Here It Is! Flânerie 1 Revisited

I suppose I could have gone this route, linking the short story excerpts together into a loose narrative…

After sanding every appositive and polishing each comma, you will send it to the finest English-language literary publisher in the world, a man of profound understanding and exquisite tastes who funds the press out of his rear pocket, stuffed with a staggering fortune in steel. He will be the only man capable of seeing your work for what it is on the first pass. While reading your manuscript one long summer afternoon, “Here it is! Here it is!” will be heard coming, at approximately half-hour intervals, from his second story office, the “At last” unnecessary, implied in his exclamations’ very torque.  1

Exalted, the publisher will sprint to his office window. “Here it is!” he will shout to the cars and walkers passing anonymously below. The window won’t open, cannot open, was designed not to, installed per specs drawn up by the REIT’s design people two years after the real estate bubble made high-rises like this one a real steal investment-wise. He scans the urban landscape: not an open window to be seen. Directly across from him, three buildings to the right, a pair of window-washers suspended midair dangle their legs from their slowly descending platform. “Here it is!” they shout. Only the bearded man looks up. He nods gravely, holding the white-on-white taqiyah in place, and walks on.

He enters the mosque compound before going to the rectangular bathroom to perform wudu — ablution, where he robotically drenches and systemically cleanses the face, beard, ears, fingers and palms, wrists and elbows, and toes and ankles. Sandals, initially left outside, are then reworn — and immediately taken off — to enter the main wide mosque doors, where carpet arabesques paint the floor and equal amounts of Arabic calligraphy surreally encapsulate the walls, spiritually caving out a tightly woven meditation.  He goes to the microphone — attached by the loose wires through the outside to the megaphone at the top of the minaret — and starts summoning by call of prayer, in a broken Arabic, monotone of an accent. 2

“Here it is,” he intones in the language of his people. “Here it is, here it is, here it is…”

A woman, graceful of motion as she gathered the empty glasses on a tray, barely noticed the disembodied voice issuing its incomprehensible summons. She glanced toward the man seated in the rattan chair drinking coffee.

The biggest cat she ever saw, white and black, made its way across the deep red tiles of the patio flexing its shoulder muscles and looking up. Esteban pointed to the birdcages it fixed on, out of reach.
“Here’s the question,” he said.
“I’m ready.”
“All those exquisite feathered creatures, an orgy of killing and eating just waiting to happen, and the cat will never catch a single one of them. I make sure of that.”
“So what’s the question?”
“The cat’s existence.”
“Is it Heaven, or Hell, or someplace in between.”
“Purgatory, you mean.”
He shrugged. 3

“The cat is indifferent,” she replied “‘Here it is,’ you might inform the cat: here is hell; there, heaven; between them, purgatory. Or perhaps now is heaven; then, hell; between now and then… The cat will at times make its smooth passage between them, forward and backward in space and in time. Then it will stop, lie down, undertake its ritual ablutions, sleep. ‘Here it is,’ the cat will say without speaking; it goes where I go; it is where I am.”

The man sipped his coffee, no longer concerning himself with the cat, with the eternity, with her. There would have been a time when he would have been studying a musical score, jotting marginalia as the coffee cooled, stepping distractedly through the sliding door to the piano to experiment with harmonics and dynamics. Leaping from the bench, flailing both hands wildly, asking why, dear god, can’t the coffee be hot for once. Now he was working a crossword puzzle.

Once he seized in the middle of a performance and no one knew. Sometimes his seizures were like that, so far deep in the head that it barely located itself in the body. No one knew, of course, except for her, watching from the front row, like she always did. Before, she used to watch for pleasure. Now she anticipated pain. She recognized it in the back of his neck—his head inched down slowly, like he was trying to withdraw into his chest, and his shoulders narrowed. In his hands, the batons continued their movement, but the world between them was smaller now, and the orchestra hastened to keep abreast of this new changing world. The back of his head, so bare and pale, folded over so that all she saw was neck, a headless man swinging his hands whichever way they’d go. 4

“Here it is!” he would shout at the double-reeds, jabbing a baton at the sheaf of papers on the music stand. “Here, goddamn it!” Now he traced his finger along a row of letters. “Here,” he muttered, tapping the eraser lightly on the empty squares. “Or…”

She glanced through the iron patio gate at two young men walking past. They looked in; she smiled. “Hello again Eric, Gabriel.”

Gabriel and Eric walked halfway down the block in silence. Though it was hardly observable, Gabriel noticed that Eric walked a step further from him than he had all day, or the day before.

“Why do you think she asked us?” Eric said, a jagged edge in his voice. “Do you think we look gay to her?” 6

“Here it is,” Gabriel says. He pushes through the revolving door into the menswear boutique, Eric following reluctantly behind. They seem surprised to see me there, my reflection appraising them critically from the three-way mirror. The sales clerk approaches me perkily.

“Are you ready for a new version of you?”
“Yes, honey,” I say. “I’m ready for it. Who is the new me going to be?”
“Oh, it all depends! You have to give me some input! Do you want to be cool, but accessible? Or do you want to be greedy, right under the surface, mixed with an insouciance that’s irresistible?”
“I just want to be normal. Just kidding. I don’t know, I want it all, darling, give me the full package!”
The plastic woman, who has not been deterred in the slightest by my removal of her right arm, is a little overwhelming, to be honest. I think about removing her head but I know this would be rude, and that it wouldn’t shut her up, either. Across the sales floor in other artfully lit alcoves, other customers gab away with their plastic attendants. 7

“Here it is!” my personal fashion advisor announces, a tinge of excitement playing skillfully on her practiced modulation. With a tilt of the head she beckons toward a closed curtain in the changing area.

“Your arm?”

“Excuse me? Oh that.” She waves her left hand dismissively. “No, here it is! The new you!”

References and LInks:

Skip Fox, “Sortilege”

Haitham Alsarraf, “Friday Prayers”

Mark Jacobs, “Old School”

Naira Kuzmich, “Cadenza”

Juan Alvarado Valdivia, “A Pedestrian Question”

Robin Wyatt Dunn, “The Plastic Woman”




Awaiting Moderation

“Between Sleeps,” another of the recently published spate of stories by Salvatore Difalco, can be found here. I was pleased to see that the online litmag in which the story is published includes a comment box at the bottom of each story. No comments had been posted yet on “Between Sleeps” when I read it last Friday. “Be the first to start a conversation,” the site invited me, so I did. I wrote:

As above, so below: one guy’s rooftop is Another Guy’s subterrain, landfill, toilet, sewer, perforated intestine.

“Your comment is awaiting moderation,” the site informed me after I hit the Post button. I checked back later in the day: still awaiting. Next day, still nothing. My comment began to wonder: when does moderation slip into immoderate sloth? Maybe when a new story goes up the publisher/editor will notice the new comment in the queue and put it up? Well, a new story was published this morning, and still my comment hasn’t been approved, still the conversation remains unstarted. I clicked onto each story published over the past month and a half: not a single comment on any of them. Maybe there are dozens of comments, hundreds of them, sitting silently in the waiting room. Maybe there’s a hole in the ceiling and they all got sucked up into the vortex…

Intersecting the Real

Last night I was hanging around at school with a couple of friends waiting for them to finish up what they were working on. “You want to come see where we live?” one of them asked me; I said “sure.” We went downstairs and caught the bus, which took us on a zigzag route through parts of town unfamiliar to me. “Just where is it that you live?” I asked the friend sitting next to me; he verbally traced out an intricate route. I told him that this is just the sort of thing that happens to me in dreams: having reached some destination of no real importance, I try my best to find my way back only to get hopelessly lost. “I must be asleep,” I told him. And I was. I woke up.

In a recent comment to myself about the possibility of collaborating on a collection of short fictions set in intersections, I wrote this:

I write episodically, but the episodes get linked together into larger contexts, into novels, the novels into a suite of novels. So that’s what happens when I start thinking about intersection stories: I wind up extending the roads beyond the crossroads, mapping the whole territory.

And yet my cartographic skills are woeful. Setting out on plausible routes, soon I find myself veering into dreamscapes. I can document the voyage, but the route indicators can’t be mapped as X-Y geographic coordinates.

Fifteen years ago when we put our house in Boulder on the market I wrote a series of sales brochures, a new one every week, putting copies of them in a brochure box mounted next to the For Sale Sign in the front yard. The brochures didn’t focus on square footage and the age of the roof; instead they described the house’s “real properties.” The first one, called “The Veil,” begins:

Imagine a part of the world where houses are indistinguishable one from another. I have been to such places. Every house the same architectural style, the same color. All the houses on a block run together, so it’s not clear where one house ends and the next begins. No street addresses. Encountering the indistinguishable exteriors, an onlooker is tempted to infer that the occupants of these houses likewise are indistinguishable one from another.

This would be a mistake.

Inside, each house explodes in a riot of diversity. Strange food preparation rituals bring forth delicacies unknown in the bazaars. Harem girls sigh behind perfumed silken curtains, while eunuchs play games of chance for stakes meted out in drams, essences, human souls. Someone writes a history of times that never were in a language that has never been spoken. To one entering such a home no personal favor can be denied, for this visitor has been inside and can never forget…

And so when I imagine traversing intersections fictionally, I have to acknowledge that I’m liable to find myself wandering streets that appear on no maps, chronicling not the actual material crossroads but their real properties.

For me that’s what sets fiction apart: its realism.


Book Box

Last night, browsing through a used book store in my dream, I came upon a small cardboard box. I lifted the lid: it contains a stack of loose sheets of paper, maybe 2 by 3.5 inches, each with a small portion of text printed on it. The upper right corner of each sheet is stamped with a different time of day — hour, minute, second — but no date. It’s clear that this is a loose-leaf book, to be read sequentially at the specified time. Evidently reading the book in the prescribed manner has ritualistic import.


A few posts back I wrote a kind of fan fiction inspired by Salvatore Difalco’s short story “Relapse.” If I were still putting up “Flânerie” posts, “Relapse” would have been excerpted under the label “Intersection” in the multifaceted, pluripotent, infinitely extensible fictiCity where all fictions take place. It got me thinking about possible intersection fictions that might transpire here in Durham NC where I live. Such a fiction needn’t be shackled to the actual here-and-now Durham; it could be a there-and-then variant. In exploring this fictional space I came up with a kind of story stub, a situation that could be elaborated into a full-blown story. Here it is:

*  *  *

We got bogged down in the usual southbound traffic, the mall being a bigger draw than ever, maybe because everybody knew its days were numbered. The car eased into the left lane, signal flashing on the console. “Turning left from Fayetteville onto 54,” the car informed me. “Expected arrival at the clinic in one minute – ten minutes early for your appointment.” I made a mental note to bump up my satisfaction rating a notch. “You have time for a coffee if you like.”

“The coffee shop is still open?”

“Yes sir; it’s been relocated to the second story.”

“So that means whatever used to be up there is closed…”

“A realty office.”

That made sense. Plenty of sellers but no buyers, the houses worth less than their mortgages. Underwater. “No, that’s fine, just drop me at the side entrance.”

“The concierge entrance – very good, sir.”

The light changed and we waited for the foot traffic to clear – pack-laden people shuttling between the bus stop and the homeless camp that had sprouted up in the woods behind the gas station. There on the left the clinic loomed. Built on a low-lying area next to Crooked Creek, the massive structure now surmounted its own private island like a medieval castle. Or a cathedral, its moat encircling also the pilgrims’ tent village strewn haphazardly across the roof of the parking garage. Makeshift wooden walkways spanning the now-saturated grounds looked like those old photos of St. Mark’s Square before Venice went under for good. Barricades blocked the road just past the clinic entrance; up ahead the creek, an engineered runoff designed to carry not much more than a trickle, surged left to right across 54, the I-40 overpass barely clearing the flow. Trees blocked the longer view of the salt marsh encroaching on the city, lapping at the front doors of the nursing home and the tire store and the Asian market. A mile or two farther east the office buildings and the condo complexes, the strip malls and restaurants stood half-submerged and abandoned, with kids on jet skis slaloming between stilted derrick rigs hauling sodden scoops of salvage onto barges parallel-parked along route 55.

*  *  *

The roads, the creek, the homeless camp, the clinic and garage: they’re all part of the here-and-now Durham, less than a mile from where I’m sitting. The ocean? At present the coastline is 200 miles east of here. So the story stub takes shape in a kind of an apocalyptic overlay.

I wonder about the possibility of a bunch of intersection stories. Maybe I’d write them all, each of them overlaid on some actual Durham location. Maybe a cadre of Durham writers could be gathered, each writing a story about a different intersection in town and compiling them all into a choral prophesy or farce — call it Dürmopolis, or Dürmscrawl. Maybe it would be a cadre of writers scattered around the world, writing about intersections in the towns where they live, all of those geographically scattered intersections mapped onto the same imaginary fictiCity…

Trolley Problem, Variant 218

[Another Difalco fanfic, this one a riff on his story “Relapse”]

A drunk driver careens through a busy intersection. You, a fiction writer, are standing some distance off, next to a lever. You have two options: (1) Pull the lever to the left, and the runaway car crashes into a second car, killing both drivers. (2) Pull the lever to the right, and the runaway car crashes into a pedestrian: the pedestrian dies, but the driver of the runaway car survives.

The driver of the second car is:
(a) a middle-aged man;
(b) a recovering opioid addict, on the wagon for six months;
(c) a heavy drinker when under stress, though sober as he drives through the intersection;
(d) a drug mule, transporting a sizeable quantity of hashish in his car for delivery to his connection.

The pedestrian is:
(a) a young woman;
(b) a recent immigrant from Guatemala;
(c) the mother of three small children;
(d) accompanied by one of her children as she walks through the intersection — the child will witness her death if she is struck by the careening car.

Which lever will you pull?

Relapsing into DifalcoWorld

In my cahier entry for this morning I was revisiting ways of engaging short fictional texts and their authors:

Evaluating their ficticities seems reasonable, but is it? Highlight textual features that disrupt reality-as-actualized, then email authors.

Can I do it? Would I want to do it? Let’s give it a try. I click onto the Poets and Writers online listing of literary journals, randomly select a letter of the alphabet, pick off the first litmag listed under that letter, click the most recent issue, look at the Fictions listed for that issue, and — what are the odds? — it’s another story by Salvatore Difalco!

Of the 57 stories I excerpted on this site during my Flâneries phase, Salvatore Difalco is the only author to have commented here. Two posts ago I wrote a kind of fan fiction mediated by that Difalco story. The synchronicity of stumbling on another of his stories proved inescapable.

*  *  *

“Relapse,” by Salvatore Difalco

I was already running late, the first sentence reads. Already means you’re ahead of time, and besides that you’re running, putting even more distance between yourself and the now. But then late. Time out of joint. Early on the story is punctuated with time stamps: at noon, ten minutes, just as in just a few minutes ago. There are verbs of movement — running, sped — juxtaposed with verbs of stasis — stood, waiting. And also wanted, twice: the engine of desire stroking between speed and stasis, between running and late.

The narrator is a drug courier, a recovering addict — oxycontin: an opiate, a slow-down substance. Now when he’s stressed, instead of popping pills he guzzles the booze.

…And so on. But it’s not a deep reading or thematic interpretation I’m after here. I’m looking for ways in which this fiction throws a wrench into the actually existing world in which the story unfolds, revealing in the process how the fictional overlays the material in constructing generally accepted realities.

The event: a red-faced driver caroms his BMW off a truck; our narrator accelerates through the intersection quickly enough to avoid getting hit; the BMW, its path unimpeded, slams into a young mother of three, killing her. So, survivor guilt: it could just as easily have been him instead of the woman but for his right foot twitch reflex. At the same time, he could just as easily have been the red-faced drunk behind the wheel of the deathmobile. He revisits the scene of the accident, notices a stain on the pavement. Motor oil? Blood?

A few uneasy days passed. Your problems really begin only when you start thinking about them.

Relapsed, the narrator can’t make himself go through with his next courier assignment. He drives back to the fatal intersection again, gets out of the car for a closer look. That night he can’t sleep, the red-faced drunk driver staring at him. He gets back in his car, goes back to the intersection, parks.

When I saw the coast was clear I kneeled down, lowered my face to the stain and sniffed it. I shut my eyes and sniffed it, hoping to discern or dispel I don’t know what.

The accident happened: it’s in the past, no longer part of the world. The accident may for our narrator portend two alternative futures: stay off the drugs, keep drinking, wind up shit-faced behind the wheel of a death car; pop the pills, quit the drug-running business, enrage the mob boss, wind up as road kill. Neither of those futures is here yet; they may never arrive. But the accident isn’t just past, isn’t just future: it’s here and now, keeps coming back, keeps drawing the witness back to itself, the eternal return of a bivalent portal — you are the Killer, you are the Killed. An irruption into the actual of the timeless Real.

*  *  *

then email author, says my cahier entry. Maybe tomorrow.