Apr 152014
 

Andre Narbonne

More fable than short story, yet also something of a noir parable, a grim psychological mystery of compulsion and erotic self-abnegation, André Narbonne’s “The Doctrinal Murder of a Socratic Beggar in St. Suzette” tells the tale of a frustrated artist whose wife commits a murder to save her husband’s work from mockery. André Narbonne is an old acquaintance; I selected a wonderful story of his for the 2006 edition of Best Canadian Stories (in the time before time when I edited that estimable volume).

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At first, Martin Verloc drew pleasure from the slowing of the crowd. They were construing him; he recognized the pace. He watched from above, peering through rust-pocked metal railings while rush-hour pedestrians beneath the bridge hesitated at the sight of his installation—a five-panel theatrical fixture, sculpted and embossed, entitled The Shield of Achilles. Occasionally, Martin observed an expression of admiration and he felt himself pleasant: disconnected and attached.

Securing funds for his creation, his Gesamtkunstwerk, had been a long and uncertain process, which had galled Martin considerably. When he left St. Suzette, Quebec, to apprentice in Paris, he never considered coming back, but here he was, middle-aged and grey, a celebrated son, his residency so significant it was mentioned in tourist brochures. The city should have been honoured by his proposal, but the public art committee balked at the idea of a Greek metaphor being the muse for a work commemorating the city’s tercentennial celebration. Their minds were filled with explorers and Jesuits and military men—all the dirt of history, the provincialism that ignored the beautiful intractability of myth. He had had to explain, even browbeat the committee so that when he set to work the stakes were enormously high. But it had all paid off, and in secret he had welded an inscription to the underside of a panel—Γεννημένος της ιδιωτικής λαμπρότητας και αυξημένος σε έναν δημόσιο χώρο (born of private brilliance and raised in a public space).

The Shield of Achilles was installed under a bridge where commuters walked in competing streams every morning and evening. They walked through and around the art, immersed in Homeric imagery: weddings, murders, farming, dancing—every human endeavour known to antiquity as catalogued in Book XVIII of The Iliad. Martin’s explication of a three thousand-year-old poetic passage was the sort of critical success that cannot be diminished by its popularity. And it didn’t scare him that he had no more ideas, that he walked to the bridge daily in a sort of emotional torpor so that his only inspiration came from without, from his appreciation of his audience. Like a doddering man with a young child, if he never created another work, he could take comfort in his final inspiration to last until the end of his days.

“Go on,” he whispered to passing strangers below. “Interpret me.”

Only one thing distressed him: a panhandler who one day perched on the edge of the middle panel, cap in hand. Once would have been alright—a found poem in human form, or a comic moment intruding on a stage dressed for tragedy. Unfortunately, having decided the crowd offered a rich enough vein for him to prospect, the beggar kept returning. The man was neither young nor old, neither ugly nor pitiable. If anything, he stood out for being nondescript. But the beggar was a distraction, and Martin found his continued presence disturbing.

Martin brought home his disgust at the beggar to his wife, Betty. As always, Betty listened to her husband’s litany of sarcasms without moving. It was a trick she had learned early in their marriage. Had a kettle been boiling, the steam whistling at a high pitch, she would have ignored it. Martin was the centre of her understanding of herself, never mind the affairs that had been more muse to him than Greek poetry. His flaws as a husband didn’t make her love him less. They made her fear him. And so she listened, as always, to Martin’s description of the crowds and of how the beggar still sat there, an idle nuisance disturbing the natural flow of things.

When he was finished, she replied, “Well that’s different.”

It was what she always said, and the expression was offensive to Martin, who prided himself on being different.

*     *     *

He was there again the next day when Martin watched the crowd. The cap he held out was dirty, the hand that held it, equally so. The effect didn’t create distaste but apathy. Well-dressed women and men who’d only a moment earlier been looking around, perhaps judging themselves in relation to their fellow pedestrians, stared at their feet. They passed the panels without considering them, the beggar having reduced them to a point of philosophical and aesthetic vacuity.

“It’s more than a man can take,” Martin opened as he approached the man. “Every day you are here. Have you nowhere else to go?”

The beggar looked up. Martin was a heavyset man. He wore an expensive greatcoat calculated to make him look like he belonged to an earlier century.

“Who are you?” asked the beggar. “You are not the police.”

“Of course not. I am an artist.”

“An artist? What’s that?”

“I built the art you sit on.”

The beggar looked around. “This is art?” he asked.

In the voice of a lecturer exhausted by a back-row student’s stupidity, Martin answered, “It is a representation of the shield the goddess Thetis brings to her son Achilles in The Illiad. The forms you sit on are a besieging army. There, behind you, is a sortie lead by Ares and Athene. Strife, Panic, and Death stand beside them. Above you, bolted into the underside of the bridge are the constellations. Over there…”

“Constellations? Then who is that man?”

“Orion the Hunter.”

“I see. A man as stars. It’s very good.”

“What do you mean by that? Are you mocking me?”

“Not at all. Look at me. Where can I sit? This is very good at shielding me from the rain. Soon it will snow and your art will protect me. The music—is it a lute that plays constantly?—will soothe me.”

“That is not its purpose!”

The beggar only shrugged.

“Will you not leave?”

“No.”

“And why not?”

“Everywhere I go I am asked to leave. This time I have decided to stay. This is a very comfortable place. You have built something that is very useful to me.”

“It’s not meant to be useful.”

“Then why build it?”

“It is art. Art is meant to be appreciated.”

“I appreciate it.”

*     *     *

That night, Martin’s anger was a second man growing inside of him, mastering him. He raged until Betty feared he would go out like he did the nights when he’d been working on his designs and his muse left him. On those nights, his muse, when he found it, kept him late. Once he was gone for two days. Loving him, she had to acknowledge, was a tawdry business. She could not imagine any other life and she suspected that was why he kept her. She had no connection to his friends, who made no effort to conceal the fact that they tolerated her. She had no opinions on his art. He’d silenced them with his defenses, with his satire. She could offer nothing for his mind. True, she was one of those women who kept her beauty as she aged, but she assumed he was able to provide for his bodily desires elsewhere. And yet he always came back.

She wondered if there wasn’t some way she could keep him other than through her passivity.

“I feel imprisoned by idiots,” Martin spat. “First the grocer, now the beggar.”

Betty knew a cold shock of fear at the mention of the grocer.

The grocer had been kind to her. He always addressed her politely. And then, a mistake. In Martin’s hearing he had one day complimented her dress. A glass shattered in her mind. She grew dizzy and nearly fell. Martin, as she knew he would, offered to fight. He berated the grocer, who was married, in front of a full shop, accusing him of making advances on his wife. Even in this age, wasn’t marriage sacred? From that day on, Betty stayed clear, walking the three extra blocks to the next store for groceries. One day she met the grocer on the street and smiled politely, but he returned a resentful look. She wondered if he held her to blame, if he imagined that she had preyed on his good nature to arouse her husband’s passion.

What she didn’t know was that the grocer was insidious. He watched them. At times, after closing his shop, he stared into their windows, tried to catch a glimpse of treason through a gap in the curtains. He muttered under his breath and grew increasingly strange.

“I know what I’ll do,” said Martin. “I will give that beggar money to leave. Yes, that’s what I’ll do.”

“How much?”

“Oh, not too much. A man like that is used to getting by on very little.”

She noticed how, having made up his mind on a course of action, Martin’s mood eased. Action could placate. Maybe it could placate a bad heart.

It was a family inheritance. There was no cure for the fearful shudder, the quick coldness that sometimes left her breathless, other times too weak to walk. The best she could do was to reduce stress, which she had for years attempted to do by standing statue-still when she felt most threatened.

*     *     *

“Ah, here you are, my friend. How did I know I would find you here?”

“It is you who are mocking me.” The beggar was eating a take-out salad from a plastic bowl. He spoke through a mouthful of spinach.

“Do you remember our conversation?”

“Who could forget meeting a genius?”

“Genius? I would never call myself a genius.”

“Perhaps. But you would imply.”

“You are a man who knows how to frustrate. I am here to offer you a trade. I will give you…assistance…if you agree to beg somewhere else.”

“Why would you do that?”

“Because art does not exist without an audience. It doesn’t matter what I have made of this space. With you here, no one sees it.”

“I see it.”

“But you do not count.”

“I told you, you were mocking me. How can you expect me to agree that I do not count?”

“You know nothing of metaphor and can neither appreciate nor critique the strength of my sentiments. Have you read Homer?”

“I have no time.”

“No time? But all you do is sit.”

“Being poor is time-consuming. You have no idea.”

“Then I shall tell you what it is you are looking at, and you tell me whether that is what you see. When Achilles, the great Greek warrior, decides to return to battle against the Trojans his goddess mother asks Hephaestus, the god of the forge, to make him a suit of armour. The shield that Hephaestus creates is a work of art. In Homer’s poem, it shows moving scenes, marriages and wars, deceit and comfort. Everything is on the shield…”

“What is that twirling thing?”

“It stands for abundance. The purple on the one side is a vineyard on a king’s estate, on the other side, the gold is his corn.”

“Oh, abundance. Let me see then if I can recognize metaphor, now that you’ve taught me.”

“I am not done…”

“Shhh, don’t give me any hints. There? No. There? No. No, I don’t see it.”

“See what?”

“Poverty.”

“There is no poverty. The shield is rich, not poor.”

“And I am poor, not rich. All that I see is shelter.”

“Do you not see art?”

“Can art be shelter?”

“No.”

“Then I do not see art.”

“That’s perfectly understandable. I understand that you are an idiot. Will you take my money?”

“What makes your money any different from the other money I am given?”

Martin pulled several bills from his pocket and showed them to the beggar.

“Oh.”

“However many you want. All of them, if you think it a fair trade—just to leave and not come back.”

“You are asking me to lie.”

“What?”

“You want me to make promises I will not keep. If you give me your money, I will spend it. Then I will still have to live, and I will come back. My promise to you will mean nothing to me. Listen. I am being honest. I am fighting against deceit, which is our common enemy. If you give me the money, I will return.”

“Even if you promise to stay away? It’s outrageous!”

“Is it? But why? I do not count. Why should you expect the things that do not count to have more integrity than the things that do count?”

“You are hopeless.”

“I agree.”

*     *     *

The storm seemed to this time reduce Martin to the level of an infant. Like an infant, he was indiscriminately cruel. He ridiculed Betty’s choice of outfits for the party in Martin’s honour they were to attend that evening. He was in the habit of dressing her. Their tastes never matched and she always felt awkward in overly-loud arrangements. Tonight, she had tried to predict his tastes and had dressed in what she imagined an appropriately extroverted fashion. Martin had rained on her all the ridicule she would have felt herself for the clothing, only magnified to the point of indicating character flaws.

“Wear black,” he told her at last. “Just wear black.”

At the party her dress seemed dangerously provocative. She came across as a middle-aged vamp and the men who’d gathered to celebrate Martin’s public achievements but knew little about his private life stared openly. It was Martin’s habit to distance himself from Betty at public events. She walked the margins of the room, occasionally narrowing the distance between them enough to hear bits of conversation.

“He’s determined to make a spectacle of himself,” she heard Martin say to a man in a gabardine suit.

The man replied, “Then you think he’s targeted you?”

“He says so himself. He’s like the woman who sprayed paint at the Mona Lisa. His only purpose is to destroy art.”

“But surely that can’t be right. That woman’s purpose was political. She was protesting for the rights of the handicapped. Maybe this man is political, too.”

“What politics could a hobo have?”

“The politics of the dispossessed.”

“Bah. He is a nuisance. You should see him. His life is miserable and so he intends to make my life miserable. It is his way of playing God.”

She could only hear a little at a time. All the conversations seemed to go that way, and she felt her heart pounding painfully when she listened to them. Towards the end of the night, when Martin found the sympathy of a young woman in a white ermine jacket, Betty heard a rush in her head like a powerful wind blowing from side to side. She gripped a chair for support, the tension pushing her to the point of collapse.

“How terrible! So much beauty! So much creativity suppressed by an ignorant illiterate man,” she heard the woman say.

To her surprise, Martin answered, “I don’t know that he’s illiterate. He seems to have a fine grasp of argument.”

Martin’s eyes met Betty’s then. He had a talent for reading images. She wondered what he saw.

“Excuse me,” he said, and he rushed to his wife’s side. “My love, are you okay?” He looked frightened.

“Yes, I’m okay. I’m tired. I’ll sit down.”

“No, you will go home.”

“Oh please don’t make me…”

“I will come with you.”

He was all consideration and she knew the storm had blown over and she realized that despite the fact the marriage would probably prove fatal, she loved him powerfully.

*     *     *

The beggar wasn’t there when Martin arrived the next morning. There was no sign of him ever having been there. Even so, Martin had an eerie sensation of being followed. He looked about several times, but could find no reason for his suspicion.

For the first time in what seemed like a very long while, Martin was able to observe the reaction of the crowd that passed his artwork. To his surprise, they did not stop. Had they not noticed it before? Of course they had—when it was new. It was four-months-old now and was no longer capable of holding their interest. Martin had never before been aware of himself being ignored. He had been hated and revered. That he’d known. This was puzzling.

Was this why he imagined himself being followed? Was his mind compensating to protect him, inventing the interest of strangers?

He had always been good at protecting his sanity. He didn’t consider himself a bad man, although he had done bad things. All the bad things were in the service of preserving his mental health and so he forgave himself for them. In rough seas, they could be jettisoned like steerage from a lifeboat.

Martin tried to comfort himself with the thought that he wasn’t done producing art. There would be more works that would stop the crowds and return the sun to his atrophying patch of identity. But the thought brought no respite from depression. He hadn’t had any ideas for a year, and he had gone to antiquity for his last.

In Martin’s mind, the lines from Homer’s poem were an expression of futility. That’s what had secretly drawn him to his concept. Everything that can be done, has been done, the cuckold god of the forge seemed to be saying. Why not kill yourself, Achilles? All life is repetition of past lives.

Martin never told anyone that his plan was to produce a monument to redundancy.  The art was vibrant, but it took a verb to express neutrality. Someone, he thought, might catch sight of his meaning. Somewhere in the crowd that passed daily en route to the stultifying business of middle-class sameness must be someone who would recognize the statement in the art. What that person would do with himself or herself next, he could not guess. What he himself had done with the absolute and classless knowledge of futility was to sink deeper inward.

He was looking to his audience for indications of a way out. And he no longer knew what his audience looked like.

He heard a noise, a different tread. The beggar at last. Martin understood a feeling of shame and dodged behind a concrete pillar, the better to observe without being seen. The beggar had a game leg that dragged in such a way as to cause his steps to be measured but to never add up. He moved with obvious pain. When he sat, it was with the slow deliberation of a king sitting on a concrete throne. He didn’t put out his hat at first, which surprised Martin. He’d assumed that the beggar was begging all the time. What other purpose could he have? Instead, he seemed to content himself with looking around. He fixated on the fourth panel, which portrayed a wedding and a murder. For a long while he did nothing. His reverie was disturbed at last by a man offering a coin. The beggar nodded, said, “God bless you,” mechanically and took off his cap. Then he went about his work.

In the time that passed while Martin watched the beggar consider his panel, his feelings underwent a sea change. He walked home feeling an unaccountable joy. As he walked beside the water, he observed fish in the canal, dark forms dodging into the depths, and decided that he liked them.

Late that night, he felt around in the darkness for a glass of water he knew he had placed somewhere near the bed. Betty, who anticipated his needs, held it out.

“Oh, thank you,” he said. “Are you still up?”

“I am the bearer of water.”

“The bearer of water,” he considered her joke. “You should be the one who sleeps and gets better. You are not well.”

“Not well? Do you worry about me?”

“I worry about you more than you can ever know. But that’s my fault. You will know how much I love you. I make this my promise. I have been very stupid. It has occurred to me now. Slowly, I’ll admit. But I think…I think I have seen something. You will think it impossible.”

“My love?”

“I will show you. Yes. We didn’t do all of this for nothing. We did all of this for us.”

She thought for a moment.

She said, “My love, I will show you, too.”

*     *     *

“Ah, back again,” said Martin a day later.

“As you see.”

“It got dark early tonight.”

The beggar followed his gaze up into the black. A loose string of grey-white, a V of birds, laboured to till it.

“It’s coming. Can you feel it?” asked Martin.

“Winter?”

“Yes.”

“I smell snow,” the beggar replied, agreeably.

“What does it smell like? Death?”

“Snow is not a metaphor. It is a thing. Snow smells like snow. You know it or you don’t. How would I know what death smells like? Death is not a thing.”

“You live so close to it.”

“We all live close to it, and to life. What does life smell like?”

“Wedding cake. Is that what it smells like to you?”

“You mock me. Go away. You are bad for business.”

“A very rational answer. You don’t sound crazy. I don’t understand. Aren’t all street people crazy? Are you bi-polar? Schizophrenic?”

The beggar looked at him crossly and sighed. “None of those things. Although I have heard that same charge made against artists.”

“If you are not mad, why do you choose to do this?”

“To live? I did not choose the way I live, I only choose to live.”

“Why not work?”

“Listen, it is possible to fall so far from the rest of the world that you cannot get back. I fell. When I did, I destroyed my leg. Yes, I was crazy then. There is no coming back now. This is where I live. In this body. In these clothes. I will tell you no more. Consider me an abstraction, a figment of your conscience, if you have one. I do not like being spied on.”

“I, spy on you?”

“I saw you. Behind that pillar. And I have heard you other times this week. I was grateful to see that it was you, so I did not say anything. Do not embarrass the man you thought was a demon, that’s my dictum.”

“Dictum? Such language… Anyway, you are paranoid. I was being polite.”

“Why be polite?”

“An artist must be polite to his audience.”

“I am not your audience.”

“On the contrary. You are my only audience. You are the only person who is aware of my work. Whatever you see in it must therefore be right. If my art is shelter, then it is shelter. Who am I to disagree? It meant other things for me when I designed it, but your assessment of its utility is as good a reading as mine and, indeed, confirms my ideas. There is nothing new. Everything is the same as it was before it was what it is.”

“You’re not going to offer me money?”

“You don’t want it.”

“I didn’t say I didn’t want it. I said I didn’t want to lie. It’s not the same thing.”

“My offer tonight is to leave you alone.”

“Why?”

“Because I believe I have been a very bad man, and I never meant to be. Well, no one does. It is always a surprise when a man finds out bad things about himself. And I have found things out. I have been ungenerous where I should have been most kind.

“Do you know, I left St. Suzette when I was nothing? I was not even a genius, as you call me. A genius doesn’t exist until someone else says he is one, and no one said that about me. I worked in Europe where, over time, I got wise. I married a very beautiful woman. We had a nice house. Not luxurious, but nice. I saw no purpose in returning here. It was my wife’s idea. She wanted to see what egg I had hatched from. We booked a holiday, spent two weeks here and at the end of two weeks decided that this is where we would be at our best.

“For my wife it was a matter of pleasing me. I used to know that. I used to know that she was a woman capable of great sacrifice. She sacrificed leaving her family and her friends because she thought this was where I’d be happiest. And I was happy here. That surprised me, too.

“One morning at the beginning of our visit, I went for a walk by the canal. There was a particular spot I had passed by maybe a thousand times as a child and a youth. This time something struck me, a vista I had not noticed before. I understood the form of the buildings and the water in a way I had not understood them when I was young. I was struck by the extreme beauty. It wasn’t just one thing or the other. It wasn’t just architecture or countryside, but the connection between them. So many dead hands had built something that was aesthetically perfect. I have been to Rome. I have seen great buildings. There was nothing great in what I looked at. It was no Arch of Trajan—I mean, of course, the one in Benevento, not Ancona—but all of it together composed the greenest of greens. It was like a field in which humanity and nature had bloomed as one body. And I could not see it before. I had to approach this age before I had lived long enough to come in contact with the serene honesty of this vision, this beauty. It was then that I knew I belonged here.”

“Because you saw beauty?”

“No, because I, alone, saw beauty. No one else stopped. I walked there every day for two weeks. I was the only one who noticed. And I knew that I had a responsibility.”

“Because you saw beauty?”

“Because I saw great beauty. And how does one view great beauty? From my own experience I can tell you that it is not with feelings of joy but with a deep sense of inadequacy.”

“Sense? You make no sense.”

“But I do. And I was the keeper of that knowledge of inadequacy. I was the one who knew we were insufficient. That’s why I had to be here—to watch and to know. And now I have been troubled by another understanding, this time a vision of ugliness in myself. I have been a bad man. I see that. My wife’s mother died of a bad heart. It took a year during which I witnessed her family’s grief. I know what it means, this hunger that consumes, this anguish. I know what it means to die for someone you might better have lived for.

“My wife and I were out and I saw her collapse. She wouldn’t believe it herself, but I know how ill she is and I know my place is to care for her. I renounce my genius. I will go back to being a husband. What I love is not art. It is my wife. As an artist I am merely a beggar like you, begging for pennies of approval.”

“You are crazy. Everything you say is crazy. It is you who are bi-polar.”

*     *     *

Maybe the beggar was right.

Certainly, there were times when Martin’s life seemed under the direction of an unseen needle in a magnetic storm. That those times coincided with his creative periods was suggestive. There were nights when he would walk the city alone and on no clear course and come home late to work demonically. During one of his expeditions, the needle began to spin. No amount of alcohol would settle it. It spun for two days. Sleeping under a picnic table in the park, he became aware on the second night of another man sleeping in the bushes, a shoeless doppelganger. When he returned home, Betty took his coat and poured a bath. She asked no questions. He was humbled by the way she simply understood. He felt a debt of appreciation for her silent knowledge.

And now, on his walk home, he was teased again by inspiration. Some quality in the night seemed to speak to Martin, a form buried in the darkness that was restless to emerge. He saw a thin man, the beggar. He plucked him out of an enormous sky. He registered how the beggar clenched his fists when he staggered. More shapes crowded the fertile dark of his imagination: more beggars. He saw that his beggar was the ur-beggar by which the others would be understood. He saw judgement and quality; he imagined form, but it wanted an action to complete the analogy.

It struck him: a beggar and a genie’s lamp. Better: a beggar as a genie’s lamp. Yes, that was it. The lamp was the hard flesh imprisoning the spirit within. The heart craved but the body confined. He would find out the beggar’s name and he would name the statue after him. He arrived home chuckling.

For the second night in a row, Betty was out. He told himself, “Don’t be angry.”

He went through the kitchen in search of something to eat and discovered that she had not been home since supper. The dishes were untouched, and no food had been prepared for his evening snack. He imagined her leaving shortly after him, but where could she have gone? The possibilities were an endless affront.

“This will be your first test,” he told himself. “When she returns you will be kind. That will show her.”

All the same, he turned the lights off and waited in the dark.

*     *     *

He must have fallen asleep. He didn’t hear her return, didn’t hear the key in the lock. He wasn’t aware of her presence until she threw on the light and he awoke with a start to see her standing in front of him. She was shaking, a motion that seemed to have no epicentre but that owned her body. A deep, dark smear of blood crossed her cheek.

“What is it?” he cried.

“Oh, I have done something terrible,” she replied.

“What have you done?”

She lifted her hand to show him a butcher’s knife. It was red with blood as was the hand that held it. He saw blood on her coat. It was splashed across her chest. It ran down her arms, down her legs. He saw now that the blood on her cheek went further. It touched her forehead and nose. There was blood on her ears.

“I do not understand,” he said, blind to the image before him, unable to put it into coherence.

“I have killed him.”

There was blood on her boots and her boots bled on the floor.

“Killed whom?”

“The beggar.”

“The beggar? I don’t understand.”

“I thought I could hide the body. It was heavy and I had to be fast and he…he saw me. He will call the police. I am finished.”

“He? Who?”

“The grocer. He was there. I don’t know why he was there. He was laughing.”

For a moment, Martin imagined with horror the art of what he had created: the dead beggar’s corpse, Betty’s realizations as she stooped to roll him into the canal while looking at the cruel face of victory belonging to the grocer. All of it was frozen in his mind in a vision too large to contain. His mind had always protected him from itself, always repelled logic whenever necessary, and he viewed the scene he had authored from a safe perspective, as a metaphor, and when he did he started to laugh. He laughed and laughed and laughed. He laughed for a very long time while, outside his house, cars pulled up to the curb.

 —André Narbonne

 

André Narbonne sailed for ten years as a marine engineer on bulk carriers, fishery patrol and hydrographic vessels, and tankers before attending university and completing a PhD in English at the University of Western Ontario. His writing won the Atlantic Writing Contest, the David Adams Richards Prize, and the FreeFall Prose Contest and was anthologized in Best Canadian Stories. He is the father of Ottawa writer Aeriana Narbonne. See a chapter of Narbonne’s novel Carte Blanche here.

 

Apr 072014
 

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Lost love, unrequited love, love all too achingly brief (and yet ever so slightly comical) is the subject of this excerpt from Álvaro Pombo‘s novel Where The Women (translated from Spanish and introduced by Brendan Riley). Here we get the story of poor Aunt Nines, packed off to a convent (the Sisters of Adoration in Letona) after she refuses to eat for lost love. Not just lost love, her only love, the deliciously named Indalecio, whose life is cut short by a swimming accident. “Oh, how Indalecio went running along the beach! He charmed everybody that summer.” Meet also the divine Aunt Lucia who lives in a tower and tells everyone what to think. A gorgeous, sprawling novel inscribed in this short sample.

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Álvaro Pombo is one of Spain’s major writers. Poet, novelist, and political activist, Pombo has won multiple awards awards, including the 1983 Herralde Novel Prize, for El héroe de las mansardas de Mansard (The Hero of the Big House; trans. Margaret Jull Costa) and the 1996 Spanish National Novel Prize for Donde las mujeres (Where the Women), from which the excerpt below is translated.

Pombo was born in Santander, in the northern Spanish autonomous province of Cantabria on the Bay of Biscay, in 1939. He holds degrees in philosophy from the Universidad Complutense in Madrid, and from Birkbeck College in London. He has published some six volumes of poetry and twenty novels and collections of short stories. He is a fascinating and gifted author whose novels offer finely drawn characters, compelling narratives, and keen psychological insights, all presented in richly woven tapestries of lyrical color and the finely tuned Castillian Spanish of his native Cantabria. Despite his enormous reputation in Spain, few of Pombo’s works have yet been translated into English.

Where the Women, Pombo’s eighth novel, is a book with many virtues. Primarily set in northern Spain along the Cantabrian Sea, (with one of the final chapters in Madrid), Where the Women offers a vivid portrait of an aloof, upper-class family in the decades following the Spanish Civil War.  In addition to the captivating, unnamed narrator who is the family’s oldest daughter, Pombo creates a slate of memorable characters: the mother who might be a good woman; the angular, venomous Aunt Lucia; her dutiful German aristocratic lover Tom Bilfinger; the stolid, matronly governess Fraulein Hannah; and the vain, petulant younger siblings Violeta and Fernandito. Gabriel, the narrator’s architect father whom she never meets until the novels end, when she is 31, appears in a ruthless, devastating cameo, in which he seems to embody the sterility and silence of Franco’s Spain.

Donde las mujeres is an unqualified pleasure, told in the voice of the young woman, intimate, authoritative, self-aware, and engaging. She invites the reader’s sympathy as she struggles to become a thoughtful person amid a family whose self-conception demands that it, especially the women, not think too much.  As the narrator’s mother tells her, she should speak less and draw more; drawing things makes them clear, but words misrepresent them. Even when she coquettishly flirts with the hearts of her young suitors, what remains most interesting is her honest self-appraisal; she knows what she is doing and why. Pombo deftly inspires our desire for her to succeed, either in her studies or love affairs, but then deliberately subverts any hopeful fruition; this emphasizes the narrator’s ultimate isolation: her home life is fancy but sterile and unfulfilling; her studies are mere dilettantism; she is being prepared for no real future, and her family offers nothing in the way of practical, worldly or spiritual wisdom except the eventual vague notion that she should someday find a husband.  Instead, thanks to the cruel revelation of Aunt Lucia, she inherits the paradox of unknown identity; like her deceased Aunt Nines, whom she regrets not properly mourning, she is the product of a loveless affair which her mother has always concealed. Thus, she is not the daughter she has been brought up to believe in, and her upper class status, as she comes to suspect, is a sham.

So, what initially seems like a familiar coming of age story turns out to be a sombre and beautifully executed philosophical meditation.  As the narrator goes to Madrid to confront her father –Gabriel– there is some expectation of mutual recognition or self-discovery, but Pombo pursues the path of alienation to the end. Gabriel is even colder, more vain and self-centered than the rest of the narrator’s family; he cavalierly refuses to acknowledge her. Their brief, chilly meeting in the capital powerfully refocuses the novel on Spain as a whole. Although set during the harshest years of the Franco regime, the political struggles and suffering endured by millions are hardly mentioned. Lately, even after the long dictatorship and the somewhat tarnished decades of a new, apparently open democracy, Spain still struggles with its past; its postmodern identity is built firmly upon a denial that reaches back to its civil war, and the new present cannot endure if the past is known.  

At the end the narrator cannot return home. She wakes up from her atheistic, bourgeois slumber to find out that there is nothing special or reassuring about her life; she is 31 years old, without family love, friends, money or prospects.

Where the Women is an eloquent and reflective novel, virtuously transparent and believable, an intriguing balance of sentimental exploration and psychological insight. Álvaro Pombo’s lyrical prose achieves a finely shaded composition of intimate reveries, disdainful bourgeois chatter, modern cynicism, and tightly reined irony which allows the narrator’s clear, thoughtful, and often humorous voice to carry us from beginning to end with impressive sustain, fluidity, and conviction. Where the Women is a masterful, beautifully written book which awaits and deserves an equally captivating English translation. 

—Brendan Riley

 

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But you can’t take Nines seriously! She’s suffering from something, no one’s disputing it, not me, not anybody. But it’s not an illness.”

“She was really in love; that’s like an illness!” my mother commented from the other end of the dining room table where the whole family was having tea.

“So what? What does being in love have to do with not eating? Nines is just completely apathetic, that’s what. Tell me, how many people, as far as you know, have stopped eating because of love? Nobody!” Aunt Lucia assured us, answering her own question.

Violeta and I looked at each other, horrified and delighted by the stormy turn that Aunt Lucia’s statements had started to take. Sitting bolt upright in her chair away from the seat back, she opened wide her large blue eyes, bright with the slight opposition she seemed to be offering my mother.

“Your egg, Lucia! Eat your egg. Later, when it’s cold, it’ll feel like a lump in your stomach.”

But at that moment Aunt Lucia was not interested in the temperature of her food.  She simply gave the egg a sharp tap with her small elegant ivory spoon.  Nobody could have prevented Aunt Lucia from saying what she wanted to say about Aunt Nines.

“What’s happening is that Nines has compromised her health by not controlling herself, and she won’t control herself, not even if you kill her. There’s no decent doctor, no nurse, no nun, nobody who can bend a will like hers. She has decided that she’s going to starve herself to death, and that’s the end of it. She already weighs less than 100 pounds, just like Gandhi!”

Violeta and I looked at each other again. The storm was getting worse by the moment.  My mother responded to her in a calm, quiet voice, a voice calculated to irritate Aunt Lucia—she was the oldest of the sisters, followed by my mother and then Aunt Nines:

“It’s quite unfair and quite absurd what you’re saying. You know how everything happened. I’m not just talking about her misfortune. I’m talking about everything. Poor Nines. Her life, how it was and how it is now. It’s not that she wants to starve to death. She doesn’t want to die. What she doesn’t want is to go on living, which is something very different.”

A long silence floated over the unbleached linen tablecloth and my grandmother’s elegant china. Violeta and I shrugged our shoulders and stared fixedly at our plates. Neither the argument nor the fuss were new. It didn’t matter; that wasn’t necessary for them to be incredibly fascinating. The word “justice” shifted Aunt Lucia’s attention to regions of great profundity and nervousness. The supposed injustice committed against Aunt Nines was absorbed and nullified by the larger idea of justice which Aunt Lucia was busy expounding in that moment. The corresponding balance of the scales of justice ended up getting completely twisted around, along with the saucer and spoon and cup of tea which danced wildly in Aunt Lucia’s left hand. Despite being frequently on the verge of falling, they never did, something which we would have all preferred: for us all to come crashing down. And to rest in peace, smashed to pieces alongside the china and justice, across the tablecloth puddled with tea, without the least bit of style. But her style never faltered; it was as if Aunt Lucia had a magnet set right in each of the five fingertips of her left hand, with their proportional counterparts of steel or metal in the spoon, the plate, and the cup. It allowed for a wonderful imbalance at the heart of Aunt Lucia’s most elegant equilibrium, and in her voice and her manners.

It was November. Aunt Nines no longer lived at home. On medical advice, Aunt Lucia had taken her to live with the Sisters of Adoration in Letona. In a separate wing of the convent they had rooms, each one with its own mirror and washstand where, during Lent, the ladies from Letona went for three-day retreats and spiritual exercises. Throughout the year the nuns rented out rooms for the elderly who could no longer take care of themselves, or people like Aunt Nines who were suffering from nerves, who had to be watched discretely, keeping an eye on them without offending them because they were still not completely crazy.

It was noticeable that, now that Aunt Nines was gone, we talked about her incessantly. We had never done that while she lived with us. According to my mother, the decision to move Aunt Nines to live with the Sisters of Adoration was not, in any way, an easy one to take. My mother and Aunt Lucia had to meet with Doctor Mazarín and his assistant to carefully weigh the pros and cons that the move would mean for her. Aunt Nines herself had no part in the discussions nor, it seemed, the decision itself. She simply said: “Whatever you decide will be fine by me.”  In Aunt Lucia’s opinion it was a completely apathetic comment, although it was enough to make it understood that she was leaving the house on her own, without anybody pushing her. She was moving in with the Sisters of Adoration of her own free will. No one deliberately meant to isolate her. Once at the convent, little by little, Aunt Nines stopped eating or being interested in life at all.

In November, they talked about Aunt Nines’s stubbornness, one afternoon after another, all through tea and afterwards. Aunt Lucia carried all the weight of the conversation, at times giving the impression that she was speaking not only with us but also, at the same time, to an enormous crowd of people gathered in a grand theatre, one which required clear, precise explanations pronounced in a voice a few octaves higher than what is customary in homes at tea time. Throughout December and January she classified Doctor Mazarín and his assistant as both eminent authorities and imbeciles, sometimes in the same breath. By the middle of March, Doctor Mazarin came to be, in Aunt Lucia’s eyes, a perfect incompetent, incapable of distinguishing between bodies and souls. And yet, for all that, at the end of that year, he was the one responsible for preventing Aunt Nines from slowly killing herself as a result of her depression. It was depression and perhaps her desire to be united, there beyond, in death, with Indalecio, the only boyfriend that she ever had, and whom she had lost. Aunt Lucia always stressed—and my mother always discretely assented to this—that Aunt Nines wasn’t crazy but was really just as sane as any of us. And the proof was to be found in the fact that when they found her lifeless one morning, her two eyes were open and eloquent, tenaciously fixed on the bare ceiling of her private room with its own washbasin, with an air of peace and confidence in what awaited her in the next life.

In this life, on the other hand, Aunt Nines had nothing special to look forward to. And for this reason it was such a great surprise when, without expecting it, the chance to be happy came upon her. Her life had passed slowly until Idalecio appeared. They fell in love; they were going to get married; it all happened in the blink of an eye. And very suddenly it ended.

Violeta and I talked about it all in our bedroom until late at night without figuring it out, but we didn’t share the same attitude. I felt that with Aunt Nines installed in the convent of the Sisters of Adoration that there must be a solution and there, at that stage of the tragedy, was where we would find it. For Violeta, talking about Aunt Nines seemed to be simply making pointless conversation for the sake of talking. On the other hand, perhaps for being two years older, I talked to try to modify the sad situation. But it was sad exactly because it could not be changed, and that was why we talked about it so much that winter: more than deepening it, our talking about the sadness ennobled and embellished the situation. The fact that it was all so sad also made it exciting, not just in general, but in every detail, too.  Specifically, it was very sad that Aunt Nines was not really even my mother’s and Aunt Lucia’s sister; nor was she, like them, the daughter of my grandmother and grandfather. She was nothing more than a stepsister, the daughter of my grandfather and the person whose flat he used on his trips to Madrid. Violeta and I learned this fact as a result of Indalecio’s accident. It had been ignored until then because since long before my memories began to take hold, we had always called her Aunt Nines and she always lived at home.

In the parlor there is a photo of the three of them, seated on the front porch with grandmother, who has her head turned to highlight her Greek profile. Aunt Nines stands out a little from her two sisters; she is somewhat taller—it’s an old photo—with her hair combed in a different style, dressed more severely, in a different fashion. It’s as if she were the oldest one, but she was really the youngest of the three.

Oh, how Indalecio went running along the beach! He charmed everybody that summer.  That included the two of us, who went running as soon as we saw him from a distance coming down to the beach each morning, with the excuse of asking him what time it was, just to hear him say: “Are you going home already?”  It was exciting to answer, almost like a chorus: “Not yet because it’s still early, we usually leave at three.”  And Indalecio would take us by the hand, one on each side, hanging on, just our feet brushing along the sand. It was something that served as an excuse for him to come over to our awning and take Aunt Nines for a walk, down along the beach, to the cliff where the sand ends by the big rocks. They would walk back very slowly, the two of them staring at the ground, taking their steps one at a time. It was thrilling to see them walk away and not be able to see them, then see them again, dallying right before our very eyes, until it was well after three o’clock.

Indalecio was a good fellow, he was invincible: only the sea could beat him. The sea always betrays; there is no such thing as an easy sea. Indalecio drowned for not taking that into account, for letting himself be infected by the thoughts the sea brings to light, which seem not thoughts of the sea but of man. The more green and swollen, the more loquacious it seems, the more mute and deadly it becomes once you are within it. Indalecio knew the sea very well but it did him no good. He owned a white yacht with a bright red jib. From the balcony our house, no matter how far out he was racing, you could pick him out from all the rest at a glance: tacking wide to take best advantage of the wind; the sky, the race, the blue light of the open sea and the summer, the adventure. But Indalecio was younger than the sea; that’s why he drowned. In spite of his considerable charm and his unpretentious seriousness. In spite of his long arms and large hands, and his wrists, thick and strong from rowing. In spite of his black spherical watch, rustproof and water resistant, that drowned with him but which, unlike Indalecio, didn’t resurface. Under its fogged glass the hands count the hours at the bottom, water resistant still. By chance, Aunt Nines wasn’t home when the accident happened. My mother informed her over the phone. It’s almost impossible to deliver such news well. My mother delivered it to her curtly, dryly. For Aunt Nines it must have been more terrible than the most terrible thing, as we saw afterwards in her careless self-abandon and her lack of desire for living. It stuck to the roof of her mouth, like a limpet, until it killed her.

 .

That winter was the wintriest of any winter.  No one could remember a worse one, neither in San Román nor in the other fishing towns on that part of the coast. We stopped attending school on the 4th of December in the afternoon, a Monday, because my mother said that it was better to be at home than anywhere else. That it was impossible to go to school was a marvelous impossibility.  Aunt Lucia was already installed in her tower, and that weather did not let up a bit.  At high tide, the waves released their pent-up energy against the wharf and the little bridge that connects to our part of the coast. It’s like an island. On the maps it looks like a peninsula—although on the maps it’s not called la Maraña—but it’s really an island. It has an isthmus at least two kilometers wide, a beach whose sand is swept by the waves and the northeast wind, secured by a partially hidden rocky place and the wild broom and weeds of the dunes. Having it look like a peninsula on the maps was unfortunate, although infinitely superior to living on the mainland like other girls. On the island, well, on La Maraña, we lived alone, just us, in two houses. Ours was the one closest to the bridge, a two-story chalet surrounded by a small garden and a privet hedge filled with holes that were, when we were small, secret doors for sneaking in and out. Facing ours was Aunt Lucia’s much bigger house with a semidetached tower and large grounds enclosed by a brick wall with an obelisk in the very center. From the bridge by our house you could only see one side of its slate roof.  On the other hand, the tower and the dormer windows of Aunt Lucia’s large house overlooked the highest part of the island. It faced the grey-white sky of winter like a dark lighthouse casting a gloomy shadow over the sea, useless and menacing, like a castle keep. Every year, at dawn on New Year’s Day, Aunt Lucia lit a fire in a large can of pitch atop the tower, which illuminated the whole wild flying sky with its sharp, capricious, incomprehensible flames. Aunt Lucia was an event all by herself. It was impossible for Violeta and I to listen to her and not end up arguing back in our bedroom about what she said and what she did. Her annual arrival, at the beginning of October, was a delightful holiday, blowing like a gale through the entire autumn and winter until the middle or end of April. “The spring won’t catch me here, not even dead!” Aunt Lucia used to say. It was true, because as soon as the air seemed to soften and the sun linger before setting, and we began to shed our sweaters, Aunt Lucia got ants in her pants and went off to Iceland, to Reykjavik, where Tom Bilfinger had built a chalet in the suburbs out of tar-covered logs and wood, the way they do in Iceland for the cold. Tom was essential for Aunt Lucia’s glamour: her High German suitor from a rich, noble Protestant family, whom Aunt Lucia never wanted to marry. Nor did he ever marry anyone else, perhaps in the hope that Aunt Lucia’s fierce iron will would soften as she grew older and they could at least have a civil wedding.

When we were little, it surprised us that Aunt Lucia didn’t live the whole year in her house with the tower, facing the sea, with its tall trees and gravel paths throughout the grounds, designed, as I believe, by Tom Bilfinger himself, in imitation of romantic English gardens.

“Why doesn’t Aunt Lucia stay all summer, since summer is so nice here?” Violeta and I asked my mother each time Aunt Lucia departed.

“Because Aunt Lucia is vain and doesn’t want her skin to get damaged a bit. In the North, it seems, with the humidity and the fog, her skin stays soft. Eternally young, as you can both see.”

“Well, if she’s vain then she’s stupid,” Violeta declared on one occasion. “Mother Maria Engracia said that everyone who is vain is stupid. Besides that, they always end up worse than bad. That’s her experience and she’s already grown up.”

“What does that nun know!” answered my mother. “If she specifically said that your aunt is stupid, then she’s mistaken. And if she said it about women in general, then I don’t know what to think about her anymore.”

“Well, it must be because of Aunt Lucia,” answered Violeta, “because when she said it she stared at me.”

“It’s always been that way,” exclaimed my mother,”because they all hate us in San Román, our family and us, the nuns and priests more than anybody. Because we don’t go to Mass. And your grandfather’s reputation as an atheist… We’re eagles, and always have been, and the nuns are chickens. That’s why they pray for everything, even to Saint Anthony when they lose their hairpins. Because, unlike us, they are incapable of taking care of themselves. They envy us because they’re nobodies. Meanwhile, just by being here, we shine like archangels, the way Lucifer shone. Don’t they teach you that in religion class?”

We both admitted that they did teach us that in religion, and in the chapel, about Lucifer, who lost God’s love because of his pride. The most beautiful archangel that existed. And just by looking at the two of them, at Aunt Lucia and my mother, it was more than well understood what Lucifer thought and what God thought as he cast him down to the inferno: that he shone too brightly, the way they shone and, by extension, the two of us and our little brother Fernandito, and the whole island of La Maraña, where we spent our childhood and youth.

 .

Aunt Nines’s misfortune meant much more to me than I was capable of expressing aloud at the age of fourteen.  “It’s a tragedy,” I told myself, without knowing how that word could be applied to two events, as distinct as Indalecio drowning—an accident—and, in little less than a year, Aunt Nines losing her desire to eat, to take care of herself, and to live. This was not an accident. Quite the opposite, really: it was the result of a decision, except that it was composed almost entirely of omissions and denials. It was a tragedy just the same, even if the incomprehensibility and inexpressibility didn’t come randomly but throughout a whole year instead, as the result of a decision.

They took her away in a taxi. A taxi from Letona and not San Román. I knew that they were taking her away that day, and I was watching from the window in the hallway. I saw the rattling taxi arrive, backfiring, and I saw how Doctor Mazarín, who came seated next to the driver, got out. I saw Aunt Nines leave the house, walking between my mother and Aunt Lucia as if they were escorting a prisoner between the two of them. I watched the scene from above, in the grayish light of the autumn dawn on La Maraña. It seemed like the end of a silent movie; Doctor Mazarín was the executioner and Aunt Lucia and my mother were two high ranking officers or two prosecuting attorneys who see it all very clearly and are just following orders. My feet were cold and I felt an intense curiosity. At the same time I had a very strong sensation of not feeling what I should, or perhaps an ambiguous feeling of guilt by simply observing that scene from the window instead of running down to kiss Aunt Nines goodbye. She left without saying goodbye to us. And we let her go without saying goodbye, just the same way that the cooks and maids and nannies almost always left the house at that hour. It seemed we stopped loving them as soon as they left. That’s why, perhaps, for my not having said goodbye to Aunt Nines, Violeta and I talked about her almost every afternoon. At first I missed her at tea time. Her empty place and chair reminded me of Aunt Nines before Indalecio: laborious, confusingly similar to Fräulein Hannah, Fernandito’s governess. Aunt Nines took us out for walks, she went out with Violeta and me on the stormiest days, with the hard rain slanting against our raincoats, and the ferocious wind that turned our umbrellas inside out. I saw her empty place and I remembered in vain—like those who remember a sum but forget the numbers they added up—the way that Aunt Nines spent whole Sunday afternoons with us playing Brisca or Parcheesi or the Game of the Goose.  Violeta and I learned those three games from Aunt Nines. As painful a memory as it was, the sadness did not make me sad—and for that reason it was confusing, incomprehensible, and strange.

At fourteen years old, the meanings of my experiences appeared and disappeared like instantaneous flashes; they were explosions that I was incapable of reconciling with the rest of my life. So, only a few days after Indalecio’s accident (Aunt Nines was still at home, shut up in her room. Manuela or one of us took up her meals which she hardly touched; she only seemed to want some puree, some rice or noodle soup, or a cup of broth from the stew), Violeta and I had just come home from school and the two of us were in our room, dressing to go downstairs to tea. It was going to be a special tea because we had visitors: three ladies who were, perhaps, the same age as Aunt Lucia or my mother, but at first glance seemed older; deliberate, corseted, matronly, and domineering. We’d seen them seated in the parlor with my mother. The oldest one was a blonde woman that Violeta said was the president of Catholic Action. The other two were less important, perhaps younger. We didn’t know who they were. Violeta was looking at herself in the mirror, smoothing the pleats in her dark blue skirt, her uniform for Sundays and holidays.  I was sitting on the bed shining our shoes. Violet said:

“Doesn’t it seem strange to you, it does to me, not to wear any mourning clothes today?  It’s a formal visit today, a courtesy call…”

“If you’re saying that because of Indalecio, that’s silly, because he wasn’t related to us.”

“What do you mean he wasn’t related to us?  He had to have been something, being Aunt Nines’s boyfriend. He was her sweetheart before he drowned.”

“They weren’t quite sweethearts yet, you know? And since Indalecio drowned, they’re not even sweethearts anymore.” I said it solemnly, and immediately felt a pang of confused guilt.  I felt cruel for talking that way to Violeta. It was very unpleasant to feel cruel: I looked at myself in the mirror, and the cruelty showed on my curved lips. After all, I hadn’t brought it up, it was Violeta who started talking about mourning. So I said: “You shouldn’t have said that, about mourning. You shouldn’t have even thought about it; it’s like we’re laughing at Aunt Nines.”

Violet had come closer while I was talking and she looked at me with surprise.

“But what are you talking about? Aunt Nines has nothing to do with it. I said that about mourning because I’d love to wear black in the afternoons—a smooth black suit and just a simple necklace of Austrian silver with strawberry-colored Russian enamel. Aunt Lucia always says that black complements people with complexions like ours, with those cheekbones of hers – white– as if they were always painted with some kind of lacquer.”

It was always about Aunt Lucia! Listening to Violeta talk about the black suit that she’d like to wear in the afternoons, I couldn’t fail to recognize it. I felt her same persuasive influence just as strongly in myself. Nevertheless, while going downstairs I thought about something that Aunt Lucia would not have thought: how false I had been to instinctively blame my displeasure at feeling cruel on Violeta: I wanted to be innocent by any means, to see myself blameless at any cost. I entered the parlor behind Violeta, not knowing how to consider what I had just thought about while talking with her, nor what I felt in that very moment. To watch her during the visit, just to see her making animated conversation with Aunt Lucia and my mother, who simply smiled, occasionally exchanging a few words with her, erased in me any feeling of regret and reduced it all to a solemn joy. It was the objective happiness which almost any visit, of the few we ever received, held for me when I was fourteen years old. It was fun to greet the three of them, one by one, and then take my place on a settee. Facing them all I put on a mature face, pretending that we were taking everything that was said quite seriously instead of simply observing them so that Violeta and I could laugh later on in our room, imitating them. Every fourth sentence, with rhythmic interjections, they said something like “Nines! Oh, the poor thing!” or “Indalecio, may he rest in peace.”  It seemed like they were trying to brighten up their three monotonous monologues a little. They really weren’t like us at all. They were brood hens; that’s why they made us laugh. It made sense, I thought suddenly, that my mother had withdrawn to live alone on La Maraña when we were little: she came here to escape from these hens and their clucking. “Better alone than in bad company,” I said to myself. And I felt a solemn shiver of hot grandeur, like a swallow of grappa in my throat, my esophagus, my soul. It was fascinating to be visited like that from time to time, the way queens, or queen mothers, or princesses are visited: by fat, swollen brood hens, all dressed up for the occasion. With delight I imagined them trying on their gloves, then hastily sewing up the unstitched fingertip, because they only saw us on special occasions, such as a funeral or a wedding or a Te Deum to celebrate the victory of the Nationalists. We were never really seen; they only glimpsed us occasionally, never very close up, only for a holiday or a parade, at a distance…  That gratifying daydream entertained me that afternoon like so many other times! I thought that it was all true. The proof came on the day of the funeral for the eternal rest of Indalecio. After the prayers for the deceased, my mother and Aunt Lucia—with the two of us following—approached Indalecio’s mother and family to offer our condolences. Everyone stood up all at once—there must have been twenty of them, because they filled the first two pews—and they approached us as if we were the ones suffering, as if the duty of presiding over the mourning belonged exclusively to the four of us, and not to them.

— Álvaro Pombo, from Donde las mujeres (Where the Women), translated by Brendan Riley

Brendan Riley

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

 

Apr 062014
 

Nuala Ní Chonchúir author photo

Nuala Ní Chonchúir, like Doireann Ni Griofa who was featured in last month’s Uimhir a Cúig, is bilingual although she writes predominantly in English. A prolific writer of novels, short-story collections, flash fiction, and poetry, she utilizes a variety of constructs and perspectives often to explore the intimate issues of gender, sexuality and the corporeal.

In her story “Tinnycross,” Ní Chonchúir alludes to the prodigal son parable, but here the unexpected presence of a wife in the family home repositions the fraternal conflict. Her assertive influence shapes the emotional and material divides, internally and externally, yielding ultimately a resolution with hints of forgiveness if not exactly salvation.

The vocabulary rarely comforts. Not surprising since the returning son finds that “the familiarity of everything” is “both balm and thorn to him.” He is at odds not just with his brother but “with every blade of grass on every acre of the land.” To this end, Ní Chonchúir uses language like a plow, turning over the upper layer of the brothers’ hardened relationship to bring to the surface the roots of abandonment in the hopes of cultivating some form of reclamation. A cruelty borne out of rectitude, decency even.

—Gerard Beirne

 

By the time Oliver drove the avenue under the horse chestnuts, the bluebells were already thinning out. He had noticed puddles of cherry blossom along the pathways in the village. It struck some tender part of him that another year was hurtling towards summer, leaving him in a muddled January place, trying to catch up. The house lay squat and crabby ahead, and Oliver could feel his mood switch to match it; the undulating angst that always accompanied him at Tinnycross began to roll through him. He was a young man again, suckled and strangled by the place, and at odds with every blade of grass on every acre of the land.

He pulled up in front of the house and sat for a while to quell his building rage. Oliver knew that like all such rages his agitation was mixed with a kind of love. He often longed for Tinnycross – for home – for a version of it or the past, but it also repelled him. Wanting to be calm when he confronted Bunny, he sat in the car and waited and willed himself peaceful.

 After five minutes Oliver got out and went around the side of the house to the back door; the front door was never used. He stepped into the kitchen and was assailed by its brightness. And then by the sight of a woman standing at the table – his mother’s deal table – kneading dough with care in a cabled bowl. She was silver haired, neat as an egg, and she – for it could only have been she – had reawakened the kitchen. His mother’s furniture still stood: the table, the dresser, the chairs, but all of it looked fresh and the walls were painted. Things were immaculate again.

‘You must be…’ Oliver searched on his tongue for the right term. ‘You must be the cleaner,’ he said, eventually, settling on that word because he could come up with no other.

‘I’m Bunny’s wife.’ She threw a glance his way as if she had been expecting him.

‘His wife?’ Oliver said, and snorted. The woman stopped kneading and stared at him. ‘Is Bunny home?’ he asked.

‘He’s below in the field. Will I ring his mobile?’

‘No, I’ll go down to him.’

She wiped her fingers on her apron and came towards him with one hand out. ‘Fidelma,’ she said.

‘Oliver O’Donnell.’

She smiled. ‘I know who you are.’

Oliver left the kitchen and stood in the yard. The land fell to the river – Tinnycross was one huge field with no ditches or fences to mark it out. Hay bales sheathed in black plastic were dotted around like giant cuts of liquorice, and a stand of rape burned its yellow among the green and brown. His heart swelled into his throat and he drew a few deep breaths. The familiarity of everything was both balm and thorn to him. It was quiet in the yard but he could hear the far off burr of a tractor and the bird calls that were the same bird calls as forty years before. Oliver gazed down over the land. How could a field – one ordinary field – have such a pull on him?

He looked at his shoes, then at the muddy track that lead from the yard to the land. A wife? Well. That surely changed things. By what luck had Bunny, of all people, got himself a woman? Oliver shrugged and headed down the track, at first treading the verge to avoid the muck and save his shoes, then staying off the grass because it was littered with pearls of sheep shit like beads scattered from a rosary. The brother is a quarehawk right enough, he thought.

Oliver looked up to find Bunny strolling towards him; he was a shambles as always in his torn fisherman’s jumper and folded down wellies. The wife’s ministrations had extended only to the house, it seemed. Bunny was swinging a stick like a dandy.

‘Olly,’ he said.

‘Bunny. How’s the form?’ They shook hands. ‘And it’s Oliver. Please.’

‘So I don’t get to be Bernard but you get to be Oliver. Big man Olly.’ Bunny slapped the ground with his stick.

‘Did you get my letter?’ Oliver said.

‘I got a letter from Folan and Company, if that’s the one you mean.’

‘We need to settle this, Bunny, for once and for all.’

Bunny whacked the tree beside him with his stick; it was the old hawthorn, bent sideways by the wind, its branches beseeching the tree beside it. That hawthorn was their mother’s favourite tree; she would stand under its dense crown to call daddy from the field.

‘Settle, Olly?’ Bunny said. ‘What’s to settle?’

‘Ah, don’t start.’ Oliver put his hands on his hips and stood in front of his brother.

‘You think you’re the prodigal coming back here. Well, you’ll get nothing out of me.’

‘Bernard.’ Bunny’s wife had come down from the house without either of them noticing. They both looked at her. ‘Why don’t we go inside and talk?’

‘It’s none of your business, Fidelma,’ Bunny said.

‘Oh, I think you’ll find that it is,’ she replied.

She walked behind them up the track towards the house, a shepherdess herding a pair of recalcitrant rams.

Oliver stood in his parents’ bedroom, watching dust waver in the air. Their marriage bed had become Bunny’s. The lousy shite hadn’t even bought his wife a new bed. Oliver recalled his father’s last days in that bed. Daddy had started to say their mother’s name again; it fluttered out of his mouth like a butterfly looking for somewhere to land. It sounded alien launching off his tongue: ‘Catherine. Catherine. Catherine.’ He hadn’t called her by name for years; hadn’t cajoled her, or pleaded, or thanked her with her given name. Their mother sat by the bed day after day, holding their father’s hand, soothing him, wiping his drink-haunted face.

‘It’s all right, Daddy,’ she said. ‘I’m here, I’m here. Your Catherine is here. I’m right beside you, Martin.’

Mammy was gone now too – Oliver had not witnessed her death – but he could feel her in the house still, a revenant gliding from room to room. He put his hands on the cold iron of the footboard and gripped hard; he rocked himself and pushed his chin to his chest.

‘Come through to the kitchen, Oliver.’ Fidelma stood in the doorway; her voice was gentle. ‘I’ve made tea. We’ll talk.’

He didn’t turn to look at her. ‘Both mammy and daddy died in that bed.’

‘I know that. Bernard told me.’

‘I’m not trying to be cruel,’ Oliver said, hanging his head. ‘I just remember. This place makes me remember.’

‘Memory is a true thing, but it can make fools of us too,’ Fidelma said.

‘This all ends with Bunny and me. No offence, but you won’t be producing an heir. Tinnycross will go to God-knows-who.’

‘Let’s talk it out and see what we can come up with between us.’

Oliver followed her into the kitchen; Bunny had their father’s seat at the side of the table near the range. If visitors ever deferred to daddy, wanting him to take the head of the table, their father always said, ‘Wherever O’Donnell sits is the head of the table.’

Oliver said this to his brother, hoping to make him smile, but Bunny ignored the remark.

‘We’ll give you a third of the market value,’ he said. ‘There’s the three of us in it now.’

‘Mammy died during the boom; I’m entitled to half of what it would have gone for then.’

‘Are you trying to put me out of my home?’ Bunny crashed his fist onto the table. ‘Are you trying to kill me?’

‘I only want what’s mine.’ Oliver rattled a teaspoon around his mug. ‘My business has gone under. The bank is talking about repossessing my apartment.’

‘Well, boo fucking hoo. If you can’t look after yourself, it’s no concern of ours.’

‘Tinnycross belongs to both of us, Bunny. Mammy always said it. There’s no way around that.’

‘You took your time looking for your share.’

‘I thought you’d give it to me and, then, well, you didn’t.’

‘And bankrupt myself? Are you fucking mad, Olly?’

Fidelma reached across and squeezed Bunny’s arm. ‘We have my money, love; the money from my house.’

‘You want to give the man who killed my mother your money?’

Oliver stood. ‘Ah, here, there’s no need for that.’

Bunny dropped his head and spoke his words to the table. ‘Mammy asked you to come to Tinnycross and you wouldn’t come. She asked you again and again.’

‘It wasn’t that simple, Bunny, and you know it. I was in Dubai for Christ’s sake.’

‘Your mother begged you to come and you turned your back on her. You turned your back on Tinnycross.’ Bunny pushed back his chair, stood and left the room.

‘Not to worry, now,’ Fidelma said, patting Oliver’s arm.

‘That was harsh. Bunny knows I was abroad, I couldn’t get on a plane every time she asked me to; she was always trying to get me to come. I helped mammy in other ways.’

‘I know you did,’ Fidelma said. ‘Bunny is very attached to this place; we both are. He lashed out there and he shouldn’t have.’

Oliver suffered a twist of jealousy – Bunny hadn’t just landed himself a woman, but a decent woman, one who was happy with what she was made of; a woman secure in herself and the world; someone who liked to give.

Fidelma invited Oliver to stay the night. He didn’t want to, but he didn’t want to leave everything undone either; he hesitated.

‘Sure stay. Do,’ she said.

‘I will so,’ Oliver said, and thanked her.

Fidelma made up his childhood bedroom. He could barely get himself across the threshold and into the bed, the room bulged with so many memories: days spent in sickness fevers, nights spent in girl-induced ones. At least it smelled different now – he couldn’t have stood it if the room held the small boy and young man stench of himself.

Oliver lay rigid in the narrow bed, watching the moon with her mouth agape, spilling light over Tinnycross. He could see the corner of the barn, lidded with corrugate and lit up by moon-glow. He felt the presence of his parents and was unsettled by the knowledge that through the wall his brother was in their bed with his wife. His decent, loving wife. Sleeping warmly beside her or, perhaps, complaining about him in a low voice.

In the morning Fidelma propped a neat envelope against the milk jug that sat on the table in front of Oliver. He was breakfasting on his own; Bunny was already out on the land. Oliver picked it up, knowing without opening the flap that the cheque would have her signature on it; hers alone.

‘Are you sure?’ he said.

‘I am. It’s best to leave himself to me; I can deal with him. I’ll sort it out.’

‘Thanks a million, Fidelma,’ Oliver said.

When he had finished eating he shook her hand.

‘Don’t be a stranger,’ Fidelma said, and she let him out the front door and waved him off as he drove away.

The plains around Tinnycross were green and dappled with sheep. Every other field held an inky lamb among its white brethren. This lamb was always a maverick, sitting or standing apart from the others, living its own quiet destiny. Oliver drove past and watched the lambs, willing the dark ones to gambol and play with the others, but they stayed where they were, resolutely alone.

He thought about Tinnycross as he drove further and further away from it, on towards the city. He could feel the backward pull to it, to its green and its yellow and its light. Oliver knew he might never see the place again. Is it possible, he wondered, to be in love with a field. And if it is possible, is it wise?

—Nuala Ní Chonchúir

 

Nuala Ní Chonchúir author photo

Nuala Ní Chonchúir was born in Dublin in 1970; she lives in East Galway. Her fourth short story collection Mother America was published by New Island in 2012. A chapbook of flash Of Dublin and Other Fictions was published in the US in late 2013 by Tower Press and Nuala’s second novel The Closet of Savage Mementos appears April 2014 from New Island. Nuala’s third novel, Miss Emily, appears 2015 from Penguin USA and Penguin Canada. www.nualanichonchuir.com

 

Mar 162014
 

Bookbinding header, color-001

I billed last month’s installment of Robert Day’s novel Let Us Imagine Lost Love as the “penultimate,” but in the interim Day wrote an extra chapter, thus turning the novel into a real, seat-of-the-pants, written-while-you-wait serial novel, an evolving text, with a surprising life of its own. This time we have the seventh part (of what the author now says will be an eight-part novel — only next month will tell).

But the novel is trending toward a close. It exudes that pleasant feeling of convergence, of things from early on re-appearing, people dying and taking their subplots with them, themes being touted openly and revelations, increasingly, driving the hero into a corner (will he act, or won’t he?). In the present plot, in Kansas City, our hero’s unrequited love, the famous painter Beth Brookings, is about to arrive, to re-appear. Once (we find out) she predicted she would love him in her forties or fifties (but not just then, while she was sleeping with his best friend Hazen). The hero’s sister Elaine confronts him with the charming emptiness of his current mode of life. She calls him out, calls him  ”A man in love…Who has wasted his life not admitting it.” Then we find out Elaine’s life hasn’t been so hot either: she slept with the hero’s Berkeley friend Hazen and married a man she didn’t love. Back in Berkeley (remember how the novel weaves back and forth between the present and the Berkeley past),  Aunt Lillian and the hero get caught in a madcap anti-vivisection demonstration. Pretending to be a doctor, he tries to save a dying baby trapped in a stalled ambulance in the midst of the crowd (I won’t tell you how it turns out). The novel, yes, moves into new territory even as it ties its loose ends. The reader already feels wistful that this wistful novel is almost done, but the reader also thrills to the convergence of vectors, the solving of mysteries and the climax on its way. You can read the entire novel to date here (instead of clicking back and forth between issues). Stay tuned for the next installment.

Part Seven

spaceOh, Please Open the Door so I can See that I’ve Gotten You Right

 

The Naked Man Handbook for Agitators

One morning during the spring semester Aunt Lillian gave me a ride to the lab. She was taking Uncle Conroy something he had forgotten, and thoughtfully called to ask if I was working. I waited for her on Derby in my scrubs. My surgical mask was in my pocket.

—What’s this? she said.

We were on Grove about a block from the hospital. There was a crowd of kids in the street and a platform in Mel’s parking lot.

In those days, demonstrations were a mixture of high earnestness and low-to-medium drug consumption. You’d catch a whiff of pot and sometimes you could see who was doing it. Once I was standing next to a guy who offered me a hit, then realizing I was not who he thought I was, he walked away.

If the feds were around, you could spot them by their skimpy brim hats, ponchos, and wing tip shoes. Sometimes they’d pull out a small camera from underneath their poncho and snap a picture. My impression was they were more interested in catching you committing free speech than smoking dope.

By now, I had seen plenty of these demonstrations, sometimes on my way to class or waiting to catch a bus to work. Most students at these rallies were as much audience as participants—if such a distinction could be made, and increasingly it could not. It was night-and-day street theater and there was a rambunctious air to it, even given the most serious causes. Even Vietnam.

Also, there seemed to be a relationship between the tables where you signed the petitions against Castro or for him, or against the House Un-American Activities Committee (no one demonstrated for the House Un-American Activities Committee), or against the use of animals in the Berkeley labs (again, no one was for it), or against Johnson and the War—and the timing of the demonstration. It was as if the petitions became a playbook for street theater, complete with the dramatis personae. Get enough actors signed up and you staged a “Happening.”

I was not cynical about any of this then, nor am I now. However, I was not passionate about any causes: I was in favor at times; not sure at other times; opposed; ignorant. If you don’t know the meaning of provincial you don’t know if you should support Che Guevera’s revolution in Bolivia.

The demonstration in front of my uncle’s lab was protesting our use of animals. I could see Jo and Amy standing on top of a platform by Mel’s. Jo had a bullhorn. Amy was waving the flag sheet. There must have been two hundred kids in the street and the parking lot.

The cops had arrived. In the beginning of these demonstrations, they usually played a benign role; they knew that sooner or later— usually sooner— the demonstration would end and the traffic would flow again. How and why this changed after I left Berkeley, I don’t know.

—Stop, I said to my aunt. Stop!

Even though she had become alarmed, she was easing the Cadillac into the crowd, tapping first the brakes, then the horn, and then the accelerator.

—Hey bitch, someone yelled as we bumped him.

I reached over and put the car in neutral. We were deep into the crowd and on the wrong side of Grove—not that it made any difference. At least we had stopped. I turned off the engine. Ahead, Jo was talking into her bullhorn.

A tall, hairy guy wearing very short, frayed jean cutoffs and a T-shirt that had the arms cut out of it climbed on the hood of the Cadillac and sat down. Kids around us peered inside. The guy on the hood stood up. One of his testicles slipped out of his cutoffs.

—Oh dear, said my aunt. You should always wear briefs.

She tapped the windshield, and when the man looked around, my aunt made her “naughty-naughty” finger sign.

—You’re exposed, Aunt Lillian said.

—I don’t think he can hear you, I said.

There was a loud cheer, after which the guy with his testicle hanging out walked the hood (denting it) toward us and sat down on the roof so that his legs were in the windshield. He was wearing Jesus slippers. He did a sort of back flip, the roof creaked and his legs and feet disappeared. When they returned, his right foot broke the windshield wiper. His shorts sailed into the crowd in front of us. I lowered my window down and stuck my head out.

—Off, I yelled. Off!

I was about to open the door, but a man came to my side of the car and said, “Stay inside.” He pressed himself against the door and flashed a badge.

—Roll up your windows and lock the doors, he said before he moved into the crowd.

I put my window back up, but in her confusion, my aunt put hers down. The man on top jumped off on Aunt Lillian’s side.

—What we got here? he said, standing by my aunt’s open window, wearing only his T-shirt.

He was looking at the official decal my uncle had on the Cadillac: “Hansen Research Lab, Number One.”

All this time, Aunt Lillian had been calm. But I could tell she was worried.

—Would you like to drive? she said even though I had turned off the engine and there was no place to go.

—What have we here? said the naked guy again. “Hansen Research lab. Number One.” Number One! He yelled in the direction of Jo and Amy. We got a Number One.

He jumped on the hood of the Cadillac, and from there, on to the top —Why isn’t he wearing his clothes? said my Aunt. It is not decent to go around without your clothes.

—Off! I yelled. I got out.

—We got a Number One animal killer right here, he yelled. Numero Uno!

I looked for the guy who had shown me his badge, but couldn’t find him. Most of the crowd was still listening to Jo, but some of the kids around us were starting to look in our direction. Aunt Lillian said something I couldn’t hear.

—We got the number one animal killer. Don’t you fucking understand? Right the fuck here!

I got back in.

—Such vile language, my aunt said. That’s what happens when you take off your clothes in public.

She was trying to start the car.

—We need to change places, I said. I’ll drive.

—Bless you, she said. Such language. I hope Conroy is all right. Such language.

By now most of the crowd had turned away from Jo and were looking at us. Jo was looking as well. She crouched down so she could get a better view.

She saw who I was.

.

Bottle James: The Revival

He has been back a month acting his various parts, but in recent days he was no one in particular. Not Doctor Welby. Not a waiter. Nor a rancher. Not a clock.

This change happened just as I began keeping track of his costumes to see if there were a pattern: the days of the week or the phases of the moon.

I am designing an appointment book for the year after next and need copy, so I began using Bottle James: Monday, April 24th, 10 am: B. J. as waiter. Tuesday, April 25th, 2p.m. B.J. as rancher. . .

But before I could discern a pattern, he stopped changing costumes. I thought it might be the weather as it has turned cool in recent days, but on Sunday it was bright and warm and still he came out of the creek wearing nothing special: jeans, a pale blue shirt, tennis shoes. It has been a week with no costumes. He is on the streets more, and in daylight more. No bottle protrudes.

The appointment book is for cat lovers. The beginning of each month has a cat or kitten repeated in a smaller pointillist design in the lower right-hand corner of the verso, so that when you turn to the following week, it is as if the cat is leading you to do so. I am including “cat text” for each month; September is Eliot’s Book of Practical Cats. For a watermark I’ll use cat paw prints, but subliminally, as if they are little feet in a fog.

—Why don’t you follow him? my sister asked. She has stopped by before we go to Meiner’s for lunch. I have heard the Art Institute cheerleaders are going there to cheer Ben Franklin.

—I rather like seeing him as I do, I said. Call Doctor Serendipity.

—Doctor who? asked my sister.

—A joke Hazen used to make whenever there was a fortuitous coincidence, I said. Only it is not just a matter of coincidence. And it is not one Doctor but three. There were camels involved. Possible jail time. A kind of desert scientific method.

—You don’t use Google. How do you find these things?

— I want what I know to find me.

—Are you superstitious? she asked. I think you are.

—I’m cautious about disturbing the universe, I said.

—Have you ever seen Bottle James go into a store on the Plaza?

—I have not, I said.

—I have, she said. Do you want me to tell you about it?

—No.

—If you meet, are you going to speak to him?

—Yes.

—What will you say?

—“Bottle James?” “Yes?” ”Remember me?” “Never, five times never.”

I paused. My sister was looking around the apartment for evidence of one of my wives. When I know she is going to stop by, I leave something out, usually a gift that has not migrated to the Blank Apartment. Today, I’ve put out a tin of foie gras.

—Are you going to tell him who you are? Asked my sister. What is this?

—“I’m your ex-roommate,” I’ll say. “ The one who can’t act. The one who got Tina pregnant.” “I thought I got Tina pregnant,” he’ll say. “Maybe,” I’ll say “but according to Tina it was my fault.” ”She was nuts, man. I’m telling you that’s one cherry I wish I hadn’t busted.” “Are you homeless?” I’ll ask.

 —What do you have him say to that? my sister said as she studied the foie gras.

 —“Bong, Bong,” five times Bong.

 —But of course he’s homeless, she said. What is this again?

 — French goose liver.

 My sister brought the tin over to where I was sitting and put it on the coffee table next to the Illuminated Manuscript of Ta-Bid.

—What’s this about you getting Tina pregnant?

—She said it was my fault even if it wasn’t my sperm.

—She said that?

—Not exactly

—What’s this?

—A college yearbook of mine, I said.

 . 

The Lab Under Siege

Before my aunt and I could swap places, the naked man bent down at the front wheel where, first by trying to use his thumbnail, and then borrowing a hair pin from a girl in the crowd, he started to let the air out of the Cadillac’s tire.

—That’s not fair, Aunt Lillian said. That’s just not fair.

—Trade places with me, I said again.

—Bless you, she said.

Amid all the chaos—Jo’s bullhorn, the chanting mob, the blocked street, the police and their off-again-on-again sirens, the slow burn of tear gas that was being released on the edges of the crowd to the south of us as a kind of protective ring around the lab itself, Amy waving her flag—amid all this, my aunt’s observation of what was not fair must have struck the naked man letting air out of her tires as somehow sensible. Maybe he was stoned.

—You’re right, lady, he said, and stood up.

Naked, he faced us. Saluted. Bowed. He returned the hairpin to the girl from whom he had borrowed it and wandered into the crowd toward Jo. He was very hairy and very well endowed.

—You see, said Aunt Lillian, as she slid over while I climbed first into the back seat and then into the front, if you just remind them of what is fair and what is not fair, good manners resurface. That is the value of good manners. They are always with you, and you can count on them coming to the surface when they are most needed. However, I do think his mother would not be pleased that he’s taken off his clothes. I hope he hasn’t lost them. Or that they get dirty. Somebody had to pay for them in the first place. Probably through hard work.

About this time, a uniformed policeman came up.

—We should get you out of here, Doctor he said, looking at the sticker on the windshield—then at me.

—My husband is in the lab, my aunt said.

—You need to back up, said the policeman looking at the tightly packed crowd in front of us.

Then we heard a siren near the lab.

 .

Muff: Act One, Scene Two

There is a national election coming to the Plaza. I am as political now as I was then; how to describe it: “bemused, concerned, involved, detachment.”

I see myself at Sather Gate, watching: I am more interested in the spectacle of politics than in the politics. Pretty is on a leash sitting beside me. A student named DeSalvio wants us to do something about Ronald Reagan. Neither Pretty nor I know much about Ronald Reagan, but probably something should be done about him. If we don’t watch out, sooner or later he’s going to spray tear gas on the students in Sproul Hall.

—Nail me hide to the shed, Fred, said the guy who thinks I’m Larry.

He came up behind us.

—Where’s Ginsberg? I said.

—Lost, the guy said. My little pledge brother seems to have forgotten his little pledge duty. So we’ll zap the snake on him tonight. In the meantime I’m looking for our doggie woggie. And putting up pictures.

—You’ll find him, I said.

—Do you know there’s a poet who has the same name as Ginsberg? he said.

—He’s right there, I said.

—Where?

I pointed to Allen Ginsberg.

—No shit, shineola, the guy said. Sort of looks like our Ginsberg.

—If you say so.

—Gotta split.

Off he walked, calling here Ginsberg, here Ginsberg—and once when he said it loudly, Allen Ginsberg looked away from DeSalvio talking about Ronald Reaganbday2.

—I have decided not to talk to Bottle James, I said to Muff La Rue.

This was the Wednesday after Elaine and I had been at Meiner’s for lunch and heard the Art Institute cheerleaders cheer Ben Franklin: “Rah! rah! At night all cats are gray. Rah, rah!”

Muff has brought daisies. It will be awhile before she trusts herself to buy more expensive gifts. Toward the end, I get champagne. By now there is a mixed case down the hall.

—Who is Bottle James? she said. This is very good wine. Wine has four qualities. Taste, color, smell. I can’t remember the fourth, she said and put a drop on my wrist and leaned across the table and kissed it off. Very good wine, she said.

—He’s my ex-roommate, I said.

—You’ve become a very attractive man, she said. I have been thinking of you ever since last time. It’s not that I do this kind of thing, she said. But I find it very thrilling to be here.

—Like skinny dipping? I said.

—Very much so. She put down her glass, then picked it up again and held it to the light.

When she had arrived, she went into my hallway bathroom and took off her bra so that as she sits with me, I can see the shape of her breasts against what I judge to be a very expensive green silk blouse. Others have done the same thing; one lover left her bra in the bathroom and I put it back the Wednesday she returned. She took it, but said nothing. I liked her silence. Women not only have the most secrets, but the most curious ones.

—Perfume, Muff said as she put a drop of wine in the cleavage of her breasts, mingles with the fragrance of your body, so that every perfume is different because every woman is different. I learned that from a book. I wonder if it is true of wine as well.

—You can learn a lot from books, I said.

—Will you? she said, and put another drop of wine between her breasts, now undoing a button and puckering her lips.

—I’d be delighted.

—Drop by drop.

—I’d be delighted.

—Off my back?

—Yes.

—My legs?

—Yes.

—Here?

—Yes.

—There?

—Who is Bottle James? she said again as she was dressing.

—I wish I knew, I said.

—You’re very. . .

—“Enigmatic.”

—Yes.

Muff knows the word, and is amused.

 

Instruction Manual for a Riot

An ambulance was stuck in the crowd. The policeman pushed his way through the demonstrators. We followed slowly in the Cadillac. There were kids shouting and giving him the finger. Somebody threw a book and it hit him on the head, but he kept moving.

—That poor man, my aunt said. I do hope that wasn’t a schoolbook. Some things you should not throw.

A space cleared in front of us as the crowd moved in the direction of the ambulance. Jo was still on the platform. I drove into the opening.

—Be careful not to hit anyone, my aunt said.

I went about twenty yards to a car trapped heading our way; in it was a young couple, their tires flat and the roof and the hood were dented. The woman was hysterical. Her husband—a man about Hazen’s age—was trying to stay calm.

—It’s our baby back there, he said and pointed to the ambulance stopped in front of Mel’s. We are trying to get to the hospital.

I got out and climbed onto the hood of the Cadillac.

—I’ll see if I can get through, I said.

—Oh please, Doctor, yelled the mother. Please don’t let her die. Please Doctor.

—You two get in our car, I said.

I opened the door, putting the mother in the back seat.

—Get behind the wheel, I told the father, and keep inching forward. Follow me.

—Doctor here, I shouted as I start into the crowd. I’m a doctor. Someone up there needs a doctor. Let me through! Doctor here.

I took out my surgical mask and swung it above my head.

—Let him through, people began shouting. Let the doctor through.

—You a doctor, man? said the naked guy. Far out. I’ll fucking get you through. Clear the way. We fucking got ourselves a wow, man, doctor here, he yelled. Clear the way! Doctor here! Doctor here! Really, man!

—I’m a doctor. Let me through.

I had a phalanx of people around me trying to clear a path. The naked man was in the lead. I looked over my shoulder: Jo had gotten off the platform and was coming our way. As was the Cadillac.

—We got a doctor here, said the naked man when we finally arrived at the ambulance.

The driver rolled down the passenger’s side window; there was a nurse. In the rear was a small stretcher.

—Get in, she said and opened the door.

—Go to the back of the ambulance, I told the naked man.

—Can do. Really. Can do. Back door ambulance can do.

—I flooded it, the driver said. Then the sirens ran the battery down. We’re dead meat here.

I climbed between the seats into the back. The baby was blue, but breathing. The nurse said something technical. She put her ear to the baby’s chest. I tell her I’m not a doctor, but that I can get us in the lab where there is one.

—We need to hurry, she said.

I picked up the baby and jumped out the back. The nurse followed me.

— We got a doctor here, said the naked man. We got a doctor with a sick kid. Which way, man? Which way?

—There, I said, nodding toward the front door of the lab.

It was about twenty yards away and ringed by protesters. I looked to see if the hospital would be easier but the crowd was about as thick and it was a hundred yards away.

—That’s enemy territory, said the naked man when he realized I was heading toward the lab. You can’t go in there.

—I can if I want to save this baby’s life, I said.

—I don’t know, man.

—This child’s dying, said the nurse from behind us.

—Out of the way! We got a doctor here, yelled the naked man. Out of the way, and he began to jump up and down. Out of the way! Out of the way!

Ten yards before the door we were stuck. The naked man jumped on the back of some guy in front of us and rode him through the crowd, yelling: Giddy up, man. Giddy up. Coming through with a doctor here. Clear the way! Clear the way! Go horse, go. Fucking go!

The guy who was being ridden got into it and began to snort and whinny. The nurse put one hand through the back of my belt to stay close. When we got to the lab’s door, I pounded on it.

—You work here? said the naked man as he dropped to the ground.

—No use, man, said the guy who was the horse. The pigs got it shut tight. Nobody’s fucking home.

I handed the baby to the nurse and fished in my pocket for my keys. The nurse said something I couldn’t hear. I turned the key, but the deadbolt was locked. I tried Hazen’s Dragnet knock. I turned my key back and forth. Then I did the Dragnet knock again.

—That’s fucking Joe Friday, said the naked man.

The crowd was pushing in on us.

—Stand back, said the naked man. We got a doctor here. Joe Friday the doctor.

—He’s no doctor, Jo yelled from behind. He’s an animal killer!

Hazen opened the door and the nurse with the baby, the naked man, and I pushed through. Hazen slammed it shut and turned the deadbolt.

 .

The Illuminated Manuscript of Ta-Bid: Redux

On page twenty-seven of The Illuminated Manuscript of Ta-Bid is the chapter: “Pronouncements of the Council of Flaymen.” On the verso is a drawing of the three of us at a golden table; the painting has limited perspective, but a modest three-dimensional quality in imitation of Giotto.

On the table is a straw Chianti bottle. The background is red lettered with the half phrases of song lyrics: “I Don’t Like Anybody Very Much” runs off to one side so that “much” has only its M. A bong is in the upper left hand corner. Hazen is to the right of Beth (who is in the middle), and he is taller than she, and his eyebrows are finely made, as is his nose; he seems to be looking at her, at least obliquely. I am not so detailed, but I am my tall self. I seem to be wearing the same jacket I am wearing when I cross paths with Elaine Robinson. I look like Bill Holden in Sunset Boulevard.

The first sub-section of the “Pronouncement of the Council of Flaymen” is titled “The Mystery of the Dual Nature of Ta-Bid.” Underneath, in Beth’s hand, is written:

It shall be, however, forever established that Ta and Bid were and are and shall forever be a Duality; one of them more or less woman; one of them more or less man; and both of them more or less God. It shall not be permitted to put an s on God.

On the next page, Beth bordered the text with a series of overlapping animals, arranged as if they were in an invisible tree. At the bottom of the tree Pretty is barking. The text reads:

 ..

The Wrath of Ta-Bid

There shall be three essential mysteries to Ta-Bid. One: which sex is Ta (more or less) and thus it follows: which sex is Bid, (more or less)? Two: where are Ta and Bid? and Three: if Ta and Bid have sex again, will they turn themselves right side out, and will the world disappear in a torrent of sucked up belly button ganiff? These Mysteries shall be never spoken of by Ta-Bidites or the wrath of Ta-Bid shall be invoked; and that wrath shall be considered the Great Unnumbered Mystery, and also shall not be spoken of—nor could it be. Ever. And Ever.

 —Don’t forget semicolons, and colons, Hazen would say when he’d find me typing in my uncle’s office. You can’t have a Bible without semicolons and colons.

—You’ll get your semicolons and colons, I’d say.

—We need irony, too, said Hazen. We can’t have Ta-Bid without irony. That’s when you say something you don’t mean.

—I know.

In Ta-Bid, it is the semicolon and colon that are the sacred punctuation marks; and it is irony, not parable, that is the emblem of the text.

Professor Gabin observed that we had a number of “internal inconsistencies,” and she wondered if they were intended as “imitations of other religions” or just “carelessness.”

For instance, she observed that Ta-Bid seemed to be a peaceful religion, along the lines of Far Eastern religions, but there was that admonition “do not go in peace”—next to which Professor Gabin had written: “irony?/parody?” She was confused about Ta and Bid turning themselves inside out or outside in, and that “we seemed to be confused as well.” However: “That the world might disappear in a torrent of sucked-up belly-button ganiff is tres amusant.” And she liked the way we had divided the sections and subsections of the text with headings instead of numbers. Also, tres amusant.

We got an A for Ta-Bid. Ours was the religion that Professor Gabin copied for the class. She did us the honor of reading parts of it aloud, then asking us questions, questions unlike the ones I get from my Wednesday wives.

—Is it Middle Eastern, this Ta-Bid?

Rachel had stopped by for morning coffee. She is not on today’s list. Her claim was that she wanted to bring by a very fine wine for our “rendezvous de la apres-midi” on “Mercredi.” She has learned that fine wine needs to stand up for “deux jours apres moi visite a toi.”

By then, perhaps she will have learned a bit better French

—Assez-vous she said, as she put the wine bottle on my sideboard.

—And you as well, I said.

Being polite is the best inoculation against other people being hell.

—Ta-Bid is Trans Middle West Coastal, I said.

—How interesting, she said. I have a friend who is into religions. She has five. I don’t remember them all, but she is Christian and Hindu and Buddhist and New Wave. I guess that would be four. Maybe “U-Pan-A-Shad.” I think that’s how you say it. Anyway, I asked her if she was all of these at once because, if you became Hindu, would that mean you couldn’t be Christian? and she said, no, she just adds religions. Is Ta-Bid the religion where they have “auras?”

—No Trans Middle West Coastal religion has auras.

—I didn’t know that, she said. I’m Episcopalian. King James Bible and all. I like the songs.

It will come to pass that the following Wednesday will be our final assignation. We drink her wine—a very fine Bordeaux from a very good year. She emerges from my bedroom with her red boa entangled around her in a very provocative fashion. She has her pleasures with herself that she cannot have with her husband. And it will come to pass that I shall take my pleasures, which in turn will excite her greatly, and lo!, there will be great sighs. However, when we look around, we are both right side out.

I need to find a replacement. Or, more probably, one needs to find me. In the meantime, I can always visit the local university medical center as Mr. Reynard, a man in desire of pro bono treatment.

In my mail today were the keys to Austen. No return address.

 .

Beth: Then, Now, and in the Future

I have had in recent days, a feeling that, one evening, while walking through the Plaza looking for Bottle James, I will see Beth. I have had the feeling repeatedly, as if a small il penso is playing over and over again, refusing to move toward the allegro and the audience’s withheld applause. Her show opens at the Nelson soon.

—I think I will love you when I am forty, Beth said. Maybe it will take until my fifties. Even later.

We were in her apartment. She was sitting in the yellow chair with her sketchbook open. Pretty was with us, sleeping under the table.

—I have kept your letter, I said.

She has been with Hazen and I know it; I saw him in Austen heading up Grove toward the campus as I came down on the 51 bus. This was after Beth put Earl in the hospital, and after we had driven to the Livermore Clinic to see him and there was a blank look in his eyes. He can’t stop a twitch that jerks his head to one side. Then both hands come up in front of him and quiver. I will see that look on the face of Randal McMurphy. It is not indexed in Harrison’s.

—You must think I am very bad treating you like this, Beth said. And very bad not to be loyal to Earl, when you think about all that he has given me. This apartment.

—I didn’t know about the apartment.

—He pays for it, she said. It’s his mother’s money. I’m living here on his mother’s money and balling, as you boys say, Hazen, and treating you badly even talking about it—all on Earl’s mother’s money, and I couldn’t even keep him from getting fucked up. Now what do you think of me?

She was sketching, looking at me, then down at her pad.

—I can’t stay away from you no matter what I think of you.

—That’s not a compliment.

—Why not?

—It turns me into somebody like Jo. I don’t want to be like that to you. I don’t want you to remember me the way you think of me now. That’s the way I think of Hazen now. I want to get over him. I know you can’t understand why any woman would fall for a guy like Hazen. But now that you know about me, how can I understand why you still feel the way you do?

—Love isn’t reasonable. It’s like faith.

—Yes. Yes. I know all that. But I want you and me to be different. Even now I want that. I know I can’t have it, but I want it. Why can’t I have what I can’t have? And don’t tell me sometimes I can and sometimes I can’t. I’m not joking here. This is not Ta-Bid. This is me and you. How one day I’ll love you. But now you think I’m a whore. Where will you be?

—Maybe we will never see each other again.

—We will, she said.

—Hazen’s just left?

—Yes.

—I like him too.

She looked up at me, then back down at her sketch pad.

—Someday, she said, I’ll have to fight a crowd of women for you. You’ll be single and stealing wives out from under the noses of dull husbands. I’ll find you in Kansas City or Los Angeles or in New York where you’ll be a famous surgeon, and I’ll knock on your door and I’ll hear a squeal and feet pattering until you peer through one of those tiny glass holes they have back East.

—Will I know who it is?

—Yes. You’ll know. There will be a feeling that I am coming your way. There will be signs. High signs. Back and forth between us over the years. They will gather speed. The speed of light for all I know about such things. I’ll send you a special one to say I’m coming your way. You’ll know it. Give me one back. Tell me how it’s turned out. Tell me all about us. Tell me about yourself before we met. I don’t want to imagine we are lost lovers. Don’t embellish.

—Just the facts? I could tell she was about to smile but she didn’t.

—Yes, she said.

—Words make a life, my mother used to say.

—Then make our life, she said. Do it for me in spite of who I am now. She looked up and held me steady with her gaze. I could not turn away.

—I’ll watch for your sign, I said.

—This is how you’ll look, she said, and held up her sketchpad. Oh, please open the door so I can see that I’ve gotten you right.

A packet of surgical equipment wrapped in scrubs. The Illuminated Manuscript of Ta-Bid, The Last Supper Table Cloth and the John the Baptist Walking, Talking Doll, the keys to Austen, but no portrait of myself Beth made then that is how I look now.

 .

The Secret History of Tina

—Do you know what has happened to Tina? my sister asked.

It has been warm enough in recent days for them to slide the windows of ReVerse open. The reception for Beth’s show at the Nelson might be outside.

— I bought her that bus ticket from Oakland to Emporia.

—I mean after she got back? my sister said.

— She returned to her mother’s house, as did I. She had a baby, a girl, named after me.

—I did not know that, Elaine said.

—She’s probably living on the Plaza. Everybody else seems to be.

—Feeling a bit claustrophobic?

Elaine understands—I suspect as well as I do—that my past and my present and my future are not a continuum. The young man my uncle admired in California cannot be paginated in the same gathering with the man of a certain age I am now. In the language of editors, I do not “follow on.” I am Cut and Paste. Redundancy without a motif.

—Do you think I failed to become something I should have become? I asked.

—Uncle Conroy’s son? she said. A medical man for all seasons? Now collecting the honors for a lifetime of work dedicated to the betterment of mankind? Famous among lab coats and nurses? Very famous among nurses. Not wasting your life with Wednesday wives?

—Yes.

—You mean, she said, how is that a young man with such promise, with gifted kindness—yes. . .with. . .well, why not flatter you? But that is the question, isn’t it? How is it that you failed to fulfill your “youthful promise?” How is that you turned out not to be what others wanted you to be. That you are now “arch.” But that then you always—well, almost always—did the right thing. That now. . .

—Something like that, I said. Do you think I have turned out…

—“Lamentable?” she said

She understands I am curious, not vain.

—Yes, I said, thinking of the time my mother used the world in context.

—We all fail to be what we could have been, she said. We all waste our lives and even if we waste only part of it, you get to thinking it was the best part, and if it was the best part then it was all of it. The trick is. . .

—You sound like me talking to myself, I said.

—I’ll tell you something: the reason you’re successful with these women is because they think they’ve failed at something. At marriage. At work. At being a mother. Or not being a mother. At being themselves. That’s what makes them annoyed with their husbands for sitting in the convertible with a bandage on his eye. The Graduate was on HBO the other night. You know how Dustin Hoffman asks Mrs. Robinson to talk about art history and how she keeps saying “what could it possibly matter? What could it possibly matter?” Well, that’s who you’re sleeping with. Women who think even their failures don’t matter.

—I thought I was sleeping with the Elaine Robinsons of the world, now that they are finally bored with the Benjamin Bradocks of the world.

—That too, my sister said.

We were quiet for a moment. I think she is wondering who she is, now that she is wondering who I am.

—And you? Is it fair to ask?

—I have no lovers, she said.

—Not Hazen? She looked around the way she did when Bottle James had passed by. But there were only shoppers.

—In a way, yes. Yes.

She seemed startled at my question. Together we are trying to fill in pages in each other’s blank. I suspect she will change the subject. I would.

—You know what? she said. I think you could live in the house on Lowell, glass globe, Thor and all.

—I doubt it.

—So do I, my sister said. Now that I’ve said it. But that’s why you bought the house. To see if it was possible. To live in the past. Rosetta tells me you’re going to medical school.

—Maybe I want to be a doctor.

—Do you? I’ve been thinking about how you’re not like anyone you admired. Uncle Conroy. Hazen. Beth. Even our parents.

Who am I? I asked.

—A man in love, my sister said. Who has wasted his life not admitting it.

—Nothing is that simple.

—You’ve made your life here on the Plaza the way you make books. The right detail here. The right motif—is that the word?

—It will do.

—Just the right motif and typeface and paper and binding. Book after book. That’s your life. All motif. No text. Every thing vicarious, now that I looked it up. If you could, you’d probably slip into your book-printing Thor and have a copy made of yourself.

—What’s wrong with that? I said.

—Are you asking because you don’t know, or because you want to know?

—Both.

—Fair enough, she said. You’ve made a life. That’s different from living one. The man who was in love with Beth Brookings in Berkeley was living a life. Maybe not as a doctor. Maybe not as Beth’s lover. But living it. The man who is still in love with Beth Brookings here on the Plaza has made a life so he won’t have to think about her. What do you suppose all these woman are about? Did you ever make love with Beth? No. And you’re not going to be able to make love with her through your wife-a-week-humping society. Get over it. Not Beth. Don’t get over Beth. In your case, that’s what “getting over it” means: Don’t get over it. Let her be part of you. Lillian has this expression from college: “Don’t go there.” Well, for you, it’s wrong: Go there. Are you “going, going, going” to her show?

—Did you learn all this from afternoon television? I said.

—Now listen here, Mr. Emporia State graduate. Just because I didn’t finish college doesn’t mean I can’t have some thoughts of my own. No, I did not learn this from Television. I am teaching it to myself right now on your behalf. You asked me. . .Oh, never mind.     

—I’m sorry, I said.

—I know you are, she said.

—I got the keys to Austen the other day, I said.

—Austin?

—The car we shared, I said.

—Who sent them?

—There was no return address, I said. I thought you might know.

—Maybe Beth, my sister said. Maybe Hazen.

— Or you. Or me.

—In The Graduate there is some kind of car that Dustin Hoffman keeps driving up and down the California coast, she said

—A red Alpha, I said.

—You have a good memory for it, my sister said.

There was silence between us as a waiter came to clear some plates and ask us about dessert.

—I wonder, she said, if you drove Austen around the Berkeley Hills, you could find what has become of you.

—Better our father’s Studebaker around Merriam, I said.

./

Ginsberg: Not the Poet

—This one’s got to belong to somebody, said the guy who has taken Pistol’s place.

—They all belong to somebody, Hazen said. I gave him to some frat boys last year. I thought they’d take better care of him.

—I can’t understand why nobody came by the pound, the guy said. Usually with these big breeds, the owner will show up.

We put Ginsberg next to Pretty. Even though she wasn’t yet in heat, Ginsberg howled and bayed and scratched the side of the cage between them. The next morning I walked over to the fraternity house.

—I have your dog, I said to the guy who was in American Literature with me.

—Ginsberg? Tie me hide to the shed, Fred. Where?

He called inside to his buddies.

—At the lab where I work, I said. The pound picked him up and delivered him yesterday.

— I knew we should have gone to the pound, he said. All we did was snake my pledge. What the fuck good did that do?

He looked at the guys now standing on the stairs.

—I’ll bring him here later this afternoon, I said.

When I got to the lab, Ursula had Ginsberg on the table with a sodium pentothal needle into his leg. Hazen had walked in with me.

—You both are late, she said. I am vexed.

—I know who owns that dog, I said. The fraternity next to me has his picture up all over the place. See.

I had taken one off the lamppost. I got it out of my jean pocket. Ursula looked at it, then at Ginsberg with his head down and his tongue out because the sodium pentathlon was beginning to work.

—Nothing we can do, Ursula said.

—The fuck there isn’t, said Hazen and pulled the needle out of Ginsberg’s leg.

— Give me that, said Ursula. You with your nasty mouth.

—Call Doctor Kafka, Hazen said as he picked up Ginsberg and hoisted him across his shoulder so his butt was pointed at Ursula.

—You want this dog, said Hazen. You stick your head up his ass and wear him for a hat.

— I am vexed! I am vexed! Ursula screamed as she stalked out of the room.

—Maybe you better let him wake up before you take him to the fraternity, Hazen said handing me Ginsberg

I put him into his kennel next to Pretty. She had come to her door and was looking out. I called her name. She cocked her head.

—At least she can’t get you fired, I said to Hazen when I returned to the OR where he was cleaning the table.

— That’s why I’m going to quit.

—Your dad will protect you.

—Fair should be fair, said Hazen.

—Not always, I said.

—If you can make it so, you ought to. She can’t fire me, so I’ve got to quit.

—Maybe I should call Doctor Freud, I say, trying to lighten the moment.

—Get that little dog of yours out of there, he said. Ursula is on the prowl for trouble, and when I’m gone, you’re trouble. At least your dog is.

That afternoon I took Ginsberg to the fraternity boys. That night I took Pretty to my room. It won’t be long before she goes into heat.

 .

The Way We Are: Wednesday

Elaine has stopped by late afternoon.

—Did I see a Red Boa coming out of the elevator?

—Yes.

—I thought not. Stripper…

—No.

—I thought so.

She looked around, then busied herself putting away wine glasses and dishes. There were flowers to rearrange. She looked at her self in the mirror of my television. Then:

—What’s this book you’re writing for “a friend.”

—I wondered when you’d get around to that. And I didn’t say “writing.” I said “designing.”

—On your list the other day it said something about the Blank of Our Book. What’s that?

—You got me.

—Are you writing about her?

—Which her?

—Her, her. You know who I mean. Are you writing a book about Beth?

—Yes.

Elaine went to the table where I keep my list. She studied Wednesday for a moment. Then she unfolded it to see the full week where it said at the bottom: “Finish LUILO.” She refolded the list and sat down at the table.

—You are, she said. You’re writing a book about Beth. About us. About me. About all of us for all I know. Aunt Lillian. Hazen. And if you are there is something you need to know about yourself.

—What?

—You’re Robert Redford when he’s Hubble Gardner and has become a writer.

—Not William Holden giving orgasms to Fay Dunaway?

—Have you seen The Way We Were? Probably not. I think it’s too sentimental for you.

—I play it now and then.

—I thought not. But you should. There is scene where Streisand tells Redford that what’s wrong with his novel is that he is too detached from his characters. That he stands back and watches them. That’s what you do. You stand back. You study us.

—You crossed the street to tell me that?

Elaine studied me.

—You’ve seen it, she said.

— “One sip of beer.” “Go get them, Katie.” “You never give up do you? Only when I’m forced to.” See ya, Katie.” “See ya, Hubble.”

Elaine fingered my list.

—Say something more, she said.

—I like the movie the way I like the Plaza. The way I like Picnic even if I am in it. They way I like my books. There is a pleasing…

—Even the book you’re writing?

—Vicariously so.

—I get nowhere with you, she said, and handed me my list. I’ll wash the dishes. But don’t just watch me, you can dry.

 .

The Naked Man Inside My Uncle’s Lab

—Give that man a lab coat, said my uncle.

—Far out, man, said the naked man.

—Are you a doctor? said the nurse to my uncle.

—Yes.

The nurse handed him the baby.

—Get my medical bag, my uncle said to me as they went down the hall to the OR.

There was fierce pounding on the door.

—See who it is, I told Hazen.

—It’s Jo.

—Let her in, I said.

—You’re nuts, said Hazen.

—That way, she won’t stop Aunt Lillian, I said.

By the time I came out of my uncle’s office with his bag, Hazen had opened the door enough to let in Jo.

—Far out man, the naked man said.

—Watch for Aunt Lillian, I said to Hazen as I ran down the hall.

Ursula had put towels on the table where we bleed the dogs. My uncle laid the baby on its back. I handed him his bag. The child was making a rasping noise. With his fingers my uncle probed its mouth. He pumped its chest. Slowly, and with great care. He put his stethoscope on the child’s chest and frowned. He told the nurse where to find an oxygen bottle, and at the same time he asked Ursula to get the laryngoscope one of the doctors used in experiments.

— Go back to my office, my uncle said to me, and if the mother and father come in, keep them there.

—Should I tell them anything?

— Tell them I am a doctor.

When I got up front, the naked man had on a lab coat and was sitting in the lounge with Jo.

—You wouldn’t have any Mary Jane would you? the naked man asked me.

—Any sign of Aunt Lillian? I asked Hazen.

He was standing by the door, and every once in a while he’d open the curtains on the side windows to have a look. You could smell the tear gas, but without Jo at the bullhorn it seemed less like a riot.

—Here they come, said Hazen.

When he opened the door, I could see that the crowd was drifting away. The ambulance was still parked where it had stalled. The father had driven the Cadillac into the lab’s parking lot. He was holding his wife by her arm. Once, she tripped as they came along, but her husband held her tightly. My aunt was close behind. Hazen held the door open for them.

—Doctor, said the young mother. Please.

—Come in, I said.

I showed them into my uncle’s office, passing through the lounge where the naked man and Jo were sitting.

—You wouldn’t have any Mary Jane? said the naked man.

—What?

—Where’s Earl when we need him? he said to Jo.

The only place for me to sit was my uncle’s chair.

—Your baby’s with Doctor Watkins, I said.

—What does that mean? said the father.

His wife was looking at me.

—You’re not a doctor. My God, you’re not a doctor.

—No, I said. But you’re child is with a doctor.

—Where? asked her husband.

—In the lab, I said.

In the background we could hear the dogs howling.

—Where are we? the mother said. My god, where are we?

—You’re safe, said Aunt Lillian. And your baby is safe.

She had gotten up and was sitting on the arm of the couch by the mother. Aunt Lillian put her hand on the woman’s shoulder.

— It is true my nephew is not a doctor, she said. But my husband is. He’s one of the finest pediatricians in the world.

Jo was standing in the doorway. She looked first at the husband, then at his wife.

—Where are we? said the husband.

The dogs were starting to calm down and that might have prompted him to ask his question a second time.

—You’re in my husband’s research lab, Aunt Lillian said.

—This is not a hospital? said the mother. I want to see my baby.

—This is not the hospital, said my Aunt. But my husband is a very fine doctor and if need be, he will arrange to have your baby taken over to the hospital. It is just across the parking lot.

—This is a place where they torture animals, said Jo from the doorway.

She bumped into my uncle as she turned to walk out of his office.

 .

The Room 

Beth’s curator called to say the van transporting The Painter’s Room has arrived. She would like me to come over while they set it up. Her suspicion of me and its subsequent intrigue has gotten the best of her. We are to meet in her office to study the diagrams and photographs, then go to where The Room will be displayed. She has also told me how much she likes the post card series and the poster.

—The signed posters have come back, she said as we were sitting in her office.

—I have forgotten about the signed ones, I said. Remind me.

—The numbered limited edition we had printed. Letterpress. The rights were in your contract. You used the extra off-cuts for the. . .

—Yes, I said.

—We had Ms. Brookings sign them. Except for number one, which we are giving the patron of the show and forty-four, which I am keeping for myself, you may have any number you wish. There are one hundred.

—Let me think about it, I said.

I resisted the temptation to ask after number forty-four, although among recent temptations, this one was compelling. As was the woman. Her age?

Twice during the week that Elaine was in California we went to Beth’s apartment, once for dinner with Hazen—after which the three of them went off together and left me at the lab until very late—and once without Hazen, and I left Beth and Elaine together while I met Hazen at the lab. Other times I would take Elaine with me to classes—or to the lab. Another time the three of us, Hazen, Elaine, and I drove to Half Moon Bay. Once we went to the No Name Bar; that time was with Beth and not Hazen. The three of them went to San Francisco to see the seals around Fisherman’s Wharf and ride the trolley cars. Before Elaine flew home, the triangle among us had become an interlocking geometric painting. And Jo had gotten her abortion, and I had paid the bill.

—Did you arrange it? Elaine said to me as I was taking her to the airport.

—No.

She turned her head toward the window on her side of the car. It was the Cadillac.

—I’m going to marry Gerhard, she said.

—Do you want me to come to the wedding?

—There will be no wedding. Just a marriage. I’ll write everyone afterwards.

—Will you write me? I said.

—For the fun of it, yes. I’ll send it to that bookstore.

—And Hazen?

She did not answer.

—What men don’t understand, my sister said as we were standing in line for her to board the airplane, is that women can be in love with a man and not like him the way you like friends. Gerhard will make a good father. Hazen would have been…

—You don’t love Gerhard?

—My hope is that not loving him all my life will not keep me from liking him all my life. Beth and I have talked about Hazen and we understand.

—Understand what?

My sister did not answer.

A few weeks later at the City Lights Bookstore, I got the following letter from Elaine, reproduced on what must have been an early Xerox machine. My copy had the IBM typewriter pica font smeared in a number of places, as if someone had tried to pull the paper through before it was ready.

Hi Everyone,

          I’m married. I know! I know! It is a surprise even to me. But when love strikes you gotta strike back. His name is Gerhard Muir and no, he is not German. He’s American like Apple Pie. He wants to be in Business and he says we can live anywhere I want to. As he graduates this spring we’ll come back to Kansas and meet everyone. He’s from Boston.

At the bottom of my copy my sister had written in hand: Sent one of these to Beth. Don’t you just love her apartment?

It was on this trip to the bookstore that I found an envelope addressed to: “The Doctor of City Lights,” and inside was a signed holograph of “America.”

Have you seen it? My sister said. She has gotten the announcement of Beth’s show, a booklet of a flyer they send to patrons. This one is especially well designed, using for the cover the off-cuts of the poster so that, while no two covers are alike, all are alike because they show some part of Beth’s apartment.

—Have you seen her room?

Inside are listed the events to which my sister and Gerhard have been invited, including a “ pre-viewing” of The Room, into which the patrons—but not the general public, it is understood—will be allowed. Had I seen the text before it went to press I would have pointed out that “viewing” was a bit funereal.

—I have been invited to have a look, I said.

—Have you?

—No.

—For once I believe you. Why not?

I had no answer.

—Do you want to see her Room? the curator had asked.

—Thank you, I said. Some other time if you don’t mind.

—Would you like to join me for lunch? Do you know ReVerse?

—How about I fix us lunch at my apartment? Wednesday?

After I said it, it didn’t sound like me.

 ,

An Epistolary of Life and Death

Uncle Conroy died on my birthday. Aunt Lillian wrote with the details:

“Your uncle was stricken with a heart attack and we could not get him down the hill because the great rains we have had flooded the roads with the water running everywhere and I could not get out because of it and the ambulance could not get in so we carried him down the hill on a gurney, which is like a stretcher. There was some misunderstanding and they took him to the Children’s Hospital instead of the regular hospital and your friend Harold saw him there in the hallway of the emergency room while they were trying to get him help, either by taking him where he should have gone in the first place or to get his friend Doctor Reed to come over. You remember Doctor Reed? He was the one we had dinner for when he won the Nobel Prize and you made that joke about sometimes Kansas is something and sometimes it isn’t, but I can’t remember now what it was that is or isn’t.

Anyway, what a good friend Doctor Reed has been all these years to us and now to me, and his wife as well, although I think she is a little odd, don’t you think so? Conroy died at the Children’s Hospital before anyone could do anything about it. I was with him. He would have wanted it that way. He told me maybe an hour before he died as we were taking him down the hill (that would have been more than an hour now that I think of it), that he felt you would have made a very good doctor. But that he was not disappointed in you for not being a doctor. He didn’t say that part about not being disappointed as we were carrying him down the hill. I added that on my own because that’s how I know he felt about you because we talked about it several times. He liked you and so do I.

I am sorry he died on your birthday because I know how much you liked him and now every birthday will not be the same. He was cremated and we had no service for him except at the lab where Harold has some experiments because he is next door at the Hospital as the chief of surgery. There was also that girl you dated once, the one with the lovely face with freckles that has that wonderful smile, not the one who caused so much trouble. Harold’s father told me she is a painter and a famous one. I have Conroy’s ashes.”

Two years later Aunt Lillian died, but not before being admitted to the clinic in Livermore, California, down the Bay from San Francisco. Ursula had called because Aunt Lillian had not been seen for days and they were afraid. When I tried to call her myself, I got no answer. I knew where she hid the key, so I asked Ursula if she’d check to see what had happened.

Aunt Lillian had been drinking steadily and was in a stupor, wandering around the house. Ursula drove her to Livermore the next day. When I got there, Aunt Lillian said:

—They told me I am not crazy because crazy people are happy and I am unhappy. I said they would be unhappy too if their husband had been Conroy Watkins and he had died. I would rather be crazy than unhappy. If I die you may have the Cadillac. I’ve put Conroy’s ashes in the trunk. His medical bag too. Take it with you now. And the big red medical book he wanted you to have.

My aunt and I were sitting on a bench in the front yard of the clinic. It was cool and dry, and there was that scent of eucalyptus. It would be a good day to dive for abalone.

—What nice friends you had when you were here, my aunt said. Even if some of them were hippies. I suppose there were lots of hippies among the young in those days. And agitators. My, how many agitators we had in Berkeley. Remember that naked man who danced on the Cadillac and put dents in the hood?

—Yes.

—And we couldn’t get the insurance company to pay for it because Conroy insisted on telling the truth, and the insurance man said he could not pay for damage that was done in a riot, but if Conroy would just say a vandal did it or a hail storm did it even if we didn’t have any hail like you do in Kansas, then the insurance would cover it. But Conroy wouldn’t lie. Did you know about that?

—I did not.

—So many were drug addicts, Aunt Lillian said and looked into the trees where a pair of doves had settled.

—I was not one of them.

—I am glad you told me, she said. Have you seen that lady friend of yours?

—Beth?

—She’s not the one who started the riot. Not her. I’m sure she’s sweet in her own way. But the other one. Your friend’s girlfriend.

—Beth.

—I thought she was Beverly.

—Beth.

—Have you seen her?

—No.

—Somebody told me she paints these murals you see on the sides of buildings.

—That’s true.

—Conroy told me she painted that one of the little sports car you see when you come into the ChildrenHospital. The driver looks like you.

—She did.

—I always liked that painting. That wall used to be blank, and I thought it would be nice if there could be something there. Not something medical. Or even flowers. But something about getting out of the hospital. When I saw that little sports car with those three young people driving by the ocean, it made me happy, and I knew it would make other people happy, too. Although I don’t think it’s very safe to have one of those young people sitting up on the back like he is in the painting. But maybe that can be changed now that we have a law about safety belts.

A nurse came into the yard and I understood we should go inside. When Aunt Lillian and I were in the hallway, she got confused and said goodbye to me using my uncle’s name, then corrected herself without embarrassment. The nurse looked familiar.

—On Conroy’s desk is a small book he wanted you to have, Aunt Lillian said by way of parting. It is from when he practiced in Galveston. I should have mailed it to you before.

—I saw it, I said.

—Please take it with you.

Ever since my uncle’s death, I had been managing my aunt’s affairs, and so I stopped by the clinic’s business office to assure them that the bills would be paid and that I would make the arrangements for my aunt’s care after she was released. As I was about to leave the nurse who had taken my aunt to her room met me in the hall and we walked along toward the front door.

—Was your aunt’s husband Conroy Watkins, the doctor? she asked.

—Yes.

I could not place her.

—You wouldn’t know this but your uncle saved my daughter’s life.

—How’s that?

I realized who she was.

—He just did, she said.

—His research saved many lives.

—That too.

—Take care of my aunt, I said.

—I will.

—What became of your daughter?

—She died for other reasons. An accident. Not really.

From outside I heard a horn honk in a familiar pattern, then someone calling my name. I looked at the nurse to see if she had recognized me. Apparently not.

—I’m sorry, I said.

—I’ll take care of your aunt, she said.

I opened the door and she went into the sunshine. I walked back down the hall and out into the lot where I had parked the Cadillac.

When I left California I took my uncle’s medical bag on the airplane with Harrison’s inside. I mailed his notebook to myself, thinking it would be pleasing to get a package from my past. It arrived a few days after I got back. There was no return address.

 .

Principles of Medicine

—I like it, Hazen said. I like it when they think I’m an intern at Mel’s just because I’m wearing scrubs and a surgical mask. I’ll like it even more when I’m the real thing. In my mind, I’m a doctor.

We were in my uncle’s office one Saturday. All morning, we had bled dogs.

—You’re pretending, I said. Those clothes are a costume. My roommate in Kansas used to wear the costumes of the plays he worked on. But that didn’t make him a salesman. Or a king. You’re pretending to be a doctor. So am I. When I think about it, I’m embarrassed.

—You become what you pretend to be, said Hazen. If you don’t pretend, you don’t become. Do we really need to call Doctors Camus and Sartre to get a diagnosis? Comprenez vous?

—No, I said.

Hazen looked at me. This wasn’t the first time since the incident at my uncle’s house that I’d made a point of not knowing what he was talking about. But it might have been the first time I’d had enough nerve to challenge his assertions.

—You don’t like it, do you? he said.

—I don’t know, I said.

—What’s the problem? he said.

—Death.

—Then it follows as night follows day that you should like medicine, Hazen says. Death concentrates the mind. Call Doctor Johnson.

—Can you tell me the breeds of dogs we killed today? Even their markings? I said.

—Cages fifty one, fifty two, fifty three, and fifty five, says Hazen. Fifty-four growled at me.

—How about the beagles?

—What about them?

—We’re starving them. At least fifty-one through fifty-five minus fifty-four are going quickly. We’re starving the beagles.

—Yes, said Hazen.

—Aren’t you going to tell me it’s for the ultimate benefit of mankind?

—No.

—Why not?

—Because I don’t like clichés. Alliteration, yes. Semicolons, colons; mais oui.

—Tell me something…

—That the unexamined life is worth living, he said.

—What does that mean? I said.

—Look, he said. We’re not a bunch of hoods here. We’re not wearing leather coats and riding motorcycles and burning rubber in drag races. We’re not James Dean. We’re not Earl with his bong. We’re not doing Love-Ins in People’s Park. We like poetry and balling and beers, sure. But we’re not fucked up so we’re not fucked.

—Was Jo wrong?

—That she balls everybody and his sister? No. About the riot? Yes.

—Why?

—Because I’m right. Somebody’s got to be right. We’re right. We’re in “good-guy” costumes, he said and pulled the lapel of his lab coat. We’re White-Hat cowboys. Look around. See all these books in your uncle’s office? See these plaques? Those are White-Hat walls. That’s a White-Hat desk. And down the hall is a White-Hat lab and on either side are White-Hat dogs doing White-Hat work by getting bled to death. Even Ursula is a White-Hat. She may have a black heart, but she’s wearing a White-Hat.

—I thought you didn’t like her.

—I don’t, but what she’s doing trumps who she is. We’re all in a good-guy medical movie. It runs ninety minutes and I’m thirty minutes into it. Get yourself a movie. This isn’t Ta-Bid. This is life. If it feels good driving a bus, then get the uniform out of the costume closet. If it feels good reading a dictionary and writing Ta-Bid, then you don’t need a costume. But you still need an act. Me, I like my white coat.

—I thought you were not going to tell me that starving the beagles. . . .

—How am I to know what’s for the “betterment of mankind?” Maybe one day Doctor Cody will find a cure for infant intestinal blockage and she’ll save the life of some nut who takes a Thompson sub machine gun out of an Al Capone movie and shoots a bunch of kids in a school yard. Or maybe my father’s experiments will lead to prolonging the life of a woman who is carrying a mutant gene that turns you blind, and every child she gives birth to will pass it on, and we’ll have blindness all over the Western Hemisphere. Too many for even Jesus to cure. But while he was at it, why didn’t he just cure blindness and put ophthalmologists out of business? What do I know?

—So?

—I tend my own garden. I look at the world up close and personal: I see us testing hairspray. Your uncle working on nutrition experiments. Ursula checking on us. Bleeding numbers 51 through 55, minus 54, so we can get a decent heart-lung machine for kids. My father getting the Nobel Prize. My mother and your aunt raising money for the art museum and the symphony. Two White-Hat girls in Two Women for the Arts, a film about not taking the last cucumber sandwich off the plate. Beth making paintings. The three of us in Austen. The No Name Bar. Tom Lehrer. Joan Baez. It doesn’t get any better. This is the best of all possible worlds because it is the only possible world.

—But. . .

—Yes, yes, yes, Hazen went on before I could object. We’re not supposed to think that way. Not our generation. Not with Castro. Nixon. Not with Vietnam. Johnson. MacBird. Reagan. Not with Jo jumping up and down about my father because he killed ten million bunny rabbits or whatever she claims. Not with pigs with guns and tear gas and everybody over thirty an asshole. Not with history. All of history to hear my European History Professor tell it. Not with Allen Ginsberg and the best minds of his generation gone mad. But let me tell you something: Ginsberg is a White-Hat poet because he’s better than what he sees. What he sees doesn’t drag him down. He’s got his act. His shtick. And it’s not somebody else’s shtick. I want to be the Allen Ginsberg of doctors. I want to believe in myself the way he believes in himself. And I’m getting there.

Hazen looked into his coffee cup.

—The No Name Bar, he says. White-Hat Bar. Mort Sahl. Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Allen Ginsberg. Doctor Doyle. Me. You.

—Don’t you have second thoughts?

—I’ve got my lines memorized, said Hazen. Your problem is you don’t have a sticht. Tres mal. The curtain is going up. And someday, down.

 .

Our Blank de Blanche: Design Proposal of The Penultimate

Title: Oh, Please Open the Door So I can See that I’ve Gotten You Right

A. Folio. Gravure.

B. Text: A Serendipitous arrangement of cut and pasted epistolary texts with photographs (e.g. Turtle on the Way, Ginsberg, Ferlenghetti, DeSalvo, Nixon et. al.), paintings, and illustrations from Ta-Bid note books.

C. Type Face: IBM pica typewriter ball.

D. Cover: Leather with two recessed squares for “Of a Certain Age” embossed portraits.

F. Two copies.

— Robert Day
Bookbinding header, color-001

Robert Day’s most recent book is Where I Am Now, a collection of short fiction published by the University of Missouri-Kansas City BookMark Press. Booklist wrote: “Day’s smart and lovely writing effortlessly animates his characters, hinting at their secrets and coyly dangling a glimpse of rich and story-filled lives in front of his readers.” And Publisher’s Weekly observed: “Day’s prose feels fresh and compelling making for warmly appealing stories.”

The novel banners at top and bottom are by Bruce Hiscock.

Mar 152014
 

DSC_0046Photo by Will Johnson

Meet Shepps and Gwen, Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungeon avatars, young and punk, but without even a hint of the aura of glamour that seemed, briefly, to redeem the stars. This is a love story of a decidedly bent sort, droll, fiercely witty, Rabelaisian, candid, amoral, real. Did I mention real? Susan Sanford Blades is a discovery. Her story has panache. She spanks out line after quotable line as if she speaks in aphorisms. “This one lied due to the unbearability of truth.” “Parenting is simpler for the absent.” Sentences carved out of the ether but anchored in an incredibly convincing, grubby, and hilariously inept reality. “She let him come in five minutes, tuck his limp sea cucumber into his pants, and slosh away because Gwen was twenty-one years old and beautiful boys didn’t need to try.”

dg

 

Shepps appeared at Pluto’s Diner carrying a duffel bag stuffed with Dorothy’s Rainbow posters and a roll of masking tape. He wasn’t an official band member but they let him play second bass sometimes. They’d adorn him with a black spiked wig and track marks on his forearms—a nod to Sid Vicious that guaranteed him a Nancy after the show.

Pluto’s offered two waitresses that day for the young and horny gentleman wandering Cook street with a stomach for grease. Tiffany of the two-inch tall sprayed-straight bangs and bra-less, off-the-shoulder sweaters and Gwen of the bleached-blonde witch’s broom and ever-moist Fire Red pout.

Shepps introduced himself to Gwen as the lead singer of Dorothy’s Rainbow but she had a nose for liars. Shepps couldn’t command a sentence, let alone a stage. Boredom and intrigue for this flop-footed sprout drove Gwen to let him lie to her at a booth in the corner while he drank glass after glass of apple juice. He told her he dug the band but wanted to quit. He bemoaned his toad voice. The girls. Every night like a line up for the dole outside his van—myriad desperate faces with ready palms. Shepps’ lies endeared him to Gwen. This one lied due to the unbearability of the truth.

She let him eat her out in a booth after closing that day, his lips sticky from the apple juice. When Gwen came he leaned his head on her slick thigh and said, you’re delicious.

Gwen kept strict rules for Shepps. He could visit her at the diner but not at home. He could fall in love with her if he wanted but he could not call her girlfriend. They smeared themselves over every inch of vinyl in the diner. Gwen’s boss pulled her into a booth one morning and said, “smell the bench, Gwen. What is that? Bleach? Pancake batter?” She dipped her nostrils, shrugged and told him Tiffany closed the night before.

Gwen attended her first Dorothy’s Rainbow show flanked by her roommates Mona and Christie. Mona blew Hubba bubbles and yelled menstrual anxieties into Gwen’s ear. “Can you tell I’m wearing a pad? Is there blood showing? I felt a gush.” Christie, a Bryan Adams fan, stayed only because the bassist was cute.

Shepps played second bass to Donny. Donny ferried to Seattle every five weeks to give blood for a living and, due to his anemic state, was the most punk-rock looking member of the band. Both twiddled their E strings with the same useless fervour. The real lead singer was Damian Costello. He was not 1983 beautiful. His hair had not made the acquaintance of gel. His testicles had not been heated to the point of sterility by a pair of tight, acid-washed jeans. His beauty transcended decades. God, how he moved. Skinny and lithe as a garden hose. Johnny Rotten’s death grip on the mic stand without the toothy maw.

The after party took place in Shepps’ home—an orange Westfalia he parked at Clover Point. Donny grabbed the available flesh around Christie’s waist and took her up to the pop top. The drummer, Ricky, supplied the band with weed, a steady beat, and a throaty guffaw from time to time, but spoke little and was therefore considered sexless. Damian stretched and released Mona’s bra strap a few times then excused himself to wade in the ocean.

“Keep Mona company,” Gwen said to Shepps. “You can finger her a bit, I won’t mind.”

“Where are you going?”

“I need to pee.” Gwen opened the sliding door. “Mona, I’ve told you about Shepps, right?”

“Sure,” Mona said. “Inarticulate, likes to eat pussy?”

Damian was out to sea, knee deep in kelp.

Gwen plunged out like a spoon through Jell-O and said, “howdy,” then wished she’d opened with something more punk-rock, like oi!, then realized that was too effortful and howdy was so unpunk-rock it, in fact, was punk-rock, then felt satisfied with herself. Smugly so.

“How’d you like the show?” Damian remained at attention to the Olympic range.

“You sucked.”

He spun to face Gwen. “Yeah?”

“Yeah. ‘God Save Pierre Elliott Trudeau’? What is that?”

“I live in Chinatown on Daddy’s dime. How about you?”

“My parents disowned me when I bleached my hair.” Gwen scratched her scalp. “They still pay my rent.”

“We’re privileged Canadians. We could never be punk-rock.”

“I know,” Gwen said, then felt stupid because if she knew, why ask?

Damian yoinked a sea-salted strand of Gwen’s hair and said, “why look like Nancy Spungen? She was psychotic.” And everything Gwen had ever wanted for herself, at least since high school, shrank. “You look cute though,” Damian said. He lifted Gwen and carried her and splashed and stumbled and shimmied her onto the beach and banged her head on a rock like the furthest thing from a punk-rocker. She let him fuck her like a man who’d returned home after a day inking paper to his aproned wife and slipper-bearing dog, meatloaf firming in the oven. She let him come in five minutes, tuck his limp sea cucumber into his pants, and slosh away because Gwen was twenty-one years old and beautiful boys didn’t need to try.

Next month Damian’s coffee table supported five bags of Cheetos, an ash tray, Gwen’s bare ass, two guitars, seven pipes, Ricky’s spare change, Damian’s heels, Gwen’s heels, Damian’s bare ass, the soles of Gwen’s shit-kickers, one issue of Flip Side, seven tea lights, one burning stick of patchouli, three boogers, one wad of Hubba Bubba, and a small, terrifying white object.

Gwen pointed to the urine-soaked blue line and said, “do we want this?” Damian noodled on his guitar a few minutes, then peered over the sides of his knees toward the coffee table.

“Has it been long enough?”

“The line doesn’t disappear with time.”

“Baybeh.” Damian half-sang this and Gwen wasn’t sure whether it was a noodling emission or a proclamation of their future.

“So?”

“Do-we-want-a-baybeh.” Damian sang this.

“So, no?”

“Do-we-want-to-kill-a-baybeh.”

“I don’t think I do.”

“Me neither.”

“Which one?”

“The killing one.”

Damian put down his guitar. Gwen watched him pull up his socks from the corner of her eye. His saggy socks. She wondered if Johnny Rotten wore socks, and if he did, were they from the sale bin at Thrifty’s, greyish white with the elastic gone.

Damian picked up the test. “Fuck, yeah. A baby. An experiment. Mind control.” He waved the test around. Conducted.

“It’s not in the stick.” Gwen raised her eyebrows. Pointed to her stomach.

He tossed the stick back onto the coffee table. “I know, Gwen.” He grabbed the waistline of her shirt. Clenched, one-handed like he was unloading hot socks from the dryer. “We’ll get married,” he said.

Gwen smiled.

“We won’t tell anyone.”

Gwen frowned.

“Except Shepps. He’ll be the ring-bearer.”

Gwen smiled. “And the flower girl.”

“We’ll make him wear a dress.”

“Such a sad flower girl.”

Shepps did not wear a dress but he grasped the flowers like a little girl. Held with index finger and thumb, flopped over to the side as though ambling to the tune of his daydreams. He brought them himself. Lavender and daisies he’d picked on the way to City Hall. “I love lavender,” Gwen said. Shepps said “I know,” though he never knew.

Gwen wore her grade twelve graduation dress—a fuschia, puff-sleeved, polka-dotted number—because punk-rock would soon die but polka dots were forever. Damian wore something Gwen had never seen. Low-cut corduroy bell bottoms he’d rolled up tight to conceal their outdated girth and a black suit jacket sized for a ten-year-old boy. He looked like a lanky giant dragging two lumpy doughnuts at his ankles. Gwen wondered if she should marry someone whose full spectrum of pants she was not yet acquainted with.

Once declared man and wife by the province of British Columbia, Shepps took Gwen and Damian to Pluto’s for a milkshake. “My treat,” he said. Shepps hadn’t been to Pluto’s since he’d last secreted into a booth. Gwen cringed at the ease with which he sauntered in, waved his wallet around, said hello to Tiffany, lingering on the Ls to flaunt his skilled tongue. And Damian. How, when Tiffany nodded toward Gwen’s shoulder soufflés and asked “what’s the occasion,” he said “it’s Gwen’s birthday.” Then turned to Gwen with a finger to his lips, as though the secret was theirs to share.

Shepps shuffled into the postnatal ward of the Royal Jubilee Hospital two days after Sara Rae Costello was born. He had always been loose-gaited but that day he seemed invertebrate. Gwen was without company, baby, or makeup. She looked less desperate-for-heroine, more desperate-to-have-her-hemorrhoids-looked-after.

“You had a baby.” It was the most punk-rock thing Shepps had ever said.

“Long time no see, Shepps.”

“How’s married life?”

“The masochist in me loves it.”

Shepps smiled and looked at Gwen as though to say you’re delicious but he said “you’re tired.” Gwen asked him how he was and he nodded and said, “good” in a sleepy elastic tone that made her not want to know how good. So she said, “good.” And they sat and looked at the walls until a nurse brought in the baby. Shepps said, “she’s beautiful. You look beautiful holding a baby. You look beautiful feeding a baby.” And they sat and looked at the baby until he said, “I should go.” He left a pile of lavender on her night stand. Typical Shepps, to bring flowers without a vase.

Sara had a sly smile Gwen loathed. The same smile Damian formed when conjuring alibis. After two years of marriage, Gwen’s nose was full of lies. Sara reserved her smile for moments of mischief. Cheerio-paste paintings on the carpet, feces on the bathroom wall. She sensed Gwen’s frustration and up those lips curled, followed by a plea for Daddy. Daddy received genuine smiles. Giggles, even. Sara offered Gwen a jowly, Churchillian scowl.

Gwen dreaded all times Sara was not close-lidded. Dread of building blocks, tea parties, empty hours. Dread of mistakes. Every motion, emotion, utterance potentially lethal. This child weighed too much. At times, she would offer Gwen respite. Run a peanut-buttered finger through Gwen’s ratted hair and pronounce her unicorn-pretty. Allow Gwen’s lips to reach the crown of her head. Succumb to sleep on Gwen’s downy stomach.

Damian had no trouble with the girl. She responded to his muted commands. Parenting is simpler for the absent. Gwen understood. Damian’s quiet disinterest was a siren to her as well.

Sara’s limbs had softened to curlicues around afghans and bears and mythical creatures. Gwen retreated to the balcony. She watched passersby and felt glad she wasn’t them. They were old and crippled. Saddled with groceries and offspring. Fashion victims. Having obvious, pretend fun. Slumping along, zombie-like as though every crack in the sidewalk were an abyss to traverse.

Gwen yelled through the bars, “who’s that trip-trapping past my balcony?”

Shepps swayed like a poplar in the July breeze. “Is that you, Gwen?”

Gwen was dishevelled, though now not purposefully. Thinner of face, thicker of hip. A small plum under each eye. Her hair long and unbleached. Squirrel brown.

“You’re not playing tonight?”

“There’s no gig.”

“Oh. Then where’s Damian?” Gwen dangled her arms between the bars. “Why don’t you come up?”

“You know why.”

“Why don’t you come up?” Her fingers grasped at the air as though to bail out the sky between them.

“Because,” Shepps said. “Maybe for a minute.”

“Five more minutes,” Gwen said. “Come in. Talk to me. Lie with me.”

Shepps lay with Gwen in her bed, a paternal palm to her hip. He told her the truth. About pumping at the Esso. She smelled his sweet and sour fingers. About quitting the band. “I don’t know if they need two bassists,” he said.

Then Shepps lied to her about a girl. Cindy or Sandy or Mindy. Worked the coffee stand at the Esso. Filled her uniform well. “Snug,” he said. She’d been to his van for a beer. He’d undone a few of her buttons. And a few more. He might take her up island, introduce her to surfing, black bears, his parents. “You don’t even have parents,” Gwen said. She pressed her palm to his palm on her hip. Gwen thought about his sickly sweet tongue. How disposable it once was. And how much depended on it right now.

—Susan Sanford Blades

Susan Sanford Blades lives in Victoria, BC. “Poseurs” belongs to a manuscript of linked short stories she’s currently working on. Two others from said manuscript have been published recently in Grain and Filling Station.

 

Mar 082014
 

Cover

In 1996, less than a decade after the major state-run publishers closed during the revolution, the Romanian publishing house Humanitas, philosopher-owned and focused on critical nonfiction, published a suitably cerebral novel by the name of Orbitor: Aripa Stângă or Blinding: The Left Wing. Its author, the poet and essayist Mircea Cărtărescu, had spent the previous decade firmly establishing himself as one of the foremost figures in Romanian literature. The Left Wing, which Archipelago Books published in late 2013 as Blinding, is the first in a trilogy of books which seek out a greater human consciousness by uniting memories of the past with intimations of the future in a prophetic, far-seeing present. Humans lack a fundamental symmetry, Cărtărescu proposes in Blinding, and in this way we are like butterflies with only one wing.

Blinding focuses on that wing of the past, a thing wrought of memory and nostalgia. In a way it is autobiographical: the narrator-protagonist is Mircea Cărtărescu, and much of the story revolves around his childhood in Bucharest and his parents’ experiences in the Romanian capital before he came into being. But Blinding is welded together by fantasies and hallucinations. When facts are scarce and memories end, Cărtărescu fills the pages with his dreaming.

The following excerpt, featuring Cărtărescu’s future parents Maria and Costel (here they’re just young romantics) as they explore bombed-out factory wreckage in the wake of a pleasant movie date, shows the author’s talent for sliding casually into the realm of the unreal. Maria, feeling as if she has been chosen for this purpose, has just called down an elevator from a shaft that is miraculously still standing – the Allies bombed Bucharest heavily in the Second World War in an effort to disrupt railroad lines and destroy oil reserves – and when the glowing chamber reaches the ground, the doors open and this is what emerges.

The excerpt is published with permission from the publisher, the amazing  Archipelago Books. See my review of the novel here.

—Adam Segal

 

Inside the walnut-paneled car, between the crystal windows that doused the area with prisms and rainbow iridescences, seated on a little chair, was a rubicund, naked woman, blinding in the milky maturity of her skin, who held in her arms, like a swan and just as heavy, an immense butterfly with a thick, velvety body, six nervous legs that ended in claws propped on the woman’s breasts and stomach, a round head with enigmatic eyes, and a proboscis rolled up like a clock spring. The wings, unable to unfurl completely in the tight space, lined the car with an electric blue that hurt your eyes to look at, like the flame of a welding torch. The woman was at least forty years old. She had rings under her glassy, intelligent eyes, her breasts turned slightly toward the ground and their bluish curves were marked with small blue veins, and her stomach was creased with several deep folds. Her hair had grown down to the ragged floor of the elevator and the last tendrils were spread on the ground, wrapping her right thigh in curls and distinct locks. A subtle scent, dissolving rapidly in the sweet spinning of spring, wafted from her icon-like pose. A large, melancholic Omega was gouged between her eyebrows.

For a long time, she barely moved, staring at the two young people surrounded by the crepuscular light. When she stood, they sensed the fully female power of her hips. Her delicate webs of dry, curly hair did not quite cover the curved whiteness of her pubis, marked by a vertical velvet fissure. Released from the confining walls, where it left blue smudges like eye shadow, the butterfly beat its wings several times. Unfurled, they were more than three meters across. Although the woman held on to it as strongly as she could, hugging her arms around its ringed body, it still managed to pull itself free, to circle like a bird of prey over the vacant lot and rest, finally, on the warm wall of the house at the end. With its wings spread almost as wide as the yellow wall, it basked a few moments in the already rubicund rays of the sun, and then it brought its wings together and rested like the tail of a gnomon, casting a peaked shadow over the dandelions and chamomiles growing at the foot of the cracked wall. The underside of its wings took relief in the light that fell on their veins and nerves, a much paler blue below than the one above. Over the house’s pointed roof and chimneys, on the stillafternoon sky, blue, just visible, was the thin fingernail of the moon.

“You are Maria,” the woman said, stepping outside the box where she had waited for twelve years, feeding the strange infant from her breast, and dreaming, maybe, or gazing in a trance into the mirror on the elevator car wall. Because the mammary glands and tear glands are skin modified by the same hormone, the butterfly had fed alternately on tears and milk. Now the woman walked gracefully on the warm sidewalk, enveloped in spring. Costel and Maria walked very slowly, on either side of her, down the empty street. “Charlie told me about you. We only met for a moment, but he was able, in that moment, to tell me everything. The years from that time until I met you have passed so quickly, it’s like I was in a book and the author wrote ‘and then twelve years passed’. . . Just that much, as long as a phrase, an endless phrase that enclosed my child and me in a vial of liquid time. When I was young, I read the fairy tale about the djinn trapped in his bottle for millennia, and I quaked wondering how it was possible to experience something like that, the silence and endless stillness, your mind devouring itself in convulsions, nails growing into the heel of your hand, until they came out the other side, teeth plunging savagely into your tongue just to feel something, and from time to time, powerful hysteria rising inside you, dissolving you in its poisoned acid. . . So much better to choose the nameless tortures of a true, honest, inferno, with concrete objects that smash your mouth and crack your eyes and rip your kneecaps from your flesh! Even screaming, even writhing, you know you exist, that you are in history coming from somewhere and going somewhere, albeit another horrible suffering.

“It was different with me, it’s different with women. I lay in my chrysalis like a hard-shelled louse, degenerate, just a stomach full of fat and eggs, without eyes, without nerves, without hopes or expectations. Not like a consciousness that follows a thought to its end, then remains empty until the end of time, but like a thought from another, much greater someone, like a letter in a book, like a dot of color in a painting. I did not suffer, because I am woven from suffering; I did not think, because I am part of another thought, the fantastic intellection at the root of the world. My message is encoded in me, it is me, the way the host is the Savior, and the words of this message, meant only for you, are my fingers, lips, hips, spleen and vertebrae and large intestine. How odd, to live through someone else’s history, as though you were a dream creature, created entirely by the mind and yet complete, with personalities and desires, and with brown eyes with green flecks, without interiority, and which does not think, see, hear, or know it is alive. To be a secondary character in someone else’s novel rather than the enormous world of your full complexity, to be only one who brings a tray with a letter. To Hell with your heart and vulva and beliefs! Did you deliver the message? You will never appear again, not in this book or any other. And still, how pleasant it is to bear a message of good news. . . To be the Angel, kneeling with folded wings, speaking with a different kind of vocal apparatus than humans have, amidst the sounds of a triangle and carillon: ‘Rejoice, Maria!’ And then dissolving, not to disappear forever, but to return to the Intelligence whose fold you were, as though the fold would flatten or the smile depart, leaving the face serious, smiling only in its celestial eyes. . .

“I, this crumple in the sheet, this pleat of the Divine. This imperfection, this shard. This negativeness, which, much more blinding than beautiful, exceeds the flesh and mind in monstrousness. Ringworms, scorpions with translucent tails, octopi, abyssal fish that are all teeth, spiders and scabies, hunchbacks, lepers, cretins and newborns with only one eye in their foreheads are all less hideous than a beautiful woman in the splendor of her youth. For she is a piece plucked from God, a biopsy of his organ of light, a painful lumbar puncture that squirts a jet of liquid. She leaves a cavern in perfection, and she travels a much greater distance than monsters or any nightmare. It is terrible to possess beauty. Over twelve years I often looked at myself in the mirror, until my sin, my greatest and most unforgivable sin – because arrogance is another name for beauty – became clear and unbearable. Such joy I felt to find, now and then, a ring or wrinkle! Such a relief when my forehead was blotched with freckles! And when a pimple appeared on my lip, I was happy for days; it was as though a supernova had exploded in the abysses of constellations, destroying shameless matter, filling entire parsecs with blood. Aging, I offended the Flame less and less, my spark gained more and more of the delicate texture of ash. That’s all, all I wanted to be: a letter in a book, a snowflake of ash. . . Blessed, then and welcome may my double chin be, my sagging breasts, stretch marks, and varicose veins. I feel my beauty ebbing out of me like plasma, illuminating my contour and returning to the Beauty of the limitless one. . .”

Costel and Maria came to the end of the street, with the grand odalisque between them, her nipples turning wine-scarlet in the declining light. They stopped, contemplating the vanishing point of the nearly deserted boulevard. Some groups of young people passed occasionally, high school students with caps and briefcases, college kids with their hair combed flat over their heads, girls with their hair all in curls and eyebrows oddly plucked, their “eyebrows abroad,” as Tomazian teased on the radio; you might see a gentleman with a lavalier, a cane in hand, and a suit so elegant you wondered if time had gone backwards and the “Befores” ridiculed in magazines had become the “Afters.” Even though people passing by smiled at the three of them – they’d stopped at the corner, by the storefront of a funeral home, with a coffin leaned against the wall – nobody seemed to notice anything unusual. Walking on tip-toe, with her hair down to the backs of her knees, the last ringlets tickling the soft flesh there, oval like a closed eye, the woman from the elevator seemed to be made of honey-colored air. Maria suspected, despite their passivity, that everyone else could see the woman just as well as they did, but she matched so well the odd, nostalgic corner of Bucharest and the nightfall that she didn’t register in their minds. Her image descended directly into the obscure depths of their emotions and dreams.

They turned back, passing the unmoving houses again. Behind the curtains and windows covered with blue paper, a light would appear here and there. Maria remembered, charmed, the wonders in her landlord’s room on Silistra: dolls with pink and blue dresses, vases with painted feathers, pictures of wooly kittens. . . There could be so much of this kind of beauty behind every one of those curtains! She would never lose the taste for knick-knacks, macramé doilies, little framed photos: and in ten or fifteen years, on Ştefan cel Mare, she would fill her house with little angels, squirrels or kaolin ducklings, at two or three lei apiece, bracing herself resignedly for her husband’s sarcasm: “You brought another hen? If you won’t throw them all out, I will, just wait!”

“I had no childhood or youth. I page through my memory pointlessly, the way you pointlessly try to remember the eternity before you were born. Yet, there is a gray light there, a nuance somewhat lighter than the black we use for nothingness, and which, without representing, without showing something, signifies that the apparatus exists through which something might show itself. There are blind people who know they used to see, but, through an accident of fate, do not, and there are others who have no knowledge of any lack, for whom sight is unimaginable, the way we cannot imagine what we would feel if a sensory organ opened in our forehead like a flower, or if we grew bushy antennae like a moth. I always knew I was made to exist, full in body and mind, like the large, limpid eyes of the blind or dead, but also that I could not perceive existence. What does a millipede perceive, hanging in a slow spiral beneath a rotting leaf? What can a paramecium, writhing in a cup of tea, sense of the world’s spectacle? I experienced and sensed only that much for more than twenty years, as though I lived within the vague and mediocre dream of a railway clerk. I probably whimpered all night, wrapped up tight in wet diapers, struggling to get my hands out. I think I later went to school and shoved my classmates during recess, and I dirtied my nails with ink, and my cheeks and even my tongue. . . Or maybe I was sweet and awkward at thirteen, when anyone could do anything, embarrassed and revolted by the painful growth of my breasts. . . putting my first pad in my shorts and feeling, with more and more irritation, the wetness there. . . Maybe I was courted by a carbuncular apprentice who carried my books home and clowned around. . . I have no idea. None of this even weighs as much as a film that my mind confuses with all the others when I emerge from the dark theater, squinting my eyes against the August light, the sparking windshields and shop windows full of colored inscriptions. I only know this much: until the bombing I was, for a year, the elevator operator in this office building of a RomanianGerman petroleum corporation. For a whole year, eight hours a day, I sat on my little chair, opening and closing the elevator door, sliding the iron gate over, pushing buttons, carrying the clerks and their perfumed secretaries up and down, without any thought beyond doing this my whole life and then retiring from this less-than-two-square-meter box. Day after day within the four walls, thinking that I could have been a worker in a fertilizer factory, spitting out my lungs after a couple of months, or a waitress carrying ten plates or eight pints of beer at once with my butt bruised from pinching, or a whore bearing all the pigs and drunks on earth. . . So, at least I had a chair to sit on, at least, sometimes, the polite gentlemen smiled (even though they would try to touch me almost every day when, to my horror, one would enter the elevator alone and I had to take him to the top; sometimes I even had happen what any operator will tell you is normal: a gentleman shows you something before you can close your eyes, and you end up – you, a virgin with romantic dreams – with that pink stalk on your retina, unable to get it out of your mind, crying through the night on your lonely bed), at least the air smelled of cologne and Havana cigars. . . I had my proud moments and small satisfactions: I thought everyone admired the way I could stop the elevator, with a quick, decisive motion, right at the floor, not a millimeter too high or low. . . In the evenings, after the corporation closed, I would go, with my stiff back, through the ash of the streets, and, after a dreamlike hour of walking, reach my room, where I curled up on the bed like a kitten. I never saw anyone, never went out. Sundays it always rained, and all I did was sit by the wet window and look outside, at the yard behind the house, and watch the single tree there shake under gusts of rain. But I would not get lost in reveries or lamentations like other unmarried girls. Too great was my lack of experience, too obvious that all I touched turned to ash. It became ever clearer, precisely because no one chose me, that I was a chosen one. Not the Chosen One, because I sensed how small and weak I was. But still, something was going to happen, there would be significant moments, or hours. I would exist within a story, even if it wasn’t my story. It would give me coherence and dignity within a world, even if it was the most illusory world of all. Because you get reality from a story, not a substance. You could be carved in stone and not exist, lost somewhere inside endless dunes. But if you are a phantom in a dream, then the great light of the dream justifies you, constructs you. And there, in the story twisting in the mind of a person sleeping, you are truer than a billion inhabited worlds.

“And when, one evening in spring-summer-fall-winter (I had lost, if I ever had it, the thread of days and seasons) I found myself stuck in the top floor of the elevator shaft, with the electricity suddenly cut and a diffuse smell of fear floating around me like an arabesque of cigarette smoke, I knew at once that my astral moment had arrived. The sirens howled deafeningly outside, it was like you could hear, in a metaphysical sense, the engines of the approaching bombers, and when the quakes and explosions began, like a summer storm when the scary lightning flashes and you taste metal on your tongue and the children scream with their heads under blankets. This kind of blinding flash of lightning disassembled, in a single blow, the brick and lime flesh of the building, leaving only a skeleton of beams and black mesh. Up on the top floor, in my box of wood and crystal, with nighttime Bucharest around me, violently illuminated, from time to time, by the anti-aircraft guns and the ravishing explosions of carpet bombing. In contrast to the disaster below, a massive crystal moon, in its first quarter, wove itself around me like a motionless spider’s web.

“Then I took off my clothes, and I stood completely naked to await my winged groom, there, in the narrow nuptial chamber. He knew I was there, before he saw me from his cabin, he sensed the pheromones emanating from below my stomach (he felt with his brain, not his nostrils, because the brain is no more than the monstrous blossom of the olfactory bulb), and he dove toward my ziggurat of grease and metal. Suddenly he was in my cabin, blond and naked, with butterfly wings between his shoulder blades, his penis erect, powerful and golden, his dog tags on a silver chain around his neck. I clung to him and everything became luminous, fabulously colored, as though we had entered the mystical aura of a chakra with dozens of petals. When he broke my seal, he inserted in the center of my abdomen not only an ivory liquid, but also complete knowledge, as though his cannula of supple flesh had become a cord of communication between our two minds, through which, in a flash, we said everything to each other, we knew everything about each other, from the chemistry of our metabolisms to our complexes, preferences, experiences, and fantasies. He was Charlie Klosowsky from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He was accompanying the bombers that took off almost daily from an airbase in Malta. A lieutenant with almost a thousand hours of flight time in the supple Spitfire which, through an ingenious mechanism, fired through propeller blades that rotated so fast they became invisible, he had flown many times over the Balkans and Romania. He had watched the steel cylinders of the Ploieşti refineries explode and the stations at Câmpina crumble to bits as though made of matchsticks. He had run through the sky, like he was playing tag, with IARs and Stukas; he had seen flak tear balls of fire and black smoke from a bomber’s stomach, and the mushrooms of dust grow, three thousand meters below, on scratches as abstract as a map of the earth. It was like he had done nothing his whole life: held the joystick, pushed the triggers of his guns, and looked at the indicator panel, alone in his cabin, for hours and hours, just as I, in the elevator cabin, pushed buttons and watched the succession of floors. We both rose and fell, and neither of us had memories or a life of our own. We had come into the world (but which one?) only for the moment of our coupling, like two insects, in a halo of concentric circles of light. And that was how we would always be: standing, stuck together, united above in our gazes and below by that seminal cable, through which we felt millions of bits of information invading me. We stayed like that, in that closed circuit, in that wheel through which the man flowed into the woman through her sex and the woman into the man through his eyes, even when we released each other, even when he stepped backwards and took a moment to gaze at my belly and breasts, both wet with sweat. I looked once more at the curly hair on his chest, also wet, and his soft sex, and then he was in his ashen cabin again, and he was completely ashen, like in a black-and-white film from wartime, racing on through the calm or cloudy skies with the planes of enemy hunters, shot down the same day or surviving until the depths of old age, bouncing grandchildren on their knees and telling them how they fought in the war. Who cares?

“As for me, I stayed in the cabin, aging for twelve years, and raising my child. From the beginning, I felt it in my uterus, first like a revolting larva, with, fortunately, soft mandibles, frightening to look at. I saw it, as though my stomach had turned to crystal. It ate my placenta like a worm eats a cabbage leaf. Then it grew limbs and its wings budded in its armpits. And from one day to another it became a butterfly. It spread through my uterine canal like the showcase of an insect collection, its proboscis sucking at the gelatin plug that separated it from our world. It was born completely wrapped in its wings; it came out dirty with blood and placental liquid and its own feces, that I had to clean afterward, for days on end, with my saliva, tears, and milk. After a week it was puffy and fresh, with sparkling eyes, and it spread its wings, which had room then to curve freely through the space between the mirror and the grill. At first, the tips of its wings were not more than two hand-widths apart, and their blue didn’t flash like it does now. It was a female which must, someday, reach maturity. I combed my fingers daily through the soft fur on its belly, and I felt, near the last rings, how the tubes were growing that would fill the air, for hundreds of kilometers, with scents only their antennae can perceive. Pheromones: a single molecule suffices for one cubic kilometer of air. Yes, soon I will have suitors for my little girl. . .”

The suitors appeared, but they looked so pitiful! Passing the last five-story apartment block before the lot, the three people watched, amazed, behind the tower of black mesh, a scene from a fantasy. At the far end of the lot, the entire wall of the house was covered with butterflies. In the center, its enormous wings wide and sparkling, rested the elevator woman’s grand butterfly. Its knob-capped antennae symmetrically framed the window where the old woman with a sucker in her mouth reappeared. Around its immense wings, placed symmetrically and in an orderly fashion, were countless other butterflies, each one unique, of all shapes, sizes, and colors, making up a carpet of ravishing beauty. Even in the distillated twilight, the colors glowed like glass, yet velvety, in soft nuances that merged and separated, making waves, turning toward a unanimous brown and flashing again in green, azure, lemon, mahogany, and carnation, so pure that you would have thought that they were the flames of a quartz prism, or that they were the light of dawn, like a needlepoint of drops of dew, on a violet crocus. The moon above showed its strong, sharp peaks.

The golden, naked woman opened her mouth wide, until the curved tip of her tongue became visible, held from below by a flap of skin, and she let out a piercing sound. The great butterfly abruptly lifted from the wall, blowing away the others with the beat of its azure wings. It turned again over the vacant lot and threw itself, like a hawk diving at a field mouse, onto its mother’s breast. The velvety body was almost as long as she was. The woman held it in her arms and turned to Maria: “It will be soon,” she said, smiling so sadly and strangely, that, years later, that smile would reappear to Maria in her nightmares. And, before the young people could recover, the woman pushed the butterfly into the elevator. She knelt before the girl, large and heavy, wrapped in her fibrous hair, and kissed her right hand. The lips on the back of her hand appeared to release a volatile substance that rose into Maria’s brain and, for a moment, made it sparkle. Costel saw clearly (but he would soon forget) a crown of light around the temples of his beloved. The woman rose and turned, showing her imperious hips, with her dark, almost animal, vulva beneath them, and went into the elevator cabin, sat again on the chair and took the butterfly back into her arms. In all this time, the air was so dense with the other thousands of lepidopterae that the two of them simply breathed them in, pulling them into their nostrils and lungs, feeling how they fluttered in the alveoli, and exhaling them again into the dusk. But in the end, together with the almost complete nightfall and the apparition of the first stars on the summer sky (since it had become, without doubt, summer, and the night was hot and scented), all the butterflies flew into the elevator, as though into a luminous trap, filling the space completely. Behind the grill, the woman and the great butterfly were no longer visible. Maria closed the metal door, and the elevator slowly started upwards, making the tower of pitch tremble. At the top, it stopped beneath the great wheel, and it would have become completely invisible if the moon hadn’t beat blue light on its crystal windows.

Maria took her dark young man by the hand and set off, overcome with sadness, through the spectral streets, toward home. They crossed the city in little more than an hour, hardly speaking. Costel was completely focused on the small, damp palm of his girl, whose fingers twitched at the caresses of his own. The heat intensified and the trees along the streets smelled of fleshy leaves and sap. A tram would pass on its way to the train yard at Vatra Luminoasă, rattling and shaking on the rails. Garbage men filled bins beside scavengers, and the street cleaners stood in twos and threes, leaning on their brooms and smoking. Some factories had their workshops illuminated and inside pieces of machinery twitched: the night shift. They came, finally, to Colentina. From the soap factory came an unbearable smell of rancid fat. They went two more stops on the tram, passing the short and dilapidated houses, covered with tarred cardboard like garages. Costel, who had been enveloped by the endless afternoon, almost without his knowing, in an egg of translucid yet impenetrable amber – because to intuit a miracle you need a different synaptic make-up than the step-by-step macramé of short strings in the left hemisphere, and Costel was a true believer in the left hemisphere, the logician of melancholy – hummed a song to himself that at the time was on everyone’s lips:

And one, and two, and nine, and ninety-nine,
Tell me, Gardenia, tell me,

and he wondered again what spring or lever to push to make Maria’s neck muscles contract and turn her gaze toward him, so that later, through another adroit maneuver, the way he worked the metal sheer in the ITB plant, he could provoke at least a little smile, at least one gentle lift of the cheek bones, or that complex and ineffable coordination of peribuccal and periorbital sphincters that produced an expression of tranquility. He was four years younger than Maria, and in his still-virginal mind, he pictured a large table, like the one for logarithms, sines and cosines in the musty book he had in his room, a table of the thousands of gestures, words, corporeal shifts, facial expressions, hairstyles, clothes, shoes, cigarettes, cirrus patterns, cloud cover, constellations, political events, sidewalk chips, flashes of memory – matching all the possible reactions of the female youth, in a direct, unequivocal, and immutable relation. But it took hundreds of parts of this mechanism, activated at once and in synchronization, for her to graze his poorly shaved cheek with her hand, hundreds of thousands of meshing gears and transmitting belts for her to embrace him, and (here, Costel had no doubt that all his mechanical aptitude would not help him at all) a mechanism vaster and more complex than the universe, with more components than there were photons running through space, for Maria ever to say to him, “I love you.” The table, as yet, included very few certainties, many hypotheses, and a host of erasures and revisions. It stretched, step by step, in unforeseeable and heteroclite directions.

They entered a tangle of streets on the right of the main road, through the darkness that smelled like dirty wash-water . Crickets chirped, dogs barked, and from time to time an old man in a beret poked his head out of his gate, looked up the street and mumbled something. Then he closed the gate and disappeared into a vault of grape vines. In other yards, people were eating outside, around a table covered with a cloth, under a light bulb hung over a branch. Thousands of flies and mosquitoes glinted as they flew around the bulb. But most houses were silent and dark already, covered with a powder of stars.

A triangular piaţa, dimly lit by a streetlight, had a round place in the center with flowers and a cheap statue of a plaster soldier, smaller than life-size, with his gun raised. One hand had fallen off long ago, leaving a stub of rusty iron, the kind used to reinforce concrete. It was an unspeakably sad place. Entering it, you grew just as pale and immaterial as everything around you. But exactly there, Maria stopped, turned toward Costel and said seriously, almost angrily, “Kiss me.” The Bănăţean felt his mind make a popping sound and the world order shake. The effect came before the cause and time ran backwards. In a moment, he tossed the limitless table into the fire, since it foretold nothing, and he abandoned himself as living prey, to the other hemisphere, where contradictions disappear within a tender light, a universal solvent. He awkwardly took the girl by her waist, the way he’d seen in movies, and he tried to open her mouth with his lips and tongue, but she resisted, and their kiss was a typical 1950s kiss, romantic and almost chaste, the way everyone imagined their mother and father kissing before they came into the world. And that’s what it was: a Hollywood kiss, with mimed passion and no drop of eroticism. Even the light on Maria when they let each other go and Costel could see her face directed up at him, seemed studied, like a lighting effect meant to emphasize her sparkling eyes and her teeth as perfect as yesteryear’s divas’. Maria had not put her arms around Costel’s neck but held him lightly on the shoulders, as though they were dancing. She didn’t know why she had told him to kiss her. Maybe it was fear. She had thought again and again about the woman with the butterflies and her terrible message. She was chosen, she didn’t doubt it – but for what? And why her exactly? Lord, she thought, it’s frightening to be chosen, to feel the angel’s finger point toward you like a dagger. To feel that you have left the obscurity of your freedom behind, that you are in the light, that you are observed, every moment of your life, and that nothing belongs to you, not even your own soul. It is so extraordinary for the gaze of Someone so powerful and incomprehensible to stop on you, that it doesn’t matter whether you are chosen for beatitude or torture. We should pray, daily, in hope and despair, “Lord, do not choose me, Lord, never let me know you, do not keep me in your book. . .” Maria trembled with fascination and horror, because from now on, she could not escape. Yes, out of fear she had kissed the apprentice, fear she would love him and marry him and stay with him her entire life. How clear it was! She looked at the young man carefully, as though for the first time: was he even worth loving? Was he going to be the man of her life? She saw black eyes and pale cheeks and sad lips. Suddenly, she was indifferent to it all. “Why her exactly? Why her?”

They parted, after they had talked a little more, holding both hands, at the gate by her house on Silistra. It seemed like they were deep at the bottom of an ocean, that the stars were just the reflections of waves under the moon of another world. The oleander in the yard was sweet and dizzying. They kissed again, their lips barely touching, and Maria went inside. In their wire cage, the peacock and the peahen pecked a stump of wood. Marinache ruffled his wings in sleep, sensing the girl pass, but his squawk stopped in his throat, and his comb rested pale and soft, hanging over his beak. A few windows, covered with blue paper, were lit, and there were men’s and women’s voices, talking quietly or arguing. The girl went up the narrow stairs, in an almost total darkness, down the hall that creaked terribly with every step, and unlocked the door to her room.

Through the window comes the moon,
It comes into our room,

she murmured, because, actually, the scythe of moon threw a bluish light on the floor and side of her bed. She felt, all at once, terribly alone. She curled up on her mattress, pulled her sheet over her head, and fell asleep, after weeping like a child for a long time.

Costel had stayed a bit by the gate, inhaling the suffocating air of the slums, where the peppery smell of the stars mixed bizarrely, nostalgically, with barking from far-away dogs. His hands in his pockets toyed with a few coins, turning them between threads and crumbs. Maria. For him, Maria was the woman with the butterflies, even her lips were the butterflies every man waited for mystically, and which he had tasted there, beneath the piaţa’s dim lightbulb. Like through sparkfilled stillness, the image of his beloved, completely psychic (because even though he had held her, Costel would never have dared to imagine that he would one day master the empire of tissues, glands, and memories that carried the name Maria, and to whose ports he would send galleons loaded to the masts with hopes, gazes, caresses, sperm, dusks, a desperate flotilla of impossible communication), ran drop by drop through his venous system. It reached his heart, now surrounded by the rays of the moon. From the auricles it rippled into the ventricles, and then it was shot by a powerful contraction into the jugular arteries, where it separated into thousands of filaments and tubes that pushed their tiny fingers into his brain and wandered through the axonic pipes. Billions of identical Marias in glucose tunics housed themselves like parasites in every starry cell and every glial cell like enchanted spirochetes, they met in halls and corridors and merged one with another, like beads of mercury, into the greatest and most hieratic Sea, until, in the supreme hall, on the brain’s supreme throne, framed by griffons, a single, immense Maria shook again, reflecting the pleasant bas-relief of the skull, under which she barely fit, and where she was venerated by a deceased Polish poet from two centuries ago. After the light went out in the girl’s window, Costel lit a cigarette and went back through the sweltering labyrinth, starting at every shadow. With each step, he felt his skull wobble gently, like a gyroscope.

Soon, the night became suspect. The muddy streets multiplied, and the stars above were not the same. They were dull and close like naïvely painted scenery. The fences, where he ran his fingers, absentmindedly, began to shine like cardboard. The houses blurred their barely visible outlines, becoming unformed mounds of earth, and the dogs’ barking rarified and spread over scales in ever slower glissandi. “What the hell?” said the young man, passing a hand through his hair. His hair was now as dense as a piece of rubber. When his hand fell over his face, he felt dull, softened features, as though modeled in porcelain. Even the visual space seemed full of cobwebs. Costel looked, like a sleepwalker, at his left hand: his fingers were shrinking into his palm. In a flash, he realized that he had left the Story, that he had reached the wings, where everything was crosshatched, a world barely formed, its space and time still budding. He continued moving forward, until there was nothing left of him but the forward movement. The world now was dirty and diaphanous, like modeling clay when you’ve mixed all the colors together, all the figurines, all the trees. Soon, any property would be reabsorbed into the final matrix: the night. Which also dissipated into the unthought, the unwritten, the nonexistent. Into the white page, above which I lean, and which I will no longer desecrate with the obscene seed of my pen.

—Mircea Cărtărescu, Translated by Sean Cotter

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Mircea Cărtărescu was born in Bucharest in 1956. Cărtărescu began his writing career in his early twenties, and soon became a celebrated cultural icon for his poetry. Cărtărescu has written of his youth in Romania as living in a sort of prison, because of the pervasive communist oppression and because he subsequently could not conceive of a reality beyond Romanian life, excepting what he read about in books. In 1990, the year following the revolution, Cărtărescu left Romania for the first time and visited several cities across the US, an experience whose massive shock left him feeling “as miserable as a Kafka character” and greatly impacted his writing. Cărtărescu continues to be prolific in poetry, fiction, and essay, and has won a number of international prizes including the Berlin International Prize for Literature, the Romanian Academy’s Prize and the Vilenica Prize. This is the first time any of Cărtărescu’s Orbitor trilogy has been published in English

 

Feb 172014
 

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During the decade I edited the annual Best Canadian Stories I included stories by Cynthia Flood twice, no mean recommendation. But I didn’t know her otherwise. Then, last fall, we bonded in the green room at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto. I was there for Savage Love and she was touring for her remarkable and hugely-praised story collection Red Girl Rat Boy (Biblioasis, 2013). Today NC offers a brand new Cynthia Flood story: starts with a small walking tour of the Pyrenean foothills, decayed French villages, haunted by the Cathars and their bloody suppression, haunted by Klaus Barbie and the Nazis, haunted by history, all this haunting concretized in the form of a stray dog with blood on its  muzzle that follows the group, like a scapegoat or a threat. “The Dog and the Sheep” is a marvelous story of middleclass (tourist) naiveté and the dark mysteries that lurk just at the margins of consciousness.

dg

 

Late in the afternoon the dog appeared again, around a curve some way ahead on the road.

She had often come trotting back to us. We were slow, halting to name and photograph a flower, or to query as our tour guide spoke of local limestone formations. Of French cheese-making. Of the peasant houses (animals downstairs, people up) in the Cathar villages we’d visited. Of the Cathar heresy: adherents saw evil and good as equal powers, chose poverty, strove to be kind. Of their betrayers, the informants paid in the usual currencies of cash or sex.

“Shocking,” we agreed.

French wine-making, too. Terroir, very important.

Nearer the dog came, wagging, closer, until those at the front of our walking group cried out.

Others halted.

In a huddle, we all stared.

Blood covered the dog’s muzzle, stained the delicate fur beneath her eyes, dabbled an ear.

“My God, what’s she done?”

“Horrible!”

Our cries drove her off a little, puzzled, her tail drooping. Through that red mask she peered at us over her shoulder.

Early that morning, this dog had turned up.

As we left the gite where we’d spent the night, we spoke of the Inquisition’s unsparing work in that particular village. In 1308 every single resident got arrested for heresy.

Our walking tour itself was titled In The Footsteps of the Cathars, though most participants had signed up to see the beauty of the Pyrenean foothills. Some did feel that faith, if not extreme, might sustain social order? In a good way? One or two, confusing Cathars with Camino, had expected to follow a specific route taken by all the heretics to a singular destination.

“I wonder how many Cathars, total, got burned at the stake.”

“Are we going to be so gloomy all day?”

“I’m just glad I didn’t live then.”

“Tomorrow’s the castle of the Really Big Burn.”

“Oh no, not rain again!”

Past the last house in the village, our guide paused till we all caught up. “Our way starts here.”

We stood by a single gravestone at a field’s edge, a stone tilting somewhat and obscured by long wet grass. Ici est morte, we read in our remembered high-school French, Ici est morte / 18 Aout 1944 / Castella Pierre / innocente victime / de la barbarie Nazie.

“Glad I wasn’t here for that, either.”

Then this dog rose out of a ditch.

A mutt. Thin, scruffy, brown, collar-less, small-eyed. Dark long nipples swinging. She came close, wouldn’t quite allow pats, whimpered, scuttled away, returned to circle and sniff, hung back till she saw where we tended. Then she rushed forward to wait for us, panting.

“D’you suppose she has puppies somewhere near?”

“Get away!” Our guide thrust his hazel stick at her. She yelped.

“If she has, she’ll go back to the village,” we concluded, and went on.

As we were led from one thin grassy path to another and then to a narrow road of beaten earth, light rain continued. On all sides now the fields spread out in their spring greens, shining wet, and in the distance the terrain sloped up, polka-dotted with sheep, to a forested plateau.

“Up there we shall walk,” our guide said.

The dog trotted ahead, looking back to check we were still in view. The breeze wafted moisture at us, swirled it into loose airy necklaces.

Behind us sounded a — truck? French. So little!

We smiled, moving aside for the vehicle to pass, but it stopped so the three men inside could joke and talk with our guide. They spoke so fast we grasped nothing.

The driver pointed inquiringly at the dog.

Problème.” Our guide shrugged. More laughter.

As the van moved off, the unknown men wiggled their eyebrows at us and waved.

“Foresters,” said our guide. “They work not far from where we walk today. To remove the rotten branch. Inspect for pasts, no, pests.”

“But how on earth do they manage with that van? Trop petite!”

“Earth? Manage?”

The discussion lasted until we neared a larger road. In its middle sat the dog. Intently she watched us approach, her head sticking up above the hedge lining the route.

“Thinks she’s hiding.”

“Stupid! She’ll get run over.”

“Never been trained.”

“Why the hell doesn’t she go back where she came from?”

Our guide chased the dog until she howled and ran off.

“Good!”

We crossed the road and walked alongside a field. Its unknown tall grains swayed close by us, and their wet silky heads made moiré patterns under the breeze. Mesmerizing.

Without no notice, our guide made a turn into a tall green tunnel of shrubs and small trees (what the Irish call a boreen) that ran off at an angle from the field. We’d not noticed the entrance, draped with wet vines.

“Just as well this isn’t a self-guided tour!”

“Too right, we’d be lost in no time.”

After emerging from the tunnel we started uphill, and half an hour later paused to look back at the valley we’d traversed. In the rain it formed a long trough full of silver-green air, resembling the great stone troughs in the ancient villages we’d passed through, shapes empty now but once alive, sparkling, with laundry and the hands of women.

Now we were ascending a great staircase, up on what had once been terraced farmland. Disuse had blurred the steps to faint ledges.

The rain got serious. We stopped to put on rain-pants and jackets, and went on.

After an hour the dog re-appeared, wagging madly. A hand reached out to pat. She snapped, cringed, ran.

“Damn that bitch!”

“Maybe her puppies got taken too early, and she’s upset.”

“Couldn’t we get her back to where we started?”

“Are you kidding?”

Our guide, looking dour, moved on. We followed.

The temperature dropped steadily, the rain chilled. As hands went into pockets for gloves and woolly hats, the dog came near again. She’d stretch out her front paws and drop her head, abasing herself, and then look up in hope.

“No! Nothing for you.”

We climbed. She came close, sniffed, almost nudged.

“Go home!” Whack of the hazel stick.

She yelped, but stuck around.

When at last we attained the forested plateau, the dog pranced about and shook herself as if happy to be in the dry at last. So were we. All of us were wrong, though. Up there, a freshening wind blew rain through the trees and also made their foliage shed thousands of cold drops already accumulated.

Our way was stony, muddy, and so narrow that the dog left the track to move to and fro among the trees. Some of us tried that too, but low branches and hidden roots made our balance as uncertain as did the stones underfoot. Stepped on, they often slid. We stepped in liquid mud, stepped, stepped among the black pines sheathed in ebony plates. Sweet-smelling fir. The thin grey trunks of fagus sylvatica. Holm oaks, festooned with catkins.

“Where’s that dog got to?”

“Who cares?”

“Headed back to the village, probably.”

“Sensible creature’s gone to shelter. Not like us!”

Everyone laughed.

Not our guide. “A dog to run about the forest is not good. Higher up on the montaigne is wild boar. Deer. Sheep of course. And — wolfs?”

“Wolves.”

We went on.

Were those animals observing us as we came through their country? Some in our group had seen wild boars on YouTube. Not as large as pigs. Mean tusks, though. One told a story from a TV newscast about a huge sow in Ontario stomping on a drunk, killing him.

A howl sounded from behind, a blundering rush. We turned. Just as the frantic dog reached us, we sensed a blurred motion away, away in the trees and gone, like a curtain shaken then still.

“Roe deer,” said our guide. “Bad animal!” He shook his stick.

The dog’s chest heaved. Whining, she skulked off, followed again.

Then the terrain altered.

Plateau, fini.

We started downhill. That steepness — how odd to be almost vertical after two hours’ walking on the flat! Our feet felt unfamiliar. The trees changed too. More conifers, fewer deciduous. Progress, we thought.

Also we wondered, Lunch? Daily, leaving our gites, we each got a bag holding ten inches of buttered baguette (we measured) stuffed with meat or fish plus hard-boiled egg and tomato. Local cheese, a slab. Cold meat, sliced. Fresh salad. Cake. Our guide carried dark chocolate, also a mini camp-stove for hot drinks.

We went on.

The rainy twist of trail down through the trees grew steep and steeper. We slowed, slowed. Many stones now underfoot were larger than those up on the plateau, but they still slipped. Terracotta-coloured mud ran two inches thick, clogging our boots. Our hiking poles must be used for every step, while our guide moved urgently amongst us to point out safe foot placements, to repeat Attention! Rain fell. Occasionally some of us did too, delaying the group to cope with minor injuries.

We murmured of forestry campsites at home, of fire-watchers’ cabins. Did our guide plan a lunch-stop at a similar place?

The dog came close again, but whenever a hand reached out she’d show her teeth.  Shouts and rushes drove her off, snarling.

Watch! Attention!

Always the path turned down through the pines to — where? None of us knew. With fewer deciduous trees, the forest’s ambience dulled. No more wry jokes about la boue. Silence, except curses and rain.

Again the dog came close. On her forelegs, mud reached well above the carpal pad.

“Poor thing!”

“Poor thing bit me, remember?”

“She needs people.”

“Well, we don’t need her.”

Another distant noise sounded, r-rr-rrrrrr.  Not animal, mechanical. Piercing. It’d hurt your ears, close up. Rrr-r-r-r-r.

“Must be the foresters.”

“Why haven’t we seen them?”

Why indeed? What route had they taken? Surely that cartoon vehicle couldn’t go cross-country like an ATV?

Then our guide loosened his pack. “Time to eat.”

Here? Steep slope. Dripping pines. No stumps or rocks to sit on.

Standing in a ring of soggy backpacks on the forest floor, we ate.

R-rr-rrrr, further off.

The dog grovelled, whined, begged. Our guide, about to shoo her, aborted his gesture when one of us tossed her a slice of ham. Another threw torn bits of baguette on the mud. A tomato landed there, a cube of cheese, half a hard-boiled egg.

Even as the dog swallowed, her pleading glance moved up again.

C’est tout!” Our guide raised his voice.

“No more for you, greedy girl.”

Some of us ate all our lunch, some repacked much of it. We stretched, or leaned against trees to relax while drinking coffee and tea, well-sugared.

The dog sidled amongst us, sniffing at hands, bums, packs.

“Are you deaf? That’s all!”

Packs on again, poles in hand, la boue again.

Down those stony steeps for another nameless time, down, down.

More slips, delays, wrenches, bruises. We went on. Only the chill rain stayed steady, and the dog slinking off into the trees (who cared what kinds they were?) or weaving amongst us on her muddy paws. Once, close to the trail, she squatted.

“Dammit, not right here!”

Small dry turds.

How far, how much longer, when? Some asked, others cringed. Like kids pestering a parent, we knew what our guide would say.

Then the rain stopped. We didn’t notice right away. At ten that morning we’d reached the plateau; our watches said five pm when we realized that the sound of falling water was MIA.

The steep softened first into a hill, next to a gentle slope. The dog lolloped ahead, out of sight. In sunshine, peeling off sodden jackets and hats and gloves, we exited the forest laughing.

For the first time in hours, our guide smiled. “Now we see the Kermes oak. Not the holm any more.”

Our legs, trembling, sought to adjust as we moved into the valley and across a sunny meadow sprinkled with primula, tricolor pansy, anemone, cowslip, speedwell — all bright-eyed still with rain.

Ahead rose the foothills. Atop one stood the grey ruined teeth of the castle where the greatest immolation occurred. To be bundled alive into the flames or to deny their faith: two choices, those Cathars had.

We walked alongside a brook whose current carried a thousand spangles downstream, and soon reached a gravel road. This, our guide assured us, led to the nearby town where we would spend the night.

Round a curve ahead, the dog appeared again. Came closer, trotting, wagging. Those at the front of our group stopped.

We all stopped.

“Look, horrible!”

“Awful!”

“What’s she done?”

Over her shoulder, that puzzled red face, peering.

We hastened forward.

In a depression at the roadside lay a large ewe, fallen.

She could nearly have been an illustration for a children’s book, that sheep. Background: blue sky, tall green grass. Foreground: the beautiful creature in her seemingly restful motherly pose, in her roundness, her billowy shining creamy woolliness — but her swelling hindquarters, fully exposed to our view, had been savaged to a bloody mangle. One leg was raw. She could not move.

Patient, full of pain, her large eyes met our gaze.

“Wolf,” stated our guide.

“Not — ?”

“Her? No no, too stupid, she just sticks in her nose for a taste. Wolf.” He pointed at the steeps we’d just descended.

Some loudly wished for a gun, a knife.

Others noted that the sheep was not ours to kill.

We walked on along the valley.

The brook, still shallow, grew broader. While fording it, by silent agreement we lured with ham the red-faced dog who’d chosen us. We grabbed her, struggling, yelping, to splash and rub her furry face till she no longer looked a murderer. While controlling her thus, we touched her nipples. Hard as horn. No loved puppies, not for years.

At the first farm we came to, our guide went in to leave word of the desperate sheep, so that her owner in this life could be notified and come to end his property’s pain.

“They will phone him,” he said, returning.

Would this happen before the wolf came back?

We went on.

The dog circled near, ran off, came back.

No one threw food. No one tried to pat. Why, we asked ourselves, did this animal, so obviously fearing yet desiring human contact, not have a home?

Did the SPCA operate in France? Even if so, there’d hardly be a branch in the small town.

Why are people so careless?

Why do they not train their dogs?

Why do they not affix identification tags to their dogs’ collars, vaccinate the animals, have their teeth checked?

What could we do about the damn dog?

La mairie,” said our guide when we put the matter to him. “We’ll take her there.”

The town hall was closed, though, by the time we’d walked over the centuries-old bridge (our stream had grown to a river) and threaded our way along the narrow streets, faced with houses washed in white or cream, to the green of the central square. Here stood rubbish bins where we dumped our leftovers, and here a fountain played near a large memorial to locals killed in one or another World War. A smaller, special stone was dedicated to local héros de la résistance. The plane trees’ dappled trunks were re-dappled by the late sun among the leaves, and, on one corner of the square, red shutters shielded the windows of our small hotel.

Exhaustion, held back for hours, at this sight filled all of us.

We entered the lobby, the dog pushing forward too.

Mais non,” said Monsieur to the animal that had walked twenty kilometers with us that day. (Perhaps thirty, given how she’d run back and forth and circled?) The door, closing, touched her nose.

Later we came down to a pleasant sitting-room that looked out through small panes to the hotel’s courtyard, bright with red pelargoniums. A fire warmed the hearth. Madame, smiling, poured kir for us and for guests from other tours. Quite a United Nations we made, really, travellers from every continent.

And here were the foresters again.

One exclaimed, “You made so loud noise!” All three laughed.

Graceless, we felt. Dumb tourists, trailed unawares by savvy locals.

Another forester chortled, “We found this.” A glove, with a clip for attaching to a belt. “Not latched, no good! This, too.” A candy wrapper.

Barbarians.

The third commented, “That dog with you, we see her often today. No good in the woods. No sense.”

“Ouaf ouaf, all the time!” agreed Monsieur. “I have let her stay there,” and he pointed to the courtyard, “tonight. Then she goes out.”

A wicker chair beside a puddle offered partial shelter from the rain. Nose on paws, the bitch looked up.

“Out where?”

Monsieur made the face that says Not my concern. His busy day wouldn’t feature escorting a stray to the town hall. As for Madame, her mien indicated abstention from this topic.

“Couldn’t we — ?”

Our guide answered, “We leave too early.”

After a jagged silence, one forester suggested that he and his fellows return the dog to the village we’d walked from, that day.

“We work there tomorrow. It is her home, yes?”

Who knew?

The glove’s owner pocketed it, while Monsieur tossed the crumpled candy wrapper on to the flames. Its silvery coating flared. We all sipped kir.

A South African exclaimed, “Dinner smells wonderful, Madame!”

A Scot agreed, and a Californian. We all agreed.

While we were at table, Monsieur talked about the magnificent trees on the terrain we’d crossed. Especially he admired the strength and longevity of the Kermes oak. In calcareous, pebbly soil it throve, indifferent to that chemistry.

We asked him about the semi-deserted villages we’d walked through, the proliferating À Louer and À Vendre signs, the shut schools, the ancient churchyards poorly maintained.

He considered. “Every century has its disasters. These are ours.”

Madame nodded. We went on to her hazelnut cake.

All night it rained.

Next day’s breakfast featured blackcurrant and apricot jams, made by la maman et la belle-maman de Madame from fruit grown in the hotel’s garden. Croissants, home-made. We ate quite fresh oranges. The foresters were not at table, nor the dog in the courtyard.

Soon the tour company’s van arrived, to take us to the start of our climb to the site of the great burning. We looked forward to being driven. Our luggage stuffed in, we squeezed giggling on to the narrow seats as our hosts bade us a courteous farewell.

In another town at the end of that day we ate a celebratory dinner, laughing and talking at a table crowded with bottles and serving dishes, to conclude our tour.

As we finished the wine, some of our group confessed that at dawn they’d heard barking. Had opened the red shutters to witness the dog’s struggle, see the men bundle her into the funny truck and drive her away. Where to?

That query segued into Where next? One was due at the airport by seven am for a Munich flight, one for Amsterdam. Sure, share a taxi.  Brilliant signage, these European airports had. A Danube cruise, old pals in Barcelona, a family reunion in Edinburgh — happy plans, though It’ll be good to get home won several repeats. Best then to wrap up the evening now,  finish packing. Bustle of bill and tip, purses closing, wallets folded.

That beautiful sheep — we spoke of her also. Her great shining eyes, what colour?  Some of us thought dark blue, some remembered brown.

—Cynthia Flood

Cynthia Flood’s latest book, Red Girl Rat Boy (Biblioasis 2013) is her fourth short story collection. The Vancouver Sun called it “stunning,” the National Post described her as a “highly accomplished stylist,” and Quill & Quire’s reviews editor picked Red Girl as one of five “Books of the Year.” Flood’s earlier collections are The English Stories, My Father Took A Cake To France, and The Animals in their Elements. Her work has won the Journey Prize and a National Magazine Award, among others, and has been chosen four times for the annual anthology Best Canadian Stories. Cynthia Flood lives in Vancouver’s West End.

Feb 112014
 

Trey Sager

“The Plot” is a pun that pays off at the end of Trey Sager’s terrific new story “The Plot,” which is notable, yes, for its plotlessness. Instead of a plot, the author rather brilliantly substitutes a couple of backstories that keep weaving into the text and a set of motifs that he juggles like colored balls before the reader. There is even a sex scene; it’s in a dream. “The Plot” is thus an anti-story of sorts that depends on structure and the strength of the author’s wit and writing skills to capture the reader’s interest. And wit and writing skills Sager has in abundance as well as a poetic sensibility that makes the words into images on the page. I love the way the dead birds that collect outside the windows of the protagonist’s house turn into letters. And the way the poet is described as “an indecisive shopper in the dead mall of language.” Also the lush word “passerine,” which means, yes, what it means but passes over the story like a dead hand. The poet is a passerine and the word sounds like melancholy itself. Trey Sager is the fiction editor at Fence; you can read a terrific interview with him on the subject of his novel Fires of Siberia

dg

 

At the end of his life, Ronald Reagan raked his lawn each day, and at night the Secret Service dumped the leaves back onto the grass. Guy wondered if whatever degrading plot the future had in store was already upon him and, like the Gipper, he was simply oblivious to it. But he was only fifty-three. Surely there was more time for him to disappear into his lawn. He sat in front of a half-eaten English muffin and a damask-patterned mug of coffee, both of which looked abandoned, as if part of a crime scene. A Sunday abduction. No, a murder, he speculated, picturing himself prone on the living room rug, his assailiant’s skin under his fingernails, his fish eyes open and staring at the carpet fibers and dust particles he could no longer see. He felt unhappy to be dead. Then he heard a knock at the door.

He thought it might be the mailman. Everyone else would be at church or at home, playing with their round, overemphasized children. He was friends with the mailman. They’d met at the grocery store shortly after Guy moved to town, standing in line with a young girl singing “escargot, my car go.” The mailman lifted his eyebrow as an invitation to deride her, but Guy opted for a joke about snails. Occasionally Guy brought Dickel whiskey to the tracks and the two of them passed the sweetened gasoline back and forth, taking tolls on their mutual emptiness. The more the mailman drank, the more he acted like a thirteen-year-old girl.

It could’ve been a bird at the door, Guy speculated. They were often slamming into the back bay window, beckoned by the reflection of the pines and, for someone who isn’t fully paying attention, the sound of a fist clapping against a wooden door resembles a bird thunking against a house. Guy hated the birds more than he felt sorry for them. He was a poet, and spent his time laboring over which words to pair, an indecisive shopper in the dead mall of language. But the birds were ever oncoming. One was always on the verge of cracking its sunflower seed–colored beak and feathered skull on the glass. At a party a woman asked him what’s the last thing that goes through a bug’s mind when it hits your windshield. Its asshole, she laughed. The birds (he looked them up) were passerines.

Of course Susan came to mind, as she often did, but it would not be her either. He’d last seen her a month ago when she came to collect her toothbrush, a package of aromatherapy candles from Target, a few Sade CDs, and an unwashed yellow summer dress. She’d called out of the blue. “I want my things,” she said. Guy lamented the idea, that words came from the blue. The sky. He worked hard to find his. Susan was happy to retrieve her belongings, though she did not expect the toothbrush. She took it in her hand the way a policeman handles a piece of evidence.

Once, Guy dreamed that he and Susan were at a bus station in Los Angeles, and she wanted a package of Razzles. Somehow she slipped inside the vending machine. “I want you to buy me,” she flirted through the glass. Guy checked his wallet but it was empty, and Susan slinked to the bottom of the machine, pretending that she’d been purchased, hiding behind the flap. “Come on, buy me,” she repeated. “Guy, buy me.” A woman whistled behind him. Guy turned around. She was wearing a chinchilla coat and cheap pink scuffs, and although she was not very attractive and wore too much makeup, Guy reached under her skirt and his middle finger whished inside her. She slipped a dollar bill into his other hand and pushed him away. Guy hurried to insert the dollar into the machine, but when he turned back the woman in the chinchilla coat was gone.

“You want to hear a joke?”

“Sure.”

“A guy breaks up with his longtime girlfriend and moves across town. He’s carrying a chair to the front door when he notices a snail on the welcome mat. He brings the chair inside and on his way out, he picks up the snail and chucks it onto the lawn. He finishes moving everything inside and settles in nicely. A year passes. One Sunday afternoon, the man is at home. He hears a knock at the door, so he puts down his bag of potato chips and gets up and opens the door. To his surprise, there’s no one there. But then a voice says, ‘Hey, what’d you do that for?’ He looks down at the ground and sees the snail staring at him from the edge of the welcome mat.”

More than once Guy fantasized about standing outside the back bay window, knocking the birds down with a rake. But he hated that the birds died so it didn’t make sense. Anger offered only a sideways path. Early on he wanted the dead birds to transform somehow into the letters or even the words of a new poem, as his karmic reward for enduring their deaths. He tried to write about that idea in a poem, but it turned into a drawing of a deer wearing an army helmet. Eventually Guy decided the birds were killing themselves on purpose. They knew the glass was glass and, like so much on Earth, their lives had nothing to do with him.

He once considered tossing the dead ones into his neighbor’s pool. What else could he do other than imagine them. It was difficult to watch them convulse on the mulch as their broken necks communicated death. Susan said his poems were like cut flowers in a vase, and that she wanted to have sex with the flowers. But you can’t have sex with flowers, she complained, because they’re too delicate. What about a bird of paradise, he asked. After she left him, the mailman brought over whiskey and the two drank in silence, looking at the constellations from his back lawn. Guy convinced the mailman to drive drunk to the supermarket. They bought a giant can of red Kool-Aid powder and, after a few more whiskeys, they dumped the Kool-Aid into the neighbor’s pool so that in the morning it’d look like blood.

What had gone wrong with Susan was the same thing that always went wrong. She loved his books, loved the idea of them, of being with a poet, she thought he was special, and he was special, but special in the way a salamander’s asshole is special. He had interesting secret thoughts, he once imagined straightening her pubic hair with a flat iron, but he could not share those thoughts with her, or in his poems, and she grew bored with her safety. It seemed that a salamander needs its asshole to be interesting.

His poems were full of fruit on crooked tables, a spray of young forsythia, the weary baker walking home to a family saga. He’d made a living off his work, won the Walt Whitman prize and published every year in the New Yorker. Like a telescope he revealed the world in constellations, but Guy did not love the stars. He was the kind of telescope that wanted to spy on his neighbors having sex. Not his new neighbors, of course—the ones he’d abandoned in Los Angeles, they were attractive. But he’d sickened of their enthusiasm, so many charlatans declaring themselves poets, like chocolate chip cookie bakers telling Julia Childs they cook.

If everything is possible, can something be impossible? Guy had discovered the question as a child and felt proud for coming up with it. Some kids got good at baseball, while Guy relished articulation. He hated sports. He thought them uncomplicated symbols of sexual processes, golf the crudest of all. “Get in the hole,” the crowd shouted, like an audience cheering on sperm. You could practically see the flagella in the tracer paths of Titleists. Each competition whittled down the field to a single winner. Unless there was a tie, which they say is like kissing your sister. Always a ball trying to penetrate a goal, usually a circle or a net. Once on television he came across a basketball player dancing at center court after a game, and the man bellowed toward the rafters, tears mixing with sweat on his face. “Nothing is impossible!” he screamed.

Barefoot and in chinos, no shirt, corrugated hair on his lower arms and across his chest, much more than what was on his head, Guy found himself outside. He continued down the street, passing the homes of people he knew the last names of: the Riggs, the Lyons, the Lims, the Carters, the Hardens and the Agbayanos. Their houses were stanzas in a sestina called “Eggshell.” The Carters were right next door, the ones with the aboveground pool. Their son practiced free throws well into the night and everyone knew it would amount to nothing. A few homes down Mrs. Harden had a flower garden, and there she was, crouched on all fours, transferring mums from clay pots into the rich soil. Guy wondered if it had been her at the door. Mrs. Harden sensed someone and turned. She put down her spade, then clapped her garden gloves together and said his name.

Guy.”

“Do birds ever kill themselves on your windows?” he asked her.

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

Guy nodded.

“Are you well?” she asked.

“No, lately I’m not myself,” he confessed.

“Maybe my mums will inspire you,” Mrs. Harden smiled.

Quietly he watched her scoop the dirt and deposit a bright yellow mum into the earth. He remembered an art installation he’d once seen in Los Angeles. There was a giant representation of a forest, about forty square feet, inside a gallery. When he walked into the room, he heard something squeaking, a machine with an A-B-A-B-A-B rhyme scheme. Soon he discovered the source of the sound was a man made out of plastic having sex with a tree. The man wore a suit, with his trousers at his ankles, and his face was solemn yet ambivalent. Guy thought it was a lurid variation on the myth of Apollo and Daphne, but after watching Mrs. Harden in her garden, he was no longer sure.

“Maybe,” he replied.

“What do you think of my hair?” she asked Guy, her eyes stuttering upon his chest.

A flock of Canada geese passed overhead, honking and honking, a southward bound V.

“I should probably go,” he said.

“Nice to see you.”

Shortly after collecting her toothbrush, Susan had sent a letter in the mail. The stationery smelled like jojoba. Sometimes he took the note from the drawer and breathed it in. All she’d written on the perfumed page was “Thank you.” Guy drove through her neighborhood once or twice. He wanted to write a poem with her looking out the window, forlorn, unemployed, smoking again, terrified. A mirror, in other words. But Susan was never home.

The mailman had announced early on that he did not like poetry. He didn’t want there to be any misunderstandings. At the town lake, they sometimes fished from a rust-trimmed canoe. What a way to pass the time, the mailman said. One afternoon his friend pulled up a small porgy, nothing worth keeping, and he flashed Guy a wolfish grin. He swung the rod in the air, whipping the fish back and forth, then slammed the porgy onto the side of the canoe. Don’t do that, Guy pleaded. The fish bled through its silver scales while suffocating outside the water. Guy had childhood friends who’d strapped fireworks to toads and poured gasoline down the holes of anthills. He wanted to tuck a large metal hook into the mailman’s mouth and swing him into the sun where he would be annihilated in flames. The mailman ripped the fish off the hook and tossed it into the water, where it lilted down, a feather in the breeze.

On his front lawn, three passerines pecked at the grass. Guy went to the front door and rang the bell. No one had been outside. No one would be inside. He waited, regarding the birds with a mild suspicion. They kept their heads down, snapping at insects and hidden grubs. Soon Guy wandered to the back, where he stumbled across a rake and a shovel leaned against the house. He’d once read that John Hinckley was allowed to visit his mother from time to time, and that he roamed the grounds of the mental hospital feeding stray cats. That Ronald Reagan was something else, the pundits often said, but no one knew what. Guy grabbed the shovel and went to the center of the lawn, where he slid the blade into the ground. The earth was surprisingly soft. If April showers bring May flowers, what do May flowers bring?

Guy worked for hours. The passerines watched him as if he were a different kind of glass. They disappeared at sunset. Crickets replaced the birds, along with a half-hearted moon, which, as the night wore on, faded behind a thick prison of clouds. All the while Guy shoveled dirt from the hole. He dug through the night, and only stopped when the light returned, a mystical pre-dawn that illuminated brush strokes of pine trees and houses and aboveground pools, all cast upon the window that was really the Earth.

The hole, a six-foot pocket, was narrow but deep enough to stand in. Guy slid into it, leaving his arms at his sides, his eyes level with the edge, a gun in its holster. He tiptoed in a small circle, taking in his surroundings, the world of living pine trees and all the rotting houses mocking him with their false precedents. Soon one would become the other. The rising sun would flash across the back bay window, summoning the passerines. They would fly, they would flee one world for another, and each desperate bird would break its neck on the glass. Each would become a word in Guy’s poem, the same word. New life born from death, as if that were possible.

—Trey Sager

Trey Sager is the author of Fires of Siberia, a romance novel loosely inspired by Tea Party champion Michele Bachmann, published by Badlands Unlimited. He’s also written two chapbooks with Ugly Duckling Presse (O New York and Dear Failures), and is a fiction editor at Fence magazine.

Feb 092014
 

Bookbinding header, color-001

Today, Part Six, the penultimate installment of Robert Day’s serial novel Let Us Imagine Lost Love, which, if you haven’t figured it out by now, is about love. We have two narrative poles: the narrator as a young man in Berkeley in the 1960s and the narrator now, as a desperately ennui-ridden middleaged book designer, frittering away his life with bon mots and his Plaza wives. His stoic endurance sometimes looks heroic and sometimes looks a little stalled.

I tend to tend my own garden even though I don’t have one. Add that to my interest in Titian’s live nudes, and you have a concoction of disbelief that the world exists beyond my imagination, which leads to a bad case of non-vicarious solipsism. Maybe that’s why I have freeze-framed myself. I am there; therefore, I am here. In plasma. In electronic formaldehyde.

His sister Elaine has his number. “Being right about yourself doesn’t mean you’ll do anything about it,” she tells him. But if he won’t do anything for himself, the past is busy organizing something for him to do. Someone is sending those mysterious packages. The local art institute is hosting an exhibition of work by his old Berkeley flame Beth, the unavailable one. And in the past, in that Berkeley period, we have a gorgeous precursor-scene when Elaine (the sister), Tina (the old girlfriend from Emporia) and Jo (the woman who has been bonking him secretly as an “extracurricular” sport) all show up at his doorstep pregnant.

dg

 

Part Six

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Ennui vs. Angst

 

Currier But Not Ives: A Family Christmas

—Are you going into “hibernation”? Elaine has asked.

—Yes.

Sometimes in December we get warm sunny days, as if a jigsaw puzzle piece of Indian summer found a serendipitous fit in a “Winter Wonderland” scene.

My sister and I were outside on my balcony. The sun was falling toward the house on Lowell. From below, we hear music of the outdoor speakers: “Sleigh Ride.”

Our father would leave us for Christmas: working late in the garage, puttering with his Studebaker, working early the next morning, not talking, skipping lunch, coming back past nine for suppers of leftovers, working on Christmas day. New Year’s as well.

Then one day he would return, saying to me: “The radio is calling for snow,” which meant: would I help him at the shop put on tire chains for his customers, a service for which he did not charge?

—His family was poor when he was your age, said my mother. As was mine. Meager.

—Do you know why he went into hiding over Christmas? said Elaine.

—Are you asking why I do?

—Yes.

—To honor him. In my case, instead of working on the Studebaker, I’ll test run my new book printer.

—Lillian will be home. She is bringing her boyfriend. I think he is black.

—What are you going to do?

—I can’t make him white. Or do you mean about Gerhard?

—About the sleeping arrangements.

—Ah, she said. Now that’s a question without yet an answer.

—What makes you think he’s black?

—Lillian said he was different. What do you think?

—Let’s go back to sleeping arrangements.

—Gerhard wants to put them into two rooms. I say let’s put them in the master guest room because it has its own bath, but Gerhard says that room has a queen-sized bed and you know what that means!

—What it meant was Gerhard, Jr.

—I thought to say that, she said.

—But did not?

—I suggested we move out the queen bed and put in two single beds.

 —The craft of marriage is the art of arbitration, I said.

Melinda walked by. Alone. Heading toward Barnes and Noble. A last minute Christmas present? For a friend?

Atonement,” Elaine said.

—What?

—Do you know the story about mother and her words?

—I knew they were too poor to send her to college. Everything they had went to Uncle Conroy. She didn’t finish high school.

—There’s something more to it than that, Elaine said.

—Do you know?

—I do not. Even after father died, she’d say her words out loud to nobody but herself. Atonement. I was too stubborn to look them up.

—Atonement?

—It was what she was saying that first Christmas after father died. Gerhard and I had just moved back.

—Do you know what it means?

—I do now.

—Before I go into my cave, how about I walk you half way to your house?

—To Married Love?

—Yes.

—I was hoping you’d ask.

The early evening was still a puzzle of warm weather.

—Want to come for a meal?

— “A Guest Who’s Coming to Dinner?”

—It might be playing soon at a house near you, Elaine said.

We stood to watch the western sky burn red along a line above the black land. The Plaza lights were coming on. Our father is in his garage.

—See you in a month of Sundays, Elaine said.

—Yes.

 

Your Photo Album

All that fall my mother had been mailing me Care packages.

—What have we here? said Hazen.

What I had was a small box in which my mother had put a stick of deodorant; two pairs of jockey underwear (sale price still on them); three boxes of Jell-O (with instructions from my mother to make with sliced bananas); one of my father’s discarded doubled-edged Gillette razors (complete with a half-used pack of Blue Blades); two pairs of white socks (mine; I had left them behind); and a picture of me standing next to my father beside the glass globe in the yard the summer before I left for California.

Such packages would arrive every two or three weeks, sometimes with cookies or brownies that I’d share with Beth and Hazen. Sometimes with clothing. Always with a picture of me. I got younger as the fall semester progressed, so that by Christmas break I am standing beside Uncle Conroy on a beach in Galveston, Texas. “Turtle on its way,” somebody had written on the back of the snapshot.

Neither Elaine nor Steve made it back for Christmas. Our mother had not told them the seriousness of our father’s illness; they didn’t return until the following summer.

I cashed the check my mother sent for a plane ticket and took the bus. I gave her the difference. I didn’t tell Tina I was coming home. I asked Hazen to look after Pretty who was still in the lab, but got weekend passes at Beth’s. My father worked as he could at his garage.

 —Were you with him when he died? Elaine asked me one day on our way to Lowell.

—No, I said. He was in the hospital and Mother and I were home. I was in the basement and heard the phone ring. “He’s gone,” is what Mother said when I came up.

 —I don’t know what I feel about not being there, my sister said.

 —Good for you, I said.

 —What do you mean?

 She had turned down Lowell.

 —It’s better that you don’t understand your feelings than you borrow generic ones.

 —Like “I feel so guilty?”

 —For starters.

 —I was with Gerhard. We went to Maine. I never told Mother. I told her I had to stay for summer school because I had an Incomplete.

—Did you?

—I had an Incomplete that is still incomplete.

—They can stay that way forever, I said. Consider it a metaphor for life.

—What did Steve say?

—More or less the same thing.

We were about to pass the house. Elaine was slowing down, tapping the brakes the way Aunt Lillian did when she wasn’t sure if she wanted to stop at a green light or not. The transmigration of “perched and alert.”

Before I returned to California for the second semester my mother gave me four Care packages: two for me, and one each for my friends, Howard and Beverly, as she understood them to be.

—Is Beverly your girlfriend? my father had asked Christmas evening when he came home early from the garage.

—No.

—Are you doing your dictionary words? asked my mother.

 —Yes.

—Why do we have to tell Tina that you are not here? asked my father.

Going back, the Trailways took the northern route toward Denver. It was snowing when I left and it became worse as we went west. I got as far as Atwood on Highway 36 before the bus pulled into a motel where I was stuck for two days. The only café in town was closed, so I ate the brownies out of one of my Care packages. After Denver we headed south through New Mexico, then up through Carson City and finally into Berkeley. It wasn’t a bad trip. To this day I like buses.

—What have we here? said Hazen when the three of us met again.

—Care packages for Howard and Beverly, I said.

—I think this one must be yours, said Beth to Hazen. It has Gillette Blue Blades in it.

—And what’s this? Hazen said as Beth brought The Illuminated Manuscript of Ta-Bid from her bedroom to the table.

 

It’s About Time

—I used to hate my room, said Elaine. And the house.

—Because other girls had better rooms and better houses?

—You know how in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter the girl Mick wants to have a party?

—She has it.

—But I couldn’t because I thought that’s what it would be like. All the rich girls coming from nice houses in Leawood and seeing ours. Then back in school, they wouldn’t talk to me because they had found out who I was.

—Would you let Lillian go to a party at our house on Lowell?

—No.

—Why not?

—Because I don’t want her to become the snob I am.

We were sitting in Elaine’s living room. Lillian was upstairs with-or-without Sidney Poitier. I don’t ask. It is my first day back from putting chains on my book even though there has been no snow on the radio.

—I didn’t know you’d read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

—I just read it now. Lillian brought it home from college. I rented the movie. I felt the way Mick feels without knowing other people felt that way.

—Carson McCullers is what Kim Novak’s sister is reading in Picnic to get herself out of Hutchinson because she’s too young for William Holden, I said.

—I didn’t know that either, my sister said.

We are quiet together, and into that silence I find myself thinking: What else to do with your memories except to let them inhabit you? The furniture of our lives: Merriam and Berkeley. The Plaza and Berkeley. Melinda. Muff. Furniture that has been around the Horn in the same room with aluminum folding chairs. The glass globe of my father’s death. The boy I saved off the deep end one summer.

We hear someone stir upstairs and I wonder if my sister’s silence means she is reading my silence:

I am here as well as there. My lists of weeks. Nurse Barkley. The clock of Brush Creek. My Wednesday seminar students. We too are family. You are what becomes you: The Plaza boutiques moving their soaps and pressed flowers and spinach pastas and Sardinia grappa into the magazine homes of my sister—or into an apartment down the hall, owned by—but not occupied by—a man of a certain age. The migration of affluence.

 Would it help to admit I like the insistent tasteful tastelessness of it: The philistine vulgarity. Why would l like that? For the same reasons my best books are unused? For the same reasons I won’t marry? For the same reasons I am looking through Harrisons? For what? An aversion therapy? Even before I diagnose my phobia? Call Doctor Percy. My questions are beginning to concentrate my mind.

—What keeps you here? Elaine asked.

—My questions are beginning to concentrate my mind, I said.

—I’m serious, my sister said.

—You, I said.

—You’re getting a bit . . .I don’t know what. . . living here.

—“Arch?” I said.

—What does that mean? she said.

—Witty. With an edge.

— I don’t think living on the Plaza where you can look down on us is doing you any good. And those wives. You don’t like them, they are just. . .

—Coffee table books.

—Being right about yourself doesn’t mean you’ll do anything about it.

—What’s to do?

—You have the money. You could live anywhere. You’ve never been to Europe. Why not go to Paris? You’ve done books on it. Why not go yourself?

 —Every time I want to go someplace, I do a book about it. That cures me.

 —I’m being serious, said my sister.

 —I have never been more serious.

 —Have you ever done a book on the Plaza? she asked.

 —That would leave me with a cure, but no place to be other than where I am.

 —What’s the matter with that?

 —You’ve been reading my mind, I said.

 More than two feet seem to moving above us. There is talk.

 —It’s about time, Elaine said.

I am struck by how much of what we say has meaning beyond what we intend.

.

An Agenda: The Brookings Show

The Nelson-Atkins Art Gallery has a decent collection of Oriental work, but not much Spanish—which is curious, given the Plaza’s connection to Seville. Across the street to the west from the Nelson is the Kansas City Art Institute whose most famous painters were Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock. My sister says there is a home in the area that claims the fireplace into which Mr. Pollock took a piss during a dinner party. Other fireplaces and other dinner parties make the same claim. Pollock would probably not have believed the pissing had he done it himself.

Over the years, I have had design work for both the Nelson and the Kansas City Art Institute: student manuals and benefactor gift calendars for the Art Institute; exhibition catalogues and (very pleasing) postcards and posters for the Nelson. I did not get the contract for the Thomas Hart Benton retrospective a number of years ago, but the woman who did produced a fine book. The exhibition was brutalized by a hash of hay bales and two-by-four fencing arranged in the rooms where Benton’s Midwestern Mythic paintings hung. I understand it was a New York “art consulting” firm that inflicted its provinciality on Kansas City. It was not necessary.

It is the Art Institute students who made the busts that look over the Plaza and down at Ben Franklin. And it is the Art Institute’s women who have recently formed the cheerleading squad that is out and about rah rah-rahing everything from fountains to traffic signals to Winstead’s to Winnie and Clementine. Up and down the Plaza they go, one part high hoke, one part low camp. “Hip” or “Hip-Not,” I don’t know. Elaine tells me Steve knows and “we” cannot know. Not even The Shadow knows.

My present Nelson project is an Agenda for the Beth Brookings exhibition to open this spring. There is a catalogue (that I did not design, even if I am not credited) that comes with the painting part of the exhibition, a traveling one, originating in San Francisco and now in Santa Fe. Those paintings are a selection of twenty-four by thirty inch “Set Ins or Reverses made from her early murals, the ones that made her a break out painter—to quote the catalogue. Along the edges of some of these paintings, and on some of the murals as well, are snippets of hand-written text: Bye-bye Mussolini, From One Girl to Another, Ganiff..

Added together, these paintings (all acrylic) cannot be assembled into any one of the murals from which they are taken. I suspect this is by design, but by what design I am happy not to know. I like the studied incompleteness of it, but not for what the catalogue writer calls “. . .the compelling nature of the missing links of the pictorial narrative, as if Ms. Brookings has a story to tell that she alone knows (the painter’s dramatic irony is at work here!), and that can only be told by visiting the sites (all across America!) where that story is self-evident, and to which we are asked by implication to migrate.” It is a sentence Chekhov would have someone else write.

There is also A Painter’s Room of My Own, the well-reviewed coffee table book. I have not seen the final version, but I expect it is well designed: Tailored and elegant. Then there is an exhibition of The Room: furniture, books, platters, early paintings, cupboards, and a bong. Painted doors leading to a bedroom and bathroom. Mirrors. Bandanas. It is as if A Painter’s Room of My Own had emptied itself while keeping itself in tack. I know the feeling. The Room is to be arranged at the Nelson according the artist’s instructions. I wonder what will replace a record player with its speaker in the lid.

In connection with the exhibition, the Nelson has published my Agenda using the “Set Ins,” as well as post cards and a poster from A Painter’s Room of My Own.

At a meeting I attended, the Agenda won over a cookbook that would have featured recipes of the Mrs. Bridges who give money to the Nelson. I favored the cookbook for reasons that had to do with nepotism. Also, it would have made a fine abecedarian: B is for Brownies. M is for meatloaf. N is for Nonsuch. R is for Risotto.

My proofs for the Agenda, the post cards and the poster have come and gone, but today the finished Agenda arrived; somebody at the Nelson assumed there must be a mistake in my request not to claim the designer’s copy. Shortly after the package came (Earl calls you when you have something too big for your mailbox), I brought it upstairs and put in on my coffee table; I have not opened it.

It is a Monday. My week’s octavo is on my dining room table, oddly blank from cover to cover. I am noir on the wall. Tomorrow Rosetta comes. Wednesday will be the penultimate visit of the wife who has found her niche among my Nudes in Painting. She bought me a copy (on sale at Barnes and Noble, I noticed) and told me I may choose any pose I want. Perhaps I should have asked one of the art students to paint a backdrop of a large seashell—even though this particular wife is a brunette. The Rubens will have to do. There was a Poussin I liked, but it needs two lustful Satyrs and I am only one.

 

America the Plum Blossoms are Falling  

—“America free Tom Mooney. America save the Spanish Loyalists. America this is quite serious.”

Hazen had bits and pieces of Ginsberg’s “America” memorized. Until I got my own copy of Howl I thought it was a madness he shared with King Lear.

—“I have mystical visions and cosmic vibrations,” he said one day upside down in his Tall Tugger. “I’m obsessed by Time Magazine. / I read it every week. / Its cover stares at me every time I slink past the corner candy store. / I read it in the basement of the Berkeley Public Library.”

—Tomorrow’s the day, he continued. We’re going to the Berkeley Public Library and you’re going to read “America” and I’m going to read Time Magazine.

—Why tomorrow?

—It’s the anniversary of the day he wrote it. January 17, 1956.

I had come to realize I had lost Beth to Hazen. “Lost” was not the right word. No word was. But I had not lost Hazen. There was something in his loyalty to my feelings about Beth that kept us friends. He never bragged that he was “balling” her. I never knew from him (or her) when they had been together. After our conversation that day when we were driving to Half Moon Bay to dive for abalone, Hazen didn’t talk about Beth in any way that made it painful for me. Not that it wasn’t. It just turned out we were not your usual triangle, more a three-character play where one of the actors is sent off stage now and then. Why I was faithful to my lines I do not understand. Why Beth was I never understood as well. How a woman could fall for a man like Hazen was in those days I don’t understand to this day. But then I never understood why Kim Novak would get on a bus to Tulsa for the likes of me.

On January 17th we drove Austen to the Berkeley Public Library. True to Ginsberg’s poem, the periodical section was in the basement. I had my copy of Howl in the back pocket of my jeans. Hazen got Time Magazine from a rack and both of us sat at one of the reading tables. There were a dozen or so people in the library basement that morning.

—You begin, said Hazen.

All along, I had thought he meant I was to read “America” out loud. It would be our two-person Happening with “America” as our manifesto. I had my two dollars and change. I stood up, Howl in my hand.

— “America, I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing,” I read, much to the astonishment of those in the room—and, as it turned out, to Hazen as well who I later learned just thought we’d read the poem to ourselves. “America, two dollars and twenty-seven cents January 17th, 1956.”

I reached into my jacket pocket and put two dollars and twenty-seven cents on the table. The quarter rolled around before it settled, heads up. Hazen looked at it, then at me.

—“I can’t stand my own mind,” I continued. “America when will we end the human war?”

— “Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb,” said Hazen as he stood up.

When we finished, our small audience applauded. Hazen waved the copy of Time Magazine. I took a bow.

.

The Conflicted Book of Medical Ethics

I would look at the dogs in their cages, and after awhile I could not look at them if they looked at me. There were dogs we were bleeding then dumping into the incinerator; there were dogs that we killed in the surgical experiments to develop the heart-lung machine that would save lives in the hospital across the parking lot; there were pregnant dogs whose unborn puppies were being implanted with an intestinal blockage—again, to save lives in the hospital across the parking lot. And all those dogs, along with their unborn puppies, got “Cook Timed.” You could get through a day bleeding dogs if you thought about the children. Or at least I could. And couldn’t.

From the beginning, Uncle Conroy would take Hazen and me on weekly tours of the hospital. He introduced us to the staff; he arranged for us to go on rounds with the doctors; he even arranged for us to scrub and stand against the wall of the OR while the surgeons worked. Once, a surgeon sent a nurse over to bring us closer to the table. It was heart surgery.

The doctor talked to us as he cut and clipped, the hemostats clamping the bleeders. Through his mask he explained what he was doing, what he was cutting. He said that ten years ago, this child would have died because they did not have the skills or the knowledge to save it. Now, they would be able to give her a new life, albeit (I remember he used one of my mother’s words) a limited life. Perhaps by the time the two of us became doctors, we would be able to return such a child to perfect health. He looked at us over his surgical mask.

—What Conroy Watkins is doing is very good work. You boys help him. It is very good work. Kelly, please.

My uncle understood I was concerned about the Blood Factory dogs—as well as the other animals that were dying a variety of deaths at a variety of rates for either a variety of reasons or for one reason, depending upon how you looked at it. Driving home with him after I had bled five dogs, he asked me:

—What do you think of your studies so far?

My uncle always called our work in the lab “studies.”

—Fine, I said.

We were going up Grove. Austen was parked at Beth’s. I almost asked my uncle to stop and let me off. But I had reading to do and my books were at the Derby room, so I said nothing.

I once practiced medicine, my uncle said. Private practice, I mean.

—What? I said.

—Not long after Lillian and I were married, I had a practice for two years. In Galveston. It was just after the war. About the time we sent your turtle to Oakland. I felt we needed to buy a house but not have a mortgage so I could continue my research.

Many of the conversations adults have with the young are confusing to both because whole premises are missing: the details of domestic lives. My uncle wanted to own a house free and clear for Aunt Lillian so that he could return to his less-than-lucrative calling as a research-university doctor, as opposed to the substantial wealth of one in private practice. With these facts new to me, I didn’t know what to say. And my uncle had grown quiet on his side of the car.

—Do you think you might want to be a doctor? he said.

—Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t, I said.

—From the dinner with Hazen’s father? My uncle said, and laughed.

—Yes.

We drove on.

—I want to tell you something about my medical practice in Texas, my uncle said. He had forgotten he was to take me to Derby and turned into the Berkeley Hills. At times I would go home to dinner with him, but that was not the plan tonight. I decided not to interrupt.

—I had a patient from “down island,” as they used to say in Galveston. Shrimpers, I think. A pro bono patient. Do you know what pro bono means?

—No, I said.

—I did not charge a fee, said my uncle. The mother came into the office with the child. Four years old. Female. She had a rash on her back. Slight fever. A non-specific macular rash. Nothing else. A mild viral infection, I thought. I got a sample of salve from my cupboards and gave it to the mother. I didn’t see her again until the hospital called. She was probably too ashamed at not being able to pay me, so didn’t come back when the rash turned purple. By then I knew what it was. Any doctor would.

My uncle made another wrong turn. A bad one, because while we were still going into the hills behind the Claremont Hotel, we were not on any road that would cut through. We would have to go all the way up to the top and take a crossroad and come back down. I didn’t say anything.

Nor did my uncle. I waited. He drove into the hills. He seemed to concentrate on the windshield. Finally.

—You know my medical bag? he said.

—The black one in your office?

—In it are the instruments I used in those days. And a pad on which I recorded the symptoms of my patients and the prescriptions I wrote, and the effect my treatment had. Two years’ worth of notes about what kind of doctor I had been.

—I didn’t know that, I said.

—If you want to know who you are, he said, read what you write about what you do.

We have gotten to the top of the hill from where we could see downtown Oakland. To the right was the Berkeley campus. Sather Gate. Durant. Down Grove, I could see the parking lot between the lab and the hospital. Below us was my uncle’s house. “Paid for” I couldn’t help thinking.

—I feel bad about killing the dogs, I said.

—I know you do, said my uncle. I have felt worse about other deaths.

 

A Political Guide to Sather Gate

There was usually something of a circus around Sather Gate, and later, when the University officials cracked down, along Telegraph and Bancroft. You could find tables with petitions to sign and flyers handed out by intense political radicals. Amid the bright sunshine, the eucalyptus trees, the fountains, the cafes, the spacious walkways, the sports cars and cars with surfboards on them, the deeply tanned Katherine Rosses and the young men of families whose furniture had come around the Cape, it was nearly impossible to believe anyone cared what happened elsewhere in the world. Many did not.

—What’s the deal with Cuba? I asked Hazen.

—What do you mean, what’s the deal with Cuba?

—I got a flyer to free Cuba and I got one to get the CIA out of Guatemala.

—Cuba’s communist, which is good or bad depending upon what you think of capitalism. The CIA is probably bad no matter what you think.

My politics in those days were mild to middling. Maybe it was growing up in Kansas City with a William Allen White father; maybe it was just being more interested in Muff LaRue skinning dipping than in Stevenson or Ike. Probably it was being who I was, and still am. I tend to tend my own garden even though I don’t have one. Add that to my interest in Titian’s live nudes, and you have a concoction of disbelief that the world exists beyond my imagination, which leads to a bad case of non-vicarious solipsism. Maybe that’s why I have freeze-framed myself. I am there; therefore, I am here. In plasma. In electronic formaldehyde.

As I was coming from class one day I saw Juliet at a table along Bancroft. It had been two or three weeks since she had been to my room in the middle of the night to have her “sex fix.” After that, she could not be found.

Our romance had little to do with me. We never had a “date.” I did not call her. She showed up. Sometimes, I’d spot her on campus with another man, but if she saw me she’d wave me off, her hand making something like a flip of the wrist ball throw. When she came to my room we did not talk. Not about art. Not about cars. She never said: “What could it possibly matter?” But then neither did I.

—Hello, I said as I came to the table.

There were photographs taped along the front, and a signboard propped to one side.

Jo was by herself. Usually these tables had two or three people, one to take your signature, the others to tell you something about the protest: what the group represents and when the next meeting was going to be. She had seen me coming. She had not flipped her wrist.

Looking back, we did not have much in common. In today’s language, she was jerking my chain. Or jerking me around and pulling my chain. Something to do with toilets. I’ll have to check with my sister who will check with Lillian.

—Hi, Jo said.

—Busy? I said.

—Sometimes, she said.

—I didn’t mean about us, I said.

—There is no us, she said.

Another girl arrived and put her purse in a vacant chair. She was carrying a large roll of canvas tied with twine.

—I’m Amy. Has Jo signed you up?

—No, I said.

I stepped back and looked at the photographs taped to the front of the table, and then at the poster board. The pictures were of hamsters and rabbits and guinea pigs—diseased or malformed. There were photographs of dogs in cages. The shots of the dogs had been enlarged. There was a photograph of Pistol unloading dogs from the back of her truck into a lab. Not our lab. But it was Pistol. She was wearing bib overalls. Her gloves.

—We’re ARN, said Jo, pointing to a button she was wearing. “Animal Rights Now.”

—Did you know, said Amy, that all over Cal-B there are labs filled with dogs like this (and here she pointed to a H-57) that are being starved so some professor can get a publication? So he can get a promotion. Or tenure. So he can live in the Berkeley Hills and have dinner parties with other professors who are also starving animals so they can get a publication and a promotion. The professors get the promotions; the dogs get fucked.

By this time Jo had helped Amy untie the canvas. Then the two of them opened it: “Professors Publish. Animals Perish.”

The letters were in red. Inside the first “O” of ‘Professor’ was the face of a hamster. The second “O” had blood dripping from it.

—Jo’s boyfriend is a painter, said Amy. He made it for us. He’s making another one on a sheet we can use as a flag.

Jo was peering over the top of the banner.

—You want me to hold it? I said. So you can have a good look.

—Thanks, Jo said.

I took Jo’s end and Amy and I walked across Bancroft.

—Do you know her boyfriend? Amy said.

—I don’t think so, I said.

—Are you one of her extracurricular?

—I guess so.

—So am I, said Amy.

We stretched the canvas out full-length. Jo nodded yes and put two thumbs in the air.

—You want to sign up? Jo said as we came back to the table.

—I don’t think so.

 

A Hi Sign: Not of My Own Making

—Are you going to Beth’s show? my sister said.

The Nelson’s quarterly calendar (which Elaine takes and I designed) has finally listed it, which means my sister can confront me with what she has known all along.

—Yes, I said.

—I don’t believe you.

—I wouldn’t, I said.

—Then you are not going? she said.

—I have a sign, I said.

— You and your signs. You’re just telling me you don’t believe it even if you see it.

—I did some designs for show.

—Does that mean you did? Or that you did not? she said.

It has been our good luck as brother and sister to live among our various selves with a companionable deja vu: much about what we have done, did do, will do, are doing, comes as a delight. It is as if we have been there before. And for my part, it is not so much that I can read her mind (and she mine) as that at moments I am her mind. I am told twins feel something of the same thing.

—That I did some designs? I said. Are you surprised?

—Not at all, now that you mention it, she said. Did they know?

—Who? What?

—Did the Nelson know about you and Beth?

—Not even Beth and I knew about Beth and me, I said.

—I get nowhere with you, Elaine said and looked out her side of the car window to hide a smile. We were on our way to Merriam.

—Maybe there is nowhere to go, I said.

—That too, she said, turning back to watch the road.

I am curious to see if Waldo has been at the house. I have sworn both him and Rosetta to secrecy.

— Look! Elaine said as we turned down Lowell. The grass is cut; maybe somebody bought it.

—It’s still vacant, I said.

Elaine tapped the breaks as if to think.

—You bought it! she said, and almost ran into the ditch.

—Would you believe me if I said yes?

—No, she said, wobbling us back onto the straight and narrow.

—If I said no.

—No.

—Are you surprised?

—At what?

—Either that I bought it or that I did not buy it? I said.

Instead of stopping she picked up speed and turned the corner at 52nd Place.

—I’m not surprised at you even when I am, she said, as she went past the memory of the burning building that was our father’s filling station, and how we came out of high school one afternoon to see him with his garden hose trying put out the flames, and how we could hear the sirens in the distance.

And this memory as well: both of us standing there, not immediately going to help him because he was a mechanic who ran a filling station, just as our mother was a clerk at the county water department. All around us were our classmates who, for a moment, were not getting in their cars and driving to the suburbs where there would be no glass globe in their yards, no Thor in their kitchen, no living in the basement with heating ducts for an intercom. We all stood there watching a man’s filling station on fire. Then Elaine and I dashed out of the crowd, me to grab another hose, and Elaine running to the county office down the road to get our mother and come back with her just as the fire department had doused the flames before much damage had been done.   

On our return to the Plaza, Elaine and I talked about whether I had bought 505 Lowell or not, and if I had, what I should do with it, and if I had not, whether I should—both scenarios amounting to the same thing. And why Elaine had not stopped but had gone faster.

—I’ll find a glass globe, she said. And lawn chairs.

—I’ll find a Thor.

—Try e-Bay, my sister said. Or Google.

—I don’t use e-Bay or Google, I said.

—Why doesn’t that surprise me?

In fact I have found a Thor through a local appliance dealer who probably did use e-Bay. It is in the kitchen. I have not seen it, but I have paid the bill and the trucking charge. Some reality is better imagined which is why I don’t use Google. And why I don’t go to Paris, not even to see my books in stalls along the Seine. If they are there, am I not there?

.

An Abridged Encyclopedia of Pregnant Women: Volume One

—Elaine is coming, said Aunt Lillian.

I was standing in the hallway of my rooming house where the phone is located. Dustin Hoffman’s landlord was also in the hallway; he listens to our conversations to see if we are saying anything Un-American.

—When?

—Today. Your uncle is meeting the plane. It is all very sudden. I think something is amiss. She took the night flight. There must be something amiss. Do you know what it is?

—No, I said. Has Uncle Conroy left for the airport?

—Yes. But I will come and get you so you can be here when Elaine arrives. She says she wants to see you right away.

—I have to go to the lab. I’ll meet you there in an hour.

—Something is amiss, said my aunt again. And we are about to leave town.

This was the second phone call I have gotten this morning; the first was from Tina. She and Bottle James are in Reno. She has been trying to call me for two days. Where have I been? She will be here tomorrow. All she has is the address of a bookstore in San Francisco. Where is she supposed to go? Where will she stay? Why didn’t I call before she left? Bottle James is going to Los Angeles at the end of the week and not coming back. What is she supposed to do? I gave Tina the address of my uncle’s house and some rough directions. My landlord listened.

—You can’t have women here, he said as I got off the phone from my aunt. No women. No dogs. Goldfish only. No cats. No birds. I said that to you in the beginning. No women. I know about that nuts woman who’s been here in the night. That agitator. No women.

All spring, Tina and I have been getting her clothes off. It was slow going because I had “neglected her” over Christmas. There are days when I can see her, and there are days when she is nothing but a voice. But as her body is fading from focus at my end of the conversation, at her end, she is becoming more and more exotic.

—Some hormonal switch has been thrown in her, said Hazen. And you, dumb fuck, threw it.

In recent calls Tina has put the phone on her desk and talked to it from wherever she is in her room. It gives her more freedom, she says. At my end of the line she sounds like she’s in a cave.

—I love doing this for you, she said. I am soooooo happy. I am turning around so you can see me. There.

I am trying to see her. I close my eyes. I see Beth in her yellow chair. I see the sunlight bouncing off San Francisco Bay. I see Allen Ginsberg reading Howl. I see myself standing in Tina’s room at Hulga’s house in Emporia, Kansas—but it is dark and I cannot see Tina. I see Hazen because he is standing at the door to my uncle’s office where I have placed the WATS call.

—Next time I will light a candle, said Tina. I promise. I promise. I will light a candle. I feel so happy when I am with you like this. Bottle James says to say hello. I feel very sexy when I am with you like this. Tell me how you feel. Tell me a story. I am coming toward the phone. Can you see me? Talk to me.

—I have to go, I said.

—Oh no, she says. Please don’t. Not yet. Please don’t go. Not yet.

—A doctor has just come in. He needs me.

—Call me, Tina said.

—Goodbye, I said.

I hung up.

— Kansas Naked lady? said Hazen.

—Yes.

—You’re weird. Call the brothers Menninger. Is she coming here?

—Yes.

—Not mellow. Pas bitchin. Tres mal-bad. Tres mal-pas bitchin. We got two more dogs to drain. I got one going but he’s big and I need you hoisting and squeezing.

Elaine is pregnant. Uncle Conroy and Aunt Lillian have left to attend a medical meeting in San Francisco. When they do that, they stay with Hazen’s parents for a few days, and I house-sit. In this case, after the meeting, they are all going to Mexico. The place is mine for a week. My aunt has fixed me Nonsuch.

—Who is he? I asked.

We were in the living room. Below us are the lights of Berkeley. There had been a brief shower that afternoon and clouds are still over the Bay. From time to time, they cross the sky, like sails; San Francisco gets blotted out for a moment. Then the lights come on again. My sister is mesmerized by the scene. She does not answer.

—A friend, she said finally.

—Did you tell Uncle Conroy?

—No.

—Did you come here because you think he can arrange an abortion?

—No.

—Have you told Aunt Lillian?

—Yes.

—You have?

—Just before they left.

—What did she say?

—That we could not tell Uncle Conroy.

—Anything else?

—Yes.

—What?

—That I should have the baby and that we should tell the family I have been secretly married for a year and that my husband is in the military and that he went to Vietnam where he was killed. She even has a married name for me. Devine. I am Mrs. Elaine Devine. My husband is Lt. Peter John Devine. He was a Blue Beret and he died in combat. I had to tell Aunt Lillian they were Green Berets. She thanked me. She’s been very sweet.

—She said all that?

— I think she made this plan because she knew something was the matter.

—“Amiss,” I said.

—Yes, says my sister and smiles. How are you? You seem different.

—I am.

—What do you think I should do?

—Do you like the guy?

—He says we’d make a great team.

—He said that?

—Yes.

—Marry him.

—Why?

—I said it to see what you’d say. It’s a place to start. Marry him.

My sister and I were quiet.

—Are you going to be a doctor? she said.

She was looking at me as if for the first time. The lights from a car are coming down the driveway. They flash into the living room.

—Is somebody here? she said.

—Probably a friend and a girlfriend of mine from Kansas, I said.

But it was not.

.

Chekhov: A Study Guide

In Chekhov, the women get pregnant at the end of chapters. If the pregnancies are legitimate, the babies die at the end of a following chapter. If they are illegitimate, the babies live past the end of the story. More or less.

—What would you say if I told you I am pregnant, Art Book Alice said to me. We were having espresso before she leaves.

—Am I the father? I said.

—You would be, she said. Now what do you say?

—That I don’t believe you, I said.

—But what would you do about it?

We had our pose before lunch. She got herself started with a glass of white wine and a few “nibblets,” slipped into my bedroom and returned to her entrance. In the past she would half sing, half rap “naughty ditties.” Today there had been no ditties, only a subdued “Little Fur.”

—Why do you ask?

—I was once pregnant, she said.

—You have a son, I said. I have seen you with him.

—Not him, she said.

—Do you want me to ask any other questions? I asked.

—No, she said.

I liked her more for this.

—Am I the father? I said to Jo that night in my uncle’s driveway, Elaine inside, Bottle James and Tina still prowling the East Bay in an old Hudson.

I was rather surprised at what I have said. It was not in the context of those times for a young man—and a jejune one—to have such nerve. At least not so quickly. I caught Jo by surprise.

—What do you mean? she said and stomped her foot. I’m pregnant! I’m pregnant! And you’ve been fucking me. Without a rubber. You’ve been fucking me without a rubber!

My sister came to the door.

—Who’s she? said Jo.

—My sister, I said. She’s pregnant too.

There was silence. Then:

—My name’s Jo. It’s short for Juliet. Your brother’s been fucking me without a rubber and now I’m pregnant.

Elaine later told me that was the first time she had ever heard a woman say either “rubber” or “fucking.” She wasn’t so much shocked as impressed.

—Come in, Elaine said.

—Nice pad, Jo said.

It is what Bottle James will say an hour later when he arrives with Tina, who is also pregnant, but doesn’t know it.

For a test run of my new book printer I am composing a Study Guide to Chekhov. I have typed in bits and pieces of a number of his stories. They are cut and pasted together so that a woman wearing a beret in Yalta has left her dog with a drunken schoolteacher whose young daughter has been married off for to a rich government official of fifty-two. There are other such ensembles that create a single not-so-short Chekhov story that Chekhov did not write. I have titled it Not My Life. At the end I have written “topics for discussion”:

1. What makes the women happy?

2. Is there anything bad that has happened to a woman that is not the fault of a man?

3. What do you think of the compelling nature of the missing links of the narrative?

4. Discuss the following passage:

“Dimitri Dmitritch!”

 “What?”

 “You were right this evening: the sturgeon was a bit too strong!”

These words, so ordinary, for some reason moved Gurov to indignation, and struck him as degrading and unclean. What savage manners, what people! What senseless nights, what uninteresting, uneventful days! The rage for card playing, the gluttony, the drunkenness, the continual talk always about the same thing. Useless pursuits and conversations always about the same things absorb the better part of one’s time, the better part of one’s strength, and in the end there is left a life groveling and curtailed, worthless and trivial, and there is no escaping or getting away from it—just as though one were in a madhouse or a prison.

Gurov did not sleep all night. . .

 

The Angel Connection

A badly designed flyer showed up on the table in the lobby. It was from a group called “Angel Connection Training” that are conducting sessions at Unity Temple on 47th street.

For a “Love Donation of $25.00 or more” I can learn how to “Ground and Prepare to Connect,” “Release Barriers to Connection,” “Align with Angel Vibration,” “Converse with My Angel,” and “Enjoy and Utilize my Angel Connection.” I am also asked—as a “precursor” to making my “Love Donation”. . . to search my heart.” “Are you ready to learn more about how to use our love and healing light? Are you open to considering the gifts we can give?”

I have put the Angel Connection Training flyer, along with two tens, into the envelope for Bottle James. There have been recent reports of a clock bonging near “Married Love.” My gift seems not so much a considered act as a predestined one. Maybe if he “aligned with an angel vibration,” he’d get one of the jobs he pretends to have. In a few days I will return his black cape.

—“You cannot see your way,” Bottle James said with a flourish as he came into the garage apartment.

—Who are you now? I asked.

—“Madman and beggar too. Look there, look there.”

—Where?

—Wear it to be somebody you’re not, he said, and tossed me the cape.

I had asked Elaine to store it when we cleaned out the house after mother died. It was then she agreed to keep Pretty.

—I don’t think I have it, she said the other day when she stopped by before we went to lunch But I’ll look. Why do you want it?

—To give to Bottle James, I said.

—Has he returned? asked my sister.

—I’ve heard that he has.

—What’s this? asked my sister.

—A package. I said. It came the other day.

—Why don’t you open it?

—I’ve been waiting for my birthday.

—That’s October.

She was turning it over to find a return address.

—There is none, I said. I’ve gotten others.

—Let’s open it, she said.

—Sure.

Inside were Kelly clamps, a hemostat, a surgical mask, all wrapped in a set of green scrubs.

—Who do you think sent it?

—Either you did or I did, I said.

 

Thor: Owner’s Manual Update

—Remember when Thor attacked us? Elaine said.

Thor had valves to turn and racks to remove and dividers to install and large square buttons to push in a complicated sequence. Get them wrong, my brother had observed in his cryptic way, and you would start a nuclear war.

—It was what I was going to add this trip, I said.

—Then you can have it, she said as she turned down Lowell.

—Let’s share, I said.

It was a warm and splendid early spring day. The lawn has been mowed a second time. Elaine has, I see, found a globe and a set of webbed aluminum lawn chairs. Flags are coming up. Waldo has put out planters with impatiens in them. My mother liked the early blooming flowers above all others. Next week, I’ll get Rosetta to clean the house.

We parked in the driveway.

—Shall we? I said.

—Sure, my sister said.

We sat in the lawn chairs, me on my father’s side of his glass globe and Elaine on the other side and, passing the text of Thor back and forth as if turning pages, told each other how one Saturday when our father was at the garage and we were having lunch, our mother started Thor to do laundry, but in the spin cycle the vacuum cleaner portal began to suck air.

Steve plugged the hole with a garden tomato that was pulverized. Then Thor jerked himself toward the kitchen table leaving thick black marks on the floor. Our mother attacked him with a broom.

—The broom breaks, I said.

Thor marched to the end of his cord and unplugged himself.

—For weeks he smelled like ketchup, said my sister. Or did you want to say that?

—You can have it, I said.

My guess is we are thinking the same thing: that we have not gone into the house.

—Want to go in? she said.

— Do you?

—Let’s wait for a signal, she said.

—A cosmic Hi-Sign? I said.

—Let me look for it, she said. Between watching for Beth and Bottle James, you’ve got enough on your sensory plate.

—“Sensory plate?” Doctor Pill? Oprah?

—Muff LaRue. That’s what she says about you these days.

It was during the ride back that my sister told me again that she knew about me and Muff La Rue and asked again if I had “done anything about her.” Her car CD was playing Streisand’s “Sweet Inspiration.” For my part, I talked about how our mother would call down to us through the heating ducts, and how we all claimed the forty-five record player, and how Steve didn’t want his part to smell like pot.

—Do you still have it? I said coming along Brush Creek with Bottle James in front of us.

—It’s in the attic along with your record collection. Do you see him?

—No.

—Yes you do. Up ahead. On my side the creek. And I’ve found the cape.

 

Tina and Bottle James: A Travel Memoir

It was four in the morning when Tina and Bottle James found my uncle’s house. He had called from a pay phone in East Oakland an hour before. They were badly lost and Bottle James wanted to check into a motel. I could hear Tina crying.

—Want a pull? he said when he got out of the car, a vodka quart in his hand. It was the Blue Hudson. I didn’t think it would make it. Tina sat there and stared at the dashboard. She looked like a chewed toothpick.

—No thanks, I said. We’ve been doing six packs half the night.

—Can we crash here? said Bottle James. Nice pad.

—Sure. My aunt and uncle get back at the end of next week. We all have to be out of here by then. I’ll need a day to clean up.

—Who’s all? said Bottle James.

—My sister. A girlfriend.

—A girlfriend of yours? A girlfriend not her?

Bottle James looked at Tina.

—Yes.

—You got trouble. I’m here to tell you, you got trouble.

—More trouble than I know about?

—She’ll tell you, so I will. Popped her cherry. Carson City, Nevada.

—Somebody had to.

—You’re not pissed? he said. She’s pissed. Not that I know what about. Once she did it, I couldn’t keep her off me. A real bunny, you got there. Sure you don’t want a pull?

—Go in, I said. I’ll stay here.

—Come on Stella, get out, said Bottle James.

.

The Better Sex Book of Wednesdays

—Why so many in your life?

—Not so many, I said.

Elaine has found the red boa. Rosetta left it out; there is a conspiracy between them. She’s also gone into my office where the book printer is set up.

—How many?

—Two, I said. Down from four. Three if you count Nurse Barkley, but she is not a Wednesday Wife.

—Red Boa Rachel. Stripper Suzie.

—There was Art Book Alice, I said.

—I didn’t know about her.

— She didn’t make it through the book. I was hoping she’d get to Bonnard’s Woman with Black Stockings.

—What are you talking about?

—I’m not going to tell you.

—And Muff?

—Yes.

—Yes? That’s three then, said my sister.

She knows about these women and has given them their names, because when she questioned me about my lovers, I’ve told her: Yes, I am having an affair with a woman who likes to take off her clothes—or at least some of them—on the apartment balcony. And a Red Boa is after all a Red Boa. The art books and the women in them are of my own design. As to their given names my sister, like Hazen, has affection for alliteration. I’ll be curious to know who Muff turns into.

—I’m glad about Muff.

—I lied about Muff.

—That means . . .

—Not yet.

—Aren’t you a bit old for all this? Elaine said.

—Are you asking if you’re a bit old for the way you feel about Hazen?

—That as well, she said. But you first.

—Let’s call it a tie and either flip for it or not talk about it, I said.

—Hazen was always flipping imaginary coins, she said. And after she said that we didn’t talk about it.

I came to like my sister in the way I like her now as we were sitting in Uncle Conroy’s house that night she told me she was pregnant. And in the week that followed when she hung around the lab with me and Hazen and Beth.

I have never had the kind of woman in my life that Elaine wants me to have. It turns out my brother has that kind of man in his life, and he seems pleased with the arrangement. My sister has the kind of husband my Wednesday wives have, and has survived it.

—Not that I think you should get married, Elaine said. But don’t you think we could find you a woman who would bring more to your life than sex? A woman who you could let us meet? Somebody to go to the movies with? Somebody we could invite to spend a week or so at Uncle Conroy’s place in Mexico? Who are these women, anyway? I take it they are all married. Who are they?

—Art Pose Alice, Stripper Suzie, Red Boa…

—Oh, never mind, my sister said and pushed her smile into her eyes. Why only married women? Is Muff still married?

She had gone into the kitchen where she was making lunch. It was Sunday. A solid warm spring day.

—Because I don’t want to be married, I said. There are other reasons as well.

—What makes you think one of them won’t leave her husband and show up on your doorstep? Then what would you do?

—That happened in a Chekhov story. Chekhov handled it well; the man in question did not.

—What other reasons? my sister asked.

I had thought she had forgotten that part of my answer.

—Have some Navarra, I said as I poured her a glass.

—Is it from one of your lovers?

—Yes.

—What other reasons?

—Married women make better lovers, I said.

—They do? she said. Why?

—Because of their husbands, I said.

—What about their husbands? she said. I have a husband.

—Because they are no longer free with them. If they are not angry, they have become embarrassed. They do not want to be excessive. Or depraved. They do not want their husbands to know about the excitement they feel for the forbidden. They must have a secret from him, and I am it. Not me personally; I have no doubt about that. Just me. . . .

—Athletically.

—If you wish.

—Do you?

— No. They must go elsewhere for that. I just let them dance whatever dance they want to dance, which is exactly the dance they do not want to do with their husbands.

—And when they go back to their husbands, are they better with them? Is that what you think?

—I doubt their husbands can tell the difference.

—And when you are tired of them? my sister asked.

—They get tired of me.

—They do?

— One day they cannot make the date and the next time they do not call, or they blow me a kiss as they get on the elevator. Or they bring up some reference to their husbands, or suggest how we might “better our relationship.” That, too, is a way of being tired of me. Sometimes I see them on the Plaza and we nod. I spot them from my balcony. Once in a while they call, but it is usually after months; one called after more than a year. They come back for the memory of it. There is usually sex. But we know it will not continue. By then, I have replaced them. They must come on a Friday or a Monday. Some never return.

—I see, my sister said.

I think my sister is trying to decide if she wants to say something about Hazen. She has been trying to decide this for a number of weeks now; sometimes she gets close; sometimes it is a passing thought. Today she is close.

—Do you…? I asked.

—No. But tell me about that printer in your office.

—It’s a Thor for books. Or a gun over the fireplace for what I’m designing these days.

—You’re being some e-word our mother used, she said.

—Enigmatic?

—Yes.

 

A Broadside of Talk

Between the time Jo arrived and Bottle James and Tina showed up, Jo stopped standing in the driveway saying I’d fucked her without a rubber and came into the house where she sat down with my sister. After a few beers, the two of them started talking about how they were both pregnant. They talked as if I were not in the room. I had been there before. I don’t remember saying much for two hours.

—Just raise the kid yourself, Jo said at one point after my sister had explained Aunt Lillian’s plan. You need a dead husband like you need a live one.

—I don’t have the nerve, my sister said. I couldn’t. What are you going to do?

—Abortion, said Jo. I just want your brother to pay for it. Even if it isn’t his. Somebody’s got to pay and it’s not going to be me. Men are the fuckers, but I don’t have to be the fuckee.

—But that’s a life, my sister said. Why not raise the child like you’re telling me to?

—I don’t want to, Jo said. The reason I’m telling you to is because you want to. I’m saying you can have the child, but you don’t need the man. I can tell you don’t want the man.

—How can you tell that? my sister said.

—Marry him.

My sister hesitated.

—That’s how, Jo said.

—But what about the baby? Your baby, said Elaine. Don’t you want it?

—You want me to give birth so you can take care of it? Is that what you’re saying?

—I’m not saying that. Not that at all. It’s just that abortion is. . .

—Illegal, said Jo.

—And wrong.

—For you. Not for me. Do you want me to tell you what’s wrong and right for you?

I see myself high in the Berkeley Hills with the wealth of the Bay below: I am a bump on a couch with a beer in my fist, listening to two women talk about themselves, about the lives growing in their wombs, about their choices, about the men in their lives, about men. That’s when I hear the horn of the Hudson.

—You coming in? I said to Tina.

—No.

—I know about you and Bottle James, I said.

—No you don’t.

—What do you mean?

—It’s not like you think. It’s not his fault.

—Whose fault is it?

—I want to go home. I should have never come here. I should have never let you talk to me that way on the phone. I should have never never ever ever let you talk to me that way over the phone.

—Why don’t you come in? I said. Get some sleep and we can deal with all this later.

—No.

—Where are you going to sleep?

—In the car.

And she did.

 

The Book of Rosetta

—What do you want me to do?

—Give the place a good scrubbing. Two days’ worth, I said. I’ll pay you double your wage.

—You pay me well enough, she said. When I’m not paid right, I’ll let you know and I’m not letting you know. Me and the Lord keep track of my wages.

—Go slow, make it sparkle, I said.

—Waldo says the place is low rent. What do you want with a low-rent place when you live high in the sky here? And you got that apartment next door doing nothing. I don’t ever see that anybody’s been there. You’d be better off doing your hanky-panky down that hallway and leaving this place clean for Jesus.

—Why?

—So you don’t soil your own nest, she said. Even a snake don’t soil its own nest. There’s two kinds of dirt and Jesus doesn’t like either one of them. Inside and outside dirt. You can be slick as a snake but you’ll get the nasties with all these woman coming in here Wednesdays. And not just where the doctor can cure you.

—I thought you didn’t like snakes, I said.

—You right about that, said Rosetta as she stopped dusting the plasma screen. They may be clean on the outside but they are full of cooties on the inside. That’s why God made them.

—Why?

—To fool a body. Just like you are fooling yourself with these women. They may be slick and shiny with perfume, but they are nasty for being here, and the Lord won’t have them in his heaven come the end. Which is just about near as far as I can tell with all those art kids running up and down the Plaza half naked half the time cheering in front of poor old Mister Franklin.

—What happened to ticks? I thought I was slick as a fat tick.

—What you do with them women I know, she said ignoring me. If you keep doing it the cooties on your insides will come out to your outsides and you’ll look like that bum on the creek thinking he’s a clock Or that bum you had a picture of on this here wall television.

In her dusting Rosetta takes special care with the television, studying the screen for streaks. Once I saw her looking at her reflection.

—And if you think these women are going to peel off their expensive undies in that low-rent house, you are running the train of your brain on the wrong track.

—Do you think cleanliness is next to godliness? I asked.

—We are all going to be dirt and worms, soon enough, so you got to get right with the Lord and that means you got to be clean inside and out for Jesus. It’s the dirt of your body you leave for the worms, so Jesus can have the clean sheet of your soul.

—Rosetta has done a good job, my sister said. Did you tell her to “make is sparkle.”

—I did.

We were standing in the kitchen. Thor is there.

—Flags, she called them, I said to my sister looking out the window at the Iris. I always wondered why she used that word.

—And shears for scissors, my sister said.

—Yes.

—How she always told us to leave something on our plates for the kitty. And we never had a cat, and every other mother was telling her kids to clean their plates because there were starving children in Korea.

I plugged in Thor. A series of lights came on. I opened the lid. Elaine turned away from the window. There is something she wants to say, but this time I don’t know what it is. Some cosmic vibration between us has been interrupted. Then:

—I have heard from Hazen, she said.

We walked to the end of the lot where Pretty’s grave is marked by a stone onto which Elaine had affixed her nametag.

—Here, she said getting a bandana out of her purse. I saved it for you. A little worse for wear, but I thought you might like it. I washed it after she died. “From two girls to you,” is what I am supposed to say. Will it do for a Hi Sign?

—Yes, I said.

It occurs to me that our lives—at least the story of our lives—has as much to do with others as with our parents. My sister knows my silences. She thinks I’m going to ask about Beth.

—Yes?

—I named Pretty for a girl I met at Uncle Conroy’s lab, I said.

—I’m not sure how I’d feel about getting a dog named for me. Did she know?

—I never told her. Like you, she was in love with Hazen.

We walked up the slight hill of the lot to the house. Inside we went our separate ways: me to my room in the basement, my sister to her room above me.

—Are you there? she said, her voice bouncing through the heating ducts so that by the time it gets to me it has something of our mother’s voice.

—More or less, I said.

Before we leave, I unplugged Thor. A series of lights go off. On our drive back we don’t talk until we get to the Plaza.

—How about dinner? Elaine said.

—Thank you, I said.

—That means no?

—Yes.

—Is it because of. . .

—No.

—Does that mean yes?

—Yes.

—Has Rosetta been talking to you about the end of the world? my sister asked.

—And the return of clocks, I said.

Then, just as we get to Ben Franklin:

—Lillian is pregnant, Elaine said.

We both know this is not “added.” But not subtracted either.

—Does Gerhard know?

—No.

—Do I?

—Yes.

—I’ll walk over for a drink later, I said.

—Thank you.

 

Beth Brookings: The Curator

During a meeting at the Nelson, the curator of Beth’s show asked if it was true I had been at Berkeley in the sixties.

—Yes.

I thought she was about to ask me if I had known Beth Brookings, but she did not. Nor did anyone ask if I was familiar with Beth’s work. In business—even the artistic business—you proceed along non-expository lines: the missing links of our pictorial narrative: the designer’s dramatic irony at work.

We were studying the prints of the show’s canvases. Before they had traveled to Santa Fe there had been a small debate about flying to San Francisco to look at the paintings themselves in order to judge the quality of the reproductions, but most thought it was not the kind of expense the museum business office would approve. However, the curator had suggested I could amend my contract and include a trip for myself, and by this device it might be approved. I understood that she would be pleased to accompany me.

—I noticed two paintings are called “Doctors at Mels,” she said.

—Yes, I said.

—But there are no figures in them. Just coffee cups and a counter. A Hopper counter. With a Bonnard background. No doctors. And the cups are all on curiously large, colored pottery plates. Dinner plates I would have thought them to be. With numbers beside each plate where a napkin might go. And the frames are the backside of the stretchers with Omega workshop-like drawings on them. And text: Ne pas bitching on one. Giniff on another. Curious.

—That’s true, I said.

—Do you think we have the wrong title for this series? Maybe it goes with another series she has not sent us. Or maybe the doctors are in the rest of a mural.

I like it when someone other than my sister thinks I am hiding something. The Curator is lovely. Thin lipped. Some cosmic vibration tells me she likes good jazz. I am told she is an expert on Benton.

—Maybe I should call Ms. Brookings before I make the page designs for this section, I said. Do you have a phone number in California? Or an e-mail address?

— I’ll get them for you before you go.

The rest of the meeting concerned the instructions for setting up A Painter’s Room of My Own.

I placed the card on which Beth’s phone number, e-mail address, and Berkeley street address had been written in an envelope and mailed it to myself at the City Lights Bookstore. On it I wrote: “Please Hold”. Before I sent it I did not read its contents. I put no return address. Its absence from my apartment is yet another sign.

In today’s mail came a poster tube with a letter rolled inside. There was a return address: Emporia State University, Emporia, Kansas, xxxxxx

 

No Mail, No Turtle: A Self-Help Religion

One day I drove to the City Lights Bookstore to see if I had any mail. I did not.

—Hey, said Lawrence Ferlenghetti. You’re the doctor man. You still have the book I gave you?

—Yes. Right here.

I took it out of my back blue jean pocket.

—I told you it would be a fit, he said.

— A friend of mine and I read “America” in the basement of the Berkeley Public Library.

—That’s the place to read it.

— My friend says you’re a poet.

—Your friend is good to say so.

—Published? I asked.

—Self published, he said. You want my poems? I give you my poems.

He went behind the counter and got a small black-and-white book off the shelf.

—Will you sign it?

—Sure. “The Doctor of City Lights” How’s that?

—Thank you, I said.

—Next time you come over, he said, look for an envelope addressed to “The Doctor of City Lights.”

—For me?

—Yes. You’ll see. From a friend of mine.

I drove Austen to the bench at the old Oakland Naval Yard where I had stopped with Beth. There I read Coney Island of the Mind. No turtle passed by.

—What is this? said Red Boa Rachel.

—A book of poetry, I said. She opened it.

—Are you a doctor? I thought you were a writer or something like that.

We were having coffee; soon she will pick up her son at his day school. She does not want to be late.

—I write medical books, I said.

—I don’t “get” poetry, she said. Only that it is prose that doesn’t go all the way across the page. That’s what my English teacher taught us. And this?

—A religious book.

Ta-Bid, I’ve never heard of it. Is it a self-help religion?

—Yes.

—And written by hand. Is it a copy? But of course it must be a copy.

—It is the original, I said.

She was thumbing through it. When I said it was the original, she stopped.

—The original, she said. From when?

—The sixties, I said.

She was trying to guess which sixties: the first sixties? She is the kind of woman who, when puzzled, moves on.

—Next week, I cannot come, she said getting up, her coffee cup in hand. But the week after, I could come later in the afternoon and we could have dinner, and I can stay the night because I am supposed to be out of town for the Arts Council meeting and I don’t really have to be in St. Louis until noon the next day.

—I am sorry, I said, but that is the night the Society of Ta-Bid meets, and since I have the original I am obliged to attend.

She looked at the book. She turned to look at herself in the mirror behind the couch. She is a stylish woman: tall, dark-red hair. Green eyes. She has made herself out of Town and Country. An accidental retro. She probably doesn’t think she can do better for a lover. She can. I hope soon she will.

—I’ll see you the week after that, then, she said. I’ll bring some wine from the Better Cheddar. A friend of mine says they have a new Italian champagne.

—Yes, I said.

My guess is she will call to cancel and, save for now and then when she is walking on the Plaza, I will not see her again. If she doesn’t cancel, I will. Besides, she’s picked the wrong Wednesday.

—Goodbye, she said.

—Goodbye, I said.

She blew me a kiss from the elevator as the doors closed.

After she left, I paged through The Illuminated Manuscript of Ta-Bid and read:

And They Shall Not Go In Peace

There shall NOT be prohibited by the Flaymen speculation about the dual nature of Ta-Bid. Especially allowed shall be the question of the hyphen; and sects that dispense with the hyphen are encouraged to develop; as are those who run the names together, as in “Tabid;” or sects that separate the names by a comma, as in “Ta,Bid;” or those that make a capital for both names; or for one. Let a myriad sects of Ta-Bid, Ta,Bid, tabid, TaBid flourish in the name of Ta-Bid, and be in conflict over it if it shall come to pass that the members of the Ta-Bid stray from the original orgasmic message of Ta-Bid and begin persecuting one another in every fashion that can be learned by consulting the texts of other religions. In this way, an Anti Ta-Bid shall flourish and be in brotherhood with fellow religions of the world. And they shall NOT go in peace.

In some of this I recognized my “embellishments.”

 

A Letter from the Present

“Dear Mr.   _________,

My mother died last year of ovarian cancer, number four. I live in the house where you and your roommate lived when my mother was alive. Which is where she lived when she was alive. My father died in the Vietnam War and I never met him. I live in my mother’s old room and I do not rent the others, except the garage where you and your roommate lived, I was told. After she died, I was cleaning out her house and found the enclosed certificate.

My mother said she liked you a lot, but that she didn’t much like your roommate who was always drunk. I work at the college in the Alumni Office where you are not listed, except in a computer file labeled To Be Found. If you want me to change that to Found, it will then be moved to the SAL (Standard Alumni List) after it is confirmed that you are you. Then you will get our mailings about reunions, weddings, death and births, and other bonding events. Unless you don’t want to.

I have not been over to the History Department to see if your name is on the Humbolt plaque but I called Linda the secretary there and she said it is. That was a long time ago. Congratulations!

If you want to know more, write me back and I will tell you. I hope you are who I think you are otherwise none of this will make any sense and in that case would you send the award back? Thank you.

Cheers,

Dustina

 

Concentrating the Mind

—I know this “concentrating the mind” business means death, my sister said. It’s a famous saying from someplace.

—We’re all dying, I said.

—That’s not what you meant, she said.

—Suppose I told you I have the same disease that father did.

—Do you? she said.

—No.

—Would you tell me? she said.

—No.

—Then why tell me anything at all? she said. What’s the point? Just to pass the time of day before you go back to whichever wife it is today?

—Today’s Tuesday.

—O.K. Tomorrow. Who is it?

—If I told you, would you believe me?

—No, she said.

—It’s Muff.

—So, here we are, my very distinguished movie star looking and helpful brother, the man who has seen me through all kinds of crises from my illegitimate pregnancy complete with a legitimate birth, to my daughter’s illegitimate pregnancy with a pending legitimate abortion—seen me through all this and more with nothing but the finest and most patient counsel and now, sitting here in the reVerse on a non-wife Tuesday, I am told he is either dying or not dying and that he is either having or not having an affair with my new best friend. Have I got the soap opera right? Maybe we should call doctor Jo.

—I’m dying of ennui, I said. And I am your best friend. New or old.

—You don’t study “ennui” the first two years at Vassar. How do you get it?

—From yourself.

—Don’t be enigmatic just because you read books all the time and looked up our mother’s words, my sister said. Now tell me in plain Country Club Plaza lunch language, what is ennui?

—It’s the opposite of angst. I said.

—Now we’re getting somewhere. I know about angst. Muff LaRue, who is not my new best friend, and who you are not seeing tomorrow—or maybe you are—is all the time talking about angst. She has angst over her husband. She has angst over her flower garden. She has angst over Charles—that’s her oldest son—who she thinks is gay. She has angst over politics. She has angst over angst. What should I tell her?

—Tell her you don’t have angst “over” something, not even angst. Tell her that if you have angst, angst has you. If she doesn’t understand, she doesn’t have angst and is probably not very interesting. If she smiles, tell her I have tomorrow free into which she may or may not already be scheduled.

—How about we return to the question of your death and dying? Elaine said. There was a course in it at Vassar. But it seemed to me they had it backwards. Shouldn’t it be dying and death?

—It’s a matter of the verbal rhythm, I said. If you have angst, death comes before dying.

—And you’re going to tell me that if you have ennui, dying comes before death.

—More or less at the same time, I said.

—I don’t believe you.

Behind her passed Muff LaRue. She saw me but did not stop.

—Bottle James again? said my sister.

—Yes, I said.

—I don’t believe you, she said and turned around to look.

But Muff was gone.

—I saw you yesterday with Elaine, said Muff when she finally settled down.

The day had begun with sunshine but turned cold and windy. When Muff came in she had a blossom in her hair, toward the back on the right side.

—I saw you as well, I said. You should have stopped.

She was reconsidering our afternoon; probably she has been reconsidering it for some time and thought about calling me to say she would not be here today. She has taken off her coat; it is resting on her lap.

— You two seemed in deep conversation, she said. I have gotten a bottle of wine and two glasses. Muff has brought me nothing: no flowers, nothing from the Better Cheddar—no soap from the French shop down the street.

I imagine two of my wives standing at the counter, one with Marius Fabre Lavande, the other with two blue boxes of Floris “Rose Geranium.” They smile. “Gifts?” says one. “Yes. And you?” “Yes,” she says. “I have a friend who likes soap,” she says. “Me, too, the other one says. They both understand the word “friend.” “Cleanliness is next to. . .” they say in unison, and laugh at themselves. One day, between their Wednesdays, they will lunch together.

—My sister and I were talking about angst, I said.

—What? Muff said.

She was fiddling with her coat.

—My sister and I were talking about angst, I said again, pouring her a glass of wine as I passed behind her, tempted, but not yielding, to remove the blossom from her hair.

—I have it, you know, she said. I’ve told her about it. I have a bit of it now, she said. I’m not sure I should . . . I don’t really quite know what I’m doing here. When did we first meet again? Last fall? I’ve been thinking about you ever since. Maybe I shouldn’t have called.

Obvious exposition is an early symptom of angst.

—I have ennui, I said.

—What’s that? she said.

—It’s a French malady.

—I’ve heard of it, she said. Is it like depression?

Her angst was fading.

—Not at all, I said. More an amusing boredom.

—You don’t seem sick, she said, looking at me while taking a sip of wine. In fact I was thinking just yesterday when I saw you at the reVerse how healthy you look. Has anyone ever told you that you look like a movie star? I think he’s dead.

—No, I said.

—Where may I put this? she said moving her coat off her lap.

—I’ll hang it up for you, I said.

—Tell me about ennui—is that how you pronounce it? And I’ll tell you about angst and we’ll have a good time. What’s this? she said.

—A blossom, I said. It has been in your hair. From a dogwood, I think.

—All this time?

—Yes.

— And you didn’t tell me?

—That’s ennui for you, I said. It doesn’t want to contribute to angst.

When she laughs, a deep throaty laugh, she climbs out of the pool, golden in the light of an elegant moon.

 

Our Blank de Blanche Design Proposal: Six of X

1. Title: Ennui vs. Angst

A. Single sheet of unnumbered 8/12 x 11 typewriter paper.

B. Typeface for text: Currier

C. Half-Title Page: Humbolt Award.

D. Front Piece: America

C. Text as follows:

“Dear Mr. ___________,

          My mother died last year of ovarian cancer, number four.

 

— Robert Day
Bookbinding header, color-001

Robert Day’s most recent book is Where I Am Now, a collection of short fiction published by the University of Missouri-Kansas City BookMark Press. Booklist wrote: “Day’s smart and lovely writing effortlessly animates his characters, hinting at their secrets and coyly dangling a glimpse of rich and story-filled lives in front of his readers.” And Publisher’s Weekly observed: “Day’s prose feels fresh and compelling making for warmly appealing stories.”

The novel banners at top and bottom are by Bruce Hiscock.

Feb 072014
 

Desktop33-001Julián Herbert

Julián Herbert is a brash, exciting, young Mexican novelist, poet and musician, and it’s a special honour to be able to publish on NC this excerpt from his 2011 novel Canción de Tumba (Song of the Tomb), a fiction based loosely on his childhood, his mother (who died of leukemia in 2008), and their impoverished, wandering life in the 1970s and 80s. As the translator, Brendan Riley, points out, the language here is neither artfully embellished nor romanticized; but the text is packed with story, casual violence, large personalities, and the tragicomedy of life. A terrific read, it wakes you up, does what fiction ought to do, make the world seem vibrant and flash with energy, even the saddest things seem grand.

dg

I find value in Julián Herbert’s words because they feel true, they relate a powerful variety of suffering and marginal behavior without surrendering to melodrama or getting stuck on the sentimental flypaper that makes some pages of Jean Genet, Henry Miller, Nelson Algren, or even, Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, pretty overwrought. To take a more contemporary, and Latin American example, Antonio Ungar’s Tres Ataudes Blancos is a terrifying novel, but it’s also a leering, artful dodger of a book which flexes its literary technique with real panache. With Julián Herbert I feel more like I’m in the pages of something like Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs; with no need for guile, Herbert simply shows us the sad, sordid life he was forced to endure as a prostitute’s child, and this is what gives the story its power.

All writers reassemble the past but there is not a jot here that feels unlikely or necessarily embellished. Life routinely outstrips fiction. By comparison, a highly stylized, smoothly poetic story like Roberto Bolaño’s “Prefiguration of Lalo Cura”, whose narrator recalls the life of his porn actress mother, feels crammed, baroque, and cloying. Maybe therein lies an authentic difference between pornography and real prostitution. Bolaño’s story is comically blue, making fun of the weird toil involved in committing sex to celluloid. “Mama Leukemia” succeeds by way of its hard, simple, realism: the exhausted prostitute taking her boy to the market in the morning, a family having all its belongings repossessed, surviving for three years in a self-constructed cinderblock hut with a cardboard roof.

—Brendan Riley

 

You only get one mother. And I sure got one.
Armando J. Guerra

1

Mama was born on December 12, 1942 in the city of San Luis Potosí. Predictably, she was named Guadalupe. Guadalupe Chávez Moreno. Nevertheless, she assumed –in part to give herself an aura of mystery, in part because she perceived her existence as a criminal event– an endless number of aliases throughout the years. She changed her name with the same insouciance with which another woman might dye or curl her hair.  Sometimes, when she took her kids to visit her narco friends in Nueva Italia, or her volatile aunts-in-law in Matamoros or Villa de la Paz, or the old señoritas in Irapuato for whom she’d been a maid after she ran away from my grandmother’s house (there’s a photo: she’s fourteen years old, her hair is cropped very short, and she’s wearing a blouse with appliqués which she ironed onto the cloth herself), she’d give us instructions:

“Here my name is Lorena Menchaca; my cousin is the famous karate expert.”

“People in this place call me Vicky.”

“Around here I go by Juana, like your grandma.”

(My grandmother, usually, called her Condenada Maldita –that is, “Goddamned little bitch from hell”– as she gripped her by her hair to drag her across the patio, smashing her face against the flowerpots.) Her most consistent identity was “Marisela Acosta.” That was the name my mother used for decades when she made a living as a prostitute. I don’t know in which moment exactly she became Marisela; that’s how she was known when I met her. She was very beautiful: very small and slender, with her long straight hair falling down to her waist, her well-built body, and some shamelessly lucent indigenous features. She was a little over thirty but looked closer to twenty. Very much the go-go girl: ample hips, nicely rounded buttocks, and a flat stomach all which she used to her advantage, wearing only jeans with a wide scarf crossed over her lean breasts and knotted in the back. Sometimes she pulled her hair back into a ponytail, put on some sunglasses and, taking me by the hand, led me through the dark, squalid streets of Acapulco’s red light district –at seven in the morning, while the last drunks staggered out of La Huerta or Pepe Carioca, and women wrapped in towels leaned out on the metallic sills of tiny rooms to call me “cutie” –to the market stalls along Canal Street. With the spleen and exquisite abandon of a sleepless whore, she would buy me a Chocomilk shake and two coloring books.

All the men eyeing her.

But she was with me.

There, five years old, satisfied, I made the acquaintance of this nightmare: the avarice of being the owner of something that you’ll never manage to comprehend.

 

2

As a boy I was called Favio Julián Herbert Chávez. Now, however, in the civil registry office in  Chilpancingo, they insist that’s not the case: the official register reads “Flavio”, whether thanks to some wicked mischief of my parents or because of some error by the old or new bureaucrats, I really don’t know: I can’t manage to distinguish (among the tons of crappy government propaganda and the hypocritical “¡Viva la familia!” video clips broadcast by Televisa. What family? The country’s one and only happy Family with roots in Michoacán is a clan of narcotraffickers whose members are experts in decapitation) between one and another. When it came time to renew my passport and my voter registration, I was required to use that name, “Flavio”. Thus all my childhood memories come, fatally, with a misprint. My memory is a hand-lettered cardboard sign posted on the outskirts of a modern airport equipped with Prodigy Mobile, a Sanborns department store, and a Casa de Bolsa bank office: “Welcomb to México”.

I was born on January 20, 1971, in the city and port of Acapulco de Juárez, in the state of Guerrero. At the age of four I met my first corpse: a drowned man. At five, my first guerilla: my godmother Jesu’s younger brother Kito, who was serving time for bank robbery. According to the nomadic conditions which my mother’s profession imposed on our family, I spent my early childhood traveling from one Mexican city to another, from one pimp to the next. Year after year,  armed with a burning patience, I traveled from the deep south until reaching the splendid cities of the north.

I thought that I’d never manage to escape the country. I thought that I’d never not be poor. I’ve worked –and here, with no desire to offend, I paraphrase an illustrious Mexican statesman, a prime example of our sublime national idiosyncrasy– doing things that even blacks would refuse. I’ve had seven wives –Aída, Sonia, Patricia, Ana Sol, Anabel, Lauréline, and Monica– and very few occasional lovers. I’ve fathered two sons: Jorge, who is now almost seventeen (he was born when I was twenty-one), and Arturo, who will soon turn fifteen. I’m going to be a father for the third time in September, exactly one year before the bicentennial: no one can ever accuse me of being unpatriotic. I’ve been a cocaine addict throughout the course of some of the happiest and most atrocious times of my life: I know how it feels to surf upon the shoulders of what Dexter Morgan called “the dark passenger”.

Once I helped to recover a dead body from the highway; I’ve smoked crystal meth using a lightbulb for a pipe; I did a fifteen day tour as a vocalist for a rock group; I attended university and studied literature; I’ve swallowed absinthe until I was blind drunk while making the rounds through the Spandau quarter of Berlin; I smuggled a chunk of opium through customs in Havana, Cuba, by distracting the officer with my t-shirt for the Industriales baseball team; I lost the school learning achievement competition whose prize was getting to meet Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado; I’m left-handed. None of those things prepared me for the news that my mother was dying from leukemia. None of those things reduced the sordidness of the forty days and nights I spent in vigil by her bedside, Noah plowing a flood of blood chemistry, caring for her and hating her, seeing her grow feverish to the point of asphyxiation, watching as she went bald.

I’m the sort who travels, swollen with vertigo, from the south to the north. I’ve followed a return path back from the ruins of the ancient civilization towards the conquest of a Second Coming of the Barbarians: Free Market; u.s.a. ; your motherfucking mother’s dying day.

 

3

I don’t have much experience with death. I suppose that could eventually present a serious logistical problem. I should have practiced with some junkie cousin of mine or some grandmother with a weak heart. But no. I regret to say that I lack experience. When it happens, I’ll end up making my debut in the Big Leagues: burying Mama.

One day I was playing my guitar when someone knocked on the door. It was the neighbor. She was sobbing.

“We’d like to ask you to stop playing your guitar. Cuquín got run over by a Coca-Cola truck. It killed him. We’ve been holding a vigil for him in the house for sometime now.”

I was fifteen, a useless layabout. I did them the courtesy to stop playing. Instead I slipped on my Walkman and switched on “Born in the USA.”

After a while, someone knocked again, insistently. It was my friend and namesake, the neighbor woman’s son and dead boy’s older brother. He said:

“Come with me to buy some bags of ice.”

I put on a t-shirt –it was summer: in the 117˚ summer in the Coahuila desert, people live inside their houses semi-naked–, I hopped over the fence and walked with him to the beer distributor.

He explained to me:

“He’s starting to smell. But Mama and Papa are pretending not to notice.”

We bought four bags of ice. As we walked back, my namesake stopped on the corner and started to cry. I embraced him. We stayed that way a long time. Then we picked up the bags and I accompanied him to his house. Shouts and cries floated out from inside. I helped him carry the bags to the porch, bid him good afternoon, and I went back to my headphones. I remember that episode today because something similar happened to me the other night: I went out to buy water at the Oxxo convenience store across from the hospital where my mother is a patient. Returning, I noticed a pedestrian having difficulty dodging the traffic in the street. In one moment, just before reaching the spot where I was standing, he stopped between two cars. The car horns flared up blaring instantly. I set my bottles of water down on the sidewalk, went to his side, and I gently pulled him towards the curb. When he felt my hand, he slid both his arms round my neck and began to cry, murmuring something bout his chiquita –his little girl–; I didn’t know if he meant his daughter or his wife. He asked if I could give him a telephone card. I gave it to him. There’ s something repugnant in the embrace of a person crying about death: they hang on to you as if you were a hunk of meat. I don’t know a thing about death. I only know about mortification.

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4

When I was a little boy I wanted to be a scientist or a doctor. A man in a white coat. Sooner rather than later I discovered my lack of aptitude. It took me years to accept the fact that the Earth is round. Better to say, I wasn’t able to think about the Earth as a sphere. For a long time I only pretended to agree. Once in school –one of many: I attended eight different elementary schools– I stood in front of the class and explained, without stage fright, the movements of transit and rotation. Inspired by the textbook’s diagram, I used an orange decorated with blue crayon, and graphically illustrated these processes by piercing it with a pencil. I tried to memorize the illusory accounts, the hours and the days, the sun’s transit; the segments of each rotation. But, inside, no: I lived with that proud and lucid anguish that brought more than a few heresiarchs to die eviscerated at the hands of Saint Augustine. It was Mama’s fault: we traveled so much that for me the Earth was a gigantic basin circumscribed in all directions by railroad tracks. Curving tracks, straight, circular, elevated, subterranean. Ferrous and floating atmospheres that made one think of a disaster movie with sundering, crashing polar ice. Confines dark and inescapable as a tunnel, celestial as a cliff in Tarahumara, crackling as an alfalfa field upon which the sleeping stamp their feet. Sometimes, atop a rock or killing time atop a cliff along the Avenida Costera Miguel Alemán in Acapulco, I looked towards the sea and seemed to see rattling yellow train cars and diesel engines with the “N de M” emblem, more spectral than the breeze. Sometimes, at night, looking out a small train car window, I imagined that the glowworms under a bridge were those neighboring galaxies my older brother talked about. Sometimes, while I slept next to Mama, stretched out in a metallic hallway or hunched against a hard wooden seat, the whistle warned me that we were on the edge, that we might plunge into hyperspace. One day, while the train stopped in Paredón to change tracks, I reached the conclusion that the planet’s size and shape changed with each passing instant. This all sounds stupid, of course. It fills me with a monstrous sorrow. It makes me feel sorry, most of all, for Mama. Now that I see her completely wasted away in that bed, immobile, surrounded by translucent bottles of VenoPax stained with dry blood. With enormous bruises on both arms, needles, pieces of blue and yellow plastic and tiny BIC pen letters on the adhesive tape: Tempra 1g, Ceftzidime, Citarabine, Anthrcycline, Ciprofloxacin, Doxorubicin, poisonous solutions they shoot into her, mixed in black bags to protect them from the light. Crying because her most beloved and most hated child –the only one who could ever save her from her nightmares, the only one at whom she’s ever shouted “You’re not my son anymore, you bastard, you’re no better than a rabid dog”– has to spoonfeed her, see her withered breasts while changing her robe, carry her dead weight to the bath and listen (and smell, oh, how she hates smells) to how she shits. Without strength. Drunk from three blood transfusions. Walled away behind her surgical mask, waiting for them to remove a bone marrow sample.

I regret not having been, because of her (thanks to her hysterical life of traveling across the whole blessed country in search of a house or a lover or a job or some happiness, none of which ever existed in this Suave Patria––this Gentle Motherland), a model son; one capable of believing in the roundness of the Earth. Scientist or doctor. A man in a white coat who might be able to explain something to her. To recite something to her. To console her with a little bit of experience and wisdom and impressive medical machinery amid this hour in which her body shudders with wheezing and panic in the face of death.

 

5

In my final year of adolescence, at the age of sixteen, there was a second cadaver in my neighborhood. I didn’t dare to look at its coffin because, even now, I retain the sensation of having formed part of a shady plan for his murder. His name was David Durand Ramírez. He was younger than I was. He died on a September day in 1987, at eight o’clock in the morning, shot with a .22 caliber automatic pistol. His unfortunate death influenced my family to emigrate to Saltillo, and for me to study literature and choose a profession and, eventually, to sit myself down on leukemia’s balcony to narrate the sad and incredible account of my mother’s life. But, in order to explain how David Durand’s passing marked my life, I have to begin several years earlier. All this happened in Ciudad Frontera, a town of some fifteen or twenty thousand people which sprang up around the metalworking industry in Monclova, Coahuila. In that town, my family experienced its years of greatest ease as well as its whole catalog of indignities.

We moved there after the brothels in Lázaro Cárdenas went belly up. Mama took us there in search of sympathetic magic: she thought that with its flourishing iron and steel industry, the bonanza times we enjoyed in Lázaro Cárdenas would return to grace our home, the times before the Dry Law imposed by one of the most conservative PRI politicians of those years: Governor Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas Solórzano.

At first, she wasn’t wrong: in a brothel called Los Magueyes she met Don Ernesto Barajas, an old cattleman from the area. He began to visit her regularly, like any other whore, but as the months went by he began to realize that Mama wasn’t stupid: she read a lot, possessed a rare talent for mathematics, and –however absurd this might sound– she was a woman of unbreakable principles. She was, above all, incorruptible when it came to talking about finances –something that in this country makes a person practically a foreigner.

Don Ernesto hired her to be his eyes and ears in a few business ventures: a different brothel, and the town’s only gas station. He offered her a decent salary and affectionate treatment (which did not prevent him, after four tequilas, from slipping his hand into her pants; advances she had to manage to avoid without losing her composure or her job).

Marisela Acosta was happy. She trained her children to take care of each other so she wouldn’t have to shell out any more money for neurotic nannies. She rented a house with three bedrooms and a small patio. She acquired some furniture and a shoddy, sky-blue Ford. She brought black soil cultivated at a nursery in Lamadrid and with it sowed, at the end of the property, a small plot of carrots that never grew. Our neighborhood sported an ominous name: El Alacrán –the Scorpion. But, however stuffy it might sound, (and it will: what more could be expected from a story set in la Suave Patria?), we lived at the corner of Progreso y Renacimiento –Progress and Renaissance. There, between 1979 and 1981, our childhood unfolded: my mother’s and my own.

Then came the crisis of `82 and, within my childish pantheon, José López Portillo entered the ranks of posterity as (these are my mother’s words) El Gran Hijo de Puta – “The Great Son of a Bitch”. Don Ernesto Barajas gave up on suburban business ventures; he went back to livestock and let Marisela go. We kept the house but once again began to move from place to place: Acapulco, Oaxaca, San Luis, Ciudad Juárez, Sabinas, Laredo, Victoria, Miguel Alemán. Mama tried, for the umpteenth time, to earn a living working as a seamstress in a Teycon clothing factory in Monterrey. But the pay was criminal and they only hired her part time, two or three shifts a week. So she ended up returning to the daytime brothels on Villagrán Street, sordid dives which by mid-morning were overflowing with soldiers and lawyers more interested in the drag-queens than in the women, a fact which gave the competition a violent and miserable air.

Soon it was impossible to keep paying the rent on the house. At the end of `83 they evicted us and repossessed all our personal belongings. Almost all: by express petition the actuary allowed me to keep a few books before the police loaded our junk into the moving truck. I took the two fattest books: the Aguilar edition of The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, and Volume 13 of the New Thematic Encyclopedia (Literature has always been good to me: if I had to return to that instant knowing what I know now, I’d choose the very same books). We spent three years in absolute misery. Mama had acquired a small bit of property on some disputed communal lands, but we possessed nothing more on that plot of land than dead cacti, a few little sand dunes, enough gravel to fill half a truck, two bags of cement, and three hundred cinder blocks. We built a tiny room about as high as my shoulder, without any foundation, atop which we laid sheets of cardboard for a roof. We had neither water nor drainage nor light. My older brother Jorge quit high school and found work shoveling corn flour in the tortilla factory of an industrial cafeteria. Saíd and I sang on buses for spare change.

After a year, Jorge exploded: he grabbed some clothes and left the house. He was seventeen. We received word from him again on his twenty-third birthday: they’d just named him shift manager in the Vidafel Hotel in Puerto Vallarta. He made it clear in his letter that it was only a temporary job.

“I was born in Mexico by mistake,” he told me once. “But one of these days I’m going to fix that once and for all.”

And he did: before he turned thirty he emigrated to Japan, where he still lives.

I can’t talk about myself nor about my mother without recalling those days: not for the pathos and sadness, but because it’s about our own curious Mexican version of The Dhammapada. Or, better yet and more vulgar, our version of the mystical kung fu film The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. Three years of extreme poverty don’t destroy you. On the contrary: they awaken a certain kind of visceral lucidity. By singing on the intercity buses which transported the workers from the Ahmsa steel company back to the bone-dry archipelago of the neighboring towns (San Buenaventura, Nadadores, Cuatro Ciénegas, Lamadrid, Sacramento) Saíd and I got to know the almost crystalline sand dunes, black and white hills, deep walnut groves, a river called Cariño – which means “darling”–, fossilized pools of water with stromatolites and box turtles with shell patterns like giraffes…. We had our own money. We ate whatever we felt like. As runs the verse with which we concluded all our performances: esto que yo ando haciendo, es porque no quiero robar, which means “I sing for my meals because I’d rather not steal.” We learned to think like artists: we were selling a part of the landscape. Sometimes the howling wind was our Coahuiltecan version of the simoom, blowing so strong that it ripped the cardboard covering right off our shack. Then Saíd and I would go running after our roof spinning and flying away down the middle of the street.

Between 1986 (when Mexico hosted the World Cup) and 1987 (the year when David Durand died), things improved: we rented a house, bought some furniture, and slowly, gradually re-entered the class of “poor but honorable people.” Save that Marisela Acosta, without the majority of the neighbors knowing it, had to spend four nights a week in the brothels in Monterrey, trying to earn enough money so she could send us to school.

I was in my first year of high school and, despite the shame of half the town having known me as a child beggar, I’d managed little by little to make friends with the Durands –a blond family of French descent, without much money but quite popular.

One night Gonzalo Durand asked me to accompany him to La Acequia. He was going to buy a pistol.

Gonzalo was a kind of alpha male for our street corner gang that met at night to smoke marijuana and try to flirt with the junior high school girls. Not only was he the oldest: he was also the best fighter, and the only one who had a good, dependable job: he operated the desulphurization unit in Furnace Five at Ahmsa. He’d just turned nineteen. The age of armed fantasies.

Adrian and I were the ones chosen to share his rite of passage. In an illegal, unregistered `74 Maverick we headed straight over to the next neighborhood. First they offered him a revolver; in a thick pasty voice –surely from being stoned off his ass on cough syrup– the seller called the Smith & Wesson a Mita y Hueso. Then they showed Gonzalo the small automatic pistol. He fell in love with it right away. He bought it.

The next day, Adrián came to see me and he said:

“Something terrible’s happened: Gonzalo fired the gun by accident and killed Güerillo while he was sleeping.”

The first image that came to my head was ominous: Gonzalo, sleepwalking, murdering his family… But no: Gonzalo had come off the third shift and, sleepless and anxious, hurried home, climbed into his bunk, and started to clean his pistol. A bullet had slipped into the chamber. Gonzalo, who didn’t understand weapons, didn’t even notice. At some moment, the pistol slipped out of his hands. Trying to grab it, he accidentally fired. The bullet struck his little brother, who was sleeping in the bunk below, piercing his belly.

David Durand must have been how old? Fourteen? One time he’d run away with his girlfriend. Maybe because he wanted to get married. Both their parents beat the hell out of them.

Adrian and I attended the funeral, but we didn’t have the nerve to go to the wake. We feared that at any moment someone might ask us: “Where did that bastard get himself a pistol?”

Gonzalo was in jail, I think, for a couple months. That was the last I heard about him. Mama said to me, very serious:

“You’ll be sorry if I ever catch you looking at guns or hanging out again with those scumbags.”

The rest of the year went by. One day, shortly before Christmas, Mama came home very early, with alcohol still on her breath. Saíd and I were sleeping in the same bed, clutching each other against the cold. She turned on the light, sat down next to us, and sprinkled a light rain of wrinkled bills down on our heads. Her makeup looked clownish, and a small red wound stood out on her forehead.

She said: “Let’s go.”

And just like that, without packing or taking apart the house, we fled the town of my childhood.

Occasionally I return to Monclova to give a lecture or to attend a book launch. Sometimes we drive along the edge of Ciudad Frontera, on the way to the swimming holes at Cuatro Cienegas, or to pick pomegranates at Mario’s and Mabel’s ranch in Lamadrid.  As we drive along the Carlos Salinas de Gotari beltway, I tell Mónica: “I spent my childhood on the other side of this airport.” She replies: “Let’s go see it.” I tell her no.

What for?

 

6

I leave the hospital after keeping vigil for 36 hours. Monica comes to get me. The light of day looks harsh, like the air has been sprayed with filthy powdered milk. Monica says that she’s gathering together all the bills to see if they’re tax deductible; that my ex-boss promised to cover, through the Institute of Culture, at least part of the expenses; that Maruca has been behaving herself but that she misses me terribly; that the garden, the kapok tree, and the jacaranda have been freshly watered. I don’t understand what she is saying (I don’t manage to make the connection) but I answer yes to everything. Exhaustion. To sleep fitfully on a chair without armrests you need a rope dancer’s agility and the fury of an off-kilter madman, far from the wall and very close to the reggaeton broadcast on the radio from the nurses’ station: mírala mírala cómo suda y cómo ella se desnuda ella no sabe que a mí se me partió la tuba. – “Look at her look at how she sweats how she strips she don’t know how it made me so hard my horn just split”. A voice inside my head woke me up in the middle of the night. It was saying: “Don’t be afraid. Nothing that might be yours comes from you.” I rubbed my neck and closed my eyes again: I supposed that it must be some greedy peddler’s koan recited by the TV astrologer and medium Mizada Mohamed on the television set in the next room. It’s not reality that makes one cynical; it’s how hard it is to get to sleep in the city.

We make it home. Monica opens the big garage door, parks and locks the Atos inside, and says:

“If you want, after lunch, you can come for a while to the garden to read and just sit in the sun.”

I’d like to tease my wife for saying such prissy things. But I’ve got no strength. Besides, the sun is falling on my face with a palpable bliss. On the freshly watered grass. On the leaves of the jacaranda… I tumble down and lie on the grass. Maruca, our dog, gambols out to say hello to me. I close my eyes. Being cynical requires rhetoric. Sitting in the sunshine doesn’t, no.

–Julián Herbert; Translated from Spanish by Brendan Riley

Translating Mama Leukemia
 

No matter how strong your command of Spanish, translating any piece, especially a literary one where you confront a personal voice, in this case a very personal one, forces you to encounter a variety of challenges.  In addition to the fact that the Hispanic world contains dozens of countries, each one of them contains many different regions with a dizzying variety of idioms and local flavorings. This is well known. All those possible complications are increased when filtered through the mind and voice of an individual writer. But the need for communication provides a kind of governor, in both the source text and the target language. Unless writing for purely personal reasons or constructing some thanatoptic dream language, à la Finnegans Wake, grammar and orthography offer the translator some reassurance that despite whatever difficulties encountered, they are going to encounter meaning, and though there are often no exact matches there must be some meaningful equivalent. Finding that is part of the fun.

Another enjoyable aspect, especially in a memoir like “Mama Leukemia,” is discovering people and places. Reading and translating this text is like spending time in the company of the writer and the character, almost like getting to know them and the places they inhabit. Thanks to Julián Herbert’s precise prose I’m able to revisit Acapulco, where I once spent a beach weekend in 1984, when I was a senior in high school. I remember arriving there on a tour coach from Mexico City and, as I had been in the capital city, shocked by the close proximity of poverty and opulence, vast shanty towns clinging to crumbling hillsides just a short ride from luxurious hotels whose likes I’d never imagined. Julián Herbert’s harrowing experiences with and without his mother make those scenes I glimpsed in passing far more vivid because he populates them and sets them in motion.

 I’m also grateful for having had the chance to correspond with Julián while working on this translation and to receive his generous and thoughtful feedback. He answered each of my questions and also spotted a number of details which needed correction, and he kindly, patiently discussed them and offered feedback. He helped me clarify some locations when I had conflated Acapulco with some of the story’s later locations in north central Mexico. He also helped clarify the term “cigarra” which is literally a “cicada” but also as slang carries the meaning of “layabout” or “loafer”. It’s interesting to see how the noun “go-go girl” can be used in Spanish as an adjective; Julián uses it to describe his prostitute mother when she was young: “Era muy agogó” which literally means, she was as vivacious as a go-go dancer. A very interesting localism appears in the Spanish phrase about a car: “Nos enfilamos en un Maverick 74 chocolate al barrio de junto.” I was working from a Word document I’d made from the PDF. In the PDF the word “chocolate” is italicized, but it didn’t appear that way in Word. Had I noticed that at first I might have paid more attention to it, but I simply took it to mean brown, and produced this sentence: “We got into a chocolate-colored `74 Maverick and drove over to the next neighborhood.” Julián pointed out to me that chocolate (with the Spanish pronunciation), as used here, comes from the word chueco which means “outside the law” and in the story’s context refers to an illegal, unregistered car, imported from the U.S. into Northern Mexico, without paying taxes. A similarly interesting corruption of pronunciation occurs in “Mama Leukemia” when, in this illegal Maverick, (whose real color, he tells me, was green), they go to buy an illegal gun, a Smith and Wesson, which the stoned Mexican seller slurs as “Mita y Hueso”. Interestingly those two words individually mean “myth” and “bone”. 

Julián Herbert was born in Acapulco, Mexico in 1971. In 1989 he settled in Coahuila where he studied literature at university and still lives today. He has worked as an editor, cultural educator, and collaborator on numerous publications. As a writer, he has worked in various genres, including poetry: El nombre de esta casa (1999); La resistencia (2003); Kubla Khan (2005); the short story: Cocaína/Manual de usuario (2006); the novel: Un mundo infiel (2004); as well as translation and literary criticism. His short stories and novels have received many literary prizes in Mexico. “Mama Leukemia” is a chapter from his novel Canción de Tumba (2011).

Photo on 2012-12-09 at 00.03 #5Brendan Riley

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

 

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Feb 042014
 

john kelly2

In the same year (1998) John Kelly took the journey from Belfast to Dublin to present the ground-breaking music show Eclectic Ballroom (listen here) on Radio Ireland, this other Irishman was making the journey from Dublin to a remote community in Northern Manitoba (Canada). A few years later when John joined RTÉ, Ireland’s national radio and television broadcaster, to present the award-winning and cult classic Mystery Train, I was still sequestered in my own little world listening to a small First Nations radio station broadcasting local Cree gospel music, Métis fiddle, community announcements, and bingo — so sadly our airwaves never crossed. Since then John has established himself as one of Ireland’s best known music and arts broadcasters currently hosting The Works, an arts series on RTÉ Television, and The John Kelly Ensemble on RTÉ lyric FM. But as if this wasn’t enough, he has also published a number of critically acclaimed novels. The extract below is from his forthcoming novel, From Out of the City (Dalkey Archive Press). The language is rich, exuberant. At times like “that terrifying colony ensconced in the ruins of Liberty Hall,” it dive-bombs, screeches, wheels, and plummets; other times it flourishes in a lush lyrical reverie. And funny, shrewdly funny. Joyce, Beckett, Donleavy….quietly wandering around in the background, amidst the ruins, smiling wistfully at the outrageous absurdity of it all.

— Gerard Beirne

FOOTC_fin

Dublin, some years from now, and the President of the United States has just been assassinated during a state dinner in his honour. The official account has already taken hold but a hawk-eyed octogenarian named Monk, believing that there’s nothing that cannot be known, has a version of his own—a dark and twisted tale of both the watcher and the watched.

But this, says Monk, is no thriller or invented tale of suspense. It is, he insists, an honest and faithful record of breakage and distress at a time when dysfunction—personal, local, national, global and even cosmic—pervades all. A time when everything is already broken and when, in many ways, the shooting of a pill-popping President is neither here nor there. The only thing that matters, Monk tells us, is the truth. And this is why, stationed high in his attic room with a Stoli in a highball, he does what he does. “There’s divinity in it,” he says. “And a modicum of love.”

“The book begins with a prologue in which the narrator, Monk, tells us of the assassination of the American President while on a state visit to Ireland and gives his thoughts on same. Here, with Chapter One, Monk tells us about himself and his place and he begins to speak of his very particular activities and preoccupations.”

— John Kelly

 

The feast of St. Isidore of Seville and I awoke to the sound of rain. It panicked me briefly – that old spurt of fear that I’d been transported through the night to some foreign land where summer downpours are still imaginable. I thought perhaps that I was in Iceland or Nova Scotia but a quick scan across the yellowing sweep of my pillow was enough to assure me that my locus was as was – my own country, my own house, my own room, my own scratcher. Which was very good news. And what’s more, there had been no bad dreams, it seemed, from which to thrash awake. No twistings of the limbs, no tightenings in the chest, no pulses in the lumpy bald- ness of my head. An erection too no less. On this unexpectedly wet morning of my eighty-fourth birthday, lo and behold, a boner of pure marble. Happy Birthday to me, I whispered to myself. For I’m not a squishy marshmallow. We’ll roast you on a stick. Bum-tish!

Eight tumbling decades since I first landed at the South Dublin Lying-in Hospital, Holles Street named for Denzille Holles, Earl of Clare – a place now infested with cut-throats, brigands, smackheads and rats but still serving then, at the hour of my arrival, as The National Maternity. A very palace of human nature.

— What kind of a name is Monk? asks the midwife.

— Named for Thelonious, says my father, his eye on the clock.

— Felonious?

— θ, says my father, Thelonious with a θ.

— Oh right, says the midwife (a culchie). Little Thelonious.

— Yes, says my father, as in Thelonious Sphere.

— You have me there again, says the midwife (Roscommon).

— Thelonious fucking Monk, says my mother with a sigh. A fucking trumpet player.

— Piano, says my father, buttoning up his coat. And celeste on Pannonica.

— I see, says the midwife, not seeing at all (Boyle).

— At one stage, says my mother, this prick was pushing for Stockhausen.

— Stock what? says the midwife (somewhere out beyond Boyle).

— And Suk, says my mother. That was another one.

— It’s pronounced Sook, says my father, and I never once suggested Suk.

— Stockhausen, says my mother. For fucksake. Stockhausen or Suk.

And so this is the pair — Bleach and Ammonia — who gave me life and this grand ruin of a house in which to enjoy it. 26 Hibernia Road, Dún Laoghaire. Three-storey, over-basement, Victorian residence c.1850, features including original replaces, quality cornice-work, centre roses, paneled doors and five generous bedrooms of proportions considered gracious. From the street, it resembles every other house in this section save for its evident security apparatus — a multitude of surveillance cameras perched like blackened gargoyles on the walls. All of it necessary alas as we live in changed times and while Hibernia Road, leading to Britannia Avenue, now Casement Avenue and named for Sir Roger, was once an address considered salubrious (c.1850), it’s now no more than a desolate trench of dereliction and crime. Burned-out, sea-blown, not altogether inhabited and shoved well back from the main strip, Hibernia Road is, these days, neither visited nor traveled. Not by citizens. Not by Guards. Not even by the gentlemen and ladies of the military. Ours or theirs.

In fact the whole town of Dún Laoghaire, named for a 5th-century king of Tara, is now largely defunct and undesirable. Like a mouthful of rotten teeth it grins ever more grotesquely into the swill of Dublin Bay — Cuan Bháile Átha Cliath — polluted beyond all salvage by plutonium, uranium and flesh and where sits, in apparent permanence, a Brobdingnagian aircraft carrier, named not for Kevin Barry, just a lad of eighteen summers, or Maggie Barry who sang “The Flower of Sweet Strabane”, or James J. Barry of Barry’s Original Blend Corkonian Tea, but for Commodore John Barry, the Father of the American Navy, born in Wexford in 1745. The thing has been sitting there for so long now that people don’t even see it any more. And if they do they pass no further remarks. And in any case, don’t all the nice girls love a sailor?

Dún fucking Laoghaire. Where I have lived all my life. Dún Laoghaire, Dún Laoire, Dunleary (briefly Kingstown) where the monks of St. Mary’s caught their shoals of herring. In the 17th century it was a landing place for big-shots and men-of-war and in 1751 a shark was hauled ashore. In 1783 an African diver disappeared under the waves in a diving bell, and in 1817 the first stone of the East Pier was laid and all those virgin tonnes of granite were dug out of Dalkey Hill and dumped. Otherwise there’s not much to commend the place at all. Not now anyway. Dún Laoghaire. 9.65 km ESE of the metropolitan hub — the very spot where the Millennium Spire used to be and, before that again, an effigy in Portland Stone of Lord Horatio Nelson, Viscount and Baron Nelson of the Nile and of Burnham Thorpe etc., etc. e Pillar blown to smithereens of granite and black limestone in 1966. Granite from Kilbride. Pedestal, column and capital. His nibs on the summit, myopic, head lathered in the guano of herring gulls. Vice Admiral of the White and my two uncles that did it. Maguire and Patterson. And Clery’s Clock stopped dead at 1:31. Faoileán scadán. The colony. The colonized. Nelson’s blasted colon : the colonoscopy for fucksake. And I’m sleepy now. Might roll over yet and perhaps some dreams will come. And snooze. And slumber. And I might as well. Only young once. Snuggle and snooze.

But of course this rain was wrong and I raised my head to check once more that this really was my room. And surely it must be. The goose-down duvet, grey and unstained, the clock and the Glock, the empty glass still fragrant with dusty Hennessy, the ancient maps of Paris and the Dingle Peninsula, the curling snaps of smiling people long dead, and the sideboard with the stolen bust of Berkeley fitted with old wraparound shades, now a bookend for the little concertina of Sci-Fi paperbacks all read so eagerly when I was a boy so happily in love with the future. Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, nicked sixty years ago from the Long Room of Trinity College and taken out the front gate in a wheelbarrow. So yes, I assured myself once more, with an element of certainty now, that this was, surely to goodness, my room. My own leaba in number 26 and I had not, unless I was grievously mistaken, been kidnapped or otherwise rendered in my sleep. And it was my birthday too. And in Dún Laoghaire, as if to mark the occasion, there appeared to be actual precipitation.

These thoughts, such as they were, uncontrolled, semi-conscious and leapfrogging each other, were suddenly interrupted by a most extravagant yawn. My jaws shifted and cracked and a pain shot through my skull like a little private bullet of my own. And then there followed the long slow-motion masticatory shimmy in order to correct the jawbones again and with that second crack there came a certain peace, not so much a click this time as a clock, and I could relax again, still alive, glubbing now on my pillow like an old lippy cod. Gadus morhua. Extinct source of vitamins A, D, E and several essential fatty acids. And what a treat that would be on my birthday. Cod and Chips from Burdock’s of Werburgh Street, named for the church of St. Werburgh, named for Werburgh of Chester, a Benedictine abbess, prophetess and seer of the secrets of hearts. And Burdock’s had haddock and ray and lemon sole and scampi and goujons — until that final scare, that is, and everyone stopped eating fish. Even the cormorants in Dún Laoghaire stopped eating fish and they all died away with the seals. The Germans call it Seezunge. And the Spaniards too. I do miss a bit of tongue, says Missus McClung. Lenguado. All things lingual and gustatory. Larus argentatus. And that terrifying colony ensconced in the ruins of Liberty Hall, dive-bombing all who might chance it on foot across the Tara Street Bridge. Screeching. Wheeling. Plummeting. And the best of it all is that it’s more than likely that I know every last one of them — both chancer and gull — by name, reputation and record. Because nothing gets past a man as invisible as me. Oh where oh where is that gallant man? Eighty-four today.

But now on this unexpectedly wet morning in my gargoyled house on Hibernia Road, my sub-duvet reverie at an end, I finally manoeuvred myself to the edge of the bed, gripped my thighs and pressed down hard, the pressure of it translating to push and the body yielding to forces and physics and, whatever the kinetics, whatever the systems and sequences of internal pulleys and cranks called upon so early in the day, my creaking self slowly loomed and my cool morning arse presented itself to the blue grain of the room. I’m up, says I. Another day another dolor — and I announced in the darkest voice of MacLiammóir, Comedia nita est. Then chuckling like a changeling in my white t-shirt and abby boxers I lurched to the window, parted the curtains and peered into the light. Time to think straight now. Time to assess. Time to focus. To get, says you, to the point.

But again I stress that this is not about Richard King or his assassination. Nor is it about how, when they asked me where I was when it happened, the incident in question, that I was able to tell them that I was at home, at number 26, seated on my sofa, a Stoli in a highball, watching the rolling coverage just like everybody else. Or about the fact (and this is something I, of course, neglected to tell them) that I could barely breathe that night as I waited, waited, waited for that newsflash to come, for confirmation from the Castle that the bullet had flown and that ambition’s debt had finally been paid. No. Not at all. This is not about any of that. And it never once was. It’s more about me and where I live and what I do. And it’s also about those people in my care and who will enter soon. But for now this is just me, on my birthday, eighty-fourth, out of bed and at my bedroom window in my boxers and my vest.

And so what did I see? One of my foxes, soaked and muddy, was dragging a blue hula hoop across what used to be a flowerbed and I immediately pictured what I must have missed — the moonlit fox gyrating like a pole dancer and counting out the revolutions. The thought of it made me giggle and I decided that perhaps this really was a very good day in Dún Laoghaire. There hadn’t been rain in months and now here it was at last. Real dancing rain just like the glorious downpours of my childhood and I could smell within it some strange hint of the perpetual. Pandiculation followed. A temporary deafness. Then elbow pain and recovery. I placed my pistol in the drawer, closed it tight and then, and only then, I began to pad the bare boards to the bathroom. I take no chances now, ever since the time I found myself half asleep at the sink, putting toothpaste on the barrel, about to scrub my thirty-two teeth with a loaded weapon. I’m far from doddery but even so.

The electric is erratic these days, water even more so, and so I showered for the thirty-second legal max. en I dried myself off, dressed quickly in a clean white t-shirt, shorts and sloggy bottoms and descended to make myself a camomile tea with honey substitute. Lots of men my age couldn’t manage these stairs at all but I’m as supple as I ever was, my joints constantly swimming in fake fish oil. Thanks to the good folks in Nippon my bones are fortified by every available mineral, vitamin, and dietary silicon smoothie, and once I’m up and about I have neither ache nor pain. Not physical pain at any rate. Jesus, Mary and Joseph where would we be without the synthetics? And without the Japanese? Dab hands the Japs and we’d be lost entirely without them. But fuck it I do miss the bees. I wish the Japanese would sort the bees. And the bee’s knees. For honey, substitute is no substitute. The signs were there for years and nobody lifted a fucking finger. It wouldn’t have happened in Japan. Only it did. World without bees. Amen.

From the kitchen window I watched the fox, still tossing the hoop, and although I always hate to spook such a scene, the instant I punched in the code, Vulpes vulpes shot off like a brushstroke and the hula hoop rolled, keeled and settled on the burning grass like a portal. Sorry Foxy Loxy, I muttered as I put on my trainers and stepped out into the air, raising my face briefly to the skies for the wet of the rain, the actual rain, and I walked briskly, swerving around my dripping barricade of dumped antiques, down to the tumbledown shed which, these days, leans drunkenly against the sycamore. I took my tea with me. The rain was warm and syrupy and it plashed with pleasure in the steaming mug.

There was a wood pigeon balled up in a beech (I have the eyes of a raptor) and a blue-tit was hanging on the giant echium — the self-seeding, tit-feeding echium growing about a foot a day like some slow-motion purple rework. There were wrens up until about fifteen years ago. Troglodytes troglodytes. And blackbirds too. And I used to see them run low across the lawn like infantry out of their trenches and I loved to listen to them sing, watching them snuggled in the holly bush, thinking themselves well defended in the jags.

These new alien finches can be unexpected company at times, but it’s not the same. And the shrikes I can do without. Butcher birds. Cruel impalers. Cracticus something and there’s always one on the shed, eyeing me up, a shrew in its bill, or some supersized beetle which arrived in a suitcase from West Africa.

The shed (the dacha I call it) is warped and narrow and it houses century old, half-empty buckets of paint, an original mountain bike, an axe, bits of obsolete surveillance equipment and sheetweb spiders the size of kittens. I love it in there. Most especially in the rain. As a child, the sound of rain always soothed me and I used to hunker in this very same shed, watching the showers lash the cordylines in scenes which seemed tropical. For a moment, I felt like I was the same child again, sheltered in my hidey hole, enjoying the thrilling little shivers which enveloped me — Bleach and Ammonia back in the house arguing about the nap of the lawn or the pressure in the tap. Heavenly, I told myself, perfectly at peace and in the shed, and then with an almost overwhelming sense of liberation, I lowered the front of my sloggy bottoms and pissed with panache from the dacha porch. Breathing deeply like some ancient God I targeted the agapanthus with my jet.

On my first day as sole owner and occupier of number 26 Hibernia Road, flush with freedom and possession, the very first thing I did was relieve myself in this very garden. As the Gods made Orion. The second thing I did, and just as symbolic, was remove most of the contents and dump them outside. Bedsteads, mattresses, tables, chairs, sideboards, china cabinets, Ottomans, bedside lockers, standard lamps, carpets, rugs, mats, holy statues, vases and assorted prints by late 20th-century racketeers. These I piled on the flower- beds before going back inside to lie on cushions on the floor and crank up the thumping Hi-Fi. Compact discs in those days. My preference then was for bands like New Order, Pere Ubu, Suicide, and The Fall. My father’s study, with its CDs of Bartók, Stravinsky and Stockhausen, I locked up and left alone. He was a vulpine man, my father. Vulpecular. But he liked his music, eschewing the wigs for the moderns and enjoying it in his own way. I liked it well enough too, but I was never in the mood for it. Not in those days anyway.

By four in the morning, I had begun to realize my actual discomfort and I returned to the barricade to strip it of essentials – one sofa, one rug, one kitchen table and one chair. These I reinstated in the house while everything else was left bewildered to the elements, where it lies to this day, piled up and creaking, providing shelter and security for generations of scraggy Dún Laoghaire foxes, all of them, including the one with the hula hoop, born and bred within its labyrinthine heap. Otherwise the place hasn’t been touched at all and number 26 has somehow distilled with natural precision to the point of being quite perfect for my purposes.

On two floors, front and back, the rooms full of boxes (cereal and shoe) stuffed with photographs, files, scribbles, cuttings and notes, now packed almost to the ceiling, decades of profiling stacked in dense little cities of leaning piles of paper and card. Priceless material all of it, of course, and a fire hazard beyond all imagining, but if it goes up, it goes up. It’s no use without me anyway. Without meaning. Like a web without a spider.

At the very top of the house, with a dormer window facing the street, is the actual HQ. On one side of the room, under the plunging slope of the ceiling, is a bank of monitors, permanently on, which links me to the city and beyond. The rest of the space is commanded by a high-back swivel chair of distressed black leather and a fold-out single bed covered in notebooks, orange peel, pencils and sharpenings — the never forgotten stench of desk — all laid out on a carpet so grey and so stained with decades of spilled coffee as to resemble, with some accuracy, a map of the surface of the moon. And this is where I do what I do. And I do it without cease. It takes sustained and careful husbandry but I’m able for it still. There’s divinity in it. And a modicum of love.

— John Kelly

 

john kelly

John Kelly has published several works of fiction including, Grace Notes & Bad Thoughts and The Little Hammer. His short stories have appeared in various publications and a radio play called The Pipes (listen here) was broadcast in 2013. He lives in Dublin, Ireland, where he works in music and arts broadcasting.

Gerard Beirne is an Irish author who moved to Canada in 1998. He is a past recipient of The Sunday Tribune/Hennessy New Irish Writer of the Year award. He was appointed Writer-in-Residence at the University of New Brunswick 2008-2009 and continues to live in Fredericton where he is a Fiction Editor with The Fiddlehead. He has published three novels, including The Eskimo in the Net (Marion Boyars Publishers, London, 2003) which was shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award 2004 for the best book of Irish fiction and was selected as Book of the Year 2004 by The Daily Express (England). His most recent novel is Charlie Tallulah (Oberon Press). His poetry collections include Digging My Own Grave (Dedalus Press) which was runner-up in The Patrick Kavanagh Award. His personal website is here.

 

 

Jan 152014
 

JenSteelePhotography_073Author photo by Jen Steele

Oh, yes! This is a wickedly smart, wise story, artful, too, told from the point of view of a dissatisfied husband with an alcoholic wife, a man who only wants to be free of what he thinks of as his own worst nightmare, a man who abandons his wife, finally, in a Puerto Vallarta bar as she dances drunkenly with a stranger, but a man who, in the end, discovers that his nightmare wife was not the real woman, that he had never paid attention, that, without him, she wasn’t even a drinker. Like James Joyce’s “The Dead,” “To Mexico” focuses on the moment when the husband discovers the essential otherness of his partner, when he breaks through the assumed intimacy of couples to the real, secret woman beyond. In this case, it’s too late; in Joyce’s story we are left to wonder. The artfulness is most obvious in the pattern of bookish juxtaposition: she (the apparent drunk) loves Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano while he prefers the ersatz magical heroism of Carlos Castaneda, two visions of Mexico, two visions of the world, false contraries as it turns out that only feed the narrator’s mis-perceptions of his wife, himself and love.

dg

 

The first night, Dale was standing by himself out on the balcony, in the early dark. Somehow he relaxed enough to notice the sky. “Relaxed” wasn’t the word, it was more that he was worn down, not just by a day’s airport grind but by the months at home that came before. On the balcony, gently mouth breathing, Dale was tiredly alert and the moon caught his eye. It was the famous curled white sliver, but instead of vertical it lay flat. A tiny coy smile. A tiny smile in a black face the size of eons. The two could hardly be comprehended together. He saw more: one pale star up in a far left corner of sky, and then up in the right corner, another. Two tiny eyes for the tiny smile. He had to pivot his head to see the whole face, which gave off wall-eyed irony the size of the universe. He tried to relax and feel amused by it. He knew a nose would appear if he looked for one.

He heard Anna emerge from the bathroom. When she clunked a glass down, loud on purpose, Dale turned from the comical sky to his worst nightmare, who wasn’t looking at him from in there on the couch.

“Want some?” Anna waggled her empty glass in his direction.

“Sure,” he said. “You should see this sky.”

“It’s completely dark out there.”

“No, it’s not,” he said, regretting it right away, not wanting to show her the impossible face. She wouldn’t get it. That is, she’d get it but wouldn’t let herself enjoy it, the magical distortion, the brain stretch, because it was his idea. It had come to this. At one time she would have joined him and they’d have laughed together, excited by the size of space. She would have found the nose.

Anna brought Dale a glass of tequila and sat in one of the balcony’s wrought iron chairs. She had refilled hers; he’d see how that went. Back when they were planning this trip she’d asked him, straight-faced, “You think I’ll do a Lowry down there?” Though a binge could happen anywhere, her joke haunted him. Tequila was a favorite poison and here it was almost free. Her hangovers were when they usually almost ended it.

The chairs were heavy and ornate and Anna was surprised how comfortable hers was. Normally he didn’t care for heights, and they were perched way up a hill, their balcony hanging cliff-like over Puerto Vallarta’s southern outskirts and the sea. Maybe because it was dark and he couldn’t properly see the danger it couldn’t grab his gut. Or maybe he was too drained to be afraid. Of anything. Chances were—he mused as he touched tequila to his lips—if things got ugly between them tonight, if they started coming apart, he just wouldn’t care.

“It’s beautiful here,” she said to the darkness. It sounded like a peace offering.

“I knew I’d love it,” Dale agreed. He added stupidly, “I really want to see an iguana.”

“Hey. To Mexico. We did it.” She held out her glass and they clinked. She tossed her whole drink back, so he did too.

That night there were no eruptions and no plummets off the cliff. Anna was tired too and there on the balcony they barely managed some mumbling about tomorrow’s plans. She wanted to check out silver shops, he wanted to hire one of those boats to go snorkeling. They both wanted to eat authentic Mexican and she asked him, still friendly, if he was going to challenge himself with hot sauces. They had one more tequila each then yawned and stared dumbly into the dark. When they went in and she was in the bathroom he scanned the TV channels to see if there’d be any point ever watching it, and when he came to bed Anna was asleep, her back to him.

Which was fine, which was as usual. And it would make things easier. They were intending to split up here. Nothing had been discussed or announced, but Dale was almost sure that this was her plan.

He hired a boat for not very much money, making the arrangements at the public dock with a tall and handsome man, Vasiliev. Why the man had a Russian name, Dale never did learn. He announced the deal to Anna somewhat proudly because it included all snorkeling gear, which she’d thought they might have to buy. Now, chugging off toward Los Arcos, a trip that at this speed would take an hour, he wasn’t pleased to be crammed on board with another couple and their two kids. They didn’t look pleased either. His assumption had been that fifty bucks got them their own boat, which seemed to be the assumption shared by the dad, a guy older than him, maybe pushing forty. The boat had one seat too few and the dad was standing. At one point Dale shrugged at him, but he didn’t shrug back. His kids, a boy and a girl, looked about ten, and his wife never stopped rifling through her day pack for treats, lotions, water. The motor roared too loud to talk over. Vasiliev, apparently just the fixer, was back on the dock. Their captain was a Mexican with an eternal smile, caricature of a Mexican mustache and not much English.

But it was a beautiful afternoon. Anna leaned on the boat’s side, face into the breeze, which blew her hair back, a whipping bronze flag. She let her eyes close. She was into her own day pack for the mickey of tequila and discreet sips. Disappointed by the silver prices, which were double what she’d expected and which meant she probably wouldn’t be buying anything, Anna had been quiet most of the day. She was in that mood where something badly startling might emerge.

Dale watched the slow approach of Los Arcos—small islets that arched high from the water. The breeze was a relief. He caught the dad’s eye again, stood and pantomimed him coming and taking Dale’s seat and he waved, smiled this time, shook his head. He was fine, clinging to an iron post, hand to his brow like a pirate.

It was paradise, it truly was. The swelling blue sea, the friendly heat, a quaint old boat that smelled of rust and bait, taking them somewhere they’d never been. Arking frigate birds, diving pelicans. Chased by something larger beneath, schools of small fish thrashed at the surface where they ran out of water. The view landward was of old Puerto Vallarta, its white masonry, palm trees, wild green hills up behind, and then the hills above Conchas Chinas, where their villa was. Dale couldn’t quite see their place, or their balcony, but he knew there were green and yellow parakeets in those trees. Anyway, what could be better? At one point Anna caught the captain’s eye and pointed languidly at something off the bow. The captain slowed, quizzical, then pointed himself and shouted, “Turta! Turta!” Dale finally saw it, a turtle’s head, maybe thirty yards off, a sleek black fist sticking out of the water, then it was gone. Anna had already ceased looking at it. The boy never did see it, apparently, and when the engine roared them back to speed again, he was crying.

A few minutes later, when the little guy had calmed down, and after another pull from her bottle, Anna gestured Dale in close and said, “Next time we’re here, let’s pick door number 3.”

That she was mocking this boat, and his arrangements, was clear. He always despaired when Anna became a willfully hateful person, because it wasn’t her, it really wasn’t. And when he pulled back and looked at her, what also became clear was that she mostly mocked the notion of a “next time.”  She smiled dramatically and falsely, and her eyes, her beautiful deep-sky hateful eyes, dared him to join her and say something back and take things up a notch.

Now the captain was pointing and shouting, “Manta, manta!” They slowed and all of them saw the black fin cut the surface, identical to a shark’s, a big one. And then another fin, ten or twelve feet from the first, the manta ray’s second wing tip. A plankton eater, harmless.

“Are there any sharks here?” he asked the captain.

The captain thrust his finger at the gliding wing tips. “No shark. Manta!”

Dale shrugged and pointed all around them. “Sharks? Any sharks? Ever?”

“No way sharks, no way!” he yelled, smiling non-stop, shaking his head, for far too long a time. Dale didn’t believe him. He could imagine every captain in town agreeing not to see the sharks they saw every day, keep the tourists coming.

The third night, they were in J’s Corruption, a bar they chose for the name alone. Puerto Vallarta had lots of colourful names and they figured it was the gay influence. Some buildings, they’d noted, had rainbow flags painted on an outside white wall. J’s was nearly full but people sipped at their pink or green margaritas as an afterthought, many heads propped on a hand, elbows on the table. It looked like the end of a long hot day. Dale had learned that, like them, most tourists arrived on a Saturday and left on a Saturday and so, city-wide, each new batch went through the same rhythms of recovery and liveliness. Anna, for one, had a formidable hangover from the night before. The cruise back from Los Arcos, her first mickey of the day empty, she’d leapt off the bow at full-speed, shouting in Spanish. But tonight she didn’t show it. Dale was used to this, how she climbed up through her pain to appear pretty much normal. Because there’s no way she wasn’t in pain. She masked it well, though she wasn’t saying much, or meeting his eye. Dale stared at the severe part down the middle of Anna’s head, wondered if that dark freckle had always been there.

He recalled how they’d decided on Mexico three years ago, after a particularly tectonic fight, the one that resulted in them reaffirming never, ever to have a child they were sure to ruin, and then also agreeing never to buy a place together. They’d been lying in bed after making restorative love and she was being wryly humorous, but in the air hung the dire truth that, before long, one of these fiery bouts would end them. At some point she’d said, “Let’s at least get to Mexico.” She’d said it twice.

They both had involvements with it, with Mexico, and neither had ever been. Years ago she’d written her M.A. thesis on Under the Volcano and it was her all-time favorite book. That it was deemed inappropriate to teach her high school English class—not due to content but difficulty—depressed her, perennially, beyond words. And, also years ago, Dale loved Carlos Castaneda, enchanted by the instructive maybe-not-quite-fiction, the magic that just might be true, and he’d read them all. And so they’d often agreed it was a shame that they’d never made it down, to see the world of their favourite books.

Now that they were finally here, Dale wondered if she remembered having said it. Let’s at least get to Mexico. Of course she did. All the travel plans had been made, and the flights taken, the bags checked, the bed turned back and the turtle spotted—all with those words chiming in her ears. It was almost grotesque to think about. He eyed her as she took medicinal sips of her margarita. No. What was grotesque was that he couldn’t ask her. That they wouldn’t talk about these things, their difficulties, was a mark of how far apart they were. Funny, but it used to be the opposite—it was a mark of how close they were that they didn’t have to speak. It had been clear right off the bat—maybe when they started having sex, maybe even at the party where they met, Jonathan’s, that birthday—that they somehow saw each other inside out, right to the embarrassing bones, without having to cloud the view with words. It was a starkest intimacy, and they decided to call it love. Yet it hadn’t taken long—though they never talked about it—for this involuntary nakedness to feel more chilling than warm, and under her biting gaze he lacked enough hands to cover himself up.

J’s huge dance floor was empty. The music tended to retro, 80’s, new wave. It was probably ten-thirty. Anna commented on how dead things were, flicking a finger at the seated crowd, languidly sipping. Dale joked that everybody, like them, was trying to digest several days of tortillas and tequila. When she said nothing, he asked if she wanted to try another place.

“All these heads are knobs,” she said, “waiting to be flowers.”

Because they were at tables and the tables were in rows, in the dim light the heads did look like a pattern of knobs. “Flowers?”

“Why not.” She still didn’t bother looking at him.

“What kind of flowers?”

“Crazy come hump me flowers, I don’t know.”

“Maybe peonies, dripping pheromones,” he said. He wasn’t funny like her but he was trying to go along, add to it, join in. That’s all he was doing. “You know peonies? Those big bulbous lush—”

“I know what peonies are.”

“That have to be opened by ants? They’re like weird foreplay machines.”

“I know the peony.”

“Why,” he asked her, brave, or maybe just really tired, “do you hate me right now? Right this second?”

Anna turned away, shaking her head. She didn’t hate him, the sadness said. Her look was desolate. He knew was that he wouldn’t be getting any straight answers from her. Maybe there were no straight answers to give, but she wasn’t even going to try. The day before at Los Arcos, snorkeling, after they’d anchored and gotten into the mismatched masks and flippers, she’d had him swim with her around to the other side of the first small islet where, making sure they hadn’t been followed, they found a ledge about four feet deep, to stand on. She doffed her bottoms and got him going and got herself going and they managed a fast one, underwater, surrounded by yellow and blue fish and the horrendous squalling of birds roosting on the island ledge twenty feet above  heads. Pelicans, frigates, boobies almost shoulder to shoulder. The smell of bird-shit was so ripe that Dale felt its sour acid in his nose and throat once he got to breathing hard. Her seduction was aggressive, and more of a dare than anything else: since they were in slap-dash Mexico they might as well fuck in public. He truly didn’t like it that those two small kids were a few fins kicks around a corner. And he was still thinking about sharks, and what he’d do if he saw a manta wingtip. But he managed her dare, glad when it was over. She said only, “Okey-dokey,” caught her breath, squeezed his bicep, got her bottoms back on, and swam away from him. Sex was never a problem for them. Unless you saw it as a thing that had kept them together too long.

In J’s Destruction, saying banyo under her breath, Anna stood and walked from their table, snapping her fingers and popping her hips to a Bowie, one of the dancy ones. For two days she’d been surprising Dale with Spanish words, like banyo. She somehow knew the difference, in Spanish, between mackerel and tuna, when she ordered a skewer from a beach vendor. Without resorting to a word of English she had haggled over a T-shirt. She knew how to get the good tequila and the darker beer. She told him that “diablo” wasn’t the real hot sauce. Had she been studying? When he asked her this she regarded him with cool concern, and said, “You don’t pay attention, do you?” It was the kind of accusation he no longer pursued.

She didn’t go to the banyo but made right for the dance floor. It was a bad sign, maybe the worst sign of all, when she danced solo to start off an evening. As if conspiring with her, the instant she set foot on the dance floor some staff person in the dark recesses flicked a switch and the floor lit up in glaring red and blue squares, popping off and on randomly, hideously. If colour was noise, it would have been deafening.

After gulping all the ice-mush of his margarita down so fast he got brain-freeze pain, Dale left the bar. And left Anna.

He’s been back home a year now and it’s been six months since he stopped checking the mailbox compulsively. He has no idea if news would come in a letter in any case. That was just romantic, archaic. If word from her ever comes, it would be her voice on the phone, a simple, “Now what?” Or it might be email, just as flippant, the subject line “Geoffrey Firmin Needs Money.” He hasn’t seen her for a year. She might be dead. Though he doubts that. He knows she might be anything at all.

He sees that he now thinks of her fondly. It helps him with the troubling times, though you’d think it would be the opposite. When he pictures her she’s usually in the pool, there in Mexico, where he watches her swimming from up on their balcony where he stands slightly frightened, two feet back from the railing, not touching it, and leaning forward to peer over it. She wasn’t a fluid swimmer and the punchiness of her stroke was somehow juvenile, and oddly sexy for it. He was perched three storeys above, so if he called her up for a sandwich or if she cajoled him into joining her they had to shout. The time he remembers most was when, poolside, on the lounger reading his Carlos Castaneda book, Anna suddenly dropped it, unfinished and unbook-marked, beside her onto the concrete. Done. It looked like she’d read maybe twenty pages. She dropped it sadly, gently, maybe because she knew she was dropping something dear to him. He witnessed the whole thing. It was the third book in the series. He really should have brought the first one for her, because it did a better job of preparing for the wise insanity that followed. The third book assumed a lot, too much. So maybe it was his fault. In any case she dropped the book and stared off, her sadness continuing, probably deepening, at what she saw to be the naivety of the man she’d married. Then she looked up. He doesn’t know if she already knew he was up there watching. But she looked up, saw him, tapped the dropped book with a finger and shouted, funny and sad both, “Come on.” And then, “Really?”

She knew that he wanted it to be true. She knew that he respected its instructions on how to live, on how to hunt life’s hidden purpose. How to see. When Anna dropped the book, there was nothing of her feeling superior. Nor was she sad for him. She was sad for them, this much was clear. She hopped up from her lounger then and, without another word, dived in. Whenever she wanted to feel better, Anna jumped into water, went for a fresh walk, or uncapped a bottle.

They did try. She’d also brought Under the Volcano, for him. He’d been sitting up there on the balcony with it resting on his lap. Heavy as hell and intimidating. Likely because he was trying to read it only for her, he found it impenetrable. And in the end, despite the colourful self-torture of Firmin drinking himself to death, surrounded by spiky Mexican exotica, it was boring. Let’s call a spade a spade. In any case, the two books only proved how wrong they had been that the two Mexicos they’d imagined might be remotely the same country.

“Why do you hate me right now? Right this second?” was the last thing he’d asked Anna, there in that bar, in J’s Corruption. He’d stood for a while watching her dance, by herself, for two songs. Her unabashed style wasn’t unlike her swimming. Using her body to get a job done. At the start of the third song, a well-built guy, white shirt so tight that Dale suspected he was Mexican, joined her. No conversation, but their chests stayed pointed at each other through the dance, George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone,” which made Dale snicker through his nose as he hurried out. He had no evidence that she’d ever cheated on him, and he didn’t want evidence now. On his way out he stopped in the banyo. As he peed, something smelled wonderful–he looked up to see real vanilla beans—that is, the long black pods–maybe a dozen of them, dangling from the ceiling, just out of jumping reach. He remembers that, even at the time, angry as he was, right away he realized that the women’s banyo would have them too, and so he’d wondered, when Anna did visit the banyo, what would she think of them? She’d instantly see the contradiction between their look and their smell. She would call them God’s little shits, or something like that. Something wittier and better. Satan’s dreams.

He doesn’t know if she came back to their villa that night, after J’s, because he didn’t go back himself. Technically, he left her more than she left him. Two days later, when he did return to their villa, he timed things for when the maid would be going through it so if Anna was around she’d be down at the pool. Dale didn’t go to the balcony to check this because he didn’t want to know. Nor could he tell if the bed had been slept in because it was already made. There was no scatter of empty bottles, but they might have been cleaned up. He noticed a new birdcage, of ornate bamboo wicker. The fruit bowl was full of green papayas and the small, wrinkled, yellow mangos she loved. He nodded to the shyly smiling but perplexed maid, stuffed his clothes into his suitcase and taxied to his new room on the modern, less colourful side of town.

The next afternoon Dale saw Anna for the last time. He encountered her by accident, on the Malecon boardwalk. It had been their favourite haunt so he shouldn’t have been walking there in the first place. He don’t know what he was up to, maybe he wanted to see her. Maybe he wanted to grab her back and protect her from everything, especially herself. Maybe she wanted him to, and maybe he knew that. He’d even got badly drunk, in a bar by himself, the night before, telling himself he was doing it in sympathy, in communal spirit, sharing that magical expansion, that wise loving embrace that alcohol can sometimes perform. It was in the seediest corner of the seediest bar he could find, no English to be heard anywhere, and on a windowsill he saw a dirty brown lizard that made him laugh and swear and point, and some macho caballero shouted something at him, and Dale may actually have been in danger, even as he turned to him and smiled dumbly and shrugged. All that kept him from going off in search of Anna that night was his staggering state—he felt certain he was embracing her in any case with his own Lowry-drunkenness, and he felt certain she’d wait for him every night at J’s Corruption, because that’s what forlorn lovers did.

But when he saw her that next afternoon on the Malecon, she wasn’t drunk. Dale followed at a distance. He noted bracelets and bangles, silver, stacked halfway up both wrists. She was carrying a bouquet of dyed feathers in the most garish colours. She wore a new peasant blouse, that unbleached cotton. She appeared pretty much carefree. She wasn’t looking for anyone, for anyone at all, that was clear enough. Every twenty seconds or so Dale mumbled “No, gracias,” to the latest vendor shaking a trinket or T-shirt in his face, and he watched her strategy for handling the same. She had the pockets of her shorts pulled out, and to turn down a vendor she shook her bangled silver wrists at them and then pointed to her empty pockets, smiling. She had a phrase or two to share with them and, to a man, they laughed back and left her alone.

Leaving the Malecon, after several blocks she entered a cafe called The Blue Shrimp. The way she turned into it, without looking, told him she’d been there before. He waited outside long enough to hear her say something in Spanish, hear something said back, a clutch of women it sounded like, and then Anna laughed as loud as Dale had heard her laugh in years.

He realized what was different about her. She had the look of someone who hadn’t had a drink in three days. The exact amount of time since she’d last laid eyes on him. She looked uncomplicated, and fresh. She looked free of both of them.

No, she’s not dead, though they do say it’s either all or nothing for people like her. It’s not a case of being smart or stupid. Lowry was a genius, as Anna never ceased pointing out. It all might just be luck. Or who your companions are.

But what’s she doing? He doesn’t know what she’s thinking right now, doesn’t have a clue. He suspects that their famous fatal intimacy was bullshit all along. How could he not have a clue? He opened new bank accounts but kept their old joint account with enough in it to keep her going a while, though the two times he peeked it hadn’t been touched, and he’s since forced himself to stop looking. He’s checked and knows she would have had to come north to get her visa renewed by now. So likely she’s been in town. She might still be. Her work never did call, nor had any of her friends–so they all must know, and they must have been given instructions. He takes nothing from it; it could mean love or it could mean hate, and isn’t that funny? Mostly what it means is confusion, because that was their epitaph. In any case he bets he’s not far off when he pictures her wearing something colourful—turquoise, white, yellow—and giving lessons of some sort, maybe working in that café where he heard her laugh. Keeping up a simple, clean, one-room place. Keeping birds. He sees her as someone he’d like to meet, and take walks with. Have adventures.

Dale was back home over two months before he noticed the Speak Spanish! book. He was in the process of packing everything up to move to a smaller apartment, because a single man does not need two bathrooms, and he found one with a decent view from the balcony, a silver-blue glimpse of Burrard Inlet up through to Indian Arm which, irony of ironies, was where Lowry lived when he wrote Volcano. (Delighted, speechless as a little girl, Anna had taken him along to explore Lowry Walk there, a surprisingly serene path through beachfront forest.)

Dale found the bright red Speak Spanish! book in the small bathroom, as they used to call it. The book was sitting plain as day on the back of the toilet where she’d left it, ready for her to pick up and commit one or two more words to memory. As soon as he saw it he realized he’d seen it quite a bit, lying around the place. He thinks he’d seen Anna lying on the couch reading it, saying words aloud, trying her accent, excited for their vacation and boning up for it–but to tell the truth, she was right, he hadn’t been paying attention. None at all.

Only since finding the book had he begun seeing the size of their mistake.

Now every few days he opens her closet to check her clothes, feeling the fabric, trying to remember her wearing this blouse, or those jeans. Sometimes he can. But these clothes of hers, which was what she chose not to bring to Mexico, feel like cast-offs, and part of what she’d happily left behind.

—Bill Gaston

“To Mexico” will appear in Bill Gaston’s next collection, Juliet Was A Surprise, due out in this spring with Penguin/Hamish Hamilton. His latest novel, The World, won the Ethel Wilson Prize, and his previous collection, Gargoyles, was nominated for Canada’s Governor General’s Award in fiction. He lives in Victoria, British Columbia.
Jan 122014
 

Bookbinding header, color-001

This is the fifth part of Robert Day’s serial novel Let Us Imagine Lost Love. We are over the half-way mark, only two more sections to go after this installment, and the tempo is quickening, the emotions deepening as Day turns toward his ending.

To recap: the protagonist of the novel is a book designer of middle age living in Kansas City where he makes coffee table books and gorgeous book blanks and fills his spare time with romantic adventures in the Plaza Hotel. (“…my job is to make Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony acceptable to the Country Club Plaza in ways that Beethoven would never be. I am in the American Homogenization Business.  A.H.B. for short.) The narrative slips easily back and forth from the present, pleasant emptiness to the narrator’s college days as a pre-med student at Berkeley in the 60s where he works at a diabolical medical lab called the Blood Factory (where he helps suck the blood out of stray dogs) and hangs with his friends Hazen and Beth (they are all three in Western Civ and spend much time inventing a new religion as a class assignment).

In this fifth section, as I say, the tempo quickens. In the present action, the narrator is receiving mysterious packages that contain books that tie into the time when he was a student. No note, no return address. In the Berkeley sections, what now becomes clear is the narrator’s almost mute love for his unavailable friend Beth. A sadness now invades their interactions. Pretty, the dog he is trying to save from the blood lab, escapes, then turns up in another midnight shipment of stray dogs. The dark beat of death and absence that has always hovered at the novel’s edges now begins to assert itself, though the scenes remain resolutely comic and amiable. There is something to be said about this: the narrator demonstrates the quiet courage of a good attitude. It’s a moral thing, one of Robert Day’s great strengths as an author is to project a wry stoicism in the face of life’s misadventures.

I confess a pleasure in keeping my sense of loss at bay one day at a time. Lists. Lovers.  Books to make instead of places to go. Books as inoculations against memory. Harrison’s, to page 161.  Three words a day revisited out of Webster’s: cusp, interrogative, strophes.  The aversion therapy of aversion therapy.

Some wonderful material all through this section: Lawrence Ferlinghetti has a walk-on when the narrator drops in at the City Lights Bookstore to pick up his mail.

In those days your mail was arranged along a railing on a flight of stairs that lead to the basement of the bookstore: A’s were at the top and Z’s at the bottom.  Because Hazen used various names, his mail was up and down the stairs.

And this from Aunt Lillian:

I can tell you that no mother in Kansas wants to worry that her son has turned into a hippie in a California bookstore.

And a hilarious riff on book titles for writing books after the narrator gets an assignment to design books for the writing camp:

They also suggest sequels to the sequels: Beginnings for Writers With No Place to Start.  The Writers’ Middle at Middle Age.  The End: Writers Looking for Closure.  Another boxed set:  The Writer Gets Out of You.

For The Book of Titles, I’ve started a list:  The Mail Today.  The Shadow of Your Smile Meets the Windmill of Your Mind. Sometimes It is, Sometimes It Isn’t. Call Doctor Freud, “Ward Six”:  The Study Notes,  Melinda: Her Past and Present Day Breasts.

You can read the entire novel to date here (instead of clicking back and forth between issues). Stay tuned for the next installment.

 

Part Five

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 Let Us Imagine Lost Love

 

Dogs in Our Lives: A Primer

I kept Pretty out of the Blood Factory line up.  Since Ursula did not check what dogs we used, only Hazen knew.

—Our boy here is in love, he said to Beth one day.

—He’s talking about a dog I have at the lab, I said.

—What are you going to do about it? Beth said.

—Her, I said.

—Does she have a name? said Beth.

—No.

Beth knew better.

—Call Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, said Hazen. Call Doctor Disney. We need a consultation.   We’ll get diabetes with all this sweetness.  Make us a Keane.

—Here, said Beth, getting one of her bandanas—a red one—off the pegs by the door.  From one girl to another.

Even though I could save Pretty from the Blood Factory, what was I going to do with her? What if she went into heat?  You knew when a bitch was in heat because the males would start howling and clawing at the kennel doors.   When that happened, we would breed them for Dr. Cody’s experiments.

—Call Doctor Kinsey, Hazen would say.  Call Havelock Ellis.   Call Doctor Spock.

Pretty did not come into heat until later (call Ginsberg.)   But she did get to know me.  At first when I fed her, she would raise her head to see that somebody was there.   But she would not come to the front of the kennel as the other dogs did.  I never saw her eat; however, when I returned to clean the kennels, her food was gone.  After awhile she seemed to know her name.  I bought a lead and collar that I hid in an equipment drawer.

One day when I was the only one on duty, I put her on the leash and tied Beth’s bandana around her neck.  We went out of the parking lot toward a quiet street and a vacant lot.

When I undid the leash she walked a few feet into the grass, took a pee, looked around, wagged her tail, then, low to the ground, bolted through the lot and into the neighborhood behind it.

—A black and white, said a man reading a newspaper on his porch.

—Yes.

—That way about two minutes ago. Low to the ground?  Red bandana?

—Yes.

—You might catch her if you go around the block.

I looked for about an hour, couldn’t find her, then went back to the parking lot and got Austen to drive the streets.  I’d stop and look in between the houses.  I’d knock on doors.  Down one street I found her bandana.

—How big is she? said Beth.

We were in Austen.   I had gone back to get her to help me.

—If she stands up, she’d come up to my knees.  But she keeps low to the ground.

—There she is, said Beth.

But Beth was wrong.  The dog she saw was a black and white cocker.

—I’m sorry, Beth said.

Then after an hour with no luck and with little daylight left, she said it again:

— I’m sorry.  Can I fix you a meal?

—No thanks, I said.

 

—And one more, said the guy who replaced Pistol when he off-loaded Pretty a week later.

Pretty turned her head away from me.

—Call Doctor Serendip, said Hazen.

I put Pretty back in her kennel.

—What happened to Pistol? said Hazen.

—Who’s Pistol? the guy said as he closed up his truck.

—This girl, said Hazen.  Short.  She used to deliver dogs.  You know.  Black hair.

—You balling her?  said the guy.

—You Joe Friday? said Hazen. I didn’t call Joe Friday.

—She doesn’t work the pound anymore, said the guy.

—Twenty units, Hazen said after the truck left. That’s what Ursula wants from the Blood Factory by tomorrow.

—You staying? I said.

—Might as well, said Hazen.  Got nothing else to do.  I was hoping to add a quarter inch after you left, but that didn’t seem to work out.  Did she work out for you?

—You Joe Friday? Did I call for Joe Friday?

—I thought you’d bled that dog of yours, he said, ignoring me as we went into the OR to start the bleeding.

—You know better, I say.

 

The Book of Your Book 

My most recent freelance proposal is The Book of Your Book. It is a Blank designed for people who are not writers, but don’t know that.  Nor would it be a way for them to find out. So far nobody has made an offer, but it is early. Maybe after the New Year.  A bit too cynical, even for us, said my former editor at Hallmark.

The Get Started Introduction states: “The best way to begin your novel or memoir or family history or meditation is to Get Started!  This book helps you do just that!”   (Exhortations and repetition are the house salad dressing of self-help books, exclamation points—not semicolons—the punctuation du jour.)

I have included bon mots about beginnings and taking the first steps:  Bartlett’s recycled from previous books on writing.  The “Get Started!” quotations are printed in underlined bold italics, with enough space around them so the reader/writer can underline what has already been underlined. Like pornography, books with self-help lessons are one-handed.

1): To Get Started! Choose a TITLE for Your Book .

2):  Using your TITLE as INSPIRATION! write two hundred  PRACTICE WORDS on the PRACTICE PAGE in back.

As an example, I used LET US IMAGINE LOST LOVE.  Perfect, to my mind, for a small meditation that might inspire the buyer/author.  Inspiration is the enemy of good writing, but it is the friend of brisk sales. As to the text, it was a good fit:

I do not know by what lines in the cosmos this will come your way.  Ours has been a long silence.  I have received your Hi Sign.   This is mine. 

From my window I see you walking down Derby.  You are wearing your painting smock.  Jeans.  Clodhoppers, as you called your shoes.  The ribbon in your hair is yellow.  You are talking to yourself. Pretty jumps on my bed.

Let us imagine you read this in California.  It is after you did or did not see me at your show this spring in Kansas City.  Let us imagine you had no way of knowing I could have walked up to you and said,  “You must be the Arch Flaymen of the Mediterranean.”

That morning with us both on Derby, Pretty on a leash, Ginsberg howling from the steps of the fraternity house where he is being held by Elaine Robinson’s look-alike husband-not-to-be, my walking away from you was because I understood there was nothing I could say.  You must have noticed I did not look back. Let us now imagine that is all I do. 

                   

After the front matter, there is a title page, complete with space for author’s birth (and death) dates, a faux ISBN number, copyright material, Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication-Data, and author thank-yous:  all to be filled in by the would-be-non-writer-to-be.  The body of The Book of Your Book has ruled, numbered pages with space for a chapter head at the top of each page.

The back matter is (in addition to the Practice Page) a list of citations for use under Chapter Headings to demonstrate an erudition the writer does not have:  Romance at short notice was her specialty (Saki); If you want to know who you are, read what you write about what you do (C. Watkins.); An active line on a walk moving freely without a goal.  A walk for a walk’s sake (Klee);  All unhappy wives are alike (E. Muir); What if the present were the world’s last night? (Donne). Others: Ovid in the original (and not translated) Medio tutissimus ibis.  Language is the best way to lie to yourself. (D. Webb.) There is also a Cage Book-like calendar so our author can keep track of how many words he/she writes each day.

Bind it in mass-market boards with good Somerset paper and sell it for the cost of a coffee-table cookbook.  Bind it in acid-neutral boards with mold- made paper, box it, and sell it as a Christmas gift book at ten times the standard edition.  Make a single copy with embossed stressed leather binding, scribe it, illustrate it, illuminate it, and declare it a religious codex.  Priceless.

 

Love:  A Guide for Men

One afternoon toward the end of the semester the three of us were to meet at Beth’s to add more details to Ta-Bid.  I got there first.  Beth was working on a painting. She didn’t stop when I came in.  By now Hazen had gotten a table from the basement of his parents’ house for Beth’s apartment.  The Ta-Bid notebook was open on it.

All fall we had been building our religion in bits and pieces during our trips in Austen up and down the California coast, or on adventures to San Francisco. Some proposals led to arguments—as when Hazen announced that Ta-Bid needed a shrine to which people could go for a cure.  We were in the No Name Bar.

—In France they have Lourdes, says Hazen. If you need a cure for whooping cough you get on a bus for Lourdes.  They’ve got a saint for every disease, and you match up your disease with the saint and take a gulp of the holy water from a bowl at the feet of the saint’s statue.

Because of Hazen’s penchant for irreverence and exaggeration, neither Beth nor I knew how much of this was a myth of his own making.

—We don’t need a shrine for cures, said Beth. Ta-Bid should be a “rational” religion. A religion for thinking people.  You don’t get cured of whooping cough by drinking water from a bowl at the foot of a statue in France.

—Of course you don’t, said Hazen.  But Professor Gabin said that religion was non-rational.  If you are “rational” you are missing out on faith. Faith is the cure for being rational.  We have to have faith in Ta-Bid.  Otherwise we don’t get an A.  I don’t want to have faith that I’m going to get an A.  I want an A.

—We’re trying to make a new religion, said Beth. One based on reason and science.  Why do I have to be the one to make that argument with you guys?  You’re the ones who want to be doctors.  When you’re (she points at me) practicing medicine in Kansas City and a mother comes in whose child is sick with some nasty cough are you going to give it a shot or send them to Lourdes?

—It is not exactly reasonable, I said, that Ta and Bid had a big bang orgasm and we are circling the sun on a wad of belly-button ganiff.  In the beginning we are unreasonable.  Isn’t that the point of faith? To offer mankind an alternative to reason?

—Let us say, declared Hazen, that the No Name Bar of Sausalito, California, is the shrine of Ta-Bid.  And that whosoever shall cometh to it through the suspensions of the Golden Gate Bridge seeking a cure for the phobias of Guilt Days, the Tyranny of Forks, the plethora of Keane paintings, the muck of McKuen poetry and the Muzak of Montovani shall drink the waters of Olympia beer and be cured of whatever fucking ails them.   And the voice of Tom Lehrer and Allen Ginsberg shall be heard throughout the land.

—Sounds good to me, I said.

—When you write that down, said Hazen to Beth (who was not writing it down; nor did I find it when I retyped her notes), be sure to spell “ails” as “ales.”  Ta-Bid will be a puny religion.  You don’t see books on the wit of Buddha.  Or the comic monologues of Jesus.  Ta-Bid is a mirthful god.   Mort Sahl is our Billy Graham.

—Where’s Hazen? I said when I came into Beth’s.

— Let’s start without him, she said.

She put down her brush and looked out the window.  It was not like her to suggest we start without Hazen.  On the windowsill behind her I could see that she had finished the coffee cup paintings.  I picked one up, number two as it was labeled.

—You may have it, she said, her voice shaking.  Take it.  It’s from when we first met and you were looking into the cup instead of looking at me.  If only…

I put the painting down.

—Some other time, I said.

—Let’s start without him, she said again, her voice still shaking.

—Where’s to start? I asked.

—We need to decide if Ta-Bid wants the religion spread, she said. We have not addressed that question.  Nor the question of missionaries.

Her hand was trembling.  She turned and looked at me.

—What’s up? I said.

When you are a young man you cannot—or at least I could not—bring myself to acknowledge that a woman was about to cry.  If you did, you would somehow be a party to it.

—What makes you think something’s up? she said and looked  at the notebook.

—Nothing.

She raised her hand as if she has something to say in class.

—I can’t get over him.

—Who?

Nothing very bad hurts much at the start; the nature of great pain is that it grows.   We heard a car door slam.  A Dragnet beep of the horn.

 

The Mail Today

This week I begin a new book.  A Los Angeles publisher wants an agenda book in four sections, spring through winter.  It will be the first in a series of  “niche” books.  In a moment of daring they have decided on a less-than-popular niche: they are not going to use “foliage,” or “weather,” or quotations about the seasons:  They want The Music of the Seasons.  The contract and the specifications came today.

I am struck by the nerve of the Los Angeles publisher because we all know the adage:  “write for the masses, eat with the classes” and its corollary: “write for the classes, eat with the masses.”  However, The Music of Seasons might not be all that “classy” when I get done; my job is to make Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony acceptable to the Country Club Plaza in ways that Beethoven would never be.  I am in the American Homogenization Business.  A.H.B. for short.

I’ll use musical scores associated with the seasons, starting with Vivaldi, but also Tchaikovsky and Cage’s ballet (that might be pushing it). In addition to these scores—whose notes will be a motif down the edges—I’ll place the face of the composer in the upper right hand corner where you turn the page. It is my signature design.

The face of one composer per month will be added at the top so that by March there will be Alexander Glazunov and Edward German and Billy Hart in a row.  By December there will be a choir of twelve.  None of them as acceptable in the Mission Hills Country Club of my sister as the book in which they will reside.  The “date squares” will note birthdays and deaths:  Chopin March and October; Beethoven in December and March; and LeRoy Anderson (whom I’ll misdate to see if anyone in editorial catches me and then correct it myself if they do not).

Across the bottom will be text about the music itself: dates of composition, first performance, and a quotation from a review—preferably a hostile review so  the buyer gets a sense of superiority that he knows better than the music critic in Vienna or New York or Paris.  If I can find anything by Virgil Thomson I’ll type it in myself; I’ve always wanted to be Virgil Thomson for a paragraph. In Paris, especially. And when it is done, I’ll try it out on my book printer as a practice run.

As to my Book of Your Book proposal, The Camp Press of Austin, Texas writes they want a whole series: The Book of Titles. The Writers’ Book of Beginnings. The Writers’ Book of Middles. The Writers’ Book of Endings. A boxed set titled The Writer In You. Self-help books, like bad movies, do well with sequels.  Their query is long.  Can they be serious?  How close is Austin to Walking, Talking Del Rio?

They also suggest sequels to the sequels: Beginnings for Writers With No Place to StartThe Writers’ Middle at Middle AgeThe End: Writers Looking for Closure.  Another boxed set:  The Writer Gets Out of You.

For The Book of Titles, I’ve started a list:  The Mail TodayThe Shadow of Your Smile Meets the Windmill of Your Mind. Sometimes It is, Sometimes It Isn’t. Call Doctor Freud“Ward Six”:  The Study Notes,   Melinda:  Her Past and Present Day Breasts.

There was another package.  It had no return address.

-

The Variorum Edition of Turtles

—Where are we going?  said Beth.

—To see if my turtle has arrived, I said.

I have made a left turn off the Bay Bridge into the old Oakland Naval shipyard.

—What turtle?

—When I was a boy my mother and my aunt wrote my name on the back of a turtle and put it in the Gulf of Mexico.  The address was the Navy Shipyard, Oakland, California.  They used nail polish.

— It must have been a big turtle.

—I expect it was a small box turtle that had never been in salt water, and when I dropped it in the Gulf, it sank to the bottom and died.

—It probably just waited until you left and walked out and lived happily ever after.

Beth and I had been to a civil rights demonstration that afternoon in San Francisco.  Hazen had decided not to join us—and, instead spent the day with Jo—something I didn’t learn until later.

The trip to San Francisco was one of the few times Beth and I did anything by ourselves.  I found myself thinking it was date.

We went to the demonstration to watch.  We had not been washed down the steps by fire hoses; we were not black; we were not to be victims of a Chicago police riot; Robert Kennedy had not been killed, nor had Martin Luther King; we had not been lied to by Lyndon Johnson; Richard Nixon had yet to tell us he is not a crook; we had not been to the first reading of “Howl.”  Beth and I were just curious; we had signed a petition at a table on Bancroft, and we thought we’d go over and see what was up.

—Is this where your turtle is supposed to arrive?” said Beth.

I had been to the abandoned part of Naval Yard before.  A series of dirt roads led to a small pier on the west side. There were old wooden pilings poking through the marsh grass.  Somebody had put out a bench that was tilted in the sand.

I got out of Austen, walked to the bench, and leveled it. I sat down and looked over the Bay toward the Golden Gate Bridge.  It was getting late. Beth got out of Austen and joined me.

—Right here, I said.  Just about now.  I figured it would take this long for a box turtle to get from Galveston, Texas, to Oakland, California, if it went through the Panama Canal.

Beth didn’t say anything.  I looked at the water.

— What’s the matter? she said.

That afternoon we had been standing at the edge of the courthouse crowd when somebody bumped Beth and she stumbled.  I caught her, and her arm slid through my hand until her hand was in mine.  I pulled her upright, and when I did, I did not let go.  She took her hand away.

When you are young and the sun is setting through the Golden Gate Bridge over the San Francisco Bay and you are waiting for your turtle to finish a very long swim, and you are doing this with a woman you have recognized as a woman you love but who does not love you, you don’t have much to say.

—It’s not just what we saw today, is it? She said.

—You take the car, I said. I’m going to wait for my turtle.

—How will you get back?

—Walk to a bus line.

She paused.  She got up by putting her hand on my shoulder and raising herself.  She left her hand on my shoulder.

—I wish it could be different, she said.

A moment later, she started Austen.  We met the next day to add  chapters to Ta-Bid.

—Shall Ta-Bid have anything to say about love? said Hazen, and before we could answer, he said:  “Ta and  Bid bless love and non-love in all the faithful.  Let them copulate and not be fruitful until they want to be fruitful.  Let them be free in who they ball and not have the guillotine of guilt hanging over their head because they like a good doggie style with someone not in their regular curriculum.” Have you got that, Beth?

—No.

—What’s the matter? said Hazen.

 

Melinda:  Her Past and Present-Day Breasts  

Melinda is sometimes at the Barnes and Noble when I go there to have coffee and see how they display my books. I also check my competition.  A recent Angels in Art and Literature  coffee table book of mine signals the angel cult (My Angel’s O.K. And So Is Your Angel) of a few years ago has gone up-market to Milton and Blake.   That means the End Time for Angels.

Melinda does not recognize me.  She’s taller since her youth, and her height plus a tailored look gives her a striking elegance.  She’s lovely. Dark haired. She buys travel books:  Symbols of Morocco.  I designed it to cure a persistent virus I caught from Paul Bowles.

Melinda must be married because of a discrete—but clearly expensive—wedding ring.  Often she is with another woman. The same woman. Also lovely. Trimmed blond hair like a swimmer.  No wedding ring.  She lives in my building.

Let us imagine Melinda goes to a girl’s boarding college where, with no boys to admire her breasts. . . .   Her junior year she is home for Thanksgiving. After dinner, she drives her father’s Oldsmobile to the Plaza to look at the Christmas lights.  She walks the windows of what there is to buy. Let us imagine I am on the Plaza, having returned from Emporia. I park my Ford.  We don’t cross paths.

She stops in Houlihan’s for a drink. Her future husband is there: a blond, large-headed man—handsome and sure of himself. Let us imagine him brown-eyed. He is working in Mr. Bridge’s law office and lives in an apartment beside the Raphael.  They go there after the bar closes.  Her breasts are admired.  Let us imagine that the rest is marriage.  So the story must be for many who live around me.

I have wasted my life, but who hasn’t?  Or at least who has not come to that judgment?  The trick is. . .well, there is no trick; it is a matter of the arrangement of your “electrical soup”—as I remember the scientific sixties naming what we now call DNA. I am who I am because of electricity.  Call Doctor Edison.

Let us imagine that instead of marrying into Mr. Bridge’s law firm, Melinda and I meet while I am editing books of famous love quotations:  “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds. . .”?  If so, would we have made a pair?  A great team? Wasting our lives together?  Not all wasted lives are the same.

“The fin de siecle woman—I mean when she is young, and of course wealthy—must be independent, clever, elegant, intellectual, bold, and a little depraved.  Depraved within limits, a little; for excess, you know, is wearisome.” —Doctor Chekhov.

This week I saw Melinda with her daughter—or at least I suppose that was who it was.  Not a late-in-life daughter like my niece Lillian, but a woman on the cusp of being a Wednesday wife. It was evening. The Plaza that had seduced Melinda into a world of wealthy banking is again ablaze with Christmas lights.

Mother and daughter have stopped in front of Saks Fifth Avenue.  They are looking in the window.  I am behind them.   Her daughter sees me in the reflection and does not look away. I do not look away. She touched her finger to the window as if to point at a mink coat that adorned a mannequin, but she was touching my lips as if to say “be quiet.” Melinda said something I could not hear. They walked away. I watched them turn the corner at Pennsylvania Avenue toward Houlihan’s.  I walked on past.

I confess a pleasure in keeping my sense of loss at bay one day at a time.  Lists. Lovers.  Books to make instead of places to go. Books as inoculations against memory. Harrison’s, to page 161. Three words a day revisited out of Webster’s: cusp, interrogative, strophes. The aversion therapy of aversion therapy.  As a cure, it has its pleasures.

 

Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997)

Hazen kept saying there was this bitchin bunch of poets in North Beach, so one day the three of us drove Austen to San Francisco for a reading.

There were poetry readings at Berkeley, but we didn’t go because they were “official” and “sponsored,” and those were two things you didn’t want in your politics or your poetry.  For all its freedom, the University was still an organization run by people over thirty.

Because I was the tallest, I usually drove when the three of us were together. Beth would sit beside me and Hazen would sit in back. He liked it that way. Below us the Bay sparkled; ahead of us, the Bay sparkled.  I remember it was cheery, warm, and sunny.  It seems as if I remember every day like that.

First, we went to the City Lights Bookstore so Hazen could pick up his mail.  He could get it at his apartment in Oakland or at his home on Russian Hill, but he never gave those addresses.  In a moment of affectation, I too, began giving my address as the City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus Avenue, San Francisco. I had never gotten any mail there because my parents and my sister wrote me in care of Aunt Lillian; my brother never wrote, and Tina and I talked by phone.  Still, whenever we were in San Francisco, I’d check.

In those days your mail was arranged along a railing on a flight of stairs that lead to the basement of the bookstore: A’s were at the top and Z’s at the bottom.  Because Hazen used various names, his mail was up and down the stairs.

Some people had notices tacked to the wall above the railing:

“I need to see you again.  I am the girl with the long brown hair.  We met at Harry’s pad.  You were the one wearing black pants.  Please, please contact Harry.”

“We love you and we want you to come home.”

“Lost. Bongos.  Left at Jane’s bitchin Gold party when I got fucked up.  Tell Sally at desk.”

—Three letters, said Hazen as he came out. And one for you.

—Let me see.

I had not gone in because we were double-parked.

—I left it, Hazen said.  Pick up your own mail.  I’ll drive.

When I went in a tall man was standing halfway down the stairs.

—Mail? he said.

—Yes.  You?

—Sometimes.  If they don’t bring it up to my office.

I was looking for my letter.

—You a poet? he asked.

—No, I say. A pre-med student.

I found my letter.

—Poetry would be very good in medicine, he said.   Do you know Yeats?

—No.

—You should learn Yeats if you are going to be a doctor.  Learn it by heart.  But not “When You Are Old and Grey and Full of Sleep.” Too much death in it. But maybe that’s what you want to hear when you’re going out. Horseman pass by. It has a ring.

He said all this while reading the messages. Then he was gone. I walked to the top of the stairs where there was more light.

I cannot tell you this when we are together, but some day I will love you the way you want me to. I do not know when it will be.  I will send you your coffee cup.  I won’t blame you if you don’t wait. 

As I was leaving, the tall man was at the door.

—Here, he said and gave me a small book.  On me.  It’s not Yeats, man, but it will fit in your jean pocket.  Try it.  Pocket books.  Blue-jean pocket books.  Pull it out when you’re cutting on somebody’s gall bladder and read a few strophes. It will calm the bile. You can sit on it afterwards.  Strophes are life, man.  Do no harm.  Wear blue jeans.  Read strophes.

The book was Howl and Other Poems, and into it I folded Beth’s letter and put it in my back jean pocket.  It was a fit.  The man who gave it to me was Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

—That hot babe from Kansas? said Hazen from the car as I came out of the bookstore.

Beth would not look at me.  She had moved to the back of Austen.

—Yes, I said.

As I got into the passenger seat I touched her shoulder.  She shivered.

—Good for you, said Hazen.  I got two bitchin letters from my L.A. hot babes and one bitchin letter from some babe who didn’t even sign her name.  It says. . .

—Must you, said Beth from the back.  I think you boys can just keep your girls to yourself.

Hazen turned into the traffic and drove into North Beach.

We were early for the poetry reading so we decided to split up and meet later.  I walked all the way to Russian Hill and down the twisting street that you now see in movies. I found the house where Hazen lived.  I stood across from it and wondered, if I had grown up there, would it be different for Beth and me?  You think sentimental things like that when you are young.

I have just learned that Allen Ginsberg has died.  How I missed this news I do not know.  I am at that age when I wonder who is dead and who is alive.  Are all the members of the Kingston Trio alive?  Is Tom Lehrer alive?  Is Lawrence Ferlinghetti alive?  Ian Watt?

Apparently Allen Ginsberg died in New York of liver cancer (Harrison’s 1072).  Sometimes the news from New York makes it into the Country Club Plaza, sometimes not. About the wild man of great gay poets for whom Pretty’s lover was named:  not.

Ginsberg’s book (autographed that evening in North Beach) is in the drawer of my coffee table, Beth’s letter folded inside.  It did not come by mail.

There are days when time is circular, days when it is linear.  Some days, a tapestry.  In recent days it has been skipped, sorted, filed, scanned, and party shuffled.  When I learned that Allen Ginsberg had died it seemed to have happened on a line of time parallel to mine, albeit on a segment of that line ahead of me.  I have lived with the placid assumption that the man I was to hear read “Howl” on the evening I got a letter from the only woman who was able to promise to love me was still reading “Howl” somewhere, someplace.  Garbanzo beans and all.

 

Today in the mail came a holograph of Allen Ginsberg’s “America.” There was no return address.  Sometimes, baby, time catches you unaware.

 

The New Testament of Good and Bad 

—Let’s drop evil, said Hazen one day.  Let’s not call Doctor Beelzebub.

—Professor Gabin said we had to deal with good and evil, I said.  Let’s not push it.  Good and evil for the sake of a good grade.

—Good and “bad,” said Beth. How about “bad,” Hazen?  Is “bad” good for you?

—I can deal with “bad”, said Hazen.  It’s all that apocalyptic shit I don’t want in our religion.  It leads to. . .

—Religion, said Beth.

—Exactly, said Hazen.

—Let’s take a walk, Beth said.

—Where? I asked.

—Why? asked Hazen.

— Let’s take a meditation walk, she said.  To think about good and evil.

—“Bad,” said Hazen.

—“Bad,” said Beth.  We’ll put it in the Ta-Bid.  “A walk for good or bad shall be observed by the faithful.”

— Where to? said Hazen

—Not together, said Beth. That’s where to.  We each take our own “mediation walk” and come back in fifteen minutes.  Go where you want.  Just think about good and bad, and when we get back, we’ll talk about it.

—Half an hour, I said.

—Half an hour it is, said Beth and wrote something in her notebook.

I walked into the neighborhood where Pretty had escaped.  It was sunny, but there had been fog in previous days and when that happens, it is as if there is a fragrance in the sunshine.

A man and his wife were setting out fall mums. Yellow. Orange. Red. They had a little assembly line going.  She’d take the mums out of their containers and put them into pots.  He’d put in the potting soil and pat it down around the plant and set it aside.  After they’d get four or five done, they’d pick up the pots and put them along the sidewalk that led to their house.  It’s difficult to think about bad when you watch people setting out flowers. I said as much when I got back.

—Call Doctor Voltaire, Hazen said.

—I don’t get it, I said.

—Neither do I, said Beth

—“Tend your own garden.”  It’s the end of Candide, said Hazen, shaking his head.

—I got a C in Western Civ, said Beth.

—If it’s not American history with heroes, I don’t know it, I said.

—What have we learned about good and bad? said Beth, trying to get us back on track.

—That mums are the best of all possible worlds, said Hazen.

—I learned there is someone who doesn’t like a blank wall, said Beth.

—Is that good or bad? I said.

—Blank wall is bad; wall with a mural is good.

She failed to keep her smile tucked.

—Have we seen such a wall? Hazen asked.

—We have, said Beth.  I walked over to Austen and asked her what she knew about good and bad and she told me to go into the hospital and look around. I went in and there was a large blank white wall in the lobby that wants to be painted.  By me.  Not to do so is bad.  To do so is good.  It could be my first mural.

—Call Doctor Locke, said Hazen.

Both Beth and I look at him.

—Tabula rasa, for God’s sake, said Hazen.  A blank de blanche.

—Make that a C minus in Western Civ, said Beth.

—You, I asked Hazen.  Good and bad.  What did you learn?

—Good is bad, said Hazen.  And ditto backwards.

—Where did you walk to learn that? Beth asked.

—I went to Mel’s and had a cup of coffee and a glazed donut—which I know from our research, is bad.  So I get this sugar-caffeine hit and think I’d like a joint.  Then I’m thinking about drinking beers at the No Name and how good it feels to get wasted.  So it comes to me:  A lot of what I like is bad. Driving Austen fast. Trying to ficky-ficky with girls just for their bodies.  I think it’s bad how short I am.  I think it’s bad for me to even want to be tall.  I’m a walking smoking, eating, balling, bitchin bad. But I like it. That’s Bad.  C’est moi. However girls like me because I’m bad.  Clean and smart, but bad.  That’s good.

—Whoa! said Beth.  How did you get from a glazed donut to “Good is bad?”

— It was a Voice of Cosmic Knowing coming out of Mel’s coffee cup, Hazen said.  Why do we need to know the origins of the pronouncements of Ta-Bid?  “And the voice of Ta-Bid can be heard coming out of the hole of glazed donuts.  And the voice of Ta-Bid can be heard in the No Name, and the Voice of Ta-Bid can be heard throughout the City Lights Bookstore and in the Berkeley Public Library and at Sather Gate.  And the voice of Ta-Bid shall be heard when the girl you’re balling but whose last name you don’t know goes off quick like a pistol.”  That’s the kind of stuff we need in­ The Book of Ta-Bid. We need lists. Lists are good for a religion. And the more “ands” the better.  And don’t forget the semi-colons.

—Whoa, said Beth

—Is the Voice of Ta-Bid bad? I asked Hazen.  Or good?

—It’s bad for you if you’re good, said Hazen. If you’re bad, it’s good. That’s the enigma of Ta-Bid.  We need enigmas to go along with our paradoxes and lists and “ands” and semicolons. And enigmas. Especially enigmas.  Ta and Bid are enigmatic deities.

—I’m lost, said Beth.

—Bad, said Hazen, but he doesn’t smile, and he doesn’t seem to think he’s made any kind of joke.

 

Cleanliness Is Next to Godliness

One day I had a note on my room door to call Aunt Lillian. Over the phone, she said she wanted to meet me at the Med.  I didn’t usually go to the Med because it was too expensive; besides, Beth and Hazen and I drank our coffee at Mel’s. Also, the Med was where the Katherine Rosses of the world went: those golden women—sorority sisters or not—who were there on “coffee dates” with men of the same kind. You didn’t wear your surgical mask unless you were the real thing—and not even then. When I wasn’t at the lab, I wore jeans and a work shirt: not the costume of the Med.

—Isn’t this lovely? said Aunt Lillian as I sat down.  She had gotten a table outside.  Across the street I could see the Cadillac parked more on the sidewalk than not, its rear end in Bancroft, the front end causing a bottleneck for students going to and from classes.

—I never come here, I said.

—Oh, she said.  Why not?  It’s only a walk for you.  And look at all the students.  So clean and healthy and happy.  And the sunshine!  I think they make the sunshine in California for the students.  Don’t you think so?  Look how clean and neat they are.  It’s the sunshine.  Don’t you think so?

—They are not my kind of people.

My aunt looked at me.  She was wearing a yellow straw hat and oversized round sunglasses.  I realize I don’t want to be seen with her, but I never thought she might not want to be seen with me: my jeans and sweat shirt and—because we had worked late at the lab the night before and I had overslept—I had not shaved and my hair was badly combed.

—If you are going to follow in your uncle’s path, my aunt said, lowering her sunglasses, all people are “your kind.” And if you think that is true only in a professional sense, then you should not be a doctor.  At least not the kind of doctor Conroy would want you to be.  Just because these boys and girls here are privileged does not mean they are bad.  They will get sick just like your friend Beverly. And just because Harold dresses the way he does and behaves the way he does, doesn’t mean he’s not fortunate.  That’s an act he’s putting on.  His family is very comfortable.  How do you suppose he lived abroad?  Not on money he earned.

—Yes, Aunt Lillian.

—I have a letter from your mother.  But first let’s have a coffee and a pastry.  I see they have brioche here.  How lovely they should have brioche in a student coffee shop.  That way they can learn a bit of French. We only had glazed donuts when we were students. And you know Marie Antoinette never said let them eat cake, she said let them eat brioche.  It was probably not the best thing to say.  But they didn’t have to create such a fuss over it, and in the Place de la Concorde of all places.  Conroy and I were there years ago, and it was sunny, just as it is now. Please, she said, and indicated I should go inside and get us our coffee and brioche—which I did.

—Did you have enough money to pay for it? she asked when I returned.

She was fumbling in her large purse.

—Yes.

—There is a letter from your mother in here and a check to come home for Christmas, she said. I think they must be worried that the address of your rooming house isn’t safe, and when they talked to me the other day, they said your girlfriend from Kansas had called because she couldn’t find you and that you had given her an address in San Francisco that was a hippie bookstore.  Now, you know your uncle and I do not mind that you go to hippie bookstores and even that you have friends who are hippies, but I don’t see the point in worrying your mother about these things.  She is your mother after all, and while I am not a mother and never have been and at this age. . .well, because your uncle has helped all kinds of people, I know what it must be like to be a mother, and I can tell you that no mother in Kansas wants to worry that her son has turned into a hippie in a California bookstore.

—Yes, Aunt Lillian.

All this time she was sorting through her purse. I thought she must have left my mother’s letter behind.

—I can stop by later and pick it up, I said.

She didn’t seem to hear me.

—I want to take a picture of you so your mother can see you’re all right.  Here, she said, is a comb for your hair.  And I’ve brought Conroy’s razor and a bar of soap, so just go into the men’s room and whisk those whiskers off and come back, and by then I’ll have found my camera and your mother’s letter. Now scoot!  Cleanliness is next to godliness.

In the bathroom was a guy from my World Religion class who had nodded to me when he came into the Med.

—That your mother? he said as I soaped myself  for a  shave.

—My aunt, I said. She wants to take my picture and send it to my mother. She says that cleanliness is next to Godliness.

—How you doing on your religion? he asked, taking a pee.

—Working on it.  You?

—Not good.  But you’ve given me an idea.

—What’s that?

—We’re OK with the small shit but we haven’t got any big ideas.  Like how the world started, good and evil.  All that bull-crap.  But “cleanliness is next to godliness” is a big idea.  I think we can build on it.

—It’s all yours, I said.

We walked out together.

—Here’s your letter, said my aunt and laid it on the table then puts her coffee cup over it.  Now sit up straight.  You look so clean with your hair combed, and now that the whiskers have been whisked off.  Whisked away.

She snapped a couple of pictures, then moved her coffee cup off the envelope.  She took off her glasses and looked at me.  She put the camera back into her purse.  She opened the envelope and handed me the check, but not the letter.  She looked at me again.

—Such sunshine.

Her eyes were moist.

—You mother writes your father is sick, she said, looking at the envelope. Conroy says he will not get better.  Do you understand?

-

Convictions I Don’t Have

—And there shall be no duties for the Faithful, intoned Hazen one day.

—Why not?  Beth asked.

—It leads to trouble, said Hazen.  Have you been awake in Gabin’s class?  Every religion is trying to kill off every other religion because it is their duty.

—Then why not make our religion like other religions? I asked.  Let’s have prescriptions for the faithful.

—Like what? said Hazen. That if you don’t believe in Ta-Bid you’ll be doomed to a cave with dentist chair music by Ray Coniff?

It was raining; a storm had blown in off the coast and was rattling the windows in Beth’s apartment. She had made fish soup for lunch. What you get for a change of seasons in California is a change of weather.

—If it’s a religion, it can’t be different, I said.  The only thing that makes them different are the names of the gods and how nasty they are about what happens to you if you don’t believe. And how good it is when you’re dead if you do believe.  It’s a matter of describing sticks and carrots.  Only the sticks are swords and stones and hot coals.  If you make Ta-Bid different from that, it won’t be a religion.

Both Beth and Hazen looked at me; maybe it was because this was one of the first times I’d said something with conviction.  Even now I don’t have many such moments, and I’m not sure how many convictions you need to get from one day to the next.   My guess is three to six will do for tenure.

—Why make Ta-Bid any different? I asked again.

—For the fun of it, Beth said.

—That’s part of it, said Hazen.  It’s not like we’ve been studying  “The Comic Routines of Mohammed,” or “The Song and Dance of Buddha.”  Unless you count zapping the fig tree as a Mort Sol routine, Jesus didn’t have much of a funny bone.

—You’re getting serious about this as well, I said to Hazen.  I thought it was a joke to you.  Now you want the joke to be serious.

—Parody, said Hazen.

I could tell he was trying to think through his position.

—I want Ta-Bid to be a serious parody, said Hazen.

—To be instructive? asked Beth.

—No, said Hazen.  I think we should have a religion that doesn’t preach.  It’s not something you live by.  It’s not a painting of a grandmother that looks like a grandmother, even if it looks like a grandmother.

—Then it can’t be a religion, said Beth. In religion, grandmothers are grandmothers with tales to tell. Trees are trees.  Stories have meanings and morals to them.  You might be able to make an impressionist religion, but not an abstract one.  In Rembrandt Moses is holding the tablet for us to read.  It’s not Picasso showing us the score the musicians can’t see because it’s in front of their stands.

We heard someone come into the apartment building. It will turn out to be Earl. When he gets to the top of the stairs Beth lets him in. He is in bad shape. Hazen and I finish our soup and wash up while Beth puts Earl to bed.  This was after Earl was out of jail, but not long after.  And it is when, later that night, Beth comes to my room and asks me to help her take Earl to the hospital.

And I do, driving Austen while she is in back and Earl is in front drooling and breathing in gasps, and he has pissed himself like Ratso will do in a bus to Florida; and I know even then as we go through the Berkeley night with the storm  over, I know without my Harrison’s or my number 39 bus ride to the medical center, that Earl will be dead one way or another.

—See you later, I said to Beth as Hazen and I left.

—Yes, said Beth, but she did not look at me, but at Hazen.

—She should dump that jerk at the pound and let somebody bleed him for research, said Hazen as we leave the apartment building.

—You need Austen? I asked.

—All yours, said Hazen.

—I’ll leave it for Beth, I said.

 

The Illuminated Manuscript of the Book of Ta-Bid

Today I received The Illuminated Manuscript of the Book of Ta-Bid.  The cover has had something spilled on it, and there is a page torn toward the back, but otherwise it has weathered its decades well.  There was no return address.

Before the fall semester ended, I was looking through Moe’s bookstore on Bancroft and saw a selection of blank books, some with cloth bindings, some with leather bindings.  All lovely and expensive. There were sketch books. Dairies. Others were books with only blank pages. Years later, I would say no to working on empty page book projects: Men’s Best Thoughts About Women’s BasketballWhat Every Woman Needs to Know about a Shotgun.

Some of the Blanks in Moe’s had lined paper—sometimes with margins, sometimes not.  Most were quartos. One—and it was the only one of its kind—had a deep brown leather cover in which you could see the imperfections of the hide: the range scars a steer taken to market from the Flint Hill west of Emporia.

It was a folio, although I did not know to call it that at the time.  I just knew the book was larger than the other books.  Inside, the paper (a “text” of a decent quality now that I see it again; maybe two wired without a coating; no acid) was wide lined.  Letterpress lined.

Gold leaf had been used as decorative bosses and corner pieces.  With that gold, and later with calligraphy and illustrations of The Book of the Ta-Bid by one Beth Brookings, the volume became an “illuminated manuscript.”  As much an “illuminated manuscript” as Ta-Bid was a religion.

—What’s that? said Hazen.

—A blank book, said Beth, turning the pages.

—What for? said Hazen.

The Book of Ta-Bid, said Beth.

—I thought so, I said.

—But we’ve already handed it in, said Hazen.

Given Hazen’s ability to create whole worlds out of irony, derision, and contempt, it was always surprising to me how literal he could be.

—After we get ours back from Professor Gabin, said Beth, more to me than to Hazen, you want me to make a book of our religion?

—That’s what I thought, I said.  But it would be a lot of writing.

—Why?  said Hazen.

—For the fun of it, Beth said.

—I don’t get it, said Hazen.

—It’s for us, she said.

—Will you illustrate it?  I said.

—You mean down the sides? said Beth.  Like The Book of Kells?

—I don’t know about The Book of Kells, I said.  But yes.

—There will only be one copy, said Hazen.  How can each of us have a copy?

—Then you’ll do it? I said.

—What a lovely question, she said. Yes. I always wanted something to scribe. Someday I’d like to make a series of paintings on which I write quotations from other painters. I just read one from Klee I like very much. Yes.

I have put The Illuminated Manuscript of Ta-Bid on my coffee table. It sits among books given to me by my wives when they’ve learned I had something to do with publishing. The Golden Age of Painting in Spain, It Happened On Broadway. Ukiyo-E Paintings, and, not known to the gift giver, one of my own design: Geloto in Rome.  I keep these books around for few weeks, as if to rest them before I move them down the hall.  The Illuminated Manuscript of the Ta-Bid is not diminished by being part of the arrangement.  Nor will it migrate.

 

Our Blank de Blanche Design Proposal: Five and Six of X

Five: The Vicarious Edition

Title:  Let Us Imagine Lost Love

A. Broadside. Un-paginated sheets in a box.

B. Sub title:  “Assembly required:  No instructions included.”

C.  Vandercook proof press.

D.  Typeface for text:  Bodoni Bold.  14 point. Maroon ink.

E.  Paper: canvas.

F.  Text: All of the above. All of what follows.

Six: The Espresso Printer Edition

Title:  Let Us Imagine Lost Love

  1. Bodoni Bold.  14 point.  Maroon ink.
  2. Paper: Stock cream. 20 pound.
  3. 6×9 Perfect bound.
  4. Cover: Yellow Coffee Cup
  5. Text:  All of the above.  All of what follows.
  6. One copy only.

 

— Robert Day
Bookbinding header, color-001

Robert Day’s most recent book is Where I Am Now, a collection of short fiction published by the University of Missouri-Kansas City BookMark Press. Booklist wrote: “Day’s smart and lovely writing effortlessly animates his characters, hinting at their secrets and coyly dangling a glimpse of rich and story-filled lives in front of his readers.” And Publisher’s Weekly observed: “Day’s prose feels fresh and compelling making for warmly appealing stories.”

The novel banners at top and bottom are by Bruce Hiscock.

Jan 062014
 

Segura

Mauricio Segura’s Eucalyptus, part of the Biblioasis International Translation Series, is a novel about identity and ownership, a narrative that drops a (relative) stranger into a (relative) strange land and lets the skeletons tumble from the closet. This may sound familiar. And yet, Segura avoids the clichés normally associated with these kinds of stories, twisting Eucalyptus into a strange, existential whodunnit. As I wrote in my review, “Segura isn’t quite interested in ‘you can’t go home again’ platitudes. Rather, he finds fascination in more oblique questions: What is home? Who truly belongs to a parcel of land? And it is these queries that make Eucalyptus an adventurous, hypnotic read.”

The following excerpt comes from chapter two, chosen because it does a great job representing not only Segura’s skills at immersing the reader in location, but also the thematic ideas of identity and ownership that pervade the narrative. There isn’t much one needs to know to appreciate this snippet: Alberto, Eucalyptus‘s protagonist, has just traveled to Chile with his young son, Marco, to bury his father, Roberto. In chapter one, the duo come across Araya, Alberto’s uncle, who tells Alberto a tale that paints Roberto in a cold light. As chapter two opens, Alberto and Marco are waiting for Roberto’s sister, Noemi, to meet them.

— Benjamin Woodard

Eucalyptus

In the middle of the afternoon, tired of waiting for Noemi to come back, tired of the stale odour in the house, Alberto took off in the pickup with Marco. His elbow propped on the open window, he watched, through the rear-view mirror, the light wind at play in his son’s hair. When he turned into the Avenida Pablo Neruda, a flash of sunlight created a blinding spot on the windshield, with a rainbow-coloured aura. He passed square after square, and although on many of them youngsters were playing football or marbles, although the benches shone bottle- green, although no litter was lying about, they all seemed drab, desolate. Was it the concrete covering the ground? Or the smog that, like an ulterior motive, darkened the city in full daylight?

He parked the pickup in front of a glass building, in which were reflected the movie theatre’s heavy columns, encrusted with dirt. He bought some fried cheese empanadas, Marco’s favourite, in a nearby grocery store, and they ate them in the shade of a palm tree, on a bench in the Plaza de Armas. As the fountain shot its jet of water towards the sky in a deafening cloud, he scanned an election poster on a lamppost. “Francisco Huenchumilla, Concertación candidate for mayor of Temuco. Para un ciudad próspera.” He wondered if Temuco had ever had a native mayor. Behind them, music from another time, childlike and gay, drifted into the square. A man with a hand organ was drawing all eyes. On his shoulder, a monkey munched peanuts and made faces. When he saw Marco watching the show, wide-eyed, Alberto remembered his first impressions of the city when, after having left Chile at the age of four, he returned with his family. At the time everything seemed dirty and old-fashioned; the cars, the excessive pollution, the shifty faces of the street children, the cadaverous features of the women kneeling on the sidewalk, selling Kleenex or mote con huesillo. And then, during the same visit, he went from one extreme to the other: he suddenly felt as if he were being reunited with a buried part of himself. He didn’t want to leave. But this honeymoon didn’t last: people, his extended family above all, made him understand that he was not quite one of them, that in certain respects, perhaps the most important, he was too gringo, a remark they let drop, sometimes in jest, at other times in all seriousness. Since then, he had never felt at home either here or back there.

A little girl, her hair held back with pink ribbons, was walking with her mother, a balloon in her hand. He bought one for Marco, and made a knot for him at his wrist with the string; from that point on his son kept his eyes on the balloon, a smile on his lips. They strolled, and soon came on itinerant sellers of every age, set up in front of a shopping centre, behind wool blankets on which were displayed miniature tanks, lighters, ballpoint pens, underpants. Alberto told himself that Araya’s story was not at all surprising. He was like that, his father, totally unpredictable, loving to spring surprises and to make a scene, seeking always to protect his moral and material independence.

“And what are going to do now your papa’s dead?” asked Marco.

The question pulled him up short.

“Don’t worry about me.”

And he tried to smile.

“Fleurette says we go up to heaven when we die.”

Fleurette was his schoolteacher.

“You think Abuelo’s going to heaven?”

“If he behaved well, yes. If not, perhaps no.”

“Did he behave well?”

Alberto shrugged his shoulders.

Then, a bit farther on:

“Papa, but why did he die, Abuelo?”

He met his son’s eyes.

“Are you going to die one day, too?”

He nodded, yes.

Seeing his son’s concern, he added:

“Don’t bother about that. It won’t be for many years. We’ve lots of good times ahead of us.”

He gripped his hand a little more tightly.

*  *  *

Back in his grandparents’ house, he went upstairs with Marco to the room where his father was laid out. Abuela, still sitting in front of the window, raised her head and blinked her eyes when they appeared, her wine-red manta accentuating her slumped shoulders. She stared at them, knitting her brows, then with a movement of her chin she ordered Alberto to introduce himself. When he revealed his identity, she repeated to herself, “Roberto’s son,” as if she no longer remembered Roberto but didn’t want to admit it. After a moment, as Alberto became conscious of the dim light surrounding him, she asked him curtly to leave, because the real Alberto was a boy living in Canada “who’s no bigger than that,” she said, stretching out the fingers of one hand. He replied that he was the boy, that he had visited her four years earlier. But she made a dismissive gesture with her index and middle fingers, indicating that he should leave. Then he took out of his pocket a watch with a chain, a present from his grandfather, went up to her and held it out. She took it, weighed it, and stared for a long time at the motionless hands, as if memories were working their way bit by bit up to the surface of her mind.

“It doesn’t work anymore?”

“For the last few days, it stops and starts. It has to be repaired.”

She gave it back to him, and venturing a smile, she said:

“It’s really you, Albertito?”

He held the watch and got on his knees at her feet. With her rough fingers, she patted Alberto’s hair and cheeks. He looked at her face, which, despite her yellowed eyes, despite the ravages of time, brought back to him a torrent of memories, of when he was Marco’s age and she kept him with her for entire days, before the dictatorship chased them out of the country again.

“You look more and more like Roberto,” she said, mussing his hair. “Do you have his character, too?” she asked, teasingly. “Ay, Dios mío, I hope not!” she added, smiling.

He returned her smile and pushed his face up against her skirts. He felt her own special odour attack his nostrils, one of wool, of tenderness, and of a madness she would not concede. He kept his eyes closed, persuaded that when he opened them he could remove himself from this oppressive climate of mourning.

She gestured to Marco that he should come near. Caressing his hands vigorously, as if she could not believe the softness of his skin, she asked him where his mother was. When the child explained that she had stayed in Canada, she looked at Alberto the way she used to when she was going to scold him.

“I’m not wrong, then?” she said. “You are like Roberto?”

Continuing to pass her hands through his curly hair, she raised her eyes to the ceiling and, in a stronger voice, as if she were addressing a large audience, embarked on a confused tirade against men and the desires that possess them like evil spirits. An evil she traced back to her dead husband, and her husband’s father, and his father before him. She went on with her monologue, digging deeper into the family’s past, and recalling, as she never failed to do, their ancestors’ arrival from Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century, from an idyllic village called Monastir, today Bitola, at the heart of Macedonia. And Alberto was treated to the entire narrative of the family’s founding, only now it was timely, because although he knew it was a romanticized version, he needed to hear this story of emigration, of a flight by boat against the backdrop of a great conflagration, of the persecution of the Jewish community, and the decadence of the Ottoman Empire. Then, losing the thread of what she was saying, as if suddenly she had come back to herself and the weighty concerns of the present, she went silent. Her eyes darted this way and that, while at last tears ran down Alberto’s cheeks.

— Mauricio Segura, translated from the French by Donald Winkler

————————————

Born in Chile in 1969, Mauricio Segura grew up in Montreal and studied at Université de Montréal and McGill University. A well-known journalist and documentary filmmaker, he is the author of three novels and a study of French perceptions of Latin America. He lives with his family in Montreal.

Donald Winkler is a Montreal-based literary translator and documentary filmmaker. He has translated books by the astrophysicist Hubert Reeves, the philosopher Georges Leroux and the novelists Daniel Poliquin and Nadine Bismuth. Winkler is a three-time winner of the Governor General of Canada’s Award for French-to-English translation.

Dec 132013
 

My Nine Daughters

A man has nine daughters, including Emily A and Emily B, by nine different wives, and one day he sits down to write the stories of their births. This is the concept behind Marty Gervais’s charming tour de force “Nine Lives: Reunion in Paris.” There is no domestic angst, no break-up melodrama here; just a man who seems sweetly committed to romantic entanglements and no birth control. And what do you know? Things turn out well. The story has the feel of Latin America about, just this side of Magic Realism; something like Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Script Writer, which also shares the hilarious recursiveness of plot(s). Marty last appeared on these pages as a poet. You can read more about him there.

dg

This is fictional. I really only have one daughter. But I was in France with these lovely young women — students from the University of Windsor. We were down by the Seine one night drinking red wine, and some young men — very drunk — strolled by and asked why I was with all these beautiful women. Before I could say anything, one of them, Krysten, piped up, “This is our Papa!” (She spoke French to them.) They stepped back, surprised. She added, “He was married to each of our mothers, and this is our reunion where we get to meet each of our step-sisters. Nine different wives, nine different mothers.” The young men shook their heads in disbelief. One exclaimed, “That is a good life!” And so, on the flight back to Canada, I started writing this piece.

—Marty Gervais

 

That last night in Paris, we went down to the river with two bottles of Burgundy wine. We watched the river come alive with lights. I spied the young boys cavorting in the darkening landscape. And waved away the men hawking cigarettes and small bottles of wine. Saw a man coaxing a thin young woman to join his five buddies. I sat silently watching and sipping red wine out of a plastic cup, half listening to the nine of you trading stories of one another, talking about your mothers, my nine wives. You, my nine daughters. Nine different mothers. Nine stepsisters meeting for the first time. A rendezvous in Paris. These are your stories. This is how I met your mothers.

§

Dear Sarah

You danced along the Seine in the fading light above the rooftops, the river rejoicing in the thin shadows that lift and play on a cobblestone night. You are the first, your mother a gypsy I met in Bologna, a young girl riding the commuter train. I’d see her every morning on my way to the library. Her hips sashaying through the aisles, dark and brooding eyes, and a smile that lit up the faces of men everywhere. I spoke to her one dark morning when it was raining, and I let her take my umbrella and trailed after her to a small albergo in the fish market. A room overlooking the street. I watched her unlatch the big windows that ran from floor to ceiling, and she opened them to the rain, the men in the market hurrying to cover the tables with tarps, and scrambling for shelter. She made me tea, boiling up water on a small stove down the hallway, and I sat on the edge of the bed, and cupped a rounded clay mug, and I listened to her to speak about her family from Vienna. Street musicians. How her father wasn’t happy with her — she couldn’t play the fiddle to save her soul. But she could dance. They would play, and she would dance. Her body, light and lively, her skirts catching the wind… That afternoon, she danced in the dark room above the fish market, moving with such grace, such wonder. We stayed for a week, and I quit my job to join her family in Vienna where we were married… It couldn’t last. I knew that. Perhaps even that day in Bologna. I knew nothing of her pregnancy until I received a telegram telling me of your birth. By then I had crossed the ocean, returned home and was working at the University of Toronto medical library. I disappeared into the labyrinth of stacks, and slumped in its silence and read about you: She is a daughter. Dark eyes, delicate hands. Looks nothing like you.

§

 Dear Jacklyn

I met your mother in Krakow. I had gone to the opera house in the late afternoon.

Shocked to hear the trains rumbling so close by, just outside the tall narrow windows, the place shuddering like a startled puppy. It annoyed me and took my attention away, and when I looked up I saw her across the aisle. She was by herself. Her hand clutching a leather purse or bag. A scarf covering her head. She glanced at me, and gave me that look as if she knew me, had met me somewhere. I instantly turned away. I didn’t want her to think I was staring, but I wondered what it was about me that caught her attention. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see that she had turned to look at me again. I tried to fix my attention on the concert program. The pianist was playing Polonaise in A-flat major. I was in Krakow on a research grant. I was searching for a family that I had been swept up in the Nazis in the war — it was thought they were Jews, and both the mother and father had been arrested and sent to the camps. They perished there. My interest, however, was a boy who had survived, and had lived with an uncle who worked as a shoemaker. I was having trouble finding people who knew him. That afternoon when I walked out into the courtyard outside the theatre, your mother was there. Once again, she glanced at me, but this time, I nodded and smiled. She paused, then shyly stepped over in my direction, and we stumbled through introductions. I knew no Polish, but she knew some English … Three months later, we were married. I was the only English-speaking person at the wedding. My parents refused to go. They still weren’t happy with my marriage. We lived in a small flat above a café. I continued my research and wanted to return to Toronto, but we ran into difficulties with her emigration to Canada. I had to leave, but I promised to smooth the way for her to join me. I was very much in love with her. At night, in the four-room flat in Krakow, I would sit with her in the kitchen. A bare tungsten lightbulb dangling above us, cupboard doors sagging on their hinges, the floor cold against the soles of our bare feet. I held her hands in mine, and we talked about the future. A life in Toronto. That April when I left, I promised I would return by summer. She need not take anything. But after a few months of wrangling with immigration authorities, and getting nowhere, sadly I gave up. It was in September that she told me she was expecting. It took your mother another 10 months before she let me know I had yet another daughter. After a year, she sent me a photograph. My second born.

§

 Dear Samantha

I left a steamer trunk behind in Bologna with my first wife. Some day I might let you see it. I have it stored away — its contents a miscellany of notebooks, post cards, dried flowers, Russian watches and hats, things I picked up on my trips to the book fairs in that city. I met your mother one night in January when I decided to go Tre Poetes, a café of the three poets. The waiter was leaning up against the doorframe, a cigarette dangling from his lips as he spoke, the ceiling fans whirling like lazy dancers. Your mother was clearing the tables. The most beautiful smile as she gazed up. I am not sure why I did what I did — it was not at all characteristic of me to be so bold, but I reached out and took her wrist and thanked her. Surprisingly, she smiled. She never spoke a word. Months went by before I saw her again. This time at the market. Three days before I was returning to Toronto. She recognized me and nodded. I can’t believe what happened next. I cancelled my flight. The next afternoon, we were in the plaza when it started to rain, and we ran for cover under the colonnaded streets, and found shelter in a noisy cramped café. A soccer game blinking away on the TV behind the bar. Italy versus England. We could hardly hear each other, but there was something special in that moment. We slept that night on the third floor of the same albergo where I had my first wife. A different room. I told her all about the gypsy wife. Men do that. They talk. Maybe it’s to make sense. Maybe it’s to boast. Maybe they think women are interested. We talk. We talk too much. But that night, she didn’t care as we snuggled in this quilted winter night. We were married in the summer. Our wedding night in the big room at the front of the house. I am not sure why your mother left me. I returned home to find her suitcases packed, and a man I had never seen conveying them to the car outside. We were still residing in Bologna. I knew of your birth from a newspaper clipping that arrived in the mail nine months later. An eight-pound baby girl.

§

Dear Victoria

I was at the post office in Rome when I met your mother. She was arguing with the clerk over a package that had arrived at her home in Malta. Somehow it had been ripped open, and its contents damaged. She wanted compensation, maybe an apology — I am not sure. It made little sense. She just wanted someone to talk to. She was getting nowhere, when suddenly she began directing everything at me. I nodded. I frowned. I sighed. Finally I was holding her hands as they dipped up and down, her dark eyes fixed upon me as if I could solve all the problems in the world. I am good listener sometimes. Maybe it’s because I really have little to offer. Maybe it’s because I really don’t care. I’m not sure. Maybe I care more than I think. In any case, for her, I was the only one willing to hear her story. Soon we had wandered far from the post office, and we were walking in the square— the afternoon light fading over tiled rooftops and the city exhaling its tired sounds. Your mother was the sweetest woman I had ever met. I was leaving that night for Sicily and asked her if she wanted to join me. I drove a 1964 Fiat 500. Its leather seats slightly ripped. Our suitcases taking up the entire back seat. We drove through the night, and she talked about her family in Malta, and begged me to join her. She wanted me to meet her parents. They owned a small hotel, and sometimes she worked in the kitchen. I couldn’t resist. A month later, we sailed for Malta. Two months later, we were married. Our honeymoon in a village by the sea. Four days. We never left our room. I was there for your birth. The doctor bundled you up and carried you down the narrow hallway, his shoes clicking on the tiled floors.  Your beautiful beautiful girl. Your mother left me in six months. I sailed to the mainland. I made my way to Prague. Another research grant. This gave me time to think.

§

Dear Emily B

I wasn’t surprised to meet you and see a camera in your hands. You are so much the image of your mother.  I can’t forget that moment when I met her. She was that lean, and elegant woman who moved right in front of me just as I stepping out of a taxi. She apologized for standing in my way. I noticed she was holding a Leica. She was photographing the cathedral that towered above the street. It surprised me that she spoke English. I paid the driver and turned to her again, for it seemed she was waiting for me to say something. Instead, she apologized awkwardly, then offered to carry my leather bag, or at least my satchel. I smiled and told her I really didn’t mind — she had not inconvenienced me in any way. Well, can I buy you a coffee? I agreed. We made out way to a small café. We were the only ones there except for the owner who was sweeping the floor. Your mother was a photographer then for a small news service. I know she gave this up a long, long time ago. That day her assignment was to photograph the restoration work being done on the cathedral. I asked her if she was married, and this surprised her. Actually she seemed offended. It wasn’t the kind of thing you should ask anyone. But she did tell me she had just broken up with a man that she loved very very much. He was notary, and made good money, and was well respected in the city. She had intended to marry him, but one morning she spotted him at the train station embracing a tall beautiful woman who was boarding the train. When she asked about this woman, he denied it. She was crushed. She stopped seeing him three months ago. That night, when I was unpacking some of the research material I had brought with me to the city, there was a soft knock at the door. It was your mother. She asked if I might join her for a drink. The rest is history. We were married in Prague. A small wedding. That night we drove to the Baltic coast. We stayed two weeks. It rained five days straight. We never left our rooms. Our meals were delivered from a nearby café. We were married for 17 months. You were born at Christmas when I was back in Toronto, struggling with a book I was researching. I received a phone call that night. A snowy night from your father. He seemed emotional. His first words were: She’s a girl. A little girl. That’s good. The marriage was doomed from the beginning. She wanted a career. I didn’t care, I guess. Or that’s what she claimed. It was always about what I wanted, never about her. I complained too much. I left for France that summer. You were eight months old. Your mother packed my suitcase and told me to leave. When I got to Paris, and walked from Gare Bercy to a nearby hotel, and opened my suitcase, there was a tiny photograph of you in the garden of our house in Prague. You were sitting on a blanket. Freckles, and pushing back strands of hair. I wrote you a letter and hoped your mother might read it to you one day. You were my fifth daughter. I told your mother nothing of the others.

§

Dear Emily A

I was surprised to find out that you played basketball. Your mother was an opera singer, as you well know. She gave it up by the time you were 12, and she had the most beautiful voice. In the early mornings when we were first together, I would be wakened by her at the other end of the flat we rented in High Park. As I say, I was surprised when we first spoke. I could see myself driving to the games in high school gymnasiums. I know nothing of the sport. But I look at you and beneath that athletic build is someone with culture, with intellect, someone who quotes philosophy and poetry as easy as breathing … You are like your mother that way. I met your mother when I was tired of Europe. I returned to Toronto, and within four or five months, I was looking for a job out west. I met your mother in Banff. I was at a conference. She was a singer, and had just finished a run in Calgary, and had joined some girlfriends for a weekend away. I was at the Rankin Hotel on the main drag. She was staying there too. We met in the lobby. I was reading the paper. She saw the headlines about the federal election taking place Monday, and asked if I was going to vote. Yes I said. Of course. She waved her hand as if to dismiss the whole affair. Well sure, she said. But really what’s the point? The same old stodgy bastards will get elected, right? I nodded, and then laughed. She smiled coyly. I asked lamely, What brings you to Banff? From there, we traded stories. I’m not sure what impressed your mother about me. But she was eager to hear all about my stories from Europe. She had always dreamed of singing opera in Bologna or Milan. I spoke about the colonnaded streets of the north, or the old opera house in Bologna. And the place by the sea in Malta. About travelling by train to the Baltic and Paris and Frankfurt. That afternoon, we walked down to the Bow. I rented a canoe and we kept close along the bank of the river. I told her its landscape reminded me of the poetry by Gary Snyder. I tried my best to quote from his work, and told her he was friends with Kerouac, that Kerouac had actually written a book about him called The Dharma Bums. The next day I returned to Toronto and for the next three months, I worked on my book. That fall, I flew to Paris for another conference. I hadn’t followed up with your mother at all since Banff. I had promised to write, and of course, I did not. She didn’t either. But there I was making my along Git-Le-Coeur one night when I ran into her. We stood in the street, police sirens wailing in the distance, and the street lights twinkling all around us, and it was if we were two long lost children finally finding one another. I remembered telling her in Banff all about Snyder and Kerouac, and told her she ought to check out Hotel de Vieux Paris, the place where Ginsberg and Bouroughs had stayed. That night, I walked her back to her hotel. She was in Paris to attend an opera. A friend had landed a job with a company travelling through Europe. She got me tickets, and we sat together the next night. I was in the city for a week. She spent two nights with me in a hotel with a view that overlooked the topsy-turvy coloured rooftops of Paris. I could see both Le Palais de Justice in the distance, and the Pont Neuf. By the fall we were married. We moved to a High Park in Toronto. That winter we went down to Grenadier Pond, and with the softly falling snow all around us, we promised one another we would stay together for ever. Forever turned out to be five months. I really did love her. But we argued over everything. Religion, politics, poetry, whether black was really black, neutello over chocolate, Mac versus PC, and the Leafs over the Canadiens … I finally moved out. You were born eight months later at the hospital right at the end of Roncesvalles. A plain, spiteful handwritten note: Your daughter was born yesterday. How many does that make now?

§

 Dear PAIGE

I saw a Polaroid shot of you when you were four. You wore glasses. Your smile was tender and earnest. You wore knee-high stockings, patent leather shoes and ribbons in your hair. I was dumbfounded and baffled as to why I was receiving this picture. That’s when I learned of your birth. That’s when I learned that you were the seventh daughter. I don’t blame your mother for keeping it from me. We were married for four months when she got pregnant. I knew nothing about it of course otherwise I might have stayed. But she kept it from me, perhaps to get back at me for leaving her. We were living in Saskatoon. I was working at the library. She was doing graduate work at the university. We met in Windsor, Ont. I was back in that region for some consulting assignments with the city over setting up its archives. I had become a specialist on French settlements. She was working at the museum there. We went out a few times. I didn’t think she was too serious, but when I got this appointment in Saskatoon, she asked me if I might consider living together. That’s when I popped the question. We were married in a civil service at City Hall. Our honeymoon was a bit old fashioned. We drove to Niagara Falls, and rented a motel room. From there, we drove to Saskatoon. I have to tell you, we really enjoyed each other’s company. And liked the same movies, same foods. I don’t think I ever loved your mother. It was more a matter-of-fact kind of marriage. Convenient. The day I left, I called a taxi and moved into a rooming house in town. I quit my job two months later, and moved to Windsor.

  §

Jessica

Your mother had red hair. I spotted her late one afternoon in Dublin. I had never been to Ireland before. This was the first time. A holiday finally. I was still smarting over the other marriages. Feeling pretty low. Wondering what had gone wrong. And daughters scattered across the globe. The taxi driver was welcoming me to the city, but I wasn’t really paying attention. We sped past a blur of shops, doorways, and men congregating outside of pubs. That’s when I heard the man tell me it was Bloomsday, the anniversary of when James Joyce and Nora Barnacle went out walking together for the first time, the day on which the novel Ulysses takes place. The 16th of June, 1904. A humid day in Dublin. You heard of Mr. Joyce? I nodded. Of course. And smiled. The driver’s face fragmented in the rear view mirror. He was smiling broadly and still talking. I got out at Finn’s Hotel. I knew that’s where Nora had worked as a chambermaid. I stepped out into the street, telling the driver I wanted to walk. Of course, I made my way to Merrion Square. After all that’s where James and Nora met, and passed by 68 Clare Street where Samuel Beckett’s father ran his business and where Beckett would write Murphy. Soon I was immersed in the culture and literature of the place, a city where each and every soul depends upon the weight of words. I found a tiny rooming house of sorts. The tiniest of rooms, as it turned out, on Upper Hatch. A garden flat with a sink in the room. The toilet was in a cramped little closet along the corridor. It was when I had opened the narrow window to the street that I saw your mother. The sun had just wedged itself between two storm clouds and it poured down upon her. Her red hair like an apparition. And she turned. I was on the second floor, and she saw me. I nodded a hello from the upper floor, and she bowed in dramatic fashion, sweeping her outstretched arms as if she stood on stage, then quickly glared at me. I was taken aback, and shut the window. This sort of thing never used to annoy me, but that night, she was part of my troubling dreams. The next morning in search of tea, I saw her walking ahead of me. A beautiful June morning. We both wound up at a take-away shop. She smiled coyly. The most heavenly face. She quickly apologized, and giggled a little. I didn’t know what to say, but she filled the silence with a flood of words. Suddenly I was learning everything about her — her father a ship builder, her mother, a nanny, and she, a librarian at the National Library. We stood in the street, my own words punctuating hers, but mostly with questions. A steady stream, her lively green eyes as fresh as mint, her soft white hands drawing out one story after another. I loved her instantly. That night, we met at a pub, and pressed close to one another because it was so rowdy and noisy. Again, I listened, and was taken into a maze of tales and adventures. A soft rain was falling when we made our way down the street to her one-room flat. I was pretty exhausted — still jet-lagged from my trip from Canada — and when she set about to boil up some water for tea, I fell asleep. I woke six hours later, still fully clothed, but my shoes were at the foot of the bed, one neatly placed beside the other. She was gone, but had left a note that she was at the library. We would meet later. And we did. I checked out of the damp little rooming house room, and your mother and I began living together. It was cramped in her squared-off flat, but I had little in the way of things. Mostly just clothes, and a typewriter. A portable. I would set it up by the window in the mornings and work when she was away. I stayed with your mother for three months. We were married by the same priest who had baptized her 20 years before. I wore a suit that her father gave me, one that had been worn by his brother to family funerals. I loved your mother, maybe more than anyone. The morning she told me she was pregnant, I did something inexcusable. I ran down the wooden steps to the street, and started walking. I wandered all over the city. I guess I thought I wanted her to have an abortion. She was Catholic. Her family wouldn’t have allowed it. Besides, she wanted children. When I returned that night, she glared at me from the wooden chair by the window. My typewriter was packed away in its case, and sat next to the tattered leather suitcase on the floor. She didn’t need to gesture to it. It was done. I told her that I loved her, but I didn’t want a child. She looked away, her right arm slowly gesturing in the gloom of the flat. It was done. I picked up the bag, and the typewriter case. Two nights later I was in London. I sent her a telegram to inform her of where I was staying. She never replied. I didn’t hear from her until I was back in Canada — spring, the following year. A modest note, unsigned: Your daughter Jessica is the eighth wonder of the world … red hair like her mother.

§

Krysten

I was in Montreal when a friend of a friend of a friend offered me tickets for a Canadiens game. I came out of the Metro at the old Forum at the last moment. It was early October. Uncommonly warm night. The crowds were still circulating at Atwater and Ste. Catherine streets. I wended my way through the mingling throng down to my seat. The puck had already been dropped. Next to me was a tall man who, within moments of me sliding into the seat beside him, had risen to his feet and left. He was frowning and silently pushed past the dark-haired woman next to him. That was your mother. She clearly was upset, fidgeting for some tissue. Glassy eyed. Her mind clearly not upon the game. Mind you, neither was mine. I was staring at her, and the empty arena seat stood yawned awkwardly between us. Finally, I spoke to her, and she pursed her lips, struggling to hold back a torrent of emotion. Then she spoke: He’s an ass. I listened. This wasn’t her husband. Not yet. He was her fiancé. A wedding planned for September. That wouldn’t happen now, she said. Too much had gone down. He had had an affair seven months before, and she kept raising it with him, despite promises she’d never to mention it again. She had broken that promise countless times. Then she apologized for spewing this all out in such a rush to a stranger. I said nothing, but moved into the empty seat next to her, and clumsily put my left arm around her shoulders, and surprisingly, she leaned into me. She apologized. We were strangers. She continued. I listened. She certainly didn’t need advice from someone married eight times. Your mother was such an elegant beauty — olive skin and winter dark eyes. When we left the game at the end of the second period, the Canadiens were ahead by two goals. I couldn’t tell you who scored. I couldn’t swear to anything about the game. We stepped out on to Ste. Catherine Street. It was the fall, and the air was warm. We waved down a taxi to take us to Le Spirite on Rue Ontario Est. Eclectic, crazy, cavernous, a décor of tin foil and mosaics, and that weird mixture of mellowy jazz. Your mother was hungry and polished off a huge bowl of leek soup, then a slab of chocolate cake. And I listened. By midnight, your mother was anxious to go home, and we parted. She really knew nothing about me — I had said so little. The next morning, I woke to her telephone call. She was working at a school on the west side of the city, and asked to meet me after work. We did. We met every night after work for about a month. She had ended her engagement. I finally wound up renting a small room in a boarding house. The room large enough to accommodate a solid arborite table, really a kitchen table where I’d work in the mornings by the window light. Writing a novel. It was going well. Your mother and I spent our time going for walks, though occasionally we would while away the time at a café, or take in a film. Once or twice, we went to a hockey game. It was about a month into the relationship that she felt confident enough to come to my place. That night, we slept together, huddled on a single bed. We woke in the morning to the blinds suddenly springing to action, and rolling up unexpectedly. We jolted from the bed. I nearly fell to the floor. We laughed about it. Somehow we felt guilty. Your mother hurriedly dressed and rushed to work. She was still smiling when I saw her to the door. The landlady scowled at her as she went out. Three months later, we went down city hall and made the arrangements. We were married in a civil marriage. The man presiding over it was a cousin to Jean Beliveau. We moved into a small flat above a tea shop, and life was good. I continued to work on the novel, and she at the elementary school. I’d wake up earlier and make porridge. Winter was upon us. I didn’t own a winter coat, but your mother brought one home for me from her mother’s. It had been her father’s coat, and though it was big, it served the purpose. Montreal was cold. And I hated the cold. I longed for Barcelona, or maybe Marrakech. I begged her to quit her job. I calculated that we could move to Europe. I was making good money from stories I was writing. She kept refusing. I swear I didn’t know she was pregnant with you when I left for Marrakech. I was strolling through the Berber market to find the man who would signal to me to sit down and have a cup of mint tea. He would smile, and signal to me, then would shift the large tin pot over the hot coals, and stuff fresh mint leaves into the steam. That morning, the boy who took care of my room and ran errands for me was suddenly standing beside me, out of breath. He told me of your birth. Seven pounds. Dark eyes. The most beautiful angel. Your little girl. Please come back. I drank the tea that morning, my insides burning. I made my way back to the rooms I rented by the month. It was near the old set that Hitchcock in 1956 had used for the opening scenes of The Man Who Knew Too Much with Doris Day and James Stewart. I smiled at the irony —I knew so little really. I felt compelled to send word back, and welcome you, but sadly I did not. I thought of your mother. I thought the others in my life, how I must seem to be such a cad. That morning I walked for two hours. Not sure where I went, or what I daydreamed. I was all over the map as my mind spun back to Bologna, Vienna and Prague. I should have written. So many times in my head, I wrote. I am now, and asking for this reunion. I see that you are playing hockey — I’ve read the notices in the paper. You grew up in Montreal, but now live in Windsor. From the photographs, you look so much like your mother. She was the sweetest. There are so many regrets. The biggest is leaving. I had wanted your mother to go away with me. I might not have left if I had known she was pregnant.

§

Tonight the nine of you drink red wine. This reunion of stepsisters is to say hello not goodbye. I tell each of you to catch the full moon that cruises over the Seine, where the nine of you have gathered. We see the moon bobbing among the rooftops and spires. I swear it is smiling. That big self-satisfied grin on its face tells me it has an opinion. Should I care? Listen? Maybe it’s time.

—Marty Gervais

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Marty Gervais is an award winning journalist, poet, playwright, historian photographer and editor. In 1998, he won the prestigious Toronto’s Harbourfront Festival Prize for his contributions to Canadian letters and to emerging writers. In 1996, he was awarded the Milton Acorn People’s Poetry Award for his book, Tearing Into A Summer Day. That book also was awarded the City of Windsor Mayor’s Award for literature. In 2003, Gervais was given City of Windsor Mayor’s Award for literature for To Be Now: Selected Poems. His most successful work, The Rumrunners, a book about the Prohibition period was a Canadian bestseller in 1980 and was re-released in an expanded format in 2010 and was on the top ten Globe and Mail bestseller list for non-fiction titles. Another book, Ghost Road and Other Forgotten Tales of Windsor was released in 2012. An earlier collection, Seeds In the Wilderness, of his journalism appeared with Quarry Press in Kingston. It includes interviews Gervais conducted with such notable religious leaders as Mother Theresa, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Hans Kung and Terry Waite. With this latter book, Gervais photographed many of these world leaders.

Dec 112013
 

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Joel Thomas Hynes is an actor and author from Newfoundland, an actor who has invented himself as a character, loosely based on himself, and then become the author he invented his character to be. Something like that anyway. He’s very funny, touching, acerbic, raw, scatological, and Rabelaisian. He’s a voice, a character actor — everything he writes has that down-home outport dialect that is at once subversive, hilarious and charged with poetry (and offense). He has made himself a piece of performance art, performed himself on stage, in films, in bars, in streets. He has become his other self. Wonderful to see.

This is an excerpt from a new novella, Say Nothing Saw Wood, just published in a beautiful edition by Running the Goat Books & Broadsides in Tors Cove. With illustrations by Gerald Squires. Read the text, and take a look at the video below of his Manifesto monologue.

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§

“O’ great saint Jude, whose traitor-sounding name, by man’s perceptions crude, confused is with the infamy and blame of him who to our gain and his disaster betrayed so kind a Master.”

Lost causes. Great St. Jude. Jude Shannon Traynor. Sounds a bit girlish I s’pose. Shannon is after me mother. Never knew her. Traynor being me father’s crowd. Leonard J. Traynor, so says me birth certificate. J for Joseph or John, one of them other bible names. Use to think it mighta stood for Jude. Len’s long gone too. All was left of him was the hood of his oilskin coat. Boat was called the Shannon Marie. People said Len was just askin for it to name ’er after a dead woman. I always thought it was a nice name for a boat.

They were takin in their gillnets for the year-end. Himself and his brother Angus. October. That undertow off Claire’s Head. So. Yeah. Angus, every time he told the story he always told it different. Sometimes he said Len fell overboard and other times he said he jumped. They stuck the hood of Len’s oilskin into a coffin with a set of rosary beads, a few flowers. Sunk the works into the dirt.

Dont remember much about Leonard. At the hay in the stable one summer, gettin me to jump it down. Never leave the prong lyin flat in the hay. Accident waitin to happen. I got one decent memory of his face, ’bout a month before he was lost. Maybe. Hard to keep things straight. Sometimes I dont know if a memory is a real thing or just some lie I’m tellin meself to help me get by.

Len, standin at me mother’s grave. Sunday clothes. Hard time keepin his balance, sorta lopsided. He dont say a word. Blesses hisself, bangs a nail back into her fence with a chunk of marble. Turns and looks at me. I’m sure he’s gonna crack me one. His teeth are…  and his eyes. I used to like to think I had his eyes. Grabs me by the back of the neck and shoves me forward. I trips, lands face first onto me mother’s grave. Next he got me up in his arms, walkin me out through the gates of the graveyard. Funny walk, like he got a limp in both legs. Thick smell of tobacco off him. Tobacco and salt fish.

watercolor4 copyGerald Squires, from the Ferryland Down series, pen-and-ink with wash

Tomorrow’s the fifteenth. Twelve years to the day I was shipped off to Dorchester. Life-seven. Non-capital murder. There’s no such thing as that no more. All a matter of degrees nowadays. I aint been back to the Cove in twelve years. I s’pose I’m calmed down a bit. Jail. Few years workin the bush out west, after I got out. Cracked to be headed back, what? I mean, I shagged it up once. Once. I was seventeen years old. A lifetime ago. Sharp as yesterday sometimes too.

The night her purse was found I took to the woods behind the house. Sloshed me way through the Beaver Gullies till I hit the highway in back of the Cove. Long old night. Got a run though. Right to Town. Knocked around the bars on Water Street. Got talkin to some foreign fella off the boats. Offered me a berth. Vodka. I came to in Victoria Park, just about froze to the ground, some old queer rootin at me belt. Missed me boat of course. I got drunker then. Later on that morning I read me name in the paper. Jude Shannon Traynor. It was funny, seein it in print like that. I read it over and over. Just that bit. Just me name.

Couple more days beatin around Town like that and gettin picked up was a bit of a relief, really. Smell of diesel, me head bouncin off the steel floor of the Paddy Wagon. I started screamin for Margie. I mighta been bawlin.

“You need not say anything, you have nothing to hope from any promise or favour and nothing to fear from any threat, whether or not you say anything. Anything you say may be used as evidence.”

Say nothing, saw wood, I said, over and over. Say nothing, saw wood.

watercolor5 copyGerald Squires, from the Ferryland Down series, pen-and-ink with wash

Eight weeks locked up in St. John’s waitin to go to court. Lawyers. Doctors. Mounties. Plead guilty, make it easier on yourself. Not guilty, I said. Well, they paraded every arsehole and his dog into the court to have a say about me. This head doctor makin me out to be some kinda crackpot. Fellas I hung around with all me life.

Margie. She wouldnt even look at me in the court. Never once came to see me all the while I was held in St. John’s. Wrote her a bunch of letters from Dorchester. She never wrote back. They werent exactly love letters I s’pose. Couple of letters from Harold when I first went away. Deep shit, how some moose tried to mount a cow in the lower meadow. Harold. One thing that struck me as odd though was Harold’s version of how the purse was found. How Mrs. Alfreda’s horse found the purse in the stall of our stable, carried it down the lane in his mouth and dropped it at Angus’s feet. But how there was a few fellas standing around at the time. Don Keough and them. How they all put it together that something wasnt quite right, that there mighta been something else. Poor old Angus, no choice but to turn me in. I s’pose it all gets twisted up after a while and it dont matter what the truth is so long as there’s a good story. And everyone else’s hands are clean.

 —Joel Thomas Hynes

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And watch JTH’s MANIFESTO here.

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Joel Thomas Hynes is the award winning author of the novels Down to the Dirt and Right Away Monday; the notoriously cheeky chapbook God Help Thee: A Manifesto; a collection of poetic non-fiction called Straight Razor Days; the novella Say Nothing Saw Wood; and numerous acclaimed stageplays. Hynes has written and directed two short films, Clipper Gold and Little Man, and has also performed numerous leading and principle roles for television and film including Down to The Dirt, Crackie, Hatching Matching and Dispatching, Rabbitown, Republic of Doyle and Re-Genesis. His first novel, Down to the Dirt, is available in numerous translations around the globe and has been adapted to stage and the big screen. The movie, featuring Hynes in the lead role, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, received many accolades and awards at national festivals and was showcased at Cannes Film Festival. Hynes most recently penned the feature film adaptation of Say Nothing Saw Wood, which is currently in post-production and will hit the festival circuit in the spring of 2014.

Dec 092013
 

Adam Biles

“Mara” is a demon-lover story, something ancient refashioned for the present, dense with literary echoes. Its style is vaguely familiar yet out of time, uncanny in the sense Freud used the word. Adam Biles calls it a Boys’ Own adventure story for grown men. There are shades here of Conrad, Poe, Fuentes, Hoffmann, and, of course, Keats.

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—“La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!”

Adam Biles lives in Paris. He was a finalist for the inaugural Paris Literary Prize in 2011.

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§

When the Nüwa puts into port, I count off what she unloads and count on what she picks up. I tip the customs official whatever he asks and record the amount in the ship’s ledger. It is of no interest to me what cargo we carry, nor do I care which city of which country we are in. With my duties carried out I return to my chair on the upper deck. From there I fix upon the horizon as we crisscross endlessly from one coast to another of the South China Sea.

 

My days pass in a trance. Thoughts are rare, ducking into and out of my mind like the occasional sea birds that sweep across my view. I dwell little on the past, less on the future. For years my destiny has been in the hands of another. I eat when I remember, and piss and shit when my body demands. Otherwise I sit and watch… not even the horizon, just the space in between, the void that reaches out before me.

I am writing now only because of the growing feeling that my time is short. This has awakened within me the desire to transmit, to leave something small behind. I thought these desires had been extinguished long ago. A worthy testament, no doubt, to the flame of human endurance.

May this document serve as a warning.

*

I wasn’t born to the sea. For the first twenty five years of my life home was B———, a town in the south of England. I was married – perhaps I still am – and had a little boy who’d inherited my eyes. I worked as an accountant for a local firm with which my father-in-law had connections. I suppose I was happy, although I have journeyed too far from the man I was to be able to say for sure.

Mara lived at the rich end of town. Everyone knew her house as The Carters’ – the name of the family that owned it before her. The Carters left under a cloud: the father throwing himself from the suspension bridge, leaving the family to be swallowed by the web of debts he’d spun before his escape. The townspeople were sympathetic, but there was nothing to be done. The remaining Carters vanished and the house was sold. Mara was young when she took possession of that grand old residence. She arrived alone and was rarely seen, so it was assumed she was a wealthy widow and everyone kept their timorous distance. There was talk, and rumours flowered, but with nothing to feed on they soon withered away.

I had inherited the file of a company with extensive offshore holdings. It was as thick as the Domesday book and dated from soon after the establishment of the firm. It was remarkable for its size, the number of my predecessors who had handled it through the years, and the intriguing legal exemptions that had been negotiated on the company’s behalf. The names of twenty seven accountants were pencilled on the cardboard folder, starting with the old man, long retired, who had given his name to the firm. Otherwise the accounts were impeccable, better kept than any I had seen. It was only when I arrived at the address on the folder that I realised the company was run out of the Carters’ former home.

I wasn’t perturbed. The job was interesting because of the value of the business and the peculiarities of the case, but was otherwise just the tedious number shuffling I was used to. As a young man I’d dreamt of making a living from writing – nothing high-brow or important, just the kind of swashbuckling boys adventure stories I had adored as a child. Then I met my wife. Mesmerised by her angular Nordic beauty I had allowed her family to shepherd me into a more conventionally gainful existence. At work, therefore, I fought to sustain myself by focussing on the anomalous cases. I devoted myself to the files in which I thought I could sniff out a story, living vicariously through the evasions and petty risks taken by my clients, hoping that behind the irregularities lay an adventure story worthy of the Boy’s Own Paper. The case of this offshore holdings company intrigued me from the start and when I found myself standing outside the Carter house my expectations somersaulted into a whole new realm.

How to describe a woman to whom I have never been anything more than a slave? How also to think myself back into the mind of a man in whose corpse I have been sailing this unforgiving continent for seven long years? How to see things again through his dead eyes? Impossible! I can only recall my thoughts as they developed during that first encounter and commit them to paper as they come.

Whenever I’d heard talk of that mysterious widow I had imagined a fragile creature, bird like, her delicate frame quivering beneath its sentimental burden. I have no idea whether Mara was a widow, although I doubt it. There was nothing of death about her. She was short and heavily built. Her body, visible through her black silk dress as she approached the front door, was a congregation of ample cupolas and deeply arcing crescents. She wasn’t one of Rubens’ women. Her curves were too bestial and hard for any Baroque ogress. Her ropey muscles twitched and gnarled beneath the dress as she moved. Not that she was trained to lift weights or run laps – nothing so manufactured as that. She was built only, like a lioness, for the hunt.

With the door open I saw that her skin was nut brown and leatherish, and her limbs were covered in a thin layer of black down. Her hair, black too and long, was twisted into a crude plait which she wore over her shoulder and fondled like a snake handler. Errant tongues fell forward framing her heavy, porcine features within which two black, bead like eyes were deeply set. She was of no “people” I knew. Not Mediterranean, nor from any nomadic nation. She was, however, unmistakably Southern, from somewhere far nearer the spring of original life than any of my pallid fellows. She was at once deeply ugly and yet oddly, carnally enticing. I had never felt this about any woman I had met before and, I can now assuredly say, would never feel so about any woman again.

She spoke only to tell me her name, pronounced with a thick rolling “r”, and to ask me to follow her down the long hallway into the dining room. The house was sparsely furnished for its size. Apart from the basic furniture the only adornments were five humanoid figurines on the mantelpiece, hewn with heavy chisel blows from ash-black wood. I thought they could have been African or Polynesian, but didn’t know enough to be certain. With me seated Mara repaired to the kitchen.

The dining room overlooked the Carters’ old garden. During her years in the house Mara had paid little attention to the extensive grounds. The grass had reached thigh height, the long coarsened blades bowing under their own weight. A climber had consumed the rusted frame of what was once a child’s swing and ivy had prised apart fissures in the concrete garage, caving in the roof. The garden was bordered by giant conifer trees. Untended, some had grown as high as forty feet. Mara returned from the kitchen carrying a tray with a large teapot, two ornate glasses and an antique tobacco tin. Then, in a very matter of fact, almost curt, voice she suggested we get down to business.

When I left the house I tried, with all my strength, to laugh about what had happened. I understood, without exactly thinking thus, that I needed to ground the experience before it was able to spirit me away. Everything had gone to plan, professionally speaking. We had sat at the table and worked through her company’s accounts. She had been polite and cooperative. We drank the tea the perfume of which was bitter and unfamiliar to me. I briefed her on all the activity in her case, all the incomings that had been filed by her different agents stationed at various corners of the planet. She listened to me talk for an hour, a passive expression on her face, smoking thick cigarettes that she rolled herself with great lumps of rough tobacco pinched from the tin.

I finished what I had to say, closed the file and was about to make my excuses and leave. When I tried to stand, however, my body was dragged down with an intense lassitude and nausea and I dropped back the few inches I had prised myself from the chair. I couldn’t understand what had possessed me and hoped that Mara hadn’t noticed. Then, silently, she stubbed her cigarette on the table top, lifted her eyes to mine and, fixing me, smiled.

If words exist to describe that smile, they do not exist for me. But I must try with those I have left. Immune to all scorn that may be heaped upon me, I say that with that smile, and that dark aqueous regard, Mara, that fiend, hailing from God-knows-where and made of God-knows-what clay, reached across the table, reached into the very core of my being, and sowed something hideous therein. Feeling drained back into my legs and without a word I made for the door.

LINE SPACE

Since my wedding almost two years earlier, it wasn’t unusual for me to take long walks in the middle of the night. My wife was an early sleeper, and slept heavily through until woken by the alarm. I’d always had difficulty shutting down, and on that day knew it was futile even to try. Some men claim that walking aids their thinking. It wasn’t so for me. Walking was my thinking. Unless I was walking my mind was treading water, merely keeping afloat on the choppy sea of brute quotidian existence. That evening I set out earlier than usual, barely waiting for my wife to fall asleep before leaving the house. My route was never planned, because my walks were geared to no particular end. My feet always led and I followed, until the first wink of dawn shook me from my reverie and set my course for home. It was only upon turning the final corner that night that I realised, with fast mounting horror, that my feet had led me straight back to the gates I had bolted through a few hours earlier.

The house was in darkness. As I stood staring at the building, struggling to make sense of the forces that had drawn me back there against my will (or so I thought then) a light in one of the upstairs windows flickered on. It was only there for a moment, and it was very faint, but etched on the burgundy curtains I recognised at once Mara’s orbicular silhouette. The light disappeared and, shaken to my roots, I turned and rushed home to the cocoon of my martial bed.

LINE SPACE

Weeks later I had word that the proprietress of a certain offshore holdings company wished to see her accountant. Since that day I had tried, in vain, to take the edge off the experience by repeated denial of what I knew to have passed between us. On receiving her summons I told myself, though remaining unconvinced, that there was my opportunity to lay this nascent demon to rest.

She welcomed me with more warmth than on our first meeting, keeping hold of the hand I extended to her and leading me by it to the dining room. There was something more human about her then, although the goblinish air that before had so impressed me still simmered perceptibly just below the surface. She was wearing the same black silk dress as the last time. On any other woman such an ephemeral garment would have been an obvious stab at seduction. On her it felt like an extraneous frill, a paper dart on the nose of a charging hippopotamus. As I made to open her file she checked me with a wave and crossing over to the mantelpiece, lifted one of the figurines:

“I saw you admiring this last time,” she said, turning the chunky black figure about in her hands before setting it down on the table. “I’d like you to have it.” I couldn’t recall having paid particular attention to any of the pieces, but seeing what she had chosen for me, I felt a sudden,  jealous desire to possess it. I thanked her and bundled it into my bag. Then I tried again to open her file. Again she stopped me.

“A position has come up on one of my ships, sailing from Amsterdam in two weeks time. I thought you could be keen to fill it.” Her proposal startled me and for a moment I couldn’t raise a response. I had to reassure myself that she knew nothing of my personal life, of my wife and my son, before mumbling something about my lack of sea legs.

“That’s a shame,” she said sounding suddenly disinterested in the whole affair. “I think the life would suit you.” I restated my reasons, adding something about family ties, regretting it at once. At this she smiled again. It was a normal smile and had little in common with the one that had affected me so profoundly several weeks earlier. For me, however, it stood as simple confirmation that the damage wrought on me was irreversible. The seed she had planted had taken root inside me, I could feel it now, a pendulous presence, somewhere between my heart and my gut. All she was doing now was watering it.

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I had forgotten my second wedding anniversary the previous day and, as compensation, had booked a table at the town’s most expensive restaurant that evening. Despite my nervous condition the meal went well. My wife had sensed something was wrong and her attitude was sympathetic, considering the hurt I had caused her. We had left our son with her parents for the night so that after the restaurant we could return to an empty house.

Our love making had always been sporadic. My wife, a stickler for hygiene, had difficulty accepting that sex was not the sterile affair Hollywood had prepared her for as an adolescent. She hated the primal, mossy scent, and the dampness, and didn’t disguise the fact that she saw it as a service performed by her as a sacrifice to me. That evening, however, she had readied herself for this sacrifice, and when we arrived home she stripped in front of me and climbed onto the bed like a virgin mounting an altar. Cast in the moonlight that crept beneath the curtain she looked divine, like a statue carved from a flawless block of white marble. When I had undressed she held out her hand and pulled me slowly on top of her.

At what moment during the event the metamorphosis occurred I cannot say, but as I drove my hips against hers, charging her with my member, I knew that it was no longer my wife convulsing beneath me, but Mara. My wife’s long agile limbs had contracted, filled out with dense muscular tissue and her soft skin had coarsened, sprouting a coat of fine fur. The passive recipient I knew had also vanished, ceding her place to an aggressive, brawling creature, whose violence, dolled out with strong limbs and claw-like nails, I returned in ravenous kind. We fought each other beneath the sheets, biting and kicking, tearing at skin in the most sensitive regions. She howled and I howled. She hit me and I hit back, wanting to hit her harder, all the time jabbing at her with my pelvis, sinking myself into her up to the hilt. And then, with a guttural roar, I discharged into her, the jism dragged out of me, surging up my urethra like a string of heavy pearls.

When I came to, Mara was nowhere. There was only my wife. Huddled in the corner of the room, wrapped in the bloodstained sheet she had pulled from the bed. She was weeping. Without even looking at me she asked me, softly, to leave.

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A taxi was to take me to Harwich, from where, the following morning, I was to board a ferry for the Hook of Holland. A new courage, born from the ashes of absolute defeat, compelled me to ask a question of Mara. For the only time in our three meetings a look of vulnerability filled her face and she laid her hand on my shoulder before answering.

“It’s not what you think. Money, sex or power. None of those trifles interest me.” She paused and for an instant seemed transported by her thoughts. Then she sighed and said: “Doesn’t everything in this world seem just so incredibly tedious?”

The taxi pulled up, and without a word Mara closed the door. As a final act of defiance on the way to the harbour I wound the window down and hurled through it a small black statuette.

*

My first six months on the Nüwa, I tried to make the best of my fate. I mixed with the crew, participated in their drinking bouts and, when we put into port, joined them on their expeditions to the brothels of Southern Asia. The result was always the same. What had happened that final night with my wife happened again with the girls I paid for hoping to forget Mara in their arms. I broke the wrist of one girl in Singapore and the crew decided that from then on I wasn’t to make any visits with them.

Confined to the ship I took to spending my days in the library. For a while I was able to lose myself in the books but not for long. Increasingly every book I opened spoke of Mara. Long before I knew her she was for the Buddhists, I read, the demon of temptation. To the Hindus she was the goddess of death. The sons of David knew her first as Naomi, who took the name Mara, meaning “bitterness”, after Yahweh robbed her of her husband. In Latvia she was worshipped as the goddess of feminine virtue and in Scandinavia dreaded as a cruel wraith who induced nightmares in  sleeping victims. Her accursed name was everywhere. In every epoch of almost every culture. What could I do with all this knowledge except destroy it, before it destroyed me? One by one I consigned the books to the depths.

Sometimes I found solace in the belief that I was not alone. What could those twenty seven names on her folder mean except twenty seven men who had suffered the same fate as I? How were those legal exemptions arranged without her exerting influence in the higher reaches of government? How was she able to inherit the house of dependable Mr. Carter except by using her witching to orchestrate his demise? How is the Nüwa able to cut endlessly across these seas, ferrying suspect cargo and paying only the most token bribes? How, unless the influence of this bored, malign woman, stretches even as far as here?

It was after this realisation that I took to sitting on deck, gazing at the void, the small black statuette perched in my lap. What else was to be done? Sit still long enough and eventually, like sediment in a glass of water, all thoughts settle to the lower reaches of the mind. I suffer no regrets. Not for my wife. Not for my son. I wasn’t suited to that life any more than to this one.

When I first took to spending my days on deck the crew told me that my predecessor had done likewise, until he was washed into the sea by a freak typhoon. They thought it was suicide, but I know it wasn’t. Men like us don’t have the courage for that. Like molluscs we float, unwittingly, waiting to be scooped up by a gull, stripped clean and have our shells discarded in distant waters. There we bob about in the currents until nature sees fit to smash us into sand against the rocks. If the last fellow was washed from the deck by a typhoon it was luck, nothing more.

—Adam Biles

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Adam Biles lives and works in Paris, France. He is the author of Grey Cats, which was runner-up in the inaugural Paris Literary Prize in 2011, and published by 3:AM Press in Autumn 2012. His short stories, poetry and translations have been published in journals including, 3:AM Magazine, Vestoj, Her Royal Majesty and Chimera, as well as being displayed in the Palais de Tokyo. In May 2012, his ficto-essay The Deep was published in a stand-alone bilingual edition by Editions de la Houle, a new Belgian house.
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Let Us Imagine Lost Love is the long awaited follow-up to Robert Day’s wondrous and acclaimed first novel The Last Cattle Drive; it’s not a sequel, but in Let Us Imagine Lost Love, Day returns to his native Kansas, of which he is a wry, witty and affectionate observer. His narrator is a book designer, who loves the jargon and paraphernalia of his profession, a man without a wife but a string of Wednesday lovers, his “Plaza wives,” he calls them, and at his back a doting mother who made him memorize three new words a day as a boy.

In Part Four, we have the return of Bottle James from the backrooms of memory, the infamous Blood Factory wherein the narrator and his friend Hazen (working their way through school in a medical lab) must drain the blood from living dogs, the narrator’s brief and unlikely affair with the dog delivery girl, nicknamed Pistol, the invention of a religion called Ta-Bid and the narrator’s acerbic meditations on the subject of marriage, which includes a bit of brilliant film exegesis on The Last Picture Show.

—You know the scene in The Last Picture Show, I said, when Cybill Shepherd is riding in the convertible with Timothy Bottoms and they’ve just eloped and she wants out.

—He has a bandage over his eye? Elaine said.

—Yes, and she is annoyed at his mere presence. He’s sitting there a happy young man thinking to himself something good is going to come of all this, and she is unhappy at who he is.  It won’t be many miles before she becomes angry about it. That eye bandage is marriage. The convertible is driving toward 30 years of marriage.  That is her future sitting beside her.  It is what Ellen Burstyn has been telling her all along.

You can read the entire novel to date here (instead of clicking back and forth between issues). Stay tuned for the next installment.

Part Four

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Ostensible, Ubiquitous, Alacrity, Quintessential, Albeit, Circa    

 

The Book of Ta-Bid:  A Preface

One night at Beth’s just before the fall semester, the three of us were looking over the university’s offerings and, quite independently, decided to take “The World’s Major Religions.”  Given who we were, it was a curious decision; first, not one of us talked the others into taking the course; and second, none of us—as far as I can remember—had expressed any interest in religion except, in Hazen’s case, to mock it not unlike he did society manners: “The tyranny of forks and napkins” and “the grief of Guilt Days.”

—Mothers Day! Father’s Day! Call Doctor Hallmark. Call Ma Bell.  Call Emily Post.

“The World’s Major Religions” was taught Monday, Wednesday, and Friday by Professor Gabin, a wizened woman who wore only four dresses (of two patterns) during the semester:  one green, one blue for two weeks (the green one on Monday and Friday, the blue one on Wednesday, then reversed them the following week), after which she alternated a yellow dress and a red one (again with the same pattern–but not the same pattern as the green and blue one) for two weeks, then back again to green and blue.  Professor Gabin was, like Hazen’s mother, French.

She was the first homely woman to attract me: her bearing, her nerve to wear her four dresses in her routine way, her teaching us as if she were speaking from a book she was writing in the air in front of her (sometimes using her index finger to do so), were enthralling.

—She’s as ugly as homemade sin, said Hazen.

—I like her, I said.

—I know you do, said Beth.  I do as well, but she’s no rose.  And those dresses.

—I like those as well, I said. I like what she knows.

—Turn her sideways and you could chop down redwoods with that snoz, says Hazen. Call Cyrano de Bergerac.  Good night Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.

—Not that you’ve got a stump, said Beth.

—Would you ball her if you’d grow two inches? I asked Hazen.

—What’s this about? asked Beth, looking at Hazen.

—No way, man, Hazen said, and stood on his toes.

—What’s this about?

Beyond our readings and hour exams, the semester’s assignment was to join with two or three classmates and create a religion.  We could use the stories and doctrines from the religions we were studying—we were encouraged to do so—and incorporate them into our religion. We could add new elements. Toward the end of the course we would submit the “Sacred Codex” as our term paper. The best religion would be copied for the rest of the class and explained by the authors.   Hazen, Beth, and I created Ta-Bid.

—Let’s begin with commandments, I said.

Our first meeting was at Beth’s one evening after Hazen and I had worked the Cage Book.   We chipped in and bought two straw bottle-baskets of Chianti.  Dago-red, Hazen called it. “Bye-bye Mussolini,” he would say when the bottle was empty.

—The first commandment is, said Hazen, that there shall be no first commandment.

—You can’t have a religion without commandments, I said.

—Why not? said Hazen.

—What’s the second commandment? asked Beth.

—There shall only be one commandment, said Hazen. And it shall be that there shall be no other commandment, other than there shall be no commandments.  It’s like when it’s impolite to take the last piece of food on a plate, which, if you think about it, means you can’t take the second to last piece because you’re being impolite to the poor bastard who is stuck with not being able to take the last piece.  The Politeness Police will get you.  And if you think about it from here to eternity, you can’t take anything off the plate.  You just fucking starve.

—What’s this got to do with our religion? said Beth.

—Never mind, said Hazen, and did his Dragnet knock on the side of his head.

Hazen took our nascent religion more intensely than I thought he would; in fact, as Ta-Bid developed, Beth and I discovered that it had a meaning for him beyond fulfilling a class assignment.  And if he couldn’t get into our heads what was in his, he’d become exasperated and do his Dragnet knock.  Or say:  The Shadow knows.

—Let’s decide how the world started, Beth said.  We can get to doctrine later.

—And a name for our religion, I said. We’ll need a name.

—The world started because two gods were balling, said Hazen.

—I name them Ta and Bid, said Beth.

—Why? I asked.

—Some things must remain beyond our understanding, said Beth.  It came to me in a moment of “cosmic knowing.”  A voice from Mel’s Coffee cups.

—While they were balling, continued Hazen, they had an orgasm so intense that they turned themselves inside out.

—You’d like to think, said Beth.

—The “big bang,” I said.  They looked at me.

—So we’ve got two inside-out gods named Ta and Bid, Beth said, tucking in her lower lip without success.  How does the world get started?

—The world gets started. . . said Hazen.

—One of the gods becomes the sun, the other the earth, said Beth. The sun gets to be the woman. The man is the earth and that’s why there’s strife in Iran.  Done.

—Won’t do, I said. We need more parts.  We need a solar system.  A universe.

—How long does it take to create the world? said Beth to Hazen.

—The orgasm takes six days and six nights, said Hazen. On the seventh day Ta and Bid take a snoozie and in their snoozie they turn inside back in and outside back out, and when they awake, they look around and are pleased.

—Are there snakes? said Beth.  I don’t care one way or another.  I just want to know.

All this time she was taking notes on a yellow legal pad, the margins of which will have small drawings, made, I suppose, when our discussions rambled–as they often did.  It will become my job to type a draft of her notes, then later, when we’ve gone over the text a second time, to type the final copy (with the aid of my mother’s dictionary) for Professor Gabin. Both Beth and Hazen observed the embellishments I made in the final draft and at least Beth was pleased.

—There are no snakes, said Hazen. I see no snakes.  He was looking into Earl’s bong.  I see the House Un-American Activities Committee, said Hazen, and J. Edgar Hoover.  But no snakes.

—We have to go back to the universe, I said. We’ve got stars and moons and suns and meteorites and space dust to create.  We’ve got to do all that before we get to snakes or apples or fishes and loaves.  Then we can turn to doctrine.  We got to have stuff.  Stuff is the stuff of the universe.  And stuff has got to come from somewhere.

We think and drink.  Bye-bye Mussolini.

—Belly-button ganiff! said Hazen.

—What? said Beth.

—When their orgasm turns Ta and Bid inside out, said Hazen, they toss off their belly-button ganiff, and that becomes the particles of the universe.  When they turn themselves outside out again and look around, Ta says to Bid:  Did the universe move for you?  In the beginning was the true interrogative sentence.

—How do you spell “ganiff?” Beth asked.

 •

My Wednesday Wives

—I’ll make us coffee, I said to Elaine. She has stopped by. I have some Ethiopian from last Wednesday.

—Is that the one who?. . .oh, never mind, she said.   How about trading your walk this afternoon for a ride to Lowell?

She was standing by the plasma television reading my list.

—Sure.

—I want to ask why you bought the apartment.

—I’ll tell you.

—And what you plan to do with it.

—That too.

—And about this new television Rosetta says you have.  Is this it?  Why did you turn it off?  And why you are not married?

—If my wives are married, am I not married?

—You know what I mean.

—Why not be married the way I am married? I said.  My wives are happy to have me, and happy not to have very much of me.  One of them said, rather wittily I thought, that I “swell a scene.”  She must have been taking an adult literature class.  Or maybe she didn’t know what she was saying; I like the latter better.

—It’s from somewhere, my sister said.  Most of my two years at Vassar got lost.

—Nothing is lost.  Everything changes.  That’s the problem.

—Did you make that up?

—Ovid did.

She was quiet for a moment while I puttered in the kitchen; I heard her turning the pages of one of my books.

—Do you love these women? Elaine said as I brought our coffee.

—I enjoy them, I said.  Isn’t that enough?

—It may be more than can be said of their husbands.

—And the other way around, I said.

—What?

—You know the scene in The Last Picture Show, I said, when Cybill Shepherd is riding in the convertible with Timothy Bottoms and they’ve just eloped and she wants out.

—He has a bandage over his eye? Elaine said.

—Yes, and she is annoyed at his mere presence. He’s sitting there a happy young man thinking to himself something good is going to come of all this, and she is unhappy at who he is.  It won’t be many miles before she becomes angry about it. That eye bandage is marriage. The convertible is driving toward 30 years of marriage.  That is her future sitting beside her.  It is what Ellen Burstyn has been telling her all along.

—Ellen Burstyn is her mother?

—Yes.

There was between us that kind of silence on my sister’s part that I thought meant she was wondering if she might be riding in a convertible.

—Anything more?  She said after a moment.  About your wives.

—They come off the stage of their life into the audience of mine and I applaud their act. As far as I can tell, in “relationships” these days, there is mutual distaste for each other’s act. As well as a low grade contempt for the acting. After awhile. . .well. . .there is a “history” between them, and “history” is usually bad for theatre unless it is Shakespeare.  Even worse for those who are living with it. Does that help?

—Go on, she said.  You’re amusing when you get started.

—The result of this marriage/history business is a brisk market in self -esteem books for women and golf books for men.  And wives who skip their French lessons for moi.  As Paul Newman says to Mrs. Bridge: “You can talk to me.”  But unlike Mr. Bridge, I listen.

—Not that you care what they say, my sister said.

—That is true, I said.  Most of us don’t care what anyone says but ourselves.  Which is why I talk to myself.  As did our father.  But for my wives I know my lines.  I’m a smart man when I’m listening to my wives.

—But isn’t there something that has to do with you, not just with them?  The real you.

—There is only the vicarious me.

—Now we’re getting somewhere.  Is it because of. . .

—What happened in California?

—Yes.

—Yes?

My sister does not know what to say about my candor.  I have let my mask drop. The actor has come off the stage into the audience and it is someone you know. Even I know him. Even though his plasma has been bled.

Elaine looked at me over her coffee.  She put down the cup.

Sophistry, I said.

—What?

—It was one of mother’s words.

—I never heard it, Elaine said. One day she said prerequisite about five times and I never found out what it meant until I got to college. And this “vicarious” business is that when you’re somewhere you’re not, but not really.  Have I got it right this time?

—More backwards than right.  But it probably doesn’t matter.

Elaine seems not to have heard me.  We are quiet until we finish our coffee while in my mind’s I see my sister listening for the sound of our mother around the house on Lowell: at the sink washing the dishes, turning the metal cap back on her Mogen David and putting it in the “ice box” as she always called the refrigerator:  ostensible, eminently, sophistry.  Our father is watching the television, his beer in his hand. It is a Friday evening of fights and he is calling the action.

—Let’s take that ride, Elaine said. But I’ve decided I don’t want to talk about your apartment. I want to talk about California and Beth. And when we pass the filling station, I want to talk about the fire and our father, and how he died.  And mother. And why she saved coins in her empty wine jug jars.

—As you wish, I said.

—And what you just said about your being in one place but not the other.

As she walked into the hallway, I brought myself back into life.  With all that on the agenda, I’ll need someone to come home to.

 •

Sometimes It Is, Sometimes It Isn’t

—Now use your forks from the outside in, said Aunt Lillian, taking me to her dinner table. “Outside” being the fork all the way to the left. And do not use the spoon or the fork above the plate until the plate has been changed, and use the outer one first; in this case that will be the spoon for the sorbet, then the ice-cream cake fork for the ice cream cake that I had made at the lovely bakery on Shaddock where they make so many fine things.  When you have finished, put your knife and fork at four o’clock on your plate.  That way Bella will know you are done.

I nodded and remembered what my mother had said about manners.

—When Bella serves a new course, my aunt continued, it is polite to change the direction of your conversation. You will be sitting between Doctor Reed on your left and Madame de Ferney on your right, and if you have been talking to Doctor Reed for the first course, you then talk to Madame de Ferney during the second course, then back to Doctor Reed for the next course. Madame de Ferney may not converse this way.  She has a habit of talking to whomever she wants.

Aunt Lillian paused for a moment and looked at the table, first at one chair, then another, slightly nodding at each, as if more than counting.

—At home we just ate, I said.  I thought I should say something by way of thanking Aunt Lillian for telling me how to behave.

—It is all a bit fussy, she said. Conroy doesn’t much like it. He says dinner parties are “fork fetish feasts.”  I suppose he’s right, but we women have to keep up standards.  Do you see a young lady in Kansas?

—Muff LaRue, I said, thinking I didn’t know the meaning of “fetish.”

—When did you last see her? said my aunt, now circling the table to make some adjustments in napkins and silverware.

—At the swimming pool where I was a lifeguard.

—How nice.

—Yes.

Aunt Lillian stepped back to look the table over at some distance.

—Everything is in its place, she said, more to herself than to me. Then: One more thing.  Madame de Ferney always brings the hors-d’oeuvres.  A duck pate on toast points.  I will put them on a large plate and we will have them in the living room with some white wine before dinner.

—I know it is not polite to take the last one, I said.

—Yes, said my aunt. Madame de Ferney has kept her curious name even though she has been married all these years to Doctor Reed, who as you know, is Howard’s father, just as Madame de Ferney is Howard’s mother, even though she doesn’t have the same last name as Doctor Reed.  Or maybe Doctor Reed is Howard’s stepfather and Madame de Ferney is his mother.  I think that’s what Conroy once told me.  She came to America when he was very young and brought Howard with her.

—Hazen, I said.

—And for some reason I think Howard doesn’t have the same last name as either of them because Madame de Ferney named him after a grandfather for whom a French village is named.  Or maybe she is named for the village.  Howard is an only child so I suppose it is easier to do that when you are an only child.  And Madame de Ferney always calls Doctor Reed, “Doctor Reed,” not by Milton as the rest of us do.  So we all call her Madame de Ferney and have for so long by now I don’t remember her first name, but I think it’s Mimi.  You should ask Howard.  Very curious.

Uncle Conroy and Aunt Lillian had invited Hazen and his parents to a formal dinner. My uncle and Hazen’s step-father wore tuxedoes and so did Hazen and I. We did not have to rent me a tuxedo because one of my uncle’s old ones was a fit.

The reason for the dinner was Doctor Reed’s Nobel prize for experiments done a few years before in which he had taken the amino acid  “package” off proteins, then put it back on.  At least that is how I understood it at the time.

I had never worn a tuxedo. My brother rented one for the prom.  My sister’s boyfriend picked her up in one for the same dance. I wore a dark suit, went without a date, and stood by the record player looking across the dance floor at Melinda and Muff LaRue. Later, I walked home with Bones McColl and we shot baskets by the light of the street lamp near his driveway.

—You look very nice, Aunt Lillian said when I came into the dinning room.

She was wearing what my mother would have called “a cocktail dress.” Not the kind of dress you saw Harriet Nelson wearing on television in those days, but the kind that Olivia de Havilland wore in the movies.  It was pale green with tiny gold flecks that seemed to have been woven into the fabric.  I had never seen anything like it. Later in the evening I noticed her dress matched in a subtle way the dinner plates and goblets being put out by Bella, my aunt’s maid, for dinner.

—Doesn’t he look good, Conroy?

—Very good, said my uncle who, I suspect, didn’t put much stock in the formalities of social life but, like feeding his eggs to Pounce, had come to a routine acceptance of it.

—Here they are he said from the doorway.

—There is something else, Aunt Lillian continued, Madame de Ferney keeps both her hands on the table, sometimes even her elbows.  She is French. They have peculiar manners. And her English after all these years is still odd.  A bit of French mixed in with English.  Very odd.

—My mother said I should cut my food with my elbows down, not up.  And that I should bring my food to my mouth and not my mouth to my food, I said, again trying to reassure my aunt. But this time she seemed not to hear me and said:

—I am thinking maybe I should seat you. . . but no I can’t. . . that would disturb the arrangement.

I could hear my uncle at the door saying come in, come in, and they all did.

—Is it the case, Madame de Ferney said as Bella was clearing the table of the second course, “that in Kansas. . .how shall I put it? . . .comment dirais-je?  Je ne sais pas…

She said something in French to Doctor Reed. I saw Hazen frown. I saw Doctor Reed frown. Doctor Reed said something in French.  Then Madame de Ferney said to me:

—Is it “provincial” in Kansas?  Provincial?

She pronounced her second  “provincial” with a prairie flatness, as if to make sure I understood.  Not that it mattered: It was a word yet to be disinterred in my mother’s dictionary:  Rube. ff.

While it was true that Madame de Ferney had used her forks according to Aunt Lillian’s rules, she had not—as my aunt had predicted—abided by the formalities of conversation; also, her elbows had been on the table repeatedly, and—my mother would have been shocked—Madame de Ferney had removed her bread from the bread plate and put it on the tablecloth where it left crumbs.  And she not only stuck her nose into the wine glass, she swirled it around before holding it to the light saying: It is the first duty of a wine to be red.

—Don’t you agree? said Madame de Ferney to my aunt.

—Yes, indeed.

—And also from what you call the environs.  Is that the right word Floren?

—Yes, I said before Hazen could answer.  Everybody looked at me and then Madame de Ferney asked me what kind of wine we drank in our environs.

—My mother has a glass of Mogen David as she fixes dinner, I said. My father drinks Coors. My mother is Polish.  My father Irish.  In the small silence that followed everyone took a sip of wine.

—I ask about Kansas being provincial, Madame de Ferney said, because I am told they were provincial ici in San Francisco before the gros earth cake.  The gros earth cake and the fire did them a great good because the rebel lost their shanties.

Rabble, mother, said Hazen.

Madame de Ferney paused only to mouth the word rabble silently with what seemed to me impatience toward the English language.

—Mother’s ‘gros’ is French for ‘large’,” Hazen said to me.  The Great Earth Quake.

—Thank you, I said.  And to show I was going to learn French I repeated “gros” out loud.

—You’ll need to work on your ‘r’, Hazen said.  I had no idea what he meant.

At this point Bella came to serve another course, while Madame de Ferney continued:

—The families whose furniture came “around the Horn” began to assend and that gave the city its culture.  Some people who first arrived in San Francisco brought their furniture with them over the prairie ground in wagons.  It must have been very hard on chairs.  Not to mention desks and tables.  All of Doctor Reed’s family furniture came “around the Horn.”  Our chairs are very solid.  Très solide.

Madame de Ferney had been speaking to the table at large, but then she turned to me:

—They have no earth cakes in Kansas to make matters better.  C’est très mal in that regards, don’t we all think so?    Maybe a dust storm or a prairie bison fire could do the same thing. Does your family have the particle?

—“Quakes,” mother, said Hazen. This time Madame de Ferney did not mouth the word.

—They have tornadoes, said my aunt. Tell Madame de Reed about the tornadoes. How Dorothy went to see Mr. Oz on the Yellow Brick Road. That  might be just as good as earth cakes.

I was about to ask “a particle of what?” thinking Madame de Ferney might have wondered if we owned a bit of farm ground when Doctor Reed coughed loudly a number of times to my left and we all looked his way.  My uncle patted him on the back and asked if he was all right?

—I was telling our nephew the other day, Aunt Lillian said when Doctor Reed’s coughing spell stopped, about that big rock at the top of the road, and how it might fall down if we had another earth quake like the one Madame de Ferney has mentioned.  My aunt stopped and seemed befuddled for a moment.

—You were about to say something about the rock, Lillian, said Doctor Reed.

—Yes! Well, if it rolled down the hill it would squish that nice bakery on Shaddock where we got the dessert for tonight.

—Ah oui! said Madame de Ferney.  It is a lovely bakery and Doctor Reed and I always get something from it whenever we are coming to the University.  There is rien like it even in San Francisco.

Rien means “nothing,” said Hazen. I nodded. Rien, I said, this time doing no better with my r judging by Hazen’s look.

Nada in Spanish, said Doctor Reed.

Nada I said, thinking at least there wasn’t an r.  Again a moment of silence while everyone took another sip of wine and Bella bustled.

—And they probably don’t have a bakery in Kansas like the one on Shaddock that we all like so much, said Aunt Lillian. Just like they don’t have hills down which rocks might fall because they already have fallen down and that’s why it’s flat. And maybe that is why Madame de Ferney has asked about it being provincial.  No quakes.  No hills.  No rocks.  No bakery.

—Ah oui, said Madame de Ferney, at which point Aunt Lillian rang the bell for Bella who was standing beside her.

—Maybe I should not have asked about Kansas being provincial, said Madame de Ferney. It is of no matter, but sometimes those of us who live la vie de chateau cannot imagine remote places in the United States as being other than provincial.  That is true in France as well.  We have peasants in many places south of Paris.  Some of them harvesting their own “poulet.”

—“Chicken,” mother, said Hazen.

—I know it is “chicken” in English, said Madame de Ferney.  But I prefer the French.  Who can like the word “chicken” instead of “poulet”?  Or “duck” instead of “canard?”

—It is what we had this evening, said Aunt Lillian.  A recipe right from France.  Chicken Cordon Bleu.  Not that we raise chickens or ducks here in Berkeley.  I expect there is some kind of rule against it.  I know there is one about hanging your clothes out to dry, isn’t there, Conroy?

—There is indeed. It is called a “covenant,” my uncle said to Doctor Reed. As if good taste were a religion. No rabbits in cages.  No chickens.  Or ducks.  No horses or goats.  It was quite a list they gave us when we moved here.  No clothesline, as Lillian says.

—In Kansas we have a clothesline, I said. I do the hanging out when I am home. Uncle Conroy looked at me and smiled. I was about to say the Simms down the road had both chickens and ducks, as well as a pig they fed but Madame de Ferney said:

—It is our own limitation, I suspect, and I would be pleased to learn otherwise.  How did your parents’ furniture come to Kansas?

—Here is dessert! Aunt Lillian said, and once again rang the bell, even though Bella had returned to the table.

The arrival of dessert and the clatter of plates and forks and the general talk about the bakery on Shaddock changed the course of the conversation and as we ate Madam de Ferney turned to Hazen and asked:

—Do you remember when you were an adultlesson and we took you to Paris?

—“Adolescent,”mother, said Hazen.  It is the same in French.

—Yes, I suppose it is, said Madame de Ferney. It is just that we were showing you where I was reared—is that the word?  You raise cows but rear children.  Do I have that right?

—Yes, said Doctor Reed to Madame de Ferney, and then to the table: Edmond was born in Paris as was Mimi, but after her husband died they moved to America and he was reared here.

—Conroy and I have not reared any children, said Aunt Lillian. This is our nephew, nodding toward me.   Aunt Lillian seemed either to have forgotten my name or was continuing my family’s tradition.

—Ah oui, said Madame de Ferney to Aunt Lillian.

—Ah oui, said Aunt Lillian.  But do tell us about your rearing in Paris.

—We lived in the Sixth, but below Saint Germain. The Sixth goes all the way to Boulevard Montparnasse, but my father would not admit that.  For him it only went as far as Saint Germain.  So I was reared in that domain.  Is that the right word? Madame de Ferney asked me.

—Ah oui, I said. I saw Hazen smile. Or you could say “environs,” I said. Madame de Ferney seemed pleased at this information and this time said environs out loud with a peculiar guttural sound on the “r.”

—My father was très formal and would not even “tu” my mother.  Of course he did not “tu” me or my sister. Madame de Ferney paused for quite awhile and looked away from the table. The only sound was Bella putting out coffee cups in the living room.

For my part, I imagined Madame de Ferney was thinking of her days growing up in Paris.  I imagined this because in between the rocks tumbling down and squishing the Shaddock bakery, the tornadoes that might be as good as earth cakes, covenants against chickens and clothes lines, I had been thinking about Kansas.  About my father’s webbed aluminum lawn chair and how he took Uncle Conroy’s letter and his meatloaf sandwich outside to read while my mother cleaned the kitchen counter where on summer evenings we “just ate,” my mother having her glass of Mogen David wine while she cooked with no idea about the wine’s duty, my father with his beer in a bottle after dinner as he read the paper or, on Fridays, watched boxing on television.

And it wasn’t when Aunt Lillian asked me about a girl friend that I thought of Muff LaRue.  It was when Madame Ferney was talking about chicken and poulet and duck and canard.  How, after both Muff and I got dressed, we sat in two chairs under my life guard stand and talked into the night about our futures: me to California to become a doctor, she going East to Sarah Lawrence to major in Classics—and I thought then that studying classics at a fancy East Coast college for girls and skinny-dipping in a Kansas municipal pool with the life guard whose father had a car garage didn’t go together.  But I did not say so.  And how later I drove Muff home and we promised we’d meet again over Christmas break—at the swimming pool, cold and snow or not.

—Thank you, my uncle said to Bella as she began clearing the table of dessert plates, all forks now at four o’clock.

My aunt fingered the spoon on the top of her plate.  She picked up her wine glass by the stem and studied the color.  She started to ring for Bella even though Bella had just left.

Maintenant that you are ici in Berkeley, said Madame de Ferney, do you think it provincial in Kansas?

My uncle was about to speak and so were Hazen and Doctor Reed when I said to Madame de Ferney and, with considerable aplomb, to the rest of the table:

Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t.

—Ah oui! said Aunt Lillian.

A One-Page Blank:  Our Mother

Our mother was a shorter version of Uncle Conroy.  She had his gray hair, and from about the same age (which is as long as I can remember), a wide forehead and pale blue eyes.  Her arms where short, and in contrast to my father, she walked with a slight—a very slight—stoop, more a bending forward as if to get where she was going by putting her head in that direction.

The one-armed painter who did Uncle Conroy’s portrait did one (albeit smaller) of my mother.  It was hanging in the hall near Elaine’s bedroom and became a piece of wall furniture.

The woman in the painting seems sad.  At least sadder than when we were living on Lowell, but not as sad as after my father died.  I can think of no portrait of a woman from any period of art history that resembles it.  The one-armed painter got the eyes right, the forehead, and hair.  If she could speak out of it, she would say:  The quintessential me.  More for the word than for the fact.

—May I have it? asked Elaine as we were cleaning out the house.

—Yes.

—When did you realize it was mother?

—Not long ago.  And you?

—Not until now, my sister confessed.

Portraits of Age: A Sampler

Ursula must have been close to my uncle’s age. We took it she never married.  This was because of the severe bearing she had around the lab, somewhat like the stainless steel that was everywhere–especially in the OR. She was without humor; she had a slight accent, which I thought was German but which turned out to be Polish. Her non-Polish surname remains a mystery, but her hatred of the French was to be discovered half way through my Twentieth Century European History course, circa Emporia State Teacher’s College.

When you are a young man living in America in the fifties and sixties you imagine that women—all women:  girls, young women, older women—have no hidden qualities, no secret life.  They are either Muff LaRue or Tina:  Body and soul on the surface.  I did not imagine Ursula was other than she was, which was a stern taskmaster who, if she had ever had sex, did it, as Hazen said, once by the stopwatch:

—“You have two minutes.  Now get off.’  Not bitchin, man.  Call Doctor Kinsey.

We were wrong:  There had been a husband.  And while there were no men in her life when we knew her, she had fallen in love with my uncle:  something I did not know until later, and I suspect my uncle never knew.

Ursula didn’t like either one of us, but she especially did not like Hazen.  She felt we had compromised my uncle’s reputation, and she was protective of that.  When two new research apprentices showed up the following spring for a few days of induction, she treated them differently.  They were both from very good schools, and they had both been vetted by professional standards.  They would be a credit to my uncle.  She was right about me.  She was wrong about Hazen.

—I like her, Beth said one day.

Beth met Ursula while waiting for us in the parking lot.  The two of them got into a conversation, one in which I suspect Ursula indicated that Beth could do better than whichever one of us she was seeing.  Which was Hazen.  Not that I knew it at the time.

—What’s to like?  said Hazen.  When you’re as ugly as a dead jellyfish on the beach and the worst thing about you is your personality, you got trouble.  Nobody at home to call.  Besides, she’s old.

—You’ll be old one day, said Beth. So will I.

—Not like that, said Hazen.

—What’s “like that?” I asked.

—Over thirty, said Hazen.  Never trust anyone over thirty.

I suppose the saying was around at that time, but Hazen used it with such ease that I wonder now if he might have coined it.

—I wouldn’t mind being over thirty, said Beth.

I had been thinking about Ursula as well and had come to the same conclusion:  She was old.  But so was my uncle.  And we liked him, just as we liked my ditzy aunt, and I at least liked Professor Gabin.  The way I thought about Ursula had nothing to do with her being over thirty—not, at least, in the way the aphorism came to mean.  I trusted her to do her job–and mine if I failed at it.

—She wants to be old because she wants to be mean, said Hazen.

There was an unusual  silence among us, then Beth said:

—We have to do a series of self-portraits from different perspectives for my painting class and I’m going to do them at different stages of my life, ending at what the French call “A Woman of a Certain Age.”  I’m going to make myself more interesting and better looking the older I get.

—Ursula’s old, old, old, old, old, old, old, said Hazen.  Seven “olds” is as old as you get to be before you’re Dead Old.   I’m at  “three old” and holding.  You find out where you are by when it feels good, and that’s where you stay.  Let everything else get old around you.  The Kansas kid here might live all seven “olds” before he’s done.  Call Doctor Methuselah.  He can tell you how it will turn out.

—Why do you want to be older? I asked Beth.

—To know more. To be less attractive in the way I am now.

—You’re lovely, I said.  She smiled.

—Thank you.  My mother told me that when a man commented favorably on your dress you were not to say “this thing, I just grabbed it out of the closet.”  Thank you.

And she touched my arm.

—I think you’re good-looking, said Hazen.

—I don’t mind being good-looking, Beth said.  But I don’t want to be just good-looking.  That’s what I like about Ursula.  She is who she is without being good-looking.  Or nice.  Last year in Introduction to World Literature our professor told us one of our authors wrote that to marry a woman because she is “nice” is like buying something in a shop just because it is on sale. I like Ursula because she’s a palate-knife painting.  I like palate-knife paintings even if I don’t do them myself. The problem is you guys can’t imagine her with her clothes off.

—The problem is we can, said Hazen.

—I wonder if men get better when they get older? said Beth, looking at us.

She didn’t say it to be critical; I understood that.  She just wondered.

—Do you remember who wrote that about marrying a “nice” woman, I asked.

—Anton Chekhov.  Our professor told us he was a doctor.  Maybe he’s somebody you should read.

When I was in the lab the next day, I looked at Ursula.

—She’s wearing barbed wire for panties, said Hazen when he caught me.

—Think so?

—Rusty.  Your tally wanger will get you a good case of lockjaw.

—No doubt.

—Call Doctor Penicillin.

Hazen clapped his hands a few times and went over to the Tall Tugger. Upside down he claps:  Clap. Clap. Clap.

It is Tristam Shandy‘s blank page of beauty lost, but now not forgotten, somewhere in my bookcases. Lawrence Sterne.  A page after my own desires.  What has triggered this memory, I cannot say.  Call Doctor Proust.

Notes for an Agenda Book of Vests

Elaine and I lunch once a week at either Meiners (my choice) or reVerse (her choice; she likes the opulence of it, and the way they slide open the windows when the weather is warm).  When we go to reVerse, she treats–it gives her some pleasure to do so.  Gerhard  has “done well.”

During these lunches, my sister reviews her failures to get me a “solid girl-friend.” Not that some haven’t tried on their own.

—Hello.

—Hello. I’m Laura. Laura Wingate. I met you the other night at Elaine’s house.  We do yoga together.

—Yes, I said. I want to tell you how pretty you looked in that blue sweater.

—Really, she said.

—More than pretty, I said. If it is possible to call a woman “handsome” and not be misunderstood, I would say that in that sweater you were handsome.  I understand you knit them yourself.

—I am très flattered.

Laura Wingate called me just as I was beginning a calendar book for the Irish Tourist Board. Instead of a shamrock or sheep motif, I am using sweaters. It was Laura Wingate who gave me the idea.

Her sweater that evening was a deep blue–past Navy, almost black. Light enough for a cool late-summer evening. Cashmere to be sure. A delicate pattern along the sleeves.  Not quite a turtleneck, but half way there.   It made her very inviting.  I found myself wishing she were married.  A bit older.  Late forties instead of late thirties. By then she would have gone from handsome to striking.  And married women of a certain age do certain things very well.

Traditional Irish sweaters have a different pattern for each fishing family: Sullivans, McDougals, O’Deas. That way drowned men can be identified by the sweaters they are wearing.  It is not a detail you put in a coffee-table book.

Sitting across from Laura Wingate at my sister’s dinner table I imagined her in various sweaters:  thick white winter ones which gave a  hint of  her breasts.  Cardigans.  Not buttoned.  In spring she is in thin sweaters through which I see the outlines of her body. She is nude except for the sweater.  Leggy.  She comes out of my kitchen with a plate of salted mushrooms she has brought from the Better Cheddar.

Not that I prescribe such acts for my Wednesday wives.  I let them create their dramatis personae.  Their own scenes.  Sometimes they are not who they thought they would be.  Nor whom I thought they would be. And we are both pleased.  Maybe Laura Wingate would do vests.  I’ve never had a lover who did vests.

—I was wondering, said Laura Wingate, if you would be free on Friday night for dinner?  I am having some friends over and I think you might enjoy them.  They are into books.  Please say this is possible.  I will wear the same sweater.

—I will need  to imagine you in it I said.  Because I am sorry to say I cannot join you on Friday.

There is silence.  I expect Laura Wingate was waiting for an excuse so she can judge the matter:  Am I giving her the brush off? Do I have a woman in my life?  Am I otherwise occupied on Friday and très sorry I cannot accept?

Tant pis, she said finally.

Ah oui, I said, and wondered if she too was taking the lunchtime  learning course in French.

Again a silence.

—Perhaps another time, she said.

Peut-être.

My sister is not particularly happy in her marriage—not because she was “forced” to marry Gerhard (the marriage has given her two early sons, plus Lillian), but because she feels she should have married Hazen.

—Have you heard from him? she asked.

We were at reVerse.  The windows open.

—I have not, I said. Have you?

—No.  But he wouldn’t contact me.  After all I only. . .

—He has.

—Once.

—Twice, I said.

—Yes, well, then twice, she said.  But the second time was after you walked away from him at Aunt Lillian’s clinic.  What was that about?  The least you could have done was not leave him standing there.

—I didn’t know he told you about that, I said.

—He did. Were you still angry over Beth?

—I was never angry over Beth, I said.

—What then?

—Having walked away from Hazen, I cannot explain it, I said.  Doing so made it self-evident. As when I walked away from Beth.

—I didn’t know you walked away from Beth, she said.

—Now you do.

My sister looked puzzled.  That is rare for her. I have come to accept being puzzled as a natural condition—and rather enjoy it.

—Have you heard from her? my sister  asked.

—Which “her?”

—Beth.

—Yes.

—You have?

—I have not.  But from Jo, yes.

—You have?

—From one or the other.  You choose.

—You’re not talking to me, said my sister.  You’re talking to yourself.

She was right.  I talk to myself but I don’t tell myself the truth.  It gives me a pleasure I cannot name.  Many must do it.

And we all have seen Jo, first in advertisements as she began her modeling career.  Then, in television in shows:  Jo as an unfaithful wife; Jo as a police sergeant; a reporter: she is multiple personae.  My sister tells me that she is in the afternoon soaps: “Watch General Hospital. She’s the older doctor. The nurse is the young man.  He has the hots for her.  Isn’t that ironic?”

—Why didn’t you go to Laura Wingate’s for dinner, my sister asked.  Were you busy?  As in “busy!”

—I am only busy in the afternoons.  I am too old to be busy in the evenings.  Especially if I have been busy in the afternoons.

—What’s wrong with Laura?  She was quite taken with you.  I think she would have made you a solid girl friend.

—There was nothing wrong with Laura, I said. Does she wear vests?

—What?

—Do you ever see her in vests?

—As a matter of fact, yes. What has that got to do with why you wouldn’t accept her invitation to dinner?

—It has nothing to do with it, I said.

—I don’t understand you, said my sister.

—Neither do I, I said.

—And you like it that way.

There was a pause between us and in that pause I think my sister wanted to talk about Hazen.

—You have heard from him again, I said.

—How did you. . .

—It came to me in a moment of….

—I got an e-mail from him.

—I don’t do e-mail.

—Eminently so.

In the silence that followed on my side I considered confessing that being discordant to Laura Wingate was wrong.

—You want to say something more about Laura?

—I’ve said it to myself.  And I have heard from Beth.

—I know, said my sister and signaled for the check.

An Introduction to the Blood Factory

That fall the Blood Factory dogs started to arrive.  Doctors Evans and Cody were awarded grants to do research and both needed blood and dogs.  Doctor Cody would start her work before Christmas; Doctor Evans, the following spring.

In preparation, we cleaned out the garage at the back of the lab and installed stacked kennels down both sides.  To avoid animal rights protesters, the pound was to bring in strays at night.  Once a week, either Hazen or I had to be at the lab between eight and midnight to meet the truck.

The dogs arrived two to three to a cage, and some were badly chewed because of fights. After unloading them, I’d spend another hour or so cleaning and patching their wounds.

By this time Hazen and I had learned to dissect a number of animals.  And before the dogs started arriving, my uncle sent us over to a local vet clinic for sessions on canine care where we learned the techniques of stitching wounds. I got pretty good with a Kelly clamp and a hemostat, and I got so I could tie a surgeon’s knot with one hand.  These skills were useful not only in tending the dogs when they arrived, but in the routine work we did in the lab—and later when there was canine surgery.

One of the truck drivers was a small girl with black hair, and nearly black eyes. She wore bib overalls–the kind you might see on a Kansas farmer coming into Emporia to buy feed—and thick gloves.   One night she decided at the last minute not to turn over a dark, stout terrier.

—What do you do with them? she said as she put the dog in the front seat of the truck.

—I’m not supposed to say.

—You kill them, don’t you? she said.

—Yes, I said.

—I’ll keep this one for myself, she said. I’ll put it in the log as DOA.

—Fine by me, I said.

I signed the log for a DOA.

—I’m going to name him “Floren,” she said.

—Floren?

—For the other guy who works here, she said. Tell him I said hello.  Tell him “Pistol” says hello and I’ll see him next week on Tuesday instead of Friday.

—I’ll tell him, I said.

—“Pistol” says hello, I said to Hazen the next day.

—We do it on the clean towel pile in the laundry room.  I told her about how I thought balling will make me get taller, and she said she’d like to help.

—She’s named a dog for you.

—Which one of me?

—Floren.

—Glad you told me.  I’d forgotten who I was with her even though I love her deeply.  I call her “Pistol” because of how quickly she goes off. What’s it measure?

—Five four and a half.

—See. It’s either the vitamins or balling. Or Tall Tugging.  Maybe I should ask Ursula to apply the scientific method to see which one.

—I lied about the half.

—Not so bitchin.

Our job was to bleed the dogs to death. Doctor Cody needed blood for her experiments on pregnant bitches.  She was implanting an intestinal blockage into selected unborn puppies to see if that blockage could be detected after birth by means other than surgery. In addition to the blood, she needed pregnant dogs. Every time a bitch came into heat we’d let one of the males breed her. We’d also check the bitches to see if any were already pregnant.

Doctor Evans’s grant was to develop a heart-lung machine for children.  By the early sixties, heart-lung machines had been in use awhile, but they oxygenated and pumped blood at a rate compatible with adults. As I understood it from my uncle, you could regulate these machines to account for the difference in the body size between adults and older children, but the problem was more complex when it came to babies: the whole apparatus had to be reengineered so that the doctors at the pediatric hospital next door could do open-heart surgery more effectively–and with fewer devastating side effects.

In the spring, when it came time to test the various designs for Doctor Evans’s heart-lung machine, we would need a lot of blood from a lot of dogs.  And because dogs had roughly the same blood capacity as children, small and large, we would need dogs on which to perform the experimental heart surgery.

—These small ones aren’t worth the trouble to put them under, Hazen said, pointing to a miniature in the kennel next to the larger one.

But put them all under we did, hooking up the artery tubes, opening their chests, and shooting their hearts with adrenaline near the end to get another half bag. When the dog was drained, we hauled its carcass to the incinerator by Hazen’s Tall Tugger and tossed it among the hairspray hamsters and starved rats and rabbits and Guinea pigs and beagles, all of which we burned en masse.

“Cook Time” it was called on Ursula’s clipboard, and it meant you had to be at the lab between eight and midnight to turn on the gas jets and throw the switch that ignited the incinerator. We “Cook Timed” the dogs at night for the same reason we unloaded them at night. Sometimes as Pistol was driving away, the dogs she had brought the previous week would be smoke curling over the parking lot.

—Five bags, said Hazen.

—Three.

Five it was.

—You owe me, said Hazen.

We would bet on how many bags of blood each dog would have.  At the end of the day’s bleeding, we’d add up the score.  A bag of blood plus or minus was a cup of coffee at Mel’s; two bags, a beer at the No Name Bar in Sausalito.

—Beer or two coffees? I asked.

—Do “Cook Time” for me tonight and we’ll call it even, Hazen said.  I got a bitchin date.

—Is your bitchin date anybody I know?

—No.

But it was.

Memory not Mixed with Desire

Whenever one of my wives says: “Remember the time when….” (a tall red head who would cry afterwards); or “I really appreciate the way you’ve always. . .” (a soft, small, shy–almost silent blond); or “If I am to offer a small observation in the interest of the health of our relationship. . .(a high breasted runner, younger than most)–when I get speeches like these from whatever characters my wives  are playing, I close the scene. Exit nudged by William Holden

Thus, they come and go. Talking.  At times I’m down to three.  Two had to suffice for a month.  There threatened to be five when one wife quit the play, then wanted a revival.  She showed up on her old Wednesday; however the apartment doorman, Earl (as McFate would have it) understood another scene was being played out, and told her I was not in.  By that time she had been replaced by a Red Boa.

—Have you seen that homeless man along Brush Creek? I asked my sister one day at reVerse.

—Yes! she said.  I almost told Gerhard about him, but he would report him to the police.  The one who’s a waiter?

—That and other acts.

—Really?  I’ve only seen him as a waiter.

—He’s Bottle James.

My sister looked around the restaurant as if to find him waiting tables. She seemed afraid.

I think she is wary of the past, even though it has given her a husband and three children, and even though it is our destination when we take our drives. Maybe it is the “memory” of the past she doesn’t like since some of what she remembers is what she has done badly.

Memory:  The Mother of All Guilt   

It could be a book.  It will need paintings: Suzanna and Elders, comes to mind.  Many versions.  There is The Music Lesson, a British painter I think.  Madame X as a Wednesday wife (It’s the title that tells the tale, as well as the pose). Or I could use photographs:  Walker Evans.  Diane Arbus.  But that would be another kind of guilt, more ours than theirs. Maybe party-shuffle them.  Put discussion questions at the end:

1. Why are all the paintings of women?  Does a man feel guilt?

2. Would he talk about it if he did?

3. Would he talk to you?

4. If not, what does that say about him?  About you?

5. How do you feel about your guilt?

6. Why not: Memory: The Father of all Guilt?

It could be an Oprah selection.  It bores me already.

I have no illusion about memory being the past; it is more likely to be the present; or, given the way my books and I travel, the future. However, I am not insensitive to Elaine’s plight. When she looked for Bottle James, she feared she might be called upon to act out scenes from her past—not unlike being afraid in the theater when the actors spill off the stage and into the audience asking you to participate.  I have been at such productions and I have not been afraid, but then I have not been called upon.  They also serve who sit and wait.

—Have you talked to him? my sister  asked, leaning toward me.

—I have not.

—Are you sure it is Bottle James?

—I am not sure of anything.

—Well then, he might not be, she said, and seemed relieved.

—That’s true, as well, I said.

—What are you going to do? she asked.

—Perhaps nothing.  Perhaps something.

Just then Bottle James came over the edge of Brush Creek as a doctor. The lab coat was worse for wear and it needed washing and mending. But if you didn’t look too carefully, he was the part.  There was a bulge in the left-hand coat pocket that was probably not a stethoscope. He crossed Ward Parkway and walked by our window toward Eddie Bauer and Halls.

—What are you looking at?  Elaine said.  Is he out there?

She turned around, but he was gone.

—No.

—Don’t frighten me like that.

—Yes, I said.

—What?

—He just passed our window, I said.

She turned and looked again.

—I don’t understand you.  You just said. . .

—Having already frightened you, I see no reason not to tell you the truth. He was Doctor Welby. Or maybe a colleague of Jo’s on General Hospital. Someone brought in as specialist from Johns Hopkins for a few episodes.  And he and Jo. . .

—Now what are you going to do? she said.

—Cross paths with him, I said.

—For what reason?

—To deliver the lines from my past.

Medical History:  The Kansas-California Edition

The best time to take my exam over Harrison’s at the Med Center is in the mornings when there are plenty of indigent people in the public lounge. After I pass my tests, I treat myself to lunch at Hannah’s.

There is something worn and California about Hannah’s, as if the sixties are preserved, not so much in formaldehyde but as a small anthropology museum. A poster of one of Beth’s murals (in which she is a row of auto points across the top, getting older and more beautiful until she’s finally a woman of a certain age) is on the south wall; my usual table faces it.  Thus seated, I have the pleasing sensation that I, too, am part of the tableau.

I wear my uncle’s white coat. My stethoscope is in my pocket, but not so that it sticks out. I am addressed as “Doctor.”  Sometimes there are interns in the cafe, and they nod—as if they should know who I am.

Once Nurse Barkley came in with two medical students, a young man and a young woman.   Because there was no place else to sit, the owner brought them to my table.

—Do you two know Doctor Hansen? Nurse Barkley said after they sat down.

I had given her the lab’s name coupled with my own first name.

—Any relation to Arild Hansen? asked the young woman.

—No, I said. But of course I know his work.

—A real pioneer, said the young woman.  It all stands to this day.  Those studies he did on nutrition.  His lab was in San Francisco.  Then he was followed by. .  . what was that man’s name?  Also very great.

—Oakland, said the young man.  I think that lab was in Oakland.  Am I right? he asked me.

—I only know Hansen by his work, I said.

—They are taking me to lunch before they go on their preceptership program, Nurse Barkley said.

—Conroy Watkins, said the young woman. That’s who came after Hansen. He wrote a section of Harrison’s, I think.

—Where have you been assigned? I asked.

—To the boonies, said the man. Western Kansas.  Some town called Atwood. I leave after Christmas.  Just in time for the blizzards. I am told there are no children there.  Only geriatrics.  I am in pediatrics.

—It is the same, said nurse Barkley.

I didn’t know she could be witty. But then we never talked much.

—And you? I asked of the young woman.

—Emporia, she said.  William Allen White’s town.

—Pediatrics as well? I asked.

—Yes.  And as there are Mexicans, and as they are Catholics, there shall be children.

—Don’t rub it in, said the young man.

Neither asked after me in any professional way; my guess was that they felt they should have known me and were too shy to reveal they did not.  As for nurse Barkley, I suspect she had by now figured out that I am not who I pretend to be (whoever that is), but as I am a forbidden delight, she has decided not to press the matter.  Only once did she ask:

—Do you come down from the Lawrence campus?

Am I alone in thinking that a woman dressing after she has made love and has enjoyed it is as delicious as she when she is undressing in anticipation?

—Yes, I said.

—Do you know Doctor Whitehead up there?

—I do not, I said.

—And he does not know you, she said, buttoning her uniform.

Ta-Bid: Chapter Deux

Hazen wanted to use French in Ta-Bid to give it “cachet.”  He said you had to have “cachet” to attract celibate monks who would then “ponder and speculate” on the meaning of the text.  Celibate monks were more attentive to details and nuances.  The rest of us were just trying to get laid.

—To have “cachet” in America you need French, mais oui?

—Sometimes yes, and sometimes no, I said.

Hazen looked at me.  Self parody, I was beginning to learn, is a portable mask over the face of ignorance.  Later, I would check my mother’s Webster’s for “cachet” (page 202 where, just across the page on 203, I had previously discovered Cadillac, Antoine de la Mothe.)  Angst and ennui and enigma are yet to be found.  Provincial was disinterred on page 1173:  rustic, limited.

—Do you know “cachet?” Hazen asked.

—It means money.

—Yeah, right.

—I don’t know it either, said Beth.  I suspect she did, but didn’t want me to be embarrassed–which by then I was not.

—What about “provincial?” Hazen said.  My mother was ga-ga over your quip extraordinaire.  You are quoted on Russian Hill.  She thinks you were serious.

—I was.

Amid such declarations on the part of Hazen and patience on Beth’s part—and on trips in Austen up and down the California coast, and at late-night bull sessions—we assembled Ta-Bid.

—Which one of the gods is a woman? asked Beth  Ta or Bid?  We never decided that.

—Ta, I said.

—Bid, said Hazen. Your vote, Beth.

—How about we keep it a mystery, she said.  It will give rise to debate among the faithful.

—Very good, said Hazen. Like there’s a “flaw” in Paradise Lost.

—There is? I said.

I had not read Paradise Lost but at least I knew it was famous.

—That’s what my English Literature professor taught us, said Hazen.

—What’s the flaw? said Beth

—He never told us, said Hazen. I think it is supposed to be a mystery.  You just know there is a flaw and you ponder and speculate about what it is, and that’s how you get a Ph.D.

—Let’s call the mystery about which god is a woman and which god is a man “The Mystery of the Universal Sex,” I said.

—Too long, said Beth. And it comes out MUS if you abbreviate it.

—The Divine Enigma, said Hazen.

—Very good, said Beth.

When I typed her notes, she had written it as DE, and next to it was a drawing of Hazen scribbled over.

—Is there a hyphen between Ta and Bid? I asked.

—That too, we shall leave unsaid, said Beth.  So that different sects can develop. Let many faithful sects develop.  Some over the hyphen.

—I don’t want the faithful in our religion, Hazen says.  It clutters up Ta-Bid.  You can have wars over a hyphen.

—We don’t even have Ta-Bid yet, said Beth. Let’s not get sidetracked by the problems of the religions that exist.   What role do women play?

—They are Ta-Biddies, I said.

I was coming into my own.

—Very funny, said Beth.

I was also beginning to understand irony when I heard it.

—We need names for the priests, I said.

Nobody said anything for a moment.

—Grand Flayman, said Hazen.  The Earthly head of Ta-Bid shall be the Grand Flayman de Ta-Bid and he/she shall not reveal his/her identity or location, about which there shall be great angst and ennui.  The other holies of Ta-Bid shall be called Arch-Flaymen, one for each of the Seven Seas.

—You’re on a roll, Beth said, writing it down.

—I am the Arch Flayman for the Pacific Ocean, Hazen goes on.  My full title shall be Arch Flaymen de Abalone de Half Moon Bay de Ta-Bid.  You guys pick whatever sea you like.  It will leave four Arch Flaymen to anoint.  They shall be appointed with tenure and cannot be removed except for religious competence or immoral turpitude.

—The Mediterranean for me, I said, to which Beth says she had hoped for the Mediterranean because of its excellent light for painting, so I quickly gave way and took up my present post:  The Atlantic Arch Flaymen de la Alphabet Soup de Hurricanes.  My specialty (Hazen assigned us specialties) is to explain that the total destruction of homes and businesses by storms large and small (Hurricanes and typhoons crashing in from the oceans, tornadoes plowing through towns in Kansas and clearing away provinciality) is Ta-Bid’s way of “disinfecting the souls of the impure in order to bring into bloom a thousand springs.”  As to the persona of the Grand Flayman de Ta-Bid, his/her whereabouts has remained a secret to this day.  The original Deep Deity.  Four Arch Flaymen are yet to be anointed.

The Incomplete Book of Women

—Hello?

—Do you know who I am?

—No, I said.

I was in the lab waiting for the dog truck.  The phone in my uncle’s office had rung three times:  once I did not get there; once it was the wrong number (they wanted the hospital), but this time I got it.

—I am your next lover. I am taking off my clothes. My shorts are on the floor. Did you hear them drop?  I’m holding the phone against my ear with my shoulder while I unbutton my blouse.  I am not wearing a bra. I want you to kiss me on the neck.  And on my breasts.  Now I’m going to put down the phone while I take off my panties. There.  Do you know who I am? Find me.  Or I will find you.

Click.  From my uncle’s office, I could see the pound truck drive in.

—Where’s Floren? said Pistol.

—I don’t think he knew you were coming, I said.

—I told him I was coming. He said he’d trade with you.

I walked along the side of her truck to close the garage door, but she had not backed in far enough so the door was hung up on the front bumper. When I looked in the cab for the keys to move it, I saw dress clothes folded on the front seat.  High-heel shoes.  An overnight bag.

—Fucking asshole.

—Maybe he misunderstood, I said. Do you want me to call him?

She was in the truck getting dogs, but when she came to the tailgate she didn’t have one.  She was wearing her thick gloves and bib overalls.

—You busy? she said.

—We’ve got the Blood Factory this week, and Cook Time, if that’s what you mean.

—That’s not what I mean. I mean Floren was supposed to take me to dinner and I was going to stay over with him, and we were going to ball in a real bed at his place instead of on the fucking towels in the laundry room.

She went back into the truck to get dogs.  She was tough on them, grabbing them by their tails and the scruff of their necks and shoving them at me.

—I’ll call him, I said.

—Does that mean you’re busy? she said, holding a tube dog.

—I’m not busy.  It’s just that. . .

—What?  That I’m with Floren. Well, I’m not with Floren.  Is Floren here?  No.  You’re here. He’s not here, she says.  Not fucking here.  Asshole.

I put the tube dog in a cage and came back to get another. It was a black and white Border collie.   Pistol shoved it at me hard. Then she turned around and looked into the truck.  The Border collie started to whimper.  The other dogs in the garage were barking and howling and baying. They do that when the truck first comes in and they don’t settle down until after it leaves. I put the collie on the floor and it ran under the garage door and into the night.

I’d always liked Pistol.  Once we had a cup of coffee at Mel’s.  This was before Hazen started swapping times with me, so he could ball her in the laundry room.  It turned out she worked three jobs.  This was her night job.  She didn’t tell me the other two.  Just that she had them.   She’d start to say something, then not.  We had two cups of coffee.  She told me her name was Liz.  I offered to buy her something to eat before she left, but she had to go.  Sometimes when you’re young you don’t know why you like women.  Or what it means.  She wasn’t Beth.  But she was someone.

—Will you take me to dinner? Pistol said as she turned around.  Remember how you wanted to buy me a meal across the street?  I’ve got money, and if I give it to you will you take me to dinner on the Berkeley campus and pay for it like you were treating?  Someplace nice where the rich students go. I’ll ball you afterwards.  I’ll buy a bottle of wine and we can go back to your place and I’ll fucking ball you.  But not here, she says.  Will you? she said.   I don’t want to do it ever again on a pile of towels.  I want a bed. I want flowers in the room.  I want a bottle of wine on the table.  I want. . .

She went back into the truck and got another dog and gave it to me, not hard this time.  After I put the dog in a kennel and came back, she said:

—Never mind, I’m over it.  We better look for the one that got away.

—Are you busy?  I said.

I could see she wanted to smile.

—I’ve got that dog to find, she said.  If that’s what you mean.

—I haven’t eaten.  And I’ve got a few bucks my mother sent me for my birthday.  I was thinking you could join me.   I know a place just off the campus that’s nice and open late.  Flowers on the tables.

—Sure, she said.

She hands me another dog.

When the truck was empty we went into the parking lot and searched for the Border collie.  We looked for about ten minutes with no luck.  Heading toward the lab, Pistol took my hand.

—I’ll mark it DOA, she said coming across the parking lot.

—You don’t have to ball me, I said, holding her hand.

—Thank you, she said.

Then we saw the dog under Austen.  Pistol put on her gloves and pulled it out.  It tucked its head to turn away.

—Do you want it? she said.  It tried to get away.  That means something.

—I can’t, I said.  I’ve only got this room and we can’t have dogs.

We took it back to the lab where I put it in a kennel by itself.  Usually we double them up, but there was a cage on the top row against the inside wall where the vent pipe for the incinerator went up that was small for two dogs, so I put it there.

—I’ll find it a home, I said.  Mark it DOA.

—Thank you, she said. I want to change here.

I looked at Pistol and hoped that when she got dressed I wouldn’t want to ball her after all.  In a moment she came back wearing a bright yellow skirt and a white blouse. She fixed her hair so that it was above her right eye.  She’d put on perfume.  She was wearing high heels and stockings.  Pearls.  She had a scarf for her hair.  Because she was taller in her heels she didn’t seem like Pistol any more.  Behind her I could hear the phone in my uncle’s office ringing.

—You want to get that? she said.

—No.  But I want to stop by my room to get slacks, I say.  And a sports coat.

—Thank you, she said.

—Leave your truck in the parking lot, I say.  I’ll bring you back.

—I want to stay with you, she said.

—You don’t have to.

—I know I don’t.  I just want to stay with you in your room so I can wake up someplace other than where I live.  I want to be near somebody.  I’ve brought a night bag.  We can have breakfast together in the morning.  My treat.

—Fine, I said.

After dinner, I asked the waiter if I could have the flowers on the table: a small bouquet of daises.  Sure, he said.

—Don’t forget about the dog, Pistol said the next morning at Mel’s.

—I won’t.

Behind her, Hazen was getting off the 51 bus.  He looked to see if Austen was in the parking lot.  It was next to Pistol’s truck.

—Thank you, Pistol said.  She was wearing her bib overalls and her hair was knotted in back.  But she was still wearing her pearls.  She caught me staring at her.

—I like to look at you, I said.

—I know, she said.  Feels good, doesn’t it?

—You’re pretty.

—That’s my middle name, she said.  Elizabeth Pretty Bond.  I don’t know why he calls me Pistol.

She looked into her coffee cup.

—Don’t forget about the dog, she said.

—I promise.

—I’ve got to go, she said.

—See you next week.

She doesn’t tell me she won’t be back. Maybe she didn’t know.

—Was it your birthday? she said.

—No.

—Did you want to ball?

Behind her I could see Hazen looking in the truck. Before we came over to Mel’s, Pistol had put her night bag and dress clothes on the seat.

—Yes, I said.

—Me too.

—I didn’t know, I said.

—I didn’t want you to.

—Sometimes it’s better this way, I said

—Thank you for saying so, she said.

After she left, I went into the lab through the garage door into the Dog Room and looked at Pretty in her cage, no longer nameless to me.

Nudes in Painting: A Revised Edition

—What I like about you is that you look at me when we talk.

—Who else would I look at? I said.

—Bob looks at the television.

—Maybe Bob likes television.

—Why would he like television more than he likes me?

—Some wine?

—And when I tell Bob I love him, he says “ditto.”

—I don’t love you, I said.

—I know you don’t, she said.  I don’t want you to.  But I want Bob to love me because we are married.

This wife has my book Nudes in Painting out of which she creates our afternoon.  I was sorry to hear her talk like this, because there is a Renoir and a Manet she has not gotten to–the latter with a Rosetta holding the flowers I buy on Tuesdays.  My hope had been that she’d get as far as Ruben’s Little Fur.  But when my wives start talking about their husbands, their Wednesdays are numbered pages; perhaps Rubens can be the denouement. In her youth she could have been a Balthus.

—I like to look at you because you are so many women at once, I said.  For instance, I noticed you have arranged your hair differently; it is braided and wrapped in front.  I like it that way.

—See, she said.  After lunch I want you to guess who I am. Someday I’ll tell you how I get the ideas for my poses.

Soon she will become Titian’s Venus of Urbino (sans chien).   In the meantime we talk about “the moment at hand”–always a good subject between men and women who do not love one another.

The Self Help Book of the Cosmos  

—There are “direct” lines in the cosmos that make connections from the world beyond our knowing to the world of our knowing, and there are “indirect” lines that make those connections, says Professor Gabin. It is the obligation of science to examine the “direct” lines; it is the obligation of religion–in so far as religion is connected to spirituality– to examine the “indirect” lines.  The “oblique” lines. The lines that require faith. The light and sounds and touch from another world that cannot be seen or heard or felt.  That sense of knowing something that is not knowable is what religion puts into dogma, which claims to be a way of knowing.  The world might be a better place were this not so, but it is so:  It is the business of all religions to confide what cannot be codified and to demand the impossible:  that we take as fact what is at best a guess.  Remember this as you create your religion.

It is one of the few times Professor Gabin did not read from the hologram she projected in front of her.  She leaned into that space, and beyond it she saw me for the first time in a week.

—I said you were sick, man, said Hazen after class.  Ursula is not in happy-happy-ville.  I am not in happy-happy-ville.   I covered your ass.  I got dog blood up the wazoo.    Were you stuck on the MTA?

Beth would not talk to me.  She walked out of Professor Gabin’s class toward the student union.

—I went with Jo to La Jolla, I said.

—For a week?

—Apparently.

—What were you doing?

—I’ll bet you can’t guess.

—No shit shinola? Hazen says.  He seemed surprised.  And impressed.

The Gathering of Light 

—You know how Bill Holden lures Kim Novak out of Hutchinson, Kansas in Picnic? Bottle James said one night in the garage room. Well, I’m Bill Holden and I’m taking myself out of Emporia. I’m not going to stir burn barrels just so I can dance to “Moonglow” with Hulga. Or even Tina. “The train got in, thank God!  What time is it?”  Want a pull?  Vodka is the fastest way out of Kansas.

Even before the posters went up, you knew a play was in production because Bottle James would walk around campus in one of the costumes: “Oh, reason not the need,” he ranted one week wearing a long white beard.  “Nothing will come of nothing.”

—Do you think it’s true Tina’s father is Professor Humbolt? I asked him the week he was ranting in his beard.

—You still trying to ball her?

—Yes.

—Never, never, never, never, never, he said.

—Who are you? I asked.

—I have in my countenance that which will have you call me “sir.”

When I first went to work for Hallmark, I proposed a series of books based on quotations from Shakespeare. The Famous Hamlet. The Famous Romeo and Juliet. The Famous King Lear. As examples, I used both “Hang Up Philosophy,” and “Never.  Never.  Never.  Never.  Never.  Never.”  It was a successful proposal, but the editors used “I love you more than words can wield the matter.”

In recent days I have been watching for Bottle James through binoculars that were a gift from Stripper Suzie.  It was her idea that I go across Brush Creek so she could play peek-a-boo on my balcony.  When I said I didn’t have binoculars, she gave me an excellent pair:  Swiss made, she pointed out.

—I always hoped there was a peeping Tom in my neighborhood when I was growing up, she said.

—Maybe there was, I said.

—I would draw the shade and arrange the light so it was behind me when I undressed.

—As in Straw Dogs?

—Is that a movie?  It sounds vile. Let’s check our watches, she said.  One thirty.  Can you get where you can see me by two?

—Yes.

I walked to Married Love and looked for Bottle James.  I saw where he had camped against a tree not far below me.  I scanned the creek. He was nowhere to be seen. Then I sat on Winston’s lap and trained the binoculars at my balcony to look for Suzie.

—Did you see me? she said when I came back.

—I did indeed.

—What did you see? she said.  She was fully clothed in a yellow tailored suit and that meant that for her—for us obviously—the end of the afternoon.

—I saw your bare leg first of all, I said.

—Did you see what I was wearing?  Did you see me take it off?  Could you see me behind the curtain?

—Yes.  I said.

—I must go, she said. Next time, I’ll stay all afternoon and make it up to you.  You’re such a dear, sweet man. Why you’re not married, I don’t know. If I wanted to share you—which I don’t—I’d introduce you to my sister-in-law.  She’s sort of married but… how to put it…? she needs a diversion.  She says so herself.

—You’re quite enough.

—How good of you to say, she said, and, as the elevator doors closed, she pulled up her dress with one hand so I could see she was wearing a black thong with the logo of a rap star on them.    With the other hand, she made a phone of her thumb and little finger.  Her sister-in-law who is sort of married has recently come swimming back from my past. The coincidences of English fiction alive in American fact.

Later that afternoon, I took the 39 bus to the medical center where the doctor will see me, but not until six. Still, the cure is pleasant.  As is the disease. While waiting, I spotted my first Achondroplastic Dwarf, plus two cases of jaundice.

When I returned from my doctor’s appointment, I went to the far edge of my balcony with the binoculars. The directions testify  (in English, French, and German) to their  “superb light gathering power.” They can be used to great affect (sic–or maybe not) at dawn or dusk.  If there is any light at all  (stars, the moon, or lights from a “city-scape”) they will “gather that light.”  (Perhaps even the glow of a slide projector).

Peering into the dusk of the creek, I saw Bottle James crossing the bridge by Married Love. He was wearing jeans, a white shirt, a vest slung over his shoulder:  A waiter?  A bartender?    His head was down.  As he entered the Plaza, he looked up as if into the eyes that gathered his light.

In Elaine’s attic along with our record player is the album from Picnic, the moon-glow of which has now been gathered as well.

Ta-Bid:  Heaven and Hell

—I think that in Ta-Bid heaven should be hell, and hell should be heaven, said Hazen one day.

—Why? said Beth

—What do you mean? I asked.

We were at my aunt and uncle’s house; they were out of town.

—That heaven should be a cul de sac, tree lined streets, barbecue suppers, swimming pools, Montavani on the hi-fi.  White pianos with brandy snifters on them.  Tall tanned blond woman.  Tall, handsome, blond men.  Sunshine, Hazen said.

—California, said Beth.

—The perfect burbs, said Hazen. Eternal happiness.  Fluffed pillows. Roses that never wilt.  This! Hazen said as he made a circle above his head with his hand that took in the loveliness of my aunt and uncle’s house.

—Why is this hell? I asked.  Uncle Conroy and Aunt Lillian are happy here.  What’s wrong with that?

—Happiness, said Hazen, is an illusion and when it fades it leaves congestive heart failure.

Beth was silent.  Sometimes she would put her elbows on a table and fold her hands under her chin as if to keep herself from speaking.  Then she’d rest her chin on her hands and after a moment talk from there.

—Your heaven seems dull, she said.  And the point is jejune.

—Jejune!  What kind of word is that?  said Hazen.

—It means naive, said Beth still talking with her chin on her folded hand.  Sophomoric.

—I know what it means, said Hazen. We’re all sophomoric here. Making up a religion is just an excuse for a bull session.  All bull sessions are jejune, ergo, every time we talk about Ta-Bid we are jejune.  We’re not going to get out of Bull Sessionburg until we’ve got real jobs.  Taking courses in world religion is not real work.  Smoking pot is not real work. Drinking beers at the No Name is not real work.  What professor Gobin has done for us is make our bull sessions earn credit.  Cal Berkeley credit is not real work.

—How about bleeding dogs? I asked.

To which there was silence.

Later that night after Beth and Hazen had gone, I went to the windows of my uncle’s house and looked over the Bay with its lights and water and cars going along the roads and over the bridges and remembered a summer evening after a tornado had blown through Merriam.  My father and I had come out of the basement to look around.

—What’s that? I said.

I pointed to a car fender that had fallen into the yard.  There was no other debris.  Nothing of our house had been damaged.  No roof shingles ruffled.  A breeze was in the trees.  There were others along our street coming into their yards, talking.  The sky had cleared and the night above us was stars.  My mother had gone into the kitchen to reheat dinner.

—A fifty-six Chevy, said my father as he went over to the fender.  Probably Bob Snow’s.

I wondered—even then—what triggers memory.  And I wonder now if it was Bob Snow my mother had once loved.

A One-Page Blank:  Elaine

When my sister was younger she looked like Dina Shore.  She could enter a room with the same television show skirt flourish, which she would do to the amusement of those who understood her parody, our father among them.  And like Dina, Elaine could sing silky torch songs:  “A Small Hotel;”  “Dancing on the Ceiling;”   “The Way You Look Tonight.”  She was as out-of-date in her Elvis-and-Beetles and Dylan youth as I am now.

These days Elaine has about her a Joanne Woodward countenance.  She said she was hoping for Grace Kelly as they both aged (modesty is not one of my sister’s virtues). I think Joanne Woodward is better.  Recently she has reverted to Dina, once singing “My Funny Valentine” on a drive to Lowell.

—Are you thinking of someone? I asked.

—Yes.

Like me, she is tall, at least taller than our mother, but not as tall as our father.  Unlike the matrons of her society, she is lithe.  I think a man other than Gerhard would find her winsome.  I wonder if she has lovers, or has had lovers.  Should a brother ask?  I’ll ask her what she thinks.

She wears little make up, has auburn hair with touches of gray, stands straight and walks with ease; bright, alert, I have seen her suppress a smile at something up ahead along the creek:  a lady with a dog that is pulling her toward a clipped goose.  Always when we pass Winston and Clementine.

A Cosmic Manual of Coincidence and Clocks   

I have been leaving money for Bottle James. When I see that he has come onto the Plaza in one of his guises, I go to Brush Creek and, finding his pad, tuck two ten dollar bills into his clothes.  If I am taking one of my walks, I carry the tens with me.  By now I have given him a hundred dollars.

The second time Stripper Suzy was on my balcony, I spotted Bottle James coming out of Brush Creek dressed as a waiter. He seemed in a jaunty mood. I saw him dip his head as he passed a pretty woman.  It was as if she might have been a customer in the restaurant where he worked.  Then he rounded the corner at Warnell Road and, walking into the Plaza, vanished.

By the time I turned my binoculars toward my balcony, Suzy had finished revealing herself, but I saw a black bra in one hand but still wearing her signature thong before she went back into the apartment.  She was patting the top of her head and her hair seemed undone.

—Did you see me?  Did you see what I did?

She was fully dressed in a Channel suit, a Liberty scarf, not a hair out of place.

—Tell me you saw what I was doing, she said.

—With your hair? I guessed.  How you bent over and ran your hands through it.

—Yes, she said.  And then?

I was out of guesses and wondered at my luck.

—With your black bra?  I said.

—Yes, she said.  I feel so free up here.  I can’t say why.  My sister-in-law says she feels free when she swims in the nude. She told me how in high school she went skinny dipping at the Roeland Park swimming pool with the lifeguard after it was closed.   Have you ever been skinny-dipping?

—I have not, I said.

—I haven’t told my sister-in-law about you yet, she said as she closed the doors and blinds to the balcony.  About us.  I wonder if I should.  What would you think if. . .

She has lost track of what she is going to say because she is looking at the table where she had set out lunch; she likes to do that and so I let her.  She also brings it:  a pasta salad from the Better Cheddar and oil-cured olives, tiny cobs of corn, and baklava for dessert.  There were also two good cuts of cheese, a brie and something else—maybe a blue d’Auvergne. I think of Cloris Leachman in The Last Picture Show setting her table for her young lover and waiting, waiting; only one day I will be the one who has a table—in this case not set—to which a Wednesday Wife does not come.  It, too, will be predictable.

—Sit, she said, sit down.

My guess was that she’d been imagining herself at the other end of my binoculars and that is why she was breathing deeply with desire.  The wine she has brought is an aged Saint-Estephe.

—Very good, I said, tipping my glass toward her.

—Don’t you just love the Better Cheddar, she said.  I hope we are together long enough so I can buy you one of everything they have.  Not all the wine.  But olives and prosciutto, and Biscotti.  Where is the foie gras I brought you last time?

—Too good not have, I said.

It had gone down the hall, along with some Bendicks Military Chocolate that Red Boa Rachel brought me the previous week.

—I’ll bring you another.

—Thank you.

—There are things I want to do to you this afternoon, she said as she settled into her chair, when the wine has gone to my head.   I want to let my freedom swim over you.

—If what? I said, just being curious, not about the answer, but about her train of thought.

—What? she said.

—Nothing, I said.  Entice me with hints of my future pleasures.

—Well. . .

And as she did, I wondered if the Prince of Serendipity would script sisters-in-law crossing paths down stage in front of Earl McFate:  “Hi! What brings you here?”  “Meeting a friend, and you?”  “Me, as well.”  “We must talk.”  “Lunch tomorrow.”  “Sure, Hollians.  Noon”  “Fine.”  Doors open (one gets off).  Doors close (one gets on).  Somebody must have the wrong Wednesday.  That happens.  One of them doesn’t have a Wednesday.

I have been trying to spot Bottle James when he finds my money.  So far, no luck.  Once, he moved from where I had left it earlier in the day; another time, he returned before I got back out. One day he never returned.  The morning after Stripper Suzy, I got up before dawn to gather light by Winston and Clementine.

—Do you need help? the Plaza cop asked me when he passed on his rounds.

—No, I said.  Just waiting for the sunrise.

—There’s a bum who hangs out on the creek, he said. He thinks he’s a fireman. You’ll want to be careful.

—I’ll keep a lookout, I said.

—We’ve put him in the slammer a couple of times, and once on a bus to West Jesus Land, Kansas, but he keeps coming back.   Probably harmless, but you never know.  Hasn’t been around for the past few days.  Sometimes he’s a clock.

—What?

—The officer on the weekend shift tells me the guy thinks he’s a clock.  He found him standing on a corner going “bong, bong, bong, bong, bong.”  That’s when he took him over the line into Kansas.

—I’ll listen for him, I said.

—My guess is he’s left ahead of winter, said the cop.

—For Florida like the bum Dustin Hoffman plays in the movie? I said.

—I don’t know it, said the cop.  I know that other one though.  Weird if you ask me.

In the Beginning the World Was Not a Blank 

Professor Gabin said our religion must come to grips with five topics: The beginning of existence. The nature of the deity. The rules for the faithful. Good and Evil.  And the text of the religion.

—Why does she want to know about the “text” of the religion?  Hazen asked one day at the No Name Bar.

We had been up the north coast above Timber Cove.  Beth had taken her paints and the Ta-Bid notebook.  Hazen and I did surf casting and caught some stripers that were in the trunk.  Later, Beth would cook them for dinner.  She would also make fish-head soup for Earl.  Beth thought she could get Earl off his bong by feeding him “pure nutrients,” such as clam juice and vegetables juices she’d make with a blender—and most recently, fish-head soup.

Hazen and I were reluctant to tell Beth nothing was going to keep Earl from bongs or roach clips. And other drugs as it turned out.  Later, when Earl went to jail, Beth would take him bread and containers of her soups.   Hazen and I were pretty sure he was trading them.

—Professor Gabin wants to know how The Book of Ta-Bid got written? I said.

—We wrote it, says Hazen.  We talked it out all semester over beers and dead Mussolinis and Beth took notes.  You typed it.  Then we turned it in.  For an A.  Bang.  Done.  Big Bang.

Hazen left to go to the jukebox.  Whenever he got restless, he’d play jukeboxes.  He especially liked the ones where you picked the songs from your booth.    In those days you got seven songs for a quarter, and if you spaced them, you could play the same song twice.  Hazen chose his bars by the jukebox.  If they had Tom Lehrer we’d stop.  Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. In the No Name Bar you had to go up to the jukebox, which Hazen would do two or three times while Beth and I were drinking our beers and watching the sunshine on the water.  The No Name had Tom Lehrer, Dylan, and Joan Baez.   That made it Mecca.

—We have to come up with a “story” about how The Book of Ta-Bid got written said Beth when Hazen came back.  Just as we wrote a story about how the universe was created.  We need a “story” of how the “story” was created.

—Ta-Bid told us to do it, said Hazen. Why can’t we just say, “And right after Ta and Bid stopped shaking from their orgasm they told Beth Brookings to write it down.”

—Too short, I said.  Our religion has got to be a term paper.  We need some padding.   The story of the story can’t be short.

—“In the beginning there was the word” is short, Beth said.

—But we’ve already said that in the beginning Ta and Bid were balling, said Hazen.

—We could change the order, said Beth.

About this time the jukebox played Joan Baez’s  “Take a ribbon from my hair.”          Hazen smiled, rare for him.

—How about Ta-Bid having a song? said Hazen. Maybe a song could explain how it got written.  They are singing to each other in the wilderness with a bottle of Mussolini and a loaf of bread and the song they are singing a version of the  “Ta-Bid Rag.”

—How about we save a song for good and evil, said Beth, who was flustered in some way I did not understand.

—Sure, I said.

—“It just takes a smidgeon to poison a pigeon,” Hazen sang. Or  “Ta-Bid made thine eyes, plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize.”

—Are we into evil here? I said.  Or good?

—Both, said Hazen.  That’s the nature of Ta-Bid.  Good and evil are intertwined.  And you don’t know the difference.  Only Ta and Bid know. And they’re not telling.  Cover up, cover up, cover up.   Something will come of it.  Only the Shadow knows. The Shadow of Your Smile Meets the Windmill of Your Mind, he sang.  We could use some Keanes as illustrations.

—Back to how the text of Ta-Bid got written, Beth said.

—I like your idea, I said to her.

—What’s that?  Hazen said.

—That in the beginning there was The Book of Ta-Bid.  That it came even before Ta and Bid were humping.  Even before they were Ta and Bid.

—That doesn’t make sense, said Hazen.

—You have to start someplace, I said.   And wherever you start can’t make sense.  It only has to make sense when you come to the end.

—How about we write that “In the beginning there was the beginning, and the beginning was The Book of Ta-Bid?” said Beth.

—But if we don’t have Ta and Bid in the first place, said Hazen, we don’t have the big Ficky-Ficky in the sky; and if we don’t have the Big Ficky-Ficky in the sky, we don’t have the belly button ganiff popping off, and we don’t have the universe.  And that means we’re not here.  We’re not in the No Name Bar in Sausalito, California, and the sun isn’t shining and I’m not Hazen Edmond Floren Reynald and we don’t have to get this fucking assignment done because there is no Professor Gabin, and that’s not Bob Dylan coming up as G 4!

—Calm down, I said. Maybe we can figure it out that we’re here.

—Art comes before life, said Beth.  At least for Oscar Wilde.  Maybe it’s the nature of religion to be written first, then Jesus or Mohammed or Buddha, or Yahweh or Ta-Bid come along and act it out.  Like you need a playbook before the curtain goes up.

—Just as long as we’re here, said Hazen.

He seemed gloomy at the prospect we might not be there.  It was as if one of his names has been taken away.  He fished in his pocket and got out a quarter and slapped the table.

—I play the jukebox, therefore, I am, said Hazen. Call Doctor Frenchy.

—It goes this way, said Beth:  The Book of Ta-Bid creates Ta and Bid.  It is written; therefore, it shall be.  In the beginning there was The Book.  And The Book is not Blank.  Use capital letters for “Book” and “Blank” when you type it.

—Sounds good, I said.

—Are we here or not? said Hazen.

He was standing beside the table looking out the window onto the street.  He flipped his quarter a few times.  The last time he slapped it on his wrist and looked at it.

—Sometimes we are and sometimes not, said Beth, who by now was in on the joke.

—Yeah, right, said Hazen.

Our Blank de Blanche Design Proposal: Four of X

1. Title:  Ostensible, Ubiquitous, Alacrity, Quintessential, Albeit, Circa

A.   Trimmed page size: 6×9 cut from 38×50.   Paginated in lower right.  Two wire paper, antique.

B.  Where a Part ends, there is a word from the text in Garamond Bold Italics, e.g., Covenant.

C. Typeface for text:  Garamond 12 point.

D.  Watermark for end papers and other blanks: subliminal “dictionary words” that have not been italicized in text.

  1. Typeface for watermark: Garamond Italics.  6 point.
  2. Text:  Bong, bong, bong, bong, bong.  Never, never, never, never, never.

 — Robert Day

Bookbinding header, color-001

Robert Day’s most recent book is Where I Am Now, a collection of short fiction published by the University of Missouri-Kansas City BookMark Press. Booklist wrote: “Day’s smart and lovely writing effortlessly animates his characters, hinting at their secrets and coyly dangling a glimpse of rich and story-filled lives in front of his readers.” And Publisher’s Weekly observed: “Day’s prose feels fresh and compelling making for warmly appealing stories.”

The novel banners at top and bottom are by Bruce Hiscock.

Dec 032013
 

Louise Manifold & Kevin Barry

Today Numéro Cinq begins a new special feature tagged Uimhir a Cúig, which means Number Five in Irish, wherein you will find some of the best in contemporary Irish literature and culture exhibited. To launch Uimhir a Cúig, we have a video by the amazing and uncanny Galway artist Louise Manifold with text and voiceover from the massively celebrated Kevin Barry, winner of last year’s Dublin IMPAC International Literary Award for his novel The City of Bohane as well as the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Prize. Barry is a wonderful read. He is especially good on the rhythm and nuance of Irish idiom (his stories set in pubs are wonderful, put you in mind of Flann O’Brien) and comedy in a dark time. Cotard’s Delusion happens to be a real pathology in which the sufferer believes he is dead.

dg

This is a piece I wrote to go with a video and audio installation for an artist called Louise Manifold in Galway based on Cotard’s Delusion — a rare mental state in which you wake up one morning and believe yourself to be dead. It was apparently Cotard’s that inspired Beckett’s The Calmative. Louise filmed the interior of a derelict old cinema in New Jersey — as good a locale to define a state of living death as any!

—Kevin Barry

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My wife is distraught and has refused to accept the facts of the situation. I suppose her reaction is common to the bereaved. She cannot accept that the old realities are done with now. That I have no heat in my bones to lend her now. She rants like a mad woman – she refuses to accept the pure state of my absence; she will not accept that I am no longer here. I can only hope that time will do its patient work on her now – as they insist it will –  and that she can find something or someone to live for again; she is not an old woman yet.

It is Saturday I can tell even by the feel of the streets and somehow by the way the light falls – there is a species of winter light that holds the particular resonance of Saturday – and it is late morning, and the people are about and lost in the make-busy routines of their lives, as though any of it matters, and I move among them and sometimes, even still, I draw passing nods from the acquaintances of my old life, but I do not return their smiles and gestures – how could I? – and their faces fall into frown and puzzlement then, and I sense the way a chill of cold certainty passes through them. Word will have got around of my demise, and they will know it is a spirit they have seen, or sensed, or a cipher, or a ghost, for I could be nothing else now and no other, for I have passed on, and I throw no shadow in the white winter sun.

But I can taste the world still even though I am no longer a part of it. Still there is the waft of coffee from the cafes but it stirs nothing in me. Still from the tannoys of the shops I can hear sentimental pop music – old love songs I would have held her to, in discos, in 1978 – but it stirs nothing in me. Still I can recognise the beauties of the planet – they are all about on this fine bright Saturday –but they stir nothing in me.

I could not name for you the precise moment of my death. I suspect, of course, there was a significance about the moment when the tendrils of smoke came from my nostrils. It was a sweetish, greenish-black smoke, as from the burning of a seasoned ash wood. Perhaps something left me at that moment – another might call it a soul – and it was perhaps then that I become merely this husk; I became something to be carried on the breeze off the river, on the wind off the bay.

I can witness the moments of my old life still but only as a stranger. I am puzzled by my actions. By the decisions I made and the paths that I took. What a fool I was. What a happy poor fool I was. What a happy and arrogant and deluded poor fool I was.

I walk straight ahead with my shoulders thrown back and the head held high and the people walk straight at me but they swerve at the last moment though they cannot see me but somehow they must sense me – I was once of the tribe, and my scent is about the streets still. These are the streets of our lives and our Saturdays, as though we are a confluence at the centre of the universe – what arrogant poor fools – and I walk on, as always I walked on, and as ever I am drawn to the water.

The occult places are where the rivers enter the sea and I walk now by the mesmerizing roar of the black water, and I am drawn along the same old pathway again – tang of sea – and I walk into the saltwind and into the light; I am there and I am not there; I have become water, wind, light.

— Kevin Barry

————————

Kevin Barry is the author of the story collections Dark Lies The Island and There Are Little Kingdoms and the novel City of Bohane. He has won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Prize. His stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House and many other journals. He also writes plays and screenplays. He lives in County Sligo, Ireland.

§

Born in Co. Galway Ireland, Louise Manifold studied at Central St Martins College London and the Galway/Mayo Institute of Technology, Ireland. She has exhibited extensively throughout Ireland, and internationally in group exhibitions at ISCP, New York. Proximal Distances Chicago, Supermarket Art Fair, Stockholm, Red House Arts Centre Syracuse New York, Candid arts centre, London. 411 Galleries Shanghai, China and the Botin Foundation, Spain. Louise has been the recipient of numerous awards from Galway City Council, Galway County Council, The Arts Council of Ireland and Culture Ireland,  In 2009 she was one of the four artists short-listed nominated for Allied Irish Bank Art prize. Louise is currently based in Galway and is on the board of directors of Galway Arts Centre, and  Artspace studios Galway, Ireland.

 

 

 

Dec 022013
 

Louis Armand at Jazz Republic 23.5.13

L

ouis Armand’s fiction saunters through the darkest underbelly of society, illuminating the forgotten and the discarded. His recent novel Breakfast at Midnight (2012) reads like a twisted, brilliantly savage acid noir: amid a decaying Prague, rechristened Kafkaville, a quasi-mystery unfurls through the addled mind of a nameless fugitive, a man looking to solve a murder and piece together his own history. Canicule, released this past April, finds purchase through the lens of cinema: a man commits suicide, forcing his friends—failing screenwriter Hess and terrorist-sympathizer Wolf—to reenter each other’s orbit. A narrative revealed in snippets—“I’m not able to put the pieces back together, because I don’t understand them,” Hess confesses. “They’re pieces of an alien life, a completely alien life.”—the novel’s elasticity feels like an experimental film, spliced together on a dusty Steenbeck. Constantly moving forward and backward in time, Armand refuses to coddle his audience, and the result is a tale full of irony, repetition, and alcohol-fueled remorse.

Now comes Cairo. Set for publication in January (Equus Press), the following excerpt fuses themes and beats from Armand’s earlier novels: a murder, followed by a mystery left for men out of their element to decipher. Cinema bubbles throughout, as well, as Armand’s characters employ film tropes to handle their increasingly odd situation. And yet, while these ideas resurface, Cairo’s aura is nothing like that of Breakfast and Canicule, for while those settled on a far more serious plain, Cairo is downright playful. What makes this excerpt so very interesting is that it showcases Armand’s gift for language, both in his wickedly funny character exchanges and in the way he describes locations: senses are explored, filling us in on not only the tangible space, but also its sonic properties, its perfume, truly creating in three dimensions the underbelly of the underbelly.

Benjamin Woodard

louis armand_cairo_front cover

ELEPHANT’S EGG 

T

he East Ham Mortuary off Barking Road was a squat cube of dark brick with a set of blue doors at the entrance. Nicky Cohn was waiting under a yellow CCTV sign, collar up, cigarette drooping from the corner of his mouth, somehow still alight in the drizzle, when Joblard wheeled up riding the clutch. A naked fluorescent blinked over the doorway, lending the journalist’s features a decidedly funereal cast. The light glistened on the wet chrome of the BSA’s petrol tank, catching the steam as it hissed up from the single cylinder. Then it didn’t. Then it did.

“You’re looking bright and chirpy,” Nicky Cohn said as Joblard yanked off his helmet, face a blur behind frozen breath. “Not half bloody cold.”

“Nice night for it alright,” Joblard said, “though I’d rather be in the back lounge getting intimate with a pint. You been in yet?”

“Nah, just got here. Thought I’d have a fag before trying to blague my way past the Homicide and Serious Crime boys. I recognised two of them when I peeked in through the door. They can be right cunts when it suits them.”

Joblard stuffed his gloves inside his bellstaf jacket, helmet under one arm.

“That’s good, I could fancy a couple of cunts on a night like this.”

“Not like these you wouldn’t. Speaking of which, what’s your Spielberg up to these days?”

“You on the square brother?”

“Eh?”

“Freemasons. Grand Lodge. He’s got some notion about poking a camera into the holy of holies. Ladies of the Illuminati.”

“The what?”

“Yeah, I reckon our mate Johnny Fluoride might’ve been getting him some of the more candid stuff. Kind of spank-and-tell exposé of the secret handshake brigade.”

“Tell me about it after,” Nicky Cohn said, tossing the unsmoked half of his cigarette on the ground. “I’m freezing my balls off out here.”

Behind the blue doors was a corridor and an office with a little window where Nicky Cohn showed his press credentials and signed in. Joblard took in the atmosphere. A couple of plods eyeballed him from where they were sitting beside a pair of swing-doors, like they were on stakeout duty waiting for a corpse to show up and trying to outguess each other about whose it might be. Joblard grinned at them. It was a rule he had with cops: you never break eye contact and always smile, drives the fuckers nuts. Nicky finished with the forms and they waited for a technician in a blue smock to come and give them the grand tour. He was a tall and skinny, with a straggly goatee and hair down past his collar and acne on his neck. Student-type. Taking full advantage of the opportunities society had on offer.

“This way gentlemen,” he said, taking a chit from the receptionist behind the window. “My name’s Zack and I’m your guide for this evening. The main attraction’s just through here and on the left.”

They ran the gauntlet of the two Homicide boys, busy giving Joblard the business with their cop stares, tongues working the backs of their teeth, but not making any more than a show of it.

Joblard jerked his thumb back at the swing-doors, behind them now as their guide steered them left along an underlit tunnel of half-tone green:

“What’s with the local entertainment, Zack?”

“One of our residents has attracted special attention.”

“Zack,” Nicky said, “I have a confession to make. That’s who we’re here to see.”

The technician stopped and scrutinised the chit he was holding.

Joblard, trying to get a look at it over the technician’s shoulder, found himself with an unobstructed view of a dandruff condition on the verge of spiralling out of control. Greenish flakes of dead scalp layered the back and shoulders of Zack-the-mortuary-technician’s smock, sifting down between greasy cords of black hair. Joblard edged back to maintain a safe interpersonal distance. Dandruff always made him think of leprosy. It was an association he’d had ever since childhood and the smell of antidandruff shampoo in the change rooms. Afraid he’d catch the stuff. At least they’d had the decency to wash. Some people, he thought, ogling the back of the technician’s head, lack the very basics of self-respect.

“You’re not here to see 856?”

“No.”

“We’re supposed to report anyone who wants to visit the new guy.”

Nicky slipped a freshly minted portrait of Queen Liz into the pocket of the technician’s smock.

“Put this towards your scholarship fund, Zack. No-one ever need know. You just got the numbers mixed up, that’s all.”

Zack glanced at the bill, which in the light of the corridor was the brown of a freshly minted turd.

“She looks kind of lonely, don’t you think? Got another one of those to keep her company?”

Nicky slipped the technician another royal likeness. The kid grinned.

“Right through here then, gents,” Zack said, leading the way.

Once when he’d been KO’d in the ring by the southpaw Mickey “the Hammer” Mulligan, Joblard had woken up on the floor staring at a light thinking he’d died already and was stretch out on one of those mortuary slabs they have in movies and any minute some geezer in a white labcoat was going to come in and poke a scalpel in his brain and pronounce the cause of death. Telling himself how “Hammer” wasn’t a name Mulligan earned in the ring but operating a protection racket off Brick Lane. But the room Zack the technician ushered them into wasn’t like anything in a film, more like a wholesaler’s stockroom. The far wall was lined with time-warped refrigerator doors you’d expect to find racks of frozen meat behind. Sides of beef, lamb, pork. A whole raffle bonanza.

The technician went straight to the third door down and yanked it open. Behind it there were three more doors, square, one above another, old paint a dozen hues of off-white cracked and flaking. Johnny Fluoride had taken up residence behind the door third from the bottom. Like those Japanese coffin hotels. Zack trundled out the slab. Joblard shivered. Johnny Fluoride’s body, sans head, was wrapped in semi-opaque plastic. The swim hadn’t done him any kindnesses. Even with the plastic on he looked terrible, like he’d been force-fed through the proverbial wringer. But whatever took his head off, that sure as hell hadn’t beaten around the bush.

“Jesus!”

The corpse, Joblard duly noted, had bare feet. Eventually, he supposed, the Coroner’s Office would release a report. He wondered what they’d make of the fact Johnny here had gone swimming without his boots on. Getting a head start, so to speak. The violent crime boys hadn’t made a positive ID yet. Their floater had washed up not only sans head but sans anything in his pockets. According to Nicky’s mate at the yard, Johnny Fluoride’s body had still been zipped into his army surplus when they found him. Which was how he knew it was Johnny Fluoride. The anorak had somehow kept him afloat, otherwise he mightn’t’ve turned up at all till next week, if ever.

Still, Joblard supposed, it’d only be a matter of time now before the Homicide boys rang the old widow’s doorbell over in Greenwich and got themselves an earful. And then from Greenwich to Canvey, which was all they’d need to put him on the spot. A knock on the door in the middle of the night. But at that moment, all Joblard could really think of was how the fuck…?

The three of them stared at the body for a while in silence. Nicky flicked at the chipped paint on the freezer door. The room seemed to Joblard to’ve grown noticeably colder. Nicky pulled a splinter of old paint from under a fingernail and held it up to the light.

“You know,” he said, breaking the silence, “they reckon lead paint’s accountable for half the violent crime on the planet. God’s truth. But just try telling that to the Homicide boys. And the people responsible for the stuff? Why, only the honest-living folk at Innospec, up on the Manchester Ship Canal, flogging tetraethyl lead wherever it hasn’t been banned yet. Fun places like Burma, Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea. The fact it’s illegal to sell in good old Blighty doesn’t mean they can’t manufacture and export the stuff. Now if it was anthrax…”

“Somehow I don’t think it was lead paint did that,” Joblard said, pointing at the mess where Johnny Fluoride’s head formerly resided.

“The interesting thing,” the technician said, fingering the tag affixed to the big toe of Johnny Fluoride’s right foot, “is they found river water in your man’s stomach, but not in the lungs. Whoever blew his head off gave him a soaking first. Must’ve had something they wanted. That’s my guess. Held his head under till he talked. Then pop. No further use. Seen it before. The Albanian they found in a suitcase last year? He’d swallowed half a gallon of Thames water too, and not from any tap. Except they used a saw on him instead of a canon. Never found the head, either. Your mate involved in any funny business, then?”

“Nah,” Nicky said. “He ran nostalgia tours for old pub-rock fans. Didn’t know shit from clay. Probably a case of mistaken identity.” Turning to Joblard: “What do you reckon?”

“Yeah, mistaken identity,” Joblard echoed. “Poor sod.”

“Did he have a name?”

“Mmm,” Nicky said. “Can’t remember.” To Joblard: “D’you remember his name?”

“Frank maybe? Don’t rightly think he ever told us.”

“Too bad,” Zack said. “Too bad.”

A wedge of lemon floated in the glass of water Nicky Cohn was holding up to the light, eyeballing the citrus bits drifting around in it. He’d watched the waitress closely while she filled the glass straight from the tap.

“That stuff comes direct from the river, you realise?” Joblard said, trying on the tone of voice of someone attempting to be helpful. “If you’re lucky, there might even be a couple of particles of Johnny Fluoride in there. Not to mention all the other crap they dump in the Thames. London’s Pride.”

Nicky Cohn snorted and set his glass down in front of him. The bar they’d retreated to from the East Ham Mortuary was slowly filling up for the evening with what looked like a regular crowd. Joblard counted at least a dozen different types of Adidas tracksuit. The only beer they had on tap wasn’t beer at all but some foreign crap called Carlsberg, so he’d settled for a cup of tea. The publican had given him one of those looks. The de rigeur TV in the corner was running the day’s Ashes highlights. Depressing viewing. They’d’ve done better switching to one of the disaster channels. BSkyB or whatever. Rapping out the small print on why the world was going to shit. Global warming conspiracy nuts. The latest candidate for World War Three.

On cue the box cut from the cricket roundup to the news desk. Some joker in a flash suit talking to himself in a studio with lots of high-tech graphics making up the décor. Lip-syncing to a soundtrack that’d been swapped for the usual pub banter in competition with some sort of Kylie Monogue remix. Text scrolled across the bottom of the screen. Then cut to footage of what looked very much like riots on Wall Street. Archive material on the Twin Towers going down. Joblard registered crowd shots and helicopters. Something brewing on the other side of the pond, he thought. Nicky Cohn was still eyeing his glass in a manner you might describe at pensive.

“Gone to a better place, if you believe that stuff,” Joblard offered, thinking condolences of some sort might be in order. Though exactly what Nicky’s connection with Johnny Fluoride was, he didn’t know. Nicky looked up from his glass at the bulge Joblard’s gloves made inside his jacket.

“Your tea’s getting cold.”

“Don’t really fancy it anyhow.”

“My mum used to say cold tea’s good for piles.”

“That right?”

“She made my old man drink the stuff till the day he died. Sure enough, never did get piles. Fucked his liver good and proper though.”

“Eh?”

“Used to slip rum in the tea to make the stuff drinkable, when the old girl wasn’t watching. She’d keep a pot cooling on the windowsill for all occasions. Earle Grey. By the time he finished his third cup of an evening, the poor bugger could hardly stand up. Which the old girl attributed to the tea’s potent medicinal effect.”

Joblard sniffed his cup then set it back down on its saucer.

“Just regular tea, this. Probably doesn’t work.”

Nicky squinted up at him.

“They put out a call for witnesses. A couple of those lugs might want to have a talk with you. Canvey jetty. How many people saw you together?”

“Just the barman. And maybe this scarecrow character with some sort of skin disease on his face.”

“Mmm. Barman’ll probably just mind his own business, unless they make a point on it. Who’s the scarecrow?”

“Dunno. Followed me, though.”

“Followed you?”

“Yeah, him and a dwarf. They both followed me when I went over to Johnny Fluoride’s gaff. After the shithead decided to take a swim. That’s the bit I can’t figure out.”

“Dwarf?”

“Former associate of our headless friend, I do believe. Seems Johnny accidentally snapped a pic of him and he didn’t like it. Kind of, in flagrante delicto, as they say.”

“You’re not making much sense, old chum. Care to fill in the blanks?”

Joblard, against his better judgement, took a sip of the tea. Grimaced. Resisted the urge to spit it back out.

“Disgusting.”

“Like I said.”

Joblard wiped his mouth on his sleeve, pushed the cup and saucer aside, then folded his arms.

“Bludhorn paid Johhny Fluoride to take some candids. Some geezer getting his jollies being tickled with a riding crop. High class stuff. In the middle of which, this dwarf turns up, blows the geezer’s head off. On film.”

“Kosher?”

“One hundred percent.”

“So Johnny was tied up with Bludhorn, too, eh? And that’s why you were out on Canvey? Because of these pictures?”

“Except I never knew anything about what was in the pictures till after.”

“And I suppose Bludhorn has them safely under lock and key?”

“Curious are you?”

“Curious, old chum, is hardly the word.”

“Doesn’t look like you’re the only one.”

“You think whoever nixed Johnny might be after the pictures?”

“Stands to reason, doesn’t it? Besides, I spotted scarecrow and his mate hanging around Bludhorn’s club in Soho.”

“Maybe we should give the old bugger a call.”

“Maybe.”

“Got anything better to do for the next five minutes?”

Joblard creased his brow like someone trying hard to think, glanced sidelong at his teacup, then fished his mobile out of his inside pocket. Nicky Cohn looked at him in disgust.

“Knowing how you hate these things…”

“You’re begging for cancer of the brain, you realise that?”

Joblard grinned, fingered the keypad, stared at the screen. The background noise covered the dial tone, but a little icon on the screen indicated that the phone at the other end, Bludhorn’s, was ringing. Joblard had counted to five when the icon was replaced by a message saying his call had been interrupted and please try again later.

“Not answering?”

“Nope.”

“Mmm. You know, this could be one hell of a story.”

“Could be. Could also just be a coincidence.”

“Come off it. Why the heck’d anyone go to the trouble of saving a clown like Johnny Fluoride from drowning just to blow his head off?”

“Beats me. Maybe he washed up all by himself, emptied his own pockets, then blew his head off just for the hell of it. Or maybe he got sucked into another dimension. Dr Who stuff. And his head’s still on the other side, mashed into the vortex. One thing I do know, he was scared shitless of somebody. Said they were out to get him. Thought it was because he saw something he wasn’t supposed to see and they found out about it. Or maybe they wanted to send a message further up the line. Join the dots, you know, so whoever arranged to take the pictures in the first place’d get the connection. So they’d know not to fuck with it. Masonic conspiracy stuff, maybe.”

“Is that what Mr Undertaker says?”

“Bludhorn knows who the geezer is but he’s not saying. In the pictures you can’t really make out his face. There’s just this geezer tied to a chair getting whipped. Stiff upper-lip type. Then there’s a flash. Next thing the dwarf appears out of nowhere and the geezer’s head’s vanished. Just like that.”

“Too bad.”

“Hey, did you hear about that coke-dealer, blew some kid’s head off in Wapping last night?”

“Twelve gauge? Yeah. Sodomised the corpse. Made a real mess of himself afterwards, too. Think there might be a connection?”

“You never know.”

“Nah. It’s too crazy. The lunatic shot himself in the head.”

“What if it only looked that way and someone else shot him in the head?”

“Nah.”

“It’s a possibility.”

“Shit. That’d make four. Four headless fucking corpses in one day. One of whom we don’t know anything about. It’s too much.”

“Don’t forget the tart with the whip. If she copped the same treatment, that’d make five.”

“Five? I don’t buy it.”

“Why not ask your mate to scan the register. See if anyone else’s checked into a morgue lately without their head attached.”

“Bodies could’ve ended up anywhere. In a bleedin’ meat factory, for all we know. Fed into a mincer. Bzzzz. Like they keep finding horse DNA in beef paddies. What if it was human DNA instead? Soylent Green stuff. Kid munching on quarter-pounder spits out a couple of fingernails. Not the sort of thing they’d want to see on the six o’clock news. Imagine it. Wozzie the Cannibal Clown! Bad for business.”

“I’ll stick to being vegetarian.”

“You could do far worse, chum. Say, what’re the chances you can actually find this dwarf character?”

“Dunno. All look the fucking same to me. I was figuring they’d probably show up again by themselves. Unfinished business. You know Bludhorn’s got a thing about midgets?”

“Size.”

“Eh?”

“It’s all about size. Midgets. Small.”

“I know what a fucking midget is.”

“Same reason they go for the oriental girls, you know. Little hands.”

“What’re you talking about?”

“Nothing, chum. Over your head.”

“There’s a freak running around blowing people’s heads off and you’re on about some slanty tart’s manicure?”

“A dwarf. Blowing people’s head’s off. Apparently connected in some way to your Mr Undertaker. Capische?”

“What’s that mean, then?”

“What’s what mean?”

“Capische?”

“Don’t you watch films?”

“Not those sort of fucking films I don’t. You want to have a conversation with fucking subtitles, go to fucking Poland.”

“Maybe the dwarf’s fucking Polish, you ever consider that?”

Joblard blinked, looked thoughtful, creased his brow. Nicky Cohn shook his head, muttering to himself. He sniffed at his glass of water, took a sip.

“Oh, and I forgot to mention,” Joblard said, “they were driving a smartcar.”

Nicky Cohn peered over the rim of his glass, set it carefully on the table, picking a sliver of lemon seed from is lip.

“What?”

“You know,” Joblard said, “one of those poxy little jobs, like a golf buggy with an M.O.T.…”

Nicky Cohn made a sucking sound with his teeth, poking his tongue up under his lip.

“I’ll tell you something, chum,” Nicky Cohn said, straightening his mouth out. “If I hadn’t just seen Johnny Fluoride’s headless corpse with my own eyes, I’d swear you’re flaming nuts.”

Back during what used to be called The Troubles, old Uncle Hugo, ex-Sandhurst, had the good fortune to spend a tour of duty behind eight inches of plate glass in a pillbox in the fair city of Armagh. He’d been standing there one day watching the drizzle slowly mutating from bad to worse when some Fenian fucker, parked on a hillside a mile away, took a pot-shot at him with an elephant gun. He’d seen the shell embed itself three-quarters the way through the glass, big as his thumb. When he told the story afterwards, he’d always joke that if there’d been a tailwind, the bullet would’ve caught him right between the eyes. And taken his whole bleeding head off.

Joblard had been thinking of Uncle Hugo’s story while he watched the helicopters circle the Shard. It looked like the flattened head of an enormous glass prawn, sticking up above the Canada Square towers. Some Mujahadin types had tried to blow it up a week ago and now they had half the RAF up there every night at tax-payers expense, searchlights criss-crossing the rooftops. Every wisearse on the South Bank was probably laying bets on how long it’d be before some trigger-happy Afghan vet in a chopper went bezerk and did the job himself, like the one that smacked into the crane over in Vauxhall. Maybe blame it this time on a meteorite.

What killed Uncle Hugo in the end was a brain tumour. “Size of an elephant’s egg,” he’d say, while the nurse prepared his bed-bath. “Elephants don’t lay eggs, Captain Banks,” the nurse would tell him. “This one did.” And that, as they say, was the end of the matter. Joblard remembered the picture the doctor showed his mum. You could see the skull and what he supposed was brain tissue with a void right in the middle of it. Like that Fenian bullet had a bad karmic vibe that’d lodged in his uncle’s head and grown there for forty years into a knot of dead cell tissue, invading whole swathes of cortex till his motor neurons finally packed it in.

Joblard had tried calling Bludhorn once more after leaving Nicky Cohn, but the proverbial Undertaker still wasn’t picking up. Piss-taker, more like, Joblard thought. If things keep the way they’ve been going. He decided to swing by the Hindu’s hole-in-the-wall for a bucket of soy Vindaloo, papadums and sweet mango. Then back to the Fridge. Upstairs one of the regular parties was in full-swing, sub-sonic bass shaking the windows in their frames. He killed the engine and wheeled around to the service lift, chained the BSA to the grill and hung a tarp over it. The basement lights weren’t on, so he figured Bird Girl probably wasn’t back yet. Decided to go in quietly anyhow, in case she was there asleep. Though how anyone could sleep with that Moby shit playing, he didn’t know.

The basement wasn’t exactly luxurious, but it was big. A single room, about ten yards wide, ran the length of the building, a kitchenette with garret windows at the back. It’d been used once upon a time for storage. Upstairs was where the meat processing had gone on. Some of the residents practiced a type of voodoo to ward of bad spirits, appease the bovine gods. Joblard wasn’t interested in animal karma. The place stank of rat bait. Every other morning he took a bag of dead rats out to the trash. He burned incense. Told Bird Girl there must be some sort of rat disease going around. Had to be careful what he left the bait around in, though, in case one of the resident freaks from upstairs got to scrounging munchies on a comedown.

Joblard left the takeaway by the door, tiptoeing through the basement obstacle course in his boots and trying not to bang his head on any fixtures. The sound of snoring was audible despite the thumping bass. Joblard peered into the bed – a king-size mattress on trestles high enough for a dwarf to camp under. On account of the rats. The bed, though, was empty. The snoring came from the other side of it. Joblard made out something moon-like wrapped in an overcoat, lying on the couch. It didn’t look like Bird Girl. He went over and flipped on the lights. Ol’ Pasty, with his head back, felt hat tipped forward, mouth open, was snoring like a bullfrog. His coat was gathered at the neck in the ball of a skinny fist, blotchy like his face. His other hand was wrapped around the butt of a service issue .45.

By the time the scarecrow got his eyes open, Joblard already had an elasticated ocky strap round his wrists and was in the process of cocooning the bastard with an industrial roll of kitchen wrap. Ol’ Pasty’s eyes bugged. They bugged even more when Joblard shoved the .45 in his mouth and asked him very politely to sit still. Wearing about fifty feet of kitchen wrap, the scarecrow looked like a sick grub. He squirmed when Joblard pulled the gun out of his mouth. It made Joblard think of his first day in school.

“You’re not going to piss on my couch, are you?”

Scarecrow shook his head. His grey felt hat had tipped to one side, revealing a serious case of eczema. It gave Joblard the creeps.

“Where’s your mate?”

Scarecrow just looked at him.

“You’re not fucking Polish, are you? Rozumiesz anglielskiego, ty głupi pizdy?

Scarecrow glared.

“Suit yourself.”

Joblard tore off a strip of kitchen wrap and somehow got it around the scarecrow’s head without making contact with the eczema.

“Since you’ve got nothing to say,” Joblard pocketed the gun. “Any trouble breathing, just remember to holler.”

Joblard went to the kitchenette and grabbed a six-pack of Guinness from the fridge, then back to collect his vindaloo. He pulled up an armchair by the door and killed the lights, letting his eyes adjust to the gloom. Maybe, after he’d enjoyed a decent meal, he’d get the jumper leads out and see how the scarecrow responded to a little encouragement. Maybe the fucker was mute, hehe. That’d be a laugh. Better him than me.

Outside, the same Moby track was still echoing in the stairwell. There was the sound of the DLR rattling by. The usual peace and quiet. Joblard grinned to himself, spooned some rice into his curry, popped a can of stout and settled back, munching on a papadum, to see what the remainder of the evening might bring.

Nicky Cohn was standing in the middle of the room, toeing an orange-and-brown paisley rug Bird Girl had said blended with the couch. Joblard couldn’t help thinking she was right. He spooned some instant into two give-away Wozzie Burger coffee mugs and snapped off the kettle. Poured. Doused the mix with soy milk.

“Sugar?”

Nicky Cohn pulled a face like the very idea appalled him.

“Nice place you’ve got here. Pity about the stiff.”

Joblard brought over the coffee and stood beside Nicky Cohn. They both sipped their coffee, surveying the couch. The scarecrow’s brains had made a complete mess of it. But there was no denying it had a certain affinity with the rug. Little fractalised blobules of red, black and grey floating in a type of Rorschach amber that continued half-way up the wall, punctured by bone shard. Bits of the scarecrow’s brains were even stuck to the ceiling. Joblard thought he recognised a patch of eczematous scalp glued to the lightshade – a paper globe that’d once been white, but now looked like a sepia pock-marked moon. Sea of Tranquillity and all that.

At some point in the night Joblard had dozed off under a dusting of papadum crumbs and pilau rice. What woke him was a sound like rats trying to burrow out through the walls. He’d been dreaming of a boat, somewhere on a river. A sort of funeral barque. Egyptian. Head of a jackal at stern. Anorexis, or whatever it was called. Dog god. With a gold sarcophagus in the middle of it. Like Bludhorn’s museum. Naked midgets at the oars. Ol’ Pasty there, too, beating a big drum. A sail with billowing Rosicrucian eye. And Joblard himself, trapped inside the sarcophagus, gasping for breath, tangled in mummy wrappings, trying desperately to escape.

He spilled what was left of the vindaloo grabbing for the .45 wedged in his Bellstafs, lucky the safety catch was still on. At first he thought the scarecrow had gotten away. The place was quiet. The party upstairs must’ve ended. And then he saw it, a faint mock of paracelene from the back windows glinting on the kitchen wrap, casting a long shadow up the wall. Only it was no shadow…

“What d’you know,” Nicky Cohn slurped his coffee. “Looks like your pal must’ve wore falsies.”

“Eh?”

“Unless those are yours?”

He poked his mug towards a splotch on the back of the couch. Joblard squinted at it. A pair of dentures was embedded in the muck. They seemed to grin back at him.

“Yikes.”

“Think someone’s trying to finger you, old chum?”

Joblard pulled out the scarecrow’s gun. Sniffed at it. Nicky Cohn glanced at him with a vague look of apprehension.

“Hasn’t been fired. Beside,” he held the gun out for Nicky Cohn to inspect, “no .45 on Earth could’ve done that.”

 Nicky Cohn demurred.

“Still, doesn’t exactly look good, does it?”

Joblard stuffed the gun back in his pants.

“What’re we going to do?”

Nicky Cohn held out his empty mug, Wozzie-the-Clown smirking sideways from it.

“I’ll take another one of these, if you’re offering.”

It’d been just after four o’clock when Joblard called Nicky Cohn. Figured he slept in his office. Got the answering machine. Shouted something incomprehensible at it. Rang again. Third go, the answering machine cut-out mid-message and the real-life Nicky Cohn came on.

“D’you know what time it is?”

“Of course I know what fucking time it is!”

“This better be good, old chum.”

“What if I told you there’s a headless fucking corpse sitting on my couch?”

He’d made it there in fifteen minutes. The sort of thing possible in London only around four a.m.

“You weren’t kidding,” Nicky Cohn said, when he saw the scarecrow. “There’s a corpse with no head sitting on your couch. What’s he wrapped in plastic for?”

Joblard spieled it out while Nicky Cohn clicked his tongue, shook his head, toed the rug. Sniffed.

“Rat bait,” Joblard explained.

His visitor appraised the room without moving from the spot, keeping an eye out for stray rodents.

“Nice place…”

Handing Nicky Cohn a fresh mug of coffee, Joblard pondered the situation. Nicky was right. If the cops got hold of this, they’d be all over him. Wouldn’t matter what he said. Wasn’t a single alibi he could think of that’d hold water. So to speak.

“In the films,” Nicky Cohn offered, warming is hands around his coffee, “they always search the body first, get rid of any I.D., then put it – the body, that is – in a bin liner and dump it somewhere. Got any of those housewife gloves? You know, for washing dishes and stuff?”

“What about his mate?”

And that’s when Joblard knew he’d have to find the dwarf. But even then, none of it made any sense. He’d spent half-an-hour scrubbing the wall and ceiling, scooping bits of brain matter off the floor, then bundling the stiff into a couple of bright yellow bin-liners – the ones they sold cheep at the local Sainsbury’s. The couch was a goner. He tried getting the stains out with diluted bleach. It only made matters worse. Nicky Cohn sat over by the door and watched, throwing in the odd suggestion from time-to-time. Like why not just toss the carpet over the back of the couch and be done with it?

The only thing Joblard had been able to find on the scarecrow was a roll of tenners and a pawnshop ticket. Castle Square, Brighton. He could dump the stiff and get down there on the bike before the place opened. See what he could find out. But the first thing was where to do the dumping. He’d never been all that conscientious about recycling. And riding about with a couple of bright yellow bin-liners on the back of a vintage BSA wasn’t exactly low-key. But then, nothing he ever did was. He figured the best thing to do was drop the lot into the canal, over by Tequila Warf. It was only a block away. Nicky Cohn didn’t like the idea quite so much. It wasn’t the headless corpse that bothered him. It was being a possible accessory that gave him the heebie-jeebies.

“Don’t tell me you’re suffering from a case of journalistic ethics?”

“Do I work for the Sun?

“Thought you type were all the same.”

“Listen, chum, some of us have a future to think about.”

“What about the poor fucker with his head blown off. You reckon he didn’t have a future to think about?”

“Not sure I get your point, chum.”

“Nicky. There’s a headless stiff on my couch. If we don’t get it out of here, I’m screwed. You think I popped Johnny Fluoride? There were witnesses.”

“I just want to be able to write the story without calling down any heat. My mate at the Yard already smells a rat. Like where I got the tip-off on the floater. This could end up ruining my expense account.”

“Shut up and give me a hand, will you.”

Joblard bundled the disposal job in Bird Girl’s rug and left the stain on the couch to look after itself. Between the two of them they got the rug out into the yard, along the alley behind the Rajasthan Café. Nicky Cohn huffed and puffed at the back while Joblard shouldered most of the weight up front.

“For a skinny bastard, he sure weighs a bloody tonne.”

Once they’d made it across the parking lot off Brunton Place, it was easy going. Trees lined the canal, shrouding it in shadow. Bits of concrete rubble lay piled hither and yon. Bricks. Steel piping. Coiled wire. A body-disposal paradise. Across the water, a billboard stood up from the wharf, facing the Commercial Road Bridge, as if the plan was to get your average out-bound commuter worked up for the homeward run, and the missus-and-three-veg. Miss Big Tits in the Wonder Bra ad. Hello Pikers! Some local vigilantes had sprayed out the offending bits, adding WHORE across Miss Big Tits’s face. The marketing geniuses had really picked their demographic. It wasn’t called the East End for nothing. Any further east, you’d be in fucking Cairo.

“I heard somewhere,” Joblard said, hoisting the weighted bin-liners across the tow-path to the edge of the canal, “that if you cut the guts open, a body won’t float. On account of the gas. When it decomposes.”

“Not much good when it’s wrapped in a plastic bag, is it?”

“Shit. He’ll blow up like a fucking balloon.”

“Forget it. Your man ever floats, he’ll wash up in the locks. Maybe get pulled down to the river. Means they’ll have company for Johnny boy. Give the fuzz something to think about.”

“Shame about the rug.”

It made less of a splash than either of them expected, swallowed by the dark water. Joblard tossed the gun in after it. There were lights coming on over at the wharf. The six o’clock shift. Time to get a move-on. It was going to be another long day.

— Louis Armand

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Louis Armand is the author of seven collections of poetry and five novels, most recently Breakfast at Midnight (2012) and Canicule (2013), both from Equus (London). His screenplay, Clair Obscur, received honourable mention at the 2009 Alpe Adria Trieste International Film Festival. He is an editor of VLAK magazine and has worked as a subtitles technician at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival. He lives in Prague.