Saturday, December 10, 2011

Fiction #31

Here is new fiction, issue #31:
Submissions now open for #32.

Fiction #31: Carole Glasser Langille

Koping

Dan didn’t know if he should say yes or no when he got the letter, or what his daughter Sylvie would want. After Sylvie dropped out of university a few months ago and returned home, she hardly left her room. She didn’t call anyone, or receive calls. "You have to love that girl," Dan said to his wife. "She’s so gentle and sweet." And sad, he thought. Lately Sylvie had grown skinny and all she wore was black, mostly ripped jeans and t-shirts. She’d had her tongue pierced when she was away at school and when she did speak he could see the flash of silver sparkle in her mouth, a sad twinkling. Lydia, a family doctor herself, hoped her daughter could avoid medication. Surely there were troubled young people who spent years in a darkened bedroom, and who painted or wrote poems or songs to haul themselves out of depression. Or simply rested and let their spirits slowly heal. Dan too hoped that if the environment were safe and stable, time would take its course. He remembered his mother saying, "May all your worries be money worries." He wished his troubles were only financial, as they had been when he was younger.

Dan looked out the window at trees he loved. He was glad his family lived on a quiet street. He might ask his oldest daughter what her insights were regarding this mess. But Sylvie didn’t seem to want to confide in anyone these days, especially not her half sister Marin. As far as he could tell, Sylvie hadn’t talked to a single soul in months except him and her mother. Sometimes Dan thought his very presence was imprisoning her, that she’d rather be anywhere than where she was, but he didn’t know what to do for her. Her brown eyes had that lacklustre dull glaze, like a lump of coal that would not catch fire. But when he closed his own eyes, he could see the filament glowing within her, one that glimmered and burned in the dark.

He thought for weeks about the letter, but put off his reply. He couldn’t deny that somehow, without him noticing, all the rooms in the house had become engulfed in shadow as if invisible trees had grown huge in front of windows. Sun could no longer penetrate the gnarled, overgrown branches blinding the house, invisible as they were. He imagined that if he opened the right door at the right moment, sun would come rushing in cascading the dust and gloom. But where was that magical door?

They didn’t leave Sylvie alone. He did not head off to Thibalt & Sons until Marin came over in the afternoon. She left only when Lydia was back from the hospital. Lydia’s mother came by in an emergency, but no one was happy with Pearl around and they tried to minimize her on-call visits. At first Pearl was baffled by Sylvie’s refusal to return to school. "She should be around other kids," Pearl said.

"She doesn’t want to be around anyone, obviously," Lydia told her mother. Pearl tried another tactic. She told Sylvie to "buck up" and realize how lucky she was. After a while, Sylvie refused to be in the same room with Pearl when she came over. "Indulged" Pearl said when describing her granddaughter. "She should be taking one course, at least, if she can’t take a full load." Dan would walk out of the room when Pearl was talking.

Lydia didn’t ask her daughter if she had plans to go back to school, or if she had any thoughts about getting a job. When the leaves began to turn, she took her for drives on back roads where maples were red and orange. Sylvie liked these drives. One morning, when she was out with her mother, Dan went into her room. The bright blue paint on the walls (was it Ultramarine, or Cornflower Blue, or Pthalo that she’d picked years ago?) could not disguise how dreary and airless the room was. This quiet frozen sea she surrounded herself with was the main lifeline she had now. On the floor by her bed, on a piece of looseleaf, were lines written in her tight, barely legible scrawl. He picked up the page and read: "Sometimes I feel I am climbing out of a hole so deep and sunk in cold, but I keep losing my grip. Each day I’m getting older and more exhausted." She was nineteen.

When Sylvie started going out for brief walks to the library, Lydia considered this great progress. Dan wanted to think so too, especially when Sylvie brought books back, mostly biographies. When she finished the last page of a biography on Cicero, she started again on page one. She read as if she were trying to flee something and might die trying. Stacks of paperbacks and hardcovers lay by her bed. "A room without books is a body without a soul," she said, quoting Cicero.

"Would you like to apply for a job at the library?" Dan asked. Sylvie shook her head. They were playing chess. She complained that their games had the same opening moves, so the next day she got out a chess book to see if she could learn new strategies. The next time Pearl asked what her plans were, Sylvie said, "He does not seem to me to be a free man who does not sometimes do nothing. Cicero."

One Saturday Sylvie didn’t get out of bed. Dan knocked on the door around noon. Sylvie was still in her pajamas, headphones on.

"What are you listening to?" Dan asked.

"Music," Sylvie said.

"Ookay. Why don’t you come down for something to eat."

She didn’t have breakfast that day until three. He wasn’t sure what time she went to sleep, he heard her in the kitchen around midnight, but Sunday, she didn’t leave her room except for a quick snack in the afternoon. When he called up to tell her supper was ready, and then came upstairs to insist she come to the table, she said she wasn’t hungry. He felt like it was parent versus daughter.

They should have had another child, Dan thought. Marin was eight when Sylvie was born, but Marin lived with her mother then, visiting only on holidays. She was more like an aunt than a sister. She thought he infantilized Sylvie. "The more you expect from her, the better she’ll do," she said. Dan didn’t think Marin understood the bigger picture. If Sylvie had a sister or brother she could confide in, maybe she wouldn’t feel so isolated. Maybe she wouldn’t spend hours in the bathroom. Was she trying to throw up?

Both he and Lydia, only children, wanted another child. But Lydia only conceived once, and they never bothered with medical intervention. They should have tried harder, Dan castigated himself. He remembered Sylvie begging her mother to have another baby. She was the only one in third grade without a brother or sister. "I’ll be a good big sister," she’d said. She was seven. She said she’d teach a little brother to use a scooter. If she had a sister, she’d give her all her dolls.

Her grandmother was in the room at the time. "It costs a lot of money to have a baby," Pearl said. "Ma," Lydia scolded , "why are you telling her that?" But Sylvie had already gone into her room and came back with her piggy bank.

"You can have the money I have," she’d told her mother. "All of it."

Even thinking about this made Dan feel helpless. He’d vowed never to send Sylvie to day care. But he wasn’t able to keep that promise either. Monday through Friday he’d walk Sylvie the eight blocks to WEE Care at eight and pick her up when he got back from work at half past five. When Sylvie started going to primary, a girl from grade six waited for her after school and walked Sylvie, and the other young children, three blocks to day care. One day Sylvie got out late from class and the older child had already gone with the others. Sylvie waited. Should she go to WEE Care on her own? Should she run home and cross the busy street alone? In the end, she ran back to her house. A truck stopped abruptly, horn blasting, as she dashed across the road. It was just luck that Dan happened to be home that time of day. He was in the kitchen making tea and trying to shake the cold he had when he saw Sylvie race up the hill. "They left without me," she blurted as she ran in. "Can I stay home?"

"They left without you? How could that be?" he said, staring at his daughter who was still catching her breath.

"I don’t know," she said and started crying. "Do I have to go to day care?" He could imagine how scary it had been for her, coming home all by herself, poor little thing; she was only five. "Of course you can stay home," he said, and hugged her while she cried.

"What good does it to do to torment yourself?" Lydia asked only the other night. "We can’t only have faith when things are going well. We have to believe things will be okay, even when they’re difficult." But lately, when Dan was alone with Sylvie, the silence would tighten around everything in the house, and Dan would feel chilled. Conversations were difficult too.

"Numbers have personalities too, don’t you think?" Sylvie said out of the blue, when they were eating lunch. "Ah Sylvie," he thought. Her name meant "Of the forest," he would remind himself and repeat the name. Trees were of the forest and lived a long time. What were more magnificent than trees? He sighed. It was hard for him to simply watch and wait and not have any plan. When the letter arrived it felt, if not like divine intervention, certainly like a gentle nudge from some invisible source.

At first he couldn’t figure out who it was from. Did he know a Britt Hakala? But of course, she was the daughter of Nils, the friend he made in Sweden decades ago. Nils made his time in Sweden bearable. Now his daughter was graduating high school and wanted to visit in the summer.

When he finally brought up the possibility of her staying for a couple of weeks, Marin thought the plan ridiculous. Later she added, "Mom thinks it’s incredible too, that you’d invite a stranger into the house when Sylvie is so sick." It used to annoy him that his ex-wife had such a keen interest in his family. But now he just laughed at the unsolicited comments from a woman who had once made his life so difficult. When Dan finally asked Sylvie what she thought, she said she didn’t mind as long as Britt stayed in the guestroom. "That’s good enough for me," Dan told Lydia, who’d thought the idea a good one all along. He wrote back welcoming his friend’s daughter.

At the end of August Marin went with Lydia, Dan and Sylvie to the airport to pick up Britt from her twenty-hour flight, the four of them silent in the whoosh of traffic as dusk turned to evening. But on the way back, Britt did all the talking. "Most people don’t talk when they’re tired," Britt said, "but that’s when I can’t seem to stop. Forgive me!" she said and everyone laughed.

It surprised Dan that Sylvie didn’t mind going to the malls and watching as Britt tried on dresses and skirts that were especially unsuited to the Swedish climate, asking Sylvie’s opinion each time she came out of the dressing room. When she said she couldn’t get clothes like this in Sweden, Lydia mumbled, "Thank goodness," as she and Dan watched her purchase low cut jeans and shirts that ended above her waist. She was much taller than Sylvie, but she walked next to her new friend at a comfortable gait, even in the new heels she purchased, a tall blonde teenager with long hair, striding beside a petite girl with dark hair shorter than a boy’s. The fact that Sylvie hardly said a word didn’t faze Britt, who was used to her quiet Stockholm friends. She said she loved being in Canada and whenever she spoke, her brown eyes sparkled. She had a scar over the bridge of her nose and onto her forehead, a thin silver line of scar tissue which looked like a premature worry line. It made her appear burdened beyond her years and though Dan knew this wasn’t true, he felt protective toward her. Often he and Lydia would hear music drifting from Sylvie’s room as she shared CD’s she liked with Britt. They lied, you CAN get blood from a stone, Dan heard a CD blare late one evening. His daughter was simply listening to music with a friend, something perfectly ordinary. For the first time in months Dan felt like he could stop holding his breath.

He’d told Lydia all about Koping, how he’d spent one semester as an exchange student in that small town, about an hour and a half south of Stockholm, when he was in high school. Now he told her again what a cold, dark place Koping was. Most of the people were chilly as well, aloof and silent. He met Nils, a student who lived on a farm down the road, a few weeks after he arrived. Nils knew the old couple Dan was staying with, who didn’t speak English and rarely smiled. Having Dan in their house seemed to irritate them. Why had they signed up to host a teenager? The first time Nils came by, having heard about this student from Canada, he gave Dan a bear hug. "You’re going to help me with my English, yes?" he said but as it turned out, Nils was the one who helped Dan. He lent Dan skis, took him on easy trails, invited him to play ice hockey with his friends. When the old woman said Dan wasn’t to go out at night, Nils explained that they had to attend a meeting at school that evening. Then he drove Dan to a party, the only party he was to go to during his time in Sweden. Of course they returned late but Nils walked into the house with Dan and gave an account to the woman of car trouble he’d had. What a look she gave Nils. After Dan returned to Canada, it was Nils who kept up the correspondence year after year.

"To Britt, Sylvie is a typical nineteen-year-old who’s just a bit on the quiet side," Lydia said as she was going to sleep. "Aren’t we lucky you went to Sweden thirty years ago," she said yawning, her hand on Dan’s arm, the front of her body brushing against the back of his.

Dan wouldn’t call it luck, exactly, that made him go into the kitchen later that week to make tea when Britt and his daughter were playing chess in the living room and didn’t know anyone could overhear them. "This girl in my class is a beauty," Britt said. "All the boys like her. But she’s only interested in math. Oh, she is a brilliant girl."

"Your move" he heard his daughter say. But Britt continued, "There was a math conference in Germany when we were in grade nine and a professor wanted her to go. Her parents weren’t able to come, so she went on her own with the professors. She was only 14."

Sylvie spoke so softly he could barely hear. But he did hear. "When you’re ugly you have to stay close to home," Sylvie said. "Though when you’re very ugly, maybe it would be better if you didn’t have a hole to crawl into."

"But what do you mean?" Britt said.

"Your move," Sylvie said. "You’re losing."

"No really, what do you mean?"

He couldn’t see Sylvie but he could sense her glare. "It’s your move," she said, her voice icy. Dan unplugged the kettle and walked upstairs without making a sound. What a cold dark place coping was.

When Marin came by later, she found him sitting in his office in the dark. "Can I come in?" she asked. But when she began to talk, he didn’t respond. "What’s up?" she finally asked.

"What do you know about Cicero?"

"Sylvie’s the expert on Cicero."

"Did you know he went into a deep depression when things were difficult for him," Dan said.

"And? Your point?"

"I wonder if that’s why Sylvie is interested in reading about him."

"Dad, I don’t think Cicero was renowned for his depression."

"I read that when his daughter died he felt such anguish, he wrote to his friend, ‘I have lost the one thing that bound me to life.’ He read everything in his friend’s library about overcoming grief."

"So? Is there a paragraph I’m missing here? Whose dying?" Marin asked.

Dan looked down at the rug. Then he started to cry. Marin froze, staring at him.

"Sylvie is very unhappy," he said. "We can’t be too careful. I mean, if she were to ..."

"Oh Dad," Marin said, and went over to hug him.

"I’m sorry," Dan said, but he kept crying. He thought of what Sylvie said once, quoting Cicero: A man of courage is also full of faith. He wanted to have faith. At least he was getting a fuller idea of the problem. Things were coming to the surface, and wasn’t this visibility the first step in recovery?

"Have you told Sylvie that you’re worried about her, that you think she needs help?" Marin asked.

"I can’t force her to see a doctor."

"Yes you can. You can find a doctor she wants to talk with."

Dan didn’t say anything. But when he sighed he felt as if the pain were leaking out of his chest and expanding to fill the room. If he were to open one of the windows it would keep expanding, saturating the damp night air.

*


Carole Glasser Langille's fourth book of poetry, Church of the Exquisite Panic: The Ophelia Poems, will be published in the fall of 2012. Her last book was a collection of short stories, When I Always Wanted Something. She teaches Creative Writing:Poetry at Dalhousie University.
Photo credit: Karen Runge

Fiction #31: Jeffrey Griffiths

The Deerflies

Payne gave the kitchen table the once over, tools, keys, a plastic grocery bag, but no hat. He scanned the counter digging at his mind to remember where he’d left it. His head was killing him. He needed the yellow ball cap, the beak covered in finger prints, to squeeze his temples.

He and Tammy had killed two bottles of wine the night before, somewhere between nine and whenever she had made her way upstairs to bed. She didn’t look back at him as she pushed her harsh blond hair off her shoulder. Payne had remained on the sofa, tucked into his form in the cushions.

He’d heard Tammy and her son Jason eating breakfast earlier and had faked being asleep to see what they would say. They whispered as he strained to hear while keeping his eyes pinched shut. He stayed that way until Tammy took Jason to school and then off to her cleaning job at the Super 8 on the highway.

Payne knew that Jason hated him. The bastard stayed with his father every weekend and sauntered in on Sunday night wearing a baggy T shirt and his jeans around his ass. Two more years and the kid would be 16 and hopefully with his dad full time. At least that’s what he claimed.

Payne plugged in the kettle and dug around the sink for a clean mug. He found the one with Darth Vader on it. The water boiled and he filled it. He ran his hand through his oily hair before spooning a healthy dose of instant coffee. He stirred until white froth came up. He turned on the TV and flopped down on the couch. A news station from Buffalo bragged about keeping its audience informed and ready for severe weather. Footage of hurricanes and snow storms played while an anchor man locked eyes with the camera. Payne switched off the set and went to the bathroom.

A spear of dread hit him as he remembered that Jason’s dad still had their computer. Big Jason had taken it home for repairs. There was nothing Payne could do but hold the screen door open while the intimidating bugger carried it out. The whole issue started because Payne had tried to sabotage the machine to keep Jason off it.

He grabbed a car magazine from the pile in the bathtub. A grey cat was curled up in the sink looking like a birds nest. Payne pictured three robin’s eggs on her stomach.

The split vinyl on the toilet seat pinched his ass; he made a mental note to bring duct tape the next morning. He was reading about fiberglass patching when the phone rang. He waited until it let up. Two weeks before he had thrown the answering machine against the woodstove, the pieces were still scattered along the baseboard. The little cassette tape tucked in the corner. The scrape of his mother’s condemning voice had pushed him to do it, "Pick up Payne. I know you’re there. Pick up the Jesus telephone."

Payne had been out of work for a couple of years. His mother sent him a cheque each month. She also owned the house and land he lived on.

At the bottom of the stairs he found his cap, it felt like an old buddy as it slid onto his skull. Payne had the whole day now, Tammy was on day shift and Jason wouldn’t get off the school bus until four-thirty. He looked out the picture window. Condensation filled each corner between the plates of glass, it was worse than ever this summer. Payne would have to take off the wood trim and refit it one day. There were hundreds of things he should do around the house, it was falling apart. Tammy told him more times than he needed to hear that the place was a dump. "All the old wrecked cars in the field. Do you know how many?" she had asked with her eyes bulging at him. "Fourteen god damn pieces of junk for everyone to see."

Payne knew what the field looked like, but all those cars were good for parts. He had just picked up an 89 Ford pick-up for $150; it just needed rings to pass the emissions test. He had another Ford with a 302 that would do for a ring switch. Payne had been using Tammy’s Toyota since she moved in the year before. She had been complaining that he was leaving her stranded on her days off. It was his place and she wasn’t paying any rent so why shouldn’t he drive it?

Exactly one month ago Payne knew that Tammy had decided to leave him, she had said nothing, but the decision was on her face. Payne had thought he was alone that day when he was guzzling ice cold raspberry Kool-aid from the plastic pitcher. He spit out the sweet drink and cupped his mouth with his hand, his eyetooth pounded. The tooth had been slowly turning grey over the past few months. Payne frantically dug through the tools on the table, grabbed a tiny pair of vice grips, and fit the jaws over his tooth. For only a second he hesitated, then squeezed and pulled. The ache was gone instantly. Salty blood filled his mouth. He spit into the sink, filled a glass with water, swished it in his mouth and spit again. The stringy red water gathered in the basin like egg yolk. Payne turned his head when he heard Tammy clear her throat. She grabbed her purse and car keys and didn’t come back until after midnight.

After that, Tammy started staying at her mother’s on her days off work. If Payne phoned, Tammy’s mother would treat him like he was a bill collector. She would tell him that Tammy was at the store, in the shower, a list of lame excuses. He felt like Tammy was drifting away while he stood on a shore watching, doing nothing.

Payne made the decision to get the truck running. After an hour the deerflies were driving him crazy, always buzzing around just out if his reach. He gave up. As he walked back to the house his shadow showed two more flies behind his head. He pulled off his hat and swung it around to ward them off. They were back in seconds.

Tammy walked in at five-thirty. Jason was already slouched on the sofa watching a rerun of Cops.

"We gotta get satellite TV. This aerial sucks the…"

"Hey, watch your tongue," Payne said looking at Tammy as though Jason’s mouth was her fault. She was the one that had the kid with Big Jason in the first place.

Jason rolled his eyes.

"I’m making veggie burgers for dinner. I suppose you want real meat," Tammy said tilting her head as she stared at Payne.

"If you don’t mind." Payne watched the television as four cops handcuffed a biker. The criminal’s face was blurred out as though that would somehow save him from embarrassment. Payne remembered boys from his old nieghbourhood in the city that bragged about their crimes, like it was all they had to create some form of self-worth. Like the men that collected trash, they always threw the cans as far as they could. As though they did it to say, "I’ll pick up your shit, but don’t look down on me."

Tammy sat a plate in Payne’s lap. Two hamburgers and a pile of potatoe chips. He had to get up and get the mustard and relish out of the fridge.

"Thanks," he said.

Tammy sat on the couch beside Jason and fell into a vacant stare. They switched channels and found the final segment of the news, the human interest story, saved for last to wind the audience down to thinking that the world may not actually end on that particular day. A nice couple stood in front of their large suburban home, they had just adopted a dog from the animal shelter. The dog had been found in a basement chained to a work bench. An overly lit photo of a skinny black lab was flashed on the screen before the couple was shown with the freshly groomed animal.

Tammy shook her head as she sipped club soda. "I wish they’d say what happened to the pigs that had the dog. I hope they got charged. They probably just got a slap on the wrist. They way our court system works the case probably won’t be heard for five years, by then the jerks will have another dog to torture."

Payne meticulously spread an even layer of mustard on the bottom half of his hamburger bun.

"That’s right Payne; bury your head in the sand. Don’t say what you think. The world’s going to hell and you hide here on your little junk-yard farm." Tammy craned her neck around to look him in the eye.

Jason snickered.

Jason’s sarcastic laugh made Payne want to smash his head. He was exactly the kind of kid that Payne spent his childhood avoiding. The aggressive ones that used muscle and numbers for strength. Jason wasn’t at all stupid; he had high marks in public school. Though recently he seemed to be turning into his father, a path to a bad place.

Over the next week Payne mustered up the ambition to get the truck on the road. He worked at night while Tammy and Jason watched television. It was cool outside and peaceful. Getting his vehicle up and running was also a means of survival. If Tammy left he’d be screwed for wheels.

On Saturday Payne took the truck for a test run, he wasn’t worried about the outdated license plate. The police weren’t too picky with the locals. He pulled into the parking lot of Nichols grocery store. His heart flipped when he saw a car like Tammy’s drive into the space beside him. A guy that must have been six-foot-five unfolded himself from the red Toyota and went into the store. Payne sat for a minute to settle himself. When he got out of his truck he glanced at the plates on the Toyota he saw that it was Tammy’s car. He jumped back into his vehicle. He started the motor. Sitting with his hand still on the key he shut it off again.

Payne decided he would follow him. He could taste fear just thinking about it. The tall man came out five minutes later with a long paper bag that Payne figured was a bottle of wine. He imagined a confrontation with Tammy and the giant. Payne busting down the door and punching the goof in the mouth, he had the fight choreographed, the kick, the missed swing, a quick succession of insulting face slaps and the final blow. He wasn’t sure if he left with Tammy or not in his fantasy film.

The Toyota drove onto the main street and turned east toward the countryside. Payne clunked the column shifter into drive and followed thinking he would at least see where the guy lived. The Toyota quickly sped up past the speed limit. Payne kept up from a distance. A pack of cars moved slowly on the first hill outside of town, a dump truck was holding them up. The Toyota hauled up behind them and without hesitating swung into the left lane. Payne watched in shock. The guy crested the hill and vanished. Payne nearly slammed into the slow moving car at the end of the line. The driver held the rear-view mirror while the teenage girl in the back seat turned and gave Payne a look of disgust.

*

Jeff Griffiths lives in the west end of Hamilton with his wife and two young children. He writes like a fiend to sustain his obsession to submit work to literary journals.

He has published magazine articles, book reviews, and a column in a local magazine (in 2007).

His short fiction has appeared in Front and Centre, Hammered Out, The Puritan, Qwerty, The Nashwaak Review and various on-line journals. He also received the Arts Hamilton award for short fiction in 2007 and 2008.

He is very close to completing a short story collection and recently received Writer’s Reserve Grant from the OAC thanks to a recommendation from Wolsak and Wynn publishing House.
He is currently teaching Creative Writing and Dynamics of Prose for the Writing for Publication Program at Mohawk College.

He maintains a poetry-ish blog called TVAFFECTS.  http://tvaffects.blogspot.com/

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Interview: Matthew J. Trafford

Please tell us about your interest in the short story by:

A) telling us a bit about your recent collection (e.g., how did it come about? Does it have a recurring theme? Do you have a particular story of passage that’s a favourite?)

The Divinity Gene came very much out of my studies at UBC’s Optional-Residency MFA program. I went in to the program thinking I was a poet, but the program requires students to work in multiple genres. I took a short story course with Zsuzsi Gartner, and fell in love with the form.

I also started reading writers I’d never encountered before, and through that, felt able for the first time to write stories I’d had the ideas for but never knew how to execute. For example, I can remember so clearly when I had the idea for “Forgetting Helen,” about a boy who’s born in a library, but I had no idea how to go about writing a story like that.

I ended up doing my thesis in short fiction, and that became the basis of what eventually became The Divinity Gene. The book has ten stories in it, and generally they deal with science and religion, grief and loss, belonging and identity.

“The Grimpils” is probably my favourite story in the collection, because it was one of the hardest to write -- the first story to be started and the last one finished. It has an omniscient point of view, a large number of characters, and footnotes. I’m very happy with the way it turned out, and I care about those characters a lot. I think of the story as the collections unsung hero, because only one reviewer mentioned it, who didn’t like it.

But when I hear from readers that “The Grimpils” was their favourite story, those are good moments for me.

B) Recommending a short story or collection by someone else that you admire (and why?)

When asked my favourite short story, I always answer Rick Moody’s “Boys,” because I can’t read it without crying. There are so many short fiction writers I admire - Adam Hasslett, Jim Shepard, Aimee Bender, Ryan Boudinot.

This was a great year for short stories in Canada and of the ones I haven’t got to yet, I’m especially looking forward to reading Michael Christie’s collection The Beggar’s Garden and Julie Booker’s Up Up Up.

This year’s Journey Prize collection was also a fantastic read, especially Seyward Goodhand’s “The Fur Trader’s Daughter.”

Right now I’m reading Jeremy Dyson, a British writer, The Cranes That Build the Cranes. It’s macabre and strange and right up my alley - I’m loving it.

C) Reflecting on the 21st Century and the short story: Are they a good match (and why?)

I think the creation and telling of stories is intrinsic to human life and culture. This century is interesting because the world is more connected than ever before; the internet allows us to read cross-nationally with an ease that has never existed before (look at something like joyland).

Tablets and e-readers present new opportunities for the short story form to become popular again, though it’s anybody’s guess how all this will pan out. At the end of the day I’m excited to be writing and reading stories at this time, and optimistic about the future of the form.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Carole Glasser Langille on short stories

I love short stories because, when they work, characters reveal in a few pages what is deepest and most intimate in their lives.

The author disappears and I am no longer reading a story but entering it. Because it distills what is essential, the way a poem does, the intensity and details of a short story linger.

In "Awaiting Orders" by Tobias Wolff, we know who the sergeant is beneath his disguise because we witness his desires and secrets and failures. We mourn for him. I don’t believe our knowledge would increase, and could very possibly diminish, if we had to accompany him through chapter after chapter of a novel.

Several times after slogging through a contemporary novel, I’ve thought, "It’s so padded. But it would have made a terrific short story." Of course there are wonderful novels - but often when I’ve finished a short story, I feel as if I’ve read a novel.

The insights and observations of a gorgeous story remain with me. I have thought of the following paragraph from Alice Munro’s "Family Furnishings," many times, a perfect description of the creative process:

I went in and had a cup of coffee. The coffee was reheated, black and bitter—its taste was medicinal, exactly what I needed. I was already feeling relieved, and now I began to feel happy. Such happiness, to be alone. To see the hot late-afternoon light on the sidewalk outside, the branches of a tree just out in leaf, throwing their skimpy shadows... I did not think of the story I would make about Alfrida—not of that in particular—but of the work I wanted to do, which seemed more like grabbing something out of the air than constructing stories.
In that same story a character relays a family secret and the narrator says, "There was some sense of triumph about her, which wasn’t hard to understand. If you have something to tell that will stagger someone, and you’ve told it, and it has done so, there has to be a balmy moment of power."

Short stories contain that power. It’s difficult to pare down a story to a handful of pages and get rid of what’s extraneous. But when successful, like reducing wine to make sauce, the end result is concentrated and rich.

A short story is like travelling to an exotic country for a brief visit. Shopping in a market or riding a bus, rather than being mundane experiences, stimulate the senses. We see things as if for the first time because, in this country, it is the first time. The world of a short story has that vitality. Because we do not stay too long, the unusual retains its mystique.

There are many short story collections I love: All Aunt Hagar's Children, by Edward P. Jones, Love and Obstacles by Aleksandar Hemon, Man Descending by Guy Vanderhaeghe, Drown by Junot Diaz, Our Story Begins by Tobias Wolff, Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, Gold Boy Emerald Girl by Yiyun Li, Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, by Maile Meloy, every collection of Alice Munro’s (how can I choose one?). Several individual stories have had a powerful effect on me: "Werewolves in Their Youth" by Michael Chabon, "An Apology" by Ramona Dearing, "Cowboy" by Thomas McGuane, "Or Else" by Antonya Nelson.

After reading their stories, I’ve wanted to write to each author and declare my undying devotion. But I’ve resisted the impulse. I did not raise my hand during the question period at an Edward P. Jones reading, as I wanted, to blurt out, "Your readers love you." Instead I began, slowly, painstakingly, to write my own stories. As Emerson said, "What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us." The short story zooms in on what lies within us.

*


Carole Glasser Langille's fourth book of poetry, Church of the Exquisite Panic: The Ophelia Poems, will be published in the fall of 2012. Her last book was a collection of short stories, When I Always Wanted Something. She teaches Creative Writing:Poetry at Dalhousie University.
Photo credit: Karen Runge

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Fiction #30

Here is new fiction, issue #30:
Submissions now open for #31.

Fiction #30: Kelly Evans

The Draugr

There was once a great chieftain, kind and fair and loved by all, including his daughter, the only child to whom he could leave his fortune. He was a wise man who lived longer than anyone expected and while there was much mourning when the chieftain passed away it surprised no one.

The chieftain’s daughter prepared her father’s body; for seven days the daughter and her servants cleaned the body, sewed new clothes and gathered the possessions the chieftain had most loved while living so that these might be buried along with him to use in the afterlife. On the seventh day the chieftain was carried from his home to the grave site, the men carrying their lord ensuring that the coffin was lifted and lowered three times in three different directions. When the chieftain’s body was placed in the grave a pair of iron scissors was placed on his chest. Around him were golden goblets and dishes, arm bands and pendants and many swords and daggers encrusted with valuable stones and decorated with intricate designs and lines praising the gods. The grave was then covered with rocks, sod and soil and when this was done they mourners gathered in the great hall for the sjaund, the feast to honour the dead.

The mourners gathered around the door of the hall and there awaited the chieftain’s daughter. When she appeared two large men of the village lifted the girl three times over the doorframe, as was the tradition, for in this way the future could be seen.

“What did you see?” the villagers asked. They all followed the heiress to the Lord’s chair at the end of the hall.

The daughter had been raised to be sensible, logical and fair. She sat , smoothing her funeral dress as a goblet of mead was brought to her. She took a sip before speaking. “I saw a mountain shrouded in mist. The mountain shook and great rocks crashed down the side. Three trees stood and were crushed by a huge boulder rolling down the side of the mountain. After this the vision ended.” She took another sip of mead.

There were mutterings in the crowd and one man asked, “But what does it mean?”

The daughter shook her head. “I know not, but this is not the time to discuss it. My father’s spirit awaits its feast!”

“And mead!” someone shouted. A great noise went up in the hall and the daughter ordered the food and drink be served. The smell of roast boar suddenly filled the hall and over the next few hours all manner of beast and fowl was served, along with mead and wine.

Later in the night one of the dead lord’s serving men started to argue with a man from another village who had come to pay his respects. “Your lord was great but mine is the greater of the two!” the visitor said.

The local man, by now quite drunk, and angered by the visitor’s insult, roared back, “My lord was much better than yours, you dog! He was a great warrior and as fair a ruler as any man seen! And he had more gold than any man in Iceland, as befitted his station!”

The men continued to argue drunkenly, unaware that three strangers had entered the hall and were secretly listening to the fight. “My brothers, we have stumbled onto a wonderful opportunity this night. Tomorrow at midnight we will go the grave of this chieftain and steal his gold. What need has a dead man of gold? If he is as wealthy as his servant said, we will needs never work again.”

The following night the thieves met by the chieftain’s grave, wearing their darkest cloaks so as to remain hidden. Silently they removed the rocks and sod until the gold that had been buried with the lord could be seen shining through the dirt. Each of the three men had a sack with him and each took enough gold to fill their own sack. When they could carry no more they snuck away with their stolen gold, hastily refilling the grave so that no one would know that they had been there.

The next day the chieftain’s daughter visited her father’s grave and noticed that some of the rocks and gravel had been disturbed. Dismissing it as animals, she knelt beside the cairn and spoke to her father of her sorrow at losing him. As she spoke she thought she saw a haze hovering over the mound but again dismissed it, believing it to be an illusion caused by her grief and exhaustion. But when a young bird who was flying over dropped from the sky onto grave, cold and dead, this she knew she could not ignore.

The daughter announced her suspicions to her household when she returned. “There is a draugr in the village. I tell you this so you might be prepared.”

Most of the household listened however even the conscientious were not spared the draugr’s wrath. A shepherd was out later than usual one night when he heard an unearthly howl. Suddenly the foulest stench surrounded him, stinking of putrefying flesh. As the shepherd stood to investigate his entire flock came charging over a hill, straight toward him. He saw that some had their flesh hanging off of them and that others ignored the entrails they dragged behind as they ran in terror. They made the most piteous noise as they ran, their bleats sounding like screams. The rotting smell grew worse and the shepherd knew he had to get away. But the realization came too late; the draugr appeared amidst the flock, still picking the sheep and tearing into them with sharp misshapen teeth. The draugr had taken the form of the dead chieftain however it made a mockery of the man the lord had once been. It wore the chieftain’s clothes but the body was so bloated and putrid that the clothes had torn at all the seams and were stained dark with the draugr’s excretions. The creature’s flesh was dark blue with glowing white eyes and its weight had grown so dense that the ground shook with every step it took. Yet it was still quick and easily caught the shepherd, lifting him into the air with both hands and tearing the man apart. The draugr chased remaining terrified sheep off of a cliff, laughing as it did so. More mischief and damage occurred in the village, for illness and death followed in the draugr’s wake.

The three thieves, who believed they had gotten away with their crime, dismissed the tales of destruction as the delusions of superstitious villagers. They laughed and enjoyed their riches, mocking the dead chieftain though they had been taught as children that this would bring misfortune. One night the eldest of the thieves was stumbling home alone along a deserted road. He had been visiting his cousin in a nearby town and they had had much to drink. Singing and giggling to himself, he did not notice that a cold fog had descended on him as he walked, nor did he notice the foul stench that surrounded him. As he neared his own village the cold air had finally sharpened his senses and he became aware of thunderous footsteps following him. Turning, he saw an enormous blue shape advancing quickly towards him and tried to get away. But he was still drunk and stumbled, falling onto the cold ground. He looked up and saw that the huge shape was now towering over him, five times the size of any man, and was rocking back and forth, shrieking. Scrabbling in the dirt and now mindless with fear, the thief screamed in agony as the draugr fell onto him, crushing him so badly that his organs split through his skin and fell onto the ground. In this way the first thief died.

The second thief, after hearing of his friend’s death, decided to take a trip to the mainland. He booked passage on a ship which would sail in three days’ time and readied his belongings, including the dead chieftain’s gold. The evening before his voyage he made sure a dagger was close, for he now slept with a weapon. He had felt a sense of unease all day and now that the night had come his feeling grew worse. Despite his disquiet the second thief fell into a deep sleep, and was thus unaware of the draugr in his room. The draugr closed its dead white eyes and flew into the thief’s dreams, showing the man death and fear and the end of all things. When the thief failed to show at the dock the next day to board the ship a servant was sent to his house, where the criminal was found dead in his bed, a look of terror on his face.

By now the third thief was aware that something was coming after him but was still arrogant and believed that his fellow-conspirators had been weak. He snuck into each of their homes and took all of the gold that they had taken from the dead chieftain’s grave, storing it along with his own share in the cellar in his house. He barred the doors to his home, covered all of the windows and had a local shaman give him tokens of protection to hang on trees around his property. Nothing would gain entrance to his home, living or dead. The draugr, seeing what the last thief had done, stood outside of the house and in the old tongue roared a curse at the man. Howling as he finished he flew off into the night. Inside the house the thief shivered in fear but emerged the next morning alive, if a little disoriented. He went down to the river to bathe himself, laughing at his own superstitions and fear. But when he undressed the smell that suddenly came from his own body nearly overpowered him. Looking down at his arms he saw nothing but patches of rotting flesh, pus and corruption dripping from each wound. His entire body was covered in sores, some with small wriggling maggots burrowing deeper. He ran to the shaman who told him that this was old magic and impossible to cure. In despair the last thief ran back to his house. He had to do something, he would cure himself. He heated the dagger that had been by his bed and when the weapon was red hot he sliced the bad flesh from his arm, leg and torso. The pain made the thief cry out and he lost consciousness. When he awoke he saw that the wounds were worse than before and again tried to cut the infection out with his knife. Again he passed out. The next time he woke he was delirious, the agony excruciating. He thought of his gold and knew he had to survive but there was nothing the thief could do. When they presented his body to the chieftain’s daughter he had only a single small wound on his arm. All of the gold that had been taken from her father’s grave had also been collected from the last thief’s house.

One of the daughter’s advisors spoke. “The draugr has had its justice; it has claimed the lives of the men who stole from it yet it still remains with us. Is there any man in the village who will help us to secure the creature?”

No one spoke, all were terrified of the beast. The chieftain’s daughter stood and addressed the villagers. “I will do it, I will return the draugr to his grave. It was once my father and the responsibility is mine. I require a few men to help me.”

The daughter first ordered that her father’s grave be opened, that all of the rocks and sod be removed, and that the gold that had been taken by the thieves be restored. She then changed to her warmest clothes and sat waiting by the grave until nightfall. As the light dimmed the haze she had seen her first night at the grave returned and the smell of decay embraced her. She stood and turned. The draugr was before her, enormous and dripping fluid onto the ground.

“I say out loud that I have respect for the draugr before me. The draugr before me is a mighty warrior whom many will sing of. I cower before the great draugr and while I am unworthy to address the draugr I request the powerful draugr allow me to speak with my deceased father.”

The draugr listened to the words of the daughter but was unmoved. It roared and took a step toward her. She gathered her courage and yelled over the noise. “Father! Help me, please! Father, I miss you.” The draugr stumbled and swayed. “Father, I miss you and think of you every day!” Again the draugr swayed, holding out a decaying arm to steady itself and howled in pain. The daughter took a step towards the creature and whispered, “Father, I love you.” When the draugr stumbled again, the chieftain’s daughter rushed at it with an iron knife. Nothing could kill a draugr but the iron would hurt it. The beast fell backwards into the open grave, screaming and grasping at the knife lodged in its chest. The daughter acted quickly: she jumped into the grave after the draugr and using the same knife she sawed off the thing’s head. It was only when she saw the light fade from the pale white eyes that she climbed out and ordered the grave to be refilled.

To this day songs are sung of the chieftain’s daughter and her great love for her father.


*

Kelly Evans has been a writer for as long as she can remember but is currently trapped in the life of a Business Analyst. She writes for pleasure because there is no possible amount of money existing that would be worth the torment it occasionally causes her. Four years ago Kelly moved to Toronto, Canada from London, England after sixteen years away from home. She brought three cats and a teacher back with her; she couldn’t bear to leave the cats behind and she’s married to the teacher, who would have complained.

Fiction #30: Zachary Alapi

In-Breeding

“I almost had a threesome once,” Ted said, casually sipping a strong Belgian Chimay in a footed pilsner glass, exclusively brewed at some remote Trappist monastery in Belgium.

Ted had already been careful to point out that only seven such brewing monasteries existed. Six in Belgium, and one holdover in Holland. His beer was nine percent, yet tasted like rolled oats, Maine blueberries, and “mad” cherries. Or so he said. With our evening beer education complete, Clarissa and I now had a course in multiple partner manipulation to sit through.

The conversation had turned to sex, a seeming inevitability because none of us were guaranteed it tonight. Times like these require the ammunition of spank-bank stories. Memories you can recall and use to elicit jealousy, admiration, or, depending on the atmosphere and number of drinks consumed, disgust amongst your peers. Ted cast the illusion of having a Rolodex of stories and had waited until splurging on a twelve-dollar pint to savour and impart the latest one.

“Do tell,” I implored. I could sense Ted smirking at my Früli, a strawberry flavoured Belgian brew that lacked manliness with its stained fuchsia coloration resembling Slushy syrup. I didn’t care. It tasted fantastic.

“I was at this party and ended up on the couch with two pretty-littles.”

“What point of the party?” I was good at cutting Ted off with the kind of questions that forced him to enhance details. He was usually purposefully vague. I could sense Clarissa’s intrigue. Clarissa was gay, but she and Ted had fooled around briefly when she expressed interest in pinch-hitting for the other team. When she couldn’t get wet for him, she broke down, lamenting how she thought she might be asexual since she had the same excitement issues with women. Despite his public bravado, Ted nurtured her through the whole thing. Now she was his lesbian wingwoman.

“Late. We’d been drinking solidly for several hours.”

“Beer or liquor? Or mixing?”

“Mixing. I was at least. You remember Karen?” Ted asked me.

“Of course. We dated in grade five. I’m pretty sure she was the hottest girl in school at the time. She dumped me after I asked her to wash her mouth before kissing me, because of my peanut allergy. Instead of having my first kiss at 11, I had it six years later. I blame all my subsequent sexual awkwardness on that one incident.”

Ted and Clarissa laughed. Clarissa was nursing a rum and Coke, scanning the bar that looked like a clear rectangle filled with oil. It was a deep black, and the glasses, beer and wine, hanging from gold racks above it, reflected off the surface.

My anecdote was like stuffing two packages of smelling salts up each nostril.

“Hold up! No! You asked her to wash her face before the kiss?” Clarissa asked.

Ted just leaned back and laughed. “Yup,” I said. “It was either that or risk anaphylactic shock and death. Maybe I sensed she wasn’t my soul mate.”

“You, sir, are fucking insane!” Clarissa said. “But let’s get back to Ted’s story. Sounds juicy. I’ve always been curious about threesomes.”

“Like I was saying,” Ted continued, briefly stopping himself to laugh at the narrative in his head, “I was sitting on the couch with Karen. We start making out a bit, and she’s rubbing my crotch. As this is going on, this foreign exchange student from Switzerland, Elma, stumbles into the room and sits on the other side of me. Pretty close. Our thighs are touching.”

“Aw, shit!” Clarissa interjected. “Old Teddy’s gonna get a double dip.”

“What did Elma look like?” I asked, feeling renewed interest in our conversation for the first time in over an hour.

“Blond, blue eyes, thick lips. Athletic build,” Ted said fondly.

Disappointment. What a lame description. I hadn’t asked him to fill out a medical questionnaire for Elma. I decided she had a Marie Antoinette mole and that, well, she was basically Cindy Crawford from that old Pepsi commercial. Now that was more interesting.

“So our legs are touching, and Elma suddenly starts rubbing my thigh with her hand, inching it up closer to my crotch with every stroke.”

“What room in the house were you in? Were other people there?” I asked.

“Basement. A couple of others, but they were passed out. So once Karen notices Elma rubbing my leg, she stars kissing my neck. Before I know it, we’re really making out.” Ted pauses to laugh again. Sort of a transvestite witch laugh. Sharp, yet deep. “But then I start to get distracted because I can’t feel Elma’s hand moving anymore. I look over and she’s passed out. When I turn my attention back to Karen, she’s already getting up to go to the bathroom to puke.”

That’s it? I think to myself. “Did you at least wake up in a dumpster the next morning with blood and chocolate stains on your shirt and pants?”

Clarissa and Ted give me blank stares. Lame.

“Ah Teddy, one of these days you’ll get there,” Clarissa soothed.

“What about you, Vanilla Sweetness?” Ted said to Clarissa. “Any tales of moral debauchery to tell us?”

“I don’t want to excite you chumps too much with girl-on-girl action stories. Get your imaginations running too wild.”

“About that,” Ted began, “What are the assumed ethics of a gay relationship?”

“What do you mean?”

“Yeah, Ted,” I said, raising my eyebrows, “they don’t have a written manual with rules, ya know?”

Everyone laughed. “No,” Ted said mock-defensively, “I have this gay friend Martin who told me that the assumed ethics of a homosexual relationship are that you should presume to be sleeping with, and actively looking for, other people until the exclusivity talk happens.”

“Don’t know where he gets that from. We don’t have unified rules like a boxing commission,” Clarissa said jokingly, “I’ve always been monogamous, actually.”

“Yeah, Ted,” I cut in, “no unified rules. Not every lesbian…” I pause. “Damn, I was trying to pun on three-knock-down-rule, but I got nothing.”

“Actually,” Clarissa began, “I will give you guys a little taste of something… but nothing exclusive to the fairer sex, so you boys don’t go making any assumptions now. I had this partner who had an armpit fixation. She could only really get off if she had her face buried in my pit. The ranker, the better. Made for an easy couple of months since I could get away without shaving.”

“I think the hair helps retain the scent,” I said.

Ted was looking at me. “Alright, boss. Let’s hear some shindigery.”

“Bah, I got nothing.” I figured I wouldn’t tell them about the time I peed on my ex-girlfriend. We were in the shower, I had to go, mentioned it, and she actually brought up the idea. I hesitated at first, but getting the green light was actually appealing. I ended up peeing on the side of her ass and thigh. It was nothing. She soaped it off right after, and she was standing right over the drain. Still, all the qualifying and technicalities I’d have to convey made that story worthless when you were a few drinks in.

I paused. “I’ll just tell you about the fetish room at the Amsterdam Sex Museum.” I figured this would work well enough. I talked about donkeys with pricks that dwarfed a Louisville Slugger, piercings and hot wax in various orifices, and midgets packing some serious heat. My story was half-assed. Ted’s “near” threesome made me think of how my current girlfriend had promised me a threesome with a girl she’d once “been” with. I was sceptical, but the thought kept me going when final papers were sucking the lifeblood out of me. Needless to say, the thought of that success increased the flow of red bile and changed my humour from melancholic to sanguine.

I was starting to find the conversation tiresome. I’d been nursing my beer for the past hour, and Ted was now pontificating on how he was certain, with a surgeon’s precision, that he’d given every girl he’d been with an orgasm.

“That’s impossible!” Clarissa ejaculated.

“What do you mean, ‘it’s impossible?’”

“You have no way of knowing. What if they faked it?”

“Trust me, had you been there, you’da known they weren’t faking.”

“But still. You can’t ever really know. You can have a sense, or perception of it. But it’s impossible to inhabit her body and actually know. Men have…”

“A tell?” I jumped in.

“Exactly. Like if someone spilt their beer all over the table every time they tried to bluff.”

Ted wasn’t convinced. “I know for a fact I’ve given every girl I’ve been with an orgasm.”

“Teddy, that’s ridiculous. I’m sure even you have an off night.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell them they were misunderstanding each other. Ted meant he’d given every girl he’d been with an orgasm, not every single one he’d been with every single time, as Clarissa seemed to gather. Their sparing match was entertaining.

As Male Prowess versus the State of Female Orgasms continued to cross examine witnesses and prepare for closing arguments, I spied a mother-daughter combo manning two stools unsteadily at the bar. An awkward 17-26 year age gap separated the two; the mother, with wavy blond curls, make-up caked age lines, and bifocals, was probably one of the only regular customers of the local Miami Tanning Salon; the daughter, petite in a black one piece dress that rode up enough to reveal a tear in her flesh coloured stockings, had ink-black hair and Sicilian features.

The mom guzzled a vodka-cranberry with a lime wedge, and the daughter slowly sipped scotch with an appreciative demeanour. Every time the aura of a body whisked past, the mom swivelled around, on the prowl. I made eye contact with each one separately, lulled into their Circean spell, which Ted finally broke.

“Common, man. Let’s get a tall tale.”

I sighed inwardly. “I’m not in the sharing mood. How about a joke instead?”

“As long as it’s dirty.”

“So this guy’s boarding a plane. He sits down, and before he has time to buckle his seat belt, this gorgeous woman sits next to him. I mean, this is the type of woman a man gives up red meat for.” I’ve got Ted and Clarissa under my spell.

“The guy’s deliberating about how to break the ice. Pick-up lines always fail at the critical moments, so he’s at a complete loss. Lo and behold, the woman engages him in conversation. ‘Hi, my name’s Krystal. I’m headed to Chicago for a nymphomaniac convention.’ The guy can’t believe his luck. ‘A convention? What are you, speaking or something?’ he asks. ‘Yes,’ she replies, ‘In fact, I’m the keynote speaker. I’m there to dispel myths about sex and nymphomania.’ At this point, the guy is nearly bursting. He asks her what the myths are.

“‘Well,’ she continues, ‘most people assume that black men have the largest penises. But actually, it’s the Native American Indian. Another is that the French are supposed to be the most sensual lovers, but actually it’s the Jews. Finally, and this one might surprise you, a prevailing assumption is that Italians are the most devoted lovers when, and you might not believe this, it’s in fact the Southern Americans… or ‘rednecks’ as the uncouth like to call them. But look at me, I’m rambling about all this technical stuff and haven’t even asked you your name.’ The guy pauses for a second, looks at the woman’s naked things, moving up past her cleavage before settling on her face. ‘My name is Tonto Goldstein, but my friends call me Bubba.’”

Ted and Clarissa laughed, but I felt the timing was off. Around the middle of telling the joke, a man sitting at the table over Ted’s left shoulder, diagonal from the mother-daughter task force, distracted me. He had a suit with a silk bowtie and medallions, one each with red and blue sashes respectively, pinned to his lapel. I noticed the medallions as I was watching the mother, who I’d started calling Madame Bovary, stumble towards the bathroom.

I kept gazing periodically at the medallion man. He had closely cropped black hair, receding with a widow’s peak. The bald patches next to the peak glistened like newly buffed curling stones sliding along a freshly zambonied rink. His suit was precise, clearly custom fitted, and his face was razor sharp aquiline. Still, his jaw fanned out. Looked like he could take a punch with that bull neck, too.

I was hooked. He sat at a table with three others: an older man and two university-aged boys. He carried himself like a patriarch who maybe had a kid fighting overseas in Afghanistan. Damndest thing was that every time I looked up, he was standing up next to his chair, shaking some stranger’s hand who’d approached his table. The other three supposedly sitting with him seemed to pay no mind to his celebrity. After he shook hands with each newcomer, he stood erect, his back with a perfect outward shoehorn curve, with hands cupped in front of his crotch.

“Ted, casually look over your shoulder at the guy standing up. Isn’t that fucked? Why does he have medals pinned to his lapel?”

Ted and Clarissa both looked over. “I don’t know, man. How long have you been staring at him?”

“On and off for the past fifteen minutes. That’s the third guy who’s come up to talk to him randomly. I wonder what his deal is.”

My companions didn’t seem to share my curiosity. “I donno,” Clarissa mused, “might be a war veteran?”

“He can’t be. He isn’t the right age. Unless he’s American and fought at the very beginning of Desert Storm.”

I pretended to rejoin the conversation. Clarissa and Ted were goading each other into approaching random strangers. This was my way to find out who the medallion man was.

“See that mother-daughter combo sitting at the bar?” I asked.

They both nodded, afraid of what might follow.

“I’ll go hit on them. They’ve been striking out all night.”

Before Ted and Clarissa could respond, I was up out of my seat and sliding onto the stool next to Madame Bovary. The man with the medallions was right over my shoulder. I rested my beer on a Stella Artois coaster and hunched forward, leaning my elbows on the bar, ignoring Madame Bovary’s obvious staring.

I could hear snippets of conversation going on behind me.

“My bitch is so obedient. We have this great game of fetch that we like to play at night,” the man with the medallions was saying to a portly, half-pint sized man with a broom-bristle Hungarian-style moustache, extending approximately two centimetres below the corners of his upper lip.

Straining to hear more about the game, I was interrupted by Madame Bovary. “What’s a stout manly thing like yourself doing sipping a fruity beer like that?”

“Taste is a lost art, Madame,” I replied.

“I’m an expert in many of the lost arts,” she whispered, tonguing the rim of her glass and caking it with passion fruit lipstick. Her daughter merely sipped her scotch absently from a seat away, paying no attention to her mother or me. I was temporarily spellbound as she gargled the syrupy, amber liquid on her tongue, sucking in air through her front teeth to extract the aroma of birch bark, peat moss, and old rubber bands.

I smiled and nodded, hoping to end the conversation. Behind me, the man with medallions was holding forth. “She wears a leather collar with a Canadian diamond encrusted at the front. And yet, you’ll never believe this, she’ll only fetch this old tennis ball I’ve had since the era of plum-smuggler shorts and wooden rackets, but not the custom made, velvet ensconced rubber ball I ordered from Italy for her.”

The man seemed enamoured with his dog.

“My daughter over here just finished her first semester of university,” Madam Bovary interrupted, touching my shoulder with one hand while pulling her daughter by the hem of her skirt towards us with the other.

“What’s your major?” I asked, bypassing Madame Bovary entirely.

She paused, dragging air as if smoking. “Undeclared.”

Her lack of eye contact startled me. “How are you enjoying it?”

Madame Bovary seemed hopeful for the response. “Enjoyment merely implies that the experience has been equally painful.”

Everyone was silent for a while. “Where are you both from?” I asked.

The daughter sighed; Madame Bovary seemed embarrassed. “Conversation should only involve minds consolidating their perplexities. Your banality has made both my intellect and scotch stale. Ta.”

The daughter got up and left slowly, pulling out a cigarette case and making for the door. I watched her leave and noticed Ted and Clarissa had also gone outside to smoke. Madame Bovary laughed and took a large swig of her vodka-cranberry.

“The bitch scurries on all fours, incessantly panting and wriggling her arse. She always comes back and deposits the ball on my lap, resting her jaw on my thigh…”

“I’m sorry about her. She’s going through that rebellious phase,” Madame Bovary interrupted, again.

“Never mind.” I smiled.

“What are you doing here alone, no woman on your arm?”

“I might ask you the same thing. No gentleman caller this evening?”

Madame Bovary’s eyes looked like near empty glasses of stout. She rubbed my knee with the sharp, red-painted nail of her index finger. “Maybe we can help each other out.”

“The Scottish Deerhound is unequivocally this year’s front-runner. Its coat is like crystallized salt and pepper sewn into Mandarin silk.”

The man with the Hungarian moustache seemed pleased. “Stupendous. Lyudmila and I very much look forward to the Kennel Club’s annual competition. Will your bitch be there?”

“Absolutely. She won’t be leaving my side, or she won’t get a reward.” His last statement carried a tone of contempt. The man with the medallions continued. “She wavers occasionally, but she’s usually an obedient bitch. Highly excitable.”

It made a fraction of sense. Clearly the man with medallions was head of the local Kennel Club and was preparing for a best-in-show competition. Still, praising a bitch for her fetching skills seemed amateurish.

Madame Bovary interjected. “I have a pocket poodle, you know. I wanted to give it to my daughter as a reward for completing her semester of university, but she scoffed at the idea, lamenting having to clean its droppings and such.”

“Has the dog been in your purse the whole time you’ve been here?”

“Certainly. I merely lay down napkins at the bottom. It makes cleaning simple. When I think ahead I line it with reinforced paper towel, or my husband’s silk handkerchief if he’s been naughty.”

She reached into her purse and pulled out a hard candy. “Would you like one?”

I recoiled. She had a husband, and I needed a way out. The man with the Hungarian moustache had wandered away, and before I knew it I’d swivelled around and the man with the medallions was rising out of his chair to greet me. He extended his hand. We shook. He had Herculean grip.

“What can I do for you?” he asked. I was too nervous to look at the medallions.

I hesitated, tugging at my sweaty wedgie once my hand was free. It was as if Vulcan had forged his paws. My fingers throbbed and felt singed by an oven burner.

“I have a Vizsla.”

“A fine pointer-retriever breed! The best hunt-dog, in my humble opinion.”

I needed to think of a follow up. “I overheard you talking about some bitch you have. I want my Vizsla to breed. Think your bitch might have use for him?”

His widows’ peak ignited with a flaming aura and his eyes squinted as if blasted with sand. He neck veins throbbed, and he grabbed me by the collar, gripping my shirt like Scylla and Charybdis. “That ‘bitch’ you so flippantly referred to happens to be my wife! And NO, she is most certainly not interested in fucking your Vizsla!”

Still tearing at my shirt collar, he swung me to the side towards a table, forcing me to grab hold of his lapels, jolting his medallions to the floor in the scuffle. Metal struck floor just as he was about to smear my face in half-eaten calamari and tartar sauce.

Noticing his medallions had fallen, he loosened his grip slightly, but still kept me pressed against the table. Bent over a chair, I felt something scurry between my legs. He’d now twisted my arm behind my back and was frantically yelling out, “My medallions! My medallions! They’ve fallen to the floor.” The three other men from his table stood up and frantically began to search for the lost treasure. Amidst the commotion of squeaking dress shoes and men bending down on all fours to search, their noses nearly pressed to the ground, Madame Bovary emerged next to us on all fours, panting with delight, the medallions firmly clasped between her teeth.

The grip on my arm slackened and the man sat down in front of Madame Bovary. I observed the scene as I backed away towards the door. Madame Bovary placed the medallions on the man’s lap and rested her head on his thighs.

I burst out the door and found Ted and Clarissa standing at some distance from Madame Bovary’s daughter.

“Guys, we need to get the fuck out of here!” I exclaimed.

“What happened?” Ted asked.

“Just trust me. I think some bloodhounds are about to be sent after us, followed closely by an angry mob whose gin supply is about to be cut off.”
They could see the desperation in my face. We started walking briskly but were interrupted after a few paces by Madame Bovary’s daughter. “You. Aren’t you going to ask me out for a night cap?” she asked, clearly directed at me.

“But everything’s closing now. I think they just had last call.”

“Huh. Fitting.” As we walked away, she took a tennis ball out of her purse and absently began bouncing it up and down.

*

Zachary Alapi is a second year M.A. Creative Writing student at the University of New Brunswick. His fiction has appeared on tommagazine.com and in the Ottawa journal Front & Centre, and he has also published non-fiction on eastsideboxing.com and the British online zine, Beat the Dust. In 2007, he co-founded the Montreal-based small press Siren Song (www.sirensong.ca) and is currently co-fiction editor for the UNB graduate student literary magazine, QWERTY. He can be reached by email at zacharyalapi@gmail.com.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Interview: Greg Kearney

Please tell us about your interest in the short story by

(a) telling us a bit about your recent collection (e.g., how did it come about? does it have a recurring theme? do you have a particular story or passage that's a favorite?)

The new collection is called Pretty (Exile Editions, 2011). Between two stillborn novels, I’ve been cobbling together the stories since my last collection came out. I’m slightly mortified by my first book – I find it cautious and cloying now – so I was desperate to publish again, to prove that I was more than a Derek McCormack acolyte with a penchant for toilet humour.

A version of Pretty was already in the can in 2008; my agent, Sam Haywood, shopped it around tirelessly but nobody wanted it. Naturally, I was crushed at the time, but it all resolved beautifully: Barry Callaghan accepted it for Exile Editions last year, and arranged an edit by Lisa Foad, a friend and brilliant writer who made the book more incisive and less puerile than it ever would’ve been otherwise.

There are no intentional motifs in the book. I was just running with my hottest impulses, sentence by sentence. I’ve learned that my stuff instantly dies on the vine the moment I attempt to “do” anything. My guiding theme, when writing, must be boiled down to a word, or I start to teeter; for instance, the novel I’ve been beavering away at is all about “hurry!” I actually may end up calling it Hurry.

(b) recommending a short story or collection by someone else that you admire (and why?)

The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel. I am tempted to not write another sentence, but I want to prove that I am more than an Amy Hempel acolyte. I was obsessed with her first book, Reasons to Live, when I was fifteen, read it over and over. Prior to reading her, I simply assumed that I was too impatient, too graceless, too preoccupied with masturbation to ever write more than a paragraph. After reading her, I realized that I didn’t need to write more than a paragraph. She emancipated me in the biggest way. Oh, and her next book, At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, leveled me with its perfection. But then, in my preening, presumptuous late twenties, I forsook her: so one-note! Where’s the reach?

I’ve returned to her loving arms, however. My journey through high-minded contemporary fiction has led me to one awful, bloated novel after another. Rick Moody, Cormac McCarthy, David Foster Wallace. Ugh. All those straight, white, American male writers, bursting with entitlement, never knowing when to shut the fuck up. I literally hurled Infinite Jest across the living room (the thousand page thud of it sent our pug, Tammy, scurrying under the couch). A thousand page novel with footnotes! The nerve! Some of us don’t have time for footnotes! Some of us work several jobs, some of us have Lupus or worse, some of us are exercise addicts. Yes, I’ve come back to Amy, her small, fussy sentences and modest page count, her thoughtful presumption that the reader is busy and/or dying. I’ll never stray again.

(c) reflecting on the 21st century and the short story: Are they a good match (and why)?

The short story should be the prevailing literary form of our time – a few thousand words, two or elegant scenes, a bit of edification, over and out – but it’s not. Today’s reader is so frayed and twitchy after a long day of Tweets, status updates, gratuitous cell phone conversations and overly cerebral relationships with toddlers, it’s as though we need to do penance by reading all forty installments of “The Girl with Pierced Ears” or whatever the hell it’s called. We need to bask in the borrowed humanity of a long narrative. Pretty has received great reviews, and other writers love it, but I can’t tell you how many people have, by way of praise, wished that one story or another could’ve gone on and on. It’s confounding, this preoccupation with “going on and on”. I instantly think of some horrible Jethro Tull album. In any case, I have caved: I’ve got 135 pages of Hurry, and I’m nowhere near finished. Forgive me, Amy!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Interview: J.J. Steinfeld

TDR question (in three parts):

Please tell us about your interest in the short story by
(a) telling us a bit about your recent collection (e.g., how did it come about? does it have a recurring theme? do you have a particular story or passage that's a favourite?)

Writing stories in an ongoing process for me, and after I finish one, I send it off to a journal or magazine in an attempt to “test” my current exploration of the worldly or the otherworldly. Then, for reasons that elude me, I wake up one tormented morning and decide to gather up some of my stories, sometimes in their original form, other times reworked, and put them in some sort of order and literary shape.

For my latest (and tenth) short story collection — I have also published two short-fiction chapbooks — I selected, as is my idiosyncratic tendency, a variety of stories so I could present the themes that engage my sensibilities, and this collection wound up having the most stories, twenty-eight, of all my collections, surpassing the twenty-six of my 1993 New & Selected Ragweed Press collection, Dancing at the Club Holocaust. As for describing the themes in my latest collection, and in much of my other work, I’ll use the description from the back of the book (and the publisher’s website):

“The twenty-eight short stories of A Glass Shard and Memory deal with the influence of the past and memory on the present; how the turmoil and struggle of existence stir some people to rage while paralysing others; the significance of love, creativity, and madness in the lives of individuals as they attempt to deal with the not always hospitable world around them. These stories are interwoven with the tragic and the absurd and sometimes with the darkly humorous.”

While I don’t have a favourite story, I do have a title I particularly like: “The Only One in the Beautiful Magician’s Audience Who Did Not Look Like Kafka.” As you know, Michael, I have a lifelong literary fascination with Kafka’s work and references to Kafka and his writing find their way into some of my writing, including this story, the title (and opening) story,“ A Glass Shard and Memory,” and the collection’s concluding story, “Historical Perspective.”

Since I prefer to allow my writing to speak for my work rather than describe that work, here’s a passage from “The Only One in the Beautiful Magician’s Audience Who Did Not Look Like Kafka.” that attempts to capture the narrator’s entrapment somewhere between the absurd and the existential of his life. Just so you don’t think this narrator is anything like me, he has sky-blue eyes and mine are earth-brown. There, I’m off the autobiographical hook:

…Nervous, a bit disoriented by my disrupted sleep, I arrived early at the old, recently renovated building. Outside, the weather was unseasonable, spiteful; inside, I found my seat near the centre of the third row, and sat with my eyes closed as the audience entered. It was not long before I was enthralled by the featured act, a young top-hatted magician, sensual, long-legged, superbly talented, creating a name for herself making small, growling animals and large, antique cars vanish from the stage. I am here for the beauty, not the magic, I shouted out, forgetting for a instant that I was not alone in the audience. But the magic is beautiful, I declared as a plea for forgiveness. I looked around, nervous about my outburst, waiting for the beautiful magician to perform her next feat of magic, and saw that everyone resembled Franz Kafka, their faces exactly the same. A joke, I thought, a peculiar coincidence, but no, how could that be. I thought of the photographs of the brooding dark-eyed writer I had seen in books, and the resemblance was indisputable. I counted over a hundred of the Kafka-faced, re-counted, looked for discrepancies, slight deviations, but no again, the evidence resolute as the Seven Wonders of the World. Confusion and fear exerted their boisterous language, and I was a poor translator, a frightened linguist. I ran to the washroom, my heart beating faster than confusion or fear, and looked into the mirror: ah, reprieve and a sigh of familiarity, recognizing the reflected face I knew, the well-worn, unhandsome shape. I studied my face half-heartedly, disappointed, and wiped the mirror in unmagical despair, mouthing the words homely and ugly, then peculiar, odd, hideous, unusual, my words a memory stammer. I wondered about the life I would have lived had Nature smiled more favourably on my features or dreams, or if a skilled surgeon would have fashioned my face into something else.

— from “The Only One in the Beautiful Magician’s Audience Who Did Not Look Like Kafka,” pages 14-15 (in A Glass Shard and Memory by J. J. Steinfeld, Recliner Books, 2010, copyright © 2010 by J. J. Steinfeld).

(b) recommending a short story or collection by someone else that you admire (and why?)

I am reluctant to single out one short story collection but being gnawed at by my sense of literary fair play and attempting to repay a kindness, I will recommend Rebecca Rosenblum’s new collection, The Big Dream (Biblioasis, 2011), for two reasons: 1) it is an exciting, well-crafted, captivating, insightful collection, and 2) Rebecca said some generous things about an earlier short story collection of mine, Would You Hide Me? (Gaspereau Press, 2003), in an interview she did in this very same TDR. So, that makes as much sense as any other way of making a recommendation. I first ran across Rebecca’s work in the form of her first short story collection, Once (Biblioasis, 2008), when I was one of the three judges for the 2009 Danuta Gleed Literary Award, and was greatly impressed by her writing. And if life were a short story, here’s an interesting plot twist: Rebecca is now engaged to a good writer friend of mine, Mark Sampson, but when I was judging her work I had no idea that they even knew each other, let alone anything romantic was in the air for them.

(c) reflecting on the 21st century and the short story: Are they a good match (and why)?

Gee, is it the 21st century already? My, how angst-ridden time flies when your synapses and psyche are grappling with writing new stories (and poems and plays). I like to think the short story transcends time and place and century, but I guess I do reside on a planet that requires categories and calendars and existential snapshots of our times. Technologically, everything seems to be speeding up, information is accumulating at a ridiculous pace, and perhaps the short story can accommodate this spiralling heavens-knows-where century through language that can be as absurd or realistic or fanciful as a writer wishes in an effort to either depict or deconstruct or reinvent the comings and goings of the century we are caught in but can certainly embrace or escape (either back or forward in time, and with old or new writing techniques) through the short story. Personally, I seem to be writing more and more minimalist short stories in an effort to deal with a century that is becoming more and more cumbersome and overloaded. Seems appropriate to end this interview on an absurd note. Happy (and sad) reading! Happy (and sad) short story writing!

Photo credit: Brenda Whiteway

New Fiction by J.J. Steinfeld

One Last Question

Samuel Prufrock woke up and actually felt good, refreshed. Not even the slightest hint of a hangover. He was never one to hold his liquor and last night he had a half-dozen beers. What was more amazing, he wondered, not having a hangover or being able to perform in bed being drunk, with a woman he had met at the retirement party for the chair of his department less than twelve hours ago. And the wonderment did not stop there. Amazingly, he wasn’t feeling any guilt about what he had done. He thought he’d feel guilty, and when she invited him back to her hotel room and he accepted, he was only half blaming it on the drink.

Samuel looked at the back of the woman in bed with him and couldn’t believe his good fortune. This extraordinary woman had come up to him in the party, handed him a bottle of beer, and said she found him attractive. He was never one for looks. In fact, he had always considered himself unattractive. He felt his head was too large for his small, unusual body. His wife claimed he had inner beauty; at least that’s what she claimed when they dated and married a year later in a memorable ceremony in Buenos Aries. He liked having an Argentine wife. Exotic, he considered her, even though she had spent most of her life in Canada. That’s where she was now, in Buenos Aries, with her critically ill mother. She had taken their daughter and son with her, to be with their dying grandmother who they had never met before.

Now Samuel was waking up in a lavish hotel room, with no hangover and the most extraordinary woman he had ever met who had stirred him in ways he didn’t think possible. Extraordinary if for no other reason than her impressive athletic physique. She was ten inches taller than him and muscular, yet there was an appealing femininity to her. And she could excite him with her talk. Also, when he first told her his name, not only did she know that his surname was the same as in the T.S. Eliot poem, she immediately recited the poem’s epigraph in Italian from Dante’s Inferno and then in English the first two stanzas of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" as if she had been waiting for her cue to begin an impressive recitation. "I can’t stand the poem, wouldn’t memorize a sentence of it when I was growing up," he said. "You were born to be an English Lit teacher," she had said, and he told her he was a philosophy professor. She told him she was a niece of the philosophy department’s chair and that her mother and her uncle hadn’t spoken in almost a decade but she had asked her to attend the party and wish he estranged brother her best. Before he left, though, Samuel wished the chair well in his retirement and commented on what an extraordinary niece he had but the chair claimed he didn’t have any nieces, only two nephews who he hadn’t seen in ages. The chair seemed even more drunk than he was, and Samuel hugged him goodbye, the most affection he had ever shown this man who he had always regarded as unfriendly and eccentric.

Samuel touched the woman’s shoulder gently, but she didn’t respond. The woman felt cold, and he pulled the cover over her shoulders. He gave the back of the neck a little kiss of appreciation, and it too felt cold. Too cold.

"We should have breakfast," Samuel whispered. He said it a little louder, then he thanked her for the most incredible night of his life. He looked at the clock and calculated what the time would be in Buenos Aries . He had promised to call his wife and children yesterday to wish his daughter a happy birthday and chat with his son, and to find out how his mother-in-law was doing, but had forgotten to during the day, remembering at the party at eleven Toronto time but that would have been midnight in Buenos Aries, too late to phone. He wondered if his wife had tried to call him at home. He was preparing excuses why he hadn’t been at home, or called earlier. Forgotten to take his cellphone to the party. Early morning walk. He always did his best philosophical thinking during early morning walks. Bumped into an old friend and they went out for a long breakfast. He was starting to feel guilty. The first time he had slept with another woman. In fact, his wife was the first woman he had ever slept with. His wife was certainly no novice. She had dated three other men in their department before she proposed to him during an academic conference they were both at in France. The stories about her in the department. At first he didn’t want to believe them, but then it didn’t matter. She was a lovely woman and a first-rate scholar. He couldn’t believe what she had said and questioned her. All his life he had been asking questions—he liked to say his calling was to professionally ask questions—but usually in his academic work. He had recently been made a full professor. She thought he’d make a good father, had humility despite his academic accomplishments, and had a great sense of humour, which he didn’t unless cracking groaners about metaphysics or epistemology was one’s idea of the humorous but she insisted that was one of the reasons. You’re so exotic he said after her proposal. She insisted he get her pregnant that night, even before they were married. That was the best conference of his life, even if felt the paper he had delivered with not his best.

Amidst his thoughts about his wife and academic career, Samuel gave the woman a slight shake, a little more forceful—Oh God, she was dead. He felt like a bewildered undergraduate who had received a failing grade on the best essay he had ever written. He got out of bed and saw himself in the mirror, thought he had the body of a much older man. He could see the woman’s body on the bed. He looked around the room, as if the explanation for what had happened were hidden somewhere in the hotel room. He touched her clothes that she had thrown earlier on a chair, opened the small purse she had. Found an ID. It wasn’t the name she had given him. Her middle name, Sarah, was the same as his daughter’s first name. Strange, but so what? A meaningless little coincidence. The ID was for an organization he had never heard of: Worldwide Security Enrichment. Maybe he was being set up, lured to this room and the woman killed. What a terrible plot, yet it seemed plausible. But he was no one, at least in the context of world events and national security. He wasn’t a threat to anyone or anything. I’m a philosophy professor, he said aloud, as if preparing to answer the interrogation that was sure to follow. He picked up the woman’s cellphone and his cellphone, trying to decide not only which one to use but whom to call first. He put the cellphones down and dressed quickly, fearing there would be a knock at the door, or even worse, the door would be broken down by members of the organization the woman worked for.

After dressing, and searching around the room further, Samuel decided to call the front desk. There had to be an explanation for her death. A logical, rationale, verifiable explanation. But not for his adultery. Not for going to a hotel room with a strange woman. Unless it was alcohol. He had drunk himself into a meaningless fling. That was how he was rehearsing it for his wife, whom he would call soon. How’s your mother doing?…I love you, darling …Let me talk to our little birthday girl … But he would wait until she returned to Canada to tell her what had happened. By then, he was sure, the identity of the woman and who or what had caused her death would be known, and he couldn’t be held culpable. As for the sexual encounter, maybe he could deny that, but he knew there would be an autopsy and a thorough investigation, and they could certainly determine there had been sexual activity. Despite his belief in rigorous, rational thinking, he even hoped for an irrational moment that his wife and children would not find out.

No answer at the front desk. Samuel tried over and over again, conducting some sort of scientific experiment. He wanted to take a shower first. Just go down to the front desk and tell them to call the police. Or should he call the police himself. What was the organization? Couldn’t find it in the phone book. Checked it on the internet. Put her name in a search engine and all he found were references to her athletic achievements in high school and college until an injury ended her pentathlon career before she had a chance to go to the Olympics, which several articles said had been her lifelong goal.

Samuel called Buenos Aries , already in his mind attempting to sound cheerful for his wife and children but there was no answer. Called the university, but realized no one would be there on a Sunday. Called the police. Called numbers at random. Voice mail and answering machines. Annoying busy signals. Peculiar electronic signals. Combed his hair, took his laptop, and opened the door. This had to be dealt with. He had a marriage and a career to protect. He hurried toward the elevator as though attempting to catch a departing bus, nearly tripping over a tray of food that had been left outside a room’s door. Near the elevator he saw an open door an stepped cautiously inside. An elderly couple were on their bed, unmoving. They looked peaceful, he thought. He spoke to them but neither person answered, and he decided they had died in their sleep just like the woman in his room. Maybe there was some sort of poisoning or lethal gas on the floor. But he felt no ill effects. Not even a hangover. He left the room and pushed the elevator button, watching the numbers, until 20 appeared. The door opened and he rode down in the elevator wondering how many people had died in their rooms in their sleep.

The elevator opened to the lobby, and there was no one in the lobby, only the clerk at the front desk slumped over the counter. Samuel shook the man, hoping he had merely fallen asleep on the job. Obviously it wasn’t just the twentieth floor. The entire hotel, no indication that anyone was alive. He could leave. No need to tell anyone he had been here.

Quickly Samuel went through what had occurred since he met the woman, watching a sped up film. Thinks if he left anything in the room. His fingerprints. Semen. But there was no record of his fingerprints. He had her cellphone with him, and realized it needed to be discarded. What sort of moral and ethical quagmire had he fallen into. He thought of the colleague in the office next to him, an eminent ethicist who would surely chastise him for the decisions he was making. He didn’t want to go back. Everyone in the hotel, he became certain, was in their room in repose…dead.

Samuel stepped outside and took a deep breath. It was a calm, beautiful morning. The temperature seemed much warmer than he recalled the forecast. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, except there was no one around.

Samuel walked for blocks, looking through apartment windows, occasionally seeing people asleep inside, sometimes tapping at windows or banging at doors, but no one responded, he concluding that they too had died in their sleep. Tried his cellphone again. Thought of going to the university, his office. Saw a Rolls Royce parked, with the keys in the ignition. He’d never been in a Rolls. He imagined that the owners of the car, a husband and wife deeply in love, went to bed after a night of partying, and never woke up. He didn’t want to believe that no one in the city hadn’t awoken to such a beautiful morning, and still hoped to find others who were greeting a new day, having a Sunday breakfast and perhaps an affirming kiss or exciting, hopeful conversation with someone they loved and cared about. How he wished he were in Buenos Aries now, close to his wife and children.

Samuel started the car and drove to the university. Maybe the deaths and the strange occurrences were only in the downtown area. Nothing on the radio. He opened the glove compartment and found a gun and car registration. Maybe the car’s owner belonged to the same organization as the dead woman in the hotel room. That was preposterous, he decided, and pointed the gun out the window, aiming at nothing in particular. Aside from toy guns as a little boy, he had never handled a gun. First time in a Rolls and first time with a gun, he told himself, and smiles at the absurd juxtaposition of these first-time images. He abruptly put the gun back into the glove compartment, shaking his head at even the thought of carrying a gun.

He didn’t see a single living person on the half-hour drive to the university. There were few cars in the parking lot. It was Sunday, after all. His office was exactly as he left it. No one around. Looked at the photographs of his wife and children. Sat at his desk and turned on his computer. A paper he had been working on. Wanted to watch the episode of The Twilight Zone with the last person left alive. "Time Enough at Last." How he liked that television series and "Time Enough at Last" fascinated him, so much so that he had incorporated that one, along with several other episodes he found philosophically stimulating, into one of his first-year philosophy courses. He even liked to attempt to imitate Rod Serling when he gave the introduction and summation to each episode. He had all the episodes from 1959 to 1964, all 156 of them, on DVD in his office, and had watched them with his children. He wasn’t the last person alive. There were close to seven billion people on the planet. A few weeks ago his son had found a population counter on the internet and showed his father the date the seventh billion person would be born. Now he seemed to be surrounded by death: a hotel of bodies, at least on the 20th floor and in the lobby. Tragic and sad these hotel deaths were, it was a mortality glitch. How could he be the last one left alive? Continued to think about stories and films that dealt with the last person left, but it was The Twilight Zone episode that occupied his thoughts. Wanted to go home and watch that episode. Put the DVD in his computer and watched the episode. Watched it twice.

Samuel drove home, walked around his neighbourhood, went into houses, searched through the lives of people he knew, had some wonderful liquor, a few slices of cold pizza. Found no one alive or any explanation for what had happened. His confusion worsening, he got back into the car and drove toward downtown, wanting to return to the hotel.

Before Samuel reached the hotel, he slammed on the brakes in front of an imposing church. The oldest church in the city. Sensed there would be people alive inside. A church full of people praying and attempting to understand what was happening. Gets out of the car, not bothering to close the door. Strange, he thinks, how he is drawn to this religion’s place of worship. Shouldn’t he go to a synagogue. He was Jewish, after, all. The synagogue where he was bar mitzvahed. No, what’s the difference. Church, synagogue, mosque, temple. Starts thinking of holy places in the city and other places in the world. A mental exercise, fighting to make sense of what was happening all around him.

Inside the church, not a single person present, Samuel looks at the iconography. His wife would be proud of him, he thinks. Attempts to call her again. Starts singing songs from his youth. Thinks about the woman in the hotel room, the chair of the philosophy department’s retirement party. Looks at his watch, and shakes his head. Takes his watch off and hurls it toward the front of the church. Decides to take a drive, a long drive. And when he runs out of gas, then he would decide what to do next. Samuel continued to hold out hope he would find people somewhere.

As he is about to leave the church, Samuel asks one last question: Why am I still alive? He half expected to hear Rod Serling’s voice doing the opening or closing narration of an episode. How he wished he were in a classroom, lecturing to students, attempting his inept imitation. He asks the question again, more like a prayer this time.

All the icons and statues start speaking, but in voices Samuel Prufrock cannot understand.

*

Read TDR's new interview with J.J. Steinfeld.