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!