An Unnecessary Defense of William T. Vollmann’s Last Stories and Other Stories
by Jordan A. Rothacker
Despite all the sensational attention William T. Vollmann gets for writing about prostitutes or smoking crack (which often neglects his reasons for doing so and his other work with and on the poor, homeless, and other marginalized groups), or the warranted attention involving his run-ins with the FBI, what is often neglected, sadly, is Vollmann’s prose and the aesthetic value of his literature.
His most recent book, the 704 paged, Last Stories and Other Stories, is his first fictional works since 2005’s National Book Award winning, Europe Central. Often called a novel (in the vein of Danilo Kis’s, A Tomb for Boris Davidovitch, which the book is dedicated to), Europe Central is thirty-seven stories that come together with a wide and masterful vision of World War II focusing on the two opposing totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. This new book, Last Stories and Other Stories, is certainly more of a short story collection. If there is any theme that groups or connects them it is the most ancient and important of human themes, death, and more specifically, death in regards to love, the thing that makes death’s opposite worth anything at all.
I’ll admit; I’m a fan. I gobble up everything Vollmann writes and have since I first discovered him in 1999 with a bargain bin copy of The Atlas, still one of my all time favorite books. What I realized that first night reading The Atlas was that I was in the presence of literary, artistic, genius. Here was a Steinbeck, a Dostoevsky, a Melville, a Plutarch for my own time and I could read interviews with him and go to readings to experience him in person. This was a true and shockingly brilliant voice able to tackle many subjects and literary modes. Astute, eloquent, and always going for both the heart and jugular. I’ve done a lot of proselytizing the good news in regards to Vollmann’s writing for fifteen years and have had to try many different tactics to get people interested. Friends have read him, some after enough eye-rolling at my enthusiasm, and some have even come to love his work. The easiest defense I can ever give for my love of Vollmann’s work is that he is just really, really good. When Vollmann won the National Book Award in 2005 it was hard not to have a “told you so” attitude, and one day when he gets the Nobel maybe I’ll rest my advocacy a little bit.
After some poor reviews of this newest work of fiction (one reviewer I won’t name called his prose “boring,” but maybe that reviewer is a jaded fifteen year old), the good reviews have come rolling in and I’ve found myself wondering what more I can add. On the level of “what more could you want from literature,” Last Stories and Other Stories should seem like an easy sell. It’s a long book; but that’s okay, it’s short stories and people read long books like Harry Potter and Game of Thrones all the time. In some stories it involves ghosts, vampires, and/or supernatural erotica; alright, that actually sounds like it would make it more commercially viable today. The stories take place in locations as far-flung as Stavanger and Lillehammer, Norway; Vera Cruz, Mexico; Sarajevo, Mostar, and Trieste of the Balkan region; Tokyo and Kyoto, Japan; Buenos Aires, Argentina; and ancient Palestine. The time periods for the stories are pretty wide in their range too with each writing style following suit to distinct location, theme, time, and folk tradition evoked.
Writers working like this are rare today, especially in this country. As the prose shifts through each story and setting, what remains consistent is Vollmann getting back in touch with his roots and some of his earliest influences, namely the Comte de Lautreamont (born Isidore Ducasse, 1846-1870). Lautreamont was influenced by Baudelaire, was an unbeknownst-to-either contemporary of Rimbaud, and himself influenced the Dadaists and the Surrealists. From Lautreamont to Vollmann goes the love of the long, gorgeously bursting, sentence of corkscrews and bubbles of color and cutting descriptions; along with an over-indulgence in darkness, often to conquer that darkness through mocking and excess. In stories about death, ghosts, vampires, and hallucinatory shape-shifting scenarios, Vollmann gets to flex those literary muscles and pump all his mid-life wisdom and knowledge through his youthful exuberance for in-your-face pyrotechnic prose. In stories set in 19th century Norway, the sentences might not be as long or bristly as those in the graveyards of contemporary Tokyo, but they are no less haunting or striking. His short sentences can be just as dark and brutal, as they evoke the Norse sagas and Eddas. It could be said that this collection brings together the best of young and old Vollmann.
The book is dedicated to Vollmann’s father who passed away in 2009, a life event that led Vollmann to write an essay in Harper’s Magazine about end of life rights (“A Good Death,” Nov. 2010). Being about life and death, there is an aspect to the book that is not only supernatural but also religious. The stories in Last Stories are meditations and reflections on death, what it takes away, and where that leaves us, the mourners, those left behind, pumped through the filters of a wild imagination with the world and its history at its fingertips. That is often how the greatest mythologies, legends, and sacred texts were composed.
This is not new territory for Vollmann, he recreates myths of European conqueror and Native American Nations in his Seven Dreams series of novels. His 1991 story collection, Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs, featured, “Grave of Lost Stories,” both about and in the gothic style of Edgar Allan Poe. 1996’s The Atlas retold the Battle of Masada in a biblical style in “The Hill of Gold,” took readers to the Heavenly Spheres in “Fortune Tellers,” and creeped-out every reader in “Incantations of the Murderer,” with its contemporary urban gothic flavor. What is new here for the Vollmann fan or idle reader is one big thick book, a world in a text, getting to delve deeply and unflinchingly into this dark, dark territory. I dream of a next generation of goth kids growing up on this book, because, back to my original point, it is gorgeous.
The first story in the collection, “Escape,” is a retelling of the “Romeo and Juliet” story of Sarajevo in 90s wartime. Nothing supernatural happens—except romantic love, which has its own atheists and agnostics—and the story is more akin to poetic war-correspondence than fiction; and yet at the close of those ten pages I was at tears. The shortest story, “The Answer,” is only six sentences (seventy words) and can still haunt its reader. The longest story, a ninety-page novella, “When We Were Seventeen,” is dense in heart-wrenching descriptions of nature and human interaction. Some of the stories make one feel what it would be like to actually live in a Grimm or Andersen fairy tale. It could be said that the writing is “difficult” or “challenging” but I would prefer not to talk down to a reader. The stories can provide escape, but like all great literature, they should also teach you something, even if it’s just to be a better reader. You might not know the painter Leonor Fini, but her surrealist work illustrates the covers of the book and she is a historical fiction character in the story, “Cat Goddess,” one of my favorites. Those who have run into me while out in the world reading this book have often been encouraged to read another favorite of mine, the story, “Defiance,” a mere three pages. “Defiance” starts off retelling the story of Abraham and Isaac—a life, death, and love story important in the three biggest “western” religions—until Vollmann gives it a turn that might make even D.H. Lawrence blush. My friend, Joey Carter, a brilliant PhD candidate in philosophy—after being forced/encouraged by me to read the story in a coffeeshop one evening—described its message as “sacrifice as training for love.” I quickly related this critique to Vollmann and it sparked an hour-long phone conversation about Abraham and Kierkegaard and the true meaning of faith and belief and love.
Poe, Lautreamont, Norse sagas, Japanese Hentai, surrealism, mythology, folklore, fairy tales, and the dark chaos of war are all influences and points of departure for Vollmann to direct and fire his own true voice like a weapon at death. With enough words in enough cultural voices maybe Vollmann will win; or die trying. It’s possible that this book just needs more word of mouth exposure, so I guess that’s what I’m doing here. Maybe this will be the book to make Vollmann a household name; people do like to be creeped-out and titillated from beyond the grave. You should read this book, it’s beautiful, and like the creeping vines of the story “Widow’s Weeds,” it will touch you everywhere.
Dropping Guy Davenport’s name—even among the literati—often results in little more than “Sounds familiar …” or “Didn’t he write …?” To me, that is almost as tragic as the loss of the author himself to cancer on January 4, 2005. A MacArthur Foundation Fellow, Davenport bequeathed to us more than half a dozen collections of fiction, several books of essays, two volumes of poetry, assorted translations of Greek poets and philosophers, as well as an edition of drawings and paintings. How to account for the obscurity of a writer whom critics almost universally acclaim a creative genius? America, it seems, long ago lost its taste for the new and unusual in literature and has little patience for work that doesn’t hold itself upright with a backbone of what-happens-next.
Combining structural elements of essay, poetry, and narrative, Davenport virtually reinvents fictive form as he makes forays into various fields—history, aesthetics, physics, botany, philosophy, and religion among them. Made up of fragments, progressing by allusion and inference, his fanciful tales are nonetheless discernible wholes, lyrical mosaics in which language itself is as important as what it conveys.
“All at first was the fremitus of things, the jigget of gnats, drum of the blood, fidget of leaves, shiver of light, boom of the wind.” Here is a handsome illustration of Davenport’s style. I had to look up fremitus, but of course it was implied by the context. Jigget, however, doesn’t show up in any dictionary I could find. But we think of jagged, we think of jiggle and, since we are dealing with gnats, probably settle for jerky flight or perhaps erratic buzz. There are other words of this ilk: bodger, vastation, conder. And words that seem to be neologisms but aren’t (guidon, quitch, awn). Davenport isn’t showing off; he’s having fun—frolicking in language and inviting us to join in.
“C. Musonius Rufus” (out of Da Vinci’s Bicycle, now a New Directions Classic), from which the above line was taken, is one of the most beautifully written short stories I’ve ever read. In one thread of the narrative, Davenport imagines the Roman Emperor Balbinus speaking from the grave: “Then I went down to where iron grows. Down past root seines in loam like condered oakgall and down past yellow marl hard with quartz the splintered ores begin. Green, edged, with the black metal horses hate and wine sours next to, and which thunder has entered. Chill, sacred iron, bitter with lightning.” The dead ruler offers one gorgeous meditation after another while the other thread of the narrative follows the plight of the stoic philosopher Caius Musonius Rufus, who has been sent to a prison camp in Greece.
Da Vinci’s Bicycle is an excellent introduction to Davenport’s impressive oeuvre. Taking historical figures—James Joyce, Richard Nixon, Gertrude Stein, and Robert Walser—as points of departure, often weaving between eras centuries apart, Davenport dazzles page after page. In “Au Tombeau de Charles Fourier” he writes “All of nature is series and pivot, like Pythagoras’ numbers, like the transmutations of light. Give me a sparrow, he said, a leaf, a fish, a wasp, an ox, and I will show you the harmony of its place in its chord, the phrase, the movement, the all.”
Harmony is perhaps the key to entering Davenport’s writing: nothing in existence is separate, each is related, and Davenport not only perceives the connections but also communicates them; they are ours if only we are willing to sit for the performance.
The four longest stories in The Jules Verne Steam Balloon create a sort of novella. Hugo Tvemunding and his girlfriend, Mariana, lead a life both idyllic and ideal: there are simple repasts laid out like still-lifes, meticulous descriptions of the meadows and forests through which they wander, innovative and prolonged sexual encounters. Davenport presents, in sumptuous detail, the Greek concept of arête—excellence of mind, body, and spirit. Mariana, addressing Hugo, eloquently sums up this life in “absolute kilter”: “…your eyes fly open at six, you hit the floor like an Olympic champion, hard-on and all … jog three kilometers, swim ten lengths of the gym pool, nip back here for wheatgerm carrot smush while reading Greek, communing with your charming freckle-nosed kammerat Jesus, shower with unreasonable thoroughness while singing hymns, … teach your classes, Latin, gym, and Greek, meet me, bring me back here for wiggling sixtynine on the bed, tongue like an eel … race off and instruct your Boy Scouts in virtue, knots, and nutritive weeds, sprint back here … teach me English while fixing supper, show me slides of Monet and Montaigne …” and, after another roll or two in the hay, it’s time to start all over again.
The collection takes its name from three daimons (“spirits who possess or guide or tempt”) or perhaps three quantum particles (one of them is named Quark) incarnated as young boys who are spotted floating over modern Denmark in an antique balloon. Bearing a message from the Consiliarii, Davenport’s concept of elohim or some other divine council, they are clever, polyglot, and charming.
A Table of Green Fields, a collection of 10 short stories—including a veritable prose poem inspired by a single line from Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal—continues in the vein of The Jules Verne Steam Balloon. Nature, sexuality unimpeded by social constraints, and Davenport’s own tireless wonder, his (implied) insistence that everything we need to be happy is pretty much within arm’s reach, run like currents through this book as well. Fremitus? Indeed, frisson, palpable thrill, sail shook so hard by the wind it sings in a kind of vibrato. Time and again in his writing, Davenport intimates that art possesses a beauty no less astounding than nature’s—he recommends both in large quantities, and woe to him who sacrifices up one in the name of the other.
Let Davenport’s writing also be recommended unreservedly. The truth is, if an author like Guy Davenport is allowed to sink into oblivion, then not only is the American soul unlikely to be spared “the inert violence of custom” (Emerson’s phrase), but it’s also unlikely that it’s worth saving.
A Review of Delaney Nolan’s Shotgun Style: A Diagram of the Territory of New Orleans
By Christopher Lowe
Early in the title story of Delaney Nolan’s chapbook Shotgun Style: A Diagram of the Territory of New Orleans, the narrator describes winter in New Orleans as “barely a bruise.” As I moved through the collection, I thought again and again of that metaphor. I thought of bruises and winters that leave a mark. Nolan’s New Orleans is a bruised place, and it is inhabited by bruised people.
The pain of a damaged place is there in the eight stories of this collection. Physically, the New Orleans of Shotgun Style is still marred by Katrina. There are leveled houses and FEMA trailers, and the pain of those physical realities is at play, but the real pain, the pain that gnaws at the reader, is in the characters themselves. It is a pain that is rooted in loss. One of the best stories in the collection, “Little Monster” brilliantly illustrates Nolan’s skill with handling this loss. In the story, the main character finds a small monster in the gutter, takes it home, feeds it, cares for it. When it dies the next morning, she buries it by the river. The story is short, just three pages, but there is a fully formed narrative movement in that space, a shift from the strange allure of finding a monster to the graveside mourning of the final paragraph. “Little Monster” is a story that doesn’t reference Katrina, flooding, hurricanes, or even New Orleans. It is simple and direct, but there is an undercurrent of pain that throbs below its surface.
Nolan frequently pairs pain with desire. The characters in Shotgun Style yearn for something beyond themselves, something that they can’t articulate, something that may not even exist. In “We Shall Fill Our House With Spoil,” an unnamed narrator takes a job where she must contact people who have taken out classified ads and convince them to let her video them while they show off whatever it is that they’re selling. Her company will air these videos on public access for a portion of the sale. At first, she struggles with this, unable to connect with the people she calls. Eventually, she learns how to get a foot in the door. Once she’s inside their homes, watching them through the camera lens as they describe their possessions, desire takes root. She wants something from life, and she can see it, just out of the corner of her eye, as she’s videoing these people. She says, “I was looking for something. You would have been looking, too. I hadn’t found it in my family, in my sister… But I almost found it on that tape….” There is something out there in the world – call it connection or love or friendship – that she wants to grab hold of, but the only tool she has for accessing it is a camera.
There is a frustration, too, that mounts for the characters in Shotgun Style. It is frustration born from loss, from blocked desire, from lack of that “something” that the narrator of “We Shall Fill Our House With Spoil” is searching for. The beauty of the collection is in Nolan’s ability to take that frustration and pair it with a something more complex, something that hints at the possibility of healing, the possibility of connection, the possibility of “something.”
The final story in the collection, “Ninth Ward Hunters” is a brief piece, set during Mardi Gras. The narrator dances alongside a tribe of Mardi Gras Indians. She moves with them, tries to keep up. By the end of the story, her dancing has become something new. It is part funeral dirge, a lamentation for what is lost. As they move closer to the Ninth Ward, she says, “…now there’s nothing to see. Just government trailers. A bunch of overgrown lots. Just a bunch of empty space where something used to stand.” They are dancing toward this emptiness, and there is remembrance for what was there and for what was lost, but the other part of the dance is something else, something more complicated. A resurrection. “So we dancing towards it to fill it up,” she says. There is pain in that filling, but there is determination as well—a ferocity of intent. When she says, “Me, storm-wrecked, land-drowned, teeth out sharp like the right kind of animal: come to defend what’s mine,” we can see how it looks when the bruise begins to fade.
Christopher Lowe is the author of Those Like Us: Stories(SFASU Press, 2011). His fiction has appeared widely in journals including Third Coast, Bellevue Literary Review, and War, Literature, and the Arts. He teaches English and Creative Writing at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, LA.
She scrambles the eggs while the baby howls at her knees. To drown out the racket, she hums as she jabs her fork into the yolks. She enjoys the way they spill their yellow color and swirl into the whites. She matches her tune to the schook, schook, schook of the fork against the bowl, then does a quick side-step when the baby lunges for her legs.
His little fat hands grasp the air, throwing him off balance. He totters on his heels for a moment then sits hard and rolls back sideways, bumping his head on the floor. He stops crying abruptly and flails his arms in the air like a big bug stuck on its back.
Cynthia knows she should pick him up, comfort him, but she’s too deep in her own need. She won’t look down, even, because if she looks at his face all twisted up and desperate for her, she’ll have to pick him up, and she just can’t do that motherhood stuff right now.
She used to love the feeling, everyone needing her so badly. She would peel and seed John’s oranges when she packed his lunch. She cut the crusts off his sandwich out of pure love. And when the baby fell asleep, she’d sit and hold him just as long as he would let her.
But John Junior is walking now—into everything—and he’s gotten so clingy. Her friend Alice says that John Junior is feeling separation anxiety. Every time Cynthia leaves the room he thinks she’s gone forever, just disappeared. Secretly, Cynthia wishes it could work like that—two steps into the bedroom, and poof, she’s in another life, another world.
She used to love her life. She looked forward to every day. Cynthia can’t even say when things changed. Maybe it was back when she suspected John of sleeping with his secretary. Maybe it was after John Junior was born and she couldn’t seem to do anything right.
John and she had never fought before. Well, sometimes, but it was always more of a disagreement and once Cynthia apologized it would be over. It never spilled out into the rest of her life.
Now things seem to get all tangled up, till she can’t separate them, one from the other. She feels like that woman with snakes for hair, only all her problems are tangled up there too, squirming and writhing around, hissing on top of her head.
She figures that must be why John isn’t home yet—imagine living with a woman who can’t comb her hair for the snakes. She tries calling his office, but that snooty Angela answers, so Cynthia puts on a different voice and pretends to be one of John’s clients.
“Mr. Albee promised to show us a home today, is he in?”
She smiles because she knows Angela is too dense to figure out it’s her. She’s careful to keep the smile out of her voice.
Then Angela says, “Mr. Albee hasn’t been in all day, Ma’am, may I give him a message?”
She says it real sly-like, with extra emphasis on the ma’am, until Cynthia is really getting sick. The eggs look disgusting and she feels so nauseous. Then she’s throwing up again, retching in the toilet, and thinking, God, please don’t let me be pregnant, but she’s known it for a while. Add another snake.
When she’s wiping her face, John calls and she thinks he says he’s at work, but it’s hard to hear for sure over the baby. Liar. She just called there. Cynthia doesn’t want to yell at him, but she feels it rising up in her throat like bile, and she wants to stop it but the words are pouring out all over the place like vomit, sour and steaming.
She hangs up and tries to finish supper, even if it is just eggs and toast. After John sells a house they’ll have steak. She puts the baby in his crib, and over the monitor she can hear him banging his head against the bars. She goes to the door and watches, fascinated. His eyes roll back in pleasure. She tries banging her own head once on the doorframe before she remembers the snakes. No sense getting them all riled up.
Then she hears the eggs frying too hard, and sure enough, they’re brown when she stirs them, and the toast needs scraping. Schook, schook, schook, the crumbs fly all over the sink, sticking to the sides. She thinks about that woman who drove her kids into the lake and cried about it on national TV. What a terrible person, a horrible mother. But the snakes hiss, “Yessss.”
She’s barely gotten the toast buttered when John Junior starts up again. He’s poopy, too. She can see it rimming the edges of his diaper. What with the snakes and the baby it’s really all just too much for her and she carries him out to the pickup and puts him squish onto the seat and she leaves supper unfinished and she’s really going to do it this time because she just can’t take it any more.
Halfway to the lake it starts raining. John Junior is sitting in the floorboard playing with his toes and the wipers are keeping time in the dark, schook, schook, schook, marking off the seconds till it’s done.
Cynthia pulls right up to where the lake meets the road, and there’s no one around, so she gets out and goes over to the water’s edge. The baby watches her; his face against the window, nose flattened, big eyes shining white through the dark.
The water smells dank and fishy and it’s way too cold when she sticks her head in. Cynthia is on all fours holding her breath and she thinks about how she must look—rear in the air, head in the lake. She doesn’t get up, though, and her chest starts to ache from needing to breathe. Her head is throbbing, and her throat spasms, her body trying to force her to breathe. But she won’t, she won’t, and she can hear the schook, schook, schook of blood in her head, looking for oxygen.
When her body starts to relax and she’s feeling like she could stay down there at the bottom of the lake forever, she jerks her head up hard, throwing back her shoulders, landing on her back at the muddy edge of the lake.
And possibly the baby is crying in the truck, but he’s safe enough, and she remembers that his diaper needs changing while she watches drops of rain fall silver through the night and feels them sting her cold lake-water face as she listens and waits and hopes the snakes have drowned.
Mary Akers’ debut short story collection, WOMEN UP ON BLOCKS, won the 2010 IPPY gold medal for short fiction and she co-authored a non-fiction book (ONE LIFE TO GIVE) that has sold in seven countries. She is Editor-in-chief of the online journal r.kv.r.y. and co-founder of the Institute for Tropical Marine Ecology. She received a Pushcart 2012 Special Mention and has published a book of short performance pieces for use in high school dramatic reading competitions (MEDUSA’S SONG AND OTHER STORIES). She blogs at http://www.maryakers.blogspot.com
It was a look I seen and I seen it true. Then I forgot it til I seen it again then I remembered it. All of it. Every minute in the between and that one on each end.
Like memory comes full circle pulling a kind of noose round my neck slow, tightening from the first look to the last. For a second then I seen into his world. We were together then for a second. And it felt alright. Clear. I could see the inside of the noose where the air was. And inside the noose it’s light blue. The color of a finished sky.
Before. He’d been sitting on the floor in the living room of the trailer, his trucks and cars all around him. This was before his mom left before everything started to rust. And I was mad about somethin or I’d been drinkin or I was just a son of a bitch or he was a pain in the ass but I told him to clean that stuff up and get it out of the floor and he just kept right on and I reached down and jerked him up by the arm and slapped him hard and dropped him again right there on the floor.
He didn’t cry. I think I scared him more than hurt him. He laid all balled up on the floor there and he looked up at me, them blue eyes big. I thought he’d hate me but that wasn’t what I seen. I wished it hada been hate. But it weren’t. It was like I’d disappeared. He just looked right through me like he already seen a time when I was gone. He rubbed his face. He looked right through me. Then he started pickin up his toys. That was then.
His momma she was working down at the convenience store then and I thought he’d tell her when she come home. Thought he’d come whimperin’ in to her his bottom lip all stuck out. Hours later like it had just happened. They did stuff like that him and her. Come back at you with somethin you done long after you already forgot about doing it. That woman’d get in my face now and again and my brain’d be whirring, spinning back, trying to find what it was she was talking about.
Anyway, he didn’t tell her. Just climbed in her lap when she sat down and lit her cigarette, climbed up there and clung to her like a little monkey.
I mean, it ain’t me he should be all mad at anyhow. She’s the one that left us. Came home from the plant one evening and he’s sitting on the cinder block step out in front of the locked door. School bag on the ground beside him. He’s reading a magazine he got at school and she’s gone. We know it as soon as we open up the door and that goddamn ugly ceramic clock ain’t on the kitchen counter where she put it the day she brought it home. I hated that damn clock.
He come in dragging his bookbag behind him, looked around the living room and kitchen for a second then sat down on the couch and kept lookin through his magazine. I lit a cigarette and sat down next to him and we just sat there awhile. Him reading, me smoking. Then we went out to Hardee’s for dinner.
It’s her he should hate. Not me.
Maybe he does hate her. I wouldn’t know. He’s a goddamn mystery to me.
Living’s just a blur, you know. A whir you feel streakin by like cars on a highway while all the time the edges are pullin in tighter just outta sight and the space around you is gettin smaller and smaller, pushin the air outta itself. It’s hard to know what I did and what I didn’t do.
One day don’t bleed into the next. There ain’t no difference between days so there’s nothin to bleed into or out of. I’d come home from the plant or from drinkin or from just being away and he’d be fine. He’d a made himself a sandwich and be all curled up on the couch or his bed with a book or a magazine. Weren’t no kids to play with, trailer too far back off the road, but he found things to do.
Living’s just a blur, you know, it all runs together. It’s hard to know what I did and didn’t do. He never said nothing about it. He’d come in from school or wherever he’d been outside and not say nothing about the night before. He got quieter and quieter. Days we hardly saw each other which was fine with me. While he got bigger that goddam trailer got smaller and smaller. Further back in them goddam woods.
Then one day there he was all nerve and bone. All six foot what-the-hell of him. And the trailers cold and my back aches and I’m tired cause we’re workin overtime at the plant and I can’t say no cause they’re layin people off and I’m tellin him how things are gonna be and he gets himself up off that couch and he just looks at me. Looks at me for the first time in probly ten years.
And it’s the look I already seen.
And all the news of the past spins out at me all at once. Suckin the air outta the room, pullin the noose tight around my neck. There ain’t no blue left no more in the space inside the noose.
We were together then for a second. It had been a long time. I could see him for a second and it was alright.
I stand in his way in front of the door but he just walks around me. Don’t even look at me, he’s all finished with lookin at me. He just walks around. And he leaves. Leaves me in a place where there ain’t no space to move around in and a lot of time to do it.
Screen door flappin behind him. Slappin itself against the hollow door frame. This trailer gettin empty, and colder and colder.
Steve Mitchell has published fiction in The Southeast Review, Contrary, The North Carolina Literary Review and The Adirondack Review, among others. He is currently completing on a novel, Body of Trust. Steve has a deep belief in the primacy of doubt and an abiding conviction that great wisdom informs very bad movies. He is open twenty four hours a day at: http://www.thisisstevemitchell.com. The above story is reprinted from his collection The Naming of Ghosts.
This is all true, though it happened over a decade ago, a couple years after Nine Inch Nails came out with Pretty Hate Machine. I was thinking, “Yes, I am a pretty hate machine.” Whatever that meant. It sounded fierce, ironic, like a bittersweet love-struck college-girl in the late eighties and early nineties. I was coloring my hair back then: jet black, almost blue. I had an aesthetic, a code; it involved self-destruction and a sad kind of exotic, erotic, and alienated beauty. Though I was unhappy all the time, life seemed heightened. It was like I was on drugs, but I wasn’t.
This story begins in a Buick.
We’re not talking about a cool car. Rather, it’s an inherited one. The music makes the vehicle throb. It crawls all over you like a violation, like it’s raping you. I’m with a guy people call Jest. Jest rhymes with blessed, with rest, with test. Jest is nineteen, one year older than I. He’s prematurely balding, so he’s got thin wisps of blonde hair over a skull of baby soft skin. I’ve never touched his head, nor do I really want to, but that’s how I imagine it: soft. He has an aesthetic, as well. Despite the fact we live in the desert, he never wears shorts. This is weird because college students in Tucson, Arizona practically live in boxers and tees. Pants are hated. Everywhere Jest goes, he wears dress pants and dress shirts with the sleeves rolled up. His hands are always in his pockets too—not in some perv way, but rather like a suave undercover spy or a slick millionaire. He loves Sade because she’s so damn sensual and otherworldly; he keeps his dorm room lights off with candles burning. He cooks his own meals in the dorm kitchen; he runs a full bar from under his sink. Plus, he whispers. His whispering makes me think he knows something I don’t, like maybe he’s in touch with God.
So, I’m with Jest in a Buick and the music is positively earsplitting. This is all part of Operation Get Mickey.
Mickey Rourke, that is.
From my dorm room, I got a phone call about an hour ago, around nine p.m. on this November night in Tucson. “Mickey’s downtown,” Jest whispered. “They’re shooting a scene. Get ready. I’m picking you up.”
Jest understands desperation. In a nutshell, this is his story:
Jest’s brother committed suicide when Jest was thirteen. He discovered the body in the bathtub when he came home from school. Wandering from the kitchen towards the back of the house and carrying one of those orange juice Popsicles that kids make with toothpicks and ice trays, he called out the names of his brother, his mother, his sister. At the bathroom door, he stopped, noticing it was half-open, noticing the light was on. He stood there, licking his orange juice Popsicle. He knocked, calling out, “Phil? You in there? Phil?” Pushing the door open, he discovered the body.
There were several long minutes of mad struggle as Jest tried to pull the lifeless body from the room temperature, blood-red water. The dead body fell through his arms like a slippery fish, slapping the surface of the water and, Jest, a boy, clasped onto limbs, pulled on torso, and screamed out. The anguish and the wetness and the heaviness and the horribleness overwhelmed him so thoroughly that he sunk to the side of the tub, his own clothes wet and pink, his own limbs gently skimming the surface of deceptively calm waters. As the struggle to alter the past subsided, Jest’s fight gave way to weeping; he knew that this quieter, more thoughtful, sobbing would make an indelible mark on his person.
The streets are closed; police patrol. We park near the courthouse. Bright lights, cameras, crewmembers, and Don Johnson claim an entire intersection. While we’re staking out the shoot, Mickey Rourke arrives on a Harley.
I gasp. He looks like—like I don’t know what. A biker. A bad boy. A problem child. He’s dressed in leather; he’s got multiple earrings. I see stubble. I can’t keep my eyes off his jawbone, his minute waist. My God, I think. He looks like scum and I‘m deathly attracted to him.
Jest doesn’t turn to me while he talks, nor does he seem to move his lips. It’s as if he were some kind of ventriloquist. Film people do film things. It’s all a great mystery to us. Jest, staring ahead with his hands in his pockets, whispers, “Do it.”
I take a deep breath. I’m wearing my special Operation Get Mickey outfit: denim short shorts, a tight black top which creates the illusion of cleavage, and the leather jacket I’ve owned since high school. Staring at Mickey and speaking a good octave lower than my normal voice, I croon, “I’m going to seduce him. I’m going to make him beg, and then I’m going to tell him no. That, Jest, is all.” I squint my glam rock eyes in his direction.
“Okay,” he spins towards me, slowly. “Go.”
Ten-fifteen at night. The intersection is cluttered with equipment. Spotlights crisscross the pavement. I shadow Mickey, walking with him, preparing to approach, wondering if anyone will stop me. He smirks. He smokes. He leans against things. He poses, swaggers, wears his leather pants in a serious way.
I step forward. Mickey lights up a cigg and turns in my direction. I let my jacket fall open. I summon all the magic an eighteen-year old girl possesses on a good day. He takes a long, unhealthy, sexually-charged drag of his cigarette. He casts it to the ground while holding his breath, and shifts his eyes to roll over the sideline crowd. He glances my way. He moves on to other spectators. And then, then—as fate would have it—he returns to me, the way eyes naturally return to disaster. He sees ruin, and I have him. For a moment, it’s power, the kind of power I associate with Mickey Rourke: it’s crushing. We look at one another through scars, mascara tracks, red puckered lips, and filmic props. Electric lights drown out stars. We absorb each other on this street corner in a desert college town over a decade ago when I was capable of romantic, whimsical feats. This is a possession, an out-of-body experience. It’s mine.
Mickey Rourke and I have rock-your-world eye contact. Mickey Rourke stares at me.
He walks forward and, even though I’m scared to death, I walk forward too. No one stops me. No one gets in my way. Film crew, security guards, gaffers and best boys—these people are supposed to hold me back. I arrive and I don’t know what to do. I walk this distance between us, this blocked-off road. I bury my hands in leather jacket pockets, finding and clutching a wadded-up napkin from Domino’s Pizza in the left. I walk deliberately, strongly, confidently like this is a Milan fashion show. Right in front of me, like a divinely rejected angel, Mickey Rourke stands, anticipating my very presence.
His raw sexuality is somewhat disarming, and I work to pull myself together. I don’t know what to say, how to act. I’m an honors student; I’m dark, sardonic, witty, a staff reporter for the school paper—Arts and Culture, my beat. Okay, I’ll interview him—I’ll interview Mickey Rourke for the Arizona Daily Wildcat! Operation Get Mickey? Oh, that’s still on, of course, but I have to talk to him first, find out what’s going on with that Nine and a Half Weeks shit. Ask him if he’s psychotic or if it’s just a facade.
Let’s be very honest about all this playacting: I’m a coward and I have no real way of approaching this man.
“Mr. Rourke,” I say, all breathy and sexy. “You’re in town till December?”
He pretends to try to remember. As if one could forget how long one’s supposed to be in Tucson.
To myself, I calculate our age difference. “I’m a reporter,” I blurt out.
Bad move: a sudden flash of disinterest spreads across Mickey Rourke’s face. He seems to have met a few of these before. I’ve blown it. My God, I’ve blown my chance to have Mickey Rourke undress me so that I can say no to him! Oh, if only I had said something else. I’m a gymnast, a body double, a jazz singer, a voodoo princess. I dance on tables. I’m a good-time girl. I play craps, poker, the xylophone. But no. “I’m a reporter.”
Mickey doesn’t let me get any further. “If I have time.” He turns to a large, effeminate, flamboyant man standing next to him, saying, “This is the person you should talk to. She’ll take care of you.”
She’s a he. Well over six feet tall with a clean-shaven face and jowl-like cheeks, he’s a Christmas tree in a green sweater and white pants, a red scarf thrown dramatically around his neck. He looks at me with big I’m your girl eyes.
I have that hideous, you’re-a-loser feeling. “Hi.”
“Hi, Hon.” He flips over a Kleenex box. “Let me get your phone number.” One uses Kleenex to blow one’s nose. We complete the transaction.
Oh, but I’m not done. Mickey stands nearby. He speaks to someone with a clipboard. Gently, like adults I’ve seen often do, I reach out and touch his shoulder. With my eyes a-glow, I say, “It was a pleasure watching you.”
“Thanks.” Mickey smiles at me.
It was a pleasure watching you???
I turn around and join Jest who’s waiting for me behind the sawhorses used for crowd-control.
Operation Get Mickey has its roots.
There’s this guy; let’s call him Keifer—or how about Trey? A brooding megalomaniac type, he thoroughly convinced me upon arrival my freshman year (I’m a young sophomore) that he’s brilliant, he’s sexy, he’s capable of penetrating the heart of many of the world’s great mysteries, and he understands me like no other man ever has or ever will.
To prepare for essay exams, he’d write essays and memorize them word for word. This impressed the hell out of me. They were on things like Chinese history and the Russian humanities.
On a dare, he walked naked to the showers for a month in our co-ed dorm, using shampoo bottles as post-Edenic fig leaves. Girls would sit and watch. I did too.
He was into the problem of evil, the end of the Cold War, and the selling out of U2. This struck me as especially profound.
He’d kiss my lips and it was like he was reading my palm. Those are kisses you don’t forget.
Trey was a good reason to stay in school. In short, I believed in this guy.
In 1986, before our history began, he saw Nine and a Half Weeks. This was when Trey had longish hair and occasionally wore eyeliner. “Mickey’s a god,” he declared decisively from then on.
I never even saw the movie—I wasn’t allowed to.
Trey fixed this—we rented it at Blockbuster and watched it on a Friday night in the spaghetti sauce-scented dorm TV room. As we watched, Trey leaned forward the whole time, glued to the screen, whispering the score in my ear. He talked me through it, explaining things, laying the groundwork for our own future devastation. “Listen to what Mickey says,” Trey instructed, “and how he says it.” Trey got excited as if we were at a football game. “Watch his body language, note where he puts his hands.” Mickey, looking trampled upon but lovely, became a sick model for Trey, who was—after all—just a smart boy with a good CD collection.
Trey did weird Mickey Rourke things. He never tied me up; he never made me crawl. He posed dramatically in dark places on campus—I distinctly remember watching him smoke outside the dorm at midnight, leaning over the rusty green rail, looking very lonely despite the fact I waited inside to take him into my arms and weave him into my being till our organs and sinews were indistinguishable. I remember this.
Once, in my room, we made out/kissed apocalyptically/locked lips/mashed, and it involved food—just like Mickey and Kim Basinger did in the movie. It wasn’t very sexy, though, because I only had a six-pack of Diet Coke and a bottle of papaya juice in my knee-high fridge. We dumped soda and juice all over each other and kissed like we were in a Manhattan skyscraper and we were absolutely desperate for one another. Unfortunately, he had just eaten a hot dog, and I could taste it on the roof of his mouth. For months afterwards, I had ants.
Besides that, he regularly said enigmatic things that sounded slightly warped and twisted. At night, he’d speak softly. “I love you, but I know if I showed you the extent of my love, you’d run like hell.”
This would cause me to respond in kind with similarly enigmatic things that also sounded slightly warped and twisted. Before slipping into my room for the night where a retainer for the teeth awaited, I’d whisper back, “Show me. See if I run.”
Well, it ended rather badly after eight months of unbeatable melodrama. I mean, who can maintain clever conversation for that long? Who can be sexy every minute of every day? We had homework to do, classes to take, college philanthropies and fun-runs in which to participate. Much of our disintegration had to do with the inability to reconcile our creepy charade with rituals ranging from taking prerequisites to watching re-runs of “Cheers.” When all was said and done, the Mickey Rourke routine proved to be rather, well, insubstantial.
Rourke was the other woman.
Had Trey and I bonded without eccentricity and false pretense, had we eaten pizza and frozen yogurt, had we held hands in movie theaters and played miniature golf, we may’ve been happy. I’ll never know. Certain trappings got in the way.
But I do know this: a capricious rejection of Mickey Rourke will be a small victory for true love. If I do it quickly and suddenly, like murder, its symbolic value will resonate over the course of my entire life. I’ll be conquering flimsy erotic nonsense; then I’ll get on with things. I’ll get on with love.
When Mickey Rourke and Don Johnson come to town to make their movie, it’s a god-sent. And I believe in God.
Things happen at night. For two weeks, Jest and I are nocturnal. I had no clue Tucson is so activeafter dark. Mickey doesn’t call, so Jest and I try to keep track of the film. This nighttime world is like Blade Runner, like a John Sayles’ film, like a Lou Reed song. We go downtown where tiny little cafes stay open till four a.m. We hit empty bars where lone figures drink dry martinis. We go to diners, the bus station, Hotel Congress, Café Quebec. I drink Mexican coffee and wait for Mickey to show up. I walk over railroad tracks to Dunkin’ Donuts where Jest buys me powdered sugar munchkins.
He says, “We’ll find him. Tomorrow.”
My elbows propped on the Dunkin’ Donuts’ counter and my lips dusted in white, I say, “What makes you think so?”
Jest, whispering, only mumbles one word. “Fate.”
Of course I believe him.
Jest finds out they’re shooting at the Tucson Convention Center. Arriving around nine at night, we park in back. Two trailers parallel a huge stage door. One is for Don Johnson, the other for Mickey Rourke.
I’ve changed outfits. This time I wear a dress. Also made of denim: acid-washed, backless, a dog-collar neck.
Jest is quiet. Sitting in the front seat with the lights from the Convention Center bouncing off the Buick’s windshield, we stare at the trailers.
“I’m going in,” I say.
Jest puts his hands on the steering wheel, peering out. “Show some leg.”
I open the car door and put a foot on the ground. “Thanks. I will.”
It’s important to know that, in all this, I never have a plan. I walk to the trailer. Its door is open, and chatter emanates from within. Rourke’s name is written on the side. I slowly climb the four steps to the entrance.
Sucking sharp air into my nostrils, I reach my fist inside and knock.
Scampering, shuffling, and arranging sounds emerge. A voice says, “Come in.”
So I go.
I walk into Mickey Rourke’s trailer, ready to interview, seduce, and reject. Billy Squier sings in my head. I can do this; I can carry this off.
I head inside the trailer. The Christmas Tree with the Kleenex box meets me before I get very far. Over his shoulder, I see Mickey drinking Evian with a white towel hanging around his neck. “Oh no you don’t,” Christmas Tree says.
“I thought I heard someone say, ‘Come in.’” My eyes plead; my shoulders sink.
He looks at me with pity. “You did. Sorry, our mistake.”
I gulp and try to make it look coy. “I just wanted to talk to Mr. Rourke.”
He checks me out. I feel undone, see-through. “Aren’t you the reporter?”
I back up. I step onto the stairs. “I’m sorry. Really. I’m sorry.”
And that’s that.
Rejected by a sex symbol, I return to Jest in the Buick. The whole thing took five minutes max. Jest puts his hand on mine. We sit like that for ten minutes.
Jest breaks the silence. “I need to do something. When I leave, I want you to slide over and start the ignition, okay?”
I’m a little emotional, having been discarded by Mickey Rourke on top of the travesty that is my life. “Fine,” I say. Not only has Trey forsaken me, but so has Mickey Rourke.
Jest gets out; I slide over. When the motor’s running, I lower the windows and blast the radio. I flip through stations, vacillating between Dexy’s Midnight Runners and Modern English.
I figure Jest is getting me an autograph. I figure we’ll have to settle for our range of possibilities. I guess we’ll have to get real.
I sing “Come On, Eileen” at the top of my lungs, accepting harsh reality. I hit the steering wheel and shake my fake black hair all over the place.
Then I see him.
Jest, running like he’s in Chariots of Fire, like he’s Indiana Jones and there’s a boulder chasing him, like he’s trying to outrun a raging Dorothy-in-Kansas tornado, dashes for the car. I swear to God, the guy, dress pants and all, can really run. I watch him, not completely grasping the situation. He opens the car door, hops in, slams it, breathes heavily, and gasps, “Drive!”
A two-second delay ensues. My mind isn’t digesting the events. Something is in his arms. Jest shouts, “Drive!”
I shift the car and do just that. Though I have to slowly brake over a few Convention Center speed bumps, I race away. Jest has, in his hands, a leather bomber jacket. I look at Jest; I look at the road; I look at the jacket. “What’s going on?”
Jest breathes heavily. “I got you something.”
Again, I look at Jest, at the road, at the jacket. “What do you mean?”
“I got you this, so you’re not empty-handed.”
It takes a minute; I’m extraordinarily dense. “You stole that?” I furrow my brow. “You stole that jacket?” I was once a girl scout; I went to private Christian schools.
He holds it up. “It’s Mickey’s Harley Davidson jacket in the movie.” I look at it out of the corner of my eyes. First of all, it smells like leather, like warm bovine. I can almost taste the open highway in my mouth. Second, it’s got presence. It’s beaten-up black and orange in color. The words Harley Davidson are written on the front, on the sleeve, and sprawled across the back. A deck of cards revealing a full house fans out over the right breast. Under the full house, a skull with R.I.P. and the word Evolution are written. A pack of cigarettes and a Zippo lighter are in its pockets. I feel like I’m Dennis Hopper and I’m riding a motorcycle to Venice Beach.
“You stole a prop?” I’m utterly confused.
“It’s a one-of-a-kind,” he nods.
I look in the rearview mirror. No one’s behind us. I gave Mickey my phone number. I am suspect number one. Pulling into a university parking lot, I tremble.
With lowered heads, we walk past the front desk to my dorm room. Jest carries Mickey’s jacket. Inside, he sits on my pink bedspread. James Dean, Depeche Mode, and Gunther Gable Williams from the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus look down on us from their smug places on my wall.
I cross my arms over my chest and pace. I’ve got stolen merchandise in my room and I left my phone number with the victim. “I’m calling my dad.”
My father picks up after three rings. I tell him what happened.
“You’re an accomplice,” he declares, sternly. “Probably to a felony.” His volume rises. “Where’s the damn jacket right now?” He’s really angry. “Where’d you put it?”
“It’s here.” I whimper. I’m near tears. “In my room.”
“And you gave that joker your phone number?” he shouts into the phone.
“Yeah,” I admit.
“I don’t believe you—I don’t believe you did this. And that ‘Jest’ character—doesn’t that idiot have a real name? You give him the jacket. You make him take it. You tell him to return it. Tell him to go back and return what he stole. Do you understand? I don’t want you keeping stolen property in your room. Do you understand me?”
I sniffle. “Yeah.”
When I get off the phone, I push Mickey Rourke’s Harley Davidson jacket into Jest’s arms. I tell him I can’t keep it. I tell him I can’t keep stolen property.
Later, he lets me know how it was, how the film medic took it back unknowingly, how Jest made it look like an oversight, something missed in the scuffle.
Two years pass.
Trey lives off-campus. We rarely see each other, but I think of him often.
I don’t like to hang out with Jest anymore because he scares me, but occasionally we’ll have Mickey Rourke Film Festivals in my room. We’ll rent Wild Orchid and Desperate Hours, I’ll make microwave popcorn, and Jest will sneak in beer. We’re serious critics of Mickey’s performances; we understand method acting and Mickey’s many, many moods.
Right before graduation, Jest takes me to Mina’s Red Pepper Kitchen for lemongrass chicken and Pad Thai.
“I have something for you back at my apartment,” Jest whispers over coconut-scented drops of soup. Jest, too, has left the dorm; we are separated, all of us.
“What?” I ask, picturing his apartment. He has silly black sheets he stole from Sears and a shrine to foreign-born women.
“It’s a surprise.”
“I hate surprises.” My tone is dry and indifferent; by twenty, I’m morose and apathetic.
“You’ll like this one.”
I have grown to hate Jest. That voice triggers something ruthless in me. If there’s a reason for war, it’s that voice. It makes me want to point my finger at him and assault him with enemy words. When I hear him speak, I know magic is just a sleight of hand.
Back at his apartment, I sit on his bed, the one with the stolen sheets. “Well?”
“Will you do something for me?” he asks.
“What?” I jiggle my leg up and down.
“I want to blindfold you,” he whispers.
He’s serious. He’s completely serious.
“Why?” I ask.
“It’ll add to the surprise.”
“Okay.” I pause. “Blindfold me.” One wonders why I allow it. Besides unrelenting curiosity, it’s part of being a girl: at some point in your life, a man’s going to want to blindfold you and, rather than risk false accusations, you’ll let him do it.
“Stand up,” he demands. It’s part of a plan he’s concocted in the wee hours of the night. I can tell. I see it in his face.
I stand up.
“Turn around.” His tone hasn’t changed, but I sense strategy.
I turn around. I hear him move behind me. A tie swings in front of my face, bringing darkness, and he carefully arranges it over my eyes, smoothing the silk over the bridge of my nose. He presses my eyelids lightly, making sure that my blindfold is comfortable. “Is that too tight?”
“It’s okay,” I say.
“I want you to be comfortable.”
“I know you do, Jest.”
I hear sounds like jars opening and flames flickering. Jest passes things under my nose. “Smell this.”
“What is it?” I ask, hiding fear.
“Just smell it.”
I do. Flowers not in season.
I hear the sizzle of a match and know he’s passing it by my face. “Don’t move.”
“What are you doing, Jest?” I whisper.
He doesn’t answer me.
I feel a chill against my skin, metal on my arm. He traces a cold wire along my shoulder. “Raise your arms,” he says.
“Like this?” I lift them above my head, the way kids do when they can’t stop coughing.
“No. Straight out.”
“Like Jesus on the Cross?”
The cold wire moves over my wrist, past my elbow, across my shoulders, and down the other arm till it touches my fingertip and disappears.
“Do you know what that was?” he asks.
“A hanger,” I moan, feigning detachment. My mind is reeling.
“You’re right.” He presses leather against my skin. “And this?”
“It’s leather,” I answer.
Jest drapes his surprise over my shoulders and I feel heavy leather cover me.
“You’re a madman, Jest.”
“Let me take off your blinders,” he declares.
Jest unties me in front of a mirror. I’m wearing Mickey Rourke’s Harley Davidson jacket. “Why did you do this?” I address his image in the mirror.
“You can forget Mickey,” he says, standing behind me while we look at ourselves. “But I want you to remember me.”
And this is our final hoax; this is how we say goodbye. We use props and call it quits.
Over ten years have passed, and the Statute of Limitations has expired. I keep the jacket in a closet, dragging it out sporadically at parties, bridal showers. My dad likes to wear it for pictures. He poses like he’s the Fonz.
Years ago, I went back to my natural hair color, a forgettable brown. Divorced and childless, I’m still at a loss when it comes to the company of men.
Jest and I barely keep in touch, but I know he’s in the Peace Corps. When he writes, he tells me about the llama jerky he makes in Bolivia while the people wait for revolution. I’m not sure whether or not he continues to wear dress pants. He’s still trying to save his brother’s life.
Trey is lost. I don’t know what happened to him.
Three years ago, though, we met in a hotel room near LAX when our business meetings converged. The room smelled like maple syrup and the carpet was a disturbing shade of gray. We met and, this time, Mickey was neither here nor there. We were alone. Undressing one another and approaching each other’s naked bodies, we searched for that old passion, that melancholic obsession that used to make us feel so alive. We stopped having sex right in the middle, because it seemed ridiculous, as if we were strangers and not strangers at the same time. Instead of the excitement of unfamiliarity or the comfort of the beloved, we found only disgust and drudgery. When we parted, we kissed like cousins. I haven’t seen him since.
I rent Mickey Rourke films rather than seeing them in movie theaters, not wanting to pay for a ticket. I can’t figure out that plastic surgery business either. He’s like an old friend, like Jest—someone I care for but really don’t want to talk to.
This, too, is true: Like Kim Basinger in the movie, I would crawl for love. I would get down on my hands and knees and inch across hardwood floors. I would suffer rug burn. I would crawl and crawl. I would crawl for miles. I would humble myself and let any candle flame, any fire, graze my cheek, if love were truly at stake.
Jennifer Spiegel‘s stories have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Nimrod, Harpur Palate, The Seattle Review, and others. The above story originally appeared in Nimrod and will be included in Spiegel’s forthcoming collection, The Freak Chronicles (Dzanc 2012).
Enola Gay opened the doors of the Battle Flag at nine, but now, near noon, I’m still perched on a cushioned stool in an empty roadhouse in a nowhere crossroads named Downy, outside Atlanta, waiting for a fat wallet to walk in. Enola’s left my Coors and me to dream while she counts cash or something down the other end of nowhere, and I dream of everything I had that mattered, make wishes on Battle Flag matches to get it all back, and blow them out.
I can see you, Maw-Maw, in a movie in my mind, waving two little stick flags on a Fourth of July, the Reb battle flag and the Stars-and-Stripes-Forever, your mouth stuffed with barbeque and slaw, beer suds on your nose, your round face flushed and happy, your white hair wavy as the snow on the ski-slope at Sky Valley where David took me and little Lee the winter before to teach us how to ski. Sometimes with my time-warp Star Trek X-ray vision I can see you when I wasn’t there at all, taking a piss, sitting in that hot port-a-potty at the carnival that set up in that field of Queen-Anne’s Lace and sneeze-making ragweed outside Downy last summer, white as blackboard chalk, but scarce able to sweat even in that boxed-in heat and with one evil fly buzzed down and landed on your pink putty nose which kids used to point at when you were younger and it was that port-a-potty like the Orgone Box cure-all I saw a picture of in my psych textbook when I still had educational ambitions, see you as if the door stood open, but the waiting crowd could only see it shut too long. Hodgkin’s or loss of life force finally killed your body, if not your unkillable spirit of troublesome fun. That lives on in my heart. You were boozing with Bubba, Uncle Bubba, and he was blamed, unfairly, for once, and driven from the pack, eventually, sick of hearing how he took you out and killed you in the most embarrassing public way possible.
But somebody would have surrendered to your wish. It was your life’s blood, the spirit of it, the laughing in the juke joints and calling young studs “sonny boy,” the Nascar video games, the mechanical bulls, the pool tables, the pickled eggs, pale in their jars of anemic beet blood—two of them and a beer made my birthday breakfast this morning—the honky-tonk jukeboxes banging out country music, and all the rest of that laughing life before death.
Hey, Uncle Bubba, how many banks have you robbed? Maw-maw told me once that you’d wasted most of your life behind bars, but the family always stuck by you, leastways until you took your sweet sister out that night to die. Shit, I might as well be with you, wherever you are, as here in the same town with them sin-spitting Bible-thumpers who started driving me out at fifteen, when I had little Lee by someone I couldn’t name for shame, just the way they Bible-thumped Mama out when she popped me, and she’s as gone as you are, Uncle Bubba, leaving me for Maw-Maw to defend, me some kind of bastard halfbreed bitch Mama got from one of her Cherokee boyfriends she liked to run with up in the Smokies, a bastard and breed bitch left for Maw-Maw, who done her duty, then Mama’s too.
“It’s a bitch!” I tell Enola Gay, when she comes my way, about today, tomorrow, and yesterday—about anytime since God’s marble blew up.
“Girl, you got Red State Blues,” says Enola Gay. But what I got now is a coziness around me, like an Indian blanket, not the heat, just that sweet beer safety. Fact is, it’s getting kind of hot in here, with the sun climbing. Enola plugs in the juke box and it lights up like Christmas. That’s cool! I go over and slug it and come back to listen. It’s Patsy Cline—“I Fall to Pieces.” I look in the mirror and see a cowgirl sip at a Coors behind a cancer-stick cloud. That’s me. That is I. See? The little whore knows better. She’s not just trailer trash. She’s been to community college. Thought I’d become a teacher or maybe a nurse, do some good in this good-for-nothing world. If it weren’t for Lee, having to feed Lee after Maw-Maw got her Hodgkin’s and anyway got too old to care for the sweet little brat, maybe I’d be saving lives instead of infecting them.
After I did David he came back like a persistent beau, and even brought me candy and flowers, Whitman’s and roses, and I began to forget that he was a trick and we began to talk because he was a teacher and I still had some of my ambition for learning, and he had this nice patient nature, too, not like the slope-headed, hairy-assed truckers and rednecks and servicemen who come in here looking for sex and trouble. You could ask Enola Gay if David wasn’t a gentleman and a kind of poet with his song lyrics he wrote himself and some of them were about me, too—eventually.
I’m gonna have another cold Coors.
It’s summer out there, and none too cool in here, but shady dark toward the back, where I am, sunny toward the door, with a big splash of sun wavering on the floor like gold water on the yellow wood. The Battle Flag’s got a good dance floor, big enough for shagging, or even line dancing. I just told Enola if she don’t turn up the air-conditioning, I’m taking my beer back into the fridge.
Thinking back, I suppose the best thing was that David liked Lee, showed him magic tricks with cards and chemistry—he taught chemistry—and I stopped turning my own tricks, and signed up for courses, and we began to make a family. David always had money, an “ample sufficiency,” he’d say, but that was what worried me, because he wasn’t teaching; he’d just go off and never say where, what he was doing, and come back and be good as gold to us, and I would tell Enola Gay, who had troubles of her own. I could tell Enola Gay that I was in love, but, black-eyed, she’d only laugh, or, maybe worse, try to wink that black eye.
Then one day David and Lee took off and never came back. David’s meth lab, that he kept secret from me, blew up. I had to go to the Sheriff to find out, nobody came to me. David’s dead and Lee’s dead, too, gone with him to pieces. Every blessed thing I care about is gone, like with the wind. All this shit happened before I was twenty-one, which is to say, that is the yesterday I’ve got to celebrate today. Today! Today’s my birthday, but I got nobody to spend it with. Well, maybe not! Here comes somebody walking on water.
E.M. Schorb is a poet and novelist. His work has appeared in 5 AM, Rattle, Quick Fiction, The Haight Ashbury Literary Review, Best American Fantasy, and Camera Obscura (where the above piece originally appeared), among many others. His first novel, Paradise Square, was the winner of the International eBook Award Foundation’s grand prize for fiction at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2000, and later, A Portable Chaos won the Writers Notes Magazine Book Award for Fiction in 2004. His most recent novel, Fortune Island, was published last year. See more of his work at www.emschorb.com
It is no secret that there is a lot of jabber in the world coming from everywhere including the streets and the houses with their people and telephones and radios and TVs, all of them blasting at you day and night so there is no peace. I know none of these things, these inventions or these people, are really saying anything to anyone, let alone to you or me. This is a fact. Some of the people who live here claim otherwise. They slink up to me real nefarious, ask me if I’ve heard the message and then slink off. I walked into the communism room last night, with all these empty chairs but one and the TV going real loud and this guy sitting but kind of jerking towards the TV. He looked at me like I was an emissary of the third coming — the second coming is past tense to most of the people around here — and pointed like we had this shared secret knowledge, at the tube, then directed his eyes right into mine as if there was anything in his stupid mind to communicate. I said, “Shut up,” and walked out. I said it loud to make sure he heard me because if you don’t stick up for yourself it isn’t my problem. READ MORE
I am four feet two inches tall. My bed sits sixteen inches off the ground. My dog is two feet tall, although I dont know if you say dogs are tall like you say humans are tall. The flower outside my window is nine inches tall. The yellow bird that landed on the windowsill is four inches tall. My Ben Kenobi toy is three inches tall. His light saber is three quarters of an inch tall. My father used to be very tall, but now he is not so tall. He slumps around in his chair. He is no longer as tall as he was. The tree in our front yard is sixteen feet tall. I measured it by climbing up as high as I could and dropping the tape measure. I had to guess a little. READ MORE
Let x equal the moment just after he tells her he’s starting a club for people who know something about computers.
It is summer, 1984, and this is their grade school playground. She is idling on a swing over a patch of scuffed earth. He stands just off to the side, one hand on the chain of the swing next to hers.
Let y equal her laughter. Her laughter sounds like a prank phone call at three a.m. It sounds a little evil.
She throws her head back, and even though he is hearing the y of her laughter in the wake of that moment x, he can’t stop staring at her hair. He can’t believe how black, how shiny, how perfect it is.
She stands up out of the swing and asks, “What do you know about computers?”
It is 1984. Nobody at this elementary school—or in Monmouth, Illinois, in general—knows all that much about computers.
Let z equal the face he makes. The face is not a reaction to her question but to her laughter.
He was trying to impress her with this computer club. He knows she is smarter than he is. He knows that she was, in fact, smarter than everyone in the entire fifth grade, and that next year, when they start pre-algebra, she will be the smartest person in the sixth grade, too.
He can’t help the z of his face. He feels humiliated. His ears are tiny fires, and her hair and face, both of which he finds beautiful, has always found beautiful, are beginning to blur together. She has stopped laughing, but he can still hear the ghost of it as he searches for a variable that might make it as if none of this ever happened.
In a moment she will step closer to him, recognizing in some way his humiliation, and wanting to make him feel better, but he will think she is about to say or do something even worse than she has already done, and he will misinterpret her gesture. When she gets close to him, he will kick her in the stomach—harder than he has ever kicked anyone.
He will regret this before she even begins to cry. She will double over, gasping for breath, and look up at him with dry eyes, and he will know that the hurt he has just inflicted upon her is at least equal to but probably greater than the hurt caused to him by the y of her laughter.
He will feel terrible, and he will immediately think back to x, the variable that started this whole rotten equation.
Let x equal not the moment just after he tells her about the computer club, but the moment just before it.
Let x be his saying nothing about this club and instead telling her something he’s always wanted to say.
Let x be a different gesture altogether. Something honest. Tender.
Chad Simpson‘s stories have appeared in many magazines and journals, including McSweeney’s, Orion, and The Sun. He lives in Monmouth, IL, and teaches fiction writing and literature at Knox College. The above story originally appeared in Esquire and is available in his recent chapbook, Phantoms. It is reprinted here by permission of the author. For more info, visit Chad’s website here.