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.
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.
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.
More remarks on recent reading, from ’60s science fiction to contemporary flash and crime thrillers.
Philip K Dick, The Penultimate Truth (First Mariner, 2011 ). 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 ). 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.
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.”
“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.”
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.”
“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.
Read more here.
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.
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.