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.

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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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SONY DSC

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
 

Sam-Savage-author-photo1-923x1024

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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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Aug 122016
 

Revulsion

Photo by Nina Subin

The following excerpt appears about a third of the way into Moya’s wonderful novel, where we find Vega, Revulsion‘s narrator, describing his relationship with his brother, Ivo, to the author. Vega has spent fifteen days living at his brother’s home while trying to sell their dead mother’s house, and he has had enough of the noise made by Ivo’s family.

This passage works as an excellent example of Moya’s commitment to writing in the style of Thomas Bernhard. You’ll notice many of the Austrian writer’s techniques on display, from long, run-on sentences to a fantastic sequence of repetition when Vega describes soccer players as “undernourished.”

Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador was originally published in 1997 in Spanish as El asco, Thomas Bernhard en El Salvador, and has been translated into English by Lee Klein. 

— Benjamin Woodard

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MY BROTHER Ivo and I are the most different people you can imagine, Moya, we don’t resemble each other in any way, we have not a single thing in common, no one would believe we’re from the same mother, we’re so different we never even became friends, only a few acquaintances know we share the same parents, the same last name, the same house, said Vega. We haven’t seen each other for eighteen years. We never write each other. The half dozen times my mother would call me and he’d be with her, Moya, we’d hardly exchange hellos or commonplaces; we never called each other because we didn’t have anything to say, each of us lived without having to think about the other, because we’re complete strangers, we’re total opposites, living proof that blood doesn’t mean a thing, it’s random, something perfectly worthless, said Vega. I just turned thirty-eight years old, Moya, same as you, I am four years older than my brother, and if my mother hadn’t died I would have been able to live my entire life without returning to see my brother Ivo; that said, Moya, we don’t hate each other, we’re simply two planets on distinct orbits, without anything to say, with nothing to share, no similar tastes, the only thing that brought us together is the task of having inherited my mother’s house in Miramonte, nothing more, said Vega. I have nothing in common with a guy who dedicates his life to making keys, a guy who has dedicated his life to making copies of keys, whose only concern is that his business produces more and more copies of keys, Moya, someone whose life revolves around a business called “Millions of Keys.” His friends gave him the inevitable nickname “Key Ring,” his total universe, his most vital worries, fail to exceed the dimensions of a key, said Vega. My brother is possessed, Moya, it causes me true sorrow that someone could live a life like that, it causes me profound sadness to think about someone dedicating his life to making the most possible copies of keys, said Vega. My brother is worse than someone possessed, Moya, he’s the typical middle-class businessman who trains to accumulate the money he needs to buy more cars, houses, and women than he needs; for my brother, the ideal world would be an immense locksmith operation, and he would be the only owner, an immense locksmith operation where they would only talk about keys, locks, doorknobs, latchkeys. And it’s not going badly for him, Moya, on the contrary, it’s going very well for my brother, every day he sells more keys, every day he opens another branch of “Millions of Keys,” every day he accumulates more money thanks to his key business, my brother is a true success, Moya, he’s found his goldmine, I doubt there exists another country where people have the same obsession for keys and locks, I don’t think there exists another country where people so obsessively lock themselves in, which is why my brother is a success, because people need tons of keys and locks for the walled houses they live in, said Vega. For fifteen days I haven’t had a conversation that’s been worth it, Moya, for fifteen days these two have talked to me only about keys, locks, and doorknobs, and about the papers I should sign to make the sale of my mother’s house possible, it’s horrible, Moya, I have absolutely nothing to say to my brother, there isn’t a single minimally decent topic we could address with intelligence, said Vega. The principal intellectual preoccupation of my brother is soccer, Moya, he can talk for hours and hours about teams and players, especially about his favorite team, called the Alliance, for my brother the Alliance is the finest manifestation of humanity, he doesn’t miss a single game, he’d commit the most heinous sin if it meant the Alliance would win all its matches, said Vega. My brother’s fanaticism for the Alliance is so high, after a few days it actually occurred to him to invite me to the stadium, can you imagine, Moya, he invited me to the stadium to support the Alliance in a difficult match against their long-time rivals, that’s how he proposed it to me, as if he didn’t know that I detest huge crowds, that concentrations of humanity produce in me an indescribable affliction. There’s nothing more detestable to me than sports, Moya, nothing seems more boring and stupid than sports, most of all the National Soccer League, I don’t understand how my brother could give a damn about twenty-two undernourished morons running after a ball, only someone like my brother could almost have a heart attack about the stumbling of twenty-two undernourished men running after a ball and making a show of their mental deficiency, only someone like my brother could have passionate ideas about locksmithing and a team of undernourished morons that calls itself the Alliance, said Vega. At first my brother thought he would be able to convince me that we shouldn’t sell my mother’s house, that it was best to rent it instead, according to him the real estate market improves every day, my brother said he had no desire to sell my mother’s house, but I was emphatic from the start, I had no doubt that the best decision was to sell her house, it’s what suits me best, so I never have to return to this country, so I can break all ties with this place, with the past, with my brother and his family, so I don’t have to hear anything more about them, which, to be blunt, is why I was emphatic from the start, I didn’t even let my brother make his case against the sale of the house, I said I only wanted my half, if he could pay me the forty- five thousand dollars right then, he could keep the house, that’s what I told him, Moya, because I saw his intention to blackmail me with idiotic sentimentalities, with ideas natural to a guy whose life is limited to keys and locks, idiotic sentimentalities like saying my mother’s house represents the family heritage, like saying we were raised there and similarly the house is associated with the best moments of our youth, I didn’t let him continue with that nonsense, Moya, I told him that for me the family was coincidental, without any importance, proof of this was that the two of us had been able to pass eighteen years without a single conversation, proof was that if this house hadn’t existed we surely wouldn’t have decided to meet again, that’s what I told him, Moya, and I explained that I wanted to forget everything that has to do with my youth spent in this country, my youth lived in this walled house that now I must sell, there is nothing so abominable as the years I spent here, nothing more repulsive than the first twenty years of my life, said Vega, they were years committed only to idiocies, Moya, horrible years, associated with the Marist Brothers, with anxiety about getting away from here, the uneasiness caused by the inevitability of having to live my life in the middle of this rottenness.

—  Horacio Castellanos Moya, translated from the Spanish by Lee Klein

Excerpt from the novel Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador, translated into English by Lee Klein, and published by New Directions, on July 26, 2016.

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moya_nina_subin

Horacio Castellanos Moya was born in 1957 in Honduras and grew up in El Salvador. The author of eleven novels (including SenselessnessThe She-Devil in the MirrorTyrant Memory, and The Dream of My Return), he is now living in the U.S.

§

Klein

Lee Klein‘s fiction, essays, reviews, and translations have appeared in Harper’sThe Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007, and many other sites, journals, and anthologies. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he is also the author of The Shimmering Go-BetweenThanks and Sorry and Good Luck: Rejection Letters from the Eyeshot Outbox, and Incidents of Egotourism in the Temporary World. He lives in South Philadelphia.

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Aug 082016
 

Evan Lavender-Smith

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I have a question.

—I hope to have an answer.

—How is metal made?

—Metal. Comes from the earth. From minerals inside the earth. We go down into a mine, gather up the minerals, the ore, iron ore, copper ore, whatever kind of mine it is, like the old copper mine out by the mountain pass I showed you and your brother, remember? Heat up the ore, turn it nice and smooth just like those iron poles supporting that slide there.

—Thanks. Back in a jiff.

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I have a question.

—I hope to have an answer.

—How are mountains made?

—Mountains?

—Mountains. Ever heard of them?

—Are you going to eat your burger or just ask questions? Some cow had to die for that burger to happen, you know.

—Mountains.

—Plate tectonics. Crust of the earth moving around. There’s these huge pieces of crust called tectonic plates. Sometimes they smash into each other. Nowhere for the smashed edges to go except for up, kind of like how your brother will set two of his trains going at each other and when they collide they’ll both go up for a second. Remember? The plates smash together. Go up. Voila. Mountains.

—Great. Back in a lickety-split.

.

I have a question.

—You going to eat your burger?

—Yes.

—When?

—The Earth.

—The Earth? You mean the planet?

—Planet Earth, ever heard of it?

—Planet formation, the nebular hypothesis. Molecular hydrogen clouds. Protoplanetary disks, planetesimals, runaway accretions, like that young star I showed you through your brother’s telescope. Remember?

—Back before you know it.

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I have a question.

—Eat your burger. You’re not allowed on the jungle gym again until you finish.

—But first you have to answer my question. And then I’ll eat my burger.

—Fine.

—Can we get the heck out of this place?

—Good question. Now eat your burger.

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I have a question.

—Go on, get back in the pool. They’re waiting for you.

—What’s your job?

—My job? Being your father.

—That’s not a job.

—Writer..

—I have a question.

—Shoot. I mean, get back in the pool.

—How much do you make from your writing?

—You’re exactly like your brother. Go on, they’re waiting for you..

—I have a question. Then I’ll get back in the pool.

—Shoot.

—How much does Mom make?

—Get back in the pool, young lady.

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I have a question.

—Shoot.

—Don’t do that. When did you start doing that, anyway?

—What?

—You must be joking. You always used to say I hope to have an answer.    —Go on. I don’t know what you’re talking about. Get back in the pool. You’re exactly like your brother.

—You must be joking.

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I have a question.

—I hope to have an answer.

—You keep bringing him up. A lot. Like, a lot a lot. It seems like you almost always bring him up every single question every single time. So my question for you is this. Why do you always have to bring him up? Is it because he’s a boy and you’re a boy and that means you think you have to bring him up every single question every single time?

—Now hold on a second.

—They’re our questions. You have things you do with him and you have things you do with me. The questions are our thing, not his. We’re two peas in a pod with our questions. I know what you’re going to say. You’re sorry. That’s what you always say when I say something I don’t like about you. You’ll say you’re sorry. And you understand. And then you’ll say you won’t bring him up again. You’ll say that but just watch. You’ll probably bring him up again by the end of my lesson.

—I’m sorry.

—See?

—I mean, I understand.

—You must be joking.

—I promise I won’t bring him up again.

—See?

—I’m sorry. I mean, I understand.

—You must be joking.

—You’re exactly like your brother, you know that?

.

Song or just a back rub?

—I wish he were dead.

—Who?

—You must be joking.

—Dead? You know what dead means? You’d never see him again.

—Exactly.

—Song or just a back rub?

—Just a back rub. I’m too old for songs, stop asking. I have a question.

—Shoot.

—How old was he when he stopped getting songs?

—Couldn’t say. Don’t remember.

—Couldn’t say or don’t remember?

—Don’t remember.

—You don’t remember anything, do you?

—No, not really. Come on, it’s getting late. Song or just a back rub?

—You must be joking. See?

.

I have a question.

—Shoot.

—Why do you say always shoot when I say I have a question?

—Shoot. It means go ahead and ask your question. Shoot, fire away, lay it on me. Ask your question.

—It does?

—Yes. What did you think it meant?

—That you were tired of me asking you so many questions. Like, oh no, here we go again. Like, you know, shoot.

.

I have a question. Water.

—Water. Water is a combination of …

—Hydrogen.

—Hydrogen. Hydrogen is an element, see, it’s …

—Stars.

—Stars. Well, there are a number of ways by which scientists …

—Gravity.

—Gravity. Gravity? Well, I’m afraid gravity’s rather …

—The universe.

—The universe?

—The universe, ever heard of it?

—Well.

—The universe, well?

—Well, there are several possibilities concerning the origin of …

—Got it. Back in two shakes of lamb’s tail.

—Are you going to eat your burger? Some cow had to die for that burger to happen, you know.

.

I have a question.

—Shoot.

—Sometimes it seems like your answers come straight out of Wikipedia. Like you have Wikipedia in your head. But you’re just a total nerd dad right? You don’t actually have internet in your head?

—You must be joking.

.

Sometimes it seems like you’re asking your questions just to ask questions. That you’re not even listening to my answers. Or while you’re listening to my answers you’re listening only in order to latch on to some detail that you’ll focus on in a follow-up question. Are you even listening to the answers? Are you even trying to remember my answers or are you only trying to get to your next question?

—That is so mean. That’s probably the meanest thing anybody’s ever said to me.

—I’m sorry.

—I knew you would say that.

—I mean, I understand..

—I have a question. What’s time made out of? I have a question. What color were stegosauri? I have a question. What’s the difference, exactly, between a regular engine and a diesel engine?

—You can ask me as many questions as you like. Anytime.

—I have a question.

—Shoot.

—Why are you so mean?

—Song or just a back rub?

—You must be joking. I’m too old for songs. Stop asking.

.

Do you remember when you were telling me about the universe? We were at Carl’s Jr. and I kept coming back to the table from the jungle gym to ask you questions.

—I don’t know. It’s all kind of a blur now.

—You said that the universe was going to keep expanding and expanding until the galaxies were so far away from each other that no one on any planet would ever be able to know that there were other galaxies or planets out there but it wouldn’t matter anyway because by that time all the planets and stars were going to be frozen solid and no life would exist anywhere and everything would be totally dead forever.

—Did I say that? I must have been in a grumpy mood. Go on, get back in the pool.

.

I have a question.

—Shoot.

—Death.

—Death?

—Death. That’s my question.

—Death.

—Lay it on me.

—Well.

—Death, well?

—No. Well. Shoot. Go on, get back in the pool. They’re waiting for you. I’ll have an answer ready when you get back. You’re kind of young for this stuff, though, don’t you think?

.

Look, if I’m too old for songs, then I’m old enough for this.

—You sure?

—As sure as the sun rises in the west and sets in the east.

—Okay. You ready?

—Ready and rearing to go.

—Okay, here we go.

—Lay it on me.

—Heaven.

—Heaven? You must be joking.

—Heaven. God. Angels.

—You must be joking.

—Go on, get back in the pool. They’re waiting for you.

.

Don’t give me an easy answer just because it’s me and you think I’m too young for this. I want the truth. I want to know what I’m up against here.

—What you’re up against? Just eat your burger. Some cow had to die for that burger to happen, you know.

—What I have to look forward to.

—Heaven. You’re an angel. You don’t have anything to worry about. Now your brother, on the other hand … Just eat your burger. You’re not going back on the jungle gym until you do.

—But I’ve heard you tell him that heaven isn’t real. That it’s a fairy tale. Why do you tell him one thing and tell me something totally different? How old was he when you told him the truth about death?

—Couldn’t say.

—Couldn’t say or don’t remember?

—Eat your burger.

—I’m not going to eat my burger unless you tell me what death’s all about. If you don’t tell me the truth about death, then this cow will have died for nothing.

—Just eat your burger.

—What’s going to happen to me when I die?

—I don’t know. Couldn’t say. Two more bites and then you can play on the jungle gym.

—Couldn’t say or don’t know?

—Burger.

—So you admit that heaven isn’t real?

—Go on, play on the jungle gym. Leave me alone.

.

Song or just a back rub?

—Is God real then, even if heaven isn’t?

—Of course.

—You’re lying. I can always tell when you’re lying.

—How?

—Because your voice changes and you use different words. You wouldn’t have said of course if you were telling the truth. You would’ve just said yes or yep like normal.

—Listen to me, sweetie. Everybody gets to believe in whatever they want.

—So why do you always call me your angel if you don’t even believe in angels?

—It’s a figure of speech. Now, song or just a back rub?

—So you don’t think I’m a real angel?

—Listen. If you believe in God and heaven and angels, that’s great. It doesn’t matter what I believe. It only matters what you believe.

—I believe that metal grows on trees. I believe that mountains are made of chocolate. I believe that the Earth is actually a very large flower.

—Well, I’m afraid that’s a bit different. There’s some stuff that science can tell us about and some stuff it can’t. Science can tell us about metal and mountains, but it can’t tell us very much about heaven and God and angels. That’s one of the problems with science.

—Or maybe that’s one of the problems with heaven and God and angels.

—Song or just a back rub?

—You tell me metal is all about mines and mountains are all about plates and planets are all about runaway accretions. Now it’s time for you to tell me what death’s all about. I know you already told him because he told me you did and he won’t tell me no matter what I offer to trade him for it. Now just tell me. Or else I’m not going to sleep tonight.

—You’ll go to sleep if I tell you? Promise?

—Promise.

—Okay, here we go.

—Lay it on me.

—Okay. Heaven. Not real.

—Got it. Heaven, total sham. And?

—Angels. Also not real.

—Angels, bunch of fakes, check. What else?

—That’s it.

—But what about death? You forgot death. What’s going to happen to me when I die? That’s the most important one.

—Song or just a back rub?

—Death.

—You need to try to get this stuff out of your head, sweetie. I want to keep you innocent and naïve for as long as possible. You’re my angel.

—Your angel of death, maybe.

—What?

—Angel of death. Heard it on one of my shows.

—Well, please don’t ever say it again.

—What’s going to happen to me? I think about it a lot. Like, a lot a lot. I think about it almost every night after you leave. Sometimes I stay up half the night thinking about it. I’m freaked out. I just want you to tell me the truth. What’s going to happen? Tell me the truth and then I’ll go to sleep.

—Fine. Nothing’s going to happen.

—You must be joking.

—Nothing’s going to happen. That’s what’s going to happen. Nothing. You’re not going to be alive. It’ll be exactly like it was before you were born.

—What do you mean?

—Think back to before you were born.

—What do you mean, before I was born?

—What was going on with you before you were born.

—I don’t know. Nothing.

—Exactly.

—So that’s how it’ll be? After I die everything will go back to being like it was before I was born?

—Yes.

—But that’s not so bad. Right?

—Right. Or, I don’t know. Maybe you’re right. Maybe it won’t be so bad. It’ll be fine. That’s right, death’s no big deal. See?

—They didn’t have iPads back then, did they? I’ll have to figure out something else to play with. They still had those Nintendo things. The little ones you could hold in your hands. What were those called?

—Game Boys.

—Game Boys, right. Will you buy me a Game Boy after I die?

—Absolutely. Song or just a back rub?

—Just a back rub. I’m too old for songs.

—Evan Lavender-Smith

 

Evan Lavender-Smith is the author of From Old Notebooks (Dzanc Books) and Avatar (Six Gallery Press). He lives in New Mexico. More at el-s.net.

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Aug 062016
 

Margaret Nowaczyk

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Just a little intro: A few months ago Caroline Adderson wrote to me about a student of hers who had just produced a stunning short story based on my exercise model in “How to Write a Short Story: Notes on Structure and an Exercise” in my book Attack of the Copula Spiders. Caroline was right about the story, and I am delighted to publish it here.

But it’s not the first successful story written off that exercise. I am gradually collecting some great examples. So look at “Shame” by Benjamin Woodard and “Gunslinger” and “Angel of Death” by Casper Martin to get an idea of the range of styles and subject matter that can evolve from a simple prompt.

dg

 

Bentley watched Adèle pass without a glance at the hydrocephalic skeleton of a five-year old child hung on a yard-tall metal pole, alien-headed, lights glaring on its glass case. She entered the next room down the corridor that curved to his right. Der Narrenturm, The Tower of Fools – not very PC back in the 17th century, were they, Bentley thought. The Museum of Anatomy and Pathology in the old psychiatric ward of the Vienna General Hospital was housed in a round, four-story tower separated from the main building by an expanse of lawn. The physical specimens of contagion and birth defects in two-hundred-year-old glass jars filled with murky fluid only compounded the barbarity of the place. Bentley had to admit that as far as medical horrors go it was a fitting setting – thick, whitewashed brick walls separated tiny cages of rooms on the outer wall, a circular corridor surrounded an inner courtyard where he imagined the less affected inmates had been allowed to take air. He had expected the place to reek of formaldehyde, like the pathology departments in all the hospitals where he had worked, but the building was odorless, sterile.

He didn’t want to come, not at all, but from the moment she learned about it Adèle became obsessed. Once here, she went from room to room, her eyes drawn from one specimen-containing jar to another – she never did anything half-way. Studying, work, sex. Having a baby. In the Contagion Room Bentley was reminded of the story Adèle told about the plasticine models of a syphilitic she saw as a child a French venereology clinic. The new nanny her mother had hired made Adèle promise not to tell anybody as she pulled her into the dark hallway and up the steep, wooden staircase. When the woman disappeared into the examining room, Adèle – curious, and a precocious reader – went from display case to display case, and made out the words letter by awful letter. Gumma, congenital syphilis, primary chancre. She was six years old. She had not been able to sleep for months afterwards, the speckled fetus and the caved-in nose floated in front of her every time she closed her eyes. Fifteen years later, during a medical school lecture on sexually transmitted diseases she darted out from the lecture hall, her chair clanging to the floor. Bentley found her in the quadrangle, sucking on a cigarette. “I’ve seen those before,” she choked out before the story tumbled all out.

But today she marched past them. Two rooms later she stood, transfixed, and stared at a preserved baby with its intestines floating outside its abdomen, its little fingers interlaced as if in prayer, put in that position by some well-meaning – or was it morbid? – mortician, and slumped forward, its nose flattened against the glass of the jar. The look on Adèle’s face must have been the look the child Adèle had – mouth slack, eyes darting about the specimen, taking in all the gruesome details. An anencephalic newborn in a jar behind her stared at Bentley from beneath half-closed eyelids.

He knew that he wouldn’t be able to sleep that night.

.

A few days after she ran out of the lecture hall Adèle dragged Bentley into Fairweather’s at Yonge and Eglinton. A rack in a back corner held a clutch of cocktail dresses, their cheap-looking fabrics glimmered in the bright ceiling lights.

“Ooh, can you imagine anything worse?” Adèle sung out.

Bentley eyed the dresses.

“I gotta try them on!” Lemon yellow, violent pink, green, and neon mauve tumbled off the rack into her arms and she disappeared into the fitting room.

“Stupid cheap zipper,” floated over the partition. “How’s this?” She flung the curtain aside and twirled out in the green dress. It cinched her around the waist, the straps drug into her shoulders; even though she was slim and toned she looked like a boiled ham in a netting. On a bed of stewed Boston lettuce. And yet, she was still beautiful.

Bentley pumped his index finger in his open mouth and made gagging sounds. He reached for the zipper. She weaseled out of his arms and ducked back behind the curtain. Soon she popped out in the neon blue.

“This color does nothing for you.”

“The color? What about the cut? Those flounces! Whoever came up with this deserves to die a long-drawn out death in the seventeenth circle of hell. Drowned in tears of women who had to wear this horror.”

“There were only nine circles of …” he begun, and Adèle rolled her eyes.

“I know that,” she said.

The next dress, the mauve, made her pale, freckled skin look like she had secondary syphilis. He bit his lip as he remembered Adèle’s shaking voice.

When she disappeared into the fitting room for the fourth time he was ready to walk out and never come back.

“Did you have to try all of them?” he asked long after they left the store. Something in his voice made her stop and look at him.

“I thought it was funny,” she said.

“You have no sense of proportion.” He stomped off, leaving her standing alone at the entrance to the subway.

The following morning, he waited for her at the same spot – she was late. He had studied way past his bedtime to make up the time, and was feeling grouchy and unkind. But he couldn’t go a morning without seeing her. He waved when he saw her in the crowd.

“Ready for the gynie exam?” Adèle asked when she reached him.

Bentley looked up at the trees just coming out in leaves – greenish mist hung around the branches. No apologies from Adèle, ever. A sparrow trilled and went silent over their heads.

“I’m totally not,” Adèle said. “This fertility crap. I have to put up with it every month, I don’t want to study it, too.”

“I thought procreation was every woman’s passion,” Bentley said carelessly. Adèle’s cheeks went brick red.

“I’ll have you know that I am not constantly thinking about babies and nursing and lactating and gestating and bringing life into this world and whatever other cliché crap you chauvinist misogynes think women are about.”

“Sex?” Bentley asked just as Adèle inhaled to continue. He wiggled his black eyebrows like a beetle. Adèle snorted and punched him in the shoulder.

“Hah! I am like a guy in that respect, eh? Men think about sex…”

“…every eight seconds,” Bentley finished with her.

Adèle laughed and leaned into him, her head on his shoulder. His penis stirred and thickened – obviously he was one of those men.

“You must have gotten too much testosterone exposure during your fetal life,” he said. He kept his arm around her shoulder the rest of the way to the hospital.

The first time he saw Adèle she was dancing on a chair at their med school orientation party. She wore autographed boxer shorts from an upper class man, the prize token for the scavenger hunt; a wide grin – all teeth – split her face, thick brown hair parted in a bob on the right. As she shook it off her face her eyes met Bentley’s and she winked at him, her face an invitation. Bentley felt his face grow hot.

They were sleeping together a month later. Bentley, virginal, realized right away that Adèle was much more experienced than he would allow himself to imagine. Her lipstick on his penis – kissing it, biting it, sucking it she smeared the crimson on the pearly pink of his shaft and foreskin. He pushed aside thoughts of the unnamed men, their greedy hands, their probing tongues and dicks that knew Adèle better than he did.

He realized then that he would never let go of her.

.

What are we doing here, Bentley wondered as he followed Adèle into another low-ceilinged room. And another. She had to see every last atrocity, every last crime nature committed against itself in forming these monsters. Teratogenesis – the study of monsters – he remembered from their genetics lectures. She shouldn’t even be here – after all those miscarriages what could be going through her mind, for god’s sake. What was she thinking as she stared at the specimens – better no baby than one of those? All that blood she had lost with the last miscarriage, she almost needed a hysterectomy. It took her months to recover but still she wouldn’t allow a transfusion. She was still hoping she’d get pregnant after five years of tests and fertility treatments.

He loved her so much.

That night, after he rolled off her, Bentley lay supine on the king-size hotel bed, arms splayed. The neon sign from the cafe across the street flickered blue shadows across the curtains.

“I want to try IVF.” Adèle rubbed her face in his hairy chest, a greying patch extending from nipple to nipple. “This… this isn’t working.”

“This?”

“I’m not getting any younger.” She had turned thirty-six this past January.

“I’m not good enough?”

Adèle lifted her head and stared at him, unblinking.

“That’s what you’re saying, isn’t it?” Bentley always lowered his voice as his temper rose.

I had all those miscarriages.” Her voice sounded wet. “We still don’t know why I can’t carry a baby to term.”

She rose from the bed and stood by the window, her body dark against the sheer curtain. Outlined in blue, the curve of her hips and butt, broad as if made for bearing children, made him want her all over again. He grabbed her waist and pushed her face down onto the bed.

“I’ll show you,” he hissed through his teeth as he lowered his face beside hers. Adèle turned her head and Bentley saw her perfect profile. A tear streaked down across her cheekbone. He kissed it, tasted salt. His body sagged.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.

Adèle squirmed beneath him, turned over, and wrapped her arms around him, scissored her legs across his buttocks.

“Don’t ever leave me,” she said.

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The next morning Bentley woke up with an erection. Something tugged at his consciousness. A nagging, unpleasant something. Adèle, in a backless, shimmering silver-grey gown, the even beads of her spine bisecting her back with such grace it took his breath away. She turned and his penis flatlined. Bentley shook his head to dislodge the image – a line of blood down Adèle’s belly, from the ribcage to the pubic bone, in a perfect parallel to her spine, the dress gaping open, muscle and fascia slashed, a glistening globe of the uterus exposed. The bottom half of a baby hung out from the incision, buttocks and legs hanging. Pulsating coils of umbilical cord dangled down to Adèle’s knees, blood stains splashed down to the hem of the gown.

The bisected Adèle lifted a champagne flute at him. “Cheers.”

Bentley shot upright on the bed. Adèle slept peacefully next to him, wrapped in the white linen sheets crushed from last night’s sex.

As he padded barefoot to the bathroom the cold marble floor bit at his soles. The wall tiles were weeping long droplets of moisture when he stepped out of the shower, but he still felt the cold sweat on his back.

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A week later, back in Toronto, Bentley had performed two kidney transplants and five bladder resections. Adèle finished a paper reporting her new research on gene therapy, and reviewed – and rejected – three others. They taught entitled surgical and medicine residents, they gave lectures to medical students who played with their smartphones. They attended patients in clinics and on the wards. They worked late and hardly spoke over their take-out dinners.

It was as if they both held their breath.

At home the crib grinned its slats at Bentley every time he passed the nursery they set up during the second to last pregnancy, when Adèle went beyond the twenty-week mark and they thought the pregnancy would keep. Once, when he came home from a late night in the OR, he stood outside the nursery door, his forehead against the cherry wood of the door jamb, and tried to imagine the snuffles, the mumblings of a just woken baby, but all he heard was Adele’s soft breaths in the darkness of their bedroom.

Two weeks later Bentley came downstairs as Adèle stood at the kitchen counter waiting for the water to boil, teabag label hanging over the rim of her mug. He had seen the tampon wrapper and the blood tinged applicator in the bathroom wastebasket. He reached for her, and she burrowed her face in his neck, her arms around and up his back like a vise, hands together, pushed against his spine.

Neither spoke until the kettle whistled.

“Not even a romantic interlude in Vienna,” Adèle said then. Not quite how Bentley remembered it – the pickled fetuses still haunted his dreams. He reached over and poured the boiling water into the mug, dunked the teabag in and out.

“You’ve always taken such good care of me,” Adèle said.

“I don’t want a baby,” he lifted her face up by the chin. “I just want you. I went along with all this, but I don’t want you bloated with hormones, needles stuck in your belly, rushing off at 6 am to have an ultrasound up your hoohah.”

Adèle chuckled, but a tear slid down her cheek. Bentley bent down and kissed it dry.

“We’ll be all right,” he said. “Just the two of us.”

.

That was before the nightmares started. Before Adèle stopped going to work and just lay on the living room sofa, the pillow beneath her cheek sodden. Before Bentley was able to count the ribs beneath her disappearing muscles. And before he found her lying in a lukewarm bath, her white arms and legs floating just beneath the surface, nipples poking through the surface of the pink water, twisted wet hair snaked around her neck like a coil of umbilical cord.

But at that moment, surrounded by the aroma of the mint tea, in the orange light of the setting sun puddled on the slate tile floor, Bentley truly believed that they would be all right.

—Margaret Nowaczyk

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Małgorzata (Margaret) Nowaczyk, a pediatrician and a clinical geneticist, is a professor at McMaster University and DeGroote School of Medicine in Hamilton, Ontario. Her writing has appeared in Geist, The Examined Life Journal, and Canadian Medical Association Journal. Her short story “Cassandra” will appear in Prairie Fire. She is a co-editor of an anthology of short stories from the Canadian-Polish diaspora to be published by Guernica Editions in 2017. She lives in Hamilton with her husband and two sons.

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Aug 022016
 

Curtis White

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From a work in progress, Lacking Character

 

At Last, the Reading Public Gets the Trees It Deserves

—after Cormac McCarthy

 

“Science slanders matter.” —Schelling

In all honesty, I can’t even say I know much about trees except to say that they seem to be all over the place. But the Reading Public should admit that I have committed myself to a few things. Minnesota, for example. That’s a place. It’s even a state. Also, a lake with a name: Lake Mandubracius (ridiculous, I admit, but I’m new to this). And there are boulders (about which I’ve already said too much). So, since it makes you happy, I will say something more about the trees. Writers often do. Only painters seem to enjoy them more, use them, profit from them in all sorts of ways. Musicians I think couldn’t care less about trees. In fact, I suspect that most musicians are afraid of trees. Something about them. If only all of my readers were musicians, I’d be free of this obsession of the Reading Public!

I hope now that we can return to the wide-open spaces of the American interior, and I promise you solemnly, there will be trees, lots of trees.

From their camp at the crest of La Cordillera de los Arboles, they looked south toward Mexico, the vast Sonora, unbroken except for the dwarfish mesquite and chaparral that give the desert floor a fuzzy appearance, a world without qualities. About two miles out a pickup truck sped west, like something in torment, a long spiral of dust growing broad and indefinite, a trailing thought too grim to finish.

Mexico was a past that had lost all promise, not least because the pickup was carrying four drug gang foot soldiers with AKs and a grenade launcher they were always eager to use, and, worse yet, they were trailing Jake and his little party. For the moment, thank God, they were off the track.

Looking to the north, La Cordillera de los Arboles swooshed elegantly to the left, an enormous, rhythmic, comma-shaped line of pin oak and dry-green loblolly pine. They could just see where the comma’s trail ended, a swale softly settling to a hard-green river bottom of bald cypress, soaking in a patch of wetland fed by a shallow river running over brightly-polished stones. They would need to get to the sanctuary of the cypress grove by the early afternoon if they wanted to avoid the drogistas and the worst of the heat. Once they got to the trees and the wetland, Rory could make a moss poultice for the nasty gash in Jake’s shoulder, still oozing beneath the bandanna the girl had wrapped around it.

The girl was another kind of problem. She would slow them, but it couldn’t be helped. After all, it was she they’d come for. Their boss had given them each a ten dollar gold piece and nailed two more to a post, promising the money to them if they brought her home. He was called the Artist because of his imaginative knife-based talent for conflict resolution. What made this task difficult was that the girl loved those gangsters and their drugs, and she was none too happy about leaving them, especially since it meant returning to the Artist and his knife tricks. When she imagined him, he was pushing back his hat of fine-woven fibers, a black patch over his right eye, balancing a V-42 stiletto point on his index finger until a little drop of incarnadine blood puddled beneath it. The Mexicans were nurturers in comparison to the Artist.

As Jake saw it, if the horses held up, they’d make it to the trees. They could get water, then, in one of the clear ponds, full of darter and snails, up close to the river. The horses could eat the river grasses, and there’d be plenty of silver or rosy-eyed perch for dinner.

So, tired but dogged, they saddled the horses and cut the girl loose from her stake. She rubbed at the raw welts on her wrist but climbed quickly on to her horse without complaint. She was in withdrawal from one or more opioids, and so was starting to think that the best thing for her was to arrive somewhere, anywhere. She was a hard girl after the long months in the criminal camp on the desert floor, and she’d seen her share of addicts piled on the ground their bones clattering like castanets. She was a girl who paid attention and learned, Jake gave her that, but he also knew he’d have to treat her without pity. Pity was something he didn’t have time for. So what if she had some bloody welts from the leather cords. Let her keep still then.

They kept to the deer and boar path through the pines. It smelled wonderful, like rarest oxygen and dirt, dry and purged of every impurity. It was just simply World and it was so pleasant that it was distracting from their perilous task. At one point even Rory looked over at Jake and, well, he didn’t smile, but he seemed to think about smiling, which was a lot for a man whose face looked more like a carved mask of some island god, the slits of his eyes hard against the sunset.

The grove of ancient cypress that awaited them was thriving side-by-side with the dwarf palmetto and a fairy world of dream-like Spanish moss. The bark of the cypress is red-brown with shallow vertical fissures. Unlike most other species in the family cupressaceae, it is deciduous, hence the name “bald.” The “knees” they send up above the water line add to their elderly charm. But for Rory and Jake, it was just shelter, a place to hide before the long, open, and dangerous ride toward the Palo Duro and then the little tobacco shop in Amarillo, where the Artist waited, whittling and whistling “Danny Boy.”

The cypress swamps are home to marsh wrens, bittern, and red crossbill, and, high in the trees themselves, the barred owl and pileated woodpecker. Also, the ruddy ghost rail is a bird of legend. I linger on this point in order to determine more exactly the real character of trees and the nature of the comfort and aid they offer birds as well as, on that one day, our friends.

Looking up, Jake could see not only the birds but also small gray squirrels (upon which the cypress depends to spread its seeds). Both birds and squirrels were in numerous small wooden boxes obviously derivative of the boxed assemblages of found objects created by the American surrealist Joseph Cornell. The boxes were firmly and safely wedged into the “crotches” of the tree limbs. Jake couldn’t help but marvel at them, never mind that his situation was so dire that he might not live to see the end of the day. Moreover, the full aesthetic impact of the boxes was lost on Jake, a man for whom everything was already surreal. It was the real that shocked him. And I think it was the real that he marveled at in those boxes full of bottle caps, a yellowed ping pong ball, a lexicon for upholstery buttons printed on torn newsprint, things that jays might have brought and stored if Mr. Cornell hadn’t taken care of it first. Come to think of it, the jays might have resented the intrusion into their job description. It is, after all, their job to steal buttons and such and hide them in little cubbyholes in trees. That is well established in both high school textbooks and peasant lore.

Capture

One of the little boxes was low enough that Jake could reach in and pull out the contents. He froze in horror. In his hand he held a bullet from a Sharps rifle Model 1851. That was the one with the knife-edge breechblock and self-cocking device for the box-lock. It was also the prized possession of one Alvaro “Chingé” Alvarez, he who the Chispés cartel depended on when death at a distance was called for. 1851 or no, Chingé never missed, and he was notorious for leaving one of his bullets, unmistakable, as an invitation to a death that was foretold and not far off. Jake did a quick pan of the surrounding hills. He palmed the spent cartridge when Rory came over to see what he’d found, although the stoic Rory would not have deigned to show alarm had he seen the shell.

For a moment, Jake thought that maybe they should spend the night there, but, on the other hand, whether they stayed or went Jake feared that it was all one to Chingé. Wherever they went, he was already waiting.

For their part, the squirrels were no happier than the jays about Jake’s meddling with their boxes. He had pulled a miscellany of seeds and nuts out with the bullet. The squirrels eat the many small green cones the bald cypress produces, and drop many of the scales with undamaged seeds to the ground. Germination is epigeal. Once on the ground, the seed takes its place with years of dry, frond-like leaves shed each winter by the deciduous cypress. This provides an ideal environment for germination.

While few people would think to do so, if one looks just beneath this cypress debris (easily swept aside) there is a vast network of drips of liquid color, mostly alkyd enamels, spreading to the forest boundary in a sort of natural “all-over” style strikingly reminiscent of Jackson Pollock’s No. Five, 1948, with its black base rising through brown and yellow to a white surface. A flute motif is provided by tubular, elongated, and thread-like filaments called hyphae of the basidiomycete fungae. (Of course, the filaments are a recent innovation by nature, not by Mr. Pollock, and are part of a product line dating back to the Mesozoic, although those beneath Jake’s boots were probably fungal apps released and then abandoned by Natquest.com in the late ‘90s—a very early example of digital pollution.)

Just beneath the colorful abstract expressionist surface—a very thin and sere layer of liquid colors—is the forest’s mechanics, its ductwork, which provides for heating, ventilation, and cooling of the forest floor, and in a manner that both the business community and local environmentalists agree is sustainable. In places where forests have been cleared away, archaeologists have been able to dig carefully through the “Pollock” superstratum and expose nature at her most ingenious. The forest itself may cause a warm feeling of distant admiration in a viewer, but to look upon what makes the forest work, a phenolic system of flexible fabric ducting (also known as “air socks”), is to see something truly rare. It is no wonder that nature is so often called a wonder of engineering. To see this is to understand fully the presence of God in the world. It was God that made the fabric duct available in standard and custom colors.

Finally, beneath the forest mechanics, sinking to profound depths known to German philosophers as das ur-grund, are three broad layers of “stuff” alternating purple/white/red with lovely, elegant, fleeting tracers, as if the “stuff” wanted to escape as well as “found.” (This is the world’s foundation.) Except for the tracers, these layers, seen in a cross-section, are plainly in imitation of Mark Rothko’s 1953 “Untitled: Purple, White, and Red.”

Capture

These final layers stretch from the forest to the horizon and beyond at a depth of, oh, let’s round it off at 300 feet. From that point on, the earth is hollow. If you bang on the “Rothko crust,” as it is called, with a frying pan (ideally) or any metal object, really, it’s not important (although a cast iron sautéing pan is deeply satisfying), you will hear a hollow clanging echo from immense depths up to the length of an American football field where lies the center of the Earth, approximately. (Contrary to legend, no, the center of the Earth is not molten but merely very warm, like air circulating from an enormous handheld hair drier.) The Rothko crust is not part of the forest per se, nonetheless the forest is dependent on it. Neither is it part of the soi-disant “drifting” of any continental “plate.” Rather, it is like a droning chord in the bases, the lied von der Erde, so to speak, on which the forest floats languidly, as does the flute in Debussy’s L’Apres-midi d’un faune.

Following his brief meditation on the miracles of the natural world, Jake looked back at his companions and found that the girl had placed Rory in a sleeper hold, or in Judo a Shime-waza (絞技), a grappling hold that critically reduces or prevents either air or blood (stateside, this is called “strangling”) from passing through the neck to the lungs and, in sequence, the brain.

Jake took appropriate measures with her, and they settled in for the night—“Chingé” and his prized Sharps be damned!—there among the trees!

—Curtis White

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Curtis White is a novelist and social critic whose work includes the novel Memories of My Father Watching TV and the recent book We, Robots: Staying Human in the Age of Big Data (Melville House).

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Aug 012016
 

Brightfellow1

Herewith is a passage from Brightfellow in which its main character changes identities. No longer is he known as Stub—a strange and lost figure—but as Charter, a young, Fullbright scholar. The identity of Charter is a lie, of course, but in this brief section, he sees the possibilities and promise of becoming someone new. Asthma is a daughter of one of the other professors who lives on the Circle. She has captured the imagination of Stub/Charter, who believes she is the key to recapturing his lost childhood. —Jason DeYoung

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Everything changes. Because Billy, Professor Emeritus, lonely, long in tooth, all angles, all elbows and knees (and he has always been this way, graceful and unwieldy at the same time, his broad shoulders holding it all together), open-faced, of sunny disposition, an optimist, wearing a cotton shirt the color of Dijon mustard, hunts down Charter Chase and finds him.

“There you are!” he says. “I’ve been looking all over. Been prowling the stacks!” He puts out his hand and they shake, like gentlemen. Billy cuts to the chase. “Charter,” he says, “I’ve been wondering about . . . well. About your digs.Are they adequate?”

“Ah . . . well . . .” Charter laughs uncomfortably. “You know what it is like to be a poor student, but—”

“Of course I do!” Billy cries. “Indeed I do! So here’s the thing, son,” and he pats Charter on the shoulder paternally (or so Charter supposes, having never received anything like this from his father). “I live alone, ” Billy continues as they make their way together down the steep library steps and into the full light of day. “The house is far too big. I barely enter the upstairs. There’s an entire living space up there, bedroom, bath, study.” They approach Faculty Circle and he points to one of the several gracious faux-Tudor houses with pitched roofs and screened-in porches. The stucco façade is a pleasant shade of sand, the wooden window frames painted a rich chocolate. “The place is shipshape of course. Nicely kept up by buildings and grounds. But I imagine you are familiar with the Circle.”

Charter is not only familiar with the Circle, but with Billy’s house. It was Billy’s countertop that had once provided him with a cooling pie. Charter nods. Says, “Yes. The Provost had a little get-together for the foreign students a while ago—”

“Of course!” Billy considers his rehearsed delivery. “Uh,” he says. “Here’s the thing. Here you are, a Fulbright scholar far from home living—or so I imagine—in inadequate housing and, well, surely you can see where I am coming from.”

“Sir. I do. I do. I do not dare . . . it’s too kind, far too kind.” Charter runs his fingers through hair he knows is in need of some attention, and which Billy addresses at once.

“Have you, have you . . . been to an American barber?”

“No, sir—”

“Billy.”

“No, Billy. Short on funds and as you can see I am personally not too handy in that direction.”

“I’ll take you to town. I know a good man there. Now, the upstairs is nicely done up.” They stand together on the Circle now, looking at his house, which shares a lawn and a lilac hedge with Asthma’s.

“Terrific closets. Full use of the screen porch,” Billy says, “the kitchen. Do you cook?”

“No—”

“Of course not. You are busy. With Loon! Who could have imagined this! My own days of being busy are over. I’ll cook for the two of us. I am bored cooking for myself. Losing touch! Look at this scar.” He throws a hand into Charter’s face. “Trimming a radish.” He thrusts the tip of a thumb into his mouth and sucks it. “I am, therefore, in all simplicity, no strings attached, proposing a proper dwelling, nicely done up by Margaret, who blessedly is gone to Wisconsin and out of our hair, yours and mine. One of the perks of being a college professor—in case of divorce, the professor cannot give the spouse the house! My campus digs are…on the house! On the house!” He laughs almost to tears, raving as they pace together around the Circle. I’ll get the upstairs tidied up and then, Charter, it’s yours. In the meantime, come for supper. Are you free?” Charter nods. “Six. I’ll show you your digs, get the cleaning lady—she’ll be here later in the week—to give the place a thorough…Do you need help moving?”

“Sir, Billy. You will be amazed by the little I have. My things, such a nuisance, but it’s o.k., really, were lost in transit. The authorities… nothing doing!” (Already Charter was picking up on Billy’s manner of speech.) “Nothing doing! But, hey! I get by! On a shoestring, of course …”

“That’s my boy!” Billy slaps Charter on the back. “Till six!” And off he goes.

Charter has a new good-looking back pack purloined from Hum Hall at the final semester’s end a month earlier: solid canvas duck, color of good tobacco, hand sewn, leather trim and straps—a Brunchhauser! He will pick up a pair of serviceable rubber-soled leather boots, heavy for the season but good for walking the woods, a top-of-the-line sweater, and two handsome striped shirts, all currently in a gym locker. He makes his way to the gym and showers, thinking: This could be good. Despite the risks. The heavy price if discovered. Then, suddenly ecstatic, he roars. That night he writes:

The chapel bells guide my hours. To their chimes (every fifteen minutes!) time unspools, the seasons and their constellations spill across campus like a sea. I set off for Billy’s a few minutes before six and arrived just as the bells chimed:

Doing! Dang! Doing!

Doing! Dang! Doing!

As I walked up the Old Boy’s path holding my head high, I considered the nature of destiny. A garden snake rode the grass beside me, the smell of garlic and tomatoes stimulated every nerve in my body, and a flock of swifts disturbed the quiet blue of the sky: And let fowl fly above the earth in front of the vault of Heaven. (Vanderloon quoting the Bible.)

*

Billy could not be happier having popped the question (a silly way to put it!). Once, he had popped the question to Margaret (fatal mistake!); this time he has simply offered a few vacant rooms to a young scholar. But loneliness has been leeching the marrow from his bones and as he tends to supper, rinsing greens thoughtfully, stirring spaghetti sauce, exuberance overtakes him. The boy, he is certain, will be an easy, grateful companion. He needs attending to; there’s something unfinished about him; he’s wounded somehow, much too thin, older than his years. Billy will feed him the meals he does best: spaghetti, beef with gravy—solid American middle-class fare—along with some of the great dishes of Normandy he came to love during summers spent abroad. Billy also bakes a pie. (Once, he had baked a perfect rhubarb pie that had volatilized as it cooled on the counter. He liked to say it was a miracle: That pie was so flawless it went to Heaven! But things did have a way of going missing on the Circle. Goldie insisted it was poltergeists.)

Billy sets the table. He grates the Parmesan, sets out a small bowl of red-pepper flakes, and sprinkles a pinch of oregano into the sauce for its final fifteen minutes. Precisely at six Charter arrives and the two sit down to supper, the one facing the other. Looking into a deep white dish brimming with hot noodles and large meatballs sweating juice, Charter is moved nearly to tears.

“Biblical!” he exclaims.

“Why biblical?” Billy wonders.

“It’s ambrosial and…gives off beams of light!”

“You’ve been reading too much Loon,” Billy jokes. “I’ve only served you a dish of spaghetti.” Yet he is pleased. “Curious you say that, though…” He tells his young guest about the vanishing pie. Charter blushes, but briefly. Billy’s innocence in the matter is evident. “Are you religious?”

“No,” Charter tells him. “Although I like to consider just how horny Noah’s toenails were when he hit six hundred.”

“Moses had horns…,” Billy muses and then confides: “I am a private sort. Reclusive you could say. In this way I am much like your friend Vanderloon, although he has taken it to extremes. Perhaps campus life breeds recluses. Well. What I mean to say is you will find it quiet in the house. You will be able to work undisturbed. The Circle could not be more conducive to study. Well…there are the children and they have their games, but still…they really don’t create much disturbance. Let me show you your room!”

What impresses Charter about the house first of all is that there are no photographs, no family pictures on the mantel or sideboard, no dead parents, ancestors, pets. Apparently Billy is not only wifeless, he’s childless. This is comforting. If there had been photos everywhere Charter would have felt like an intruder. But he thinks instead that he can do well here. He will enter into a serious study of Vanderloon’s ideas, not just collect them as one collects curiosities. Not just wander in the books aimlessly.

The house is spare; apparently Margaret had brought along a great deal of family furniture that left the house when she did. Billy has gone for a certain modernist minimalism, uncommon on the Circle. The few pieces he has acquired are angular, blond, the lamps as disquieting as space aliens. On the walls are a few framed museum posters, someone named Rothko who Charter thinks must have been a house painter, and a Dalí that causes him so much anxiety he will stay clear of it during his tenure in the house. An inscrutable Boz Heiffer.

Together they climb the stairs and reach a hallway lit by a clearstory: the light! Billy leads him to a large room furnished with a desk and chair, a reading chair, and a number of those peculiar lamps, each one pointing at them accusingly. “Ah!” Billy laughs. “The cleaning lady, I don’t know why…” He redirects them into a more serviceable angle.

Above the desk is a large window. Stub’s heart leaps; his ears are ringing; he feels like singing: the room has an unobstructed view of Asthma’s own.

—Rikki Ducornet

This excerpt is reprinted by permission from Brightfellow (Coffee House Press, 2016). Copyright © 2016 by Rikki Ducornet.

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ducornet01_body

Rikki Ducornet is the author of eight novels as well as collections of short stories, essays, and poems. She has been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, is a two-time honoree of the Lannan Foundation, and is the recipient of an Academy Award in Literature. Widely published abroad, Ducornet is also a painter who exhibits internationally. She lives in Port Townsend, Washington.

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Jul 122016
 

Capture

ericdupont~614

The following excerpt opens as the narrator and his sister arrive on the Gaspé Peninsula. Eric’s father and step-mother, otherwise known as Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, are expecting a child together and have decided to uproot the family from Rivière-du-Loup, mobile home and all, to relocate 300 kilometres to the east. The move to the town of Matane will effectively put an abrupt end to the children’s weekly visits with their beloved mother whom they refer to as either Catherine of Aragon or “Micheline Raymond, professional cook.” The year is 1977 and separatist sentiments are rising in Québéc. The king and queen are staunch Sovereigntists and want to solidify their influence by introducing a series of rules to define the protocols of “court life” in their new setting.

Life in the Court of Matane was originally published in 2008 in French as Bestiaire. The English translation is by Peter McCambridge.

—Joseph Schreiber

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EVEN TODAY, every time I drive along Route 132 east of Rivière-du-Loup, I fall into a kind of trance. Something about it upsets me. Despite the picture-postcard scenery, despite the lovely people and the smell of the sea, something presses down on my lungs, reminding me that I’m moving away from where I belong. I watch in the rear-view mirror as Rivière-du-Loup slowly recedes into the distance. It’s usually at times like this that I feel my little earthquakes.

At Sainte-Flavie, they told us we had arrived in Gaspésie. The invisible line separating the Lower Saint Lawrence and the Gaspé Peninsula is much more than an arbitrary border drawn up by geographers with nothing better to do. People live quite differently to the east and west of the dividing line: The people of the Lower Saint Lawrence expect things will pick up, while those on the Gaspé Peninsula know they’ll only get worse. Both sides are sometimes disappointed. When Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn told us with a smile that we had just entered the Gaspé Peninsula and the north shore of the St. Lawrence was nothing more than a thin strip of blue land, I became a Gaspé man once and for all.

At the end of that day, I stood before Matane like Attila before Rome. Looking toward the town, I wished it would just disappear. When I awoke after my first night there, I waited in vain for the TV people to come pack up the miserable set. Truth be told, the main problem with Matane was that it wasn’t Rivière-du-Loup. Ironically enough, my father seemed to like Matane for the very same reason. And yet of all Quebecers, the good people of Matane are probably among the friendliest of the lot. Their cheeks have turned rosy from the wind that blows over the town three hundred and sixty-two days of the year. There, the supports below our trailer drew back, and on a cliff overlooking the sea the house fell down in a puff of smoke. We didn’t stay there very long. A year or two, I think. I was seven when we moved to Matane. I had already had six addresses. In the decade I was to spend in my new town, I would have six others. Henry VIII wasn’t the type to sit still. In Matane the rules of censorship were repeated even more firmly than the first time. We were given a helpful list of ins and outs:

In:………..Quebec (and all its symbols)
…………….Anne Boleyn
…………….Jacques Brel
…………….Cod in all its forms

Out:………Canada (and all its symbols)
…………….Catherine of Aragon
…………….Elvis Presley
…………….Drives in the Renault 5

They couldn’t have been clearer with us. In the same tone used to shout “Die, you pig, I’m gonna come spit on your grave!” the new rules of memory were presented to us. Over the years, a series of inexorable royal edicts were added. Edict 101: It is strictly forbidden to pronounce the name of Micheline Raymond, professional cook. Edict 102: The eating of Cadbury products is forbidden. Edict 103: The telephone is not a toy. It is strictly prohibited to call anyone without permission. All conversations shall be supervised by the queen. Get used to it. Edict 104: The word of the Lord is outlawed in the royal court. The king and queen shall hear no talk of catechisms, nuns, the new or old testaments, or resurrection. The dead shall not rise again. Edict 105: It is forbidden to make any allusions to the past in front of the soon-to-be-born little brother. He will have to work out how we got here by himself. Edict 106: You shall lend your unfailing support to the sovereignty movement, on pain of being disowned. The fleur-de-lys is your emblem, and Quebec is your country. Edict 107: This home is no place for halfwits. It is therefore forbidden to watch television for more than one hour per day. All programs must be approved by the queen. All TVA programs are outlawed. Since we will have no truck with cable, you shall have to make do with Radio-Québec and Radio-Canada. You will thank us later. Edict 108: You shall do the dishes thrice daily, after each meal. Even when visiting. The queen shall inspect the plates. Edict 109: Saturdays are devoted to cleaning. The girl shall scour the palace bathrooms, and the boy shall ensure the floors are spotless. Everyone shall do his or her bit in the kingdom of Anne Boleyn. And even then, the queen shall not let you out of her sight as you go about your work. Edict 110: You shall respect and obey your queen, whom you shall address by her first name. The queen’s jurisdiction extends to justice, stewardship of the palace, financial management, culture, and telecommunications. You no longer have a mother. The king shall from time to time take it upon himself to remind you where you come from. For all questions about the matter, see Edict 101.

Oppression breeds revolution. The crushers will be crushed. Or at least that’s what we like to believe. Anne Boleyn was a boycotter. Her strategy was a means of survival. She forbade. Castrated. First came the boycott of our mother. There then followed a series of lesser bans that made everyday life tough. One of them involved Cadbury, the chocolate makers. In 1976, after the Parti québécois had been elected in Quebec, a number of English companies had seized the occasion to move their head offices to Toronto, preferring the comfort of boredom to the tribulations of Quebec politics. Outraged separatists launched a boycott of Cadbury (and Sun Life Insurance, among others). Chanting “Let’s bar Cadbury” as their slogan, they waged war against the English manufacturer of the sweet candy. Their movement would have left me completely indifferent at the age of seven had Anne Boleyn and the king not decided to buy into it. It was thereafter forbidden to purchase or consume any Cadbury products in the presence of the king or Anne Boleyn. The same glacial tones reserved for my mother were used to proclaim the banning of Cadbury.

There was just one problem: Cadbury was—and still is—the maker of the Caramilk bar, a chocolate bar with a soft caramel centre that at the time was high on my list of favourite things to eat. My mother would pass them to me in her Renault 5 as I sang Gérard Lenorman to her. “Caramilk” had become a hammer word. Whenever I managed to scrape together thirty cents, I would slip off to a store where no one knew me to buy a Caramilk. I had to bike for kilometres to make sure word didn’t get out. Anything not to get caught. Once we were in the depths of the countryside, beyond the village of Saint-Ulric near Matane, I settled on an old general store run by two senile biddies. It belonged to a different era, an old-fashioned general store that smelled of before the war. In the deserted store, you had to wait for one of the old witches to limp her way out of the storeroom. Children in the village used to say that they had both been dead for years and we were being served by ghosts. Their memory was so shaky that I could walk into the store four times in the same day without them remembering a thing about my earlier visits. Alzheimer’s guaranteed my anonymity. Even under the harshest interrogation, at best they would have been able to confirm I had been to the store. They would never have been able to betray the nature of my purchases.

The first time I did it, I remember I was wracked by guilt and high on the sweet smell of dissidence. I stood before one of the two old crones and asked for a Caramilk bar. A few seconds went by in silence. A clock struck three. Slowly, she asked me to repeat my order, tapping away at a small device lodged in her ear. “A Caramilk! I want a Caramilk!” I repeated, pointing at the coveted candy. She turned around. I heard her bones protest. Three short steps toward a counter in disarray. From there, she looked at me to make sure she had understood, pointing to a bottle of bleach. Patience was paramount. My finger tried to guide her shaking hand toward the Caramilk. Sometimes, she would break off to ask me if I was Armand’s son, a man who had probably been dead and buried for over seventy years. Then, a glimmer of reason flashed across her eyes, and her hand at last grasped the Caramilk. Her memory had also forgotten inflation. Thinking she was still in 1970, she asked me for twenty cents. Not that I was going to contradict her. I fled so that she wouldn’t have to denounce me if ever the king raided the store. Then I went to the beach, the place of all outlawed activities, where Anne Boleyn never set foot because it was too windy. Hiding behind a rock, I devoured my Caramilk while looking out to sea. I had to be careful not to leave the orange and brown wrapper at the bottom of my pocket. It would have been giving myself away too cheaply. I dug a hole half a metre wide and buried it there. Today I sometimes still buy a Caramilk, eat it in secret, and burn the wrapper to destroy the evidence. I am the only Montrealer for whom eating a Caramilk is a subversive, revolutionary act.

Back home, some first-rate lying covered my tracks. Always have an alibi. In the court of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, the sovereignty-association debate had plumbed the depths of the most commonplace candies. Some of their most memorable mini-boycotts included religious education, the TVA television network, my sister wearing makeup, anything made by non-unionized workers, and visits to relatives Anne Boleyn didn’t like. Boycotts invariably lead to other boycotts, until everybody ends up boycotting everything. After boycotting the Moscow Olympic Games in 1980, the tables were turned on the Americans when the Soviets boycotted the Los Angeles Games in 1984. What goes up must come down, apart from Cadbury, that is. Since 1976, the company has more than doubled in size, in spite of the separatist boycott. It just goes to show that sugar always wins in the end.

— Eric Dupont, Translated from the French by Peter McCambridge

Reproduced with permission from QC Fiction, a new imprint featuring the very best of a new generation of Quebec storytellers. qcfiction.com

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Eric-Dupont-Photo-Credit-Sarah-Scott

Born in 1970, Eric Dupont lives and works in Montreal. He has published 4 novels with Marchand de feuilles and in France with Éditions du Toucan and Éditions J’ai lu (Flammarion). He is a past winner of Radio-Canada’s “Combat des livres” (the equivalent of the CBC’s Canada Reads contest), a finalist for the Prix littéraire France-Québec and the Prix des cinq continents, and a winner of the Prix des libraires and the Prix littéraire des collégiens. His fourth novel, La fiancée américaine, has sold over 60,000 copies in Quebec alone.

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Photo_Peter-McCambridge

Originally from Ireland, Peter McCambridge holds a BA in modern languages from Cambridge University, England, and has lived in Quebec City since 2003. He runs Québec Reads and now QC Fiction. Life in the Court of Matane was the first novel he chose for this collection and the book that made him want to become a literary translator in the first place. His translation of the first chapter won the 2012 John Dryden Translation Prize.

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Jul 102016
 

John Gould 2016

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First Kiss

To get to the cemetery you had to come along our street, under the dark archway of chestnuts and maples. It must have been enchanting for the mourners, or depressing, or something. And then the thonk of plums as we pelted the procession.

Our theory was that people would be too grief-stricken to come after us, or too worried about their good clothes. This is when we were twelve or so, too old for such idiocy, but anyway. We’d load an apple basket with plums fallen from the Barfoots’ tree, and we’d duck down behind the foundation wall in the abandoned lot next to Shithead’s house a few blocks down from mine. There’d be Shithead, and Dunk, and Kev maybe, and me. Somebody would yell “Fire!” and we’d fire. The plums were soft and slippery, half rotten half of them, so you couldn’t really pitch them, more like catapult them, cupping them in your palm. Most of them would miss, but not all of them.

Just one time the procession stopped. I don’t know how many funerals we bombed that year, it seemed like a lot but it was probably only a half dozen or so. Mostly the vehicles would just keep going, crawling along like a battalion of tanks in a movie. The hearse (you got double points if you hit that, though we never actually kept score), then a limo or two, and then a bunch of just normal cars, a line of variable length depending on how much the person had been loved, I suppose, or by how many people.

But this time the limo stopped, the one behind the hearse. The hearse kept going—maybe he didn’t check his mirror, or maybe he didn’t feel right stopping with a dead body in back. But the limo stopped, and the whole procession behind it. Out of the limo crawled this guy. Like my father, that sort of age, but smaller and more angular, and of course dressed head to foot in black. He looked over our way—we’d neglected to duck back down, too surprised I guess. And he came charging.

We had a plan, which was to split up. That was our whole plan. I don’t know where the others went, but I took off for home, down the back lane. When it occurred to me how stupid that was, I cut through a couple of yards over towards the school. The mourner had singled me out, the biggest and fattest of this gang of fat little pricks, and he was coming hard, I could hear him. At one point the nerve just went out of me. The mourner found me sitting in a patch of leafy greens in somebody’s garden, crying like a five-year-old.

And what he did was he comforted me. He told me he’d been young once too, young and senseless. He was still huffing from the run, and he patted my arm and told me to go ahead and cry, that there was no shortage of things to cry about in this world. He asked me if I minded if he had a little cry too, and he had one, a few dry-eyed sobs which turned into a  laugh. “Is that really the way I weep?” he said, and he wept some more and laughed some more. He had a beard, which he gripped as though to keep his face from slipping off.

By this time my fear had deepened to the kind you don’t cry about. I sat still while he told me about somebody named Neil, a friend from his childhood. It may have been Neil’s body in the hearse, but I’ve never been sure of that. What I do know is that Neil had a major overbite as a boy, and that he was crazy about birds. He could identify a bird from a silhouette in flight, or from a snippet of song. Warbler, thrush, you name it.

After a while the mourner sort of came to himself, remembering about his funeral, I suppose. “Yep, that Neil,” he said, shaking his head. Then he gave me another pat, stood up and trotted away.

It was dinner time, but I took the long route home, past the park. There was a girl named Yasmin, an almost-cute girl from my grade, just saying goodbye to some friends at the baseball diamond. “Wanna walk?” she said, and she came up beside me. We only half knew each other and hadn’t much to talk about. Mostly she kept staring at me, and finally she said, “Have you been crying?”

I wiped my face and said that somebody had died.

“Oh,” she said. “I’m sorry about that. Who died?”

I said, “I don’t know.”

Yasmin laughed. I remember her laugh sounded like some people’s bawling. I stepped in front of her and turned and kissed her on the mouth, which I’d never done to anybody before. Yasmin kissed me back, or at least she didn’t pull away. She and her friends must have had cigarettes, because she tasted like my mother’s breath after she’d been out on the porch by herself. I put my hand on her cheek, Yasmin’s cheek, a hand still sticky and sweet with rotten plum.

My wife, Gina, doesn’t buy it. She simply won’t believe that what happened that day is at the root of what she calls my “problem.” Why call it a “problem” in the first place, if it isn’t actually a problem? That’s what I keep asking her. And she keeps laughing, which I love (Gina laughs like a cat after a bird it can’t quite reach). All that matters is that I want her, and that I’ll never stop. I’ll never stop.

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Word of Mouth

Stan’s first career was inspired by the swoop of a heron past the window of the family cottage when he was a kid. Fish were floating to the surface of Sahahikan Lake that year, and talk was that soon birds and other predators too would be succumbing to the chemicals that had been allowed to seep into a feeder stream. Stan was already disturbed by this thought, and by the fact that he and his brother had been barred from the lake, but it was the thrill of the heron’s heavy flight that truly got to him, the notion that something so alive could soon be dead, and dead because of people. Ten years later he emerged from school with a degree in marine biology. Thirty years after that he cleared out his desk at Rant Cow Hive.

Fired, laid off, whatever—the agency (actually Envirowatch, but Stan and his colleagues diverted themselves creating various anagrams) was being eviscerated, middle-aged, mid-rank characters such as himself being set unceremoniously free. A trauma, not because Stan loved the job (he resented it, the long slow failure it made of his life), but because he’d just ended his marriage, and vacated his house, and was running short on things of which to be dispossessed.

Stan’s second career was inspired by Mr. Neziri, the man across the hall from his mother at the hospital, where Stan spent more and more time in the aftermath of his sacking. Mr. Neziri and Stan’s mother were both doomed, but they were going about their deaths in radically different ways. Stan’s mother, for instance, was deaf and almost mute. Save the odd noisy non sequitur (“Won’t you stay for dinner?!?” when she was being fed through a nose tube), she held her peace about her predicament. Mr. Neziri, on the other hand… What was that sound he made? A sob, a moan? A sob-moan, a yowl-howl, a wail-whimper. It was nothing, there was no word. Actually, there was what sounded like a word once, out in the middle of one interminable jag, but in a language unknown to Stan. And then back to the meaningless caterwaul once more.

Meaningless, that was the key. To mark death you had to make a sound that carried no meaning at all, that was in fact a constant obliteration of meaning. Mr. Neziri was mourning himself, articulating his oblivion before it arrived. But what of those, such as Stan’s own mum, who couldn’t muster the strength or the vision for this task? Who would cry out for them? Didn’t there used to be professional mourners? Why shouldn’t there be once more?

Stan’s old boss Bernie (who’d also been axed) had been sending Stan links to articles called things like “Second Time Around” and “Age as an Asset” and “Repurposing the Middle-Aged Man.” What you didn’t have anymore was youthful energy and enthusiasm. What made up for that was wisdom, worldliness. Your first career had been about duty. Your new one would be about love. You were done with obligation, time to follow your bliss.

Love? Bliss? Demand, there was plenty of that. Stan was one of about a billion people soon to be robbed of somebody. His fellow boomers alone, with all their ailing parents…

He began his rehearsals at “home,” the not-quite-wretched bachelor suite out of which he kept on not moving. He’d knock back a half-mickey of vodka (a poor man’s peyote, is how he thought of it, opening him to shamanic energies), bring the lights down to a funereal gloom and get started.

The idea was to have no idea. Stan’s sound needed to be free of all influence and intent, each act of mourning incomprehensible in its own unique way. He’d made the mistake of starting with online research and now needed to erase the memory of other wailers (the Yaminawa of Peru, the Nar-wij-jerook of Australia), along, of course, with the memory of every other human utterance he’d ever heard. To be meaningless, a cry needed to be innocent of all allusion and all shape. Free jazz but freer, no key, no time signature, no consistency of tone, tempo, timbre. Stan had a decent voice (he’d rated a solo on “Softly and Tenderly” with the boys’ choir back at St. Joe’s), which was both a blessing and a curse. What he was singing now was scat but more so, a series of sounds denuded of history and prospects, a pure racket. At every moment he needed to be saying nothing.

There was a dry spell, sure. Stan ran a few ads (“When it’s forever, you want the best!”), but he knew it was personal contact that usually got you your start. And so it was. A first nibble came from his brother, who wrote to say that he’d be staying on with his firm in Fukuoka for another year because of a death one rung up the ladder. Stan replied with an update on his new career, hinting that he’d be open to a contract abroad, to which his brother came back with, “You need help, man. Seriously, I love you, but you need help.” Promising. Any significant insight was bound to be met at first with dismay. How had people responded when they first learned the fate of the natural world?

And then the breakthrough. When the police showed up a third time in response to complaints from neighbors (whose wall-pounding served as accompaniment many nights), Stan got chatting with one constable while the other wrote up his warning. An almost frighteningly empathetic individual, this guy turned out to have a sick sister (Cushy disease, could that be right?) who was busy planning her own gala funeral. “A professional mourner,” he mused. “Hey, she might just go for that!”

The audition took place in the sister’s hospital room. On another ward, in another part of the city, Stan’s mother and Mr. Neziri were still at it. Stan had two months of daily practice under his belt by this time and was beginning to feel some confidence. Indeed, the audition went well. One little phrase from “Smoke on the Water” snuck in, but his bellowing was otherwise bereft of sense, of any discernible pattern or meaning. The siblings were perfectly devastated, as were the mourners at the sister’s funeral a month or so later.

From there, things just sort of took off.

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Your Wellness This Week

Dear Doctor Barry,

My wife went through a bad time last year. She had a cancer scare, and instead of being relieved when that was over, she got anxious and depressed. At my urging she saw a psychiatrist, who tried her on a few different medications. She’s now on something new called Liberté, and for the most part it seems to be working. I’ve got my wife back!

I do have concerns, though. My wife has never been phobic, but she’s suddenly developed a fear of branches (that’s right, tree branches) and of the colour turquoise. I’m pretty sure she’s got other phobias too (is it possible she’s afraid of my chin?), but we haven’t been able to nail them down for sure. Part of the problem is that she doesn’t seem to care about them, or about much else either. She’s cheerful, but I guess the word is blasé.

Could the new drug be responsible for what’s going on? Help!?!

R.S.

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Dear R.S.,

Though Liberté is proving effective as a treatment for general anxiety, it was originally developed to combat thanatophobia, defined as a morbid or persistent fear of death. The health scare that preceded your wife’s depression likely caused her doctor to zero in on that issue.

The main component of Liberté is a derivative of toxoplasma, which you may recognize as the parasite associated with cats that can be harmful to immune-compromised individuals and unborn children. (Pregnant ladies, stay away from that litter box!) Researchers discovered that mice infected with toxoplasma lost their fear of cats. Extracted and modified, the same agent turns out to be well-tolerated by humans.

Clinical studies showed that this agent suppressed the human fear not just of predators but of death in general, and thus reduced anxiety. Some unfortunate side effects emerged, however, in particular lassitude and even ennui. Having lost their fear of death, people seemed to lose their zest for life. As one subject expressed it, “Without a fear of death, our stories have lost their sense of an ending. We’re left with a beginning and then a great big pointless middle.”

To combat this troublesome impact, BoothTiborMcGuane decided to add a psychostimulant to their version of the drug. The product known as Liberté includes a small dose of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine salts, the sort of combination found in ADHD medications. This stimulant has probably helped maintain your wife’s energy and initiative to some degree, but has perhaps contributed to secondary anxieties. Why her anxiety has manifested in these particular forms may remain a mystery. Incidentally, the fear of chins is termed geniophobia and is more common than you might think.

It’s a matter of trade-offs. Are these new fears preferable to the overarching fear from which she suffered before? That’s something she should discuss with her psychiatrist. In the meantime, you can of course support her by acknowledging the reality of her fears, even when they seem ludicrous to you, and by reassuring her that a certain level of apathy is natural for someone on this medication. You can also remind her that even though she doesn’t fear death anymore, she’s still going to die. Exercise is important too, and an active social life, areas in which you can certainly encourage her.

Dr. B.

—John Gould

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John Gould 2016
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John Gould is the author of a novel, Seven Good Reasons Not to Be Good, and of two collections of very short stories, including Kilter, a finalist for the Giller prize. The stories appearing here on NC are from the manuscript of a third such collection. Gould has worked as an environmental researcher, tree planter, carpenter, and arts administrator. He served for years on the editorial board of the Malahat Review and teaches writing at the University of Victoria.

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Jul 062016
 

Lance Olsen

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Excerpt from his novel-in-progress, My Red Heaven, a kind of love song for the Berlin of 1927, when everything seemed possible except the future that happened.

The Doberman’s name is Delia. Delia won’t see the end of this day. She doesn’t know that. What she knows is she’s on the longest, most glorious walk of her life. There is no time but this time, no place but this place. She can scarcely endure all the smells and sounds and touches and tastes inside her. She is with her masters and they have given her these radiant gifts and it is impossible to conceive of a way to thank them enough.

She doesn’t understand the woman’s name behind her is Elise Lemme. She doesn’t understand the man’s name is Otto Hampel. Otto and Elise woke Delia improbably early this morning, asking her if she wanted to go out. Delia always wants to go out. That is her only knowledge. The flat she lives in is too small, the air in it too used up, hope nowhere to be found except on the other side of the front door.

The whole of Delia’s day, the whole of Delia’s life, is an almost unendurable waiting for two questions: Do you want to go out, girl? Is that what you want?

She bounds out of her dream (in which she is bounding for birds on the grassy shores of the Schlachtensee) and, barking rapturously, bounds from her masters’ bed into her food bowl waiting for her beside the stove. She wolfs it down, feels the choker collar going on, the leash clicking into place. Somewhere behind her she senses the nub of her tail, over which she is continuously bewildered she possesses no will, furiously aspiring to wag.

And now she is here.

And now she is here.

And now she is here.

Delia has no room for any other idea in her head.

Elise is making several short loudnesses in the direction of Otto. Delia can’t understand what they mean. Delia doesn’t care. All she cares about is this flawless motion she is inhabiting. All she cares about is the prosperity of aromas and music through which she advances. How can one being celebrate them all? Morning soil. Clang gods. Urine echoes. Flower breaths. Honk frights. The indescribably compelling shits of other dogs — some shoe polishers no taller than Delia’s hocks, some small-bear huge and hairy, some agile, some nervous, some crippled, some cocky, some bereft, some almost as elated as Delia herself.

Delia savors an instant’s elementary pleasure knowing she could kill them all.

Elise says to Otto, smoke bulging from her mouth up into the acute morning nip: I feel like an idiot.

It’s not going to rain today, Otto replies.

He considers the enlivening sky through the branches, adds: It should rain on a day like today.

Maybe we should give it more thought, Elise says.

She is twenty-three, barely finished grammar school before dropping away from ruler smacks and painful benches to become a domestic servant, and now her hands look forty-five, puffy, reddish, big-knuckled. Otto is twenty-seven, large-eared, thin-lipped, meager-chinned. He fell into factory work after the war and cherishes Elise’s hands intensely because they tell him the same story every time he looks at them: I know what life feels like. I know how to pilot this place.

Maybe we haven’t done the math right, Elise says.

But she already knows there’s no math left to do. All the numbers are all the numbers. If there were more numbers to do, they would do them.

Otto opens his mouth to respond but Elise’s frown stills him in mid-optimism. Wordless, they finish the cigarette they’re sharing. Otto kneels, calls Delia over, clicks off her leash. The Doberman wavers, wavers, looking up at him for guidance. Otto pulls a fist-sized dirty white ball out of the pocket of his double-breasted coat and chucks it far down the path between the lindens.

Delia explodes after it, passing a funny-eyed old woman with long gray hair dragging her large leather purse behind her on the sand like a comatose poodle.

Otto lights another cigarette, sucks the smoke deep into the abundant branches of his lungs, passes it to Elise, trying to let the burn in his chest overrun him. Near the end of the path Delia scoops the ball up, brakes two meters farther on, spins, and, imagining the skull of a small animal between her jaws — a squirrel, a baby — bursts back toward them, an ecstatic black visual slur.

Sentence fragments orbit around Otto’s head. He decides not to speak any of them. Instead he kneels, calls Delia over, clicks her leash back on. Elise bends and fluffles the dog’s neck and face and ears.

And now Delia is here.

And now she is here.

And now she is here.

And now, slobbery dirty white ball in her mouth, she is trotting somewhere else. She can’t wait to find out where. She pushes forward into sunlight, proud, whirring with joy, oblivious that at the end of this walk she will meet a long line of puzzled fellow dogs. Delia will wait alertly with them, fragrances and loudnesses boisterous around her, utterly confident her masters have the situation in hand, and at the end of that line a sour-smelling man in a white lab coat will unceremoniously yank her choker tight as if she had just misbehaved (although she will be sure she hasn’t) and usher her into an airtight metal box with three young baffled yipping dogs whom Delia has never met (at which point her tail stub will decide to stop wagging), slam down the door, and flip on the gas valve.

For just under a minute Delia will remember bounding at those birds in her dream, feeling as if she is just at the gray edge of waking up again, and then she will be over.

x

By the time the sour-smelling man in the white lab coat opens the door, Otto and Elise will be gone, already several blocks away on their way home to their cramped flat in gritty Wedding, wordless, just two other dog owners among thousands who couldn’t pay Berlin’s raised canine tax.

They will miss Delia desperately for months, alternating between unconditional numbness and so much anxiety they will feel everything in the world will implode in ten seconds. They will relive that last betrayal, that line of rattled dogs, that metal box, that look in Delia’s eyes as the vet bent toward her over and over again in the middle of the night, sometimes together, sometimes alone, and then — wondrously — less and less, because, they will learn, that’s how damage intuitively diminishes itself in the human body.

Eight years, and they will wake up married.

Five more, and Elise will open her front door to be handed a curt telegram informing her that her brother has been killed in action somewhere in France fighting for something she can no longer fathom.

In the thirty seconds it will take her to read and reread that telegram, everything will convert into something else.

Perhaps as a way to honor her brother, her dog, honor all the feelings Elise and Otto almost forgot they were once capable of experiencing, the couple will begin writing hundreds of postcards in clumsy script and bad grammar that urge their recipients to refrain from donating money to their government, refuse military service, resist the thing their country has become.

Elise and Otto will leave those postcards in apartment stairwells and on park benches, in mailboxes and beneath neighbors’ doors.

Almost every one of them will be picked up by strangers and immediately handed over to the Gestapo. The sheer number will lead the Gestapo to conclude they are dealing with a large, well-orchestrated, wide-ranging conspiracy.

It will take nearly eighteen months for them to realize they were wrong.

Seventeen years after he throws Delia’s dirty white ball down that path for the last time, a weighted and angled guillotine blade in a backyard work shed at Plötzensee Prison will drop through Otto’s neck.

The blade will be reset and three minutes later drop through Elise’s.

Both Hampels will be strapped onto their backs so they can see their futures flying toward them.

What will be unusual about their executions is that nothing will be unusual about their executions. Otto’s and Elise’s punishments will constitute two among the nearly three thousand carried out in that work shed. Like all relatives of the beheaded and hanged in Plötzensee, theirs will be obliged to pay a fee of 1.50 reichsmarks for every day their family members spent in their cells, three hundred for the execution itself, and twelve pfennigs to cover postage for the invoice of expenses.

Like all bodies of the executed at Plötzensee, the Otto’s and Elise’s will be released to Herr Professor Doctor Hermann Stieve, physician at the University of Berlin, who with his students will dissect them for research purposes. The results over the years will generate two hundred and thirty important academic papers, including one providing irrefutable evidence that the rhythm method is not effective in preventing pregnancy.

x

Now, though, none of that is happening.

It is just Otto and Elise strolling along a sandy path between two rows of trees on a bluing day. Just Delia trotting proudly in front of them, leading the way toward that envelope containing the invoice of expenses.

A black shadow scrambles across their feet and flickers out.

Elise thinks cloud.

She reflexively raises her head to spot in the apartment house across the street two white faces hovering in two otherwise black windows, one directly above the other, peering down at her without expression.

—Lance Olsen

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Lance Olsen is author of more than 20 books of and about innovative writing. His next is the novel Dreamlives of Debris, forthcoming from Dzanc in the spring of 2017. A Guggenheim, Berlin Prize, D.A.A.D. Artist-in-Berlin Residency, N.E.A. Fellowship, and Pushcart Prize recipient, as well as a Fulbright Scholar, he teaches experimental narrative theory and practice at the University of Utah.

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Jul 012016
 

Before_Cover_Consortium_CMYK

The following excerpt appears early in Vaseline Buddha (translated by Jung Yewon) yet contains all of the important themes and patterns, including the narrator’s interest in writing non-traditional narratives, his illness, and his reflections on death. It also contains crucial metafictional commentary on how the novel is constructed sentence-for-sentence, with its repeating use of “thought,” the book’s most important word. —Jason DeYoung

Read our review here.

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I’m somewhat curious as to what kind of a distorted story will result overall when you devote yourself to the details with no thought to the overall structure. One of the reasons why I don’t write stories with a clear structure or theme is because there’s something about such stories, in and of themselves, that make me shudder with their boredom, and another, because just one look at our reality will show you how far removed such stories are from our reality—or my own life, at least—and how different the truth of our reality is from what’s depicted in them

What I can write is a story that’s not quite a narrative, and is much too obscure and unstable. Not being obsessed with a completed story will create an opening into different territories in novels. A story with gaps and cracks and leaps and loopholes, a story that’s incomplete somehow, may more faithfully reflect real life. What exerts the greatest influence on my life is things without substance, and I’m turning my life into something without substance, and as I regard the struggle against things without substance, or tangible substance, as the only genuine struggle—this problem of mine seems to be a fundamental problem of the world as well—I have no choice but to clumsily write something without substance.

Make it a story, if possible, that’s not full of the power of narrative, a story seeking to break away from narratives whose naivety makes you smile, narratives that are dull because of their inherent tendency to seek power, and because their dull ideas are generally audacious, and their audacious aim to enlighten is inevitably dull. The persistent tendency in me to prevent the unfolding of a story, and the belief that there’s no narrative to life, could perhaps make that possible. There are, of course, people who believe that there’s a narrative to life, some of whom seek to turn their own lives into something with a narrative, through whatever means possible, and some of them do so with ambition, and some write narrative texts, and some reveal their ambition without hiding it, for it’s difficult to hide such an ambition when you have it, but among such people, there are probably some who come to realize that in the end, their lives can’t be a narrative, and that a narrative is not a principle that penetrates life, and turn their attention to something that’s not narrative. What I want to write is something  that depicts the fragmentary aspects of life, which are like a tangled skein, in a fragmentary manner, something that reflects my own life, which in itself is a great chaos, by creating and maintaining chaos, the greatest constituent of life.

Perhaps I seek to write something that’s fit to be read on a rock in a forest you come to while on a daily walk, or in a café on a street where you’re traveling. I would bring into my story fragmentary stories whose pages, turned by the wind, can be read at random, stories that allow you to close your eyes while reading and dwell for a moment on a scene that can be taken out from the book and savored, stories that are far from being narrative. Even when I talk about the anecdotes, they will be stories that are not quite narratives, stories that cannot be narratives. Perhaps even as I talk about the anecdotes, I could talk about my impressions on the anecdotes and the thoughts created by those impressions, preventing the anecdotes from developing into narratives.

What I seek to emphasize as I write this story, which perhaps says nothing, and in which something becomes nothing when the standards are changed, or whose meaning or importance changes (Some of the stories I tell could end up being told somehow even though I had no intention of telling them, or tried not to tell them. And there will be almost no difference between some of them, even if there’s a difference between those that are told and those that are not told), is not the story itself, but ways in which stories are told (The ways would include saying something that doesn’t seem to make sense at one glance in a clever way so that it does make sense), and ideas that prevent something from degenerating into a story—ideas that prevent a story, even as it is told, from developing into a story in the end, or at least into a complete story—or, since many ideas come from things, something that is developing into ideas on things, or thoughts on thoughts I’m thinking, or on the pleasure or the difficulty of thinking, or thoughts on pleasure or difficulty itself.

And I’d have to subdue the various voices within myself that raise themselves or speak simultaneously—some of the voices seem to plead some kind of a difficulty, and some of them are on their way to understanding a cruel, merciless heart—or give weight to one of the voices. I’d have to close my ears to the end to the nastiest of them all, and press and suppress it, the voice that comes from the part deepest within me, the voice that denies everything, the voice that is used to silence or has learned to be silent.

Perhaps that is the result of a certain conflict between a figure I have designated as the first person narrator of the story I’m writing and myself, for it could be difficult for a narrator, who feels uncomfortable that the author’s voice slips in, and that his autonomy is violated, and the author, who sticks his head out while hiding behind the narrator, to speak in one voice. I already sense that the figure I have designated as the narrator would spoil the fun of the figure identified as the author, and dash cold water on the thoughts that the author has, possibly leading the author to stand up to him even more for fun, and the person actually writing this story could find himself in an awkward position between the narrator and the author, and have a difficult time arbitrating between the two and side with one of them at times, but find himself in an ambiguous position at times (Perhaps this story will be written by at least three people), and I’d have to write so that a calm tone and a cheerful tone cross and collide like dissonance, so that the unity of tone is broken, and tell the darkest story in the most cheerful way, or vice versa.

*

Anyway, there are other thoughts I’m obsessed with now, thoughts about death. Thoughts about death, of course, have always followed me around, and I’m as familiar with death as I am with the spots on my body I’ve had since I was born.

In light of the fact that although many things in life seem predetermined, nothing, in fact, is predetermined, and that you yourself can decide everything at every moment, and if you think carefully, very carefully on that fact, there come moments in which suicide, the best choice you can make, becomes very alluring, and such moments come to me far too often.

What I think about mostly, however, is death in general, not suicide through which I would murder myself, and not actual death, but something abstract, like the memory of a day when you shivered terribly in the cold, or a feeling you had upon seeing an abstract painting, or a sudden thought you have when looking at a dead fish, still intact, on your plate in a restaurant.

It’s summer now, and in full bloom by my bedroom window are trumpet creepers, which are known to be toxic, or which I somehow came to believe are toxic, though I don’t know whether or not it’s true, and which I could touch by reaching out a hand, over the wall of my neighboring house, and looking at them, I think of death once again. For some time, I had indulged in the idea that the toxin in the showy flower could make me die slowly, or at least go insane, and felt a strong desire to eat a trumpet creeper, and at one time had to realize that desire in another way, by coming up with the sentence, When a trumpet creeper dressed in the wrong clothes is going round and round many horses, you need to make an effort to row and go to the bottom of the lake.

Summer was always the most difficult season for me to endure; in any case, it was difficult for me to feel that way about any other season besides summer. It was difficult, at least, for me to do so as I did about summer. And that was because I thought summer was a difficult season for me, that it was inevitably a difficult season for me, but there really were aspects about summer that gave me a difficult time. For several years when summer came around, I felt that the summer would be difficult to endure, and each time, summer came to me as a season that would take me to a point of no return. Thus, summer seemed to be a season I had to stand up to, and I thought I could write something about an exhausting struggle and tragic loss of a summer, with the title, “The Record of a Summer’s Struggle,” or “The Record of a Summer’s Loss.” And I considered using one of them as the title of what I’m writing, but concluded that they were more fitting as the titles of certain periods you went through.

Nevertheless, I managed, barely, to endure through several summers that came to me, and was faced with another summer. And yet, although I didn’t know the exact cause—for I didn’t try to find out the exact cause—my condition was steadily growing worse, and so for a long time, I had a sort of a belief, the belief that I, or my condition, wouldn’t improve, that it would never improve, that it could go terribly wrong at one point, and the belief seemed excessive in a way.

But when this summer came around, I passed out in my house, as if through a miracle that comes to someone who has unshaken faith and clings to it, as if through the realization of a long-held belief, and the incident was something that had been foreseen through dizziness that had been growing worse for a long time, and I’d prepared for it in my own way, that is, by not doing anything. My terrible negligence of everything made that possible for me.

The physical ailment that I’d imagined would come to me, however, was seizure or leg trouble or something of the sort. I’d also thought at one time that if one of my legs became impaired, I could procure a nice cane, and with three legs, now that one had been added, take more complicated, rhythmic steps, which wouldn’t be possible with two legs (I actually took a very careful look at an old woman with bad legs at the park one day, taking modest steps, relying on a cane, submitting to a certain rhythm, and afterwards when I saw normal people walking, they seemed somewhat stupid and awkward. And if I carried around a cane, I could raise it and politely scare off a dog on a walk with its master, delighted to see me and about to come running even though we didn’t know each other, and prevent it from coming toward me, or use the cane to make the dog come closer as it changed its mind while coming toward me and refused to come any closer, feeling threatened by the cane I was holding or by me, holding the cane, or, before all this happened, I wouldn’t have to chase away the tiresome dogs one by one, for the dogs could lose their nerve early on, seeing the cane, and not come close. And as occasion demanded, I could scare someone off, acting as if I would beat him if necessary, even if I didn’t actually beat him with the cane, or I could, using the cane, pluck a ripe apple or a rose, hanging from a branch or a vine reaching outside the wall of someone’s house, at a height I couldn’t reach with my hand. I’m of the opinion that anyone passing by should be allowed to pluck an apple or a rose hanging from a branch or a vine reaching outside the wall of someone’s house, but once, I was caught by the owner while plucking a rose, and was somewhat humiliated. The owner of the house was a philosopher, well known to the public, and he was furious at me, as if quite upset that one of his roses had been stolen. The aged philosopher seemed to be of the philosophy that nothing that belonged to him should be taken away from him by anyone. But it was my philosophy, if I had any philosophy at all, that something so small as taking an apple or a rose without the owner’s permission should be allowed on this earth, still the only planet among the countless planets in the universe known to have life forms. A world in which you couldn’t pilfer a luscious fruit or a rose while taking a walk on a bright afternoon or in the middle of the night would indeed be a world without hope. After that, I saw the philosopher in front of his house, severely scolding a dog, though I’m not sure if it was his dog or someone else’s, or what it had done, and he was scolding it as menacingly as he did when I plucked one of his roses. In other words, I was scolded by him just as the hapless dog was scolded. Mercy was possibly the ultimate sentiment that a human could have toward other humans and living things, but it seemed that he had no mercy. He always seemed fraught with anger, and it was possible that he became angry even with his desk or dishes from time to time).

Nevertheless, the culmination of the persisting poor condition of my body in the form of dizziness seemed to be something that suited me as the final outcome, although I hadn’t secretly anticipated it, and it felt a little like a miracle when it actually happened because I’d been hoping in my heart that something would throw my life, which was much too tranquil in a way, and almost unrealistic—I had an earnest desire to disturb a stable condition, even as I sought stability—into confusion, albeit slightly.

When I was severely dizzy, I felt as if I were suffering from seasickness on land, and I accepted dizziness as my natural state of being by thinking that I knew that I was on a rotating earth because of my dizziness, and that dizziness was something quite natural you could feel on the earth, in this dizzy world, and sometimes, even when I kept still, I felt as if I were standing on a slab of ice floating down the river, or as if I were falling slowly, while at the same time soaring with an infinite lightness, into a seemingly bottomless space devoid of gravity, but also as if I were sinking, like some kind of a sediment, deep into the ocean where enormous pressure weighed down upon me, and at the same time, I felt as if my entire body were a building that was collapsing, unable to endure its own weight after many years.

But the dizziness I felt was something that could not be described properly through any color, shape, texture, figure of speech, or anything at all (One day, it seemed as if the floor of my room were slowly tilting this way and that—one of the symptoms of dizziness I felt could be described in this way—and it seemed that if there were balls on the floor, they would roll around here and there, but the problem seemed to lie in that I couldn’t free myself of the thought that my dizziness wouldn’t cease so long as it felt as if the nonexistent balls were rolling around on the floor and I failed to make the balls come to a stop), and I was frustrated, while at the same time fascinated, by the impossibility of describing the dizziness—I felt a bit of joy that I couldn’t describe the dizziness, which was purely because I was thinking about how easily the modifier “indescribable” was accompanied by the word “joy”—and thought that the only adjective that could describe it, inadequate as it was, was “uncontrollable (But is this an adjective?),” and that the dizziness some people felt was something that separated them from others, and would be as distinct and diverse as their personalities or appearances.

*

The moment I lost consciousness, I felt as if I were clutching the hem of a woman’s long skirt, that I was grasping it with more strength in my hand than was necessary, but I thought that in reality, the strength in my hand that was grasping it was leaving, and when I woke up after being unconscious for I don’t know how long, I was, in fact, loosely clutching the hem of the curtain on my kitchen window, made of thick velvet.

But what I couldn’t understand, above all, was how I’d woken up by the window, which was several steps away from the living room, when it seemed that I was in the living room when I collapsed. Perhaps I walked slowly toward the window the moment I collapsed, losing consciousness, or crawled quickly, when it wasn’t necessary, like some animal that
crawls quickly.

The sudden swooning brought me a peculiar sort of pleasure, but I couldn’t tell if it was because I could think that I was clutching a woman’s skirt hem, even as I lost consciousness and collapsed—I wasn’t sure, however, if this very Kafkaesque experience was an experience of Kafka’s, penned in one of his works, or my own—or if there was an inherent pleasure that could be found in the loss of consciousness, a pleasure that could be found if you sought to find it. The moment I lost consciousness, I actually thought that I was pulling and taking off a woman’s skirt, a daring yet rude thing to do, but one that was delightful in a way, and also thought that I couldn’t help laughing, though it wasn’t something to laugh about, but I don’t think I actually laughed.

The swooning also brought a peculiar sort of satisfaction, for there seemed to be an infinite space within the dizziness of swooning through which I could spread out infinitely, after being sucked up into the whirlpool of dizziness because of dizziness. And the incident gave me a sense of anticipation, a great sense of anticipation, for more to come in the future (Anticipation is a very strange thing, making you anticipate such things, and making you, at times, anticipate your own fall and decline above all).

Having woken up by the window, I felt as if I could lose consciousness again at any moment, and everything seemed like a lie, and I thought somewhat clearly that everything seemed like a lie, in a way that was different from the way in which life itself seemed like a lie, but that there was nothing strange about it. In the end, I felt an acute pain in my knee joint, which had been bad for some time, and while trying to focus on it, wondered, This pain, where’s its origin, and when was its origin? but it occurred to me that these expressions weren’t correct, so I wondered again, What is the origin of this pain? and wondered if this expression was correct, as I lost consciousness again, and this time, I woke up in the bathroom. I couldn’t remember how I’d made my way from the window to the bathroom, and why there, of all places, either.

Sitting crumpled on the bathroom floor, and feeling great sorrow this time, I thought that I’d never be able to regain my consciousness if I lost it again, and agonized over whether I should stay where I was, hoping to get better, or go to the emergency room, and if I were to go to the emergency room, how I’d get there, and thought that I’d never gone to the emergency room in an ambulance and felt an urge to do so, but in the end, I called a taxi, and while being taken away in a taxi, I clenched my hand tightly, as if I holding onto a string of consciousness which I’d lose forever if I let go, and thought that it wouldn’t matter that much even if I did lose consciousness, as if falling asleep, on my way to the hospital, and again thought, somewhat playfully, that if I swooned again, I should make sure to grab the hem of a woman’s skirt.

I got to the emergency room, and lay on a bed without being able to properly explain my symptoms to the doctor, and as he took certain measures, I wondered whether or not I should let go of the string of consciousness, and felt a strong desire to do so, even while fighting against it, and saw the curtains flapping in the open window, and remembered that it was while I was staying cooped up in a hotel in New York that I thought, looking at the curtains that were flapping in the same way, that I wouldn’t go outside unless a gigantic sailboat, with a full load and the sails taut with wind, entered through the window, and the memory brought me a strange, almost unbearable pleasure.

—Jung Young Moon translated by Jung Yewon

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Asia Talks: Author Jung Young Moon
Jung Young Moon is the author of numerous works of fiction including Vaseline Buddha, A Contrived World, A Most Ambiguous Sunday, and A Man Who Barely Exists. Jung has also translated more than forty books from English into Korean. In 2005 Jung participated in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program.

Jung Yewon

Jung Yewon is the translator of One Hundred Shadows, by Hwang Jung-eun. She is also the translator of No One Writes Back by Jang Eun-jin and one of the co-translators of A Most Ambiguous Sunday and Other Stories by Jung Young Moon, both published by Dalkey Archive as part of their Library of Korean Literature series.

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Jun 112016
 

A D Jameson

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You’ve probably heard about me. I was murdered by women. It’s OK. I had it coming. I deserved it. And it made me kind of famous. I’m pretty famous. My death was all over the evening news. It was the murder of the decade, a ratings sensation. The details are not for the faint of heart. They’re fairly gruesome. Sheila used a frying pan to bash in my head. Antonia tore open my throat with a paring knife. The coroner, later, couldn’t determine who struck first. I wish I could shed some light on the subject, but it was a blur. A whole lot of things were happening at once. Margaret stabbed me with some scissors, in the heart. It wasn’t the center of my heart, but very close. Her RN training served her well. Cecilia slashed at my legs with a knitting needle—a pity. I had magnificent legs, very sexy calves. I know she admired them, Ceci did. In the end, she destroyed what she couldn’t have. At least, I think that’s what she was thinking. I can’t be certain.

The women were nice to me beforehand, gentle and sweet. They invited me over for dinner. I should have suspected something then. I knew they despised me. They had good reasons to be vengeful. But I thought they loved me still. So when Melissa called, I was eager to believe. She said she’d been talking with the gals, and that they all felt the need to get on with their lives. She said they’d decided: let bygones be bygones. It seemed too easy, but I agreed. What can I say? I couldn’t deny them anything. I never wished them any harm. In retrospect, they got into my head.

The meal was nice. They cooked me lamb chops, which were my favorite. As well as roasted baby potatoes, and sautéed mushrooms and asparagus. And for dessert, they made lemon sorbet. Which later turned out to be poisoned. The women weren’t taking any chances.

We had a lot of drinks with dinner: wine and bourbon and shots of Malört. At last, Barbara stood up and hoisted her glass. She proposed a toast on my behalf. It was an intricate, rambling speech. She must have spent hours preparing and practicing it, the dear. I wish I could remember what she said. But I wasn’t paying much attention. I was staring at Amanda, who was winking and smiling at me. And Constance was toying with her hair, and winking, too, and blowing me kisses.

Barbara concluded. Sally stood up and said it was time for the entertainment. Some of the women started to dance—Mandy and Megan, Deborah and Grace, and Sherry Ann. They’d choreographed it. It was kind of like a striptease. I was intrigued. I straightened up, started paying more attention.

That’s when it happened. Lulu crept up from behind and started to choke me. Samantha meanwhile pinned down my hands, with help from Mindy and Denise. Vanessa struck me across the chin, while Kelly and Madelyn castrated me. The rest is history.

To their credit, they didn’t deny it. The women didn’t conceal my body. Instead they threw my corpse from the balcony into the street. “See what we’ve done!” they loudly proclaimed. “It is we who have murdered him! We have his blood on our hands!” And with this they held out their hands and let people photograph them, and interview them.

Of course they were arrested and there was a trial. There had to be. They spent their time in the media spotlight. It was a bit of a circus, really. There were debates and oversized headlines. Pundits pontificated, and politicians argued. Academics presented papers at conferences. The nation was scandalized and thrown into an uproar. Some called for justice, while others said that justice had already been served. The women grew famous far and wide. Men sent them proposals, begged them to “come and murder me.” But the women ignored them, god bless their hearts. They said they’d been after only me. They’d taken their fury out on me. They proved a class act, declining book deals and record contracts. They refused to pose for Playboy, or any other magazine. And when the TV movie got made, they issued a statement, urging people not to watch it. They said my death wasn’t entertainment, but a necessary correction. They’d done what they’d done for humanity’s sake, and the good of the land.

In the end, they were acquitted, one and all. Due to extenuating circumstances, or evidence tampering—technicalities. It made no sense to me, but law wasn’t my strong suit. I’m no legal scholar.

I bet you’re wondering if I hate them. No. How could I? I had one of the finer deaths. If I’m being honest, it’s how I secretly wanted to go—hence the curious manner in which I lived my life. The heart is crafty in its steady pursuit of desire. I have no regrets. If you had asked me, I wouldn’t have said so at the time, but deep down, I always knew, in the end, I’d be murdered by women.

—A D Jameson

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A D Jameson is the author of three books: the short story collection Amazing Adult Fantasy (Mutable Sound, 2011), the novel Giant Slugs (Lawrence & Gibson, 2011), and the inspirational volume 99 Things to Do When You Have the Time (Compendium, 2013). His fiction has appeared in Conjunctions, Denver Quarterly, Fiction International, Brooklyn Rail, PANK, and dozens of other journals, while his articles on film and pop culture have appeared at HTMLGiant, Big Other, and Press Play. He is currently a PhD candidate in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he’s finishing up a book on geek cinema.

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Jun 102016
 

Julian Herbert

 

I sell sheepskins. Perfect for people who practice transcendental meditation.

The sign juts up suddenly in the sky above the beltway. It’s a hazy deep green, rectangular and rusting away. Sitting shotgun, with my notebook in hand, it takes me a few moments to understand and write down the words. Fevers bring on this sort of sluggish lucidity. I want to laugh but the purple bolt of pain that slashes from my jaw to my ear is so bright that I find myself curled up into a ball in the seat. Without slowing her Mazda the least bit (the bitch has a Mazda; three years ago she was barely surviving by turning tricks, picking up paying pricks at El Diablito Tun Tun to the sound of reggaeton rhythms), Lisandra looks at me and says:

“You want an aspirin, baby?”

It’s neither a question nor a statement. It’s just polite auto-babble. A salicylic silk handkerchief to dull the razor blades of varying thickness slicing my face, the face of nothing. I answer no with a shiver: that was the babble I used to sputter out when I was a kid and thought about murdering Mom.

My mom made a living as cold mill laminator in the AHMSA Steel Plant No. 1. Every day she returned home from work encrusted from head to toe in metal shavings, and white from saltpeter, the soles of her feet cracking, her knees tight and creaking like knots, her calves hard as a cutting board. She made me massage her with Stanhome Foot Repair the whole afternoon while we watched reruns of tacky soap operas: “A Girl Named Miracle,” “Rina,” and “The Strange Return of Diana Salazar.” Once in a while we could hear Papa shouting as he played marbles out in the garden with the little kids. It made me really angry that he had permission to go out and play while I stayed inside.

“It’s you I love the most,” she said if I argued, her face taking on an expression she meant to look sweet but which always struck me as obscene.

Sometimes when I gave her massages I daydreamed, imagining Mom toppling into an enormous blast furnace, her body vaporized in the boiling pig iron (in school I’d seen some crude sketches of those gigantic ladles used to hold molten steel). It was a nightmarish vision and it made me feel enormously sad, almost bad enough to want to die too, but I consoled myself by playing marbles with Dad and the kids next door.

Sometimes Mom complained of a headache.

“Do you want an aspirin?” I’d ask her, imagining that maybe the pharmacist had accidentally dropped a few sleeping pills into the bottle of aspirin. Or better yet, a cyanide capsule like secret agents used in spy movies.

It wasn’t quite dark yet but she gave me my late afternoon snack and sent me off to bed.

“You’re the best boy in the world,” she would say, bending over me, before switching off the light. “Some day God will reward you so much, because there’s nothing holier in this world than someone who looks after their mother.”

Then she’d leave me there in my dark room. I’d lay awake for a long time. I’d listen to the television through the wall, trying to imagine a face and a situation for each character. I’d listen to the voices of the neighbors’ kids in the street, making fun of Dad’s stupidities. I’d review my plans for how to kill her until I was finally overcome by sadness or sleep.

“C’mon now, stop that,” says Lisandra. “You can’t go on like that, baby. Really.” She drums her fingers on the steering wheel until she remembers the prescription. “You’ve got to take a shot of that stupid Cetri-. . . .”

“Ceftriaxone.”

“That’s it.”

“And Acetaminophen.”

“Stop writing in your notebook, man, and listen to me. You’ve got to take your medicine and give it to your wife, too. Because, look, with that scrawny, flea-bitten body of hers, Cecilia isn’t gonna be able to put up with your little joke until you decide you’ve got the balls to tell her the truth, ok? You inject her or she dies, and then let’s see how you get rid of her body.

We cut across the edge of the city by a side street before hitting the bottleneck from the construction on the new bridge. Lisandra stops to get my prescription filled in a Guadalajara pharmacy. I stay in the car with my head leaning against the glass, reading over my notes. My hands are throbbing. I feel a spiral of pressure in my chest and my head, a spiral of pressure sliding out of my mouth like a vaporous boa constrictor. My fever must have risen to more than 102˚. They can all go to hell: I’m not taking any pills or injections. And Cecilia isn’t either.

Lisandra is just scornful of Cecilia’s body; the last vestige of the fact that she was once my wife.

I’d gone to Havana to play a show as the bassist in Daddy Dada. We performed in the Plaza de la Dignidad on the same bill as Elvis Manuel and Gente de Zona, playing on stage with our backs to the office of foreign affairs. There were about fifty or two hundred or two hundred thousand black flags with a white star in the middle (the number varies according to the level of patriotism of the Cuban who tells you about them), waving over our heads and making one hell of a racket throughout our whole set. I felt that I’d landed on a Caribbean island of heartless but well-intentioned pirates. Pirates with short-term collective amnesia: every so often they hoisted their corsair flag, as if that would stop the merciless English commandants from raping their mothers the way Blackbeard did.

The moment the show was over all of us musicians in Daddy Dada, like good little Mexican boys, immediately took off to scour the town for whores. (A Mexican is easy to spot in Havana, the taxi driver explained to us: he’s got a big belly, he’s demanding, he’s stingy, he dresses well, he sports his bling, and he asks where to find the blonde whores with the lightest skin.) They took us in a Chinese van to the legendary Diablito Tun Tun, the whole club throbbing with the sound of yet more reggaeton. I’d almost jump out a second-story window to get away from that hellish music, and the fans even clamor for autographs. It drives me fucking nuts: I was once an aspiring artist but a couple of rappers already have everything I ever dreamed of.

Lisandra was standing there at the door of the club, with her almost transparent eyes and her lightly freckled breasts, swaying more gracefully than a Las Vegas table dancer (collectivist and affable: “You’re not a penny pincher, I can tell you like to share.”) and asking for some Cuban pesos so she could get through the door. I paid her way in, treated her to a Red Bull, and fifteen minutes later we were back outside. Her “cousin” gave us a lift in his broken-down Ford to the half-dead entrance into central Havana where her “aunt” loaned her a room (with a TV with an antenna that could pick up the channels out of Miami) so she could spend some time alone with “her friends.”

I paid in advance.

Lisandra handed me a condom. I told her that first I wanted to give her head. She stripped naked without a word. She lay on her back, looking at the ceiling, spread her legs and let me sink my face between them. As I was stroking her soft hairy mound, I felt how she was getting excited little by little. There was a moment––the most intense one we’ve ever experienced together––when her back arched and her fingers very softly brushed the hair on my head. It barely lasted a second. Then she sat up all of a sudden, grabbed the condom from where I’d placed it on the bureau, and said to me:

“Alright: now put it on and get it over with.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re a tourist; you can’t touch me that way.”

“Why not?”

“Because tourists make me wanna puke.”

I was so offended that I immediately had the idea that I wanted to marry her. I wanted to drag her back to Mexico, chain her to the wall of some shadeless, sun-bleached patio, force her to scrub the floors, wrapped tight in a pair of denim short-shorts that would allow me to comfortably appreciate (from the imaginary recliner of a postmodern creole slave driver) her legs and her ass.

“OK,” I told her.

I slipped on the rubber and came inside her as fast as I could.

Courting her was the easiest thing of all: three short days later we were already engaged. She gave me only two conditions: first, that her “cousin” not find out yet, and, second, that I let her keep going to the Diablito Tun Tun the same as always while we waited for her visa to be approved. It seemed reasonable to me. The afternoon that I had to catch the plane back to Mexico, Lisandra took me home to ask for her hand. Her father cried.

We got married. I got her out of Cuba and, for a few months, we lived together in my old apartment. It didn’t take me long to realize that it was going to be impossible to humiliate her, hate her, or fall in love with her: Lisandra is the sweetest person I know. She’s also as greasy as a pig and as hard as a hammer: everything slides right off her, and she puts a dent in everything. On the other hand, the sexual aura she so strongly exuded when I met her disappeared completely as soon as she stepped foot off the island. It was as if her body just suddenly powered down or got old or was suddenly drained of life.

One day she found a job (whoring didn’t spoil her schooling: she’s a certified nutritionist from the University of Havana and she speaks four languages). Placing her open palm on my crotch as a sign of peace, she told me: “Listen, darling, you and I have got nothing left to do together.” She packed her bags and moved in with a woman I know.

Lisandra returns to the car with the little bag of medicines. I ask her:

“How much do I owe you?”

“Quit fucking around. You just better take the prescribed dose and stop driving me crazy with all these trips to the doctor. Any day now my patience is going to come to an end.”

I sell sheepskins. Perfect for people who practice transcendental meditation.

Acetaminophen, commonly known by its brand name Tylenol, is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication used to reduce symptoms of pain. Occasionally it causes vomiting, diarrhea, and constipation. People who take it in place of aspirin run a greater risk of heart attacks or cerebrovascular accidents.

Ceftriaxone is a third-generation cephalosporin for parenteral use against serious gram-negative bacteria. It penetrates the blood-brain barrier, which makes it useful in the treatment of meningitis. Its spectrum is not effective against Pseudomonas aeruginosa. It must not be physically mixed with other medications. It can produce neurotoxicity if administered simultaneously with aminoglycosides.

Acetylsalicylic acid, the chemical name for aspirin, inhibits the activity of the cyclooxygenase enzyme, which diminishes the formation of precursors of prostaglandins and thromboxanes. It can induce bronchial spasms in patients with asthma. Children and adolescents with viral symptoms must not consume it owing to the risk of it causing Reye’s syndrome, which is usually fatal.

“Do you want an aspirin?” is a poisonous question.

One day Mom and Dad were arguing about the which way they needed to set a new beam in the house. “Like this,” she said. “No, this way,” said Dad, his voice shrill, about ready to throw a fit, and he turned it around. I was sitting on the floor, very close to them, monkeying around with the tools. The beam slipped out of their hands and landed on my head. They slapped a bandage on me, filled me up with pills, and bought me a carton of vanilla ice cream. Then Mom beat Dad with her belt and sent him off to sleep in the doghouse.

Lisandra turns the car onto Calle Pedro Aranda and we roll into the neighborhood of Colonia Bellavista, the uppermost district in the city. Below us lies the flooded quarry, a hard reddish pool, where they extracted the stone used to build the cathedral of Santiago Mataindios––St. James the Indian Slayer––constructed between 1745 and 1800 with the meagre funds of the rich people in the valley of Zapalinamé.

I am both the son and heir of a legendary man: Santiago el Cavernícola––the “caveman”––the hippie guitar hero, the mestizo twin of Robert Plant who sold his Chevy Nova to pay for a coyote to lead him up the stairway to heaven, to the land of stars and bars, to the house of the rising sun, and the dark side of the moon: I am son and heir of a handsome Mexican who became a wetback to get to California. Not to pick tomatoes but to become a rock star.

Santiago el Cavernícola left the barrio of Alacrán––a place whose name means “scorpion”–– long before I was born. He packed only a double change of clothes and the second-hand Takamine twelve-string he had bought at a flea market. Among the flock of teenage girls sighing and pining away in his absence was my mom.

There is a drop of blood trembling in the white of my left eye. I don’t see it: I feel it. I tried to turn my pupil inwards. I know perfectly well it can’t be done. I try. My fever must be close to 104˚. I need a cold shower to bring it down without any pills.

For years, nobody in our town heard anything about my dad. Not until a bus driver on a company shuttle for metalworkers ran into him trying to thumb a ride on Highway 40, near Cuatro Ciénegas. They say it was pretty difficult to recognize him: he’d shaved off all his long hair and his eyebrows with a straight razor. He was carrying a woman’s purse with a big wad of money: twenty thousand dollars. He spoke confusedly about Saint Francis of Assisi, and he hid from trees because, he said, they were trying to recruit him for the war.

Perfect for people who practice transcendental meditation.

Everyone realized that he was flying high on a permanent acid trip and nevertheless, for some months, he once again became one of the most popular young people on the scene. Partly because, as his hair started to grow back, the scars on his scalp became less noticeable and his brown face was as handsome as always. Partly because, by Alacrán standards, twenty thousand dollars was a fortune.

“Step on it,” I tell Lisandra. “I’ve got to get under the shower.”

“Again?” And she feels my forehead with the same hand that she uses to shift gears. “You’re going to take that fucking Acetaminophen.

It was thanks to my father’s acid madness that my mother, a shy and ugly woman, managed to seduce Santiago el Cavernícola. They got married. I was born. By the time my earliest memories begin, my dad’s mind had come down from its hellish time warp but he was now stuck somewhere between eight and ten years old, and maintained that emotional age until the day he died. We were great friends. He showed me a number of tricks for how to copy on exams. He was my biggest rival on the Atari console. And he became a true thug at playing marbles.

My mother, however, could never forgive the fact that he had destroyed his mind before letting her make love with him.

The car stops. My house. Black iron gate. The garden destroyed, kicked to pieces in a sudden attack of gastric infection. Cecilia is standing in the doorway. In pajamas. I think: if she continues trying to follow me in my experiments with feverish illnesses, she’s gonna kill herself. And Lisandra, again:

“You’ve got to take this fucking Acetaminophen. You’ve got to inject it right now.”

I’m slipping into the nirvana of fever: that sea of tranquility where thermometers burst and the blood swirls slowly behind the eyelids, and the fleshy matter (that well-congealed gelatin) begins to fall silent.

Cecilia.

I sell sheepskins.

A surge of explosions or rustling leaves tearing me a part as if I were a saint.

— Julián Herbert, translated from the Spanish by Brendan Riley

 

Julián Herbert was born in Acapulco, Mexico, in 1971. In 1989 he settled in Coahuila, where he studied literature at university and still lives today. He has worked as an editor, cultural educator, and collaborator on numerous publications. His short stories and novels have received many literary prizes in Mexico. As a writer, he has worked in various genres, including poetry: El nombre de esta casa (1999); La resistencia (2003; rereleased in Spain by Vaso Roto publishing in 2014); Kubla Khan (2005); the short story: Cocaína/Manual de usuario (2006); the novel: Un mundo infiel (2004); as well as translation and literary criticism.

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Brendan Riley

Brendan Riley has worked for many years as a teacher and translator. He holds degrees in English from Santa Clara University and Rutgers University. In addition to being an ATA Certified Translator of Spanish to English, Riley has also earned certificates in Translation Studies and Applied Literary Translation from U.C. Berkeley and the University of Illinois, respectively. His translation of Eloy Tizón’s story “The Mercury in the Thermometers” was included in Best European Fiction 2013. Other translations in print include Massacre of the Dreamers by Juan Velasco, and Hypothermia by Álvaro Enrigue. Forthcoming translations include Caterva by Juan Filloy, and The Great Latin American Novel by Carlos Fuentes.

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Jun 022016
 

Bydlowska BluePhoto by Jowita Bydlowska

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Before

WHEN I COULD finally stand up, my husband ushered me out of that room.

I was wearing bloody pads. I was numb. Anesthetic: mind, body.

I wanted to turn around and come and get her. A mistake has been made.

“You’re just in shock,” he kept saying.

I walked like an elderly person. He grabbed my upper arm gently but firmly, walked me faster.

The hospital was no longer the good place where we used to go, waiting to see her again, growing inside me. In the blurry ultrasound pictures, she was already baby-shaped; her heartbeat was like a techno track; it seemed to go too fast but the OB-GYN assured us that this was normal.

I loved the feeling of cold gel spreading on my belly as they looked for her. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling but I loved it anyway.

Back then, when I would leave the hospital I’d look at it with affection. There were monitors and birthing beds inside and skilled doctor hands that would get her to out of me and I would get to hold her and kiss her tiny, scrunched up face.

*

I kissed her tiny, scrunched up face.

I did get to hold her. Then she was gone.

*

Afterwards, the hospital looked like prison to me, like Alcatraz.

*

In the six-level parking lot my husband wandered around trying to find our car. I sat on concrete steps and waited for his text letting me know he’d found the car.

I shivered but it wasn’t cold. I couldn’t stop shivering.

When he walked me to the car, I cried; it felt safe to finally cry, locked in the metal can that drove us away from Alcatraz. I saw it disappear in the rear-view mirror and I blamed it for what had happened inside.

My husband’s mouth was a tight line; he was concentrating on driving. He sped and passed cars as if we were late for an appointment.

We got home and I went to bed, covered myself in blankets and waited for nothing. Waited for sleep, which came eventually, mercifully, and I didn’t have to deal with the sudden vacancy inside my body.

My husband didn’t check on me. He woke me up in the evening. He cooked dinner—blobs of food matter in different colours. I put the food in my mouth like a machine.

He was silent the whole time.

It’s a crazy thing to despise someone for how they deal with death but there you have it.

*

After days, weeks or years in bed, he ordered me to get up. He said I looked like death. He was right: my cheekbones were like knives and the lines around my mouth were deep ridges.

“I don’t know how to help you,” he said.

“I don’t know how to help me.”

He said, “Let’s go shopping. It’ll distract you.”

He bought me dresses and stockings.

He bought me shoes.

He dragged me to see a movie about something; I can’t remember what and afterwards we went to eat something. I can’t remember what. We sat in the restaurant and he said I looked beautiful. Tired but beautiful. I should start wearing more make-up.

“I’m in so much pain,” I remember saying.

“Life goes on,” he said.

He held my hand and I felt nothing.

“You need to take better care of yourself. You’re too beautiful to waste away like that.”

I laughed in that restaurant and it wasn’t a nice laughter. I laughed like a hysteric. I was a thing he couldn’t fix.

On his computer he had a folder with hundreds of pictures of me in different underwear and dresses and shoes he had purchased for me. I was a thing, a doll, and I had to behave like a doll, otherwise he didn’t know what to do with me.

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Before Before

It wasn’t always like that.

After we got married, we flew to Europe where we rented a small Cinquecento to drive from Denmark all the way to Greece. After hours of driving, we’d stop at hotels in cities we wanted to spend some time in. Mostly small cities with small hotels with small rooms with big beds. We’d have sex and shower and change and go out to eat. There was always a pretty town square in each city, a restaurant with tiny tables and chairs spilling out onto the sidewalks, where we’d drink sparkly wine and eat a dish of the local interpretation of carbs, and the local cheese and fruit for dessert. If this was lunch, we’d stroll around the city following no specific direction, going inside buildings and churches that were open, taking an occasional photo of things that impressed us: a fading fresco, a gargoyle head, weird vegetables, scrawny kittens, dark-haired children running in the streets, backs of other tourist couples holding hands.

Back then my husband wasn’t a planner—I was never a planner—and this mutually agreed-on freedom made us feel free; made me feel free. We would walk around holding hands and not talk or we would talk but I don’t remember any of the conversations; I just remember the mood and it was light, lots of laughter.

If it was evening, and the city was bigger, we’d try to find a venue that played music. We would get drunk and dance and kiss as if we had just met. Sometimes we’d talk to locals or other tourists but sometimes we wouldn’t—we wouldn’t even talk to each other. This kind of thing is not an uncommon experience—I’d read books about lovers not having to talk to each other—that’s how deep their connection was—and it was happening to us, in real life.

We would go back to our hotel, my hair curling from the moisture that seemed to be ever present the closer we would get to the Adriatic. We smelled of sweat and smoke and alcohol and perfume and we would intertwine our legs and arms, our snaking snake bodies between sheets, which would end up on the floor after many rounds of passionate fucking.

The mornings would be pleasantly hungover, two-dimensional with lazy breakfast in bed, always eggs and orange juice. The hotels catered to dumb, careful tourists; you had to go out to get the local food.

We usually didn’t stay for more than one night and we would get back into our Cinquecento and drive through smaller country roads—we avoided highways—and stop sometimes to have sex or check out a falling-apart church or eat a meal.

We agreed on the stops; there were never any arguments about not following the plan because there was no plan. There was just point A—Denmark—and B—Greece—and after that a plane back to Canada.

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Now

Maggie, Sarah, Lucy, Olive. Helen. Names I like.

(I never named her.)

Olive. I like Olive best. Olive, an actual name, a usual name for a regular girl who would’ve been alive to begin with and who would inhabit a name as live girls do, give it personality: Maggie loves horses. Lucy is really peculiar about her hair. Sarah hates apples.

Salty and bitter olives—like the ones my husband and I gorged on in Greece—for Olive.

Sometimes I see her in little girls on playgrounds and she’s mine—she has dark hair like my husband’s, my big brown eyes—until she squeaks and calls some other woman,” Mom!” and runs towards her.

I shouldn’t be bringing it up with my husband any more. If I bring it up, he’ll probably say, as he always does, that his company has good insurance. Fifteen hundred dollars in psychological services, Babe. Fifteen sessions at least maybe more if I can find someone who charges less.

*

“Olive,” I say and he rolls his eyes.

“I’m not crazy.”

He says, “Please. You must stop. You can’t go on like this.”

“You mean you can’t go on like this.”

“I can’t go on like this, you’re right,” he says and we don’t talk about it any more because now it’s a Sunday morning and it’s warm outside; it’s quiet and beautiful outside, and we are still together because I still remember Greece when I look at him.

*

After lunch, we go out to the newly opened outdoor market in our neighbourhood where you can buy everything—from weird mushrooms to old medals.

We pass stalls like we’re in a museum.

In a vegetable stand I buy beets and multicoloured carrots. The carrots and the beets inspire me; they could become a minor creative project. Not a novel but perhaps a stew.

My husband puts his arm around my shoulder, pulls me close to him.  When he turns to me his eyes are half moons, happy. I love him in this moment, deeply, fiercely like I used to. It’s a flash of light, a promise of summer perhaps, maybe another Greece.

I grab and hold his hand.

His hand is polite in mine, not particularly interested.

I squeeze his hand harder.

People pass us by and look at us and see us. We must be a reassuring image, a manifestation of everything working out in the end.

We let go of each other’s hands after my husband sees a stall with hats. He stops at it and picks out an ugly hat and puts it on his head.

It looks awful on him, a disk of straw like a dinner plate someone threw at his head.

“It looks silly. What about your other hats. There are other hats in the basement.”

“They don’t fit,” he says and adjusts the dinner plate but it won’t stay adjusted; it moves and pops up as if it was planning to fly off.

I try not to comment on his clothing, his fashion choices that upset me, try not to be the bitch laughing at her husband’s fumbly attempts at dressing himself. He’s not so bad at it anyway, no polyester shirts, no Khaki pants. My mother used to do it to my father, used to berate him for his Khaki pants, his terrible Khakiness.

It was inevitable that he had rediscovered his self-esteem between the legs of a clear-eyed girl who was quiet and didn’t give two shits about Khaki pants.

My husband blinks at me, “A dinner plate. Funny.” He pulls the brim of the hat down, tries to jam it further onto his head. It makes no difference, the hat pops right up.

I say, “Let’s see if they have other hats over there—“

My husband takes out his wallet and gives the hat seller a twenty.

Is this is going to be the deciding moment that I will talk about in the future? Will it be me saying to a Sangria-drunk table of newly acquainted divorcee girlfriends: “It was when he bought this dweeby little hat.”

I’ve read of people walking out on their spouses over burnt pasta dishes, missing toothpaste caps.

It is never just that, never just an ugly hat, just a missing toothpaste cap.

“No, it looks great,” I say but he walks ahead of me and he rests one hand on the hat; holds it down.

It is never just an ugly hat.

He speeds up but I don’t catch up to him.

(Olive.) I walk behind him rolling my daughter’s beautiful bitter and salty name in my mouth.

—Jowita Bydlowska

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Jowita Bydlowska

Jowita Bydlowska is a writer and photographer living in Toronto. Her first book, Drunk Mom, was a national bestseller. Her novel, Guy, is coming out in 2016. You can view more of her photographs at Boredom Repellent.

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