nasty, brutish and short fiction from the late, great Derek Raymond

The shorter man put his lips to Gust’s ear. ‘Pain,’ he whispered. ‘You got any idea what pain is?’

‘You bet,’ said Gust. ‘It’s like bad breath or an old pouf, and it hangs around too long the same way you do.

—from Derek Raymond, “Brand New Dead”


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Derek Raymond (real name Robin Cook) was born to privilege and by his 20s had sunk to the bottom, whereupon he began recording the manners and mores of the English from the 1950s to the 1990s, often in the form of crime fiction. According to his Wikipedia entry, Raymond/Cook was the eldest son of a textile magnate and attended Eton, which he later characterized as “an excellent preparation for vice of any kind”.  He spent most of the 1950s abroad, including residency in the Beat Hotel in Paris, where William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg were his neighbours. His entire artistic output can be summed up thusly:

Existence is sometimes what a forward artillery observer sees of enemy lines through field glasses. A distant and troubling view brought suddenly into focus with a wealth of obscene detail.

The Hidden Files, p. 121

The first and last spot to go to for information about Raymond on the Web is this excellent post from Dennis Cooper (a writer who, like Raymond, has the eye for the essential, existential detail).

Published as a stand-alone story in London Noir, ed. Maxim Jakubowski, (Serpent’s Tail, 1995), the following originally appeared in Raymond’s novel Not Till the Red Fog Rises (Time Warner Books UK, 1994).

 

Derek Raymond, “Brand New Dead

At about midnight two men suddenly came up and stood right beside Gust at the bar in Marly’s club, pressing against him as close as they could get. The place was packed out and after a while both of them started looking at him sidelong, nudging each other in a snide sort of way and laughing half in his direction as if his cock was hanging out or something. Only it happened to be a night when Gust didn’t want any interruptions; he had a lot to think about and so he paid no attention to the men which seemed to get them choked, because finally one of them, suppressing his laughter, gave him a good shove. Whether that was intentional or not Gust couldn’t say, it could have been just the domino effect of various drunken dancers, but Gust took a hard look at the man all the same whereupon they both turned away, but not in a manner to indicate they were bothered.

Gust reckoned that in their place he would have been bothered on the whole, even though they both looked heavy. One of them was taller than the other with red hair, a rash and love/hate tattoos across his knuckles; the other had straight brown hair and eyebrows that met across the bridge of his nose like Hess. They both wore tired blue jeans, their boots were on their second lap round the clock and Gust had never seen either of them before; the only thing he was certain of was that they had both done bird.

The taller man nudged Gust again and this time he actually said something. He said: ‘Is your name Gust?’

‘Yes that’s me all right,’ said Gust pleasantly, ‘what about it?’

‘Well it’s this,’ said the man. ‘We’d like to let you live if we could, we’ve no personal grudge, see, only we can’t, so instead we’re going to give you a terrific beating and then you’re going to die outside round the back would you believe?’

‘Sounds great,’ said Gust, ‘cheaper than going down to the gym for a work-out anyway.’ He didn’t move except to set down his glass; he always liked to see what other people did first in case what they did was a mistake. Anyway there was no room for him to move yet; a dozen bottoms were squeezing hotly into the three of them and everyone was drinking and looking at the dancers and the music. The music was blasting out in a way fit to rupture an eardrum; you couldn’t have heard a lion roar six inches away.

The shorter man put his lips to Gust’s ear. ‘Pain,’ he whispered. ‘You got any idea what pain is?’

‘You bet,’ said Gust. ‘It’s like bad breath or an old pouf, and it hangs around too long the same way you do.’

The taller man stared at Gust. ‘You’ve just asked to be taken apart,’ he whispered. A reverent look came over him. ‘Massacred.’ He had large dark eyes like pits with a lot of shit floating at the bottom of them.

Around them, meantime, life in the place was cheerfully continuing the way it does. Marly was singing, and two travelos up on the stage were having a cuddle against the gold tinsel curtain behind the piano, one of them with the seams of his net stockings askew. Someone photographed them from the floor; the flash and a champagne cork popped together. Marly was drunk; the crazy song he was singing chain-sawed through the crowd, and the minute he finished it he sat down with a bump by the piano. Someone got barred on the door and burst into tears on a gorilla’s chest; outside in Brewer Street a squad car screamed its way through a siren and a set of tyres and a Colombian crack dealer left suddenly with his driver. The scene was set; the music was turned all the way up for trouble.

The phone on the bar rang. One of the naked waiters scooped it up and stood on tiptoe, looking inquiringly over two hundred or so heads. ‘Chris?’ he trilled in a high contralto. ‘Is there anybody here called Chris? Phone call for Chris.’ No one wanted to know, so he banged the phone down. He said to an old queen: ‘My poor voice, this sort of work is agony for it, my voice is the same as it was when I was ten, did you know, it’s simply never broken.’

‘Working in here’ll break your fucking heart, darling,’ said the old has-been, ‘never mind your voice.’

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at long last, selected short fiction from joseph mcelroy

Not as well known as DeLillo and Barth and other figures in the American postmodern pantheon, but arguable more talented than any of then, Joseph McElroy is in large part the great secret of American literature. Now some of McElroy’s short stories have been collected in Night Soul and Other Stories (Dalkey Archive, 2011).  James Gibbons in Bookforum has described these stories as “awash in fragmentary stimuli” and notes that:

It’s best to read Joseph McElroy’s Night Soul slowly, warily even, because you’re never far from an unexpected swerve, a surprising shift of gears, or a disclosure of inconspicuous import. Not all these sly, oblique, yet affecting stories are set in the city, but the mode is always urban to the core—a crowding together of impressions and perceptions not necessarily in harmony, and just as likely to deepen ambiguity as to clarify. Take this portrait of an aggressive stranger on the subway who accosts a fellow New Yorker in “Silk, or the Woman with the Bike”: “To hear her speak, she was quite unafraid. Or it was where she was coming from, a woman almost haggard, almost beautiful. Irritable. Short with him. Not just your blunt city person in passing, and not passing but arrived like a coincidence.” Beautiful or haggard, or both, or neither: The woman’s portrait keeps shifting, revising itself as the agitated phrases trip forward. Yet the description’s fuzziness is precisely what gives it its power, uncanny as the feeling of “coincidence” called forth by the woman. (“Into The Wild”, Bookforum Dec/Jan 2011)

A couple of the stories are available online:

Night Soul” and “Character.”

lorrie moore’s “how to become a writer”

How to Become a Writer

First, try to be something, anything, else. A movie star/ astronaut. A movie star/missionary. A movie star/kindergarten teacher. President of the World. Fail miserably. It is best if you fail at an early age—say, fourteen. Early, critical disillusionment is necessary so that at fifteen you can write long haiku sequences about thwarted desire. It is a pond, a cherry blossom, a wind brushing against sparrow wing leaving for mountain. Count the syllables. Show it to your mom. She is tough and practical. She has a son in Vietnam and a husband who may be having an affair. She believes in wearing brown because it hides spots. She’ll look briefly at your writing, then back up at you with a face blank as a donut. She’ll say: “How about emptying the dishwasher?” Look away. Shove the forks in the fork drawer. Accidentally break one of the free­bie gas station glasses. This is the required pain and suffering. This is only for starters.

In your high school English class look at Mr. Killian’s face. Decide faces are important. Write a villanelle about pores. Struggle. Write a sonnet. Count the syllables: nine, ten, eleven, thirteen. Decide to exper­iment with fiction. Here you don’t have to count syllables. Write a short story about an elderly man and woman who accidentally shoot each other in the head, the result of an inexplicable malfunction of a shotgun which appears mysteriously in their living room one night. Give it to Mr. Killian as your final project. When you get it back, he has written on it: “Some of your images are quite nice, but you have no sense of plot.” When you are home, in the privacy of your own room, faintly scrawl in pencil beneath his black-inked comments: “Plots are for dead people, pore-face.”

Take all the babysitting jobs you can get. You are great with kids. They love you. You tell them stories about old people who die idiot deaths. You sing them songs like “Blue Bells of Scotland,” which is their favorite. And when they are in their pajamas and have finally stopped pinching each other, when they are fast asleep, you read every sex manual in the house, and wonder how on earth anyone could ever do those things with someone they truly loved. Fall asleep in a chair reading Mr. McMurphy’s Playboy. When the McMurphys come home, they will tap you on the shoulder, look at the magazine in your lap, and grin. You will want to die. They will ask you if Tracey took her medicine all right. Explain, yes, she did, that you promised her a story if she would take it like a big girl and that seemed to work out just fine. “Oh, marvelous,” they will exclaim.

Try to smile proudly.

Apply to college as a child psychology major.

As a child psychology major, you have some electives. You’ve always liked birds. Sign up for something called “The Ornithological Field Trip.” It meets Tuesdays and Thursdays at two. When you arrive at Room 134 on the first day of class, everyone is sitting around a seminar table talking about metaphors. You’ve heard of these. After a short, excruciating while, raise your hand and say diffidently, “Excuse me, isn’t this Bird-watching one-oh-one?” The class stops and turns to look at you. They seem to all have one face—giant and blank as a vandalized clock. Someone with a beard booms out, “No, this is Creative Writing.” Say: “Oh—right,” as if perhaps you knew all along. Look down at your schedule. Wonder how the hell you ended up here. The computer, apparently, has made an error. You start to get up to leave and then don’t. The lines at the registrar this week are huge. Perhaps you should stick with this mistake. Perhaps your creative writing isn’t all that bad. Perhaps it is fate. Perhaps this is what your dad meant when he said, “It’s the age of computers, Francie, it’s the age of computers.”

Decide that you like college life. In your dorm you meet many nice people. Some are smarter than you. And some, you notice, are dumber than you. You will continue, unfortunately, to view the world in exactly these terms for the rest of your life.

The assignment this week in creative writing is to narrate a violent happening. Turn in a story about driving with your Uncle Gordon and another one about two old people who are accidentally electro­cuted when they go to turn on a badly wired desk lamp. The teacher will hand them back to you with comments: “Much of your writing is smooth and energetic. You have, however, a ludicrous notion of plot.” Write another story about a man and a woman who, in the very first paragraph, have their lower torsos accidentally blitzed away by dyna­mite. In the second paragraph, with the insurance money, they buy a frozen yogurt stand together. There are six more paragraphs. You read the whole thing out loud in class. No one likes it. They say your sense of plot is outrageous and incompetent. After class someone asks you if you are crazy.

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short fiction from lydia davis by way of homage to beckett

A place. Where none. A time when try see. Try say. How small. How vast. How if not boundless bounded. Whence the dim. Not now. Know better now. Unknow better now. Know only no out of. No knowing how know only no out of. Into only. Hence another. Another place where none. Whither once whence no return. No. No place but the one. None but the one where none. Whence never once in. Somehow in. Beyondless. Thenceless there. Thitherless there. Thenceless thitherless there.

—from Samuel Beckett’s Worstward Ho

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Southward Bound, Reads Worstward Ho

Sun in eyes, faces east, waits for van bound for south meeting plane from west. Carries book, Worstward Ho.

In van, heading south, sits on right or west side, sun in through windows from east. Highway crosses and recrosses meandering stream passing now northeast and now northwest under. Reads Worstward Ho: On. Say on. Be said on. Somehow on. Till nohow on. Said nohow on.

Road turning and van turning east and then north of east, sun in eyes, stops reading Worstward Ho.

Road turning and van turning east again and south, shadow on page, reads: As now by way of somehow on where in the nowhere all together?

Road and van turning briefly north, sun at right shoulder, light not in eyes but flickering on page of Worstward Ho, reads: What when words gone? None for what then.

Van turning off highway, sun behind, sun around and in window and onto page, does not read.

Van pointing east motionless in station, in shadow of tree, reads: But say by way of somehow on somehow with sight to do.

Van pointing south and moving, reads: So leastness on.

Van turning off highway, sun behind, sun around and in window and onto page, does not read.

Van pointing east then north of east motionless, in treeless station not in shadow, sun in face, does not read.

Van turning, sun ahead, sun around and in opposite window, shadow on page, van pointing south and moving, reads: Longing the so-said mind long lost to longing. Dint of long longing lost to longing. Said is missaid. Whenever said said said missaid.

Van turning off highway, sun behind, sun around and in window and onto page, does not read.

Van turning last time back onto highway, sun ahead, sun around and in opposite window, shadow on page, reads: No once. No once in pastless now.

Van turning last time off highway, sun ahead, sun around and in window, does not read.

Van farthest south motionless in shadow, pointing north, reads last words: Said nohow on.

 

“I think of all the weapons in a house: knives, cooking forks, ice picks, hammers, skillets, cleavers wine bottles, and I wonder if I’ll be one of those women.”

anton chekhov once observed it is not the writer’s job to solve problems and draw conclusions:

In my opinion it is not the writer’s job to solve such problems as God, pessimism, etc; his job is merely to record who, under what conditions, said or thought what about God or pessimism. The artist is not meant to be a judge of his characters and what they say; his only job is to be an impartial witness. I heard two Russians in a muddled conversation about pessimism, a conversation that solved nothing; all I am bound to do is reproduce that conversation exactly as I heard it. Drawing conclusions is up to the jury, that is, the readers. My only job is to be talented, that is, to know how to distinguish important testimony from unimportant, to place my characters in the proper light and speak their language.

—Anton Chekhov, in a letter to Alexei Suvorin, May 30, 1888

. . . a century later andre dubus illustrated chekhov’s credo this way:

“Leslie in California”

WHEN THE ALARM rings the room is black and grey; I smell Kevin’s breath and my eye hurts and won’t open. He gets out of bed, and still I smell beer in the cold air. He is naked and dressing fast. I get up shivering in my nightgown and put on my robe and go by flashlight to the kitchen, where there is some light from the sky. Birds are singing, or whatever it is they do. I light the gas lantern and set it near the stove, and remember New England mornings with the lights on and a warm kitchen and catching the school bus. I won’t have to look at my eye till the sun comes up in the bathroom. Dad was happy about us going to California; he talked about sourdough bread and fresh fruit and vegetables all year. I put water on the stove and get bacon and eggs and milk from the ice chest. A can of beer is floating, tilting, in the ice and water; the rest are bent in the paper bag for garbage. I could count them, know how many it takes. I put on the bacon and smoke a cigarette, and when I hear him coming I stand at the stove so my back is to the door.

‘Today’s the day,’ he says.

They are going out for sharks. They will be gone five days, maybe more, and if he comes back with money we can have electricity again. For the first three months out here he could not get on a boat, then yesterday he found one that was short a man, so last night he celebrated.

‘Hey, hon.’

I turn the bacon. He comes to me and hugs me from behind, rubbing my hips through the robe, his breath sour beer with mint.

‘Let me see your eye.’

I turn around and look up at him, and he steps back. His blond beard is damp, his eyes are bloodshot, and his mouth opens as he looks.

‘Oh, hon.’

He reaches to touch it, but I jerk my face away and turn back to the skillet.

‘I’ll never do that again,’ he says.

The bacon is curling brown. Through the window above the stove I can see the hills now, dark humps against the sky. Dad liked the Pacific, but we are miles inland and animals are out there with the birds; one morning last week a rattlesnake was on the driveway. Yesterday some men went hunting a bobcat in the hills. They say it killed a horse, and they are afraid it will kill somebody’s child, but they didn’t find it. How can a bobcat kill a horse? My little sister took riding lessons in New England; I watched her compete, and I was afraid, she was so small on that big animal jumping. Dad told me I tried to pet some bobcats when I was three and we lived at CampPendleton. He was the deer camp duty officer one Sunday, and Mom and I brought him lunch. Two bobcats were at the edge of the camp; they wanted the deer hides by the scales, and I went to them saying here, kitty, here, kitty. They just watched me, and Dad called me back.

‘It wasn’t you,’ Kevin says. ‘You know it wasn’t you.’

‘Who was it?’

My first words of the day, and my voice sounds like dry crying. I clear my throat and grip the robe closer around it.

‘I was drunk,’ he says. ‘You know. You know how rough it’s been.’

He harpoons fish. We came across country in an old Ford he worked on till it ran like it was young again. We took turns driving and sleeping and only had to spend motel money twice. That was in October, after we got married on a fishing boat, on a clear blue Sunday on the Atlantic. We had twenty-five friends and the two families and open-faced sandwiches and deviled eggs, and beer and wine. On the way out to sea we got married, then we fished for cod and drank, and in late afternoon we went to Dad’s for a fish fry with a fiddle band. Dad has a new wife, and Mom was up from Florida with her boy friend. Out here Kevin couldn’t get on a boat, and I couldn’t even waitress. He did some under-the-table work: carpenter, mechanic, body work, a few days here, a few there. Now it’s February, a short month.

‘Hon,’ he says behind me.

‘It’s three times.’

‘Here. Let me do something for that eye.’

I hear him going to the ice chest, the ice moving in there to his big hands. I lay the bacon on the paper towel and open the door to pour out some of the grease; I look at the steps before I go out. The grease sizzles and pops on the wet grass, and there’s light at the tops of the hills.

‘Here,’ he says, and I shut the door. I’m holding the skillet with a pot holder, and I see he’s wearing his knife, and I think of all the weapons in a house: knives, cooking forks, ice picks, hammers, skillets, cleavers, wine bottles, and I wonder if I’ll be one of those women. I think of this without fear, like I’m reading in the paper about somebody else dead in her kitchen. He touches my eye with ice wrapped in a dish towel.

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about dad’s watch: a short story from james purdy

 
   
Bookseller Photo 


James
Purdy, "
Short Papa"

 

When I caught a glimpse of Short Papa coming through the back yard that cold sleety February afternoon I had straight away a funny feeling it might be the last time he would visit me. He looked about the same, tall and lean and wind-burned, but despite the way he kept his shoulders back and his head up he spoke and shook hands like a man who didn’t expect you to believe a word he said.     

Neither Mama nor Sister Ruth budged an inch when I told them who was out on the back porch, but after a struggle with herself, Ma finally said, "You can give Short Papa this plate of hot Brunswick stew, and let him get his strength back from wherever he has been this time. And then you tell him, Lester, he has got to light out again soon as possible."     

"But, Ma," I began, "can’t he stay just the night?"     

"Father or not father," she began, "after what that man has done to us, no … I’ll feed him but I won’t take him in, and you give him my message, hear? Eat and get!"     

But I seen that my remark about how after all it was my own dad who had come to see me had moved Ma more than a little, for her breast rose and fell like it always does when she is wrought up.     

"He’ll only get in more trouble if he stays, Lester, and he’ll get you in trouble too. I do regret to talk against your papa, but he is a no-account, low-down—"     

She stopped, though, when she saw the expression on my face.     

Short Papa sat, hands folded, on a little green wicker upright chair before the round green wicker table as I brought him his hot plate of Brunswick stew to the back porch.    

"Thank you, Les." He eyed the plate and then took it from me, I can still see the way he ate the fricassee chicken and little bits of lima beans and potatoes. He was most famished.     

"You can assure your Ma I’ll be on my way right after sunset," he replied to the message I bore from her. "Tell her I don’t want folks to see me in town … by daylight."     

I nodded. looking at his empty plate.     

"Your Ma has taken awful good care of you, Les. I observed that right away. I’m grateful to her for that, you can tell her. The day I get back on my feet, son, I will see to it that a lot of the thingsowin’ to you will be yours. … Count on me."    

I didn’t quite know what he meant then, but I was pleased he felt I deserved something. Ma didn’t often make me feel deserving.     

Short Papa got up from the table, loosened his suspenders under his suit coat, felt in his breast pocket as he kept clearing his throat, and then sat down again as he said, "Matter of fact, Les, I have brought you a little something. But first you best take this plate back to the kitchen, for you know how fussy your Ma is about dirty dishes standing around."     

I rushed with the plate back to the kitchen and on the double back to Short Papa, and sat down beside him on a little taboret which we use for sitting on.     

"I want you to promise me, though, you won’t lose it after I give it to you," Short Papa said solemnly.     

I promised.     

"Cross your heart and all that." Short Papa sort of grinned, but I knew he was dead serious and wanted me to be.     

"Cross my heart, Papa."     

"All right, Lester, Then here it is."     

He handed me a great, really heavy gold watch with a massive chain a-hanging from it.     

"Don’t you worry now, Les. It is not stolen. It is your great-grandpa’s watch. All during my most recent trouble I kept it in a safety deposit vault over at Moortown. I got behind on the annual rent payments when I was in jail, but the bank trusted me, Les, and they kept it. I have paid up for the arrears and this watch is yours. It has been in the family for well over a hundred years, you can count on that."     

I was not really glad to get the watch, and yet I wanted it too. I wanted also to show Short Papa I was grateful, and so I hugged and kissed him. His eyes watered a little and he turned away from me, and then he laughed and slapped my shoulder several times.     

"Keep it in a safe place, Les, for beyond what it’s worth, which ain’t inconsiderable, it’s your old pa and his pa, and his pa before him that owned it. Understand? ‘Course you do—"     

After Short Papa left, I sat for a long time on the back porch listening to my watch tick. It had a powerful beat to it. From behind me I could hear Ma talking with Sister Ruth about the dress they were making for her wedding. Ruth was going to be married in June.     

I considered how Short Papa’s sudden arrival and departure had made no impression on them. He might as well have been the man who comes to collect the old papers and tin cans. Yet he was Ruth‘s father too.     

"You take my word for it, Les, things are going to be hunky-dory one day for all of us again."     

That was what Pa had said to me as he slipped out the back way in the gathering darkness, and like the ticking of my watch those words kept pounding in my ears.     

Ma had made me ashamed of Papa, always reminding me of the many times he had been sent to jail for a short stretch (hence his nickname), and once out, he would only be sent back again, and so on and so forth, but there was now something about the way this watch ticking away in my possession made me feel not only different about Papa and his pa and his pa before him, I felt for the first time I was connected with somebody, or with something. I felt I had a basis, you see. But I didn’t want anybody to know I had the watch, and I also felt that I would never see Short Papa again, that he had come back, so to speak his piece and be gone for good.     

As a result I felt awful crushed that Short Papa had been entertained so miserly by Ma, being fed on the back porch like a tramp, and then dismissed. But then Ma’s attitude towards Pa was hard to fathom, for though she never wanted any more to do with him she never said anything about getting a divorce. She just didn’t want any more men around, for one thing, and then, as she said, why go to the bother of divorcing somebody when you was already divorced from him for good and all….     

I kept the watch under my pillow at night, and I wound it cautiously and slow twice a day, like he had instructed me, and I never let it out of my sight whilst I was awake, keeping it with me at all times. I could not imagine being without it ever now.     

After a couple to three months of this great care with his watch, and to tell the truth getting a little weary sometimes with the worry and guardianship bestowed on it, the polishing and keeping it when unused in its own little cotton case, and also seeing it was hid from Ma, for I feared she might claim it away from me for what Pa owed her, I remember the time it happened: It was an unsteady spring afternoon, when it couldn’t make up its mind whether it was still winter or shirt-sleeves weather, and I had gone to the Regal Pool Parlors to watch the fellows shoot pool, for at this time their hard-fast rule there was that nobody under sixteen was allowed to play, but you could be a spectator provided you kept your mouth shut.     

Absorbed in the games and the talk of the older fellows, before I was aware of it all the shadows had lengthened outside and the first street lights had begun to pop on, and so then almost automatically I began to lift the chain to my watch, and as I did so I was all at once reminded of another time further back when Short Papa had been teaching me to fish and he had said nervously: "Pull up your rod, Les, you’ve got a bite there!" And I had pulled of course and felt the rod heavy at first and weighted but then pulling harder I got this terrible lightness, and yanking the pole to shore there was nothing on the hook at all, including no bait neither. And pulling now on the watch chain I drew up nothing from my pocket. My watch was gone. I got faint-sick all over. I was too shaky in fact to get up and start looking. I was pretty sure, nonplussed though I was, that I had not lost it here in the Regal Pool Parlors, but I went over to BudHughes the manager, who knew me and my family. and told him.     

Bud studied my face a long time, and then finally I saw he believed me, but he kept asking a few more questions, like where I had got the watch in the first place, and when. I lied to him then because if he had knowed it come direct from Short Papa he would have thought it was stolen. So I told him the far side of the truth, that it was from my great-grandfather, passed on to me, and this seemed to satisfy him, and he said he would be on the lookout.     

Almost every day thereafter on the way home from school I stopped in at the Regal to see if they had any news about my watch. and it got to be a kind of joke there with the customers and with Bud especially. I think they were almost half-glad to see me show up so regular, and inquire.     

"No news, though, yet about your great-grandfather’s watch, "Bud Hughes would generally manage to quip at some time during my visit, and he would wink at me. 

Then the joke about the missing watch having run its course, no mention was finally ever made of it again, and then after a while I quit going to the Regal entirely.     

I held on to the chain, though, like for dear life, and never left it out of my grasp if I could help it.     

During this period of what must have been a year or two, Ma would often study me more carefully than usual as if she had decided there was something wrong somewhere, but then finally decided she didn’t want to know maybe what it was, for she had enough other worries nagging away at her.     

About this time, school being out, and the long summer vacation getting under way, I got me a job in a concession at Auglaize Amusement Park selling Crackerjack and candy bars in the arcade that faces the river. They give me a nice white uniform and cap, and for the first time the girls began making eyes at me … I realized that summer I was growing up, and I also realized I would soon be able to leave Ma for good and fend for myself.     

On the way to work I would pass this fortune teller’s booth early each P.M. and the lady who told the fortunes was usually seated in a silk upholstered armchair outside, and got to know me by sight. She wasn’t exactly young or old, and went under the name MadameAmelia. She was also very pleasant to me partly because she knowed I worked in the concession. One time right out of the blue she told me she would be happy to give a nice young boy starting out a free reading but not to wait too long tocome in and take advantage of it, now business was still a bit slack.     

I had sort of a crush on a young girl who come in now with her soldier boyfriend and bought popcorn from me, and I wanted like everything to find out her name and if she was going to be married to her boyfriend. So I decided finally to take advantage of MadameAmelia‘s invitation and offer…. The fortune telling booth with the smell of incense and jingle of little wind chimes and the perfume of red jasmine which she wore on her own person, the thought of the girl I loved and her soldier friend sort of went right out of my head and vanished into thin air.     

I felt an old hurt begin to throb inside me.     

Madame Amelia at first sort of flailed around asking me a few leading questions, such as where I had grown up, if I was the only boy in the family and if I had worked in the concession before, and so on—all just to get her warmed up, as I later found out was the practice with "readers." But then just before she began the actual fortune in earnest, she held her breast, her eyes closed tight, and she looked so tortured and distressed I thought she was about to have a heart attack, but it was all part also of her getting in touch with the "hidden forces" which was to direct her sorting out your fortune.     

Then she got very calm and quiet, and looked me straight in the eye.     

I stirred under her searching scowl.     

"Before I begin, Lester," she said, shading her brow, "I must ask you something, for you are a good subject, my dear—I can tell—and unusually receptive for a young boy. What I would get for you, therefore, would come from deeper down than just any ordinary fortune. Is that clear?"     

She looked at me very narrowly. "In other words, Lester, do you want to hear the truth or do you just want the usual amusement park rigmarole?"     

"The truth, Madame Amelia," I said as resolutely as I could.     

She nodded, and touched my hand.     

"You have had two losses, Lester," she began now at once in a booming voice. "But you know only about one of them, I see."     

The words the truth seemed to form again and again on my tongue like the first wave of severe nausea.     

"As I say," she was going on, "you have lost two things precious to you. A gift, and a man who loves you very deeply.    

"The hand that gave you the gift which you have not been able to locate, that hand has been cold a long time, and will soon turn to dust. You will never see him again in this life."     

I gave out a short cry, but Madame Amelia pointed an outstretched finger at me which would have silenced a whole auditorium.     

"Long since turned to dust," she went on pitilessly. "But the gift which he bestowed on you is not lost." Her voice was now soft and less scary. "I see a bed, Lester, on which you sleep…. The gift so precious to both the giver and the receiver you will find within the mattress … in a small opening."     

I do not even remember leaving Madame Amelia‘s, or recall working the rest of the afternoon in the popcorn concession…. I do know I ran most of the way home.     

Mama was giving a big party for her bridge club, and for once she was in a good humor, so she said very little to me as I rushed past upstairs to my bedroom.     

Mama always made my bed so good, I hated to take off the handsewn coverlet and the immaculate just-changed and ironed sheet, but I had to know if Madame Amelia was telling me the truth…. I hoped and prayed she was wrong, that she had lied, and that I would not find the watch, for if that part of the fortune was not true, neither would be the other part about the hand of the bestower.     

I searched and searched but could find no little aperture where my watch would have slipped down in the mattress, until when about to give up, all at once I see under one of the button-like doohickeys a sort of small opening…. My hand delved down, my heart came into my mouth, I felt the cold metal, I pulled it out, it was my gold watch.     

But instead of the joy at having it back, I felt as bad as if I had killed somebody. Sitting there with the timepiece which I now wound carefully. I lost all track of my surroundings. I sat there on the unmade bed for I don’t know how long, hardly looking at my long-lost friend, which ticked on and on uncomfortingly.     

"Lester?" I heard Mama’s troubled voice, "Why, where on earth did you ever get that beautiful watch?"     

I looked up at her, and then I told it all to her….     

She looked at the tousled condition of sheets, coverlet, and mattress, but there come from her no criticism or scolding.     

She held the watch now in her own palm and gazed at it carefully but sort of absentmindedly.     

"You should have told me, Lester, and not kept it locked in your own heart all this time. You should confide in Mama more. Just look at you, too, you’re growing into a handsome young man right in front of my eyes."     

A queer kind of sob escaped from her….     

"Where is Short Papa, do you suppose?" I got out at last as she took my hand. 

Mama smoothed my hair briefly, then she went on:     

"I have wondered and wondered how I was to tell you all these months, Lester, and I see that as usual I must have did the wrong thing where you and Short Papa are concerned. But you realize I learned of his death weeks after the event. … And then weeks and weeks after that I heard he had been buried in accord with his firm instructions that there was to be no funeral and nobody was to be notified back here of his passing…." 

I nodded, meaning I did not blame her, but kept looking hard at the watch, and thinking there could be no place safe enough now for it, and that it must never part from me again.     

"I’ve always wanted to do what was best, Lester," Mama went on, "but parents too are only after all flesh and blood as someday you will find out for yourself."     

She dried her eyes on her tea apron and then touched me softly on the cheek and started to make up the bed, and at the very last to make a final touch she got out her old-fashioned bedspread from the cedar chest and put that over the rayon coverlet.

—from James Purdy’s The Candles of Your Eyes (1987)

 

 

two “scary fairy tales” from ludmilla petrushevskaya

There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour's Baby by Lyudmila Petrushevskaya

The Arm

DURING THE WAR, A COLONEL RECEIVED A LETTER FROM HIS wife. She misses him very much, it said, and won’t he come visit because she’s worried she’ll die without having seen him. The colonel applied for leave right away, and as it happened that just a few days earlier he’d been awarded a medal, he was granted three days. He got a plane home, but just an hour before his arrival his wife died. He wept, buried his wife, and got on a train back to his base—and then suddenly discovered he had lost his Party card. He dug through all his things, returned to the train station—all this with great difficulty—but couldn’t find it. Finally he just went home. There he fell asleep and dreamed that he saw his wife, who said that his Party card was in her coffin—it had fallen out when the colonel bent over to kiss her during the funeral. In his dream his wife also told the colonel not to lift the veil from her face.

The colonel did as he was told: he dug up the coffin, opened it, and found his Party card inside. But then he couldn’t resist: he lifted the covering from his wife’s face. She lay there as if still alive, but there was a little worm on her left cheek. The colonel wiped away the worm with his hand, covered up his wife’s face, and reburied the coffin.

Now he had very little time, and he went directly to the airfield. The plane he needed wasn’t there, but then a pilot in a charred jacket pulled him aside and said he was flying to the same place as the colonel and could drop him off. The colonel was surprised that the pilot knew where he was going, but then he saw it was the same pilot who had flown him home.

“Are you all right?” asked the colonel.

“I had a little crash on the way back,” said the pilot, “but it’s all right. I’ll drop you off, it’s on the way.”

They flew at night. The colonel sat on a metal bench running the length of the plane. In truth he was surprised the plane could fly at all. It was in terrible shape: clumps of material hung everywhere, some kind of charred stump kept rolling into the colonel’s feet, and there was a strong odor of burned flesh. They soon landed, and the colonel asked the pilot if he was sure this was the right place. The pilot said he was absolutely sure.

“Why is your plane in such poor shape?” the colonel demanded, and the pilot explained that his navigator usually cleaned up, but he’d just been killed. And right away he started lugging the charred stump off the plane, saying, “There he is, my navigator.”

The plane stood in a field, and all through this field wandered wounded men. There was forest in every direction, a campfire burned in the distance, and among the burned-out cars and artillery, people were lying and sitting, others were standing, and others were milling about.

“Damn it!” the colonel yelled. “Where have you brought me? This isn’t my base!”

“This is your base now,” said the pilot. “I’ve brought you back to where I picked you up.”

The colonel understood that his division had been surrounded and destroyed, everyone killed or wounded, and he cursed everything on earth, including the pilot, who was still messing with his charred stump, which he insisted on calling his navigator, and pleading with it to get up and go.

“Let’s start evacuating everyone,” ordered the colonel. “We’ll begin with the military files, then the coats of arms and the heavily wounded.”

“This plane won’t fly anymore,” the pilot noted.

The colonel drew his pistol and promised to shoot the pilot then and there for disobeying an order. But the pilot ignored him and went on trying to stand the stump on the ground, first one way, then another, saying over and over, “Come on, let’s go.”

The colonel fired his pistol, but he must have missed because the pilot kept mumbling, “Come on, come on,” to his navigator, and in the meantime the roar of vehicles could be heard, and suddenly the field was filled with a mechanized column of German infantry.

The colonel took cover in the grass as the trucks kept coming and coming, but there was neither shooting nor shouting of orders, nor did the motors stop running. Ten minutes later the column was gone, and the colonel raised his head—the pilot was still fussing with his charred stump, and over by the fire people were still lying down, sitting, walking around. The colonel stood and approached the fire. He didn’t recognize anyone—this wasn’t his division at all. There was infantry here, and artillery, and God knows what else, all in torn uniforms, with open wounds on their arms, legs, stomachs. Only their faces were clean. They talked quietly among themselves. Next to the fire, her back to the colonel, sat a woman in civilian dress with a kerchief on her head.

“Who’s the senior officer here?” demanded the colonel. “I need an immediate report on the situation.”

No one moved, and no one paid any attention to the colonel when he started shooting, although when the pilot finally managed to roll his charred stump over to them, everyone helped him throw his navigator on the flames and thereby put out the fire. It became completely dark.

The colonel was shivering from the cold and began cursing again: now it would be impossible to get warm, he said—you can’t light a fire with a log like that.

And without turning around, the woman by the fire said: “Oh why did you look at my face, why did you lift my veil? Now your arm is going to wither.”

It was the voice of the colonel’s wife.

The colonel lost consciousness, and when next he woke up he was in a hospital. He was told that they’d found him in the cemetery, next to his wife’s grave, and that the arm on which he’d been lying was seriously injured, and now might have to be removed.

Revenge

THERE ONCE LIVED A WOMAN WHO HATED HER NEIGHBOR—A single mother with a small child. As the child grew and learned to crawl, the woman would sometimes leave a pot of boiling water in the corridor, or a container full of bleach, or she’d just spread out a whole box of needles right there in the hall. The poor mother didn’t suspect anything—her little girl hadn’t learned to walk yet, and she didn’t let her out in the corridor during the winter when the floor was cold. But the time was fast approaching when her daughter would be able to leave the room on her own. The mother would say to her neighbor, “Raya, sweetie, you dropped your needles again,” at which point Raya would blame her poor memory. “I’m always forgetting things,” she’d say.

They’d once been friends. Two unmarried women living in a communal apartment, they had a lot in common. They even shared friends who came by, and on their birthdays they gave each other gifts. They told each other everything. But then Zina became pregnant, and Raya found herself consumed with hatred. She couldn’t bear to be in the same apartment as the pregnant woman and began to come home late at night. She couldn’t sleep because she kept hearing a man’s voice coming from Zina’s room; she imagined she heard them talking and moving about, when in fact Zina was living there all by herself.

Zina, on the other hand, grew more and more attached to Raya. She even told her once how wonderful it was to have a neighbor like her, practically an older sister, who would never abandon her in a time of need.

And Raya did in fact help her friend sew clothes in anticipation of the newborn, and she drove Zina to the hospital when the time came. But she didn’t come to pick her up after the birth, so that Zina had to stay in the hospital an extra day and ended up taking the baby home wrapped in a ragged hospital blanket that she promised to return right away. Raya explained that she hadn’t been feeling well. In the weeks that followed she didn’t once go to the store for Zina, or help her bathe the baby, but just sat in her room with warm compresses over her shoulders. She wouldn’t even look at the baby, though Zina often took the girl to the bath or the kitchen or just out for a little walk, and kept the door to her room open all the time, as if to say: Come look.

Before the baby came, Zina learned how to use the sewing machine and began to work from home. She had no family to help her, and as for her once-kind neighbor, well, deep down Zina knew she couldn’t count on anyone but herself—it had been her idea to have a child, and now she had to bear the burden. When the girl was very little, Zina could take finished clothes to the shop while the baby slept, but when the baby got a little bigger and slept less, Zina’s problems began: she had to take the girl with her. Raya continued to complain about her bad joints, and even took time off from work, but Zina wouldn’t dare ask her to babysit.


Ludmilla Petrushevskaya was born in 1938 in Moscow, where she still lives. She is the author of more than fifteen collections of prose, including the short novel The Time: Night shortlisted for the Russian Booker Prize in 1992, and Svoi Krug, a modern classic about the 1980s Soviet intelligentsia. The progenitor of the women’s fiction movement in modern Russian letters, she is also a playwright whose work has been staged by leading theater companies all over the world. In 2002 she received Russia’s most prestigious prize, The Triumph, for lifetime achievement.

—from Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby (translated by Anna Summers), Penguin Books, 2009