fiction, Uncategorized

Contemplating Gender Roles while Following my Wife around Marshalls

There is a man standing at the door, I don’t know whether he is lost or left, he is staring at a table of FAB-YULE-OUS LAST-MINUTE GIFT ITEMS; a bottle cap dart board, an essential oils reed diffuser, a bundle of three cheeky-Christmas T-shirts, an array of Yankee Candle Holiday collections, and so on. He is still wearing his jacket, bundled to the neck.

I follow my wife passed him, he smells cold as we pass.

My wife stops in the ceramics and begins perusing. A large man passes me, a child holding the end of his jacket, his wife speeding ahead with the cart, he is playing something on his phone. His hat is on and his beard is unkempt.

“Should we get this for my parents?”

I turn, my wife is holding a ceramic jar with a plaque on it that says “MILK.”

“Sure,” I tell her.

She picks up something else, I wonder about the last time I saw a milk carton and what must have happened to all of the runaways.

“Or this one?” my wife asks.

“Sure,” I tell her.

She frowns, “which one?”

“That one.”

“You’re not pointing at either of them.”

“The milk one.”

“They are both milk ones.”

I refocus. “Oh, that one.” I point.

“That one is for tea,” she cries.

I shrug, and she waves her hand at me, annoyed. “You’re annoying, go away.”

“Okay.”

I head back for the door. I pass a younger man in a display chair. He has a patriot’s jacket on and is staring into an aisle of discount lotions. I head for the exit. Someone has collected the man who’d been by the door. Good for him.

I stand outside the door looking out on the parking lot. I notice a spot three rows from the exit. We parked about ten rows back. I go and get the car, move it to the empty spot and sit in the heat. I notice in the rear-view that someone has moved from a spot in the first row. I reverse out and straight into it, cutting off a PT Cruiser.

Who the hell still owns a PT cruiser, I think, as the man behind the wheel flips me off.

I sit in the car another twenty minutes before slowly making my way back inside. As I pass the shoe department, I see an old man sitting on one of the stools, he isn’t trying shoes on. He is just sitting, two hands on his cane as an older woman bustles around him with an armful of sandals.

“Eight dollars, dude!” I hear someone cry out. I turn, two teenage boys are looking at a pair of sneakers.

“Eight dollars! Merry Christmas!”

“Merry Christmas, eight dollars, dude!”

“Dude, ZOLA.”

“Merry Christmas, ZOOOOLLA!”

They run off with the sneakers.

I find my wife in pet accessories.

“We should get the cats something.”

I nod, watching a Hispanic man help his wife pick from a giant pile of Buy three get one free Christmas socks. Another man walks by on the phone, “WHICH ONE!—That one? You have one of those!—because you’re always THROWING IT TO MY SIDE OF THE BED!”

My wife has a Santa cat outfit held up to her own body, she is looking down at it.

“Should we get this?” she asks.

I smile and nod.

It isn’t enough.

I give her a thumbs up.

She rolls her eyes. An old lady, digging through a table of hand-creamers, laughs.

“Men are so useless, huh?” she tells my wife.

My wife laughs.

Ha-ha

The woman laughs.

Ha-ha

I laugh.

Ha-ha

Am I living in a sexist narrative, I wonder? Do I only not want to shop because I have grown up in a patriarchy? Would helping pick out a cat outfit make me a better, more gender inclusive? Is that what that means? It doesn’t seem to have impacted that guy over there.

I glare at the Hispanic man who has just made his wife laugh after hanging a pair of socks off each of his ears.

I look back at my wife. She is fingering through a rack of cat treats. I walk over and grab one off the rack.

Christmas Turkey Dressing

I open it and take one out.

“Hey babe, watch.”

She looks up at me.

I pop the treat in my mouth.

She stares at me as I chew the treat. Her face goes very quickly from curiosity to disgust, and by the time I swallow, concern.

“Why the fuck did you do that?” She asks.

I look down at the bag of treats, then to my other empty, then back up at her.

“I thought it would be funny?”

She looks at me, then to the old lady who’d also stopped, arms deep in the pillow-pile, to watch me eat a treat. They share a look. The old lady smiles sympathetically.

My wife hands me her armful of goodies and pats me on the arm.

“Go find somewhere to sit by the registers sweetie, I won’t be long.”

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fiction

End Of a Story

Another time—yes, there was another time, but only one other time, and that not really—I saw her acting out some obscurely tragic final scene, rushing from room to room in a space not entirely unlike that flat but cross-sectioned like a stage, lamenting and gesticulating. The melodrama, the motion, the volume—oh the things I’d say if I could wake up, I thought. Like Sorry, just forget it, forget it all.

What if, when it came right down to it, I spoke less breathlessly but with the same fight, in a manner more contrasted to my hurried thinking, trying less adamantly to push it all out before it’s gone? Less, more, less—that’s how it always goes and all I can think to do is paint, I told my friend the next morning in order to have something to say, but there are only three or four colors at my disposal, looking at the walls and the one frosty window in our “living” room, but meaning something else entirely. Please look away. Who can even begin to imagine such passion tailored to their person, so perfectly trimmed and fitted, and such trouble speaking when each word reeks of fantasy. But it never comes down to it. It just goes and goes and that’s it. Or that’s that, depending how your crow flies.

The sun rose over ancient Crete in my boyhood imagination and I learned as if looking in from the outside that paradise is a construct of color and sound. That, of course, was well before I learned the first thing about crawling out from under the weight of my intentions, but I did know the myth of the Theseus and the minotaur. It was love that helped him get back out. Do you have any idea what I push through every day just to be here? To whom do these thoughts indeed belong? I’d ask her that, if I had another chance, and tell her I didn’t ask for this—none of us did. We were just born into a world arranged by madmen and madwomen and expected to find a way in and through some private-public unicursal when in fact the journey, the real challenge and struggle, is to find a way out. My friend is out of his mind, but he conforms—and he lives just fine right there in his center so he doesn’t know it, doesn’t have to. I am out of mine, completely, imagining anyone can hear me when I’m alone out here on the fringes because it’s the only time I can hear myself.

Goodbye, Ariadne, till the next time I need some literary device upon which to hang my isolation. You guys go right on without me.

 


These are the closing paragraphs of a story I won’t post here or anywhere in its entirety because I hope to publish it elsewhere, so there. Originally published on Art & Insolence.

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fiction, Uncategorized

Never Forget the Whore

I wanted to learn more about a Russian’s perspective on World War II, The Great Patriotic War, or according to some, simply THE WAR. Since paper turned out to be even more revisionist than memory, I asked around for those who may have lived through it. My friend Ivan’s grandmother spoke a bit of English and he arranged for me to meet her at her house on Tuesday. Her face was a mashing of slate and limestone, she had a button for one eye. She might have had hair, but it was hidden under a musty-green bonnet.

Her apartment was an antique apocalypse, strewn about were books, kettles, chair legs, mummified jars of pickled mysteries, numerous floral patterns creating an eclectic field of colorful dust-bunnies. Great booming closets and mirrored shelves lined every wall, housing dead photographs of even deader relatives. She navigated it well. In the kitchen she sat me in a chair with a flat piece of plywood nailed to two of the broken legs. I gingerly sat and took out my notebook.

“Tea?” she asked.

“With milk and sugar, please.”

She bustled about the dusty sink, taking tea from a tin and setting on an old kettle.

“So, how old were you during the war?” I said.

She didn’t turn. “Wait,” she said.

I waited, looking out the window through a mess of dead plants at the people walking past. It was summer in Saint Petersburg, finally. Outside people wore T-shirts and shorts with a desperateness that only comes in a place where summer is born a dead-leaf. The old woman came and sat across from me, placing a mug of plain black tea on my notebook.

“So, I am collecting stories from the war, from people who were alive and—”

“Bread?”

“Uh—no thank you,” I said, nervously. “So, I thought maybe we could start with the Siege of Leningrad, Ivan said you were a child when it happened?”

She looked out the window, then down at my notebook and untouched tea.

“You want to talk about the siege, but you don’t want bread?” she asked. She stood up and took a half-load of bread from a squirrely spot in a dirty cabinet. She cut a chunk and put it on a plate with some butter and a slice of cheese. I waited.

“Thank you,” I told her after she placed it beside my tea.

I took a bite.

“I remember going with my mother to bring bread to her sister,” she waved in a direction out of the window. “She lived not far from here. My mother would bring me with bread–we were more fortunate. She lived on the top floor of her building and people used to sleep in her stairwell, sleep until they died and there was no one to take them away, so they moved them into the windows. They put them there one on top of the other until there was no light in her building. Her children had died. I didn’t know them very well, but they died. My aunt too, one day. In her building she died because she wouldn’t eat, and they put her in one of the windows, too. I remember the darkness in the stairwell and I remember my mother didn’t cry.”

I didn’t write anything down as she spoke. She looked out of her window through the plants and sunshine. Her face suddenly went dark and she scowled at a woman passing.

“Her,” she said.

I looked. It was a young woman, she was wearing a light summer dress and she looked happy.

“She is a whore,” the she said. “She has been sleeping with the Jew who lives just there.” She pointed at a window, two floors up and across.

“He’s married,” she said ominously.

“Oh,” I managed, and with nothing else to say, I took a bite of my bread.

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fiction, Uncategorized

The Fruit Thief

Once upon a time there was a man who intended to build a fence around his small country home. He forgot. So, once upon a time there was a girl lost in the woods. She didn’t know she was lost, yet.

As she came across different things, she picked them up, looked them over and left them where they were. It was dark by the time she realized she was lost, and she said it aloud.

“Oh, I am lost.”

To her surprise, the forest answered, “I will help you,” it said. The girl looked around, suspicious that the voice of the forest would be so small. And there she found a caterpillar. She picked it up.

“You will help me get home?” she asked. The caterpillar smiled.

“Of course, I know the way well,” it said, “but you must wait for me. Place me in that tree over there and wait for three days, but whatever you do, do not eat the fruit of the tree.”

The girl, already hungry, looked up at the fruit.

“Why not?” she asked.

The caterpillar latched itself to a low branch and replied, “when I come back, I will need to eat, if you take it, I will surely starve.”

The little girl nodded and waited for the caterpillar to cover itself in a thin white cocoon. Then, she slept. When morning came, she picked the tree clean of fruit and began her walk home. As she went, she found the things she’d observed along her path and soon, she was home. Her father was outside building a fence.

She went inside to her room and tucked away the fruit in a cupboard. Three days later, a butterfly perched on her windowsill. She went over to tickle its wings as she often did with butterflies. This butterfly however, shied away, angry.

“You stole all of my fruit!” it accused her. At this she went to her cupboard and produced the fruit for the butterfly, untouched. The butterfly looked from her to the fruit, confused.

“Why?” it asked.

At this the girl shrugged. “You said you knew the way, so either you were lying and then I would have a whole bundle of fruit to myself, or you were telling the truth and you’d find your way to me, at which point–” the girl held the fruit out to the butterfly. The butterfly took it, grateful and began to eat.

“But you were lost.”

The little girl watched out the window as her father sat next to a half-finished fence.

“Things are often lost before they are found, if they can help it,” she said. The butterfly thanked the girl once more and flew off, leaving behind a couple pieces of fruit.

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fiction

A Carapace for this Irredeemably Querulous Nature

I step out of the office and into the hall for an hors d’oeurve taste of corridor’d freedom, industrial-carpeted and fluorescent, tans and grays and whitishes with a texture at once abrasive and numbing, unsatisfying like a tease of a snack on a toothpick that’s been sitting out too long but is better than no food a’tall, and head to the men’s room.

He’s in there again, turning from a urinal and zipping up, and my heart does that sinking thing because I don’t know everything but I know what’s coming, and I want to rush over and clap my hand over his stupid mouth before either of us can make the human people word sounds, maybe just choke him out and be done with it, then drag the body to the back corner stall, whistling elfish and cheerful while I wash my hands and walk out like nothing happened because nothing did, just a little murder.

But I’m already speaking, before the anticipation and the thought form an action, homicidal or otherwise, and a single Howyuhdoin slips out of a mouth I thought was under my control. WELL THANKS HOW ARE YOU, his voice booms, clear and commercial, a parody of our unfortunate ability to locute, all enunciation and no heart like the words are big wooden blocks he’s arranged with infantile pride in some inchoate effort at communication, and I’m furious at the futility of being soft-spoken and hard-thought in a world full of empty-headed broadcasters so I kick his stupid fucking blocks all over the place and say I’m good.

My only wish is to evaporate so I stand there and hold rabbit-style still watching him without breathing in case that’s how that happens, thinking there’s strength in non-doing, weakness sometimes in action. It does not—quite. He looks at me quizzically and I wonder if he knows how to spell that, with all those z’s and l’s and such, because I always thought it had just one “z” the way “kat” only has one “t.” He probably does, because no one but a good speller could SPEAK IN SUCH NICE WORD BLOCKS and no one but a broadcaster could manage to look quizzically at another being without even a shred of a hint of curiosity, only an otherer’s sense of abnormality sensed and I’m at least placated for a moment, standing there motionless, staring, blinkless, my mouth slightly open, physiognomy frozen. I’ve got him cornered as a kat, door behind me, man against man.

But he breaks the spell and steps up to the sink and begins to roll up his cuffs. I abscond to a stall where I sit on the latrine to use it as a perch from which to watch him through the crack in the stall door. He talks into the mirror as he washes his hands and inspects his visage, talks about sports or the weather or politics or something, something immediate and mundane and I flush the toilet over the little deluge of nihility cascading from his facial orifice, imagining his words getting sucked down the drain.

Have you considered therapy, I ask, cutting him off. Honestly, for a year I was completely mental. The cost, the trouble of finding a decent therapist. What a nightmare.

Yeah, he says with utter dispassion.

Yeah, this is a nightmare, I think, contemplating the décor—all beige-brown, but almost warm-seeming, like someone who cares but has no taste. I stand, lift my trousers, zip and button them, fasten my belt, flip the latch, and open the door. He’s drying his hands with those sandpaper towels, facing the room’s far wall, the back of his dress shirt wrinkled and crinkled from all day in a desk chair with no breatheabilityness.

Oh, excuse me. You were talking. That’s what I say.

Oh, you’re fine, he says, without turning around.

You’re fine is something people say when other people apologize but it sounds less like acceptance and more like giving someone permission to exist, I think. Anyway, I said I was good, not fine.

Have you ever read Foucault’s History of Madness, I ask him in italics.

Foo-calt, he inquires?

Yes, Foo-calt, I say. It’s all in there.

What is?

Everything, all of it. You should pick it up sometime. But just open it, and be sure to do so in public, so people know you’re smart. Otherwise there’s no point.

He smiles, and I see him smiling because he’s facing me now and I’m facing him and it’s just like it was a few moments before, before I dashed into the stall for cover from a threat that didn’t seem to have the first clue that it was threating. He’s facing me but he’s not looking at me, still, again. Well, he’s looking at me but it’s as if he’s not seeing anything and I think of something Dany Laferrière said in an interview about being homeless—because he was once—about being looked straight through like it’s something people have always seen, with compassion, perhaps, but without the slightest surprise or recognition. I suppose it’s all in how we experience, how we choose.

Still smiling, he says alright, sounds good, and makes a move to walk past me and leave as if some manner of routine continuance would reestablish normalcy and what do I do but smash it all to bits by initiating the people-passing dance and stepping in the same direction.

Excuse me, he says. Shifting to the other side.

You’re fine, I say, sliding myself in front of him again. Right, left, right. I swear a brain circuit shorts and tiny puffs of smoke emit from his ears. He looks me in the eye, uncomfortable, perplexed, futilely soliciting an explanation like a dog when you take its toy away and hide it behind your back. It knows it’s there, somewhere, but isn’t too sure what you’ve done with it.

Ah, you see me now, don’t you, you fucker. But I don’t say that; I just look back, returning the perplexity, thinking yes, I see, this is the way to be visible.

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fiction, life

Predestination Uncertain

Dream one. At a crowded beach on a warm, sunny day, big puffy white clouds in the sky that eventually overtook the sun, leaving its warmth behind but dimming the glare and gleam. With a few people, trying to decide if we should wait for the sun to return or be on our way. Cars were parked in a grass lot nearby, packed in. It was breezy and bustling, and felt like the kind of day when something might happen, relaxed but unsettled. I got up and left without a word.

Dream two, three days later. The sea again, but another beach, another time, in fact. Wider, broader, longer, slower. More space, more sand, more sky, more horizon, less severe and far fewer people. The sea was calm, blue, and shimmering and the hot sun poured down as if fixed in the sky high above and slightly out over the sea as if it had nowhere else to be. “It will sit there, right there in that spot all day,” I thought, “and nothing will change.”

I neared the shadowed side of a dark brick building, low with a gently slanting roof and a wide central corridor with iron gates open wide and fastened back against the brick. The kind of seaside building with bathrooms and lockers and vending machines. I approached the entry, the far end of the corridor framing the ocean like a painting, and found an information desk set back in a dark recess of the inner wall to my left. From the obscurity behind the desk emerged the dark, wrinkled face of an old man like an eel from its hiding place. I asked him a question and his response was kind and measured, something about where to swim. I wanted to get in the water but felt uncertain. In calm, unhurried tones, he told me where to go and I thanked him. He receded into his cave, shoulders, face, and, finally, eyes, and I continued through the corridor toward the sunlit beach, made a right, and set out along the dunes.

After a short trudge through soft, hot sand that burned the tops of my feet as they sank in, I came upon the end of a small, narrow inlet, so shallow and still that the water was transparent, about thirty yards from the waves’ innermost reaches. The inlet was not completely cut off from the tide, and the far-out waves caused occasional ripples on the pool’s surface. There was no one nearby, but I could see people out in the water, some walking through the flat, wet sand by the wavebreaks with children, some alone, some farther inland laying on towels or reclining in beach chairs. The sun radiated. The lightly roiling sea glistened and no one had a face. All was illumination, nearly blinding illumination.

I was carrying something, a bag or a box of some sort, and I set it down near the small pool, keeping it close. Then I stepped into the shallow water, only about thigh deep, and lay myself down, supine, trying to submerge all but my face in that tiny bit of water like it was a bathtub. Floating like that, I used my hands against the bottom to walk myself down the inlet a bit, out toward the sea and the waves, but the channel became too shallow and narrow for me to proceed any further. I could taste the salt water on my lips and noticed that I had forgotten what the ocean tasted like, it had been so long.

I drifted back to shimmering pool where I’d left my burden and got out, dripping. I walked back up the beach toward the brick building, hugging the grassy dunes. A faceless man ambling in the opposite direction asked me if it was nice in a tongue that I recognized but did not feel was my own. I nodded an affirmative, assuming he meant the water, and continued on my way.

Later, I found myself high up in a large building on the shore, standing before a wall of windows and gazing out at the spectacular oceanside panorama, down past the brick building, past the snaking dunes, into forever. A voice said “See? It’s coming,” and pulled me from my trance. The voice became a man standing beside me, pointing up the coast to my left at a mass of gray-black clouds bearing down on us, slowly, deliberately billowing and bulging and churning and consuming the luminescence all around. “Just in time,” I thought, as if the word were etched across the darkness, “good thing I didn’t go out any farther.”

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The Man (With the Hat)

This is the first quarter of a short story I more or less sort of finally finished the other day when I didn’t go to work because work has been wearing me out and I needed writing time. I don’t yet know what to call it, hence the parenthetical indecision in the title.


Of course she’s sweet about it, handing mister plump and dumpy the grey newsboy cap he’d dropped a moment ago from the upper level of the train car and waddled down the narrow twist of too-shallow steps to retrieve, draped in his mauve trenchcoat with the vague, shapeless presumption of slacks falling over scuffed and dismal black dress shoes as featureless as Joe Christmas’s brogans, nebulous man on a mission and I hate him like some kind of pudgy past self crowding pushing into now, this flashbacked possible impossible me. Oh impossible me.

I see him all the time, all the fucking time, waiting on the open-air platform in that hat and coat and featureless fucking material and dress brogans for the 5:15 back to the city, doughy and pale and red-nosed, looking like a pile of burdens, like burdensomeness itself, standing with that leaned-back posture of too much belly and too little backbone, sucking on a vaporizer and emitting wispy aroma clouds that smell suspiciously of air freshener. Every day, every fucking day, sipping in regular intervals from tall cans of cheap beer held firmly by sausage fingers with unsuitably elongated, almond-shaped tips and his thin, dark red lips, almost bruised plum purple and shaded by a narrow, bushy gray-brown Hitleresque mustache, reach out to grasp the rim of his beer cans like giraffe lips tempted by acacia. I wonder where he lives, what he does for a living, how he behaves in his natural habitat and what they feed him. It bothers me deeply that we ride the same train to anywhere, ever.

He carries a thermal lunchbox, a plastic bag of backup tallboys, and a shoulder-strapped kind of briefcase or satchel or something, surely full of papers, business papers, I presume. Or maybe it’s empty and just lugged around for legitimacy, his self-awareness in a handbag. Everything is kind of, almost, sort of, or something; he’s a big mound of imprecision and indefiniteness, and I can’t help thinking he’d be useless in an emergency or devoured in the wild. It’s strange, you know, strange how strange is so often a thing I say, of all people me, strange how we develop something as strong as hatred for a complete stranger brought into our orbit by nothing more than dumb circumstance and the faculty of sight. We fall in love this way, I guess, but that’s almost stranger, stranger.

It’s dark when the train arrives, early evening.

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