May 162017
 

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The following is a story of desire and memory. It comes to us from Franci Novak, a poet and story writer from Slovenia. Novak’s debut story collection, Podnebne spremembe (Climatic Changes), was originally published in Slovene by LUD Literatura. This English translation is by Olivia Hellewell. Hellewell has previously translated short stories and poems, and her first book-length translation, None Like Her by Jela Krečič, was published by Istros Books and Peter Owen Publishers in 2016.

— Benjamin Woodard

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The first thing I remember is the first bonfire and that drunk guy who came staggering out of the woods with a big log on his head, grinned, and then threw the piece of wood into the flames. It flickered fiercely, it was as if a storm was brewing over the fire, it was beautiful and magical. It was then that I summoned up the courage to go up to him, he was sat on the other side of the bonfire, on a bench, with friends, I asked him if he wanted to come and dance with me, his friends smirked and cracked jokes, the way boys usually do. I watched him all evening, I knew that it was him, that he was the right one that I had to have for myself. He was meant for me. I felt awkward, I was trembling inside myself, not that I let it show from the outside, but I knew that I had to do it. I led him away from the bonfire, away from his friends, and then the two of us danced; it wasn’t easy at first, then he yielded to me entirely, even starting to lead me over the pebbles which ground beneath our feet. We went back towards the bonfire where we talked and made jokes and stared into the flames, some girl was dancing around right in front of us, she was swaying back and forth as if making love to someone.

Whenever someone threw something onto the fire, thin red veins pulsed into the dark air, a fountain of sparks erupted again. The two of us were drinking a sweet spirit from a glass and our breath smelt strongly and intensely, but neither of us was bothered as we kissed; we had our eyes closed, as did the girl who was swaying with a glass in her hands and laughing and bending her knees.

A few of us stayed right up until morning, I remember the large warm rocks around the smouldering bonfire and the tiny lizards that darted over them.

But then I also remember those things before, even further back; it’s crazy how I return to the past so easily, how like lightning I dart back and forth, like lizards over warm rocks: I remember how I had longed for a boyfriend months before. I’d had guys, just like all girls my age, but I no longer wanted to search for anyone else, I wanted a boyfriend to just—materialise. So I took a piece of paper and described him: tall, dark-haired, slender, friendly and so on, I filled the entire piece of paper with beautiful handwriting—the best I could manage—and more, I imagined him in every detail. I pictured him vividly, how he moved, how he smiled and spoke, I really did imagine everything about him, then I jotted that image down, with all the details, on the piece of paper, even though I couldn’t jot all of it. But the image was complete, the pen and paper didn’t know how, but it would know how to see the image, how to create it out of the components I’d noted down, I thought to myself at the time. I pinned the paper to the wall, there above the table, and just beneath it made a mini altar. I wasn’t religious, not in the way others wanted me to be, but in my own way; I’d got a figurine of Mary and baby Jesus from somewhere, but any god would have been fine, it could have also been Buddha or some other god, as long as my image found a way, a passage. I stood the figurine in a corner of the table and surrounded it with flowers, and then I placed a whole armful of tea lights around and lit them, making my room quiver and prance in the flames. Then I put my hands together and prayed for my wish to come true.

If you truly wish for something, your wish comes true, for your wish affixes itself to strings of energy, that’s what’s written in books, that’s what I’ve read, a wish is like a plectrum which glides along the strings of a guitar and compels them to release a certain sound: the sound of your wish coming true. And what is written in those books is true, that is just how it happened, there I am once again, sat with my boyfriend, the drunk guy carrying a big log on his head, the dancing girl bending her knees, a fierce flickering, as if a storm is brewing above the fire, beautiful and magical. The two of us are sitting and dancing, sitting and dancing, his breath smells of strong, sweet spirits, my breath smells too, I look at him and quiver, he is here, my wish come true, we drink and we kiss and we chat long into the night, right up until morning.

And then there’s one other day I remember too, the one when the two of us went for a walk together: it was around a month after our first bonfire, it was an unusual day, the wind was blowing, storks were hovering high above in the sky and the white track that we were walking along was sunken in tall, wavy grass, like a long white tongue with small birds hopping along it. Our hair was tangled, I felt the wind on my body like a third body, we held each other’s hand and walked. A thick smoke swirled in the air, we heard the crackling of branches and leaves and noticed how smoke was coming from a bush beside the path and thought that the bush must have burnt down spontaneously like in those biblical tales; then we caught sight of people who were stood behind and setting fire to the abundant undergrowth. We laughed at their stupidity. I stroked the long, slender grass. We passed a woodpile, I placed my palms on the planks, on their skins which were warm from the afternoon sun.

“Why don’t we light a fire too,” I said. I took out a lighter and tried to light one of the planks with it. He pulled an amusingly serious face and looked around worriedly. I wanted us to play, but he was too serious for games, it seemed like he didn’t understand. I burnt my fingers from holding on to the lighter for a long time.

“I’d need petrol to light that,” I said to him with an entirely serious look on my face. “Shall we go and look for a can?”

He looked at me in astonishment, almost frightened.

“Just kidding,” I smiled, then we lit a joint behind the woodpile, it was getting dark, the clouds were piling up in the pure red sky, the wind blew and the tall grass rustled. For a moment it seemed as if he wasn’t beside me at all, so I had to take hold of his hand in order to feel him.

Then for a few months we lived together, the two of us went to lectures and worked, we never went out anywhere, only for walks nearby, or to the cinema or nearby town. He had his own flat, we cooked together and talked together and loved each other. It was nice.

But one day the fires came back, what had to happen, happened.

Tea lights were burning on the tables of the bar, in the half-light the DJ was dropping some crazy good house, we drank sweet, intoxicating drinks and danced, me and my friends, he and his friends. Before we set off to the party he said that he didn’t want to go, that he’d rather just be with me, that he was fed up of these so-called friends and useless parties and that he was already past all this. But I said that we had to go out, because people had to get together and re-establish contacts and build networks, like ants, colliding with each other all the time with those flickering, quivering feelers. So we just went, it was great, we all danced. When it came to the time that we’d all been waiting for, we ran out with glasses in hand and watched the fireworks. Shadowy figures ran across the car park in front of the bar and placed trembling rockets on the floor until blinding flames spurted out of them; the rockets shot into the sky, sparks hissed through the cold winter air and explosions rattled the window panes; the floor was illustrated with glorious patterns of light and a translucent smoke was carried away across the car park; it was like the start of some insane, new war. Light and shadows, the whistle of rockets and the smell of gunpowder settled into our bodies whilst fires bloomed in the sky.

Some guy wearing tattered gloves and a hat that was too big for him was stood in the car park, looking gloomy with a starting pistol in his hand, whilst the reflection of the fires slid along the metal of the cars like flowing magma; I felt sorry for him, but I knew that not everyone could be a wish come true and that’s the way it had to be. I looked into his eyes as I walked past, all the others looked away.

Then we returned and everyone sat around the table together, we ate, drank and talked, it was happy and noisy. Sometimes I looked at him, at my boyfriend, I saw that he couldn’t wait for the two of us to leave, but I didn’t want to go yet. The waitress came over to us and lit some sort of strong spirits with a lighter, we were drinking cold blue fire, we were drinking fire, the drink extended warmly in my body, I stood up to go and dance. I was wearing insanely good shoes, really tight light-brown boots, then I went to the bar and drank more blue fire; when I went back to the group and sat on a stool, I wanted to dance with him but he didn’t want to, as if his body was numb, he just sat and watched as if he were half-dead.

That guy with the tattered gloves and the hat that was too big came inside, he just came inside with his starting pistol in his hand; a throng of people gathered, everyone looked at him askew, because he was not anybody’s wish come true. The guy fell to the floor, the gloves came off his hands and the hat skidded across the floor. When he got back on his feet, I slipped a glove back on his hand and popped the hat back on his head, as if I were putting a new man together, while the others were laughing; then I stroked his face, his sad, angry eyes shining like tiny fires.

I went back to sit next to my boyfriend, people were still laughing at the guy, who’d left the bar with the starting pistol in his hand. Then it happened, I don’t remember too well, it was like a dream: I was gently embraced by a veil of smoke, it wrapped itself around my legs like a playful cat and crept up and tickled my skin and my shins from the inside. I felt a warmth in my boots, on my heels, burning me, it seemed as if I were burning from all the fire that I had drank; something in me was kindling, the fire was glowing, I jumped on the table and danced with burning boots, like in some film, but I only remember fragments, only still images come to mind: someone brought some water and poured it on my feet, someone else took one of my boots off, we were all laughing a lot, I remember fingers stroking my bare foot and the smell of burning, thick and intoxicating like the trains that once used to pass through my village. I cried out: “Find me the one who threw his fag end at my boots, find him, kill him”, but my voice was like the voice of another, separate and outside of my body. A glass smashed on the floor, from it slowly grew a damp star, blue flames shot out from the glass.

I took off my second boot and walked around barefoot for a while. I went back to him, my wish come true. He’d been sat at the table the whole time and he didn’t budge, he was just watching; I sat on his knee and asked him if something was wrong, he stroked me and said that nothing was wrong. He asked me if it stung at all and if everything was ok, without looking me in the eye. Then I asked him if he was ashamed, and he said he wasn’t ashamed, but I knew and I got angry, I sat on his friend’s knee and said to him that if he was ashamed of me I’d go with someone else who wasn’t ashamed of me. I then drank a whole load of other drinks and sat on his friend’s knee and danced barefoot on the tables.

He came up to me, drew me in towards him and said that I wasn’t capable of love. I stared at his talking mouth, his face turned into fire, went up like a piece of paper thrown into the flames; I didn’t tell him how big, how enormous the love inside me was, how in a moment of complete clarity, complete focus I cautiously look around, how I slowly, tenderly, lovingly let go of the burnt-out cigarette onto my boot, how I feel a slight sting, a slight ignition, a warmth down there, how I then dance, I light and extinguish my own fires, how I am my own fire myself.

When I stepped outside, everything was insanely open, winter was vast and free and thousands of fires trembled above, and a shot fired from a starting pistol burst into a single white flame in the sky.

— Franci Novak, translated from the Slovene by Olivia Hellewell

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Franci Novak is a poet, who after leaving secondary education took classes in theory and practice at Ljubljana’s School of Art. His first poetry collection, Otroštvo neba (Sky’s Childhood), was published by Mladinska knjiga in 2011. In 2010, Novak was awarded the title of Knight of Poetry for Pivec Publishing House’s Poetry Tournament, marking the best unpublished Slovene poem of the year. His first collection of short stories, Podnebne spremembe (Climatic Changes) was published by LUD Literatura in 2014.

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Olivia Hellewell is a literary translator from Slovene and is currently writing her PhD thesis on ‘Translation and Cultural Capital in a Small Nation: The Case of Slovenia’ at the University of Nottingham, UK. In 2013 she was awarded the Rado L. Lenček prize by the Society for Slovene Studies for her essay on translating the poetry of Dane Zajc. Olivia has previously translated short stories and poems, and her first book-length translation, None Like Her by Jela Krečič, was published by Istros Books and Peter Owen Publishers in 2016.

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May 102017
 

As this section opens, the unnamed narrator is leaving the hotel in Rio de Janeiro where he has spent the night. He is anxiously embarking on some sort of necessary journey. But he is travelling without luggage and, it would seem, without a clearly defined purpose, or destination.

Atlantic Hotel is translated from the Portuguese by Adam Morris.

—  Joseph Schreiber

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I went down the hotel steps half stooped, my legs and back were killing me. When I got to the door I put one of my hands against the wall to hold myself up, and with the other I pressed against the pain in my lower back. Maybe I should go back to my room? I wondered. Maybe I should stay, give up? Maybe I should marry the flapper from reception? Maybe I’ll be content with the company of a woman?

I’m old, I thought. Old at barely forty. Traipsing around would be madness. Legs, weak. Irregular heartbeat, I know. And my rheumatoid posture…

There, stopped in the hotel doorway, I felt vertigo. Foggy vision, out of breath…

But I needed to get going. I stepped down from the stoop and leaned against the wall of the building. Lots of people were passing along Nossa Senhora de Copacabana, just like every morning, some brushed against me, touched me inadvertently, coughed.

I felt on the verge of fainting but avoided the idea of asking for help. Resorting to another person’s assistance would be the same as staying, and I needed to go.

Then I thought about getting a taxi. So I went looking for one. I walked by moving one leg at a time, steadying myself on other people like a drunk. Until my feet stepped into the dark puddle in the gutter. I hailed a cab and it stopped.

I told the cabbie I was going to the bus station. I got in the back, curled up, lying down on the seat. The driver asked if I was sick. With what remained of my voice I said I was only tired. Bus station, I repeated. The cabbie kept talking, but I couldn’t follow.

At one point I understood he was talking about the cold. I said: Oh, the cold, as cold as the Russian steppes. He told me: The Russian steppes are cold as death. This I heard quite clearly.

I returned to my senses. The traffic. The cabbie commenting on the smog in the Rebouças tunnel. I leveraged my hands against the seat back and managed to bring myself upright. The car was emerging from the tunnel.

I was almost better, just a tremble in my hands.

“How come you’re so tired?” the cabbie asked.

“I was partying all night,” I replied.

He laughed. I showed him my hand and said, “Look how I’m trembling, it’s alcohol tremors.”

“You’re an alcoholic?” he asked.

“Yeah, but I’m going to a treatment center in Minas,” I replied.

He shook his head, gave a little snort of assent, and said, “I have a brother-in-law who drinks. He was in rehab three times.”

Suddenly, the cabbie said we’d arrived at the bus station.

“You all right?” he asked.

“Great,” I replied, almost startled.

I watched the commotion at the bus station and saw the hour of my departure had arrived, the way someone going under for surgery witnesses the anesthesiologist’s first procedure.

I took a wad of money from my pocket, opened my hand, and gave it to the cabbie. He asked if I wanted change. I inquired if he knew where to find the ticket counters for the buses to Minas. He smiled, gave me a look, and said he had no idea.

“I’m sorry.” I said it full of a sudden shame.

“Sorry for what, man?” he asked.

“Sorry for being who I am,” I replied, closing the car door softly.

I got on the escalator going up. The one coming down was jammed with people. Between the up and down escalators there was a long concrete staircase. People in a hurry were going up and down, skipping steps.

On the escalators everyone seemed totally immersed in what they were doing. Noticing this relaxed me. I too would manage: travel, take the bus, arrive somewhere else.

There were long lines at the ticket windows. A lot of people were milling around. Many others sat on benches. A man and a woman kissed shamelessly at a lunch counter. A man left the pharmacy looking at his watch.

I sat on a bench, way at the end. The rest of the bench was full. I stretched out one of my legs a bit, without letting my heel come off the floor. My leg looked a bit pitiful. Maybe it was the crumpled up unwashed sock, the fleck of mud on my shoe. A pitiful state I’d done everything I could to disguise. I brought the leg back over beside the other.

Now I was looking at nothing except the dirty floor on the upper deck of the bus station. Gazing at that dirty floor, I had nothing else to think about. Maybe a vague yearning for a child’s intimacy with the floor.

It struck me that my journey might bring me back to that intimacy. A voice inside me said, between excitement and apprehension, Who knows, maybe I’ll end up sleeping on the ground.

I took out the ball cap I always carried in the pocket of my blazer. I put it on my head in the position I liked, a little to the right side. I no longer needed a mirror to be sure the cap was placed in exactly that position.

The cap obeyed, loyal. My hands had memorized the way to execute their task. As always, when the task was completed, I gave a little tap on the cap’s brim to see if it was really on right.

I ran my hands down my body as though searching for something and felt a bulk in the blazer’s other pocket. It was a thick piece of paper folded several times—a map of Brazil I’d bought two days earlier.

I looked around, making sure there was room to open the map all the way. I put my legs over the armrest of the bench. Now, with nobody on either side, I could extend my arms.

As I opened the map I remembered what I’d said to the cabbie. That I’d be going to alcohol rehab in the Minas countryside.

On the map, the Minas countryside looked like a swarm of little towns. My gaze descended a little, crossing into São Paulo State and stopping on Paraná.

I was thirsty. I thought about getting a mineral water. I folded the map, discreetly tucked it under my butt. Then I got up and walked away.

I didn’t even make it five steps. A woman seated on the bench facing mine called out, “Hey, sir, sir, I think you forgot something there.”

I looked back, toward the spot where I’d been sitting, saw the paper folded on the bench seat, turned to the woman, and shook my head, saying, “It’s not mine.”

— João Gilberto Noll, Translated from Portuguese by Adam Morris

Excerpt courtesy of Two Lines Press; translation copyright 2017 Adam Morris

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João Gilberto Noll (1946–2017) is the author of nearly twenty books. His work appeared in Brazil’s leading periodicals, and he was a guest of the Rockefeller Foundation, King’s College London, and the University of California at Berkeley, as well as a Guggenheim Fellow. A five-time recipient of the Prêmio Jabuti, and the recipient of more than ten awards in all, he died in Porto Alegre, Brazil, at the age of 70.

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Adam Morris has a PhD in Latin American Literature from Stanford University and is the recipient of the 2012 Susan Sontag Foundation Prize in literary translation. He is the translator of João Gilberto Noll’s Atlantic Hotel (Two Lines Press, 2017) and Quiet Creature on the Corner (Two Lines Press, 2016), and Hilda Hilst’s With My Dog-Eyes (Melville House Books, 2014). His writing and translations have been published widely, including in BOMB magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and many others. He lives in San Francisco.

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May 092017
 

John Bullock

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To kill time, Mia is studying the Hollywood Legends portrait gallery in the hotel lobby. A small furry spider is moving across George Clooney’s tuxedoed shoulder and then up and across his beaming face. When it gets to the exposed tip of his upper incisor, the spider stops, as if baffled by where it has landed, or unsure where to go from there.

Finn promised to be back by six. That would give them plenty of time to get to the cliffs to see the divers. Finn is a gifted promise breaker, and Mia hopes he’ll have no choice but to stand her up again—another crisis at the restaurant. She would prefer to see the divers alone. They are the main reason she came with him on the trip. Besides, if she goes without him, he can always catch up with her later, which he won’t.

After waiting ten more minutes she decides he is definitely not coming, and so takes a taxi from the hotel forecourt. The thrill of escape trails her like a vapor as the car winds down from Punta Diamante, past the clubs and hotels along the coast, the flashes of sand and water between the buildings. She is glad she won’t see the city when it’s packed with spring breakers, trashing the beauty. When she was in college, the most fun she remembered having at spring break was working at a camp for kids with cancer. They would go on daytrips to Rehoboth Beach, where the main event was crab. From what everyone kept telling her about it, she expected the taste to be so extraordinary that her life would change forever. But after she’d cracked the shell and fiddled with the bits and pulled out some of the meat, it just tasted sour and fishy. And her fingers were covered. Why hadn’t anyone told her that it was just a lot of gunk for nothing?

Lovers are clutched against the safety rail separating the road from the bay below. The driver points to the brightly lit cliff that veers in and out of view as they follow the snaking road. “Clavadistas,” he says, making a diving motion with his hand. Mia can’t believe she’s here. She remembers how she and Vance played hookey in his dad’s den all those years ago and watched Fun in Acapulco, with Vance saying there was no way Elvis had made the dive from the top of the cliff, that it was totally a stunt. If Vance were alive he would have loved to see the real divers. Mia is here for him.

They reach the top, where the El Mirador hotel sits curved into the cliff, its restaurant terrace facing the inlet where the divers land. Tourists and locals mosey through the square before descending the steps to the concrete pier that juts out over the inlet, thirty feet above the narrow strip of water facing the divers’ cliff. Mia’s a bit queasy: the expectant air and ritual drama, the tide bashing at the rock. She thinks of Vance getting sucked out of his canoe at Sullivan’s Weir, a month before graduation, of his dad jogging back along the riverbank, kind of whimpering for help. When Mia and the others reached Vance, he was snagged in a culvert, by a fallen tree, floating in foam from the nearby factories. The next time she saw him was at the funeral home. He looked flawless, better than if he were going to the prom. He would never dress up for that. Mia tries to believe it wouldn’t have mattered, that they wouldn’t have argued about it, though she knows they probably would have. He was so stubborn. But it was different back then. Arguing was easy. Rather than stewing in silence in bed together, you could just put on your shoes and go home.

She looks up at the hotel’s terraces, and for a moment her eyes fall into soft-focus, taking in the blurred dazzle of the night, the murmur around her, the warm bay breeze on her face. She hears hiccups. At her waist is a Mexican boy. His mother and sister are laughing at the faces he’s making to try to conquer his hiccups. The more they laugh the less he can concentrate, and the stronger his hiccups get. He’s mad. When he sees Mia smiling, it’s the final straw. He sulks off to the other side of the pier, takes a full breath, and then bends himself double as if to trap whatever air is inside him. When he stands normally and exhales, he looks hopeful. But his hiccups soon start again.

People crowd the pier. The first dive is scheduled for 7:30. Mia watches the tide surge at the cliff. She’s never felt so raw, so mortal. The night is vast and open, full of dark reaches. How small you can feel here, with so much beyond. There is time and she is idle and it feels wrong. Her hands in the open night. What to do with them? Her dress has no pockets. She takes off her cardigan and is wrapping it around her hands when she feels a brush at her shoulder.

“You are cold?” the man says. He’s older, lean, with an accent. He has a camera with a big lens and is holding it high.

“No,” says Mia. Then she says, “Beautiful.”

“I saw them lighting their torches at the top,” the man says. “The show is about to begin.”

“I can’t wait,” says Mia. And she can’t. Well, she probably could, but she’s here now, and her past is about to appear tonight and make a brave leap into the present. She sees the man looking at her bulge. “I’m replete with the future,” she says, touching her belly, not thinking about being heard.

“Ah,” says the man.

“Mine drift,” says Mia. “My eyes. If you let them slide they’ll pick up on things you normally don’t see. It’s like what things are when you let them be.”

“A philosopher,” says the man, looking expectantly toward the steps. “I’m afraid philosophy is an orphan here.”

Earlier, reading a magazine in the hotel’s breakfast area, Mia overheard a woman say, “Mexicanos son los elefantes de América Latina.” She had no idea why the woman said it, but it sounded far more like philosophy than anything she’d ever thought.

“There,” says the man, “the torches.”

The torch-bearing boys, in black Speedos, descend the steps. The crowd applauds. The boys dump their torches in a bin by a table and cut through the crowd to the low wall against which Mia and others have wedged themselves, to get the best view of the inlet and the spotlighted cliff across from it. One by one the boys hop over the wall and work their way down the sloped bank to the water. There is a splash: one has dived into the inlet. He surfaces, shakes his head. He sways in the current and swims over to the base of the cliff, then hoists himself out of the water. As he climbs, another boy dives into the water and swims to the cliff. In time all nine boys make it across and work their way barefoot up the eighty-foot cliff-face, just as Elvis had. Mia thinks of her rush-hour drives to work. This is a much tougher commute, but they make it look so easy.

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The diving was fabulous, of course. Fantastisch! But the fact that you knew what was coming somehow flattened the magic and made it seem like an experience you’d already had. But the boys’ monkey-scurrying up the rock was very cool.

“Barbary apes,” says the man, who is still there, angling his camera to catch a glimpse of a diver as he scrambles back up the sloped bank and onto the pier. “Do you know them?” he says over the crowd’s applause.

“Apes?” says Mia. “Of course.” Although she doesn’t. But in a foreign country, among strangers, a lie is the same as the truth, or better. She is watching the boy’s bird-lean body as he hops back over the low wall, his black hair short and shiny, the water thin streams down his shoulders. How do they not split on impact?

“Do you think skin has a memory?” says Mia.

The man doesn’t answer. Mia thinks some more about the skin thing. “Have you ever done something with your face, a look or expression, and then suddenly it’s like déjà vu and you’re totally someplace else, maybe years ago, the time when you last made that face?”

“There are two more performances,” says the man. Then he stops angling his camera and addresses Mia: “Why are you here?”

“Last week I was driving,” she says, “and I was thinking about my grandma. It was late, and I was a bit out of it. All of a sudden I start getting twitchy-eye. And then I looked down at the ground. That’s when I got this weird wiggly-sideways feeling. Like a flashback? And then it was like I was eight years old again. Not sad or anything, just that that was the last time — I don’t know if it had happened before then, but that was the last time my body remembered doing that twitchy-sideways face.”

Then she settles back into herself. “I’m here with my husband. For the divers.” She looks up at the shrine at the top of the cliff and frowns. “Is that what you mean?”

He smiles. “You are a tourist?”

“I guess,” says Mia. Then she realizes she isn’t, not exactly. “No, no. It’s much more.”

“We’ll discuss it over drinks,” says the man, nodding in the direction of the hotel entrance. “I am Dieter.”

“My name is Mia,” says Mia.

She is being gently guided by a stranger, and she is intrigued by how natural it feels, how uncomplicated, as though there is no reason for it to feel otherwise. So natural, in fact, that it would be inappropriate, ungrateful, to object. She can’t think of the last time she allowed herself to let something happen, to let herself be carried off. And when you decide, when you really make up your mind, things happen so easily. They want to happen. They just need a little nudge.

Dieter goes to the restroom. The waiter brings menus. Mia sits at the table and wonders about Finn. She is so glad he didn’t come. It didn’t mean anything to him, and if he was in the same mood he’d been in since they arrived, which was likely, he would have ruined her special evening. The restaurant’s main chef had quit again. Finn got rid of him. The temporary chef turned out to be the manager’s kids’ godfather, and a bus mechanic. Finn got rid of him too. So now they had an Argentine steakhouse — “Don’t ask,” Mia would say — with no one to work the grill. Even when they had friends over for cookouts, Finn would set up his cocktail station in the lounge and let someone else do the grilling. He hated getting smoky. It put him in a mood. He said he could still smell it in his nose the next morning. That it took him four showers to get out. Well, he was in a foul mood now. If he didn’t find a new grill-master today, the restaurant would have to close.

Mia is tired of the saga, tired of Finn’s “creative solutions.” Since being here she’s seen a whole new side of him. He never was much of a fixer, but Mia realizes now for the first clear time that he has no clue how to run a business. She’s mad because it’s taken her so long to see this, and even madder because Finn told her that it was his job, that he would handle it. Her job was being pregnant. Now that he hasn’t done what he said he would do, again, Mia is out of ideas. All she knows is that she’s quite capable of building a financially ruinous future with Toby Vance on her own, without Finn’s help. She also knows this is the last time he’s putting any of her money into anything.

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When Mia gets back from the divers, Finn is watching TV in the bar. They order drinks and a snack and go out to the candlelit terrace overlooking the bay. It’s late and deserted, apart from the two waiters inside playing cards.

“They wouldn’t know an easy life if it smashed them in the face,” says Finn, talking about the feud between his chef and his manager.

“They must need the work,” says Mia. “Can’t you incentivize them?”

“Great idea,” says Finn. “I’ve got an incentive, it’s called ‘a job’. They can bullshit the paycheck all they want, they’re not taking money out of my pocket. No más.”

Mia listens, but her mind keeps drifting back to the sight of the divers, scrambling up the cliff-face and then leaping out into the impossibly limitless night, their arms high and wide in salutation. It’s then that she thinks she sees something, or half-sees it, moving around her. She might have imagined it. But then something knocks the table. She leaps from her chair.

“Raccoon,” says Finn. He hisses, and it backs off. But then another one appears through the fence.

“They look evil,” says Mia.

“Nothing a spade to the head wouldn’t fix,” says Finn.

Mia feels swarmed, overrun. Fear fogs her mind. “I’m going to the room,” she says.

“Go, go,” says Finn, dismissing her.

Mia leaves him to his raccoon impressions. She imagines the creatures advancing on him, ready to pounce and savage.

Later, when Finn comes into the room, Mia is lying awake in the dark counting all the single moms she knows or has heard of. Ashley, Andrea, Becky, Meredith, Jess . . . Actually, there’s lots.

Finn leaves the light off.

“You’re still alive then?” says Mia.

Finn doesn’t reply, but she can feel the sad weight of him in the dark.

“Drama, drama,” he says. His shoes thump against the far wall.

.

Squeezed in the backseat of a taxi, wearing a dress that does nothing to hide her bulge, Mia isn’t sure if she’s in the mood to make history. The feeling isn’t completely new: she felt the same in her gynecologist’s office, after she’d confirmed her pregnancy. But she’s alone here, with a baby, and that’s different.

She’d been lonely for much of her pregnancy, and that loneliness had been like a rising wall separating her old self from the Mia-to-be. It was supposed to be normal, but she knew it wasn’t. What would happen, she wondered, when the future became her present and the past just disappeared? She didn’t want to give up the past. And she didn’t want a present so draining and stressful that there wasn’t time for the past. The thought of constantly building a future was terrifying. The fear of it wore her down.

The taxi stops at the zócalo. She likes the oomph of the word, like a spade breaking earth, or an oar cutting water. Either way, she feels like she’s entered a different world. The air and sounds and light are from a time even before Elvis, before the airport was built, before Errol Flynn and Johnny Weissmuller. Even if such a time never existed here, Mia believes that it did.

There’s music from speakers on the bandstand. And dancing. The dancers are a mix of old and young couples — the men in pants and pressed shirts, the women in dresses or skirts. Dancing unnerves Mia. Being near it. She isn’t good at it, and she makes sure she’s far enough away from it to not get roped in. But to her amazement, and in a way she has never known, the dancing begins to draw her closer, begins lulling her, like the sway of river grass. A lily opens inside her.

She watches the dancers go through their steps, never moving far. It’s as though the dance was invented by someone who lived in a box. The formal harmony of the dancers makes Mia stand a fraction straighter, newly mindful of her posture, vicariously elegant. How would she start to let go? Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if someone did take her arm, like Dieter had, and led her to dance. It would be rude to decline. Mia finds herself moving through the audience and closer to the bandstand, to get a better view. An old man wearing a white fedora smiles at her. “What is this?” she asks. “Danzón,” he says, presenting the scene to her, as if in offering.

Just then Dieter arrives. He taps her arm.

“I didn’t know humans could dance like this,” she says. “The people here are not like us.”

Dieter nods. “In danzón the passion is so . . .” He mimics trying to squeeze something together. “Contained. Intense. Each move means so much.”

The trumpets are tinny and distorted, and Mia’s ears start to hurt. They walk away through the square. The sun is strong, but the banyan and rubber trees shade most of it and soften the heat. Men sit on benches and read newspapers, take shoeshines, or smoke cigarettes and look on. Women bustle about. On the far side is a blue church with two domes. In the middle of the square is a fountain, and a fan of paths lined by low hedges. Black birds caw from the trees.

Mia sits on a wall in a patch of sunlight while Dieter goes to buy water for the hike. She smiles watching him, his loaded backpack and camera. He is interesting, and he is making her think and feel differently. But she is happy to be alone now. The dancing has changed her. She feels poetic. For now she has become someone who can see further into things than the old Mia Pfefferle ever could. And then the sensation leaves her, like a regular melting mood, and she slips back to being plain old Mia. Now she doubts whether she has anything like poetry in her after all. Or dance.

It’s nice on her own, a white woman in a foreign city, but then that feeling also fizzles out and her mood sinks when she thinks of Finn, and how much difference he could have made if he’d thought of doing something nice for them after he’d fixed the mess at the restaurant. Like booking a surprise romantic trip. It would have meant so much. But he never thought about things like that, and it wasn’t likely to cross his mind now. He’s probably so enmeshed in disaster that he’s forgotten Mia even came on the trip with him.

Dieter is back with the water.

“Where’s your hat?” he says. “It’s very open up high.”

Mia feels good in her sleeveless sundress. She has a few things in her shoulder bag, but not a hat. She doesn’t like hats. His has fabric hanging from the back of it, the way of people in the desert. He’s wearing long shorts and a long-sleeved shirt. Very roomy. Only his calves and hands are showing.

“Did you bring anything for the sun?” he says.

Mia doesn’t answer. She doesn’t know what he means.

§

Dieter has his own car, plus directions to the site, so he drives. Waiting in traffic, Mia hears a strained scale from a reverberating trumpet. It sounds as though somebody’s playing it in the bath. She looks to see where the sound is coming from. Above the pharmacy, through the open shutters of a rooftop apartment, stands a schoolgirl, perhaps ten. She has a trumpet to her lips, and her grandma is watching from a nearby chair. The scene reminds Mia of her cello lessons when she was young, how she wrestled the bulky instrument between her knees as though it were alive. She sees an image of herself now, with a full-size cello, in an unfamiliar room, sterile and vaulted. Maybe it’s a sign that she’ll take up music again when she returns home, though she doubts there’ll be time for such luxuries.

“Welcome to Palma Sola,” says the man in the Welcome Center, coming out from behind his desk. They shake hands and he shows them the visitors’ book. He fishes for a pen — Dieter produces one from his top pocket — and stands by to advise them on what information goes where. They are the first visitors of the day. It has been a quiet week. Two days ago a woman from Kazakhstan came to draw petroglyphs. The man points to her name in the visitors’ book. There is no admission fee, he says, but donations can be left in the box. When they’re leaving, he repeats the part about the donations. “Yes, yes,” says Dieter. “When we come down.”

Mia follows Dieter out the door and toward the stone steps. The blue veins in Dieter’s calves are like scrambled cells, how they look under a microscope. Mia thinks of the revolution her body has gone through in recent months — not the right thought for a hot day. She feels a strong pinch of heat in the backs of her knees, and can’t wait to get to the top.

The path winds steeply. Offshoots lead to rock formations and individual boulders, many smooth and oval, and so precisely placed they couldn’t possibly have arrived there by chance. Their presence, their being, feels too intentional, too inevitable, to be down to chance. Many are adorned with carved figures doing whatever the people there did three thousand years ago — worship deities, perform fertility rites, dance. Mia studies the stick figures carved into the boulders. She gets the drawings okay, mostly, and enjoys tracing the looping lines connecting the figures and symbols, like it was one of those find-where-each-string-takes-you puzzles she sometimes did while waiting at the dentist’s. If there’s a quiz when she gets back to the Welcome Center, she won’t be able to say for sure what the different petroglyphs mean. But they do make her think of connections. And of her baby, Toby Vance. And of plain old-fashioned Vance, who probably would have thought the petroglyphs fake or phony. Actually, no. He wouldn’t. She remembered that he’d gone on a caving trip once, to Virginia. He told Mia about how he’d crawled on his belly for what felt like a mile, with the rock shelf only inches above him, its jagged surface sometimes scraping his back. The same claustrophobic feeling she’d had at that time now comes back to Mia, even though she couldn’t be more out in the open.

A particular image strikes her: a regular stick-figure woman, but with a round rock of a body. Looking at the image, Mia is jolted by the unignorable fact of her own swollen self, and her ever-growing belly, which shows no signs of slowing. Once she was slim and fit, now she’s this . . . this fat lump on legs. The more she thinks about the image and about her body and about what it’ll be like when all this growing is over and she’s finally the mother of a helpless adorable blob, the more she feels a sort of kindredness, a connection to something old and wise. The nudity in the drawings seems natural, not vain or attention grabbing. She surprises herself by not jumping to the kinds of conclusions she might have at home. (She’d only once sunbathed topless, at a friend’s house, when she was fifteen. There were five girls. The friend whose house it was went into the kitchen and came back outside with popsicles. Then she laughed at Mia, saying she had the body of a twelve-year-old boy, and the smallest boobs in the school. Mia cried. She got dressed and went home. That was the last time she showed her body.)

Close to the top, Dieter guides Mia gently by the elbow. He seems to like touching her. Mia says nothing, but she likes it also, the way he does it without asking. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that she might not like it. After all, what’s not to like? Was that more European, she wonders. Unlike Finn, Dieter doesn’t spend most of his time explaining what he’s going to do or worrying about what he has to do or imagining all the things that might go wrong when he finally does whatever he decides to do. Something occurs to Dieter, and he does it. He doesn’t stop himself for no reason, and he doesn’t get in his own way. Mia likes that very much.

“Here it is,” he says. They stand at the cave entrance. In front of it are several long stones, again carved with stick figures connected by looping lines. Mia looks at the figures, then at the cave. It has a high roof and goes back into blackness, but she can’t see whether it’s the kind of cave Vance explored in Virginia. That cave was barely visible from the outside, he’d said. Just a few stones marking the entrance. This one is very visible. A giant waiting mouth.

“Are there bats?” she says.

“Let’s see,” says Dieter.

Vance said that in the cave in Virginia there were so many bats, and that they glistened from the light on his hard hat as he passed, as though dusted with sugar. They were hibernating. Vance was scared when the trip leader told them not to shine their lamps on the bats because the heat might wake them. What if all those bats suddenly awoke in a panic and took flight?

And then Dieter is gone. Sitting there, feeling his new absence, and her new solitude, the wind seems firmer to Mia, more resolute, as though it has rushed in to fill the new space.

“It’s nice and cool,” he calls.

Mia can’t see him, can’t tell where his voice is coming from. She climbs onto one of the rocks and looks down at the bay. She can’t see the whole horseshoe, just the middle slice, but the view is stunning. There’s a strong warm breeze rising, and she feels herself ease into it in the warmth of the sun, dropping her shoulders and tilting her head.

When Dieter comes out, Mia is sunning herself on the rock. She’s almost forgotten about him. She’s somewhere else entirely: at the weir, staring at the slick rush of water as it poured over the lip. It was so pure, so unbroken, like you could stand in it on a summer’s day and sing. She liked to sing. Vance said she was annoying, but he always said things he didn’t mean. That was how he loved her.

High above the bay, beyond the car horns and fireworks, the trumpets and steeple bells, one might believe that beneath the chaos and poverty, the corruption and violence, Mexico had in its earth an old deep peace, and that the surface havoc of everyday life came from a newer world, one lost and adrift from the old. But Mia isn’t thinking that. The bay is wide and shining, and she’s thinking she doesn’t want to go down there again, not if it means going back to Finn.

She sits up, feels her bulge. She looks at Dieter’s hand now on the rock beside her. He’s tracing one of the looping tails with a finger. But for the rustle of nearby trees, it is silent.

The quiet continues. Mia waits to hear a bird, but there aren’t any. Then after a while she says, “Photograph me.”

Dieter thinks about it. Then he says, “OK.”

He removes the lens cap from his camera and takes some warm-up shots of the line drawings on the rock, of the cave.

Mia kicks off her sneakers and socks, stretches her legs. The rock is hot and grainy, and her calves go tight with the heat. She lowers herself onto the rock, under the full afternoon sun, and lies onto it until she’s fully stretched. She is alone on the rock with her baby. This moment is hers. Finn is a roll of old carpet she’s been strapped in, her arms pinned, her breath stifled. With her eyes closed, she curls her fingers into the rock and grips tight. Sloughing his cracked-rubber shell, she feels his suffocating roughness slide down the length of her body, until at last he’s cut away, cast off to a past she’ll never recall.

Without the weight she’s been carrying so long, she feels inconceivably light, liable to rise up at any moment and float above the rock she’s been clutching.

She rests her hands on her bulge. “I want to go back to the dance,” she says. “Goddammit I do.”

“Very well,” says Dieter. The shutter clicks, clicks again. “Imagine yourself in the dance. What is the feeling?”

“My skin is new,” shouts Mia.

“You are in the dance,” he says, moving around her, clicking away. “What do you see?”

“My new skin,” she says.

“Dance, dance,” he says, coming in lower and closer.

“Meet my new skin,” she says to the lens, which is so close to her face now that Dieter has all but ceased to exist. “This is my new skin,” she says. “And it’s perfect for dancing in.”

—John Bullock

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John Bullock teaches Language Arts to rural high schoolers in Ohio and parents an old male cat with a fang. He earned his MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of Virginia, and has published a novel (Making Faces) and a number of short stories. He is currently procrastinating fixing up the old house he just bought and finishing a second novel.

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May 042017
 


 

.Marissa woke as intended to the sound of the unearthly chant: qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, miserere nobis. She sat up on her prayer mat, hands folded across her heart, breathing as she had been taught, sharp intakes of air through the nostrils, pulled down to the bottom of her belly, then harshly expelled. The rushing sound of her breath flowed in and out between the long sustains of the singing. Ten breaths brought her alert. What had been the dream she was just dreaming? — but she was not meant go toward it now.

Quoniam tu solus sanctus. Tu solus Dominus.

Now breathing normally, forgetting even that she breathed, she lowered her hands from her heart and let them lie palms open on her inner thighs, in the cross of her legs on the prayer mat. Her palms were full of heart warmth, as if they cupped warm fluid in the dark. The darkness was not total, though. A weak light flickered in a high corner, casting a horned shadow across the floor and the far wall where it broke on the black felt that sealed the window. She brought her memory to bear on the First Sin, which was that of the Angels—wanting to recall and understand all this in order to make me more ashamed and confound me more, bringing into comparison with the one sin of the Angels my so many sins, and reflecting, while they for one sin were cast into Hell, how often I have deserved it for so many…. In doing so she also concentrated on a point of warmth halfway between her navel and her vulva, as though blowing softly on a coal—this practice belonged to a different discipline yet she believed it might aid this one.

Qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis the sin of the Angels, how they, being created in grace, not wanting to help themselves with their liberty to reverence and obey their Creator and Lord, were changed from grace to malice, and hurled from Heaven to Hell; and so then qui tollis peccata mundi, suscipe deprecationem nostrum but here Marissa’s mind hung up on the word hurled which somehow attached itself to a weakness in her meditation, whispering itself into meaninglessness, tawdry as the hidden disc on which she’d looped a Gregorian Qui Sedes, setting the player with a timer to rouse her from her idle dreams at midnight, false as the yellow Christmas bulb tucked on top of her tall corner cupboard which hurled the shape of its fineals across the room like horns. Mocked by her own monkey mind she trembled in frustration, hurled back and repulsed from the meditation even as she continued hopelessly to struggle, to move the feelings more with the will.

The music stopped, but she didn’t notice, and the light was gone too, something had changed, monkey mind was fussing over these changes but quickly completely she managed to smother it, turning her being into the new thing, whatever it was, or rather being snatched into it by three points, the one below her navel and the two aching points of her breasts. Across total darkness curved a sliver of light like a shooting star, going down and down, hurled down. 0, 0, 0, she thought, with unutterable sorrow, she is lost. Away in her room, which somehow her being had after all departed, her hands were fluttering in her lap. Far away in the other realm, among its splintering materials. Lost to me. To herself. Not to herself.

The spark went down a long way into darkness, but it did not go out.

§

“The eye of our intention,” Claude was saying, with the rasp and flare of a match as he scraped it on the striker. He leaned forward across his folded knees to light the candle between them on the wooden floor. Marissa looked down on the top of his bony, close-cropped head, sprouting a silvery down like dandelion seed. He wore his favorite sweater, a black crewneck riddled with tiny moth holes. The sight of it gave Marissa a peculiar watery feeling, like looking at a puppy before its eyes had opened.

She too was kneeling, sitting on her heels. It was a remarkably painful position if held for long. Claude had inured himself to it during a sojourn in Tibet. He tilted his baldish skull, whose shadow shifted on the wall behind him. In the dim his eyes seemed to acquire an ascetic slant.

“…makes the difference.” He breathed slowly. “Between an Exercise and ordinary trance.”

The eye of our intention. Claude had told her not to think of him as pastor or confessor, nor to call him Father, although he was a priest. He was her guide, through the Exercises. Like–

But he did have an intuition for her intention if it faltered. For her confusion, when she was confused. He looked at her now across the flickering candle flame, as if withholding a hint of a smile. As if somehow he knew the odd interruption of her Exercise two nights before: the image of a meteor hurtling down into the dark. The eye of her intention had wandered then—Marissa knew it, would not willingly admit it.

“Set and setting,” Claude announced.

Marissa rolled a little on her already-aching knees. “What are you talking about?”

His smile became visible now. “You know, we used to cooperate with other religions sometimes.” By we he meant the Jesuits. “Not here so much, but sometimes in the East. Considerably. Maybe too much. As if whatever religious practices were really all about the same thing—the Divine but in a different aspect.”

“And so?” She returned his smile with her mouth, eliciting, her eyes turned down.

“Set and setting is a phrase from the LSD culture,” Claude explained. “There’re a hundred ways to enter a trance. What happens inside it depends on your expectations and your guidance. The cultural surroundings, so to speak.”

Marissa raised her eyes from the candle to his face. “But you still believe,” she asked him.

“Lord, I believe!” Claude said, raising his open hands. “Help thou mine unbelief!”

They laughed. The room, which was drafty, grew a little warmer.

Claude said, “Shall we begin?”

§

The candle was a fat white cube, unscented, its four walls faced with thin slices of agate. The reddish-brown whorls of the cross-cut stone warmed with the interior light. Shadows of their two kneeling figures loomed in the corners of the ceiling. A voice resonated, Claude’s, not-Claude’s. … to bring to memory all the sins of life, looking from year to year, or from period to period. She was careful not to look at him first, to look at the place and the house where I have lived; second, the relations I have had with others; third, the occupation in which I have lived.

It was equally possible that Claude sat simply mute with his lidded eyes and his lips slightly parted and the voice she heard was an inner one, a fusion of her study and her familiarity with his tone.

§

Fourth, to see all my bodily corruption and foulness;

§

Fifth, to look at myself as a sore and ulcer, from which have sprung so   many sins and so many iniquities and so very vile poison.

§

She heard these phrases, as her eyes turned backwards in her head, and yet she was having trouble with the composition, which in this as in the previous Exercise seemed difficult because abstract.

 

to see with the sight of the imagination and consider that my soul is imprisoned in this corruptible body, and all the compound in this valley, as exiled among brute   beasts:

§

Her eyes, turned backward in her head, saw no such thing.   Nevertheless she was somehow aware how the candle was a barrier between them like a trench full of burning brimstone—why must it be so? The spark she saw tumbling into darkness now had a shape, a bright rectangle like the form of a small mirror, flickering and turning as it fell. The mirror image was a face, a long Modigliani oval, with something streaming away from its edges like hair or snakes or blood. Animal persons rushed at her from the walls of the cave: bison, bear, a mastodon.

§

an exclamation of wonder with deep feeling,

going through all creatures, how they have left me in life and  preserved me in it; the Angels, how, though they are the sword of the   Divine Justice, they have endured me, and guarded me, and prayed for   me; the Saints, how they have been engaged in interceding and praying   for me; and the heavens, sun, moon, stars, and elements, fruits, birds,   fishes and animals–and the earth, how it has not opened to swallow me   up, creating new Hells for me to suffer in them forever!

§

Now she struggled up through syrupy layers of this dark somnolence; her eyes burst open as she broke the surface. She hoped she had not groaned or cried aloud. The candle flame was ordinary, small. Across it, Claude seemed to look at her quizzically. She knew that much more time must have passed in this room than in the cavernous space where she had been.

Blood rushed painfully through her cramped legs as she cautiously unfolded her knees. An aurora of gold speckles swirled across her vision for a few seconds before it cleared. Claude’s regard was knowing now; he knew she had seen something unusual with her inward eye, while she knew that she could recover and understand it when she would, and that she would not tell him now.

Claude came up from the floor like a carpenter’s rule extending, long arms, lean legs in his black jeans.

“All right?” he said.

“Yes.” Marissa’s smile felt warped on her face. “All right.”

Claude looked as if he would offer a hand to help her rise, but didn’t. She got her feet under her and rose on her own. It was difficult to understand the awkwardness of their leave-takings, which were frequent after all. She had seen Claude spontaneously embrace fat foulmouthed drunken women from the rez. The space between their bodies seemed a chasm now. He reached across it, briefly clasped her hand, then let it go.

§

From the next night she could recall no dream but on the third morning she woke with a comprehension of what she had seen in the dark furrow where her Exercise had strayed. “But you know,” Claude seemed to be saying to her in the space of her mind, and she did know now, exactly. It hurt but she was more glad of the pain than not. She was proud to have figured it out on her own. She had something to bring to him now, like a treasure, her confession.

Early, but Claude was an early riser, and Marissa saw no reason to wait. Though they had not planned any meeting this morning, she might if she went quickly catch him for a bit before either of their workdays were due to begin. She dressed quickly, dragged a brush through her dark hair. No make-up, she decided with a tick of hesitation, for she didn’t normally wear it to work.

Her ancient little Toyota pickup rolled over the side streets of Kadoka till its windshield framed the church. Over the white lintel was affixed an electrified image of the Sacred Heart, exploding the burning cross from its upper ventricles, its Valentine contour wrapped in yellow-glowing thorns and weeping a tear of marquee-light blood. Marissa loathed this artifact and wished that Claude would have it removed. His predecessor as parish priest had raised the funds to install it.

Adjacent and connected to the church by a passage of coal-blackened brick, the small seminary where Claude resided was three-quarters empty, most of its windows dirty and dark. Vocations had dwindled on the rez, where a few handfuls of young men once had seen the Church as a portal to a better life. Of course, especially since the scandals, vocations were a problem nationwide…. An ambulance was parked alongside the seminary, its back doors open, siren quiet, red lights revolving slowly. On the far side of the white marble steps Sister Anne-Marie Feeney stood solid as a fireplug, her orthopedic shoes set apart on the pavement, cool wind twitching the black cloth of her habit.

Marissa’s mind could not yet construct the thing she wished to be other than it was, but as she got out of the truck she was already thinking, if I got up on the other side of the bed, put my right shoe on before my left, if a butterfly flapped its wings in China, if then if— A pair of shoulders hunched in a white scrub top appeared in the doorway, backing awkwardly toward the first step, while leaning forward into a load.

Sister Anne-Marie registered her presence and waved her imperiously back with her brick-red calloused hand. Marissa continued to advance; the nun pointed more insistently at something behind her. Her lips moved but Marissa heard nothing. She looked over her shoulder and saw that she had left her driver’s door hanging open across the bike lane which the town had recently established by dint of drizzling a line of white paint across the pot-holed pavement. Sister Anne Marie, who transported herself on a rust-red Schwinn three-speed, was militant on the subject of the bike lane.

Marissa turned back and slapped her door shut –irritably, though knowing herself in the wrong. She advanced again toward the seminary door, where the two paramedics had now emerged with their stretcher and the long figure laid out motionless upon it, covered from head to toe with a white sheet. With no particular urgency they rolled the stretcher in. No eye contact with Marissa or the nun.   Sister Anne-Marie had caught Marissa’s elbow in her blunt grip—had she looked like she would throw herself onto the, onto the—? But now the attendants had closed both doors and were climbing into the front of their vehicle.

She dipped into her front pants pocket and touched the rosary he had given her. This other sequence of events was so clearly present to her still; she arrived to find Claude sweeping the seminary steps, one of many banal tasks he claimed for himself around the grounds of the church. He looked up, mildly surprised, but already more pleased to see her than not, his smile still not quite perceptible as Marissa glanced at her watch and stopped herself from quickening her step. She did not have to be at work for forty minutes so there was time to go around the corner and have a cup of dishwater coffee at the donut shop there—time and so much to tell, and finally someone she could safely tell it to.

The sun broke over the peaked roof line of the church and flooded the sidewalk where they stood with light.

She had apparently missed a few things Sister Anne-Marie had been saying, “… a mickey valve, a mighty valve—oh I can’t remember exactly what but Father said it wasn’t serious, the doctors were watching it, supposed to be.”

She looked at the ugly electric sign. Claude’s heart had a hole in it then, if it had not blown up. Marissa brought her eyes down to the nun’s face, which was the same color and texture of the abrasive blood-red brick of which the older parts of the town were constructed. Take away the wimple and she might have been looking at the face of a career alcoholic, one of the sterno-strainers. Oh, it was only high blood pressure in Sister Anne-Marie’s case, she knew.

“I didn’t know,” she heard herself say.

“Father didn’t tell many people.”

And now Marissa searched the nun’s face for something along the lines of suspicious knowledge (an insight she had carefully denied herself)—an unspoken What makes you think you had a right to know, you little minx? Instead she found only a gentleness she could not bear.

“Child,” said Sister Anne Marie. Marissa broke away from her and walked stiff-legged to her truck.

§

Early to work, she leafed through her dossiers, barely seeing them with her parched eyes. It was supposed to be a paperwork morning; she had no appointments till late afternoon. Just Jimmy Scales, and he was not likely to show. Marissa knew he had skipped his court-ordered pee test and that she would most likely be spending a piece of her afternoon writing him up for it. The molded plastic chair across from her desk, where Scales sat sullen and uncommunicative for forty-five minutes every two weeks. It would be a paperwork day, then, not just a paperwork morning—well, she could catch up on some of those files. A break midmorning, telling her beads in her pocket while she watched Peggy smoke her weak, toxic cigarettes. Yoghurt or a stale packaged salad for lunch. She could populate her whole future with such banalities, as if instead of being doled out one at a time the events had all fallen out of their box.

She yanked the sheet with Scales’s basic stats on it out of the grubby folder and dropped the rest of the folders back in the metal file drawer. Peggy ran into her in the entryway, coming in as Marissa went out.

“Where you off to?” Peggy said.

“After Jimmy Scales,” Marissa told her.

“What? Would that be a rational act? He didn’t even miss his appointment yet.”

“No,” Marissa said. “But don’t I know he’s going to—am I Nostradamus or what?”

“Girl, you look you seen a ghost.” Peggy was wagging her head slowly. “No, you look you are a freaking ghost.”

§

At a gas station on the north bank of White River she stopped and bought a pack of Marlboro Reds and tossed it on the dashboard. She’d done that before when she quit smoking—once for a whole sixteen months. An unopened pack on the corner of her desk proved she was stronger than her addiction and that her clients might even be stronger than theirs. A parable in pantomime. Sometimes she had given the pack to a client, in the end.

At the border of the reservation she pulled over to enter Jimmy Scales’ reported address into the small GPS unit improvisationally mounted on the cracking dashboard of her truck. It came up somewhere west of Sharp’s Corner. Marissa wasn’t familiar with the area. She knew her way to the IHS hospital on East Highway 18, and to Oglala Lakota College, where she had briefly worked in the health center.

She missed the turn she should have taken at Scenic and drove blind across a narrow waist of Badlands National Park. On the far side she kept following 44 as it twisted south into the rez, and presently found herself passing through Wanblee. The wreckage of a couple of houses torn up by a tornado lay scattered over three acres of ground south of the roadway. A little further was a white frame church, with a quaint wooden belfry, photogenic. She pushed down the thought of Claude.   There’d be a funeral. When would it be? Her future….   A handful of boys in droopy shorts and shirts were popping skateboards off the concrete stoop of the church.   One of the more daring rode crouching down the welded pipe stair rail and survived the landing. Swooping in a wide turn over the asphalt parking lot, he glanced incuriously at her truck as it rattled by.

Her dry eyes burned. West of Potato Creek she began to overtake a pedestrian. Slender, with glossy black hair so long it swung around her hips. A half open backpack swung from her shoulder by one strap. She turned, lifting her chin, and signaled not by raising her thumb but pointing her hand peremptorily to the ground, as if to command the truck to stop.

Inez. Marissa’s heart lifted slightly. She leaned across to pop the passenger door. Inez slipped off the backpack as she climbed in, then shrugged out of the denim jacket she was wearing.

“Wow Miz Hardigan, whatcha doin’ all the way out here? Can you gimme a ride down to school?” Inez wore an orange tank top and the round of her belly pushed a gap between its hem and the waistband of her jeans. In her slightly distended navel glittered a small bright stud. She had not stopped talking: “I’d been late to comp class if you didn’t stop—“ she pointed at the corner of a rhetoric textbook sticking out of her backpack– ” I dunno it’s kinda boring anyway I thought I might switch to the nursing program anyway, Miz Hardigan you musta done nursing, right? Hey, can I take a cig? Hey, cool truck, I always liked ‘m, my uncle used to have one once back when they were sorta new.”

Marissa nodded at the pack on the dashboard. It was not like Inez to chatter this way. Marissa knew her as calm and slightly mysterious. She had already peeled the cellophane from her pack and lit a cigarette with a lighter she squeezed out of her jeans pocket, then let it burn down unnoticed between her fingers, as she picked obsessively at some invisible something between the hairs of her left forearm.

Oh Christ, Marissa thought. Do you know what that’s doing to your baby? Do you know what… she didn’t say anything. She couldn’t have, as there was no chink in Inez’ prattle for her to have slipped a word into before they reached the entrance of the college.   Marissa dug in the pocket behind her seat and fished out a scare-you-off-meth brochure…. Unfolded, it displayed the stages of a twenty-year-old woman aging forty years in two. Inez shoved it into her backpack without really seeming to see it at all, but she gave Marissa a hurt look from her wiggly eyes as she hopped out of the truck and slammed the door.

In a devil’s elbow beyond the college, Marissa narrowly missed a collision with a horse-trailer, though the road was otherwise empty and their speeds were low. She pulled onto the shoulder and sat there, shaking with the fading tension, watching the trailer recede in her side-view mirror. A painted rodeo scene flaked from its back panel: cowboys and Indians, horses and bulls. Marissa saw that Inez had dropped a lighter on the passenger seat when she got out. The blue translucent plastic showed a quarter full of fluid. And the cigarette box lay on the dash, cracked open. Another few months into a meth habit and Inez would have automatically stolen it.

Marissa got out of the truck to smoke her first cigarette in over a week. The blast of unaccustomed nicotine dizzied her so much that she had to brace a palm on the warm ticking hood of her vehicle. In one corner of her mind was the thought that this was not really a pleasant or desirable sensation. In another: Now I am going to cry. But she didn’t cry.

Sharp’s Corner was no more remarkable than Wanblee had been. The GPS led her west onto a gravel road that soon degraded itself into a packed dirt track. Where the track petered out into blank open prairie, the GPS unit went dark. Marissa had a state map in her glove box, but on that the reservation proved to be a nearly blank white space, like the African interior on the maps of Victorian explorers. Her tires were worn and it would be idiotic to break down out here; if the GPS had failed her cell phone probably wouldn’t get a signal either.

Nevertheless she drove on. The prairie was neither as featureless nor flat as it first seemed. There were billows and hollows full of thorny scrub and small twisted trees. In one of these pockets appeared a tin roof streaked brown with rust. Marissa steered toward it, thinking that she might have blundered onto the Jimmy Scales’ domicile after all.

She set her parking brake and got out. The small house sat half in, half out of a thicket of evergreen brush, at the bottom of a dish in the prairie, scattered with sharp white stones. It did not exactly look abandoned, but the door hung open in a way that dismayed her. She started to call to the house but did not. To the left of it the rusted carcass of an old Mustang stood on blocks and beside it a washing machine so ancient it had a wringer bolted on top. A dented aluminum saucepan lay upside down among the stones.

The sky darkened abruptly, though it could scarcely have been noon. Marissa looked up to see a black squall line hurrying from the west, dense inky cloud that blotted out the sun. She could no longer remember why she had come here. Out of the thicket to the right of the house came an old man with long white hair, wearing a green quilted vest with the stuffing coming out from its parted seams. He shook a rattle at the end of one bony arm and made a thin keening sound with his voice. Although he did not seem to see her he was coming toward her certainly, as if everything in this day, in her whole life, existed to carry her to this moment and him to her. When he had reached her, his free hand took hers.

Marissa said, Why?

You have a hollow in your heart, the shaman said. Or maybe he said hunger. The rattle shook in his other hand. Hunger. Hollow. Now Marissa was weeping, with no sound or sobbing. She only knew because the water from her eyes ran into the neck of her shirt and pooled in the shell of her collar bone.

Go to it now, the shaman said. Don’t hesitate.

—Madison Smartt Bell

N5

Madison Smartt Bell is the author of twelve novels, including The Washington Square Ensemble (1983), Waiting for the End of the World (1985), Straight Cut (1986), The Year of Silence (1987), Doctor Sleep (1991), Save Me, Joe Louis (1993), Ten Indians (1997)  and Soldier’s Joy, which received the Lillian Smith Award in 1989.  Bell has also published two collections of short stories: Zero db (1987) and Barking Man (1990).  In 2002, the novel Doctor Sleep was adapted as a film, Close Your Eyes, starring Goran Visnjic, Paddy Considine, and Shirley Henderson.  Forty Words For Fear, an album of songs co-written by Bell and  Wyn Cooper and inspired by the novel Anything Goes, was released by Gaff Music in 2003; other performers include Don Dixon, Jim Brock, Mitch Easter and Chris Frank.

Bell’s eighth novel, All Soul’s Rising, was a finalist for the 1995 National Book Award and the 1996 PEN/Faulkner Award and winner of the 1996 Anisfield-Wolf award for the best book of the year dealing with matters of race. All Souls Rising, along with the second and third novels of his Haitian Revolutionary trilogy, Master of the Crossroads and The Stone That The Builder Refused, is available in a uniform edition from Vintage Contemporaries. Toussaint Louverture: A Biography, appeared in 2007Devil’s Dream, a novel based on the career of Nathan Bedford Forrest, was published by Pantheon in 2009. His most recent novel is The Color of Night.

Born and raised in Tennessee, he has lived in New York and in London and now lives in Baltimore, Maryland. A graduate of Princeton University (A.B 1979) and Hollins College (M.A. 1981), he has taught in various creative writing programs, including the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars. Since 1984 he has taught at Goucher College, along with his wife, the poet Elizabeth Spires. He has been a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers since 2003. For more details, visit http://faculty.goucher.edu/mbell

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May 032017
 

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Though primarily known for his haunting, enigmatic novel Pedro Páramo and the unrelenting depictions of the failures of post-revolutionary Mexico in his short story collection, El Llano en llamas (The Plain in Flames), Juan Rulfo also worked on various collaborative film projects and his powerful interventions in the areas of documentary photography ensure that he continues to inspire interest worldwide. One hundred years after Rulfo’s birth (May 16, 2017), Deep Vellum Publishing will release The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings. This momentous publication includes the first ever translation of Rulfo’s second novel alongside fourteen other short texts. Numéro Cinq is proud to present this conversation between Dylan Brennan and translator Douglas J. Weatherford (both Rulfian scholars). Excerpts from four of the texts are also included below.

Dylan Brennan (DB); Douglas J. Weatherford (DJW)

DB: The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings has been selected by BBC Culture among their ‘Ten Books to Read in 2017’ and by The Chicago Review of Books among the ‘Most Exciting Fiction Books of 2017’s First Half’. Are you surprised by these accolades? Why is this book generating such interest? 

DJW: I am pleasantly surprised by the early interest in The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings. Juan Rulfo (1917-1986) is one of the most important Mexican and Latin American authors of the twentieth century and yet in the English-speaking world he has seldom received the attention that he deserves. I believe the book is generating interest for several reasons. First and most importantly, Juan Rulfo is a big deal. His most iconic books —The Plain in Flames (1953) and Pedro Páramo (1955)— were innovative tours de force that challenged narrative forms and helped usher in the so-called “Boom” of Latin American literature that would include such renowned writers as Carlos Fuentes (Mexico), Julio Cortázar (Argentina), and Nobel laureates Gabriel García Márquez (Colombia) and Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru). I’m sure it helps that many around the world are remembering Juan Rulfo on this year, the centennial of the author’s birth. It’s also possible, I suppose, that some —hopefully on all sides of the political isle— are looking for ways to build bridges with Mexico to counteract the tensions of the current political environment. Ultimately, I believe that The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings is an exciting publication for English-language audiences. For those readers already familiar with Juan Rulfo, it offers the opportunity to explore his work beyond Pedro Páramo and The Plain in Flames. For others, I hope that this anthology will serve as an introduction to one of Mexico and Latin America’s most beloved writers.

DB: The myth that Juan Rulfo’s artistic output amounts to just two books and a few photographs still persists. Why is that? Where have these texts been hiding all these years? 

DJW: They’ve been hiding in plain sight, as I’ll explain in a moment. The myth is very attractive: that Rulfo came out of nowhere to publish two books of fiction in rapid succession before abandoning the craft, overwhelmed perhaps by the weight of his own success. It’s a fascinating tale and one that has been repeated for so long that many are hesitant to let it go. Indeed, it’s the version that I learned as an undergraduate major of Spanish in the mid-1980s. But it’s also a fabrication that diminishes the valuable contributions that Rulfo made as a semi-professional photographer and as a writer in the Mexican film industry. Additionally, it ignores the existence of The Golden Cockerel (El gallo de oro), a second published novel that routinely and unjustly has been marginalized from the Mexican author’s literary canon. Indeed, the exclusion of The Golden Cockerel has been so complete that, until now, no full translation had appeared in English. Although authored most likely between 1956 and 1957, The Golden Cockerel wasn’t published until 1980. That delayed release, combined with the text’s often misunderstood connection to film, led many Rulfo critics and aficionados to disregard the novel. The Fundación Juan Rulfo reprinted El gallo de oro in 2010 and, since then, has offered two commemorative editions that package the author’s novels and anthology of short stories together, a move that draws attention to the significance of The Golden Cockerel. My translation of this second novel is paired with fourteen additional texts (plus a summary of the novel that Rulfo wrote). All of these items have appeared previously in print (many of them posthumously), but never included in The Plain in Flames. Some are well known, others much less so, but all bear witness to the same creative demons that define Rulfo’s literary output.

DB: What is The Golden Cockerel‘s connection with the cinema and in what way has that connection led to its marginalization? 

DJW: That question was at the heart of an introductory essay that I wrote to accompany the 2010 release of The Golden Cockerel.[1] It’s clear that the decision —made most likely by Jorge Ayala Blanco and not Rulfo— to publish The Golden Cockerel in 1980 as a film text (“texto para cine”) had a deleterious effect on the novel’s reception. It also didn’t help that the piece was released sixteen years after Roberto Gavaldón adapted it to film (El gallo de oro, 1964). In that context, many simply began to refer to The Golden Cockerel as a film script, a denomination that is still heard frequently. To this day, in fact, there are some bookstores in Mexico City that incorrectly shelve the novel next to printed screenplays. As such, most researchers who have written about The Golden Cockerel have felt an obligation to address its generic classification. And, in an attempt to free the novel from its mislabeling, many of those individuals have tried to fully divorce The Golden Cockerel from its filmic roots. My preference is to affirm the piece’s identity as a novel while celebrating its very real connection to the Mexican film industry. Rulfo was a film enthusiast who, in the mid-1950s, was hoping to find additional creative and financial opportunities in cinema. Indeed, it is likely that Rulfo wrote The Golden Cockerel precisely so that it could be adapted as a film script, a task that ultimately fell to Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez. In the end, I think that it is appropriate to acknowledge the cinematic origins of The Golden Cockerel while reading it as what it is: the second published novel of one of Mexico’s most celebrated writers of fiction.

DB: In addition to Rulfo’s second novel, you have included fourteen other texts in this book. How did you go about selecting which texts to include? 

DJW: My original idea was simply to translate the three texts that were published together in 1980: The Golden Cockerel, “The Secret Formula,” and “The Spoils.” I discarded that idea quickly, however, realizing that it would be a mistake to perpetuate the mislabeling of The Golden Cockerel as a film text. It would also have been, I believe, a missed opportunity to promote other Rulfo writings that have never appeared in English or have done so but only in limited release. Will Evans of Deep Vellum Publishing was very interested in an expanded collection. Víctor Jiménez, the director of the Fundación Juan Rulfo, was more cautious and became convinced only when it was clear that we could build a collection that would have a strong thematic unity while offering an interesting reflection on the creative world of Juan Rulfo through texts that, although lesser known, already existed in print. There were three of us primarily involved in the selection of texts: myself, Víctor Jiménez, and Juan Francisco Rulfo, the author’s oldest son. The anthology includes a number of short pieces that, despite never appearing in The Plain in Flames, have circulated widely and are generally acknowledged as part of Rulfo’s canon: “The Secret Formula,” “A Piece of the Night,” “Life Doesn’t Take Itself Very Seriously,” and “Castillo de Teayo.” Another item, a letter that Rulfo wrote in 1947 to his then fiancé, was published in 2000. The remaining items —ten narrative fragments— are less definitive in their generic and canonic identity and have appeared almost exclusively in Juan Rulfo’s Notebooks[2], a unique gathering of Rulfo’s unpublished —and, in many cases, unfinished— writings, authorized by the author’s widow. The texts of Juan Rulfo’s Notebooks are eclectic in nature and include early drafts of Pedro Páramo, fragments of a film script, portions of two novels that the author began and never completed, and other experimental writings. The nine items selected from this collection are unique creative explorations that fit well into Rulfo’s literary canon and exhibit clear narrative structures that allow them to be read as independent, story-like texts.

DB: We’ve seen many examples of posthumous publications, most recently a “new” Bolaño novel appeared in late 2016. These are not always well received. Then again, sometimes we get Kafka or Dickinson. Were there any ethical concerns or worries associated with publishing work that Rulfo himself had chosen not to during his lifetime and, if so, how were these addressed?

DJW: The Golden Cockerel is not a posthumous publication, of course. But our decision to pair it with additional texts, some of which Rulfo never published, can certainly be perceived as controversial. And I was constantly aware of the responsibility of working with an author, like Juan Rulfo, who was self-critical and often hesitant to send items to press. I was encouraged, to be sure, to be working so closely with the Fundación Juan Rulfo and with members of the Rulfo family, and to be selecting only texts that already exist in print. Additionally, Víctor and Juan Francisco liked the selection of texts that we came up with so much that they decided to create a version in Spanish. That edition, titled El gallo de oro y otros relatos (Editorial RM), appeared at the beginning of this year. But returning to your question, the most poignant response might come from Rulfo’s widow, Clara Aparicio de Rulfo, who faced the same controversy when she decided to release Juan Rulfo’s Notebooks. Indeed, I mention her reply —tender in its tone— in my introduction to The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings. Clara explains that she resisted the temptation to conceal her husband’s working papers out of a responsibility to share the valuable writings (“so full of him” as Clara writes) that her husband left in her care. Ultimately, I hope that readers will see The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings as a valuable and respectful collection that, as I write in my introduction, “bears witness to Juan Rulfo and deserves to exist because each text is ‘so full of him.’”

DB: The Golden Cockerel had never been published in English. The same can be said for some of the other fourteen texts. Like most worthwhile tasks, translation can be as frustrating as it is rewarding. What challenges did you face when translating these texts? I’m particularly interested in specific problems and your strategies for overcoming these issues. 

DJW: That’s an interesting question since I have long felt that Rulfo’s first novel, Pedro Páramo, is tough to translate to English. Margaret Sayers Peden offers a strong version (Grove Press, 1994) that, nonetheless, seems not to reach the poetic, experimental, and mythic heights of the original. The Golden Cockerel is an easier exercise and yet not without its own challenges. This second novel is more oral, less polished, and less mythic than Pedro Páramo, and it is less experimental than the stories of The Plain in Flames. In The Golden Cockerel Rulfo uses long sentences, abundant punctuation, and numerous short paragraphs. All of these characteristics feel natural (if perhaps less formal) in Rulfo’s original, but can seem awkward in translation. I found myself shortening a few sentences and lengthening some paragraphs, all the while struggling to balance a desire to conserve Rulfo’s unique voice but making the text more comfortable to English-language readers. Another interesting issue that I confronted was whether to translate a nickname given to Bernarda Cutiño, the primary female protagonist of The Golden Cockerel and one of Rulfo’s most memorable women, standing alongside the remarkable Susana San Juan of Pedro Páramo. Bernarda is known as La Caponera, a polysemic label that is complex even in the original Spanish. One writer (Alfred Mac Adam) who translated a few pages of the novel rendered the term into English as Lead Mare, referring to the horse that is placed at the front since other animals tend to follow it. The choice is not inaccurate, of course, but feels awkward. I decided to conserve the original —La Caponera— untranslated and italicized, allowing the reader to discern the label’s meaning through the narration’s context, much as Rulfo does in Spanish.

DB: What led you to study, research and, ultimately, translate the work of Juan Rulfo? Why should Rulfo still be read in 2017? 

DJW: One of my primary research endeavors of the past decade has been to better understand Juan Rulfo’s connection to the Mexican film industry. As part of that project, I have worked extensively with The Golden Cockerel (including its two film adaptations) and became convinced that the novel deserves a wider audience. I found it baffling and frustrating that the novel —sixty years after its composition and nearly thirty years after its publication— had never appeared in English. In other words, I wasn’t a translator looking for a project; rather, I was a Rulfo devotee who noticed a void and felt a certain obligation to make this significant novel available to English-language readers. My efforts were, in many ways, a clichéd “labor of love” that became a truly enriching personal and professional journey through Rulfo’s lesser-known writings. Indeed, I hope that the reader of this anthology will approach these texts with the same excitement that defined my own exploration.

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The Secret Formula

The truth is that it’s difficult
to get used to hunger.

And although they say that hunger
when divided among many
affects fewer,
the only true thing is that here
each one of us
is half dead
and we don’t even have
a place to lie down and die.

As it seems now
things are going from bad to worse
None of this idea that we should turn a blind eye to
this matter.
None of that.
Since the beginning of time
we have set out with our stomachs stuck to our ribs
while hanging on by our fingernails against the wind.

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Totonac idol in Castillo de Teayo, c. 1950 (J. Rulfo) 

DB: Can you tell us a little about the Rubén Gámez film that this poetic text originally accompanied? Did Rulfo see the footage first and then write the text or vice versa? Is this a poem, a monologue for cinema or something else? Does The Secret Formula alter when divorced from the cinematic images? In what way? It seems, at least, to me, to be a text that is still painfully relevant today. Do you agree? Why? 

DJW: “The Secret Formula” is unique among Rulfo’s writings for its poetic structure and for the way it came to exist. Rulfo wrote the text at the invitation of Rubén Gámez who used it as a voiceover narration to accompany portions of his experimental film by the same title (La formula secreta, 1964), an allusion to the ingredients of Coca Cola and a critique, among other things, of the influence of the United States on Mexico. According to Gámez’s widow, Rulfo’s participation in the film came about after a chance encounter in an elevator. Rulfo had somehow seen portions of the still-in-production film and, meeting the director for the first time, expressed his enthusiasm for the project. Gámez, on the spur of the moment, invited the novelist to provide a written text to incorporate in the film. Rulfo seems to have written “The Secret Formula” very quickly and, although it is possible that someone other than the author gave the text the form with which it is now associated, it’s clear that Rulfo produced something more akin to poetry than to narrative (although your suggestion that it might be read as a “monologue for cinema” is not off the mark). There is no doubt that Rulfo’s text can be read independent of Gámez’s film or that it fits comfortably within the author’s literary canon. And yet I highly recommend that readers seek out La formula secreta by Gámez to see how seamlessly Rulfo’s text is incorporated into the experimental, dialogue-free vignettes that make up one of Mexico’s most significant independent films. Finally, I absolutely agree that “The Secret Formula” continues to be relevant. Rulfo imagined the piece as a lyrical response to the marginalization and suffering of Mexico’s poor —whether at home or abroad as immigrants— who, in biblical tone, demand to be seen and heard.

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Castillo de Teayo

A pale, yellowish gleam appeared in the east, revealing the outlines of everything. Meanwhile, on the side of the mountain, the world remained gray, increasingly gray and invisible.

Then, right in front of our eyes, was the Castillo. Its shape was strange in its seclusion, still undisturbed by any sign of life. It was surrounded by a mist that rose like steam from the humid earth and the dampened walls smoothed over with moss. With the moss covered in dew. That’s what we saw.

Night had come to an end.

That’s when that guy appeared, tall, thin, with his shirt open and a beard swarming around him in the wind. He stopped in front of us and began to speak:

—This is where the gods came to die. The banners were destroyed in the ancient wars and the standard-bearers fell to the ground, their noses broken and their eyes blinded, buried in the mud. Grass grew over their backs and even the nauyaca snake built its nest in the hollow of their curled legs. They’re here again, but without their banners, once again enslaved, once again guardians, now watching over the wooden cross of Christianity. They seem solemn, their eyes dull, their jaws dropped, their mouths open, clamorous beyond measure. Someone has whitewashed their bodies, giving them the appearance of the dead, wrapped in shrouds and ripped from their graves.

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Female figure in Castillo de Teayo, c. 1950 (J.Rulfo)

DB: Castillo de Teayo—You have described this text as ‘a travel narrative that often feels like a short story.’ Fictional memoirs seem very much in fashion these days. Do you think that its hybrid form contributed to its marginalization? There are various instances of critics attempting to see Rulfo’s photography as illustrative of his fiction, using quotations as captions and so forth and, therefore, neglected his photographic work that bears little resemblance to his prose. However, Castillo de Teayo seems to represent one of the few times when the photographs are meant to illustrate the prose. Would you agree? Why/not? 

DJW: Juan Rulfo was fascinated by Mexico’s history and highways and his wanderings, especially in the early 1950s as a travelling salesman for the Goodrich-Euzkadi tire company, resulted in a number of photographs and travel writings, some of which were published during the author’s life. For example, Rulfo agreed to serve as editor for the January 1952 edition of Mapa, a travel journal sponsored by his company, and he likely visited the archaeological site of Castillo de Teayo for material to use in that publication. Although a selection of photographs from that trip would appear in the journal, the narrative text that he wrote was not included and would not appear in print until 2002. It’s true that some critics have tried to see Rulfo’s photographic endeavors merely as a reflection of the author’s literary output. Such a perspective is misguided, however. Rulfo, who developed a profound interest in the visual image as early as the 1930s, never intended to limit his creativity to the written word. In recent years, as more of his photography has appeared in print, Rulfo has gained a reputation as one of his country’s premier photographers. “Castillo de Teayo,” as you mention, is an exception to the rule as text and image combine to tell a story of a rich and vibrant pre-Colombian past that continues to define Mexico’s present moment.

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A Piece of the Night

The guy who claimed to be Claudio Marcos had also become lost in thought. And then he said:

—I’m a gravedigger. Does that scare you if I tell you I’m a gravedigger? Well, that’s exactly what I am. And I’ve never admitted that my job pays a pittance. It’s a job like any other. With the advantage being that I have the frequent pleasure of burying people. I’m telling you this because you, just like me, should hate people. Perhaps even more than I do. And along those lines, let me give you some advice: don’t ever love anyone. Let go of the idea of caring for someone else. I remember that I had an aunt whom I really loved. She died suddenly, when I was especially attached to her, and the only thing I got out of it was a heart filled with holes.

I heard what he was saying. But that didn’t take my mind off of the quiebranueces, with his sunken, unspeaking eyes. Meanwhile, back here, this guy just kept prattling on about how he hated half of all humankind and how great it was knowing that, one by one, he would eventually bury all those he came across every day. And how when someone here or there said or did something to offend him, he wouldn’t get angry; rather, keeping his mouth shut, he would promise himself that he would give them a very long rest when they eventually fell into his hands.

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Sculpted relief in Castillo de Teayo, c. 1950 (J. Rulfo)

DB: A Piece of the Night—Unlike most of Rulfo’s narrative fiction, this story is unmistakably urban. Rulfo lived in Mexico City for many years, yet rarely does it appear in his fiction. Why do you think that is? How is the city portrayed in this story? 

DJW: Although associated so fully with Mexico’s rural towns and landscapes, Rulfo is seen more accurately as an inhabitant of Mexico’s largest urban centers. He was still very young, for example, when he was sent to live at a boarding school in Guadalajara after an assassin’s bullet claimed the life of his father. Eventually Rulfo would bounce back and forth between Guadalajara and Mexico City before settling permanently in his nation’s capital. So how does one explain Rulfo’s preference for rural spaces? Although there are multiple explanations, the one that I want to enumerate here is biographical. Pedro Páramo opens with a son who travels to the small town of his mother’s memories to search for a father that he never knew. That return to discover one’s enigmatic origin is, in Rulfo, as much biography as it is literary motif. Rulfo’s fascination with provincial Mexico —especially with the small towns of southern Jalisco where he was born— reveal a pained nostalgia for what Rulfo lost with the passing of his father. Although the scarcity of urban environments in Rulfo’s creative output is real, it can be overstated. As a photographer, for example, Rulfo shot a number of images in metropolitan settings. And he would place characters in urban environments in  “Paso del Norte” and “A Piece of the Night.” This latter piece is a particularly touching witness to Rulfo’s interest in the city. Although read today as a short story, it is, in reality, a fragment of an urban novel, tentatively titled El hijo del desaliento, that the author was composing as early as 1940 before deciding to abandon the project. “A Piece of the Night” has long been one of my favorite Rulfo tales. Set in the rough-and-tumble Guerrero neighborhood of Mexico City (near Tlatelolco), the story follows the nocturnal wanderings of two life-weary protagonists, a prostitute and a gravedigger, as they search for shelter. With an infant in tow, the trio is connected archetypally and ironically to the Holy Family. A year ago, hoping to see how closely the story connected to the actual urban environment that Rulfo describes, I walked the same streets and plazas that appear in the story. It became clear that the author wasn’t interested solely in the metaphoric potential of his protagonists; rather, he was offering a very real portrayal of an actual city environment that he knew well.

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Cleotilde

Where I don’t want to look is toward the ceiling, because up on the ceiling, moving from beam to beam, there’s someone who’s alive. Especially at night, when I light a small candle, that shadow on the ceiling moves. Don’t think it’s just a figment of my imagination. I know what it is: it’s the shape of Cleotilde.

Cleotilde is also dead, but not fully so. Even though I’m the one who killed Cleotilde. And I know that everything you kill, while you remain alive, continues to exist. That’s just how it is.

It’s been about a week since I killed Cleotilde. I hit her several times in the head, massive and hard blows, until she stayed good and quiet. It’s not like I was so mad that I was planning on killing her; but a fit of rage is a fit of rage and that’s the root cause of it all.

She died. Afterward, I did get mad at her for that, for having died. And now she’s after me. That’s her shadow, above my head, spread along the length of the beams as if it were the shadow of a barren tree. And even though I’ve told her many times to go away, to stop harassing everyone, she hasn’t moved from where she’s at, nor has she stopped looking at me.

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DB: Cleotilde—This story was previously published in Los cuadernos de Juan Rulfo (Juan Rulfo’s Notebooks) in 1995. It reads like a finished story, as opposed to a fragment of an unfinished project. When was it written and was it originally meant to be part of a collection of stories that never materialized? It’s a brutal story of obsession and murder that I am particularly fond of. Why do you think it has still remained relatively unknown, despite having been published in Los cuadernos?

DJW: You are absolutely correct to read “Cleotilde” as an independent and polished short story. Indeed, I hope that the readers of my translation do just that and discover a remarkable tale that deserves a place among Rulfo’s other short fiction. And yet Yvette Jiménez de Báez included the piece in Juan Rulfo’s Notebooks in a section that she titled “On the Road to the Novel” (“Camino a la novela”), a classification that suggests a role as precursor to Pedro Páramo. To be sure, the violence and vengeance that define the narrative, along with its tormented apparition, the murdered Cleotilde, easily connect it to Rulfo’s first novel. Although it’s unclear exactly when Rulfo wrote this story or why he chose not to publish it, I don’t disagree with Jiménez de Báez’s decision to view it as a variation on the people, places, and themes that would eventually lead Rulfo to write Pedro Páramo. Although it’s true that “Cleotilde” has enjoyed only limited dissemination, it has appeared on the big screen as one of three stories that Roberto Rochín adapted to film in the feature-length Purgatorio (2008).

—Douglas J. Weatherford and Dylan Brennan

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Editor’s Note: Excerpts and photographs appear here courtesy of the Fundación Juan Rulfo, Deep Vellum Publishing, and Douglas J.  Weatherford.

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Douglas J. Weatherford at Laguna de Sayula. 

Douglas J. Weatherford is an Associate Professor of Hispanic American Literatures and Cultures at Brigham Young University (Provo, Utah). He has developed teaching and research interests in a wide range of areas related to Latin American literature and film, with particular emphasis on Mexico during the mid-twentieth century. Much of his recent scholarship has examined Mexican author Juan Rulfo’s connection to the visual image in film. Weatherford’s translation of Rulfo’s second novel El gallo de oro (The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings) will appear in May (Deep Vellum Publishing), the centennial of that author’s birth.

Dylan Brennan is an Irish writer currently based in Mexico. His poetry, essays and memoirs have been published in a range of international journals, in English and Spanish. His debut poetry collection, Blood Oranges, for which he received the runner-up prize in the Patrick Kavanagh Award, is available now from The Dreadful Press. Twitter: @DylanJBrennan

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. (“‘Texto para cine’: El gallo de oro en la producción artística de Juan Rulfo.” El gallo de oro. By Juan Rulfo. Mexico City: Editorial RM).
  2. Los cuadernos de Juan Rulfo. Transcription by Yvette Jiménez de Báez. Mexico City: Era, 1994
Apr 092017
 

The following excerpt, the opening passage of Frontier, introduces the central character, Liujin. Note the the crisp, unadorned quality of Can Xue’s prose and the fine membrane between the ordinary and the surreal. 

Frontier is translated from the Chinese by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping.

—  Joseph Schreiber

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LIUJIN

IT WAS LATE. Liujin stood there, leaning against the wooden door. The ripe grapes hanging on the arbors flickered with a slight fluorescence in the moonlight. Blowing in the wind, the leaves of the old poplar tree sounded lovely. The voice of someone talking blended with the rustling of the poplar leaves. Liujin couldn’t hear what he was saying. She knew it was the man who had recently been coming here late every night and sitting on the stone bench near the courtyard gate. At first, this had frightened Liujin and she hadn’t dared to go outside. Time after time, she had peeped out the window. Later on, realizing that this bear-like old man was harmless, she worked up the courage to approach him. He had good eyesight: even in the dim light, his eyes were as penetrating as sharp glass. He was busying his hands twisting hemp. He didn’t like to talk with people; his answers to Liujin’s questions were always vague: “I’m not sure . . .” He wasn’t one of her neighbors; where did he come from? Although he didn’t talk with her, he seemed to enjoy talking to himself. His words kept time with the sound of the wind and the leaves. When the wind stopped, he stopped. This was really strange. Tonight, his voice was louder, and pricking up her ears, Liujin made out a few words: “At noon, in the market . . .” Liujin tried hard to imagine the scene in this indoor market: piece goods, gold and silver jewelry, raisins, tambourines, foreigners, and so on. But she had no clue what the old man meant. Even though it was late, a woman was actually singing piteously and plaintively on the other side of the street; the woman seemed to be young. Could she be singing for the old man? But he apparently wasn’t listening; he was talking to himself. These days, Liujin had grown accustomed to his voice. She thought the old man looked a little like the poplar tree in the courtyard. The poplar was old, and so this man must be old, too. Liujin asked: Are you twisting the hemp to sell it? He didn’t answer. Sleepy, Liujin went off to bed. Before she fell asleep, she heard the young woman’s song turn sad and shrill. When she arose in the morning, she saw that the old man had left without a trace—not even a bit of hemp had been dropped on the ground. He really was a strange person. When she inquired of the neighbors, they said they didn’t know of such a person. No one had seen him. This made sense, for people generally didn’t go out so late. Liujin knew that she went to bed later than anyone else in the little town: she had formed this habit a long time ago. Still, what about the young woman singing? Judging by the direction the voice came from, she seemed to be from Meng Yu’s family. That family bought sheep from the pastures, slaughtered them in the market, and sold the fresh meat. With the strange old man showing up in her yard, Liujin no longer felt desolate and lonely in the autumn nights. She felt a vague affection for him, but she preferred not to explore the nature of this emotion.

She had lived by herself in this small enclosed area for five years. Before she was born, her parents had moved here from a large industrial city in the interior. Five years ago, her elderly parents went back to their hometown with many others, but she didn’t. Why had she stayed? Why hadn’t she wanted to go to the big city? She had some impressions of the city from her father’s descriptions of it. These impressions were mostly misty, not very reliable; she had tried hard to synthesize them, but without success. And so when her parents packed their bags and prepared to leave this small frontier town to go back to their old home, she began to feel dizzy. She was even unsteady when she walked. Late at night, for several days before they left, she heard the cracking sound at the riverside: with her bizarre sense of hearing, she knew the sound came from the poplars. These explosions came at intervals until the wee hours. In response to this inauspicious sound, a vague notion gradually occurred to Liujin. When she suggested that she stay behind, her father merely raised his right eyebrow. This was the way he expressed himself whenever something confirmed what he thought. “You’re an adult. It’s your choice.” All of a sudden, Liujin realized that he and Mama had been waiting for her to suggest this: she really was an idiot. So she unpacked her suitcase and put everything back where it belonged. True, she was thirty years old: why did she have to live with her parents? When the train started, her parents didn’t lean out the window. She didn’t know what they were thinking about. But when the last car was about to vanish from view, she suddenly saw clearly the big city in the distance. To be precise, it wasn’t a city, but a large white cloud floating in midair, with mirages in the mist. She even saw the apartment in the tall building where her parents lived. She didn’t know why their window was so dark in the strong light. How had she recognized it? Because her mother’s old-style pleated skirt was hanging in front of the window. On her way back, she walked steadily. She was returning to the home that now belonged to her alone. She trembled a little in excitement.

At first, Liujin wasn’t used to living alone. She sold cloth at the market. Every day when she left the noisy market and returned to the isolated little house, it was dark. For several days in a row, a tiny white wagtail strode hurriedly into her house; the little thing cried out briefly and sharply, as if looking for its companion. After quickly patrolling around inside, it left with a despondent cry. Liujin heard it fly to a tree, where it continued chirping. Had it experienced some tragedy in its life? Sitting under the lamp, she thought about the man who had recently been coming often to the market. He wore glasses, and when he picked up the cloth to look at it, his glasses almost touched the material. Liujin found this amusing. He seemed out of place in the market. He wasn’t like the other shoppers, and he didn’t bring any shopping bags, either. He was dressed like a farmer from the frontier. Of course he wasn’t a farmer; one could see that from the expression in his eyes. He always looked at cloth, but never bought any. Nor did he glance at Liujin. The way he touched the homemade cloth brought about an almost physiological response in Liujin. What kind of person was he? “I’m just looking,” he said, as if imploring Liujin. “Go ahead and look as long as you like,” she replied stiffly. All of a sudden—she didn’t know why—she felt empty inside.

One day, although it was late, the white wagtail hadn’t returned to its nest. It was circling beside a thorny rose bush, singing sadly. Acting on a hunch that something had happened, Liujin walked into the courtyard. She saw the bespectacled man from the market talking with a young woman under the streetlight. Suddenly, the woman screamed and ran away. Looking dizzy, the man leaned against a power pole, closed his eyes, and rested. The wagtail sang even more sadly, as if it were a mother who had lost her daughter. Approaching the man, Liujin said softly, “Tomorrow, I’ll take out a few more bolts of new cloth with a snow lotus pattern. It’s like . . . snow lotus, and yet it isn’t.” When the man heard her talking to him, he relaxed a little and said “Hello.” He turned and looked at her courtyard. Just then, she noticed that the wagtail had disappeared. Without saying anything else, the man left. The way he walked was funny—a little like a horse. Liujin had heard others call him “Mr. Sherman.” Maybe her encounters with him at the market weren’t accidental. Otherwise, why had he appeared in front of her house today? She also remembered the way the young woman had stamped her feet impatiently; at that time, the wagtail was chirping non-stop. Later, Liujin ran into this man in front of her house several times and greeted him properly, calling him “Mr. Sherman.” He always stood there—a little as if he were waiting for someone, for he kept looking at his watch. Liujin wondered if he was waiting for the young woman. Why had he chosen this place? How strange.

With Mr. Sherman showing up, Liujin had more energy. She worked hard tending her garden. Whenever she had a day off, she went into full swing. She planted many chrysanthemums and salvia along the wall—near the thorny rose bushes that were already there. There were still two poplars, one in the front and one in the back of the courtyard. Now she planted a few sandthorn trees: she liked plain trees like this. She also fertilized the grapes. On one of her days off, Mr. Sherman entered her courtyard. Liujin invited him to sit under the grape arbor. She brought out a tea table and placed a tea set on it. Just as they were about to drink tea, the wagtail appeared. It walked quickly back and forth, its tail jumping with each step. It kept chirping. Mr. Sherman paled and craned his neck like a horse and looked out. Finally, without drinking his tea, he apologized and took his leave. Liujin was very puzzled. It was this bird—perhaps it was two or three birds, all of them alike—that particularly puzzled her. Liujin realized she hadn’t seen the young woman again. What was going on between her and Mr. Sherman? Just now as he was sitting here, she had noticed that his right index finger was hurt and was wrapped in a thick bandage. He was dexterous in picking up his teacup with his left hand. Maybe he was left-handed.

By and large, Liujin’s life consisted of going from her home to the market and from the market to her home. On an impulse one night, she walked out and took the street to the riverside. The water level was low, and the small river would soon dry up. The sky was high. She walked along the river in the moonlight. There, she saw the corpses of poplars. She didn’t know if the four or five poplars had died of old age or if they had died unexpectedly. Their tall, straight trunks were ghostly. At first sight, her heart beat quickly. It was hard to muster the nerve to walk over to them. She startled a few willow warblers: their sharp cries made her legs quiver. She turned around and left, walking until she was sweating all over; then finally she looked back. How could the dead poplar trees still be right before her? A shadow emerged from the poplar grove and said, “Ah, are you here, too?” The sound startled her and almost made her faint. Luckily, she recognized her neighbor’s voice. The neighbor wasn’t alone. Behind him was another shadow. It was Mr. Sherman, and he was laughing. As he approached, Mr. Sherman said to Liujin, “When one sees dead trees like this, one shouldn’t run away. If you do, they’ll chase right after you.” The neighbor chimed in, “Mr. Sherman’s telling the truth, Liujin. You haven’t experienced this before, have you?” Even though she was standing in the shadows, Liujin felt her face turn fiery red. Had these two been hiding here long? How had she happened to come here just now? She recalled sitting at the table earlier writing her mother a letter, and being unable to go on writing because her mother’s words kept reverberating in her ears: “. . . Liujin, Liujin. There’s no way for you to come back to us. You’d better take good care of yourself.” Did Mama want her back after so long? She stood up and listened closely for a while to the wagtail’s lonely singing in the courtyard. When she had rushed out the gate, she forgot to close it. Perhaps these two men came here often to study these dead trees, but it was the first time she had ever come here.

“Look, the others are flourishing. It’s only these few trees: Did they commit collective suicide?”

When Mr. Sherman spoke again, his glasses were flashing with light. Liujin looked over at the trees and saw the moon brighten. The other poplars were so beautiful and vivacious that they seemed on the verge of speaking. Only the few dead ones were spooky. Her neighbor, old Song Feiyuan, rammed a shovel against a dead poplar trunk. Liujin noticed that the tree trunk remained absolutely still. Old Song chucked the shovel away and stood dazed in front of the trunk. Mr. Sherman laughed a little drily. Liujin suddenly recalled how wild this neighbor was when he was home. That autumn, this old man had gone crazy and dismantled the rear wall of his house. Luckily, the roof was covered with light couch grass, so the house didn’t collapse. In the winter, he warded off the cold north wind with oilcloth.

“Brother Feiyuan, what are you doing? These trees are dead,” Liujin tried to calm him down. A sound came from the river, as if a large fish had jumped up out of the water.

Liujin was three meters away from the men as she spoke to them. She wanted to get a little closer, but whenever she took a step, they backed up. When she straightened again after bending down to free a grain of sand from her shoe, they had disappeared into the woods. A gust of wind blew over her, and Liujin felt afraid. She turned around to leave, but bumped into a dead tree. After taking a few steps around the dead tree, she bumped into another one. She saw stars and shouted “Ouch!” She looked up and saw that the dead tree trunks, standing close together, were like a wall bending around her and enclosing her. Apart from the sky above, she could see only the dark wall of trees. Frustrated, she sat down on the ground, feeling that the end of the world was approaching. It was really absurd: How had she come here? Fish were still jumping in the little river, but the sound of the water was far away. She buried her head in her hands. She didn’t want to see the tree trunks. She thought it might be her neighbor Song Feiyuan playing tricks. This had to be an illusion, yet how had he and Mr. Sherman caused her to produce such an illusion? She strained to consider this question, but she was too anxious and couldn’t reach a conclusion. Suddenly aware of a strong light, she moved her hands and saw lightning—one bolt after another lit up her surroundings until they shone snow-bright. The dead trees that had closed up around her had now retreated far into the distance. The branches danced solemnly and wildly in the lightning. She stood up and ran home without stopping.

Recalling these events, Liujin felt it was quite natural that the old man had come to her small courtyard. Perhaps it was time for—for what? She wasn’t sure; she only felt vaguely that it had something to do with her parents who were far away. She remembered that the year before he left, her father had also twisted hemp. In the winter, he had sat on the bare courtyard wall: he had watched the activity on the street while twisting hemp. Not many people were on the road then, and there were even fewer vehicles. Father twisted the hemp unhurriedly, and—a hint of a smile floating on his face—gazed at the people passing by. “Dad, do you see someone you know?” Liujin asked. “Ah, no one is a stranger. This is a small town.” Liujin thought to herself, Since every person was familiar, then Father must be taking note of something. What was it? Liujin walked into the courtyard and went over to the wall where her father had often sat. Just then, she heard the sorrowful singing of a bird. The bird was in a nearby nest; perhaps it had lost its children, or perhaps it was hurt, or perhaps nothing had happened. Or was it a pessimist by nature? From its voice, she could tell that the bird was no longer young. Maybe, back then, Father had sat here in order to listen to it. This seemed to be the only spot where one could hear it. What kind of bird was it? She guessed that the nest was built in the poplar tree in back, but when she walked a few steps away, she couldn’t hear the bird. When she returned to her original spot, she could hear it again. If Father had made a companion of it in the winter, it must be a local bird. Could it be an injured goose? If a wild goose had been injured, how could it build a nest in a poplar tree? It did sound a little like a goose. Geese flying south sometimes sounded like this. Whenever Liujin heard geese at night, she couldn’t hold back her tears. It was clearly a cry of freedom, but it sounded to her like the dread that precedes execution. “The sound is directional. You can’t hear it unless you’re in just the right place,” the old man addressed her suddenly and quite distinctly. The hemp in his hands gave off soft silver-white light. “Where did you come from?” Liujin walked over to him. He lowered his head and mumbled, “I can’t remember . . . Look, I am . . .” He broke off. Liujin thought, What kind of person has no memory? Is there a category of people like this? He is . . . who is he? She wanted to move closer to him, but she felt something pull at her right foot and nearly fell down. She was greatly surprised. After regaining her balance, she thought she would try once more—but this time with her left foot. She staggered and ended up sitting on the ground. The old man sat there twisting hemp, as if he hadn’t noticed. Liujin heard herself shout at him angrily, “Who are you?!”

Though it was late at night, a column of horse-drawn carts ran past. This hadn’t happened for years. Liujin had heard that the city was growing, but she’d had no interest in looking at those places. She heard it was expanding toward the east, but the snow mountain was to the east. How could the city expand there? Had a corner of the snow mountain been chopped off? Or were houses being built halfway up the mountain? Liujin had seen snow leopards squatting on a large rock halfway up the mountain: they were graceful and mighty—like the god of the snow mountain. Later, she had dreamed several times of the snow leopards roaring, and at the time, rumbling thunder had echoed from the earth. But even now, she wasn’t sure what snow leopards sounded like. Because it was the weekend, she resolved to watch the old man all night, and find out when he left and where he went. After the sound of the horse-carts disappeared, he stood up. From behind, he looked like a brown bear. He crossed the street and headed for Meng Yu’s home. Meng Yu’s window was lit up. After the old man went in, the young woman, who was singing again, began to wail sadly and shrilly. Liujin heard loud noises coming from the house: Was something going to happen? But after a while it grew quiet and the lamp was also extinguished. After standing there a little longer, she went back to her house and fell asleep. She didn’t know when daylight came. The night seemed long, very long.

— Can Xue, Translated from the Chinese by Karen Gernant & Chen Zeping

Published with permission from Open Letter Books

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Can Xue is a pseudonym meaning “dirty snow, leftover snow.” She learned English on her own and has written books on Borges, Shakespeare, and Dante. Her publications in English include, The Embroidered ShoesFive Spice StreetVertical Motion, and The Last Lover, which won the 2015 Best Translated Book Award for Fiction.

Karen Gernant is a professor emerita of Chinese history at Southern Oregon University. She translates in collaboration with Chen Zeping.

Chen Zeping is a professor of Chinese linguistics at Fujian Teachers’ University, and has collaborated with Karen Gernant on more than ten translations.

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Apr 062017
 

Russell Working

 

When the Rawlses finally arrived at Grandma and Granddaddy’s house in Eufala, there was no place to park.  Cars crowded the lawn and driveway, and TV vans lined the shoulders of the road, leaning out from the pavement as if feeling poorly and ready to topple over and give up the ghost.  (“The ghost,” the boy whispered.  Was it bad?  Bad to say words aloud as you thought them?)  So Dad left the pickup down the block by a house with a tree where a farmer in overalls was hanged by the neck until dead.  Spooky, since it was already getting dark.

Jordan had been taking pictures of the sunset with Mom’s iPad as they headed south from Muskogee, and he knew it was “unworthy,” the word she had used—“unworthy of you to keep harping on it on such a day”—but the thought came to him, There’s still time.  (“Time,” he said.)  Time for trick-or-treating, he meant.

Dad carried Su Ellen, asleep in her car seat and tented in a pink blanket, and Mom brought what Dad called the “superfluous bucket of chicken.”  “I know my people,” he’d said, but she insisted you couldn’t show up empty-handed.  The boy followed, his school backpack slung over one shoulder.  Dad buzzed his own head every Sunday morning, except for a curl from his widow’s peak, and you could see a port wine birthmark as big as a pancake on the back of his scalp.  Mom’s hair was frizzy and dark, and she had a slight overbite and a zit at the corner of her mouth which she had daubed with makeup.

At Grandma and Granddaddy’s yellow home on the corner, its American flag at half-staff, they’d forgotten to string up the spooky orange lights this year, but their neighbor’s house had an inflatable witch, a huge spider clinging to the eaves, a dummy holding a jack-o’-lantern head, and fake tombstones for IZZY DEAD and IMA GONER and BARRY A. LIVE.

“I hate Halloween,” Dad said.

Reporters were waiting on Grandma and Granddaddy’s lawn.  Their cameras and microphones were labeled with ABC, CBS, Fox, and others, too, but some of them just had notebooks and recorders.  Noticing Jordan’s family—the Chicago Rawlses—they stopped checking their smart phones.  Dad, usually surefooted and long of stride, slowed, as if considering whether to retreat and find another way in.  When the Rawlses reached the yard, the reporters huddled around with faces arranged so sad, Jordan wondered if they, too, had known Uncle Aaron.  A lady in hoop earrings said, “Excuse me, but are you all family?”

Dad said, “I’m his brother.  Was.”

“I am so sorry.  I can only imagine.”

The reporters all nodded.  They, too, could only imagine.

Dad looked at the house as if hoping his folks might come out and rescue him, but nobody stirred in the house.  A cameraman had him state and spell his name for the record.  Dad handed the car seat with baby Su Ellen to Mom and she stepped aside.  He was wearing civvies, but the reporters must have guessed from his haircut, because someone asked for his rank (“Captain”), then said, “Navy?” and he told them, “United States Marine Corps.”  The reporters wanted to know how Dad felt.  He said it was a living nightmare.  The NBC lady asked how long Aaron had been a soldier, and Dad corrected her: Marine, ma’am.  Not soldier.  When someone asked if there was a wife, he said no, just the ex, she’d be flying in tonight.  No; no kids.

One reporter wanted to know what Aaron was like as a kid.  Well, sir, Dad said, clearing his throat, my brother, he was always getting up on top of things.  He gritted his teeth and for a moment Jordan thought his father was grinning.

The FOX lady asked, “Like, for instance?”  Oh, Dad told them.  Like when Aaron was three and he clambered up onto the carport roof.  Yes, ma’am, three years old.  Little monkey.  Dad was seven, followed him up to make sure he didn’t fall off.  A neighbor phoned their mom, is how she found out.  Nine years old, Aaron hauled his bike up on top of their father’s tractor-trailer rig and rode off the end, pretending to be Evel Knievel.  Broke a bunch of bones.

“He was my kid brother,” Dad said, “but he was my hero.  Nothing scared him.”

Mom slipped a tissue in the hand at his side.  He dabbed his eyes and nose, apologized.  The reporters said of course, no need.  A CBS lady touched his arm.

Just then Jordan’s backpack slipped off his shoulder and spilled open.  He’d forgotten to zip it.  Out tumbled the Wimpy Kid books and his Evil Gesture costume, which Mom had packed for him.  The Evil Gesture wore a three-horned hat and a suit of a red and black check pattern, with tiny skulls instead of bells hanging from the zigzag collar.  But what everyone was looking at was the cackling skull mask.  Jordan was too horrified to move.  Mom’s face changed from sad and weepy to really, really angry, and she crammed everything back in and zipped up the backpack.  Jordan was hot with shame.  His grandparents were not supposed to see the mask, today of all days, and here it was, revealed for TV.

A gray-haired reporter said, “You fixing to trick-or-treat, son?”  Jordan didn’t answer, afraid this man, too, would find him unworthy.  The reporter said, “Well, that’s a pretty spooky costume.”

Somebody asked if you had one message for the American people today, what would it be?  Dad said he did not feel called to advise the nation right now.  He added, “Excuse us,” and led the family into Grandma and Granddaddy’s side door, where a sign read, NO MEDIA!!!

The kitchen was over-warm even though a window was open, and a biscuity, hot-doggy smell filled the air.  People at the counter were chopping carrots and distributing ice in red plastic cups.  The Grands, as Mom called Grandma and Granddaddy, were nowhere to be seen, but Jordan recognized their pastor from the Free Will Baptist Church and Dad’s cousins and uncle of the Tulsa Rawlses.  Across the room, Aunt Staci, Dad’s big sis, was listening to a marine staff sergeant in dress blues who was shaping an invisible lump of clay with his hands as he spoke.  Aunt Staci was an army nurse but wore civvies today like Dad.  Uncle Dave, her husband, a doctor, was deployed to Afghanistan.

With a glance that told Dad, “You were right,” Mom set the bucket of chicken on a sideboard already crowded with a crockpot of gumbo and a pan of ribs and fried chicken and mini-hot dogs and biscuits and salad and corn with specks of something red like peppers in it, as well as brownies and cookies and cake.  Su Ellen began crying, and Dad removed her from her car seat and tucked her in a baby carrier on his chest.  Babe-zers blinked in bobble-headed astonishment.  Were there dis many people on Earf?  Where dey come from?  Babies were so funny if you scrutinized them.  Aunt Staci, puffy-eyed, pinching her nose in a much abused tissue, rushed over and hugged Mom and Jordan, then captured Dad and Su Ellen in a baby sandwich.  People turned ugly when they cried.

“I just can’t get it out of my head,” Aunt Staci said.

“You didn’t watch the video!?”

“Oh, God, how could I miss it?  It just was on in the Emergency Department.  I mean, not all of it, but enough.”

“Where’re the folks?” Dad said.

Aunt Staci led them to Dad and Uncle Aaron’s old bedroom, where Jordan and his parents always slept when they visited.  She knocked and peeked in.

In a room lighted by the afterglow of the sunset, a very large couple had pulled up tiny chairs beside a bed on which a skinny, white-haired lady lay facing the wall.  Jordan knew them—the Reiersgords, Grandma and Granddaddy’s best friends from church.  He was a throat-bearded man whose belly bulged in his orange OSU Cowboys jersey.  His wife was a frog-shaped lady who seemed to have slipped rubber bands around her wrists, elbows, ankles, and neck.  The white-haired lady rolled over on the bed to squint at them, and with a shock Jordan recognized Grandma.  She’d always been roly-poly and pink-cheeked, but she had wasted terribly skinny, and her jet hair had gone white since he had last seen her on the Fourth of July.  She was part Choctaw (“though not enough to do me any good”), and her Indian features were pallid, even bluish.

“OH!” she cried, her eyes seizing Jordan.  “Come here, you!”  Her face wrinkled up, and she swung her legs off the bed as she sat up to hug him, smearing his skin with her wet, whiskery cheek.  “What took you all so long?  I was so worried about this guy.”  The ferocity of Grandma’s embrace alarmed the boy.

Mom and Dad sat down on either side of her and hugged her sidelong, and the grownups all cried.  Mrs. Reiersgord said, “We’ll be getting back to the kitchen.”  She nudged her husband, who lumbered out after her, supporting his belly as if it might otherwise sag down around his ankles.

Jordan felt bad, as evil as an Evil Gesture, but when he thought of Uncle Aaron, he couldn’t cry, because he didn’t feel sad, only afraid.  He’d been sick to his stomach ever since he first learned about Uncle Aaron’s kidnapping in Tajikistan last May.  He would ask Mom to drive him to school, and she’d say, “Since when do you need a ride?”  All the way there he was alert for kidnappers and would notice whenever a passing car or UPS van slowed down, possibly to grab him.  The boy barely remembered his uncle, whom he had only seen twice in the last three years, and in his mind, the strong, shaven face of Aaron in his Officer Service Uniform had been replaced by that of the gaunt, bearded man in orange, kneeling before some kind of Ninja in black.  The boy did remember his uncle tickling him once on the floor of the den as he screamed for mercy.  Jordan had kept a wary distance after that.

Last spring Uncle Aaron had mailed a Kyrgyz felt hat, as tall as a pope hat, that he had found in a market.  He addressed the gift to “The Chicago Rawlses,” but Dad decided it was for Jordan.  Mom thought it would make a great Halloween costume.  Hearing this, the boy made a point pushing it off the back of the dresser in his closet, to be forgotten amid the dust on the floor.  After Uncle Aaron was kidnapped, he felt guilty, though not enough to put on a stupid hat like a Smurf might wear and regular old clothes and call it a costume, which is the kind of lame-o idea grownups came up with.  Luckily, Mom had forgotten the hat.

These past months Jordan had been more anxious for his father than for the remote uncle of legend.  “Are they going to try to kidnap you, too, Dad?”  “Buddy, they wouldn’t dare.  Besides, the bad guys are way far away.”  Still, Dad had bought a Colt M45 Close Quarters Battle Pistol and began taking Jordan to the shooting range on weekends.  At night boy armed himself with his Nerf gun in bed, and this upset Mom when she sat on it while tucking him in, because she thought he was playing with it after lights out.  Actually, it was for protection.  He was not a moron, he didn’t think a Nerf bullet would kill a Tajik, but if it hit him in the eye, it would give Dad time to come running with his gun.

Last night Jordan had awakened to find himself in the back seat of the pickup.  Out in the darkness a billboard glided past with a smiling lady’s face and the words FREEDOM FROM PAIN.  Headlights came at them and taillights streaked away.  Su Ellen was asleep in her back-facing car seat beside him.  Oddly, Mom was at the wheel.  Dad slumped in the front passenger seat, his head bobbling forward and righting itself.

“Where we going?” Jordan said.  (“Going,” he whispered.)

“Shhh, let Daddy sleep.  Grandma and Granddaddy Rawls’s.”

“What about Halloween?” he said.

“You can trick or treat there.”

The next time he woke, it was daylight and Dad was driving.  They were pulling in to a McDonald’s.  The boy asked where they were.  “Springfield,” said Dad.  “Abe Lincoln’s old stomping ground.”  It wasn’t until they finished their pancakes and sausage that Dad said, “Buddy, we got some bad news.”

§

Now Grandma released Jordan.  As she pulled her palms down her face, stretched her saggy skin.

Jordan said, “I’m very sorry about Uncle Aaron, Grandma.”  (“Sorry,” he whispered.)  He glanced at his mother, who nodded that this was the right thing to say.  Grandma peered at the boy’s face, but not finding something she sought, she lay back down facing the wall.  She kept a hand on her tummy.  Maybe she was hungry.

“Grandma, I’ll share my candy with you after I go trick-or-treating.”

Mom swatted his shoulder and bugged her eyes angrily at him.  What? he mouthed, and she nearly swatted him again.

Dad said, “Your ulcer acting up, Ma?”

Grandma shifted in a lying shrug.  Aunt Staci nodded for her.

“Maybe you ought to see a doctor,” Dad said.

Grandma pulled a pillow over her head.  “OHHHHH, stop it!  All of you.”  Jordan’s spine shivered all the way to his tailbone.  The grownups looked like they didn’t know what to do.

For a while they sat there stroking Grandma’s shoulder and leg.  She reached back, but when Dad took her hand, she pushed it away and found Jordan’s instead.  What should he do?  Just stand there holding his grandmother’s soft, boney hand?  Mom nodded: Just like that.  He surveyed the room.  Grandma’s treadmill stood along one wall, stacked with boxes.  A bookshelf was lined with Uncle Aaron’s old collection of toy Indian warriors and cavalrymen in blue, made of tin and painted.  One of the soldiers had long, yellow hair like Custer.  He was threatening to saber a brave in full-body black war paint who brandished a tomahawk.

“Kirsten’s in the living room with your granddad,” Aunt Staci told Jordan.  (Kirsten was Jordan’s cousin.)  “Maybe you two should go say hi.  Your Mom and I can set with Grandma.”

They found Granddaddy watching Fox News with Kirsten.  Who had pink hair!  They both stood up for hugs.  She was wearing jeans and pink socks and a pink hoodie that read MIZZOU, which is where she played mellophone in the marching band.  Granddaddy had the same old circus barker’s mustache and goatee, and his bald, spotty head sprouted stray hairs, shimmery against the light.  After hugs Granddaddy said, “He’s with the Lord now,” and Dad said, “He sure is.”  The left side of Granddaddy’s face kept flinching into a half mask, baring his teeth and flexing the tendons of his neck, as if a malevolent lightning bolt had illuminated a painting in the Disney World Haunted Mansion.  A tissue box lay by Granddaddy’s chair, and they wiped their cheeks and honked their noses and talked about Grandma.  Ought to see a doctor for sure, but try telling her that.

Kirsten nudged Jordan with her hip, throwing him off-balance.  “Look at this big guy!  We’re going to have another linebacker here, just like Luke.”  Luke was her brother, but he didn’t play football anymore because he was studying for his master’s in England.

“Jordan’s playing Pop Warner,” Dad said.  “Offensive tackle.”

“I lost a tooth,” the boy said.  He opened wide to show his cousin the hole in his gum.

“Last week, middle linebacker knocks him flat,” Dad says.  “Hits the turf so hard, he spits out a tooth, Jordan.  So he finds it and runs off the field and hands it to Mom.  Didn’t want to miss out on that dollar.”

“Whoa!” Kirsten said.  “You stud!”

In fact, Jordan wasn’t very good at football.  His size had excited the coaches at first, but he was clumsy and was frequently humiliated by smaller opponents who wriggled past to sack the quarterback or take the running back down for a loss.  His team had lost every game but one.  In the car home Dad always advised him on everything he had done wrong.  “You cost your team twenty yards holding.”  His head coach told him the same thing, at the top of his lungs.

Kirsten was chewing her hair, which was so bright it did look eatable, like cotton candy.  The boy’s fingers reached out and combed her pink locks.  “What are you going as?” he said.

At first she didn’t understand; then she giggled.  “Jordan, this isn’t a costume.  It’s my normal hair.  I dyed it.”  To Dad she said, “He is so funny!”  But maybe she decided smiling was unworthy, because her face fell and she tucked the hair back in her mouth.

Granddaddy said, “Sit down, take a load off your mind.”

He bent at the waist and at the knees and groped back for the armrests and tottered back into the easy chair.  He pulled a lever to clump up the footrest.  “Little woozy with the meds they got me on.”  Kirsten sat in the rocker and held his hand.  A couch was aligned with its back to the dining room and the kitchen beyond, and Jordan sat beside Dad and Su Ellen and was enveloped in her aroma of talcum, pee, and milky barf.

“So how was the trip down?” Granddaddy asked the TV.  “Y’all get out before that ice storm?  They showed it on the weather.”

“Dodged the worst of it.”  Dad lifted his hands from his knees and let them fall.  “Little sleet is all.”

“Well, that’s—.”  The spasm seized Granddaddy’s face again.  He raised his Crimson Tide coffee mug to his lips and peered in, then set it down.

Dad asked what they were going to do about “arrangements,” since they didn’t have a—.  But he did not finish his sentence.

“Seeing as how the government wouldn’t let us come up with the ransom, maybe they’ll let us purchase his REMAINS!” Granddaddy cried.  “You heard, right?  The terrorists are offering to sell us his body.  Maybe they’ll give us a discount on the head.”

Glancing at Jordan, Dad said, “Dad, he doesn’t know how it happened.”

A commercial came on for a man who owned a fleet of red plumbing vans and a herd of cattle and was promising to stand up for Oklahoma values.

Kirsten said, “Can I?” and took the baby from the carrier on Dad’s chest and went back to her rocker.  When Kirsten stood Su Ellen on her knees, Babe-zers made a face like, Pink hair!  As if!  You could see how every little thing amazed her.

Dad took his father’s hand.  Granddaddy glanced at the hand that was holding his, patted it, looked back at the TV.  Dad let go and picked up the remote.  “Mind if we turn that off?”

Granddaddy gestured at the table with a gnarled finger.  “You put that dang thing down.”

“Yes, sir.”

A blond lady with big eyelashes told the news about the USA.  Oklahoma was red and Illinois was blue. So were most other states, boldly the one or the other, excepting a handful that were pinkish and blueish or gray, neither hot nor cold, as if they might be spewed from the mouth of God.  Jordan jiggled his knees.  Dad stopped him with a hand on his thigh.  “I was just telling those reporters how he got up on the roof.”

“I remember that,” Granddaddy said.

Now it was that TUMS commercial where a headless chicken slaps up a man at a barbecue.  Then the man fights back, and the chicken respects this, so they become friends and play volleyball.

The boy went over to peek out the curtains.  Darkness seeped up from the black forms of the journalists and the TV vans and through the veiny trees and across the sky.  Jordan slipped a wooden rod into the sliding glass window to lock it.  Down the street a car stopped and let out three kids, hard to say what, maybe a Zombie, a Princess, and a Batman.  They skimpered up to a double-wide trailer.  Dad patted the seat beside him, and Jordan came back and plopped into the deep of the couch.

“When are we going trick-or-treating?” Jordan said.

Dad shushed him with a look of fury.

On the screen beside the news lady, a photo of Uncle Aaron appeared.  He was wearing a beard and a shirt like the Oklahoma State Cowboys when in fact he’d been a Sooner.  A Ninja was standing beside him with a knife.  “2nd Lt. Aaron Rawls” was printed on the frame.  Across the top of the screen it read, NO MERCY.

“Leave the room!” Dad said.  “Now!”

“Why can’t I watch?”

GET out of here, or I’ll burn that costume in the fireplace.”

The boy fled to the kitchen, squeezing past Mr. Reiersgord, who was watching the TV from the doorway.  Mrs. Reiersgord put mitts on her rubber-banded hands and opened the oven door.  Hammy steam gusted out.  “Stand back, Aar—Jordy.  What am I saying?”  (“Air,” the boy whispered.  He was not air, was not Air Jordans, was also not Aaron.  Plus he hated the name Jordy.)  Over at the sideboard he snitched a finger lick of frosting off the cake.  From the doorway Mr. Reiersgord hollered, “Statement from the White House!”

Jordan sneaked back in with everyone stampeding from the kitchen.  The TV screen was split, showing the news lady and an empty podium with two flags behind it, American and a blue one with stars.  Kirsten vacated the rocker, handed Su Ellen back to Dad, and sat on the floor at Granddaddy’s slippered feet.  People laid hands on Dad and Granddaddy as if for a calling upon of the Holy Ghost.  Rubber-banded hands, as heavy as fat little haunted house gremlins, landed on his shoulders from behind.  Obama came onstage and said, “Good evening, everybody.”  He gestured a fist with his thumb sticking out and said something about Aaron Rawls.  He was mad­­­­.  At Uncle Aaron?  Turned out the president, too, could only imagine.  He said the entire world was appalled, and the people who did this were not Islam.  But we would confront this hateful terrorism and replace it with hope and civility.  When he was done, reporters asked questions.  The president said it would be premature to speculate, but make no mistake.  He walked off, and the air seeped from the lips of the watchers here, as if they’d been expecting something else, though just what, nobody said.

What Jordan was not clear on was, was anybody going to revengence the Tajiks and Ninjas?  But he did not ask, because everyone was crying again except for him.  Granddaddy’s whole face was frozen in his evil mask, his eyes red.  Dad came over and half-crouched to hug Granddaddy, his cheeks shellacked with tears, resting his chin on his father’s bald pate.

Now the TV showed the blond lady at her desk, they’d be right back.  An X-ray of a skeleton danced in high heels.  The watchers began filtering back to the kitchen, and Mrs. Reiersgord’s hands departed from Jordan’s shoulders.  The skeleton flapped its arms and wriggled its hips.  It turned into a lady with gray hair.  She was smiling.

Granddaddy said, “You note how he always tries to explain away the religion.  How stupid does he take us for?”

“Dad, he’s just making the point that not all—”

“So who should we blame, then?  Mormons?”

The front doorbell rang and Jordan cried, “I’ll get it!”  Out on the dark porch were the trick-or-treaters he’d seen earlier, the Zombie and Ballerina and a Darth Maul, it turned out, not Batman, wearing a rubber mask with its red and black devil’s face and baby goat horns.

“Kirsten, we got any candy?” Jordan called.

She palmed her brow.  “Oh, jeez, did we forget candy?”

In the street behind the kids, two dark heads were watching from the car.  Jordan ran to the kitchen and hollered, “We got any candy?”

“Not before dinner,” said Mom.

“Not for me!” Jordan cried in vexation.  “There’s trick-or-treaters!”

But she was talking to the preacher, and she raised a finger.  That’s one!  Jordan checked Aaron’s room, but Grandma was gone.  Upon his return, the living room door was a kidless rectangle of dark.  Anyone could have infiltrated the house.  He shut the door and hung the security chain.

Su Ellen was crying, as purple-faced as Coach Barker after a fumble.  A poopy smell wafted.  “You’re right, Pop,” Dad said in a tone that suggested he did not wish to argue, and he added, “Sorry, we got a situation here.”  He headed for the hallway.  By now, everyone had cleared out of the living room except for the staff sergeant, Jordan, and Granddaddy.

“So who do you think they were, Aaron?” Granddaddy asked Jordan.  “Presbyterians?  Buddhists?  Maybe your grandmother should’ve dressed up for that press conference in orange lama-lama robes instead of that danged headscarf.”

The boy’s skin prickled all over.  “My name’s Jordan, Granddaddy.”

The staff sergeant’s face blanked as the gravity of the error sank in.

“Well, I know that!” Granddaddy said.

“But you said—.”  Jordan bethought himself.  His mother always urged him to do this, to bethink.  “I have to go.”

He was waiting in the hall as his father emerged from the washroom with Su Ellen, who was still crying, though at a lower volume.

Very respectfully the boy said, “Dad, may we please go trick-or-treating now?”

Dad gritted his teeth.  “Jordan, did you not just see what—?”  Then he paused, bethought.  He said more calmly, “I need to be here for Grandma and Granddaddy.  We haven’t even eaten dinner.  Be patient.  What did I say?”

“Seven o’clock.”

Maybe, after seven-thirty, is what I think I said, if there’s an opportunity.  We’ve got plenty of sweets here, anyway.  Did you see those M&M cookies?”

Jordan had.

“Come on, they’re calling us.”

Mr. Reiersgord and several church friends who had been helping prepare dinner had departed, leaving his wife, the preacher, and the staff sergeant as the sole remaining non-relatives.  Mom took Su Ellen off to feed her.  Dinner was ready, but Grandma, Granddaddy, and Aunt Staci were unaccounted for.  Mrs. Reiersgord went to round them up but she returned with Granddaddy alone.  She said, “Charlotte won’t be eating.  Staci’s with her.”  She told Dad, “She’s back in their bedroom, so whenever you all want to move your stuff in—.”

Everyone huddled around Dad and Granddaddy and bowed their heads.  The preacher beseeched Almighty God to come in this time of grief and bless this family.  And bless Aaron, Lord, up there with you, and, and Holy One, thank him for defending our freedom, God, for greater love hath no man than to lay down his life.  This drew “amens” from the crowd.  Everyone loaded up paper plates at the sideboard and sat in the dining room.  Mrs. Reiersgord circled the room, distributing napkins to those who’d forgotten and topping off water, coffee, 7-Up, and Coke.  Finally she plopped down, fanning herself, and said, “Whew!”  Nobody talked much except for murmured requests for the salt or the butter.  Granddaddy broke apart two mini-hot dogs with his knife and fork, eating the crusts separately from the wieners, his face flinching to a mask and then softening.  He cleared his plate and headed to his and Grandma’s bedroom.  Aunt Staci returned in his place.

Jordan nibbled at a drumstick.  Using the green beans as fencing, he created a hog wallow for a farrow of red-speckled corn.  He hoped that this evidence of activity on his plate would substitute for the actual consumption of veggies, but when he said, “May I please be excused?” Mom replied, “Not until you clean up your veggies.”  Dad told her, “Leslie, forget it.  Not tonight.”  On the wall Jordan noticed a clock.  Eight thirty-six!  No, seven thirty-six.  But still.  Dad saw where he was looking and misdirected: “You can play on the iPad,” even though Jordan had already used up his gaming time.

He played Terraria in the kitchen until the clock over the cup rack showed eight-o-six.  He returned to the dining room and stalked around the table twice, then whispered in his father’s obscene earhole, “May we please go trick-or-treating?” drawing an eyeball rebuke.

A strategic withdrawal was required.  The boy retreated to Dad and Uncle Aaron’s old room, cutting a cake-slice of light in the darkness as he opened the door.  Should he enter?  He should.  He closed the door but for a crack.  Maybe he’d hide here until the grownups noticed he was gone and panicked, thinking he’d been kidnapped.  Couldn’t you have taken the child trick-or-treating?  That was all he wanted, and we had to make him feel bad about it.  As Jordan’s eyes adjusted, they took in the shadowy figures of the toy cavalry and Indians on the bookshelf.  Had Aaron worried about Mormon Islams as a kid?  A Sioux warrior’s arrow poisoned with horridness shot through his chest.

ACCEPT PAIN, INFLICT VICTORY: this was his football coach’s motto.  It was on the team T-shirt.  But “accept” sounded wrong, because pain came barreling in, accept it or not, like an illegal clip from behind that took you down.  What about fear?  Should you accept it, or was it better to resist?  And how did you uninflict fear when it flicked you?  Jordan closed the door the rest of the way and was enveloped in darkness.  Was he afraid?

No.  Yes.

The glow beneath the door starkly planed across the carpet shag.  As his eyes adjusted, he scowled in the mirrored closet door, but the effect was comical.  No tears came, just silly-putty terror.

Only the Evil Gesture could scare off the Ninjas.

The boy pulled his costume from his backpack.  He put it on over his clothes, the sleeves and pant legs bunching up uncomfortably.  Without the cackling skull mask, he was just a plain old kid, fattened by the extra layer of clothes.  Did he dare put on the mask?

He did.

Evil Lord Gesture darkly surveilled himself in the mirror.  The transformation encouraged him.  Ninjas would panic at the sight of his cackling skull face.  And poop in their pants!

Pardon our stinkiness, Lord Gesture, they’d say.  We bow to your submission.

Verily, thou shalt die anyhow, says the Gesture.  In revengence for Uncle Aaron.

NOOOOOOOOOO, we don’t wanna die!

The Evil Gesture revenges the Ninjas with his diamond Minecraft sword.  And they poof into clouds of vile black dust.

The Gesture reached his dread hands for the tin soldiers.  Which one would be the bad guy?  Custer, of course.  Jordan felt around in the dark to figure out which toy was which.  The Indian with the tomahawk toddled over and hacked at Custer’s neck.  Yah!  De-headed.  (“De-headed,” he whispered in his mask.)  Custer’s body fell over and died.  With his fingers the boy tried to break Custer’s head off, pressuring it this way and that, but the solid metal would not budge.

Something moved on the bed and Jordan nearly peed his pants.  A dark form lay there, staring at him.  Grandma.  He yanked his mask off, taking with it his hat.  Hadn’t Mrs. Reiersgord said she’d gone back to their room?

Grandma said, “What’re you supposed to be?”

Jordan told her.  (“Gesture,” he repeated in a whisper.)

“An Evil Jester?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“What happened to the one you wore last year?”

This puzzled him, because they had not been here last Halloween.  Maybe Mom had sent photos of him in his Spider-Man costume.  “I outgrew it.”

“Oh, come on.  I could have altered it.”

Jordan did not know what to say.

“Nothing scares you,” Grandma said.

“What?”

“Boys,” she told him.  “That’s your downfall.  Right off the top of the semi.”

Jordan eased toward the door.  “Want me to get Granddaddy?”

When no answer came, he left, shutting the door behind him.

Back in the kitchen, the boy hid the mask behind the refrigerator.  He left the lights off.  (“Downfall,” he said.)  In his array of costume, he evilly manifested himself at the counter, within sight of Dad at the dining room table.  But Dad was looking the other way, at Aunt Staci, as she told about the time a couple years back when Aaron met up with Uncle Dave, who was passing through Kyrgyzstan on his way to Afghanistan.  At a roadside market two Kyrgyz women got in a fight, pulling hair and knocking over a watermelon cart.  Aaron tried to separate them, so they started punching him and whacking him with bunches of carrots.  Aunt Staci wiped her eyes and said Aaron laughed very hard about that and loved to tell the story afterwards.  Kind of like Afghanistan and Iraq, he said.  Turns out they’d rather be let alone to fight each other, didn’t want to be rescued by us.

Jordan’s eyes returned to the iPad, but all he did was whirl it on the smooth countertop.  Twirl, thwup, whup, whup.

The kitchen light flipped on.  Jordan did not look up.

Dad said, “How come you’re sitting here in the dark?”

Twirl, thwup, whup, whup.

“Trying to make your mean, old father feel guilty for not taking you trick-or—?”

Thwup, whup, whup.

“I’m sorry, I just find it hard to believe that you don’t care what happened to your uncle.  This horrible, horrible—.  And yet you—.”

Twirl.

“The old silent treatment.”

Thwup, whup, whup.

Dad said, “They cut his head off, Jordan.”

He looked sickened at his own words, as if he wanted to take them back.  A horrid feeling pierced Jordan, the poison arrow, and his skin prickled.

“I know,” he said.

“I shouldn’t’ve told—.  You know?  How?”

Jordan interrupted, “I never said you were mean.”

“All right.  All right.  Get your mask.”

Jordan reached behind the fridge for the cackling skull face.  It was bearded with greasy dust.  Dad brushed it off over the trash can and washed it in the sink.

“How come you stuck it back there?”

“You said Grandma and Granddaddy shouldn’t see it.”

Dad considered this.  He dried the mask with paper towels.

They slipped out the back door and cut through the neighbor’s yard to Third Street, where Granddaddy had parked so he could come and go without encountering reporters.  Granddaddy had told them that there was a “Trunk-or-Treat” at the church, where the grownups dressed in costumes and distributed candy from their cars.  (“Trunk,” Jordan breathed.)  Youth group buses came from forty miles around.  This one doctor, he always went as Frankenstein’s Monster.  That’s where they headed, the Free Will Baptist Church, Dad up front, Jordan in back.

Thus it was always so with grownups, the Evil One thought as he buckled the seatbelt around his coat-fattened tummy.

But the tables would be turned in the Trunk-or-Treat, when he manifested himself in his dark power, scaring everyone pantsless.

Dr. Frankenstein, look! Ninjas would cry.  The Evil Gesture is here!

Impossible! Frankenstein answered.  He lives in Chicago.

It’s true, Mine Hair!  Run!  He’ll poof us into dust devils of black powder.

There can be no outrunning our doom.

But when they got to the Free Will Baptist Church, the lights were out and the parking lot was empty.  No cars, no Trunk-or-Treat, no Doctor Frankenstein.  Both Chicago Rawlses, father and son, peeked in the dark windows of the Fellowship Hall, where three headless half-men hung from a wheeled coat rack.  “Nichts,” Dad said.  Granddaddy had told them the Methodists and the Mission Outreach Full Gospel Church had started copycat Trunk-or-Treats, and Dad circled by, but they, too, were abandoned.

“Jeez, it’s barely eight-thirty,” Dad said.  “I can’t believe they roll up the sidewalks so early.”

Jordan took off his mask.  The skin of his under-face was cold.  “I told you!” he said.  “We waited too long, and we missed Halloween!”  And although he tried not to, in his unworthiest act in a day of unworthiness, he started to weep, not for his uncle, or for deheadings and incivility and Ninjas, but for the candy he was missing out on.  He was embarrassed by his own greed and childishness, but he could not hold back his tears.  “I thought Halloween would be fun, but it’s not.  That doesn’t mean I don’t care about Uncle Aaron.  You think I don’t, but I do.”  (“But I do.”)

Dad did not scoff, as he did when Jordan cried in football, or lose his temper and shout, as he was known to do, but slumped a little at the wheel.  “Look, Aaron.  Jordan!  Jeez, my brain.”  He reached back and, his cold, hairy hand groped blindly to clasp Jordan’s.  Presently Dad withdrew the boom of his arm and wiped his eyes.  He found a pair of gloves in his coat pocket and inhabited them with his hands.  “Why don’t we—?” he said.  “Your Aunt Staci and me, we used to take Uncle Aaron out.  And—.”  He shook his head at some memory.

“And what?”

“And there weren’t Trunk-or-Treats back then.  We’d go house-to-house, like in Chicago.  Aaron, this one year, he—.”  Dad snuffed out a double-barreled burst of air.  “Come on, sir, we’ll find you some candy.  Come on up front.”

“But I’m not supposed to.”

“It’s Halloween.  We’ll defy the law.”

He could see better up by Dad.  Most houses were dark, and almost no trick-or-treaters were circulating.  When Dad found a promising site (decorated, porch light on), Jordan hesitated.

“Go on, Ace.”

“Will you go with me?”

“Jordan!”  Dad indicated the house with his thumb like an umpire calling an out.

The boy dried the cold, wet mask on his knee and put it back on his face.  Re-Eviled, Re-Gestured, he ran to the front door and rang the bell, ready to flee if any criminals sprang out.  He counted to five, then ran back to the pickup.

Over the next twenty minutes, Jordan accumulated only eight pieces of candy and a toothbrush from a lady who said she was a dentist.  Back in Chicago, you got half a pillowcase of candy on Halloween.  Several homeowners said they’d run out, he should’ve come earlier.

Eventually they stopped at a stucco house with lighted windows and a front-porch banner of the Holy Ghost descending as a dove.  Jordan ran up, rang the bell, and raced back to the car, ding-dong-ditch.  As he was getting in, Dad said, “Hey, you didn’t wait long enough.”  A Jabba the Hut lookalike stood backlighted in the door.  “Look, it’s Mr. Reiersgord.  Go on.”  The Gesture evilly returned to the porch and presented his flimsy Walmart bag.  Reiersgord’s bearded jowls blubbed over the collar of his orange Cowboys jersey.  Could that rubbery face be a mask, hiding a fatso monster?

“We don’t have any candy,” he said, “but I got something even sweeter.”

He offered a postcard from a stack in his hand.  On a background of candy corns were two illustrations:

Jesus, with a lamb draped around his neck (right)
A cackling Devil with a face like the Evil Gesture’s (left)

For those who couldn’t figure which was which, the images were labeled JESUS and SATAN.

A message read:

DON’T BE TRICKED
Celebrating Halloween
It’s the DEVIL’S Day!!!
Whom Shall Ye Serve?
SATAN, Prince of Darkness?
Or JESUS, Lord of Life?
God’s Love:
It’s the Sweetest Treat of All!!
—Reiersgord’s Ice Cream Parlor

Jordan turned the postcard over.  On the back was printed: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life!!!”  Along the bottom, the card advised: “Bring this card in to Reiersgord’s Ice Cream Parlor at 436 E. Grange Avenue and recite John 3:16 for a FREE single-scoop ice cream cone of any flavor (except licorice)!!!  Limit one per customer.”

Mr. Reiersgord asked, “You given your life to Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, young man?”

“Yes, sir.”

The wrinkling of Reiersgord’s brow indicated he was not altogether persuaded.  “Then you ought to know not to wear an evil costume like that.”

Jordan dropped the card in his bag.  Reiersgord’s eyes followed the motion of the boy’s hand.  “Pretty meager haul,” he said, not without sympathy.  He was an ice cream man, after all.

“We missed the Trunk-or-Treat,” the Evil Gesture said.

(“Trunk,” a boy’s lips whispered within the mask.)

“’Course you did, heading out at nine o’clock at night, practically.  Don’t tell me you’re the Rawls boy?  Jordy, is it?”

“Jordan, sir.”

“Well, why didn’t you say so?  Show me your face.  Should’ve known you were a Rawls just by the stance.  Your grandma’s right: spittin’ image of your uncle at that age.  Now, you ask yourself if you’re one hundred percent sure that if you’re run over by a cement truck while you’re out trick-or-treating tonight, you’ll wake up in the arms of the Lord.”

“Yes, sir, I am.”

“I’d like to believe that.  Same for your brother.  Would like that reassurance.  Your uncle, I mean.  Because I remember him.”  He shook his head.  “You know, we had a boy, Mrs. Reiersgord and me, but he went to be with the Lord.  April the twelfth, 1992.  We have that faith, we do earnestly contend.  Whereas Aaron—”

Dad honked the horn, and Mr. Reiersgord waved.  He eyed the Walmart bag.  His plump fingers rummaged in his pockets and came up with a dollar coin, a paperclip, a matchbook, and an unopened roll of TUMS.  “Tell you what, I can offer you a dollar or the TUMS.  Taste like candy, and they work pretty good if you got acid reflux, which I don’t know if you do.  I’m not offering the matches, you’ll burn the house down.  So what’ll it be?”

“The TUMS,” Jordan said.

“TUMS it is, but you ask your folks before you try them.”

“Yes, sir.”

§

That night Mom and Dad tucked Jordan into Aaron’s old bed, and they made up an air mattress on the floor for themselves.  (For now Su Ellen was sleeping in Aunt Staci’s room, near the living room, so the grownups could hear her cry from the living room.  She’d be moved later on.)  They kissed him before slipping out and closing the door most of the way.  But just as Jordan began following the children carrying shovels and a Styrofoam headstone to bury their dead guinea pig, the bedroom door cracked open, tipping him out of the drift-boat of sleep.

A black figure entered.  Grandma.  “Scoot.”  She lay down beside him, Fixodent breath in his ear.

“Ma’am, I got you something.”  Jordan reached across her and felt for the TUMS on the bedside table.  “For your stomach.  Mr. Reiersgord gave them to me.”

Grandma clutched them but did not open them.

“Is Uncle Aaron in heaven?” Jordan said.

“I don’t understand.  What do you mean?”  Grandma sat up on her elbow and pinned him to the mattress.  He was afraid to answer.  She turned on a lamp and began opening and closing the desk drawers.  “I got all your letters.”

Jordan’s skin prickled.  The gospel postcard on the desk drew Grandma’s attention.

“It’s from Mr. Reiersgord,” Jordan said.

“How come he thought you’d need this?”

“I don’t know.”

“Why, he was there the day you went forward in church.  Every day you were gone, we reassured ourselves thinking of that.”

After sorting in every drawer in the desk, she gave up, wringing her hands.  “I’ll look tomorrow.  I can’t seem to find—.”  She hunched forward and rocked, face in her hands.  Finally, she turned out the light and lay back down on the bed.  “Not that there weren’t moments of backsliding.  That Halloween, Daddy laid down the law, but it was M-80s and tipping cows just the same.  And when Deputy Wurth brought you home in handcuffs!  That window cost us three-hundred fifty dollars.  Lucky thing we knew him, or your so-called celebrating would have landed you in juvenile hall.”

(“Celebrating,” the boy whispered.)

Grandma heard.

“That’s what you called it, you and that Anoatubby boy.  Deputy Wurth called it vandalism, pure and simple.”

The door opened, and orangish light flooded in as if from a spaceport, and within this bright rectangle appeared two silhouettes like Ninjas.  They took Grandma’s hands and helped her up.

“Ma, it’s his bedtime,” Dad said.  “Come on, you can talk in the morning.”

“Charlotte,” said Granddaddy, “let Jordy be.”

“Jordy?” she cried.  “What about Aaron?”

“Aaron’s gone,” Granddaddy told her.

Dad quickly assured, “He’s perfect.  No more tears, no more pain.  We just—.  Come on, Mom, Jordan needs—”

“Gone where?” Grandma said.

“Shh.  Come on this way.”

Dad and Granddaddy led her out, each holding a hand.  The door closed on Jordan.

(“Celebrating,” the boy told the dark.)

—Russell Working

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Russell Working is the Pushcart Prize-winning author of two collections of short fiction: Resurrectionists, which won the Iowa Short Fiction Award, and The Irish Martyr, winner of the University of Notre Dame’s Sullivan Award. His stories and humor have appeared in publications including The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, TriQuarterly Review, Narrative, and Zoetrope: All-Story.  A writer living in Oak Park, Ill., he spent five years as a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. His byline has appeared in the New York Times, Business Week, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, the South China Morning Post, the Japan Times, and dozens of other newspapers and magazines around the world.

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Apr 012017
 

Tatiana Ryckman

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1

When I saw you again it was suddenly and exactly as I feared or hoped, which is to say it was exactly the same.

You walked into the room you’d walked in the year before and we sat close pretending we always sit close, and we went to dinner with mutual friends pretending we always go to dinner with mutual friends, and our friends tried to pretend I would not be going home with you until it became ridiculous.

2

At the holiday party the entire city’s enthusiasm kept coming between us. I was just waiting for everyone to leave.  I didn’t care that the year was dying, I didn’t worry that I was leaving anything behind.

3

Because all of my grand gestures were neurons train hopping on thoughts of you, you couldn’t see them from the other side of my skull or country.

And I didn’t blame you because no one is a mind reader, I hear.

And we all get busy.

And you got very busy.

4

It became hard not to imagine, in heartbreaking detail, that busy was somebody who moved you from one all-consuming task to the next. From the bed to the floor. From the specific taste of their body to the books they inspired you to write.

Soon, between the flights I took in my mind to your room and the ways I held you in my mouth and the monuments you built to our hours together in your living room, there was this someone else, who would occasionally step out of my own fantasies of you to remind me how far away I really was.

During long periods of silence I convinced myself that nothing had transpired between us. That my willingness to undo my life at your feet was ordinary.

5

What we were calling “inevitable” turned out to be debilitating sadness.

Alone in bed I’d say, “I’m dying” over and over again. But nothing happened. My cells regenerated at the same rate. I refreshed my empty email inbox. I was dying while making breakfast and that turned into dying while washing dishes which turned into dying in the shower and then dying in the bed again and then later, over a glass of juice. I was dying on the floor. I was dying while listening to sad music on headphones. I was dying while looking at personal ads on Craigslist. I was dying while watching videos of sleepy kittens on youtube. I was dying while watching two women taste each other on a different website with a similar name. I was dying while making popcorn for dinner and sending smiley face text messages to friends and Liking things on Facebook. I was dying while looking at the ceiling and then the wall and back at the ceiling again. I was dying and wishing I would just die.

No one could see it, but I was very busy. I was dying all the time.

6

I couldn’t help but notice that you were probably not in love.

Not with me, anyway. Which is not to say I would have promised I was. Not yet, anyway.

But I was noticing both the lack of you and the prevalence of mosquitoes in the yard and it felt like being alone at a party. Like watching my phone as if I had friends on the way. But I was just pretending to nature that you’d show up.

—Tatiana Ryckman

x

Tatiana Ryckman was born in Cleveland, Ohio. She is the author of two chapbooks of prose, Twenty-Something and VHS and Why it’s Hard to Live. These linked vignettes are an excerpt from  I Don’t Think of You (Until I Do), a novella forthcoming from Future Tense Books.

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Mar 132017
 

ben-slotky

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A Wave, a Wash

You are in a meeting. People are saying things. In the meeting and online.

In Atlanta, in Dallas. Where you are.

Somebody says, “Accessibilty has a rough measure of initial page and one flip scroll.”

Somebody says, “If I am a mobile customer, I have mobile concerns.”

This seems to make sense, you think.

There is something there, you think. You think about saying something, something about this, but you don’t know who you’d say it to.

Everybody is saying something. Crisp words, one after the other. Cool and clean.

Assertive, you are thinking.

Assured, you are thinking. Like a small, tight smile.

Context and usage and great feedback.

You are not saying anything.

There are standards, you are learning.

Necessary content and functionality for a task.

Core tenets for a mobile-first design.

Shared across device type. It needs to serve a purpose, whatever this is, that is, this is what these crisp, assured words are saying. You like this, the hum and the buzz. All of those words bouncing around. This is good, you think. You think you nod. Things need to serve purposes. This means two things, you think in the middle of all of these bouncing words, in the middle of Atlanta and Dallas. In the middle of where you are. One is that there are things. This is good to know. We all seem to be agreeing on this, even though no one is saying that, even though none of these crisp, cool words are saying that.

We agree that there are things.

You smile at this, you think.

Another thing this means is that things need to serve purposes.

A thing does a thing.

We can identify this.

We can establish methods of flow.

Flow, content wording, prioritize critical information, establish a model and keep it. These are precepts, they are tenets. Processes, forms. You are not paying attention. It doesn’t matter. There is too much, a wave, a wash, and it is over, over, and you are gone.

.

As the pattern gets more intricate and subtle, being swept along is no longer enough. Somebody said that once. I don’t know if that’s true. Maybe it is. I’m not the kind of person to answer that question, never have been. It’s cold and I don’t have time for this. With my scaly claws, I hike up the collar of my tan trench coat. I’m a crocodile, and it’s freezing.

.

And slowly pan up and silhouette and up and moon and night, and that right there is the opening scene of Crocodile Detective, a book or movie you will never write. You think about Crocodile Detective a lot, but not as much as you used to. You are out of your meeting. Out of those words.

This is where you are.

You are walking through the tunnel between buildings thinking about a crocodile detective. You are underground. Lights are in walls. You are tracing a pattern in the carpet; you are on the right side. It is a concourse. In another book you wrote, this where you would write something like “you know how you’re sometimes thinking about how you’ll never write a book or movie about a crocodile detective? How sometimes that haunts you?” That would be part of it; you would think that was funny. This is where this is; this is where you are. In a tunnel, lights in walls, dripping with significance, thinking about a character from a book you haven’t written, a book you’ll never write. This is interesting, you think. Remember this, you think, as you head into your next meeting.

§

A Small, Halting Noise

In the atrium on H1, there is a 3D printer. It’s shooting lines of glue, Ron says. Ron has a parrot named Sinbad. Ron can ride a unicycle. That’s how it works, Ron tells you, pushing up his glasses. It’s not hard.

Ron is glad to talk. His shirt is purple and tucked into his jeans. His tennis shoes are white. New Balance. There is a guy you call Ron’s Fat Nephew. You usually see him on M3. He looks like Ron, except younger and fatter. You told your team about that once. Everybody laughed. You’re thinking this while Ron doesn’t blink or budge. Ron doesn’t move. He’s waiting to explain this. It’s not that hard. You can see yourself in his glasses. This what you’re doing, in Ron’s glasses and in real life.

You watched The Friends of Eddie Coyle last night. Robert Mitchum, 1973. You think about how you are now a person who can say that. You can ask somebody if they’ve seen The Friends of Eddie Coyle and if they pause, you can go Robert Mitchum, 1973.

As if to clarify, as if to explain.

You never saw that coming. You are also the kind of person who can say, “I’m going to stop you right there,” in a conversation. That is a line from a book you will never write, you think about saying to Ron’s glasses but don’t.

You read the book before you saw the movie. You didn’t know there was a movie until you were looking for movies to watch. Now when you can’t sleep, you watch movies. Before when you couldn’t sleep, you wrote. You are watching movies now. Your friend gave you illegal screeners to watch. He used to be a nurse. His brother died of a heart attack. You didn’t know he had a brother until he told you that he died.

You may watch The French Connection. You are thinking about a scene in Dial M for Murder where the detective pulls out a mustache comb and starts combing his mustache. That’s the last scene of the movie. A guy combing his mustache. You feel like asking Ron’s glasses something about this, but don’t know what to ask.

It’s adding things up, Ron is saying now. Ron is pushing up his glasses again and you lose sight of yourself for a second. You are gone and then you are back.  He’s explaining things. He leans forward. You can see yourself again. You wonder if you look horrified. You can’t tell. Ron is explaining 3D printing to you. It’s something about the accumulation of layers, the layering upon layering. A 3D printer shoots lines of glue. It adds up, it does. A thing on a thing on a thing. Rows and rows. An accumulation of layers. You make a small, halting noise. You tell Ron you’ll see him later and you head to your 1 o’clock.

§

Ope and Whoop

You are thinking scenes, you are thinking rich inner life. Yesterday the escalator stopped. This was between M and H; this was yesterday. Stopped, and people stumbling, no one hurt, thank goodness.

You heard sounds.

You heard ope and whoop. Not the ope and whoops you usually hear, not the ope and whoops you and everybody else says when you about run into each other.

.

Everybody says ope and whoop; everybody’s always about to run into each other.

.

You have stopped saying ope and whoop. This is something you’ve decided, a conscious decision.

Action, reaction.

Cause, effect.

If this, then that.

There was no reason you said this; you don’t know why you started. You all of a sudden just said ope and whoop when you about ran into somebody. This could be a thing, you thought, a clue to a mystery you’re not sure you believe exists even though it got harder and harder not to.

You said ope, you said whoop. You did and you didn’t.

Accepted, ignored, until one day, and you don’t know what day it was, but you do know it was between K3 and L3, by one of the video labs, right at that corner, the one with the sign about the viruses and disks, that you heard one, two, three people say ope and whoop. Three different people did, right in a row, right as they were about to run into each other.

You thought enough.

Not big, not loud.

No proclamations, no declarations.

A decision. Small and deliberate.

You are thinking that now. You are thinking that now, then, by the sign. You are thinking that in the middle of the ope and whoop.

.

One day you saw a redheaded man walking by eating chicken fingers. He was busy, he looked busy. He was walking to something or from something. Hands grabbing chicken fingers. Red hair on head. Later that day, in another building, you saw another redheaded man, a different redheaded man. He was eating chicken fingers, too.

What are the odds, you thought.

What is the math, you thought, because there was a math out there that discussed this, that covered this. You are sure of it. There is always a math, always an algorithm. Connecting and intersecting. Bouncing and colliding. There is a music, there is a math. It is measurable and it is determinable. For all of this. It is a question of whether it’s been discovered yet.

.

You are thinking how it feels sometimes like you are remembering something great that you just forgot. It feels like this sometimes, like you are remembering a time where you thought of something great and then immediately forgot it. You are thinking it feels like that, right now, and you pass Janet Earth. You wonder if your locker is in this hallway. It could be. This is your building. You have always been in this building, the whole time you’ve been here. People would say where do you live? You have always lived on M.

.

This is what people at work said when they wanted to know where you sat, which building, which floor. This meant that, or we thought it did. Maybe it didn’t mean that anymore, maybe it always meant something else, when they said where do you live. When you meet people here, you say what do you do. They would tell you and then you would say where do you live. This was the second thing. What you meant was where do you do that. The thing you just described, where does that occur. You are thinking how this is the second thing you say to everyone, to people, while you are thinking about how you have always lived on M. Maybe your locker is here. You have a key on your key ring for your locker. You have had it for 6 years, this key. It has been here the whole time.

.

There was a fat woman crying outside of the H cafeteria. You saw her when you walked in. She was by herself. She was sitting on a bench, crying. Her head in her hands, her knees pressed together, crying. People walked by her from all sides. There was sun everywhere. People walked by her, talking. To each other, on their phones. Talking about meetings and plans and whatever it was that people talked about when other people sat and cried which, when you think about it, could be almost anything. There’s no limit, you thought as you walked passed the people talking and the woman crying, to what they could be saying. It could be almost anything.

When you come out of lunch she is still there, still crying, still sitting. People are still walking by, but not as many. Lunch is almost over. You wonder if she is there. There are a lot of ghosts here, you think. You may be one of them. You think about the car accident. You wonder if you are dead, if you have been dead this whole time. You smile when you think this, kind of and not really. You think about the baby that has died and the other baby that has died. You think of the baby from that show Baby in a Cowboy Hat and how that baby will die. You walk away thinking about how all the babies, all of them, will someday die, which is a sad thing to think, you think, so you don’t think about it anymore.

§

Shrimp and Whales

You are intimidated by history. It is too much, you think, to be around all of this history. This majesty, this glory.

Places with significance, you think.

Resonance, you think, grandeur.

It is too much, the weight of it is. The weight of possibility.

It is better to be here, you think. In the middle, surrounded and ensconced. Flatness and horizon.

Rote and memory.

You hide in the anonymity, in the ubiquity. This is everywhere, this is everything, and you are walking, walking. There are places you need to be, spaces that need filling. If you are not there, there is nothing there. There would be nothing without you, without any of you, without all of you, you think, and you know how this sounds. People have to be places for there to be places to be, you think, and you know that’s wrong. You scratch your head or make a face that looks like you’re about to scratch your head. You are in a hallway. This is what people would see if they saw you, that would be your face. This got away from you, you think, the way things do. If you catch just parts of it, you think. Glimpses of it as it goes by. Hurtling and fleeting. You can make out bits, you can make out pieces. All of it could add up.

And maybe, you think.

And somehow, you think.

A thing you think people should know is this. A blue whale can eat up to 9,000 pounds of krill every day. This is a fact. Verifiable. This is a monstrous, wonderful, outrageous fact. This is where you are, where we are. We are where monsters swim the seas. Monsters that eat tons upon tons of tiny shrimp. There are monsters, you think, and we all know there are. You can say a thing like a blue whale can eat up to 9,000 pounds of krill every day and people will accept it. Calmly. Fully. They accept it because it is true. It being true makes people not question it, how wonderful and strange it is. If you say this to people, about the blue whale and the krill, people will nod. They will say wow or whoa. If you almost ran into them, they’d say ope and whoop. You imagine almost running into somebody and then telling them about the blue whale and the krill. They would say ope, whoop, wow, whoa. Those would be the sounds they make if that happened, you bet, and you think about trying that out. An experiment, you think. A trick.

One time you were walking down the hall with Jordan. There were two women in front of you. One tall, one shorter. Indeterminate. One says to the other, “I really need to start eating more shrimp.” She has a pained look on her face. This has been troubling her. She has been thinking about this, her face says, about how she needs to start eating more shrimp. She is pained by it, troubled by her lack of shrimp-eating. The other one, the taller or the shorter one, doesn’t matter, looks at the other one as she’s saying this. She has a pained look on her face, too. She is nodding. Slightly and imperceptibly. A series of small nods as she walks, looking at the other woman’s face. There is empathy, there is understanding. She knows the other woman really needs to start eating more shrimp. This has been troubling her, she is glad the other woman said this. Finally, she thinks, and you can’t tell what any of this means.

Did you see that, you ask Jordan. Did you see that just there.

—Ben Slotky

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Ben Slotky’s first novel, Red Hot Dogs, White Gravy was published by Chiasmus in 2010 and was re-released by Widow & Orphan in 2017. He recently completed his second novel,  An Evening of Romantic Lovemaking, a fictional autobiography told in the form of a stand-up comedy routine. His work has appeared in The Santa Monica Review, Golden Handcuffs ReviewMcSweeney’s, HobartJuked, and many other publications. These selections are from his new novel, A Wave, A Wash. He lives in Bloomington, IL with his wife and six sons.

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Mar 122017
 

This section of The Long Dry provides a wonderful snapshot of the novel as a whole. Here we can spot the tense-yet-loving dynamic in Gareth and Kate’s marriage; we sense the interminable hardship and danger of farm life itself; and we get a glimpse of the book’s central plot point: the cow that has gone missing at the height of a drought. Perhaps most importantly, we also get a snippet of Jones’ lean, spare prose — the signature quality of this fine book. — Mark Sampson

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The Finger

Inside she sets the table. The knives and forks and plates in piles on the vinyl cloth. She starts to read her catalog of supplements, things she hopes will stop her aging, help her hold less water, help her be less tired, and make her want sex more. For her age, she is a very beautiful woman, but she does not see it. It is beginning to go from her. She knows it.

He comes in, scraping his feet on the metal grill outside the back door, not because he needs to, but from habit. Or perhaps it is his announcement—a signal they have always had but never spoken of. They had many of these when they were younger.

She rinses the cafetière and warms the cup with water from the kettle, which she’s boiled several times while she has waited for him. She does not make the coffee. Some things she mustn’t do. She’s threatened by the coffee, about how strong to make it, how it tastes when it is made. He makes coffee every day, just for himself as no one else drinks it. He makes a strong potful of coffee at this time of the morning and it does him for the day, warming up the cupfuls in a pan as they are needed, which makes them stronger as the day goes on. No one else touches the pan. She says it’s why he does not sleep. His first coffee each morning is the remnants of the night before because he does not want to wake the house grinding the beans, and the children sleep above the thin ceiling of the kitchen.

He sits at the table with a loose fist and runs his thumb over the first joint of his forefinger in the way he has, so it makes a quiet purring sound, like rubbing leather.

“What about the dosing?”

“It’ll have to wait,” he says.

He rubs his finger. He does this always at the table, talking or reading a paper, even with the handle of a cup held there, so that this part of his finger is smooth and shines. Whenever he’s at rest.

“I don’t know,” he says. “I’ve checked the obvious places and she’s not there. She’s got her head down and gone.”

He does not tell her about the stillborn calf.

“It’s typical. It has to be today,” she says. “I should have gotten up to check.”

“She would have gone anyway,” he says quietly.

He looks down at the missing part of his little finger on his right hand and makes the sound against his thumb again. She still blames herself for this damage to him. He was trying to free the bailer from the new tractor and she had done something and the catch had just bit down. He takes a mouthful of coffee. It was a clean cut and it healed well and he could have lost his hand instead. That’s how he looks at it. In some ways he loves it.

She burned the toast, so he goes quietly over and makes some more while she tries to rescue the wrecked slices.

“The vet phoned about Curly,” she says.

“Oh.”

“He wants to come today.”

He knows the vet will put the old dog down. Not today, he thinks. It’s a hard thing to have happen today, if he has
to find the cow too.

“You should have some breakfast,” he says to her. It’s odd how seriously we take the silly names of animals.

The door latch snaps and Emmy comes in still dressed in her pajamas and with her blanket tucked in her hand, thumb in her mouth. She shuffles over to the old settle and curls up with her green-and-purple zebra. She would come down when she heard her parents talking in the kitchen below in the morning.

“Hello, sweetie,” says her mother.

She shines her eyes up at her mother, looks to her father quickly, shyly. Something secret passes between them and she smiles and settles. They stop talking of the cow.

He sits there rubbing his finger and looking at the stump of his little finger fondly.

“It’s going to be hot again today,” he says.

—Cynan Jones

“The Finger” is excerpted by permission from The Long Dry (Granta Books and Parthian Books, 2014; Coffee House Press, 2017). Copyright © 2014 by Cynan Jones.

N5

Cynan Jones is the author of six novels, including The Dig, Everything I Found on the Beach, and Bird, Blood, Snow. He lives in Wales

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Mar 102017
 

James Joyce & Sean Preston

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I’d love to be able to sing, or play piano. Can you imagine how obnoxious I’d be if I had a tangible talent?” he said to her, as though a more discreet gift bubbled beneath his surface.

The pair crossed the road. He did that thing where he blocked her way with his arm, intending to lift this arm barrier when an opportunity to cross the road arose. She did that thing where she stepped through his arm barrier a second earlier than he would lift it, indicating that she did not need his help crossing the road. He didn’t mean to condescend, not that he cared if he did, but it was not his intention. He found crossing the road challenging. There were several near misses in his youth; he worried that they would die crossing the road.

She had her habits. One of them was buying cheap furniture from places that were so fucking far away, by the time you paid for travel to the ungodly zones of south-west London, you hadn’t really saved much money at all.

This habit is why the pair stood outside a house in an area of London that they had never been to before. She looked around, the air smelt unseasonably fresh, wet with Autumn. A tree that stood in the front garden had been chopped to a stump. Somewhere in her that made her feel glum. Still, it was a beautiful house, and beautiful houses encouraged something close to hope, she had found.

“Wouldn’t you like to live around here?” she asked.

“Why? So we can travel all the way to north-east London to get cheap furniture?”

“Stop moaning. Always moaning. I’m paying for it,”

“It’s not the paying for it. I’d happily pay for it and stay at home and let you carry a chair all the way home.” He said, before a satisfyingly timely sneeze shook his world. “Ugggghhh. Fucking cold; fucking eBay.”

“How long have you been ill for?”

“Dunno. Just sort of came over me today… like a…”

“Don’t do the like thing.”

“Came…. Over… Me… like…”

This habit is the habit of trying to be funny. It is a noble pursuit. Whatever simile he came up with would be irrelevant. He believed the real humour to be derived from trying to be funny was not any resulting wit, but the actual pursuit of humour itself.

*

Armchair collected, the pair emerged from the house, the chair arched on his back.  She would pirouette down the garden path, thanking the woman who had sold the chair, smiling wide, complimenting the beautiful garden, saying goodbye, wishing well, assuring the seller that they were OK to carry the acquisition.

Once outside, alone, they stopped to work it all out. They hadn’t thought this far ahead. She took the front legs of the chair – a thick oak frame with the promise of reclineability, and he cupped the back legs with his hands, bearing most of the weight. It wasn’t working. It was awkward. He just wanted to do it his way, to carry it on his own. But more than that he wanted to complain.

“This is much bigger than you said it would be.”

“Well, she was standing next to it in the picture so it looked little. I didn’t expect her to be that sort of bigness.”

He laughed at that. Her lazy TV parlance threw up some excellent descriptions from time to time.

“Yeah. She was a sort of a weird bigness though. Mainly big below the waist. Like a Weeble.”

She nodded in agreement, smirking politely.

“Like Mrs Doubtfire when she messes up the costume change in that restaurant bit.”

“Or one of those children’s’ drawing where you fold the paper and draw the next compartment…”

“Yes, yes… like some kid drew it and she came to life, “ he added. “Y’know, I once broke up with a girl in infants by writing: ‘You’re dumped’ on the t-shirt of the middle torso bit.”

“You’ve told me.” A habit of his was to recall occasions in which he had outsmarted or bettered romantic interests in his life.

“I bet you used to draw a Papa Roach t-shirt or something shit like that.” He said, hurt, before dropping the chair on one side, sending the leg into his thigh.

“FUCK. Fuck, fuck, fuck. For fuck’s sake.” He put the chair down and continued the display of anguish. “It’s not working. Let me carry it on my own. You’re too low bodied.”

“You’re holding it too high.”

“If I hold it lower I’m bending my back like a fucking tramp.’

It was her time to perform now. She displayed doubt; reservation at the analogy.

He picked up the chair, hoisted it on his back. “Tramps bend.”

“Are you just thinking of Fagin? Because he’s not really a tramp.”

“Of course he is, he wears fingerless gloves.” He stepped down from the pavement to avoid an oncoming family that, to his utter dismay, had not single-filed. “Ahhh, this fucking thing. I’m not well enough for this.”

“I’ll give you a blow-job when you get home.”

“No you fucking won’t! Don’t fucking say that if it’s not true.”

She shook her head. Now it was her turn to be hurt. “I paid for it; I pay for fucking everything for the house. You never buy shit for the house.”

“You care about the house. I don’t. I don’t buy shit for the house because I don’t care. I don’t fucking go on at you for not buying porn because you don’t fucking like porn. What would be the point?”

“What porn do you buy?”

He picked the chair back up. “Blow-job porn. Men getting blow-jobs from girlfriends and not carrying chairs.”

“Not-carrying-chairs porn?”

“Welcome to 2016.”

*

The tube was fairly empty. A real reprieve, he thought. The presumption that the carriage was going to be busy had made him anxious. Seeing the lit carriage pull up with whole sections empty delivered a lightness to the evening. The worst was over. The unknown: gone. The meeting of strangers: gone. The carrying: the worst of it behind him.

She noticed his mood variations and had a basic understanding of root cause. Food was a great modifier, of course, and there were also antagonisers and pacifiers at her disposal. She used them sparingly, used them well. Right now, she pacified him by mothering him. Her hand rested gently upon his skull, her fingers stroked his crown. He couldn’t kiss in public, so it had always struck her as odd that he was so readily mothered in front of people. The carriage was emptyish but even if it had not have been, he would’ve let her cosset him.

“So illlllll.”

She smiled. Not a performing smile. “I know.”

“I’m always so sick all the time.”

“My little permanently ill poorly child.”

“Are you poisoning me?”

“To death. “

“At least I’ll get some sleep and won’t have to carry chairs home.”

Then he did that thing he does in sitting up very suddenly, remembering something important, a matter of urgency somehow recovered:

“I really wanted to watch Space Jam the other day.”

“It’s on iPlayer.”

“It’s not on iPlayer. I checked.”

“I’ve got it on VHS,” she said, regretting instantly.

“What fucking good is VHS? We don’t have a video player. I have one video and it’s porn and it’s useless because we don’t… have…. a video player. When I want to watch Space Jam, I watch it online, when I want to come, I come to stuff online.”

“So loud. Shut up.”

“Wasn’t that loud.”

Quiet, briefly.

“Always talking about coming.”

“Well. I dare say I wonder why.”

“Ooooo. So dry. Such great ‘dry comedy’.”

“That also is very good dry comedy. Much drier than mine because you really prolonged the bit where you said ‘dry comedy’. Dryer… than… a Ryvita.”

“Not great.”

“A Ry… vi… ta… with a hangover.”

“Yeah. Still not your best work.”

And then that silence where the pair go who knows where.

“Actually, I was going to say,” he said, finally, “Why did you tell Brian that I would be unlikely to want to go on any holiday with them this year.

”Well I dunno. You said you didn’t want to go away.”

“No. I didn’t want to organise going away.“

“Well I dunno-uh,” she protested again. “He mentioned it to me and I said I wasn’t sure because I knew I would be in trouble if I said the wrong thing.”

“No one is in trouble in this relationship. Least of all you.”

Silence again. The tube stopped. The doors chimed. The doors opened. A girl with an ironically garish Gucci sweatshirt got on. It was the sort of sweatshirt his girlfriend used to wear when they first started seeing each other. It was tight, promised nothing. There was charm to the train girl’s makeupless face, and the dampness to her neck, flushed red, was encouraging somehow.

He stared at the girl. He is a fool in this way. He mostly thought of how much he wanted the sweatshirt, but also, inevitably, he thought of the girl naked. He learnt to hate this in himself, or maybe she had taught him. He considered this before an awareness that his partner was staring at him staring at the train girl came over him suddenly, dreadfully.

“God. Doesn’t she… doesn’t she look like… actually you don’t know… Thingy, anyway.”

He crossed his arms, checked his shoes, contracted his lips, raised his eyebrows, aware that his subterfuge had fooled no one. But he is unyielding. He will maintain his innocence, should it be questioned. He shouldn’t have panicked, he should have said nothing, but he did. He would’ve grasped at anything.

“Oh, I sorted that problem with the toilet seat.”

“What problem?” she asked, poker faced.

“It kept moving side to side. Had to get underneath it and screw it back up,” he said, performing the actions as he explained.

“I hadn’t noticed.”

“Yeah, it moved side to side.”

“Maybe you can fix Catherine’s as well.”

There it is.

“What?”

“Maybe you can fix Catherine’s toilet as well.”

“Why this again?”

“You’re such a fucking liar.”

“What are you on about?”

She shook her head. Rueful. She was rueful. And she was a volatile human being. She approached eruption. He had seen this many times. This was their habit, and it had to play out. He hoped that she would take pity on him. It sometimes went that way. He wished that he could take back all the moaning about the chair, he wished that he could go back to being mothered, or smothered. He wished he could go back to carrying the chair. He didn’t want the Gucci sweatshirt, no matter how beautifully garish it was, or how beautifully it framed the train girl’s tits. He wished all thoughts of nakedness could be expelled forever. He just wanted her to take pity on him, see his suffering. And this time she did. Sort of. She wasn’t going to let it rest yet, but there was calm to her.

“Look at your face, you look so panicked.”

He sensed that he could speak freely. He might’ve ventured exasperation, even.

“I’m not panicking. I just hate being accused. I’m sick, I’m picking up a chair, and you just wanna turn it on me somehow so you’re the upper-hand person. You want to be in control; you hate it when I get to be fed up about something. So now you’re bringing up nonsense about some girl I fucking hate anyway. And she’s ugly. I wouldn’t have sex with her if I was single.”

“So your life is basically just not having sex with people you want to because you have a girlfriend?”

That’s every man’s life!

Sssh.

“What makes you think that’s not every woman’s life too?”

“Because they don’t just try to have sex all the time when they’re single.”

“Are you having sex with her?”

“For fuck’s sake, no!” And then a sneeze. A big one. Followed by a second. “I’m too ill for this shit.” He wiped his eyes, sniffed a few more times. “And too grumpy in life now to make anyone else want to have sex with me. Way too miserable a conversationalist. And deaf too. I can’t hear anything in clubs anymore. Could you imagine a chat with me at some bar? ‘Hey, y’alrght, what’s your name?’ … ‘Yamya.’ … ‘What? Never mind. What you drinking?’ ‘Yamya.’ … ‘Oh fuck off.’”

What a reward it was to hear her laugh. Better yet when she had to look away to try and hide it.

*

“Nearly home now,” she said, pointing out what was undeniable. He offered nothing, the chair on his back, the air colder, his mood subdued, beaten. “So did Brian try it on with anyone the other night?”

It was her habit to talk, to find out what had happened.

“Yes, this one girl. She was horrid.”

“What… bitchy?”

“I dunno if she was bitchy. I mean she was horrid to look at. Discouraging face.”

“Perfect for him. So what went wrong then?”

“He commented on her facial hair.”

What the fuck? Why would anyone do that?”

He looked at her now. “I know, I know. She did have a fair bit going on though. Not that he should have said anything.”

“What did he say?”

“I dunno. Some joke about signing up to her Movember.”

“Oh my God. What an actual dickhead.”

“It wasn’t even part of his routine, he was trying to get somewhere with her. He came up to me later asking where she was gone. Said he loved her.”

“He probably did.”

He laughed. He loved it when they got on like this.

“’She takes photos, maannn.’”

He loved it when they put other people down.

“Ugh, lame.”

He loved it when they saw the same thing.

“Totally”

When they understood.

“Dweebs. The lot of ‘em.”

When he remembered why.

“Why do all girls take photos?” she complained.

“Fucking excellent question. I honestly don’t know, but I have never been out with a girl before you that didn’t consider herself a photographer. It’s like men who are DJs. ‘Yeah I DJ’d at my mate’s thing the other night.’ … ‘Cool, did your girlfriend take photos of the night oh she did oh well that’s fucking great cheers mate.’”

“I think men find it attractive because it reminds them of porn.”

“Because some porn is photos?” he said, labouring a confused expression.

“Yeah.”

He nodded, accepting the suggestion as at the very least valid.

She offered: “Photography… pornography.”

*

The armchair didn’t fit. That was obvious from the minute they were in the living room. The cove it was supposed to slot into was way too narrow. The pair stood, trying to figure out whether there was anything that could be done. But there was nothing. It simply would not fit.

He looked at her, his hands on hips. And she looked back at him. She did that thing, that exaggerated grimace.

“I love you,” she said.

“I told you,” he whimpered, immediately.

“Don’t look so satisfied. You look like your grandad that time he read that article about tofu giving you cancer.”

“Don’t. Even.”

“Do you want a blow-job?”

He sighed. Sneezed. “I love you too.”

—Sean Preston

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East Londoner Sean Preston is the editor of short fiction platform Open Pen, considered by Francis Plug: “More like a shot of absinthe than a pint of boring lager.” Sean is an ex-pro wrestler, full-time thing-maker at a South London record label, and short fiction writer.

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Mar 062017
 

Kelly Cherry

 

Burning the Baby

Someone struck a match and the baby went up in flames. Members of the family choked on the sickening smell. The father was afraid to look at the mother: surely she would not have done this to her own child. Yet he remembered when his son, sixteen, slapped her in the face and she screamed at him, Edward, hit him, hit him. He could not bring himself to hit his son and she never forgave him for that. The mother looked at the father quickly, then looked down at the floor. He would not have done such a thing, would he? But the baby was burnt, there was no question about that. Sweet little babe, now blackened and flaking, now something like a tiny Christmas tree charred by lightning. The older brother made measurements, seeking to determine how much shorter the baby was post-burning. The baby’s legs, roly-poly and chubby, were burnt off at the knees, which meant it could not even crawl. Of course, being dead meant that too. The sister tried to comb the baby’s burnt hair but it fell out in bunches. The sister began to cry. The baby wouldn’t crawl or play with her. Had the sister done something wrong? What had she done? What? She tickled the baby but it still refused to laugh or squeal. She was in trouble, she knew. She was supposed to watch out for her baby sister, keep her happy, make sure no harm came to her. No harm! She wanted to die. She thought her parents probably wanted her to die. She didn’t dare look at them. They would be so angry with her.

§

Drought

Water is leaving us. It’s disappearing from water tanks, reservoirs, lakes and rivers. The water table is dropping. Plants are dying. The sequoias known as California redwoods, having flourished well over a millennium, are dying. In California, water is rationed. Bath water. Water for lawns. Water intended to accompany food. Jerry Brown, the governor, is not just worried; one can hear fear in his voice. His voice climbs just slightly higher when he talks about the drought in his state but the higher is enough to clue us in. What calamities will occur if the drought continues?

Will Californians continue to stay in their state? What if the forests catch on fire? But they already do. They are likely to do so again. Also likely is that at some point, as rationing increases, and water becomes more difficult to obtain barring the return of a rainy season, residents will leave for more congenial locales. Some, anyway, and no doubt later, more. Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada will not be among the places to which they move. Those who move will favor areas with sufficient precipitation. That is bound to mean the North, with its snow and rain. It’s true that there are storms in the South but there are also hurricanes and tornadoes in the South, and people looking to escape from one disaster won’t want to have to deal with another.

Animals also head north but thousands of them die along the way, especially the pets who were abandoned when people fled. The dogs and cats, especially the small ones, the turtles and the goldfish will not make it to the Far North. (The goldfish will be turned out of their fishbowls without ceremony, and before any of the goldfish realize what is happening.)

So the people move north and the population of Northern cities multiplies. People are crowding one another. There’s not enough room to breathe. Some people are angry about this. They buy guns or get out the guns they already have. Road rage is rampant. The homeless, packed in parks, sleep folded up in lobbies and thresholds and raid garbage cans for food but there is never enough food for all the homeless. Some jump fences, racing to flag outgoing planes but airline workers shove them back. Some ride boxcars, and a few of them make it to Anchorage or Fairbanks.

When they get there, they discover that Russians and Japanese are there, too. They will have come over the Bering Strait. They will wear shorts and tee-shirts. Snowpacks are melting. Snow is melting. Igloos are melting—and the Inuit designed them never to melt. To the Russians and the Japanese, it seems as if they themselves are melting.

South Americans, on the other hand, have followed the Andes mountains to the Drake Passage, hoping to get to Antarctica. But we will stick to what most concerns us.

All over the world, people head for the mountains. From the worn-out Appalachians to the Himalayans of Uttarakhand to the Kamchatka Peninsula. It does no good. Once, mountaintops were cooled by crosswinds, and people and animals were invigorated, refreshed; now the hot tongues of sunshine flick and lick until people and animals are fatigued, too fatigued to climb farther, and they look in vain for even an inch of shade before they crawl behind a boulder to die.

The constant sun enervates. Yes, night still arrives, but one’s skin is burnt so bad that sores appear on arms, legs, and bald heads. People give up on clothes, abandon their garments, for it is too painful to wear them. Everyone gives up.

Which makes everyone else want to give up. And why not? Humans cannot live without water. Yes, there  have been attempts to desalinate seawater. And some have worked. Briefly. Recycled wastewater is also promising. The problem is, neither works well enough to produce the quantities of fresh water that we need at the rate at which we need it.

Which is why these days you (who are you?) will find us dying, always in places that used to promise water. Just before we die, we often hallucinate. Images of waterfalls, running rivers, water fountains, and rain rain rain leave our tongues hanging out, our eyes popping, our throats dry as martinis or deserts. Dry as calcification. Dry as a ponderous pedagogue. Dry as a basement of vampires with no fresh throats to suck.

We hankered for salt. Could anything be more ironic?

Renal failure was common. It led to cardiac problems.

We were too exhausted to lick our own lips.

§

Derek

She named him Derek. It was the name that came to her, for no reason she could think of, and it had all the more urgency for having no reason. The name seemed to fit him. His mother had abandoned him. Mother bats often leave their babies behind; something frightens them and they save themselves before they stop to think about the baby. (There’s usually only one baby at a time; occasionally there are twins.) Or she may have died, perhaps in a heat wave, which can kill off huge numbers of bats.

She found Derek when she was digging out weeds next to the barn. She called a wildlife shelter to ask what to do. “Don’t touch it. Bring it in,” they said, and she did, but she had already touched it. In the shelter was a long row of bat babies, each one swaddled in a knitted scarf or dish cloth. Their wings were under these wraps. The darling creatures looked like little bat burritos—that is what they are called. To see a bat fly out of a chimney or across the moon can be scary: the bats are swift and their wings relatively huge. But tucked into their scarves, with their wings folded and only the little heads peeking out, they look like sweet, snuggly, sleepy babies.

She held Derek, wrapped up, in her hands, presenting him to the shelter workers.

“Derek?” they said. “Is he male?”

She didn’t know. It hadn’t occurred to her that he might be female.

They lifted him up for examination.

“He’s no Debbie,” they said, “so you’re in luck.”

A shelter worker was rubbing Derek gently on his stomach, though such a tiny stomach could only be a tummy. Then the worker picked up an eyedropper and squeezed some milk into his mouth. “You know they can carry rabies?” the worker asked.

“Yes,” she said, thinking, Derek doesn’t have rabies.

“Derek doesn’t have rabies,” said the worker, then added, “They’re called pups.”

“The babies, not the rabies, I assume.” She smiled.

The worker looked at her as if she might be mentally challenged.

“He’s falling asleep.”

“Pups do that. Especially when they’ve sipped enough milk. They are, after all, mammals.”

I knew that, she wanted to say. “Why are some of the others squeaking?”

“All bat pups have to practice echolocation. They have different calls and have to figure out which are theirs. They also have to learn to fly, just as birds do.”

“Is there anything else you can tell me?” She hadn’t known that bats had different methods of echolocation.

“Ever seen a microbat?”

She shrugged, not knowing whether she had or hadn’t.

“There’s a bumblebee bat.”

“That’s very alliterative.”

“Allit—? Sure. The bumblebee bat is maybe the size of a jellybean.” The worker glanced away from Derek and looked straight into her eyes. “It weighs about as much as a penny weighs. Actually, it weighs a little less than that.”

She stared back at the worker. “May I take Derek home now?”

“He’s probably better off here.”

“But I found him.”

“And you brought him here, where you knew he would be better off.”

“But he belongs to me.”

“Bats are wildlife. They don’t belong to anybody. I’m sure you can understand that.”

“It’s not a question of understanding. The fact is that Derek is mine. I found him.”

“Maybe I’d better get my boss. She can explain it to you better than—”

“There’s nothing to explain. Just give me back my bat.”

“I can’t!”

She swooped Derek up and put him in her shirt pocket. A little guano didn’t worry her.

The worker ran after her, shouting Stop! Stop!

Why would she stop? Derek was her baby. Nobody could tell her otherwise.

§

On Teaching

It was a nice day so I joined my kids on the playground. Shadows made the small cotton-ball clouds look scruffy, as if they were children with dirt on their faces. They needed to be scrubbed with a damp washrag. Children, children, I said twice, clapping smartly each time. They circled me. They surrounded me. I was shaken to see that they were drawing the circle tighter and I had become their prisoner. How had this happened? I was going to clap a third time but one of the children shushed me with a finger over her lips. I felt, I felt—outraged. Who were they to dictate to me? The teacher was I. The leader was I. They were the helpless children. Surely that’s right. Surely that’s how it’s always been. Is this a trick? A prank? Children have a habit of playing pranks, don’t they. A prank, then. A silly—

“Mrs. Morgan,” the girl who dared to shush me said.

“Yes. What is happening here?”

“Happening?”

“What is going on here?”

“Going on?”

They came closer and closer, the circle closing, their shoes scuffing mine, their sweetish breath—breaths—making my heart beat faster, making it hard for me to breathe.

One-love, two-love, three-love, four.
See the teacher on the floor.

One of them had tripped me, and though I wasn’t on the floor I was indeed lying on the ground, one of my shoes beside my hip.

Five-love, six-love, seven-love, eight.
See the teacher take the bait.

What the hell did that mean? Their chanting made me frantic. I stood up, holding the shoe that came off. With one shoe on and one off I had to shift from side to side.

Nine-love, ten-love, eleven-love, twelve.
Here’s a book you really should shelve.

They are telling me I should go shelve a book! Who do they think they are?

One-love, two-love, three-love, four.
Take yourself thence and come no more.

Because I had one foot in a shoe and the other in only a sock, I had to bob up on one leg and sink down on the other. They had stripped me of my dignity. “What do you want?” I asked.

“Take yourself thence and come no more,” they said as one.

At my desk in the schoolroom I wrote a letter of resignation and signed it with my good ballpoint. I handed in grades—all A’s, because I was afraid they might retaliate if I failed them. I cleaned out my desk drawers. I did feel a bit sad when I did that but the sadness didn’t last long.

—Kelly Cherry

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Kelly Cherry is the author of 25 books, 10 chapbooks, and two translations of classical drama. She is the former Poet Laureate of Virginia. Also: Emeritus Member, Poets Corner, Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, NYC. NEA, USIA, Rockefeller, inaugural recipient of the Hanes Poetry Prize from the Fellowship of Southern Writers, Bradley Lifetime Award, Phillabaum Award, Weinstein Award, others. Eudora Welty Professor Emerita of English and Evjue-Bascom Professor Emerita in the Humanities, University of Wisconsin Madison. Eminent Scholar, UAH, 2001-2005. Her new book Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Poem is forthcoming imminently.

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Feb 112017
 

Mark Jay Mirsky

http://wp.me/p1WuqK-kRQ

x

He stepped out of an imposing limestone hall in the streets between the New York Public Library and Rockefeller Center. He was in a corridor of private clubs, one of the last remnants of a handsome 20th-century midtown Manhattan aping the 19th, where a book party was ending for a woman he had not seen in ten years.

Surprised by the invitation, fingering the creamy paper of the envelope containing it as he entered the hall, still he reasoned, book parties are not exclusive social gatherings, though it was addressed in broad loops under the postal stamp in the blue ink of a fountain pen. Publishers want at all costs to fill a space where reviewers or agents for the movies may be lurking.

The invitation was in his breast pocket. Under the gold embossed print was a brief note in the author’s hand, “Dear Harry . . .” expressing the hope that he would attend. Gale’s book had not been published under her married name.

She was tall, imposing. Watching her strong back, broad hips, the thrust in her breasts, he had imagined what it might be like to encounter her in bed, to lie under a woman from the professional world of Manhattan. In her presence he felt short, diminutive, an amateur. At the party, circulating through the crowed, he recognized editors who determine the rise and fall of reputations. Something had urged him to come, but he saw that he was invisible to men and women who, when he was reviewing for newspapers with a national reach, gave him a respectful greeting. Gale, though, greeted him with a warm hello and he followed her around the room for ten or fifteen minutes, close to her elbow. After that the writer knew his presence would become obnoxious.

Gale’s husband was dedicated to social causes, also a legal scholar, writing essays difficult not to respect. Her husband had become engaged to Gale shortly after the writer had first met her. This had inhibited Harry’s thoughts about Gale under her clothes.

He had paused in the doorway leaving, feeling the chill air, before going out. He could turn back to where the book party was winding down. If he did tease her, would she slap him or be flattered? Seeing his age in a head of hair that had turned from pepper to white, the circles under his eyes, he recalled his first stare at her sharp, handsome features, the hectic flush in her cheeks. Was it twelve years before?

He set his shoe down on the cold sidewalk, swept of snow but treacherous in icy, early March; pausing to face a red brick façade across the street—the Harvard Club. The college was his alma mater.

At the party, a woman well tanned but breezy, firmly attached by a regime of exercise to the visual line between thirty-nine and forty, (but possibly seven years older), had noted his threadbare college tie emblazoned with Latin in its shields—Veritas. She asked, as if he were flaunting the association, “Do you belong to the Harvard Club?”

“I can’t afford it,” he answered, the edge of his mouth curling into his cheek, “Just the tie.”

Observing that she shifted her attention at this, turning away, he was free to listen as she began to talk with Gail, whom he had been standing beside for ten minutes or so. He knew no one well enough in the imposing space to go up and start chatting but he followed the movements of this confident, and he guessed successful professional, her trim, well-muscled backside. Was she an agent, an editor, a publicist? From the fragments of the conversation in the noisy room, an identity was hard to construct. “I’m Jewish but I drink,” he heard her say. As she wheeled on her high heels in svelte black slacks, he caught her goodbye.

“Your husband is so thin,” she barked.

“Yes,” Gail agreed.

With a pang, he saw the woman disappear in the crowd. His quip had cost him his existence in her eyes.

x

Facing the brick propriety of the Harvard Club he saw a familiar face, coming out, mocking, ironic, then looking through him, and walking away before he could identify her. Was it the editor of a review that had consistently rejected his stories? The Harvard Club—that was another world. What had happened to his early prospects? He felt as if back in the hall where the party was ending, as he had faded out of the woman’s eyes, a death sentence had been pronounced upon him.

Gale, how much he had been attracted to Gale, despite the sour shake of her head. The brusque, self-assured carriage that she brought from the snobbish world of her college campus; her slightly disheveled appearance at times, her disapproval of his manners, which reminded him of his mother; made him think there might be a link between them. She was statuesque but distant even as a woman in her early twenties. His former wife had once remarked on Galen as “belonging to the past century.”

“Exactly,” he had assented over their breakfast. Galen looked like one of the imposing carved figureheads that coasted the pages of Henry James and Edith Wharton; not their confused naive heroines, but the stiff, starched cousins, whose proper behavior and choices set the rules that heroines are born to break.

He had met Galen, or Gale (as her name had been fixed in his head), at a Jewish Studies Conference in Boston. It was a gathering he usually avoided; a place for specialists, and self-promoters, with panels and lectures on fine points of history, rabbinic learning, Hebrew or Yiddish linguistics. He was interested in many of the subjects but clichés of criticism were rife and with a tenured position at a college, he wasn’t hunting employment. Galen Edwards now Mussorgsky had attended a panel discussion, which he was induced by an old friend to join. Its subject was the possibility of establishing an American Jewish canon. The members of the panel were assembled almost at the last moment, and not listed correctly in the Association’s booklet of events.

He recognized among the participants as they gathered for a hasty session beforehand, a man whose articles celebrated the new lights of the Holocaust industry. He had awarded paeans to several “emerging” writers, whose work was hopelessly thin. With a sinking feeling, Harry sat down at the “planning” lunch to map out an outline for their discussion. The food at the famous Seafood restaurant proved insipid. A skinny sliver of cod loin, contrary to the waitress’s reassurance—“fresh”—had either been taken from a freezer in the frenzy of lunchtime lines or over baked. “Kafka’s cod,” he joked to the company about the mealy fish steak. They looked at him, puzzled, “Eaten by the worms of anxiety.”

The editor seated with them, paying for the lunch, was complacent. No one complained over the plates and as a guest Harry didn’t want to send it back. Earlier he had flirted with the waitress. Distracted by her and the fish, he had not followed the conversation about the seminar’s planning. Joining it now, he found he was not to present a paper he had prepared. His friend, a scholar whose work was respected in the academic bureaucracy, had scanned the paper, said it was fine but between forkfuls, the chair of the panel ruled “Not on topic. Speak spontaneously.”

Earlier, he had been told to speak on the theme of a novel, which had won him his college appointment. It had challenged the clichés of the social critics who were predominant in the academic field. A Crazy Jew, Not Like You had a brief life getting mixed reviews in the national newspapers and literary journals but then faded from view.

He had written other novels, and books on the irrational, but none of them had won him much attention. Now working on a study of female devils in contemporary literature, he had hoped to simply read a few of this manuscript’s pages.

He suspected that it would never find a university press or trade publisher. He had conceived of a book into which he could disappear. Not just a commentary on older books but one in which its author lost himself like the Zohar’s author, seeking mystical union with the Unknown. He invented a world where narrators were taken up by a dangerous female presence fluttering over the universe. He linked Franz Kafka’s obsessions with women to Biblical heroines, spoke of the Jewish writers whose mothers were prostitutes, insane matriarchs, feminist “bitches” and succubae.

His friend had a sense of humor, and loved a good joke. But the panel’s chair, with a flat Mid-Western voice, interrupted his friend’s plea for the prepared pages. It was far a-field from a canon. “No paper,” Harry was warned, but the chair encouraged the writer to go over some of the ideas ad hoc. “Be spontaneous!” Spontaneity meant hours before the seminar making notes, unpalatable bits of fish grinding away in his stomach.

He did finally sway majority opinion at lunch on the fish, “Yes, yes,” they agreed, “awful”—cleaning their plates. Otherwise excluded, he went to a corridor of the hotel to find a chair and try to make an outline for an irrational “Jewish” canon.

At the seminar table he found himself assigned the last slot. The panelists droned on. Halfway through, two critics in the audience whose recent work he admired, filed out. “Come back!” but he tried to cry but stifled it. Depression fixed him to his folding chair. Only five or six people were in the seats by the end. As he spoke, his words sounded random and senseless in his own ears.

His eyes lighted on a young woman in the second row of seats. He clung to whatever her attention he could perceive. In the question period no one asked him anything but gathered up coats and scurried away. Dashing out of the room, to avoid apologizing to his friend, who lingered, he saw an impressive back and waist, a female form. It swayed in the lobby’s crowd as if detached from John Singer Sargent’s portraits of Boston debutantes. Strands of auburn hair fell over her shoulder. He caught up and touched an elbow.

“You were at my seminar,” he blurted.

Without waiting for an acknowledgment, he began a monologue mocking his own remarks at the seminar.

She did not disagree but interrupted him to single out one pronouncement of his with which she agreed. When asked for her reaction to the other speakers, instead of answering, she turned and left him standing under the ceiling of the hotel lobby.

Was she twenty-three, twenty-four? He had forgotten even to ask her name. Too far now for him to follow he watched her swim away into the crowd.

x

He was sitting at her elbow the next evening. “Do you know Gale?” his host, a professor at Harvard, asked, motioning Harry to a place beside her at a crowded supper table set for a dozen guests in a Cambridge, Massachusetts, restaurant.

“Are you Gale?” he asked.

“Gale, Galen, whatever you like best.”

She wasn’t, it seemed, Jewish, and that made her presence at the conference even more interesting.

“What do you do?” he asked.

She was a reporter for a major American newspaper, even though she was barely out of college.

x

As he turned from the red brick front on the opposite side of the street, leaving the book party behind, the opaque mirror of limestone and glazed crimson brick in the Harvard Club’s front seemed to reflect his tie, frayed at the edges. Veritas? Gale, now, forever Galen, a friendly but distant professional, had been more than attentive to him at her party than he deserved. Given the high-powered circle around her, however she seemed to be sailing into their horizons.

Why was that painful? What did he want from her? He grasped at the thought of a much younger woman whom he had met a few months ago.

Over forty years separated them. The girl, only nineteen or twenty, had recently met with him in his position as editor of a small journal he continued to edit despite the waning of his career as a writer. She wished to discuss a piece she wanted to submit. It would be about myth and the sex life of Jewish women in religious worlds. In her eyes a streak of green ribbon darted out points of orange. She had laughed, puckering her lips as if teasing him, then told a story about an older man, her teacher—a rabbi in a religious high school, who molested her.

Reliving the moment it seemed, she spoke about the paralysis that gripped her as the rabbi’s hands began to wander. He reached under her blouse, into her pants. When the young woman finished, the silence in the air was charged. Harry had been unprepared for this when he asked her to meet him in a coffee shop, curious about what she might submit.

“No,” he admitted, taking one step after another over the icy sidewalk, afraid to slip and lose his balance. He had been more curious as to the person who would write the essay. Catching sight of her at the coffee shop in the blue denim jacket and dungarees, she told him she would be wearing, his heart stopped. She looked like a teenager. He was momentarily shaken into a state of vertigo, dizzy, afraid to meet her eyes, trying to take in the rest of her in the booth where she crouched as he slid in against the bolster on the opposite side.

How was it that she so quickly shared that story with him? A question kept running through his head when he got up to leave an hour later. Did she feel that he was attracted, even before she told him the anecdote whose purpose he started puzzling over later? Was it a warning shot across his advancing bow, or a provocation to come on faster? She touched him but it was not her body that was spinning him around but an idea.

x

Anger distorted her face as the girl had told about leaving the rabbi’s study, seeing the rebbitzin, his wife, washing dishes in the kitchen, pretending, the young woman said, bitterly, not to notice her agitation.

Who was she describing? Was there a rabbi?

He felt the magnetism this girl was exerting as she left, seeing himself against her in the flesh. Was that “bad” trying to imagine what she looked like without her clothes?

He wondered if she could imagine him looking at her.

How did she see him?

Was she setting up a trap? Did his caution mean he was he losing the force of a curiosity that had guided him to the worlds of platonic forms? Was he now just one of them”?

“I thought of him as my grandfather.” Her wriggle against the bolster of her booth’s seat back had stopped. She stiffened, displaced her smile. She stared as if daring him to stare back. Had the thought of physical penetration become worse than the taboo against commission? Was the act irrelevant if the thought had been committed? Was this the cursed life of angels when they rebelled in the story of the Flood?

x

He quickened his step outside the Harvard Club as the image of the girl who had come to see him slipped away.

What did he want? The stoplight at Forty Second Street, which separated the professor from the stream of traffic, brought him to a halt. The glaze of ice on the asphalt reflected nothing but he was conscious in this dark, slick surface of his body. He had lost some weight since his fifties. What did he look like? Teasing an undergraduate about his weight loss several years ago, he had asked, only half joking, “Aren’t I more attractive.”

“No,” she snapped. “You’re old. Aren’t you still married?”

Could the life he had constructed out of books answer what he wanted? And what was that intimacy which he brushed against in pages and sometimes in the faces of others?

“You are too naked,” his former wife had told him when he complained, a decade before, of his inability to speak with colleagues at the college. That nakedness, of course, had led him to behavior, which exhausted her patience. He saw himself in her clear blue eyes as a willful child, “You pay no attention to other people.”

Was that so? “You can be,” she admitted, “generous, attentive, but only because you feel that way, not because you see that whomever you are speaking to wishes for your attention.” Then his wife added, “Or that they want to articulate thoughts of their own.”

He stopped at the curb. He had paid attention to his teachers, and the older scholars he had befriended, their whispers out of the classroom, in the corners of comfortable, living rooms, He had collected stories of nakedness, forbidden unions—the annals of wife swapping sects of Turkish Jews, experiments with multiple unions through Polish towns, the far reaches of Hungary, Romania, villages beyond Prague—not merely for pleasure but in breaking a taboo, to go naked, to touch?

The rabbis were men of flesh. Yes, cautionary tales follow on the heels of breaking the law. Chaos sweeps up those who search for the Messianic when the universe will be remolded—that moment in Creation when matter separates, worlds divide, the rules of order still unset. Genesis’s first moment is cataclysm. Still, between the lines lurk a quixotic encouragement to overturn, to disorder—the Talmud’s adage, “Without evil there is no perfect service.”

What is the slight divide between a young woman now and my own adolescence; time is relative according to Einstein? And if I could go back in time, how far back? Would I travel to the abyss before the Beginning?

x

Do I in fact exist?

If I do, though disintegrating, the myth is to draw an angel into one’s arms, wrestle with it until ribs and tendons are exchanged; not boxed, wrapped in tinsel. Celan’s cry, “Über dich, Offene, trag ich dich mir zu.” Through you, Open ones, I bear you to me.”

One of the purveyors of the hip, the editor of a magazine New Judaism had crossed Harry’s path several years before when he was still being solicited to write about books. “Jazz it up,” she suggested after he sent his first draft in. He was reviewing an academic tome on the origins of mystical fantasies the mysteries of Lilith among medieval Jews.

“Jazz up a female Devil?” he asked. No one had previously required him to revise, not prominent newspapers or academic journals.

“You know—make her ‘hot’!”

He put down the phone, stunned but on the tip of his tongue, “Give me a lesson?” Like Gale the editor was tall, with an imposing body and a way of moving that attracted the eyes of every man in the room, though her voice had the grating accent of the Long Island Jewish mafia. He had snapped the remark back between his teeth. Would it amuse her—to be brazen? And why did he so frantically want to please while stung by her attitude?

x

“Why aren’t you funny, anymore?” a student had asked in his last class at the university. She was from New Jersey and had written a paper on the implications of hairstyle among suburban high school princesses. She had read his first book where good-natured laughter had made an impression that once had won him attention.

“What I found funny at your age, I can’t return to,” he answered. “What strikes me as comic now, after the death of my parents; after a career watching idiots advance, mediocrity triumph . . .” paused, but then said it, waiting to hear if she would react “a divorce.” After a moment of silence in which he could detect nothing from the expression on her face, he finished his sentence, “is different.”

She came to class in a skirt with a slit up its side, midway between her knee and her waist, a window of opportunity for someone as she tossed the ringlets of her long hair like a curtain, to the side. Does one have a right to desire her? And what did he desire?

x

He turned to the story of Dante, who was not afraid to characterize himself as lecherous. The poet speaks of Beatrice’s eyes, whose light seems to touch him.

Still teetering at the curb, he wondered again about that woman, the editor, coming out of the Harvard Club, who seemed for a moment a double of the one who asked about his tie. Again the girl he had met a few weeks ago appeared to stare with an invitation into his eyes.

x

A former student of Harry’s, responding to his whining when she called to inquire about him, had offered an interview. She occasionally placed articles on a Web site about Jewish topics. “What are you seeking for in your books?” she read from a sheet when they met at his favorite coffee shop,.

He grasped for a formula that would be more than a vacuous generality. He named writers who had influenced his work. She broke into his catalogue, asking, “What did you find in those books?”

“I found voices that spoke to me.”

“What does that mean?”

“Take Dante trying to answer Beatrice’s accusation that he has been unfaithful.”

“You keep quoting books written from a male perspective. Your putative author of the Zohar, Moses de Leon, used women as the portal to sexual congress with Divinity as a mere vehicle of male passion.”

“You think that all things are sexual,” she added, smiling but with a faint pout of disapproval in her full mouth, cherry red, bright with newly applied lipstick.”

“Up to this point, sexual desire has been my most powerful experience of the ecstatic. To be swept up beyond your own self when voices speak through you is even more electric, overwhelming when you write.”

“It is the unhappy truth,” he continued, staying on topic—since she had come to demand an accounting for his “male perspective”— “that these are the books of men but they are also the imaginings of men and women. Dante had a wife, children, but he imagined a woman, Beatrice, who imagined him. A man becomes what a woman imagines him to be and so the woman becomes what the man imagines. Mystical union is impossible without that union in imagination through which they pass into each other.”

What does she make of that? he wondered as she smiled, picking up her notebook. They exchanged a polite, goodbye. She had been the brightest student in his class through several semesters. Who did she imagine he was?

x

He had tried to speak about these matters to the young woman wrestling with her rabbi against the booth, adolescence clinging to her. “What we imagine is real. Did Dante sleep with Beatrice? Almost all the scholars deny it and yet Beatrice tells Dante, ‘Never did nature or art present you / with a pleasure equal to the beautiful limbs in which I / was enclosed…’ How explicit can a courteous poet be? Dante is told he cannot have the body of Beatrice until The Last Judgment. He goes blind in Paradise when he is told this.” He wanted to ask, “Would you have been angry if the rabbi had only imagined making love to you? Was it the idea or the real touch of his fingers that appalled you?”

The professor had stared into her green eyes instead, and said, quietly, “Dante’s only hope for another consummation of adultery will be the day after the final sentencing.”

The young woman exchanged a smile as he whispered across the table. “Yet he is told he can ‘touch’ her through light, the light in her eyes.”

Only it was not only Beatrice Dante had desired, just as it was not Gale, or this girl, who he wanted to find on the sidewalk.

Only one woman had ever reconstituted herself through light in his imagination. Dante was afraid to mention her and like the poet, he shied away from that thought and once again summoned another image. It was Freud who understood Dante, poet and lover of the mother.

x

Why had he teased the girl about “touch”? Was he asking for trouble? After their meeting she sent in an essay was called, “Legend of the Patriarch, study in Lechery.” She had addressed it at the magazine to him. She was only a few years from the incidents she described. In the essay she had called into question the behavior of the Biblical Abraham through his final years. As an editor he didn’t see how he could publish it and yet he was loath to break off contact.

x

“Why did you write me?” he had asked the young woman, after they had introduced each other at the coffee shop.

“I read your article.”

Yes he remembered it. Frustrated by his inability to place “Age, Eros and the Dream of Time” anywhere else, he had broken a rule and published it in his own magazine.”

Now, on the cold corner, he wondered. Did you come to meet Abraham or your grandfather? And if it was the old patriarch, you imagined, what did you want?

A part of love is loyalty, he thought. One turns to hide against the breasts or breast of the beloved, as a refuge from both the world, and the fear of death; to twist desire into a dream of flight to another world. To escape in metamorphosis into another body . . . ?

What did the rabbi want from the girl, and what did she want from him? Her story of seeking another life was complex. Was she fleeing a family, a dangerous patriarch, or looking for the disinterested love of another one?

x

“Tell me that I exist!” It was craven, but he wanted to cry, “Desire me!”

Was it possible to be desired through a whole life? Would children have changed him? Was that the true conduit for desire?

He recalled the lines of Yeats, who had evoked the other woman from whose shadows Beatrice had taken shape.

Being mocked by Guido, for his lecherous life
Derided and deriding, driven out
To climb the stair and eat that bitter bread
He found the unpersuadable justice, he found
The most exalted lady loved by man

And a moment later, about to cross the street, he wondered why, apart from the evening’s reception, the verse summoned Galen.

She had lost that fragile edge he and his wife had noted— adolescence blossoming into womanhood with hardly an awkward moment. Despite the whirl of recognition, publicity, in the hall behind him, he suspected it wasn’t a career, but babies to whom she would give her breasts, thighs, and the last glimmer of power as he had imagined her, “that fierce virgin,” fading.

It was . . . He stopped again, noting the danger—traffic was heavy.

x

Gale was still handsome, but at the reception she had whispered, happily that she was expecting. She was passing, content, into child bearing and where she might forget a career. It was only in that friend’s cruel eye on his tie that he had felt a searching intensity, a desire that touched him with light from a world of fantasies.

x

The father in Kafka’s story “The Judgment” sees his son’s sexual interest in anyone else as a betrayal of the mother. “Because she lifted up her skirts,” the old man mocks, referring to his son’s girlfriend; disgusted by the sight of a woman’s vulva. Kafka and his friends thought this very funny but the writer set the accusation down and was never able to marry. Harry paused about to take the last steps into the street, as if his mother could hear him, “Who am I?

“Is life an idea, a leap forward to find that flash of light, sun burst that it escaped from but now wishes to fix in the disintegrating matter of the universe? Can I escape into a book and lie there waiting for the embrace of another to take flesh again?”

Does what we do write in the universe? Do we write only in our bodies and those of others? Spinoza thought that in the ocean of being our experience inscribes itself on matter? Does it matter? The pun asks—are matter’s components indestructible, do they face extinction in a black hole? Before the Big Bang and after the last whimper, does anything matter?

An old man or woman’s fantasies—leagues away from the girl, Gale caught up in the publicity of a first book, or children. Who is real at this moment, Galen, the girl, my wife?

I am stepping into Kafka’s suicidal point, he thought, recalling the end of The Judgment. The son grasps the railing of a bridge, its traffic “just starting up,” cheerfully accepting a father’s verdict: “I sentence you to death!” Kafka read this to friends who burst into roars of amusement, rolled on the floor. “‘Dear parents, I have always loved you all the same,’ and let himself drop.” At that moment, Harry heard Manhattan’s unending stream of traffic blare. The light changed and he and his thoughts dropped into it.

—Mark Jay Mirsky

x

Mark Jay Mirsky was born in Boston in 1939. He attended the Boston Public Latin School and Harvard College and earned an M.A. in Creative Writing at Stanford University. He has published fourteen books, six of them novels. The first, Thou Worm Jacob, was a bestseller in Boston; his third, Blue Hill Avenue, was listed by The Boston Globe thirty-seven years after its publication in 2009 as one of the 100 essential books about New England. Among his academic books are My Search for the Messiah, The Absent Shakespeare, Dante, Eros and Kabbalah, and The Drama in Shakespeare’s Sonnets: “A Satire to Decay.” He edited the English language edition of the diaries of Robert Musil, and co-edited Rabbinic Fantasies and The Jews of Pinsk Volumes 1 & 2, as well as various shorter pamphlets, among them one of the poet Robert Creeley. His play Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard was performed at the NYC Fringe Festival in 2007. His latest novel, Puddingstone, can be found on Amazon Books, both in digital and print-on-demand editions.

He founded the journal Fiction in 1972 with Donald Barthelme, Max and Marianne Frisch, and Jane Delynn, and has served since then as its editor-in-chief. Fiction was the first American journal to publish excerpts in English from the diaries of Robert Musil. Subsequently it has published translations of plays and other materials of Musil.

Mark Jay Mirsky is a Professor of English at The City College of New York.
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Feb 082017
 

abigail-allen-500px-may-be-replacedAbigail Allen

.

I was in a pet store looking at the fish. I had stopped in for no other reason than to look at them. I was standing before a tank full of tiny, almost microscopic, goldfish. They were the smallest ones I’d ever seen. Small creatures, the ones that are the tiniest versions of whatever they are—have always fascinated me. When I read about the discovery of the skeletal remains of thumb-sized monkeys some years back, my imagination was piqued. I couldn’t stop thinking about these animals, which had existed long ago, somewhere in Asia, I think. They couldn’t venture out of their hiding places during the day for fear of being eaten by something bigger, something the size of one of the mice I had seen in a cage a couple of aisles over. The thumb-sized monkeys had to sneak out at night to look for small insects and seeds to eat. Even at night they were prey to owls, which ate every part of them except their bony little feet. Their feet must have had so little meat on them that the owls didn’t bother with them, leaving the miniscule bones—the phalanges and metatarsals, the cuneiform, cuboid, and navicular bones, as well as the talus and calcaneus bones (all so small they were barely visible)—jumbled together in little piles for the archeologists to discover eons later. I thought about the thumb-sized monkeys as I stood in front of the tank full of these infinitesimal fish. I had come in here for the express purpose of looking at the fish, and these were the ones I had settled upon. I had made my way past tanks containing larger goldfish and other fish. I remember looking at black angelfish and mottled angelfish, as well as catfish, tetras, and guppies, none of which especially interested me. There was one really ugly fish called a loach. It was in a tank all by itself and looked like a miniature eel. I had stared at it for a few minutes before going on to the tank with the smallest goldfish in it, where I stayed for the remainder of the time I was in the store, about ten minutes, twenty at the most. I wasn’t bothering anyone. There were few customers looking at the fish that morning, and none of them wanted to look at these—almost microscopic, as I’ve said—goldfish.

You might wonder how anyone could possibly stare into a tank containing a few fish the size of grains of rice for that long, but the truth is I wasn’t really looking at the fish after the first few seconds, after my amazement at stumbling across such small creatures, which, as I said before, put me in mind of the thumb-sized monkeys I had read about years ago and, thus, stirred my imagination. As I stared at the aquarium, I saw my reflection—the reflection of a small woman with brown hair—and then I saw a driveway, the long, winding gravel driveway that leads to my garage. As I stood there, staring at the fish, I felt as though the tank were a crystal ball and I could see into the past or into the future. I seemed to be seeing into the future at first, watching an angry man rush along the driveway toward my house, screaming obscenities, kicking at the gravel like a maniac, and then I remembered that this had really happened, not that long ago—a few months ago, maybe, certainly less than a year—but apparently long enough ago that I didn’t realize, at first, that this—or something quite similar to this—had already happened to me, and I became more and more alarmed. Then, as I said, it had gradually dawned on me that this—or something approximating it—had already happened, and I remembered this red-faced man rushing up my driveway screaming, much as the man I had been envisioning was doing as I looked at the aquarium, seeing my reflection but not seeing it, knowing my reflection was there but not paying any attention to it, seeing instead the angry man, who was too far away in my reverie for me to be sure whether he was the red-faced man who had visited me before, the man who had sprained or broken his ankle—I would never know which because he’d been taken away in the ambulance I had summoned and I’d never seen him again. The red-faced man had sustained his injury when he went to the aid of an owl he had seen lying on the side of the road as he was walking along, and the owl, which the man thought had probably been hit by a passing car, suddenly regained consciousness, and just as he was about to touch it, the owl flew away, frightening the man, causing him to jump and land in the ditch with his ankle bent under him, or so he said.

At first I was relieved to remember that unpleasant occasion, the red-faced man coiled like a snake on my driveway, holding the plastic bag of ice I had brought him to his ankle before the ambulance came and whisked him, still cursing, away. It was a relief because I thought the scene I had just imagined while gazing into the aquarium where the tiny fish were swimming around, some hovering near the bottom and others drifting through the windows of a little castle at one end of the tank, was a scene from the past and not a prediction of a future event, necessarily. I breathed a sigh of relief and then noticed my reflection in the glass again, the fish moving behind and through it, and I was struck by that, by the image of the fish, tragically small fish, swimming not only behind my reflection—the reflection of my face, my head—but through it. It was while I was staring in awe at this optical illusion that it dawned on me: I had switched images. I had replaced the image of an angry man coming toward me on my driveway with the image of that earlier angry man, who had been limping and whom I had perceived to be limping even from a distance, and having replaced the angry man I had imagined at first today while staring into the tank of the smallest goldfish with that red-faced man who had actually existed, there was no way I could recapture the one I had first imagined, no way to rewind the workings of my imagination to see whether or not this man was limping, as the red-faced man had been. I had a feeling he was not limping because I distinctly remembered him kicking angrily at the gravel in my driveway before I replaced him with the memory of the other man, the red-faced man, and so there was still a danger that what the fish tank—the crystal ball—had been showing me before I switched images was the future and not simply the memory of a past event.

I left the store, thinking vaguely about the possibility of another angry man appearing in my driveway, went out to the parking lot, and got in my car. I was parked next to a white SUV with its motor running. The same woman was sitting there, the same one who’d been sitting there when I went in the store. Maybe she was waiting for her dog to be groomed, I thought, but she was wasting gas, polluting the atmosphere with the fumes from her gigantic SUV. It could be she had to be alone so she could think. Maybe she had troubles and could sort things out only when she was in her car. I remembered a sad time in my life when I had gotten up in the middle of the night and driven around, going no place in particular, just driving. It had a calming effect on me. Then I could go home and fall asleep.

Right after my husband left, I tried to be an artist. I thought it would take my mind off my failure as a wife. I bought all these paints, oils and pastels, brushes, canvases. I was always pretty good at drawing things, but I found out I couldn’t paint. Not only did everything I tried to paint look one-dimensional, like a child’s effort, but I was so messy. I got paint everywhere—on the floor and the furniture—and even though I wore a smock I got paint on my clothes. My clothes were ruined. The smock didn’t cover my entire body, so there was purple paint on the cuffs of my shirt, yellow paint on my jeans, and I even ruined a pair of canvas shoes by spilling paint on them. I gave up after a few months. I had tried really hard for those months, but I had to admit I was no good at it. I still like to draw, though.

There was once a voyeur in my life, but now he’s dead. He was killed in a tractor accident on his family’s farm. He came around every night for a while. The first time I saw him I was sitting in the living room in my nightgown, watching TV. I looked away from whatever I was watching, wondering whether I’d locked the front door, and saw the shadow of his head slowly rising behind the lace curtain on the window in the door. This was right after my divorce was finalized. It was only much later, shortly before his death, that I found out who he was. He came by every night and scraped his fingernails over the screen in my bedroom window, but I had begun closing all the drapes and shades in the house after I’d seen him at the living room window. I don’t know why he kept coming around. I guess he figured I would slip up and forget to close the drapes sooner or later. He was a young man, ten years younger than I was, yet he wanted to stare at me the way I had been staring at the tiny fish today. Maybe he thought it would help him think.

Once I went to a party in an antebellum mansion near Marksville. I had been in a play with the woman who was giving the party, and she had invited everyone who had been involved in the play to the mansion, which was a home her husband’s family had owned since before the Civil War. I enjoyed going to the party and seeing the wonderful antique furniture in the house, along with the other people who had been in the play, which was set during the American Revolution. I had a small role in the play, and this woman—the one who was hosting the party—had had the starring role. It was a musical, and she had a lovely soprano voice. We stood and talked, eating hors d’oeuvres and drinking punch in one of the main rooms of the mansion (I think it was the living room or the dining room), and then we went outside and strolled around the gardens, which were beautiful, as you would expect the gardens of such a grand place to be. I remember there was a gazebo, and the hostess, whose husband was upstairs watching a baseball game or something on TV, came out of the gazebo and went around kissing everybody, talking in an exaggerated Southern accent, calling people “honey-chile” and things like that, as though she were living in the time of slavery, and the more she had to drink the more obnoxious her behavior became. I had arrived with my cousin Patty, who was also in the play, and we left early, claiming Patty had to pick up her daughters from their grandmother’s house.

I wish the voyeur hadn’t died. If I had remembered to close the drapes and blinds before I attended a much-anticipated concert with my friend Larry, the voyeur might still be alive because I wouldn’t have seen him peering in through my bedroom window when we got back, when I went in the bedroom to kick my shoes off and put on some slippers while Larry was looking through the liquor cabinet (We had planned to have a drink and discuss the concert, which we had both been blown away by). If I had remembered to close the drapes and blinds before I left for the concert, I wouldn’t have screamed and Larry wouldn’t have rushed into the room and gotten a glimpse of the voyeur’s red shirt. He wouldn’t have insisted on phoning the police, and I wouldn’t have told them a man had been peering in at me and had been coming by trying to do so for months. I wouldn’t have alerted them at all because the drapes would’ve been closed, as they had been all the other nights since I’d seen him at the living room window. He wouldn’t have startled me, and the cops wouldn’t have caught him running through ditches and across fields, trying to get back to his car. The next day they brought me his picture, and I recognized him, but I didn’t press charges. His father leased some of my land and planted hay on it. I couldn’t bring myself to press charges, and now I think if I had pressed charges maybe he would still be alive, maybe things would have played out differently and he wouldn’t have been working on his family’s farm that day, wouldn’t have been driving the tractor that had fallen over somehow, near a small ravine, and crushed him—or maybe the tractor had run over him first, after he was thrown from it but before it fell over on him.

My neighbor, Larry, the one I’d attended the concert with, came and told me about the voyeur’s death. I still think of him as “the voyeur” even though I now know his name was Brian. Larry sat me down on one of the rocking chairs on the front porch, and he sat in the other one and took my hand. He said he had bad news, and I was afraid something had happened to Larry’s mother, who is getting old and frail, but it wasn’t his mother. It was Brian, whose father leased part of my farm. Larry broke it to me as gently as he could, rubbing my arm, I remember. He’s such a kind person, always was, even when we were children—I guess people don’t change much—but I wasn’t thinking about his kindness at that point. I was thinking about the voyeur, his head rising so slowly behind the lace-curtained window in the front door, and wondering what had run through his mind when he saw me sitting there in a faded pink nightgown, having recently gotten the news that my marriage was officially over, when he saw me getting up and running toward the door, yelling at him to go away. Did he notice his reflection in the glass or did he ignore it? Maybe, in the few seconds he was standing there, he stopped seeing a distraught woman in her living room and began to envision something altogether different, not knowing whether it had already happened or was yet to come.

—Abigail Allen

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Abigail Allen grew up in Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana. Her work will appear or has been published in Big Muddy, Columbia College Literary Review, Valley Voices, The Louisiana Review, Birds Piled Loosely, Big Bridge, Pilgrimage, Coup d’Etat, Xavier Review, Mississippi Review, Mid-American Review, Confrontation, and others. She has also published work in New World Writing, Many Mountains Moving, Forge, and others under the pseudonym Hiram Goza. Her novel, Birds of Paradise, was published under that name in 2005.

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Feb 052017
 

Jamaluddin AramPhoto credit by Jonny Griffin.


The boy’s right leg quivered and he had to lean against the mud-wall of Sarkanda’s house to assess his wounds. He pulled up his pants and looked at the two deep holes, slightly below his skinny calf, where the dog’s canines had sunk in. With the tips of his fingers, he carefully pressed around the wounds and then limped off towards Khala’s house to borrow some salt for dinner. As he walked, he hoped that the rumors were true and that Qatel had been kidnapped and killed. But he worried how he could avoid Shah Wali Sarkanda, his friends, and Qatel too, if the rumors were not correct.

He had not yet turned the corner when the first shot went off. He slowed and looked up at the two startled turtledoves as they hastily flew away from the dead electric lines overhead. In the stale summer afternoon air, the shot sounded like a heavy hammer colliding against a thick sheet of corrugated, rusty metal: lonely, removed, yet lethal. By the time he approached the main street, the shooting had begun to intensify.

He looked around for Qatel; he tried to sneak a peek inside the checkpoint, a small primitive square structure of assembled plastic sandbags with a scanty roof of flattened oil barrel steel. The dog was not there. He glanced under the window of the bakery across the street where Qatel sometimes sought refuge when the heat of the day became unbearable, his tongue sticking out, panting. To his relief the dog had disappeared. “They’ve indeed taken the bastard,” he thought to himself, and felt the beginning of an unmanageable delight.

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The boy was the youngest of his four siblings, and as the rules of the house dictated, he had to run all the errands. Mother sent him around to the neighbors and relatives to borrow a loaf of bread, the coal-fired pressing iron, a mortar and pestle, a painkiller, a cough syrup bottle, or a big shawl when she needed to step outside the house to attend a funeral or visit her sick and dying acquaintances. When unexpected guests showed up at their door, he had to find and carry plates and silverware and pillows and blankets. He usually brought most of these items from Khala’s, which meant he had to cross the checkpoint and the narrow, unpaved main street. Last week, when Mother needed to go to the funeral of Uncle Khanjan, who was killed by a stray bullet in front of his house, she sent him to borrow Khala’s black leather shoes, and the two militia guys, Sarkanda and Habib Charsi, had urged Qatel to chase him. Under the midday sun, they were sitting against the big whitewashed wall across from the checkpoint, high on Chars, their Kalashnikovs lying by their sides. When the dog charged after him and knocked him to the dirt, they had rolled on the ground, laughing.

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Now Qatel was missing. Habib, Nasro Puchuq, and Zaman Dashka huddled in the freshly dug trench near the bakery, the dark, wet soil still piled against the bare electricity pole. Zaman manned a long-range Soviet DShK machine gun. He was planting his left knee into the fresh soil of the trench and using his right leg as a support for his right hand as he pulled the trigger. He was the only one who made an effort to aim before he shot, while Habib and Nasro, crouching on either side, fired their Kalashnikovs aimlessly in the general direction of the enemy’s position, a few hundred meters away at the end of the street. Sarkanda didn’t aim either. He was lying flat on his stomach right outside the trench in the middle of the street, his feet bare, the front of his long and loose navy blue perhan-tunban covered in dust. He fired with a maniacal passion, and the hot empty brass casings thrust out and fell by his side, bouncing and clinking.

The boy watched Sarkanda in disbelief. He had always seen him with a foolish smile on his face, but now he looked serious and determined. The boy tried to think why Sarkanda and his friends were fighting and how long the skirmish would last before he could go get the salt. He knew that Mother would straighten him out with the end of the broom if he took longer than usual.

Inside the bakery above the trench three men went about their work. One of them, with a dirty off-white piece of cloth wrapped around his head and covering his mouth and nose, bent down and came back up with a practiced efficiency and rhythm. With his back to the street, he fixed the flattened dough on his rafeda and put it into the oven, not caring the least what was going on outside. Across from him the fat owner of the bakery leaned against the soot-darkened wall, drinking his afternoon tea.

The shopkeepers whose shops were in reach of bullets had stepped outside and now stood in the safety of the whitewashed two-storey building. They talked and laughed, and the pedestrians who were blocked because of the gun fighting joined them. The porter rested in his wheelbarrow, his hands folded under his head, and shyly laughed at the vegetable seller’s silly jokes. The only people who did not participate were the two women covered in big dark shawls who came out of the same alley as the boy. When they saw the shooting, they sat against the wall, a few meters away from the men, in absolute silence.

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The fighting went on. The boy cupped his ears with the palms of his hands and the shooting was drowned as if in a wind tunnel. As soon as he lifted his hands the sound of gunshots came back, loud and ludicrous. He closed his ears with the tips of his fingers this time and pressed them hard. The sound of war seemed as distant, as unbelievable, as a dream.

It looked as if people had stepped outside of their houses and shops at the first sign of a shallow earthquake, and now that they were out they thought why not catch up with their neighbors. Baba, a shopkeeper in his late fifties, didn’t even bother to leave his shop, an old, red shipping container insulated with a thick layer of mud and straw, right behind where Sarkanda and his friends had dug out the trench. In his impoverished, half-empty shop, he sat deep in thought, perhaps believing there was no way a stray bullet could find its way to him because the door of his shop opened perpendicular to the direction of the bullets of the Panjshiris. Still, he had to leave some room for his ignorance of the laws of physics, the intricacies of geometry, and above all some room for chance, and it made him worry. A bullet might take an inappropriate swerve and enter his shop. Now in the heat of the crossfire there was no way he could get out, so he sat there taking thoughtful sips of his steaming green tea and silently wishing a quick end to the reckless shooting.

The rain-filled clouds hung low, and it had become very hot. The boy leaned against the edge of the big whitewashed wall and looked past Sarkanda and Zaman. At the mouth of Khala’s narrow alley a group of people waited patiently for the shooting to cease. The boy folded his hands behind his back, balanced his weight on both heels, and started to wriggle. Then he stopped and looked down at his big toe sticking out of the tip of his right shoe, dirty and unwashed, exposed to dust and humidity. He tried to work it back into his shoe, but the hole was too generous. So he wiggled his toes and wondered when and where he had lost the lace on the left shoe. He felt a shudder of grief that his only pair of shoes was disintegrating faster than he’d expected. That meant he would have to switch back into hard plastic galoshes that cut the back of his heels and smelled terrible. To fight off this disturbing thought, with the tips of his fingers he took hold of the scanty sleeves of the old, discolored yellow sweater that he was outgrowing fast, and pulled them down. The collar of the sweater overstretched, revealing his scrawny neck and his fragile collarbones.

Then he fixed his gaze on Sarkanda, who still rested on his stomach on the ground, his whole body, particularly his shoulders, a constant tremor. A bullet whizzed past Sarkanda’s ear and hit the dry mud wall behind him. The boy, and the few others, who saw it, let out a cry of bewilderment mixed with a chill thrill. “Da kos khowar shomo to that vagina of your sisters!” Sarkanda gurgled aloud in a raspy voice and jolted forward as if the smell of heated copper and burned sulfur nitrate and the proximity of death fired up his determination. The two women who had been sitting against the wall became uncomfortable, hearing their most private part spoken of openly. The older woman made a failed attempt to swallow her laughter, but her lips puckered. The younger woman maintained a serious look and stared at the ground in front of her feet. The shopkeepers gave out a lighthearted laughter at Sarkanda’s effortless way of saying Kos, but also at the fact that the bullet could have easily smashed his face had it been an inch to the right. “Kam bod Sarkanda ra wardar kadod!” said one man. “Nah, I guess even death avoids that motherfucker. I bet even in hell he would rob people in open daylight and extort money,” responded another.

“Or a pack of cigarettes,” said the porter, adjusting his wheelbarrow.

The bakery owner shifted his weight on his left hip and glanced out the window to see what had happened. The baker put the rafeda down and turned for a quick peek at the street below. As soon as he realized that the moment was gone, he went back to his work.

“They’re wasting ammunition on such useless matters,” said the vegetable seller.

“How did all this begin?” said a bystander, a skinny man, constantly moving his jaws to adjust his dentures.

The boy moved closer to the men to hear what they were talking about.

The vegetable seller paused longer than he should have, trying to look important. “I heard that the Panjshiris kidnapped Qatel,” he finally said.

“Who is Qatel?” asked the man.

“The dog,” the vegetable seller responded.

“Oh, they’re out to kill each other over a dog?” said the man grinding his jaws, his plastic teeth making an empty sound.

“Yeah, these guys sent someone to bring the dog back, but the Panjshiris slapped the messenger in the face and sent him empty handed,” said the vegetable seller, raising his eyebrows and maintaining a faint smile. He was proud to know something that the others didn’t. Although he had said everything there was to be said about the shooting, he couldn’t stop himself, so he continued. “Did you know that Sarkanda had stolen that dog from a house?” He looked at the man with dentures for a reaction, but the man was busy looking at Sarkanda and his friends, who were still shooting relentlessly. The vegetable seller turned towards the boy, hoping he was listening to him. The boy, too, was watching the shooting. So the vegetable seller with a servile look on his face helplessly turned his attention to the fighting.

They all were looking at Sarkanda admitting that he had earned his nickname “the headless,” and they secretly admired his inexorable fearlessness in the face of death, a quality they well knew they didn’t possess. All of a sudden Sarkanda ducked his head. The bullet hit the hard steel in the corner of Baba’s shipping container that stuck out of a thick layer of mud, then rebounded and caught the skinny man above his right knee. “Akhhhh!” was the only sound the man made, and he sat on the ground holding his wounded thigh. The two women looked in the man’s direction, their faces warm with pity. Baba put down his glass of tea on a cooking oil box next to him and stood in his place to assess the situation. That was the maximum movement he allowed himself to make. The fear of getting hit by a stray bullet was tangible now that the man’s thigh started bleeding.

The porter ran with his wheelbarrow to help. The vegetable seller lifted the wounded man and placed him in the wheelbarrow.

The boy’s toes felt numb, especially the one that stuck out of his shoe. He saw the agony on the man’s face, and he noticed that for once the man was not adjusting his dentures, but clenching his jaws and shaking his small head from side to side as he lay on his back, his face pale, his legs dangling off the edges of the wheelbarrow.

“Would the compoder compounder be in his shop?” the porter asked, not particularly directing the question at anyone, but thinking out loud. He hurriedly pushed the wheelbarrow towards the pharmacy, negotiating the bumps, and disappeared into the alley.

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Nasro and Habib had stopped shooting, their cartridge magazines lay empty, but they stayed low in the trench amidst piles of spent shell casings. The shooting from the other side also died down. Zaman was dissembling his DShK. Every now and then a bullet rang in the air, and Sarkanda fired back. This went on for a couple of minutes as if no one wanted to bear the burden of being the first to accept defeat.

Eventually the shooting ended just as it had begun.

The crowd started crossing the street as soon as they thought it was safe enough. The two women got up. The vegetable seller went back to his shop and started sprinkling water over the fresh vegetables: basil, scallions, spinach, lettuce, radishes, cucumbers, and carrots, neatly organized on big inclined tables.

The boy crossed the street and stood at the mouth of Khala’s alley, his eyes set on the empty casings that lay in and around the trench.

Zaman stood up, and asked Nasro and Habib to help him carry the DShK back to the checkpoint. They carelessly flung their Kalashnikovs onto their shoulders, and each man held and carried one stand of the heavy machine gun. Sarkanda was the last to get up. He held his old, Russian PK by the muzzle and dragged it across the street into the post, and then came back for his sandals that lay face down on the ground.

As soon as Sarkanda went into the checkpoint, the boy rushed to the trench. He took fistfuls of the spent shell casings and fitted them into his pockets hurriedly, his heart racing as if he had struck a gold deposit, but others could come and loot him any minute. Two kids he had not noticed before jumped into the trench beside him. One of them knelt on the wet soil and held the plastic sack, while his friend shoved the empty brass casings with both hands into the bag. Although the boy’s pockets and palms were full, he wanted to pick more. Then he stood there in the middle of the trench calculating how much money he would make from selling the casings in his pockets. The amount seemed insignificant compared to what the two kids would get. He envied them and their bags.

Silently but bitterly he walked out of the trench holding his waist-band and headed to Khala’s house. He knew that he had taken way longer than he should have, and that Mother was waiting for him with the broom in hand, but the jingling sound of the shells in his pockets comforted him.

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By the time he returned with the salt, life on the main street was back to normal. People stood in the line in front of the bakery to buy fresh bread for dinner. Zaman, Sarkanda, Nasro, and Habib sat in the checkpoint, exhausted yet at peace. They leaned their heads against the sandbags. The dog issue was not settled and the fight would go on, but for now they could enjoy the two joints that went around in the circle.

Across from the checkpoint, the porter scrubbed the blood from his wheelbarrow, and the vegetable seller was pouring water on his hands from a green plastic pitcher. Baba stood next to them holding his cup of tea. They talked, and every now and then they all laughed and shook their heads.

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The boy turned the corner towards home. He felt the first drop of rain on his bare collarbone. He looked up at the dark clouds and knew it was about to rain hard. He started to run, but his leg felt numb, just where the dog had bit him and where the man had bled. He stumbled, then found his footing, and ran again, limping. The shell casings jingled in his pockets with the sound of empty brass.

— Jamaluddin Aram

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Jamaluddin Aram is a documentary filmmaker, producer, and short story writer from Kabul. His documentaries My Teacher Is a Shopkeeper (part one, part two) and Unbelievable Journey have been screened in Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world. He is the associate producer of the Academy Award-nominated film Buzkashi Boys. He is currently pursuing a major in English with a concentration in creative writing at Union College in Schenectady, New York.

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

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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

N5

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.

.

“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.

.

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.”

.

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.”

.

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?

.

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.

.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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Tak-tak-tak-tak-tak.

Her knife lands.

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

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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
 

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

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

—Dorian Stuber

 

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

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


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

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

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

The lad looked sick.

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

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

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

“Not out of that room I couldn’t.”

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

“But there’s Miss Burch.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes Mr. Raunce,” she replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No Madam.”

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

“Yes Madam.”

“And, oh tell me, how is Eldon?”

“Much about the same I believe Madam.”

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

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

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

“What glove?”

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

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

“’E ain’t dead yet.”

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

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

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

“Not me I never.”

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

“What for Mr. Raunce?”

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

“I never.”

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

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

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

“What about Miss Burch?” the boy called.

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

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

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

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

“Yes Arthur what is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

“No Madam.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you Madam.”

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

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

“Yes Madam.”

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

“Yes Madam.”

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

“Thank you Madam.”

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

“I will make enquiries. Very good Madam.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Would the dinner bell have gone yet?”

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

“Not me,” she replied amused.

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

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

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

“Oh yeah?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The girls looked down to their laps.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Careful now,” said Raunce.

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

“It was nearly my lot,” Raunce added.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Henry Green

Copyright © 1945 by the estate of Henry Green

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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.

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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
 

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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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