Category Archives: Mini Fiction

Introducing Ina Boyd (a screenplaypoem)

ina-boyd

1.

-Ina says a dreamboat’s any man refrains demanding anal on like the third date.

-Dreamboat’s mother’s word.

-Mother’d pronounce it in-uh.

-Daddy said Eee-nah.

-Couldn’t even agree on that.

-Ina burns her fingers on the water glass.

-They served me coffee in a water glass.

-My first sensation in Berlin.

-A burn.

-A Flashback:

-Mother pretending drunk on balcony overlooking Mississippi.

-A balcony as architectural trophy of amicable divorce.

-Mother pretending drunk to make the saying…

-Ina needing no such excuse.

-…of certain things…

-Hard as some things are to say.

-…easy…

-Excuses are for those who can be bothered, says Ina.

-The darling child.

-Talks to herself openly in public.

-Sings oldies.

-Mother’s hiccup.

-Ma, it is only cranberry juice.

-Oh so you’re a drink inspector now too. My daughter the mind-reading drink-inspector who quits colleges to chase ratsafarians.

-The sunset a rich dessert.

-The mighty Mississippi.

-Dandan’s  mercurial grave.

-Ina thinking it is a Negro river.

-Thinking but never saying this word Negro…

-Okay she remembers calling Joanie Joplin my Negro once.

-Mother saying now Ina…

-Mother saying now do not look at me when I say this but.

-Sunset spectacular flambeéd entrails.

-Staring she said remember dear, gentlemen…

-Ina remembers and laughs out loud at table alone in café where they burned her fingers.

-I must look crazy.

-Suitcase beside me.

-Crazy but hot.

-Nazi folksinger looks up when she laughs.

-Again.

-He sure looks like a folksinging nazi.

-Looking pure but not benign.

-Probably Jewish just to teach me to….

-Half-Jew.

-Half-Jews…

-Mother through ruby depths of faux Chablis peering says remember dear, gentlemen.

-Cheeks both red as cranberry.

-Is this how she turns herself on now?

-Talking dirty to college-age daughter?

-Remember dear, gentlemen do not expect a lady…

-Ina hoots.

-To swallow.

-Ina hoots.

-Ina thinks how preciously naïve.

-Is that the scariest…?

-Ina thinks if only.

-I’d swallow a quart if that’s where it stopped.

-I’d be like, is that all you’ve got?

-Mother pronounced it ratsafarian.

-Please never tell me you’re pregnant with ratsafarian…

-And do not give me that look like it never happens.

-She’d say for all intensive purposes.

-Nucular.

-Flashback finished.

-Inscribing Department of Human Race Horses in her immaculate hand like preserve a secret for the ages in notebook and smile.

-Catch that nazi folksinger look again.

-I am wet as an eight-second egg.

-I am wet as a Mississippi.

-Looks again I’m saying something.

-Looks again it’s on.

-Let’s do this.

-I don’t give a chunky fuck.

-LED eyes Thou hast.

-Kiss these blistered…

-Sorry means never having to say I love you.

-Ina stands and goes hey um would you watch my stuff for a minute I need to go to the bathroom.

-Uncomprehending look in return.

-Look of the daze-ruptured put-upon.

-It is 15:40.

-Do you speak English?

-Do you?

-She laughs and squeezes between the tables wishing she hadn’t said need. Sounds so well I don’t know so irrefutably graphic to say like I need to go to the bathroom. Want would have been better.

-And what’s up with the word bathroom.

-It’s like I need to take a humongous dump.

-For medical reasons.

-Perforated duodenum and such.

-Can you hold my colostomy bag for a sec thanks.

-Batting her eyelashes. Do you find me alluring?

-Feels two eyes on her ass as she passes.

-The tables are just a thigh apart yet she squeezes through without even touching edges.

-Passed the buttock test with flying colors.

-Buttock the farm word.

-Fantasize he is infallible cool cyborg assassin scan rapid digit display scroll phosphor-green screen while geometric simulation of ass rotate 180 degrees on pulsating graph when target-circle zeroes-in on her anus.

-Assassin.

-Get it?

-Loo door swings.

-Thankgod no Americans in this bathroom.

-Clears throat.

-Would it offend anyone if I called this shitroom Mecca?

-I could stay here all day.

-Having grown to abhor the sound of Trustifarian English.

-This haven.

-If I’m in here longer than five minutes nazi folksinger will picture the taking of a humongous dump.

-Can’t have that.

-Though: would it not be funny to birthgroan loud as a whale?

-We are not comedian.

-We are hot like Joan of Arc.

-‘Tis only tinkle.

-Mother crying Jesus wept on the toilet.

-Door’s all wide open and I’m like Mother.

-Rotten jello smell: the pain of stench.

-Hemorrhoids mother hindparts acquired evacuating hero of our story.

-The mighty Mississippi.

-My little brother’s widow.

-This foreign toilet paper sucks.

-In-uh.

-Get it?

-Flashback finished.

-Srsly.

2.

-So he claims his name is Spinoza.

-He claims his name is Spinoza. Yes he does. I do. He do.

-That is a fuckedness.

-But seriously.

-Seriously?

-You are a name bigot?

-Your parents are hippies?

-So now she is hippie-intolerant?

-On top of everything else.

-What else?

-I am an honor student.

-What if I was black?

-Were.

-Was.

-Were.

-Whatever. What if I were black?

-You’d have an excuse. But your name would not be Spinoza.

-No, my name would be LaFoyer Grady.

-That is a pretty convincing job of black name random generating on short notice.

-You try.

-DeMario Smalls.

-I see we have our racism in common.

-Something to fall back on during lulls.

-Lulls aren’t the things we fall back on?

-So his name is seriously Spinoza.

-Yes.

-Just Spinoza?

-Simply Spinoza. Yes. I am a gifted young DJ. What is yours?

-LeKwanza Pinckney.

-My first black girlfriend.

-Whoa.

-Whoa?

-Things are moving quickly.

3.

-Ina thinking I recall now reading that a sweetish semen means it is diabetes.

-Which feels like far too intimate to know or to tell him.

-To wake and tell him.

-Rather text it.

-In a week I’ll text it.

-Spinoza in his fetal postcoital coma in the gloaming.

-Semen from her lips to his to close a circle.

-And also the Lego smell and Daniel.

-Daniel melted Legos on their bedroom lightbulb twice.

-Later died on a dare with the Mississippi.

-The varsity swimmer slash little brother in that mighty Negro river.

-Spinoza does not snore he fartles.

-Gnashing his teeth he fartles.

-Spinoza farts the smells of melting Legos to channel brother Daniel.

-Supine Ina sneers at posters of now-old or long-dead frog and wop actresses who wouldn’t even’ve as iffed him.

-Spiderwebs darkly drug-addled thoughts above his mattress.

-Said spiders watch his Jewy dreams.

-Said Ina too.

-Her mouth still sized to the proximate dick.

-The look called pursed.

-The boy she thought a nazi folksinger.

-The boy she thought pure not benign.

-He is fartling he is gnashing his teeth.

-Lo, a tugboat crosseth pudding lake.

-The anal flap and sputter.

-You just can’t imagine loving him less.

-In the spirit of which she note-writes about goodbyes and goodlucks and hinted-at manageable medical conditions.

-The dazzling legend of Nordic healthcare.

-Signed LeKwanza.

-Signed the first blowjob is free the next in dreams bereft ie fool me once.

-Signed I hate being an American on this Americans-choked sidewalk oh so looking the part of congenital Mallness.

-Like folks I just fell off the intercontinental turnip truck.

-But I will learn.

-She had a forty dollar haircut and birthcontrol bazooms and she was ready to use them.

-This rolling suitcase louder than the liberation of Paris.

-The airport handle.

-I am creditcard-dressed and distressed.

-Sweet-semen fed and obvious.

-Turning sees Spinoza in his briefs in window like mother on balcony overlooking mighty Negro brother-stealing river with a waving shyness mouthing call me.

-Call you what?

-Almost Daniel?

Azura’s Gift [from CITY OF AMATEURS)]

 

photo by SG

Like many young prostitutes in Berlin, Azura had a dayjob. Due to reasons too numerous to go into here, the fee a prostitute could typically expect in exchange for the usual requests had withered, over the decades, to a paltry fraction. A young prostitute of today could expect the kind of money a middle-aged whore would have been disappointed to earn in the 1970s.

Middle-aged whores were now limping up and down the Kurfürstenstrasse, the scarred habitat of tattooed junkies and African exchange students, offering the total inventory of their butchershops for a pittance. Like the feather-sprung, peg-legged pigeons these damp women shared the curb with, time appeared to be dismantling them with extraordinary impatience. There was even a rumor that one of the oldest had been selling off toes and now fingers to pay for bigger implants.

Four days a week, Azura worked as an intern for a fledgling film production company called Auslandish Films, on Rosenthaler Strasse in the Mitte neighborhood. Her wage as an intern was minuscule… barely “drink money”… but she believed she was getting her foot in the door of the film business. She resembled a film star herself, in a 20th century way, with a defiant posture her customers at the brothel interpreted as a challenge.

Azura’s boss at Auslandish Films was a soft-spoken Afro-American expat named Mr. Jeffries, fluent in German, with an arrogant wife and three cookie-colored children, the oldest, a boy, not much younger than Azura. The boy was trouble, but he rarely showed up at the office. When he did, he made such an exaggerated show of ignoring Azura that it was the same as staring. His hair was in soft slow shoulder-length loops the color of dirty butter, floating in the invisible currents he seemed to move through. His own lazy ocean of Balthazar Jeffries.

Saturdays were the only days on which Azura worked both jobs, stopping in at Auslandish in the morning (opening up with her own key and code to the alarm) to deal with the overnight mail and important answering machine messages and then riding her scooter far across town to the neighborhood of Charlottenburg, on Blissestrasse, where Lady Luck, her brothel, took up the second and third floors of a grand old building that had dodged aerial bombs during the war.

On the Saturday morning in question Azura inadvertently intercepted a private message from Balthazar Jeffries to Mr. Jeffries on the answering machine. It was the last message on the tape and was so long that the tape ran out in the middle of a sentence. She played it more than once, hugging herself in the cozy gloom of the office with its steel shutters still down over the windows and sun slashing through like razors. She recognized immediately Balthazar’s deep deep voice.

He went on in a far-ranging monologue to say horrible things about his dark-skinned father Mr. Jeffries. There were almost no gaps between the words in his Gregorian chant of a diatribe and Azura knew from experience which drug was involved. Balthazar hinted more than once that the message was a suicide note. Tell Mom and Becky and Gladys and so forth. Azura realized that she had to come to a decision as to whether or not to delete the message before re-activating the security system and locking up shop and driving across town to the brothel. If the message was all merely the inhuman animus of a drug in oration, Balthazar would be profoundly relieved to discover later that his poor father had never received it.

Azura dwelt on her decision, and the implications of her decision, the rest of the rainy afternoon in the brothel.

The truth is that the most lucrative services weren’t about sex at all. Azura’s colleague Lilly, for example, had consented to an incision (local anesthetic) about four inches long, in her abdomen, not far from the left kidney, which the medical student who considered doing this a refined pleasure then carefully sutured, returning a week later to undo the threads (local anesthetic again) and probe gingerly, with a sterilized implement, the smiling wound. For this Lilly received two payments, the first much larger. And Azura herself had once complied with a request to make dirt discreetly into a chasteningly-expensive triple-gusseted flapover briefcase. Real alligator. A perfect little shit of a milkdud. This month’s gas, water, phone and electricity bills all neatly dispatched with a grunt.

All this happened in the neutrally-decorated chambers of Lady Luck, a converted gerontological clinic, where Azura paid rent for a smaller room overlooking the courtyard. In the courtyard twisted a chestnut tree whose flowered arms reached up towards her window, nagging her about the past, wagging its finger when she bent over the little bed or mounted it on all fours with her face to the window.

Every weekend during her happy childhood, Azura had slept at her grandmother’s. Some nights she’d sit up in her little bed crying. Her Nana was a woman from a small country of ritual and habit who only took her hair down when it was bedtime, before her prayers and after her milk and a magazine, and she climbed the stairs to the room where the ceiling slanted down towards the window by Azura’s small bed and asked her Azura, with the militant compassion of a saint, why she was crying.

Weil der Neandertaler nicht in den Himmel kommen kann, the child answered, with a gulp after every word. Because the cavemen can’t get into heaven.

-Say again?

-The cavemen, she repeated, miserable. You said they were born before Christ Nana so how can they can ever be angels and go to Heaven?

-No, no, cooed Nana, softened by the truth, stroking Azura’s forehead with a trembling hand and confronting her blunder in this fine-cut grief. Bible stories were always distressing for younger children, who hadn’t yet learned to bend logic. In her diaphanous nightgown and shocking dark tumult of hair Nana resembled an excluded angel herself, cooing how the Christian God would never be so unfair like that, Azura. The good cavemen, they will go to Heaven. Don’t worry. Go to sleep.

-Even if they didn’t know it was a sin to kill Nana?

-Even so, said Azura’s grandmother, with somewhat less certainty in her voice but the persistent desire that the child should go peacefully to her dreams. She who was given to fevers and days on end of pretty speechlessness. Mother a stone and father an old suit in the closet.

The next night Nana was drinking her milk and re-reading a magazine (the hypnotic offense of raw youth in proud clothing; the communists would never have allowed it) when again she heard the prayer-like murmur of abject misery in the attic. Up the stairs she climbed, lifting the hem of her nightgown with one hand and clutching the candle holder with the other.

-The cavemen, Azura gulped.

-They’re in Heaven. Don’t you remember? The cavemen are in Heaven near God.

-Yes, answered Azura, but how can cavemen be happy in Heaven? They can’t talk with the others. They aren’t wearing good clothing! The others will treat them like animals Nana! How will the cavemen be happy?

Nana had to admit that it was difficult to imagine cavemen with angel wings flying around a standard Heaven, brandishing their clubs.

-The Christian God is wise, she responded, after thinking a while with her eyebrows so high they were straining. About such a problem he’s already thought, before creation, even. He has given the cavemen their own Heaven and there they are happy.

-There’s a caveman Heaven?

-Yes.

-And no one else can go there?

-No one else can go there, confirmed Nana. To point and laugh, she added, smoothing Azura’s astonishing hair. No one.

Rainy days brought out the worst kind of customer, for it was usually the type of person who would otherwise have been occupied, enjoying the weather in a convertible with a beautiful amateur had the sun been willing. She preferred the business of the damp white cast-offs who skulked in out of a glorious day, mocked by the splendors of existence. They were very quick and predictable and rarely had the money to propose something frightening. But of course such visits only covered a few hours of overhead.

On rainy days, as Azura’s colleague Lilly put it, the snakes use the staircase. Worst of all were middle-aged men with perfect bodies who mentioned the price they were willing to pay before describing the service they intended to pay for. The good news/bad news technique of the novice oncologist or seasoned sadist.

Azura was curled on the bed, gazing through the rain-melted window at a sky like cold dishwater and dishwater’s buried shapes, recovering from her last visit, toying with the idea of opening the window to let the bad feelings out. It was suppertime and she was daydreaming about Balthazar Jeffries. She daydreamed a knock on the door; she daydreamed putting on a bathrobe and telling whoever it was to wait.

She’d cross the room in three strides and sit at the vanity, the light from the illuminated mirror the only light in the rain-darkened room, and reconstruct the impenetrable mask of her makeup. Once, a customer had pressed her prone to the bed with his knee between her shoulder blades with such force while he pulled himself to completion that a perfect portrait of her face like a shroud of Turin remained on the pillowcase when he freed her to breathe again. Or, yes, more like that Munch painting.

She’d answer the door and like a horrible miracle and a gift there would stand Balthazar Jeffries, angered by rain and shivering off mud from the riverbed.

An Uncomfortable Moment at the Thirteenth Annual Delmore Schwartz Memorial Picnic

 

photo by SG

Grill smoke drifted as chalk drawings of tropical fish on the darkening air. A sudden calm suspended everything…the falling sun; Frisbees at apogee; the tiny crucifix of a jet dangling from the string of its vapor trail…in the mellow aspic of future memory. They all prepared to listen to Gregg read, conscious of the fact that many years into the unknowable they’d look back on this moment with intense affection. Affection for the city and the era and their former selves. Eric, Dave, Andy, Bill and Eric grinned open-mouthed with anticipated pleasure, their shadows long, as Gregg cleared his throat and lifted a finger of emphasis. All of RooseveltPark, along with their future selves, hushed for a moment to listen. 

 “ ‘Two decades ago, with her sculpted features, Alaia-friendly figure, and a languid drawl that spoke of nannies and finishing schools, this rangy, patrician beauty (her uncle was a prime minister of Belgium) was perfectly cast to play artist’s muse.’” He peered up from under the corners of his tinfoil hat and affected a lisp. “‘They were a very, very glamorous couple,’ recalls the artist Peter Blah Blah, ‘He was this powerhouse of creativity and bravado and interest and talent. She was so intimidating to look at; a camera couldn’t capture her outrageous beauty.’” He closed the magazine and waited a beat.  “Now, I ask you…”  

Andy said, “Kinda makes you see the world through Charlie Manson’s eyes, doesn’t it?” 

Dave adjusted his tinfoil hat, which suffered from being a hasty construction, and said, “And for that I’m grateful.” He sipped beer from his family-size jug of Diet Sprite. Gregg handed Dave the Vogue and Dave put the sloshy jug down between his knees and paged through the magazine with one eyebrow raised and nostrils flared, a patented Dave expression. He passed the magazine to Bill, who would have preferred the jug. 

“Whatever happened to the peasant class, anyway? Why don’t we hear from any of them on stuff like this? Aren’t we long overdue for widespread rebellion?” 

“Revolution these days,” responded Andy, as Bill passed the Vogue to him, “is atomized, permanent and absorbed by the system. If we could somehow organize all the yuppie muggings that take place during one year in this country and concentrate them into one day and location, that would be your uprising right there. But the revolutionaries are all lone wolves now and they tend to have crack habits.” 

Eric reached for the Vogue. “Where did you find this thing?”

“Wait,” said Bill, “You mean even bloody insurrection suffers from the same crisis of hot-dog individualism now plaguing the NBA?” 

“Gregg got a subscription for Christmas,” said Andy. Andy took off his tinfoil hat and looked at it with some interest. “Hey, am I just imagining it or are my thoughts a little…I don’t know…less staticky while I’m wearing this?” He put it back on top of his head. 

Gregg, with his perfect deadpan, said, “Now that you mention it.” 

“I don’t know about less staticky thoughts,” said the other Eric, “but I’ve had an erection since I put mine on…and that was at 5 in the morning.” 

“And they said he’d never screw again!” 

Who said I’d never screw again?”

They.”

“Oh, them.” 

“The same know-it-alls who said Christopher Reeve would never walk again, I presume?” 

Eric swatted Eric with the rolled up Vogue and Eric snatched it away and swatted Eric back and everyone laughed. A bumblebee lobbed over their loose circle in a wobbly arc as though it weighed a ton, and a beautiful girl in cut-offs and a vintage The Police t-shirt, oblivious in headphones, intersected the bumblebee’s flight path on her way to the water fountain. Eric and Eric had to twist on their spots to see what everyone else was gawping at. The denim lobes of her cut-offs appeared to inflate as she lowered her mouth to the spigot and she pulled her hair out of the way and slurped.

Dave said, “Hey, in all seriousness, how are those burgers coming?”

Bill crawled over to the hibachi on two knees and one hand, holding his tinfoil hat to his curly head with the other. He said, “The burger that’s directly over the one hot coal is getting there. The others appear to be incubating salmonella to varying degrees according to their distance from the one hot coal.” 

Dave chugged from his Diet Sprite bottle again and said, “I always thought that was the tastiest sounding food poisoning, you know? Salmonella. Salmonella spread, with pimento. I’d buy some of that.” 

Gregg said, “Let’s face it, it’s a major setback that our manliest member couldn’t make it this year.”

Bill chuckled. “Manliest member.” 

“Mark,” said Dave, wistfully, “was, indeed, an idiot savant of the hibachi briquette fire.”

“Is hibachi a Mexican word or a Japanese word?”

“A skill he picked up as a pyromaniacal adolescent of the upper-Midwest, no doubt.” 

“It’s a Japanese word that refers to a heating device but not a grill, actually. The correct word is shichirin, but that’s too difficult for the average American consumer to pronounce, so they were marketed as hibachi.” 

“I love being forced to learn things.”

“I told Mark he could bring Sadie if he wants.” 

“Well, the funny thing is it’s actually an ancient Chinese technology.”

“He obviously didn’t want.” 

“Will somebody stop this guy?”

“Maybe he was afraid we’d covet her.” 

“Or frighten her with these hats.”

“You asked and I told.” 

“Sadie. What kind of name is that, anyway? Is she a retired rhumba teacher?”

“Next time I won’t ask.” 

“No, but I bet she refers to sexual intercourse as ‘relations’.”

“He says they want to have kids.” 

“Quick, before the population falls under seven billion.”

“Anyone ever notice that the blink-rate of a baby is only something like once every three minutes? My sister’s kid…” 

Bill jumped up and said, “Okay, who am I now?” He folded his upper lip under itself, exposing his teeth, and stuck his thumbs into his armpits, but before he could finish the impression a very large black woman loomed, wearing camouflage pants and a hooded black sweatshirt which presented a picture of Albert Einstein with his pierced tongue sticking out. She was large not only in the sense of fat but of tall as well and physically intimidating. She spoke with such abrupt loudness that Bill flinched, his upper lip still folded under itself.

“Is this the thirteenth annual Delmore Schwartz memorial picnic?” She gestured with the classifieds section of the daily paper. 

“You advertized?” hissed Eric to Gregg.

I thought it would be fun.” 

“Well here’s your fun.”

Bill said, “Yes it is.” 

She gestured at Bill’s tinfoil hat. “Is that supposed to be funny?” Before he could respond she added, “Is mental illness funny? Is suicide funny? Is the suicide of a gifted 53 year old poet grappling with the debilitating effects of an untreatable mental illness funny?”

Gregg, with spell-breaking sang froid, said, “I’d prefer to conduct this interview in writing, if you don’t mind,” and Eric, Dave, Andy, Bill and Eric all laughed, grateful that he’d shown them the way.


Piotr and the Baby

photo by SG

Piotr had never seen such a small human being up close. Stretched straight from the balls of her feet to the crown of her skull, she couldn’t have been much more than two feet long. If Piotr had a ruler or a yardstick he would have measured her. Measuring her precisely, with scientific instruments (in no way expensive or otherwise intimidating but stringently reliable) seemed important, somehow. He pictured himself recording the measurements in a log of some kind and the fantasy was immensely comforting. Piotr in a white lab coat and a clipboard, licking the pencil tip and inscribing digits with professional detachment in his tiny, neat script. The hum and whirr of machines in the background and the bright white blur of a lab. Obsequious assistants consulting with Piotr in hushed tones. Excuse the intrusion, Professor Piotr, but can you look at this data for a moment? Piotr the famous seeker of truth, fair in his dealings with underlings but impatient with the time-wasting niceties of politic deportment. Yes, that would have been him had he not become the he he was instead.

He looked around the room and mentally toured the rest of the flat and tried to imagine, objectively, being a stranger and guessing the profession of the person who’d choose to live there. He couldn’t, however…couldn’t imagine what a stranger would guess about the inhabitant of such a dwelling by the clues of the dwelling’s contents…and he realized what was throwing him off.

The baby on the blanket on the floor in the middle of the room.Did Piotr, in his library, have some sort of measuring device, or a straight-edged object of a known length? He used up a certain amount of time on that question, without, however, getting up and venturing into the library to settle the matter. Instead of moving from the spot he peered out the little window over his bed, and guessed from the quality of light on the wall opposite that it was late afternoon. Which would mean he’d been staring at the baby for hours. Then he had an amusing thought: yardstick? The last time he’d seen a yardstick was in grammar school! Had he known anyone in all his adult life to have possessed a yardstick? A bright orange yardstick for measuring what, exactly?

He stared at the baby but the baby did not stare back and it seemed to him that she was strangely unobservant of her surroundings, glazed eyes scanning with a sparrow’s nervous methodology a few cubic feet of the middle distance. Staring vacuously into space whereas Piotr, had their positions been reversed, would have been without a doubt immensely interested in the giant kneeling on the floor nearby. If Piotr had been a baby in Piotr’s room, the last thing he’d do is take his eyes off Piotr, or any adult, or any living thing bigger than a fly, for that matter. Was her obliviousness the natural arrogance of the baby in its exalted ignorance, or the sign of a subtle defect? Some sort of recent trauma, possibly. Weren’t babies famous for wiggling and crying and generally making noise? This one simply lay on her back, breathing. The rise and fall of her ruddy little chest. Breathing and scanning the middle distance with both hands balled in fists and held to her mouth. Like an old woman in shock.

If you squinted and forgot you were looking at a baby it was easy to imagine that in all of her soft smooth heat and pinkishness she was some adult’s large-ish, heavy, temporarily-removed organ. Especially in that throbbing, docile state. She probably thought of herself that way, in fact, and was still in denial about external existence, the harsh lights and cold dry sounds, waiting to be stuffed back in and hooked back up to cozy wet infinities. Piotr was dying to go to the toilet but he dare not leave the room. He rocked a little on his haunches.

A breeze pushed at the curtain and he remembered that it was spring, albeit in a tentative way. Spring this year was like a machine with a faulty switch, a machine that sputters before coming fully on, mixing bits of winter, still, with the flicker of warm days Piotr had been so desperate for. He’d barricaded himself in his flat with November’s onset, ordering food to be delivered every Monday and reading his books morning, noon and night while the weather clawed at the city, leaving white scabs on the streets and bleaching the days of purpose. He’d passed the months in bookish hibernation, and what he longed for now was a park bench, some late-morning sunlight, a warm breeze laden with the sweet obscenity of flowers. Girls would traipse by in their short skirts and invincible legs and Piotr, as he did every year, would distinguish himself by not leering.

The baby had a swirl of thick black hair on her head like a calligrapher’s sable brush laden with ink. That would indicate Asian, or Mediterranean, parentage. Possibly.  Piotr felt the sudden urge to curse his luck: stuck in a room with a helpless creature relying on him for everything but the air it filled its small lungs with, what could he hope to accomplish? He was no longer even free enough to void his bladder, a freedom the scruffiest dog takes for granted!

Piotr sighed the sigh that meant that work on the novel would be indefinitely postponed. The need to urinate was another matter entirely. Piotr and the baby both knew this.

 

From Near to Eternity

photo by SG

On the centennial of the passage of the American Civil Rights Act of 1964, an act of Congress made the word ‘race’ obsolete and the concept that the obsolete word represented illegal. “The very concept of ‘race’ itself,” stated the document, known as the Personhood Bill, “is racist.” The replacement word was Somatype and it was determined that humankind breaks down into 22 major Somatypes, each Somatype divisible further into a dozen-plus-one S-Inflections, each of these S-Inflections either an “A” or a “B” of its kind, and each “A” or “B” a possible positive or a negative, according to specific markers in the genome. It was hoped that the unwieldy terminology would inhibit casual distinction-drawing in a kind of inverse of the way in which the intuitive simplicity of the original system had been a runaway success in framing and disseminating the uneducated hatred of diversity. Not a year later, in time for the semi-centennial of the inauguration of the First Earth Parliament of 202 countries (minus China), the Somatype standard was adopted as global law.

Another century plus forty years after that, Siegfried Olubodun was told by his nearest rival at the University of Hamburg’s department of Tempanthropy that the only reason he’d got the research grant was because he was black.

About Siegfried’s blackness there was no debating; you rarely saw a face that black in Europe. Siegfried’s blackness was only marginally less rare than the famed whiteness of a family (blue-eyed, blond) who lived in a northern suburb of the city and whose estate had become a zoo, practically; people came from all over Europe to see the throwbacks in their natural habitat (they were auto mechanics, dynastically; half of the 80 hectares of the family compound was given over to garages and test-tracks). Siegfried tried to remember their name. The Ziegeldorfs. Siegfried was ancestrally Nigerian to an unusually single-minded degree. Whereas the Ziegeldorfs were viewed in Europe with great curiosity and a bemusement bordering on distaste, the Oluboduns were sometimes suspected of reproductive fascism. The Ziegeldorfs had been, perhaps, as driven by self-preservation as by greed in the opening of their compound to the public. But the Oluboduns were not so many in number and were spread among a handful of baronial flats overlooking the Alster.

By the time of Siegfried’s thirteenth birthday, human Somatypes had dropped from 22 to 15 and, as a result of cheap travel and zero borders (but one) and the lingering lure of exogamy, the number was still falling. Practically everyone on earth these days looked like a somewhat lighter or darker Brazilian. With the notable exception of the Chinese, who had long-ago absorbed Japan, the two Koreas, and much of Malaysia and who were exactly half of the global population. Africa (with its population density of one human per three hundred square kilometers) was still pretty dark but only in the range of bland toffees. There was something his father always said but he could not remember.

“Selbstverstaendlich,” said Siegfried. Naturally. Speaking German was considered an elitist affectation. But sometimes Siegfried couldn’t help himself.

“Ich wollte damit keinen Ärger machen,” I meant no harm in saying it, countered Marta, shrugging, but Siegfried suspected that Marta’s aggression (not the first time) was her clumsy way of flirting. No wonder the population figures in Europe were falling again. Perhaps it was on that topic, the thing his father had said that Siegfried could not seem to remember. Though it ticked on the rim of his memory.

“They can’t very well expect someone with beige skin and European facial features to infiltrate the living quarters of Igbo-identified field slaves of early 18th century North America, can they?”

“But there was mixing even then.”

“Not so much in evidence among the field slaves. House servants were another class entirely and my research is on the topic of field slaves, Fraulein Sauerwald.”

“It’s a major grant. You’re lucky.”

Siegfried lifted his chin. “I don’t, as you know, believe in luck.”

“But perhaps,” said Marta, with an unreadable pout, “you will need it.”

“Excuse me?” He touched his codpiece.

“Something could happen.”

“I’m sure you’ll agree that ‘something could happen’ in the faculty dining hall, as well.” Siegfried curled his lip with bravado and placed the call confirming his receipt of the notice of his having won the grant. He pressed the patch on his throat and spoke clearly. In a flash he remembered and the enormousness of it filled his mind to bursting not only with the implanted knowledge of his era but the weight and roar of future history.

Like Prometheus…

Even as Marta, with her lustrous blue-black hair, arms folded (the aureole of the left nipple lurid against the bisque mound of its breast; an allergy; it was itching like mad) looked on with an impossible mixture of longing and resentment, Siegfried, along with all of his belongings there at Uni… family photos, clothing, equipment, nametags and gene-keyed snacks in the faculty locker… vanished. With no sense of motion, Marta, too, vanished and her haircut changed. She re-materialized on the other side of the campus and formed in the midst of a conversation with a PsySoc Prof who, by appearance, might’ve been her cousin. She was not surprised by Siegfried’s disappearance; she’d never heard of him. Nor had anyone.

That’s how time travel works, since no object can occupy two timestreams in one universe. The only options are A) sending a duplicate, or B) removing the original from one timestream completely before inserting it in another. A virtual googlebit calculator in quantum n-space is responsible for keeping track of (and eventually reversing) the transaction. The process is funded by shaving a billionth of a second from the very end of all Time. As a military option it made the oxygen fission bomb seem like a toy in comparison.

The first thing that met him was the smell. The smells. He hit 19th-century North America vomiting… he staggered and fell to his knees in a sunlit bush, vomiting his guts out and scratching his arms and chest on the brambles. The sweat, bad breaths and long reek of the open latrine hit him like a seething kiss. Or perhaps it was a side-effect of the massive dose of thought-modifiers he had taken in order to mask his true intent.

Woman, Older; Boy at Rest [from CITY OF AMATEURS)]

woman-older2

 

The car is a yacht. They are sailing under the dripping roof of the night’s weird cave in a black Cadillac convertible and he is freezing. She can’t remember the procedure for getting the dirty old rag top back up. She doesn’t know the year and wouldn’t even know the make if Cadillac weren’t in her mind a word like Hoover or Xerox or Biro, a brand name jumped up to a category through common consent. She has heard her husband say about a dozen times in twice as many years that the car is nineteen feet long, that’s all she knows. She feels lucky enough that the keys turned out to be in her purse and not in his pocket as she had initially believed. Her fur coat of course insulates her against feeling too bad about the top being down but her new friend, in his baseball cap and thin jacket, collar up, is on the brink of pneumonia.

“I never could stand the look of Berlin in the sunshine,” she says, “but at night she’s a real doll, don’t you think? Tragic ‘n sexy. Kinda like a teenage welfare mother in Old Tijuana.” She pronounces Tijuana correctly. You can just see her flirting with a Mexican pool boy. You can see her holding out a ten dollar bill with gentle insistence, offering a leaf to a fawn.

She looks much better with the yellow wig (now stowed in the glove compartment) off and her hair turns out to be a pearly bob raked by the wind’s dark fingers, thin as champagne but luminous and full of bounce, snapping back into shape at every available opportunity of stop light. Her facelift is a cartoonist’s allusion to speed, it looks intrepid, the way the corners of her eyes and mouth sweep back as she leans forward over the wheel, driving far-sightedly, but she’s a handsome woman with a softening jawline and a debutante’s nose, upturned, decorative, a master’s knifework. Her ability to snap back into sobriety in order to drive indicates that her husband is an incorrigibly boyish drunk and that she is the best kind of mommy, countering her little boy’s missteps at every turn. Flat-chested older women like her almost always have men who play the role of only child to the hilt, it seems to him. Runnels of the remains of a quick drizzle play across the Cadillac’s black hood like cold sweat.

“Where are we going?” he asks. But he doesn’t care.

“We’re escaping, doll,” she answers. “Can’t you feel it? Gravity slipping away?”

“Don’t you have to be back on the Queen Mary in the morning?”

Good joke. She laughs way deep down in her throat: a coughing growl. The kind of sound you make when your husband struts forth in his leopard-print undies. “We’re not complete tourists here, you know. As a matter of fact,” she says, with a half-hearted attempt at a posh British accent, “We keep a house in Grünewald. Little stone thing surrounded by trees. Care to see it?”

“Why not.”

“That’s the spirit.”

“Do you know that your husband offered to suck my cock for me at the party?”

“I wouldn’t be surprised. He’s going through a phase of late.”

“It doesn’t bother you?”

“Not half as much as it would if I caught him picking his nose. You’re not a nose picker, are you?”

She asks him to keep a hand on the steering wheel while she retools her lipstick in the rearview.

“Much much better.”

She reaches across the armrest and the rain-beaded expanse of the red leather seat and rests a hand on his biceps, where it remains until she needs it again to hit the clicker and make a drastic left turn over a long iron communist-era drawbridge. The tires hum as they cross the drawbridge and the moon is a saucer and the saucer’s teacup is smashed in the water, smashed china, lilting away in shards upstream. It’s a scary old bridge that implies they are entering an earlier, unhappier era as they cross it towards a horizon either of low clouds or black trees. They cross it and see industrial fields left and right,  near and far ruins, a factory gaping rotten in the grass, squatting on a zipper of rusted tracks, staggered away from the tree-lined road, harassed and destroyed not by triumphant capitalism but by diligent little boys with their slingshots.

“No children?”

“Do I look like a breeder? My husband is enough.”

He can see that she had once been very striking, if that’s the word for it, and that she’d never been fat, or poor, or forced to beg for any favors. Her confidence strikes him as a kind of wisdom and he wants to pose questions to her as he would to an oracle. But he just can’t think one up, or fix on one long enough to body it forth in words. He is tired and cold and not averse to having his cock sucked at some point but not counting on it, either. Sometimes it’s just nice being looked at.

“When I was coming along, it was always a matter of pretending that the guy was better at stuff than you were…  this elaborate charade of deferring to the male as the default superior in everything but homemaking. God. My husband was the first man I ever met who was, in truth, truly better at some things than I was… which freed me to admit that I was better at the other things…  he wasn’t threatened by that. You know what I mean? What a relief! But of course he has his quirks. Germans seem funny enough to us anyway, don’t they?”

She asks, gingerly, “Have you ever been with an older woman?” and he laughs so hard and long at this that she turns as red as a silver dish of Thanksgiving cranberries on her grandmother’s white embroidered table cloth in 1957.

.

Improbable Tales #1: The Ring

 

 

the ring---

There was a bear stretched to its full standing height, up on its tiptoes, shaking the branch of a tree. Zoey wished she could say exactly what kind of a tree but being a city kid she couldn’t. The bear was shaking the branch for whatever reason that would undoubtedly make utter sense to a bear but the thing about the bear that was truly noteworthy (and made her assume at first she was dreaming) was its t-shirt. The message on the t-shirt was clear in the early morning light, script arranged in three fat lines like a stoner’s haiku, bulging across the barrel contour of the animal’s chest.  That Which Does Not /Kill Me /Pisses Me Off.

Because of the animal’s great height (Zoey wasn’t a wiz at estimating lengths and distances but it had to be nine feet tall) the dirty t-shirt appeared to be a cut-off and gave the bear, with its exposed belly (coated in rills of articulated grime like tire-ridged curbsnow), a vaguely Gay appearance. Not that there’s anything wrong with a Gay bear. She would have to get off her own belly and climb out of the sleeping bag and peek from a better angle to determine the bear’s sex with any certainty and common sense advised against it. Not that curiosity wasn’t berating her with its distant, cat-killing, megaphone voice.

Her recent cafeteria argument with Aaron Waldauer about bears and periods suddenly came back to haunt her with a vengeance.  A lingering fingernail of moon was visible behind the bear’s ear and that plus several rindy clouds and the thickening spume of a vapor trail made Zoey think of debris in a swimming pool and that time she’d spotted a ring on the blue tiles at the bottom of the deep end and frog-kicked down to scoop it up and bring it to the surface with the naive grace of a pearl diver. Only to present it to Judy wrapped in lavender tissue (appropriated from their gift basket)  and have Judy lose it in the bar,  which was attached to the pool, in record time.

Mom (who’d announced long ago that referring to her as “Judy” was perfectly acceptable, though Zoey, after toying with the option for a day or two, had reverted to the standard with a shiver of wise relief) was busy avoiding the bear in one of her comas. Screwed so deep into the mass of her dreamless sleep and nosing-up, from above a mouth like a sprung valise full of gold, the knotted Marlboro and Merlot-flavored silks of her own snore. Zoey decided against waking her. She was glad they’d been good campers: their synchronized bloody garbage deposited in a proper receptacle downwind. She hoped that the air horn, the primordial fire extinguisher and the Taser (on loan from a possessive Mountie) were all where she thought they were (except the fire extinguisher, which was in the car) in the tent.

A shower of pine needles from the bear-bothered branch glittered in the bright air, a static display that continued to function after the bear (satisfied, frustrated or simply bored) ambled off. The bear hadn’t been gone for five minutes before Zoey began doubting what she had clearly seen and wouldn’t remember again until coming to,  in a fog,  in her flower-puffed hospital suite,  after the mastectomy.

 

—–January 1 2007

Honi Soit: A one-act Radio Play for the Internet Age

 310520104826

Setting:
a chat room

Dramatis Personae:
Ann Ominous-a recently divorced Academic (34)
O’Sirus-a bisexual serial killer with an interest in Celtic murder ballads and Egyptology (43)

OS: I like you’re profile pic

AO: To the extent that you’re willing to ‘believe’ (i.e. suspend disbelief) that the picture is A) ‘me’, B) recent and C) un-photoshopped, I thank you. What is it that you ‘like’ about the image, specifically? (And please don’t respond with, ‘your eyes,’ since we’re all aware that references to the ‘eyes’ are always coded symbols of everything *but* the eyes in the context of online transactions of desire and power). It would be refreshing, I confess, if a man, just once, were to answer the above-stated question bluntly, with, for example, ‘the size, shape, and elevation of your breasts’ or ‘your truculent, fellatio-evocative pout’, though, I’d qualify this confession by saying that a man gets ‘points’ (a currency calibrated in what units?) for somehow reconciling the ability to be ‘refreshing’ (transgressive) with some degree of elegance or suavity. That is to say, a contextually ‘hermaphroditic’ presentation interrogating the vitality of ‘male’ aggression with ‘female’ strategies of mimesis-in-play (‘play’ as equal parts ‘agon’ and performance) might prove to be a delightful synthesis. Not that I’m advocating a totalitarian approach to the aesthetics of persuasion, though Henri-Levy did, of course, once quip, “The only successful revolution of this century is totalitarianism.” However, lest your eyebrows remain raised (*emoticon of mirth*) at my referencing such a camera-ready poppinjay as BHL, I will “raise my stock” (as traded on what FTSE of sexual metaphor?) by appropriating the gravitas of Levi-Strauss instead: “If the composer withholds more than we anticipate, we experience a delicious falling sensation; we feel we have been torn from a stable point on the musical ladder and thrust into the void.” Substituting, of course, the terms “cockmaster” for “composer” and “pleasure arc of masturbatory chatting” for “musical ladder”. Not that I expect (hope?) that this last ‘revelation’ (obfuscation?) will ‘up the ante’ (referencing as this colloq. does the ‘game’ of ‘poker’ and the demotic pun it redeems) in our ‘chat’.

OS: ?

AO: 551 275 1585

Evidence of Humor in the Obscure Works of Amis the Younger: a Thesis

evidence-of-humor

Qualos freezes before screaming. He teeters on his clogstilts like an icon of incredulity. He tells himself don’t. Don’t scream. Screaming will only serve to. The car is gone anyway. It’s long gone anyway. Fast as cars move these days the thing is a kilometer gone and screaming will only help Snatchers track him and how much is all the paper in these books worth, after all? The big book alone. 500 pages and he’s got three of them and here he is Qualos K. schlepping this royal stuff unattended. Fatty Snatchers are sub-verbal and post-culture and heartless as the useful dead (as the saying goes) and so anything of value…anything. Qualos shudders. Aware of the booming black market in azfat.

Don’t worry about the books. The books are fine. The trousers are ruined. The books (in aluminum overcoats) are no problem but the trousers are toast. Digression: Qualos’s young colleague Wahn did an etymological study on the word ‘toast’ and discovered that long long ago the word referred to a fermented beverage. The modern usage (pertaining to a thing’s utter uselessness) obviously relates to the deleterious effects of inebriation via this potent ‘toast’ drink. Anyway. What was the kunt doing offroad? 

Qualos’s one fucking good pair of trousers, his inheritance, 100 percent natural fibers. He was to be married in these ancient irreplaceable things and he only hazarded donning them in the first place on this day of all days because there was going to be this supposedly special department meeting with Chancellor Shahvez present and now look they’re oozing with cum-streaks of acid mud and wouldn’t you know it the meeting was called off (department head beheaded; El Ai for you) so… great. Might as well strip. Right down to the skinsuit. Kick the rags down a firehole and be done with it. Blend in with the tards and proles in his skinsuit until he gets home.

No, he thinks, raising his chins.

No, a scholar wears trousers.

He sloshes home with self-satirizing dignity past several garbage-ringed fireholes along the way. The trousers soon hang in strips from his waist the skinsuit shining like a lamp under the smoking tatters yet behold the chins of Qualos, so resolutely high-held. This is where his breeding comes into it. The resolute chins, the noble baldness. The shreds of the heirloom Armani.

My problem, thinks Qualos, as the rattan ginormity of Hotel 547 looms unreflected over its sludgy moat into view. Too proud to exercise my prerogatives. Could have txtd Muhreea with the car’s vassalplate and Muhreea could have txtd her dad and dad could’ve called in a personal airstrike. Two minutes tops and Mr. Sports Tank is bar-b-cue. Qualos can see it clear as day the six-wheeled chunk of metal spinning on its back like a turtle dropped on a rock by a gull and te fruit-dealing negritoe within: a guttering wick. This makes Qualos smile.

What’s the point of marrying into a Warlord’s clan if you’re too proud to indulge in the perks? Qualos shakes his head with mock-long-suffering pride in his pride. Just as he is sometimes afraid of his fear and disgusted with his disgust he is proud of his pride. Typical scholar. Muhreea says don’t smile, Qualos, it makes you look so weak but he shakes his head and he smiles. What Muhreea and the rest of her dynasty fail to grasp is how a perceived weakness cloaks an unperceived strength.

Qualos breezes in through the southeast checkpoint and gets the green flash and the strangely disparaging (and vaguely homosexual) he’s harmless from the screener chip. No one so much as glances up from their phoenbooks, frowning through loupes at all the little paradise-colored displays. The guests, the guards, the residents all hunched and loafing with their phoenbooks in the sweltering lobby. Because their rooms are shit. Most of their rooms are pure shit; are prewar toilets; are prewar toilets without toilets. How many of them have ever seen a genuine natural fiber example of what Qualos is carrying?

Digression: young Wahn the colleague informed Qualos once that way-back-when they pronounced ‘toilet’ as toy-lit.

Anyway. Paper-based books or unicorn eggs: same diff. But no one even looks up and Qualos, modeling his hissing trousers like they’re an antediluvian museum-piece of a grass skirt from the lost island of Haw-y-ee, makes a beeline for the lift. It’ll take twenty or thirty minutes to elevate to the 182nd floor (Senor Heyzeus owes him a saki and a handjob) and he wants to get this over with. So, up to the 182nd and then back down to his corner suite (in this case he must admit he indulged in a perk or two alright: he has a tubtoilet, a vertical bed, a kitchen and a closet) on the 160th. It takes longer to elevate to the penthouse (that he would ever have any business up there) than to drive to the next city. He hopes he can score a seat in the lift. Both directions. But he’ll settle for up.

As it happens, there is a free seat in the lift and it’s right next to someone Qualos knows, slightly, another scholar named Geeairmoe. Geeairmoe with the long hair and high forehead and the little mustache and mincing lips looking terribly like that guy on the Dreamervision show, the show that’s supposed to be so well-researched and so well-calibrated that it won’t even give you headaches after doing it solid for a month. Won an M.E. award.

Geeairmoe, who certainly knows his way around a paper-based book (and would recognize the aluminum protector plates as property of the Uni in any case), nods at the pile in Qualos’s lap and says, pretending to feign interest, “What you got there?” He doesn’t even mention the trousers. Geeairmoe’s tact is infinitely more wounding than a gaffe could ever have been. Lethal bastard. He’ll be a Head in no time. “Anything good?”

“Amis the Younger.”

“Ah.”

Geeairmo’s eyes twinkle with the soft reflected torchlight of the citadeled pleasures of youth. Like if Qualos had mentioned boysex or something. Saying Amis the Younger always gets this response, notes Qualos: that good old Amis twinkle. Not terribly unlike the so-called Rowling Effect, as SocPsyc Officers call it: even apeshit hammer-mad loonies go all placid (enough to tranq ’em, at least) when you chant a few paragraphs from The Potteriad. Likewise the number of times people have afforded Qualos himself the goodwill that Amis the Younger’s beloved works engender. As though Qualos were the centuries-dead Amis’s Sancho. Or his emissary. In fact Qualos often wonders if Muhreea… if even Muhreea… and so on.  He shakes his head.

“They’re all by Amis the Younger but it’s not the Little Paco series.”

“He… aha. He produced other books?”

“Quite a few, actually. Most people aren’t aware of the fact that Amis didn’t even begin the Paco until well into his seventies, which was considered an advanced age for intellectual activity back then. He first published in his early twenties, which people in those days considered rather young. Between his early twenties and his late fifties, he produced a fair amount of work, though only experts have read any of it, of course. We tend to refer to them as the minor works. The apprenticeship he had to serve, if you will…” Qualos sniffs, “in preparation for the masterpieces he’s remembered for.”

He strokes the scratched metal cover of the uppermost book. “I’m working on a Global Thesis Post (he can see that Geeairmoe is impressed, despite himself) to the effect that these so-called ‘serious’ early works…all of which Amis wrote in Old English, by the way… were intended to be every bit as comedic as Little Paco. It’s the radical difference in style and the shift from Old English when Amis made the all-important conversion of working only in Spanish (which in turn has to be converted into modern Spenglis) that throws the historians off, I believe. Not that I can’t commiserate with the clueless bastards. The ornate language of these early works can be pretty slow going. A pretty tough slog. I’ve been working on these three alone for a metric year. Trying to think of a comparison. Have you heard of a paper-based Old English book called Finnegans Wake?”

“Ah,” nods Geeairmoe, who neither truly understands nor cares.

Please Remove Your Shoes at the Door

I was utterly happy with my height…with my life…until the summer of my 18th year, in 1987. In that year, you may remember, music still sounded somewhat like music, and shoulder pads were the prosthetic of choice, and the destruction of the environment was only the concern of a rarely-fucked minority of jobless sour-grapes crackpots. Now, everyone’s worried. But that’s another story. The summer of 1987 was the summer that my mother, trying to be helpful, made the devastating remark that changed everything.

“Now you listen to me,” she said, standing in the middle of our kitchen with her hands on her wide hips…her hips were the wide base of a very tall A-frame of Scandinavian design…“you’re going to meet plenty of bloody nice girls who would be proud to have you for a boyfriend, do you hear?” Bloody…that was her word.

She was shaking with anger as she said this, and it caused me to reflect that she was taking the news of Gilda Fontaine’s decision to dump me by leaving a message on the family answering machine more seriously than I was. Those were the days when answering machines were still a relatively new feature in the well-equipped household and the outgoing messages that answering machine owners recorded on their machines in order to greet new callers could be ornate and well-rehearsed presentations. Our machine boasted a salutation in four-part harmony. It was composed and arranged by my father; a crafty ditty that stretched our last name (Smoot) into five distinct syllables, and had all four of us enunciating the terminal “t” with a clarity that bordered on being hostile. My father was the music teacher/ phys ed instructor for King of Prussia Junior High, and he probably felt pressured into coming up with something technical like that, considering his position in the community.

I remember the tune as clearly as any song by The Beatles, and sang it under my breath at Dad’s funeral the year I hit thirty, not long ago. He was a little man too, but seemed to burn up the fuel of his allotted years with the physical greed of a giant. We bought him a full sized coffin, out of respect, but I’ve always been a little disturbed by the idea of Dad rattling around in that lonely box like a little gray lozenge in an otherwise empty tin of cough drops. A little man should have a little coffin: there should be no shame in that. But I digress.

So Gilda Fontaine called that Saturday morning in 1987 and waited impatiently through our barber shop quartet of an answering machine greeting, and with cold-blooded precision delivered herself of the announcement that the plans we’d made for that evening, or any day or evening thereafter, for that matter, were off and no hard feelings ciao. I should have heard that message alone: I really wouldn’t have cared that much. I wouldn’t have made much of it. Maybe I might have kicked something but so what.

She wrapped the kiss-off up with a very reasonable sounding “I just thought you should know,” and I remember being grudgingly impressed that she’d made her little speech without faltering. She was that kind of girl, the kind of girl who could leave a message like that on an answering machine without stuttering, in 1987, when everyone else was still afraid of them, and knowing that my whole family would probably hear it, but I guess she wasn’t born with the name Gilda Fontaine for nothing.

Some people are better than their names (like my college buddy Bubba Rukeyser), and others never seem to grow into theirs, but Gilda Fontaine lived up to her labeling like something from an exclusive shop (with its own brass nameplate) that the average person isn’t allowed into; that the average person doesn’t even know exists. Mother and I alone heard Gilda’s valedictory message. Father was busy with concrete and fence posts in the back yard, and Shel was somewhere near Haverford learning to drive. Mother’s finger was still on the “play” button as I left the living room to go into the kitchen to get some apple juice and hide my shame. She followed me straight in there and erupted with the pep talk that ruined my life.

“Now you listen to me, you’re going to meet plenty of bloody nice girls who would be proud to have you for a boyfriend, do you hear?”

It never would have occurred to my ego that Gilda Fontaine’s rejection of me was anything more personal than an act of God until my mother’s rage about it showed me the truth: Gilda Fontaine was dumping me because of me, and not because of some faulty wiring in her brain…she was dumping me because I wasn’t good enough. And the only thing about me that I could isolate as noticeably different from everyone else to a degree that it could be considered some kind of defect was my height. Before that, it’s funny to say this, but I thought of myself as a perfect jewel of a young man…pretty as a girl, but well built, and sensitive as a pampered prince from ancient Persia. A musician, a poet, a wasp-waisted boy: that’s what I saw in the mirror when I checked, which was often. A gymnast, a joke-teller, a mystic, a gentleman.

I knew I was tiny, but my size back then made me feel special, and well-crafted…transistorized. And back then I had the whisperable litany of The List: Alexander the Great, Al Pacino, Charlie Chaplin, Woody Allen, Paul Williams, Friedrich Nietzsche, Tom Cruise, Ringo Starr, David Cassidy, Michael J. Fox, Roman Polanski, Francois Truffaut, Michael Dukakis, Rudolf Valentino, Napoleon Bonaparte, Dustin Hoffman, Toulouse Lautrec, Christopher Isherwood, Gary Coleman and Jesus H. Christ.

Well, seeing the compassionate outrage on my mother’s face in the kitchen that afternoon put a stop to those perfection fantasies; I might as well have been her hare-lipped birth control accident, chained to a pole in the cellar. I suddenly saw through my mother’s own eyes that I was fucked up and runty and I’d never be a leading man in the movie of my own existence. I was doomed to be a side-kick to some tall lummox at best, just like in all of those old cartoons where the smart little mouse tells the big dumb one what to do, but it’s always the big dumb one who has to save the little smart one from the cat when they sneak out in the kitchen for cheese accompanied by xylophone music.

The main point: my new knowledge changed me over-night. I became strategic rather than generous, and competitive as opposed to Aquarian. I divided the world into the complacent tall and the aggrieved short, and gave myself the rank of general in the secret war against tallness that I vowed to prosecute. But first there was the matter of acquiring a proper uniform. The footwear, at least.

One hour and ten minutes by car from our Elm-lined grove of a street was a shoemaker’s shop that I found after searching diligently all summer, poring over the Yellow Pages like a monk caressing an illuminated text. I found this beautiful old cobbler’s place…the smell as one crossed the shop’s threshold was the olfactory equivalent of rubies.

I got there minutes before closing time, but the proprietor of the shop knew my story in one half of a glance, and so he mercifully fitted me for a special pair of shoes which then came by special delivery the day before I had to pack my things and handshake my family goodbye for a private college set on the vertiginous flatness of the heartland. The proprietor of the shoe shop was a chocolate brown old African-American guy with the euphonious moniker of Elvinius Belkins, and his shop was called “The Shoe Fits,” and Elvinius, for three hundred dollars (a lot of money back then), gave me about twenty percent of my self-esteem back, plus a two year guarantee on the heels. They fit like new feet.

Now what would make more sense for a profoundly not-tall man-boy like myself, a man-boy who could just about achieve the low end of an average height with the benefit of teetering custom-made platform shoes? To pursue romances with the tiniest and most vertically suitable beauties available, or to measure himself against the quixotic challenge of scaling the lankiest amazons on the horizon? It’s a question, as always, of what might have made more sense, versus what really happened.

The administration of Fate is a concise business, I find. It tends to get right to the point (whether you know it or not). My first night at college I saw her: Mary Ford was that blonde redwood walking into my dormitory building as I looked down from the window in the second floor lounge, and because I was looking straight down upon the pale crown of her head, and the smooth topology of her breasts and shoulders, I couldn’t quite grasp her enormity, except by the shadow she cast in the glare of the floodlight mounted above the dorm entrance, which appeared to be five miles long.

It was evening, I had finished unpacking my things and I was thinking about meeting people, hanging out in the lounge down the hall from my single. I had opted for a single rather than a double because I wanted privacy (to strap into and out of my special shoes unmonitored, for one thing), but it hit me that the concept of privacy is separated from the condition of loneliness by the hairline fracture of self-satisfaction. And I wasn’t satisfied with myself. I wanted to meet people.

Mary Ford was walking into the building with another girl, a black-haired girl, and though they were neck-and-neck in the race into the building with their armloads of books and potato chip bags and whatever, Mary’s shadow was nearly twice as long as the black-haired girl’s…their shadows laid out were an umbral mother and child. “That’s my girl,” I said, out loud, as I watched her loom below.

It didn’t slow me down a bit when I discovered, looking up at her a little later that evening, that she had the heavy jawline and protuberant brow of a man, and hands that way too. Her new friend, that black haired girl, who was exactly my height when we were both in heels, was an exquisite Persian beauty. Her face and body were a study in delicates, and subtles, and rares. Her hands were sand-colored flowers. Her eyes were amber. But still, I wanted the big one. I wanted to be inside that particular Statue of Liberty.

“Farrah,” said titanic Mary Ford, with her surprisingly squeaky voice, “this is Albert…what was your, er-”

“Smoot.”

“Smoot. Albert Smoot! Smoot?” She nodded interrogatively, got my permission, and went on, “Albert Smoot. Farrah…what-”

“Dizadji.” Farrah looked directly at me while saying it. Then she clasped her hands behind her back and looked up at the giant who seemed to be finding us both so adorable and got up on tip-toe and said “Dee-zah-JEE.” Her voice was smoke and rosewater. “Dee-zah-JEE.”

She smiled, on the verge of repeating it, when Mary said “Right!” and clapped her big hands with pleasure, a young Ford discovering some of the acrid spices of the ethnic names to be found in the World beyond her high-wasp enclave in Connecticut.

Mary, daughter of Missy and Robert, sister to Hester, Paul and Ronald, granddaughter of Robert and Susan and Winston and Hester, niece of Robert jr., Ronald, Paul, William, Bob and Susan…

There was a gathering of people in the second floor dorm lounge. The lights were low. Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians were on the stereo. There was a keg of beer at the other side of the room, hoisted up on the aluminum counter beside the sink, and bags and bags of ice had been emptied into the sink, and stacks of plastic cups towered over two big yellow bowls of stale chips. There was no real food that I could gallantly offer to cross the room and fetch for either of them, and we all already had cups of beer to fondle as props, and the music was too loud for me to say much of anything to anyone but Farrah, whose ears were damnably close to being perfectly aligned with the axis of my mouth. Mary soon enough got tired of bending over to keep tabs on our conversation, and drifted towards the only other equally tall person in the room, a hyper-thyroid case named Wolper.

“Tell me something about your friend Mary,” I said to Farrah, with the innocent rudeness natural to my age and class, “do you think she likes me?”

“Why not,” she should have said, “You’re the perfect size for a pet,” but her manners forbid it. She said, instead, “Why shouldn’t she?”

“That’s what I was thinking,” I nodded. “Because I really like her,” I gulped my beer, “a lot.”

“She wants to be an actress,” offered Farrah, “So if I were you I’d try out for something in the Drama Department.”

What I ended up getting was the lead role in a Theatre-of-the-Absurd type play called ‘Oedipus Christ,’ a never-produced text unearthed by H. Frawley Caine, the school’s controversial (and soon thereafter ‘let go’) Drama Teacher. I played the Baby Jesus to Mary Ford’s portrayal of my character’s famous mother and there were plenty…too many…opportunities for closeness between us. By the end of the six weeks of rehearsal, I had mistaken Mary’s amateur professionalism for love. I confused the one for the other like a pitifully foolish mosquito, mistaking an onion for an elbow. So when she invited me to her door room “for a quiet little get-together,” on the night before the play’s premier, I misinterpreted her intentions with self-immolating raptures of stupidity.

“Knock knock!” I called through Mary’s dorm room door, coyly, at the appointed hour. Imagine the look on my face when Wolper opened it and bade me enter, the ominous prongs of undergrad cocktail chatter meshing behind him. I made to push by Wolper but he instructed me to remove my shoes and place them in a long row of conspicuously normal-looking footwear, on the mat in the vestibule, first.

But what’s the point of trying to mislead you? This is merely my attempt at a little creative empathy. I’m not short at all; the truth is, I’m rather lanky… it’s just that I haven’t reached the point “within myself” from which I can address my actual defects directly.

Dolores

dolly 

I remember everything about Dolly the first time I saw her and almost nothing about my self. Was I happy? Sad? Confused? Lonely? Driven? In great shape still or a wreck like I am today? Hairy or hairless? The prince or the toad? I can’t seem to remember being anything other than the bitter old me I’ve become. Useless old animal hands. Blessed is the forgetting. But I remember Dolly, what Dolly looked like, the tensile strength of her warm grip and that everyone in those days was walking around with a telephone. Talking not to the phones but to each other! The phones were merely a medium. You won’t know what I mean by that. You’ll shake your heads; you’ll wink at each other.

Too much has happened. Maybe it will come back. I will come back. As I talk about it. Get it off my chest. They told me to record my thoughts, all of my thoughts, don’t be selective. They said that they’ll be the ones to worry about what to throw away and what to keep and despite the fact that I’m more than sure (delusions of grandeur, right?) that I can out-talk anything’s capacity to record me, talking about it might bring, in the archaic parlance of a long-gone culture, ‘closure.’ It might even be what people who once read better books than the people who once said ‘closure’ called ‘cathartic’. Submit ‘cathartic’ and the know-it-all thingy will inform you that it comes from the Greek, meaning ‘to cleanse.’ I could use some of that now. I look around me at all these gleaming white surfaces and let me tell you I feel like the rag that was used to clean them.

Twenty five years ago. There was a lot more sex then. It took two, three, maybe four people sometimes to do it, actually. You’re snickering at that. On the day in question, the day I’ll call Dolly Day (or D-Day) from now until the end of time, I had just turned thirty and had been feigning horror for weeks, for thirty is the last milestone one can truly afford to mock. So true. Thirty is like the girl you’ll never forget or the song you’d forgotten you’d loved more than any other song you ever knew. Thirty is as fragile as an egg; a skull.

The sun was coming out after a terrific little tantrum of weather, on D-Day. It was the middle of May and the cloudburst was winter’s parting shot. Like an antique soldier charging, bayonet extended, after all the bullets are gone. The Daguerreotype buffoon in his mustache and his long underwear. The sun that emerged was so vital and fierce that it murdered the clouds and got busy drying the sidewalks and I was so warm, suddenly. It was so suddenly summer. The sidewalks steaming. I carried my jacket over an arm and walked up the hill past the park, looking for a café for breakfast and the café that I chose was the café that Dolly was sitting in front of, soaking up the rays with her eyes shut, smiling at the sky. I’m thinking, in retrospect: I’ll bet the sky knew. You know? I’ll bet it winked at her.

People of the past strike us as being so stupid. We know everything they knew plus everything we know and they knew only what they could have known at the time. The people of the past are like country bumpkins. Excuse me but it’s like watching a retarded or blind person walking right for an open manhole. All you can do is gaze with open-mouthed incredulity. You almost have to laugh.

I remember trying to remember the word for omelet. I ordered an omelet which came with two diagonally halved slices of toast, a pat of butter, a decorative wedge of orange and a suspicious sprig of parsley. Suspicious because I had a friend who claimed that the parsley was often recycled; he never ate it but also never left it on his plate. He’d slip it in his pocket with compressed lips and a curt nod like he was doing his civic duty. His jacket pockets were full of brittle sprigs of parsley. He later turned out to have a screw loose.

Inside the café was dark with cigarette smoke and greasy light bulbs and a half a dozen tables of couples and trios in dark clothing at work on their cappuccinos and puffing on Marlboro’s and complaining about either or both of the new governments. I told the waitress I’d be sitting outside and she handed me a rag to wipe my seat with.

Dolores and I were the only ones in the sun. The sun’s news hadn’t yet reached the cryptish-cool depths of the café. And I stared while wiping the seat of a chair at a table that was neither too close nor too far. I stared because I thought her eyes were safely shut but on closer inspection I would have seen her eyelids fluttering, sneaky little thing but the rag I was using on the rain-beaded seat was too wet already and didn’t much help to dry the seat. It was wet and greasy and Dolores, who was peeking, laughed as though she was watching a Chaplin film. Then she handed me her orange scarf. Orange. As they say: there are no accidents in this clever world.

“Use this.”

“Oh no, I couldn’t.”

“I used it to dry my seat. Why shouldn’t you?”

“But.”

“Use it, take it home, wash it and dry it and return it to me tomorrow. As long as there are tomorrows, yes?” The trinket of her laughter. “I trust you to return it.”

I remember being nervous talking to her; not just because she was so beautiful but because of the age difference, which was obviously significant, without me having to ask. Anything seeing us talking… flirting… would be sure to think: what does this pervert want? With her? What a face she had. Her face the first time I saw it was half- dream, half-cat, voluminously-wrinkled like satin. Tooth translucence.

She was carrying already, of course. What I thought of as a stringent, crushing, unearthly beauty at the time (30! The last-call!) was, in fact, the oracular fingerprint. A fingerprint from the angel of that particular attitude towards extinction. The angel pressed his faint red fingerprint hard on the paper of her old white face and I mistook the blood-pattern for beauty. I gallantly offered to buy her a chamomile tea, if I recall correctly. Not that you’d know what that is. Hot water?

I keep telling them it was already in her the day we met but they don’t believe me. If I could speak with someone face to face I’m pretty sure I could convince them. Communication isn’t only about words but none of you seem to trust me; you feel safer on the other side of that glass, don’t you? But you aren’t.

 

 

.

dead girl

photo by SG

Henry waited until Mr. Buckler ducked into the storage room hunting for cigarettes before he took a peek at the girl on the table again. A closer peek. My first naked girl, he thought, and she’s dead. Even worse, she was pretty. Very pretty, with a big round reddish Afro and a perfect black body, but she was dead. Henry was a virgin and she was dead.

He noticed that her earlobes were attached (a trait they’d concentrated on in genetics his junior year), and her arms were lightly silky with straight black hairs that barely showed against her very dark skin. Her arms were crossed at the wrists, hands joined like a bird with tapering wings tensed over her stomach. To forestall the inevitable glance at her vagina he concentrated on her navel, the ebonite iris that folded into itself with wasted precision.

She was long and slender and looked weightless-but-durable. Her bush was a copper coil like material out of an old radio and her lips were all-but shut in an eerie smile of endurance; a thin white crescent of clenched teeth exposed where the lip curled back, a sneer at the living.

She had small breasts but big nipples. This shocked the boy, who tried his best not to look, though her nipples were so big it was embarrassing. They were so big and warm-looking, so seemingly capable yet of what they were by design so intended to do…it seemed to him that by their fact alone the dead girl couldn’t really be dead; not with perfectly good parts on her still. The clear-lensed eyes and jointed limbs and elegant fulcrums of jaw and hip. He just didn’t associate nipples with death in general and certainly not big ones like that, though he’d never seen in life a living pair with which to compare them.

He thought he might recognize her, but then again don’t all pretty girls look familiar, at first glance?

When Buckler came back in the morgue with a toothpick stuck in his rubbery mouth, he found Henry with his back to the room, mysteriously facing the radiator by the ramp door, bent forward at the waist with his knees straight and his hands in his pockets, staring down into the spider-webby gap between the radiator and the wall in a non sequitur of concentration.

“Yo,” said Buckler.

Henry responded without turning. “Georgia,” he said, and cleared his throat, “Georgia wants me to paint the wall in here pretty soon and I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to paint the wall here behind the radiator.”

“Oh man,” said Buckler, sauntering over with his hands in his pockets and his hat tilted way back on his head, “It’s a bitch alright.”

Buckler was a man who could stand and stare at the wall behind a radiator all day if he had to. Henry was greatly relieved when Aunt Georgia summoned Buckler over the intercom instead, speaking so softly that this unusual discretion implied the wounded presence of clients. Probably the N.O.K.s of the dead girl herself, to whom they both had their backs at that moment.

“Ed,” reiterated Georgia, just audible over the intercom’s hiss.

Two handsome black ladies under so much foundation that they themselves resembled the resplendent dead were seated in front of Gil’s desk, sniffling at wads of the perfumed tissues Georgia bought in bulk from Newark. In fact the tissues discarded and at their feet were so smudged with dark it was almost as though the ladies were in blackface. Georgia produced documents to sign, knowing exactly when to slide what across the desk towards whom. She must have summoned Buckler in case one of the handsome ladies fainted, though his posture insinuated less a comfort than a deterrent. He stood beside Georgia behind the desk, scratching an elbow and dreaming of lunch.

Later, Henry wondered if it was a trick of the light, or if the girl had contracted somewhat in the five hours since the two of them had first met? Were her knees a little higher, her arms crossed tighter and her elbows tucked in a bit more? Yes, he thought. Bracing herself against a shock that could come any moment.

Her color too. She seemed ashen…grayer…even correcting for the dramatically different lighting he was now seeing her in; the candles that had replaced the sun. There were sunken circles around her eyes and a rough and ugly dullness in the hollows of her cheeks that looked like ghoulish makeup…sparingly applied but noticeable nevertheless. She was beginning to look very much dead, in fact, whereas a large part of the shock he’d experienced when first seeing her was how she didn’t really look dead at all.

In violation of the courtly respect one accords certain chemicals gathered in the embalming room, Henry had placed and lit a few candles along the sink to give the dead girl the benefit of their softer light. Upstairs, safe in a duvet on the hottest night of the year, blasted by the snowless blizzard of air conditioning, his Aunt was watching The Tonight Show with her eyes closed. The chit chat and laughter.

The first candle struggled and guttered in a pool that spread and spilled into a solid down the front of the sink, subtracting light by a fine degree, and Henry aware, suddenly, of the passing of time. Not the years but the hours.

Sarah is Five-ish

photo by S

You expect a clockwork metropolis resembling dirty stacks of old wedding cakes. It’s a surprise riding into Vienna from the airport on the shuttle and seeing miles of heavy industry instead. Silver pipes and vast white tanks and smokestacks protruding from asphalt plants and refineries. There was a premonition of this already at the airport because the horizon is ringed with the rust-tinged edge of an inverted bowl of old industrial weather. The last thing you’d expect of the former heart of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire is to be reminded of pre-EPA Pittsburgh in its sky-killing heyday but life is just one long surprise for the living, isn’t it?

Further in, at the center, in the area around the Stephansdom (the cathedral), things look more as they are supposed to. Vienna is a closer match for “Vienna” here: the plaster-pallid coachmen are top-hatted and their Fiackers are brightly enameled in greens or reds and heavily trimmed in black. Some of the Fiackers, drawn by two-horse teams, are so black they look like funeral carriages, never more so than when the horses drawing one of the grandiose things through crowds across Graben, the old square, are pure white.

Sarah and I are having a rest on the long lawn in front of the Votivkirche. Sarah is five-ish. We watch as a bespectacled file clerk in short-sleeves and stiff-legged pants goes from girl to girl, snapping photos with the barest minimum of subterfuge. Every three snaps or so, he pretends to take a picture of the church, or a tree, as long as the church or tree happens to fall within the sight line of an interposed girl showing skin. He makes his way around the park, barely able to control his excitement at capturing all these soft white girls and their long limbs laid out browning in the sun.

In the sun it feels like late spring but in the shade it feels much colder, as though patches of snow should still be visible in the trees and on the grass. The man snaps his fill of girlflesh and eventually disappears into the Votivkirche, following two tiny things in tulip dresses with their unsuspecting parents who are entering the whispery dark no doubt with the unironic intention of prayer. Sarah and I stand up, brush off our bums and leave the park as the bells begin their robust work at noon. I am feeling a bit hungry.

Sitting in The Café Braeunerhof, I’m struck by the paradox that the service is both far ruder and infinitely more polite than what I have come to expect in Berlin. The waiters in Berlin espouse the rights of man and bodily refute the very notion of service; what are your pennies compared to their self respect? They slouch and mumble while serving and your manners devolve to the level of the service. Viennese staff hold the clientele to a much higher standard, for service is a form of mastery in Vienna. Sarah’s plate of scrambled eggs comes with an implicit command not to play with her food and I’ve never seen her use a fork so adultly. For myself I’ve ordered a sausage filled with cheese and served with a tin of beer, known in jolly Viennese slang as An aatrige mit a blech…  some pus with a tin.

Sarah says, “Aunt Iris has two big horses, a black one and a white one, like the ones we saw with the carriage, Henry,”  but I tell her that isn’t true. Then she says, “But I saw them,” and I assert that this, too, is untrue. Sarah has never seen her Aunt Iris before, unless it was in photos so old that Iris herself was a child in them. And Iris definitely doesn’t have horses. She lives with a cat in a shitty little apartment on Hahngasse.

Leaning through the cook’s portal in his immaculate toque, and framed by steam, is a dead ringer for Paul Gauguin, bent nose, grease-paint mustache and everything. Earlier in the day we saw Richard Wagner in a light gray suit, shirt open at the collar, inspecting the tourists and shop fronts of Graben with an air of lordly tolerance, hands clasped behind his back, gray hair skirting the suit collar.

Half of the clientele of The Braeunerhof are phantoms themselves. There’s the grinning geezer with a lap-long beard he is not much wider than to the front, right and there’s the off-season Brunhilde, like a ship in her bosom-prowed dress, in the booth opposite, slurping her soup and there’s a dapper fellow with his Herald Tribune in the window under a fading magazine clipping about Thomas Bernhard, the Austrian writer who liked brooding over his coffee and a newspaper in that very spot. Bernhard is dead as a Mesopotamian now, ribs like a sprung umbrella… can no longer talk, feel, write or taste coffee. I wonder what he thinks about in that little room. I wonder if death was worth it?

When I ask Sarah if she wants a dessert she says no thank you, Henry. Declining the pleasure is her way of proving to me that she’s a good person I guess and this touches me terribly and I take her hand and lead her out of The Braeunerhof and onto the iron shadow of the cathedral. I almost make the mistake of offering a look inside the eternity-obsessed hangar with its gray recumbent saints and its vertebral columns but catch myself before the blunder. I’m relieved that she’s simply happy to walk in the new shoes I bought her. Relieved they don’t hurt.

The goodwill that being an English-speaking tourist elicits never ceases to astonish me. Sheepishly begging directions from one Viennese after another, we become not only progressively more lost but treated with greater and greater patience and sympathy, until I’m ready for the last direction-giver, a Muslim lady pushing her somber tram, to give us a kiss, cab fare to Hahngasse and a little mother’s milk for the trip. I come to the interesting conclusion that the landmark each person has given us to navigate by is calibrated to his or her respective social class or personality. Bank, kulturhaus, discount shoe store. The dark-robed Muslim lady tells us to turn right at the cemetery.

We are standing on a steep hill on a wide street in windy shadows when we notice a gray pasha in brown polyester, shiny-domed and grandiosely mustached, beckoning madly from a café table in front of the bistro on the other side. He is either the bistro’s owner, or some sort of local landmark, a colorful character busily writing himself into the oral history of the neighborhood.

“Where do you want to go?” he asks, dismissing my map with a gesture of gregarious scorn. He thumps his chest. “I know everywhere.”

I tell him the name of the street and he frowns. Soon, both of us are huddled over the map, gripping its corners like the wings of a bird we’ve snatched, for the purposes of divination, from the breast of the wind. A handsome matron in a cheerful scarf and a Burberry coat is just then stepping from the bistro and pasha intercepts her with one discreetly lateral move, blocking her exit and inquires, sotto voce, how to get to Hahngasse. The matron peers at Sarah, then me, registering, no doubt, the fact that the little girl and I cannot possibly be related.

“Do you speak English?” she asks, with a heavy German accent.

With five or six sets of conflicting directions to choose from, Sarah and I finally find Hahngasse. I think I remember the street number but how to get into the building to search for the flat? Her name isn’t on any of the buzzers. I buzz a random name and politely explain that I wish to leave a note for Frau Lott. Once in the building, we climb the staircase, ascending into a bowely-warm odor of cooking that harmonizes with the dark trim and carpet. On each landing I look for Iris Lott’s name, three different doors per landing, many of the doors astonishingly beautiful, ornate in the Belle Epoque style. On the fourth landing, two to go, Sarah says she’s tired so we take a break, sitting on the stairs and I wish I’d been prescient enough to buy fruit for her. Something.  She says,

“Henry, when we find Aunt Iris, will you stay with Aunt Iris too?”

I say no.

“Just me and Aunt Iris?”

And her cat. Yes.

“Will I see you again Henry?”

No.

She lowers her head to a resolute angle and says, logically, “Then I hope we don’t find Aunt Iris.”

We descend again to the front hall and find the mailboxes and there stands, on one of the boxes, on a strip of paper taped beside the name on the official nameplate on the box, in faintest pencil, M. Lott. It must be Iris but I don’t know what the “M” stands for. Does she have a name I’ve never heard her sister Sandy mention? Discoveries like this tend to take all the air out of me; doors opening onto doors opening onto doors towards a room of useless secrets; so I concentrate on the task at hand. But there’s no slot on the box that I might slip a note through (if I had a pencil and paper to write one with) . The mailman carries a master key, I assume, with which to open the whole bank of boxes in one go.

I’m trying to shimmy my business card through a narrow crack in the mailbox, an activity that looks suspiciously like a foreigner tampering with the Austrian postal system, a crime probably punishable with flogging, when we hear a key in the front door and I jump an inch in my skin. An elderly gentleman in a derby hat and a three-piece suit lets himself in, pauses to take in the scene and greets us with a loose nod and a “Grüss Gott” that sounds like a dying man’s terminal speech.

Sarah says, “That man scared me, Henry!” and I have to admit that he scared me too. But everything does.

Notes for a Story about What Happened

photo by SG

I’m going to tell you a lie and you’re going to believe it. You will have no choice. I will tell you the truth, too, but that you’ll doubt. Also inevitable. The lie will be seductive because it is something you already know.

I didn’t love her.

I got the call on the train, at lunchtime, and believe it or not I was actually watching the news (the Nth iteration of it) on a ceiling-mounted monitor as I answered the phone, swaying with the train. A Hollywood coincidence. The Malaysian with his infuriating grin. I was thinking give me ten minutes with that cunt in his padded cell. I was thinking ten minutes and a hammer. I could do it in five. Hello?

-Is this Steven?

She was five foot seven, about one hundred and twenty pounds. I don’t know if they weighed her after; what the procedure is; what she even looked like. Put her on a scale in a plastic bag. I do know that she’d just signed up for a fitness course and that is what always angers me when I think about it, the time and effort she wasted. Getting back in the game. But then some stupid cunt with his grand ideas. His belief system. Some vast sea of stupid cunts with their million raised fists called a belief system.

Note: the fistfight we got into in Limbo.

Note: also, the argument in class with Herr Wieland about the word “Jew” in the story and how I then lost my job over it. He hadn’t written the story: I had. It was a published story. Wieland claimed the term was pejorative.

Note: tie it together. Something about violence. But what?

-Is this okay? Does it hurt?

-No, it’s good. It’s okay, it’s good.

-Can she hear us?

-She’s asleep.

-We shouldn’t wake her.

-Are you saying I’m noisy?

-I’m just saying.

-You’re sweet.

But I’m not. I am what I am, and I was doing what I wanted to her, without asking first, on the gold batik bedspread on the fold-out sofa in her borrowed living room, capitalizing on her position of relative weakness as a single mother of 28 without any real career prospects. New age music down low. Or a recording of the ocean with gulls dubbed in. The inevitable candles. The inevitably post-coital, anticipated-with-genuine-dread looks of searching depth. The kinds of looks that make one’s face feel as though it’s crawling with tiny people. I buried my nose in her hair. Went to the bathroom. Anything to escape those searching looks. Jogging with Ginger the next day, I was too out of breath to go into detail. I said,

“What can I say? The earth didn’t move.”

“For you or for her?”

He gestured at a rain-glazed croissant of merd on the sidewalk and we veered. We usually veer together; this time we veered apart. Significant? Ginger, whose man-of-the-world self-image has a tendency to grate at precisely the moment I most need his worldly advice, said, “Any woman who lets you fuck her in the ass is the kind of woman you should never under any circumstance fuck in the ass.”

“So the only acceptable option is forcible sodomy, in your opinion.” I was so out of breath that it ruined my timing and killed the joke.

“Were you wearing a condom?”

“Were you?”

When?”

“Whenever.”

Last night she came back to me again: most of her hair burned off and half of her face crunchy black. I was thinking I hope I don’t see any bone. Don’t let me see the bones. Any skull or ribs or lidless eyeball. She was trying to kiss me and I was forced to be honest.

It was August of that year that I bumped into Indra while walking along Golt Strasse. I hadn’t seen her since the early part of the last decade, but walking along Golt Strasse on a Friday afternoon is a reliable method for bumping into long-lost Berliners of a certain generation. The veterans of this fossilizing in-crowd still haunt the area on weekends, shocking (and reassuring) each other with toddlers and wrinkles and receding hairlines, waltzing towards the same precipice with touching synchrony, clearing the way for the next great wave.

I knew her from the golden age on the cusp between my boredom and my stupid youth, an appetizing girl whose last name I never caught, one of the faces I’ll always associate with my first few ecstatic months in Berlin, before my increasing familiarity with the language, and its native speakers, ruined everything. Beware the expat who masters his German. We had always flirted and nothing more. We never risked touching (each assumed the other had fucked or been fucked too much), but had sometimes exchanged a certain kind of laden look on the packed dance floors of an era during which it now seems to me we all had been rather hysterically afraid to go home.

And here she was sitting in sunlight. That same black-haired girl, now a woman, or old enough to claim the title, sitting on a bench in front of a restaurant a few doors down from the café I had always seen her showing off in, looking almost exactly as she had a decade before. Half-Indian, father German, she was a mischling, as the Germans put it. Coin-colored, round-faced, voluptuous under spectacular black blades of hair. I jogged to her, grinning, and was rewarded with a crushing hug that felt more genuine than what I’d expect. Bent by the hug, I smiled meaninglessly at a toddler seated near her on the bench, hoping the child wasn’t hers, but she was.

“This is Jinny,” said Indra, introducing me to Jinny, but not Jinny to me (most probably because she couldn’t recall or had never known my name) as I took a place between them. I toasted Jinny with a Coke I ordered.

“To once being young,” I said, but Jinny just stared and Indra corrected me. She tapped her temple. “To staying young,” she smiled. “Both of us.”

Which made me feel extremely old. Several times during the conversation, Indra touched my arm and stared unwaveringly in my eyes and invited me to visit her in Bali. She painted a dreamy picture of a murmuring sea and laid-back days and Caligulan disco nights and I was touched to realize that she was looking for a man.

“Anyway” she said, as I eventually stood to leave, “Let’s hook up soon. We should really do something. It’s so good to see you again! Ciao!”

Jinny waved back (note: as though prompted) as I saluted a jaunty goodbye from the corner. It was the end of my lunch break.

I’d lucked into this incredible corporate gig, teaching creative writing to the executives of a company called Eurologika. The CEO wanted his underlings not only to speak and write English fluently but to be able to do so creatively. He wanted them to do that supposedly American thing called thinking outside the box. A dreadful cliché, yes, but I had a year’s contract.

Herr Weiss, Herr Brückner, Herr Richter, Herr Gumpenhölzl, Herr Wieland, Herr Woyczechowski, Herr Sonnabend, Herr Schlegel.

The first day (the class was on a Friday afternoon, in a conference room with a view of the canal, when most people with good jobs were already wherever they’d be spending the long weekend) saw me facing down the bemused tolerance/ mild contempt, for non-famous artists, of the typical German of a certain class. If you’re so good, why haven’t we heard of you? What is it that you do, exactly, that a hundred other people off the streets, with a little time on their hands, can’t do as well or better?

I turned the tables on them: what is it that you do?

“We design and manage systems protocols for capital storage and retrieval patterns on the Hannover model,” sighed Herr Wieland, the youngest in the room, whose headset never, in the three months I knew him, left the bluish egg of his balding head.

“Can you repeat that in plain English?”

He couldn’t. Pressing my momentary advantage, I said: “Your race, your class, your sexual preferences, national identity, earliest childhood memories, religion, education and professional standing are all stories that you have been told, and that you re-tell to others, without having a clue what the techniques and mechanics of storytelling are all about. I’m surprised you’d rather be so sloppy and haphazard about something you will do for every waking moment of your life. And in your dreams, too, and long after you die, possibly. You will be storytelling, but you don’t even really know how to. Is that a satisfactory state of affairs?”

-Is this Steven?

-Yes.

-Steven, you don’t know me. This is Indra’s sister Padme.

I was on the train during the lunch break on the ninth Friday of the class. Classes were held from 14:00 until 15:00, then a forty five minute lunch break, after which another hour or so until I dismissed them to fly off to Ibiza or Gstaad. On this ninth Friday we were critiquing the first bona fide assignment I’d given them: write a 600-word story about another member of the class.

Note: every single story they handed in was about me.

Note: exactly 600 words each.

I was staring at that little fucker’s monkey-grin face on the monitor. I’d assumed it was Ginger, calling with a new number. I looked at the phone and said,

-Excuse me?

-It’s about Indra.

A light dawned as I frowned at the monitor. Note: It’s astonishing how much thinking we’re capable of in a millisecond. Goosebumps. The coroners had shipped the recovered cellphones to the next of kin.

-Wow.

-I second that emotion.

-Your English is pretty good, you know that?

-I had good teachers.

-Is that was this is about? Free lessons?

-(laughs) I’m so glad I called you. Are you glad I called you?

-Of course I am.

-You’re not just saying?

-Would I tell you if I were?

-What do you want to do now?

Note: again the dream. She’s burning and moaning and I’m wondering if it’s pleasure. Does it hurt to burn? In the dream I’m not sure. I turned all the lights on afterwards and watched a little television before falling asleep again. Coda?

(Work this in as dialogue-possibly ironic: I firmly believe that you fake your own reality. What is a lie but the truth with a little talent? What is life but death pretending? When a katydid pretends to be a leaf, do we call that lying? The hawk moth caterpiller resembles a snake, and I resemble a hawk moth caterpiller. I lie, I get laid, I move on.)

Herr Schlegel, who looks like a JFK who’s made it to his 70th birthday with thick white hair intact and now only dresses in black, is confused. He is Herr Wieland’s picador, just as Herr Brueckner, with his off-puns and aphorisms, is the rodeo clown who breaks things up when I challenge Wieland’s arrogance; Wieland’s default pretense that any information he doesn’t already own is trivial. Everyone else is the audience. The coliseum. Schlegel says, “This story of yours, Herr Instructor, is it true?”

Note: classes were cancelled after the 12th week, but I was paid for the year.

“Define true.” At which, of course, Herr Wieland snorts.

“Did it happen as you have written it?”

“Does that matter?”

“If it is fiction, it is mere pornography. If it is true, I think, in all honesty, one must say the writer has no shame.”

“By revealing his truth, the writer reveals the reader to himself, Herr Schlegel. It’s a sacrifice we’ve been obligated to make since before Mr. Joyce.”

“Nonsense. There is nothing of me in this story!”

Wieland picks up his copy of the stapled pages and flips them until he comes to an excerpt, which he reads with such excitement, such theatrical disgust and sarcasm, that he can barely pronounce the words, let alone contain himself.

It’s the posture of submission that turns you on: the oiled flesh, brown as furniture, rich in the flamelight. The ass up and the head down with all that hair gushing forth, gushing out, a fountain of crude oil spilling over the edge and pooling on the Persian carpet at the foot of the futon, the face inclined politely away, gasping at the wall in a prayerful rhythm, the grunts of assent or helpless recognitions. So many groans are just prayer, and so much of prayer is just begging, and almost all begging is the music of pain. Her guttural prayers and my flickering shadow on her wall and those glistening streaks of her mud on me: what’s more exciting than that?

“Goatfuckers.”

Ginger, with his Jesuit upbringing, says “Don’t start.”

“Don’t start what?”

“Don’t start that intolerance shit.”

We are back in Limbo, our old club, after two months of swearing off the smoke and the sweat and the alarming influx of rich kids in from Zehlendorf, simply because there is nowhere else to go. Twice we’d tried places where the sensation that hit us like a wall of digital locusts as we entered couldn’t even be identified as music. We’d tried places that looked and smelled like the decadent version of daycare. Sheepishly, we returned to the passé nightspot we’d sworn off, and three Turkish types in payment-plan suits and pastel loafers, sunglasses mired in their highly flammable jet-black hair, have pushed across our view of the dancefloor, tugging their blondes by the rings in their noses. Two are blondes, actually, and one is not.

I finish my drink. “What intolerance shit?”

Ginger says, “Oh, come on. Remember the day Indra flew back to Bali? You were so fucking relieved you bought me dinner. And now you’re playing the grieving fiancé. Boo fucking hoo.”

I pretend not to hear and move onto the dance floor, parting a metaphorical curtain, doing my American dance. Loose in the shoulders. Impossible for Germans and alien to Asians and instantly identifiable. That and my very good shoes. I dance from the periphery in, eyes on myself, easing towards the center. The three Turks and their escorts are trying out their modern dance lessons in the middle of the crowd and I am locked on the best-looking girl in their menagerie, the taller, thinner, slightly embarrassed and attractively reticent one in dark slacks, gold pumps and ruffled white collar and sleeves. She can’t be older than nineteen. Tossing her hair. They must have kidnapped her. First you look, and then you look away, and then they look, and then they look away. There’s a rhythm to it until your eyes meet and you can all but predict the future.

.