Jan 122017
 

david-huddle

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I come looking for a job,
But I get no offers
Just a come-on from the whores
On Seventh Avenue
I do declare
There were times when I was so lonesome
I took some comfort there.
–Paul Simon, “The Boxer”

1.

God help me people used to say. Maybe they still say it but I haven’t heard it in years. And now I who have no business saying it find it hovering in my mind all day every day.

Even as a girl I never thought of the deity as having a sex or being particularly human. I never doubted that something out there was responsible, but I was sure it wasn’t anything you could ask for help. In my seventies now, I see god as a kind of science cartoon. A mass of pastel gases in different hues, a seething cauldron of divine belligerence and whimsy, with equal measures of pure meanness and blinding kindness. No gender, nothing like a human language, doesn’t eat, doesn’t sleep, pays more attention to beetles, Koala bears, hummingbirds, and rocks than to the affairs of homo sapiens. Watches all of it like we watch TV. Turns it off and turns it on. Switches channels.

Moody, though–I could get behind a god who throws temper tantrums or falls into decades of a deep sadness that won’t go away. I have stupid, stupid thoughts, a head full of them! I sometimes wonder if intelligence of any sort has ever paid a visit to my brain.

I who have always questioned the intellect of others now find myself doubting everything I think. Maybe the god I am so reluctant to ask for help configured us all to be idiots. Seven point eight billion stooges.

Only a dozen or so people in my lifetime have found my conversation desirable. Of those I’ve been able to tolerate maybe five or six–and one of those was a dead man I chose to continue talking to for nearly a year after I read his obituary.

2.

When I was in my early twenties I lived with a man in New York. I left him not because there was anything wrong with him but because being with him magnified the awful things I saw in myself. He was probably the only person on the planet who could have put up with me year after year–and I think I knew that, but I also knew I couldn’t stand who I was in my own eyes when I was around him.

After I moved out, I got pretty crazy and went into what I’ve thought of as my “Sound of Silence” phase. I listened to that song a lot, but it was “The Boxer” that I fixated on. The verse of it about the whores on Seventh Avenue just kept ripping my heart out. For several months I was at its mercy. I needed to feel the pain of it again and again.

I began to think about going down to that corner of Seventh and Broadway where I knew the prostitutes still snagged their customers. At first it was just one of my ridiculous ideas, especially because I was a woman. But given what I’d just been through I definitely wasn’t about to look to a man for help. And the worse I felt the more seriously I took the notion of seeing what a woman could do for me–a stranger and somebody who knew about hard times. I had a little money, I’d seen where they did their business, and it would be easy enough to get there. What was to stop me?

I thought I might ask one of them—one whose looks I liked—just to go someplace and lie on a bed with me, maybe snuggle up and talk about our childhoods or what we liked to eat. I was pretty sure I didn’t want to have sex with a woman, but I felt so alone it was like I had a terminal illness.

One Saturday afternoon I took the Seventh Avenue bus down to 42nd Street and the minute I stepped down onto the curb, I saw the prostitutes. Their outfits weren’t subtle, and I didn’t hesitate–I walked by the line of them and did it slowly. Even though I looked into the faces of a couple of them–women about my age whose looks appealed to me–they paid no attention to me. So I wandered around mid-town a little while and ended up going to the bar in the Wellington Hotel.

The sight of those prostitutes from close up–and there must have been fifteen or twenty of them, black, white, and brown–had riled me up in this peculiar way. My excitement was too general to be desire but it felt like desire’s first cousin. I wondered if it would be so bad just to ask one of the prostitutes for sex and pay her for it and see what it was like. Even if the sex was horrible, I knew it would at least temporarily stop the lonesomeness that was making me crazy.

In the bar at the Wellington, I took a booth, nobody on either side of me, and when the barkeep walked over I ordered a Whiskey Sour. Good choice of a place to sit, bad choice of a drink. But that was okay, because it meant I’d drink it slowly. The place was dimly lit and quiet; there were only a few customers. I figured it was around three in the afternoon, a warm sunny day outside, as I remember it, though that bar was completely set off from the street–it was like its own little world. The only thing it lacked was a jukebox that would play Simon & Garfunkel for me. If I’d been able to hear my songs, I knew I could unleash one hell of a good cry right there in that booth. But even without music, the place was just fine the way it was. It answered my need of the moment.

I became so absorbed in my thoughts that I paid almost no attention to what went on in the bar. The sadness I was going through had a way of narrowing the world around me and insisting that I pay attention to it and it alone. People came, people went, while I stared at my hands, reviewing the faces and the outfits of the women on Seventh and Broadway. I kept remembering how purposeful they’d been in ignoring the signals I’d tried give them. No come-on for you, my dear, was what their manner had conveyed.

I was savoring my misery, which I was sure was the worst I’d ever experienced. I wasn’t hurting quite bad enough to try to get in touch with the man I’d been living with, but that thought did cross my mind. I knew he’d come if I called, but I definitely didn’t want to pick up our old life again. I didn’t feel like apologizing for leaving him, and I didn’t want to see disappointment in his face–ever again.

“May I join you?” said a man standing beside the booth. He seemed to appear from nowhere, and he startled me, even though he’d kept his voice soft and stood a polite distance away. I looked up at him, the words No, thank you, making their way down from my brain and up out of my chest. He’s old, was what my eyes told me, and I suspect that fact alone stopped me from saying anything at all to him, at least for a moment. Instead, I let my eyes pass down over his clothes and back up to his face in what he must have considered a brazen way.

He wore a gray suit, a navy blue tie, a white shirt, and shiny black wingtips. He was clean-shaven and his silvery hair had been recently cut. So this was a businessman who had an understated polish in his face and the way he dressed. Not quite handsome, probably in his early sixties, he looked like a man who was accustomed being treated with respect.

My trance of misery and mild general arousal still had its hold on me, and I knew it would be ever so easy to send this man on his way. Thank you, sir, but right now I need to tend to my loneliness. I was on the verge of saying something like that when I suddenly saw myself through his eyes.

I’d been silly enough to wear a dress that was more maroon that it was red but that was sleeveless, that fit me nicely at the neck and shoulders, and that modestly presented the little bit of bosom I had to offer. I’d picked my outfit with the aim of making an impression on the Seventh Avenue ladies, but clearly it had not impressed a single one of them enough to meet my eyes as I’d walked past them.

The man I’d lived with once observed that I had a Sunday school sexiness about me, a remark that pleased me. It was the closest anyone ever came to saying that I was sexy or pretty or good-looking or cute or any of those terms. Beautiful and terrific had always been out of the question, but I’d often wished for a word or words that went further than the nice-looking my parents awarded me all through my teenage years and that a boy named Felton Wadhams was rumored to have said of me in high school.

At an early age I’d reconciled myself to the fact that my physical appearance did little to recommend me. So I wasn’t surprised that the prostitutes had paid me no mind. But evidently the way I’d tricked myself out for them worked for at least one person in the city, and here he was politely asking for permission to join me. I almost snickered at the term, which I was sure he hadn’t intended in a lascivious way.

It was a what-the-hell moment, of which I’d had probably fewer than half a dozen in my life, and most of those I’ve refused. Something kept me from speaking, but the private joke I’d made of his word-choice helped me put a tight grin on my face, and I lifted my hand in a little welcoming gesture toward the seat opposite me.

The man scooted into the booth–with some grace–folded his hands in his lap, and straightened himself a bit, all the while not looking at me. After a moment of settling himself, he raised his eyes to mine, so that I had an instant of thinking he’d noticed how carefully I’d scrutinized him.

“Joe Arnold,” he said. He had the good judgment not to extend his hand toward me. And not to smile.

“I’m Hazel,” I told him. My smile was long gone by now. In fact I felt a jolt of wishing I hadn’t let him join me. I wanted my loneliness back–I knew it would give me no trouble. I leaned back and gave him the least friendly face I could come up with.

Joe Arnold nodded, as if to acknowledge my bad attitude toward him. Then he looked over at the bar and around the room. I thought maybe he was checking to be sure that I was the best company he could find at the moment.

When the barkeep appeared, Joe Arnold asked for a Coca Cola for himself and a fresh drink for me. I told the barkeep that the whiskey sour wasn’t working for me, and I asked him to recommend something. When he said he made a really good Rusty Nail, I told him that sounded like just the drink I needed.

After the barkeep was out of hearing distance, Joe Arnold told me he knew better than to start drinking this early in the afternoon. I told him that I wasn’t much of a drinker at any time of the day.

Then we sat and regarded each other while we waited for our drinks to arrive. I thought that when we did speak we might both say in unison, “So what are you doing here?”

That wasn’t how it went. The barkeep set down our drinks and went away. We let our glasses sit untouched. And I liked it that Joe Arnold didn’t seem to know what to do or say in the silence. I was fine with neither of us saying anything. Maybe this would be all there was to it, an afternoon of sitting in this booth, occasionally taking sips from our glasses, and saying nothing. Just sitting in proximity with each other.

“You first,” he said.

“What?” I said.

Then he nodded. He knew I knew what he meant.

I did know. I also knew that no matter what I told him, he probably wouldn’t challenge it. He just wanted me to tell him something. Or make some noise. I could have hummed “She’ll be Coming Around the Mountain,” and he’d have been grateful. So I thought I would see how much of the truth I could pry out of myself. I felt reckless. What did I have to lose?

“I’m originally from Vermont. I’m doing graduate work at Columbia. I’ve just moved out of an apartment I’ve been sharing with a man for the past year.” I paused between sentences and said each of the sentences slowly while looking directly at Joe Arnold. “I can’t seem to adjust to living by myself,” I told him. I was certain I’d said more than I should have, but I didn’t care. I’d liked hearing my voice deliver those solid facts to another person. I was proud of myself for having stuck to the truth.

Joe Arnold had stared at me while I spoke and seemed to absorb each statement as I made it, but now that I was finished, he looked away. I thought maybe he was blushing and I wondered if I’d embarrassed him.

“I’m sorry for what you’ve been going through,” he said.

Whether or not he meant it, I appreciated the sympathy. I nodded.

Then he couldn’t seem to bring himself to speak. I was determined not to say another word until he took his turn, but he seemed paralyzed. I noticed that now he was indeed blushing. For a minute or so I thought he might simply stand up, apologize, and walk away.

Finally he shook his head and raised his eyes to meet mine. His face was slightly contorted. “I want to leave my wife,” he said. The words erupted out of his mouth in way that made them sound like I think I’m going to throw up.

I wasn’t horrified. I tried to be sympathetic since I knew what it felt like to leave somebody. I made myself say, “I’m sorry.” He probably heard the truth I wasn’t saying: I wish I could feel your pain, but I can’t.

 “I can’t imagine you’d want to hear the details,” he said.

I nodded. He was right–I didn’t.

“I haven’t ever said it aloud,” he murmured. “Maybe that’s all I needed to do. Get it out there where somebody could hear it.”

I blinked at him. Our conversation seemed to be moving us farther and farther away from each other.

“If you want to, you can leave,” he said, his voice very soft. “I’ll pay for our drinks.”

I didn’t know what I wanted to do. And didn’t know what to say. So I stared at him with what had to be a very stupid face.

“I probably would if I were you,” he murmured. “Leave,” he said. His expression was a weird combination of shame and relief. Truth be told, I preferred this look on his face to the tight-and-in-control version of himself that he’d presented when he asked to join me.

So I smiled at him. Or rather I realized that I was smiling at him–I hadn’t exactly decided to do it.

He seemed to relax then. “Look,” he said, leaning forward, clasping his hands together on the table top between us. “I asked to sit with you because I thought maybe I could persuade you to let me get us a room. I thought we could go upstairs and spend some time together. I guess I hoped for sex. Sure, I should just say so. Because you’d know it even if I didn’t say it. I’m sorry if you’re insulted. It’s taken me a little while to understand that you weren’t sitting here by yourself because you wanted company.”

I heard what he said and understood him perfectly well. And having recently cruised the line of Seventh Avenue whores hoping for a come-on, I could hardly be insulted. But I couldn’t put everything together in any way that helped me know what to say or do. I didn’t want to go upstairs with him–maybe just because I couldn’t imagine how it would go once we closed the door and stood in the room with a bed directly in front of us. I didn’t want to take my clothes off, and I definitely didn’t want to see Joe Arnold naked. But I also didn’t feel like standing up and leaving the bar. And I didn’t want to go on sitting in this booth by myself.

I wished I could just beam myself out of there, but then I realized I couldn’t think of a destination.

I closed my eyes and thought maybe this was the lowest moment of my life.

I kept my eyes closed until I was sure I wouldn’t cry if I opened them. The thought occurred to me that maybe Joe Arnold would take the opportunity to leave some money on the table, slip out of the booth, and head for the door. But when I opened them, he was still there.

And he was putting money on the table in front of him.

So he’s about to leave was my thought. I felt myself blushing. Out of some weird sense of decorum I didn’t look at the money.

I watched his face while he put his wallet away. He looked relaxed now, a little pleased with himself. I didn’t blame him. He’d hoped I’d be somebody other than who I was. I had often hoped the same thing.

“Yours,” he said, tapping the table.

Lined up like Monopoly money were four one-hundred dollar bills.

He saw my shocked expression. It made him smile. “Yours,” he said again.

I couldn’t keep my eyes from glancing out through the lobby toward the elevator–the Wellington was a one-elevator hotel.

He chuckled. “No,” he said. “It’s not for that. It’s just that I could have gone the rest of my days without ever saying aloud that I want to leave my wife. If you hadn’t been here. If you hadn’t let me sit with you. If you hadn’t said what you said, I’d have never gotten those words out.”

I know I looked down at his money again, and my expression must have been really comical, because he laughed out loud.

“Look,” he said, “here’s the thing. I may never leave my wife–I almost feel like now that I’ve said those words, I don’t need to leave her. But whether I do or not, you’ve saved me thousands of dollars I won’t have to pay my therapist if I keep on going to see her. Which I’m pretty sure I won’t.”

I stared at him. I wanted to feel like he felt. Free of something. Out from under this loneliness that was like a bully waiting for me every morning when I woke up!

“Yours,” he said.

It was the third time he’d said that word, and what struck me then was that maybe he didn’t know it, but this man was trying to buy his way out of hell. I wasn’t offended. In fact I was sort of thrilled. It came to me then that maybe I could make the deal work for both of us. I sat up straight.

“I’ll take it,” I said. I picked the bills up one at a time, all the while looking him straight in the eyes. I took my time because I was excited by what I was about to tell him.

“But I want to go upstairs,” I said.

His face changed. He actually looked a little afraid.

“With you,” I said.

He flinched.

“You and I, Joe Arnold,” I told him. “We’re going up there.”

3.

I was a lot worse off than I realized that day in the Wellington Hotel fifty years ago. And Joe Arnold was just as bad off as I was. He had no idea what a deep pit he’d been living in for years. Maybe that ignorance is a mercy of some kind or else a survival component that comes with the human apparatus. Like those soldiers who get shot up so bad they can’t live more than a few minutes thinking Hey, this isn’t so bad, I’m going to be fine.

I’ve come to believe that relentless pain can sometimes be a help to you. It humbles you, it realigns you with your brother and sister human beings, and it prepares you to be healed if you can find your way to something or somebody that can fix what’s wrong with you. Maybe non-stop hurting even guides you to that right something or somebody. Ridiculous as this may sound, I’ve come to think of loneliness as a kind of corrective angel. My deity of the pastel gases and the seething cauldron might dispatch such an angel to nudge a human creature who needed to be turned in one direction or another

4.

Joe Arnold and I got our clothes off pretty quickly in that room. I’d had no faith we could get that far without one or the other of us saying, I can’t do this and walking out. But we didn’t turn on any lights as we walked through the door, so what we had was just the late afternoon sun beaming through the window shade. Probably if I’d had a look at Joe in better light, I’d have been put off by what age had done to his body. I don’t think he’d have been put off by the truth of my body, but he also would have seen very little to convince him he should have come to that room with me.

A meticulously made-up big bed is a thing of beauty, a beacon of comfort, a reminder that respite is possible. We sat side by side on it and took our shoes off. From there the bed gave us permission, so that getting naked was easy. Joe and I had no problem making our way into that bed. From opposite sides we hopped under the covers like sixteen-year olds. Clean, ironed sheets whisper sweet messages to almost anybody’s skin.

All right. About the sex. We had it–I can certainly say that. It was clumsy and funny for a while, then it turned sad when it looked like we weren’t going to be able to make it happen. I think we both had thought failure was inevitable, and I don’t know about Joe, but I would have been in seriously awful shape if I’d had to walk out of that room without even being able to have intercourse.

Joe propped himself over me while we both struggled to get him inside me. Finally, when I knew he was about to give up, I told him to let me get on top and try something else. I asked him to turn with me, and I said please. Desperation can improve your manners. Something had transpired in those minutes of his trying so hard and wanting it so much and failing. Just plain old flat out failing. So I knew it was up to me, and at that point when we had every reason to be angry at ourselves and each other I think we both saw that kindness was really our only option.

I nudged him over, and I rolled with him so that for a second or two we were the beast with two backs. On top of him I snuggled in, I tried to get my belly and chest as close to his as I could, and I had my head on his shoulder so that my mouth was right up to his ear. This was a way of lying together that I’d never experienced with the man I’d lived with, though I’d always meant to ask him if we could try it.

I talked dirty to Joe. Or rather I whispered dirty to him. And my level of talking dirty was probably about that of a seventh grader. I told him I was really, really wet. Which wasn’t true. I told him I wanted his cock. Which was true. I told him my nipples liked the hair on chest. And I moved my skin on his skin while I said these things–and some others–again and again in his ear. I licked his ear, too, and I’m pretty sure that’s what woke his cock up. I sensed it down there, and God help me I felt like I was his voodoo princess. “I’m your whore, Joe,” I said. “I want your cock, and I am most definitely your whore.”

Okay, I don’t think either one of us thought we’d get much further than hooking up, as they call it nowadays. For damaged people like we were it would probably have been okay if that was all we could do–intercourse without orgasm. Not ideal but better than nothing.

You probably think it is crazy and inappropriate for a woman in her seventies to talk this way, and I completely agree with you. But I have one more thing to say, and it’s maybe the most useful observation I have to offer. Suffering can teach you how to say and do what’s necessary, and even then maybe all you’ll get out of it is more suffering. But doing and saying what’s necessary can sometimes—maybe just occasionally—take you to the other side of your anguish.

So Joe and I got our clothes off, made our way under the sheets, and miraculously accomplished the act of penetration. When I felt him holding his breath, I realized that was what I was doing, too. We were right at that point of understanding we might not have more than a minute or two of being properly and happily joined. It felt really precarious.

“I’m your whore, Joe,” I whispered. I swear to the god of divine belligerence and whimsy that my sex registered his sex gaining what I’ll call conviction. So our bodies were doing their best to take us where we needed to go. “What are you?” Joe asked in a kind of rasp-whisper that startled me with his mouth so close my ear. I told him what I was. And when he asked it again, I told him louder.

It came on us fast–like maybe seven minutes. I could feel Joe moving way too quickly for me, and just about the time I was about tell him to stop or at least slow down, he bucked and grunted and trembled, so that my body spoke back to his body with a couple of contractions that brought a little shout up out of my chest. It barely qualified as an orgasm, but I never had one that made me any happier.

I stayed on top of Joe until I could feel him wishing I’d get off. So I did. And we lay on our backs for a while. Then he turned on his side toward me and said, “You know what?”

I turned on my side toward him, put my hand on his chest, and said, “What?”

I watched him getting his words straight in his mind. Then he said them slowly. “I didn’t even know I was dead. And now look what you did to me.”

I didn’t really want to, but I knew I had to cry, and so I just let it go. And Joe Arnold, bless his heart, just scooted up close and hugged me and let me keep crying as long as I wanted to.

5.

Okay, half a century later, I’m the same fool I always was. Except that I don’t live in hell any more. What I did with Joe Arnold in the Wellington Hotel was nothing I ever wanted to do again. I might have thought of doing it if I’d ever gotten that deep down into sadness again. But I didn’t. I got back on track and I’ve more or less stayed there. I don’t think I lowered my self-esteem because of what happened in that room, but I did find it lots easier to see things in other people that made me respect them. I guess that’s what Joe Arnold taught me. If I had to say what it is that I know from what I hope has been a thoughtful life, it might be just that. Finding ways to respect other people makes me happier with myself. I’m a natural born fault-finder, so I have a lot of trouble doing it. But I’ve got this voice I sometimes hear when I need it, and I listen hard. What are you, Hazel? I’ll hear. And I know the answer. I’m your whore, Joe. I’m your little whore.

—David Huddle

x

Originally from Ivanhoe, Virginia, David Huddle has lived in Vermont for 44 years. He teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English and in the Rainier Writing Workshop. His fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in The American Scholar, The New Yorker, The Sow’s Ear, Plume, and The Georgia Review. His most recent poetry collection is Dream Sender (2015); and his new novel is My Immaculate Assassin (2016).

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Jan 102017
 

cover

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The other day I began by writing Dear Alba at the top, but it was impossible. As a matter of fact, I can’t write you if I use stationery, which is why I’ve been using notepaper. All I want to say is they are re-doing Nadeau’s Grocery. They’ve pushed out the back wall so it’s bigger inside and they’re putting in a new tile floor and bright lights everywhere. It looks a lot brighter. I know this is trivial and stupid, but I kept thinking Oh, I should tell Alba about this. Now I’m back from Nadeau’s so I’m writing you this note. Don’t worry, I know this is crazy.

§

Scott phoned and asked did I want to have lunch someday this week. We ate at the Kitchen Table Restaurant, and when the waitress took our orders she told me, rather crisply, “Maybe you can finish your sandwich this time. You need to eat more.” She was the thin one, middle-aged, named Lilian. I ordered only a half-sandwich, anyway. After she left, Scott asked me, “You come here often?”

“Not really,” I said.

“She’s right, you should eat more.”

“I’m never hungry.”

Scott hesitated, seemed about to speak, but didn’t say anything. I told him, “You can’t make up your mind whether to be sympathetic or critical.”

“I think I’ll change the subject,” he said. “What do you want to talk about — sports, politics, philosophy, war, peace, the economy? How about the economy? What happened to money?”

“I haven’t been keeping up with anything.”

Scott sat back in his chair and studied me a moment. “How have you been?” he asked.

“I’m OK, I’m getting by. What about yourself  ?”

“Me?” He looked surprised. “I’m all right. My ankles were getting swollen, but my doctor reduced my blood-pressure medication and I’m fine now.”

We talked about our blood-pressure medication until our waitress arrived with Scott’s bratwurst and potato pancakes, and my half-sandwich which they’d purposely overstuffed. I remembered he had attended a conference in Boston a week ago, so I asked him about that. He made a brisk, dismissive gesture, as if brushing something away. “Papers and discussion groups on artificial intelligence, computers and thinking machines,” he said. “Philosophers and mathematicians, mostly.”

His career began in philosophy and took a turn into symbolic logic, and from there it branched into mathematics, thence computers and artificial intelligence. Now Scott, being Scott, quickly become bored by the conference discussion groups, so he went out to visit the neighborhood where he had grown up. That was Mattapan, which I should tell you is as far down the map as you can go and still be in Boston.

“I hadn’t been down Blue Hill Avenue for fifty years,” he told me. “And I knew I shouldn’t go, but I was curious so I went. After the exodus, you know, the blacks moved in. African Americans, I mean. And Caribbeans.” He paused and thought a moment. “It was a wonderful place to grow up in, years ago. And the street was lined with interesting stores and little shops. Sort of urban, but haimish. The past is memories,” he decided.

It was on the tip of my tongue to tell him otherwise, but I said, “What did you do at the conference. You gave a talk, right? So how did it go?”

“Went well, I’m told.” He shrugged. “Big discussion on free will. My point was that we don’t have free will and if we ever get around to building a machine that thinks, it won’t have free will, either.”

“Are grown-up philosophers still arguing about free will? We did that in high school. No wonder you got bored. — By the way, I have free will unless someone puts a gun to my head.”

“We disagree about that. — But the important thing is that I visited the scenes of my childhood. My past is intact. I have memories.”

“Well-meaning people tell me I have memories of Alba. They think that’s a comfort to me. They don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about.”

“You have —” he began.

I cut him off. “If I didn’t have children, I wouldn’t believe I’d ever met her.”

He looked at me. “I won’t argue with your feelings,” he said.

“Thank you.”

“But you were married to a brilliant woman for —”

“The past doesn’t exist, Scott.”

“Time goes by fast, much too fast. I understand that. But it was at least fifty years and you know those were good years.”

“The past doesn’t exist. Haven’t you noticed? It’s gone. That’s why we call it the past. It’s not real anymore.”

“What you had with Alba —”

“It has no more reality than a wish,” I told him. “It’s a romantic fiction.”

He started to speak but changed his mind, shutting his mouth so abruptly I heard his teeth snap together. Looking back, I see that Scott was remarkably patient with me, for he believed wholly in reason and I was clearly mindless. His father had been a linotype operator for a Boston newspaper, his mother a Trotskyite and later a worker for the Democratic Party, and Scott had grown up a secular humanist — “a tribe without a God,” he liked to say. Scott was a good guy.

§

It was strange to live alone, to embrace no one and to have no one put her arms around me, and sometimes it felt like my nerves were on the outside, aching to be soothed, or inside like it was thirst. But it wasn’t thirst or pain, it was loneliness. Lucy Dolan who had done babysitting for us was now in her mid-fifties but still slender and straight, and at Vanderzee’s exhibit she had given me a tight warm hug that lingered, the way vibrations linger after you strike the nerve strings.

§

I liked Shannon. I’d buy a cup of coffee, then stand under the leaky awning to watch the cars going by in the rain and talk with her between customers. She showed me she had moved her wedding ring to her right hand. “Because if I keep it where it was, people will think I’m married to Fitz and I don’t want anybody to think that. I wanted to keep wearing it on my left hand at least, but it only fits my ring finger, so I had to move it to my other hand.”

I told her I never had a wedding ring, but hers was beautiful, I said.

“Yeah, I know,” Shannon said. “I told him not to waste the money but he insisted. The emeralds make it different.”

“My wife’s ring is in a little velvet bag on her bureau. I never knew her fingers were so slender. It’s a small plain gold ring. That’s all. With our initials inside.”

“I have a friend whose husband died last year and she wears his ring on a necklace chain,” Shannon said.

“That’s something.”

“It hangs down, you know, so it’s over her heart.”

When I got home I looked through Alba’s jewelry and found a silver chain and put her ring on the chain and wore it. It hangs down to my breastbone. It’s comforting and whenever I want I can touch it.

§

Before sunset I always go for a walk the way we used to at that gentle hour. It’s a roundabout walk and halfway along it crosses through a field with a creek and a margin of tall grass where redwing blackbirds nest and wild flowers grow, and eventually the path goes beside Franklin’s Four Seasons, the flower nursery. Alba always took an interest in what was blossoming in the greenhouses. Then the path rises up a little slope to where we would have to lift the branches of a birch and duck under to go out the street and so to the road where we lived. Now I would remember how sometimes her hair would catch on those branches and I tried to recall just how her dress would swing as she stepped ahead. If she was here with me on these walks, all those times — and she was, she was — then I don’t understand how she cannot be. You cannot be at one moment and then not be at the next.

§

Q. What is man?

A. Man is a creature composed of body and soul, and made to the image and likeness of God.

Q. Is this likeness in the body or in the soul?

A. This likeness is chiefly in the soul.

Q. How is the soul like to God?

A. The soul is like to God because it is a spirit that will never die, and has understanding and free will.

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I understood all that. I knew what my body was and what my mind was and my personality and my character, but I didn’t know what my soul was and I began to wonder about that. One day I was watching my father work on a grave marker, a rare artistic job that only he and none of the two or three workers he hired could do, because it had a butterfly carved at the top and a border of pomegranates to the left and right of the inscription, old symbols of resurrection. After a while, I asked him what the soul was. He removed his safety glasses and rubbed the two pink indents that the glasses had pinched on the bridge of his nose. He smiled a bit. “I think that’s a question for your mother.” I told him I had already asked her. He hesitated, then said, “Well, there’s your uncle Zitti. He talks about his soul as easily as other men talk about their digestion.” He put on his safety glasses and took up the chisel again, then turned to me. “Or you could ask your uncle Nicolo,” he added. “He has opinions about the soul, too.”

Uncle Nicolo had a big book with illustrations by Gustave Doré which Nick and I used to take from the bookcase and open on the floor to look at — dark and frightening scenes, like those naked men trapped in the ice of a frozen lake, one man gnawing on the bald head of another, or that naked woman who was twisted around, pulling out her own hair. Those were the damned being tortured forever in Hell, which was the first part of Dante’s long poem. The second part was Purgatory where people got horribly punished, but after doing penance for their sins they were admitted into Paradise, which was the third part of the poem. The pictures of Hell were the ones we looked at most, because they were so gruesome and because everyone was naked there, unlike in Paradise where the souls wore clothes. The souls were really souls and not bodies, but Gustave Doré drew the bodies to show how the souls in Hell felt horrible pain forever, which Nick and I thought was terribly unfair of God, because forever was way too long a time even if they had sinned when they had been alive, but it did give you an idea of how cruel God could be when he wanted.

A few years later, Nick said he didn’t believe in souls. We were walking with Veronica, coming back from the field where Sandro used to fly his hawk and where Dante and Mercurio used to shoot, but now uncle Nicolo had a Victory Garden there because of the war. We were crossing the old burying ground when Nick announced, “Frankly, I don’t believe in souls.” Maybe that was because his father was an aeronautical engineer at MIT and didn’t believe much in religion. But Veronica said she was sure we had souls. “We have understanding and free will, which is what the soul has, and the part of us that has understanding and free will, that’s the soul part.” She smiled, waiting for us to see how clear and obvious it was, but I still wasn’t sure if I believed in souls or not.

Nick said, “Oh, no. Because if you believe in a soul you have to believe in heaven and hell, and maybe heaven is all right, but what about hell? Do you really truly believe in hell?”

Veronica didn’t answer and we walked along and climbed over the low stone wall into the backyard. “So what if there’s a hell,” she said lightly. “Nobody actually goes there anymore.”

§

Some days when Shannon wasn’t at the Barista stand I’d swing around to the Daily Grind to see Gordon and we’d talk about the strangeness of life or what was wrong with politicians or the Red Sox, but today he talked mostly about whether he should look for a shop with more floor space. He missed the old place in Boston, which was larger, but he liked Lexington “because this town is full of intellectuals who drink coffee all day.” Here he was on the main street, but if he moved to a bigger place it would be farther from the center of town. On the other hand, if he had more floor space he could serve more people and sell more Rancilio espresso machines — but there was a lot to be said for staying in the same place, because the Daily Grind, having been here ten years, “now these fussy people know where to come to buy Hawaiian Kona or Monsoon Malabar.” So Gordon went from this side to that side, debating with himself while we worked on the ancient coffee roaster, until eventually it was fixed and I held the fancy front end while he bolted it back into place. We must have talked an hour, and all that time I was able to forget who I was.

§

It betrays Alba to say she has died or she is dead and I say it only because that’s what people can understand. I believe Alba will never die, that she has understanding and free will, and that she knows me. I would like to die and be united with her forever, the way we were. I don’t know what I believe.

§

I drove to La Pâtisserie and bought two plain croissants, just so I could have twelve minutes of bright chat at the pastry case with Katelin (twenty-five, welcoming smile, warm white arms, and a flower in her hair), but she could not rescue me so I drove away, ashamed of myself, to Café Mondello to buy a latte so I could chat up Felicia (twenty-one, blue jeans and a tight white top with a blue dab of shadow under each nipple), after which I drove home, horribly alone and feeling like shit. I do things like that every day.

§

One time I was having lunch with Scott and he asked what I was doing these days, and I said, “Not much, really.”

“Have you been painting?”

“No. No painting.”

He nodded, as if in agreement with me. “It’s too early. You need more time. A little more time.”

“What’s the point?”

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“I mean, what’s the purpose of all this — all this living, this going on? I really don’t understand. I’m serious. What’s the point?”

“That’s a rather large question. Whole philosophies have been built —”

I cut him off. “It’s not a philosophical question for me. It’s in my guts. I don’t understand what the fuck I’m doing here. Why am I doing whatever I do? I ask myself that every shitty day. What’s the goddamn point? 

Scott shifted uneasily in his chair, then he looks at me a moment and says, “Did you enjoy your sandwich? Your half-sandwich, I mean.”

“I guess so, yes.”

“Were you enjoying our conversation?”

“Yes, sure.”

“That’s the point.”

That’s the point?”

“Yes.”

§

I drifted from room to room (nothing out of place, the books in a row, the pillows smooth, the empty chairs at a conversational angle) and I realized I’m the ghost haunting this house — I’m dead and Alba is alive and this world is an illusion I have because I’m dead.

§

Danae and Chiara will be away at college soon, so before they go they came here to be with their grandfather for the day — you’re right, Alba, we’re fortunate to have such grandchildren. We were driving on Great Meadow Road after a shower when we saw a big rainbow and of course they wanted to take pictures of it, so I pulled into the parking lot at the playing fields and they took phone photos. The rainbow was large and seemed to hang in the air above the faraway soccer fields and I kept wishing I had my camera so I could send you a photo of it. That’s what I mean by crazy.

§

It’s a privilege to love someone and I loved Alba. “I’m so happy you found me,” she used to say. I was handsome, her man from the sea, and the one she loved best in the whole world. She’s gone, so I’m not handsome anymore. I’m an old man driving home with a pizza and I’m sobbing because some cheerful asshole is singing on the radio about his love who is gone beyond the sea and the moon and stars, but she’s waiting and watching for him, and someday he’ll find her there on the shore and they’ll be together and he’ll embrace her, just as he did before. When the song was over I stopped sniveling, blew my nose, drove back onto the road and got home in one piece.

§

Can you follow this goddamn story? I know it’s a jumbled mess but it’s what I can recall, and also some notes I wrote to Alba, plus unconnected pieces. Parts are missing and some of them may be important, but they’re missing because I don’t remember, or because I do remember and don’t want to. I want to write about that first year, though I don’t know why I want to do even that much. I’m blundering ahead, like our moronic blundering Creator.

—Eugene Mirabelli

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Eugene Mirabelli is the author of  eight previous novels, as well as numerous articles, reviews, short stories and interviews. He has received a Rockefeller Foundation Award, was co-founder and co-director of the Alternative Literary Programs in the Schools, and is a professor emeritus of the State University of New York at Albany. He grew up near Boston and that city, and indeed all New England, remains his favorite locale.

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Jan 072017
 

John Madera

 

But let us concede that the observation that “wherever you go there you are” is true; what happens, though, when the “there” is a destabilized something or other, that is, is a zone of uncertainty; is this “there” the same there about which Gertrude Stein would reflect on and write: “There is no there there”? In any case, there we were, “there,” on our way to the Absolute Quiet Room, drinking a smoothie (it was a “Hawaiian Lust,” a tangy blend of orange juice, strawberries, bananas, and something else, papaya, maybe?), thinking, as we sipped, about line 462 of Book I of Virgil’s The Aeneid, where you find Aeneas gazing at a Carthaginian temple’s mural depicting battles of the Trojan War, Aeneas, driven to tears as he recalls the deaths of his friends and fellow citizens, saying, “Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt,” which could be translated as “There are tears for things and mortal matters touch the mind,” but which Robert Fagles translates as “The world is a world of tears, and the burdens of mortality touch the heart”; and Robert Fitzgerald as “They weep here / For how the world goes, and our life that passes / Touches their hearts.” Franz Liszt’s Sunt Lacrimae Rerum en Mode Hongrois was a response to the disastrous Hungarian War of Independence and the executions following it. The mournful four-note motif opening the piece is iterated throughout the composition, the piece’s rhythmic angularities colored by both ominous bass and plaintive melodic figures. Strangely enough, James Elkin’s Pictures and Tears, a book purporting to be a history of paintings that have made people cry, doesn’t address Aeneas’s falling apart at the sight of the mural. (Elkin does refer to Ingres’s Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus, which might be an intimation of the abovementioned famous scene.) Perhaps Elkin is making too fine a distinction between characters and people, a distinction that we often find ourselves making with a kind of stringency that may well be worth sometimes being skeptical about. The word lacrimae inevitably always makes us think of the band Tool, whose music offers its own peculiar kind of catharsis, its members once claiming to be inspired to form after reading The Joyful Guide to Lachrymology, a book supposedly written in 1949 by Ronald P. Vincent, a “crop-spray contractor.” It was a hoax, of course. We have been tempted to actually write this book, since crying is something we know something about. We could talk about Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” for instance, a song which has made us cry, a song also used to eerie effect in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Rita, still awake at two a.m. after having sex with Betty, insists they go to a theater called Club Silencio, where a man onstage explains in several languages that everything is an illusion, after which a woman, after emerging from the stage’s red curtains, begins singing “Crying” in Spanish, said singer collapsing toward the song’s end, the song continuing, the vocals disembodied, as it were, these thoughts leading us to think about the popularly held notion that some things are unthinkable, which leads us to think about the outset of “Are Some Things Unrepresentable?” where Jacques Rancière registers the titular question’s undecidability by first indicating that the notion of the “unrepresentable phenomenon” is often an umbrella term linking a “constellation of allied notions,” that is, “the unrepresentable, the unthinkable, the untreatable, the irredeemable.” Unfortunately, Rancière’s inventory, bolstered by another inventory of specific “phenomena, processes and notions,” doesn’t adequately address the differences between each of these varied phenomena, processes, and notions. We are not sure how defensible it is to simply contest how these disparate terms have been subsumed under the heading of the “unrepresentable phenomenon.” It would have been useful to have these terms defined and to see the ways in which they have been arbitrarily formed and connected. That said, Rancière’s project is a nuanced one: it is a series of inquiries toward ascertaining the circumstances under which an event can be said to be unrepresentable, followed by demonstrations of how that unrepresentability might be unrealizable.

Rancière investigates his subject through the lens of aesthetic inquiry, calling representation a “regime of thinking about art,” his use of the word “regime” surprising, since, for us, it immediately conjures up not only a generalized conception of organizing systems and patterns, but of governmental structures, particularly oppressive ones, its use, however, surely deliberate since one of the primary currents with which this essay engages is the supposedly inexplicable acts performed by fascistic entities. Rancière proceeds by engaging common notions about what art can and cannot do. So then, we have two “heterogeneous logics,” that is, the representative regime and the aesthetic regime, or, as Rancière puts it, a “Platonic plain tale” and “a new art of the sublime,” the majority of the essay finding Rancière disentangling these intertwining logics, while also engaging with Lyotard’s idea of the “‘witness’s narrative’”: “a new mode of art,” an idea which, though necessarily inadequate, is supposedly intrinsically capable of attesting to the existence of something that is unrepresentable.

Rancière refutes Lyotard’s new sublime by addressing the witness narrative, a seemingly singular attestation, as it were, as it pertains to the Holocaust, comparing the language, or, more specifically, the “paratactic linking of simple perceptions” that Robert Antelme employs in The Human Race (an eyewitness account of his imprisonment in Nazi concentration camps) with that found in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, demonstrating that the language of testimony is no different from the “common language of literature.” Rancière argues that this “extreme experience of the inhuman confronts no impossibility of representation; nor is there a language peculiar to it. There is no appropriate language for witnessing”; it is instead a manifestation of qualities typical of the aesthetic regime, and is therefore intelligible.

Rancière concludes his essay by returning to the titular question, claiming that the idea that “some things can only be represented in a certain type of form, by a type of language appropriate to their exceptionality” is “vacuous,” reminding us of the passage in George Perec’s W, or the Memory of Childhood, where the narrator also confronts the idea of the unsayable: “I do not know whether I have anything to say, I know that I am saying nothing; I do not know if what I might have to say is unsaid because it is unsayable (the unsayable is not buried inside of writing, it is what prompted it in the first place); I know what I say is blank, is neutral, is a sign, once and for all, of a once-and-for-all annihilation,” the narrator’s circumlocutions suggesting that what is unsayable is ultimately what is actually left unsaid, which makes us think that what we thought we had known we do not now know. Until now, only we knew that we had known and do not now know what we had known. If only we did not know that we had known what we did not know and only we knew what we had not known and had known what we know now before we knew what we had known. We know that we knew that we did not know because knowing what we now know about what we knew we did not know about what we knew back then and knowing what we knew we had known about what we know and did not know back then has shown us that we do not know what we know about what we had known and did not know and do not know now.

Yes, there we were, thinking about thinking, and thinking about so-called intellectual property, thinking that if ideas are property, then they are meant to be trespassed; in other words, there we were, profoundly enjoying our Thursday, until we realized it was Monday, realizing our mistake as we passed Mt. Hope Community Baptist Church’s lawn, where a sign reads: “Words can make things wither and they can bring dead things to life,” making us think, first, of the Gospel of John and the Logos, and then also making us think about Derrida’s attack on “logocentrism,” but then also making us think about another sign that we are not sure we had ever seen but had simply heard about, namely, “Stop, drop, and roll isn’t going to work in Hell,” which made us think of another sign, which we are sure we had often seen when we worked in Jamaica, Queens, a sign that was unironically suffused with schadenfreude: “When your back is up against the wall, remember that Christ’s was on the cross,” all of which made us return to our own uncertainty about certainty, especially with regard to ideas and beauty, and language, doubting whether language could be anything other than a figure, a representation of a thing, rather than the thing itself, wondering whether we would ever know the thing itself, and whether it was even important to ever be able to identify that thing.

Blocks away from the Absolute Quiet Room, we heard cawing and looked up toward crows flying above our heads, and watched the ever-shifting patternings of their flight, and followed them to where they eventually landed, that is, a copse of oak trees, five of them, in fact, on old Prospect Street. The trees were bare, of course, though, probably as confused as the rest of us were by the sudden change in weather, their uppermost branches bent by crows. There must have been a hundred of them, black black and cawing, and we realized, with all due respect to Wallace Stevens, that there were more than thirteen ways to look at them.

Before you come to the Absolute Quiet Room, you will find on the wall, immediately to your left, a reproduction of a Mark Rothko painting flanked by two nondescript abstractions by some easily forgotten artist, each of those paintings clearly indebted to Rothko’s approach, but each one, though sharing, superficially, a similar palette to the aforementioned painting, containing similar hues of oranges, blacks, and yellows, actually contain nothing of the gravitas, the pathos of the Rothko, a painting which even in reproduction, substantially and necessarily reduced in size (the reproduction at about one by five feet appearing to be what we imagine is only a quarter the size of the original), and the icy glare from the crisp squares of fluorescent light, not to mention the reflection of the area itself, a convergence of lines where the ceiling and walls meet behind us, an image which is nevertheless still imbued with light, color-saturated lozenges floating within an overall field of magma-like intensity, these tiny swatches dissolving into the overall orange field, like disks of aspirin which have been plopped into liquid, fogging up its contents (much like the ice in the cup belonging to the woman who sat in front of the poster while we looked at it); a large black rectangular shape portentously taking up about two-thirds of the field, the combination of orange and black not conjuring up the Halloween we are most acquainted with, that is, an anesthetized, a Mickey Mouse version, of the Day of the Dead, but, rather, of death itself, that black shape like an amoral splotch of cancer slowly metastasizing, in quiet resolve and confidence, wrecking an otherwise healthy body, that black shape reminding us of Rothko’s final paintings, each one a portal, of a kind, into darkness; which makes us think of Andrew Bird’s “Dark Matter”; which makes us think how, on a terrible day, years back, falling face forward toward glass-scattered concrete, we had not been thinking about how it, the ground, looked like a shattered kaleidoscope, or about how Billy had called us a cocksucker, or how that was not an insult anyway—not that we were gay or anything—or about how this fight was a long time coming (we had long tired of Billy’s duplicity), or about how, later, our scar-streaked face would remind us of some phosphorescent and tentacled slimy thing on the ocean floor, or a paper birch’s branches, anything dendritic really, like the lightning that shook us awake as a toddler, forcing us to cry, only to have our mother tell us that it was nothing, that we should be a big boy, that we should go right to bed; we had not been thinking of any of those things, thinking, instead of one of Rothko’s black squares, as if plunging into its maw, its absence, its erasure, that emptiness thrumming in our chest whenever we think back to the fight; and as our face smashed against the ground, and a tooth squeezed down our throat like an aspirin, we had not been thinking that Esther, Sasha, and especially Jasmine, who were all standing around screaming, were all secretly rooting for us, rather than trying to keep us from getting completely pummeled, and we had not been thinking about how, just moments before, we had splashed our beer across Billy’s face because Billy had told these same three women how we had peed on ourselves when we were in the first grade, and as Billy’s boots carved into our stomach, and the bouncer from Mulchahy’s was pulling Billy away saying, “Get off him or deal with me, Motherfucker!” we had not been thinking about the sweet sick smell wafting from the hot dog stand on the corner, or the bus’s seeming illness as its doors congestedly wheezed open, or how everything went wrong, how everything always went wrong whenever Billy was around, and as we grabbed his shoe that somehow wriggled off when we were getting our ass kicked we watched Billy jump into the bus, and then threw our shoe at the bus, and saw Billy’s unmarked but beer-wet face curled into that same sitcom smile, and Billy flipped the bird at us, we had not thought of how Billy had once again got the last word, instead thinking how everything was what it was, turned out to be what it turned out to be: bus fumes, tires spinning, rainbow in oil, us tonguing our cheek; which makes us think back to the splotch, leading to thinking about news we had recently received about our ex-father-in-law, who has just begun experiencing “monocular transient blindness,” a symptom of what they refer to as a “mini-stroke,” a man we were once close to, who will, in a few days, have surgery to remove the plaque in his carotid artery, which is ninety-five percent blocked; thoughts of these correspondences raising, for us, a kind of skepticism about what might be described as circumstantial contiguities, the resonance of which, at first, brings satisfaction, but which, after reflecting that these were all really just incidental accidents, fills us, in the end, with horror, making us think about Henry James’s preface to The Turn of the Screw, where he writes: “My values are positively all blanks save so far as an excited horror, a promoted pity, a created expertness,” making us further feel that the tenuous grasp we have on meaning is about to snap.

A person, just passing us, sounded like he said, “ex nihilo reflexivity.”

Then there is the question of the woman, whose presence underneath (she is sitting) the faux Rothko has prevented us from properly deciphering what is apparently a signature on the hack’s painting. She has asked us to watch over her computer so that she may use the restroom. Actually, what she had meant was would we care to look after her rust-colored sweater, which was draped over the candied-apple red leather chair, from which she had just risen; the two spiral notebooks, one of which, the traffic-divider yellow (a yellow that also reminded us of the jaundiced disc and glowing goop wedged within the croissant of a promised egg and cheese sandwich purchased from a local eatery) one, rather than the sick pink one, stood on her seat against the inner-part of the armrest; the opened spiral notebook sitting on the aerodynamic circular table with wooden top and metal legs; her plastic cup of iced coffee, the ice having long since watered down what had probably once been a caramel brown into a kind of blanched tan, if that were possible; the empty, overturned bottle of, what was it? Sprite? Mountain Dew? or some other rarefied promise of sparkly effervescence, a kind of quintessence of delight, but what was instead a plastic container of citrus syrupy swill and fizzy ooze; an empty paper bag (But how do we know that it was really empty, since, from the angle from which we had observed it, said bag could not with any degree of certainty be said to, in fact, be empty. In any case, we can say that the bag bulged out in such a way that suggested it contained nothing save, perhaps, a straw’s long since removed papery husk and perhaps even the straw itself, nicked at its top from its respective drinker’s teeth.); the army green bag on the floor; the almost pocket-sized notebook (also enspiraled and also splayed open, with about four handwritten lines of text inscribed on it, as undecipherable as the abovementioned signature, alas); the textbook that she placed on the seat, which was still indented from her buttocks, the book’s opened page containing a bar graph; the unopened bottle of water standing between the almost-finished cup of iced coffee and the black pouch-like thing, presumably the case for the abovementioned laptop.

Said woman returned and did not acknowledge us in any way, forgot to thank us, in fact, instead lifting her textbook from the chair, positioning her face in such away as to offer us a perfect profile, displaying a disproportionately large head, her oak-tree-leaf brown hair styled into a sumo wrestler’s absurd coiffure, the sight of which forced us to quickly scan away from her head and down toward her toes, which were covered by her heinous sandals, Birkenstocks, in fact, which we were surprised to discover are still sold and, even more surprisingly, bought.

Someone, a bearded boy, stopped to talk to the abovementioned woman, saying something about the so-called big picture, saying it was a picture without borders, quickly adding something about his abiding belief in the power of love as the guiding and redeeming energy of the Universe, quickly claiming that on some days he was a Gnostic Christian Mystic and other days a Taoist, but most of the time he was neither of these things, just someone enamored of readings and musings about the world around him and within him. The woman, who had tossed requisite oh-my-gods like stones into his meandering river of talk, finally told him that she had to study, after which he embraced her, whispering something in her ear, from which hung an enormous earring, which used to be referred to as “doorknockers.” We should say that our comment about Birkenstocks was admittedly a flippant one, a flippancy you may find in similar comments we have made about those ridiculous winter boots supposedly from Australia you see all kinds of people wearing, that flippancy, though, coming with an awareness that our own preferences are subject to our own subjectivities, and are therefore tangled with our own biases, blind spots, and whatever other limitations. As we think about this, we find ourselves feeling like we should talk about how one’s sense of “beauty” is arguably more the result of nurture than of nature, how what constitutes what is beautiful, sexy, or whatever is the result of a play of intertwining scripts and discourses, while also registering how difficult it is for women to find clothing, and especially shoes, that are comfortable at all, let alone comfortable and sexy, all kinds of notions of gender, commerce, sexism, and on and on surfacing for me, which should immediately and necessarily cast suspicion on anything we might say about “beauty.” That said (and at the risk of hurting your feelings, which we really do not wish to do, so please forgive us), Birkenstocks have to be the ugliest footwear we have ever seen, displacing the boots we have described above by a wide margin, but also (and by a lesser margin) most of the sportier sandals other companies have produced. They are clunky things that make feet look like they have been bandaged by leather strips and some cardboard and cork-like amalgam used because there was nothing else available, inevitably making said feet look almost exponentially bigger. We have the same critique about most men’s footwear, generally speaking. In fact, when it comes to buying boots, we usually start in the “women’s section”— scare-quoted to highlight that these sections are gendered and therefore constructions. We are silly enough to think that companies prey on the idea that you cannot reconcile “beauty” with comfort, that is, deliberately uglifying über-comfortable products. When it comes to sandals, you will most likely find us wearing Havaianas flip flops, which we find simple, sleek, and comfortable.

What we are suggesting, in other words, is that the Absolute Quiet Room, its surround, is a kind of discordia concors.

—John Madera

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John Madera’s fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other publications. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, and many other print and online venues. Madera edits the forum Big Other.

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Jan 042017
 

amongthedeadcbsd

samuelligon

Among the Dead and Dreaming is written in chapters no more than a few pages long, and most contain multiple points of view, refracting off each other. It’s an intricate narrative that resists excerpting; by mid-book, each first-person fragment is so congested with interpersonal history that it’s impossible to extract. The following chapter—the book’s second—takes place right after the motorcycle accident that kills Cynthia and Kyle. Here, Kyle’s lover, Nikki, recalls her violent past, which is about to catch up to her. Meanwhile, her soon-to-be-threatened daughter, Alina, expresses a healthy disdain for her prevaricating mother.

—Dawn Raffel

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Nikki


At seventeen, I ran from home with a boy named George who left me broke on the street in Providence. I never found another love like we had those weeks before he disappeared, though I looked for it everywhere I went. That was my real problem, all that searching and hunger. I didn’t know you can only fall in love and run from your mother once in your life. George was the best mistake I ever made.

I stayed in Providence for months after he left, then moved to Austin, where I met my worst mistake—Cash. Maybe I was too hungry, remembering my time with George, or maybe we got together too fast, before I could really know him, but whatever the reason, pretty soon it was just me and Cash and nothing else in the world that mattered. We were happy, too, until I started looking for work. He had plenty of money, he told me, would buy me whatever I wanted. What I wanted, I told him, was my own money. I got a job at a barbecue place and the interrogations started. I wasn’t interested in anyone else, but he’d accuse me of cheating or plotting to cheat. Why else would I talk to someone or look at someone or go to a coffee shop or have ever been born?

I’d been independent too long to put up with that kind of shit. But I did put up with it—until he called me mouthy.

“What did you say?” I said, and he said, “I’m tired of the mouth on you,” and I said, “So leave,” and he said, “I don’t want to leave,” and we got into it worse than ever before, fighting all night.

He said it again a week later—“What’d I say about mouthy?”—and that’s when I knew it was over for good. But he promised to change, and even though I knew better, I forgave him. We lived in a big house on Duval Street, with a lot of other people, him in the basement, and me on the second floor. After I took him back, he started spying on me. “You don’t know what love is,” he told me, before and after I broke it off for good. “You don’t know what love is,” he told me as he stalked me and haunted me for months.

He’d break into my room, follow me around, and the more cold and pissed off I became, the more threatening he became, unhinged and dangerous, until I finally had to move out of that house. But I didn’t run far enough—only across town, where I thought I was hidden. There was a moment of rest then, maybe a month. I was so young and stupid, so hungry for love, even after all that. Maybe because of all that. I fell for this guy, Daryl, and Cash tracked me down and hurt me more than I’d ever been hurt before. I ran to Oregon, where I waited for Alina to be born, praying she was Daryl’s baby, but the minute I saw her face, blood streaked and furious, I knew she’d come from Cash. She had attached earlobes like his and my eyelids, and she was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen, even if she did come from Cash.

I never meant to kill him. Or I meant to and couldn’t follow through and then he died anyway, before I ran from Austin with Alina just a speck in my belly. So Kyle wasn’t my first boyfriend to die—just the one I could have made a life with, maybe, if things had been different. What happened with Cash was self defense and another reason to get on another bus and keep moving, always moving from the minute I left my mother in Manchester, always hoping to lose myself completely.

I didn’t know Cash had a brother until Burke called a few weeks ago. For a second when I heard his voice, I thought Cash was back from the dead. I couldn’t make sense of the moment, because I didn’t know Burke existed. The sound of his voice on the phone stripped me to something I didn’t want to recognize in myself, like I was eighteen again, sprung to run, ready to pop. But I wasn’t eighteen. I was thirty-one. And the only thing thatmattered was making sure Burke never found out about Alina.

Alina

My mom talks about the mistakes she made when she was young and wild, but she never tells me what I want to hear. My father, she says, died in a car accident before I was born. Other than that, she won’t talk about him at all. Ever. I’ve never seen a picture or met a grandparent. “What about diseases and stuff?” I used to ask. “What about genes?” I knew that would get to her because of her own mother’s death from cancer. And her aunt’s.

“What about genes?” she said.

“I should know who he is,” I said, “where I came from.”

“You came from me,” she said.

“You don’t know his name?”

“Jim,” she said.

But sometimes he had other names.

That was when we were living in Seattle, before I learned to stop asking. They skipped me a grade, from second to third, because I was bored and getting in trouble and she wouldn’t let them put me on drugs. She was with Hal then, off and on, a guy she met at the restaurant. I didn’t care about Hal. I didn’t care about any of them until Kyle.

Nikki

“Make sure Kyle calls and writes,” Alina told me yesterday morning, before I left her at her new school in Michigan. “He will,” I said, so grateful she was gone. Now, I’ll have to bring her home and get her away again safe, but with a broken heart this time.

Months ago, I was furious with Kyle for encouraging her to attend Interlochen. He knew I couldn’t afford boarding school, that I didn’t want her in a place filled with rich kids, that I didn’t want to lose her so young. But he kept talking about the place. He’d gone to art school himself and it changed him, he said, made him a better person. He wanted to pay her way, whatever wasn’t covered by scholarships. We’d only been seeing each other a few months.

“She doesn’t have to know where the money comes from,” he said one night when we were watching the water from a bench on the boardwalk. “It’ll be like another scholarship,” he said.  Alina was at a friend’s house. We hadn’t talked about it in weeks.

“And if it doesn’t work out, she can come home.”

He looked so open and vulnerable, so hungry to help.

“I appreciate the offer,” I said. “I really do,” and he said, “So let me do this,” and I wondered if I could—for Alina’s sake, but also because I thought falling into his debt might be good for me, too, an act of faith, a kind of surrender. I didn’t want to hold myself so tight forever. I surprised us both when I took him up on his offer a few days later, grateful for his help, until Burke called, and then I was just grateful for a place to hide Alina, pulling back from faith and surrender as fast as I could.

Kyle loved me, I know that much, whether I deserved it or not. But he was in love with Cynthia, too, and had been for years. She was rich like him and careless about money, careless about everything, the way rich people always are. The nudes he painted of me had her eyes, the reason I couldn’t love him right, because he was in love with her, the lie I told myself, the lie I keep telling.

—Samuel Ligon

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ligon-photo

Samuel Ligon is the author of four books of fiction, Wonderland, Safe in Heaven Dead, Drift and Swerve, and  Among the Dead and Dreaming. His stories have appeared in New England Review, Prairie Schooner, The Quarterly and many other places. His essays appear regularly in The Inlander. Ligon is the editor of Willow Springs, and Artistic Director of the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference. He teaches at Eastern Washington University.

Jan 032017
 

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newspaper

I saw my first airplane when I was eight.  Stiff and angular, it growled across the sky, leaving behind it a trail of white shit.  I found Mother cooking porridge, and asked her what kind of bird that had been.  She called it a plane, and said it carried people from one place to another.

“Can’t the people walk?” I asked.

“Planes go places too far away to walk,” she said.

“Where do they go?” I wanted to know.  “What do the people do when they get there?

“Mapenzi,” Mother said, “can’t you see I’m busy?”

Thus began my fascination with flight.

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As I  was walking home from school a few months later, Grandfather called me over.   He measured my height against his walking stick and pretended to be impressed.

“Doing well with your studies?” he asked.

I shrugged.

“Do you want to work in the yam fields when you grow up?” he asked.

“I want to ride in a plane,” I replied.

“Eh!” he laughed.  “You have to be important to do that.”

“How do I become important?”

“Stay in school,” he said.  “Listen to your Mr.”

But I struggled in school.  I fidgeted and I squirmed.  A million thoughts and ideas flew in and out of my mind, none of which had anything to do with Mr.’s plodding lessons.  He often called me out during the day. “Sit still, Mapenzi!” he would say. “You’re disrupting class again.”

One day he reached into his desk and pulled out a bush yam, which he held in front of me.  “Mapenzi,” he explained, “this used to be a student just like you.  But the boy disobeyed his teacher, so God deserted him. Look at him now.”   The room went silent.  I searched Mr.’s face for some sign he was teasing.  He balanced the yam on my head.  “If it falls,” he said, “you’ll feel my ruler on each ear.”

The yam fell twice that day.  I went home with red ears and a bruised ego.

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Yet there were two things about school that I did like. I had recently discovered the World Atlas, which rested on a five-shelf cabinet that comprised our school library.   I spent my lunch hours leafing through its plastic-coated pages.   The world map captivated me most: candy-colored, cloud-shaped countries, nestled against the pale blue backdrop of our six connecting oceans.  Mr. had inked a small black dot on the map, pinpointing the location of Chisongo.

“Chisongo’s that small?” I asked him.

He nodded.  “Even smaller.”

“That includes the school, and the students? The police station, and the church, and my village, and my family, all that?”

I understood now the importance of airplanes.  There were so many places to see that were too far to walk.  I learned the names of the countries.   Some were easier to remember than others: Chad, for example, and Mali.  Some sounded elegant and exotic:  Bolivia, and my personal favorite, England.

The other thing I liked about school involved the walk home, which took me through Mazuba’s village. She would greet me in the road, lifting a fistful of peanuts or a dumpling from inside her skirt and placing them, still warm from her skin, in my hand. Mazuba would accompany me for a distance, encouraging my stories of places we would one day visit together.  She knew about my difficulties in school, and I shared with her what Grandfather had said.

“I don’t know what to do,” I confided.  “I am not a good student.”

“Why not ask God?” she suggested.

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That Sunday at church I sat upright and still.  When the priest asked us to bow our heads and pray, for once I had something to communicate.  “Dear God,” I said, “Staying in school won’t help me fly.  Is there something I can do instead?”   I waited for an answer but heard nothing.  When the choir began to sing I opened my eyes and found the priest looking my way. He shook his head as if to say ‘No’, before turning towards the singers.

I spent two more days that week with the yam on my head, and multiple welts on my ears.

Mother said she liked to go down to the river and talk with our ancestors when she needed something.   So I took the narrow path through the tall grass to the water, and squatted on the sandy bank.  What did it look like to ask ancestors for something?  I picked up a rock and tossed it into the current. It disappeared with a blopp!  “Good evening, Ancestors,” I said.  “I was born to fly in a plane.  I know this like I know a river is a river and the sky is the sky.  Can you help me?”  I left two dumplings on a small plate of leaves, hoping it would further my cause.

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The next day in school I felt particularly restless. I recall someone behind me whispering “Uh, oh, Mapenzi,” then Mr. approaching my desk with the yam and his ruler. I pulled my shirt collar up to protect my ears, and suddenly mayhem broke out. The students around me began to scream. He is going to do something terrible, I said to myself, burrowing further into my clothes. I hid, awaiting a blow that never came. Desks rustled and footsteps shuffled. Someone pulled back my shirt.  Above me the students hovered in a circle.

“Mapenzi has turned into a yam!” a boy yelled. Mr. pushed the students aside, took one look, and fainted.  Eager boys stepped over him to get a better view.  Three students left the classroom and returned with the headmistress.

“Children!” she cried. The students cleared a path to my chair. “This is Mapenzi?” she asked, picking me up.  She turned me around, studied me from up close and far away.  She sniffed my skin, then found the oldest boy in the class: “Have the secretary tend to your teacher,” she instructed, “and tell her I’ll be back.”  She carried me over the red clay schoolyard, past the church, and across the five-block town to the police station.

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“You are telling me this is a boy?” the police officer asked.

“He’ll be safest here,” the headmistress said.

“I have an empty cell,” he suggested.

“You’re going to lock him up like a criminal?”

“Headmistress,” he replied, “this is a jailhouse, not a hotel.”

My parents arrived shortly thereafter: Mother, crying, with my baby brother strapped to her back, my two sisters, older brother, and finally Father, who talked with the police officers outside the cell. Mother spit into her palm and attempted to tame the roots sprouting from my sides like wiry appendages.

“My poor Mapenzi,” she lamented. “Don’t worry, though, Father is talking with the officers about bringing you home with us today.”

I did not go home that day.  The police chief explained to my wailing mother that had he been present when I arrived, he would never have let them book me. But since I was now officially incarcerated, procedures had to be followed.

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Lying on my back in the jail cell, a sense of wellbeing overtook me. Perhaps because I had no way to move, I no longer felt the need to be in motion. No one told me what to do in there. No one punished me for what I seemed unable to do.

Word of my condition spread quickly, and a line began to form outside the jail. One officer wondered aloud why they didn’t charge admission, and so they did. To the “Northern Provincial Jail” sign outside, they added “See Yam Boy — Price 3 Kwacha.” Soon the station also accepted homebrew and cigarettes from would-be gawkers with no cash. I began counting days in faces rather than hours.

Mazuba visited, bringing sunshine into my cell. She waited silently next to my chair, as though expecting a travel story, and it broke my heart that I couldn’t deliver one. When an officer rapped on the bars and called out, “Time’s up,” she set a fistful of peanuts on the chair beside me. For a moment I could almost feel her warmth radiating off of the shells. But then the guard swept them absentmindedly into his pocket as he bellowed his okay for the next customer.

The priest came by. He examined me and asked for the head of police. “What kind of circus are you running here?” he asked. The chief fingered the keys on his belt loop and said nothing.

The congregation built a special receptacle for me inside the church. Mother cradled me in a towel, with the priest beside her as we walked from the police station. A parade of believers followed, praising the Lord for the sign He had given.

The priest soon began expressing concern about the expenses involved in housing a tuber, so entrance fees were reinstated. People arrived from farther and farther afield. They prayed over me, they touched me (an extra fee), they asked for my blessing. Mother visited one day in a new green flowered dress. She hung a map of Zambia on the wall next to me, marking with toothpicks the hometowns of our visitors.

The church expanded to include a café, and then a bookshop. Chisongo’s first hotel went up, and then people with light skin and fine, silky hair began to arrive. The Chinese quickly paved a road from our small town to the capital in the south. Mother hung a map of the world next to the one of our country.

Words could not express my delight when the priest hired Mazuba to collect Yam Boy tickets during the day, and to sweep the floors after closing. She stayed longer when she could. Together we would listen to the vibrating tymbals of the cicadas, and breathe in the fragrances of curbside dinner preparations. One evening when rain had left the air wet and heavy, she sat down on the font pew. “Remember those stories you used to tell me,” she asked, “about all the places we’d fly together?” She sloped onto her side, yawning. “It seems so silly now, but I used to really believe that one day they’d come true.” She closed her lids and slipped gently into sleep. I could not take my eyes off of her curled form, off the delicate flaring of her nostrils with each inhalation. How was it possible feel so utterly miserable in the presence of someone I loved so deeply?

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My body began to transform anew. Dark blotches established themselves on my skin. A crack developed in my side, with a crusty edge that flaked off to reveal more discolored tissue below.

At Mother’s request, Grandfather came by to evaluate my condition. He ran a thickly calloused finger along the fissure.  “Yam rot,” he confirmed.

Mother twined her fingers.  “Can he be saved?”

“My dear Child,” Grandfather put a hand on her shoulder and looked at her fixedly, “I’ve been growing tubers all of my life. Whatever this might have been before, it is now a yam. It has no intelligence, no consciousness, it can’t think or feel.

Mother began to cry.

“You can prolong its life,” he added, “but only if you are willing to treat a yam like a yam.”

Back home I traveled, in the fist of my grandfather. He toted me to the outskirts of our village, repeatedly turning around and telling Mother to scram.

I willed myself to jump and run as he pulled out his knife. He wasted no time lacerating my skin, cutting a deep gash around the fissure and scooping out the damaged tissue. Oh the pain! If only I still had teeth I would have given Grandfather a taste of his own medicine that day. He snipped away the remaining areas of discoloration, then rubbed my weeping, tender flesh with wood ash. He corralled the infected scraps with his foot into a pile and set it alight with a match.

I cured for four days with the harvest’s damaged tubers, sweating and steaming under rice grass and jute bags.   I drifted in and out of sleep as my wounds healed and a new, thin protective outer layer of skin formed.

My family constructed a simple, open-air hut with an elevated grass mat to maximize ventilation. I detected a hint of pride as Grandfather installed me, renewed from curing, in my new home.

Mother eyed me approvingly.  “So he’s all healthy now?” she asked.

“If you want it to last forever,” Grandfather groused, “take it to Solwezi and have it canned.”

Mother began to cry.

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Mother continued to come by, but she no longer sang or brought news of my family.  Folds of skin began to develop beneath her eyes.

My hearing and vision started to dull, and my base softened.  Mother packed healing herbs around me in hopes of preserving what she could of my fading health.  Grandfather confirmed the worst.  “It will not be long now,” he said.

Late one afternoon as the church was preparing to close for the day, a visitor from afar stepped into the room.  She introduced herself as Ashley.  She had flown from Europe after a friend had forwarded her a newspaper clipping about me.  Ashley’s cameraman lifted me out of my receptacle with great care, and snapped pictures from various angles.

“My church in England wants you to come visit,” she said.  “You’re famous.”

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For days after Ashley’s visit, Mother informed anyone who would listen that I was not going anywhere.  “He can’t travel,” she said.  “He’s dying.”

The priest dipped his head with understanding.  “A mother’s primary concern is always what’s best for her children,” he said.

Our priest often disarmed congregants by ascribing good intentions to them. As Mother’s mouth softened and her shoulders relaxed, I had a hopeful sense of where he might be taking her.

“And yet,” he said, “Mapenzi’s time on earth is soon ending, whether he stays or goes. Perhaps we ought to ask ourselves what he would want in the short time he has remaining.”

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I was small enough to qualify as a lap child, so the English church paid for Mazuba to accompany me. In her handbag she carried instructions for the packing and transportation of my remains back home to Chisongo.

I wove in and out of consciousness as we taxied over the tarmac to the runway, and then slowed to a stop. The deep voooorrrrrr-ing of the engines rattled my insides.

Mazuba held me up to the Plexiglas as the aircraft rolled forward, crawling at first, then picking up speed. The fields and trees shot by, eventually blurring into a solid wall of green. The pilot nudged the plane’s nose into the air, and we were off.

The magic of flying — the pressure of my body against Mazuba’s hand as we gained altitude; the losing and regaining of the horizon as the plane turned once, then a second time; the peculiar sensation of being rooted on solid ground while floating on the air coalesced with the pride of having achieved my goal.

Below us the square roofs of the city gave way to kilometers of forest speckled with occasional clusters of thatched and metal huts. I imagined one of those groupings to be Chisongo, with the students waving from the red clay courtyard; Mother, Father and my brothers and sisters shielding their eyes from the light to catch a glimpse of me, traveling somewhere too far away to walk. I sent my heartfelt thanks to Mr. and to all of the other human and spiritual advocates, for the roles they played in getting me here. We passed into a layer of clouds, then up into the bright sunshine with a sky as blue as the six connecting oceans of my schoolroom atlas.

—Laura Fine-Morrison

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Laura Fine-Morrison has worked in a variety of organizations, largely in a human resources capacity.  She has moonlighted as a freelance journalist and business writer. During college, she was awarded a three-month research fellowship to study community banking among market women in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire. She has also volunteered as a French-English interpreter in Mali, raised funds for fistula clinics in Tanzania, started a small business venture with an Ethiopian leather goods manufacturer, and rooted for Ghana in the South African quarterfinals of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. She lives in Seattle with her husband and daughter. This is her first published short story and she is damned pleased about it!

Jan 022017
 

Author photo by Robbie Fry

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In the evenings, the prostitutes hang out along the canal. At that time, there weren’t any exotic creatures from Central Europe or Africa, so picture the indigenous variety instead. White girls dressed in short skirts and heels. Hair bleached or permed, faces painted just that little too much.

Picture Susie. She leans forward, weight balanced on her toes. Legs thrust up to her ass which in turn thrusts back, creating a firm shelf of arse that mimics African girls’ booty. Her back is as rigid as a tabletop. Her head curves round to transact with the man in the car. One hand on the car door, the other on her hip, fingers splayed inwards, bringing attention to the product; the means of reproduction.

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Too much kohl. A shower after every sale.

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‘Isn’t she sore from the scrubbing?’ said Dave. Not getting it, I almost asked him to repeat it. And maybe he wanted me to. Except—

Unh, I said instead, a second too late. Stared out the window, feeling my face burn.

She’d come and gone five times in two hours. Five times the sound of running water, the door slamming. Each time it slammed, there’d been an echo ten minutes later. ‘See,’ said Dave. Patient, as if explaining to a child. ‘First slam – guy leaves. Second slam, it’s her, going back to the job.’ Through the top-floor window at the back of the house, we watched her. Just the two of us, me and Dave. Matt was out working his Burgerking shift; wouldn’t be back till two. Dave had binoculars. He’d laughed when he’d realised he could follow Susie all the way to her spot.

‘Fuck,’ he’d said. ‘We’re living with a prossie.’

I hadn’t believed him, so he handed me the binoculars. I saw her white jacket bobbing between the tired green leaves of the trees. Her skirt was a darkish colour. Short. Flesh-coloured tights, not black opaques like the girls in college. Stilettos.

I’d bumped into her earlier, on her way out. She’d looked like a secretary making ready for a night of fun. Except that the skirt was just that bit too high.

How much is too much? A finger’s width? The span of a hand, seven inches above the knee? Is that much always too much?

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It was a beautiful September evening. We stayed at the open window. Cracked open some beers, talked about football.
Slam.

‘Ssh,’ said Dave. His hand tapping my leg, involuntary almost, the way you’d still an animal. ‘That’s six. Jesus.’

The shower, again.

Then, a little while later, the washing machine, down in the basement.

‘Sheets,’ I said.

Dave glanced at me.

I felt uncomfortable. ‘Think about it.’

He kept looking at me, let his face change slowly, from fake-puzzled to mask of disgust.

Later, we heard music drift up from her flat.

Keyboard, schmaltzy as a game-show theme tune. Dave started to sing along. Nights in White Satin.

I got the giggles, then he did too. The lady of the night playing music. Not, like a geisha, for her clients. Just for herself. And the snake, of course.

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The house was in a long Georgian terrace in Ranelagh. Its windows were on an east-west axis. Dave, Matt and I had the whole top floor, so we got light all day long. Susie was on hall level; one room, at the back. By afternoon, the sun would shift its weight round to the front, throwing the house’s silhouette over itself. I imagine Susie sleeping in on those autumn mornings we got up early to cycle over to Belfield. I see her clinging to the fresh smell of her laundered sheets and waking, eventually, to shadows. Padding to the window, peeking out through the curtain, at the weeds and rhododendron in the overgrown back garden.

I never thought of her then, in that way, from the inside. But now—

How did her days pass for her? Was she busy? Did time flow or drag? What did she do, those shortening afternoons before the night’s work started?

Her snake coils in its cage and watches. I see its eyes, yellow glints in the darkness.

I can’t remember who started the fabrications. Matt, maybe. ‘A hooker? No! How do ye know, lads?’ A question, triggering

responses, leading to a riff, exploding out into a story. There was a guy who came to the door in the daytime, during her non-working hours. Her boyfriend, I suggested. The others scoffed. ‘You dick,’ said Matt. ‘No self-respecting lad would have a hoor as his bird.’

‘Actually, Matthew,’ said Dave, doing one of his about-takes. ‘You’re the dick. All that expertise. Who wouldn’t want a free sample of that?’

There was another day-time guy, thin and sleazy, blouson jacket, Brazilian strip of a moustache. Dave reckoned he was her pimp. And then there was the kid, but only on the weekends. Sweet-looking. He wore glasses. I thought he was around eight. Dave reckoned older. ‘Undernourished. Because he’s a knacker.’ A sly sidelong at Matt, who came from a working-class family. Matt took a long toke, spoke through the spliff-smoke, exaggerating his Limerick whine.

‘Technically, David, you’re not insulting me there. Knacker’s only for Dublin scumbags.’

Dave came up with the first name. The son’s. Dylan. Matt named the ex. Pat. Pah, he said, dropping the t the way they did in Dublin. Steo, the pimp, was my contribution. Dave started laughing.

‘Oh, that’s good. That’s dirty.’

‘Steeeeo,’ I said, emboldened, making my mouth mean and long, flattening the word. Matt laughed too.

‘Who do ye think he lives with?’ I said later. ‘Dylan. The kid?’.

But they were already talking about the match that afternoon, losing interest.

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Her flat was immaculate. We’d get a glimpse of it sometimes on our way up the stairs, or if we were passing to go out to the back to the miserable garden. I imagine her now, scouring the bachelor fittings in the lean-to kitchen, rubbing Jif along the ancient draining board until her hands stung. Spraying Pledge on the shelves, plumping up her cushions from All Homes, arranging them prettily on the bed. Polishing his cage, rubbing the bars until they shone.

His name I knew, though I didn’t tell the lads. She’d shared it with me the week after we’d moved in. I’d been passing, saw her standing at her window, looking out, the python wound around her body like a weight-lifter’s belt.

‘Oh.’ She turned, catching me. Her face was soft and pale. Brown eyes, longish lashes. No make-up. Her mouth small, delicate, the colour of a winter rose, fading.

‘Hi,’ I said. A blurt. My hand stuck itself out, like I was playing bank manager.

She looked down at it, my silly hand. Looked up. Her gaze seemed bored, unreadable. ‘You’re one of the students.’ The snake shifted, raised its head. Its tongue appeared.

‘This is Kaa,’ she said, stroking his scales.

I must have blinked, surprised she had the same references I did.

Her head tilted. ‘Oh, yeah,’ she said, like it was a question, or challenge. ‘He’s the real king of the jungle.’

Trust in me. Just in me.

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Ugly wallpaper. A green floral motif; hard and embossed, like a skin disease. A dull no-colour carpet, the type country landlords used because it didn’t show the dirt. She’d added touches. Three Anne Geddes posters; dimpled four-year old Californians sucking on lollipops, hugging teddies. They bother me now, those images. Did she choose them to throw the landlord off the scent, to make the place not look like what it was? Or for her own sake, to make her feel innocent again, or remind her of her son? Were they for her boy, when he came to visit? Or were they part of her shtick, a deliberate choice – along with the prim secretary get-up and the pale, featureless face – a sop to the men who fucked her there, that really, what they were doing to her and what she was letting them do was okay?

Maybe she got them to make the men feel bad, like when they were fucking her, they were fucking innocence too.

Maybe she just wanted herself to feel bad.

‘Nice,’ I said, nodding at them, that evening she introduced me to Kaa.

All the time backing out, arse first, like a toady at a Renaissance court.

Her window was long and dusty. Floor-length velvet curtains either side. Dark red, starkly vaginal. Knocking Shop 101.

Those were the words I used when I described them to Dave. He didn’t react. He seemed preoccupied. I felt myself panic.

‘Do you think she bought them?’ I said. ‘You know, like a thing? Like the snake? Or the posters—’

‘What posters?’ said Dave.

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘You know…’

Dave shrugged. ‘No idea. Ask Matt.’

But Matt wasn’t there. He was staying out again, with the girl he’d met from the College of Commerce, the one who had a bedsit off Camden Street.

‘Or maybe.’ Dave had about-faced again. Was looking at me, suddenly alert. ‘They were Steo’s idea.’

‘The posters?’

‘What posters? The curtains.’

My mouth opened itself. ‘Yeaaaahhh.’ There I was, doing Steo’s voice again. ‘Steeeeo, branding mastermind. Knocking Shop 101.’

Dave laughed, like he hadn’t the first time I’d said it, and I did it again, and we riffed then, about asking the powers-that-be at UCD to bring Steo in as a guest tutor on the marvels of the marketing mix.

‘I bet you he’s given her a name,’ said Dave. That slightly hyper look in his eyes. ‘Suzanna. Her real name is—’

‘Susan.’

‘Yeah. But—’

‘Clients don’t want a Suuusan.’ I was doing Steo again. ‘Suuusan’s their mot’s name. They want something exotic—’

‘Something with a Z,’ said Dave, in a Steo’s voice that under the Belfast, was way more dangerous than mine. We stopped and looked at each other, and because there was nothing else to do, we laughed, though it had an odd, uneasy sound to it as it came out of our mouths.

.

I wonder. Was she ever renamed, the real Susie? Suzanna for work, Suzanna with a Z, the one spied on by the elders?

Would she have liked that name, or been upset by it? Felt like it took something away from her, scraped away at a piece of her soul, made whatever she had left less hers, more theirs, the men’s; his, the pimp’s, the one we called Steo? I find myself asking her these questions. I find myself imagining a friend for her, like an Imelda, from Cork, who will answer them. I picture them together outside office hours, two young women sitting on a park bench on a Saturday afternoon sharing a fag. They are discussing the Z. Imelda tells Susie not to argue with Steo about it. Yerra, girl, he’ll only do something on ya.

i.e., Glass or cut her.

Or maybe Susie was okay with it. Felt the Z gave her something. Protection. Yeah, Steo. I like it. Thanks.

Maybe the Z was hers all along.

Hey listen up, Steo, you little worm. I’ve an idea. I want a Z in me name… and I realise I’m doing Susie’s voice this time, but out loud, and nobody is listening.

.

I’ve begun to take the Luas to Ranelagh. Two, maybe three evenings a week, after work. The tram bells trill and a voice tells me we’re there, and I get off. I walk past the house and look at the ground-floor window, the one at the front that wasn’t Susie’s. I can’t get past its black glass. I want this woman’s history to surface for me – god knows why – a wooden saint emerging from the painted doors of our shared astronomical clock. But all that surfaces is me.

I think of the black eyes we saw her sport; twice, each time the same eye. Was it Steo who gave it to her, like Dave said? Or the ex, Pah? Was it a punter? How did she get away with it for so long, working there? I picture our landlord, poised on the landing, fist raised to knock for the rent. I feel her furniture crash to the floor. I hear her shouting.

.

It’s easy to make up lives for other people. Dave created a therapy group for Susie. He hated that stuff, thought it was soft and meaningless, useless in the face of real problems happening to real people, like wars. He gave her a facilitator. A book. Heal Your Life. He had me say the title, in the well-meaning Dublin accent of our dinner ladies at the college canteen. Together we cobbled up a Bad Thing that had happened to Susie to justify the therapy. ‘Maybe she killed someone,’ said Dave. ‘One of her men.’ Maybe she tried to kill Dylan, I thought, but didn’t say. Thinking of my mother, the unspoken-about darkness that fell on her after my sister was born.

Dave invented Susie’s family too, a big horde of Cabra Dubliners on her mother’s side. I gave her a Belfast father. ‘Cliché,’ said Dave. ‘She’s not remotely northern.’ ‘No,’ I said. ‘Think about it. His name’s Jack. A violent bastard. Used to beat her mother. That’s what put her on the game.’ ‘Fuck off,’ said Dave. ‘What do you know about any of that? Here’s what it is.

She loved Jack and Jack loved her mother and her mother loved her and none of them–’

‘None of them,’ I said, getting it.

Loved the one who loved them.

But who, who, I think? Who, apart from her child, was her family? Where did they live? Did she have parents who were still alive? Siblings? Aunties, uncles, grandparents? What did they know of what she did, those shapeless relatives? What could they know? If someone from the fringes of my family had been a working girl at that time, would I have known?

I picture her not on the canal, but across the city, on the other strip; the Golden Mile near Heuston train station. Sun slants over the low roofs, striping the Liffey gold. A man pulls up in his Punto, winds down his window. Another girl is nearer but the man beckons to Susie, smiling his slow, investigative punter’s smile. Susie leans over. A waft of fag smoke, sweat and Magic Tree.

‘Christ!’ says the man.

Susie retracts. The man grabs her wrist. ‘Susie.’ She falters. He takes off his shades.

Recognition.

Things like that can happen.

.

She kept her earnings in the flat. A biscuit-tin.

1991. I’m guessing: handjob fifteen quid, blowie thirty, full package somewhere between fifty and a ton? Six a night, average five nights a week, and Steo took his cut of (I’m guessing again) sixty percent. If my sums are right, and they’re probably not, on good weeks she would have made almost a grand. Maybe I’m overestimating her earnings. The thought makes me sick.

.

She came up one night, in late November. The others were out, Matt at his girlfriend’s place, Dave on the tear. It was very late. Two or three. I couldn’t sleep, was sitting in the kitchen, reading Stephen King, the one about the boys and the body.

A knock.

‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘I didn’t know if….’ She was in a dressing-gown and slippers. Shivering. Her face was bare. She looked worried. ‘I heard a noise at the back. I think there’s…’

Someone in the garden, I thought. It was an old house, spooky. It backed onto a lane; easy enough for someone to climb over the wall and in.

‘Would you come down?’ she said. ‘Just to keep me company?’

I remembered my mother, not letting go my hand. Not letting go my hand and all me wanting was to get away.

The stairs swallowed us.

‘What age are you?’ she said.

I didn’t want to answer. My mouth moved. ‘Twenty.’

‘Ahh. Where are you from? Wexford?’

Not a bad guess. That surprised me. But then, I thought. All those men.

‘Waterford.’

‘Nice there?’

I shrugged.

‘The good-looking lad that lives with you.’ She was peering down at the steps, carefully, as if she’d never walked them before. ‘The fella from the north.’ I felt my skin itch. ‘Is he a friend?’

The stairs swallow us.

‘I don’t think there’s anything there,’ I said, stopping on the landing.

‘Please.’ She held out her hand, drew me down.

.

The biscuit-tin was on the top of the Super Ser. The Super Ser wasn’t switched on. Its back door was an inch open. She asked me to stay, till her mind was settled, like, and would I want a cup of tea. I can’t remember if I nodded but she made me one anyway.

‘Can I have a biscuit?’ I said.

She looked at me and I thought I saw pity in her eyes and there I was, the fat kid again.

‘I don’t have any.’

I must have glanced at the tin and she must have looked and blinked or something because then I knew.

Steo, financial wizard. Here, Suuusan, don’t give your money to the fucking bank. Keep it somewhere safe.

I made my face into nothing. I do remember that moment, the mask coming over me. Its tightness on my skin, warm as scales.

She must really have been frightened, I think now, to leave the tin like that, not take a moment to hide it after taking the money out and stuffing it down her pants or bra or wherever she stuffed it.

‘They eat people,’ she said, nodding at Kaa. ‘I heard about a fella who had one. He forgot to feed it. Left it for a week and one night it swallowed him.’

Is he part of your act, I wanted to ask. Is he your surrogate baby? How old is he? Is he ancient, older than you and me combined?. How old is Dylan? Your son, I mean. What is his name? Do you love him?

Something rattled at the window. She jumped.

‘That’s just a tree,’ I said. I was feeling angry and I didn’t know why.

‘I don’t have biscuits,’ she said. ‘But I can make you toast.’

A smell was on her, rich and loamy as leafmould.

I didn’t want her toast. I didn’t want her kitchen, or anything. ‘Okay,’ I said.

.

This is what I would like.

She keeps him hungry for a week, then another, and another again. It hurts her to do it. She still risks the occasional caress, but she no longer takes him out to wind around her body, or brings him into bed with her, balancing him against her palms while she lies back and tries to sleep and maybe dreams.

This might happen: One night, servicing a client, she might hear him, rustling in his cage behind his curtain. Trying to move the hunger out of him. The client might hear too. Complain. She’ll say Kaa’s part of her act, but he’s sick that night.

Another night, another rustle, another complaint. Word reaches Steo. Here Suusann, what’s the story? Susie tells him she’s planning to get rid of Kaa. Having a snake, she says, wasn’t as good for business as she’d hoped.

While he starves, she plays knife-games on her kitchen table, spreading out the fingers of her left hand and stabbing the wooden spaces in between. She’s good at that game; I’ve given her my skill with it, though I’ve kept the beginners’ scars on my fingers for myself.

The stabs make a rhythm, like drums. She thinks of Dylan.

She thinks of Pah, and Steo, and her clients. Each time the knife makes contact, she pictures it jabbing a face. She sees the shapeless relative, the man I imagined for her at Heuston Station. She sees the father I invented, Jack, from Belfast. She sees Matt. She sees Dave. She sees me.

Yerra, girl, you’re terrible quiet these days, says Imelda, the fabricated friend from Cork. Are you eating enough?

Kaa’s skin is dull; his eyes are baleful. The uneaten mice in the cage are fat and complacent. The room fills with the stab of the drum.

Tak-tak-tak-tak-tak.

She stops playing the keyboard. It hurts Kaa’s ears and makes his mouth open. She misses the keys just like she misses his scales. They both give under her fingertips.

.

I began to go back home at the weekends. The bus was cheap but the smell of other people made me feel sick, so after the first weekend, I hitched. My da was worried, but he didn’t know what to ask. My sister was cramming. For the Inter. What a profound waste of time, I wanted to tell her, but I didn’t have those words. I walked the People’s Park and up the hill, to the bad stretch of Barrack Street where the winos and the tough boys laughed and called each other names. I didn’t want to drink. I didn’t want to do anything. ‘Have you lost weight?’ said my sister, and it was an accusation.

One Sunday evening nearing Christmas, I came back to Dublin and the house in Ranelagh had changed. It looked brighter somehow, as if someone had turned on all the lights, though they hadn’t. Susie’s door was closed. Sounds were coming from behind it, but they weren’t sex. I passed it quickly. Dave was on the landing, just out of the bath. Hair wet. A towel around his neck.

‘There he is. Returned traveller!’

He gave me a rough hug and I smelt sweat, warm, on the damp towel.

‘She’s leaving,’ he said, pottering around, opening beers.

‘Who?’

He stopped. ‘Who d’you think? She was robbed. Friday. Came back late, found her room in pieces. Furniture smashed.

He’d taken her money.’

How do you know, I wanted to say. ‘Is the snake alright?’

‘You know who it was? The fucking landlord. He knew where her money was, right? She kept it there. In a tin. How stupid is that?’ He shook his head, frowning. ‘Trying to get rid of her. Wanted a different type of tenant.’

I see her room again, the Super Ser on its side, the biscuit-tin open. My trouser pocket stuffed.

I laughed.

Dave looked over.

‘Jesus, Dave,’ I said. ‘That’s a fucking good one. Best so far. You had me convinced there, nearly.’

Dave laughed too, but he was still frowning, his fingers starting to work the sugar-spattered surface of our kitchen table.

His fingers, stained with nicotine near the tips, pushing at the grains. Little spirals, figures-of-eight. Christ, I thought, I could sit here for ever.

.

Warm sweat. Under it, a perfume; clean and new, like spring.

.

Tak-tak-tak-tak-tak.

Her knife lands.

The tram bells trill. A voice tells me to get off.

.

This is what I want.

I enter the room.

Kaa’s hungry eyes register. His body coils, his head lifts.

I don’t see him, his opened cage.

I reach for the heater, unclick the back door.

A rustle. I turn. Too late.

He flings forward, all open.

I am gone. I am in him, and he is around her, pushing his musculature into her strong-soft flesh, and they are one, and she is playing Nights in White Satin and I hear it through her skin, and his and my own, as it dissolves, and upstairs they’re laughing with their girlfriends, Matt and Dave, doing Steo as best as they can without me and wondering where I’ve got to, the fat boy, wondering where I’ve gone.

—Mia Gallagher

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Mia Gallagher is the author of two acclaimed novels: HellFire (Penguin Ireland, 2006), awarded the Irish Tatler Literature Award 2007; and Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland (New Island, 2016), recently long-listed for the inaugural Republic of Consciousness Prize.  Her prize-winning short fiction has been published internationally and her non-fiction has been published in print and online. She was guest-editor on the Stinging Fly’s special ‘Fear & Fantasy’ issue (Winter 2016-17) and has received several Literature Bursaries from the Arts Council of Ireland. As a performer/deviser and playwright, her theatre work has toured widely in Ireland and abroad.

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Dec 112016
 

Dawn Promislow

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Do it. Walk down this gilded laneway—black-cobbled, shiny-cobbled—on a bright autumn day, and you will see that it curves narrowly along the quiet, south bank of the Arno River in Florence, in district Oltrarno.

There are high stone walls—gold-coloured—that curve and contain the lane, and greenery that falls from the walls, like water. And in the still midday (at a moment when you hear nearby brass bells bantering–deeply–the hour), you can walk along this curving lane, going nowhere especially, and you might come across a cat.

She’s an iron-grey cat, you’ve never seen such a colour, deep dense-grey. You can follow her as she sidles, uninterested, into a doorway. Like a woman. The doorway is black and dark, a black square in stone. You must stoop to enter, and the heavy wooden door open to the inside is hinged with thick metal, tinged, and ancient.

It’s a low-ceilinged room, stone, clad in black-grey, with dark metal shapes and implements everywhere: blunt tools of every kind and shape, anvils, and hammers, dark metal-racked. And on a large black table is a welding machine, and a man, not a young man, is bent over a hulking black form, yellow sparks flying, and there’s a din of blasting, metallic noise.

And everywhere you look there are black and grey metal forms that are sculptures, on old wooden tables and on worn wooden shelves, at every height and covering every piece of wall and space. Some are just shapes: spirals and curves, or angular and sharp. But some are animals, or people, metalled. They’ve been melted and smelted and reworked, forged and reforged, into these metalled, living creatures.

A sculpture of a boar, up on its hindlegs, startles. The boar looks startled, but you’re startled too. You think wild boars are native here, but you are not sure. All this iron, all this metal, must be native to the hills around here, extracted, a-flash in the sun, from the flint-hard earth. And if you go home you might read about how iron ore has been mined here and nearby for a long, long time.

You’re watching the grey gatto again, she’s sitting at the door now, looking out, out through the square door of light, onto the black-cobbled street. The word ghetto, which was invented not far away in the year fifteen hundred and sixteen, sounds much like gatto. Ghettos had cats, indolent, everywhere, you are sure of that.

And another man will come towards you from deep inside the stone room, he’s old but very strong, hardened like metal, and his name is Giancarlo, and his glasses flash in the dimness. Giancarlo and you do not share, between you, a language, but Giancarlo will tell you things all the same. He will tell you, in words black and barbed and unrecognizable (and musical), that he has been welding and sculpting with his blackened hands, hard hands, these many-blacked and blackened shapes and forms. He will tell you that he has been doing this since 1955, which is a very long time since it is now the year 2014. He will tell you, although you’ve guessed already, that this black-ironed, blackguard of a stone blacksmith’s room with its black stone floor has been here with all its metal work for five hundred years at least. Five hundred years, and you are certain that this gatto, this iron cat, has been here all that time too. Because she is nine-lived, or more. It’s for this reason that she is so deep grey, imprinted with soot and the black of many days and works. Gatto, come here gatto.

And you won’t want to leave this grey-black room with its iron-barred square window which lets in light, light, and a blue square of bright sky. You will want to stay here and watch how the metalled creatures are made. And meanwhile the gatto will jump up onto the deep-wooded and -blacked table in front of you, and she will roll over to be stroked by the iron-hard hands of Giancarlo, who owns and loves her. How old is she, you will ask. And Giancarlo will tell you in the language you don’t share that she’s three, but you’re not sure about that.

You think you could stay, there might be a room at the back, a black room, metalled, with a stone, cool floor. Do it.

You could be that cat. Gatto. Gatto. Old, wise (and beautiful), sidling and stand-offish.

Such a cool laneway in the golden midday sun. Green spills from the walls like water.

—Dawn Promislow

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Dawn Promislow is the author of the short story collection Jewels and Other Stories (TSAR Publications, 2010), which was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award 2011, and named one of the 8 best fiction debuts of 2011 by The Globe and Mail (Canada). Her poem “lemon” was short-listed for the 2015 Berfrois Poetry Prize. She lives in Toronto.

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Dec 062016
 

green_loving_2048x2048

green

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

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

—Dorian Stuber

 

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

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


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

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

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

The lad looked sick.

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

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

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

“Not out of that room I couldn’t.”

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

“But there’s Miss Burch.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes Mr. Raunce,” she replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No Madam.”

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

“Yes Madam.”

“And, oh tell me, how is Eldon?”

“Much about the same I believe Madam.”

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

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

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

“What glove?”

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

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

“’E ain’t dead yet.”

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

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

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

“Not me I never.”

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

“What for Mr. Raunce?”

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

“I never.”

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

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

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

“What about Miss Burch?” the boy called.

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

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

.

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

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

“Yes Arthur what is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

“No Madam.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you Madam.”

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

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

“Yes Madam.”

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

“Yes Madam.”

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

“Thank you Madam.”

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

“I will make enquiries. Very good Madam.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Would the dinner bell have gone yet?”

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

“Not me,” she replied amused.

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

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

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

“Oh yeah?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The girls looked down to their laps.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Careful now,” said Raunce.

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

“It was nearly my lot,” Raunce added.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Henry Green

Copyright © 1945 by the estate of Henry Green

N5

henry-green

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

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Dec 042016
 

chrostowska_s_d_retouched_scaled_cropped

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—S.D. Chrostowska

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

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Nov 112016
 

author-photovia UnionHidalgo

 Pho

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

— Translator Patricia Dubrava

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Get me a Becherovka.”

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

Finally, I returned to my table.

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

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

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

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

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

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

§

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

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

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

“Or drugs?” She speculated, amused.

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

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

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

“Why don’t you talk to him?”

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

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

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

“No. I think he liked you.”

“Why do you think that?”

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

 “You think so?”

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

Dasha stared at me.

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

“He’ll be back tomorrow.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We woke after eleven.

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

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

“A book?”

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

“But, why did he bring it here?”

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

“Why double?”

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

“But, why?”

Dasha shrugged her shoulders.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you really interested?” Leo seemed incredulous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Patricia

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

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Nov 092016
 

jdf_1

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

—Jared Daniel Fagen

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

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Nov 072016
 

lordan-viaDave Lordan via West Cork Lit Festival


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

—Dave Lordan


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


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Nov 052016
 

novel-explosives

 

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

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

—Jim Gauer

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

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Nov 042016
 

panorama-cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Dušan Šarotar, translated by Rawley Grau

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dusan-sarotar

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

grau

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

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Nov 022016
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

§

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

§

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

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

§

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

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

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

“Man?” she asked, unsure and trembling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No. No. They’ll kill me.”

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

“The people there.”

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

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

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

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

“The ’60s, I think.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

§

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I should go.”

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

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

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

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

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

“The apartment building,” I blurted.

“What about it?”

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

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

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

§

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He doesn’t know what he’s missing.”

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

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

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

§

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

§

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh,” I said, catching on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’d you sing?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, Hebron has siblings.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Didn’t go over?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Charlene.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You do,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

—Brian Leung

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

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Oct 122016
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— translated from the Hungarian by Erika Mihálycsa

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

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Erika

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

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Oct 072016
 

gloaming-finn_cov

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Tanga, May 28

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

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

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

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

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

‘What does a witch doctor do?’

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

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

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

‘Shetani?’

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

‘And Mr Sese is—’

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

‘Headvises the president.’

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

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

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

‘Twofer?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is not darkness but a kind of obliteration.

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

The guide turns on the flashlight.

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

He turns it off, makes a dry little cough.

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

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

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

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

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

‘What is this?’

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

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

‘Can I look?’

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

‘Why do they make the offerings?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Why did you bring me here?’

‘What?’ She’s looking straight ahead.

‘Here. Why are we here, Gloria?’

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

—Melanie Finn

N5
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Melanie Finn is the author of three novels: The Gloaming (Two Dollar Radio, 2016); Shame (W&N, 2015) and Away From You (St. Martins Griffin, 2014).

Oct 062016
 

German Sierra

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sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.

— Virgil, Aeneid, 1.461

1.

Nothing is colossal.

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

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

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

Creepy crypto-CRISPR. Fuck genomic darkness.

The rain is plain plan B.

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

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

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

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

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

All zombies are undead equally.

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

A swarming soil and soul.

Splashing sounds, splashing souls.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Both are professionally concerned with the past.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All that was forgotten.

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

x

2.

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

Nothing else matters, says the song.

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

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

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

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

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

There are sand and ashes in the machine.

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

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

x

3.

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

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

x

4.

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

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

Presence: it should be enough.

Absence kills the brain.

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

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

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

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

Legacy.

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

Woundaries.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forcefully.

Uncomfortably.

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

Software, however, has never been updated.

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

x

5.

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

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

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

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

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

x

6.

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

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

Never mind to wait.

She had been living abroad and mothered a child.

All was unexpected.

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

x

7.

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

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

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

—Germán Sierra

x

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

x

x

Oct 042016
 

martone

.

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

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

— § —

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

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

— § —

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

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

— § —

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

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

— § —

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

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

— § —

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

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

— Michael Martone

.

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

.

Sep 152016
 

Lewis Parker

.

“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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