“The Brother” — Robert Coover

“The Brother”

by

Robert Coover


right there right there in the middle of the damn field he says he wants to put that thing together him and his buggy ideas and so me I says “how the hell you gonna get it down to the water?” but he just focuses me out sweepin the blue his eyes rollin like they do when he gets het on some new lunatic notion and he says not to worry none about that just would I help him for God’s sake and because he don’t know how he can get it done in time otherwise and though you’d have to be loonier than him to say yes I says I will of course I always would crazy as my brother is I’ve done little else since I was born and my wife she says “I can’t figure it out I can’t sec why you always have to be babyin that old fool he ain’t never done nothin for you God knows and you got enough to do here fields need plowin it’s a bad enough year already my God and now that red-eyed brother of yours wingin around like a damn cloud and not knowin what in the world he’s doin buildin a damn boat in the country my God what next? you’re a damn fool I tell you” but packs me some sandwiches just the same and some sandwiches for my brother Lord knows his wife don’t have no truck with him no more says he can go starve for all she cares she’s fed up ever since the time he made her sit out on a hillside for three whole days rain and everything because he said she’d see God and she didn’t see nothin and in fact she like to die from hunger nothin but berries and his boys too they ain’t so bright neither but at least they come to help him out with his damn boat so it ain’t just the two of us thank God for that and it ain’t no goddamn fishin boat he wants to put up neither in fact it’s the biggest damn thing I ever heard of and for weeks wees I’m tellin you we ain’t doin nothin but cuttin down pine trees and haulin them out to his field which is really pretty high up a hill and my God that’s work lemme tell you and my wife she sighs and says I am really crazy r-e-a-1-l-y crazy and her four months with a child and tryin to do my work and hers too and still when I come home from haulin timbers around all day she’s got enough left to rub my shoulders and the small of my back and fix a hot meal her long black hair pulled to a knot behind her head and hangin marvelously down her back her eyes gentle but very tired my God and I says to my brother I says “look I got a lotta work to do buddy you’ll have to finish this idiot thing yourself I wanna help you all I can you know that but” and he looks off and he says “it don’t matter none your work” and I says “the hell it don’t how you think me and my wife we’re gonna eat I mean where do you think this food comes from you been puttin away man? you can’t eat this goddamn boat out here ready to rot in that bastard sun” and he just sighs long and says “no it just don’t matter” and he sits him down on a rock kinda tired like and stares off and looks like he might even for God’s sake cry and so I go back to bringin wood up to him and he’s already started on the keel and frame God knows how he ever found out to build a damn boat lost in his fog where he is Lord he was twenty when I was born and the first thing I remember was havin to lead him around so he didn’t get kicked by a damn mule him who couldn’t never do nothin in a normal way just a huge oversize fuzzyface boy so anyway I take to gettin up a few hours earlier ever day to do my farmin my wife apt to lose the baby if she should keep pullin around like she was doin then I go to work on the boat until sundown and on and on the days hot and dry and my wife keepin good food in me or else I’d of dropped sure and no matter what I say to try and get out of it my brother he says “you come and help now the rest don’t matter” and we just keep hammerin away and my God the damn thing is big enough for a hundred people and at least I think at least it’s a place to live and not too bad at that at least it’s good for somethin but my wife she just sighs and says no good will come of it and runs her hands through my hair but she don’t ask me to stop helpin no more because she knows it won’t do no good and she’s kinda turned into herself now these days and gettin herself all ready and still we keep workin on that damn thing that damn boat and the days pass and my brother he says we gotta work harder we ain’t got much time and from time to time he gets a coupla neighbors to come over and give a hand them sucked in by the size and the novelty of the thing makin jokes some but they don’t stay around more than a day or two and they go away shakin their heads and swearin under their breath and disgusted they got weaseled into the thing in the first place and me I only get about half my place planted and sec to my stock as much as I can my wife she takes more care of them than I can but at least we won’t starve we say if we just get some rain and finally we get the damn thing done all finished by God and we cover it in and out with pitch and put a kinda fancy roof on it and I come home on that last day and I ain’t never goin back ain’t never gonna let him talk me into nothin again and I’m all smellin of tar and my wife she cries and cries and I says to her not to worry no more I’ll be home all the time and me I’m cryin a little too though she don’t notice just thinkin how she’s had it so lonely and hard and all and for one whole day I just sleep the whole damn day and the rest of the week I work around the farm and one day I get an idea and I go over to my brother’s place and get some pieces of wood left over and whaddaya know? they are all livin on that damn boat there in the middle of nowhere him and his boys and some women and my brother’s wife she’s there too but she’s madder than hell and carpin at him to get outa that damn boat and come home and he says she’s got just one more day and then he’s gonna drug her on the boat but he don’t say it like a threat or nothin more like a fact a plain fact tomorrow he’s gonna drug her on the boat well I ain’t one to get mixed up in domestic quarrels God knows so I grab up the wood and beat it back to my farm and that evenin I make a little cradle a kinda fancy one with little animal figures cut in it and polished down and after supper I give it to my wife as a surprise and she cries and cries and holds me tight and says don’t never go away again and stay close by her and all and I feel so damn good and warm about it all and glad the boat thing is over and we get out a little wine and we decide the baby’s name is gonna be either Nathaniel or Anna and so we drink an extra cup to Nathaniel’s health and we laugh and we sigh and drink one to Anna and my wife she gently fingers the little animal figures and says they’re beautiful and really they ain’t I ain’t much good at that sorta thing but I know what she means and then she says “where did you get the wood?” and I says “it’s left over from the boat” and she don’t say nothin for a moment and then she says “you been over there again today?” and I says “yes just to get the wood” and she says “what’s he doin now he’s got the boat done?” and I says “funny thing they’re all living in the damn thing all except the old lady she’s over there hollerin at him how he’s gettin senile and where does he think he’s sailin to and how if he ain’t afraid of runnin into a octypuss on the way he oughta get back home and him sayin she’s a nut there ain’t no water and her sayin that’s what she’s been tellin him for six months” and my wife she laughs and it’s the happiest laugh I’ve heard from her in half a year and I laugh and we both have another cup-of wine and my wife she says “so he’s just livin on that big thing all by hisself?” and I says “no he’s got his boys on there and some young women who are maybe wives of the boys or somethin I don’t know I ain’t never seen them before and all kinda damn animals and birds and things I ain’t never seen the likes” and my wife she says “animals? what animals?” and I says “oh all kinds I don’t know a whole damn menagerie all clutterin and stinkin up the boat God what a mess” and my wife laughs again and she’s a little silly with the wine and she says “I bet he ain’t got no pigs” and “oh yes I seen them” I says and we laugh thinkin about pigs rootin around in that big tub and she says “I bet he ain’t got no jackdaws” and I says “yes I seen a couple o£ them too or mostly I heard them you couldn’t hardly hear nothin else” and we laugh again thinkin about them crows and his old lady and the pigs and all and my wife she says “I know what he ain’t got I bet he ain’t got no lice” and we both laugh like crazy and when I can I says “oh yes he does less he’s took a bath” and we both laugh til! we’re cryin and we finish off the wine and my wife says “look now I fyiow what he ain’t got he ain’t got no termites” and I says “you’re right I don’t recollect no termites maybe we oughta make him a present” and my wife she holds me close quiet all of a sudden and says “he’s really movin Nathaniel’s really movin” and she puts my hand down on her round belly and the little fella is kickin up a terrific storm and I says kinda anxious “does it hurt? do you think that—?” and “no” she says “it’s good” she says and so I says with my hand on her belly “here’s to you Nathaniel” and we drain what’s left in the bottom of our cups and the next day we wake up in each other’s arms and it’s rainin and than God we say and since it’s rainin real good we stay inside and do things a round the place and we’re happy because the rain has come just in time and in the evenin things smell green and fresh and delicious and it’s still rainin a little but not too hard so I decide to take a walk and I wander over by my brother’s place thinkin I’ll ask him if he’d like to take on some pet termites to go with his collection and there by God is his wife on the boat and I don’t know if he drug her on or if she just finally come by herself but she ain’t sayin nothin which is damn unusual and the boys they ain’t sayin nothin neither and my brother he ain’t sayin nothin they’re just all standin up there on top and gazin off and I holler up at them “nice rain ain’t it?” and my brother he looks down at me standin there in the rain and still he don’t say nothin but he raises his hand kinda funny like and then puts it back on the rail and I decide not to say nothin about the termites and it’s startin to rain a little harder again so I turn away and go back home and I tell my wife about what happened and my wife she just laughs and says “they’re all crazy he’s finally got them all crazy” and she’s cooked me up a special pastry with £rcsh meat and so we forget about them but by God the next day the rain’s still comin down harder than ever and water’s beginnin to stand around in places and after a week of rain I can see the crops is pretty well ruined and I’m havin trouble keepin my stock fed and my wife she’s cryin and talkin about our bad luck that we might as well of built a damn boat as plant all them crops and still we don’t figure things out I mean it just don’t come to our minds not even when the rain keeps spillin down like a ocean dumped upsidedown and now water is beginnin to stand around in big pools really big ones and water up to the ankles around the house and Icakin in and pretty soon the whole damn house is gettin fulla water and I keep sayin maybe we oughta go use my brother’s boat till this blows over but my wife she says “never” and then she starts in cryin again so finally I says to her I says “we can’t be so proud I’ll go ask him” and so I set out in the storm and I can hardly see where I’m goin and I slip up to my neck in places and finally I get to where the boat is and I holler up and my brother he comes out and he looks down at where I am and he don’t say nothin that bastard he just looks at me and I shout up at him I says “hey is it all right for me and my wife to come over until this thing blows over?” and still he don’t say a damn word he just raises his hand in that same sillyass way and I holler “hey you stupid sonuvabitch I’m soakin wet goddamn it and my house is fulla water and my wife she’s about to have a kid and she’s apt to get sick all wet and cold to the bone and all I’m askin you—” and right then right while I’m still talkin he turns around and he goes back in the boat and I can’t hardly believe it me his brother but he don’t come back out and I push up under the boat and I beat on it with my fists and scream at him and call him ever name I can think up and I shout for his boys and for his wife and for anybody inside and nobody comes out “Gowdamn you” I cry out at the top of my lungs and half sobbin and sick and then feelin too beat out to do anythin more I turn around and head back for home but the rain is thunderin down like mad now and in places I gotta swim and I can’t make it no further and I recollect a hill nearby and I head for it and when I get to it I climb up on top of it and it feels good to be on land again even if it is soggy and greasy and I vomit and retch there awhile and move further up and the next thing I know I’m wakin up the rain still in my face and the water halfway up the hill toward me and I look cut and I can see my brother’s boat is fioatin and I wave at it but I don’t see nobody wave back and then I quick look out towards my own place and all I can see is the top of it and of a sudden I’m scared scared about my wife and I go tearin for the house swimmin most all the way and cryin and shoutin and the rain still comin down like crazy and so now well now I’m back here on the hill again what little there is left of it and I’m figurin maybe I got a day left if the rain keeps comin and it don’t show no signs of stoppin and I can’t see my brother’s boat no more gone just water how how did he know? that bastard and yet I gotta hand it to him it’s not hard to see who’s crazy around here I can’t see my house no more I just left my wife inside where I found her I couldn’t hardly stand to look at her the way she was

“Municipal Noir,” a very short tale by Hob Broun

“Municipal Noir”

by

Hob Broun

from Cardinal Numbers


MADRID, IN NEBRASKA’S SOUTHWEST corner, in the wide terraced plain below the Platte, had a Hog & Hominy Fest annually until 1978. There are three taverns in the town, two hardware stores, a Boys’ Club, a pistol range, and Strunk Fabrication, where crèche figures and baptismal fonts are made by a system of injection molding.

IN August of 1977, Ron Maddox was planning a future there. He had come to his wife’s country from North Dakota. Ron’s Pythagoras ABM Silo Group Commander, Lieutenant Benkelman, had been the best man at the wedding in Minot. Bonnie was expecting a child, but she wasn’t pregnant yet.

IT was only the fact of having once received a Visible Man anatomy doll for Christmas that prepared Kallinger for what he was to find all over the kitchen of Unit No. 6 at the mobile home park just off the county blacktop midway between Madrid and La Paz. Interim Coroner Perk Feed had so little to work with that even a preliminary finding seemed unlikely. Feed’s right leg was some two and one quarter inches shorter than his left, due to a fraternity initiation.

WAS Fran the kind of woman who would go all the way to Yankton for bridgework? Why had Lute Strunk rotated his best acres into sorghum? His CB handle was “Fledermaus,” and some said he had peculiar ideas about Jews.

AT 9:15 a.m. on Friday, Miss Clara Musil reported that her collection of little glass animals had been vandalized by a one-armed man. The light-blue hatchback had been abandoned next to the Elks Hall. Both Reverend and Mrs. LaFollette were treated for hyperventilation.

KALLINGER, at the subsequent awards dinner, wearing a strap-in-the-back “Go ’Huskers” baseball cap, refused to eat his portion of tapioca pudding until someone had tasted it first, and later proposed a curious toast “to Negro banking interests.”

“HE wanted the best of both worlds,” said a bureau insider.

Donna, Benkelman’s estranged wife, disagrees. Living in San Diego now, she has legally adopted Fran’s two sons and works as a commercial illustrator.

“Gas spectrometry is fine. Fiber analysis is fine. But people want a good, human story, and in this case they didn’t get it.”

SUSPICION of multiple sodomy focused on a “drifter” with a history of bronchiectasis. Someone had caused Jud Musil’s feed troughs to be infected with hog cholera. These were theories congruent with mutual distrust.

“We lacked a fallback position,” one resident later observed. “Pictures just didn’t tell the story.”

AND then on a crisp October morning, during the final hour of Ingo Feed’s Stop & Swap radio show, a strangely insistent man phoned in to offer his entire collection of bat-wing fans in exchange for “the global freezing design.”

BY now people were beginning to ask hard questions about the investigative reporter in their midst. Complicitous terrorist supplying atrocity photos to clients in Melbourne, Rome, Pernambuco, and Dubai? Semiliterate impostor becalmed in a delusional world of Mod Squad reruns?

OVER treacherous, ice-glazed roads, normally temperate, circumspect farm families drove the forty-five miles to Arbeiter Mall so they could dine at a Polynesian restaurant. Owner Gus Triandos would boast once too often about his acquaintance with high-level research. The baby back ribs were moist, tender, imaginatively sauced.

TRIAL proceedings, convened at the county seat of Bogota, began the first week of the new year under the guidance of Judge Pangloss LaFollette, no relation.

Dr. Shah, for the prosecution, explained that, as an “outsider,” he’d had little success in convincing the authorities, even in the face of corroborative evidence from a degreed caseworker, that the dozens of cigarette burns on the chest were cause for alarm. Dr. Zweig, for the defense, described Ron as “a man without qualities.” Fran, according to the testimony of a Chicago psychic, was operating a barge on the Loire.

“QUITE simply, there are no words to describe what Mrs. Maddox has already paid in suffering,” said a friend of the family.

BONNIE appeared each day in the same oyster-gray ensemble, occupied the same front-row seat. Her only change of expression, a slight moue disarranging normally serene features, came as a result of Kallinger’s breakdown on the stand, his admission that “I never learned to hit the curveball.”

THE jury, perhaps overly sequestered, imposed its inability to reach a verdict.

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“Detective Novel” — Robert Walser

“Detective Novel”

by

Robert Walser

translated by Tom Whalen


HE PRETENDED to possess technical expertise. Anyway, the title seemed quite brilliant. I resolved to learn more and started reading him, but he left much to be desired. Both he and his author lacked a certain finesse. He seemed to have no place to call home. How can I cuddle up to someone who isn’t comfortable with himself? His sentences were laborious paths for those who tread on them. I remember far more beautiful rambles and gladly admit this, since I gain by this admission. He was viewed quite kindly. An attempt to create interesting situations was discovered with delight. Already the first chapter stretched out to the most accommodating length imaginable. Each paragraph elicited from me a grateful yawn. By the way, I think the time of the detective novel is over. The puzzling disappearance of refined, charming people doesn’t seem very fresh these days. Authors have operated more than enough with chemicals and the like. I did my best to succumb to his charms, but alas I failed in this endeavor. Perhaps I lack the openness, I said, smiling at one of those persons (I mean myself) unsympathetic to some new releases. In fact, I find it aggravating to say yes to everything. In the course of the events he let me gaze into a Russian female. It may be that I’m expressing myself a bit sloppily here. All in all, for what he was, I found him unable to live up to himself. I hold his father responsible that I’m pained by his existence. My contemporaries may note his innocuousness. But can a detective novel be innocuous? Doesn’t he fail when, instead of arousing suspense, he allows us to be bored in his presence? Ambitious lackey, it would be best if you vanished. That you were published was your misfortune. Whoever reads you pities you. Whoever investigates you has to laugh at you, though, alas, alas, you’re innocent! In any case, you’re not what you should be. What you could be if things had turned out right you aren’t, because things didn’t turn out right. Fare thee well, unwarranted detective novel.

Read “55 Miles to the Gas Pump,” a very short horror story by Annie Proulx

“55 Miles to the Gas Pump”

by

Annie Proulx


Rancher Croom in handmade boots and filthy hat, that walleyed cattleman, stray hairs like the curling fiddle string ends, that warm-handed, quick-foot dancer on splintery boards or down the cellar stairs to a rack of bottles of his own strange beer, yeasty, cloudy, bursting out in garlands of foam, Rancher Croom at night galloping drunk over the dark plain, turning off at a place he knows to arrive at a canyon brink where he dismounts and looks down on tumbled rock, waits, then steps out, parting the air with his last roar, sleeves surging up, windmill arms, jeans riding over boot tops, but before he hits he rises again to the top of the cliff like a cork in a bucket of milk.

Mrs. Croom on the roof with a saw cutting a hole into the attic where she has not been for twelve years thanks to old Croom’s padlocks and warnings, whets to her desire, and the sweat flies as she exchanges the saw for a chisel and hammer until a ragged slab peak is free and she can see inside: just as she thought: the corpses of Mr. Croom’s paramours – she recognizes them from their photographs in the paper: MISSING WOMAN – some desiccated as jerky and much the same color, some moldy from lying beneath roof leaks, and, all of them used hard, covered with tarry handprints, the marks of boot heels, some bright blue with remnants of paint used on the shutters years ago, one wrapped in newspaper nipple to knee.

When you live a long way out you make your own fun.

“By the Numbers” — Hob Broun

“By the Numbers”

by

Hob Broun


[1]

THEY WORKED AT THE enclosed mall in King of Prussia. They wore plastic nametags, the corporate logo above a deep groove accommodating a Dymo label. Jenelle for the record store, Courtney for the bookstore. They had received reprimands for lateness.

[2]

Dinner is interesting. The plastic bag doesn’t melt in the boiling water. You cut off the top with scissors and lobster Newburg comes out.

From the paper: “Dartmouth Warnell, 19, of North Philadelphia, while attempting to escape from police custody, was shot and killed in the parking lot of the Afro-American Cultural Museum. A warrant for driving-while-suspended had been outstanding.”

The table is a phone company cable spool which occasionally insinuates a splinter. The
VCR format is unchic: Beta. The movie from the rental store traces an anchorwoman who finally turns into a werewolf on the air. They’ve seen it before.

[3]

Saturdays there are special events at the mall. It could be a ho-ho banjo band in red vests and sleeve garters. Or a begonia club. Or a cat show. There might be Cub Scouts all over the place. Everyone seems to put in the extra effort on a Saturday. Their jaws ache from smiling.

[4]

Courtney and Jenelle together in a bath. Pubic hair is ugly, but they’re afraid to shave. Many products for the hair, each based on a wholesome foodstuff. Plastic bottles bobbing.

J: I wish my toes were long and thin like yours.

[4A]

Courtney and Jenelle in a stall shower, embracing in soap foam. Why they’re late all the time. Mist.

[4B]

Courtney and Jenelle washing clothes by the Orinoco. (Black-and-white, dubbed.)

C: Why can’t I get my skirts as bright as yours?

J: You’re not beating them hard enough.

Rising smoke in the distance, music of chain saws. Continue reading ““By the Numbers” — Hob Broun”

“Ghosts” — Robert Walser

“Ghosts”

by

Robert Walser

translated by Tom Whalen


I don’t know if it can be to my advantage to review a kind of dime novel in which, as far as I can remember, there stood in a pretty little town a haunted tower.

In my opinion ghosts are very modern. It seems to me it’s become fashionable to believe, with a certain persistent willfulness, in inexplicable appearances.

One must admit this takes courage. As for me, I lived temporarily, if I dare say so straight out, in a bright, wide, two-windowed room. One night I awoke in bed and saw, on one of the armchairs or stools that came with the room, someone sitting.

Something nonexistent was existent, for when I had gone nearer to inspect or examine the place, the something (undoubtedly I was dealing with a ghost here) had evaporated.

To return to my little booklet in which, among other things, a young woman danced: it’s been quite some time since I perused this work, which dealt mainly with an ingenious Hans who, in all innocence and innocuousness, pulled off, as it were, a stroke of genius.

The landscape seemed to me delightfully sketched; the subject matter revolved as much around money as around love. A little river that stretched around the town the author had charmingly entrusted to blab mysterious things. The brooklet in this regard proved to be immensely talented, since it busily burbled and babbled night and day.

Attentively I listened in on the engaging story. Roles were swapped, young sophisticated girls sat in the pleasing interiors of music stores, into which one glanced in passing.

Hans proved to be a complications-disentangler.

I like to imagine my up-to-the-minute diction as tabloidish. I hope this will be judged kindly.

A beautiful woman sat interestingly ghostlike, I mean conspicuously thin, thus in fashion, at a window. Hans bestowed upon her his interest. In his eyes lay so much justifiable or baseless melancholy that the woman leapt up in bewilderment.

These and similar events occurred in the little volume whose author I don’t name because he hardly wishes it. There are little books we read as if we’re eating something delicious. We quickly forget them. After a certain amount of time, perhaps we recall them again. They’re like people we’re capable of loving because they’re not difficult. I also wish this for what I have written here.

“The Challenge” — Jorge Luis Borges

“The Challenge”

by

Jorge Luis Borges

Translated by d by Norman Thomas di Giovanni


All over the Argentine runs a story that may belong to legend or to history or (which may be just another way of saying it belongs to legend) to both things at once. Its best recorded versions are to be found in the unjustly forgotten novels about outlaws and desperadoes written in the last century by Eduardo Gutiérrez; among its oral versions, the first one I heard came from a neighborhood of Buenos Aires bounded by a penitentiary, a river, and a cemetery, and nicknamed Tierra del Fuego. The hero of this version was Juan Muraña, a wagon driver and knife fighter to whom are attributed all the stories of daring that still survive in what were once the outskirts of the city’s Northside. That first version was quite simple. A man from the Stockyards or from Barracas, knowing about Muraña’s reputation (but never having laid eyes on him), sets out all the way across town from the Southside to take him on. He picks the fight in a corner saloon, and the two move into the street to have it out. Each is wounded, but in the end Muraña slashes the other man’s face and tells him, “I’m letting you live so you’ll come back looking for me again.”

What impressed itself in my mind about the duel was that it had no ulterior motive. In conversation thereafter (my friends know this only too well), I grew fond of retelling the anecdote. Around 1927, I wrote it down, giving it the deliberately laconic title “Men Fought.” Years later, this same anecdote helped me work out a lucky story—though hardly a good one—called “Streetcorner Man.” Then, in 1950, Adolfo Bioy-Casares and I made use of it again to plot a film script that the producers turned down and that would have been called On the Outer Edge. It was about hard-bitten men like Muraña who lived on the outskirts of Buenos Aires before the turn of the century. I thought, after such extensive labors, that I had said farewell to the story of the disinterested duel. Then, this year, out in Chivilcoy, I came across a far better version. I hope this is the true one, although since fate seems to take pleasure in a thing’s happening many times over, both may very well be authentic. Two quite bad stories and a script that I still think of as good came out of the poorer first version; out of the second, which is complete and perfect, nothing can come. Without working in metaphors or details of local color, I shall tell it now as it was told to me. The story took place to the west, in the district of Chivilcoy, sometime back in the 1870’s. Continue reading ““The Challenge” — Jorge Luis Borges”

Read “Love on the Bon-Dieu,” an Easter story by Kate Chopin

“Love on the Bon-Dieu”

by

Kate Chopin

from Bayou Folk (1894)


 

Upon the pleasant veranda of Père Antoine’s cottage, that adjoined the church, a young girl had long been seated, awaiting his return. It was the eve of Easter Sunday, and since early afternoon the priest had been engaged in hearing the confessions of those who wished to make their Easters the following day. The girl did not seem impatient at his delay; on the contrary, it was very restful to her to lie back in the big chair she had found there, and peep through the thick curtain of vines at the people who occasionally passed along the village street.

She was slender, with a frailness that indicated lack of wholesome and plentiful nourishment. A pathetic, uneasy look was in her gray eyes, and even faintly stamped her features, which were fine and delicate. In lieu of a hat, a barege veil covered her light brown and abundant hair. She wore a coarse white cotton “josie,” and a blue calico skirt that only half concealed her tattered shoes.

As she sat there, she held carefully in her lap a parcel of eggs securely fastened in a red bandana handkerchief.

Twice already a handsome, stalwart young man in quest of the priest had entered the yard, and penetrated to where she sat. At first they had exchanged the uncompromising “howdy” of strangers, and nothing more. The second time, finding the priest still absent, he hesitated to go at once. Instead, he stood upon the step, and narrowing his brown eyes, gazed beyond the river, off towards the west, where a murky streak of mist was spreading across the sun.

“It look like mo’ rain,” he remarked, slowly and carelessly.

“We done had ’bout ‘nough,” she replied, in much the same tone.

“It’s no chance to thin out the cotton,” he went on.

“An’ the Bon-Dieu,” she resumed, “it’s on’y to-day you can cross him on foot.”

“You live yonda on the Bon-Dieu, donc?” he asked, looking at her for the first time since he had spoken.

“Yas, by Nid d’Hibout, m’sieur.” Continue reading “Read “Love on the Bon-Dieu,” an Easter story by Kate Chopin”

Read Donald Barthelme’s uncollected short story “The Ontological Basis of Two”

Donald Barthelme published a short story called “The Ontological Basis of Two” under the pseudonym “Michael Houston” in the June, 1963 issue of Cavalier, a “men’s” magazine. In her biography Donald Barthelme: The Genesis of a Cool Sound, Barthelme’s ex-wife Helen Moore Barthelme writes,

…Don had with him the June issue of Cavalier. In it was a story he had written the previous December and submitted to Playboy. But “killing my hopes of a warm winter,” the story was turned down. He then submitted it under a pseudonym to a Playboy-styled magazine, Cavalier…

The story was “The Ontological Basis of Two,” and it appeared under the name of Michael Houston, a pseudonym he had used for Forum. A parody of B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two, it is an ironical tale of a girl–Peridot Concord– “who was raised in a glass box by a Harvard Professor.” He says of Peridot that because she inhabited the box until her fourth year, she “is as healthy and natural as a shrub.” Although she is free of the inhibitions of appearing nude that beset the narrator and everyone else, four years in the box have also left her “lacking in basic carnality.

The story remains uncollected, but you can read “The Ontological Basis of Two” online thanks to Jessamyn West’s fantastic Barthelme page.

Here’s the opening paragraph of the story:

Read “Mamsell Fredrika,” a haunted Christmas tale by Selma Lagerlöf

“Mamsell Fredrika”

by

Selma Lagerlöf

translated by

Pauline Bancroft Flach


It was Christmas night, a real Christmas night.

The goblins raised the mountain roofs on lofty gold pillars and celebrated the midwinter festival. The brownies danced around the Christmas porridge in new red caps. Old gods wandered about the heavens in gray storm cloaks, and in the Österhaninge graveyard stood the horse of Hel. He pawed with his hoof on the frozen ground; he was marking out the place for a new grave.

Not very far away, at the old manor of Årsta, Mamsell Fredrika was lying asleep. Årsta is, as every one knows, an old haunted castle, but Mamsell Fredrika slept a calm, quiet sleep. She was old now and tired out after many weary days of work and many long journeys,— she had almost traveled round the world,—therefore she had returned to the home of her childhood to find rest.

Outside the castle sounded in the night a bold fanfare. Death mounted on a gray charger had ridden up to the castle gate. His wide scarlet cloak and his hat’s proud plumes fluttered in the night wind. The stern knight sought to win an adoring heart, therefore he appeared in unusual magnificence. It is of no avail, Sir Knight, of no avail! The gate is closed, and the lady of your heart asleep. You must seek a better occasion and a more suitable hour. Watch for her when she goes to early mass, stern Sir Knight, watch for her on the church-road! Continue reading “Read “Mamsell Fredrika,” a haunted Christmas tale by Selma Lagerlöf”

Read “A Man and Some Others,” a tale by Stephen Crane

“A Man and Some Others”

by

Stephen Crane


I

Dark mesquit spread from horizon to horizon. There was no house or horseman from which a mind could evolve a city or a crowd. The world was declared to be a desert and unpeopled. Sometimes, however, on days when no heat-mist arose, a blue shape, dun, of the substance of a specter’s veil, appeared in the southwest, and a pondering sheep-herder might remember that there were mountains.

In the silence of these plains the sudden and childish banging of a tin pan could have made an iron-nerved man leap into the air. The sky was ever flawless; the manoeuvring of clouds was an unknown pageant; but at times a sheep-herder could see, miles away, the long, white streamers of dust rising from the feet of another’s flock, and the interest became intense.

Bill was arduously cooking his dinner, bending over the fire and toiling like a blacksmith. A movement, a flash of strange colour, perhaps, off in the bushes, caused him suddenly to turn his head. Presently he arose, and, shading his eyes with his hand, stood motionless and gazing. He perceived at last a Mexican sheep-herder winding through the brush toward his camp.

“Hello!” shouted Bill.

The Mexican made no answer, but came steadily forward until he was within some twenty yards. There he paused, and, folding his arms, drew himself up in the manner affected by the villain in the play. His serape muffled the lower part of his face, and his great sombrero shaded his brow. Being unexpected and also silent, he had something of the quality of an apparition; moreover, it was clearly his intention to be mystic and sinister. Continue reading “Read “A Man and Some Others,” a tale by Stephen Crane”

Read Stephen Crane’s story “The Five White Mice”

“The Five White Mice”

by

Stephen Crane


Freddie was mixing a cocktail. His hand with the long spoon was whirling swiftly, and the ice in the glass hummed and rattled like a cheap watch. Over by the window, a gambler, a millionaire, a railway conductor, and the agent of a vast American syndicate were playing seven-up. Freddie surveyed them with the ironica

l glance of a man who is mixing a cocktail.

From time to time a swarthy Mexican waiter came with his tray from the rooms at the rear, and called his orders across the bar. The sounds of the indolent stir of the city, awakening from its siesta, floated over the screens which barred the sun and the inquisitive eye. From the far-away kitchen could be heard the roar of the old French chef, driving, herding, and abusing his Mexican helpers.

A string of men came suddenly in from the street. They stormed up to the bar. There were impatient shouts. “Come, now, Freddie, don’t stand there like a portrait of yourself. Wiggle!” Drinks of many kinds and colors—amber, green, mahogany, strong and mild—began to swarm upon the bar, with all the attendants of lemon, sugar, mint, and ice. Freddie, with Mexican support, worked like a sailor in the provision of them, sometimes talking with that scorn for drink and admiration for those who drink which is the attribute of a good barkeeper.

At last a man was afflicted with a stroke of dice-shaking. A herculean discussion was waging, and he was deeply engaged in it, but at the same time he lazily flirted the dice. Occasionally he made great combinations. “Look at that, would you?” he cried proudly. The others paid little heed. Then violently the craving took them. It went along the line like an epidemic, and involved them all. In a moment they had arranged a carnival of dice-shaking, with money penalties and liquid prizes. They clamorously made it a point of honor with Freddie that he too should play, and take his chance of sometimes providing this large group with free refreshment. With bent heads, like football players, they surged over the tinkling dice, jostling, cheering, and bitterly arguing. One of the quiet company playing seven-up at the corner table said profanely that the row reminded him of a bowling contest at a picnic. Continue reading “Read Stephen Crane’s story “The Five White Mice””

Read “Waterspider,” a goofy postmodern time travel story by Philip K. Dick

“Waterspider”

by

Philip K. Dick


I

That morning, as he carefully shaved his head until it glistened, Aaron Tozzo pondered a vision too unfortunate to be endured. He saw in his mind fifteen convicts from Nachbaren Slager, each man only one inch high, in a ship the size of a child’s balloon. The ship, traveling at almost the speed of light, continued on forever, with the men aboard neither knowing nor caring what became of them.

The worst part of the vision was just that in all probability it was true.

He dried his head, rubbed oil into his skin, then touched the button within his throat. When contact with the Bureau switchboard had been established, Tozzo said, “I admit we can do nothing to get those fifteen men back, but at least we can refuse to send any more.”

His comment, recorded by the switchboard, was passed on to his co-workers. They all agreed; he listened to their voices chiming in as he put on his smock, slippers and overcoat. Obviously, the flight had been an error; even the public knew that now. But —

“But we’re going on,” Edwin Fermeti, Tozzo’s superior, said above the clamor. “We’ve already got the volunteers.”

“Also from Nachbaren Slager?” Tozzo asked. Naturally the prisoners there would volunteer; their lifespan at the camp was no more than five or six years. And if this flight to Proxima were successful, the men aboard would obtain their freedom. They would not have to return to any of the five inhabited planets within the Sol System.

“Why does it matter where they originate?” Fermeti said smoothly. Continue reading “Read “Waterspider,” a goofy postmodern time travel story by Philip K. Dick”

Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories in reverse, Part X

I am rereading Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories, starting with the sixtieth story and working my way to the first and writing about it.

Previous entries:

Stories 60-55

Stories 54-49

Stories 48-43

Stories 42-37

Stories 36-31

Stories 30-25.

Stories 24-19

Stories 18-13

Stories 12-7

In this post, stories 6-1, the beginning/end.

6. “The Balloon” (Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 1968)

I’ve read “The Balloon” more than any other Barthelme story. I’ve read it at least three times a year, every year, for the past ten years, in the context of an American Literature after 1865 course I teach every Fall-Spring-Summer. It’s widely-anthologized. It’s over-anthologized. It’s probably most folks only exposure to Barthelme, which I think is strange—I think it’s a particularly challenging Barthelme story, even though it’s the Barthelme story I’ve read more than any other Barthelme story.

My students are often exasperated by the story, which seems to lack any traditional plot or character—but I think that’s kind of the point. “The Balloon” is about the creation of “The Balloon.” It’s a story about a story, as much as Barthelme would have protested the notion. This interpretation is not particularly radical. Just earlier this month, the writer Donald Antrim did a reading of “The Balloon” for The New Yorker’s fiction podcast. After the reading, fiction editor Deborah Treisman engages (or tries to engage) Antrim in a discussion of the meaning of the balloon. Antrim insists on rebuking the balloon’s metaphoricity, repeatedly claiming it’s a “real” balloon. Treisman points out that it’s just a story.

Le Ballon, 1862 by Édouard Manet

In his Barthelme biography Hiding Man, Tracy Daugherty spends several pages explaining allusions to Édouard Manet’s 1862 lithograph Le Ballon and the scandal that erupted when Manet showed his painting Olympia in 1865. Daugherty writes,

As many readers have observed, Don’s story considers public responses to art. But besides this general theme, he had in mind a specific set of reactions, in a crucial time.

In invoking Manet’s balloon and the Olympia scandal, Don encoded in his story an early chapter of the art that nourished him throughout his career; an art inseparable from social change, resistant to strict ordering, and opposed to the narrowing of perceptions required by commodification.

Daugherty’s analysis encapsulates what I take to be the signal passage of “The Balloon,” which passage you can read here.

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5. “Will You Tell Me?” (Come Back, Dr. Caligari, 1964)

One of Barthelme’s more formally challenging stories, “Will You Tell Me?” begins strange (“Hubert gave Charles and Irene a nice baby for Christmas”) and gets even stranger. It’s a subtle satire on soap operas and convoluted prize (“The French countryside (the countryside of France) was covered with golden grass”) shot through anarchic glee:

In the cellar Paul continued making his bombs, by cellarlight. The bombs were made from tall Schlitz cans and a plastic substance which Paul refused to identify. The bombs were sold to other boys Paul’s age to throw at their fathers.

Note the ever-present oedipal theme in Barthelme’s work.

4. “For I’m the Boy” (Come Back, Dr. Caligari, 1964)

Like most of Barthelme’s stories, “For I’m the Boy” is a rewarding re-read. Among the stories in Sixty Stories culled from Come Back, Dr. Caligari, “For I’m the Boy” has a somewhat straightforward plot: A man named Bloomsbury has divorced his wife. He takes his two friends Whittle and Huber with her to the airport to see her off so that there will be no “weeping.” They then drive home, stopping for a bottle of brandy on the way. Whittle and Huber demand details of the divorce from Bloomsbury:

It would be interesting as well as instructive Whittle said casually, to know for instance at what point the situation of living together became untenable, whether she wept when you told her, whether you wept when she told you, whether you were the instigator or she was the instigator, whether there were physical fights involving bodily blows or merely objects thrown on your part and on her part, if there were mental cruelties, cruelties of what order and on whose part, whether she had a lover or did not have a lover, whether you did or did not, whether you kept the television or she kept the television, the disposition of the balance of the furnishings including tableware, linens, light bulbs, beds and baskets, who got the baby if there was a baby, what food remains in the pantry at this time, what happened to the medicine bottles including Mercurochrome, rubbing alcohol, aspirin, celery tonic, milk of magnesia, No-Doze and Nembutal, was it a fun divorce or not a fun divorce, whether she paid the lawyers or you paid the lawyers, what the judge said if there was a judge, whether you asked her for a “date” after the granting of the decree or did not ask, whether she was touched or not touched by this gesture if there was such a gesture, whether the date if there was such a date was a fun thing or not a fun thing – in short we’d like to get the feel of the event he said.

Give us the feeling,” they insist, but Bloomsbury refuses. At the end of the story Whittle and Huber literally beat it out of him with a brandy bottle and tire iron. The feeling emerges in the form of tears and blood.

In Hiding Man, Daugherty makes a strong argument that “For I’m the Boy” serves as an early aesthetic statement from Barthelme: art is “our most refined public expression of what is private, unreachable, unsayable…it fails–words cannot do the trick–but it is the best we have…art’s value lies in the fact that it offers forms for our experiences.”

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3. “Me and Miss Mandible” (Come Back, Dr. Caligari, 1964)

“Me and Miss Mandible” is an excellent and absurd story told by an adult man who is “officially a child.” Here is the story’s opening:

Miss Mandible wants to make love to me but she hesitates because I am officially a child; I am, according to the records, according to the gradebook on her desk, according to the card index in the principal’s office, eleven years old. There is a misconception here, one that I haven’t quite managed to get cleared up yet. I am in fact thirty-five, I’ve been in the Army, I am six feet one, I have hair in the appropriate places, my voice is a baritone, I know very well what to do with Miss Mandible if she ever makes up her mind.

Our narrator handles the mix-up (if it could be called a mix-up) with bemused aplomb. Unlike the hero of Barthelme’s 1976 story “The Sergeant,” who similarly awakes to find himself affixed with the wrong identity, the narrator of “Mandible” seems to find opportunity in his predicament. There’s nothing especially sinister here; the situation is Kafkaesque, but the tone isn’t. The narrator gets to see the American educational system through the eyes of an experienced adult: “Everything is promised my classmates and I, most of all the future. We accept the outrageous assurances without blinking.”

As the story develops, the narrator comes to understand that these promises are perhaps undeliverable:

We read signs as promises. Miss Mandible understands by my great height, by my resonant vowels, that I will one day carry her off to bed. Sue Ann interprets these same signs to mean that I am unique among her male acquaintances, therefore most desirable, therefore her special property as is every thing that is Most Desirable. If neither of these propositions work out then life has broken faith with them.

I myself, in my former existence, read the company motto (“Here to Help in Time of Need”) as a description of the duty of the adjuster, drastically mislocating the company’s deepest concerns. I believed that because I had obtained a wife who was made up of wife-signs (beauty, charm, softness, perfume, cookery) I had found love. Brenda, reading the same signs that have now misled Miss Mandible and Sue Ann Brownly, felt she had been promised that she would never be bored again. All of us, Miss Mandible, Sue Ann, myself, Brenda, Mr. Goodykind, still believe that the American flag betokens a kind of general righteousness.

But I say, looking about me in this incubator of future citizens, that signs are signs, and that some of them are lies. This is the great discovery of my time here.

2. “A Shower of Gold” (Come Back, Dr. Caligari, 1964)

In “A Shower of Gold,” we find Peterson, “a minor artist” with a bad liver, mulling over whether or not to sell out by appearing on the television show Who Am I? He’s tormented by a series of absurd “punishments” for even considering selling out, including having the President of the United States show up and destroy one of his pieces of art. Finally though, broke and beerless, he condescends to the appearance. The tale ends with an epiphanic monologue:

I was wrong, Peterson thought, the world is absurd. The absurdity is punishing me for not believing in it. I affirm the absurdity. On the other hand, absurdity is itself absurd. Before the emcee could ask the first question, Peterson began to talk. “Yesterday,” Peterson said to the television audience, “in the typewriter in front of the Olivetti showroom on Fifth Avenue, I found a recipe for Ten Ingredient Soup that included a stone from a toad’s head. And while I stood there marveling a nice old lady pasted on the elbow of my best Haspel suit a little blue sticker reading THIS INDIVIDUAL IS A PART OF THE COMMUNIST CONSPIRACY FOR GLOBAL DOMINATION OF THE ENTIRE GLOBE. Coming home I passed a sign that said in ten-foot letters COWARD SHOES and heard a man singing “Golden earrings” in a horrible voice, and last night i dreamed there was a shoot- out at our house on Meat Street and my mother shoved me in a closet to get me out of the line of fire.” The emcee waved at the floor manager to turn Peterson off, but Peterson kept talking. “In this kind of world,” Peterson said, “absurd if you will, possibilities nevertheless proliferate and escalate all around us and there are opportunities for beginning again. I am a minor artist and my dealer won’t even display my work if he can help it but minor is as minor does and lightning may strike even yet. Don’t be reconciled. Turn off your television sets,” Peterson said, “cash in your life insurance, indulge in a mindless optimism. Visit girls at dusk. Play the guitar. How can you be alienated without first having been connected? Think back and remember how it was.” A man on the floor in front of Peterson was waving a piece of cardboard on which something threatening was written but Peterson ignored him and concentrated on the camera with the little red light. The little red light jumped from camera to camera in an attempt to throw him off balance but Peterson was too smart for it and followed wherever it went. “My mother was a royal virgin,” Peterson said, “and my father a shower of gold. My childhood was pastoral and energetic and rich in experiences which developed my character. As a young man I was noble in reason, infinite in faculty, in form express and admirable, and in apprehension…” Peterson went on and on and although he was, in a sense, lying, in a sense he was not.

Peterson takes up the mantle Perseus, an ironic hero for an absurd world.

1. “Margins” (Come Back, Dr. Caligari, 1964)

“Margins” is one of only two stories collected in Sixty Stories to directly address race relations in the United States (the other one is “The Sandman”). Interestingly, the “first” story of Sixty Stories is close to pure dialogue, the form that that Barthelme would land on almost exclusively in his latter years. The dialogue here is between Edward, a white man, and Carl, a black man. Edward is critiquing the margins and handwriting of a sandwich board Carl is wearing. This is the text of the sandwich board:

I Was Put In Jail in Selby County Alabama For Five Years For Stealing A Dollar and A Half Which I Did Not Do. While I Was In Jail My Brother Was Killed & My Mother Ran Away When I Was Little. In Jail I Began Preaching & I Preach to People Wherever I Can Bearing the Witness of Eschatological Love. I Have Filled Out Papers for Jobs But Nobody Will Give Me a Job Because I Have Been In Jail & The Whole Scene Is Very Dreary, Pepsi Cola. I Need Your Offerings to Get Food. Patent Applied For & Deliver Us From Evil.

Edward’s microaggressions swell to macroaggressions: “You look kind of crummy,” he tells Carl, and then asks, “Do you think I’m a pretty color…Are you envious?” When Carl replies, “No,” Edward pauses before offering a baffled, “but I’m what.” Carl tries to shift the conversation to something of substance: “Let’s talk about values or something.” Carl recommends a few books to Edward: Italo Svevo’s As a Man Grows Older and John Hawkes’s The Cannibal and The Beetleleg. But Edward isn’t interested in making connections. He demands to know Carl’s “inner reality.” But like Bloomsbury in “For I’m the Boy,” Carl keeps that inner reality for himself: “‘It’s mine,’ Carl said quietly.”

The aggression mounts: Edward accuses Carl of having lied on his sign about stealing a dollar and a half. Carl protests, but does admit to being a biblioklept:

“Mostly in drugstores, ” Carl said. “I find them good because mostly they’re long and narrow and the clerks tend to stay near the prescription counters at the back of the store, whereas the books are usually in those little revolving racks near the front of the store. It’s normally pretty easy to slip a couple in your overcoat pocket, if you’re wearing an overcoat ”

“But…”

“Yes, ” Carl said, “I know what you’re thinking. If I’ll steal books I’ll steal other things. But stealing books is metaphysically different from stealing like money. Villon has something pretty good to say on the subject I believe.

At the end of the story, Carl asks Edward to put on his sign for a minute so Carl can use a nearby restroom. “Boy, they’re kind of heavy aren’t they?” Edward declares, to which Carl replies, “They cut you a bit.” Barthelme notes Carl delivers the line with “a malicious smile.”

“Margins” might seem oblique on a first read, but rereading it there’s a lack of subtlety to Barthelme’s approach–the trading of the sign is a bit heavy handed. But the final strange image saves the story: “When Carl returned the two men slapped each other sharply in the face with the back of the hand-that beautiful part of the hand where the knuckles grow.”

Summary thoughts: Everything here is pretty strong. “Margins” and “Shower of Gold” have an energy that might make up for some zany misteps and heavyhanded symbolism, and “Will You Tell Me?” is a difficult but rewarding read. “Me and Miss Mandible” is Essential Barthelme (as is “The Balloon,” of course). Rereading “Mandible” simply confirmed its excellence. In contrast, I’ll admit that I didn’t remember “For I’m the Boy” at all, but found it to be surprisingly strong and unexpectedly moving for something that didn’t stick with me when I first read Sixty Stories. 

Going forward (in reverse): At some point early in this reverse reread I thought, Hey, maybe I’ll do the same thing with Forty Stories, but now, no, no, no. Maybe next year, maybe never. I will have one final post though. I’ll read David Gates’s introduction to my Penguin Classics edition of Sixty Stories and offer my own edits: Thirty StoriesFifteen Stories, and Ten Stories. 

A long sentence in which the miracle of surrogation is performed before your eyes | Donald Barthelme

From “Daumier” by Donald Barthelme.

Borges/Calvino (Books acquired, 23 June 2021)

I’m a huge sucker for Avon-Bard massmarket paperbacks, so I couldn’t pass up Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges. (The conversations are with the late writer Richard Burgin.) I also picked up a nifty 1976 paperback of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics.

Here’s one of those cosmicomics, “All at One Point” (English translation by William Weaver):

“All at One Point”

by

Italo Calvino


Through the calculations begun by Edwin P. Hubble on the galaxies’ velocity of recession, we can establish the moment when all the universe’s matter was concentrated in a single point, before it began to expand in space.

Naturally, we were all there, —old Qfwfq said, — where else could we have been? Nobody knew then that there could be space. Or time either: what use did we have for time, packed in there like sardines?

I say “packed like sardines,” using a literary image: in reality there wasn’t even space to pack us into. Every point of each of us coincided with every point of each of the others in a single point, which was where we all were. In fact, we didn’t even bother one another, except for personality differences, because when space doesn’t exist, having somebody unpleasant like Mr. Pber^t Pber^d underfoot all the time is the most irritating thing.

How many of us were there? Oh, I was never able to figure that out, not even approximately. To make a count, we would have had to move apart, at least a little, and instead we all occupied that same point. Contrary to what you might think, it wasn’t the sort of situation that encourages sociability; I know, for example, that in other periods neighbors called on one another; but there, because of the fact that we were all neighbors, nobody even said good morning or good evening to anybody else.

In the end each of us associated only with a limited number of acquaintances. The ones I remember most are Mrs. Ph(i)Nk_0, her friend De XuaeauX, a family of immigrants by the name of Z’zu, and Mr. Pber^t Pber^d, whom I just mentioned. There was also a cleaning woman — “maintenance staff” she was called — only one, for the whole universe, since there was so little room. To tell the truth, she had nothing to do all day long, not even dusting — inside one point not even a grain of dust can enter — so she spent all her time gossiping and complaining.

Just with the people I’ve already named we would have been overcrowded; but you have to add all the stuff we had to keep piled up in there: all the material that was to serve afterwards to form the universe, now dismantled and concentrated in such a way that you weren’t able to tell what was later to become part of astronomy (like the nebula of Andromeda) from what was assigned to geography (the Vosges, for example) or to chemistry (like certain beryllium isotopes). And on top of that, we were always bumping against the Z’zu family’s household goods: camp beds, mattresses, baskets; these Z’zus, if you weren’t careful, with the excuse that they were a large family, would begin to act as if they were the only ones in the world: they even wanted to hang lines across our point to dry their washing.

But the others also had wronged the Z’zus, to begin with, by calling them “immigrants,” on the pretext that, since the others had been there first, the Z’zus had come later. This was mere unfounded prejudice — that seems obvious to me — because neither before nor after existed, nor any place to immigrate from, but there were those who insisted that the concept of “immigrant” could be understood in the abstract, outside of space and time.

It was what you might call a narrow-minded attitude, our outlook at that time, very petty. The fault of the environment in which we had been reared. An attitude that, basically, has remained in all of us, mind you: it keeps cropping up even today, if two of us happen to meet — at the bus stop, in a movie house, at an international dentists’ convention — and start reminiscing about the old days. We say hello — at times somebody recognizes me, at other times I recognize somebody — and we promptly start asking about this one and that one (even if each remembers only a few of those remembered by the others), and so we start in again on the old disputes, the slanders, the denigrations. Until somebody mentions Mrs. Ph(i)Nk_0 — every conversation finally gets around to her — and then, all of a sudden, the pettiness is put aside, and we feel uplifted, filled with a blissful, generous emotion. Mrs. Ph(i)Nk_0, the only one that none of us has forgotten and that we all regret. Where has she ended up? I have long since stopped looking for her: Mrs. Ph(i)Nk_0, her bosom, her thighs, her orange dressing gown — we’ll never meet her again, in this system of galaxies or in any other.

Let me make one thing clear: this theory that the universe, after having reached an extremity of rarefaction, will be condensed again has never convinced me. And yet many of us are counting only on that, continually making plans for the time when we’ll all be back there again. Last month, I went into the bar here on the corner and whom did I see? Mr. Pber^t Pber^d. “What’s new with you? How do you happen to be in this neighborhood?” I learned that he’s the agent for a plastics firm, in Pavia. He’s the same as ever, with his silver tooth, his loud suspenders. “When we go back there,” he said to me, in a whisper, “the thing we have to make sure of is, this time, certain people remain out … You know who I mean: those Z’zus …”

I would have liked to answer him by saying that I’ve heard a number of people make the same remark, concluding: “You know who I mean … Mr. Pber^t Pber^d …”

To avoid the subject, I hastened to say: “What about Mrs. Ph(i)Nk_0? Do you think we’ll find her back there again?”

“Ah, yes … She, by all means …” he said, turning purple.

For all of us the hope of returning to that point means, above all, the hope of being once more with Mrs. Ph(i)Nk_0. (This applies even to me, though I don’t believe in it.) And in that bar, as always happens, we fell to talking about her, and were moved; even Mr. Pber^t Pber^d’s unpleasantness faded, in the face of that memory.

Mrs. Ph(i)Nk_0’s great secret is that she never aroused any jealousy among us. Or any gossip, either. The fact that she went to bed with her friend, Mr. De XuaeauX, was well known. But in a point, if there’s a bed, it takes up the whole point, so it isn’t a question of going to bed, but of being there, because anybody in the point is also in the bed. Consequently, it was inevitable that she should be in bed also with each of us. If she had been another person, there’s no telling all the things that would have been said about her. It was the cleaning woman who always started the slander, and the others didn’t have to be coaxed to imitate her. On the subject of the Z’zu family — for a change! — the horrible things we had to hear: father, daughters, brothers, sisters, mother, aunts: nobody showed any hesitation even before the most sinister insinuation. But with her it was different: the happiness I derived from her was the joy of being concealed, punctiform, in her, and of protecting her, punctiform, in me; it was at the same time vicious contemplation (thanks to the promiscuity of the punctiform convergence of us all in her) and also chastity (given her punctiform impenetrability). In short, what more could I ask?

And all of this, which was true of me, was true also for each of the others. And for her: she contained and was contained with equal happiness, and she welcomed us and loved and inhabited all equally.

We got along so well all together, so well that something extraordinary was bound to happen. It was enough for her to say, at a certain moment: “Oh, if I only had some room, how I’d like to make some noodles for you boys!” And in that moment we all thought of the space that her round arms would occupy, moving backward and forward with the rolling pin over the dough, her bosom leaning over the great mound of flour and eggs which cluttered the wide board while her arms kneaded and kneaded, white and shiny with oil up to the elbows; we thought of the space that the flour would occupy, and the wheat for the flour, and the fields to raise the wheat, and the mountains from which the water would flow to irrigate the fields, and the grazing lands for the herds of calves that would give their meat for the sauce; of the space it would take for the Sun to arrive with its rays, to ripen the wheat; of the space for the Sun to condense from the clouds of stellar gases and burn; of the quantities of stars and galaxies and galactic masses in flight through space which would be needed to hold suspended every galaxy, every nebula, every sun, every planet, and at the same time we thought of it, this space was inevitably being formed, at the same time that Mrs. Ph(i)Nk_0 was uttering those words: “… ah, what noodles, boys!” the point that contained her and all of us was expanding in a halo of distance in light-years and light-centuries and billions of light-millennia, and we were being hurled to the four corners of the universe (Mr. Pber^t Pber^d all the way to Pavia), and she, dissolved into I don’t know what kind of energy-light-heat, she, Mrs. Ph(i)Nk_0, she who in the midst of our closed, petty world had been capable of a generous impulse, “Boys, the noodles I would make for you!,” a true outburst of general love, initiating at the same moment the concept of space and, properly speaking, space itself, and time, and universal gravitation, and the gravitating universe, making possible billions and billions of suns, and of planets, and fields of wheat, and Mrs. Ph(i)Nk_0, scattered through the continents of the planets, kneading with floury, oil-shiny, generous arms, and she lost at that very moment, and we, mourning her loss.

“The Ghost Ships: A Christmas Story” by Angela Carter

“The Ghost Ships: A Christmas Story”

by

Angela Carter


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”