Tag Archives: Fiction

Cruel Stars, the Kindle edition, is now available.

After a lot of technical difficulties involving ISBNs and corrupted files, the ebook edition of Cruel Stars is now available on Amazon here: https://t.co/Lp2sbTbBNp.

Many thanks to everyone who bought the book and expressed support.

 

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Oblivion

A short story I decided not to submit to magazines.  It will be included in my third story collection, Living the Dream.

 

There was nothing. I told myself I just wanted to get out for a while. I went to the Post Office Bar with Elka and had some drinks. Elka wasn’t quite five feet tall, but she drank like a Ukrainian diplomat and only wore black.

Maybe I thought things were too still. Back at the apartment, the rooms were too white, too still, too silent. We didn’t own anything but a couch and a bed. My wife was on one. Then she was on the other. All day long. She needed everything quiet all the time. Quiet, so she could think. There’d been a death in the family, you see. So it had to be quiet. But really, there was nothing left. I’d been selling everything we owned. Now we had paper plates. My wife had a little Sony she watched with the sound off in the afternoons. But there was nothing. And I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Nothing left. Nothing but white walls. Nothing to do but leave her alone. Nothing to say.

But then Elka. Shrieking. Sweating. Her big Italian sunglasses. Screaming, “Take it off, bitch!” when the gay threesome came on dressed like neighborhood postmen.

The DJ announced that they were gonna go postal and Elka laughed so hard she splashed gimlet across her 12-year-old boy’s v-neck.

“Shit,” she said. “I love this fucking place.”

And, right then, so did I.

Later, we knew that time had passed because we were out of money and cigarettes and Elka had lost her voice. We staggered out the side door into the snow. The tiny lights of Hauberk looked blurry and far away like a Walmart Christmas tree rolled down to the end of the alley.

Elka wheezed, pounded on her chest. “What am I gonna do with you, Percival?”

“You’re gonna stop calling me Percival.”

She tripped, landed on her right knee in a snow drift that came up to her chest, which we both found funny.

“What, you wanna go living a lie?”

“Fine.” I helped her up and we almost fell together. “Go ahead. Call me Percival.”

My name is Carmine. Carmine is better than Percival or Percy. But nobody calls me Carmine. Some people call me Jeff or Skip. My wife used to call me Tim, even though she knew Carmine was it. Her name was Lilly, like the flower.

Elka and I tried to make out, but she was too short and that always made it impossible. We walked out of the alley and stopped on the sidewalk blinking at each other.

She stood on her tiptoes and patted my cheek like grandma from the old country. “Be good to yourself,” she said and tottered over to her antique black Karmann Ghia. I leaned against the corner of the Post Office Bar and watched her drive the four blocks between the bar and her house. She parked with one wheel up on the curb, got out, fell in the snow, lost her balance, found her keys under the car, and staggered to her door. Then I was alone again.

Hauberk, Missouri, is not a large place. But it has a downtown and an uptown, train tracks, and, beyond them, a zone of inbred criminality before you get out to the farms. I’d lived in various parts of Missouri all my life and people said everything was changing. But at 3:00 AM all cities are one. They even smell the same. After a night in the Post Office Bar, you noticed booze and mold and body odor and stale cigarettes peeling off into the crisp night. And that’s the fuel you needed to keep walking and breathing in the good wholesome darkness after all those cocks went postal.

I wandered down Artichoke Lane and took a right on Fugit. I didn’t have a destination other than not home. What do they say? You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here? What did the DJ say? Now that we’ve gone postal, let’s go ball-istic—AT THE AFTERMATH! There was a bus outside for all the drunks who wanted to keep the party going. Elka wanted to go, but she was broke. And I was too square for after-hours party buses or the chicken adventure someone said they were about to have on the one outside. We’re gonna have a chicken ADVENTURE, people! Maybe that’s why I was unhappy. I didn’t get down with the poultry on a Thursday night.

Still, Elka was a good drinking buddy and she seemed to like me, even if she still didn’t know my name after a decade of working at the same car lot. She sold many Range Rovers to senior citizens who wouldn’t be allowed to drive in a year. What was she? 60 years old? It was hard to tell with the little people. But she was a hell of a saleslady.

By the time I got to Areopagus Avenue I started to seriously wonder why this part of Hauberk had the most fucked-up street names I’d ever seen. Then I realized the answer in one of those sudden bursts of clarity that only bloom in the botanical quietude of a cheap gin drunk: because I was walking towards the cemetery and everything gets self-consciously fucked-up around Midwestern cemeteries.

No one mentions it. You don’t think about the superstitiousness until you notice it for yourself. After you do, it’ll stick with you like a nasty fact of life you’d rather not remember. It’ll bother you forever on a deep gut level, even if it does seem like something that could be a story you could probably tell at dinner. I realized I was entering a distortion field of nervy Midwestern superstition as surely as the street was named “Areopagus.”

I crossed over and went down along the tall wrought iron fence that separated the world of the Hauberk dead from the lowest rent housing this side of the tracks. People say you’re supposed to whistle to keep the spirits off. And I will not claim to be wholly unsuperstitious; though, I’d had enough gin that whistling would have probably interfered with walking and right then one was more important than the other.

Nimcato Cemetery explained the fanciful street names, why front doors opened onto driveways on the other sides of the houses, and why there was not a single window facing Areopagus Avenue. People didn’t even like to park their cars on streets that ran along a graveyard. Or, if they did park there, you might see little crosses drawn in the dust on the corners of a hood. Plastic Jesuses. Bibles in back windows between stuffed Tiggers and Kleenex boxes. And every now and then, some old lady hammering nails into the corners of her front yard to “nail down the sin.” That was Hauberk, Missouri, when nobody was looking. Still, I didn’t aim to get primitive with the locals. Sin rhymed with gin and the only thing getting nailed that night was my liver.

But then I said, “Oh Jesus. Oh Jesus Mary Joseph Mother of Christ Saint Expedite Infant Savior of Prague Saint Anthony Defend Us In Battle Holy Spirit Amen. And all the souls in purgatory may they fucking protect me.” I said this out loud and with great sincerity, the fumes of my iniquity rising up out of my mouth like some reverse gimlet Pentecost, not only because no one else was visible in the pools of yellow-bright streetlight but because when I finally got to the corner of Areopagus and Bardolph, I could see the front gates of the Nimcato Cemetery standing wide open.

I didn’t know if the gates were always left open, but I suspected they weren’t. This bothered me. It might have scared the shit out of me—at least enough to bring on some religion. And if anyone had been around in that superstitious moment, I might have further confessed that if Elka hadn’t arrived to pick me up at the dog park three blocks from my apartment, I’d been prepared to drink the pint of Gilbey’s I’d bought as a safety measure earlier in the day. Drink it straight, sitting in the dog park. Hallelujah. It’s a wonderful life. Moreover, I realized I was sipping on this same pint as I wandered onto Bardolph and then through the cemetery gates. But liquor is never an explanation for anything.

It started to snow again. In the pale glow from the streetlights, the mausoleums and sepulchers seemed like an alien world, an abandoned planet of monuments and pylons under a dead sun. And I walked right in, not only because I was drunk but also because the booze had breached some iron-bound vault deep down in the sub-basement of my being where I kept thoughts of my wife’s mental illness alongside memories of the times she used to speak and live. Memories that went back before her father put a gun in his mouth, before there was nothing. And though I was not an unsuperstitious man, I simply didn’t have the capacity to cry and also wonder why the gates were open or whether it would be wise to walk through them. Thus, I was deep inside before I started to get truly upset.

But upset isn’t the right word. It would be better to say that I had a moment of terror, knee-deep in a drift, looking up at a weeping angel looking down at me, snow collecting on the top of his head, his shoulders, his pointing hand. It was the saddest largest marble angel I’d ever seen, sculpted to heroic proportions, his wings outspread like the goddess of victory. And how he was lit in that ghost light. And how the contours of shadow behind a falling sheet of snow made his expression seem impossible and beautiful and wholly unsympathetic to any sort of human grief, a thing of perfect tragedy up from the foundations of the world. At least, that’s how he seemed to me as I stared awestruck and drunk in the snow, gripping my Gilbey’s like a magical weapon.

The gin might have been magic—if I’d turned my back and downed it all with oblivion in mind. But the bottle slipped from my fingers when I looked along the angel’s extended arm to where he was pointing. And, with that, oblivion was but a transient thought, a sincere wish lost to a saner, soberer life where the dead don’t walk. Or, in this case, lie on top of graves.

I looked at where the angel was pointing and I saw my wife, Lilly, lying on a grave, the nightgown she never took off arranged just the way she liked, bunched up beneath her knees. Her delicate ankles. Her feet askew. Her hair draped over her shoulders like I saw it some nights when I looked at her in the moonlight, thinking about nothing, no future and no past, trying hard to wish away my hopes and dreams one by one.

“Lilly?” I whispered and took a step. “Lilly?” Almost as if to say her name out loud was the deepest obscenity I could utter in that place. And then I fell and didn’t want to stand up and look at the angel’s face or at what might have been my dead wife in the saddest strangest part of town.

I lay face down in the snow until I imagined that I, too, was dying, losing feeling all over my body from the cold. But because I am a coward and because I may have been screaming when I finally staggered to my feet, I found I was facing the opposite direction. I found myself running out as unconsciously as I had come in, running for the gates which I imagined might close any minute. I knew with some animal certainty that if they closed on me, I would vanish, all trace of me gone forever, even my footprints in the snow.

I shot into the street and kept running down Bardolph, as fast and as far as I could, my breath wheezing out Camel Lights and lime-gin. I ran until I reached the cheap Christmas lights of Hauberk’s downtown and burst into the Dixie Diner—panting, wild eyes, covered in snow like the yeti.

The obese pink polyestered waitress behind the counter took me in piece by piece. “You need a hand?”

The two men at the counter—who were both dressed in gray felt suits and skinny black ties like door-to-door vacuum salesmen from 1950s, but who could have been anything at 4:00 AM in a diner in central Missouri—looked up from their Denver omelets and grinned.

The wiry, nervous cook covered in grease leaned around the door to the kitchen.

The old lady with horn-rimmed glasses in a booth by the window, eating a chili bowl and reading a paperback, glanced over, the corners of her mouth stained orange.

And I said: “I think I need a cup of coffee.”

The waitress poured it without a word. I sat at the counter and tried to drink it, but my hand shook so much it spilled.

The two vacuum salesmen to my right were still grinning.

“Tough night, pal?”

I didn’t say anything. I tried to sop up the spill with a napkin, but even my napkin hand was shaking.

“Look,” the waitress said to the spill. “You don’t have to pay for that coffee. But I’d ask you to drink it and go. We don’t want no trouble in here. No druggies.”

The other of the two men—the one who hadn’t spoken yet, content to eye me like a feverish delighted vulture looking at a corpse—slapped his palm on the counter and said, “Aww, come on, Junebug. He ain’t gonna be no trouble. Look at him. He couldn’t find his cock in a rainstorm.”

This made Junebug and the other vacuum salesman laugh. And that’s when I started crying.

“Shit,” Junebug said and got a box of tissues from behind the counter. She put it in front of me beside the puddle of coffee. Then she took out two tissues for herself. The sight of me crying made her want to cry, too.

“Well I’ll be damned,” said the first vacuum salesman. “This is a cry-diner. A criner.”

“That it is, fucko,” his partner said. “That it is.”

Nothing made any sense. I looked at the coffee in the cup, at the spill on the counter like it was a logic problem I couldn’t solve. I didn’t know if I should stand up or fall down or run into the street.

“I need to get home to my wife.”

The old lady in the booth peered at me through her horn-rimmed glasses.

Junebug sniffed and polished the pie case. “That sounds like a very solid idea, hun.”

But because I was a coward, I gripped the counter as if I might get swept away into space, into the deep ocean, into the cold endleess nothing. I didn’t want to go home all of a sudden and learn where Lilly was: there, not there, lying in Nimcato Cemetery on top of a grave, being pointed at by the saddest angel in the world.

Fucko wouldn’t stop. “I’d like to buy this gentleman breakfast. “Whadya say, huh?” He slapped me on the back. I could smell his cologne drift over me in a great cloud of chemical musk. You could spray it on villages in the desert and go down for war crimes. “Whadya say? Ham and eggs? Junebug? Ham and eggs? Give him a plate for fuck’s sake.”

She looked at him. “I don’t think that would be the wisest course, given his precarious condition.”

“Come on. I’m paying. Give him some ham and eggs. Ain’t this a business? Ain’t I a customer?”

“You’re getting on my nerves is what you are.” Junebug sniffed, dabbed the corner of her eye with a new tissue, and sighed. “Don’t make me come across the counter and crack your face open, sweetie.”

Fucko shut his mouth. Then his friend looked at his watch and said, “Come on. Time waits for no man, am I right?”

“Yeah. Too bad for you. No ham and eggs.” Fucko got up and they walked out.

The sun was rising. The old lady with the horn-rimmed glasses was long gone. Junebug offered me another tissue but I didn’t notice until she was stuffing it back in the box.

“What’s really going on with you, if you don’t mind me asking.”

“I wandered into the cemetery. I saw an angel. And I thought I saw my wife lying on top of a grave.”

“I guess it was a long night,” she said. “You know them old visions are only in your head, right? My old man used to see his grandpa coming for him with a knife after drinking moonshine all night. You ever try moonshine?”

“I might have had it once.”

“Well then you know.” She nodded and refilled my coffee. “I’d call you a cab but the cabs don’t start up for another hour.”

“I’ll make it.”

“Go home. Kiss your wife. You’ll be fine. Some nights you just get lost. Drink enough moonshine and you get into all kinds of weird shit.”

I shrugged. I couldn’t process. I didn’t know which end was up.

There was no way I could have foreseen that three years later, standing at the memorial service after Lilly finally ended it all, I’d think back to that night and to what Junebug had said. Sometimes, you just get lost. How could I have known then, how could I have told her, that she would be right?


On Productivity and Publishing

I’ve written three books of fiction to date, all story collections; though, only one of them has been published. This is not remarkable or typical in any sense, even if I do have the stereotypical writer’s voice in my head telling me that I should be submitting to more book contests, etc. My submission schedule results in about 2-3 stories placed in magazines every year, a process I actually enjoy, and I have no plans to stop doing that. Still, I sometimes wonder whether the world needs another immature literary magazine, another lousy e-book marketing campaign (what Chuck Wendig calls the “shit volcano”), or another mediocre career-building novel entering the flotsam. What does the world need?

Better: what do I need?

Books are not the only way to be published, even if they are the fiction writer’s holy grail—specifically novels, ideally lots of novels—because they sell and therefore build careers. Or, as an industry professional once said to me at an AWP conference, “You need to write at least a novel a year for the next five years if you want to be a contender.” He was an important person in the publishing world, had a red nose, a cigar in his lapel pocket, and I was completely intimidated by him at the time. So I nodded as if I understood. But I didn’t and should have asked, “A contender for what, exactly?”

Publishing only feels like boxing. In reality, it’s business, the alchemy of transforming things into money. When business and art collide, a volatile chain reaction usually takes place resulting in all sorts of monstrous transmogrifications, creeping morbidity, and a certain amount of screaming. Put simply, how many writers have you heard of who built a career out of publishing a book a year? I can think of maybe one or two and none writing outside strictly defined genres.

The only literary writer who may produce full-length books with that kind of regularity is Joyce Carol Oates, someone as great as she is prolific but who is entirely unique. So “a book a year” might not be the best advice if you’re in this to make art. If you’re in it to make money, why aren’t you running a brothel, flipping houses, developing apps, or managing a hedge fund? You can probably make an app a year. Brothels, I don’t know, but I imagine their schedules are a bit more eventful.

Every writer asks a version of this question, sometimes on a regular basis: should I be writing harder, faster, longer, mo betta? Should I be soaking down the meadow like a frustrated stallion on horse viagra? How much is too much and why is it that by asking this question I feel soiled? Of course, as with most questions writers ask themselves, there are no answers. There are only opinions and that vague soiled feeling. To be honest, there is only subjectivity in this context.

So how much? Stop asking. Stop thinking about it. Just write. And if you want to be a “contender,” find a different metric against which to measure your progress.


What HP Lovecraft Can Teach Us About Programming the Reader

One of the many reasons I love pulp fiction from the early 20th century: writers like HP Lovecraft can have a line like, “the moon was gleaming vividly over the primeval ruins” (from “The Nameless City“) and actually get away with it. If I wrote something like “gleaming vividly,” my teachers would have beaten me publicly for about an hour. Is it gleaming? Really? Do you have any idea what that is? Vividly? What does “vividly” look like? Do you even know? If you know, how come you’re not showing it in concrete terms? If you don’t know, fuck you, why are you writing it? Oh, the beating would be vast and terrible.

Instead of telling the reader that the moon was gleaming vividly, the harder, more powerful, more evocative and immersive technique, is to show the gleam, show how it’s vivid, show how the ruins might look primeval using descriptive language. That’s the way I was taught. But HPL can get away with lines like this because he’s consistent. And this brings up a deeper lesson about fiction writing: stylistic consistency is more important than any given stylistic choice.

In other words, Lovecraft will write a line like “the moon was gleaming vividly” and we will have to either accept it or shut the book. If we accept it–okay, it’s pulp fiction or it’s HPL or we’re just feeling generous that day–then he hits us with “It poured madly out of the dark door, sighing uncannily as it ruffled the sand and spread about the weird ruins.” Wow. Take it or leave it. Do you want to enjoy the story or not? It’s no fun if you have to complain about the writing. So you take it. And then he’s got you: you’ve decided to let him have as many adverbs / vague adjectives as he wants. You’re going to let him tell you that the sigh was uncanny (what does “uncanny” sound like, eh?) and the ruins were weird (can you think of the last weird ruins you’ve seen?). He has trained you to read and appreciate *his* fiction rather than trying to meet your expectations.

Some great fiction writers can do both. F. Scott Fitzgerald, for example, can write idiosyncratic prose and also ground those weird (!) choices in hard-edged concrete description. People think he learned this through his association with Hemingway, but that’s according to Hem in A Moveable Feasta great book but likely packed with exaggerations and a few outright lies. Hem might have learned it from Gertrude Stein, but the idiosyncratic flourish we’re talking about is less evident in his work probably because he had such a strong background in news writing. He *had* to make his prose acceptable to the reader (something that also helped him support himself by selling stories to LIFE and The Saturday Evening Post in an era when you could live that way).

Lovecraft is great in other ways. Still, when I read a passage like this, I have to smile: “In the darkness there flashed before my mind fragments of my cherished treasury of daemoniac lore; sentences from Alhazred the mad Arab, paragraphs from the apocryphal nightmares of Damascius, and infamous lines from the delirious Image du Monde of Gauthier de Metz. I repeated queer extracts, and muttered of Afrasiab and the daemons that floated with him down the Oxus.”

I know HPL sets himself the very difficult task of writing about states of consciousness that have only a tenuous connection to everyday life. So maybe that’s the reason for many of his writerly choices. I do take a certain daemoniac enjoyment of how he disregards certain modern conventions.


Acts of Defiance

I once took a creative writing workshop from Richard Ford, in which he spent a lot of energy inveighing against the epiphany in short fiction. This must have been in 1997 or 1998. Little did any of us suspect at the time that his vehemence was probably a reaction to a single bad review that had come out for Women with Men by some no-name writer with an ax to grind. The review criticized Ford for being unwilling to let his characters change or realize very much as they suffocate though postmodern American decline.*

I’ve tried unsuccessfully over the years to find that review. It has mysteriously disappeared from the internet. Does that actually happen? Does the writer now swim with the fishes? Maybe it came out in Kirkus or in the AWP Chronicle; though, I tend to think it wouldn’t have been the Chronicle, given how careful they are with avoiding the faintest whiff of contentiousness toward the darlings of the Big Six in one of the most atavistic industries in the world. So probably Kirkus. Or Salon. I think people at Salon could still read at that point.

Anyway, the review was scathing. I remember it not because I necessarily agreed with it, but because at that time I was in awe of Ford in one of the most unproductive and frankly brutal workshops I’d ever experienced. The Xanax intake in our class went up precipitously after the second meeting, while the likelihood of dissent dropped to 1938 Great Purge levels. All heads were bowed. Everyone had joined the party. Dissidence was shown zero tolerance. And I felt that our instructor had gradually begun to resemble Frank Booth offering Jeffrey a ride in Blue Velvet as if we relived that scene in each critique.

Ford’s ability to craft fiction nevertheless spoke for itself. That was the problem: you might think the guy tuning your piano is a surly misanthrope until he starts playing Rachmaninoff. Then you decide you must have been wrong about everything. How much more do you think a highly accomplished yet incredibly acerbic celebrity could shock a group of young students just starting out? Several of my classmates quit writing fiction for good after sitting through critiques that took apart their 20-page stories sentence by sentence. The rest of us were intimidated yet determined not to seem that way. We wanted to be real writers. We would endure. Since then, I’ve come to believe I was more impressed with Ford’s craft and less with his worldview; though, young writers tend to conflate the two when under the influence of a particular teacher and I certainly did.

So when he talked about the epiphany in fiction as being largely an empty obsolete convention, we nodded and wrote it down. What the hell did we know? Besides, the term had religious overtones. That was an absolute no-no. The largely white, upper-middle class Breakfast Club of terrified 20-somethings in my shop immediately started to write gutless (and mostly bad) Ford-Carver imitations—pared-down realism in simple declarative sentences where nothing much happens beyond a .000001% change in the protagonist’s depression.

The theme of every piece became: please don’t hurt the writer of this story. Joan, a secretary at a Toyota dealership—who’d decided to take a story writing class through open university because she liked reading Stephen King—was the only student who’d had the guts to write a scene involving prayer. I remember her story. Though it was painful to read, she may have been the worst writer and the best human being in the room. After her second critique, she developed a facial tic, but she kept coming. I kept coming, too, and tried not to notice that my cigarette and coffee intake had almost tripled as I subconsciously girded myself for fiction fight club. And I also took multiple beatings. You don’t forget beatings like that. They qualify as formative experiences, not because they help you be a better writer but because they show you what not to do, what psychological damage feels like, and how unnecessary it is.

Class and money, of course, were part of the problem. This was at a state university in California, the program I was in before I applied to the MFA at the University of Montana and learned that not all writing programs are created equal. Maybe fortunately, I hadn’t yet seen how students in Ivy or near-Ivy writing programs are coddled and courted as long as they have connections. In Montana, several of my classmates had agents before they even started (or wrote anything). Famous visiting writers showed up twice a week and yawned through their workshops, occasionally meting out a beatdown to the group pariah—usually the kid on heavy student loans whose parents don’t happen to be international art dealers. It makes strategic sense to do this. You look like you’re doing your job and a bit of focused brutality keeps the others in line. Plus some kid without connections won’t likely be a problem in the future.

To his credit, this did not happen in Ford’s workshop. Everyone took a beatdown. Then again, no one had an evident future in creative writing. So he might have been shouting at a room full of corpses, professionally speaking. He seemed angry about having to teach the class in the first place. I think he was there as a personal favor, produced no doubt through the clandestine machinery of patronage and obligation that keeps the MFA Ponzi scheme up and running even in the lowliest regional colleges. Look at the list of visiting writers on any half-page AWP Writer’s Chronicle MFA program advertisement and compare this to the names consistently showing up in Best American Short Stories over the last 20 years. Then look up who’s publishing those people and where they’re teaching now. Who takes those classes? Who can qualify to enter those MFA programs? You’ll figure it out. It’s not hard. And, after that, I’d like you to sweep out the break room.

However, there is another difference between the finishing-school MFA and the one I was in at that time: lack of tact. Students in the highfalutin MFA programs, especially the students on big loans, have a very powerful sense that they must not argue too loudly. They are, after all, being taught by MacArthur fellows and the Pulitzer winners. But go down to a state college on the edge of a farm community where Animal Sciences gets more funding than English, Art, and History together. There you will encounter a type of student looking for an education and angry that she isn’t getting it. Already alienated, many of these kids will gravitate towards the arts, not because it’s a cool thing to talk about at daddy’s dinner parties, but because they have become true believers. Debt is going to be part of their lives forever, but maybe they’re still idealistic enough to want to become artists even though their future as parking lot attendants is pretty much locked in at that point. Every class matters to them. Every text is something that they’ve had to sacrifice for. And if they’re going to be publicly abused and their work put to the question, they want it to be for a good reason.

Thus it came to pass that on the day we were talking about publishing (such that it was clear none of us would ever publish a damn thing because, hey, look around), Karin** raised her hand. I knew it was coming. I could feel the barometer drop as Ford, in mid-sentence, looked over at her. She’d had a pissed-off look since the first day and, meeting by meeting, she seemed to be holding in the rage. I never got to know Karin very well, but I remember that she had a lot of piercings and bright carrot-orange hair which must have been dyed. She was gravely serious about becoming a writer. She was making it happen through loans and waitressing at Denny’s. Moreover, she had a two-year-old son. Karin did not lead an easy life. She led a determined one. And she was not impressed.

She asked a question: “Can you talk about how you first got published? I mean, isn’t it true that you’re so famous whatever you write can get automatically published at this point?” In the spirit of Mark Twain’s after-dinner speech at John Greenleaf Whittier’s birthday party, “the house’s attention continued, but the expression of interest in the faces turned to a sort of black frost.” The daffodils in the faculty club immediately turned to ash and crumbled. Dogs began to howl. The corner of Joan’s eye began to violently twitch.

The way I remember his response was that it was something acidic and dismissive. It was not altogether as harsh as I had expected and, to my surprise, he did not command her to commit ritual suicide then and there. But Karin never came back to class after that meeting. I may not recall his exact words because, in that moment, I was having what can only be described as a major epiphany. I realized it wouldn’t make a bit of difference if I came to the next meeting or went to a bar and got drunk or wrote 20 pages of the best possible prose. What mattered was my attitude to my own work, how sincere I was while remaining dedicated to learning the craft. That’s what being a real writer is. I have Ford’s workshop to thank for that.

It was the first big realization I had in the writing life: every act of writing is an act of defiance. All else is opinion, vanity, and marketing. If that sounds too extreme, let me respectfully suggest that you’re not expressing yourself as fully or as honestly as you could. Let me suggest that you write something that people will disagree with and that you also happen to believe. And let me suggest that you put it out there to publishers and learn to deal with the inevitable beatings. And then defy those and do it again.

 

 

* Kathy Knapp does an updated version of this critique in American Unexceptionalism: the Everyman and the Suburban Novel After 9/11 (2014).

** Not her actual name but close enough for those who might remember.


Other Constellations

No reasons. No consistency or explanations. Just the frozen dark, the hiss, Marion snoring in the seat beside me, mouth open. And the thought of all that water below us. I try to remember getting on the plane. I look at my face in the black window. In the glass beside my reflection, I see Darius standing in the aisle, looking down at us.

She okay?”

His question makes no sense. I feel like it should, like he’s implying something I should understand. I force my eyes open, but he’s still blurry. “What?”

Is. She. O. Kay?” His jaw tightens. Blue lights in the ceiling glint on his bald head.

We look at Marion. She has drooled on her black satin neck pillow.

You never ask if I’m okay.”

Darius takes her pulse.

My heart is beating normally, you know. Respiration normal. Everything’s good. I’m in great health.”

He places Marion’s hand gently back in her lap and checks her seat belt. Then he looks at me for a moment. “Yeah. Fantastic.”

I’m so out of it that I have to force my eyes open, again.

Darius hands me a box of Altoids. “For when she wakes up.”

Don’t mind if I have a few as well?”

He sighs. “Fuck off, Charlie,” the ghost of his Essex accent emerging in the off.

I watch him make his way back to his seat in coach and imagine the plane crashing into the dark Pacific. Impact ripping off the wings. Explosions. Screaming. The water rushing in. What are the chances of it actually happening? Somewhere, there are statistics on this. But it could happen without warning just as easily as anything. This is the thought I have when I let my eyes close and I drift back to sleep.

La Maison Shibuya. Marion’s Tokyo residence. 25th floor. I wake up in the white leather chair perpendicular to the white leather sofa. Everything in the living room is white leather or silver or glass. The windows have polarized, turning the morning sun into a gray disk. A glass coffee table with a silver vase of reeds is directly in front of me. My left ankle is crossed over my right knee. A full martini is in my hand. Perfectly still. No sound at all. My eyes are open. Chockablock Shibuya skyline beyond the windows. Gray circuit board to the horizon.

I guess I didn’t make it to the bed. But there must have been a period of consciousness if I’d made myself a martini. Or pseudo-consciousness. Valium zombie consciousness. I don’t recall. Fragments. Emails I wrote on my phone that make no sense. Something emotional—crying in a bathroom, a collapse, wanting to explain something but not being able to. Nasty interludes with Darius, Marion’s guard dog, who knows karate and who will someday push me out a window the same way he handed me that box of Altoids. But Marion always has Valium. And it’s always like this when we fly. And we always fly.

The door to the bedroom stands open. Our suitcases sit in a perfect row beside it, the good work of Darius. Marion’s feet protrude over the bottom edge of the bed. The rest of her is hidden beneath an enormous white comforter that resembles a cloud bank. She wouldn’t have made it to the bed either, but for Darius the Karate Luggage Master. And I wonder, did he undress her, too? Isn’t that my job? When he finally sends me out the window, 25 floors down, maybe she’ll remember who I am. Then she’ll have to pay Darius more. Or pay him less. Or have someone send him out the window, too.

Her feet are straight, parallel, almost like she’s deliberately pointing her toes. Marion is 54, blonde, and she takes care of her body in ways most women don’t. CEO of the United Toy Company for 10 years, she takes care of her company in ways most women don’t. And she takes care of me, when she can remember. When she can’t remember, when she does drugs and sleeps too much; it gets quiet and I get wasted. Then maybe I get a little closer to Darius helping me take that big first step. T-minus defenestration, counting down. I set the martini on the coffee table and notice an enormous black horsefly floating in it. Then I realize it’s a design on the side of the glass. Who would buy such a thing? Marion has four residences. I wonder if she even knows what’s in them.

I walk into the kitchen. It’s brighter there. The windows don’t polarize. I place my forehead against the cool glass of the floor-to-ceiling window opposite the marble counter. The sky is crystal blue. The sun glints off Shibuya’s glass and steel. And for a moment, I feel suspended in the air over Tokyo, looking down at the mechanical life crawling through the city.

In the steel cabinet above the sink, I find a row of gray polycarbonate coffee mugs that look like they’ve never been used or even touched. I take one down, put it in the Keurig shaped like a chrome vacuum cleaner from the 1950s. On the counter beside the machine, an enormous Kakiemon bowl shows orange ducks in flight beneath a pale green sun. It’s heaped with coffee pods. I can’t read the kanji labels. So I pick a red one, hoping it’s the strongest, lock it in the chamber, as if it were some kind of anti-aircraft shell, and press the button. Milk fills a beaker and begins to froth in a completely silent whirlpool.

When I smell the coffee, I decide I’m almost feeling normal. But then I look back into the living room. A wet girl wrapped in a towel steps out of the bedroom and smiles. I’ve never seen her before. And I refuse to just accept this. My normal does not include people I don’t know just stepping out of the bedroom. No matter how weird Marion gets, no matter how drunk or high I may get, I refuse to let this be my normal. She’s dripping. She must be in her early 20s: Amerasian, pretty, defined the way one gets from Pilates or some kind of unfriendly aerobics. The towel covers most of her. What do I say? What is expected of me in this situation? I put on my sunglasses and look away until she walks right up to me.

Hiya.” She winks.

Hello.” I turn to the window. From the 25th floor, Shibuya in late morning seems like it should contain an answer to everything. But my mind isn’t working fast enough. I think of science fiction. I imagine we’re in a vast computer simulation. This girl isn’t really here, a pretty ghost, a hologram from my subconscious. “Were you always here?”

Always?” Quiet laugh. She thinks that’s funny. “I’m not always anywhere.”

You’re here with—Darius?”

Can I have some coffee?”

I step over to the Keurig without looking at her. The latte is finished. I take out the milk canister and hold it over the mug so the tiny servomotors in the bottom can blend it into the coffee along with the foam. I hand it to her and she gives me a big smile. Her teeth are small, even, whitened. I wonder if there is anything about her that isn’t perfectly formed to spec. The tips of her hair drip onto the counter top.

Are you always here?”

I get another mug, put another red pod in the howitzer, and start the process again. “I came in last night.”

I know. Why are you wearing sunglasses?” She licks off her foam mustache. “It’s good.”

This is a private residence. I’m sorry, but I don’t know you.”

Serious now, she bows. “Excuse me. I’m from Mister Lo. I was here for—”

Me? You’re here for me?”

Ah, no.” She turns toward the window.

Oh. For her.”

The girl takes another sip, nods once. Then, as if Shibuya has finally chosen to speak to her instead of me, her expression goes blank. She sets the mug on the counter with both hands. I watch her pad across the living room, enter the bedroom, and shut the door softly behind her.

This is not normal, but it is my life. All I can do is look at the miniature milk vortex frothing in the beaker, at silent Shibuya circuit board, until I hear the front door open and click shut. A distant helicopter threads its way between chrome and glass office towers, a tiny black wasp, green pinlights winking on its tail. I decide this proves there is life out there, beyond the window.

Early afternoon. Yoyogi Park. A short walk from the condo and Shibuya Station. Before I left, I checked in on Marion, but she was still not up. I think about texting her. Instead, I stare at the children playing by the edge of the fountain pond. Above them, the tall jet of water creates a thin rainbow in the mist.

The last time we were in Japan, I did things, went places, spent money, hung out with people I hardly remember. It’s hazy. I was with Marion and the guys from Play Asia, a toy distributor. There were prostitutes—or girls getting paid to shop with us or paid to shop and have sex with someone or paid to seem that way and do something else altogether. It’s unclear what most of Marion’s entourage was or why they were there, but they were all getting paid for something.

Now I have more questions: why the girl; why a martini and going to sleep in that chair. How long did we all stay up? And where was Darius through all this? He evidently slipped his chain and went barking through the neighborhood, pissing on fire hydrants and running after cars. I know I might have jet lag or something-else-lag, but I can’t stop thinking that the girl never told me her name. She was just “the Girl from Mister Lo.” I don’t know why Marion does these things. Or if she was even awake last night. And what could I have said to the girl in my post-flight zombie state? She seemed to know more about me than I know about her. Maybe it’s all irrelevant.

The Tokyo Toy Show starts tomorrow. This is a big thing for Marion. So it’s a big thing for me. But I know very little about the business. I draw a salary from the company. I’m her personal assistant, but I know nothing. On days like today, when I’m alone and everyone else is unconscious, I sit in parks like Yoyogi Park with a steno pad and a pen trying to write short stories. I’ve got one almost done, which used to be a turn-on for Marion. But now it doesn’t matter much to me. When we discard our habits, what’s left? Just that long first step out the window. An Akita puppy yaps beside the children at the water’s edge, stomping its paws, running around in circles. Happy dog. We should all be like that. None of us should be from Mister Lo.

No one in Japan pays attention to a vacant-looking gaijin scribbling on a steno pad in the park. I’m on a bench with the latte. And I’m looking at my last scene, the one where the old man walks out on his front porch in Missouri. He looks at the rolling plains of grass and realizes he doesn’t care if his son ever comes home again. He doesn’t need to worry about his daughter, either. They’ve got their own lives, and he’s content with his. That’s how the story ends, but I can’t quite get the last paragraph the way it needs to be, can’t get the emotion right. And that Akita puppy keeps yapping, far too joyful for a world with Marion and Darius, Mister Lo and me. And I know that, before long, I’ll give up and wander through the park. I’ll go up through Shibuya Ward and get on the Tokyo no Chikatetsu and ride it out to a distant stop.

I get as far as Ikebukuro, and Ikebukuro is enough. On crowded Platform 6, I wait for the train back to Shibuya Station. It’s December 18th and people are dressed for the possibility of snow; though, snow is rare in Tokyo. A yellow sun reigns in a cloudless sky between the awnings of the platform. A white octagonal apartment block with red stripes like a candy cane looms in the distance.

I listen to the subdued conversations around me, my lousy Japanese comprehension made worse by the need for those nearby to be polite and not draw attention to themselves. And I feel ridiculous yet again, the gaijin in his gaijin place. Riding the metro can be a pointless exercise when it fails to calm me down—as pointless and purposeless as trying to make sense of a whirlpool of milk or a dripping girl without a name. Such times are the worst, when I can’t outrun my anxiety, when it builds like a wave and crashes over me. And then there’s invariably some candy-cane building standing over me, communicating in no uncertain terms: this is absurd and you are absurd and absurdity is your prison and this prison is your life.

So I take the Chikatetsu back to the condo. The luggage still stands at attention by the bedroom door. I’m half-expecting the Girl from Mister Lo to be sitting there, wrapped in a towel, on the white leather sofa. Or Darius, waiting to torture me with some kind of medieval, inquisitorial truth-seeking device. Or even Marion, awake at last. But she isn’t awake. Or, rather, she has been, but she isn’t now. Marion has, at some point, gotten out of bed. She filled the bathtub so that it overflowed. Now there’s an inch of water pooled on the bathroom floor. The bedroom’s white neoprene shag squishes underfoot. After her bath, she apparently got in bed again and wrapped herself in her comforter cloud bank. But the Girl from Mister Lo is definitely gone. I sit down on the bed beside Marion and touch her arm—still damp, her honey-blonde hair matted against her face. How does the CEO of a corporation live like this? Every time I ask the question, I think of all the other times I’ve asked it.

I take out my phone and call Darius, as much as I hate to do it. He answers with the din of an arcade behind him. Moshi moshi? Kore wa daredesu ka? His Japanese is impeccable, but since he must see that it’s me, I wonder why he bothers.

Hey. Look, she’s still not awake.”

I hear dinging, high-pitched girl laughter. Someone says, koto o furenaide kudasai, in a voice deeper than Darius’.

Then his voice: “What?”

Marion. I’m wondering how much she took.”

Stop wondering.”

You were the one asking if she was okay, alright? Now I’m asking.”

He hangs up on me. The nicest man in the world hangs up on me. I put my hand on her forehead. I listen to her breathe slow and soft. And I decide she must be okay. Marion knows what she’s doing. This is how she recovers, how I don’t, why there’s a girl waiting from Mister Lo, why I get lost in the park. Later, if I ask her how much she took before the flight, she’ll say something like Darius: don’t ask. Marion doesn’t pay me to ask. I walk back into the pristine living room—a place I despise for its sterile, symmetrical perfection. The windows have de-polarized. The coffee cup I gave to the girl still sits on the kitchen counter.

On days I can’t bear to walk outside, I think I might need a doctor or at least a prescription. Marion hasn’t bothered to leave me the address of the convention center; though, she knows I was looking forward to going with her and seeing all the new toys from around the world. Likewise, I can’t summon the massive energy it will take to find this out for myself, go there, and explain that I’m with her. Instead, I choose to sit in the white leather chair for an indeterminate length of time.

Same old silence. I haven’t spoken to my parents in what seems like a decade. Might be. I don’t think any of us are counting. Then there’s my sister, Linda, who I call maybe every other year. The few college friends I had back in Los Angeles—what, two? three?—never responded to my emails after I dropped out. Radio silence. Global silence. Silence to the end of the universe.

When I met Marion two years ago, I went from a one-room efficiency in North Hollywood to chrome and white leather. Still, I don’t get a thrill when I think about my bank account anymore. And really, I don’t need to think about it at all because I don’t have to spend any of the money. If I want something, I tell Darius or just order it with Marion’s credit card. Everything is available, all the time. The only thing I have to do is stay in shape and deal with black oceans of silence between the times I spend with Marion. Eventually, I know the plane will crash. Impact. Screaming. The water rushing in. Somewhere, there are statistics on this.

I go down six floors to the gym, which is deserted, and work every muscle group until my body hurts. Then I run five miles on the treadmill as the poisons I’ve consumed leech out in my sweat, which has lately begun to take on a hint of cheap floral perfume. It’s something I’m eating. Some plane food never meant to be digested by hominids. I tell myself: less fruit, more bread. More bread is nearly always the solution. That’s life wisdom, my son—deep knowledge from college. I look at the red digits on the treadmill, at the news loop playing on the flat screen, and try not to think.

Los Angeles, before. Living 45 minutes away from Linda—before she met Ad Exec Larry and cashed out, moved to Seattle, got a Lexus, had a kid for all the wrong reasons, decided that pursuing a career as a graphic designer was, well, stupid. But at least she graduated from Saddleback Community down in the OC. Most of the students there look like Justin Bieber after a scrub down. The girls have blonde hair down to their asses. Everyone dresses well. Everyone there seems to be waiting for the universe to tell them they’re sexy. You might see some tats and that pigpen student with a weight problem who’s on the wrong meds in the eighth year of his two-year degree. But he’ll be rare. A lot of great hairdressers come out of Saddleback. Highly articulate waiters. Telecommunications specialists. Hotel management professionals. I’m not passing judgment. It’s more than I’ve done.

The day I interviewed to be Marion’s personal assistant, I did not attend O-Chem and Literature of the Harlem Renaissance. Linda drove me over to the temporary office at Irvine Spectrum in her black and brown Acura Legend. She’d been laying out at Huntington Beach and she smelled like coconuts, her skin a perfect creamy brown. Her hair had tiny waves in it. Green contacts. Black bikini with cut-off Daisy Dukes. A four-year-old boob job that seemed to be holding up well. Even among the beautiful people, my sister had the Command to Look, always confident, in the zone.

The volume is all the way down on the flat screen. It’s set in the middle of the floor-to-ceiling gym window. A window in a window. While you exercise, you can stare at Shibuya or at the news or at the news-as-Shibuya. There’s a section on the Tokyo Toy Show. Marion in her navy business suit with pearls. Darius’ shoulder at the edge of the picture. I close my eyes and listen to my footfalls on the treadmill, counting steps the way I sometimes do.

You’ve got this,” Linda said, when we pulled into the lot, sharp midday sun glaring white on all the windshields.

I shook my head. “I don’t even know what a personal assistant does.”

Linda’s smile was a sunburst and I wondered how we could share the same DNA. “Doesn’t matter,” she said. “People are all the same.”

The great world spins and I dream. Marion’s prescription sleeping meds. No safer than any other thing in her narcotic arsenal. But the world can spin. Let it. Depressed after a day of working out in silence, white leather furniture, and Japanese television, I take her little green pills at random just to see what will happen. And then I’m floating in the black ocean. Nothing but wind, water, the fixed incomprehensible stars, the cold machinery of night. I know this is a dream, what they call a lucid dream, the kind you’re supposed to be able to control. But I’m not flying over Everest or visiting the rings of Saturn. There’s only me in the wind and waves, the constellations I don’t know.

I wake up, bedroom spinning. I’m making out with Marion in the dark, my hands on her body, hers on mine. We’re breathing hard and I’m half on top of her. But I can still feel the ocean on my skin. For the briefest moment above the bed, there is no ceiling. I look up at the pinlight stars, cruel and endless in the night sky. It should feel strange that my body is trying to have sex while my mind is elsewhere. But nothing is strange anymore. She opens her legs and I’m fully on top of her, moving against her, but my cock is limp and I’m thinking about plane crashes and drowning and the possibility of gravity failing, such that I float up from the 25th floor of La Maison Shibuya past the moon, and no amount of trying is going to get me hard at that point.

Marion pushes me off, turns her back to me. Would you believe me if I told you that I fell in love with her at a time when I should have been taking road trips with friends and getting my anthro requirement out of the way? I roll in the opposite direction and vomit quickly, painfully over the edge of the bed. The last of the floral whatever that I think probably came from the Hello Kitty Gin I got from a vending machine comes up like acid stripping the flesh off my throat. Then I’m on my back again and the ceiling has returned but everything’s still spinning. It takes me a full minute to realize Marion is moaning. The Girl from Mister Lo has her face between Marion’s legs. I close my eyes.

The windows in the condo are already polarized. The sun is already up. Marion’s gone and the bedroom smells like sex. It’s not a bad smell. My eyelids make a tiny pop when I blink. My eyes were so crusted shut that they could make a popping sound. Amazing. Was I crying again in my sleep? Still dizzy, I make my way carefully into Marion’s bathroom, where her various business suits are draped over the chrome vanity table, her white silk blouses crumpled in little mounds on the floor. Her jewelry case is old-fashioned, belonged to her grandmother, looks like a small powder-blue suitcase from the 1930s with fold-out mother-of-pearl trays. I put my face under the faucet and let the water run across my cheek, down my neck, thinking of how Marion’s life used to seem like an incredibly fascinating archaeological dig, layer upon layer of detail, history, meaning, pain. She wasn’t like the few girlfriends I’d had in college—into nail art and taking their shirts off at concerts. Marion had depth and she had heart and sometimes there were little things, like the jewelry case, which reminded me the she was different, thoughtful. Now the first thought I have when I see the folded-out trays with their little square compartments is that the thing looks like a tackle box.

In the living room, the Girl from Mister Lo is wearing a purple velour two-piece track suit with the monogram of La Maison Shibuya in gold thread on the left front. She’s unzipped the top to between her breasts and it’s clear she isn’t wearing anything underneath. Even though I saw her naked last night, going down on Marion, that triangle of pale skin makes me look away.

Hi.” She turns down the volume. It’s some kind of sketch comedy show with a laugh track and sound effects. The Girl from Mister Lo glances at me, then back at the show and laughs. “It’s so funny. Have you seen this? It’s called Silent Library. They have to be quiet or they get punished.” The comedians can’t be quiet. One eats noisy potato chips. Another has a digital watch that beeps and he doesn’t know how to turn it off. Close-ups on their worried expressions. Sweat beaded on their foreheads. Canned laughter off screen.

Cool.”

She looks at me, then back at the show, then turns it off. “Okay. Want to go do something?” She’s smiling. Pretty almond eyes. Whitened teeth.

Do something?”

Her smile fades. “I’m sorry. She told me to be here when she comes back.”

Her name is Marion.”

Yes.” Serious now. She nods once and looks down to the side. “Marion.”

What’s your name?”

Akina.”

Fuck you, Akina.” I walk into the bathroom and turn on the shower. When I come out, naked and dripping, thinking I should apologize, she’s gone.

When Marion returns, it’s like a spatial anomaly. She isn’t there. Then she is. And she materializes without ceremony, without even being noticeable. I come out of the bedroom and I’m shocked to see her standing in the kitchen, dressed in a conservative dark green business suit with matching earrings. She’s eating a croissant and reading the Arts page of the Asahi Shimbun.

“Shouldn’t you be making friends and influencing people at the expo?”

Marion doesn’t look up. I repeat myself to be sure that she heard me and is actually ignoring me.

She chews, swallows, folds the back page.

“Marion.”

“Yes?” she asks without looking up.

“What’s wrong with you?”

“Don’t you have some drugs to be doing or some cynical little story to be writing?”

“Drugs? You’re pissed that I’m doing your drugs?”

Marion gives me an icy smile, and walks into the bedroom. I hear the lock click.

“Wait a second,” I say through the door.

Nothing. Then the sound of the shower.

“Hold on a second, goddammit.” I pound on the door, but it’s a good one. Solid. “You can’t just take a shower on me.” I pound some more.

My hand hurts, but I beat on the door until some invisible arbiter on a celestial throne hears and acknowledges my right to be pissed off—the ghost-satrap of all sad self-righteous cases betrayed and accused by their women. Because Marion is that to me. Right?

What about last night, huh? What about Akina?”

The shower goes off and the condo is silent again. I know she can hear me. The door might be fancy but the walls are paper-thin.

I look in the fridge for booze but find only a half-empty, expired carton of milk. So I make another coffee with the space-age bullet machine and stare at the city some more. I should be feeling anxious and, on some level, I guess I am. But in my front brain—the place I should be resolving things and drawing conclusions—I’m slow. I’m sipping a sour latte while I stare dumbly at science-fiction Shibuya ward in all its gray majesty. I’m not thinking or feeling very much. I wonder if it’s like this for people about to suffer horribly—a moment of free fall before the impact.

I don’t speak Japanese. I tried once, took an online class, stuck with it for a few months. But, like most things in my life . . . . I guess I can say Hello. Goodbye. Where is the bathroom? Can I have a crepe for my spotted dog? The crepe thing because it was in the tiny course booklet they sent in the mail. Marion and I had a good laugh about that one. I’d text it to her during the day. And she’d text back something funny. But you can’t retell an inside joke. It’s pointless. I wonder what she’d do if I texted it to her now. We haven’t had a good conversation since before we left L.A.

It’s afternoon on the third day of the Toy Show, but it feels like I’ve been here for weeks. I put on jeans and a T-shirt from my suitcase, find a pinstriped button-down still folded in its cellophane wrapper in one of the closets. Instead of the train, I get a taxi to Shinjuku, where I buy pink doughnuts. I sit and eat them by a koi pond in front of a store that sells console video games and luck cats with their paws waving up and down. Green plastic irises. Clown grins. Golden aliens come to our world in the shape of small pudgy cats. Twenty sets of dead eyes stare at me through the glass. I can’t look at them.

I think of texting Marion, even calling her, though I know she won’t answer. Strange how this feels, all the pressure that seems built up around her, how the prospect of just having another conversation with her makes me nervous. This, even though I was in bed with her last night, even though, at some point, I started to think of her as my girlfriend—as absurd as the term may be when applied to a 54-year-old woman.

The koi are enormous, gliding slowly around the artificial pond made to look something like a tide pool. Foreigners have thrown coins in the water. I make out a few US quarters, some British pence, others less recognizable, maybe Korean. There had to be a point where those koi were having yet another languid, liquid day and suddenly warped grinning giants were tossing pieces of metal all around them. Koi stress. What passes for a bad day in the pond of the universe. Watching the koi—before I can talk myself out of it—I take out my phone and call Marion.

Darius answers. “Don’t call this number.”

Where is she?”

He hangs up.

What the fuck!” I scream it so loudly and suddenly that an old man in a suit drops his briefcase on the sidewalk. He picks it up, gives me a disapproving look, and wags his finger. “Bad,” he says.

I call back but it goes straight to voice mail. The man continues down the sidewalk. I’m bad. The alien cats grin and wave. Don’t grin at me, you ghastly fuckers.

The toy expo is at the main convention center called Tokyo Big Sight. “Sight” might be a play on words or a mistake that no one caught in time. Its other name, the one you see on the maps, is the Tokyo International Exhibition Center, situated right on the bay.

The structure itself resembles a square of four inverted pyramids, their tips extending to the ground in great oblong columns, all of it covered in shiny titanium, a New Age Egyptophile mothership. Right now, it’s probably full to the ceiling with grinning luck cats, paws waving, eyes glittering.

These are the things that stand out to me here, things that emanate from some pure, ancient, eternal soul-energy but have to bubble up through Tokyo’s various shales of politeness and hardpan conservatism to the caliche where all good people have to linger and smile and pretend beneath a gigantic Hello Kitty sign. When I think about it, Tokyo is perfect for the toy industry, being a simulation of something an emperor once dreamed. But it’s out of control now, electrified, nuclear, pulsing, grinning, waiting for you to arrive at the toy mothership so it can do a dance and take off into the impossible future.

But I don’t go where I haven’t been invited. And maybe I just feel like hell. That old man was right when he wagged his finger at me. Son, you got a problem. Instead of the old man, I keep seeing the Captain from Cool Hand Luke saying this to me. My father loved that movie. He owned it and, whenever he’d watch it, he’d quote the Captain as if I were Luke. What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate. I grew up hearing that line.

The dogs on this street are either huge or tiny and they’re all accessorized with rhinestones, steel fetish spikes, tiny gold paw pendants hanging below their jowls. But the teenage girls prefer kittens. Three girls in black hoodies covered with patches walk past, each holding a different-colored cat. The patches are unicorns, explosions, One Direction, Taylor Swift’s face bigger than a dinner plate in the center of one girl’s back. Someone somewhere—probably in Tokyo—has that as a tattoo and is proud of it and can never go home again.

And whenever I think of why I left home the way I did—why I started at a Cal State L.A., near my sister but never going back to visit my parents in Palos Verdes; all the shitty jobs I took that had nothing to do with finance or anything remotely associated with my father’s world; why I decided I would never get married or have children of my own; and how I’ve never been interested in acquiring the various status symbols necessary for becoming a puffed-up self-important asshole like him—I think of that part where the Captain says, You gonna get used to wearing them chains after a while, Luke. Don’t you never stop listening to them clinking. Because here I am with a woman almost my father’s age, who, I guess, doesn’t love me and never did, who texts me while I’m staring into the koi pond: Dinner tomorrow night. Buy a suit. Don’t get high.

I have the Louis Vuitton three-piece I brought with me. What she means is: buy a better suit. And “don’t get high” just means I’ll need to be in stealth mode all night—not her boyfriend (or whatever I may be). I’ll be back in personal assistant mode. I have a very thin herculon shoulder bag with an iPad in it for this. I think I’ve turned the iPad on twice. I don’t really know how to use it. But stealth mode means dignitaries or the veiny cadavers who rise from their crypts every year for the occasion of her husband’s birthday. His name is Bob. Technically, Bob still owns the company. But, after five strokes, his leadership has declined somewhat. They roll him out about once a year so everyone can see him waving from one of the factory balconies: His Holiness Bob, Pope of the Toys.

Maybe I’m sick of pretending. Maybe I’d better watch my back whenever Darius is around and I’m standing near a window. Them chains. I text her back: Thanks for being so real. You complete me. And then maybe I have a small sobbing breakdown, making the nearby Japanese foot traffic highly uncomfortable for the two seconds it takes to pass through my area of effect. I don’t want to live on this planet anymore. I want to fly up past the stars. Crash in the black ocean. Swim with the koi.

Small breakdowns” sounds like a Japanese reality show: you fail to be silent in the library. Then they do horrible things to you or maybe you just feel horrible and they film it. You sit by a koi pond and cry in the middle of the day; they film the fish reacting to your tears; someone off-screen is laughing; there are sound effects; you’ve served your purpose. Just like in the States or 37, 000 feet above the Pacific Ocean at night, nothing comes without some kind of price. Everything is a transaction, even hard-to-appraise human things like friendship or trust. You think money can’t buy you love, but you’re wrong about that. In most ways, it can. I get back on the Tokyo no Chikatetsu and think: I have no family to speak of, nothing ahead of me. My only friend in Tokyo is Reymund Torneau the Saucier, but I know Reymund won’t remember me.

Despondent after my small breakdown, I ride the train as it threads its way through the Tokyo sprawl, urban blocks of the city center, traffic tunnels, suburbs. Tochomae. Yotsuya. Takadanobaba. Station after station. Billboard anime sexbots holding persimmons. Robot crane garages. Tiny parks with cherry trees. Whitewashed Buddhist shrines trimmed in gold. Bronze statues of statesmen and gods. Everything that can be plugged in, is. Not all of Tokyo is electrified, just most of it—Akihabara Electric Town passing in a profusion of crackling signs, pulsing neon, particolored light and glass even in the middle of the day. It’s a red-green blur when the train accelerates. High-voltage pea soup.

So, my best and only friend, Reymund the Saucier. He, too, is electric. And though he will not remember me, at least I remember him. His small storefront cafe, Merveilleux Goûts, sells French sauces in fancy glass jars. フランスの ソース, Furansu no so-su, on every label, even on the Cajun hot sauce. Reymund is French. Therefore, all of his so-su must be Furansu. I step off the train at Nishi Station in Toshima. And, after a short stroll, I’m there—a little bit of Furansu on a gray street opposite a baseball field.

Since my last visit, two vending machines have been installed on the sidewalk to the right of the shop. One sells scarves. The other, dog whistles. Things you might need in France. And to the left of Merveilleux Goûts, a spotless, empty Kentucky Fried Chicken, the employees leaning, snapping rags at each other. The street itself looks dirtier, older, and grayer than I remember. Almost like something you’d see in Hamtramck or Scranton. Not so Japanese looking. I might convince myself I’m back home as long as I don’t look down past the parked cars to the vanishing point, where circuit-board highrises, thinner and more imposing than anything in the States, push into the sky. But where’s home? Tell me. I want to know.

Merveilleux Goûts is crowded. I walk in and take a seat at the counter, which is like the counter in an American diner—only everything, even the cutlery, is white. Reymund and his three Japanese assistants work as quickly as chefs in a four-star restaurant. And they look the part in their dress whites and straight Careme 50-pleat hats. Reymund paces the open kitchen, barking orders in Japanese while cooking multiple things in multiple locations. His assistants frown, concentrating intensely. It’s fascinating to watch, a malicious ballet that uses misery to produce excellent food. Merveilleux Goûts offers a brasserie menu with 15 different kinds of sauces, any of which can be sampled from small tasting bowls. Along the left side of the dining room, there are shelves of plastic dome containers filled with various entrees, pastries, even a rabbit ragout with pappardelle, all with a small container of appropriate so-su, Reymund’s specialty.

A young girl, who could be working for Mister Lo, but who is instead serving excellent European misery food, walks up with a small white plastic tray. Fair skin. Shoulder-length hair with a salon curl. On her tray there are tiny sauce cups. People are encouraged to take a miniature spoon from one of the dispensers located along the counter and have a taste. A man in a double-breasted Chinese suit beside me does exactly that, makes an appreciative sound and bows to the girl, who bows in return. When she comes up to me, I wave her off.

Reymund looks right at me without recognition, as expected. We met at a lunch with Marion, Darius, a translator, and two Korean businessmen who owned a corporation that made self-assembling toy robots—toys that essentially played with themselves, removing the human element. The whole time, Marion and Darius traded racist jokes about Koreans, while the translator composed statements that seemed possibly neutral and pleasant.

We ate in one of the rooms above Merveilleux Goûts, and all of it was served to us by Reymund personally. Though, at the time, I couldn’t figure out whether he and Marion were friends or whether he secretly despised her and was serving her due to some arcane geis placed on him through a business connection that he had to honor or else. Knowing Marion, I suspect the latter. But I can remember holding the first decent human conversation I’d had in months with Reymund downstairs at the doorway to his kitchen, while everyone upstairs was still eating. The man was capable of cracking jokes while delivering extremely hostile drill-sergeant commands to his underlings. He was a brilliant kitchen schizophrenic, and he had me laughing in spite of myself. Reymund seemed to understand why I lingered down there instead of returning immediately from the restroom.

But today clouds of steam billow in the open kitchen as he commands his forces with a degree of irritation one only sees in kitchens of fancy restaurants or in potential crime scenes. I half-stand and wave when he glances into the dining area, only to see him turn, lift up a bowl of what could be custard but which is probably something far more exotic, and toss it unceremoniously to one of his assistants, a young Japanese man with a terror-stricken look on his face. The assistant bows and runs through a side door. I sit at the counter in Merveilleux Goûts for 90 minutes. In that time, I taste seven different kinds of gravy with seven different miniature spoons.

Eventually, the young girl returns but without the tray. She says something in Japanese that I barely understand. I think she’s asking me what I’m doing there—but in a roundabout way, like, can she help me, one way or another, find what I’m seeking or find the exit.

You can’t help me,” I say. “Anata wa watashi o tasukeru koto wa dekimasen. I do not need assistance.” Or maybe what I say is that I’m beyond help.

She looks at me as if I just said I have a terminal disease, then offers a tight insincere smile, bows, and walks away. She cannot help me. I do not need assistance. I am beyond help.

Out on the street, the sky is overcast. It’s cold. December weather. The front page of the Asahi Shimbun tumbles down the gray sidewalk. The drivers in cars notice me as they pass. But they are perhaps less surprised than they would be in a ward that isn’t as international as Toshima. Still, I am a gaijin. I am a Russian in the synagogue. These little circuits of supposed European high culture overdone with French names and ridiculous marketing cannot help me.

Instead of going directly back to the train station, I decide to walk for a while in the general direction of Shibuya. Looking into the faces of people driving by, I think of my one true friend in Tokyo, who no longer remembers me or who perhaps no longer wishes to. Watashi wa watashi no hanten inu no tame no kurēpu o motsu koto ga dekimasu ka. Can I have a crepe for my spotted dog? No, evidently I can’t.

So the great world spins. I get off at Kōrakuen Station and walk past Tokyo Dome. Five stark white gulls jerk into flight from a mirror-still puddle in front of the entry gate. Traffic crawls down Sotobori-dori. People on the sidewalk open umbrellas and look down as they go by. I stare at an iron manhole covered with writing I can’t understand. A wooden truck carrying street food backfires like a muffled fart. And, for a moment, my perceptual field widens enough that I become aware of everything moving around me at once. Variables in an enormous equation that has nothing to do with me.

I have attained perfect invisibility, a stone in the river. I’m not completely cognizant of where I’m headed, but when I arrive at my destination, it seems that I may have subconsciously intended this route all along. Tokyo Blue Light. A private club in Bunkyō Ward, open all the time. We stopped here that day after having lunch at Reymund’s. Of course, by the time we arrived, we were incredibly high. But I still remember. Bamboo everywhere. A whole forest of it. Low carved tables and furniture. Purple twilight from recessed blue and red ceiling lights. Add cigarette and hookah smoke and the club is disrecognized, de-timed, a non-place gone fully sideways from the traffic out on the sidewalk streaming past its blue-frosted windows. This is where I go.

Greeted at the door by a geisha in an electric blue kimono. S/he runs Marion’s Platinum MasterCard for the ¥120,000 cover. I leave my shoes on a black steel shelf by the door. Then through the black-carpeted bamboo forest to plush cushions by an ebony table inlaid with mother-of-pearl kanji. I suspect all the “geishas” here are men, but there is no way to be sure. The girls in short skirts come later, with hookahs, booze, whatever else. I sit down on the cushion and the geisha host/ess towers above me, expression unreadable behind thick white makeup. Two very thin young men dressed in black pants and button downs bring a bottle of shochu on ice and two glasses, a silver box of the Tekel cigarettes Marion likes, crystal ash trays, a heavy silver lighter.

When the host/ess ran the card, Marion’s information must have come up. That or the geisha has an eidetic memory. It could be either, both, something else. Is it necessary to understand why things happen? Following the plan from last time means there will probably be Jack Daniels and a mirror for Marion’s cocaine. There will be a girl for her and one for me, both fluent in English and willing to sit very close and find everything fascinating.

But today, when they come—two stunning Chinese girls with glazed smiles, their hair in glossy braids—I wave them off. They pivot and disappear just as easily as they came. And then it’s soft voices in Arabic somewhere off in the bamboo forest to my right, a mist of hookah smoke drifting in, and those twin red and blue suns high above. The bourbon arrives when I finish the shochu and I start to feel a little better. I smoke cigarette after cigarette, give my bourbon a jolt from the heavy glass soda bottle they brought with it, and listen to clipped Japanese mix with the Arabic. This is better than humanity—sitting in the purple light, getting displaced. I’d move into Tokyo Blue Light if it were a hotel. Sadly, the best I can do today (tonight?) is ¥80,000 bottles of liquor and high tar.

With Jack Daniels, I want to talk to someone other than myself. But the wait staff is giving me my privacy and, what, I should call Darius? I do call the number he said I’m never supposed to call, Marion’s, about 20 times, clicking off every time it goes to voice mail, which happens immediately from the second time I call to the 20th. Then I call the time in Porterville, California, the town my high school girlfriend was from. 13 digits. At the tone, the time will be 3:16 A.M. Thank you. Then I call my sister in Seattle.

She drops the phone, picks it up, says, “Uh, hello?”

You weren’t sleeping, were you?”

Who is this?” The TV in the background is turned up so loud that it hurts my ear through the phone, CNN, going to an ad.

It’s Charles. You can’t tell my voice anymore?”

Charlie? Oh my god.” The sound of a door muffles the TV one degree. The sound of a second door muffles it again.

Where are you?”

Hold on.” The noise gets softer until it sounds like a normal TV in the next room. “I’m in the closet.”

In your bedroom?”

Yeah. The shoe section. It’s a big closet.”

Guess I should see it someday.”

She doesn’t say anything. The CNN anchor is talking about Michael Jordan starting a foundation for newborns with bicephalous mutations. I imagine Linda sitting in a room full of shoes.

What’s with the TV?”

I just keep it on, like, for noise. I don’t sleep.”

What about Sunny?”

Michael Jordan’s spokesman is a father whose two-headed son is now 12 years old and doing fine. And a malfunctioning drone carrying military armaments on a test flight outside the Camp Pendleton Marine Base, demolished a segment of Interstate 5, resulting in four civilian deaths. Caltrans is clearing the wreckage. Updates as the situation develops.

Sunny . . . she’s with Larry’s mom in Pittsburgh.”

In fucking Pennsylvania? Jesus Christ, Linda. Where’s Larry?”

The sound of a lighter. She coughs for a full minute. The Lakers still have a shot at second place.

I don’t know.” She laughs. The controversial new cookbook smuggled out of Afghanistan has sold more copies than any cookbook in history. “He hates it when I smoke near his shoes.”

Smoking, Linda? Really? I’m in Japan. Want to come out here for a while? I’ll buy you a ticket, have a car come get you. It would be good, right?”

I don’t know. I’m kind of busy. I’ve got a lot . . . going on. But thanks.”

I miss you.”

I hear her exhale smoke. There’s an ad for some drug in the background. Ask your doctor if it’s right for you.

Bye, Charlie. Take care.”

I look up at the twin suns, light another cigarette of my own, and listen to the emptiness on the other end of the line. I’ve never actually met my niece, Sunny, but I have seen pictures. I think I’ve got one somewhere in my luggage. Or I did at one point.

The plan is to finish the bottle of Jack and stagger through the warped streets of Bunkyō Ward around the Dome. But after talking to my sister and thinking about my niece getting shipped off to Pittsburgh and what that probably means, I get lost in the bamboo forest and the geisha host/ess has to lead me to the door. After Tokyo Blue Light, the evening outside seems bright, lights on the stadium, the fan of a small fountain illuminated behind a courtyard gate, the gentle swoosh of cars down Tōkyō-to. My phone tells me it’s 8:10 PM. I’m drunk. If I adopted my niece, where would I take her? The thought of Marion and me as parents is alien enough to make me laugh out loud when I step back on the Chikatetsu. It’s empty, which is good.

It has occurred to me that maybe I protest too much. There are starving people, broke-ass people, guys who fantasize about situations just like mine. But I wanted something else. The elevator on the outside of La Maison Shibuya is made of glass. Riding up to the 25th floor, I get the grand view of Tokyo at night, pinlight helicopter comets moving through glowing constellations, pale blue banks of office windows floating in the dark below HITACHI, REMBRANDT HOTEL, エレクトリックラブ, FUDO MYO LTD. The new gods of this age, their names glowing pridefully in the darkness.

By the time I open the door to Marion’s place, I’m half-sober again. I have an anxious thought that maybe my key card won’t work, that I should have stayed closer to home. But then the light and air-conditioning hit me and I see Akina and Darius have set up an all-white Ping-Pong table in the center of the leather, silver, and glass living room. Even a ping pong table must be stylish and integrated.

I stand in the doorway with my hands in my pockets and watch them play, wishing I was still drunk. Akina is in pale blue negligée. She’s laughing. Darius has camouflage sweatpants beneath his long-sleeved dress shirt, his conservative red tie loosened but still in place. Marion sits in one of the white leather chairs, texting on her phone, three empty martini glasses by her foot. She’s wearing a pair of men’s blue cargo shorts, one of Darius’ Chang Beer T-shirts, and she seems to have gotten tanner since I last saw her. But none of it matters. Not even the fleeting thought that she might be sleeping with Darius, too. Maybe we’re all just a traveling harem for Marion, who—let’s be real for a moment—would never, could never be my girlfriend. The term seems as ridiculous as that Chang Beer T-shirt, something that doesn’t fit with a woman like her. Pearls, yes. T-shirts and cargo shorts and a college dropout going nowhere, hardly. This. This is my life.

A rolling steel bar cart has been positioned near the kitchen area. A middle-aged Japanese man in a tuxedo stands behind it, polishing glasses, pretending not to look at anything. The ping pong ball caroms off Akina’s shoulder and hits the bartender in the forehead. He doesn’t react and neither Akina nor Darius apologizes or even acknowledges his presence. She scoops the ball off the carpet and they continue.

Hello?”

Darius has some kind of fancy reverse grip on his ping pong paddle and he looks like he knows what he’s doing, which in itself is bizarre, his laughing adding to the strangeness. He serves. He jumps up like a professional and returns, red tie flapping. Akina also seems quite good. A full ping pong tournament is going on in the suite. Apparently, this makes everything hilarious.

Hello?” No one looks at me. Not even the bartender.

Marion stops texting and takes a call. “Oh, hi, Daisuke.”

I knock on the door jamb and think: this is my door, too. So why am I knocking? “Hello?”

No, we can do the plushy line and the macro fitting at the same time. It won’t be a problem.”

Darius misses a return and Akina yells, “Yatta!” Then she poses, winking and giving him a thumbs up. Darius bows from the waist and they both start laughing again.

I’m absolutely serious,” Marion says. “Really. I love it.” She drums four fingers on her knee. Her knee is so tan and smooth that the light gleams on her skin and I notice it all the way across the room.

Ready!” Darius serves the ball and I watch them hit it back and forth until he scores another point.

Darius,” I say, but he won’t turn around. I’m still standing in the doorway. I look down at my scuffed black shoes. The tips are exactly perpendicular to the edge of the beige neoprene shag carpet. It’s supposed to feel like fabric, clean itself, and never get threadbare. But going barefoot on it makes me think of AstroTurf and lousy nylon carpets in small insurance offices.

Akina serves. The bartender smiles at me from across the room, no doubt wondering who I am, why I don’t come in.

Darius.”

Marion lowers the phone and says to the bartender: “I’ll have a Captain Seven.” The bartender smiles, nods.

Ha!” Darius with an overhand smash. The ball hits the table, goes well over Akina’s outstretched paddle, and bounces off Marion’s shoulder.

That’s why I already approved them.” Marion’s still on the phone. She smiles at the carpet.

Darius.”

The bartender walks five feet to Marion and presents her drink on a silver tray. She takes it, stands and, phone to her ear, walks in the bedroom shutting the door behind her.

Akina holds up the ping pong ball and smirks. “Backspin!” She serves the ball and Darius grunts, jumping to the side just in time to return it.

I drift in, forgetting to take off my shoes before stepping on the neoprene. I could be floating. Whether from exhaustion, drinks, too many Tekels, or emotion, I’m out of phase. I settle into Marion’s seat, staring at Akina’s back as it twists in her blue negligée—a pale inner skin that will eventually slide free in Marion’s bedroom. The white leather still holds Marion’s warmth and I can feel it through my pants. I know that warmth well and I consider, for a brief moment, how things could get better. But Akina makes another return and yells, “Yatta!” I think of how warmth fades over time. In the end, there’s just this cold leather.

I’m so lost in my self-pity that I don’t notice Darius standing over me.

Take your shoes off.”

I look down at my shoes. They’re scuffed. There’s a thin line of gray mud along the outside edge of the right one. The left one is about to come untied. And I think: when was the last time I bought shoes? I mean, in a proper way, going to a shoe store and trying on a few pairs—not simply giving specifications to some grinning flunky who comes back with eight different pairs. How distanced have I become from anything real? What is this space I’ve entered?

Your shoes. Take them off.” Darius is sweating. The top of his bald head glistens. He has a damp spot on his tie, which I suddenly realize is some kind of crested college tie from the U.K.

Did you go to college in England?”

He kicks my foot. “Show some respect. Now.”

Cambridge? Oxford?”

Then he hits me with the ping pong paddle and Akina starts screaming. The paddle is relatively light, but the wood is solid and Darius has a good angle on me. He holds the blade of the paddle in his hand and drives the edge into the corner of my eye. I try to stand up but he hits me again and I land back in the seat. The front of my powder-blue button down is speckled with blood after the third hit and I’m having trouble seeing out of my left eye. I want to get up, tackle him or something, fight back. But that’s the thing about being hit repeatedly, savagely, by a large man using the edge of a wooden ping pong paddle as a wedge to open up the side of your face—it takes your energy.

Darius sniffs and says, “Now take your shoes off.” But when I don’t do anything, he just shakes his head and walks out, around the ping pong table, still holding the bloody paddle.

I spit out a tooth, which I guess means he also hit me in the mouth. And it seems the region of my brain that controls pain has shut a lot of it down—the left side of my face feels like it’s had an injection of concrete. And my hands shake on the armrests, even though I’m not using my hands for anything in particular at the moment. I also seem to have pissed myself.

Akina and the bartender have run away. I’m sure there’s something wrong with me because, when I try to stand up, I have no sense of how long I’ve been sitting there, staring at the white regulation ping pong table with its stark green sidelines. It takes me years to rise from the seat and move to the closed bedroom door. When I try the handle, it’s locked.

Marion?” Speaking is difficult. Only the right side of my mouth moves and I’m still bleeding onto my chest, creating a long dark slick of blood like something out of a horror movie.

No answer.

I knock again. “For chrissakes, Marion, open the door. I’m hurt.”

The living room looks like a crime scene—because it is. I leave a bloody palm print on the bedroom door, bloody smears on the armrests of the white leather chair. My two suitcases stand inside the front door. I remember pushing them into Marion’s bedroom. I guess someone removed them—probably Darius; though, at this point, any of my dear friends here could have believably done it. By the time I step onto the glass elevator with my luggage, I’ve recovered enough to see through the red film coating my left eye. I try not to lean against the chrome railing. Someone will immediately have to scurry around with a spray bottle and a rag, and I can’t bear to think of it being my blood that they have to clean. A strange thought, all things considered.

The janitor at Hiroo Hospital is kind enough to bring some paper towels. We wipe the blood off my suitcase handles and he disinfects everything with an antibacterial gel. 20 people watch this in silence from a bank of plastic seats. When I emerge with 13 miniature staples in my face, the sun is coming up. My taxi driver is waiting by the curb. He asks me in perfect English if I need to go back to where he picked me up. I say no. “Kūkō ni watashi o toru.” Take me to the airport.

I’m sitting on a steel bench in the airport, looking up at a screen showing arrivals and departures. To my left: a duty free shop featuring bottles of Johnny Walker under a heavy copper sign that reads, House of Walker. To my right: the moldy wall, carpeted all the way up to the ceiling in blue and pink argyle. I haven’t bought a ticket. I’m having trouble concentrating and my face aches like it wants to give birth.

In the cab, I texted the forbidden number: I’m leaving. My other suitcase has some things I actually want. I’ll send you an address. After 30 minutes of staring at the flight times on the screen, my phone beeps. Marion.

Charlie. Where are you? I’ll send a car.”

I’m leaving.”

You can’t. We have dinner. It’s all set. I need you here.”

A fat gaijin in a Hawaiian shirt and a suede Australian bush hat walks out of the duty free shop, stops, and looks at me for a moment.

I ordered you a suit. It’s really nice.”

Marion,” I’m saying, “Marion. Listen to me. I’m—burned out.”

The fat man whistles. “Hey. What happened to you? You need medical?”

I turn toward the wall.

If this is about the thing with Darius, I already talked to him.”

Yeah? The thing with Darius? I’ve got 13 staples in my face.”

We’ll fix it,” she says. “We can overcome this.”

I turn back and see the fat man already far away, walking toward the departure gates, his bright red Hawaiian shirt a tiny lick of flame.

No,” I whisper. “We can’t.”

Charlie? You still there? Can you hear me?”

14 hours later, I step off the plane at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. It’s the middle of the night. I slept most of the way, high on the pain pills for my face, and now I’m on a different planet. St. Louis was the soonest departing flight to the States. I have no other reason for coming here. Within an hour, I have a room at the enormous empty Hilton downtown. I go out on the balcony and look at the glowing blue-green pool 20 floors below.

In the distance, headlights float past an illuminated fountain that reminds me of the one in Yoyogi Park. I can’t imagine what Marion is doing, who she’s with, whether any of this even matters to her. I can’t imagine where I’ll be tomorrow, what I’ll be doing. The bottom lights of a plane turn against the sky. I start a cigarette, leave the balcony door open, switch off the lamp by the bed. Then I lie down with an ash tray so I can watch the planes take off.


Distance Learning

 

“Anyway, I think if we route the grant money into the primary fund we’ll be alright. Actually, we’ll be more than alright as long as we don’t spend another dime before fall.” Merton Swinn, the English department’s most recent acquisition, took a measured sip of brandy without blinking or looking away from Van Adler, the department chair.

Van Adler sighed and stared into the mouth of his empty beer bottle. His suit jacket was wrinkled and his feet already hurt. He’d been at the faculty party now for 45 minutes—15 minutes more than he normally preferred to spend at these things. But sometimes escape was impossible. He wished, above all else, that he were at home having a bath while his wife, Myra, blasted the Late Show downstairs in the den and laughed out loud.

He tried to smile at Swinn, but the effort felt unnatural. Lately he’d caught himself grimacing even when he was not upset, as if his face had become perpetually fixed in a transition between dismay and rage. Moreover, his hands ached horribly. Van Adler could no longer ignore the arthritis that had announced itself two semesters before and now visited him regularly with sudden jolts of pain from wrists to fingertips.

Van Adler looked at Swinn, who was starting to purse his lips, and said, “Right. But how will we account for the fact that we now have only seven tenure-track lines? Are you recommending that we forego the new one opening up? Missouri mandates at least eight full-timers in an academic department.”

Swinn’s eyes darted to Van Adler’s face, down to his brandy, over the crowd of graduate students and professors, and then to the carpet. “Well,” he said, “is that so monstrous in a recession? We have the adjuncts. And we’re not being evaluated for another two years. Who’ll complain?” He was a short, compact man who wore heavy multi-colored sweaters and round rimless glasses. At age 35, Swinn was already balding with a wispy tonsure of blonde over his ears. His eyes moved with his thoughts, which were quick and numerous.

Swinn’s dissertation at Rutgers, which he’d published shortly before being hired by Hauberk College, had been a study correlating the rise of the novel with the expansion of private leisure space in middle class English homes. Everyone on the hiring committee had agreed that it was inoffensive and at least mildly interesting. But for an expert on the literature of leisure, he seemed rather consistently ill at ease. Which was understandable, thought Van Adler, seeing that Swinn did not yet have tenure.

Van Adler sighed, shook his head, and again tried to smile. “Do you want a riot, my friend? We’ve announced the position. There’s no un-announcing it. The part-timers are already massing like flies.”

“That’s another thing,” Swinn said, following Van Adler’s gaze around the room. “We have 32 adjuncts. With a distance learning component in place, we could do with about half that.”

Swinn put his empty snifter down on the piano behind him. It was a baby Mason and Hamlin and it, along with the rest of the two-story Victorian townhouse, belonged to Juliette Lezerski’s, the department’s resident medievalist. She’d held her graduate classes in Chaucer and the bi-annual departmental get together in her large sitting room for over 30 years. Most of the furnishings in the house were historically accurate to mid-nineteenth-century Missouri, except for the piano, which Juliette tuned herself and otherwise kept in a state of factory perfection. She also played beautifully and, being slightly deaf, very loudly—always a miraculous respite at these functions. Van Adler turned, but didn’t see her. He wished Juliette would come over and start playing right now.

“There is something to be said for departmental morale, Merton. How many composition classes would you like to teach?”

“I’m teaching three at the moment.” Swinn crossed his arms, then caught himself and relaxed, clasping his hands at waist level like a boy heading to communion. Then he also smiled. Van Adler thought Swinn did a better job at smiling; though, Swinn’s eyes stayed level and his smile was nervous and tight in the bottom half of his face.

Van Adler could remember being like that years ago (before tenure), practicing a “warm, humane yet humble” smile in the mirror when Myra wasn’t around. It was something he eventually programmed into himself to an exact degree as if he’d carved it out of wood. And he held that wooden smile in reserve for those unforeseeable moments when true feeling threatened to rise and lay waste to his carefully sculpted professional image.

But that was years ago. Times were different when Van Adler had been a young assistant professor, teaching four to five sections a semester and spending the weekends writing in the humanities research library. There’d been 16 full-time lines back then and only a handful of adjuncts. Still, he’d served on more committees than he could easily count. This was his second and thankfully final term as department chair, since he planned to retire in two or three years. And Van Adler felt he had nothing left to prove to anyone. In fact, he was thinking of buying a boat.

“I know how hard you’re working.” He patted Swinn lightly on the shoulder. “And everyone thinks you’re doing a really fantastic job.”

Swinn raised his eyebrows, a flicker of anxiety and contempt in his face. Then the smile returned. “Well, thank you, Jim. It’s only been a year, but I already feel at home.”

“That’s great, Merton. That’s just what we want.” Van Adler flexed his left hand. He felt a hideous electric current dig into his knuckles and shoot down his fingers. He supposed it was time to take Doctor Whitehurst up on that prescription. He didn’t want to. It felt like giving in, like he’d lost. But maybe this kind of pain meant he already had. That’s how it was with everything, he thought. You didn’t know what you’d lost until it was gone and then your only recourse was to numb yourself and wait for the next catastrophe, the next unavoidable disappointment.

When Swinn left to get another brandy, Van Adler saw an opening. There was a small servant’s door in the pantry where a housekeeper could discreetly bring in supplies without disturbing anyone in the other parts of the house. And the door between the sitting room and the dining room had been propped open, revealing a straight unobstructed shot into the kitchen. Such moments of grace were few and far between. He felt that it would be the essence of hubris, an affront to all the gods of fortune, if he didn’t capitalize on the opportunity. No one would blame him for cutting out after an hour of fielding meaningless pleasantries and enduring Merton Swinn’s considerable angst.

And he was almost successful. He shuffled around the baby grand slowly, keeping his gaze on the fringe of Juliette’s authentic Boston Sego Bicentennial piano rug. There was a technique to fleeing a party: one walked easily yet quickly, avoiding all eye-contact, stepping cautiously as if barefoot in a room of scorpions. One kept a Zen mind, blank and empty, and did not congratulate oneself until safely in the car and away. Such was the discipline. But Sheila Barnhof-Canterbury emerged from across the sitting room at the last moment, sealing off his route to the kitchen and the pantry. Sheila was an adjunct with two kids and a husband who was out of work, and she radiated desperation in the best of times. When she saw Van Adler, her eyes lit up and he knew there would be no escape.

“Oh Jim! How wonderful to see you. Did you get my emails?”

“I’m sure I did, Sheila, but you’ll have to excuse me. I’m on my way—.”

“That’s fantastic. Then you know I’m planning on applying to the new full-time position everyone’s talking about. There is a new opening, right? It’s not just a rumor?”

He tried to flank her to the right, but she adjusted, holding her glass of chablis to the side for extra blocking width.

“Well,” he said, “it’s been advertised nationally. You can find it on the MLA job list, for example.” He put his hands in his pockets and glanced over her shoulder through the dining room. Apart from Sheila, the way was still open. But this was now a bad situation. They were very visible. And, not unlike flies, one adjunct talking about job prospects attracted others. An accurate, if unfortunate, analogy, Van Adler thought to himself, given what usually causes flies to swarm. Before long, he would have to start lying and prevaricating, making him the proverbial turd. It could get bad. It had before.

“My goodness.” Her knuckles turned white around the stem of her wine glass. Van Adler thought it might explode in her hand unless she did first. “How many applicants do you think there will be?”

“Sheila, I really—there’s no way to be accurate about something like that. Those things go up and down year to year. You know. Many factors. Hard to say.” But no less than 100, he thought, 100 if there’s one and potentially twice that many. Swinn’s job search had been a nightmare. They’d begun with 233 applications—an impossible number for a hiring committee of six professors with full teaching loads and other administrative duties. And so they’d made wide cuts, rejecting off-hand anyone who didn’t have multiple publications or an impressive pedigree. That brought it down to 50, which was where the hard work of actually reading the applications began. And there was nothing to indicate this process would be any less brutal. Sheila had a MA in English from Northern Missouri State University. What could he tell her that she shouldn’t have realized already?

She grasped his arm lightly, just above the elbow, and leaned into him. “Are you going to your car? Can I walk you out? I have a few more questions.”

Van Adler scanned the room. Three creative writing students had cornered Swinn, eliminating the possibility that he’d want to come back and revisit the budget apocalypse for another hour. But two adjuncts, whose names escaped him, were starting to move through the crowd in his direction. He had a vague memory of them. Former graduate students at Hauberk, now husband and wife. They certainly looked like adjuncts—Walmart wardrobe, disheveled hair, and a certain air of exhaustion, maybe exasperation. They must have had kids, he thought. The ones with kids were the worst off—the most scared, the most desperate, the most likely to have a psychotic episode at a faculty party. If there were a universal handbook for temporary academic employees with no benefits and no future, Van Adler felt the first line should be: if you’re going to lead that life, get sterilized early. Sadly, the best advice was always hard to give and even harder to hear. He’d definitely be calling Dr. Whitehurst about those pills.

“Jim? Are you alright?” Sheila looked up at him with her big blue eyes. She had set her wine glass down so she could hold onto his arm with both hands.

“I’m fine,” he said. “But I really have to go.”

“Sure. Of course. I’ll come with you.” She tightened her grip.

“Whatever. Just please let go of me.”

“Oh. Sorry. Yes. Absolutely.”

Juliette had appeared at the piano and began a baroque interpretation of “Blue Hawaii” loudly enough to draw everyone’s attention and prevent all conversation. The perfect diversion. Without another word, Van Adler turned, went through the dining room, and into the kitchen as quickly as possible with Sheila right behind. He unlatched the pantry door and pulled the little metal chain on the overhead bulb. It hung down at eye level on a green safety cord.

The pantry was well-stocked and looked like a cave of canned food with wicker baskets of onions and potatoes lining the bottom shelves. The door at the far end was made from polished oak planks with black metal bands. Its top rose to a minaret peak, making it look like a hobbit door or something out of the The Thief of Bagdad. It had a simple tumbler lock set in an ornate black face with an inlaid leaf design. And its shiny brass key hung from a loop of red yarn beside it.

Van Adler realized that there had never been a time when the key hadn’t looked perfectly new. Juliette must have polished it regularly. But who polishes their house keys? Only a medievalist who plays Elvis standards as if they’d been written by Antonio Scarlatti and who lives in a house on the National Register of Historical Places—someone interesting to know about but someone you didn’t want to get stuck next to on the plane.

That realization, plus the roar of graduate student cheering when she finished “Blue Hawaii” with a trill and two motets, made him feel slightly unsettled. The normal degree of strangeness was heightened tonight. There was more than the usual morose faculty party energy in the air. It was as if the impending job search had fueled a frenetic current, a wild, wavering voltage that might quadruple into something very unpleasant for the chair of the department if he were cornered by a group of drunken angry part-time instructors.

He was wiggling the key into the lock when Sheila closed the door behind them and laid a hand on his shoulder.

“Jim,” she said, “hear me out.”

She was wearing a white long-sleeved blouse designed like a man’s button-down with tails out over jeans and scuffed brown flats. One more of the buttons on her shirt was undone, plunging her neckline lower than it had been a few minutes before. He looked at the V of smooth white skin there between the slopes of her breasts. She caught him looking and smiled.

“Jim. I know you’re going to go out that door and get in your car. And you’re never going to respond to my emails.”

He opened his mouth, but she held up a hand and let it drift down to rest lightly on the front of his shirt as if she were radiating a magnetic force through her palm that held him in place.

“Don’t worry about it,” she said, moving closer to him, almost whispering. “I know everybody wants this job. But it would really, really mean a lot to me, I mean, I’d be so grateful if you could help me out.”

Van Adler could feel her breath on his lips. It smelled like the cheap white wine Juliette provided at the faculty parties. He wasn’t a young man anymore. It seemed like he’d stopped being a young man earlier than most—maybe sometime in his PhD—where, like Swinn, he’d decided to get serious about his future and quit playing around. Marriage to Myra had been an advantage, solid closure on the question of romance and loneliness. He’d gotten that handled with alacrity and moved on to more important things. But Sheila Barnhof-Canterbury was a good looking woman. Was there anything he could do for her?

“I don’t think—“

“I’m not asking for a miracle.” She pushed him against the door and slid her hands up around the back of his neck. “But, you know, I find you very attractive.”

She was lying, of course. But did that matter? How many lies had he already told this evening alone? How many half-truths, evasions, duplicitous omissions? How many lies was he obliged to tell in a standard academic week—as chair, as a professor of American lit., as a mentor to a group of neurotic, hopeless graduate students, half of whom needed prescription mood stabilizers to get through the day?

“It doesn’t work that way. I’m not even on the hiring committee.”

“But you could be on it if you wanted. Isn’t that right?”

It was there, at age 65, in Juliette Lezerski’s pantry, with the light bulb swinging back and forth at the end of its green safety cord, that James Van Adler was kissed by the first woman since he’d married his wife, Myra Chambers, 33 years earlier. Kissed, that is, by a desperate woman two-and-a-half decades younger than him, who had a son and a daughter and a husband who used to be a dispatcher for a garbage truck company and who, rumor had it, now spent most nights with a bottle instead of his wife. Moreover, Van Adler sensed that Sheila Barnhof-Canterbury found kissing him vaguely repulsive, which, in a strange non-personal way, he could understand. Some days, actually most days, he felt the same way about himself.

“Sheila. Honey. There’s nothing I could do for you that you can’t do for yourself by applying. I’d be glad to write you a letter of reference if you need one. I could be honest and say you do good work. Because you do.”

She pushed him hard with both hands. He’d moved forward, away from the door about two inches, when she’d kissed him. And now he connected with the surface again, exhaling a sharp burst. A jolt of agony went through Van Adler’s hands and he cried out softly.

“You have no idea what it’s like,” she said, stepping back and sizing him up. The light bulb bounced against the back of her head. “You have health insurance. You can get your teeth fixed. When my son needs the doctor, what do I do? We’re on fucking food stamps.”

He nodded, turning the key behind him with his right hand. The situation that moments ago had seemed quite pleasant was now scandal-worthy. An intoxicated tirade by Sheila in the pantry and the rumors would reach Myra in less than a day. Above all else, Myra hated being talked about. It was what made her the perfect faculty wife. It would also be what made her perfectly insane when Bethany Lyon called to lay it on and enjoy her suffering.

“But I do know what it’s like, Sheila. I was an adjunct for years.” Actually one year. “I paid my dues in a time when there were no social programs in place to help me lead the academic life.” Actually, Myra’s income as a CPA would have disqualified them for state aid had they looked into it.

Van Adler’s hand complained horribly as he turned the key and pushed the little pantry door open. He put one foot on the pebble walk outside. The walk ran through Juliette’s rose garden to a small wrought iron gate in the six-foot hedge that went along the sides and back of the house. It was a windy night in Hauberk, Missouri. The trees wagged and swished, their shadows dancing through rectangles of light. Next door, a dog started barking. And inside, Juliette had started playing a mashup of “Flight of the Bumblebee”, “Blue Suede Shoes” and Beethoven’s 5th symphony.

He looked back at Sheila. She was standing in the center of the pantry, arms at her sides and the light bulb hanging down behind her head. She was about to start weeping. And the radiance from the bulb made it seem as though she had a halo—a white-shirted wingless angel with blue eyes who’d lost her way.

“I have two children,” she said.

He smiled. “They’re very lucky.” And he stepped outside, closing the pantry door behind him. He took a deep breath. When he got around to the front of the house, Juliette had segued into “Great Balls of Fire.”

Van Adler looked up at her grinning and pounding away at the keys. Her trifocals had slid down to the tip of her nose and the strap of her glittery blue dress had slipped off her left shoulder. A group of drunken graduate students pressed in around her, singing and egging her on. In another window, Swinn concentrated on his Blackberry, a concerned look on his face, texting with both thumbs.

It was only after Van Alder was halfway home that he realized he was still smiling and that it was the old wooden smile he’d developed years ago to get out of bad situations. His face seemed to be stuck like that, the muscles overtaxed and somehow charlie-horsed in place. And he couldn’t, for the life of him, stop.