Jul 142014
 

photo(7)Michael Bryson & friend

 

There was the matter of the orgasm. Years later he suddenly remembered. She hadn’t been the first, but she was the first on a regular basis. She wanted him, and he wanted her, and they did it almost every day. He was thirty-one and his sexual self-esteem had crashed harder than the Leafs in the playoffs. Woody Allen had called masturbation “sex with someone you love,” and Barry had long lost any shame associated with being alone. Then he met Sherry, and she would unzip him almost before he’d closed the door to her apartment. She would fondle his penis when they went to the movies. One time he was watching the news and she told him to relax. Unzip. Ping. She went down on him as Peter Mansbridge went out of focus. But she almost never came.

That was a long time ago now. Thirteen years ago. He was with Sherry two years, and their second Christmas together he knew she was angling for a proposition. Knew it very late. He thinks now the thought crystallized on Christmas Eve at her sister’s house. Sherry had made mashed potatoes and fretted over them. She had told him how the dinner would go. Everyone was making a different dish. A certain standard had to be upheld. The potatoes had to be creamy without being milky, spiced with a hint of garlic but not rot full. The food would be served, places taken, minor words of religiously neutral thankfulness spoken. Dig in. Dished out. That’s nice, oh, that’s nice, oh, that’s nice. And that’s exactly how it happened.

You learn something in every relationship, and what he learned from Sherry is that two years isn’t long enough to get to know anybody, but then again maybe they were just at that age when they were still changing. They were in their thirties and unmarried, childless, living out an extended youth. He knew she wanted four children. He’d said he was okay with that. He’d thought about marrying her, but he wasn’t going to propose over Christmas, and he wasn’t going to do it at New Year’s either. Then he suddenly caught the hint that she was expecting it. Who had given her that idea? Certainly not him. Her mother, probably, or her sister, or some girlfriend. Some girly conspiracy had indicted him in a test case. They were watching. He would fail.

Getting through Christmas, having fun, sharing laughs about the silly family stuff, these were his tests. In the first week of January, would they still be friends? Could he imagine himself with these people, her people, twenty years hence? Would they show any interest in him? Any empathy? Any common cause? Sherry had already warned him repeatedly about her father. Mid-way through dinner he would go off. “Just duck,” she said. “Let him blow it off.” And he did, J. Edgar Hoover style. Barry was good at nodding. Listening, noncommittal. Something similar had happened at Thanksgiving. This was 2001. The American’s hadn’t yet attacked Afghanistan. The towers were still smoking. “It’s terrible how they treat women,” Sherry’s mother had said. She was prepared to go to war for that.

He remembered walking home through the park after that October dinner, Sherry raging at her parents’ stupidity. She had a Master’s degree in Public Administration. They weren’t interested in her opinion on any subject. She worked for a major polling firm as a senior manager. Her title was Vice President. In her spare time, she painted. She wanted to paint more. She was tired of statistics and politics, but she knew she was good at statistics and politics, and it paid the bills. Barry was the antithesis of her parents. He encouraged her art. He affirmed her social analysis. He got hard for her every night, but he couldn’t make her come. Sometimes she came close. She would squeeze tight and the friction on the head of his penis would make him explode.

He didn’t propose, and she got mad at him, and on New Year’s Eve she didn’t want to touch him. “I want to be alone,” she said, so he went back to his place. Two days later she called him. “I want to see you.” They were all over each other in the hallway. Her roommate was away. They went into the roommate’s bedroom, and she came, the best ever. “Why can’t we do that every time?” He didn’t know. He hadn’t done anything different. When he thinks of her now, he remembers her easy smile and her soft tongue, the struggle of her personality to find peace in the world. She was tall and beautiful. Sweet and large-breasted. Smart and confused. Talented and lost.

Weeks turned into months, the new year progressed, her unhappiness worsened. “So quit your job if you want to,” he said. “Let’s move in together.” It wasn’t marriage, but it was something. He still needed to know they could be happy together, not just compatible. She quit her job and became more unhappy. Barry became more concerned and suggested that she see her doctor. “I think you’re depressed,” he said. He went to work and came home and she said she hadn’t done anything all day except watch TV. “Don’t tell my parents, okay?” She hadn’t told them she’d quit her job or that they were moving in together. They practically lived together anyway, just he still had his place, which he was giving up. He’d given notice.

Then one morning she woke up with a dead zone look in her eyes. “I don’t feel well,” she said, “and we didn’t even have sex last night.” Barry said, “Yes, we did.” He straightened up and touched her face. Whatever this was, it wasn’t depression. This was a separation from reality. He told her to lay down and went to fetch a glass of water. What else? What to do? Buy time. She sipped the water and laughed. “I feel strange,” she said. “Strange how?” he asked. She said, “Just strange.” He considered calling his mother. No, this was his to deal with. He couldn’t leave her like this. Something had to be done. “Do you want me to take you to the hospital?” he asked. “Do you want me to call your sister?” Sherry indicated she wasn’t sure, then she was. “Sister. Call my sister.”

Her sister came, and by then Sherry’s confusion had multiplied. She asked the same questions every ten minutes, not remembering she’d asked them before. The sister decided to take her to her shrink, the one Sherry had ridiculed for the weak marriage counseling the sister and brother-in-law had sleep walked through. “She told them they don’t have any issues! They just need to talk more!” Well, that day she spent an hour with Sherry and then told everyone that they needed to back off. Everyone was putting too much pressure on Sherry, and she needed to be able to make her own decisions in her own time. Then she sent Sherry home with Barry, but this time they went to his place.

He tried to feed her, but she wasn’t interested in eating, and a day later they hopped in a cab back to the shrink because Sherry felt crazy sick again. Then they went back to her place, and she called her parents. “I need to go home with them,” she said. “I need them to look after me.” Okay, he’d said, but he should have taken her to the hospital. Fuck your parents, he should have said. You’re coming with me. But he wasn’t that kind of a person, not then. He wasn’t that kind of a hero. A month later, though, he knew what he should have done, but then maybe she wouldn’t have let him. When her parents finally did take her to the hospital, it didn’t take the doctors long. Her brain was ringed with lesions. Her sister told him Sherry had a brain of a 70-year-old. Multiple Sclerosis, significantly progressed.

When he visited her in the hospital, she was happy. What she had had a name! She wasn’t going crazy! Holy shit! When he visited her in the hospital, her father was sitting in her room and he wouldn’t leave. They made small talk until he got the hint. She had an IV on a poll, and she took him on a stroll around the ward. The woman across the hall was a couple of years older. She had a six-year-old and a husband, and she came to the hospital about once a year for treatment. Steroids. To calm the inflammation. It was a quick, brutal and effective intervention, best administered as soon as possible. Barry thought about that month-long wait and knew he would never forgive himself.

They went into a room full of exercise equipment and closed the door behind them. He leaned in for a kiss and put his hand under her shirt. “I missed you,” he said. “I missed you, too,” she said. They wandered back into the corridor and around a corner where they came to a dead end and encountered a man with half a face. “Oh,” she said, “I thought this went somewhere.” She looked at the half-face man and asked, “How are you?” He smiled at her and went back into his room. Barry loved her then, more than at any moment before or since, her uncomplicated compassion on magnificent display.

He was concealing on that visit the encounter he’d had with her father shortly after her parents had spirited her away a month earlier. “If I find out you’ve given her drugs,” her father had confronted him, “I’ll fucking kill you.” “I haven’t given her anything.” “We’ll see.” It was unbelievable! Him! A drug pusher! Of all people, no, no, never! And what a crime noir fantasy anyway. A ludicrous cliché. But Sherry had warned him, hadn’t she? Those were her parents, ludicrous clichés. Her father a hardened GM executive, her mother a neurotic housewife turned late-life real estate agent. They had separate bedrooms and would never divorce, Sherry had told him. Her father couldn’t get it up.

“How do you know this?”

“My mother told me.”

He went to visit his own doctor, who advised him to break off the relationship and prescribed him anti-anxiety pills to help him sleep. Oh, what crazy stress. He started smoking. He stopped eating. He had to move out of his apartment because he’d given notice. There was no way he was going to move into her apartment, so he had to scramble to find a new place. One weekend he came home from work on Friday and went to bed at 6:00 pm. He got up the next day at noon, then went back to bed at 6:00 pm. Then did that again on Sunday. No, he thought now. I was never going to marry into that family.

He didn’t follow his doctors orders immediately. He tried to stay friends with Sherry, who moved back in with her parents after leaving the hospital. He spoke to her on the phone and she was getting bored. She wanted to get away. He suggested he book a hotel and take her away for a night. Dinner and dancing. He picked her up, and she was in a foul mood. “I don’t want to talk about it.” They drove in silence. He tried to make small talk. Finally she said, “My father said something that made me mad at him. I don’t want to tell you what.” Barry said, “Okay.” By this point, he didn’t want to talk about it either. He just wanted to forget about it, forget about her father, forget about everything that had happened and try to pretend that they were together like they had been before. They had had good times. They had been happy. Was that all they were going to get? Was there more?

The dinner was okay, the hotel room standard. They were tentative with each other as they undressed, washed, brushed, slipped between the sheets. He reached for her, but she was unresponsive. She rolled towards him and kissed him, but she was cold.

He said, “I know what he said.”

“Who?”

“Your father.”

“What did he say.”

“He said, ‘Barry only wants sex.’”

She nodded. “How did you know?”

“I can’t believe it,” Barry said. “I can’t believe he actually said that. Like we were teenagers. Like you weren’t thirty-one. Like we need his permission.”

“I didn’t want to tell you,” she said. But you did, he didn’t say.

And then they had sex, but it was dry and uncomfortable, and very, very bad.

A month later, she visited his apartment for the last time, and they fucked every which way, but she didn’t come, and then she said, “We probably shouldn’t see each other any more,” and he said, “You’re probably right.” A week later, she called him, she wanted to see him, and he said he would see her, but he had to say this first. “I’m not going to sleep with you. That’s over.” So they got together and talked, and she said she guessed she would never have children, but he said she shouldn’t think like that. “You would be a great mom,” he said, and she cried, and he kept smoking nine months after that. Four years later, he met Jessie and her two kids and proposed inside six months. Three years after the wedding, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Twenty-one months later, she was dead.

—Michael Bryson

.

Michael Bryson tweets @buzithecat. He is interested in how things fall apart and what’s left after that. In 1999, he founded the online literary journal, The Danforth Review, http://www.danforthreview.com/, which has just published its 51st issue of new short fiction. He blogs at http://www.michaelbryson.com/ and posts the odd book review at The Underground Book Club, http://thenewcanlit.blogspot.com/.

 

Jul 052014
 

Dawn Promislow

 

My husband and I were driving down a country road, a two-lane highway in Amish land of western New York, rolling green farmland and countryside, in the late afternoon. The road unfurled as we drove, and we spoke, then were silent, and the light was the old light of September, golden. But a black horse, glossy and young, and unharnessed, appeared ahead of us in the middle of the road: cantering, stopping, then cantering again. We slowed, my husband slowed the car. The horse cantered past us, a few metres from the car, down the road. I’d seen his dark eyes, clear, his smooth coat. We drove on.

And then we saw an Amish man standing on the side of the road, a horse harness in his hand, and a group of women alongside, dressed in long dresses and bonnets, in the still heat. The man was in black, his hat was dark against the surrounding green. We realized it was their horse running loose and free. We continued driving. Then my husband said, perhaps we should help them? We realized, it dawned on us slowly, slowly, like the afternoon, or like a morning, that they needed to chase the horse, but they could only chase the horse on foot, as they had no car. Feeling guilty that we hadn’t offered them a ride before, we turned around, my husband made a turn in the middle of the road, carefully, and we drove back. The man was walking along the road in the direction of the cantering horse, I seem to feel he was limping, although perhaps he wasn’t – but the horse was out of sight now.

We offered him a ride, he accepted without a word, and got in the back of the car. With his black pants he wore a white shirt, it was a worn white, almost not white, and loose, as he was lean, and he was bearded so his voice was soft it seemed to me, or there was a strange accent in which he spoke, and together with the horse harness he was carrying a pail with oats in it.

We drove back along the road, the three of us looking out and around, across the fields and farmland and clumps of trees, the fields were beautiful and golden in that afternoon light. The car slowed, there was just its low hum, no other sound, and we saw slanting light and pale blue, and green green green. But we did not see the horse. I kept imagining we would see him, I wished to see him, to catch sight of him, of his live, living black, moving against the green golden, or under some trees, shaded. But we didn’t see him. The man said, never mind, he was sure the horse would be found. I couldn’t think how he would be found. The man said let’s go back, he wanted to go back, I felt his strong wish to go back. So we drove him back to his farm on the side of the road (I saw its red barn, I see it still in my mind’s eye), and we dropped him off, saying we hoped they’d find the horse.

My husband and I drove on, we followed on that two-lane highway through the countryside of western New York, green-clad. We wondered about it as we drove, we wondered what would happen to the horse, and to the farmer who had lost him. The afternoon wound down in its beauty as we drove, and we neared home, our home. It became less beautiful because it was the city then, but I have imprinted the green-gold, and the black-trousered man, and the coal-black horse (and the red barn), and the few words, but soft ones.

My husband thinks they must have found the horse after we were gone, when the afternoon became so late that it ended, but we don’t know, and we won’t know, and we’re in the city now, and far away, and it’s not that afternoon any more, it’s even winter now and white here, and night as I write this.

—Dawn Promislow

 

Dawn Promislow was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, and has lived in Toronto since 1987. Her debut short story collection, Jewels and Other Stories (TSAR Publications, 2010), was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award 2011, and was named as one of the 8 best fiction debuts of 2011 by The Globe and Mail (Canada).

 

Jun 172014
 

Dave smiling (1)

“The Connoisseur of Longing” is a wry, dry, witty story about a man, a writer, who fails to live up to his own press. Mandalstram, late in his career, wins a prize for a little book based on a love affair deep in his youthful past. The jury calls him a  “connoisseur of longing,” a phrase that captures his imagination and propels him into a search for meaningful people from his past (wives, daughter, friends). The results are comically catastrophic. Everything Mandalstram remembers is not true. The story is told from Mandalstram’s point of view, deadpan and serious, except, you know, that he is wrong. Right down to the fact that his Holocaust-survivor parents weren’t Jews. This story is excerpted from Dave Margoshes brand new story collection appropriately entitled God Telling A Joke and Other Stories (Oolichan Books, 2014). Dave Margoshes is an old friend from my Saskatchewan days (Fort San, the Qu’Appelle Valley, the Saskatchewan School of the Arts — the memories!). He is one of Canada’s finest short story writers. And in years gone by, when I edited the annual Best Canadian Stories, I included him four times out of the ten collections I put together.

dg

MARGOSHES-God Telling A Joke-Cover-DD02

 

Many of Mandalstram’s books were overlooked by his peers; a few were shortlisted for minor awards, an achievement and honor in itself, but didn’t win. Finally, fairly late in his life, he won a major award for a slim novella, Disconsolate, a delicate love story that was, in fact, a revised version of a story he had written when he was in his twenties. The passion in the prize-winning book, so admired by the jurors, was all from that period of his life, when he had pursued an unrequited love affair with a certain woman from Madrid and had burned with ardour, the sort of ardour only a man in his twenties can experience. But the craft, those tricks of the writing trade which make a story so compelling, was all from that later period of his life, the period of revision, a practice he had mastered. Passion and craft were a happy marriage, and they worked well for Mandalstram. Disconsolate, the jurors wrote, ached with the agony of a spurned lover, exquisitely rendered, and Mandalstram himself, they wrote, was a “poet of the heartbroken, a connoisseur of longing.”

He smiled at that latter phrase—“connoisseur of longing,” which seemed, he thought, to fit him like a well-tailored jacket—and, as he slept restlessly that night in an unfamiliar hotel bed, in Toronto, a city he didn’t particularly like, the words chimed through his dreams like the cream-rich tones of a clavichord. He awoke amused by the possibilities. A publisher might create a Library of Longing, with paperback reprints of all his out-of-print books. The CBC might prepare a reality show, Canada Longs, with chipper Wendy Mesley as host and Mandelstram himself as featured guest. A restaurant might prepare a Menu of Longing, with dishes inspired by plots and character from Mandalstram’s stories. He arose, turned on the electric coffee pot and showered. Then, feeling pampered in the hotel’s fluffy white robe, with a cup of weak coffee by his elbow—oh, how he longed for something stronger!—he sat in sunlight at a small polished marble table—whether true marble or faux he couldn’t tell—and, on creamy hotel stationary, began to make a list. This small pleasure was interrupted by another—the first of several telephone calls from the mass media.

Back in Halifax, where he had lived for the decade since his third marriage failed, he found himself still propelled by the momentum of his unexpected victory. The money that accompanied the prize—more than he would ordinarily earn in two years!—was a godsend, no doubt there, but more important was the boost to his career. It would have been better, far better, to have had this twenty years earlier, fifteen, even ten, but he still had another ten productive years in him, another three, four, maybe five books if he approached them with more discipline than he ordinarily could harness.

He expected the invitations to start rolling in: lectures, interviews, workshops, residencies, festivals, readings of all sorts before all sorts of audiences. He’d had his share of that sort of thing, of course, but never enough to provide more than the most meager of livings. Always, he’d had to teach a class, take on an editing job for someone of lesser talent, even, on occasion, lower himself to the indignities of writing a review or article for the popular press. He looked forward to refusing those routine kinds of offers, to enjoying more of life’s little comforts while, at the same time, being able to devote more time to his own work, which meant he’d have to asses the new opportunities carefully. Perhaps there’d be an unsolicited grant, maybe even a call from one of the agents who hitherto had spurned him. He looked forward to the possible pleasure of telling one particularly nasty agent to fuck herself.

In the meantime, while he awaited these opportunities, he should allow euphoria to propel him into a regimen of inspiration and momentum. The backbreaking, spirit-snagging novel he’d been working on for several years, which had all but defeated him, now seemed manageable, its completion and publication inevitable. He would throw himself into work with a renewed vigour, informed by the sort of passion that had so impressed those jurors. Yes, passion was what had been missing from his latest work; passion, propped up by artful craft, could be his salvation.

But not just yet. His telephone was still ringing, interview requests from reporters and congratulations from friends and—this most delicious—acquaintances who now wished to be friends. Serious work was out of the question with such interruptions. And at any rate, a day or two of diversion, to savour the moment and let its meaning sink in, would do him good. A perverse, compulsive pleasure, but pleasure nonetheless, like tonguing a sore tooth.

Mandalstram consulted the internet and, fortified by a cup of espresso, telephoned his first wife, who lived now in Milan, where she had a thriving practice as a designer of high fashion, knowing full well what sort of response he was likely to induce. They hadn’t spoken in over twenty years, and that only as the result of accident, but he had kept up with her comings and doings, another perverse pleasure.

“Louella,” he announced, “it’s Franklin.”

“Calling to gloat?” Her voice sounded older, leathery, but with all of its old bite. To his disappointment, she didn’t seem at all surprised to be hearing from him.

“Gloat?”

“I read about your triumph.”

“Hardly that, my dear.”

“Considering what came before it….”

“Well, yes. And thank you for the implied congratulations. But gloat, no, that isn’t what I’ve called about.”

“And that is?”

He hesitated, betraying himself. “To apologize. I am sorry. For…”

“Oh, fuck you, Franklin.” She hung up.

Mandalstram was stunned by the sharpness of her response, though it did not extend far beyond the realm of what he had considered possible—he certainly had known she wouldn’t be pleased to hear from him, regardless of the circumstances. They had both been young and inexperienced in their brief time together—she had come into his life during that bleak period when he was nursing the wounds inflicted on his heart by the Spanish woman—and it had ended badly, on so sour a note that a stain on the abilities of both of them to form healthy relationships had remained for some time, only gradually fading. As to be expected, Mandalstram had blamed Louella, she had blamed him. Over time, he had come to realize that probably neither was to blame, that they had both merely been caught up in forces beyond their control. Louella, apparently, had not yet attained that stage of perspective and clarity.

Having worked his way through that brief analysis, Mandalstram broke into a smile and brewed himself another cup of strong coffee—this was a morning for indulgence. Although the call had not gone as he’d hoped, he still drew grim satisfaction from it. He made a mental check on the list he carried in his head, a duplicate of the one he’d drawn up in Toronto.

*

Mandalstram’s parents had been Holocaust survivors who were loathe to talk about their past. He was a bright, inquisitive child, with a fertile imagination, an only child often left to his own devices, and though his parents provided few clues, he grew up surmising that they were Jewish. Indeed, they attended a Reform synagogue and his father was a reliable contributor to the minion. It was only in his teenaged years that he learned they weren’t Jews. Berliners, intellectuals, journalists the both of them, they were Communists persecuted for their politics, not for race or faith. Mandalstram’s father was an atheist, whose own parents had been Catholic farmers; but his mother had been raised a Lutheran and came from a well respected middle-class family of lawyers and teachers, good Aryan stock. True, the name Mandalstram did smack of Jewry, though it was in fact solidly Germanic, but had not his father and mother both written inflammatory articles attacking National Socialism in a suspect periodical, they would likely have gone through that terrible period of history unscathed. At the very least, they would have been able to escape with body and conscience intact.

Instead, they rejected several opportunities, first to emigrate in orderly fashion, later to flee in haste, and were rounded up and sent in cattle cars along with hundreds of fellow travelers to Bergen-Belsen, where, somehow, they managed to survive.

Prying even these minimal details out of his parents had been something of an achievement for the high-school-and-college-aged Mandalstram, so he never did learn anything of their lives in captivity, the bargains they may have been forced to enter into.

At any rate, after the war, the shattered couple was able, finally, to emigrate to the United States, where they attempted to rebuild their lives, taking up residence in a largely Jewish neighbourhood in the Bronx and devoting themselves—or so it seemed later to their son—to a quiet pursuit of redemption, not that they were in need of any. It was perhaps inevitable that these survivors of Hitler’s death camps should seek the comforting company of other survivors, the teenaged Mandalstram conjectured; if not inevitable, it had at least worked out well. The elder Mandalstrams lived a quiet, humdrum existence, working as minor government functionaries—his mother as a clerk at the borough hall’s property tax department, his father with the post office. As a child, teenager and young man, Mandalstram, of course, had chafed against the restraints of his parents’ orderly lives, had rebelled against it, but in time he’d come to understand it. As a refugee from the U.S. to Canada during the inflammatory years of the Vietnamese war, he found himself replicating their steps to a certain extent.

Mandalstram’s parent were now dead. He had no living relatives on this side of the Atlantic, at least none he was aware of, and no knowledge of any relatives on the other side. That was one area of his past that was immune, then, from his present preoccupation. Nor could he think of any offence he might have caused any of the millions of people involved in that sordid chapter of history. No, if there was an apology owed, it certainly wasn’t from him.

*

Mandalstram had no idea where his second wife, Margarita, was now. He mined his address book and, again, the internet for clues, without success, and made a few calls, but the mutual friends he consulted either did not know her whereabouts or were disinclined to reveal them to him. His call to Arthur Behrens, a friend from those days, an art school classmate of Margarita’s, who had climbed through the ranks of the federal cultural bureaucracy and was now an assistant deputy minister, was typical.

“I don’t think she would want to hear from you, Franklin—even if I knew where she was.”

“Which you really don’t, I presume?”

“Of course.”

“Well, you said she wouldn’t want to hear from me. I thought perhaps…”

“No, I’m not lying. If I did know, I’d say so, but wouldn’t tell you where. I’d be willing to pass along a message, that’s all. But as I said, I don’t…”

“So what you’re willing or not willing to do is irrelevant,” Mandalstram interrupted.

“Yes, but your ill-temper does little to engender sympathy, quite frankly. Congratulations again on your prize. Now goodbye.”

Mandalstram attempted to apologize for his impatience, but Behrens had already hung up. A few more calls that were no more productive only served to abrade his nerves and cause him to reappraise his day’s activities. What exactly was he after?

He put on his walking shoes and a warm jacket and set out from his small rented house (should he try to buy it? he wondered) to the waterfront, less than half a mile distant. It was along its serene shores, watching bobbing fishing boats and seagulls, that he often did his most creative thinking. There was a blustery wind but the temperature was unusually mild for November.

It was Mandalstram’s affair with Margarita that had triggered the breakup with Louella, and his second marriage had ended just as badly as the first. Even worse, perhaps, because there was, to use a phrase he found delicious in its ironies, collateral damage. Again, they had been young, and ill prepared not only for the poverty-dogged relationship but the parenthood that had accompanied it. Margarita was a painter with a promising future and the detour that motherhood caused in her career embittered her, not toward the child, thankfully, but toward Mandalstram, as if everything that followed from that first passionate coming together had been the fault of his sperm, her egg having been merely an innocent bystander.

Of course, it helped not a whit that Mandalstram was a terrible father, incompetent and disinterested. After the breakup, he made half-hearted attempts to keep in touch with the child—a delightful little girl named Sunshine, whose blond ringlets and cherubic cheeks seemed almost contrived—but they had eventually become estranged. The last time he’d seen her, when she was nearing puberty, most of the shine had already rubbed off the girl, and she was cocooned in an impenetrable swirl of hurt and sulk. Mandalstram hadn’t thought much about either his daughter or her mother in the years since—though Sunshine’s birthday would always bring him pangs of guilt and regret—but now he found himself inexplicably filled with an intense longing to see the girl—she would, in fact, be a woman of close to 30. According to one acquaintance he’d phoned, she lived in Southern California and was well-established as a publicist for Hollywood films, often traveling abroad to be on location—her name could be seen at the end of the occasional movie in the fast-moving welter of credits; although she had disavowed her father, she inexplicably continued to use his name, apparently.

Mandalstram bought a chicken salad sandwich on a French baguette at an open-air stand near the dock and, while leaning against a railing overlooking rocks and water, washed it down with an ice-cold locally produced root beer from a bottle. This lunch was so simple and brought such pleasure, but previously had been beyond his means other than as a very occasional treat. He had hopes now of enjoying such a midday meal once or even twice a week.

He fed crusts of bread to gulls and ducks as he contemplated his next steps. Apology, he now realized, was the driving force behind this project, which was still taking shape in his head. At first, he’d thought of it strictly as an exercise in clearing the decks, touching base with people who had been important to him at this, a significant moment in his life. It wasn’t their congratulations or good wishes he was after—he’d thought he merely wanted to assure himself that things were unfolding as positively in their orbits as they were in his, so unusual was his good fortune. His clumsy attempt to apologize to his first wife for old crimes, real and imagined, had surprised him as much as it must have her. Now it was becoming clear to him that what he was after was, if not redemption or even forgiveness exactly, something along those lines. “Poet of the heartbroken,” the jury had written, “a connoisseur of longing.” He had focused on the latter, the longing part of that curious equation; now, the former was resonating more. Was not giving voice to the heartbroken the special brief of the novelist?

At the same time, he realized, he still wasn’t exactly sure what those labels meant—so laudatory, on first reading, but were they really? Had the jury intended some form of sly irony?

*

When Mandalstram had begun to write, over thirty years earlier—first poetry, then moody, introspective stories, then complex, layered novels—his art was very much informed by the experience of his parents, though he knew so little of it. A large supporting cast of Jews, Communists, Germans and refugees from one disaster or another crept into his stories, usually as minor characters, though occasionally one would shoulder his way to the forefront. Many pieces involved children of Holocaust survivors; a story and several poems were actually set in concentration camps. One academic critic, writing about Mandalstram’s third novel, identified exodus—flight, persecution, the refugee experience—as a major theme in his work. Still, when an article in Border Crossings, a magazine primarily of the visual arts, mentioned his name in connection with a growing number of Canadian artists of various disciplines influenced by the Holocaust, he was surprised.

He began to be invited occasionally to do readings at temples or participate in Jewish book fairs, and to be mentioned, along with better known writers, like Richler and the Cohens, Leonard and Matt, as representing a new Canadian Jewish literary renaissance, a misapprehension he did nothing to correct, and from that point on—the Border Crossings piece—the Holocaust specifically and genocide in general became central preoccupations in his work. The recent novel that had won the award was the first in almost two decades in which those themes had been entirely absent, and it had been produced during a pause he had taken in a big novel, his most ambitious undertaking yet, overwhelming, really, that revolved around a large cast of Holocaust survivors, perpetrators and collaborators, and their children.

It was to this novel he now intended to return, with renewed vigour. But first he needed to play out the admittedly perverse string he’d begun that morning.

*

Here was the score, as he recorded it on the back of that sheet of hotel stationary on which this plot had first been hatched, only a few days earlier. Wife one, a strike out; wife two and daughter, both missing in action. That left wife three, but Mandalstram wasn’t yet ready to tackle that particular challenge, which might, he knew, prove to be the thorniest.

There had been a number of other women in his life, of course; he wasn’t sure which of them he might want to now pursue. Nor had he given up on the search for his daughter, and, should he find her, she might direct him to Margarita. He was thinking all this as he sat tossing pebbles into the placid water under his favourite tree, an expansive oak that leaned seaward from a spit of land jutting in the same direction. All the signs seemed to be directing him eastward, toward Europe, the familial homeland. With each pebble, he counted the concentric rings produced on the face of the water. There were other dusty corners of his life worth investigating, he thought. On the list he’d drawn up, after “wives,” “lovers” and “family,” he’d written “friends.”

He had been an indifferent and undistinguished student. Of his grade school and high school years in the Bronx, he had few pleasant recollections, and there certainly were no teachers who stood out in his memory. Unlike some of his friends who spoke warmly of the influence one particular teacher or another had had on their lives, Mandalstram had encountered no such mentor, not even in college, in the States—where he’d attended City College in Manhattan for two years before the furor over the war had overtaken his studies—or university in Canada, where he had finally obtained a degree, in comparative literature, from Concordia. A few professors had been friendly, certainly, but none to the extent that a friendship off campus had evolved. None had even been particularly encouraging, as far as he could recall.

As far as friends went, though, there was one old childhood chum, whom he’d become reacquainted with out of the blue a few years earlier, and quite a few from later years, including a handful of close friends from student politics days, on both sides of the border. As he walked back toward his house, he sorted through various names and faces, drawing up a tentative list of people to call. At the top was Hal Wolfowitz.

*

There was an email, several actually, he was looking for. They weren’t in his computer’s in-basket, or in the folder marked Friends, nor were they in Trash, where thousands of old email messages of all sorts gathered dust and, for all Mandalstram knew, plotted conspiracies. Finally, though, in the Sent directory, he found an email he’d written in reply to one from Wolfowitz that contained a record of previous exchanges.

The thread began with a note from someone—the name had rung no immediate bell—asking if he was the Franklin Mandalstram who had once lived on West 183rd Street near the Grand Concourse in the Bronx? If he was, then perhaps he would recall the author of the email, Hal Wolfowitz, who had been a classmate and friend all through grade school. He was now a professor of history at—of all places—the University of New Mexico, having traveled even further from the Bronx than Mandalstram had, at least in terms of miles.

Once having adjusted the context, he remembered Hal very well—in his memory, they were not just friends but best friends, the boy he’d spent countless hours with swapping comic books and records, talking baseball statistics and girls—and they’d exchanged several nostalgic emails since, mostly pondering how it was that they had drifted apart and lost touch—though none in the last year or two. A reading of the email trail seemed to suggest the fault was chiefly Mandalstram’s. Now, having secured a phone number on the internet, Mandalstram was listening to a phone ring in a university office somewhere in Albuquerque. The voice that answered, though, was female.

“Professor Wolfowitz, please,” Mandalstram said.

There was a pause. “May I ask who’s calling?”

“Franklin Mandalstram. I’m calling from Halifax, in Canada. For Hal Wolfowitz? We’re old friends.”

Another pause. “I’m sorry to have to tell you then that Professor Wolfowitz is dead.”

“God,” Mandalstram said.

“It just happened last week, a heart attack, at his desk. The funeral was Monday.”

Mandalstram poured himself a stiff shot of Bushmill’s Black Bush Irish whiskey, his drink of choice when he could afford it, and bolted it back, then poured another to sip from. This wasn’t going well, and he was beginning to wonder what exactly he was hoping to achieve. It was only mid-afternoon, though, and having come this far, he determined to persevere.

Mandalstram and Martin Semple had come to Canada together as draft resisters in the early ‘70s and had even lived together briefly in their first months in Montreal. Martin had gone back to the States after the amnesty of 1977, but they had kept sporadically in touch, though Mandalstram couldn’t remember the last time. Semple had finished university, gone on for a doctorate in French literature and now was a professor at NYU—presuming he too hadn’t prematurely died. The first number in his address book, a New York City number, was not in service; but a second number, with an unfamiliar area code, produced a ring that was eventually answered by someone with a very young voice, sex undeterminable. After the usual semi-comic interplay—“is Mr. Semple there?” “Mr. Who?” “Well, let me speak to your father…?” and so on—Martin came on the line.

“Franklin?” he said after he finally understood who was calling. “What the hell do you want, you son of a bitch?” A sentence like that, pronounced in a jocular tone, could be the start of a pleasant, jokey conversation, but Martin’s tone was not particularly jocular, making Mandalstram wary.

“I’m just calling to say hello, Marty.”

“For Christ’s sake, what is it?”

Mandalstram was confused. Unlike his first wife, whose enmity he fully understood, he had no recollection of any bad blood between him and Martin.

“Just that, Marty. No ulterior motives, honest. Not wanting to borrow money, asking no favours, nothing like that. Not even calling to spread gossip.” Mandalstram chuckled, then paused to allow Martin to respond, but there was no response, so he went on. “Actually, there was something I’ve been wondering about, something I wanted to talk to you about.”

“If it’s about the money you already owe me, forget it,” Semple said. “I wrote that bad debt off long ago.”

“Money? I didn’t realize I owed you money, Marty. That I owe you, yes, of course, but money? I don’t recall.”

“Listen, like I said, forget it. Water over the bridge.”

“It happens that I’ve recently come into some unexpected money. How much was it?”

“Didn’t you hear what I said? Forget about it. I have.”

“Well, then, I’d like to ask you about…well, you remember that year we lived together.”

“How could I forget?

“And you remember Ingrid? That waitress you went around with for a while?”

There was no response.

“This will seem crazy, but do you remember, once we had a very brief argument over her?”

Again, silence from the other end of the line.

“I don’t remember what I said exactly, but something about her that you took exception to. You probably don’t even remember this, it was so trivial. I don’t think we ever discussed it again.”

More silence.

“Marty, you still there?”

Silence, then, finally, a frigid “I’m here.”

“So, do you remember….”

“I remember you fucked my girlfriend, you asshole, I do remember that. I remember you didn’t say anything about that.”

“Martin, I….”

“I remember you fucked the woman who became my wife, shithead. And there was something you wanted to ask me? Forgiveness?”

“Well….”

“Listen, Franklin, don’t call here again.” With that, the line went dead.

Mandalstram was stunned. He only barely remembered having had sex with Ingrid, and had no idea she and Marty had gotten married. That must have happened after he went back to New York—she had followed? Mandalstram’s memory of that period was murky at best. He hadn’t even known they were serious, although that must have been why whatever he had said back then caused the argument. A brief trivial argument, at least that’s what he had thought at the time.

Mandalstram went to the window in his bedroom, which had a better view of the street than the living room’s. He stood for a long time watching foot and vehicle traffic. A Buick from the ‘80s pulled up across the street and expelled a man in an ill-fitting dark suit who consulted a piece of paper from his pocket, then re-entered the car, which sped away. A truck rumbled past, driven by a man with thick dark hair on his arm, which swung like a symphony conductor’s from his open window. Two boys on bicycles rode by, their laughter trailing after them in the balmy air. An attractive young woman in a polka dot dress walked down the street swinging her handbag, followed by an old woman, the woman who lived two houses down, in black. A dog, a nondescript mutt, zigzagged across the street, then back, sniffing the air.

A dark stream of sadness coursed through Mandalstram as he watched the tableau of life, limited as it was on this particular street in this particular city, unfold before his eyes. In his mind, he drew a line through the name of his third wife, having determined to let that particular sleeping dog lie. He still had a longing to connect with his daughter—and he would, he determined—she was out there somewhere, and he would find her. How many Mandalstrams could there be in Hollywood? And might not she actually be pleased to hear from her father, estranged though they were? But in other respects, he would leave the past alone. He had enough trouble coping with the heartbreak of the present, with his longing for a future.

—Dave Margoshes

.

Dave Margoshes is a Saskatchewan writer whose work has appeared widely in Canadian literary magazines and anthologies, including six times in the Best Canadian Stories volumes. He was a finalist for the Journey Prize, Canada’s premier short story award, in 2009. He’s published over a dozen books, including Bix’s Trumpet and Other Stories, which was named Saskatchewan Book of the Year in 2007, and A Book of Great Worth, a collection of linked short stories that was among Amazon.Ca’s Top Hundred Books of 2012. “The Connoisseur of Longing” is part of a new collection, God Telling a Joke and Other Stories, published in spring 2014. A new novel, Wiseman’s Wager, is due out in the fall. He lives on a farm outside Saskatoon.

 

Jun 122014
 

 EPSON MFP image

This is a wry, witty, ingenious story, a tour de force of whimsy, not really a single story, but ten completely different micro-stories hung on the same peg. Tim Conley is a bit like Scheherazade; you get the feeling he could spin out a different story every night ad infinitum. He sets you up with an introduction in the voice of a folklorist or linguist who’s found a peculiar idiom in rural Quebec — le voisin n’a qu’une maison. It means something like “the neighbour has only one house,” which, well, makes no sense. But the folklorist opines that there might have been a story behind the idiom, a tale lost to the ages. With that, Conley is off to the races, inventing those tales, from slapstick to faltering romance, completely different sets of characters and life-situations, wonderfully told.

dg

 

In a small agrarian town in northern Quebec, they have a saying: le voisin n’a qu’une maison, “the neighbour has only one house” or “the neighbour only has a house,” depending on where one prefers to hear the emphasis. Exactly what this phrase means has proved a puzzle for linguists and sociologists. Though not altogether inhospitable, the steely-eyed townsfolk do not much care for the questions of outsiders. Suggestions of an unknown story behind the expression –of its being a mnemonic tag (of no known specific use), of its being part of an allegory or homily (perhaps distorted by abbreviation, the way “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” has disintegrated to the incoherent “the proof is in the pudding”), or of its having some historical basis (an account of a specific someone’s neighbour, maybe, or a particular house)– all remain unverified. Unfortunately, it has not even been determined whether the following scenarios are accounts of real incidents or inventions produced for the very purpose of illustration, but they are faithfully recorded here as they were found, received, or told, with as much detail and context as were available.

After a long rainstorm, a man out walking is struck by a large, sodden branch that breaks off from a very old tree and pins him to the ground. Two sawyers working nearby rush to his aid and he informs them that he is barely able to breathe; they must hurry. But the branch is too heavy for them to lift. The first sawyer offers to run and fetch a saw, not sixty paces away, but the second sawyer becomes concerned that the pinned man might die in the interim, and while the first sawyer would be subsequently commended for his fast thinking and valiant efforts, the second sawyer would look like a dolt waiting and helplessly watching the man die, and so the second sawyer tersely accuses the first sawyer of not lifting his part of the branch with all of his apparently little strength. So the sawyers again try to lift the branch, and ultimately collapse with even more huffing and panting than before. The pinned man signals that he is without air. The second sawyer announces that he will fetch the saw, and the first sawyer, seeing what his unscrupulous partner is playing at, promptly socks him in the jaw. The second sawyer gets up from the ground and rushes headlong into the first, the two of them crashing together into the tree. This impact causes another branch to break off, and it bounces off of one end of the first fallen branch, neatly knocking it off the gasping man, who crawls toward the other people who have now gathered at the scene. The two sawyers have hit each other half a dozen more times before they realize what has happened. A witty bystander might aptly remark: le voisin n’a qu’une maison.

Children play in such tall grass that they cannot see one another. They soon become separated but, each thinking that the others must be together, none wants to be the first to cry out for help, and thus the first branded a coward and surely taunted ever after. One finally has the ingenuity to call out accusing another of being lost. Years later, the friends recount this story at a reunion and own up to their common fears, but they cannot agree which of them came up with the solution. Angrily the inspired one leaves the party, muttering, c’est vrai que le voisin n’a qu’une maison.

Making summer afternoon love by a stream, a young couple is interrupted by cries for help, but they cannot see who is calling and cannot bring themselves to break their exquisite rhythm. The voice shouts that it is drowning, drowning, drowning, but neither lover can see anyone in the unconcernedly flowing water, and their ardor won’t let them part. By the time they are sated, the cries have stopped. They explore the area, and walk downstream a good mile or more before they give up. When they say goodbye to one another, each seems embarrassed and uncertain. Each attends closely to the local news and town talk for days afterward, but neither finds any report of any drowning, and the absence of any such report stymies their communications with one another. They can speak of nothing else, but of this subject they have nothing to say. She changes her hair, and he silently judges the style wrong. He is offered a new job in the next town, a town the two of them had habitually remarked upon as an undesirable place to live, and she tries to be encouraging. After he has moved and eventually finds that the job and the town both suit him, he writes a letter to his friend and tells him about the incident that summer afternoon, and reflects on how fickle the heart is. His friend’s reply: “You idiot, le voisin n’a qu’une maison.”

A father accuses his son of stealing his boots, and the offended son leaves home. In a distant town he finds work as an assistant to a rheumatic sawbones, a kindly man who recognizes the young man’s talent for swift and acute diagnosis, begins to teach him about more than the ordinary ailments and tried remedies. The young man devotes himself to medicine and becomes so trusted by the local people that he very gradually takes over the old doctor’s practice. Within a few years he finds himself brought in to deliver the mayor’s child, a difficult operation because the woman’s cervix is, like her husband, anything but flexible, and the labour lasts three days. On the morning of the third, a message is brought to the physician: it is from his father, who reports that he has found his boots, and all is forgiven. The mayor’s wife pauses in her shrieking when she sees her doctor’s face momentarily lose its imperturbable aspect, and asks him what is wrong. He answers, le voisin n’a qu’une maison, and resumes his work.

Complaining of his breakfast at an inn, a guest unconsciously runs his fingers through his beard as he is dressing down the manager, a woman who takes this gesture as a lewd suggestion. She takes greater offence than she might because, sordid truth be told, she was feverishly fantasizing about this very guest’s beard the night before, which is not at all the sort of thing she would normally do. She more than matches his barrage of insults. Not accustomed to hoteliers abusing him, and surprised and upset to hear that his beard-stroking was in any way vulgar, the guest begins stammering an apology, whereupon the manager, realizing that she has overdone it, herself begins to apologize. She says that his dinner will be on the house, and he replies that he will only accept if she will dine with him. Just then the manager’s miserable, lazy, and cleanshaven husband, who has just been stealthily coming down the staircase behind them, snarls, le voisin n’a qu’une maison, but chokes on the last word, and rolls down the remaining stairs to the floor, never to be revived. On his headstone his widow has written: le voisin n’a qu’une maison.

An unmarried schoolteacher arouses the distrust of a student’s mother, who thinks that such situations are ghastly beyond words. This mother circulates the story that the schoolteacher is known to walk the streets at night, perhaps asleep but perhaps not, and the story’s vagueness ensures that it spreads like wildfire in a high wind. The schoolteacher finds herself unwelcome in certain places and unacknowledged by certain people. One day she overhears two of her students recounting a version of the story, and she decides to take up walking the streets at night, but dressed in her mother’s bridal gown. The story evolves and diversifies in quick response to witness accounts of her wordless, almost ethereal perambulations: she is a widow, longing for her dead husband, in love with a ghost; she has been seduced by some man in the community, who will not do right by her, perhaps because he is already married, and these nightly marches are her mute but moving protest; she is a lunatic, imagines herself wed to the moon; she has been hypnotized by the wicked schoolchildren, and unknowingly seeks a groom every night; she is holy; she is cursed; she is the picture of sorrow; she is a sign of hope. The mother’s original story and spite are eclipsed. Without exception her students all become more attentive to their studies. One cloudless night a man walks out to intercept her in the middle of the street, falls to his knees and asks for her hand in marriage. She says with a voice not her own, le voisin n’a qu’une maison.

A man loses his boot walking through an extremely muddy field one rainy evening. He arrives home and his father-in-law, with whom the man, his wife, and their children live, asks him what inspired him to go out in such weather in one boot. Trying to assume the patience necessary for dealing with this suspicious, narrow-minded old goat, the man explains that on the eve of the feast of St. Bunions it is considered good luck to walk in the evening with only one boot. His father-in-law scoffs but is still thinking about it when he retires to his room. He wonders whether there is some truth to the story, or whether it is simply some excuse meant to conceal something, and his inability to decide between these possibilities sends him out later that night, when the others are asleep in bed, in one boot, determined to find out which is the case. In the now quite fierce wind and the rain he hobbles and anxiously looks about, without having any set idea as to what he is looking for, and before long he is completely lost, though he does not admit as much to himself, and keeps hunting for his answer. He is found, shivering in a small wood, early the next morning. A doctor asks him some questions as he examines the old man sleepless in his bed, but obtains only nonsensical answers about hidden treasure, his many enemies, a saint nobody has heard of. The doctor is asked by one of the children whether grandfather will be all right, and he answers, “It is difficult to say, but le voisin n’a qu’une maison.”

A daring fox has been attacking a number of adjacent poultry farms, inspiring wagers in a popular tavern as to who is to be the next victim. One evening, when the betting is high and the laughter loud, the odds-on favourite, a grizzled and gruff man to whom life has seldom been kind, loses his composure and openly sobs into his drink. Early the next morning, the fox is killed by hunters and its carcass is brought to the sad farmer. He holds it up by the tail and says, le voisin n’a qu’une maison. The next day he puts the farm up for sale and leaves the country.

Recounted by a nonagenarian in a Sherbrooke nursing home: “If you threw a stone in a pond, and there was this large pond near the old cottage, one of my cousins nearly drowned there, and we teased him for years afterwards, called him the fish, there goes the fish, he hated that. What they don’t know, I’ll tell you, is how long a grievance can last. And I doubt their medical credentials, I’ll tell you that. But it was the pond wasn’t it, to return to our subject, if you threw a stone in a pond, you would naturally expect what are they called ripples, yes, but if you threw a stone in the pond and there were absolutely no ripples, and though this has never happened to a stone I threw, and look at me, I’m not going to be throwing any stones now, but do you know, never count anybody out, I’ll tell you that, never count anybody out. But that pond. Any pond, really. The trick is to throw a stone into it without causing a single ripple, and once I saw this done by a small girl nobody thought capable of anything, she was always following our gang around, and after all of us gave up on the game, she picked up a stone and threw it right in, not a single ripple. That girl went on to marry a big shot, I heard, I don’t remember who told me, but what I said when I heard about it was le voisin n’a qu’une maison, as my grandmother used to say when she cut up the lemons. And that really summed it up, you know.”

A talented singer finds herself unable to master a particular score that she has agreed to perform. The piece is not especially demanding, she admits to her mother, but invariably her breathing becomes irregular somewhere in the middle and her enunciation falters. She must impress this patron and cannot turn down the commission without injury to her reputation and career. Her mother assures her that everything will be all right, that she will surely master the piece soon, that it is probably just nerves. The daughter seethes in silence: how she wishes her mother could be more severe with her, slap her across the face and shout at her to work harder, or else be less encouraging, say to her that the commission doesn’t matter, that this only shows that music was never really her future; but instead it will always be all right, according to her mother. She decides that she will disgrace herself on stage to shatter her mother’s unwavering faith in her, and ceases practising for the concert. The night before the concert, however, her mother accidentally reveals that she is having an affair with her daughter’s patron, and it is only as a favour to his lover that he has invited her daughter to perform. The daughter appears to applause the next evening wearing the gown her mother has bought her for this occasion and, instead of singing the advertised work, trills the words votre voisin, n’a-t-il qu’une maison? to the tune of a ditty she learned in childhood.

—Tim Conley

.

Tim Conley’s short fiction, poetry, essays, reviews, and translations have appeared in various journals in seven countries. He is the author of two collections of short fiction, Whatever Happens (2006) and Nothing Could Be Further (2011), and a book of poetry, One False Move (2012).

 

Jun 112014
 

Jody Bolz

Shadow Play recounts in untitled and narrative poems a journey across Asia taken in the mid-1970′s through the contemplative eyes of its narrator decades later. At its core is the dissolution of a young marriage and the imagined discourse the narrator has with her former husband about the mystery of love, whether it ends or not. Her perplexity over the question leads the narrator to conclude that “Love’s a puzzle. A test. / A miracle, I guess.” Inconclusive perhaps, but hard won, as she argues with herself through the conjured voice of her former husband. As far-flung as Shadow Play is in setting,  it’s also domestic and close to the heart. These are poems with the intelligence and vigilance that Paul Valéry says might serve to represent and restore what “cries, tears, caresses, kisses, sighs, etc., try obscurely to express…”  Herewith is an excerpt of Jody Bolz’s novella in verse, Shadow Play.

—Jason DeYoung

bolz

.

Shadow Play

On the train across Java
we slept in a knot:
my head in your lap,
your head on my back,

two hundred miles
through the tropical dark
in shuddering third-class.
At every major stop,

a skirmish of shouted light—
vendors hawking tea and rice
to sleep-drugged passengers—
receded in a rush,

the jasmine-scented silence
sweet and abrupt.
When the station’s speakers
keened their exit song,

the train lurched on.
Whirr of palm and banyan,
gibbous moon, skewed night sky—
green stars above the village mosque

jumped and scuttled by
in deranged constellations.
We stretched, switched positions:
your hair red as rose stalks

against my faded dress,
my braids strict shadows
on your moonlit back,
our fractured dreams resettling….

Outside Bandung at dawn,
I shook my buzzing limbs,
cracked our dusty window open
to mountain air.

A boy wrapped in a shawl
shot past in the brightening field.
One child, then another—
a horde of barefoot children

in tattered pastel sweaters
raced beside the tracks,
calling out for coins,
for candies,

falling far behind us
by the time we reached
their shanties: tin roofs
at the rail-bed’s edge—

doorways set in sloping walls,
a threshing floor,
an open sewer.
As our train slowed

a pregnant girl,
waist-long hair undone,
stepped out of a hovel
fastening her sarong.

We passed her without speaking,
tugging at the taut string
of our marriage
as it rose over rice-fields,

climbing into monsoon clouds,
swaying there—spiraling—
not some thing,
not a child’s kite:

our common life, flown
above another Asian city
in the year we made a home
out of our bodies.

§

I’m shaping a mosaic
out of broken bits…
not exactly a gift.
Not exact—

a waking dream of India,
brazen as a blue-skinned god
rank with rotting marigolds
or silent on a riverbank:

the Hooghli in Calcutta—
sludge-gray, chest-deep water
blossoming with saris.
Young matrons bathe together,

an old man squats and strains near
a woman filling copper jugs.
A bloated ox, stiff legs up,
slips by under sail,

a vulture on its belly
coiled in slick entrails.
We linger on a bridge,
transfixed by the blind beak

gently teasing white from pink.
The rotting vessel
slowly shrinks,
then floats out of view.

What corpse am I
scavenging for you?

§

You’re offering me a metaphor?

But—we were there.

You’re looking for something more.
What is it?

I’m not sure.

We have other lives now.

This isn’t a betrayal.

How can you tell?

§

Twenty years ago, you woke me
in a hut near Brujenkhola
reeking smoky thatch and goat dung.
Beyond the unglazed window,

full night on the valley floor,
featureless, obscure—
but you pointed to the sky.
Your shoulder pressed mine.

A triangle of coral light
hovered in the blue-black dark:
the mountain
we’d walked days to see,

fish-tailed Machha Puchhare,
flaring like a sun
an hour before dawn.
We lay on our bedrolls,

awake, and watched the light grow.
Later, after clay-red tea,
we gathered up our packs,
paid our host and said goodbye.

The inn-keeper’s deaf daughter
waved, chasing her sister,
as we started for the river.
Ten minutes to a narrow bridge

across the Seti Khola,
wooden slats half rotted—
cables frayed, too far apart
to grab with our arms out.

We had to walk a line of boards
nailed loosely down the center,
bisecting our vision
of pale-green glacial water

in its bed of chalky boulders
more than twenty feet below us.
You tapped your toe
against each plank

and made your way across,
agile as a gymnast,
hands see-sawing for balance.
After heart-stopping seconds,

you yelled above the rapids’ roar
Wait there and dropped your pack.
Faster, you retraced your steps
to bring me back,

coaxing from three yards ahead,
Take a step—
now take another.
Don’t look at the river
.

Head throbbing,
I stepped staring
at the battered boots
that moved in jerks

above the milky current:
one foot, then the other,
stepped—and stepped again—
until I stepped on land.

We shouted and kissed there,
laughing as we sprawled on shore
guzzling water,
brown and iodine-bitter.

Soon we were singing,
climbing the stony track
through thick rhododendron,
juniper, yew.

By noon, dry and dizzy,
we trudged into a clearing
where an angel was waiting
in a whorl of dusty sunlight.

Poised on the ridgeline,
a shirtless boy, eight or nine—
beautiful despite one blind-blue eye—
held out a bowl of oranges

Suntalla, sahib?
and they glowed like gold.
We bought as many as he’d sell,
tore away the bitter skins

with stinging fingertips.
Back to back
in the shade of a banyan,
we sat eating oranges

as if nothing could harm us,
no crossing part us.

§

You’re policing failures.

We spent fourteen years together—

And the next fourteen apart.

Which proves the first a failure?

You forget that you loved
someone else for most of that time.

I loved you.

And—

I was eighteen when we met.

I was a child too.

Now you’re close to fifty.
Why don’t you forgive me?

—Jody Bolz

.

Jody Bolz was born in Washington, DC, and attended Cornell University, where she studied with A.R. Ammons. After receiving her MFA, she worked as a journalist for two major conservation organizations (The Wilderness Society and The Nature Conservancy) and taught creative writing for more than 20 years at George Washington University. Her poems have appeared widely in such magazines as The American Scholar, Indiana Review, North American Review, Ploughshares, Poetry East, Poetry Northwest, Prairie Schooner, and Southern Poetry Review—and in many literary anthologies. Among her honors is a Rona Jaffe Foundation writer’s award. She edits the journal Poet Lore, founded in 1889, and is the author of A Lesson in Narrative Time (Gihon Books, 2004).

Jun 032014
 
jose_luis_sampedro bw

José Luis Sampedro © José Aymá via Komunikis

La Vieja Sirena (The Old Mermaid) is a novel by José Luis Sampedro first published in Spanish in 1990. It is the second title in Sampedro’s trilogy Los círculos de tiempo (Circles of Time) which also includes Octubre, Octubre (October, October) (1981) and Real Sitio (Seat of Power) (1993).

As the novel’s epigraph from William Blake states: Eternity is in love with the productions of time. So is Sampedro, whose colorful, skillfully layered drama set in ancient Alexandria, Egypt, in the third century A.D., follows three principal characters: the mysterious and exquisitely beautiful slave Irenia; a power-hungry businessman named Ahram; and Krito, a philosopher employed by Ahram, who experiences the classic blessing and curse of Tiresias as he alternately experiences life as both a man and a woman. The story which then unfolds is one of the complex attractions between these three characters, interpolated with the Irenia’s memories from her life before Alexandria.

The novel’s opening pages present a compelling variety of voices and perspectives: the narrator setting the scene in the ancient Alexandrian marketplace with its delightful cornucopia of wares, and describing the formal transaction between the haughty Amoptis, scribe and son-in-law to Ahram, and the cringing slave dealer who sells him Irenia. Then Amoptis’s cold, selfish, scheming thoughts, governed primarily by ambition and fear. In the final third of the selection, we see life through the eyes of Irenia herself, and how, in this ancient, hierarchical world, her lovely internal monologue introduces the cipher of love as a response to royal pomp and power’s brutal indifference.

One work that The Old Mermaid especially recalls is Flaubert’s great historical fantasia Salammbô (set in ancient Carthage). Sampedro’s novel works a tangible magic with its ability to transport the modern reader to a time and place usually depicted on the plane of relics, tombs, silent hieroglyphics; instead we experience a drama fraught with personal anxiety and wonder at the teeming variety of life and its astonishing experiences.

—Brendan Riley

20091222154839-laviejasirena

 

Part I. The Slave (257 A.D.)

Eternity is in love with the productions of Time
William Blake

Chapter 1. The Land of the Gods

During the warm morning of the Egyptian spring, the summer already close at hand, the market of the third days in Canopus is a continuous vibration of light, color, and voices. The air is riddled with a heady mix of intensely pungent smells and the cries of the merchants who hawk their wares while seated on mats of woven papyrus. Make way! Make way! come the constant shouts of those trying to move through the throng, more densely crowded today because many farmers have harvested their crops and are enjoying the free time imposed by the annual flood which will soon be announced from the great southern Nilometer on Elephantine Island. Some seek care at the hands of the barber surgeon, some pass the time playing the serpent game, while others stop and visit the quack doctor with his magical herbs for cases of love or sickness. Because they are happy, they also permit themselves the luxury of buying barley water from the water vendor who advertises the drink with the jingling of his bells. At last, the plague of the tax assessors has left their fields, the scribes who monitored their reaping like eager crows, estimating first hand the taxes payable on demand for the ripe grain.

Towards midday, farmers and merchants go about packing up their stalls and stands. The smells –sweet or pungent, fermented or aromatic– intensify as the goods and produce are moved about: fava beans, lentils, smoked delta fish, meats and viscera, small sycamore figs alongside the very juiciest figs from true fig trees, dates, pistachios, snails, wild honey gathered in the Nubian oases, sesame, garlic, and so many more, inedible, objects: goatskins, flax, hides, tools, firewood, coal, farming implements, sandals and sun hats woven from papyrus. The plaza empties out, but on the adjacent streets and alleys small shops with more select merchandise remain open: silks and transparent linens suitable for pleating, goldsmiths and other artisans of fine metals, silver and lapis lazuli from the Sinai, imported amber and cosmetics, amulets, perfumes, wigs for men or women, and belts in the latest style. Coming down along one of these streets, the one that descends from the hill crowned by the exalted temple of Serapis, is a rider mounted on an ass whose height and lustrous coat reflect the quality of his personage: a mature man with a clear complexion, small shrewd eyes, and slender lips. From time to time, he checks the correct position of his black wig. One slave opens the way for his mount and another walks at his side, carrying his lord’s staff and sandals; three porters follow behind with bundles of goods acquired in the market.

The rider’s smile indicates pleasant thoughts. Certainly, the words heard in the temple could not have been more promising, dispelling his fears that the new Father of the Mysteries might not grant him the same protection as his recently deceased predecessor. The priestly community thinks in the long term and has not altered its expected plans in defense of the divine interests; nor has it forgotten the services rendered by the rider ever since he was a young scribe in the temple.

“Be patient, my son” the Father has said, “time labors for Heaven. The sacrilegious plundering of the lands of Tanuris, perpetrated by the emperor Caracalla forty-two years ago, will be corrected with your help. Serapis will recover that property and you will no longer be solely the majordomo of your impious patron, but the administrator for life of that estate in the name of the temple.” The rider will command in Tanuris. He will eventually build for himself, on the hilltop overlooking the canal, a tomb with a beautiful sarcophagus, one worthy of a scribe born of the priestly caste, where he will live on in the world of Osiris. His mind delights in contemplating the means necessary for hastening the recovery process, and he does not omit the possibilities of his daughter Yazila who, though barely ten years old, already promises to become a maiden of highly desirable charms. If he manages to get the young master to notice her…!

Meanwhile the slave guide has brought the retinue out of the market district, leading it toward the banks of the Alexandria canal, an area of concentration for the delightful activities that have made Canopus one of the most luxurious spas and pleasure centers in all Egypt. From the small riverside pavilions and pleasure houses and from the colorfully decorated party ships comes the ringing of cymbals, the rhythm of hand drums, and the melody of cithers and flutes. Some barges transport tourists from Alexandria but the majority belong to rich financiers and high society families whose names appear in the street satires or in the erotic epigrams scrawled by night upon certain walls in the capital.

As one additional public service this quarter sports one of the best slave markets, specializing in youths of both sexes trainable for pleasure. The master rises hastily from his shady seat on the porch as he recognizes a regular buyer: the grand majordomo of the House of Tanuris, property of Ahram the Navigator, inhabited by his son-in-law Neferhotep. The rider halts his mount. He condescends to hear the merchant’s flattery but impatiently dismisses how the man sings the praises of his merchandise because he has no intention of making a purchase. The salesman insists:
“At least come to have a look, noble Amoptis. I have an authentic rarity on hand, something never before seen. If this were not true, how could I have dared to detain you?”

In response to a gesture from the rider, his staff bearer hastens to kneel down, placing the sandals alongside the ass. He helps his master to dismount and put them on his feet. Then, handing him his staff, he follows him along the portico to the patio where he then stands waiting for Amoptis to return.

In a room apart from the communal chambers, a woman is lying upon a stone bench set into the wall, covered with a woven mat of rushes. She sits up as she notices the entrance of a possible buyer and, with customary indifference, lets fall to her feet the robe which covers her. Filtering through the latticework blind, the oblique rays of the sun turn her smooth white shapely hips gold. Nevertheless, she fails to provoke the visitor’s interest, for the reason that Amoptis prefers androgynous physiques over her slender body with its erect, high-set breasts whose arrogance resides more in their predictable density than in their volume. Besides, her flesh is not young: she is more than twenty years old, and thus the majordomo is sorry for having entered. He looks reproachfully at the old salesman. But this is what the man was expecting, and without a single word of excuse, he smiles craftily and pulls away the veil covering the woman’s face.

All at once an incredible cascade spills down to her naked shoulders, framing her face with a golden clarity very much like the shine of freshly cut copper. She is not one of those redheads frowned upon by Egyptian superstition: her living mane of silk, which writhes in long waves with her every movement like a gently swelling sea, has the deep, strong, sweet blonde color of ancient amber or fresh honey. Fascinated, Amoptis approaches and caresses the wondrous hair with a trembling hand while the woman remains indifferent. For the first time he contemplates the feminine face: he is astonished by her eyes—somewhere between green and grey—that make him feel guilty of insolence although they do not even deign to look at him. No, they do not see him. Distant from everything as if she were alone, the woman offers his masculine contemplation a figure that now seems marvelous: the discreet fullness of her lips, the delicate nose, the slender neck set upon well-rounded shoulders, the lightly pointed plum-colored nipples, the smooth line of her belly and the perfection of the navel, the tender pubis, and the long full statuesque legs with impeccable knees. As is normal in such transactions, Amoptis might wish to test with his own finger to see if the woman is a virgin, but inexplicably intimidated he suddenly turns his back on the slave and walks towards the door. The astonished salesman follows and closes the door behind him.

“Is your nobleness displeased?”

“At her age I suppose she’s not likely to be a virgin.”

The slave dealer gives a helpless shrug: “If she were, and young, too, she would have it all. But, my lord, that head of hair! I’ve never seen another like it in my life!”

Amoptis acknowledges it, and in that instant conceives of an idea that can win him greater influence over his wife, as well as—although he does not admit it to himself—free himself from his ridiculous inhibition before a mere slave. Such an absurd sentiment for the Grand Majordomo of Neferhotep, son-in-law of Ahram the Navigator, thanks to whose influence he is a member of the Municipal Council of Alexandria!
Amoptis opens the negotiation disdainfully.

“She’s not really worth a great deal. The only thing valuable to me is her hair. If you would sell me just that I would leave you the body.”

And as the salesman looks at him strangely, he concludes:
“So I could offer a wig to my wife. She would take delight in dazzling the ladies of Alexandria with it.”

With the price finally agreed upon—not very high because the salesman has had to admit that she is already twenty-three years old and a Christian terrorist—Amoptis reenters the room, where the woman gets to her feet, guessing the outcome.

“Be content: you are fortunate in your new master,” begins the salesman, “none less than the powerful Ahram…”
Amoptis silences him with a gesture and orders the woman to disrobe.

“Turn around and bend over,” he orders imperiously, thus discovering the harmony of the female back, covered almost to the waist by her hair.

The woman obeys, holding herself at a right angle, with her hands on her knees. Amoptis approaches her suggestive buttocks, and with humiliating brutality thrusts his hand between her legs, forcing them apart. Apparently he is simply following custom but in reality he exercises a vengeance for having felt intimidated before her. Although to do so, he has to touch those impure folds of female flesh, hardly attractive to one who was initiated into sex through the virile adolescent backsides of temple choirboys. Amoptis then orders the slave to dress and forbids her to uncover her hair unless he orders it: he wants to surprise his wife.

“Where are you from?” he asks in Egyptian.

“From the island of Psyra, sir,” she responds, also in Egyptian, though clumsily. Her voice is seductive without trying to be.

“Your name?” continues Amoptis in Greek, proud of his learning.

“Lately they have called me Irenia,” responds the slave. An imperceptible stab of pain wounds her heart as she remembers when she joined the wandering Christians that it was Domicia who gave her that name which means peace.

As he pays for his purchase, Amoptis orders some papyrus sandals to be brought for the slave. With an hour’s journey to Tanuris he does not wish to ruin the delicate feet that add value to his merchandise.
Upon arriving to the villa, Amoptis considers that it has gotten too late to show off his discovery. To ensure the surprise he orders them to take the slave to his own room, spread out a mat for her, and serve her food. And so when, with other obligations accomplished, he ascends to his chambers, he finds the woman there. He would prefer to be alone but decides to take advantage of her presence to have her remove his shoes and wash his feet with natron water, first ordering her to uncover her amazing hair.

Lost in thought, he lets her work. As she caresses his feet in the washbowl he suddenly notices that her feminine gestures are singularly soft and delicate. Leaning forward he studies the pair of delicate hands encircling his ankles. They lack the roughness of one who has run with a band of terrorists. Each movement of her bowed head makes her hair ripple and expand. Amoptis runs his fingers across that silk and feels an almost forgotten desire beating in his old veins. Meanwhile she has finished drying his feet and removes the vessel.

“You’re skillful. Are you trained in the arts of massage?”

“I have practiced them, my lord.”

The man stands and orders her to help him undress, then he stretches himself out face down on the bed, displaying a scribe’s narrow back with the spine slightly crooked, flaccid buttocks, and thin legs with knotty knees. He indicates a flask of oil on the shelf. Her feminine hands begin to caress, prod, and stimulate his lean flesh. The man sighs, pensive: Who would have imagined…that this happen to me, at my age…? If my little Yazila could learn these massages, I’m sure that the master would take delight in her flexible body, in her cinnamon skin…I will manage it, she will have to help me…ah, this woman, this woman! So cold, and knowing so much! Softly skinning me alive, removing my skin to go deeper inside…Where could she have…

“Have you ever worked in brothels? Don’t lie!”

The woman looks at him stupefied. Why would she have to lie?

“In Byzantium, my lord.”

Byzantium…they say that the pleasures there…I’m sure that…He suddenly turns over and before thinking about it, his body orders his voice:
“Suck me!”

The slave does not reply. Already kneeling, she lowers her head over his groin and her mouth knowingly begins to caress his circumcised member as her hair brushes against his half-opened thighs… Slow, slowly… The man sighs, pants, trembles, feels delight… His body feels disconnected, dispersed, liquid: he has never known such feverish dissolution… The woman returns to the alcove for the washbowl, returns with it, and carefully washes his shrinking member.

“Put out the lamp,” orders the man at last, “but leave that candle burning.”

Amoptis closes his eyes, not so much to fall asleep as to make her, and the confusion she causes him, disappear. He is always so self-assured! How is it that this woman who seemed to be ignoring him has driven him to such distraction? He begins to wonder if he has not perhaps brought some evil creature into his house. Suddenly he is frightened to recall that, as rumor has it, the carriers of the strange plague which has lately flared up, thrive among those who live badly. The very next morning, once her hair is shorn, he will consign her to the kitchens. No, to the stables, where he will not even see her, where she will pose no risk to anyone. Instinctively he raises his hand to his sex, as if to protect it, and begins to mutter the charm to appease Sekhmet, the powerful, the destroyer.

Thus was purchased the slave Irenia for the exalted Lord Neferhotep of the House of Tanuris in the first days of May in the year 1010 from the foundation of Rome, quarter of the reign of Caesar Gaius Publius Licinius Valerian, in the month which the Egyptian scribes call Mesore and the people know as the season of Fourth of Shemu, before which the tears of Isis, away in the remote south, cause the rising of the Nile and its flooding across the millenary land of the pharaohs.

* * *

What’s happening to me? What is it that affects me so? That pompous personage who has purchased me and who still lies awake, unable to sleep, must be thinking perhaps that the thought of him, or my other news masters, keeps me awake; but that is not the reason, it is really everything that has happened since they brought me to this land, Egypt… Barely three weeks since I arrived here and only from watching along the road, listening on the patio, of eating differently, of smelling the air and feeling the night, I am enveloped in a world I never imagined… Egypt! Before it was only a name to me, like Syria, Armenia, Sogdiana, Cyrenaica… When we traveled with Uruk, Fakumit amazed me with her greatness, she spoke to me about her gods, I had to learn something of his language to understand her, according to her there was no finer land, no greater empire, it sounded like her nostalgic exaggerations, but it was true, this is a different world, what a flood of lives and mysteries! I’m continually amazed, though nothing in life matters to me any more, though I expect nothing, I am drawn by this abundance, which must be how the world was when it was newly created, full, overflowing, giving birth every moment to waters, beings, gods, just yesterday, emerging from the house of slaves, in the corner of the patio, that hyacinth, the day before yesterday it was not there, sprouting in a single night, with its tender arrogance, fragile and powerful, its stem, its flowers, its slender leaves, launching its perfume like a cock crowing, the day before yesterday it was not there, this land never sleeps, giving birth to lotuses, crocodiles, papyrus, ibises, birds, palm trees, serpents, bulls, hippopotamuses, and the dazzling greenery, even here in this town by the sea, everything roiling with heat, the palm fronds, the shimmering air, this world overwhelms me, penetrates me, engenderer, multiplier, waster of lives, what a contrast to Cyrenaica! Not only that prison, with its sweating clay walls, its swill and filth, even free at the oasis everything was precarious, palm trees besieged by the sand, water in a puddle or enclosed in a well, a few scanty oleanders alongside the dry avenue, while here there are wide flowing canals and the arms of the delta, Egypt creating lives, as well as all its many gods, Sobek the sacred crocodile, Bast the cat, Udjit the cobra, Hapi the Nile River, Nefertum the lotus, Hathor, mother of Osiris… No, his daughter, I’m mistaken, Seth who is both good and bad, all divine, the water, the wheat, the beer, because everything gives life, “Life” is the key word, thus so much hope, here the people smile though they are naked and without possessions, and even the dead live on in their tombs, it is only I without a soul, how do I go on living after my disaster, she died in the amphitheater but the morays did not devour me, Domicia’s death killed me, too, I hear her voice everywhere in the silence, right now, that whispering, her wisdom in the serenity, and her hand, her hand, no one ever caressed me like that, not Narsus on the island, no man in Byzantium, nor in the harem, no, not even Uruk, he was something else, but Domicia’s hand was a dark heat, endless friction, burning but quenchable fire, no one else like that, none remembered nor forgotten, she smiled at my ecstasy, and explained it like this: “No man understands a woman’s flesh, only another woman.” She knew that I felt it, feeling with me at the same time, how she created pleasure, how her fingers and her tongue set me on fire! It was a world of women although there were also men following the Mother, I had already heard talk of Christ, when Uruk took me down the Oronotes past Antioch, I remember well, but they said that the Messiah was really a woman, that his masculine garb was only a disguise, the so-called Christ was born a girl, with a girl’s body and a girl’s soul, raised as a woman, that new goddess attracted me, and Domicia’s love had a hold on me, her absolute certainty, she lived safely removed from everything, and so she raised me to a new height, different from a man, I will no longer enjoy such moments, the revelation of life, the soul breaking free, once they were simply passions, caresses or excitations, hidden places in the flesh, but Domicia was the mistress of everything, including the spirit. Oh, how she began to show me! Writing! Words of Latin between her kisses! The geometry of the flesh! She had studied in Syracuse, she was from a rich family, that explained why she was a deaconess to the Mother. I’m dead without her! She was everything! It’s a devastating memory, the emptiness torments me, missing her lips on my sex, on my nipples, my own hands trying to imitate her are no replacement, I can’t recall, can’t remember, but impossible to forget her, I carry her in my skin, since her hand touched me, laying it on my arm, in that shadowy dungeon, her caressing voice, “Will you tell me your sorrows, my sister?” I groaned for Uruk, months had gone by and I was till crying for him, it was the first time she called me sister, me: born without anyone, her inexplicable appearance on a beach, she brought me to the clear light at the tiny window, I noticed on her cheek the purple welt, a whip had lashed her face, but in her eyes the serenity, immutable, her certainty in the faith, I confided, for the first time, I was able to speak to someone about Uruk murdered before my eyes, I transferred to her my desperation, and since then we were never apart, her peace flooded into me, she showed me that a woman’s love is not found in the games of a brothel and harem, but in putting the soul into the flesh, and the flesh into the soul, she pulled me out of my sorrow, without making me forget about Uruk because she embraced him, too, she had known a man’s love before, she could understand me. Why do I remember if it pains me so? Our embraces in the night, the oasis, dark island of silver moonlight on the sands, our walks together holding hands, envious but also admiring, and censured, by the men of the group especially, lusting after the two of us, I know that I saddened the deacon, he was in love with me without confessing it, I might have been his, she would have understood it, but he denied it to himself, he loved me from afar, only for the sake of faith, for salvation in the next life, which I reject! Impossible to understand him, although perhaps the secret in his past, perhaps the way I am now indifferent to everything, Domicia’s death ended my world, she changed my name, another name in my life, like reincarnations, but this time the last one, I am finished, I would have preferred to have cut my hair right there, before her body pierced with arrows, the hair she adored, so many times sliding over her calves, her breasts, her buttocks, pleasure that gave me chills, but they stopped me from doing it, it makes me more valuable, after the morays devoured me they would have cut it off to sell it, like this old man, sure, it’s what he has thought, what does it matter, nothing matters to me at all, and nevertheless, my world also sank when they killed Uruk, also before, when my poor daughter, my little Nira, knifed by the pirates, destroyers of my life, but I go on living. Life is so resistant! How life maintains its grip on us! And especially here in Egypt, an anthill of beings, fertilized by the Nile… Nothing matters to me at all, but I didn’t kill myself, as easy as it was, how strong is the blood against sorrow! Will everything be repeated? It seems to me impossible, then, why do I go on breathing amid this choking distress? A tormented panting but I go on, unable to forget those hours, that eternity by Domicia’s side, in the Church of the Divine Mother, among the femmes as they called us…

—José Luis Sampedro Sáez; translated from Spanish by Brendan Riley

 CapturePhoto by Gonzalo Cruz via ABC.es

José Luis Sampedro Sáez was born in Barcelona, Spain in 1917. He led an extraordinarily active and productive life, pursuing a dual career as economist and novelist. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) he joined the Republican forces and spent the war in Melilla, Catalonia, Guadalajara, and Huete, in Cuenca. Following the war he worked as a customs agent in Melilla, and later studied Economics in Madrid. In 1948 he joined the research team for the Banco Exterior de España and in 1951 became an advisor in the Spanish Ministry of Trade. Throughout his long career he published ten books on economics as well as a dozen novels and assorted other volumes, including collections of short stories and essays. In 1990 he was elected as a member of the Real Academia Española, and in 2011 he was awarded the National Prize for Spanish Literature. He was known for as an advocate for human rights and ethical economic practices. Sampedro died in Madrid, in 2013, at the age of 96.

 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.

May 142014
 

Dede

Dede Crane writes the anatomy of an affair of the heart in her story “Tattoo,” which is, yes, the story of a tattoo and what that can lead to. Two sisters lounge on a Mexican beach; it’s their last day; the sisters practice their sibling rivalry; Corona beers mark the hours in the sun. A Mexican tattoo-artist, auspiciously named Jesus, plops down beside them and starts his spiel. The narrator has not been lucky with men; she rescues dogs instead; she is acutely aware of stereotypes and the tepid bourgeois agonies of the North American tourist class. Should she? Shouldn’t she? She wants to pay; Jesus considers it a gift. Something is happening. Eventually, there is dinner and more drinking and Jesus ends up carrying the drunken and unconscious sister to their room. And then he stays. What follows is not, as I have somewhat disingenuously called it, an affair — something else, more revealing and innocent, surprising and right.

dg

 

 

Late afternoon, we had ordered beer and tortilla chips. Two ahead of me already, my sister thanked the waiter for her third Corona and squeezed the slice of lime down its neck. Our last day in Mexico and she seemed determined to squeeze as much good time out of it as possible.

It was only my second.

I’d had enough of the sun, the salt and my know-it-all sister. I felt like going back to the room, packing for tomorrow, ordering dinner in and finishing reading Donoghue’s Room.

The last of the daytime hawkers were trudging down the beach with the same cheap goods you found in the market, half of them made in China. Yet another one, a backpack slung over one shoulder, was making his way over to us. I sipped my beer and looked right through him at the banana boat about to flip its thrilled passengers into the sea.

“Henna tattoo for your shoulder, ankle, breasta,” the hawker announced in slow but impressive English, all his T’s crossed. He stopped in front of us, blocking the sun for which I was grateful.

“No gracias,” my sister and I said together, a reflex now, like brushing away a fly.

I scooped guacamole onto a chip. Did he say breast?

“My tattoos are the besta, they last longest and do not wash off in the ocean.”

I ate my chip ignoring him. I’d instructed my sister not to respond to hawkers a second time. “It’s like training dogs,” I’d said, “you give the command once not six times or you’re training them to not respond until after six commands.”

“Today, ama feeling generous.” He spoke in such a grand yawning accent that I looked up. Taller than most Mexican men but with the same barrel chest, he had a goatee and bare hint of a moustache. The black curls that blew round a face that made me think of third grade and the boy I’d loved, Freddy Quintana.

“Two for the one price.” He held up his fingers like a peace sign and smiled.

Like Freddy, his cheeks bunched high at their corners when he smiled and his round-cornered teeth gave them the appearance of Chiclets. I used to imagine the sweet taste of Freddy’s teeth.

I was about to break my own rule and repeat ‘no, gracias,’ when my sister said, “Let’s see your tattoos then.” Seeing my expression, she said, “Jim thinks tattoos are sexy.” Jim was my brother-in-law, a mortgage broker and former college football player. “Come on. I’ll pay.”

The hawker dropped to his knees in the sand and swung off his pack. He looked up at my sister with sad gratitude like some sort of beggar.

No, he didn’t. His eyes ran the length of your legs.

My sister was an emergency room nurse. Forty-one, she lived in Denver with her husband and thirteen-year-old son. She’d paid off her mortgage, had a pension plan, an investment portfolio, and international condo shares which was the sole reason I was in a wet bathing suit watching a fleet of bucket-mouthed pelicans fly over the Pacific. Waves crashed on the beach before me while the narrow streets of old Puerto Vallarta, its white stucco buildings and clay tile roofs, raced up the hills behind me.

I lived in Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, in a rental house, and my life savings amounted to two thousand dollars. Never the stomach for a nine-to-five, I grew medical marijuana for cancer patients and painted houses, interiors.  I rescued dogs and found homes for them. At any given time I had between three and eight mongrels warming my bed. A dog, I discovered, was more faithful than a husband.

On the beach that day: for the first time in years I had shaved my legs, knowing my sister would have felt embarrassed on my behalf. I’d also allowed her to buy me a pedicure and my toenails were a shiny Bruised Plum. I hadn’t used nail polish since junior high and every time I looked down, my feet startled me, as if they were someone else’s.

The hawker handed us a black binder of sample tattoos and of photos of smiling teenage tourists wearing his product. My sister paid his two-for-one asking price which seemed no cheaper than two tattoos, then picked a lotus flower for the small of her back. He introduced himself as “Hayzeus” was what I remembered, but my sister remembered him saying the English “Jesus.”

She lay down in the sand while he straddled her legs.

He did not straddle me. He sat beside me.

His back arced over her, his bare thigh muscles taut as he pressed a rectangle of paper along her bikini line to transfer the image. Apparently he wasn’t an artist but a professional tracer. He took up his ink bottle and squeezed out not the brownish-orange color of henna but a black viscous line that looked like crude oil. What sort of cheap and unregulated substitute did they use down here? I imagined blood poisoning, raised welts, skin cancer.

When he was done, he told her not to wear her cover up nor sit in her chair until the ink had completely dried. He stood and kneaded his right thigh.

“How’s it look?” she asked me.

It was precisely like the lotus picture in the book and not at all smudgy. “Nice,” I said. “It’s very black ink, just so you know.” I waited to see if this might concern the nurse.

“I’m going to get a prawn skewer,” she said, eyeing the vendor down the beach. “Want one?”

I shook my head, not trusting shellfish that had been out in the sun all afternoon, and Jesus said, “Thank you, yes.”

We looked at him and a smile raised the flags of his cheeks. My sister laughed and walked away twisting happy feet in the sand, her newly painted black flower swiveling side to side.

I’d looked through the book filled with dragons, skulls, hearts, geckos, swastika-like armband and anklet designs and didn’t see anything I cared for. I didn’t have someone at home who thought tattoos were sexy and didn’t want to further tax Jesus’s thighs.

“I choose for you?” he said and his face turned serious. Then, as if searching for something, his eyes, yes, did run down my legs. Shaving had raised and reddened the pores and my pale legs resembled the skin of a plucked chicken.

“Sure.” I was not at all sure. What was in that ink? I should have asked for an ingredient list. He took the book from my hand and tossed it on the sand.

“Please stay in seat” – he looked around for another chair – “I want to work on your feet.”

“My feet. Okay.” It was still winter back home, so the swastikas would be safely covered when I returned. I watched him pull over a chair, knowing that chair cost the price of a drink. The head waiter, also watching, promptly came over and said something in Spanish, the sounds curling up and over each other. It was a language, I thought, born beside the ocean.

“Cervaca por favor,” answered Jesus and pointed to my bottle of Corona.

The waiter gave me a strained look as if he wanted to tell me something but didn’t have the English. A warning? Did he know this Jesus fellow? Was Jesus just a name he used on female tourists?

“Me, too, gracias,” I said and waved my bottle in the air.

I was embarrassed by the whole tourist invasion thing. Jesus could speak near perfect English and I couldn’t say more than ola, gracias, quanto questa and el bano.

Jesus took a paintbrush from his pack and squeezed out a pool of ink onto a plastic lid palette then sat directly across from me. His short sleeved shirt was missing its first two buttons and revealed the same hairless brown chest of the male dancers we watched the night before on the malacon. A professional group from Mexico City, twenty couples performed traditional folk dances. The men were mesmerizing with their bull fighters’ posture, their macho, muscular movements, feet beating down the floorboards as they led the women with such forceful yanks and throws, and at such speeds, the women wouldn’t have had a second to resist much less think. It was breathtaking.

Jesus inched his chair forward until our knees almost touched. He was my age.

He was thirty-three, tops.

Without asking he lifted my leg and planted my foot on his thigh which caused me to slip down further in my slouchy chair. “I painta top of foot.”

I smiled warily and sipped my beer, tried not to think of my bathing suit, old and too small. I had shaved my legs but that was as far as I’d go.

He hooked his entire arm under my calf to steady my leg and wiped down my foot with a rag drenched in what I trusted was rubbing alcohol judging by its coolness. On the beach in Puerto Vallarta, I imagined telling my friends back home, Jesus washed my feet.

Skipping the paper transfer, he began directly with his ink bottle.

“You’re improvising?” I pictured a cartoon-eyed gecko, a smiley faced sun.

“I like to painta,” he said.

The waiter arrived with our beers. As he set them on the table, Jesus did not look up. I pointed at myself and scribbled on my hand. “Our tab, please.”

When the waiter left, Jesus gave me a shy glance. “Thank you.”

“Thank my sister. I don’t have any money.”

“Then we are not alike. Because none of my sisters have money.”

I laughed and though he was concentrating on my foot, I sensed a smile.

Down the beach waving her half eaten skewer – and was that another beer in her hand? – my sister was bopping up and down alongside a small Mariachi band and its harried sounds of forced cheer.

Staring at the top of Jesus’s head, I wondered if I should make conversation – did you grow up here? Where did you learn your English? What sort of work do you do on the off season? I could tell him I legally grew marijuana for profit, see what he thought of that, considering his country’s drug wars. I said nothing, took off my hat instead – it was past sunburn time – leaned back and let Jesus have his way with my foot. Keeping my eyes closed, I tried to guess what he was drawing… something that started between my first and second toe and fanned out towards my ankle… a lop-sided heart? The waves inhaled and exhaled the distant music, the exclamations of children and broken conversations in Spanish. Jesus blew his cool breath around my toes. Being touched felt ridiculously good and I relaxed in a way I hadn’t since meeting up with my sister in the Phoenix airport.

After an unknowable amount of time, Jesus carefully placed my foot on a towel and then raised my other leg. Would two feet, I wondered, still count as one tattoo? Was it his pride making up for the free beer? He said nothing and I pretended to sleep.

You were sound asleep and snoring.

I was snoring?

I must have drifted off because I woke to my sister’s lightly distrusting voice, “You’re still at it?” before it dropped into genuine surprise, even admiration. “Oh wow. Now that is amazing.” The click of her phone camera and I reluctantly opened my eyes as she apologized to Jesus about the prawn skewer. “I was really going to get you one but he ran out.” She was slurring a little.

I was not slurring.

“Let me buy you a beer to make up for it,” she said and signaled the waiter.

“You already did,” I told her and tried to sit up to look at my foot but Jesus said, “No, don’t move.”

“Well, let’s have another. I’d like one.”

“Not for me,” I said, but she ordered three anyway and talked at Jesus’ bent head as he painted up the inside of my ankle. “My sister lives next to a reserve,” she told him, “Native land, and once a month drives over there and picks up half dozen undernourished dogs and puppies.”

“I know many of the families,” I said so it didn’t sound like kidnapping.

“And they’re happy to let her take them. They can’t feed them, don’t keep track of them and let them roam in packs and breed like… dogs.”

I had told my sister these things with an exaggerated exasperation, knowing it would rouse her sympathies.

“Yet, yet” – her finger shot up – “when she offers to have her vet friend come spay and neuter the dogs, for free I might add, they refuse the offer.” She shakes her head. “It would drive me crazy. Why bring all these unwanted dogs into –”

“But they are wanted,” said Jesus. He blew on my ankle and a shiver sailed up my spine. “If those people not let the dogs do what dogs do, then your sister will not be able to rescue them.”

My sister laughed as if he was being funny but Jesus didn’t smile. And in that instant I saw the reserve situation differently, saw it from above the fray of human interference and labels of right or wrong, as simple cause and effect. The notion that I was some kind of savior to these dogs rang not so much false but unnecessary.

Part paisley, part labyrinthine, part Japanese art, yet not any of those, fanned out from between my first and second toe to cover the tops of my feet, the left design curling asymmetrically up the inside of my ankle like a rogue wave. My first thought was that nothing in my wardrobe would do my painted sandals justice. My second was how much worse my blood poisoning was going to be compared to my sister’s.

“Painted on shoes” – my sister spread her hands as if surprised no one had thought of it before.

“I be back,” said Jesus, his eyes brightening. Leaving his bag and book, he jogged off down the beach, the muscles of his calves being worked by the soft sand.

My sister snorted, a little puff of air. “What’s he doing?”

Though we wanted to head back to our condo to shower and change for dinner, we couldn’t leave Jesus’s pack.

You thought there might be a bomb in it.

I was kidding.

Fifteen minutes later, we startled when he came up behind us.

Jesus, I said, not his name but His name, and I wondered how often his head was turned by swearing tourists. From his sagging shirt pocket he drew out a silver anklet. Little filigree bells hung from the chain and as he lengthened it between his hands, it swung back and forth and the bells made a dull tinkling.

“Lovely,” I said.

“My friend, he makes them.”

Quanto questa?” I asked because nothing in this country was free. Cheap yes, free no.

He drew a quick breath and gave me a hurt sideways look.

“Sorry” – I felt terrible – “but I assumed you had to –”

“Dinner.” A mischievous smile.

“We’d love to take you to dinner,” my sister said then looked right at me. “Being  local, he must know the best places.”

I didn’t know what to say.

“That I do, yes. What time shall I meet you?”

My sister suggested in an hour’s time and he gave us directions to the restaurant of his choosing.

“Why did you invite him for dinner?” I asked once out of earshot. “I was planning on staying in. Packing and finishing my –”

“Come on. It’s our last night. I want to go dancing.”

“I don’t dance.”

“I know. That’s what Jesus is for.”

True, I didn’t dance except around the privacy of my living room with a couple paws in my hands. It was a great way to stop a dog barking. “Aren’t you worried he’s just using us?”

She waved me off. “Relax. Maybe we’re using him?”

My only real sandals wrapped up to the ankle Roman style or had a thick strap across the top of my foot. Both threatened to ruin my tattoos.

“Go barefoot,” said my sister. “You won’t be able to tell.”

“Barefoot, suggests the nurse. On these streets.”

“Not going to wear your anklet?”

“It’s something a thirteen-year-old would wear,” I said, guessing that’s what she was thinking.

“Looks like a dog collar for a Chihuahua.”

I had been going to put it on, thinking Jesus intended it to compliment his tattoo. But the adolescent in me still cared what my sister thought.

On the way to the restaurant, I purchased a pair of black flip flops which blended in, sort of, with my foot art. Jesus was waiting for us on the street outside a dingy looking building whose stucco was cracked and stained. His hair was wet or greasy, I couldn’t tell which, and he wore what looked like a brand new white shirt which lay open at the neck and had the sleeves rolled up. A gigolo’s shirt. His backpack from this afternoon hung from one shoulder and for a minute I wondered if maybe he was homeless.

“You’re not still working?” My sister pointed at his pack as he shrugged good-naturedly.

“I never know.”

We followed Jesus up a single flight of stairs to a dim lit room with a tiled floor, rusty punched tin walls and no more than eight or ten tables. The restaurant was full, not of tourists but Mexicans talking noisily over flickering votive strewn randomly over the table. As the head waiter showed us to our seats, he and Jesus laughed and joked in Spanish. I listened hard, hoping to understand but it was as though I was hearing them from underwater and if I could only reach the surface I’d comprehend the words. As we were shown to our table in the far corner, I could have sworn we were walking ever so slightly uphill. The head waiter gallantly pulled out my sister’s chair for her and Jesus pulled out mine.

Jesus must have told him who was paying.

I don’t think so.

The wooden chair with their thick woven backs were uncomfortably upright and each mango yellow tile on the table’s top was cracked or chipped. There were darkened spots on the red cloth napkins. Grease stains? From a dramatic height, the waiter filled our water glasses before I ordered a bottle of Evian. I’d had my bout of Montezuma’s revenge and that was more than enough.

“It is naïve spelled backwards,” said Jesus.

“What?”

“Evian.” He recommended the margaritas.

“Our margaritas?” echoed the waiter and kissed the fingertips of one hand and my sister ordered a pitcher.

The margaritas turned out to be the perfect blend of sweet and tart and strong. I only hoped the alcohol killed any bugs thriving in the ice. The best guacamole I’d ever tasted was mixed with a pestle at our table in a rough black bowl of volcanic stone – “a molcajete,” Jesus told us – and topped with a deliciously salty cheese, “cojita from Cojita.” The homemade tortillas melted in one’s mouth, the beef for a change was tender, even the refried beans somehow tasted fresh. We exclaimed over the food and Jesus looked genuinely pleased. It was not until half way through the meal did I realize that the room not only had no overhead lights but no roof, and that the dim lighting was moonlight.

“What happens to this place in the rainy season?” I asked.

“It gets very wet,” said Jesus.

My sister laughed too loud.

He pointed back toward the entrance. “The floor, she is tipped a little. And the far wall does not quite reach the floor, you see.”

I pictured rain drumming on the tiled tables and floor, water gushing over the eaves to the street.

“It’s called the washing season,” he added and my sister rolled her eyes.

“Is it true?” I asked.

“Everything is true,” he said. “What else could it be?”

“False,” barked my sister and poured herself another margarita.

After dinner, we went to a crowded disco two stories high, where they played an eccentric mix of the Beegies, Santana and Lady Gaga. I kept watch over our table and a bland and watery pitcher of margaritas safe and while my sister danced with Jesus. During the slow ones, her face rubbed against his white shirt like a rooting infant and I wondered how my brother-in-law would feel about it. And if I was the one with the high stress job and investments portfolios, I’d also need to dance in public, get drunk and rub my head on a stranger’s chest. Jesus’ cheeks bunched every time my sister called something into his curls yet I thought he looked a little bored.

On our walk back to the condo, the alcohol catching up to me, I was drunk enough to believe that the night air off the ocean was the source of the surrealist sculptures that graced the malecon. When you lived in a place where you couldn’t tell where your own skin ended and the air began, ordinary perceptions, I decided, didn’t stand a chance.

I pointed out my favorite sculpture to Jesus; a free standing ladder to the sky, thirty feet tall, with two caped girls made of the same burnt-gold metal, climbing it, one nearly at the top. Their hooded heads were shaped like fat triangular pillows, their capes hanging down their back in severe pleats. A larger version of the girls, the caped, pillow-headed mother, stood down on the ground, her open O of a mouth and extended arms imploring them to come down.

“That is Bustamante,” said Jesus. “It is named In Search of Reason.”

“The mother seems to be saying, don’t go up there,” I ventured, “as if she knows their childhoods are about to be lost.”

“The sculpture,” he said, “makes reason look very dangerous.”

“Ladders are meant to be climbed,” my sister said, steering unsteadily toward a nearby bench. “I can’t walk anymore,” she muttered and laid down on it.

I sat down on it.

“Not far now. I’ll carry you.” He hooked his left arm inside the other strap of his backpack and hiked the bag onto his back. Then he hoisted my sister, too drunk to resist, into his arms.

I felt I should have protested but I could neither carry her nor leave her there so what would have been the point? Besides, like a dog who instinctively trusts certain strangers, I realized I instinctively trusted this one.

“I know a short cut,” he told me and soon I was following him down a narrow alley.

Despite the hour, men, women sat around open doorways, some smoking, others cooking on hibachis, playing guitar or cards, nursing babies or beers. A small pointy eared dog, something larger mixed with Chihuahua weaved around our feet, nose to ground, tail wagging as it hunted. Jesus greeted people and people greeted him back.

“Ola Hayzeus. Como esta?”

I was glad to hear the name was really his. No one in that alley seemed the least bit troubled or impressed by the sight of him carrying a drunk, middle-aged white woman. Was it a regular occurrence? A young Mexican woman pointed at my feet and clucked, then said something to Jesus in a teasing tone.

“What did she say?” I asked when we’d passed.

“That you must have inspired me.”

“Amused you,” I said.

“Amuse, yes,” he said though he may have meant a muse for all I knew.

#

Arriving at the condo, he laid my unconscious sister carefully on the couch.

I was not unconscious.

I arranged her arms and legs and though the air conditioning was off, covered her with a sheet and blanket. As I stood there watching her settle into sleep, Jesus, now standing by the French doors to the balcony, asked if he could paint me.

“We’re leaving tomorrow,” I said, flattered.

At dinner we’d learned that Jesus drove cab in the off season and painted watercolors, his real passion – “of the old buildings and churches” – which he sometimes sold at a gallery in one of the big hotels. So I’d thought he meant paint me on paper. But that wasn’t what he meant.

Then he proceeded to undress you.

He did not.

I went to the bedroom and undressed. For an awkward second I considered putting on my bathing suit then thought of how silly dogs look in doggy raincoats and sweaters. My nakedness felt utterly ordinary as I walked back to the living room. He was outside on the narrow wrought iron balcony, adjusting the placement of a lamp he’d moved outside. As I passed my sister on the couch making sure she was sleeping, I imagined her bolting upright to rip the figurative needle from the record. She didn’t move and when I looked up, Jesus was looking at me with an eagerness akin to hunger. Whether artistic hunger or sexual hunger I didn’t know though both, in that moment, seemed aspects of the same urge, the same need. I continued towards the deck and Jesus stepped back as one steps back to appreciate a painting before he gestured where he wanted me to stand.

Hidden from neighbors across the way by a jungle of parota trees, the balcony overlooked the bay below and vast sky above, the single blackness lit by a three-quarter moon that much larger than the one back home, its reflection spilling a wavy path along the water.

He took my arm and turned it over. “If the moon were flesh,” he said more to himself than to me.

The single point of his brush was achingly soft where it defined my skin, traveling from elbow to shoulder and down to my breast only to turn and go back again.

He stole the cash from my purse.

No. You bought dinner with cash and left a ridiculously big tip.

We didn’t speak but it was a conversation nonetheless, an exchange of charged molecules, vibrations and wonder. Angled into the light, I arched my back for him, extended an arabesque across his knee, draped my hands shameless behind my head. His depth of concentration stilled my thoughts and made me feel cherished for the simple fact of possessing a body. Only later did I wonder if it was a case of an artist unable to afford his paint and canvases.

He probably drugged our drinks.

The horizon was a pale line of fire by the time his painting reached my inner ankle where it hooked under the wavelike curve of this afternoon’s tattoo. As if all evening he’d been patiently waiting to finish what he’d started. As I turned in a circle, arms in the air, his design spiraled up one side of my body and down the other. He asked me to put on the anklet, then had me keep my face averted as he took several pictures with his phone. Said he planned to transfer me to the canvas some day, that he’d send me a photo of the painting.

“Maybe I’ll buy I,” I said.

“With your sister’s money,” he said and we laughed.

His art and I one and the same, when we kissed he was careful as to where he placed his hands.

He was a con artist.

He was an artist.

Afterwards, energized and unable to sleep, I felt a curious presence in the air as if we were being watched but my sister remained sound asleep on the couch. If there had been eyes in the trees, well, it was too late now.

Jesus left well before the harp sounds of my sister’s ring tone sent her rolling with a groan off the couch. By then I had covered the evidence with long pants and sleeves, a turned up collar, was all packed for the flight home.

I woke to stamping and the tinkle of bells. Saw you dancing on the balcony, hands twisting in the air.

You must have been dreaming.

No, you must have.    

—Dede Crane

 

Dede Crane is the author of five books of fiction and co-editor along with Lisa Moore of Great Expectations, a collection of essays on birth. Her work has been shortlisted for the CBC literary prize, a Western Magazine award, the Victoria Butler Book Prize, the Bolen Book Prize and a CLA prize among others.  Her most recent book, a novel in stories, is Every Happy Family.  She lives in Victoria, B.C. with her husband, writer Bill Gaston, and their children.

 

May 132014
 

Photo on 2014-01-28 at 09.48

This is Donald Breckenridge’s brutal, sad memoir of his father dying. Stark and beautiful and full of our common humanity; pity, love, kindness, stubbornness, squalor and valor. The language is matter of fact, the only apparent artfulness is in the unconventional punctuation and, sometimes, the way the dialogue breaks up the sentences. There are two narratives: one works back and forth over the story of a life, two lives, father and son, and the father’s declining days; the other, more mysterious, follows Breckenridge to a diner, the subway, the train station. We get detailed accounts of conversations with the diner owner. We oscillate between donuts and staph infections, but by the genius of construction and understatement, horror and hopelessness accumulate. The word “love” isn’t thrown around, but the son patiently bandaging dabbing medication on those awful sores tells you more than words. You are fascinated, cannot turn away.

This is from a memoir/novel in progress, a new book (please read the NC interview with Breckenridge and two earlier pieces of fiction we’ve published here — links at the bottom of the piece), equal parts fiction and autobiography. This is the first autobiographical section.

dg

 

I asked the waitress for a chocolate donut and told her that I didn’t need a bag. She handed me the donut with a serrated sheet of wax paper folded over it, “That will be ninety cents,” and two napkins. I removed a dollar from my wallet and gave it to her. She rang up my purchase then handed me a dime. When I thanked her she told me to have a nice day. I pocketed the dime, pushed open the door and ate the donut while walking to the corner. I wiped my mouth with the napkins then dropped them and the wax paper into a trashcan before descending the stairs at the subway station entrance.

I was washing the dishes when the phone rang. “Can you get that?” A cigarette was burning between his fingers, “It’s not for me,” another one smoldered in the ashtray. Poker chips, two soft packs of Marlboro 100’s, wallet, magnifying glass, notepad, checkbook, beige coffee mug filled with ballpoint pens, and a worn deck of cards were crowding his end of the table. Three chairs, “Of course it’s for you,” with the brown vinyl cushions torn open, “it’s your birthday,” that leaked powdery chunks of yellow foam all over the floor. “So?” December sunlight filled the broad row of casement windows in the living room, “Why would they be calling here,” facing the tall trees, “if it wasn’t for you?” Brown paper grocery bags, empty cigarette cartons, five or six months worth of the Washington Post, beige plastic shopping bags overflowing with the blue plastic bags the Post was delivered in, glossy color circulars for Christmas, Thanksgiving, Halloween, Labor Day, Back to School, July 4th were piled on the floor. He tried sounding resolute, “You get it.” Pizza boxes stacked atop the microwave. My hands were submerged in warm water, “I’m busy.” Blackened chunks of rotten countertop surrounding the sink held puddles of suds. My sister hired a maid service to come and clean his townhouse twice a month but they quit a few years ago. My father got up, “It’s a robot,” and made his way into the kitchen. I turned to him while saying, “You can’t know that until you pick it up.” He was wearing flip flops and tube socks, jeans that were baggy at the knees and stained with urine from the crotch to the waist, an oversized grey cable-knit wool sweater pocked with cigarette burns, long wispy grey beard, an eye patch coated with dried mucus, and a Band-Aid that covered most of the large open sore near his right temple. “Someone is trying to sell me something.” I saw him, “You shouldn’t be getting those calls anymore,” once and sometimes twice a month during the last few years of his life. He cleared his throat, “They still call.” I washed the dishes and did his laundry, bought groceries, vacuumed the carpet, and occasionally cleaned the bathroom. “A hundred dollars says it’s not a robot.” Coffee grounds, dropped food, ashes, spilled milk, strands of pasta glued to the splintered linoleum floor. He had a distinctive smokers croak, “You’re sure about that,” that I still hear while recalling this conversation. I would open the window above the kitchen sink to get some air and frequently lingered there—especially in winter. “Absolutely.” The window overlooked a well-tended lawn, clusters of bushes and trees, a park bench at the foot of a towering Sweet Gum tree, and rows of two-story red brick townhouses constructed during the Second World War. A high-rise dominated the skyline and the faint drone of traffic from 395 always accompanied the view. Despite his grumbling, “We’ll see about that,” there was no mistaking the anticipation in his voice. He picked up the phone and said hello. I turned off the faucet then dried my hands with a paper towel. He told the caller that he had, muttered thanks and hung up. Tomato sauce was smeared on my elbow. “And?” He walked through the kitchen, “The phone company was asking about the yellow pages,” returned to his chair. “What?” He picked up the cards, “They wanted to know if I got the new one,” and began to shuffle them. I stood in the doorway and said, “Those assholes.” He turned to me with a deflated smile, “You owe me a hundred dollars.” I balled up the paper towel and tossed it in the trash. The garbage disposal was still working. Filmy water vibrated in the sink before being sucked down the drain.

I encountered the owner of the diner and an elderly waitress standing behind the counter. They were discussing the best place to display the sign for a new online delivery service. The owner greeted me like a long lost friend while handing me the sign, “You can order what you want on there.” I recognized the logo, “I’ve seen this advertised on the subway,” placed it on the counter and asked the waitress for a coconut donut then added that I didn’t need a bag. The owner proclaimed, “You can now order that on your computer through the internet.” I was taken by his enthusiasm, “That’s really great,” although I’ve never purchased anything, “I hope you get more customers that way,” except the donuts, “Your donuts are really great,” the food has never looked appetizing, “the best in the neighborhood.” Bleached color enlargements lining the walls above the counter are backlit by dim fluorescents and feature dozens of greasy dishes undoubtedly made with the cheapest ingredients available. The waitress handed me the donut with a serrated sheet of wax paper folded over it, “That will be ninety cents,” and two napkins. I removed the dollar from my wallet and handed it over while wondering if a purchase this small would make the minimum for free delivery. If I asked the owner that, even if he knew I was joking, it would only prolong our conversation. He proclaimed, “This will change the way my customers order food.” The waitress rang up my purchase then handed me a dime. When I thanked her she told me to have a nice day. I pocketed the dime then congratulated the owner while pushing the door open.

I removed the metrocard from my wallet and swiped it at the turnstile. A woman picked up her baby in the stroller and hoisted it over a turnstile. Another woman was pushing an old man in a wheelchair. They were headed toward the stairs leading to the Manhattan bound trains. A rowdy group of high school kids were on the platform yelling at each other and clearly enjoying the aggravation they were causing around them. All of the seats on the bench were taken—the West Indian homecare attendant eating a bag of BBQ potato chips, two old Asian women talking quietly, a teenage boy dressed in black with techno leaking out of his earbuds and two teenage girls in Catholic school uniforms engrossed in their cell phones.

In 1968 (the same year I was born and adopted) the doctors removed a small growth from the tear duct of my father’s left eye. Further tests revealed a massive brain tumor behind his nose. After being told of his condition, he overheard a group of doctors in the next room discussing his x-rays, and one doctor expressed surprise he was still alive, all of them doubted he would live more than a few years. He was 31. My father underwent a number of invasive brain surgeries over the next decade to remove those tumors. My brother and sister were born in ’76 and ’77; having two biological children with my mother while fighting for his life gave him the strength needed to defeat cancer. In the early 80’s he took part in an experimental neutron procedure to rid his brain of the tumors. The operations of the previous decade had taken an awful toll on him and the doctors were out of options on how to approach his cancer. At the time only three patients were willing to undergo this experimental procedure, of those three, he was the only one who survived.

When the donut was gone I wiped off the corners of my mouth with the napkins then dropped them and the wax paper into a trashcan before descending the stairs at the subway station. I removed the metrocard from my wallet and swiped it at the turnstile. The train arrived and the doors opened. It had been a long day and I was (finally) on my way home. I took a seat. I was going uptown to my job on 207th street. I was going to the Port Authority to catch a bus. I was on my way to JFK. Our flight to Athens was in three hours. I had to catch a train at Penn Station. The Chinatown bus left for DC every other hour. I was meeting my publisher for drinks at Grand Central. My corduroy jacket was too thin and I left my scarf at the office. They couldn’t start the reading without me. The subway ride to the bus that went to Laguardia would take an hour. I had to meet with the bank manager before 5 o’clock. The library book was overdue. I promised to mail all of these documents yesterday. I needed to take a piss so hopefully the train wouldn’t be delayed. I was late for my next appointment across-town and hadn’t called ahead. I should have brought a book. It was a warm spring evening growing dark and I wouldn’t get to Alexandria until early in the morning.

I would dab at the sores on his forehead with a paper towel that was soaked in rubbing alcohol before covering them with an over the counter ointment for Staph infections. “That hurts.” After searching the Internet I’d concluded that it was a Staph infection. The puss-filled lesions were black around the edges and gradually tearing through his broad forehead already scarred by repeated brain surgeries. “Does it burn?” The most familiar looking images of Staph infections that I found were from photographs of corpses. The sweet smell of rotting skin is stronger than cigarette smoke.  He looked up at me with obvious discomfort, “It tingles.” In the summer of ’04, a horn-like bump appeared on his forehead, instead of consulting a doctor and getting it removed, he simply cut it off with a pair of scissors.

Seated across from me were two teenage boys in blue tracksuits and running shoes, an Orthodox Jew with poor eyesight reading the Talmud, an old woman staring vacantly at the subway floor.

Cigarette smoke effectively mutes your sense of smell and it’s only hours after leaving a smoke filled environment that it returns. My sense of smell would come back on the bus, usually a few miles before we pulled into the Baltimore Travel Plaza, and although I knew what to expect, the stench of nicotine on my hair and clothes always embarrassed me.

IMG_0556

When you sleep time no longer exists. Sleep is the best relief for pain. Death is better but you cannot will yourself to death. The sores gradually burrowing into his forehead began as an ugly thumb-size wound that appeared above his right temple in the late spring of ’08. He refused to see a doctor, and the infection gradually spread from there. My father passed two kidney stones in the summer of ’08, alone and lying on a couch in his sweltering living room, with a broken air conditioner, no fan, and the windows closed. When I saw him that August, I begged him to go to the hospital, pleaded with him, cursed him, and ultimately failed to convince him to get any medical attention. A few years earlier my siblings and I attempted an intervention—to get him to give up his car, sell the townhouse and move into an assisted care facility—we only succeeded in hurting his feelings. “I think that means that it’s working.” He was tired of living and wanted to die but dying is hard work. “How would you know?” Understanding why someone you love wants to die isn’t the same thing as accepting that decision. “I don’t.” Standing by as my father continuously refused medical care while living in absolute squalor was one of the hardest things I have ever experienced. “Why don’t you go and see a doctor?” If you can go through your life without entering into this kind of agony, you may be short on experience, but you are very fortunate. “I’ve had enough doctors.” We were nearing the end of our very long thread. “Then tingles means it’s working.” I stood above him and applied band-aids to what became the lethal skull infection that killed him ten months later. I was completely helpless and tremendously grateful for all of the time we had together. My father lived far beyond everyone’s expectations. I was so afraid that he would die at any time, and my only regret, now that he is gone, was not lingering after saying goodbye. I never rushed out the front door but leaving him in that filthy townhouse after we embraced always made me feel unkind.

He would go weeks without answering the phone. I would call the fire department and ask them to check up on him and tell them to tell him to call me. I got so fed up with being unable to reach him, after the third or fourth time of having the fire department check in on him, that I took a Chinatown bus down to DC and woke him up long after midnight. The ringer was off because answering the constant barrage of telemarketing calls was a pain in the ass and he simply forgot to turn it back on. Getting those calls to stop was as simple as putting him on a do not call list. Surviving could have been as simple as making an appointment and taking a cab ride to a doctor’s office. His insurance offered fairly good coverage but getting him to care about his health was impossible. “Ok, doctor.” He was still smoking three or four packs of cigarettes a day depending on how many hours he slept. He would only leave the house to go to the supermarket. “It’s almost finished.” The ancient looking man with grey hair and a scraggly beard, eye patch, glasses with heavy black frames, brown windbreaker, white dress shirt, worn at the knees blue jeans, canvas sneakers dyed beige from nicotine slowly pushing a shopping cart through the Giant on South Glebe Road once a week. That was my father. Maybe you saw him there? He always paid with a check. His diet consisted of waffles drowned in syrup, black coffee, tall glasses of milk, candy bars, ice cream, occasionally canned vegetables, bananas, sometimes pasta, mashed potatoes, and grilled meat that would frequently begin to rot in the fridge before he got around to cooking it—unless one of his children found the souring Styrofoam packages first and threw them away.

The West Indian nanny feeding grapes to an unhappy child strapped in a stroller, the young Mexican mother with her two daughters wearing identical pink dresses and haircuts although one was a few years older and taller than the other, the West Africans standing around the metal pole having an animated conversation in French, a scowling Haitian teenager texting someone, the Dominican boy playing with a Spiderman action figure, an attractive brunette reading a paperback and showing plenty of thigh, two young black boys jumping on their seats antagonizing their distracted and clearly exhausted mother, an old drunk with his eyes closed and head resting on the window, the Chinese man slowly walked by playing something that sounded vaguely like Mozart on a bamboo flute and there was a lull in the noise as everyone took in his waltz-like refrain.

The neutron procedure worked and my father beat cancer although he lost an eye and his ability to smell. His marriage ended soon after, my mother had stood by him through some of the most difficult years of his life, but now found him changed physically and mentally to the point where she could no longer live with him. They split-up in ’83 and he moved from Virginia Beach to Alexandria for work. I joined him in his townhouse two years later, attended high school and lingered under his roof for another year before moving to New York City. My father never remarried, never dated, after being downsized in the early ’90s he never held another job, and rarely left his townhouse.

I grabbed a few pairs of socks and some underwear. Monday was our laundry day so my options were limited. A few clean T-shirts, a dress shirt, a pair of jeans, toothbrush, and the phone charger went into the backpack. A paperback copy of Théophile Gautier’s My Phantoms got tossed into the backpack—although I doubted I’d be able to read on the train.

Born and raised on a dairy farm in Oneida County, New York, my father was the third of six children. Photos from his teens reveal a very handsome and ambitious young man. He was the high school senior class president and the only one in his family to finish college. He earned a masters degree in mechanical engineering from the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He commanded a Swift Boat in Danang, Vietnam in ’69 -’70 and saw combat although he never talked about it. He was the cool sailor in dress whites and the decorated officer with a storied and distinguished career. He was a plainspoken dairy farmer. He possessed an intrinsic sense of decency and extraordinary tenacity in the face of impossible odds. He was an epic procrastinator. He had a terrific sense of humor. He never locked the front door to his townhouse. He was incredibly stubborn–pigheaded to the point of being a public menace. It was only after plowing into a DC Metrobus and totaling his car while driving legally blind on an expired license that he started taking a cab to the supermarket. My father wasn’t vain, and although he rarely acknowledged it, the drastic alterations to his physical appearance were extremely difficult for him to accept. Every look in the mirror—regardless of how diminished his sight or filthy the reflection—was a reminder of what cancer had taken from him.

I tried calling after purchasing the ticket—thinking he would be able to get off the couch, walk across the living room and answer the phone. Or maybe the phone was on the coffee table and he would be able to reach it. I wanted to tell him that I was on my way. I would be there as soon as possible.  It rang and rang as I crossed Penn Station then the line went dead. I tried again and finally gave up after a recording informed me that the person I was calling was unavailable, that I should try calling later. The TGIF was nearly empty. I ordered and downed a shot of Jameson but didn’t have time for another because the train to Washington was boarding.

Wake up around 8, have coffee and waffles, read the funnies, do the crossword, play a few games of Solitaire, Sudoku, then nap until lunch, nap after lunch, watch television, more Solitaire or left hand vs. right hand Scrabble, have dinner, watch the local and national news, Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy, sports or sitcoms then fall asleep on the couch around 10—nearly everyday for two decades. I walked to the supermarket while he napped and picked up a steak, some potatoes, and a container of mixed greens. I brought down a strawberry cheesecake from Juniors and a bottle of red wine. We always drank good wine together. If I’d known this was going to be his last birthday I would’ve bought more wine. Why hadn’t I forced him to go to the hospital? I could have just picked him up, tossed him into the back of an ambulance—strapped him onto the gurney and away we go. I could have prolonged his life. Everyone who loved my father tried to convince him to take better care of himself and now he is gone. A few bites of steak and half a helping of mashed potatoes, he barely touched his salad after drowning it in Ranch dressing and only drank half a glass of wine—it was a Saint-Chinian—but managed to eat a sizeable wedge of strawberry cheesecake and washed that down with a tall glass of milk. I finished off the wine and smoked his cigarettes with the filters torn off while we sat at the table talking and playing poker. My brother called while we were watching How I Met Your Mother to wish him happy birthday. He was 72.

Four months later he took a cab to the supermarket and fainted in an isle. He told me later that he was simply tired and needed to lie down. The manager called an ambulance. He spent three days in the hospital before he was released, took a cab home, made it up the stairs and collapsed on the floor. He lay on the carpet for two or maybe three days before a neighbor called to tell me that the newspapers were piling up on the porch, that he wasn’t answering the door, or the phone. Should she call an ambulance? Would it be okay to check on him? I told her to go in and that I would stay on the line. Instead she promised to call me back when she knew what was happening. I spoke to him after she got him onto the couch and he assured me that there was nothing to worry about, that I shouldn’t come down, everything was going to be okay.

I was lulled to sleep after Newark and woke up just as the train pulled into Baltimore. I could have been the only person in the car. The weirdly glowing vegetation that clung to the rocky embankments surrounding the empty platform and my reflection in the window gradually superimposed over a warehouse. We crawled by deserted loading docks, a staggered sequence of orange lights as the train curved through a tunnel, slipping by blocks of desolate row houses, theatrically lit graffiti adorning brick walls, running along a tall chain link fence topped with razor wire, a billboard glaring defiantly into the darkness, carried above empty intersections, through swaths of dark green, long white lights and patches of trees, flashes of suburban lawns, parking lots, illuminated vegetation glistening beneath streetlights, prefabricated condos, darkened strip malls just off the highway now adjacent to the tracks, red taillights vanishing into headlights casting onto rain-slicked roads, gas stations like small islands awash in cold fluorescents, empty intersections, darkened houses, churches, restaurants and racing over a large body of water while watching for a sign that never arrived.

When hailing a cab outside of Union Station I learned that drivers pick up two or three passengers going in approximately the same direction before leaving the station. Since the Metro closes at midnight and there is a shortage of cabs I shared the ride with a chubby Delta Airlines pilot who had been stranded at BWI due to a thunderstorm and a sleep deprived Army officer just back from Afghanistan. The officer, seated on my left, remained silent throughout the ride to Crystal City. The pilot was seated beside the driver and never stopped talking about how he had been inconvenienced by the weather. His car was in the long-term parking lot furthest away from the arrivals building at Regan National. He drunkenly apologized for parking so far out of the way, had he known that the storm was going to cause his flight to be diverted, had he known that he was going to take the train down from BWI in the middle of the night, had he known that he would have to take this ridiculous cab ride, had he known all of that he would have parked much closer to the airport. He wouldn’t shut the fuck up and when we finally reached his car he couldn’t get out of the cab fast enough. I was relishing the thought of kicking his ass until I realized that would have only prolonged this unbelievable delay. I asked the driver stop at the 7/11 closest to my father’s place so I could get cash out of the ATM to pay for the ride. It was two-thirty in the morning when I finally pushed open the door and climbed the stairs. My father was lying on his back between the couch and the coffee table. He had fallen while attempting to answer the phone. He was soaked in piss and shit. I picked him up and got him onto the couch, assuring him that I was there, and that everything was going to be okay. Would he like a glass of water? Yes. A cigarette? No. Would he like to take a shower and change his clothes? No.

 —Donald Breckenridge

Donald Breckenridge is the Fiction Editor of The Brooklyn Rail, co-editor of InTranslation, Editor of The Brooklyn Rail Fiction Anthology (2006) and The Brooklyn Rail Fiction Anthology 2 (2013), and the managing editor of Red Dust Books. In addition, he is the author of more than a dozen plays, the novella Rockaway Wherein, and the novels 6/2/95You Are Here, and This Young Girl Passing. He recently completed his fourth novel, And Then, and he is currently working on a new book and a one-act play.

 

May 042014
 

CaptureGiulio Mozzi via www.wuz.it

“I read Giulio Mozzi’s first book with real enthusiasm. What struck me most was his everyday language. Even when his subjects rely on metaphor, his words are plain, and so turn mysterious.”
—Federico Fellini

Giulio Mozzi’s This Is the Garden is an astonishing debut short story collection that English readers can now enjoy thanks to Open Letter Books. First published in 1993 (and winner of the Premio Mondello) and translated this year by Elizabeth Harris, these short stories all play in some way in the garden of the mind, the sandbox of introspection. Reminiscent of the work of Borges and Kafka, Mozzi’s psychologically acute, trenchant prose explores the self-conscious idiosyncrasies of the troubled mind. 

The story below is “Claw,” in which Mozzi imagines the later years of Yanez, the right-hand man of well-known Italian fictional pirate Sandokan. The once-infamous Yanez, known as the Tiger’s white brother, has now for years sat peacefully in his small, square, and white house, relying for subsistence and cigarettes on the daily visit of a woman from the nearby village. He sits in his small, square, and white house, smoking his cigarettes and looking meditative—but we do not believe he is meditating. The villagers react to the arrival of their “first real Englishman,” a threatening missionary who claims to be a saint sent by God. The villagers wonder how their own outsider Yanez will react. You can read my review of This Is the Garden by clicking here.

—Tom Faure

Capture

.

T

he house is small, square, and white. The roof is flat. The door, centered on the eastern side, is just a curtain with red and yellow flowers. The other sides have one square window, also centered. There’s no glass in the windows, just yellowing, loosely woven cotton rags nailed to the wood like mosquito netting. The house sits on a slight rise in the middle of the plain, and anyone looking out the windows could see a long way. Down the slope from the door, there’s a water pump. A leather razor strop hangs from a couple of nails in the pump’s wooden handle. A small washboard rests against the pump. The house has just one room. A hundred feet to the west, there’s a small shack for bodily functions. The house has a packed dirt floor. Two feet off the floor, a built-in shelf or bench runs along all four walls, interrupted only by the doorway. At the center of the room, there’s a wooden table, a single chair. A few things sit on the shelf: a bowl with a set of flatware, one fork, one knife, one spoon; a covered metal bucket with a curved handle and inside, a thick soup or mash; a basin with a few soap chips and a brush; a tiny, round mirror in a metal frame, a straight-edge razor resting on the mirror; a small rectangular basket with a lid, probably for linen or clothing; a rolled-up mat. On the table, there’s a white enamel pitcher with a blue rim and next to it, a slightly flared drinking glass, the bottom thick, rounded. The glass is cloudy, tinted pink. On one corner of the table, there’s a canister of cigarettes with a lighter. There’s a white man sitting on the chair. He has on khaki trousers and a light, collarless jacket, also khaki, but faded nearly white. He’s extremely thin: those clothes were meant for someone more muscular. The man’s face has a few deep lines. He doesn’t have a hair on his head. He could be fifty, someone who’s spent his life outdoors, but you can tell he’s extremely old because he’s so unnaturally thin. Another way you can tell his age: he barely moves. The man sits, facing the door, smoking. He’s not looking at anything in particular, or maybe he’s focused on the red and yellow curtain stirring just slightly in the breeze. The man sits rigid on the chair, left hand in his lap, right hand resting on the table, holding the cigarette, bringing it to his lips now and then. This man is Yanez, the Tiger’s white brother, and this ground where his house stands is far, far from any sea, in a part of India that appears on British maps as just a milk spot scratched with a few uncertain paths that could be swallowed up at any time by thriving forests or flooding rivers.

Once a day, in the morning, a woman comes from the village (which is close, just past the line of trees to the south), and she carries the bucket of food, and once a day, in the evening, she takes the empty bucket back again. Yanez has lost his teeth and his sense of taste; the bucket holds a milky broth with small bits of meat, boiled vegetables, rice. When he started eating only from the bowl, he gave the woman his metal plate but kept the fork and knife in case a large piece of meat needed cutting. Over the years, his throat has nearly closed. The woman also brings him soap and cigarettes when he runs out and sometimes a lantern wick or a piece of flint for the lighter. Sometimes the woman brings Yanez a shirt or a pair of pants, used, but still good enough to wear. She’s the only one who goes inside his house. Anyone could, but no one does. Yanez hasn’t asked to see anyone in years. For what the woman gives him, Yanez gives her nothing in return. When he dies, his few belongings will clearly go to her. But no one will live in the house—no one in the village can live outside the village. Yanez only leaves the house to fill the pitcher at the pump, or to wash his few clothes or to wash himself, pouring water over his body with the soup bowl; or else he’ll go to the small outhouse and relieve himself. To work the pump, Yanez must lean on the handle with all his slender might. Once a year, around the time of her wedding anniversary, the woman goes to Yanez’s house with her three sons dressed in their newest, cleanest clothes. She has her sons wait by the door, she pulls back the curtain, and Yanez looks at them a while. Years ago, there were two sons, and before that, one. Yanez looks at the young man, the youth, the child, and after a while, he smiles. Then the woman drops the curtain and sends her sons away. They’re healthy, handsome boys, and she’s a healthy, handsome woman—she hasn’t really changed with age. Yanez has never seen her husband. Years ago, Yanez went to the village by himself sometimes for supplies. The villagers knew who he was, but they never asked him any questions. The woman went to his house for the first time after they all realized no one had seen Yanez in nearly twenty days. She went once a week in the beginning; for years now, she’s gone every day. The two times she was in labor, her mother-in-law took her place, but didn’t go inside the house; the bucket of food she left outside the door in the morning was there by the door in the evening, empty. Yanez has given the woman two gifts: the metal plate, and on another occasion, his one book, a volume the size of his hand, three fingers thick, an English merchant vessel’s log of a voyage along the eastern coast of China.

The book was filled with small pictures: strange animals, strange plants, strange buildings, men and women with narrow eyes and strange clothing. The woman’s sons spent hours on boring or rainy days staring at those pictures, imagining all the strange and wonderful things he must have seen in his long, long life—this thin, silent man that people spoke of as a hero, a sea voyager, a great hunter of man and beast, brother in spirit to the Tiger. One day, before the youngest could even walk, the two older boys crept as close as they could to Yanez’s house and hid in the high grass and brush and watched Yanez leave his house with a torn shirt, the basin, the brush and soap. They watched him strain to pump a little water in the basin and wash the shirt, scrubbing it on the small washboard with the soap and brush. Then Yanez pumped a little more water, rinsed the shirt, and hung it over the pump handle to dry. They were quite impressed that he’d done this women’s work so easily, and they decided he could do anything at all. They never told anyone about their expedition and only admitted it to their little brother a few years later, after he swore a thousand oaths of secrecy. Their little brother knew he’d been made part of a great mystery, and he always kept his pledge.

No one knew what went on in Yanez’s mind. Some of the villagers thought he’d grown old and simple. Others thought he passed the time, in the absolute silence of his house, remembering his great adventures, his friends and brothers in spirit killed by accident or men, the thousand places where his name had been pronounced with reverence or rage, friendship or fear, love or loathing. When he first arrived from an unknown place and built his isolated, small white house, even then, Yanez was silent. He only said his name. And apparently, though he’d never been to this or any other nearby village, he knew his name would be enough for whatever he needed. And he needed little. He barely spoke, only if he needed something. When he still went to the village marketplace, he barely spoke a word. For years, the rumor had been that Yanez had died, but then he arrived in the village. The village boys imagined he’d taken refuge in this safe and tranquil place to plan his next great adventure. And they waited for him to tell them that they had to choose: either the safe, boring life of the village or the brief, glorious life of the hero.

But Yanez never told them. After almost a year of talking, meeting, stalling, the most spirited boys finally gathered up their courage and went to his house. They sat by his door and waited. Yanez came out almost at once, and then the boys spoke to him, taking turns, speaking passionately, for a long time. They recalled his great adventures, told him of their own desires to win glory in this life and honor in the next. Any adventure would do—it didn’t matter—it would be a glorious adventure, and they were ready for victory or defeat, because defeat at the hands of an overwhelming enemy would also bring glory on earth and honor in the heavens; they didn’t know their enemy, but they weren’t afraid; they’d fight anyone in his name, on the plains or in the mountains, in the rocky desert or the woods, even on the ocean that no villager had ever seen, but they knew it must be like a river with just one bank, and they weren’t afraid of any river or riverbank. Yanez stood in the doorway and listened, paying close attention to each boy, fixing his eye on the one who spoke, and when they’d all said their piece, and it was clearly his turn, the minutes passed in silence, and then he bowed stiffly and stepped behind the curtain. The boys spent a long time talking about this silent answer, what it could mean. Some boys started belittling Yanez, almost mocked him. Suddenly his race mattered. Others said, “The Tiger’s Claw has broken,” and they were sad. It took a few years—time for the village boys to become village men—before most of them realized what Yanez’s answer meant. The village was isolated, distant, and no one had ever seen an Englishman, but there still wasn’t a home without something made in England that had passed through a thousand peddlers’ hands. One villager, though quite suspicious, bought a sack of seeds from a bragging peddler, and it yielded thirty times the normal crop; from that year on, the children grew stronger. Some of the young men who longed to travel had gone off with peddlers to villages closer to the English, and they came back with stories of English medicines that cured almost anything and tools and machines that helped with every sort of labor. Who could resist the English when they brought such useful things? The village men wanted to consult with Yanez—he’d know everything about the English, everything good and bad—he’d fought them for so long and, really, was almost one of them, and the men wanted to know whether it was right or wrong to let the English take the village, even with fertile seeds, and strong medicines, and useful tools. The men talked a long while, but in the end they never went to Yanez—it was absurd, really—they could never keep something out that made life so much better. And then, around that time, a small caravan of peddlers arrived and brought the village its first real Englishman.

He was extremely robust, both muscular and fat, dressed all in black, with strange hair the same color you saw behind your eyelids when you closed your eyes and faced the sun. The Englishman’s hair shone in the sun, seemed almost to course with blood—not the dark blood of the body—a thinner, brighter blood. The Englishman could almost speak their language, but he used strange-sounding words, and once in a while, he’d go on and on when he was really saying something fairly simple, the same way children ramble when they’re first learning to talk. In the village square, the Englishman’s voice thundered that he was a saint of the English god, come for their own good, to save their souls from certain death, a death they’d all soon face, he insisted, if they refused his help. The village elders met for a long time, and finally they went to the square and told the Englishman they truly didn’t understand how a god, even the English god, could want or even allow men to die whom he hadn’t known existed until yesterday. The English saint laughed and said he admired the village elders for their intelligence and thought their answer was especially appropriate, coming from men who had understood the best ways of thinking when considering gods; but, he added, perhaps he hadn’t made himself quite clear, or the elders hadn’t quite understood. He asked permission to stay a while in the village, and they agreed. For a year, all the children, women, men, and elders listened every night while the English saint told stories about his god and the people to whom his god had first appeared. The English god treated his people (who weren’t English yet) like any good, stern father might treat his young son bursting with energy, both good and bad. When his people made mistakes, he punished them severely, and when they behaved, he rewarded them with his moderation. In the end, the English god wanted to teach his people a definitive lesson about the one true path, so he came down to earth as a man, yes, a real man who left his home and family when he was thirty and traveled around teaching the true path and living off the charity of others. Was he a buddha? the village asked. No, he wasn’t a buddha: he was god. An avatar? Something like that. A person could get along with this English saint; his topics were interesting and sparked debate. And he knew so many other useful things: how to cure certain childhood diseases, how to get an even larger yield from English seeds. The village men thought the god of the English saint seemed just and good, though they weren’t sure what to make of this idea of one god only; they might be willing to admit that he was a great god, and maybe—and this was extremely delicate—even a god more dignified and powerful than all the rest; but the English saint just kept insisting, ignoring all the evidence, that his was the one true god, and this, the village elders thought, was virtually insane; this pretense, this boundless pride was so out of character for a god who seemed so just, and kind, and good.

The English saint had been there almost a year, when much to everyone’s surprise, Yanez—who hadn’t left his house in years—showed up one night in the village square. He asked for the Englishman—so this was why he’d come. The English saint was astonished to see him, though Yanez didn’t say his name, at least in public, and somehow no villagers had mentioned it, either, so they’d kept Yanez hidden almost a year by just not saying anything. The English saint and Yanez wanted to be alone; they shut themselves away in the room of a house, and someone spying on them through a crack in the planks said Yanez dropped to his knees before the English saint, and stayed on his knees for over an hour, almost whispering—you couldn’t tell what he was saying—and the English saint listened, face attentive. You couldn’t see Yanez’s face, but his voice, that voice you couldn’t understand, that was the voice of a crying man, a man pleading to a vast superior, even pleading to a god. After a long time, the English saint and Yanez came out from the house, the saint in front, looking as if he could scarcely believe what he’d seen with his own two eyes; behind him came Yanez, his face, as always, revealing nothing. Together they went to Yanez’s house; meanwhile, in the village, people were making up stories; some were furious that Yanez had bowed down to this English saint, who maybe wasn’t so saintly after all; some said if the Tiger’s Claw welcomed the English saint into his home, the English saint must be good; but then others wondered if this applied to him and him alone, or whether all English saints were good (the English saint had said there were many saints like him spread all over the world, commanded by a saint of saints who lived in a very ancient city with a name that rolled beautifully off the tongue . . . Rome); and then what about the rest of the English—saint or otherwise—were they good, too? They discussed this in their homes; later, in the village square; finally, in the council of the adults and elders; and since they couldn’t send a delegation to Yanez and violate his privacy, they went directly to the English saint and questioned him in the square for an entire day, the people crowded all around him. They wanted to know—and the English saint could see the change right away—they wanted to know what his intentions were, not as a saint of his god or a saint in general, but as an Englishman, if he was there on his own or if he’d been sent by other Englishmen, and if anyone else, saint or otherwise, might be coming; quite simply, they wanted to know who he was, this man who’d made Yanez kneel down and cry and plead, this man who could break the Tiger’s Claw with just his presence, or better, who was so powerful, the Tiger’s Claw had come down to the village of his own free will, to be broken. But their questions served no purpose. The English saint still seemed like a good man, English, yes, so different from other men, but a good man all the same.

He’d lived in the village nearly a year and told wonderful stories. He’d taught the children new ways of doing figures. He’d taught the boys and men how to make English seeds yield more. He’d taught the women how to lower a child’s fever. He’d talked with the men and elders about the gods, about suffering and death. He’d laughed at births and cried at deaths, always in good measure. But he’d humiliated Yanez, they all said or thought. That isn’t true, someone stood up and said: Yanez humiliated himself. Following this day of questions came a night of talk, and in the morning they all said: Yanez humiliated himself. It was a surrender, not a defeat. The English saint could stay.

After his confession, Yanez barely slept. When it grew dark, he would unroll his reed mat and lie down, but he barely slept. He’d always been a light sleeper, but he slept often. Now he lay stretched out on the mat with his eyes closed, not sleeping, and this was like sitting and staring at the curtain moving slightly in the doorway, and really, if staring at the curtain was doing nothing, staying awake with his eyes closed was doing even less. He had only a short time to live, and he wanted to live every second of it, awake. He’d made himself a bet: if the priest absolved him and kept his confession, then god existed and was good and great, because only a true, and good, and great god could do great deeds with small men; and Yanez knew that he’d committed many large sins and pardoning them was a great deed, but above all, Yanez knew that even the smallest sin was enough for damnation, so even pardoning the smallest sin, and saving a soul from damnation, was a very great deed. If the priest refused to absolve him, then he had every reason to doubt the priest’s god. Yanez always knew the only one he could really count on was himself. He’d sailed a hundred seas, built and destroyed cities, been king and beggar, Portuguese and Oriental, loather and lover, friend and foe, only to find in the end that salvation comes not from what you take or lose, but from the gifts you’re given and keep forever. Yanez had been given three gifts: the friendship of the pirate Sandokan, the Tiger of Malaysia; the friendship of the woman who brought him food; and, maybe, the friendship of god. Sandokan had been dead for many years now, but their friendship wasn’t dead. They were friends together and friends apart, and now the great distance between them didn’t matter at all. Sandokan died young and handsome, as he should—a life like that couldn’t end with a frail body, a toothless mouth, a nearly closed throat, and soup trickling down your chin. This was Sandokan’s gift: the lesson that all lives are different, and each ends as it should. The woman was alive and gave Yanez almost everything, asking almost nothing in return; she fed him, honored him, named her sons for him. Yanez didn’t mind the woman’s devotion; he knew the woman considered this to be right because of what he was: an old man who needed her. Yanez knew the woman honored him for his age and for the wisdom gained with age. That’s why Yanez wanted to gain some wisdom, after so many years of life, because it was all he could give the woman in return for all her silent care. His desire for wisdom was the woman’s greatest gift. The English priest came just when Yanez realized that, for all his effort, wisdom was slipping away, because, quite simply, he wasn’t worthy: he’d wanted to live a thousand lives instead of one, the right life, his life. Perhaps the priest had the power to free him from all those superfluous lives, to strip him down to the least, the poorest. This power, perhaps the priest had it, and Yanez went to the village the day he felt strong enough and weak enough to find out. Now Yanez lies stretched out on the reed mat, awake, eyes closed, and he feels like a newborn child in a basket of rags who doesn’t know yet that he has arms, legs, a belly, and a back, who sees those limbs waving all around him without knowing that they’re his. Yanez grabs his left hand with his right; he clasps his hands, knits his fingers; he touches his face, his neck, his chest, his belly, and his thighs; he squats, hugs his knees, caresses himself, lightly kneads his lower back; he counts his toes, touches his hard soles, the backs of his knees; he hugs his shoulders, touches his throat, the back of his neck. He struggles to his knees, as he’s done only a few times by choice and as he was forced to do as a child. On his knees, almost without thinking, he prays, he gives himself.

Now he can die. When god’s claw decides to strike him.

—Giulio Mozzi, Translated by Elizabeth Harris

Giulio Mozzi was born in 1960 in the small town of Camira Vicentino in Northern Italy. He is the author of over two dozen books of fiction, poetry, and writing craft, and is credited with helping to launch the careers of numerous young writers in Italy. “The Apprentice,” a story from This Is the Garden, appeared in the anthology Racconti italiani del Novecento, edited by Enzo Siciliano for Mondadori Press. Mozzi lives in Padua.

§

harris

Elizabeth Harris‘s translations include Mario Rigoni Stern’s novel Giacomo’s Seasons (Autumn Hill Books), Giulio Mozzi’s story collection This Is the Garden (Open Letter Books), and Antonio Tabucchi’s novel Tristano Dies (forthcoming with Archipelago Books). Her prizes include a 2013 Translation Prize from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Culture (Rome), a Banff Centre Translation Residency, and a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant from the PEN American Center.

 

Apr 172014
 

Bookbinding header, color-001

This is the end, the final installment, the close of a wonderful adventure on Numéro Cinq, Robert Day’s eight-part serial novel Let Us Imagines Lost Love. For those of you who have been loyally following the numbers as they rolled out, month by month, I will not corrupt your reading of the last pages by over-introducing them. Let me say only that it contains a hilariously gory and explosive climax to the experimental blood lab plot in Berkeley (that puts paid to the hero’s ambitions in the medical field) and a last line that contains the word “plethora” (which was also at the beginning of the novel). Also the narrator’s old (as in first) girlfriend Tina, the one he could only get to take her clothes off over the phone, finally takes her clothes off in person. I will remind you only, as we reach the curtain, that the signs have been romantic, that in the present plot the hero has been anticipating the arrival of the great unrequited love of his college years, the artist Beth Brookings, who has a show opening in Kansas City.

You can now read the entire novel here (instead of clicking back and forth between issues).

dg 

Part Eight

The Silence of Blanks

 

The Incomplete Book of Dogs

—Will someone please do something about that noise? Said Professor J. Ronald Schwartz, stopping in the middle of a rhetorical digression about King Lear and how at one time they changed the ending so it would be happy. And how William Inge had done the same thing with Picnic. But what did we think about the ending of Martin Eden? Was it happy or unhappy? Or orderly? That’s when Ginsberg began howling. Nobody moved.

—Then I will.

He walked up the aisle and opened the door.

In bounded Ginsberg, howling, drooling, his nose in the air, looking for Pretty, at least for the essence of Pretty which was to be found on the clothes where she had been sleeping the night before now in Row R, seat 11, to the left of two Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority girls.

— Get off. Get off, screamed one of the Kappas. Nasty! Nasty!

—Go away! Go away! Screamed the other.

—He’s icky, screamed the first one as I carried Ginsberg past them, his ample penis protruding.

Outside, Ginsberg followed me across the campus. Not much further down the reel Benjamin Braddock will board a bus with Elaine Robinson on her way to the zoo, arriving at the monkey cage about the same time I climb the steps to my apartment.

—Ginsberg, get your nose out of Larry’s ass, said the fraternity guy who thinks I’m Larry.

.         

More than One Page Blank: Ursula

—Why are you here so late? Ursula asked me one night.

This was after she had gotten angry with Hazen over morte Eddie and he got angry with her over Ginsberg—all of it settled by my uncle one day in his office while I listened in the third person.

I was there to meet the pound truck, and after it was gone I stayed to study. I liked the quiet of the lab at night, and my uncle had said I could use his office. When I wanted to pull an all-nighter, I would go over to Mel’s for coffee.

I had not heard Ursula come in because she used the back door. I wondered if she was checking on me.

—Studying, I said.

She stood in the doorway.

—What?

Religions of the World, I said.

—Which ones?

—This week I’m reading about the Jews.

—And last week?

—Protestant Christians. For two weeks going back. Martin Luther.

—In the same book? They won’t like that.

She seemed to want to say something, but did not. I was sitting in a brown-leather reading chair my uncle used when not behind his desk. I thought maybe I should get up and offer it to her, but her look fixed me.

Earlier that day she had come into the OR as I was going to sew up a gash above the eye on one of the dogs that had arrived the night before. I had not noticed it at first and it had festered badly. I was doing my best to open the wound and clean it before I sutured it shut, but the dog—even under a mild dose of sodium pentothal—was making it difficult.

Ursula watched me; then, she took over and cleaned the gash and stitched it shut with ease. Her speed, her precision and the concern with which she did it were impressive. None of the vets where Hazen and I had practiced over the summer had exhibited such skill; the doctors we observed at the hospital were as quick and sure, but not more so. It had made me wonder.

—Are you a doctor? I asked from my uncle’s chair.

It was a way to break the silence.

—I have a Ph.D. in biology, she said, not looking away. From the University of Texas.

—Are you a doctor like my uncle?

Her look was steady.

—I was an apprentice surgeon in Poland at the end of the war, she said. Doctor Watkins does not know this.

—Why are you telling me?

I could not look at her the way she looked at me, so I would look down at my World Religions book. When I looked up she was still looking at me.

—There were in those days experiments, medical experiments. I was young. Not all is known by the history. There are secrets in the graves.

—Did you do the experiments?

For some reason, a dog in the kennel began to howl. Ursula waited for it to stop, then said:

—No. It was not known among them who I was. I was to them like you.

At night, as we are here now, I would come back to help those who could be helped without it being discovered what had been done. Most could not be helped. The next day I would say some had died and had been removed. What we now write as DOA. I saved my husband.

—You were married?

—He died later.

—In the war?

—Not in the fighting.

I sound to myself now more certain of my questions than I was. Between each, I would look at my World Religions book as if to find something there that would give me the nerve to go on, but in fact I could read nothing as intense as Ursula’s stare. But it is also true that I asked the questions, and that she answered them—and with the precision I had seen her suture the dog.

When I looked up one last time she was gone. I waited to hear the back door open and close. I wanted its sound to reassure me that she had been standing in the doorway, and that all she had said, and all that I had said, was not imagined.

I did not hear the back door open or close. When I left later that night I looked throughout the lab and into the dog room, but could find no one.

Last fall, before I began getting packages without return addresses, I received a letter from Hazen saying that Ursula had died and that her will stipulated that all the funds from her estate were to be used to establish internships at the lab in my uncle’s name, Hazen’s, and mine. This does not seem imagined.

 

The Small Book of Prattle

—Do you have a favorite?

It was late one Sunday morning. My sister had come to my apartment because she wanted to talk about Lillian. And about what was said by Gerhard the night I stopped over for a drink. And by me. This is the third time Elaine has tried to have this conversation, but each time she cannot find what she wants to say. In the meantime she is looking at me on my plasma television.

—That would not be fair, I said, turning myself off.

—Do I know any of this spring’s. . .

—Group?

—“Group” will do.

—Yes.

—Has Laura made it?

—She’s not married.

—How about Melinda? She’s married. I see her on the Plaza.

—She is from my past, I said. I want wives from my future. I want it to be morning in America.

—And when you have a history with them, you drop them.

—Do you want to talk about Hazen? I said.

—No.

—About what Gerhard had to say?

—Yes and no. Maybe.

—To Hazen as well as Gerhard?

—Yes. Maybe.

We began one of our silences into which I am remembering:

—We don’t prattle in this family, our mother would say. We talk. Even your father talks, just not much. Except to himself.

It was one of the words for which she provided a context. Otherwise, she would recite the three words she’d bring home from her job that day with no definition, nor any connection to what she would be doing after work: cleaning garden radishes while saying discern, fortuitous, lamentable, using her dictionary in the (not quite) random way she had advised us to do. It was a five-day-a-week course in which Elaine and Steve were also enrolled, but they cut all the classes. Erudition, penultimate, multitude, and then as she’d put her Mogen David back in the ice box: enigmatic, phalanx, aphorism.

—They will be sorry, my mother would say. The more words you know, the less you prattle. And the less you prattle the. . .

But she never finished the sentence, not that I know of anyway. And over the years it became a mantra to gently mock her.

—Would it have been “. . .the more you. . .,” I said to Elaine, or “. . .the less you. . .?” One of us had to break our silence.

She looked puzzled.

Prattle, she said.

—How about we prattle on about Lillian and Gerhard—and even Hazen?

—I’d be delighted, she said.

.

The Death of Ears

And it came to pass that I explode a heart.

—Cover for me Saturday, said Hazen. I’ve got a bitchin’ date.

—Sure.

All that spring we had been practicing with the pediatric heart-lung machine. Usually, both of us were there to hook up the dog (Doctor Evans did the final attachment of the tubing to the heart), turn valves, read gauges, and throw switches. However, Hazen had done it by himself a few times, and so had I. If you planned ahead, it was easy.

—Doctor Norman Shumway will be arriving tomorrow morning, said my uncle on Friday. He’s the Stanford surgeon who might be the first to do a heart transplant.

From time to time we had had celebrated physicians and scientists stop by the lab to observe us, not for experiments like the hamster/hair spray project, but for the heart-lung machine and the intestinal blockage experiments. Also, we had doctors visit us from the granting agencies with whom my uncle worked. As far as I could tell, they were impressed with our efforts. My uncle was considered a leader in the field of pediatric medicine, and he had gathered around him research scientists of national and international stature. It never occurred to me that in the eyes of our distinguished visitors Hazen and I were lumped among the elite. My uncle and Doctor Reed must have picked the finest premed prospects from around the nation to begin their apprenticeship program with the University of California.

—Will you be going into pediatric surgery yourself? Doctor Shumay asked me when he came into the lab that Saturday morning. He was early. My uncle had not arrived, and I had just opened the lab. I needed to bleed one more dog to have a double reserve of blood for the test run.

—I’m not sure, I said.

I had gotten skilled enough with the techniques and implements of surgery to work quickly. Doctor Shumway might have mistaken me for a student already in medical school. They, too, would come by the lab from time to time, forming a phalanx behind their professors.

—I will be joined today by four of my students, said Doctor Shumway. I would like you to meet them. Your uncle has told me about you. I understand you are from the Midwest. One of my students, Doctor Bacon, is also from the Midwest. The University of Chicago. She will do well. The others are also going to be very fine surgeons. Maybe we could all have lunch afterwards. I suppose you understand what great contributions your uncle has made to pediatric medicine over the years. You could not do better in your life than to emulate him.

I sensed that perhaps my uncle had told Doctor Shumway of my hesitation when it came to committing to a medical career and that Doctor Shumway thought he might do my uncle a favor by including me among his surgical residents. For all he knew, I, too, had a fine education from the University of Chicago and could not make up my mind between being a world-class biochemist or a celebrated pediatric surgeon.

—You have met? said my uncle when he arrived. Dr. Evans was behind him.

—We have, Conroy. Your nephew has gifted hands and long fingers. He ties his knots with great skill. If he must choose between Chopin or being a surgeon, I am not sure which I would choose for him. I like Chopin very much. That’s the Polish in me.

—Is Hazen here? asked my uncle.

—He’s off today, I said.

My uncle frowned.

—Is there a problem?

—Not at all, said my uncle. There is usually another lab assistant here, but we can run the demonstration without him.

—We’ve done it before, I said.

My uncle and Doctor Shumway went into his office. When I finished bleeding the dog, I carried it over to the incinerator. Then I got the dog we’d be using for the test run. I selected a good-sized mixed breed, part lab, part something-else. The part something-else had given it huge, floppy ears.

It is clichéd language that allows you to hide yourself from the parts of yourself you don’t like. I did not know that then. I had not grown “callous.” I was not “hardened;” I had not “come to grips” with the “reality of the situation;” I did not know about “the moment of truth.” What you grow over time is a protective coating of aphorisms and weary triteness. A patina of self-corruption. It works. At least it sells. I should know. Language is the best way to lie to yourself.

When I picked a dog for the Blood Factory or heart-lung experiment I was careful with it. I would pat it as I put it under. At the end, and just before it would go out, I would give it a name. It’s OK Amos, I would say, and rub the dog on the top of its head. It’s OK Buster. It’s OK Jackson. It’s OK Ears, which was the name I gave the half lab that morning.

At first it was not a considered procedure, nor a sentimental one. Had Hazen been able to read my mind, he would not have wanted to call Doctor Disney or Doctor Keane, although he once asked me about it.

—How do you know that’s the dog’s name? he said.

—I don’t.

He looked at me. Then he looked at the dog. For a moment he didn’t say anything, then:

—Ready?

—Yes.

—How many bags?

—Four.

—Three.

By the time I got Ears on the table, a number of young doctors had come into the OR. A couple of them were examining the heart-lung machine. Like Doctor Shumway, they took me to be more important than I was, and asked me technical questions about the oxygenation of the blood and the flow rates. The flow rates I knew because I had heard Doctor Evans talk about them, but in answers to other questions, these doctors got a version of “sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t.”

—Ready? Said Doctor Evans as he came into the OR with my uncle and Doctor Shumway.

—Yes, I said.

I had opened the chest cavity. Since these procedures resulted in the death of the dog, there was no need to perform them in sterile conditions. I was wearing lab clothes; everyone else was dressed in sports coats and slacks. The woman from the University of Chicago was wearing a gray pants suit and pearls: tall, tailored and elegant.

There was a small set of risers arranged opposite the surgical table where some of the doctors were standing; others were beside the table. The doctor from Chicago was next to the heart lung-machine studying the gauges. She had a small notebook—perhaps a duodecimo, now that I think of it—into which she made entries.

After Doctor Evans hooked the tubes into Ears, I also moved behind the heart-lung machine: There were switches to throw and valves to turn and specific pressures to be achieved. There was a temperature gauge to check. A heart-lung machine is a contraption of plumbing, a medical version of Thor. In spite of its name, it is designed to keep blood from flowing into the heart or lungs during surgery.

Arteries and Veins. Red valves for arteries, blue valves for veins. Arteries and veins. Red and blue. One of the first things Hazen and I had learned was that the vein brings the blood to the heart, the artery takes it away from the heart. We had to learn this distinction, not only because we used arteries to bleed the dogs, but because when we turned on the heart-lung machine, the blood had to circulate through it the same way it circulated through the dog. One lever to open the valves for the veins (blue), one lever to open the valves on the arteries (red). Like battery terminals, they were clearly labeled—in fact, I had put a red plus on the artery lever and a black negative on the vein one.

I did not confuse the red lever with the blue lever when Doctor Evans told me the pressure was high enough and the reservoir of blood warm enough to start the procedure: The mistake I made was to turn the levers in such a way that the blood was being pumped from the reservoir into the dog through both the vein and the artery tubes.

The pressure gauges were not sensitive enough to immediately show the problem—although I could hear the pump straining. I looked at the gages; beside me the doctor from Chicago was taking notes. I looked into the cavity of the dog. Doctor Evans was saying we should watch the heart as the new blood passed around it from the reservoir.

Everyone leaned forward. The dog looked puffy. Behind me I heard the pump shudder. Ears exploded. Two plastic tubes whipped around like loose garden hoses. I grabbed one just as it swept past Doctor Shumway. The elegant doctor from Chicago pulled the plug.

.

Sunday

Beth’s show opens in six days. There is a private reception next Saturday night. This week’s list, like last week, is a folded blank. However, in my newly concentrated mind I know that between now and Beth’s show I have: Rosetta; a curator for lunch; a medical test to pass; and a trip to Lowell with my sister. In order to lighten my load, I have turned myself off on the wall and stopped reading Chekhov.

—What have you bought? I asked.

Elaine has found me in Barnes and Noble. It is open Sundays after ten. Melinda has not been in, but her friend has. Elaine has met me there by accident, saying as she sat down: do you come here often?

The Book of Literary Angels, she said. Half price. Did you do it?

—No.

—I thought so. Have you seen my daughter? She was to meet me here. I am late.

—I have not. Should I leave?

—Better that you stay. I was going to bring her by later, but now that your God of Chance—what’s his name?—has smiled on us. . . .

—Has she had her abortion?

—You can be very direct, can’t you?

—I need to know my role, I said.

—She is going to keep the child. The sonogram shows a girl.

—And a name?

—Not yet. Any suggestions?

—“Daisy,” I said. “Sarah.” “Anna.”

—There are reasons, aren’t there? Elaine said.

—No.

—I thought so.

—Will she marry?

—That is to be decided.

—Is she in love?

—That, too, is to be decided.

My sister went for her coffee. In the meantime, I spotted Lillian in the travel section.

—To share, Elaine said as she came back with a latte, two chocolate biscotti and a brioche.

—Lillian is here, I said.

—She will find us, my sister said. But first I want to know why you don’t think I’m the one who has been sending you these mysterious packages.

On a recent drive to Lowell Elaine had tried to convince me that one of two people was sending me the paraphernalia of my past: Either Hazen or Beth. On our way back she added herself. When I got out at Ben Franklin, I added myself.

—Name the “stuff,” I said.

—Is this a test?

—Yes.

—The keys to the car.

—Keep going.

—The Book of Ta-Bid.

—More.

—The John the Baptist wind-up doll. How am I doing?

— You have a spy in Rosetta, I said. I still think I’m the one.

—I forgot the Harrison Award.

—OK, you’re the one. But it was Humbolt, not Harrison. And it had a return address.

—Now I think you are, my sister said. You’ve collected it all over the years and you’re mailing it to yourself because you don’t have anyone who will send you Care packages.

—You could have done the same, I said.

—Yes.

—Would you tell me if I asked you?

—No. Maybe. Yes. Why don’t you ask me? she said.

—Perhaps they are Cosmic Hi-Signs from Beth, I said.

—Is it spelled Hi or High? I’d like to know after all this talk about them. What are they?

—Smoke signals between imagined lost lovers, I said. Spelled either way. Cosmic knowing.

—Then it’s Beth, said Elaine. Which means you’ll go to the reception.

—Yes.

 —I didn’t think so.

In a moment Lillian will join us and we will talk about whether she should buy my Bike Trips in the Dordogne (on sale and so long out of print I am surprised it is still around), or Private Rooms of Rome (which I also did long ago). I advise Lillian to buy the latter. Elaine now suspects I did the Bike Trips and says so: Then, while we finish our coffee, the two biscotti and one brioche, Lillian gets to hear her mother and her uncle prattle on the way we do. I don’t think she was impressed.

As I stand to leave, I observe that Marie Antoinette never said let them eat cake.

 

Tina and Pretty in Kansas

It was early summer when Pretty and I returned to Lowell. My father was sicker and my mother grim. Every week we took him to the hospital at the University Medical Center for treatment.

I got a day job at Hallmark sorting mail and by night ran the movie projector for Al Roster. We sold the garage to Bob Snow, but didn’t tell my father; we needed the money for medical bills. The deal was that Bob Snow could not do anything until after my father died.

Some evenings we’d take him to his shop and he’d sit among his tools and work benches. Other times we put him in the front yard by his globe.

—When I planted that tree, he said, pointing to the Christmas tree, it was Elaine’s height.

My father died the same week Pretty gave birth. She had four puppies, I gave one (a girl) to my sister as a wedding present, one to Bob Snow to hang around the garage, and two were adopted by neighbors. My sister’s looked like Pretty; the rest looked like Ginsberg. As does Precious.

At the end of the summer I put my mother’s affairs in order and drove to Emporia to finish college. As my mother liked Pretty, I left her for company. I drove home every weekend.

When I got to Emporia, I stopped by Hulga’s to see if Bottle James and Tina were there, and to see if I could get a room. I figured it would take two years to finish college. I’d study history. Real American History.

Hulga wasn’t happy to see me because of what had gone on between Tina and me, but she was too worldly and practical not rent me a room. Bottle James was not coming back; the garage apartment was mine. I put my dictionary in the same place: albeit, patina, denouement.      

—Bottle James left these for you, Hulga said.

It was John the Baptist and the Last Supper tablecloth.

         

Emporia seemed much the same. It should have been drab compared to the sunshine and vistas of the Berkeley Hills and the rambunctious aura of San Francisco. There was no one in Emporia for me like Hazen or Beth—or my uncle. No City Lights Bookstore. No famous poet to think I am going to be a doctor. No Sather Gate. No great bay sparkling from one horizon to another. The bars in Emporia had names like: Dew Drop Inn. The Pool Room Tavern. The Golden Cue. But it wasn’t all bad. There is a painterly light in Kansas that has its beauty. In the fall and winter, especially.

—I want you to make love to me, said Tina when we finally met.

We were sitting in her room; her mother had gone out. The other boarders had not yet returned for the semester. She was on her bed. I was in a chair.

—Are you pregnant?

—Yes, she said. I want the child to be yours.

—It doesn’t work like that. Trust me, even if I’m not going to be a doctor.

She was lovely in a way I had not thought of her before. Taller than I remembered. There was something to her breathing—deep and regular—that was compelling.

—I’m not angry with you any more, she said. I’ve gotten over that. I’m not angry with Bottle. I’m not angry with myself. I’ve gotten over everything. I want to keep my baby. I’ve told my mother. I’ve told her it is not yours. I will raise it. I want it to be yours. And I want you to make love to me.

—I don’t understand.

—You don’t understand how to make love? she said, and smiled. I will teach you. You won’t have to go to the garage and call me.

—In what way will your child be mine?

She leaned toward me. She put her hand on my knee. I wonder if I could have loved her if we had not been who we had been before this moment. I remember thinking she had leaped beyond me. Her past had become a part of her the way mine had not. Like my sister she was ahead of me. It was more than the fullness of her beauty that I saw, although I saw that. She got up.

—I will give the child your name, she said. If she is a girl, it will take one form; if a boy, he will have your first name as a middle name.

She undid the buttons of her blouse. She took it off and put it on the chair by her desk. She sat on my lap.

—I will come to your room at night when I am lonely. Sometimes I will want to make love. Sometimes not. I will decide. Do you understand?

—Yes.

—I have a grandmother in Atwood and I will have my baby there. If Bottle comes back he is not to know where I am. My child and I will live in Western Kansas until she is old enough to go to college. Do you understand?

I could not think of anything except her beauty. She was unbuttoning my shirt. She leaned forward and kissed me on the forehead.

—Yes.

—You are not to come and see me. Even when I return here. Do you understand?

—Yes.

She had gotten off my lap and was standing in front of me. The late afternoon sun was coming through her window. She pulled the shade diffusing the light. She undressed, and as she did, she did an imitation of how I had talked to her on the phone, making an imaginary handset with her thumb and little finger.

—Now, she said, unzip your jeans and slip them down over your hips. Are they down over your hips? They are? Now push them down to your knees. What color are your panties?

Her child (my child) must wonder at her name.

.

Monday: A Sestina of Stanzas

I have been to my Blank apartment. Usually, I stay only long enough to place a gift from the previous Wednesday. Today I stay and look: Bottles of wine. Small Greek Vases. A Portuguese pitcher. Shelves of Better Cheddar. Coffee table books and their tables. Motifs to be photographed. Add five more such apartments and mine becomes its own chapter in A Sestina of Stanzas: Small Apartments and the Poetry of Living. The buyers would become erudite learning the Italian of the title. Molto bene.

There is a curious feeling standing in a room designed to be lived in but is not. Yes, yes—a tomb of one’s own, as if the slipcovers from my mother’s davenports had metamorphosed over the entire room. But there is something else: A silence not like others. The absence of the past. The absence of all the tenses, of all the ways time is cut and pasted and shuffled. No clock bongs. I stood there thinking I am not.

.

A One-Page Blank: The Studebaker

It was maroon. Two door. There was joke in those days that you could not tell if a Studebaker was going forward or backward because the front and the rear were streamlined. It was still in the garage when my father died.

—We had to sell it to get you out of the hospital, my mother said.

—I thought it was Steve.

—That’s right. Steve. We came home from the University Medical Center with him on the bus. Your father walked to the garage until he made a deal with Bob Snow on a car. I never told him about the money.

—What money?

My mother repeated words but not stories.

—Conroy sent me money.

—To pay bills?

—For the car.

—The Studebaker?

—No. That was gone. We’d see it driving around with the top down and I got so I couldn’t look when it passed by. Your father courted me in that car. He was so pleased when he bought it back and rebuilt it. But. . .

My mother seems to have lost track of what she was going to say. She went over to my father’s workbench and looked at his tools, touching some of them. We had sold Bob Snow everything. The Studebaker included. She got a work rag and tried to rub out a burned place on the wooden back plate of the bench. She went over to the Studebaker and dusted the hood.

—What car? I asked.

—Your Ford.

—I thought that was a trade. Something about work he was doing for Bob Snow.

—It wasn’t enough to pay for the Ford, she said. I put in a hundred from Conroy.

—And when he bought back the Studebaker?

—That too. Only then it was money I’d saved.

—Coins in the Mogen David Jars?

—Yes.

—Did he. . .?

—Both times he thought he’d gotten a good deal. Why not let a man think that? Good deals are important to men.

When my mother turned to look at me, I would see that look later in the portrait I gave Elaine that had been hanging in the hallway to her bedroom.

—It runs, I said, going over to the Studebaker.

Its top was up. I unhooked the latches and pulled it back. I opened the passenger-side door.

—I don’t want to, my mother said.

—You sure? I can take you for a drive.

—I’ve been sitting in it now and then. I’d rather leave it at that.

By the time my father had finished refurbishing the Studebaker, he was too weak to drive. One day after work that summer I stopped by the shop, parked my Ford, and drove the Studebaker the rest of the way home, honking as I came down Lowell. My father was sitting by his globe. My mother came out of the kitchen, wiping her hand in a dishtowel. We helped my father get in front and she got in back. I drove down 52nd, then up Newton past where Bones McCall and I shot baskets and where Elaine and I had stood watching the garage on fire. I took a left toward the Plaza and drove all the way up one side of Brush Creek and back down the other side. As we got close to home, my father said.

—My turn.

I pulled into the high school parking lot and got out. I helped him around to the driver’s side. I got my mother out of the back and she sat beside him in front. The top was down. Off they went. My mother waved her hand in the air.

I walked home.

         

Tuesday

I have called Rosetta and asked her come on Wednesday, providing she can swap with my sister. I did not call my sister to make those arrangements.

—Hello.

—Rosetta says you want to swap. Fine by me. No Wednesday wife?

—I’m going to stand her up, I said.

—Better to call and cancel, she says. Especially if it’s Muff.

—I don’t call, I said. Beside it’s my motif to walk away. How about we go to Lowell instead?

—If you promise you’ll see Beth.

—I’ve been seeing her every day for years.

—That’s not what I’m talking about, she said. That’s not real.

—It is to me.

In today’s mail there came, on a single sheet of paper, an addendum in a Medieval Script an addendum to The Illuminated Manuscript of Ta-Bid, to wit:

.

The Voices of Tom Lehrer and Allen Ginsberg

And who so ever shall cometh to the No Name Bar 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, and the Muzak of Montovani shall drink the waters of Olympia beer and be cured of whatever fucking ales them. And the voices of Tom Lehrer and Allen Ginsberg shall be heard throughout the land.

There was a return address.

         .

Topics and Questions for Discussion:

1. What was said when Uncle Conroy met with Ursula and Hazen?

2. Will the Studebaker be parked in the driveway when Elaine and I drive to Lowell? Will Beth be with us?

3. What have Elaine and Hazen been e-mailing about? Why don’t I ask? Should I?

4. What did I say to Lillian and Gerhard about Sidney Poitier, marriage, love, and friendship?

5. Were our parents in love like:

          A. Hazen and Beth.

          B. Gerhard and Elaine

          C. Elaine and Hazen

          D. Aunt Lillian and Uncle Conroy

          E. Fill in the blank:_________________________

          F. None of the above.

6. Will I go to the reception? Or have I already been?

. 

Conroy Watkins, MD

The landlord thought I was going to run out on the rent, so he was standing at the door the morning I was leaving.

Before that Pretty had jumped on my bed and barked out the window at you walking down Durant in painting smock and Jeans. Clodhoppers, as you called your shoes. The bandana ribbon was yellow. When Pretty barked, you looked up and stopped.

—You go someplace else and cause trouble, the landlord said. And take the rest of these hippies with you. And that dog. I’ve had enough of that dog. And the other one, too. Dogs fucking in my building. I won’t have it.

I had given up keeping Pretty and Ginsberg apart and they had “hooked up” in the hallway outside my door.

—Here’s your money, I said.

He looked at it; I had given him two-weeks’ worth which was a week more than he was due, but I figured because I was leaving before the end of semester it was not going to be easy to rent the room.

—Maybe you’re not a bad sort after all, he said. Let me check the room.

—Sure, I said.

I knew he had been in it before. The place was clean, and the only thing that I did that was against his rules was run my hot plate to warm up soup my aunt would give me. That, and keeping Pretty. Well, there was Jo.

—Maybe you’re not so bad, he said again as he came out.

When I went downstairs you were still there. I had Pretty on her leash. Ginsberg was howling from the steps of the fraternity house where he was being held by Elaine Robinson’s look-alike husband-not-to-be. I knew you wanted to say something but did not. I walked away because I understood there was nothing I could say into your silence. You must have noticed I did not look back.

Pretty and I caught the bus to the lab. Because she was wearing her red bandana she was something to look at. When we got settled in the backbench seat, she barked once and sat down.

—I’m ready, I said to my Uncle when we got to the lab.

I had told him I would be leaving. Over the year I had paid off Hazen for Austen and saved enough money for a plane fare home. The flight left from San Francisco, but for an extra ten dollars, I could catch a commuter connection out of the Oakland airport, and that way I wouldn’t trouble my uncle. He reached over and patted Pretty.

—She’s one of ours, I hear.

—She is.

—So was Pounce, he said.

—I learned that, I said.

—I’m sorry it didn’t work out for you, my uncle says. It might work out for Edmond. I think he’s made up with Ursula.

—Yes, I said.

—You would have been the better medical man, my uncle said.

—Thank you.

—You’re better at tending to people. Edmond will be better at taking care of the machines that take care of the people and that is probably the wave of the future, but you’re better with people. I can see that.

—Except for cars, I guess I’m not good with machines, I said.

—Don’t worry about it, my uncle said. Medicine’s an art. I’ve made it my life to use various sciences in my research, but all I want my fellow doctors to do with my work is to use it in the practice of their art. Like a painter will use different techniques. Like that girlfriend of yours. Did I tell you…

—She’s Edmond’s girlfriend.

—I didn’t know, my uncle said. I thought. . .

—You were about to say, I said.

—Yes. We’ve decided to let her do a mural for the wall where you come into the hospital.

—She’ll do a good job for you.

— You know where I mean? That blank wall just as you come in.

—Yes.

There was something more my uncle wanted to say but did not. I looked at him. It occurs to me now that he was to me someone we may not have in our lives anymore: part tribal chief, part friend, part deeply aged grandfather who does not even know the nature of the relative to whom he is speaking. It was not because of my uncle’s great fame that I always felt as if I were in the presence of a great man. But I cannot name what there was about him that made me feel that way. Even in his hesitancy, I did not feel him lacking. He could not fail, not because of what he had accomplished, but because of who he was. There is no costume for that.

—We should leave, he said.

He went into the hall and asked Ursula for a portable dog cage.

—What time do you have to be at the airport?

—By six. There is plenty of time. It’s the Oakland airport, you know. Not San Francisco.

—We would have taken you over, he said.

—I know, but this is simple.

—Lillian would like to see you off. I’ll call her so she can meet us there.

—Fine, I said. May I keep the dog in your office a few minutes? I want to say good-bye to somebody, and I’d rather not put her back in the kennels.

—Of course..

—Stay, I said to Pretty, who sat down and barked once.

I didn’t have anyone to say goodbye to. I might have gone to Mel’s for a cup of coffee. Or I might have gone into the hospital and told a few people there that I was leaving. But they weren’t friends. I just wanted to get out of my uncle’s office; maybe if I gave him some “space” he would be able to tell me what he wanted to.

I walked across the parking lot. Austen was there. By now Beth was in class. Hazen had come and gone from work. I hadn’t told him I was leaving. It seemed more melodrama than I wanted.

I went into the hospital. Without my lab clothes, nobody recognized me. I stood for a moment in front of the blank wall.

Then I walked back across the parking lot to the lab. The sun was out and it was bright and cool. You knew somewhere there was music in the air. I stopped at Austen. I fished in my pocket for my set of keys. I got in and started the car. No bad values. I moved the steering wheel back and forth. A pretty girl sees a young doctor and his assistant. There is something Hazen says I do not hear and it is better that way. Stripers are in the trunk. I double park to get my mail. You drive home and I catch the bus. We take Earl to the hospital in the rain.

A guy on a Cushman Eagle circled me once, let go of the handle bars and put his thumbs up. I am on the Golden Gate Bridge heading to the Shrine of Ta-Bid. I put my thumbs up as well. “Help Me Make It Through the Night” is playing on the radio. Take a ribbon from my hair. I turned off the engine, got out, touched Austen on the hood, put the keys in my pocket and walked over to the lab. When I got there, Ursula had the kennel for Pretty and my uncle was putting her in it.

—Goodbye, I said to Ursula. I don’t think you liked me but you were fair to me.

She smiled. My uncle looked up. I hoped my honesty hadn’t disturbed him.

—She’s been with me since Galveston, he said. She’s the one who brought the turtle to you.

—I didn’t know that.

—You would have made a fine doctor, she said.

 —Thank you.

—So much for sentimental good byes, said my uncle. He shook his head.

.

 Wednesday

—When a woman comes for me today, I said to Rosetta, tell her I had to go the medical center. And that I’ll meet her at her office later about the Painter’s Room. She’ll know what I mean.

—You going with your sister to that old house of yours, said Rosetta. Why you think I need to lie about that, I don’t know. And what if this woman that comes here is one I clean for. What am I going to say then? You should not live such a mixed-up life. Your sister tells me you know that bum that’s a fireman in the creek. What kind of a life did you live to know somebody like that? You get straight with the Lord on your way out the door. That way you’ll be straight with Him if you have a wreck. The way your sister drives, it’s a wonder half the Plaza isn’t dead.

Rosetta is right about my sister’s driving. I was thinking about aunt Lillian and being “squished like a beetle” as we were leaving the environs of Rio Rosette and I must have a grin on my face because Elaine said:

—What’s funny?

—I can’t tell you. But I want to know something.

—Sure.

—You and Hazen. That week when you were in California.

—We didn’t, she said. But I wanted to. Did you know I asked him to marry me?

—I did not.

—Just like that. In less than a week. Beth and I talked about it while you guys were at work. She was trying to get over him and told me to ask him to marry me. If he would, that would make it easier for her. And for me. I know things about her you don’t, about her brother. She showed me her portrait of you she was working on. It’s the way you look now. I wonder what became of it.

—Did you tell him you were pregnant?

—Yes.

—What’d he say?

Ne pas bitchin, she said. I had to ask Beth for a translation.

She stopped for the green light at Rainbow.

—Do brothers feel jealousy? she asked.

—Yes. Do sisters?

—Sometimes. But not over the Beths of the world. You know what I think? she said. I think that when you stood up your Wednesday wife today that means you’ll go to Beth’s show. Am I right?

—In a way.

—What will you say to her when you meet her?

—“You must be the Arch Flayman of the Mediterranean.”

—Anything else?

—Since you asked, here’s how it’s turned out.

/

Words Make a Mother

After I graduated from Emporia, Pretty and I lived with my mother. I took my old room in the basement. I got a job at Hallmark’s doing general office work which lead to design work. My future was cast among greeting cards and books of lists.

One evening after supper, I went to a movie at Al Roper’s theater. He saw me come in and invited me to join him in the projection booth. Al had indeed expanded and now owned five theaters. He needed a manager, and the job was mine. He did not make binoculars of his fists. His wife had left him. If I wanted a place to live, he had a spare room. The movie was Pillow Talk.

When I came home my mother was sitting in the front lawn by my father’s globe. Both chairs were out. Pretty greeted me.

—I talk to him, my mother said.

We sat in silence. I patted Pretty. The evening was summer in that fullness that says there is no other season.

—He talked to himself, I said.

—Go East, she said.

—Yes. And “I’m talking to a smart man when I’m talking to me-self.”

—Yes, she said and when I looked over she was smiling.

Again we were quiet. Then:

—Is Steve. . .? she asked.

—Yes.

—Was Elaine…? Did she have to…?

—Yes.

This time the silence between us was longer.

—I’m not going to tell him, my mother said.

—Did you ever tell mother I was pregnant when I got married?

—She knew.

.

First, Do No Harm

On the way to the Oakland airport we found ourselves in the traffic behind Aunt Lillian. She was in the wrong lane—her blinker going one direction then the other—driving very slowly. People were passing her on both sides in exasperation. My uncle slipped in front of her, turned on his blinker in hopes of getting her to move over, which she did, but so far to the right that she took the wrong exit, going down an off ramp behind us and into West Oakland. Not that she had seen us.

—First, do no harm, my uncle said as he drove on. I should have known.

—She’ll find her way, I said.

—She always has.

Then there was that silence that was in my uncle’s office. The silence I knew he wanted to fill. But he did not. Not then. Not later at the airport while we waited for Aunt Lillian. Not when we took Pretty out of her cage and I walked her in a small park on one side of the parking lot. Not when we had a moment together as Aunt Lillian visited the ladies room. Not as I got on the plane and he waved his hand in front of his head as a way of saying goodbye.

It is into that silence, among others, that I am writing these words: No design proposal comes to mind.

/

Thursday

I have taken the 39 bus to the medical center. I have passed an hour-long test. The doctor can see me at three. I have had lunch at Hannah’s. You are getting older and more beautiful across the top of her poster. Mr. Reynard does not keep his appointment. On the bus back, the driver wants to know if it is true what they say about prostates in men who sit all day. It is.

— May I have a key?

—To the building?

Beth’s curator and I were standing by the reflecting pool in front of the museum. I caught her just as she was leaving.

—Yes, I said. I am sorry about Wednesday.

–I hope it was nothing serious.

—Just a chronic condition that no longer needs treatment.

—You want to see the room?

—I do.

—May I ask why?

—I knew her in California, I said. I have been in that room.

—Why are you telling me this now?

—To confirm what you had guessed.

She smiled and took out keys from her purse and handed me one.

—This will get you in the back door on the east side. The gray metal door.

—Thank you.

I can tell she wants me to say something else, but I don’t so she does:

—Were you. . .

—Yes.

—I was about to say “friends.”

—That too.

—When was the last time you were together?

—The first heart transplant had not been done.

She smiled, and when she did I liked her immensely.

—I would hope. . . she said, but nothing more and stood back as if to look me over.

What a strange heart I have to like these women who like me, but not love them.

I don’t go into the room but instead walk back to the Plaza, then up Bush Creek toward the Kansas line. On the other side, coming my way, I see Bottle James. He is wearing the cape. I wave. He waves. Neither of us cross the creek. When I get to Rio Rosette I change sides and walk back toward Winstead’s. I saw Elaine and Lillian on the Warnell Road Bridge. They do not see me.

At Winstead’s I ordered a double cheeseburger and a frosty. I nursed the Frosty until light gathering time. Then I walked to the Nelson and went to the gray metal door. A watchman pulled it open for me. I showed him the key and told him where I got it.

/

The Ghost Light

The Room has been set up on the ground floor. There is no door to it, only a red felt rope strung across the entrance, which I put aside. There is a ghost light; otherwise, the hallway and the room are dark.

It is exactly as it was, therefore, not as it was: Nothing is lost; everything changes.

I sit in your chair. The record player is there. The lid is raised. The bong is on the table. Plates from private collections. Set-ins set about. I speak our lines for us both:

—You must be the arch-Flayman of the Mediterranean.

—You came, you say, and when you do I am myself the day of Nothing very bad hurts much at the start, after which we hear the dragnet beep of a horn.

—Yes, I say, and when I do, I am reading your letter by the light coming into a medical bookstore. I told you it would come true, you say.

The record player works. The theme from Picnic. We dance. I am as shy about it as I was standing in the corner of my sister’s prom. I glide and guide us around and along the table, the yellow chair, the bookcases, the books on the floor, past the window that looks out over Grove, by Duchamp and rows of bandanas and my brother waiting to leave. “Here,” you say “from one girl to another.”

 I see my portrait on the wall even in the ghost light it looks like…

—Hello.

—Yes.

—What you doing?

It was the watchman.

 

Elaine: Saturday Noon. Barnes and Noble

—I saw the record player.

—I thought you weren’t going.

—I went last night.

—And I went in the afternoon, Elaine said. I told them who I was. And to keep it a secret. Was that you on the wall? It looks like you.

The blond checkout woman comes to our table. The one who sells me my books. She had nodded when I passed by.

—Would you sign this for me? she said and hands me a tiny autograph book.

—Is my brother that famous? Elaine said.

—If he is who I think he is. Does he visit you often?

—And who would that be? I asked.

And what she whispers in my ear is not who I am when I sign her book.

—Thank you, she said. And touches my shoulder before she walks away.

—I designed that book, I said to my sister. It is among my favorites. That girl thinks I’m William Holden.

—He’s dead. Is that what you signed?

—Yes.

—I thought not, she said. Good for you.

—I need a favor,” I said.

—You? Elaine said. That’s a first.

—Stop by before you go to Beth’s show. I’ll have something for her.

—A book?

—Yes.

—Why not give it to her yourself?

—It is myself.

—How so?

—My book has made me as much as I’ve made my book, I said.

—You’re being enigmatic, Elaine said, and because she could not suppress her smile I wondered if, by some cosmic vibration, he had divined the plot to its conclusion.

/

Saturday, Early evening, The Light is Gathering

I have turned myself off even while Professor J. Roland Schwartz is no doubt saying that there should be “. . . unexplained events that create a sense of mystery, and that you should be able to predict what the main character will do beyond the end.”

I take the DVD of myself out and fling it off my balcony. It becomes a tiny Frisbee as it sails into the street below. Melinda’s friend is walking her two-bag tube dog. As the DVD goes by she looks up. She seems not amused. Elaine is behind her. There is a third woman behind Elaine. My sister sees me and waves. For a moment I think the woman behind Elaine is you, but she is not, and she goes past the entrance to my building as my sister turns in. I watch the woman I thought was you walk away from me, and wonder if her not being you is our final Hi-Sign.

So many signs all these years.

—Here, I say: From one lover of a certain age to another with hopes there is a plethora of us to go beyond the end.

— 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.

 

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).

dg

 

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
 

Desktop51

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.

dg

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

 

.

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

Desktop45

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
 

IMG_8243

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

.

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.

.

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.

 

.

.