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.

Fictional Correspondence

Skip Fox’s “Sortilege” was the first short fiction I  excerpted in the Flânerie series. I found it, as I found the others, through a sortilege procedure of my own, so it’s understandable that I would have regarded the story as a talisman endorsing my undertaking. Not only that, but the substance of the story jibed perfectly with the motivation for my project. The day I read “Sortilege” — January 21, the winter solstice, a portentious date if ever there was one —  I tracked down the author’s email address to notify him of my intent. I also sent him an excerpt from something I’d  written that complemented his text. (Four years ago I posted an earlier, somewhat extended version of it on my old blog as “Untitled Revenge Fantasy Fragment.”)

Later that day I received a reply: Skip Fox liked my piece, granting me carte blanche to use his story however I liked. A lively extended correspondence has ensued.

Though the sample size is admittedly small, I’ve found that fiction writers do tend to respond to emails asking them about or commenting on their work. Problem is, it’s not always easy to track down their email addresses. I was able to correspond with Skip Fox, and a dozen years earlier with Robert Coover and DF Wallace, because they held positions at academic institutions that publish all faculty email addresses on their websites.



Dementia Questionnaire

[An engagement with Salvatore Difalco’s “The Teeth” (a short fiction previously excerpted in Flânerie 2), written on the fourth anniversary, give or take a day, of my father’s passing.]

Please answer Yes or No to the following questions. Remember, there are no right or wrong answers.

1.  Does the man whose two front teeth were extracted overnight have any reason to suspect the demented man living upstairs of having been the perpetrator?

2.  If the demented man is in fact responsible for committing this indecency on his downstairs neighbor, would he remember having done so?

3.  In performing the operation would he have used his pocket comb, an instrument that as the dementia extends its reach has proven more pluripotent than a Swiss Army knife, functioning equally well as a car key and as a telephone for conversing with his long-dead mother?

4.  During prep did the comb-wielding surgeon administer one of those newfangled anesthetics in which the patient remains conscious throughout the procedure but loses all memory of its having been performed?

5.  Has our ambulatory surgeon become a vector of forgetfulness, on his rounds through the boardinghouse infecting/blessing all of the residents with his malady/gift?

6.  Has the surgeon healed himself, having extracted his own teeth but in his deluded postoperative state confusing himself with his downstairs neighbor?

7.  Is the rooming house the surgeon’s memory palace, a method of loci for visualizing past events devised and practiced by the ancient Greeks and Romans, its rooms crumbling now, their contents scrambling into disarray, conflating that day more than seventy years ago when he placed his still-bloody two front teeth, knocked out of their shallow sockets by the opposing shortstop’s knee sliding (safely!) into second base, under his pillow in accord with accepted Tooth Fairy protocol with the present state of his old-man teeth, deteriorating along with the rest of him?

8.  Preserving teeth in a glass of milk and then drinking it — is this not another scene from the memory palace, a childhood reminder of enamel-strengthening oral hygiene reenacted now in degraded form, the reinforced but uprooted teeth having lodged themselves in the throat, necessitating their second removal?

9.  As the surgeon descends toward the kitchen, his long white hair trailing behind him like a veil, followed in turn by his toothless patient, is the memory palace not attempting to reveal to the patient the truth that he is himself the surgeon, their convergent identity veiled by the dementia enshrouding his brain?

10.  If tonight the demented old man were to go to sleep for the last time, would his tombstone record the date of his death as today, when the night manager of the nursing home feels for his pulse and breath but comes up empty, or tomorrow, when in the predawn hours the hospice nurse arrives at the facility and confirms the manager’s diagnosis, sending for the morticians to take him away?

11.  On what basis would the old man’s son, being informed by the mortician that he could choose the date to be recorded on the Certificate, render his decision?

12.  Would the son subsequently, and too late, wonder whether he had chosen wisely but not shrewdly?

13.  Does the old man’s memory palace survive him somewhere, perhaps in a storage room at the nursing home, perhaps in the columbarium where his cremains await the resurrection, perhaps in a niche in a chamber in the son’s memory palace?

14.  Without looking, do you remember question 1?


Flânerie 8


He passes the carousel, the inflatables, the Fun House.  When the
base of the Ferris wheel comes into view, he’s surprised at the sight of
unfamiliar men by one of the tower supports, starting to break it down
with their own equipment.
He jolts into an unsteady run.  Ferris wheel thieves are something
he’s never considered.  1


They summit the clear plastic cup that holds the remnants of my milk tea, steadily growing in numbers and alarm. More and more keep coming — I cannot possibly guess from where — they seem to be produced by the very grass. Several willful ants stray from the cup and try to obtain me for the colony.  They are crawling on my bare feet, up my pant legs, through the wild reeds of my hair, some even cross the path of my pen on these pages — they are trying to keep me from writing this.  2

Photo Albums

Close-ups were replaced by Closer-ups: single feature shots. Photographers trained cameras on feet, knees, noses, shoulders, and hands. They dismantled babies frame by frame and then gave the pieces back to mothers who studied the remarkable detail. “Look! Her third toe is the longest of the bunch!” a mother pointed out. Upon hearing such exclamations, photographers wondered if mothers looked at their children at all except in photographs.
Then came the Even Closer-ups: eyelashes, a dimple, a mole, nostril shadows. Again, mothers and photographers lost babies in the pictures. This time they were right in front of the lens but completely absent in the final JPEG files of veins and hair follicles.  3


The priest lifted the silver cross from my forehead and touched it to his lips. He said the demon was gone but a monster remained. I spat blood in his face, accusing him of fake news, of failure to move on. He said if I loved my family, I’d get as far away from them as possible.
Afterwards, I tried to act normal but my wife refused to leave me alone with our daughters. A fortnight passed before I was allowed back in our bedroom and even then she wouldn’t let me see her naked, saying the way I looked at her made her uncomfortable. While she slept, I kissed the back of her neck where it curves into her shoulder and remembered the promises we made to each other on our wedding day. Then I licked my lips to savour the salty-sweet taste of her skin.
The night I bit her she said I had to go.  4

But the stage down in theatre’s heart was a sea-pool and the failing light made distances fluid so that Zoe thought she only had to reach out a hand, for her fingers to dip beneath mysteries, to decant shadows and show her … what? Faces? The curve of a cheek or an unbending arm? Stones and bones and sorrow, or perhaps an imprint left by old joy?
Her fingers wrapped themselves into mazes in her lap and Zoe breathed in time with the wind. It was not so much fear holding her in its grip, as a sense of falling.
‘You came back.’  5

Lawn Service

Townie boys with bamboo rakes scraped Hawthorne’s grassy common clean. Working for someone’s Uncle Ricco, saving up for a used Mustang to drag race till Uncle Sam dragged them off to fight in bamboo jungles. They’d whistle as you crossed their path, precisely because you were unattainable in the way that girls at a private boarding school were unattainable, like fur coats, soft and desirable but costing too much. 6


Though I’d never been more than passable as a clarinetist, I did have one skill: I can take in an entire score at once, visually, and hear the piece in my head. During undergrad, my friends would come to me the night before projects were due because I could tell with one glance whether a note was off in their counterpoint or whether there was too much going on in the brass.  7


Tom Gresham, “The Heir”

Megan Jacobs, “The Ants”

Lindsey Harding, “A Brief History of Baby Pictures”

Christopher Stanley, “Oymyakon”

Lorraine Wilson, “We Have Always Been Here”

Judith Kessler, “Falling Season”

Kelly Luce, “Two of Swords Counterpoint”

Photo source

Flânerie 7

Living Room

The stack of Pincos’s clothes were on the coffee table where Kay had put them. Kay lay down on the unruffled couch next to it, his head and ankles propped on the armrests. He folded his hands over his stomach. I could fall asleep, Kay thought. I won’t show up to class tomorrow. My students would chat for ten, fifteen minutes, then go home. The thought made Kay want to be there to see it, to hear their words and frustration. One student might remain throughout the class period, scribbling. Probably someone who isn’t always there, isn’t always on time. Someone who isn’t interested in learning to speak his or her mind in a new language.  1

“Theo smelled like you the other night.”
“What?” Pen is dumping the contents of her purse out onto the ground.
“Your perfume. Theo smelled like your perfume the other night.”
“Ack!” She pulls the single key from her skirt pocket. “Forgot I put it there,” she laughs, gathering all of her lipsticks, pennies, and tissues, and placing them back into her sack of a purse.
“Penelope, did you sleep with my husband?” I stand on the last item, a stuffed cow keychain she likes but won’t attach to her key.
“Are you fucking kidding me, Phoebe?” She looks up at me, but then turns to the cow underneath my foot. I push my boot down a little harder.
“He smelled like your perfume.”
“So you automatically assume he slept with me? You think I am the only woman who buys that perfume?”
“You are definitely one of a very few,” I retort. She pushes my boot with her fist, and pulls at the poor cow. It’s head tears off.  2


Named for Saddam’s favorite animal, the original plans called for tigers to roam the grounds and swim in the pool. Through a Chinese connection two tigers were flown in from the Shanghai Zoo. In the intense desert heat, their fur became patchy. They did nothing but sleep in the shade all day. They ate very little. Saddam was furious with his resident zoologist. He wanted powerful prowling tigers that would slink around the palace, eyes aglow, their claws clattering against the marble floor. But their skin draped off their bones like oversized mink coats. When the tigers died, the zoologist was driven out to the middle of the desert to suffer a fate similar to that of his erstwhile charges. For lack of having real-life tigers, Saddam had the palace decorated with full-size stuffed tigers, tiger hides, tiger teeth, tiger claws, tiger paintings, striped bed sheets and striped sofa covers. With the death of the tigers, the novelty of the tiger palace wore thin on Saddam, who visited it less and less. For his birthday, the Baghdad Zoo gifted their last remaining tiger to him. He appreciated the gesture but returned the animal.  3


What you wished and finally became true is dream, whereas what you never wished but eventually happened is destiny. During the passing of age and the turning of life, many years later, we raise our heads and here you are, again in front of us.  4

Used Car Lot

Once, Charlie had asked Laura what she’d do—if failure were impossible and money were no object ( and maybe if they’d saved the dope money…) And Laura had thought and thought. Finally she’d laughed and said, “I’d own a used-car dealership.”
Charlie had grinned. “Good money in that. I’ll do repairs for you. I’ll put on my best sharkskin suit and sell lots of cars for you.” They were sipping grape soda and taking turns running the bottle on their hot, summery skin.  It was Thursday, Mexican night, a dollar bag of tortilla chips and a fifty cent can of salsa.
“I don’t want to sell the cars, Charlie,” Laura had said, blushing. “I just want to drive them.”  5


Friends will make fun of you in the school parking lot. After a while, they will come to accept the things you say. At worst, they may blush and look away.
Friends will encourage you to down shots of Jägermeister and cultivate crushes.
Friends will say, isn’t so and so soooooooooooo cute, and I think he likes you.
Friends will say you’re lucky when a senior linebacker invites you to prom.
Friends will say you’re psycho when you turn down the senior for a circus-tent magic show.
But you will know better.
Aren’t you the one who wants to be a trapeze artist?
Aren’t you the one who wakes up with feathers stiff around your shoulder blades?
You are.
Yes, you are the one who ties herself to the headboard so that the girl with wings can’t do anything crazy. Like maybe fly the fuck away.  6


I bought those photographs – the entire album – for 70 euros at Place du Jeu de Balle in Brussels. Roma always said I didn’t know the value of money, and he was probably right. I don’t like flea markets; I prefer new, nice stuff. Roma’s the complete opposite, though. It was his fault that I spent my only free morning in Brussels at Jeu de Balle. It was dirty; there were nasty old people and tourists snooping through boxes of used dishes and books, shabby clothes hanging in the sun – when I was a kid, my family threw such rags away. No one even considered donating them to the poor. There was so much fur there for some reason, moth-eaten fox skins with empty eye sockets – it’s beyond me why the heck anyone would sew such a thing on their coat. All that junk was dearly priced: vendors, mostly old men, pretended they didn’t speak English, so market-goers, mostly people visiting the city, ultimately had to pay the asking price.  7


Jae Kim, “The Sloping Lawn”

Tiffany Jimenez, “What the Window Showed Me”

Dan Moreau, “The Palaces of Saddam Hussein”

Sieghard Jiang, “Years Later”

Kate Berrien, “Love (But No Money)”

Alina Stefanescu, “If You Want to Be a Trapeze Artist”

Kateryna Babkina, “Happy Naked People”


Flânerie 6

Test Kitchen

“So what would you create using Merguez?”
He glanced at her and then looked away. “Merguez?” he repeated.
“Yes, how would the Futurists cook a Merguez?”
“The Futurists?” he said with a grin. “I think they would prop one upright in a cup of cafe au lait with anchovy stuffed dates scattered around the edges and spray the plate with cologne.”
“Cologne,” she repeated.
“We could use your Samsara,” he suggested with another crooked grin. “We would work in the scent of the crushed rose petals.”  1


But this flirt alert also comes with a Code Orange blurt alert. From Sunday, December 3 until the 22nd, messenger Mercury flips retrograde, also in Sagittarius and your communication sector. This double-whammy could mess with your gift of gab and throw you off your social media game.xiv

xivThis might be urging us not to mention our budding obsession Kathryn the vet-tech to any of our few remaining platonic pals. We will attempt to hold out on doing this not simply to obey but because we have a proven track record of mentioning possible future desired realities only to have them dissipate or, rather, never come to any kind of fruition only to then be tasked with explaining ourselves. Thankfully, however, we are without a social media game that could be thrown off by any of our actions. Having a social media game would be an example of being too close.  2


The bedroom ceiling is ridiculous. Frank’s grandma had the moldings put in when she bought it in the fifties. There is a crown of roses around the lightbulb, and a crown of roses around that. Garlands float out to the corners and drift down the walls. My bridesmaids drift out to the corners of a golden swimming pool. I float between the four of them and we dip and turn as one. Dip, dip, turn. I dip better than Hayden. The water ripples around me. I am bright like a flower and it is sunny and we are all being filmed from above. There is a crown of roses around my veil and a crown of roses around that.  3

Missing Person

I write about my day and post it on a forum. The thread gets more replies than anything I’ve ever written. Most people don’t believe me. They don’t understand how I could not have childhood photos. They say the police would have disclosed more information, that a DNA test takes two to three weeks. They demand to know more about my mother. They destroy her with words. They call me a liar, unloved, and tell me I should kill myself.  4


She photographed Harlem at its lowest, its burned-out shell: the vials on the playground, buildings on fire, pregnant junkies nodding off on park benches—she took a picture of my friend Kenneth Rudolph after he’d been electrocuted. He’d been trying to tap into a power line because his lights had been cut. Estelle took a lot of heat for that. No pun.
After that she went back to self-portraits: Estelle’s Track Marks, 1984. Estelle with John, 1985. Estelle begs for Change, 1986. She didn’t have a story to tell so she started using, and retold a familiar one.  5


“I want to go to college so I can get a good job in a hotel. If I can get a good job in Phnom Penh, then I can have my own apartment. And with the rest of the money, I can help my parents.” She dispenses all the information with a cheery demeanor.
I have more questions, and she fills me in on the details of her life. “And Saran, may I ask, do you ever go to the Khmer Rouge memorial next door? Do you know what happened in that time?”
“No, that’s the past. I’m very young” she chirps brightly.
“Do they teach you about it in school?”
“Not really. Only a little.”
“What do they say?”
“It’s Vietnam’s fault. They did everything. And China.”  6


The Renaissance Face is not easy. Brenda has to picture the beautiful girls from Art History, both in the paintings and the ones who chewed on their sorority pens. Brenda is not, by default, cherubic. To get the Ren Face, she looks at the track lighting, imagining an angel looking down, draped among the twenty-watt bulbs in linen banners, pushing aside a feathery cloud to see Brenda’s—no, Belloza’s—Brenda is not a Renaissance name—glowing face. Thirty seconds. Brenda pushes a bit of fear, a bit of worry, and a lot of holiness into her face. The Ren Face is not much of anything but manically peaceful: beatific. The Ren Face goes with everything because it manages to look a little sexy, a little depressed, and a lot vulnerable. The Ren Face alone should guarantee martyrdom, if sustained for a minute. Sixty seconds.  7


Karen Cantrell, “The Deconstruction”

Joseph Goosey, “Week One of Our Asserted Future, Annotated”

Nina Ellis, “Texas Is Not a Desert”

Hal Walling, “You Haven’t Won Anything Yet”

Maisy Card, “Estelle’s Black Eye”

Mark Knego, “No One Remembers the Khmer Rouge”

Diana Smith Bolton, “Tuesday Night Figure Drawing at the Community Center”

Photo source