My thanks to decomP magazinE for publishing my short story, “The Emotional Life of Electrical Wires.” I excerpt the introduction here along with a link to the magazine, which, with the April 2017 issue, celebrates its 13th anniversary.
Matthew was a wood carver, homeless and a full-blooded Anishinaabe, whom everyone knew in the downtown neighborhood of a big city where I once had a pointless cubicle job. As I gained knowledge of my surroundings, I became aware of Matthew, who would strike up a conversation with anyone willing to listen. He always carried several small blocks of wood with him, which, as I learned later, he picked up here and there from people who had learned of his considerable skill as a carver. He carved with a three-blade pocketknife, which he’d inherited from his grandfather. Matthew would carve something interesting, an animal figurine or a human face, and return the block of wood to the person who’d given it to him. People paid him money, and he always made a show of refusing payment until, with a theatrical gesture, he threw up his hands in concession and pocketed the bills. That’s what he lived on, and what allowed him to get gloriously drunk whenever it suited him.
Several weeks before I got to know him well, Matthew sat next to me at a public fountain near my office. I was in the habit of having my lunch outside when the weather was nice. At first I thought Matthew was going to ask for spare change, and I looked around to see if there was a more suitable spot. But it was a beautiful May day and the square was quite crowded with people who had escaped their cubicles and shops, thirsty for sunshine after winter’s parched darkness. So I remained at my spot as Matthew talked to me.
“Too bubbly, ain’t she?” he said.
I was new to big city life—I was raised in a small town and educated at a small Midwestern liberal arts college in the heart of nowhere—and friends had warned me not to look directly at street people or engage them in conversation. But there was something about Matthew’s voice I found inviting, so against my better judgment, I responded. “Pardon me?”
“The fountain. A little too bubbly, ain’t she? Too blonde and bouncy and cheery. Like a homecoming queen who’s addicted to exuberance. Makes you tired just bein’ around her, huh?”
I learned from our ensuing conversation that Matthew not only made lovely detailed figurines out of wood, but he also had a special relationship with ordinary objects on the street. I’d once taken a sociology class and remembered Max Weber’s concept of “elective affinity.” That’s what Matthew had, an elective affinity, or resonance, with things. In short: he talked to them, and they talked back. The fire hydrant, a lamppost, a shop window—he engaged them all in conversation.
My first thought was that the man should be on medication or even institutionalized. I asked around in the office about Matthew, wondering if he was a little “off.” Newcomers shrugged with disinterest. But the old-timers took umbrage at my suggestion. They’d developed a deep affection for Matthew, and wouldn’t hear of his being mentally unbalanced. Instead they insisted he had an insight into the world of material objects that was uncanny. Several colleagues with whom I’d discussed Matthew had a number of his wood figurines on their desks.
I became curious about Matthew, the wood carver who talked with the material world. I began seeking him out at lunchtime. Most days I found him in the vicinity, and if he wasn’t already chattering away with someone, I made a point of striking up a conversation. Soon I began bringing him small blocks of wood, which I’d bought at a local woodworking shop, and after a few months I had several of his figurines on my desk. There was a Labrador retriever’s face, which Matthew carved after I’d told him I still missed a Labrador I’d had as a kid. There was a gnome, which I thought was so artfully done I sent it to my mother, who I knew would find a place for it with her other figurines and knickknacks on the mantel at home. At times, it was frightening to watch Matthew wield his small carving knife. There was alcohol on his breath and his eyes were glassy. His speech didn’t slur—he was always quite articulate—but there was nonetheless something about him that made him both present and distant, there but not there. Still, his cuts were perfect, his dirty fingers moved with grace, and as he described what he was doing, a small elegant figure would emerge from a rectangle of maple or pine.
Artificium, Issue 5, is now out with my “Fortress.” See below for the introduction and a link to purchase the volume.
The black phone in the cramped back office of Novak’s filling station rang as it always did. The office was windowless and lined with shelves on which there were stacked blue and yellow oil cans, containers of brake fluid and anti-freeze, and other toxic fluids automobiles needed to keep life and limb together. Squat and menacing, the phone sat on a small desk illuminated by a single lamp. The phone smelled of oil and gasoline and the handgrip had a greasy feel no matter how often Karl Novak wiped it with a clean shop rag. It was the summer of 1966, Laurentide, Michigan, and he was learning the gas station business. He was a junior in high school and his father, who owned the station, thought it was time he spent his summer vacations working rather than water skiing, hanging out with friends, and reading mysteries and science fiction. So he serviced cars and changed tires. He waited on customers on the hot asphalt drive and pumped six grades of gasoline (from economy to premium), checked tire pressures, cleaned windshields. It wasn’t bad work, and at times it was enjoyable, but most often Karl Novak looked forward to having his workday over.
On a still cool August morning Karl was helping Al the mechanic change the oil of a black ‘62 Mercury with turquoise trim. Al was stocky, round-faced, rosy-cheeked, and the most foul-mouthed person Karl had ever met. Karl’s father said he was “the best damned mechanic there is,” but also said he was a “dirty Pollock” and “a crook if you let him get away with stuff.” Karl couldn’t decide if he disliked Al intensely or if he thought he was an exotic figure, like a spy or bank robber, and a welcome break from the nice boring people he’d come to know at the Lutheran church his mother insisted he attend. When Al spoke, a well-chewed cigar dangled from the right side of his mouth. Once he put his still lit cigar on the end of the workbench and Karl examined it closely. Its brown color had changed to an ugly black slime at the tip where Al gnawed on it. Many times Karl had thought of asking Al to let him smoke one of his cigars. The most propitious moment would have been when Al showed up at work with alcohol on his breath, which was often, and he was pliable and more willing to take reckless chances. But Karl didn’t want Al to get into hot water for leading the boss’s son astray—that’s how Karl’s father would see it—so he never asked.
When the phone rang, Karl hurried into the office, which was just off the garage bay where they worked on the Mercury, but he hesitated to pick up. He didn’t know why. When he first started working at the station, he liked answering the phone. It had made him feel like a grownup. He wrote down messages and gave people what information he could. This time he hesitated. He sensed he had a good reason, but it was more like a shadow in his mind than a well-formed idea. He looked around the shelves and noticed that an oilcan had been turned around. He straightened it so that its label faced out. He heard Al yell, “Hey, Karl, you gonna wait all day to answer the fuckin’ thing?” Still he didn’t reach for the phone. He wasn’t sure how many times it had rung. He hoped it would stop, but he knew it would not. Something in the ring gnawed and was unyielding.
His cheeks puffed out in an exaggerated motion. He raised his shoulders and inhaled deeply. His nostrils filled with smells from the garage. He exhaled, and, as if it were detached from the rest of his body, his hand reached for the phone and brought the handset to his head. The phone felt cold and hard against his ear. He said, “Novak’s Service,” with a slight interrogative curve that made it sound like an arguable point.
“May I speak to Zachary?” said the voice.
It was a woman with a slow humid southern drawl. Her voice had a searing effect, like a long forgotten pain suddenly returned. He’d never heard the voice before, and yet he had. It was known, yet unknown. His stomach ground stones and his blood-drenched ears burned. He looked down at his black work shoes, which he’d shined that morning. They felt as is they were welded to the concrete. What the hell was wrong with him?
“Hon, are you there?” said the voice, a mix of honey and vinegar.
“Yes, oh, sorry, I’ll get him,” said Karl.
He left the office to look for his father. The queasiness in his stomach rose up through his chest and back behind his eyes. He surveyed the drive, checked the customer waiting area at the front of the station, walked around to the back alley where they kept dumpsters. Zach Novak was nowhere to be found. “He’s out test driving the silver Impala. We gotta brake job on it this afternoon, I think,” said Al after Karl had come back into the garage. “Coulda told you that first thing, boy, if you’d asked.”
Karl returned to the back office hoping the voice had hung up. He’d been out looking for his father several minutes. “Sorry, ma’am, but he’s not here at the moment. Can I take a message?”
“Tell him Luella called,” said the drawl. “I’m an old friend. He knows where to reach me. You make sure you tell him, child, and thank you.”
Karl put down the phone and steadied himself with both hands on the desk. After a few minutes, his hands and wrists ached and his arms felt leaden.
My thanks to Disclaimer Magazine for publishing “King Dramilo” today in their Weekend Fiction feature. Below is the introduction and a link to read more:
The dog showed up one day out of nowhere, and everyone said it wouldn’t hang around long. It was old and mangy, blind in one eye and half-blind in the other, brown and black with patches of whitish skin that made it look like it had undergone chemotherapy. People fed the dog scraps or gave it water, and it got to know almost everyone in the neighborhood after going house to house several times. All the kids got along well with the old hound, who wagged his tail and licked their faces when they petted him. Some kids called the dog “Buck,” others “Spike,” and one knock-kneed, thirteen-year-old girl, Ina, called it “King Dramilo,” because it reminded her of a Slovenian fairy tale her mother once read her. In the fairy tale an old peasant couple found a baby floating in a basket on a river. They named the baby Dramilo, or “a pick-me-up,” not only because he’d been picked up out of the river, but also because he was so cheery and made everyone around him feel good. Dramilo grew into an ugly little gnome of a man, but he had a loving heart, and when he died bravely fighting the evil monster Avar, he became king of a mystical land as big as the heavens. Ina’s name made the rounds once or twice and then it stuck. Soon everyone called the dog King Dramilo, never just Dramilo, never just King.
Here’s my “Showing White,” just out with Flash Fiction Magazine (21 January 2017):
A man with a red baseball cap and green leather apron led a cow into a pen. The cow was black and white and had big brown eyes, glistening with comprehension.
A thin boy watched the animal, and for a moment he thought the cow focused on him. Maybe it was his flannel shirt, a blue-and-red-checked affair his mother had picked out. You wear your nicest shirt on a class outing, she’d said. Of course, he thought, a cow would recognize a mother’s choice.
It was three in the afternoon, and the boy looked around at his classmates, 20 third graders from Trinity Lutheran School. They were so quiet it made him nervous. Why wasn’t Karl making wisecracks? Everyone stared at a single pair of huge bovine eyes, which just then flashed a large amount of white.
The man held a rifle.
The boy looked at his teacher, a stocky man with a large chin and red hair. He’d told them they were going to see where hamburger came from. The boy thought of the last time his father had grilled a batch of juicy burgers and sang as he put cheese slices on them.
No one was smiling as the man aimed the rifle at the cow’s head.
The cow let out a long, loud moan—a plea, or maybe a question. The boy thought of the Bible passage they’d just memorized in religion class, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” But cows had no idea of the Bible, right?
The boy was frightened. His teacher’s chin jutted out, the cow’s eyes showed even more white than before, and his classmates stood on the edge of a cliff, as if they were about to plunge into some dark abyss from which they would never escape.
The shot made the world shudder.
The cow fell with a thud, its eyes wide and staring but not seeing.
Nerdy David fainted and had to be held up by one of the mothers who’d accompanied the class. The boy now knew why his mother hadn’t volunteered.
Soon the man in the green apron used a squeaking chain to hoist the cow up by its back legs. With a shining blade too quick to follow he slit the cow’s neck. With another long slice, gray, red, and pink matter hit the cement floor with a mournful slop that made Doris, the girl with a port-wine stain on her forehead, spew her bologna-sandwich lunch on her new white shoes.
The man worked quickly. He talked as he wielded his blade, said the cow had once given milk, she’d been used up.
The boy wasn’t listening. He felt his knees go jellylike. He thought of the time his mother told him his hamster Nellie had died. Some of his classmates were crying. His teacher told everyone to calm down, watch and listen, this is important, not everyone has a chance to see this process.
When they filed out, the boy’s friend Tony looked green.
The boy thought he should comfort Tony, say something, but the rifle shot still sang in his ears and words felt blocky and thick.
I was happy to hear that my short story, “Saving Hermann Hesse,” Eclectica (April/May 2015) made the 2016 storySouth Million Writers Award list of notable stories. The goal of the competition is to honor and promote the best fiction published in online literary journals and magazines during 2015. Thanks to Eclectica editor Tom Dooley for nominating me. For stories and links, see below.
“The Brooklyn Tolstoy” by Doug Berverole
“Where Do You Think You’re Going” by Daphne Buter
“Tasneem” by Ahsan Butt
“The Clean Rooms” by J’Lyn Chapman
“The Vishakanya’s Choice” by Roshani Chockshi
“Giver of Life” by Dawn S. Davies
“Soup” by Chikodili Emelumadu
“The Salt Wedding” by Gemma Files
“Shueyville” by Kate Folk
“All That We Loved, All That We Burned” by Laura Haugen
“Saving Hermann Hesse” by Rudy Koshar
“The Son of Summer and Eli” by Lee L. Krecklow
“The Parable of Nick Burns” by Danny Judge
“Tiny Dancer” by Lisa Lang
“Half in the Truth” by Gariot Louima
“Devildoms” by Saytchyn Maddux-Creech
“A Series of Accidents & Punctuation Marks” by Ilana Masad
“The Battle” by David Naimon
“On A Wild, Red Dawn” by Billy O’Callaghan
“The Glass Girl” by Wendy Oleson
“Father Fox” by Martin Pousson
“Last Song” by Annie Reid
“The Boy Wonder” by Robert Roman
“The Android’s Prehistoric Menagerie” by A. Merc Rustas
“A Famous Man” by Kathryn Scanlan
“On the Moon” by Amy Scharmann
“Hot Lesbian Vampire Magic School” by Julia Ridley Smith
“From Within” by Richard Thomas
“Bethlehem” by Chika Unigwe
“A Primer on Separation” by Debbie Urbanski
“Do You Hear What I’m Saying?” by Kori Waring
“Big Joy Family” by Jude Whelchel
My thanks to Crack the Spine and editor Kerri Farrell Foley for publishing my flash fiction piece, “northwoods” (Issue 206, January 4, 2017). Here’s the piece, and a link to read more.
Scraping, you’re up on a ladder in the northwoods working on this cabin, thoughts scattering. You’ve already put in hours on the job but there’s more, more, more, to quote a disco hit, do you remember Andrea True Connection? Things go through the mind when you’re a little bit shaky up on that ladder, sixty some years old, you, not the ladder.
Your northwoods wife, Andrea, comes around the side of the house, she’s been scraping too, though she’s on the ground, because no way, she says, I’m not going up there, and she asks if you’d like some tea, we have some Mei Ji. You say, I’m feeling lightheaded.
Down on the ground, you realize you’ve been airborne too long, ten, twelve feet, inhaling, paint chips like snow on eyebrows, beard, hands, arms. Looking radioactive.
Chinese tea scrapes up against northwoods air and tastes fine, like Andrea’s earlobe.
Back up the ladder, and thoughts tend toward death, scraping will do that, and there is a moment, you lean back and your knees remind you of a Psalmist’s words—“my shadow declinith”—and you’re like, is this it?
More tea? calls Andrea, and you know there will be more, more, more, and you whistle, how do you like it? how do you like it?
And you know the answer.
To read the magazine, go here.
My thanks to Justin Meckes at Scrutiny, a literary journal specializing in magical realism, for publishing an interview with me on December 6. You can read it here. Also on the 6th I did an interview with Carousel Bayrd, host of the WORT-FM show, “A Public Affair,” on “The Rise of the Nazi Party and Parallels Today.” Listen to it here.
I’ve published mostly fiction and op-eds on my site so far, but I thought I’d include a few academic pieces for a change. The following is my “On Stillness: European Political Fiction in the Age of Extremes,” which I gave on October 26,2012 as the Edward N. Peterson Lecturer at University of Wisconsin-River Falls. It may still be relevant as writers today think about fiction in moments of political crisis.
In the “age of extremes,” many fiction writers felt obliged to respond to the unprecedented political violence of the time. Two world wars, Communist revolution and devolution, fascism and Nazism, multiple civil wars, class conflict, genocide, decolonization, the Cold War—all elicited a stunning archive of fictional representations. If, as George Lukács argued, the nineteenth century was the golden age of the historical novel, then surely the twentieth century was the age of the political novel.
My starting point is that the political novels of the era not only have a history; they tell a history as well. This is an arguable statement. Whereas historians often use fiction as primary sources—and not a few historians write fiction themselves—in general they are less enthusiastic than their colleagues in language departments to consider fictional narratives as alternative histories that may enrich academic history or even trouble widely accepted explanatory schemas. When historians entertain such ideas, it is more often to point out shortcomings, or warn against dangerous or misinformed renderings of historical events by invaders from the literary dark side. With some notable exceptions, historians’ willingness to consider what Carlo Ginsborg calls “reciprocal, hybrid borrowings” between history and fiction is intermittent and skeptical at best. Even so, today many historians recognize there are multiple historical “truths,” some aspiring to verisimilitude, and others, as in fiction, to more revelatory insights.
Political scientist Stuart Scheingold’s recent book, The Political Novel, makes an important intervention in this conversation. Scheingold argues that political fiction allows us to “re-imagine” the twentieth century and at the same time to “remember” the twenty-first. Without such remembrance, without seeing that politicians often disregard or misinterpret past mistakes, the future may repeat those mistakes with even more disastrous consequences. Scheingold’s goal is the “exploration of the contribution of the literary imagination to political inquiry.” The author tells us that, starting with Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” (1925), Euro-American fiction expressed growing political estrangement. This took many forms, from antiwar sentiment to skepticism about modernity’s claims of progress. Its major outcome was a conviction that political struggle was futile and the “modern project’s” goals had been distorted beyond recognition. Despite the seeming “victory” of democracy and liberal values, the twentieth century’s legacy is the mournful discovery of people’s lack of agency and pessimism over historical change.
Scheingold argues that twentieth-century “novels of political estrangement” constitute a new literary genre that previous scholars have overlooked or misidentified. His ambit is wide, including European and American anti-war novels by Remarque, Hemingway, and Trumbo; Holocaust novels by Imre Kertész, Elie Wiesel, and Ian MacMillan; West German novels of memory and guilt by Heinrich Böll, Günter Grass, and Bernhard Schlink; and novels of disillusionment with American-style prosperity by Russell Banks, Phillip Roth, Alan Sillitoe, and Ian McEwen.
Scheingold distinguishes his work from that of Irving Howe, who in his Politics and the Novel from 1957 did more than any other English-speaking literary critic of the past century to define and analyze “the political novel.” Howe’s understanding of the political novel was subtle. He resisted rigidly defined genres; indeed, he denied that the political novel was a genre at all. “By a political novel,” he wrote, “I mean a novel in which political ideas play a dominant role or in which the political milieu is the dominant setting…[or] a novel in which we take to be dominant political ideas or the political milieu.” Such a novel permitted these assumptions without “suffering any radical distortion and…with the possibility of some analytical profit.”
Scheingold’s goal is not to supplant Howe’s approach but to critique its underlying premise: that the calamities of the twentieth century, including the often toxic workings of political ideologies, can be salvaged for an ultimate goal, which for Howe was a social democratic vision of harmony. In Scheingold’s estimation, Howe “puts his faith in politics and honors novelists who believe that in the long run political action will somehow be successful.” Howe embraces a modern vision of political possibility, even political heroism, whereas the novelists Scheingold studies have a much darker perspective, “late-modern” rather than modern, that draws the full consequences of war, genocide, and failed revolution. “Howe is,” writes Scheingold, “simply unable or unwilling to grasp the possibility that his vision of heroic struggle as the essence of politics had lost much of its explanatory power over the course of the twentieth century.”
Howe and Scheingold assume that political novels have a prophetic quality, hopeful or pessimistic, an assumption with which I agree. But for different reasons I also take issue with each approach. My argument is that both authors overlook a moment—perhaps a predisposition—of the literary imagination that is more fleeting but paradoxically also more ”foundational” than either heroism or estrangement. I call this predisposition “stillness,” and I’ll try to uncover some of its features by concentrating on two major (and quite dissimilar) novels that to my knowledge have never been discussed together—Ignazio Silone’s Bread and Wine (1936) and W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz (2001). I’ll speculate that both novels belong to a larger literary trajectory, traceable throughout the past century, and shaped by a willingness to stand with history’s victims without however giving up on history itself or on a politics by which alternative histories may be made.
Ignazio Silone (Secondo Tranquilli) was until recently one of the most beloved figures of the Italian Left. A founding member of the Italian Communist party in 1921, Silone rose to prominence in the party until he was expelled a decade later. Already by 1929 he had gone into self-imposed exile in Switzerland. There he launched a literary career that produced the Abruzzo Trilogy, of which Bread and Wine was the second book. He went on to become an internationally renowned novelist whose Fontamara, the first book of the trilogy, was translated into thirty-seven languages. He was rightly regarded as a defender of individual conscience against authoritarian rule and an exemplary figure in the history of political fiction.
Silone has recently become a figure of controversy. In the late 1990s, nearly two decades after his death, archival research showed that the young Communist militant was also a fascist police informer in the ‘20s. This discovery set off a firestorm of debate that still continues. I’ll not enter that debate here, but I will stress, as literary critic Elizabeth Leake does, that we mustn’t overlook how “good things happen when people read [Silone]” even when they know of his personal history.
The Abruzzo Trilogy tells the story of the cafoni, the peasantry of the central Italian region in which Silone grew up. Of the three novels, Bread and Wine is regarded as the masterpiece, although Fontamara is celebrated for its raw evocation of peasant life under fascism. Bread and Wine is also central to understanding the relation between the author’s text and the “extra-text” of his life and politics. The novel’s main character, Pietro Spina, is a Communist party agitator who returns to his home area of the Abruzzo after years in political exile. In order to survive in Mussolini’s Italy, Spina adopts a new identity, that of a Catholic priest, whose name is Paolo Spade. The novel follows Spina/Spade’s movements between his public life as a priest and his underground existence as a Communist operative seeking reconnection with his party’s struggle against fascism.
Silone set his novel against the historical backdrop of Italy’s brutal war on Ethiopia in 1935. But of equal significance are the socio-economic conditions of the peasantry. The peasants are portrayed in their everyday struggles to eke out an existence under a regime that offered praise and numerous modernization schemes but simultaneously enhanced large landowners’ power. One learns that fascism finally did little for the peasantry, especially for those at the bottom of society; the “Southern problem” remained, in all its complexity. Tied to the land, dependent on weather and crops, perched precariously between subsistence and disaster, the peasantry’s existence remained out of step with the glare and movement of fascist “history.” This juxtaposition of fascist noise and the stillness of the peasant’s hard, “timeless” existence, of history and nature, is a key source of the novel’s narrative tension.
Equally important is the evolution of Pietro Spina’s attitude toward politics and the church. Returning from exile, Spina re-establishes contact with the Communist underground, only to rediscover his ambivalence about the party. “I have ceased to be a peasant,” he says, “but I have not become a politician” (76). Much as Silone himself was disillusioned with party orthodoxy in the late 1920s, Spina recoils at the imposition of Communist dogma on grassroots activists whose target populations care little about arcane internecine battles within the Soviet Union. The party is excessively bureaucratized, dependent on Moscow’s direction, preoccupied with ideological correctness. Spina realizes he needs to be “free of all abstractions” (75) if he is to connect with the peasants. Notions of “class struggle,” “freedom,” and “liberty” mean little to a poverty-stricken people whose horizon is unalterably shaped by daily agricultural labor. At one point, Spina writes in his notebook what sounds like the title to a theoretical essay: “On the inaccessibility of the cafoni to politics” (130). He sits “for a long time with his head between his hands,” finally writing, “`Perhaps they are right’” (130).
Spina the political operative is also Paolo Spade the Catholic priest. As a deeply religious schoolboy, Spina had been the pupil of Don Benedetto, now an elderly priest who is persona non grata in fascist Italy because of his open disregard for the regime. Benedetto’s opposition to a Church that slavishly supports fascist politics is likewise a source of the old priest’s isolation. Spade’s critical attitude toward organized Catholicism was deeply marked by Benedetto’s mentoring. He hates the idea of impersonating a priest, which, as he finds out later, was Don Benedetto’s plan to give him cover. He is annoyed that the peasants of the mountain town Pietrasecca fall over one another currying his favor. He resists requests to hear confession, claiming the Church has sent him to an isolated spot to recover from a long illness. But just as he discovers that the peasantry is “inaccessible” to Communist politics, he finds they are at some level inaccessible to Catholic teaching. Despite their respect for the office of the priest, they are coarse and often childlike in their gullibility, they drink too much, they are envious and often selfish, and they see no contradiction between Catholic teaching and their belief in the evil eye, magical spells, and superstitions. The peasants were not “good Catholics.”
If one were to stop there, one could agree with Stuart Scheingold that Bread and Wine confirms the thesis of political estrangement and despair over the individual’s lack of political agency. Not only that: Paolo Spade’s experience as a priest seems only to reinforce his hatred of the Catholic church and to further alienate him from the religiosity of his early years. At one point Spade writes, “we can’t go on nursing illusions,” (83) and this point applied to both politics and religion. Furthermore, just as Scheingold argues, Irving Howe’s praise of Bread and Wine is based on, in Howe’s own words, appreciation for Silone’s faithfulness “to the rebellious and fraternal impulse behind the dogmas” that have been discarded. But one must not stop there either.
Irving Howe gets somewhat closer to the nub of the matter than Scheingold does when he notes that Silone in Bread and Wine and Fontamara hits on “the most profound vision of what heroism can be in the modern world.” This is neither the virile and very public heroism of Hemingway’s characters nor the Existentialist commitment of Andre Malraux’s Man’s Fate. Rather, “in the age of totalitarianism,” writes Howe, “it is possible for an heroic action to consist of nothing but stillness.” Moreover, “for Spina and many others there may never be the possibility of an outward or public gesture.” “Heroism,” in short, “is a condition of readiness, a talent for waiting.”
I agree with the spirit of Howe’s observation, but since Howe does not provide the letter, I want to move beyond his argument to suggest how “stillness” works. One clue comes from Howe’s remark that in Fontamara in particular, Silone captures the “nonpolitical actuality” of the peasantry. Spina/Spade’s great discovery is that neither abstract political argument nor religious dogma mean much to the peasantry. When a local fascist schoolmistress lectures the peasantry on Mussolini, she claims that all nations of the world envied Italy for il Duce. “`Who knows what they would be willing to pay to acquire our leader’,” she gushes. The old peasant Magascià, however, “disliked generalities,” and was unhappy with the statement. “He wanted to know exactly how much other nations would be willing to pay to acquire” Mussolini (125). Additionally, Bread and Wine is famous for its numerous peasant anecdotes. To questions that seem to require more general or summary statements, peasant interlocutors often respond with pithy stories and jokes drawn from their daily experiences.
The theme of “actuality” is most forcefully found in the title of the novel itself. The meaning of “bread and wine” in Silone’s work goes well beyond Catholic dogma. Throughout the novel, the characters drink wine and eat bread. Spina/Spade constantly refuses an overly solicitous landlady’s offerings of pasta for the evening meal; since the better wheat always goes into pasta, he prefers the wheat used for bread, the everyday food of the peasantry. The making of bread, as Don Paolo witnesses, was “a ritual with strict rules,” prescribed in tradition and carried out with almost religious reverence (228). As Spade watches the bread-making, a young man, Luigi Murica, recommended by Don Benedetto, visits to “confess” to him. It turns out that the young man, like Silone in his youth, had been both a member of the Communist party and a fascist informer who was nearly torn apart by his double life. In the end we learn that Murica is imprisoned, tortured, and murdered in a way that resembles Christ’s passion. Shedding his priestly garb, Spina attends the wake, where not only the Murica family but several of the novel’s other characters meet in a kind of secular communion. Murica’s father offers the mourners bread and wine, recalling that Luigi had helped his father harvest the wheat and grow the grapes. “This is his bread,” says the father, and “his wine” (262). Pietro tells the mourners that bread is made of many grains and therefore symbolized unity just as wine is made of many grapes. Murica’s father notes that it takes nine months to make bread and nine months for grapes to ripen, just as it takes nine months to make a man, a coincidence that has the force of a revelation for the assembled.
Bread and wine in their daily actuality is “presence,” not in the sense of Catholic orthodoxy, but in a multiplicity of tangible objects, relations, and practices. A “Christ-figure” such as Luigi Murica—which some readers see an aspect of the author’s own persona—is a staple of Silone’s fiction, and in the scene of the Murica family’s “communion,” he may be taken as one such manifestation of this presence. But so too are the quotidian routines of peasant life and the peasants themselves. In his resistance against abstraction, Pietro Spina discovers that peasant politics, if such a thing can exist, consists of the intermittent moments of “organic” solidarity such as the Murica family’s get-together, which itself is rooted in the everyday life of the community and the often generations-long familiarity of families with one another.
Similarly, Paolo Spade, initially reluctant to perform priestly duties, finds himself gradually (and still reluctantly) drawn into the confessional life of the peasantry, so that by the end of the novel, his hotel room “became public property, as it were, with people continually coming in and going out” (242). People come to confess, receive advice, and find out for themselves if he is the saint many locals say he is. By the time of the event at the Murica household, his speech is as much pastoral as political. The bread and the wine, he says, are “unity of similar, equal, useful things. Hence truth and fraternity are also things that go well together” (263). The false Catholic priest has discovered a primitive Christian fraternity in the presence of the peasants that overlaps with and reinforces the event of solidarity itself. And he has found all this not by “educating” the peasantry or fitting them into some grand political narrative, not, in other words, “standing for” them in any way, but rather by “standing with” them, arm-in-arm as it were, whatever the result. This “standing-with,” this identification with the victims of social injustice, is a key attribute of that stillness Silone captures so well.
Spina/Spade’s “standing-with” is made possible finally by his willingness to wait and listen. The presence of the peasantry, whom Silone goes to great pains not to idealize, forces the main character of Bread and Wine to unlearn much of what he knows, to abandon past “meaning” in other words, and to rely on his own native sense of what to do. The character of Cristina, the beautiful and saintly daughter of a landowning family fallen on hard times, plays a central role here. Pietro Spina falls in love with Cristina, who seems to return to him a feeling of youthful innocence. Indeed, some readers have found in Cristina another dimension of Spina’s personality, as if Cristina/Pietro were one person. The central point is that to “stand with” the peasantry necessitates stripping one’s personality of adult abstractions, whether from politics or religion, and returning to a more authentic and childlike engagement with the world.
Such engagement includes sociability and a willingness to wait and listen. As Spina/Spade begins to come out of his isolation, he rediscovers “a natural urge…to be sociable” (113). One afternoon, he waits to meet someone, anyone, in the village with whom he can talk. He recalls that, “as a boy he had waited after catechism in the evening in the square…for other boys, nearly all the sons of poor people, to join him and play games…He knew how to wait” (113). His calm waiting is rewarded by a chance meeting with one of the local peasants and his son, who complain, tell him stories, and respond to his questions.
There is much more to say about Bread and Wine, but I’d like now to turn the second novel under consideration here, W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, to elaborate further these three elements of stillness—presence, standing-with, and waiting/listening—in a much different context.
Silone was once quite famous on this side of the Atlantic, but his visibility has lessened over the decades. W.G. Sebald is by contrast now internationally renowned. It is no exaggeration to say a kind of cottage industry has grown up around the German-born author after his premature death in 2001 in a car accident in England, where he lived and taught for thirty years. Not only his novels but his nonfiction has garnered much attention, most notably On the Natural History of Destruction, which stimulated debate on Allied bombing of German cities and German victimhood. Unlike Silone’s prose, which is unadorned and realistic, Sebald’s writing is complex and serpentine. Also unlike Silone’s work, Sebald’s fiction defies categorization. Sebald himself referred to Austerlitz not as a novel but as a “prose-book of uncertain form.” Because Sebald often includes numerous photographs and diagrams in his novels, some critics see him in the tradition of German “documentary fiction” like that written by the novelist and filmmaker Alexander Kluge. Perhaps the most that can be said about Sebald’s style here is that his fiction travels through numerous genres including the novel, history book, document, memoir, and travelogue.
Of course, Silone and Sebald stand in very different historical locations—the Italian author within the international political crisis that led up to war and genocide, and the German in the still powerful wake of the Holocaust, the most extreme event of an age of extremes. So “extreme” was the Holocaust—in the sense of being so utterly concentrated on a single group and designed so explicitly to bring about its annihilation—that of course many scholars argue for its non-comparability. It would take us well beyond this paper to discuss such ethically fraught debates about the “limits of representation.” I hope it suffices to note that I am aware of the stakes involved in discussing the novels together.
Despite such differences, I would suggest that Bread and Wine and Austerlitz speak to a related political trajectory. Austerlitz does so in a circuitous manner ostensibly not at all like the linear plot progression of Bread and Wine. But there is perhaps more affinity here than a superficial reading suggests. It has been written of Silone that he was a writer who knew how to take his time, and indeed, Bread and Wine is often a leisurely narrative that captures the rhythm of peasant life. In a related way, Sebald’s prose, marked by famously long sentences and undulating paragraphs spreading over several pages, is known for its melancholic slowness. It is as if both authors have made a concerted attempt to achieve a stylistic stillness that halts the inimitable and clamorous march of “progress,” either in its 1930s fascist version, or its contemporary, neo-liberal version. But Sebald’s stillness has another function related to the specific nature of contemporary society, namely that he writes against the often strident and self-serving rhetoric of “victimology” that has congealed around much Holocaust fiction. He does so, moreover, by writing with a clear view of Jewish victims.
Sebald’s story is told through the eyes of a German-born narrator living in England (likely Sebald) who by chance meets a professor of architecture, Jacques Austerlitz, in a train station waiting room in Antwerp in the 1960s. We learn that Austerlitz was sent to England by his Czech-Jewish parents in the Kindertransport program designed to rescue children from Europe before the start of World War II. But Austerlitz, raised by foster parents in Wales, has no recollection of his early life in Prague except for a feeling of being haunted by trauma. Unable to relate emotionally to his own life history, depressed and alone, he has a breakdown in the early ‘90s, which leads him to try to recover his personal past by studying photographs, films, stories, and archival documents. His efforts meet with partial success, as when he has an emotionally charged meeting with his old nursemaid in Prague, who tells him of his mother’s death in the Terezín (Theresienstadt) concentration camp.
Even so, his attempts to reach a deeper emotional memory of his parents fail. Not only has his life been irretrievably altered by a major historical event; his desire to remember also confronts the inadequacies of “post-memory,” the effort to gain a personal understanding of the past through prosthetic or mediated sources. The novel suggests that Austerlitz’s failure is a specific and extreme example of a much wider dilemma from which the narrator too cannot escape, namely the enormous difficulty of remembering in an image-driven society that multiplies “pasts” even as it renders them bloodless, abstract, and distant.
If desiccated memory, both personal and public, is the core of the story, there is nonetheless a sense that the presence of Austerlitz as such is an important rejoinder. As with Bread and Wine, the title of the book itself points to a living presence. Austerlitz’s being was violently shaped by history, but his survival and suffering are crucial foils to societal amnesia. The title of the book announces that Austerlitz is here, riven by the pain of a traumatic past, but here nonetheless. It is true that, as we learn through the course of the telling, Austerlitz’s presence is filtered through his collection of texts and images that comes into the narrator’s possession much after the main action of the novel takes place; the narrator’s story is based on his often indistinct memory of the two men’s encounters. Yet Austerlitz is a unique character whose being shines through the thick fabric of abstraction that separates the narrator’s past and present. Austerlitz, writes the narrator, differed from the other people in the waiting room at the Antwerp train station “in being the only one who was not staring apathetically into space” (7). Instead, he was taking notes and making sketches. Even here, Austerlitz’s presence is mediated. The narrator notes Austerlitz was youthful in appearance, “with fair, curiously wavy hair of a kind I had seen elsewhere only on the German hero Siegfried in Fritz Lang’s Nibelungen film” (7). To the narrator, Austerlitz’s uniqueness can be described only with reference to film—and a film richly steeped in German myth at that. Much later in the novel, this indirection continues, as the narrator remembers Austerlitz not always by how he actually looks, but rather by recalling his similarity to photographs of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, rucksack and all.
Still, the German-born narrator is changed by his encounter. As the novel begins, we read that he often traveled from England to Belgium for study purposes, but “partly for other reasons which were never entirely clear to [him]” (3). Like Austerlitz, the narrator is aware of unknown, unrecoverable aspects of his own persona. Soon after first meeting with Austerlitz, who speaks at length about “the marks of pain which…trace countless fine lines through history” (14), he breaks off a subsequent trip to stop at the Belgian fortress of Breendonk, which Austerlitz has also mentioned. Twice captured by German armies in the world wars, Breendonk causes the narrator to feel overwhelmed by “how everything is lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life” (24). This comment opens a window on the disaster that has marked both Austerlitz’s being as well as that of the narrator, an expatriate member of the perpetrator community. As he explores the fortress, its eerie walls and underground chambers lead him to contemplate how “no one can explain exactly what happens with us when the doors behind which our childhood terrors lurk are flung open” (25).
It is here in Breendonk—to which the narrator will return at the end of the novel— where we first glimpse his pain as he recognizes his inextricable link to the perpetrator nation. Breendonk was used by the Germans to torture prisoners, including the French resister Jean Améry, who hung by his hands tied behind his back, and who throughout his life recalled the sound of his arms dislocating from the shoulders. The narrator recalls reading of Améry’s account as well as that of another prisoner, Gastone Novelli, who was subjected to similar torture, and who after liberation found the sight of a German intolerable. The narrator becomes sick, he rests his head against the fortress wall, “which was gritty, covered with bluish spots, and seemed to me to be perspiring cold beads of sweat” (25-6). Nausea overtakes him. Yet we learn that he read Améry’s account only years after his visit to Breendonk. It appears to have been a much more direct and personal memory that occasioned his sickness. Unaccountably, the “nauseating smell of soft soap” (25) came to him in the fortress, calling forth a memory from “some strange place in my head” (25) the “bizarre German word for scrubbing brush, Wurzelbürste,” which his father loved but he, the narrator, hated. A quite specific memory of childhood has years later wound its way through Austerlitz’s story and the narrator’s subsequent reading. The result for the narrator is both physical discomfort and anxiety over knowing that such violence was done to fellow-human beings on one’s behalf.
He continues to meet Austerlitz, usually through chance encounters. During such meetings, “it was almost impossible to talk to [Austerlitz] about anything personal” (31). Yet if Austerlitz remains an obscure figure, the narrator develops a strong attachment to him. They converse mostly in French at first, a language Austerlitz speaks with “natural perfection,” the narrator with “lamentable awkwardness” (31). When they switch to English, the narrator is more fluent, and it is Austerlitz who hesitates, stutters, clutches his glasses case so tightly his knuckles turn white. The narrator “was strangely touched to notice in him an insecurity” (32). The narrator is also impressed by Austerlitz’s learning. He comments that Austerlitz, a lecturer at a London art institute, was “the first teacher I could listen to since my time in primary school” (33). Most of his other teachers in Germany had built their careers in the 1930s and ‘40s, “and still nurtured delusions of power” (33). The narrator easily grasped Austerlitz’s argument that architecture of the capitalist era had a “compulsive sense of order,” evidenced in law courts, stock exchanges, even mass housing for laborers (33). The Holocaust survivor and the non-Jewish German expatriate come to share a common feeling that modernity is capable of shattering everything in its path, including much of nature—all that is solid does indeed melt into air. They see that the Foucaldian subjugation of the individual is prefigured in the architectural spaces of earlier centuries. They arrive at this shared insight from quite different paths, but they arrive nonetheless, to stand in the same place.
The depth of the narrator’s attachment to Austerlitz is even clearer when we read that after twenty years when the two men did not see each other—during which time the narrator moved back to Germany, then returned to England and had an unspecified psychological crisis (34)—a chance meeting between them takes place in the Great Eastern bar at the Liverpool Street train station in London. There they take up their conversation “more or less where it had been broken off” two decades earlier (41). An “astonishing, positively imperative internal logic” (44) drew Austerlitz there to meet the narrator. Austerlitz had been thinking of the two men’s encounters in Belgium years before and told himself he needed someone to whom he could tell the story of his early life, a story he had learned only in the intervening years. For this, Austerlitz said, “he needed the kind of listener” the narrator had once been (43).
The narrator serves a function despite his relative marginality to Austerlitz’s story. He has received a “call,” a summons from an “other.” He is not responsible for the call; most of his meetings with Austerlitz are uncanny, chance occurrences. Nor has he decided to “work through” or “overcome” history. Vergangenheitsbewältigung, the idea of “mastering the past,” still widely discussed in German culture, is not on the agenda. “Mastering the past” is an agentic metaphor suggesting that the rational, self-contained individual could dominate an unwieldy history, almost as if she were training for a marathon—and without the presence of victims as well. What is on the agenda for the narrator is the seemingly simple task of listening and waiting, being ready—a standing “with,” not a standing “in” or “for.”
So the narrator listens. He hears how Austerlitz’s Welsh foster parents, a Calvinist preacher and his depressed wife Gwendolyn, leave the young boy with “a kind of Old Testament mythology of retribution” encompassing all human history including modern-day ideas of progress. He hears of how the young boy feels abandoned in the emotionless home of his foster parents and sees Austerlitz’s need for genuine human warmth (51). He listens as Austerlitz recalls being told his real name by one of his schoolteachers, and how he felt at home with the name only once it was repeated in history lessons on the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805, that is, through second-hand sources. Ensconced in the Liverpool Street bar, the two are so engrossed in Austerlitz’s Welsh tale that they lose track of time. It is as if they have found a point of relative equilibrium, a minute, still island, in what is a noisily flowing river of memory. Deeply moved, the narrator goes to his hotel room to write what he remembers of Austerlitz’s story; he works until late into the next morning (97).
Sebald took great chances in crafting this story of “identification’’ between Austerlitz and the narrator. He was aware of the enormous ethical problems associated with fictional accounts of how “good Germans” come to identify with the Jewish victims of the Shoah. From interviews we know he was conversant with Holocaust literature by Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, who insisted on victims’ testimony as the most authentic and only morally defensible form of writing on the Holocaust. Sebald felt keenly how the dangers of blending victim and perpetrator, as happens in Bernhard Schlink’s flawed novel The Reader, could result in sentimentalized kitsch or worse, and he warned against “usurpation.” His use of unconventional motifs and documentary forms, his denial that Austerlitz was a novel at all, bespoke his awareness of the numerous dilemmas inherent in Holocaust representation. As Mary Cosgrove notes, Sebald understood the central paradox, namely “the desire to meet the ethical standards of testimony while producing a fictional text.” 
Yet Sebald felt the writer must plunge ahead, convinced that some form of identification was finally necessary, indeed that one’s humanity, one’s ability to empathize with those who suffer, was at stake. Importantly, this identification takes place on Austerlitz’s terms as he relates his deep sense of trauma, his depression, and his breakdown. The entire novel is scorched with Austerlitz’s pain, indeed, with the pulsating emotions of his heart. When Austerlitz heard his Welsh foster father’s memory of the submersion of his boyhood village by a reservoir, he, Austerlitz, carried with him a vision of the village still going about its daily affairs underwater, an image that prefigured his constant sense of being haunted by the dead (51). When his former nursemaid showed him a picture of his five-year-old self dressed up to go to a masked ball months before he was taken away from Prague, he “dared not touch it…[he was] speechless and uncomprehending, incapable of any lucid thought” (184, 185). When he toured the Ghetto Museum of Terezín, where his mother was murdered, he “could not believe his eyes, and several times has to turn away…having for the first time acquired some idea of the history of the persecution which my avoidance system had kept from me for so long” (198). The narrator does not intervene in Austerlitz’s wrenching memory-work; nor does he try to impart some deeper meaning. He stands and listens, moved by the raw emotion, the never-quite-finished pain of the man before him.
Nor does Sebald suggest there are definitive historical conclusions to be made. Austerlitz, in the Terezín museum, says at one point: “I understood it all now, yet I did not understand it, for every detail…far exceeded my comprehension” (199). Irresolution remains at the heart of the two men’s relationship. Their bond is, as the narrator notes, “both a close and a distant one” (34), almost as if he is characterizing the awkward relation of German and Jew in the post-Holocaust world. There is neither a moving forward, in the strict sense, nor an ending. We are left with narrator’s musing where he began, at the Breendonk fortress. Neither heroism nor estrangement characterizes Austerlitz’s or the narrator’s position. Nonetheless, something has happened. A still, incomplete, often painful relation has been created. A simple yet vastly complex motion has occurred. Somebody spoke, and an unnamed narrator stood, waited, and listened—nothing more.
I conclude by referring to an essay written in 1922 by the social philosopher Siegfried Kracauer. The title of the essay, “Those Who Wait,” referred to individuals whose “metaphysical suffering” was attributable to their realization that the world lacked higher meaning. The reasons for this “emptying out of people’s spiritual/intellectual space” (129) were numerous—secularization, Enlightenment rationality and Romantic deepening of the self, capitalism’s atomizing effects on community. This metaphysical suffering left such individuals in “exile,” where an inability to believe in “every major trans-individual agreement” (131) obtained. Kracauer saw the philosopher Georg Simmel and sociologist Max Weber as key intellectuals within this group. But he also noted other less distinguished sufferers who restlessly searched for escape.
Yet there was a positive element. Individuals wandering in the spiritual wasteland of postwar Europe were also open to new discoveries, new prisms with which to refract societal light. These individuals “waited,” which did not mean literal stasis but often “engaged self-preparation” (139). The activity of “one-who-waits” (139) involved a shift in emphasis “from the theoretical self to the self of the entire human being” as an antidote to the “overburdening of theoretical thinking [that] has led us, to a horrifying degree, to become distanced from reality” (139-40). For the one-who-waits, the world “demands to be seen concretely” (140); when it is so seen, it may lead to an awareness of “multiple determinations” for life in community, determinations whose effectiveness cannot be gauged through conceptual-theoretical or purely subjective means.
Kracauer’s commentary may be read alongside Carlo Ginsburg’s notion of “borrowings” between history and fiction to suggest that fictional narratives do a better job directing the historian to the felt emotional reality of “those who wait” than analytical history does. While intellectual or cultural history may tell us much about what happened and why it happened, the novelist, the short story writer, and the poet may sound narrative depths unavailable to the historian. In very different ways, Silone and Sebald do that by giving tangible form to “waiting.”
But Kracauer’s commentary leads to a historical argument as well. In Bread and Wine and Austerlitz, books separated by decades and deep historical ruptures, the symbolic stillness of waiting is engendered through encounters with history’s victims. These literary narratives imagine an authentic bond between those who suffer and those willing to stand with them, simply and unspectacularly, as necessary listeners. They stand outside or disrupt history in ways that neither Howe’s heroes nor Scheingold’s alienated souls do. Though pointing in opposite directions, both Howe’s and Scheingold’s readings are heavily invested in the noise and passion of a violent age; they are cut from the same gaudy historical fabric they critique. In contrast, stillness is a worn gray suit, an almost languid exile in an age of fury and conflict. From stillness may eventually come either heroism or estrangement; but it is necessarily antecedent to both.
From stillness may come a kind of productive laziness as well, as one finds it in the 1950s in the Franco-Egyptian novelist Albert Cossery’s Proud Beggars. Such laziness is not necessarily a lack of action, but rather an unhurried solidarity among Cossery’s impoverished characters, whose only power comes from refusing modern capitalism’s competitive ruthlessness. “Proud beggars” all, they stand aside, and stand with each other in the process. Or from stillness may come the simple awareness of life’s value, even when death approaches, as it does for the German soldier and Polish prostitute of Heinrich Böll’s 1949 novel, The Train Was on Time. Noting these other examples suggests that Silone and Sebald participate in a historical trajectory that is wide and deep.
Kracauer wrote of how one-who-waits looks to a more rounded self than that offered by an overly rationalized theoretical culture, which leads to my final remark. In a recent study, Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey, literary theorist Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht argues that humanities scholarship’s obsession with interpretation and attribution of meaning leads it to overlook how both art and life “bring forth” more concrete, sensory reactions. The “presence effect” of reality is as important as its “meaning effect,” and may under certain conditions be even more important. Gumbrecht is careful not to posit an unproblematic or naïve notion of experience. His emphasis on “presence” nonetheless points to a more “authentic,” somatically rich, less intellectualized engagement with “world” than that offered by the Cartesian philosophical tradition or postmodernist reduction of everything to pure textuality. Such engagement often requires stillness, a willingness to wait, and (to use Gumbrecht’s Heideggerian terms) openness to the “unconcealment” and hiding of Being in the happening of truth.
Pietro Spina and the unnamed narrator of Austerlitz experience Gumbrecht’s “presence.” Responding to the actuality of those crushed by history, they divest themselves of abstract “meaning effects” that might have resulted in the former’s ideological suicide or the latter’s amnesia. In doing so, they are able to stand, quietly and soberly, with the peasant victims of fascism and the survivors of Nazi genocide. Their authors remind us, in other words, of what it may take to become more fully human again after the age of extremes, when the “dialectic of Enlightenment” produced untold violence that still scars the world. And if the recovery of humanity is a premise for rethinking community, then both novels, along with the trajectory in which they are nested, are important resources for a recovery of the political in the twenty-first century.
 Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991 (New York: Pantheon, 1994).
 The Historical Novel (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1962).
 Sarah Pinto, “Emotional Histories and Historical Emotions: Looking at the Past in Historical Novels, Rethinking History 14, 2 (June 2010): 189-207; Harry Liebersohn, “Reliving an Age of Heroes with Patrick O’Brian,” Rethinking History 11, 3 (September, 2007): 447-460.
 Carlo Ginsborg, Threads and Traces: True False Fictive (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2012), 2.
 Agnes Heller, “The Contemporary Historical Novel,” Thesis Eleven 106, 1 (2011): 89.
 Stuart Scheingold, The Political Novel: Re-Imagining the Twentieth Century (New York: Continuum, 2012).
 Ibid., 3.
 Irving Howe, Politics and the Novel (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1957; 2002).
 Ibid., 17; italics in original.
 Scheingold, Political Novel, 17.
 Ibid., 12.
 Ignazio Silone, Bread and Wine (New York: Signet Classics, 1986; originally published 1936); W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz (New York: Modern Library, 2001).
 Howe, Politics and the Novel, 217-26.
 Elizabeth Leake, The Reinvention of Ignazio Silone (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003), 156.
 The terminology is taken from Brian Moloney, Italian Novels of Peasant Crisis, 1930-1950 (Dublin, Ireland: Four Courts Press, 2005).
 One hears echoes of Silone’s passages on the peasantry’s religious syncretism in another very different book of the time, Carlo Levi’s account of his year in exile in 1935 in Christ stopped at Eboli: The Story of a Year (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1947; 1974).
 Howe, Politics and the Novel, 224.
 Ibid., 226.
 Ibid., 219.
 Moloney, Italian Novels, ch. 8.
 Find source.
 Richard Sheppard, “`Woods, Trees, and Spaces in Between’: A Report on Work Published on W.G. Sebald 2005-2008,” Journal of European Studies 39 (1): 79-128; Scott Denham and Mark McCulloh, eds. W.G. Sebald: History-Memory-Trauma (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2006; Richard Crownshaw, The Afterlife of Holocaust Memory in Contemporary Literature and Culture (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010).
 Cited in Mary Cosgrove, “W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz,” in The Novel in German Since 1990, ed. Stuart Taberner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 195-210, here 195.
 Howe, Politics and the Novel, 219.
 For this argument, see Cosgrove, “Sebald’s Austerlitz,” 198-200.
 Ibid., 200.
 In Siegfried Kracauer, The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays, ed. Thomas Y. Levin (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1995), 129-140.
 Italics in the original.
 (New York: New York Review of Books Press, 1981); originally published 1955.
 (New York: Melville House, 2011); originally published, 1949.
 (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2004).
Just had this piece published in the Chicago-based literary magazine, Literary Orphans. My thanks to Scott Waldyn, the editor. The idea for this story came from reading about Italian immigrants’ return to their homeland in the 1930s after finding the US not to their liking. I’ve updated the tale by focusing on an Egyptian family sometime in the present. Below, the full text and a link to the magazine.
Anwar has worked three years to make it happen. He’s saved everything from the convenience store, slept in the back room until two months ago, worked every day, except for the odd afternoon when his cousin covered. Today his cousin minds the register while Anwar drives to the airport in a car his cousin borrowed from a friend.
At the airport he waits. The flight is delayed. An hour. Another. Anwar is unconcerned. He’s waited this long, he can wait a little longer. Then the Arrivals board flashes. He waits more. Soon he sees them coming down the stairs. His wife Yadira seems thinner, smaller. He feels her in his arms, doesn’t have time to think, because his two boys can’t wait, they’re six and eight, he hugs them, feels their wiry bodies. Hugs his wife again, and she melts, how many nights he’s longed to hold her.
He takes them to his apartment. Just two bedrooms, the boys will share, but the place is far bigger than anything they could have had in Cairo. He’s painted, installed a new toilet, bought a used refrigerator. Everything clean and tidy. Tomorrow he will show his wife the store, show Yadira how well he is doing. They’ve discussed it. At first Yadira resisted, then seemed to come around. She will help with the store, and when the boys are old enough, they will do the lion’s share of work.
The first night in bed with his wife is awkward. Their bodies don’t seem to fit. Breakfast with the boys is awkward. Anwar can’t quite put his finger on the problem. Are they different people now? Yadira is still sweet, but more within herself. What does she think of him now? And his boys, they smell different. No longer babies.
They go to the store. His wife sees rows of potato chips, bread, insect repellant, candy bars, hand sanitizer, cookies, air freshener, pretzels, ant traps, chewing gum, combs, soda, milk, antifreeze, canned meat, windshield washer fluid, vegetable juice, toilet bowl cleaner, breath mints, motor oil, beef jerky, peanut butter, dog and cat food, mustard, paper towels, sunglasses, sanitary napkins, canned soup, mayonnaise, bottled water, sunscreen, sardines, brake fluid, mouthwash, soap, hairbrushes, energy drinks. She looks at Anwar with surprise when she sees a cooler running the length of the store stocked with beer and wine. She frowns when she sees cigarette cartons under the counter. Anwar blushes when she notices racks of pornography behind the register. Anwar, she says, that too? The American way of business, he says. Something for everyone. Convenience.
Anwar’s cousin comes by. Yadira remembers when he was a small, shy boy. Now he is grown, a gold chain around his neck, shirt open at the collar, smell of cologne like a ghost enveloping him. She notices his teeth are near perfect. She avoids opening her mouth when she smiles.
His cousin will take over tomorrow afternoon again. Anwar has a family trip planned, to the zoo. He has the bus route. If they leave the store by noon, they will have most of the afternoon.
The bus is late, traffic snarled, when they arrive it’s mid-afternoon. Anwar buys the boys ice cream and cotton candy, the youngest gets sick, throws up, splatters Anwar’s new shoes. They must catch a return bus by five, otherwise wait two more hours. They transfer once, and when they arrive, Anwar’s cousin is frowning, they’re forty-five minutes late, he has things to do.
Anwar’s family stays with him at the store until closing at nine. The youngest boy still feels weak and lies down on Anwar’s old army cot in the back room, which smells of dumpsters from the alley. Yadira watches Anwar sell beer to young men wearing t-shirts and baseball hats turned backwards. She watches him sell chewing gum and soft drinks to teenage girls wearing short shorts. She sees an old man, his clothes gray and tattered, stop at the entrance to the store, push the glass door open, look at Anwar, frown, shuffle off. Trash, says Anwar to Yadira, who chews her fingernails.
A month goes by. Anwar has to mind the store, day in day out, his cousin is busy, there are no other relatives or friends. He teaches Yadira how to ring up sales, how to use the popcorn machine, how to sell lottery tickets. With each new task she seems to shrink.
It’s July, the hours drag, the boys won’t start school until late August. They’re bored, they fight, the youngest is forever pilfering candy, getting sick. The older boy misses his friends, watches wide-eyed as men come in the store wearing holstered pistols. Anwar tries English with the boys, but they get frustrated and speak only Arabic with their mother.
Anwar tells Yadira she should buy some new clothes, he’s saved money, but she is reluctant. I like my clothes, she says, at least I don’t wear the hijab any more. She is modern, it’s true, thinks Anwar, but there is modern and there is modern.
Crying, Yadira calls her mother every night. Yadira worries about mass shootings and robberies and pornography. She worries about how the boys will do in school. She tells her mother Anwar keeps a revolver under the counter.
Anwar and Yadira sleep with their backs to one another.
Yadira gets even smaller.
One day Anwar tells Yadira he has to step out for a while. A small matter, he says, when he sees concern in her brown eyes. His cousin will cover for an hour or so—Yadira’s not yet ready to mind the store on her own—long enough for Anwar to walk four blocks to a travel agency.
It’s a great time to buy, says a blonde woman at the agency, haven’t seen prices this low in, like, forever. Three tickets, then, she says. Roundtrip?
No, says Anwar, pulling at his gray-flecked beard.
See Literary Orphans here.
My thanks to Justin Meckes and Sam Oches, editors of Scrutiny, for publishing my “Ellipse Disturbed” in their November 2016 issue. Below is the full text and a link to the magazine.
When the loud man with the ridiculous flag tattooed on his neck pulled out of John Feather’s Quality Pre-Owned Vehicles, Marcella knew he would be dead in thirty minutes. She congratulated herself for having paired the right man with the right car in the right place. Not that she wanted to violate what had been her crusty old Aunt Galena’s all-purpose rule: “don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.” But she just knew, and she was happy knowing. She’d gotten over her initial hesitancy about her abilities; why not use them to do some good in the world?
It was a high-mileage Mazda. It looked fast, and had a snappy electric blue paint job. Flag Man probably thought it would attract women. Well, thought Marcella, maybe it does, but not this time. This time, Flag Man would run a light at the intersection of Lincoln and Badwell and get t-boned by a truck. A big truck. Carrying lumber, or maybe something chemical, but Marcella found that possibility frightening because a chemical spill would endanger other people. She’d never had any collateral damage before, or none she knew of, and she didn’t want to start now. But that was much more difficult to control than the car she’d sold, and it often kept her up at night knowing that one day she might have innocents’ blood on her hands. She had no idea what she would do if that happened. The thought was like death itself: you know it will come, but you push it to the back of your mind until it looms up in front of you like a high, black wall.
Marcella put her hand to her mouth to stifle a laugh. Flag Man would have been a menace, sooner or later. She could tell by looking at him and hearing how he talked, all clichés and boastfulness. He kept checking her out, and being obvious about it too. Did he really ask her if she would “take a little spin” with him after she got off work? Maybe Flag Man had a criminal record. He looked the type. Smarmy. He should have been jailed for bad taste if nothing else. His stars-and-stripes tattoo, complete with orange flames that made it look like a comet, was over the top. Yet at the end of the day it wasn’t the orange flames that bothered her—people could do what they wanted with the flag, it was a free country—but that the man had to wear it at all. People who felt a need always to display the red-white-and-blue must suffer from amnesia. Had he forgotten where he lived?
Marcella calmed herself by lighting up a cigarette and taking a long drag. No need to get angry about something as silly as a tattoo. The man wouldn’t darken anyone’s door any longer, or terrorize people with his flaming flag tattoo—that was the important point. Marcella had proved once again that a fifty-something widow could still be a productive member of society; it was a deeply reassuring thought.
* * *
She couldn’t remember when the turning point was, or if there had been one. She didn’t understand how her power worked. Over the past twenty years, she had used her ability sparingly, usually for the good. Maybe it was her husband Terry’s death five years ago, maybe a midlife crisis (did you always know when you were going through one?) that made her increasingly aware of how much dread she could enable. Maybe it was getting laid off at the paper mill in Munising soon after Terry fell from two stories up during a construction job. She’d had to go around town for months scrounging for another job at a time when the economy had tanked and unemployment spiked throughout Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Luckily, John Feathers had been looking for a salesperson. Marcella not only had varied work experiences, but also good legs, and she was willing to show them off in her shortest skirts. John told her she was perfect for the job after she’d crossed and uncrossed her legs several times during the interview.
Marcella often pondered her situation. Her means were inexplicable and her motives uncertain, but her new opportunity was stunningly clear: selling cars was like selling four-wheeled coffins. She started with fender benders and other minor accidents, harmless but still sufficiently annoying for those obnoxious or mean enough to deserve a little static in their lives. She was careful to enable accidents that could only be credited to driver’s error or chance, never a problem with one of John Feathers’s cars. Gradually the accidents became more serious—and more satisfying. No, satisfying was too mild a word. The big accidents became adrenaline. After a while, she felt irritable if six or eight weeks passed without an accident. John, an Anishinaabe who wore a white cowboy hat as big as his paunch, joked about “that time of the month.” One time after she’d snapped at him, he asked, through a whisky haze, how long it had been since she’d slept with a man. “None of your damned business, Chief,” she said gruffly, and stalked out onto the lot.
Not long after Flag Man met his Maker, Tina Beauchamp sauntered onto the lot on a spring afternoon. Tina had gone to school with Marcella from kindergarten through high school. She’d been blonde, pert, and a torturer. Marcella still remembered sitting on the bus in seventh grade when a slow, insistent chant started: “Wino, wino, wino.” The chant was for her, and Tina had instigated it. Kids had always made jokes and teased her about her port-wine stain, which slithered up her neck and chin and ended just below her left eye. But Tina had made it her specialty, turning it into a campaign against the nerdy, bespectacled girl with flaming red hair and a Merlot archipelago on her face. Her mother had always said she’d been kissed by angels, but as a middle-schooler, Marcella cursed the angels for not having left her alone. Worst of all, she thought the teasing was justified. Who wouldn’t think she was a freak?
Into the ninth grade and beyond, she heard the searing litany: “Wino, wino, wino.” She heard it whispered in the lavatory. Sometimes, several girls would chant it as she walked past them in the hallway. She would hear Tina’s allies muttering it under their breath in homeroom. Neither medical treatment nor heavy layers of makeup could ever fully hide the large stain. On and on went the torture until Marcella finally hit on a strategy for self-defense: she would match everyone’s opinion of her by becoming the school’s baddest bad girl. Drinking, smoking pot, sleeping around, a little meth here and there—she did it all. Marcella was the rebel with a cause, and her cause was to become the weirdo wino-girl everyone said she was.
So there was Tina, on the heavier side now, having weathered four kids and three divorces, still blond, thanks to modern chemistry, but not so pert. She wore blue jean shorts that were too tight and too short and a pink t-shirt that revealed more breast than it should have. She looked as if she was still trying to fit into a sixteen-year-old’s clothes.
“Marcella, my, my, haven’t seen you for the longest time, hon,” she said.
“It has been a while.”
“You work here?”
Marcella looked down at her nameplate, intending to say, “what does this tell you, hon?” Instead she said, “almost five years now.”
Tina nodded and coughed nervously. “And how’s every little thing with you?”
“Good,” said Marcella, determined not to respond with “and how are you?”
A few moments of thick silence. “Say, I’m in the market for a used car, and folks say John Feathers is always willing to deal.”
“John’s not on the lot this afternoon.”
“Oh, well, I…”
“But you can deal with me. What are you looking for?”
Marcella showed Tina several cars, and after test driving three, she chose a Chrysler Sebring convertible—lavender with a white leather interior—with 105,000 miles on it and a ding in the rear bumper. The driver’s side seat had a tear in the leather. Still, it wasn’t a bad car compared to some of the clunkers John sold. The license and loan work would take a day, said Marcella, and Tina said she’d be back the next afternoon to pick up the car. Marcella’s imagination was already churning.
Four in the afternoon the next day, and the sky was dense with blue-gray clouds that looked like refugees from January. A strong spring thunderstorm had skirted all along the Lake Superior shoreline overnight, drenching Marquette, Munising, and Grand Marais. The storm had brought cool weather behind it, and it was barely 60 degrees. Marcella loved the dry air, and it was always good to have strong northwest breezes that kept mosquitoes and deer flies in check. Tina arrived right on time to pick up her new car. “Enjoy!” said Marcella waving, as Tina drove the Chrysler out of the lot with the top down and her straight-from-the-bottle blonde hair blowing in the chilly breeze.
That evening, the newscaster broke into tears reporting the fatal car crash of long-time Munising resident Tina Beauchamp. Ms. Beauchamp, a former cheerleader and Homecoming Queen, was survived by four children, seven grandchildren, and two elderly parents, said the broadcaster.
It was Jimmy Stewart Night on Turner Classic Movies, and Marcella watched three movies in a row, finally falling asleep in her chair in the early morning hours. After dinner she’d had several beers, then fixed herself popcorn. She laughed when Jimmy Stewart told a joke, cried when he experienced heartache or tragedy. Jimmy Stewart always made her think of Terry.
* * *
“You don’t look like much of a wop, girl.”
The voice came from the past as Marcella sat at the breakfast table daydreaming. It was the morning after Tina Beauchamp’s demise, and the voice belonged to Lou, Marcella’s older brother. Lou and Marcella were biological brother and sister, and both had been adopted by Giuliana and Roberto Vitarelli, an Italian immigrant couple that had settled in Munising. Lou, as red-haired and freckled as his sister, had always teased Marcella about the contrast between her hair color and her Italian name. They’d speculated their natural parents had been Scottish, Irish, Scandinavian, or German, but then Marcella read someplace that in certain parts of Italy red hair was not uncommon.
“Still, a redhead named Marcella Vitarelli. Seems odd to me,” said Lou, when Marcella had called him with the information.
Even more than Marcella, Lou was the black sheep of the family. The Vitarellis had two sons of their own before they’d adopted Lou and Marcella. One owned a trailer park, the other a string of Laundromats. Lou appeared never to have gainful employment. He drank heavily, smoked two packs of Lucky Strikes daily, charmed the pants off anyone who met him. He seemed to know a little about everything, but not enough about any one thing to make a living from it. He regularly vexed family members for loans—“just to see me through till next week, when I’ve got a little something coming in.” Next week never came. But Lou had one great talent: he could enable certain futures.
Her cornflakes already mushy, Marcella remembered how she found out about Lou’s strange ability, some twenty years before. The youngest Vitarelli brother, Mark, twenty-eight then and already the most successful Laundromat entrepreneur in and around Munising, was getting married. The bridesmaids had worn flowered dresses that Marcella thought looked like brocaded living room drapes. The men had adopted a Western theme and wore blue denim tuxedos with string ties. The reception was at the Elk’s Lodge and was packed with people—everyone wanted a piece of the Laundromat King. Marcella and Lou found themselves outside the hall standing alone smoking cigarettes under a large oak that shielded them from a light summer rain. Lou could drink and drink and never seem drunk. But Marcella had met and exceeded her limit, and she swayed as Lou lit his cigarette for her.
“Marcie, I’ve always liked you,” said Lou as he looked out at the parking lot and blew elliptical smoke rings.
Marcella’s beer-drenched mind was having trouble coming up with a context for her brother’s remark. She studied her brother’s handlebar mustache and red ponytail, which had grown to the middle of his broad back.
“You know, time is an ellipse,” said Lou.
Marcella sat on a wooden bench, feeling as humid as the summer air. She wished she’d not worn panty hose, and she worried she might sweat through her dress and leave a spot. “Yes?” she said, figuring Lou needed a prompt, which of course he didn’t.
“Most people don’t know that,” he said, looking at the rain. “Some folks think time is a straight line, heading off into the future. And in this country, hell, just about everyone thinks that arrow means progress, getting fatter, richer.”
Marcella nodded, but she was more concerned about the heat and her churning stomach.
“The people who think time is a circle, they’re a little closer to the truth. But even they don’t have it quite right. They forget that life sometimes moves along kind of easy. It moves along a relatively flat plane, like the elongated sides of an ellipse. ‘Course, an ellipse is actually a circle. It’s a plane intersecting a cone, forming a closed circle. But we see it from the edge, slightly turned, so it comes to us as an ellipse, like Saturn’s rings.”
He looked at his sister as he threw his Lucky Strike to the ground and put it out with his cowboy boot. “You following?”
Lou lit another Lucky Strike, then held the pack out to Marcella. “Want another?”
Marcella was tempted but said no. She didn’t want to aggravate the nauseous feeling that seemed now to spread from her stomach to her entire body.
“Am I upsetting you, Marcie? You look a little green.”
“No, not at all, Louie. But I’m wondering why you’re telling me this.” Her tongue felt woolly, and she wasn’t sure all the words had come out in the right order.
“You’ll see, you’ll see. Hear me out. I’m almost done. This is the most important part.”
“Okay, I’m listening, but I’m not feeling too well.”
“You can upchuck in a minute,” said Lou impatiently. “It’s when we see life from that edge, okay, that ellipse, that we can affect it. This is what I’ve discovered. We can cause a little perturbation, or a big one, depending. You know what a perturbation is? ‘A disturbance of the regular elliptic or other motion of a celestial body produced by some force additional to that which causes its regular motion’—and that’s a direct quotation from Mr. Webster.”
“Louie, I really have no idea what you’re saying.”
“Sis, I’m saying I know how to cause a little jiggle in someone’s elliptical existence. How to enable this and not that. Because I know, I mean I really know, that a life is a circle tipped at an angle.”
“So what does this have to do with me? This sounds like drunk talk…” Marcella felt like she was talking through a muddy rag.
Lou looked hurt, like a teacher unable to get through to his thickheaded student. He shook his head and sighed. “You should know this. You’re the only one I’ve told. Because I think, if you worked at it, you could do the same thing. I wouldn’t be surprised if our natural parents had the ability, even though they may not have been aware of it. We’ll never know, will we?”
Marcella walked over to the shrubs behind the oak tree, got down on one knee, and heaved up three wrenching streams of partly digested steak, baked potato, and salad. Lou stood over her and gently cradled her forehead with his meaty hand. He patted her on the back, softly rubbed the nape of her neck.
“There you go, sis,” said Lou after he’d led Marcella back to the bench and helped her sit. “You’ll feel better now. Now you’re ready to hear the rest.”
Marcella nodded, but she was uncertain about both things—whether she would feel better and if she was ready to hear the rest of Lou’s tale.
“You have the power, living on the black-sheep edge, like me. You just don’t know you have it. You can, if you apply yourself, enable something for someone else. Not yourself, mind you, for reasons I don’t understand. But we can affect others’ lives. I’ve done it many times, for friends mainly. Helped to heal an injury, or smoothed the edges off a lovers’ spat. Never worked for a family member. Which is too bad, I’d liked to have helped you in the past. But I’ve learned not to question the power. Instead I just use it when and where it’s available to me. And it’s not always available. I’ve found the power to be a fickle thing, and a tease.”
Marcella was feeling better. “How’d you discover you could do this?”
“Oh, that’s irrelevant, finally. Let’s just say it has something to do with a night I spent in Taos, New Mexico, and some peyote and a lot of tequila, and this wise and attractive Hopi lady, probably a powaqa, a witch—no need to get into that.” Lou smiled and looked into the middle distance. It had stopped raining, sunlight edged out from behind thinning clouds, and the pavement steamed.
“So, you’re telling me you’re some kind of sorcerer?”
Lou smiled as his head cocked to the side. He said nothing. A long-haired sphinx in an ill-fitting sport coat.
“I think I will have another of your smokes, Lou.”
Lou took his pack from his inside pocket and handed it to Marcella. As Marcella lit up, Lou continued. “One thing you have to remember. You can’t let your dark feelings—your resentments, hatreds, jealousies, whatever—come into play when shaping someone’s future. Then you cause a horrible, negative perturbation, and everything goes to hell. You have to watch out for that. You could do some serious destruction, even to yourself, to your mind. A powaqa can go in a positive or negative direction.”
“Okay, I get that part. But how exactly do I do this, cause a perturbation in someone’s life, enable one thing and not another. I mean, it must be complicated. Won’t I need a broom and maybe one of those pointy hats? Or the blood of a chicken?”
Lou rolled his eyes, then smiled again as he bared a gold-capped crown. “It’s surprisingly uncomplicated,” he said. “You’ll see this is no bullshit once it works for you. But it does take concentration. Let me show you. First thing is, you have to reach a point of stasis…”
* * *
In the months after Tina Beauchamp’s fiery crash, life felt effortless for Marcella. She was selling more cars than John, and John was drinking more whisky in his back office than ever before. Which was okay for Marcella, since it gave her a more freedom to make deals and price cars. She’d always thought John was inconsistent with pricing, asking too little for better models and too much for lemons. Not that John had given her a blank check. He still wanted to sign off on each deal, but he seemed to have gained more trust in Marcella’s judgment.
She met a nice guy at the Castle Rock Roadhouse over in Wetmore, and even though the fling didn’t go anywhere, it was good to have several weeks of really loud sex, and it gave her confidence she was finally ready, after five long years, to go out and meet people, be sociable, maybe take a trip to Nashville, which she and Terry had always wanted to see. She decided to sell Terry’s truck and buy a Chevy Impala John had taken on a trade-in. It needed a little bodywork, but the engine was in good shape, the tires weren’t that old, the stereo was nice, and it had a dark blue finish Marcella thought looked sophisticated. She loved riding around in the car with the windows down and playing Bonnie Raitt CDs.
One afternoon, a young woman, twenty-something and very pregnant, came into the lot. Marcella had seen her get off the bus and waddle over, and her steps looked so awkward that Marcella almost walked across the street to help. She had spiked up hair, tattoos up and down her thin arms, and multiple piercings in her ears and nose. Marcella thought she looked familiar, and she was struck by the contrast between the young woman’s aggressive looks and her nervous, expectant-mother demeanor.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” she said scratching her forearm as if it was covered in insect bites.
“What can I do for you?”
“Well, my mom, see—she just passed away, a few months ago I mean—she said to come here to look for a car.”
Then it hit her. Tina Beauchamp’s daughter. Her nose was pert (despite the rings), her hair blonde (also bottle-fed), her mannerisms similar to her mother’s. But this shy young woman was no bully, Marcella could tell, even through the ink and steel and barbed hair.
Marcella felt suddenly weak in the knees. Tina’s daughter had obviously been pregnant when the Chrysler Sebring convertible skidded into a ditch off M-28 after hitting a deer. She’d been showing quite a bit, judging from her appearance now. Marcella leaned against the dented fender of a Ford Fusion.
“You okay ma’am?” the woman said.
“I just feel a bit faint. I haven’t eaten today and…” Marcella didn’t bother to finish. “Would you please excuse me for a minute?”
She walked back to the main office to go the restroom. Inside, the fluorescent light made her port-wine stain look darker in the cracked mirror. She ran cold water through her shaking hands, splashed her face. Her skin felt flushed and dirty. She noticed her white blouse had big dark spots under the arms. She crossed herself and said a Hail Mary, something she hadn’t done since Terry’s death.
In the mirror an image appeared, just behind her right shoulder. It was the girl. “No,” said Marcella out loud as she squinted into the mirror. It wasn’t the girl, but her, Marcella, about the same age as Tina’s daughter, with a bloated belly, a waddle for a walk. She held up an appointment slip from a women’s health clinic. The doctor had said he could do the procedure quickly, not to worry, you’ll be home by early evening. Back at her dingy apartment, she had felt unburdened—and desperately alone.
She moved her face closer to the mirror. Behind young, scared Marcella were other figures. A long line of people, at least five, no many more, it was impossible to tell because the line faded off into shadows. Marcella recognized the ones at the front of the line. They were the people she’d chosen for car accidents. Then a searing light exterminated the shadows. Everything in the mirror was illuminated; the detail was excruciating. Disfigured torsos, bloodied faces, limbs twisted in crazy directions, some faces frozen in expressions of horror—all displayed as if under a bright noonday sun. “No!” said Marcella more loudly. She put her hands to her forehead, squeezed as hard as she could, closed her eyes. Was this what Lou had in mind when he warned her?
Once again she looked into the mirror and the brightly lit grotesques were gone. Marcella saw only a middle-aged woman with a red splatter across her face. Her mouth tasted like she’d been chewing aspirin. She turned, thankful to have wrested herself from the mirror’s cruel gaze. She took a long, deep breath, reached for the door handle.
She found the young woman scanning the car lot as if she’d just landed in a strange country. “Thanks for your understanding,” said Marcella. “I just needed a few minutes. So, you said you were looking for a car.”
“Yeah, I’m going to need one soon.” She placed both hands on her immense stomach and patted it gently. “And my mom says, or said, that you could get a good deal at John Feathers.”
“She was so excited about buying her convertible here. It’s all she talked about the day after she found it. And then she only had a few hours to drive it, before, you know…” The woman’s voice trailed off as she looked out toward the bus stop. “She said to ask for Marcella.” Marcella’s body pulsed from a shudder, as strong and irreducible as Lake Superior tides.
They talked, and Marcella found out that Fiona knew nothing about cars. Marcella directed her to a little Subaru Forester, which had a lot of miles, but was safe and sturdy and had a set of new tires. “Mr. Feathers got it at an auction, and the first owner lived in North Carolina, so the underbody doesn’t have as much rust as you’d expect on a car this old in the UP.” Marcella opened the hood and back hatch, had her sit in the driver’s seat after moving it way back from the steering wheel, and asked her if she wanted to go for a test drive.
Fiona shook her head no, then said, “I’ll take it.” The conversation turned to money, about which Fiona knew even less than cars. After Marcella had walked her through down payment and loan options, Fiona looked stunned and on the verge of tears. She had only a few hundred dollars for a down payment and had never held a steady job. She’d probably have no credit report, and banks had gotten cautious about high-risk car loans, especially to young people.
Marcella frowned and bit the inside of her lip. “Can you come back tomorrow?” she asked. “I can probably work something out for you, but I need a day.”
In the back office, John had fallen asleep on the old cot where he napped when business was slack. He snored softly, with one booted foot on the cot and the other on the cracked linoleum floor. There was an empty bottle of Jack Daniel’s on his desk. A single fly busied a wastepaper basket. Marcella roused her slumbering boss after some effort. John snuffed and snorted, said “Christ almighty, an Injun can’t get a little shut eye no more,” but was finally sitting up and nominally aware after a few minutes.
“This is the deal,” said Marcella, seated on the cot next to him.
Exactly twenty-four hours later, Fiona Beauchamp drove out of John Feather’s Quality Pre-Owned Vehicles in a green Subaru Forester. Marcella watched the car pull away, then closed her eyes, crossed herself, and said another Hail Mary.
Back at the office John waited for her. “Twenty percent off, and you’re the co-signer,” he said. He shook his head. The expression on his face—his eyes wide, a thin smile contorting his lips—hung somewhere between amusement and anger. “I told you to do what you wanted, but I never heard o’ that before. We runnin’ a branch a’ St. Vinnie’s here? Or you tryin’ to break me, lady?”
“I know what you been doin’,” said John matter-of-factly. “I seen the pattern. I watch the news too. Don’t know how you been doin’ it, or why, but I know.” He tapped his chest, then his forehead. “Injun intuition.”
Again a shrug.
“Don’t do it no more.”
Marcella turned and walked out. There was an elderly couple looking at a white Toyota Corolla at the front of the lot, and Marcella went over to greet them. Everything in the next hour was painful. The pitch, test drives, small talk about the old couple’s grandchildren. She didn’t care if they bought a car or not. When they said they would have to look around at other car lots, thank you, you’ve been so very helpful, Marcella was relieved to see them drive away.
Marcella stood in the spot where the old couple had left her and looked around the asphalt lot. It was unseasonably warm for late September, a blue sky and pleasant breezes. John’s cheap, multicolored plastic banners fluttered lazily. She smirked as she looked at one of the banners: No Finer Cars in the U.P. Glaring off windshields and fenders and side-view mirrors, sunlight shone like the truth, and Marcella had to shield her eyes.