New York |

C’est la guerre

by Danniel Schoonebeek

edited by Eleanor Kriseman

Excerpted from Danniel Schoonebeek's second book, C'est la guerre, which will be published this fall by Poor Claudia.

Brooklyn, NY • October 2

The question is whether you’ll vanish when they lay you off in America. Whether you leave the building quietly, whether you’re mistaken for another person, the question is whether it happens on the street or on the sidewalk, whether they shove you into a town car with a potato sack over your head. The question is whether you believe the myth of your own disappearance and start calling yourself by the name that’s been given to you. It begins how it always begins: you’re hired in 2012, you shake the hands and wear your polka-dotted tie, you fight through hangovers and you clock the unpaid overtime, your boss is behind a pane of glass for fifteen months, a cramped and greasy office on the corner of Broadway and Houston, zero light, and one day he writes you a three-second email. “Drinks after work?” When they suggest alcohol on a Monday and you’re salaried in this city, there’s two ways this ends: either he’s finished or you’re finished. It’s August 2, the rivers are boiling, the wine’s turning sour, dogs are going crazy, three minutes after you shower you’re covered in sweat, the J train breaks down every two stops, it’s the kind of summer that smudges its fingerprints all over your face. “Are you all law and no sheriff?” You write down each question you don’t know how to answer. It was your dream job and you swore the oath to defend free expression when you started, you drank the whiskey and trained the unpaid interns and refused to lick boots with the board members who were only there to talk money. And the rule of the dream job is your erasure can pass just as quickly, two months later you wake up homeless, 94% jobless in your brother’s studio and there’s work to be finished. The severance debates with the finks who’re laying you off are done, the papers are signed and you leave the building with paid vacation and a threat. “Smart is you don’t want to go public with this,” they tell you. You don’t know our reach, they tell you. This same day you start booking a national tour, you start living a life that’s an endless tug on the war rope. There’s jury duty to dodge, cashing in your bag of coins at the penny arcade, the last few goodbyes with friends before you vanish. You keep writing down the questions, like what happens to a person when someone waves a battle flag? And the thought that keeps you alive through this sweat is René.

Think of it: you wrote a hundred flirty emails back and forth, two poets laying their stories bare and unrolling the bindles, you exchanged numbers, and a week ago you’re lying in a hot tub with her and drinking rye from the bottle. She traveled across this selfsame country without ever meeting you, now she’s pacing the hills behind your father’s house and gasping at holes in the leaves. You’re petting the donkeys and she points and whispers “friendship” to the horses in the distance. The hair is raked to the side, it’s bleached, it’s like she’s here to sign an executive order, and you’re already in love with how weird the origin story is when you tell your friends, how impossible the odds, and how little René cares about the story and the odds. These turned fields of upstate New York, you hated them for 18 years and now they’re the only place where you can touch the ends of your agitation, elms and ash trees stammering a little in the wind and cut away to make room for the corn this summer. You pull over on Route 28 and ask René to read a poem in a field of young stalks and you start learning the notes to her laugh like a phone number. Six zero seven, four three seven, two zero zero one. You used to hum a ten-digit melody like this one when you dialed the girl you loved ten years ago. Where is she now, married and just bought a house in Valhalla? So what if your whiskey falls into the hot tub now. If René lets the towel fall it will fall. This summer you’ll call it insidious love, it’s like a drop of iodine in a milk bottle. It’s decided: for the next seventy-two days you’re living out of a bag, among your razors and flasks, among your packets of tea and your manuscripts, your decaying shirts. This bag they named after an osprey, the bird of prey that some people call the bone breaker, Shawnee hands you his $317 backpack and says don’t lose it. And when they lay you off in America you’ll disappear into the very liver of the country. What’s the pickled gizzard of late capitalism taste like in Georgia, how many pounds of dead skin can you leave in the Texas desert? If there’s always one more book you can shove in the bag there’s always one last shoe, there’s always more room for a crumpled up wad of poems. And what doesn’t fit in the bag is simple, you leave it behind you and scatter a handful of dirt over the trail. Because this question is a different breed of how long, the question here is whether you leave the kingdom for good when they lay you off in America. No shit you can hear the hitmen hungering in the bushes, you can smell the investigators reciting your name at a table. But how long do you think you can you outlast yourself, former employee? And who is waiting for you down the road, in the ditches. On whose grace have you gnawed in order to stand here in the first place.


Or maybe if you swaddle the stray cat your brother named Honeycat, maybe they’ll wind back the doomsday clock, maybe if you stand behind your brother in the doorway and watch him chainsmoke and paint, the two of you sleeping in the same room again like when you were kids, maybe they’ll put you back on payroll, they’ll ask you to line edit the annual report on jailed writers, maybe they’ll task you with interviewing Molly Ringwald underneath a taxidermied wooly mammoth in a museum. You’ve never asked your brother what it’s like to be the middle child, what it’s like to have a baby brother, what it’s like for your brother to say, “I was born in 1982.” These past years you can’t stop studying names, watching for names that are life sentences, like the banker named Pennyworth, like the failed poet named Wadsworth, or the forester named Elmsworth, they call this field onomastics and the findings are bleak. Nomen est omen, when is someone going to wheat-paste that onto a billboard that overlooks the BQE. Because in this world there are names that’ll come sniffing for you like a tax collector, Erik. With this name he should be the king, the ever-ruler, not this same shy, kind of piglety little kid you remember drawing castles across the bedroom with his colored pencils. He still paints his castles today, only now they’re hallucinogenic pyramids and towers that stand on bright, dystopian soil, built to be monoliths in a landscape that’s failed to live up to its name. Two days before your brother was born, they found a man nicknamed God’s Banker swinging from the belly of Blackfriars Bridge in London, pockets full of bricks and $15,000 in three different currencies lining his coat. If your nickname is God’s Banker and you work for the Holy See, the name you’ve been given is a death sentence when you fuck with god’s money. Your brother’s birthday isn’t remembered as the birthday of a great painter, it’s remembered by history as the birthday of a prince born 3,427 miles away, you’ve never asked your brother if this angers him. The prince’s parents nicknamed him Wombat because he really does look like a rodent that eats bark, doesn’t he. And Pieter Brueghel the Elder, another Dutch painter alone in a studio with a stray cat and his baby brother, he draped himself in rags and walked to a wedding in the village, but he didn’t know come evening everyone would start calling him Peasant Brueghel. There are names in this world that will make you a feast for the world, Erik. “And there are women in this world with the dampness of earth in their veins.” Drifting through their one-bedroom apartment like a ribbon of smoke is Tricia who couldn’t control her drinking. “Gettin’ fuckin’ married” your brother texted you a few years ago, but they don’t use the word fiancée anymore, they don’t wear the rings anymore, and each day Tricia paces the floor and she’s trembling, her color gets louder, she’s sobering up, pacing and tamping the sun into the dampness of earth. These are the mornings of wheatgrass, a bottle of beet juice on the food stamp card you swiped from Vern when he left for Canada, praying he won’t find out and eating bags of fruit like a fugitive. Your brother’s building will be crawling with white kids within a year, but for now the apartments are unlocked and gutted, hammers, drill bits, wrenches, piles of wood lying on the floors, it’s an inch of sawdust and loose nails in every unpeopled room. Each morning you lock yourself inside a different apartment and run your finger over your name on the title page of your manuscript, a few minutes later you’re shouting the poems at a wall. “God is my judge,” they tell you, is the etymology of Daniel, the so-called hero of a book called The Book of Daniel, and if that narcissism weren’t enough, even among scholars the consensus is you never existed. Dutch or German people often tell you your last name means beautiful brook. No, beautiful mouth, someone shouts from across the room. The takeaway is that God is judging your every poem, watching you jack off in the shower, and because you were born with this beautiful mouth you must contest. You say bring me the head of any man who would carry an ethos into these mornings, but the ethos remains the same: clean the life you’ve been living out of your body. Hour by hour you will disavow yourself of the streets full of bickering and lottery stubs and the cops who write you a ticket for hopping the turnstile.

How fast will you vanish when they lay you off in America? All over the country you will call them out of their holes, the poets and bars, the bookstores and miscreants who are the salted butter of this country. You’ll be the poet drawing a tour across the throat of this country like he’s sewing his name into the collar of this country. Do it like the politicos of old, pumping your bellows into strangers, bringing your fist down on the sheaf of poems that will be your first book when the next six months are over. Your awareness-raising campaign, you keep telling people. I’m a child of ceremony, you keep telling people. And tonight they’ll come out of their holes to see if you’ll even last twelve minutes in front of an audience. You’ve fainted before, you’ve walked offstage with a panic attack, you vowed never again. Because in this life there are poetry readings that are less about art than they are about gallows humor, we want to see the poet humiliate himself like the hobo clown that he is. But a few texts with Dolack, a windblown walk down Flushing, trash flying up and down the street and dumptrucks bottoming out every pothole, you hunt him down in Bushwick, table to himself and his back facing the door at Pine Box, sport coat and sipping a thimble of bourbon. You tell him the origin story, you tell him about kissing René in a flea market, and you keep your eyes trained on his wedding ring, you say I was tossed in a ditch by my job, but Poetry wants one of my poems and that’s $300 worth of breathing. It’s possible to think of your poems as songs dedicated to the shit that haunts your world. This one goes out to the rye grass that buries you under, it’s that sort of poem. And why can’t you stop thinking about your brother who never held a name but his own. For a time a few of the neighborhood kids tried to call him Disease. Sickly and platinum blonde on the soccer field, like he’s got sickle-cell anemia they said, even though he was the palest kid on the team. And you’ve never carried a nickname yourself. Over the years a few were ventured, names for your shoplifting and privacy, but the names never stuck. “Names / that do / not know / other names,” says René. And six hours ago you’re puttering these words to yourself while a clerk stares into your face and blinks. Is there a dead letter office for the names that won’t stick, she ask you. Trying on eyeglasses has to be one of the most intimate situations you’ll ever share with a stranger. When she removes the coke bottle frames she touches your face, she hands you a pair of tortoise shell frames and touches your fingers, she stares at you solemnly, eye to eye, and tells you they look ugly on you. She says I can see you’ve got a lot of bad news on your mind. Maybe this is why she sells you a pair of black frames for $30, down from $300, and maybe this is why you run before the cameramen have time to come out of the bushes. Take notes the next time you watch a person put a pair of new glasses on her face. Off with the broken ones, shattered in the middle by a cast iron door, glued together at a slant with a wing the wrong color, she puts on the unbroken ones and she blinks. The first time you talked to René on the phone was three days ago, the first time you heard each other’s voices, and I’m a person who lives in Colorado, she says. And you’re a person I want to be near, she says. And that same day she booked a flight to come kiss a stranger. It’s a lifetime of names barreling toward you tonight in the welter, Erik.