Does America Still Exist?
by Robert Stone
It’s boring to put one country over another,” my friend said sleepily. “Everyone says, ‘The Americans are all sons of bitches.’ I tell them, ‘So are you. So are we all.’ ”
She poured more schnapps over her peppermint tea and I watched her search my bland, aging face for the American son-of-a-bitch element. She was mildly drunk and so was I.
“Nor are you stupid,” she declared. “And everyone says Americans are stupid.”
“It’s a truism,” I said, “that in practical matters Americans are smart as whips. I mean, half of everything ever invented was invented in America.”
“This aptitude,” my friend said, “seems not to apply to you.”
Earlier in the evening we had experienced a bit of car trouble, which she had largely resolved.
“No,” I said. “I’m a novelist.”
She poured us both more schnapps. We were running very low on tea; the tea had degenerated to the barest gesture toward salubriousness and moderation.
“Yes,” she declared, “but the novelists as well — one is led to believe — are adventurers, Indian fighters, commandos, no? They can all fix cars, no? Even the novelists.”
“We are not responsible for your fantasies about us. Especially I’m not.”
“Also,” she said, “they say Americans are vulgar.”
“That’s foolish,” I said testily. “It’s petty snobbery and it’s banal.”
Even as I spoke, I saw her cornflower eyes widen in triumph.
“Now,” she cried, “define vulgarity! Let’s see if you can do it.”
“Where,” I demanded, “do you get off talking about vulgarity? You’re supposed to be an anarchist.”
Too late-flushed with schnapps and Nordic bloodlust, she was not about to let me off. “I want to hear. This is for my education. I am all,” she announced, “ears!”
“Vulgarity,” I explained, assuming an educational mode, “is a word that has more to do with polemics than with the realities of human behavior.”
I took a deep breath and prepared to blow her out of the water. “For example, it was a favorite epithet of Trotsky’s.”
“Look,” she cried. “See what we have here! I am an anarchist, a woman, a working mother, and a proletarian. You —and I don’t care if what you say is true, that you were raised
in the gutter, grew up in the poorhouse, were beaten on the head by coppers — are a bourgeois. That is what you are now. A bourgeois with a boat and a country house.” She stood up as though she were holding my severed head by the hair in her fist. “Yet I can define vulgarity and you cannot.”
“I can define vulgarity perfectly well,” I assured her. “I refuse to sit here and be priggish for the sake of priggishness and boring for the sake of boredom.”
She pouted for a moment, yawned, and sat down. We were both going under.
“Tell me this,” she mumbled. “Tell me this, old pal. When you dream the American Dream we hear so much about — the good old American Dream that’s going to wipe all us poor squareheads off the map — what’s it like?”
What’s it like? I thought, although my insight was fading with the northern lights. What an interesting question. Naturally, I had no intention of trying to answer, certainly not there or then. Lying awake, I drifted into a curious reverie. Once, long ago, I was the radio operator on what we called a Peter boat, one of the little vessels that supervised amphibious operations. As we pitched along among the LCVs, I watched our gunner drift into sleep, lulled by the heat, the rocking, the weight of his armor and weapons. Our alert coxswain was quick to catch him out.
“Where the hell you at, Sloper?” he snarled, kicking Sloper’s ankle off the gunnel with an oil-stained size twelve. Sloper, who had done time for this kind of thing, squinted at our petty
officer with his Ouachita Snake Cult blue flannel eyes. It was just a maneuver. The mock enemy were US Marines on the south coast of Crete.
“Just dreamin’ the American Dream, Boats.”
He got off with a captain’s mast.
Even twenty-odd years ago it was an old, bad joke. The American Dream — pious cant, huckster’s prattle, refuge of scoundrels too numerous to mention. In the darkness of that boreal Hegelian country, in a room smelling of dope and Gauloises and cheap government liquor, my friend’s question pursued me to wakefulness. Were we not, we Americans, the secular equivalent of those the illiterate Mohammed called the People of the Book, in that our way of life was founded on a scripture, a text? To our Founders, readers of the Bible — or at least of the Edinburgh philosophers — we were not meant to be just another country. We were about something, or at least were meant to be. If we put that behind us, we will become a mere geographical expression, worshipers of the Golden Calf. Martin Luther King called us on it, almost two hundred years after the text was set down. He had a Dream. An American Dream.
Across the room my friend lay, not contentious now but asleep. What remained of our Dream might indeed cause the extermination of this woman and her children; she was right enough about that. And this hoary transatlantic dialogue that the two of us were born to — a windy exchange predating Emerson and Carlyle, suffered on over the soup through the era of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Adams, perfected by Mr. James, who was capable of conducting a transatlantic misapprehension all by himself — was still in progress, now amid cannabis fumes and white booze, no longer so polite or elegant in the lengthening shadow of Absolute War.
How piquant it was, I thought, that our conversation should concern itself with “vulgarity,” a conversation between two hard-living, lowborn scriveners. Then it occurred to me that though I would yield to no one in idiot patriotism, though I had sworn an oath never to curry favor abroad by disassociating myself from the United States, if I were compelled to name that aspect of herself my country had most effectively and successfully exported, I should have to say her vulgarity. And were I questioned about which elements I thought made up the Z’s of our current American Dream, I should have to enumerate them as follows:
- The Wizard of Oz
- Uncle Sam
- The Future, or as it was formerly referred to, Tomorrow
First the Wizard. L. Frank Baum, renderer of Oz, was among the wisest of our fantasts — and for all his eccentricities, an astute observer of American reality at a critical time in the country’s history. He was, more or less, a contemporary of Twain, Finley Peter Dunne, and the Anti-Imperialist League. A contemporary, as well, of Bryan, Vanderbilt, and Gould; McKinley, Mahan, and Mark Hanna. “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” The stale effluvia that has tainted American air, from Baum’s day to our own, whenever the belltoned, friendly voice of our relentlessly mediocre leadership has delivered itself of self-serving prevarication, isn’t anything vile — why, no! It’s sweetness and companion light, the savor of rectitude and virtue.
As for Uncle Sam, Old Stretch, the Yankee skeptic — where might we be without him? It was Sam who proved that a citizen could rise from chiseling war profiteer to national symbol, and if that’s not an American dream, what is? The rise of Uncle Sam was to be a function of the yellow press, whose mission it was to concoct a trash nationalism. America’s dream was to be transmuted into THE AMERICAN DREAM, along with such artifacts of petty chauvinism as THE AMERICAN WAY OF LIFE and ONE HUNDRED PERCENT AMERICANISM.
Then, with all due respect, neither last nor least, there’s God. We are, of course, tortuously scrupulous in avoiding any acts that might be construed as homage at the public’s expense —they seem to drive some people stone ape. However, in some general fashion, we give the impression of regularly requesting and expecting his blessing. He’s the Creator referred to in our Declaration of Independence and the Entity to whom our unchurched hero Lincoln made occasional reference. Once we thought of him as marching along beside us, trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath were stored. Lately, we’re not so sure who’s out there on the flank or whose grapes we’re walking on. There’s one thing about him, though, that makes him particularly important, so important that in the face of its awesomeness we risk overstepping the hallowed division of church and state. His name’s on the money — and that, by jiminy, buys him a piece of the Dream!
We come now to the Future, which may be dispensed with briskly, since it doesn’t seem to be working out as well as we’d hoped. Rather, it keeps ever more receding, just as F. Scott Fitzgerald described. At one time it was very big, American Dream–wise, appearing regularly in the Sunday supplements as a network of sleek monorails that snaked their way among bright, turreted, art deco towers. It was an immaculate urban landscape inhabited by tiny figures, white by persuasion. Futuristically garbed, they made their way along the ramps and tubular walkways, each apparently en route to discharge some vital, remunerative, but not particularly strenuous responsibility. The Future’s future in the American Dream is a bit tenuous now. Some of us can remember its heyday, and may recall the melancholy spectacle of its degeneration into sorry little numbers like Mickey Mouse in the postwar world. There’s a good deal of it lying around in the neighborhood of Shea Stadium, where it may be glimpsed by visitors to New York on their way to or from the major airports. Most of the rest is owned by Walt Disney Productions or the federal government, or is tied up in antitrust suits.
We come at length to whales. The slogan “Save the Whales” is often worn on a button or displayed as a bumper sticker by young blond people with big teeth who carry their kids around in backpacks. I have no quarrel with their sentiment, but it is not on their account that I feel compelled to include whales among the totems of the Dream.
Rather, it’s a single whale, a freak albino from the last century, who’s responsible. In the structure of the American Dream, each facet of the Dream must confront its Antagonist. For example, God, in his day, had Emily Dickinson, whose thrashing surrender under his unmeasurable weight even she mistook for love. During Emily’s lifetime, there was raised up among us aprophet (as our American Dream preachers might put it) who told the story of a mighty white whale. Although the whale’s color is rendered as white, he stands, in the story, for all those people whose color was Other. He stands for all that was natural, wild, unowned, unsubdued, and ultimately un-American. For many, those properties mark him as Evil. For others, they mark him as Good. That is the way it is in our Dream; it’s one or it’s the other. In the story of the whale, an American man— as some say, American Man — pursued the unsubduable to their mutual undoing. There are almost as many interpreters of this story as there are people who finish reading it. For myself, that night, I decided it, too, was part of the Dream.
The next morning I resolved that one day I would try to write a few words about what had come to be known, more than half scornfully, as the “American Dream,” about what was conceived before native hucksterism and the exigencies of propaganda vulgarized it into hypocrisy and blather. I never quite succeeded.
For all our moralizing, whether delivered by Webster-thunderers or Reagan-pals, we have never been the people or the nation we pretended to be. The shyster, the grafter, and the plug-ugly have always held their measure of power here, and they always will. God doesn’t manifest himself in history; men do. Nor is this God’s country but ours, and thus the responsibility for its ordering. If we choose to awake and see ourselves in our own baseness, we might well be a more agreeable nation and the world might be a safer place. On the other hand, the opposite might be true. Should we abandon the Dream, perhaps we’d breathe easier. We’d cease to be a People of the Book. There’d be no more cant about a New Order of Ages. Yet nothing is free, not even disillusionment. And it is just possible, as a result, that we might find our place in history as the betrayers of the noblest vision of civil order and probity that this imperfect world, and the cautious optimism of Western man, will ever be capable of producing.
“Does America Still Exist?” first appeared in the March 1984 issue of Harper’s Magazine. Excerpted here from The Eye You See With: Selected Nonfiction by Robert Stone, edited by Madison Smartt Bell. Copyright © 2020 by the Estate of Robert Stone. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Robert Stone (August 21, 1937 – January 10, 2015) was an American novelist. He was twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and once for the PEN/Faulkner Award. Stone was five times a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction which he did receive in 1975 for his novel Dog Soldiers. Time magazine included this novel in its list Time 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. Dog Soldiers was adapted into the film Who’ll Stop the Rain (1978), from a script that Stone co-wrote. During his lifetime Stone received material support and recognition including Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships, the five-year Mildred and Harold Strauss Living Award, the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature, and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award. Stone also offered his own support and recognition of writers during his lifetime, serving as Chairman of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation Board of Directors for over thirty years.
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What Reading Abroad Taught Me About America
by Leland Cheuk
On July 5, 2019, after the White House executed a tank-and-jet-fueled Independence Day military parade that some compared to those seen in totalitarian nations, I posted this on my Facebook page:
“Sick of America, I celebrated July 4th, 2019 by beginning a year of reading ONLY literature in translation (while this country sorts out its kids in concentration camp/dictatorship thing), starting with THE DINNER GUEST, by Gabriela Ybarra . . . Taking suggestions!”
Over the past year, I’ve read sixty-two novels and collections, twenty-one from Asia, twenty-four from Europe, nine from South America, eight from Africa and the Middle East. (I hope to read more from the Southern Hemisphere this year so I can better balance the list.) Sadly, during that time, America has most certainly not sorted itself out.
Our countrypeople have long been proudly insular. Fifty-eight percent of Americans don’t own a passport, meaning they never plan to leave the country for any reason. For every headline about a protest in Hong Kong or an election in France, there are dozens devoted to a single presidential tweet. There’s a loud minority of Americans who believe masks are useless against a virus that causes respiratory infections, seemingly unaware that the entire continent of Asia used them to deal effectively with SARS not long ago. American insularity is reflected in our book industry. As has been widely reported, only 3% of all books published in the U.S. are translated works from abroad.
In the same way that traveling outside of your country can help you better appreciate your home, I hypothesized that reading abroad might have the same effect on this frustrated American.
No Wikipedia results were found for your selection
In our globalized information age of being glued 24/7 to our screens, our American tech barons would have us think that there’s little knowledge left that’s not a keystroke away. And yet, during my year of reading abroad, on my eReader, many times I would put my finger on unknown words and get no relief from Wikipedia, our crowdsourced online encyclopedia.
From Iciaba Scego’s novel Adua (New Vessel Press), the first Somali word I learned after some effort on the web was adoon, or slavery. Scego’s sensuous novel brings Somalia and its colonizer Italy to life. To this well-educated American, Italy’s colonization of Somalia was new knowledge. In Adua’s artfully braided dual storylines, the titular character as a young actress is exploited as a sex object in the Italian film industry, and after her career is over, her much younger husband, a Somali refugee, exploits her to facilitate his passage to Europe. Heartbreakingly, she calls him a “Titanic,” a mordant reference to his perilous journey across the Mediterranean. In between two worlds, Adua struggles to be seen as human in her adopted nation, the scars of colonialism reaching across the decades.
From Alain Mabanckou’s gritty, funny, and sad Black Moses (The New Press), I learned that manioc is another word for cassava, a staple of Central African cuisine. The novel portrays a young man’s journey through two decades of political turbulence in Congo. Moses spends his childhood in a Catholic orphanage—the religion brought over by the colonial Belgians—but by the time he’s a teen, he’s on the streets of Pointe-Noire in a nation that has suddenly become socialist authoritarian. As we’ve seen in America since 2016, during wild political swings, common people suffer most. Manioc, eaten by a brothel’s madame, is symbolic of the Moses’s upward mobility. Before he’s taken in by her, he was eating cat and dog meat.
The Dinner Guest by Spanish author Gabriela Ybarra (Transit Books) centers around the real-life kidnapping of Ybarra’s father in the 1970s during the años de plomo, or Years of Lead, when the terrorist actions of the Basque separatist group ETA were at their peak. Ybarra writes: “the neighbours pretended that nothing was happening: they played tennis, had cocktails, went out sailing and visited the open-air restaurants of Berango. The tension was under wraps. A car in flames, a dead body, and a few hours later everything seemed to return to normal.”
The passage made me think about all the aberrant acts Americans have chosen to normalize over the past four years, from armed protestors storming state buildings to “good” white supremacists running over folks in cars and hunting Black joggers.
America’s challenges are not unique
The more I read from abroad, the more evident it became that few of our challenges in America are unique to us.
In Jenny Erpenbeck’s brilliant novel Go, Went, Gone (New Directions), a white German man gradually awakens from passivity to emotional involvement in the face of the nation’s refugee crisis, echoing the recent awakening (or reawakening) of white Americans after the George Floyd murder to racial injustice. Few American novels dare to confront inequality as bravely as Hwang Sok-Yong’s Familiar Things (Scribe), which takes place on an island of trash outside Seoul where an impoverished mother and son survive by weeding recyclables. The novel made me think about the out-of-control homelessness we tolerate in the U.S. and the indigent waste collectors we willfully ignore every day on the street.
As a novel with the title Vengeance is Mine. All Others Pay Cash (New Directions) might suggest, Eka Kurniawan’s stylized hypermasculine neo-noir portrays an Indonesia full of contradictions. The characters’ devotion to Islam belies the violence they perpetrate. One could say that we, as Americans in a Christian nation, suffer from similar contradictions with regards to gun and police violence.
Set during the ’80s AIDS crisis, Yan Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village (Grove Press) portrays the outrage of pandemic profiteering. A man enriches himself by encouraging villagers to sell their blood despite using contaminated needles, resulting in the spread of HIV far and wide. I couldn’t help but be reminded of our president’s devotion to promoting hydroxychloroquine due to his financial stake in a company that makes the drug, and Gilead Sciences, Inc. charging thousands of dollars for its COVID-19 treatment remdesivir, which was developed with financial support from American taxpayers. Or the fact that antibody-rich plasma shots from COVID-19 survivors have been shown to inoculate people for months but the American government won’t approve its manufacture because pharmaceutical companies stand to make much more profit from an eventual vaccine.
A great way to travel when you can’t
Since the vast majority of Americans are stuck behind a pandemic border wall of our own making, reading abroad is a great way to travel when we can’t actually go anywhere.
Perhaps you want to visit countries like South Korea, Japan, Iceland, and Germany, whose populaces have teamed with an engaged government to successfully save lives and safely return to some level of societal normalcy. For South Korea, I would recommend Young-Ha Kim’s dark and heartbreaking I Hear Your Voice (Mariner Books), translated by How I Became A North Korean author (and Community of Writers staffer) Krys Lee. This sly protest novel takes us inside a motorcycle gang of neglected children. Japanese author Yoko Ogawa is best known for The Memory Police, but I enjoyed her macabre, deadpan story collection Revenge (Picador) more. The hilarious The Last Days of My Mother (Open Letter Books) by Sölvi Björn Sigurðsson from Iceland follows a gravely ill mother and her son’s one last debaucherous road trip together to Amsterdam. And finally, the German satire Käsebier Takes Berlin (New York Review of Books) by Gabriele Tergit hits timely notes as a pop star named Käsebier, or “cheese beer” in German, distracts a benumbed and bedumbed populace as fascism takes hold in the 1930s.
Independent presses make translated fiction possible
In my year of reading abroad, most of the titles I chose were published by long-running independent presses like New Directions, Open Letter Books, New York Review of Books, Transit Books, and others. Without them, we’d see an even smaller amount of work from authors around the globe. And of course, there are the diligent translators whose years-long work on each book make it possible for us to get unspoiled perspectives from outside our borders.
So did I rediscover an appreciation for America from reading abroad? I can’t say for sure. But like traveling, it was a humbling experience that brought me back in touch with the limits of my knowledge of the world, in a time when many Americans seem unusually certain of their positions. It sparked my curiosity while forcing me to compare and contrast my worldview with those from abroad, in a time when algorithms push us toward information that only affirms and reinforces our opinions. Most importantly, it reminded me that we’re not alone in the world, for better and worse, in a time when isolation is not just a political stance, but a pervasive and required state in all of our lives.
A MacDowell and Hawthornden Castle Fellow, Leland Cheuk is an award-winning author of three books of fiction, most recently No Good Very Bad Asian (2019). Cheuk’s work has been covered in Buzzfeed, The Paris Review, VICE, San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere, and has appeared in publications such as Salon, San Francisco Chronicle, Catapult, Joyland Magazine, Literary Hub, among other outlets. He is the founder of the indie press 7.13 Books. He lives in Brooklyn and teaches at the Sarah Lawrence College Writing Institute. You can follow him on Twitter @lcheuk and at lelandcheuk.com.
by Molly Fisk
If all you counted were tires on the cars left in driveways and stranded beside the roads.
Melted dashboards and tail lights, oil pans, window glass, seat belt clasps.
The propane tanks in everyone’s yards, though we didn’t hear them explode.
R-13 insulation. Paint, inside and out. The liquor store’s plastic letters in puddled
colors below their charred sign. Each man-made sole of every shoe in all those closets.
The laundromat’s washers’ round metal doors.
But then Arco, Safeway, Walgreens, the library — everything they contained.
How many miles of electrical wire and PVC pipe swirling into the once-blue sky:
how many linoleum acres? Not to mention the valley oaks, the ponderosas, all the wild
hearts and all the tame, their bark and leaves and hooves and hair and bones, their final
cries, and our neighbors: so many particular, precious, irreplaceable lives that despite
ourselves we’re inhaling.
Half-way through our nap the rain begins, hits the window,
plashes through the double-needled pines, and splurts down
onto the mules ears and rein orchids, the clustered blue-faced
penstemons, sinking without a trace into the granite soil.
I roll gently out from under his arm and watch him sleeping the sleep
of the sunburned, of the good son, the wall-primer and painter,
the sleep of a man who is truly tired and knows someone
loves him, since I unaccountably began to cry about it over lunch
and couldn’t stop, watching him eat was suddenly
too much for me, thinking how easily he could have died
in that fall, how he wandered lonely in the wilderness of his own mind,
never mind that people cared for him, for so long, twenty years,
long enough for me to get my second wind, to begin again
to grow up, so that I recognized true love when I saw it, looked
beyond the gnarled teeth and broken nose, the central, longitudinal scar
that runs his length from trachea to pubis, beyond the lost names
and repeated stories into kindness, so that when he began the steep
climb out of his brainpan’s maze into stronger light, how lucky
I was there at the top of the stairs, passing by.
Molly Fisk edited California Fire & Water, A Climate Crisis Anthology, with a Poets Laureate Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets. She’s the author of The More Difficult Beauty, Listening to Winter, and Houston, We Have a Possum, among other books, and has won grants from the NEA, the California Arts Council, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Fisk lives in the Sierra foothills, where she teaches writing to cancer patients, provides weekly commentary to community radio, and works as a radical life coach. Visit her on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/mollyfisk
by Elison Alcovendaz
Chloe claimed she hadn’t been home the day it started. She claimed Mom was perfectly fine that morning, that Mom had been sitting in this very room with her paper and her coffee, and besides, didn’t she, by the simple fact of being seven years older, and thus having spent more time on earth with Mom than I had, automatically know Mom better than I did?
“Was she doing the crossword that morning?” I asked.
“What kind of question is that?” Chloe said. She had on her favorite suit for going to the lake, a bright pink two-piece that accented her recent spray tan. Her blonde hair fell straight to her slender shoulders, and if it hadn’t been for our shared last name, no one would’ve guessed we were sisters.
“It’s the important question,” I said. “It’s like the question.”
“She had the paper, so maybe?”
“You didn’t see a pen in her hand?”
“For God’s sake, it was fifteen years ago. Why are you even bringing this up?”
“I don’t know,” I said, looking away. “Have fun at the lake.”
She made her Chloe noise, a throaty gah that carried all of the world’s disgust, then disappeared through the front door. I stood at the library window and watched her. Mom’s driveway was long and narrow, and Chloe had trouble navigating her oversized Land Rover out of the garage and back down the street. It had been years since we’d been in this house together, and yet there she was, driving off to Folsom Lake to meet high school friends who were so important she hadn’t spoken to them in over a decade.
I sat down in Mom’s favorite chair, an old recliner Dad called “the orange monstrosity.” The design of the house was completely open, so from my vantage point, I could almost see the entire first floor. Despite having lived here for nearly two decades, not a trace of Dad was left. Everywhere I looked, there was Mom and her eccentricities. Celtic crosses atop Japanese style furniture. Southwestern-style rugs covering large expanses of carpet. And, of course, her last words – two locked metal filing cabinets along the far wall of the library, each one filled with the thousands of incomplete crossword puzzles Mom had collected over the last fifteen years of her life.
“The most tangible proof of her descent,” Dad said after the divorce. “Descent” was Dad’s word, as though Mom simply decided one afternoon to lower herself from being one of the most prominent physicians in Sacramento to a woman who decided to wear pajamas every minute of every day. Chloe preferred the term “breakage.” “Something in her brain broke,” Chloe said. “It happens to brilliant people all the time.” And by all accounts, Mom had been brilliant, a member of Mensa, a speaker of five different languages, an expert who spoke about her Alzheimer’s research all over the world.
I didn’t remember that Mom. By the time I hit my eighth birthday, she was already deep in her crosswords. At first, she liked the ones in the back of trashy magazines like the Star, but after a few years, she sat in her favorite chair for what seemed like days at a time, hunched over The New York Times folded in her lap. And she always used a pen – if she made a mistake, she simply filed and locked that puzzle away before moving on to the next one.
I pulled the handle of the recliner, leaned back, and closed my eyes. Maybe it was a descent or maybe it was a breakage, but to me it was just Mom.
* * *
“Of all places to sit.”
I woke up to find Dad standing just inside the foyer, looking large like he always did. With his six-foot height, broad chest, and thick arms, people always mistook him for a football player, though the closest he’d ever come to sports was watching it on TV. He’d spent his life as a political journalist, reporting on the inner workings of the state capitol, and for a brief moment in time, he and Mom were a power couple in the city, though that was more about Mom than him. Their dinner parties were must-attend events, and it was never a surprise to find a slightly inebriated mayor in the kitchen, toasting Mom for another wonderful shindig while Dad spent the entire night walking around with an hors d’oeuvres tray.
“Chloe called me,” he said. “Said you and her might need some help for the estate sale.”
He shrugged. “She called me, but if you want me to go, I can.”
I shook my head. “No, it’s fine.”
“How are you doing, Sam?”
“No luggage?” I asked.
“I’m staying at the Marriott at the town center. You staying here?”
I nodded again. “She’s at the lake.”
He stuck his hands in his jeans. “I see.”
I tried to remember the last time I saw Dad in the house, but the only image that arose was the lone photograph Mom kept of him, a family portrait that hung on the staircase wall. In it, all four of us were dressed up and smiling. I was sure Mom had kept it as a snapshot of the pinnacle of her life, when she was married and well-known and possibly happy, but what struck me most was the way Dad seemed to be leaning toward the edge of the frame, away from all of us. When Dad, a few years into Mom’s descent, ran off to Los Angeles and left Chloe and me with Mom the recluse, I thought we all should’ve seen it coming.
“You by yourself?” I asked.
“Of course,” he said. “Florence does send her condolences, though.”
Dad sighed. “When is the estate sale company coming?”
“Tomorrow morning. We’re supposed to go through everything and mark what we don’t want them to sell. Is there anything you’d want to keep?”
“Me? No. I don’t think so.”
“You should look around at least just to make sure. I looked around already, but I’m not sure if any of this crap is valuable or not.”
“Think she’d be okay with that?”
“If you get struck by lightning, then I guess we’ll know.”
“Okay,” he said and started to unlace his boots. “It really is strange to see you sitting there.”
“How long are you around?”
He slid off his boots and set them carefully near the front door. “As long as you need.”
I sat up in the chair. “I’m not sure how long Chloe is able to take off work, but both of you don’t need to be here the entire time. The estate sale should be done by Sunday.”
“It’s only Monday,” he said. “That’s a long time.”
“Go look around.”
“Sure,” he said. I listened to his heavy footsteps all over the house, the sounds of cabinet doors opening and closing, and wondered if that’s what homes were supposed to sound like – creaky stairs and squeaky doors and empty of human voices. By the time Dad was done, dusk had fallen, Chloe had come back, and they were both in the kitchen, cooking dinner, laughing the whole time.
* * *
Chloe had the great idea to try and recreate Mom’s signature dish – lamb shepherd’s pie with a garlicky, potato crust. Chloe set the dinner table just the way Mom did, too, with the fine china and lace-trimmed placemats and candles that smelled like autumn. The three of us sat at our old spots, Dad at the end of the table near the window, Chloe and I across from each other on the sides.
“It tastes just like I remember,” Dad said.
“Thanks,” Chloe said. “Mom showed me a few years ago on one of her good days.”
“When was that?” I asked.
Chloe swirled her merlot and stared at the wine in her glass.
“You said Mom had a good day. I’m wondering when that was, exactly.”
Chloe raised the glass to her lips, then set it down gently on the table. “Maybe she was different with me than she was with you.”
“Yeah, maybe,” I said.
I scooped a forkful of pie into my mouth. It didn’t quite taste like Mom’s, but it was close. In her better days, Mom supposedly was a great cook. I’d never liked being in the kitchen, but Chloe’s can-do attitude allowed her to go everywhere Mom went, whether it was standing in front of a stove or sitting in a plane on the way to another fancy business trip. On those days, Dad and I lounged all over the house reading books before heading to Sacramento for Leatherby’s banana splits. When Chloe got an A on a test or won first place in a race, Mom would casually joke about Chloe definitely being her daughter, but that was okay, because I had Dad.
I glanced at him, but he was looking at Chloe. His eyes were getting bloodshot and his face was pink.
“Dad,” I said.
He blinked his eyes hard then turned to me.
“When you looked around the house, did you see the key to the filing cabinets?”
Chloe made her gah noise again and rolled her eyes. “Can’t we just get rid of those?”
“We can, but I want to look through them first.”
I glanced at Mom’s empty chair then back at Chloe.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Chloe asked.
“It isn’t supposed to mean anything.”
Chloe reached for the wine bottle and poured herself another glass.
“So Mom’s gone and you’re feeling sentimental and you want to what? Find something in there that’ll bring her back?”
“I don’t know what I’m looking for,” I said, looking at the three empty wine bottles now on the table, “but I do know it won’t be at the bottom of those.”
“People deal with shit differently,” Chloe said. “You’re the psychology major, you should know that. You get to be self-righteous, Dad and I drink.”
“Yup,” I said, “just like old times.”
I downed my water then stormed upstairs. Mom had kept my room in pristine condition, as though she expected me to drop in for a surprise visit. She’d dusted off my old prom pictures, had alphabetized the tattered paperbacks I read in high school. The bed covers smelled fresh as I crawled in. How often had she cleaned this room in expectation of a visit that never happened? When Dad came up a little while later and opened the door, my back was to him and yet I could feel his presence in the threshold, his desperate need to open his mouth and say something, and I just wanted to tell him how sad I was, how angry, but instead, he drank his wine and I pretended to be asleep until he finally shut the door.
* * *
The estate sale company rep arrived at 8 am. She was a bright-faced lady named Sylvia with auburn hair and a wrinkled forehead. I’d been awake for a couple hours already, but Chloe was still asleep in her room, and Dad had crashed on a bench on the back patio. When I tried to wake him, he swatted my hand away and mumbled something about being used to sleeping out there. I didn’t remember that, but I believed him.
“So how does this work?” I asked.
Sylvia and I sat at a small table in the library near the window. Morning fog had crawled up the driveway, and grey light filled the room.
“Do you still want to start the sale this Thursday?” she asked.
“In that case, I’ll need to go through the house today and price everything out. It could take a few hours.”
“That’s no problem.”
“There is another option.” She set her tablet in front of me and pointed to a section of the contract. “As of right now, you’re set up to pay us forty percent of the gross sales. However, if you’d like, and if we can agree on a number, I can pay you and we’ll take possession of everything.”
“Well, everything you’re willing to get rid of. The other benefit to this is you won’t have strangers rummaging through your mom’s house. We price everything out, make an offer, you accept, we move everything, and you move on.”
Mom’s filing cabinets loomed behind Sylvia’s shoulders. “Could you have everything out today?”
Sylvia scanned the library shelves and eyed the globe in the corner. She spun around in her chair and checked out the living room.
“There’s a lot of stuff here. I could give you an accurate number on what I can see by walking around, but if there are items in boxes or jewelry I’d need to inspect, for example, I probably wouldn’t be able to get you an accurate number until later this week when I can look at them.”
“Let’s see what you can come up with today,” I said.
She stood and smiled. “Will do. Am I free to walk through the house?”
“Of course, just let me go wake up my sister before you head upstairs.”
I left her in the library and walked to Chloe’s room. Chloe had been here for a couple days, just as long as I had, and already the room was a mess. Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal lay scattered across the carpet. An ashtray teetered on the edge of her nightstand. Still, it was clear that in the years I hadn’t visited, Chloe had fairly regularly. She’d rearranged everything. None of the pink walls from her childhood remained, there was a flat screen TV on the dresser where her porcelain dolls used to be, and the only photo in the entire room was one someone had taken of Mom and Chloe standing in front of a castle, back when Mom was conquering the world.
Chloe sat up in bed and rubbed her eyes. “Is it 10 am yet? I have a conference call.”
I stared at her.
“Don’t look at me like that. I never have a day off. There’s always a problem to solve. There’s always a client who wants something.”
“Okay,” I said. “It’s only 8:15.”
She nodded and cracked her neck. “What are you doing?”
“The estate sale lady is here. She needs to look through the house.”
“Okay,” she said.
“She offered to buy everything. She’s going to look at everything then give me a price.”
Chloe made her Chloe face, the one that said I was in over my head.
“If she offered to buy everything, that means she thinks Mom’s junk is valuable.”
“That’s a good thing, right?”
“You’ve never been good with these things.” Chloe rolled across her bed and pulled sweatpants from the floor. “Let me talk to her.”
“Mom made me the executor for a reason.”
Chloe laughed. “Because she knew you’d be more sentimental about everything and not want to get rid of stuff. Plus, Mom wasn’t exactly in a clear frame of mind. There’s no reason for you to handle the estate. This is a business transaction, plain and simple. We have to leave feelings out of it.”
Chloe turned toward the wall mirror across from where I stood and began to straighten her hair. It was just like Chloe to be up and about on a day where she should be hung over in bed, head pounding, vomiting her brains out. Instead, she was steeling herself to go toe-to-toe with the estate sale lady because hey, no one got the best of Chloe Driscoll, not even her little sister.
“Ever wonder why the crossword puzzles?” I asked. “You have a theory on everything, you must have a theory for that.”
“But you knew her better than I.” I leaned against the dresser and crossed my arms. “You said that yourself.”
Chloe still had her back to me, but in her reflection, I saw her expression soften.
“What were your last words to Mom?” she asked.
I stared at her in the mirror. She looked away.
“It was an email,” I said and remembered how long I’d lingered on the subject line, that “Hi, Darling” in bold, unread font. She’d missed my college graduation, said she was sick with a stomach bug, her go-to response when the outside world was too daunting for her, which was often. Months passed, and each day I’d stare at that email on my phone, annoyed. She’d made it out of the house for Chloe’s graduation years before; she sat through the celebration dinner opposite a restaurant table from Dad. She made a toast. She even laughed a few times. Probably one of her good days.
I checked the email on my birthday. I’m sorry, she said. I’m working on it. I’m working on me. I’d believed her. I told her it was okay. I told her I loved her, though I wasn’t sure if she ever read the email.
“She called me,” Chloe said. “I had a bad day at work, and I shouldn’t have answered but something told me I needed to. I didn’t know it would be the last time we’d talk, but she was in one of her know-it-all moods. I told her about my day, told her how tired I was, and she just went off about how I was overworking myself, when that was precisely what she did, overwork herself until she became a vegetable.”
She sat on the edge of the bed, wiping her eyes with her forearm. I couldn’t move. This was a Chloe I’d met only two or three times. So I stood there.
“She said I was being unfair, but I was just thinking of Mom sitting in that chair with her fucking crosswords and Dad leaving and I just lit into her. My last words to her were ‘you’re so fucking stupid’ and ‘you’re a hypocritical bitch.’ That’s just like me, right?”
I didn’t respond.
“Right.” She sat there for a moment, slowly shaking her head, as though trying to dislodge her thoughts. “Right,” she repeated. She sniffed, wiped her eyes again, and stood. She walked past me and stopped at the door. “I’m going to tell the lady downstairs that she’ll be dealing with me on the sale. We need to get top dollar for this stuff.”
“Chloe,” I said, but she was already gone.
* * *
I found Dad at his spot at the kitchen table, a steaming cup of coffee in his hand. His shirt was wrinkled and there were lines on his cheek from the bench he’d slept on. I’d seen him at that exact spot so many times, and yet the image struck me as odd – Dad, here, when he didn’t have to be.
“Sam,” he said, motioning to the seat next to him.
We sat together in silence, watching and listening as Chloe followed Sylvia around the house, haggling in that penetrating, monotone voice we knew well. When Sylvia lowballed her on the antique grandfather clock Mom inherited from her mom, Chloe instantly pulled up all the eBay prices and held the phone in front of Sylvia’s face. Chloe knew the exact model of the upright Steinway we played “Chopsticks” on as kids; she even knew the brands of every piece of stemware Mom kept in her china cabinets. Sylvia seemed to enjoy the battle, even after Chloe got the original total offer up from $25,000 to $60,000. Sylvia joked about offering Chloe a job, but Chloe just rolled her eyes, grabbed her laptop from upstairs, then told us she’d be working from Starbucks for the rest of the day.
Dad didn’t seem ready to get up, so we ordered pizza and sat there as the movers came. Sylvia stood by the door and directed the men around the house. Neither Dad nor I spoke. It was as though he was shocked by the sudden noise in the house, each screech of furniture like a hand over his mouth, shoving the words back in, while I was busy witnessing strangers carry away my childhood. After an hour, nearly half of Mom’s belongings were gone.
Dad stretched his arms outward and yawned. “You never answered my question,” he said.
His voice was heavy. I chewed slower on the piece of crust in my mouth, watching two of the men pick up Mom’s orange recliner.
“When I arrived, I asked how you were doing,” he continued. “You never said.”
I kept chewing. The men had a difficult time carrying the chair and set it down by the front door. One of the men took off his baseball cap and wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. The other massaged his lower back with his fist. Sylvia stood on the driveway next to a moving truck, yelling at the two men to get back to work.
“Sam.” I could feel Dad’s tired eyes boring into the side of my face. “Your mom had an anxious, mile-a-minute brain. The only way she could deal with it was by overachieving, because that meant she was always doing something, that she didn’t have to deal with the tornado in her own mind. Sam?”
The men had successfully moved the chair and now they were back in the library for the books, working in quick fashion. They pulled whole rows of shelves at a time and dropped them into used cardboard boxes. Sylvia retrieved the collectible ones herself while Dad rambled on about how Mom and Chloe were similar and that I shouldn’t blame Chloe for that.
“Your mom and I never loved you less,” he said quietly. “We just knew that whatever you were going to do with your life, you were going to be fine, because unlike your sister, you were not like your mom. You were you, and that has made all the difference.”
His voice broke, and I knew that I should turn to him, make eye contact, gently touch his hand and tell him I understood, and maybe, had one of the movers not walked back into the library just then and approached the filing cabinets with a crowbar, I would have done all of those things. Instead, I stood and yelled.
I sprinted into the library and pried the crowbar from the man’s hands. Dad followed behind and stood just outside the library with his hands in his pockets. Sylvia stared at me, bewildered.
“Chloe said you couldn’t find a key,” she said. “We were going to open it.”
“There’s nothing of value in there.”
“We were opening it for you,” Sylvia said. “Chloe said those weren’t for sale, but she asked if we could open them. She said those were yours.”
They all looked at me with pitiful eyes, even the mover, who stood frozen in front of the filing cabinets like a trapped animal. I turned to where the orange chair used to be, needing to fall into it, but there was only the circular patch on the hardwood floor Mom’s chair had sat all those years, scratched and raw.
* * *
The movers finished two hours later, and after I signed some paperwork, Sylvia handed me a check and hugged me warmly. She said she was very sorry for our loss, but that based on all the stuff that was now in a moving truck somewhere on Highway 50, she could tell we had a wonderful family life together. Dad chuckled at that, but I was too distracted by the check in my hand to respond. After one more goodbye, Dad shut the door behind Sylvia and turned to me.
“Are you going to be alright if I go back to the hotel for a little while?” he asked. “I need a shower and a nap.”
“I’ll be fine,” I said, shoving the check into my jeans pocket. “You don’t need to hang around, Dad.”
“I know, but I’m going to anyway. I’m thinking I’ll take you and Chloe to dinner tonight.”
“I don’t know that I’m up for that.”
“Then I’ll bring dinner and we can eat on the floor,” he said and opened the door again. The afternoon light slanted full across his face, and I was struck by how bright his grey hair shone. “Text me what you want.”
“Okay,” I said. He smiled and shut the door.
I stared at the closed door for a few moments, breathing in measured counts, then turned to survey the house. Dust covered the hardwood floors and the movers’ dirty handprints marked the walls. The only items that remained were framed photos of Chloe and me as children, dolled up in pink dresses and pony tails, some of Mom’s knickknacks, and the filing cabinets.
One of the movers had pried open each of the drawers so they were all slightly ajar, as though Mom had simply forgotten to shut them, or maybe had left it open for me to look through. I knew that opening and closing those drawers had been the calmest moments of Mom’s life, but the library looked so empty I could hardly move. Around me, the entire house felt vacant, and I knew the longer I stayed inside, riffling through Mom’s puzzles, I risked being swallowed by the sudden, impossible largeness of the house. I needed to get outside.
I swung open the front door and hurried through, not stopping until I found myself at the end of the driveway. I plopped down to the curb and pulled my knees to my chest. The two neighborhood kids skateboarding in the cul-de-sac gaped at me as though waiting to see if they needed to call for help. I managed to smile and wave though I couldn’t gather enough breath to yell something reassuring. When they went back to their tricks, I lowered my head between my knees. My heart was racing. These kids had probably never seen Mom, and I wondered what made-up stories they told about the lady who rarely came out of her house.
After a few minutes, I regained my breath. The sun was high and the concrete hot under my feet. I hadn’t noticed it before, but piled on the curb to my right, just an arm’s length away beside the garbage and recycling bins, was a stack of volumes of The Sacramento Bee. They must’ve been fairly new, for the papers showed no signs of yellow and the rubber bands still looked tight. I was certain I’d cancelled Mom’s subscription, but maybe I hadn’t.
I leaned over, reached for one of the newspapers, and rolled off the plastic covering. It was a couple weeks old, a few days before Mom’s funeral. I found the crossword in the middle of the real estate listings. I didn’t know yet that in two weeks, the house would be sold to a family of six with a father who absolutely loved Mom’s library, and I wasn’t thinking then about what Chloe or Dad would say when they came back and found me sitting on the curb with a bunch of newspapers folded up to crosswords I couldn’t complete, I was thinking about whether words like descent and breakage were the same as the word acceptance and I was thinking about moms and wives and daughters and sisters and, as Chloe’s SUV turned into the cul-de-sac, about how many different people one person could be.
Elison Alcovendaz, an attendee of the Community of Writers in 2016, has had work in The Rumpus, Psychology Today online, The Portland Review, Gargoyle Magazine, Lost Balloon, and other publications. He received an MA in Creative Writing from Sacramento State and was recently selected for inclusion in the Best Small Fictions 2020 anthology. He lives in Sacramento, CA with his wife and daughter. To find out more, please visit www.elisonalcovendaz.com.
Jazz & Other Words for Love
by Lyndsey Ellis
Kym adjusted the earpiece in her left ear with her shoulder. She pretended to play piano and twiddled her fingers above the open shirt revealing hairy fuzz that covered the dead man’s chest. Which jazz tune it was, she didn’t know. Or really care. She just liked the way it sounded. How it fell in sync with the rhythm of her work and the way it calmed her nerves.
Since her apprenticeship with Mr. Schooner, Kym had given the bodies she worked on the names of dead musicians. It helped her adjust to the job in the beginning but, even after becoming seasoned, she never broke tradition. There’d been a host of Raineys, Fitzgeralds, Armstrongs, Basies, Vaughans, Morgans, Davises, Hollidays, Hubbards, and Coltranes that graced the dressing table.
Kym studied the body in front of her. This one she’d call Ellington. The dead man was tall, muscular and 30ish, clothed in a black and gold tailored suit containing a black dress shirt, and golden tie with black stripes. There was a matching handkerchief in his breast pocket. His black slacks were starched and creased. Missing suit jacket. No shoes.
The office phone’s ringing floated down the stairs. Kym waited for the floor to groan under the weight of Bobby’s footsteps as he answered it. She knew it was Lawrence. Nearly half of a day they’d spent together after meeting the way they did and now, she could feel him pursuing her.
Kym turned up the volume on her iPod, determined to block out fluttering in her stomach. She double-checked for a pulse and raised Ellington’s lids, saw the film over his large eyes twinkle a silent confirmation of death. She took out the diamond stud in his right ear and worked off his wedding ring with Vaseline. She also removed his garments and the sallow underwear underneath them.
He had on a condom, the bastard. Kym peeled it off with the tips of her gloves and hurled it into the pile with the rest of his belongings. After placing a large square of cloth over his genitals, she placed a head block under Ellington’s neck and dropped her hands on the edge of the table.
Naked, the corpse favored Lawrence. Something about the way the nose flared out. The lips were surprisingly moist-looking. The feet, dry and flaky. Almost scaly like Lawrence’s fake alligator boots.
Kym turned the music up a notch louder. Any minute now, Bobby would come and hand her the phone. On the way downstairs, he’d probably trip again. Over nothing.
To be so smart, he was a clumsy thing. Surprisingly, he’d come through for Kym the day she had the incident with Lawrence. Bobby had cleaned and dressed Joplin, called the family to adjust arrangements, even went to the bi-annual Mortuary Science conference as Kym’s stand-in that night.
But, Kym wasn’t stupid. She hadn’t told Bobby everything when she returned. Just the meat. She reminded herself that he was young with that tendency to have secrets pried out of him. Plus, she was still the boss; there were boundaries.
What was she supposed to say anyway? The whole truth wasn’t even whole yet. As Kym heard the story coming out of her mouth for the first time, she found herself questioning. Finally, she just stopped and made a mental note of what to not say in the rare event she had to explain again elsewhere.
There was one part that particularly didn’t need repeating. His name was Peacock.
Short and stubby with high cheekbones, Peacock wasn’t just a man; he was an event. Everything about him was loud. Gaudy. He played piano and was one of Lawrence’s regular bandmates. After their run-in at the club, Kym rode with Lawrence to Peacock’s side of town. No phone call. No honking. Lawrence just whistled and Peacock appeared, cartwheeling down the street in a bright green jumpsuit that put Kym in the mood for a slice of Key Lime Pie. Before she could shake off the ridiculous crave, Peacock had his bronze, bald head inside the opened driver’s window, heehawing and slapping hands in a cryptic handshake with Lawrence. His voice was bizarrely high and unnerving, like a coffee grinder. Even his smell was noisy: tobacco and cheap cologne.
Kym shook Peacock’s hand with her fingertips when Lawrence introduced them. Then, Peacock galloped to a ruddy pickup truck parked and cranked the trunk open. He fumbled through trash bags and pulled out his tobacco pouch.
Over cocktails (also out the bottom of Peacock’s truck), Kym learned a lot about her new acquaintances, especially Lawrence. He’d grown up an army brat most of his childhood, moving from state to state, the only thing consistent being the music that he practiced. She easily believed that. He adapted too quickly and was calm beyond creepy.
No stability. Check.
He’d gone to community college. Check.
Didn’t graduate. Double check.
Freeloaded until his parents threw him out. Check.
Met Peacock who’d just AWOL’d from the army, they became roommates, ventured into pursuing music full-time. Evicted. Check.
The men had laughed heartily, recalling the period they’d jumped through housing. They’d been through lofts and housing projects and duplexes. Several family members’ homes. The attics in some of the clubs they played in. Then, Peacock met someone.Someone….different. Torrence? Boris? Kym couldn’t quite remember.
Lawrence rushed through the part about the two-year wedge in their friendship. Peacock, drunk but alert, didn’t bother slowing him down. He grinned as Lawrence dove into their unexpected reunion at a club opening he’d had to play at. He threw his head back and grunted deep in his throat when Lawrence got to the part about he’d avoided him most of the night, which led to them later trying to upstage each other onstage. By the end of the night, Peacock was beating the shit out of a man who’d vomited in the bell of Lawrence’s trumpet during a brawl.
After that, the conversation died. Peacock passed out, forehead hemmed between the rim of the steering wheel and the horn of his truck. Lawrence was next to fall asleep in the passenger seat and Kym, sprawled in the backseat, fiddled through emails on her cell phone until her own buzz faded.
In the moonlight, she noticed Lawrence wasn’t that bad looking. Just hard lots of hard living in his face. History mocking him in the creases that surrounded his mouth and the wrinkles on his forehead.
* * *
Kym rubbed Ellington down with disinfectant, flexing his arms and legs. Then, she found the embalming tank, thrust its pump into his neck, and massaged the solution around in his joints for an even distribution.
The thick, ropey veins in his arms played peek-a-boo between her gloved fingers, flitting from side to side as she pressed down on them. Their blue-green tint beneath the skin was amplified by the lamp above the table and almost matched the turquoise in Lawrence’s sweater that night.
Kym made a small incision in Ellington’s stomach and entered the trocar. She wriggled the tube in the corpse’s stomach, exerting pressure. There was the usual hiss. The stomach caving. Body spasms.
She caught Ellington’s foot twitching in her peripheral and moments of Lawrence doubled over on the ground, holding his foot, came back to her. She turned the iPod up as far as it could go and focused on the dead man’s slow, shrinking belly. It reminded her of Lawrence in the car, coping. His jaws jutting in and out as he handled the pain.
A trumpet’s high-pitched blow shot through Kym’s ears. She jumped, one of her earpieces falling out. She yanked the other one out of her ear and pulled off her gloves. Upstairs, the phone rang again.
Where the hell was Bobby?
Kym went to the basement window and peered out. Outside, she saw Bobby going to the mailbox. He tripped over something on the curb. Kym smirked, imagining a younger, even frailer version of him, trembling in a circle of laughing kids as someone held Bobby’s books out of reach over his head.
All this time and he’s still like this, she thought. She stared at her assistant for a while and realized she was still jealous, not because he was gifted but because Bobby was still so green. And over-stimulated. This business was still a ghastly beauty to him, a 9-to-5 mystery in need of delicate unraveling.
Every day, Bobby walked into the mortuary, not knowing what to expect, except that he’d better expect a lot of himself. He looked scared but content because he was so immersed in the craft. As naive as it sounded, Kym missed that. The curiosity she’d once had as a starry-eyed apprentice had fallen in between the cracks of sleepless nights and growing disillusion.
It was hell taking on the business after Mr. Schooner’s retirement. Despite the promotion’s benefits–growing financial freedom, more authority, a flexible schedule –Kym couldn’t pretend not to see some of its ugliest moments. The resentment under the grief in some clients’ eyes, the condescension in their voices, the loose handshakes as if she was unworthy of being touched.
Goodness, this was 2018. A blue city in a red state. She was a Millennial. An older one, if that meant anything. Hadn’t the same clients who sought her services thought enough of her to preserve the sanctity of their dead loved ones? Why was it so hard for them to turn that blind trust into deserved respect?
Regardless of Bobby’s ignorance, Kym hoped clients would give him an easier time if he was ever promoted. Kym knew she could be wrong, though, assuming Bobby encountered his own share of psychological demons unknown to her.
She often wondered what Bobby was hiding under his nervous energy. He must have some kind of a dark side; mortuary science wasn’t necessarily one of the more popular careers among professionals these days, especially not in their community. During her studies, Kym read somewhere that it had once been well-received during Jim Crow up until the latter half of the 20th century when funeral directors were viewed as respectable members, admired for their jobs from afar, mainly because it brought in enough money to support a family. But, as more industries became accessible over the years, less people sought to establish or manage funeral parlors as a means to making ends meet.
For a long time, Kym felt alone, abnormal. She knew she wasn’t possessed by any devil, and what pleased her didn’t call for an exorcism, but also recognized her longing as something that ran counter to her culture and its belief system. Being outside of the ordinary never changed until Kym met her mentor years later.
“You have to be mighty bored with the living to surround yourself with the dead,” Mr. Schooner had told her on her first day at the parlor. She remembered turning over the statement in her mind, trying not to be rude by staring too hard at the skin dangling over his eyes. Her nerves had been so shot after a test-run with her first human cadaver, but Mr. Schooner was right. He knew Kym and how her mind worked because his worked the same way.
And, she was bored. She’d always been bored. Not a restless boredom, but a cynical boredom. One that left her with an exhaustion that couldn’t be overcome by exercise, sex, or sleep. Life before Mortuary Science School was one long drawn-out monotonous voice, a drone that had followed Kym through orphanages and foster homes, an unsettling adolescence, and a string of brief relationships with rebel boyfriends. Day and night, she’d crawled through her activities, went to bed tired and woke up tired again.
Kym fell in love with Mr. Schooner that first day. She was sorry for misinterpreting his distance and sorrow back then. She’d come to understand the tired, vacant look in his eyes. Dealing with so much death had eventually taken the life out of him. The body preparations, the background stories, the obituary creations, the custody and financial battles, the acceptance of being a temporary consolation prize.
Seeing this, she’d come so close to walking out on her calling for good, but she hadn’t, and she was glad. Even now, when she wondered if Bobby sensed the same numbness in her.
* * *
“I want you to come to my show tomorrow.”
Lawrence’s voice on the voicemail seemed deeper than it was when Kym met him. And, she didn’t remember giving him her cell phone number, in addition to the main work number. She rubbed the screen with her thumb and re-read the time of the call: 10:46 am.
Kym listened again. Harder. Lawrence’s stress on ‘want.’ He wanted. No one had wanted her to do anything in a long time. Her clients, her clients’ deceased loved ones, Sheena, Graham, Bobby….
Want was a freedom word. Noncommittal. A shedding of weight. Light.
Kym absently glanced at Ellington lying limp on the table. The iPod on her work desk, still streaming music. She ran the voicemail again and turned down the volume on the phone in case Bobby decided to surprise her. What if, for some insane reason, he’d given Lawrence the address to the parlor and Lawrence was on his way over? What if he was here and ready to see her again and on his way downstairs?
“I didn’t know you actually liked jazz,” he’d say.
“No,” she’d tell him. “You didn’t.”
Lyndsey Ellis is a fiction writer and essayist who’s passionate about intergenerational resilience in the Midwest. She was a recipient of the San Francisco Foundation’s Joseph Henry Jackson Literary Award in 2016 and the Money For Women/Barbara Deming Memorial Fund in 2018 for her fiction. Ellis is a 2017 alumna of the Community of Writers, a VONA/Voices alumna and Kimbilio Fiction Fellow. Her writing appears in The Offing, Joyland, Entropy, Shondaland, and elsewhere. She currently lives in St. Louis, MO. Her debut novel, Bone Broth, will be published by Hidden Timber Books in spring 2021.
A Letter from the Editor
Welcome to Issue # 3 of the Community of Writers’ multi-form online journal, a celebration of our work together, offered to promote upcoming publication, encourage creativity and solidarity, share craft talks and work-in-progress and, yes, promote our continued struggle for artistic collaboration, creativity and social justice. Oh, and commemorate our 50th anniversary!
This issue is a winner, friends. We present an essay from one of our Community’s legends, the much-esteemed late novelist and journalist Robert Stone. It’s an excerpt from a just-released collection of his nonfiction. Longtime member Molly Fisk shares two poems, one each from two
anthologies she’s featured in, one of which she edited. Leland Cheuk makes us all smarter and less America-centric with a journal of his recent internationlist reading. And, finally, we feature two gorgeous fictions from recent participants on the way up. Elison Alcovendaz offers a poignant story of quotidian loss and emotional discovery. Lyndsey Ellis’s short story is a musically-structured experiment in association and observation by a mortuary technician. Her novel arrives next year.
Thanks to these contributors and to publishers Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for permission to excerpt from The Eye You See With: Selected Nonfiction by Robert Stone.
We’re also pleased to announce the inaugural episode of Conversations from the Virtual Valley, our new series featuring author interviews, readings and panels. Our first features Michelle Latiolais in conversation with Ryan Ridge.
Please stay safe, and by all means share our journal.
ABOUT THE OGQ
Omnium Gatherum Quarterly (OGQ) is an invitational online quarterly magazine of prose and poetry, founded in 2019 as part of the 50th Anniversary of the Community of Writers. OGQ seeks to feature works first written in, found during, or inspired by the week in the valley. Only work selected from our alums and teaching staff will appear here. Conceived and edited by Andrew Tonkovich. Submissions will not be considered.