Read “The Lover,” a short story by Joy Williams

“The Lover”

by

Joy Williams


THE girl is twenty-five. It has not been very long since her divorce but she cannot remember the man who used to be her husband. He was probably nice. She will tell the child this, at any rate. Once he lost a fifty-dollar pair of sunglasses while surf casting off Gay Head and felt badly about it for days. He did like kidneys, that was one thing. He loved kidneys for weekend lunch. She would voyage through the supermarkets, her stomach sweetly sloped, her hair in a twist, searching for fresh kidneys for this young man, her husband. When he kissed her, his kisses, or so she imagined, would have the faint odor of urine. Understandably, she did not want to think about this. It hardly seemed that the same problem would arise again, that is, with another man. Nothing could possibly be gained from such an experience! The child cannot remember him, this man, this daddy, and she cannot remember him. He had been with her when she gave birth to the child. Not beside her, but close by, in the corridor. He had left his work and come to the hospital. As they wheeled her by, he said, “Now you are going to have to learn how to love something, you wicked woman.” It is difficult for her to believe he said such a thing.

The girl does not sleep well and recently has acquired the habit of listening all night to the radio. It is a weak, not very good radio and at night she can only get one station. From midnight until four she listens to Action Line. People call the station and make comments on the world and their community and they ask questions. Music is played and a brand of beef and beans is advertised. A woman calls up and says, “Could you tell me why the filling in my lemon meringue pie is runny?” These people have obscene materials in their mailboxes. They want to know where they can purchase small flags suitable for waving on Armed Forces Day. There is a man on the air who answers these questions right away. Another woman calls. She says, “Can you get us a report on the progress of the collection of Betty Crocker coupons for the lung machine?” The man can and does. He answers the woman’s question. Astonishingly, he complies with her request. The girl thinks such a talent is bleak and wonderful. She thinks this man can help her.

The girl wants to be in love. Her face is thin with the thinness of a failed lover. It is so difficult! Love is concentration, she feels, but she can remember nothing. She tries to recollect two things a day. In the morning with her coffee, she tries to remember and in the evening, with her first bourbon and water, she tries to remember as well. She has been trying to remember the birth of her child now for several days. Nothing returns to her. Life is so intrusive! Everyone was talking. There was too much conversation! The doctor was above her, waiting for the pains. “No, I still can’t play tennis,” the doctor said. “I haven’t been able to play for two months. I have spurs on both heels and it’s just about wrecked our marriage. Air conditioning and concrete floors is what does it. Murder on your feet.” A few minutes later, the nurse had said, “Isn’t it wonderful to work with Teflon? I mean for those arterial repairs? I just love it.” The girl wished that they would stop talking. She wished that they would turn the radio on instead and be still. The baby inside her was hard and glossy as an ear of corn. She wanted to say something witty or charming so that they would know she was fine and would stop talking. While she was thinking of something perfectly balanced and amusing to say, the baby was born. They fastened a plastic identification bracelet around her wrist and the baby’s wrist. Three days later, after they had come home, her husband sawed off the bracelets with a grapefruit knife. The girl had wanted to make it an occasion. She yelled, “I have a lovely pair of tiny silver scissors that belonged to my grandmother and you have used a grapefruit knife!” Her husband was flushed and nervous but he smiled at her as he always did. “You are insecure,” she said tearfully. “You are insecure because you had mumps when you were eight.” Their divorce was one year and two months away. “It was not mumps,” he said carefully. “Once I broke my arm while swimming is all.” Continue reading “Read “The Lover,” a short story by Joy Williams”

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A review of Lucia Berlin’s short story collection Evening in Paradise

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Evening in Paradise is the second posthumously-published collection of short stories by the American writer Lucia Berlin. The book collects twenty-two stories originally published between 1981 and 1999. Most of the stories center around a semi-autobiographical version of Berlin herself. Like the excellent compendium A Manual for Cleaning Women which preceded it, Evening in Paradise is crammed with life. These stories teem with electric energy—even when their immediate subject matters might seem banal on the surface. Evening in Paradise shows an artist shaping the events of her life, big and small, wild and tragic, sharp and dull, into an impressionistic and urgent patchwork of tales that add up to a fictional memoir of sorts. As Berlin’s eldest son Mark Berlin noted in a 2005 essay on his mother (which serves as an introduction to Evening in Paradise),

Ma wrote true stories; not necessarily autobiographical, but close enough for horseshoes. Our family stories and memories have been slowly reshaped, embellished and edited to the extent that I’m not sure what really happened all the time. Lucia said this didn’t matter: the story is the thing.

The first stories in the collection feel sharply autobiographical. Both “The Musical Vanity Boxes” and “Sometimes in the Summer” are told by a first-person narrator named “Lucia” who details the small adventures of her childhood early 1940s in El Paso, Texas. Lucia and her friend slip over borders of all sorts, passing not only into Juarez, but also into a more complicated version of themselves as they mature. There’s a subtle menace rumbling under these stories. A mature Berlin looks back, knows what her girl protagonist does not yet know about the world and its dark joys and sinister terrors. The writer shows us a narrator gazing on life’s bright lights, even as she—the writer—draws our attention to the edge of those lights, to the threatening shadows on the margin.

Like A Manual for Cleaning Women, the stories in Evening in Paradise follow an arc of maturation—they are organized not chronologically by dates of composition or publication, but organized rather around the age of the central protagonist, the Berlin stand-in.

We find this protagonist simultaneously struggling and thriving in her teenage years. “Anando: A Gothic Romance” lives up to its subtitle. Set in Chile in an ex-pat community, “Andado” features a version of Berlin’s own teenage family—the father, a somewhat-absent mining engineer; the mother a depressed alcoholic. It’s no wonder then that our hero “Laura” is so easily seduced — “ruined” — by an older man. In one telling aside, the third-person narrator assesses a subtle moment of the seduction from the distance of time:

She was simply enveloped.

This would never happen to her again. When she grew older she would always be in control, even when being submissive. This would be the first and the last time anyone took over herself.

In “Itinerary,” another fictionalized-version of Berlin departs Chile for college in New Mexico. She leaves on her own, taking a series of planes and being greeted by a series of hosts, each of which reveals, inadvertently, something about her family which she had not previously seen, something that would be obvious though to any mature eyes settling on the family with objective distance. Berlin’s first-person narrator never quite names what is revealed to her; instead, she takes us up to the moment where we see her seeing what she has previously been blind to, yet still does not quite have the language to name. The final lines of “Itinerary” are a sort of negative epiphany:

It was sunset as we circled Albuquerque. The Sandias and the miles of rocky desert were a deep coral pink. I felt old. Not grown up, but the way I do now. That there was so much I did not see or understand, and now it is too late. The air was cold in New Mexico. No one met me.

The middle section of Evening in Paradise gives way to a series of stories focusing on young wives and young mothers different iterations of Berlin in the fifties. “Lead Street, Albuquerque” is particularly fascinating. Here, Berlin splits the material of her life into two different characters—the narrator, a somewhat hapless housewife who’s relegated to washing the dishes while her artist-husband and his artist-friends chat about hepcat stuff—and “Maria” — “seventeen, American, but grew up in South America, acts foreign, shy. English major.” A mature narrator looks back, half-mockingly and half-lovingly, at an ingénue-muse version of herself, the pair framed in the same tale. And our narrator turns toward her own life in the same attitude in turn:

Is there a word opposite of déjà vu? Or a word to describe how I saw my whole future flash before my eyes? I saw that I’d stay at the Albuquerque National Bank and Bernie would get his doctorate and keep on painting bad paintings and making muddy pottery and would get tenure. We would have two daughters and one would a dentist and the other a cocaine addict. Well, of course I didn’t know all that, but I saw how things would be hard. And I knew that years and years from then Bernie would probably leave me for one of his students and I’d be devastated but then would go back to school and when I was fifty I’d finally do things I wanted to do, but I would be tired.

The push-pull of artistic ambition against domestic life’s constraints ripple through these middle stories, where women raise kids and clean houses while men pursue their muses—writing, jazz, painting. There are small resentments and sordid affairs, banal routines and burgeoning substance abuse problems. Threaded through these stories is a common theme though, summed up in the last line of “Cherry Blossom Time,” when the hero Cassandra addresses her husband: “David. Please talk to me.”

The collection’s title story marks a shift in the trajectory of the Berlinverse, and stands out as a bit of an oddity. “Evening in Paradise” is the only piece here that doesn’t feature a straightforward Berlin stand-in; indeed, the story doesn’t have a strong central persona at all. Rather, “Evening” plays like a series of elegiac vignettes centered around the Oceano hotel–notably its bar—in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. It’s 1963 and cast and crew of The Night of the Iguana are causing a ruckus in the small fishing town, drinking heavily, taking up with beach gigolos, smoking reefers—and even shooting heroin and snorting coke. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor burst in and out; Ava Gardner looms larger than life. Director John Huston sits in the bar’s corner, drinking homemade mescal from a mayonnaise jar. There’s scheming and screaming, and generally famous times—but, like the title declares, the scene announces the end of an era.

“Evening in Paradise,” without a Berlin-protagonist, resets the stage, moving us to Mexico for a while, and introducing heroin as a major trope. In the next tale, “La Barca de la Ilusion,” Maya and her husband Buzz move to Yelapa (in Jalisco, Mexico) so that Buzz can kick heroin. “La Barca” is a standout in the collection, a slow burn of a tale, but one packed with lifetimes of storytelling. Buzz, born to a wealthy Boston family, drops out of Harvard to play saxophone in jazz clubs. He marries an heiress named Circe (I know, right?), starts a Volkswagen franchise, becomes a millionaire, has an affair with Maya, divorces Circe, etc. The problem remains though: “Heroin is easy to hide if you are rich, because you always have it.” That problem transgresses the paradise of Yalapa in the form of Victor, a menacing drug dealer who’s had his hooks in Buzz for years. Victor is a creature from the shadows, the sinister specter that haunted the background of the earlier tales of Evening in Paradise finally made manifest. I won’t spoil the rest of the story, but it swells to a startling, cinematic climax.

Characters like Victor and Buzz and Circe show up in different iterations in successive stories, like “My Life Is an Open Book” and “The Wives,” before Evening in Paradise gives over to Berlin’s Oakland years. Stories like “Noël, 1974” feature Berlin’s sons—excuse me, Berlin’s stand-in’s sons. These stories also feature her alter-ego’s high-functioning alcoholism. (Again, features that will be familiar to fans of the stories in A Manual for Cleaning Women).

The one-pager “The Pony Bar, Oakland” serves as something of a summary of the material that preceded it, delivered in Berlin’s economical prose. “There are certain perfect particular sounds. A tennis ball, a golf ball hit just right….Pool is erotic any way you look at it” the narrator begins, perched on a bar stool, as the sounds of billiards take her back in time to a cricket match in Chile:

Cricket in Santiago. Red parasols, green grass, white Andes. Red and white striped canvas chairs at the Prince of Wales Country Club. I signed chits for lemonade, tipped the tuxedoed waiters, applauded John Wells. Perfect crack of the cricket bat. I wore white, was careful of the grass stains, flirted with the boys who wore Grange school gray flannels, blue blazers in summertime. Cucumber sandwiches with tea, plans for Sunday at Viña del Mar.

The narrator remarks that she felt like an alien in that privileged childhood, just as she feels like an alien here at the Pony Bar in Oakland, sitting next to a tattooed biker. Berlin—or hey, sorry, Berlin’s stand-in—is never at home, but also at home every where. The tale ends as she glances at the hinges tattooed on the biker’s wrists, elbows, knees. The story ends in a wry punchline:

“You need a hinge on your neck,” I said.

“You need a screw up your ass.”

The smoky bar reverberating with the erotic sounds of pool transmutes into expatriate pastimes and then lands back into unglamorous Oakland, to culminate in a dirty joke. “Pony Bar, Oakland” condenses Evening in Paradise’s themes of memory, sensation, and life into a spare but evocative tale.

Later stories, like “Our Brother’s Keeper,” “Lost in the Louvre,” and “Luna Nueva” work in much the same way, filling a few slim pages with full fat life. These late stories are reflective and fully mature—still questioning and questing, but also shining with a strange peace, a strange reconciling to the sinister forces that vibrate under life’s vivid contours of family, work, culture, persona. I’ll confess that there’s something in these stories that I don’t fully appreciate—something beyond my forty years, something that their narrators see that I don’t maybe—maybe not yet, maybe not ever. But I’ll be happy to revisit them—and Berlin’s work in general—in years to come. Highly recommended.

 

“The Witness,” a very short story by Jorge Luis Borges

“The Witness”

by

Jorge Luis Borges

English translation by Andrew Hurley


In a stable that stands almost in the shadow of the new stone church, a man with gray eyes and gray beard, lying amid the odor of the animals, humbly tries to will himself into death, much as a man might will himself to sleep. The day, obedient to vast and secret laws, slowly shifts about and mingles the shadows in the lowly place; outside lie plowed fields, a ditch clogged with dead leaves, and the faint track of a wolf in the black clay where the line of woods begins. The man sleeps and dreams, forgotten.

The bells for orisons awaken him. Bells are now one of evening’s customs in the kingdoms of England, but as a boy the man has seen the face of Woden, the sacred horror and the exultation, the clumsy wooden idol laden with Roman coins and ponderous vestments, the sacrifice of horses, dogs, and prisoners. Before dawn he will be dead, and with him, the last eyewitness images of pagan rites will perish, never to be seen again. The world will be a little  poorer when this Saxon man is dead.

Things, events, that occupy space yet come to an end when someone dies may make us stop in wonder—and yet one thing, or an infinite number of things, dies with every man’s or woman’s death, unless the universe itself has a memory, as theosophists have suggested. In the course of time there was one day that closed the last eyes that had looked on Christ; the Battle of Junin and the love of Helen died with the death of one man. What will die with me the day I die? What pathetic or frail image will be lost to the world? The voice of Macedonia Fernandez, the image of a bay horse in a vacant lot on the corner of Sarrano and Charcas, a bar of sulfur in the drawer of a mahogany desk?

Read “Life,” a dialogue by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

“Life”

by

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

Translated by Isaac Goldberg


 

End of time. Ahasverus, seated upon a rock, gazes for a long while upon the horizon, athwart which wing two eagles, crossing each other in their path. He meditates, then falls into a doze. The day wanes.

Ahasverus. I have come to the end of time; this is the threshold of eternity. The earth is deserted; no other man breathes the air of life. I am the last; I can die. Die! Precious thought! For centuries of centuries I have lived, wearied, mortified, wandering ever, but now the centuries are coming to an end, and I shall die with them. Ancient nature, farewell! Azure sky, clouds ever reborn, roses of a day and of every day, perennial waters, hostile earth that never would devour my bones, farewell! The eternal wanderer will wander no longer. God may pardon me if He wishes, but death will console me. That mountain is as unyielding as my grief; those eagles that fly yonder must be as famished as my despair. Shall you, too, die, divine eagles?

Prometheus. Of a surety the race of man is perished; the earth is bare of them.

Ahasverus. I hear a voice…. The voice of a human being? Implacable heavens, am I not then the last? He approaches…. Who are you? There shines in your large eyes something like the mysterious light of the archangels of Israel; you are not a human being?…

Prometheus. No.

Ahasverus. Of a race divine, then?

Prometheus. You have said it. Continue reading “Read “Life,” a dialogue by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis”

Read “Lost in the Louvre,” a short story by Lucia Berlin

“Lost in the Louvre” is a short story from Lucia Berlin’s collection of previously-uncompiled stories, Evening in Paradise. You can read the entire story at FS&G’s Work in Progress site.

Here are the first four paragraphs:

9780374279486As a child I would try to capture the exact moment that I passed from awake to asleep. I lay very still and waited, but the next thing I knew, it was morning. I did this off and on as I grew older. Sometimes I ask people if they have ever tried this, but they never understand what I mean. I was over forty when it first happened, and I wasn’t even trying. A hot summer night. Arcs from car headlights swept across the ceiling. The whirr of a neighbor’s sprinklers. I caught sleep. Just as it came quiet as a cool sheet to cover me, a light caress on my eyelids. I felt sleep as it took me. In the morning I woke up happy and I never needed to try it again.

It certainly had never occurred to me to catch death, although it was in Paris that I did. That I saw how it comes upon you.

I’m sure this sounds melodramatic. I was very happy in Paris, but sad too. My lover and my father had died the year before. My mother had quite recently died. I thought about them as I walked the streets or sat in cafés. Especially Bruno, talking to him in my head, laughing with him. My childhood friends, girls lying around on the grass, on the beach, talking about going to Paris someday. They were dead too. So was Andres, who had given me Remembrance of Things Past.

The first few weeks I explored every tourist destination in the city. L’Orangerie, the lovely Sainte Chapelle on a sunny day. Balzac’s house, Hugo’s museum. I sat upstairs at the Deux Magots, where everyone looked like a Californian or Camus. I went to Baudelaire’s grave in Montmartre and thought it was funny for feminist Simone de Beauvoir to be buried with Sartre. I even went to a museum for medical instruments and a stamp museum. I loitered on the rue de Courcelles and walked the Champs Elysées. Napoleon’s tomb, the Sunday bird market. La Serpente. Some days I took random combinations of Metros and walked and walked in each new quarter. I sat in the square beneath Colette’s apartment and walked in the Luxembourg Gardens with everybody from Flaubert to Gertrude Stein. I went to Boulevard Haussmann and to the Bois de Boulogne with Albertine. Everything I saw seemed vividly déjà vu, but I was seeing what I had read.

Read the rest of “Lost in the Louvre.”

Tristan Foster’s Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father (Book acquired, 29 Oct. 2018)

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Attempting to fictionalise things that happened to me or that I observed, even from afar, can be like trying to slip through a gap in a wire fence: shirtsleeves are snagged and threaten to unspool—so bear with me.

From “Music for Church Organs.”

Tristan Foster’s Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father is new from Transmission Press.

“What does one wear to one’s death? What does the sheep think of the sky? Wrap the disc of soap in the washer. Draw it slow across the flesh, up the arm, up the arm, across the belly. Flesh of the living becomes flesh of the dead. Open the cupboard, doorknob squealing. Finger through coathangers, coats and throwovers and dresses. Pull a skirt out to see, imagine it on the hips, around the legs, hang the hanger back and look for death-clothe again. The water hot brings out the soap’s smell soft and light as feathers. That day on the corner the boys threw eggs. Egg in the hair and ran home. Egg on face means a smile now. Water down back down legs.

From “What the Sheep Thinks of the Sky.”

There are 28 stories in Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father.

I met the dead man in the only place appropriate: underground. I was in Cappadocia, Turkey, in a tunnel dug more than a millennium ago by Byzantines hiding with their faith. I was—I admit this only reluctantly—lost; I’d separated from the tour group soon after the smiling guide had explained that the network of tunnels stretched out under the countryside for kilometers, and was alone in the ancient hallways for long enough to imagine being trapped in them forever.

From “The Deadest Man in the Underworld.”

I have not read all of the stories in Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father yet.

While on holiday in Europe you go to a Courbet exhibition with a friend but you are so distracted by the scratching of your shirt’s tag on the base of your neck that later, after you’ve left the gallery, all that will remain with you are memories of idyllic, woodland scenes. A deer maybe. Only when you exit the exhibition do you go into a toilet cubicle, wrestle the back of the shirt around to the front and pluck off the tag, tearing a hole in the collar.

From “Stories About You.”

Some of the stories in Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father are microfictions; some are not. Most are what could lazily be called experimental, but I don’t think Foster is experimenting. I think he knows what he’s doing. The reader is the one who gets experiment.

To be specific: fire-burnt fingers.

From “Hellhole.”

Tristan Foster’s Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father is new from Transmission Press.

 

Chris Power’s Mothers (Book acquired, 23 Oct. 2018)

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I’ve been reading Chris Power’s series “A Brief Survey of the Short Story” for years now at The Guardian, so I wasn’t surprised when I saw a while back that he was working on his own collection of short fiction. I’ve read the first two in this collection, and so far, it’s Good Stuff. Proper review to come.

Mothers is forthcoming in the U.S. in January of 2019 from FS&G. Their blurb:

Chris Power’s stories are peopled by men and women who find themselves at crossroads or dead ends—characters who search without knowing what they seek. Their paths lead them to thresholds, bridges, rivers, and sites of mysterious, irresistible connection to the past. A woman uses her mother’s old travel guide, aged years beyond relevance, to navigate on a journey to nowhere; a stand-up comic with writer’s block performs a fateful gig at a cocaine-fueled bachelor party; on holiday in Greece, a father must confront the limits to which he can keep his daughters safe. Braided throughout is the story of Eva, a daughter, wife, and mother, whose search for a self and place of belonging tracks a devastating path through generations.

Ranging from remote English moors to an ancient Swedish burial ground to a hedonistic Mexican wedding, the stories in Mothers lay bare the emotional and psychic damage of life, love, and abandonment. Suffused with yearning, Power’s transcendent prose expresses a profound ache for vanished pasts and uncertain futures.

Read Anne Carson’s short story “Flaubert Again”

Objects would suddenly fall or fall apart, cars go off course, dogs drop to their knees. The Army was doing sound experiments at a nearby desert in those days. I was nervous all the rest of my life, she wrote. She was a novelist and enjoyed some success. But always she had the fantasy of a different kind of novel, and although gradually realizing that all novelists share this fantasy, she persisted in it, without knowing what the novel would be except true and obvious while it was happening. Now I’m writing, she would be able to say.

She broke off.

Where would you put a third arm? is a question asked in creativity-assessment tests, or so I have heard. Will this different kind of novel be like that, like a third arm? I hate creativity, she said. Certainly not like a third arm. It would be less and less and less, not more. Barthes died, he never got there. She named other attempts—Flaubert, etc. Other renunciators, none of them clear on what to renounce. This chair I’m sitting in, she thought. Its fantastic wovenness, a wicker chair, old, from the back porch, brought in for winter. Me sitting here, by a lamp, wrapped in a quilt, beside the giant black windows, this December blackness, this 4:30 a.m. kitchen as it reflects on the glass. The glass too cold to touch. The loudness of the silence of a kitchen at night. The small creak of my chair.

The first three paragraphs of “Flaubert Again,” a new short story by Anne Carson. You can read the whole story (all eight paragraphs of it) at The New Yorker.

I saw only one tower standing to the south, and that one ringed with fire | Denis Johnson

At the moment, I was heading anywhere at all for breakfast, but when I heard the desk clerk’s radio playing news that an aircraft, I assumed a sightseeing plane, had struck Tower Two of the World Trade Center, I decided to jump on the number 3 subway half a block west, and go have a look.

As I headed toward Eighth Avenue I tried calling Mark Ahearn about lunch, but my cellphone only hammered out a rapid-fire beep. Please don’t ask me how this can be true: I traveled through the busy lobby and walked for half a long block on a crowded Manhattan street and then boarded the World Trade Center subway completely unaware that I was participating in a citywide disaster, and moving toward its center.

The World Trade Center station came a few stops south of Twenty-Third Street, but we didn’t get there. After Christopher Street the train halted in the tunnel and waited, humming. It gave a screech, lurched backward slightly, and stopped again. Somehow the general news had infiltrated the sealed subterranean environment that something historically enormous was happening very nearby, and it got quiet in our compartment, and almost everybody entered into a small, desperate battle with a worthless cellphone. The train moved forward and gained speed, but began braking long before Houston Street, the next station, where it halted with several rear cars sticking out behind into the tunnel. For a tense minute, whoever spoke only whispered. Then came a shout—“Tell us what’s going on!” and others raised the same cry until we heard the conductor’s PA saying something about the tracks, the tracks…“Due to the catastrophe, this train will not go farther. Please exit out the forward cars onto the platform. Do not go onto the tracks.” We were all on our feet, maneuvering selfishly, angling for the doors. But the doors didn’t open. The engine stopped. “Open the doors! Open the doors!” The engine started. A man shouted, “Just everybody stand still!” People from the car behind had pried their way into ours, and somebody almost went down. A woman said, “Stop that, you fool!” A man in front of me pushed a teenage boy beside him. With the meat of his fist he began beating the back of the boy’s head. And I jumped into the fray, didn’t you, Harrington, like a monkey, yes you did, and got yourself an elbow in the eye. The doors to the compartment flew open and people clambered out onto the station’s platform, where a dreadlocked man in a crimson athletic suit jumped up and down on a bench as if it were a trampoline, screaming “God, see what we’re doing to each other down here.” When I came up into the street, dizzy and one-eyed, I couldn’t get my bearings. I saw only one tower standing to the south, and that one ringed with fire. I asked a man nearby—“Where are we? I can’t see the other tower.” He said, “It fell” and I said, “No it didn’t.” He didn’t argue. We stood in the middle of the street with thousands of other people, all of us motionless, like a frozen parade, all silent. I began to believe the man. We watched the flames spreading through the building’s upper stories over the course of about twenty minutes, and then the eighteen-hundred-foot structure seemed to curtsy and dip left, and then it went down.

I turned around and looked at the people behind me. I saw shocked laughter, weeping, horror, bewilderment. The young man next to me bawled at the top of his lungs. I was afraid to ask him if he had a loved one in the buildings afraid to talk to him at all, but he raised his agonized, Christly face to me and suddenly laughed, saying, “Buddy, you are working on one heck of a black eye.” We stood far from the buildings—at least a mile, I’d say—far enough that we didn’t feel the ground shake, and we heard nothing but sirens, and official-sounding voices screaming, “Get out of the street! Stay out of the street!” and others too—“They’re attacking the Capitol!—the Pentagon!—the White House!”

Cop cars and ambulances heaped with dust and chunks of concrete came at us out of the south. I started walking that direction, I don’t know why, but I soon realized I was the only person heading downtown, and then the tide of panic pressing toward me was too heavy to go against, and I turned around and let it take me north.

From Denis Johnson’s short story “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist.” Collected in  The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, 2017.

 

“Lunch” — William T. Vollmann

“Lunch”

by

William T. Vollmann


Faces at lunch, oh, yes, smirking, lordly, bored or weary—here and there a flash of passion, of dreams or loving seriousness; these signs I saw, notwithstanding the sweep of a fork like a Stuka dive-bomber, stabbing down into the cringing salads, carrying them up to the death of unseen teeth between dancing wrinkled cheeks; a breadstick rose in hand, approached the purple lips in a man’s dull gray face; an oval darkness opened and shut and the breadstick was half gone! A lady in a red blazer, her face alert, patient and professionally kind like a psychoanalyst’s, stuck her fork lovingly into a tomato, smiling across the table at another woman’s face; everything she did was gentle, and it was but habit for her to hurt the tomato as little as possible; nonetheless she did not see it. Nodding and shaking her head, she ate and ate, gazing sweetly into the other woman’s face. Finally I saw one woman in sunglasses who studied her arugula as she bit it…It disappeared by jagged inches, while across the table, in her husband’s lap, the baby watched in dark-eyed astonishment. Her husband crammed an immense collage of sandwich components into his hairy cheeks. He snatched up pommes-frites and they vanished in toto. When the dessert cart came, the starched white shoulders of businessmen continued to flex and shine; the faces gazed at one another over emptiness, maybe happier now that they had eaten, unthinking of what they had wrought.

My story is the amazing truth | Denis Johnson

This one speaker Howard had us all frozen up, we listened to him stock-still for forty-five minutes. He started out simple, comes out of high-school, tries the infantry, finds the service kind of boring without a war. Drinking on leave and weekends. Gets his discharge, goes to Santa Rosa Community College. Going for a business degree. Drinking on weekends.  Itchy and discontented. One night, he has this friend who’s a cop in SR, guy says, ride along with us and get a taste. He says two hours into the ride I’m feeling like I never felt. These guys tell a citizen what to do, he better do it. They give orders and they’re obeyed and I never knew how bad I wanted that. Zip into the Santa Rosa police training program, then I’m a cop, got three girlfriends, one black, one Asian, one white, cruising in a squad car all night long, kicking ass, busting heads, top of the world, man.  One year in I’ve got a sweet little wife and a six-week baby daughter. Two years in they put me on Narcotics and Vice, undercover. My job is to hang out in bars and party like Nero. Can I do that?  Hell, what do they think I’ve been doing every free minute anyhow?  And will I buy drugs?  Gee, okay, I’ll give it a shot. And Howard, they say, listen, sometimes in the course of your duties you will have a line of coke laid out before you and in the course of your duties you’ll just have to put your head down there and suck it up. It’s part of the ride, okay Howard?  Yeah, I say, part of the ride, and inside of six months I’m the biggest coke-head, the biggest dealer, and the crookedest cop in Northern California. I did armed robberies on dealers and drugstores up and down Highway 101. I had seven girlfriends and I was pimping every one.  My sweet little wife divorced me and took my daughter and I never even noticed. The force gave me a thousand a month to buy coke in little bags and turn them in, and I had thirty thousand under my bed in a shoebox next to three or four kilos of coke the force would never see. I’d wake up in the afternoon and fare forth and wreak havoc. I murdered three guys I still claim the world is better off without, but I’m not the judge though, am I?  But I sure thought I was. I took the lives of other human beings. I thought I was God. I looked in the mirror and said so — looked in the mirror and said, You are God. When God decided to prove me wrong, it all came down like a mountain of dogshit on my head. They rolled me up and socked me with so many charges, including at one point second degree murder, that if they stacked them up and ran me through I’d be doing time a hundred years past my natural death. I’m lying in jail and that cell is sucking the drugs and the fight and the soul right out me and giving it to God and God is squeezing it in his fingers, man, every last fiber of my soul in the almighty grip of the truth. And the truth is that everything I’ve done, every thought I’ve thought, every moment I’ve lived, is shit turned to dust and dust blown away. God, I said, fuck it, I’m not even gonna pray. Squeeze my guts till you get tired, that’s all I want now, because at least it’s real, it’s true, it’s got something to do with you. So then I think I died. I think I died in jail. My life itself just left me, and who you see before you now is someone else. So I wandered like a ghost through the court system and came out with a sentence of ten years. Did seven, one day at a time. Prayed every day and every night, but only one prayer:  Squeeze till you get tired, Lord. Kill me, Lord, I don’t care, as long as it’s you who kills me. Just got out eight days ago, and rehab is part of my parole. And nothing to show for thirty-six years on this earth.  Except that God is closer to me than my next breath. And that’s all I’ll ever need or want. If you think I’m bullshitting, kiss my ass. My story is the amazing truth.

From Denis Johnson’s short story “The Starlight on Idaho.”

Blog about Denis Johnson’s story “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden”

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I finished reading Denis Johnson’s posthumous collection of short stories The Largesse of the Sea Maiden a few weeks ago. I felt a bit stunned by the time I got to the fourth story in the collection, “Triumph Over the Grave,” which ends with these words: “It’s plain to you that at the time I wrote this, I’m not dead. But maybe by the time you read it.”

Denis Johnson died just over a year ago, of course, a fact that haunts any reading of Sea Maiden (at least for fans, and I am a fan). The collection was released just half a year after his death, and I managed to avoid reading any reviews of it. I held out on picking it up for reasons I don’t really know how to explain, but I when I finally read it, I consumed it in a greedy rush.

Anyway, since I finished the book I’ve tried a few times to put together a “review,” but each time I get some words down I find myself sprawling out all over the place, rereading bits of the stories, picking out new motifs, new questions, new parallels between Johnson’s life and the lives of his narrators. Very short review: The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is one of Johnson’s best books, a perfect gift to his readers—his own tragicomic obituary in fictional form. It’s a book about death and writing and art and commerce and regret and salvation, and each time I go back to it I find more in there than I saw the first time–more order, more threads, more design. So instead of a full long review, I’ll offer instead a series of blogs about each of the five stories in the collection. (Perhaps this form is simply an excuse to reread The Largesse of the Sea Maiden).

The first story is the title track, “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden.” First published in The New Yorker back in 2014, this long short story (it runs to not-quite 40 pages) introduces the major themes and tones of the entire collection. “Largesse” is told by a first-person narrator in ten titled vignettes. Some of the titles, like “Widow,” “Orphan,” “Farewell,” and “Memorial,” directly name the themes of both the story and the book.

The narrator of “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” is a writer—but not a writer of literature or fiction—of art—but of commercials. Although “Largesse” shows him somewhat comfortable in his life in San Diego with his third wife, the narrator nevertheless is melancholy, even dour at times. In the beginning of the vignette “Ad Man,” he declares:

This morning I was assailed by such sadness at the velocity of life—the distance I’ve traveled from my own youth, the persistence of the old regrets, the new regrets, the ability of failure to freshen itself in novel forms—that I almost crashed the car.

(Is there a subtle nod there to one of Johnson’s most well-known stories, “Car-Crash While Hitchhiking”? I think so. If not, I find a thread).

“Ad Man” initiates the major plot trajectory of “Largesse”: Our narrator has won an award for an advertisement he wrote and directed decades ago, and he will have to return to New York City to be given the award at a special dinner. Floating through the vignettes is the ad man’s anxiety about his own legacy of work against the backdrop of the finer arts. We learn in “Accomplices” that he cares enough about the arts to object that his host has hung a Mardsen Hartley oil landscape above a lit fireplace—but he doesn’t prevent the man from burning the painting—his “property”—in a moment where Johnson subtly critiques the relationship between art and commerce. The narrator turns the burning of the painting into a new art though—storytelling.

The narrator later tells us that “looking at art for an hour or so always changes the way I see things afterward,” and “Largesse” is riddled with encounters with art and artists, like the outsider painter Tony Fido, whom the narrator meets at a gallery. The artist offers, unprompted, a scathing critique of a Edward Hopper’s painting Gas:

“You’re a painter yourself.”

“A better painter than this guy,” he said of Edward Hopper.

“Well, whose work would you say is any good?”

“The only painter I admire is God. He’s my biggest influence.”

That attribution — “he said of Edward Hopper” — is a lovely example of Johnson’s sharply-controlled wit.

Tony Fido plays a major minor role in “Largesse.” Fido tells the narrator the story of his encounter with a widow—one of several widows in both “Largesse” and Largesse, and his own suicide—Fido’s—becomes a strange moment for the narrator to realize how little he actually knows about his friend. And of course, all of these plot points give Johnson a chance to riff on the themes of death, loss and regret.

“Largesse” is loaded with thoughts on regret and forgiveness. Talking with a friend, the narrator muses that “we wandered into a discussion of the difference between repentance and regret. You repent the things you’ve done, and regret the chances you let get away.” The vignette “Farewell” stages a chance for the narrator to repent his past sins; his ex-wife, dying of cancer, calls him up to (possibly) forgive him:

In the middle of this I began wondering, most uncomfortably, in fact with a dizzy, sweating anxiety, if I’d made a mistake—if this wasn’t my first wife Ginny, no, but rather my second wife, Jennifer, often called Jenny. Because of the weakness of her voice and my own humming shock at the news, also the situation around her as she tried to speak to me on this very important occasion—folks coming and going, and the sounds of a respirator, I supposed—now, fifteen minutes into this call, I couldn’t remember if she’d actually said her name when I picked up the phone and I suddenly didn’t know which set of crimes I was regretting, wasn’t sure if this dying farewell clobbering me to my knees in true repentance beside the kitchen table was Virginia’s, or Jennifer’s.

I’ve quoted at such length because the moment is an example of Johnson’s tragicomic genius—a sick punchline that disconnects crime from punishment and punishment from forgiveness. The narrator ends up making the connections himself in the end: “after all, both sets of crimes had been the same.” And yet Johnson keeps pushing his character past reconciliation into a midnight walk to clear his conscience:

I wonder if you’re like me, if you collect and squirrel away in your soul certain odd moments when the Mystery winks at you, when you walk in your bathrobe and tasseled loafers, for instance, well out of your neighborhood and among a lot of closed shops, and you approach your very faint reflection in a window with words above it. The sign said “Sky and Celery.”

Closer, it read “Ski and Cyclery.”

“Farewell” ends on this note of a winking Mystery—on the profound insight that we are always susceptible to misreading the signs in front of us.

“The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” is very much a story about trying to put together a cohesive narrative from the strands and fragments around us. Indeed, its very form points to this—the fractured vignettes have to be pieced together by the reader. Johnson fractures not just form but tone. The deadpan, tragicomic, pathos-laden humor that’s run throughout Johnson’s oeuvre dominates in “Largesse,” yes, but there are strange eruptions of sentimental fantasy, particularly in “Mermaid,” a vignette that reads like the narrator’s own imaginative construction, and not the (often banal) reality that most of the narrative is grounded in. After receiving his award in New York, the narrator makes his way to a bar, and here conjures a scene like something from a film noir:

I couldn’t see the musician at all. In front of the piano a big tenor saxophone rested upright on a stand. With no one around to play it, it seemed like just another of the personalities here: the invisible pianist, the disenchanted old bartender, the big glamorous blonde, the shipwrecked, solitary saxophone…And the man who’d walked here through the snow…And as soon as the name of the song popped into my head I thought I heard a voice say, “Her name is Maria Elena.” The scene had a moonlit, black-and-white quality. Ten feet away at her table the blond woman waited, her shoulders back, her face raised. She lifted one hand and beckoned me with her fingers. She was weeping. The lines of her tears sparkled on her cheeks. “I am a prisoner here,” she said. I took the chair across from her and watched her cry. I sat upright, one hand on the table’s surface and the other around my drink. I felt the ecstasy of a dancer, but I kept still.”

The ecstasy here—internalized and “still”—is the ecstasy of storytelling, imagination, art. This is the gift of the mermaid, the largesse of the sea maiden. The minor moment is the real award for our ad man hero, who finds no real transcendence in commercial writing.

I’ve been using “the narrator” in this riff, but our hero has a name, which he reveals to us in the final vignette, “Whit.” It’s here that he describes the ad he’s (not exactly) famous for, an “animated 30-second spot [where] you see a brown bear chasing a gray rabbit.” The chase ends when the rabbit gives the bear a dollar bill.” Narrator Whit explains that this ad for a bank “referred, really, to nothing at all, and yet it was actually very moving.” He goes on:

I think it pointed to orderly financial exchange as the basis of harmony. Money tames the beast. Money is peace. Money is civilization. The end of the story is money.

And yet our ad man, despite his commercial interpretation of his own writing, recognizes too that this work “was better than cryptic—mysterious, untranslatable.” The word “untranslatable” is one of several clues that link the final section of “Largesse” to the final section of Walt Whitman’s long poem, Song of Myself. Whitman’s narrator (“Walt Whitman, a kosmos”) claims that he is, like the spotted hawk who swoops to disturb his reverie, “untranslatable.” Bequeathing himself to us—a gift for our good graces—he reminds us that “You will hardly know who I am,” a line that Johnson echoes in the beginning of “Whit”: “My name would mean nothing to you, but there’s a very good chance you’re familiar with my work.” And then of course, there’s the big tell—Johnson’s narrator is Bill Whitman, a pun that works on several levels. Walt Whitman’s language has seeped into the language of advertising—in a way it is the genesis of a new commercial American idiom—and here Johnson slyly pushes it back into the realm of art.

Just as the conclusion of Song of Myself builds to a self-penned elegy for its self-subject, “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” reads like Johnson’s elegy for an alter-ego. We learn in the final paragraphs that Bill Whitman is “just shy of sixty-three” — roughly the same age as Johnson would’ve been when the story was published. (We learn that the narrator of “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist,” the final story in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, is also the same age as Johnson. That narrator was born on “July 20, 1949.” Johnson’s birthday was July 1, 1949).

Narrator Whit reflects on his life in the story’s melancholy penultimate paragraph:

I note that I’ve lived longer in the past, now, than I can expect to live in the future. I have more to remember than I have to look forward to. Memory fades, not much of the past stays, and I wouldn’t mind forgetting a lot more of it.

However, there’s still a restlessness to his spirit, a questing desire to answer the final lines of Song of Myself, perhaps, where Whitman writes:

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you

The last paragraph of “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” is Johnson’s narrator’s implicit response to these lines, and as I cannot improve upon his prose, they will be my last lines as well:

Once in a while, I lie there as the television runs, and I read something wild and ancient from one of several collections of folktales I own. Apples that summon sea maidens, eggs that fulfill any wish, and pears that make people grow long noses that fall off again. Then sometimes I get up and don my robe and go out into our quiet neighborhood looking for a magic thread, a magic sword, a magic horse.

“They Came Together” — Gertrude Stein

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Denis Johnson’s The Largesse of the Sea Maiden (Book acquired, 27 June 2018)

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I had no intention of getting another book when I went to the bookstore yesterday. Swear. I had a few boxes of books my uncle gave me, and I was going to trade most of them in. Even this Carl Hiaasen novel that had a cool Charles Burns cover:

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Anyway, I browsed the store a bit, killing half an hour before I had to pick my kids up, and I was tempted by a Richard Hughes’ novel called In Hazard simply because of its magnificent cover (here, I put two copies together—the back is on the left, the front is on the right):

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As an afterthought, I went through the new fiction section—something I hardly ever do—looking for Helen DeWitt’s new collection Some Trick, just to thumb through it. They didn’t have it, but they did have Denis Johnson’s posthumous collection The Largesse of the Sea Maiden (in hardback and for half price). I ended up reading the first little vignette in the first story in the collection, and then remembered that I’d read the story (the title track) a few years ago in The New Yorker. In particular I remembered the vignette called “Accomplices,” a near-perfect two-paragraph punch that features a Mardsen Hartley painting and too much bourbon. Here it is:

“Accomplices”

by

Denis Johnson


Another silence comes to mind. A couple of years ago, Elaine and I had dinner at the home of Miller Thomas, formerly the head of my agency in Manhattan. Right—he and his wife, Francesca, ended up out here, too, but considerably later than Elaine and I—once my boss, now a San Diego retiree. We finished two bottles of wine with dinner, maybe three bottles. After dinner, we had brandy. Before dinner, we had cocktails. We didn’t know one another particularly well, and maybe we used the liquor to rush past that fact. After the brandy, I started drinking Scotch, and Miller drank bourbon, and, although the weather was warm enough that the central air-conditioner was running, he pronounced it a cold night and lit a fire in his fireplace. It took only a squirt of fluid and the pop of a match to get an armload of sticks crackling and blazing, and then he laid on a couple of large chunks that he said were good, seasoned oak. “The capitalist at his forge,” Francesca said.

At one point we were standing in the light of the flames, I and Miller Thomas, seeing how many books each man could balance on his out-flung arms, Elaine and Francesca loading them onto our hands in a test of equilibrium that both of us failed repeatedly. It became a test of strength. I don’t know who won. We called for more and more books, and our women piled them on until most of Miller’s library lay around us on the floor. He had a small Marsden Hartley canvas mounted above the mantel, a crazy, mostly blue landscape done in oil, and I said that perhaps that wasn’t the place for a painting like this one, so near the smoke and heat, such an expensive painting. And the painting was masterful, too, from what I could see of it by dim lamps and firelight, amid books scattered all over the floor. . . . Miller took offense. He said he’d paid for this masterpiece, he owned it, he could put it where it suited him. He moved very near the flames and took down the painting and turned to us, holding it before him, and declared that he could even, if he wanted, throw it in the fire and leave it there. “Is it art? Sure. But listen,” he said, “art doesn’t own it. My name ain’t Art.” He held the canvas flat like a tray, landscape up, and tempted the flames with it, thrusting it in and out. . . . And the strange thing is that I’d heard a nearly identical story about Miller Thomas and his beloved Hartley landscape some years before, about an evening very similar to this one, the drinks and wine and brandy and more drinks, the rowdy conversation, the scattering of books, and, finally, Miller thrusting this painting toward the flames and calling it his own property, and threatening to burn it. On that previous night, his guests had talked him down from the heights, and he’d hung the painting back in its place, but on our night—why?—none of us found a way to object as he added his property to the fuel and turned his back and walked away. A black spot appeared on the canvas and spread out in a sort of smoking puddle that gave rise to tiny flames. Miller sat in a chair across the living room, by the flickering window, and observed from that distance with a drink in his hand. Not a word, not a move, from any of us. The wooden frame popped marvellously in the silence while the great painting cooked away, first black and twisted, soon gray and fluttering, and then the fire had it all.

Read “Treatments,” a trio of short fictions by Robert Coover

“Treatments,” a trio of very short fictions by Robert Coover, is new at The New Yorker. 

You can also let Coover read you the story himself.

Here is the first part of the first piece, “Dark Spirit,” a riff on Beauty and the Beast (with touches of Dante’s Inferno):

They are on a film lot, walking through a pre-shoot reading of a script that calls for a brave traveller—“That’s you, kid,” the director says, leading her forward with an arm around her shoulders—to be lured to the edge of a deep, mysterious forest, known portentously as the Forest of Time. The forest is fake, deep as a painted scrim, but the director has told them that a real forest from Transylvania will be pasted in later, and they have all been asked to bat at the air around their faces, as if to brush away foliage, bugs, bats, clinging cobwebs. “Out, out, damned spot, I say!” an actor screams in falsetto, batting wildly, and everyone laughs. The actor, who has a bit part in the film, as the enchanted prince, smirks shyly, blinking his long lashes. He’s a cute boy, but too full of himself. And just a runt. He’ll have to stand on a chair for their happily-ever-after smooch once she’s freed the Beast from his spell and let the prince out. The industry is obsessed with this hackneyed tale, once inflicted upon young virgins to prepare them for marriage to feeble old buzzards with money. She used to raise hell about such things. Now she doesn’t really care. “The gutsy heroine knows that many have perished here,” the continuity girl says, reading from the script, “victims of the absolute evil that is believed to pervade the treacherous Forest of Time.” “Oh, the horror, the horror!” growls the actor playing the Beast, wearing his shaggy gorilla suit, but holding the head on his knee like a trophy. “Who wrote this shit?” an actress wants to know. One of Beauty’s ugly sisters. Already into her sneering role. “I put the words in,” the writer confesses, “but the producers told me which ones to use.” They are all laughing, she is laughing, if you can’t laugh you’re fucked, she knows that, but she doesn’t feel like laughing. It’s the damned Beast, messing with her mood. Not the costumed actor, a beardy creep given to chummy slaps on the fanny (she’s learned to keep her back turned away), but the maddeningly empty eyes in the hairy head on his lap. “I think this is going to have a bad ending,” she says to no one in particular, and with effort looks away. She is Beauty, though she’s no longer beautiful, if she ever was (makeup and wardrobe will do what they can), and it is she, just by being who and what she is supposed to be, who moves the tale along, making the inevitable happen. It’s her destiny. The trap she’s in.

“The New Thing,” short story by Robert Coover

“The New Thing”

by

Robert Coover


He attempted, he urging her on, the new thing. The old thing had served them well, but they were tired of it, more than tired. Had the old thing ever been new? Perhaps, but not in their experience of it. For them, it was always the old thing, sometimes the good old thing, other times just the old thing, there like air or stones, part (so to speak) of the furniture of the world into which they had moved and from which, sooner or later, they would move out. It was not at first obvious to them that this world had room for a new thing, it being the nature of old things to display themselves or to be displayed in timeless immutable patterns. Later, they would ask themselves why this was so, the question not occurring to them until she had attempted the new thing, but for now the only question that they asked (he asked it, actually), when she suggested it, was: why not? A fateful choice, though not so lightly taken as his reply may make it seem, for both had come to view the old thing as not merely old or even dead but as a kind of, alive or dead, ancestral curse, inhibitory and perverse and ripe for challenge, impossible or even unimaginable though the new thing seemed until she tried it. And then, when with such success she did, her novelty responding to his appetite for it, the new thing displaced the old thing overnight. Not literally, of course, the old thing remained, but cast now into shadow, as the furniture of the world, shifting without shifting, lost its familiar arrangements. The old thing was still the old thing, the world was still the world, its furniture its furniture, yet nothing was the same, nor would it ever be, they knew, again. It felt?though as in a dream so transformed was everything?like waking up. This was exhilarating (his word), liberating (hers), and greatly enhanced their delight? she whooped, he giggled, this was fun!? in the new thing, which they both enjoyed as much and as often as they could.

Read the rest of Robert Coover’s “The New Thing” at The Iowa Review

“Rebecca,” a very short story by Donald Barthleme

“Rebecca”

by

Donald Barthelme


Rebecca Lizard was trying to change her ugly, reptilian, thoroughly unacceptable last name.

“Lizard,” said the judge. “Lizard, Lizard, Lizard, Lizard. There’s nothing wrong with it if you say it enough times. You can’t clutter up the court’s calendar with trivial little minor irritations. And there have been far too many people changing their names lately.

Changing your name countervails the best interest of the telephone comany, the electric company, and the United States goverment. Motion denied.”

Lizard in tears.

Lizard led from the courtroom. A chrysanthemum of Kleenex held under her nose.

“Shaky lady,” said a man, “are you a schoolteacher?”

Of course she’s a schoolteacher, you idiot. Can’t you see the poor woman’s all upset? Why don’t you leave her alone?

“Are you a homosexual lesbian? Is that why you never married?”

Christ, yes, she’s a homosexual lesbian, as you put it. Would you please shut your face?

Rebecca went to the damned dermatologist (a new damned dermatologist), but he said the same thing the others had said. “Greenish,” he said, “slight greenishness, genetic anomaly, nothing to be done, I’m afraid, Mrs. Lizard.”

“Miss Lizard.”

“Nothing to be done, Miss Lizard.”

“Thank you, Doctor. Can I give you a little something for your trouble?”

“Fifty dollars.”

When Rebecca got home the retroactive rent increase was waiting for her, coiled in her mailbox like a pupil about to strike.

Must get some more Kleenex. Or a Ph.D. No other way.

She thought about sticking her head in the oven. But it was an electric oven.

Rebecca’s lover, Hilda, came home late.

“How’d it go?” Hilda asked, referring to the day.

“Lousy.”

“Hmmm,” Hilda said, and quietly mixed strong drinks of busthead for the two of them.

Hilda is a very good-looking woman. So is Rebecca. They love each other–an incredibly dangerous and delicate business, as we know. Hilda has long blond hair and is perhaps a shade the more beautiful. Of course Rebecca has a classic and sexual figure which attracts huge admiration from every beholder.

“You’re late,” Rebecca said. “Where were you?”

“I had a drink with Stephanie.”

“Why did you have a drink with Stephanie?”

“She stopped by my office and said let’s have a drink.”

“Where did you go?”

“The Barclay.”

“How is Stephanie?”

“She’s fine.”

“Why did you have to have a drink with Stephanie?”

“I was ready for a drink.”

“Stephanie doesn’t have a slight greenishness, is that it? Nice, pink Stephanie?”

Hilda rose and put an excellent C & W album on the record player. It was David Rogers’s

“Farewell to the Ryman,” Atlantic SD 7283. It contains such favorites as “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “Great Speckled Bird,” “I’m Movin’ On,” and “Walking the Floor Over You.” Many great Nashville personnel appear on this record.

“Pinkness is not everything,” Hilda said. “And Stephanie is a little bit boring. You know that.” “Not so boring that you don’t go out for drinks with her.”

“I am not interested in Stephanie.”

“As I was leaving the courthouse,” Rebecca said, “a man unzipped my zipper.”

David Rogers was singing “Oh please release me, let me go.”

“What were you wearing?”

“What I’m wearing now.”

“So he had good taste,” Hilda said, “for a creep.” She hugged Rebecca, on the sofa. “I love you,” she said.

“Screw that,” Rebecca said plainly, and pushed Hilda away. “Go hang out with Stephanie Sasser.”

“I am not interested in Stephanie Sasser,” Hilda said for the second time.

Very often one “pushes away” the very thing that one most wants to grab, like a lover. This is a common, although distressing, psychological mechanism, having to do (in my opinion) with the fact that what is presented is not presented “purely,” that there is a tiny little canker or grim place in it somewhere. However, worse things can happen.

“Rebecca,” said Hilda, “I really don’t like your slight greenishness.”

The term “lizard” also includes geckos, iguanas, chameleons, slowworms, and monitors. Twenty existing families make up the order, according to the Larousse Encyclopedia of Animal Life, and four others are known only from fossils. There are about twenty-five hundred species, and they display adaptations for walking, running, climbing, creeping, or burrowing. Many have interesting names, such as the Bearded Lizard, the Collared Lizard, the Flap-Footed Lizard, the Frilled Lizard, the Girdle-Tailed Lizard, and the Wall Lizard.

“I have been overlooking it for these several years, because I love you, but I really don’t like it so much,” Hilda said. “It’s slightly–”

“Knew it,” said Rebecca.
Rebecca went into the bedroom. The color television set was turned on, for some reason.

In a greenish glow, a film called Green Hill was unfolding.

I’m ill, I’m ill.
I will become a farmer.
Our love, our sexual love, our ordinary love!

Hilda entered the bedroom and said, “Supper is ready.”

“What is it?”

“Pork with red cabbage.”

“I’m drunk,” Rebecca said.

Too many of our citizens are drunk at times when they should be sober–suppertime, for example. Drunkenness leads to forgetting where you have put your watch, keys, or money clip, and to a decreased sensitivity to the needs and desires and calm good health of others. The causes of overuse of alcohol are not as clear as the results. Psychiatrists feel in general that alcoholism is a serious problem but treatable, in some cases. AA is said to be both popular and effective. At base, the question is one of willpower.

“Get up,” Hilda said. “I’m sorry I said that.”

“You told the truth,” said Rebecca.

“Yes, it was the truth,” Hilda admitted.

“You didn’t tell me the truth in the beginning. In the beginning, you said it was beautiful.”

“I was telling you the truth, in the beginning. I did think it was beautiful. Then.”

This “then,” the ultimate word in Hilda’s series of three brief sentences, is one of the most pain-inducing words in the human vocabulary, when used in this sense. Departed time! And the former conditions that went with it! How is human pain to be measured? But remember that Hilda, too… It is correct to feel for Rebecca in this situation, but, reader, neither can Hilda’s position be considered an enviable one, for truth, as Bergson knew, is a hard apple, whether one is throwing it or catching it.

“What remains?” Rebecca said stonily.

“I can love you in spite of–”

Do I want to be loved in spite of? Do you? Does anyone? But aren’t we all, to some degree?

Aren’t there important parts of all of us which must be, so to say, gazed past? I turn a blind eye to that aspect of you, and you turn a blind eye to that aspect of me, and with these blind eyes eyeball-to-eyeball, to use an expression from the early 1960s, we continue our starched and fragrant lives. Of course it’s also called “making the best of things,” which I have always considered a rather soggy idea for an Americal ideal. But my criticisms of this idea must be tested against those of others–the late President McKinley, for example, who maintained that maintaining a good, in not necessarily sunny, disposition was the one valuable and proper course.

Hilda placed her hands on Rebecca’s head.

“The snow is coming,” she said. “Soon it will be snow time. Together then as in other snow times. Drinking the busthead ’round the fire. Truth is a locked room that we knock the lock off from time to time, and then board up again. Tomorrow you will hurt me, and I will inform you that you have done so, and so on and so on. To hell with it. Come, viridian friend, come and sup with me.”

They sit down together. The pork with red cabbage steams before them. They speak quietly about the McKinley Administration, which is being revised by revisionist historians. The story ends. It was written for several reasons. Nine of them are secrets. The tenth is that one should never cease considering human love, which remains as grisly and golden as ever, no matter what is tattooed upon the warm tympanic page.

(Via)