From the Unsaid Archives / Help Yourself! / Ottessa Moshfegh / (From Unsaid Three)


This is me: one out of billions, not destitute, never married, not well traveled, a fan for music, like those long drawling symphonies, church songs, blind men on the piano, all that beautiful misery. My name is Bettina Clark. I live in the same city as you, in a boarding house, in the room on the top floor where a maid would sleep a hundred years ago. People always ask me where I come from: I come from a small town outside of a big one. Now I’m a person who resides mostly in what effect I can have on people’s misery. It’s a fine existence, even though I have no friends. My one true hobby is placing personal adds in newspapers put out in the countryside.

Yesterday there was a story in the news. It was a horrible story about an accident. A young woman, a crawling baby, a halfway house for the wretched. I can’t get it out of my mind. Right now it is too horrible. The objects involved are too garish. This young mother was only eighteen years old. I care because I live for horror. It’s the only thing that ties me to people. Otherwise I am completely alone.

My room is quiet and has a small window to the street. There is a narrow worn path across the floor, and the ceiling comes slanting down to one corner. There isn’t much room for monkey business. There are grooves in the wall, which is made of green-painted slats of wood. I think the grooves in the wall go along with where the mop and broom handles bumped against when that old maid slammed the door. A day doesn’t go by I don’t picture her rages. The room still smells like sweat and soap. Little treasured trinkets, darned stockings. Every day I thank the Lord.

I thank the Lord for the subtle fire in my groin, and for all the gross adventures of my imagination. When I was twelve I bent over in front of my elementary school gym teacher and he put one heavy open hand on one side of my spine, and another hand on the other side. “Bettina,” he said, and traced that gristly, calloused thumb bump to bump along my scoliosised vertebrae. When I am wrecked with age, I’ll have the humpback. You have to have something to succumb to. Because of it, I never hold a single grudge. It’s the give and take of life, I guess.

Another story in the news: a stranger from another city threw himself in front of the subway and survived. Pinned and severed, he lay on his back and spoke to the emergency medical technician. He moved his head like a dying dog. “It doesn’t hurt,” he said. There are some people on this earth, I swear. Any one you pass on the street just might be an angel, you have no idea.

I work in an office and by now I have earned a window and a shorter walk to the bathroom. My doctor says my little problems are worsening. I don’t like to swallow pills. My employer is a drunk with a pair of spoiled twin-looking children. “Strong genes,” he says, “are the backbone of our great society.” His name is Frank Marotta. When he hands me something to type or mail, he likes to hover next to my desk and spit into my hair. “Bettina,” he says, “Don’t you want to quit this? I still pay you seven dollars an hour.”

“Nothing doing, Frank,” I say. Poverty is one way to heaven, doesn’t everybody know that? But what Frank doesn’t know can’t hurt him. Every day I do my part to sabotage his operation. He’s too drunk to notice, and the guy who keeps the books is a drunk too. They go for long cheap Chinese lunches and come back stinking of gin and let it out in the ladies’ toilet, hiding it from one another. Which brings me back to the horrible news from yesterday about the young mother and her dead baby. It’s all just too much to do any more than just mention it right now. I have a fragile, grotesque grasp on current events.

Where does all this put me in the world? I ask myself daily.

Today is Sunday. I don’t have a kitchen. Just this dead maid’s room and a key to the toilet. But I have a little porcelain sink next to my bed, and if the others are out in the hall late at night, I just go in there. Whenever I pass one of the young men tenants on the stairs they do the same thing: rub up close and push their hot breath into my ear.

“What gives, lady?”

Don’t they know I’m old enough to be their mothers?

This morning I woke up and had the same thought I have every morning: who am I and what am I doing here? Then I remember my one greatest joy and it is that I generally expect the worst from people. I keep my purse beneath my pillow because those young men on the stairs and in the hallway like to snoop. If I’m not careful to lock up on my trip to the toilet, I can be sure to find one of them sitting on my bed or pawing through my small chest of drawers. I paw through their things too when they are using the phone downstairs. Human beings are curious animals. And we all want to be found out.

I wish the worst for people because I think every man, woman and child ought to be humble and fight the good fight. And I’m a terrible liar too. But I do it in the kindest way.

Here’s an example: while waiting for a bus, I might chat up an old man or lady. We talk about the change in the weather, and I’ll say, “It will rain today, no question. . . . Don’t you read the papers?” And they believe me. I’m no great beauty full of mystery or anything: why would I lie? But just think of their great relief when the sun keeps shining all day long! They might never appreciate such a gift as a sunny afternoon. We have got to be grateful for what we have.

At some point in history, someone said something I think is very stupid and other people keep repeating it over and over again.

“When God gives you lemons, make lemonade.”

I really can’t think of what this means. If God gives you a lemon, why can’t you just be satisfied with a lemon? And if you aren’t satisfied with the lemon, why not bury the lemon in the ground and practice some patience. One day you might have a tree—tall and slim with silvery smooth bark. You could admire the look of the tree. You could lie on the cool ground in the shade of this tree and gaze up at the sky and think how lucky you are to have these pretty lemon tree leaves pitter-pattering their moonshaped shadows across your face. And if you were very patient and a little lucky, your tree might bear fruit. Maybe then you could think of lemonade. Maybe if you had a thirsty guest who had traveled a great distance in the dust down the treeless road just to see you, you could use a few of the lemons for his lemonade. Maybe he came to wish you a happy birthday. If God gave you a friend, would you squeeze the life out of your friend and throw the rest of him away just to quench your own thirst a little? It’s not very forward thinking.

Occasionally I lose track of time and lean my ear against the door of my dead maid’s room and listen to the young men talking. They have those big burly voices that carry through walls. They’re like the men you see in movies: tall and their faces perfectly match their personalities, and each of them only slightly differs from the next. Sometimes all I listen for are the curse words. I like it when they say, “Fuck!” and call each other “Bastards!” It really makes me curious. Sometimes when they stop me on the stairs I say the words back to them. Like “Fuck you bastard!” but I do it in the same hot whispery voice they use on me with their thighs pressed up against me on the stairs. I don’t know where they get the nerve but I try to play along. I see no point in making enemies in the home.

My mother and father were deaf and stupid. When I was a child they acted like everything they did was a favor to me. The bread was always moldy and when they put on the radio it boomed and kept me up at night. For deaf people they really liked music. It always killed me how much time they spent together with their secret codes. They wrote me a few notes after I moved out and that was it. I’ve been living here for seven years. Some nights I come home from work and plan to do some awful things, but I rarely have the wherewithal to carry them out. I like it when bad things happen to people, but I’d rather stay out of it. Sometimes just planning to do something awful is enough of an awful thing to do. This is not to say I haven’t tried. I have tried several times to do something so awful I can hardly mention it here. But if you are sitting there thinking, “This lady is so awful,” or “This lady’s marbles have been whacked a bit too hard by impatient children,” I’d like to remind you of how much my heart went out to the young mother and her drowned baby in the halfway house. Remember how disturbed I was and what a point I made in addressing what a tragedy this has been, especially considering the mother’s youth and the graphic, stinky details. So I hope you bite your tongue after you open your mouth to damn me.

If you step on my foot in the hallway or on the stairs, you can be sure that the sweet angel in me will save you from being turned over the banister to tumble to your certainly crunchy death on the foyer floor. So just thank your lucky stars.

Sometimes your lucky stars appear to you not like stars at all but glossy plastic buttons on a lady’s coat or two little freckles on a child’s knee. Or sometimes your lucky stars are two tweaky roaches crawling out of the drain when you are standing there naked. You never know. Sometimes I stay late in the office and go through the bookkeeper’s ledger. I have a very good pencil with a perfect eraser at the end of it. I just go through it and make small changes. I make sure to change the important sums and figures which he’s done up on his greasy calculator. And I add a line or two to the letters he or my boss asks me to type up and drop in the mailbox on my way home. I might write something like, “Cut the shit, Charlie. We all know you’re desperate as hell.” Or when it’s a letter to a lady, “Barbara, baby, everyone knows your silly husband goes with little boys.” When I answer the phones, I put on a special voice, the voice of a secretary with lots of secrets. I like to put people on hold and then just sit there breathing into the phone. When Frank’s wife calls, I never give Frank the message. I think the phone is an odd element in our civilization. It’s hard to tell the lies.

And this brings me to my most beneficial pastime. I keep a jar of dimes under my bed and every Sunday I take two pocketfuls and get on a city bus with my purse tight in the crook of my elbow. I take the bus to a bad part of town where there are no public libraries or pharmacies, just dirty movie houses, corner stores that keep all their inventory behind bulletproof glass, liquor stores with blinking pink and yellow neon signs, an elevated railroad for cargo trains, a dark coffeeshop full of sleeping bums and drunkard women, old men with faces as wrinkled as the brown paper bags they keep their bottles in, the fetid, stimulating smell of shit.

I have a little ivory-handled handgun that I keep in my purse along with a wad of twenty-dollar bills rolled into a flesh-colored nylon sock. I wear my sunglasses and an unfashionable suit. People take me for a church-lady or social worker, I guess. I don’t get many concerned looks. When I get off the bus I hold my purse in the crack of my armpit. Sometimes I buy a newspaper and hold that against my chest like a worried woman. Nobody pays me any attention.

Next I go into the coffeeshop and sit at a table in the corner from which I can see out the greasy, dull windows on to the street. I also have a good view of the counter. I can see who walks in, what they do, where they choose to sit, and how they address the waitress who is a portly older woman in a smock with poorly managed graying hair. It is on these trips which I thank God for my crooked spine. Being invisible as I am to these people, it’s nice to have a little secret evil snarled inside, just to smarten up my attitude. Some people are shy and can easily fade into the background. Not me, though. I’m always looking for that fine line.

When the graying waitress comes by, I order breakfast for two.

“One high stack of pancakes, one cheese omelette, grits, two boiled eggs, ham, one oatmeal, and french fries.”

She writes it down and brings the coffees. She doesn’t ask if I’m expecting anyone to join me, just sets out an extra pile of napkins. I listen to her yell my order to the cook through the hole in the wall behind the counter. I watch to see who turns around. Usually no one is eating, just drinking coffee and maybe having a donut. Inevitably someone will spill something or break a glass. Nobody cares. The next person to walk by will just kick the broken glass to one side. Most people here are too dumbed down by life to make much effort, to harness the power of their minds. I think it goes without saying that these people are all lowlifes, down on their luck since birth and not making any steps towards a brighter future. I like to see their slumped necks and dirty collars. The women are like maimed dogs: quick to jump and full of nicks and looking for someone to lick their open sores. A few men throw them angry glances and then remember themselves and try to beat the dust off their pantlegs with an old hat, grunt like cows. Or they return their sad head to the crook of their arm set up on the counter. You’d think they should be weeping but these people do not weep. They just sit around. They do not talk animatedly or disturb the air much when they move. They drink and spit and get up to use the toilet. They go outside to throw dice or get sick in the garbage can. They motion for the waitress and nod and sneer at her. They look for something to wipe their hands on. The smoke from their cigarettes looks like the wavy lines people draw to 16 mean a stinky smell. Sometimes I open the paper and read the Sunday funnies while I wait for the food. When it arrives, I let it sit there and wait for someone to come over to beg.

I will tell you something: I like to believe in things, but I don’t like phrasing them the way other people do. I tell you this because it’s just now occurred to me. At first I wanted to tell you, “I believe that patience is a virtue.” But when I heard the words sound themselves out in my mind, they sounded so stupid. It incenses me when things sound stupid. I really do believe in virtues, and I believe patience is a good one of them. But a person just really shouldn’t repeat stupid phrases. Really a person should never repeat any few words put together by another person who has used those words in that way before. When you copy words you are really saying to the world, “I am simply too dumb to think this out on my own,” and “I am a person who would rather be accepted than be understood.” It takes patience, and a bit of imagination to put your words together correctly.

So when I sit and wait for a bum to come and beg at that coffeeshop table, I am exercising the most difficult virtue of them all. I am waiting for pride to break down. Think of how much that bum must hate me. He hates me. And because he hates me, he will beg of me. This is how it works. Nobody dares stoop to someone they love. While I’m waiting, I reach into my purse and finger the glossy ivory handle of my gun. I do it to complete the situation. If there were not a weapon involved such as this one, I’d just be a desperate woman.

I know the young men in the halls at home think I am a desperate woman. It’s the same game with them. They beg of me too because they know I am a woman neglectful of marriage. They know I was never beautiful or had a father who bought me pretty things. They push up against me on the stairs and catch my hair in their mouths while they lean into my ear. I keep a rigid neck and grit my teeth. I think of Moses parting the seas. I think I could do it if I really put my mind to it.

I had a baby once. It came out like a monster and sat breathing like a huffing furless goat in its glass cage. It wasn’t anybody’s fault. As far as I know it is being cared for by a thankful pair of human beings somewhere in this city. It seems ridiculous, I know.

You see, I’ve always had a trouble when it comes time to trust. If there were someone I could trust in this world, let it be someone in this shit-stink diner, let it be that young man—the runaway, the whore—who will break out of the din and ask if he may join me.

“Good morning, ma’am,” he might say.

“Good morning, young man,” I’ll say.

He motions to the empty seat with what is in his hand—a sweaty handkerchief, a battered hat, a soiled newspaper. It is at this time I see he is a good actor. He grins shyly, now holding his hands together humbly in front of him. He does the slightest shuffle of his feet. When he lifts his eyes they are kind, bulging, hungry, appeasing eyes. I decide to look him up and down and squint just to see what he thinks about that. He doesn’t mind. I nod at the empty orange booth across from me. He does an awkward, manly move and scoots in.

“I don’t cook,” I tell him. “I’m not that kind of woman.”

“Mmm hmm,” he turns his head mechanically to the window, thinking of words.

The plates of food sit and steam. Someone at the counter yells something in his direction.

“Help yourself,” I tell him.

While we are eating, I set my fork down on the table and pull out my gun. Nobody notices. It’s just a little game, just to see.

I could have some expansive thoughts while this boy tries to eat like a civilized person in front of me. Bits of food get caught in his spotty beard. His lips are glistening with the grease in the soft sunlight. His silence paints over the situation and it is easier to ignore everything else around and focus more on the evenness of his jaw working, the delicate skin around his eyes, a soft down of blond hairs picked up by the sun. His eyes are a honey brown. I want to kidnap him. I think about walking out on the street with him and hailing a taxi. I imagine leaning back against the warm leather seat and giving directions to the driver. The boy would be nervous and excited. Or maybe he would be all business as usual and roll down the window to spit. Maybe I would hold the gun on him. If he refused to come with me, I would pay him a dime every ten minutes. Every five minutes if he looked forlorn. We would go to the art museum. In the hallway with pewter and bronze relics from early America, I would point at what I like and make him look at it. The reflections of our faces in the curved and polished silver cups and pots and plaques would twist and swirl us into a kind of two-toned monster, symmetrical and complete. In the high-ceilinged galleries of portraits, we would stand absorbed together, staring up into the eyes of dead kings and queens: men and women who sat for hours, days, weeks, years maybe, just so that their faces would show up somewhere in the world.

Back in the maid’s room, I put on the radio and let the music do to me what it will do. I think of myself as a great oriental carpet in an elegant banquet hall, and I crawl around it, and trace every pattern, designs like dreams spreading infinitely, on and on.

Knock knock knock.

Three times means someone is on the phone for me.

“Long distance,” says the booming voice of the boy in the hall.

It’s not what you think: a long-lost twin, my drunk boss, a police officer, a distant relation announcing a death, my child, nothing like that. The payphone in the hall is strangely sterile, an ugly mauve color with hardened little buttons. Next to the phone, a legal pad is stuck on the wall with a hanging ballpoint pen to keep track of the bills.

“I’m calling in answer to your ad,” says the man on the phone. “I have a daughter and a dog.”

“Tell me more,” I say.

When we pull up to the small wooden house in the forest, the dog is smaller than I imagined. Just a little raggish gray thing that skulks around the porch and does not come when I put my hand out.

The daughter is well-groomed and sets the plates carefully on the table.

“My girl likes to draw, don’t you honey?” says the man.

If I feel like letting you in on any privacy about this man, I say to you that at his finest moments, he’s just as adaptable to tragedy as to triumph, and that he looks away when I do my nasties.

After dinner the daughter spreads out her drawings. And there it is, the crystal clear vision of youth. The curling yellowed paper, the lines delicate and perturbed, each self-portrait truer than the last. And she keeps them coming. “This is me, and this is me, and this is me again.” Announcing all the silvery sketches, each with that same brilliant phrase: “This is me!” The father sweats luminously across the table.

“I do one every day,” says the daughter, her uncharacteristic big gripping hands smoothing over the edges, moving over the world she knows with a certainty that makes me want to weep. She puts one of these hands on my shoulder absentmindedly.

“If I do one a day, by the time I die I’ll have thousands,” she says. “And then I’ll hang them up in a line and walk past them while I’m really sick and dying. And so the last thing I’ll see before I die is the picture I drew of myself when I’m dead.”

“Everyone has a few great ideas,” she says restfully.

And then she says to me, “What do you do? What is your great idea?”

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From the Unsaid Archive: Martin By Kate Wyer (From Unsaid Six)

Footprints Snow Winter White


My head becomes raw as the heat leaves. The heat leaves me through my head, my feet.

The darkness of a snow-sky, a white-lie, and more snow coming.

Black corn stalks sharp against my instep. I count my steps in the circle.

I am waiting for her to see me and take me in. I know that she will.

Movement in the corner of my sight. Again, around again. My head raw.

She would have come if I had on shoes.

The circle worn in the snow, blood cooling in my toes; shoes by the side of the road, the socks neatly tucked inside. Across the field.

She is coming across the field.


I click the light out, pull the covers up to my nose, cover it, attempt to cover my ears. The warm water she provided in the huge planter— dark particles of potting soil floating, feet turning pink, the toes last and prickling—helped, but the chill is still here. It settled into the damp weight of my body in her guest bed.

I want to sleep.

I want to halt the planning.

I can hear her turning in her bed in the next room.

I feel shame.


The morning starts well enough.

Up, a quiet walk down the stairs, a familiarness in the stock of her pantry, the layout of her dishes.

Everything chosen for comfort.

The dogs swirl around my feet, their thick tails making a mass of white about my body as they circle, tongues out and eyes waiting.

I lean back in a chair at the kitchen table.

Ben, I say out loud. Does the mind change when the name does?

Steven. No. Martin. A shock of pleasure.

I let the dogs out. They streak, pushing themselves forward, propelled by foreign instincts, perpetual puppies; domesticated brains shrunken by comfort.


Her feet in slippers on the stairs.

Dragging them, scuffing the heel with tired steps.

She must have heard the dogs.

This morning coming for some time and now starting a series of movements toward a standoff, toward the natural resistance to interruption.

I cannot help but smile as she steps into view.

Sleep-heavy and knotted hair.

She pulls her robe tighter around her hipless waist.

She looks stunned. I picture the look of her in places inside me.

She begins her morning by cracking eggs, the flick of a browned wrist breaking them open, tossing the shells, a quick movement of a sharp knife and the ripping sound it makes as it passes through green onions, then nearly silent as it passes through mushrooms.

Standing there at the counter watching me.

“Hello, Corbina,” I want to say.

But I am mute, like my daughter Sarah, controlling things by making the other person overact, over-think. I am willing to wait. I wait.



A name that surprised me, a roundness I discovered on her mail a few days after I saw her working a stand at the farmer’s market.

A tall stone of a woman, a strong jaw with large teeth that she probably ground in her sleep. She was selling heirlooms, giant ugly tomatoes that split their own seams.

She was eyeing inside a book about soil. She pushed her toes into the ground, digging them in, wriggle by wriggle, perhaps along with the rhythm of her reading about soil.

I took a dark purple tomato and kept walking.

I didn’t look back until I was in my truck.

She was still standing there, eyebrows gathered, lips in a slight frown.

I bit into the blackness.

Juice ran down my chin.

She leaves the house after breakfast.

I watch her walk to the greenhouse, her feet dark marks in the snow.

I open the drawers in the kitchen, in her bedroom, her study.

There are small objects hidden away.

A dried orange peel in the round shape of its missing fruit, mystic texts with underlines, a gray silk scarf with sweat stains.

[A bath of chemicals] to swoon and mourn the smallness of her experience.

I find other things, truly private things (a need to absorb, a dirty sponge, a steady opening of envelopes with others’ names, the private sound of a body in a bathtub, turning to submerge the other hip, the cold hip of a narrow tub, an egret taken from its stillness, plucked by its thin neck—the feeling of opening her drawers and cabinets, that private stillness and so thin a strategy for invisibility. Bridget, her mother: anger and satisfaction.)

I take them in, learning, categorizing her life. An ear tuned for the sound of a door.


I became accustomed to catching glimpses of people whenever I was shaken against myself—the dash to the mailbox in the towel, the bathrobe or pajamas; the person perched by the window waiting for a letter, cracking their knuckles and rubbing their palms on their thighs. Being a mailman was good for this reason, for the way people were between work selves and home selves, people caught in transition.

Corbina caught me off guard. She appeared in the window of an old farm house and I recognized her frame from the market.

This was only the second time I had seen her, one of my last days at work. I was holding her phone bill, and several mailers. I was also holding her name.

Retirement came, a party with cake and blue icing, soda.

We celebrate like children when the old leave.

I pulled out my sweet tooth and dug in, mugging for cameras, a sick stomach feeling, already forming into the self that would drop into her life.


I wondered at the attraction and if attraction was the right word for it.

This obsession was not physical, although I couldn’t protest all possibilities.

I laugh at myself.

My old body in bed, layers of quilts, layers of socks, and I imagine her sliding in next to me and feeling her warmth. How tame and sentimental I have become.

My wife and I had twenty years together—for both of us it was our second marriage.

It had been a good match, produced two children, both of whom were in college.

When the children left for school we had been alone in the house for the first time.

We had long talks about how each of us had moved into another’s apartment after high school and how what we knew of ourselves was always in relation to other people, our spouses or our children and earlier—our parents and families.

There were no infidelities, no bankruptcies, no addictions.

None of the stuff that makes people break down or run away.

And still, when I left, I felt like my place in that home had been transient, always transient—my role to pass through.

That’s not to say I didn’t love them.

And round the steps of the circle I have taken to get here.

My wife and I used to drop acid and ride the bus from one end of the city to the other.

We had to pay the fare again when the bus did a U-turn.

We were the only two on board, in a strange part of the westernmost edge.

We walked up to the driver, put our money in the machine and sat back down near the back of the bus. People came on, we listened and slid our shoes over the sticky floor.

The stiffness of strychnine creeping into our muscles and back.

But, these moments were what we would reference, later, after the kids had come.

In bed my wife would turn to me and say, an imp, a character from that bus ride,

“Hey little man, wipe your nose. Wipe your nose little name. Little man, wipe it.” It was one of the few ways we were parts of one another.


She came in earlier than I expected.

I was in the basement when I heard the front door open followed by the crush of plastic bags and the dog’s feet sliding on the linoleum.

I could have moved quickly upstairs and talked about wanting to help with the laundry.

I only had the clothes I was wearing.

I just kept quiet, listening to her unpack the groceries and talk nonsense to the dogs.

I heard her leave the first floor.

What could I have been doing down here?

I looked around. A second-hand couch with threadbare arms, yellow plaid and deep body imprints. A cabinet. A washer and dryer.

It was too much home for one person, but who should deny a want?

Corbina approached the basement and called down, my name rising a little in her mouth, making it a question—Martin?

I didn’t move until I heard her sit down.

What to do? Move slowly and say her name.

Startle her and watch the color wash over her face.

I climb the steps and say, Corbina.

She turns to see me. I watch it all and smile.

“I’m right here. Did you think I left?”

“I wasn’t sure.”

She looks down and then over to a plastic bag on the table.

She reaches for it, a brief moment of exposed hip, and then hands it to me.

I open the bag and see socks with gold toes, brown corduroy clippers and a packet of white undershirts.

I sit down and snap open the plastic ring that holds the socks together and then slide a pair on. Warmth. The slippers are a little snug but they will stretch to meet my feet. I leave the undershirts on the table.

“Thank you. My feet feel better.”

“You’re welcome,” she says, and stands.

She begins chopping carrots, her posture perfect, shoulders lined up, rough fingers moving over the orange taproot, making it smaller with each downward gesture of the knife. She looks up and meets my eyes and then looks down to her cutting board.

I can see she wants me to leave the room.

I walk slowly to the stairs, grasp the banister and haul myself up to the bed.

She is a stranger woman than I imagined.

She didn’t yell, didn’t question me about what I was doing in the basement.

She handed me socks even though I stepped on our handshaken arrangement.

She offered me gifts picked out for the old confused man, not a stranger in the basement.

What do you know about me, Corbina? I am an old man you found in a field, walking circles with bare feet. I am your stray dog. Your secret.

I hear the chopping again and smell the way each vegetable softens, the changes of texture and taste. I can smell the celery becoming transluscent.


I saw a part of her, the part she will not see.

I am surprised that she caved so quickly.

Her mother.

I overheard her ask her mother if she had heard anything about a lost man.

Who looks for a lost man?

Lost women are something to worry about, not men.

Even ones who have left a family behind.

A wife, a daughter and a son.

No one would look for me.

No one would bother.

Until I found Corbina.


I want to know why she hasn’t been married.

Everyone has been married, at least once.

I want this explanation from her. She doesn’t answer. She wants to know how

I know she hasn’t.

No ties, no pictures, no belts hanging on hooks in bedroom closets.

If they moved out then why would I keep those things around?

So, they moved out. I wonder about the pronouns. Not he, they.

I ask her and open a small wound, a fissure.

I realize her mother must have given her these same small wounds, increasing in time.

She is immune, a cold front.

She reaches out her hand, removes my glasses.

She folds the temples of the frames and tucks them into the front pocket of her shirt before standing to leave the table.

She doesn’t push in her chair.

I watch her back as she moves and turns the corner to ascend the stairs.


Dogs know shoes.

Dogs know that when a human puts on shoes, the dog is going outside.

The dog hopes, anyway.

Yes, the dog hopes. Have you read a dog’s eyebrows?

You know this, so why am I telling you?

When ______ happens, _______ will (hopefully or not) happen next and we try to anticipate the future using this pattern-recognizing system.

It has worked well for us as a species and maybe the dogs learned it from us, or maybe we learned it from them. We have merged survival skills.

Example: Mom begins to pull out limes. Depending on the household, you know Mom is either going to make a taco salad or a gin and tonic.

Polarized choices, yes. I’ve done that to help you draw conclusions about mothers.

And you have brought your own limes into the picture, your own memories of your mother and how you feel about her.

So, dogs. And limes and mothers.

We all practice being psychics. We are all mind readers.

But the good stories happen when the human puts on shoes to take a nap and the dog is waiting by the front door.

I’ve dropped the pattern.


I want to know what she sees in plants.

I watch as she uses her thumbnail to snip the seed pods off of a basil plant.

She holds the seeds out to me.

You think that’s fair to the plant? Frustrating it like that? It tries all year to get to that point, to make those seeds and you make it start over for your own needs.

She points to the table: hot house tomatoes, farmer’s market mozzarella and the basil from her window box.

Okay, me, too. My needs.

I splash the food with balsamic vinegar and a little salt, pepper.

You feel bad for the plant? What about the duck you keep putting on the grocery list?

The death of the duck is different.

Tell me.

You tell me why you do that to the plant.

So the plant doesn’t think that its life is over, its mission complete. It dies once the seeds are ready and I want it to stick around a little longer. Basil is so impossible anyway. It’s still probably going to die.

The plant thinks? The plant has an awareness of approaching death?

Of course it knows missions. It knows it has to pass on genetic material. Seeds. It’s perfect.

And the death of the duck is perfect, too.

Ugh, she rolls her eyes. But I know she is smiling too.

I can use that little gun your mom brought you. Catch one in flight over the house.

I have no idea where she got that. I don’t know if it’s legal. Don’t you need a permit?

I don’t answer. I imagine pointing the gun out of her bedroom window at a migrating flock. I imagine having the dogs fetch me the duck that I fell. I’ve never killed anything in my life, but maybe I should. Not too many years to carry the guilt, if I feel guilt.

You are thinking about it, she says, and waves her hand to get my attention.

I nod.


I bite the sulfur tips of matches and chew.

There have been times that I’ve held a flame to my wrist.

Who hasn’t? Who hasn’t imagined death by fire?

Or by water, holding their breath in the tub, making a game of it.

Being old, I don’t need to play.

I am certain things are moving that way, fire or water, or some lame bodily exhalation.

Without invitation.


Captain Beefheart. The 13th Floor Elevators, my internal rhythm, the clock I set my body’s electricity to.

It was endless, this supply of questions and doubts.

Doubts, I loved them. My wife, did not. As would anyone trying to live with another.

They are impossible to give yourself over to—to doubt that you made the right choice in marriage, in children—

Yes, let’s go with the droning drums and tinny, repetitive guitar lines.

I add things to the grocery list:

Two bottles of red. Anything but Shiraz.

Xanax. (I know, get an Rx please. Tell the doc about your trouble sleeping, your anxiety—tell a story for me.

Lately the walls come in when I speak; a black tunnel of panic.

I have learned to talk myself down, to convince myself that my mouth is not full of gibberish, my brain and mouth meeting in the usual way—

I see what your body says and go from there. Please)

Duck. (Dark meat, fat-rich, taste the seasons and the brevity of their lives.)

Celery, when simmered with carrots and onions, the holy trinity—mirepoix—is the only odor that describes safety and domestication.

Celery, that fibrous plant with so little taste until it meets heat.

Dog treats.

A fox pup stared me down the other day. I was outdoors, not allowed in this current exile.

At first, I couldn’t make out what it was.

It stood in the road, between the neighbors’ driveways.

I thought it was a cat, then a puppy and finally a fox.

I was perhaps a hundred feet away when it moved, going behind the neighbor’s house.

I waited and saw it move through their backyard, pausing to stop and sniff the bench that was never used, the neighbor’s wife preferring to walk to the small bar on the corner,

smoke cigarettes outside and catch the attention of men she would never sleep with, not even peripherally aware of the bench in her own backyard, the husband not aware of it either, not in the sitting sense, only in the accomplishment sense, as in, I bought that wood and metal and I cemented it there, in that corner of my yard. The pup raised his eyes to mind and held them, then lowered his head and slunk away.


And, I think, I’m sleeping tonight. With dogs curled around my feet and the moon on my thinning hair, the white light on my pillow, my lunacy full.

My cousin the outlaw writes me notes and leaves them under the doormat.

I am unsure how he knows I am here.

I am sure my wife and children do not know I am in the same town.

Sharing the zip code, a matter of minutes down a country road.

He and I were born on the same day, a year apart.

We have not been able to split our lives.

Sun-dried tomatoes. Why not?

Jerky. I lost a tooth to its tough smokiness.

Where I grew up they sold it in great slabs.

It was an after-school ritual to purchase the edible leather.

I wonder if the cashier at the grocery store has noticed a change in the conveyor belt of food that she rings and bags for Corbina.

Improbable, although not impossible.

I notice a small dark mound under the eye of one of the dogs.

It is a growth, full of dark blood.

I squeeze it one afternoon and it fills up the next day.

The dog’s face is white under the eyes and along the snout.

Even his feet have gotten lighter with age.

I wonder at this bleaching of the dog, the bleaching and washing out of life.


Corbina has been cooking a lot since her mother’s visit.

She is nervous. I am nervous.

I am not ready for this to be over.

The other day I woke up and couldn’t remember where I was and why I was sleeping in a bed without my wife.

Everything unfamiliar.

A gutless feeling, a rudderless omen.

I am not ready for this to be over.

I have not yet begun to understand it.

The other day Corbina came into the house crying.

She pointed to the newspapers next to the bed and my heart shook it its cage, ready to be exposed.

China! she said, and reading my relief, began to cry harder.

I had never seen her show this much emotion and I didn’t know what to say next.

She continued, What a waste!

What a wounded creature, I thought.

I reached for her and she let me hold her head to my chest.

She quieted down and then left the room.

What can I possibly hope to happen?

An anonymous life in a house I can’t leave with a woman who is not my wife, my girlfriend, my daughter.

My son’s image, a memory of a photograph his mother shot, of him taking a bath in the kitchen sink in our first home.

He is holding a plastic rabbit and appears concerned.

The window is open behind him to a hot summer day.


Aren’t you going to ask me?

Well, what did you do, Martin? I hate that question.

I was a mailman. I retired not too long ago. They had a party for me. I don’t miss it, not most days.

I realize that Corbina’s face hasn’t changed at all. No surprise, no interest.

Did she already know?

Finally, she says, Seems like a good job. Get to do all that walking. And seeing what magazines people subscribe to.

They weren’t the most interesting thing, though. It was the other stuff, like letters from colleges and the IRS—more personal than porn.

I think porn can be personal.

That’s just stupid.

Hey! she says, looking up.

Not stupid, sorry. Just not something I’d be interested in.

Well, it would interest me.

Your and your age are like that.

She laughs a little, in a stooped way that places my words beneath hers.

I am slapped by the rift of our years.

The strange attraction seeming tenuous at best.

I feel like I’m talking to my daughter.

I do not want to feel that.

She steps in, she saves it.

Whatever, okay. Being a mailman sounds cool.


What hard pounding thoughts of Corbina up to the day I arrived.

The reading of the weather forecasts, first weekly, then daily, on the day of, hourly.

I was aiming for snow and the weatherman was acting stage director, telling me when to enter.

I left the house without a coat, but with shoes.

My family, of course, wasn’t home.

I scanned each room before I left, looking for objects to form memories around.

A signed baseball from my youth.

I picked up a statue of a saint to find the coin my wife placed there.

My daughter’s room and the guitar that had been my sister’s and was now hers.

Her closet door was open and showed folded jeans.

I once saw the tops of a six-pack between the folds, but didn’t worry about her drinking it warm.

She needed private things the same way I did. It was more about the taking from me than the desire for drunkenness.

My son’s room only needed the slightest of looks, my eyes going right for the picture of him and his core group of friends—burned noses, bleached hair, on the dock at the lake.

They are stunning in their happiness.

Keys? Do I take them?

If I take them I can lock the door behind me.

If I leave them then they will believe I had intended to be right back.

I could not stand the idea of an intruder, even though I wouldn’t be there to see what he took. I knew the chances of this happening where next to none, but I locked the door anyway.

Down the stairs, around to the back of the house.

I lift one of the slate stones of the walkway and make a shallow hole.

I drop my keys in and cover them up.

Now I start the walk, head down, shoulders up near my ears, the wind at my neck and exposed ears.

I walk quickly, cutting through yards, using paths known to mailmen.

I was at her home before I was ready.

Before it was snowing.

I waited by an irrigation tunnel, protected from the wind.

I waited until flurries started, until the ground was covered.

I unlaced my shoes and slid them from my feet, pulled off my socks and tucked them into the toes of the shoes.

The toes pointing south, a neat pair.

I thought of nothing but the steps.

I found a pattern to count, a pattern that became an unsaid mantra.

I could barely contain a familiar greeting when she came.


The paper came everyday at 5:30.

I was up, having coffee and a piece of toast.

Corbina, warm in bed.

I hear the thump and rise to fetch.

The first time I saw my son I was surprised and angered.

He intruded this life I had sought out, crafted.

Intruded by swimming the butterfly faster than anyone else.

The picture in the paper: tight silver cap, goggled eyes, mouth open, shoulders propelling him up and out of the water.

I closed the paper, put it down, piled it under the other sections.

The next day I dug it out.

I stared at his face, the water spraying around him, the tightness of his lungs evident by his coloring.

A demented drive to win. My children were creatures I did not understand. Their young brains and ambitions. We were happy.

Seeing my son, red-faced, winning, brutalized me back to the family table.

His eyes red-rimmed, hair wet, the chlorine smell absorbed so deeply into his fingers you could smell it across the table.

My daughter, dark-haired, ironic glasses, men’s clothing, snapping her fingers at him in a hostile way, upset at some unthinking thing he did.

So different, so much a mirror of my parts.

And now, that stupid surprised silence of my chair at that table.

And she was next. I found her in the paper a few weeks later, winning at something too. Cheeks round like her mothers, hair behind her ears, confident.

Reading the paper now held a different intent.

Section by section, scanning.

Then I could start reading in my usual order, rotating chairs with the sun, feeling my circulation start to warm in my old legs.

Why did I fold them, using my thumb to sharpen the fold, neat creased boxes with images of my children’s success.

Did I ever see them in the paper before I left?

I thought back to our refrigerator. Magnets and a few Sunday comics.

Nothing of note.

How absent I had been while there, how present now.


My wife had a different idea of work.

I needed a job. I needed to do a job, get promoted, move forward.

She did not need a job to be a part of the world, to fit into a larger structure.

She seemed more authentic, untied to any occupation.

I wanted her freedom. It’s not like I even had a good job or so-called calling.

How do people say, I am going to be a doctor?

Parents were doctors or some such thing. Mostly. Some sort of edge.

Work makes me angry, even now.

I do not miss the run of the neighborhoods.

At first I was ecstatic to shape my days in whatever way they fell together.

Then I realized I got up the same time every day—without setting an alarm.

Kitchen, coffee, meal, newspaper.

The same, daily, but I had to draw things out, stretch them out so as not to have to create another something to do.

I watched my wife fill her days.

Up earlier, small chores first, then a breakfast and whatever coffee I had left in the pot.

I would follow her around the house.

I was surprised she left the house for such long stretches.

At work I always imagined her home, although I never thought about what she would have been doing there.

Alone for most of the day. It was the same, the same as working.

I looked for another job.

Greeter at a box store. Library help desk. School cafeteria. The jobs open to old men.

I didn’t want them. I applied for them all and became a greeter.

I worked for two weeks without telling my wife. I quit without telling her.

The routes I did all those years. Paths worn into front yards from my shoes. I started them again.

People would see me pass their mailbox and come out to check, then look up the street towards me, close the box and go back inside.

It was strange to be recognized outside of a uniform.


Dark-haired lovely.

You had curls when you were born.

The nurses combed them up into a Mohawk or single large swirl.

The hair an amusement, a rarity.

I never understood why you should love me.

I never hurt you, no. But I spent your youth, your life, walking away.

I walked the same routes through neighborhoods you don’t know.

The steps memorized, an easy hustle.

I knew which houses to rush by—the widow who keeps the conversation lingering, her loneliness too much to acknowledge, the house with the pit bull—a giant mass of misdirected muscle, a baby with sharp teeth, the one with the newspapers pilled up in the yard—just a bad feeling.

I was lucky to have such a route, a private labyrinth.

Are you ashamed of me? A mailman?

Your friends with doctors for parents, parents driven towards professions.

But I could never tolerate people that wanted only to be inside.

I know you are ashamed of my commonness and the dark tan of my forearms.

I could watch it all in the way you looked at my uniform. How you wanted to spend the night at a friend’s houses, not inviting her home.

Would you have cut me off when you got your first job?

You always broke me. You know that, yes?

I saw how disappointed you were in your test scores. You wanted more.

I wanted to tell you to relax, be kinder to yourself, but I didn’t.

I knew not to come between your self and your ideal.

In Maine, you pockets stuffed with pine cones, the sap of your face from your fingers, the joy you felt at seeing each ridged cone.


Claire, my wife, my radish. You are owed a letter.

I’ve started one several times. Each ripped into strips.

I know that you haven’t looked for me, that the children haven’t looked for me.

I know that you do not look at my coffee mug with grief.

Which isn’t to say there isn’t love.

It is possible to be put together and then taken apart.

I’m not coming back, Claire. I’m not coming back.


What if I had never seen Corbina?

Would I have sat, proudly, at my son’s graduation from college?

Would I have celebrated my daughter’s first win in the courtroom?

Would I have woken, every morning, to the thin and muscular shoulder of my wife in her peach nightshirt, her neat grey bob on the pillow?

Yes. And yes. And yes.

I would have.

I would have lived that life I started.

I would have finished it among those of you who knew me as Dad, as husband.

It had never crossed my mind to leave fully.

Do you want me to explain? I will do my best:



What was I hoping for, some kind of salvation?

Those beggar mystics at the roadside, carrying their lives with them in luggage with wheels.

It’s easy to imagine their lives and the rooted sort of needs—food, shelter; the same as ours but more immediate.

An old man in a field letting his life leave him.

I would have let the toes go, blackened. Dead.

My fingers too.

If I had been found, then hospitalized, an IV drip, those tan blankets wrapped around me in layers. Diagnostic tests, condescending doctors—no pity for the old man, no sympathy for a brain in decline.

If I was then returned home, would I return to the side of the road, pick up my shoes and socks?

Would I wear them again, act like I had never made that choice?

Could I look up again towards Corbina’s house?

I don’t want those questions. I would not want their concern, the eyes waiting for the end—the veiled anticipation of freedom and loss.

The death of a parent is different for an adult than a young adult. The character departed becomes gilded.

The whole episode would have started the distancing and distrust. The tests coming back negative, one by one.

Suspicion. Doubt.

Some other motive that drove me from the house to the field.

Something less easy to acknowledge.

I could imagine their phone calls to the family I haven’t talked to in years.

Family history of violence? Depression?

That family only called to tell me about deaths.

I sent unsigned cards, willing to be connected only anonymously. Even those cards felt like a compromise.

A weakness I would regret for a few days after I sent them.

The family numbers written in an old red binder in a cabinet under the phone.

My wife, announcing herself timidly to them, having only met them a few times at the very beginning of our marriage.

I see the family balk at her questions, her asking for such personal truths and them telling her that she wasn’t family. To leave it alone.

The suggestion of mental illness an insult.

My wife went along with cutting them off, asking me few questions and never challenging me about it.

It was one of many things that made me feel closer to her.

She had said, If you don’t want them in your life there must be a reason.

What reason was that?

It was easier.

And then in a moment, a steel division between myself and my wife.

What luck that Corbina looked out her front window. What stupid luck.

A first separation, preparing the family for the final one.

I wanted something to lift us up by the armpits and show us the world from great heights. We all want to be lifted up, right? To rise?

In my coldness, I allow myself this flame.

A cutting and editing of a person. A paring down.

Basic elements gleam with smooth edges, a round vision.

Wanting to pull in severely.

To rid all that is familiar and once thought of as necessary.

To die.


She must have found the clippings.

This would explain the flux of attention and condescension.

I imagine she is curious about them.

She wanted both to know and to leave it blank.

Sexuality is something one can turn off, can decide to live without.

Until someone scalds you in some way.

I imagine that knowing I had a wife was the reason she came up to that afternoon, in the drowsy light of my bedroom.

I had been napping.

She woke up me, the sun low around her shoulders.

Nervous light in her eyes, confidence.

We haven’t talked about it and it’s never happened again, not even in the slightest glance or look of knowing.

Something had pulled away her guardedness.

She unbuttoned her men’s shirt with rough, stained fingers.

All the gestures I loved rose to my awareness.

A hurried ponytail, a wrist’s movements while deboning a bird with grace and sharp knife.

You don’t have to, I say and turn away from her straight hips.

She stood before me in cotton underwear.

I was surprised by the girlish green and blue stripes of her panties, half expecting her to wear boxers.

She took my face and turned it towards her body.

She reached with one arm, bending it back and up, to unclasp her bra.

Put your hands on my waist.

I do as I am told, feeling shame, looking away from her.

I pull her close to me, put my head on her stomach.

She slides her panties down and stands apart me from me.

I can’t, I say.

Yes, I want you to.

No, I can’t.

She stands there a moment longer, shoulders loose, body quiet.

We are both embarrassed, not by the want, but by the momentary stepping out of ourselves. The step she took towards me.

I fold my hands.

She picks up her clothing and leaves the room.

Perhaps twenty minutes later, at the dinner table, everything is as it was.

Her shoulders are a little tighter, a little higher, but all movements the same Corbina.

Your mom hasn’t called.

It’s her turn.

Maybe something is wrong.

Like what. She looks at me a little more directly than I’m used to, then looks back to her frying pan.

She is searing thick slices of ham to go with the borscht.

Pork a rare purchase. The animals too intelligent to eat, most of the time.

The soup is already on the table, a serving spoon in the sour cream.

She plates the pork and places it in front of me.

Go ahead, she says, eat.


I loved her dogs, especially as they napped with me in the sun.

I had dogs as a child.

In that big house, with the others, the brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and grandparents. And parents.

We had two dogs, a pair of brothers, like Corbina’s.

In my head I often called her dogs by the others’ names.

One personality was stronger. These traits must develop in pairs, the one feeding the other. Just like brothers.

My brothers stayed close to the family, raised their own families and got together over the holidays.

I never wanted that.

I moved to the next town over, a compromise.

I stopped calling my mother. After many years she stopped calling me.

I found out, during a rare conversation with my brother, that she had written me out of her will.

It took a lot of praying on her part, to do that, he said. We told her she should have done it years ago.


I remember teaching you to swim. Your dark eyes daring me to drop you; you told me you could do it, to let you go.

The lake water cold, glacial.

And I did, I dropped you into its shallow bowl.

Your head submerged and then your arms.

My panic complete, coming from a source a long way from here, from the bed where you were conceived, from how long we had been trying to have you, each bored with the body’s role, bored, but happy, too.

I reached to pull you back to breath.

You were kicking, though, kicking your way up, furious that I didn’t trust your instincts.

You fought out of the water and onto the shore, a mass of dark matter. A boy.


March winds, winter still.

A hawk riding currents.

Bulbs in the ground, dormant fibers contracting with cold.

We are the same selves over and over again, the daily radiation of the living and the dead.

I stopped reading the paper.

I stopped looking for evidence of my family and their lives without me.

Corbina mentioned that she was going to stop the service, but never followed through.

I preferred books and rhythm of sentences becoming my own.

I dreamed in diction.

I dreamed my old mail routes, waving at women in bathrobes.

I seemed to be losing something of the reason I came here.

Corbina found me once, sitting in the open of the front porch.

She pushed me inside like a mother hen, scolding, scratching at the tile floor with impotent feet.


I stop looking for Corbina in her objects. I have understood some of her through them, but not enough.

Her book collection: classics read once, but read intensely, underlined, dog-eared, spines broken.

I’ve watched her consume a book, furrows in her forehead, a tight grip on the pages like the book was going to escape. A gardening book. No fiction in years, since college.

I could not look at her collection and fall in love, like I did with my wife.

But that was a young connection, a way to figure things out.

I remember telling a friend that I couldn’t date a woman if she didn’t love the same books.

To want your mate to be yourself.

We are not dating, though. We live together.

Or, I live here and so does she. The dogs the only ones truly living together.

In these books on her shelves I have found something of my younger self.

I have held the pages open to him and remembered his reactions to passages.

Spooning memories in my mouth, forcing them.

My first wife on a beach in Devon. A serious summer, an elopement. The last bit of college. And I left her on that beach, stepped away from her the way I stepped from Claire. The marriage annulled, my ancient family pleased to have me back alone.

Old family, old roots. A plot with our names on it in front of a house where my mother was born. Let’s turn around a few times and touch noses. Let’s fall down.

Maybe I was drawn to Corbina because she is without family.

Her family a presence best thought of as a collection of shells on a window sill.

Things that once held life now bleached and empty.

You cannot tell anything about a woman by her underwear.

No letters, journals. Few photographs, without captions or years or names on the back.

Corbina and a red-haired woman on a beach, in one-pieces and towels around their waists.

Corbina with a blond man, freckles over both their noses, standing in front of an old growth forest.

Corbina in a white confirmation dress, arms crossed in front of her chest, frowning.

I told you I stopped categorizing.

I was with Corbina because everything about her was a secret.

She held everything close—everything that meant anything.

And yet, I knew she would help me when I was lost in the snow. Take me in.

A safe gamble into a comfortable life.

I was only vaguely threatened by her mother and her mother’s need to push herself into her daughter’s life. A life purposefully closed to her. This interaction kept them going, a set of rules and expectations.

It was not hard to keep her mother’s visit from her.

It did not come to mind. Forcing a secret from the mother, keeping a secret from the daughter. A natural thing.

I napped and woke and only got more tired. I welcomed it.

I wanted to be here, in this house, with this woman.

To happen without a history, to mean nothing except a man had died.

Am I explaining this well?

I wanted my children to step from me into themselves.

I wanted them to move, fatherless, into the future.


A cross woman across from me.

A mother only in biology and a sense of divide.

I do not have the patience to attempt to explain her daughter to her—but she is not even interested in that. She wants me to explain myself.

The tight space they interact in marked in number of phone calls per week.

This woman does not contain her contempt for the familiar placement of my body in the armchair by the fire. A slight flash of dog tooth.

A stunted relationship coming to a head. I will not protect the mother.

The mother settles in, takes off her coat and boots. She is ready, too.

I am grateful for this, a fight, about the position I walked into when I left my shoes by the drainage pipe. I smile at the sleeping dogs.

In the end, the body becomes a circuit board, becomes luminescent.

In my head the rough pop and crunch of light bulbs under feet.

I see her pull into the driveway.

I see her face and the sounds grow louder inside my head.

Something happening now inside my body.

Like hearing and seeing for the first time in my life.

It is all of it too much, and then it becomes nothing.

A body, a man, a life.

All of it nothing at all.

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From the Unsaid Archives: The Warm Settlements By Michael Kimball (From Unsaid Six)



I am so close to me she stays with me. Can you see from her all the way to the end of my life? We waited for the transformation together. I could listen to her body temperature and she feels like me. Have you started looking at the possibilities? I saw her with a smile on my face. They are not that far away. We were almost never properly together before, but then she was for rest of now. Now I’m on my way home to her and anything is possible in the evening.

Look at me. Suddenly, I feel beautiful and irresistible. I wanted to do something and then you will know how I love you. She smiled a smile and I appointed myself to her. Why was everything we felt so elevated then? For many years, I have wanted to be felt. Almost always, I decided to wait for you. These little gestures, we are always looking for each other.

We met in different places before we are here together. We reported with each other for approval, but we are even ahead of ourselves. I am telling you so your face is happiness. She is staring at me, but I will not be displayed. Did you find her through the large window? She said she was happy to go with me because it was such an early night on the freshness of the air. Let us walk into our lives again. The breeze was automatic and the light stayed on.

She showed me two levels down and I couldn’t look away. Do you understand what cake is for? We require a food protection service. She told me it was a thoughtful celebration. Did somebody ask you what happened? We turned on close and should allow it.

We can confuse each other. She’s asking to talk face to face, but I couldn’t look. I want to tell her anything. Look at the box of food and the two-way mirror. The food portions rolled by us on the conveyor belt and we catalogued everything we ate. Will you tell me anything if she asked? I pay and wait. I turn off my dinner date.

Do you have a plastic basket and frosted goodies? I asked her to hold my name in her hands. She took my hand and we hurry things through the night together. This is the first mention of our hands together. We are the happy couple galloping on the sidewalk and down the hallway. Do you really know if it can be felt together with being human? We must study our desired actions.

We discovered each other from looking for other people. She turned her head around and gives her smile out wide to anybody who was looking. It was crowded between us and I go back to her smile when I was alone. What do you stop and think to ask? I can still feel the melting feeling from before we were us.

Her thoughtful face is reflected light. We put together a brilliant future, but it happens in the past tense. There was always the fear of the unwanted connection. Do you know if that happened? We agree we should ignore that. Did anybody disappear? In fact, we understand something together with the deception days.

We follow the release. We go back along the way and everything starts over again. Are the windows always open? This could be anywhere you have ever been. The cracks start and we transform the crossing. Do you know how to exchange the corners? Hey, this old house is after dark. It was between the day and where I live. We are almost there. You ask but don’t say why.

Turn the other way. We are old buildings parked in front of our past lives. She can’t move our legs. I have our apartment and it faces the upper bound. She gave me the key ring to the sky. I can’t get into the ground with them, but you can open the door to see both of us. Did we blink? Those are pinholes at nighttime. Do you see how she is using my hands to let you know?

Please don’t run somewhere else we aren’t. She told you she wasn’t afraid. I am ruffled but expectant. Can you stand aside as we entered the arrangement of rooms? I walked through the first door and feel strong. She walked past my side and we move by everything that happened before we met.

We traveled through the apartment rooms. They were foreign countries with gate times and bedrooms. There is a small table for two parties. The streetlights were glowing in the windows. That stopped the shadows from leaving the room. Can you feel the warm walls?

The kitchen made her hungry again, but what will happen if there wasn’t any food? I’m not sure I can feel how fast everything goes. She did my pocket flip, which was close to my bad. She took a laugh from me and I didn’t want it back. We know you are secretly looking. She said she didn’t believe in the food.

She pushed her good hand down her sides, but I don’t remember everything that happened. Are we still wearing all the pretty clothes? Her detrimental hand was meant to create our small house during a later time. Was her hair behind her ear? We touch on the other side of the body and go with our hands in our hands. Her shirt is off the shoulder restraints. We are the way it was as much as possible. Nobody wanted it to stop.

There is some other clothing that isn’t ours anymore. All the skin wanted was the warm settlements. There was maybe also a blanket and other coverings, but most of my clothes reach the dissolution. Her good hand squeezed the slide and I wanted her to lay more hands on me. Did you hear the popping sound or is that inside myself? The high level of my shirt was part of my declaration. I transport her up to the top of my head and I go under until the full lap is completed.

I can reach behind her all the way around to me. Can you break the top curve? I left my hands with her and I can’t feel anything anymore. She scattered some of me into my own synthetic damage.

We step out of our relationships unprotected. Do you want to take a look at them? Her legs were a small opening of prosperity and I did not expect them to be unclad. I saw you when she looked at me. It’s a nice gesture. We all laughed around the eyes. I think the rest of our lives can be your favorite love.

Do you think we could start again? She made burning moves in my hands and I am resting on her back curves. We push our bodies through each other to the future tense. You are somebody else and I am still here.

We impressed each other and promote the affair. Is somebody getting dressed in their best clothes? We bring ourselves back down the covered aisle. It is looking at me that launched her arms and mouth. We had our own collection of body lengths. My weight provides us with our physical contact as much as possible.

We continue to position ourselves approximately. She ripped the packaging until everything scattered out. I was her and she was me. Only our dexterity has changed. Do you see that?

It is a small tug. Do you understand different ways to protect yourself? I got cold rolled after the proposal. Our lower hair was wet and flat. Did you go to meet us? I push myself harder into the winter spell.

We opened ourselves to the opposition. We know the proximity of each other changes the weather. Did you try to push too soon? The leader was next to me and giving me the loose front. You don’t want the pleasure touching the adjustment.

I have touched it for hours and the moisture sweltered through the divider. Was there anything between us? I could have been confused by how good you smelled. We didn’t say anything helpless, but you can earn yourself the ground at the end. You start with familiarity and then finger the alien. The joints in my body are so loose.

After a while, she promoted a big smile on my face. She was hungry for mixed variations. We must report our day the same way. I patted her back down. Some of my clothes were standing in front of you. Can you push the next button? I am speaking in a kind of warm compression.

It was her smile that was sad. She really liked me, but it has almost no distraction. Can you give it to me the two ways? More cases were found in my arms and the ongoing reductions were achieved. I want to visit your little hill again. What does it feel like here?

The plan is too weak if she is passing and I can’t go on otherwise. That idea was holding our parts together with human glue. Do you need me if you can feel this? We can’t be pulled apart by normal hands.

We are too tired to stand, but we tried to get into each other with our hands. Were you afraid of anywhere? I run to see where it was very encouraging. We folded into the beauty and will continue to do so.

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From the Unsaid Archives: Bird Hills By Michele Forster (From Unsaid Seven)



Hemlocks laddered by pegs of broken branches.

Remnants of things I knew,

people I love, and can’t climb anymore.

The rings of this stump are the years I have lived.

Each pushing out from the one from before.

A shagbark hickory shingled by feathering bark.

Dead wood protects what is alive inside.

The burn of the forest allows the forest to grow again.

Fires break open what lies dormant beneath the floor.

I came to these hills to know myself.

I leave without a name.

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From the Unsaid Archives: September When the Cicadas Die By Robert Lopez (From Unsaid Two)


Blind Betty says we’re underwater now. After two hours riding aboveground we go underground to cross some river is why Blind Betty says what she says. We are on this train to go visit some museum somewhere but they don’t say what for. Last time it was a bus they put us on and Blind Betty said the toxins were toxic and that if we breathed in our lungs would bleed out our earballs. They did up the floors so you could see yourself in them was the problem. I never see myself in the floors but they said I could if I looked. They say the floors shine like pool water like a mirror ball and that you can skate on them floors if you’re not careful. They put us on that bus so they could do this to the floors. Me I don’t know what good shiny floors are to blindsters or why they make me walk these blindsters around so they don’t trip over things and crack their heads open instead of someone else. They all of them gave me what for when Blind Betty cracked her head open that one time. This is not what we pay you for they said. I think I shook my head yes but I don’t remember ever getting paid by them even once. I think what it is I do here I do for free. I said this to Blind Betty once and what she said back to me was curse words. Thing about Blind Betty cracking her head open is she knows she isn’t supposed to walk without me there to walk her. I forget where it is I was when Blind Betty cracked her head open. I may’ve been out in the shed getting wood to burn. Sometimes they send me out to the shed for wood because they can’t send any of the blindsters to go do it. I don’t like getting wood because the wood has things in it like maggots or faggots or whatever it is Blind Betty calls them. Sometimes Blind Betty calls the worms faggots and calls me and Pity Jimmy maggots and sometimes it’s the other way around so you don’t know what. Pity Jimmy didn’t come with us on the train because Blind Betty says Pity Jimmy is sick and might die soon. People around here say Pity Jimmy was born the way he was and now I say it too. All Pity Jimmy does is rock back and forth like he is in a rocking chair standing up and snaps his fingers without making any snapping sounds. He also jerks his head around like there’s a gnat flying in his face. That’s why people say what they say about Pity Jimmy. Me it’s my job to give Pity Jimmy his pills after he eats in the cafeteria breakfast lunch and dinner. Blind Betty is the one who taught me which pills to give Pity Jimmy and in what order. She said it was her job before it became my job to do this. Blind Betty says if you give Pity Jimmy the wrong pills in the wrong order he will fall down and have convulsions and swallow his tongue and die. I don’t know this to be true but it’s what Blind Betty tells me. Blind Betty has fingered all the books on health and anatomy so she knows about these things she says. Thing about Blind Betty is you don’t know if you can believe her sometimes. Blind Betty is blind and blindsters lie more than regular people do I think. I’m not saying that all blindsters are born liars the way they were born blindsters but it’s something close to that. It’s because they don’t have to look anyone in the eye that makes it easy. So when I give Pity Jimmy his pills I don’t know if I’m doing it right or if I am killing him. I don’t know if Blind Betty wants Pity Jimmy dead or not neither. She hasn’t said so out loud but you can tell she thinks about it sometimes. This is why Pity Jimmy says she was born an agent orange of evil. Me I was born in the middle of monkey in the middle. All Pity Jimmy says about people is how and when they were born but he never says what it means. Pity Jimmy was rocking back and forth and snapping and jerking when Blind Betty told us about her baby brother who died. This brother was a retard that would spill milk when he ate his cereal for dinner and other retarded things like that. The way Blind Betty talks about her baby brother you wonder how he died when he died. She never tells us about that part only that one day he was dead and that it wasn’t unexpected. Blind Betty used to would make up this game for her brother about the underground world. That it was the opposite of the aboveground world and so if you were blind in one you’d be deaf in the other and so forth. Sometimes Blind Betty don’t make no sense when she talks but I like listening to her stories so I don’t say nothing about her not making no sense. This happens too when I ask her if she is looking forward to the museum. I think maybe this museum is a special one they have for blindsters. The kind of museum where you can touch things instead of just look at them. What she says back is all she looks forward to is September when the cicadas die. I don’t say anything to her when she says this to me. I don’t know who the cicadas are or why they die in September. This is when Blind Betty says we’re underwater now. Blind Betty doesn’t mention the underground world when says what she says about us underwater. I think maybe it’s because she doesn’t want to think about her dead baby brother that maybe her baby brother died in September and his name was Cicada. When she says what she says about us underwater it almost feels like we are flying down a roller coaster but not really. None of them blindsters put their arms up in the air and scream when we go underwater and neither do I. All I feel is my ears plugging up and then unplugging and I look over to Blind Betty who is fingering one of her Braille books like it’s nothing. I move my jaw like I’m chewing gum and watch Blind Betty finger two whole pages without stopping her finger even once. I can’t tell if her ears are plugging and unplugging like mine and I wonder if this can’t happen to blindsters because they’re blind.

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From the Unsaid Archives: Dummy By David Hollander (From Unsaid Seven)



(…the understanding here of course being that if the rope were to support the man’s weight the question would be answered, but if the rope was severed we’d have to find another rope, which given the expanse of desert and the lack of… oh hell, excuse me for a moment….)

Well. Look at you. What a pathetic shit-smelling collection of testicle-bags. We have been challenged, you worthless maggots, to dismantle and retire the remaining dummies and to see to it that no dummy ever again curses a plate glass storefront or series of storefronts with its inexplicable hideousness. And we will do that or we will fucking die trying, which by the way you’re all going to die trying. So let me inform you dildo-machines of the limits of your jurisdiction as members of this supposedly elite unit: You do not, not ever, ask or even consider the question, Who manufactured this dummy? or Why does this dummy exist? A dummy does not get a name or a nickname or a pet name. A dummy is not your dummy. A dummy shall not be referred to as willful or as hungry or as incompetent. A dummy shall not, in your reports or in your minds, be said to appear fatigued or to seem sad, or to be showing signs of submission. We will not use the language of suffering to refer to any dummy nor will we attach any innerness to a dummy’s outward physical deterioration which, by the way, you can expect to see a good deal of outward physical deterioration given the range of assaults these dummies have already endured at the hands of the preceding class of graduates from this fine and noble academy that has forever sullied its reputation by permitting a group of halfwits like this one to commence into God’s good grace. Any breech of these anti-intentionality protocols will be met with swift punishment. Test me, gentlemen, and you shall know for the first time in your pathetic miserable worthless lives the true meaning of pain.

Let me also be crystal clear about this fact: Our higher-ups shall never be identified and asking about our higher-ups will again find you face to face with pain. I look forward to your questions.

The dummies you have sworn to destroy have resisted many of our love-based weapons and they seem impervious to charm. The dummies have also seemed determined—oh, do you see what I just did, you worthless shit-mongers? The dummies have seemed determined. In fact a dummy determines nothing. It is a soulless collection of rubber organs and latex flesh and glass eyes that will indeed appear to see right through you though in fact there is nothing behind those chocolate brown irises, nothing worth loving or despising, nothing worth wanting to save. Nor would a dummy save you, even if it were not a dummy and even if these ground rules were lifted in favor of giving-a-dummy-the-benefit-of-the-doubt, because just look at you hopeless vaginal secretions, who knows how you even fucking got here. I guess Denny’s wasn’t hiring on the miserable morning you signed your life over to your Uncle. In my day the Academy was a hell of a lot more discriminating.

Now I see some of you gazing over toward the steel doors, maybe wondering, Why are these enormous steel doors necessary and why is it so fucking hot in here? I have even heard several of you there in the back mumbling about the doors and wondering why there is no discernible source of ventilation. To all of you I say shut your fucking mouths. We’re right on pace to get you out there dismantling dummies according to the timetable established by the higher-ups and yes okay just go ahead, just ask me about the higher-ups, I would fucking love it.


(And meanwhile in the barracks:

“… but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my five tours it’s that all questions lead down into a dark pit of increasingly dark-pitted questions. Where are we? Here’s a hint—these ain’t barracks. Hell man, we might just as well be on fucking Mars. C’mon, don’t bogart that thing.”)


The Greeks, gentlemen, had a word for the condition you have each exhibited and which condition served as a prerequisite for your recruitment into this once-prestigious shadow unit, and that word is “solipsism.” Solipsism is the belief, you ass-eating tampons, that no one and nothing in the world exists but ME. For you solipsists, even your higher-ups are inventions, phantoms conjured up by your own solitary minds and given by those same diseased and unattractive minds the powerful illusions of solidity and autonomy. Well guess what, you useless fuckpies? You are all right. Nothing is real and nothing exists except for you. And you. And… oh Christ, hold still a minute maggots, I’ve gotta take this….

(Hell yes I was explaining it earlier…. Look, if the rope breaks it doesn’t prove a goddamn thing. The only way to know for sure would be to hang it again. See? Unless you’ve got the time and resources for an infinite number of hangings… well what is there to “get,” Corporal? Jesus H. Fucking Christ, have him call me himself the next time. I’ll tell him right over the phone what he is. And guess what? Guess the fucking answer!)

Now where was I dimwits? Oh yes—you are right. There’s only you! If there were others, don’t you think that by now you’d have some proof, some definitive fucking proof, of a single other mind? You are right. And you are. And you. And you. And you mumblers back there who will have your fucking throats cut if you continue to disrespect the uniform, you’re right too. You are all correct to suspect the obvious: the world is not a world, or at the least the world is not the world that your lonely pathetic ramshackle minds have Genesised. If any of you cocksucking rodents were paying an iota of attention during the most vital portion of your Academy studies which were absolutely a waste of your time given that you were made to do one and only one thing with your flesh-skeletons namely slaughter dummies or be slaughtered trying but nevertheless, the unit on Descartes may have been of some vague cross-pollinatory use given the hellacious combat in which you are about to find yourself engaged. Cogito Ergo Sum, you hapless rectal suppositories, implies no other. What proof do you have that when you leave this room the room will go on existing? What makes you think that your fellow recruits, once sent on their various dummy-infiltration assignments, will go on living? I don’t mean living as opposed to dying, I mean living as opposed to fucking nothingness. It’s too hard to work through the details. Trust your old wise General who balances only one or two rungs below the higher-ups whose identities are to you as the apple was to that stinking garden whore: there’s only you and it’s good that deep down you have intuited that since the day you took your first bite of solid food and shat it out your diaper-hole. It takes some of the pressure off and of course dissuades the completely irrational tendency toward empathy which tendency is the only fucking reason the dummies continue to exist. Excuse me for a moment while I deal with some of my immense inner sadness that threatens to destroy me!


Talk Therapy (Operation Desert Haystack)

: In the dark with the music playing you might not even know. Its parts are soft, warm, lifelike. There are ways of telling, but in the heat of passion… well, there’s a reason the dummies have made it this far.

: But I’m sure it’s a person. She. I’m sure she’s a person like me.

: Certainty is a funny thing. It implies the possibility of being wrong. I was certain I left my car keys here on the desk, and yet no keys. I was certain she’d say yes to my proposal of marriage and yet despair and loneliness. I was certain he’d never lied to me. I was certain I knew the way. I was certain she was not—

: You’re trying to confuse me with semantics.

: Am I?

: Are you?

: Tell me about your mother.

: Seriously?

: Yes?

: She was an alcoholic and I hated her with great intensity. She’s dead—you know that, right? My old doctor sent you my file?

: Did she ever abuse you, fuckwad?

: Excuse me?

: I said did your alcoholic mother ever levy her alcoholic rage against your extremely vulnerable and half-witted personhood?

: Doctor, we’re talking about my girlfriend.

: We were. Now we’re talking about your obviously-unfit-for-childrearing mother, who might also have been one of them. If she were not tainting the good earth with her decomposing component-parts we’d find out.

: One of them?

: Don’t be coy. I’m the doctor.

: Where are we right now? I don’t recognize this office.

: Your mother—did you ever have occasion to see her internal organs? Perhaps you watched the surgeons remove liver tumors while leaning forward in your armchair in one of those creepy observation-mezzanines, hoping she’d bleed out on the table?

: I’m sorry. I’m leaving now.

: You can’t. Unless the rope holds.

: Excuse me?

: Otherwise we’ll simply move to a second location deeper in the desert. Or you could sign now.

: Sign what?

: That door’s not even a door.

: (—)

: You’re what we call a sympathizer. Only one step removed from an empathizer.

: Are you a doctor?

: Almost. I’m a Corporal.

: This is absurd.

: Right.

Every Day is Recruitment Day

Out in the world that is not a world 31 million Ugandans move through and around Uganda doing Ugandan things such as: curing coffee in enormous curing hangars; manufacturing cement from particulate stone-dust which inhaled in sufficient quantities results in painful and deadly lung lesions; shopping in open-air markets for light textiles and national delicacies with the hum and thrum of the crowd humming and thrumming and pickpocketing children aswarm; having sexual intercourse in houses, in tents, in outdoor locations both secluded and exposed (there are approximately 20,000 Ugandan adults engaged in sex acts at any given moment); urinating over the side of something or other; swimming in Lake Victoria or repairing pipes that carry Lake Victoria’s water to homes and industries throughout the country (the pipes are always rupturing in Uganda); climbing mountains such as Mt. Emin and Mt. Baker and Mt. Gessi so as to cross into other nations to do other things some of which you’ll find indexed in your Handbook of Unlikelihoods; building dummies at a rate that roughly sustains the population; dreaming of oceans; slaughtering livestock; dredging up minerals via deadly extraction techniques that some have claimed are destroying the world that is not a world in addition to killing miners in swift and hideous fashion; walking around aimlessly or, just as often, with aim; riding bicycles; sampling packaged snack-cakes delivered from more prosperous nation-states; sailing across Lake Albert; hugging mothers; burying fathers; sobbing beside commodes; repairing internal combustion engines or scrapping them (3 American cents a pound for scrap metal); reading fairy tales to children; whipping children with sticks; drawing in the dust with sticks; collecting a certain edible swamp-plant from the marshes of the Nile River watershed; making rope by hand from hemp; applying cosmetics (only the wealthy); holding hands on city streets; enduring epileptic seizures; staring in awe at the body of an enormous gorilla not shot by poachers but entirely intact and simply dead beneath the jungle canopy (seated and hunched over, dummy-like, at the waist); playing futbol; regarding pictures of the world’s tallest skyscrapers in a book plucked from atop a red and black striped blanket spread out across a makeshift table at a market on the outskirts of Kampala; eating rare confections at a party thrown by the brother of the President; trudging barefoot through dust so white it seems bleached; painting pictures of mountains and of endemic passion fruits; masturbating; slashing wrists open while relaxing in wooden tubs of warm water; dying of AIDS; changing diapers; cooking with matoke (some sort of banana-like starch); singing to children; choking on their own blood; arriving too late at ramshackle hospitals where the bodies are stored unrefrigerated among the egg-laying flies; eating nuts; writing stories about dummies; sampling for the first time an American milkshake, overcome with joy; firing AK-47 assault rifles into the air, into cardboard targets, into each other; spreading national pride through folklore via interpersonal interfacing; reading aloud from decade-old textbooks in the cramped interior of rural elementary schools; harvesting food from the ground or from the trees or from wherever they grow their fucking food; filling tires with air; hand-painting a sign advertising wares for a local business; operating a crane; and etc.

“Now you tell me, citizen: is this or is this not the most ridiculous fucking thing you’ve ever heard? Here’s a pen: sign your fucking name already. We’ll have you in Basic by the end of the day.”


(Barracks, cont.

I’m not sure. But I think that maybe there’s only the camp and that it like, subsumes the world we reportedly arrived from. Which means—here man, like this—which means by extension that there are no dummies unless we’re the dummies. Which means by extension that dummies and non-dummies are all the same. Which means by extension that elsewhere in this camp—whoa! I’m really feeling that—that elsewhere in this camp there is a rally in which we are being pitched as the enemy dummies. Which means by extension that this is what we call a closed loop or a tautology. Which means by extension that you, my friend, are only ‘real’ because you’re here in my so-called barracks, bunking beside so-called me. The minute you vacate these quarters I’ll be forced to either A.) deny your existence or B.) slaughter the living fuck out of you. No it’s not a threat. You don’t make it here for as long as I have by making threats. I’m trying to teach you something. What I do is keep my fucking mouth shut—what you’ll do I have no idea. Shit this is out again.”)


All right, all right, where were we fuck-worms? I’m told by the higher-ups that you’ll be broken into teams, which would be enough to bring a smile to my face had my smiling-architecture not been long ago daggered loose by a dummy during a particularly arousing close-quarters encounter and so you’ll have to take your General’s word when I say I am in my preternaturally sophisticated mind smiling wide at the very thought of you lonely ass-fuckers gathering in teams so as to multiply your almost-guaranteed individual failings by an aggregate determined by some suit in a processing-cage who’s never once held a dummy at close range and whispered something sweet into its rubbery ear while developing a swift and excruciating erection. Men—and I use the term loosely—it is time to embrace your assignments and to ignore the heat and the lack of ventilation and the noises of other rallies occurring in adjacent chambers because in just a few moments, the doors open and you enter into the most important endeavor of your young and miserable lives which if I’m lucky will be coming to an end toot fucking sweet because I don’t know that I’ll be able to stand here again and address you dung-monkeys without firing this semiautomatic rifle into your soft and worthless bodies so much do you sicken this old General’s 99-percent dead and battle-blackened heart.

Take off your helmets and look beneath the cloth liner. You’ll find a number there. That is your team number, and shall remain your team number for the duration of your assignment or until we fucking tell you it is no longer your team number or until you abandon your post and are hunted down and executed in a manner befitting your cowardice, said manner being far too awesome to reveal to a bunch of grub-eating ape-fuckers like the ones I am currently interlocuting. Would anyone like to ask me about the higher-ups now? Now would be a great time. Oh Christ the sadness is back. Your old general has been a father to young non-dummies and he knows the pain of separation and fear and solitude. But he also knows that the same pain as occurring in you quote unquote men is a mere eidolon preventing the destruction of all that would destroy us. Give me a minute to compose myself, you fuckheads!


Talk Therapy, cont.

: Just put your head through this.

: Is this a real story?

: That’s what they always ask me. What do you weigh?

: About 175.

: Mmm. Well listen, I always say the same thing: I hope the rope holds.

: Me too?

: That’s a good one.

: Oh, I just thought of something. If it breaks can I still sign up?

: I’d have to call the General. But be warned, he’s sort of a prick.

: Believe me I know.

: Don’t try bonding. I’ve been incapable of caring since ’89.

: Can’t blame a dummy for trying.

: That too snug? Good. Now step up please. Kick or yank?


Every Day is Recruitment Day

It’s also reported that 7 billion tons of coal are excavated from the earth each year. Mind this is an earth that can be circled in mere hours by a swift-flying jet, which by the way there are reportedly swift-flying jets. Also, there are swift-moving trains that levitate on magnets and there are power plants that convert radioactive isotopes (whatever they are) to fuel-energy and there are satellites which are objects we’ve launched up into the sky and beyond the reported atmosphere and that just go around and around the planet that we’re gravitationally pinned to and by the way, we’re reportedly gravitationally pinned to a planet and that planet circles a reported sun 93 million miles distant and there are reportedly 70 sextillion suns in the reported universe and also it is reported that life originated from nothing which nothing was condensed into a point of near-infinite density and it is also reported that there is something called “infinity” which don’t even ask me about that and it is reported that by adding certain enzymes from the bellies of ruminants to certain forms of liquid-dispersant from the udders of ruminants you can create something called cheese, which I have had myself and will admit is delicious though what exactly an enzyme is is anyone’s guess and there are reportedly over six-billion dummies each of whom I suppose gets his or her own ton-plus of coal each year and how wasteful is that if you’re looking for a rallying point, and reportedly there is a nation called ‘Uganda’ which I believe the last recruiter spoke with you about? and reportedly we have invented something called the microchip which helps run machines which could be anything from a toaster to a nuclear-missile-launching supercomputer though I don’t believe you need a microchip to build a toaster but what do I know about it? and there are reportedly—”

Jesus, that’s enough. Just give me the fucking pen.”


Team One, you will be charged with physical abuse. As any dummy may have been manufactured to resemble the life form at any stage of its ontogenetic evolution we recommend consulting your fieldbook for maximally effective methods, though for instance should the dummy appear to you as an adolescent boy there is schoolyard bullying, parental beatings and/or sexual abuse provided there is no pleasure in it (the dummies convert our pleasure into a dangerous explosive and so under no circumstance are you to enjoy your work you shit-fucking ass-moles). These are of course examples and not recommendations and each case shall be treated on a case-by-case basis which means don’t try too hard to do what seems right because it will likely come back to haunt you anyway, that haunting taking the form of pain.

Team Two, you will be charged with evaluating the capacity for psychological abuse to form what is for our purposes the Holy Grail, namely a self-destroying dummy, the discovery of which would relieve us of the most difficult part of this whole preposterous endeavor, i.e., how do we get the fucker’s heart to stop beating?

Team Three, you are what we call Long Viewers. Examine the military-industrial complex. Look at the corporate infrastructures. Situate the dummy or dummies within a Modern Life substructure so alienating as to bring the dummy-illusion of Selfhood to a slow and grinding halt. If we can’t kill them we can at least make them more like us. Hold on a second…

(Oh Christ. Yes, okay. Okay. I’ll be down there in a minute, just keep it warm. Yes you fucking heard me, keep it warm, I might want to hug it.)

Sorry cockroaches… your General just received some good news. My eye-holes are filling with happiness fluid. Just give me a moment here… okay good, good, today is the first day of the rest of my life and so on and so forth.

Now be aware that these strategies are all an enormous smokescreen and that all of my tender rhetoric is designed to do one thing and one thing only: create an enormous smokescreen for my tender rhetoric. You want to know why you’re here? Well that makes one of us. Jesus, this is stupid… why is everything so stupid? We are going to open the doors now. You want some real advice, you miserable eunuchs? A dummy doesn’t always know it’s a dummy. You have to bring the dummy to it. Oh, and remember, you are a giant shitstain on the surface of the earth and nobody loves you. And also, seriously men, you can choose not to bring the dummy to it, you can just do your best to bloodlet the fucker, that would be merciful of you. I once showed a beautiful dummy the truth. Then I lived with it for fifteen years while it tried to drink away the dumminess. I was merciless. I fucked it twice a week and I sullied its latex skin with my sweat and semen and then I left it for dead and found another, younger dummy to afflict with my truth-telling. Do you see these bars, piss-monkeys? Do you see these medals? A man does what he must. Honestly I wish I were more like you maggots I really do. Are we ready? Okay we’re ready. Suppress your emotions, imbeciles. Suppress logic, too. Suppress rationality. Suppress caring. Suppress not-caring. Become one with the universe that hates your fucking heart. And prepare for a world of pain.

Open the fucking doors already!


(Barracks, cont.

So yeah, I once holed up with this dummy in—hey, this is kicked by the way—in what they call the East Village which is maybe fifteen hectares north of our current position. We were both tending bar at a place—shit man, you’re not gonna believe this but the fucking place was called Mars, I just fucking remembered that. Well anyway she was one hot fucking dummy. This was way before I got recruited though now I’m pretty sure we’re all recruited at birth. They want us to think we’re deciding. I’m not sure why yet, I’m working on that part. How long’s it take to pack that fucking thing? But yeah, so I’m holed up with this dummy and we’re going at it two or three times a fucking day, you know?, like totally into each other, in awe and wonder at our shit-ass luck at having found another person who likes sex as much as we each respectively do, and I’m telling myself all the time, Hey man, you are one happy lucky motherfucker, but I just could never believe it, you know? Like what does it mean that you have to tell yourself you’re happy? And the longer I’m with the dummy the more I realize that I’m not really with the dummy. See—shit man, we’ve gotta get some fucking beer in here—see, there’s always two me’s, there’s the me who’s like, fucking the dummy off the side of our shared bed at three in the morning with the neon from a neighboring restaurant’s signage pouring like bright blood through our open window, and then there’s the me who’s watching me fucking the dummy off the side of the bed and thinking things like, man this is the shit, this is like a fucking porno, flex your muscles a little, make it look right, you fucking dumbass.

The day I realized that the dummy was a dummy was the day I realized that there was only one of her to the two of me. That’s what they don’t want you to know around here. Shit, I’m so fucking high now. This is all told to you in like, highest confidence. Five tours man, I’m never going back. But then nobody is, right? Hey, I’ve got something better than this—you ever freebase?)


: Yes General. This one was human. You should have heard the neck snap. It was pretty fucking glorious.

: That’s my son you’re talking about Corporal. My little boy. I loved him like a… well I loved him.

: Yes sir. We’ll incinerate his useless carcass and scatter his ashes through the ventilation ducts.

: It’s a hell of a thing Corporal.

: So I’m told sir.

: Give us a minute. The old man’s got a few things to get off his chest.

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From the Unsaid Archives: Over the Mountain By Brian Kubarycz (From Unsaid Six)



We fled the elders. When the guns had been once again taken up and embraced with the touch of a dancer taking up a partner’s hand and placing it into position, here, there, there was no choice but for us both to walk away. Walk where we came up here in the days when walking was a joy for us, though there were joys we would know less of soon enough. We had held hands when it was permitted, by the narrow trail and by the narrow ways which we were taught to walk before the Lord of locusts swarmed. He was God, Lord, Load of Hocus Pocus. And we believed.

They were his ministers, though they had squared off toe-to-toe amongst themselves, pulled whiskers from each Elder’s underbeard, swore names and oaths not heard outside of scriptures heard in church, thrown punches, broken oaths and shattered bones.

Those were the leaders of us all up on the mountain. Greater men none of us had known to breathe. Nor greater names. Greater lengths we might have walked or sailed to see them, to be with them, or be with their whispered words at least. But it was not the distance which seemed biblical, the burden of days to make our way. It was the burning of the sun, which was worse on us than working in the tannery with comical masters looking down on our stained hands. They always laughed. But the guns had been lifted, only once, against us.

This once was fusillade enough. I would have stood it, notwithstanding my weakness in the guts when I saw blood. I had mastered it while still a tanner, measured myself in terms of what was too much for my eyes to burden themselves to bear witness. Each time I pushed them farther from the sockets they turned in. Each time I looked longer at the skins, stared, my hard-earned concentration came from the hair, from the hooves, from the ears that were burned by me. For that was the job I had. I was the burner of lumber-bearing beasts, taken from the hills and fields, just as I had been, and set down in a frigorific yard. I was given a task. I performed it with exactness, I declare this.

Over the body of the bruised when beaten at the hour of sunup, where the scalp hair meets the nooking of the neck, there hair had flowed or fallen, as blood would, and by the handful. Hair, the Dealer is the only man I ever saw take care of. He kept pots and tins of wax pomades, some scented with gold unguents of tropical bruteshow origin, some with essences boiled up from petals of such flowers as can be picked only in climates I have never felt upon my skin, some with extracts used to make confectionary wafers. But now his West was won.

Each fragrance in the Dealer’s hair had been a March day on my calendar, the journal of his appearances to me turned the world itself. These meetings, for me, and God’s gracious time, have taken lonely scents. I inhale my full expanse of years, and writing them all out, for me always the evening air wafts of soot China ink, a liquid also brought me by the Dealer. How could it not? These frigorific hands write down the center and the navigation of my knowledge, the undertaking of an act by which to understand my brainpan’s corrugations, my exile of myself off from the Elders, my plan to take Samantha with me to a city we had never seen but heard in narratives which drifted through the oil ooze of smoke from within hot tanning fires, the oil steam from over tanning vats.

Always we were told there was a royal city where the Elders once had gathered, Elders even older than those men to whom I had entrusted care of my Samantha. She came back to me from them with stories of their cross examinations. And she bore sores the Elders used to manage me, pressed me almost as a wad of cotton, woolen in one ear, is used to cure infection. The sick ear tighter for the fist of it, and deafer to all milder enticings.

Samantha harkened to Elders entire, as if their dim recitals and fair tales of distant granaries were worth more to her, and rang truer, than the battle hymns we sang before breaking open loaves as big as heads of cabbage, before pouring water as fragrant as the mountain flowers from which snow water ran, and as brilliant as the Dealer’s hair, pomaded and new flattened.

Samantha had heard these wizardly descriptions and had trespassed them on to me, had wiggled them in through the slats of me, those piercings in the wickerwork of speech, where light comes streaming, burning barley, in. Her words came slinking, truth like the very truth when it is written as a serpent hieroglyph.

How could I not believe God’s city to be more real than the tanner’s hands I used to cut through bones and thews with my own broke-tip jointing knife? It seemed I saw through bridal veils to it, the square dimensions of the city and its very set of stones. This vision, insinuated, laid serpent’s eggs within my head, left surface patterns sidewinding to biforked fruited trees.

When Samantha spoke it was to behold a hieroglyphus wriggle free of its grown ancient carapace, just dead scale and death skin from which to shrug. It was a living illustration, emboldened ink, tar from a lake turned over, black mud so prime ordained that knowing nothing whatsoever was already knowing more than seeing this. So were her words exposed to my fool ear, so cool and quenching to the fires of doubt that scorched my testimony, so blistering upon the summer rock. Her words worked up a chain of blossoms, worried at a woodbine fruit, stirred up a nest of snakes newborn unto my enemies, now gleaming brass, now hissing on the brazen stick.

So blinding God’s true city seemed to me, no difference the distances Samantha would describe to me as we lay bare and parted in the darkness of our bed, which never ceased to feel to me as it had on that night Samantha would become God’s bride through me entwined in mortal arms. I glimpsed God’s city as if my own grown and vital organs. I had heard but never seen them. And yet I envisioned it, figured red and bright before my eyes, in the carcasses I worked. Almost bejeweled they seemed to me, thick encrusted and openly revealed under my knife.

It was farther inland we must travel, this is what Samantha said to me.

Farther into the ice, hard sea it would be to me, deeper under the crust. Farther down to a sphere of crystal rock. No man dare look at his two feet for fear of being struck snow-blind by God Lord’s paving stones. This was the place to which we would repair, Samantha made known to me in tones partook of overtures of operas I had heard only in a dream so many years ago of sleeping I remembered it only in sudden crowbursts of night birds which shook me from my slumbers, nocturnes I must have heard – I could swear it – though I had scarcely known piano and had barely undertook such music from the teachings of the Dealer.

Notes by night, he would poem them to me, as he had heard them played in parlors into which he had received admittance.

These were gatherings, he told me, where women would be seated on round chairs with legs no thicker than a flower stem. So lightly did the sitters rest upon their cushions that almost one suspected ghost forces playing secret roles, lifecraft of buoyancy which turned the music room into one lily pond. Dense and heaped with pads, at once it was, trailers choking sight from overwatered eyes. But what man could look away? For to see was to be dipped into lagoons, to be wrapped in pink and patterned Paris blankets, to be shuttled naked through Arabic looms, piled deep with carpets that in raree tales can be ridden and then brought to land atop the domes of castles behind breachless sparkling walls shard-tipped with gold and ivory spears.

Those were the tomes the Dealer spoke to me, his words merging into those of my Samantha. There was, one instance, no telling one throat from the other, and now no norm to square them with my own. Their tales so tightly intertwixted, they became a single staff of healing, round bell ringing in my ear.

By day, I worked over my cauldrons and my cutting block. By night, I let Samantha’s hair pour over me as would a nostrum purchased with assurances my faith in it would make me healthier than man had hoof to cleave. Samantha’s fingers found my chest, felt it, tested where I would allow their tips to tap and pressure me. They tempted my capacity for imagining which divinations of my innards Samantha was conducting as she stirred beside me in the night. It seemed she was erasing maps, blurring regions and formations that cut through me and had been charted with brass instruments and read in tight-rigged tents. Samantha spread open the compass of my soul, I thought, there, or the measure of my mystery, here. She blew onto my birthmark, deciphered my born hour of ultimate demise. What angels or demons watched over me, she also seemed to read, there, too, there, here. Here, her hand felt guided by their kiting all about me, immaterial but paper-winged, and brighter to Samantha than the candlelight which shook the room before I pinched the flame with blackened fingers.

If ever there had been a nurselorn language, one whelped among tribes of sightless almost-creatures without tooth or tongue, then these were the alien utterings, the acrostic verse Samantha spoke over my nape and neck, along my ribs and loams, up to the broadleaf tree, over the mountain. I knew no other way to listen than to lay as still as all my senses could be kept and hear this wisdom as it came to me from my own ailing spoken plain to me. Still, I quivered underneath Samantha’s hand.

As a boy, I had bow hunted after birds, pulled taut the ligament while bunching up the horns of it. I would let the bull expand back to its unstrung far extremes, and I would place the arrow’s notch over the string. I pulled back, my fingers at the fletching. One hand squeezed tight fist over arching stick. I stood that way, straight-backed, poised and waiting for the demisemiquaver. But there came nothing. I aimed at every precious anything at hand. And I prayed to God that all would take swift flight, or be blown instantly away, before my strength would fail me and I would become a killer.

How soon my arms would shake the open frame of me. How quickly my fingers would burn as if gripping tongs just taken from the fire. Yet I would not yield, would not allow the arrow to release. It was an exercise of spirit I repeated every sunup, first aiming at small creatures other than were pets to me, later aiming at the neutered animals I had been given. I had named them friends. Finally, when my arms and chest had grown so broad they could withstand the furnace heat, could absorb it, almost leech strength in the more the tension built to torment me, finally, I learned the double wisdom of the bow. Though it aimed into the distance, it was ever drawn on me. Of my own soul the bow became divining rod. The very quaking spoke full gospel of my heart. These were the revelations I could never pen, for they came to me only when my hands were shaking with the power of an inner choir the bow could no more silence, for I had mastered it. Bow had become a singing sword to me, and I the song it formed of chords drawn up from dooms below.

But now this wellspring was struck forth by my Samantha’s hand. It was the old familiar treble, that ever-troubling moan. A terror almost I had felt at the power of my boyish health, as if the tinctures brought me by the Dealer – made of lymph or liver of cooked rattlesnakes – had indeed lived up to his predictions, even the least potable. Though I had tried as many as were within reach of the blanket of resources I had spread before him on those autumn days or summer nights when he came walking up. One more time around the mountainside he would come, up to where wagons were loaded with munitions to be sent up to the Elders, or with shipments to be set apart for mission storehouses before they were presented to Samantha for cutting into cakes and kidney pies.

I felt this thrill of fear from which I wanted to retreat but I could not, too trained its grip on me, my whole anatomy one more lamb to strangle. These nights were worship of a sort that I had never known before. Even in the Elders’ meetings, even when they first laid open their Good Books before me and plew shirts, and showed me the tokens scarred into their skin, signs that had convinced how many souls before me that had sold all that they had.

The hands Samantha placed on me became Orion moths, winged correlates of light invisible to eyes not spiritual, though spirit eyes were what Samantha had. Eyes that could pierce the midnight lampless caverns where the Elders kept the almacens of dry provisions we would need for the long trip away from this land island of shotguns, hides, desert and old church discipline, long years of kneeling shriven before a forger’s fire, or shivering within the only quilts which were permitted, or sleeping single on those nights the Elders had demanded of the company of my Samantha, and it was understood I would commit her fully to their trust, which was the safest place for any girl to sleep. Did I not see?

And if I didn’t, I would know the engines of their wrath, the swung bell of trumpet they would bruise with, blare to wake the dead if this was what it took to put the fear of God upon our backs. Nor were these treatments less convincing than the murder and the outbreak laid together, hatched and written, one more commandment from the mount of God, there, in the bed where I had sheltered with Samantha.

I would have stayed there on the mountain, never left, so straight the ways, so strict the sleeves, so blistered the backs of hands and feet described to me. And I had seen their handling of the Dealer. Just as they had shouldered their shotguns, once was enough, no reason now to doubt they would release me from this life into a longer one to come.

But the face Samantha turned to me in dreams, just as it rose over me in the morning, once more each day as the seasons shifted with a restlessness that soon enough became a breaking from my bones, a kind of aching case of rheum, sharp as Paul’s own pricking thorn impinging newer covenants on me, a graver form of marriage. It seared me night and day, the crystal sphere of it. Shimmering orb so charged with holy might that all who see it grow Mosaic horns.

Then would meat bones be full cleaned. Then would meat skins be taken and exchanged for coats of many flames. Only to see God’s city would be joy enough for me. Only to see it once and then what happened to me mattered to me no more than what happened to the parents I had left behind me on the prairie, all those mortal years ago. Where had God driven the days off? Where had God damned children of the Dealer? Where had they gone, the tonics and horse powders he had brought me on the mountain? Where had gone everything but love of my Samantha?

That night, the one I still recite each morning, that final night, is, like all other nights, not anymore. We drove our horses to the edge of the great precipice beyond which plains appear, the basin where the Dealer worked his business. And we smacked the horses with twin flaming brands as if to make them carry us full gallop. But we had never mounted. We listened to death whinnies and the wind that filled the wide abyss, listened for the beat of horses touching desert floor, the noise of horses bursting, as sure as horses roar when forced into night sky.

And we heard nothing.

But gone they were, and for that trespass, sin against the Elders, there could be no forgiveness. As there could be no other form of travel for us now but walk over the mountain.

Surely, guns were taken up once more. Surely, pains prepared for our redeeming. Surely hands of cards were dealt to choose the fates we each would meet once we had taken on their chains. But God, Lord, Load of Hocus Pocus, had one final trick for me, after the many tender acts of magic I had seen. Greater things has God Lord shown to lesser men, I do not mind it. But never greater grace to me. Great lengths I walked, Samantha right behind me. We held hands.

So many stars hung overhead that night it seemed the sky might smother us. Then came the day of my deliverance, which is still miracle to me, and causes me to think this pen will shatter in my hand. But I must write. The pen bear witness, this last once, and for all time.

There came a sudden cloud of rain, storm up from God knew where, then an ice volley of grape hail. Never such a downpour have I seen, never such a hurling forth of wrath upon a woman and a man since angel first stretched flaming hand and forbid Adam’s swift damnation, though he thought it paradise.

Shot fell about us with a sound of beating hooves, a bursting heart each almost sounded, rocks by thousands falling from the skies. Yet not a feather struck us. We walked tall, free of fear, the mountain now behind, our clothes soaked only, and our skins now clean and bright. I had become as Job, though without sores. I had become as Lot, though without wife. For when I turned back there was no Samantha on the trail with me. Only a fruit tree bearing woodbine out of season. The sun had risen up. All rain and clouds were gone, as was all hail to see. I stood looking at the lone invasive tree. I touched fruit skin. I dared to pick it. All seemed given to be God Lord’s final gift to me, the final words of love breathed from the Dealer.

I did not want.

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From the Unsaid Archives: Tell, Don’t Tell By Ottessa Moshfegh (From Unsaid Seven)


My husband drives his taxi from five in the morning until six at night. I wake up before him to boil water for tea, lay out his clothes, make his bath. Then I go back to sleep. When it is light out I get up, cover myself as usual, say my prayers, eat my food. It is my job to keep the house clean and cook the dinner. That is easy. I don’t tell my husband it is easy. I tell him it is hard. I tell him how hard I scrub the floor, and how carefully I fold the laundry. But I do not scrub the floor so hard, and I fold the laundry very fast and carelessly. I am a smart woman. People can’t tell. It is easy to wash the dirty plates or put the chicken to cook. Many things are so easy. But I say it is so hard for me. My husband thinks I stay at home all day, maybe watching the television because I am so tired. I don’t do that. I am not stupid. I go out. I walk and talk to people. I see things. I look around. People think to be a woman is so difficult. I say it is easy. I have an easy life. I do what I want. God is very good.

On my block, beneath the subway that runs up high between the buildings, there is a big store full of chickens. They have so many kinds of chickens. It smells very bad there. I like it. I go there and think, why, God, have you so many different chickens? There are white chickens, red chickens, yellow and grey chickens. Each time I go I buy a different kind. Today I buy a black chicken. Its feet are very thick and red. The feathers look so oily, so shiny. The chicken’s face looks like a monkey face. I tell the woman which one I want. She opens the big cage and takes him by his legs. He is angry. His wings spread so far, almost as far as the woman is tall. She is taller than me. I am short in this country. But in my country I am tall. In my country people say I am very good looking. But here people don’t see me. I like it this way. I am easy to hide. I lift the corner of my black dress, I lift the corner of my hijab. I tell my friend, I go behind the curtain, like this. Many people say to kill the chicken in the store. But I like to kill it at home, myself, and sit by the window and pull the feathers out and look down on the street, at all the people.

There are so many different kinds of people, it makes me laugh. We are like the chickens. Fat and thin, big and small, this one with the face like a donkey, that one with arms like a rat. I put the chicken to cook. I put the oil in the pot and water and carrots and potatoes, onions and spices. I do not peel the carrots. That is too boring for me. My husband will eat the dirt on the carrots and say nothing. He does not taste very carefully. He is too tired at night from driving his taxi from here and there, and so many people saying go this way, now that way, and the cars blocking him, and angry people yelling and blowing their horns. He will not taste the dirt in the soup. Me, I like rice. I put the rice to cook with butter and salt and cover the pot with a cloth and then the lid, and I fix my hijab with pins in my hair and go out again.

There is one place I like to go and sit and talk with my friend. She works on the next street. Her work is so easy, so she can talk with me while she works. Women go to her to braid their hair or pluck their eyebrows or color their hair, those things. She is very good, my friend, since she is very smart and has strong hands. Whatever the women ask, do this, my friend will do, and still talk with me about things. We never talk about boring things, you know. She is a black, my friend. She holds her head like a lion, very proud. I like her. When I lost my child she said, don’t worry, you can have my child. I shook my head. Her child has something wrong with him. He lives with her on top of her shop, just playing games all day. He looks so stupid to me. I ask my friend, Is he reading books? Is he thinking something? She says no. He is only sitting and playing games. He smokes something, he eats candies. I tell my friend, you can keep your child. I will make another one. If I will be able. We laugh. We laugh because my husband is ugly. He is so ugly. He looks like an ugly cow. That’s alright. He works very hard. But sometimes I say to him, Wear my hijab. You are too ugly for me. We laugh together, me and my friend.

Today my friend has no customers in her shop. She tells me there is another woman in another shop who is stealing all the customers. I say that is very bad. I say, Let us hurt that other woman and burn her shop. My friend laughs. I laugh too. She is very smart. Oh well, she says. She pulls my hijab down. Oh no, I say. You will disturb my pins. She pulls the pins out and holds them in her mouth. She likes to brush my hair. It is soft and long and black. It is very nice. When my friend puts her hand on my head, to hold my hair down, her fingers come down on my face like this, and it feels very nice. I say to her, Thank you, thank you. That feels so nice.

We listen to music, just some love songs. We eat some cherries because it is nearly summer. Then a woman comes for her hair. But she looks strange to me. My friend gets up. My friend is very fat, so fat she gets stuck in the chair. But then she gets up. Hello? she says. Hello. The strange woman has a voice like a man. Then I remember sometimes men want to be like women. Have women’s hair and clothes. I think, this is one of the men playing games. I think, I do not like it. I fix my hijab. But my friend is very nice. Come this way, sit down, and so on. What can I do for you? she says just like she says to a woman, but this is not a woman. It is a different person. I think, why God, you have so many kinds? The person says, I need a new style, and my friend is so nice. I look at the person in the mirror to see its face. It has big lips and big eyes and wide and thick, bumpy brown skin and it’s ugly. That’s alright, I think, maybe it is a nice person. But I don’t know that. The hands are so big and ugly, and fingernails are so long and painted purple. Then I think, oh my God, and I look at the breasts. They have some paper in them, I think. They must have some paper napkins in there. The bra is showing through the shirt. I think of what is in there, the stuffing in the bra. Maybe it is garbage in there, I think. Maybe some dirty toilet paper. I reach under my hijab and feel my breasts. They are soft and warm. I smell like onions and spices. It is not very nice.

My friend is talking to the person. Then she takes her brush and is brushing its hair. I think, is it real hair? Man’s hair so long? I don’t know. The person says something, it says how life is hard, how it is hard to walk in these shoes. The person’s shoes are really terrible. They are plastic and orange with jewels. Not real jewels. And they are very big and high and they squeeze the person’s feet, which are a man’s feet, I think. The toenails are painted purple. It looks really terrible. Me, I am wearing black shoes made of cloth. I don’t care how I look on the outside. I am just hiding. It’s alright. I am free inside. Then my friend is saying, yes, life is so hard! And I feel mad and I say, No, life is so easy. I tell them, You are wrong. If your shoes are not good, change them, I say. Look, I say. I think I am being very nice. I am a woman, I wear these cloth shoes. Be easy, I say. Your shoes are very difficult, that’s not smart. You can buy these there, down the street. Only five dollars. I can take you. Okay, the person says. I’ll try on those shoes.

So I am happy. If I can do something nice for this person, maybe it will see how life is easy. You take the easy way, then you have a good time. Like I tell my husband, if the road is full, take another road, you will get there faster. And he says, You don’t understand anything. You’re a woman. You don’t know. I laugh. Because I know my husband. He is always taking the difficult road. His friends, the other taxi drivers, all they talk about is the roads that are difficult. They never say, Oh that road was so nice, oh that road was so fast, I love that road. It doesn’t matter. I don’t drive a taxi. So for me, I love all roads.

When my friend is finished with the person’s hair, it looks very nice. I say, How nice you look. Like a woman, I say. The person laughs. I feel the person doesn’t like me, or thinks I am stupid. Oh, I am not stupid, I say. I pull down my hijab and say, look at me, I am not a stupid woman. I turn my face. Okay, says the person. It says for me to relax, be comfortable. I pull my hijab back up. I don’t know, maybe this person is a bad man. Maybe it is a man who plays games, so he can play tricks. That is terrible. But the person looks all right. It looks strange, but it looks like a nice person, I think. It pays my friend and I say, I will take the person to buy the shoes, then I will come back to talk. Okay, says my friend. She is smiling, like I am acting funny. I don’t mind.

I go with the person on the street. It is very tall. I shake my head. The shoes are so terrible. It walks like a horse on two feet. I point down the road at the store that sells cloth shoes. They don’t speak English there. We walk together. The person has pants which show the bum in back. I can see the hair on the bum in back. The top of it. And in the front, there is nothing. Where is the penis? I ask. I am not shy. I say what I want. The penis, I say, where is it? The person says it is a secret. I say, But how? It says it is private. It puts it in the private place, it says. I shake my head. I do not believe it. I say, but where? The person says I am too curious. I am too nosey. But I am not too nosey. I say, Please, show me how. But first, buy the shoes. The person says nothing.

We go to the shop. Hello, I say to the man, waving my hands. Please, bring us these shoes, for this person. I point to my cloth shoes, and then to the person’s feet. The man shakes his head. I say, For this person, big ones. But they haven’t the big size the person needs for shoes. I say, I am sorry. The person says it doesn’t matter. I say, But now please, show me where you put it? The person says we must go someplace private. I say, Come to my home, I have soup. Do you like chicken? I say. The person says okay, so we walk that way to my house. I am thinking this is very good. Many people will not believe it. I will see the secret way. I think, God, thank you. Thank you, God.

In my home, it is very small. There is only one place to sit. On the bed. I say, Okay, first you sit, be my guest and have the chicken soup. I bring the table to the bed. The person is very big, so big I must bring the table away a little. It isn’t very comfortable. I am sorry, I say. Your legs are too big. My legs, my husband’s legs, they are small. So it is like that. The person tries to cross its legs. It bumps the table. See, I say to it, not very comfortable. I am sorry. I go to taste the soup. It is not finished cooking, but I take the broth and some chicken. I will not give the person the carrots with the dirt. That is not nice. I say, Please, try it. It doesn’t taste good, I say to be polite. The person must lean over to the table. It tastes the broth. It is too hot, I say. Blow on it. The person is so strange. I have never seen someone so ugly like this. It wears purple makeup on its face, on its eyes, and pink lipstick. Its skin is thick and bumpy and oily. I want to see it eat the soup. So I lean over and blow the soup. I think, this person could be my child. I could blow the soup for my child like this, this person. The person tastes the broth again. Thank you, it says. The voice is so strange. It makes me happy. It is like the bad smell in the chicken store. I like the strange things. When the person is done drinking the soup, it eats the potatoes. I say, Now please show me how you hide it.

The person says, I will show you, but you must pay me. I can’t believe it. I say, That is terrible. How can you ask for money, I say. But I want to see. I say, My husband will see the money gone, even a few dollars. I will have to tell. Tell, don’t tell, says the person. How much money? It says how much. Okay, I say. I say, please, close your eyes. Cover your eyes with your hands. I keep the money in the bag of onions below the sink. I take as many dollars. I watch the person hold up the big ugly hands. There is a ring on one finger. I say, Alright, here is your money. Now please, show me where you hide it. And the person stands and takes the money and carefully unbuttons its pants and pulls them down. I am watching very closely. I sit on the bed. I must hide my eyes a little behind my hijab. I am shy, I say. The person shows me what is down there. Pulls it from beneath his bum, bending his knees. You see now? it asks me. Yes, I say, I see. And then I feel very stupid. The penis is very small and thin and brown and wrinkled. I sit on the bed and watch it in the person’s hand. It smells like the bum. It is like an old snake. It is blind and weak like an old snake. I say, Oh, my God, I am sorry. It must make you very sad. The person says nothing, but I see its face and it is very sad. I like it very much.


The next day I go to see my friend at her shop. Still, she has no customers. I am very quiet. I sit and look through the window. I watch her sweep the floor. Then she asks me what did I do with that person yesterday. Did you find those shoes? I say no. No shoes. I am quiet. She asks have I ever seen a person like that before. I say no. It was the first time for me. She smiles. She is thinking something, I know. So I say, what are you thinking? She says, I think you liked that person. I say yes, I did. It was so interesting. I think that person is so sad, I say. But my friend says no. Those people aren’t sad. They do what they want, she says. Maybe she is right. I don’t know.

It is fine, it is nothing, I think. But then I think it is not fine, it is not nothing. I wonder what the person is doing now. I ask my friend, What do those people do? How do they get money? I say, Nobody would choose such a person for a job. Those people, they look terrible. My friend says the person yesterday has a special job. The job is to be someone’s friend. I think to say, Oh yes, I know about it. I think of yesterday, the person in my home, asking for money. But I cannot tell my friend about that. She is too boring. Well, I say, I need to make some money too. And that is true. I need to make back the money I gave to the person. My friend says, Anybody can make money. It only depends what you want to do. I say, I would do anything, it doesn’t matter. My friend says, Clean houses, care for other women’s children. She says, Go upstairs and use the computer. My child will help you to write an ad. It’s so easy. Alright, I’ll do it, I say. Although my friend’s child is so terrible. Every child is terrible, I think. I would never care for another woman’s child. But I could clean houses. That’s easy. Anybody can do that.

My friend takes me upstairs to her home where her child is playing games on the television. He is very fat and round and has eyes like a frog. He does not move his head, only his eyes. His head does not move from the television. Help this woman, says my friend. The child makes a face. Do it now, she says. The child throws something on the floor. He moves his head at last. When his head moves, his neck wrinkles like a turtle. And the carpet, the chair he sits on, all is so dirty and smelly. Help her write an ad, my friend says. On the computer.

The child is so fat, like my friend. So fat that he must bend over his knees and put his hands on the ground, then move his bum up to the edge of the couch, then put his hands on the edge of the couch, and push himself up. I can see his ears are so dirty and full of wax. I look at my friend. She does not make a face. I think, Better to have no child than one who doesn’t wash, who is so fat, so ugly. The child walks to the desk, where there is a computer. He sits in the chair. Then he turns his head. What do you want me to write, he says. And I am surprised because his voice does not sound stupid. It sounds very soft and careful. He looks at the computer and pushes the buttons. My friend says, Tell him what you want to say. Thank you, I say. Write that I am a smart and friendly woman who works so hard to clean dirty places. Write that I will do anything except be kind to children. And give my phone number. I tell him my phone number.

Give a name, says my friend. Okay, I think a while. Write my name is Sparkle. Because that is like sparkling clean. My real name has a strange sound. People here don’t like it. The child pushes all the buttons. He is smiling a little. Maybe he is not so dumb, but he is so strange. When he is done, he puts his hands on the edge of the desk and holds the desk, then he tries to lift his bum from the chair. He must push on the desk to lift his bum from the chair. Then he does it and moves the chair away and walks back to the couch and sits like an elephant splashing into water. But then he makes a noise. Hand me that please, he says and points to a thing on the floor. I go and pick it up. It is part of his game. He takes it from me and pushes the buttons and the game goes on.

I must go cook dinner, I tell my friend. She is in her kitchen, eating something. I have never been in her kitchen before. It is not so clean. There are cereals on the floor. My friend is pulling the refrigerator door and looking in. She takes a chocolate pudding from inside. Chocolate pudding? She asks me. No, thank you. I don’t like that kind of food, I say. I think I should tell her to clean her kitchen or tell her child to do something better. Take some fresh air or wash himself. But I am quiet. I will see you later, I say. And thank you. She puts her finger in the chocolate pudding and uses her long fingernail like a spoon. Her fingernails are like that person’s fingernails. They are plastic pieces stuck on. I look at my friend’s shoes. They are terrible, like the person’s. They are red plastic shoes, very shiny, and my friend’s foot is squeezing through the sides. I make my voice very soft and friendly. I ask, Why do you wear those shoes? Do you like them? I like them, says my friend. People like looking at them. So do I, she says. You like them? she asks me. Oh yes, I say. They are very good looking. I am lying. It is best to lie sometimes.

I like to lie to my husband. If he says, where did you buy the soap? I say, I bought it in the shop downstairs. But really I bought it down the road. Or why did you throw away my newspapers? I was not done reading them. Oh, I say, I spilled yogurt on them. I am so sorry. And when he says, Why must you sleep this way? I want to see your face sometimes. I say, It is because the bed is hard here. I pat the place on the bed between us. And it hurts my back. He is very pushy sometimes. He will say, I want you to sleep here, closer this way. I don’t believe the bed is hard where you say it is hard. I say, oh, alright, and I move myself closer, filling the space between us. And he can do what he wants then. And I stay in the spot, and he does what he wants. Sometimes it is really terrible. Sometimes I like it very much. And in the morning, I hold the chair with my hands. Oh, my god, I say, it hurts very much. And he says, What has happened? Are you ill? But I say, No, it is my back. It is almost broken from that hard place in the bed. And he is sorry, but he is also so angry that he can’t make me happy. And so I burn the rice, and I burn the special herbs which makes him cough. And I am angry too.

Sometimes I say, life is difficult. And always what happens? I lose my key, or someone pushes me in the road. You must be so careful what you say. Sometimes I am so angry, and I am thinking of the person, and I think I must change my life, I must go someplace different, I must leave all of this, I must fly away. So I must pray now and say how life is easy, oh, what a good life I have, and God help me not to boast too much for happiness. And then I feel good again. I go to pick another chicken. This one looks like a little cat, golden brown. I laugh at her terrible singing, hold her between my knees, and pass the afternoon while I twist her neck very slowly, just a little bit, a little bit more, and so on. I sit by the window. I look down at all the people.

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From the Unsaid Archives: Craft Talk without Craft By Padgett Powell (From Unsaid Six)

Old Notebook Paper


(NOTE: This lecture was originally presented by Powell to the MFA Creative Writing Program of Columbia University in September, 2010.)

I am thinking tonight, as I address this unenviable task, of Flannery O’Connor, because she would advise against it, my addressing this unenviable task. I revere her in a way that she would also advise against, in fact would probably repudiate outright, hard: as something of the godhead, or goddesshead, of letters. I like touching the goddesshead. I do it whenever I can. I’ll touch the godhead too. Once I was so drunk on the grounds of Rowan Oak and a storm hit so violently that I was convinced Wash Jones would come out of the house with the scythe and I would not hear him for the thunder and only at the last minute in a flash of lightning would I see him with the weapon poised to behead me, which I deserved.

I call Flannery’s cousin Louise Florencourt sometimes to touch the goddesshead. Louise is nine months younger than Flannery would be were she alive, and regally correct (she was one of the first three women to attend Harvard Law School, in 1937), and never married, and is Catholic, and is literary executrix of her famous cousin’s estate, and lives right there in Milledgeville in her famous cousin’s mother’s big house on Greene Street so fine that it once served as the temporary governor’s mansion, and Louise still has a mule, Flossie, on the famous farm, a hennie mule that was almost there when Flannery was, or maybe was there, mules live forever and my arithmetic is weak and I have not asked Louise if Flossie and Flannery actually overlapped, so Louise is to my mind the closest thing, genotypically and phenotypically, to Flannery O’Connor, and when I talk to Louise I feel it’s as close as it’s going to get to talking to Flannery, touching the goddesshead.

Sometimes Louise quietly rebukes, and that is thrilling.  Once at her country club at lunch I told her of my recent divorce and she presumed I would be in some kind of rebound peril and she said, “You have to be very careful, Mr. Powell.  Of course I’m too old.” I froze the way I imagine one does when playing cards in a saloon and you are accused of cheating.

I feel I may have gotten a little off-line. Maybe I should say here that I think the craft of fiction has a lot more to do with being off-line than with being on-line, a whole lot more, but in saying that I would be appreciably more off-line than I wish to be at this juncture. I have not even properly detailed yet why this task is unenviable and why in its particulars I am reminded of Flannery O’Connor. I have intimated that these are things I will say, and one of the things fiction must do, I am afraid, is deliver what is intimated will be delivered. Here is Flannery O’Connor, then, if you must have it, on the giving of advice, and why I am calling the giving of advice unenviable:

“I am becoming convinced that anybody who gives anybody else advice ought to spend forty days in the desert both before and after.”

My arithmetic is not so weak that I cannot figure that to be eighty days in the desert. That is too much. I have no experience with the desert but I spent thirty-seven days on the ground in Kenya, as opposed to in the safari car where mzungu is advised to stay, and was so debilitated by what the French doctor attending my survival called an intestinal weerus after we spent three months looking for a parasite that could not be found by every blood test there is, and stool analysis, and finally sonogram, which altogether I estimate would have cost about ten thousand dollars in the states but that ran me $250 in France, so please do not tell me that we do not want a public option or that socialized medicine is evil-–was so debilitated by the weerus that I found Jesus, or He me, walking along a quay on a midwinter day in sunny Bretagne.

Jesus I now know, though Flannery would cane me for this, is the invisible friend that we tell children after age five they may not have. He will pull you through, even through a weerus from Africa. My Jesus wears a Pink Panther suit dirty at the knees.

Where are we? I am braving the eighty days, then, because Ben Marcus has offered me some of Columbia’s money to do so, and I am a good boy who meets his contractual obligations. I was a good boy as a boy and wanted to attend to my intellectual fundament by coming to Columbia but my mother would not fill out the financial disclosure that would have secured the necessary aid and so I did not come, and divorced my mother, and did not, as you can already glean, ever attend to my intellectual fundament. Another good boy who had trouble with his mother but who did manage to come to New York, whether to attend to his intellectual fundament or not, with whom I was familiar as I struggled against mothers and want of intellection, is Tennessee Williams. I flunked out of chemistry school by reading everything Tennessee Williams wrote instead of organic chemistry, and a kind of early mother-in-law gave a party for him in Charleston and did not tell me, and while in Charleston, to premier one of those late failed plays you can learn so much more from than from the earlier well-made plays, just as you can see how and why Hemingway was so good only by reading him after he had lost his mind, Tennessee Williams bought a safari suit out of the window of Dumas & Sons on King Street, and it is said he wore it for the duration of his time in Charleston, which I estimate at two weeks. Tennessee Williams drunk and in his stained khaki suit smelling probably like Kenya and I was not invited! Fortunately that girl got rid of me and that got rid of that kind of early mother-in-law who did not invite me. I once inadvertently saw her freshly showered, and she had powdered what Butters on South Park calls bush with heavy talc so that it looked a ghostly white over black, an unappetizing pastry as it were, and once that daughter who would so prudently later get rid of me caught her taking acid and slapped her. You all have probably heard that Tennessee Williams when he got so suddenly rich and famous in fancy New York hotels mistook chocolate sauce for gravy and poured it on his steak and broke the arms to sofas and so forth. It was behavior of that sort, on top of my having read all the bad formative work and the good work and the later thrilling deteriorating work, while being declared a failure at chemistry school, which would make me then have to be a roofer, which among other transgressions would have that girl biochemist get rid of me, and me her Bermuda Triangle mother, that made me really want to meet Tennessee Williams. I would have had nothing to say of interest to him sitting there in a giant wingchair in his fouled khaki with the ludicrous fond epaulettes. I was then as pretty as a girl so maybe he would have been interested in me had I said nothing at all, but I’d not have had the wit for that.

Here is what I hope with everything I have left in me I would not have said: Mr. Williams, I am a roofer in Texas because I read all your stuff and I am honing my craft. I would not be mortified today had I said: Mr. Williams, I am a roofer in Texas because I read all your stuff. Ms. O’Connor’s Hazel Motes, whom I trust all of you know, or know of, put it this way: “I’ve started my own church. . .  The Church Without Christ.” Nabokov has his famous bitchy roosterism about the worst thing a student can say to him is that he, the student (and he probably meant right here at Columbia), has a lot of ideas; for me, rivaling Nabokov for bitchery and failing in every other measure to even get on scale (for example, my speaking a second language I now concede will depend upon the Language Fairy’s putting one under my pillow), the last thing I want to hear, ever, and a thing for which I will dismiss a petitioner outright who seeks study anywhere near me, is the phrase “hone my craft.” I would rather hear “spank my monkey.” In fact it is reasonably likely that I will admit an applicant avowing that he seeks to spank his monkey if he can manage some slight elegance or surprise or deprecation to indicate that maybe he understands how likely it is that the pursuit of writing is so often naught but a spanking of one’s monkey, and sometimes someone else’s monkey. I have used the masculine pronoun in the construction of this silly conceit not in a spirit of sexism but because I hoped some elegance might redeem the silliness and because women are not commonly thought of in connection with monkey spanking. Be assured that with equal ardor I do not want a woman to tell me she wants to hone her craft.

People, we have started our craft talk, the Craft Talk without Craft. It has been a prodigious introduction and it remains to be seen if a talk can ensue at all. I am weak from fear of the desert.

I am now going to proffer some little things that may combine in your mind to mean something, or not. They may mean something discretely, or not. They may combine better in an order I do not have the wit to determine, but that is okay, since you are having to hear them in the air where they are already subject to the Brownian motion of podium slur and so are already combining in the weird indeterminate order of the misheard and the partially heard. I grasped Brownian motion before flunking out of chemistry school. Had the mother-in-law who powdered herself so prodigiously spilled talc into the toilet, a distinct possibility given the liberality of the dusting of her cruller, you could have seen the talc move on the toilet water in what is called Brownian motion. If there is calculus to describe Brownian motion I mercifully flunked out still innocent of it. That one can even now utter the clause “if there is calculus” is an indicator of supreme naivete because there is calculus to describe everything, which is why, aside from reading Mr. Williams when I was supposed to read Mr. Morrison and Mr. Boyd, I flunked out of chemistry school. I am going on about this now not merely because of my giant reluctance to start the Craft Talk without Craft but also because remaining innocent of things is in my view an important part of writing, which will become clear if I ever start the talk.

Here then are seven utterances by six more or less smart people that taken together form a manifesto for deintellectualizing the approach to craft, or for admitting that it is but spanking the monkey, one’s or someone else’s:

1)  “My best stories come out of nowhere, with no concern for form at all.”  Barry Hannah

2)  “I can take a sentence apart and tell you why I did it; obviously that’s the key to the whole thing, being able to write a sentence, and I’ve got a sense of what my sentences ought to do.”  Pete Dexter

3)  “Learn to play your instruments, then get sexy.”  Debbie Harry

4)  “Some people run to conceits or wisdom but I hold to the hard, brown, nut-like word. I might add that there is enough aesthetic excitement there to satisfy anyone but a damned fool.”    Donald Barthelme (character)

5)  “There is at the back of every artist’s mind something like a pattern or a type of architecture. The original quality in any man of imagination is imagery. It is a thing like the landscape of his dreams; the sort of world he would like to make or in which he would wish to wander; the strange flora and fauna of his own secret planet; the sort of thing he likes to think about. This general atmosphere, and pattern or structure of growth, governs all his creations, however varied.”   G. K. Chesterton

6)  “Anyway, when I told you to write what was easy for you, what I should have said was what was possible for you.”   Flannery O’Connor

7)  “Art is not difficult because it wishes to be difficult but because it wishes to be art.”    Donald Barthelme (himself)

If I may presume to boil down the podium slur and condense these positions: the larger scheme of things will take care of itself if you will be sure to locate the right next hard brown nut-like word. Play your instrument, the sentence, before getting sexy with conceits and wisdom. Your notion of form, if you have one, is safely in the back of your mind, the landscape of your dreams, and it will out as you struggle with what is possible for you to struggle with, the words. Let things become difficult on their own, if they so insist (and they may not), without your deliberate help.

I saw Allen Collins become a world-class sexy rockstar advancing the conceits of a psychedelic band with the wisdom to masquerade as the redneck band Lynyrd Skynyrd. I watched him learn to play his guitar in the eighth grade with an amp so small he could put his foot on it to play better. When he was not suspended he was aimlessly walking the halls of junior high school. He did not want to be a rockstar, he wanted to be a good guitar player. He became that, and then he became the other.

It has taken us a long time to get here, and I confess I am as tired of this as you are. I feel like taking a pill and speeding things up. If any of you has any synthetic narcotics please see me before I enter the desert. I would now like to debunk craft books.

As a child even before I reached the flunking-out-of-science stage, I glanced at some craft books. I even still own some, in particular a thin volume called, pertinently, I presume, The Craft of Fiction, by Percy Lubbock, whose name I love, but whose book alas I have not opened. I do remember actually opening the House of Fiction, by Caroline Gordon, who ran with Allen Tate and Randall Jarrell and Peter Taylor and took counsel from Andrew Lytle and gave it to Flannery O’Connor. In this book were complicated diagrams having to do with point of view, I think; they featured a circle and an arrow. The arrow might come just to the circle, like common sperm, or it might penetrate the circle, like the putatively lucky one, and these relative positions of the arrow had to do with matters of omniscience, and limited omniscience, and so forth-–who could, appropriately, conceive what. A diagram of the benzene ring with its famous resonating bonds was by contrast more intelligible than these pictures, and that is one reason I pursued chemistry as opposed to English in college. Another reason is that I could not write a critical paper on, say, assonance and dissonance in the ballads of Thomas Campion without getting a D because, one professor told another, ending my English majoring the day I learned of it, I did not believe in the paper. Which was true; it was a parody of an English paper, but it was more astute than the non-parodies in the room. I could reproduce the mathematical argument that any given particle can be, at some probable moment, on the backside of the moon without getting a D.  This argument I also had trouble believing but I was not, in the chemistry department, punished for skepticism.

In these books, these craft books, then, you will also find bloviations on terms such as exposition, which means a fair in which goods or wares or scientific and cultural wonders are displayed to the public; round characters and flat characters; back story; rising action, crisis, climax, denouement, detumescence; theme; metaphor; the difference between the ambivalent, a good thing, and the ambiguous, a bad thing; the bastardizing of telling versus the apotheosis of showing, hands down the largest bogosity of them all; and the existence of the necessary inevitable which necessarily cannot be anticipated before its inevitability becomes apparent. I will feel better going into the desert whether I have pills from you or not if you will all give me assurances that you will never, ever, give a thought to any of these ephemera above, except that if you think you can make a flat character I would like to see a whole book of really flat characters in it and I would like you to mail it to me in the desert.  Promise me that you will never say to anyone that you wanted to establish a “close third.” Promise me that you will never use the term, or think that you are covertly rendering, an “unreliable narrator.” Nor may you entertain that there is some kind of subtle difference between a narrator and an author. There is only a huge difference, so the matter of the difference need not be entertained except by obvious and dim people from whom we do not need hear, aside from me.

The nineteen rules, some say twenty-two, governing the art of romantic fiction that Twain laid out in his dismembering of Fenimore Cooper you may use. Of particular value are Use the right word, not its second cousin, followed hard by Eschew surplusage. Twain has, as genius does, anticipated by fifty years and bettered by one word William Strunk’s more common and pedestrian and second-cousinly and surplussey Omit needless words. Forget the hokum that adjectives are second-class citizens.

Man, I like the oxycodone without the aspirin afixed to it. The aspirin is the damage doer. I wish Jimi Hendrix would walk in here and end this. Strunk and White have another famous bogus rule: Place the emphatic words at the end of the sentence. Let us accept for the moment that some words are inherently more emphatic by themselves than others, even if the argument is tenuous. Is cut throat more emphatic or less emphatic than sanguinary demise? Is harbinger more emphatic than hint? Is bastard more emphatic than shiftless character?  Is siren more emphatic than pretty girl, really? But for the hell of it let’s say rock breaks scissors. Now, what Strunk and White mean, of course, is that the words at the end of a sentence are emphatic, the ones that are emphasized, and this is a useful notion. Presumably, then, the words not at the end are not emphasized as much. Now look at this, which I will read in a distracting if not deliberately comic manner to emphasize the relevant words, by which I mean words that are repeated but in positions of differing emphasis:

“Mrs. May’s bedroom window was low and faced on the east and the bull, silvered in the moonlight, stood under it, his head raised as if he listened–-like some patient god come down to woo her–-for a stir inside the room.  The window was dark and the sound of her breathing too light to be carried outside.  Clouds crossing the moon blackened him and in the dark he began to tear at the hedge.  Presently they passed and he appeared again in the same spot, chewing steadily, with a hedge-wreath that he had ripped loose for himself caught in the tips of his horns.  When the moon drifted into retirement again, there was nothing to mark his place but the steady sound of his chewing.  Then abruptly a pink glow filled the window.  Bars of light slid across him as the venetian blind was slit.  He took a step backward and lowered his head as if to show the wreath across his horns.”

That is Miss O’Connor holding to the hard brown nut-like word. She is eschewing the conceit and wisdom that Mrs. May is the most presumptuous woman in Georgia if not in the world and that her presumption will merit this bull’s goring her to death. But she is discovering it, and telling it, and building the necessary inevitable that is not supposed to be apparent. Here are the repeated words, in order: head raised, chewing steadily, horns, steady chewing, lowered head, horns.

Miss O’Connor was paying attention to the word, and she had a sense of what her sentences ought to do: “Bars of light slid across him as the venetian blind was slit” is not “Mrs. May opened the blinds and bars of light slid across the bull.”

She can hardly contain the outrage inspired in her by Mrs. May. She is eager to get going on the portrait that will make us celebrate with her the violent undoing of this kind of person. Mrs. May next dismisses the bull as “Some nigger’s scrub bull,” then this:

“Green rubber curlers sprouted neatly over her forehead and her face beneath them was smooth as concrete with an egg-white paste that drew the wrinkles out while she slept.”

We will watch much happen to Mrs. May as she sleeps, and in fact not until the bull gores her does she wake: “…[S]he had the look of a person whose sight has been suddenly restored but who finds the light unbearable.”

Write like that.  Herewith is concluded the Craft Talk without Craft.  I would assess it so far a failure.  I have attempted in its method, as opposed to its message–that is to say, I have attempted in the preaching itself rather than in the content of the sermon–to instruct all that I am qualified to instruct: that writing is controlled whimsy.  Force whimsy just enough to make sense. How much force does that require? Good question.

There are martial-arts enthusiasts in the room, or at least one. Hello, Lt. Wilson. I myself have endured enough dojo and kwoon, in which, the kwoon, one frequently holds a position called horse long enough to stave off terminal old-man butt well enough that perfectly correct women like Louise Florencourt are compelled to tell you they are too old, and a certain kind of less correct middle-aged woman is compelled to freshen the accusation that one is in the throes of the mid-life crisis, which accusation this certain kind of middle-aged woman apparently takes more pleasure in issuing each time she utters it-–where are we?  Where we are is I am demonstrating not enough force upon the whimsy.

In the kung-fu kwoon it is paramount that in a fight one remain loose; this is arguably the martial-arts equivalent to the NRA safety rule #1 that you Always Point the Gun in a Safe Direction, which, alas, proves the only rule necessary.  In kung fu the big and necessary rule is Remain Loose, and the neophytes and the seekers of the grandfather’s wisdom keep asking, How loose?  And the answer is, Well, grasshopper, not exactly a noodle.  You must place enough force upon your whimsy that it is not exactly a noodle.

Al dente, then, allows accidents of utterance that may have unintentional consequences, happy and unhappy.  I should not have revealed that I have had an intimate-seeming lunch in Milledgeville, but alas I did, as one thing led to another.  I should not have slurred Kenya as I did when I said “Tennessee Williams drunk and in his stained khaki suit smelling probably like Kenya and I was not invited!”  Kenya does not smell bad.  India smells bad-–at least the Cooum River beside the Connemara Hotel in Madras does, and I advise you never to stand on the bridge over it, but to run. I used Kenya only because I had already detailed the rigors of the weerus that came from Kenya, and therefore the joke that Tennessee Williams smelled as bad as Kenya would work without the undue stress of a new and strange entity upon the reader.  Tennessee Williams’ smelling like the Cooum, next to the Connemara Hotel, for example, almost funny now, would not have been funny in the first instance. Or maybe it would have.

All of this is about the power of repetition, which is but emphasizing words to the second power.  All writing is the right word, the right position of the word, and the right position of the word to the second power, its repetition.  All of this is but Making Sense, the big and necessary only rule in writing.  It is the equivalent, clearly, to always pointing the gun in a safe direction and to remaining loose, but not as loose as a noodle.

I feel fine. I have acquitted myself handsomely and neatly, by accident, the only way neatness is palatable. I have failed most in not detailing exactly what Tennessee Williams looked like in the large chair, an overstuffed wingchair in the parlor of a Charleston single house, sitting weirdly aslant, in his dirty safari suit, resembling a tiny mad African king looking around the room for boys, for me, who was not there, as pretty as a girl.  As Mr. Williams himself was to put it, more or less, the future becomes the present, the present becomes the past, and the past is filled with eternal regret.

Goodbye.  You will not see me again, unless you yourselves are compelled to give advice and join me in the desert. Bring the pills.

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From the Unsaid Archives: Untitled (Flannery) By Anne Carson (from Unsaid Four)


Confusion. How much can you take. Love turns to hate. Should you play with it. The night is a mess. Winds toss the window aside. Dark comes in at an angle. Everything tilts. What if matter jumped its tracks. What if rust sang or eyebrows shat. What if a headache became king. Not as an art project, not just weekends, not making us each a better person—but simply chaos ripping the sockets out of your arms. Empedokles thought about this. He thought down to the bottom. At the bottom of water he thought “famine.” This thought upset him and he gave it the name of an obscure Sicilian goddess (Nestis), hoping no one would ask more questions. But it continued to bite. In the foundations of things, he had to admit, in the living sources of increase and growth, he saw desertion, lack, lament. Of course it is true mortals never stop dying but that’s not what he means. Perhaps there was a night his lover turned on him in a bar, spitting with hate, threw a cup of wine at his head and said You damage my soul! That’s not what he’s talking about either. He wants to name a doubleness that inhabits all things and prevents them from ever actually coming into being or going out of being. Birth, death, these terms are inexact, he says,

but they are the convention so I use them myself.
(Empedokles, fragment 9.5)

Death, desertion, damage are not the point. Arising and existence are not the point. What runs at the bottom of everything is simply exchange. All that gathers will also disperse. Gather again. Disperse again. One thing becomes many and many become one. Peace turns to wrath and wrath to peace. Moons wax and wane. Cheese forms.

As when the sap of the fig tree has nailed white milk
and made it hard.
(Empedokles, fragment 33)

Reality is a tireless interchange, a mingling and separating, a forming and deforming, a yes and a no, of all the stuff that exists. And underlying it, driving every process and production through the whirlings of the cosmos, is a twofold motive principle, which he calls the energy of Love and Strife. Love and Strife are not material themselves, but they cause matter to be what it is and change how it changes. Neither Love nor Strife could exist without the other; they zipper back and forth inside everything like a vast necessary vibration.

This is perfectly clear in the burden of human limbs:
Sometimes all limbs that belong to a body
come together in Love, at a high edge of life in bloom,
other times, cut apart by evil Strife,
they wander asunder on the shore of life.
So it is too for bushes and fish in their watery halls
and mountain animals and flying gulls.
(Empedokles, fragment 20)

So when your lover wings a winecup at your head, don’t think You monster, think Necessity. I realize I’m being philosophically unfair. Empedokles is a cosmologist, not aiming to console me for the vagaries of love or its mortal pain. Still I take comfort from the images. A lover may become a monster. I need a way to think about that. Here are some lines from fragment 57 and fragment 61. Empedokles is describing a cosmic event, the moment of creation, when the One becomes Many. And entities begin to flare and float up from the ground into life:

Heads without necks sprouted up,
naked arms were wandering with no shoulders,
eyes strayed about in want of foreheads.

Many were produced with a face on both sides and breasts on both sides,
man-faced bulls and again bullheaded men,
or others mingled from men and female parts,
fitted with dark
sterile [the reading is disputed] bodies.

But I digress. I started to think about confusion because of something in Flannery O’Connor. She gave a talk at Notre Dame University in 1957 and said this:

I doubt if the texture of Southern life is any more grotesque
than that of the rest of the nation, but it does seem evident
that the Southern writer is particularly adept at recognizing
the grotesque; and to recognize the grotesque you have to
have some notion of what is not grotesque….

I was thinking about what is grotesque and what is not grotesque existing side-by-side in stories, side-by-side in a mother and son on the bus, side-by-side in one person’s head, and it seemed to me a smart calm way to view the situation. Empedokles, also a Southern writer, was able to reason calmly about these coexistences. And I regret that I am not. Love and hate coexist; they coexist in time, they coexist in other people, they coexist in me. I accept this but still I panic. It feels insane.

Flannery O’Connor’s characters do not get panicky, suffering love and hate in confusion, this burden of human limbs. They just go ahead with both. Think of Asbury Fox (in “The Enduring Chill”), a neurotic boy so bound to his mother he decides to come home and die in her house “because nothing would irritate her so much.” Or O.E. Parker (in “Parker’s Back”), whose contradictory feelings for Sarah Ruth hit up against one another in his actions. “He made up his mind then and there to have nothing further to do with her,” one paragraph ends and the next paragraph begins, “They were married in the County Ordinary’s office because Sarah Ruth thought churches idolatrous.” Sometimes Parker’s ambivalence fits into once sentence:

Every morning he decided he had had enough and would
not return that night; every night he returned.

And even when he does spend a night away from his wife, paradox persists:
Parker spent the night on a cot at the Haven of Light Christian
Mission. He found these the best places to stay in the city because
they were free and included a meal of sorts. He got the last available
cot and because he was still barefooted, he accepted a pair of second-
hand shoes which, in his confusion, he put on to go to bed….

The grotesque may take many forms. Poor Parker lying in bed with his shoes on seems a milder event than manheaded bulls or naked arms wandering the world apart from shoulders, but in practical terms, once your life has jumped the track, where is the way home? Once hatred blows up the law of love on your dear one’s face, how do you return to conversation? Fictionally. You make something resembling blood. If there were a way home it would be a mystery, Flannery O’Connor might say. No use trying to prattle your way into mystery. But tell what you see, tell what the blood was like, and maybe a gesture will form. Probably unbearable. Certainly unclean. And then you will go ahead with your exile.

Fictionally. Here arises, for Empedokles, the fiction of world itself. For it is important to notice that, in his cosmology, creation happens and a multiplicity of things arise into life as a consequence of Strife. He says that the forces of Love and Strife are immortal and uncreated, whereas matter (which consists of Fire Water Earth Air) is always dying and returning to life. When it dies, Love draws it upward into oneness. But when Strife tears the oneness apart again, then Fire Water Earth Air get separated and from their separation come monsters, animals, fish, bushes, girls, boys, and all the parts of the cosmos created from these. Also swans, of which the male is called a cob and the female a pen, according to Flannery O’Connor. Not a hen? No, a pen, she maintains. She kept swans.

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