Dec 062016
 

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green

Loving (1945), Henry Green’s fifth and best novel, is set on a sprawling estate in Ireland during WWII. It centers on the servants who keep the place running, especially Charley Raunce who, in the novel’s opening pages, ascends to the position of butler, and who uses his promotion to woo one of the housemaids. The war is far away, but it suffuses the text: the mostly English characters fear a German invasion, feel at once grateful and guilty that they are away from the Blitz, and fret endlessly about whether they should return home.

The following excerpt shows off many of the qualities that give Loving its odd and enduring charms: delight in dialogue and the rhythms of speech (“Holy Moses look at the clock… ten to three and me not on me bed. Come on look slippy”); arresting images and disorienting syntax (“Bert stood motionless his right hand stiff with wet knives”); and a peculiar refusal to describe states of mind with certainty (“He appeared to be thinking”; “Apparently he could not leave it alone”). Above all it introduces a novel that is busy with life, bursting with small instances of pilfering, lying, and spying, but also of laughing, eating, and, of course, loving.

—Dorian Stuber

 

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Once upon a day an old butler called Eldon lay dying in his room attended by the head housemaid, Miss Agatha Burch. From time to time the other servants separately or in chorus gave expression to proper sentiments and then went on with what they had been doing.

One name he uttered over and over, “Ellen.”


The pointed windows of Mr. Eldon’s room were naked glass with no blinds or curtains. For this was in Eire where there is no blackout.

Came a man’s laugh. Miss Burch jerked, then the voice broke out again. Charley Raunce, head footman, was talking outside to Bert his yellow pantry boy. She recognized the voice but could not catch what was said.

“. . . on with what I was on with,” he spoke, “you should clean your teeth before ever you have anything to do with a woman. That’s a matter of personal hygiene. Because I take an interest in you for which you should be thankful. I’m sayin’ you want to take it easy my lad, or you’ll be the death of yourself.”

The lad looked sick.

“A spot of john barley corn is what you are in need of,” Raunce went on, but the boy was not having any.

“Not in there,” he said in answer, quavering, “I couldn’t.”

“How’s that? You know where he keeps the decanter don’t you? Surely you must do.”

“Not out of that room I couldn’t.”

“Go ahead, don’t let a little thing worry your guts,” Raunce said. He was a pale individual, paler now. “The old man’s on with his Ellen, ’e won’t take notice.”

“But there’s Miss Burch.”

“Is that so? Then why didn’t you say in the first place? That’s different. Now you get stuck into my knives and forks. I’ll handle her.”

Raunce hesitated, then went in. The boy looked to listen as for a shriek. The door having been left ajar he could hear the way Raunce put it to her.

“This is my afternoon on in case they take it into their heads to punish the bell,” he told her. “If you like I’ll sit by him for a spell while you go get a breath of air.”

“Very good then,” she replied, “I might.”

“That’s the idea Miss Burch, you take yourself out for a stroll. It’ll fetch your mind off.”

“I shan’t be far. Not out of sight just round by the back. You’d call me, now, if he came in for a bad spell?”

Charley reassured her. She came away. Bert stood motionless his right hand stiff with wet knives. That door hung wide once more. Then, almost before Miss Burch was far enough to miss it, was a noise of the drawer being closed. Raunce came back, a cut-glass decanter warm with whisky in his hands. The door stayed gaping open.

“Go ahead, listen,” he said to Bert, “it’s meat and drink at your age, I know, an old man dying but this stuff is more than grub or wine to me. That’s what. Let’s get us behind the old door.”

To do so had been ritual in Mr. Eldon’s day. There was cover between this other door, opened back, and a wall of the pantry. Here they poured Mrs. T.’s whisky. “Ellen,” came the voice again, “Ellen.”

At a rustle Raunce stuck his head out while Bert, farther in because he was smallest, could do no more than peek the other way along a back passage, his eyes on a level with one of the door hinges. Bert saw no one. But Charley eyed Edith, one of two under-housemaids.

She stood averted watching that first door which stayed swung back into Mr. Eldon’s room. Not until he had said, “hello there,” did she turn. Only then could he see that she had stuck a peacock’s feather above her lovely head, in her dark-folded hair. “What have you?” he asked pushing the decanter out to the front edge so much as to say, “look what I’ve found.”

In both hands she held a gauntlet glove by the wrist. He could tell that it was packed full of white unbroken eggs.

“Why you gave me a jump,” she said, not startled.

“Look what I’ve got us,” he answered, glancing at the decanter he held out. Then he turned his attention back where perhaps she expected, onto the feather in her hair.

“You take that off before they can set eyes on you,” he went on, “and what’s this? Eggs? What for?” he asked. Bert poked his head out under the decanter, putting on a kind of male child’s grin for girls. With no change in expression, without warning, she began to blush. The slow tide frosted her dark eyes, endowed them with facets. “You won’t tell,” she pleaded and Charley was about to give back that it depended when a bell rang. The indicator board gave a chock. “Oh all right,” Raunce said, coming out to see which room had rung. Bert followed sheepish.

Charley put two wet glasses into a wooden tub in the sink, shut that decanter away in a pantry drawer. “Ellen,” the old man called faintly. This drew Edith’s eyes back towards the butler’s room. “Now lad,” Raunce said to Bert, “I’m relying on you mind to see Mrs. Welch won’t come out of her kitchen to knock the whisky off.” He did not get a laugh. Both younger ones must have been listening for Mr. Eldon. The bell rang a second time. “O.K.,” Raunce said, “I’m coming. And let me have that glove back,” he went on. “I’ll have to slap it on a salver to take in some time.”

“Yes Mr. Raunce,” she replied.

“Mister is it now,” he said, grinning as he put on his jacket. When he was gone she turned to Bert. She was short with him. She was no more than three months older, yet by the tone of voice she might have been his mother’s sister.

“Well he’ll be Mr. Raunce when it’s over,” she said.

“Will Mr. Eldon die?” Bert asked, then swallowed.

“Why surely,” says she giving a shocked giggle, then passing a hand along her cheek.

Meantime Charley entered as Mrs. Tennant yawned. She said to him,

“Oh yes I rang didn’t I, Arthur,” she said and he was called by that name as every footman from the first had been called, whose name had really been Arthur, all the Toms, Harrys, Percys, Victors one after the other, all called Arthur. “Have you seen a gardening glove of mine? One of a pair I brought back from London?”

“No Madam.”

“Ask if any of the other servants have come across it will you? Such a nuisance.”

“Yes Madam.”

“And, oh tell me, how is Eldon?”

“Much about the same I believe Madam.”

“Dear dear. Yes thank you Arthur. That will be all. Listen though. I expect Doctor Connolly will be here directly.”

He went out, shutting the mahogany door without a sound. After twenty trained paces he closed a green baize door behind him. As it clicked he called out,

“Now me lad she wants that glove and don’t forget.”

“What glove?”

“The old gardening glove Edith went birds’-nesting with,” Raunce replied. “Holy Moses look at the clock,” he went on, “ten to three and me not on me bed. Come on look slippy.” He whipped out the decanter while Bert provided those tumblers that had not yet been dried. “God rest his soul,” Raunce added in a different tone of voice then carried on,

“Wet glasses? Where was you brought up? No we’ll have two dry ones thank you,” he cried. “Get crackin’ now. Behind the old door.” Upon this came yet another double pitiful appeal to Ellen. “And there’s another thing, Mrs. T. she still calls me Arthur. But it will be Mr. Raunce to you d’you hear?”

“’E ain’t dead yet.”

“Nor he ain’t far to go before he will be. Oh dear. Yes and that reminds me. Did you ever notice where the old man kept that black book of his and the red one?”

“What d’you mean? I never touched ’em.”

“Don’t be daft. I never said you did did I? But he wouldn’t trouble to watch himself in front of you. Times out of mind you must have seen.”

“Not me I never.”

“We shan’t make anything out of you, that’s one thing certain,” Raunce stated. “There’s occasions I despair altogether.” He went on, “You mean to stand and tell me you’ve never so much as set eyes on ’em, not even to tell where they was kept.”

“What for Mr. Raunce?”

“Well you can’t help seeing when a thing’s before your nose, though I’m getting so’s I could believe any mortal idiotic stroke of yours, so help me.”

“I never.”

“So you never eh? You never what?” Raunce asked. “Don’t talk so sloppy. What I’m asking is can you call to mind his studying in a black or a red thrupenny notebook?”

“Study what?” Bert said, bolder by his tot now the glass he held was empty.

“All right. You’ve never seen those books then. That’s all I wanted. But I ask you look at the clock. I’m going to get the old head down, it’s me siesta. And don’t forget to give us a call sharp on four thirty. You can’t be trusted yet to lay the tea. Listen though. If that front door rings it will likely be the doctor. He’s expected. Show him straight in,” Raunce said, pointing with his thumb into the door agape. He made off.

“What about Miss Burch?” the boy called.

“Shall I call her?” he shouted, desperate.

Raunce must have heard, but he gave no answer. Left alone young Albert began to shake.

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In the morning room two days later Raunce stood before Mrs. Tennant and showed part of his back to Violet her daughter-in-law.

“Might I speak to you for a moment Madam?”

“Yes Arthur what is it?”

“I’m sure I would not want to cause any inconvenience but I desire to give in my notice.”

She could not see Violet because he was in the way. So she glared at the last button but one of his waistcoat, on a level with her daughter-in-law’s head behind him. He had been standing with arms loose at his sides and now a hand came uncertainly to find if he was done up and having found dropped back.

“What Arthur?” she asked. She seemed exasperated. “Just when I’m like this when this has happened to Eldon?”

“The place won’t be the same without him Madam.”

“Surely that’s not a reason. Well never mind. I daresay not but I simply can’t run to another butler.”

“No Madam.”

“Things are not what they used to be you know. It’s the war. And then there’s taxation and everything. You must understand that.”

“I’m sure I have always tried to give every satisfaction Madam,” he replied.

At this she picked up a newspaper. She put it down again. She got to her feet. She walked over to one of six tall french windows with gothic arches. “Violet,” she said, “I can’t imagine what Michael thinks he is about with the grass court darling. Even from where I am I can see plantains like the tops of palm trees.”

Her daughter-in-law’s silence seemed to imply that all effort was to butt one’s head against wire netting. Charley stood firm. Mrs. T. turned. With her back to the light he could not see her mouth and nose.

“Very well then,” she announced, “I suppose we shall have to call you Raunce.”

“Thank you Madam.”

“Think it over will you?” She was smiling. “Mind I’ve said nothing about more wages.” She dropped her eyes and in so doing she deepened her forehead on which once each month a hundred miles away in Dublin her white hair was washed in blue and waved and curled. She moved over to another table. She pushed the ashtray with one long lacquered oyster nail across the black slab of polished marble supported by a dolphin layered in gold. Then she added as though confidentially,

“I feel we should all hang together in these detestable times.”

“Yes Madam.”

“We’re really in enemy country here you know. We simply must keep things up. With my boy away at the war. Just go and think it over.”

“Yes Madam.”

“We know we can rely on you you know Arthur.”

“Thank you Madam.”

“Then don’t let me hear any more of this nonsense. Oh and I can’t find one of my gloves I use for gardening. I can’t find it anywhere.”

“I will make enquiries. Very good Madam.”

He shut the great door after. He almost swung his arms, he might have been said to step out for the thirty yards he had to go along that soft passage to the green baize door. Then he stopped. In one of the malachite vases, filled with daffodils, which stood on tall pedestals of gold naked male children without wings, he had seen a withered trumpet. He cut off the head with a pair of nail clippers. He carried this head away in cupped hand from above thick pile carpet in black and white squares through onto linoleum which was bordered with a purple key pattern on white until, when he had shut that green door to open his kingdom, he punted the daffodil ahead like a rugger ball. It fell limp on the oiled parquet a yard beyond his pointed shoes.

He was kicking this flower into his pantry not more than thirty inches at a time when Miss Burch with no warning opened and came out of Mr. Eldon’s death chamber. She was snuffling. He picked it up off the floor quick. He said friendly,

“The stink of flowers always makes my eyes run.”

“And when may daffodils have had a perfume,” she asked, tart through tears.

“I seem to recollect they had a smell once,” he said.

“You’re referring to musk, oh dear,” she answered making off, tearful. But apparently he could not leave it alone.

“Then what about hay fever?” he almost shouted. “That never comes with hay, or does it? There was a lady once at a place where I worked,” and then he stopped. Miss Burch had moved out of earshot. “Well if you won’t pay heed I can’t force you,” he said out loud. He shut Mr. Eldon’s door, then stood with his back to it. He spoke to Bert.

“What time’s the interment?” he asked. “And how long to go before dinner?” not waiting for answers. “See here my lad I’ve got something that needs must be attended to you know where.” He jangled keys in his pocket. Then instead of entering Mr. Eldon’s room he walked away to dispose of the daffodil in a bucket. He coughed. He came back again. “All right,” he said, “give us a whistle if one of ’em shows up.”

He slipped inside like an eel into its drainpipe. He closed the door so that Bert could not see. Within all was immeasurable stillness with the mass of daffodils on the bed. He stood face averted then hurried smooth and his quietest to the roll-top desk. He held his breath. He had the top left-hand drawer open. He breathed again. And then Bert whistled.

Raunce snatched at those red and black notebooks. He had them. He put them away in a hip pocket. They fitted. “Close that drawer,” he said aloud. He did this. He fairly scrambled out again. He shut the door after, leaving all immeasurably still within. He stood with his back to it, taking out a handkerchief, and looked about.

He saw Edith. She was just inside the pantry where Bert watched him open mouthed. Raunce eyed her very sharp. He seemed to appraise the dark eyes she sported which were warm and yet caught the light like plums dipped in cold water. He stayed absolutely quiet. At last she said quite calm,

“Would the dinner bell have gone yet?”

“My dinner,” he cried obviously putting on an act, “holy smoke is it as late as that, and this lad of mine not taken up the nursery tray yet. Get going,” he said to Bert, “look sharp.” The boy rushed out. “God forgive me,” he remarked, “but there’s times I want to liquidate ’im. Come to father beautiful,” he said.

“Not me,” she replied amused.

“Well if you don’t want I’m not one to insist. But did nobody never tell you about yourself?”

“Aren’t you just awful,” she said apparently delighted.

“That’s as may be,” he answered, “but it’s you we’re speaking of. With those eyes you ought to be in pictures.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Come on,” he said, “if we’re going to be lucky with our dinner we’d best be going for it.”

“No, you don’t,” she said slipping before him. And they came out through this pantry into the long high stone passage with a vaulted ceiling which led to the kitchen and their servants’ hall.

“Now steady,” he said, as he caught up with her. “What will Miss Burch say if she finds us chasing one after the other?” When they were walking side by side he asked.

“What made you come through my way to dinner?”

“Why you do need to know a lot,” she said.

“I know all I can my girl and that’s never done me harm. I got other things to think to besides love and kisses, did you know?”

“No I didn’t, not from the way you go on I didn’t.”

“The trouble with you girls is you take everything so solemn. Now all I was asking was why you looked in on us while you came down to dinner?”

“Thinkin’ I came to see you I suppose,” she said. She turned to look at him. What she saw made her giggle mouth open and almost soundless. Then she slapped a hand across her teeth and ran on ahead. He took no notice. With a swirl of the coloured skirt of her uniform she turned a corner in front along this high endless corridor. The tap of her shoes faded. He walked on. He appeared to be thinking. He went so soft he might have been a ghost without a head. But as he made his way he repeated to himself, over and over,

“This time I’ll take his old chair. I must.”

He arrived to find the household seated at table waiting, except for Mrs. Welch and her two girls who ate in the kitchen and for Bert who was late. There was his place laid for Raunce next Miss Burch. Kate and Edith were drawn up ready. They sat with hands folded on laps before their knives, spoons and forks. At the head, empty, was the large chair from which Mr. Eldon had been accustomed to preside. At the last and apart sat Paddy the lampman. For this huge house, which was almost entirely shut up, had no electric light.

Charley went straight over to a red mahogany sideboard that was decorated with a swan at either end to support the top on each long curved neck. In the centre three ferns were niggardly growing in gold Worcester vases. He took out a knife, a spoon and a fork. He sat down in Mr. Eldon’s chair, the one with arms. Seated, he laid his own place. They all stared at him.

“What are we waiting for?” he said into the silence. He took out a handkerchief again. Then he blew his nose as though nervous.

“Would you be in a draught?” Miss Burch enquired at last.

“Why no thank you,” he replied. The silence was pregnant.

“I thought perhaps you might be,” she said and sniffed.

At that he turned to see whether he had forgotten to close the door. It was shut all right. The way he looked made Kate choke.

“I heard no one venture a pleasantry,” Miss Burch announced at this girl.

“I thought I caught Paddy crack one of his jokes,” Raunce added with a sort of violence. A grin spread over this man’s face as it always did when his name was mentioned. He was uncouth, in shirtsleeves, barely coming up over the table he was so short. With a thick dark neck and face he had a thatch of hair which also sprouted grey from the nostrils. His eyes were light blue as was one of Charley’s, for Raunce had different coloured eyes, one dark one light which was arresting.

The girls looked down to their laps.

“Or maybe she swallowed the wrong way although there’s nothing on the table and it’s all growing cold in the kitchen,” Raunce continued. He got no reply.

“Well what are we waiting on?” he asked.

“Why for your precious lad to fetch in our joint,” Miss Burch replied.

“I shouldn’t wonder if the nursery hasn’t detained him,” was Charley’s answer.

“Then Kate had better bring it,” Miss Burch said. And they sat without a word while she was gone. Twice Agatha made as though to speak, seated as he was for the first time in Mr. Eldon’s place, but she did not seem able to bring it to words. Her eyes, which before now had been dull, each sported a ripple of light from tears. Until, after Kate had returned laden Raunce cast a calculated look at Miss Burch as he stood to carve, saying,

“Nor I won’t go. Not even if it is to be Church of England I don’t aim to watch them lower that coffin in the soil.”

At this Miss Burch pushed the plate away from in front of her to sit with closed eyes. He paused. Then as he handed a portion to Edith he went on,

“I don’t reckon on that as the last I shall see of the man. It’s nothing but superstition all that part.”

“And the wicked shall flourish even as a green bay tree,” Miss Burch announced in a loud voice as though something had her by the throat. Once more there was a pause. Then Raunce began again as he served Paddy. Because he had taken a roast potato into his mouth with the carving fork he spoke uneasy.

“Why will Mrs. Welch have it that she must carve for the kitchen? Don’t call her cook she don’t like the name. There’s not much I can do the way this joint’s been started.”

The girls were busy with their food. O’Conor was noisy with the portion before him. Raunce settled down to his plate. Agatha still sat back.

“And how many months would it be since you went out?” she asked like vinegar.

“Let me think now. The last occasion must have been when I had to see Paddy here to the Park Gates that time he was ‘dronk’ at Christmas.”

This man grinned although his mouth was watering in volume so that he had to swallow constantly.

“Careful now,” said Raunce.

Kate and Edith stopped eating to watch the Irishman open eyed. This man was their sport and to one of them he was even more than that. In spite of Miss Burch he looked so ludicrous that they had suddenly to choke back tremors of giggling.

“It was nearly my lot,” Raunce added.

“It couldn’t hurt no one to show respect to the dead,” Miss Burch tremulously said. Charley answered in downright tones,

“Begging your pardon Miss Burch my feelings are my own and I daresay there’s no one here but yourself misses him more than me. Only this morning I went to Mrs. T., asked leave and told her,” but he did not at once continue. The silence in which he was received seemed to daunt him. With a clumsy manner he turned it off, saying,

“Yes, I remember when I came for my first interview she said I can’t call you Charles, no she says ‘I’ll call you Arthur. All the first footmen have been called Arthur ever since Arthur Weavell, a real jewel that man was,’ she said.”

He looked at Miss Burch to find that she had flushed.

“And now I make no doubt you are counting on her addressing you as Raunce,” Miss Burch said in real anger. “With Mr. Eldon not yet in the ground. But I’ll tell you one thing,” she continued, her voice rising, “you’ll never get a Mr. out of me not ever, even if there is a war on.”

“What’s the war got to do with it?” he asked, and he winked at Kate. “Never mind let it go. Anyway I know now don’t I.”

“No,” she said, having the last word, “men like you never will appreciate or realize.”

—Henry Green

Copyright © 1945 by the estate of Henry Green

N5

henry-green

Henry Green (1905 – 1973) was the nom de plume of Henry Vincent Yorke. He was the author of nine novels, most notably Loving, Party Going, and Living.

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Dec 042016
 

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Men in general judge more by their eyes than by their hands, because seeing is given to everyone, touching to a few. Everyone sees how you appear, few touch what you are; and these few dare not oppose the opinion of many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, where there is no court to appeal to, one looks to the end. So let a prince win and maintain his state: the means will always be judged honorable, and will be praised by everyone. For the vulgar are taken in by the appearance and the outcome of a thing, and in the world there is no one but the vulgar . . .      — Niccolò Machiavelli, Il Principe

He remains hidden, even from a good height, completely hidden by stooped bodies. Hidden, too, from below by figures advancing on all fours. One sees only a great many arms swooping down from above like a flock of surgeons, or else the pack nosing in underneath, like famished dogs.

At a distance, the athletic mass, skin taut and glistening, is a picture of harmony. Zooming in, however, disorder becomes unmistakeable. Everything slithers and twists, strains and reaches, gaps no sooner open than are filled with muscle. A lock here, a grip there, the combat of calves, the tension of jaw and sinew. Limbs sliding and slapping, weight bearing down relentlessly. A tremendous struggle. Clash, flexure, friction. Welts, contusions, concussions. And, rising from the thick of it, a smell of intimate aggression.

They are coming in from all directions just to touch him. Though they have not laid eyes on him, they carry with them some image and know the principles he is to embody. Whether he appears real or ideal, he attracts them just the same, as a magnet does metal filings, or a sweetmeat does ants.

What I can see from the observation tower erected for foreign observers I describe for you. The occasion of my visit to the Republic of Opferling is, as you know, the induction of the prince-elect. My movements have been closely monitored since my arrival. Security is on maximum alert for the length of the ceremonial. All other government functions are suspended. Citizens cannot be interviewed at this time, no officials are available for comment, and we handful of reporters are strictly proscribed from comparing notes. I am thus left to my own devices, and nobody here seems to care what ideas I come away with.

In such conditions, with so little to go on, reporting stretches the imagination. Before we know it we have also stretched the truth. My report will of necessity be a short one.

It is the local tradition that the new prince receives a public “blessing” from the electorate before taking office. The custom, representing an archaic form of republicanism, is widely known and notoriously misunderstood. To an outsider looking in, it is even more cryptic for being conducted entirely out in the open.

The confirmation ceremony extends over many days, and takes a most bizarre form: tactile accolade. A tangible connection is sought by each and every member of the polity. Should the prince die from exposure to all this physical attention, which is almost to be expected, the Opferlingen simply choose another, repeating their rite until, eventually, a survivor is installed as ruler.

Even stranger than this primitive business of rubbing the body of the prince is the way the multitude goes about it. There is no procession, no filing in and taking of turns. They press forward in the most confused fashion, stripped to the waist on account of the heat. Their numbers swell and ebb depending on the hour—all the regulation I can discern.

On the other hand, the crowd’s focus and dynamic make a stampede unlikely. Contact with the future leader is clearly with them a matter of contest. But it is a fight from which but one man can emerge as either winner or loser, and that is the prince.

From the great heaving jumble comes a soft moaning. The occasional whimpering cry merges, if my ears do not deceive me, with distinct sighs of pleasure. Do they belong to him? Finally a brief parting of the masses reveals something—a nude torso that can only be his—horizontal upon a kind of altar. I am allowed only this glimpse.

Everyone craves to feel it, all want a piece of it. And as long as they want it, it is there. They have their hands all over the supine idol. In a casual onlooker who stumbles upon the scene by accident, the lustful noises could easily produce disgust. But to a reporter, whose job is to get beneath the skin of these people and track what is going on, their undulating motion soon seduces, their energy becomes irresistible, and the urge to join in can barely be repressed.

By this point, the incumbent offers no more resistance to their caresses. As the sun dips low on the horizon, those nearest the center of the fray appear blood-red, their bare chests and shoulders smeared with some kind of pigment.

The prince’s body, on view now beneath the sloping sky, bathed in the sun’s waning glow, looks beatific. I find the thought of running my hand across it, of pressing against it, strongly arousing. Touch has in the body one great organ; can the senses of sight, hearing, smell, or taste boast as much?

There is of course more of him I cannot see. I imagine my palms gliding slowly over the mounds and bulges, exploring valleys and hollows, fingers tracing orifices, probing them… Should I be embarrassed by these fantasies? Is it not my place to participate, if only imaginatively? I stand with my notepad conscious of the guard, who like the Capitoline Brutus looks both watchful and eternal; he has seen it all before: the concourse below, the foreigner with notepad in hand and eyes transfixed, pulse accelerating.

I see clearly now: those thronging about him are smeared with his blood. There he lies, the sacrifice, limp and ruddy, like something flayed or badly burnt. I look away as the spectacle begins to turn my stomach. There is a clear limit to being a mere observer, unable to go down among them.

The more flesh is fondled the more it chafes. Even caresses eventually draw blood. These are not the manicured feelers of aristocrats, but the rough paws of workers and warriors. In this constant turnover of hands, no scab can form on the raw skin of the prince. The experience must be quite painless—except when a drop of sweat falls on the vast wound that is his body, sending through it a visible shiver. When this happens, in a sympathetic reaction everyone encircling him convulses as well.

The ambiguity of the sounds coming from the direction of the prince owes much to this saline sting. Pain articulated upon bliss, articulated upon pain… Truly, I have little pity for the man. His is only an exacerbation of what we all feel, his potential reward much greater.

Will anyone put an end to this senseless orgy? Has it not gone on long enough? But it is obvious it will take as long as it does. Each must get their share.

None of it is really surprising, I must say. I heard tell of the cruelty of these people more than once. In person they do not disappoint: clustered like vultures around their prey, hardly any meat left on him to satisfy their voracious appetite. Is this the community of brothers descended from the primal horde? Is it really all a re-enactment of the founding of civil society? The “prince” here is little more than a carcass, an inanimate object—not a credible stand-in for a despotic patriarch, whose children gang up to kill him for denying them sexual satisfaction. The old account is unilluminating and I am forced to discard it.

Everything is permitted. There are no rules, no stroke is too indecent. All of it is equally obscene. The Opferlingen are unusually strict in everyday sexual mores. To me the prince might be a living relic, a martyr worthy of public veneration, but he is subject to treatment normally beneath the dignity of his “subjects.” Let me be clear: this is no carnival, with merriment and overturned hierarchies, presided over by the Prince of Fools. They are acting out the lowest human urges—possibly to exorcize them, but without a doubt to make a political point that still remains obscure.

I bring back the following explanation, pieced together from snatches of overheard conversation and the intelligence I received from you. With only the rudiments of lingua opfer, I was engaged more than anything else in guesswork.

The Opferlingen do not regard their ritual primarily as a collective endurance test. Competition for access to the desideratum merely affirms their commitment to the common good. The whole event is above all a symbolic measure against the abuse of state power. It is meant to immunize the people against idolatry and the prince against corruption. The carnal experience of submission, the total surrender of will, is to act as a moral brake on the head of state. Has not everyone in the realm seen him naked with their own eyes and, moreover, ravished him with their hands? It is that same flesh he displays to the public; there is no separation, no other body. It is through and through a res publica, a public thing (the art of governing needs the whole man). This all-too-natural body must shudder at the memory of its humiliation at the hands of the multitude. It must internalize that sensational vulnerability as transparency. In this new nakedness, it is as though the prince wears nothing at all. The least attempt to conceal the truth, the merest deceit or malfeasance, would be plain to anyone from the bearing of a ruling body that has undergone such radical exposure. At once penetrating and superficial, the words of this body require no interpretation. It speaks a language the prince cannot command. Its compromising truth is felt throughout the body politic; his deposition is swift, and followed by execution.

Alas, I had no occasion to verify this explanation. A new prince has been proclaimed and must have assumed by now the duties of government. I, however, cut short my visit, unable as I was to shake off the impression of what I had witnessed, from which the subsequent inauguration would have been an unwelcome distraction. After all, it is not often one sees a sovereign bleed through his robes like meat wrapped in paper! But this, I hope you will forgive me, was not an image I wanted to take away with me.

Let me conclude with my own thoughts on what, in the end, is so unique to Opferling. Was ever another monarch as violated, let alone molested, in the name of legitimacy? The disgrace of the Charleses and Louis pales in comparison to the lawful use of this prince by his people. If all touch power, does it gain luster, is it polished to a higher gloss? Or is it, to the contrary, eroded? What sort of popular sovereignty is at work in Opferling? Does it really express the general will of its people? We know that warfare is with them the highest principle; their attainments in all other areas of culture may be undistinguished, but their art has reached an apex with the citadels. This instinct for domination, the wanton group abandon I have described, seem to support the view that the Opferlingen are brutes.

And yet, are we not more implicated in grasping after power? From the butcher to the artist, are we not after it in some way? Compared with us, are the Opferlingen really after it? Are they not, perhaps, before it? Their odd and disturbing custom is, as I learned, the fruit of revolution, an overturning of centuries of state barbarism. The people of Opferling were once the victims of tyrants, at least in the official record. The sound-walls lining the main road into the city tell the story in murals: scenes of torture, slavery and degradation, each indistinguishable from the next. On the inside, it is reversed: miles of graffiti depicting leaders in shameful poses while a jubilant populace goes at them with unspeakable relish. In my country, the perpetrators of such acts would be summarily put to death. But in Opferling, one can easily imagine the greatest perverts as close advisors to the king.

Tonight, I shall sit down to dinner with friends and tell them about all this. They know I was away, but would not believe me if I told them where I had been, let alone what I had seen there. Few have imagination for the truth of reality; most prefer strange, mythical countries and circumstances they know nothing of. By these their imagination is not merely stretched, but expanded. Yet one suspects that their capacity for truth must suffer a proportionate loss.

And even if I wanted to tell the truth, you do not allow it. I am forced, once again, to tell the truth as fiction, as one might a journey among headhunters. And what use, I ask, is hearing the truth in this way, without the faintest credit for its veracity—what use other than to reduce truth to the unimaginative? This I must accept if I am to say anything at all.

So I will relate my mission to my guests as a nightmare, after which we will laugh and drink to you, O Lady and Master. And for your sake, as well as ours, we shall not think of it again.

—S.D. Chrostowska

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S. D. Chrostowska is the author of Literature on Trial (2012), Permission (2013),  and Matches: A Light Book (2015).  She teaches at York University in Toronto.

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Nov 112016
 

author-photovia UnionHidalgo

 Pho

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Regardless of the common wisdom that, as Willa Cather said, “Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen,” writers cannot escape being influenced by their environment, at any age. Just so with the Mexican writer Agustín Cadena, Mexican born, raised and educated, who has been living for years in Hungary, returning to México only for the three months of summer. In his recent collection of stories, Las tentaciones de la dicha, (The Temptations of Happiness) 2010, the permeating influence of Eastern Europe can be felt in at least four of the eleven stories. “Maracuyá” is one of these, set in a Black Sea resort town at the height of the season, in a vast club by that passionflower name, where one drinks Becherovka and meets people of a dozen nationalities, including an old Russian with a mysterious briefcase. What makes the story Mexican is its Spanish, the use of words like “cornudo” which fit smoothly in Spanish but seem so awkward when we write “cuckold” in English, and in this story, there’s a different twist on that characterization.  

— Translator Patricia Dubrava

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WE WENT TO that Black Sea resort because Dasha wanted so much to go back there. She had been once, six years ago, and said it was incredible: every summer, in August, the little fishing town transformed into the biggest tourist attraction of the Crimea. For a week, clubs, bars and restaurants stayed open 24 hours, hosting hundreds of tourists from all the Slavic countries and more distant places. Dasha fondly remembered dawns dancing on the beach among drunks singing in incomprehensible languages and couples who slept in each other’s arms on the sand after making love.

I agreed to go out of curiosity, but also because I wanted Dasha to have a rest. She was sick of working at the Peep Show, exploiting the beauty of her no longer so adolescent body and performing fellatio on fat tourists for twenty Euros.

So we pooled what money we had and, a day later, were on the train crossing the pine forests of the Carpathians, toward the Ukraine lowlands. To save money, we hadn’t wanted to pay for a sleeper, so made the whole trip in a coach compartment; during the day we talked, read, looked at the countryside, had brief conversations with passengers who accompanied us for an hour or two, on their way to some intermediate town. And at night we took turns: one watched so no one stole our backpacks while the other tried to get some sleep in spite of the cold, with our shoes on and wearing all our clothes. If we wanted something to eat, we had crackers.

We arrived tired and hungry, with barely enough energy to put up the tent in a more or less quiet section of the beach. But there was the sea, at last. The sea: a longing to live intensely and forever, escape to a timeless space where one could be eternally young, where love was imperishable. We sat contemplating it a long time, without talking.

We left stuff in the tent and went to town to look for something to eat. It was much as Dasha had described it: an idyllic place full of light, as if from a book of ancient poems. One high, winding street of old houses and shops full of shadows climbed a hill at whose peak stood a church, its twin towers topped with golden onion domes. The glow of polished metal, the sounds, the smells…it seemed as if we were seeing everything through the glass pane that separates reality from dreams.

We were starving, but didn’t want to go to a restaurant; we’d agreed that alcohol and entertainment were top priorities for our money, and we’d keep the minimum for secondary things. We bought four slices of bread, a quarter pound of bologna, another quarter of cheese, some pickles, and ate on a bench from which, in the distance below, the sea was visible.

We drank sweet wine in a small tavern, then went down to the beach to wade in the surf, watch the sunset and as it was getting dark, bathed in a public bathroom. An hour later, we arrived at the biggest nightclub: Maracuyá. They sold admissions for a day, for three days or for the whole week. Dasha wanted to buy the last even though it would take half our money.

“It’s cheaper that way,” she said. “And besides, I don’t intend to miss even one evening.”

The place was decorated as if it were on the Caribbean instead of the Black Sea: hammocks, fishnets, barrels half buried in the sand and live palm trees growing beneath large crystal domes.

We worked our way through the crowd, found a free table and looked over the menu: there was an incredible quantity of liquors, beers and wines from exotic places.

“What is this?” I asked Dasha, almost shouting because of the loud music. At the end of the wine list there was a question mark with a price; below that, two question marks, also with a price; then three, then four, five…

“Those are drugs,” she responded, also shouting. “One question mark is marijuana, two is hashish, three is cocaine; the others, I don’t know. Do you want something?”

“No,” I told her. “Pretty pricey. And you?”

“Get me a Becherovka.”

I went to the bar for the drinks. The place was a zoo. There were strange people of all ages, races and nationalities: old lechers, nymphs, aging women in search of adventure, young men with bare torsos covered in tattoos, Japanese, Scandinavians, Arabs…In the walk from our table to the bar, I overheard random words in unrecognizable languages; my sense of smell was saturated with a mix of sweaty skin, salt water, expensive perfumes, common deodorants…there was a line at the bar; I had to wait until the bartender took care of a six-foot blond and then a gay guy in a pink suit who didn’t know how to ask for silk stockings.

Finally, I returned to my table.

“Thanks, baby,” Dasha said, dancing in her seat to the music.

She took a sip of her drink, smiled at a guy who was giving her the eye from a nearby table and went to dance with him. I thought dancing a primitive display, so we had an understanding: she was free to dance with whomever. And “dance” meant whatever else also. It didn’t bother me. On the contrary: poor Dasha, it was only right that at least once in a while she could sleep with someone she liked. And in reality, she almost never exercised that option.

She didn’t exercise it with that guy. She danced with him a while, then changed partners, then sat to drank a glass with me, danced some more, sat some more…Near dawn, already a little drunk, I left her enjoying herself and went to walk on the beach. With each stride I took, the music of the various discos faded and mixed with the hiss of the waves that came in to break near my feet. Like weary fireflies, the lights of the little town floated in the distance.

We went to sleep in the tent at seven, woke around noon and after polishing off another package of crackers, swam in the sea. Dasha seemed happy: she smiled and hummed a song. She asked me every little while if this wasn’t a marvelous place, if I wasn’t enchanted, if I wouldn’t remember these days forever when we were no longer together.

In town we ate at McDonald’s, the cheapest alternative after bologna sandwiches, and walked through the streets, visited the Orthodox church. In the souvenir booth at its exit we stole a small fake icon. Then we returned to the tent to sleep at least a few hours before the new round of drinking and dancing in Maracuyá.

That night was very like the previous one, with the difference that a gang of 30 or 40 bikers dressed all in leather arrived, and set about making more noise than there already was. Before dawn I saw them on the beach, doing acrobatics with their motorcycles, the moon casting glints of light on the chrome of those enormous machines.

§

Leo appeared the third night. Dasha and I were sitting in the disco drinking Becherovka.

“Look at that!” she suddenly exclaimed. Near our table a man in his sixties, dressed in white, wearing sunglasses and a Panama hat, danced alone. But what was even more odd was that he was dancing without letting go of his briefcase; he had it hugged to his chest as if he was afraid someone would steal it.

“Perhaps it’s full of money?” I asked Dasha.

“Or drugs?” She speculated, amused.

We continued watching him. He didn’t tire of dancing nor of having his arms in that uncomfortable position, because no matter how little the briefcase weighed, anyone would be tired. But he, on the contrary, seemed to be enjoying himself enormously; he danced clumsily and it didn’t matter to him; nor did it bother him not to have a partner. A smile of satisfaction, of an old man realizing a long cherished dream, illuminated his face.

“What a marvel of a man,” Dasha declared. She downed in one swallow what was left in her glass and got up to dance with him.

After a few minutes she came back to the table. “Either he’s dancing with his eyes closed or he’s blind,” she told me, taking a drink from my glass. “He didn’t even notice me.”

“Why don’t you talk to him?”

And that’s exactly what she did, when she saw that he was going to the bar to get a drink. She approached him in English. The man answered her amiably, and by his accent, Dasha understood that he was Russian. She then changed to that language, which was also her mother tongue, and that’s how everything started: his name was Leonid and he was from Novosibirsk. Dasha brought him over and introduced me. The three of us had a drink together and then they went to dance. All this happened without Leo letting go of his briefcase.

At some point he disappeared. He didn’t say goodbye to us; we simply didn’t see him anymore. Dasha was upset.

“Do you think he thought I was an idiot and got bored?” She had that complex; it surfaced every once in a while.

“No. I think he liked you.”

“Why do you think that?”

“Didn’t you see how he looked at you? He even stopped dancing with his eyes closed.”

 “You think so?”

“Yes. Why don’t you have a fling with him? He seems like an interesting person. It would make you feel better.”

Dasha stared at me.

“But he’s gone,” and she twisted her mouth into that bad girl look the Peep Show clients liked so much.

“He’ll be back tomorrow.”

And in fact, the next night, Leo returned to Maracuyá. With his briefcase. Dasha avoided looking at him. If he’d left without saying goodbye, she said, he ought to make the first move now and apologize. “Men always scorn what’s easy,” she explained. That night she was especially seductive, with a black sleeveless dress—the best that she’d put in her backpack—that contrasted in a harmonious way with her tanned skin; a black choker around her long neck and a gold-plated chain on her left ankle.

Confirming the correctness of her theory, Leo came to sit at our table as soon as he saw us and apologized for having left like he did.

“The strange food,” he explained in English out of courtesy to me, without for a moment letting go of his briefcase. “It set off a revolution in my stomach. I was barely able to reach the hotel.”

More relaxed than at our first encounter, he mopped the sweat from his forehead with his handkerchief, bought us a drink and began chatting about how difficult it was to prepare well an apparently simple dish from his country: Shuba, potato salad, carrots and peas with mayonnaise, anchovies and beets.

“Of course, it doesn’t go all mixed together,” he said. “The salad goes inside, like a filling. The beets and the anchovies smother it. That’s why it’s called shuba, which in Russian means “overcoat,” and he continued talking about that and a pasta dish with mushroom sauce that didn’t matter much to us. What we wanted was to ask him about the briefcase, but we didn’t find the right opportunity. Finally he took Dasha out to dance.

It soon became obvious that he wanted to seduce her. And she began plying him with all the tactics learned in her not very long life. “Old men like you to make them believe you’re innocent,” her philosophy went. “Only young men are capable of valuing experience.” But Leonid didn’t look like an idiot: he couldn’t really believe that an inexperienced young woman would be vacationing with her boyfriend at an amoral beach resort, drinking Becherovka in a disco where anything and everything was for sale. Regardless, he seemed to enjoy Dasha’s company.

The night passed, along with her plan and desires. At three a.m. when Leo seemed more lively than ever, the young innocent said goodnight. She wasn’t used to staying up so late, she said, and was already very sleepy.

The next day we spent resting on the beach, walking around town and speculating about the mysterious briefcase.

“I tell you, it has to be money. It has to be the lump sum of his retirement, or pension, or liquidation of his assets or whatever, and he came to spend it here.”

“What if he’s a terrorist? From Chechnya? He doesn’t look like it, but he could be. He could be carrying a bomb, one of those that you make explode with a cell phone.”

Dasha was disposed to uncover the mystery and with that objective, employed the rest of her many charms that evening, with the result that she disappeared with Leo and I didn’t see her until the following morning. About eight, she appeared in the tent. She lay down by me without saying anything and also without saying anything, began to make love to me. It was her custom when she’d had an adventure. She said that was how she rid herself of the other skin.

We woke after eleven.

“O.K.,” I said. “What’s in the briefcase?”

“A book,” she told me, without the slightest sign of disappointment.

“A book?”

“Yes, a manuscript. He wrote it. It took him twenty years to finish it.”

“But, why did he bring it here?”

“Because he came here to throw it into the sea,” Dasha explained with a surprising naturalness, as if she were talking about the most normal thing in the world. “Only before doing it he wants to have a good time. It’s his double farewell.”

“Why double?”

“Leo’s saying goodbye to his book and to his literary career.”

“But, why?”

Dasha shrugged her shoulders.

“I didn’t understand his reasons at first either. But after he told me the whole story I began to get it. He spent twenty years working on that mountain of papers. And you know what for? For nothing. He’s taken it to more publishers than he can remember and all of them told him to go to hell with his book. Some—the least stupid—simply told him no. The others suggested that he change things, cut this or that. But Leo doesn’t want to change anything and I understand that. Why let a bookseller tell him how he ought to write? He got sick of it. If his book is trash, he told me, well then it will go to the trash.”

I didn’t ask her anything else and didn’t want to keep thinking about Leonid and his story. I was hungry. “Let’s get something to eat.”

“Leo invited us to dine at his hotel. He asked me if you would want to and I told him yes.”

“Good,” I said, “but let’s go. I guess we don’t have to take the backpacks?”

“No, leave them here. Only let me get my wallet and cell.”

The lunch was very pleasant. When he wasn’t talking about food, the old Russian was an excellent conversationalist. And the whole time he comported himself with Dasha in a respectfully paternal manner, as if there’d been nothing between them nor would there be. He told us that the next day he was going home.

“Would you read me something from your book before throwing it into the sea?” Dasha asked.

“Are you really interested?” Leo seemed incredulous.

“Of course I am. And I would love to hear it in your voice. That way I’d remember it forever.”

“Well, if you want…” He responded in the tone of a grandfather resigned to complying with the whim of a favorite granddaughter. “We can read something this afternoon.”

After a few minutes, he clarified, looking at me. “The book is in Russian.”

“No problem,” I told him. “Anyway, I can’t join you. I have a date with a friend at Maracuyá.”

It wasn’t true, but I wanted to leave them alone. The role of complicit cuckold isn’t comfortable. But a cuckold who knows himself cuckolded, accepts it and still makes a nuisance of himself is the most pathetic of all.

I spent the remainder of the day on the beach and when I got bored, went to play soccer with the bikers who had arrived two days ago. I made friends with one of the girls—a platinum blonde, thin as a stick—and that night accompanied her to Maracuyá. After a while we went to walk on the beach. We arrived at the end of the jetty, where the music from the discos could barely be heard and sat to look at the moon. Although it wasn’t full, it still looked enormous and orange, hanging quietly over the sea.

In the morning, Dasha arrived to wake us at the tent. She couldn’t even wait until I introduced my friend. “Come on, “ she said. “I want to show you something.” She looked very happy.

“What?” I asked, opening one eye, groggy with sleep.

“I’m going,” said the blonde, who perhaps didn’t want to be an inconvenient presence. And in fact, she dressed rapidly, gave me a kiss and left.

It was very early and somewhat chilly. The tide was still high and the last stars appeared and disappeared as if winking. From somewhere came a scent of roses and gladiolas.

Seeing that the territory had been vacated, Dasha crawled into the tent. “Look,” she was carrying Leonid’s briefcase. “He gave it to me. He gave me his book!”

I’d never seen her so happy, so satisfied.

“Did you read it? Is it a good book?” I asked.

“What does that matter? It took him twenty years to write it, do you realize that? As long as I’ve been alive he’s spent working on it. Something like this is a treasure regardless of what some critic or editor might say.”

She took out the manuscript, bound together with cardboard covers and put it in my hands with great respect.

“He’s gone,” she sighed. His train has to leaving right now.”

Dasha had never been sentimental, but at that moment she seemed on the point of tears. She turned to put the book back in its briefcase, took off her clothes and squeezed herself into the sleeping bag with me.

“What nasty perfume that woman left here,” was all the comment she made before embracing me and falling asleep.

At noon we went to eat in town. Bologna and pickle sandwiches. We told each other everything we’d done. We hugged. We promised that, come what may, we’d always be together.

We walked along the beach holding hands, talking again about Leo. We were happy—even more—we were deliriously happy. Stupidly happy.

When we reached the tent, our joy vanished: someone had robbed us. The backpacks were there, but the briefcase had disappeared. “Money or drugs,” the thief must have thought, who surely had seen it when it was still in Leo’s hands.

—  Agustín Cadena, translated from the Spanish by Patricia Dubrava.

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Agustín Cadena was born in the desert region of Valle del Mezquital, México, 1963 and currently teaches at the University of Debrecen, Hungary. Essayist, fiction writer, reviewer, poet and translator, he has published over 20 books. His awards include the University of Veracruz Prize for short fiction and essays, in 1992; the National Prize for Children’s Literature, in 1998; the San Luis Potosi National Prize for Short Fiction, in 2004; and the José Agustín National Prize for Short Fiction, in 2005. His works have been translated into English, Italian, and Hungarian, and adapted for radio and TV broadcasting. Cadena blogs at elvinoylahiel.blogspot.com.

§

Patricia

Patricia Dubrava was born in New York and chaired the creative writing program at Denver School of the Arts. She has published two books of poems and one of stories translated from the Spanish. She is an essayist, poet and translator whose recent translation publications include a dozen Cadena stories, most recently in Fiction Attic, Exchanges and Mexico City Lit. A Cadena story was included in NewBorder: An Anthology, in 2013. Dubrava blogs and has more information on her publications at www.patriciadubrava.com.

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Nov 092016
 

jdf_1

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Winter arrives. The cinder has come to rest over me, too, in the silent mist of it. I’m alive, I tell myself, for a little while longer at least, during these unbound and bygone days. I still struggle the anguish in my voice, the cold I wrest it from. Rest, just rest here, in this cold furrow the weather has dug, go on with it, and suffer the hours death won’t complete. It is no use. Outside, around me, in every distance is something heard but too faint to interpret. Sometimes I wonder if I even hear anything at all. I lie motionless to listen with a purpose I never tire to deny myself. I am tired, though, I give it up easily, fidgeting amongst the foliage, the moss, the seethed sod. It’s the same hope I hear, words spoken to me without sound but a sensation I shiver. They are my words, of course, coming from me. Soon I will also struggle for warmth, under the shade I’ve chosen to reside, for the time being that becomes, not unusually, longer than I intended. I’m still here, after all that has passed, and now I can see my breath in the grayscaled evening, leaving me by a listless kind of labor. When I raise my head to receive the Emu of the sky, I find instead heavenly bodies I can no longer name, disappearing behind a tunnel of trees and appearing again when the leaves have ceased shaking. With great care, repeatedly, I trace the constellations that are yet discerning, gnostic to me, and follow them before they flee, before the morning recovers them. It is no use, even if the aurora will never ascend again. My sight trains itself on the space between paling embers, gathered in the darkness, and I can feel the earth spinning on its axis. I had been sleeping, it seems, with dreams of my decease, promised to me, swarming the embers’ dying glow, wanting not to restore their radiance but to collapse with them on the horizon. I had come to stop here after a walk, yes, a long, lonely peregrination, that at first brought me elsewhere, possibly, before leading me here. For how long have I settled? Under what conditions has my roaming stayed me? It is no use. I have not the ambition or strength to get up, go on, from here to where, for now at least, but I find my ways, have always. I thought I had seen Gulfoss, the Iguaza Falls, other cliffs my eyes felled on from out of reach, but that was another time, eating away at another’s marrow. I would have plummeted, but I chose the dirt over the sea, wherever my wanderings have taken me, the least hospitable, and a final resting place. I am afraid I may have missed my chance to go quietly, that’s why I stay here, and wait. Despite my confusion I still have reasons, must still make excuses. I do not worry, someone will find me here, eventually, some day, maybe not. I think now I am close to ending, the streetlights have turned out, dormant, inert, cockroaches emerge to herd on my skin, it begins to snow, or is it ash that comes down, no matter, it is no use, no impetus to move. Except now my surroundings begin to frost over, and to maintain the mire for which I had grown accustom I turn from my back to my stomach (I am numb at present). I press my face to the soil and till it with my cheek, creating a depression to fit comfortably the profile of my head. I hear a strong gust of wind with one ear lifted to the sky. Is it still night? Perhaps it’s another night now, to fall once more and recur again. The grass has died here, in the slough, perhaps it was I who killed it with my body. Perhaps this small patch of lawn will grow back when the season’s over, or it will be given seed and sown when I have left it, in one way or another, below or a part of. For now it’s hard to determine, too far for conjecture, I’d rather not say, pay any more mind to the point. Holding in my hand a small portion of surface I hollowed out from the marl. I presume the earth no longer belongs to me, crumbling to dust through my fingers. What thought will lend itself, heed me next? There’s hardened mud below my eye, like a teardrop, like a teardrop, like a teardrop I repeat, before memory mellows me, but it is no use, it is really just filth, I can be carrion now, though, unencumbered, when in my youth, under my father’s roof, to keep clean was a chore to be performed with the utmost care, or witness a harsher punishment than public humiliation. A foul stench is offensive, he would say, better to be kempt in this world. My father, he was a wretched man that nobody liked, I may have left because of him, but that is not likely, no, I was ill-fated to leave, without a reason but surely with blame, probably, or I was ditched, left alone, so I went. He didn’t die alone, though, like I am sure to do, dirty, feculent, soon, surely, with no food or water to nourish me. Somewheres along the way I hid what little possessions I had on me, brought from the beginning or otherwise purchased, begged for, thieved, found, or collected, until all that was left was the pursuit of images, real or perceived, it makes no difference. They are all but gone now, the objects and the effigies. With difficulty I can conjure them, which keeps me living, form unfaithful relics in their stead. I am unwilling, mostly, in this effort, I wish them not to be mine. I tried to leave them behind, but out of fear or regret, someday, even remorse, I kept record of their locations, maintaining with careful detail instructions on how to retrieve them again, had my mind changed about their meaning to me. I used to believe I would want them back, to taste again the whisky from Islay, the Dokha smoke on my tongue, to feel the weight of my notebook, the rough material of my change of clothes, to hold in my palm the silver ring passed down to me, gifted, then regained, but meaning is a brittle thing. Nonetheless the record has been lost, forgotten at the last gutter I came to rest at, and for this I feel great relief rush over me. It’s all memory, is it not, taking into consideration the extent to which it has been modified, over time becoming or long passed, reemerging. I would rather that which is not, when to be is to become a ditch. I don’t know where I am anymore, where I will go, if I am able, if anywhere, it’s no use, stay, I’ve made a nice little nest for myself, in spite of the temperature and the clouds, which are fine to me anyhow. Even the snow, which now coats, a thin layer, the lower region of my body. More sounds a far ways off, lulling me, guests arriving, perchance, it could happen. Feasibly it’s the birds, undecided if they should flock and fly south, or the pale rider, ringing the dinner bell with his horse’s hooves, more audible over ice and rime, but no less forgiving. I can never know, anyhow, never really have known, have I. It is a short field to march. A sound draws me nearer to the soil, voices maybe, and now I am frostbitten. I have not managed my appearance so well. To weep, to weep, to weep and to blubber, and grieve, would save me from perishing, but this indecency has become strange to me. It’s no use, just the slightest excuse, for having lived licentious and ugly. Dying in the silence has its uses, too, when death is not a consequence but a commencement, unsaid.

—Jared Daniel Fagen

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Jared Daniel Fagen is a writer living in Brooklyn. His prose has appeared in The CollagistPLINTHThe Brooklyn RailSleepingfishMinor Literature[s], and elsewhere. His nonfiction has been published in The Quarterly Conversation and 3:AM Magazine. He edits Black Sun Lit and studies at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY).

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Nov 072016
 

lordan-viaDave Lordan via West Cork Lit Festival


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In the middle of the night The County Manager called to my door. I murdered him with the ceremonial dagger I always bring when answering my door, whether or not it’s in the middle of the night. I stabbed him in the voice-box. It was an efficient kill, then, although also, with hindsight, in this case something of a mistake. Actually, a big mistake, a major mistake, the consequences of which I am still paying for. He bled to death voicelessly and so he did not get the opportunity to explain to me why he, of all people, had taken it upon himself to call to my door in the middle of the night, a time when both he and I should have been in bed, sleeping. Of course I do not sleep very much, and never have, especially not in the middle of the night. I have since come to the conclusion that The County Manager was also, like me, a light, daytime sleeper, and that when he called to my door he was entirely and – for him – ordinarily awake. There is also the possibility – I don’t consider it much of a possibility – that he was sleepwalking, meaning that, when he died, he died in his sleep, somnambulantly, unknowingly. It’s the kind of lie about a gruesome death that no-one minds telling or pretending to believe. Although we all die unknowingly, don’t we? And I would go further than mere somnambulance, mere automatism in the case of The County Manager. I would say that when he died it was in the middle of a beautiful dream of managing a future county perfectly divided by a canal of his own design, named, in fastening honour of his eternal prestige as The County Manager’s Canal. On one bank lies the district in which it’s always day, and, on the other bank, the district where it’s always night. On the one side the things of the day, on the other side the things of the night. Everyone would, under The County Manager’s constant supervision, have strictly regulated access to both sides, and behave accordingly when in either. No mix-ups. No twilight. I say he died happy then, in a perfection of his own making. It was, if so, an ineluctably joyful death. Nevertheless, the County Manager is dead and surely he has left behind him several close ones, in several kinds of close relationships with him, all requiring that he not be dead, that he be anything but dead. These people must be feeling unhappy, perhaps also guilty, for reasons clear or unclear to them, that The County Manager is dead, or missing, presumed dead, or even worse from the point of view of emotional and, perhaps yet more grievously again, financial complications, missing, presumed alive. I am sorry to be so uncouth as to mention finance here in what is, in effect, The County Manager’s Obituary, but I don’t want to come across as insincere and stupid, as missing something so obvious, no matter what. For posterity’s sake, I suppose, for the sake of my reputation in eternity, I wish to be absolutely clear and complete in my sentences. There is more than my own microbial legacy at stake, I know; it’s to the afore-insinuated associates, colleagues, friends and relatives of The County Manager that justice calls for reparation, for the dead themselves remain forever unreparable. There’s no doubt in my mind about that much, most of the time. I am really writing this not for my own sake but so that interested parties, no matter what their particular species of interest might be, will be able, now and forevermore, or for at least as long as the present lingua retains its presently fading legibilty, to learn exactly what happened to The County Manager on the night of his sudden, unexpected, tragic, and, for certain, horrific demise. Now, consider this in my defense (not that I am seriously considering defending myself for an act so many out there are bound to be steaming in silent envy of): what if I were also sleepwalking at the time of this death? Would that not mean that just as he had innocently died in his sleep then I had innocently killed in my sleep? Would this not mean that, in legal terms at least, the event we are discussing never took place? It never legally took place. Well, whether it was within the zone understood by the law, or outside that ever-indeterminate territory, he bled to death rapidly on the rough ground outside my front door, his blood fleeing copiously downhill from him, a forlorn stream bound to dry out long before it reached the sea, to dry out within sight of its source. It must be the worst result for any kind of stream not to be able to forget that it has a beginning. Imagine if every time you turned around you saw your mother’s open legs, pouring the blood and gunk of your beginning. I live on top of the hill, by the way, in view of the sea, but in no danger atall from it. I have not had to take part in the furious debate about whether our coastal plains, upon which the far majority of our stacked and close-quartered County populace exists, are or are not in imminent danger of catastrophic inundation; and if they are what precisely it’s that he, The County Manger, should be urgently doing about it. Pity whoever the people select to be their saviour from the sea. I suspect – it’s one among many vociferous contending suspicions within me – that he called unannounced to my door in the middle of the night with the idea of apprehending me dozily off-guard and canvassing me to agree to make some personal contribution to The County’s Major Inundation Plan. Whether financially, or, more likely, through accommodating fleeing refugees. The County’s Major Inundation Plan is currently, according to all the media, under intensive review, by County Manager’s Order. Well, I put the dagger through his neck and the request or order or whatever it was never got uttered. Unsurprisingly, even though I may well have been technically and legally asleep, the sudden, unexpected occurrence of a death, and a messy death at that, in my demesne, catapulted me into that anciently inscribed emergency mode we now call panic. When I panic I call P. P is not calm, but he is calming, to me. P keeps secrets. P has a car. He was with me within half an hour, during which I had had the presence of mind, despite perhaps being asleep, to mop the blood and wrap The County Manager’s remains in a blanket. Together, we dismembered the body quite artfully, and rapidly – P was once a doctor and knows his anatomy, and he saws like a lumberjack – and wrapped the bits again in separate plastic packages. In my opinion the bits gain greatly in individual distinction and beauty, gain aesthetically that is, from their dismemberment. In isolation, under the contemplative gaze of the gallery goer, or at least one who understands how to act in a gallery, and separated from the coherent, preprogrammed, utilitarian mainframe of the body entire, hands, feet, genitals, and so on gain a new aura; numinous significances emanate, which nature never intended, and which, from nature’s point of view, are useless. The release from intention and utility is brief, but beautiful, or beauty-making. Rough speech I know, but what else have I? It’s a long time since I sat in a classroom. Or read a book. Or heard one read. Well, it goes to show that there is something at least to gain from being chopped up, and that we all have our own idea of beauty. We drove off, still with hours of dark to come, and distributed the packages in various lots and woods and tips and reservoirs among the scarcely populated uplands hereby; where, by now, nature’s making use again for sure, for nature’s purposes, whatever they are. The best way to hide a body, P told me, (several times – he is so fond of repeating his bon mots, as well as entirely lacking in short term memory, so that it’s never possible to diagnose which of these causes his habitual retellings) the best way to hide a body is to hide it severally. Anyway, he went on, you can’t hide a body on this earth. Bodies are always found, if not by humans, then by dogs; if not by dogs, then by rats; if not by rats, then by ants, and so on all the way down to the bacteria that are patiently devouring the spherical corpse we call earth. When we returned to my house on the hill the light was also returning, the cold, soggy, miserable light of a dawn hereabouts. P said goodbye and drove off downhill into the impenetrable mist that hovers beneath, covering everything everywhere, often for weeks at a time. Back to his wife, whom he informed me, not without shadenfreude, was always overflowing with erotic enthusiasm at this hour of the morning. I inspected the rough ground outside my front door; I inspected the door; the doorstep. No spatters. No suspect material whatsoever. Nothing seemed amiss, either inside or out. I wondered then if the County Manager had called in the middle of the night to launch a surprise, high-level inspection of my premises, with the idea of finding enough irregularity to justify my eviction? Did he want my out-of-way house on the top of the hill for himself? For a command post? Who knows? I went back to bed, and fell into a deep sleep for about seven minutes. I admit that. I know falling asleep means I wasn’t feeling any guilt, or even a mild sadness. But I maintain the possibility and the defense that, before I fell into this deep sleep, I was already deep in another one. I was in a sleep within a sleep then, and therefore was not consciously responsible for either my actions or my emotional disposition. I will, by the way, take the appearance of grief and guilt at any future point, about this or any other matter, as a sign that I am finally, indisputably awake. Anyway, these events are nearly three weeks past now and I still don’t feel guilty, though I am terribly anxious. I am racked day and night by pangs of regret that I did not wait until The County Manager had announced to me his reason for calling to my door so interruptedly in the middle of the night, before sticking him through the neck with my dagger – that overwhelming surprise at the end of his life, that bloody exclamation mark I climaxed his story with. I must allow for the possibility that there was no reason atall why he called, and therefore that he died, and I killed, for no reason atall. Such thoughts condemn me to restlessness all day and all night. I have, like Mishima, considered seppuku. I have the equipment for it after all. And I also believe I possess the necessary high courage, the rigorous and unflinching fortitude for a sacred act of self-punishment. It’s only seppuku if someone we know witnesses it, however, someone who can confirm to others we died honourably, staring oblivion in the eye, welcoming the dark in with more steel in our gaze than in our gut. I don’t know who I could ask to be my witness. Not P. He would only laugh at me. He wouldn’t understand atall. He’d say don’t be thick. Don’t be such a contrary bollox. Disembowelling yourself, ha? You will in your arse. Sure I’ll get you a pill and it’ll be over in no time. You’ll fucking enjoy it my friend. And the worst that’ll happen is that you’ll shit yourself in a happy hallucination like my mother did. She, when the priest came to give unction, mistook him for Donald Duck, and chucklingly farted her last. Instead of seppuku I try my best not to move, not to fidget. TV is the best aid. The best servant. I glue to TV for news of The County Manager’s death. But, there has been no report. No mention whatsoever. No talk of a replacement. No talk of contenders, front-runners, also-rans, or outside chancers for this prestigious, powerful, enviously remunerated, limitlessly influential position; no talk of sideways moves from other departments, nor of messianic reformers transferred from other, even more important counties than ours; no talk of drastic reshuffles in the county offices. Everything carries on as it was, as if the county manager, poor man, and also the esteemed office of County Manager itself, have been removed all at once from the planet, and not one living soul out of all those who, until that point, had been under his constant county manager management has noticed. Except for me, the man who stuck him at my own front door in the middle of the night, while almost all in the county surely were sleeping, or sleeplessly stretched out abed anyhow, awaiting a knock or a tremor or boom that would call them forth anytime now to rise, to kill or to die, at last to end their supine longing.

—Dave Lordan


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Dave Lordan is a multi-genre writer, performer, editor and educator. His latest publications include the short story collection First Book of Frags, the poetry collection Lost Tribe of The Wicklow Mountains, and the Young Irelanders anthology of new Irish fiction, which he edited. He is the researcher for the popular RTE Poetry Programme and is a regular contributor to Arena, RTE Radio 1’s flagship art show. He has appeared at numerous festivals and venues in Ireland, UK, Europe, and North America as a performer, panelist, workshop leader and MC. He edits bogmanscannon.com, Ireland’s alt.culture hub. Last month he launched The Pirate Show, an alt.lit radio show on Dublin Digital Radio. Listen here.


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Nov 052016
 

novel-explosives

 

This passage illustrates how neatly Jim Gauer merges financial terms, computer-speak, wine connoisseurship, literary allusions, and the demotic, along with somewhat recondite words, sly wit and smugness, as a “liquidity crisis” threatens the narrator, a venture capitalist, and his partners. —Jim Bursey

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So at this point we have more investors, three, than we do employees, two, and we are well on our way to everlasting greatness. The rest of the Book of Genesis, detailing the actual buildup of the company, the hiring of twenty or thirty software and silicon engineers, the circuit designs and Verilog testing and ASIC tape-outs and wafer lot shipments, and launch of the product, and failure of the market, we can let these run, in computer jargon, in background mode, while we run in main memory. VCs have nothing much to do with building companies; we have everything to do with Board Meetings, and most of all, Board Dinners. The Board Dinners at Elicit were strictly regimented, drinks first upon arrival while the five of us gathered, standing room only, at the marble-topped bar, then on to our upstairs table where the first wines would be ordered, two or three bottles of Cabernet to get us started, while we contemplated the menu, though we knew it by heart, and a bottle of Chardonnay, in a silver ice bucket, standing next to Chase, to supplement the reds. The reds would start out at moderate levels, maybe a Mondavi Reserve or Phelps Insignia or Silver Oak Cabernet, before progressing to the true cult wines, the signature wines of the great 1990s technology bubble, wines like Araujo and Bryant and Dalla Valle “Maya”, Harlan, Screaming Eagle, Grace Family Vineyards, and maybe Colgin or Dunn’s Howell Mountain or Sine Qua Non, with its magnificent Rhone-style “Red Handed” Syrah, each of them ten times what I’d paid for my first car. If we were feeling particularly optimistic about the coming quarter, we might follow our sixth or eighth or twelfth bottle of Araujo with something more lavish from the Bordeaux region, a Chateau Lafite or Mouton or Margaux, particularly the 1982s that made Robert Parker famous, when he showed more than a few of these indelible creations a grave and sententious 100-point enthusiasm. For the moment, however, while the quarter looks adequate, we’re going to have to order another bottle of the Araujo, a wine that combines extraordinary power and richness with remarkable complexity and considerable finesse, a saturated purple/black color in the glass, followed by aromas of sweet vanilla and crème de cassis, intermixed with riveting scents of black currents and exotic spices, with overtones of minerals, coffee, and buttered toast, a subtle yet powerful giant of a wine, a wine that should age effortlessly for 30 or more years, though in this case we’re drinking it at the tender age of four, and while it is, undoubtedly, an alcoholic beverage, it’s so fucking tannic that you can’t feel your teeth, which seem to be cracking under the wine’s brute ferocity. Parker’s rating? Precisely a 98. In spite of our stomatological problems, we’re seriously discussing business, how the whole thing has stalled, how ATM to the Desktop doesn’t seem to be happening, how we’ve just had our eighth or twelfth or sixteenth quarter in a row of the exact same revenue, the company is going nowhere, while we sip another glass of an exquisitely fragrant but pugilistic beverage with a vicious left hook and anger management issues. One night in particular stands out from the rest, the memory is a little hazy, when one of my firm’s investors had come to check on his investment; at this point we’re the market leaders in a $0 billion market, with our losses slightly bloated by Board Dinner expenses, when we’re joined by Dan Leary, from the self-proclaimed legendary firm of Hartley, Budge, et al., systematic and analytical and precise investors, with riveting scents of Pynchon intermixed with a pithy skepticism, and just a hint of the paranoiac when it came to their money, which was gradually being converted into ethanol molecules, in order to pass cleanly through the blood brain barrier, and Dan wasn’t much of a wine connoisseur, no matter what sort of analytics were precisely applied, although he was, apparently, capable of counting, and the wine-bottle body count was shall we say staggering. Dan was…I think appalled would be the word…I’m not sure he understood the nature of true power and elegance, and everlasting innovation in the ATM field, and may well have regarded our drunken Bacchanalia as somehow inappropriate with the company under siege, and a liquidity crisis rapidly approaching, as we appended a couple of snifters of Delamain Très Vénérable, and savored its lingering fade from Russian leather to Eastern spice, and steeled ourselves at last to face the dark winter evening, knowing that while the real work had finally been completed, we still had to undertake some vital unfinished business: to stand up, in a stupor, and negotiate the stairs.

—Jim Gauer

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Jim Gauer is a mathematician, poet, and possibly the world’s only Marxist Venture Capitalist.

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Nov 042016
 

panorama-cover

In this passage the unnamed narrator is staying in Connemara in Galway County, Ireland. He rides a bicycle down to the seashore and reflects on death and the journey of Famine refugees across the ocean. His attention then turns to an outing in the same region with Gjini, an Albanian immigrant who acts as his occasional driver and tour guide. Gjini talks of his own experiences as a refugee. —Joseph Schreiber

Panorama
Dušan Šarotar
Translated by Rawley Grau
Peter Owen World Series,  2016
208 pages, £9.99

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Like a mirage at the end of the road, without reflection or gleam, dark and grey, a geometric plane shadowed in pencil on a yellowed sheet of drawing paper – that’s what the sea looked like – shallow, motionless, monastery beer spilled into eternity on to a black stone floor, but mainly trapped in a wide, ever wider, nearly limitless landscape; the nearer I was to the shore, the greater, the more impressive was the bay, in the middle of which stood a black lighthouse on sharp rocks, no bigger than a wizard’s ring, hovering on the motionless surface, while the master’s pale hand, still wearing it proudly, had long ago sunk beneath the sea. Without braking, I went down off the asphalt road on to a wide, neatly mowed grassy area in front of the boathouse and rode up to the sea. I leaned the bicycle against a low breakwater that was protecting the lawn from the high tide and slowly made my way over the grey sand, between the slippery rocks, the black pebbles and the rotting seaweed, into the oneness, the residue and abandonment, the world that remained when that sunken, dead arm last unclenched its hand and released the silt on which I now stepped, I thought as the smell washed over me, as if I was standing in an old, abandoned, invisible maritime cemetery, eerily beautiful none the less, like the romantic landscapes of the Old Masters. Death comes here to rest, the thought ran through me, after guiding the wandering, lost souls every day on their final journey, taking them far across the sea, to invisible islands chiselled from soft white light and overgrown with tall, dark silences, like a lyric nocturne in the middle of the sea; and after traversing the width and breadth of Europe, this is where she lays down her cold, sharp work tool, on this remote and hidden shore, and maybe for the first time in her eternal deathly life she lets slip from her shoulders the foggy shroud that shields her dark and hollow radiance, which pulses like a lighthouse from another world. Now I was hearing death with every cautious step I took in the black sand, sensing it in the swell, the gleam of the motionless waters, in every story, every marker along the road; I saw it on the threshold of every lonely deserted house standing open to the sky, roofless, without window or door, without a crucifix or the Book, which the fugitives

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had taken with them, in good faith perhaps or in mortal terror, on their uncertain voyage across the sea that lay in front of me, and which, if not for ever lost or at the bottom of the sea, are now holy relics safely stored again in a drawer, in a new home across the Atlantic, as a memory of forebears, of a lineage with a forgotten name, and with a consciousness of ancestry, the dark trace of identity that still rings in the soul like a terrible wind in a dream; standing by the shore, I heard it, I saw it everywhere then – death, resting here. The scene, a stirring ritual of farewell, which apart from love is the single most deeply binding gesture that lies in a person’s heart (as the poet Boris A. Novak described it), was repeated, was literally doubled, as if I was hearing the echo of my inner voice, the first time I stood in front of the painting An Island Funeral, then on display at the Galway City Museum, which I visited one afternoon after my return to the city – but first I went with Gjini to the place he had told me about on the drive to Clifden, when we had first met.

A long, narrow road through a gorge, next to the dark, still shores of lakes encircled by mountain peaks, which I couldn’t distinguish from the great veiled white clouds, grey on the edges, that were gathering and rolling through the damp green vapours of the morning air and without accent or nuance in their description settling on

img_2229the muted orange wasteland, the damp and stifling, heavy, crumbling earth, which was hardly breathing, was gasping like tired, smoke-filled lungs, all this dripping damp and piles of mouldering, scorched grass lying on the earth were like a moist fuel, a black fire, burning earth – peat they call it here – which once warmed the walls of houses now a century deserted, which are scattered like lonely lost lambs across the entire country, bleating their harsh and gloomy, mysterious and mournful, but also beautiful and inaccessible, even cruel, Irish poem for human destiny, in an elusive tonality between the pathos of Gothic narrative and elemental folk balladry, or, maybe better, in the style of the romantic landscape painting that I was only now discovering here. That’s how I remember my first trip with the study group to this gloomy, hidden landscape, godforsaken you might say, which is how it seemed to me at the time. I remember that we stopped a few times on the way for no good reason, which from my student experience in my old homeland I found almost unthinkable; I mean that students would simply go trotting off when they had obligations or, worse, would forge friendships, be both drinking partners and academic colleagues, with the professors, Gjini said; so, as I said, whenever the sun came out for a moment and lit up the black surface of the lakes and the murmur of the mountain streams, we would run off far from the cars, away from the road, deep into the peatlands, hiding from the wind and the damp morning fog, which rolled down from the bare reddish peaks that wouldn’t be green for a while still, since winter had not yet breathed its last, and we would lie down between the tall, evenly cut, carefully stacked piles of black, decomposing earth, the peat, which was drying in the meagre sun. There, sheltered by earth, as if we were just now being born, we smoked cigarettes and drained bottles of black beer, and then moved on, a ragtag band of scholars, a brotherhood of professors and students. Although I was a foreigner, an immigrant, and still learning the jargon of high academia, and was moreover the oldest student in the group, a person who with some effort and for his own survival was merely skilfully concealing his homesickness, swallowing his anger, the disappointment and despair of the refugee, which were still mixed with will, with determination for a new beginning, and with inconsolable nostalgia, which, in fact, appeared and found its true name only later, when I had somehow got on my feet, as soon as I sensed that we would somehow make it, would be able to transplant ourselves, put down at least shallow roots in the new soil, and even later, when I would come back again and stop here, mostly on my own but occasionally with my family, and take long walks, when my second education, if you will, was successfully behind me (my first degree I had received long before in Tirana, in political science and journalism) – that’s when I realized we were in some way alike, we can’t hide or suppress our background, no matter where we are from or where we are born, we’re made out of a substance, like soil or an island, and on top of it, nostalgia, Gjini said, and the Irish understand this. I still grab every available moment I can to get in the car and escape here, to this magical, deserted, dark and inhospitable landscape, and for at least an hour or so I put on the mud boots I keep in the car and go for a walk over the damp ground, even when rain is pouring down on me or fog is hiding me; under its protection, in its sheer, shimmering whiteness, as if I was floating high above the waters, in the rediscovered memory of the landscape of my childhood, when I was similarly always getting lost in hollows and pastures, where no foreign word could reach me – my only world, our only world, was built solely of names, with no questions asked about meaning or significance – there, under the protection of silence and always the same faces, which accompanied me from my birth to my emigration and will in a sense be with me until I die, which I feel more and more each year, there I remembered and named things with a mere glance, I lived in an endless, silent and humble presence, there was nothing I missed or needed, and my whole reality, even the imagination in which I lived my childhood freedom, is still somewhere deep inside me, and from it, from this eternal source, I learn again every day unknown words, search for the deeper, the deceitful meaning of my second life, my immigrant life, Gjini said and was silent for a moment, as if he’d forgotten his point, or maybe we had missed a turn again, I thought. I didn’t see any sign or road marker, I said tentatively, and, in the awkwardness of the moment and just enough to let me wade through the silence, I started assiduously wiping the misted windscreen with my sleeve. When you are far from your language, you are also far from your home, more and more each day, and the distance increases and deepens with every new word; the lost word is usurped, seemingly replaced, by the other, more convincing, better word, which everyone can understand but which is still foreign; the immigrant, this eternal guardian but also suppresser of his own language, knows that the loss, the void, the dissolved malt of forgetting within it, which he tenaciously envelops and fills with learning, which is the only vaccine against loneliness, despair and madness, is nevertheless irreplaceable, painful and incurable, like love, Gjini said and noticeably slowed the speed at which we were driving. That’s why I come here, he said and looked off into the distance, to relearn the only language left from my childhood, the language of silence, of looking. I walk in silence and observe the landscape, the earth, I lose myself in the fog and soon I can’t make out anything any more; I don’t know who I am or even where I come from, I don’t even remember what language I’m thinking in, what language I name the world in. Then I write a poem. Totally wet, totally sweaty or totally cold, I drag myself back to the car and take a notebook out of the glove compartment,one that Jane gave me, and for a few minutes or until it gets dark, which is when, no matter what, I go home for supper since my family always expects me on the dot, so before I go home, I write. And I always try to translate every word, from one language to the other, so the poem from which I am made doesn’t burn up like earth, like black fire, peat, as they say here. At home, of course, we all speak Albanian around the table, not just my wife and older boy, but even our little girl, who was born here. Enough so she doesn’t forget where we come from, Gjini said and, taking a long bend in the road, he silently and with unusual concentration slowed the car, as if he was getting ready to make an important announcement; I could feel the tension and weight of his silence; then came a rumbling sound and a moment later the grey and weary road was flooded, the surface heaving with water; the storm, which came down into the gorge like an avalanche from the surrounding peaks, poured on to the road and the car was carried as if in the middle of a turbulent ocean. All I could see through the misted windscreen, which I was now wiping frantically with my sweater sleeve, were long translucent ribbons of water pouring down faster and faster, harder and harder from the low clouds, like a densely woven curtain; despite the gusting wind, which was constantly shifting the direction of the waves on the road, the heavy drops were falling to the earth in perfectly parallel lines, as in some ideal garden of pure Euclidean forms, and the very next moment, even before we had completed the bend in the road, even before I had made another desperate sweep of my arm to open a tiny slit for my eye, which searched for a view of the sky, as if seeking an answer or making a request – that’s when Gjini, with a curse on his lips and a curse in the corner of his eye, slammed on the brakes. There was pounding and popping, like stones hailing down on us, and when the roar of the rushing waters beneath the wheels had subsided a little, all we could do was gather our strength. Gjini, without a word of warning or any indication, hastily shoved open the door and I saw not a river but a turbulent sea racing past, and then this man, my guide, the only creature I knew in

img_2360the middle of this deluge, stepped knee-high into the raging waters, in his shirtsleeves, with just a linen hat on his head, and vanished in the diagonal rain. His blurry shadow, which I tried to catch through the mist on the foggy windscreen, evaporated like a soul cut from its body, even before I could wipe the glass with my hand.

—Dušan Šarotar, translated by Rawley Grau

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dusan-sarotar

Dušan Šarotar is a Slovenian writer, poet, screenwriter and photographer. He has published five novels (Potapljanje na dah/ Island of the Dead, 1999, Nočitev z zajtrkom/Bed and Breakfast, 2003, Biljard v Dobrayu/Billiards at the Hotel Dobray, 2007, Ostani z mano, duša moja/ Stay with me, my dear, 2011 and Panorama, 2015), two collections of short stories (Mrtvi kot/ Blind Spot, 2002, and Nostalgia, 2010), three poetry collections (Občutek za veter/Feel for the Wind, 2004, Krajina v molu/ Landscape in Minor, 2006 and Hiša mojega sina/ The House of My Son, 2009) and book of essays (Ne morje ne zemlja/Not Sea Not Earth, 2012).

grau

Rawley Grau holds a master’s degree in Slavic languages and literatures from the University of Toronto. His translations from Slovene include a book of essays by Aleš Debeljak (The Hidden Handshake: National Identity and Europe in the Post-Communist World, 2004), a collection of short stories by Boris Pintar (Family Parables, 2009), and a novel by Vlado Žabot (The Succubus, 2010).

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Nov 022016
 

Brian Leung, professor of English and director of the Creative Writing Program. (Purdue University photo/Charles Jischke)

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She listened to me, that much I know, because when they found her she was wearing house slippers and a blue cotton night gown.  I’d told her to lock the door and go to bed. Yes, she’d listened to me and then forgot halfway through. Her body lay in a heap of weeds near an onramp to the Hollywood Freeway, wild anise a lacy shroud hovering above her small torso. The boy who discovered her thought she was homeless and asleep. I found out about it on the morning news in a live shot, only I had no idea who they were talking about. I had no idea that her son would call me that afternoon with a desperate apology, nor that minutes later I’d ring home for the first time in nine years, that I’d be hung up on and that I’d understand, at last, what she had meant about making family.

Along with a house key and seventeen cents, in her purse the police found my phone number. I know exactly the scrap, the torn corner of a manila folder from weeks earlier, quickly chosen because I wanted her to have something that wouldn’t immediately crumple. Above my number I simply wrote “Brian, Grocery” to distinguish myself from others with the same name whom she might know. I was a checker at a supermarket. When the police called, they ignored the comma and asked to speak with Brian Grocery.

Niola was 82. Sometime during the night she’d left her apartment and walked the length of Melrose Avenue, past shuttered iglesias and late night bodegas, a strip she must have traveled a thousand thousand times in her red and white Oldsmobile 98. A gift from her man in the 1950s when she was a cocktail waitress at the Down Beat. It wasn’t easy then to be Black in Los Angeles, she told me, but it was better than Little Rock.

At first I thought it was a wonder that nobody stopped this confused old woman wearing a nightgown out on the street, but then, it’s L.A. and such a sight wouldn’t necessarily call attention to itself. Or perhaps someone had reached out, in English or Spanish—she could speak both—and she’d called up the veil of lucidity that had fooled even me for a while. “Sólo ando por aqui,” she would have said lightly, or, depending on her audience, “Oh, I’m just headed right over here.” I’d heard the latter many times in the previous weeks.

Based on her injuries, the police surmised that Niola had been sideswiped by a car, but it was the blunt force of her head hitting the ground that killed her. The boy found her wigless, but of course, he wouldn’t have observed that detail. In the few years I’d known her, even in her latter, confused state, I’d only ever once caught the slightest glimpse of the gray hair beneath her wavy black wig. It had gone askew when she fainted in my checkout lane.  Head in my lap, she looked up when I adjusted it into place.  She was a bit dazed, but managed a sly wink.  “Have you called your mama yet?”

I half-smiled, hand supporting the back of her head. She was with it enough to take advantage of the situation, or at least call up her most persistent question. Her wet brown eyes stared up at me, waiting.  The answer was that I had not. My mother had married a man who hated “faggots” and “Arabs.” “A-rabs” as he pronounced it. Mom called it a tick. But I couldn’t bring Lutfi to the house anymore. Lutfi. I hadn’t spoken to him in years either. Niola knew this. Or she had.

§

When the police called, they asked about my connection to “an elderly African-American woman.”  They didn’t use her name because she wasn’t carrying I.D.  They didn’t tell me that she was dead, only that they were trying to locate someone who could identify her.  I told them who she was and gave them my information and told them who I was and what had happened the night before. Maybe it wasn’t in that order. I could barely think because it had finally happened, Niola had gone off and gotten lost and now she was sitting in some police station frightened and confused. Breathless, I gave the police her son’s Oakland phone number. It was the second time I’d done that. Fucking Hebron. Fucking me. I slid to the floor, because for months I’d heard Niola but apparently only half-listened.

§

An hour before the police called I was at Niola’s apartment.  I’d taken her car keys from her the night before. The 98 was in the store’s parking lot. After my shift I drove it over and parked it in her spot. She’d lived in the same apartment for over thirty years, part of a beige, mid-century modern cinderblock complex called The Zephyr that had gotten a little rough around the edges.  Maybe I was being overly optimistic, but I was relieved when she didn’t answer my knock. Her son had listened to me. He’d come and gotten her. To be certain, I tried the security screen, and finding it locked, reached inside the pass-through and tried the inner door, which opened. I called to Niola but nothing. All the curtains were pulled and the lights were off. The stacks of hardcover books rising from the floor all over the living room were just as they were the night before, a diorama of skyscrapers in silhouette.  Niola’s son would have to come back to empty the apartment. I tossed the car keys with their brass saxophone fob toward the coffee table and missed. A clink, and then silence.  Niola had vanished from my life, a fact that left me deeply saddened but relieved.  She’d be safe with her son in Oakland.  I’d made that happen. At least some families could be reunited.

Before I walked back to the store to get my own car, I paused in front of The Zephyr to take one last look.  A pair of tall, thin palm trees divided the view into four rectangles and towered well above the roof of the building. They stood entirely still, their shiny green bloom of fronds catching not even a zephyr. It was an establishing shot in reverse. I’d moved to L.A. to break into screenwriting. But I had no stories. Maybe it was time to write about Niola even though in a screenwriting workshop I’d been warned against that kind of work. Stay in your own lane.

§

Just the night before the police physically carried Niola into her apartment and it was violent. I had no choice but to make that happen. I’d been a good way through my shift, scanning the groceries of Snake Guy, the uninspired nickname given to one of our regulars, a White, tattooed dude who shopped with a small yellow python draped over his neck. My manager tapped me on the shoulder and whispered. “Your old lady is here.”  He meant this literally.  “Righteous,” he said, which was his exasperation go-to. Off the clock he was much worse.

Niola was standing a few feet away, clutching her brass handled purse, looking shaky and teary-eyed.  It was too warm for the wool coat she was wearing, but she had it cinched around her waist as if it were about to snow, and her house slippers weren’t matched. “Man, they’re trying to kill me.”  That’s what she called me, “Man.” If I didn’t understand, I might have leapt from the checkstand. Instead, I asked for my last break and had my manager bring a chair and set it behind me.

“Let me finish with these nice people,” I told her as she sat; “then we’ll see what’s what.”  I turned, then came back to her and without asking, withdrew the car keys in her purse.

“Man?” she asked, unsure and trembling.

“It’s going to be okay,” I said, removing the tiny saxophone from her keychain. “Watch this for me?”

On my break I put a pre-made turkey sandwich in Niola’s left hand, my only option, and gave her a chocolate milk. In her early twenties her right arm was amputated just below the elbow, but she was pretty nimble about using the remaining, shiny nub which she moved not unlike the overbite of a sock puppet.  With her coat off I saw that she’d left the apartment quickly because she was wearing only a thin pink nightgown. She’d lost weight recently, and there wasn’t much to lose in the first place.  I guessed she wasn’t remembering to eat.  “What’s this about someone trying to kill you?” I asked.

She looked down at her chocolate milk, and then at me, almost as if she was hoping I would answer the question for her. “The people,” she said. “And they stole my car.” I doubted the last part, because I had her keys in my pocket. She held out the tiny saxophone in her hand as proof.

“We’ll find it,” I said. “Let me send you home in a taxi, and I’ll check on you after my shift. Does that sound okay?” And that’s what we did. I called a cab, gave the driver the address, and stepped back into a checkstand. Ten minutes later the cab driver came through the doors and rushed my manager.  “She crazy,” he screamed, hands flailing in the air and accented by thick gold pinky rings.  “She won’t leave the car. She has no money. Who pays?” My manager looked at me and shook his head.

“She’s been a customer at this store longer than I’ve been alive,” I said, as I passed him and went outside. Niola was cowering in the back of the running car.

“Get out,” the cab driver yelled behind me. “Get her out.”  But then something sudden and strange. “Wait,” he said, exhaling slowly. “I see this. I’m sorry.” He gently pushed me aside with his thick, hairy arm and opened the door. “Mother,” he said as he extended his hand. There was something about the way he spoke the word with respect and sincerity that caught me off guard. I heard myself, fifteen-years-old, sitting with my own mother in the hospital when she confirmed the Do Not Resuscitate order for my grandfather. I had sounded like this once.

“Mother,” the cab driver said again. “Mother, you’re here. Let’s go inside.”

She leaned forward and took his hand, whispering. “We’re here?”

“Man,” she said, seeing me as she gently stepped from the car, “I think Barbara has the hot plate. They’re trying to kill me.”

I knew nothing of a hotplate nor a Barbara. “Okay,” I said. “You’re with me now.”

“Someone can pay fourteen?” the cab driver asked.

It was nothing to take Niola’s purse from her hands, but useless. “Right,” I said, already knowing there was no money inside.  I gave him what I had from my own wallet, which he didn’t bother to count.

“Does she have children?” the cab driver asked just before his head sunk below the roof of his car on the driver’s side. “If no. She needs you.”

“The store is dead,” I told my manager. “Let me take her home.”

Really just an assistant manager, he rubbed his moustache, confused as to what to do. “Righteous,” he said. “There’s liability here.”

“Then what? She moves in?”  We were talking as if Niola weren’t standing right next to us. In a way, she wasn’t.

“I’ll have the police drive her home.”

“Yes,” Niola said unexpectedly. “It’s late. I would like to go home. Momma will have my hide.”

Just before the squad car arrived I thought about calling Hebron, but there was no time, and I doubted it would do any good. Niola didn’t seem to take special notice of the two police officers escorting her to their car. They may as well have been adult children walking their mother down the aisle at church.  Instead of organ music, Los Angeles played the thrush of its street traffic. When the police began to close the door to the back seat, Niola put her hand out. “Man? Aren’t you coming?”

“I’ll clock you out,” my manager said, exasperated. “Righteous.”

Niola’s place was five blocks away, and for the first couple, she was fine, purse in her lap, placid expression, as if we were returning from a pleasant evening at a concert; as if the police radio offering its low grind of random information was a Charles Mingus piece. But when we turned onto Niola’s street, she stiffened with recognition, then frantically looked around. “Where are they taking us?”

“Just giving you a ride home, Miss Niola,” one of the police said. “Nothing to worry over.”

“I can’t go there. The people will kill me. They took Herman.” She was nearly hyperventilating and grabbed my arm. “Man, tell them.”

I played along. “What good would it do to shock her now with Herman’s long ago death? “That’s why we have the police with us.”

“No. No. They’ll kill me.”

The policeman driving the car looked at me in the rearview mirror. “Who’s trying to kill you Miss Niola?” His baritone was calm.

“The people there.”

As we pulled in front of her apartment building, Niola clutched my arm and pleaded with her eyes. “You’re not. . . ” she whispered, “Man, you’re not going to let them take me, right?”

The look on her face was devastating, maybe even more so because I no longer had any idea what was happening on the other side of her shiny brown eyes.  I only knew she was terrified and I was about to lie to her.  “They’re going to protect you from the people,” I said, even though I was certain the threats populating her mind were beyond the reach of anything the police could do.

The officer in the passenger seat stepped out of the car and walked to the complex, the dark blue strip of her disappearing around the corner. “How long have you lived here Miss Niola?” the remaining officer asked. “It’s a real nice place.”  I knew that’s not what he was thinking, maybe it used to be nice, but he was trying to calm her down.

Niola was shaking, but she answered. “Herman gave it to me. . . ”  She didn’t so much as pause as come to a red light.  “Man,” she asked without looking at me, “just when was that?”

“The ’60s, I think.”

“That’s right,” she said as if she was pleased with herself.  She looked out the window at the dark building studded with rectangles of light.  The officer was already returning.  Since that night I’ve thought often about how when I was a kid we raised rabbits for meat. The shriek of a terrified rabbit is one of the most horrific sounds a person will ever hear, and that’s about what Niola let out when the female officer opened the door and asked Niola to step out. She clutched at me and flung one slippered foot out of the car to fend off the officer who was firmly insisting on Niola’s exit.  Now both of Niola’s legs where flailing in defense and she was screaming at the top of her lungs.  The second officer got on the radio and asked for backup.  In minutes three officers were carrying a writhing, screaming Niola to her apartment. I was frozen next to the squad cars where they’d told me to remain, red and blue lights angrily flashing against the apartment complex and the spectered faces peering out from the windows. I was standing, holding Niola’s purse, helpless. Please don’t let her wig come off, I thought, but wishing for her dignity felt like the merest of gifts.

In less than a minute the captain, a worked-out Asian man that reminded me a bit of my late father, jogged back to the car. “We need the keys and we need you,” he said. “You’re Man, right?”  I nodded and ran with him to where Niola was crouched and cornered next to her apartment door, the porch light glaring down on her as if she was about to be interrogated.  I saw her through the wall of three officers. Her eyes were glassy and defeated, the nub of her right arm slowly twitching like the tip of cat’s tail. It was an awful tableau and I wondered just then where Niola was, in Los Angeles or Little Rock where her father was killed. Was she afraid of losing another arm, afraid of losing him a second time? Pajamed tenants, a family of six, filled the adjacent steps, the father, dyed brown comb over askew, yelling in English and a language I didn’t know.  “She’s crazy. Take her to the crazy people hospital.” The wife put her hand on his back and said something to which he replied angrily, sending her and their children back up the stairs.  He turned and threw his hand out as if to be through with us. “She says everyone trying to kill her.”

By then the captain had opened Niola’s apartment with the keys I’d handed over. “Think you can coax her in?” he asked me.

“Niola,” I said quietly.  “Come inside?”

“Man, is that you?” She squinted through the light and beyond the stiff bodies in front of her. She’d come back.

Inside, the female officer and I escorted Niola to her small kitchen table, its white Formica top decorated with a red heart at each corner. She’d earned it with Green Stamps. The captain stood at the front door while another officer checked the apartment. “She’s living like this?” the captain asked. The front room was not as I’d last seen it. All her books were off the shelf and stacked on the floor with barely any room to move in between, a maze leading in one direction to the kitchen and the other to the hallway. I thought to get Niola some water and something to eat.  The refrigerator contained only expired bologna, crusted condiment jars, and a teacup holding half a lemon. I called to the captain.  “Yes,” I said when he was at my side. I pointed to the open refrigerator. “She’s living like this.” I pulled a phone number out of my wallet and handed it to him. “It’s Oakland. Please call her son.”

Finally, I thought, as I watched the captain dial Niola’s green rotary.  After a couple rings, a man’s voice answered. It was coming together.  The captain explained who he was and the situation.  “You need to get your mother,” he said.  He listened for a moment and then interrupted. “Sir, two weeks isn’t going to do it. She’ll be dead before that.”

Minutes later I was standing outside of Niola’s apartment, a half dozen police behind me. They wouldn’t let me stay. I wasn’t a relative. I locked on her glassy eyes. She was veiled behind the mesh of her security screen looking tiny and scared. “I’ll check on you in the morning,” I said. “Go to bed and lock the door.”

“Okay,” she said with a suspicious glare, slowly closing the door against people who were trying to kill her.

§

A few weeks before the night I had Niola escorted home by the police I was on break and made two phone calls from the store with permission from my manager. I’d gotten the first number from Niola. The call was to her sister in Atlanta. I briefly explained Niola’s descent.  “And it’s getting worse,” I said, “trying not to sugar coat the situation.”

“Well, honey, it’s sweet of you to call, and five years ago I mighta been of a body to get out there. But I’m eighty-four and my gears is about rusted.” Her voice was spunky, but graveled.

“Do you know how to get hold of her son?”

“Hebron? That son-of-a-bitch?” I heard her turn away from the phone and muffle the receiver as she said something to whomever was in the room. “Sorry, Honey,” she said, returning. “I asked my husband to hunt up my address book.  Far as I know Hebron is still up in Oakland. And good luck getting him to lift a finger for Niola. He and I are not so close.”

“I’m getting that,” I said. “But maybe it’d be better if you called him?”

“Truth is, Niola and I haven’t had much to do with each other unless someone in the family dies and that well is about dry except for us.” She thanked her husband and excused herself to find Hebron’s information.  “If it ain’t changed, of course,” she cautioned as she slowly called out the digits.  I thanked her but she wasn’t ready to hang up. “She ever mention Herman? He was a fella she used to run around with.  I come out to California and took up with him for a bit, and well, now you see. You can’t dip the coffee spoon in the sugar bowl and not expect a taint.”

“Herman,” I say. “Niola thinks he’s still around.”

“Well, that’s real sad.  I thought he was a no account, messing around on my sister all the time, but then, well, I was one of ‘em, that smooth son-of-a-bitch.”

“I should go.”

“I expect,” she said. “Sorry to tug on your ear so long, but let me give you one stitch of advice on getting Hebron to tend to his mother.  Tell him Niola’s on her way out and he might wanna come see that her affairs is in order. If I know that boy, he’ll be down quicker’n spit off a railroad trestle. That building of hers will set him up real nice. If he don’t give two shits about her, he’ll sure care about the money.”

In two minutes I was on the phone with Hebron, though I held off on playing the inheritance card. He was all “mmm-hmmm, mmm-hmmm” until I got to the part asking him to come down from Oakland. “What’s in it for you?” he asked.

I was a little startled by the question. “Peace of mind, I guess.”
“Right.  And you say you’ve known Mother how long? She hasn’t once mentioned you.”

“Since I started working at the store. A few years I guess. We’ve had lunch.”

“Well I appreciate your concern but she gets a little confused is all. I spoke to her last week and she was fine. And anyway, I’m due down at the end of the month. I got a business to run. So if that’s all. . . ”

“The apartment building,” I blurted.

“What about it?”

“Your aunt said that you. . .um. . .might want to make sure Niola’s affairs are in order.”

He didn’t wait even a half a second. “Fucking Aunt Francis? She’s still kicking? Listen you little fucker, I don’t know what kind of shit you’re trying to pull here. . . What’s the name of where you work?”

“Just please come get your mother,” I said. And then I hung up. In front of me, on my manager’s desk was his calendar. The next day would be my mother’s sixtieth birthday. Fuck her for living another year, I thought.

§

Earlier on the day I called Niola’s sister and Hebron, Niola arrived at the store in a bright blue dress suit and matching pillbox hat and clutch.  I’d seen the outfit under plastic in her closet, a remnant from her “fancy days,” as she called them.  That day she was clear-eyed and walking tall as she approached me in my checkstand.  “Excuse me,” she said to the woman whose groceries I was scanning, “I have to transact a quick lick.”  It had been months since I’d heard Niola’s voice so strong and direct.  She didn’t wait for a response, and I continued scanning as she spoke. “Man, I have a lunch date. That’s why I’m wearing the blue.”

I didn’t understand how it had happened but another world had gotten into Niola.  I turned and caught the gleam of five large mother of pearl buttons up the front of her jacket “You look beautiful,” I said, and then to my customer “Doesn’t she look beautiful?” The woman understood what I needed, and agreed enthusiastically. “Niola,” I said as I pulled the last of the woman’s items across the scanner, “a lunch date? I’m jealous.” A bagger arrived but Niola hardly budged to let him do his job.

“It’s only Herman,” she said. I immediately halted because Herman died in the early ’70s. “But the strangest thing,” Niola continued, “I can’t place where I’m supposed to meet him.  Man, where am I supposed to meet him?”

I raised a polite finger to Niola and finished the checkout. “Have a lovely lunch,” the woman said, pushing her cart past. Beyond both of them the shift manager was staring at me shaking her head. “Didn’t Herman postpone?” I pretended. “I thought you said he postponed.”

“I don’t think so. I wrote it down but I don’t know where.”

Only one of us knew this wasn’t true, or if it was, it was a thirty-year-old truth. I had to do something.  “Let me see your purse,” I said.  Without a second thought she handed it to me and I fished around for the small brown address book I knew she carried.  I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it before.

Niola had no cash and no credit cards, but she had the book.  No Hebron, but I jotted down the number of her sister, Francis, and checked to see if my number was in there. It was, but just in case, before I returned the purse, I tore the corner off a manila folder and wrote “Brian, Grocery” above my phone number. “Okay,” I said, hoping she’d go along, “really, I just remembered, you told me Herman couldn’t make lunch Friday.”

“I told you that?” she said as if Herman hadn’t been dead all these years. “Okay then, I wore the blue for nothing.”

“He doesn’t know what he’s missing.”

“Probably got one of them others on his arm instead. You men. . . ”  She looked at me tight eyed. “What’s the name of your girl again?”

I took me a second because it’d been a while since my fictional girlfriend came up. She remembered one thing, but not the other. “Charlene,” I said, though I supposed I could have offered any name.

Niola nodded, though she didn’t look satisfied. “I best get the blue back in the closet.”

§

I think about it now and realize that the first sign something was wrong came maybe eight months earlier. I was about to clock back in from lunch and saw Niola at one of the checkstands just as the clerk, a new guy, was finishing her order. They were speaking in Spanish. “Where you headed?” I asked from behind her.

“Man!” she called out in a big, brassy voice as she turned, tan purse hanging at the elbow of her handless arm. She’d gotten a new wig, a wavy auburn that set off her large, happy eyes. “Headed just over there, you know, and I’ve got news.”  She turned to the clerk and asked in Spanish how much she owed. Then she opened her purse and stared into it for a few seconds. “Now what was I looking for?” The clerk repeated the amount but it clearly didn’t register with Niola as she stared again into her purse.  “Man,” she giggled, “I’m just not one for figures today. Be a peach and pluck out what I owe?”

At the moment I didn’t understand what was happening. I just thought, well, she’s close to eighty-three, and she was so adorable about it, so I took her purse from her and complied.  “What’s your news?” I asked as the clerk handed her the receipt and we walked behind her cart to the time clock.

“Spoke to Hebron this morning and told him he could stay in one of my apartments for free.”

“Wow,” I said. They hadn’t spoken for months. “What brought that on?”

“He called asking for money because maybe he has to close the business, so we figured out how much it would cost to get him down here.”  She was beaming. The one regret about her life I’d ever heard her express was that despite all her efforts, her son had drifted away. “Just did Western Union before my shopping.” Suddenly she was teary eyed with happiness.

“That calls for a hug,” I said, opening my arms. “I know you miss him.”

She stood on her toes and squeezed me tightly. “You’ll have dinner with us when he gets here, right, Man?”

“Of course,” I said, letting go after a few seconds.  “We’ll celebrate.”

“Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve mentioned you to him.”

§

Niola was independent, but there was a courtesy she insisted on, that I open the car door for her when I picked her up for lunch and when I dropped her off.  It was after one of these lunches as I opened the passenger door in front of The Zephyr, that she paused and looked up at me before stepping out of the car. Large brown sunglasses concealed her eyes, and the bright daylight gleamed on freshly applied red lipstick. “Man,” she said, swiveling her legs out of the car and offering me her hand. “I believe I’m going to have a martini. It’s been awhile.”

I laughed, not thinking she was serious, but she squeezed my hand to let me know she was.  “A little early in the day for a cocktail, don’t you think?” I said, closing the door behind her.

She turned, raised her chin at me, and placed her hands over the large brass buckle that cinched in her brown jumpsuit.  “Only,” she lilted, “if I was drinking alone.”

“Niola, you’re flirting with me.” The idea of it was preposterous, but I was touched by the effort.

“An old woman like me? Flirting?” she asked with a smile. “It’s just that today is my birthday.”

What was I going to say to that?  It would be the first, but not the only time I was in her apartment before that night the police carried her across the lawn of The Zephyr. In a minute I was sitting on her plastic covered couch listening to her mix our drinks in the kitchen.  The apartment had been lived in.  It wasn’t dirty so much as densely packed, every wall lined with dark-spined books, the coffee table stacked with them too.  The floor was covered by uneven layers of carpet square samples, giving the surface the look of a choppy, multi-colored ocean.  “You never told me you were a reader,” I called out.

“After Herman passed,” she said, rounding the corner and carrying a tray on which stood two full-to-the-brim martini glasses each one with a toothpicked olive.  She’d taken off her shoes, her child-sized toes tipped with peach colored polish. “You’ll have to help me with this part,” she said, leaning toward the coffee table, which I didn’t understand at first because it was easy to forget she was missing the lower part of her arm.

“Oh,” I said, catching on.

She sat down next to me and took her martini from my hand.  “Haven’t had one of these in maybe twenty years,” she said.

I held my glass up to her. “Here’s to your birthday.” Maybe it was best to drink up and go.

Her sip left a thin lipstick print on the edge of the glass. “I’ve had a lot of birthdays,” she said, laughing, and butting my shoulder with her short arm, “but the truth is today isn’t one of them.”

“Shame on you,” I said. It was this playful quality that made her so fun to be around.

She pointed with her martini to the top of one of the shelves where a large black and white photo was propped against a line of books. I couldn’t make out all the details, but I recognized the woman in the crisp white dress clearly in mid song. “That’s me back in the day,” Niola said.  “Pretty thing, wasn’t I?”

“Beautiful,” I said, “but you never told me you were a singer. Is that what you wanted to do?”

“Hell no. Only thing I wanted to do was work for the phone company.” She shook her head as if I’d asked the world’s stupidest question. “I had aspirations. Not every Black woman with a voice wants to sing professional. Now fetch it down here and I’ll tell you a little story.” With the photo in her lap she lay a finger next to the younger version of herself. “Makes me look three shades darker, but that’s how pictures come out back then.”  In the photo she was standing on a small platform, front lit, a white hand and the fingerboard of an upright base just in frame on the right, and a few on lookers below and in front of her. She told me that she’d been working at the club serving drinks a few months while she was trying to get in with the phone company.  One night, a regular at the club asked if she could sing and she made the mistake of saying she could, a little. Before she knew it she was upfront under one hot spotlight.

“What’d you sing?” I asked.

She was already a third of the way through her martini. “I didn’t take myself too seriously, even back then, so I started up with “These Arms of Mine,” which wasn’t really the kind of music they played, but I thought it would be funny. You know that one? Otis Redding?”

“Of course,” I nodded, mainly because I was feeling distinctly less cool than the woman sitting next to me.

“Now, this is a cappella, and at first everyone did kind of laugh because, well listen.”  She sang the first few lines, These arms of mine, they are lonely / Lonely and feeling blue. / These arms of mine, they are yearning, / Yearning from wanting you. “There I am with arms out wide open, missing part of the one, but then a couple of the boys caught on and gave me a little backing and we sounded good. Even got a standing ovation.”  She stood up and pointed with her glass. “Back there is Ornette and he’s whistling, and up front, right up front. . . This is the part I left out, Mr. Sinatra is smiling and clapping and those blue eyes are just fixed on me like I was the only person in the room. Ornette and Mr. Sinatra on the same night.”

I looked again at the photo, and though he’s not quite in profile, it’s him.  “This is amazing. How come you never told me any of this?”

Niola sat down and set her martini on a copy of Ficciones. “It was just the one song.”

“But Sinatra,” I said. “That didn’t make you want to give singing a shot?”

“Ornette,” she gently corrected, indicating the pecking order. “And singing? All that smoke and uncertainty? No thank you. I had my sights on working full time at Pacific Telephone and Telegraph. Did it too. Started at Thornwall 6. That’s where I learned talking proper was like flipping a light switch.” Leaning forward, she gestured toward the wall. “There’s the plaque from when they retired me.”  Niola plucked the olive from her drink, popping it in her mouth as she pointed to a man in the Ornette/Sinatra photo. “But one thing come of it. Herman was there that night. That’s when we met, and boy did we meet, if you know what I mean.”

In the photo, Herman was seated in the background, facing the camera.  It wasn’t a crisp image, but it was clear enough.  He was older than Niola, it looked to me, late thirties, early forties. White, hair tight to his head, he wore a gray suit with a dark tie, and his eyes were perfectly centered in black rimmed glasses. “Handsome,” I said.

“Handsome?” Niola laughed. “No. The man was right as pancakes and just as syrupy, but he wasn’t handsome.”  She looked at the photo.  “Now, he was a straight-shooter from start to finish, and not just with me.”   She waved her martini around in a gesture that was bigger than the room. “Not to say he didn’t have ideas that sometimes maybe weren’t on the up and up, if you know what I mean. He told me every time he cheated on me.” She offered cheers with her eyes and brought the glass to her lips.  “His first kids was besides themselves when it turned out I owned The Zephyr clean and clear. Some sort of tax thing I didn’t understand, but when he died, it was mine.”

“So, Hebron has siblings.”

She bottomed her martini and went to fix another. “If you can keep a secret,” she called from the kitchen.  “Hebron’s my sister’s boy with Herman. Them two were at it a bit. Of course I didn’t know. Then Francis goes off to Atlanta and has a baby she didn’t want, and a year later Herman goes back east and brings home Hebron.”

I waited for the ice to stop shaking. “You’re kidding. You adopted him?”

Niola leaned out so I could see her face. “Got to open another jar of olives.”

“Which means to me it hasn’t been twenty years since you had a martini.”

“In housefly years.” She disappeared and I heard the pop of the jar. This time she returned with a pitcher and the olives. “Let’s not with this up and down,” she said, refreshing my drink, and hers.  “I didn’t adopt Hebron outright. But I raised him and called him son. Still do.”

“Oh,” I said, looking at a drink made cloudy by a bleu cheese stuffed olive, “so he knows.

“Well, Francis got a Jimminy Cricket on her shoulder after she watched some damn show on T.V.”

“Didn’t go over?”

“Not since. I’m his momma but not his mother and that makes a difference to some folks.” She shifted a carpet square with her foot. “Makes it all the harder that’s what he calls me, Mother.” She leaned in close, martini glass under her chin. “But let’s talk about us. When are we going to get this going?”

I saw it in her bright eyes and happy smile. She didn’t have to define “this.” Then I turned into a slack-jawed idiot. Just that morning I’d left the bed of one of my regular customers from work, an attorney whose boyfriend was also someone I’d slept with. Best looking gay couple I’d ever seen and I needed their stamp of approval. . . separately and secretly. That was my thing. Gratification without attachment. Play.

“Is that your man, Niola?” I asked, pointing to a photo on the wall.

She looked confused. “Baby, that’s Herman. And I thought you was my man.”

I knew who it was, but I feigned. “Well, it’s in color. I didn’t recognize him from your singing picture. And, I’m sorry, but I have a girl.”  Somehow I thought it would spare this older woman to think she’d been hitting on a guy taken by a girl rather than another guy.”

Niola, suspicious, leaned back and one-eyed me. “What’s her name?”

“Charlene.” Where that came from so quickly I’ve no idea.

“Well, don’t that beat all.” She set her drink down and scratched at her wig with her nubbed arm, one-eyeing me again, this time even more intently.  “Say her name one more time.”

“Charlene.”

“Oh hell,” Niola said, slapping her knee and taking a drink. “I’m a fool. Sssharline. You’re a queer boy.”

I stood, surprised to find myself shaking. “Niola, I should go.”

“Man,” she called me for the first time, “you sit right down.  I’m not done with you.” I complied. “Am I right?”

I nodded, and then I started crying, uncontrollably. I sob-spoke the story of my mother and her husband, and about losing Lutfi, about pretending I could be a screenwriter, all the while feeling like the only person I had in my life was this eighty-plus-year-old-woman who was a customer where I worked.  I don’t know everything I said. I mainly remember only the sound of my voice and the images, like a movie collage, of parts of my life rushing through my mind.

Niola patted my back when I was finished, played out.  “Where went you?” she asked softly.  I looked at her but had no answer. “That’s what Momma used to ask when our minds went traveling.”  She handed me my martini and winked.  “When I woke up this morning I thought I was getting a man today, but it looks like I got a child.  But don’t you worry. I’ll grow you up.”

“I’m sorry for all that. I was just thinking back to when things were easier.”

“Yeah,” Niola said, topping off her martini, “I think about them days too. But the only world we got to live in is now. You and me having martinis on Tuesday at 2 o’clock. That’s us living.”

I raised my glass. “Here’s to us. . . and Charlene.” Niola tinked her martini against mine and sipped, her partial arm resting on the back of the couch. At that moment I realized I’d got it wrong. I always thought of her as missing part of a limb. She was missing nothing. But, even epiphanies can lead one down the wrong road.

“Listen to Niola,” she said. “That far off will creep up on you now and then, but you may as well be dead if you try to live there. You got to have folks around. Call your momma. You need her and she’s going to need you in not too many years. If that don’t work out, you better start collecting some love. That’s what I do. Hebron and I aren’t close, but I got the comfort he’ll be there for me when I start living far off. And if he isn’t, guess I got you. I make family.”

“You do,” I said.

“Worst thing is to end up with nobody to look out for you.”

Like every toddler, I stumbled. “Hey,” I said, “maybe you’re my screenplay. Maybe I should write about you.”

“Man,” she said with an incredulous look, “This isn’t the movies. This is real life. You’re a Chinese-something gay boy and I’m an eighty-two-year-old lady. You don’t know me.” Her tone was stern and caught me off guard.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I just thought. . . ”

She touched my shoulder with the nub of her arm, softened. “No, no. Man, you go right on ahead. I insist. We’re making family here. Type up my story. Everyone should do that, write other people’s stories. You won’t ever get it right, but you might learn something about yourself.”

—Brian Leung

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Brian Leung, author of World Famous Love Acts, Lost Men, and Take Me Home, is a past recipient of the Lambda Literary Oustanding Mid-Career Prize. Other honors include the Asian-American Literary Award, Willa Award, and the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. His short fiction, poetry, and nonfiction have appeared in numerous journals, magazines, online venues, and anthologies. “Shuhua’s Suite” originally appeared in Blythe House Quarterly. He received his MFA in Creative Writing from Indiana University. He lives with his husband in Lafayette, Indiana, where he is the Director of Creative Writing at Purdue University. http://www.readbrianleung.net/

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Oct 122016
 

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THE SIGHT OF you in the bustle of the late winter street paralyses me. I had better turn tail and flee, I think: my words squeeze me out of my apathy, seeing you I am embarrassed as though I had inadvertently opened the bathroom door and found you standing naked in front of the mirror, I am startled and would like to back out. What strangers would settle with one phrase I embellish with a lengthy explanation and over-emphatic apologies until my patience runs out and I turn on you because you don’t answer. But how come this imaginary bathroom scene occurs to me? We met on the street by accident, mother and daughter. I recognize myself in you, I find this intrusive and despair at once: how dare I appropriate what is yours, your beauty, as if it were my merit in the least, how dare I presuppose that you inherited it from me, that you resemble me. You fear my love as I do yours, I ratiocinate to myself, and despair at once. If you are weary and the premature, erroneous shadow of age shows on your young face, my heart shrinks, for I cannot help thinking that if one morning you should see yourself as I have just seen you, you will be hurt. Still, I don’t want to rush time: may you stay young yet, I wish, a cruel teenager; I have already burrowed myself in my hole, but please don’t demand explanations from me.

You were around eleven; through the window the light of the full moon illuminated our home: the stage. I tidied up your room while you two were fast asleep; I picked up your scattered things from the floor: a book, one sock, paper tissue, a ballpoint pen and lastly, the half-gnawed apple fallen on the rug, and went out into the bathroom to wash your white blouse for the school festivity the next day. I spotted my careworn face in the misted-over mirror. I was washing your blouse as romantic heroines wash their child’s linen shirt in the rippling creek. Self-commiseration brought tears to my eyes, they flew over, into the water foaming with the washing powder, into the world, into the thick steam, I don’t know why I consumed so much water to wash one single blouse. I tried to cool my swollen eyelids in the cave-like bathroom but my tears continued flowing, I kept wiping my eyes, that is, I was lacerating myself in the usual way. How do you see me, I asked myself and answered my own question: A shadow, a body no longer living, a black contour chased by the routine activities. I jotted down my words on an envelope at hand—for what we write down we manage to distance from ourselves: a mute slave, an hour hand—so I phrased my complaint—that unprotestingly walks the clock face of days, nights and years for you. I hung up your blouse above the bathtub to dry, then sat on your bed and watched you sleeping, taking in your beauty, relishing your free-flowing tresses, my lovely terrorist: as if you were permanently running away from your hunters. A few years later—you were no longer living with us—you showed up on the street all of a sudden, with your cascading gold-chestnut hair: a strange girl in a black shawl, a strange woman was walking uphill on the other side of Török Street. At her sight my heart jumped, but she pretended she didn’t recognize me, she didn’t even greet me. Had you really not noticed me, or did you merely not want to see me? I haven’t dared to ask you ever since, for you always tell the truth and would say, Yes, I had seen you and avoided you.

Quite understandably this time I am overcome by the desire to flee, to disappear in the opposite direction before you see or don’t see me, to be spared the disappointment: you are not happy to see me. I immediately recall that the year before, during the first term you were coming to my university to attend English classes—by that time you had been living apart from us for seven years—we finished at the same hour, we could at least have walked together to the subway station, but you chose to walk with your girlfriend instead, only sparing the time to say hello. So I get off the bus like one drawn on a string, I hasten my steps towards you. I often feel as though I were pulled on a string by a foreign will, for I wouldn’t otherwise stir an inch by myself. I will not put on it the label: on such occasions I get a whiff of the cellar breath of depression. You are approaching with arms wide open, quickening your pace. We wear identical jackets. I had bought you, your little sister and myself identical jackets in America—for financial reasons, it had been a rational decision. They were available in one colour only, this fashionable off green, I risked wearing the same jacket as yours. I rejoiced at the thought of us wearing identical clothes and I thought you wouldn’t mind. On that despondent winter, far from each other on the overcrowded city’s streets, three women would go on their shadowy errands, unaware of one another’s itineraries. But why should winter be despondent? From now on we would embrace each other when we met, for from now on you would come towards me with arms wide open, and I hardly dare believe my eyes.

I would have liked so much to finally tell you—we have always liked to discuss men—that not long ago, on an empty Sunday when your little sister was baby-sitting in England and I, slowly recovering from an unreal love, was going to the swimming pool on a tight schedule, on one of my swimming sessions I suddenly halted in the middle of the pool as if an engine had stopped in me. (The engine had tired of the tight schedule, strength ebbed from it, the water reached up to its mouth.) I made my way to the lane rope and gripped it. I had known the man who was swimming on the next lane for years, our paths often crossed at noon when the others would be eating their lunch, napping or whatever, when there were few people in the pool. He swam to the lane rope in his strange, funny swimming cap (I had anticipated this) and said hello. What a pretty cap you have, I smiled at him (I often smile in self-defence). He took advantage of the situation and proposed that we walk together for the length of a few bus stops after swimming. I said yes. I had indeed wanted to walk, bored by the emptiness of the Sunday afternoon (as if I were kicking an empty barrel upwards on a ramp), I longed to hear a man’s voice next to me. I was of course not a bit embarrassed because of the ambiguity of the situation, for I had no plans with him, I merely wanted him to talk to me in his deep voice—as though social mores did not apply to me (and they did not, indeed). He was well-proportioned, a bit younger than me. At that time I, too, was still considered beautiful or, more precisely, one that’s got the look. On the same summer a short, pig-faced professor who was to become the rector of the Technical University shortly, and whose twin daughters had been your groupmates in kindergarten about twenty years ago if I’m not wrong, came up puffing after me on the roof terrace, stopped above my chaise-longue and renewed his boorish proposal, familiar from the years before, but, as he pointed out, for the last time. My refusal had been unequivocal, but it seems he hadn’t learnt his lesson (neither have I ever learnt how to shame those who make loutish proposals. In addition, the pig-faced man happened to be my colleague.) Next year you won’t be so attractive any more, he warned me, huffing. He stayed some more by my bedside, expecting his sincerity to make me think twice. Even if his offer fell on deaf ears, his prophesy proved to be astute.

I could hardly recognize the man with the swimming cap who was waiting for me at the entrance according to our agreement. He wore a check shirt, jeans and worn trainers. Dressed like that, he looked penniless, which made me feel embarrassed and moved at the same time. We walked in the heavy smog along Mártírok Street (or was it already Margit Körút?), we could hardly hear each other in the traffic noise. The ambiguous situation irritated me and I was sorry for wasting the day. He stopped in front of a restaurant whose name sounded familiar, I couldn’t recall from where. I invoked some non-existent appointment for family lunch to get rid of him; at this he asked if I would like to have a glass of wine with him. I felt ashamed for my fib that he must have seen through, for up to that moment I hadn’t appeared to be in a hurry. Against my better will I ended up saying yes, for the second time already. We entered the dining hall redolent of kitchen smell, sat down at a table with soiled table cloth; with princely nonchalance he ordered a bottle of white wine. The restaurant and the bad wine made him more self-assured. I asked about his profession but, lest he might take my question for a cross-examination, I added that I taught literature at the Faculty of Arts. This was another lie (of course I wanted to cover up the traces beforehand). He asked me if I knew Shakespeare. Well, I’ve heard his name in conversation, I laughed. Do you also know Richard III?, he inquired further. “My life would be incomplete without him”—and this was even true. But he made a remark that suggested strong skills of observation. “You tend to exaggerate. Or are you just doing it for my sake?”

Ever since I bought these three olive-green jackets in America I have often toyed with the idea that if somebody observed us from high above and placed us next to one another on account of the identity of our outfit, then we three do belong together. You look at me with tenderness, it is perhaps the first time you notice that the lines around my eyes show not only when I’m laughing: they stand at attention, ready to grow deeper, even when I’m watching something with my face going stiff. “What’s up with the two of you,” you ask, “how’s life?” Well-behaved, I answer your question as though it were a stranger’s, quickly going over the tissue of my days and weeks, but can’t find anything worth mentioning, anything your eyes should linger on, or in which your palpating fingers should get caught. Still, I cannot whole-heartedly say I feel this way because of my forsakenness. I myself cannot tell what was first, the thousand small signs of your love withdrawn from me, or this even more unbearable, even more telling feeling of forsakenness in me. (I feel that everybody is happy with their grown-up children, except for me with you.) So I bravely drag forth some promising topic, academic success, travel, I don’t remember what. I can obviously not speak about what preoccupies me most, what I phrase to myself, alluding to its unbearableness, as “I live wounded to death,” and that “I ought to see a doctor before it’s too late.” Not only because of you but also because of the fresh break-up that put an end to our seven-year affair with K. “Nothing worth mentioning,” I answer, but immediately start wavering, perhaps you will find me indifferent and would say good-bye rightaway and then the magic will dissipate. My sharp-eyed swimming-pool acquaintance might be right in the smelly, smoky restaurant: I exaggerate when I talk about myself. Although I might bring up an excuse: it is not only my words but also my feelings that are so passionate. Throughout my teens I was convinced that everybody was like me. I couldn’t understand where the indifference on the faces of others came from, their sheepish patience in front of injustice, I couldn’t comprehend why they didn’t rebel. Later, in my arrogance, I arrived at the conclusion that the others saw halfway and dimly, while I saw far and clearly. I was already a grown-up, the two of you were born, when I realized that the ability of too sharp phrasing was at once my strength and my weakness.

“Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York; / And all the clouds that loured upon our house / In the deep bosom of the ocean buried. / Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths, / Our bruised arms hung up for monuments, / Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings, / Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.” My acquaintance in a poor man’s apparel halted for a moment in the middle of his recitation, I thought his number was over but I was wrong. He gave me a searching look to see if I was with him. I could see the unuttered question in his eyes, so I named the play. Like an award-winning student I added: first act, opening scene, but it seems I misunderstood his question, for he waved his raised finger at me to be patient and continued quoting Gloucester, the future Richard III: “I am determined to prove a villain / And hate the idle pleasure of these days. / Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous, / By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams / To set my brother Clarence and the King / In deadly hate the one against the other. / And if King Edward be as true and just / As I am subtle false and treacherous…” At this verse he halted and gave a laugh with a mysterious expression. My face was all amazement. “So you are an actor?” I didn’t quite believe it, I was trying to acknowledge his stunt rather. “You missed it narrowly,” he said in a mystifying tone, but I could see on his face that my guess flattered him. “Then let me ask something else, do you have a regular day job or are you a freelance?” “I am unemployed.” I tried to avoid the dangerous high waters. “And where did you get your swimming cap?” His answer was no less surprising than his performance: “I had sewn it myself,” he said. “So you are the one with the sewing, while your wife goes to work,” I was trying to joke, although I would have liked to steer clear of discussing our family situation by all means. I felt like biting my tongue, but fortunately he didn’t take up the issue, he merely answered that he was not married and lived with his mother. In the meantime he was diligently pouring himself one glass after another, his eyes were shining already, while I barely touched the sour wine and, although thirsty, didn’t dare to order water for fear I’d offend him, as a short while ago I warded off his invitation saying I was not drinking of the wine because I was not thirsty. So I returned to the play: “Do you really love Shakespeare so much?” “I needed him. I can quote whole acts by heart.” I liked the past tense, and the arbitrary, lordly “I needed him” suggested an adventurous life or else, serious professional dedication.

You will of course have your own stories of me, memories that I perhaps don’t remember at all, or at the very least remember differently, out of self-defence. Not for absolving myself but rather, in order to be able to lull myself into the conviction: basically everything was all right between us. For I love you, and the birth of the two of you has been the best decision of my life. And you love me too, it is only our temperaments that are not suited. The realization that one’s treatment of one’s children can be tackled as a methodological issue, and that the books on parenting give outstanding recipes for coping with conflicts with teenage children, came like a cold shower—to stick to the imagery of the bathroom memory. I found the awareness that we ourselves could be characters in a case study, and that the positive or negative outcome of our conflict depends on my skillfulness, humiliating. I refused to believe that the first child, if a daughter, is a rival of her mother and if a son, a rival of his father. My shelves were laden with psychology handbooks, I fooled around with ha’penny horoscopes you could pick up everywhere on the street, with cheap booklets about famous people born in different zodiac signs, I bought everything to persuade myself that it was not my fault and perhaps not yours either, to doom our lives was maybe the unfavourable constellation only. It was chance that helped me learn the lesson “at the dawn of our love” with K. (to use his phrase). His presence changed our relationship. I simply had no courage to burden this relationship with my despair over the latest evidence of your inability to love me. At fourteen for instance, one Friday afternoon you announced that on Tuesday you would move out. K., as my sympathetic witness, said that I should be glad, for this way the situation would be solved in the most peaceful manner possible, and that I shouldn’t be brooding over the fact that you told me in the last moment. It was the last possible moment anyway, it would have been too late to fight for you, something that I would never have done to your detriment or against your will, by the way. We were invited for a dinner that evening, so there was no time to get engrossed in my failure or inquire about the practicalities. (I knew so much that instead of your mother’s, from then on you would be under a father’s supervision.) I can remember well the moment when you chose to communicate your decision, I was just putting on my thinnest coffee-coloured tights. “I have already arranged about moving my things out on Tuesday,” you said. I answered only that I was sorry I would not be at home and therefore unable to help with carrying your things, because I had classes that afternoon. You were so taken aback by my calm that on the day after your moving out you unexpectedly came over for a visit. We were just celebrating K’s birthday—alone for the first time. Perhaps you felt that you were losing me, that day you stayed with us late. Your little sister was away on a school trip.

“Do you need the Shakespeare quotes for your work?” I inquired. I would have been glad to hear that my interlocutor sought an outlet for his intellectual energies, or that he had learnt lengthy scenes for emotional reasons, but he said nothing of the kind, just continued to play mysterious. “Indeed. And not just in general but in the most concrete way possible.” I suspected that he wanted to test my inventiveness and that it would please him if I guessed sooner or later, even if slowly and with some help, what he did for a living before becoming unemployed. But nothing came to my mind apart from the theatrical professions, because the thought that he was getting drunk and I couldn’t get rid of him paralyzed me. Much help it will be to me, I joked to myself, if he turns out to be a prompter who is a dipsomaniac. I also remembered why the restaurant’s name rang familiar: the waitress living in our house worked here, where I was sitting at a table decked with a soiled tablecloth, in an intimate tete-a-tete with the stranger of doubtful circumstances. If she spots me, she would spread rumours in the house that I led a double life, I panicked. I hastily removed my elbow from the table, knocking over the wrought iron ashtray. At the loud clatter that startled everybody on the premises the waiter came to our table; I apologized but he didn’t grace me with an answer. With a commandeering gesture he replaced it, as if I had pushed it off the table deliberately. “Are you a theatre prompter?” I risked the question I came up with a moment ago. “You’re getting closer and closer,” he laughed complacently, with satisfaction, as if he had hidden an object from me that I was supposed to find. “I give up!” I answered impatiently, at which he said: “There is a time for everything.” And added that he wanted to see me open up entirely, whereas I was very reserved. As though I had been at a police interrogation, his unmasking observations uttered in a tone of superiority rained down on me. On top of it, every time the waiter passed through the swing-door, the light of a naked electric bulb pierced my eyeballs. “I loathe it when they analyze my soul,” I answered, closing my eyes. “How typical!” he commented without apparent rancour. “But allow me, how do you know that there is such a thing as a soul?” “I feel I have one.” I immediately realized the stupidity of my reaction. How can I be debating this issue, with this wretch? So I suggested that we talk about him rather. “Ask me, and I will answer,” he offered. “What do you live on if you have no job?” “I hold a few shares.” Once again I was surprised. “I had always imagined shareholders differently.” “You don’t live in this world, do you?” He fixed his velvety eyes on me.

I don’t even know for how long I’ve been living not in this world. I would have liked to tell you this when to your question, what was up with us, I answered, nothing special, I was just busying myself with my dream of the Last Judgement. It must have been about ten years after the death of my mother, your grandmother. In my dream we were all together in the garden expanding into an infinite square, of our last common home: not only the family, but all the living and the dead. The people came stepping on one another’s heels, in a controlled vortex. Trams pulled in with passengers hanging in clusters around the open doors; taxis came; crowds of pedestrians. The air filled with the excitement of apprehension. People were walking to and fro on the road, on the pavement, along the garden paths strewn with pebbles, their mouths moving mutely as if they were memorizing something, or trying to remember some important event by reciting their story. I heard the flutter of angels’ wings approaching and, now and then, a clash imitating the striking of a clock. All through, a dull, repetitive popping, as in the houses, through the wide open larder windows the souls of preserves tore open the cellophane and broke free from their jars and, crossing the airspace above the square, the erstwhile fruits flew back on the branches of surrounding trees. In my dream I felt the beatific state of belonging together; the boundaries separating me from the others dissolved, my senses were sharpened as if I had taken drugs. But I knew that if I started relating my unrelatable dream I would phrase it wrongly and you would correct me at once, saying: rather than beatific, my vision seemed downright terrifying.

Do you remember the Christmas Eve we spent with your grandmother, when she was no longer let out of the hospital? We brought in the plates, the cutlery, the Christmas dinner. We laid the table on the corridor, dressed the Christmas tree—it would be undressed in an hour and a half—and started eating. Unexpectedly the doctor on night duty stopped by our table—he bore a serious grudge about the fact that every Monday mother’s one-week pension would go to the ward doctor, never to him. “Are you at least aware that you have become a drug addict from taking so many painkillers?” he unleashed himself on mother. Never has the worn-out cliché sounded more truthful: “food turned bitter in my mouth.” We were eating the dessert, the Gerbeaud cake, its taste instantly turned to gall; I spat it out into my napkin and mother, too, pushed the plate with the cakes away from herself, we all put our forks down and started packing. I don’t even know why you came home with us after dinner at all? Probably for the books you got as present, in order not to offend me by leaving them there, or for your lovely leather gloves that you left in a taxi that very night. When you said good-bye I was arranging your shawl; you pulled out violently and shouted at me: Take your hands off me! At this I smashed a cracked Meissen plate on the floor. I can’t even say I grabbed it up in an irate moment: I knew exactly that I had placed it on the edge of a library shelf because I decided it was ready to be thrown out. So I dashed it on the floor and it broke to pieces. I have often heard that the best way of releasing built-up tension is to smash plates. I followed the advice like a half-hearted reveler, and it brought little relief. But my clownish role hurt me to the quick. As though the stage-prop wooden rifle had gone off, shooting the one who was brandishing it. I gasped for air, my heart stopped, I collapsed into an armchair. From that time I stopped sharing my dreams with you. Just as I don’t tell you that at Christmas time the Child is not born for me. Even though not from that day—for there had been signs before that I was on the doorstep of peril. I even phrased it for myself: “I don’t want to live in this world anymore.” I had believed myself to be strong enough to drink the bitter cup and stand without a scratch, for I had sufficient routine in unhappiness. At most I would sleep more, or sit listlessly in the armchair mentioned above. But, however concise my phrasing, later it proved to be too self-indulgent. I had smashed a cracked plate. I had not denied the world but merely the circumstances I lived in. I chose another place for my home: music. For weeks I would listen to the same pieces of chamber music. But instead of sounding ever clearer, the trios or quintets repeated to the point of madness became increasingly fragmented; the possibility of continuous reading between the lines was lost, the weighty beats were punctuated by overlong pauses, the musical phrases rapped like so many clots of earth on an (imagined) coffin lid. My workplace, too, became a stage, although it was at exactly that time that I was appointed chair and so could travel all over Europe. I couldn’t have imagined earlier how many things you can do by being half present, without anyone taking notice of my half-absence. I was overcome by a strange feeling: it was as if I were invisible and anybody could stick their hands or walk right through me. At times, riding tram 4 or 6 to work, I fell out of time; at the sight of a Gypsy girl’s beautiful, bare shoulders my eyes filled with tears and I forgot I was going to the exams. In short, the ever thinning sentence, “I don’t want to live in this world anymore,” losing its complements (or concessions), was soon reduced to five words, not reducible any further, and my wish—which by that time appeared far too compromising—became “I don’t want to live.” As soon as I found this brief negation I felt relieved. Soon I resigned from my position at the university, thereby losing the severance pay, the condition of which would have been common assent, but I wasn’t sorry. I didn’t want to profit from my behaviour. My dream of the Last Judgement seemed to justify, retroactively, my rash decision.

So for the moment my swimming pool acquaintance observed that I was not living in this world, although his observation was meant to refer to the world of shares and dividends. “I remember a poster of a fat capitalist with a top hat and cigar,” I answered lightly, “with a gold signet ring on his sausage-like fingers. And you forgot to put on your signet ring!” I joked, gazing at his shapely hand and suddenly a clever idea about his profession struck me. “Are you a psychologist by chance?” “As you could have seen, I have studied psychology,” he answered, placing his fingers on the bottom of his glass. And—” He stopped suddenly. I looked at him: “And?” “And I have known lots of people like you.” “You have no idea how consoling it is to know that there are many people like me,” I continued joking, “so I’m not such a strikingly pathological case after all.” “At least not among my former acquaintances,” he nodded approvingly at his own words, “there are many similar ones.” He leaned back in his chair. The light of the naked lightbulb glared in my eye, I saw our waiter, holding the swinging door open with his foot, exchanging a few words with the receptionist. After your births I would have loved to have a third child, but had to realize that our marriage would not last another trial. Then I kept daydreaming about adopting an abandoned newborn from the nearby orphanage, before it became “manageable,” that is, before it got used to the lack of love. As a result, our walks took a turn towards the home on Lóczi Street, perhaps you remember the terrace, sunny even in winter. According to the strict rules, the nurses weren’t allowed to form closer bonds with the babies, for it would have made it even more difficult for these to cope with the fact that at one year old, then at three, and then at regular intervals throughout their school years, they were taken out of the community imitating a family where they may have taken roots. With my hopes connected to you and then with their repeated dissolution, I myself became distorted into your easily manageable, abandoned child. Don’t worry for me, but don’t try to love me either, I wished for later, for my eyes got used to the dark and your love would blind me.

“When the Company was dissolved,” my swimming-pool acquaintance revealed his cards suddenly, pulling the ashtray in front of him while his dark brown eyes pastured on my face, “they gave us a few shares.” It was the first time I heard the code name Company, but I knew at once what he was talking about. Perhaps I had already solved the riddle when I phrased my experience, inwardly, it is as though I were at an interrogation. So, I was having a conversation with a member of the dissolved Legion in the third-rate restaurant. I knew exactly what kind of shares he was talking about, because on one of our organized trips the driver informed the passengers about them when he stopped at a certain gas station. I must have become stand-offish. “Does this rule out our meetings from now on?”, my acquaintance asked. “Does the truth disturb you?” “It does.” I couldn’t tell anything else. Slowly we got up, he fished an one-thousand banknote, the only one, from his seedy purse, I protested in vain to share the bill at least, he insisted to pay.

The third yes. She was lying on the fresh bedsheet bleached from overwashing, covered with a blanket. She was numb, she remembered her negation, “I don’t want to live!” She was surprised that she had believed it to be irreducible any further, but now she knew one sentence that was shorter even. “I don’t live”: this was her conclusion. The ticking of an alarm clock was chasing the dust on the shelves decked with lace coverlets. The lace hung over the edge of the shelves. She could never understand why someone who is not good with plants would keep greenery in pots, if not for wanting to test the endurance of agonizing with leaves turned yellowish-brown. “Since my mother was taken to hospital”, the man apologized when they entered the flat, “everything’s been untidy.” She took a good look at the room. In fact everything was tidy. Tidy and dusty. She started dressing before becoming herself a stage prop, she rushed through the mechanical gestures, wanting them to be over the soonest possible, just as she wanted the ones to which she had lent herself a short while ago in the bed to be over. She picked up her blouse from the chair, disturbing the daytime sleep of a moth. She remembered her first love, the overwhelming bliss of thirty years ago, that barely let her sleep at night. Back then the flutter of a moth’s wings would wake her up at night, or at least she would have liked to believe so, as her senses got so sharpened that even noises inaudible to the human ear could startle her. In those days she was sorry for the time spent sleeping. Probably it was not the moth but the sense of her happiness that shook sleep from her eyes. She had read somewhere that in the empty hours, while waiting for a bus, queuing in a shop or bank, the thoughts of ninety percent of grown-ups revolve around love. It is curious, although perhaps understandable, that in this very situation she should remember this word, so out of place. She glanced at the door: the key which the man had turned at the moment of their entrance, probably mechanically, was no longer there. She tried to open the door but couldn’t. “How will I escape from here?” she asked, aghast. In the meantime they must have been talking about some thing or other with the man, because she could remember his pleasant voice coming in from the kitchen now and then, but had no inkling what the subject was. Did he want to hold her captive? Or was he merely warning her that she had walked into a trap?

To this day I can’t understand how it could happen. For a month my parents took care of you while I was in Madrid with a research scholarship—almost fifteen years ago now. I worked from the morning into the afternoon in the Cervantes Library. I lived in a depressing hostel where a lone 40-Watt lightbulb spread its sickly light in the windowless room, in utter solitude, without friends or company, dividing up the two-week grant to last a month. I lived like a hermit, even if not on berries and roots but on the two-course menus of cheap restaurants; rising early and going to bed early in the narrow iron bed; forever warding off the insistencies of the postman who would knock on my door on his free Sunday afternoons, put his foot in the gap when I opened the door, and whom I had to push out into the corridor. I toyed with the idea that I was all alone in the world, I didn’t even have you. I was always hungry, eating or carnal desire was forever on my mind. Often I dreamt of my father who had been dead for six years already. He had had a beautiful death, as they say, a heart attack took him away very quickly. It often occurred to me that, had he been alive, I could have asked him for advice. I didn’t see him die; perhaps he was still alive in some intermediary state, I codded myself. I would have liked to tell him that in my dreams I got letters from him, as thin as gossamer, they were handed to me by our dipsomaniac postwoman from back home. Leaning over the railings of the stairs I could barely reach her held-out hand, I would have complained; the sheets of the letter, sticking to one another, became unreadable and were torn in my hands. But, to return to my story: I had agreed with you that when I saw the light at the end of the tunnel I would call you. I had reckoned that it would happen halfway through my stay, so I had asked you to be at home on the 17th, on a Thursday afternoon at 6 o’clock. Back then it took twelve days for a letter to reach me from Budapest, and ten for one from me to travel home, so I didn’t have any fresh news from you, or you of me. From your little sister’s doodles I gathered that she missed me very much. In my happier days there I recognized her in all the black-haired little girls in long skirts. Once a little girl of about seven even greeted me: “¡Buenos días, seňora!” and I answered happily, to be ashamed in the next instant when she corrected me with the self-confidence of a proper young lady: “It wasn’t you I greeted, Madam!” Howeer absurd it sounds, her rejection made me very despondent. Her greeting was answered by the woman walking behind me. Your plump, trusting letters I interpreted now as a promise of the return of our lost happiness, now as its refutation. When I imagined how good it would feel to hear your voices, I immediately became insecure: you might be dismissive. I conjured up the possibility that they organize a school-wide ping-pong championship on that day, or that you would want to enroll in an orienteering competition but either have to drop out or leave earlier because of me. I feared that my mother might over-emphasize my importance and this would fuel your resentment. I tried to ward off my depressing thoughts with diligent note-taking and museum visits at luxury entrance fees. Then one morning on my way to the library I saw a poster announcing the screening of Bardem’s film, Calle Mayor, at a reasonably priced downtown cinema.

I had a season ticket for ten single journeys, I had to be tight with money, so I only took a bus or trolley-bus for long distances. That afternoon, too, I started out on foot on the Princesa to the cinema, leaving myself sufficient time. I had already bought the ticket and still had about half an hour to spend, so I walked on for a few streets’ length when I noticed a large glass office building or emporium on the corner; according to the billboard, a “Sala de Conferencias”, a “Conference Hall”. There were rather many people waiting inside, I thought I would take a look around the hall flooded in light, to see with whom you could have a conversation in there, and on what. I would like to ask my father, I toyed with the idea, if I was allowed to have cheap adventures. I craved the velvety skin of men and the touch of their long fingers, exactly as he used to crave women. As if my yearning had no further aim beyond aesthetic pleasure, and as if one step did not engender the next one, my desires appeared in lamb skins. As if I could stop this side of the instant of complete abandon and could be satisfied by running my fingers along the line of their mouths, or rest my head on their naked chests. Can I keep my name secret from them, and—as soon as I step out the door—become a stranger to them, just as they would remain strangers to me? I would have liked to hear his approval to such questions. But he kept silent until the night of our return from America. He only spoke to me in the mist of the night separating All Souls Day from All Saints Day, when I said good-bye to K. with whom I met for the first time after my long absence in an acquaintance’s flat. When I was groping in my handbag for my key to open the gate, at that moment he addressed me: “You live rightly.” But perhaps you have already guessed what the glass office building or emporium was in reality? The post office headquarters for long-distance telephone calls. The day of my cinema outing fell on April 17th, the Thursday of our agreement, and the hexagonal clock on the wall showed exactly a quarter to six. So I called you exactly at the time when you expected it. Your sister picked up the receiver, then my mother followed, and in the end you arrived (you had a ping-pong championship at school). There must be a rational explanation, to do with the working of the unconscious, for the fact that I didn’t forget about the call, although I had well-nigh forgotten about you. I was filled with gratitude towards providence that you were not disappointed in me, that I could keep my word.

The secret police agent soon reappeared in the shabby room with a flowery majolica plate full of sandwiches. On the one hand she was hungry, on the other hand she thought she couldn’t offend her one-time partner, provided he would let her out at all, so she took a bite. The bread with pork grease and Lajta cheese wrinkled up around her teeth. The grease reminded her of the most tortuous period of her childhood, the months she spent on a farmhouse without her parents; fortunately she couldn’t detect in the taste that smell of the pigsty, the swill and of the boar, which always made her stomach turn; it was its consistency rather that disgusted her. She watched the man’s boyish upper body, familiar from the pool. She didn’t even feel a passing tenderness towards him, her head would not rest on his smooth chest, although she had believed that in her dejection she was ready for this betrayal even.

Thus we started out together with my swimming-pool acquaintance from the restaurant to the bus stop. I wore his company like a thistle sticking to my coat after a walk through the thicket, all the way to Moszkva Square and from there on tram 59 for a few more stops, until the thistle finally detached itself from my coat and got off, for, as he said a short while ago, he lived around there. I imagined his apartment (his mother had been in hospital for some time). Perhaps women go up to his place and help with the cleaning up, perhaps they even cook for him, I mused. Provided he kills his time with women. His neighbours hardly knew anything about him, he told me when we were still in the restaurant, because his apartment opens on a closed corridor, so they can’t check. He must have a secret cabinet with drawers from which he takes out his documents, starts a strategy game, lays out photographs. With me too he proved to be a sharp observer, so at home he would open a new file and put down accurate notes on my behavior. “She has two grown-up daughters. Teaches literature at the Faculty of Arts. She is easy-going and open by temperament but is cautious and backs out before the decisive step. Has a bit of intellectual arrogance. Makes hostile statements on the past regime, doesn’t like to talk about herself, her behavior is tense. The one surveiling her should expect her to lose her nerve at any moment, or to simply turn round and leave. She has her weak spots through which she can be easily approached, these are to be specified, provided the relationship with her continues.” I had already got used to the fact that you would ridicule me. That my feeling of isolation would culminate this evening and I would drown in its high waters, but tomorrow morning, eternal survivor, I would surface again. It is not entirely bad to be a stranger—even to our own child—if we dive into the depths. By giving a shape to my story I tried to gain your sympathy, but I am not trying to get anything, for I’m afraid of change. That you should send me into exile among the happy, and be born to me again? It caught me unprepared that you embrace me, that two identical jackets embrace each other—this makes me lose my bearings. Once the daughter of a well-off family left off her university studies and went to work in the Renault factory: from that time whenever somebody spoke to her kindly she thought their kindness was merely an effect of a misunderstanding. For a long time to come I will live with the faith that you are mistaken, and that your error will shortly become obvious to you, too. Yet out of weakness, for a moment I rest my head on your shoulder.

— translated from the Hungarian by Erika Mihálycsa

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Zsuzsa Takács is the doyenne of Hungarian poetry. She started publishing in the early 1970s, gradually developing a consciously understated, slightly elegiac lyric voice coupled with profoundly personal themes, addressing both private and historical traumas. A former professor of Romance literatures, she has translated St. John of the Cross, Pessoa, Borges and others into Hungarian. Her story “Conference Hall” originally appeared in her 2007 volume A megtévesztő külsejű vendég. Önéletrajzaim [The Deceptive-looking Guest. My Autobiographies]. Her work is widely anthologized, and has been translated into English by George Szirtes, Laura Schiff, and Ottilie Mulzet, among others. Her poems and stories have appeared recently in World Literature Today, The Missing Slate, and Locomotive Magazine. Reviews of her work and an interview can be read on Hungarian Literature OnlineShe lives in Budapest.

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Erika

Erika Mihálycsa is a lecturer in 20th-century British literature at Babes-Bolyai University Cluj, Romania, a Joyce and Beckett scholar. She has translated works by Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Patrick McCabe, William Carlos Williams, Anne Carson, Julian Barnes and others into Hungarian. Her translations of contemporary Hungarian prose and poetry have appeared to date, or are forthcoming, in World Literature TodayThe Missing SlateTrafika Europe, and B O D Y Magazine. A regular collaborator to various Hungarian reviews, she is editor, together with Rainer J. Hanshe, of Hyperion, issued by Contra Mundum Press.

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Oct 072016
 

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Tanga, May 28

‘Can’t you see what he’s trying to get you to pay for?’

I’ve just mentioned Jamhuri, who has told me about his child. She’s very sick. Gloria is driving me to the Amboni Caves north of town. She takes the road past the Hindu crematorium—a pretty, white colonial-style building surrounded by frangipani trees. It’s right next to the town’s fuel depot, and I wonder if this is a cause for concern.

‘The child has epilepsy,’ she says. ‘He wanted me to take her to a witch doctor. I won’t pay for that crap. So now he’s asking you.’

‘A witch doctor?’ I attempt a look of minor incredulity.

‘You can’t sling a cat in Tanga without hitting one,’ Gloria says. ‘But of course Jamhuri only wants the big gun. A certain Mr Sese.’

‘What does a witch doctor do?’

‘Oh, it’s not so much about the witch doctor, doll. It’s about the believer.’

I frown as if I don’t understand. But I’m thinking about Dorothea. ‘There is a place where many strange things happen. There are ghosts and spirits.’ I see her clearly in my mind, her grief and her terror of the box: ‘Take it away from here, take it far away from here.’

Gloria interprets my expression as disbelief, and rises to the challenge. ‘Last month, I took Jamhuri’s little girl to a specialist in Dar. He prescribed phenobarbital and reckoned she’d probably grow out of it in her teens. But you know how these people are—well, you don’t, do you? Jamhuri was expecting she’d get an injection or an operation and be completely healed, just like that. I don’t think he even tried the pills. That’s why he wants to go to Mr Sese. He thinks she’s possessed by shetani. He wants you to pay for his daughter to see Mr Sese.’

‘Shetani?’

‘Ghosts. Spirits. They’re everywhere. Apparently.’

‘And Mr Sese is—’

‘The pre-eminent witch doctor.’ She leans toward me in a stage whisper.

‘Headvises the president.’

Gloria brakes at an intersection, takes this opportunity to turn and regard me with her curious owl stare. She’s trying very hard to locate the rat she senses scurrying through my words.

A loud honking erupts behind her. ‘Where the hell do you think you’re going in such a hurry?’ she yells out the window, but shifts into first and pulls forward. ‘Don’t get me wrong. These guys like Sese are very powerful. When I first got here, I had a girl who came to cook and clean. She was a little thing. After a couple of months, I noticed she was turning gray. No kidding, her skin was turning gray. Like wet cement. I finally got her to talk to me. She said she was dying. I didn’t doubt that to look at her. I took her to the doctor. Full panel of blood work. A small fortune. No AIDS, no cancer, no TB, everything fine. The doctor told me she was indeed dying—from a powerful curse. I said, “You can’t be serious, you’re a doctor.” He said, “Of the body, not the spirit.”

‘He told me there are certain curses so powerful that the person who casts them must also die. The only way you can kill your enemy is to kill yourself. For instance, there’s this cooking pot curse. You sneak into your enemy’s kitchen and steal his cooking pot. You shout a curse into it, wishing their death. Then you smash the pot and bury the shards in the bush. If your enemy manages to find all the pieces and put the pot back together, then he will be saved. If not, well, kufa kabisa—he’s dead. But—’ she sticks a stubby finger in the air to make her point. ‘But, you die too. That’s the deal you make with the shetani. A twofer.’

‘Twofer?’

‘Sure. Two fer the price of one. And, you know, that little gray girl, I found her one morning in her room, curled up like a dead moth you’d find in the window. I suppose she’d died in her sleep, there was nothing to be done, she’d got it into her head that she was going to die, she’d willed herself to die. And so she died. I don’t know why she thought she deserved it. But that’s a powerful thing: to do with a thought what most of us can only do with a gun.’

I glance at Gloria’s profile. She is all soft. A small, putty nose, skin loose and soft as dough, her great soft body pillowing in her soft, drapey clothes. I notice for the first time that her pale blonde hair is actually dyed. Her roots reveal a mousey gray. Did Mary dye her hair—or does this belong to Gloria alone?

After a moment I ask her, ‘What do you believe, Gloria?’

She hoots a laugh. ‘Moolah, doll. I believe in Almighty Moolah.’

We pass the old Amboni Sisal estate, just bush now perforated by the occasional row of sisal. How precisely the sisal was planted, the immaculately measured rows. What were the colonial farmers thinking? That they could take this unscrupulous bush and make it neat as a formal garden? This Africa where people smash cooking pots and die of curses.

At some point, Gloria makes a left turn onto an unmarked dirt track. Only when we’ve driven several hundred yards do I see a small sign announcing: Department of Antiquities—Amboni Caves. Gloria makes several more turns—none of which are signposted—past a school, through the middle of a small village and a flock of chickens, cutting a hard right in what looks like someone’s front yard, and then down a steep, rocky hill. The bottom of the car crunches over rocks and jars against rills of erosion. Gloria doesn’t seem concerned. The car rattles and squeals.

We enter a thick screen of fig trees and cross a dry riverbed. The shadows are deep and cool and grateful, and soon we arrive at the caves. An old man in a Muslim kofia gets up from his chair under the trees. He stands very erect, like a soldier.

Gloria turns off the car. ‘Watch how he doesn’t give us a receipt. Not that I blame him, given what he must get paid.’

She greets the old man with great politeness, which he returns. They speak at some length in complicated Swahili.

He takes the money and disappears into a small, dark hut. He emerges carrying a flashlight and no receipts. ‘Swahili or English?’ he asks, looking at Gloria.

‘Oh, I’m not going in. I’ve been before.’

‘But you’ve paid, madam,’ the guide says in perfect English.

‘I’m waiting for a call. You go on.’ She opens her handbag and scrambles for her phone ringing inside. ‘The Ministry of Health. Let’s see how much they want.’ Then she sneers, ‘Uchawi, my ass.’

The guide leads me up a set of steps carved from the rock. ‘This is limestone,’ he says. ‘Long ago, it was beneath the sea. And the sea created these caves. But now the sea is very far away. Yes, the world changes.’

The entrance has been domesticated. Beneath the tall archway of stone and the canopy of wild vines, the sandy floor has been swept and plastic patio furniture placed on a natural terrace. There are potted plants and, on the table, half a clamshell for an ashtray.

From here I can see Gloria. She is standing with her back to us, gesticulating, as if she’s angry or perhaps just adamant.

‘Let us begin the tour, madam,’ the guide insists. And so we enter the caves.

He talks about the bats, which cluster like dark grapes on the cave roof above. When he shines his flashlight they twitter and fidget. I don’t have to worry about them, he assures me, they never attack. The danger is not from the bats but from the cave itself.

A couple and their dog were exploring the cave, he says, sweeping the flashlight to the right, illuminating a small chamber. ‘The dog fell down this hole.’ The ground without warning, a socket; impossible to see unless you were looking for it; impossible to know its depth. ‘The husband and wife decided to climb in to try to get the dog because they could hear it barking.’ He pauses for effect and to make a small sigh. ‘They were swallowed by the cave. Never seen again. Completely gone.’

We walk on. I think about the story, how it doesn’t make sense. If the couple were never seen again, how does anyone know they went looking for their dog down this particular hole? But I have no doubt that people have gone missing here, in this maze of dead ends and sightless corridors, unseen holes. There is no natural light. We are within the earth, like rabbits. The guide says the tunnel system goes so deep and is so extensive that cave experts have not been able to chart it. However, some believe it goes all the way to Mount Kilimanjaro—five hundred miles west.

He shows me another low and unexceptional cave where three Mau Mau fighters hid during the war for independence in Kenya. And here, around the corner, the rock has formed a chair. He is not satisfied until I sit in the chair and say, ‘Why, yes, it is exactly like a chair!’

We climb up a ramp of earth, squeeze between a crack. ‘Are you afraid of the dark?’ he asks. ‘I am going to make it very dark.’ He turns off the flashlight.

This is not darkness but a kind of obliteration.

I think about Strebel’s daughter telling him she thought she was dead.

The guide turns on the flashlight.

‘No,’ I say. ‘Just a few more minutes.’

He turns it off, makes a dry little cough.

My body blends with the darkness. The barrier of skin dissolves. I diffuse into the air, into the exhalation of my breath. I am the tiniest particles, un-being.

He sighs, turns the light back on. ‘Now I show you the image of Jesus.’ When I hesitate—for I feel the loss of that moment—he registers his annoyance, ‘You must come, please. The tour is for a limited time.’ We walk down another tunnel and he illuminates a smudge of mildew that vaguely resembles a face.

‘Yes, it looks exactly like the face of Jesus.’ My voice surprises me, as if it is coming back to me, an echo, from very far away. ‘Exactly like the face of Jesus.’

I have no idea that we have turned toward the mouth of the cave, only that I can feel my pupils begin to shrink. Daylight filters in, low down along the ground. We surface slowly into light.

Just before the entrance, I notice a small side chamber crammed with plates of fruit, sticks of incense, bottles labeled as rose water.

‘What is this?’

The guide hurries on, waving his hand impatiently, ‘Just local people. Pagans.’
‘But what is it for?’

‘I am a Muslim! This is for primitive people.’

‘Can I look?’

He sighs. He is a repertoire of sighs. This one expresses long-suffering acquiescence.

‘Why do they make the offerings?’

‘For good health, for money. Some women ask for help to get a child. For many different things.’

I kneel down. ‘Has this been here for a long time?’

‘Yes. Many, many years. As a boy I remember it.’

In my place, exactly here, the desperate have knelt with their hopes and desires. Women have begged to conceive. Mothers have prayed for their children to be well again. Men have asked for opportunity, for rain, for a new fishing boat, for good luck at sea.

How foolish to believe life could change with the lighting of incense, the purchase of rose water, the offering of eggs. And yet, when you have reached the end of yourself, what else is there? When the tangible world has failed you, why not indulge in the possibility that a corner of the universe might stir, send a shiver of atoms through space, that you might be delivered after all.

The guide shifts his weight. Any moment now he will sigh. I am about to obey, to stand.

But something among the bottles catches my eye: a small jar containing a piece of flowered cloth. I reach in and take the jar.

‘No, no!’ The guide steps forward, alarmed. ‘You must not touch the offerings!’

I’m not really listening. I take out the cloth. It is red cotton flannel with yellow and white flowers.

I look up at the guide, showing him the jar, ‘Do you know who put this here?’

‘Madam, please, I do not know. How can I know? Local people coming here do not report to me. They are free, this is their place. You must not touch these things.’

‘But if a white man came here you would know. Everyone would know.’

‘These are not your things. They are not for you to touch or meddle. You must be respectful.’

I replace the jar, stand and wipe the sand from my knees. I try to sound sensible. ‘Is it a curse?’ I want to see the truth in his eyes, I want to have some instinct. But he is hidden, he is vanishing back down a path into the bush.

‘I know that cloth. I recognize it. I want to know who put it here.’

‘The cave, madam, it has had an effect.’

‘I have money. I can pay you. More than he did.’

He moves nervously, definitively toward the entrance, ‘Your friend is waiting for you, madam.’

Back at the car, Gloria seems preoccupied and barely greets me. She turns the ignition. With a little cough—rather like the old guide’s—the engine starts.

‘Why did you bring me here?’

‘What?’ She’s looking straight ahead.

‘Here. Why are we here, Gloria?’

She grips the steering wheel and takes a deep breath, so her whole body expands and subsides. ‘Have you got a thousand bucks?’

—Melanie Finn

N5
mel-headshot

Melanie Finn is the author of three novels: The Gloaming (Two Dollar Radio, 2016); Shame (W&N, 2015) and Away From You (St. Martins Griffin, 2014).

Oct 062016
 

German Sierra

x

sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.

— Virgil, Aeneid, 1.461

1.

Nothing is colossal.

The air is almost water, the trees rachitic, the sea sweats dead dark clouds of filth and salt,

She walks away from the couch, stamping sweaty footprints on the floorboard, leaving a tingling vibration in the wood that spreads like a scent through the cold air. Be jewelled by numbers! he mutters—echoing the sequence of her perambulation until the room absorbs all the fluttering sounds and she vanishes like the photograph of an argentine greyscale ghost.

mountains are collapsed hills, beasts are torpid and blind, towns are tiny clusters of ruins, kings were thin and weak, people die young, rocks are eroded pieces of furniture inhabited by frogs, heat is cold, the land is wet, love is lukewarm, gold is a lethargic rust over the earth’s crust, the green is diamond and it laughs at you like a mossy hell of water and weed. No gods could have been brought to life there—they had to be seized from the future.

Creepy crypto-CRISPR. Fuck genomic darkness.

The rain is plain plan B.

Death rides the dirty waves; death rides dust, exactly like a moth.

 A saint, a bearded flea-bitten hermit shrouded in burlap and fed by the generosity of a chestnut forest was living on top of a wormholed bubonic hill in a wooden hut asphyxiated by ivy branches, hiding in there from the slimy touch of the rotten photonic wave-stream (distilled through the cloudwall into a filthy dark smearing fluid) that ran through the air to splash over the burnt-and-drilled crust of the earth. A ghost town would eventually emerge from that watery land, colloidal dust in a dizzy river—a space then occupied by the greenish-grey woods and the unbelievable mess of emerald-green moss, tarnished leaves, vinyl lichens, camo toads, and ampersanding golden fern blossoms.

So dendrites volupt. Like it matters, wrote Amaranth Borsuk.

Now, undead people go phantoming around over the cobblestone shattered-mirror pavement—but back then it was the wild, under the same lead-dead sky.

Real life is like the outcome of a zombie apocalypse—but you’re expected to restrain yourself from slashing the zombies.

All zombies are undead equally.

A collapsant sky, a vertical horizon of crystalline Damocles’s swords.

A swarming soil and soul.

Splashing sounds, splashing souls.

A murderous sea, infested with seaweed-smeared, mud-vomiting necrotic-skinned creatures.

Once upon a time, swirl-crowned monsters emerged from the depths, swam to the shores, crawled up creek streams leaving threatening footprints in the sand, feeding themselves with exhausted salmons and lampreys. They crept over the hills waving menacing tentacles, surrounding the man-of-god with extra-terrestrial arrogance. Until he found himself encircled in a ring of unsurpassable evil beauty.

He lifted his baculus and turned the monsters into boulders…killing all beauty around, immortalizing evil.

This sounds more proper of a sorcerer than a saint, she replied.

Later on, the saint’s followers carved the sea-monsters’ stone corpses into churches, their tentacles into sinuous arcades that branched in spiral alleys leading nowhere. Nowhere was everywhere—the pavement blobbing and cracking like fried fish skin, and the dark deformed houses growing clustered and superimposed like bad teeth, hovering over automatic people.

But this is not how the story goes!—although the actual one is also a fairy tale, nothing more credible in any of its multiple details.

Both are professionally concerned with the past.

She’s an archaeologist: She unearths eerie things, such as the big tin bird with golden eyes hypothetically intended for astronomic calculations that, since exhibited in the almost-empty local museum, has encouraged a kind of weird cult: people killing birds—crows, lost seagulls, jays, sparrows—and hanging their corpses from street lamps.

He’s a historian, he works with texts instead of mud, he knows the past is just a lie that’s been around for enough time to be used as foundation for future falsity.

Recently, she’s been unearthing certain stuff that wasn’t supposed to be there and hiding it at home: a fairly well-conserved but unidentifiable iPhone 20, a real-size Barbie doll, and a sophisticated-looking metallic prosthetic hand. All of them prevenient from the underneath of a never-before-excavated Romanesque chapel. All of them, most probably, originated in what is commonly called the future.

She wonders if there is a market for relics of the future.

She cares about money, because money, in pure capitalist logic, means the possibility of change.

Who would want to keep objects from the past? But then, who would like to pay for vestiges from the future?

In pure capitalist logic there’s not an outside of pure capitalist logic, so money is time.

A few days later, she and her colleagues meet to discuss what to do with the found futureware. On one hand, it’s obviously new—nobody ever saw an iPhone 20 before and, although they won’t publicly discuss its appearance to avoid conflict with Apple’s confidentiality policies, they coincide in acknowledging that it doesn’t look like anything they would easily identify as an iPhone. On the other, it’s evident that the objects are old—dirty, rusty, worn out, with some broken or missing pieces. Does a market for old future things exist? The most plausible explanation would be that they’re fake—it wouldn’t be the first time future objects are forged by some artist and exhibited in museums—, but whoever might have done it must have been really cautious about fabricating their placement: the stone blocks didn’t seem to have been removed in centuries, and the relics were buried under seven feet of mud and medieval debris.

The saint’s followers came also from the shore, sleepwalking like oxygen-drunk overdeveloped fish insisting on evolving into batrachia. They arrived from small fishermen’s port villages, carrying the sulphurous smell of rotting seaweed with themselves. They were squid-eaters.

Later on, they developed a taste for a wider diversity of cephalopods and crustacea.

From time to time, those who had built the town stacked up new stones over the monsters’ relics to prevent their awakening. Every winter, the mountains chanted and cried hypnotic black tears of granite. The squid-eaters’ offspring secured the monsters’ backs with buttresses, nailed their heads to the ground with hefty needle-towers. However, they never felt safe inside the creatures’ golden bellies, so they finally turned to the Bishops for help.

Bishops, the true lords of the land, drank blood and raped men and women with no regret. They gave instructions to paint the churches’ intestines with children’s gore. The walls absorbed the blood to the last drop and the old stones showed again their grey, grainy, shimmering surface. Bishops were terrified their sins would reanimate the primeval beasts, so they willingly paid in gold coins for the heaviest and hardest stones to be carried and carved and piled up on top of the ancient, ruinous chapels. Chapels grew into churches, churches into cathedrals—people died young and returned as rocks. How did they invent killer languages? From time to time, stone people uproot themselves from the walls, carrying singing swords, hideous musical instruments, and fearsome religious symbols. Flesh people tried to stop them from bubbling out by painting them over, but sponge-stone people kept drinking all the paint and all the blood they were able to smear over the walls.

All that was forgotten.

We live in an empire of mud and weather, wrote Janice Lee.

x

2.

The slashed eye of the monocular chapel stares at him from the other side of the grimy window glass. The city is still, deeply rooted in the centre of the earth. It’s the kind of city you run from, not the kind of city you run across. He is the one who remembers the untold story, the one who listens to the grey silence screamed by the crushed beasts. While sipping his coffee, he fantasizes about becoming a necromancer and bringing monsters back from death. He dreams of godzillating the town: crushing cars and skulls and trees and houses. Dust to rust. The sky is a greasy low ceiling, made of goo, just an indistinguishable extension of the warped and dull and miserable land. He misses the feeling of her weight on his chest—her weight, maybe the liquid pressure of her skin on his skin, maybe her warm sweet-and-salty sweat as a membrane of sea water flowing like a tiny flat tide between his and her body. His illusion is now just to lay still beneath her heavy flesh until his joints and muscles begin to hurt. Just the pressure and the pain, and nothing else. There’s nothing like being enlegged by her mediterranean cities of white marble.

Nothing else matters, says the song.

When the enemies left the still city, they buried radioactive debris under the pavement to slowly burn the feet of its inhabitants.

When he was young, he was a pulsating black hole. A computer moon buried in dewy jelly. A naught surrounded by a universe wanting—perhaps pretending—to collapse onto him. His body was constructed with nanosize bits from that same selection of the cosmos that was destroying him—the outside. Booze, new drugs, old books, boys and girls he was fucking…All the elements, the bits; all the universe’s demons rashing and competing against each other to occupy the void. They eventually abandoned his inner space while he was growing up—exorcised from his hollow flesh with every ejaculation, with every vomit, with every nosebleed—leaving, nonetheless, some traceable imprints of their presence in the void until the void started to collapse over itself.

Now, after a long battle, he believes to finally own his anti-body, and ongoing destruction comes autoimmunely from the inside, from the inner mirror side of naught. Every time a demon managed to leave the void, the void emitted light. Then, for a second, he became visible, viable, a true phenomenon, superimposed to reality like a Pokémon.

Dust against the machine—it’s chalk, it’s sand, it’s ice.

Ashes from a lost life—stardust is, in fact, a gas, swirling, a lost gaseous world that was a father’s world. It’s a death-city where people wear stone—he’s cold, but tombstones are his clothes—due to their failure in having thrown some sand on the brain. It’s b-rain, it’s blood.

There are sand and ashes in the machine.

In the machine, every word is made of pixel dust and blown away by the swirling gas coming from disintegrated stars, never ever cracking the mistaken mystery of the world, the crashing world he wrongly chose to be himself, just to be chalk and dust in the machine.

He’s seen the greatest minds of his generation bored to death, asphyxiated by ridiculous institutions, wandering the social media labyrinthoids in search of a quantum of meaning, masturbating to the screen’s visual white noise of polished pixel dust, crystals of b-rain to keep him running as fast as possible over the cracked screens of life.

x

3.

They met for the first time during one of those unusual visibility events: I can only see you when you’re orgasming, she whispered. He jerked off for her visual pleasure. She wasn’t visible most of the time either, which was fine for him. More often they weren’t able to see each other, they just felt some gravitational-attraction pulses directed towards a particular location of the invisible-out-there. Touching was like the clashing of two clouds: confusing, humid, gaseous and electric. He licked her with perfect parsimony to make her almost visible—a fluctuating white-noise shadow like a Hollywood ghost. Like an intermittent reflection on a dewy mirror under a throbbing neon light. They buzzed and glitched the observer’s perception systems while somehow haunting the house. When they fucked, a vibrating protoplasm acquired form on the bed, on the couch, a misty blanket floating a couple of inches over the living room’s wooden floor. They were faithful to multiple and different savage dimensions. Possessed by a succession of objects in order to acquire temporal corporeality. Invisible to each other, most of the time, but each one longing to become visible to the other. They were beautiful when perceivable and then they were gone.

They grew hard, thick, solid, filled with the world’s debris. Their waste-stuffed bodies were eating them from their hollow intestines. As time went by, they became more easily perceivable. They tried to get rid of the debris by acupuncturing each other in rooms full of candlelight and essential oils, but it didn’t work. They remained visible for longer times and it was boring, and only pain could made them disappear again after a while, so they hurt each other with fire and lashes. But as soon as pain melted into pleasure they became solid and opaque again, so they sat separately, crying transparent tears of transparent xanthan gum.

x

4.

He never sleeps well at night. He looks so pale! If he could be true to himself, he’d vanish, he’d collapse into information…fornever. Uncoloured like a broken zero, like the theoretical in-between of quantum states. In-between morphospaces.

Insects become translucent-white during metamorphosis—don’t they? She doesn’t want to lose him—even though neither of them know very well what they mean to each other.

Presence: it should be enough.

Absence kills the brain.

Has this skin been ever burned by the sun? Long ago, perhaps. It was another dimension, not just a former life. Extinct life forms. Monumental fossils. A lost realm of old cheap paperback editions, itching vegetal blade cuts and cigarette burns, boys and girls waving towards the drunken boats from the abrupt dark-grey rocky shore, diving in the cold and salty waters. Orbited in the water by evanescent sea snakes and phosphorescent plankton. Swimming by night among the Tesla lightnings of dinoflagellates.

He never quit smoking or masturbating, keeping himself connected to the mental dinosaurs from that lost teenage world. She is younger, she must have been a toddler back then. Before mobile devices, not even a reliable phone number during summer vacations; just the books, the grains of sand between the pages, just the water, just the misty freezing reverberation of sunset, the hour of eclosion, the night dropping its veil of light, the cloudwall like a cotton pad over the bleeding neck of a beheaded god, just the pleasure of licking salty goosebumps on a girl’s leg. Just the aura of the burnt golden sea around the naked bodies. She’s a tree, he’s an epiphyte. Do they live in a venetian internet? When did sex become a problem? Is it a problem at all? It seemed to be fine when they were regularly fucking, and it seems to be fine now after they stopped almost a year ago. She thinks he never really believed it would be possible to be living together, that he would go crazy and would start screwing around and finally leave. He dreams of gardens.

Town people dream of gardens to bury their pet’s bones, eventually their children’s.

He doesn’t understand the urge to own land. Land is just dirt. And grass, and worms, and bugs, and plants, and trees….He doesn’t understand how those things could ever be owned. Land that has been conquered and shed with blood and exchanged for money and seized again and inherited and given as dowry and sold again.

Legacy.

Every funeral is a cannibal act. A reading of minds. A nanodust-bleeding crack line on the silky screen of time. Never mind if (they) devour the corpse or the corpse renounces to the kind gesture of devouring them. The (he) the (object) hopelessly waiting for a watt-less fuck under the dim glow of low-intensity light bulbs and air-pixelating TV white noise, light hissing on the mirror’s surface, a moth, mechanically, repeatedly trying to collapse into the other side of itself. The air is old black-and-white TV hiding from light. Clean clothes lay on a chair. She dreams of cities—of a warm comfortable house in a megalopolis covered by snow. She dreams of being other, of being somewhere else.

Woundaries.

He spent most of his young age lost somewhere in the future.

In some (fortunate) places the past is just a fine powder that might be dusted by the winds of future, where dry bones may be easily crushed just by walking on them. In the still city, however, the past is a heavy and soaked tombstone: He learned from her that truth doesn’t matter when you approach the past, the only thing that matters is weight. Maybe this is the reason why he misses her weight.

The most obvious, albeit improbable explanation of the objects’ presence was time travel. This was initially discarded as irrational, especially because she wanted to avoid making public that they might be the victims of a hoax. Her colleagues, however, were very inclined to call the press immediately—they were picturing the headlines: ‘first evidence of time travel discovered by…’, but she was much more conscious of her reputation. Reputation is a currency for the non-rich. People who are very conscious of their reputation often consider a black market.

When they first started thinking about time travel, they did it in the popular, fictional way: people coming from a future civilization, carrying with them some objects that might have been left behind. This could explain the iPhone and the prosthetic hand, but who would travel to the past with an oversized toy doll? A family from the future on vacations in the middle ages? One of her colleagues proposed an alternative explanation: why should we always think about people travelling in time? Why should the objects be leftovers instead of protagonists? Time travel might pose many risks to living beings, but it could be much easier for inanimate matter. This was equally unlikely, but it somehow seemed a more rational approach. Maybe the result of an experiment designed to send things across time? But if any future civilization will find the way to send stuff back to the past, why has nobody found evidences of future objects before? She imagined a future engineer working on a way to get rid of disposable junk: let’s just flood our stupid ancestors with our trash! Of course, there are all those temporal paradoxes and causal loops that might have stopped him, which could be the reason why he made just one experiment, or very few ones, and, despite the technological possibility, he finally decided to abort the project.

When did sex become a problem? Is it a problem?

From the first time she warned him that she would never cope, that nothing would be granted, that he would have to seize her every time.

Forcefully.

Uncomfortably.

Bodies are a lot more that candy genitalia. Bodies are tiny time-points in an ever-changing morphospace. Sex is the digital version of a much more complex body-to-body-to-non-body communication network. Sex could be just stored in a hard disk, or somewhere in the cloud, leaving it there until new software has been implemented.

Software, however, has never been updated.

She doesn’t understand the desire to own a body. Bodies are dirt, hair, bugs, blood, thoughts… She doesn’t understand how these things could ever be self—not to say shared. Her flesh—that has been conquered and shed with blood and exchanged for comfort and chocolate and peace and dreams.

x

5.

He can’t recall recalling his first time. Not to recall recalling is supposed to be weird. This kind of stuff is expected to draw emotions and to be emojified somewhere into the body of the self—preferably close to its outer surface like scabies or tattoo ink. He does remember, from past dust, abstract-expressionist mats of wet hair and blood stains and wet wool pullovers and tiny shining corneas. Some of them might have belonged to the hypothetical first one—he might even be right if randomly bricolaging a candidate. Riddle as past. Deciphering previous propensity codes that shape the present network of brain cells.

He does recall some encounters with a woman in particular —what he cannot remember is her placement in a specifically databased chronological order, if any of the encounters he is capable of picturing happened as part of a logical sequence of events or if he has precisely forgotten the first one because others were more intense or fun. He doesn’t see the reason why sexual inception should be of particular interest. Love is not an action but an environment, a particular arrangement of reasons growing from a particular arrangement of things. Love is neither action nor pathos—it is, in fact, a variant of boredom, a conscious refusal to be entertained. He can’t either remember the first novel he read, or the first time he got drunk. He can’t usually remember the order of things—but are things ordered anyway?—, what happened before and what came later. Why is (sequential) order important? He feels/thinks about his life as a turbulent flow rather than a succession of events. A cycle, like the blood circulating across the body, continuously looping nowhere. For most people, sex encounters are like transfusions, but for him they’re bleeding, a way to melt into something more eager to drip. Fluids go effortlessly everywhere, slaves to gravity, never caring about when they were before or where they will be later. Solve et coagula.

Then, the most important thing to investigate would be when (in the future) the objects were time-transferred to when (in the past). Have they’ve been there for centuries, for millennia, before one filthy beast was transformed into a chapel? Buried under the dark soil of the woods? Or did they appear one thousand years ago? Or maybe last month, or last week…? Is time-transferring one-directional—for instance, always to the past—or multi-directional, and in that case, does it require matter exchange? Could the (future) objects substitute for (past) stuff, such as someone in the future sending back the objects and receiving some pounds of mud in exchange, so the objects could be delivered anywhere assuming (Eureka!) they would dis-time exactly the same volume of matter?

She, however, guesses it all depends on the person who forgets or remembers. Liquid people’s memory spills everywhere, turning itself into environment, and their remembrances are a knock on the door of an empty cabin.

He always liked old, recycled, used clothes, long before vintage was a fad. Specially black clothes. He remembers when almost everybody was wearing black, with that eclectic style mix that characterized the version of afterpunk that managed to arrive to his country. Hiding from everybody, they arrived to the seashore, where sea monsters once emerged, from where they slithered to the hermit’s hut. It was wintertime and there was only wind. Wind blowing up foam, not a horizon ahead but a fog wall. When future is not imagined, memories are not recorded. What keeps the REC button pressed is the belief that there will be a future from which the present will be remembered. Sand and clouds and water and wind were the same thing. A cinnamon-colored dog was looking from a corner, but he was not looking at them.

x

6.

He had been dancing at the disco. He was barely visible. He was recovering his breath leaning on a pillar when an unknown girl just jumped on him. He didn’t see her approaching him, and he was unable to see her face during a long, asphyxiating kiss under her long soaked hair. Like he had been wrapped in a wet blanket. Hooded like a man sentenced to death while his mouth was being drilled by a muscled mollusk. It was raining hard when they went out to smoke a joint. He hates the rain, but he remembers she was turned on by rain because it reminded her of Rimbaud. She also wore black, or very dark blue, and she never put any underwear on. Now he thinks of her as one of those dripping-wet glitched Japanese ghosts emerging in the form of white noise from the TV or the bathtub. Student apartments were often cold, humid, uncomfortable and utterly disordered. Mold stains on ceilings switched shape and color as if every house grew its own clouds, its own ameboid god. He remembers being threatened by monsters. Students burned sweet brandy and drank it to fight the winter cold. They shared stolen drinks in the disco. Moss grew on old stone houses’ facades. Rhododendrons on balconies. Moss, mold, stone and paint talked to each other in their own language of mutually assured destruction.

But then, what if time travel is a rare spontaneous phenomenon occurring without human intervention? What if chronotaxia is a physical property of some particular objects, or some particular locations, or some particular times? What if it hasn’t been detected before because who would care if some non-human-related inorganic stuff such as a stone, a few gallons of water or some cubic feet of nitrogen had ever arrived from another time?

Never mind to wait.

She had been living abroad and mothered a child.

All was unexpected.

One of these occasions you jump into the void to realize the other person was just expecting you to follow your desire. Maybe she wasn’t wanting him, just wanting to be wanted. There was weed and rice and coffee and a few poetry books at her place, and many vinyl records and posters on the walls and dried blood drops in the bathroom. No memory, no pictures, no representation of pleasure. Joy always happens on the B side of remembrance.

x

7.

They had chosen the past for very different reasons. For him, the past was a game—an approach that, depending on her mood, amused or infuriated her. For him, everything was a child’s play, and the only unavoidable requirement to keep playing, as any toddler knows, is a subjectively safe environment. He was unable to take anything seriously except, perhaps, the particular disposition of some random spatial arrangements that helped him to establish that subjectively safe environment. The critical mess. His past was loaded with future. He didn’t see disorder, and that was another reason why he couldn’t remember anything from his past—or from their shared past—in an orderly way. Only professional players and some committed amateurs, remember the details of previous play. How he managed to keep his job as a teacher was a complete mystery to her until she realized that he had that extraordinary memory for books. Books were part of his daydreams but, unlike other daydreams that were continuously appearing and disappearing, allowing him to happily contradict himself in a question of seconds, what he obtained from books was a specifically structured world, so that, although considered as another portion of his imagination, although never taking the historical records as facts but as thoroughly malleable fiction, he was able to present books in an entertaining way—something he rarely did with personal experiences. Maybe the gap opened itself between different concepts of experience. For her, experience was a serious thing, something to be cherished and cared for and curated: there were essentially good experiences and essentially bad experiences. Experiences became her—you are what you eat, you are what happens to you, you are what you unearth. But for him, experiences were also toys, people were also toys, pain and happiness and despair and death were also toys, so they could be whimsically loaded with diverse emotional and symbolic charges at will. His way to stand life was to transform anything into a delirious game, including himself, including her. She wouldn’t understand how he could be so responsible and so irresponsible at the same time. He wouldn’t understand how she could be so engaged, so serious, with such trivialities. What was for her an obstacle to overcome, was another piece on the tableboard for him. If he was able to see the world with that sharpness he would certainly be terrified. So she knew she couldn’t ask him about the future objects because he would understand their presence as something natural, like if a green alien or a flaming demon just appeared in the middle of the room. It’s not that he would refuse to find a rational explanation, but that searching for a rational explanation wouldn’t be the first thing to do. It probably wouldn’t be the second thing to do. For him, the future was mixed with the past, so the objects’ chronophoresis was not shattering his world in any way. He would just keep lying down in his voluptuous ennui, as trying to rule the world with a telekinetic superpower. And he would say something like the objects are a clear evidence of the existence of a post-techno-capitalist leisure middle class developed from the unemployed masses for whom some abstract machine will be covering their basic necessities, so property will be meaningless and they will focus on communication (the iPhone), entertainment (the doll), and enhancement (the hand). At the end, he would sound as a regular historian, producing narratives to preserve the present by protecting the past from future’s influence. And she would think fuck you, you always have to tell the last word.

She walks away from the couch, stamping sweaty footprints on the floorboard and leaving a tingling vibration in the wood that spreads like a scent through the cold air. Time is a crystalline construction seen through occult windows of life. Left to the past, sex becomes an obsolete skeuomorph. Be jewelled by numbers! he mutters—echoing the sequence of her perambulation until the room absorbs all the fluttering sounds and she vanishes like the photograph of an argentine greyscale ghost. Is a dead star still a star? Is a shining star hydrogen plasma, or is it the light travelling across spacetime? She turns back to him. He’s reading, or pretending to read. All the objects she had previously unearthed were pieces in a puzzle, things that could become tiny details in networks or narratives. Lantern fishes lost in the abyssal depths but sparkling anyway. Inserting their existence somewhere—a museum, a journal, a hidden corner of the mechanoic city—produced a vaguely disturbing meaning beyond their own presence in the here and now. Even unusual gadgets such as the tin bird were perfectly fitting into an accepted model of the past. The products of her last excavation, however, couldn’t be interjected in any preexistent context, they were existing by themselves, as an indirect proof of something that might have happened—that something will have happened. Yesterday, she washed them carefully in the bathtub and placed them in her studio room over a blanket. As an evidence of the present existence of a future, at least a near one. Humans weren’t going to be extinct tomorrow. Or maybe humans will vanish and intelligent machines will start disposing human trash in the past bin. She understood that she wouldn’t be able to obtain any proper knowledge from the objects. She understands that she will never be able to live in the still city but she will never cross the cloudwall. The past is broken, he says, we can’t hold on to it. Let’s fill the cavernous diseased holes of memory with sink water and molten silicon. Fake or not, to her, the objects must be art. Put a frame around them. Real or not, their shared endurance would be love. He wouldn’t dare to touch her. I can’t see you, make yourself visible to me, please, she says. She’s packing the objects carefully. She’s sending them beyond the cloudwall, to a laboratory in America. Let’s see what they can find.

I open shafts, I expose categories, minerals. I slit face-mouths, open wounds that heal on the other side of time, wrote Aase Berg.

—Germán Sierra

x

Germán Sierra is a neuroscientist and fiction writer from Spain. He has published five novels—El Espacio Aparentemente Perdido (Debate, 1996), La Felicidad no da el Dinero (Debate, 1999), Efectos Secundarios (Debate, 2000), Intente usar otras palabras (Mondadori, 2009), and Standards (Pálido Fuego, Spain, 2013)—and a book of short stories, Alto Voltaje (Mondadori, 2004).

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Oct 042016
 

martone

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An Attorney for the Bureau of Consumer Affairs of the
Federal Trade Commission, Midwest Region, Inspects Natural
Path Sanctuary, a “Green” Cemetery, near Madison, Wisconsin

In the end, consumers are consumed by grief, morticians’ easy marks. No sign of that here. Nothing. Nothing but graves, graves turning over in graves.

— § —

Before Today’s Session, a Supreme Court Clerk Sharpens the
Twenty Goose-Quill Pens, She Will Later Arrange, Neatly
Crossed, at Each of the Four Counsel Tables

I wear this suit of morning clothes. Forgetting whom he was fitting, the tailor asked on which side I dressed. The inkwells are for show. Dry.

— § —

A Biologist of the Fish and Wildlife Service
Confirms the Success of the Plague Vaccination
by Observing that the Prairie Dogs’ Whiskers Have Turned Pink

Now, predate, my stressed, my endangered black-footed ferrets, my BFFs. Aerial drones vector laced M&Ms to your flea-infested prey. Prey away. These sweet sweetened treats.

— § —

The 45-Foot Mail Boat, J.W. Westcott II,
the Postal Service’s Only Floating Zip Code, 48222,
Hails the Freighter Mississagi Steaming North on the Detroit River

Our motto? “Mail by the pail.” On the fly, not stopping, making ten knots. The bucket hoisted aloft! Its passenger? One postcard from the Pacific.

— § —

The Last Army Cobbler Fits a Horseshoe-Shaped Heel Plate
to a Tomb Shoe Worn by a Sentinel
of the Third U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard)

Nineteen steps: Sand the leather. Tack the toe-taps. Peen the kick plates. “Every.” “Shoe’s.” “Different.” Twenty-one tomb steps. The marble worn into a trench.

— § —

The Public Affairs Specialist 2nd Class
of the USCGC Hollyhock (WLB 214)
Launches the Infrared Equipped Aerostat
for the Houghton-Portage Elementary School Kindergarten’s
Future Guardians

What do you want to be? Where do you want to go? Tend Keweenaw Waterway’s buoys, beacons? Aid Aids to Navigation? To nowhere? For forever?

— Michael Martone

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Michael Martone is the author of Michael Martone, a memoir done in contributor’s notes. His newest book is Memoranda, hint fictions celebrating the various jobs done by the United States federal government.

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Sep 152016
 

Lewis Parker

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“It’s one man, one vote, quite literally, Jim.”

“The one man who will be casting a ballot to decide the next President of the United States is actor Christopher Walken.”

“After a six-month ordeal that has brought the U.S. political system to the brink of ridicule, Christopher Walken has entered the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. He’s wearing brown slacks hitched high up his torso and a senior citizen’s cardigan. There’s that grey blizzard of back-swept hair, the moonbeam stare. He’s limping past camera flashes with a walking cane and a strangely elongated stride.”

“The brink of ridicule, Bob? He’s standing outside the voting booth having his I.D. checked by Bob Furris of the Federal Election Commission.”

“Until we hear of any further developments, Jim, I know you’re a fan of Christopher Walken. So I wondered if you could answer a question that’s bugging one of our listeners, Hank from Ohio.”

“Howdy, Hank.”

“Hank asks in an email, can somebody please tell me, what’s the movie where a young Christopher Walken sits in a darkened room talking about his desire to crash his car into oncoming traffic?”

“Is that a trick question, Bob?”

“No, it’s a legitimate question from Hank in Ohio. Hank goes on, ever since I learned that Mr Walken would be choosing our next president, I have not been able to sleep for this scene flashing through my mind. It’s scaring the bejesus out of me.”

“OK, Hank, thanks for calling in. I can picture the scene. He’s wearing some sort of checked flannel shirt. And a guy, the protagonist, I can’t remember who, comes into Walken’s room late at night, and he delivers this monologue about hearing voices in his head.”

“Right.”

“It’s in The Dead Zone, a movie based on a Stephen King novel. About a teacher with supernatural powers who intuits that a politician played by Martin Sheen will send America into a nuclear holocaust, and so he goes to one of his rallies shoots him.”

“Final answer The Dead Zone?”

“Certain.”

“You’re wrong, Jim. The unsettling scene you’re thinking of is in Annie Hall.”

“The Woody Allen movie? No.”

“Look, we have a widget printed out right here. He plays Annie’s brother.”

“It’s a great movie that won a lot of awards, Bob, and I think Christopher Walken’s scene is one of the best things in it.”

“I am personally not reassured by this at all. If Christopher Walken is the only man alive who can make Annie Hall feel like a horror movie, no wonder the bond markets freaked out when they heard he’d got the nod.”

“I think Walken was a perfect choice for the brother in Annie Hall, and he’s the right man to choose the next President. He’s the impact character this script needed.”

“One man’s impact character is another man’s nightmare scenario.”

“If you’ve just joined us, the Supreme Court building is draped in American flags, a giant clock has been set to zero and the world’s media is crammed into the marble hall. Armed U.S. Marshals are swarming all over and Christopher Walken is having his identity checked. Bob Furris of the F.E.C is holding Christopher Walken’s driving license next to Christopher Walken’s face and comparing the two. I really don’t think this is necessary, Bob.”

“Bob Furris has to be absolutely certain that this is not an actor or impostor come to hijack our political system. Before he arrived in the Capitol this afternoon, there were calls among the population for the Academy Award winner to recite the speech about his grandfather’s watch from Pulp Fiction as an extra security measure.”

“The F.E.C.’s lawyers said making voters recite speeches would breach voter registration laws, although there is a movement in Alabama campaigning to make all registered voters reel off two pages of the Independence Day screenplay from memory.”

“But Walken’s not a voter, Jim, he’s now a kingmaker. And let’s remember that from the outset, Christopher Walken has been a reluctant kingmaker. When his nomination was announced, he was spending the weekend foraging for wild mushrooms in his Vermont woodland retreat, reading Edgar Allan Poe to himself by a campfire. The great American news media tracked him down and demanded to know whether he was ready to play ball.  ‘Let’s see what I’m doing on Thursday,’ he replied.”

“A true American enigma, Bob.”

“He’d been given the honour of choosing the next president, Jim, and he didn’t even crack a smile or say thank you. When the great NBC newsman Bob Waffle jumped into the campfire circle and confronted Walken on what that meant – could he please elaborate, could he at least maybe promise not to turn his back on the American people – he said, ‘It means I’ll see.’”

“The thing with Walken is that he’s really a poet. You have to parse what he’s saying to get to the kernel of truth. When he says, ‘I’ll see’, he didn’t just mean I haven’t made up my mind. If you listen closely to that clip, look in those adamantine eyes, ‘I’ll see’ means I will perceive.”

“Our nation was in the most serious political crisis since 1824, when Andrew Jackson was gazumped by John Quincy Adams in the House of Representatives. Walken had 72 hours to register himself at the Capitol, accept the nomination and cast his ballot. That morning, he brushed the great American news media aside with his cane, and didn’t answer a single question as he got into his old Sedan and started off on what the nation hoped would be a direct route to the Capitol. Millions of people across the globe tuned in to see helicopter footage of Christopher Walken driving – maybe to the Capitol to choose us a President, maybe to the grocery store to buy more marshmallows. Federal agents had blocked the roads to give him a clear run. What did Walken do? On the freeway near Northampton, Massachusetts, America watched in horror as Walken drove up to the police road block. When a police officer tried to tell Walken, no, he couldn’t exit the goddamn freeway, we saw blurry footage of a cranky old celebrity giving a servant of the people what looked like a volley of abuse.”

“Christopher Walken doesn’t have an abusive bone in his body, Bob. He’s an eighty-one year old man on his way to elect the next President with the news media watching his every move. He shouldn’t have to empty his bladder into a Sprite can.”

“He went to his favourite eatery called Kathy’s Canteen fifteen miles out-of-the-way. A convoy of New Englanders were waving flags, holding placards and ‘Go, Chris! Go!’ bumper stickers. Soccer moms came out with cookies to give to Walken. A local business owner offered to lend him his Porsche to get him to Washington quicker. People had brought take-out food to give to him, but he didn’t give a damn.”

“Cool as you like, a consummate gentleman the whole time, Walken got out of the car, thanked his supporters for the cookies and the take-outs, but said, you know what, folks? I’ve been driving all day without a rest stop. Kathy-who-owns-the-restaurant is a personal friend. I need a break. I’m going to eat in. And you know what, Bob, I think that’s fair.”

“Walken enters the restaurant and Kathy, whose political allegiances are suspect to say the least, bolts the doors behind him like a French café owner welcoming Robespierre. He sits in a booth in the middle of the room and orders a plate of Philosopher Quinoa. That’s a reference to the socialist philosopher Aristotle.”

“It’s a reference to Plato’s Republic, Bob.”

“Americans are uncomfortable with the next President being chosen by an unpredictable vegetarian who eats salad named after Greek intellectuals, and I understand their concerns. If I was there, I would have throttled him.”

“On Tuesday night when Christopher Walken drove into Washington, D.C. in his sedan, half a million people had come out to greet him. Now here he is, in the lobby of the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., proving his detractors wrong, about to save the nation from a constitutional crisis.”

“We hope.”

“The Interim President and Leader of the House is here, looking extremely relieved. His gamble to railroad through a 28th amendment to the Constitution, to elect a popular kingmaker in the event of political gridlock, appears to have paid off. All nine Supreme Court justices line the front row in gowns. They are here along with the F.E.C’s Bob Furris, United Nations election observers…”

“Let’s not forget the great American news media.”

“… all here to make sure this election meets the highest democratic standards.”

“We can now confirm that Christopher Walken’s documents have been given the all-clear by the F.E.C. and the Chief Justice. His hair’s standing on end and I still haven’t seen him blink yet. He cracks an eerie half-smile to somebody in the audience, but that does nothing to calm the atmosphere in the building. In fact it just sent a shiver down my spine. The Chief Justice is stepping forward with a Bible. Christopher Walken is being sworn in. He’s even making the Pledge of Allegiance sound menacing.”

“The mouse that turned the cream into butter and walked out!”

“A Japanese news anchor is being ejected by a U.S. marshal for heckling one of Walken’s lines from the Steven Spielberg movie Catch Me If You Can.”

“Talk about tension, Jim. With the formalities over, the Chief Justice and Bob Furris are ushering a barely compliant Walken towards the voting booth. It’s a solid wooden shed roughly the size of a phone box, manufactured by Shrubb Electoral Solutions in the great voting state of Florida. Inside there’s a mechanised voting system that was perfected in the 2000 Presidential Election. It’s a stunningly simple process that I hope will be good enough for our national enigma. The voter puts his ballot card in a slot and pulls a lever to stamp the name of the candidate he’d like to be President. Sort of like a fruit machine.”

“The Chief Justice is now reminding Christopher Walken that once the door closes, he will have one hour to stamp the card.”

“Here we go, Walken is approaching the booth. He’s taking his own sweet time.”

“The big clock hasn’t started yet. Christopher Walken is only halfway inside the voting booth. We can still see half his face as he confers with Bob Furris. He’s making a movement with his wrist to check that there’s a lock on the door. Furris nods and reassures him that it definitely locks.”

“I never thought I’d say it, Jim, but Christopher Walken is now inside the voting booth procured especially for him with the door shut.”

“There goes sound of the voting bell.”

“A patter of applause has broken out among the sleep-deprived press corps.”

“Stewards are reminding the press to be quiet, lest they try to influence the election.”

“The Leader of the House of Representatives is tentatively shaking hands with a couple of the Supreme Court justices. He has a right to feel relieved.”

“I’m not so sure this is all over yet, Jim. Can they lock it from the outside, to make sure Walken doesn’t run away?”

“Show some respect, Bob.”

“I don’t understand why he has to lock the door when his vote won’t be a secret.”

“Voting is not a rational process, it’s a deeply personal ritual akin to prayer. I met a group of folks on the West Coast who told me that it is a mystical experience, akin to something called pataphysics. That’s the study of unobservable phenomena. By training their minds to think intuitively, these folks can tell you what’s inside a box without looking inside. They can guess the codes to safes and predict earthquakes. They have also predicted the outcome of the last five elections correctly. That is why they are now being courted by the elites of both main parties to try and get ahead of the game in the next election cycle. I also have it on good authority that Christopher Walken has been in contact with these people in Oregon, who call themselves the Ubu Roi.”

“I don’t know what to say, Jim. You may be onto something, or you may need counseling.”

“I believe in the Ubu Roi and I believe in Christopher Walken’s ability to choose based on their teachings and his own mystical intuition.”

“But what’s your belief in the Ubu Roi based on?”

“Perception.”

“Whatever you say. One of our researchers has just handed me an article about Christopher Walken in Vanity Fair magazine from 1997. The journalist who interviewed Walken in his house in Los Angeles discovered that Walken had two tissue dispensers in every bathroom, one on each side of the toilet bowl. This means, if you can believe it, that Walken wipes his ass with both hands.”

“I wonder what the Ubu Roi say about that. I know what I make of it.”

“Hey everybody, listen to this. Did you know Christopher Walken wipes his ass with both hands?”

“Christopher Walken still has fifty-five minutes to cast his vote. Bob has left us momentarily while he confers with some of our network TV colleagues as to the possible meaning of this revelation. If you can believe it, the media are now wondering if Walken expects there to be two levers on the voting machine. Bookmakers have slashed the odds of Walken taking one look at the voting machine and leaving the booth – and the political system in disarray – to 3/1. Using my own intuition, I have to say, I still don’t believe that will happen. Closing my eyes for a second, I’m envisaging Christopher Walken inside the voting booth pulling the lever, walking out and declaring a winner. Who that winner will be, I’m not sure, it isn’t my job to speculate. An anchor behind me is asking his people if they remember whether Walken ate his quinoa in Kathy’s restaurant the day before yesterday with both hands. I’ve seen this footage dozens of times, and I remember Kathy bringing him a knife and fork, but him only using the fork, and doing so with his right hand. That’s what Fox News thinks, and they’re predicting a Republican president on this basis. (Don’t they know that people who hold the fork in their right hands are left-handed?) A blogger in front of me says she has found photographic evidence of Walken at a Hollywood diner in 1982 using a knife and fork to eat a plate of fries. Bob’s leaning over the blogger’s shoulder and pointing at the photo, screaming.”

“Who in God’s name uses a knife and fork to eat fries?”

“News is coming thick and fast from behind me now. It emerges there is a photo of Walken in Times Square eating a slice of pizza from a plastic plate with a spoon. Meanwhile NBC is claiming Walken shook hands with his left hand when his arm was in a cast. Bob’s still shouting.”

“This is un-American behaviour!”

“Bob, come back here, buddy.”

“But what about using both hands to wipe his ass? Listen to Karryn Kelly at Fox:”

“I’ve alternated hands over the course of my life, but by god I’ve never been so depraved as to use both at the same time.”

“Bob’s walked off again. He’s with around ten other anchors who’ve approached Bob Furris and the Chief Justice. They’re demanding an immediate suspension of the voting process while we figure out exactly what’s going on with Christopher Walken.”

“Somebody drag that fucking maniac out of there!”

“Welcome back, Bob. Can you tell listeners what you were doing?”

“Is that booth sound-proofed? I hope he can hear the shouts of Traitor! Communist!  Reptile! Get him out of there before America becomes Iran and we’re wiping our asses with our hands!”

“Marshals are dragging Karryn Kelly out by the nostrils. Unprecedented scenes.”

“Tom Cooley from Nevada FM says the legislature in his state is already putting the wheels in motion to secede from the union.”

“A martial also has an apoplectic Ben Bozier of NBC by the feet and they’re tasering him. The Chief Justice and eight other Supreme Court judges have backed off behind a martial cordon. The Leader of the House has been escorted away from the increasingly hostile press corps.”

“In amidst all this chaos in Washington, D.C., Christopher Walken has used twenty of his permitted sixty minutes.”

“The networks may be happy to see this go down to the wire.”

“But I’m sure Christopher Walken isn’t the kind of man who would string things out for ratings.”

“Ratings are astonishing!”

“I’m now starting to wonder what he’s doing in there.”

“All this dithering jackass has to do is stamp a piece of paper. Is there a clock in there? I wonder if he’s even wearing a watch.”

“Our democracy can’t handle another vote.”

“The folks behind me are now calling Walken a space cadet.”

“Has it crossed your mind that he’s fallen asleep in there, Jim?”

“If he has fallen asleep, the United States of America, our democratic traditions, and most certainly, the great actor Christopher Walken, will have become a global laughing-stock. That would be a sad day for us all. But I’m sure this outstanding American, who was chosen precisely for his ability to make one decision and one decision only, would never allow that to happen. The Ubu Roi would not allow that to happen.”

“Believe me, if you fall asleep in that booth with the whole world watching, you hand world supremacy straight over to China. This is how crucial it is that Christopher Walken doesn’t fall asleep right now.”

“Come on, now, Christopher Walken. You’ve had plenty of time to think about this. There are only two options. Put your card in the machine, select the least-worst option and pull the lever. You can use two hands for all America cares.”

“All my eggs are in Christopher Walken’s trouser pocket, Jim. It galls me to say it, but they are.”

“Holy shit!”

“Crap!”

“Oh my god, take cover!”

“America’s at war!”

“Bob, come back. Bob’s running towards the booth. The news is going crazy with reports that. With reports that. I’m looking over the heads of cowering journalists, in fear of their lives, trying to make sense of what just happened in the Supreme Court building, where a shot has been fired. Marshals are packing the area, surrounding the booth, our democracy, with uniforms. We’re being told to get down and stay down. I’m trying to see over the top of my monitor, to report to you what is happening. The Chief Martial is opening the door of the voting booth. The door has been prised open, and there is a commotion now as the martial appears to be summoning Christopher Walken from the booth, but he does not appear to be coming out. The Marshals appear to be dragging Christopher Walken out. They’re blocking my view. Now I can see that they’re trying to smother the bloody mess of pulp and spine where his head has been blown off and his brains are dripping like stalactites onto the marble floor of the Supreme Court building.”

—Lewis Parker

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Lewis Parker is a writer of fiction, poetry and journalism who is trying to get out of London. A hand-typed book of his poems, Suicide Notes, collects the best things he’s written while working as an écrivain public in the streets and at festivals during the last year. His prose has been in the Guardian, New Statesman, Dazed & Confused and Minor Literature[s], and he has taught at Kingston University in England.

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Sep 132016
 

MLbuganvilias1 (1)

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Happiness

IT WASN’T LIKE they’d been invited, but when they saw that house in the distance, they left the highway and took the dirt road that led to it. Nor were they accustomed to dropping in at strangers’ homes, but the fact was the long trek from Belize to Guatemala, the hours it’d taken to cross the border—as if the young couple traveling in a camper with the young man’s father were suspicious—had left them hungry and thirsty. If they drove up to the house it was to ask where they could eat. As they neared the structure of amber wood, evidence of the occupants’ life comforted them: a bicycle tossed on the grass, a tire swing hanging from the branch of a tree, sheets hung on a line. The sound of their motor attracted the attention of the inhabitants. First the children, then two small blond women and then a man with a long beard came onto the porch and smiled as if they had been expecting the visit. The couple and the boy’s father got out of the cab and the latter took the lead, greeted them in a mix of English and Spanish and quickly discovered English was the language to communicate with that friendly family. Rose, Wendy and Bob introduced themselves and gestured at the children, indicating that they were Wayne and Stephanie. The man and the young people also introduced themselves and then explained that they were looking for a place to eat, if they could give them directions, but Rose, Wendy and Bob immediately insisted that they were their guests, they were making lunch and would be delighted to share it with them. They emphasized the words “share it” and among the three exchanged glances as when a husband and wife consent to a decision taken on the fly, without consultation. Rose, who was wearing an overall which exposed her shoulders crossed by the turquoise straps of a bikini, directed the children, by way of giving them the news: we have guests, set three more places at the table. The children, without copying the welcoming smiles of their parents, said, yes, Mamá, and with looks of annoyance went into the house. Wash your hands, Wendy ordered, lost within a shimmering red dress. Yes, Mamá, the children answered without enthusiasm. The young couple exchanged a fleeting look, trying to disguise their discovery without being able to say a word; only confirming their suspicions by squeezing each other’s hands. They’d heard about communes, different ways of living together, thought they knew all about it, thought they owned the word “freedom” (maybe this trip derived from such a conviction) but now they were witnessing a lifestyle that embodied that word. When they were seated at the table, a bowl of salad was passed around, accompanied by rice with carrots, squash, sprouts, beans and eggs, the main course. They were vegetarians, they said, smiling; they were sorry not to be able to offer anything else, but the eggs supplied protein, Wendy said, and the legumes, the lentils and beans they mixed with the rice. The boy’s father, who traveled with a plethora of vitamins and minerals lined up each morning like beads on a string, endorsed Wendy’s nutritional knowledge and said that in addition these were foods rich in lecithin and nobody took lecithin into account.

During the meal, while Wayne and Stephanie opened their mouths and showed the guests their chewed balls of vegetable protein when their three parents weren’t looking, the young pair and the boy’s father learned their hosts had moved to Orange, Belize five years ago. Before the children were born, the three took a trip to Tikal and were convinced that Central America was the place to start a new life, far from the conventions of capitalism and hypocrisy, with the mystic force of the native cultures. They found a bit of land they rented from a British relative of Rose’s stepmother, and as it was very complicated to explain that, they summed it all up. Here they were, they had chickens, they made soy cheese, ground wheat and corn to make bread, grew fruit trees because vegetables were difficult; the climate didn’t permit tomatoes, for example. They said it rained a lot. We have beehives, Rose informed them when she served the dessert, and it was she who took care of the bees; the guests had to try the mango blossom honey. And she passed the pot with its dense aroma so the guests could pour the divine product over the mangos of their orchard.

The young couple kept exchanging glances; they had arrived in a place as sweet and yellow as the flesh of the mango that they lifted to their mouths in juicy bites. They were eighteen and on the point of deciding what to do with their lives. In the light of that golden well-being, their world seemed made of asphalt and motor noise, too much clothing and too many school exams: insipid routine. The boy’s father talked enthusiastically, asking about methods of cultivation, how they made compost, collected water. He’d just sold his automobile wheel factory and had bought the camper to explore his new life. He’d invited the couple to come along on this journey of recovered freedom, if indeed he ever had freedom, he told them when he spoke of his plans. Wanting to be together and on the road, they readily joined the father’s curiosity and imagination, felt an astonished and joyful complicity with that man twenty-five years their senior. They supposed it was his attitude about the trip and adventure that excited them. They didn’t realize that they shared the same question—what was happiness?

When Rose, Wendy and Bob invited them to see the water reservoir which supplied the house, and which they drank after boiling, the three were elated by the goodness of the paradise their hosts had built. One could live isolated, eat well, laugh and love each other, create a home. The young couple walked slowly in the tropical heat, seeking refuge in the shade of trees on the path. The children got on their bikes and sped by, splattering them with mud from the puddles. But all that was fine. Much more than taking the camper through the middle of the city, much more than the parties where they danced and drank, much more even than going to La Marquesa and climbing to Cruz Blanca at nearly 13,000 feet. Here they were more together. The boy said his friend Aldo would be happy to go with them. She understood his meaning: the three of them could be hand in hand and sleep curled up in the same bed of the camper if need be.

As if to demonstrate he was versed in engineering issues, Bob explained how the water drained down the sides of the pond and how it was fed into another lower reservoir from which it was piped into the house. The gradual slope and quantity of rain were ideal. If the reservoir overflowed, the canals they’d designed carried the water as far as the orchard and then the river below. Under that high sun, the children took off their rubber boots and stripped rapidly to throw themselves into the pond. Bob watched them with satisfaction: the water’s fresh and irresistible, he informed the guests as if he were the narrator of an ad. And he also sat on a stone to take off his shoes. Wendy and Rose joined forces to advise the guests to swim: they had to refresh themselves before getting back on the road. The young couple looked at each other again because they’d left bathing suits in the camper, but their hostesses had already taken off the red dress, the overall and blue bikini, and Bob his pants and t-shirt. He didn’t wear boxers. How annoying they are, he said, when he saw that the boy’s father lingered in his briefs before exposing himself completely. The girl looked at her boyfriend, hesitating. They were still protected in their pants and tee shirts, and even worse, lacked the skill to undress quickly and fling themselves into the coolness with the naturalness of their hosts. The boy began: took off his tennies and shirt, and she, without looking at the boy’s father out of modesty, rushed to take off her playera, bra and finally her pants and socks. When she saw the boy going ahead to jump into the water, she tossed her clothing carelessly on the grass. Alone and naked on the shore she felt destitute. Running after him more as a chore than for pleasure, she submerged herself in the water that revealed their bodies. She looked for the boy because she needed his protection, but it was Bob and Wendy who swam to her side and bragged about the benefits of bathing in their crystalline water. Rose emerged naked and round on the shore, the sparse down of her sex dripping, her breasts pink and large, while the boy and the girl, separated, avoided looking at each other. The women shouted to Wayne not to urinate, which he was doing in a sumptuous arc, on the water where everyone was swimming. And Wayne took off running after his sister.

The young couple began to feel comfortable in the water, in front of the others. As Wendy went over to Bob and embraced him sweetly, as Rose hugged Wendy, as Bob kissed them each tenderly, and then gave them a pat on the butt when they moved away, kicking toward the boy’s father, the shame of nudity seemed to abandon them. It was a thing of the past, of the shore minutes earlier. Submerged near the shore the boy’s father needed a little push, Wendy and Rose said, challenging him to a race. Then he, without saying a word, left his reserve and set out swimming, leaving them far behind while the young people looked at his white rear emerging from time to time. The two women revenged his triumph by splashing him, and then warmly embracing him. Rose kissed him on the lips and swam across to Bob, who laughed while Wendy boldly kissed the guest. The young couple got closer together, there in that water, whose muddy bottom they dipped toes in. They didn’t go near the others, although Bob called them to where he and Rose were playing. He cupped water in his hands and let it fall over her breasts. The young couple weren’t prepared to share their nudity with others; it was enough to feel their submerged bodies beating with a pulse that hadn’t ever manifested like this before: in the midst of a liberty without restrictions, a naturalness like mango flesh. They kissed their wet mouths and his erection brushed her thighs. They’d made love before the trip and during it had dared to while the boy’s father slept in the upper bunk, and also when she stretched out in the back bed, because the tight curves had made her carsick.

This time, with the laughter and nearness of the others, they discovered secret, prohibited sex. There was something public and private in that rubbing under the water; their nakedness, no different than that of the others, excited them. They didn’t talk to each other nor let Bob coax them over; there was enough mystery between them to add something new. The children came back asking that one of the parents peel them a green mango and fix it with lime and salt. Rose moved away from Bob, Wendy from the boy’s father, and Bob stopped calling the young couple and started getting out of the water to take care of the kids. No help for it, he said, and invited the others to eat green mango. He’d wait for them on the porch. He walked his naked, hairy body in front of them all and only the girl looked at it openly. The nakedness of men was something recently added to her experience, and she compared the sex of the boy with that of Bob, who had not been circumcised. The pubes of Wendy and Rose, whose rosy bodies passed near them to get dressed and help with the green mango ritual, didn’t provoke the same curiosity in her.

They didn’t notice when the boy’s father got out to get dressed. Now that only they remained, they wanted to stay, oppose themselves to the rest and the children, kiss each other rabidly because they had participated in a definition of happiness they hadn’t known before. They didn’t know if they wanted it for themselves or if the boy’s father would adopt it.

They said goodbye to Bob, Wendy and Rose, and the children Wayne and Stephanie, who ran next to the camper along the dusty stretch of road, throwing dried mango pits, irritated by that world of smiles and living in harmony, of rice with vegetables and pond water, of nakedness and shared bodies, of Papá and Mamá and Mamá and we love you very much, of that way of being happy. The couple looked at the approaching highway. They paid no attention to the sound of pits striking metal, had their hands interlaced as if to protect them from the need to find answers. When they reached the asphalt and the camper slid along smoothly, the boy’s father broke the silence: good people those Dutch. They didn’t respond, only abandoned themselves to the serpentine road in the midst of the luminous green of the countryside.

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The Textbook Case
……..
for Emilia

HAVE YOU EVER dialed a wrong number? I’m talking about when you’re stressed because you’re not going to get to an appointment on time and then in the car, at a red light, trying to keep the traffic cop from seeing you, you open your day minder, quickly punch in the number of the person you’re going to meet? Since he doesn’t answer, she leaves a message on his cell: “I’ll be there in fifteen minutes, wait for me.” Relieved, she drives to the meeting and there he is with the documents that have to be reviewed so that her paper can be considered for the conference, the first in her anthropology career: “Single mothers in middle class neighborhoods of the city.”

Has it happened that you don’t even realize you’d left a message on a wrong number because the person you had the appointment with doesn’t mention the call and has simply waited the fifteen minutes imposed by familiarity with city traffic? She parks and apologizes before sitting down, but he has no complaints because after all, he’s been comfortably waiting in a café while she’s been the one driving and dodging through traffic, her mind racing like the motor of the car. They begin immediately to review the objectives she had posed for the research: he’s a member of the committee that selects presenters and had been her professor besides. He knows she’s brilliant. During the discussion, her cell vibrates within her jacket pocket; she feels it because she didn’t take the jacket off. She wouldn’t have answered it anyway, because she doesn’t like to be interrupted. She knows when she should take a call and when not to. This isn’t the time. Warming up by her second coffee, she sheds the jacket, so doesn’t feel the insistent vibration–like a dentist’s drill—demanding an answer.

§

She’s back home before she realizes that she has five calls from the same number. The number hasn’t been registered under a name—it would have shown on her screen. There’s a message. “What do you want? Stop bothering me.” The number appears to be similar to her professor’s, which she’d called when she was going to be late. She checks the call and confirms it. But it isn’t her professor’s voice. It’s someone else who answered her call while she was in the café. The voice is unpleasant; she listens to it again. The “what do you want” is loaded with irritation. While she searches for the professor’s number to see what the error was, someone leaves another message. She listens to it: “I told you not to call me.” It’s the same irritated male voice. The insistence angers her and she thinks how absurd it is that an attempted apology set off this series of calls. When she gets a call from someone she doesn’t know, she simply doesn’t bother to answer it. To do this, someone must be very lonely. At best, it’s a message in a bottle washed up from the sea, like in the story she read by some Bernardo Ruiz, where a girl calls numbers at random from prison to see if someone sometime will answer from the outside. And someone does.

§

She fixes dinner: a sincronizada, grilled tortilla sandwich with lots of salsa and beans. She’s happy with the professor’s comments: it’s likely that she’ll be chosen to read her paper at the conference. She feels good, like when she made paper boats with her father and blew on them so they’d sail in the fountain at the park and the boat didn’t fall on its side, but kept going straight. As she sits to eat, the cell phone buzzes. She’d put it on vibrate, and on the table the sound resembles a compulsive cicada. That’s what her mother says: “Answer your compulsive cicada already.” She’d never seen a cicada. Her mother said they were big, ugly, nocturnal insects. That their looks match the disagreeable sound they make. She answers without thinking, and the voice at the other end scolds her: “I told you to never leave me messages.” She thinks about the cicada’s appearance; suspects this man has a wart on his big nose. “Look, mister, I don’t know who you are. I called a wrong number,” she says, liberated and looking at the sincronizada on her plate. “I made a mistake,” she mutters in an exasperated tone after a silence. The cicada seems to have realized he doesn’t know her voice. Another silence; she’s on the point of hanging up but he finishes with: “Then don’t go around making mistakes, stupid,” and hangs up. She returns to her lukewarm dinner. Now on top of feeling guilty for arriving late to her appointment, she’s supposed to feel bad for having dialed a wrong number. She has the urge to call the imbecile back and tell him that surely he’s never made a mistake. He’s never confused a two with a seven, which is what happened to her.

§

Has it ever happened that the mistake you made kept coming back? That once you’ve sighed the relief of confusion clarified and begun to forget the voice of the bothersome, disconcerting cicada, and are in bed reading the novel that lulls you to sleep, the phone rings again and you find that at such an hour (when normally only family or your partying friends would dare to call) the wrong number is calling again? She doesn’t even consider answering. If it wasn’t clear enough and he can’t stand getting an erroneous message, then he should see a shrink, give that a shot, just stop bothering her. She mutes the phone and sleeps. The next morning its red blinking makes her realize there’s a message. She sighs, reluctant to listen to this intrusion. She thinks the word and it seems curious to qualify someone who calls that way, because actually she was the one who inserted herself into a stranger’s life, by bungling a simple courtesy call.

§

While drinking her coffee on the edge of the bed she listens to the message. “Slutty woman, leave my husband alone. Damned whore.” The strange voice is fraught with aggression. It’s astonishing that her misdialing has resulted in all this. She supposes that it’s the old, where there’s smoke…or she fit like a glove in the wrong place at the right time, someone’s tail has been stepped on…She’s upset, making explanations in proverbs like her grandmother. She wants to call the woman and shout at her that she’s done nothing, that they need to leave her alone, that their fights are their problems and if her husband is despicable, they have to deal with it themselves. She clears herself with those words with which she would like to pierce the idiot’s ear. Then she starts thinking about how absurd the situation is and how laughable. What if she calls and says to the man: Look, I already told you I called your number by mistake, straighten things out with your wife but don’t put me in the middle of it? She imagines him explaining: “Sweetheart, honestly, the girl called by mistake. She can tell you herself.” He hands over the phone. She says: “I’m Elsa, an anthropology student, you’ve mistaken me, ma’am, and I’m neither a whore nor do I get mixed up with repulsive cicadas, and even less married ones. If you are not disgusted by your husband I am.” And the wife replying: “Ah, you know him? Don’t think that I’m going to believe you, dead mosquito. It doesn’t matter to me whether you study seals or whistles, don’t students fuck? Or do books inhibit sex?” She wasn’t going to bare her breast for the other woman to unload on. She didn’t want to begin her day that way, fed up to here, or better yet, up to her ass, in the middle of the bed of Mr. & Mrs. X.

§

Haven’t you done the same out of sheer exhaustion? On the tenth message from the wife infuriated by the infidelity of her husband, by her jealousy justified or not, after receiving insult after insult each time more obscene, more grotesque, wouldn’t you opt to put an end to the situation? Of course, she could have shut off the cell, asked for a change of number. But she thought she shouldn’t have to be made the victim of the game and suffer the consequences: having to advise everyone that her number’s changed, especially the professor who should call her in the next few hours. And no way he ought to get that “the number you called is no longer in service” routine. The messages have intensified so drastically that she thinks only confronting the gross, obscene woman will resolve things. So she answers the tenth call in the afternoon and tells the woman they can meet in the Vips on Revolution. Sufficiently far from her house. She will explain who she is and why the woman should leave her in peace. Perhaps the two of them can get a load off their minds.

§

She sits at the table nearest the entrance, as they’d agreed, and orders a coffee. She doesn’t like the coffee in that place but only wants to pass the time and calm her nerves. She doesn’t know how she’ll react when she sees the enemy: what’s the woman like, with her shrieky voice and beside herself? Short? Curly hair? Does she have a big nose? Doesn’t wax her moustache? Dresses in loud colors? By the jealousy, she supposes the wife’s neither very young nor very old. Forty-something, she thinks. Typical case of the husband who betrays her with young women because her fading looks and domestic preoccupations have killed his appetite. Typical case. She, young, nice-looking, tall, a bit plump but acceptable, fell into the middle of a textbook case (so says the professor). If the jealous wife sees her, she won’t doubt that her husband has been having an affair. The thought floors her. She looks at her watch: the fifteen minutes have lapsed. The woman ought to be there already. She looks around: tables with couples, groups of women, two men, a family, various young people. She realizes that she’s the only woman by herself in the place. The cell rings. She recognizes the number and answers cautiously. Nobody speaks on the other end. She looks around thinking that a cell at the ear would allow her to discover the accuser. She feels afraid. Better to go.

§

Wouldn’t you have done the same? Now she doesn’t want to face the person who has not appeared. She’s been naive. The textbook case doesn’t end like this. Go. She leaves quickly after paying and stamping the parking ticket, looking around as if she were guilty of something. Not wanting to run into the woman who was perhaps just calling to say she was late. But the voice didn’t speak. Would she repeat the situation that started this distasteful appointment in the first place? She gets in her car and goes down Revolution, takes Rio Mixcoac to her house: she’ll get home and throw the cell in the trash. She’ll send her professor an email, trying to make sure he doesn’t think it’s just a way of trying to find out the committee’s decision; she’ll say her cell’s not working, that she missed anything if he called or texted her. If there was anything, of course; and then she’d tell him what happened as a result of her appointment, the textbook case…

§

The last two blocks seem interminable; she turns, parks in front of the house and when she starts to get out of the car it hits her. Noticing a car parking behind her, she’s struck by an urgent need for safety. Instead of walking away, she runs to the front door of the house. She goes in and, without lighting the lights, closes herself in her room. Then the cell rings again. She knows that if she looks out the window, a woman will be standing on the sidewalk with a phone to her ear. She moves the curtain and peeks out. The woman’s a tall redhead. And determined. The cell continues to ring. She has no reason to get rid of it now.

— Mónica Lavín, translated from the Spanish by Patricia Dubrava

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Mónica Lavín is the prolific author of short stories and story collections, including Manual para enamorarse, 2012. Her novels include Yo, la peor, about Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, which won the Elena Poniatowska Prize, 2010. Lavín has also won the Gilberto Owen National Prize for Literature among other awards. www.monicalavin.com.

§

Patricia

Patricia Dubrava is a writer and translator whose translations from Spanish include stories by Mónica Lavín in Metamorphoses, Reunion: The Dallas Review, K1N, Lunch Ticket, and Norton’s Flash Fiction International, 2015. Most recently, in 2016, Lavín stories have appeared in Aldus Journal of Translation and Mexico City Lit. Dubrava blogs at www.patriciadubrava.com

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Sep 122016
 

Henighan on ferry on Lake NicaraguaStephen Henighan crossing Lake Nicaragua on a ferry.

The Path of the Jaguar cover image

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In this excerpt from Stephen Henighan’s new novel The Path of the Jaguar, just released from Thistledown Press, the protagonist, Amparo Ajuix, an ambitious young Cakchiquel-Maya woman in rural late 1990s Guatemala, has just been mugged and robbed of the savings of the cooperative she belongs to. At the time of the mugging, she is almost nine months pregnant and her husband suspects that the child is not his.

Mist condensed around her head. She felt the child’s twisting far down in her entrails as though it were marooned in a place beyond her reach. The Maker, the Modeller, Sovereign Plumed Serpent, wrought the world out of mist. Her mind strayed through the spaces beyond that haze when the mountains rose out of the water and the first people were fashioned out of corn and took the name B’alam. Her child was slipping away from her. Before she could reach through that space to pull the child back into the light which, inhabited by the first mother and the first father, would yield life, her strength abandoned her. As she floated on the waves that must recede before people of corn could take to the earth, a sharp smell penetrated her nostrils. Pom. Someone was burning incense. She heard voices: Eusebio’s words derogatory, Mama’s tones implacable in resistance. Amparo tried to reach out to them. She slipped away into the silence of the mist. She saw the people of mud who had preceded those of corn, deity’s failed experiment in human life. The mud people’s noses and eyebrows crumbled. People of wood, the heart of the sky’s second failed experiment, who could not speak or worship their makers, stared without seeing her. As the people of wood drowned in the great flood, she slid farther down into darkness.The tendrils of incense prickling her nostrils were the lone thread leading back to the world. She saw four roads of different colours crossing. Cold fear that she was already a corpse and this was Xibalbá, and the four crossing roads were the gate to the underworld. A chanting tapped through the walled-up silence. Nothing moved. She was blind, the cold rivetting her to the meeting point of the four coloured roads. The first four men, Jaguar Quitze, Jaguar Night, Jaguar Not Right Now and Dark Jaguar, fathers of all subsequent lineages, hung before her eyes, then faded away. The tapping mingled with the tang of incense. The two sensations blended until they were a single interwoven fabric like the rope of terror that runs up a woman’s spine when she fears for her child — yes, she had a child, and another one inside her — and in that instant her body swathed her in its aching weight and she was back in her room listening to the sound of the curandera chanting. The child turned in her belly, moving her body with its body, two bodies moving as one, as she and her husband had moved as one to make the child. The curandera must be Doña María’s sister Eduviges, a woman simpler yet wiser than her sibling.

Raja q’o’,” she said. “She’s here.”

Eduviges stepped back from the side of the bed. Mama began to sing the song she sang when they were ill as children. She had sung these words over the beds of the children who had died in infancy, and over those who had returned from illness. Her voice was harsh but strong: 

Kapae’ wakami
Katz’uye wakami
Kapae roma utz qaw’a
Katz’uye wakami

(Stop here today
Sit down today
Stop here for our food is good
Sit down today)

Amparo, feeling the bulk of her hair beneath her on the pillow, whispered: “It’s all right. I’m here.”

“You’ve been away for two days.”

At Mama’s words, she remembered the man with the gun, the other thief’s dragging gait. She lifted her hand, felt the bruise on her temple and began to cry.

“Stop crying,” Mama said. “No one was hurt.”

She passed from sleep to waking without lapsing into the mist. Every time she woke she felt sad. Eusebio entered the room and held her hand. Esperanza visited her and said: “In the next meeting we’ll start saving again. I’ve spoken to the señora gringa and she says we cannot allow misfortunes to discourage us. The only solution is to start again.”

The señora gringa had spoken to Esperanza, not to her. Her powers were ebbing. She had lost everyone’s respect. Her child would be the offspring of rumour.

The day after emerging from the mist she sobbed until dusk. Esperanza came in for an hour but had to leave to look after her children. Eusebio and Mama poked their heads in the door. Mama told her that Sandra was staying with her.

That evening her contractions began. Eduviges returned, not as healer but as midwife.

Her son was born at the stroke of midnight, his body lodged across the line between one day and the next so that they were never certain which date to count as his birthday. From the moment she held him in her arms she could feel his timidity. He was afraid of life. Spirits had infected him with poisons in the womb. Her first thought was that his sickliness would make people think he was Ezequial’s son. His nose and brows looked about to crumble like those of the people of mud. She held him against her breast, blinded by her need to protect him. When Mama and Eduviges told her that Eusebio wanted to see the child, she whispered, “No . . . ” But they had already left the bedroom. Eusebio came in the door. He was unshaven. She wondered if he was sleeping on the couch. He lifted the infant off her breasts, which had been untouched by his hands in months. She gasped. Eusebio raised the boy to head height and stared into his face. She could hear the child breathing in throaty gasps.

Eusebio started to cry.

“Don’t hurt him!” she said. “Give him back to me!”

Eusebio was sobbing more loudly than a child. “He looks just like my grandfather!”

“He doesn’t look like anyone yet,” she said, finding the strength to sit up. She tried to pull the child away. “He looks like the people of mud. By tomorrow,” she said, feeling herself growing calmer, “he will look like the people of wood. Later he will look like a human being made from corn. Then we can have him christened.”

Eusebio gave the child back to her. He kissed her cheeks and her lips and her neck and her breasts. “I’m sorry, Amparo. Will you forgive me? I’m so sorry. I’m worthless, I don’t deserve you. I promise I’ll never treat you badly again. Amparo, please forgive me, can you ever forgive me–?”

The words poured out of him as though they would never stop. She let him go on long after she had decided to accept his apology. His conversion was a miracle, and she knew that miracles must be savoured. At last, she lifted her hand to his cheek.

That night they slept together in the bed with the child between them. She woke in the morning to a loud knocking on the front door. When she reached the main room, the child slung across her shoulder, Esperanza was coming in the door. Though exhausted from hours of feeding the child at short intervals, Amparo felt a great calmness ease through her at the boy’s weight on her shoulder and the memory of her husband’s sleeping body.

“Amparo,” Esperanza said, “I’m going to have to bring Sandra back here— ”

“Already? Can’t you . . . ?”

“It’s Yoli. She’s run away with a gringo— ”

“Run away? To Antigua?”

“She’s going to be travelling with him as his girlfriend! Amparo, nothing like this has ever happened . . . I’ve neverseen Papa and Mama so ashamed. Mama says she can never go to the market again. She’s too humiliated to go to Mass.”

“She has to go to Mass,” Amparo said, struggling to absorb the news. “Maybe we can get her back before anything happens. We can go to Antigua— ”

“You don’t understand, Amparo. She’s in the capital, at the airport. She’s going back to his country with him.”

“She’s leaving Guatemala?” Amparo wrestled with her inert brain. “Leaving Guatemala?” They were speaking Spanish, but she said the word “Guatemala” in Cakchiquel: Ixim Ulew, Land of Corn. The idea of a girl travelling with a man she was not married to was horrible—but to leave Guatemala was beyond imagination. “What will it be like for her, Esperanza?”

Esperanza shook her head. Amparo felt the baby on her shoulder begin to cry. Trembling, she asked herself again what the world was like.

—Stephen Henighan

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Stephen Henighan is the author of more than a dozen books, most recently the novels The Path of the Jaguar (Thistledown, 2016)  and Mr. Singh Among the Fugitives (Linda Leith Publishing, 2017). He has translated novels by the Angolan writer Ondjaki from Portuguese and Mihail Sebastian  from Romanian.  He teaches Latin American literature at the University of Guelph.

 

Sep 112016
 

Black-Bread

teixidor

The setting is rural Catalonia in the early years following the Spanish Civil War, and the young narrator of Black Bread has been sent to stay with relatives on his paternal grandmother’s farm. His father has been jailed and his mother is too busy to care for him. In this excerpt, Andreu and his cousins, Quinze and “Cry-Baby,” enjoy that last days before school resumes playing in the orchard and spying on the TB patients in the monastery garden. They have, however, the clear sense that the adults in their lives are not entirely truthful about what is really going on during this troubled time.

Black Bread was originally published at Pa negre in 2003, and is translated from the Catalan by the great Peter Bush.

— Joseph Schreiber

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WE LIVED UP the plum tree until autumn came.

When the days began to shorten, nighttime sometimes caught us in the tree and Ció had to shout to us to climb down.

“Blessed kids!” she’d gripe after she’d stopped bawling, when we were standing in front of her. “You spend too much time playing for the age you are. One of these days a branch will break and you’ll crack your skulls open.”

“They’re all up to no good, they run riot,” said Grandmother, keeping her eyes glued to the knitting needles her fingers moved over her ample bosom, while she kept her arms still.

The Novíssima didn’t start until early October, and for the early weeks of school when we three chased back to the farmhouse, the first thing we did was put our cardboard satchels on the stone bench in the entrance, go into the kitchen and grab the slices of bread spread with oil and sugar or wine and sugar Ció or Grandmother had prepared for us on a dish in the middle of the table, then we’d run with our snacks to the plum tree so we could climb up and eat them lounging back on our branches.

Now and then, when a colder breeze blew and the reddish sun didn’t linger as it did in summer, when evenings were like the inside walls of a bread oven that retained the heat from the flames of logs burnt moments before, we took blankets up the tree to wrap around us and fought off as best we could the cold and early nighttime damp coming out of the woods. The damp, stifling heat, treacherous cold or gusting wind all emerged from the forest that was like an immense belly or huge pantry full of small compartments that hoarded all the good and bad luck that existed in the world. Up in our plum tree we often thought we’d be able to catch the moment when the leaves changed colour, but the change in the leaves, like moulting feathers, always happened from one day to the next; overnight an area of wood turned a dazzling saffron yellow, and a few days later the beech trees had turned wine-red, soon to be followed by the silvery white of the poplars, the dark brown of the chestnut trees, the humid greens… We looked at each other in dismay, as if someone was making fun of our wait and one year Cry-Baby suggested we stay there the whole night to catch the precise moment of change.

“You’re such an idiot!” laughed Quirze. “How would we ever see anything? It’s pitch black at night and we won’t see the new colours until the following morning, when it will all be over and done with!”

However, Cry-Baby was stubborn and ignored him. She’d say nothing and I could tell from her determination, from her staring eyes, firm lips and jutting chin that she wouldn’t give up until she got a proper answer.

From the tree we used to gaze at the mysterious little lights in the cells in the Saint Camillus monastery as they lit up one after another, indicating that the friars, brothers and novices were getting ready to go out to care for the moribund souls in the neighbouring farmhouses or village.

Until someone howled from the gallery: “Where have those little blighters got to?”

“I want to see them here breaking up the sweetcorn. Or fetching buckets of water for the troughs or the sink.”

Cry-Baby was such a ninny nobody ever included her in their summons.

“They’re back up the plum tree!” shouted an astonished Dad Quirze or a farmhand, usually Jan, the oldest hand, who was like a piece of the furniture.

“Where did you get those blankets?” raged Ció, as she watched us walking towards her, shamefaced, with our blankets. “No corner of this house is safe with you drones buzzing around. I’ve told you a thousand times not to touch the things I keep in the two big baskets in the doorway, whatever they might be. These blankets don’t belong to us! Put them back where you found them right away.”

And when we were just about to return them to the big basket, before removing the lid, Ció snatched them from us, looking alarmed: “Leave them on the floor! Don’t ever touch them again. Nobody must touch them. They are all infected. Go and wash your hands at once, you naughty devils! You’re disgusting!”

We three didn’t know what to do next. We knew Ció was contradicting herself and we put that down to her being so upset by our mischief-making. We didn’t understand why the easygoing Ció was getting worked up by what we thought was a worthless pile of cloth no doubt destined to be used by the livestock, the mule, the mares, the horses or the colt, that was small and frisky like a toy and the one we liked best.

“They are the blankets the Saint Camillus friars threw out because they stank to high heaven. Ugh! They used them to cover their ill patients until they breathed their last. Most were draped over the ones with TB who sun themselves in the heartsease garden. Ugh! I wasn’t very keen to take them, and I only did so as a favour, and I didn’t touch a single one with my hands, I stuffed them in the big basket using tongs and a pitchfork.”

However, whenever we spied on the heartsease garden from the top of the plum tree, or, especially when we’d stood by the wall separating the land around the farmhouse near the pond and hazelnut spinney from the monastery gardens and orchards, we were horrified to see a row of naked, skeletal bodies stretched out, all young men, sunning themselves in a meadow full of yellow daisies, pale pink carnations, bright red poppies and purple, almost lilac or mauve heartsease, the colour of the habits the Saint Camillus order reserved for Holy Week. All those boys, or rather, young men, lay on the whitest of sheets, some clutching a corner to cover their nether parts, the area that most drew our attention, the bit that fascinated us infinitely more than their emaciated faces, sunken eyes, the small beads of sweat on their temples, their chests striped by protruding ribs, bellies, collapsed in some cases, swollen in others, and their off-white or yellow rancid butter skin…, those blackened, shrunken genitals and a crop of lank hair like an obscene black bloodstain…, monsters in our eyes, phantoms from a forbidden world, sickly, worn down and consumed by a horrible microbe, victims of a contagious, suppurating disease like the rabies dogs spread or sheep’s foot-and-mouth, that can be caught simply by breathing the air or drinking from the same glass a TB sufferer has used, an accursed disease, contracted as a result of an errant life of vice, sick men condemned in life, proof of the deity’s pitiless punishment of sin, swaddled in white sheets like premature cadavers in dazzling white shrouds… Yet we’d never seen one under a blanket.

A black umbrella was planted next to the sheets of just three or four TB sufferers, so the shade protected their heads. The presence of those faceless bodies, some shamelessly displaying their sexes, were shocking in our eyes and beyond words. A mystery and a secret no one could fathom. And a friar sat next to the little gate from the vegetable plots to the monastery garden, reading his breviary and never looking up, as if to have sight of the infirm was to behold evil, physical evil, a palpable sign of invisible spiritual evil, a repugnant manifestation of sin.

We didn’t touch another blanket that autumn. But the two baskets, especially the big one, were inexplicably marked out as things only adults could handle. Why did they keep those dangerous blankets in that place of transit, within everyone’s reach and what should the movers and shakers in the house—Dad Quirze and Aunt Ció—the delegates of our invisible masters, do about them? Why didn’t the friars destroy them in the monastery if they were worthless? What deal had they done over those ignominious bits of cloth?

“They should be washed back and front, boiled, scrubbed, scraped, dusted and dried and then we’ll see if they are any use,” said Ció on that occasion, after she’d calmed down. “On Saturday when we go to the market in Vic, we’ll leave them with the wenches who launder the lovely linen from the Poor Hospital, and let’s see what they can do. The Town Hall allows those nuns to use the communal wash-house all night, when nobody else washes and the water is filthy from all the daytime washing. On Sunday, when the sisters have finished, they change the water. And even then the wretched Saint Camillus folk won’t make anything from them.”

However, one day, surely another autumn, when we were looking for clothes to keep us warm, when the weather drove us from our tree, when we’d all forgotten her little rant, Aunt Ció mentioned those blankets again.

“Don’t touch the blankets!” she said this time. “God knows where those damned friars found them! I expect they collected them up after the war, when they returned to the monastery the lice-ridden militia had occupied like a barracks, and the church was full of shit, with hens running round the altar and sheep penned up in the Chapel of the Most Holy Spirit as if it were a stable… I bet they found them on the floor abandoned by the Republican soldiers who’d had to beat it hell-for-leather when the fascist troops, led by the Moors, entered Vic. And now they don’t know what to do with them, they can’t use them, not even to wrap up the sick, and they want us to sell them in the market: I wonder what we’ll get for rags that are so old and filthy not even the novices in the monastery want them, ugh, and so full of bugs they need washing at least ten times.”

We never saw anyone take the blankets to Vic market on that Saturday or any other.

Adults think children have the same poor powers of recall they have. They forget we children have no memories of anything, that words and acts are all new to us and every little detail remains automatically etched on our brains.

— Emili Teixidor, translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush

Excerpt from the novel Black Bread, translated into English by Peter Bush, and published by Biblioasis.

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Born in 1933, Emili Teixidor‘s first novel, Retrato de un asesino de pájaros, was published to tremendous acclaim in 1988, followed by several more which established him as one of Spain’s greatest contemporary authors. Teixidor died in 2012.

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Bush_Peter-289x300

Peter Bush is a prize-winning English literary translator. He has translated works from Catalan, French, Spanish and Portuguese to English, including the work of Josep Pla, Joan Sales and Merce Rodoreda.

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Sep 082016
 

bojan louisBojan Louis reading.

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As long as he stayed ahead of the project manager’s bullshit for the next two days Phillip George could have the weekend to take Jared, his older cousin’s son abandoned to him, to the base of Mt. Elden, where unconnected caves offered refuge and seclusion to both amorous teenagers and the homeless transient. The kid had been cutting bat shapes—since a unit about volcanoes, caves, and bats in his gifted second grade class—from the delicate pages of the Bible he’d found in the dresser drawer of the weekly/monthly motel. Phillip’s health-major-minded girlfriend had protested that the distance might be too far for the kid’s physical and mental capabilities, no thanks to his down syndrome. But Phillip was intent on nothing obstructing his plans.

His shift ended after another twelve-hours and a call from his project manager asking him to remember to lock the gate to the job site, which he did every day since he always left last. Vick was a knew-enough-to-be-dangerous construction lackey turned PM, probably because he was the general contractor’s relative or a favor owed to a friend. He arrived to job sites in his overly chromed and small-dick lifted Ford F-350; clean shirt tucked into ironed jeans, boots more shiny than used, holding a clipboard of meaningless to-dos and a list of places where he’d eaten lunch and with whom. He was the perfect middleman between the GC and clients/investors for his readied knowledge of available tee-times and recipes for wine spritzes.

While Phillip chained and locked the gate he imagined Vick yammering among clients and contractors his annoyances regarding employees, the rising price of material, and the perpetual failure of other sub-contractors meeting deadlines. Shit-talk that made the workers seem like ignorant numbskulls, though most actually were, Phillip included. Without a false sense of dignity there was no assurance that what the clients and contractors paid for was actually hard work or craftsmanship, but projects completed just good enough.

When Phillip secured the site at the end of the day he rode the bus home, glared at his reflection in the opposite window; the florescent lights making him ashen, his negative-like image superimposed with dated storefronts the bus rumbled passed. He dozed, tried to ignore the lurch from potholes left after winter storms, and the conversations crackling around him.

§

The dusk sun left the clouded and smoke filled sky a flare of fire as Phillip side-stepped puddles and runs of mud on his walk across the parking lot of the Elden Motor Inn to the office. Inside the heavy glass door he set down his tool bucket and drill bag, rang the bell like he’d done every week for the past few months.

The motel owner/manager appeared in his typical collared rayon shirt rolled to his knotty elbows, a brightly patterned tie, and tight Wranglers stretched painfully over his large and well-sat ass. Boots, fashioned out of ostrich skin, creaked and clopped as he positioned himself behind the front desk. He often wore a white cowboy hat, but today he appeared with black hair bushed on top of his head.

“You just missed the hura cabrón,” he said. “Rolled out of here ten minutes ago.”

“No shit,” said Phillip. “Saw a couple cruisers from the bus on the way in. What was it? A little domestic violence, meth-heads exposing their freaky fucked up nature?”

“None of that, ese. Just the locotes from 1A and 2D arguing and coming to a half-assed fistfight over going halfies on the last bachita and who hot-boxed it. Pinche borrachos. You’d think they die of agua or straight oxygen.”

Phillip nodded. More of the same down and out, struggling to keep one’s head above water bullshit; generally meaningless and harmless, though as consistent and disheartening as shirked overtime pay. He slid two hundred seventy over to the manager who pressed his tree trunk like fingers on the crinkled bills until Phillip released them so that he could pocket the money. Phillip never saw him use the register or any sort of record book. The couple times he asked for a receipt the manager simply pulled a notepad from behind the counter, wrote the name of the motel, the date, Phillip’s name, the amount paid, and scrawled figures resembling a T and M; all an act of show, nothing official or legit.

“That chica of yours not being too hard on your pockets, hombre?” asked the manager.

“No,” said Phillip, “she’s too busy keeping her head in her books and fucking exercising. What makes you say that?”

The manager shrugged, tongued at something between his teeth, and opened his mouth to say more but didn’t. Phillip palmed the counter, waited for whatever might be said next.

“Well, hombre, just before the hura got here I found your niño playing around back, close to the basura. Nothing to stress about, I took him back to your pad. The puerta wasn’t locked and your chica was laid out cold, snoring on the bed. Don’t worry, ese, I didn’t see her tetas o coño. She had on one of those fantasía track suits.”

“Fucking hell,” said Phillip.

The evening reds had faded, the night air warm but cooling. Many of the other tenants had their doors open, the noise of reality television mixed with the dying traffic on Route 66. Phillip’s tool bucket and drill bag banged against his numbed calves, his shoulders felt as if nearly pulled from the socket. The single window of his room glowed at the edges of the drawn curtains. His eyes itched and watered slightly from the ever-present smoke of the first series of controlled burns. It was still early in the fire season, but he and the rest of town hoped a substantial monsoon might dispel the previous decade of drought.

§

Before Phillip moved into the Elden Motor Inn his lady, Benita, was living in the dorms at the university, which was required of freshman that didn’t already live in town. They’d dated a year long distance by then. He’d worked for a commercial electric company that landed most of its contracts with another company that built resort hotels in and around Phoenix. A large and temporary employee pool assured him work for no less than six months and also the knowledge he’d be laid off once a certain phase of the work was completed. He never saw the resorts in their final glory, never got the job to finish or trim-out the receptacles, light switches, or lighting fixtures. He only bent and secured what felt like miles of half-inch to two-inch conduit, pulled circuit-boats to and through junction boxes, and made-up and readied the wires for the eventual installation of chandeliers, sconces, dedicated circuits, and smart-dimmers. His work was invisible, necessary that it work the first time with nothing to troubleshoot once the main power was turned on. He would hump a slow Greyhound north every other weekend to visit Benita, play stow-away in her dorm room, flip idly through her textbooks while she studied and he waited for sex or a meal. It all seemed perfect. Fucking, eating, fidgeting through movies, and being asked to parties, since he had five years on her, where she drank drinks called skinny-something-or-others. The calorie count so low she could indulge in one or two, three maybe. She was consistently counting and calculating: calories, miles, reps, fat percentages, heart rates, cholesterol levels, grade point averages. Her major’s focus was on obesity and diabetes in Navajo communities, the lack of education in regards to healthy eating, and dispelling the myth of fry bread, which she told him was a significant health hazard due to its high calorie content. Fry bread was, in effect, a remnant of colonization and forced removal, The Long Walk. All of which he could understand though at the end of his long workdays could give a shit about.

When Phillip entered his one room domicile he found Benita snoring open-mouthed on her back, hands clasped death-like over her stomach. He grabbed her leg and shook. Her limp body moved as if her joints were loose. This incensed his anger, made him shake her violently until she woke.

“You can’t stay awake another hour to keep an eye on the kid?”

“What?” she asked drawing out the vowel. “Don’t shake me like that. I’m not some wasted, passed out ‘adláanii.”

He let go her leg, removed his hoodie and t-shirt, threw both toward the clothes piled beneath the sink outside the bathroom, and attempted to pull off one of his steel-toe work boots, which he didn’t unlace completely. It nearly hit him in the face once free and he shouted fuck, threw it against the wall, and got a muffled yell and pounding in response. While he fussed with the other boot Benita said she’d wanted to fit in a Body Pump class before picking up Jared from after school daycare. This was a tension grown between them; her poor time management and agreeing to get the kid no later than five so he wouldn’t risk losing overtime. There was no one affordable to look after the kid no matter how much overtime he worked. And anyway, who would want to look after a nine-year-old with down syndrome whose trust in strangers was lacking at best and who also took issue with anyone other than Phillip touching the back of his neck or ears?

“Jared was asleep and I locked the door. I thought we’d both nap until you got back. He’s never done anything like this before. Never wandered out alone. It’s something to pay attention to from now on. It won’t happen again.”

She faced him and smoothed her green warm-up top, curves tight beneath the soft, plushy material. Fuck his anger, he thought, and hoped she would turn away from him so he could see her from behind, approach and press his tired body to hers, caress the firmness between her breast and thighs.

“Fucking shit. You know the manager found him playing in the trash around back? What if those cops from earlier found him? Deep shit. We’d be in deep shit. Hell, his mom already fucked him over. We don’t need to, too. Even if it’s . . . because one of us fucks up.”

She turned, awaited embrace and apology, and blamed final semester stress and the need to carve out time to care for herself.

The argument waned and Jared, hunkered quietly beneath the round two-chair table next to the window, called out hello. Strange how he became invisible, thought Phillip, despite being what occupied his mind and energies most. Maybe that’s how he escaped earlier. His presence demanded all of one’s faculties, yet he could vanish and still seem to be all places.

“Hey, little man, I’m sorry. We didn’t mean to yell so much.”

The kid emerged from beneath the table to hug Phillip, a hug that forced the breathe from him. He wondered if the kid would ever become strong enough to crack his ribs.

“I’m cool, man. I’m cool, man,” he said.

Sure that Jared hadn’t been in any real danger, and the manager was a person who he could count on, though he’d never make it a thing between them, Phillip reassured himself by lightly squeezing Jared’s shoulder, and headed toward the bathroom.

“You need to pee or anything? Or is there some business that you need to finish before the weekend?” he said over his shoulder.

“I don’t need to go. I’ve got bat business.”

While Jared returned to his task Benita sat facing the opposite direction sobbing. Rather than reengage the argument they were having, or about to have, Phillip asked if she could keep an eye on the kid. She acknowledged by looking toward Jared, who waved at her. She waved in response and turned the TV on.

In the shower, Phillip imagined his life differently. His final years of high school and not quitting the club soccer team before a couple of college scouts had taken the time to watch a few matches, offer scholarships to a handful of players. Had Phillip stayed it was likely that he would have been one of the guys selected to play with a full ride to one of the state universities or, at the very least, a community college. Had he stayed he would have gone. From there was a life he never fully envisioned. Pro, semi-pro? Would he have finished his degree? Would he have had a major? Construction management or hotel and restaurant management? Something that required little academic vitality but with the potential to have made him more money than electrical work? Would he have dated Benita, or some sorority blonde who’d he fuck how and whenever he wanted? He most definitely wouldn’t have honed in on the young Benita giving him eyes; he the potential bad boy, though the truth was that he was the best thing for her. Stable, mature, and in no way related by clan. But there he was living check to check, with an abandoned retard, and a girlfriend who would probably leave him once he got fatter, once she found her dream job after she graduated. There he was, beholden to everyone else with the soap and hot water rinsing off the grim of another fucking day and maybe, more of him.

Relieved with clean he slid open the shower curtain, found Benita leaning naked against the door, her clothes piled neatly in the corner. He hadn’t heard her enter, so deep in his own head as he’d been. Her brown figure had toned up in the past couple of months. Her hair lay in black strands across her small breasts. He felt himself get hard.

“You’re leaving him alone again,” he said.

“That’s what’s special about you. You never think of yourself first.”

She grabbed a towel, dabbed his body, and used it to soak up clumps of his wet hair. She frowned, whispered that the kid was occupied with his bats; she would pay more attention later. He kept quiet, didn’t want the momentum to be lost, and guided her to the top of the toilet tank, lifted her leg, slowly pressed into her. He’d go to bed hungry: exhaustion and an apology his dinner.

§

He dreamed of volcanoes erupting suddenly, all at once. The town was the town he lived in but different, spread out with houses overlooking cliffs that didn’t exist. Lava poured from the angry cones, fire ash fell from above, and cracks opened the earth. Escape wasn’t likely. On a strip of land he watched the black sky descend; heat beneath and around consuming him.

At 4:30am, startled from the dream, he staggered to the bathroom to piss, began to dress. Work pants from the day before, a fresh t-shirt, and a collard button down. Back in the single-room he kneeled over Jared, woke him by smoothing his hair.

 After the kid was showered and readied he took Benita’s keys from her purse and drove him, half-awake staring out the window, to his elementary school.

“Hey, kid,” he said poking him, “before we get you to school tell me what you’re going to tell the bats when we find them.”

“I love them being my friends,” he mumbled. “What will you tell them?”

Phillip wasn’t sure, but maybe something about how he appreciated the bats being Jared’s friend. He added that he thought it’d be a good idea if Jared brought along the bats he’d been making so that his bats and the bats supposedly in the caves at the mountain base might become friends, too. The kid told him, duh, that was why he’d been cutting them out.

Benita was never awake when he returned her car in the mornings. Wouldn’t even stir if he bumped the furniture or creaked the door open and closed. Girl can sleep through anything, he thought. A quality he both admired, looked down at.

He retrieved his tool-bucket and drill bag, walked the two hundred yards to the bus stop that took him across town. Every day the same ride: sparse traffic; chemical white billows above the toilet paper plant south of the train tracks; an abandoned steel mill turned junkyard that advertised auto-repair and estimates; the refurbished historic downtown beyond his price range.

At twenty past seven he arrived to the job site where Vick waited to tell him he was late.

“I’m this late every day,” said Phillip. “I don’t control the bus schedule and you can’t get me a ride, or anyone else, here on time. I’ve got the kid to take care of and there’s no use jerking off here before seven if the gate isn’t even open.”

Vick waved him off, muttered yeah, yeah, even though none of the other trades ever arrived before eight, and if they did it was always to stroll around with donuts then fuck off for the day. Phillip was the only electrician onsite; reliable, his lack of a vehicle the assurance he’d stay put, and still he’d never been given a key to the gate.

While Phillip unchained and positioned the ladders, Vick brushed the rat end of his ponytail against his lips and examined the conduit runs across the ceiling; traced each run to where they ended at the service panel or hung unfinished.

“Might get close to finishing the runs today,” said Vick. “If you can hustle and don’t fuck up. How are you on materials?”

Phillip needed spools of ground and neutral wire to begin pulling circuit boats by the end of the day, and asked if he could get off early, hoping Vick wouldn’t put too much thought to it. Vick sucked the tip of his rattail, took more than a minute to respond. Wouldn’t be possible. Not with all the added dedicated circuits, subpanel, phone, co-ax, and ethernet for the reception area, break room, and bathrooms. The facility was going to be top of the line, which meant as much distraction as possible. The patients would want to ignore the fact that they were in a dialysis center. There would even be TVs in the pisser. All overtime for the week and, Phillip suspected, through the weekend. He reminded Vick that he’d requested time off, who responded that it was out his hands. But with Phillip’s request in mind—which was bullshit—Vick had hired a helper; older guy who claimed ten years residential wiring experience and countless skills in other trades.

“Sure, that’s all a load of shit,” said Phillip.

“That’s what I’m thinking. But he’s got no qualms working for ten an hour without overtime despite the experience he claims to have. Shit, if he were a Mexican I could pay him seven. Anyway, you’ll probably have to teach him to bend pipe, pull wire, and whatever else. You’re going to have your work cut out for you. And I don’t imagine he’ll be too keen on a young tonto telling him what to do. Guy’s name is Nolen or something. Told him to show up around nine. Give you time to set up and get going. I should have your material here by then.”

Vick spat a loogie on the polished concrete floor, smeared it with the toe of his boot, and walked to his truck.

After he drove away Phillip cursed him for being an inept and ignorant piece of shit who had managed to fuck him by hiring some old lackey, probably a drunk if he possessed no real skill, who would only slow Phillip’s progress. Just another benign action from the managers that reminded Phillip of his unappreciated and unacknowledged skill being a reliable electrician who made twelve to the ten dollars an hour that his helper was going to be paid.

Around nine-thirty Phillip smelled the sour stench of cigarette smoke and days old body odor. He turned, looked down from the twelve-foot ladder he was working off of at a man, probably six-six, wearing clothes that hung off him like the tattered sails of a ghost ship. The man clomped across the job site in large desert boots, reached into what remained of a shirt pocket for a pack of cheap cigarettes, lit one using the one he’d smoked to the filter, and flicked it behind him aimlessly.

Phillip descended the ladder, uncertain if this was the guy Vick had hired or a random homeless.

“Can I help you with something?” he asked.

“That’s what I’m for,” said the man, “to help you.”

“All right. Vick said your name was Nolen? I’m Phillip.”

The man shook his head.

“It’s No-Lee,” he said.

Phillip watched him and the man explained that people always asked if he had any leads on any jobs and he’d tell them no, no leads. So the name No-Lee stuck. The two stared at one another quietly until Phillip told No-Lee that he would start him on running conduit. They’d work together until No-Lee got the hang of it; it’d be easy since they were only using half-inch, a little three-quarter.

 They worked atop ladders eight feet apart, the length of a single stick of conduit. At the butting end, No-Lee tightened the coupling with channel locks and secured the conduit to the base of a wooden truss with a half-inch strap, eight inches from the coupling. Phillip held the opposite end, measured off the wall to assure a straight run, and strapped the conduit loosely. They moved across the truss work in leapfrog fashion until they reached a point in the run that required a ninety-degree bend toward the service panel. Phillip explained the fundamentals of conduit bending: from the point of measurement mark back five inches, toward the dumb-end of the tape—six inches if using three-quarter—make sure the foot pad of the conduit bender faces the foot; make sure the bend is a perfect ninety by applying equal pressure on the foot pad and handle, and use a level to be precise.

No-Lee repeated the instructions and the work continued smoothly, faster than expected.

They took lunch at two. Phillip estimated that they’d accomplished a little more than the day’s anticipated work. Two more days working like this past sundown and he would have Saturday secured. While he jogged to the corner gas station, No-Lee sat where the breeze was strongest and smoked, eyes closed as if gathering substance from the tobacco and wind. Phillip returned with a microwave burrito, a bag of dollar chips, a gallon of water, and sat far from the rancid breeze.

“You eat that shit every day?” asked No-Lee.

“It’s cheap,” said Phillip. “I don’t have time to make lunch. I’ve got the kid I take care of. Eats up most my time.”

“You got a kid?”

“Not mine. My cousin’s. I raise him here so that he can go to a decent school, have more opportunity or whatever.”

“Mother drink herself to death, huh?”

Phillip crumpled his burrito wrapper, threw it to where it suspended for a second, and was blown backwards.

He was used to this passive-aggressive, not uncommonly aggressive, shit talk from white, conservative co-workers and bosses. Back in Phoenix was the worst ignorance he’d encountered. It was everywhere, as much as there was heat and blowing dirt. Proud right-wingers who boasted about the guns kept locked in their glove boxes, some with handguns strapped to their hips, talking God and country, rights, and who deserved to live and who to die. Sad harbingers of death that Phillip could only do his best to ignore, though he was often confronted because he was brown, mistaken for being Mexican, and always given a pass because he wasn’t them, but neither was he an us.

“None in my family drink,” he said. “The kid’s mom fucked off to Portland with a bunch of vortex, vision-questing dykes.”

No-Lee drew long and the cigarette ember flexed; dragon smoke fell out of his nostrils.

“Bitch can’t appreciate her own dying culture. Funny. All that pride you redskins powwow about and most of you fall for New Age bullshit. You sell out your faith then build fucking casinos.”

Phillip ate his last chip, dropped the bag. He rose, told his helper to sit and smoke for the rest of the lunch hour while he got back to it. No-Lee responded, I work when you work, and was told to clean up. He stood, examined the job site, which was clean except for some unusable scraps of conduit and the trash Phillip had tossed. No-Lee picked up the burrito wrapper and chip bag, stuffed them into his pocket, and organized the material without comment; his only noise the exhalation of smoke and the gurgled hack of clearing his throat.

Phillip called the day sometime after seven, watched No-Lee walk east beneath streetlights until he became a burnt match in the distance. He made note of the next day’s work—pull boats, pull lighting circuits, low volt, land the panel—grabbed his gear, and trudged to the bus stop.

§

He arrived back to his place late. It sat dark, still between the noisy brightness of the rooms on either side. The curious tunnel of it drew him in. Benita had left a folded note. The explanation was simple: she was tired, needed to consider herself and her final semester, had left Jared with the manager. Anger shook Phillip’s throat and he punched a hole in the wall, smashed one of the two chairs. On his way to the manager’s office he gathered himself by tapping his chest imagining he and the kid excited, out of breath before the mouth of a cave. They’d enter a cool damp darkness; shine lights on walls that held something he couldn’t think of. In the office, Jared and the manager watched a cartoon show Phillip didn’t recognize. Their laughter settled the tension in his shoulders and he watched for a few minutes before announcing himself. It wasn’t a big thing for the manager, since Phillip hadn’t ever been a problem, but it also couldn’t keep happening. Phillip needed to figure it out.

Back in the room he and Jared continued watching the cartoon until both dozed and slept, their shadows playing oddly on the wall behind them.

§

The morning bus that took Phillip and the kid to a stop a quarter mile walk from his school was empty. At the school, they waited until the doors opened for students who needed an early drop off. Before entering, the kid told Phillip that Benita would come back, she’d cried before taking him to the manager’s office. The kid was probably right, Phillip told him. They’d have a boy’s weekend and everything would be the same afterwards.

At the job site, No-Lee sat against the locked gate smoking, said there hadn’t been hide or hair of Vick. It was close to eight. Phillip made the decision to dismantle the tension bands so that the chain-link fence fell slack and the two could crouch down and through. Let Vick fix the goddamned thing; they needed to get to work. When Vick arrived after lunch he shouted at Phillip for fucking up the fence, went on about added cost and time. But the fence wasn’t damaged, only taken apart, and if Vick actually knew anything, he could reassemble it. In response, Vick threatened to fire Phillip, who packed up his tools and walked out the gate, where he was stopped, told to calm down, and asked what was needed in order to fix the fencing. Phillip told Vick that No-Lee knew. So, the two of them reassembled the tension bands, spoke quietly, and looked and nodded toward Phillip.

Before the day’s light began to fade Phillip told No-Lee that he needed to leave to pick up and return with the kid.

“You work late Fridays?” No-Lee asked.

“Twelve to fourteen is average. I don’t care if we to work all night. We’re getting this shit done.”

“Whatever you say,” said No-Lee. “I’ve got my cash in hand. See you when you get back.”

It took an hour to get the kid and what remained of daylight when they returned cast deep shadows throughout the interior of the job site. The gate was locked and from what Phillip could tell from behind the cold links the ladders had been left standing. Since he’d left his tools behind he told the kid to wait while he jumped the fence. Inside the unfinished building material was strewn about, his tools gone, along with a couple spools of solid wire.

Phillip dropped to his knees, held his head between them, and screamed into his shirt. No-Lee had probably been waiting for a moment when Phillip lent him any modicum of trust, so that he could leave him fucked. No regard for his livelihood, his need to care for himself and the kid. He dialed Vick, got voicemail immediately. Piece of shit had already disappeared into the weekend, obviously hadn’t even returned to check on the site.

He stood, a friction among the shadows, and threw his phone against the polished concrete, its shattered pieces skipping outward. He turned and jumped the fence once again, told the kid, to hell with it, it’s all fucked, and took his hand to walk to the gas station for a couple dinner burritos and provisions for their trek to the cave come morning.

§

The kid didn’t fuck around. He sat in the unbroken chair gazing out the window at thunderheads separated by cuts of sunlight that spotlighted down making dew of the predawn rain. Phillip snored on the bed, a pillow over his head. It was well past the time they’d planned to depart. The kid slid off his chair, opened the door: crisp, cool scent of vanilla from the ponderosas and the dusty mold of the morning’s moisture engulfed the room. Phillip stirred, woke to see Jared dressed, his pile of cutout bats ready on the table.

He rubbed his puffy face. “Guess I better get my lazy ass in gear, huh? Let me shower and we’ll get the hell out of here.”

The kid nodded, shut the door. He gathered the bottles of water, granola bars, and two Snickers that Phillip had bought. He took the flashlight kept in the nightstand drawer, located both his and Phillip’s bus passes. Everything was ready.

The trailhead lay northwest of them, the nearest bus stop next to a grocery store a half-mile walk away where Phillip lifted two oranges from an outside display of produce. He told the kid they needed to survive and they continued their trek. Beneath the shade of large ponderosas they paused to drink water. Phillip asked the kid if he was hanging in there ok, there was a mile and a half left to go. The kid said he was fine; they’d go on, they’d survive. The two pushed forward and the day warmed up, a little humid from the morning’s rain. Phillip felt the hardened shell of his heel crack, the tender flesh beneath sticking to his sock, which slowed his pace. The kid noticed, told Phillip there was no need to rush, the bats would be there. They stopped once more where the tree line broke into a clear cut for a natural gas pipeline and service road. Logs were piled into long triangles about twenty feet away from the treed edge, the brush cleared for when fire crews would come to complete controlled burns. Across the road the trail inclined into the shade of the ponderosas.

The mountain base was a jumble of volcanic boulders and hardened lava flows that created climbing opportunities, as well as, shelter in the caves and dead-end tunnels. Lichen, an assortment of small trees, ferns, and cacti covered the unreachable parts, higher up on the rocky ledges. The cover of tall ponderosa pines made the day appear later than it actually was. Phillip and the kid walked the base, went off trail to where a cluster of ferns grew, and came upon a small, man-sized entrance into the rocks. Phillip suggested they eat before entering. The kid ate quickly, reached into his pocket for his pile of bats, peeled one off, and handed it to Phillip, asked him to read its body.

“It just looks like notes from the bottom of the pages,” said Phillip. “This bat must be a nerd. Hand me a different one.”

The kid laughed, set the bat in what he deemed the nerd pile, and peeled another off.

“Let’s see, it says ‘11 Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone? 12 And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken. 13 Better is a poor and wise child than an old and foolish king, who will no more be admonished.’ Damn, kid, these Bible bats are fucking intense. Let’s see one more.”

The kid off peeled bat after bat while Phillip read the bodies. The pile wasn’t substantial, but since Jared had worked slowly and meticulously cutting them out, Phillip was proud of his handiwork.

Some dexterity was required of the entrance, though the squeeze of it wasn’t tight. Cool air exuded the rancid stench of piss, body odor, and alcohol. Water trickled somewhere in the darkness. Once inside and on flat ground Phillip flicked on the flashlight the kid had brought, shined it toward the sound of the water. A figure, more detritus than man, wavered cock-in-hand, pissing against the far wall.

“You gonna come suck this thing or fuck off with that light?”

No-Lee’s smoke and drink broken voice. He’d been drinking all night, all morning; face a grotesque swell of skin.

Phillip panicked, more for the kid’s safety than his own, and hurried to push Jared back from fully entering the cave, but the kid tumbled off the rocks and in, yelped painfully, and lay holding his ankle in the faint light of the entrance. Phillip knelt to urge the kid up, didn’t see the spool of neutral wire thrown through the darkness. He felt the hard weight strike his temple, swirled into the void of his volcano dreams: pools and rivers of lava, the burning of his face and body, the burning of Jared and Benita’s bodies, screaming and laughter from someplace far.

“I was hoping you were some bitch,” echoed No-Lee. “Ain’t easy for a guy like to me to get any gash out here. When I’m lucky some stupid cunt will happen on me. It’s good. It don’t happen much, but when it does, oh, is it so good.”

Phillip stood wavering, felt blood beating out of his head, and fell back on his ass.

He couldn’t see No-Lee or the kid, but discerned Jared’s frightened sobs, the twist of a plastic cap against glass. He listened as No-Lee swallowed hard twice, twisted the cap back on. Heard the whoosh of something tumbling through the musty cave air and shattering near the kid’s noise. No-Lee laughed, gagged from the effort. Phillip rose and rushed into the black toward the sound; arms bent ninety at the elbow, hands curled to grasp what he could of No-Lee. When his hands met the man’s chest he gripped and drove his shirt collar to his neck. The two grappled, staggered in the darkness until No-Lee began to vomit and threw his body into Phillip’s, and they fell hard against the wall and ground. An object was knocked over and others crashed out of it near them. From what Phillip could feel with his hands and body, No-Lee was on his side, back against Phillip’s knees. He skimmed his right hand across the dirt, found what felt like a screwdriver. His left hand found the hair on the back of No-Lee’s head, gripped it tight. He rolled himself until he felt that he was on top of No-Lee’s back and brought the screwdriver in his hand to the head in his other quickly, with force. The body beneath him bucked. Phillip struck his left hand on his second stabbing attempt, deeply, and his grip on No-Lee’s hair went slack. So he hugged his head, shook it like he did when Jared was a small child and would ask to be picked up by Phillip to be swung back and forth so that his legs looked like a pendulum. He felt a pop, No-Lee’s body go limp. He collapsed, took his gashed hand in his shirt, and tried to focus on the dimming light of the cave entrance.

§

Phillip never carried a gun before working in Phoenix; had only plinked cans off dirt mounds with small caliber rifles out on the rez with his cousins. The day he decided to carry, a short Guatemalan man had been hired to remove the stucco and chicken-wire siding for an addition. Racial slurs and death threats were being slung at the man because he hadn’t completed the task before Phillip and his boss had shown up to remove the electrical wiring and outlets before the framing could be redone. He remembered the man’s panicked expression and watery eyes, the erratic swing of his sledgehammer, and pleas in Spanish, which Phillip couldn’t understand. The other contractors stood by in an arc, showed each other their handguns and crossed the man with the barrel ends. It would be a temporary thing for Phillip, carrying a handgun. Once he realized he was outnumbered and viewed as no better than the immigrant workers, the other contractors and tradesmen directing their attacks at him, he decided to sell the handgun to a cousin for a couple hundred less than what he paid for it. But the anger and humiliation remained, festered in him, made him judgmental and prone to hate anyone paler than he was. He often dreamed of shooting the racists, the far right-wingers, torching whatever ignorant, upper class project they were working on, and letting everyone and everything burn to ash.

The kid wasn’t crying anymore when he shook Phillip awake, shined the flashlight in his eyes.

“Are you cool? Are you cool?” he repeated until Phillip told him that he was.

“I want to go home,” he said. “We need to go home.”

Phillip sat up and held the kid, told him, ok.

Outside the cave a breeze rustled the pine needles and a far away dog barked once. Phillip felt nauseous and weak, the sensation of the air on his skin made him aware of the heat he felt flaring within him. He wanted to call Benita, have her come get him and the kid. She wouldn’t, he knew, even if he told her the truth. She was driven, career oriented. And, anyway, what good was there thinking about it, he’d smashed his phone yesterday. He felt lost, without purpose. He needed a solution, needed one given to him.

He thought of the body in the cave and his fucking tools. He needed his tools. He told the kid to wait, climbed back into the cave, and gathered his scattered tools; left the screwdriver plunged into No-Lee’s cheek where it was, and hefted the tool bucket and drill bag outside to the base where Jared waited. He smoothed the kid’s hair, told him to stay put, to keep his bats safe and the tools safe. The kid nodded, removed the bats from his pocket, and held them. Phillip, as if driven by instinct, headed toward the pipeline road, some sixty feet through the ponderosas, to a burn pile at the road edge. Something needed to be done about No-Lee’s hateful body, it’d be found sooner or later. Phillip estimated a half an hour to forty-five minutes, if he hustled and didn’t fuck up, in order to remove enough logs to cover No-Lee’s body back in the cave before the forest gave way to complete darkness. He would burn the motherfucker. Char any evidence of him or the kid ever being there. After, he and the kid would walk beneath the night, find a pay phone, if pay phones still existed, and call Benita, beg a ride back to the motel. She’d give in; she would, for him or the kid, it didn’t matter.

As Phillip finished building a pyre over No-Lee’s body, having stuffed the gaps with dry twigs and pine needles, the kid climbed quietly into the cave, sat next to where Phillip knelt, peeled off one of his Bible bats, and set it in an open space between the logs. Phillip began to hiccup and sob, the kid hugged his bruised ribs, and he winced.

The kid said, “We’ll leave them. The bats will protect us.”

Phillip took Jared’s dry and calloused hand, smoothed his hair, and began placing the bats in cracks along the perimeter of the pile. While the kid watched, Phillip ignited the kindling on the far side of the pyre. As it took flame and illuminated the already blackened walls of the cave the two noticed how the smoke wafted up through a natural chimney in the rock. As the bats burned their curled bodies drifted upward until the ash and char of them filled the interior. When the whole of pyre began to burn and the smoke was too much they exited, retrieved Phillip’s tools. When they came upon the far side of the service road they turned around, saw nothing of fire or smoke in the darkness.

Phillip’s tongue fat and course in his mouth. He asked the kid if he was thirsty. He was. But both were without water.

—Bojan Louis

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BOJAN LOUIS is a member of the Navajo Nation — Naakai Dine’é; Ashiihí; Ta’neezahnii; Bilgáana. He is a poet, fiction writer, and essayist who earns his ends and writing time by working as an electrician, construction worker, and a Full Time English Instructor at Arizona State University, Downtown Campus. He has been a resident at The MacDowell Colony.

 

Sep 062016
 

Erika Mihalycsa

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According to her medical record, the translator was suffering from hypochondria. Now she’s even a hippocondric, as her mother-in-law remarked to her son, that is, the translator’s husband, four neat syllables, with the stress falling on the third, when she thought the translator was in the bathroom and out of earshot, but a translator has an ear for everything, especially for the half-swallowed sentences and the words implied in the emphatic upward jump of the eyebrows.

Supercilious is the word, it crossed the translator’s mind, as she stepped out of the bathroom half a beat too early and caught in her husband’s look, beside the habitual let’s-drop-it-mom resignation, a new, yet unseen quality, a parry of the foibles: not now, she’ll hear us. It was not the first occasion when she caught her husband at it. A few weeks earlier when they went on a day’s outing to pick mushrooms with Tamás’s family, she saw all too well with what demonstrative diligence he was gathering dry boughs, voicing his expert opinion on the best place to make a fire for the barbecue, delivering with a puppy’s enthusiasm the peppery milk-caps into Ildikó’s hands. Ildikó, Tamás’s wife, is three years older than the translator, so she bosses her around with the utmost naturalness. She has two children, drives a car with relaxed nerve, is always bursting with high spirits – in one word, she’s a real sport. The translator doesn’t like peppery milk-caps, as a child she used to get sick from them, and she could take down quite accurately the score of Ildikó’s conversation with Tamás that evening while putting the kids to sleep, that this poor Karcsi has a hard enough life by the side of this party pooper, and here the translator’s name follows. Who, instead of mushroom-hunting with the others on the thick carpet of dead leaves lighted up here and there by the oblique sunrays, keeps moseying all day long along the edge of the wood with those myopic eyeglasses and a second-hand botanical atlas, trying to identify bear’s foot, buttercups, black hellebore, water crowfoot and similar never-heard-of weeds, months after flowering, although normally she couldn’t tell dill from daffodil, so hard is she set on collecting first-hand, first-eye and first-nose impressions about the shape, feel, smell of their unarmed stems, leaf petioles, lobed and whorled leaves, and about the taste of their poisonous milky sap, because she happens to be translating some novel whose cranked protagonist flees ever-present but, as it sometimes happens in fiction, perfectly invisible and imperceptible war, and takes refuge in a small hut in the woods somewhere up north where, poring day and night over the ever-more-prostrate basal leaf-stems, the increasingly broken-toothed leaf margins, and decreasing number of ovules in the pistils of the windflowers of the field, he reaches the conclusion that mankind is ripe for extinction. The translator came out of the bathroom, gripping a handful of fallen-out hair. On the threshold the hairs were slightly blown back by the barely perceptible draught originating in her mother-in-law’s word uttered in a histrionic whisper, with an intonation soaring toward the third syllable, only to plummet towards the fourth. The translator, staring vacantly in front of herself as usual, took in this word and the two stares hastily shifted from the sizable knot of hair in her disinfectant-smelling hand, in them two thirds of repulsion, one third guilt-feeling because of the repulsion, and an almost uncountable, but all the more rabid rage because of the guilt-feeling, like a cauldron in which words of all colours, consistency and smell ferment together into fruit mash, no, not that, mash is fermented in barrels, but rather like bits of meat and gristle simmering with the quarters of potatoes and peppers quite alien in consistency and character, a bit more patience children, the potato stew is almost ready. In the spring she started translating a novel, she has known the author for a long time; in the small hours when they were both at their desk, they used to send each other long e-mails with minutiae of folk beliefs connected to the dragon-herb, detailed rules of extinct board games, lengthy quotes from obscure authors. It all began in mid-May with a curt, parenthetical aside inserted into an answer, in the negative, to one of her questions, from which the translator learned that the author had been diagnosed with lung cancer. She despaired, was hopeful, could not sleep and work, and lost even the little appetite she had, so that she gave up the semblance of cooking she did, for better or for worse, on account of her husband, and after one and a half weeks of relentless tension not talked over, her mother-in-law moved in and took matters definitely in hand. When, smelling the fizzling breakfast bacon and eggs, the translator rushed for the first time headlong into the bathroom, bursting in on her husband who was shaving, and who clumsily embraced her from behind and held her head as she dropped to her knees in front of the toilet and with eyes blurred by tears and amid loud, croaking hawks coming up directly from her stomach, was throwing up thin air, she glimpsed a spark of cautious hope in his eyes as he asked, with a wink too big for the occasion and in his usual professorial manner, if he should run down to the pharmacy for a pregnancy test, at which she, with still tearful eyes, made a feeble gesture to push him away, but her husband took this for the opening move of an embrace and pressed the translator’s palm to his chest, with his other hand tore a bit of toilet paper and wiped off the whitish saliva from the corner of her mouth and, smiling indefatigably and with his head turned ever so slightly so as not to be knocked off his feet by the ammonia smell of her breath, gave a smack on her nose, then just in case patted her on the bum and gently ejected her from the bathroom, go lie down a bit, Bugs Bunny, you’ll see you’ll eat ten eggs in a minute like a good girl. Needless to say, the translator didn’t eat one single egg that day or the day after, she kept counting the hairs fallen with each brushing or hairwash, scrutinizing her scaly fingernails, scrubbing her skin for hours, which thus became more gray and flaking every day, palpating under her arm the nodes which she could now recognize with unerring precision even through her pajamas and the terrycloth gown, as one would intuit in the first, sinister beats of an opera overture the crime of passion to come inexorably at the end of the fourth act, or as she would foretell at the beginning of the writer’s meandering sentences the mindfully placed counterweight in the parenthesis opened one and a half pages later, the apparently casually tossed phrase from which all the silencings, all the bureaucratic complicity planted in the language used in the fictional world are revealed, that transfer the forsaken, uncomprehending human being into a rubric of the production plans, next to the pesticide statistics. Shortening her sleeping hours day by day, she repeatedly revised the translated chapters with reddened, burning eyes, because with every rereading she discovered some side-note, some dissonant chord tucked away in a subclause, for the text had known already at the onset of its writing, eight years ago, and at the very beginning of its 15-year gestation, not only the past it narrated, but also the way the body goes about blowing up its time bombs, it had known where the malignant growth is to start, how the old lingo’s old words hatch with the first spring thaw from the betrayals hastily buried under the December snow, how they eclose from their pupa, start swarming and lay their eggs in the new lingo of the new papers and new schools. The translator was not particularly well-known in her trade, having published few volumes so far, but the author insisted that his works should be dispatched by her because he knew that even if it took her years to complete a novel, she would look up every single pivot hinge, pattern of embroidery, or medical diagnosis. Sometimes at half five a.m. she would send, with amusing enthusiasm, a link to some blog on which she found a picture of a wicker rocking chair from the 1920s looking exactly like the one in which the novel’s grandmother, a camp survivor, liked to sit in the sunlit square in front of the parlour window. Now that the author was recovering at home after the second chemo, the translator perched all day long in thick woollen socks and pullover at her desk curtained off from the summerly sun, with hands and feet turned into icicles, and on the rare occasions when she ventured to the grocery around the corner to fetch mineral water, cigarettes and some fruit, she kept to the shadow like a beetle. Her wax-coloured skin recoiled from the sun like the skin of an amphibian, and she felt naked behind her sunshades among the people in bright summer clothes, like one whose eyebrows and lashes had gone the way of all her hair, that is, down the toilet. On the scraps of paper scattered on her desk, synonyms were listed in columns, on which she was trying out, like a piano tuner, the ululant screech like a siren, of the doorbell ringing for the interrogatory in the fourth chapter. Her head, sinuses, even her teeth and gums were throbbing now to the rhythm of the ambulance’s, now to that of bomb sirens, tiny points of light kept pulsating in front of her eyes, she was waiting with the heroine, hiding the wounds of her moth-eaten lapels beneath her worn fur boa, in front of the entrance door, and the moment she hit upon the most gratingly ululating word her skin, holed by the ultraviolet rays bombarding her through the windowpanes, at once sensed the inward suction of the draught caused by the door about to open, although the hand had only just grasped the handle, and she saw her husband with the sharpness of an overexposed photograph as he slams the trunk lid on his suitcase and the carefully wrapped LED TV two weeks later, to drive off to his parents’ after having told her that they need to talk over their future, and that he cannot wait until kingdom come, until his wife, i.e., the translator, would finally realize that she needs to change her lifestyle a wee bit, that is, radically, because he too has got only this one life, Bugs Bunny, and the clock is ticking. But in vain is the clock ticking, Bugs Bunny, that is, the translator doesn’t grab the phone and dial her in-laws’ so that, after amiably greeting her father-in-law who picks up the receiver, and hearing her mother-in-law’s voice from the background, well finally, and don’t you give in this time, in a shaky voice and clearing her throat as always when she is nervous she would tell her husband the long-rehearsed sentences about their perennial, herbaceous endosperm life together, how it lacks a persistent woody stem above ground, is in the winter only alive in their rootstock from which in the spring solitary bright yellow flowers shoot with rotate corolla and colourful sepals, whose sap is poisonous when freshly picked, but innocuous if dried. She acknowledges the situation with the same impassivity with which she does the fact that in the meantime summer has arrived, tempestuous showers wash the windowsill in the afternoons, then the stifling July heat comes back, the season keeps dripping the infusion, all her energy is taken up by calculating the sequence of days spent in dull torpor and with a clearing head, in her mind sentences start out gropingly, following the itinerary of the author’s sentences with sluggish feet, to get stuck sooner or later at a polysemic word whose meanings proliferate like a tumour in that other language, then by the much-awaited second half of the week the buttery, viscous mist lifts from her eyes and the words, so far clacking like a stuck record, bolt out impetuously, on these days she translates up to five-six pages a day, the text laboriously sheds its cocoon and spreads its tiny, raw wings, but tires soon, has to take frequent rests to warm itself up, breathing hard with chapped lips, at times looking exactly like a bunny with its small quivering nose. By the end of the summer the author is through three chemos and one surgery, still laid out in the no man’s land between life and non-being on a sterile hospital bed, whereas the translator is roosting in the disinfectant-smelling apartment that feels cold again, with a blanket on her knees and short of breath, in the posture that her spine would now automatically take up even in her sleep, and with which the novel’s criminal-prisoner-turned-revolutionary drives the once-elegant chaise with the three huddled members of the family destined to be deported, to the collecting point in town, the brick factory that had fulfilled its function to general satisfaction a short while ago. Above them, the swallows preparing for migration are practicing diving.

—Erika Mihálycsa

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Erika Mihálycsa is a lecturer in 20th-century British literature at Babes-Bolyai University Cluj, Romania, a Joyce and Beckett scholar. She has translated works by Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Patrick McCabe, William Carlos Williams, Anne Carson, Julian Barnes and others into Hungarian. Her translations of contemporary Hungarian prose and poetry have appeared to date, or are forthcoming, in World Literature Today, The Missing Slate, Trafika Europe, and BxOxDxY Magazine. A regular collaborator to various Hungarian reviews, she is editor, together with Rainer J. Hanshe, of Hyperion, issued by Contra Mundum Press.

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Sep 042016
 

Naked1

toussaint

Throughout the first three novels in Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s tetralogy, the unnamed narrator and his love interest Marie have been on the verge of break-up and broken up. Yet, in some ways, they’ve never really been apart. In this passage from the fourth and final novel Naked, after returning from a trip where the couple rekindled their love, the narrator sits alone in his apartment thinking of Marie, waiting for a sign that she’s thinking of him too.

Naked was originally published in 2013, and is translated from the French by Edward Gauvin.

— Jason Lucarelli

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IDIDN’T DARE admit it to myself outright, but what I was waiting for now at the window was—already—a phone call from Marie. I even hoped to get her call before stepping away from the window, before I had time to do anything in the apartment, go through my mail or unpack my bags, so that when I picked up I could say, the amused modesty in my voice perhaps tinged with a zest of triumph, “Already?” and the endless half-hour I spent in front of the window waiting in vain for Marie’s call was like an abridged version of the two expectant months I was about to spend waiting for any sign from her at all. In the first few moments, fervor and impatience still held sway, feelings of love the days spent together on Elba had rekindled, the intact desire to hear her voice on the phone—perhaps intimidated, tender, light-hearted, suggesting we see each other that very night—and then, as the minutes, the hours, the days, the weeks, and soon even the whole month of September went by without so much as a word from Marie, my initial impatience gradually gave way to fatalism and resignation. My feelings toward Marie went progressively from the impatient affection of those first few moments to a kind of annoyance I was still trying to get under control. After a while, I no longer held anything back and gave free rein to my resentment. Marie’s final act of fickleness, inviting me to spend two weeks with her on Elba just to ignore me and not make so much as a peep afterward, was but the ultimate demonstration of her radical nonchalance.

But now a new element, perhaps, since our return from Elba, was that Marie managed the feat of annoying me even when she wasn’t around. For up till now, whenever Marie hadn’t been around, I’d missed her immediately, nothing whetted my love for her more than distance—what to say, then, about her absence? This new annoyance, this more deeply ingrained irritation, taking shape right there at the window as I waited for her call, was perhaps the sign that I was readying myself for our separation and imperceptibly beginning to resign myself to it—except that, and here the nuance is vital, it might very well be the case that if Marie annoyed me so much when she wasn’t around, it was perhaps quite simply because she wasn’t around. There was also an odd, abiding element in my love for Marie, which was that as soon as anyone, even me, took it in mind to criticize her, and quite justifiably, with the best intentions in the world, I couldn’t keep myself from dashing to her rescue straightaway, as in certain couples where the one defending his or her partner tooth and nail is in the best position to know the extent of that partner’s shortcomings. In fact, I needed no outside detractors to come up with all the ill that could be said of Marie, I quite sufficed. I knew very well that Marie was exasperating. I knew perfectly well indeed, along with her detractors, who didn’t even know the quarter of it, that she was superficial, fickle, frivolous, and careless (and that she never shut drawers), but no sooner did I alight on this litany of deprecating qualifiers than I saw the other side to these complaints, their secret underside, concealed from view, like the precious hidden lining of too-flashy finery. For though glittering sequins sometimes kept one from seeing Marie clearly at first, to reduce her to the frothy society gossip abubble in her wake would be to underestimate her. A more substantial wave, timeless, ineluctable, carried her through life. What characterized Marie above all else was her way of being in tune with the world, those moments when she felt flooded by a feeling of pure joy: then tears would start rolling uncontrollably down her cheeks, as if she were melting with rapture. I don’t know if Marie was aware she contained, deep within, this unusual kind of exaltation, but everything in her bearing bore witness to her capacity for intimate harmony with the world. For just as there exists such a thing as oceanic feeling, so we may speak, where Marie is concerned, of oceanic affinities. Marie had a gift, that singular ability, that miraculous faculty, for being at one with the world in the moment, of knowing harmony between herself and the universe, in an utter dissolving of her own consciousness. Everything else about her personality—Marie the businesswoman and Marie the CEO, who signed contracts and closed real estate deals in Paris and China, who knew the dollar’s daily exchange rate and followed the latest market fluctuations, Marie the fashion designer who worked with dozens of assistants and collaborators the world over, Marie the woman of her time, active, overworked, and urbane, who lived in luxury hotels and dashed through airports in cream-colored trench coats, belt trailing on the floor, pushing two or three carts over owing with luggage, suitcases, clutches, portfolios, poster tubes, not to mention—dear God, I can picture it still—parakeet cages (fortunately empty, for she rarely transported living animals, apart from a thoroughbred—a trifle—as it happens, on her last trip back from Tokyo)—also characterized her, but only superficially, including her without defining her, encircling her without grasping her, nothing in the end but mist and spray beside the fundamental affinity that alone characterized her completely, the oceanic affinity. Intuitively, Marie always knew how to be in spontaneous tune with natural elements: with the sea, into which she melted with delight, naked in the salt water surrounding her body, with the earth, whose touch she loved, primitive and crude, dry or slightly slimy in her palms. Marie instinctively attained a cosmic dimension of existence, even if she sometimes seemed to spurn its social dimension entirely, and treated her every acquaintance with the same natural simplicity, ignoring age and formalities, seniority and etiquette, showing each the same considerate kindness, the same graces of sensitivity and benevolence, the charms of her smile and her figure, whether it was an ambassador having her over to dinner at his residence during a show, the cleaning lady she’d befriended, or the latest intern at the fashion house Let’s Go Daddy-O, seeing only the human being in each of them without a care in the world for rank, as if, beneath all the finery of the adult she’d become and her standing as a world-renowned artist, it was the child in her that had survived, with that child’s bottomless well of innocent generosity. There was something in her like a radical abstraction, an abrasion, a stripping-away of the social reality of things, such that she always seemed to be wandering around naked on the surface of the world, the “seemed” even being redundant with her, so often did she actually walk around naked in real life, at home or in the yard of the house on Elba, to the astonishment of creatures that watched her rapturously, a butterfly coming upon its alter ego in nature or the tiny, exhilarated fish quivering behind her in the sea, when I myself wasn’t the privileged witness to her innocent fancy for walking around nude at the drop of a hat, which was almost like her signature, her soul number, the proof of her integral harmony with the world, with what has been most permanent and essential about it for hundreds of thousands of years.

As we had just come back from Elba, these were the sunlit images of Marie that now came to mind as I stood before the window: Marie half naked under an old blue shirt of her father’s in the yard on Elba. I stared at the gray, rainy Paris street before me, and it was Marie who raced irresistibly through my mind without the slightest conscious effort on my part. I don’t know if Marie knew just how alive she was in my thoughts at that moment, as if, beside the real Marie who must have reached her apartment on Rue de La Vrillière by now, where the taxi had dropped her off, was another Marie, free, autonomous, separate from herself, existing only in my mind, where I let her come to life and move about my thoughts as she went swimming naked in my memories or took shape in the yard of her father’s house. I saw her again, then, in the little yard on Elba, that double, my personal Marie, wearing a basic swimsuit she’d pulled down and rolled around her waist because it was too hot (or even with no swimsuit at all, I kid you not). Cautiously, I drew closer to her in my mind, and through the tree branches in the little yard shivering in a light breeze made out her bare silhouette, the skin on her shoulder dappled with sun-shimmer, crouching by an earthenware jar, kneading the potting soil with both hands and tamping it down, evening out the earth around young shoots she’d just replanted and watered, watching the meager trickle from the hose intently, with a kind of meditative steadiness that seemed to wholly absorb her. I skimmed her shoulder as I joined her in the yard and told her in passing that for lack of a swimsuit, she could maybe put on a hat—people do that when they’re naked, you know (and she shrugged, didn’t dignify that with a reply). Marie, who always managed to surprise me, throw me for a loop, unpredictable Marie who, a few weeks earlier on Elba, had filched an apricot from the display at a fruit stand in Portoferraio’s old town, and kept the pit in her mouth for a long time, sucking on it dreamily in the sun, before suddenly pinning me to the wall in a shady alley near the port to press her lips abruptly against mine and dispose of the pit in my mouth.

And then I realized that I was chewing over these same happy visions time and again, the same summer images of Marie kept coming back to me, as if filtered by my mind, purified of any unpleasant elements and made more endearing still as they began to grow distant in time with my return. But since, I told myself, any true love and, more broadly speaking, any project, any undertaking, from the flowering of a bud to the growth of a tree to the realization of a work of art, has but one aim and intent, to persevere in being, doesn’t it always, inevitably, come down to chewing the same thing over? And a few weeks later, taking up this idea again of love as rumination or continual reprise, I would further refine my phrasing, asking Marie if the secret to lasting love was never to swallow.

I don’t know how much time had passed since I got back, but day was beginning to wane in Rue des Filles-Saint-Thomas, and I still hadn’t budged from the window. The street had gotten a bit livelier, a few signs were now lighted near the Bourse. One of the houses across from me was being renovated. On the fourth floor, an apartment had been laid utterly bare, the façade gone, leaving the entrails of the building exposed, as if after a hurricane or an earthquake. Under the arc lights, a few workers in helmets passed to and fro over plastic tarps covering the floorboards of what must once have been the living room. The scene had something, if not hallucinatory, then at least not very Parisian about it (or I’m no Parisian), and seemed instead to be taking place in a major Asian metropolis, by neon light and the glare of welding torches. I contemplated the building under construction across from me, and thought back to the trip Marie and I had made to Japan at the beginning of the year. That was where everything had started, or rather everything had ended for us, for that was where we’d broken up, that was where we’d made love for the last time, in the room of a luxury hotel in Shinjuku. We’d left for Japan together, and come home separately two weeks later, each to our own lives, no longer speaking, no longer bothering to stay in touch. When I got back to Paris, I finalized our breakup, in a way, by moving to Rue des Filles-Saint-Thomas, and we had barely seen each other at all till late summer, when she’d suggested I join her on Elba. But what Marie didn’t know—and still doesn’t—is that I, too, was there the night her show opened at the Contemporary Art Space in Shinagawa.

— Jean-Philippe Toussaint, translated from the French by Edward Gauvin

Excerpt from Naked appears by permission of Dalkey Archive Press.

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Jean-Philippe Toussaint is the author of nine novels and the winner of numerous literary prizes, including the Prix Décembre for The Truth about Marie, which is available from Dalkey Archive Press. His writing has been compared to the works of Samuel Beckett, Jacques Tati, Jim Jarmusch, and even Charlie Chaplin.

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A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Edward Gauvin was a 2007 fellow at the American Literary Translators Association conference and received a residency from the Ban International Literary Translation Centre. His translation of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Urgency and Patience was published by Dalkey Archive Press in 2015.

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Sep 012016
 

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1

Charles was in the yurt and would not come out. He had crept in at night when everyone thought he was sleeping. Despite the crooked smile and useless right arm he could still surprise them. At supper the next evening all eyes were on the empty chair. Jill, who was standing at the window, said,  “He’s still in there,” and everyone felt glum. Beth carried a plate of food out to the yurt. She knocked on the door. “Go away,” said a voice. Returning to the house, Beth reported that Charles sounded subdued. In later testimony she changed that to “muffled.” She left the plate on the ground by the door and next morning it was empty. They wondered what he was thinking about in there. They imagined him seated in the dark gnawing on a chop bone.

2

Every night one of them went out to the yurt and left a plate of food on the ground, and every morning when they looked out the food was gone. One morning at breakfast Beth came in from the yard carrying the plate, empty as usual, and Warren said “Raccoons,” and everyone’s heart sank. The next night Steve went out and put his ear against the side of the yurt. “He’s chewing,” he whispered. He tapped on the wall of the yurt and the chewing stopped. “He’s eating, that’s a good sign,” Lily said, and they all brightened, until Monica reminded them that she had eaten like a horse right up to the day she swallowed a whole bottle of pills after supper and they had had to pump her stomach out.

3

“He went in there to send us a message,” Rachel said, and they all agreed, though no one could think what the message was. Warren, who was interested in Zen, said, “Maybe it’s the message of no message,” and everyone nodded. They couldn’t imagine what Charles was thinking, and that took them aback. In fact they had never known what he was thinking, even on his best days, but they only realized this after he went into the yurt because that was such a surprising thing to do. Charles, everyone agreed, was a closed book. “Enigmatic,“ Beth added, trying to be helpful. “He played his cards close to his chest,” Marek put in, and they all glared, because that was the wrong tone.

4

Charles had seemed such a reliable, predictable person. He had never done anything surprising before except for having a stroke, though Rachel said that this didn’t count since he had been even more surprised than they were, and Lily said that it shouldn’t have surprised anybody who saw how he ate. They had missed the warning signs, and now they blamed themselves. They all agreed that they ought to have known something was wrong when he dropped the flag ceremony. Beth recalled seeing him alone in the yard listlessly throwing rocks at the chickens.  Ronald remembered the morning he had found him in the hammock reading The  Brothers Karamazov. Everyone agreed that this was not like the Charles they knew.

5

The flag ceremony had been such a comfort to him after the stroke. Everything he did was predictable until he went into the yurt. The ceremony had come off every day like clockwork, Charles out in the yard at sunrise with the bugle. Though nobody else was fond of the flag, which they all agreed stood for things they could not approve of, they admired the way he had worked the rope with just his left arm and his teeth. Standing at the base of the pole he had watched the flag unfurling in the morning sun. “There she blows,” he would say every time in the most chipper way imaginable. They were supposed to stand at attention, but they just glared and slouched or refused even to come out of the house. It was the flag ceremony that had turned them against Charles.

6

With Charles in the yurt life was easier for them all. It was a relief not have him popping up when you wanted to be alone, making irrelevant comments while you were trying to think, insisting on games after supper, and saying “Roger that” when you asked him to take the trash out. It was only now that they realized how tired they were of his war stories. Weeks went by, and they didn’t talk about Charles as much as before. Sometimes when they were having lunch at the big table under the oak, someone might, in the midst of the revelry, glance over at the yurt, and that would remind everybody that he was crouching in the darkness there, and the conversation would flag while they adjusted. The idea that he was listening to their laughter frightened them a little. They slept with windows and doors locked, not to be surprised again. He was still in there when the police came. They pointed their guns at the yurt and Charles crawled out. His hair was full of dirt and leaves, and he wore an expression none of them could read.

—Sam Savage

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Sam Savage is the author of the novels The Criminal Life of Effie O. (2005), Firmin (2006), The Cry of the Sloth (2009), Glass (2011), The Way of the Dog (2013), and It Will End with Us (2014). He’s no stranger to Numéro Cinq: in May 2015 an in-depth and fascinating interview with him appeared here. In March and then April of 2016 we published his short story “The Awakening” and Zero Gravity: Collected Poems (1981-2015), respectively.

Savage’s short story “Cigarettes,” originally published in The Paris Review (No. 211, Winter 2014), was an O. Henry prize winner in 2016. It is published this month [here I mean September] by Anchor under the title The O. Henry Prize Stories 2016.

The Way of the Dog came out in Spain recently, and a French edition will appear soon. Firmin has already appeared in translation in over a dozen languages.

A collection of short stories is scheduled for publication sometime in 2018 under the tentative title An Orphanage of Dreams. “Dispatches” is from that manuscript.

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