Saturday, September 24, 2016

#219: "Xirimiri" by Diana Friedman

~ This story was previously published in New Letters (2014).

Ramón del Solar Astigarraga is a pain in the ass. If I hang my sheets one millimeter over his window he shouts to the whole neighborhood that I am blocking his light. When I pulled up a strip of carpet, he accosted me in front of the newsstand: What the hell are you doing up there? I can’t breathe from all the dust you’re generating. This man has the disposition of a rotten onion, and the last person on earth I would like to be is his son.
Not long ago I had a dream and for once, it was a good dream; I stood knee deep in a clean and clear lagoon, with dolphins at my ankles, a monkey hugging my shoulder. Not far away was a waterfall—ice blue and beautiful. Elisabeth was there. I knew by the way she’d pulled her hair back, just a few wisps hanging about, that she cared what I thought, and the feeling was divine. I was out in the world in a real way, which is how I might like to live the rest of my life.
When I woke, though, I was not in the outer world, rather, deep inside it, flattened by a hangover on my mother’s squalid couch. Outside it was misting lightly, xirimiri, mislaid droplets too weak to find their way to earth. Elisabeth was not in my arms but exactly where I left her, the 5,000 miles of sea and soil between us not even a remote measure of how far apart we were.
And me?
Same old. Plenty lost, but nothing gained in all the years I’d been gone, least of all, any idea who my father was.

Monday, September 19, 2016

#218: "The Devil Wind" by Toni Mirosevich

~This essay was previously published in Fourth Genre (2014).

A chill settles on the empty crab boxes stacked around the storage room, a chill that doesn’t so much descend as rise up from the sea below the crab fishery, up through the planks of the pier on which the fishery stands, through the cement first floor where the crab tubs hold their incarcerated. A chill that climbs the wet stairs to the storage room door, doesn’t bother to knock, comes right in, carrying with it the smell of crab and diesel and brine, to find me here, where I sit, at a makeshift desk with pen in hand, the pad of paper before me turning to pulp in all this wetness, the page on top a damp, blank screen. 
Which stays empty. Why go to the small, tight window of the page when a bigger page beckons, a large picture window right above the desk that looks out on a harbor? Why sit when you can stand and watch crab boats ferry in and out, see them head to sea empty, riding high above the harbor’s surface with their barnacled keels showing, their pants hitched up high, then watch their return in the evening, the waddling procession after a heavy meal of cod or halibut or salmon, their belt lines well below the water. If I stand I can see the Lucy or the Intrepid or the Irene B pull up to the dock right outside, see the dock’s rusty crane swing out over a boat. The roped basket at the end of the cable’s hook swings down empty like an empty string bag you take to market, only to come up full to bursting with crabs, their red arms gesturing this way and that, with so much to say.
Out past the breakwater, at the horizon, a straight blue line of sea bisects the white sky’s blank sheet. Waves scribble their cursive below the line, filling up that page. A reminder. I am supposed to be writing, working, yet have no precedent for this type of work. There’s nothing in my DNA. This isn’t the work of my father, the life-and-death life of a fishing boat captain on the wicked Bering Sea. Nor the work of my mother, her youth spent standing on her feet all day, packing tuna, before child labor laws gave the cannery owners a conscience.
People ask how I found this place. I tell them I walked out onto the pier one day and simply asked the owner of the fishery, a man named Steve, if there was any place around here where I could write. See, I told him. I grew up around boats. The smell of brine is perfume to me. The smell of twine, of diesel, perfume! I know how to lay it on thick, how to bullshit, having learned this on the docks when I was young. I know how to swear, how to say you motherfucking piece of shit with conviction.
I told Steve I had this half-baked theory: if I were near the sea again, on a dock again, maybe I’d be able to tap into that salty vein of memory, could recall tales I heard listening to the fishermen on the docks. What if, like them, you awoke each morning and looked forward to the day’s prospects, the shining possibilities of luck and work and weather? What if you could look forward to the adventure, no matter the consequences, threw caution to the wind; believed there would be wind? And all you needed to succeed? A boat. You needed a boat.
            But now that I’ve gained the perch? How to get past the window in front of me. How to get from this chair onto that sea. How to get to that life from this life. That’s the dilemma.

Monday, September 12, 2016

#217: "Home Shopping" by Casey Pycior

~This story was previously published in RE:AL - Regarding Arts & Letters (2011).
Darlene and Eddie know, as soon as the realtor turns onto the tree-lined, brick-paved street, that the house on the corner will be the one. It has to be; it’s the third and final house of the day.
The realtor, Maxine, pulls into the driveway of the renovated Victorian. The house is white, but all the trim and spindles and cornices are painted in a pattern of muted grays, blues, and greens. A large swing hangs on the wrap-around porch, and the yard is perfectly manicured with a Bradford pear just to the side of the house. “I know you’ll love this property; it’s simply perfect,” Maxine says over her shoulder to Darlene and Eddie, searching in her shoulder bag on the passenger seat for the folder with the listing. “It’s got five bedrooms—plenty of room for the kids—three baths and all new amenities. I know it’s on the top end of your budget, but…you’ve just got to see it.”
            Darlene leans across Eddie’s lap to look up at the house. This close, Eddie’s cologne is too strong. It smells piney and cheap, much too old-smelling for a man in his mid-twenties. His pants are wrinkled, too; the rest of his clothing, a dark green polo and lightweight brown sport coat, looks fine, but she can’t believe she didn’t notice his pants earlier. She quickly checks her own outfit, charcoal slacks and a white blouse, to see that everything is in place and then looks out the window at the house. It’s big and old and exactly the kind of house Darlene had always dreamed of living in. She and Eddie had worked a few big houses before, but never one so nice. She knows the people who live in these kinds of houses have to have money, so there is a good chance they’ll find what they’re looking for.
Pulling back from the window, Darlene looks at Eddie. His face is pale and his eyes—only a little bloodshot, like maybe he’s tired—dart around in their sockets. He’s fighting it, but she can tell. He rubs the side of his nose with the back of his hand, and then pushes up his sleeve and scratches his forearm, digging his fingernails into his skin, leaving it blotchy and red. This is new. Darlene reaches across and holds Eddie’s arm.
“Maxine, can we have just a moment alone to discuss the last house?” Darlene asks.
“Absolutely! Let me just go unlock the door. Take as much time as you need.”
“Great, thanks,” Darlene says and smiles. She watches Maxine walk away from the car, her wide hips swaying beneath the tight blue business suit, her permed hair stiff in the breeze. When she is far enough away, Darlene turns and glares at Eddie. “What the hell is this?”
“What?” he says and sniffs. “I’m fine. Let’s just do this and get it over with.”
“You don’t look fine. What’s with the scratching?”
“I’m fine—or no worse off than you,” he says and nods down at her hands. “Let’s go in and hope for the best.”
Darlene looks at her hands. They’re shaking. It’s only barely visible, but still. She hadn’t even noticed. She opens and closes her hands, making tight fists and releasing them. When did it get like this?
“You ready?” Eddie asks, looking directly at Darlene.
She takes a deep breath and closes her eyes as she exhales. She opens her eyes and looks at her hands resting quietly on her lap. “Ready.”

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

#216: "Thirst" by Geeta Kothari

~This essay was previously published in Fourth Genre (2006).

By the time the first small British community was established in Bombay, five of the original seven islands were already interconnected at low tide by shallow sandbanks, silted up over the years…By 1730, land reclamation, carried out under supervision of the British, had permanently united the five islands into a single mass and large earth works had been thrown up to prevent a major invasion by the sea…  Bombay, Dom Moraes

The people living on these islands were mainly fishermen.  They worshipped the Goddess Mumba Devi after whom Bombay is named.  Gradually, the shallow waters between these islands were filled so as to connect the seven islands into a large one.  India:  The Land and Its People, Swarn Khandpur

In the photo, my father stands in front of a blooming red hibiscus, framed by pink bougainvillea.  The sun bleaches the ground beneath his feet, makes the leaves of the hibiscus shine, as if they have just been polished.  Holding his arms out from his sides, my father is a bird about to take flight.  He wears gray suit pants, a short-sleeved shirt and a dark blue tie:  his idea of vacation wear.  In his left hand, he clutches a clear plastic bag that probably contains maps and brochures.  His curly black hair springs from his head in mild shock, and he smiles widely, his eyes hidden by square-framed glasses.
               Or does he?
I always thought my father was just smiling until a friend saw the photo and dubbed him “laughing man.” Of course, he was laughing, his mouth wide open, his teeth showing slightly.  He laughed more than he smiled, the smile itself a prelude to a deep belly laugh brought on by something my sister or I said or did. 
And I felt embarrassed, standing next to my friend, as if I should have known he was laughing, not smiling, should have heard the familiar guffaw.  I had been looking at the wrong thing:  the arms like wings, weighed down only by the bag in his left hand.

Although Bombay is a city that starts work late in the day, we rarely slept past six.  The screeching koyal, the incessant cawing of crows, and the tinkle of bicycle bells as people made their way to work woke us every morning at sunrise despite the closed windows and air-conditioning.  In those early hours of the morning, we often heard the pickers sifting through the garbage for plastic bottles. Above the cacophony of street noise and wildlife, I heard the early morning call to prayers, issued over a loudspeaker from the mosque down the road. The men in the alley continued to reclaim the bottles we may have discarded the night before.
“They’re looking for your bottles,” I said.  My husband, a firm believer in recycling, did not like to crush the empty Bisleri bottles we discarded.  He did not share my concerns about the way these bottles would be recycled.
Bottled water, especially in rural areas, is not trustworthy.  Recycling the empties by filling them with tap water (or worse) and resealing the cap is a small business that starts with the picker who sorts through the mounds of garbage and sells the old bottles to a middleman, who refills and distributes them as new.  My husband’s guidebook suggested that our fears about tap water, in the cities anyway, were exaggerated, that the worst we could expect from it was a “minor dose of the shits” for a couple of days.
For my father, illness was never minor.  Growing up in pre-penicillin, pre-vaccine India, he had seen people die from unexplained fevers, unidentified infections, mysterious aches that never went away.   Grandparents who died from bubonic plague, cousins who died from dehydration, brought on by a dose of amoebic dysentery.
The guidebook had no such stories.  Its pages did not talk about people like my cousin and her husband, both doctors, and their kids, who got so sick on their last visit to Bombay that they had to use IV drips.  My father assumed that we understood the seriousness of IV drips, even if we didn’t know what was in them, and that had they not been doctors, my cousin and her family would have died.  The clincher, which my father saved for last, was that they ate no outside food—that is, food prepared and sold on the street or in a restaurant—and drank only bottled water.
“Obviously,” my father said, a hint of triumph in his voice, “the water they were drinking was fake.”
To forestall the impending threat of contaminated water, my father had decided during our Zurich stopover that we would save our small water bottles and take them to India, where we would refill them at the hotel with water from bigger bottles purchased locally, their purity established by unbroken seals my father would check and recheck.  During our two days in Zurich, he amassed a large collection of 16-ounce bottles, argued when my mother suggested he leave some behind, and extolled the bottles’ virtues to my husband and me, when we talked about buying new bottles in India.  This plan so clearly assuaged his anxiety, we stopped arguing and allowed him to take charge of hydrating us.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

#215: "The Art Business" by Jeff Fleischer

~This story was previously published in Chicago Tribune Printers Row Literary Journal (2014).

"How much did you say again?" Davis Javits had heard the number perfectly clearly. He didn't doubt his hearing; it was his imagination that he mistrusted.
The heavyset man seated across from him grinned, unconsciously straightening the lapels on his obviously expensive suit. He casually leaned back in his chair, about as far as he could without tipping over. "One million, two hundred and fifty thousand dollars." He'd said it as "one-point-two-five million" the previous time, but took the question as a lack of understanding. When that second response was met with only a quiet stare, The Suit leaned his girth forward, opened his metallic briefcase, and removed a strapped-together stack of bearer bonds that totaled the quoted amount. He handed the bearer bonds to Davis, who examined them in silence for so long that The Suit half expected him to bite one to verify its validity, like a cartoon version of a nineteenth-century merchant. "Satisfied?" The Suit asked, leaning back again.
Davis Javits drew a breath and looked around his gallery. The man in the suit was the only thing inside the whole former field house that carried even a coincidental smell of success. That uninspiring reality started with Davis himself, with his thrift-store clothes, hand-me-down shoes, and generally scraggly appearance. He liked to think that his beard — a thick but untrimmed mess that didn't quite connect with his sideburns, leaving an uncomfortable gap on each side — gave him a vaguely hipster look. He also thought it was cool how his hair, which didn't grow as long as he would like and was thinning a bit in front and on the top of his dome, bunched up in the back and always seemed to have a natural bedhead look. In reality, he looked more like a newly homeless man or a college student who'd recently ceased to care, although his hygiene suggested better than either of those scenarios.
Not quite thirty, but not far from it either, Davis Javits didn't lack for work ethic. His art had been a lifelong pursuit, a hobby he'd chosen to make his career when he found he lacked the qualifications for any other appealing option. He'd gotten in on the found-object art trend long before it became overexposed, and continued to toil away at it despite a complete lack of financial reward. When he failed to find success, acclaim, or even acknowledgement in the medium, he refused to alter his basic style but doubled down on quantity. He decided he simply wasn't coming up with enough pieces, and began to work at an almost superhuman pace, producing a new work of art nearly every day.
He'd discovered his affinity for found-object art back in elementary school, when he would spend almost every recess alone, collecting sticks and rocks from the fields and fashioning them into eccentric trinkets he tried to peddle at class fundraisers or through door-to-door sales to townspeople, many too concerned about looking cheap in front of their neighbors to refuse. Until The Suit arrived, those sales for a few dollars each represented the most lucrative stretch in the art career of Davis Javits.
His gallery was an abandoned school gymnasium he'd rented back when his finances were in better shape, when he took a few thousand dollars of inheritance money his great uncle had expected him to spend toward a college education and instead invested it to fund his theoretical career. The building had seen better days, with several contradictory coats of paint visible through cracks in the wood, and more than a little rust showing on the hinges. The gallery had started out as a barn but, like many such buildings in eastern Indiana, it had been repurposed several times. It endured stints as a speakeasy, a munitions storage facility, a town hall, and ultimately as a basketball court for several area high schools before each built their own. When he learned the building's history, Davis Javits felt it fit his own extremely well. Before the small inheritance, he'd scraped by financially as a bartender at an often-empty dive, a checkout clerk at a gas station, and a greenskeeper at a third-rate golf course. The landlord didn't really use the field house anymore, and gave him a good deal. When the building's rightful owner died, Davis and his monthly rent somehow got lost in the paperwork, and he saved even more money when he decided to live there too. For three years, he'd slept on a mattress in the old visitors' locker room, using the showers there and storing his few possessions in the vacant lockers. That way he could work to the point of exhaustion anytime he wanted, then collapse for as long as he needed to recharge.
As he looked around his makeshift gallery, contemplating the magnitude of The Suit's offer, Davis Javits started to consider how much money his existing collection could bring in if a single piece was suddenly worth more than a million dollars. Every wall in the field house was lined with art. Every corner held stack upon stack of completed pieces. Every locker in the abandoned home locker room overflowed with supplies, with incomplete scraps of incomplete ideas. A good percentage of the building's square footage was filled with raw materials yet to be put to use or, more accurately, in need of repurposing. The ability to stock up with virtually no overhead was one of the advantages of practicing found-object art, so the parts of the building not visible to the public looked like a cross between a city dump and the aftermath of a small, localized hurricane. Finally, Davis thought, it had all amounted to something. Something far more financially viable than he'd ever imagined. "Thank you," he told the fat man, extending his hand. "It's a pleasure to do business with you."

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

#214: "Chenartu So Near" by Frank Light

~This essay previously appeared in Mosaic Art and Literary Journal (2014).

Editor’s note: "The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent official positions of the United States Government."

 Chenartu So Near

In that it was barely governed, lay a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Tarin Kot, the capital of Uruzgan Province, and had experienced a visit from the Governor's militia, Chenartu had more in common with Nesh, down in Kandahar Province, than it did with Chora, the district to which it belonged. Although the district capital sat only 30 kilometers to the north, the track between the two towns had become so rough by 2004 that travelers found it easier to drive into Tarin Kot and go out the other spoke. Five hours total. The District Chief made the journey once; he was in no hurry to do it again. Nor did the Americans get around to it much. Heading out of Forward Operating Base Ripley, near Tarin Kot, the one destination of military interest on the road was an outpost named Anaconda up in Khas Uruzgan District, five hours farther east. Usually they went by helicopter.
No wonder Uruzgan's governor kept asking Kabul to make Chenartu a separate district. He talked as though this were a done deal, with a new district government up and running. The little we knew of the area came from him. He labeled all his enemies, and the man had more than his share, as Taliban. Case in point, his militia would dump bodies at the police gazebo in Tarin Kot's traffic circle. Taliban, he claimed. From Chenartu, of course.
On one thing everybody agreed: the place needed attention. But the infantry battalion headquartered at Ripley was stretched thin, and its commander kept declining the Governor's pleas for joint operations – in Chenartu, or anywhere in Uruzgan. Only Special Forces operated with his militia; they kept to the western end of the province.
If any Americans were going to fill the vacuum, they would have to come, indeed should come, from the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) at Ripley. PRTs were designed to spur development, enhance security, and extend the reach of the national government. The one at Ripley had the means – a dozen armored Humvees, half of which were serviceable – and it had the manpower: commander and support staff, a four-man civil affairs team, some 20 locally-recruited guards for the team when it traveled, some 20 more to watch over the new PRT site then under construction, a handful of Afghan interpreters, three military policemen, a rifle company from the Iowa National Guard, a U.S. aid representative we'll call Kerry, and a State Department employee on his last foreign assignment: me.
So in the latter part of October, after the Afghan presidential election and before our own, an advance party from the Guard drove up for a recon. Strange, they reported, though they couldn’t say why. It just didn’t feel right. Originally we were going to stay a while; you needed some downtime to get a sense of a place. They recommended we start with a day trip. We could overnight when we knew the area better.
The commander gave the go-ahead, scheduling it for two days after Kerry and the civil affairs team returned from Chora's capital and one day after our military-police advisors and I – along with the infantry's Bravo Company – returned from Nesh. We’d start early, about daybreak. Civil affairs needed that; they had a long drive ahead of them. They were going to accompany us as far as Chenartu, and then their contingent, six vehicles in all, including their protective escort led by Farouk, a village headman from the far side of Tarin Kot, would continue on to Anaconda to wrap up projects started by their predecessors. A smaller element would take Kerry and me back to Ripley.

Monday, August 15, 2016

#213: "Young Men of Prague" by Kelly Cherry

~This story was previously published in American Letters & Commentary (1998).

Einstein and Kafka are young men. One, a former patent examiner and now a full professor, lectures on physics at the Karl-Ferdinand University in Prague; one, an insurance adjuster for the Austro-Hungarian government, sprawls in his chair at the café, a tall glass of lemonade on the table in front of him.
            One lounges in his seat, dreaming of a young actress who travels with the Yiddish Theatre Troupe; the other runs a hand through his black hair and talks enthusiastically about atoms. The atom, he says, is a kind of dream, a space in which power is compressed to a point of conversion, at which point it becomes—becomes!—possibility. It is as if, he says, the atom is a symbol of itself.
            The windows of the lecture hall have been opened wide, the shades snapped up. The pull-rings, wrapped in silk thread, can be reached only by a long stick with a hook on the end.
            Beyond the windows, tall glasses of lemonade are growing downright hot atop the glass tables of all the sidewalk cafés. Trees in thick foliage shade the broad avenue and narrow side-streets, leaves rustling like taffeta skirts.
            The sky is lovely, blue and silent.
            To the young men, the sky is everything, a dream.
            It is atomic.
            It is theatrical—posed, awaiting a cue.
            In the classroom, a young professor gestures, and tugs at his black hair almost as if he would absent-mindedly pull it out.
            At one of the outdoor cafés, a young businessman drapes himself around his chair. The lemonade is stale and sour, and his digestion delicate.
            So sweet, she is lovely, the actress, gentle and mirthful, her lips as red as blood. (Something wildly provocative about her mouth, as if she reddens her lips by biting them herself. . .)
            The two young men, too, are lovely, in their fervor and good suits, and with such good manners.
            Prague is lovely, a gold-leafed city dawdling on the far edge of the century now closing. There are so many books to be written, so many lives to be lived. So many dreams. The future is so close that for a brief moment there seems no need to hurry into it. In fact, there is a single moment when no one raises his eyes to look at it, just as a lover, sensing that the one he worships has at last arrived at the dance, chooses not to notice, attempting in this way to reclaim some of the control he has already surrendered.
            Then, somehow, it happens that everyone looks up at the same time, which is what the darling beauty wanted in the first place. She shrugs off her wrap, into the waiting hands of the servant. She descends the short, carpeted staircase into the ballroom.
            Everyone rushes toward her.