroway, in Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, puts it this way:

“The format and style of dialogue, like punctuation, has as its goal to be invisible; and though there may be occasions when departing from the rules is justified by some special effect, it’s best to consider such occasions rare.”  (135)

Burroway says keep it simple and, above all, clear, so the reader knows who is speaking at all times.  Creating confusion usually serves no purpose.  Burroway does say that if it’s clear who’s speaking, don’t use a dialogue tag.  I recall Doug telling me (and please correct me if I’m wrong) that Gordon Lish once told him to use attributed tags on nearly each spoken line.  Clearly, a consistent approach helps.  I think of hearing stories read aloud, and how attributed dialogue helps clarify speech immensely when listening to it.  But even on the page, I’ve certainly read a number of stories and novels where I literally have to go back and re-count lines of dialogue to figure out who’s speaking.

Burroway makes another interesting point: that dialogue tags should come in the middle of a spoken line, rather than at the beginning.  Again, the impact of calling too much attention to something supposed to be invisible dictates this choice.  For example, it should NOT be:

Doug said, “Rich, how could you be so stupid?”

It should be:

“Rich,” Doug said, “how could you be so stupid?”

The second example keeps the reader’s focus on Rich’s stupidity, and not on Doug’s voice.

If there was one, overarching message this semester,  it was the importance of being clear.  Clarity in writing only helps the story get told.  Using disembodied voices and inconsistent dialogue tags leads to reader confusion and abstraction.  As ponderous as it felt at times, writing the tags over and over, it certainly did clarify my speaking scenes.

See #9.

See #8.

See #7.

See #6.

See #5.

See #4.

See #3.

See #2.

See #1.

And recap.

–Rich Farrell

Jun 062010

Bruce StoneBruce Stone


Remind me again of the advantages of living?” This I say to my girlfriend Svetlana, who pretends not to hear me at all. She’s far too preoccupied with the task, quite literally, at hand: namely, to bring to some sort of acceptable conclusion the handjob that began under the usual hurried circumstances, in the hall, outside my apartment door. I waited silently, burdened, for Svetlana to work the deadbolt, bracing the trusses of my arms against the groceries, their novel heft, their alien aura, bulging implausibly in polyethylene bags. They swayed and listed above the hardwood like twin worlds, grotesque, misshapen, stalled in a zone of veering space into which, shortly, Svetlana would deposit the keys, my keys, with a noise like breaking glass. As she bent to retrieve them, her shirt ascended and exposed to the air that little sacred band of flesh above her transparent linen pants (she goes around with her ass more or less wrapped in cheesecloth), and then the bags crashed to the floor, ejecting each one of their itemized contents, and I was clawing freely at her shirt.

We negotiated, somehow, the debris field-a shuffling, sloughing dance over tuna cans, yellow onion, solitary units of Jolly Good cream soda, a razor-sharp pineapple with negligible rind-rot-and maneuvered inside where those preliminaries graded into an hour of ineffective coitus on the living room floor (Svetlana’s face gradually taking on that cast of expressive accusation), which then lasted through dinner (I thought she almost had me when she brought out the colander), one and a half games of postprandial chess (I am a sore loser), and the phone call from the unemployment adjudicator who dispassionately informed me that my benefits are running out.

Now it seems we have come full circle.

Anyway, to my knowledge, she doesn’t speak a word of English.

She’s in a crouch, Svetlana, by the lower kitchen cabinets, directing the business end of my flexed equipment toward a saucepan. She does not perform fellatio, and I can’t blame her. From time to time she looks up at me, her face miming what she’s unable to say: “When it finally goes, look out!”

According to Dorland’s Medical Dictionary, I have a condition known as priapism, which, I must admit, has a certain old-Greek venerability to it, a bracing air of Trojan grandeur. But sadly, these heroic connotations bear little relation to the sordid facts of the case, the light of which compels me to refer to this predicament for what it really is: i.e., functional impotence. To all outward appearances, the equipment mostly works. I am erect almost constantly. And I go around dragging this piece of lumber, torquing it out of the way (I’m not a maniac) with the waistband of my boxer briefs-the type of undergarment I prefer because, I don’t know, despite everything they still make me feel athletic and capable. As I say, the equipment mostly works, excepting the gonads, of course, which Svetlana now hefts on her outstretched fingers, eyeing them sadly. No, those gonads are without question on the fritz: swollen, unresponsive, definitely not trucking their weight at all.

Svetlana is a good kid. When I met her, that’s the first thing I thought, and how could I not? Look at that face, pale, long-suffering, chinless, with here and there the inflamed corona of a pimple. What I see in her is complicated: she reminds me daily of that capacity exclusive to Slavic peoples for, shall we say, aesthetic forthrightness, a point impressed upon me a long time ago when I visited a rundown cathedral in an obscure corner of Prague. High on the wall, grainy, light-starved, above a bank of pews gnawed into ruin by devout parish rodents, a muscle-bound Christ was pinned isometrically to the Cross, His face grim, sightless and furrowed as an Easter-Island monolith, a sturdy bolt bisecting each gnarled wrist. Those muscles might have been a put-on, but that wrist business, from a procedural point of view, was pure honesty. Svetlana, perhaps through her very speechlessness, helps me to see things more clearly, perhaps to see things as they really are. With Svetlana, I think, I have become a tourist in my own home.

I do not say this to her, though I might. Her eyes prevent me. She has absolutely nothing going on in the eyes. It occurs to me that those eyes of hers, under the high forehead and the wounded line of bangs (she sheared them herself, in my bathroom, with shaking hand), beneath such tender agonies, the eyes and their wreaths of lashes have the look of blighted forget-me-nots, blackened, irretrievable. I gesture for her to stop, which she does, and when she rises, there’s a pop from her overstressed knees that says pretty much all there is to say. We look over the kitchen-a wreck of Etruscan implements and tomato-paste carnage-she adjusts the binding of her cornsilk ponytail and then saunters, nude, to the sofa where she raises one giraffe-leg and eases over the back, piling into the cushions. She waits, oblivious now to my presence, for the disk to load: I have a PlayStation. Svetlana has discovered a passion for the kart-game Crash Bandicoot. That’s imprecise. Svetlana has transferred a peculiarly Slavic hopeless fixation onto the kart-game Crash Bandicoot. Gravely, without irony, she adopts the guise of her favored avatar, the title character: a psychotic marsupial at the wheel of a souped-up go-kart, bound to race to the death a band of likewise mutant critters across a baroque steampunk landscape. Silently, unblinking, she imbibes the scene, a wash of tailpipe exhaust, the lurid geography (pixelated sand, mud, beached galleons) of the track. I hear her engine throttle, followed almost immediately by a cataclysmic crash. Her ponytail doesn’t flinch.

Sometimes I think this technology is the sole basis for our relationship. There are probably worse arrangements.


Living is a habit I have lost, I think, as I cross from the alley shadows into the streetlight glare of Third Avenue. Lampposts, really. Black fluted steel with dual bulbs hanging, a concession to nostalgia, harkening to quainter times as you might expect from a tourist hub. They throw a hell of a lot of light.

The street is active, even at this hour, when most of the shops have closed. But the lights are there, as is the canned music from the place that sells Irish things at a nice margin, and I think, not for the first time, that none of this has anything to do with me. The stragglers come on, with a fluorescent shimmer to their gear, immoderately peeping into storefronts for hypothetical souvenirs: the chance to see themselves reflected among the wares and experience, momentarily, grace. Tonight, it seems all the leggy daughters in their high-cut tennis shorts have been secreted away (I imagine cloistered wings of inaccessible resort facilities where machines shit ice incessantly), so around the sated passers there is an absence of gamboling and only the laundered air is on hand to frisk the shirttails and purse straps, the T-Mobile pouches and rigged-out cargo shorts, the sundry frayed edges of the blessed. At the fire station, the garage door stands open and the guys in their blue jumpsuits are fussing over one of the vehicles, an open-faced rig that could pass for a UPS truck except for the blaze-red paint and the gold-embossed letters that read, in honor of our fair city, SBFD. Above the left front tire there is a conspicuous ding, a hull fracture, really, which I take to be a succinct and pithy reminder of the inattentive driving habits of civil servants.

I thought a walk might help to calm me, but I don’t have the heart for it, not now, so I get no farther than the corner where the town’s only hansom cab (itself a remarkable fact) is stalled in a halogen pool near the stop sign: Eddie at altitude in the cabman’s box, portly and immovable under a black Stetson, presently neglecting the knotted reins to keep company with his folded newspaper.

I worry about Eddie. His ostensible purpose is to capitalize on the season, yet here he sits, on an eligible night, idle. For some reason he is giving me the finger; otherwise, he does not condescend to notice me.

This is the problem, I think, stepping into the gutter across from the BP and the medieval spikes of its lurid green sun, where a lone sedan quietly gorges. The oasis around the pumps is lit up like a reasonable affront to heaven, and still, out over the canal, above the bent girders of the old bridge, all the stars are burning, furious, ridiculously near. I have never gone in for stargazing, which, judging from the blunted glances of the pedestrians, isn’t so much gazing as it is a kind of celestial rubbernecking, an obligatory inspection of local ruins. I took my degree in finance, and am after all a man of commerce, a bottom-liner, and, when it comes right down to it, in my own way, a cheat. But I have what is known as a literary mind, and so it is to be expected that I would resent the inflated reverence commonly afforded to those moronic constellations, their sentimental mythologies and two-dimensional imprecision: their legacy, as I see it, is played out. I want to know that there’s a broader view. If there are apprehensible shapes in the cosmos, I want to feel that their complexity is somehow adequate to this tortured existence, this interminable straining at the yoke, this endless peering through blinders. In short, I want a more expansive consciousness so that I might better understand what I am, I think, already closing in on Eddie’s horse, whose name I never bothered to learn, who any minute now will blast the street with a searing bolt of piss-I have a sense for these things. Eddie thumps his paper irritably, but doesn’t say a word, not even when I lean forward, really feeling like weeping, and take the bit in my hands where it protrudes on either side from Moe’s gums (I call him Moe). The bit is understandably moist. Moe smells of baked mud and scabs. I lower myself in, enfolding and even cradling with my abdomen that length of aggravated cartilage, that blunt piton of thwarted virility, until at last we are brow to muzzle. I feel his coarse hairs on my skin, his wheezing through dilated nostrils, the disconcerted gaze of his runny brown eyes. There is no reassurance whatsoever. It occurs to me that, in human terms, what I am looking for is a plot.

The pain, when Moe nips, is stunning, such that I totter backward and drop onto the sidewalk to get my bearings on the impressive magnitude of this sensation. It is a pain not of the skin, but something deeper, an aching in the bone, which feels bludgeoned, throbbing from the core outward. This has my attention. I would like to tell someone.

Eddie is laughing his ass off, but he never puts down his newspaper.

The firemen have lighted cigarettes on the far side of their machine. I see the smoke rising.

When I get back to the apartment, Svetlana and the PlayStation are gone.

But she’s done this before.


“The advantages? Of living?” I say aloud simply because I can. I have retreated to this burrow, beneath the bench, on the third floor of the Fairfield Gallery, and per usual there’s no one else around. Up here they have some of the higher-end merchandise-a few of Giacometti’s striding stickmen, a stilted Modigliani, a Fauvist something or other. Across from me on the wall, there’s an uncharacteristic Magritte, having nothing to do with the bowler-hatted stuffiness of say The Menaced Assassin: something busier, nearly Cubist, a fevered collage reeking of consumerism, with one of those nifty Belgique titles like What the fuck are you looking at?

I grimace now in earnest.

Speaking objectively, every moment is for me a more or less harrowing experience.

I have decided to find employment, and arriving at this momentous decision was itself enough to get me through yesterday-I felt quiescent and resolute-so much so that today, just after lunch and a series of convoluted reflections-I was loitering by the canal, killing time before my rendezvous with the kid at the library-I double-checked the stays on that material nuisance below-decks and ventured into Castle Cove, a recently erected eyesore of sand-colored stone that towers over the timid and, in certain lights, maidenly waters of the harbor. I made a note to admire the facility’s stone battlements, suavely crossed its redundant moat. Inside, among the steamy fumes emanating from its banquet halls, I could distinguish the smells of cabbage and upholstery, or Svetlana emerging from a hard-water shower, toweling her tangled hair. A bartender directed me to the administrative offices on the second floor, where I introduced myself to the appropriate party (whom, I can honestly say, I’d never met before), allowed him to ravage my wounded hand in his grip. My good humor, my chummy grin, never creased. I had on my clean shirt and best sandals. But the whole time I had the feeling that all of this was inconsequential, as if I were on an errand in the subtext of a novel, one of those throwaway characters who has nothing whatsoever to contribute but who nevertheless goes on existing in a peripheral and stunted capacity. For some reason, I had particularly in mind the guy who rents the bicycles in Robbes-Grillet’s The Voyeur (a singularly disappointing work), his role of meaningless facilitation, after which he lapses once more into that unfinished layer of creation where everyone is a tourist against his will and the only common currency is loss. This is what I was thinking in the margins of our chitchat, and I recall nodding sagely as the appropriate party regretted to inform me…. Or words to that effect.

We were on the tail end of a more or less amicable farewell in the hallway when a woman in a beige housekeeping get-up swept past us, pushing a facilities cart in the direction of the elevator. She beamed, as she passed, with the languid self-assurance of her sub-tropical ancestors, turned her head and beamed, offering those sizeable teeth like a sunflower in the manner of all phony and perverted companionable displays. Her cleaning cart smelled of pineapples. At the elevator, she regally popped the call button. I really meant no harm, but in a moment of unchecked ire, I muttered something ambiguous about the openings of certain resort facilities and those of ingratiating, big-titted Tahitians. The usual harmless stuff. When I came to and there was sufficient pain to remind me that I was still in fact alive, a few blazered security attendants were hauling me to the street.

It seems everyone has a hair-trigger these days.

Scruggs, that was his name, Scruggs, bent over as if inspecting his handiwork, said he’d never liked me.

Speaking objectively, I have no reasonable explanation for how I have come to be this way. As I dragged myself through the parking lot, I could see the huge freighters where they mass in the shipyards, congregating like a bunch of fat guys in a bar, and though they did nothing, not so much as listing on their stays, I thought they might as well rear up on their prows, water spouting from their smashed-iron sides, just heave up, trailing tentacles of rigging and chains, and glide on the air for an instant before crashing arbitrarily earthward. I have lost my basic trust in things, I think.

Now that I consider it, yesterday was no different either.

I have missed my rendezvous.

“I know exactly what you mean,” I say to the taller of the Giacomettis, who lumbers woozily in the direction of I don’t know where.

When my father was in Chicago for his criminal prosecution, I took the train down to be present in the event that I should be called upon to corroborate the depositions. I was never called, so while the tax lawyers were zealously divesting my father of his net worth, I was stomping with my hands in my pockets along Michigan Avenue, getting similarly bullied by a pugnacious wind that caused the very street to ripple uncertainly. A guy holding his ground by a coffee cart was zipped up to his ears. I doubted that he would murder me. This was April. At Jackson Park, I watched an SUV crest a portion of hill between two enormous cement monuments where it sleekly descended into an apocalyptic collision-the swift, calamitous bang of metal and burst glass-with an onrushing Beetle. The vehicles, I thought, would have to be torn apart. Of course none of this was helping my agitated condition, and by the time I reached the river bridge, with the tinted-glass skyscrapers veering toward me, and the relentless menace of the traffic, CTA buses grinding their brutish hubs against the curbs, and that Munchian wind too fierce to carry a single smell, just gripping me by the testicles, shaking me furiously, I thought, well this is it then, and I clutched the stone guardrail, peering into the green contortions of the river, waiting for the universal annihilation. But there was no universal annihilation, and I could only shamble back in the direction of my hotel room, wind-tears streaming down my face, searching out my lost equilibrium.

This is how it is more or less all the time.

If Giacometti had walked in my shoes along the river bridge, I doubt he would have sculpted a thing.

He does not corroborate my deposition.


How, exactly, is this helping, I want to know. I am at the library. On the sofa. Across from the circulation desk where the librarian is wearing her flowered vest and a big clock on the wall tells me that I have been stood up. This library pacifies me. There is something in its architecture that conveys both aesthetic refinement and maximum functionality, like the high contrast between the dark floorboards and incandescent walls on the third floor of the museum. Here, I feel touches of the subdued poetry of Monticello, a kind of Jeffersonian exposition in the colonnaded entrance and shaved-steel book-drop. The newspapers are free for perusal, if you don’t mind another pair of mitts roughing up your creases, and I am taking full advantage, skimming the classified section with the practiced, clinical eye of a man of commerce, someone who knows what he’s about. On the cushion next to me, I have stowed a slip of paper (a halved portion of an old card-catalog entry-the remaindered book was titled Lime: The Corrosive Agent) and a short pencil, one of those clean amputees, to take down relevant information.

Across the room a bank of computer terminals blinks and simmers, a creepy phalanx of low-flicker-rate monitors and distressed motherboards. The machines siphon off most of the afternoon foot traffic, absorbing the very worst of user misbehavior and making of my abstinence a virtue (I duly honor the lifetime ban meted out to me, however unjustly: the Wikipedia vandalism was a misunderstanding, I maintain, the desultory porn surfing purely medicinal). Amid the sprawling tweens who occupy chairs even in front of the dud terminals, at a spot in the corner, seated in profile, a guy who looks exactly like Richard Gere squints into his browser, as if carefully considering his next move. This is the same man who, very recently, as he swept imperiously through the reference section, had paused, leaned in over my shoulder, and, pointing a hoary finger at my newspaper, suggested I avail myself of the Web classifieds with a simple, neighborly, obnoxiously affable “You know, most of those are online now” (flexing his eyebrows in postscript). He had feathery white hair, streaked with grey, a stubby hooked nose like a can-opener, and twin rows of small even dentures that he bared above a droopy lower lip. His face, I noticed, bore lurid red patches on the nose, cheeks and brow-fractal patterns of burst capillaries on his nostrils-and the skin appeared slick, richly lubricated, intermittently poreless: as if his face had been buffed with sandpaper, some radical therapy for psoriasis.

Now that I think of it, the resemblance is slight, at best.

For a while I breathe shallowly and sit perfectly still in an effort to compose myself, to keep in check a sensation of acute paranoia, but even so, from her post beneath the wall clock the librarian forwards disapproving glances in the general vicinity of my sofa-as if she does not remember at all my gratitude when she helped me to locate the Dorland’s Medical Dictionary, or when she procured for me the Russian/English dictionary with its impossible pronunciations, or when she directed me, that time before all hope was lost, to the men’s room with the bad light on the upper floor.

Anyway, none of this did me any good.

I try to tell myself that I am a miracle of nature occurring for a short period of time, but I’m not buying what I’m selling.

Help wanted, I think.

Time is a corrosive agent.

Svetlana, her disappearances notwithstanding, was never like this, this waiting, this agonistic uncertainty. When I first met her, at the public beach by the pier stanchions where she was sobbing into her hands, she was all present, all access from the start. I had rolled up, coaxing my arthritic Buick over the moguls in the parking lot, really feeling like a wreck: an implacable bone-deep aching, desperate to be rid of this ludicrous erection, which even then was less a figure of unassuageable longing than a serious breach of anatomical contract. By this point, I was, strictly speaking, no longer employed, it grieves me to admit; my father’s winery had already been shut down, owing to fiscal mismanagement, misreported revenues and an ongoing failure to respond to the worried messages from his accountant (Dad’s absenteeism was hopelessly thorough). Before me, I had the beach mix of sand and white stone, the late-season sun, the waveless water-its surface a veneer of chrome and blueberry fanning out toward the far islands like the purposeless expanse afforded by my severance package-and I was thinking that I would swim until I could distinguish, among the sand bars, the contours of my destiny, until things made sense or ceased forever to matter.

I didn’t care which.

I had already stripped down to my boxer briefs and was marching toward the water when I noticed Svetlana, sobbing in Cyrillic, amid the boulders by the pier, her ponytail limp over her shoulder, her lankiness knotted in a heap. She did not look up at me, but I could feel her wanting to look up at me as soon as I took a step in her direction and she shifted over onto one side, defensively, disrupting the spasms of her sobs and revealing in those see-through pants an elliptical stretch of buttock and the ghost of her thong chemise (her wardrobe is pitifully limited): then I knew everything about her all at once. That she was part of the influx of foreign nationals, a source of ready labor imported to ease the convulsions of an overstrained tourist economy. That the language barrier led her to suffer mistreatment at the hands of her Dickensian employers (I imagined her working as a housekeeper for one of these big resorts-a point later confirmed by the rhythms of her absences). And that her spirit was withering in the loveless dormitory erected by the chamber of commerce to house tragic migrants.

I could see that she needed looking after. And immediately we began to trade kindnesses, a slow-motion pantomime of consolation-she, sputtering in damaged Cyrillic, me, with a hand stuffed deep into the gauze recesses of her linen pants, as if to say, “Shhh, Svetlana, Shhh.” And when we rolled apart, sometime after sundown, as it has ever been, anticlimactically, her sniveling ceased, and I felt-I can’t explain this-pocketed somewhere in the root opacity of our conjunction, that life was nearly tolerable.

You can go a surprisingly long way on that slight feeling.

I wonder offhandedly if I should be concerned about this habit I have of narrating myself to myself.

Then she’s here. I did not notice her come in, pass the aluminum drinking fountain, and the tourist brochures in that wall-mounted display, and the double doors to the reading room with its odor of anxiety. I did not notice her trot up the stairs, shoot a meaningful look in my direction, gauging the coordinates of my position and the logistical possibilities it afforded. But I see her now, up there in the balcony-the loft area where the nonfiction holdings are sequestered and a kind of recessed catwalk spans the length from here to there. For a moment I permit myself to confuse her with Svetlana before I concede that her good teeth, her bad perm, her resolute American comportment radiate a special and inimitable charm. She does her best to look nonchalant, she even has me fooled, and I can see the shadows from the spindled guardrail stripe her legs until she stops above my position. She is wearing a cheerleader outfit and sheer underthings. That’s not precise. I can’t tell if she’s wearing sheer underthings or no underthings.

She’s a good kid, but my interest in her is strictly therapeutic.

We have an arrangement.

When I first approached her, she told me she was eighteen and I pretended to believe her.

The outfit, presumably, is for my benefit, but the tinny colors and the coarse material make her look dumpy, even fat. I don’t have the heart to tell her this.

With her back to me, she grips the sturdy banister and makes as if to stretch, straining forward on raised toes. I can see fine. Then, still gripping the handrail, she drops into a crouch, thrusting her rear between two of the steel spindles such that her skirt splays out like a fan.

Cherry Bluff Orchards is looking for day-labor. I entertain a vision of myself shirtless, in ripe orchards, gorging on fruit. I raise the amputated pencil, grit my teeth (figuratively) against the pain of flared nerves, make an apposite notation.

Up there, the kid is fronting the guardrail. She scans left and right with a vague air of gravity, and then she shoots up one leg onto the banister, ballerina-style, and raises her arms over her head, straining sidewise to the knee.

She’s a flexible kid. I should tell her about the ballerina thing.

I make a notation with the amputated pencil.

As a literary conceit, pedophilia is of course ridiculously old hat. But in this world (hardly real) it remains a viable coping strategy.

I’m rattling my paper, and when she doesn’t get the signal, I start making forced, throat-clearing sounds until the librarian at the desk trains her eyes on me. My erection is fine, but I cross my legs anyway.

This is all I have.


This is how it happened for me, I think, because I would prefer not to think about what happened yesterday, which is why today the only thing I am good for is standing like this, leaning out the open window, overlooking the midday thoroughfare and its faltering, cinerary traffic as if it had some necessary relation to me. I am naked from the waist down and giving no one in particular the finger.

Without the PlayStation, my store of household technologies is significantly depleted, consisting solely of the portable television (which gets no reception), a universal remote (which communicates with nothing), and the empty case of the lone DVD in my vestigial collection. Said videodisc Svetlana smashed in a fit of pique not long after we got together, the same fit of pique in which she absconded with, and subsequently sold (in her blatnoy black market, I presume), the DVD player that I bought, in another lifetime, on clearance at Wal-Mart.

The film was an old Richard Gere, Laura Linney title, one-hundred-nineteen minutes of oracular nonsense called The Mothman Prophecies. The plot and particulars escape me now, but I remember the thing came into my possession during a routine test of the public library’s security system (the old-fashioned book drop, it turns out, provides a functional point of egress). Hardly a loss.

I don’t know if my condition has worsened-there are blotches now, I think, or maybe there have always been blotches, or maybe the black bruise on my finger, which gives every indication of indelibility, has somehow migrated and metastasized, or maybe it’s just the light. In any case, pants today are out of the question.

Perhaps if I had turned up like this yesterday, things might have gone differently. The orchard keeper might have done something other than what he did, which was to take one look at me and say (he insisted) that the ad had been a misprint. And then I might not have gone for that sentimental traipse through the cherry trees and their cultivated nostalgia, where I encountered the harvest crew performing tense deliberations around the recent hire, critiquing her form up on the ladder. She was a nice-enough-looking gal with the predilection for short skirts, the aversion to underthings and the cracked teeth of a Croatian. Probably she bunked with Svetlana at the dormitory for imported foreign nationals. Probably she knew her. That was really all I wanted to know, but still the ensuing scuffle ended with me on the turf, and the stout veteran Mexican grinding my clenched hand and an anomalous swatch of skirt hem under his boot, asking had I had enough.

I had.

My appetite is gone.

This is how it happened for me, I say to the fire truck, that UPS imposter, which shifts into neutral and luxuriantly throttles its engine at the stop sign where the people are making a big deal over the crosswalk. As if they had never seen vomit before.

This whole landscape is tilted, unreliable, I think.

This is how it happened for me. Because you hear all the time that god is dead, life meaningless, all the usual encouraging clichés, and then one day the truth hits you with an almost biological urgency. I was on the train, southbound, heading to Chicago for the denouement to my father’s criminal proceedings, when I still had no idea that he was going to shoot himself, and I had managed to secure a seat beside a guy in camouflage pants who was penciling cartoon images of a femme fatale and whom the conductor referred to chummily as “Colonel.” Somehow, between his arms, the notepad and his compressed belly, he cradled a sandwich, soggy with tomato, lettuce and cold cuts, which leaked helplessly onto a sheet of waxed paper.

Having secured this seat, I made as if to read King Lear in my Oxford Shakespeare-the Bullen edition from 1938 and it looks it-because by then this was all I could do to discourage people from noticing me (of course, for a long time now I have been off actual reading altogether). And besides, the Bullen promised to create a suitable diversion, dispelling the images that I had (and toward which I was rushing anyway) of my father at a table of grimly polished wood, hounded by attorneys, a haunted, vanquished expression clouding the movie-star good looks on which he had founded his modest empire (the spaniel nose, the boyish grin, a tasteful hint of mullet in his wavy, gray hair-the staff used to say he resembled some Hollywood celebrity whose name escapes me). In my mind, I didn’t see the face of a man on the verge of incarceration, his nest egg vaporized: it was the face of a man who had lost a child.

Perusing those mildewed pages, their gargoyle fonts, gripping that fantastically dry-rotted spine, I found then a kind of respite, a loose psychosocial insularity, within which I entertained the odd minimalist sexual fantasy involving both Regan and Goneril (those vastly underrated sisters) and all of their voluminous skirts. But at some point in the course of these literary peregrinations, my lazy eye happened to fall upon that line in which Gloucester whimpers his pretty analogy to the effect that flies: wanton boys = men: gods. And it occurred to me, not for the first time, that the image was unsatisfactory. As the leading term in the rhetorical figure, the earwig, I thought, would make for a much better choice all around as the earwig is more repulsive, sluggish and malicious, and more stubbornly ineradicable.

But the longer I dwelt upon this unfortunate convergence of sadism and entomology-and what choice did I have really, with the great expanses of marsh ripping by, and the exhausted willows, and the Colonel’s sturdy leg knocking me in time with the swinging car-slowly, with greater force and gravity, the analogy began to reveal deeper and deeper layers of ineptitude until I was experiencing what can only be called epiphanic hyperventilation. Because of course, my earwig substitution was sheer snottiness, but the real crux of the matter was that the insect failed to convey the incomprehensible vastness of the gulf between mortality and immortality. The fly, as it staggers, wingless, has a language to communicate its suffering. The boy knows it suffers. To the hypothetical gods and any putative celestial persecution, we cannot ascribe anything like intentionality or malice. To such gods, I reckoned, we must possess as much personality and agency as, say, a tomato, or some other vegetable byproduct of four billion years of terrestrial confinement-Yes, I thought, this formulation, what it loses in poetry, it gains in precision. Between the here-and-now and the hereafter, we must assume a more radical separation, an evolutionary leap, as it were, which precludes any intelligible communication between states of being. We are destroyed, sure, but there is no way for the gods to know that we know it. In short, I thought, there is no way for the gods to hear us. And although I had absolutely no reason to mope about it, I must admit I felt the full weight of my solitude bearing down on me as if for the first time, as if all of this had just happened to me personally, and I looked mildly in the Colonel’s direction with my face wrenched into a brokenhearted smile, a smile of tolerance and shared purpose, but he had dozed off, mouth open, head collapsed on the seat back, and his pencil, I saw, had slipped into the dregs on the waxed paper.

I wanted to retrieve it for him, but you know how it is.

The water is going in the saucepan. I feel the steam saturating my sinuses, but I dump in the bag of Ramen noodles anyway.

Svetlana’s favorite race track was Hot Air Skyway.

It’s nice to know that I still have food in the house.

The noodles are going in the pan, churning and paling in the roil. I think, but I do not do this, of submerging my hand in the froth. I imagine the skin peeling away, flapping in the current, entwining with the noodles. I think, but I do not do this, of lowering my hand to the bottom, palming the flat blaze of steel. I wonder how long I could stand it.

I wonder if I might profit somehow from this pain.


Has it really come to this then? I reflect offhandedly through the filtered light of exertion and the dingy, shadow-burdened light of the bathroom and the abrasive, played-out feel of this advantageless arrangement.

Everything is this crummy, filtered bathroom light.

It’s all I have.

The kid had turned up in a yellow shirt screaming Cheerios, which bore, between the breasts, the imprint of a seat belt, as if implying the existence of a conscientious parent, and when I suggested that we modify our arrangement, stuffing the roll of my last remaining bills into her pocket, she didn’t bother to count the money (which was exactly twenty-four dollars). She just took me by the wrist and led me up here where everything smells of nonfiction, except the urinal cakes, which smell of despair, and when I asked her why the men’s, she merely shrugged as if to say she’d always wanted to see the inside.

If you ask me, it isn’t much to look at.

The shirt is now torqued in a mess under her chin. When she tightens, innocently I think, the grip with her ankles, the balled jeans make a push for total asphyxiation, but I don’t back off because at this point I’ll try anything and I don’t have the heart to let her know that I’m not even close.

She’s a good kid.

She doesn’t seem to be in any hurry, though periodically she steals glances at the door, not as if she expects any sudden intrusion, but solely I think to break up the monotony of the view. So I have plenty of time not to remember what happened to me yesterday when I visited the offices of the tourist bureau, which claimed to be soliciting legitimate applications for employment. I had presented myself, thinking optimistically about what it would be like to thrust my hands into soil, to water copiously, to till. That sort of thing. I had, what’s more, taken considerable preparatory pains, acquiring some of the lingo with the gracious assistance of my librarian friend in the flowered vest that she kept rearranging to conceal her incensed nipples (I figured she was breaking in a new undergarment, and tactfully did not draw attention to her discomposure). She led me through the nonfiction holdings to a tome on husbandry that helped me to distinguish my bulbs from my seeds, explained how to finesse a hydrangea, etc., and I was nearly feeling pretty good about myself until I arrived at the office where I learned 1) that the position had called for a brochure copywriter and not, as I insisted, an experienced groundstender; 2) that they had already hired a leggy Bratislavan who has her own tools and consents to work in a homemade bikini of spaghetti-string straps and Eastern-Bloc Post-Its; and 3) that they had never heard of anyone named Svetlana. Point taken, I thought, conceding, then, the evident redundancy of my placement in this universe, but I didn’t say a word, just lay down on the carpet and waited for the inevitable formality of the coup de grace. Underneath the desk, an invoice or some such had fallen, its letterhead sporting an urgent-looking QUAST, which was supposed to remind me of quest but instead made me think only of an obscure radioactive element mined in the African jungles of an old English novel. Somewhere someone was running a vacuum cleaner. They let me lie like that for a while. Eventually I bedded and seeded and sodded my quap heap and went home.

When I pick up the pace, the tile hardly bothers her at all.

The last time I had contact with something beautiful goes like this: I was on the train, returning from Chicago, where I had made a nuisance of myself in the courthouse, but was otherwise incapable of effecting any alteration in the proceedings against my indicted father. The night before, I had stumbled in the direction of my hotel room, bent at the waist, fighting the whole way a sheering wind and chafing briefs-a classic existential fug which I tried to drown in curaçao at the tavern across the street from my hotel, where I left the bartender a tip to the tune of twenty-four drenched dollars in a heap on the bar (she had a butterfly tattoo on the small of her back and a commiserating air of self-destruction). So I was feeling a little iffy when I arrived at the station the next morning, a condition that persuaded me, on medical grounds, to procure a bottle of pineapple juice from the cooler at the busy and inattentively manned newsstand. This I later had occasion to regret.

But I boarded, and bribed the conductor to leave me alone, which he did after riffling through a ticket with his hole-punch. For some time I sat sipping cautiously from the rank platform air that seeped into the compartment, endured the silent inquisition of an overdressed policeman who braced his fists against the luggage racks and completed a thorough inspection of the vacant balcony seats before heavily disembarking. An oily, evasive period followed, then, with a bang and a lurch, the train creaked out into the sunlight and swung between the high rises and the low brick slaughterhouse tenements, and the city, I must say, looked itself a little green around the gills through the tinted windows. I had the car mostly to myself. When I closed my eyes, I could feel the unsteady jiggering of the wheels bumping over the junctions, and the gentler, steadier subliminal jiggering from side to side, and through the murderous headache and the pineapple-tainted cottonmouth it became clear that I would be sick.

In a state of surprising composure, I ventured on faith, a shambling, weightless gallows walk, to the next car to locate the facilities, into which I shut myself, sliding the battered door on its tracks and throwing the bolt behind me. Simultaneously, a jaundiced interior light came on above the mirror to offer visual corroboration of the pervasive aura of fecal smatterings and urinary drippings and other Dantesquan unpleasantnesses.

In all of this there was a minimum of ceremony.

Almost casually, I bent a little at the knee, folded an arm across my chest and, in a state of truly remarkable composure, retched voluminously and accurately in the direction of the long-suffering toilet, with its cheap flap lid and shallow cavity and the flimsy trapdoor at the bottom. I retched in successive waves, primly and energetically, shouting at the onset of each spasm, discharging tubes of vomit with a surprising geometrical integrity, in the color, for some reason, of crushed plums. The effort forced tears at an impressive rate from my eyeducts, but even weeping as I was, I offered none of those intermediary whimpers that indicate a self-pitying temperament. Time, in a metaphysical sense, became irrelevant. At some point I distinctly heard the door to the vestibule slide open, and the conductor as he passed with measured steps of his black shoes, idly clicking his ticket-punch. After one last roar in the direction of that obedient drain mechanism and the messy business of puffing air through my lips, submitting to full-body tremors, I flooded the bowl with its toxic rinse of blue slime, putting paid, I thought, to the proceedings. But as I continued to feel a shimmering violence around the middle, baroque sequences of expulsive ripples, I negotiated the cramped space, hobbling in a tight circle, and with a foreigner’s hypersensitivity proceeded to unbuckle and lower and rest my haunches on the bowl, training my erection with both hands (which nevertheless spurted wayward spikes of urine as the train swung me back and forth), noisily and helplessly unburdening myself of this secondary colorectal duress.

I felt humbled, purged on a mitochondrial level, thrown clear, as it were, of the blast radius of myself. As if I had finally settled the accounts on a lifetime of error.

I made myself presentable once more, straightening my collar and smoothing my hair, savoring the preternatural stillness that had descended over our steady acceleration. Then I swept open the door, naked as it were before the horror and derision of my fellow passengers, who merely gazed placidly at the retreating city, rocked sedately over columns of unwavering newsprint, continued gravely and serenely to tap keypads, communing sweetly with obsolescing technologies, stenciling the windows of Palm-Pilots and cellphones with earnest, euphonic prayers. I believed that I had gained access to the benevolent region of pure poetry.

The kid makes out as if she understands all of this.

For a split second it occurs to me that I am in love with Svetlana.

And then the kid starts quivering strangely, copacetically, beneath me, and I feel something quickening in the machinery of my loins, a delicate rising sensation, like the immaculate reoccurrence of an extinct organism. It is a sensation that I can only compare to hope as I am inclined to believe that all of this now is headed somewhere. For a few moments, I catch a glimmer, in the radiating swarms of banded light, of my destiny, a benign assurance that it exists somewhere. I think of Svetlana and myself cruising unhurried, contentedly, in a sleek two-seater, along the levitating expanses of Hot Air Skyway-where the smoking wreckages of the past have been cleared away, and there is only the pristine patchwork of the track as it rises and falls between the watercolor dirigibles, the gush of pixels drummed up by their bow-blades, leading us on toward the pastel smoke of high cirrus that reaches far into the measureless horizons-and I believe that life is trembling on the verge of a nearly tangible possibility-until I see the kid moving under me, squirming without inflection, that patient look in her eyes discharging gun-batteries of boredom, and then I understand that I am experiencing what is known as a false positive.

I try for her benefit to simulate orgasm, and when I roll off her, I can see that she’s scarcely disheveled.

A good kid.

Before she goes, she smiles with her eyes closed as if to acknowledge a completed transaction but she does not ask about my hand.


I am reasonably sure that this is how it ends. I am sitting on the tarmac under the oasis of the BP in a puddle of lake water and the solitary dribble of gasoline that I was able to squeeze out of the pump before the clerk’s invisible intercession.

The police, he has leaned out the door to inform me, are on their way.

He seems a nice enough sort, this despite having refused me a job application, a book of matches, and a show of human compassion, in that order. He watches from the window through which you can just distinguish the top of his no-doubt impeccably balanced cash register, and he conveys an aura of concern, of nearly paternal solicitude that reminds me of what had always been lacking between me and my father. Perhaps, had I felt this abiding tenderness, things might have gone differently; I might have abetted his criminal prosecution less aggressively, might even have copped to my own modest profiteering-which was negligible, certainly, but I might have saved him some jail time.

In any event, the shot to the chest wasn’t fatal.

I am not suicidal-the matches were really a kind of pick-me-up as I am generally cheered by the smell of sulfur. The gas, I think, is a poor substitute.

Still I am reasonably sure that this is how it ends.

When I returned to my apartment this afternoon, there was a notice of eviction affixed to the door, official-looking in every way excepting the marginalia scrawled in an illegible Cyrillic.

All in all, this has been a disappointing day.

When I reached the site of our putative rendezvous, the kid was not there, nor were her three promised friends.

I had been stood up.

The place I had selected for our assignation was, and still is, called Cave Point, a stretch of shoreline where the water has been occupied for centuries fine-tuning the deep scallops that it is carving into the limestone. After that unfortunate business in the men’s room-the librarian pushing through the door, prematurely outraged, where she discovered me at the sink, splashing tap-water over my tormented equipment, her face then paling and burning by turns, the paisley of genuine outrage-this seemed like a sensible alternative.

But the kid wasn’t there.

Perhaps she had seen through to my basic insolvency or the four of them had found a more lucrative arrangement.

Anyway, it wouldn’t have mattered.

I waited by the water, my toes grasping the limestone, which, on the cusp of dusk, appeared to be the last remaining source of light, as if the rock had stored up remnants of the sun’s irradiation, igniting the sheltered depths, turning them a limpid lozenge-blue color that was liquid in addition to the water being liquid.

It was twice liquid, and very pretty.

I have heard stories to the effect that the water has carved clean through the peninsula, bored underground, creating cavernous transepts that are too dangerous for divers, but which contribute to all sorts of mythologizing possibilities: as if secreted below the surface of this life, there might be a comprehensible and benevolent rationale, a basic cohesion and purpose, a root stratum of ultimate meaning.

The same old dream, but clearer then, more plausible, I think, than ever. I foresaw myself backstroking beneath architraves of glazed stone, drinking in their salaried air and tart snorts of lake water. Hypothetically, as it were, I was already knifing through the tremulous wavelets, the mantle-stink of sulfur, flexing the oarlocks of my shoulders, making good time with a compact and serviceable Australian crawl, but it was no use. If I were to discern, say, by the inconsistent torchlight of my imagination, the arterial patterns of mineral stains or the guano from a race of prehistoric bats, if I were somehow to negotiate the interchanges of those catacombs and emerge, where none had ever emerged, to glimpse the lights of a foreign city across the water, faltering, intermittent, obliterated by steadier vapors, that city, I understood, that other more profitable landscape would itself be forever unattainable: charging away endlessly into the silent collision of earth and sky in the molten dregs of the horizon. No, what we had here was no geological covenant, just the ravages of the timeless and purposeless intercourse of the elements.

I adjusted the disposition of my boxer briefs, measuring the distances before me, concealing my erection as a courtesy to the people who would never arrive.

Where the water slopped into the recesses, the sound was rich with empty promises.

Everywhere the stars were quickening, and I consulted them, stared into the press of their teary declinations before I heaved over the edge and crashed into the water, which, unearthly light notwithstanding, immediately went to work on my bandages.

To be precise, I had cozied my crippled hand into a tube sock smeared with lard.

The water was remarkably fierce on the wounds.

After a while-of scissoring luminous water, enduring the fore and aft shove of the tide surge, diving and groping and straining at the indisplaceable façade of slick, pitted stone-after a while, I gave in to the simple unpoetic truth of the matter.

Shivering-that is, in a state of neurological agitation brought on by the pain, the exertion and the cold, I clambered out of the water, rattling my bones against those blunt escarpments. As I stood, damaged and quaking, on the shelf, no longer contemplating the industry of the waves, the passive fury of the business, it was as if I could see myself reflected there on the air, where the light was disappearing on a molecular level.

Not a pretty sight.

I made an effort to induce vomiting but there was only the existential run-off pooling between my feet.

For a moment I considered the possibility that there had never been any kid, nor for that matter any Svetlana.

Then I could hear them, coming toward me from the path where it breaches the tree-line. The four of them, snorting, yelping from time to time as they struggled with the terrain. Between them, they had three pairs of high-cut tennis shorts, two flashlights and one conspicuous whistle on a long neck-leash, which I imagine was a hedge against their encountering other, unwanted erect personages by the waterside.

The kid herself was nearly unrecognizable in this entrepreneurial context.

I adopted an attitude of conscious disregard for the dripping bas relief of my boxer briefs.

One of the girls asked to see it.

Gingerly, I removed the tube sock.

Concerted and quite unnecessary movements of the flashlights.

“Does it hurt?” the kid asked.

“Yes,” I said. “Everywhere.”

And that was how I left them.

I am prepared to wait now for the inevitable.

It no longer bothers me that there might have been a time before this, when things were different.

There is only this.

From behind the window, the clerk watches me and a limited, though he cranes, portion of the universe.

Across the street, a deep sense of loss emanates from the empty garage at the firehouse. I see Moe, at the curb, standing amid a frothy pool of old urine, hanging his head in agony, and Eddie curling forward, leaning toward the pavement as if in the last throes of infarction. Then I glimpse the nearly recognizable legs through the cab wheels, the capri pants sliced into segments by the spindles, and I am already rising, crossing the tarmac, stepping down into the street where I see the familiar ponytail, the unsteady bangs, the aesthetic honesty in the features. For a moment I am under the impression that I have something to say to Svetlana, something uncertain but pithy and basically communicable, and I am crossing the street, making for them, until I see that she is cradling in her arms the portable television from my impounded apartment, and that Eddie is listening intently to whatever it is she is saying. Then I realize my mistake. This is not Svetlana at all, but some other foreigner with good pidgin English who happens to be holding my television. And I am standing like this in the middle of the street, which telescopes weirdly as if in the direction of someplace I remember. I am trying to commiserate with the ancient tar smell and the deep sense of loss that I feel emanating from the dark interior of the firehouse garage, when an overhead light goes on in the recesses, as if to portend some conclusive epiphany, an in-house singularity, a constellation of one, and it’s not until then that I hear the roar of the CTA engine, which strikes me as odd since we don’t have a transit system and, anyway, I never even see the bus.

–Bruce Stone

Jun 032010

It’s great pleasure to post here a poem by Julie Larios, a generous and playful Numéro Cinquoise and a member of the faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program. In a way, we already know her and she needs no introduction. But there are links here  to various sources and interviews where you can find the hard data–books, teaching, publications.



On Reading the Poems of Someone Buried in Poet’s Corner

“Dear Lizbie Brown…”
that’s all our hero Hardy needed for a letter.
But he was better at it than the rest of us.
The best that we can do is “Sir or Madam,”
and “Sincerely Yours.”—even when love stirs
the soul and bakes the brain, our best refrains
fill with adolescent templates and clichés,
not Lizbie,
Lizbie Brown.

Even Hardy’s frowns went deeper down than ours—
his stars were brighter, fields greener, cows cleaner,
cream more clotted,  world more Wessex, thrushes darkling,
and his Bettys were all Lizbies,
Lizbie Browns.

Darling, if we lived in England and you died in time,
before me, I would love you Hardy-style, epistolarically
and lyrically and all seized up by grief and elm trees.
As is it, you’re hale and hearty, and I’m hardly Hardy.
But I’m sincerely yours. Love, Julie,

P.S. I’m sorry but
the toilet’s running
and I tried to fix it
but I can’t. Just thought
you’d like to know.

—Julie Larios

See also “What Bee Did” not to mention Julie’s entries in the Numéro Cinq Villanelle contest. And here are a couple of interviews with the author: The Miss Rumphius Effect and  Cynsations.


Jun 012010

To continue the Numéro Cinq religious threads, I offer the following.  (An ablution, perhaps?  A burnt offering?)

I used to be an altar boy in Christ the King Catholic Church in Worcester, Mass.  I have no sordid tales of degenerate priests.  The priests I knew were kind, serious men.  They understood rituals and sacred spaces in a way that made church seem magical and removed from the mundanity of life in the working class neighborhoods where I grew up.  My favorite time in church was when I prepared the altar for mass; when the church was empty and quiet, when I lit candles, placed unblessed wine and water aside before the prayerful arrived.  The poet Rodney Jones says that his sense of the religious springs from a recognition that Sundays have a different feel from other days.  In the introduction to his poem, “Life of Sundays” he says the following:

“I’ve written a number of poems at the edge of a long study of religion.  This is probably a poem that comes from my reading of Stevens as much as my understanding of an individual life of a person like myself who’s not a believer and yet who maintains some sort of superstition about Sundays.  I think I could recognize Sundays from any other day if I came back from the planet Mars.”

I have drifted far from the faith of my youth, yet one of my favorite places to go is an empty church.   Jones speaks directly to me about this.

Later in life, at the U.S. Naval Academy, I found a similar sense of the sacred in the military rituals.  Annapolis imposed rigid institutional codes to instill in me a sense of duty, responsibility and service.  We (the midshipmen) were somehow different, somehow set apart from the rest of the world because we believed in those codes.  The inevitable drift towards war seemed, somehow, beside the point.  The rituals of that life informed the decisions we believed in: the honor code, the sense of duty, the pride in service.

Yet in both of these formative experiences, something lacked.  Both (the religious and the militaristic) somehow served only to exclude.  Only those on the inside could be admitted, accepted.  The rituals of church and state demanded an adherence to singular principles.  You believed in Christ.  You believed in Country.  Outside of these narrow confines was the enemy.

Literature (I think, I hope, I pray) offers a broader view of the sacred.  Literature grapples with similar structural concepts, with ritual and meaning, but not towards a single answer.  The artistic search scatters as it meanders toward a destination.

In a very elegant, brief essay, “Degenerates,” (Found in The Best Writing on Writing, Vol. 2, edited by Jack Heffron) the poet (and Benedictine oblate)  Kathleen Norris talks about the connections between monastic life and writing.  Norris lives with monks and talks about how monks and writers (poets) face a similar challenge: to live outside a world devoid of a sense of the sacred.

I told the Trappists that I had come to see both writing and monasticism as vocations that require periods of apprenticeship and formation.  Prodigies are common in mathematics, but extremely rare in literature, and I added, ‘as far as I know, there are no prodigies in monastic life.’  This drew a laugh, as I thought it might.”

Norris goes on to describe her life living with the monks and the similarities to the writer’s life.

I was recognizing the dynamic nature of both disciplines; they are not so much subjects to be mastered as ways of life that require continual conversion.  For example, no matter how much I’ve written or published, I always return to the blank page; and even more importantly, from a monastic point of view, I return to the blankness within, the fears, laziness and cowardice that without fail, will mess up whatever I’m writing and require me to revise it.  The spiritual dimension of this process is humility, not a quality often associated with writers, but lurking there, in our nagging sense of the need to revise.  As I put it to the monks, when you realize that anything good you write comes despite your weaknesses, writing becomes a profoundly humbling activity.”

I take comfort in being an apprentice, that the beatings I’ve endured at the hands of certain elders of the ‘church’ (read: certain, unnamed VCFA advisors) are going to temper my faith.  (Please note a benevolent sarcasm in this.)  Norris puts it this way:

Poets and monks do have a communal role in American culture, although it ignores, romanticizes, and despises them.  In our relentlessly utilitarian society, structuring a life around writing is as crazy as structuring a life around prayer, yet that is what writers and monks do.  Deep down, people seem glad to know that monks are praying, that poets are writing poems.  That is what others expect of us, because if we are doing our job right, we will express things that others may feel, or know, but can’t or won’t say.

-Rich Farrell