Excerpt from The Strangers

THE STRANGERS

Available for purchase at Hyperallergic
and at Small Press Distribution,
and soon at your local independent bookstore and elsewhere.

At night when I can’t sleep and at noon in the streets I don’t know who I am and could be anybody. Is it so uncommon? Glancing—a sideways look, head tilted—at your own peculiarities: the sins the beauty the beauty marks the children the parents the siblings the untold the told sufferings—couldn’t they all be so easily swapped? For any of the faces in the crowd or the phantoms that pass through my bedroom or that lie with me on the bed or any of those spirits somewhere else in the house. I spin around and can’t sleep. I’m a zombie in the street. The noon sun beats down.

Later on. But then what do we do with the facts? They pebble and loom and soil us up (but that’s a prejudice; they’re as clean as paper, as clean as us). They’re stacked around us, very close. Here are mine: I’m sitting in my attic apartment looking out its round window, practicing my routine for tonight. It’s about to rain, in fact it’s beginning to. The radio announces “Terrible terrible times!” and I click it off and put on a record of piano music and, passing to put the old one in a sleeve, look again onto the slickening street. A beautiful-looking woman walks fast. She needs an umbrella. Dark, wet spots on her blouse.

Over my desk is a painting of a ship. It sails through a ruffled blue and small colorful flags snap flat off its masts. My secretary bought it for me because she heard that having a painting of a ship over your bed would give you sweet dreams. It started out over the bed but now it’s over the desk. (Someone said where it was “wasn’t the right spot.”) (In fact, my wife’s the one who said that.) My secretary is kind to me. She is moody, older, has a son my age, is many years with the company. No one will fire her. She works at a snail’s pace. In fact she doesn’t do anything at all. I do everything myself—but don’t mind. It’s not very much work. People always complain but working hard is easy. I can do a day’s work in an hour and the rest of the time chat with my secretary as she pretends to work. She has problems: her aunt is in the hospital; her husband’s best friend is a drunk; the creditors are after her (she says this to me slyly, with a smile). But there are daily things to celebrate she reminds me. Your handsome son! she says to me. I know I know, I say and take a sip of the wretched coffee she can’t help but make poorly every day.

I have all kinds of friends. We smear each other’s bodies in various rooms and are passers-by of each other’s welfare. A society. I have a wife and son—though now they live across town, but that’s not so unusual. At the club where I perform there’s always someone to talk to. They all know me and if not there, there are other clubs and bars and theaters and galleries in which to duck in and out of shadows and also glaring or flattering lights to jump into and out of.

All the faces in the crowd or in the bed or around the table—and my own—are robots. Or animals—what’s the difference. And maybe there was a family or a complete pleasure but now we’re each helplessly marooned. That’s me in a bad moment.

How funny it is to change moods. One morning I’m very energetic and chirping to the girls in the bakery and in the coffee shops, who seem either annoyed or happy to talk—but I can’t really help myself in any case; it’s so natural to talk talk talk when, after sleeping all night, I’m ready to go.

And then the very next morning—was it because of the last whiskey? the first one?—my mind wakes in recoil, doesn’t want the eyes to open. The sore spots—which are everywhere especially behind the eyes—are tender and inflamed.

 

I work at a publishing company. We publish cookbooks and computer how-to manuals and poetry. Every two years we publish a self-help book. My secretary writes it. She doesn’t know she writes it. I just listen and compile all her advice and publish it under the name Mary Cowell. They’re bestsellers. They’re very good. They say things like “Don’t eat meat—or, not too much” and “The secret to life is to try your best” and “Forgive your friends” and “If you’re angry breathe ten deep breaths” and “Say each day something nice to your spouse.”

The cookbooks and computer manuals also sell well.

 

On workdays in the mornings I put on a tie and a shirt. I try to match them and my socks stylishly. And once in a while someone at the office will say in my hearing that I’m a good dresser, but who can believe things like that. Still I try to choose carefully. Today’s a Sunday though—and now it’s raining.

I think about my routine a little, two or three things I want to include, then try to stop thinking about them—a method.

I wish I wish I wish.

 

Let me re-introduce myself. Before—it wasn’t a lie but it was something to regret nonetheless. My name is Oon. I work at a publishing company and alternately spoil and take advantage of my elderly secretary. She returns the favor. Nights I do a stand-up routine at a club. A routine where I talk standing up.

I’m recently separated. Recent enough that at night I want to bound the chasm: tears remorse etcetera—but instead have been, am, sitting very still, like a bunny trying not to get devoured. Everyday problems, which hurt.

Mary Cowell’s chapter titles are always questions. Are you alive? Is it so important? What did my Nana mean when she said, “You’re borrowing trouble”? Are you sure you want to win?

I’m well-dressed but ugly. Warty, tubby, balding. A nose and eye-separation ill proportioned. Objectively ugly but nowadays I don’t mind at all. In fact in combination with my dapper dressing I’ve evolved, in middle age, into the type people recall as striking.

So, then, from where this well of unwellness? That gets therapized and meditated and dieted as due my self-hating class?

I don’t know, an indulgence, I haven’t not thought many a time. Yet—it makes rotating through the days a heavy wheel. Grunt work. Who’s asking for sympathy? Not me. It’s not allowed. So I can only say I’m hoping to identify similar others so as to induce a later crisis: whether to then embrace or—take off.

 

One more time I think I’ll get it right. If not it can’t be said I didn’t try. However, not much can’t be said. My name’s Oon. I’m in my apartment in the middle of a heavy summer storm. Big fat drops, sheets of rain. I open the window (not the round one which doesn’t open but the one in the back) and let the cool breeze in and watch the rain lasers explode on the sill.   The floor is getting wet but nothing bad will happen.

I work at a company. I love my secretary who is old enough to be my mother because she is old enough to be my mother. Other details like before but packaged in smooth round globes or sharp-edged crystal cubes.

I am recently separated from my wife. Together we have a young son.

I’m due at the club in a few hours and so should think about what to wear.

I go stand by the closet and recall how we met.

 

One night about fifteen years ago I was doing my stand-up act. I was talking standing up. I was talking about women. I made some generalizations about them. I said, “Women’s musculature makes them inferior badminton players.” My punch-line was traditional: “shuttlecock.” Or I might have said, “Women live on average ten years longer than men.” Pause. “In developed nations.” Or maybe I said, “The owl is to the cat as the angel is to the woman.”

Someone stood up in the audience. I could only see her outline from the light-drenched stage. “That’s it,” she said. “That’s enough. I, I, I can’t take this. Anymore. That’s right. You don’t know what you’re talking about. The notion of reality you depict is worse than shoddy—it’s mistaken.”

A heckler.

I was a professional (or at least a hard-working amateur). I’d known hecklers. Sometimes, as practice and as philosophical exercise, I would even heckle. I’d go to friends’ and strangers’ shows and fire a volley. My aim was true but mostly I’d get the overwhelming response. The heckler is after all at the disadvantage, always on lower ground.

So in this case I wasn’t sure if she was a heckler of the practicing or actually enraged variety. In either case I was compassionate. To deny or defy speech is an honorable occupation. But my role is prescribed nonetheless. I’ve to crush.

“Where are you from?” I asked the heckler.

“Farther than you,” she said, defiant. And added, “And from deeper down too.”

“Ha—a nationalist! What a wimp!” The crowd chuckled, already behind me.

“You and what army.” Her deadpan was dangerously plump, ripe. I felt the audience, so recently on my side, teetering. My pits dampened.

“How about the squad behind you?” I gambled but was startled when she then rushed the stage. When she was almost upon me I reflexively defended myself (so I thought) by bonking her on the head with the microphone.

“Brute!” she cried and swiveled and grabbed my beard with one hand and my nuts with the other. “I’ve your tokens of manhood now!”

I ran my tongue quickly around the channel of her outer ear. That got her riled and I saw suddenly that I was in over my head. I made a quick decision, feinted left, then right, then jumped off the stage and banged out the nightclub door and into my car, shoved it into gear and squealed off.

Unluckily she too was well-parked.

We raced down the main drag and then onto the highway. My phone rang and I picked up. It was her! (My rear window had a sign: “Make offer.”)

“Hey shit-for-brains,” she started, “you’re nothing but a skewed journalist. You know.” She waited for effect. “Garbage in, garbage out.”

That stung. There was no audience now, which elevated it. What we were engaged in was a matter of honor. “Oh yeah?” I said.

“Yeah,” she said.

I fiddled with the radio for five minutes.

Then I said, “Your mom and dad were virgins.”

That must have done it. She sped up to come alongside me and slammed her car into mine, sandwiching me against the railing. We spun out. Her car, a svelte compact, rolled over twice. Mine, a late model sob, popped over a cement divider and fell like a whale diving, upside-down with a glassy crunch. Both vehicles settled in spark and smoke on one of the manicured lawns within a highway cloverleaf. We realized simultaneously that we’d reverted to hack TV moves and, mostly out of shame, jumped out of our respective cars for the final round. I remember having the thought, “If I’m going to go down I’m doing so on my own terms.”

“Your environmental concerns are pure self aggrandizing!” she spit out.

“Cynicism which betrays arrested development,” I squawked back.

“You’re a cat lady with too many shoes!”

“Dipskull!”

“Numbshit!”

We stopped a foot apart, tense. She threw me down and we immediately began to make love very slowly and gently and anally.
It was pretty much at first sight.

 

Sometimes, during one of my frequent bouts of insomnia, I daydream, I pretend, that I’ve a twin. Which is strange, almost hilarious, because I do have a twin, my sister. But I daydream I pretend of a different twin, an identical twin, another me living a not-so-dissimilar existence but twenty blocks away, but for whom life has destined a path never to cross with mine.

I’m in front of my closet, still choosing for tonight. There is the T-shirt with the cute-but-fierce bird, there is the rather sophisticated striped one, and there’s a melon-colored collared shirt with dark lavender stitching. Sometimes it’s effortless. Sometimes it takes a long time of testing. Part of it is being dazzled by the risk of failure.

Why did I make up that story of how we met?

As if I was at the club doing a routine. It’s something when we tell stories to ourselves. And the real story of how I met my wife is actually very interesting. I turned around and she was there and I was drawn to her. We started talking and, while listening to her very intently, simultaneously I wasn’t listening at all but measuring how my heartbeat was louder and my lungs seemed to have sunk into my stomach and how my penis was tingling as if about to leak. The body bypasses the brain and signals to itself with wild misfiring and its locomotives leap off the rails and with cogs seizing up. On the other hand maybe I was being poetic because it was like a movie car chase ending in a metal-twisting crash and with momentarily elaborate fucking.

It’s terrifying that kind of love but I don’t worship it. No longer anyway. Only the talented get that visitation often—and even then each time a fading. Maybe I’m generalizing more than I should, but I’ve a feeling I’m right. Anyway, now I’m more infatuated with the achievements, both potential ones and past ones, hanging in my wardrobe. (But even so I solemnly suspect this excess interest in fashion is only a distraction. Who cares though. Or, who has a choice?)

How did I become so airy today? Let’s eat something so we don’t think ourselves priests. You never think of priests eating baloney sandwiches smothered with mayonnaise, do you?

A sweet pickle finger-dug out of the jar to perfect the argument.

Crunch crunch.

 

The Strangers is available for purchase at Hyperallergic
and at Small Press Distribution,
and soon at your local independent bookstore and elsewhere.

 

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