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

a short story from juan rulfo


Juan Rulfo (1917– 1986) was a Mexican novelist, short story writer, and photographer. Rulfo’s large reputation rests on two books, the short novel Pedro Páramo (1955), and a collection of short stories, The Burning Plain (1953). He is the father of director Juan Carlos Rulfo.

Juan Rulfo, "Because We Are So Poor"


Everything is going from bad to worse around here. Last week my Aunt Jacinta died, and on Saturday, after we’d buried her and weren’t feeling quite so bad, it started to rain. That made my father angry, because the whole barley crop was drying in the sun, and the storm came up so fast we didn’t have a chance to get any of it under cover. All we could do was huddle under the lean-to, watching the rain destroy the whole crop.


And just yesterday, when my sister Tacha was twelve years old we found out that the river carried away the cow my father gave her for her birthday. The river started to rise three nights ago before dawn. I was sound asleep, but it made so much noise dragging at its banks that I woke up and jumped out of bed with the covers in my hand, as if I’d dreamed the roof were caving in. Afterward I went back to bed because I knew it was just the sound of the river, and pretty soon it put me to sleep again.


When I got up the sky was full of black clouds, and the noise of the river was even louder. It sounded close, and it had the rotten smell flood-water has, like the stink of a trash-fire.


By the time I went to take a look, the river was already up over its banks" It was rising little by little all along the street and running into the house of that woman they call The Drum. You could hear the splash of the water going into the corral and out the gate. The Drum was hurrying back and forth, throwing her chickens into the street so they could find someplace to hide where the current wouldn’t reach them.


Over on the other side near the bend, the river must have carried off the tamarind tree at the edge of my Aunt Jacinta’s corral, because you couldn’t see it any more. It was the only tamarind in the village, so everybody knows this is the biggest flood that’s come down the river in years.


My sister and I went back in the afternoon to look at it again. The water was dirtier and thicker, and it was well up over where the bridge used to be. We stayed there for hours, just watching, without getting tired. Then we walked up along the ravine to hear what the people were saying. Down below, near the river, the water made so much noise you could see their mouths opening and shutting but you couldn’t hear a word. They were looking at the river up along the ravine, too, and trying to figure out how much damage it had done. Up there I found out that the river carried off La Serpentina, the cow my father gave Tacha for her birthday. La Serpentina had one white ear and one red ear, and beauti­ful eyes.


I don’t know why she ever decided to try crossing that river when she must have known it wasn’t the same river any more. La Serpentina wasn’t that restless. She must have been walking in her sleep, ‘to let herself get drowned like that for no reason at all. When I’d open the corral gate in the morning she’d have stood there all day with her eyes shut, sighing the way a cow does when she’s asleep.


So that’s what must have happened to her, she must have been asleep. Perhaps it occurred to her to wake up when she felt the water pounding at her ribs. She’d have got frightened then and tried to come back, but the water would have knocked her down and turned her over and over. I suppose she bellowed for help. She could bellow like God only knows how.


We found a man who saw her when the river dragged her off, and I asked him if she didn’t have a little calf with her. He said he didn’t remember. He just remembered he saw a spotted cow go past him with its hooves in the air, and then it sank and he couldn’t see its hooves or horns or anything. He was so busy pulling tree-trunks and branches out of the water, for firewood, he didn’t have time to watch whether it came up again.


So now we don’t know if the calf is still alive or if it fol­lowed its mother into the river. God help the two of them if it did. The troubles we’ve had in our house can happen all over again, now that my sister Tacha hasn’t got anything left. What I mean is that my father worked hard to buy La Serpentina when she was still a calf, so he could give her to Tacha so she’d have a little capital and wouldn’t grow up to be a whore like my other two sisters.


According to my father, they went bad because we are so poor. They weren’t contented, they started grumbling when they were just girls, and as soon as they grew up they started to go around with the worst kind of men, learning everything bad. They learned fast, too. They understood those soft whistles when the men stood outside and called them in the middle of the night, and later they even went off in the day­time. They’d go to the river for water every minute or two, and sometimes you’d even surprise them right in the corral, both of them rolling around naked with a man on top.


Finally my father chased them out of the house. He put up with them as long as he could, but then he couldn’t stand it any longer and he chased them right down the street. They went to Ayutla or someplace, I’m not sure where. But I know they went bad.


That’s why my father is so worried about Tacha. He doesn’t want her to turn out like her two sisters, he wants her to grow up to be decent and marry a good man, and La Serpentina would have been a security for her while she was growing up. With the cow she wouldn’t keep thinking how poor we are. That’s going to be difficult now. Almost any­body would have had the courage to marry her, if only to get her beautiful cow.


The only hope is that the calf is still alive. Please God it didn’t decide to go into the river with its mother. Because if that’s what happened, my sister Tacha is just a little way away from turning bad, and my mother doesn’t want that.


My mother says she doesn’t know why God punished her so much by giving her such daughters. There’s never been a bad woman in her family from her grandmother up to now. They were all brought up to fear God and be obedient and respectful. She tries to remember what she’s ever done to deserve giving birth to one whore after another, but she can’t remember any sin or evil she’s ever committed. Every time she thinks about those two she cries, and says, "May God be good to them."


But my father says there’s no use thinking about them, they’re just bad. The thing to worry about is that Tacha’s still left. She’s growing fast, and her breasts are beginning to look like her sisters’, sharp-pointed and high up and anxious to be looked at.


"Yes," my father says, "anybody that looks at her, she gives him an eyeful. You just wait, she’ll end up bad like the others." So Tacha is my father’s biggest worry.


And Tacha is crying now, because she knows the river killed La Serpentina. She’s here beside me, in her rose-­colored dress, looking at the river and crying about her cow. The little streams of dirty water keep running down her face, and you’d think she had the very river itself inside her.


I put my arm around her and try to comfort her, but she can’t understand. She just cries harder, and her sobs sound like the river tugging at its banks. Now she’s trembling all over. The flood keeps rising, and the dirty spray from the river splashes on her face. Her two little tits are moving up and down as she sobs, as if they were beginning to swell out so as to start destroying her.


two short stories from gordon lish

(captain Fiction making serious,
for once).


The Death Of Me

 

I WANTED TO BE AMAZING. I wanted to be so amazing. I had already been amazing up to a certain point. But I was tired of being at that point. I wanted to go past that point. I wanted to be more amazing than I had been up to that point. I wanted to do something which went beyond that point and which went beyond every other point and which people would look at and say that this was something which went beyond all other points and which no other boy would ever be able to go beyond, that I was the only boy who could, that I was the only one. 

 I was going to a day camp which was called the Peninsula Athletes Day Camp and which at the end of the summer had an all-campers, all-parents, all-sports field day which was made up of five different field events, and all of the campers had to take part in all five of all of the five different field events, and I was the winner in all five of the five different field events, I was the winner in every single field event, I came in first place in every one of the five different field events–so that the head of the camp and the camp counselors and the other campers and the other mothers and the other fathers and my mother and my father all saw that I was the best camper in the Peninsula Athletes Day Camp, the best in the short run and the best in the long run and the best in the high jump and the best in the broad jump and the best in the event which the Peninsula Athletes Day Camp called the ball-throw, which was where you had to go up to a chalk line and then put your toe on the chalk line and not go over the chalk line and then go ahead and throw the ball as far as you could throw. 

 I did.

 I won.

 It was 1944 and I was ten years old and I was better than all of the other boys at that camp and probably all of the boys at any other camp and all of the boys everywhere else. 

 I felt more wonderful than I had ever felt. I felt so thrilled with myself. I felt like God was whispering things to me inside of my head to me. I felt like God was asking me for me to have a special secret with him or for me to have a secret arrangement with him and that I had better keep on listening to his secret recommendations to me inside of my head. I felt like God was telling me to realize that he had made me the most unusual member of the human race and that he was going to need for me to be ready for him for me to go to work for him at any minute for him on whatever thing he said. 

 They gave me a piece of stiff cloth which was in the shape of a shield and which was in the camp colors and which had five blue stars on it. They said that I was the only boy ever to get a shield with as many as that many stars on it. They said that it was unheard-of for any boy ever to get as many as that many stars on it. But I could already feel that I was forgetting what it felt like for somebody to do something which would get you a shield with as many as that many stars on it. I could feel myself forgetting and I could feel everybody else forgetting–even my mother and father and God forgetting. It was just a little while afterwards, but I could tell that everybody was already forgetting everything about it–that the head of the camp was and the camp counselors were and the other campers were and that the other mothers and the other fathers were and that my mother and my father were and that even that I myself was, even though I was trying with all of my might for me to be the one person who never would. 

 I felt like God was ashamed of me. I felt like God was sorry that I was the one which he had picked out and that he was getting ready for him to make a new choice and for him to choose another boy instead of me and that I had to hurry up before God did it, that I had to be quick about showing God that I could be just as amazing again as I used to be and that I could do something, do anything, else. 

 It was August. 

 I was feeling the strangest feeling that I have ever felt. I was standing there with my parents and with all of the people who had come there for the field day and I was feeling the strangest feeling which I have ever felt. 

 I felt like lying down on the field. I felt like killing all of the people. I felt like going to sleep and staying asleep until someone came and told me that my parents were dead and that I was all grown up and that there was a new God in heaven and that he liked me better than even than the old God had. 

 My parents kept asking me where did I want to go now and what did I want to do. My parents kept trying to get me to tell them where I thought we should all of us go now and what was the next thing for us as a family to do. My parents kept saying they wanted for me to be the one to make up my mind if we should all of us go someplace special now and what was the best thing for the family, as a family, to do. But I did not know what they meant–do, do, do? 

 My father took the shield away from me and held it in his hands and kept turning it over in his hands and kept looking at the shield in his hands and kept feeling the shield with his hands and kept saying that it was made of buckram and of felt. My father kept saying did we know that it was just something which they had put together out of buckram and of felt. My father kept saying that the shield was of a very nice quality of buckram and of felt but that we should make every effort for us not to ever get it wet because it would run all over itself, buckram and felt. 

 I did not know what to do. 

I could tell my parents did not know what to do. 

We just stood around with the people all around all going away to all of the vehicles that were going to take them to places and I could tell that we did not, as a family, know if it was time for us to go. 

The head of the camp came over and said that he wanted to shake my hand again and to shake the hands of the people who were responsible for giving the Peninsula Athletes Day Camp such an outstanding young individual and such a talented young athlete as my mother and father had. 

He shook my hand again. 

It made me feel dizzy and nearly asleep. 

I saw my mother and my father get their hands ready I saw my father get the shield out of the hand that he thought he was going to need for him to have his hand ready to shake the hand of the head of the camp. I saw my mother take her purse and do the same thing. But the head of the camp just kept shaking my hand, and my mother and my father just kept saying thank you to him, and then the head of the camp let go of my hand and took my father’s elbow with one hand and then touched my father on the shoulder with the other hand and then said that we were certainly the very finest of people, and then–he did this, he did this!–and then he went away.

 

 

The merry chase 

 

Don’t tell me. Do me a favor and let me guess. Be honest with me, tell the truth, don’t make me laugh. Tell me, don’t make me have to tell you, do I have to tell you that when you’re hot, you’re hot, that when you’re dead, you’re dead? Because you know what I know? I know you like I know myself, I know you like the back of my hand, I know you like a book, I know you inside out. I know you like you’ll never know. You know what this is? You want to know what this is? Because this is some deal, this is some set-up, this is some joke — you could vomit from what a joke this is. I want you to hear something, I want you to hear the unvarnished truth. I want you to hear it from me, right from the horse’s mouth, from the one person who really cares. You know what you are? That’s what you are! Ages ago, years ago, so long ago I couldn’t begin to remember, past history, ancient history — you don’t want to know, another age, another life, another theory altogether. I am telling you, I am pleading with you, I am down to you on bended knee — just don’t get cute with me, just don’t make any excuses to me — because in broad daylight, in the dead of night, at the crack of dawn. You think the whole world is going to do a dance around you? No one is going to do a dance around you. No one even knows you are alive, they don’t know you from Adam. Don’t ask. Don’t even begin to ask. Don’t make me any promises. Don’t tell me one thing and do another. Don’t look at me cross-eyed. Don’t look at me like that. Don’t hand me that crap. Look around you, for pity’s sake. Don’t you know that one hand washes the other? Talk sense. Take stock. You think this is a picnic? This is no picnic. Don’t stand on ceremony with me. The whole world is not going to step to your tune. I warn you — wake up before it’s too late. You know what? A little birdie just told me. You know what? You have got a lot to learn — that’s what. I can’t hear myself talk. I can’t hear myself think. I cannot remember from one minute to the next. Why do I always have to tell you again and again? Give me a minute to think. Just let me catch my breath. Don’t you ever stop to ask? I’m going to tell you something. I’m going to tell you what no one else would have the heart to tell you. I’m going to give you the benefit of my advice. Do you want some advice? You think the sun rises and sets on you, don’t you? You should get down on your hands and knees and thank God. You think death is a picnic? Death is no picnic. Face facts, don’t kid yourself, people are trying to talk some sense into you, it’s not all just fun and fancy free, it’s not all just high, wide, and handsome, it’s not just a bed of roses and peaches and cream. You know what I’ve got to do? I’ve got to talk to you like a baby. I’ve got to talk to you like a Dutch uncle. I’ve got to handle you with kid gloves, just in case you didn’t know. Let me tell you something no one else would have the heart to tell you. Go ahead, look! Look far and wide — because they are few and far between. Go ahead, go to the ends of the earth, go to the highest mountain, go to any lengths, because they won’t lift a finger for you — or didn’t you know that some things are not for man to know, that some things are better left unsaid, that some things you shouldn’t wish on a dog, not on a bet, not on your life, not in a month of Sundays? What do you want? You want the whole world to revolve around you, you want the whole world at your beck and call? That’s what you want, isn’t it? Be honest with me and let’s be done with it, be finished with it, over and done with it, enough, for crying out loud, enough.

What do I say to you, where do I start with you, how do I make myself heard? I don’t know where to begin with you, I don’t know where to start with you, I don’t know how to impress on you the importance of every single solitary word. Thank God I am alive to tell you, thank God I am here to tell you, thank God you’ve got someone to tell you, I only wish I could begin to tell you, if there were only some way someone could tell you, if only there were someone here to tell you, but you don’t want to listen, you don’t want to learn, you don’t want to know, you don’t want to help yourself you just want to have it your own sweet way. Who can talk to you? Can anyone talk to you? You don’t want anyone to talk to you. So far as you are concerned, the whole world could drop dead. You think death is a picnic? Death is no picnic. Face facts, don’t kid yourself, people are trying to talk some sense into you, it’s not all just fun and fancy free, it’s not all just high, wide, and handsome, it’s not just a bed of roses and peaches and cream. You know what I’ve got to do? I’ve got to talk to you like a baby. I’ve got to talk to you like a Dutch uncle. I’ve got to handle you with kid gloves, just in case you didn’t know. Let me tell you something no one else would have the heart to tell you. Go ahead, look! Look far and wide — because they are few and far between! Pardon my French — but put up or shut up! Oh, we could just laugh in your face. Oh, you — you dirty dickens, you! Can’t you just leave us in peace?

—from Gordon Lish’s Mourner At The Door: Stories (1989)

 

surrealistic short fiction from boris vian

 
Boris Vian was a French writer, poet, jazz musician, critic, actor—to name just a few of his trades.  Vian’s approach to life can be found in his famous assertion that that “I am not an existentialist. For an existentialist, existence precedes essence. For me, there isn’t any such thing as essence.” Vian was a Satrap of the College of Pataphysics, the neo-Surrealist group that included Raymond Queneau and Eugene lonesco.
 
In 1959, while watching the screening of a film made from  his 1946 novel I Spit on Your Graves (J’Irai Cracher Sur Vos Tombes). A few minutes into the film, Vian apparently yelled “These guys are supposed to be American? My ass!” and then collapsed, dying of a heart attack at age 39.  I Spit on Your Graves was also associated with another death, after a man murdered his mistress in a Montmartre motel and left behind a copy of the bestselling novel at the murder scene within which he’d highlighted the particularly violent passages.
 
 
 


      Vian’s murderous bestseller

His short story “The Dead Fish” is a surrealistic piece about forgery and murder:
 
 
 The Dead Fish 
by Boris Vian   

The carriage door stuck as usual; at the other end of the train, the big hat chief leaned hard on the red button, and the compressed air squirted into the tubes. The assistant strained to force the two panels apart. He was hot. Drops of gray sweat zigzagging across his face, like flies, and the dirty collar of his insulated zephyr shirt was exposed.

 

The train was about to start when the chief released the button. The air belched joyously under the train, and the assistant almost lost his balance as the door suddenly gave way. He stumbled down, not without ripping open his collecting bag on the latch.

 

The train started, and the resulting atmospheric displacement pushed the assistant against the malodorous latrines, where two Arabs were discussing politics with great knife-blows.

 

The assistant shook himself, patted his hair, which was crushed against his soft skull like rotten weeds. A faint mist rose from his half-naked torso, from which stood out a jutting clavicle, and the beginnings of one or two pairs of uncouth, badly planted ribs.

 

With a heavy step, he went down the platform tiled with hexagons of red and green, soiled here and there with long black trails: it had rained octopuses during the afternoon, but the time that the station employees were supposed to dedicate to mopping the platform, according to their monumental chart, had been passed in the satisfaction of unmentionable needs.

 

The assistant rummaged in his pockets, and his fingers encountered the coarse corrugated pasteboard that he had to surrender at the exit. His knees hurt, and the dampness of the pools he had explored during the day made his badly fastened joints grind together. It must be said, he had gathered a more than honorable booty in his bag.

 

He handed his ticket to the dim man standing behind the grille. The man took it, looked at it and smiled ferociously.

 

“You haven’t got another one?” he said.

 

“No,” said the assistant.

 

“This one is forged.”

 

“But it was my boss that gave it to me,” said the assistant nicely, with a charming smile and a little nod.

 

The clerk giggled. “I’m not surprised it’s forged, then. He bought ten from us, this morning.”

 

“Ten what?” said the assistant.

 

“Ten forged tickets.”

 

“But why?” said the assistant. His smile grew weaker and drooped to the left.

 

“To give them to you,” said the clerk. “Primo, so as to get you sworn at, to begin with, which I am about to do; and secundo, so that you’d have to pay the fine.”

 

“Why?” said the assistant. “I’ve got hardly any money.”

 

“Because it’s slimy to travel with a forged ticket,” said the clerk.

 

“But you’re the ones that forge them!”

 

“We have to. Because there are characters slimy enough to travel with forged tickets. You think it’s fun, hey, to forget tickets all the while?”

 

“You’d certainly do better to clean up a tile,” said the assistant.

 

“No word games,” said the clerk. “Pay the fine. It’s thirty francs.”

 

“That’s not true,” said the assistant. “It’s twelve francs when you haven’t got a ticket.”

 

“It’s much more serious to have a forged one,” said the clerk. “Pay, or I’ll call my dog!”

 

“He won’t come,” said the assistant

 

“No,” said the clerk, “but it’ll make your ears hurt, anyhow.”

 

The assistant looked at the gloomy and emaciated face of the clerk, who gave him a venomous stare in return.

 

“I haven’t got much money,” he muttered.

 

“Me either,” said the clerk. “Pay up.”

 

“He gives me fifty francs a day,” said the assistant, “and I have to eat.”

 

The clerk tugged at the visor of his cap, and a blue screen dropped over his face. “Pay up,” he said with his hand, rubbing the thumb and forefinger together.

 

The assistant reached for his shiny, patched-up wallet. He took out two creased ten-franc notes and a little five-franc note that was still bleeding.

 

“Twenty-five,” he proposed uncertainly.

 

“Thirty,” said the three outstretched fingers of the clerk.

 

The assistant sighed, and his boss’s face appeared between his toes. He spat on it, right in the eye. His heart beat faster. The face dissolved and blackened. He put the money in the outstretched hand and left. He heard the click of the visor returning to its usual place.

 

Walking slowly, he reached the foot of the hill. The bag bruised his skinny hips, and the bamboo handle of his net whipped his frail, malformed calves at random as he walked.

 

***


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