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Welcome to Canteen, the literary magazine that comes with instructions. Interest in reading literature has been eclipsed by interest in how and why literature is made. At least that’s how we explain why it’s easier to earn money teaching creative writing than practicing it. Add the ascendance of the memoir over the novel, scandal over plot, biography over oeuvre, and you realize something: It’s no longer enough just to experience the arts—we want to be part of their creation.

Chef Leary’s Canteen restaurant—the namesake of this magazine—hosted a series of literary dinners featuring many of our authors. Both Canteens, we hope, bring you closer to creativity and its results. We welcome all comments, suggestions, subscriptions, interns, and donations.


Canteen aims to engage readers with both the arts and the creative process. In this inaugural issue, Andrew Sean Greer confesses to his early novels, the first written at age 10; Po Bronson examines a suicide attempt by a reader; Julie Orringer and Ryan Harty make couple’s poetry from a kit; and Dennis Leary pulls off his chef ’s jacket to design restaurants of the future.


Stephen Pierson Publisher Sean Finney Editor-in-Chief

Stephen Pierson, PUBLISHER Sean Finney, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF Sai Sriskandarajah, ART DIRECTOR Mia Lipman, MANAGING EDITOR

SUBSCRIPTIONS To subscribe or purchase single issues, please visit

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REACTIONS? We’d be glad to hear from you at Canteen Magazine 70 Washington St., Ste. 12H Brooklyn, NY 11201

COVER: Sai Sriskandarajah, “Easthampton, August 2005”

© 2007 Canteen Arts, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher. Printed in the USA by Finlay Printing, LLC

canteen ISSUE ONE















































WROTE MY first novel when I was 10 years old. This is not particularly impressive. Writing a novel at 10 is actually a little late to begin things, if you’re going to be a genius child. Mozart, as my parents often pointed out to me during games of Candy Land, had already

masterpiece (Watership Down) about small furry animals that lived close to the ground. She stared at me, then at my squirrel novel. It must have been hard for her to be touched by envy so early. My mother still has the novel—Theodore, it’s called—and my grade: an A-plus-plus. “Write me

written an opera, and there I was trying to lick the board. So, when Mrs. Poppy assigned us each to write a “novel,” I took to it immediately. Here was something even Mozart hadn’t done. My favorite book at the time was Watership Down, and I admired it fiercely, so when Mrs. Poppy asked us each to write down the plot of our novels, it occurred to me that there was really no better story than animals on a quest. Certainly I hadn’t read one. So, I picked up my pen and wrote about animals on a quest. Not rabbits—I somehow knew about plagiarism—rather I picked squirrels. Everyone loves a story about squirrels. It began like this: “The sun was just setting over the meadows.” And ended with genius symmetry: “The sun was just rising over the hills.” I painstakingly typed out my novel on my mother’s Selectric, carefully writing around the pencil illustrations I had made of squirrels and secret tunnels and a blissful reconciliation; I don’t mind giving away that ending, since it was the style and not the substance that made my novel such a hit with my fellow students. I remember Allison Roberts admiring the cover I’d worked on. She had written a novel about horses traveling west,

when you publish your first novel,” Mrs. Poppy wrote. I was so happy to have won her approval; only a week before she had, to my horror, called me a “goody two-shoes” for bringing my homework in a vinyl briefcase.

and I leaned over to advise her in a whisper that she shouldn’t so obviously rip off Richard Adams’s

I WROTE MY second novel when I was 16. I’d seen an ad for the Avon-Flare Young Adult Novel Competition taped to the wall of my high school and, because I disapprove of nouns used as adjectives, I had completely misunderstood the title. I had assumed it was a Novel Competition for Young Adults. So, six years after I had put down the pen on Theodore, I picked it up again (this time in the form of a Brother word processor that printed on curling heat-transfer paper; genius works best with a handicap) and began a work 20 times as long: There Lies the Night. I’d recently been moved to tears by Wuthering Heights, and it occurred to me there was really no better story than ghosts walking on moors, and so I wrote about a dead undertaker haunting his wife on windy nights. An homage, again. I was sure that I lost the contest because it turned out to be a competition for Young Adult Novels, and they could not understand the symbols I had hidden in French throughout my text for scholars to decipher in decades to come. I was a little ambitious.

chapter about very dull high-school characters who I assumed were hiding a secret passion, or a dead undertaker husband. Then it was revealed. The secret was that his parents were divorced. I promptly threw it in the trash, already learning to resent American publishing.

walks into the main character’s house, demanding a drink, followed by the sound of a bulldozer ratcheting up the plot by razing the neighbor’s house.

BUT I HAD been bitten by the bug. The homage bug, that is. The next year, I read Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist and was so astounded that someone could write about life after the 19th century that I immediately went home to begin my own version. I was still unable to do more than imitate, but my story had a crucial difference from Tyler’s novel about an uptight man who meets an eccentric woman. Mine was about an uptight woman who meets an eccentric woman. It was called Simplicity Itself and began like this: In her room, every red was red. No brick reds, or cinnamons, or neons, simply an unadulterated red as one sees in primary color wheels in paint stores. As a child, she had started out with a Crayola beginner’s set of crayons. Later, her mother brought forth the Deluxe version, full of Burnt Umbers, Goldenrods, Persimmons, palacial [sic] with its double balcony and fitted cardboard cover, dazzlingly efficient with a crayon sharpener cleverly built into the back, elegantly designed with triangular patterns in

BY THE AGE of 20, I had moved beyond Anne Tyler into a word of haunted and metaphorical fiction, such as Don DeLillo’s White Noise. Is there really any better story than that of a pill that makes you forget death? My novel was completely different, of course. It was about a pill that makes you forget regret. (I’ve heard a recent novel picked up the same idea.) I wrote it in college on the first Macintosh, which they claimed was “portable.” I carried the computer to Portugal, where I plugged it into the socket and watched as smoke billowed from the back of the thing. Some complication with currents, I later learned. I finished the book on a strange device a friend at Apple loaned me—a “laptop”—with which I rode on Lisbon buses, typing away, burping the thing to keep its prototype screen lit, and sure I was part of a future world where this was how writers would live. I moved to New York to sell this novel. “It just doesn’t ‘sing’ to me,” one agent wrote. “We are finding this sort of story hard to sell,” another advised. “And do not send chocolate with your manuscript next time, as it tends to melt.” An older friend told me that there was no such thing


Yellow-Orange and Pine Green, but she had simply said, “Thank you, but I don’t need that. Those aren’t colors at all, they’re just pretend.” A pretty good pastiche, but I never got Simplicity Itself beyond the key meeting where the eccentric neighbor (in a pink dressing gown)


It began like this: “The stormclouds were violet over the village of Dieusang.” The novel that did win was called Buck, about a boy with a secret. I was eager to learn what made this a masterpiece, and read chapter after


as a 21-year-old novelist, not really, and I should consider getting a real job. Or perhaps going to graduate school. My parents agreed. Here’s how my last undergraduate effort began: “Carole Lombard came to my room last

number of drafts still on my hard drive a decade later; I seem to have been unable to give it up. Here’s how it began: Make me believe it. My mother was a mathematician, and she used to tell my father how her mind seized up with images of thorny

night.” I can’t seem to find more of the novel than that on my computer, for which I am sure future generations will weep. And I can’t seem to remember much more of the plot than the ghost of a movie star visiting that young man who can’t regret things. I do, however, recall the reference letter a professor sent all the grad schools I applied to. I know because I sneaked into the office while the secretary went to the bathroom. I photocopied my file. I quote it here in full: “Andrew Sean Greer is a self-conscious Dudley Do-Right.” Mrs. Poppy’s cry of “goody two-shoes” echoed in my skull.

symbols, equations trailing off past her line of sight, and how she’d hold her breath the way a nun might at a vision. My father, a biologist, was the same. They were lucky to have the passion to enthrall them while they dusted, cooked or mowed the lawn. I wasn’t as lucky. I had no vision like theirs; children don’t, of course. And at bedtime when they read me a story, I could watch their dazed faces while they recited the lines to me—any task, for them, was an opportunity to go inside themselves. Caught in their own passions, they scattered the words on me like birdfeed in a park, and I was so hungry for the story. It never really came. I see from an old letter that my agent sent it to 10 publishers (one of whom is my current publisher) before one was willing to meet me. I flew to New York and waited in a restaurant for her to arrive. She came in, all long black shawls and clattering heels. She stared at me and said only, “I see your young phase isn’t over yet” before the carpaccio arrived. When I asked about the novel, she smiled. “Honey, maybe start something else.” I believe now she must have owed my agent a favor.


10 THERE WERE OTHER novels, of course. There was the one I wrote on that repaired Macintosh (the “portable” one), whose Portuguese parts must have been intimidated by the American ones, because day by day, the screen would grow smaller until I was staring at something the size of a Chiclet. I was like those Chinese men you see on sidewalks, selling prayers they have written on a grain of rice. That novel I finished in graduate school in Montana. It was, if you can believe it, about deep-sea diving for an undiscovered sunken city off the coast of Portugal and the laptopcarrying young man who finds it. I seem to have a

I DID START something else. I started it immediately upon arriving home to Seattle— well, almost immediately. I’m told I spent a week

remember correctly, about a road trip to discover Western art forgers. There were Mormons and geysers and a villain called Fascinatin’ Tim. I have just reread a letter to my agent at the time, in which I tell him my friends have all read it and it’s surely even better than the unsellable last one. With Cowboy Up, he was speechless. By which I mean he never mentioned it to me—not ever, in all the years of our relationship—except to say, “I think you should work on short stories.” It was that powerful a novel. Here is how it began: It was a costume dance to benefit the Olympic mountain range, but by some amazing coincidence, all the young women had come dressed as Spanish ladies. So then picture it: almost a hundred red silk skirts spidered with black lace, dancing across the room like toppled poison mushrooms, whole galaxies of beauty spots glimmering from frowning cheeks, countless rose-stenciled fans flapping away at furious female breasts, causing a sound like sprinklers on a college lawn as well as, more strikingly, near gale-force winds which lifted every one of a hundred mantillas straight into the air. The effect: an Old West bordello reunion. The mood: bitter feminine fury. A costume dance to benefit the Olympic mountain range. Is there really any better story?

my saddest story”), but you know how it is: You never forget your first loves. Theodore and the undertaker guy and that deep-sea diving team. And all of those Spanish ladies. My heart belongs to them. And because even as a child scribbling my squirrel novel, I knew that I should save every draft, I have kept all the machines I wrote those novels on. The Selectric (somewhere in my mother’s flooded basement in Annapolis), the Brother (at my father’s in Pennsylvania), the Macintosh II (boxed up below me now in San Francisco), my first PowerBook (which I tried and failed to sell at a yard sale, though I plugged it in and showed how, after 20 minutes, it still started up fine, what’s the hurry?) and my second (perfectly good, just a stepped-on screen). One day they will all surely be placed behind Plexiglas in a museum. The Brother will be loaded with heat-transfer paper; the Macintosh will be cured of its scorched screen. And the world will recognize how all the hack efforts of my later “published” years cannot obscure the adoring imitative genius of those first novels. History has shown that all the great novels were written before the author could legally rent a car in New York City, and were unsung in their time. And oh, Mrs. Poppy, the sun will just be rising over the hills . . . .


AND THAT WAS the end of my career. I mean, my unpublished career. Yes, I wrote other beginnings. Yes, I had a novel about astronomers (“The sky never forgets”), another one about a man growing younger (“We are each the love of someone’s life”), another one in progress (“This is


catatonic on the couch. Then in four months— take that, Mozart!—I started and finished another novel, this time written in a rented house that came with a Siamese cat that screamed all day unless I allowed it to sit in my lap while I wrote. That novel was called Cowboy Up and was, if I




ward. What is a word like “ward” doing in the Magnetic Poetry Kit, among “love,” “sky,” “music,” “fever,” and other more expected choices? Did Dave Kapell mean for us to read in its noun form, like

formation of words like assassins, but in the end, we decided that the impulse fell within the bounds of artistic license. Furthermore, we concluded that Dave Kapell, the inventor of Magnetic Poetry, would have found the practice perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the invention. In any case, I think the composite helps us appreciate the “ass” in assassins, the “s as sins,” the tautological “s in s,” the “sass.”

“ward of the state”? “State” certainly does not occur in the scrupulously nonpolitical Magnetic Poetry Kit. If it’s to be read in its verb form, it requires “off,” as it’s used here; but “ward off ” is a strange, awkward phrasing, not the sort the Magnetic Poetry Kit seems to want to encourage. Perhaps more importantly, do writers really “ward off love”? What does it mean for a couple of married writers, who do feel deeply in love with each other, to write a line like this? Did we really mean that love is a hindrance to our work? (Certainly, it can be—we’d much rather blow off our writing days and spend time with each other.) Or did we just think the phrase sounded cool?

thousand bloom fight is the kind of Zen-tinged word grouping that frequently arises from magnetic poetry: a phrase on the surface arguably nonsensical, but redolent of meaning. If we take the phrase in its context to mean “the process of writing,” which was our intent, I’m afraid “thousand bloom fight” is a hopeless romanticization. We imagine the writer at a desk thick with petals (words), her hands bloodied by thorns (in the struggle with syntax, meaning, craft). More accurate would have been something like, “We each rise to The New York Times, coffee, Eggo waffles, emails, dread, procrastination, and horror at rereading the previous day’s work.” But that’s taking “rise” to mean “get up in the morning,” whereas within the poem, it might also be taken in its less literal, more self-aggrandizing sense, which skews the line even farther toward the horrifyingly romantic.

drink a little. Our generation of writers is a relatively sober lot. This was a subject of conversation in our graduate programs at Iowa and Stanford, particularly when famous graduates of the program came back to read. They would point out what pantywaists and milquetoasts we were and tell us about their heroic partying: five- and six-day-long binges followed by spates of careerdefining prose composition. We can never hope to achieve that kind of greatness, but we justify our own occasional four-o’clock cocktail or revision beer with thoughts of our predecessors’ fervent and productive tippling.


a s s as s in s. When we first began the project, I was frustrated by the brevity and generally upbeat nature of the contents of the Magnetic Poetry Kit. We had some debate over the legitimacy of the





challah actually comes from the Yiddish Magnetic Poetry Kit. As does “kvell,” two lines down. Is it fair to use the far more colorful words of the Yiddish Magnetic Poetry Kit when what we’ve been directed to use for this exercise is the standard English Magnetic Poetry Kit? Well, we think so.

look honeys open and endure. Hopeful despite everything, we cling to the idea that we can tease some insight out of our human experience, and that the whole endeavor means something. But every day we look at the work, and the world, and suspect them both of deep hilarious meaninglessness. So

Or, as Sholom Aleichem might say, farshtey zikh!

why persist? Is it just habit? Is it because when we stop, we get depressed and sick? Would we, like certain sharks, die if we were to stop swimming? If we open and endure, will we eventually get better at this? Or will we just use more paper?

but brother sister. There’s nothing like magnetic poetry for building a pregnant pause into a line. Something about the visual effect of the tile itself—the white space around the word, the thickness of the tile, the fine black line of magnet visible around the edges—makes the use of each word all the more momentous, all the more intended-seeming; to achieve the right line rhythm, you have to take all those visual elements into account, because each one adds a mote of time in the reader’s mind. Or at least I imagined so as I nudged “sister” closer to and farther from “brother,” endlessly, until I had achieved the appropriate distance. away down under the music. One might imagine the Magnetic Poetry Kit to be as free from shades of dialect as it is from politics. We found that not to be true. Use “away” instead of “way,” and the line carries a scent of the bayou. I don’t know what ghost of my New Orleans past suggested “away down under the music,” but there it is. Perhaps it was another trick of the medium—when “away” came to hand, I found I liked the twang of it better than “way.” Way better.

&. Does the ampersand give the line a shade of E.E. Cummings? Not our intent, but a welcome effect if it’s there. Maybe there’s something Cummingsesque about this mode of writing to begin with. Wouldn’t the coiner of “brightshadowfully,” “crylaughingly,” and “Amingfeeblyoff,” the author of “all matterings of mind/equal one violet,” have understood the impulse behind Magnetic Poetry? d est ing a tion. For the sake of clarity, we considered cutting down the “ing” (literally, with scissors) to “in.” But in the end, we decided to keep the g. We wanted the word to read destin(g)ation, or desting-ation. Eventually, we all lose our sting, and then the curtain falls. In the meantime, we go on and on. We write. We eat our challah. We fight our thousand bloom fight (whatever that means), complain, drink too much or not enough, write our magnetic poems. We go on and on, until, finally, mercifully, we don’t.






ET’S SAY YOU’RE writing a true story about a man who tried to kill himself after reading a book. You face a crucial decision immediately. If the book he read is a catalyst for his suicide attempt, then what do we need to know about this book to believe it changed a life? And how do you make the story of that life feel real, even while it is real? Do you follow it chronologically, such that we have to learn about the man’s wife and daughters before we get to the suicide attempt? Or do you put the suicide attempt right at the beginning, so the reader will accept it? That usually works. But then is it a tease if the man fails miserably at taking his own life? If he did not try very hard to kill himself—no blades, no cars over a cliff—then is it a red herring? IN THIS CASE, the book in question was mine. In January 2003, I published a volume of nonfiction that told the stories of 50 people changing their lives. The man who tried to kill himself was a guy in Des Moines named Bruce Johnson. The night was February 2, 2003. I will tell you all the details of this man’s situation, and how my book came to play a part in it. But in exchange, you have to indulge me— because what I’m really interested in is how stories are told, the power they have over our lives, and the connection between the two. How does the manner of telling enhance or detract from the power the story has on readers? I’m particularly curious about 

All names and locations have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals concerned.

the gap between artsy literary technique (a language of its own), the blunt way real people tell stories, and whether that gap helps or hurts the power of art. BRUCE JOHNSON WAS a strapping 35-yearold, the father of two darling young girls, Elizabeth and Anna. Three months earlier, his wife, Sharon, had asked him for a divorce, and Bruce discovered she was having an affair. She justified it this way: Bruce was emotionally withdrawn, out of touch with his feelings. By Bruce’s own admission, this was true. He had recently passed the Iowa bar. He was on the verge of actually having to become a lawyer like his father and brother—something he never wanted. Bruce was humiliated that something so petty was the cause of his depression. Legitimate depression is supposed to come from being a soldier in Iraq or losing a child to cancer. Bruce’s problem deserved not a lick of sympathy: He had to take a well-paying job in a nice clean office filling out papers and writing legal arguments. Boo hoo. So he continued to retreat in silence. BY JANUARY 2003, Bruce and Sharon were separated. Sharon had given him my book, hoping it might help him escape from his fog. Bruce read it in three days. Instead of being uplifted by the stories, he was crushed by the realization that he did not have the strength to even leave the house, much less grab life by the balls. The book had nothing to do with his underlying problems, but it was a catalyst for his reaction to them. The night of February 2, Sharon picked up the girls from Bruce’s house. She noticed he seemed

BY THEN, I had already developed an intense fear of my inbox. I’d received about a thousand emails from readers of What Should I Do With My Life? The immediacy of their reaction was rewarding, but their intensity was overwhelming. They weren’t just reading the book and talking about it. The book was propelling them to take action and rearrange their lives. For me, that was weird. Books are richest when they live in their own parallel universe, the world of the mind. When a book breaks the fourth wall and actually triggers change in a reader’s life—is that a testament to its power, or does it destroy the richness of that parallel universe? I feared the latter. THEN WHY WAS I reading and responding to these emails from the other side? I never wanted to be a writer who closed himself off from the world. I’ve always tried to be available to readers, openly inviting them to write to me and share their thoughts. I suppose I do it as a way to counteract the din of false voices that comes from my big New York publisher, which often seems like a bureaucratic

masters, and they are always unflinchingly honest and revealing. They mirror back to me my best lines. They notice the details I sweated over. Knowing they are out there—real and observant and thoughtful—calms me when I write. I believe the particular choices we make in how to tell a story either unlock or undermine its power. The best-told stories make a reader uncomfortable. FOR BRUCE JOHNSON, I had told these stories a little too well. His letter began like any other. Unlike the way I started telling this story to you, he buried the lede designed to grab a reader’s attention. Instead, Bruce took me back to his marriage circa 1997, then walked me forward as his misery deepened. He wrote pages before reaching the present tense, the dramatic action that made his letter memorable. As I read of his suicide attempt, I was aware that if he was writing to me, he was clearly still alive. But I was hooked on the story. Did he need his stomach pumped? Did anybody find him? Did his call for help get answered? Did Sharon change her mind and realize she was being too selfish? The drama of his story did not come from the manner of its telling. His language was neither raw nor polished, and the narration lacked the timely


into his stomach. It was a classic cry for help. Four days later, he wrote me an email and told me his story.

leviathan, nimble as an oil tanker. The ongoing advice from its representatives grates on me, and by the time my book comes out, its packaging is a painful compromise largely determined by marketers who haven’t even read the product they’re trying to push. Readers, on the other hand, are their own


particularly depressed. After she left, Bruce set out a bottle of pills and several fifths of hard alcohol. His plan was to drink until he had the will to swallow the pills. But he couldn’t even do this right. He drank until he blacked out. He got the pill bottle open, but he didn’t get any of its contents



drop of detail my ear craved. The drama came from its simplicity. Bruce was so ordinary and pathetic that his words created an unlikely spell. No writer could compose this way and get away with it. But a real person, confessing in an email, is granted the all-important suspension of disbelief, or, in this case,

four days removed from attempting suicide, he was happy. He could see his life again, and it would be his. Soup and sandwiches. End of letter.

suspension of disinterest.

that his story would end happily ever after. In a single paragraph, the narrative turned so fast that I wasn’t ready to accept the new reality. All of a sudden, I became a critic of this story he had written, putting it back in the parallel universe where how well the story is told—instead of whether or not it ends on an up note—is most important. As a reader, I felt cheated. I felt that the writer had slapped on a happy ending, like in a poorly crafted Hollywood blockbuster. “Hey, you can’t do that,” a little voice in me said to Bruce. “You need to tell me more about your father. You needed to mention that 1997 decision earlier. You need to slow down here, where the story turns. Walk me through days two, three, and four. Make it credible. You can’t wrap it all up! You’ve left too many loose ends. Is your wife still screwing some other guy? Does she love him?” Bruce had missed dramatic opportunities, too. For instance, when a man tries to take his life— albeit poorly—what goes through his head when he next sees his daughter’s face? Is he ashamed of his actions, or is he thrilled to see this day? Of this, he told me nothing. And how quickly can a man come out of his shell? Was Bruce now in touch with his feelings, abracadabra-like? Didn’t his transition to being “emotionally present” need to be articulated in order to be convincing?

BRUCE WOKE UP the morning after his suicide attempt to the sound of the telephone. Sharon was worried about him. He did not find it cathartic or joyous to wake up alive. It was more like, “Crap, I’m still here.” He told Sharon what he’d done, no doubt hoping she’d rush over, bring the girls, and reunite. Instead, she called Bruce’s brother, who called his father. The Lawyer. The Lawyer and Bruce had a long conversation about why The Lawyer’s Son would be so depressed that he’d even consider ending his life. Yes, the divorce—of course. But was that really it? Finally, Bruce brought up his career, shamefully. The Lawyer said what any father would: “Son, maybe you need a different direction. You need to do what will make you happy. And I’ll help you. Whatever it is.” Bruce took his dad back to 1997. Before going to law school, Bruce considered opening a restaurant. He had taken the wrong fork in the road, and it took a life-altering event to admit it. The Lawyer was more than supportive. He pledged to help Bruce open the restaurant. Over the next two days, Bruce felt more excitement and interest in a pursuit than he’d felt in a long time. Thus his letter came to me, the author of the catalytic book. Bruce was writing not to burden me or criticize my work, but to thank me. Just

HOLY COW. A happy ending was not what I expected. Nothing in the preceding pages hinted

letter was not the lame suicide attempt, but the ending: “I’m going to open a restaurant!” That left me hanging. Opening a restaurant is no easy thing. Was I supposed to actually believe he would do it? Was I supposed to pretend he wasn’t likely to lose all his money and a chunk of his Dad’s? Happy endings are the hardest thing in the world to write. It’s almost impossible to express respect and admiration for a character and not sound pat. Writers distrust happy endings because they never seem earned. We are too suspicious of the lingering underside. In the writer’s rulebook, stories never truly end. The sentences must end, but any presumption that the story actually ends— just like that!—rings false. I wondered what would really happen to Bruce Johnson. But I had no more sources, or so I thought.

discomfort with my book really came from making too many compromises in her own life. The book forced her to notice these compromises, so she’d just been blaming the messenger. Now she liked the book. She said she was only 27 and already going through a divorce, etc. She once ran for the school board and wanted to do it again. She didn’t mention that she was the one leaving her husband, or that her husband had once swallowed his desires, but was now going to open a restaurant. This was a telling omission that made me reconsider Bruce’s marriage. Sharon was apparently quick to judge, unfulfilled in her own life, and blind to the way one part of life seeps into another. Her letters and this curious omission helped me sympathize with Bruce. It was also an interesting narrative technique. In his own letters, Bruce was not a likeable character; he was too straight. But his wife’s letters—and her neglect to mention her exhusband’s suicide attempt—made him a likeable character. For the first time, I was sorta rooting for Bruce.

SHARON JOHNSON STARTED writing me that very week, but she never identified herself as connected to Bruce. She didn’t say, “I’m the ex-wife of a guy who tried to kill himself after reading your book.” In fact, she never mentioned Bruce at all. I knew it was Sharon by her name, where she lived, and the ages of her girls. Now it was getting really bizarre. Two people from the same family both felt compelled to write

TRUE STORIES ARE a unique challenge. Bruce and Sharon told me their tale artlessly, yet it was compelling. Why? Because it was real. Amateur storytellers live and die on the premise of reality. If


to me, yet neither had told the other. The husband had attempted suicide, but the wife didn’t even mention it. Her letters were entirely about her own issues. Her first email lacked any humility and was critical of the book and the people in it, though she’d only read a quarter of it. I didn’t respond. Then she wrote again and admitted that her


OF COURSE, I wrote back to Bruce and said all sorts of sympathetic things. We corresponded for a few days, until the available details dried up. But I still felt cheated. It bugged me that real people get to tell stories artlessly, while writers have to be careful to gain credibility. In fact, the most unbelievable action in Bruce’s



it’s their story, and it’s true, they can get away with telling it badly. Meanwhile, we writers try to maintain what we hope are literary standards. Of course, we do it to make our stories sing, to make them unfold just so. We also do it because we are actually writing

that we don’t need the club, because we do. But I am worried that we bend our stories to fit the literary rules in such a way that they no longer reflect people’s actual lives. Literary realism doesn’t allow for the abrupt happy ending. It calls for foreshadowing and character development and a

to each other. We use literary style as code. When we write, we send code to other writers: “I’m in the club.” We have this club to survive the brutality of publishing books. There’s a little voice in the back of our minds that squeaks, “Well, my publisher probably doesn’t get what I’m doing, and the readers at Barnes & Noble in Bumblefuck, Iowa, won’t get it, but at least other writers will understand what I’m doing.” At least I’m in the club. How do we know who’s in the club? It’s right there in the sentences. Little things we do carry the code, like how we use white space, the rare appearance of adverbs, and how our stories end (never happily). We need this club because we imagine that the readers in Bumblefuck, Iowa, don’t care about books nearly as much as we writers do.

kind of continuity. Otherwise, our narrator is not reliable.

BUT WHAT IF that’s not true? What if Bumblefuck, Iowa, is Des Moines? And what if our readers are like Bruce and Sharon Johnson? What if they are educated but imperfect, can’t communicate all that well with each other, and are lonely despite being married and surrounded by family? What if they take books more seriously than most writers do? What if books are the only true friends they’ve got? What if they react to books more strongly than they react to each other? If so, this calls into question the necessity of the literary techniques we employ. I’m not saying

HERE ARE THE facts about what has happened to Bruce and Sharon Johnson since February 2003. Not one of these details has been properly foreshadowed, so each will seem unrealistic. But they’re all true. First, Bruce Johnson actually did open his restaurant, with the help of his father The Lawyer and his stepbrother. They opened a brewpub that has been written up several times in the local newspaper. The place is busy every night. Bruce is happy and a maestro in the kitchen. His chicken wrap is a favorite of local patrons. His stepbrother is younger by three years, and although they have different parents, they have almost the same last name: Johnson and Jonson. Sharon Johnson married her lover at the end of 2003. He was almost twice her age, but he was passionate about gardening, sailing, and anything outdoors. He owned a cabin in the woods. He and Sharon were going to spend their first summer there, but he didn’t make it. He died in April, four months after their marriage. The girls took it hard. I even like Sharon now. “KNOWING YOUR AUDIENCE” gets a bad rap from writers. We think it’s dangerous to know

way you might feed your dog the same two cups of kibble every morning. I’d like to suggest that we consider opening the door to knowing our audience. Not to please them,

individuals. Each one of them is aching to be heard, and they will feel heard when they see their silent parts revealed in the pages of literature.


but to be reinspired by them. We are all looking for some faith in the power of the written word. Maybe we should stop listening to each other and listen to them, those people out there. We might just find that they are strange and wondrous creatures. They are not “the mass market.” They are


too much about who’s reading our work. We like to tune them out—we write for ourselves, or each other. Knowing our audience is beneath us. Car salesmen know their audience. Political pollsters know their audience. The idea is that you can please that audience and give them what they expect, the


knowing one thing unfolded us both, it was my history beneath me, my hands at least touching its skin.


the man whom I could hardly touch, whom I touched for only a short time and not for the reason he thought. I had been thinking of the river before, its rocks bared and dried and deeply summered. But then reports came back of barges breaking the levees, skiffs bent against boulders, aluminum glistening from above like the wet lid of some downturned eye that is not ashamed but about to plead for some just realized need, an answer to all this death. But the earth sends only Indian paintbrush— the feathery plant that grows where an animal has died— not as elegy but as substitute. Last night, things made sudden by illness, I held onto the kitchen counter, and this seems like nothing, how I kept my hands there. Nothing, my hands on his stomach, where small chinks had been taken out of his skin as if by a carver’s tool. And I know there is no retrieving it back: no retrieving any of it back: the time the body, its tree-shadowed markings, has been racked all against the walls with no one else, just highway, just windows. Yet in those few times I touched him,


The body aches, I don’t know why, and begs for a system that will not break—even to fold the warm clothes out of the bin, wanting the edges to do as they are meant to do— this is why I touched him,



























INTENDED TO stay in Los Angeles just long enough to make sense of what happened with Amelia, then either return to the Ridge or join a different intentional community in the northwest. Instead, I’ve moved here. My brother, Saul, called this a victory of progress over its malcontents, and

“I don’t need a big refrigerator.” She nodded in approval. “And you will find in the bathroom the water is strong.” “Strong?” “Especially newer units will not have that.” Running a hand through her thick hennaed

my mother assumed I had finally recognized how such places breed unrest and boredom. Really, though, I’m staying because my recovery is going slowly and will be easier in Los Angeles than up there. Here in this whirligig of glittering surfaces so unlike any I’m used to, I can hide while the past becomes sediment. My apartment is in East Hollywood, in a dilapidated Art Deco building called Lyman Place. A beige one-room studio with an adjunct kitchenette and a bathroom, it has a gas-powered rangetop stove and travertine molding. It also has a wall-mounted ironing board that both of the Hungarian women who manage this complex demonstrated on separate occasions. “The unit come with a clothes table,” said Andrea, pulling open a thin cupboard door from which the ironing board folded out. She adjusted her tight aubergine leggings by dancing in place. “Do Kathryn show you this?” “Yes.” I again inspected the board’s torn and yellowed fabric, with a loop-de-loop daisy pattern speckled by what appeared to be blood or grape juice. “Not everywhere will have one.” She rubbed a small burn hole that would otherwise have been unnoticeable. “That’s true.” “Newer units will have only big refrigerators and such, no classic amenities.”

hair, separating it into six plaits that didn’t sluice back into one, she pried open a door behind her and motioned for me to enter first. It was difficult for us both to stand in the bathroom without touching, so we leaned away from each other in a wishbone formation. Everything, including the metal fixtures, was heavily coated with matte blue paint; the walls had bumpy columns of congealed drips, haikus in slurred Braille. A window the size of a food slot on a cell door was cut into the shower tiles, and I imagined that while shaving I’d be able to watch the midmorning joggers, dog-walkers, and other wastrels who haunt L.A. and are in turn haunted. “Notice this, please.” Andrea turned on the bath faucet, and a shock-white stream of water beat down on the oblong tub mercilessly, powerfully, totally, and we just stood there, lightly sprayed, transfixed. It was this display of force, along with the competitive rent, that decided me in favor of the Lyman Place apartment over two others I’d seen. I signed a six-month lease and unpacked my three suitcases. LATER, WHILE HANDING me a check to cover the one I’d written for Andrea, Saul said I could pay him back once he got me a job at the movie studio where he worked. They regularly

precondition of this loan. Mom can’t keep worrying about you there. You’re 27 years old.” “25.” “Just agree to forget that place.” I did, though nothing could be more difficult. I remember everything about the Ridge with awful clarity. The groves of Douglas firs and susurrant streams and wild grasses visible from the greenhouse portico, which in early autumn glows topaz at dawn and dusk. The harvest moons and farmers markets and group meal preparations. Amelia, who when I left showed no emotion, as though that were part of the lesson I had to learn.

I held the edges of my thinning flannel sheet, aware that elsewhere in town, people were closing deals involving great sums of money and elaborations of celebrity. People my age, rubbed rightly by fate, given all they can handle and then much more. In six months or 10 years, the story will be about their inability to deal with fame, or about fame’s unwillingness to deal anymore with them, a sad and educational prospect at which they shrug their shoulders with studied unconcern, for that’s then and this is now. At six, I fell asleep to the cry of my neighbor’s alarm clock.

IT’S JULY AND hot all the time. Last night, I lay awake on the rectangular egg crate I use for a mattress, trying to get a conceptual advantage over my problems in Los Angeles. It was the wrong approach, like attempting to break a dozen bundled sticks in half when clearly they must be snapped one at a time, stick by stick: unemployment, eczema, solitude, fear of the sun, insomnia, mild tinnitus, an evaporated future. At 2 a.m., someone outside shouted: “You’re doing it again?” There was no response. A lawnmower buzzed nearby, which could have been what triggered the complaint, though I took it to mean, “The endless night—the endless

AN ACTRESS NAMED Jennifer lives across the hall from me. She has auburn hair and a lopsided smile she thinks is the reason she hasn’t yet made it. Beauty is symmetrical, and the mouth is a major part of this symmetry, so although one could have uniform eyes, consistent cheekbones, and earlobes cast from mirror molds, nothing quite masks a crooked smile. Sometimes she imagines it would have been better to be born with an obvious deformity, and to have developed a love of reading and inland geography, for to be mostly perfect in Hollywood is to mostly founder. “I’m not giving up, though,” she said yesterday when we dropped our garbage bags into the trash canister behind Lyman Place at the same time. “I


succession of nights! You bring terror and despair and then you leave, lulling us into a daytime security that does not—and never will—last. You are bleaker than the remotest corner of winter tundra. You do us all in.” For hours after the sound of the mower faded,


needed entry-level employees in acquisitions, and in six months I could rise to licensing, itself a mere nine-month stopgap before distribution. “I’d rather not work in the industry,” I said. “What else are you thinking about? Because you’re not going back to the commune. That’s a

just need to find the right part and a director who

money people had, the more they valued each other.

isn’t looking for a mannequin.”

And that anyone willing or able to say different was

I would have asked what kind of part that was,

a flibbertigibbet who deserved the barren life they’d

and which directors were most discerning, but she

lead once luxury lost its flavor. I looked at Jennifer

quickly ran up the stairs and through the building’s

and thought about Amelia.

back entrance.




We met again this afternoon at our foyer

MANUEL JOSE IS the Lyman Place Apartments

mailboxes. I flipped through bills and stopped on

factotum. Round and mustachioed, he rarely

an appeal to help the authorities locate Christina

responds when I talk to him. In a practiced crouch

Scott James, a 12-year-old girl abducted in

behind one of the building’s basement laundry

Huntington Beach on her way home from a piano

machines, he’ll quietly unscrew, take apart, and

lesson, last known to be wearing tight, gold-stitched

reassemble squat metal contraptions while I roll

bellbottom jeans and orthodontic head gear.

up socks and discuss various subjects. Sometimes

“Have you seen a job listings catalogue around?”

he seems to block me out and move to an internal

I asked. “I was supposed to get it yesterday, but

soundtrack of his own, having lost interest—or

maybe it’s been misdelivered.”

never having had it in the first place—in Los

“For what sort of jobs?”

Angeles’s dried-up riverbed or the melting Antarctic






ice shelves or the theory that love and work, Freud’s

educational groups.”

breakthrough binary, open the gateway to happiness

when done truly, but I keep trying.

Jennifer held up an ad for Languor perfume

and smelled the rough vermilion band running

beneath an entwined man and woman. “But what

laundry, as well as that belonging to the four nieces

if you meet someone and want to ask her out?”

and nephews who live with them. She is obese—let

“What do you mean?”

me say it and move on—and handled each piece

“Women like to have the option not to pay

of clothing like it was a diaper to be wrapped up

most of the time. I mean, some don’t, but there’s no

and discarded. Pants, shirts, and underwear were

reason in dating to confine yourself to the deep end

stretched tautly and with implosive speed pleated

of the pool.”

and creased.

The foyer wasn’t air-conditioned—as the

This morning, his wife, Pietra, came to do their

My own folding looked irresponsible next to

apartments of Lyman Place weren’t—and I used

hers, so I tied up my story and prepared to leave.

my shirtsleeve to wipe my forehead. Jennifer smiled

Manuel Jose, acknowledging neither his wife nor

apologetically and then composed her face to Greta

my thoughts on avian fidelity, stood up abruptly, a

Garbo grim. Amelia had believed that love came

healed dryer under his drumming fingers, and ate a

from sentiment and sympathy. And that the less

candy bar holstered in his tool belt.

“You use iron?” Pietra asked me, eyeing my

or secret encouragement. Let everyone wear each

stack of T-shirts skeptically. I told her about the

other down, the idea goes, until they’re exhausted

ironing board in my wall.

nubs, unable to compete.

She shook her head softly, “No need. No


MY MOTHER CALLED today to tell me that her sister, my Aunt Liz, has gone back to Magdalene

JENNIFER AND I each got a rejection letter today.

Farm—this time, it’s feared, for good. She hadn’t

The Juvenile Justice Program, a pro bono law office

been doing well since quitting it last May, when I

that advocates for incarcerated youths, thanked

had only been at the Ridge for three months. My

me for my interest but didn’t have any paralegal

closeness to Aunt Liz was well known, and my

positions; and More Than Anything cast someone

mother presumed that any steps I took in a selfless

else for the part of Tabitha, the twentysomething

direction were the consequences of this attachment.

temptation of the film’s male hero, a quantum

Aunt Liz, although downplaying her influence over

physicist named Kenneth. The character is written

me, out of concern for my mother withdrew from

to smile a lot under flattering lights. Jennifer

the ashram and told me in a melancholy email that

thought it would have been a watershed in her

no sacrifice was too great to make for family.

career, presaging fame and fortune and possibly

making a virtue of her physical flaw. “It could have

environment,” my mother said, “whereas you’re fine

saved me,” she said, wrapping her arms around

doing whatever you’re doing.”

herself like twine, a self-lacerating lilt in her voice

while the sun sank slowly into Sunset Boulevard.

stuck in the world of commerce and taxes, well advanced on the road more traveled.

WHENEVER I WALK by the tawny apartment

“You’re not just saying this to make me feel

building eight doors up from Lyman Place, a

better?” she asked.

sagging hacienda built in the 1940s and minimally

“I wouldn’t do that.”

maintained ever since, I see the Persian family that

“Has Saul found you a job at his studio yet?”

occupies its second floor, going about its business

“I’m looking for nonprofit work.”

without noticing my intermittent gaze or halting

“What, do you mean with the government?”

the rows it conducts in breakbeat Farsi, son-



“I remember you did well in civics class. Isn’t it

daughter. Great outpourings of rage and love and

funny how our talents choose us?”

bitter defamations, these shouting matches are pitched beyond their participants. Most people just

WHEN I HUNG up, my phone rang again

walk on by, as if they were offering their sanction



I told her not to worry, that I was currently


“She has problems and needs that sort of


“Yes,” a man said, “this is Manuel Jose who works for the Lyman Place.” “Manuel Jose!” “I have a question, please. Yesterday, I leave a yellow folder in the cleaning room, and I am wondering do you see it at this time?” “No, I don’t think so.” “It has papers in it about jobs to do for the Lyman



Place and other places I work, and it is yellow.” “Sorry, but I didn’t see it.” “Ah, okay.” “You don’t have another copy of your jobs?” “Maybe somebody find it is no worth anything, and they put it back.” “I hope so.” “Because why do somebody want to take my life?” I didn’t know, and as the afternoon wore on I knew less and less. Manuel Jose and Pietra and his nieces and nephews would be set back, if only temporarily, by a stranger’s impulse. And there was no reason why. The question of evil scrambled so many impressions of God. Or dissolved or corrupted them. Amelia said she didn’t believe in evil because it was inexplicable. She thought we needed another category—or at least contrapuntal language—for what we couldn’t abide. And on the night I opened her door and heard the music box of her bedspring stop as she said, “Give me a minute,” I didn’t know if she’d addressed me or the man jackknifed on top of her. And about suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters. PERHAPS AS A distraction, I’m developing feelings for Jennifer, a tenderness beyond the

neighborly. The asymmetry of her smile has bewitched me, cocked my head so that I’ve been dizzy for days, so that looking into its tilt I imagine nothing else can cure my wounded love instincts. Oh, these love instincts! They’re too much for me sometimes. They get the upper hand. I try to carry on, content to be alone, in fact not even seeing myself that way but rather as a complete human being with spontaneous propulsions forward that waste not and want not—but then I’ll hear a hoarse term of endearment on a crosstown bus between a retired ferry conductor and his perspiring wife, and my heart will hollow out, as empty as a well when there’s nothing left to wish for. “Who’re you dating these days?” I asked Jennifer this evening as we leaned against the steps in front of Lyman Place, me in a wrinkled button-up oxford and her in worn overalls the color and design of TV static. The sun on the horizon produced a less withering heat than usual. “You want to hear about all of them?” she said. “Is that a joke?” “No.” She hooked her thumbs behind her overalls’ front straps and touched the insignia on her metal buttons. “Then tell me about all of them.” She went precisely over the names of her suitors, accenting each Ristorucci, Xiang-Shien, ObuAddy, and Grumpenfrüber perfectly. When she stopped, we both sat for a moment, out of breath, as a neighbor tied a final bungee cord over her car’s roof-straddled boxes, then called out from the driver’s-side window that she was moving back to Vermont for the seasons so eerily absent here. She had once compared living in Southern

ON THE MORNING after I walked in on Amelia, on the day I boarded a bus to Los Angeles, she told me that thinking we possess anyone or anything exclusively was a delusion, even a sickness, and that our belongings were nothing more than figures on the credit side of an imaginary ledger, just as what we lacked were scribbles on its debit side. She said that our love—that all love—was built on volatility, for we moved in and out of desire and torpor and affection and dependence and indifference, and there need be nothing wrong with this. I said her argument was an excuse that could be used to justify stealing and murder and any other abuse, if no one owns anything, including their lives. I said I needed her atonement and promise that she’d never do it again. She looked at me and answered: This is how life is. LAST NIGHT, I let Jennifer into my apartment to practice a monologue. I was chopping celery and carrots. She looked at the green-and-orange pile and said, “You’re not going to eat those while I’m rehearsing, are you?”

most raw and difficult five minutes I’d ever shared with another person. A torrent of accusations by a young woman against her old protector, the monologue, as performed by Jennifer, was so scathing and intimate and successful a performance that I couldn’t help thinking that it was me being excoriated. She sounded great emotional depths and accessed a rage I never saw in my normal dealings with others. Trembling and flush, her skin patchy, she was like an innocent person at the gallows, and I would have done anything to rescue her. “What are you auditioning for?” I asked when she retreated to the couch and broke character by rubbing her face briskly and making a low, guttural sound to relax. “The Tides of Love.” “The soap opera?” “It pays $2,500 a week, and plastic surgery is included in the health plan. I think I’d be good as Opal Worthington—the character I’m trying out for—because she’s very withdrawn and contemplative, like I am sometimes.” “Yes,” I said, and offered some notes on her performance. I didn’t mention that it was too honest and important for The Tides of Love, and so perhaps irrelevant, because I thought that


car rolled creakily away, listing to the right under the uneven load. “Nobody, really,” I said. “Nothing serious.” “Serious is hard to find. I gave up looking a while ago.”

“Would it bother you?” I set down the knife on my worn, granulated countertop, sharp side away from me. “It could be distracting.” “I’ll wait, then.” “You don’t have to do this. Watch me, I mean.” “But I want to. I’m not actually hungry.” Then Jennifer delivered her piece. It was the


California to being in a room where one movement of a four-part symphony played over and over, while elsewhere in the same building, you could hear the complete cycle. You’d go mad if you didn’t hear the rest eventually. “What about you?” Jennifer asked when the



maybe the program’s casting director would watch her audition and forget about her smile, happily uncalled-for in this monologue, and think only that she had to be hired, that $2,500 a week was too little for this kind of premium talent. Because in addition to her obvious qualities, physical and

to get to sleep early, she looked at me for a long time before saying goodnight.

otherwise, I sensed that she wouldn’t just titillate a TV audience with the facile come-ons and flip cattiness of a regular daytime television star who burns with inheritance and carnality, but rather she would implicate her viewers in the moral lottery that guides a soap opera’s universe. She would make it personal for them. She would expose the parallels between watcher and watched, the mutually dependent relationship that exists between an Opal Worthington and a Tides of Love fan, which is not just to say that the character’s existence depends on the show’s ratings—which in turn are decided by the cooperation of afternoon viewers who derive pleasure from Opal’s and others’ pain and dissembling. No, this is also to suggest that Opal and fan are in a symbiotic relationship requiring the real person’s secret sympathy and identification, though on a diminished scale, with the fictional character’s outward vulnerability and unchecked ego to enable that character to keep on manifesting the dangerous traits that will lead, ineluctably, to catastrophe for him or herself, while provoking in the fan relief that justice has been served and horror that what makes us most human has such terrible consequences. Jennifer ate three carrot sticks, then asked if I wanted to go to a piano bar on Vermont Street for her friend’s midnight cabaret. When I said no because I had a lot to do the next day and needed

said that my only regret in 15 years will be that I didn’t start sooner. “And I want you to give it that 15 years,” he added absurdly, like a doctor telling a recent amputee to allow decades for full adjustment to his new way of life. “The thing about this career is that it’s an investment you can’t pull out of too soon. Like mutual funds. You don’t sink all your money into them and expect wealth right away. You wait and let them accrue value as the market builds on itself, and in the meantime, you concentrate on other things.” My mother said that with this commitment, she could now shift the brunt of her worry to my little sister, Nina, whose flirtation with a visiting friend of my father’s last year resulted in pregnancy, abortion, and the discovery of God. Manuel Jose put on his usual front of indifference to the news of my new job, though it was particularly strained. Aunt Liz was glad that Saul and I will see each other more and didn’t say how much she likes being back at Magdalene Farm. Jennifer, unable to eat while waiting to hear about callbacks, smiled unselfconsciously.

WITH FOUR MORE rejection letters from nonprofits, I decided this afternoon to take the studio job Saul offered me. On the phone, he

LAST NIGHT, I changed my mind and used Saul’s money to buy a one-way ticket to Agness, Oregon, the town nearest the Ridge. Despite what happened with Amelia, I’d been part of something greater than myself there, an ideology of giving and

slumped shoulder, and said, “I hear you bring the folder. Thank you.” “But it’s my fault,” I said, tucking the check into her hand and then turning and walking briskly away, afraid that if I stayed longer I’d get angry at not being punished. FROM THERE, I went to Vermont Street and headed south, away from Lyman Place. It was hard being in the sun for so long, and I veered toward the patches of shade offered by buildings and trees and vehicles. After an hour, I grew a little delirious and stopped caring where I was headed. Then, after another hour, in little El Salvador, crying sporadically and taking violent slugs from a gallon of water, I saw my problems in Los Angeles miraculously and suddenly disappear, as though I’d snapped them all in a bundle, as though the rule of one-by-one were a myth. I began laughing, and the mestizos on the sidewalk gave me wide berth. I would stay and work and pay back Manuel Jose. I would not return to a world where my instincts, so powerful and determined, were so wrong and unwelcome. Nightfall, just then coming on, would not do us in. When I got home, Saul called to say I start tomorrow morning on Studio Lot A in Culver City. I crossed the room to the ironing board and opened


I couldn’t obey. I decided to go back and evolve to the next level, for I’d been wrong to imagine that life was less complicated outside of the Ridge, or improvement inevitable, and I would finish what I started. But after lunch today, as I packed and threw things away, I found, to my cyclonic alarm, Manuel Jose’s yellow folder. It was buried in a stack of newspapers that I’d been reading during my last laundry room trip and carried up to my apartment in a miscellaneous stack. Within 10 minutes of calling him, possible only after a long hunt for my landlady and her address book, I was at his house with the folder in hand. His hair in tangles and pillow lines on his cheeks, and wearing a single pointy-toed boot, Manuel Jose accepted his property. “I’m very sorry,” I said. Directly behind him, in the kitchen, Pietra stuffed cubes into a food processor while a small girl slept in the crook of her left arm. “It didn’t occur to me that I could have the folder in my recycling pile. I know that doesn’t help with the jobs you’ve missed, but I’ll pay you back for those, and I’ll go to your employers and explain that it was my fault.” “No need. Is okay.” “I have a check for you—it’s probably not enough, but it’s a start—and maybe you could wait a little while to cash it? I’m not exactly sure when it’ll clear.”

“Jim,” said Manuel Jose, and it was the first time he’d used my name, smiling and pressing the folder to his stomach, just above a silver belt buckle with “MJR” emblazoned in bas relief over a rococo Mexico City cathedral, “I no take your money. Get rid of your mind.” Pietra came up to the door, stroking the girl’s


renunciation and openness that I simply hadn’t extended into the personal sphere. I’d mistakenly thought that the impulse to share didn’t include romantic love, and that Amelia, by calling sex with others a generous act rather than a betrayal, was being selfish, a wizard of casuistry whose powers



its hatch, as though repeating a nightly action. I picked up a shirt and laid it flat on the board, rolling out the bunched sleeves. I was thinking about going out to buy an iron when I spotted a piece of lightblue paper lying on the carpet near the door. Jim, it said, I got the part on The Tides of Love!

would come back but knew why I wouldn’t, and that our love, without any more direct communication, might like a radio signal in space travel out forever and then, whatever its transmitters’ fate, surprise and delight its discoverers. I collected my wallet and keys. As I grabbed

As of next Thursday, I’ll be Opal Worthington every day. But you may have guessed by now this isn’t the real reason for the note. It is do you want to go to the Good Luck Club tonight at 10? My friend’s klezmer band is playing. Please check the yes or no box down below. If you can’t go that’s okay, but if you can I’d be happy. I’m asking this officially so you don’t think it’s just some whatever invitation. Jennifer I read the note several times, then hunted for a pen and didn’t find one. I folded the note along its crease and thought that if I was going out for an iron, I could also get a pen. To be official. This was how life was and I accepted it. Amelia had probably moved on already many times; she said while dropping me off at the station that she hoped I

the doorknob, I heard a knock and a woman’s voice. “Jim,” she said. “It’s me.” The metal under my fingers grew warm as I stared straight ahead. “I know you’re there; I heard you walking around. Please open up.” My fingers on the knob grew slippery with perspiration. It was a matter of 15 inches. “I’ve thought a lot about what you said. Actually, that’s an understatement. I’ve thought about nothing else.” After a pause, she laughed weakly, “The bus trip here is really long, isn’t it?” After another, much longer pause, “I apologize and promise not to do it again. You know what I mean. Please open the door. I can’t stand being kept out like this.” After a last, longest pause, so faint I barely heard it, “Can you?”






HIS IS NOT a preface or argument for something that may actually occur, be built or realized, be erected, conceived, traced in blueprint, or otherwise undertaken in earnest by myself, my peers, colleagues, and enemies, numerous though they may be. NO, herein I hold

the blankness of SOON, to the promise of wealth, leisure, power, influence, and repletion. The restaurant of the future does not suckle, nor comfort with succession in china little soups or boneless prods from your ancestral table. It is the dead animal moved by mechanics to celebrate

forth on nothing less than that long panorama we know as the future, the blank space a few minutes from now wherein you may get a sandwich, a promotion, or cancer. NOT FOR US a retailing of the warm womb, the chill birth, the tug of the teat and the slap of the midwife, the scraped knees at seven, erections at eleven, the backbiting, scheming, fornicating at twenty-eight, the dismissal of one’s manservant at thirty-two, then liverwurst on rye a moment ago, the moment after that but just before this, ad absurdum. NO, again NO, we are to look forward, heartily and with good cheer, to

labor. That will be your home. How soft the modern metropolis, with its air-conditioned towers and wide thoroughfares, sanitation trucks and Braille subway maps, coffeecup sleeves and crossing guards—how soft and how contented, how replete with conveniences, bright lights, and baubles is the city of Today, the city of narrow shoulders and no surprises. In this ectoplasm are lit the stages of dinner, lunch, and sometimes breakfast—the theater of restaurants that enforces ease, dependence, and status.

of the restaurant will remain somewhat mysterious. The critics will certainly fail to adapt to the cycles, and no reviews will appear. The service will be brusque, the food portions small, ornate, and expensive. Our young Turks, the newly minted rich, will profess a liking for the place, and business will be strong, notwithstanding the strange, almost malevolent air that hangs over the entrance.


Once every several years, and according to a timetable known only to itself, will the doors open and the green light be lit, signifying nothing. Of course, there will be no sign, and the whereabouts







Vanity is cruel, and for the young, natural. MY PETS is built in the middle of our most fashionable shopping plaza, where teens and their wards take in the sun and drink vitamin water. Flanking the entrance to the restaurant are two large panels that portray pale figures, gender uncertain, with large dewy eyes and hipbones that could cut glass. In the middle of the triptych the prospective diner waits, self-conscious yet assured, lulled by the pulse of electronic music and the sight of the Meat Wall. The hostess is anatomically perfect with all the latest enhancements, and she deploys them well, though the crowd takes no notice. Indeed, so involved are these comely youngsters with their phones and entrĂŠes that the place almost has an aura of a church or temple. Mirrors line the walls to accentuate the alimentary spectacle: a live carp pulled apart with chopsticks, veal in chains, pale as alabaster, mewling pathetically as the ward connects the jumper cables, a cornered squid, and various platters of disjecta membra, still wriggling with expiring life.

prostheses. At night, the bars are filled with young professionals, drinking and commingling. Taste in music, fashion, and accessories shifts relentlessly, and much is made of the latest handheld device. Of course, in this state of economic contentment, envy is never far absent, so the citizens naturally occupy their time with hard-to-get restaurant reservations. PAYCOCK, an eatery currently in an undisclosed location, has managed to capitalize on this trend with a high degree of success. One can only call after midnight, and even then, a complicated automated phone directory must be navigated, and funds transferred electronically, if one wishes to secure a spot. No directions are listed, and there is no public record or business registration in any city hall archives. That said, it is never lacking for business. And though PAYCOCK has at one time or another taken up residence in the business/ financial district, its chief—the shadowy Giamedi— prefers alleyways and dead-end streets. Oftentimes the telltale sign will appear without warning on a nondescript block of apartment buildings, and the patrons will arrive within minutes, feverishly intoning their secret password, over and over again.


By now it should be apparent that our city is again flourishing. Promenades and parks, once desolate, teem with children at play. The murder rate is down, rents are rising, and our veterans have newer, shinier







Nostalgia being a variant of regress, it is not surprising to see the emergence of HOMTOWNEHOUSE, a restaurant that trades upon our elevation of the past at the expense of the present. Here the stock items of Americana are trundled out daily—the bad coffee, the white bread, the orange cheese—without a hint of irony or cynicism. Indeed, such concepts are foreign to the staff, weaned as they are on images of the GREAT GAME OF BASEBALL, OUR NATIONAL PASTIME, and cartoons involving the interactions of a wily mouse and hapless cat. Breakfast—the only meal served—is offered without interruption from 9 a.m. to midnight. Petulant diners frequently send back eggs to have them less cooked, more cooked, the whites firm but the yolk runny, bacon soft or burnt, potatoes extra crispy with no green things on them, and so on. Many of the women push food around on their plates without eating, and many of the men have a pasty bloat from drinking the night before. These customers were once the popular kids in high school, now adrift in early middle age. Outside the sun passes behind a cloud in the shape of a death’s head, but inside all is warm, womblike and eternal.

the early notices were favorable. However, a rash of new reviews has come out contradicting the early ones. It seems the public is divided as to the “message” and “meaning” of the place. Controversy of this sort usually produces receipts; in this case, however, the place is dark by 11 p.m. Beholden as they are to whims of a changeable public, the restaurant’s owners scan the dailies in hopes of adapting their style. But it is of no use. The horizon of novelty has passed, and nothing, not the most adept PR, can save this sinking ship.


The tension that pervades BEING stems from the Manichean conflict between those sacred cows of modern life—exhibitionism and voyeurism. Though the restaurant has yet to find its audience,




The tree has grown between the window & its bars



bound in vellum

Desiree Justina Fields You taught me the lowercase



gold leaf

“L” serves for the number one if it seems missing again

(COPY MACHINE) Alluvial Plains Here in this hotel upon which I typed earlier drafts from DEATHRACE

I have yet to see.























How Soon Is Now? (single mix)




IKE WE REALLY needed DiRossi telling us remain calm, don’t panic, everything’s going to be fine; by this point we’d run the drill so many times it was practically hard-wired into our motherboards. From the back of the classroom, I watched kids rise like sleepwalkers from their

Somewhere above, a jet ripped across the sky, and heads lifted uneasily to follow its flight. Kate MacArthur, a dozen yards ahead of me, continued to stare at her shoes. In some more logical world, I might be reaching up to peel a hand away from the day planner she clutched to her chest. But in this

desks and file toward the door. Which was pretty much what the end of Fifth Period usually looked like, except now no one was talking or hanging back to score brownie points with Mr. D. It was the orderliness—the uncharacteristic quiet—that let you know people were a little freaked out. That, and the way everyone carried their backpacks and duffels. Technically, we weren’t supposed to worry about our belongings. We’d always been instructed to leave books and papers and sports equipment behind. We’d returned after the all-clear to classrooms that looked like the aftermath of rapture: pencils dropped midsentence, desktops drifted with Kleenex, bags splayed like bodies in the aisles. But this was not a drill, according to Mr. DiRossi, and I for one was not about to leave my broadsides and my disc player and my Morrissey—like my whole life, basically— behind. The weird quiet persisted as we crossed the soccer fields to the field house, our Designated Safe Zone. Ellicott Academy was situated on a Georgetown hilltop, which meant maximum sunlight for the fields and maximum fatigue for the P.E. classes meeting on them this time of year. The paths the maintenance guy had mowed stood out in alternating greens like stripes on a giant flag. I could smell the chalk of the boundary lines. A breeze assaulted my pomaded hair.

one, I was having a hard enough time just keeping myself together. I tried to imagine what my parents were doing on this postcard-perfect Indian summer afternoon: my dad setting down his mug of tea on a stack of bluebooks; my mum sorting the laundry on the kitchen table, going through my pants pockets, sniffing my shirts. Since 2001, she’d kept the little countertop TV on constantly, almost like she was impatient for another crisis. I saw my dad leaving his study to find out what she was wailing about now. Pausing for a second in front of the stairway that led to the attic. Considering ripping down the poster of the Englishman gazing insouciantly at him from the door I kept closed at all times. He would assure her: School is the safest place the boy can be. He would remind her: We don’t want to overreact, Geeta, his big test is today. Surely this is just a misunderstanding. A familiar voice spoke up. Meaning in my ear, practically. “What’s going on?” Simon had pulled ahead of his fifth period accounting class to fall into step with me. “Probably nothing.” “But they pulled you guys out of the PSAT.” “Fine. So it’s something, then.” He could be such a baby. “You don’t find this worrying?” “What’s worrying going to do? Pretend it’s

of cut grass. “I meant if you’re human or if you’ve like evolved beyond fear,” he said. “It was supposed to be flattering.” But I was too preoccupied to feel flattered. My brain was a radio tuned to too many stations at once. I’D BEEN LISTENING to Bona Drag earlier that afternoon when I spotted the Headmistress. Spectrally thin, her bottle-blond hair haloed by the hallway’s fluorescence, she hovered at a discreet distance outside the door. It was the first time I’d ever seen her in the upper school building— conceivably the first time she’d set actual foot there. Now and then she would grace us with some face time at assembly, but mostly she was this invisible power, a deity or whatever, talked about but not seen. I pressed pause and palmed my earphones and waited to see if she’d noticed them. My agreement with Mr. DiRossi notwithstanding, I was intimately familiar with the Academy’s official policy governing the use of personal stereo equipment during school hours. The kids in the rows of desks between us remained hunched over their bubble sheets,

The Boy With The Thorn In His Side

Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before


day—and if his neediness got on my nerves lately, well at least…you know. Everybody likes to be needed. I’d noticed him my first week at the Academy, the redhead with the combat boots and the Smiths patch on his backpack who brought his own lunch and carried it outside to eat. The catalog khakis and cuffs that stopped well short of his wrists screamed scholarship kid. After a few days, I slipped away from the table where I’d been eating lunch alone and found him sitting on a low brick wall outside the upper school, his painted nails digging popcorn out of a greasy plastic bag. He wasn’t reading or doing homework or anything, but staring off in the direction of the treeline. As it turned out, Simon wasn’t into Morrissey, either solo or with The Smiths. “I just liked the patch,” he said. “I’m an artist.” (I tried not to hold these things against him.) It’s not like he started sleeping over at my house, or like I ever went to his. I knew his mum worked and his dad was out of the picture, and that was about it. We didn’t email or text or talk on the phone. But all that first year, when I needed someone to sit with at lunch or assembly, or someone to do the illustrations for my Meat Is Murder campaign, Simon was there. People said things behind his back, of course. Like for example that spring after the war started, when his phone number appeared for a few weeks inside one of the

locker-room stalls. But if that stuff ever bothered him, he didn’t mention it, so I didn’t either. People were idiots, I thought, and at our age who knew what he or she was into, anyway, or who exactly he or she was? Now he tried again. “So, how was the PSAT?” “You always know just what to say.” “Probably they’ll give you a do-over, right?” “Do I seem eager to talk about this?” More silence. Shoes scythed through clumps


a pep rally, okay? Pretend we’re going for class photos.” We walked along wordlessly for a while. Then he said, “Seriously, Pankaj. Sometimes I wonder if you’re human.” On a normal day, I wouldn’t have let him get away with this, but it wasn’t a normal



“I was detained/ I was waylaid”

Death At One’s Elbow

unaware, apparently, of the Headmistress’s presence. They reminded me of dioramas at the Smithsonian: plastic cavepeople crouched around fake fires. Kate MacArthur’s ponytail gleamed like a hair commercial in the faintly buzzing light, close enough to touch. Mr. DiRossi continued to pace

articulate to my dad what I saw in Morrissey, but only there, amid the pencil-scratchers, did it occur to me that with Morrissey you never knew how much was ironic and how much was sincere. Simon wouldn’t shut up about The Cure, and it was easy, I supposed, to appreciate people who wore their

the aisles. You would have thought from the way he nodded that he was overseeing some really crucial endeavor, the drafting of a new constitution or something. Beneath the slow applause of his shoes on the floor and the scratch of number-two pencils, the Headmistress was almost inaudible. “Could I have a word?” On his way to the door, Mr. DiRossi looked at me and mouthed, “Watch the class.” I guess he thought our little arrangement about the PSAT meant that I was his second-in-command now, or that he was like an Honorary Brown Person of the World, but when the door had snicked shut and the rattle of the frosted window had died away, I slipped the earphones back in. DiRossi, it turned out, was no different than the rest of the faculty, for whom I wasn’t really a person, with needs and desires of my own, but a fashion victim in the hall, a foreign name on the roll, someone to smile at when you were after something—a diversity statistic, a dissenting opinion for the school paper—and otherwise more or less to ignore. I pushed play, and Morrissey resumed his plaint against the decadent west. His hooded eyes studied me through the scratched plastic of the jewel case. His hair had been teased up and shellacked into a pompadour. His mouth seemed to mock the camera with the faintest stirrings of a smile. I’d tried in a recent shouting match to

hearts outside their clothes. You always knew what they felt. But Morrissey required a more rarefied brand of devotion, because if you thought you had figured out what lay behind the teased hair and smirk…well, that was your mistake. More rarefied and therefore more pure. With my earphones in, I missed DiRossi’s return. I removed them just in time hear him make his announcement, “This is not a drill.” I always sat in the last chair of the last row, farthest away from the door, which made me the last person in line— what, in elementary school, was called the caboose. “Pankaj.” Mr. DiRossi had paused in the doorway. He pronounced my name differently every time; you’d think just by dumb luck, he’d get it right every once in a while. “Hit the lights on the way out, buddy. I don’t know how long this is going to take.” NOW WE HAD reached the field-house entrance: a modest one-story building with the kind of triangular roofline kindergarteners make when they draw houses. Mr. DiRossi was holding the door for my class. I made a point of not meeting his eye, but I could tell he was studying Simon, who, with his pallor and home-cut hair, was difficult to miss. “You’re with the wrong Fifth Period, son,” DiRossi said. Simon blushed and looked ready to scurry back to Accounting, but I just kept walking. Either he’d

flights of stairs, past underground floors packed with state-of-the-art equipment. The echoes of shoes and voices filled the stairwell. Simon’s cheeks were still flushed. “Screw DiRossi,” I said. “He’s just upset because his test got interrupted.” “Maybe he’s upset because something is really happening this time. You’re really not worried about your parents?” “I said I don’t want to talk about it.” Someone behind him hissed at us to move.

lines from my dad’s monographs was generally a good way to win an argument.) As I began to rattle off bias statistics, Mr. DiRossi held up his hand to stop me. He said he would agree to let me sit out the test. “So long as you don’t disturb anyone else,” he said. “And so long as your parents approve.” It wasn’t exactly a question, but it wasn’t exactly not a question either. Unprepared to lie outright, I took a decorous sip of soda. It had been a long time, and I had forgotten the way Coke seeps sweetly into the tongue.

NORMALLY, I WOULDN’T have wasted one minute feeling guilty about the forged note I’d flashed at Mr. DiRossi the day before the test. It’s just that he’d been so surprisingly sympathetic about the whole thing. When I’d come in after school for an Informal Chat the week before, I’d found him wedged into one of the orthopedically punitive student desks, instead of the authority seat behind the big desk, where he sat when he wanted to come off as intimidating. And there had been two Cokes waiting. Which, even though my op-ed piece about soda machines in the cafeteria should have made clear my convictions about multinational corporations, was a gesture. I took a few sips while he was talking, to be polite. I was a “bright enough guy,” he said. If I scored well on the test, wouldn’t that raise the mean among my people?

THERE WERE RUMORS. They moved through the student body like cancer, metastatic. You couldn’t say where they’d started, exactly, or even from whom you’d heard them. It was more like on some unconscious level, the level of pheromones and adrenaline, we were all networked together. A girl had managed to get a line out on her cell phone. A boy had overheard our teachers talking. There had been a threat. An intruder. A plane in the nofly zone. Of course, I knew better than to believe anything I was hearing. I knew my chances of dying in an attack were like my chances of being struck by lightning. Fear tactics, my dad would have said. Still, I got nervous every time I let myself wonder what the hell was going on up there in the world. At first, the forces of order had prevailed. We’d entered the practice gym, four stories underground,

Frankly Mr. Shankly

“Since you asked...”


“I’m Pakistani, Mr. D. My people are the freshman class at Harvard.” He thought about this for a minute. “So wherein lies the discrimination?” I told him I was a conscientious objector. Solidarity with the oppressed, I said. (Stealing


follow or he wouldn’t. There was too much going on for them to worry about who came in with what class. The interior of the little entrance building was bare. We passed the small trophy case and the vacant security desk and tromped down four

That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore


to find classmates clustered quietly on the parquet floor. The Sixth Formers I passed didn’t roll their eyes, as they might have at a pep rally or a game, but seemed to see straight through me. Everyone was caught in his own private world of concern. As we picked our way through the jigsaw scatter of legs



“Well, it suddenly struck me...”

and hands and bags, Simon managed to trample some guy’s cell phone with his combat boots, but the owner was slow to register the damage. Along the back wall of the gym, I found an empty spot where I could lean back against the blue wrestling mats that had been hung there, for safety I guessed. Simon settled down beside me without having to be invited. Teachers fanned out through the gym with clipboards, checking to see that everyone was accounted for. During drills, we’d been instructed not to use our phones, but a few kids pulled theirs surreptitiously from bags and pockets. Like there was any chance of getting reception 40 feet underground. After that we just sat in silence. The teachers were huddled behind the plate-glass window of the coaches’ office, and I pointed them out to Simon. Watching them confer, you could tell yourself things were under control—and almost believe it. Then, as if by prearrangement, everyone started whispering. The whisper rose to a murmur. And now that it had become clear that the teachers were too preoccupied to enforce the Quiet Rule, people were speculating wildly. An attempt on the president. A possible bomb. A man with a gun—a gunman. There had been a time when if you’d told me that radicals had designs on a snotty prep school in Northwest D.C., I would have laughed in your face. But these were weird days in America.

There were spores and wars and snipers and shoebombers. The edge of what was possible has been hammered outward until it was hard to be sure what was real. “Because seriously, my mom, you know.” Simon was saying. “What about her?” He stared up at the lights in their protective cages, and I could tell he was trying to make his voice sound casual. “She works on the Hill.” “I thought she was a dental hygienist.” “Yeah, on the Hill. The office is right there on D Street, by the Capitol.” His pitch had risen. I looked around to see if anyone was listening or looking at us, but it seemed like Simon and I were the only people not huddled in some self-absorbed little scrum. Basically, our high school was prerevolutionary. The first estate comprised the upperclassmen who played varsity or had a sibling over 21 or both— who had no trouble getting laid. The salient skill was pretending not to know that there was a first estate; why advertise your place in the hierarchy if there’s nowhere for you to go but down? The second estate was the masses: the straight arrows, the hardworking kids who hadn’t distinguished themselves with beauty, grace, money, or wit. Scholarship kids who would have been in the first estate if their parents could afford the right cars, girls who didn’t go past second base, black kids who didn’t do sports, Hacky-Sackers, et cetera. The third estate was nerds, queers, and fat kids. I liked to think of myself as an anomaly, operating above and outside this system. Now I was starting to wonder. Even Kate McArthur had her place, next

continued. “If anything should, you know....” “Look, Simon. These things always turn out all right in the end. But you’ve got to stop stressing me out, okay? I’ve got a lot on my mind at the moment.” “It’s just a practice test, Pankaj. That’s what the P stands for. You won’t take the real SAT until you’re my year.” “Will you please shut up about the stupid test?” “Just promise me we’re going to get out of here soon. And that my mom’s okay.” “Fifteen minutes, I bet you money.” Something was making me regret snapping at him. I held out my Discman. “You want to listen while we wait?” “Do you have that Disintegration I burned you?” “Just Smiths. And one Morrissey solo.” Like he had to ask. I hated the fucking Cure and he knew it. He looked disappointed but accepted the earphones anyway. It took me about a minute to regret my offer. Without music, I couldn’t keep my mind off my own parents.

behind our house, where the bricks make the ball bounce funny? That I make my broadsides and write editorials about stupid little causes no one cares about, or else sit on the windowsill with the volume cranked to seep through the floorboards and into the study? That I look out over the stifled grid of colonial houses, toward the tall commercial buildings across the river, and try to imagine there’s anywhere to go? That it’s hard to concentrate on homework when you’re playing music that loud? (Which, by the way, is why I didn’t finish last night’s history assignment?) It didn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Plus I could only feel so sorry for myself. This was Georgetown, after all. I’d never been able figure out why my dad chose this, of all places, to pursue his tenure. I mean, I understood that this was America, you went where the money led you, and so forth. Still, you would think from all his work on inequality and injustice that we would have ended up somewhere a little more middle-class—a little more real. Maybe part of him thrived on the brick sidewalks and historic rowhouses and overpriced bistros and boutiques crowding the hillside between M Street and Reservoir Road, which had to be so different from anything he grew up with. And I was expected to complete the arc of his ambitions: Get good grades. Go to Princeton or wherever. Marry an heiress. Streak out like a rocket

OKAY, SO MY folks and I weren’t as simpatico as I’d led Mr. DiRossi to believe. But what was I supposed to say? Now that you mention it, Mr. D., my dad hasn’t spoken to me in over a month? Actually, since you asked, these days I usually


skip my after-school snack, so I won’t have to be in the same room with him? That I head upstairs to the attic? That I lock the door and press play, Mr. DiRossi; that I turn up Louder Than Bombs and open the little window that looks out over the unused basketball goal he put up in the alley


to the lacrosse-team captain whose phone Simon had smashed. Her body inclined toward his, and I wanted, for a second, to be in contact with his finely etched chest, his flushed jaw and steady hands, to hide my doughy body inside them. Simon scooted closer. “Which would be like ground zero,” he

Barbarism Begins At Home



Oscillate Wildly

above the kinds of lives he studied and never have to look down or back. Except that by the end of my first year at Ellicott, after the first string of Cs and C-minuses and rejections, we both knew things weren’t going to work out like that. I didn’t want them to work out like that. And say for a minute I

hand. After a whispery conference, he dispatched her to the tunnel that led to the locker rooms. The truth is, something had to give, I had to get out, and I was willing to go through DiRossi if necessary. Kate MacArthur’s pale legs and field-hockey skirt faded into shadow; if I hurried up, I might

was smart enough. Say, for the sake of argument, I didn’t bomb the aptitude tests: Why would I want to attend some demimonde college with the same kids who surrounded me at the Academy? My mum liked to say we were just alike, Dad and me, but in fact I had so little in common with him that there were times when I looked at myself in the little mirror on my dresser and wondered if I wasn’t the product of some secret affair from her youth. Beneath the Morrissey pompadour, my skin was a shade darker than his. My face was almost entirely my mum’s. But then, right in the center of it, was his pugilist’s squashed nose. Plus there was the stubbornness—I guess we shared that, too. He refused to see why I teased my hair, wore eyeliner on Casual Fridays, ripped my khakis at the knee, failed to turn in assignments or sit for tests or go out for basketball. Why I refused to care. Was this how we were going to leave things, in the end?

still catch her, might seem to bump into her, might joke about making a break for it…might even (who knows?) figure out what I was chasing. DiRossi motioned me forward. I made sure not to step on anyone’s stuff. When DiRossi asked me what I wanted, I moved from foot to foot for dramatic effect. “I’ve got to go.” “You can hold it,” he said. “Am I supposed to get down and grovel? Because I’m ready, sahib. Just say the word.” He gave me a look that was either skeptical or puzzled, but again it seemed that the rules of engagement between teachers and students had been suspended, because he let me go without further interrogation. Someone had neglected to turn on the overhead lights in the tunnel. I had to run one hand along the wall to keep from running into it. “Hello?” I said. Maybe her fingers had touched this very cinderblock half a minute earlier, but there was no longer any trace of warmth.

SIMON LOOKED PUZZLED when he saw my hand go up. He pulled out one of his earphones— which were my earphones. I told him I had to go to the bathroom. It wasn’t a lie, either, technically. I really was going to have to go sooner or later. But it wouldn’t have occurred to me for another 15 minutes if I hadn’t noticed Kate MacArthur walking over to Mr. DiRossi, who’d been posted at center court to make sure things didn’t get out of

CLEARLY, THE ARCHITECTS who had thought to combine the separate functions of group shower, dressing room, and toilet into a single entity called the Men’s Locker Room were sadists. No private-school boy will soon forget the humid reek of Mentholatum and farts, the rank scent of

when I couldn’t get away with wearing the same clothes during and after gym, I usually waited until everyone had cleared out before changing. Still, I was struck by how different it was now. I made my way through the echoing shower area, past silent drains and rows of blunt showerheads. The toilets were located at the far end, just over a little lip of cement that theoretically kept shower-bilge from slicking up the tile. Under normal circumstances, the subtropical mists from the shower all ended up here, in what they called the Bowel, and sometimes the humidity amplified the smell beyond the point of endurance, but that wasn’t the case today. It was almost peaceful; you could almost forget the crowd on the gym floor, the sense of pending disaster, death from above. After zipping up, I sat down on a little bench bolted to the floor near the stalls, for people to wait their turn, I guess. The automatic flush of the urinal subsided. I tried to focus on my breathing, like my mum had taught me: in through the nose, out through the mouth. Everything is okay. Everything is fine. My eyes wandered over the pockmarked paint on the walls, Go Eagles! stenciled above a broad blue stripe. On the mirror, a piece of paper was hanging. I guess I’d forgotten coming here to tape up broadsides before school the previous week; I’d put up dozens of them, though no one at the Academy seemed any closer to realizing what a

concept was mine. MEAT IS MURDER, it said. P.S. 2002. I had never noticed before the way our initials entwined around the copyright symbol, and suddenly my face was on fire, my fogged breath clearing the glass. We were all enlightened in Georgetown. No one had ever resorted to vulgar words, or scrawled my phone number in the stalls. But still, imagining you could escape the system, you only broadcasted your place in it. You couldn’t outrun who you were. I DIDN’T RETURN Simon’s smile, but sat down beside him in the gym without a word and began stuffing the CDs he’d pulled out back into my bag. I’d buried my flier deep in a trashcan, but it had burned itself into the backs of my eyelids. Every time I blinked, I saw it. I saw Kate MacArthur consoling the boy with the broken phone, orally. I saw the upper school bursting in a flash of heat and soccer fields reduced to ash; all of D.C., its upperclasses and lowerclasses, disappearing into thick black fog, like the smoke that had blown across the river from the Pentagon on the Eleventh. And at this point I almost felt like: Bring it on. I mean, didn’t we all, on some level, deserve it? Then I thought about my mum, patiently ironing the wrinkles out of my blue oxford shirts, lifting the fabric to her nose. And my dad, studying Morrissey’s eyeliner, struggling with himself. I’m

Paint A Vulgar Picture


remarkable and complex individual I was. I stood to get a better look at my handiwork. The masking tape was still intact, as was the paper. Simon had done the lettering and come up with the simple black-and-white cow stencil (despite his refusal to give up bologna), but the overall


adolescent bodies. The conversation. The towelsnapping and ostentatious scratching. In Third Form, some of the guys had made a game of trying to urinate on each other in the shower after gym class. Not being a scholar-athlete myself, I avoided the locker room whenever possible. On hot days

“Sadly, this was your life...”


“Has the world changed...”

The Queen Is Dead



“...or have I?”

not sure how long I sat there in that feverish state. Probably not as long as it seemed. When the teachers emerged from the coaches’ office, anxiety surged through the gym. Simon must have felt it, too, because he removed the earphones. It was so quiet we could hear the staccato tap of

of the Academy to err on the side of caution whenever the safety of its students was at stake. She said law enforcement had now confirmed there was no threat to our safety. As the end of the school day was approaching, she said, we were more or less free to go. PSATs would be rescheduled. Students

the Headmistress’s heels on the waxed wood. For a few seconds, music continued to blare tinnily out of my earphones. Simon didn’t seem to notice. I reached over and pressed the stop button on the Discman. Before I could draw my hand away, he’d caught it inside his. He never looked at me, but his skinny fingers squeezed my palm. I thought I detected a pulse beneath the fair surface of his skin. I wondered how I felt about it, and if he felt mine. “If I could have your attention,” the Headmistress began. She was standing at the top of the key. And for some reason I remembered the first time I ever heard The Smiths, on college radio in Berkeley, where we’d lived when I was 13. I’d always had trouble sleeping, and sometimes I would turn on my clock radio and try to let my mind go blank. I remembered rain on the window and this song coming on, a screaming guitar and a singer crooning, “Farewell to this land’s cheerless marshes,” while lightning played on the walls, and this feeling of recognition, like hearing some future self calling out to the present one. I can’t say why it came back to me, sitting there, with my sweaty hand stuck to Simon’s. Or why it made whatever the Headmistress was about to say seem somehow beside the point.

would be dismissed by class. Students were reminded, of course, to exit in the same calm and orderly fashion in which they entered. Thank you everyone for your patient understanding.

SHE SAID A mistake had been made. Somewhere in the emergency system, she said. It was the policy

PEOPLE BEGAN PACKING up bags, rising to their feet, yawning. They seemed relieved. I should have been relieved, too. Instead there was a fist in my throat, like I got during arguments with my dad, back when we were still arguing. Simon’s hand had mine in a death grip. “What are you doing?” “Huh?” He had the dazed look of someone roused from a dream. I pried my hand loose. “What do you think you’re doing?” It came out louder than I’d intended. I looked around. Kate MacArthur was gathering her books off the floor, her back to me. I pulled myself to my feet. My whisper was almost deafening, or at least I couldn’t hear anything else. “Boys don’t hold hands, Simon.” I would have expected his face to go red instead of skim-milk white. “I cannot be your whatever you think I am, okay?” We were both standing now. His eyes, too, were somehow colorless.“Grow up, Pankaj,” was all he said. The gym seethed around us. Hundreds of kids jostled for position. Their motion was making me kind of airsick. The lacrosse captain was fighting his way toward us, holding his arms up so as to move

I think I wanted it to sound intimidating, but then why did it come out so trembly? And why, when I spun toward the stairwell, did it feel like I was the one running away? “Hey!” A voice behind me was almost yelling to be heard over the commotion. “You owe me a new phone, girlfriend.” I was still close enough at this point to go back and defend Simon. There would have been a chance afterward to apologize for being paranoid. But I didn’t, okay? I didn’t even turn around.

estate, only older. In soccer sandals or high-end sneakers, they moved lazily through the dappled light, as if nothing serious would ever happen in the world, as if there was no problem that could not be solved. I might have joined them, given the chance.

OUR HOUR IN the gym had torpedoed the normal dismissal procedures. Kids thronged like gulls around Senior Circle. I didn’t stop to talk, not that I had anyone left to talk to. A strand of donot-cross tape stretched across the driveway where the carpool cars usually entered the roundabout, but only one security officer was on hand to direct traffic. Some of the First Formers, not yet embarrassable by naked emotion, actually sprinted to their parents’ minivans and SUVs. Actually hugged their parents through the open windows. By the time I reached the far side of the circle, the police ribbon had broken. Its yellow ends trailed on the asphalt, stirred by breezes. Gradually, my face cooled. I walked home past the same staid rowhouses I passed every day, the gas lamps already flickering. Georgetown’s sidewalks,

EVEN BEFORE I could get out my keys, I heard Mum’s quick footsteps approaching the door. I let her fuss over me on the front stoop for a few seconds. “Oh darling, we’ve been watching on channel five, what happened?” she said. “Nothing happened.” I pushed past her into the empty foyer. My dad apparently couldn’t even be bothered to come down from the study and say hello. “Nothing?” “False alarm. I’ll tell you about it later.” “You’ll come have something to eat and tell me about it now. And what about the test?” she said. “Your father and I have been worried.” I failed, I wanted to say. Instead, I asked her where he was. “We have to call him! He went to the school as soon as the bulletin came on.” “Dad went to school?” “He left an hour ago to try to get you. You would be proud of me. I told him you were safe and don’t panic, but you know your father.”

Back To The Old House

A Rush And A Push And The Land Is Ours


dating from when it was a colony, were the narrowest in the city. I had to keep cutting around treeboxes to avoid the university dragoons walking home after classes or just out enjoying the dregs of summer. I could always identify Georgetown students; they looked just like the Academy’s first


more easily against the current, Kate MacArthur following in his wake. A dented device was in one of his fists. I snatched my Discman from Simon. My hands were shaking. Then I saw my index finger stab toward his bony chest, pulling back before it made contact. “Don’t do that again. Don’t ever touch me.”



Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want

I told her I was going upstairs to lie down for awhile. She tried to keep me, offering pastries and soda, telling me the newscast would be on soon, but the only thing I wanted more than solitude was gone. I walked up the narrow wooden stairs and

called “Every Day Is Like Sunday” came on, from the first solo album. It wasn’t the kind of song you turned up loud. Hanging on the wall above the dresser was the mirror I used before leaving for school in the morning. On an impulse, I grabbed a towel from

down the hall toward his study. Sunlight stained the drafts on his desk. For the first time, it hit me that, in the world we were actually living in, his theories were totally futile. But somehow that only made them seem more important. I stared for a second at smirking Morrissey before opening the door to the attic. Our little reprieve from the coming fall had driven the temperature in my room up into the 80s. I sloughed off my bookbag. Pushed open the window. Turned on my stereo and, without looking to see what was in the CD tray, pushed play. A song

the floor and ran it over my hair. I did this again, and again, until most of the pomade was gone. I rubbed at the eyeliner. Still, the face staring back at me was unfamiliar. I grabbed some scissors from the pencil-can on the desk and clipped a spike of hair from my temple. Stiff with lacquer, it plummeted to the floor. I didn’t know whether to put the scissors down or to keep cutting, until everything was short and more or less even. Outside my window, a car door slammed. The sky over Virginia had gone a deep pink. Somewhere beyond it, I felt a future self waiting, slightly out of focus, for me to come to a decision.


SONGS FROM THE DIRTY SOUTH Ultimately we lived here, and this is where we happened to fall. Not near the ocean.


What’s it like somewhere else? Beyond the house and its cold rapture? Born here, I don’t know this place but recognize it as where you slept.



We loved on the floor and some days, the sun was gracious with its divinities, its plastic half-pints of yogurt. What notes to add? Are there other half-objects to stand before?

A QUIET POEM, A BEER Sometimes the world and its tongue is less violent, but only when green branches douse the pagoda.


I’ll say! the freak of this summer snow is your nuchal light—the absence of your letters, beasts bending in the field.


I am tan, my love, and far from home.






E HAVE DEPARTED without knowing it, out there under the unblinking prairie sky, with only a yellow school bus to attend us. It happened out of our sight and out of our minds. There was no moment of transfiguration, no

a pleasant enough travel companion, content to sit in the back, offering words but not too many. He, too, understands the moment. We are deprived of choice, and this is exactly what is so pleasing. We could have started walking, I suppose, but in this place, to be 20 miles down the road is no

crush of metal, only the ringing stillness afterward, and us marveling at it. Alone, abandoned on this empty highway on an empty plain, we infer the event without memory of it. Inexplicable absences: no buzz of insects, no wing of birds, the sky unrankled by clouds. Only a light wind caresses our faces and ruffles our hair. The dried yellow grasses sway alongside us. Where had we been going? Distant memory of a populated life. Traffic and towns along the highway; a cup of crayon-brown coffee; a bedspread worn thin; a wheezing ice machine. Wherever we were on our way to, it is forgotten, irrelevant, a diversion from this moment on the side of the road. Never has the ribbon of blacktop, bisecting the plain, flat as a painted canvas, offered such satisfying geometry. Parallel white lines mark each edge of the road. In the dark, hard mix between, another symmetry: twin yellow lines, not to be touched, creating one side and another. Between these yellow lines is the less noticed middle-of-themiddle. We have our ease with the road now, on the edge of it or just outside. We linger on the warm tar and the earth and its grasses. Our arms are folded, or hanging at our sides, or kept in pockets. We turn back and forth, making new geometries among the four of us, two men and two women. Irene and Beth are sisters. The fourth, the other man, proved

different than to be in this same spot. No, no effort of any sort is required. This was the revelation. It was enough, more than enough, to stand spellbound on the road’s margin. The few words that were spoken came easily. Easy in their exchange, easy in their inconsequentiality. Reference to the yellow school bus must have been made. There it sat, 30 yards down the road, a yellow rectangle with rounded corners, pulled over on the crusty earth. A troubling sight, at first, until we became confident no one was going to emerge. It would have been logical to go and look inside. But in every moment that we did not, it became more logical not to. What of it, this lurking cylinder and its invitation to tragic discovery? Nothing would change if we confronted it. The thing exhibited two admirable qualities, silence and absence of motion, which increased our contentment to wait for undesired deliverance. We savored the suspension between our recent existence, mundane but not unpleasant, and our ultimate destination. I think fondly now of that existence—clutch pedals and cookie crumbs, windows rolled down and then up, the surprise of a truck-stop soup, the metal lavatory door that will not close. The spinning meter of the gas pump, the gravel in the floor mats, our scalps against headrests. All of these assurances are gone under this sky so full of air. Unenclosed, we taste each breath,

into believing there can be no less than two, if there are to be any. Our responsibility to savor the moment is all the greater. Most of all, we are required not to ruin it—with sadness, guilt, regret, forlorn feelings. The plenitude has changed not one iota from the moment before. Nor have we. For a short enough time. Our turn comes after all. As surely as we stand there, feet glued to the pavement, the taxis arrive for us. One apiece. Even now, we do not feel regret. We will simply get inside, as Beth has done, as Irene did before her. The last thing I remember, or at least that I can tell you, is the scene from a vantage point that must exist in my mind’s eye. I see the place from above, as if in a helicopter. There is the unmarked spot, special in no way at all, 30 yards down the road from the yellow school bus, in the middle, although there is no middle, of that unblinking plain. There are the taxis leaving. One heads east. One heads west. One heads north and one south, their courses separated by 90 degrees. The taxis have no destination. They will drive on, and on, and further, one going north, one going south, one going east, and one going west, down the unfolding highway.


ours to roam. Irene waits, her toes on the edge of the pavement. The three of us stand back in a line. A taxi comes, yellow, and the door opens. Irene gets in. She does not look back at us. The door closes. The taxi drives away. We resume our positions on the blacktop, the wind lightly touching our hair. None of us could have prevented Irene from having to go. She knew this, and spared us a last glance. It is not the same with only three of us. Yet three is still a strong number. If anything, we savor the stillness and fullness of the in-between more keenly, knowing that Irene has been whisked into movement once again—not in our car, redolent with our smells, but in a vehicle entirely without odor. The stillness is all the more still, the fullness all the more full. We reclaim our little spot of roadside. Irene will not hold our staying here against us, however desolate she may feel riding in her taxi. She has shown us the way. Our soles scuff at the pavement. The yellow school bus is dormant, the sky blind. We reclaim our waiting. Nothing, we know, is more blessed. Once again, it comes with a whisper. The taxi this time is for Beth. Not the same as her sister’s, a

different one. The two of us who are to remain stand back. We know how it works. The taxi arrives, Beth gets in, and she is taken away. Nothing is sadder than for the two sisters to be gone. Yet we hold on to the notion that two of the four may be allowed to stay. Geometry soothes us


and in it the keen flavor of being on the verge. Deliverance is inevitable, we know, but not yet. The moment stretches. And I think this is what finally opens our minds. It comes first for Irene, though it dawns on all of us at the same instant that it is coming, and that it is to be her. We step to the side of the road. It is no longer


Po Bronson is the author of five works of fiction and nonfiction, including the #1 New York Times bestseller What Should I Do With My Life? He is a founder of the San Francisco Writers Grotto, workday home to 40 writers and filmmakers. His website is Born in Arkansas, Stacey Duff received an MFA from Brown University in 1997. He currently lives in China, where he is the art editor for Time Out Beijing and a regular contributor to the Shanghaibased His articles on art, fashion, and film have appeared in Mandarin and English in publications like iLook (Beijing) and Art Review (UK). Stacey is also the new China correspondent for The Saatchi Gallery’s online magazine. He’s a big fan of The West Wing. Josh Emmons grew up in Northern California, attended Oberlin College and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and now divides his time between Portland, OR, and Walla Walla, WA, where he is a visiting professor at Whitman College. His writing has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Details, CutBank, and the San Francisco Chronicle. His first novel, The Loss of Leon Meed, came out in 2005 and has been translated into four

languages. His new novel, For the Love of God, will be published in early 2008. Katie Ford is the author of Deposition (Graywolf Press, 2002). Individual poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, Partisan Review, Seneca Review, Poets & Writers, Colorado Review, Pleiades, and other journals. She received an Academy of American Poets Prize and is a contributor to the anthology Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century (Sarabande Books, 2006). She is Poetry Editor of the New Orleans Review and currently teaches at Reed College. Her second full-length book, Colosseum, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2008. Andrew Sean Greer is the author of three books, most recently The Confessions of Max Tivoli, a national bestseller and winner of the New York Public Library Young Lions Award for a writer under 35. His stories have appeared in Esquire, The Paris Review, and The New Yorker, and his next novel will be out in 2008. He lives in San Francisco. He is no longer under 35. Garth Risk Hallberg lives in Brooklyn. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Glimmer


Train, Pindeldyboz, Evergreen Review, h2so4, Em, and the anthology Best New American Voices 2008 (Harcourt/Harvest Books). An illustrated novella, A Field Guide to the North American Family, is due out from Mark Batty Publisher this spring. Learn more at Dennis Leary is the chef and owner of Canteen restaurant in San Francisco. Jay Leibold lives and writes in San Francisco.


Julie Orringer and Ryan Harty are visiting professors at the University of Michigan. Julie Orringer is the author of How to Breathe Underwater, a collection of stories. She is currently at work on a novel set in Budapest and Paris in the late 1930s. Ryan Harty is the winner of the 2003 John Simmons Short Fiction Award for his debut collection, Bring Me Your Saddest Arizona (University of Iowa Press). He is currently writing a novel set in Argentina and Brazil. Ward Schumaker has illustrated texts by Gertrude Stein and MFK Fisher for the famed Yolla Bolly Press. His books for children have been published in English by Harcourt Brace and Chronicle Books, and in Japanese by Kaisei-sha. He has published in

more than 150 periodicals worldwide, including Poetry, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle. He will be showing large text-based paintings later this year at Stir Gallery in Shanghai. When he was 11, David Shulman’s parents gave him his first camera, a 35mm point-and-shoot Kodak. He later upgraded to a Nikon 6006, a proper camera that transformed a hobby into a passion. After graduating from the University of Southern California with a degree in international relations and Italian, David spent a number of years as an advertising copywriter. Last year, he decided to pursue a career that centers around photography— he’s now getting his master’s at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. His work has appeared in Exklusive (Poland), Para Ti (Argentina), Perfil (Argentina), Shift ( Japan), and Anti/Revolver Lover (Italy). Cedar Sigo is 29 years old. His poems have appeared in The Poker, Yolanda Pipeline’s Magazine, Shampoo, RealPoetik, Puppy Flowers, Suspect Thoughts, 6x6, and New York Nights, among other journals. A revised second edition of his Selected Writings was published in 2005 (Ugly Duckling Presse).












“BACK O’ THE COUCH 1” (2006)






“UNTITLED” (2006)


17 49 83 96


“NIGHT AND FOG” (2006)


6-7 12-13 14




“CHINA” (2003)



Canteen Magazine Issue 1  

Contributors: Alice Tang, Andrew Sean Greer, Arkady Renko, Cedar Sigo, Christopher Irion, David Shulman, Demetrie Tyler, Dennis Leary, Fer...

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