Stories • Short Fiction

Excerpt from Lunch With Roger (Toronto: Les Trois O, 1992):

I will tell you about the snow, that the street had been filled with a gray light and now it was snowing, snow diffused the clean lines of the pine trees as I walked to meet him across the park. No children, no animals, a plane overhead, my imagination of his face staring into mine in expectation, “Is there something I can do for you?” and of my tongue searching for words. Do I say to him, “Only for friendship?” Do I say I have no business to conduct, I have invited him to lunch only because it seems appropriate that we should get to know one another, I am not–like, perhaps, many others–trying to get anything from him? He is taken to lunch every day, he is ready for people who want to get something from him. The snow is blowing. I will dream something interesting to say; above all, as he will have no sue for me, be interesting. I will talk about his last film, rhapsodize, for his delectation, upon his genius. Silvreberg who introduced us–I will talk about Silverberg. The restaurant is almost empty. The table in the corner? I am very hungry and I am not hungry. Two men are sharing an antipasto, one has a black turtleneck and curly hair and the other, with more hair, could be a hyena. They are laughing about pickles and marinades. “Is this a pickle? Is this a marinade? So what’s the difference between a pickle and a marinade?” I don’t have a watch, where is he? The men don’t have watches, the waitress doesn’t have a watch, I don’t know what time it is, the snow is lightening. I’m looking out the window for him to show up in a coat with a hood.

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Excerpt from A Shore Pavane (Toronto: Les Trois O, 1992):

I followed her first on a Sunday. Fixedly, she walked on a path that went in a wind through the low dunes. It was shallow with snow. She went to gather the heaping yellow dune grass into her small basket. Her hair, I thought at once, was unnatural, molasses dark, but then the sun came out from behind a cloud and her hair was glorious, a torch. She went down onto the beach and took off her shoes, moved off without halts on the big pebbles until she was just as tiny as my thumb. The Sound waters, unto Gardiner’s Island, were a thick, dark blue and the wind off the Sound waters tore her hair back as she came near again. She put her shoes on as though shoeing were unnatural to her. She came past the spot I had in the oak thicket tough with brown leaves, and the sunlight made her hair run like corn, and I did not stir, saying to myself, curiously, “Not yet,” and I did not abandon the watch upon her footsteps. I thought I would stop her at the road and say, “Good morning, Miss”: but I was still in my thicket and she went out of sight. I wondered if she would have said, “Good morning, Sir,” or simply “Good morning.” A third time I reflected on the marvelous color of her hair, by a depression shuddering with bleached bulrushes, at the side of the sloping road. I was very late for church.

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Excerpt from Fazzoli (Toronto: Les Trois O, 1993):

The coat the tall young man was searing was black and there was no cat hair on it the tall young woman could see (he had a black cat, and with the cat in mind he had purchased the coat) and as soon as he was inside her door he laid it over a chair with a grace and a simplicity that touched her. “I’ve made up a plate of hors d’oeuvres,” she began haltingly. “I don’t think they turned out. Can I pour you some Scotch? Or, why don’t you pour yourself some Scotch, I’ll go bring out the hors d’oeuvres, or whatever we should call them,” and she disappeared. A piece he thought he should have been able to identify was on the radio, a piano concerto of some kind, but it ended before he could guess and the announcer said it was a symphony, by a Russian composer, but at the moment when the first syllable of the first name was uttered, “Dim–,” static cut off his voice and Tristan, suddenly noticing how dirty his fingernails were, looked around for some peanuts so that he would have something to do with his fingers. She was nearby, using a knife on a wooden block without rhythm; she called out, alto: “Piece of celery, Tristan?” He gave a smile to himself at the sound of that archaic name in the melody of her voice, he thought how pleasant it was to have an archaic name like Tristan, how odd and out of time it made him seem to be; yet how appropriate it was, almost a fulsome djellaba for covering his lanky body that was always feeling only new and raw. And he changed his mind, “I’d love some celery,” then placed his lanky frame down in a chair too soft, too low. “Yes, I’d love some celery, Silva.” Lovely, flowerful name, Silva. He reflected that he had no hunger at all but wasn’t it charming–her going to this labour, a formal dinner, and he wouldn’t let himself eat much, he didn’t really deserve to eat given the freshness of their familiarity, but something about the harsh beats of her bringing the knife down through the celery on the board suggested another thought to him, illogical, “Silva and Tristan,” so that he felt himself going red as a plum in the cheeks and withdrawing his breath. His hands fluttered nervously. His hands fluttered on his knees, he stood up and poured himself a tall Scotch, he threw half of it to the back of his mouth and gargled until it burned his throat, he could see that she would come walking in with the hors d’oeuvres and the celery and catch him spying on his small amber reflection in teh glass half-full.

*

Excerpt from The Ninth Life (Toronto: Les Trois O, 1993 [originally published Fall 1983 in The Paris Review 89]):

For what our friend Madame de Rocattefours, herself gaining all simplicities with age, calculated to be almost a month, the cat had been languishing; as the days flooded with spring and nervously passed it took pleasure in sitting to watch the light stream through the bank of laced windows, its nostrils flaring and acquiescing. All of the cat’s ribs were visible by now, and they quivered when it heaved to take in air like the run strings of a warped harp. The cat paid no attention to people now. The parlour maid took care to sweep around it when it did not move. The maid swept carefully beneath the sofa in the living room, where the cat crawled in the late afternoons. All through the prolongation of sunset the cat would be crawling in the direction of the sofa, breathing almost with despair. The scullery maid discovered that the cat could be urged to nibble on tiny morsels of very well-cooked egg yolk. When Mme. de Rocattefours was informed of this, she immediately took heart and made conversation of the cat’s eagerness to everyone who visited for coffee. From Mme. de Rocattefours herself the cat was inspired to take several drops of fresh cream. At dinnertime, the cat could be seen stepping purposefully toward the bathroom and pausing frequently to set its breath again.

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Excerpt from Boy with Figs (Toronto: Les Trois O, 1993):

An absolutely perfect sentence, an almost Mozartean form, was what he lusted for, unconcerned with what he could manage specifically to tell if he could beautifully tell it. “Einstein, then, Wickham,” Ronald, who was taller and who walked with his head proudly up, suggested, “Your mother should really have called you Einstein; because I’ve never seen anybody take such pleasure to think. Or grow so pale.” Then they crossed into slim Jones Street and took note of the four pink skinned rabbits suspended in the butcher’s window and an old sallow lady (with chin hairs sprouting) walking a sad Bouvier de Flandres with her lip turned down. “Einstein is what I would have called you if I had been your mother.” Ronald, a person who was in the process of writing something about Forster, put his arm around Wickham and Wickham felt suddenly that he was going to cry. But he glanced at an ailanthus growing through the sidewalk. At New Year’s, Wickham had told stories loudly (because without form) until the clock struck. When the champagne was opened he felt an evanescent sort of knell in his gut, swift punishment. He had vowed to spend the year listening, and now it was February. “This bookshop,” said Ronald firmly (Ronald was a person to listen to), “will certainly have something for you. A Forster. Forster is something you must begin properly and the only proper place to begin him is A Room With a View. Radburn introduced me. It’s delicious, you’ll be stimulated to a roundness. I know they’ll have it. Come, you must let me buy it for you. Lucy Honeychurch and Charlotte Bartlett at The Bertolini. ‘Nothing worse than a muddle in all the world.’ Oh, it’s very delicious indeed!” “Who,” said Wickham, “is Radburn?” But the bookshop was out of Forster, wasn’t it, temporarily. The shelf where Forster had languished was bare.

*

Excerpt from Higher (Toronto: Les Trois O, 1993):

Juniper sat warmly inside and thought about knitting more swiftly while the rain came tumbling coldly on the fields. Gray as far as the eye could see, an splotches, where the trout stream ran, of mauve and cardamom white. Horrid, vitriolic November. “Not,” she reproved herself, “mittens,” because he liked to work with bare hands, he liked to move (to the metres of Bach) his fingertips across surfaces. “Nor a sweater,” because in two years he might have become bigger inappreciably, less a pudu, more a bear; “but perhaps a scarf,” something with Harlequin diamonds, something with color that was masculine and blue. Suddenly she laughed at herself, she became hot-faced, because might he not also have become smaller, in two years and eleven tdays, less a pudu, more a retriever, because it had been known to happen, had it not; it was a matter, was it not, of the feeling of memory and the memory of feeling? But this question was nothing if not a barricade. She called up her father. “Can people shrink in, say, two years?” “Shrink how?” Doc bellowed: when he was using his eyes–a cowbord on a pine branch was trying to peck millet from its own tail–he needed augmentation for his ears. “Intellectually? Morally? Aesthetically?” “Actually,” she said. “In physical fact.” “Fact? What’s fact? Old people? Young people? Caucasian people? Negroid people? People under extremes of climate? People undertremendous psychological pressure?” She said goodbye, the cat was trapped in a cupboard.

*

Excerpt from Brownian Motion (Toronto: Les Trois O, 1994):

When Trudy Kay got off the phone selling other people’s houses she had to face her own. It was a sprawling cubical place on stilts upon a rise of ground, surrounded by a rain forest of scrub oak and creepers. The ocean smell was more than faint in the air. The place had become, all of it, a greatly faded thing, winds from the distant dunes having done their work upon the pine boards and shingles until they were uniform and soft, pallid and gray. There was a nurse (not in whites, who had taken buses all the way from Cochabamba) to wheel the renowned neuropsychiatrist-poet D. D. Kay in a gleaming chair from room to room while he’d whisper, with the halting stammer a pair of strokes had left him, “Es-es-esmer . . . al-alda, g-g-g-gracias. G-g-gracias, my sp-spring fl-flower.” It was nothing but adoration his wife felt for him and consequently his condition mortified her. Tenderly she would kiss his broad, warm forehead, but quickly turn her face to the wall when he talked to her, to avoid the punishing green glimmer of his lively eyes. The seventeen books he had published–nearly half of them poetry–were on a shelf of their own in the library; and in the afternoon on Saturdays she took special care to dust them with a feather bouquet while Esmeralda was singing, above the opera on the radio,

Pollerita, pollerita
De mis amores
Pollerita, pollerita
De mis pasiones,
Qué bien que bailas
Qué bien que cantas
Con mi charranguito

in happy cadences bought from childhood.

*

Excerpt from The Blue Whale (Toronto: Les Trois O, 1994):

It became convenient to take lunch underneath a blue whale, so they stepped away from the studios parade–of nannies with strollers folded, of grandmothers with printed balloons–and made a party of sitting for hours with cappuccini, gianduiotti they had brought along from the Citicorp Center, and sandwiches of pâté and Brie on rather stale croissants. The blue light seethed around them. Only some museums have rooms as voluminous as this room was, and no other museum possesses a blue whale. Around the perimeter, on each of two expansive levels, windows open to the fictive seas, and these contain sharks in choreography, great squalid tortoises, squid, anemones, spangled tarpin, dolphin leaping in desperation out of turquoise waves, enterprising cowfish. (The female of the cowfish becomes a male when there are none to serve her.) Children help to regard the plastic elaborate postures. Children cry for their mothers. The blue whale, suspended from girders that fly across the ceiling, is arched in a torsion and palpably unliving, a frozen spasm of latex knowledge: for its great reflecting eyes are deep with understanding and with formula. In the blue darkness of the room the eyes betray an even darker, a bluer, darkness. The whale knew that they were beneath, certainly, and spoke to the boy. “I have drawn you to me, you are not here of your own accord.” And, “You are not mistaken,” it said. “Great distance you have come, owing to my charm.” The boy was twenty. While his mother took her spoon through the foam in her cup and dreamed, perhaps of a holiday in Biarritz (where once she had spent two days with a charming lepidopterist), he conversed silently with the greatest beast that has ever been. “Hold!” he commanded it. “Art thou my master, whale? Hast thou the measure of me?” It is convenient to use old language for speaking to the greatest of whales, especially in imaginary conversations. Except beneath the whale, the cavernous room was lit blue, the blue of night cafés, and underneath the whale there was great shadow. “Are thou master of me, Leviathan? I hope to greet thee one day. Will I ever see a whale as magnificent?” The boy was looking up as in prayer. He would have been happy in this position–and in this adoring posture–to be petrified. “Dear Greyson,” interrupted the mother, “If you’ve finished I would like to move. I am afraid that at any minute this thing will fall on our heads.”

*

Excerpt from Scales of Cucumber (Toronto: Les Trois O, 1994):

‘Twas the night before the night before the night before Christmas and no creature, not even a mouse, was stirring through the house that was filled with the smell of smoked grouse while upstairs in the bathroom to the sounds of Josef Strauss Eddie was preparing a basin of tepid water to douse Edie, his spouse. She had little slippers she had stolen from a hospital, made of paper, white ones, and these she placed upon the toilet. The cats were flatulent, and it was odd, because they had devoured nothing but tepid beef, and it was Edie’s belief, as shod in just high stockings she came in to procure spatulas–for a curious game of charades–that the cats were whispering exactly at one another’s whiskers, “Ssstupid! Ssstupid facades!” And so. Barnaby my inanimate pearwood sculptured bear sat back with alacrity, grinned–no?–and Edie opened tinner mousse d’abricot and picled pike (I so like) that had come a long, long, very long way: from, indeed, Fortnum & Mason (who’d had it from a farmer’s tike cown in Carstairs-on-Tay, who’d soaked it in a basin). “Like a tapestry, my thoughts,” said she, “A medieval tapestry,” and the cats hissed, “Sweeee,” and she told me about the warp and the woof of her perspective and then made a good cup of camomile tea and poured it into Spode and sipped it upon her jade green commode and took a time-release capsule as well for, she told herself (I could hear), “Why not, I believe I fell. Or, I will be in pain eventually. Or, I might well have fallen, so many have fallen. This is my cheery corrective. I hereby abjure invective.” But she was never in pain that I remember, or, not in December, and I told her one day later, without disdain, “It doesn’t seem to me you’re ever in pain, that is the way it seems to me,” and afterwards Edie didn’t seem free to talk anymore, not at all, not a morpheme.

*

Excerpt from Studio City (Toronto: Les Trois O, 1994):

“White steps and black;
To heaven and back,”

he sang to himself every time he sat to play, but it didn’t help now any more than ever. White keys and black–exquisite simplification, like a buoy; clinging to which, for dear life, he could pass his eyes left and right oveer the awesome channel, all the way left to the lowest A, which was terra firma, and all the way right to the highest C, which was stars. But in his heart he knew that the black keys–all the black keys–were rocks. Jagged, portending, enemies. Certainly, for a concert pianist, this was an enigma and, though he had finely learned to compensate, had been trying for a lifetime to “figure out” an answer–the avid pianist will do this–it dominated, while he played, his life. Fear had begun when he was 6. Certainly then the piano had seemed like an animal with teeth, and some of the teeth rotten. The keys had seemed to spread left and right to infinity, devoured the horizon, and the blacks had been openings to a void. When he turned 18 the instrument became watery and he enslaved himself in the desire to sail. There was pain enough in scales, but if scales were mere reefs arpeggios were reefs in wind. Arpeggios gave him tremors. This was no failure of imagination, no sudden depletion of capacity. Goyescas had always been an artist of “summary capacity”–Gramophone said so. The words were reprinted on his albums and CDs–of Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Poulenc, Beethoven. The New York Times said “Golden gifts.” He had been performing for almost fifty years, telling his interviewers performance was muscle more than mind. He knew, however, tht mind was hiding beneath it. Mind, genteel and vulnerable, had merely excreted a shell. And mind is something one knows, in age. He recognized, now openly, that there yet lingered inside, a daemon of the black keys, waiting for only him. One day it would spring. There was a daemon asleep and during a sonata, in the finale of a concerto, it would be tripped. He found the black keys beautiful, African. When he stroked them he felt rhythm and lassitude in his fingers, but when he stroked the white keys there was a kind of planar geometry that in the end produced order. White keys were for making statements, but statements were not important in the very long run, not compared to pulsations and torpors. His fear, as he matured, came to a sharpness: one day in front of an audience he would fall into a vortex that would open from a black key. He would fall and he would disappear. Now Támas Goyescas was sixty-seven years old and no ritual, no device of consciousness would lift the weight of this presentiment from his back.

*

Excerpt from The Odalisque and The Birth Day Tree (Toronto: Les Trois O, 1995):

Stale, Rodolfo Saint-Crain Culotte–not a fan of Nat King Cole, not a sturdy farmer, not a glass blower with that fluent skill, never having set foot in Berlin–opened a worn leather case and put his papers in. Drops of rain hung heavily on the screen of the window; one drop of rain ran down. He saw then that the window sash cord was cut loose, stuck to the sash with a crust of paint that had been white; he went out but the radio was running. At the station a swarthy man with a leaf, crispy, perched in the band of his hat looked at him perfunctorily (as if to be thinking, but not condescending to say, “And so, one more like that!”). He, in a halt of indignation, only narrowly restrained himself from plucking away the man’s leaf altogether (with a sincere arrogance), coughing out, “We must have had our hat collecting things, sir,” the thing being crumbled to a brown dust and the dust disappearing beneath the emphasis of his respiration. Luckily, the train was exactly on time.

*

Excerpt from En Suisse (Toronto: Les Trois O, 1995):

From Evian-les-bains to Meillerie she said absolutely nothing, but drove with a gaze locked rigidly on the curvy road and a complexion as pallid as soap while he squinted past her at the colorless lake. “Listen, I want us to be as clear as possible about this,” he said, “It is your idea, and it has always been your idea, that we should go to Switzerland.” There were handsome twisted pines on the lake side and these flashed by leaving traces of Vevey winking in the distance, silver, remote. On his side was the Pic de Memise, not exactly towering, nor merely hilly, and there was snow upon the tops, and pines shrank darkly all the way up the sides, and there were cottages made of logs with smoke trailing up perfectly, and there were very few other cars on the road. With one hand she opened some gum and popped it into her mouth. She didn’t say a word. “I was happy to stay in Lyon,” he said. She thought she saw deer in the trees on the lake side but then she told herself you wouldn’t see deer in the trees beside this lake. “I would have been happy to stay in some place like Annecy and ski. I don’t like borders.” She looked at him quickly and said nothing. They stopped in the hamlet of Bret and took some soup, which was very good, and he went to the bathroom. The border was in Saint Gingolph, down the road maybe 3 km. “Let me at least pay for lunch,” he said but she paid, and she looked at her self in a mirror framed with pine and antlers and she took a brochure about Montreux, though she had no intention of driving there. “Roca,” he said, as they drove again, “had no business telling you we were sleeping together. I don’t see how she thought it would concern you. But it’s my business, surely. I don’t see how you can be working yourself up about it, and I don’t see what you were doing talking to her about it in the first place. Anyway, it’s over now.” She looked at him with her lips turned up a little. “You are fully aware it’s over and so there is nothing to discuss.” She said nothing but allowed a smile to cross her face, and it was not a smile of amicability. They had come to the middle of Saint Gingolph. “Where’s the fucking border?” he said. She parked and he went into a market to buy chocolate bars for the mountains and offered a twenty-franc note. “Ça va pas,” said the young girl, smiling with gentility. “C’est pas correct, Monsieur. Maintenant vous êtes en Suisse.”

*

Excerpt from Malingering (Toronto: Les Trois O, 1995 [originally published in September 1974 in Chelsea 33]):

She is curious to know if women frighten me and we talk about it in a tipsy humoresque while outside the window they step up and down a manhole to fix the telephone lines. We fiddle while we talk, I with a coffee cup (the coffee is lukewarm), she with the cork of yet another bottle of Macon (the shadowy green taper). Mutely she goes to the oven to check on fourteen asparagus sandwiches; half stalks of young asparagus have been rolled in brown bread spread with mayonnaise. She comes back. She frames a smile with her mouth. Names like Charlebois, St. Marin, Cleims, Virkusne, Dchneppi, Pauline, all of that sticky crowd, come to my mind and I say them aloud. She nods. I hold the coffee in my mouth. She excuses herself and goes out. I light a cigarette and smoke down a quarter inch of it so that when she has brought in the wine and the toasted sandwiches on a blue plate (arranged on the plate like spokes) there is still a new line of sour smoke drifting up in my corner. “And, are you out to conquer my daughter?” she says.

*

Excerpt from MacDonald’s Farm (Toronto: Les Trois O, 1995):

Old MacDonald had a farm. He sold it, before she’d ever dreamt of a divorce, to Juniper Savage, who wanted to let the cornfields go and fill the place with animals. She had a thing about animals, furry animals, oinking animals, baby animals, animals everywhere. Especially baby animals. It could have been said that, young she had learned to desire them; that like a Utopian she desired them always young; and that she didn’t desire them so much when their bloom had left. But if possessing a farm had been a fantasy it had never been a plan. The plan had been Harley’s–born from memorizing a great many Democratic brochures that taught:

1. Evacuate cities.
2. Farm your future.
3. Solar heat is healthy heat; electricity is sick.
4. No nukes is good nukes.
5. Mulch your waste.

Harley was single-minded if nothing else and his plan was a single-minded plan, which lived in certain questions:

1. Isn’t there a whole humungous pile of money you’re gonna get when your grandfather kicks the bucket? Like, aren’t you gonna be gross rich?

2. Isn’t it all Military-Industrial money anyway–which should be used to promote un-pollution?

3. Haven’t you always wanted cows n’ ducks n’ pigs n’ chickens n’ ponies and don’t you want to get what you’ve always wanted?

4. Don’t you want babies? Don’t you want a pony-cart so the babies can be driven around by the ponies?

If the pony-cart had been her passion–painted yellow with sky blue trim–it had never been her accomplishment. Harley had procured it; as he had found the perfect farm; and put up a brand new farmhouse, solar-heated if improperly insulated, with his own virgin hands and no mortgage because bankers were the devil’s secretaries; and acquired a jeep and three trucks on the bumpers of which to paste gleaming stickes, NO NUKES = GOOD NUKES; and taken over that old unused horse barn to fill with goats. 32 goats, every one a potential milker. And that was only the beginning.

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