Rudy Koshar

Rudy Koshar is a former Guggenheim Fellow and 2015 Pushcart Prize nominee whose work appears in Guernica, Corium, Riptide, Black Heart Magazine, Stockholm Review of Literature, Montreal Review, Revolution House, Eclectica, and elsewhere. The author or editor of seven books and over a hundred scholarly articles on German history, he teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, blogs at rudykoshar.net, and is an invited blogger at Huffington Post.

Ellipse Disturbed

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?”

“Think so.”

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.”

Marcella nodded.

“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?”

Marcella shrugged.

“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.

Read Scrutiny here.

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Slavic Cool?

This essay just appeared on HuffingtonPost. Read the full text below and find a link to original post at end of article.

“Slavic cool” is everywhere these days. As Seth Sherwood writes in a recent New York Times travel article, it is especially evident in Belgrade, former capital of Communist Yugoslavia and today a burgeoning economic and cultural hub of the Balkan revival. The fourth-century city features many stunning cultural attractions. From Kalmegadan Park, the historic center, to the still unfinished St. Sava cathedral, Belgrade shimmers in a post-Communist, post-civil-war dawn. Yet on a recent trip to the Balkans including not only Belgrade but also other Balkan cities, I felt a broader range of temperatures, many chillier than expected.

Belgrade is situated on the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers. On the Sava, there are dozens of party barges, where youth from all over Europe dance the night away to the pounding rhythms of disco and techno music. Barge culture is a fitting symbol of Belgrade’s status as the Balkan party capital. But at the party barges one also meets the limits of Slavic cool. Hearing the barges from across the river late one night, I couldn’t help feeling they were a desperate attempt to flee the past and focus on the transient pleasures of the moment.

For centuries, the Balkans were a crossroads in the unceasing battle of empires. Belgrade, Prague, Bratislava, and Sofia are etched with imperial desire. One sees historical traces of Celtic, Roman, Byzantine, German, Austrian, Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman ambition in the culture and architecture of these cities. Outside my hotel in Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, the parking lot was sliced in half because Roman ruins from Constantine’s time had been discovered only a few yards from the hotel entrance. The archeological dig going on below my window reminded me that the Balkans are a vast palimpsest of human accomplishment and suffering.

In Belgrade, we had a skillful guide (call him Anton), a Serbian in his late thirties. Anton was enthusiastic about Belgrade’s opportunity to escape its many pasts. He recognized contemporary Serbia’s economic problems, above all its loss of educated young people to Austria, Germany, and beyond. But he also thought that post-Communist and post-Milosevic Serbia was a markedly more humane and freer society. He had a sharp and ironic sense of humor, a signature of Slavic cool. He had wonderful jokes about the Yugo, the Communist-era car designed to bring motoring to the working masses. (What do we call a Yugo at the top of a hill? A miracle. What do we call two Yugos at the top of a hill? A mirage.)

Yet Anton also referred frequently to arguments he’d had with his parents, who remain loyal to the memory of Tito. The Yugoslav dictator was widely popular across the region in World War II, when he led heroic resistance to Nazi occupation. He ruled postwar Yugoslavia with a mix of material incentive and brutality. He was a bon vivant who enjoyed dining not only with heads of state but also writers, filmmakers, and actresses like Gina Lollobrigida and Sophia Lauren. In Belgrade bookstores one can find Tito’s Cookbook, which features recipes from some of the more memorable dinners the dictator hosted. When he died in 1980, the ethnic and political tensions he had skillfully balanced erupted into a civil war that left dreams of unity between Slovenes, Croats, Bosnians, and Serbs in ashes.

Anton’s parents were attracted not only to Tito’s charisma but also the social and political security his version of Yugoslavia offered. In comparison, vaunted Western freedoms seem counterfeit to them. They see Serbian democracy and neo-liberal economic values as tools used by the rich and powerful to feather their own nests. In their eyes, Slavic cool is superficial, prone to brittleness, and inherently unjust.

I saw other equivalents of this sense of betrayal. Anton’s optimism was countered by the pessimism of our guide in Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital. Daniela (also a pseudonym) is a few years older than Anton. She works as a teacher and supplements her salary by acting as a tour guide. Whereas the evidence of economic revival is obvious in Belgrade, it is detectable only with more effort in Sofia. Here poverty breaks through at every corner, whether in people’s shabbier clothing, crumbling building facades, or chaotic electrical wiring strung across house exteriors in the poorer districts.

Daniela pulled no punches in her criticism of what she called (relying on the Canadian writer Naomi Klein) the “shock therapy” of neo-liberal economics. Low salaries, increasing economic disparities, corruption at the highest levels—these are the manifestations of Western-style freedom in her country. As we toured Sofia’s historical treasures, Daniela reminded us that the Brave New Western World of the East was not brave but selfish, acquisitive, and insecure. Although she did not say it, in the new Bulgaria, as in the former East Germany, women’s plight is especially difficult thanks to the reduction or elimination of many social programs such as state-run childcare and paid maternity leave.

So is Slavic cool as cool as many say? Is it even a reality? I left the Balkans with more questions than answers—and I turned up my collar as the wind grew harsher.

For HuffPost, click here.

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Serious

If you like the idea of a postcard-sized narrative–a complete dramatic gesture with beginning, middle, and end in extreme compact form–then Postcard Shorts is for you. Here’s my “Serious,” along with a link to the magazine.

Who can ignore it when the pastor calls, my mother’s face charged with excitement. I’m in my uniform, getting ready, but thinking I’m straight with the pastor, I recite the Bible passages, do my homework, I know from Lutheranism. My mother, she has something up her sleeve, and so when Pastor Zehring rings the doorbell, I don’t know what to expect. They sit me down, there are cookies and coffee, and I know my mother is Serious. So is Pastor Z, who smells of cigarette smoke, and something like a far-off whiff of what my father drinks after a day of doing oil changes and brake jobs. We talk about nothing in particular. He says I’m doing fine in school, which relieves and upsets my eleven-year-old mind, since there’s nothing I can put my finger on, nothing like a scab to pick. It comes up half past five, and my mother says, he has a game, and Z says, fine, I’ll drive him on my way back, my mother nodding like it’s a plan. The man smokes, drives, and I look at my Wilson glove. I’d re-oiled it, all pliable and ready, I was Serious. We pull up to the park, the field dark green, my Giants in blue hats, white pinstripes, the big, bad Sox in black. Pastor Z says, and your mother and I were thinking you should consider the pastorate some day, and I say, I play second base, see, and I’m not bad.

http://www.postcardshorts.com/read-2491.html

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Book Notes 2016.4

More remarks on recent reading, from ’60s science fiction to contemporary flash and crime thrillers.

Philip K Dick, The Penultimate Truth (First Mariner, 2011 [1964]). This is the grand master of sci-fi’s first novel, but by my reading it is a little labored and rather slow-moving. Yet one can see how themes of post-apocalyptic resistance, deception, and official lying—as well as the references to 20th century German history—resonated in the moment the book appeared.

Ausma Zehanat Khan, The Unquiet Dead (Minotaur, 2014). The story has a fascinating premise—a death from an apparent accident turns out to be related to the Srebenica massacre of 1995—but it takes too long to shift into gear and the storytelling at times suffers from too abundant historical detail. Neither well-paced nor able to handle the various layers of complexity it creates, this novel was disappointing, though I tried very much to like it.

Jo Nesbø, The Bat (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2013 [1997]). This, the first of the successful Inspector Harry Hole novels, is as formulaic as crime fiction can be. There are better Scandinavian practitioners of the craft, including Karin Fossum, Arnaldur Indriđason, and of course the late Henning Mankell.

Yelizaveta P. Renfro, A Catalogue of Everything in the World: Nebraska Stories (Black Lawrence Press, 2010). I love these edgy, poignant, and connected stories with characters odd enough to puzzle but also engaging enough to care for.

Ruth Ware, The Woman in Cabin 10 (Scout, 2016). Economical narration, an engaging and rather knotted main character, good pacing, and an effective setting—all make this an enjoyable read and make me want to read the author’s previous crime thriller, In a Dark, Dark Wood.

Joy Williams, 99 Stories Of God (Tin House Books, 2016). A brilliant and characteristically quirky set of flash fictions and philosophical anecdotes that stick with you long after the brief time they take to read. Williams is unparalleled in her mastery of the short form.

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A Choice of Souls

Open Road Review just published “A Choice of Souls.” My thanks to editors Kulpreet Yadav and Jhilmil Breckenbridge. Below, the full text and a link to Issue 18.

A three-inch roofing nail pierced the blood-stained bandage on Marty Dubrov’s left index finger above the knuckle. When the waitperson with a name tag reading Adia saw it, she let out a short, high-pitched yelp and covered her mouth with her hand. She backed away, bumping into a customer walking down the aisle of Old Country Inn. Cringing, Jeff Dubrov sat across the table.

“Whoa, it’s okay there,” said Marty, whose laughter rose above the restaurant chatter.

“Look, it’s just a fake. A novelty shop joke.” He slid it off his finger and held it out to the woman. She looked at the nail as if it were mangled road kill.

“Whoa, it’s okay there,” said Marty, whose laughter rose above the restaurant chatter. “Look, it’s just a fake. A novelty shop joke.” He slid it off his finger and held it out to the woman. She looked at the nail as if it were mangled road kill.

“Look, it’s just a fake. A novelty shop joke.” He slid it off his finger and held it out to the woman. She looked at the nail as if it were mangled road kill.

“Love, I didn’t know what that was,” she said, still shaking her head. “I thought you’d come in here with a horrible injury.” She looked at Jeff whose smile was thin and sharp.

“I always carry this little thing with me to get a reaction. People respond, you can bet on it,” said Marty.

“I certainly did,” said Adia with a nervous laugh.

“You doin’ okay today, young miss?” asked Marty.

“I was coping. Till I saw that thing.” She shook her head again and paused for a deep breath.

“I’m supposed to ask you how you’re doing, in any case. So, let me start again. How are you two gentlemen today?”

“Drunk,” said Marty, unsmiling.

Adia was stone-faced. Her gaze fastened on Marty, then Jeff, who shook his head and said,

“It’s another joke.” His voice knifed the air.

Adia frowned, turned back to Marty. “I’m a little slow today. I thought you were serious.”

“You’re doin’ fine,” said Marty. “Don’t worry. People usually do a double take when I say that.”

Adia nodded warily.

“We can order right now,” said Jeff tersely. “Dad always gets the BLT. I’ll have the Caesar salad. Coffee for him, black. Ice water for me.”

*

“You’d be amazed at the reactions I get to that thing,” said Marty to his son. “Last month when I was in the hospital for my heart, I had all the nurses and orderlies just laughing and shaking their heads. People came in to see the bloody nail. Even surprised one of the doctors. I gave him a real scare. He’d never had a patient pull that on him. Made his day. They all knew my name at the hospital when I left. All on a first-name basis. Man, we had fun. The ward was hoppin’.”

Jeff had heard the story several times. “It gets a little old after a while, Dad.”

“Not to people who see it for the first time,” said Marty, looking hurt. “It brings a little humour into their lives. Something unexpected. No need to be serious all the time, is there, Jeffrey?”

“It can do more harm than good. That waitress for instance; she’s anxious. She’s busy. And to have someone come in with that kind of prank… She may not understand you’re joking.”
“Could be ‘cause she’s foreign,” said Marty, surveying the restaurant. He spotted a small girl at the far end of the large dining room. He started playing Peek-a-boo with her, first covering one eye with his hand and blinking the uncovered one, then covering the other, then both eyes. He inverted his hands, made two circles with his thumbs and index fingers, and held them to his eyes as if wearing glasses. Jeff looked around to see the girl imitating his father.
“Dad, that kind of thing could be misunderstood in a public place these days.”

“Aw, come on, Jeffalator. Where’s your goofy gene? People think I’m gonna molest her? I’m just playin’ with the little girl. What a cutie. Those golden curls. And that smile. She’ll be a looker judging from her mother there. The blonde. You could take a peek, Jeffey boy. Now that you’re single again.”

Jeff had already looked. The little girl’s mother had honey-coloured hair and a sweet smile, but she was also much younger than him. “I’m nearly fifty, Dad. A woman like that would have no interest in me. Anyway, she may be married.”

“She’s not wearin’ a ring, Jeffster.”

“You see that from here?”

“Still got twenty-twenty vision, boy. At eighty-seven, mind you. Wish my heart were as good as my eyes. Hell, if it were, I’d be the one chattin’ her up. That waitress is takin’ her time, isn’t she?”

Several minutes later, Adia brought the food. As she laid the plate with the BLT in front of Marty, she grazed his coffee cup. Several drops splattered the table. “I’m so sorry, Sir.”

“No problem, little lady,” said Marty. He used his napkin to wipe up. “Just bring me another napkin and more swill.”

“Swill?”

“Sure, swill.”

“It’s a little outdated. Swill. S-w-i-l-l,” interjected Jeff. “People often use it when they’re talking about booze, like swilling beer or even bathtub gin, back in the day. On the farm, that’s what folks used to call pig slop. But some say ‘swill’ for coffee.”

Adia’s eyes narrowed.

“I do lots of crossword puzzles,” said Jeff, smiling. “And I publish some of my own puzzles too. I’ve had a couple in The New York Times, LA Times. I love words I can taste and feel. Words that zip or pop or murmur or roll or meander. Swill, well, you can swill it around on your tongue and it takes you from taverns to farms and back and lots of other places and times too. Swill travels well.”

Adia nodded. “I like words like that too.”

“Where you from, young lady?” asked Marty.

“Right here. Madison, Wisconsin. I’ve lived here twenty years.”

“I mean really from.”

Jeff blanched.

Adia smiled. “My parents came from Lagos, Nigeria. But I was born in London. My father was a lit professor at Birkbeck College.”

“So, that explains your accent,” commented Marty. “Sounds British, but I still like it. You could go on TV with that accent. Make commercials. For classier things like expensive lawn mowers or those step-in bath things for old folks.”

“That’s a lovely compliment. But to me, Midwesterners still sound like they speak with an accent.”

“No kiddin’?” asked Marty.

“No kidding.” She looked relaxed for the first time. “You two gentlemen enjoy your meal. I’ll be around in a few minutes to see if you need anything else.”

“Nice girl,” whispered Marty after Adia left. “But on the big side, wouldn’t you say? Big-boned.”

Jeff sighed. “Dad, you have to stop the joking every time we go to a restaurant.”

“Aw, come on, Jeffkins. We’ve had this conversation before. I enjoy it. And so do other people.”

“Mom used to be mortified.”

“Your mother, bless her soul, had the same problem you have. Too serious. No sense of humour. It was bad for her health. I think she would have lived a little longer if she had just taken a look on the bright side. And you, well, my advice is you need to loosen up, Jeffster. It’s not good to always be so down-in-the-mouth. You’ve got to just let the divorce go. A little humour always helps. Wouldn’t hurt to get laid either, I suspect. Right, old man?”
Jeff made circles in the table with the condensation from his water glass. “About the joking, Dad. There’s a time and place for everything.”

“True enough. But humour’s always a good thing. Your mom believed that too, when she was younger. Why, after a glass of wine, you shoulda seen her. I had her laughin’ so hard she peed in her pants once. That’s one of the things that drew me to her. Not the peeing part, her laughter. When she laughed, the whole damned world danced. I felt like I’d failed in the later years when I couldn’t get her to laugh anymore. I tried. When the laughter goes, there’s nothing much left. When she stopped laughing, she started dying.”

Jeff looked away. The blonde and the little girl had left. He looked at Marty who was fingering the rusty nail which he’d placed on the table in front of him. “And the waitress, Dad. Calling her ‘young miss’ or ‘little lady.’ People don’t say that any more, not to an adult woman. You have to be careful about language.”

“Especially when the lady in question isn’t so little, huh? Heh-heh. I know, I know, I shouldn’t say that. I’m too old to learn what you can say and what you can’t say these days. But she’s a nice black gal. Real clean, and friendly. And she takes the ribbin’ like a champ. I’m not doin’ any harm.”

Jeff ate the rest of his meal in silence as his father talked about a new car wax he’d found, the manure mix he planned to use on his little stand of tomatoes, the sorry state of American politics. Jeff nodded periodically as he thought about asking Marty for a loan. He decided against it even though he needed cash to see him through until the end of the month. His bookstore was losing money, and he knew he couldn’t hold on long. Two months ago, he had the choice of meeting his payroll or paying the utility bills. He’d thought of cancelling his program of literary readings because he couldn’t afford to keep the place open extra hours on weekends and evenings. He was about to see his vision of creating a vibrant downtown literary centre go up in smoke. Many times he’d told himself, it was fitting: first a divorce, then business failure. What next? Good things came in threes, his father always told him—Three Little Pigs, Three Musketeers, Three Stooges. Bad things too?

As Marty paid for their lunch, Jeff noticed Adia’s acorn-coloured skin and how one side of her mouth rose in a crooked smile. On the way home, he thought about the lilt of her voice when she said “gentlemen.” It was the first time since his divorce that a woman had occupied his mind for more than a few seconds.

After dropping his father off, Jeff drove back to his efficiency apartment. He checked his answering machine for messages, but there was nothing but a robo-call from a credit card company offering to unburden him of the high-interest rate on his Visa account.

He spent the rest of the afternoon watching a college football game. When the commercials ran, Jeff muted the sound and did New York Times crossword puzzles. When the crowd streamed onto the field to celebrate a victory he realised he didn’t know which teams had played. After eating leftovers, he fell asleep for half an hour watching more football. He started another crossword puzzle but was too tired to finish. He thought of making a few revisions to a difficult puzzle he’d been working on, but he didn’t have the energy. It was half past nine when he curled up in bed.

*

A month later, he sat at a table by himself at Old Country Inn. It was as crowded as ever, but Jeff felt alone. Adia delivered his meal.

“I remember you,” she said. “You were with your father, right?”

“That’s right. Sorry, did I not notice that you took my order?”

“It wasn’t me. I took over for Jillian. She’s done for the day, and I have her tables now.”

“Ah.” Jeff looked at his food. “Oh, I didn’t order this. I always get a Caesar salad.”

“Oh dear. Jillian wrote BLT, I’m sure of it. Let me take it back and I’ll have them rush a salad.”

“No, no. It’s okay. I’ll have this. I haven’t had a BLT for a long time. It looks good.”

Adia nodded and smiled. “You did a lot of crossword puzzles, right? And wrote them too.”

“You have a good memory.”

“You seemed to be a student of language. You told me about the word ‘swill.’ I’m working here to earn some money for my M.F.A. I’m already accepted, but I deferred for a year to save more. I write poetry. I love to talk about words with people.”

“I’m not exactly a student of language. I write puzzles. I know bits and pieces about lots of words, nothing more.”

“Still. There are lots of ways to play with language, and make it sing for you.”
He shrugged. “I suppose so.”

“And your father? Where’s he? He’s a character, that one.”

Jeff lowered his eyes.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Adia. “Something happened?”

“Heart attack. Waxing his car. The funeral was two weeks ago.”

Adia’s face clouded. “I lost both my parents. Years ago. In a traffic accident. It’s a violent revolution when they’re gone. No matter how close you are to them.”

Jeff nodded. “You were probably annoyed by his silly jokes.”

“At first. But he actually helped me. Saved my job for me.”

“How so?”

“I remember that day. I’d been on the job only a week and I’d managed to mess up as much as it was possible to mess up. Broke several glasses. Even took the wrong order to the same customer twice in a row. When you and your father came in, after he pulled out the bloody nail, I went to my supervisor and told her I didn’t think I could handle the guy at Table 7. She told me I had better, or I was gone. So I did it. I had to adjust to whatever he gave me. He tested me, and I managed. I had to admit he was pretty funny. My mother would have said he had a playful soul.”

“He embarrassed most of his family when he did that. We’d heard and seen his routine so many times, and people waiting on him got flustered.”

“Maybe souls don’t get to choose the bodies they inhabit. Or if they do, they make confusing choices.” Adia looked around. “I have to get back to my shift.”

Jeff ate the BLT while reading the newspaper. When Adia came back to the table to clear his plate, he asked a question he’d thought about most of the meal.

“I wondered—this might be a little forward, I don’t know if you’re with someone—if we could meet sometime. We could talk about words and how they play. How they sing.”

Adia’s eyebrows lifted. “That’s the nicest invitation I’ve had in a long time. I am unattached, for the record.” She tore off an order slip, wrote a telephone number on the back, and handed it to Jeff.

“I’ll call soon,” said Jeff. “And watch out, I may also invite you to read some of your poetry at my bookstore—if I’m still in business.”

He left Old Country Inn after waving to Adia who was taking orders from a table of eight. He sat in his car but didn’t start it right away. He let his mind drift and after a few minutes looked at his watch. He had a doctor’s appointment in an hour to discuss a recurrent back problem. He still had time to make a detour to his bookstore. There he rummaged in some boxes he’d stored in the back after his father’s death. He arrived at the medical centre about five minutes early, and as he walked to the entrance, he slipped Marty’s roofing nail and bloody bandage over his right index finger.

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Blasé

My thanks to the editors of Ad Hoc Fiction, where my new microfiction, “Blasé,” was just published. Ad Hoc Fiction is a weekly flash fiction ebook. Here it is in full along with a link to the magazine.

Crewcut and Longhair clash at a crowded bus stop in west Seattle. We are standing there, everything is calm, and all of a sudden clenched fists fill the air like hail in a summer storm. Profanities erupt, and we wonder how long it will take before one of the fighters brandishes a knife or, these days, a gun. I think of stepping in front of my wife to protect her from a possible bullet, but before I can get my legs to move, Crewcut and Longhair end their scuffle. Just like that. They exchange a few more choice words, asshole, fuck you, scumbag, and then Longhair leaves with a bloody nose, which he wipes with his black t-shirt, and Crewcut, his right eye already swollen shut, boards the bus as if no fabric had been torn and no splinter in time created.

Read more here.

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A Clean Surface With Much Disturbance Below

Joy Williams’s masterful Ninety-Nine Stories of God (Tin House Books, 2016) is a unique collection of flash fiction and philosophical reflection. Angular, sometimes perplexing, always interesting–these stories, some of which are no more than a few sentences, carry an impact well beyond what they say. In doing so, they also reflect Williams’s technique as a short story writer. In a recent interview, she outlined her ideas about how to write effective short fiction (and how to distinguish the short story from the novel). I’m reproducing her points here:

1) There should be a clean clear surface with much disturbance below

2) An anagogical level

3) Sentences that can stand strikingly alone

4) An animal within to give its blessing

5) Interior voices which are or become wildly erratically exterior

6) Control throughout is absolutely necessary

7) The story’s effect should transcend the naturalness and accessibility of its situation and language

8) A certain coldness is required in execution. It is not a form that gives itself to consolation but if consolation is offered it should come from an unexpected quarter.

A novel wants to befriend you, a short story almost never.

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Cadillac

1960-1969-cadillac-7

My thanks to Virginia Baily and Sally Flint, editors of Riptide Journal, which just published a short story of mine, “Cadillac.” Here’s the introduction and a link to the magazine below.

He reads his essay to a half-filled room at eight in the morning, and everyone says it’s fine. One of his first graduate students, now a successful English professor at a top state university, comes up afterwards and says, “that was good, Charles, really good.” A person he doesn’t know, but who sat in the front row and nodded off twice during the thirty-minute presentation, also shakes his hand, says “very good, Professor Lindsay. Most informative.”

The day gapes at Charles. He once enjoyed conferences, but now the panels and schmoozing feel like sessions on the expensive rowing machine he and his wife never use any more. At last year’s conference he gave his paper in the morning, then laid on his bed in his hotel room all afternoon and evening, read, ate a room service dinner while he watched football, called his wife Valery and told her he loved her, how were the kids, good, good, glad to hear it, I’ll be home soon, then turned in early.

He looks at the conference schedule. He could go to one of the ten o’clock sessions. “New Perspectives on the Post-Utopian Novel.” He recognizes one of the paper givers, a scholar with whom he’d had some helpful correspondence twenty years ago, when Charles was a freshly-minted Ph.D. applying for assistant professorships. Or he could walk through the hotel foyer, greet those who wave or come up to him to congratulate him on his new book, which everyone will say is really good, then walk out into the Raleigh sunshine on a late September morning.

The Cadillac is long. Its red color and dial-infested dashboard scream “Excess!” Charles Lindsay loves it. He drives it out of the rental agency parking lot with one plan, which is not to have a plan.

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Acknowledgment

The racial violence of the past days defies words, but I’m hoping that this flash fiction, which I published in Sleetmagazine 3, 2 (Fall 20111) is relevant.

The man approaches as I stop the lawn mower and take off the safety glasses that make me look like a creature from a ’50s sci-fi movie. He is twenty-something, as tall as I am but huskier, bare arms covered in red-black tattoos. The bill on his over-large Raiders cap is wide and paper-flat, jogged to the left.

“Car problems?”

“Outta’ gas.” Twenty-something doesn’t look at me, but down and to my right.

“I have a tank in the garage. There’s maybe a gallon left.”

Two minutes later I’m in the street and he stands against the car, driver’s side, gas lid open. It’s a defeated car, an Olds, from the ’90s. Mississippi plates. While I hold the tank to pour the gas, I look through the back window. On the passenger side there is a huge, elderly woman, a rolled mass of dark flesh dressed in pink and orange. Her gray hair is flat on top but splayed into fuzzed tendrils on either side.

“Mississippi’s a long way from Wisconsin,” I say to the man. Then I think, do I sound suspicious?

“Got family on the west side.” The young man still does not look at me, but he smiles.

I search for more words, but I notice the tank has emptied, and I draw the nozzle away from the gas lid. “Do you have the cap?”

“Ain’t no cap.” He looks at me for the first time and frowns.

“We should start it up and see if it runs.”

The young man gets behind the wheel. There are candy wrappers and an empty Doritos bag on the passenger seat. An empty Coke in the bottle holder. The ashtray overflows with cigarette butts. The key turns but the engine only cranks. Another try, then again. He looks up at me, a furrowed expression.

“Better not run down the battery,” I say, leaning down. “Wait a minute, and try again. If it doesn’t start, I have jumper cables.”

I look into the back seat. “Afternoon, ma’am.” I smile.

She looks away, staring at my house. There is a tattered blue blanket and a small pillow. On the floor, yellowed newspaper. Behind her, on the rear window tray, I see a stuffed animal, brown, a teddy bear or maybe a dog, with matted fur and one eye missing. I look back at her. She doesn’t acknowledge me.

Twenty-something turns the key again. The engine starts and blue smoke hazes up from the exhaust pipe.

“You’re set to go,” I say, too cheerily.

“Could use some cash, man. To buy more gas.”

“Jerold, that man has helped you already,” rasps the woman. Her voice abrades the July air.

“Here,” I say, before the man responds. “I happen to have a ten on me.”

“Thanks, sir.”

I walk to the other side of the car, which drives away as I look into the back seat and wave.

The old woman glares at me, and I have to turn away.

Go to the magazine here.

 

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Would Nietzsche Shake Trump’s Hand?

I just published this blog on Huffington Post. The link follows.

Peter Wehner’s July 5 New York Times opinion piece about Donald Trump and Christianity has the tone right but the argument wrong.

Wehner, who served in the last three Republican administrations, points out that evangelical Christians’ rationalizations for supporting Trump are not only wrongheaded but farcical. Wehner quotes evangelical leader James Dobson, who after meeting with the presumptive Republican nominee said, “Trump appears to be tender to things of the Spirit.” How absurd, argues Wehner, who notes that the Holy Spirit represents forbearance, kindness, gentleness, and self-control. Who would seriously consider using such words to describe Trump’s personality?

Even more revealing of the knotted logic many Christians use are the public statements made by author Eric Metaxas, who has published a biography of the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Wehner quotes Metaxas saying Trump will keep America “from sliding into oblivion.” Here Wehner might have mentioned that Bonhoeffer is the closest thing Lutherans have to a modern-day saint. He was murdered by the Nazis just weeks before the end of World War II. While he sat in prison for his heroic anti-Nazi activities, he advocated for the idea of a “weak God” who enters the world not through power but suffering. It is extraordinary to hear a Bonhoeffer scholar sing the praises of a politician who promises to “make America great again.”

But when Wehner claims Trump’s worldview is akin to that of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, his otherwise informative piece goes off the rails. Wehner fails to mention that Nietzsche would have found Trump to be a vulgar and superficial man. Nietzsche’s elitism was of an intellectual variety, and it would also have led him to reject Nazism’s plebeian rabblerousing had he lived long enough to witness it.

Predictably, Wehner quotes Nietzsche’s writings about the “Übermensch” and “will to power.” We should no doubt recognize how such concepts steered the philosopher into dangerous ethical waters. But when Nietzsche wrote, “What is evil? Whatever springs from weakness,” he wasn’t referring to politics. Nietzsche’s “superman” became super through his willingness to overcome obstacles and transform his personality in a process of continuous self-fashioning. As one scholar noted, “Nietzsche is truly allergic to the idea of winners.” He hated the self-satisfaction of those in power, whether in politics or business, and he valued individuals who were unimpressed with their success. In Twilight of the IdolsNietzsche said he philosophized with a hammer, and that meant taking the hammer to self and world, repeatedly and without pity.

Likewise Nietzsche hated the moral certainties of institutional Christianity. If individuals gained his respect through self-questioning and self-renewal, then so too did associations and societies. This even extended to the language we use to make meaning of our world. In his “On Truths and Lies in an Extramoral Sense,” Nietzsche famously wrote, “So what, then, is truth? It is a mobile army of metaphors.” This didn’t mean, as Wehner asserts, an indifference to truth, but rather a strong appreciation of its slipperiness and inherent instability. Truth was out there, but it was fluid and recognizable only from specific perspectives.

Nietzsche’s thought reminds me of the younger Karl Marx, who in 1848 wrote, “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.” Marx referred here to the devastating effects capitalist economies had on work, families, and religion, or, as he wrote, the “real conditions of life.” Like Marx, though from a very different perspective and with quite different (often nefarious) consequences, Nietzsche sensed how the modern world, the world we still live in, undermined truth and power. This is far from the world of Donald Trump, who speaks with an arrogance that would have made Nietzsche cringe.

It is important to understand what historical precedents undergird our Presidential candidates’ rhetoric, but we also need to get these precedents right. Trump is no Nietzschean, just as he is no Christian. If Nietzsche met Trump, would he shake his hand? No, the philosopher would turn his back and walk away, muttering like the precocious curmudgeon he was.

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