“Macadam” by Lucia Berlin
When fresh it looks like caviar, sounds like broken glass, like someone chewing ice.
I’d chew ice when the lemonade was finished, swaying with my grandmother on the porch swing. We gazed down upon the chain gang paving Upson Street. A foreman poured the macadam; the convicts stomped it down with a heavy rhythmic beat. The chains rang; the macadam made the sound of applause.
The three of us said the word often. My mother because she hated where we lived, in squalor, and at least now we would have a macadam street. My grandmother just so wanted things clean — it would hold down the dust. Red Texan dust that blew in with gray tailings from the smelter, sifting into dunes on the polished hall floor, onto her mahogany table.
I used to say macadam out loud, to myself, because it sounded like the name for a friend.
Witold Gombrowicz’s (very) short story “The Tragic Tale of the Baron and His Wife” is up at The Paris Review (translation by Tul’si Bhambry). First section of the story—
The Baroness was a charming creature. The Baron had taken her from a family of high principles and had no reason to mistrust her, despite the fact that the tooth of time had already gnawed into him quite deeply . . . And yet a disquieting element of grace and charm lay dormant within her, which could easily complicate the practical application of the Baron’s imponderabilia (since the Baron was a bit of a stickler). One day, after a period of conjugal life graced with the quiet bliss of marital duty, the Baroness came running to her husband and threw her arms around his neck. “I think I ought to tell you this. Henryk has fallen in love with me . . . Yesterday he declared himself to me, so quickly and suddenly that I had no time to stop him.”
“And are you in love with him, too?” he asked.
“No, I don’t love him, because I have pledged my love to you,” she replied.
“Very well then,” he said. “If you are in love with him but do not love him because it is your duty to love me, then my esteem for you doubles and I love you twice as much. And the young chap’s suffering is a well-deserved punishment for his weakness of character—losing his heart to a married woman! Principles, my dear! Should he ever make another declaration of love, tell him that you also have a declaration to make—but of principles. A man of unshakable principles can walk through life with his head held high.”
The tiny old lady in the black dress and curious little black bonnet had at first seemed alarmed at the sound made by her feet upon the stone pavements. But later she forgot about it, for she suddenly came into the tempest of the Sixth Avenue shopping district, where from the streams of people and vehicles went up a roar like that from headlong mountain torrents.
She seemed then like a chip that catches, recoils, turns and wheels, a reluctant thing in the clutch of the impetuous river. She hesitated, faltered, debated with herself. Frequently she seemed about to address people; then of a sudden she would evidently lose her courage. Meanwhile the torrent jostled her, swung her this and that way.
At last, however, she saw two young women gazing in at a shop-window. They were well-dressed girls; they wore gowns with enormous sleeves that made them look like full-rigged ships with all sails set. They seemed to have plenty of time; they leisurely scanned the goods in the window. Other people had made the tiny old woman much afraid because obviously they were speeding to keep such tremendously important engagements. She went close to the girls and peered in at the same window. She watched them furtively for a time. Then finally she said—
The girls looked down at this old face with its two large eyes turned towards them.
“Excuse me, can you tell me where I can get any work?”
For an instant the two girls stared. Then they seemed about to exchange a smile, but, at the last moment, they checked it. The tiny old lady’s eyes were upon them. She was quaintly serious, silently expectant. She made one marvel that in that face the wrinkles showed no trace of experience, knowledge; they were simply little, soft, innocent creases. As for her glance, it had the trustfulness of ignorance and the candour of babyhood.
“I want to get something to do, because I need the money,” she continued since, in their astonishment, they had not replied to her first question. “Of course I’m not strong and I couldn’t do very much, but I can sew well; and in a house where there was a good many men folks, I could do all the mending. Do you know any place where they would like me to come?”
The young women did then exchange a smile, but it was a subtle tender smile, the edge of personal grief.
“Well, no, madame,” hesitatingly said one of them at last; “I don’t think I know any one.”
A shade passed over the tiny old lady’s face, a shadow of the wing of disappointment.
“Don’t you?” she said, with a little struggle to be brave, in her voice.
Then the girl hastily continued—”But if you will give me your address, I may find some one, and if I do, I will surely let you know of it.”
The tiny old lady dictated her address, bending over to watch the girl write on a visiting card with a little silver pencil. Then she said—
“I thank you very much.” She bowed to them, smiling, and went on down the avenue.
As for the two girls, they walked to the curb and watched this aged figure, small and frail, in its black gown and curious black bonnet. At last, the crowd, the innumerable wagons, intermingling and changing with uproar and riot, suddenly engulfed it.
“Unmasking a Confidence Trickster”
English translation by the Muirs
At last, about ten o’clock at night, I came to the doorway of the fine house where I was invited to spend the evening, after the man beside me, whom I was barely acquainted with and who had once again thrust himself unasked upon me, had marched me for two long hours around the streets.
“Well!” I said, and clapped my hands to show that I really had to bid him goodbye. I had already made several less explicit attempts to get rid of him. I was tired out.
“Are you going straight in?” he asked. I heard a sound in his mouth that was like the snapping of teeth.
I had been invited out, I told him when I met him. But it was to enter a house where I longed to be that I had been invited, not to stand here at the street door looking past the ears of the man before me. Nor to fall silent with him, as if we were doomed to stay for a long time on this spot. And yet the houses around us at once took a share in our silence, and the darkness over them, all the way up to the stars. And the steps of invisible passers-by, which one could not take the trouble to elucidate, and the wind persistently buffeting the other side of the street, and a gramophone singing behind the closed windows of some room-they all announced themselves in this silence, as if it were their own possession for the time past and to come.
And my companion subscribed to it in his own name and–with a smile–in mine too, stretched his right arm up along the wall and leaned his cheek upon it, shutting his eyes.
But I did not wait to see the end of that smile, for shame suddenly caught hold of me. It had needed that smile to let me know that the man was a confidence trickster, nothing else. And yet I had been months in the town and thought I knew all about confidence tricksters, how they came slinking out of side streets by night to meet us with outstretched hands like tavernkeepers, how they haunted the advertisement pillars we stood beside, sliding round them as if playing hide-and-seek and spying on us with at least one eye, how they suddenly appeared on the curb of the pavement at cross streets when we were hesitating! I understood them so well, they were the first acquaintances I had made the town’s small taverns, and to them I owed my first inkling of a ruthless hardness which I was now so conscious of, everywhere on earth, that I was even beginning to feel it in myself. How persistently they blocked our way, even when we had long shaken ourselves free, even when, that is, they had nothing more to hope for! How they refused to give up, to admit defeat, but kept shooting glances at us that even from a distance were still compelling! And the means they employed were always the same: they planted themselves before us, looking as large as possible, tried to hinder us from going where we purposed, offered us instead a habitation in their own bosoms, and when at last all our balked feelings rose in revolt they welcomed that like an embrace into which they threw themselves face foremost.
And it had taken me such a long time in this man’s company to recognize the same old game. I rubbed my finger tips together to wipe away the disgrace. My companion was still leaning there as before, still believing himself a successful trickster, and his self-complacency glowed pink on his free cheek.
“Caught in the act!” said I, tapping him lightly on the shoulder. Then I ran up the steps, and the disinterested devotion on the servants’ faces in the hall delighted me like an unexpected treat. I looked at them all, one after another, while they took my greatcoat off and wiped my shoes clean.
With a deep breath of relief and straightening myself to my full height I then entered the drawing room.
Thomas Bernhard’s (short) short story “The Woman from the Foundry and the Man with the Rucksack” (“Die Frau aus dem Gusswerk und der Mann mit dem Rucksack”) is new in translation from Douglas Robertson.The story was first published (in Bernhard’s German, of course) in 1970. Robertson’s ongoing project to bring untranslated Bernhard into English is marvelous. Here are the first four (of fourteen) sentences—read the whole thing here.
THE WOMAN FROM THE FOUNDRY AND THE MAN WITH THE RUCKSACK
The woman, who is employed at the foundry, found her eye caught by a fairly old man who, with a fully-packed rucksack was pacing up and down the riverbank, a man who was wearing buckskin lederhosen tied up at the ankles, a pair of high-topped lace-up boots, a coat made of milled cloth, and a sturdy felt hat on his head. She thought there was something terrifying about the face of the man, who seemed, like her, to be impatiently awaiting the arrival of the train, this man who now and then would quite unwarrantably shove another person out of the way in order to keep his own path clear. She had already observed the man on her way to the stop and begun forming thoughts about him. The man was a complete stranger to her.
Some said that Ferguson gave up sailoring because he was tired of the sea. Some said that it was because he loved a woman. In truth it was because he was tired of the sea and because he loved a woman.
He saw the woman once, and immediately she became for him the symbol of all things unconnected with the sea. He did not trouble to look again at the grey old goddess, the muttering slave of the moon. Her splendours, her treacheries, her smiles, her rages, her vanities, were no longer on his mind. He took heels after a little human being, and the woman made his thought spin at all times like a top; whereas the ocean had only made him think when he was on watch.
He developed a grin for the power of the sea, and, in derision, he wanted to sell the red and green parrot which had sailed four voyages with him. The woman, however, had a sentiment concerning the bird’s plumage, and she commanded Ferguson to keep it in order, as it happened, that she might forget to put food in its cage.
As a sailor, Ferguson had suffered the acute hankering for port; and being now always in port, he tried to force life to become an endless picnic. He was not an example of diligent and peaceful citizenship. Ablution became difficult in the little apartment, because Ferguson kept the wash-basin filled with ice and bottles of beer: and so, finally, the dealer in second-hand furniture agreed to auction the household goods on commission. Owing to an exceedingly liberal definition of a term, the parrot and cage were included. “On the level?” cried the parrot, “On the level? On the level? On the level?”
On the way to the sale, Ferguson’s wife spoke hopefully. “You can’t tell, Jim,” she said. “Perhaps some of ’em will get to biddin’, and we might get almost as much as we paid for the things.”
The auction room was in a cellar. It was crowded with people and with house furniture; so that as the auctioneer’s assistant moved from one piece to another he caused a great shuffling. There was an astounding number of old women in curious bonnets. The rickety stairway was thronged with men who wished to smoke and be free from the old women. Two lamps made all the faces appear yellow as parchment. Incidentally they could impart a lustre of value to very poor furniture.
The auctioneer was a fat, shrewd-looking individual, who seemed also to be a great bully. The assistant was the most imperturbable of beings, moving with the dignity of an image on rollers. As the Fergusons forced their way down the stair-way, the assistant roared: “Number twenty-one!”
“Number twenty-one!” cried the auctioneer. “Number twenty-one! A fine new handsome bureau! Two dollars? Two dollars is bid! Two and a half! Two and a half! Three? Three is bid. Four! Four dollars! A fine new handsome bureau at four dollars! Four dollars! Four dollars! F-o-u-r d-o-l-l-a-r-s! Sold at four dollars.”
“On the level?” cried the parrot, muffled somewhere among furniture and carpets. “On the level? On the level?” Every one tittered.
Mrs. Ferguson had turned pale, and gripped her husband’s arm. “Jim! Did you hear? The bureau—four dollars—”
Ferguson glowered at her with the swift brutality of a man afraid of a scene. “Shut up, can’t you!”
Mrs. Ferguson took a seat upon the steps; and hidden there by the thick ranks of men, she began to softly sob. Through her tears appeared the yellowish mist of the lamplight, streaming about the monstrous shadows of the spectators. From time to time these latter whispered eagerly: “See, that went cheap!” In fact when anything was bought at a particularly low price, a murmur of admiration arose for the successful bidder.
The bedstead was sold for two dollars, the mattresses and springs for one dollar and sixty cents. This figure seemed to go through the woman’s heart. There was derision in the sound of it. She bowed her head in her hands. “Oh, God, a dollar-sixty! Oh, God, a dollar-sixty!”
The parrot was evidently under heaps of carpet, but the dauntless bird still raised the cry, “On the level?”
Some of the men near Mrs. Ferguson moved timidly away upon hearing her low sobs. They perfectly understood that a woman in tears is formidable.
The shrill voice went like a hammer, beat and beat, upon the woman’s heart. An odour of varnish, of the dust of old carpets, assailed her and seemed to possess a sinister meaning. The golden haze from the two lamps was an atmosphere of shame, sorrow, greed. But it was when the parrot called that a terror of the place and of the eyes of the people arose in her so strongly that she could not have lifted her head any more than if her neck had been of iron.
At last came the parrot’s turn. The assistant fumbled until he found the ring of the cage, and the bird was drawn into view. It adjusted its feathers calmly and cast a rolling wicked eye over the crowd.
This was the part of a ballad which Ferguson had tried to teach it. With a singular audacity and scorn, the parrot bawled these lines at the auctioneer as if it considered them to bear some particular insult.
The throng in the cellar burst into laughter. The auctioneer attempted to start the bidding, and the parrot interrupted with a repetition of the lines. It swaggered to and fro on its perch, and gazed at the faces of the crowd, with so much rowdy understanding and derision that even the auctioneer could not confront it. The auction was brought to a halt; a wild hilarity developed, and every one gave jeering advice.
Ferguson looked down at his wife and groaned. She had cowered against the wall, hiding her face. He touched her shoulder and she arose. They sneaked softly up the stairs with heads bowed.
Out in the street, Ferguson gripped his fists and said: “Oh, but wouldn’t I like to strangle it!”
His wife cried in a voice of wild grief: “It—it m—made us a laughing-stock in—in front of all that crowd!”
For the auctioning of their household goods, the sale of their home—this financial calamity lost its power in the presence of the social shame contained in a crowd’s laughter.
“The Difficulty of Crossing a Field”
One morning in July, 1854, a planter named Williamson, living six miles from Selma, Alabama, was sitting with his wife and a child on the veranda of his dwelling. Immediately in front of the house was a lawn, perhaps fifty yards in extent between the house and public road, or, as it was called, the “pike.” Beyond this road lay a close-cropped pasture of some ten acres, level and without a tree, rock, or any natural or artificial object on its surface. At the time there was not even a domestic animal in the field. In another field, beyond the pasture, a dozen slaves were at work under an overseer.
Throwing away the stump of a cigar, the planter rose, saying: “I forgot to tell Andrew about those horses.” Andrew was the overseer.
Williamson strolled leisurely down the gravel walk, plucking a flower as he went, passed across the road and into the pasture, pausing a moment as he closed the gate leading into it, to greet a passing neighbor, Armour Wren, who lived on an adjoining plantation. Mr. Wren was in an open carriage with his son James, a lad of thirteen. When he had driven some two hundred yards from the point of meeting, Mr. Wren said to his son: “I forgot to tell Mr. Williamson about those horses.”
Mr. Wren had sold to Mr. Williamson some horses, which were to have been sent for that day, but for some reason not now remembered it would be inconvenient to deliver them until the morrow. The coachman was directed to drive back, and as the vehicle turned Williamson was seen by all three, walking leisurely across the pasture. At that moment one of the coach horses stumbled and came near falling. It had no more than fairly recovered itself when James Wren cried: “Why, father, what has become of Mr. Williamson?”
It is not the purpose of this narrative to answer that question.
Mr. Wren’s strange account of the matter, given under oath in the course of legal proceedings relating to the Williamson estate, here follows:
“My son’s exclamation caused me to look toward the spot where I had seen the deceased [sic] an instant before, but he was not there, nor was he anywhere visible. I cannot say that at the moment I was greatly startled, or realized the gravity of the occurrence, though I thought it singular. My son, however, was greatly astonished and kept repeating his question in different forms until we arrived at the gate. My black boy Sam was similarly affected, even in a greater degree, but I reckon more by my son’s manner than by anything he had himself observed. [This sentence in the testimony was stricken out.] As we got out of the carriage at the gate of the field, and while Sam was hanging [sic] the team to the fence, Mrs. Williamson, with her child in her arms and followed by several servants, came running down the walk in great excitement, crying: ‘He is gone, he is gone! O God! what an awful thing!’ and many other such exclamations, which I do not distinctly recollect. I got from them the impression that they related to something more – than the mere disappearance of her husband, even if that had occurred before her eyes. Her manner was wild, but not more so, I think, than was natural under the circumstances. I have no reason to think she had at that time lost her mind. I have never since seen nor heard of Mr. Williamson.”
This testimony, as might have been expected, was corroborated in almost every particular by the only other eye-witness (if that is a proper term) – the lad James. Mrs. Williamson had lost her reason and the servants were, of course, not competent to testify. The boy James Wren had declared at first that he saw the disappearance, but there is nothing of this in his testimony given in court. None of the field hands working in the field to which Williamson was going had seen him at all, and the most rigorous search of the entire plantation and adjoining country failed to supply a clew. The most monstrous and grotesque fictions, originating with the blacks, were current in that part of the State for many years, and probably are to this day; but what has been here related is all that is certainly known of the matter. The courts decided that Williamson was dead, and his estate was distributed according to law.
“Blue and Green”
from Monday or Tuesday
The pointed fingers of glass hang downwards. The light slides down the glass, and drops a pool of green. All day long the ten fingers of the lustre drop green upon the marble. The feathers of parakeets—their harsh cries—sharp blades of palm trees—green, too; green needles glittering in the sun. But the hard glass drips on to the marble; the pools hover above the dessert sand; the camels lurch through them; the pools settle on the marble; rushes edge them; weeds clog them; here and there a white blossom; the frog flops over; at night the stars are set there unbroken. Evening comes, and the shadow sweeps the green over the mantelpiece; the ruffled surface of ocean. No ships come; the aimless waves sway beneath the empty sky. It’s night; the needles drip blots of blue. The green’s out.
The snub-nosed monster rises to the surface and spouts through his blunt nostrils two columns of water, which, fiery-white in the centre, spray off into a fringe of blue beads. Strokes of blue line the black tarpaulin of his hide. Slushing the water through mouth and nostrils he sings, heavy with water, and the blue closes over him dowsing the polished pebbles of his eyes. Thrown upon the beach he lies, blunt, obtuse, shedding dry blue scales. Their metallic blue stains the rusty iron on the beach. Blue are the ribs of the wrecked rowing boat. A wave rolls beneath the blue bells. But the cathedral’s different, cold, incense laden, faint blue with the veils of madonnas.
From The Adding Machine.