Untoward Stories: A City of Churches / Donald Barthelme

Consideration here of the concept ‘post modern’ writing begins under a cloud of suspicion born of ignorance. Isn’t what is written yesterday or tomorrow about today or tomorrow generally pretty modern? I’m just saying, what could be more ‘modern’ than today? So, how can something even be ‘post-modern’ without being about ‘after today’, which is tomorrow, i.e. futuristic or science-fictional stuff? Since the concept of `modern’ presumably includes the specious ‘now’, how can a `post modern’ artistic event (a story or a painting) happen except after now? As the late George Carlin observed: `Here comes ‘now’. Whoops, it’s gone.’ (sic)

Bit too literal, maybe? Maybe a little fundamental? Okay. Attitude is probably more important than strictly when. Well, duh. Turns out, it’s the same with as with graphics, fine arts and many other disciplines.

Sweeping away this cloud of suspicion born of ignorance, my research partner, Collyne, advises me that in art, if the artist is still alive, the work, as a rule, is considered ‘contemporary’; and that if the artist is dead but created the art after some arbitrary cut-off point defining the ‘modern’ era, post WW II, late Twentieth or early Twenty First Century, it’s ‘modern’. Armed with this knowledge, I bust out my trusty if not always fully documented, admittedly not totally scholarly source (Wikipedia), which takes me right into the thick of it. You’ve got your ‘modern’ literature like T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ or Joyce’s Ulysses, in which the author conducts a search for meaning, and you’ve got your ‘post-modern’ reactive literature (post WW II), in which the author deliberately avoids meaning.

Imagine that.

Relying on `fragmentation, paradox and questionable narrators’, the post-modernist playfully rejects the ‘Enlightenment’ wisdom and earnestness of the modernist’s quest for truth and substitutes parody, disorder or absurdity. Welcome to the world of Samuel Beckett (‘No, no, we can’t go. Why not? We’re waiting for Godot.)” and his number one fan, the ‘father of post-modernism’, Donald Barthelme.

That the underground cultural catchphrase (inspiring a song by Game Theory, covered by REM), What’s the frequency, Kenneth?” is forever associated with Barthelme is regrettable, at least to the extent that it allows a footnote incident to distract from the writer’s importance to late 20th Century literature.

Still, the association is instructive.

Barthelme, whose writing focused very much on contemporary culture, no doubt appreciated the irony. The `meaningless’ nature of the ‘Kenneth’ phrase echoes the postmodernist’s aversion to seeking `meaning’ in or through literature. It mocks the very idea of `meaning’, in fact, forcing students of the culture to conclude that the only ‘meaning’ to the footnote incident (in 1986, network news anchor, Dan Rather, was mugged on Park Avenue by a man who kept repeating `What’s the frequency, Kenneth’ over and over again) was the physical assault itself and not later inferences of a connection to the writer through references to Barthelme’s background or his work. (A number of ‘links’ of the ‘Kenneth’ phrase to Barthelme stories were noted in a 2001 article in Harper’s by writer Paul Allman, who wrote that Barthelme and Rather had worked together in Houston and apparently knew each other, and that Barthelme had created a fictional character, a `pompous editor’ named Lather, and also a recurring character named ‘Kenneth’). (Wikipedia)

If Barthelme, who died in 1989, ever commented publically on any of this, I’m not aware of it. He worked as a newspaper reporter in Houston, and taught at several universities in the east including CCNY. He is generally regarded as one of our fine 20th Century American short story writers. His collections include `Come Back, Dr. Caligari’ (1964), Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts (1968), `City Life’ (1970), and posthumously Flying to America (2001), among others. He is a co-founder of Fiction Magazine and winner of numerous awards and accolades for writing.

In Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby (1973), Barthelme writes within a deliberate and ostensibly rational framework of uncertainty. Colby, we learn, has “gone too far” but we really don’t know what he actually did, although he admits he went too far and cooperates in his punishment by the group (all men) willingly, indeed, almost cheerfully. In his defense, Colby points out that “everybody went too far sometimes” and he wonders: “weren’t we being a little Draconian?” The narrator, meanwhile, speaks of the preparation as if this were a wedding reception or a dinner party they were planning, not a hanging. There would be drinks ‘before the event’, of course, and invitations ‘would be worded in such a way that the person invited would not know for sure what he was being invited to,’ pretty prudent. Then, there was the gibbet. None of them ‘knew too much about gibbet design, but Tomas, who is an architect, said he’d look it up in old books and draw the plans.’ Then, of course, ‘the question of the hangman came up.’ In the end, it’s noted, in what might be a little plug for Texas-style justice, nobody ever went too far again.

In The Balloon, the writer inflates a very large balloon (covering 45 square blocks of Manhattan) and controls its grip on the psyche of the city). One critic saw the balloon as a metaphor for the uncertain nature of the writer’s ‘post-modern’ fiction, standing for the amorphous nature of the work itself, settled over the city with no function (or meaning) other than to confound and induce speculation among the locals.

       A City of Churches (1974): You have to love a story that lures you in with a perfectly straightforward voice and sets you down right into the middle of an absurdity, leaving you on your own to figure a way out. The absurdity is Prester, a city of churches. Cecelia, the deceptively acquiescent young woman who is the focus of the story, is indeed a heroine in the very best sense of the word. It is her presence that takes the story beyond the ordinary. She nods appreciatively when Mr. Phillips, the real estate man, explains, “—ours is a city of churches all right.” Dropped into the middle of this absurdity just like us, it turns out, Cecilia looks around and sees that the street has way too many churches for sure. Not two or three, as you might expect in a small town, not even five or six, as might be worthy of a sign like Muncie’s, but a dozen or more, all in a row, strung out to the point of absurdity? Not hardly.

She will be expected to live in the church of her choice and to work in a car rental business that is adjunct to another church. Everything in Prester, she learns, every business, every club, every establishment, is affiliated in some way with a church. Moreover, most people in Prester already have a car and it’s highly likely that anybody would ever want to rent a car, Mr. Phillips confides to her, adding it’s not important. What is important is the fact that Cecilia completes the city by stepping into the place they’ve made for her behind the counter of the rental car company. Everything in Prester is about conformity and their desperate need for her to conform.

Of the characters encountered in these three stories, Cecilia is unique. While Colby’s friends engage in the absurdity of planning an upper middle class hanging and Colby goes along, while the folks in New York stand paralyzed in awe and wonder at the omnipresent balloon, not really questioning its presence, only Cecilia acts, taking on the post-modernist absurdity straight up. When cajoling and bribery don’t work, Mr. Phillips tries physical force, grabbing her arm, but Cecilia won’t give in. If they try to force her to conform, she’ll dream ‘the secret’, she says. They’ll be sorry. (What could the secret be in a city of churches?) “There is nothing you can do,” Mr. Phillips says, but Cecilia knows better.

“Wait and see,” she says.

I’m A Stranger Here Myself

On my daily commute, there are sometimes so many people on the platform that I am literally carried onto the train of the crowd’s accord. It only ever works when the commuters are so many that the train has to whisper its way into the station. These are the days when we’re all suffocating the yellow line and I’m three people from the gap but also directly in front of the doors closest to the stairs so when the doors open, waves of people gather me up with their sides, unknowingly pluck me from the ground by pressing into each other while curling their morning coffees into their chests and bracing themselves against each other to simultaneously push toward a doorway the size of a business envelope and deposit me where, if I bothered to move, I’d wind up anyway. I let them do it, this rigorous, happenstance transportation, because when I touch down in the car, they immediately let go. The embrace never holds too long. It’s not like unwanted dance floor attention. It’s nothing like a brush with clingy codependence. It’s not frottage. It’s not victimhood. It’s childhood. It’s hanging from your dad’s hands while he spins at top speed, him a merry-go-round, you its passenger. It’s a tremendous cradle. It’s being sung to sleep. To be utterly surrounded by the heat and proximity of strangers, then gently released—it’s the most familiar anonymity around. I let it happen and I like letting it happen. I let it happen and I grin all the while. I smile because I’m tickled. I let them tickle me. It’s what some might call consensual.

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Carissa Halston’s debut novel, A Girl Named Charlie Lester, was honorably mentioned at the New York Book Festival. Her novella, The Mere Weight of Words, is due out in June from Aqueous Books. She currently lives in Boston where she edits a journal called apt and hosts a reading series called Literary Firsts.

The Five Habits Of Highly Miserable People

The second I laid eyes on the Philosites I felt nauseous. Perhaps it was all those stories of children eating too much after starvation, and then dying from the expanded stomach. Such stories always accompanied the Philosites who came from the upper floors, offering bread, soup and conversion. Since the last riots on the lower levels were especially violent, we hadn’t seen any Philosites for months, and as usual they were blind to the state brutality that had followed.

We sat in their makeshift chairs and ate while they proselytized. Badka and I were no fools, not even for lower-level transients, but we were young and impressionable girls, exactly the type that made a Philosite wet themselves in giddiness. I looked at the old lump of bread they called a muffin, and suspected poison. One of the Philosites saw me, his robotic eye augmentations scanning me like a product code. Only the wafting odor of Badka’s hair induced him to turn from me, towards her. He gave her a triangle smile, posed for a picture with the dark-skinned derelict, and then handed her an audio book in a small chip.

A slight vim came to Badka as she scanned the chip and sent it to our shared database. We heard a voice in proper English who read the book’s title: “The Five Habits of Highly Miserable People.” The narrator read aloud: “After seven years of being miserable, I decided to work hard to change my life from the inside! These habits are the opposite of the seven successful habits, since the opposite of a successful person is a miserable person.”

The audio book was intriguing to both of us, as I had always felt a certain nagging, as if being seen as a ghastly presence on the lower levels had always been a mistake. Leaving the audio on, Badka and I took refuge from the market’s smog inside Badka’s home: a large discarded waste pipe she had decorated with soiled pillows and blankets.

“Habit one. Winners are proactive, and miserable people are passive. Passivity breeds laziness. Solution? Get off your lazy asses right now!” The voice was so commanding that Badka and I leaped up instantly, hitting our heads on the top of the metallic rimmed pipe. We had a laughing fit so loud that we barely heard the next habit: “Winners have an end in mind, they have decisive goals.” Our laughing must have unhinged the pipe from the rivets on the ground, because suddenly we began to feel the pipe tug us to its sides. We went rolling through the marketplace, tossing upon Badka’s oil-stained pillows.

 

“Miserable people like to drift through life, hoping food, money and happiness will trickle down from the top.”

 

We screamed to warn patrons and market dwellers of the rolling pipe, as we went barreling through tents full of exotic trinkets. Through the chaotic spin I couldn’t hear the rest of the second habit, and only when the pipe came to a painful halt did we hear the next: “Winners look at life and see opportunity. Miserable people look at life and only see unfairness, cruelty, and other miserable people.”

Outside the pipe, Badka and I found ourselves in the great melting plant, floating on a sea of dense waste, detritus and dozens of other waste pipes. Like the lower levels, the space was reserved for leftovers.

 

“Solution? Stop blaming the world for the way you are! Instead, seek to change yourself to adapt to the world!”

 

Badka and I were screaming again, though it wasn’t clear why. It seemed our pipe was being lifted up, perhaps by a large crane. We held onto the pipe’s rivets as gravity began to shift. “Habit number four. Winners have other winners as friends, while miserable people tend to associate with the worst human beings imaginable.” From the open end of the pipe we could see ourselves ascending! Up! Up, past the grey smog and factories on the lower levels, to the glossy towers, colorful lights and three-dimensional advertisements of the upper floors.

 

“Nobody wants to lose friends. But you must recognize that your friends have no interest in your success. In fact, like yourself, they feed off the misery of others.”

 

Sweet starlight escapades, sweet auras of music and effervescent light! What unheard of joy we felt as we floated passed the music halls of the eightieth floors, then to the shops of the ninetieth floors, where a deity of my people—Osha the younger—was selling perfume. How odd, how majestic!

 

“Habit five. Dare to dream big. Know that you deserve to be a winner, and that, let’s face it, most people are stupid. They’re not reading this book, so it’s ok to say that.”

 

Our ascension ceased just after the 100th floor mall, nearby one of the city’s waste pipes, which, like all such pipes, sent junk and discard to the lower levels. I noticed that there was a large section missing from the pipes—one just big enough for our pipe to fit into! Badka and I held on for our lives as our pipe was set to replace the gap, and we were left in darkness, holding each other while machines drilled our pipe into place.

 

“You’ve heard these incredibly profound words of wisdom, and successful people should share their wisdom to others. Listening to someone’s complaints only encourages them to shift the blame. Remember you have choices. If you choose to have a pity party, no one will come.”

 

When the machines finally stopped we were left in that sealed pipe, in darkness and utter silence, with the words of the audio book burned in our minds. I heard something above us—the detritus of the upper levels coming down to flush us out. Soon we would be awash in runoff, in muck and discard. The only way out was straight down. I took Badka’s hand and we made the leap together.

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Kawika is currently finishing his doctorate in Seattle, where he teaches college-level writing and writes fiction and poetry. He has been published in Annalemma, The Monarch Review, Unlikely 2.0, The Houston Literary Review and Danse Macabre. You can find more of his published works and his blog HERE

The Book

The Book by Kathleen VynCuster Woodhead had worked on his book for twenty-eight years and still wasn’t sure what it was about.  His novel grew, multiplied, and enlarged. It breathed, pulsed, and spoke to him every day. It moved his thoughts, possessing him. It spoke to him in a distinctive voice.

THE BOOK was the most important entity of his life. He had lost two jobs because of it. In his year of unemployment, he had grown a beard, gained ten pounds and gotten bifocals.

He never had fun anymore because of his BOOK and he rarely thought about anything else.   There was no dress code when he worked in his second floor loft office writing it. A jungle of  leaves surrounded him.  He flailed away the wrens or other creatures who dared perch on the maple tree’s branches. He had to be alone, even though he was in his northside home with his wife and daughter. He was alone in his mind, alone in  eternity.

On warm summer days he often sat at the typewriter dressed in his underwear, staring at the computer screen for hours, typing each letter carefully, dissecting every sentence. He had already rewritten the first chapter over 5,000 times. Pieces of crumpled paper were scattered all over his office.  Some had only a rejected sentence;  others had a rejected word.  The top of his desk was so thick with paper that pencils disappeared into the abyss never to be recovered.  The room stunk of raw ink.

“Daddy,” his six-year-old daughter Amity asked. ” We going swimming?”

“No, sweetie. I’m working on my book.”

“But mommy said…” Her mouth curled when she smiled.

“Maybe this afternoon…”

She glanced at his chair. “You look funny in your underwear.”

He smiled.  Little Amity was as precocious as ever, smart as well. Her mother was an Orphan/Warrior archetype but Amity was a  Sage/Bodhisattva who was working towards a vocabulary larger than Webster’s.  Dressed in play pants, she looked more like a little girl than a scholar. Her fine brown hair was wound into two pigtails.  Her bangs hung like moss on her eyebrows. Her dimples blossomed each time she smiled.

That was the price you paid for being an artiste, a real writer, your six- year- old daughter made fun of you. But she’d realize when she got older what a genius her father was, picking words out of the air, churning them into deep complex characters and dialogue.

He leaned back in his chair and looked up at his rare posters, worth a lot in today’s market. He would never sell them.  The most valuable one was early psychedelic black ink on paper. The Grateful Dead’s name stretched across the top, surrounding a longhaired hippie beside the Whiskey-a-Go Go.  Custer fantasized as he often did, not of his hippie days but of  an elaborate design on the dust jacket on the book with an oversized, airbrushed photo of himself.

“Daddy!” Amity shouted. “Look what you’ve done.”

The letters BBBBBB reached across the screen, in front of which his palm rested on the keyboard.

He kissed Amity on the cheek. “Thanks, pal, best thing I’ve ever written.”

“Like Harry Potter?”

“No like Custer Woodhead.”

He turned off the monitor of his computer and sighed.

“We goin’ swimming?”

“Not yet.”

Just as he sat down on his threadbare couch, Mariposa glided in. She was an aging beauty, long –legged with high cheekbones and a melodic voice.  Custer was as madly in love with her as the day he met her at Feltwick College trimming a rose bush that had leaves stained walnut like the color of her hair.   Mariposa had started out horticulture major, she had changed to biology. Now she was an adjunct professor. Custer, a philosophy major, translated abstract concepts into vivid convoluted sentences.  Mariposa had once loved everything he wrote. She compared his work to Shelley or Keats.

Working for Griffin Furniture gave him no chance to integrate philosophical concepts.  He tried discussing Phenomenology with customers who were simply interested in buying a sleeper sofa. Most left depressed, without spending a penny. He decided to put his philosophical ideas into his book.

“I can’t believe what I’m seeing,” she said, pushing her dark hair away from her face.

“Huh?”

“You turned it off!”

“Not the air conditioner.”

“The computer.”

“I only turned off the monitor.”

Mariposa’s face went from glee to deep despair. “Have you ever thought that the computer might outlive your book?”

Custer turned his monitor back on.

“What’re you doin’?” Mariposa folded her arms.

“I’ve got some ideas.”

“You can’t eat them.”

***

Every morning Custer met with his virtual agent “Bert” in cyberspace was somewhere between a portal and the infinite website at the end of the Internet.  He clicked on an icon of a green bookworm, then a pen and ink cartoon of a man with a bulbous nose smoking a cigar.  A moment later Custer reappeared in the chat room with his agent. The dialogue box showed a cartoon image of Bert, the sage/operator.

“Custer,” cried Bert.  He puffed away at his cigar, the smoke meandering to the top of the web page.

The dialogue box showed a cartoon image of Bert.

“Is it nonfiction or fiction, Custer,” asked Bert. The question was typed in a small dialogue box outlined in tiny dust jackets.

“Today I think it’s more nonfiction than fiction.”  Custer typed in his reply. “I’ve added  more abstract concepts.”

“I’m an expert at promoting nonfiction, why don’t you sign up?”

Custer clicked the backspace on his computer. He changed his reply to fiction.

Said Bert: “I’m an expert at promoting fiction, why don’t you sign up?”

Maybe I shouldn’t go the agent route just yet, Custer thought. I should rework it one more time. Often Custer woke up in the middle of the night, his mind overflowing  with ideas for his book. He got up and worked from two a. m. to five. He wrote in the tangle of sunlight or the shadow of darkness.

“I can look at twenty pages, if you sign up for a trial period. ”

Custer closed the dialogue box. One hundred dollars for twenty pages was a lot of money for someone who hadn’t worked in over a year.  His salary as a furniture salesman was barely enough to take care of his family.

There was the shuffle of feet behind him. He turned his head and saw Amity and Mariposa, dressed in their matching swimwear green with yellow butterflies, carrying a stack of mustard towels and hats.

“Custer, shut it off, please,” Mariposa approached him from behind. ” I beg you.”

“I’m right at a critical point. I’ve integrated two contradictory philosophical concepts into one paragraph, absolutism and relativism.”  Custer continued to type.

Drake felt minimized by the institutions. Existence to him seemed like a cut-throat struggle for his identity.  He belayed any cultural pattern. Unlike the Zuni Indian’s acceptance of life and death, North American civilization was dictated by the choices of the Apollonian. He wanted to be heroic.

“That’s what you always say,” Mariposa leaned down and read the computer screen.

What happened to the days where she used to love everything he wrote, thought Custer.

“Smell the flowsies,” cried Amity. He understood that Amity could be concise.

At the beach Custer thought about his book.  Lake Michigan  reminded him of  the  phoniness of Shelley’s poetry. Dressing nature in romantic hyperbole didn’t improve its barbarity.

Everything about the beach offended him. His eye fell on the golden luster of the sand, the marigold sky, the wispy clouds. The wind whipped in his ear, tickling him.   The lapping of the sea on the lakeshore fragmented his thoughts and shattered his sense of well- being.  Unless nature had some kind of philosophical import it was worthless to him.   The sun, which was the image of grandeur throughout history, was little more than a glorified furnace.

He wrote quickly on his legal pad:

The beach bored Drake. He ignored his wife, whose beauty was jaded by sunlight.  She smiled at him and he looked away.   He no longer saw her as a romantic object. Instead she was as fake as nature and the romantic poets she admired.

“Daddy, let’s go,” Amity tugged on his arm.  She was carrying her water wings under her arms.

“Wait a second, I’m finishing a sentence.”

He tossed his notebook down and followed Amity to the shore.

His eye caught Mariposa’s grim look.   She was reading what he had written about her.

“Don’t worry, Custer, I’ll watch your precious paper. Go swimming with your daughter. It’s calm today. No waves.” Mariposa’s upper lip was stiff, unmoved by emotion.

Custer stood up, pulling up his swim trunks which left no room for his rotund tummy. He followed Amity to the lake while she ran. The lake was crowded with swimmers.

“Hurry, Daddy.”

“Make sure Amity puts on her water wings, honey.”

Custer nodded. How he detested the hot sun. When he blinked his eyes he saw only yellow orbs dancing around like hot peppers. He ran to the shore and grabbed Amity with one hand before she could dive into the monstrous wave.

She giggled.

“Water wings.”

“I know how to put them on,” her wet chipmunk face looked defiantly at him. “See.”

Custer nodded.

“There’s a life guard here too, daddy. He swims better than you.”

Amity sounded more like Mariposa every day.

Custer dove in, the foamy water engulfing him, his head sucked into the seaweed-infested mire.  As he swam away from the shore, he felt himself getting weaker. His legs slid by the vegetation. He pulled his head up and flailed his arms. He couldn’t kick, his legs were caught in the plants.  He cried  “Help” and went down again, his mouth filled with stale water. Just as he thought, he was going to die.  He shuddered and felt a touch on his arm, then a giggle. He jumped.

“Daddy, you can’t drown here. The water is too shallow.” Amity grabbed his arm. “You were scared, weren’t you, daddy?” Water plummeted from Amity’s nose.

“Of course, not, sweetie.”

“You like being outside?”

“Of course.”

“You’d never know. You haven’t been out of the house in a week.”

“Two days.”

“Mommy made you take out the garbage.”

With a wave of her hand, Amity dove into the water, her blue water wings, fluttered behind her. Custer knew that Mariposa was having too much influence on Amity. His daughter was becoming a stranger to him.  He’d spend more time with her, only if it didn’t interfere with his book.

***

Custer had awakened at 5 a.m. to wrestle with his book. The page he was working on was white hot in the computer. Every letter pulsed without his touching the keyboard.  His CPU hissed.  He was going some place, where he didn’t know. His fingers felt light on the keyboard.

He was racing, racing. He fingers moved faster and faster. He had already composed three pages. He gasped for air, breathless, then leaned back in his chair. It was as though time had stopped.

He sipped his coffee and stared at the darkness, his room lit by a single lamp. He had a sense that he could finish his book tonight. Twenty-eight years of contemplation, planning, revising, rethinking.

He jumped from his chair, spilling his coffee in his lap.  The sound of paper ripping.  He turned.

“Mariposa!” He cried, grabbing her arms. “Stop!”

She kicked his foot. He lunged backward nearly losing his balance. By the time he recovered she had both of them in her arms, his two masterpieces.

“What’re you doin’?”

“I’ve gotta sell them. We need the money.” She held the poster tightly in her arms. “People collect them.”

Custer cried. “How could you do this to me?”

“You haven’t worked, Custer. We need two incomes. Even if your book is published, it won’t be enough money. Don’t you understand? You might get $10,000 at the most. ” Mariposa said. ” We can’t live this way. Next it’s the house, the car. We have to sell everything. ”

Custer fell into his chair, his head in his hands. He had lived with those posters for nearly as long as his book. They were his companions, his muses.

“What about Amity, don’t you ever think about her? What about your own daughter. You’ve got to make a choice. I guess you’ve already made that choice.”

Before he could move, Mariposa shot out of the room. He chased down the stairs after her, watching her carry the posters. She faded into the distance. He ran, lagging behind her.   The sun through the window smacked his eye. His sternum ached from running.   He held his stomach and stopped at the foot of the stairs. He looked out the window. The blur of the doorway. Amity’s arm in the air, waving as she got into the car with her mother.

He heard the voice getting louder, calling him back.

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Like her character, Custer, Kathleen Vyn has been writing books and articles for a long time. Her books have been published by Simon & Schuster, Trails Books and Harper Collins. Her articles were published by the Chicago Tribune and numerous magazines. Today nothing thrills her as much as making up stories without having to wait for a source to call back.


			

3 Flashes

July 2002 – Semoran Blvd

I fold my hands into a heart that doesn’t know what to do itself as Leigh drives me back to my mom’s place after seeing a play taking place in a New York City bar in a building Orlando thinks what a play about a New York City bar should be in. She says she has a headache. She says she has a ghost haunting her apartment. I should say let’s go back to your place so you don’t have to spend the night alone. I should say I have a cure for that headache and do it in a way where I don’t get slapped and she says oh yeah, let’s see if you can fix that. I say none of these things. I step out of her car, watch her drive away, count all of my failures on my fingers, toes, and beauty marks.

 

June 2002 – My mom’s place

Mira taps my shoulder for a second and asks what that knocking sound outside. I get off of her and feel my way around the room for my clothes, stampede down the stairs, out to the front yard to open the gate. Leigh is standing in front of me while her car has driver side door open. I see Danny, the single white femaleesque roommate of my best friend Paul, in the passenger side drunk off his ass. I ask Leigh what she’s doing here. Leigh says she was just coming by to say hi. I do not tell her I am in the middle of other plans. I do not sense this as her Lloyd Dobbler moment.

 

August 2002 – Bus stop

Over my cellphone, I am casting every sentence I know like chains to wrap her moving boxes, furniture, car, body to anchor them here. I draw ‘I love you’ like a moat but my tear ducts suck it dry when she hits me back with ‘too late’. The spent casing of my airtime minutes fall and jangle on the sidewalk.

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J. Bradley is a contributing writer to Specter Magazine and the Interviews Editor of PANK Magazine. He lives at iheartfailure.net.

When To Be Afraid

My brother was six years older than me when he stopped getting older. While he was still aging, he learned many things. He knew how to do most of the normal stuff that older brothers do, like how to shoot a slingshot or make a perfect snowball that would run down inside my winter coat. My older brother wasn’t satisfied with these things though. While most of us were learning how to use a warm washcloth on our foreheads to fool our mothers into thinking we had fevers, he was putting rotten apples in a mason jar to catch fruit flies. He didn’t know how to swim but he knew the names of all the stars, even though we never owned a telescope and often went to the public pool.

I didn’t make the basketball team the year my older brother was in a wheelchair. I had practiced very hard all summer but they said I wasn’t tall enough. My father took my brother to the hospital many times that year. The doctors said he would never walk again. Sometimes my father would return alone from the hospital and we would all have to go visit my brother the next day. He would always be lying on his back in a thin bed with his legs tied and elevated. I asked my older brother what the doctors were doing, and he told me they were stretching his legs, making them better, and then he asked me if I could swim yet. My mother spent a lot of time crying then.

My face was covered in acne when my older brother started screaming in his sleep. He would wake us all in the middle of the night, embarrassed and covered in sweat. Our mother took him to the psychiatrist every Monday and me to the dermatologist every Thursday. My brother was given a bottle of tiny pills and I was given a tube of lotion with instructions to rub it gently on my face in circular motions. I never missed a day because I wanted the girls at school to like me, and a month later my face cleared up while my older brother moved his bed to the basement. One day I went down there to show him how smooth my face had become. He didn’t look up from the book he was reading as he explained to me how he would be blind soon, how I should stay away from dark places until this transformation was complete. I asked him if it had anything to do with his night terrors and he tossed me his old slingshot, telling me it was mine now, that it would come in handy if I was ever caught in a sudden passing shadow.

I lost my virginity at a party in college the night before my parents called to tell me about my older brother’s suicide attempt. Her name was Lucy and she was beautiful like fireworks and innocent like me. My parents told me that my older brother had been spending all of his time alone and drunk in the basement back home. I didn’t get to see him until months after that when I was home for Thanksgiving. After dinner he pulled me aside and told me that he would be fully blind soon, that I wouldn’t have to fear the darkness for much longer. He asked if I still had his slingshot and I lied and told him yes, I had it back at school. He slapped my face and screamed at me, afraid again, his face turning red and pale as he told me to always have it nearby. He said he needed me to understand that there is darkness everywhere, even when no one can see it coming.

It was January and it was cold the night my older brother stopped getting older. They found him in the river six miles from our house. For everything he taught himself, I guess he never got around to learning how to swim. My mother was crying too hard when we tried to go down to the basement to pack up his things. My father stayed back to comfort her and I went on alone. I flipped the light switch but there wasn’t even a bulb in the ceiling lamp any more. I put one in and tried again with success. The walls of the basement were now lined with shelves containing books of braille. My mother regained her composure and my parents made it down the stairs. They opened up every single book and kept asking each other why their son had collected these books when he had twenty-twenty vision. My father said he would arrange a meeting with the local Association of the Blind so they could learn what the books said, but I didn’t need to know. I ran up the stairs and out the front door. I broke off a branch from a tree in our front yard and got a rubber band from the kitchen. I didn’t see any signs of darkness but I knew better, because if my older brother ever taught me anything, it was when to be afraid.

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DJ Berndt has a website (deejberndt.com) and a lit journal (pangurbanparty.com) and a twitter (twitter.com/djberndt) and a fountain of love for you and everyone else.

AMAZING RUMPELSTILTSKIN

AMAZING RUMPLESTILTSKIN by Russ WoodsOlof Samuelsson was a flax farmer.  It wasn’t exciting work, farming flax.  In fact, he hated it, but he couldn’t afford to move anywhere else.  He had an obscenely beautiful daughter that he had to support, and no one would buy his farm, no matter how many times he posted about it on Craigslist.

***

Have farm need $$$$

Reply to: sale-596773187@craigslist.org

Date: 2008-03-05, 6:13PM EST

Have this nice farm.  Good for growing flax.  Just want to get out of the business.

Thank you

0.               Location: Jay County

0.               it’s NOT ok to contact this poster with services or other commercial interests

PostingID: 731859677

***

Olof was not a lazy man. Olof knew how to work a farm, and he was good at it. Eventually, however, week-by-week Olof found himself returning from the farmers’ market having sold less and less flax, until he began to wonder why he was growing flax in the first place.

“People don’t buy flax,” Olof thought.  “Oh sure, they like the seeds in their granola–a teaspoon here, a teaspoon there–but not the way I’m selling it.  No one wants to buy huge stalks of flax except the people making the granola. And they don’t go to farmer’s markets.” Lately Olof had become more and more self-defeating. He’d mope around and anytime anyone would try to sympathize he would yell at him or her, screaming that they knew nothing about the delicate nitrogen balancing it took to grow flax in such mealy soil.

The worst, however, came when two neighborhood boys, a couple of nasty trolls, replied to Olof’s ad on Craigslist:

***

To: sale-596773187@craigslist.org

From: moodymodey616@yahoo.com

Subject: Re: Have farm need $$$$

hay man, weve seen ur flax farm.  u can’t grow shit!  lol!!

***

Olof was incensed, and immediately wrote back a heated reply:

***

To: moodymodey616@yahoo.com

From: farminflax@gmail.com

Subject: Not very nice.

Dear foul-mouthed instigator(s),

You don’t know anything about my farm.  I know more about growing flax than anyone in Jay County.  Just ask around and I’m sure you’ll find out that anyone who wants flax around here comes to ME.

So just be quiet.

-O. Samuelsson

p.s. !!!!???  Who are YOU to criticize my flax?  My flax is perfect.  It’s GOLDEN.  Yes, that’s right, you know my daughter?  She’s made of MAGIC.  Her mother was a dryad, and she can turn flax into GOLD.  I should probably take down this ad, actually, because I’ve got SO MUCH GOLD that I don’t even NEED to sell my farm.

 ***

Little did Olof know, however, these weren’t just any trolls, these were the sons of the obscenely powerful, disgustingly wealthy troll king, Asmodeus.  Littler did he know that they were, in fact, using their father’s e-mail address.  The troll king, upon receiving Olof’s reply, was angry.  He spent a lot of time being angry, as it was, he found, a good way to pass the time when he wasn’t being pompous or self-indulgent.  You see King Asmodeus was an asshole.[1]  In fact, King Asmodeus knew just as much about being an asshole as Olof did about being a flax farmer.  Right down to whatever the asshole equivalent of soil-nitrogen ratios is, he knew it.  Thus, upon reading Olof’s flame, Asmodeus was angry.  Angry, angry, angry.  Just around the time he was really starting to get into being angry, however, something stopped him.  It was that third-to-last sentence, the one about Olof’s daughter being able to turn flax into gold, which caught his eye, and more importantly, his greed.[2]  You see, being raised as royalty, Asmodeus had no experience in dealing with hyperbole.  Those who exaggerate to a king (especially one like Asmodeus[3]) must either be so incredibly intelligent as to never be uncovered as exaggerators, or else harbor a desire for torture.  Therefore, the king was astounded upon reading that Olof’s daughter could turn flax into gold.  The king wasn’t entirely sure what flax was, but assumed[4] that it would be much, much cheaper than gold, and would therefore yield a very[5] high profit margin.

It took all of fifteen minutes for King Asmodeus’s lackeys to find the location of Olof’s flax farm, and only another ten to get there.[6] Upon their arrival, the king demanded to see the farmer’s daughter, whom he found absolutely disgusting.  You see, troll culture generally glorifies a certain alligatorish quality in prospective mates, and Olof’s daughter’s well-attached, fair skin and smooth, curvy body was rather repulsive to the king.  He took pity on her, however[7] and told Olof that he would take the daughter’s hand in marriage if she could spin three roomfuls of flax into three roomfuls of gold within the span of three roomfuls of days.  At this, without waiting for a response from poor Olof, Asmodeus returned to his expensive kingly mode of transportation[8] and began to dine on the latest in trendy cheeses while his men swept Olof’s daughter into one of the king’s carriages.

The daughter was at this point fairly angry that the man who saw himself as being so “kind” as to offer her his hand in marriage hadn’t asked her name[9], much less confronted the idea that tastes DO differ, and perhaps others might not mind her lack of saggy, rough skin and jagged, piercing bone structure.

This, as you might have guessed, was beyond the king’s concern.  All he thought about all day was roomfuls of golden flax.  He still hadn’t bothered to figure out what flax was and was currently picturing it as the most delicate silk fabric anyone had ever seen[10] and all day in Asmodeus’ mind he was in a room full of this pure, golden flax-silk, where he spent all his time rubbing it gently along his rough, trolly cheek.

And so, upon their return to Asmodeus’s castle, Kerstin was placed in the first room, which was so full of flax that it was difficult to walk around in.[11] She stayed there all night long, bored and curious as to what would happen when finally everyone realized it was dumb to think anyone could turn flax into gold.  She was a good sport about it, considering how unfairly she’d been pulled into this whole fiasco, and mostly she didn’t get too upset because she didn’t really believe the king would ever actually stoop to marrying her, even if she could turn flax into gold.  There was a nice window in her room, but it was fairly high up, and she was given a personal servant with whom she could chat or ask to bring her food from the kitchen and a laptop she could use to connect to the castle’s wireless.

In the middle of the night, while her servant[12] was asleep far off in the servant’s quarters, Kerstin awoke to find a four-foot-tall man standing amongst the flax, busily rustling through it, each handful turning to solid gold at his touch. Kirsten thought she must be dreaming, so she rolled over and went back to sleep. The next morning, to her chagrin, the entire room was filled with golden flax. The king was impressed.

“Wow!  Uh, good job!”  Asmodeus said to Kerstin upon his arrival in the morning.  “You…so this is flax?  Egh.  Anyway, I imagine this will be pretty useful.  As gold.”  The king’s fantasies had been shattered by the harsh reality of flax, and he began to realize that he might actually have to keep his word and marry the tight-skinned girl he’d gotten to turn a whole roomful of a stupid plant into a whole roomful of a stupid golden plant.

The next night worked similarly.  In fact, it was identical to the first night, with the exception that this time when Kerstin awoke, she called out to the little man.

“Hello?  What are you doing?” she asked the little man, who replied with a simple rhyme.

“Flax into gold, flax into gold
Plain ol’ grain into fortune untold!”

 The little man did a little jig as he sang this, which Kerstin ignored. “Oh, little man!” she cried, inexplicably uninterested[13] in who this person was. “Please do not turn that flax into gold.”

“Dear, without this gold you shall not be
The royal queen you wish to be.”

“But I don’t WANT to be queen. And that rhyme was kind of shitty,” Kerstin replied, somewhat rudely.  “You see, I find the king to be an asshole, dear little man, so please do not turn that flax to gold, for I do not wish to marry an asshole!  Also, I think he is not attracted to, or particularly interested in anything but my nonexistent gold-producing abilities, and even these, I think, are losing their charm.”

“You shall be queen, by my left toe,
For that is how these stories go.”

“Fuck,” Kerstin spat. “Dude, come on, seriously. Stop rhyming. I can’t marry this guy.”

The little man halted mid-jig and padded into the dim candlelight surrounding her mattress.  He had wide, froggish feet, gnarled, bumpy skin and a cartoonishly large nose.  He sighed and spoke in a low, aggravated voice, “This is how the story goes, lady.  Gimme a break. I turn the flax into gold, you marry the king.”  He paused for a second, then his eyes rolled upward in realization, “Ohhhhh, I see, you hate trolls, is that it?  Well you know what?  My mom was half- troll, and I think you’re the asshole.  I’m going to make this gold just to spite you.”

“No, no!” cried the maybe future troll queen.  “Some of my best friends are trolls!  I just don’t like this Asmodeus guy.”

“The bigot girl is quite afraid
She’ll end up queen of those she hates.”

The little man cackled and jigged around the flax piles while he sang, and then got a gleam in his eye.

“I shall leave the flax just as I came
If racist girl can guess my name.
She has three tries in which to chose
After which she’ll surely lose.”’

And so it was on.  Kerstin’s first guess was silly[14] and her second was impossible.[15]>  She decided she should approach the question with a clear head in the morning, and so she went to sleep with the idea that she’d know what to say by the final evening, for her final guess when the little man returned the next day.

Kerstin spent all day long deliberating over what that little man’s name could be, while the king was busy with other things, and didn’t even bother to check on her progress with the flax. Instead she talked with the servant[16] assigned to her about the little man and their deal:  her suggestion was to use the laptop to google names of people in the area.  Kerstin did this for a little while, when all of a sudden she got an idea.  She typed in “flax to gold,”[17] and clicked “I’m feeling lucky.”  Lo and behold she found herself at a poorly designed webpage entitled “Turn your FLAX to GOLD overnight with AMAZING RUMPLESTILTSKIN.”

And so, the next night when the man came in her room, she didn’t even let him open his mouth or do a jig or turn any flax into anything before she yelled out, “Rumpelstiltskin!  Your name is Rumpelstiltskin!”  She grinned at him, quite proud of herself, and he simply looked back at her in shock.

Then, slowly, a grin began to creep its way onto the little man’s face.  Soon he was grinning so widely that it was seriously creeping Kerstin out.  “Why are you grinning?” she asked him.  “I guessed your name, now you have to leave.”

“Rumpelstiltskin is my name,
But the girl has not won this game
For while that is, in part, my name, you see
Amazing Rumpelstiltskin is what they call me.”

He giggled and jigged back and forth in front of Kerstin, as she got madder and madder.  Her hand shot out and wrapped around the little man’s neck and her fingers began to squeeze.  Soon it was both hands, and Amazing Rumpelstiltskin could barely even let out a gasp or a choke, as Kerstin’s fingernails dug into his flesh, eliciting trickles of blood, which poured down his rough flesh in streams.  Within a minute he was dead, lying on the floor in a pile of bloody flax.  Kerstin covered the body in flax and lay tensely in bed for the rest of the evening.

Asmodeus visited in the morning and was relieved to see no gold in the room.  He gave her a long angry speech for good measure, but Kerstin could tell he was really too relieved to get full on angry with anyone.  Before long she was shipped back to her father’s house, and she settled back into her regular farm routine and enjoyed it immensely.  Her father was doing significantly better due to the large amount of flax that King Asmodeus had purchased from him to stock Kerstin’s room for the past three days.  He also did some more research online, discovered that flax was used in the making of linen fabric, and realized there was another entire industry he could sell to.

Amazing Rumpelstiltskin’s body was found by Karin and some of the other castle servants.  They quickly disposed of it so their angry master couldn’t accuse them of murder.  As they were moving the body, however, Karin came across a bag he had stashed behind one of the larger flax piles.  Upon opening it, she found can after can of gold spray paint.  These were disposed of along with the body and the remainder of the flax.

 


 

[1] It would be quite unfair of me to correlate this with his being a troll, as trolls have, over the course of time, done more than their share of good work, including creating some of the best heavy metal albums ever written.  I wouldn’t want trolls as a people to come off badly here, but I can’t promise to introduce too many positive role models (Trole models?) as characters in this particular story, hence this disclaimer.  Just trust me, I love trolls!  Hooray trolls!

[2] Greed has been proven, over the years, to be, surprisingly, as great a peacemaker as it is a warmonger.  The need for violence so often stems from arrogance that the sheer power that immense wealth provides one to self-indulge can generally satiate the underlying motivation of even the bloodthirstiest of tyrants.

[3] Not just because he’s a troll!

[4] Correctly.

[5] Very very very very

[6] Utilizing the most expensive means in trollish transportation technology

[7] In the name of greed, that merciful agent of pathos.

[8] Were I to pick one, it would just be outdated by the time you read this, what with the rate at which troll engineering is progressing these days.

[9] Her name was Kerstin.

[10] He hadn’t yet worked out how this fabric was grown on a farm, but he was determined not to let the logistics disrupt his revelry.

[11] The king had not yet seen this room, as one of his servants had gathered the flax, so his misconception of the grain was still firmly intact.

[12] The servant’s name was Karin.

[13] For plot reasons.

[14] It was “Valentino.”

[15] “Wait, I bet YOUR name is Kerstin TOO!”

[16] Karin, remember?

[17] In quotes.

————————-

Sara June Woods is sorry about what happened. She misses you so much. You never call anymore.