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What Are the Best Things Ever Grackled?

10yearsTen years ago, a recent college graduate with trailing clouds of liberal arts glory still fading behind him decided to make and sell a print literary magazine. Who knows what was going through his mind or why he ignored everyone who told him this was a bad, impractical way to spend his time. But now Grub Street Grackle has produced seventeen issues and is ready to celebrate its 10-year anniversary in a big way.

Over the past few months, we’ve been posting some of our favorites from the first ten years, many of which have never appeared online. (Many more never will, as we often publish work whose meaning depends on its appearing in print.)

You know what to do: like and share, fave and retweet, reblog, whatever buttons you customarily press when the internet gods chatter fervidly in your ears, do it for these stories, please!

Mouse over the images below for quotes, and click to read the full piece.

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Featured image: “Making His Point…” by Pat Gaines, used under CC BY-NC 2.0 // caption added

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At the End of the Line

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This story first ran in the Midsummer 2007 edition of Grub Street Grackle. It appears here online for the first time.

You’re on the wrong train.

When you asked the conductor a minute ago how much farther it would be, he informed you that this train would not get you to the city no matter how long you rode, but that you might as well take it to the end of the line anyway, since you had just passed the last inbound train for an hour and a half. So there’s nothing to do but to fold your hands and accept your fate, locked to the tracks as it is, and see where it takes you.

Nevertheless, it does alarm you that you should have been snatched out of your plans like that, swiftly and without deliberation, as though a careful trap had been laid for you, exactly in the shape of your intended course: the open doors of the train waiting for you when you arrived at the station with nothing to mark what they had in store, offering only a ingenuous display of readiness: “Here we are, sir, at your service,” closing behind you diffidently, without guile.

With one small move, all the possibilities of the evening have collapsed into a single, definite fact: you are going to Fox Grove (which to you is nowhere) to wait in a train station (which is nothing to anyone but the end of the line).

And thank goodness for it. Along with all the unforeseeable courses the evening might have taken, all your anxieties and uncertainties have been dispelled. You’ll have to call Everett and tell him not to wait for you, but you won’t have to worry about how to greet him to his face, what to say to him, or how early you could reasonably excuse yourself. At least now you know what you’re in for.

But isn’t it a little inhuman to be so pleased at the collapse of the prospect of greeting and passing time with a dear friend? It’s not that you don’t like him; on the contrary, you have a great admiration and affection for him. But he does have a peculiar way of paying you such attention that you wonder whether there’s anything in your presence worth noticing, and doubt the honesty of everything you say or do; are you presenting the real you? and can Everett tell?

The train’s steady racket covers every other sound with layer upon layer of distance. The conductor’s announcement of the next stop is dark and muffled, and as the man sitting below your roost on the second level of the train car folds his newspaper, the rustle comes to you like reflected light sluggishly seeping from the bottom of lake. The train slows, and you watch the man staggering mutely out of the moving car as he puts on his coat and hat. As the car door opens, a thought slides open in your mind: you might step off here yourself, and explore while you wait for the next train, perhaps even walk home. It must be far now, but why should that stop you? The evening is lost in any case; why not pass it adventurously?

An excitement rushes from your feet, over your knees, through your thighs, up your back, out through your head, and leaves you. You stay on the train. The stops and starts are so softly punctuated with no one getting in or out of your car, that you hardly notice them. The unbroken movements of ostinato progression between stops at first set you on edge. Your troubled mind wants to continue arguing with itself, but has to work hard to keep above that pulsing, droning noise. At last, having been distracted by annoyance for several minutes, it forgets what it was arguing about and settles down somewhere beneath a thoughtless mental stratum. The rest of the ride is a long and somnolent passage in which nothing happens, like a conceptual poem composed entirely of the results of parsing a manual of agricultural statistics. (“Noun participle preposition article noun: numeral / Noun participle preposition article adjective noun: numeral,” etc.)

The train stops, this time completely. This must be Fox Grove. You look outside and see a small station, but you can’t make out the sign identifying it, so to be on the safe side, you wait for the conductor to reappear in your car and confirm that this is the end of the line before getting off.

On the far end of the station parking lot, empty but for a dead-looking Ford Taurus with no windshield, stands a payphone. As you cross, you try not to notice how dark it is, or how no one could see the pay phone from inside the station (even if there is anyone in there). But you cross the lot without incident, dial Everett’s cell number, and drop all the coins you have in your pocket into the slot.

A friendly disjointed voice asks you politely to “please…deposit…ten…cents.” You double check your pockets, your wallet, and your pockets again, but all you have are a couple of pennies and twenty-eight dollars in bills. Well, shoot. Now you won’t even be able to talk to Everett.

You stand by the phone for a minute trying to discern the tone of that last thought. Meanwhile, you’re getting cold and a little nervous about the quiet, dense shadows populating the thicket of maples contiguous with this side of the lot. You turn your eyes back to the shelter of the station. Maybe someone inside has change for a dollar.

You step into the fluorescent-lit room and immediately wish you were still outside. There are two people in here, neither of whom you want to ask for change: on a bench along the opposite wall is a long-haired, scruffy man with a thick brown mustache and an old flannel jacket, who seems to be asleep; on a chair immediately to your left, unmoved by your arrival, sits a tanned and skinny man, who is busy demonstrating that it is possible to hold a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon even if you are missing three and a half fingers on each hand. At his feet are two plastic six-pack necks, one empty, the other still holding two more beers.

It wouldn’t be prudent to affront these individuals by walking out again upon seeing them, so you rush over to the corner farthest from both of them, across from the sleeping man, and sit down.

You miss being on the train. You try to recover your monotony-induced state of nirvana by sinking under the buzz of the fluorescent lights and counting the bricks in the opposite wall. But every time you approach the proper tedium, you remember that you are surrounded by decrepit freaks, and have to start over. In the midst of your fourth attempt, a fly lands on the sleeper’s nose. He twitches and swats the air in front of his face, provoking the drinker to laugh a throat-raking laugh, which in turn more thoroughly awakens the sleeper, who raises his head and blinks twice, frowning back at the disturber of his slumber, then turns to you, who suddenly realize that you have been staring, caught in the spectacle. You turn your gaze quickly back to the wall, but it is evidently too late; once the long-haired man has raised himself up and stretched out, he ambles in your direction, takes a stand a foot in front of you and calls out, yawningly, “Airridge any?” This is an extremely witty thing for him to say, judging by his fellow’s explosive reaction, more frighteningly wheezy than his first burst of laughter.

After struggling briefly to come up with the proper form of address for an inarticulate vagrant, you settle for, “What did you say?”

“Yarefidgennious?” He repeats obligingly.

“Am I… fidgennious?”

“Yarefitchennies!”

Now you are really at a loss for manners. Having already heard his query three times without coming any closer to apprehending its content, you begin to doubt whether yet another repetition would be acceptable; rather than annoying and insulting the man by making him ask it yet again, you consider how you might best pretend to have understood. You are just getting to like the idea of “It depends on the situation,” when the finger-poor drinker, his laughter having subsided, creakily elucidates, “Dale just said, ‘Ya…ever…pitch…pennies?’”

“Pitch pennies,” You repeat blankly.

“Hitch bennies!” Dale declares enthusiastically, and somewhat more distinctly, as though having finally succeeded in teaching you to enunciate it properly.

Relieved to learn that you can now answer the question, you reply, “What does that mean?”

Too late, you realize the folly of answering with another question. Now this uncomfortable conversation is destined to continue until you come to comprehend the meaning of “pitching pennies,” whereas you might have ended it decisively with a simple, “No and I don’t care to, thanks.”

Dale gets up and crosses to the middle of the room, fumbling in his pockets. You can guess from his gait and his breath (which you smell even at this distance) what happened to the other nine beers.

“C’mere,” he directs you.

You don’t actually want to get any closer to Dale, but you don’t see what else you can do now that you have so recklessly expressed an interest in pitching pennies, so you get up and meet him in the middle of the room. Having got you there, however, he seems now to forget your presence, he is so preoccupied with searching his pockets. He has only four of them, three on his pants, and a breast pocket on his jacket, and all appear to be empty, so it shouldn’t take long, but he has already been at it for a full minute.

You’re thinking about sitting down again until he sorts it out when he calls to his comrade, “Hey, Vern, ya otny bennies?”

You remember that you have a couple yourself, but you don’t want to draw any attention to your wallet, so you let Vern consult his accounts. He puts down his penultimate beer, leans to one side, reaches into his back pocket, and miraculously produces a small handful of coins, which he then sifts through with his left half-thumb.

“No, Dale, I got nickels,” he rasps.

“Thall do,” Dale accedes. He takes two nickels from Vern and hands one of them to you. “O, kay,” he begins with a tutelary air, “Now just tothsa benny gensa wall.” He scoops his arm towards the wall to demonstrate a “tothsa.” “Ntry to lannit axlo…as close to the wall…” He breaks off here, as though unsure how to finish, and settles for showing you the “tothsa” again. Finally, he stops and looks at you expectantly.

Anxious to get this over with, you give the nickel a healthy underhand throw towards the wall. It hits low, bounces off and rolls a few feet, then tumbles to a stop.

“Good!” Dale praises you. “Sgotterit the wall, see?” He pitches his nickel in turn. It arcs high and hits a little lower than yours and rolls back softly, stopping a good foot closer than yours.

“See at?” He says earnestly, pointing to his successful pitch. “Ats howiz done!”

He stumbles over to the nickels, picks them up and brings them back for another round.

This time, you toss a little more lightly, trying to imitate the high arc of Dale. It turns out well enough. Your nickel rolls pretty far but its course doubles back and rolls a foot toward the wall before the nickel is ready to settle down. It could have been better, but you think you’re getting the hang of this. It’s a matter of throwing only slightly too far, as though aiming to place your coin firmly just on the other side of the wall.

Dale’s nickel is not so happily thrown. It bounces hard and rolls well past yours.

“Eh,” he sighs, “Ya won thissum.”

You’ve been waiting a long time for an occasion to say to someone, “So the circle is complete,” and now that it has arrived, you can’t help yourself, and deliver the line with spirited irony.

“Huh?” Dale answers.

“Star Wars,” you explain. “I’m Darth Vader, the student, you’re Obi-Wan, the master, the nickels are light sabers…” He doesn’t seem to be grasping the beauty of the analogy. “Never mind,” you say, “You want to play again?”

He does, and indicates his enthusiasm by collecting the nickels and pressing one back into your waiting palm. “Furr back this time,” he insists, and you step with him a few floor tiles further from the wall. This move puts Vern back into your line of sight. He is grinning like a circus clown, his yellow teeth wide apart.

Better focus on the game. Taking careful aim, you pitch and place the nickel within a foot of the wall. Dale stares at it with admiring concentration, takes a deep breath, he pitches sloppily; his penny hits the ground, rolls past yours, and stops without even touching the wall. Vern slaps his leg and guffaws until his throat can’t bear it and he breaks down coughing.

“All show you!” Dale cries as Vern recovers himself and starts in on his last beer, his eyes gleaming. Turning back to you, Dale says, “Awrighten, ducky lucky, less pussom money onnissum.”

So he’s been sand-bagging you! You weigh the pros and cons of gambling with a hostile drunken hustler without a benny to his name and decide to decline. “Maybe later,” you answer. “Let’s just play for fun.”

You play another round. This time, Dale’s penny hits the wall flat and lands without rolling, an inch or two from the wall, beating your pitch by at least a foot. He stands, beaming stupidly, puts his hands in his pockets, and closes his eyes.

He doesn’t seem to want to play again, but he’s not sitting down, so you don’t feel like you can, either. You try to make some conversation: “So are both of you guys in here waiting for the train, too?”

Dale’s eyes pop open and for a second his face twists like an angry wind, then relaxes into a cynical frown, and he laughs derisively. “Waifatinr train?” He says. “Thass good, Waifortina train. Iss good uh Vern?” Vern laughs, too, a little, taking it easy after his recent collapse. “Waitin’…for…the…train,” Dale says again, more carefully. His face softens. Suddenly, he looks human; the creases in his brow, the dirty stubble on his neck, the torn flannel jacket, all go to make a testament to the dignity of suffering. His eyes well up and a tear spills out of the corner of his left eye.

You want to comfort him, but you’ve never comforted anyone before. You’ve seen it done a few times. You’ve seen people give comfort by hugging, by holding hands, by wiping away tears, but these approaches are obviously prevented by the protocols governing contact with strangers. You could just say something, but you sense that your comfortable bourgeois existence leaves you ill equipped to speak to real trouble. You look to Vern, but his gaze is down on the floor, and he shakes his head slowly.

So it’s up to you. After a few moments’ deliberation, you decide that the middle way is to pat Dale on the back a couple of times and tell him, “Hey, now,” or some equally meaningless primal syllables. But before you can reach out to do so, the door opens behind you. You turn and see a boy, not older than fourteen, his face and fingers red with the cold. He is wearing a blue bicycle helmet, which he now unclasps and deposits in the yellow nylon messenger bag hanging at his side. He looks from you to Vern to Dale, nervously, then takes a couple of steps further in. Suddenly, Vern gets up and stands behind the boy, as though blocking his exit. Dale looks up at the boy, his face callous again and his gaze muddy.

You’re having trouble keeping up with the mood swings in this room. A minute ago, it was almost jolly, then suddenly it was awkwardly tender, and—now what? These two bums you’ve gotten so cozy with are going to mug this poor kid? The only thread holding this whole encounter together is that you’ve been unprepared for every step of the way.

Dale says to the boy, slowly, concentrating hard to hold himself steady, “Help me out tonight, jussa coupla bucks, uh?”

The kid looks at you, then back at Dale. His eyes are wide and skittery. He seems frightened. But he answers firmly, “No, I can’t give you money.”

Dale steps in closer, right up in the boy’s space, and looks down at him menacingly. “C’mon,” he insists. “Fie dollas.”

Oh, man, this is not good. If he lays a hand on that boy, you’ve got to do something.

“No,” the boy says, shaking a little now but just as definite.

Dale shoves him by his right shoulder. Vern pushes him forward again. Oh man. You’ve got to do something. Oh man.

“Ya do your homork, Charlie?” Dale demands.

What?

Yeah,” says the boy, “I’ve done it.” Vern grins coolly and leans back against the door. Dale pats the boy affectionately on the shoulder.

“Thatta boy,” he says, “Thatta boy. Sreally now, you gossommin for yer ol man, right?”

This is too much.

“No, Dad,” Charlie says plainly. “I’ve got nothing. But the hotel down the street has a room for you. I already paid. A bed for you too, Vern,” he adds, turning, “If you help with Dad.” Vern nods and moves to Dale’s side. Charlie looks to you apologetically, then leads Dale and Vern outside. Before he lets Vern pull him out, however, Dale turns to you, takes your hand in his, and says, shakily, his eyes unfocused and glassy, “Thanks.”

You watch them depart in procession, Charlie holding his little Huffy bicycle, his incontinent father leaning on Vern, until they turn a corner a few blocks away. You sit down again in the same corner as before, and try to sort out what just happened, but the events of the evening are like the scattered contents of a tightly-packed toolbox, that won’t all fit back in again. Most of all, you can’t make out what it is that Dale wanted to thank you for.

You check your watch. Still forty minutes till the train leaves. After that excitement, the thought of waiting half an hour alone just to get back on the damned train disgusts you. But you have no choice. You’ll have to bear it. You look up to the ceiling, steeling yourself with a deep breath, then look down again, heaving a sigh of resignation.

Before your breath is spent, however, your gaze falls on a silver gleam near the wall. The nickels! A warm sense of possibility rushes into your heart, and you spring up to gather the fallen currency.

Everett’s voice, when he picks up and hears you, is candid but not annoyed: “Where the hell are you?”

You explain the circumstances of your truancy, to Everett’s amusement, and promise to recount the details of your experience whenever you next meet (thinking as you say it that this might not be for days, or weeks).

“How about in an hour?” Everett suggests. “I could meet you when you get back to your station and give you a ride home.”

You surprise yourself by saying, “Sure, and you could just crash on my couch for the night if you want.”

Everett agrees, says “See you then,” and the expired evening changes shape. It’s late, it’s colder than ever, and the abandoned Taurus lingers on imposing its eyeless, faceless stamp on the world, pronouncing in rust and dereliction the vanity of all things. But overhead you can see a few stars dimly, and between them no pitiless blank but a field of dark hope, beneath which numberless tokens of light must lie buried, awaiting your searching, patient hands.

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Wrong Way Radcliff’s First Ride

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This story first ran in the Fall 2013 edition of Grub Street Grackle. It appears here online for the first time.

Right now, in every town or city in the country, the same thing is happening: some kid who has recently learned that he is supposed to feel limited by his environment is trying to think of a way to twist the name of his town into a variant of “Nowheresville.” You used to get this in small towns but now it’s everywhere. Probably in New York itself there is a 12-year-old boy trying to outgrow the Star Wars bed set he is sleepily ensconced in, thinking “No-You-Can’t… Nowhere-k… New Yuck.”

I grew up in Norfolk, Virginia, so you can imagine. Norfolk, if you didn’t know, is a populous port city which hosts the headquarters of several major transportation corporations and the largest naval base in the world, which by the lights of defensive adolescent cynicism makes it a total backwater. So I grew up knowing, with greater certainty than any country boy ever knew he was destined for big things, that I “had to get out.”

Whatever I thought that meant, it certainly did not mean that by collaborating with the engines of commerce I should secure the means and relations and powers to position myself in the world. The idea of a position then had no charm for me. Having a “position” was about like having “status” — in other words, being static, stagnating, staying in the heart of nowhere. Which I guess is at least part of what I thought I had to get out of.

I didn’t want or need a diploma, a degree, a career, honors or accomplishments of any kind. As far as my personal ambitions were concerned, I might have done best to spend my time on a street corner learning how to play guitar and avoid the police. But school wasn’t so bad and there was plenty of time for perfectly good arsling within its walls. The gym was right next to the lunchroom, so it was easy to sneak out of PE and play chess with my friend Lon. The biology teacher was half-blind so I could read for English class during that period, which meant another solid hour for video games when I got home. And the authorities were impotent blusterers, which fit my picture of the world perfectly.

The problem for me was that the approved next step was alway so simply and obviously laid out for me at each stage that it would have taken such a concentrated effort as I had never learned to muster in order to change course. Besides, I actually liked my parents and didn’t want to disappoint them. What I really needed was a sudden and unavoidable calamity to cut them down so I could leave town under a cloud of grief and begin the romance of my existence. Don’t laugh, because I truly had this exact thought many times in my youth. Perhaps on my way home from school today, I would muse, a grim pillar of smoke and ashes would rise before me as I turned the corner of our street, and there with his dogs rooting through the hot, charred remains, counting blackened corpses, would be the arsonist himself, some secret enemy of my father bent on the destruction of his line, and I would dart quickly into hiding, the tears streaming down my stricken face as I fled through the backyards and over fences to the open country.

All the same, my travels did begin, in the most simple and obvious way. And in case you’re guessing that means I joined the Navy: no. That was a clear impossibility because I was a Pacifist. (Sometime I will have to tell you too how I stopped being a Pacifist, but anyway that was a few days later.)

It just happened one night that Lon and I — You know, Lon was all right, but it seemed like he wouldn’t do anything good until I twisted his arm. He would just be in his books or even sleeping when I’d call him late at night and tell him it was time to get on and have ourselves an excursion. And then he’d go on for a while about what an important day tomorrow was or needing to finish a project. Or just not feeling like it it this time. And I’d have to stir up some high talk to get him dragging his feet out the door. Once I recited the St. Crispin’s Day Speech, which I’d memorized for English class that week. I was always one for memorizing things, even if I didn’t know what they were about, so if Mr. Sandys gave us a choice between writing a paper and reciting a speech, I knew what I was going to do.

Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day.

That would get him. Then we’d be out wandering around for an hour or two, getting nowhere, and finally I’d have to find something for us to do to match the grand promises I’d made in verse or prose. Usually this meant we had to break some law.

So on this particular night, as we were out trespassing on the grounds of a shipping depot, we found on the other side of these grounds, only a low chain link fence away, a long train just beginning to inch forwards. Why it was stopped there in the first place we didn’t know, and I still don’t, since there was no one anywhere near to have been loading it or unloading it. Ahead, the tracks turned slightly right, so that the engine was out of view, like the train was lumbering off into the absolute distance. Nowhere and everywhere. Out.
Naturally, we had to hop the fence and set our hands on this rare creature, as you know you would have to do if you opened your front door tomorrow and found an elephant loping casually by, practically begging you to come feel its heft and might for yourself. (If your first thought is that you might get trampled, then I guess there’s just no talking to you.)

The thing about freight trains is you normally see them hurtling along full speed at railway crossings and bridges, not ambling past at a crawl. So it was like turning the world inside out to walk a piece feeling as though it was we who were leading the way, ridiculously tugging on the leash of a reluctant behemoth.

But the train sped up. Not wanting to slip back out of this fantastic world, as a dreamer will push backwards into his memory, groping against the current of his waking thoughts, I quickened my pace with each step to keep a little ahead of the train’s acceleration. Moments later I was running, my right hand now clasping the cold handle at the back of the train car. Now the only way even to match the train’s speed was to be on it, and so on I went.

Nothing else I have ever experienced has quite so much made me wonder what in the name of a drunken pig I was doing as did the sound of Lon’s panicked and hollering voice, already almost inaudible over the growing racket of the train, quickly and more quickly fading into the distance behind me. Why was I clinging to the back of a rushing train car on its way to who knows where in the middle of the night on a Wednesday? What was I going to do exactly when the train stopped? Would Ms. Jenkins give me an extension on my lab report?
But anyway, there I was.

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Goldfish

This story first ran in the Spring 2008 edition of Grub Street Grackle. It appears here online for the first time.

This story first ran in the Spring 2008 edition of Grub Street Grackle. It appears here online for the first time.

A soft wind in the willow branches, minnowing the water of the pond. A huge moon of orange gold. In the black water, minnowed with golden light, ribboned with orange moonlight, the goldfish are playing. Playing under the water the way the moonlight plays on its surface.

The goldfish talk to babies. They flirt their tails and bat their eyes and talk to babies, whom they don’t like. They say things to babies to get them in trouble and then they flirt, they shrug themselves away and become silent again, low lying orange streaks under the water.

In this great house of patios and porches and tiled roofs, there is a golden cradle where the windows stand open and the moon pours in. In upon the lucky little prince who gets more moonlight than any other child in the kingdom. The little prince speaks to the goldfish. They are pretty. He would like to catch one and even to eat one. He likes the goldfish, loves them. He only wants to eat them the way he wants to eat all shiny things he loves. He reaches out his hand to touch the goldfish, his fat little hand patting the water. And oh how insolently, how sleekly they dart away from him, how mockingly. They do not like babies, the goldfish. Sleek, they let the water preen their insolent faces, leaving the big baby to cry on the shore for vexation.

They tricked the baby. Yes, they tricked him. It was their fault he fell into the pond tonight. So tonight all the little goldfishes lie low, flattening their ears in the current, hanging there like willow leaves hanging on the breeze. And there are lights on, burning in the great windows of the palace. There is no sound. Even the mother is breathless.

The baby is not alive. The baby is swimming, he thinks, swimming. The baby tried to get the moon. The goldfish told him to. The goldfish told him that there was the moon in the water, go get it. And they flirted their tails and away. Now the baby thinks he is still swimming and the mother and the father and the doctors in the great gold room think he is there with them. And the goldfish lie low and guilty in the water.

But the baby begins to cough. And one by one the goldfish come to the surface, eyes and mouths questioning. The baby begins to cough and water pours from his mouth and nose. He looks so confused coughing and then he begins to cry. They have made him alive again.

Relieved, the goldfish turn malicious. They flirt and flirt their happy little backbones. The soft wind flows in the willow trees. Round, orange, the solemn moon.

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A Hunting Story

This interview originally ran in the October 2005 edition of Grub Street Grackle. It appears here online for the first time.

This story originally ran in the October 2005 edition of Grub Street Grackle. It appears here online for the first time.

During the summer, following his annual release from the trial of attempting to interest scores of oblivious undergraduates in the finer pleasures of Edwardian literature, Peter’s lifestyle was entirely guided by a series of misanthropic considerations. He conducted his researches online as much as possible, and if he had to visit the library he would do so only at precisely 10:30 AM, when he knew that the affable librarian would be too absorbed in conversation with his stupidly beautiful wife to greet him in that infuriating way of his. Peter would read all afternoon and stay in evenings watching wildlife documentaries and drinking wine. His mail he would collect furtively under cover of darkness, and his daily constitutional through the park he would take only in the very early morning, when its paths were yet unpopulated.

Aside from the occasional sleeping vagrant, the only person Peter ever encountered at that hour was an old man whose habit it was to sit all morning on a bench on the west side of the park, a man whose quiet presence was not irksome. His mouth churned constantly on his chewing tobacco, while his eyes looked always straight ahead, motionless, as though waiting, with the patience of a fishing crocodile, for something particular to happen, precisely there, in front of him.

Today, however, Peter’s routine was disrupted. Some nameless anxiety had kept him awake for hours last night, and he had slept in. Thinking of the horde of toddlers, picnickers, and layabouts who had surely taken the park already, he considered omitting the walk altogether; yet he knew he would not have the momentum to begin work on the syllabus for his new seminar on “The Infernal Saki” unless he got away from the apartment for awhile.

In the course of the first ten minutes of his walk, he was several times unpleasantly disturbed by the passing of joggers, who frightened the birds out of the trees around him. They were ruining his walk, and he suffered himself to be cheerily greeted by them only by imagining to himself how energetically they would tumble if he knocked them over, denying himself the more substantial consolation of actually doing so.

One particularly slow pair of women, progressing only slightly faster than he (though their attire and demeanor attested they were rather straining themselves) was too thoroughly engaged in conversation to offer any such greeting. As they passed him, the woman on the left, dressed in a lime green sweat-suit with matching head and armbands, was saying, “You won’t believe it. I swear to God, you won’t in a million years.”

“Try me,” said the other, whose costume differed only in its color, hot pink.

“Okay, but I’m telling you you won’t believe it.”

Peter slowed his pace a little in an endeavor to get them out of earshot.

“You know the old man who’s always sitting on the bench on the west side of the park?” began the woman in green.

“Wait, which way is west?” The woman in green thought a moment, then pointed. “No,” answered her companion, “I haven’t noticed that.”

Peter, however, had noticed, and he had often wondered and speculated about the old man’s history and habits, and imagined him to have walked a considerable path in his time. It wasn’t Peter’s way to indulge his curiosity by interrogating strangers, so he had always left him alone, but here was a chance to hear something of him that promised to be outrageous enough not to disappoint Peter’s fantasy. He sped his pace again and began to listen eagerly.

“Well, he’s always sitting there,” the green woman explained.

“Okay,” said the pink woman, absorbing the information.

“Well, last week, you remember, I came here alone . . .”

“I couldn’t help that,” interrupted the other, “I told you I had a lot to do last week. I didn’t have time. I thought I was going to have a breakdown.”

“I know, I know, don’t sweat it. Really, I mean it, it’s okay. I mean, I didn’t have anyone to talk to and it’s so boring to be out in the park by yourself, you know? But really it’s okay.”

“Okay,” said the other. “So what happened?”

“Well, I’ll tell you, if you’ll let me.”

Peter began to fear that the conflict would forestall the story too long for him to safely overhear it, but the hot pink woman soon proved accommodating enough to let her companion speak freely.

“So last week I went just the way we usually go. I wasn’t thinking about where I was going at all, so I ran close by the old man’s bench, right along it, without thinking about the guy. And do you know what happened?”

“No, tell me!”

“He tripped me! I fell right over into the dirt! At first I thought it might have been an accident, but then when I looked at him he was grinning horribly. If he weren’t so old I’d have socked him right there.”

Peter was outraged. The old man he knew was a much more magnanimous character, and he could not stand to hear him so belittled.

“You call that an unbelievable story?” He shouted ahead to them. It proved, not at all to his surprise, to be the first they had noticed of him. They did not alter their pace, but quieted the furious swinging of their arms to indicate that they were now walking. The woman in green was clearly affronted, and was about to venture a rejoinder in her defense, when Peter found himself shouting on, “I’ll tell you a story about that man to make your heads spin!”

She relented doubtfully, and maintained a posture of defiance, but let him speak.

“I do not doubt the impossibility of its having not escaped your attention,” said Peter with a graciously conciliatory air, “that across the path from our old man there stands a considerable horse chestnut.”

The woman in green nodded uncertainly. Her companion shrugged.

“Three weeks ago, I was observing the gentleman, as I had often done, when I noticed that his eyes were not at their usual rest. Instead, they were shifting slightly back and forth, and his brow was folded in an unmistakable expression of concern. Struck by this aberration, I turned my gaze to see what he was watching and saw, to my disgust, a squirrel chasing a wounded swallow back and forth under the chestnut tree. The bird seemed to have a broken wing and it lacked the energy to fly more than a few feet at once; the squirrel was always fast enough to catch it on the other side and renew its attack.”

“The poor thing!” declared the woman in pink. The woman in green showed no sign of sympathy, but Peter could see she was struggling to remain composed.

“So thought I,” Peter admitted, “And so thought our old man. I watched as his pity grew until I thought that he would surely cry. Then, suddenly, his compassion turned to anger, and just as suddenly, his anger turned to action. He sprung up from the bench with a terrible swiftness and lunged at the squirrel! The sadistic little rodent valued its life more than its sport, and darted out of reach up the tree. But that didn’t stop the man. He clattered up the trunk in seconds and swung up onto a low branch. He was lost to my sight for a short while. Then I heard a dreadful little shriek, and then silence.

“When he dropped back down to the ground, he almost crumbled with pain. I ran over to offer him my assistance, but he found his composure again soon enough and waved me away. He had splashes of blood on his shirt, and if my perception was not altogether deceived, a runnel of blood stained his face from the corner of his mouth to his chin

“He scooped up the wounded bird and walked away with it; he would not tolerate my accompanying him. So I remained behind, staring in wonder alternately at him and at that tree. Since then, I have not had the courage to go near him.”

The women were astonished at this story. They could not work out between them whether the old man’s tenderness for the swallow was enough to outweigh his vile prank and his positively beastly treatment of the squirrel (though it surely deserved what it got). They were quite definitely resolved, however, to run a new route thenceforth. Peter wished them a good day as they turned onto a side path.

He made his own way to the west side of the park, where he found the old man at his usual spot. In the confidence of having just done the man a favor, he decided to attempt a conversation with him.

He approached the bench, stood before the old man and inquired, “Would it be all right if I sat here? I’m rather fond of that chestnut.”

The old man looked at him, and opened his mouth in wonder. Slowly, between his parted lips, he let a long strand of sickly brown saliva slide. When it had reached the bottom of his chin, he bent over and dropped it onto Peter’s left shoe. Then he looked up again and laughed softly and hoarsely through the grimace of a crocodile.

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James: a Fantasia

This story originally ran in the May/June 2006 edition of Grub Street Grackle.

This story originally ran in the May/June 2006 edition of Grub Street Grackle.

James woke up gradually, feeling the world come slowly into focus; which it did, except for the orange blur sitting in the window at the foot of his bed. He lifted his head and looked at it. Orange blur—blink—orange cat.

It sat in the flowerbox with placid disregard for his petunias (like some savage Titan flattening trees with its ponderous bulk, oblivious) and stared him in the face with a green intensity. James sat up and scratched his head. The long empty feeling of a Saturday morning began to wash over him and suck at his stomach. Traffic sounds drifted in the window.

He had no classes to teach today, which meant that he had nowhere to go; the day was blank as a desert horizon. Having brushed his teeth (top, front, back) and dressed in a yellow buttondown shirt and grey pants, he backed carefully out of his parking spot and began to drive to the coffee shop.

Red light. A flood of people streamed in front of the car, crossing. So many. James thought that they were like islands, or towers: each one tall, proud, unapproachable, untouched by the waves that lapped around their feet. Mostly the people stared straight ahead, but sometimes those on the edge of the stream looked in his direction. When their eyes swept across him he experienced an almost physical sensation like a cutting wind. A stocky black man carrying a potted daisy stared him in the face, dark and vatic. A youth, dreadlocked, with metal studs glinting from various locations in his face, shuffled by, pants flapping like sails, giving James a sidelong glance; James thought he heard him growl, and fancied dark forms swooping around his head. He shivered. A young woman dressed like a gypsy fluttered and glinted by, a smile on her sandy freckled face; James thought she winked. He felt a warm skittering in his head and adjusted his collar.

He pulled into his customary parking space behind the coffee shop and got out. The sidewalk between him and the door was nearly empty. That’s lucky. He concentrated: left, right, left on this square; right, left, right on the next. Sometimes he timed it wrong and had to shorten the third step. Once he nearly ran into a middleaged businesswoman: she stopped short, drew herself up haughtily, raised her eyebrows; James, startled out of concentration, felt scrambled and said “Oh,” and looked back down at the sidewalk, intent once again.

He reached the door and pulled it open; the bells jingled. He ordered his coffee: café-latte-grande-please. The counterboy looked up, snide and sardonic, then glided away to fill the order, haystack hair sticking out in all directions.

James avoided the counterboy’s glare (he was a dark and sultry island, James thought; with piles of compost, and barbed wire) and paid with exact change, for which he had picked through his change cup that morning in preparation, to avoid unnecessary complication. Having acquired his coffee he sat blankly at one of the sleek tables, hand curled around the Styrofoam cup with a slight unconscious tension. His loose gaze hovered somewhere in front of the picture window. His thoughts were occupied with an accustomed set of worries, but today there was something else taking shape behind their swarming: something pointed and waxy and orange.

He glanced nervously around the shop, thinking momentarily of the staring cat—had it followed him?—but there was nothing in particular to be seen. The shop was cool and dark: sleek, granitecolored countertop and tables; chrome pipes glinting from behind the counter. The only other person was the counterboy, who bobbed and glided back and forth in the trendy black uniform to which he managed to impart his personal grunginess.

James saw that there was no cause for alarm; his gaze became blank once more, his head pointed once again in the direction of the window. He became aware of the tightness of his grip, and relaxed it a bit. There. He settled back into his reverie.

“Hey,” said a voice. A wave of acid washed through his veins. It could be nobody but the counterboy. Me? He turned his head slowly, hoping that by his slowness he could somehow retard the sudden electric quickening in the atmosphere; but without even waiting for him to turn completely around, the counterboy said, “I’m goin’ in back to take a leak. Anyone comes in, you can tell ‘em that.”

No. Waitstop. The coffee, turning into acid, sloshed around in his stomach. James felt as if he were watching a gruesome horror movie for the second time, powerless to change anything. The boy had already disappeared, leaving James with nothing to do but stare at the softly swinging door through which he had gone. But I can’t be expected. Any one of those islandtowers.

Scenarios began to swirl and congeal in his head. A man would enter the coffee shop and stand at the counter; he pictured the black man with the daisy. He would grow more and more impatient but James would say nothing. Finally he would ask James where the boy was. James would tell him…the man would be angry, insane: You dare to tell me that this boy has gone? And to take a leak, forsooth? He would begin to throttle him…

No. Ridiculous. A woman would enter; a young woman. Yes; the gypsy girl. James would stand with confidence and declare where the boy had gone, no, he would wittily imply where the boy had gone, so as to spare this young woman’s gentle ears. An expression of awe at his imposing presence would enter her eyes; she was no island tower but a glittering sandcastle, and he a wave, feared but welcomed (And in a wink dissolve her castled pride); they would leave arm in arm…

Good lord. James gave his head a small shake and took a gulp of his coffee, which was getting cold. He began to gather himself up to go, but was startled by the jingle of the bell over the door. Two pretty young women walked in, tall, summery, vacuous, chattering gaily. Unapproachable islands; ivory towers. The odds were against him. He had already half gotten up; there was therefore no question of sitting down, for this would only attract their attention. Could he simply leave? No indeed. He came here often, and did not want to risk the wrath of the coffee boy; and besides, the women were standing in the doorway still. He would have had to make his way past them. Not fair.

He got up, somewhat unsteadily, and went towards the women without any clear plan in mind. He approached slowly, to give them time to see him and perhaps make way for him of their own will. No such luck. They stayed where they were until he was only a couple of feet away. He stopped, took a breath, and said (What the hell, he thought), “He’s gone to the, uh. In the back. He’ll be back.”

Would they shriek? Laugh? Slap him across the face? None of the above. They turned around; their expressions suggested that he was an infant who had just belched endearingly. “What?” “What did you say?” they said, voices lilting upwards in giggling disbelief.

Disaster. “Nothing,” he said. “Please.” The world was crumbling. Shit. He lurched forward, inbetween the two girls, out of the shop’s door. Without looking back he heard the counterboy return and say, “Ladies.” The girls giggled.

James sat, shaking, in his car. Shouldn’t have said anything at all anything. Should have left already. Ridiculous that sonofabitch coffee bastard. Ladies. Calm down I don’t want to calm down. He thought again, unexpectedly, of the cat’s stare, and in his memory the stare took on an accusatory and mocking tinge. The desertlike Saturday stretched out before him once again, with a bleak howling emptiness. How long will I sit here. How long anything. Rest of my life. NO.

James became suddenly calm. His hands, which had been gripping the steering wheel spasmodically, relaxed and no longer shook. An idea struck him. He opened the car door: a breeze blew coolly in his face. He started back for the coffee shop.

While approaching the door he looked inside and saw the two young ladies sitting at a booth; he saw the abominable coffeeboy leaning on the counter, ogling them narroweyed, discreet; he saw, too, a couple of middleaged yuppies at another table. They were not privy to the situation, and thus could present a problem. But no matter. No stopping now.

James flung the door open. The bells jangled, and it seemed to him that they called the place to attention: every eye was on him. He was Hamlet—To be or not to be. No, better, Hamlet was dead; he was Horatio. Goodnight sweet prince. The air was still.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “I have come to explain.” What the hell am I doing. “You, illmannered dirtbag,” he addressed the coffeeboy, “left your post to take a leak in the back, as you so crudely put it; enlisting me, against my will, in your service.” The boy fully opened his usually halfshut eyes and his jaw sagged a bit. James gained confidence. “You, O most insufferable bimbos,” he addressed the young ladies (who squeaked in rage, thereby greatly pleasing him), “were the instruments of my humiliation, with your monkeying patronization.” This made no literal sense and he knew it, but the words were flowing and he could no longer stop them. “And you,” he addressed the yuppies, “were not there. But I assure you” (he felt the sweat burst out on his brow) “it was a disaster. Most unjust and catastrophic! A disaster.”

He faltered, having nothing more to say, and cast a cold eye over his stunned audience. Suddenly he crowed with laughter—Victory!—and skipped, exultant, through the door and into the cool breeze outside.

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Jane Austen’s Broken Spine: Re-reading and Forgetting

5411945096_a4922d9f3c_mMy wife’s copy of Pride and Prejudice falls open naturally (that is, by a second nature in which its reader has thoroughly trained it) to a certain page near the middle of the book, in Chapter 35. This pivotal chapter consists almost entirely of a letter from Mr. Darcy to Elizabeth Bennet, in which he explains the motives of his actions in such a way that Elizabeth’s judgment of him is overturned–along with her judgment of herself. All along she has prided herself on her keen and unperturbed insight, on commanding a clear view of the hearts of men. The letter from Darcy is a letter of introduction, which introduces Elizabeth to two men she thought she knew. But more than that it introduces her to herself. Her reflections on the letter culminate with the astonishing exclamation, “Till this moment, I never knew myself.”

Reading Darcy, Elizabeth discovers herself. And reading Chapter 35, we in turn discover ourselves; for the typical reader of Pride and Prejudice will go along with Elizabeth’s self-understanding throughout the first half, all the while maintaining a confidence in his own ability to interpret the character. The discovery of Elizabeth’s failure to read herself is at the same time an indictment of the reader’s failure to read. This indictment is part of exactly what makes the book worth reading, and why adaptations and sentimental evaluations of it are doomed to rob it of its treasure.

But there is a puzzle wrapped up in this central passage of self-discovery (a puzzle I will leave as an open question to conclude this post). It is undeniably the crucial event of the novel, and as the broken spine of many a copy attests, it is eminently re-readable. So what could be stranger than declaring that it would better be destroyed and forgotten? But that is exactly what Mr. Darcy advises towards the end of the novel. Elizabeth consents, indicating that the letter itself is an empty document, and at another point even says that her former feelings were best forgotten. The letter of introduction has done its work, and now that Darcy and Elizabeth have by its mediation come to know themselves and each other, there remains no need for it.

Yet the letter does remain, and even constitutes the most impressive passage of an impressive book. To be sure, the letter is preserved for readers of the book rather than for Elizabeth. But if, as I claim, the letter introduces us to ourselves as much as it Elizabeth to herself, why do we still need it once we have learned the lesson? Should we stop reminding ourselves of what we were like before we read it? Is there ever a time when we stop re-reading Chapter 35 of Pride and Prejudice?

(A version of this post originally appeared on August 23, 2008)

Image credit: “This Book” by flickr user Bob AuBuchon, used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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Another Way to Listen to People

The first time I read Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.,” (you know, the story you read in high school to learn about unreliable narrators), I took everything the narrator said for gospel. I followed carefully along, point by point, as she mounted her case against her family and justified her every move, completely unaware of the irony, obvious to everyone with any literary sensitivity or a copy of the Sparknotes, that with every piece of evidence Sister recites, she is exposing herself as a vindictive, score-keeping bitch. I only knew one way to listen to someone, and that was to gather the facts as she laid them down.

So for me, “Why I Live at the P.O.” read like a slam dunk prosecutor’s case in a courtroom drama, and as a fan of “Law and Order” I wanted more. Imagine my confusion when I sat down to read “Keela the Outcast Indian Maiden,” the tale of a retired chicken-head-eating carnival geek who receives a visit from a feckless former colleague, accompanied by a local shopkeeper who wants to have nothing to do with either of them.

In this story, too, there is something like a trial, only here, the prosecution rested its case ages ago, and the verdict passed not guilty, but the defense continues pleading in the most inept style. Nobody seems to be listening to anyone and there are always at least two conversations going on at once. In short, the first time I read “Keela” I felt disoriented and confused and did not want to read any more Welty.

image by Victoria Reay

image by Victoria Reay

This week I read the story again, but this time I paid attention to the physical details, instead of rushing past them to get to the action and dialog (as TV has trained me to do). Now here is another way to listen to someone, that you have to learn if you’re going to understand Eudora Welty. When people talk about body language, usually they mean that the position of a person’s body expresses a feeling the person has. But whose feelings are expressed in a tableau like this: “The little man at the head of the steps where the chickens sat, one on each step, and the two men facing each other below made a pyramid.” Here, “body language” would mean that bodies in the physical world speak by way of their relations to each other, and that human beings take responsibility for the saying of things when they step in among these relations. And in some way the saying is the thing itself. Here, three unimportant men are responsible for justice. A higher justice, in which the defendant pays homage to the plaintiff, and the witness for the prosecution faces judgment together with the defendant as his brother.

Yes, I am still talking about a short story about a sideshow barker, a geek, and some other third guy who just wants to go home. Read it if you don’t believe me.

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Satan, Walter White, and Yertle the Turtle

turtleheapIn case you somehow did not read it as a child, Yertle the Turtle is a morality tale by the learned Dr. Seuss, designed to moderate the overweening ambitions of power-hungry five-year-olds through the example of a despotic turtle. When Yertle, king of the pond, tries to expand his domain by piling his subjects one atop the other to form an ever-higher throne and vantage point, his ambitions are thwarted by one heroically feckless little turtle at the bottom of the heap who cannot refrain from belching violently.

The lesson obviously should be never to use faulty materials when you are building your living throne, or at least to respect the laws of physics enough to try to create a stable equilibrium.

The lesson obviously should be never to use faulty materials when you are building your living throne, or at least to respect the laws of physics enough to try to create a stable equilibrium. I remember feeling sure as I turned the penultimate page that I would find an improved pyramidal design with that pathetic runt Mack sticking his head out somewhere on the edge where he couldn’t do too much harm. Instead I was shocked to learn that the experience of tumbling a mile down into a murky pond amidst a terrible terrapin downpour had crushed Yertle’s spirit and left him an impotent “King of the Mud.” What a horrible story.

I understood the moral point, and I knew that Yertle was a bad dude, but I still felt cheated. And Yertle is not the only villain/anti-hero I felt this way about as a child. I definitely saw the Care Bears as irritating obstacles in Beastly’s path to the crown in “The Great Race.” And I was constantly disappointed that Dr. Claw despite all his promises never got that incompetent Gadget the next time.

I don’t think it’s just me. The problem of bad guys whose story is so compelling you want them to win is an old one in literature, at least as old as Milton’s Paradise Lost. As many have observed, it’s hard to read the first book of that poem and not feel that Satan is destined to lead his fallen troops out of their infernal state. His acts are decisive and impressive and seem to argue that his present suffering is just a temporary setback. Here he is rising from the pool of fire into which God has cast him:

Forthwith upright he rears from off the Pool
His mighty stature; on each hand the flames
Driv’n backward slope thir pointing spires, and roll’d
In billows, leave i’ th’ midst a horrid Vale.

Awesome.

Because the poem starts out with this kind of dynamic description of Satan struggling against the woes he suffers at the hands of the Almighty, readers tend to see the character God as a problem for Satan rather than as the moral center of the universe. (Those readers don’t understand the poem but I’ll tell you about that another time.)

(Breaking Bad **SPOILERS** a-comin’, if you’re not caught up)

So it should be no surprise that even after Walter White poisons one child, dissolves another in acid, and orders 10 prison inmates stabbed, choked, bludgeoned, and/or set on fire by white supremacists, many viewers still want him to win the day. This is just the way stories work: you’re introduced to a character who has a problem, and you want this problem to be solved. The great stories are the ones that work that desire around into something unexpected. Paradise Lost does that. Does Breaking Bad? I hope so.

If the show were to stop now without the approaching epic smorgasbord of consequences, it would be an unmitigated moral disaster. Everything is wrong. Walter and Jesse have taken out one “problem dog” after another without having to pay for it, and while we can easily judge that they deserve to be cut down, we can’t want the protagonist’s story to end. And we can’t get behind Skyler, who by her merits should be the most likable character on the show, because she has been the main force of resistance to Walter White’s progress throughout the series.

Any time Walter makes a sensible, moral decision, it threatens to dismantle the premise of the show. So you really don’t want him to do that.

I’m not talking about “sympathizing” with Walter White. I don’t like him. I’m talking about wanting the story to go on. Any time Walter makes a sensible, moral decision, it threatens to dismantle the premise of the show. So you really don’t want him to do that. And you hate anyone who suggests that he should.

But this dynamic is about to unravel. Walter’s decision to quit the meth empire business brings the anti-heroic odyssey of Heisenberg to an anti-climax, but  the story’s inertia doesn’t depend on Walter’s will to power anymore. All the remaining loose ends (Walter’s agreements with Declan and the unhinged Lydia, and Hank’s lavatorial revelation) guarantee that Walter is not out. I think, I hope we are about to meet a new Walter White, one who does not believe he can mend the destruction of his family with a plate of pancakes — a Walter White reintroduced to a moral plane — pitted against a torrent of consequences. Because if you think you can build a mile-high stack of turtles, climb off, and walk away, you’re in for a big, green, crashing, tumbling surprise.

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The Grackle is a production of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Imagine Dallas Literary Arts, Inc.