Tuesday
Nov272018

Today Is the Day That Will Matter

By Debra Di Blasi 


 

Black Scat Books
July 2018
9781732350649


Reviewed by Charles Holdefer


 

The importance of flash fiction and other "micro-forms" is incontrovertible, but trying to review a collection of such work is tricky, rather like staring at a strobe light. How do you do justice to both the parts (there are 120 pieces in Debra Di Blasi's new collection) and the whole? Is synthesis necessary, or is it beside the point? These questions are probably unanswerable, but Today Is the Day That Will Matter rewards the effort of trying to ask them.

Di Blasi, the author of seven previous books, subtitles this latest volume as "An Oral History of the New America: #Alternative Fictions." A short statement at the beginning announces that she spent "the last two socio-politically traumatic years" researching her fiction on social media, YouTube, and news sites, watching comedians like Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, and Stephen Colbert, and eavesdropping on conversations. 

All this would seem to promise something actual and ripped from the headlines – and indeed, pieces like "Filibuster," "Twitter Has Yet to Make a Profit," "What It's Come To, and Yet," and "Gun Rights" hold up a mirror to our moment. Di Blasi also frames texts as found objects in "I Lifted These Fine Words Straight from YouTube Comments" (parts one and two) or "Middle Shelf of Unpopular Romance Novels." Some texts appear, on the surface at least, to be mini-memoir, as in "Sam Shepard Died." Di Blasi's tone ranges from rueful to exasperated to angry. A piece called "Ripening" reads in its entirety: "I'd like to be nicer but it simply isn't possible at this time in my life."

This said, a substantial portion of the book explores territories that are less explicitly "news" and instead looks inward, to states of mind and imagination. These states just as "actual" as anything in the headlines, of course, but they are easily neglected in today's hurly-burly. Di Blasi quotes filmmaker Werner Herzog: "I am fascinated by the idea that our civilization is like a thin layer of ice upon a deep ocean of chaos and darkness." Today Is the Day dips into that deep ocean and spends time with some of its monsters.

"The Microcosm in Old Age" is a harrowing account about the indignities of extreme senescence. "Nothing to Report from Africa" captures the tragic sense of being morally connected but problematically ineffectual, and it does so in a manner that is all the more powerful for being un-preachy. "The Village of Manners" is a brilliant cocktail of speculative surrealistic anthropology. 

As these descriptions suggest, Di Blasi's interests are broad and idiosyncratic. While a few pieces in Today Is the Day seem to me cryptic or squib-like, many of them manage to evoke story arcs as broad as a novel's. Here is the complete text of "We Have Been Leading Parallel Lives":

My son went to college, took a PhD, and moved to Boston to teach biostatistics. Your son joined the army, served four years, then moved back home. Last week he got shot in a hunting accident. Today you took him off life support. I am writing you a wreath. 

The final allusion to the "wreath" is representative of the author's aesthetic impulse to create and preserve simultaneously. It's a heightened mode of paying attention to the world. This aesthetic is made even more explicit in the text called "Art," here quoted in its entirety: "Cherry pickers from this distance appear static under the fringed branches. Birds rise and school and return. We are a painting, we are."

Note the inclusive and participatory "We." Note also, in addition to the premise of this piece, its length, its pith. Writers like Sarah Manguso, in her collection 300 Arguments, have helped revive aphoristic forms. Di Blasi participates in this trend. 

Elsewhere, in longer pieces, such as "The Bone Chapel," she visits the power of myth:

The boy ducks under the rope and runs to the far wall and spreads his arms wide and turns his head to the left and presses his whole body against the bones. His mother stares at her smartphone, pretends she doesn't notice. Two visitors glower: One clears his throat and mumbles, "World's gone to hell in a handbasket," while the other takes a pic of the boy splayed against the wall, then walks to the docent and shows her the photo. The docent long-strides into the bone chapel and ducks under the rope and walks up to the boy and grabs him by his shirt collar and spins him around. "Do you know where these bones come from?" she asks, shaking him by the arms. "Do you? They're the bones of bad children like you, and some of them are broken."

This is the complete story, and it captures a history-haunted existence at many levels. The child is insouciant; the parent is distracted; the other visitors are conformist; the docent is coercive and mendacious. (Or wait: what if she isn't lying? What kind of place is this, really?) This much is certain: they all live with "The Bone Chapel." 

As do we, Di Blasi suggests, while asking: what next?

This far-ranging collection is smart, tart, provocative, and refreshingly uninterested in making nice. A capacious imagination at work in Today Is the Day That Will Matter asserts, with tenacity, the power of language to make and remake the world.

 

Saturday
Nov242018

Rush Hour Sluice

John A. Nieves


 

The sidewalk walkers slide their serrated
stares across dawn. Down the block
the traffic signal is out. The police haven't
arrived yet, so the honking and creeping drowns out
the boot steps and the new day chatter. Hello
say the newspapers, even now as they are fading.
Hello cry the answering machines and cable boxes
and children writing cursive as they pirouette
into memory, into archaeology. I check my phone
to see when the rain is expected to start while the weather
man hails the only cab in sight. The change in pockets
elegizes itself with a clink clink that sounds so much
like a door chain sliding into place and the magazines
stand and beg us to please not watch the last page turn.

 

Saturday
Nov242018

The Maps Move

John A. Nieves


 

The red ripped through the resin, mulched out
crackle, the flesh of the ground—and it would seem
            too violent for antlers, and there would be no
velvets, and my sister would put her hand on the rupture

            and feel no splinter, no heat. The burnt forest colors
from our height to the ground said fall like there were
any other season, any direction but gravity-down. Our neighbor
used to stuff old leaves in his boots and pretend to be

a scarecrow. Of course, he could have scared crows, we all
            could. And deer. And we were small and loud
and terrifying. The back fence was pulled up just enough
for us to comfortably wriggle underneath. The backyard's

incline helped pull us through. We found these little doors
everywhere. And other, more confusing things: bits of colored
tape, an old wrench, a muddy hat with a stork on it. We gathered
            and deposited these artifacts at the site of the mutilation,

            using the freshly spangled bark as cover, the naked trees
as markers, not realizing things mend, not knowing old
                      wounds are harder to find.

 

And later it was the same with the sidewalks and the buildings
            on the sidewalks, and the city's shape, its finger-
print. When the garbage day moved from Tuesday
            to Thursday, our entire neighborhood left our refuse

like an offering to the Wednesday sun, something it had never
seen before. And the stink came fast and folded every smell
            into its cape. We kept getting confused about which day
                      it was. We kept wanting to tote all of the bags off

            ourselves. We were buried under the sudden stench
of change and what it meant street-sized, shrunk to fit
                      our particular lives.

 

            Habits formed and habitats formed and the door became
our door. This was the first time I'd lived with someone other
than my family. The rules bent. The garage became the porch;

the porch became the outback room. We realized dining room
tables, dining rooms, had always been optional. The sun washed
            out the pale grey linoleum until it turned flat white. Our keys

only matched in the teeth. The head of yours was square, mine
            was a truncated triangle. They opened the same. We had no
doorbell or answering machine. The mail was always for us.

            Everything became so much more on-purpose. Once, when
my sister came to visit, she asked where we kept the sheets. We only
had the ones on our beds, only exactly enough of everything

for the space we had. She slept in my bed. I slept on the couch
            with a shirt over my eyes.

 

Somewhere in there all the exit numbers on the highway
were changed to match the mile markers. Destination went from

checklist to narrative. I could only tell people where I was
in relation to other things—one exit after the rest

stop that's closed for construction if you are heading south, two
exits past the river from the other direction, one job away

from going back to school, one relationship from the one
I've been in for the past 15 years, five addresses from here.

 

Saturday
Nov242018

First Death

Denise Duhamel


 

Nick (5) thinks it's awesome she's in heaven
because it's really high up. He suggests
we all take a helicopter to visit. Ben (6)
says God is waiting at a desk like the one
in a hotel and is sure He'll give her a room
with pillows galore and a coffee maker. Max (3)
says death is just like Target. Don't cry. She went
shopping and will be back in a minute.

 

Saturday
Nov242018

First Subtraction: Seems and all its homophones

Ander Monson


 

I wish I could say the boring things go first
but apparently they don't. While I can't be sure
the good stuff disappears before the rest:
the Christmas flickers, the liquors, the baubles,
the hottest search results, both seams and seems,
it seems. Everyone's pants fell off, it looked like,
because they did. Soon everything
that looked like something was and nothing fuzzy
lasted before resolving. One-pieces became
an increasing thing. We got back into cloaks and belts.
Without our errors we weren't less sure but more.
It wasn't good. No would, no should: all was. All our
human dramas got less dramatic. No more foolin,
no more funnin, no more runnin around on each other
secretly. Gone was plausible deniability. That wasn't bad
but lies got a lot less white and white guys had to own
their various bullshitteries. No one would deny
it meant improvement on a larger level, but still
we had to fill the silences that resulted somehow.
Without them talking, pantsless, it took a while
before someone else began to speak. We read less.
Stopped reproducing. Everything was getting thinner anyway
—at last. It was hard at first: you get used to a certain tone
of voice, my boy, a Foghorn Leghorn modus operandi.
Some could not adjust. You could see them in their telling stances
assuming something into the distance. It was funny, then sad,
funny, sad, and then it just stayed sad. We called our dads
to make sure they enjoyed their newly flowy clothes, their new gender roles,
and understood literalism. Some wandered off or died.
Even I got lonely then. I started getting into fights.
The thing I like the most about the lights is that they go out.

 

Tuesday
Nov202018

Some Planetary Remains

Susan Daitch


 

Loot

My former husband is a cinematographer and was on a shoot in a penthouse that displayed large quantities of ancient Roman art; galleries' worth of marble sculptures were all over the place. At one point he was in a room where a maid was dusting a lone life-size statue of someone, a god or an emperor, he didn't know, but he took some shots of it. The owner of the premises entered and told him he had to erase the footage because she didn't have what she called publication rights for this sculpture in this room. The billionairess got down on her hands and knees and looked through the viewfinder to be absolutely sure he'd erased all images of the statue. He believed publication rights was a meaningless phrase, the statue had most likely been acquired illegally, and therefore must not be photographed under any circumstances, that was what she was really saying. I asked if he'd managed to save any images of it, but no, the billionairess, though not familiar with the camera, had, in what must have been scarcely revealed panic and anxiety, exercised the thoroughness of a pro. But doesn't the photographer own the images, I asked? I imagined armed guards positioned at the mirrored elevators. None of the crew could leave until the camera was handed over. That isn't exactly what happened, but you could tell, he said, she meant business.

 

Language Zoo

The Repository Of Extinct and Dead Languages was easy to find, hidden in plain sight off an expressway that linked boroughs of a major city. It was housed in the offices of a defunct power station perched on the edge of a polluted canal, slated for a superfund clean-up that never happened. The plan had been to decontaminate the top ninety percent of the canal, then cap the densely poisonous layer at the very bottom, but there was no guarantee that leaden asbestos, coal tar, the radioactive and gonorrheaic, and other bacteria of spectacular toxicity could actually be contained by a cap made of what? No material known to man could keep all of the substances and organisms out of commission forever, so the project was eventually dropped. Sooner or later, everything leaks or disintegrates. Also, there was a white biofilm coating the bottom believed to have potential curative powers, and investigations of it were ongoing. The Repository overlooked an elbow of the canal and had two employees. The man who ran the place was never assigned a title, so he couldn't call himself a director, sort of a curator with little oversight. He was monolingual. The other employee was a bilingual armed guard. The Repository was open to scholars, school groups, and curious individuals by appointment only. When there were no visitors, queries to be answered, maintenance chores to be completed, the curator/custodian would drink coffee and look out the window. If the guard was elsewhere in the building, he would watch porn in a language he didn't understand, then delete it from his history. He sometimes called the Repository a language zoo of the endangered, but he baulked at the idea of a linguistic mortuary. Not dead yet, he would say, even though that was part of the Repository's mandate, to house and archive the dead. He felt you shouldn't eliminate the idea of hope. Sometimes languages were only sleeping, and there were examples of those that had arisen, zombie-like, reactivated, and flourishing, or almost so.

Besides the native dead languages of North and South America and many Pacific Islands were the unspoken—Latin, Ancient Greek—and the not totally dead but getting there—Judeo-Persian, Russo-Turkic Abaza, Ethiopian Kwama, to name just three out of thousands. These were the three he mentioned when he gave tours to school groups, pointing to a map of the world projected on a wall near the elevator, as if to say, these losses are universal, death happens everywhere. 

Each language had a room containing whatever written examples existed. The room for Latin occupied the entire ground floor and also made use of digital recordings. There were others where every known text or utterance occupied so little space, languages such as Livonian and Osage, for example, that their rooms were each the size of a mid-twentieth century phone booth. Within each chamber was a listening station with headphones, if a recording of the language was known to exist. Occasionally recordings made by last speakers had been transferred from wax cylinders to tapes, and these transferred to digital files, so they could be listened to, though no one was left alive who knew exactly what the last speakers were saying, he would emphasize. It was part of his job to make sure all audio-visual equipment was clean and in running order, that WiFi connections were maintained, even though there were rooms no one ever had any interest in entering, as if the lost words and meanings died over and over again with each visitor's shrug of disinterest.

There was an online system for borrowing files. No written record could be checked out of the facility; in-house use only. Borrowers have included scriptwriters who might use a super-dead language as the basis for languages spoken on other planets. With no or imperfect means of translating, few in the audience are going to complain, hey those Plutonians are speaking rongorongo, a language associated with the Marshall Islands. But the curator was an optimist who believed the time wasn't far off when there would be a room or rooms for languages from somewhere in the multi-verse.

Space was an issue at the Repository. Languages preserved on paper, stone, clay, metal, bark canoes, etched into refrigerators, took up varying degrees of space. Lucky were those whose relics were fire resistant (the burned libraries of Alexandria, Sarajevo, and Rio de Janeiro come to mind), a feature that has and will continue to save them, however inscrutable the lines of text have become. Sometimes pictures or accompanying illustrations help out, but even images are subject to interpretation. All documents are pre-Gutenberg and solo objects, incunabula, of immeasurable value. A codex plus table and chair took up a room the size of a horse trailer because the book, somewhat outsize, contained a plethora of images. Conquistadors dispatched all speakers and readers and burned all their books, but this one somehow survived. Without the precision of written words whose meanings are known, it's impossible to interpret with any degree of accuracy the meaning of what looks like an act of violence one human visits upon another. Or knife and incision depicted could be an early form of surgery. This isn't so farfetched. Evidence of contemporaneous ophthalmic surgeries exist in Mesopotamia, to name just one case.

The curator struggled with the definition of an extinct or close to it language. An extinct language had no more living speakers, that was the most obvious line to draw, he explained to the guard on her first day. What about the dead ones, she asked? A dead language has no community to support it, so can no longer be said to be a native language of a specific geography or a group in exile. It could exist in written form only. It helps a language to have a written form when all speakers die out, though this is no guarantee that disuse and demise isn't in the cards, ultimately. Endangered languages that were close to death and/or extinction had a place on an upper floor, eventually and quickly in some cases (fourteen languages go extinct every day), they would be moved to a lower floor. In the long history of the Repository there were languages that experienced a revival and had been booted out. Hebrew had once had a home in the Repository, but it was expelled, and Yiddish, too, was on its way out of the facility, which would free up a considerable amount of space. 

Every so often he would get a petition from a zoologist claiming dolphins, chimps, crows all had languages. Convincing footage and recordings would be included that he enjoyed watching, calling the guard over to join him. Prairie dog calls contained information about predators, bees danced to signal location of food sources, mating dances of flamingos that involved a lot of swiveling. Rather than emphasize that the Repository was for human languages only, he would politely request the petitioners get back to him when those species were themselves going extinct. The guard told him he'd opened a can of worms with that response and had underestimated the chances of exactly that happening.

The Repository was publicly funded, and this was an issue. Expulsion from the larger ecosystem of languages, it was argued, was just too damn bad, but not a real lives lost kind of tragedy, and in no way worthy of expensive preservation. Sorry, you're out, you didn't survive, no reason to keep life support plugged in. Citing Darwin, calling the preservationists Babelists, the Repository's critics were capable of causing trouble, but the curator considered these protestors to be nothing better than survivalist kooks. Opponents of the tough shit faction accused them of being promoters of colonialist aggressor languages, so eager to declare victory, to snigger at the refurbished power station and its hardworking employees. Cut off state funding, a drain on tax payer resources, was the response, but the dead languages clamored, you owe us this home, at least. The lone curator wants to keep his job, so he sends out mass email alerts asking for donations. The guard suggested an online funding campaign, telling him she'd help him with the filming. A close up, she said, of an iron blade etched with who knows what syllabary or logograms, then pan out to the room with a shot of either one of them, headphones on, smiling, then out to the canal, photoshopping in the image of the baby mink whale that had wandered into it, you know before it died from exposure to who knows what, while it was still swimming happily, or at least what you might think happy might be for a lost marine mammal floating on poison.

Trouble began in Canal City, and it came on cats' paws at first, but then threatened the whole enterprise, poking at the boundaries of the Repository in an unexpected way, and it wasn't about unanswered solicitations for donations to keep the lights on. 

At first there was only one of them, a ragged man in an Applebee's t-shirt sitting on a nearby bollard when the curator and the guard came to open in the morning. They couldn't understand a word he was saying, just a stream of sound with strategic pauses as if the guttural sounds were, in fact, heading towards sentences. Nordic, maybe, the curator said, but they left him and made to hurry inside to prepare for the day.

Not open yet, the guard said, and she shooed him away.

We have an old Norse room if you're interested, the curator called out as he unlocked the door, trying to be friendly, but the man only stared into the water and kept talking.

After an hour, the ragged man was joined by more people, then more still. Preconscious gibberish, babbling, the aural collages of schizophrenics, dream states, bad trip narrations, feral children—all demanded their place in the archive. This was assumed because they pointed to their mouths then pointed to the building. Sole practitioners clamored at the massive double doors of the former power station. The pounding and shouting grew deafening. Solo speakers held microphones aloft, clutched recording devices from earlier centuries, chanted into phones. One gripped a film can labeled Poto and Cabengo. The curator called the guard, but they really had no idea what to do. Out the window, the canal looked peaceful, its surface placid. The curator said, well, why not let them in, but the guard foresaw problems controlling the mob. They would be overrun by people they couldn't understand. The curator and the guard held one another tightly and retreated to one of the upper floor rooms, accessible only by stairs, and even then, hard to find, somewhere on a floor honey-combed with the remnants of the endangered. 

 

What Are Words Worth

The box was labeled: don't open until after the war. Which war was being referred to was unknown until the string that bound it was untied, then the war was easily identified. Among the contents of an uncatalogued box, dusty and neglected, discovered in the Rare Book Room of the New York Public Library: labels for hair products, soap, packets of seeds, tea envelopes that contained no tea, operating manuals for sewing machines, radios, vacuum cleaners, pulp novels, objects so ordinary they could be hidden in plain sight. No one would look at them closely. Why bother? The customs agent, the border guard, the bored policeman opens the suitcase, nothing to see here, waves the bearer on. Had they looked closely, and maybe some of the them did (a death sentence for the courier), the police would have found that instead of tea leaves, vegetable seeds, soap, instructional guides were pages of smuggled anti-Nazi writings, created by exiles in Prague, Zurich, London, and elsewhere. Wrapped in yellowed copies of Frankfurter Zeitung, these were known as Camouflaged Books, and very few of them have survived. The print is miniscule. Many words had to be crammed into small spaces. Who collected them and how they got into the library is not known.

 

Monday
Nov192018

Anthem

Jessica Lee Richardson


 

Polly washed the turpentine into a river of chemical bliss. Her trained eye must be why she didn't say oopsie or sorry when her patriotic ghost child interrupted class again with his singing of America the Beautiful. Her nostrils were singed and she was dizzy with medium, watching thin paint trails swirl down the drain.

She really needed to stop bringing her patriotic ghost child to class. 

None of us were comfortable intervening, so we just tried to ignore his nationalism while we painted the propped up banana bunch. Really, what could you say?

The bananas browned their medicinal wash into the air with the paint burn and I walked past ol' amber-waves-of-grain belting into the beams. I just needed to wash my brush but that's when the ghost brat crossed the line and tripped me.          

The class pretended not to notice, except Sal who tsked, but he just dropped his head and blended his brown. Ghost Brat's cheeks were flushed with purple mountain majesty, his lips kept right on rounding the notes in determined little O's and his mother definitely looked proud. She hadn't seen the tripping of course. 

Sal still appeared disgruntled in my honor, which he should. He comes to my car after class for a gummy almost every day. When he doesn't come I see him in Cassie's Volt hitting her vape. This is how it is with Sal. But how Polly came to conceive such a patriotic son is another matter entirely.

Let me tell you a little about Polly. She wears fabric in her braids and pins through her dimples. Her hair is sno-cone blue and she paints lime-bright nudes with severed fingers. Doesn't seem the type to have mothered this dead conservative, right? But here he was, grand old flagging his way right down the linoleum. Polly looked at us like isn't he just adorable? Like we were supposed to agree on the dead-kid cute factor on autopilot, but this is one banana I can't paint. 

I can see why Polly herself paints the fingerless. 

It's an uneasy situation, having to placate those who love the beastly, simply because you know they must be very sad inside. But when I looked around at my classmates, it was almost as if they had just accepted this little flag-waving bulldozer as a fact of their creative lives. 

I decided to leave early. 

Some days my head bubbles with too much of myself and I am liable to say anything that flits into it. Best to wash the yellow off of my hands and let the thing dry. 

But when I got to my car I almost hit the ghost brat with my door. He had followed me, the bugger. I caught my breath and folded my arms. He probably had freckles when he was alive. I wanted to be endeared by his chubby cheeks, but then he spoke.

"What's the matter? You scared?" He said and screwed his mouth into a snarly smile.

"Ha," I said and tried to get into my car.

"I need a ride," he said.

"I don't like your singing," I said.

"What are you, a commie?" he said. "A snowflake?"

"I can't give you a ride, I have to be somewhere."

"Where?" Now the kid folded his arms too. We were in a standoff.

"An appointment."

"For your lady parts?"

"No," I said, and now I was the snarler.

"Well then I'll come with you."

"Your mother will worry."

"I'm already dead," he said and he had a point there. The sky swelled with sun, a giant wink at itself. The last thing I wanted was a ghost child in my Corolla. But somehow he took my silence as assent, and skipped around to the passenger side. I had left it unlocked, not that it mattered, and he slithered right into the bucket seat.

I sighed and my brain felt abuzz with Pop-Tarts of static pinging from the toasters of my better judgment. He immediately started adjusting the radio and I swatted his hand. My hand went right through his of course and he smiled a creepy smile. 

"Fine," he said. "I can listen to your music," he said. "Let me guess? Rihanna?" 

"No," I lied. I switched on classical. It would lull him, perhaps. But instead of becoming tranquil he began jamming his transparent little fingers in the cup holders and window buttons, in the glove and on the mirror, which he courted with beguiling eyes as he lip synced "This land is your land."

"Seatbelt," I said.

"Dead," he said.

"Oh yeah," I said. "Where are we going?"

"Your appointment," he said and gave me a smug chin.

"I would rather get your errand over with first," I said. "Mine's private."

He called my bluff with his face but then abruptly changed tactics. "Left on Merchant."

I followed his directions in a numb-headed blur, all the while ignoring the tenseness of my chest. Why did I let this apparition into my car? How would I get rid of him? 

We pulled into a pawnshop. 

"Wait here," he said and hopped out. I noticed he had a small box in his hands.

"No way," I said. "I'm coming in."

"Suit yourself," he said. "But you radicals don't tend to like these kinds of purchases, so you might prefer waiting in the car."

"No way you're buying a gun," I said. 

"Try and stop me," he said. I lunged to grab his arm but my hand went right through his left shoulder and he laughed.

I followed him in anyway of course. Ahead of us in line a teenager was assessing the heft of a meaty looking assault rifle. He told the clerk he would be back with the money soon and the clerk assured him that if they were out of stock, a similar model would likely be in by then. 

I tried again to talk the dead kid out of his plan, whatever it was. "What is your plan, anyway?" I asked.

He looked at me like I was ridiculous. "You've never heard of a responsible gun owner?" He shook his head and muttered, "Pathetic."

"Not at eleven, no. Not when you're dead."

"I won't stand for this discrimination," he said and smirked. His precocious little fists clamped onto his hips.

The teenager in front of us put his future weapon down and skulked away and now it was our turn at the counter. I was sure the clerk would laugh at this tiny ghost wanting to test his machine guns. But he didn't. He began a sales pitch.

At first I was aghast. It stunned me into an open-mouthed silence. Couldn't he see the height of this clear little boy? Didn't he shiver when he touched the absence of his cold shimmery fingers?

But as they settled in on a "fit" I gathered myself and interrupted the exchange. "Doesn't he have to meet a minimum age requirement?" I asked.

The clerk looked up at me and rolled his eyes a little at the kid. "Doesn't apply to ghosts," he said. "The dead are ageless." He winked at his little co-pilot.

"Okay," I said, floored at the loophole in the law. "What about a background check?" 

This time the clerk basically ignored me. He waved his hand at me and said, "passed." It was the ghost child's turn to wink. At me.

Heat rose in my chest and neck. I came up with a few more questions but now the two were tuning me out. It was as if I did not exist. As if I had ceased to be. My only remaining hope, since I could not capture the boy, was that this was just a fantasy daydream of his and it would pitter out with the sticker shock. 

I watched closely as he opened the box in his hand. The clerk whistled at the contents and I shimmied up to see. It was a gold locket in the shape of a heart. Engraved on its sides were delicate fleur-de-lis. It looked like it contained a picture when the clerk opened and closed it, but all I could glimpse was an aged black and white hue.

"Who is that?" I asked. 

"My grandmother," the ghost said. 

I rang like a plucked string.

"Don't you think your mother would want that?" I said.

The man and the boy both laughed. The man wrapped the gun in brown paper like it was a parcel. Obviously the locket was worth a lot because the clerk moved as if the ghost might change his mind.

The whole way back I made and remade plans. I would drive him to a deserted seaside where he couldn't hurt anyone. That was it. But he was smart. He would figure out how to navigate back, no place was really all that deserted.

Forest! 

Same.

I would lock him in a basement someplace, then. But besides making me feel like some kind of torturer, couldn't he slip through walls? Wasn't he a figment constructed of thought? He wasn't material enough to contain.

Finally I relented to his pestering to drive him back to the school where his mother taught art. Perhaps she could talk him out of whatever sinister plan he had hatched. I knew he was no responsible gun owner by now. There were eerie maps in his lap and he hummed, steadily, the same repetitive tune.

I watched him slink out of the car and across the lot with the gun, now torn from the paper and slung over his tiny shoulder like an anthem.

I told myself there was nothing I could do to stop this slithering invisible thing. I knew there was a box somewhere I should be thinking outside of, but I couldn't find it. I fidgeted in my seat and grabbed for something to take the edge off, but my skin swarmed with proof. Deep down I knew my meek assent was as unequivocal as an equal sign. 

I wondered what color was on his mother's brush. I wondered how it curved, and if the fingers of the figure were in place. I wondered if her lime bright piece would make the coverage or if the transparent boy would be all we could see.

 

Wednesday
Nov142018

Carol Krusen Helps a Friend

Teresa Carmody


 

Part 1. Departure

The first time Marie went home after graduation, her friend Carol Krusen, who was her best friend in high school and her neighbor since birth, told her she was pregnant and asked Marie to help plan the wedding. Of course, said Marie—because she loved being needed more than love itself! And nothing, she told Carol, would stop her from helping her absolute best friend through this big life change. The adventure begins, she cried, which is when Carol Krusen clarified that actually, she and Brad had already eloped. But Carol had only agreed to drive down to Columbus, Ohio—where witnesses aren't required and there isn't a waiting period between applying for and receiving your marriage license—after Brad promised a proper wedding ceremony when Marie was in town. Because Carol Krusen said she couldn't imagine getting married if Marie wasn't there, never mind the fact that technically she already had. 

Not that Marie necessarily cared about being present for the actual legal event. Plus, Marie secretly knew that if Carol Krusen hadn't already married, she would've tried to talk Carol out of this particular one, and wondered whether Carol suspected as much. Refuse him, Marie imagined herself saying, before launching into her reasons. Marie had made a list: (1) Twenty-three is too young to know what or who you want to be for the rest of your life, and (2) Brad's pretty aggressive, a bit of a bully even. (3) He likes to start arguments on socially explosive topics, especially politics and religion, as if offending others makes him more masculine, which (4) suggests an insecurity that will only lead to more of (2) and (3). And look, Marie would have continued, I get that he's intelligent but grew up so fucking poor that no one saw him that way, and now there's over-compensation. But now he's a grown, thirty-two-year-old man who forces others to concede his point, which seems pathetic and certainly not wise or well-advised. Plus, he has an ex-wife, three children from that marriage, and a diagnosed mental illness that he self-medicates with alcohol. Carol Krusen, she would have said several times, this is not a good choice. But Carol already knew this and more. Details! she would have laughed. Besides, Carold Krusen was in love. Some things in life you simply will choose—because it's right even if it looks wrong, horrible even, when compared to a looks-good-on-paper kind of list, such as a steady income, mindful listening, a college degree. 

Marie began to assist Carol Krusen with her wedding preparations, and the biggest challenge, aside from the rush (they only had six weeks before Marie would return to the West Coast) was finding Carol's dress. Not because Carol Krusen was a fussy woman—no one could accuse her of that—nor because of her tall full-bodied figure and enormous breasts, which would, by the time of little Emily's birth, reach a nursing size G, larger, as Carol Krusen would then point out, than little Emily's little head. Rather, the challenge revolved around the way Carol's whole body pulsed with her pregnancy, transformative and truly supernatural, so that a perfectly-fitting dress on Tuesday would be lousy by Thursday, becoming too big, too small, too short, ridiculously long or tight in the arms and strangely too loose in the chest. Something odd was happening, observed Marie, and Carol Krusen smiled a knowing smile and mentioned that her sense of smell was also greatly heightened, as is frequently reported but rarely believed. That's it, cried Marie, we'll use your body as our guide. If we find a dress that fits perfectly enough on three separate visits, that is the dress for you. Carol Krusen agreed, and on the day of her wedding, she wore this magically selected dress, found on week thirty-one of forty, for nearly eight hours. It was layered and full, beaded and gauzed, tucked, gathered, laced, and fastened with buttons that looked like real pearls. Brad was pleasant that day, close to agreeable, and Carol Krusen's father kissed his daughter on her cheek and said she looked like a puffy white present. Carol Krusen felt her own dead mother smiling down, just like in the pictures. 

In the months and years after their wedding, Brad and Carol Krusen cycled through a series of beater cars and food stamp applications, even as they maintained their steady delight in each other, their willingness to disregard certain social norms. Brad quit drinking and Carol Krusen became a La Leche breastfeeding activist. Brad went back to school and Carol Krusen began researching homeschooling for little Emily: they didn't want their child to pledge allegiance to such a militaristic flag. Brad was "father" and "husband" and Carol was "mother" and "wife." Meanwhile, Marie wandered and worried about what to make of herself, now that she was the first in her family with a college degree. She didn't want to follow Carol Krusen into the woods of motherwife, but neither did she have a specific career goal or occupation in mind. She felt herself lingering before a threshold to the great unknown, and too afraid to cross over, she made herself small and manageable, first, by moving in with a socially-ambitious and reasonably-attractive guy who refused to introduce her as his "girlfriend," and who insisted that she not change anything in the apartment, except if she was laundering the towels or sheets. Which is not to say that he expected her to do his laundry; he said he'd continue to do it himself, once a month, as was his current schedule. He would also continue his daily habit of eating dinner at restaurants and Marie was welcome to join him, he emphasized "her choice," and if she couldn't afford the cost, he would pay, no problem. Marie was bothered by some of his behavior, but she also admired his refusal to play "partner," and believed their relationship to be better than those who compulsively-followed usual gender roles. Basically, Marie found a certain amount of freedom in this domestic situation, and given her own authoritarian father, she was used to working around a man's rules. She also convinced her boyfriend, whom she affectionately called Muggins, to let her build a five-foot-tall platform for his—now their—futon mattress, underneath which she would store her belongings undetected. 

So Marie built the platform and began eating dinner out every night, for which Muggins mostly paid. She applied for jobs and read several novels about people, mostly women, trying to find their way. She took guitar lessons, pottery lessons, voice lessons, and tap. She waited for something to happen, all the while feeling as if she were hanging out in the belly of a whale, not necessarily Biblical. 

 

Part Two: Initiation

The second time Marie went home after having an abortion, her eldest sister, Marsha, who knew little of Marie's actual life, asked to hear about Marie's new job. They were eating beef patties and Carol Krusen was there, along with little Emily but no husband Brad. When Marie hesitated, Carol Krusen chimed in, practically singing, yes please tell them about working at WIC. Most of the women at the table already knew that WIC stood for Women, Infants, and Children, because most of them—Marie's older sisters and Carol Krusen—relied on WIC food vouchers as part of their monthly household budget. Marie also knew this and was embarrassed. Not because she believed there was anything wrong with receiving WIC; two of her co-workers were also income qualified, and the program did a lot of good, even if it indirectly subsidized agri-business by not allowing organic milk, which Marie also knew. But Marie, still uncertain about life's larger mission, was certainly determined to not need WIC herself, which she recognized as a bit of judgment, though she didn't want to position herself as an "expert" either, just because she sat on the other side of the WIC desk. Thus consumed with her own feelings, Marie didn't recognize this moment as one turn on a road of more trials to come, and instead of answering honestly about what it was like to work there, which would have involved describing things and people not always with approval or understanding, she laughed off her sister's question, saying they (at the table) probably knew more about WIC than she. This made everyone vaguely uncomfortable, including Marie's sister, Linda, who muttered about what can and should not be discussed, before the family turned their attention elsewhere, to never again ask Marie about her professional life. 

Marie didn't care about not talking with them. She had Carol Krusen, and Carol Krusen was learning the Wise Woman's Way, a guide for alternative healing. She told Marie all about it as they sat in her kitchen, little Emily playing on the cracked yellow linoleum floor. We aren't the only beings with intelligence and higher consciousness, said Carol Krusen in a confidential tone. If you listen to plants, you will learn. Marie nodded and asked how to do that, and as Carol Krusen began telling a story about walking in the wooded park with little Emily, Marie flashed on an afternoon when, much younger, she and her friend happily feasted on raspberries growing in Carol's mother's back garden. When Carol's mother saw their red mouths and sticky hands, she spanked both girls and sent Marie home. The berry eating had been Marie's idea, because there were so many and because they were so good, but later she learned that Carol Krusen's family had less freezer jam that winter and that Carol's father often blamed the girls, in a teasing tone, for his dry and tasteless toast. The raspberry leaf, said Carol Krusen, is a pregnancy goddess. She tones your uterus and birth canal, while keeping your man at home. Marie smiled and said it was also probably less expensive than a gym membership. Marie was looking at the chipped paint and uneven cabinets, and remembering how when Carol Krusen and Brad had rented this latest small house, they said that it was likely so inexpensive because it wasn't up to code. Marie, said Carol Krusen, I think you should make yourself a motherwort tincture. It will help heal your anxious heart and mind.

Marie liked the idea but knew she wouldn't do it. Listen, she said instead, did you receive my last letter? Carol Krusen had every single letter anyone had ever sent her, starting from when she was four years old and kept in a black filing cabinet, sorted by date, then bundled in yearly stacks held together with repurposed rubber bands. The first time Marie had seen Carol Krusen's letter collection, she practically fell over with envy at the organization and thought of it all. How did Carol Krusen know at such a young age that her letters were important and deserving? Marie's own system was to move piles of papers from the kitchen to the bedroom, before throwing the whole mess into a box she purposefully kept thereafter closed. That letter, said Carol Krusen with a pause. I know you told me it was private, but Brad was there when I opened it and grabbed it from my hand. Carol Krusen laughed as Marie blushed. Brad says you're too easily tempted, your perspective thoroughly skewed. But Carol, cried Marie, I wrote that letter only for you! I know, sighed Carol Krusen, and he knows he shouldn't have read it. But you have to understand that we share everything, and anything you say to me, you're also telling him. I won't have marriage with secrets. 

Over the next few days, Marie thought quite a bit about this. She was angry at Carol Krusen, but didn't know exactly why. On the one hand, she understood that she had been battling Brad for Carol Krusen's loyalty and affection, and that Brad had clearly won. And in the abstract, she agreed with her friend's desire for a "share-all" marriage, but then again, Marie's secrets were not Carol's to share, just as Marie didn't share Carol's, except with people who were very unlikely to ever meet or know her. When Marie saw Brad a few days later, he said you're not going like my unsolicited advice, but you need to marry and settle down. Marie shook her head and said no, she didn't, and when Brad asked, why, what's wrong with the man you're living with, Marie didn't reply. They were standing in the back yard, cooking chicken thighs on a portable grill, while little Emily sat in an old stroller pointing and saying bird. Carol Krusen called for Marie to help in the kitchen, and as Marie stood to go, she didn't mean to give Brad such a dirty look. Hey lady, don't take your man-issues out on me, he said. And Marie, who was yet unwilling to claim her own authority as a means of atonement, though for what, she later wondered, glanced at little Emily and smirked. 

So when Marie told Carol Krusen about her abortion, she knew Brad would also soon know. And while she figured that Brad was the kind of man who believed women should have the right to choose even as he would never support his own wife or girlfriend with that particular choice—because life is beautiful, especially babies' lives—Marie was not prepared for Carol Krusen's response. Which was silence. A long silence. Followed by: having Little Emily helps me see things differently, and I'm sad you won't have that and she won't have your daughter as her best friend. Marie scowled and replied that she wouldn't have moved back anyway, meaning their daughters, if that's what she would have had, wouldn't have been neighbors and maybe not even friends. Carol Krusen only smiled and said of course they would have, no question, and maybe Marie would have moved back. Who knows? The thought instantly repulsed Marie to the point of genuine nausea. No, she said, and that was that. What was the use, she later thought, of telling Carol Krusen how I am. Carol Krusen, who saw "mother" as the apotheosis of "female," and "me" as always "we." Resigned to forgo an ultimate boon, Marie prepared to return to boyfriend Muggins and to her life on the West Coast. She went grocery shopping with her mother and made spinach lasagna for one more family meal. She babysat her numerous nieces and nephews and took a last walk in the woods, where she stopped beneath a large oak tree and listened to the wind. What, she wondered, but couldn't think of an end to that sentence that wasn't sappy or sad. When she was last at Carol Krusen's house, Marie took several photographs of little Emily, promising to send copies of the prints. And Carol Krusen put an orris root in Marie's hand. To help you uproot that which is hidden, she said. 

 

Part 3: Return

The third time Marie went home after coming out to her family, her mother, who had decided to love her daughter by avoiding any mention of what she believed a sin, asked Marie to help with a number of projects around the house. Marie, who still loved being needed no matter who she loved, suggested they make a list, which she also still loved to do. Her mother wrote on the back of a used envelope, as if these were only two things: 

1)    trim trees near barn

2)    clean the garage

I want to get rid of stuff, just get rid of it, said Marie's mother. OK, said Marie. Do you want to have a garage sale? Her mother said maybe, maybe she should have a garage sale. Should she have a garage sale? Marie said she didn't have an opinion either way. If her mother wanted to have a garage sale, she would help. If not, they wouldn't. Oh, I should probably have a garage sale, said her mother, in a despondent tone. Mom, you don't need to have a garage sale, replied Marie. I don't have to have a garage sale? said her mother. Marie sighed. I don't want to, said her mother, defensively. I don't want to have a garage sale. Then don't, said Marie, suddenly hating the "garage" part of the sale. Why not just call it a sale? Her mother continued, I'll have your brother come over with the truck and haul this stuff to the dump, that's what I'm going to do. Her mother straightened a pile of unopened mail, which Marie could see were mostly solicitations from Christian organizations. The dump? said Marie. That's not good enough for you, said her mother. Mom! cried Marie, in a tone that meant stop. Is this why you quit visiting, said her mother, why you refused to come home? While they were talking, Marie's mother had filled the rest of the gas bill envelope with doodles of flower pots and blooming plants, and a couple of what looked like lightning bolts. 

Marie's second eldest sister walked in the front door. Hello, said Linda. Do you want to go garage-sale-ing? Marie's mother laughed. We were just talking about garage sales, Marie said. Mom doesn't want to have one. Oh, they're a pain, said her sister, who sat down and began to talk about her new neighbors. They were horrible people, she said, who tore down her iron fence because they thought it was ugly. But it was my iron fence, said Marie's sister, and now their dog runs into my yard. This morning, I told them to fix it or I'd let the kids use their dog as a BB gun target. Not Magic! they cried. What kind of people call their dog Magic? Come, Magic—Stay, Magic—It's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. But the worst thing, explained Linda, was that her husband, Steve, had helped them with a plumbing emergency and now they refused to pay. 

Marie's sister left shortly thereafter and Marie and her mother began to clean the very large garage. Marie's mother's garden tools were hanging in an organized pattern spray-painted on one of the walls, which reminded Marie of Carol Krusen's mother, who always kept everything so neat, so tidy, and Marie and her mother began to talk about the Krusens. Mr. Krusen had passed away a few years ago, Marie's mother reminded her, and Marie said, really? Because she hadn't spoken to Carol Krusen since the last time she was home. Will you see her this time? asked her mother. Marie shrugged. And what about Muggins? though Marie's mother used his real name, which Marie never liked. Too ordinary, thought Marie, for me. Marie said that he had married someone who loved to make pies and they were living in Portland. They didn't talk about Marie's wife or her wedding. Like Carol Krusen, Marie had crossed a border (in this case, national) to marry in a place (Canada) that had different legal rules. Marie's family did not approve of any of it and when Marie told her mother about the marriage, her mother only said that she had been worried Marie might do something like that. Carol Krusen, on the other hand, had been pleased that Marie had finally settled down. It's better to be married, isn't it? said Carol Krusen. For everyone? said Marie, and Carol Krusen laughed deep and long. Marie realized that Carol Krusen viewed marriage as rescue from without, a way to return to the everyday childhood life of family, but with new knowledge, new choices. New skills. And Carol Krusen wasn't totally wrong about that, Marie now realized.

I think I will call Carol Krusen, said Marie to her mother, and later, on the phone, Carol Krusen told Marie that she was welcome to come visit, but Carol, herself, couldn't leave home. Carol Krusen's voice sounded as sure and as warm as it always had, and she was happy to tell Marie her news. Little Emily was strong and healthy, and Brad was working on a second degree. They were growing vegetables, raising chickens, making their own homespun clothes. And I'm pregnant, she said. Or rather, I'm carrying Baby Z. She explained that her cousin's wife couldn't conceive, and that as she, Carol Krusen, so enjoyed being pregnant, she agreed to carry the baby as a surrogacy. It's making me somewhat nauseous, she said, but nothing too terrible. Also, I'm studying to be a midwife and doula, so my life feels very integrated, like I've crossed a threshold back to where I always wanted to be. 

Marie enjoyed Carol Krusen's updates, and didn't ask if, like other surrogates, Carol Krusen was being paid, or how much she could get if she decided to do it again, especially back East. Neither did Marie talk much about her own life, except to share newsy information about her wife and step-children, and as she spoke, her accent and pauses became increasingly pronounced, so that Marie realized she was trying to make herself sound more like the people she had grown up with, like Carol Krusen, who had stayed put. Why would that be, Marie later wondered, and is it possible to occupy two worlds simultaneously—home and away? And what if Marie's idea of these places differed from what they actually were. And are. Marie decided she was onto something. Yes, she cried. We never truly know another, none of us, and maybe especially when she's your best friend and neighbor. I can't imagine wanting Carol Krusen's life, just like I never thought that the Carol Krusen I knew would become the Carol Krusen she knows herself to be. Similarly, my mother can't imagine my desire to be simply desire. And Marie smiled then, knowing that her mother's imagination had nothing to do with her. Or she, for that matter, with her mother's desire.

It's strange how friends can help. Marie felt easier in life in general, and when she thought about Carol Krusen, she thought she understood Carol's gratefulness and freedom to be. And while Marie still returned home with less frequency, she continued to receive updates about Carol Krusen, this time, however, from her sister, Linda. For as these things happen, her sister's horrible neighbor, who had become, as these things also happen, her new best friend, was a midwife who had taken Carol Krusen on as an apprentice—a job for which she refused to be paid, but was terrifically well-suited.  


Monday
Nov122018

Dear Editor Who Wished Me Luck Placing My Poems Elsewhere

Sean Thomas Dougherty


 

Forget the luck. Or the Japanese elm burning red like a slap to the face of the autumn air across the street from my friend David's flat. Forgot the tea kettle steaming on the stove, and the magnetted pictures of his children grown and his wife long gone on the fridge. Come and cross the tracks with me to elsewhere, over the 19th street tracks where the Norfolk Southern ran past tenements, right down the middle of the street for decades, spilling shiny orbs of coal for street kids.  My friend David, now nearing 80 years old, lived on that block. He grew up with the rumble of the train, and the boot stomp of his father coming home from the steel plant to gather him in his arms, and his mother cooking up pierogi and Kluski for supper, and the lights they'd string across the front porch for Vigilia and the giant green spruce his father hauled from the empty car lot where they sold trees that Christmas, the one he was laid off, when everyone's father was laid off, and they gathered coal for the stove to keep warm, and they'd leap onto the passing train cars, to steal those black diamonds, to heat the house, that winter when they were hungry and his old man was out of work, and the snow fell in feet along the tracks, stopping the train and all the men climbing those cars to shovel out coal, and the sheriff and his men finally arriving.  But all of that was decades ago. Most of these days David lives there, lost in the elsewhere that is not now, long after his father died, and David grew to marry the Irish girl down the block, and watch a son go off to war, two more marry and have children and join him at the GE plant, and watch their mother waste away from emphysema, and work his decades building diesel engines—engines bound for China and India, where millions traveled on the trains across vast states, migrating for work past the armies of children who squatted beside the tracks to gather coal 

to burn under the black of their mother's kettled brew. 

 

The 19th street line has long been closed, the tracks paved over. David's house is long torn down. I walk past listening to the hijab'd women laughing and speaking Arabic, bending to dig into the black dirt of a community garden The Sisters of Mercy built there, growing corn and tomatoes, cabbage and squash. What they grow they sell at the city's open-air market and share the profits. I watch them work when one of the women suddenly looks up as if she hears a train.

 


Epilogue:

Dear Editor, Today, I walked up the wooden steps and down the dim hallway and knocked, David answered the door, he knew my name. His caretaker had brushed his hair. He was dressed. All his buttons buttoned. He offered me tea. His left eye milky with cataract, he started to tell me something, but I saw already he was traveling elsewhere, staring out his kitchen window, somewhere far beyond the autumn Japanese elm still burning red.


Sunday
Nov042018

The Eighteen Possible Plots

A. Joachim Glage


 

Greatly influential are the books that everybody reads (or tries to read) but no one fully understands; far fainter is the influence exerted by those works that everyone knows but nobody reads. Joyce's Ulysses, Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, and certain books of the Bible may fall into the former category (they once did at any rate; perhaps they no longer do). The second, less appraisable group—at least for those readers who have taken an interest, not only in the theory of narrative, but also in what is still and somewhat curiously called "science fiction" today—would have to include a little-studied work by Dmitry Shkolnikov, published in 1903 under the excruciating title, The Eighteen Possible Plots of Fantastic and Scientific Story Over the Next One-Hundred Years.

As is probably already known by most readers of the present note, Shkolnikov's book—a slender volume of little more than a hundred brittle pages, issued in royal octavo by Lawrence & Sons of London in a single run of only two hundred copies—would likely still be languishing in near-perfect obscurity had it not been for Darko Suvin's now famous article on the subject (published, remarkably, only once and as an appendix to the twentieth anniversary edition of Suvin's own most celebrated work of narrative theory, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction[1]). That essay, called simply "Dmitry Shkolnikov's Astonishing Predictions," is Suvin's definitive (and sole) statement on the concept of "science fictional criticism," i.e., criticism that not only is about science fiction, but also aspires to be a kind of science fiction in its own right. That is, after all, what Shkolnikov's book all but proclaimed to be with its fabulous first sentence: 

My simple purpose in these pages is to divine the fundamental structures and themes of all the stories that will be told over the next century by future artists of the fantastic.[2]

The "fantastic"—or the "fantastic and scientific," as he more clumsily calls it sometimes—is of course Shkolnikov's term for what we would now recognize as science fiction proper, that literary genre that had been pulled into existence by the likes of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne and Mary Shelley, and whose most characteristic device—the imagining of strange futures—Shkolnikov deployed quite deliberately in the execution of his own work. "For whatever else it is," Suvin writes, "The Eighteen Possible Plots is also an instance of that rarest and most speculative form of literary history, namely, a literary history of the future" [3] (at least from the vantage point of the book's publication at the turn of the twentieth century). Let us quote Shkolnikov again:

My simple purpose in these pages is to divine the fundamental structures and themes of all the stories that will be told over the next century by future artists of the fantastic. As it happens, those stories can be reduced in principle to only eighteen basic plots, which I shall describe—in terms suitably broad to such an endeavor, for each plot can be manipulated into various and sundry forms—in the following eighteen chapters. Each chapter heading is also the title I give to the root narrative discussed in that section.[4]

Was this structuralism avant la lettre? The concepts of "basic plot" and "root narrative" might suggest such a thing, and indeed it may be that Shkolnikov's prophecies involve not just literature but the human sciences more generally. But, regardless, the eccentricity of Shkolnikov's writing, as well as its fancifully prophetic and "science fictional" character, can scarcely be disputed. In order to give the reader a better sense of the flavor of this rare book (since hard copies are exceedingly difficult to come by), I reproduce below a scan of the whole of the book's front matter, including the table of contents, so that you may glimpse for yourself the strangeness of those eighteen chapter headings.

 

 

Before undertaking any deeper examination of the mysteries of The Eighteen Possible Plots, it is necessary first to dispense with two immediate and interrelated questions. Each of these preliminary questions has both a simple answer and a more complex one. Here is the first question: Why, if almost no one has read it, is the existence of The Eighteen Possible Plots so widely known (at least among those readers who take seriously the scholarly consideration of the forms and the history of science fiction)? The simple answer can be summed up tidily in the name of Darko Suvin, whose preeminence as a theorist of science fiction is indisputable, and whose 1999 essay on the topic of Shkolnikov's book received a good deal of critical attention (indeed the twentieth anniversary reissue of Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, where the essay appears, was something of a momentous event in and of itself, at least within certain academic circles). The more complicated answer to the question has to do with Suvin's actual findings: for what is most "astonishing" about Shkolnikov's book, according to Suvin—who normally had no special interest in prophecies or in the predictive qualities of science fiction[5]—is just how incredibly accurate its visions of the future have proved to be (so accurate, in fact, that at least one critic has gone as far as to suggest that the book might be a hoax[6]). Over the course of his essay, Suvin tallies up no less than 148 "major works of science fiction"—not only stories and novels, but films and television programs too—that appear to have been successfully predicted, in whole or in part, by The Eighteen Possible Plots. Naturally it is not my objective in this note to rehearse all of those findings; I would simply adduce, as an especially interesting example, the case of chapter two, called "The Distant Outpost," in which Shkolnikov describes one of his plots as follows: 

Just as there shall always be a periphery to the known world, an outer limit where our knowledge dims, so shall there always be the first-explorers beyond those limits. H. G. Wells and Jules Verne have already begun telling proper stories about such first-explorers. The natural sequel to these tales, then, will involve the second-comers to such outer realms. Here is how it shall be: Something strange has happened at one of those distant extremities, something mysterious—perhaps the protagonists of the story have lost touch with the original team of explorers, or they've received communications from them which are incomprehensible, or oddly out of character, or even monstrous—and thus a second team must be dispatched in order to discover what has happened. (Naturally this plot may be reversed as well: the distant outpost begins to receive strange communications from the homeland, thus signifying some horrifying change there.)[7]

It is uncertain whether Shkolnikov had already read Heart of Darkness (first published in 1899) when he wrote these lines, but the basic plot described here is surely comparable to that of Conrad's novella, which has exerted a profound influence over modern authors of science fiction. Suvin rightly points out that Clarke's 2001 and 2010, as well as such films as Alien and Event Horizon, all make use of this same "root narrative," in which "a disaster or something baffling has happened way out far from home, thus compromising the first group of humans to have reached that remote location; now a second group must go to investigate . . ."[8]

The second preliminary question that must be addressed is similar to the first, but is subtler. Really it is the same question, but now in reverse: Why, if Shkolnikov's book is widely known, does no one bother to read it? The simple answer is its physical scarcity, of course. As I've already mentioned there are precious few copies of the text still in existence, and for better or worse no one has yet thought to republish it. More complicated is the second answer, which I shall put as follows: No one reads The Eighteen Possible Plots because its success was also its failure. That is to say: since its predictions have in fact come to pass, the book's properly speculative energies are now depleted. The text has become, to use Bachelard's formulation, one of those "dead documents of a past period, untimely when written, and boring now."[9]

Suvin, too, has his detractors, who argue that any claims regarding Shkolnikov's "successful predictions" are themselves unsupportable, and that The Eighteen Possible Plots must therefore be regarded as a failure, root and branch. One might respond to those critiques by pointing out that most of them amount to mere refutations of prophecy as such; Professor Kaufman's, for example, insists that any attempt to find successful predictions in Shkolnikov's awkward prose would be "akin to deciphering a quatrain by Nostradamus: you can read more or less anything you like into it."[10] Then there's Ray Bradbury's gentler rebuke, made shortly before his death: "Type enough words, wait long enough, and then watch as more of your predictions come true every year."[11] Even Stanislaw Lem, who made a few literary predictions of his own (at least in fictional form[12]), weighed in on the Shkolnikov controversy: "The future is a big target, the biggest in fact. Throw a dart in its general direction and it's bound to stick somewhere."[13]

I will insist here, however, that the most profound reason nobody bothers to read The Eighteen Possible Plots today is that the book appears to lack any discernible, reproducible method. In spite of Shkolnikov's prefatory remarks to the contrary (he actually boasts of the methodological rigor of his predictions), it would seem that his ideas are more or less haphazard, capricious at the very least, not unlike the loose and wide-ranging dreams of a failed writer. Nevertheless, let us hear him out:

The technique that governs the bulk of these speculations is one that I've drawn from H. G. Wells and C. H. Hinton, whose sympathies with each other are so evident that I've even suspected them of being one and the same man. One need only read the opening pages of both Wells's The Time Machine and Hinton's Scientific Romances to see the clear affinity between those two giants. The technique that I speak of, then, to borrow a tidy phrase from Hinton himself, consists simply of "supposing away" a limitation that has been placed upon our current state of existence; by engaging in such imaginative operations, "a state of being can be conceived with powers far transcending our own." And while Hinton believed that such mental exercises would allow us to conceive of new spatial dimensions, I have employed this method for peering into the time still to come. I sometimes refer to this mental tactic as the logic of the sequel.[14]

Of course Shkolnikov gives us little to no guidance on how this "logic of the sequel" is actually to be put into practice. The excerpt reproduced below, however, from the chapter titled "The Unveiled Mind," gives as good a picture as any of Shkolnikov's "method" in action. He begins with a simple empirical observation, one of somewhat narrow scientific interest: "The Seismological Society of Japan has recently developed instruments so finely calibrated that they can detect the vibrations of an earthquake even before it occurs." Having established that technological premise, Shkolnikov then proceeds to "suppose away" the "limitation" presented by the substantive "earthquake," and imagines in its place—or rather, he imagines the writers of the future imagining—something far more fantastic:

The new machines [in the literature of the future] will be so sensitive that they will be capable of detecting the vibrations of human thought; indeed they will be capable not only of detecting them but also of recording them, reproducing them, and finally transmitting them instantaneously to all of the other thought-detecting machines on the planet (for, once discovered, such technology is bound to be multiplied and interconnected), and eventually they will communicate this data directly to all other human consciousnesses as well—a confluence out of which, finally, God Himself will arise, new born, the true Son of man, and an infallible social peace will then ensue (or maybe the end of the world, biblically they are the same thing). A variant of this theme will propose something like the opposite, with a more demonic essence rising up from that fresh sea of thought. This new villain of the piece will be a more curtailed force than God, to be sure, but it will be no less transformative, as it will seek to turn humanity into a mere element of itself, making our species into a base utility or substance from which to draw its own supervening life. That villain will be called Satan, or maybe some very ordinary name like John or Smith (it emerges out of our accumulated thoughts, after all), and its weapon will be the thought-detecting machines themselves, which it will use to throw forth its illusions. In this same vein there will be the makings-literal of Marxism, fantasies that will be indistinguishable from parodies, and in which not just private property but privacy as such will be utterly abolished by the new technology. Since all human minds shall be exposed to each other, all formerly conflicting purposes will gradually converge into one, and class divisions will be among the first to fall away. The whole human race, in other words, will be converted into a great individual in these tales—a Leviathan, infinitely-limbed, but of one mind. Probably some simple and perfect geometrical shape, a circle or a cube, will be the symbol for this new collective. There may also be bands of uncertain heroes who rebel or otherwise seek to preserve their own individual privacies in the face of that growing, indissoluble crowd.[15]

Is there any method in all this dreaming? Probably not. But then, as Suvin has pointed out, these imaginings are remarkably prescient for someone writing in 1903. The Matrix (1999), for example, seems well predicted here: Shkolnikov at least gets its central premise correct (evil forces using machines and illusions to subdue the interconnected minds of the human race so that they might fuel themselves), and he even manages to predict the very name—Smith!—of the primary villain. One can also readily find the Borg from Star Trek anticipated in the passage above: Shkolnikov not only describes the obliteration of individual consciousness in that purely collective society, he even gets the cube right! Other modern sci-fi novels are also suggested remarkably well by this single paragraph (see, e.g., Gibson's Neuromancer or Orton's New Europa trilogy). At the very least it would not be outlandish to ask: Has anyone ever predicted future stories with more accuracy than Shkolnikov?

But is he predicting only literature, or the future itself? Sometimes it is difficult to tell. In some places (as in the passage just cited) he has all the assurance and grandeur of Fourier; in others he adopts a far humbler tone: "[t]he logic of the sequel, the simple removing of this or that limitation in one's mind, is often but a half-step into the future, a glimpse only an hour or so ahead."[16] Regardless, it seems that everyone will agree—including Suvin himself—that The Eighteen Possible Plots, at least at the methodological level, is ultimately unsatisfying. The accuracy of its predictions cannot save it on that count.

As far as I know only one contemporary review of The Eighteen Possible Plots was ever published: a single unsigned paragraph in The London Round-Up on November 8th, 1903. In my estimation, this review, though caustic, gets mostly right the central flaw of the book, and it is worth reproducing in full:

It is not just the hypotheses proposed by Dmitry Shkolnikov's new book that are worthless (though they are, for reasons I shall clarify). It is also and more seriously the ludicrous pretense that any sort of methodical rule or procedure could have informed them. This pointless book is composed of eighteen pointless chapters, in which the author blithely proclaims the power to predict the future of so-called "fantastic" literature, and even goes so far as to advise his readers of all of the "basic plots" that will be written in that genre in the century to come. As it happens there are only eighteen of them. Why there shall be such a dearth of stories in the future the author never explains. But even setting that foolishness aside, the perfect futility of the book becomes evident upon just cursory reflection. For if Shkolnikov's predictions are correct (let us suppose he has some magic crystal ball), then his book accomplishes nothing but a spoiling of the surprise; whereas if they are wrong (for there is no such thing as a magic crystal ball), then his eighteen chapters constitute little more than the typical trash heap of false prophecies. As I mentioned, though, his most egregious error was to have supposed that such nonsense could have had any legitimate intellectual method. His "technique" he claims to have borrowed from C. H. Hinton (who is equally mad, but even more laborious), and it involves the imaginative "supposing away" of "limitations." And what is a "limitation?" Anything that exists! Anything that is, any condition or thing or idea or word. Alas, if the future was so transparent, and so simple a thing to divine, we'd all be rich from speculation by now. The Eighteen Possible Plots of Fantastic and Scientific Story Over the Next One Hundred Years is a contribution neither to philosophy nor to literature, nor even to prophecy. I predict the future will not be kind to it.

And yet—there still are mysteries that swirl about The Eighteen Possible Plots, mysteries that may well make it an object of great and ongoing fascination. At least one of those mysteries is about to be revealed in this very note. But let us first consider the man himself: What do we really know about the astonishing Dmitry Shkolnikov?

There are no photographs of him, at least none that have survived. The biographical information that we do possess is scant: we have no birth record, there are no known relatives (he had no offspring, as we'll see), and we know of no other publications from him besides The Eighteen Possible Plots. We do not know his ancestry (though his name suggests Russian origins), only that he appears to have been fluent in both French and English and lived for some time in Paris. We have a handful of letters he wrote to Henri Bergson (they are among the philosopher's personal papers that can be reviewed with permission at the Bergson Center at the Collège de France), as well as a diary entry or two, made by this or that intellectual of the time, which mention him by name (both Jean Bourdeau and Georges Sorel apparently knew him personally). Indeed it would seem that Dmitry Shkolnikov regularly mingled among the intelligentsia in Paris in the first decade of the twentieth century, and made frequent appearances at social events thrown by the Collège where Bergson and other famous professors were often among the guests. Somehow, though, Shkolnikov has remained a ghost. To my knowledge, the only existing description of the man is to be found in a memoir by one Isadora Marceau,[17] a Parisian socialite who was a regular acquaintance of Bergson's. In chapter twelve of that memoir, Marceau recounts meeting one "Dimitri Skolnikoff" on Bergson's balcony during an evening soirée: 

He was a striking figure to look at, a slight man of only medium height, but with a wide-eyed green gaze and jagged, variously-colored teeth and a perfectly-shaped triangular beard that he kept flattened and glistening with oils. He smelled faintly of shallots. His pale face blushed easily, and there were little red and blue vessels visible along the tops of his cheekbones, as if something had burst there just beneath the skin, or as if just that part of him, just his face, was straining to exist, or perhaps had come from the sea and was still ill-adjusted to the bright and gaseous simplicity that lay above the surface. His shapely nose and bulging eyes only intensified my impression that he was, secretly, some form of sea life, come perhaps to learn of what we landwalkers are made, of what salt and what mettle. To my surprise, he and Bergson were in fact discussing marine animals when I approached them on the balcony (surely the good professor had brought the topic up himself; I recall that during this period Bergson would lecture anyone who cared to listen about the similarities between the structures of the human eye and those of the eye of the squid). At that particular moment, Skolnikoff was just concluding some sort of Marxist allegory about the "power relations" between sharks and fish; I remember he ended his speech, which drew a laugh from Henri, with an outburst somewhat like the following: "Sharks appear to be more powerful than fish, and indeed in many respects they are, they feast upon them after all; and yet it is also evident that the shark depends upon the fish, and so occupies a structurally inferior position: the fish don't need the shark!"

There was something so strange about him, this Dimitri Skolnikoff; he seemed to be not wholly at home in his own body, the way his head bobbed and his fingers nervously formed shapes on either side of his face while he spoke—almost like he wasn't really talking to you at all, or as if he were signaling to hovering spirits that only he could see. There was an unlikely youthfulness about him, too—I mean he was awkward in that way that comes from being too-limber and soft-muscled and prone to enthusiasm, all fits and starts, all elbows and knees, like a marionette, or a pup not yet grown into its paws. Henri introduced me; Skolnikoff clasped my hand and suddenly lurched forward a step, drawing our two faces—his seemed now filled with sadness—close together. He spat some melodious nonsense into my ear (he may have been drunk), something more or less like: "All the forces that make up human existence are jealous of each other, and none more so than happiness, especially the happiness that is mine right in this moment, which anyway is only a portal of death." I recall I pulled back at this; I'm certain Skolnikoff was pleased by my response, for he flashed a piebald smile and then added: "Once she gets into you she will replace every other plan and dream you've ever had, and all before the moon is full." I don't know if he meant happiness or death (or me) in that last bit; regardless, I promptly excused myself and avoided Skolnikoff for the rest of the evening.

Years later I would learn, from Jacques Rivière, that Skolnikoff was a virgin, and had died as such only a month or so after Bergson's party. According to Rivière he often boasted of the fact: "The chastity of a house cat," he apparently liked to say; and: "Oh this unconquered heart of mine!" Somehow this detail—which, in spite of Skolnikoff's strangeness, I would not have guessed at the time—has since warmed me to his fading memory. Every now and then I even feel a touch of regret for snubbing him that night.[18]

But now, finally, I come to my foremost purpose in making this report. You may be perplexed, to be sure, that it's taken me this long to get to my true subject matter; has everything in this note up until now been mere preparation for the thing I am about to unveil? Probably no answer to this question will satisfy you, so I'll get to it. 

Six months ago, while in Paris, I made a startling discovery. While I was browsing in a bookshop that lay all but hidden down one of those alleys that have no light but half-light in the sixth arrondissement (I do not recall the name of the bookseller; even more maddening is that Gérard, my traveling companion at the time, insists now that we were not in Paris at all that day, but rather in Saint-Germain-en-Laye), I discovered, on a shelf full of other antique volumes, a copy of Shkolnikov's book—in French. The French title, however, was different; it read: Les Dix-neuf possibles intrigues d'histoires fantastiques et scientifiques dans les prochaines cent années. Frantically I opened the book and scanned the table of contents; it appeared to be a perfect transcription of the English version, with only one modification: a nineteenth chapter had indeed been added. The new chapter was called La Dialectique à l'envers, which I translate as "The Dialectic in Reverse" (this rendering, as should soon become clear, is superior to "Dialectic Upside Down," which may at first seem equally plausible). I paid the bookseller the exorbitant sum he asked for, and then hurried back to my hotel to study the text. The book had been published in 1909 by Larousse in Paris. No translator is named anywhere in the front matter, and I can only assume that Shkolnikov himself did the job. As far as I can tell, but for the nineteenth chapter, the book is an exact translation of the Lawrence & Sons edition. 

Naturally my copy of the French version will have to be authenticated (and for that reason you will be within your rights if you conclude that this whole note of mine has been premature). But if I've jumped the gun it's only because I wanted to ensure that I would be the very first to introduce English-speaking readers to the nineteenth plot that Dmitry Shkolnikov foresaw (a prophecy that he made, apparently, shortly before his death, which also took place in 1909). I will not bother quoting the text at great length; the new chapter is longer than all of the others by at least half, so for the most part I shall paraphrase instead. The chapter begins with Shkolnikov narrating what he calls "a typical dialectical progression" (I translate as best I can from the French):

Imagine an early human society, some fifty-thousand years ago. An earthquake happens. How do they interpret this? Naturally they reach for empirical concepts that are ready to hand: Surely it's some giant beast deep in the ground, stirring in its sleep! Many thousands of years later, as humans progress to the religious or spiritual stage, such cataclysms are conceived as the just or capricious punishments of the gods, with Nature itself being colored by a moral aspect. Finally, as they progress to a properly scientific and conceptual stage, during which the moral dimension of Nature is eradicated, the quaking ground is attributed to nothing more than the broad shapes and mechanisms of the earth itself, which is governed solely by the impersonal laws of matter.[19]

This "typical dialectical progression" can thus be represented as a development that proceeds along the following path:  

MONSTER -> GOD -> SCIENCE

Shkolnikov's nineteenth plot, then, will be this very same progression, only now condensed and played in reverse. That is to say: An earthquake happens, and we assume it's to be explained scientifically, like any other earthquake; but then something strange occurs—the epicenter begins moving from place to place, the tremors manifest where there are no fault lines, etc.—such that there seems to be no proper scientific explanation for the phenomenon at all, which grows more violent by the day, and even begins bringing whole cities to the ground. This causes great panic among the people, who soon turn religious; they begin praying to God in the streets; they believe that surely this is Judgment Day, the world is going to end:

But lo! It is finally revealed: the cause of the tremors has in fact been a monster all along! A giant and ancient beast has been awakened after thousands of years of sleep; it has been rummaging about beneath the ground; it will now burst free and ravage the human world.[20]

Shades of Toho! If nothing else, this nineteenth plot predicts very well the kaiju movies from Japan, as well as their many clones from other nations (Cloverfield; Yongary, Monster From the Deep, etc.).  

And yet—there may be a deeper and more biographical significance to this final plot. To introduce this more shadowy meaning, permit me to cite the first paragraph from one of Shkolnikov's rather strange letters to Henri Bergson, dated December 21, 1908:

Henri—

you must never apologize for your optimism. Of course my harried Christian brain is not as skilled as yours at suppressing the grim thing to come, the debt due; though to be honest the reckoning that fills me with the most dread is a good deal duller than that of the Judgment. Really what plagues me is just DEATH itself (or its ashy foretaste anyway); and I mean by that no more than my own brute biological death, which, as time passes, seems more and more like an individual to me, like an actually existing being with a well-shaped self who one day will look me square in the eye and lay claim to me—a being I can already hear and smell from the other room.

I believe that this fragment may give us one of the keys to the nineteenth plot (and thus to the "dialectic in reverse") by revealing its properly allegorical dimension. For what is it, I ask you, that seems only like an abstraction or a scientific idea when we are still young, but then, as we grow older, causes our thoughts to turn religious (as we worry over the afterlife or the prospect of judgment or forgiveness), until, finally, it is standing right before us, with a gleaming eye and cold grim claws—if not death?

Of course I need not remind the reader that allegory is not a literal or metaphysical belief in the personhood of gods and goddesses, or of ideas or forces; though all allegorical thinking does indeed take us into that broad conceptual space in which nothing is ever really inert, and in which even seemingly static objects and ideas are felt to be "alive" in a way to which no mere definition can be adequate. As is almost always the case, Borges has a couple of perfect sentences on the matter:

[Dante's] Beatrice is not a sign of the word faith; she is a sign of the valiant virtue and secret illuminations indicated by that word. A sign more precise, richer, and more felicitous, than the monosyllable faith.[21]

In a very different context, Gaston Bachelard brings the subject of allegory back round to death:

Those civilizations and those epochs with a taste for allegory had a keener sense and awe of death than we do now. For them, death didn't just happen; it took you.[22]

Death is the ultimate object of allegory, as it is the ultimate object of the fantastic, for it is the last conceivable horizon of the human imagination. The temptation to represent death as an individual is therefore permanent, for the only thing that is equally unfathomable as death is another living being.

But is the nineteenth plot truly an allegory? I shall make the following confession in lieu of a conclusion. When I first discovered The Eighteen Possible Plots, I thought indeed that the book was allegorical. But now, as I find myself drawing closer to death—I am only old, not yet sick, but I am well enough along in my years that I can sense the finitude of my life—a second interpretation has revealed itself to me. I now think that the book, and the mysterious nineteenth chapter in particular, is maybe the opposite of an allegory; that maybe what Shkolnikov meant to convey was something far more literal; that maybe he had in fact seen or sensed his death as some stirring thing, a beast all but hidden from him, outside and apart from him, like an animal whose padded footfalls you can just barely make out from the brush. Perhaps, in the end, his death came swiftly, soft-footed and wetly clicking like a panther, and yet still he managed somehow to glimpse it first. Perhaps, in the end, he saw death in that way, in the flesh; perhaps he came to understand that death, too, is but a creature, an individual, a half-intelligent animal with only half-intelligent designs on our good life, like those beasts—from novels, from our movies, from the fearful minds of men many thousands of years ago—climbing out from the cradle of the earth.

 

 


[1] Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction; On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. Yale University Press, 1999, pp. 287-321.

[2] Shkolnikov, Dmitry S. "Preface." The Eighteen Possible Plots of Fantastic and Scientific Story Over the Next One-Hundred Years. Lawrence & Sons & Co., 1903, p. iv.

[3] Suvin 289.

[4] Shkolnikov iv.

[5] "[T]he cognitive value of all [science fiction], including anticipation-tales, is to be found in its analogical reference to the author's present rather than in predictions, discrete or global." Suvin 78. But see Suvin 74 for an example of the author making a science fiction prediction of his own.

[6] "As for Shkolnikov and his 'predictions,' I for one will not be surprised if his book (whose bibliographic details have always remained somewhat murky) proves to be an elaborate trick, perhaps pulled by Suvin himself in order to make a point." Gaddis, Edmund. "On Darko Suvin and Prophecy." Science Fiction Studies, vol. 39, no. 4, 2012, p. 602.

[7] Shkolnikov 14.

[8] Suvin 306.

[9] Bachelard, Gaston. Essais sur la poétique. Gallimard, 1952, p. 298. [My translation]

[10] Kaufman, Louis. "Reflections on the Twentieth Anniversary of Metamorphoses of Science Fiction." Science Fiction Studies, vol. 26, no. 4, 1999, p. 589.

[11] Bradbury, Ray. Keynote Address. Science Fiction and Utopia, Ithaca, New York, May 2010.

[12] Lem, Stanislaw. One Human Minute. Translated by Catherine S. Leach. Andre Deutsch Limited, 1986.

[13] Lem, Stanislaw. Reflections on Writing. Translated by Rusev Or. Andre Deutsch Limited, 2000, p. 42. 

[14] Shkolnikov vi.

[15] Shkolnikov 53.

[16] Shkolnikov vii.

[17] Marceau, Isadora. Mon temps à Paris. Éditions Grasset, 1932.

[18] Marceau 189. [My translation]

[19] Shkolnikov, Dmitry S. Les Dix-neuf possibles intrigues d'histoires fantastiques et scientifiques dans les prochaines cent années. Larousse, 1909, pp. 119-120. [My translation]

[20] Shkolnikov, Les Dix-neuf possibles intrigues, p. 139.

[21] Borges, Jorge Luis. "From Allegories to Novels." Selected Non-Fictions. Translated by Esther Allen, Suzanne Jill Levine, and Eliot Weinberger. Viking, 1999, p. 338.

[22] Bachelard 192.

 

Sunday
Nov042018

100 Lies About Me

Erik Anderson


 

1. I was born on a Sunday, the 218thday of the year. 2. I have distinct memories of life at four, but between five and ten is a blank tape interspersed with static. 3. I have never been a good liar. 4. At the zoo, I was most terrified by the giraffes; at Fenway Park, by the green monster; in the garage, by the man-eating spiders my brother told me lived in the rafters. 5. I'm not heartless, but when Bambi's mom got shot I couldn't have cared less. 6. Pinocchio is still my favorite film. 7. I'm not sure I would want to have dinner with any dead or famous person. 8. I would like to let the future go. 9. In a letter I sent to the White House in seventh grade, I called the first Bush a charlatan. 10. I am infrequently ashamed. 11. I like barbeque chicken but hate barbeque pork. 12. Meat substitutes disgust me. 13. Politically, I'm ambivalent—I see little difference between the parties. 14. I have thrown up from too many potato chips, from too much gin, but never on boats and never from wine. 15. Some balance of writing and reading and eating and fucking and sunshine and drinking and laughter and friendship would constitute for me a perfect day; I would not, however, want to fuck as long as I ate, to drink as long as I laughed, and though I would spend hours more or less in silence, I would the whole while look forward to sharing the late afternoon sun. 16. I prefer Renaissance to contemporary art, but eighteenth-century portraiture to the Renaissance; I like design retrospectives most of all. 17. I have never been attacked by an alligator but was once, at a petting zoo, bitten by a goat. 18. For me, truth is linked to precision. 19. After a few years have passed, I have pleasant dreams about people who have persecuted me. 20. I suspect the most charismatic person I ever met, a man who went out of his way to befriend me, undertook a campaign to blackball me from which he has yet to relent. 21. No one has ever accused me of egotism, nor of being too humble for my own good. 22. I prefer Rousseau's memory to Proust's, Proust's to Wolfe's, Wolfe's to Kerouac's, but my own over all. 23. In general, I prefer the nineteenth century to the twentieth. 24. The line between fact and fiction may be firmer than some would have you believe, but it's still, I think, worth debating. 25. As for music, I am tireless. 26. At twenty-one I moved to Hollywood to be an actor but, deeply in debt, left after less than a year. 27. I always talk as though to a crowd. 28. Hypotheticals seem silly to me. 29. A therapist once prescribed me twenty minutes of silence a day. 30. I like to be slapped during sex. 31. Certain relatives no longer invite me to their houses. 32. There are two books that have influenced me more than any others: Wuthering Heights and the collected poems of Laura Riding Jackson. 33. I prefer the dictionary to the encyclopedia, but the thesaurus to both. 34. I could have been a dancer. 35. I like baby showers, bridal showers, even golden showers, but would prefer in all cases to be the recipient. 36. Performance art is important to my work, which has always been driven more by conceptual concerns than practical ones. 37. I consider myself an expert on The Wire. 38. Much as I like the early afternoon but not the early morning, I like a waning moon but not a waxing one. 39. Ontology is vital to me, epistemology less so, ethics least of all. 40. I sometimes sing when alone in the car, but I only ever hum in the shower. 41. I am suspicious of experiments that cannot be replicated, of experiences that cannot be verified, of ghosts and visions and crackpots toiling in the night. 42. Some have gasped at the sight of my penis. 43. In spite of everything I retain a certain respect for Richard Wagner. 44. I am not entirely convinced that I am not a computer program. 45. The feature I find most attractive in a woman is her scapula. 46. Art is less important to me than sex, which is less important to me than food, which is, in turn, less important than a good night's sleep. 47. I admire the philatelists. 48. The virtues of pornography outweigh, I would argue, its vices. 49. Coherence matters a great deal to me. 50. I dream of one day visiting an active volcano. 51. I am happiest in a cramped space, with strangers pressed against me. 52. In a man, I admire strong forearms. 53. I'll pass, for now, on the truth. 54. I like the smell of rotting fish, the taste of my own semen. 55. Pink appeals to me. 56. My heroes are outsized personalities, like Lady Gaga and, in a different way, Friedrich Nietzsche. 57. Among philosophers, I am most drawn to David Hume. 58. I do not, as a rule, like comedians. 59. I am more afraid of yoga than I am of dying. 60. Sunsets bore me. 61. In my twenties, I aspired to be more transparent in my writing—in my thirties, more obscure. 62. In my forties, I plan to undertake a thoroughgoing exposé of my inner life, the chief virtue of which will be its unrelenting candor—my integrity tied up with its lack. 63. I like rich sauces and full-bodied wines; beer and bread leave me cold. 64. Of the few things I've stolen, I've kept only the childhood portrait of a girlfriend's menacing father. 65. There is no flower I particularly enjoy, none I especially despise. 66. I have no trouble seeing what people find attractive in me and am not ashamed to have used this to my advantage. 67. Hunting is a comfort to me. 68. Once, in the Montparnasse cemetery, I serenaded a stray cat. 69. When people talk about freedom and truth, I immediately understand what they mean, even if I rarely agree. 70. I have never been happier than right now. 71. My favorite films, unlike my favorite books, are those that wear their profundity so lightly you might mistake it for flippancy. 72. My writing does not aspire to birdsong as much as a place in The New Yorker. 73. More often than not in my adult life I have chosen to go without underwear. 74. I worship the gods of the bowels. 75. Meat makes sense to me. 76. I would like, if I cannot go quietly, to die in an incinerator after an extensive chase on foot. 77. My most-cherished values are journalistic ones; they involve words like loyalty and discipline. 78. Origami comes naturally to me. 79. I tend to undervalue pawnshops but overvalue payday loans. 80. My least attractive feature is my eyes. 81. I have been evicted, arrested, even indicted, though the charges were later dropped. 82. The Museum of Modern Art, to my mind, is the model of what a museum should be. 83. I identify with the taxidermic animals displayed in tableaus. 84. I distrust the political process, but distrust my distrust most of all. 85. My middle name is Scott, after my father. 86. The sight of my own blood reassures me of something for which I've never quite found the right words. 87. I find mansard roofs attractive, but clay shingles annoy me. 88. I could watch boxing for hours. 89. When I was small, I took bullying well; when I was bigger, I inflicted it kindly. 90. I have had sex in trains and planes, but that I have not yet had it on a boat feels like one of my life's great omissions. 91. Teachers repeatedly told me I had no aptitude for language, coaches that I had no aptitude for sports. 92. I enjoy gatherings of all sorts, particularly those at which alliances are severed. 93. I see the value in conceptual poetry and, perhaps paradoxically, the literary merit of exactitude. 94. Underneath my atheism, I'm a deeply religious person. 95. Space tourism appeals to me. 96. If I am a simulation, I suspect I am a good one. 97. Consumerism, like careerism, doesn't bother me. 98. I find no quality in a person less interesting, but more necessary, than honesty. 99. I am likely to order dessert. 100. I aspire to reincarnation as a snow leopard. 101. I hope, most of all, to one day own a Ferrari. 

 

Sunday
Nov042018

Coat Hooks

Angela Woodward


 

I just cleaned the soap dish, which should have been clean already, since all that dirtied it was soap. I derided myself even as I was in the middle of scrubbing it with the scratchy side of the sponge, but I'm not a person to leave a job undone halfway through. I had to go on, despite my self-mockery. I don't treat myself as I wish to be treated, but the way my brothers and sisters treated me, with suspicion and fury. This brings to mind a bigger shame, my absorption in coat hooks.

 I never would have thought about coat hooks, but my new house was so nice when I moved in. Someone had painted all the walls white, and the trim a glossier, whiter white. This painter person had not slopped and dribbled, like I would have, but gotten everything neat and sharp. This must have been done by a professional, I thought, and took myself down to the level of an amateur and a failure. The walls were too good for me. I couldn't hang a painting or stick up photos of my children. I couldn't dot the walls with shelves to hold rocks and railroad spikes or the pottery bowl I'd salvaged from my mother. The best use of this house would be to keep it empty and expecting. Anything I did to it, any mark of my presence, only degraded it. I slipped my shoes off and tiptoed over the gleaming floors barefoot. I hung my coat in the closet so I wouldn't see the folded mess of my outer garment once I shed it. I sat on my one chair and breathed the air I now somehow owned, if it didn't so clearly own me.

Eventually I had to move all the way in, bringing all my crap with me. I lost the momentum that had propelled me out of the entryway down the hall to the coat closet, and took to leaving my coat on a chair. Then, sitting in another chair, I'd see how I'd masked that first chair with the lump of coat. So unfair. I needed coat hooks, but given the pristine condition of the walls, I hesitated about knocking one in myself. I had a whole bag of brass coat hooks I had carefully unscrewed from the hall of the old house. These had been good enough for my former life, but not now.

I'd hardly noticed them before, but now coat hooks snagged me wherever I went. They pouted and winked at me out of photos and in the furnishings aisle of Office Max. They robed themselves in the patina of their materials, either solid and worn or chintzy and unassuming. A woman in San Francisco showed off two huge baroque curlicues jutting out of the wall at the foot of her stairs. From one hung her coat that was more like a tapestry, fur and silk and wool all rolled into one. I browsed the antique mall, and found one elegant brass limb, with lovely knobs for coat and scarf. But it didn't have a mate, and I couldn't hang just the one hook, or mismatch it with some sort of similar but inferior other. I had spent decades not thinking about coat hooks, and only now did I realize that people carved them in the shape of dragonflies and lion's heads, made folding boards into which the hooks disappeared when not in use, salvaged them from Dutch ruins, lathed them out of pure white ash or maple. Hours drained into my screen as coat hooks cast in Bali flashed by me, along with the two-pronged elephant (one hook over the other) and the right-left ones just like the ones I already owned, but better. I admired the lilt of their arms, pined for the ones hammered heroically into barn wood boards or set flush into mounts that picked up geometric shadows in the long light of five o'clock. Evenings unspooled where I could have been sitting on my chair looking at those shadows on the floor, but I was instead still undecided and bereft.

My favorites came from a merchant in Belgium. His hooks had been gleaned from the houses of his dead relatives. They looked down from the walls with a sad, sour, self-satisfied plumpness, their lines just right in their compromise of ornateness with utility. I wanted to hit that spot of everyday beauty, where coming into the house and hanging up my coat would be an encounter with this elegant creature. "I'm at your service, darling," my Belgian coat hook would say, and take my garment, and then go back to reading some mystery or philosophy. I would be afraid to offer the lovely Belgian hooks my thrift store windbreaker, or the wool coat I slept in one terrible night. I was so cold with the shock of my lover leaving me that I couldn't take it off. I sat on the sofa wrapped in this ungainly plaid, cocooned in paralysis. My heartbreak then still saddens me, but the coat hook would have mocked me for it. You think you're so special? Everyone falls for these handsome cheaters, it would say.

Eventually the suave brass hooks from Ghent got blitzed by the Austrians. Artists lent their names to these hooks, and they couldn't be purchased in sets or lots but had to be bid for against anonymous others. These masterpieces offered, one over the other, a slight arch, like an apostrophe reversed. Their strong, solid construction balanced the hesitancy of their curve. Their masculine lines, almost nautical, cried out to be contrasted with flimsy silk slips. Piles of lingerie might fall to the floor underneath them, the ecstasy these hooks called up too strong for any precise arcing of clothing over them. The Austrian hooks, so elegant and expensive, would have been perfect for my house the way it was, before I moved into it. They radiated prosperity and something that goes with it, not money itself but the freedom to choose what money should buy, the ability to wait for months or years before alighting on the perfect choice. The Austrian coat hooks would have come with their own professional installer, who would leave powder and hand prints on the wall that I wouldn't be allowed to disturb. The Austrian coat hooks cost more than all my coats put together; even all the coats I'd had in my entire life wouldn't equal the price of one of these deities.

Now you see me, in that terrible nylon JC Penney parka handed down from my sister, or in that tweed thing I got at the Elks Club sale that lasted me nine winters in Chicago. I'm nothing, a wage-earner, a scheming grasper. I shiver and sweat, and weigh myself down with trivialities. That coat hook wrote a novel, rode horses, sang arias while walking to the library, went boating, wore a gardenia in his lapel. He balanced a tennis racket on his palm, planted a hazel tree. Women ran up to him in the street, compelled by the sight of his wrists.

Sunday
Nov042018

Janet Vachon's Glider

Michael Martone


 

I like it. They don't build them like this anymore. Nylon webbing and aluminum tubes. I had this idea that I would be one of those people who sits on an old lawn chair on her brown lawn and waves to everyone passing by. A human interest story. I pictured myself doing this. I practiced my waving. I live in the white Cape Cod with the pine green shutters the color of the webbing on my glider. I am on the side of the road, the old Lincoln Highway. Once this was the main drag. Now the only traffic are the semis avoiding the weigh station on the new US 30. There are a ton of trucks hauling caskets up from Batesville. BATESVILLE painted in gold on the sides of the black painted vans. I waved and waved. I glided and glided. And then waved some more. It got old after a while. What is a wave after all? I got to think it was more a gesture of surrender. "See," I would say to myself imagining I was saying it to the drivers rushing by, "Nothing up my sleeve!" Empty-handed. It isn't good to sit for that long, waving or not. They say that sitting is the new smoking. I don't know about that. But in the lulls between the casket trucks, I'd walk around. I started taking pictures of the glider with me not in it and imagined what I looked like not there from the road rushing by. What was it I was waving at? Crates filled with crates filled up with nothing. And were those waves I was giving away for free, were they an expression of fare thee well? Or comeback comeback. Wait, wait for me?


Sunday
Nov042018

Klaus Weber, Curb House Numberer

Michael Martone


 

Around here there are no blocks as such, just cul-de-sacs and circles and dead ends and half streets and alleys. The numbers make no sense. And some of the numbers have fractions and some have letters attached as an afterthought and some have all three—numbers and fractions and letters. And the letters are upper case and lower case. The lady who lives in 2A is all the time taking mail over to 29 and vice versa. The mail trucks wander around looking for the number that might be a number. There's no rhyme or reason to it. I do use stencils so most of the job is taping the cutout paper to the curb. Then I just fill up the spaces with the aluminum paint. It glows in the light. When I finish there is this sparkling drift stuck in the gutter. And then I move on to the next house leaving the last one's number to dry. Often I am just guessing at the next number. It makes no sense as I said. Later, much later, I return to peel the stencils from the curb. Sitting there in the gutter I can't help myself. I do some weeding along the edges of the anonymous lawns. Ground mint and multi-flora rose and mimosa and crab grass. Weeds look like weeds. And they are everywhere.


Sunday
Nov042018

Gloria Gleason's Crocheted Pennants

Michael Martone


 

I hang the new ones, different colors, every day, string them up between the tulip poplar trees in the back yard. The color determines the scrub color of the day. If it is blue, the nurses and the dental hygienists will wear blue scrubs. The phlebotomist will wear blue. Anesthesiologists and X-ray technicians, blue. Even the vets, their scrubs will be blue. And not the dark blue but the powder blue, the robin's egg blue. Whatever blue I choose that day. Down at the Subs-N-You during lunch the PAs and the EMTs slouch at the tables, all blue. The colors? They just come to me. Green. The color green will come to me. I will feel the green. I will head to downtown Winesburg and Blister's Pharmacy and buy a skein or two. I'm not a knitter. I've never learned to knit. In the dusk I go out to the backyard and unravel the pennants from the branches of the trees. In the deep shadows at the borders of the yard I see the silhouettes camouflaged by the midnight blue of their scrubs color. I watch them writhe out of their clothes, emerge out of the dark in the dark, scrubbed scrubs, bleached now, bone white in the bright moonlight.


Sunday
Nov042018

Juan Reyes, Lineman

Michael Martone


 

My father (he's gone now) was a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers as I am. One of my first memories is entering my elementary school's science fair (in kindergarten) with a project demonstrating the different circuits (series and parallel) that my father really made. My father coached me as to what to say to the judges, but I don't really remember what I said back then. Electricity is a mystery still. I like that it "flows," that it seems to know (before I would know) that the circuit is complete. It goes where it goes. I think about "the ground" a lot. Especially when I am up in the air. There is a field of utility poles I work (I don't come down often) where we string the new wire, testing the product of the Fort Wayne wire and die companies. The electricity (testy, testing) circuits aimlessly around the forest schematic, humming as it goes, snapping around the glass insulators, looking for the ground. When I buried my dad (not that far from this electric forest), I played out a lead of copper wire he held in his hand that ran to mine, not letting go as the ground was filled in around that thread. It's there still (a patinaed blade of grass), I touch when I visit, discharge (still) the sad shock of it all.


Sunday
Nov042018

The Species, Broadly

Tyler Barton


 

Two women on the ottoman thought about the species, broadly. The third about a bird nest fallen in her yard. On a seat at the storefront window, a dude worried God just didn't want him taking German, or Judo. A coven of conspiratorial old men along the cafe bar argued The Principle, really broke down and reassembled and polished and advertised and made no money on the sale of the principle, the principle of matter, the principle being where they lived, fought, died, and the rest of us had no sense, not a drop, not enough to fill a thimble. A lawyer unlatched her briefcase and clapped. All the ice in my coffee congealed into an iceberg, whispered a dispossessed teenager in line for the pisser. A dove struck the window. One young girl gasped. Boy scouts in full regalia stood at the front door, holding Oreos, wondering what coffee tasted of, did it taste of rained-on sand, spring beaches, did it taste of our savior, the Lord? The principal considered not returning to the school at all, even after the strike ended. A dream does not believe itself to be a threat. The flyer for the deathcore drummer admired the flyer for the dogwalker. The species wandered widely. The bombing had been that morning. The silent detonation no one heard, though the meekest of the old men swore he sensed something—a twinge of ear hair, wrong wrinkles in his left slack. The trains ran late every day. Get in line. A person flipped an egg and thought about their niece crawling through the same yard where a duckling had once walked across their bare back, those pats of buttery feet, and the egg burned fully through. The bomb had no thoughts because the bomb had never, like any of us, asked to be born. No one was injured so it didn't make the feed, but it was a sneer in the atmosphere, like just you wait until the quiet bomb catches on, reaches speeds, comes to us at home, or here at Java Jo's, the whispered destruction, the kind of rain you don't even see until your car begins to spin. The birds all fell from the sky at once. The person asleep in the loveseat is dreaming.


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