Henry Ford's Industrial innovations were many, but automatizing the American novel wasn't one of them. No, the manufacture of quality, affordable American fiction survived the Taylorization of the economy as an activity still performed by a solitary craftsperson in a garrison of authorial inefficiency. Writers, with their fragile constitutions and innate aversion to deadlines, have continued to turn out stories and novels on their own God-given schedules, and according to personal poetics that have yet to be properly standardized.
Leave it to City Pages to bring local fiction writing into the machine age. Toward the purpose of extruding a better fiction product, we invited six of our favorite Minnesota writers--Bart Schneider, Jarda Cervenka, Wang Ping, Ellen Hart, Alison McGhee, and Gregory Blake Smith--to craft one segment of a serial short story. Starting with a blank page and the freedom to tackle any topic, our first author scripted some 1,000 words, which he sent on to the next contributor, who wrote another 1,000 words--and so on and so forth. The result: 6,860 words of timely prose--forged from six typewriters into one rugged story.
Imagine if the American novel had previously been subject to such a rigorous process. Melville would never have been given the opportunity to ruin his near-great book by sending noble Ahab to such an ignominious grave. Instead, at the end of his shift, Melville would have turned the story over to the next pen on the shop floor, leaving Ahab to live out his days playing backgammon on Nantucket's scenic wharf. And should Faulkner have been put to the same test? As soon as his blood-alcohol content hit .20, an able second-shift writer could have stepped in to repair Quentin and Caddy's family affairs--only Faulkner's perversity kept these two happy lovers apart. And Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow could have been drawn to a tidy close at page 200, on the dot.
The history of American letters is a sad story of squandered plot lines and wasteful individualism. We now put the finished results of our serial story before you, the marketplace, for judgment. We daresay this is how fiction will be written in the 20th Century.
Foreman, Minnesota Fiction Industries
by Bart Schneider
It had been more than 20 years since she'd seen him. A warm March morning in 1979. "So, here it is," he said, "the last day at the end of a marriage." He kissed her on the forehead and did his best to memorialize their parting. "Goodbye, sweet Alice, goodbye, little house." There had been a catch in his voice, a tear at the edge of his Oklahoma drawl, which she knew to distrust. Still, she meant it when she said, "Good luck, Axel."
He'd stood, head down, in their Moss Beach driveway, kicking gravel with his black Keds. This too, she knew, was moodmaking.
"How far do you expect to get today?" she'd asked, hoping to get him started.
"Least to the desert."
As Alice watched him shimmy out of the crooked driveway in the baby-blue VW bus, a pair of surfboards strapped to the roof, she tried to guess how many girls and women he'd slept with on the bus's mildewed mattress. Easier to count jellybeans. Axel tooted his horn once. She stood quietly and waved, her hand still in the air as the bus disappeared into a stand of eucalyptus. Alice listened to the last hollow rumble of the bus fade away. No way he was going to the desert. If the surf was decent, he'd drive no further than Halfmoon Bay.
Although Axel's letter came out of the blue, she wasn't surprised to hear from him. In the months before he'd written, she'd begun to dream about him again. He'd whisper to her in Spanish, teach her new dance steps in a sweat lodge, bring her a white bowl brimming with the silvery froth of fresh carrot juice. Drink up, darling, it's good for your eyes, good for your heart, good for your desire.
He'd found her through her mother in San Francisco.
"Never thought you'd move back East," his letter said. "Me, I've made a home for myself on the Western edge. May be the oldest active surfer on the coast. Been living a monastic life. No lady of late. Put all my energy into my crops. I cultivate 21 varieties of garlic for the swanky restaurants, as well as an herb of particular interest. There's something urgent I need to share with you, which is why I'm writing."
Although Axel didn't divulge his urgent business, Alice wrote back, telling him about being a mom, and about her husband Drew, a successful architect. She exaggerated the pleasure she took in her work as an adjunct professor of history.
Axel got a kick out of the word adjunct. "Even looked it up in my OED, which came complimentary from the Book of the Month Club. Every Okie should have his own OED. Adjunct comes from the Latin adjunctus. Means joined, added, subordinate, incidental. Not the way I see you, Alice. Even when you were a very young woman, when we were first married, you were absolutely essential and vital."
They traded a few letters. At first it felt safe enough, given the geographical distance. But once she mentioned that she and her family were coming to San Francisco to visit her mother, she began to sense the undertow. Axel wrote: "Why not make a little side trip? Your husband, the successful architect, might get a kick out of my little round house. Love to meet your children. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to make supper for you all. And don't forget this urgent thing is waiting for you. That's my mantra of the day--urgency waits. Say it 20 times, darling, and you're high."
Now they were driving behind Axel's Grand Cherokee in a rented Neon the color of mint jelly. The car was too small for a family of four, but Drew was big on economy. He hung close behind Axel. The two major loves of her life, winding one behind the other on a maze of dirt roads.
Axel had said that his home was hard to reach, that he'd better meet them in town and lead them in. She hadn't believed him. How difficult could it be to find a house on the outskirts of Bolinas? But after 20 minutes of driving, she'd begun to feel anxious. A word came into her head. Deviate. Leave it to Axel to deviate this far from the main road. Deviate. Deviator. Deviant. What would Axel's OED say?
At first, the kids had been quiet in the back seat--perhaps they were stunned by their initial sight of Axel in town--but then the curves started to get to Ross.
"I think I'm going to barf."
Alice turned and smiled at her son, cowering in the back seat. "No, you're not going to barf."
"You better not barf on me," his big sister Mel chimed in.
"Come on, you two," said Drew. "We're having a little adventure, that's all."
"Where's this guy live, in a rabbit hole? I can't believe you were ever married to him, Mom. He's ancient. His skin's like a salamander. And how about his hair?"
"Don't be cruel, Mel," her father said.
Alice caught Mel's eyes in the rearview mirror.
"He was 15 years older than me."
"Now he's 30 years older," Drew joked.
Even Ross laughed at that.
Clearly, Drew had decided that her phantom first husband was perfectly harmless. After all, the man wore his thin white hair tied back in a bun.
To Alice, Axel looked dashing in his black, blousy-sleeved silk shirt tucked into leather pants the color of blood orange.
She mumbled his mantra.
"What?" Mel said.
"Oh...I can't wait to see his house. He says he doesn't have electricity. Well, not in the conventional sense. He has a generator, but he's not hooked up to the electric company. He's off the grid. Nobody could find him even if they wanted to."
by Jarda Cervenka
The higher they climbed the more conifers lined the dirt road. The scrub oak gave way to junipers, and rocky outcroppings gave the landscape a more rugged feel. Axel stopped his van, climbed out, and waved at them to stay in their car. He moved aside a hewn tree branch, which seemed to serve as a kind of primitive gate. Soon after this interruption, they arrived. Drew and the kids stared motionless out the window, Alice covered her mouth with the palm of her hand. They were on a plateau dotted with a scattering of houses, maybe six, seven, all round houses. Round houses, Axel promised.
"Welcome to my place, welcome!" Axel appeared by the car window. He did not motion for them to get out, but Ross and Mel did anyway.
"What the hell?" Drew whispered. "Looks like somewhere in goddamned Africa."
He got out and opened the door for Alice.
An older man approached Axel without a smile. On his brick-red T-shirt was printed the line: "Vegetarians Taste Better." He talked to Axel in a muted voice. Then other inhabitants sauntered in to form a welcoming crowd. They were all males, all were well past their prime years, all looked rugged and dressed coarsely. People gesticulated, some raised eyebrows, some opened eyes widely, some opened mouths widely, some shook their heads, while others nodded. They all exuded the excitement of bashful insecurity. It became obvious that visitors were very rare to this community. The frankness of their excitement and curiosity made Alice and Drew feel as naked gorillas must sometimes feel in a zoo.
Axel tried to improve the situation with his copious smiles, and by ushering them into his roundel. Inside, there was another, tiny welcoming committee. Axel introduced a woman as Rosita and the cat as Mitsa. Both looked sort of wild at the first glance. The cat ran away.
Rosita was of the keenest interest to Alice. So that is his prize, now, she thought. And she wondered if this Rosa was the main reason for their visit. Is this a showoff, or show-and-tell? Is this Axel's scream for approval, or a call for praise, or what the hell are we doing here, anyway? She looked good, this girl, one had to acknowledge it. And Drew did just that, acknowledging it by his eyes. She had Indian blood in her.
She was of slender build, but her rump and breasts--the duo of anatomical parts desired commonly by males--were clearly present and could be envisioned with just a little fantasy to be of unaccustomed cartilaginous firmness, their caramel-hued and caramel-sweet surface silky smooth. Her bare feet were just the regular beaten-up rural tootsies that have never ventured to explore the darkness of a shoe. The big toes were spread widely apart as in hominid apes. What has this surfer, this over-aged beach boy got into? Alice wondered and was surprised by the sudden, mild surge of sympathy she felt for the girl.
Rosita smiled but did not talk. Even Axel became mute, gesturing at them to take a seat on the kitchen stools and one old wicker chair. He seemed to hesitate, apparently undecided in his intentions. Ross and Mel looked around, becoming restless as if prodded by some unseen and unidentifiable radiation.
"Mommy, when are we going to go?" Ross whispered. "Ma, can I go like sit in the car?" Mel demanded. Then somebody knocked on the door.
The children passed through the door left open by an unexpected (?) visitor. Margaret was introduced at the doorway as "the widow." She looked like a woman in her long skirt and extra-large, extra-loose sweater--her hair as long as Axel's. She barked a laugh--the laugh of a hyena, Drew thought. (He knew that sound from the nature movies.) As she approached the table he could see that her low hindquarters matched the hyena's, too.
"She is an admirable gal," Axel whispered, "can do any job a man can--and better. Can pee standing up, too!"
Margaret displayed her present: a reed basket with a few eggs. "Just ready to hatch in a day or two," she said, looking at Alice. "The fetuses will be just right, your tongue should recognize the heart and liver by taste, and the brain through the crunchy skull. Oh, so good!" She attempted a smile, still staring only at Alice, then left, abruptly. Rosita's hand appeared as if from nowhere to snatch away the basket. Her eyes also remained on Alice for a moment.
Axel nodded while Drew turned his head from side to side. Alice remained still, as if hypnotized. Drew said that he was going to check on the kids outside, and left, without giving Alice a chance to react to anything, to start moving, to make any gesture, or start any speech. He was back with both children in a short while. All three looked as if something had happened, as if an unusual event had astonished them. The children were mute, their eyes frightened. Drew approached Axel, too close, maybe, no grins, arms crossed in front of his chest--a posture seen in movies, but foreign to the calm and civil Drew.
"What the fuck is going on? What the goddamned fuck is going on?" Drew pushed his jaw an inch forward. "I come out there, the kids are inside the car, they look worried, and the car is surrounded, tight, surrounded by these people, sitting on the ground, staring at the kids. Some of them have cloves of garlic stuck in their goddamned nostrils and they are like in some kind of trance... I'm telling you, like in daze, those weirdoes. If you'd ask me, like under some spell."
Axel didn't retreat an inch, his face unfrightened, his eyes strangely eager--cold, it seemed. But then the door squeaked open and an old man meandered in, slowly but without hesitation. The tension eased. Axel left Drew and hurried to help the man walk to the table. The man pulled from his pocket a pale sausage that looked like a specimen from the dissecting room of a pathology lab. He looked around with a faint smile, till his eyes rested on Alice. There they remained.
"Dog," he said, pointing at the thing he laid on the table.
He had a face hundreds of years old, his Oriental epicanthi almost covering his eyes, the wrinkles fanning out across every niche of his face, India-ink-black hair only streaked with grays, long to the shoulders, as everybody's else. His olive-hued skin was covered with pigmented spots and blotches of no distinct spatial organization. He sank on the wicker chair carefully, his elephantine swollen legs spread apart.
"We are going to go," Alice said, managing to interrupt the eye contact with the visitor. "Right? It's getting late." She looked at Drew for agreement. He nodded and looked at the children. Axel walked, briskly, to the door.
"Anyway," Drew spread his arms, "Anyway, why are these people bringing the stuff, the presents? What is going on? Huh?" Axel's face showed no interest in answering; it was expressionless. He stood by the door facing them. They heard a chuckle from the back of the room--it was Rosita.
"I am Filipino, but I like Americans," the old man said, returning his gaze to Alice, who stopped moving, her hand on Ross's shoulder. It was a proclamation of clear meaning from a mouth without teeth and with gums that had atrophied decades ago. His speech was slurred and accented, yet it was still more clear than his intentions. The man leaned back in the wicker chair, contemplating, perhaps, his gift.
"Why is he telling us this? Who's interested?" Drew whispered loudly, not caring if he was heard by the man.
"Right after the war the GIs came to Santa Rita, near Manila. I was there shooting Japanese, too," the Filipino continued, undeterred. His teary eyes wandered from Alice to some point above, as if looking back in time through the roof. "They were so tall, we were babies next to them. They liked us. They gave us tins with meat, but we did not know how to open them." He shook his head. "Once they drove through the town on their trucks bigger than houses, waving at us. People were amazed, happy. We loved them so much." A smile lit up the face of the old man, rearranging the deep grooves and wrinkles on his face. He smiled at Alice, as if nobody else was in the room.
"They threw condoms to us...and we chewed them! Ha! We thought they were Chiclets, chewing gum. We did not know nothing. It was many years ago; we learned much since then." The old man shifted in the chair, rocking from side to side. Ross listened with open mouth, Mel tried to look uninterested.
"Later we learned how to put them on," the man continued. "They prevent disease, they do." He paused--and then remembered. "Yeah, but the soldiers laughed at us, anyway, they did. They had such white teeth--many, many teeth. They would tilt their heads back and laugh like our children do. And you know why?" He opened his eyes widely, mockingly and opened his toothless mouth as if feigning stupidity. "Did I say why? Oh...because we told them we take the rubbers off when we are with the woman! So much they laughed that we laughed with them. Oh ho, long time ago."
He closed his eyes. When he opened them again there was not much gaiety in them. They were searching the room. They stopped moving only when they found her.
Axel stood motionless in front of the door and the Indian girl joined him with a pitchfork in her hand. Impatient voices from outside could not be understood despite their increased intensity.
by Wang Ping
Alice locked her eyes with the Filipino's. His gaze was that of a psychic blind man, taking everything with him as it swept slowly from her face to the belly. She felt violated, her clothes incinerated by invisible laser beams. Her heart accelerated as she suddenly remembered she had seen these eyes, buried behind the wrinkles and drooping eyelids. Where had she seen this man? When? She searched her brain frantically as she turned and followed Drew and Ross toward the door, her arms around Mel's trembling shoulders. The kids hadn't whined for a while, a sign that they were really frightened. The noise outside stopped for a second, then returned with a more sinister force--a loud thump, heavy, as if someone had fainted and thrown himself against the door.
Axel and Rosita stood shoulder to shoulder, their faces dark like the pitchfork in Rosita's hands. She held it across her belly, watching the family move forward in a huddle. I've seen this old man, quite recently, Alice told herself, feeling his eyes grazing her back, waist, buttocks.
She heard Drew shout, "What is this all about? Open the door and let us go," as he reached for the doorknob.
The pitchfork came down and landed on his wrist with a muffled crash. "Ouch!" Drew clutched it with his good hand, hissing like a cornered bull. "This is kidnapping. I'm calling 911." He pulled out the cellular phone and dialed, his wounded hand trembling with pain. He put the phone next to his ear. Axel and Rosita watched with a sneer on their faces. Neither tried to stop him.
Behind them, the Filipino coughed and kindled the fire with a poker. Drew cursed, dialed again, and listened. "Fucking phone is not working here," he said, his voice limp like the hand. Mel sobbed, her face buried against her mother's belly.
Alice placed her hand between her daughter's shoulder blades, telling her silently that she'd be all right. She couldn't think clearly, but her instinct told her it was her they wanted. No, not exactly. It was something in her body that they were after. She handed Mel gently into Drew's arms to join her brother. Then she stepped close to Axel. He was only a puppet in the show, like the Indian girl, like Margaret. The master was the Filipino. If she could recall where she had seen him. She looked into Axel's eyes.
Since he had lured her into this place, she must get the clues from him. But his eyes had turned opaque, coated with ice. They stared at her the same way the Filipino stared, blind, obscene. "What do you want from me?" she whispered. He didn't answer. Suddenly, he reached to cup her face into his hands.
Alice shook. She remembered this gesture too well. For a month, he had entered her dream, every night, around three o'clock in the morning. He held her cheeks, his middle fingers pressing into her temples. Such a peculiar greeting. It lasted only a few seconds, but the pressure remained in her temples after he let go of her face, after they began to drink and dance. Their meeting always ended with him whispering into her ears: "Come with me, Alice. I need you. We need you," as if he were afraid of waking up her husband. It was all supposed to be intimate, but neither the hands that cradled her face nor the voice that whispered into her ears seemed to belong to Axel.
She'd wake up in a sweat, depleted, her temples pulsing with a dull pain. She'd sit up in the dark, squinting at the red digits that flashed 3:05, and remember the warning her martial-arts teacher Mr. Yin, a master of "Pushing Hand," had given on the first day of her class: Practice any time of the day, but never at 3:00 a.m. She had chuckled at the warning. No sane person would get up at this hour. She wondered if it was the time when devils came out, but quickly dismissed that as a Chinese superstition.
When she told Master Yin about her dreams, he gave her a strange look and told her to stick out her tongue. "You might be possessed by a fox spirit," he said. She couldn't decide whether he was joking or not, so she giggled and said she had read some fox stories in Chinese mythology and folklore. Funny stories, and wild imaginations. Strange she had never thought of telling Drew. The dreams were too bizarre and might bring unnecessary complications to their relationship. Besides, she had never been frightened, even though some nights she woke up feeling violated by a malicious stranger. Even now, when Axel held her in his hands like a hostage, she was more curious than fearful.
The Filipino coughed and poked the fire again. Something cracked, faint and crisp, like the pop of an egg that was being boiled too quickly on the stove. But there was no stove here, thought Alice, only an open fire in a pit in the middle of the roundel. A sweet aroma of barbecued meat drifted into her nostrils. Alice stood frozen. The smell rekindled the memory of her last dream. Axel had come to her as usual, but his fingers were merciless this time, drilling into her temples. She heard piercing noises. White flashes danced before her eyes. Stop, she screamed. But Axel's face had dissolved into one of the blinding lights.
She closed her eyes, her head about to split open under the pressure. Suddenly, everything went away, the noise, the light, the pressure. She opened her eyes slowly. A shadow hovered above her, flapping his arms and legs to keep still in the air. He wasn't touching her, yet she felt fondled and penetrated. Axel? She asked anxiously. The shadow smiled, revealing a brown, wrinkled face, a glistening white egg between the pink gums.
"Who are you? What do you want?" she demanded. The shadow descended without a word, so close that she could see the egg cracking, and beaks breaking through the shell. An incredible weight surrounded her. She felt she was being stuffed inside a pressure cooker and the temperature was rising. She opened her mouth to scream. The shadow laughed, a toothless, silent laugh. Something leaped out of the shell into her throat.
Alice turned to face the Filipino. "You, it was you." He smiled, wrinkles exploding like the cracked egg he was taking out of the fire bare-handed. He peeled the shell, revealing a fully grown chick that was about to hatch, its beaks, wings and feet huddled in a fetal position. The room was filled with the sickening fragrance she had smelled when she awoke from the nightmare. That was almost three months ago. She had been left alone after that, sleeping dreamlessly. Yet she had never felt at ease. Something had been going on inside her, and it definitely had to do with the egg. That was one of the reasons she had agreed to come to this place. She only regretted having dragged Drew and her children into this mess. I must get them out of this place first, she told herself.
She took a few steps toward the Filipino, feet apart, knees bent slightly, a position to get ready for a greeting, a lesson, or a spell of combat. Master Yin had made her stand like this the entire class, an hour and a half, three months in a row, before he would teach her anything else. She was glad she didn't quit like most of her classmates.
"What do you want from me?" she asked.
by Ellen Hart
When Drew awoke several hours later, he found himself sprawled across a bare mattress in a room lit by a single candle. The back of his head throbbed and he felt thick and damaged. He dimly recalled whirling around just as a two-by-four slammed into him. But...where the hell was he?
He tried to sit up. When he put pressure on his left wrist, he yelped in pain. That pain acted like a dynamite charge inside his mind. He felt a shudder of remembrance as the past few hours came flooding back. Unctuous Axel, the ex-husband he'd been so curious about. Axel's Marlboro-men neighbors. The odd way Alice had been acting ever since they'd entered the roundel. He'd never forget the look on his kids' faces, scared out of their wits by this aging hippie enclave and their mother's bizarre behavior. Everyone was so sullen, so oddly off-kilter, that they must have felt like they'd stumbled into a remake of Night of the Living Dead.
Drew dropped back on the mattress and tried to make sense of it. If he didn't know better, he'd think Alice had been drugged. But that was impossible. Unless...
Axel had been waiting for them at a small café in Bolinas. He'd insisted that they all have something to drink before they headed out of town. It was a long, dusty drive up to his house, and the dry summer heat could really make a person uncomfortable. The kids had ordered Cokes. Drew had ordered a lemonade. Axel remembered that Alice liked tea, so he suggested a variety that was grown locally, one he'd had some success cultivating himself. Could that have been it? While they were in the restrooms washing up, could Axel have slipped something into Alice's tea?
Outside the tiny room where Axel and his crew had stashed him, Drew could hear chanting. It wasn't the soft, contemplative variety, but instead a low, feral growling. Angry men's voices, building slowly, menacingly to a deafening pitch. If he weren't so frightened, Drew would have found these people's sense of melodrama hilarious. Except there was nothing funny about what had happened. His children and his wife were in danger.
Swinging his legs over the edge of the bed, Drew crept to the door. He twisted the handle but found that it was locked. He rested his ear against the wood, trying to hear what was happening in the main room, but the all-male chorus outside was making too much racket.
Then again, the chanting might work to his advantage. For an instant, he was consumed by the need to simply get out, away, free. The only possible exit was through a small, high window. Taking off his shirt, he wrapped the heavy cotton cloth around his right hand, then stood on a rickety chair and smashed the glass, knocking out every last piece. Winding the shirt tightly around his badly bruised wrist to give it support, he hoisted himself through the opening and tumbled outside into the scrub brush. He crouched near the wall and made a visual reconnaissance of the area to the south of the house. He needed a plan, but he didn't have one. That's when he remembered the cell phone in his pocket. It hadn't worked inside, but maybe it would work in the open air. It was worth a try.
Diving behind a small outbuilding some 15 yards away, Drew punched in 911. His pulse quickened as the line connected. He hurriedly gave the dispatcher all the information he could, then listened as the man instructed him to stay away from the house. The police and paramedics would be there ASAP.
Drew fought with himself. Even with a helicopter, how fast could the cops really make it? He couldn't just sit around and wait. He had to get his wife and kids out of there.
Dashing to the back of the house, he located a window that looked into the main room. Through a crack in the curtains, he could see that Alice was sitting with her back against the fireplace, holding both kids in her arms. Rosita, the young woman who lived in the house with Axel, was retreating toward the front door. She was holding a gun, and Axel was shouting at her.
After that, everything that happened felt like slow motion. There was a gunshot, followed by pandemonium inside the roundel. Drew made it to the front door, but his entrance was blocked by the Marlboro men. He struggled and pushed, shouting to Alice and the kids to get out. He felt himself being lifted off the ground, tossed aside, kicked in the ribs, spit on. He must have lost consciousness, because the next thing he remembered was an odd roaring in his ears. He realized it had to be the police helicopter. An instant later, men in SWAT gear rushed past him on their way inside.
When Drew finally got to his feet, he realized that it was the Filipino man who had been shot. He was lying in a pool of his own blood next to the rough wooden table. The paramedics were working on him, but it was obvious to anyone that he was dead. Alice looked dazed. Drew called to her, but she couldn't seem to focus. Mel and Ross, though, raced toward him looking terrified. He dragged them away from the house, soothing them, telling them everything was going to be all right. The worst was over.
Or so he thought.
by Alison McGhee
During the sunlit hours, Mel could will away the memories, but nighttime was a different matter. It had been ten years, but still.
After the authorities placed her with her great-aunt in that dark old Victorian, Mel had gathered up the memories of her family and stowed them away in a locked room in her mind. But at night they returned, her father and Ross receding year by year into a gray fog, her mother, in contrast, growing ever brighter. Fragmentary images came flying to Mel as she slept, images of touch and sound as familiar to her as the unbroken egg that sat in its cradle of twigs and leaves on the mantel above her fireplace.
Her mother Alice's hand on her back, the pressure of her slender fingers the only source of comfort as they stood together in the dark roundel.
Her brother Ross as he had been when they were still in the rental car, driving up the mountain on that dirt road, the look of wonder in his eyes giving way to wariness. They had fought over the last doughnut, Mel remembered. She hadn't been hungry. Why the hell had she not just let Ross have it?
That day had broken her life. Mel always thought of it as "that day," but the media had quickly christened it "Roundel." A single word, fraught with the same meaning as certain other single words. Waco. Columbine. Roundel.
In the daylight Mel could shove away from her the image of the villagers dragging Ross down the hill, the same place they had dragged Alice and Drew. Ten years later, Mel, at twenty-four, could no longer think of her lost parents as Mom and Dad.
But at night they appeared to her, whole and alive. And in her dreams they stood before her, hands outstretched and holding gifts for her, Mel: the egg, a feather, a woven plait. As she was about to take the offerings, the hillside of her dreams erupted again in flame and noise: the men in their camouflage, the guns, the roundels one by one catching fire as if lit from within.
Ten years. A fact not unrecognized by the papers and television news. Mel lay on her futon and flipped through the channels. She had called in sick today, offering up a stomachache as her excuse.
"Skilled at wilderness survival, the man known only as Axel might well still be out there in the California mountains," intoned one freshly coifed anchorwoman. "And the woman he loved, the one he called his obsession, might well be with him. Join us at ten for a Channel 27 exclusive investigative journey into...The Heart of Roundel."
There had long been the theory, speculated upon in all the papers back then, that Alice had survived. They had never located the bodies of Axel and Alice among all the others. The papers had seized upon his "knowledge of survivalist skills." Survivalist skills, thought Mel. Whatever the hell that meant. Every time someone else fled into the mountains with a gun and a certain look in his eyes people started whispering about his survivalist skills.
Survivalism. Mel knew all about that. The only things she had with her from the life she used to live sat on the mantelpiece of her apartment.
There was the egg. Her mother had pressed it into her hand just before she was taken away by Axel and the one they had called "the Filipino."
A single page from a broken book, a dictionary of some kind, that had blown into her face as the men were running with her toward the helicopter, its giant wings beating as though it were a mutant giant insect desperate to get away. A word on the page circled in what looked like charcoal.
And Drew's old cell phone, crumpled on one end as if it had been bashed with a large rock. Compared with today's fingernail phones it looked huge, and Mel, technophile that she was, would have laughed at it had she not remembered so well pulling it from her father's stilled hand.
Mel flipped to another station.
"And was Alice pregnant, as some believe?" inquired a male reporter, looking vaguely embarrassed. "Did she give birth to her child in the wilderness, unaided by medical help other than what could be provided by the man known as Axel?"
"Our sources say that it is entirely possible that a child now nearly ten could be growing up somewhere in the vast stretches of California wilderness, knowing nothing of society or society's rules," chirped a woman with military bangs on Channel 18. "Unaware of how the world lives. Unaware of the existence of any other human being save a woman named Alice and a man named Axel. Unaware that in a tiny apartment in San Francisco lives a sister named Mel."
Mel flipped again, but not before the newscasters had vomited up onto the screen that dismal decade-old photo of her, a dazed child emerging from the SWAT team's helicopter, clutching the egg, bloodstains on her T-shirt.
She clicked off the TV and rolled onto her futon, staring up at the luminescent stars she had glued to the ceiling to keep her company at night. My mother is dead. My family is gone. That was Mel's longtime mantra. She didn't allow herself the fantasy of Alice, of Alice's child. Mel was an existence of one. She gazed over at the mantel, where the egg sat serenely in its cradle. Next to it, the fragile dictionary remnant fluttered in a sudden breeze and swooped through the air like a child's airplane, a single word on the page circled in charcoal.
Mel knew that word by heart: adjunct. Meaning subordinate, and incidental.
Like me, she thought.
by Gregory Blake Smith
But it was on nights like this one--third bourbon in hand, a touch of self-annihilation in her soul--that she was in the habit of setting up a purgatory in her apartment. She had to have things just right: the windows shut so the outside world wouldn't intrude, the light a kind of wary presence in her living room, her mood brought around to a point where she didn't mind digging her nails into her own skin. What was it her college roommate had been in the habit of doing? Drunk, sitting on the toilet with a razor blade in hand. Scarification, mutilation: What was the word? It was a whole subset of screwed-up-chick psychology, she knew. Well, this was her version of it. Instead of a razor blade she had her imagination, her willingness to rework the world that had been thrust on her. Mel's Construction Company: Purgatories Our Specialty. A place to work out the sins of illogic, unmotivated action, holes in the universe.
"Don't forget the inadequacy of love, dear."
It was her mother, Alice, the first to come this time, taking her usual seat over by the bricked-up fireplace. She had the same white pants on, the same bloodstains, but tonight an expression something like the look of love from the pre-Roundel days.
"Or the inadequacy of dreams."
She spun around. It was the Filipino. In the big easy chair, of course. Behind him, dissolving in and out of focus, were massed the blue-jeaned villagers, each of them, this time, with "Vegetarians Taste Better" T-shirts. The gods of hallucination had adequate prop mistresses, at least.
"What shall it be tonight?" the Filipino said. A cigarette had materialized between his fingers. He took a drag. "Irrelevant talk of rubbers like Chiclets?" He raised his brows, exhaled. The smoke lingered about his lips like cartoon dialogue. "My Oriental epicanthi? You name it, kiddo."
"Let's begin with the inadequacy of dreams," Mel found herself saying.
"Ah," the Filipino mused, like Leave it to Mel to get to the root of things. "We had a vision. We had a vision that--"
"You had the vision, man," came a voice from the kitchen. It was Axel. Mel could see him through the Fifties-style service aperture in the wall. He had spoken in the peevish voice he'd adopted of late. He had his head hung down, his white ponytail dripping over his shoulder. "It was you who told me to go to her in her dreams, to lure her. You said she was pregnant, man. You said she was the one."
At which the Filipino smiled, shrugged, let a hissing laugh escape his lips. "Inadequate," he said. "Dreams. As a form of communication." He shrugged again. "Live and learn."
"All I want," Alice put in suddenly, like she was laying down the law, "is for people to act with a certain amount of psychological consistency." She was karate-chopping the palm of one hand with the other, like she was insisting on something. "Is that too much to ask?" And she looked around at them, Drew in the room now, little Ross too. And who knew, maybe that was Master Yin over there behind the potted plant. "That egg." She practically spit the word out. "What was the deal with that?"
At which they all looked up at the egg on the mantel in its cradle of twigs, Alice craning her neck from where she sat on the raised hearth.
"A symbol," said Filipino. Behind him the dissolving villagers were taking cloves of garlic from their nostrils. "Egg. Cradle. Fertility. Get it?"
"But I wasn't pregnant," Alice muttered.
"Now you tell us."
This was enough of a joke to make Master Yin crack up. Beside him, Master Yang got proportionately sadder.
"And even if I was--"
"It would appear--" Mel interrupted; this was her purgatory, her vision, her hallucination: She wasn't going to let it get hijacked, "--it would appear that the hippie ether through which you sent your soul"--here indicating Axel with a nod of her head--"at your behest"--a nod at the Filipino--"to summon you"--her mother--"was not adequate to the job. Is that it? Do I understand things correctly?"
Rosita had appeared with the duo of her anatomical parts. "Information entropy," she said, wagged her pitchfork and vanished.
"It was the vegetarian messiah we were expecting," Axel put in, sheepish, a bit shame-faced.
"The vegetarian messiah?" Mel found herself repeating. This was a new one. "You thought my mother was, like, the vegetarian Madonna?" And she looked over at her mother. Alice shrugged as if to say, What the hey, it's your hallucination. "And you," she said to Axel through the service aperture, "you were the angel of the Annunciation. Something like that?"
"Post facto--" the Filipino began to say, but Alice shouted, "Consistency!" at him, and with a gentle smile he finished, "After the fact things are always clearer. Pity about all the dead bodies, though. Still, we had what we thought at the time was reliable information. If it hadn't been for the clichés of California, cheesy violence, an unfortunate suspension of logic, sunspots jamming our visions--"
She reached for the TV remote on the bookcase beside her, aimed it at the Filipino, pressed mute and, when he kept jawing soundlessly, went the whole hog and pressed off. Then one by one, she sent them all off to whatever impossible empyrean they came from, picked up her glass of bourbon, was about to kill it, but put it down and stood up instead. The room dipped appropriately. Cause and effect. Something to remember.
At the window she opened the blinds and looked out across the rooftops of the Mission. The breeze felt good. And the lights. And in the distance, the TV-towers down on the south San Francisco hills blinking on and off, a Morse code of sorts, summoning who knew what, maybe the vegetarian messiah. After all, who would deny that humanity needed as many redeemers as it could get? She smiled to herself, unbuttoned her blouse just at the throat, let the breeze cool her. Tomorrow it wouldn't be so bad. That was the thing about purgatory. It cleansed, ever so slowly, but it cleansed.
1. Bart Schneider
is the author of two novels, both published by Viking and set in San Francisco, where he grew up. His debut novel, Blue Bossa, was a finalist for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize, a Barnes & Noble Discover Award, and a Minnesota Book Award. Secret Love, his new novel, was published in March. Schneider moved to Minnesota in 1983, to work on plays at the Playwrights' Center. In 1986 he founded the Hungry Mind Review, which he edited for 15 years. He is now literary director at the Loft and lives in St. Paul with his wife, poet Patricia Kirkpatrick, and their two children. Although he has yet to write anything set in Minnesota, he hopes to give it a whirl in spring 2003, after surviving his 20th winter.
2. Jarda Cervenka
is the author of Mal D'Afrique, and The Revenge of Underwater Man, a collection of stories that won the Richard Sullivan Prize in Short Fiction from Notre Dame University. He recently retired from a professorship in genetics at the University of Minnesota. He lives in Golden Valley and is currently staying in Prague.
3. Wang Ping
grew up in Shanghai and Beijing, studied in New York, and now lives with her two boys and her partner in St. Paul--but she still remains a country bumpkin within. She writes a bit of everything: American Visa (stories), Foreign Devil (novel), Of Flesh and Spirit (poetry), and Aching for Beauty: Footbinding in China (nonfiction).
4. Ellen Hart's
first novel, Hallowed Murder, was published in 1989, and since then she has penned 15 more mysteries in two different mystery series. Hart is a three-time winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Mystery, as well as a two-time winner of the Minnesota Book Award for Best Crime and Detective Fiction. She teaches mystery writing through the University of Minnesota's Compleat Scholar program, as well as at the Loft, the largest independent writing community in the nation. Hart lives in south Minneapolis with her partner of 23 years.
5. Alison McGhee
writes fiction, poetry, essays, and other less-definable things that involve words. She is the author of Rainlight and Shadow Baby, both winners of several awards, including the Minnesota Book Award. Both novels will be out in paperback this summer and fall. Her new novel, Was It Beautiful? will be published next June. She grew up in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, lives in south Minneapolis with her family, and teaches creative writing at Metro State University. Little-known facts: Her right toes are double-jointed, and she has a bizarre fear of headstands, to the extent that she has managed to do only one in her entire life.
6. Gregory Blake Smith
teaches American literature and creative writing at Carleton College. He has written a number of short stories and two novels, The Devil in the Dooryard and The Divine Comedy of John Venner, the latter of which was selected by the New York Times as a Notable Book of the Year. This summer he hopes to put the finishing touches on his newest novel, The Pope's Daughter. He lives in Northfield with his wife and two children.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.