; ‘ . . , , , , , , , , , . — — , , . ; – , , , . — — , — — — — – — — — — — — – — — – — — . , , — — . — — — — ? ; . , , , , . , , , , , ; , , , — — — — , – , – . , . , , ; . , , — — — — , , . . . — — — — , , , , . , , — — — — ; . , , , . . , , , , , , , , , , , , , . , , , , – , , , ; , , , , . , , , , , — — , , , , , , , , ” ” — — , , . — — — — . — — ? — — . , , . , , , , — — , , . — — , , , — — , , , , – . , . . . , – . . ; , . – , . , , . , , , , . , . , . , , , , . , , . — — , , , , , , — — — — . , . , , . . . . , , , . , ; , , , . . , , , . , . . , , . , , , , — — . , , . ; , , , . , , , ! . . ; , , ; , ; , ; , , , ; – ; — — , , . , , . , , . , , , , , , , , . — — ; — — . , , , . . ( ) — — , , , – — — , – , , , . , , . , , . , , , — — , , . . , , ; , , . ; ; ; ; ; , , . . ” , ” , ” . , , , . , , . , , , . , , , — — . , , , , . ” , , , , . , , , — — – — — , , , — — , , , , . , , , — — – — — — — , , . ” , ” , , ” ( ) . ” , ( ) , , , . ; . . , , , ; , . . , , . , ; , ( ) ; — — , , . , ; . , , , . , , , , . . , , , . . . , . , , , , — — ( ) . , , . , . , , , , . , , , , . , , , , . . , ; , . , . , , , , . . , , , ( ) , . . , , , , , , , . , ” , ” , , : — — . , , — — — — . ‘ — — ! . . , , , ; ( — — — — ) ; , , , . . ‘ – ; , ( ! ) , . . , , , , , , . . , , ‘ ; ( , , , ! ) , , – . . , – ; , , , , — — . , ‘ ( * ) , . , , . , , , , , . , . , , ( ) . , , — — , , — — , , . — — — — , , ( ) , . , , , — — . , . — — , , — — , , . ” ” ; ” ” ; ” ” ; ” ” ; ” ” , ‘ , ; ” ” ; ” ” . ” , ” ; , , . , , — — — — . , , , , , ( ) , . , , , . ( ) , , – . , , , , . , . , . ( , , ) , , ; , , . , , , – , , , , , , , . , , , , . , , . , , . ; , , , , , . , , — — . , , , , . , , , , , . , , . . . , , . , , — — . ; , , . , , , . , , , , , . — — . , , . , , , . — — . . , , — — , , , , . . ; , , . , , , , — — , — — , , , . , , ( ) , , . , . . , , , , . , , — — , , — — . — — , . ” ? ” , — — ” ? — — , ! . ” , , , . . , , , . ; ; ( ) – , . — — , . , , . ” — — ! ” , , , , , . ” , , — — . ; — — . . , : — — . ” ” ” ; ‘ ; , , . , , ; , ( ) . , , , , , . – , , , . , , : ” , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ; , , , , – . ” , , ; ( ) — — , , , , , , ( ) . , , ; , , , , , , , . : ” , , ; , , , , , ; — — , ; , . , , , , , , , . ” , — — , , ( ) , , , — — ‘ . , , , , , , , . ; , , , , . , , ; , . — — , . , , — — . , , : ” , , , , , , ; , , . ” , — — , , — — , , , , , . , ; . . , . , , ; ; , , , . , . ” ? — — , , . — — — — — — , , , — — — — , , ! — — — — ! ! ? . — — , — — — — ! — — – — — — — ! ! — — ‘ , – , ! — — , , , , ! ! ? ? ? ? ? ! ” — — , , — — ” ! ! ” , , , . — — . , . — — , , , – , , . , , . . , ; . , , – – , , . , — — — — — — — — — — ” . ” * , . , , . — — ” , ” . .
The Names, Don DeLillo (1982)
In the Shadow of No Towers, Art Spiegelman (2004)
“The Suffering Channel,” David Foster Wallace (2004)
“Twilight of the Superheroes,” Deborah Eisenberg (2006)
Falling Man, Don DeLillo (2007)
“The Vision of Peter Damien,” Chris Adrian (2008)
Point Omega, Don DeLillo (2010)
Open City, Teju Cole (2011)
“Home,” George Saunders (2011)
Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon (2013)
Preparation for the Next Life, Atticus Lish (2014)
“Doppelgänger, Poltergeist,” Denis Johnson (2017)
My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Ottessa Moshfegh (2018)
I am rereading Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories, starting with the sixtieth story and working my way to the first and writing about it.
This post covers stories 42-37.
47. “The Crisis” (Great Days, 1979)
“The Crisis” is a bit of a toss off, a bricolage of the last decade (’69-’79) that never coheres into a duet, monologue, theme, or even punchline. Its plot, such as it is, details (details is not the correct verb) the circumstances of an absurd failed revolution. Ostensibly a dialogue (or is it a chorus?), “The Crisis” doesn’t add up to much, and is perhaps best summarized in one of its closing images:
Distant fingers from the rebel forces are raised in fond salute.
Is Barthelme shooting his readers the bird?
The story feels like a slapdash riff on Walker Percy’s weird and wonderful satirical novel Love in the Ruins. (Barthelme was a huge Percy fan.)
46. “Our Work and Why We Do It” (Amateurs, 1976)
“Our Work and Why We Do It” is self-consciously postmodern, a mash-up of Beckett’s absurdism, Benjamin’s seminal “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” burgeoning Marxist aesthetic philosophy, and the modes and means of modernism. The opening line seems to satirize capital’s relationship between art, artist, and the means of production: “As admirable volume after admirable volume tumbled from the sweating presses . . . ” The ellipses are not mine; rather, Barthelme sets the stage here for a print economy of capitalist transactions. The Wells Fargo man arrives, gun in hand, to pick up the “bundle of Alice Cooper T-shirts we had just printed up.” He hurries the “precious product” — that’s all it is, product, content — to the “glittering fans”.
We then learn there’s a bit of conflict between the owners and the workers.
A few lines later, the narrator quips, “And I saw the figure 5 writ in gold.” Barthelme copies-cuts-pastes the modernists into his collage here—we get the visual of Charles Demuth’s painting, itself copying-cutting-pasting Willliam Carlos Williams’ “The Great Figure.”
Publication is a rough business: “If only we could confine ourselves to matchbook covers!” laments the narrator–
But matchbook covers are not our destiny. Our destiny is to accomplish 1. 5 million impressions per day. In the next quarter, that figure will be upped by twelve percent, unless
The hanging “unless” is Barthelme’s rhetorical trick and not my oversight—the punchline is “leather,” by the way. “Leather is the way to accomplish more impressions. But the real hanging punchline is that word “impressions,” with its many connotations.
45. “The Great Hug” (Amateurs, 1976)
Such a great weird little story—is it about a toxic relationship between the Balloon Man and the Pin Lady? is it a metaphor for relationships in the modern era? is it an autobiographical riff, Barthelme’s love woes scribbled into a weird parody? —an oblique comment on e.e. cummings “in Just” — look, I don’t fucken know, maybe read it here. It’ll only take a few minutes, and then you can think about it for a week or so.
44. “The School” (Amateurs, 1976)
“The School” is wonderful stuff, and will take you like, what, 9, 10 minutes to read, if not less.
It’s a monologue I guess, delivered by a sorry educator whose schooling has killed off all manner of creatures. In the first three paragraphs we learn about the school’s failure to keep alive trees, snakes, and herb gardens, but then there’s a more drastic turn:
Of course we expected the tropical fish to die, that was no surprise. Those numbers, you look at them crooked and they’re belly-up on the surface. But the lesson plan called for a tropical fish input at that point, there was nothing we could do, it happens every year, you just have to hurry past it.
We weren’t even supposed to have a puppy.
We weren’t even supposed to have a puppy—goddammit Donald Barthelme. This line made me laugh out loud. And then it made me sad.
Reviewing my summary of the first three paragraphs, I’m tempted to make something religious out of it all—trees, snakes, gardens, and the like—but I don’t think that’s the gist. Or maybe it is the gist (Barthelme grew up Catholic). Is this a goof on the Eden thing? Humanity’s failure to be good stewards of the planet, etc. etc. etc.? I don’t know. Look, it’s a funny little story, read it.
43. “The Sergeant” (Amateurs, 1976)
“The Sergeant” reads like an oddity in Barthelme’s catalog—although not really, I guess, when that catalog is all oddity.
On one hand, “The Sergeant” is narrated in a seemingly-straightforward Hemingwayesque first-person I. This narrator is clearly based on a version of Barthelme. Barthelme served in the Korean War, but the real backdrop of “The Sergeant” is the Vietnam War–which was also the backdrop of much of Barthelme’s writing career (he arguably best addresses that folly in his 1968 story “The Indian Uprising,” which I’m still a ways from).
On the other hand, “The Sergeant” comes from the school of Kafka—it’s the bad dream we’ve all had, the nightmare repetitions of past duties we didn’t even sign up for. “The Sergeant” reads like a short blueprint for much of the Kafkaesque fiction that would follow it, including the labyrinths of Kazuo Ishiguro.
But Barthelme punctuates his nightmare-tale with a mythological touch: “Penelope!” cries the narrator, extending Barthelme’s anxiety riff into an ageless epic.
42. “I Bought a Little City” (Amateurs, 1976)
“I Bought a Little City” is likely regarded as one of Barthelme’s greatest hits, possibly because it’s a more straightforward affair than his collages, pastiches, and oblique parodies. There’s a mean streak to this story about a rich man who buys Galveston, Texas. The story is about a lot things—control, desire, community, and creativity, maybe best summed up in two of its early lines: “What a nice little city, it suits me fine. It suited me fine so I started to change it.” People love to blow up their lives, but the asshole narrator citybuyer starts to blow up other people’s lives. He shoots six thousand dogs, for example. He humiliates a cop by making said cop buy him some fried chicken. He tries to steal another man’s wife, but it doesn’t work out. Maybe “I Bought a Little City” is about creative failures; maybe it’s a satire of capitalism. Or maybe it’s just another Barthelme goof.
Summary thoughts: Uh…the stories in Amateurs are generally better than those in Great Days. The weakest one here is “The Crisis,” from Great Days; the other stories feel more of a piece with each other. I enjoyed “The Sergeant” the most, but mostly because it has a different flavor from the other stories. “The School” is probably the best of the batch.
Going forward (in reverse): We continue backwards through the seventies, where we eventually hit (what I think might be a top-ten Barthelme hit) “Eugénie Grandet.”
Jorge Luis Borges
Translated by Andrew Hurley
Hann tekr sverthtt Gram ok leggri methal their abert — Volsunga Saga, 27
My story will be faithful to reality, or at least to my personal recollection of reality, which is the same thing. The events took place only a short while ago, but I know that the habit of literature is also the habit of interpolating circumstantial details and accentuating certain emphases. I wish to tell the story of my encounter with Ulrikke (I never learned her last name, and perhaps never will) in the city of York. The tale will span one night and one morning.
It would be easy for me to say that I saw her for the first time beside the Five Sisters at York Minster, those stained glass panes devoid of figural representation that Cromwell’s iconoclasts left untouched, but the fact is that we met in the dayroom of the Northern Inn, which lies outside the walls. There were but a few of us in the room, and she had her back to me. Some-one offered her a glass of sherry and she refused it.
“I am a feminist,” she said. “I have no desire to imitate men. I find their tobacco and their alcohol repulsive.”
The pronouncement was an attempt at wit, and I sensed this wasn’t the first time she’d voiced it. I later learned that it was not like her—but what we say is not always like us.
She said she’d arrived at the museum late, but that they’d let her in when they learned she was Norwegian.
“Not the first time the Norwegians storm York,” someone remarked.
“Quite right,” she said. “England was ours and we lost her—if, that is, anyone can possess anything or anything can really be lost.”
It was at that point that I looked at her. A line somewhere in William Blake talks about girls of soft silver or furious gold, but in Ulrikke there was both gold and softness. She was light and tall, with sharp features and gray eyes. Less than by her face, I was impressed by her air of calm mystery. She smiled easily, and her smile seemed to take her somewhere far away. She was dressed in black—unusual in the lands of the north, which try to cheer the dullness of the surroundings with bright colors. She spoke a neat, precise English, slightly stressing the r’s. I am no great observer; I discovered these things gradually.
We were introduced. I told her I was a professor at the University of the Andes, in Bogotá. I clarified that I myself was Colombian.
“What is ‘being Colombian’?”
“I’m not sure,” I replied. “It’s an act of faith.”
“Like being Norwegian,” she said, nodding.
I can recall nothing further of what was said that night. The next day I came down to the dining room early. I saw through the windows that it had snowed; the moors ran on seamlessly into the morning. There was no one else in the dining room. Ulrikke invited me to share her table. She told me she liked to go out walking alone.
I remembered an old quip of Schopenhauer’s.
“I do too. We can go out alone together,” I said.
We walked off away from the house through the newly fallen snow. There was not a soul abroad in the fields. I suggested we go downriver a few miles, to Thorgate. I know I was in love with Ulrikke; there was no other person on earth I’d have wanted beside me.
Suddenly I heard the far-off howl of a wolf. I have never heard a wolf howl, but I know that it was a wolf. Ulrikke’s expression did not change.
After a while she said, as though thinking out loud: “The few shabby swords I saw yesterday in York Minster were more moving to me than the great ships in the museum at Oslo.”
Our two paths were briefly crossing: that evening Ulrikke was to continue her journey toward London; I, toward Edinburgh.
“On Oxford Street,” she said, “I will retrace the steps of DeQuincey, who went seeking his lost Anna among the crowds of London.”
“DeQuincey,” I replied, “stopped looking. My search for her, on the other hand, continues, through all time.”
“Perhaps,” Ulrikke said softly, “you have found her.”
I realized that an unforeseen event was not to be forbidden me, and I kissed her lips and her eyes.
She pushed me away with gentle firmness, but then said: “I shall be yours in the inn at Thorgate. I ask you, meanwhile, not to touch me. It’s best that way.”
For a celibate, middle-aged man, proffered love is a gift that one no longer hopes for; a miracle has the right to impose conditions. I recalled my salad days in Popayán and a girl from Texas, as bright and slender as Ulrikke, who had denied me her love.
I did not make the mistake of asking her whether she loved me. I realized that I was not the first, and would not be the last. That adventure, perhaps the last for me, would be one of many for that glowing, determined disciple of Ibsen.
We walked on, hand in hand.
“All this is like a dream,” I said, “and I never dream.”
“Like that king,” Ulrikke replied, “who never dreamed until a sorcerer put him to sleep in a pigsty.”
Then she added: “Ssh! A bird is about to sing.”
In a moment we heard the birdsong.
“In these lands,” I said, “people think that a person who’s soon to die can see the future.”
“And I’m about to die,” she said.
I looked at her, stunned.
“Lets cut through the woods,” I urged her.
“We’ll get to Thorgate sooner.”
“The woods are dangerous,” she replied. We continued across the moors.
“I wish this moment would last forever,” I murmured.
“Forever is a word mankind is forbidden to speak,” Ulrikke declared emphatically, and then, to soften her words, she asked me to tell her my name again, which she hadn’t heard very well.
“Javier Otárola,” I said.
She tried to repeat it, but couldn’t. I failed, likewise, with Ulrikke.
“I will call you Sigurd,” she said with a smile.
“And if I’m to be Sigurd,” I replied, “then you shall be Brunhild.”
Her steps had slowed. “Do you know the saga?” I asked. “Of course,” she said. “The tragic story that the Germans spoiled with their parvenu Nibelungen.”
I didn’t want to argue, so I answered: “Brunhild, you are walking as though you wanted a sword to lie between us in our bed.”
We were suddenly before the inn. I was not surprised to find that it, like the one we had departed from, was called the Northern Inn.
From the top of the staircase, Ulrikke called down to me: “Did you hear the wolf? There are no wolves in England anymore. Hurry up.”
As I climbed the stairs, I noticed that the walls were papered a deep crimson, in the style of William Morris, with intertwined birds and fruit. Ulrikke entered the room first. The dark chamber had a low, peaked ceiling. The expected bed was duplicated in a vague glass, and its burnished mahogany reminded me of the mirror of the Scriptures. Ulrikke had already undressed. She called me by my true name, Javier. I sensed that the snow was coming down harder. Now there was no more furniture, no more mirrors. There was no sword between us. Like sand, time sifted away. Ancient in the dimness flowed love, and for the first and last time, I possessed the image of Ulrikke.
“The Ghost Ships: A Christmas Story”
Therefore that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forebearing of labor, feasting, or any other way upon any such account aforesaid, every person so offending shall pay for every offense five shillings as a fine to the county.
Statute enacted by the General Court of
Massachusetts, May 1659, repealed 1681
‘Twas the night before Christmas. Silent night, holy night. The snow lay deep and crisp and even. Etc. etc. etc.; let these familiar words conjure up the traditional anticipatory magic of Christmas Eve, and then — forget it.
Forget it. Even if the white moon above Boston Bay ensures that all is calm, all is bright, there will be no Christmas as such in the village on the shore that now lies locked in a precarious winter dream.
(Dream, that uncensorable state. They would forbid it if they could.)
At that time, for we are talking about a long time ago, about three and a quarter hundred years ago, the newcomers had no more than scribbled their signatures on the blank page of the continent that was, as it lay under the snow, no whiter nor more pure than their intentions.
They plan to write more largely; they plan to inscribe thereon the name of God.
And that was why, because of their awesome piety, tomorrow, on Christmas Day, they will wake, pray and go about their business as if it were any other day.
For them, all days are holy but none are holidays.
New England is the new leaf they have just turned over; Old England is the dirty linen their brethren at home have just — did they not recently win the English Civil War? — washed in public.
Back home, for the sake of spiritual integrity, their brothers and sisters have broken the graven images in the churches, banned the playhouses where men dress up as women, chopped down the village Maypoles because they welcome in the spring in altogether too orgiastic a fashion.
Nothing particularly radical about that, given the Puritans’ basic premises. Anyone can see at a glance that a Maypole, proudly erect upon the village green as the sap is rising, is a godless instrument. The very thought of Cotton Mather, with blossom in his hair, dancing round the Maypole makes the imagination reel. No. The greatest genius of the Puritans lay in their ability to sniff out a pagan survival in, say, the custom of decorating a house with holly for the festive season; they were the stuff of which social anthropologists would be made!
And their distaste for the icon of the lovely lady with her bonny babe — Mariolatry, graven images! — is less subtle than their disgust at the very idea of the festive season itself. It was the festivity of it that irked them.
Nevertheless, it assuredly is a gross and heathenish practice, to welcome the birth of Our
Saviour with feasting, drunkenness, and lewd displays of mumming and masquerading.
We want none of that filth in this new place.
No, thank you.
As midnight approached, the cattle in the byres lumbered down upon their knees in homage, according to the well-established custom of over sixteen hundred English winters when they had mimicked the kneeling cattle in the Bethlehem stable; then, remembering where they were in the nick of time, they hastily refrained from idolatry and hauled themselves upright.
Boston Bay, calm as milk, black as ink, smooth as silk. And suddenly, at just the hour when the night spins on its spindle and starts to unravel its own darkness, at what one could call, elsewhere, the witching hour —
I saw three ships come sailing in,
Christmas Day, Christmas Day,
I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas Day in the morning.
Three ships, silent as ghost ships; ghost ships of Christmas past.
And what was in those ships all three? Continue reading ““The Ghost Ships: A Christmas Story” by Angela Carter”
Here are the first two paragraphs:
He used to play the violin, but then, as his fingers thickened and lost some of their agility, he became frustrated by trying to play, and then bored by it. He put the violin away in its case for good, had the case removed to a storeroom, and, instead, invited others in to play for him and his family in the evenings. In time, this playing by others, too, wearied him with its incessant sound and he no longer invited musicians into his home or willingly listened to any music, except, perhaps, at long intervals, from a distance, a patriotic march.
He used to provide what was needed in the way of food, equipment, and guides for parties of men to go off exploring. They would bring him not only reports of what they had seen but also handsome artifacts, such as feathered tribal headdresses and small handmade axes and other tools. These he would display in his roomy front hall, and visitors waiting for a private audience would pass the time studying the artifacts and learning about the indigenous tribes of the country. He had had exactly this in mind, to educate the public, when he directed that the artifacts be displayed thus on the walls and in cabinets. But then he tired of the artifacts and lost interest in what they signaled of other cultures, and no longer cared about educating the public. He had everything in the front hall taken off the walls and out of the house and sold to a museum. The bare walls, a relief to his eyes, were then to be painted gold. He no longer sent parties of men out to explore the wilderness, for he no longer had any interest in other landscapes or the wildlife or primitive peoples that inhabited them. Geography now confused him.
“The Piano Player”
by Donald Barthelme
from Come Back, Dr. Caligari (1964)
Outside his window five-year-old Priscilla Hess, square and squat as a mailbox (red sweater, blue lumpy corduroy pants), looked around poignantly for someone to wipe her overflowing nose. There was a butterfly locked inside that mailbox, surely; would it ever escape? Or was the quality of mailboxes stuck to her forever, like her parents, like her name? The sky was sunny and blue. A filet of green Silly Putty disappeared into fat Priscilla Hess and he turned to greet his wife who was crawling through the door and her hands and knees.
“Yes?” he said. “What now?”
“I’m ugly,” she said, sitting back on her haunches. “Our children are ugly.”
“Nonsense,” Brian said sharply. “They’re wonderful children. Wonderful and beautiful. Other people’s children are ugly, not our children. Now get up and go back out to the smokeroom. You’re supposed to be curing a ham.”
“The ham died,” she said. “I couldn’t cure it. I tried everything. You don’t love me any more. The penicillin was stale. I’m ugly and so are the children. It said to tell you goodbye.”
“The ham,” she said. “Is one of our children named Ambrose? Somebody named Ambrose has been sending us telegrams. How many do we have now? Four? Five? Do you think they’re heterosexual?”
She made a moue and ran a hand through her artichoke hair. “The house is rusting away. Why did you want a steel house? Why did I think I wanted to live in Connecticut? I don’t know.”
“Get up,” he said softly, “get up, dearly beloved. Stand up and sing. Sing Parsifal.”
“I want a Triumph,” she said from the floor. “A TR-4. Everyone in Stamford, every single person, has one but me. If you gave me a TR-4 I’d put our ugly children in it and drive away. To Wellfleet. I’d take all the ugliness out of your life.”
“A green one?”
“A red one,” she said menacingly. “Red with red leather seats.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be chipping paint?” he asked. “I bought us an electric data processing system. An IBM.”
“I want to go to Wellfleet,” she said. “I want to talk to
Edmund Wilson and take him for a ride in my red TR-4. The children can dig clams. We have a lot to talk about, Bunny and me.”
“Why don’t you remove those shoulder pads?” Brian said kindly. “It’s too bad about the ham.”
“I loved that ham,” she said viciously. “When you galloped into the University of Texas on your roan Volvo, I thought you were going to be somebody. I gave you my hand. You put rings on it. Rings that my mother gave me. I thought you were going to be distinguished, like Bunny.”
He showed her his broad, shouldered back. “Everything is in flitters,” he said. “Play the piano, won’t you?”
“You always were afraid of my piano, she said. “My four or five children are afraid of the piano. You taught them to be afraid of it. The giraffe is on fire, but I don’t suppose you care.”
“What can we eat,” he asked, “with the ham gone?”
“There’s some Silly Putty in the deepfreeze,” she said tonelessly.
“Rain is falling,” he observed. “Rain or something.”
“When you graduated from the Wharton School of Business,” she said, “I thought at last! I thought now we can move to Stamford and have interesting neighbors. But they’re not interesting. The giraffe is interesting but he sleeps so much of the time. The mailbox is rather interesting. The man didn’t open it at 3:31 P.M. today. He was five minutes late. The government lied again.”
With a gesture of impatience, Brian turned on the light. The great burst of electricity illuminated her upturned tiny face. Eyes like snow peas, he thought. Tamar dancing. My name in the dictionary, in the back. The Law of Bilateral Good Fortune. Piano bread perhaps. A nibble of pain running through the Western World. Coriolanus.
“Oh God,” she said, from the floor. “Look at my knees.”
Brian looked. Her knees were blushing.
“It’s senseless, senseless,” she said. “I’ve been caulking the medicine chest. What for? I don’t know. You’ve got to give me more money. Ben is bleeding. Bessie wants to be an S.S. man. She’s reading The Rise and Fall. She’s identified with Himmler. Is that her name? Bessie?”
“What’s the other one’s name? The blond one?”
“Billy. Named after your father. Your Dad.”
“You’ve got to get me an air hammer. To clean the children’s teeth. What’s the name of that disease? They’ll all have it, every single one, if you don’t get me an air hammer.”
“And a compressor,” Brian said. “And a Pinetop Smith record. I remember.”
She lay on her back. The shoulder pads clattered against the terrazzo. Her number, 17, was written large on her chest. Her eyes were screwed tight shut. “Altman’s is having a sale,” she said, “Maybe
I should go in.”
“Listen,” he said. “Get up. Go into the grape arbor. I’ll trundle the piano out there. You’ve been chipping too much paint. ”
“You wouldn’t touch that piano,” she said. “Not in a million years.”
“You really think I’m afraid of it?”
“Not in a million years,” she said, “you phoney.”
“All right,” Brian said quietly. “All right.” He strode over to the piano. He took a good grip on its black varnishedness. He began to trundle it across the room, and, after a slight hesitation, it struck him dead.
The Names, Don DeLillo (1982)
In the Shadow of No Towers, Art Spiegelman (2004)
“The Suffering Channel,” David Foster Wallace (2004)
Falling Man, Don DeLillo (2007)
“The Vision of Peter Damien,” Chris Adrian (2008)
Open City, Teju Cole (2011)
Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon (2013)
Preparation for the Next Life, Atticus Lish (2014)
“Doppelgänger, Poltergeist,” Denis Johnson (2017)
“The Great Simoleon Caper”
Hard to imagine a less attractive life-style for a young man just out of college than going back to Bismarck to live with his parents — unless it’s living with his brother in the suburbs of Chicago, which, naturally, is what I did. Mom at least bakes a mean cherry pie. Joe, on the other hand, got me into a permanent emotional headlock and found some way, every day, to give me psychic noogies. For example, there was the day he gave me the job of figuring out how many jelly beans it would take to fill up Soldier Field.
Let us stipulate that it’s all my fault; Joe would want me to be clear on that point. Just as he was always good with people, I was always good with numbers. As Joe tells me at least once a week, I should have studied engineering. Drifted between majors instead, ended up with a major in math and a minor in art — just about the worst thing you can put on a job app.
Joe, on the other hand, went into the ad game. When the Internet and optical fiber and HDTV and digital cash all came together and turned into what we now call the Metaverse, most of the big ad agencies got hammered — because in the Metaverse, you can actually whip out a gun and blow the Energizer Bunny’s head off, and a lot of people did. Joe borrowed 10,000 bucks from Mom and Dad and started this clever young ad agency. If you’ve spent any time crawling the Metaverse, you’ve seen his work — and it’s seen you, and talked to you, and followed you around.
Mom and Dad stayed in their same little house in Bismarck, North Dakota. None of their neighbors guessed that if they cashed in their stock in Joe’s agency, they’d be worth about $20 million. I nagged them to diversify their portfolio — you know, buy a bushel basket of Krugerrands and bury them in the backyard, or maybe put a few million into a mutual fund. But Mom and Dad felt this would be a no-confidence vote in Joe.
It'd be,'' Dad said,like showing up for your kid’s piano recital with a Walkman.”
Joe comes home one January evening with a magnum of champagne. After giving me the obligatory hazing about whether I’m old enough to drink, he pours me a glass. He’s already banished his two sons to the Home Theater. They have cranked up the set-top box they got for Christmas. Patch this baby into your HDTV, and you can cruise the Metaverse, wander the Web and choose from among several user-friendly operating systems, each one rife with automatic help systems, customer-service hot lines and intelligent agents. The theater’s subwoofer causes our silverware to buzz around like sheet-metal hockey players, and amplified explosions knock swirling nebulas of tiny bubbles loose from the insides of our champagne glasses. Those low frequencies must penetrate the young brain somehow, coming in under kids’ media-hip radar and injecting the edfotainucational muchomedia bitstream direct into their cerebral cortices.
“Hauled down a mother of an account today,” Joe explains. “We hype cars. We hype computers. We hype athletic shoes. But as of three hours ago, we are hyping a currency.”
“What?” says his wife Anne.
“Y’know, like dollars or yen. Except this is a new currency.”
“From which country?” I ask. This is like offering lox to a dog: I’ve given Joe the chance to enlighten his feckless bro. He hammers back half a flute of Dom Perignon and shifts into full-on Pitch Mode.
The time, a pleasant Sunday afternoon in the early autumn of 1861. The place, a forest’s heart in the mountain region of southwestern Virginia. Private Grayrock of the Federal Army is discovered seated comfortably at the root of a great pine tree, against which he leans, his legs extended straight along the ground, his rifle lying across his thighs, his hands (clasped in order that they may not fall away to his sides) resting upon the barrel of the weapon. The contact of the back of his head with the tree has pushed his cap downward over his eyes, almost concealing them; one seeing him would say that he slept.
Private Grayrock did not sleep; to have done so would have imperiled the interests of the United States, for he was a long way outside the lines and subject to capture or death at the hands of the enemy. Moreover, he was in a frame of mind unfavorable to repose. The cause of his perturbation of spirit was this: during the previous night he had served on the picket-guard, and had been posted as a sentinel in this very forest. The night was clear, though moonless, but in the gloom of the wood the darkness was deep. Grayrock’s post was at a considerable distance from those to right and left, for the pickets had been thrown out a needless distance from the camp, making the line too long for the force detailed to occupy it. The war was young, and military camps entertained the error that while sleeping they were better protected by thin lines a long way out toward the enemy than by thicker ones close in. And surely they needed as long notice as possible of an enemy’s approach, for they were at that time addicted to the practice of undressing–than which nothing could be more unsoldierly. On the morning of the memorable 6th of April, at Shiloh, many of Grant’s men when spitted on Confederate bayonets were as naked as civilians; but it should be allowed that this was not because of any defect in their picket line. Their error was of another sort: they had no pickets. This is perhaps a vain digression. I should not care to undertake to interest the reader in the fate of an army; what we have here to consider is that of Private Grayrock. Continue reading “Watch Robert Enrico’s short film adaptation of Ambrose Bierce’s “The Mockingbird””
The Editors are spiking most of my copy now, unread. One has described it as “hopeless crap.” My master’s degree means nothing to this pack of half-wits at the Blade. My job is hanging by a thread. But Frankie, an assistant city editor, is not such a bad boss and it was she who, out of the blue, gave me this choice assignment. I was startled. A last chance to make good?
Frankie said, “Get some bright quotes for a change, okay? Or make some up. Not so much of your dreary exposition. Not so many clauses. Get to the point at once. And keep it short for a change, okay? Now, buzz on out to the new Pecking Center on Warehouse Road, near the Loopdale Cutoff. Scoot. Take the brown Gremlin. But check the water in the radiator!” Continue reading “Read “The Wind Bloweth Where It Listeth,” a short story by Charles Portis”
And me on a buckskin pony with eyes like blue electricity and a mane like tangled fire, galloping up the hill and right off into the high heaven of the world. His skeleton lay still. Perhaps it was thinking about this.
Anyway, after a time it groaned. But it said nothing, which is certainly not like you he thought you are not like yourself, but I can’t say that a little quiet is not pleasant. He lay beneath an unrolled strip of tarred roofing made of paper. All of him that is, save that part which suffered neither insects nor temperature and which galloped unflagging on the destinationless pony, up a piled silver hill of cumulae where no hoof echoed nor left print, toward the blue precipice never gained. This part was neither flesh nor unflesh and he tingled a little pleasantly with its lackful contemplation as he lay beneath the tarred paper bedclothing.
So were the mechanics of sleeping, of denning up for the night, simplified. Each morning the entire bed rolled back into a spool and stood erect in the corner. It was like those glasses, reading glasses which old ladies used to wear, attached to a cord that rolls onto a spindle in a neat case of unmarked gold; a spindle, a case, attached to the deep bosom of the mother of sleep.
He lay still, savoring this. Beneath him Rincon followed.
Beyond its fatal, secret, nightly pursuits, where upon the rich and inert darkness of the streets lighted windows and doors lay like oily strokes of broad and overladen brushes. From the docks a ship’s siren unsourced itself. For a moment it was sound, then it compassed silence, atmosphere, bringing upon the eardrums a vacuum in which nothing, not even silence, was. Then it ceased, ebbed; the silence breathed again with a clashing of palm fronds like sand hissing across a sheet of metal.
Still his skeleton lay motionless. Perhaps it was thinking about this and he thought of his tarred paper bed as a pair of spectacles through which he nightly perused the fabric of dreams: Across the twin transparencies of the spectacles the horse still gallops with its tangled welter of tossing flames. Forward and back against the taut roundness of its belly its legs swing, rhythmically reaching and over-reaching, each spurning over-reach punctuated by a flicking limberness of shod hooves. He can see the saddlegirth and the soles of the rider’s feet in the stirrups. The girth cuts the horse in two just back of the withers, yet it still gallops with rhythmic and unflagging fury and without progression, and he thinks of that riderless Norman steed which galloped against the Saracen Emir, who, so keen of eye, so delicate and strong the wrist which swung the blade, severed the galloping beast at a single blow, the several halves thundering on in the sacred dust where him of Bouillon and Tancred too clashed in sullen retreat; thundering on through the assembled foes of our meek Lord, wrapped still in the fury and the pride of the charge, not knowing that it was dead.
The ceiling of the garret slanted in a ruined pitch to the low eaves. It was dark, and the body consciousness, assuming the office of vision, shaped in his mind’s eye his motionless body grown phosphorescent with that steady decay which had set up within his body on the day of his birth. The flesh is dead living on itself subsisting consuming itself thriftily in its own renewal will never die for I am the
Resurrection and the Life of a man, the worm should be lusty, lean, haired-over. Of women, of delicate girls briefly like heard music in tune, it should be suavely shaped, falling feeding into prettinesses, feeding, what though to Me but as a seething of new milk Who am the Resurrection and the Life. It was dark. The agony of wood was soothed by these latitudes; empty rooms did not creak and crack. Perhaps wood was like any other skeleton though, after a time, once reflexes of old compulsions had spent themselves. Bones might lie under seas, in the caverns of the sea, knocked together by the dying echoes of waves. Like bones of horses cursing the inferior riders who bestrode them, bragging to one another about what they would have done with a first-rate rider up. But somebody always crucified the first-rate riders. And then it’s better to be bones knocking together to the spent motion of falling tides in the caverns and the grottoes of the sea. where him of Bouillon and Tancred too.
His skeleton groaned again. Across the twin transparencies of the glassy floor the horse still galloped, unflagging and without progress, its destination the barn where sleep was stabled. It was dark. Luis, who ran the cantina downstairs, allowed him to sleep in the garret. But the Standard Oil Company, who owned the garret and the roofing paper, owned the darkness too; it was Mrs Widdrington’s, the Standard Oil Company’s wife’s, darkness he was using to sleep in. She’d make a poet of you too, if you did not work anywhere. She believed that, if a reason for breathing were not acceptable to her, it was no reason. With her, if you were white and did not work, you were either a tramp or a poet. Maybe you were. Women are so wise. They have learned how to live unconfused by reality, impervious to it. It was dark. and knock my bones together and together It was dark, a darkness filled with a fairy pattering of small feet, stealthy and intent. Sometimes the cold patter of them on his face waked him in the night, and at his movement they scurried invisibly like an abrupt disintegration of dead leaves in a wind, in whispering arpeggios of minute sound, leaving a thin but definite effluvium of furtiveness and voracity. At times, lying so while daylight slanted grayly along the ruined pitch of the eaves, he watched their shadowy flickings from obscurity to obscurity, shadowy and huge as cats, leaving along the stagnant silences those whisperings gusts of fairy feet.
Mrs Widdrington owned the rats too. But wealthy people have to own so many things. Only she didn’t expect the rats to pay for using her darkness and silence by writing poetry.
Not that they could not have, and pretty fair verse probably.
Something of the rat about Byron: allocutions of stealthful voracity; a fairy pattering of little feet behind a bloody arras where fell where jell where I was King of Kings but the woman with the woman with the dogs eyes to knock my bones together and together. “I would like to perform something,” he said, shaping his lips soundlessly in the darkness, and the galloping horse filled his mind again with soundless thunder. He could see the saddlegirth and the soles of the rider’s stirruped feet, and he thought of that Norman steed, bred of many fathers to bear iron mail in the slow, damp, green valleys of England, maddened with heat and thirst and hopeless horizons filled with shimmering nothingness, thundering along in two halves and not knowing it, fused still in the rhythm of accrued momentum. Its head was mailed so that it could not see forward at all, and from the center of the plates projected a projected a “Chamfron,” his skeleton said.
“Chamfron.” He mused for a time, while the beast that did not know that it was dead thundered on as the ranks of the Lamb’s foes opened in the sacred dust and let it through.
“Chamfron,” he repeated. Living, as it did, a retired life, his skeleton could know next to nothing of the world. Yet it had an astonishing and exasperating way of supplying him with bits of trivial information that had temporarily escaped his mind. “All you know is what I tell you,” he said.
“Not always,” the skeleton said. “I know that the end of life is lying still. You haven’t learned that yet. Or you haven’t mentioned it to me, anyway.
“Oh, I’ve learned it,” he said. “I’ve had it dinned into me enough. It isn’t that. It’s that I don’t believe it’s true.”
The skeleton groaned.
“I don’t believe it, I say,” he repeated.
“All right, all right,” the skeleton said testily. “I shan’t dispute you. I never do. I only give you advice.”
“Somebody has to, I guess,” he agreed sourly. “At least, it looks like it.” He lay still beneath the tarred paper, in a silence filled with fairy patterings. Again his body slanted and slanted downward through opaline corridors groined with ribs of dying sunlight upward dissolving dimly, and came to rest at last in the windless gardens of the sea. About him the swaying caverns and the grottoes, and his body lay on the rippled floor, tumbling peacefully to the wavering echoes of the tides.
I want to perform something bold and tragical and austere he repeated, shaping the soundless words in the pattering silence me on a buckskin pony with eyes like blue electricity and a mane like tangled fire, galloping up the hill and right off into the high heaven of the world Still galloping, the horse soars outward; still galloping, it thunders up the long blue hill of heaven, its tossing mane in golden swirls like fire.
Steed and rider thunder on, thunder punily diminishing: a dying star upon the immensity of darkness and of silence within which, steadfast, fading, deepbreasted and grave of flank, muses the dark and tragic figure of the Earth, his mother.
Thomas Pynchon’s short story “The Secret Integration” was first published in a December issue of The Saturday Evening Post, and later published again as part of Pynchon’s first and only short story collection, Slow Learner.
In a 2018 article published at The Yale Review, Terry Reilly suggested that by publishing “The Secret Integration” in The Saturday Evening Post,
…Pynchon uses the form of an apparently simple, entertaining adolescent boys’ story to engage and then to manipulate the Post readers; to invoke various features of the publication history of The Saturday Evening Post while simultaneously calling attention to the magazine’s limited scope and conservative bias concerning issues of civil rights and racial integration in 1964.
Pynchon’s story was accompanied by three illustrations by the cartoonist Arnold Roth, including a header, a small illustration, and this full page illustration below:
The first page of the story:
OUTSIDE it was raining, the first rain of October, end of haying season and of the fall’s brilliance, purity of light, a certain soundness to weather that had brought New Yorkers flooding up through the Berkshires not too many weekends ago to see the trees changing in that sun. Today, by contrast, it was Saturday and raining, a lousy combination. Inside at the moment was Tim Santora, waiting for ten o’clock and wondering how he was going to get out past his mother. Grover wanted to see him at ten this morning, so he had to go. He sat curled in an old washing machine that lay on its side in a back room of the house; he listened to rain going down a drainpipe and looked at a wart that was on his finger. The wart had been there for two weeks and wasn’t going to go away. The other day his mother had taken him over to Doctor Slothrop, who painted some red stuff on it, turned out the lights and said, “Now, when I switch on my magic purple lamp, watch what happens to the wart.” It wasn’t a very magic-looking lamp, but when the doctor turned it on, the wart glowed a bright green. “Ah, good,” said Doctor Slothrop. “Green. That means the wart will go away, Tim. It hasn’t got a chance.” But as they were going out, the doctor said to Tim’s mother, in a lowered voice Tim had learned how to listen in on, “Suggestion therapy works about half the time. If this doesn’t clear up now spontaneously, bring him back and we’ll try liquid nitrogen.” Soon as he got home, Tim ran over to ask Grover what “suggestion therapy” meant. He found him down in the cellar, working on another invention. Continue reading “Arnold Roth’s original illustrations for Thomas Pynchon’s 1964 short story “The Secret Integration” (and a link to the full text of the story)”
“I Don’t Talk Service No More”
Once you slip past that nurses’ station in the east wing of D-3, you can get into the library at night easy enough if you have the keys. They keep the phone locked up in a desk drawer there but if you have the keys you can get it out and make all the long-distance calls you want to for free, and smoke all the cigarettes you want to, as long as you open a window and don’t let the smoke pile up so thick inside that it sets off the smoke alarm. You don’t want to set that thing to chirping. The library is a small room. There are three walls of paperback westerns and one wall of windows and one desk.
I called up Neap down in Orange, Texas, and he said, “I live in a bog now.” I hadn’t seen him in forty-odd years and I woke him up in the middle of the night and that was the first thing out of his mouth. “My house is sinking. I live in a bog now.” I told him I had been thinking about the Fox Company Raid and thought I would give him a ring. We called it the Fox Company Raid, but it wasn’t a company raid or even a platoon raid, it was just a squad of us, with three or four extra guys carrying pump shotguns for trench work. Neap said he didn’t remember me. Then he said he did remember me, but not very well. He said, “I don’t talk service no more.”
We had been in reserve and had gone back up on the line to relieve some kind of pacifist division. Those boys had something like “Live and Let Live” on their shoulder patches. When they went out on patrol at night, they faked it. They would go out about a hundred yards and lie down in the paddies, and doze off, too, like some of the night nurses on D-3. When they came back, they would say they had been all the way over to the Chinese outposts but had failed to engage the enemy. They failed night after night. Right behind the line the mortar guys sat around in their mortar pits and played cards all day. I don’t believe they even had aiming stakes set up around their pits. They hated to fire those tubes because the Chinese would fire right back. Continue reading “Read “I Don’t Talk Service No More,” a short story by Charles Portis”
“The Shape of the Sword”
Jorge Luis Borges
Translated by Andrew Hurley
His face was traversed by a vengeful scar, an ashen and almost perfect arc that sliced from the temple on one side of his head to his cheek on the other. His true name does not matter; everyone in Tacuarembó called him “the Englishman at La Colorada.” The owner of the land, Cardoso, hadn’t wanted to sell it; I heard that the Englishman plied him with an argument no one could have foreseen—he told him the secret history of the scar. He had come from the border, from Rio Grande do Sul; there were those who said that over in Brazil he had been a smuggler. The fields had gone to grass, the water was bitter; to put things to right, the Englishman worked shoulder to shoulder with his peons. People say he was harsh to the point of cruelty, but scrupulously fair. They also say he liked his drink; once or twice a year he would shut himself up in the room in the belvedere, and two or three days later he would emerge as though from a battle or a spell of dizziness—
pale, shaking, befuddled, and as authoritarian as ever. I recall his glacial eyes, his lean energy, his gray mustache. He was standoffish; the fact is, his Spanish was rudimentary, and tainted with the accents of Brazil. Aside from the occasional business letter or pamphlet, he got no mail.
The last time I made a trip through the northern provinces, high water along the Caraguatá forced me to spend the night at La Colorada. Within a few minutes I thought I sensed that my showing up that way was somehow inopportune. I tried to ingratiate myself with the Englishman, and to do so I seized upon patriotism, that least discerning of passions. I remarked that a country with England’s spirit was invincible. My interlocutor nodded, but added with a smile that he wasn’t English—he was Irish, from Dungarvan. That said, he stopped, as though he had let slip a secret.
We went outside after dinner to have a look at the sky. The clouds had cleared away, but far off behind the sharp peaks, the southern sky, creviced and split with lightning, threatened another storm. Back in the dilapidated dining room, the peon who’d served dinner brought out a bottle of rum. We drank for a long time, in silence.
I am not sure what time it was when I realized that I was drunk; I don’t know what
inspiration or elation or boredom led me to remark on my host’s scar. His face froze; for several seconds I thought he was going to eject me from the house. But at last, his voice perfectly ordinary, he said to me:
“I will tell you the story of my scar under one condition—that no contempt or condemnation be withheld, no mitigation for any iniquity be pleaded.”
I agreed. This is the story he told, his English interspersed with Spanish, and even with Portuguese: In 1922, in one of the cities of Connaught, I was one of the many young men who were conspiring to win Ireland’s independence. Of my companions there, some are still living, working for peace; others, paradoxically, are fighting under English colours, at sea or in the desert; one, the best of us all, was shot at dawn in the courtyard of a prison, executed by men filled with dreams; others (and not the least fortunate, either) met their fate in the anonymous, virtually secret battles of the civil war. We were Republicans and Catholics; we were, I suspect, romantics. For us, Ireland was not just the Utopian future and the unbearable present; it was a bitter yet loving mythology, it was the circular towers and red bogs, it was the repudiation of Parnell, and it was the grand epics that sing the theft of bulls that were heroes in an earlier incarnation, and in other incarnations fish, and mountains. … One evening I shall never forget, there came to us a man, one of our own, from Munster—a man called John Vincent Moon.
He couldn’t have been more than twenty. He was thin yet slack-muscled, all at once—he gave the uncomfortable impression of being an invertebrate. He had studied, ardently and with some vanity, virtually every page of one of those Communist manuals; he would haul out his dialectical materialism to cut off any argument. There are infinite reasons a man may have for hating or loving another man; Moon reduced the history of the world to one sordid economic conflict. He declared that the Revolution was foreordained to triumph. I replied that only lost causes were of any interest to a gentleman…. Night had fallen; we pursued our crosspurposes in the hallway, down the stairs, then through the vague streets.
The verdicts Moon handed down impressed me considerably less than the sense of unappealable and absolute truth with which he issued them. The new comrade did not argue, he did not debate—he pronounced judgement, contemptuously and, to a degree, wrathfully. As we came to the last houses of the city that night, we were stupefied by the sudden sound of gunfire.
(Before this, or afterward, we skirted the blind wall of a factory or a gaol.) We turned down a dirt street; a soldier, huge in the glare, burst out of a torched cottage. He shouted at us to halt. I started walking faster; my comrade did not follow me. I turned around— John Vincent Moon was standing as motionless as a rabbit caught in one’s headlights eternalized, somehow, by terror. I ran back, floored the soldier with a single blow, shook Vincent Moon, cursed him, and ordered him to come with me. I had to take him by the arm; the passion of fear had stripped him of all will. But then we did run—we fled through the conflagration-riddled night. A burst of rifle fire came our way, and a bullet grazed Moon’s right shoulder; as we fled through the pine trees, a weak sob racked his breast.
In that autumn of 1922 I had gone more or less underground, and was living in General Berkeley’s country house. The general (whom I had never seen) was at that time posted to some administrative position or other out in Bengal; the house was less than a hundred years old but it was gloomy and dilapidated and filled with perplexing corridors and pointless antechambers. The museum-cabinet and huge library arrogated to themselves the entire lower floor—there were the controversial and incompatible books that are somehow the history of the nineteenth century; there were scimitars from Nishapur, in whose frozen crescents the wind and violence of battle seemed to be living on. We entered the house (I think I recall) through the rear. Moon, shaking, his mouth dry, mumbled that the events of the night had been “interesting”; I salved and bandaged him, then brought him a cup of tea. The wound was superficial. Suddenly, puzzled, he stammered:
“You took a terrible chance, coming back to save me like that.”
I told him it was nothing. (It was the habit of civil war that impelled me to act as I acted; besides, the imprisonment of a single one of us could imperil the entire cause.)
The next day, Moon had recovered his composure. He accepted a cigarette and subjected me to a harsh interrogation as to the “financial resources of our revolutionary party.” His questions were quite lucid; I told him (truthfully) that the situation was grave. Deep rumblings of gunfire troubled the peace of the south. I told Moon that our comrades were waiting for us. My overcoat and revolver were up in my room; when I returned, I found Moon lying on the sofa, his eyes closed. He thought he had a fever; he pleaded a painful spasm in his shoulder.
It was then that I realized he was a hopeless coward. I clumsily told him to take care of himself, then left.
I was embarrassed by the man and his fear, shamed by him, as though I myself were the coward, not Vincent Moon. Whatsoever one man does, it is as though all men did it. That is why it is not unfair that a single act of disobedience in a garden should contaminate all humanity; that is why it is not unfair that a single Jew’s crucifixion should be enough to save it. Schopenhauer may have been right—I am other men, any man is all men, Shakespeare is somehow the wretched John Vincent Moon.
We spent nine days in the general’s great house. Of the agonies and the rays of light of that dark war I shall say nothing; my purpose is to tell the story of this scar that affronts me. In my memory, those nine days form a single day—except for the next to last, when our men stormed a barracks and avenged, life for life, our sixteen comrades fallen to the machine guns at Elphin. I would slip out of the house about dawn, in the blurred confusion of first light. I would be back toward nightfall. My comrade would be waiting for me upstairs; his wound would not allow him to come down. When I look back, I see him with some book of strategy in his hand—F. N. Maude, or Clausewitz. “The weapon of preference for me,” he confessed to me one night, “is artillery.” He enquired into our plans; he enjoyed criticizing or re-thinking them. He was also much given to deploring “our woeful financial base”; dogmatically and sombrely he would prophesy the disastrous end. “C’est une affaire flambée,” he would mutter. To show that his physical cowardice was a matter of indifference to him, he made a great display of mental arrogance.
Thus passed, well or not so well, nine days.
On the tenth, the city fell once and forever into the hands of the Black and Tans. Highsitting, silent horsemen patrolled their beats; there was ash and smoke in the wind. I saw a dead body sprawled on one corner—yet that dead body is less vivid in my memory than the dummy that the soldiers endlessly practised their marksmanship on in the middle of the city square…. I had gone out when dawn was just streaking the sky; before noon, I was back. Moon was in the library, talking to someone; I realized from the tone of his voice that he was speaking on the telephone. Then I heard my name; then, that I’d be back at seven, and then, that I’d be arrested as I came across the lawn. My rational friend was rationally selling me out. I heard him demand certain guarantees of his own safety.
Here my story becomes confused and peters out a bit. I know that I chased the snitch through black corridors of nightmare and steep stairwells of vertigo. Moon knew the house well, every bit as well as I.
Once or twice I lost him, but I managed to corner him before the soldiers arrested me.
From one of the general’s suits of armor, I seized a scimitar, and with that steel crescent left a flourish on his face forever—a half-moon of blood. To you alone, Borges—you who are a stranger—I have made this confession.
Your contempt is perhaps not so painful.”
Here the narrator halted. I saw that his hands were trembling.
“And Moon?” I asked. “What became of Moon?”
“He was paid his Judas silver and he ran off to Brazil. That evening, in the city square, I saw a dummy shot by a firing squad of drunks.”
I waited vainly for the rest of the story. Finally, I asked him to go on.
A groan made his entire body shiver; he gestured, feebly, gently, toward the curving whitish scar.
“Do you not believe me?” he stammered. “Do you not see set upon my face the mark of my iniquity? I have told you the story this way so that you would hear it out. It was I who betrayed the man who saved me and gave me shelter—it is I who am Vincent Moon. Now, despise me.”
“A Little Something for Us Tempunauts”
Philip K. Dick
Wearily, Addison Doug plodded up the long path of synthetic redwood rounds, step by step, his head down a little, moving as if he were in actual physical pain. The girl watched him, wanting to help him, hurt within her to see how worn and unhappy he was, but at the same time she rejoiced that he was there at all. On and on, toward her, without glancing up, going by feel. . . like he’s done this many times, she thought suddenly. Knows the way too well. Why?
“Addi,” she called, and ran toward him. “They said on the TV you were dead. All of you were killed!”
He paused, wiping back his dark hair, which was no longer long; just before the launch they had cropped it. But he had evidently forgotten. “You believe everything you see on TV?” he said, and came on again, haltingly, but smiling now. And reaching up for her.
God, it felt good to hold him, and to have him clutch at her again, with more strength than she had expected. “I was going to find somebody else,” she gasped. “To replace you.”
“I’ll knock your head off if you do,” he said. “Anyhow, that isn’t possible; nobody could replace me.”
“But what about the implosion?” she said. “On reentry; they said –”
“I forget,” Addison said, in the tone he used when he meant, I’m not going to discuss it. The tone had always angered her before, but not now. This time she sensed how awful the memory was. “I’m going to stay at your place a couple of days,” he said, as together they moved up the path toward the open front door of the tilted A-frame house. “If that’s okay. And Benz and Crayne will be joining me, later on; maybe even as soon as tonight. We’ve got a lot to talk over and figure out.”
“Then all three of you survived.” She gazed up into his careworn face. “Everything they said on TV. . .” She understood, then. Or believed she did. “It was a cover story. For — political purposes, to fool the Russians. Right? I mean, the Soviet Union’ll think the launch was a failure because on reentry –”
“No,” he said. “A chrononaut will be joining us, most likely. To help figure out what happened. General Toad said one of them is already on his way here; they got clearance already. Because of the gravity of the situation.”
“Jesus,” the girl said, stricken. “Then who’s the cover story for?”
“Let’s have something to drink,” Addison said. “And then I’ll outline it all for you.”
“Only thing I’ve got at the moment is California brandy.”
Addison Doug said, “I’d drink anything right now, the way I feel.” He dropped to the couch, leaned back, and sighed a ragged, distressed sigh, as the girl hurriedly began fixing both of them a drink.
The FM-radio in the car yammered, “. . . grieves at the stricken turn of events precipitating out of an unheralded. . .”
“Official nonsense babble,” Crayne said, shutting off the radio. He and Benz were having trouble finding the house, having been there only once before. It struck Crayne that this was somewhat informal a way of convening a conference of this importance, meeting at Addison’s chick’s pad out here in the boondocks of Ojai. On the other hand, they wouldn’t be pestered by the curious. And they probably didn’t have much time. But that was hard to say; about that no one knew for sure. Continue reading “Read “A Little Something for Us Tempunauts,” a short story by Philip K. Dick”
“The Fall Guy’s Faith”
Falling from favor, or grace, some high artifice, down he dropped like a discredited predicate through what he called space (sometimes he called it time) and with an earsplitting crack splattered the base earth with his vital attributes. Oh, I’ve had a great fall, he thought as he lay there, numb with terror, trying desperately to pull himself together again. This time (or space) I’ve really done it! He had fallen before of course: short of expectations, into bad habits, out with his friends, upon evil days, foul of the law, in and out of love, down in the dumps—indeed, as though egged on by some malevolent metaphor generated by his own condition, he had always been falling, had he not?—but this was the most terrible fall of all. It was like the very fall of pride, of stars, of Babylon, of cradles and curtains and angels and rain, like the dread fall of silence, of sparrows, like the fall of doom. It was, in a word, as he knew now, surrendering to the verb of all flesh, the last fall (his last anyway: as for the chips, he sighed, releasing them, let them fall where they may)—yet why was it, he wanted to know, why was it that everything that had happened to him had seemed to have happened in language? Even this! Almost as though, without words for it, it might not have happened at all! Had he been nothing more, after all was said and done, than a paraphrastic curiosity, an idle trope, within some vast syntactical flaw of existence? Had he fallen, he worried as he closed his eyes for the last time and consigned his name to history (may it take it or leave it), his juices to the soil (was it soil?), merely to have it said he had fallen? Ah! tears tumbled down his cheeks, damply echoing thereby the greater fall, now so ancient that he himself was beginning to forget it (a farther fall perhaps than all the rest, this forgetting: a fall as it were within a fall), and it came to him in these fading moments that it could even be said that, born to fall, he had perhaps fallen simply to be born (birth being less than it was cracked up to be, to coin a phrase)! Yes, yes, it could be said, what can not be said, but he didn’t quite believe it, didn’t quite believe either that accidence held the world together. No, if he had faith in one thing, this fallguy (he came back to this now), it was this: in the beginning was the gesture, and that gesture was: he opened his mouth to say it aloud (to prove some point or other?), but too late—his face cracked into a crooked smile and the words died on his lips . . .