Tales of a Collapsed Lung and Other Tales, a Tao Lin Interview

I remember first encountering  Tao Lin and his writing through an Amazon “you might also like” advertisement in early 2009. I bought Shoplifting From American Apparel and kept thinking “when will chapter one fucking end?” and inadvertently finished the book in a single sitting.

Even though I didn’t like his book that much, I was obsessed with Lin and how he got to be so popular in the niche alt-lit world. I was determined to meet the guy. In December 2011 I invited Tao to come to  present his new art lecture followed by a Q/A at the Silver Tongue Reading Series [conducted in association with Columbia College in Chicago] I am a part of. He came and I was surprised by how aloof I found the man to be in person, one among many other things I learned about him.

The following is the substance of our conversation, told with as much inclusion of ordinary detail as possible. (Briefly, Steve Roggenbuck showed up little more than midway through the interview. While he may not have spoken as loudly as is rendered here in text, he might have. He did not speak in misspellings.)

Can of diet-coke and diet cherry coke is opened.

Ian Richard Jones: There are so many interviews with you it’s kind of (pause) I don’t know, I kinda felt like publishing one, well I wouldn’t even know where to ask.

Tao Lin: The best ones are when you like, you just, type it exactly, even with pauses, and um’s and like’s, there’s none of those with me, but I like those a lot. It’s just hilarious how, like inarticulate people really are.

That’s one thing I’ve learned. Because I interview bands, but they’re different, they’re like that.

I like being portrayed as how stupid I am. Yea.

Like a valley girl?

Yea, I would like-

My mom says we’re the “like generation” she even read Shoplifting and said, “why don’t you just get caught stealing?”

Minimal laughter

I feel like, like, I say like a lot, but I never say “you know”.

You never say you know?

I’m never like, “you know…” silence that’s at least something different.

Minimal laughter.

What about “you guys”? Cuz not everyone is a guy you talk to.

You guys… Well I don’t say that in interviews, that doesn’t…

Oh you mean just interviews.

Yea. Yeah.

What about “can you see that” or “can you see what I’m saying?”

Repeats: Can you see… do you understand… Do you understand what I’m saying? Yeah I say that. I pretty much say. Do I make sense. Does that make sense. But I never say you know, but it seems like everyone does. I just don’t understand what it means slight pause to say that. I don’t know.

Now I don’t know, about “you know.” Or think about it, or remember.

Jesus.

Points at diet-coke. That’s got a lot of high fructose corn syrup in it.

No it’s zero calories.

But doesn’t that still have the corn-syrup in it?

No, no. It just has artificial stuff in it.

Artificial corn syrup?

No, flavors. I think it’s way healthier than the calorie ones. Awkward pause I rarely drink stuff like this.

I was wondering, everything I’ve read, uh, you don’t like unhealthy things.

Yeah I’m usually healthy.

I remember in the meantime I was googling all these interviews of you for fun and it said that you only smoked weed in high school.

And then my lungs collapsed.

And it said it was unrelated.

Well um, the doctor was like if you smoke weed it increases chance of that happening 42 times. It was the worst experience of my life. They shove tubes in your lungs and leave them there for like three days to suck out whatever.

What was in there? You mean to like pump it back up? Cuz if it was collapsed?

Yea.

Do you have a scar?

Yea, it happened three times.

What?

And they can’t put oyu to sleep because they need you to tell them how much it hurts. But I smoked weed like, a few months, mumbles.

What about, well it said that you didn’t do drugs but now it’s like that article on Thought Catalog “How to do a reading on Mushrooms” did you bullshit that?

Yeah, no I didn’t do drugs through high school. Then after high school I did Adderall sometimes, pause and then one summer I started doing more drugs. And then I met what became my wife and we did more drugs. So my drug use has increased.

That’s funny. laughter What about when you write do you type fast? I imagine when you type it’s like painfully slow and it’s like slower then a typewriter and you like never change a comma.

When I first type… Like if something memorable happens to me I’ll-uh-the term is I think is shitting it out type it as fast as possible. And after that draft I don’t add anything, or I add stuff, but I take away equal amounts of stuff. Probably like 95% of the time writing for me is editing. I change stuff like commas and stuff neurotically. My next book I’ve worked on the first two paragraphs probably like um 150 hours.

Really?

Yeah, it’s like. I don’t know what I’m doing.

pause

DO you think a lot at the computer screen or do you get up and like go for a walk? Or sit at the computer screen like this (makes pose from statue “The Thinker”)

Like for two months I got into this thing. I’ll tell you a bit of backstory first. My wife and I are separated now.

I noticed on Facebook.

One time we were like lets go on an extreme adderall binge. pause Are you familiar with how big doses are? We took 160 mgs over three days and didn’t sleep. And the next day after that woke up and felt fine. So I felt okay about taking very large doses. So my routine for like two months was to take like 90mg and not sleep for like three days. And during that time I would be very fovused and not looking at the internet much. And then I’d have two days where I’d not be able to do anything except look at the internet. But outside of that special routine my nmormal working thing is to like, have the internet and twitter and everything and look at the file sometimes.

Um, this is so random, but did you know that there’s a uh,

Tao coughs.

Did you ever take Addy and get shaky?

Not focused

Or make you crazy?

It made me feel great, but it made have chest pains.

Well the government gives people these pills called Provigil, or Vigil, or they change the name in all the countries, it’s what they give the helicopter pilots and plane pilots and people to stay up for days and like focus, and not get jittery and stuff like that. I feel like that’s, well, sometimes that’s what I imagine your blood cells are made of when I’m imagining stuff, I have a bad imagination it’s like a runaway train. Is that what yours is like?

Do you mean like do I get jittery?

What’s your imagination?

Is my imagination what?

Is it wild?

pause

If I want it to be.

You can control it?

Yeah I can like go crazy. If that’s the kind of book I want. Like my first book.

Like the last 40 pages or so in that plane crash?

What?

Eeeee? [Eeeee Eee Eeee, Lin’s first novel]

No my first poetry book. A lot of things were just like me being crazy and not editing it. So I can be that way. But for most of my writing I, uh, I know what I wanna do and it’s not just like free association, it’/s like meticulous whatever.

Like honing and crafting?

Whenever I take-go on like 90 mg Adderall binges, I just think how like, there’s like single mothers who like pause work two jobs

Who sleep like one hour a week?

Yeah

To get yelled at by two kids who don’t appreciate the food they give them?

Yeah. So my Adderall binge is healthier than that horrible.. And people who binge drink each night. I still feel like I’m healthy.

Well you’re being productive. Like if you go to a party and get drunk and write 10 pages you’re productive, but that like never happens.

Yeah. And productive.

Do you go out?

No.

Never? How have you met the people that meant a lot in your life?

Well she had a blog and I liked her blog and we talked maybe like once every two or three months. Then she came to one of my readings and we hung out more, so the internet for that. Uhm. Another girlfriend pause she like messaged me “Do you wanna be my intern?” and that changed the relationship. Pretty much it’s just all the internet.

What did you do before the internet?

Hmm.. Well I always had the internet. The change is that now I have, uhm, just accomplishments. So there’s reason for people to want to talk to me.

Do you get like annoying emails from fans all the time?

Uh. pause

Or like messages from people and stuff like that?

Yeah, like really long ones.

receives text message from Lisa Horan.

My girlfriend might call when she’s here, she’s driving from Wisconsin to come see you.

Jesus. How far?

Oh it’s like, right on the border. The McDonald’s of the town is in Illinois. It’s basically like a really long drive to the suburbs.

So what is your topic for this?

For this… well. I wanted to know-well like every interview I read where it’s like “what are your influences” or “how did you do this” it just like bores me to death and I feel like I don’t get anything out of it and I don’t understand the person at all, and I understand them even less.

This seems good so far. I’ve said things I haven’t said. Or I’m interested in stuff.

Well I’d be interested in talking to you. Cuz I feel like most interviews are like : like “Hey Tao” (laughter} and they don’t care like, “oh that was great answer, I’m going ot ask a question that is totally unrelated that I wrote down four days ago.”

Steve Roggenbuck walks to the table we’re seated at.

The main thing is that just everyone wants to focus on the internet. And… on… yeah, just like, how do I use the internet. And.

I feel like you don’t even give a shit (Steve Roggenbuck laughs) or like. I mean like, you do, but it’s like…

The internet is just what everyone uses. So it’s just not abnormal.

Like “do you have a marketing plan, Tao?” people ask you that shit?

Yeah, yeah.

I think that’s stupid. I think it’s either you got it or you don’t. Like do you think the Ramones had a marketing plan?

Well they’re much more famous than me. The big misconception is, uh, that I’m like super famous.

That’s why when I asked people who you were (referencing video) nobody knew who you were. I asked so many people. But when they did.

Wait are you that guy? With the white glasses?

Yeah.

Oh you were acting so well I couldn’t tell.

Really?

Steve Roggenbuck: YEAH.

I just made it up in my apartment in like five minutes. I was like, well he likes Mumble core,

So you’re Lucas?

My friend is Lucas. He filmed it.

Ohhhhhhhhhh.

He was standing there this huge camera, and he had to wear it, and it looked like one of those deep sea diver helmets and I would be like “hello” and he’d be all (makes snickering noises) and I had to go to work and then I got really drunk before work.

Good job getting some really attractive girl to say “I love Tao Lin” as the first thing.

Yeah, no she was like “did y’all know Tao Lin is coming?” and I was like Emily… (Steve and Tao snicker) Of course I do. Yeah, but some people, they just didn’t know, they just didn’t know.

I only have, um, 8,000 followers on Twitter. And like any random people without any books out, a lot of them have like 12,000 followers.

Or like 100,000 followers. Like Rob Delaney writes for Vice, I don’t know what he writes I never read it. I just followed it randomly.

I don’t know who he is.

I don’t know who he is either. Sometimes he tweets and he’s like “I don’t know how I got this many followers” it’s something like he didn’t even know.

I think maybe I just have like, I’m, my, I’m too depressed or pessimistic, mumbles.

I don’t think Twitter matters. I mean maybe. But didn’t somebody give you money off Twitter?

Yeah yea.

That’s crazy.

(iPhone recording interview rings, slight disturbance)

You came here by yourself? (said to Steve)

(everyone high fives)

Steve Roggenbuck: YOU’RE IAN RIGHT, THAT’S YOUR FIRST NAME?

Yes.

Where’s Stephen [Tully Dierks of Pop Serial]…Um…

I DON’T KNOW. STEPHEN GOES UH… STEPHEN WAS AT GROUPON BEFORE THIS SO I DON’T KNOW.

Oh yeah.

Where is? Sorry.

He’s interviewing me.

You can be interviewed now too though.

You know each other?

THROUGH TWITTER.

Like a day ago. I’ve only had a twitter for a month, or month in half. Okay maybe like three months, of six that I’ve used it sparingly since I’ve created it.

YEAH, I REMEMBER ONE TIME YOU RESPONDED TO SOMETHING LIKE TWO WEEKS AFTER.

(laughter)

It’s just twitter. I don’t think anyone’s going to live or die. We were talking about the emails. I was wondering what emails his fans send him.

Emails???

Or like messages or whatever. Do they like, do you ever get like scary ones? Like people that are crazy stalkers or stuff like that?

No. You mean like that are, that say they don’t like me?

No they’re like “I love you Tao I wanna blah blah blah blah blah.”

Uhm no. A long time ago I sent like crazy emails to writers I liked. Mary Robison. So I feel like I understand those people.

I did that too.

I feel like I’m normal now. And I sent crazy emails so I feel like those people will become what I am later on.

Yeah?

(Steve and Ian laugh)

Okay…

Sometimes they’re just so long that I can’t respond as long and I just have to respond like ‘thank you’ or something.

Mhmm.

YOU SAID SOMETHING LIKE, YOU GOT ONE WHERE PEOPLE ARE LIKE REQUESTING NAKED PICTURES OR, LIKE, OFFERING TO PAY YOU FOR SOMETHING, WASN’T THAT SOMETHING?

I knew a girl once…

mumblesSomething like that.

SOMEBODY OFFERED LIKE $5,000 OR SOMETHING?

Oh that was a gay porn company in Canada. It didn’t work out because like, their main person went to Israel, and he like got detained or something. And then another person at the company was like, I just got breast cancer.

No more porn after cancer. I knew a girl who was kinda like the internet girl sorta thing who doesn’t have a band or anything, like Bebe Zeva or is that how you even say it? Do you ever read things a lot and then not know how to say them out loud because you never talk about them with people?

Yeah.

YEAH.

Only Schopenhauer.

THAT’S HOW I…

I don’t even know what that is. Or Nietzsche. I don’t know how to spell Nietzsche, I never read him.

I’ve just recently known it’s niezenie.

I Knew it was neinize before. I wanna make shirts that say “kon” then nzeinzen then “wah” then a picture with him wearing those headbands, not with the

The dot?

Yeah.

Camus.

Camus (said cam-iss). Do you ever hear people say it wrong then wanna correct them?

No I never. Well I don’t know. If they seem like they won’t feel upset I’ll correct them… Sid-dar-thuh. Sid-dar. I prounouced it Sid-dar-tuh once and someone corrected me and I felt embarrassed.

It was like someone corrected you and your mouth did something weird even though you know how to pronounce it?

No-I don’t.

So how did you two meet?

IN PERSON? OR?

What was the start?

You review something?

YEAH, WELL I REVIEWED COGNITIVE BEHAVIORAL AND THAT WAS THE FIRST TIME THAT YOU LINKED TO ME. AND THEN I BECAME A LOT MORE PART OF THE COMMUNITY. AND THEN STEPHEN FOUND ME AND BRETT. I HAD EMAILED YOU A COUPLE TIMES BEFORE THAT. MISCELLANEOUS  THINGS.

When I watch your videos now I start girnning before it even starts.

Yeah like the still screen of the dubstep one. I love that, the dubstep.

Dubstep?

I don’t even, like, you had glowsticks in your mouth?

NO I JUST WROTE DUBSTEP ON MY FACE WITH MARKERS.

Are there like more people that like, in the other rooms, that like hear you scream?

OH, USUALLY I DO IT WHEN I’M HOME ALONE, WHEN STEPHEN’S NOT THERE BECAUSE STEPHEN”S LIVING WITH ME RIGHT NOW. BUT I’M SURE THERE”S PEOPLE UPSTAIRS OR DOWNSTAIRS THAT CAN HEAR IT, BECAUSE I CAN HEAR PEOPLE IN THE HALLWAY, AND I CAN HEAR MY NEIGHBORS HAVE SEX, SO I’M SURE THEY CAN LIKE, HEAR ME SCREAMING.

Do you ever get embarrassed, like, have you ever watched porn and been embarrassed of it?

Of what?

Of watching it?

Hmm No.

Have you ever listened to it in headphones?

Yeah, yeah.

I kinda feel like that’s cheating life. Having.

I don’t even need sound most of the time.

Really?

Well if it’s just pictures then I uh. It’s not required for me.

That’s so strange I’m the exact opposite, I could be like this and all I want is sound. Like it could even be mis-matched sound like it could be sheeps or something and if I hear a girl I’m just like yeah.

What’s the first place you’re going to?

I THINK NYC, I WAS GONNA GO TO ROCHESTER, BUT THE PERSON I WAS GONNA SEE THERE IS GONNA BE IN NYC.

I might go to Taiwan. But like, in February. But if I did I was gonna stay you could stay in my place. I have a studio apartment with no roommates.

I HAVE ONE FRIEND IN NYC WHOSE ADDRESS IS 666 PARK PLACE.

Omg

AND HE SAID I COULD STAY WITH  HIM. THEY HAVE A BUNCH OF PEOPLE THOUGH.  IT’D BE GOOD TO HAVE A PLACE WHERE I COULD DO MY VIDEOS BY MYSELF. BECAUSE THEN I LIKE. BECAUSE I FEEL LIKE, I WAS DOING, TRYING TO DO A COLLABORATIVE THING WITH JOHN CAMBELL YOU KNOW, AND I WAS DOING BETTER THAN I THOUGHT, I DIDN’T THINK I’D BE ABLE TO GET IN THE REALLY LIKE, ZONE WITH ANOTHER PERSON THERE AT ALL. I KINDA GOT IN THE ZONE, BUT I STILL FEEL LIKE I WOULD HAVE BEEN MORE ENERGETIC AND LOUDER IF I WAS ALONE. YOU KNOW? SO.

Have you experimented taking drugs and taking videos? I made some bad ones getting drunk until sunlight and then I would strip down naked and cover Pixies songs. And it wouldn’t work.

The sunlight?

I would drink all day, or all night until the sun came up and then I’d cover a Pixies song. And people said like “ur covers are so bad” and I don’t even know how they thought I was trying.

I HAVEN’T REALLY DONE THAT.

I wanna poo before my thing. Do you have any more specific questions?

I can’t think of anything not dumb. (pause)

I feel like you got a lot.

Yeah, and I get really distracted, and then I didn’t remember what we were talking about.

Is there any specific thing?

I’ll check the notes. I made a note that says “Tao”.

Do you have an iPhone? Tao starts spinning his already cracked screen iPhone very awkwardly on the table.

YEAH I DO.

Tao keeps spinning his phone more aggressively.

You gotta have one. Nope. I was just gonna ask you about Stephen and Pop Serial. Don’t do that, it’s gonna break.

It looks, IT sounds cool. keeps spinning, Ian tries to spin his and fails. 

Well mine’s in the case.

So no?

No… Do you ever go through your visual stuff liie when you draw or to you just draw it and it’s done forever.

Do I edit?

Yeah.

Well I edit a lot. Like if you look at my, if you, I have a lot of drafts.

And then what makes you want ot like.. DO you like see something in your head that you imagine you wanna draw or do you like, see a blank thing and draw it, and then imagine something afterwards? And then create…

Both.

Both?

Just all of it at at once.

Everything all at once.

Yeah.

Okay.

Is there a bathroom?

Yeah. Thank you. Thank you though. That was good.

Thank you.

Um its straight this way, we might as well walk.

Civilization

You will fake yawn to excuse yourself from conversational involvement if only for a few seconds. If you’re lucky, the intended person will suddenly have the urge to yawn as well, and will do so, excusing herself, and incidentally you too, for a few more seconds. Her real yawn will have the same, real effect on you, seeing as your first yawn was fake, and this will excuse you both for a few more seconds. There. A good twenty seconds down the drain. That wasn’t so hard was it? Sometimes you will simply walk up to someone you recognize, yawn back and forth a few times, then be on your separate ways. Other times, when at a loss for adroit conversation, you will ask, “What day is it?” or “Is it Tuesday?” or something similar, though you know perfectly well what day it is. The intended effect being the impression that your life is crazy enough to have forgotten the day, or at the very least, that you aren’t one of those pencil-pushing stiffs who keeps a personal organizer, or whatever those are called. It’s also a very simple question to answer that will give a minute sense of satisfaction to the other person for being helpful. Of course, you will have no idea if these gimmicks work, but at least it’s one less thing to worry about.

————————

Tanner Carlos Hadfield is an MFA student at CU boulder, where he teaches introductory creative writing and edits an art zine, No Name Zine, among other things. 

Scales

I was captured by the Algonquins. My parents stole me right back. Then a different tribe stole me again. One minute I was in the teepee suckling the dark teat of my new mother, the next I sat at the mahogany dining table eating my oatmeal with a silver spoon. It was the first day of summer. One of my fathers was rosining his bow. The other one was practicing his scales, especially the minor ones.

————————

Robert Vaughan’s plays have been produced in N.Y.C., L.A., S.F., and Milwaukee where he resides. He leads two writing roundtables for Redbird-Redoak Studio. His prose and poetry is published in over 150 literary journals such as Elimae, Metazen and BlazeVOX. He has short stories anthologized in Nouns of Assemblage from Housefire, and Stripped from P.S. Books. He is a fiction editor at JMWW magazine, and Thunderclap! Press. He co-hosts Flash Fiction Fridays for WUWM’s Lake Effect. His blog is here.

The Marriage Scrappage Scheme

Brenda was darning her husband’s socks when the radio presenter interrupted a gardening segment to bring an announcement from the Iron Lady’s Government.

The government will be launching the Marriage Scrappage Scheme tomorrow,” the presenter said.

She slid from her stool and headed to the living room door. Jack, her husband, was slouched on the sofa, with the television on mute. She closed the door, shuffled back to her stool and turned up the volume.

The Government are offering the chance for women to trade in old, tired husbands for new ones.”

Brenda smoothed out the once black sock. She couldn’t believe she was sitting on an uncomfortable stool, darning her husband’s socks because he didn’t like paying for new ones. The holey sock only came from the supermarket. It wasn’t even from the expensive range.

“From Monday you will be able to take your old models along to any local dealership and receive a discount on newer, more economical and environmentally friendly husbands-”

“What’s that bloody presenter babbling on about?” Jack said, standing in the doorway, scratching dried up dribble from his stubble.

“Nothing, nothing,” Brenda said, turning off the radio.

“I’m thirst. Make me a tea and get dinner ready soon. I’m heading out to the pub later,” Jack said. His hand rested on the permanently stained worktop, next to the kettle.

“I’m busy with your socks.”

He ran his fingers through his greasy mullet and then headed back to his armchair.

Brenda threw the screwed up sock at the door.

 ***

Even before the town’s clock tower chimed in the working day, Brenda in her best black power suit was being led through the black wood and chromed themed showroom of the local Husband Dealership. Jack followed, dragging his feet, snarling at the brand-new husband models, posing on the stage.

Susie, Head of Sales, in her doctor-style coat and white plastic gloves, escorted Brenda to the sterile-looking consultation room. Brenda wished she had lean legs to wear mini skirts and maybe Jack would have been more attentive. They would probably be sleeping in the same bed.

Brenda took a deep breath as she took a seat next to the glass-top desk. Only a Victorian typewriter cluttered the desk, along with a completed Rubik’s Cube. She bought Jack one, once. It never made it out of the packaging.

“I heard about the Marriage Scrappage Scheme-”

“Oh yes. We’ll see if your husband is eligible,” Susie said, feeding a piece of paper into the typewriter.  “Jack, you’ll need to go the servicing area.”

Jack continued reading his magazine.

Jack,” Brenda said, trying to get his attention.

“Alright woman, stop nagging me,” he said, tucking the magazine under his arm and headed out of the door.

“Please don’t hold that against him. It’s because he has such good concentration,” Brenda said, twisting the handle of her handbag around her fingers.

“Get yourself a coffee from the vending machine. I’ll Service Jack and then we can see if we can get you a new husband,” Susie said.

She wasn’t interested in picking out a younger husband. She could hear the shrill voices of her neighbours, calling her a ‘cradle snatcher.’ She planned on heading to the upper floors and hunting for a bargain in the second-hand section. Brenda found Jack on one of the upper floors twenty years ago, around the time of The Beatles. She really thought she could change him from his sofa hugging habits. The salesman convinced her that a project would be good for a young lady. He even kissed the back of her hand to seal the deal.

For the first year, Jack went grocery shopping with her, sat quietly in the hairdressers while she got a perm and he also went swimming with her too. It all started to go wrong when Brenda had the third miscarriage. Dinner times, once full of chat were now filled with the sounds of the clinking knives on plates. Then his parents died, followed shortly by her parents. He moved to the spare room around the same time. He said it was insomnia. But whenever Brenda put her head around the door, when she got up for her usual late night coco, he was snoring away.

The idea of living alone was tempting. She could finally have floral wallpaper in the living room and display her fairy trinkets on the mantelpiece. Some of her friends were already on their sixth husband. She wasn’t going to be like the rest of them with a list of ex-husbands.

“Brenda, I did you proud,” Jack said as he sat down. He struggled to do his buttons on his shirt and kept swearing under his breath. Brenda rushed over and immediately took charge.

“Brenda, you don’t have to worry about him anymore. There are technicians who’ll sort out Jack,” Susie said, smiling her perfect smile as she came back into the room. “It’s great news that Jack works for the local micro chip company and I have spoken to him about bringing work home and that it needs to stop, really.”

Brenda had never come across piles of paperwork from the office and he didn’t even own a suitcase. He sat there oblivious of the conversation.

“You’ve done a good job with your husband. I read through his previous servicing and MOT paperwork. He’s well dressed, has a good education and doesn’t smoke. However there are still a few key areas that he underperforms. He didn’t know how to rewire a plug, couldn’t identity a screwdriver and was uncertain on how to put up a shelving unit.”

Brenda chewed her nails.

“He has a fear of gardening,” Susie said, peering over the top of her glasses.

“He has always cut the grass bi-monthly and sits in his shed for hours at the weekend.”

“It has amplified his fear of gardening.”

At this rate she was never going to get rid of him.

“Another major thing is his lack of typing skills,” she said, folding her arms.

“He has done an evening computer course,” Brenda pleaded. “Jack, will you show her your certificates?”

He shrugged.

“Did you leave them at home?”

“These things happen.”

“Look Jack, stop talking like you’re a crossword clue. Did you attend the course?”

“In a way, yes. I went to the first session and then decided computers were not the future.”

“What happened to the course fees?”

Jack stared at the floor.

“The pub, right? And betting, right?”

Jack smirked.

“Do you want to end up in some scrap yard?”

“I’m sorry to interrupt but my ten o’clock appointment is waiting,” Susie said.

“So, can you take him off my hands?”

“I’m afraid Jack doesn’t meet the necessary requirements for The Marriage Scrappage Scheme.”

“See dear, you can’t get rid of me,” Jack said, smirking.

“Make sure you put on the paperwork that he’s a liar too,” Brenda said, pulling on her jacket.

“It will bring down his value,” Susie said.

“At the moment I don’t really care,” Brenda said, scooping up Jack’s service reports and stuffing them into her bag.

“You could restore him?” Susie said, leading Brenda out of the side exit. She didn’t want other customers getting upset by any potential outbursts.

“That’s what I have been doing for the past twenty years. He has worn me down. No one said it was like a prison sentence,” Brenda said, hunting through her bag for a tissue.

“Well it was lovely to have met you both,” Susie said, giving an over the top smile. She shoved a Husband Catalogue into Brenda’s hands.

“But-” Brenda started to say but the door had already slammed in her face.

 ***

The ‘For Sale’ postcard wasn’t in the local shop window for more than a day when Brenda got a phone call. The mature-sounding woman sounded enthusiastic on the phone. It was a good sign, surely, Brenda thought as she pushed the vacuum over and over the same spot in the hallway. The champagne was already chilling in the fridge. Brenda couldn’t stop smiling as she laid out her eternal-bow tea set on the coffee table, alongside a neat pile of Jack’s service and maintenance paperwork. She wanted Jack taken away, today. To get him out from under her feet, while she vacuumed, she had sent him to the corner shop to fetch a broadsheet newspaper. She wanted the woman to see Jack sitting in his chair, near the television with The Financial Times on his knee.

The chime of the doorbell woke Brenda from her daydream of cooking for one. Brenda found a woman with a poodle perm and bug-eye spectacles standing next to a balding man in a Hawaiian shirt, huddled together on her doorstep. Brenda tried her hardest to keep smiling.

“Hello, I’m Samantha McBateman, I called you this morning.”

“Oh yes,” Brenda said, poking her face through the small gap between the door and the doorframe.

“Are we too early?” The man said.

“Sorry, I’m not interested in part exchanges,” Brenda said, her hand lingering over the door chain.

“This is my husband, George. We are here to see if Jack is suitable for our daughter,” Samantha said.

Brenda fully opened the door.

“I’m not going to get rid of the husband. He’s my best friend,” Samantha giggled as she took sat down on the sofa.

“Lovely, lovely,” Brenda said, looking at her watch. “I’m sorry Jack isn’t here at the moment. He popped out to get a newspaper.”

She poured them each a cup of tea and listened to their story about finding each other out via a walking club. They joked about saving the money and avoiding pushy sales people. Brenda nodded as she looked out the window, hoping to see Jack.

“Our daughter never married and well-” George said.

“And well, her career has taken over her life,” Samantha said, interrupting her husband.

The McBatemans nodded enthusiastically as Brenda showed off his MOT certificates. She was beginning to buzz. She wanted to load up the VHS tape player with her Romancing The Stone video so she could watch it as soon as Jack left. He didn’t like Michael Douglas. He thought the actor was his competition. She restrained herself and instead pulled out Jack’s childhood pictures.

After another round of tea and half of Brenda’s special chocolate digestives were eaten before Jack came through the door. His time keeping was a bit a disappointment but she knew the couple would still be impressed. The McBatemans stood up to shake Jack’s hand but immediately sat back down. Jack’s freshly ironed shirt was now untucked and covered in a brown stain, his hair was tangled and messy and the overpowering smell of the pub and cigarettes hid the delightful aroma of his aftershave. Brenda snatched the tabloid paper, which had a naked woman on the front cover and shoved it down the back of the sofa.

“’ello, my name is Jack and I’m very good ‘usband material,” he said, bowing. He put out his hand but George didn’t move from the chair.

“What are you doing?” Brenda said, trying to use a hankie to remove the dirt from his shoes.

“Dutch courage,” Jack said and flopped down on to his armchair.

“I think-” Samantha started.

“Hold on, what’s this? He said, tugging at one of the cushions. Jack pulled out the Husband Catalogue.

Brenda tried to snatch the catalogue.

He snarled at her and then threw it across the room. Samantha ducked as the catalogue slid down the back of the sofa.

“She wants to trade me in for a catalogue clone.”

Brenda tried to smile at the McBatemans. They were staring at the carpet.

“Are ya getting rid of Mister Caribbean over there?” Jack said, getting up from his chair and plonking himself down, next to Samantha. He squeezed Samantha’s thigh.

Samantha jumped up and knocked the teapot on the floor. The pieces smashed and scattered over the carpet. Brenda wanted to mourn her beautiful teapot but instead she had to hold Jack back from George’s fist.

“We really should head off,” Samantha said.

“I haven’t shown you the rest of Jack’s paperwork and-”

“We’ve seen enough,” George said.

“He isn’t normally like this. I think it’s the nerves,” Brenda said, gripping George’s arm, trying to pull him back.

“Please let go of me.”

“Just stay,” Brenda said, still gripping George’s arm.

“No,” Samantha said, rushing out of the door.

She chased after them, down the garden path, in her slippers. She could see the neighbours peering around their net curtains. She didn’t care anymore. She bashed on their car window but the McBatemans drove away.

Jack was already in his room with the door locked when she came back into the house.

Brenda hugged her teapot.

 ***

A slender woman in a power suit, with her hair scrapped back into a severe ponytail, stood at Brenda’s back door. She hugged a Filofax and towered over Brenda. It was the woman whose business card had fallen through the letterbox that morning.

“Thank you for inviting me,” Ms Singer said, walking around, inspecting the house.

“I was told you could help,” Brenda said, following behind.

“Your husband’s service history file satisfies me.”

“I don’t really know what you do.”

“I buy ‘neglected’ husbands. I then restore him back to his original self and then sell,” Ms Singer said, tucking her Filofax under her armpit. “Hassle free Husband extractions.”

“My husband isn’t neglected.”

“Of course.”

“Did you want to meet Jack?”

“My extraction team deal with first contact.”

“Do you have references from previous jobs?”

“I could provide them but aren’t you desperate to get rid of your husband?”

“Did my neighbour tell you this? She’s a nosy-”

“You have your Lover living here, don’t you?” Ms Singer said.

“Lodger.”

Edward was the new man in her life. He could cook, held a good conversation, had a top executive job in the city and had lots of energy in other departments. Plus he wasn’t going bald too. It made Brenda want to wear lipstick and buy flowery dresses.

“I’m going to offer two thousand pounds.”

“Yes please,” Brenda said. Edward told her not to accept the first offer but she couldn’t help herself.

“Great,” Ms Singer said, counting out the twenty pound notes. “The price includes his possessions, too.”

“Fantastic,” Brenda said, snatching the cash.

 ***

Brenda collapsed into Jack’s old chair, freshly upholstered with the most of the money set aside for the wedding, and switched on the telly to watch Live Aid. Her feet hurt from standing on all day in high heels. She should have taken them off after the ceremony and put on her slippers but she wanted to impress Edward’s parents. They seemed to look down their noses at her John Lewis dress and fake silver necklace from Marks and Sparks. It wasn’t a deliberate mistake, using the wedding money. It was the thing she could think of that would help cure the tears just before bedtime. She told Edward that it was happiness, of course. It meant they had to have a wedding buffet at their house but Edward understood. Only the neighbours and Edward’s parents turned up too. Ms Singer made an appearance but only to tell Brenda that Jack was re-homed. She stayed for three drinks, boasting about Jack’s new glamorous lifestyle in Spain and how he had met Duran Duran while on a cruise. Brenda just smiled but she knew Jack would have been sea sick for the whole of the journey. When she left, she handed over a business card, telling Brenda to give her a call when it was time.

From her chair, she could see Edward, in the kitchen, putting cling-film over the leftovers from the buffet. He was nodding along to some opinion piece on the radio. She turned up the volume of the telly and tired to enjoy the screeching of some band she didn’t recognise. She didn’t want to know if it was an announcement about a Wife Scrappage Scheme. Her loan for Edward would probably wipe out her value. She didn’t even want to think about the saggy sections of her body or even contemplate the gaps in her service file.

“Did you enjoy yourself today?” Edward said, coming into the living room, still wrapping the leftover ham in tin foil.

“It was wonderful.”

“Tomorrow we’ll get you to the hairdressers and banish those grey hairs forever,” he said, using his winning smile. It was the same one he used in the catalogue to seduce her.

Brenda sunk further into her seat. He was going to give her minor improvements and sell her to some dingy sales man who ran an office out of a porter cabin. She stroked the arm of the chair. She might have preferred the old cover.

————————

Jessica Patient wrote stories when she was younger in refillable notepads with illustrations of ponies with thin bodies and fat legs. Her short stories have appeared at 3:AM Magazine, The Beat, Metazen, The View from Here Magazine and many other places. She writes a blog, www.writerslittlehelper.blogspot.com. Jessica lives in Bedfordshire, England.

Manifesto of Blind

Love Affair

She is a half-life. She has an alter ego tattooed to her arm. People mistake her for a movie star they can never remember the name of. She thinks she needs to tailor her jeans but pinches her waist for love handles. She calls herself many names in her sleep, all of which turn into real people in her dreams. When she wakes up in the morning her boyfriend hugs her tight to his chest and they discuss. He is never the one she loves in her dreams. She levitates over the houses of old lovers until she wakes up and can’t remember the imaginary name of the old boyfriend’s new lady. She doesn’t know what it means. Her boyfriend thinks she feels trapped so she learns to keep the harm of the dream in her sleep. She wakes up to her naked body. Out the window lawn mowers split grass into a fresh green smell. She sucks it in. Tomorrow is her birthday and she calls herself old, half as much as she wants, not nearly who she thinks she is. After breakfast she is sad because breakfast is the best meal of the day. Then her boyfriend offers her his, and she tells him not to. After all, he is underweight, and she needs something to look forward to.

 

Amends, For Him

He drew a circle around her body and kissed her cheeks. Inside the circle he placed a box and chalk. He wrote Happy Birthday on the box and then, in smaller words, To The Most Beautiful Chocolate Dino.

She jumped out of the circle.

Wrapped in twine inside the box were five distinct chocolate bars of his choosing. He opened one and gave it to her, told her the man from the store had sent it especially for her. She took a bite and offered him a square he refused.

Outside they walked along the boulevard, she mirroring his walk so their shadows merged in the dusk.

When they got back she was angry with him for being too kind. He went to sleep and she dreamed of love. Even in her dreams she knew the reason for each one. Something like him was too new to her mind. Like washing cold coffee out of a cup to ready it for warm cider, her dreams drained her mind of everything before. She knew she needed to be ready, and every night washed her clean.

He woke before her. With the chocolate he couldn’t eat the night before smudging his teeth, he shook her to wake.

————————

Heather Palmer has written the online-serialized novella Charlie’s Train (the2ndhand), the chapbook Mere Tragedies (Girls With Insurance) and the novella Complements: of Us (Spork Press), and a host of magazine publications. Her work explores absurdity-inspired adventures and biographical curiosities. She has blogged for FEARLESS chocolate and teaches grammar at Harold Washington College of Chicago. 

Ruckus

Do you remember Little Jordy Buchanan? You know, that kid who used to pretend he was a dog all the time? He lived at the end of our street. He must’ve been six, maybe seven. Tell me you remember him. He used to run around on all fours, digging holes into people’s lawns, burying what appeared to be bones. Is this ringing any bells? I used to be out working in my garage, and I’d hear him in the street, being loud, always causing a ruckus. He’d be chasing a vehicle, or clawing through someone’s trash, or barking at a seagull. There was even this one time he started barking at my baby girl. I remember it perfectly, the way he scampered on over to our property, practically naked, woofing and slobbering and acting crazy. It terrified my baby so bad she started bawling from right there in her stroller. So I started yelling at Little Jordy Buchanan after that, trying to show him some discipline, but do you think the kid listened to me? Of course not. He just spun around in circles chasing his non-existent tail. But that was Little Jordy Buchanan for you. He was an odd one, I swear. You remember him now, don’t you? How could you forget any of this? He lived with his parents at the end of our street, in the corner house, the one with the yellow garage doors. His father was a dentist and his mother was a painter. I liked them both. They seemed relatively normal aside from the fact that their son ran around licking people. Damn, that kid was weird. His eyes were constantly in motion, pupils dilating in and out, and his hair, it always smelled like insect repellent. And he was dirty, filthy, the least hygienic thing I’d ever seen. One time I even caught him in the street playing with a dead raccoon. He had it impaled on the end of a stick, dangling off of the tip like it was a roasted marshmallow. The poor raccoon’s guts were spilling out all over the curb in front of the Webbs’ house. You have to remember that at least? The dead raccoon? Still nothing? I can picture it all like it happened yesterday. Everything. The way Little Jordy Buchanan’s breath smelled after he ate dog food, or the way a fire hydrant smelled after he urinated on it. And the poo! My God, how could I forget about the poo? One afternoon, the Vassermans’ teenage boy goes out to mow their back lawn, and guess what he sees? Little Jordy Buchanan defecating in Mary Vasserman’s vegetable garden. I swear to God, I am not making this up. Don’t you remember? Everyone was talking about it at the May Two-Four barbeque. Mary Vasserman telephoned the Buchanan household after that, threatening to call child services, but do you think they did anything about it? Tell me, do you think anything changed? Hell no. Less than a week later Little Jordy Buchanan was causing more trouble, and then soon after that he wound up in the hospital… What? Yes! Yes, he had rabies! You remember! No, I’m not entirely sure how it happened. He was probably French kissing a wolverine or something. Anyways, point is, Little Jordy Buchanan got released from the hospital a few weeks later, and then shortly after that the Buchanans’ moved away. So I haven’t seen any of them in, how long, maybe ten years or so? That is until last week. I couldn’t believe it. I ran into him at the grocery store, I swear. It was quite surreal. Little Jordy Buchanan, now an Average-Sized Jordan Buchanan. I kept expecting him to bite me or something, but he didn’t. He acted rather polite, rather ordinary. He was clean-shaven, dressed in a preppy, blue collared shirt and black jeans. We shook hands. He had a firm grip. He remembered me, and asked how my family was. The whole thing didn’t feel right though. The normalcy of our conversation I mean, it made me feel uneasy, like everything I’d ever known was suddenly off-kilter, suddenly deteriorating. Does that make any sense? Do you understand what I’m trying to say? I started to sweat. Profusely. Jordan Buchanan asked me if I was okay. I grabbed a bag of peas off one of the shelves, threw them down an aisle, telling him to go Fetch! He looked at me like I was demented. Since when did I become the weird one? A store employee asked me to go pick up the peas. His tone of voice was civil, yet stern. Customers were looking at me. I didn’t like having all those eyes on me, so I decided to leave the store. I told Jordan Buchanan I needed to go. He just looked at me, along with all of the other customers. It was rather depressing, but I guess that’s all he was now, no longer Little Jordy Buchanan, but just another average-sized person shopping in a grocery store. I reminded him about the dead raccoon before I left. I told him it was disgusting to watch. He just continued to look at me, not saying anything. What else was there to say? I found the exit and was gone.

————————

Mark Jordan Manner is currently a student at York University where he received the 2011 President’s Prize for Fiction. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ricepaper Magazine, Word Riot, Bartleby Snopes, Red Lightbulbs, among others, and his story ‘Poem About Writing A Poem’ recently earned 1st place in Bartleby Snopes Third Annual Dialogue Competition. Feel free to discover more of his words at: markjordanmanner.blogspot.com.

The Forgery

1.

The Forgery by James Warner, Illustration Sheri MauAs Giacomo entered the atrium of Cipriana’s villa, Cipriana descended a marble staircase. “You don’t look a day older,” Giacomo called to her, pausing by an Etruscan statue of an emaciated-looking warrior.

“But you, Giacomo, actually look younger,” Cipriana lied.

He hadn’t seen her since the days when they both belonged to the leftist group Lotta Continua — it was alarming to see somebody from so long ago, as if the intervening decades had collapsed into nothingness, and he and Cipriana were merely impersonating their earlier, less compromised selves. As they made contact and kissed each other’s cheeks, Giacomo registered that her face had been zealously over-restored by a plastic surgeon. He seemed to be kissing a taut replica of the spontaneous features he recalled from nights of drinking Frascati in trattorias, timetabling the overthrow of the state.  Detecting the wash of impatience beneath her finely-toned enthusiasm, he allowed her to lead him upstairs.

“You’ve lost a lot of weight,” she added, more truthfully.

He nodded, too weary even to go through the motions of flirting with her. She was not surprised to see him, but surprise was the only emotion her renovated face seemed able to express.

“How are your august employers treating you nowadays?” she asked.

Cipriana believed Giacomo was still a research curator for the Vatican. He could not respond to her question, because he was reeling from the Modigliani sculpture at the top of the stairs. Within moments, he was certain it was a fake. It gave him a feeling like motion sickness.

There was no more vivid difference than that between something made with love and a cynical imitation. Giacomo said nothing about the Modigliani however, because Cipriana had invited him here to pronounce on another artwork entirely, a de Chirico her new husband Licio was contemplating buying from a local family of art dealers. Cipriana had persuaded them to let her borrow it for a week, “to see how it looked in the dining room,” and summoned Giacomo to examine it.

In the dining room, Giacomo noted an alcove behind the drinks cabinet containing several Apulian vases and a Benvenuto Cellini saltshaker his former masters at the Vatican would have broken all ten commandments to get their hands on.

The de Chirico showed a neo-classical facade, with Corinthian columns casting disquieting shadows. A fragmented marble torso and the sail of a distant ship contributed to the ominous mood. As he stiffly contemplated the canvas, his arms folded, Giacomo’s immediate emotional reaction was as to a rehashing of something no longer believed in.

But when determining authenticity, understanding the personality of the artist is key. Giacomo had visited de Chirico once, in his studio at the top of the Palazzetto dei Borgognoni. The paintings de Chirico had done in Paris had impressed the Surrealists and established his reputation, but in middle age, after moving to Rome, he’d settled on a more realistic and representational style, influenced by Renoir and even Rubens, a style that brought him only contempt from the avant-garde. His later works having never attained the same market value as those from his metaphysical period, as an old man he’d supplemented his income by turning out pastiches he claimed were old works of his he’d “found under the bed,” prompting one Roman wit to claim that de Chirico must sleep seven feet above the floor.

Giacomo was sure this was a work from beneath de Chirico’s metaphysical mattress.

“The attribution is unquestionably accurate,” he declared, “although not the date.”

It would be more truthful, he thought, to call it a de Chirico forgery of a de Chirico. But it was genuine enough for Licio, a suspiciously wealthy magistrate. “Thank you Giacomo,” Cipriana said. “You spoke of asking me to do you a favor in return for this one?”

“I need to find Max,” Giacomo said.

“Our old English comrade?”

Giacomo inclined his head.

“He wrote to me not long ago,” Cipriana said. “He still lives in Rome, you know. I think it’s unforgivable,” she added insincerely, “what Max did.”

Giacomo stared out across the terrace over the sun-drenched roof tiles. Mopeds roared, and one of Cipriana’s neighbors, somewhere out of sight, was singing arias in his bath. For a long moment, Giacomo found himself incapable of remembering exactly where he was or what he was doing.  He began fighting down a panic attack, sweating and also shivering, symptoms of the disease that had killed his aunt, and her mother before her.

The villa seemed too small suddenly. Cipriana helped him back down the stairway, his eyes squinting to avoid taking another look at the so-called Modigliani, and found him a glass of brandy. He could see she had realized something was deeply wrong, and had decided not to acknowledge it. Her actions and utterances from now on would all be counterfeit. “If I were you, I would forget all about looking for Max,” she said. “Take care of yourself, and try not to get into trouble.”

#

Later that week, Giacomo stood by Antonio Gramsci’s grave, waiting.

Most of Rome was deliriously hot in summer, but it was cool beneath the creaking cypresses in the Protestant Cemetery.

Soon after Giacomo’s meeting with Cipriana, a messenger from Max had arrived, asking Giacomo to suggest a meeting place. Giacomo was however not sure Max would show up. Max undoubtedly knew, as Cipriana seemingly did not, that Giacomo currently worked for a division of the army known as the Comando Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale, the Command for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage.

Crickets chirped and swallows swooped. Giacomo had chosen this meeting-place to remind Max of their shared enthusiasms of bygone years, for Gramsci but also for Keats and Shelley who lay buried here too. A hairless cat reclined on a tombstone.

“I’m a pessimist because of intelligence,” Max declared, “but an optimist because of will.”

Giacomo turned slowly. Max did not look like a man to quote Gramsci in Italian. He had diminished into a fat, red-nosed Englishman of the sort seen in old caricatures, complete with shaggy hair and beard, straw hat and pinstriped jacket.

The two men shook hands first, then embraced and kissed each other on the cheeks. Max, a homosexual, had always claimed to be in love with Giacomo, back in their Lotta Continua days. Max had been a successful art dealer for decades now, but had been keeping a low profile since the great auction houses learned most of the Grand Masters he sold were his own skilful reproductions.

“I was sorry to hear of your disgrace,” Giacomo said, “although I have reasons of my own to be confident that you still make a good living.”

Max chuckled. “I sold sculptures no expert could prove weren’t by Michelangelo. Damien Hirst sells a dead cow and calls it art. Which of us is the real impostor?” Max had always been adept at rationalizations. His earliest forgeries had been designed to use the false consciousness of the bourgeoisie against them, hastening the demise of capitalism.

Giacomo accepted a cigar from Max. As they smoked, they glared at the fine view of the Pyramid of Cestius, for centuries believed to be the burial place of Remus, in reality a self-made man’s tasteless memorial to himself, dating from the first century A.D. — most ancient Roman art copied the art of other peoples the Romans had invaded. The pyramid’s ersatz, marble-faced blocks were mottled with lichen, and its shadow fell across Keats’s grave.

“Contemptuous of modern art,” Max was declaring, “I chose to paint in the tradition of the grand masters. Is it my fault that nowadays the only way to make a living painting in the tradition of the grand masters is to paint grand masters? You seem tired.”

“I have a rare inherited disease of the brain,” Giacomo confided, “fatal familial insomnia. I have seven to eighteen months to live. My prognosis is four months of increasing insomnia and panic attacks, followed by five months of hallucinations, rapid weight loss, dementia and death.”

Max sighed and put his arms around Giacomo.

“There is no cure. My aunt died the same way.”

“I can’t express how sorry I am,” Max muttered, releasing Giacomo. “I’ve been an insomniac myself for years but… obviously there’s no comparison.”

“Right now I’m getting two hours sleep a night, and soon I won’t be able to sleep at all. My pension from the carabinieri will be almost nothing. I need to raise some money, to make sure my wife and daughter are provided for after my death. For that reason, I am hoping to locate a Sumerian marble statuette.”

“How to establish a provenance for such a work?” Max wondered.

“It could have been part of the spoils of an ancient campaign,” Giacomo said with a shrug, “perhaps from the conquest of Mesopotamia by the Emperor Septimus Severus. However I prefer the idea that it was looted more recently, by one of our Italian soldiers serving in Iraq, perhaps taken from the National Museum in Baghdad. Their system of inventory left much to be desired. A prospective buyer already exists. It’s just a matter of locating the piece.” Giacomo stubbed out his cigar. “I’m well placed to arrange the export license and the other paperwork.”

“I don’t know much about Sumerian art,” Max said. “But I’m a quick study.”

#

Giacomo had imagined Max working in a desolate and picturesque spot, such as the Jewish catacombs beneath the Appian Way. Everyone knew, after all, that Englishmen were romantics.

But when Giacomo showed up there a few weeks later, Max’s flat turned out to be in a newly-built residential area, on the fringes of the countryside. It was a flat that was completely ordinary-looking in all respects, except for being full of half-finished Raphaels, Uccellos, Caravaggios, and Piero della Francescas. Here the Renaissance was still in full swing.

Giacomo’s glanced quickly from canvas to canvas. To compare these paintings side by side was to put Max at a disadvantage, as his own distinctive brushwork stood out jarringly.

His sculptures were far superior. There was one that Giacomo might have taken for a freshly-discovered Donatello saint, had the subject not unmistakably been Giacomo himself. As he scrutinized his own marble likeness, his eyes seemed to gaze back at him cruelly, as if foreseeing the deterioration of attention and memory he could expect to suffer, and the progressive, dreamlike state of confusion that would follow, as prions accumulated in his brain. “To make a Donatello requires real skill,” Giacomo commented, “because he was so consistently inventive. One might even say that Donatello never attained a mature style.”

“Sometimes I think there’s no such thing,” Max muttered. He took up his mallet and chisel and made an alteration to one of the folds of Giacomo’s toga. There was something Roman in Max’s flair for improvisation — one’s true country is not always the place where one is born. “How is Cipriana?” Max inquired.

“Her new husband’s been amassing quite a collection recently,” Giacomo said.

“That Modigliani of his,” Max sneered. “Looking at that is like getting kicked in the balls. I could make a better Modigliani with my eyes closed and my hands tied behind my back.”

Giacomo came to the Sumerian statuette. Beside her, Max had propped open the Prussian textbook Giacomo had sent him, including shots from three different angles. She was the goddess Innana, a goddess of fertility who brought a lump to Giacomo’s throat.

“There is no scientific procedure for dating marble,” Max said, “but stable isotope analysis can be used to determine where the marble used in a sculpture was quarried. I used Proconnesus marble. I forget whether that quarry falls within the borders of Greece or Turkey today, but some of the Sumerian city-states might have had access to it, through trade with the Phrygians.”

Giacomo said, “I am confident that my buyer will not attempt to authenticate the source of the marble.”

Max had deliberately dropped his work a few times and glued it back together, careful to use glue made from recipes of great antiquity. Yet it still had the glistening freshness of anything newborn. “In a fake,” Max said, “too sloppy is always better than too meticulous. I don’t know who this goddess was, but whoever sculpted the original believed in her absolutely. The next stage is to immerse her in a solution of vitriol and urine to get the right patina, and coloring agents to impose a variegated surface.”

Giacomo handed Max an envelope of Swiss francs and said, “Send her to me when the aging process is completed.”

“She was harder than I expected,” Max said. “Ideally we’d bury her for a few months, but I suppose there isn’t time. Well, there never is. But you shouldn’t dig too deep in Italy. When they buried Shelley, they tried opening the grave containing the remains of his son by Mary Wollstonecraft, buried there three years before. But the bones were gone. They found an adult skeleton instead. I understand that was how you lost your job as a Vatican research curator, for asking too many questions about things better left buried.”

Too tired to respond, Giacomo watched Max count the banknotes.

“She has a unique energy,” Max said with a yawn. “They’re real when I’m making them – I think it’s only afterwards they become fakes.” Clasping Giacomo’s wrist with both hands, he gazed downward as if in search of underground secrets.

2.

Long weeks later, the statuette was delivered to Giacomo’s home. He fumblingly unwrapped her, and compared her with the original. Considering that Max had only had photographs to work from, it was an astonishing achievement, lacking only the vital spark of originality – and that was something few besides Giacomo seemed able to detect.

He held her upside down – it was easier to spot a fake that way – and she still appeared impeccable. What could Max have managed if he’d been able to see the genuine article?

But that would have been too much of a risk. The fewer people knew the real Innana existed, the better.

Giacomo had been dispatched to Baghdad as part of an art crimes unit in 2003, to scan and log information about missing treasures into international databases. A Sardinian soldier, serving with the Sassari brigade, had sold Giacomo the female deity, claiming to have found it near a ziggurat among the ruins of Babylon. It was incredibly rare, one of the few cult statuettes of a Mesopotamian goddess surviving anywhere in the world. Giacomo had bought the original intending to sell it, but found himself unable to part with her. He was not really a collector, but this piece affected him so strongly, he knew it had to remain within his family.

There were nights in the last few weeks when Giacomo had slept. But more often he spent the hours of darkness sweating and thinking of nothing. In the rare moments when he did sleep, it was the agitated sleep of a man about to emerge from a nightmare, a parody of genuine repose.

As Giacomo rewrapped the looted artifact in cloth and replaced it in his attic, anything he took his eyes off for more than a moment seemed to be shimmering slightly.

After breakfasting on espresso, he staggered out of his house with the replica under his arm. He had a headache, and his nose was bleeding. His fatigue made the city appear brittle, ready to shatter at a single tap from a divine mallet.

Rome was more malodorous than usual today, because the garbagemen were on strike. Giacomo took a bus to Piazza Navono. Graffiti was everywhere, here a hammer and sickle, there a swastika — no political cause ever entirely died out here.

There was a big soccer match on, Roma versus Lazio, which most of the police force had taken the day off to attend. Mint sprouted from the sidewalk outside a video store. In Piazza Navona, there were buskers and mimes, and a beggarwoman hawking handbags of imitation leather. Giacomo got off the bus and strode deliberately through the Campo del Fiori, where Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake, and where during a demonstration he and Max had once gotten into a fight with some anarchists.

A gypsy tried to sell him a simulacrum of a necklace. Souvenir shops displayed garish, tacky memorabilia of the former Pope. These days Giacomo generally only went to the Vatican to buy cigarettes, since Italian state taxes did not apply there. He crossed the border, and trod once again through the Vatican’s echoing, painted halls.

His destination today was the office of Randall Krone, a Curial Monsignor, an American. Giacomo knocked and entered, and the Monsignor looked hungrily at the parcel Giacomo placed on his desk before unwrapping it.

Monsignor Krone turned the statuette around about ninety degrees and continued to inspect her, as if trying to stare her down. Giacomo felt very weary. Today was swelteringly hot. Monsignor Krone rotated the statuette another ninety degrees. “Big tits,” he commented in English. “Proves she’s a nature goddess.”

Men like this were trophy hunters, caring more for what a piece represented than for what it embodied. Giacomo was glad he was not parting with the original.

Switching to Italian, the Monsignor said, “Under Italian law, if you buy a work of art in good faith from a legitimate dealer, you immediately become the rightful owner, even if it’s hot property, right?” Giacomo nodded. “Good faith,” the Monsignor said. “That’s a pretty elastic concept around here.” He displayed a sneer that must already have made him many enemies. It was hard for anyone to rise very high at the Vatican without making enemies, for an American it was even harder, and for this particular American…  Monsignor Krone squinted at Giacomo. “I thought Italians never got drunk.”

Giacomo said, “I am not drunk.”

“They say antiquities smuggling is helping to fund the insurgency in Iraq,” said the Monsignor. “The price we originally agreed on is too high,” he added.

After some half-hearted haggling, they fixed on a new price.

“You’ll get paid once I’m sure this isn’t a fake,” the Monsignor said. “I’m going to have somebody look at it. Pax vobiscum.”

Dismissed, Giacomo found himself wandering through muggy corridors, past frescoes of voluptuous angels. Drawn into a small, unobtrusive side-chapel by the sight of a plaster Madonna in a dark alcove, he considered kneeling to pray for the restoration of his strength and good spirits. But then he saw the dampness of her abraded cheeks, and was reminded of the way, throughout his life, village Madonnas had spouted miraculous tears whenever it looked as if the Communist Party might pick up seats in the next election.

Religion was a masquerade. From the pickpockets in Saint Peter’s Square to the money launderers at the Vatican Bank, everyone was on the take.

Giacomo bought six cartons of Marlboro from the Vatican supermarket. He was no longer a Vatican employee, but they still accepted his pass. Oppressed by the clammy past falling away beneath his feet, he quickened his step as he departed from the Holy See. What was this place but a museum of lies? Many of the great Masters of the Renaissance had made money on the sides by churning out spurious antiquities, and Giacomo knew from personal experience that perhaps eighty percent of the classical pieces owned by the Vatican were really the work of eighteenth-century forgers. No organization on the planet was slower to admit to its mistakes.

And if the world’s oldest antiquities were accepted as genuine, this was mainly because there was nothing to compare them with. They could equally well be pastiches of originals now long lost. Many of the world’s ancient Greek statues were really ancient Roman reproductions of Greek statues. The world was full of forgeries that would never be detected, a fact that sometimes depressed Giacomo, but today lightened his mood, so that he was in a sort of hopeful stupor as he passed the sunlit dome of Saint Peter’s.

The sky was limpid and luminous. On his way through Saint Anne’s gate, Giacomo nodded to the Swiss Guards with their halberds, and the blue-suited Vigilanza officers, who still knew him by sight. A billboard on the other side of the gate displayed a topless model in blue jeans. A gang of Lazio supporters were impeding traffic, in a victory-inspired trance. Giacomo thought that the clouds looked strangely elaborate and stiff, almost rococo in their convoluted fluency.

“Do I wake or sleep?” Keats had asked. Giacomo made his way to a café table, trying not to flinch when a car horn blared. He had the sense of being hopelessly late for an important demonstration, and of something watching him from underground, a feeling that a glass of Orvieto did nothing to dispel. All he could do now was wait for Krone to come up with the money…

#

Licio had last worked with Giacomo on the case of a Guercino caricature stolen from the Capitoline museum. Today he seemed merely to have dropped into Giacomo’s office for a little chat, until Giacomo asked how Cipriana was, and Licio replied, “She is not taking the news well.”

When Giacomo did not understand, Licio looked incredulous.

“The news of Max Branthwaite’s death.”

Giacomo was by now simply too tired to process fresh information.

“Max has been murdered,” Licio exclaimed. Giacomo felt as if he was floating in a bottomless cavern, alienated even from his own grief, even though he could already feel tears forming. “They found him lying in the Botteghe Oscure, with a fractured skull.”

Licio produced the Prussian textbook, still open to the page with the photograph of the Sumerian statuette, and bearing Giacomo’s name on the frontispiece.

“When did you last visit Max’s house?”

Giacomo understood at last that Licio was in charge of investigating Max’s death. Already softened up by weeks without sleep, constipated and wracked by intermittent tremors, he was in no state to resist interrogation. “A few weeks ago,” he said. “I don’t remember exactly. A social visit.”

“Why would an officer in the carabinieri pay a social visit to the home of a convicted forger?” Licio asked in his nasal voice.

“Max was an old friend,” Giacomo sobbed.

“Yes. You were both members of Lotta Continua.”

As a former revolutionary, Giacomo would never be fully accepted within the world of law enforcement. For the carabinieri, Giacomo’s Vatican connections somewhat compensated for his leftist past, but Licio probably saw Giacomo and Max as bad influences on Cipriana – unaware that, in the old days, she had been the most radical of them all. Unless of course, she had been a police spy all along… but Giacomo dismissed the thought as unworthy of him. Cipriana had wound up marrying a magistrate, but then, had anyone among them lived up to their youthful ideals? Perhaps Max had come the closest.

“Cipriana told me you were looking for him… did the Englishman say anything that might shed light on the manner of his death?” Licio asked.

Giacomo tried to remember the conversation. “He said that the only way to make a living now painting in the tradition of the grand masters was to paint grand masters.”

“Someone hit him from behind with a blunt instrument, hard enough to crack his skull. Who would have wanted to do that?”

Half the world’s art experts, Giacomo thought, who Max had exposed as incompetents. Or else a private collector enraged at being swindled. But Giacomo replied, “Max told me that in Italy, it was never possible to get at the truth.”

Licio’s gaze returned to the textbook. “Do you recognize the work of art depicted here? You were seen last week visiting the office of Monsignor Randall Krone.”

“I had some questions to ask the Monsignor,” Giacomo said. “I suspect he is involved in smuggling antiquities.”

“It’s common knowledge. You went to see him on official business?” Licio offered Giacomo a cigarette, then lit one himself.

Giacomo’s own hands proved too unsteady to light his cigarette. “I was following a hunch,” he said.

Licio took a long drag before saying, “Hunches can be useful in our line of work.”

They could have gone on for hours like this. Giacomo felt that he was on the verge of confessing about the Innana statue, out of sheer fatigue, but he was saved by a phone call from his boss.

There was an urgent job for him. And the carabinieri were not about to hold up business to suit Licio – there was too much rivalry between the separate branches of Italian law enforcement.

So a couple of muscular officers in Versace Ray-Bans, swearing constantly about the traffic, drove Giacomo to the Fiumicino airport in a shiny black Alfa Romeo.

Giacomo was needed to authenticate an etching by Giovanni Piranesi.

The owner was a professor bound for New York, who for some reason dressed like an Albanian pimp, and kept repeating over and over again that he had a plane to catch. Customs had found a framed etching of the Baths of Diocletian in his luggage.

Piranesi was the artist who best understood Rome – that combination of powerful exuberance with ultimate futility, of choking constriction with dizzying endlessness. Giacomo could detect a real Piranesi by the dread feeling it gave him in the pit of his stomach, and this one was a hopeless fraud, watered-down and fussy, lacking Piranesi’s awe-inspiring perspective.

The frame was rather heavy however, and after Giacomo took it aside into a special room and opened it up, concealed beneath the etching he found a sketch of an antique dungeon, deep enough to inspire vertigo, and full of unsettling marvels. The buyer clearly believed this was the real thing, a preparatory sketch for one of the artist’s Imaginary Prisons. But although something of the menace of a true Piranesi came through – a cavernous interior, paradoxically managing to inspire claustrophobia and agoraphobia simultaneously — Giacomo could tell it too was a forgery, although a far more skillful one than the other piece.

It was one of Max’s.

The thought hit him that Max would never make such a thing again. The violence of Max’s demise only heightened the melancholy of this drawing, a vast dungeon with chains, stone lions, balustrades, cogs and pulleys, and, in one corner, dwarfed by the cyclopean structures around them, some tiny, gesticulating figures.

One of them was clasping a statue that Giacomo recognized.

Surely it was the sculpture of the Goddess.

But that could not be. When he looked again, he could no longer find the Goddess and, even more confusingly, the sketch now seemed like a perfectly passable Piranesi.

One of the few artists who was not only an architect but also an archeologist, Piranesi was alive to the inexhaustible layeredness of Rome, to the oppressiveness of the ever-present past. Piranesi had recognized Rome itself as a masterpiece garishly and feverishly retouched, until it was itself no longer an authentic example of any style, a mishmash of periods and styles festooned with anachronisms and surrounded with scaffolding.

Giacomo trusted his first instinct, and told his colleagues, “It’s a fake.” This being so, the carabinieri had no objection to the American taking it to New York. It was only genuine Italian art that they were sworn to keep in the country. Giacomo replaced the sketch in the frame behind the etching, since it was better if the tourist believed his trick had worked — who knew what they might catch him with next time?

The professor complained self-righteously about their wasting his time, made some general observations about Roman bureaucratic inefficiency, then went to board his flight.

Giacomo tried to form a sentence, but his colleagues seemed to have gone. He did not know how long he had been standing here, in the airport, no place for a weary man. His bones ached, his joints burned, and the names of places he would never visit flickered on a large board. Tourists from all the nations flocked past. How many of them carried smuggled antiquities, and how many were real?

At last he saw the carabinieri coming for him. Would they take him to a dungeon like the one in the Piranesi sketch? His aunt had been raving about dungeons when she died.

But all they’d done was go to get him a takeout caffé macchiato before driving him home. The carabinieri were only late because they had been flirting with a waitress in the café.

Luckily they had not parked too far underground. It took courage for Giacomo to descend even the single flight of stairs that led down to their parking place…

#

Giacomo and his wife Azzurra were eating zabaglione. The olive oil tasted wrong to Giacomo, as if it had been mixed with seed oils. He would have to notify the branch of the carabinieri responsible for preventing the adulteration of olive oil.

Azzurra had uncorked a bottle of Pinot grigio, but there was no relief in wine to a man this befuddled. Giacomo sipped Pellegrino water instead – it tasted wrong too. It was August, and he was on vacation. Azzurra showed him a potion she had received from a gypsy. “You mix this in your drink,” she said, “to make you sleep. Do you think it will work?”

Because of his reputation, people often asked Giacomo to pronounce on the reliability of objects – coins they’d found, or saints’ relics or fragments of the True Cross – that fell outside his sphere of expertise. He told such people what he thought they wanted to hear. People had suggested he find sleep with the help of molasses, melatonin, licorice, valerian root, wheat germ oil, a silk eye mask, a white noise machine – all to no avail. But he told Azzurra he was sure her potion would help.

Her smile was briefly so radiant, it reminded him of the early days of their courtship, of their honeymoon in Yugoslavia. That was where Communists vacationed in those days – Fascists vacationed in Spain.

Now Azzurra was having an affair. Giacomo could tell by the determination with which she observed her customary routines, the deliberation with which she dressed down, the fact that for three months she had not substantially remodeled her hairstyle. These days, Giacomo wished that more escaped him. His own libido had been extinct for weeks.

She put his hand on his. He stared at her uncertainly. “Are you just pretending that it will help?” she said.

“I swear by the Madonna.” He poured the potion into his Pellegrino.

Azzura pointed to the room upstairs where their daughter Zita was trying to get some sleep. “Be sure to check in on her every few hours,” Azzura said.

Giacomo thought of the dungeons beneath Diocletian’s place in Split. They had spent many happy hours in those arching vaults. He would not have returned there for anything — the underground realm was horrible to him now.

He would have to resign soon, whatever Licio might read into that act, and prepare himself for death.

When he noticed that Azzurra had gone, he looked through a coffee-table book of Piranesi engravings.

Each one seemed to be by Max.

Max had been heard to say that some of his Piranesis had fooled everyone. Of course, he would have to say that, to confuse the historical record. The art work was full of unrecognized fakes. It was how men like Max revenged themselves on a world that had failed to appreciate their talent.

But not all of the Piranesis in this book could be Max’s.

When Giacomo glanced at himself in a mirror, there were black circles all around his eyes, and his pupils had shrunk to pinpricks. He turned the mirror to the wall, and looked at his book again. All the machines depicted here seemed to be fragments of instruments of torture.

He walked up to the top floor, the Piranesi volume under his arm, to get further away from whatever lay below. Outside, people shouted and threw firecrackers into the night.

Giacomo smoked a Marlboro cigarette, which did not look, smell, or taste like a Marlboro cigarette. Was the Vatican selling fake cigarettes now? His favorite desk seemed to have been replaced with a cheap imitation, as if someone had broken in and replaced all the furniture, and when he next looked at the etchings, they seemed to be seething.

He closed his eyes, and the hallucinations continued, monsters creeping through prisons, lost travelers straggling around giant oubliettes. Sometimes he looked at the book, sometimes he just lay on his bed, it made no difference. A faucet dripped nearby, the sound of eternity. Everything on television was phony. Phony politicians waged phony wars. The art world trafficked exclusively in phoniness.

Giacomo stood and limped up to the attic to look at the statuette of Innana.

Had he given Krone the wrong Goddess by mistake? This too looked like the work of Max, not like the original he remembered secreting here. Or had the Sardinian sold him a fake? The Goddess’s smile seemed to have deepened, becoming crueler. She even seemed to have grown slightly. Judging authenticity in the absence of sleep was like trying to taste food when you had a cold.

“Daddy, I can’t sleep.”

His daughter had tiptoed up the stairs behind him. She gave him a hug, glancing without interest at the goddess, and Giacomo lay down on what had once been a Minotti recliner and waited for her to fall asleep in his arms, holding her tight and praying for her to turn back into herself. But to whom was he praying? Too weak now to lift his sleeping, murmuring daughter by himself, Giacomo waited patiently for his wife to return home, listening to the buzzing of appliances and to Monsignor Krone’s voice, on the answering machine from the floor below, demanding to know why the hell he didn’t pick up the phone…

3.

Krone had work for him.

Underneath the Vatican, the air was dank with wet clay. Giacomo was with the Monsignor, and a German bishop in bifocals. Bearing flashlights, they descended into the Necropolis of the Parking Garage.

Giacomo was terrified and could hardly breathe.

All Rome’s churches were founded on pagan shrines. There was always a crypt with a locked doorway the sacristan was prepared to open for a small fee, disclosing stairways leading down to the remnants of baths, taverns, long-buried brothels, arcades, barracks, and arsenals. The founders of churches liked to obliterate the competition by covering them up, and as a general rule, the more imposing the edifice, the more important the horrors it was there to conceal.

The Necropoli dell’Autoparco was unearthed in 2003, directly below the street connecting the Vatican pharmacy and supermarket, when construction workers broke ground for a new parking garage. Following complaints that dump trucks leaving the site were carrying tombstones and other important archaeological debris, the Vatican admitted they had uncovered a burial ground, a cluster of mausoleums preserved when they were covered by clay during a fourth century landslide. These were now a museum open to the public on Thursdays.

“Whoever authorized this in the first place made a huge mistake,” the bishop growled.

Giacomo was silent. As a research curator, he had helped pressure the Vatican into pursuing the excavation, by leaking select information to the newspaper Il Manifesto.

They passed urns and amphoras, steles and sarcophagi. Seeing the head of a young girl in a glass case, Giacomo tried to speak, but the words struck in this throat. Clay tubes, used by pagans to feed their dead with honey and syrup, still protruded fingerlike from the ground.

Now they were leaving the Necropolis for another, more recently excavated site, that Giacomo had not even heard rumors about. The bishop pointed his flashlight down a steep shaft.

“No way in Hell am I going down there,” said Monsignor Krone.

“Below,” the bishop told Giacomo, fingering his gold chain, “is a statue like the one you sold us. But much larger.”

“We asked two experts if she was real,” Monsignor Krone said. “One said yes, one said no. But they both agreed the statuette you brought over was the real deal. Give us your verdict on what’s down there, and you get double the sum we originally agreed on.”

As Giacomo accepted the bishop’s flashlight and began to lower himself into the city’s entrails, both Krone and the bishop made the sign of the cross.

“Hey, you look like you’re running on empty,” Krone said. “Try taking a Benadryl at night with a shot of bourbon. Only thing that works for me.”

There were twenty-three metal rungs welded into the stone. What did Giacomo really have to fear? What torture they might inflict on him down there could be worse than this state of hallucinatory exhaustion?

He was so thin now, he had no difficulty squeezing through the narrowing shaft into the Earth’s crust. His descent reminded him of removing layers of varnish and soupish overpaint to get to the original surface of an over-restored painting. When he ran out of rungs, he found he was standing on some kind of mosaic floor. There was an aroma of myrrh and fungus, with a slight trace of wax. He turned the flashlight around him. He could discern some kind of frieze on the walls, but his eyes could make no sense of it. There was something sticky on the ground at his feet. “So tell us,” the bishop barked from above, “is she genuine?”

Then Giacomo saw her.

He was in a grotto which led into a vast sepulcher, housing a huge statue much like the one he had sold the Monsignor. It was in hope of something like this that Giacomo had wanted the original dig to go forward, but now his stomach turned, and his throat contracted with atavistic fear. She was like one of the antiques Piranesi had famously forged, by digging up bits of ancient sculpture and sticking them together to fashion monstrosities.

Giacomo did not know how long he had been here, with intolerable sounds in his ears, echoing footfalls in burial chambers, crumbling stone, the whispered, incomprehensible conversations of the long dead. For without sleep, nothing seemed real…

#

The Circus Maximus, at dawn, was the haunt of derelicts and drug dealers.

Giacomo’s eyes strained to make out the ghostly shape of the ancient racetrack.

He was here because he could no longer bear to lie awake in his bed every night. Rome emitted constant low-frequency sonic vibrations, sounds he found increasingly intolerable.

Framed by the Palatine’s rock face, a shivering Libyan prostitute complained into her cell phone. Every man who passed by had the look of an informer. This world swarmed with cruder inaccuracies every day, lusterless, lacking the spontaneous, erratic quality of everything true and free. Its agonizing blankness was squeezing the life out of him. And nothing felt to his fingers as it should — cloth felt like stone, wood like sand.

A hand grabbed Giacomo’s shoulder.

It was Licio’s granite hand.

Giacomo was in Licio’s Lancia now. Licio drove with the frenzy of a charioteer. Rome was an unrecognizable maze. A forest of street signs mocked Giacomo’s directionlessness. He could no longer even tell north from south. This was a city of all-embracing unreality that gave the eye no rest, a montage of Fellini outtakes, a fearful world from which no escape was possible… He had dreams all day long, and could forget none of them.

Licio said, “You bought a forged Piranesi from Max Branthwaite, and smuggled it to the American at the airport.”

Giacomo thought Licio was not convinced of his own theory, but was hoping Giacomo would confirm it. Through fluttering eyelids, he stared at a gelateria beneath an aqueduct. Pigeons scattered before them as they passed the Trevi fountain, which roared like a crowd condemning a gladiator. Cars were like lions. Travertine facades took on the hue of honey.

“You were working with Monsignor Krone,” Licio said, “to smuggle Piranesi forgeries out of the country.”

Licio hoped to impress his ideas by the sheer loudness with which he iterated them. His was a type commonly found among policemen and museum curators. Giacomo found himself retrospectively questioning Licio’s reconstruction of the disappearance of the Guercino caricature. In that instance, Licio had won a confession from a young security guard – had the guard simply been overwhelmed, in the end, by Licio’s obstinacy and brutality?

“Max was planning to tell us what was going on,” Licio shouted, “so the carabinieri murdered him to stop the truth getting out. Isn’t that right?” An old-school rhetoritician, Licio threw his whole body into the points he was trying to make, dangerous though this was while driving. He was a Fascist, one who dealt in mystically-justified false certainties. “In the name of God,” Licio screamed, “confess something, deny something, say something. Talking can only do you good,” Licio tried again, as he screeched to a halt outside the police station.

Invited to sign a confession, Giacomo found himself physically incapable even of grasping a pen. His eyes locked onto a sketch on the wall of Licio’s office, a forgery in the style of Caravaggio that had just been brought in, depicting the decapitation of St. John the Baptist – Giacomo saw at once that it was Max’s work. And St. John the Baptist, seen only from behind, looked like Max – it was Max’s last little joke on the art world, his version of a suicide note.

Unable to endure his own insomnia any longer, Max had paid somebody to kill him, leaving this sketch behind as a final statement. Giacomo would have explained this to Licio, had he been able to form the words, but without sleep, there could be no such thing as justice or absolution…

#

After Giacomo’s aunt lost the ability to talk, she had lasted another three months. In the end, unable to swallow, she had drowned on her own saliva.

Giacomo could not walk any more. He was on a bed now, shaking so much it took three doctors to hold him down, as they attempted to administer barbiturates intravenously.

Everything Giacomo saw afflicted him with the sense of constriction, the lack of freedom, of a late de Chirico, an artist who had ceased to believe in what he was doing, who had failed to attain a mature style.

Piranesi had understood the same thing – this was a forger-god’s world. Authenticity and innocence were illusions – only sleep could restore, and to restore was always to fake a little. Old memories were the least reliable, because the truth had been rubbed out of them, and Rome was a very old memory.

It was fall now, and murmurations of starlings were blackening the sky, while Giacomo endured the staccato passage of time. Here they had all the latest machines and drugs that were supposed to help him lose consciousness for a moment. The phantasmal golden light, pouring through the hospital windows, stung him like acid. There was a plastic rosary in what should have been his hand, but all he wanted was for the flood of images and noises to stop.

His relatives were here, vibrant and glowing, their flesh translucent. They did not talk much about the sickness, but they were scrupulous about visiting anyone in its last stages. And here was Monsignor Krone, handing Giacomo a briefcase full of what were clearly intended to be euros.

“Ego te absolvo,” the Monsignor lied in impeccable Latin, “a peccatis tuis.”

He slipped a tiny particle of the consecrated Host under Giacomo’s tongue — a leftover from a terrifying, barely-disguised pagan ceremony, tasting neither of bread nor of God nor of anything else.

“In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti.” Giacomo made the effort to run a hand through the hair of his supposed daughter, who was singing to him, singing beautifully. He could give her the money — that was all he could achieve now. One should act as if something was real, because soon it would be time to sleep.

————————

James Warner {www.jameswarner.net} is the author of All Her Father’s Guns {www.allherfathersguns.com}, a novel published by Numina Press in 2011. His short stories have appeared in Narrative, Ninth Letter, Agni Online, and elsewhere. He also writes the literary column “Standing Perpendicular” for openDemocracy, and helps organize the Lit Crawl for San Francisco’s annual Litquake festival.