Monday, January 29, 2018

working lunch

Revisions to Antosha! underway. You will see less of me for a while.

Friday, January 26, 2018

"The Solicitor's Clerk" a short story

As Henry Finnerty had little to his name when he died, the reading of his will went quickly. The occasion was sparsely attended; the only persons present were Finnerty's solicitor and the solicitor's clerk. Finnerty's sister Ruth wrote the solicitor from her home in Sligo to say that she was far too old and sickly to attend to a brother from whom she'd not heard in forty years, much less travel all the way to Dublin. Her son Jacob, Finnerty's nephew, lived in London and according to Ruth’s letter was too busy to bother with such a matter. There was no one else. Finnerty had been a lifelong bachelor, and had died far from his place of birth, far from any family.

Henry Finnerty was buried in Prospect Cemetery, the funeral witnessed only by Finnerty's landlady, Finnerty's solicitor’s clerk, two gravediggers and the priest. The solicitor's clerk, whose name was Malone, rode back into town in a carriage shared by the landlady. They did not speak. She was lost in thoughts about the closeness of her own death, while Malone mused about life and death in a more general way. From box to box, he thought. Unborn to unhappy to unmade.

Upon his return to the office Malone was met by Mr. O'Hagan, the solicitor. O'Hagan was tall and emaciated, sunken cheeks and deep-set eyes over a skeletal body clothed in expensive tailor-made suits. He had the look of a frail, older man despite his being barely thirty-five. Some disease had been eluding his doctors for several years while he wasted away, yet still he managed to be in his office six days a week. He made no concessions to his illness and maintained a thriving if small practice. Mr. O'Hagan owned a large house just north of Dublin, in which he lived with his wife and their three children.

Malone was seven years older than Mr. O'Hagan, and at forty-two had been serving as O'Hagan's clerk for most of a decade. He rented a one-room apartment to the south of the solicitor's office, on the other side of the River Liffey. Malone's black suit was several years old and had never quite been stylish. And while O'Hagan, dying as he was, could appear immaculate and even raffish, Malone always had a messy, unkempt air, as if he’d just woken up. O'Hagan wrongly suspected that his clerk slept in that black suit, and thought on occasion that perhaps Malone lent an unwelcome note of shabbiness to his practice, but Malone was too efficient, too clever, too...something (O'Hagan’s mind would never go so far as to connect the word "valuable" with Malone) to dismiss from his employ. O'Hagan firmly believed that Malone had no ambition, but he did not dislike his clerk. He was nearly as fond of Malone as he was his favorite dog.

"Malone," he said, "I trust Mr. Finnerty's funeral came off without incident?"

"It did," Malone answered, removing his coat and hanging it on a hook near his small, high desk in the front of the office.

"Pity he left no family of his own, eh? Sad to live and die so far from your home with no wife and children. You're a bachelor, Malone. And at your age. You should consider marrying."

"A family on my salary, Mr. O'Hagan?"

"Don't be impertinent."

"No, Mr. O'Hagan. I meant no offense."

A pause. "Very well. Mr. Henry Finnerty's debts have been paid, his kin informed of the contents of his will, his possessions sold to pay the aforementioned debts, and Mr. Finnerty himself has been laid to rest in the Christian manner."

"I'll file away his papers," Malone said, and looked down to find on his desk, atop Finnerty's will and the other papers attendant to his death, a long and slender parcel, wrapped in paper and string. There was also a letter, in a hand Malone did not recognize.

"Ah yes. Those," Mr. O'Hagan said. "You are to send that package and that letter to an address in London which you will find in a note from Mr. Finnerty's sister. The note you will find with the papers attached to the will. As for me, I have business out of the office to which I must attend this afternoon, so I leave you on your honor not to dally at the post office when you run this errand. I expect you to have the Coogan documents copied out before you leave tonight, as you are aware. Now run along, Malone. Time waits for no clerk."

"The cost of the postage, Mr. O'Hagan?"

A pause. "Yes. Indeed." O'Hagan fished a purse from his waistcoat pocket and produced a half-crown coin. "This should cover it. With change left over, mind you. Off you go."

Malone folded and addressed the letter and affixed it to the parcel, which was over two feet long but very light. Donning his coat, he tucked the parcel under his arm and took his leave of the solicitor.

It was not far to the General Post Office on Sackville Street, but because he knew that Mr. O'Hagan would have left the office before his errand was done, Malone took his time walking through downtown. The weather had turned hot and humid, and he had no desire to be soaked with sweat by the time he returned to work. In fact, Malone had no desire to return to work at all. Finnerty's funeral had soured his thoughts for the day. He wandered at random through the crowded streets for some time, paused briefly to look up at the afternoon sun, and then carried the package into a pub a block north of the post office.

Malone ordered a pint of stout, paying out of O'Hagan’s half-crown. The parcel lay on the table before him, addressed to Finnerty's nephew in London. He remembered now that Finnerty had, before dying, written to this nephew but had not posted the letter, and that the parcel contained something he'd left to the nephew in his will. He should have remembered the contents of both the letter and the parcel; he'd sat and listened as O'Hagan read Finnerty's will aloud not a day earlier. But for the last several months Malone had been sleepwalking through his days, acting more out of habit than will. He frequently took breaks from copying or filing documents to scratch out short lists. In his coat pocket, in fact, was one such list he’d scribbled that very morning:

Sell everything
Move elsewhere
Reinvent yourself; Live a different life
Be uncomfortable in a whole new way
Be dissatisfied with different things

When half the pint had been drunk, Malone took Finnerty's letter, unsealed and unfolded it, and laid it on the table in front of him. The writing was slanted, shaky, but legible. Malone read it once, and then again:

My dear Jacob,

If you are reading this letter, then I am dead. Everyone dies, sometimes more than once. I died in Sligo, in my youth, and was reborn in Dublin. You could well have died in Sligo, but your Talent and your Art got you to London.

No doubt your Mother will have failed to inform you of my passing. She always felt me to be a Bad Influence on you, despite how it was I who fostered your Musical Gifts during my visits to Sligo while you were a boy. And so it was also I who paid for your Violin Tutelage, because I saw the Great Potential in you. And you saw the Potential within yourself, and now you play for the Queen at Covent Garden. You are a fine Violinist; you have True Talent. Do you remember three years ago, when I made the trip over the Irish Sea to hear you play B's 7th? Do you remember how Proud I was?

I also had Talent, but I squandered it playing Fashionable Music for Fashionable People. I made money, but I made no Art. Now even the money is gone. The Violin, a serviceable old Italian creature, has been sold to pay for my last dying days when I could no longer work. And so I have nothing to leave you but my Best Wishes and this Bow. It's a good Bow, as you'll recognize when you play it. Not a Tourte by any means, but fine nonetheless. Perhaps you'll play B’s 7th with it someday.

Think fondly of me, nephew, for that is how I've always thought of you.

Your loving Uncle,
Henry Finnerty

Malone finished his pint, then folded the letter and slipped it into the inside breast pocket of his coat. Taking up the parcel, he walked out of the pub into the summer swelter. A flock of sparrows flew past and Malone walked south down Sackville Street where he passed by the General Post Office, not looking up at the Georgian façade, pillars and pediment in imitation of the Parthenon. Malone looked mostly down, at his feet or the pavement, as he continued south along the street then up the hump of Carlisle Bridge where he remained a quarter hour, holding the parcel under one arm, looking into the distance. Finally Malone walked back to the office. He still had Finnerty's letter and the parcel. As expected, Mr. O'Hagan was gone for the day.

Hours later Malone sat hunched over his desk, copying the last of the Coogan documents. The sun was beginning to set. Another half hour, he figured, and he could go home. Malone put his pen down and sat up straight on his stool to stretch his back. From his perch he was able to look over the edge of his desk and see down through the window to the street below. Downtown was filled with people on their way home, or to the theater, dinner, parties or pubs to meet friends or women. Malone watched them: walking, riding in carriages, some even running, but all of them going someplace. Above the usual noise of traffic he heard a man, probably a beggar, singing in a Wexford accent. It had been over twenty years since Malone had, by force of will and a careful ear, driven that accent from his own tongue. He'd come to Dublin to escape the life of the fishing village, to make something else of his life. And while he congratulated himself at becoming, over time, a Dubliner, of late he'd begun to fear that he'd become nothing more than a man with a Northern accent.

O'Hagan was wrong to think Malone had no ambition; Malone indeed had great ambition to do something significant with his life. But what to do when that was all there was? When you had ambition in general but not an ambition to be or do some specific thing? Malone had escaped the misery of Wexford: pulling in nets under a hot sun or fighting the weather and waves of the stormy, dangerous Sea. He'd escaped backbreaking labor, a weather-beaten shack with a weather-beaten family, and an early death, but he was still miserable. He was intelligent, he knew. In his youth he'd been a passionate man, but never had he developed passion for a vocation. He'd been a solicitor's clerk for twenty years and was well aware that, were he inclined, he possessed the mental acuity to practice law. Malone had no desire to be a solicitor. In his dreams of late, he saw himself on a boat, on the Sea, working alongside his brothers. In these dreams he was content but upon waking he remembered the reality, which was not romantic or fraternal or adventurous. It was brutal work and poverty. He would never return to Wexford. He was a foreigner now, and even his own kin would reject him.

From box to box, he said to himself.

Malone thought of Henry Finnerty and his nephew: lives as musicians, itinerant and symphonic. That would be fine. That would have meaning, wouldn't it?

Pulling a scrap of paper out of his desk, he took his pen and hurriedly wrote a list:

Win at gambling
Fall in love; Live happily ever after
Leave the country; Leave Europe
Drop over dead
Learn to play violin (is it difficult?)
Buy a new suit
Jump off Carlisle Bridge

He crumpled the paper into a ball and stuffed it into his waistcoat pocket.

"Don’t be a fool," he told himself. "You're not going to do any of that." He returned to the Coogan documents. Before the sunlight grew too dim to read, he'd finished his work, rolled up the contracts and tied the bundles. These he placed on Mr. O’Hagan’s desk.

Malone closed the office windows, pulled on his coat and left. The door locked behind him. The parcel containing Henry Finnerty's violin bow was under his arm. He walked through the darkening evening: down Parnell Street to Sackville Street, past the General Post Office and onto Carlisle Bridge. He stopped again at the middle of the bridge, where its humped back raised him above the level of the streets. Ahead of him rose the bulk of Trinity College, beyond which lay Leinster House then Malone's own neighborhood. Below his feet ran the River Liffey with its swarms of midges and early summer stench. He leaned out over the water, invisible down in the gloom. Malone held Finnerty's parcel out, above the river, and opened his hand. The parcel dropped away to be carried off to the Irish Sea. He did the same with the letter and then walked south, over the bridge, past the College, past Leinster House, and entered a pub near his apartment. Malone bought another stout, paying out of the change from the pint O'Hagan had unknowingly stood him earlier in the day.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

"The Gift of the Magi" a short story

Jake Jacket stood in the open doorway of a blimp that bobbed in the air fifteen hundred and eight feet above a football stadium. Jake wore a tight blue, red and white jumpsuit, a crash helmet covered in silver glitter, and a pair of mirrored sunglasses. Strapped to Jake’s back was an Aebersold KX-95 jetpack. The jetpack weighed nearly sixty pounds and despite the padded straps, Jake’s shoulders and spine already ached and he’d only been wearing the damned thing for five and a half minutes.

Leaning backwards a few degrees to shift the weight of the jetpack and to move out of the cold wind at the blimp’s door, Jake shouted into his cell phone. The noise of the wind and the roar of eventy-thousand football fans below him drowned out almost everything else.

“What if it doesn’t work?” he called into the phone. From three hundred and seventy-nine miles away, seated in a comfortable leather chair in a comfortable walnut-paneled office, Jake’s producer answered.

“Why shouldn’t it work? It’s a freaking high-tech jetpack. It’s the same jetpack you’ve been riding all year. Safe as bathwater.”

“Safe as milk,” Jake corrected him.


“Safe as milk!”

“Exactly. Nothing to worry about.”

The Aebersold KX-95 jetpack was not designed to act as a parachute or to save a man falling from the sky. Jake had no idea if he’d slow down at all when the jets ignited or if he’d plummet to his death on the 50-yard line. Not that he cared a great deal either way, but like anyone else Jake avoided pain when he could.

“No one’s ever tried this before,” Jake yelled into the phone. There was a pause before his producer answered.

“That’s the whole point: it’s never been done. We talked about this last week, remember? This is a new act for you, for the viewers. This will exceed everyone’s expectations.”

“I’m terrified,” Jake yelled. “I may throw up. How would the viewers like it if I came flying out of this blimp in a cloud of my own vomit? Would that exceed their expectations?”

“You don’t have to be like that, Jake. You’re a professional. Look, you're on in less than a minute. I’m going to hang up now. I'll be watching the whole show live on TV. Have a good flight.”


“A good flight. Break a leg, kid.”


From behind him, someone pulled the cell phone from Jake’s hand. Some other unseen hand patted him on top of his helmet. Jake nodded. Time. He coughed and tasted bourbon. Did everyone on the blimp know he was well on his way to being drunk? Did the crew have a betting pool on how many bones he’d crack in the fall, or if he’d even survive? Who gives a crap. Jake stepped into the air.

The crowd cheered, a wave of ugly noise rolling up and beyond Jake’s falling body. Jake heard nothing. The white hiss of air screaming past his head masked everything else. He was falling, yawing alarmingly and face up, off-balance, following the weight of the jetpack down, down, down toward the earth. So fast. So fast. His right bootlace had come untied. I can’t die like that, Jake thought, and pulled the triggers on the jetpack’s hand controls. He felt the two jets vibrating behind his back and he pitched forward but still the Astroturf rushed up at him. A marching band marked time in the end zone, the bells of the sousaphones all turning right-to-left-to-right like synchronized oscillating fans and Jake thought, well this is it.

The lines of exhaust from the twin jets found the ground and Jake slowed, amazingly, gently, safely just in time. He landed on his feet in the middle of the field and cut the power to the jetpack.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the PA system thundered. “The amazing Jake Jacket!”

The crowd erupted into a wild roar of approval mixed with disappointment. Jake threw his hands in the air, as he’d done after hundreds of other jetpack rides all over the nation, at county fairs and baseball games and corporate team-building events. He smiled; he was contractually obligated to. Then he was surrounded by cameras and security men and large-breasted cheerleaders in tight uniforms and Jake thought another drink was in order. Nobody told him that the jet’s superhot thrust had melted large swaths of Astroturf, delaying the start of the game’s second half while the field was repaired. The ratings were so good that nobody really minded.

Jake was bundled off the field and he found his way to the production ground crew. He took off his gear and changed into an old brown suit before slipping out of the stadium and up the street to a dark bar. He stayed in the bar all afternoon, past the end of the game. He watched the regular daytime drunks filter out to be replaced by the regular nighttime drunks.

A kid, some longhair in his twenties, appeared to Jake’s left. The kid looked vaguely familiar, having one of those pretty, perfectly symmetrical celebrity faces with a perfect shadowing of stubble. Leather coat, black shirt and jeans. Musician, Jake thought.

“Hey,” the kid said.


“Hey, you’re Jake Jacket.”

“So I am. Keep it to yourself, will you?”

The kid looked around as if he couldn’t believe his good fortune to have stumbled into the right dive bar out of all the dives in the city.

“I won’t tell anyone,” the kid said. “I saw you on TV today. That was amazing.”

Jake couldn’t believe how skinny the kid was. Why were all these rock stars so thin? Drugs, probably, or boutique European liposuction. Jesus Christ. The kid had his hand out.

“I’m Tom. Tom Clean.”

The Tom Clean?”

“Yeah, that’s me.” The kid looked around again, pretending embarrassment but hoping someone had overheard and recognized his name. Tom Clean hid his disappointment.

Jake took Tom’s hand, shook it once theatrically and let go.

“I wanted to be a rock star,” Jake said. “I guess everyone does.”

“I guess. Are you a player? Music?”

Tom Clean was drinking cheap domestic beer from a longneck bottle.

“I have no talent, I guess.”

Jake was drinking bourbon on the rocks with a water back.

“At least you’ve got the jetpack.”

“At least I’ve got the jetpack. At least I’m not waiting tables or working on a factory line, right? At least I make enough money to drink myself to sleep.”

“Hey, Jake, don’t be like that. It’s early. You want to shoot some pool?”

“I want to shoot myself.”

Down the bar, nine stools beyond Tom Clean, a pretty young woman in a green dress with a deeply plunging neckline was ordering a Cosmopolitan. Jake adjusted his tie and sat straighter for a moment. As he watched the woman he slowly fell forward into his habitual slump and then looked away from her, at the melting ice in his glass. Jake was willing to risk his life riding a jetpack, but that was as far as it went. A woman was out of the question. Death before dishonor.

“Hey, Jake. C’mon,” the kid said. “You’re Jake Jacket, the Jetpack Man. You’re totally cool.”

“Totally. Cool.”

“Hey, I wish I had a jetpack.”

“You could buy one, you know.”

“I tried once, last year. I called the Aebersold company. You fly a KX-95, don’t you? Beautiful machine, man. It’s totally cutting edge. Same gyroscopes that the military uses in their land-to-air missiles. I put them in touch with my accountants, who contacted my agents, and that was the end of that.”

“Your agent said no?”


“Your agent and your accountants control your money?”

“Conditions of my parole. I was in rehab all spring, you know.”

“I was drunk all spring.”

“Really? Cool.”

“Hey, Tom Clean.” Jake registered dimly that he was getting pretty hammered. He always called people by their full names when he had crossed from the pleasant phase of drunkenness into that mysterious dark kingdom beyond.

“Hey, Tom Clean. Do you want to buy my jetpack?”

“Yours? For real?”

“Yeah. I’m retiring, Tom Clean. Today was the big finale. There’s nobody on Earth who’s done my act, and I say I should go out while I’m on top.”

“Totally cool.”

“What do you think, Tom-tom Clean?”

“Wow. But I can’t get my hands on more than a couple of hundred a week. I'm on an allowance.”

“Terms of your parole.”

“Yeah. Fascists.”

Jake looked past the kid. The woman in the green dress had picked up a friend, a guy in a blue suit with a shiny tie and a bull market haircut. Good for her, I guess. Good for him.

“Hey, Jake. I’ll trade you for it.”

“What?” Jake had already begun to forget his offer to the kid.

“I’ll trade you for the jetpack. How much is it worth, do you think?”

Jake pushed the hair back from his forehead and took a sip of water.

“Ten thousand?”

“Wow, Jake, that’s too cheap.”

“I didn’t pay retail, Tom Clean. I can let it go cheap. But what do you have that’s worth ten thousand? A car?”

Tom Clean laughed.

“All my cars are worth a lot more than ten-freaking-grand, Jake. But back at the hotel, I have a 1970 Fender Strat that Jimi Hendrix owned for nineteen weeks. Swear to God. He rehearsed with it for the Isle of Wight gig.”

Jake had no idea what most of that meant.

“So it’s worth ten?”

“At least. But I didn’t pay retail for it, either. See, we both sacrifice and get what we want.”

“Gift of the Magi.”

“What’s that?”

“I accept your offer, Tom Clean. Let’s go to your hotel.”

The kid had a town car for the night, and the air from the open windows cleared Jake’s head a little as they were driven across the city. First they went downtown to the Hilton and picked up the guitar, which was in an aluminum and Kevlar flight case. They drove back uptown to the hotel where Jake and his crew were staying and the driver backed the town car up to the equipment trailer in the parking lot. The kid stayed in the car, doing a line of coke while Jake unlocked the trailer and helped the driver shift the jetpack into the town car’s trunk.

“You really retiring?” the driver asked.

“Yeah, I am.”

“My kids love you, man.”


"It’s okay. I guess every athlete's career is shorter than the fans would like.”

Jake smiled. He and the driver shook hands. Tom Clean threw his arms around Jake before handing over the guitar and riding away into the humid, pressing dark. Jake stood in the parking lot, looking at the headlights streaming by on the freeway above the hotel. It was a really shitty little hotel, and at last Jake went inside.

He sat on the edge of the bed with all the lights off. The drapes were open and reflections of innumerable taillights spattered across the windows like rain. The guitar case lay on the floor at Jake’s feet, unopened. Jake had no idea how to play guitar, but for a while he’d be in possession of one that Jimi Hendrix once played. Maybe. Who could say? The kid was pretty fucked up and perhaps not too bright.

In the morning the crew would find the jetpack missing and they’d immediately suspect Jake. His producers had paid good money for that machine and they’d want it back. The kid would want his guitar back, too. None of this was real.

Jake leaned over and opened the case. The guitar looked like nothing special and it was chipped and scratched and had cigarette burns on the headstock. It was heavier and somehow clumsier to hold than Jake had imagined, and it smelled of stale cigarettes and pot. Jake didn’t try to play it. He sat, awkwardly holding the guitar on his lap, watching the traffic thin out and the sky darken as dawn slowly approached.

Friday, January 19, 2018

"Berlin" a short story

In less than a month he'd be leaving Berlin and going back to his efficiency apartment in University Heights, in a neighborhood of Dominican restaurants and crumbling buildings and graffiti and noise. Michael tried not to think about New York as he got off the S-bahn and walked the neat avenue to the apartment where the orchestra board had put him up during his six-month fellowship. It was early evening and spring had come; windowboxes were alive with tulips and hyacinth, the trees in front of the identical rows of flats were beginning to bud and blossom and here and there children were playing on stairways and in parking strips before they were called indoors for dinner.

Michael was hungry and doubted that he had any food in the kitchen. He'd been too lost in thought to stop at the outdoor market between the opera house and the S-bahn station and the closest grocer to his apartment was nearly a mile away. Maybe he'd run to the curry shop down the block after a bit. Odd that curry was the closest thing he could find in Berlin to American food. The Germans ate so much meat and butter that Michael had gained ten pounds in the last five months. He would have to rejoin the Y right away when he got back to Manhattan.

One of the neighbor kids, a teenaged girl named Anna, was sitting on the steps. Anna was dressed all in tight black clothes and her hair was platinum white with electric blue tips. She wore heavy black eyeliner like most of the girls her age in the neighborhood and Michael sometimes felt that he was surrounded by members of an alien race who'd based their entire culture on sci-fi cult films and dance music.

Anna's mother was Frau Magda Bloch, the apartment building's live-in manager. When Michael had arrived in Berlin, the opera's music director himself had driven Michael out to the neighborhood and introduced him to Frau Bloch. She had looked him over while finding the keys and said very little beyond reminding him to keep the lobby doors closed and to not play loud music after ten o'clock.

"If you have any problems with your home," she had said, "I live on the top floor and you can knock on the door at any time."

Michael had not had any reason to knock on Frau Bloch's door. The opera management paid the rent and the utilities and the apartment was in good shape. It had been built just after the Wall fell and everything was newer and cleaner and better than anything in Michael's apartment in New York. Michael was in Berlin for an opera conducting fellowship, a six-month intensive course with Daniel Barenboim. The apartment had been decorated by Elena, Barenboim's wife, and Michael always felt at the end of the day when he sank into the low sofa by the window, that he had stepped onto a film set, into a screenwriter's idea of a professional musician's home. There were photos of conductors and singers, paintings and prints of Puccini and Mozart, an expensive sound system with a thousand CDs and LPs and a room filled with scores and analyses with a fine mahogany worktable and a leather-covered chair. It was the sort of place Michael dreamed of having, and he'd leave it in three weeks for his old futon and plastic bookshelves and second-hand Dover editions.

Berlin had never felt real. Standing next to Barenboim before the Berlin State Opera musicians was a dream; the reality was that next month Michael would be unemployed and his student loans would begin to come due and there were precious few jobs for a man trained for nothing but conducting an orchestra. Likely he'd find himself playing piano in a cocktail bar or doing wedding gigs again, maybe going back to the Strand and begging for a job shelving books.

"Hallo Michael," Anna said, as he climbed past her on the steps. She smelled like cigarettes.

"Guten Abend, Anna."

"Did you have fun at the opera today?"

"I worked very hard. We are performing Der Fledermaus on Friday."

"I don't like opera. Why don't you join a band or something if you like music?"

"I play piano. I was in a band once, when I was a teen."

"Oh. Back in the stone age?" Anna had a wide mouth full of large teeth and when she smiled up at Michael she closed her eyes. It reminded Michael somehow of a cat yawning and the effect did not make the girl anything like pretty.

"Yes, back in the stone age." Michael was twenty-six. Anna was old enough to know what boys were about but among her set Michael was middle-aged, a sexless old man. The idea amused Michael.

"Have you a cigarette?" Anna asked.

"I don't smoke. It's not allowed in this building; I'm sure Frau Bloch tells you this all the time."

Anna scowled at him.

"You will be going back to New York soon, ja?"


"What gift are you leaving for the apartment?"

Michael had wondered this himself. The conducting fellowship had been going for fifteen years and for the last decade the visiting fellows had stayed in the same apartment, and Frau Bloch had been the manager the whole time. She had encouraged each of the visiting fellows to leave behind a memento of their homeland, and it had become a tradition over the years as knick knacks accumulated here and there: a photo of Mexico City in the bathroom, a porcelain soap dish in the kitchen, an afghan in blood red across a chair in the living room. Michael had known about the tradition before getting on the plane at JFK but he'd forgotten to bring something along, and he'd also forgotten to have any of his friends in Manhattan ship him a souvenir once he'd arrived in Berlin.

"I don't think I have anything suitable."

"You Americans, you know, are the worst."

"I believe it."

"You could leave behind a framed love letter from your girlfriend. That would be very sweet, I think. If she writes that she misses you terribly with all her heart."

"You are making fun of me. I don't have a girlfriend."


"Not one of those, either."

"Are you sure you don't have a cigarette? No?" Anna looked carefully at Michael, studying his shoes, his black jeans, his oxford shirt and blazer, his briefcase and his haircut. Her scrutiny made Michael faintly uncomfortable.

"Do you think my mother is pretty?"

Frau Bloch was a sharp-boned woman of about fifty-five, with hair dyed orange and glossy lipstick and nail polish to match. She wore brown and blue dresses and heavy shoes and Michael knew Frau Bloch slept very late, went out around four in the afternoon and returned near midnight. She always looked to Michael as if she'd not slept in days.

"Frau Bloch is a pretty woman, yes."

"I have something, then. Wait here." Anna jumped to her feet and ran up the steps into the building. She was ungainly, like a long-legged shore bird running along the beach. Anna was gone for a few minutes and just as Michael began to think the girl had become distracted by some other amusement, she appeared again and tripped down the steps to where he sat. She held something out to him.

It was a long wooden box, thin and shallow with a glass top, the wood painted faint blue. A curio case, Michael thought. Inside were six small birds, the size of finches, all fixed to the back of the case, facing to the right, their feet closed around a willow branch that wound like a serpent along the bottom of the case. They were dry and dead, gray birds with yellow points on their wings and tails, each with red glass eyes fixed on the back of the next bird's head. They were ghastly and Michael tried to hand the curio case back to Anna.

"No," she said. "You keep it and hang it on the wall of the apartment somewhere."

"What's it got to do with me?"

"My grandfather was an oboe player for the opera, back in the old days. The 60s, you know. They went on tour once, and he brought this back. It's been in the family since then, but my mother doesn't like it though she can't throw it out. Look at the back."

Michael turned the box over and saw a small brass plaque on the bottom right corner.

Central Park Taxidermy
1953 1st Avenue
New York City

"I see," Michael said. "So you want me to leave your grandfather's box of dead birds in the apartment?"

"He was in the opera, you know, ja?"

"Sure. Okay."

"My mother thinks you are handsome."


"Do you want to come to our apartment for dinner sometime before you go back to America?"

"Does Frau Bloch know you're asking me this?"

"Do you have anything better to do?"

"No, I don't. I guess I don't."

"Then come tomorrow night. I'll tell my mother you have her birds." Anna jumped to her feet and ran down the block away from Michael, waving and yelling at one of her friends across the street. Anna crossed the avenue, dodging between cars. Her friend, who also wore black and had hair dyed silver with colored tips, gave her a cigarette. The girls linked arms and Michael watched them walk away until they disappeared around the corner of the building, two small shadows fading into the larger gray of the evening.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

reading pornography again

There are paragraphs of this novel that I enjoy, separated by pages of fairly irritating self indulgence that remind me of all the flaws of Saul Bellow's writing. Hawkes becomes transfixed by his narrator, or perhaps (to be charitable), Hawkes' narrator becomes transfixed by himself. Yes, that's probably the case, and no doubt deliberate here, but it's not paying off.

What was it about the late 1960s and early 1970s that made so many male American novelists want to write about sex, as if writing about sex was some kind of valiant act, some kind of daring adventure? I suppose it may have been, obscenity laws having only recently relaxed, but just because one is now allowed to perform an act, gentlemen, performance of such an act doesn't necessarily become all that interesting.

The Blood Oranges is a book about narcissists and swingers, narrated by a man who seems to experience every moment as a sexual stimulation. P'raps this was groundbreaking in 1971 but it's not aged well, I don't think. The sex writing in Lawrence's Lady Chatterley (first published in its entirety in America in 1960) is also clumsy in places, too earnest perhaps and unsure of itself, but it is on the whole superior to the sex writing in The Blood Oranges because Lawrence does not have Hawkes' manner of "look at me, writing about sex" and because Lawrence's book is multifaceted and rich and human, which Hawkes' book is not.

What Hawkes has going for him is his imagination. The world of the novel is a fantasy world that looks just like our world, but it is a Lewis Carroll sort of place where each object is startling and new and alive; everything is possible, at least as far as the narrative is concerned. No thing is invoked without being surrounded by a sense of awe and portent. A haystack is a magical haystack, just by existing in this unreal or hyper-real world, even if nothing happens with the haystack. This working of Hawkes' imagination within the narrative is interesting and worth seeing. The same sort of unreality permeated the only other Hawkes novel I've read, Death, Sleep & the Traveler.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

tomorrow is another day for waltzing

Last night we watched the second half of "Gone With the Wind." We watched the first half on Monday night, up to the intermission (you know: "As God is my witness, I will never be hungry again!"). I'd never seen the movie nor read the book (for years and years in my youth I conflated Margaret Mitchell with Margaret Mead, which would make an interesting book, maybe) and somehow we decided that now was the time, since Mighty Reader references dialogue from the film often enough around the house and I wished to deepen my cultural understanding, as one does.

It's both a better and a worse movie than I had expected, which I suppose is true of most famous works of art. I don't need to go into the film's take on slavery, the Civil War, or reconstruction, because none of that is particularly interesting and I think most people living today have not learned their American history by watching David O. Selznick movies. Or I hope to God they have not.

This was the first, as I recall, film to be shot entirely in color. So those shots of Atlanta burning, the sky violent black and red, and the street filled with the dying wounded, and those exteriors of Tara and environs must've been quite something for the first audiences, a real spectacle. And the party scenes and the moving-camera street scene as Scarlett forces her way through knots of carpetbaggers and freed slaves, everyone in vibrant, clashing costumes; those must've been a real visual treat, something we can't see with the eyes of the 1939 viewers whose eyes must've been popping from their heads at all the colors on screen. Every shot is crammed full of stuff, too. A movie bulging at the scenes. Whenever Scarlett is in mourning (which is often, even in a four-hour movie), she and her big black dresses are placed against backdrops rich in color; the last scenes in her new Atlanta house, with her going up and down that immense blood-red staircase, are simply amazing.

What else struck me most about the film are two things: First, that Scarlett and Rhett are selfish and immature and really never learn anything meaningful about each other as people. If this is a love story, it's the story of two people in love with their own ideas of romance, which is to say, in love with their own ideas about themselves. Possibly that's true of almost every love story. Secondly, the big dance scene where Rhett buys the privilege of dancing with the Widow Scarlett, is pretty good. Those immense hoop skirts, that dancing. I am a sucker for costume historical dance numbers.

Mighty Reader and I have signed up for waltz lessons, as it happens, and our first lesson is tonight, at a senior center. We may be the youngest people in attendance. That would be amusing on its own, but I assume most of the amusement will be caused by our lack of waltz talent. We've been talking about dance lessons for years. So we'll see. Maybe we'll be good at it. If we're not, then fiddle-dee-dee.

Friday, January 12, 2018

"Complex Chinese" a short story

That Monday evening, as William stood washing dishes in his miniscule kitchen, millions of pale blue soap bubbles rilled and skirred atop the sinkful of hot water, humming a song of cleanliness into the humid air. Every bubble reflected, refracted, received a hallucination of William’s distracted expression and they knew, did the pale blue bubbles, that William was thinking about the as-yet unwritten fourth act of the stage play he’d been composing. William’s hands broke through the skirring, rilling piles of bubbles, down into the water where the dirty dishes mumbled in various tongues, all incomprehensible to the soap bubbles. The very water from the taps seemed to have a foreign accent. The soap bubbles rilled and skirred and hummed a song that questioned the source of the water. The dish soap, mostly water itself, had been bottled in Wisconsin. William’s taps were not full of Wisconsin water.

William squeezed the blue sponge he held in his right hand, the soft rough mound hot and slick with Wisconsin soap. The complete fourth act of William’s play came to him at that moment, every word of it all at once, and he squeezed the blue sponge again. He felt a powerful new force in his chest, a concentrated pyramid of coals that gave off opal heat and the scent of apples glowing around his heart. The soap bubbles fell from his hand to the sink, glowing and giggling with surprise and pleasure, squirming between his fingers before leaping away in celebration.

That night William dreamed about the Chinese waitress, a hot blue dream of squeezing and slickness and the movement of foreign tongues. When he awoke, William discovered that he was covered with lipstick prints, the crimson shape of a woman’s open mouth stamped all over his pale skin. In the shower he scrubbed at the impressions, pushing hard against himself with a sponge, but he was unable to wash the hundreds of mouths away. He shut his eyes and he could feel them on his skin, gently sucking, warm. I’m imagining them, William told himself. They’re just a distracted hallucination and nobody else will see them. The lipstick prints went no higher on his body than his jaw line, and when he squirmed into a turtleneck shirt, only two and a half of the mouths on his throat were visible in the mirror. William saw that since his shower three new imprints had appeared on the back of his left hand, and two on the back of his right hand. He pushed his hands into his pockets.

William worked as a file clerk in an immense subterranean storage room beneath a towering office building. He supplied and received boxes of documents via a large and noisy dumbwaiter that rattled and skirred against the most remote wall of the file room; he communicated with his coworkers by handwritten notes sent through a pneumatic tube system. If a message came for William through the pneumatic tube, the mechanism convulsed and gave a noise of surprise and pleasure, a forceful “Ah!” to which sound William reacted by shivering as a cold vibration rilled up his spine. William would have gladly listened all day to the sound of messages arriving, but the pneumatic tubes were not pleasured and surprised more than a few times each week. The workday began at eight o’clock, and at noon William ascended the service stairs that led up to the alley behind the office building. He blinked against the pale blue light and walked five blocks to the Chinese restaurant where he sat in a booth and wrote his dramatic works.

It was a good booth, with a window and bright sunlight and a large table on which William could open out his work alongside the dishes and silverware. William wrote his plays longhand, into a particular brand of spiral-bound notebooks manufactured in Denmark. The crisp white pages reminded him of bed sheets. The stiff metal spiral that punctured and twisted the pages together reminded William that he’d lived alone for a long time. For two and a half years William had worked in the file room, had written in that booth at the Chinese restaurant during his lunch hour. All through those two and a half years the same waitress had brought him his hot tea, his egg drop soup and his stir-fried pork. The waitress was short and narrow through the shoulders, with poorly-cut hair lopped at her collarbone, a few gray strands among the lifeless black threads. William had no idea what her name was. Her English was not good; William’s Mandarin was nonexistent. He often thought about her hands as he fell asleep, her trimmed nails and sallow skin, the wrinkles of her small palms.

The waitress came to his booth a few minutes after William seated himself. He’d laid his notebook on the table to the right of the place setting. The steel soup spoon, bamboo chopsticks in a bright red paper sleeve, the steel fork, all swaddled in a white paper napkin, reminded William of nothing but his hunger. He pushed the laminated menu with its water spots and adhesions of dried rice to the edge of the table and smiled at the waitress. She put her hand over her mouth and choked on soft trebles of laughter.

“You had exciting night, huh?”

William tugged at the collar of his shirt. The red lipstick mouths imprinted on his skin pulsed, all together at once, scalding wet over the length of his body. His clothing felt stiff, a carapace or a plaster cast, ready to burst open.

“They won’t wash off,” he said.

“They look like writing.”

“Like writing?”

“Like Chinese character, means ‘hunger.’ You need better soap.”

The waitress raised her pen to her mouth and pushed against her lower lip with the pointed blue cap of the instrument, leaving a tiny crevasse behind when she moved the pen away. The flesh on each side of this miniature valley swelled momentarily, glossy under the pale blue fluorescence of the dining room lamps.

“You want stir-fry pork again?”


William was aware that the waitress scrutinized his throat, and then her gaze shifted to the backs of his hands. He remained still, suppressing the impulse to hide his hands beneath the table, and then he felt her eyes upon his arms, his chest, his lap, as if the waitress was computing how many crimson mouths lay hidden from sight, and where precisely they were. William remembered the fourth act of the play he was composing and in surprise and pleasure he sat up straighter and said “Ah!” as a cold vibration rilled up his spine.

The waitress retreated to the kitchen. William heard her voice, treble and commanding, as she gave his lunch order to the cook. William had never seen the cook. He had never seen anyone but the waitress in the way of staff at the restaurant, but he’d often heard a man’s basso rumbling in Mandarin behind the beaded curtain that protected the kitchen from William’s curiosity. And it was to the sounds of this rumbling basso that William began hurriedly scratching away at his spiral-bound notebook, writing down the fourth act of his new play. William’s hope was that this would be the one to finally launch his career.

Later that same afternoon, William locked himself into the employee washroom at the foot of the staircase that led down to the subterranean file room. He stripped off his clothes, careful to fold and stack them in the dust atop the paper towel dispenser. Standing naked and without socks in his untied shoes, William scrubbed himself with his employer’s harsh pink antibacterial hand soap. The soap, which was manufactured in Indiana, did not lather, bubble, rill, skirr or sing. It expressed only a slimy grumble as it ate away the lipstick impressions and irritated William’s skin even where he was most particularly gentle with himself. After half an hour or so he’d removed all but one of the crimson mouth prints. The washroom was especially cold in the summits of hot weather and William’s skin clung to him like wet fur, uncomfortable, ungainly, intolerable. William worried about the security of the washroom door. As he dried himself on coils of rough brown paper towel and wriggled into his clothing he heard the rattle of the dumbwaiter, the pneumatic tubes convulsing in surprise. Two and a half inches to the left of his navel, the lipstick stain he could not remove clung moist to William’s skin. He felt the dark lips beneath his shirt, hungry with a life separate from his. He tried to concentrate on his work.

In the evening when he returned to his small apartment, William was tortured by the unwritten final act of his play. Two hours of pushing against the audience, of grinding into perceptions and filling eyes and ears with the rilling and skirring of high and low artifice and then, and then, a rhythmic building and pressing toward toward toward what? William didn’t know. He threw his imagination forward into the dark furrow of the unknown aesthetic and encountered nothing, desiring to leave the hypothetical audience open-mouthed, drained, filled with his vision. How? Nothing was coming and William sat at his small desk over the open pages of his particular spiral-bound notebook manufactured in Denmark and nothing was coming. He felt dry, his fingers limp around his fountain pen. In frustration William left his apartment and wandered aimlessly through his neighborhood, zigzagging northeast and then westerly, listening to the heat of the evening, his scalp damp with sweat.

Light and movement caught his eye and he looked up into the attic windows of a large craftsman house on his left, an old home that enterprising landlords had filled with walls and doors, dividing it into many irregular studio apartments. William looked up into the windows of one of these apartments where a young woman languidly worked a wide brush across an enormous dark canvas. The woman had rolled her hair into a vinuous flaming mass atop her head and William saw the sheen of sweat on her bare skin as she worked naked, or at least naked to the waist. She turned and her shoulders, arms and breasts shone beneath the brilliant blue-white lights she’d mounted above the easel and William watched the fluid chiaroscuro of muscles and bones in her back.

The woman looked down through the open window and William knew she could see him there, standing on the sidewalk looking up into her apartment. A vibration began at the base of William’s spine and then the woman turned away, her brush shivering into the canvas, the paint singing a song of blurring and opacity. The brush protested in confusion as the canvas stretched in the heat. William hurried back to his apartment where it was too hot to do anything and he lay on his secondhand couch dressed in nothing but a pair of boxers, the lamps off and the casement windows propped open in the hope of a cooling breeze. It was too hot to eat or drink so William slumped in the humid blue evening as the traffic grumbled along the street, an unpleasant scrumble of fumes and heat that traveled in waves to roll, unwanted, into the condensed darkness of William’s apartment, lapping over William’s damp skin as he was slowly ground down into an unpleasant and restless sleep. He wandered past the automobile exhaust and the heat, into a dream where the Chinese waitress sat in an office high above William’s file room in the towering building where he worked. She wore a tailored black suit with a short skirt, heels and an apricot-colored silk blouse. She called out to William as he passed her door on the way to the dumbwaiter, whose rectangular mouth slacked open, waiting to lower him into his own domain. William turned back from the dumbwaiter’s jaws and walked into the office. The waitress rose from her leather chair, circled around the pale blue steel desk and took William by the hands. She was excited, her eyes bright, a smile of surprise and pleasure on her face. Her fingers skirred and rilled and trembled against William’s.

William smiled, aware that he was expected to share the happiness of the moment even though he didn’t know its source. He recalled that the waitress often seemed tired and melancholy, her greetings to customers a little forced. Sometimes she sang in Mandarin, quiet songs of misery that spun wobbling and limping into the dim air of the restaurant as she rolled soup spoons, chopsticks and forks in white paper napkins or wiped down the laminated menus with bleach water and a threadbare towel. When he thought about her past, William sometimes imagined that the waitress had come to America to escape persecution, and that in China she had been a research scientist or a physician, that identity and all her credentials abandoned during desperate flight to asylum across thousands of miles of ocean, Shanghai to Seattle, where she was lucky to have a job carrying tin pots of hot tea and bowls of soup.

She drew him close. Her body was rigid, aflame and vibrating.

“I leaving soon,” she said.


“I appointed professor of drama back home. I quit this job. Permanent faculty with tenure. No more stir-fry pork.”

“When are you going?”

“Tomorrow I fly back to Beijing.”

“Tomorrow? But I haven’t finished my play.”

She took William into her arms and the office building dissolved the way dream locations always do. They were in a room somewhere in Shanghai, naked on a bed. The high crescent moon shone through white curtains billowing at an open window. William lay with his head between her apple-scented breasts, her legs firmly around him, her vibrating fingers pressing his shoulders. When she moved, he felt her thousand soft mouths, slick with lipstick, sucking gently at his skin, leaving their mark.

She whispered something in beautiful Mandarin, but he was already awake and could no longer hear her voice. On the dark street outside William’s apartment, a delivery truck stopped abruptly, the pneumatic brakes convulsing in surprise and pleasure.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

at the andrew wyeth exhibit

To judge by the pieces in this exhibit, Wyeth's world was cold, wet, dark, dirty, and trapped in a perpetual early winter. Everything was carved from stone or wood, even the animals. Some of it was breathtaking and empty. I looked at this one (click the image to enlarge it) and I saw a ship with a mast at first, only a moment later recognizing the kitchen and stove.

Friday, January 5, 2018

"Before All Those Unhappy Miles" a short story

Before all those unhappy miles, there was that night. Over time the memory of that night—of the exact moment where Liam's life went off course—grew clearer, so that he was able to see in his mind's eye each cigarette butt in the ashtray, each drop of condensation on his glass, every bill and coin lying by his left hand, the chipped veneer on the far edge of the table top, and floating above all these details, the crooked, satanic leer of the Czech, a lit cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, his left eye squinting as the blue smoke curled back toward his bony face.

"Man, you’ve got to do this for me," the Czech said. "It's like…the opportunity of a lifetime."

The Czech spread his hands as if presenting a cornucopia of riches. White scars from old cigarette burns zigzagged down the inside of his left arm.

Later, when Liam's troubles began to mount, he was able to trace them back to this precise instant, as if he'd left a trail of bread crumbs through the underbrush of time, or had unspooled behind him a long unbroken thread with one end securely fixed to that chair in the bar in which he'd sat, drunkenly full of himself and vodka. Memory is a map that can only be read once the destination is reached and the journey over, a topography of mistakes and regrets, of ecstatic mile markers along a highway not safe for travel.

The Czech twitched and looked sideways at Liam, out of one eye. Liam was reminded of the sparrow that landed on his kitchen window sill every morning. It would hop about and sing a repetitive sparrow song that made Liam tense until the sparrow flew off and Liam instantly longed for the stupid sparrow song again.

The Czech had heard about Liam's boredom, his dissatisfaction and unfocused but growing urge to do something—anything—else. Current circumstances had no value to him, no meaning. There was no love, no peace, no future. There was only labor to crush the spirit and the imprisoning revolution of drink. The Czech looked and saw that it was time. It was time.

"Opportunity of a lifetime," he said. "Are you in or out?"

"I'm in."

That was all it took. That was all it ever took, every time after that. And each time he was glad of it and his lungs were full of freedom and he was a beautiful young god able to command the stars until he'd awaken older, emptier, farther along the road with the scars to prove he'd paid all the tolls, no longer a beautiful young god. He would sit and follow the trail of bread crumbs, trace the path of the string backwards to that moment and promise himself that next time, he'd keep the glowing miracles, he'd hang onto the power to command the stars and he would never look upon his map of regret again. Next time, surely.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

С Новым годом!

What you don't see is the cold cold cold cold wind.

postcard courtesy of Mighty Reader