“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.

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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)

“Cadbury, the Beaver Who Lacked” — Philip K. Dick

“Cadbury, the Beaver Who Lacked”

by

Philip K. Dick


Once, long ago, before money had been invented, a certain male beaver named Cadbury lived within a meager dam which he had constructed with his own teeth and feet, earning his living by gnawing down shrubs, trees and other growth in exchange for poker chips of several colors. The blue chips he liked best, but they came rarely, generally only due in payment for some uniquely huge gnawing-assignment. In all the passing years of work he had owned only three such chips, but he knew by inference that more must exist, and every now and then during the day’s gnawing he paused a moment, fixed a cup of instant coffee, and meditated on chips of all hues, the blues included.

His wife Hilda offered unasked-for advice whenever the opportunity presented itself. “Look at you,” she customarily would declare. “You really ought to see a psychiatrist. Your stack of white chips is only approximately half that of Ralf, Peter, Tom, Bob, Jack and Earl, all who live and gnaw around here, because you’re so busy woolgathering about your goddam blue chips which you’ll never get anyhow because frankly if the blunt truth were known you lack the talent, energy and drive.”

“Energy and drive,” Cadbury would moodily retort, “mean the same thing.” But nevertheless he perceived how right she was. This constituted his wife’s main fault: she invariably had truth on her side, whereas he had nothing but hot air. And truth, when pitted against hot air in the arena of life, generally carries the day.

Since Hilda was right, Cadbury dug up eight white chips from his secret chip-concealing place — a shallow depression under a minor rock — and walked two and three-quarters miles to the nearest psychiatrist, a mellow, do-nothing rabbit shaped like a bowling pin who, according to his wife, made fifteen thousand a year and so what about it.

“Clever sort of day,” Dr. Drat said amiably, unrolling two Tums for his tummy and leaning back in his extra-heavily padded swivel chair.

“Not so very darn clever,” Cadbury answered, “when you know you don’t have it in you ever to catch sight of a blue chip again, even though you work your ass off day in and day out, and what for? She spends it faster than I make it. Even if I did get my teeth in a blue chip it’d be gone overnight for something expensive and useless on the installment plan, such as for instance a twelve million candle-power self-recharging flashlight. With a lifetime guarantee.”

“Those are darn clever,” Dr. Drat said, “those what you said there, those self-recharging flashlights.”

“The only reason I came to you,” Cadbury said, “is because my wife made me. She can get me to do anything. If she said, ‘Swim out into the middle of the creek and drown,’ do you know what I’d do?”

“You’d rebel,” Dr. Drat said in his amiable voice, his hoppers up on the surface of his burled walnut desk.

“I’d kick in her fucking face,” Cadbury said. “I’d gnaw her to bits; I’d gnaw her right in half, right through the middle. You’re damn right. I mean, I’m not kidding; it’s a fact. I hate her.”

“How much,” Dr. Drat asked, “is your wife like your mother?”

“I never had a mother,” Cadbury said in a grumpy way — a way which he adopted from time to time: a regular characteristic with him, as Hilda had pointed out. “I was found floating in the Napa Slough in a shoebox with a handwritten note reading ‘FINDERS KEEPERS.’ ”

“What was your last dream?” Dr. Drat inquired.

“My last dream,” Cadbury said, “is — was — the same as all the others. I always dream I buy a two-cent mint at the drugstore, one of the flat chocolate-covered mints wrapped in green foil, and when I remove the foil it isn’t a mint. You know what it is?”

“Suppose you tell me what it is,” Dr. Drat said, in a voice suggesting that he really knew but no one was paying him to say it.

Cadbury said fiercely, “It’s a blue chip. Or rather it looks like a blue chip. It’s blue and it’s flat and round and the same size. But in the dream I always say ‘Maybe it’s just a blue mint.’ I mean, there must be such a thing as blue mints. I’d hate like to hell to store it in my secret chip-concealing place — a shallow depression under an ordinary-looking rock — and then there’d be this hot day, see, and afterwards when I went to get my blue chip — or rather supposed blue chip — I found it all melted because it really was a mint after all and not a blue chip. And who’d I sue? The manufacturer? Christ; he never claimed it was a blue chip; it clearly said, in my dream, on the green foil wrapper –”

“I think,” Dr. Drat broke in mildly, “that our time is up for today. We might well do some exploring of this aspect of your inner psyche next week because it appears to be leading us somewhere.”

Rising to his feet, Cadbury said, “What’s the matter with me, Dr. Drat? I want an answer; be frank — I can take it. Am I psychotic?”

“Well, you have illusions,” Dr. Drat said, after a meditative pause. “No, you’re not psychotic; you don’t hear the voice of Christ or anything like that telling you to go out and rape people. No, it’s illusions. About yourself, your work, your wife. There may be more. Goodbye.” He rose, too, hippity-hopped to the door of his office and politely but firmly opened it, exposing the tunnel out.

 

Read the rest of “Cadbury, the Beaver Who Lacked” by Philip K. Dick

Read “P’s Correspondence,” a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne

“P’s Correspondence”

by

Nathaniel Hawthorne


MY UNFORTUNATE FRIEND P. has lost the thread of his life, by the interposition of long intervals of partially disordered reason. The past and present are jumbled together in his mind, in a manner often productive of curious results; and which will be better understood after a perusal of the following letter, than from any description that I could give. The poor fellow, without once stirring from the little white-washed, iron-grated room, to which he alludes in his first paragraph, is nevertheless a great traveller, and meets, in his wanderings, a variety of personages who have long ceased to be visible to any eye save his own. In my opinion, all this is not so much a delusion, as a partly wilful and partly involuntary sport of the imagination, to which his disease has imparted such morbid energy that he beholds these spectral scenes and characters with no less distinctness than a play upon the stage, and with somewhat more of illusive credence. Many of his letters are in my possession, some based upon the same vagary as the present one, and others upon hypotheses not a whit short of it in absurdity. The whole form a series of correspondence, which, should fate seasonably remove my poor friend from what is to him a world of moonshine, I promise myself a pious pleasure in editing for the public eye. P. had always a hankering after literary reputation, and has made more than one unsuccessful effort to achieve it. It would not be a little odd, if, after missing his object while seeking it by the light of reason, he should prove to have stumbled upon it in his misty excursions beyond the limits of sanity.

LONDON, February 29, 1845.

MY DEAR FRIEND:

Old associations cling to the mind with astonishing tenacity. Daily custom grows up about us like a stone-wall, and consolidates itself into almost as material an entity as mankind’s strongest architecture. It is sometimes a serious question with me, whether ideas be not really visible and tangible, and endowed with all the other qualities of matter. Sitting as I do, at this moment, in my hired apartment, writing beside the hearth, over which hangs a print of Queen Victoria–listening to the muffled roar of the world’s metropolis, and with a window at but five paces distant, through which, whenever I please, I can gaze out on actual London–with all this positive certainty, as to my whereabouts, what kind of notion, do you think, is just now perplexing my brain? Why–would you believe it?–that, all this time, I am still an inhabitant of that wearisome little chamber,–that whitewashed little chamber–that little chamber with its one small window, across which, from some inscrutable reason of taste or convenience, my landlord had placed a row of iron bars–that same little chamber, in short, whither your kindness has so often brought you to visit me! Will no length of time, or breadth of space, enfranchise me from that unlovely abode? I travel, but it seems to be like the snail, with my house upon my head. Ah, well! I am verging, I suppose, on that period of life when present scenes and events make but feeble impressions, in comparison with those of yore; so that I must reconcile myself to be more and more the prisoner of Memory, who merely lets me hop about a little, with her chain around my leg.

My letters of introduction have been of the utmost service, enabling me to make the acquaintance of several distinguished characters, who, until now, have seemed as remote from the sphere of my personal intercourse as the wits of Queen Anne’s time, or Ben Jonson’s compotators at the Mermaid. One of the first of which I availed myself, was the letter to Lord Byron. I found his lordship looking much older than I had anticipated; although–considering his former irregularities of life, and the various wear and tear of his constitution–not older than a man on the verge of sixty reasonably may look. But I had invested his earthly frame, in my imagination, with the poet’s spiritual immortality. He wears a brown wig, very luxuriantly curled, and extending down over his forehead. The expression of his eyes is concealed by spectacles. His early tendency to obesity having increased, Lord Byron is now enormously fat; so fat as to give the impression of a person quite overladen with his own flesh, and without sufficient vigor to diffuse his personal life through the great mass of corporeal substance, which weighs upon him so cruelly. You gaze at the mortal heap; and, while it fills your eye with what purports to be Byron, you murmur within yourself–“For Heaven’s sake, where is he?” Were I disposed to be caustic, I might consider this mass of earthly matter as the symbol, in a material shape, of those evil habits and carnal vices which unspiritualize man’s nature, and clog up his avenues of communication with the better life. But this would be too harsh; and besides, Lord Byron’s morals have been improving, while his outward man has swollen to such unconscionable circumference. Would that he were leaner; for, though he did me the honor to present his hand, yet it was so puffed out with alien substance, that I could not feel as if I had touched the hand that wrote Childe Harold.

On my entrance, his lordship apologized for not rising to receive me, on the sufficient plea that the gout, for several years past, had taken up its constant residence in his right foot; which, accordingly, was swathed in many rolls of flannel, and deposited upon a cushion. The other foot was hidden in the drapery of his chair. Do you recollect whether Byron’s right or left foot was the deformed one? Continue reading “Read “P’s Correspondence,” a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne”

Read Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd”

SH925
Fritz Eichenberg’s illustration for Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd”

 

“The Man of the Crowd”

by

Edgar Allan Poe


     Ce grand malheur, de ne pouvoir être seul.

              La Bruyère.

IT was well said of a certain German book that “er lasst sich nicht lesen“—it does not permit itself to be read. There are some secrets which do not permit themselves to be told. Men die nightly in their beds, wringing the hands of ghostly confessors and looking them piteously in the eyes—die with despair of heart and convulsion of throat, on account of the hideousness of mysteries which will not suffer themselves to be revealed. Now and then, alas, the conscience of man takes up a burthen so heavy in horror that it can be thrown down only into the grave. And thus the essence of all crime is undivulged.

Not long ago, about the closing in of an evening in autumn, I sat at the large bow window of the D——- Coffee-House in London. For some months I had been ill in health, but was now convalescent, and, with returning strength, found myself in one of those happy moods which are so precisely the converse of ennui—moods of the keenest appetency, when the film from the mental vision departs—the [Greek phrase]—and the intellect, electrified, surpasses as greatly its every-day condition, as does the vivid yet candid reason of Leibnitz, the mad and flimsy rhetoric of Gorgias. Merely to breathe was enjoyment; and I derived positive pleasure even from many of the legitimate sources of pain. I felt a calm but inquisitive interest in every thing. With a cigar in my mouth and a newspaper in my lap, I had been amusing myself for the greater part of the afternoon, now in poring over advertisements, now in observing the promiscuous company in the room, and now in peering through the smoky panes into the street.

This latter is one of the principal thoroughfares of the city, and had been very much crowded during the whole day. But, as the darkness came on, the throng momently increased; and, by the time the lamps were well lighted, two dense and continuous tides of population were rushing past the door. At this particular period of the evening I had never before been in a similar situation, and the tumultuous sea of human heads filled me, therefore, with a delicious novelty of emotion. I gave up, at length, all care of things within the hotel, and became absorbed in contemplation of the scene without. Continue reading “Read Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd””

Georges de La Tour’s Mary Magdalene has not yet arrived at an ecstasy of repentance (Angela Carter)

a

Mary Magdalene, the Venus in sackcloth. Georges de La Tour’s picture does not show a woman in sackcloth, but her chemise is coarse and simple enough to be a penitential garment, or, at least, the kind of garment that shows you were not thinking of personal adornment when you put it on. Even though the chemise is deeply open on the bosom, it does not seem to disclose flesh as such, but a flesh that has more akin to the wax of the burning candle, to the way the wax candle is irradiated by its own flame, and glows. So you could say that, from the waist up, this Mary Magdalene is on the high road to penitence, but, from the waist down, which is always the more problematic part, there is the question of her long, red skirt.

b

Left-over finery? Was it the only frock she had, the frock she went whoring in, then repented in, then set sail in? Did she walk all the way to the Sainte-Baume in this red skirt? It doesn’t look travel-stained or worn or torn. It is a luxurious, even scandalous skirt. A scarlet dress for a scarlet woman. …

c

Georges de La Tour’s Mary Magdalene has not yet arrived at an ecstasy of repentance, evidently. Perhaps, indeed, he has pictured her as she is just about to repent — before her sea voyage in fact, although I would prefer to think that this bare, bleak space, furnished only with the mirror, is that of her cave in the woods. But this is a woman who is still taking care of herself. Her long, black hair, sleek as that of a Japanese woman on a painted scroll — she must just have finished brushing it, reminding us that she is the patron saint of hairdressers. Her hair is the product of culture, not left as nature intended. Her hair shows she has just used the mirror as an instrument of worldly vanity. Her hair shows that, even as she meditates upon the candle flame, this world still has a claim upon her.

Unless we are actually watching her as her soul is drawn out into the candle flame.

From Angela Carter’s short story “Impressions: The Wrightsman Magdalene.”

magdalene

“John Inglefied’s Thanksgiving,” a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne

“John Inglefied’s Thanksgiving”

by

Nathaniel Hawthorne


On the evening of Thanksgiving day, John Inglefield, the blacksmith, sat in his elbow-chair, among those who had been keeping festival at his board. Being the central figure of the domestic circle, the fire threw its strongest light on his massive and sturdy frame, reddening his rough visage, so that it looked like the head of an iron statue, all aglow, from his own forge, and with its features rudely fashioned on his own anvil. At John Inglefield’s right hand was an empty chair. The other places round the hearth were filled by the members of the family, who all sat quietly, while, with a semblance of fantastic merriment, their shadows danced on the wall behind then. One of the group was John Inglefield’s son, who had been bred at college, and was now a student of theology at Andover. There was also a daughter of sixteen, whom nobody could look at without thinking of a rosebud almost blossomed. The only other person at the fireside was Robert Moore, formerly an apprentice of the blacksmith, but now his journeyman, and who seemed more like an own son of John Inglefield than did the pale and slender student.

Only these four had kept New England’s festival beneath that roof. The vacant chair at John Inglefield’s right hand was in memory of his wife, whom death had snatched from him since the previous Thanksgiving. With a feeling that few would have looked for in his rough nature, the bereaved husband had himself set the chair in its place next his own; and often did his eye glance thitherward, as if he deemed it possible that the cold grave might send back its tenant to the cheerful fireside, at least for that one evening. Thus did he cherish the grief that was dear to him. But there was another grief which he would fain have torn from his heart; or, since that could never be, have buried it too deep for others to behold, or for his own remembrance. Within the past year another member of his household had gone from him, but not to the grave. Yet they kept no vacant chair for her.

While John Inglefield and his family were sitting round the hearth with the shadows dancing behind them on the wall, the outer door was opened, and a light footstep came along the passage. The latch of the inner door was lifted by some familiar hand, and a young girl came in, wearing a cloak and hood, which she took off, and laid on the table beneath the looking-glass. Then, after gazing a moment at the fireside circle, she approached, and took the seat at John Inglefield’s right hand, as if it had been reserved on purpose for her.

“Here I am, at last, father,” said she. “You ate your Thanksgiving dinner without me, but I have come back to spend the evening with you.”

Yes, it was Prudence Inglefield. She wore the same neat and maidenly attire which she had been accustomed to put on when the household work was over for the day, and her hair was parted from her brow, in the simple and modest fashion that became her best of all. If her cheek might otherwise have been pale, yet the glow of the fire suffused it with a healthful bloom. If she had spent the many months of her absence in guilt and infamy, yet they seemed to have left no traces on her gentle aspect. She could not have looked less altered, had she merely stepped away from her father’s fireside for half an hour, and returned while the blaze was quivering upwards from the same brands that were burning at her departure. And to John Inglefield she was the very image of his buried wife, such as he remembered her on the first Thanksgiving which they had passed under their own roof. Therefore, though naturally a stern and rugged man, he could not speak unkindly to his sinful child, nor yet could he take her to his bosom.

“You are welcome home, Prudence,” said he, glancing sideways at her, and his voice faltered. “Your mother would have rejoiced to see you, but she has been gone from us these four months.”

“I know it, father, I know it,” replied Prudence, quickly. “And yet, when I first came in, my eyes were so dazzled by the firelight, that she seemed to be sitting in this very chair!”

By this time the other members of the family had begun to recover from their surprise, and became sensible that it was no ghost from the grave, nor vision of their vivid recollections, but Prudence, her own self. Her brother was the next that greeted her. He advanced and held out his hand affectionately, as a brother should; yet not entirely like a brother, for, with all his kindness, he was still a clergyman, and speaking to a child of sin.

“Sister Prudence,” said he, earnestly, “I rejoice that a merciful Providence hath turned your steps homeward, in time for me to bid you a last farewell. In a few weeks, sister, I am to sail as a missionary to the far islands of the Pacific. There is not one of these beloved faces that I shall ever hope to behold again on this earth. O, may I see all of them–yours and all–beyond the grave!”

A shadow flitted across the girl’s countenance.

“The grave is very dark, brother,” answered she, withdrawing her hand somewhat hastily from his grasp. “You must look your last at me by the light of this fire.”

While this was passing, the twin-girl-the rosebud that had grown on the same stem with the castaway–stood gazing at her sister, longing to fling herself upon her bosom, so that the tendrils of their hearts might intertwine again. At first she was restrained by mingled grief and shame, and by a dread that Prudence was too much changed to respond to her affection, or that her own purity would be felt as a reproach by the lost one. But, as she listened to the familiar voice, while the face grew more and more familiar, she forgot everything save that Prudence had come back. Springing forward, she would have clasped her in a close embrace. At that very instant, however, Prudence started from her chair, and held out both her hands, with a warning gesture.

“No, Mary,–no, my sister,” cried she, “do not you touch me. Your bosom must not be pressed to mine!”

Mary shuddered and stood still, for she felt that something darker than the grave was between Prudence and herself, though they seemed so near each other in the light of their father’s hearth, where they had grown up together. Meanwhile Prudence threw her eyes around the room, in search of one who had not yet bidden her welcome. He had withdrawn from his seat by the fireside, and was standing near the door, with his face averted, so that his features could be discerned only by the flickering shadow of the profile upon the wall. But Prudence called to him, in a cheerful and kindly tone:–

“Come, Robert,” said she, “won’t you shake hands with your old friend?”

Robert Moore held back for a moment, but affection struggled powerfully, and overcame his pride and resentment; he rushed towards Prudence, seized her hand, and pressed it to his bosom.

“There, there, Robert!” said she, smiling sadly, as she withdrew her hand, “you must not give me too warm a welcome.”

And now, having exchanged greetings with each member of the family, Prudence again seated herself in the chair at John Inglefield’s right hand. She was naturally a girl of quick and tender sensibilities, gladsome in her general mood, but with a bewitching pathos interfused among her merriest words and deeds. It was remarked of her, too, that she had a faculty, even from childhood, of throwing her own feelings, like a spell, over her companions. Such as she had been in her days of innocence, so did she appear this evening. Her friends, in the surprise and bewilderment of her return, almost forgot that she had ever left them, or that she had forfeited any of her claims to their affection. In the morning, perhaps, they might have looked at her with altered eyes, but by the Thanksgiving fireside they felt only that their own Prudence had come back to them, and were thankful. John Inglefleld’s rough visage brightened with the glow of his heart, as it grew warm and merry within him; once or twice, even, he laughed till the room rang again, yet seemed startled by the echo of his own mirth. The grave young minister became as frolicsome as a school-boy. Mary, too, the rosebud, forgot that her twin-blossom had ever been torn from the stem, and trampled in the dust. And as for Robert Moore, he gazed at Prudence with the bashful earnestness of love new-born, while she, with sweet maiden coquetry, half smiled upon and half discouraged him.

In short, it was one of those intervals when sorrow vanishes in its own depth of shadow, and joy starts forth in transitory brightness. When the clock struck eight, Prudence poured out her father’s customary draught of herb-tea, which had been steeping by the fireside ever since twilight.

“God bless you, child!” said John Inglefield, as he took the cup from her hand; “you have made your old father happy again. But we miss your mother sadly, Prudence, sadly. It seems as if she ought to be here now.”

“Now, father, or never,” replied Prudence.

It was now the hour for domestic worship. But while the family were making preparations for this duty, they suddenly perceived that Prudence had put on her cloak and hood, and was lifting the latch of the door.

“Prudence, Prudence! where are you going?” cried they all, with one voice.

As Prudence passed out of the door, she turned towards them, and flung back her hand with a gesture of farewell. But her face was so changed that they hardly recognized it. Sin and evil passions glowed through its comeliness, and wrought a horrible deformity; a smile gleamed in her eyes, as of triumphant mockery, at their surprise and grief.

“Daughter,” cried John Inglefield, between wrath and sorrow, “stay and be your father’s blessing, or take his curse with you!”

For an instant Prudence lingered and looked back into the fire-lighted room, while her countenance wore almost the expression as if she were struggling with a fiend, who had power to seize his victim even within the hallowed precincts of her father’s hearth. The fiend prevailed; and Prudence vanished into the outer darkness. When the family rushed to the door, they could see nothing, but heard the sound of wheels rattling over the frozen ground.

That same night, among the painted beauties at the theatre of a neighboring city, there was one whose dissolute mirth seemed inconsistent with any sympathy for pure affections, and for the joys and griefs which are hallowed by them. Yet this was Prudence Inglefield. Her visit to the Thanksgiving fireside was the realization of one of those waking dreams in which the guilty soul will sometimes stray back to its innocence. But Sin, alas! is careful of her bond-slaves; they hear her voice, perhaps, at the holiest moment, and are constrained to go whither she summons them. The same dark power that drew Prudence Inglefleld from her father’s hearth–the same in its nature, though heightened then to a dread necessity–would snatch a guilty soul from the gate of heaven, and make its sin and its punishment alike eternal.

 

“Happiest Moment” — Lydia Davis

happiest

“Horses,” a short story by Stephen Crane

“Horses”

by

Stephen Crane


 

Richardson pulled up his horse, and looked back over the trail where the crimson serape of his servant flamed amid the dusk of the mesquit. The hills in the west were carved into peaks, and were painted the most profound blue. Above them the sky was of that marvellous tone of green—like still, sun-shot water—which people denounce in pictures.

José was muffled deep in his blanket, and his great toppling sombrero was drawn low over his brow. He shadowed his master along the dimming trail in the fashion of an assassin. A cold wind of the impending night swept over the wilderness of mesquit.

“Man,” said Richardson in lame Mexican as the servant drew near, “I want eat! I want sleep! Understand—no? Quickly! Understand?”

“Si, señor,” said José, nodding. He stretched one arm out of his blanket and pointed a yellow finger into the gloom. “Over there, small village. Si, señor.”

They rode forward again. Once the American’s horse shied and breathed quiveringly at something which he saw or imagined in the darkness, and the rider drew a steady, patient rein, and leaned over to speak tenderly as if he were addressing a frightened woman. The sky had faded to white over the mountains, and the plain was a vast, pointless ocean of black.

Suddenly some low houses appeared squatting amid the bushes. The horsemen rode into a hollow until the houses rose against the sombre sundown sky, and then up a small hillock, causing these habitations to sink like boats in the sea of shadow.

A beam of red firelight fell across the trail. Richardson sat sleepily on his horse while his servant quarrelled with somebody—a mere voice in the gloom—over the price of bed and board. The houses about him were for the most part like tombs in their whiteness and silence, but there were scudding black figures that seemed interested in his arrival. Continue reading ““Horses,” a short story by Stephen Crane”

“A Ghost,” a short story by Guy de Maupassant

“A Ghost”

by

Guy de Maupassant

Translated by M. Charles Sommer


We were speaking of sequestration, alluding to a recent lawsuit. It was at the close of a friendly evening in a very old mansion in the Rue de Grenelle, and each of the guests had a story to tell, which he assured us was true.

Then the old Marquis de la Tour-Samuel, eighty-two years of age, rose and came forward to lean on the mantelpiece. He told the following story in his slightly quavering voice.

“I, also, have witnessed a strange thing—so strange that it has been the nightmare of my life. It happened fifty-six years ago, and yet there is not a month when I do not see it again in my dreams. From that day I have borne a mark, a stamp of fear,—do you understand?

“Yes, for ten minutes I was a prey to terror, in such a way that ever since a constant dread has remained in my soul. Unexpected sounds chill me to the heart; objects which I can ill distinguish in the evening shadows make me long to flee. I am afraid at night.

“No! I would not have owned such a thing before reaching my present age. But now I may tell everything. One may fear imaginary dangers at eighty-two years old. But before actual danger I have never turned back, mesdames.

“That affair so upset my mind, filled me with such a deep, mysterious unrest that I never could tell it. I kept it in that inmost part, that corner where we conceal our sad, our shameful secrets, all the weaknesses of our life which cannot be confessed.

“I will tell you that strange happening just as it took place, with no attempt to explain it. Unless I went mad for one short hour it must be explainable, though. Yet I was not mad, and I will prove it to you. Imagine what you will. Here are the simple facts:

“It was in 1827, in July. I was quartered with my regiment in Rouen.

“One day, as I was strolling on the quay, I came across a man I believed I recognized, though I could not place him with certainty. I instinctively went more slowly, ready to pause. The stranger saw my impulse, looked at me, and fell into my arms.

“It was a friend of my younger days, of whom I had been very fond. He seemed to have become half a century older in the five years since I had seen him. His hair was white, and he stooped in his walk, as if he were exhausted. He understood my amazement and told me the story of his life.

“A terrible event had broken him down. He had fallen madly in love with a young girl and married her in a kind of dreamlike ecstasy. After a year of unalloyed bliss and unexhausted passion, she had died suddenly of heart disease, no doubt killed by love itself.

“He had left the country on the very day of her funeral, and had come to live in his hotel at Rouen. He remained there, solitary and desperate, grief slowly mining him, so wretched that he constantly thought of suicide.

“‘As I thus came across you again,’ he said, ‘I shall ask a great favor of you. I want you to go to my château and get some papers I urgently need. They are in the writing-desk of my room, of our room. I cannot send a servant or a lawyer, as the errand must be kept private. I want absolute silence. Continue reading ““A Ghost,” a short story by Guy de Maupassant”

Read Philip K. Dick’s short story “To Serve the Master”

“To Serve the Master”

by

Philip K. Dick


Applequist was cutting across a deserted field, up a narrow path beside the yawning crack of a ravine, when he heard the voice.

He stopped frozen, hand on his S-pistol. For a long time he listened, but there was only the distant lap of the wind among the broken trees along the ridge, a hollow murmuring that mixed with the rustle of the dry grass beside him. The sound had come from the ravine. Its bottom was snarled and debris-filled. He crouched down at the lip and tried to locate the voice.

There was no motion. Nothing to give away the place. His legs began to ache. Flies buzzed at him, settled on his sweating forehead. The sun made his head ache; the dust clouds had been thin the last few months.

His radiation-proof watch told him it was three o’clock. Finally he shrugged and got stiffly to his feet. The hell with it. Let them send out an armed team. It wasn’t his business; he was a letter carrier grade four, and a civilian.

As he climbed the hill toward the road, the sound came again. And this time, standing high above the ravine, he caught a flash of motion. Fear and puzzled disbelief touched him. It couldn’t be — but he had seen it with his own eyes. It wasn’t a newscircular rumor. Continue reading “Read Philip K. Dick’s short story “To Serve the Master””