Currently viewing the category: "short fiction"


A collection of my “stories,” leaning hard on the figurative sense of story, will be published by Curbside Splendor in November of this year, with the usual caveat that the world may end right around that time in which case never mind. I do hope my forthcoming book will in no way contribute to the end of the world.

The title of the book is “Everything Flows,” after the Teenage Fanclub song of the same name, which is not only the best Teenage Fanclub song ever, but maybe the only Teenage Fanclub song ever. It’s the first song on A Catholic Education, which was their first album. Some might find it a little hyper-crticial that I would call the first song from the first album of a band their best and maybe even only song, in which case I have no really great defense except to say that’s my opinion on the matter, and I don’t really care to hear yours, even though I’m probably wrong (as usual).

The excellent literary site Joyland, which describes itself as a “hub for short fiction” because it’s a hub for short fiction, has come out with the first of a planned biannual series of print journals consisting of pieces that have previously appeared on the site. The first Joyland Retro (it’s retro because it’s printed on old-fashioned paper, see) contains stories from Nathan Sellyn, Roxane Gay, Kevin Wilson, Zoe Whittall, Ricco Siasoco,  Jim Hanas, Andrew Hood, Ben Loory, Erica Lorraine, Scott McClanahan, and Margaret Wappler. And also, in what is either an oversight or a lapse of taste, a story by me.

You should buy it anyway, because the other writers included are uniformly great in ways that I can’t begin to describe because I haven’t received my contributor’s copy and so haven’t read their stories but TRUST ME. All proceeds from the sale of the print journal go towards keeping the site itself alive and kicking, and it’s a really vital endeavor if you’re at all interested in literary fiction, which if you’re not I will have to cut you out of my will. Sorry.

This is a picture of Berlin. It is unrelated to the story below.

 

[Editor's note: a version of this story appeared in my friend Sébastien Doubinsky's excellent bi- or tri-lingual periodical Zaporogue, which you can find here. Seb has at least two books forthcoming from the excellent Black Coffee Press sometime in the next year or so (including his excellent Goodbye Babylon, which was published in the UK under the title The Babylonian Trilogy and in France under... you get the idea) and by the time I finish writing this sentence will have written and/or translated three or four more excellent books in three or four more languages. This story is notable for being one of the very few things I've written recently that will not eventually be fitted for use in my forthcoming novel. Probably.]

 

The Reluctant King

 

Alfred the Coward stepped carefully down the shoe-worn steps in front of the library. Shallow grooves in the stone from the treading of shoes, countless, over years and years of students walking to and fro. Even a stone can be worn down, he thought, even marble or in this case granite from a quarry in somewhere in. He carried two books under his arm and headed across the grass for the shade of an elm tree. Fraxinus Americana, Alfred read on the brass plate affixed to the tree’s broad trunk. American Elm. Not many of these left, I suppose, he thought. Wasted by disease, the beetle who carried the disease from tree to tree or anyway bug of some kind. Dutch elm the disease was called, but killed American elms with Dutch efficiency. The men from the city came and chopped down the whole row on our street. The noise from the chainsaws. Like shooting a horse, he thought. No use. Books I’m carrying might have been pulped from that dead wood. Still no use.

He sat down in the shade. The new day was warm and moist, and the morning sun had just risen above the slate rooftop of the library. The lowest branches of the elm filtered some of the sunlight through a network of summer leaves, and their complex shadow swayed in the light wind. Alfred opened one of the books and flipped through the first few chapters without interest. Wonder will the rain hold off until evening, he thought. Right now doesn’t look, but these storms move quickly. Two nights ago came out of nowhere, over the blue hills I can see from my north-facing window, so out of the north. Unusual because most weather travels west to east. Part of the trouble with the world, he thought. Underneath right now the root system absorbs groundwater from the soaked-in rain, dredges the water back up through the trunk to the branches. The leaves need rain for strength, but also sun for photosynthesis. Producing air. Birds sitting on the branches, fluttering, chirping. Never know the names of birds. These are sparrows maybe because most birds you see are sparrows. Sarah said.

She would not come tonight, again, he thought. Only when I don’t expect. Some trick to that. Some extra sense. Nothing happens except when I’m not looking. He picked a small stone out of the earth at the base of the tree. The stone was round and smooth, with an irregularity, a small dark spot, on the underside. The top of the stone was lighter than the bottom, bleached by the sun. Alfred fingered the stone. Cool to the touch and absurdly smooth, he thought. Worn by rain same as the steps were worn by human feet. He tossed the stone a little distance. A bird flew down from the tree to inspect the stone. Thinks it might be food, he thought. All day long look for food, then sleep. I have so much trouble sleeping. No need to look for food, just go the dining hall and heaps of food in steaming piles on my plate. Tonight maybe chicken and a bit of salad for balance. The bird looks for food and I eat the bird. Not this bird. Still, a hawk might, if hawks are here. Never seen one, floating in the currents like on television. Everyone is prey. I don’t remember a single prayer, thought Alfred. Haven’t been inside a church in years.

A figure approached Alfred across the grass. Looks like Robert, tall and thin with shirttails flapping as he walks, he thought. Like the hanger’s still in his shirt, bony shoulders, narrow neck.

Aren’t you going for breakfast? asked Robert, stopping a few feet from where Alfred sat.

Alfred gestured to his books. Need to get some reading done. Class at eleven.

Nothing like leaving things to the last minute. Robert reached one bony hand to the back of his neck, scratched lightly.

Better late than never.

O that’s clever. I wish I’d thought of that, said Robert.

Alfred squinted up at Robert. Why doesn’t he sit down? Makes me nervous looming. Sit down or move on.
What kind of class?

English. We’re reading romantic poems, said Alfred. I mean from the period of the Romantics.

Keats died of tuberculosis. Consumption as it was called then. The wasting disease.

Yes that’s very helpful. I’ll be sure to mention that fact to the professor.

He was only twenty-five or something, said Robert. Not much older than us.

I suppose that’s true. Keats was a bell struck once, with a heavy hammer, in the distance, thought Alfred. You hear the fading of the sound rather than the sound itself. But the sound never fades completely. What does echolalia mean? I remember looking it up just the other day.

What does echolalia mean? asked Alfred.

Echolalia, repeated Robert. I don’t know. Did you read it somewhere? Echolalia.

No, it just popped into my head. I came across it a few days ago. I think maybe something Sarah said. Obviously it has something to do with echoes.

Obviously.

Robert stood for a moment, silent, in the gathering heat of the day. I’ll leave you to your reading, he said after a while.

Okay. You doing anything later?

Robert shrugged. He held his palms slightly outwards in a gesture of helplessness. No plans. Call me if you think of something.

Maybe, said Alfred. I’ll see you. When he held his hands like that he was the picture of Christ. Except for the lack of beard, and also now Jesus was said to be a black man. But pictures of Christ from paintings. Except for the beard. His hair’s not dissimilar, though, in length. Also lank and greasy, as you’d expect. A holy man would not take many baths, I think, he thought.

Alfred watched Robert walk towards the dining hall, which sat at a right angle to the library. The dining hall was made of red brick with white wooden columns. Those are Ionic capitals, he thought. Ionic, Doric, Corinthian. Everything I remember from Ancient Greece.

A gust of wind rustled the branches above his head. One or two of the birds flew off. Shading his eyes with his hand, Alfred peered in the direction of the sun. A few thin gray clouds scudded across the sky, moving fast. Down here the wind is calmer, thought Alfred. In the atmosphere things are more turbulent. The air is thinner and colder and changeable. When you fly in a plane you may encounter sudden pockets of rough air and the plane may drop, suddenly, in certain extreme cases hundreds of feet in a second.

He turned back to the book in his lap. The book had nothing to do with Romantic poetry. It was a novel by a French writer from the nineteenth century, translated into English by a fin-de-siècle British lady who had translated many books. Must have become easy after a while, he thought. Don’t see how you can produce things in that quantity without falling back on habit. With translation you’re always left to wonder if the book is a reflection more of the translator or of the original author.

You don’t seem yourself lately, said Alfred.

Sarah stretched across his bed, her hair wet from the shower, dressed in a light-blue blouse and gym shorts.

Who do I seem like, she asked. She was leaning on her elbows, watching the sunset fade outside his window.

I don’t know. Not yourself.

Don’t know what to say to that. I am myself. How can I not seem like myself? I don’t know any other way to be.

No, it’s just, you’re always sad and you don’t want to talk to me about things. You don’t get interested the way you used to.

Maybe I’ve told you everything I’m interested about. Maybe we’ve used up all possible topics of conversation. Anyway, I don’t feel particularly sad. You may be projecting.

Alfred sat at his desk and pretended to work on a paper for a class. He had a few sheets of paper covered in notes, and an open book on the desk in front of him. He held a pencil in his right hand. The pencil was covered in teeth marks.

I don’t think so. I mean, I don’t think I’m projecting. But it’s possible I’m wrong about your mood. I don’t have much experience with other people.

That’s not true, said Sarah, craning on the bed to face Alfred. You have more experience than you need. You have a surfeit of experience. You have me. You have yourself. By measuring one against the other you can draw any conclusion you need, and you have a fifty-fifty chance of being right. That’s better odds than with most things.

I’ve never had any luck with numbers, said Alfred, turning back to his work.

That was the last time, he thought, sitting under the elm, four days and counting. I try not to notice or let her absence bother me but what else? Alfred dug his fingers into the small hollow left by the stone he had picked out. He loosened clumps of black earth and flicked them with thumb and forefinger into the grass. The clumps disintegrated on impact. Earthworms churn the earth, building tunnels, an endless, unseen lattice. We need the earthworms because they till the soil, turning and turning the compact earth until it loosens and can absorb the rainwater on which all things depend. Once I bit into an apple I’d plucked from one of the trees in the faculty gardens. There was a worm in the apple and I bit it in half. I spit the worm and the piece of apple from my mouth and chucked the rest of the apple into a bush. Some worms can regenerate themselves from even half. Or maybe I killed the worm, I don’t know, he thought.

He inspected the nails on the hand that had rummaged in the dirt. There was a thin line of dirt under each nail. He tried to clean the nails with a pencil he had wedged in one of the books as a placeholder. Only makes things worse, he thought.

Alfred returned the pencil to its place in the book. Again he leafed through the book’s pages, without reading. This is not the book I wanted, he thought. Nunc ipsum, tamen. I will not knuckle under the weight of ideas. I will not say uncle.

As many of you know the trivium derives from the introductory curriculum in many medieval universities, where it involved the study of grammar, rhetoric, and logic. The word is Latin in derivation, perhaps obviously, and literally means the place where three (tri-) roads (via) meet. Our modern word trivia is loosely, and I think unfairly, connected by blood relation to trivium, by way of the altogether vulgar (in its literal sense) trivialis. Compare this with the quadrivium, similarly medieval, and comprising the four “mathematical” arts: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. An example of someone who would have excelled at the quadrivium is Brian May, the guitarist from Queen.

By way of illustration, I present the following story, or proselet, which is not a word I expect to catch on. It incorporates two quotations that one might find in any trivium worthy of the name, but places them in a setting of cheap jewelry that I hope makes some kind of emotional sense.

The Man Called Marriage

Two bursts of light, in rapid succession, woke him from a dreadful dream. A car turning around in the driveway, most likely. He shifted from his side onto his back, flinging a sleep-deadened arm across his chest. He enjoyed the way feeling would slowly creep back into the lifeless arm and hand.

He raised his head and looked at the pillow next to his on the bed. He knew she wasn’t there, knew that she had not been there for months, knew that barring some unforeseeable fold in the fabric of time she would never be there again. But he couldn’t help checking.

No sound but a few weary crickets, whether inside or out he could not tell. Dark of night had swallowed the room. Only blurred and mobile shapes. Shadows and deeper shadows.

Darkness has no lines, only depth, he thought. His eyes, adjusting to the murk, recovered what might be a chair, what might be a lamp, what might be a network of twigs on the ash tree outside his window, laying odds on how long till the sun comes up.

The sun is impossible to catch, he thought. Many things are thought impossible, but later turn out possible all along. It’s possible, he thought, that all things are possible, or will turn out to be possible. Two robins settled on the hickory tree outside his kitchen window. He was standing in the kitchen making coffee. Light from the morning sun, filtered by the greasy dirt on his unwashed windows, lay wan and shapeless on the counter and the dull tiles of the floor.

“Our separated dust, after so many pilgrimages and transformations into the parts of minerals, plants, animals, elements, shall at the voice of God return into their primitive shapes, and join again to make up their primary and predestinate forms.” He remembered the quote clearly but could not remember who said or wrote these words that he once believed.

He stood in the room where his books were lined against the wall. He held a long, serrated kitchen knife in his right hand, methodically scarring the spines of his books. He slashed diagonally, from top to bottom, left to right, in the same direction in which he used to read, it occurred to him, as he slashed the first volume of The Alexandria Quartet, without understanding why, without self-examination or emotion.

In the zoo, sidling up to the aviary, he saw parakeets varicolored like the desert sun setting on a cloudless night. A small snow-owl, half-blind from daylight, peered through slitted eyes at the end of all diseases of the flesh. The snow-owl, he thought, is a curious bird. He keeps most of what he knows to himself. But not all, he thought, and chuckled.

You could set the snow-owl free right now, but the snow owl would always be in prison. Once you injure something it stays injured. Fetters cannot be removed by any human hand.

One time he dreamed that he was walking along the red clay bank of a warbling creek, and saw an injured sparrow. He was overwhelmed with pity at the sight of the poor bird, and fell to his knees, cupping the sparrow in his hands and blowing gently on its feathers, thinking that somehow the blowing would reassure the tiny creature. The next part of the dream he couldn’t remember exactly, whether the bird simply died or immediately healed and flew away. Either way, he knew he had lost the sparrow for good, and knew, too, as one knows things in dreams that one could never guess in waking life, that the bird was her, and that she was gone.

Inner duration, perceived by consciousness, is nothing else but the melting of states of consciousness into one another, and the gradual growth of ego. Another useless quote, but why, he wondered, did this fragment of knowledge reduce him to helpless tears?

Wind snapped a branch outside and he woke. Tears streamed down his cheeks; his pillowcase was soaked.

“I am unbelievably happy,” he whispered to the empty room. And thought: I am unbelievably happy.

I wrote this story long before the movie franchise of the same title appeared. I’m not saying the movie people stole the idea from me, even though I’m pretty sure I invented hangovers, but if Zach Galliafinakopolisopoulous wants to kick a couple of euros my way for, you know, “thanks, man” or whatever, I would not complain.

In fact, I wrote this story a long, long time ago, when I (briefly) attended college in Charlottesville, Virginia, a town and a state I had never visited before enrolling there, and which I have not visited since dropping out, which was either the best decision I’ve ever made or the worst, or both, or neither.

The story when I first wrote it was close to 15,000 words. In its current form it is less than 900. People should not subject other people to their prolix juvenilia, is my point.

Though the conceit of the story suggests that it takes place during the time it takes to listen to both sides of R.E.M.’s Murmur, I do not advise taking that conceit as veridical, though if someone wants to test the proposition, please do not let me stop you.

Two further notes: 1) this story originally appeared in the fine literary/music journal Yeti (issue 6), which can be found here; 2) the character Violet McKnight, keen-eyed observers may note, has the same name as the character Violet McKnight in my most recent novel The Failure. The two girls are not related and in fact remain unaware of each other’s existence. I’d prefer to keep it that way, if it’s okay with you. Thanks.

The Hangover

SIDE ONE

 1. Calling out in transit (4:05)

Sam Anonymous had a drinking problem.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Brown vinyl of the sofa peeled with sticking sound from humid flesh of back and legs as he sat up. Pattern of raised swirls on the vinyl were reproduced on skin: corresponding incarnadine impressions.

2. Your hate: clipped and distant (4:30)

Low whistle of kettle rose in pitch and volume to climax in piercing shriek that unmoored the murmur of Sam’s thoughts. From tin of instant coffee he spooned quantity of dark powder. Hands shook slightly as he struggled to fill the cup with sour-smelling coffee. Scratched idly at the corner of one sleep-swollen eye: steadied himself against the counter. A ribbon of water lined the front edge of sink where he had sloppily rinsed the mug. When he pressed against the counter water seeped into the waistband of his boxers.

3. Martyred: misconstrued (3:58)

Her name was Violet McKnight. Five foot two in bare feet. Short hair dyed unnatural red swept back from lunar face: cranberry strands fell in her eyes when she made an emphatic gesture. Nose small, well-formed, eyes the color of root beer, narrowed to skeptical slits when challenged.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Spitting toothpaste into sink Sam noticed with equanimity that the spent paste was streaked with blood from his gums.

4. Not everyone can carry the weight of the world (3:24)

He was twenty-nine years old. In February he would be thirty.

5. Inside the moral kiosk (3:32)

A wave of nausea broke and receded. Sam hunched forward on the couch. Palpating his cheeks: annoyed by growth of stubble. Counting backwards could only manage four days before the fog of elapsed time refused to lift.

6. Shoulders high in the room (3:30)

Weaving unsteadily down the street, he saw her outlined against the black glass of her bedroom window, body limned by a nimbus of yellow streetlight.

SIDE TWO

1. Did we miss anything? (3:55)

Sam yawned, stretched his arms, stood and heavily walked across the room to turn over record. Returning to couch: revisited by a coil of his earlier nausea unwinding in his gut and feathering upwards through his chest. Unsnapped the cap from a plastic bottle on the table next to alarm clock, shook two aspirin into his hand, placed them with thumb and forefinger carefully in back of mouth, and swallowed with effortful gulp.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

What use is experience without memory?

2. We could gather: throw a fit (3:18)

One thing at a time: watching Violet bend towards him by light of a guttering candle.

3. All nine yards (3:05)

Scratched his hair in imitation of thought. Hoisted himself off the couch and began sorting through pile of clothes on ugly square of brown-and-white carpet.

Love is a crazy and unkempt thing that grows like a wild weed in the heart. It will suffer the cruelest attempts at eradication with quiet strength, and will take root and prosper in even the stoniest soil. True love, like true art, admits no moral influence. Had he read that or was it original?

4. Shaking through: opportune (4:30)

In frustration he ripped the front buttons and stripped off the shirt: left hand got tangled in the cuff: which he had abstractly buttoned moments earlier: and pull as he would: flap as he might: the shirt refused to let go. Sat down on the couch: head in hands, the tattered shirt trailing to the floor like captured flag of some defeated army.

5. Up the stairs to the landing (3:01)

World adheres to stringent rules of form and content: these rules, Sam knew from prolonged contact with books, were not frangible. Just as a story must have beginning, middle, end, so a soul must have one body to inhabit. Proliferation of the soul’s forms would mean rewriting rules of human contact.

6. Long gone (3:17)

The wind picked up and there was a smell of rain. Sam buttoned his overcoat with reddened fingers. The tips of a succession of telephone poles flecked the sky on the far side of the broad avenue: up one of these scrambled two squirrels.

Dark tracery of oak limbs: russet and orange and mustardy leaves: cold rain-scented air: combined to form an impression of remote beauty that reinforced and focused his sense of longing.

Continued past a brick house, windows ardent with citrine light. Fragrant gray smoke curled from its chimney: leaves of a silver poplar fluttered in the wind, undersides flashing white like a flock of luminous moths: from thick tangle of azalea bushes came sounds of a small animal scrabbling for food or shelter.

Fine rain needled his face but he did not mind the wet because in his heart he carried a word —finally! — that was the word he needed. He held the word before him like a lighted candle to ward off the rain, and the cold, and the black despair of night as he walked towards Violet’s house.

Part One – Sunderland

Thomas Quin was aware, with the acute self-consciousness pubescent boys suddenly acquire — a hilly solipsism from which they daily tumble into an abyss of despair — that he was unusually thin, and awkward, and afraid of everyone. His formerly natural friendliness and curiosity disappeared, replaced by morbid insularity. He went, as most teenagers do, insane. For instance, he was under the impression that he had invented masturbation.

Learning came so easily to Thom that he did not bother to learn anything; rather, with the arrogance which accompanies extreme shyness, he expected that things would learn him. He invented biographies for his future selves. He had many future selves, who accomplished great and wonderful things, though without effort — Thomas could see only the accolades, and the esteem, and never the work, because any kind of work directed toward anything other than his daydreams seemed pointless and silly. He would sit in the waiting room of the dentist’s office with a few children his own age or slightly younger, or slightly older, and imagine their future surprise to learn that they had once shared a dentist’s waiting room with Thomas Quin — so unprepossessing, so lacking in the qualities one normally finds in a hero, in a Great Man. And yet there he was. Waiting to have his teeth drilled.

The history of Sunderland, Massachusetts, despite its best efforts, has been and in all likelihood will remain unremittingly dull. There are only a few sources: a pamphlet encompassing the period from the town’s incorporation in 1639 through 1939, funded by President Roosevelt’s WPA act and executed by a group of talentless school teachers who based most of their work on Rambling’s much more thorough earlier history covering the years 1639-1889; and Bearhart’s unimaginably tedious gap-filler, from 1939 through the mid-eighties, which consists mostly of the results of various budget meetings, or midget beatings, sorry.

Sunderland lies sixteen or perhaps thirteen miles west and south of Boston, using the old Boston Post Road, established for obvious reasons three hundred and fifty years ago and which ran through Sunderland on its way west to Marlborough. The Wayside Inn on the south-western edge of Sunderland, along the Post Road, was celebrated in a collection of poems called Tales From A Wayside Inn by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who was not a particularly talented poet but who had a knack of coining memorable lines (“One if by land, two if by sea” from his poem — included in the Tales — about the midnight ride of Paul Revere, silversmith, to alert the citizenry to the approach of the British Regulars at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, foremost among these rote rhymes).

In the ensuing war, various noble-hearted citizens of Sunderland took up arms and fought with tennis raquets and muskets against the cowardly and brutal and slightly confused British, distinguishing themselves at the Battle Of Bunker Hill and at Valley Forge and at the Battle Of Old Bill Battle’s Battlefield, on the site of which is now a factory that produces board games of famous battles. Since that exciting era, nothing much has happened in Sunderland, with the minor exception of the first public performance of the rock opera Tommy, written and recorded by The Who, which had been licensed for public performance in the United States by one of the heirs to nature writer Rachel Carson’s fortune, who discovered too late that he had purchased a license for exactly one public performance, which thus took place at Sunderland Regional High School sometime in the early nineteen-seventies, according to reliable and friendly sources at the Sunderland Historical Society, which also sells maps. These sources unfortunately cannot remember the name of Carson’s heir, and speculate that his involvement in hard drugs may be responsible for the absence of any further information on his whereabouts or disposition. The performance, by an ensemble of local musicians, was well-received.

Young Thom Quin had a paper route, since age nine, delivering the evening edition of the Boston Globe to a new development of colonial-style homes in south-eastern Sunderland. He had a ten-speed bicycle, attached to the handlebars of which was a wire basket suitable for carrying the forty-odd papers that constituted his daily route. He also delivered the morning paper on Saturday, but the bulky Sunday edition was left to a specialist who employed the particular efficiency of an automobile. Thom was expected to deliver his papers in every kind of weather, and though on exceptionally snow-bound and frigid afternoons he would beg his mother to drive him in her dark green Ford Granada across the blustery tundra of Sunderland’s winter-dark streets, her firm belief in the value of persistence and self-reliance and hard work rarely melted in the face of Thom’s whining. He would suit up in a snorkel jacket, woolen mittens, and a scarf wrapped around his face which his breath soon dampened uncomfortably before freezing solid.

On the worst days he would put the papers in his Boston Globe carrier bag and sling it over first one shoulder, then the other, stamping through the snow which inevitably crept down his frozen-buckled rubber boots, soaking his thick socks, and adding to the torture of his travails. On one well-blizzared occasion he resorted to hauling the papers on his Flexible Flyer, fastened thereto with characteristic shoddiness by Thom, so that half-way through the route a strong gust swept the remaining papers into the white-quilted landscape, the papers unfurling like the mainsails of the Tall Ships that had earlier that year ported into Boston Harbor in celebration of the nation’s bicentennial, on the exact day of which Sunderland had lent its patriotic zip code, 01776, to Philadelphia. Thom made a half-hearted effort to save what few papers remained intact, which numbered exactly two, delivered those to the nearest two houses, who incidentally did not happen to subscribe to the Globe, and hurried home. He spent the rest of the night huddled in bed staring at his wallpaper, which featured a montage of Revolutionary War emblems, pretending to be sick in order to dodge calls from angry residents who unreasonably expected the timely delivery of their newspaper regardless of the weather, regardless that a fourteen-year-old boy has limits, both physical and mental, that should be tested only with great care.

Despite occasional irritations, Thom liked his paper-route very much, not least because it was an entirely solitary activity. His imagination was not constricted by the need to interact with anyone, and as such was free to tackle all the important questions a fourteen-year-old boy must confront: Is the world a dream, and if so is it my dream, are all these people, places and things a product of my dream, or am I part of someone else’s dream, and therefore unreal, but so thoroughly unreal that I’m unaware that I’m unreal? He had been taught in church to believe that the world was an illusion, and Thom had little difficulty absorbing that patently obvious fact, but he was endlessly absorbed by the question: whose illusion? Because his religion made no use of images or icons or representations of God, he saw everything and everyone as God-in-potential. But his favorite fancy was to imagine himself God, to invest himself with omnipotence and omniscience, though not yet omnipresence, as he had at that point very limited experience with life outside of Sunderland. Like many adolescent boys, he longed deeply for two seemingly contradictory things: to be accepted, to be well-liked, to appear normal in all aspects and not in any way weird; and to be special, to stand out above all others either by virtue of having been marked by God for some secret task, or, better yet, to have been invested with some magic ability — superhuman strength, mind-reading, invisibility — that no one realized but that would one day be revealed to the astonishment of all.

Walking backwards down Warren Road so as to avoid the cutting easterly wind that regularly buffeted that quarter of his paper-route, Thom could see Mount Nobscot, a few miles away in Framingham. He liked to imagine that an enemy force of great strength and determination lay hidden just behind Nobscot’s peak, which in truth was not so much a peak as the round back of a gently-sloped hill, but the maps provided by the Sunderland Historical Society do not lie. Mount Nobscot was a mere blip of earthwork, sparsely forested, on the crest of which sat awkwardly a water tower, whose tip bisected Thom’s oriental view. The hill sloped gently on either side, and disappeared behind occlusions as occur in many suburbs: bushes, streetlight, roof, the wafted smoke of twilight fires.

The enemy force could be ghosts, demons, humans, or some concatenation of the infinite congeries of evil — Thomas had recently finished reading Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary on an idle weekend — depending on the mood set by the setting sun, but what this enemy force did not suspect, lying in wait and chuckling to themselves at the excellence of their surprise attack, was that a great general had divined their plans, and was in the process of marshaling forces that would hide in the stands of birch and spruce and maple and oak, waiting, ready to meet force with force. This fantasy would last usually until he passed the frozen pond near Lands End Lane, where he could see the frost of breath from skating kids scrapping with sticks to push a puck through a goal carved from a snow bank, which distracted him to dream of the glory of sports.

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The excellent online litmag Metazen has seen fit to post on its site a story that I wrote. The story is actually part of a chapter from my next novel, which has a title, but the title is a secret. If you have any interest in the shape or tenor of my next novel, you can go read the story here.

If you don’t have any interest, then I suggest you do something useful, like the dishes. They’re not going to wash themselves, you know.

Just out, and free for download (though if you want to pop for the printed version at $45 I’m sure no one will complain), Zaporogue #10, a wonderful anthology edited by the formidable tri-lingual (at least) writer Sébastien Doubinsky. This 261 page edition contains work in English and French by luminaries like Vanessa Veselka, me, Anne-Sylvie Homasse, me, Lisa Thatcher, me, Matt Bialer, me, and many more, including me.

You can download it for free in the popular PDF format by clicking here. You will not regret doing so. Or your money back (see, that’s funny because it’s free so I don’t have to give you any money back).

The new issue (number 32) of SmokeLong Quarterly is up. I have a story in it called “Elephants.” My story was chosen by guest editor Ben Loory, and to accompany the story he interviewed me here.

Aside from the me part, the issue is stuffed with excellent writing by lots of excellent writers. You need to check it out right away, or risk angering the literary gods. Who are ruthless. Ruthless.

Under der linden
an der heide,
dâ unser zweier bette was,
dâ mugt ir vinden
schône beide
gebrochen bluomen unde gras.
vor dem walde in einem tal,
tandaradei,
schône sanc diu nategal.

Under the lime tree
on the open field,
where we two had our bed,
you still can see
lovely broken
flowers and grass.
On the edge of the woods in a vale,
tandaradei,
sweetly sang the nightingale.

Walther von der Vogelweide (c. 1170 – c. 1230)

I woke this haze-shrouded California day with an obsession: to escape. Not just my cramped and unclean two-room sublet, but the whole dust-bowled, brown-scarved city. I’ve lived in Los Angeles for almost three years, and during that time have never discovered the city limits. To be fair, the city may not have any limits. I’ve been told as much, but it’s unwise to believe everything you’re told, I’m told. As a matter of long habit, I rarely leave the house. I spend my days reading books, or watching movies. I consider myself a student type.

I had never before this day been afflicted by anything like an obsession. I’d always figured I simply didn’t have the requisite attention span. You—or maybe not you, but someone, I hope—know what it’s like: you set your mind on something, get maybe halfway through, and suddenly stop, because you can’t remember why. Your motivation evaporates, without apparent cause. Well, the answer’s clear, Alphonse-Hubert, you tell me (that’s my name, and yes, it’s my real name, and no… I forget what no. Call me Valence, or Val. Everyone else does—strange that I don’t know your name, though), obviously, you’ve remembered that there’s no point. In other words, there’s no point to anything, and still we do things, we keep doing things, despite the pointlessness. Not me, personally, I don’t do anything, or not many things, at any rate, but people in general: we do things.

Where’s the evidence that doing things has resulted in a benefit for humanity? A real, measurable, absolute benefit for every human being, I mean. Obviously you can do something nice for yourself, or your neighbor, or your grandmother, but all of these people: you, your neighbor, your grandmother, are going to die, and where does your good deed end up but the cemetery? Okay, say you are an inventor and you come up with something that undeniably progresses our common ability to travel from one place to another more quickly and comfortably, while at the same time preserving the earth’s natural resources and affordable to everyone, not just rich wastrels.

I’m not convinced. What’s so terrific about traveling more quickly or comfortably? Who’s to say we’re not better off with slow, cumbersome, filthy, disease-ridden, back-breaking, environment-blighting modes of transport? The earth does not belong to us, nor her natural resources. If we squander them, it’s the same as stealing from God, but if we save them, we’re saving them for God, and where’s the benefit to humanity in saving things for God, who—by the way—is supposed to be in charge of saving things for us, or at least saving us. Perhaps these are the same thing, perhaps not. I’m no theologian.

I don’t think the old days or ways were better than the new ones. I don’t think they were worse, necessarily. On the whole, life has always been life, and the core problems associated with life remain as unsolved and troublesome as ever. I’m not one of these crazy Luddites who want to take away every invention made after the year 700 or whatever. Not that I approve of many of these inventions, in fact just the opposite, I disapprove of everything the so-called Renaissance and its grubby cousin, the Industrial Revolution, has bequeathed us, with the possible exception of the television and the DVD player, because I watch a lot of movies but I don’t like to leave the house. I disapprove of modern conveniences and the general uptick in speed-of-life that has accompanied these conveniences, especially the vacuum cleaner, but I cannot condone anything that derives from religion. Religious people, by which I mean people bound by faith, which is of course the etymology of religion, are by definition insane, and will do insane things. Religious people in recent history have been known to fly airplanes (which I don’t like, either) into skyscrapers (also no good), killing thousands of people.

Where’s the benefit in that? Granted, thousands of people die every day, sometimes of what are called natural causes, sometimes through neglect, stupidity, greed, laziness, etc. More rarely, these people are killed by other people, either singly, in small groups, or in mass executions. The victims in such cases are inevitably described as “innocent.” Which is another thing I have trouble believing: that there are innocent people. Everyone goes on and on about innocent people, especially with regard to children, when you and I both know, as has been proven in such books as Lord Of The Flies, Madame Bovary, Mein Kampf, Green Eggs And Ham, The Holy Bible, Highlights Magazine, Wuthering Heights, and Civilization And Its Discontents, that no one is innocent. Everyone deserves to die, and everyone will die. It’s a question of when, that’s all. And of how much, not how little, harm you will do to others and yourself before you die.

Thanks to the discerning eye of guest editor (and very fine writer) Ben Loory, I have a very short story up over at SmokeLong, which is a place on the internet that publishes very short strories. My story is about elephants. That’s why there is a picture of a trunk at the top of this post. Get it? Do you? Are you sure? Go here to read the story.

I dug up part of an abandoned novel about a guy who drives from New York to San Francisco with the corpse of his girlfriend (he accidentally kills her in the first chapter)  in the front seat. If you’re squeamish, don’t worry. I cut out all the gross necrophilia stuff. If you’re not squeamish, sorry, I cut out all the cool necrophilia stuff. The novel was orginally called Boola’s Trip. Maybe someday it still will.

Boola’s Trip

“Wyoming—a great land outdoors,” reads the state line greeting. I suppose what they’re saying is: don’t go indoors. Stay outside and play. Here, we have nothing for you indoors.

The road surface had changed in color from Nebraska’s abraded black vinyl to a lighter, reddish material, some sort of sandstone-based asphalt. Snow swirled in menacing flurries from the green and brown mesas and plateaus surrounding me down across the hood of my speeding Utero.

The mesas were dotted with scrub pine. We passed a graveyard for old railroad cars, stacked in lopsided piles beside a stretch of rusty, unused track. The first part of Wyoming is as flat as my pitch when I sing along to the radio; I could see all the way to the looming mountains, miles and miles in the leaden distance. We were about 45 miles from Cheyenne. It was approximately two-thirty in the afternoon. Mountain Time.

My software needs upgrading. My operating system is outdated. I have a theory about sex. “I have a theory about sex,” I announced to Boola, moonlighting as my girlfriend, well-hung on every pearl of too-truth dropped from my clenched jaws. “My theory, and please note, it’s only a theory–distilled from the honey of daily observation, patiently sifted, sure, but still….”

***

There didn’t look to be an easy way out of this. A dead girl in the front seat is a dead girl in the front seat, no matter how you say it, or don’t say it, or refuse to acknowledge it.

I resolved to check the atlas next time we stopped, though I had grown adept at pinning the book against the steering wheel and checking my location by means of a swift series of glances. Not that I was worried about getting lost. Even before GPS, it wasn’t easy to get lost in America anymore. Hard to believe if you just stay on this road you can travel three thousand miles from one place to another. From one empty feeling to another.

Passion without precision: chaos. Feeling kind of shandy. Kisses all lead to dreaming, and dreaming leads to death. I have a persistent nagging fear that the world of dreams is the one you will inhabit when you die. That the final few seconds of electrical brain activity will last for a seeming infinity—the only real infinity, I suppose, that any human ego can comprehend.

And that would really bum me out, to be honest. I’d prefer nothingness to some creepy oneiric landscape, over which one can exercise only an unpredictable and vague kind of control. I have anxiety about the afterlife. I fear that when plopped into its recondite midst, I will have a panic attack. Here’s my hell: an eternal panic attack, and no red wine.

***

Huge robot transformers, arms raised alertly, shunt the country’s electricity along thick ropes of conductive wire. When you pass near them the AM radio band hisses with static, the sound of blood boiling or my brain on drugs, enveloping in a fizzy rush this week’s Business Roundtable, a discussion I think of a new kind of spreadsheet software, then ebbing quickly, back to the banal chatter that helps keep me from thinking too much.

I’m cruising down Route 80 under a sky like shaved soap, the blue of my Utero’s hood etiolated to a light gray in the fading afternoon light. Not even the ontic perplexities of the twitchy stiff propped next to me could distract from the highway delight I now experienced. Gentle vehicular vibrations transferred from the wheels to the drive shaft to the steering wheel to my arms and on through my body, so that I was trembling with connectivity, with what Mary Baker Eddy called at-one-ment, with sheer driving excitement.

***

I’m not really sure what happened next. I remember the road in front of me sparkling in my headlights. I think we passed the skeleton of a semi in the meridian, buried up to its haunches in luminous powder. I jumped a fast train of thought, and had trouble sorting out the meaning behind the referents. I saw or thought I saw the shimmering carpet in front of me lift up, into the sky, and we rode a carpet of stars over the whole earth, over the storm and the white fields, the ribbon of road, the jutting heliotrope hills. And then just as suddenly as we had taken off we began to plummet, more quickly than I could register. The great white shawl of the ground came rushing towards us but I felt no fear, because this was what I had always wanted: to be embraced. We touched down hard, snow exploding everywhere around us, and we hurtled uncontrollably through the night for uncountable seconds. Eventually we sledded to a halt I knew not where.

I could not move. I could not think. I felt no pain, but could not seem to open my eyes, or, if they were open, to see. I drifted into a state of semi-consciousness.

 

Search for: Peace with self.

Item(s) not found.

 

Search for: Meaning.

Item(s) not found.

 

Search for: Reason to live.

Item(s) not found.

 

poker tournament software | poker software development | Paul and Tanya Streeter

Over at Fictionaut, I posted a new story. It’s about the salt-cellar created by Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571), pictured above. It’s pretty short. If you want to read it, go here.