The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Archive for the ‘Excerpts’ Category

It was difficult to choose an excerpt to properly display Woolf’s humour although they all carry an irreverence I found particularly appealing. She deals with poets very badly in this novel; I’d love to know which ones in particular ticked her off. Anyway, it’s the sort of humour that, with another writer, could have palled very quickly and earned nothing more than an eye roll. Or maybe that will be your reaction and I’m easy, but I always go for a good clichés jab. Here is our 16 year old Orlando putting his genius to paper.

He was describing, as all young poets are for ever describing, nature, and in order to match the shade of green precisely he looked (and here he showed more audacity than most) at the thing itself, which happened to be a laurel bush growing beneath the window. After that, of course, he could write no more. Green in nature is one thing, green in literature another. Nature and letters seem to have a natural antipathy; bring them together and they tear each other to pieces. The shade of green Orlando now saw spoilt his rhyme and split his metre. Moreover, nature has tricks of her own. Once look out of a window at bees among flowers, at a yawning dog, at the sun setting, once think ‘how many more suns shall I see set’, etc. etc. (the thought is too well known to be worth writing out) and one drops the pen, takes one’s cloak, strides out of the room, and catches one’s foot on a painted chest as one does so. For Orlando was a trifle clumsy.

He was careful to avoid meeting anyone….There is perhaps a kinship among qualities; one draws another along with it; and the biographer should here call attention to the fact that this clumsiness is often mated with a love of solitude. Having stumbled over a chest, Orlando naturally loved solitary places, vast views, and to feel himself for ever and ever and ever alone.

So, after a long silence, ‘I am alone’, he breathed at last, opening his lips for the first time in this record. He had walked very quickly uphill through ferns and hawthorn bushes, startling deer and wild birds, to a place crowned by a single oak tree. It was very high, so high indeed that nineteen English counties could be seen beneath; and on clear days thirty or perhaps forty, if the weather was very fine. Sometimes one could see the English Channel, wave reiterating upon wave. Rivers could be seen and pleasure boats gliding on them; and galleons setting out to sea; and armadas with puffs of smoke from which came the dull thud of cannon firing; and forts on the coast; and castles among the meadows; and here a watch tower; and there a fortress; and again some vast mansion like that of Orlando’s father, massed like a town in the valley circled by walls. To the east there were the spires of London and the smoke of the city; and perhaps on the very sky line, when the wind was in the right quarter, the craggy top and serrated edges of Snowdon herself showed mountainous among the clouds. For a moment Orlando stood counting, gazing, recognizing. That was his father’s house; that his uncle’s. His aunt owned those three great turrets among the trees there. The heath was theirs and the forest; the pheasant and the deer, the fox, the badger, and the butterfly.

He sighed profoundly, and flung himself—there was a passion in his movements which deserves the word—on the earth at the foot of the oak tree.

Orlando by Virginia Woolf

INTERVIEWER
Most people know you’re a novelist, but you spend a lot of your time writing nonfiction. What led you to start writing essays?

ROBINSON
To change my own mind. I try to create a new vocabulary or terrain for myself, so that I open out – I always think of the Dutch claiming land from the sea – or open up something that would have been closed to me before. That’s the point and the pleasure of it. I continuously scrutinize my own thinking. I write something and think, How do I know that that’s true? If I wrote what I thought I knew from the outset, then I wouldn’t be learning anything new.

In this culture, essays are often written for the sake of writing the essay. Someone finds a quibble of potential interest and quibbles about it. This doesn’t mean the writer isn’t capable of doing something of greater interest, but we generate a lot of prose that’s not vital. The best essays come from the moment in which people really need to work something out.
[…]

INTERVIEWER
How did you decide to write about Sellafield nuclear plant in Mother Country?

ROBINSON
I didn’t really expect to write Mother Country – heaven knows. I was living in England, and it was all over the newspaper and all over television. I was surprised of course because it’s a terrible thing. Sellafield extracts plutonioum-239 and other salable isotopes of transuranic elements, very sloppily, and sends vast quantities of radioactive waste from the process into the sea. It’s a real disaster. They’ve been doing this since 1956. It’s amazing that people could have been up to this particular kind of mischief for fifty-two years, but they have.

When I came home from England, I didn’t even unpack my bags. I just sat down and wrote the article and sent it to my agent. And I said, You don’t have to deal with this if you don’t want to. But she sent it to Harper’s and they published it almost immediately. Then another publisher called and asked if I would write a book about it.
[…]

[I]f I had not written that book, I would not have been able to live with myself. I would have felt that I was doing what we are all doing, which dooms the world.

INTERVIEWER
Which is what?

ROBINSON
Pretend we don’t know what we’re really up to. We know that plastic bags are killing animals in Africa at a terrific rate, but everybody still uses these things as if they just float away. We know that these new lightbulbs cut down on electricity, but where do they come from? China? Hungary? They have to be dealt with as toxic waste because they have mercury in them. So who’s being exposed to these chemicals when they’re manufactured and what are the environmental consequences in China or Hungary? What is the tradeoff in terms of shipping them long distances to save a little bit of electricity?

I’m also partial to the Sellafield book because I think it exposes the ways in which we’re racist. We assume that Europeans are white and therefore more rational than other populations and to find something weird and unaccountable and inhuman we must go to a darker continent.
[…]

INTERVIEWER
Mother Country appeared during the more than twenty-year gap between Housekeeping and Gilead. Why did it take you so long to return to writing fiction?

ROBINSON
It was largely a consequence of the experience of writing Mother Country that I began what amounted to an effort to reeducate myself. After all those years of school, I felt there was little I knew that I could trust, and I did not want my books to be one more tributary to the sea of nonsense that really is what most conventional wisdom amounts to. I am not so naïve as to imagine that I have escaped that fate except in isolated cases and small particulars. But the research and criticism I have done have helped me to be of my own mind in some degree, and that was a feeling I had to achieve before I could enjoy writing fiction.

From “The Art of Fiction” No. 198 interview with Marilynne Robinson in The Paris Review No. 186, Fall 2008.

Here is Rachel Cohen’s review of Robinson’s latest, Home, in the most recent Bookforum.

“Tell me , do you have any coloured blood?”

Mark recognized, with anger and embarrassment, the small halt in his breathing but he answered easily enough, “Of course. Why do you ask?”

“Shouldn’t I? It seems an interesting point about a man like you.”

“I suppose so,” said Mark. “But it’s not usual to hear a European ask it.”

[...]

“It worries you quite a bit, eh?”

Mark grinned…”Does it show so much?” he asked.

“You ought to have seen your face, ” Hancko said, “when I asked you.”

“It’s a queer business,” said Mark. “Being my colour and and my class in my sort of country. All your training…all your influences and most of the education you get encourages you to value one side of what you were born and to despise the other. It becomes a reflex by the time you’re about five years old.”

“What are you going to do?” Hancko asked him then.

[...]

“What [are] you getting at?”

“Everything,” he replied, looking steadily at Mark, and with the accent of his English only discernible by the faint hardness of the vowels. “Everything you want to do, no matter how complex and untidy it looks, has something specific in it that moves the whole thing. An essence that you can get at.” He closed his hand slowly, like a man grasping a sinking stone in the water before it reached the bottom. ” Every question, comes down finally to ‘What’, not ‘Why’. In our case it’s a matter of giving an allegiance to the destiny of the poor. A real allegiance, I mean, that’s almost like religious faith, but not quite. Don’t mind that, though. It’s an allegiance to them as a class, to what they have to offer, to the work you must do with them. In your country one lot of people who are white rule and prosper by using the people like you. They’re able to use you because they allow you a good share in their world, and because they’ve given you a set of values to live by that depend on the approval of that world. And the poor of your world, the blacks, they’re kept poor because you, people like you I mean, get an idea clearly in life that there will always be something irreconcilable between the white world and the black. And only the white world has any value, call it beauty if you like, for you. Is that right?”

“Yes,” Mark said slowly. “I suppose that is the way it works.”

“It’s not a question,” Hancko continued, “of starting a race war: that’s almost more stupid than the other thing. It’s only a question of taking sides. Every time history becomes urgent and a little sick, as it is now, a man has to pick a side. Especially men like you who carry both your worlds within you, in your blood.”

From Voices Under The Window by John Hearne, published by Peepal Tree Press

My life is nowhere near as simple as it may appear. Being me is a job — is labour so time-consuming and expensive that I have to have a second job just to support it. So that I can drink, I have to get drink and that isn’t something people give away and then there’s drink that I need because I have drunk and the other drink I have to keep around because, sooner or later, I will drink it. That’s a full-time occupation: that’s like being a miner, or a nurse. I involve constant work. Robert said that he’d be cross that I would bear, because he didn’t understand my situation and couldn’t know that it was a lie. I already have my cross: we’ve been getting acquainted for years.

The truth of the matter is: yes, you do carry the weight of it, drag it along and heartily wish you were free — especially during mornings, early evenings, periods spent in bank queues, or near banks, or any part of of any Sunday. You believe that you should not, and cannot, go on and, naturally, you are right.

Because in the end, you will always trade places: this is a physical law: that your cross will change to something merciful, will lift your body up and start the task of bearing you.

I drink myself higher, it’s all I need to ascend. This is my meditation when the worrying gets bad — in conjunction with this lovely truth: that many others long before me have recognised the nature of my calling and left ingenious clues behind them to that effect. Al-khol, ethanol, ethyl alcohol — we christened drink in the magic of distillation, we baptised it with tokens of its heat, the words we give it kindle, burn, shine. They are made out of alchemy, spirits: coloured with Arabic, Latin, Greek: and they hide within their syllables the names for primordial matter and for the ether that soothes between everything, that permeates all substance and all space. C2H5OH — generations before its components were discovered, we understood th essence of alcohol, its absolutes: that is oxygen and hydrogen and carbon — the earth’s irreplaceable elements, the water of our life.

I work this all out in my kitchen: how it makes sense and is like a poem, in that it also makes no sense whatsoever, but it any case touches you very much.

From Paradise by A.L. Kennedy

The only reason I can give for choosing to excerpt this passage rather than any of the more respectable, representative excerpts is because it makes me laugh for about five minutes.

As a rule T. revealed little in the way of personal information, since Fulton did not seem to require it. For Fulton communication was a one-way street. And when, on occasion, T. chose to contribute to the conversation with a brief disclosure of his own, Fulton became bored and changed the subject.

“So my father,” said T. on the way to the racquet club one Wednesday, reclining in the leather passenger seat of Fulton’s Land Cruiser, “used to be an ad executive in Manhattan, but now he mixes drinks at a transvestite bar in Key West.”

“He turned gay?”

“I guess so.”

“Huh,” said Fulton, hunching down and squinting into the side-view mirror. “Did you see that? Asian woman in the Hyundai almost rear-ended me.”

“No. Didn’t see.”

“Asians can’t drive for shit.”

“Might want to keep that insight to yourself.”

“It’s not exactly a secret, T. Damn you’re a rube. Disoriented Orientals. Ring a bell?”

“If the poor woman had rear-ended this car she would have been killed instantly.”

“You gotta watch out, T.,” said Fulton, shaking his head. “That stuff’s in the genes. You could turn homo too.”

“You think so?”

“Watch out for it. If you feel the urge, rent a copy of Anal Alley and have a jerkoff marathon.”

“That’s very helpful.”

“What am I saying? That’s like offering smack to a  guy on methadone. Better stay around the front side, T. Avoid the ass region completely.”

“Good tip.”

“Janet’s sister’s church has this deal where they deprogram them. I don’t think it works though.”

“No? Doesn’t work?”

“It’s a boot camp. They tell them man-boy love is the work of Satan. They bring in the straight guys to teach them how to act straight. Like you’re not allowed to smoke, it’s faggy. Then they lock them up in small rooms and yell their heads off at them. ‘Repent, sinners! For the sake of Jesus Christ Our Lord, cast out the homo devil from your butt!’ It’s kind of like hardcore bondage and domination. It’s supposed to scare them straight but I think it actually makes them horny. Some Christian faggots actually hook up there. Serious. It’s basically a dating service for Christian homos.”

“What does Janet’s sister think of that?”

“She put her son in it and he came out with a brand-new assfriend. That’s how she found out the real deal. I have a faggot nephew.

“I didn’t know.”

“No blood relation though. Janet’s side of the family only. My genes are pure hetero. I had a great-grandfather who was a rapist.”

“Excuse me?”

“Yeah. The guy raped. Rapists are basically superheteros. A rapist is a hetero on steroids.”

“That’s quite a theory you got there.”

“I forgot to tell you, you gotta use the shit racquet today. The titanium’s being restrung.”

From How the Dead Dream by Lydia Millet, Soft Skull Press.

Here are some vague details on what could possibly, maybe be his new book. At this point in the piece he and the interviewer discuss whether Ishiguro truly has “chameleon-like” story telling skill because he changes setting drastically from book to book. Ishiguro feels that thematically he’s retreading similar territory.

INTERVIEWER

I think that’s very particular to you. It shows a certain chameleon-like ability.

ISHIGURO

I don’t think it is that chameleon-like. What I’m saying is I’ve written the same book three times. I just somehow get away with it.

INTERVIEWER

You think that you have, but everyone who read your first novels and then read The Remains of the Day had a psychedelic moment — they were transported from this convincing Japanese setting to Lord Darlington’s estate.

ISHIGURO

That’s because people see the last thing first. For me, the essence doesn’t lie in the setting. I know that it does in some cases. In Primo Levi, take away the setting and you’ve taken away the book. But I went to a great performance of The Tempest recently, set in the Arctic. Most writers have certain things that they decide quite consciously, and other things they decide less consciously. In my case, the choice of narrator and setting are deliberate. You do have to choose a setting with great care, because with a setting come all kinds of emotional and historical reverberations. But I leave quite a large area for improvisation after that. For example, I’ve arrived at an odd setting for the novel I’m writing at the moment.

INTERVIEWER

What’s it about?

ISHIGURO

I won’t talk too much about it, but let me use its early stages as an example. I’d wanted for some time to write a novel about how societies remember and forget. I’d written about how individuals come to terms with uncomfortable memories. It occurred to me that the way an individual remembers and forgets is quite different to the way a society does. When is it better to just forget? This comes up over and over again. France after the Second World War is an interesting case. You could argue that De Gaulle was right to say, We need to get the country working again. Let’s not worry too much about who collaborated and who didn’t. Let’s leave all this soul-searching to another time. But some would say that justice was ill served by that, that it leads eventually to bigger problems. It’s what an analyst might say about an individual who’s repressing. If I were to write about France, though, it becomes a book about France. I imagined myself having to face all these experts on Vichy France asking me, So what are you saying about France? What are you accusing us of? And I’d have to say, Actually, it was just supposed to stand for this bigger theme. Another option was the Star Wars strategy: “in a galaxy far, far away.” Never Let Me Go went in that direction, and that has its own challenges. So for a long time, I had this problem.

INTERVIEWER

What did you decide?

ISHIGURO

A possible solution was to set the novel in Britain in 450 A.D. when the Romans left and the Anglo-Saxons took over, which led to the annihilation of the Celts. Nobody knows what the hell happened to the Celts. They just disappeared. It was either genocide or assimilation. I figured that the further you go back in time, the more likely the story would be read metaphorically. People see Gladiator and interpret it as a modern parable.

From “The Art of Fiction” No. 196 interview with Kazuo Ishiguro in The Paris Review No. 184, Spring 2008.

I just left Dan Green’s blog where Augustine complained about blogs being “Bookworm MySpace” which makes me feel rather guilty about this post. (Sort of. Mildly.) But I’m still pissed about being duped by this Rothfuss fellow’s hype machine, at myself more than anyone else. So, before I take a long trek to the bookstore in order to purge all my negative feelings before I get my $7.99 + tax back, I’d like to poke more fun at what is basically a writer among legions ‘doing’ other people, doing Tolkien. They [are] faint photocopies. You get these great big books which are set in a medieval kingdom that is basically somebody’s impression of what they liked about Tolkien, combined with what they enjoyed about playing Dungeons and Dragons as a high schooler. Thank you, Neil Gaiman. Maybe I’ll try one of your books after all.

In this scene our wearied hero walks home with his drunken friends after the beaaauuutiful girl of his dreams turns out to be dating one of his school colleagues.

In the fullness of time*, and with considerable help from Deoch and Wilem, I became drunk.

Thus it was that three students made their slightly erratic way back to the University. See them as they go, weaving only slightly. It is quiet, and when the belling tower strikes the late hour, it doesn’t break the silence so much as it underpins it**. The crickets, too, respect the silence. Their calls are like careful stitches in its fabric, almost too small to be seen***.

The night is like warm velvet around them. The stars, burning diamonds in the cloudless sky, turn the road beneath their feet a silver grey****. The University and Imre are the hearts of understanding and art, the strongest of the four corners of civilization. Here on the road between the two there is nothing but old trees and long grass bending to the wind. The night is perfect in a wild way, almost terrifying beautiful.

The three boys, one dark, one light, and one– for lack of a better word — fiery*****, do not notice the night. Perhaps some part of them does, but they are young, and drunk, and busy knowing deep in their hearts that they will never grow old or die. They also know that they are friends, and they share a certain love that will never leave them. The boys know many other things, but none of them seem as important as this. Perhaps they are right.*******

*Ugh! I don’t care if he’s even trying for a but of humour here. Unless you are at a writing level no lower than A.S. Byatt do not use this phrase. Not even ironically.

**Wtf does that mean?

***No. I would have liked to accept this, it makes marginally more sense than what came before, but is this all flowing from the boys “weaving” before? That makes it a “no”.

****I’m getting nitpicky now but can stars give off that much light, really? I’ll give it a pass on the assumption that I could be wrong, so accustomed I am to city living, and that in Faux Medieval Europe all things are possible.

***** You never have any better words. Never. Ever.

******This entire paragraph was maudlin sap and the chapter should have been nixed because it adds absolutely nothing to the story and there are no great ideas or show of style here that justifies its existence. Nothing in this book justifies its existence.

Well. I feel a little better now. Slightly.

The baby was plump and pretty as a ripe ox-heart tomato. Her mother, Margaret Wilson Harvey, gently squeezed the soft cheeks to open the tiny mouth and rubbed her little finger, which had been dipped in sugar, back and forth, over and under the small tongue to anoint the child with the gift of sweet speech. “Her name is Doris,” she said to her husband, David.

In later years, my mother preferred to spell her name Dorice, although in actual fact she was christened Doris. But she was registered under a different name altogether — Clarabelle. This came about because of a disagreement between her parents as to what they should call their seventh child. Her father, David, was a romantic and a dreamer, a man who loved music and books, and an avid reader of lesser known nineteenth-century authors. He had read a story in which the heroine was called Clarabelle, and he found it to be a lovely and fitting name. He told his wife, Margaret, that that was to be the baby girl’s name. Well, Margaret had her heart set on Doris, because it was the name of a school friend of hers, a real person, not some made-up somebody who lived in a book. Doris Louise, that was what the child would be called. They argued over it and after a while it became clear that Margaret was not going to let David best her this time. He had given their other children names like Cleodine, Albertha, Edmund, and Flavius. Lofty-sounding names which were rapidly hacked down to size by the blunt tongues of Hanover people. Cleo, Berta, Eddie, and Flavy. That was what remained of those names when Hanover people were finished with them. Margaret had managed to name her first-born son Howard, and her father had named Rose. Simple names for real people.

There was nobody who could be as stubborn and heard-headed as Margaret when she set her mind to something. She was determined that her baby was not going to be called Clarabelle.  “Sound like a blasted cow name,” she said. David gave up arguing with his wife about the business of naming the pretty-faced, chubby little girl, especially after Margaret reminded him graphically of who exactly had endured the necessary hard and bloody labour to bring the child into the world. He dutifully accompanied her to church and christened the baby Doris, on the last Sunday in June 1910. Then the next day he rode into the town of Lucea and registered the child as Clarabelle Louise Harvey, and he never told anyone about this deed for fifteen years. As a matter of fact, he is not known to have ever told anyone about it, because the family only found this out when my mother tried to sit for her first Jamaica Local Exams, for which she needed her birth certificate. When she went to the Registrar of Births and Deaths, they told her that there was no Doris Louise Harvey on record, but that there was a Clarabelle Louise Harvey born to David and Margaret Harvey, née Wilson, of Harvey River, Hanover. She burst into tears when she heard what her legal name was. “Clarabelle go to hell” her brothers chanted when the terrible truth was revealed. Not one to take teasing lightly, she told them to go to hell their damn selves.

Eventually her name was converted by deed poll to Doris. Thereafter, she signed her name Dorice, as if to distance herself from the whole Clarabelle/Doris business. Besides, Dorice, pronounce “Do-reese,” conjured up images of a woman who was not ordinary; and to be ordinary, according to my mother’s older sister, Cleodine, was just about the worst thing that a member of the Harvey family could be.

From From Harvey River: A Memoir of My Mother and Her People by Lorna Goodison, published by Mclelland & Stewart, a book I started and finished in a day for I could not bear to part from it.

Within minutes I found myself back inside the iron enclosure, scratching at the knots of rope securing my wrists, trying to move oxygen smoothly into my chest, trying to calm myself. The ground was pliant and warm under my bare feet. A smell of fresh shit rose from the floor, as if it had been spread there for my arrival.

[...]

Despair rose up in me, sick as bile, but I swallowed it back down. I concentrated, repeating the instructions I had been given. Talk to yourself. Sleep, even shallowly. Sing. Find patterns on the walls: flowers, birds, faces.

For three days it worked. I saw letters drawn in the darkness in front of me. The words floated like red flares on the black. Then the water ran out and dehydration started to make me unstable. The same terrible images came walking back towards me, like prodigal ghosts, as if they had been waiting in the darkness of the corrugated coffin for me to reanimate them.

[...]

On the seventh day I was dragged back across the courtyard to one of the small stone pens. The women from the unit interrogating me were dressed in dark clothing, masked. I thought I recognised Corky but I was weak and disoriented and could not be sure of anything. There were no apologies given. I was stripped, hit in the kidneys, and burned. One of them pushed a pipe a little way into me and told me I was a whore. They left me locked inside the pen, curled up and moaning on the floor, and another four women entered. Jackie was with them.

She smiled down at me, a gentle, sympathetic smile, and I saw in her blue eyes that the love she had for me was that of a mother. In her hand was a plate of cooked breakfast: bacon, eggs and bread. The yolks bloomed. She crouched down, set the meal on the floor at her feet and sniffed loudly. ‘That smells so good,’ she said. Then she took a rasher of bacon and waved it in front of my face. I lurched for it but the others pulled me back. She put the crisp silver back on the plate and licked the grease from her fingers. ‘Mmm.’ Her voice was soft and compassionate. ‘What’s my name, Sister?’ I looked up at her, pleading with her to stop. ‘If you tell me my name you can eat this. If you tell me the names of all of us here, you are free to go, right now.’

It was no better and no worse than the treatment I gave the others, when the roles were reversed. It was no better and no worse than the treatment soldiers had always undergone in preparation for deployment. And Jackie saw to it that we were no different from them.

She did not make monsters of us. She simply gave us the power to remake ourselves into those inviolable creatures the God of Equality had intended us to be. We knew she was deconstructing the old disabled versions of our sex, and that her ruthlessness was adopted because those constructs were built to endure. She broke down the walls that had kept us contained. There was a fresh red field on the other side, and in its rich soil were growing all the flowers of war that history had never let us gather. It was beautiful to walk in. As beautiful as the fells that autumn.

From The Carhullan Army aka Daughters of the North by Sarah Hall

How did she do it? I don’t recognise this new Sarah Hall but she kicks ass. She kicks ass so much I’m damn disappointed in the US title change. (I bought the UK edition — about the only advantage of being Commonwealth.) That whole “daughters” thing gives a false, far softer impression of what’s actually on the book’s pages. It’s not even a matter of the book lending a tougher, hardier imaged of motherhood and daughters; it’s that the human figurehead who could feasibly stand in as the “North” is not in the least bit maternal. What she is is a gifted military commander. The single moment in which you could describe her as “maternal” in the book is up in that torture scene excerpted above — in a bloody torture scene. It’s fake.

Not that I want to write out my review here. I officially forgive Sarah Hall for the abomination that was Electric Michelangelo. May you never write such flowery, saccharine horse shit again. Cheers!

Killings

Posted on: March 4, 2008

Richard Strout shot Frank in front of the boys. They were sitting on the living room floor watching television, Frank sitting on the couch, and Mary Ann just returning from the kitchen with a tray of sandwiches. Strout came in the front door and shot Frank twice in the chest and once in the face with a 9 mm automatic. Then he looked at the boys and Mary Ann, and went home to wait for the police.

It seemed to Matt that from the time Mary Ann called weeping to tell him until now, a Saturday night in September, sitting in the car with Willis, parked beside Strout’s car, waiting for the bar to close, that he had not so much moved through his life as wandered through it, his spirit like a dazed body bumping into furniture and corners. He had always been a fearful father: when his children were young, at the start of each summer he thought of them drowning in a pond or the sea, and he was relieved when he came home in the evenings and they were there; usually that relief was his only acknowledgment of his fear, which he never spoke of, and which he controlled within his heart. As he had when they were very young and all of them in turn, Cathleen too, were drawn to the high oak in the backyard, and had to climb it. Smiling, he watched them, imagining the fall: and he was poised to catch the small body before it hit the earth. Or his legs were poised; his hands were in his pockets or his arms were folded and, for the child looking down, he appeared relaxed and confident while his heart beat with the two words he wanted to call out but did not: Don’t fall. In winter he was less afraid: he made sure the ice would hold him before they skated, and he brought or sent them to places where they could sled without ending in the street. So he and his children had survived their childhood, and he only worried about them when he knew they were driving a long distance, and then he lost Frank in a way no father expected to lose his son, and he felt that all the fears he had borne while they were growing up, and all the grief he had been afraid of, had backed up like a huge wave and struck him on the beach and swept him out to sea. Each day he felt the same and when he was able to forget how he felt, when he was able to force himself not to feel that way, the eyes of his clerks and customers defeated him. He wished those eyes were oblivious, even cold; he felt he was withering in their tenderness. And beneath his listless wandering, every day in his soul he shot Richard Strout in the face; while Ruth, going about town on errands, kept seeing him. And at nights in bed she would hold Matt and cry, or sometimes she was silent and Matt would touch her tightening arm, her clenched fist.

From “Killings” a short story from Finding a Girl in America by Andre Dubus, published by David R. Godine.


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