Photo by David Blampied
Managing editor Matt Weinkam on today’s short: This is my favorite kind of fiction. “The Books” moves fast, reads funny, and appears light, but surprises with strange turns and glimpses of human depth, real heartache. I remember the split melon and the cracked egg long after I finish reading. Like the best of Barthelme and the uncanny books that give the story its title, Young Rader’s three-part piece left me “haunted and transformed.” But that’s only half the story.
Catalina was quickly approaching the end of her life and she didn’t like me. When I took her on her walks, I applauded the healthy nature of her shit. I said things like, “Good poop, Catalina. Good solid poop.” And I collected the poop delicately in a light blue poop bag scented like baby powder that I’d pulled from a plastic poop bag dispenser in the shape of a bone in the mudroom before our walk. Usually, I made sure to bring two poop bags with me, and on these walks, Catalina only pooped once. But when I brought one poop bag, Catalina pooped twice. This was the nature of our relationship.
Catalina was gravely ill, her owners, my bearded friend’s parents, explained to me. They were traveling to Sweden for two weeks to my bearded friend’s father’s birth city where, my bearded friend said, toilets could not be flushed during certain hours of the day and night because it would violate a strictly enforced noise code. They, my bearded friend’s parents, did not want Catalina to be alone, so their house was to be my house for two weeks, and my bearded friend’s bedroom was to be my bedroom. They were rich. They had a swimming pool and a kind of garden planned with elaborate carelessness that was messy with a thatch of thorny-looking plants with dark green pointed leaves.
Catalina was beautiful, a cream-colored Chow Chow. Her eyes were little brown triangles. It was hard to believe she was sick. She had some kind of cancer. I came over to the house before my bearded friend and his parents were to leave for Sweden. They wanted to show me certain important things regarding Catalina’s special and fundamental diet. I liked my bearded friend’s parents, but they were slightly crazy. My bearded friend’s father gave me a quick tour of the house. “This is a bathroom…that is a toilet and that is a sink…this is a room…this is another room. Door…window. Hallway. Another window. Lots of windows in this place. Haha. Stairs,” he said. He instructed me, in great detail, on how to operate the oven, microwave, and TV, and even handed me the TV remote so that I could “try it out.”
My bearded friend’s mother led me outside to the garden. She said, “My garden is my heart.” She pointed and let me know which plants should be watered and when. “That one gets water everyday. That one, once every other day.” She stepped sedately down a flagged path covered thickly in crustlike lichen, and continued on with her instructions. “That plant in the corner never gets water. The one next to it gets water every three days, or four, but never every other, or every day. Make sure you water that one over there after the sun has set, otherwise it will surely die. That one should be watered no more than once a week…” Catalina’s food was prepared with an assortment of different powders, exactly three drops of white milky liquid, chilled purified water, two different kinds of pills that had to be rolled in peanut butter, and love. This was quickly explained to me, the love part emphasized, then my friend and his parents were off to Sweden.
At first I thought Catalina liked me. She followed me everywhere I went. I mixed her special food uncertainly, afraid that she would die at any moment. She let me pet her head between the ears and even licked my hand lavishly with her blue-black tongue. I thought I must have been doing something right. Catalina made sure to sleep in the same room as me. I listened to her dreaming, watched her paws gesture in quick pulses. I thought I liked her too. But as the first week drew to a close, we realized we were not so fond of each other.
My bearded friend told me I could use his desktop computer. I looked under History and clicked on all the pornographic videos. I didn’t like it when Catalina was in the room when I watched the videos my bearded friend had watched. When I steered her into the hallway and closed the door, she barked and barked, a deep explosive bark that pummeled through the door, and it was hard to concentrate on the videos. I could see her Chow Chow nose trying to slip under the bottom of the door.
After I came, I was light and hollow and clearheaded and the day seemed to gain innumerable, dreadful hours. I opened the door. Catalina looked bored and angry and I didn’t care. She looked at my face, I thought, with eyes that were tired of looking at my face. I mixed her food and ordered pizza from Pizza Pronto.
I tried the best I could to water the garden, my bearded friend’s mother’s heart, but I was doing it all wrong; her heart, a mesh of skulking florae, was slowly shriveling up and turning as rust-brown as the scattering of needles that had shed from the neighbor’s hulking pine tree. When I looked up at the tree, the first word that came to mind was: corrupt. Catalina watched me gracelessly fish the needles from the swimming pool using the too-long aluminum pool skimmer. She was criticizing me, I thought. I wanted to tell her that I could never look at a swimming pool the same way after I’d read a found copy of The Desperado while visiting my grandparents in Florida; but she was Catalina the dog, and I only really talked to her about healthy, solid defecation.
My grandparents lived in a gated residential community called Century Village. In order to live in Century Village, one had to be over the age of 70. And that is why most everyone who lived outside the gates of Century Village called it Cemetery Village. I found The Desperado in Cemetery Villages’ Bunco and Bingo rec room and, because Bingo would not be played for several more hours and I had exhaustively soaked my eyes in reality TV for a solid week, I immediately started to read it.
It was about a man, a Lawrence HoHopkins, who was trying to design the perfect swimming pool. The perfect swimming pool, according to Lawrence HoHopkins, was a sacred form that could touch the underside of what sat just below the surface of the skin and engaged the entire self when a person was immersed in “living water” with the naked body. It was a shame that more people didn’t embrace the idea of swimming naked, Lawrence HoHopkins explained to his friend, Jimmy, while they were out fishing on Lake Okeechobee. “‘The flesh, Jimmy, should be touched all over and simultaneously with the same urgency!’” Lawrence HoHopkins’s character says as he scrapes the scales off a fat sunfish. Jimmy looks on, drinking a sweating beer. It is a beautiful book, really, with parts like an overexposed photograph. At its core, I think it’s about Man and Nature. Not Man versus Nature. No, no.
I was naked and Catalina growled. Her lower teeth were missing, so I knew that if she lunged and bit me, it wouldn’t hurt. I dove into the swimming pool. Catalina trotted around and around the pool’s perimeter, as if at any moment she would jump in and overtake me. The water was surprisingly cold and something strange and irrepressible worked its way down from the back of my head to my tailbone before cutting into the rest of my body. I moved in ways I never knew I could. I sank to the bottom despite frantically kicking my legs and when I pushed back up with my feet and broke the water’s surface, I sensed that the experience of my life had somehow widened. I pulled myself out of the pool and lay shivering on the patio stones, trying to catch my breath. Catalina sat down in front of me and probed my head hesitantly with her Chow Chow nose. It wasn’t a seizure, but I knew instinctively that what I had just experienced in the water was a sign that something was wrong inside my body.
My bearded friend and his parents returned safely from Sweden on the Fourth of July. Goodbye, I said to Catalina. Goodbye, I said to my bearded friend’s mother’s neglected garden-heart. Sometime in August, after I’d left a medical facility where I’d gotten some tests done, I spotted my friend eating breakfast in the middle of the afternoon. I was feeling lightheaded and scared because I’d had my blood drawn and all I could do was wait. I wanted to spread myself out like a blanket on the earth, but instead I picked at the swab of taped cotton in the crook of my arm where the needle had bit. I ordered orange juice. Things were not altogether well. I knew that my bearded friend’s mother had been devastated with the state of her garden. It had held her body and soul together. I had never felt so capably poisonous. I finished my orange juice and my bearded friend told me that Catalina had died.
Then I went on a walk in the cemetery with a girl I liked. I bought the smallest, roundest watermelon I could find in a giant cardboard box filled with melons at the grocery store. How will we eat it? she asked when I arrived at the cemetery gates. I held the melon in my hands and looked at it. I raised it as high above my head as I could and let it drop to ground. It gasped wetly when it split open into two perfect halves. I was enormously stupefied. It is possible that there are some people who are sorry for me, but I only let myself think about such things occasionally.
The book is not very good, but I am a diligent reader, and maybe even a little desperate. My eyes move over the next sentence: “Now in the summer of Phillip’s fourteenth year the still surface of youth receded and gave way to the more unfamiliar patterns and directions and growths of adulthood that had suddenly risen up to meet him.” I close the book. The book’s title is The Dancing Thumbs. The word provocative appears on the back cover in red, twice. There is a blurb from a well-known author who has claimed to be “haunted and transformed” by the book’s premise, which “serves as a commentary upon the normal with curiously complex characters. It is horrifying and slippery…wow,” the well-known author’s blurb concludes.
Let me tell you more about the book. The book is about a boy, Phillip, who becomes obsessed with a much older man whose appearance and sex constantly changes from chapter to chapter and confuses poor Phillip, drives him to holy misery. For some reason it is crucial to know that Phillip grows two inches taller in one summer and styles his bread-colored hair with pomade. Basically, he becomes a stud. Then he goes crazy, and a crazy stud with a pompadour is truly light and sad on my heart. He cries a lot and there is a “chill in all his words.”
It is not very long. That is one reason why I bought The Dancing Thumbs in the English Bookstore around the corner. There is no one here I can talk to without feeling that all my organs are contracting, so I patronize the English Bookstore. The Dancing Thumbs is a used book and has a good used book smell to it. It has a vibrant yellow cover with one line-drawn head enveloping a smaller line-drawn head. The title also appeals to me because it is one of the more ridiculous titles I’ve come across. And if I am being honest, another reason I purchased The Dancing Thumbs is because it was cheaper than the other book I considered buying instead. The other book was longer and heavier, and its pages were slightly crepitated.
I cheated and looked at the last sentence of The Dancing Thumbs before I read the first sentence. The last sentence is: “It is nothing.” I went on a long walk in the Tiergarten and bit my nails and a handsome man showed me his penis. He stood in dappled shade and held his penis in his hand, offered it to me with a shake, but I didn’t know what had happened until after I’d passed by him and thought: There was a penis in that man’s hand. I walked out of the Tiergarten with clumsy feet and ate a hamburger and ordered a beer. My sudden hunger seemed bottomless. A woman in a nearby booth reached out across her table and caught in her palm the peas that tumbled out of a much older man’s mouth. That’s when I cheated and opened The Dancing Thumbs. I read out loud: “It is nothing!”
I’m sure none of my friends back home would read The Dancing Thumbs. They are mathematicians. I don’t even know how we became friends, but we are, and it has been good. I like to watch them raise their hands and mangle the air as they explain how to crease hypothetical spaces. I picture a Chinese folding screen, panels decorated with silk stars and moons, opening up and closing, opening up and closing above the mathematicians’ waving hands. When I ask them what exists in these hypothetical spaces, the mathematicians tell me to stop trying to imagine something in nothing. I tell them that if you hold a book long enough, it begins to carry your scent, and that that is something!
They are always hunched over, drawing countless shapes on paper, drawing lines and saying that there are an infinite number of points within the lines that they’ve drawn. Faces, vertices are words they use. They eat spoonfuls of Nutella instead of crying, never open their windows or water their plants, wear extremely colorful socks, and one of them even claims to have once rested his forehead against a dry cow’s belly only to have the unborn calf on the other side kick and knock him unconscious. They tell me, half-jokingly, that I am their dumbest friend.
It is true none of us has ever been in love. We wait. We are waiting.
Here is something: start with an exceedingly high number. Then begin to count backwards by seven in your head.
For my twenty-sixth birthday, my sister and my friend each sent me a different edition of the same book. The book is called The Dutiful Servant, and it is a book I should have liked in theory, but didn’t. Later, I told my friend that I didn’t like the book, but I will never tell my sister. The edition my friend sent me is small and thick, light green, aesthetically pleasing to the eye, and nice to carry in and out of cafés, the bedroom, bathrooms, etc. The edition my sister sent me is larger and dark blue, with a busy cover that is easily marked. I have never opened it.
On my twenty-sixth birthday, I taught composition at a community college in the Midwest, where I lived on a haunted farm whose address included two opposing cardinal directions.
Propped up against a wall was a broom that toppled over at exactly eleven o’clock every night. No matter where I moved it, the broom slid to the floor and clattered at exactly eleven o’clock every night; and though I didn’t really believe in ghosts, I made sure to pick up the broom every morning and prop it against the wall.
I didn’t know too many people.
I got daylong headaches; red splotches appeared in the center of everything I looked at.
The well water tasted like blood and colored my white t-shirts brown, stiffened cotton so that when I pulled on my socks, the threads cracked and formed small holes. Cold air constantly pricked my ankles.
The sheep were dumb and I liked them and their lambent eyes reminded me of glowing keyholes.
There was a young fox that stalked the hens, and on my twenty-sixth birthday, I spotted bloodied feathers scattered in the dried-up creek bed. I pictured a hen in the fox’s maw, her snapped neck bent at an impossible angle, her beaded orange eyes shiny as buttons, and her slack red comb sweeping against the ground like a paintbrush.
A young woman drove her car into a tree and died on my twenty-sixth birthday.
Formal papers with page numbers please, I reminded my students on my twenty-sixth birthday.
The Dutiful Servant
is a quick read. It is about a monkey named Hieronymus and a bear named Benno and the servant that cares for them in a manor house. Sometimes, I like to imagine the two editions of The Dutiful Servant
I was sent on my twenty-sixth birthday as the two animals, the smaller edition as Hieronymus and the larger edition as Benno.
Every now and then my sister enters my thoughts and when she does, she sits down.
Takes up space and makes herself at home.
In high school she used to run away to New Jersey for weeks at a time and I wondered what it would be like to have a sister who had been murdered in a motel in New Jersey. That’s where I pictured her and that’s where she really was. The guidance counselor took me into his office one day during second period and asked if I was OK. His name was Mr. Sukinik, and he would be dead nearly a year later. Perhaps then, as he asked if I was OK in his office—his folded arms resting on an unmarked desk calendar, his thumb and forefinger working tediously around a pink eraser—the cancer deep in his esophagus reaching down into his stomach was only a slight discomfort, a light yet persistent cough. I told Mr. Sukinik that I was OK, but secretly wished I wasn’t OK. I would only learn how to lie later. My sister always returned. She looked the same, only tired, and once with her bellybutton pierced, and once with small blue rhinestones embedded in her nails, and every time smelling of the car freshener, a velveteen yellow evergreen that spewed a scent called vanillaroma; and she saw a psychiatrist twice a week.
One night she emptied a bottle of aspirin into her mouth and crawled into my bedroom to say that she loved me and that she was going to die. I was studying for an AP U.S History exam. I turned around. She was curled up with one had clutching her stomach, the other sadly pawing the green carpet. I told her that I heard in school that aspirin didn’t kill you, only gave you painful, bloody ulcers for life, and that she had to throw-up if she didn’t want painful, bloody ulcers for life. She wept, I think, out of frustration into her long, loose shirt—a Grateful Dead t-shirt with a spiral of bears on a tie-dyed background. I heard her in the bathroom making desperate, choking sounds, the pelleting of half-dissolved aspirin, the bright jostle of the tipped toilet lever, and the sound of rushing water.
I could never have imagined then that she would mail me a book when I turned twenty-six. Her edition was carefully wrapped in blue and white wrapping paper and tucked snugly inside a cardboard box. There was a small card attached, a message inside written in large, looping handwriting that ended with: Love, Your Sister. It was handwriting that spoke of a happy, carefree life.
When I was twenty-six, I read The Dutiful Servant, taught composition, and even though I loved animals, I learned how to kill grouse from a man who had a wasted look and lived off the grid after his house had exploded from a natural gas leak.
“Going off the grid is no game,” he would tell me.
Pink twisting birthmark on his neck that I thought looked perverse.
He turned the birds upside down and set their heads through a narrow opening in a cone and gripped a knife and ran it across the pouches in their necks and we watched the hot blood spill out and spatter into a barrow filled with straw and send up sluggish curls of steam; the birds convulsed and became cold and perfectly still and we scalded them in a drum of hot water and plucked their beautiful feathers out and tossed them into the waste bin; and the birds’ meat in stew was chewy and gamey and I felt sick and ashamed.
“You choose the grid you want to get off of,” I heard the man’s voice boom inside my head.
I saw the tree the young woman drove into, its impressive splay of branches, its magnificent trunk I imagined her body breaking so easily against like an egg brought down on the lip of a nice glass bowl.
When it was dark, the coyotes came out to play. I listened to their busted laughter. It keened wickedly like whirling firecrackers, and dread scooped into me; my body vibrated. The coyotes sounded so close, but I knew they were near the wind turbines across the field. I turned off all the lights and stood at the window and looked out, just like I had when my sister crawled into the bathroom the night she’d swallowed all the aspirin.
I listened. But then there was nothing. I waited.
Somewhere in the house, a ghost passed through the wall and saw what a mess I’d made.
The broom handle smacked the ground.
Young Rader’s work has appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, New England Review, Little Star, and elsewhere. He was a 2014-2015 Writing Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts.