Six Short Stories

 

 

There’s a good chance you’ve heard the following well-travelled quote many times:

“If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”

You’ve likely seen it attributed to Mark Twain. Until recently, I would’ve thought that was correct. It was, in fact, originally written by French mathematician, physicist, inventor, and writer Blaise Pascal (thanks for that nugget of knowledge, Eric).

But let’s get back to the quote…

What does it mean when it’s applied to writing short fiction, as it regularly is? Well, if it isn’t obvious, it means short stories take a lot of time to perfect — they’re difficult. You need time to trim the fat, or kill your darlings as the literati like to say. Some of the greatest novelists who’ve put pen to paper didn’t, or don’t, have the skill (or, perhaps, the temperament) to write short fiction. Many authors over the years have said writing a short story is far more difficult than writing a novel; there’s less room to play, there’s certainly less time to say all that you want to say — basically, you’re more restricted in the short-fiction world.

I’ve been writing short fiction on and off for a number of years while working on a number of screenplays and a novel. Am I near as strong as I’d like to be when it comes to the shorter work? No, but the more I write the better I get. And I’m putting together a short story collection that I hope to publish in the future (out of all the titles I’ve created over the years, this one is my favourite).

I’ve also been reading short stories for a long time. Some writers I’ve been reading for years, some I’ve only discovered, and some I’ve known about but have only gotten round to devouring recently.

With that in mind, I thought I’d list a few short stories worth reading written by American writers. I won’t go into much detail, as going in blind is always better. Of course, I do recommend buying the collections in which these stories feature.

So, here they are:

 

 

1. Nathan Englander — The Twenty-Seventh Man

From the collection ‘For the Relief of Unbearable Urges’ (1999).

Englander 1

Nathan Englander made an immediate impact on the literary world with the release of his debut short story collection ‘For the Relief of Unbearable Urges’. The first story in the collection, The Twenty-Seventh Man, is an allusion to the Night of the Murdered Poets  the execution of 13 Soviet Jews on the orders of Stalin, on August 12, 1952.

The short story isn’t available online, but you can read the script for the play based on it here. Or, you could go buy the collection in your favourite second-hand bookstore (for you Irish readers, it’s gotta be Chapters on Parnell Street).

 

2. Jennifer Egan — The Stylist

From the collection ‘Emerald City’ (1993).

Egan - Emerald City 1

Jennifer Egan is probably best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning work of fiction ‘A Visit from the Good Squad’. I say ‘work of fiction’ because the book has been characterised as both a short story collection and a novel — Egan herself has stated that she doesn’t consider it to be either of the aforementioned.

What is unequivocal about her first published work ‘Emerald City’ is that it’s most definitely a collection of short stories. The Stylist, the first story in the collection, focuses on a divorced fashion stylist on a shoot in Africa with a photographer and three teenage models.

Read it here.

 

3. Raymond Carver — Errand

From the collection ‘Cathedral’ (1983).

Carver - Cathedral 1

Raymond Carver has inspired countless short and long fiction writers since he became one of America’s best-loved writers with the publication of his collections ‘Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?’ and ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ (the latter of which has had its title borrowed by a number of writers, including Haruki Murakami and Mr. Englander mentioned above).

One of the greatest influences on Carver was the great Russian playwright and short story writer Anton Chekhov. In Errand — a tribute to his idol — Carver re-imagines the final hours of Chekhov’s life, but brings the focus of attention on a young bellboy.

(Note: This idea has prompted me to develop a short story about Carver’s final hours, the same way he wrote about his idol. I’m still working on it…)

You can read Errand here.

 

4. John Updike — Pigeon Feathers

From the collection ‘Pigeon Feathers’ (1962).

pigeon-feathers

The American heavyweight John Updike is considered by many to be the greatest writer of the 20th century. He’s most famous for his ‘Rabbit’ series, which centres around the life of former high-school basketball star Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. Two novels from the series — ‘Rabbit Is Rich’ and ‘Rabbit at Rest’ — won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

In Pigeon Feathers, a young boy adjusting to life at the farmhouse he’s recently been moved to with his parents and ailing grandmother, faces a spiritual crises after reading a work by H.G. Wells.

Read it here.

 

5. Stephen  King — Premium Harmony

From the collection ‘The Bazaar of Bad Dreams’ (2015).

Stephen King 2

Stephen King. He’s probably the most famous author around; the man who’s seen countless stories and novels he’s written find their way onto the big screen, who’s been on the bestsellers list more times than he can remember. He’s not someone this writer has read very often (honestly, I just haven’t been able to get into his books), but he has written a short story in a similar vein to Raymond Carver, which is probably why I like it so much. In his introduction to Premium Harmony in the collection, King confesses that he’d only discovered the work of Carver shortly before writing the story, which is quite surprising since the work was published in 2009 — some 21 years after the short-story master’s death.

In Premium Harmony — which is unquestionably a pastiche  a car ride to a birthday party takes a turn when a couple stop off at a gas station to pick up a gift. This one is darkly comic, and hugely enjoyable.

You can read it here.

 

6. S.J. Coules — Photographs

From the collection ‘You Can Call Me What You Like as Long as You Don’t Call Me’

photographs-3

You’re damn right I’m plugging my own work.

My short story collection ‘You Can Call Me What You Like as Long as You Don’t Call Me’ is definitely a work in progress. Out of all the short stories I’ve completed, four, maybe five will feature in this collection. The rest are to be written  many have been fleshed out and partially developed, some I haven’t even thought of yet. Of the completed works that I plan to include in the book, one has been published, the others have either been submitted to literary magazines, or are sitting on the laptop, eagerly waiting to be read.

In Photographs — my first published short story  a crotchety man who’s found himself old and with nothing but pictures, alcohol, and television to pass the time, encounters an irritating local kid.

You can read it here.

 

Anyway, last orders have been called.

Until next time, I will be in the bar, with my head on the bar . . .

 

Expressionism #1 — Liquid Pills

Anyone familiar with Jack Kerouac will know of his ‘spontaneous prose’. His method was well developed and it had its rules laid out in his “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose”. For his ‘set-up’ he compares it to an artist before they put pencil to paper, or a brush to canvas: “The object is set before the mind, either in reality, as in sketching (before a landscape or teacup or old face)  or is set in the memory wherein it becomes the sketching from memory of a definite image-object. . . .”

I took that idea of a blank canvas and the brush, but without a clear object or idea. I opened a word doc and jotted down whatever arrived in an attempt at writing a very short, somewhat coherent story. I suppose you could call that ‘spontaneous prose’, or ‘subconscious prose’. 

This is how many writers approach the first draft of their works, with nothing really in mind. Then they take that first draft (or ‘vomit draft’ as some writers call it), and refine it from there. But here I wanted the vomit to remain; there’d be no clean up on aisle five. So I’ve called it Expressionism, and this is my first effort. No edits, no path — just words that flowed out onto the page.

 

Liquid Pills

Liquid pills.

Take them, slowly.

Take them in a few mouthfuls.

Down them like there’s no tomorrow.

They’ll dampen the thoughts but liven the spirit.

I pass through the narrow, rain-speckled, rouge-lighted laneway with a stumble and a fumble. I curse — cunt — who? Anyone. Whomever. And I fix my long cashmere coat and I will an argument with someone, but no one’s here.

5am.

Who’s around then?

Some taxi tarts. Some residual rodents of the night before. Some of those without a home to go to. Some of the heroin heroes and the wannabe di Neros waiting for the moment to pounce.

I’m classless — that’s lacking class, not a class. Gauche. Inelegant. Ungainly. Graceless. I do have a class. A working one. But I’m not stateless. Of which I’m not a devoted fan — not a centralized, expansive, militarized Europe. Who decides on the situation when Theresa, Jacob, and co. set sail? Us? No, the Junk, that’s with a ‘yuh’ —  Here, you! Piss off!

I don’t want to get into that, though. Who wants to? We’re all tired of it. All we want to do is to be left alone. Let us be. Let us do a bit of work and live life to a decent standard. Let us work and play. Let us live and love and let us not be drowned by the greedy and the corrupt.

We’re drowning. A stretched arm from the icy wall of water. A gasp, an open-mouthed cry — a raw caw, caw, caw. Can’t… breathe… Help… No help. No, we don’t need help, we need release. Release from your cold, stifling, suffocating grasp.

You. Corrupt. The Corruptors. The parasites. But enough of that… Because I’m loaded. I’m loaded on liquid pills and I’m looking for some new thrills. Some cheap thrills. Something that will let me forget… something… someone…

I approach The Beast. I don’t notice him at first. He’s the man with the plan.

   ‘All right, Beastie,’ I slur.

   ‘Sebastian,’ he purrs. ‘Sebastian, you’ve looked better.’ His voice. That voice. The Beast, a paradox. He’s a gentleman — a cock-hungry gent who speaks the Queen’s English as well as Hitchens the Polemicist did.

He chuckles, does The Beast. He laughs giddily like a schoolgirl.

He’s big — boisterous belly; nosey navel peeking through his partially unbuttoned shirt.

   ‘Sebastian, be a darling and give me your lighter. Mine… lost its way somewhere earlier in the night. I can hardly be held responsible for everyone and everything.’

I fumble around in my pocket and find the lighter. I rev the engine — the flame greets the ciggie.

   ‘I’ve got work in the morning,’ I tell The Beast.

   ‘You mean in a few hours?’

   ‘Yessssss.’ I stumble. ‘I’ve got work and it’s for the devil.’

   ‘The big C…’ he nods his head.

   ‘Tell me, Beasty boy,’ I say, attempting to stand up straight, with dignity — whatever that is. ‘Do you think we’re headed for the big bang of the nuke? Europe… Balkanization… China… The T Man… Where are we headed?’

   ‘Oh,’ The Beast says. ‘Oh, my sweet little Sebastian. That’s not for me to say… I’ve got a date with Mister Junk and The Elephant’s Whiskers — they’ll decide your fate… they’ll make the call on the Big Bang…’

   ‘What’s the way to go? I don’t want the big C…’ I say, half moaning… ‘I gave myself to It…’

   ‘It doesn’t matter,’ says The Beast, dropping the fag and twisting his foot on the concrete. ‘It’ll all be over soon.’

   ‘Soon,’ I say. ‘Soon I’m in work… It won’t be over by then…’

   ‘I’ve got to go,’ says The Beast. ‘I’ve got a lot to devour.’

   ‘So…’ I hiccup. ‘So, does the big C,’ I say.

   ‘We’re not so different, then,’ he says as he paces down the street — giant, meaningful steps.

I lean against the wall. The Beast left a half-empty pint behind.

I reach for the liquid pills.

I drink it.

We all drink it, in some way.

                                                                                    – 20th September 2018 — 8:19pm

You know how I was gonna self-publish my novel?

Well, if ever I felt like a liar . . .

Earlier this year I excitedly announced that I would be self-publishing my debut novel, Leaving Sadie, in June. Then, as the month approached like a freight train bombing along the tracks towards our tied-up hero in an action movie, I realised that I needed more time to free myself from those restrictive ropes; i.e. I needed to make additional changes to the story, let alone finalise the book-cover design (wonderfully executed by Chloë Keogan), get an ISBN, and prepare the final manuscript for digital and physical publication.

To be crude about it all: I’d blown my load.

So I said I’d aim for an autumn publication date, with October being the definite deadline. I’d even contacted Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin over at writing.ie about promoting the work on the site, as I had promoted my old blog Sounds From a Dublin Cafe. And Vanessa — wonderfully supportive of emerging writers as she is — was happy to offer me a slot on the site. That was that: I was certain I’d self-publish the novel by October at the latest.

But.

I had some thinking to do: Had I truly exhausted the traditional road to getting a novel published? Definitely not: Off the top of my head I would guess I’ve approached around six or seven literary agents — 10 max. Now, most people interested in literature know the famous J.K Rowling story, and how her Harry Potter manuscript was rejected time after time: The road to publication or landing an agent is a long one, and for that you need patience — like waiting at a railroad crossing for that freight train to pass by.

Now, I’m someone who has plenty of patience when it comes to writing a novel; I know it takes a lot of time and isn’t something that should be rushed. I know that landing a publishing deal is incredibly difficult and that these things take luck and time; and the world of literature can be kind to the aging process.

Despite my patience for the writing and publishing process, I had decided that Sadie was what it was: my first effort writing a novel. Completing the first novel is the real achievement, I’ve read umpteen times; it means you’ve got what it takes . . . when it comes to the next novels. Many authors don’t see their first completed novel published, and many of those who do wince and shudder when asked about that usually inexpert-though-rich-with-potential first novel (think Haruki Murakami and Hear The Wind Sing).

Sadie was sitting on my computer; a learning process that instilled in me the confidence to go and write my next novel. There it would stay, in the dark, left untouched, without a reader to heap praise upon it or tear it to shreds. And that to me felt . . . wrong. I’d poured a lot of energy into that work. And more importantly I loved my characters, for their talents and their flaws, for their courage and their cowardice, for their demand to be brought to life on paper — to be heard by someone.

It was the characters screaming from the laptop or the cold, dark desk drawer, who prompted me to decide to self-publish. If the work wasn’t up to scratch — if it was clearly the work of a novice; a writer experienced in film and advertising but not experienced enough in long-form fiction writing — then I’d learn that through the feedback of readers, the most honest critics. Why not put it out there? It would be a valuable learning experience.

And as explained above, I made that decision and had planned on publishing the work by next month, following that premature release date.

But then something else happened.

An early draft of Sadie was given the editing treatment by a young, recently graduated editor in the U.S. back in 2016. The feedback was mostly helpful and informed the future rewrites of the manuscript. But the story had changed so much since that first edit that I had to consider whether or not to have another editor take the story apart and find the flaws and inconsistencies.

Originally I’d said, ‘No, no, this is what it is. I’ve rewritten and rewritten and it will go out in its current state.’ That was a tad naive of me, but I knew that: I knew it would be a risk to self-publish without the final draft getting the editor’s touch. But then I was contacted by a fellow writer and copywriter, who informed me that their published-author sibling was now editing as well, and would possibly be interested in looking at Sadie before I put it out there, at a very reasonable fee.

At first I said it was okay; I had made the bed, tucked in my plot and characters and kissed them on their way into the unknown. I could no longer protect them, they were ready to be unleashed and whatever was to come their way would come; I could only hope that I’d equipped them well enough to deal with it. Then panic sat in: what if the work is awful? I mean, I knew the work wasn’t awful: I’d had plenty of feedback (no, not just from the mother and girlfriend!), and when I compared my work to other emerging writers on workshop sites I knew there was real strength in my writing. But the structure, the character growth, the conclusion — these aspects of the story could benefit greatly from the eye of a published author and editor.

I had to pause the self-publishing plan and send it over to that editor.

And now?

Now I have the editor’s invaluable notes.

Now I see where the story needs work: it needs more work.

And now I have the belief that Leaving Sadie could very well find itself a home by going down the traditional publishing road; the feedback definitely suggests that.

So now I have to get back to work.

The novel wasn’t ready for self-publication, I have to accept that.

But it could be ready for a traditional publisher very soon.

I’m going to go down the road of finding an agent, because while there was great appeal in self-publishing the work, and while I spent money and time on preparing for self-publication (cover design, ISBN, etc,), and while I know I had input from people on WordPress and Facebook on the book cover (for which I’m forever grateful), I shouldn’t self-publish until I’ve fully exhausted every option available to me when it comes to finding an agent and a publisher.

And if I fail to find one after all this?

Well, I guess I’ll self-publish; only this time I’ll be driving the freight train knowing the cargo is in the best possible condition.

Anyway, the call for last orders has sounded. I’m off .

Until next time, I will be in the bar, with my head on the bar . . .

Raison d’être (Or, The Ramblings of an Unsound Mind)

The following letters are to be sent in the unlikely event of my passing before the person to whom they are addressed.

They are to be sent as they are, and under no circumstances are they do be redacted, abridged or amended.

I would also like the following declaration, as well as my previous directions, to be affixed to the aforementioned letters:

I am of sound body and mind. I am of sound judgement. I am the ruler of no one but myself.

I am Alexander Klein.

I am sane.

May 9

On this day twenty-nine years ago we met for the first time. That’s all I have been thinking about. They said, after I had told them of my intention to write you, that there was a strong possibility my efforts would prove fruitless, that my wishes would likely be dismissed, but I write nonetheless. They stated that our “altercation” meant that I would be forbidden from having any contact with you, yet I will write.

   You probably remember our first encounter better than I ever possibly could, given the circumstances surrounding it. I’m sure you were filled with joy just as I am as I write, thinking about how it was. I’ve discussed with them how my mind becomes distorted,; memories can become quite vague. But those which consist of us remain vivid. Most of them.

   Do you remember the house in which we stayed all those years ago? I recall how I would sit in the kitchen some nights, nights when you would be reading, and I would think about you. I would play out scenarios in my mind in which I would enter the room and take your book. I would take your hands and sit next to you. But that was your time, you would say, to spend alone; the only time you ever had to yourself. You deserved it and I would not disturb it. In the house itself (in fact I’m not sure if you were ever aware of this) there was a copper box filled with old coins. I had found it in the cupboard to the left of the kitchen sink. Some of the coins dated back as far as the war I had read about at school and watched documentaries about on the television. I thought, for some reason, that they would be worth a vast sum of money. I kept them to myself in the case that they were valuable and that I could become quite wealthy. I don’t know why I never told you because I could never leave you. If it had turned out that they were worth something substantial I simply would have spent the money on the two of us, showering you with gifts of course. But they weren’t. I’m telling you this because I always felt terribly guilty at not having shared this information with you. Maybe you had known that they were there, but I still should have said something. For that I apologise.

   When I think about our time in that house I remember you as an effervescent soul. After the hardships you had overcome, one could accept if you were skeptical of the world and those who inhabited it, but you were quite the opposite. You were always quick with a smile, even to strangers, something that, in my opinion, people take for granted. That made me proud. When we would walk hand-in-hand and pass people by, I would watch you smile at them, and I would watch their reactions. I wasn’t being rude myself; I had an indelible smile fixed on my face as a result of merely looking at you.

   They were mostly happy times until Albert returned to live with us. If there is one thing which I am wholly against, something which irks me far greater than any prison cell ever could, it is a person who doesn’t value the gifts offered with life; the gift of independence and responsibility for oneself; the gift of the freedom to pursue greatness. Every individual is born with the freedom to pursue brilliance, regardless of the circumstances into which they are born. Everyone is born with an inherent greatness waiting to be unleashed, to be embraced. Those who choose to ignore it are the burden of mankind. Alas, my brother Albert was one of those who simply couldn’t see past his nose which sniffed only for quick fixes and terminable conveniences.

I believe it was April of that year when he returned 
having spent months living as a vagrant. He carried with him an odour; a stench of parasitic dependency. I always knew he would arrive on our doorstep with outstretched hands — I just didn’t think it would be so soon. The shift in the atmosphere was almost instantaneous. I knew you were always going to be ingratiating towards him. It was in your nature — it is your essence. Although I could never accept it. Nor could I accept him. I wasn’t happy until he left again to roam another city in search of whatever could benefit him in the short term.

   The duration of his stay, short as it may have been, was — as you sure recall — tumultuous. I rarely come to exchange physical blows with people: I am a true believer in  the non-aggression principle, and in the power of words. But on Albert words were lost; in his direction they would travel, only for him to dodge or ward them off. He wasn’t interested in the reason words offered, so a physical exchange was inevitable. One instance which is firmly lodged in my mind is the time (occurring on the seventeenth day of that month, I believe) when Albert had requested money to purchase a car. It was a beat up, hideous jalopy, but he had said it would serve him well, to help him on his way, he’d said. My anger was not in his wanting to leave of course — it was the fact that he had asked you for the requisite money. When I confronted him about his leeching ways we quarrelled. Afterwards I gave him the money myself and told him to purchase the car and to leave us in peace, never to return. This, I am sure, pained you. You didn’t deserve to witness our tempestuous relationship, and for that I also apologise.

I prefer to forget Albert and the period of his lodging 
with us. Dwelling on it has no good to offer either of us. I would assume you feel the same way. Our time spent together was far too precious to place in the same memory vault as the one which stores Albert, or anything else for that matter. The vault is solely for you and I.

It pains me to write with the main purpose of 
apologising for certain things, but in cleansing myself of the guilt which accompanies those memories of you (even if Albert does feature in some), I can recall them with a greater fondness. I hope, too, that this will help you look back on them with a heightened appreciation.

It is my intention to keep my exchanges with you short, 
as I feel it would be inappropriate for me to flood you with the incessant thoughts I have on a daily basis. I have been meticulous in my deciding what to write you.

-Alexander



June 17

   Since I first wrote a letter I had intended to send to you, which they tell me is still pending approval, my thoughts have mostly been consumed by the developments which led to my current state of incarceration.

   I was, at the best of times, one who was extremely passionate in my beliefs and feelings. I can freely admit I was quite an intense person — something for which, in contrast with my previous letter of grovelling (to be critical of myself), I shall never offer apologies. One’s principles are something that can never be stolen or debased. They are mine to alter if I please — no one else has that privilege. It is clear I have never altered those principles or beliefs. In doing so I would be nothing more than a hypocrite.

   The day when our relationship reached a point from which there would be no return — our crossing of the Rubicon — fell on a Tuesday, during winter. I have trouble recalling the month, which is something that greatly irritates me. I remember the day but not the month. Strange as it is I believe my brain has chosen to forget it, in order, perhaps, to spare me the pain that that month may now bring. It is something I have not discussed with a single person. I’m sure you know. What distresses me is how it was simply a misunderstanding that got completely out of hand. I could never harbour any ill feeling toward you, but there is a hint of disappointment which I can never shake from my being. In doing what I did, I felt I was protecting you, even though you did — and always will — refuse to believe it. In my murdering him I was following the instinctive nature of the animal, which is, when one considers our ancestry, what we are essentially. Being protective is innate just like the gift of potential greatness life offers us. In my assaulting you (which I still maintain was a complete accident) I destroyed everything that was precious in my life. The crime I am interned for was hardly down to the display of the dominant male (which they will argue it is) — it is the acts I took against you. It is not the cell which punishes me, it is the knowledge that I squandered the relationship which was so very dear to me.

   I’ve also thought about the media coverage which surrounded the trial. It is without vanity and with the utmost honesty that I can say I am an attractive person, as are you, and as was he. Everyone loves an attractive victim. Don’t you think there is far more coverage from the press when a person who is murdered happens to be quite attractive? Especially when the victim is a woman. ‘So beautiful’ they say. ‘What a terrible loss’ . . . If the victim isn’t the most attractive, well, let us say the victim was horribly deformed. Do you think there would be such a public outcry of grief, as well as that from the press? I do feel, personally, that looks add more to the story. The same goes for the perpetrator; in this case me. In the past, when I have followed a murder trail, I have noticed far greater coverage when the accused is kind on the eyes. I recall an American girl who was accused of murder who practically became a celebrity. I am firmly of the belief that if she was not attractive (and she was indeed very attractive) she and the case would have garnered little attention.

   This is not important of course — merely an observation. What is important is that you know that my feelings toward you have never changed. They will never change. The disappointment may remain but it is more with those who surrounded and misguided you in the aftermath of that life-altering day. I hope — and I believe — that you still think of me and the days we spent together with nothing less than great affection.

-Alexander

 

October 22

Ma chère,

   In the past few hours I have received news that my brother, Albert, has died. Of course you know of this. I would be content if we could grieve together. Sitting alone (as I’m sure you are, too) at a time of desolation is a sentence more unbearable than the one which was handed down to me after our misunderstanding. It is common knowledge shared between the two of us that I had little time for Albert, but he was blood, and the blood of a sibling is greater than that of the blood of a sacrifice offered for the greater good. Is it the greatest paradox to abhor a sibling whom you truly love?

   I’m led to believe he was stabbed to death during an altercation at a bar near a Parisian suburb. I never imagined he would die in France. He had told me he disliked the people, so why he returned there I will never know. The catalyst for his own downfall . . . I expected nothing less.

   My previous attempts to write you were denied so I had refrained from putting ink to paper. It pained me, you see, to waste these words on nothing more than paper. I feel, though, in the event of my death, they may acquiesce and allow you to receive my letters. This would serve as my satisfying last meal. Albert’s passing has prompted me to write again, with my thoughts solely on the pain you must be experiencing at this time. Though he and I had our differences, I’m aware that you were quite fond of him. You were always blinded by your kind nature, something which you should never be ashamed of. It is what defines you.

In thinking about the suffering you may be experiencing 
I have been reminded of a time in my life which, perhaps, defined me. It was the day my father died, which we’ve discussed on numerous occasions. In thinking about my father, I am not reminded of grief, or any feelings of real anguish. These feelings never accompanied his death. We were together when he died of course, and I can still feel the grip of your hand entwined with mine at the funeral. That grip — which was as tight as you had ever held my hand — I was sure would remain the same from that day forward. In losing my father, I had gained a true companion in you. Someone who would be there for me as I would be for them. I remember how you were saddened much more than I was during the months that followed. I had assumed -—and to this day still do — that your pain was in relation to the pain you had imagined I was feeling. It never occurred to me to tell you that, far from feeling grief, I was elated at the
prospect of us being together. Thinking, with the squeeze of your hand on the day of his burial, that I truly had someone who was mine. Not someone to dominate, but to share
my life with.

   There’s a question which has resurfaced in my mind many times since I have been here: Why have our lives turned out this way? How could the predisposition to protect someone
in every way possible lead to a separation of immense tragedy? I have never been able to arrive at a fulfilling answer to the question. But I think of the greatest stories ever told, and they are all tragic. That offers a comfort which I’m sure we can both appreciate until we die.

As always, and forever — with love, mother.

-Alexander

At a Loss

Since she died I’ve noticed that my ability to speak with others is being slowly eradicated, gradually fading away like this emaciated pink bar of soap I use as I bathe.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

This water will soon be cold and I’ll step out, dripping. I will shiver. The bathroom will be unwelcoming and I’ll leave in a hurry; my scrawny, pathetic body with its limp flesh covered by a damp, frayed, yellow towel.

But for now I will bathe.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

This is not the first instance in which I’ve considered my verbal constipation. It’s been a number of years since this inadequacy began to rear its ugly head.

I stumble over my words, if I’m fortunate enough find them.

The water in the porcelain tub swashes as I sit forward and look out the bathroom window which is ajar. The cool air envelopes my face. The day is bright. I see the woman from one of the houses opposite mine (number forty-four, I believe) as she hangs her washing in her back garden. I consider masturbating, but my thoughts are too busy to construct a pleasing fantasy. Once again the water dances as I rest my back against the cool tub.

I wash my underarms.

There is a great void in my mind, it seems — I cannot express myself with the requisite words when prompted.

And what if I do not speak? What if I instead choose silence? Where will I be then? How will I live — in this highly connected, this garrulous world — when I find it such a challenge to assemble a satisfying sentence? How can I, for instance, charm a member of the opposite sex with my daft tongue? (It’s not just what lines the pockets that dictates a woman’s interest in the male of the species. The power of words, ah, yes. Powerful, indeed. Powerful, too, is a distinct lack of them.)

Drip. Drip. Drip.

But not my short supply. A silence that is chosen can be a cunning tactical move, but a silence that indiscriminately finds one during discourse is as debilitating as a thunderous kick to the groin.

Like, for instance, only a week ago when — against my better judgement — I agreed to meet with a number of work colleagues. Upon being asked a question about my education (Where was it you studied all those years ago in Germany, Felix?), I faltered. Of course I responded by stating the name of the exact place where I had studied, but that was it. No substantiating or elaborative information followed. Instead, a silence of immense discomfort. Only when the group had moved on to another topic had I conjured up the desired information I had wished to share with them, but by then it was too late.

I was forever missing trains; always knowing where I wanted to go but never reaching my destination in time.

I debated whether or not I was suffering from a crisis of confidence, that perhaps the youth of today was somehow intimidating me, but even when I spoke to those with whom I’ve been familiar for years I found myself lacking. There appears to have occurred some catastrophic incident within the cerebral cortex, an incident which I cannot comprehend. For when I write, it is fine. When I sing, it is perfect. When I dance, my steps find themselves effortlessly. My thought process isn’t fazed in solitude. The frontal lobe does not shut down when I’m alone. Is the frontal lobe really responsible for my social deficiency? Is it merely a result of some sort of social anxiety? Perhaps. Do I feel anxious? Not to my knowledge. I’m merely struck down with some sort of ‘dumb’ syndrome at the most inconvenient times.

Or, perhaps, it’s delayed grief.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

Even the tap which I cannot turn any further is more prolific than me.

I splash the ever-cooling water onto my chest and run my soapy hands over my well-fed stomach.

I am not an object of desire.

I place my hands each side of the tub and pull myself forward. The woman from number forty-four is still in her garden. I’ve watched her on many occasions. The female form is forever distracting, invariably alluring, occasionally tormenting. I cannot remember the last time I had sex. I do, however, remember the final time I had intercourse with her.

 

***

 

My current state of vocabularic impotence hadn’t found me at that time. Her name was Lucy. She was American (from Pittsburgh) and weighed approximately 15st, and what attracted me to her was her brown eyes which suggested an open, warm heart. We met when I was in my late-forties. Lucy was two years older.

Together we enjoyed simple pleasures in life. For hours each day we would sit indoors reading and listen to music. Her favourite authors were Joe R. Lansdale, Stephen King, and John Saul. Her favourite musicians were Billy Idol, INXS, and Blondie. Her favourite snack was a chocolate éclair; I would regularly find her in bed, wrapped in a duvet reading Night Shift while devouring the oblong pastry.

Lucy engendered in me a firm belief in being oneself: she wore what she pleased, however unflattering. She sang at the top of her voice, despite her inability to hit one correct note. She ate her éclairs whenever she felt the urge.

Now that I think about it, I recall an instance when my apparently latent inability to form an articulate sentence may have signalled its existence during that period.

In our apartment, which was situated above a Chinese restaurant (the smells from which would regularly slip under our door and greet us and our guests like irksome door-to-door salesmen), we were hosting a small gathering of friends — Lucy’s friends.

Lucy had spent the afternoon cooking. Beads of sweat on her forehead captured her russet fringe, so it stuck there until she would wipe her brow with the greasy tea towel. She would regularly swear when she cooked; becoming vexed by the slightest inconvenience.

“Fuckin’ macarone,” she’d say. “Boil, you basta’d kettle!”

Of course I found these outbursts rather odd. One may get angry and curse, sure, but to scold a kettle for not boiling fast enough?

I would make myself scarce as frequently as possible when Lucy prepared food, and afterwards I would scour the kitchen for any stains she may have missed when cleaning — a product of my OCD.

During the friendly gathering Lucy’s friend, Noel, a reticent, plaintive and socially awkward fellow, found the courage to ask me where I grew up.

“Speilenstanz,” I told him. Then, I rocked from heel to toe as we both stood waiting for the other to continue to speak, as the numerous conversations taking place in the room swirled around Noel and I as if to mock us. We both smiled. I rocked back and forth some more. This is when I should’ve known there was something on the horizon, that some sort of irreversible malfunction had occurred up there.

Noel, sensing my dishevelment bordering on despair, pushed himself to his conversational limit in a bid to sustain the pathetic attempt at a discussion.

“It’s charming, or so I’ve heard.”

“Yes!” I enthused, quite relieved. “Yes, it’s very quiet. It’s, um, a quiet place.” I gave him a sheepish smile and excused myself, entering the kitchen as Lucy was muttering swear words at a carrot she was chopping, and I quietly sank into a chair by the kitchen table.

I put my inability to converse down to fatigue; I had been feeling tired most of the week, after all. Work had indeed been long and arduous at the time.

While I sat in a daze, I looked over at my lovely Lucy as she prepared the carrot.

“I thought you’d cooked everything earlier today?”

“We’re out of pre-meal snacks. I’m chopping some carrots for dipping into the hummus.” She stood upright and flopped her wrist back so that the knife pointed away from me. “You look off colour. Did you have too much to drink? You know you can’t handle more than two gin and tonics.”

“I’ve barely indulged, my Lucy. And I can handle more than two G&Ts. I’m not a bloody child.”

“Sweetheart, get yourself a drink of water and get back outside. We’re the hosts, we can’t both be absent from the living room at the same time. So if you don’t mind…” She flipped her hand back the other way, so she was now pointing the knife at me. I’m still unsure as to whether or not this was a threat.

Eventually, after a couple of G&Ts, I found my voice once again and the words rolled off my tongue like marbles off a coffee table. I freely participated in conversation while poor Noel stood by nodding his head and sipping his drink uncomfortably.

Fatigue, yes! That’s all it was.

The night had proved a success, and Lucy and I had intercourse soon after everyone had left. The next morning, a Sunday, I had forgotten about Noel and those few embarrassing minutes, and Lucy and I took a morning stroll to the supermarket where she purchased three fresh chocolate éclairs.

Back at home we lay in bed together while Debbie Harry told how once she had a love and it was a gas. After finishing two éclairs Lucy turned on her side and, as I read Faulkner, I placed one hand on her massive hips as I held the book open in the other.

“Felix?” she asked me in between deep, laborious breaths.

“Yes, my dear?”

“Rub my back.”

I placed the book page-down on the duvet so I could resume reading where I had left off, as Lucy turned onto her stomach — her face becoming lost in the pillow.

Placing my knees either side of her and resting my bottom on her calves, I lifted up her carmine red T-shirt, revealing the pale white and acne-covered skin. With both thumbs I pressed deep into the muscles causing the skin to crease and Lucy to release a number of low moans.

“Don’t be afraid to be tough,” she said — her words muffled by the pillow in which her face was nestled.

Halfway through the massage I changed the CD from Blondie to INXS. Lucy had a thing for Michael Hutchence, and — fully aware that I offered little sex appeal to the female of the species — I would play his band’s music in a bid to conjure up a sexual fantasy in her mind: INXS were nothing more than an aphrodisiac, and quite an effective one.

After ‘Mystify‘ had finished, I moved my hands from her back to her enormous thighs. With much effort I parted her legs — it was like lifting two massive slabs of beef — and began to rub between her inner thighs and her buttocks.

By this stage I had developed an erection, and with one hand continuing the massage, I manoeuvred my penis from my underwear with the other and began to touch myself.

Soon thereafter I noticed that Lucy wasn’t being receptive to my massage; which by now had moved to her vagina. This wasn’t unusual, however, as she would prefer to lie static during intercourse more often than not. Highly aroused, I continued, and, positioning myself higher up the bed, I rested one hand on the pillow by her head and used the other to position my penis between her legs.

After no more than twenty thrusts I climaxed inside her.

Never Tear Us Apart‘ began to play through the speakers as I used the bed sheets to wipe my penis clean. I lay on my back looking at the ceiling, spent.

“A little quicker than usual,” I snickered, then turned to Lucy whose face was still buried in the pillow. “Were you thinking of him or me?” I asked.

Lucy didn’t respond.

“Lucy?” I called, but still she failed to acknowledge me. Had she grown tired of me? Of us. Did the latest round of lacklustre sex arouse in her a latent depression?

As Hutchence declared that we could live for a thousand years, I rested my hand on her shoulder nearest me and shook her gently. “Lucy,” I intoned, but still there was no reply.

 

***

 

When I called for the ambulance my voice trembled.

“Where is she now?” the woman on the other end of the phone asked.

“In bed,” I answered, my words laced with panic and shame. “We were… having sex.”

The paramedics arrived a short time later and pronounced Lucy dead at the scene. Before they left one of them noticed the case of the INXS record.

“Good, huh?” he said.

“They’re OK,” I opined quietly. “Do I go with you?”

“My colleague here is going to ask you a number of questions.”

I looked at Lucy, who by now was spread on the gurney with a white sheet covering her whole body. With her massive belly and pointed feet the sheet looked like a miniature model of a snow-covered mountain range. I imagined tiny people skiing down her stomach and over her breasts, towards her thorax.

Later that evening, having attended the mortuary, I returned to the apartment and sat myself down on the bed on which Lucy had been lying only hours earlier. I reached for the remote for the stereo system and pressed play; the system automatically choosing disc three.

Driving drums began and Billy Idol proceeded to sing ‘Mony Mony’.

I lay my head on the pillow next to Lucy’s; the indentation made by her head still remained, and Billy sang with great vitality. I had never cared much for that track, but somehow it was the perfect song to accompany me at that moment. I reached my hand over to the empty space next to me where usually I would find Lucy’s hefty presence. I ran my fingers over the now cold duvet cover.

Lucy was gone.

 

***

 

The bathwater is now quite cool. My skin is puckered and the room lacks condensation. I move forward, reaching for the tap, twisting the handle, but all the hot water is gone. I look out the window once again; the woman from forty-four has long left the garden. A chill envelopes my face and I settle back into the tub.

I picture Lucy and think about my worry over words, and a faint chuckle arrives. When I think about her and I together, and when I consider our exchanged words, my memory serves me monosyllabic ones like ‘love’, and ‘rub’, and ‘soap’. Words such as ‘back’, and ‘hug’, ‘kiss’, and ‘play’. These are the important ones. I wonder, for a moment, if I’ll experience another relationship before I die. I’m in my mid-fifties, hardly an old age pensioner. I can still muster an erection. Even the thoughts of that last sexual encounter with my lovely Lucy had me mildly aroused, despite the morbid nature of the recollection.

I cannot be sure if my struggle with words is a result of Lucy’s passing, or something that predates her departure from us. I cannot be sure if I’ll ever be able to attract another woman, given my current predicament. What I am sure of, however, is that I have a window in my bathroom.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

And that’s something.