After we had been married for seven years we fell in love. Although not with each other. And not even with others. We fell in love with horses, with the track, with the way the horses, like beautiful women, walked to the gate, and this unexpected love affair of ours began on the cold day in May that our friends Luc and Odette invited us to go with them to the Hippodrome. They drove over the mountain to pick us up in their tiny foreign car and once we had squeezed ourselves onto its back seat, we were off, driving west. We didn’t know either of them all that well yet, but we hoped to become friends with them as a couple. After all, they both seemed to approve of both of us. This was a surprising thing in itself since most of our friends belonged to two opposing camps: those who couldn’t fathom what I saw in my husband and those who couldn’t fathom what my husband saw in me. These new friends were also older than we were.
The name of the lot was COOS AUTO BROKERS and the motto was Good Cars—Good People. Joyce used her weight to open the glass door. A girl who looked about thirteen stood behind the desk. She squinted at a toaster-sized television playing a British movie. The man on the screen crowded up to a woman holding a cup and saucer and said, “Are you quite sure there are no efforts I may make on behalf of your comfort?” Joyce announced that she needed a car immediately, that she was in desperate, pressing need of an automobile. The girl behind the desk said, “Me too,” and summoned someone named Garrett.
Joyce asked Garrett to show her the finest specimen on the lot, and he led her to a black Saab station wagon not two years old. The gleam of the wheels made Joyce avert her eyes.
“Is this a firm price?” she asked.
“Pretty firm,” Garrett agreed. “As firm as any.”
He looked like a Navy kid home for a holiday—crew cut, thin sweater.
When I emerged from the forest I was six years old, all tangled hair and scabby legs. Skinny. Everything had been so blurry, a wash of murky colours and shadowy landscapes that when I saw the sun, my eyes teared up.
The old woman that found me was small, papery and greying, but she bent down and picked me up and carried me into her house. I looked up at her face and thought she looked like a cartoon. She had deep wrinkles and black eyes and when she opened her mouth a stream of question marks poured out.
The man who isn’t really a man wakes up in the hospital bed. The light is so bright that at first he cannot see.
The sheets fold over him like the reflexive fingers of a hand.
An old movie plays on the tiny TV, silently.
He cannot hear it, and thinks perhaps the body he has slid into, like a vacant suit of clothes, is deaf. Perhaps it cannot speak.
He makes a humming sound in his throat that creaks like a door long unopened. He doesn’t say anything because he can’t remember any words.
There are pictures. He sees pictures projected in his mind, a magic lantern show. He cannot describe their meanings. He cannot form words in his mind.
SOURDOUGH My sister Jane was full of secrets about the art of making world-famous sourdough bread. Pretty in an apron, too. She had seven aprons, custom-made, hanging in the pantry. A photographer from the San Francisco Chronicle lined them up and made a photo, and then made a photo of Mom and I. We were the backdrop, he said. That was true. Nobody would catch me smoking outside, readying for the sight of Tom looping his brown arms around Jane's tiny waist inside the Cliff House. Things were growing serious between them. The waves were rushing in and out, the sound was abrasive — the summer fog gathering syrupy thick. Hard to believe there was such a thing as summer in other places. The bay and the ocean surrounded us with a never-just-right scent. There was no way to win. Tom's daddy was in jail sometimes, sometimes not. No big crimes, just little embarrassing ones that grew like the scrub brush around Lands End. That cliff was so beautiful, nobody trusted it.
Claire’s hair made her sad. It fell out in black clumps every morning. After a series of blood tests, she was found to be in perfect health. She noticed a group of strands on her empty pillow and hesitated before unwrapping the towel from around her head. Her boyfriend Travis covered his eyes. She couldn’t be too sure that it was a coincidence, just something that he was doing to block out the sun streaming from the windows.
Claire threw open her suitcase. She had a job as a cat sitter. She stayed in other people’s apartments while they were away. The last apartment she stayed in had a grand piano. She would sit in front of it to wait for the sound to flow through her fingers, but it never did.
Travis had the apartment to himself most of the time and when he wasn’t working as a mechanic, he was at home. He said he liked the feeling of the remote in his hand even when there was nothing on TV.
The Cuckoo Is a Pretty Bird
The first week I was back in Syracuse, Pat met me at my parents’ house, where I would be living again, three months after trying very hard not to. When she first saw me, in my parents’ kitchen on day two of my prodigal return, she said: “You got fat.” She was bundled in her silver, puffy, junior-sized parka, something she had had since our sophomore year of high school, which made her look like a baking potato, wrapped in foil. I hugged her and had forgotten how small she was, how slight.
“You were supposed come back and be thin,” she said.
“I was supposed to come back?”
She opened the refrigerator and started throwing grapes in her mouth. “There aren’t fat people in punk bands, especially in New York.”
“Do we have a band?” I asked.
I am sitting with Officer Carlos Jimenez in the Hotel Nacional, telling him the story of the Iguana while plying him with Irish whiskey. His waxed moustache is glowing in the alcoholic light.
The piano player at the hotel bar has friends in the lounge, and wants to visit with them. After every song she takes a little walk, sits down for a quick chat with her girlfriends, and then hurries chip-chip in her heels back to the piano, her fingers starting on the next song before her derrière has even hit the bench. Her musicianship, it goes without saying, is impeccable, but the piano is slightly out of tune.
Here is what I say to Officer Jimenez:
In the hearts of squares, the palaces were stirring. Columns of rebels were already charging into the mist where streetlamp globes bobbed uncertainly like ripe oranges destined for the children of princes behind silk and diamond panes. Day had not yet unraveled the tangled branches nor the fountains writ their tracery beneath the winter sky. But a rumor had taken hold of those great spaces where the city drew breath: avenues and roundabouts where gods dwelled, broad clearings in the close elms, plazas with reflecting pools where gatherings of stone emote.
By all appearances, life went on, trade threatened little by the fever that had seized so many humble folk. None could have foreseen such ardor for slaughter in these good people whose unspoken hatred had ripened over the course of centuries, forming a face closed to kindness.
The hypnotist knows what he’s doing. The woman in the bed with him has her eyes closed. She was very susceptible.
Not everyone is. The hypnotist knows through experience.
His voice is calm and smooth, like one of those late-night radio voices that seems to carry around with it the gravitas of rain-wet city streets at two in the morning.
The hypnotist knows this, which is why he is very careful.
“Vivian,” he says to her.
Vivian nods, almost imperceptibly.
“Vivian,” he says again. “The next time I say the word ‘god’ you will have the best and most intense orgasm of your life.”
Vivian nods again, almost imperceptibly.
The hypnotist lays his palm on her thigh. Vivian is dressed in a black bustier with garters and stockings. The hypnotist snaps her garter the way a teenaged boy will snap the bra strap of a girl he likes. Vivian doesn’t flinch.
Restituto was the most emaciated and inscrutable of all the boys in our group. Evasive like a majá snake and given to great meditative silences, he would gaze at people through immense eyes that were initially reminiscent of a sweet little girl’s but that quickly resulted menacing because they resembled those of a psychopath. The little old ladies from the surrounding barrio said he had the expression of a funeral director, and there was something to that. Restituto always seemed to be gauging the size and weight of people as if mentally designing a customized coffin for them. Our teachers said he possessed a prodigious intelligence. We were convinced he couldn’t be right in the head.
Around the time the kittens started going missing, I noticed a surplus of abandoned clothing in the streets. But maybe I’m mashing the two events together. It’s absurd that someone might think t-shirts hung from branches were a reasonable trade for those soft little lives.
I had started working at the local one-screen movie theatre. We didn’t need the money but with Marcus away for weeks on end dealing with the Asian accounts I needed something to fill my time.
When the movie started the three or four of us on shift would chat. I especially liked the nights I worked with Lindsay from the snack bar. She would tell me about her latest sexual adventures. She did it with everyone—street performers, dancers, actors, business students, young, old, Asians, Françophones, girls, and, she claimed on one occasion, a female-to-male transsexual.
Luis shared an apartment with his brother Hector and three other men, all of whom happened to be named Juan. Everywhere he turned there was a Juan: a Juan in the shower, a Juan in the kitchen eating pineapple rings out of a can, a Juan asleep on the couch. They were quiet and harmless but undeniably present and numerous, like the silverfish that were also always in the shower and the kitchen and among the couch cushions. Hector was seldom home. If his white Stetson hung by the front door, he was usually getting ready to go out again, singing love songs in the steamy bathroom as he admired himself in a circle of mirror and combed gel through his lustrous hair. By the door was a jumble of boots studded with dingy rosettes of wadded socks. Luis had made a rule that boots were not to be worn in the house, but since this rule was not always remembered by the Juans or observed by Hector, trails of barn dirt crisscrossed the floors.
THE RAIN SEEN THROUGH A MAN’S FINGERS
by Sturla Jón Jónsson
“To yoke poetry to science or morality is nothing less than to ask for death or banishment; the object of Poetry is not Truth but rather Poetry itself.”—Charles Baudelaire
“When the poet is just five minutes from his time at the lectern he recalls the rain that he looked at through his fingers earlier that day. He thinks about Vitezslav Nezval’s words about his hometown, Prague, which he looked at through fingers of rain, and it occurs to the poet that understanding Nezval’s images will mean turning them on their head.
A poet who travels from his country to another place in order to give a reading of his poems has important work at hand.
No less important than the poet Egill Skallagrímsson, who saved himself from being decapitated by the axe of king Eiríkur Bloodaxe when he composed his poem ‘Head’s Ransom,’ twenty stanzas praising the king.
“It’s a holy day.”
“No it isn’t. It’s a regular day.”
“Why are they marching us off to church then?”
“So they can film us. They’re perverse.”
One of the reasons I’d chosen Gerry Richards as my friend was because he used words such as perverse. He also read books for fun and listened to Frank Zappa. Gerry was an evil genius. A few years later he would be killed in a war. No one was sure which war. We just heard he was dead.
Brown pants, yellow shirts, plaid ties no tropically fevered Scotsman could’ve conceived of.
“Check out Dalfino,” Jeff LaFlamme shouted. I watched a lot of sitcoms and knew Jeff was going to grow up to be a maitre’d.
George bought me a drink that afternoon — I think I told you that. I definitely told other people; I mentioned that detail whenever I recounted the story, which wasn’t infrequently. This was my “party story” for a while: me in the Mustang Ranch, the most illustrious brothel in Nevada. Innocence meets sexual sophistication; intellect meets experience; earnestness, absurdity. I played all these angles in my retellings. But afterwards — after I’d gotten my laughs — I always felt uneasy. Even as the smile lingered on my face, I knew I was just a mouthpiece for some fake, clever fiction. I couldn’t speak the story’s truth because, in honesty, I hadn’t discovered it yet. I wouldn’t, until I told you. That was five years ago.
From Clandestine Messengers
The Body in the Room
I had left the city with great silent strides. The gate, adorned with figurines time had eaten away, opened without protest, and I advanced down paths peopled by shadows. It wasn’t yet midnight when I met them—Flora, Elise, and then Chantal—by the pool whose fountain had run dry. The first two took my hand while the third, a finger to her lips, led our voiceless trio.
Only long sighs, and sometimes a stifled sob reminded me the three young women were there. Soon I could make out tears tumbling ceaselessly down their faces. One of them, finding my hand, tugged me from my stupor. I was about to open my mouth and say something, if only to hear the echo of my own voice, but the tunnel of branches parted at last, and the dark mass of a building appeared.
When we entered, it seemed the closing door, the first thing to disturb the silence, struck its frame with a hellish sound.
I couldn’t set pins with my arm in a cast, and I was surprised by how much I missed it, at least for the teachers’ league. There was a kind of camaraderie among the teachers, in which no one made anything of the wide range in their bowling skills. And I felt as if I were on the outer parts of their circle, kind of a pet pinsetter. I was Ewart’s boy, of course, and this bowling business was not the only occasion on which I got to see the lives of the school teachers from inside. They helped build each other’s houses, for example, and when they were working on our place, I shovelled sand and gravel and cement into the cement mixer along with Bob Fleming, the ambidextrous mathematics teacher. We knew that he was ambidextrous, because he had a habit of spinning from the blackboard and firing pieces of chalk at noisemakers, and you never knew which way he was going to come round.