- Featured, Fiction, Reading, Writing

Penny Sufferings, by Peter Selgin

 

The Abyss

Story: “The Abyss.” A bestselling yet depthless author achieves—by way of a blank page—his deepest, most eloquent expression. (By the way, if you haven’t already done so, the text to read is The Lord Chandos Letter, by Hugo von Hoffmanstahl, the fictional letter of a poet renouncing poetry, having concluded that it cannot begin to do justice to reality—an ironic letter, given its supreme eloquence.)

But it could also be that, while racking his brain over how to write one authentic page/paragraph, he notices something totally innocuous: a crack on a wall. And in this innocuous thing he notices, suddenly he realizes he has found his authentic subject: i.e., a thing that the day before he would have dismissed as entirely trivial and inconsequential. But that crack in the wall, which draws him into a deep reverie, becomes for him an object of supreme beauty, drama, complexity. In the end, having found his “true” subject, perhaps he concludes he doesn’t have to write about it at all. No: just being aware of it is enough. And so the piece ends with him gazing at the crack (or a star in the sky, whatever) and a blank computer screen, and thus he enters the abyss.

 

The Sandcastle

Story: “The Sandcastle.” A middle-aged man makes his way absentmindedly down a stretch of beach, barefooted, walking, thinking abstractedly about life—his own life and life in general—as gulls swoop and glide. Suddenly, his bare feet strike something cool, soft, and hard. He hears a cry and looks down to see a child, a little boy who has been building a sandcastle, one the middle-aged man has partially leveled with his absent-minded bare feet. The middle-aged man drops to his knees, apologizes. “I’m so sorry,” he says. “So sorry. I didn’t mean it; I didn’t see you. I’m so sorry…” The man’s apologies are in vain, for the child wails loudly as tears stream down his cheeks. His sandcastle is ruined. “See here,” says a man under an umbrella, who may or may not be related to the sandcastle-building child. “Why don’t you watch where you’re going?” “You could hurt someone,” another adult observes. All this time the child keeps wailing, his face wet and contorted with a mixture of rage, indignation, and suffering. The middle-aged man meanwhile makes a feeble attempt to reconstruct the ruined sandcastle, saying, “Here, let me help you rebuild it,” or something like that, shoving and shaping palmfuls of sand. Seeing a red plastic shovel in the nearby sand, he picks it up, incurring even more of the child’s wrath. “What are you doing?” says one of the watching adults. “Put down that child’s shovel! How dare you! What sort of a person are you?” The rest of the story is compacted into the following moment, wherein, as he kneels with the red plastic shovel in his grip, feeling the eyes of the beachgoing world upon him, glaring and murderous (even the wheeling gulls gaze murderously down upon him), the middle-aged man relives his entire life, from one failure to the next, failures in friendship, in school, in commerce, in marriage, in fatherhood, in love and art…a litany of failures under which he buries himself alive as if under buckets of beach sand. At last, having stood up and wiped the sand from his hands, the man continues walking down the beach, not looking back, the child’s wails grow increasingly faint behind him.

 

Where Are You From?

Story: “Where Are You From?” about a woman, born and bred in the United States, in some southern state (Georgia Texas? Let’s say Georgia), but whose parents are from India and whose skin is brown and who looks, let’s face it, as though she might be from India. The first half of the story, written in a close third-person style that also incorporates free-indirect discourse, has to do with her growing dismay and disgust in being asked, constantly by strangers meeting her for the first time, “Where are you from?” We’re presented first with one representative such encounter, then proceed to a litany of similar moments in her past, all of which lead up to—and lead us to—her driving home after dark from whatever event she was at, at which this annoying question was asked of her; quite possibly she has left said event early; quite possibly she stormed out in anger; quite possibly she has made something of a spectacle of herself in front of friends and or family, and the parents of her prospective in-laws, let us imagine. Anyway, she has ditched fiancé and friends and all who might have offered her some words of comfort or sympathy, kind words she probably wouldn’t have been all that receptive to in any case. It is dark, raining, and cold—quite cold, very cold, extremely cold for this state at this time of year, freezing cold, enough to prompt warnings over her car radio from the Emergency Broadcast System or whatever it is called nowadays, with the BLAT BAT BLAT interrupting whatever NPR broadcast she had been listening to, This American Life or something as suitably ironic in title or subject. Meanwhile, the roads have begun to freeze. Black ice: that, too, is a good title, or would be a good title were “Where Do You Come From?” not so perfect, for she ends up driving off the road, oh yes, flying off a sheet of black ice and into a muddy trench, stopped by a scrub pine tree that breaks over the roof of her car, but she’s all right. She’s all right and on one of those stretches of pitch-dark roads in the middle of Nowhere, Georgia, where houses are far apart, not even houses quite but trailers or maybe double-wides, their yards full of rusty old cars and other sorts of trash. Anyway, our protagonist’s cellphone isn’t working, or maybe it works but there’s no signal, no reception, and so she has no choice but to either stand in the freezing road and flag down a passing car or go to the nearest house and knock on the door and beg to use their phone, assuming they have one. And that is what the story is about: a woman whose indignation at being constantly asked, “Where Do You Come From?” finds herself feeling very much like a foreigner in alien territory, hence “Where Do You Come From?” becomes “Where the Fuck Am I?”

Irony.

Etc.

And the people who help her? What about them?

 

Broadway

Story: “Broadway.” As a man sits writing on a bench on the esplanade in the middle of Broadway on a cool summer night, a shoeless, hungry boy approaches him. “Interesting,” says the boy, leaning too close. “Do you always mind people’s business this closely?” the man says, edging away, to which the hungry-looking boy, ignoring him, says, “Whatcha writing, man?” “Nothing that concerns you,” the man replies. All this time, the man’s pen keeps on moving, gliding swiftly across the page of his notebook. Suddenly, as if explaining everything, the boy stiffens and cries, “I’m hungry! Gimme some pennies!” While still writing or pretending to write in his notebook, the man thinks back to an episode many years bygone, when a man named Donald with whom he had lived briefly in the French Quarter of New Orleans was assaulted one night by a former roommate, a heroin addict/hustler who, hitting him up for drug money, said, “Gimme some chips! I need some chips!” Now, both Don and his former roommate were beyond any doubt dead. “No,” says the man to the hungry-looking boy, who turns angrily and storms off straight into the path of an oncoming taxicab.

 

Psychologist

Story: “Psychologist.” Begins: “His fly was open. That was one of the first things I noticed about him, that and the scar on his cheek above his beard. I wondered if maybe he’d done it on purpose, leaving his fly open, that is, not the beard. Of course, he’d done the beard “on purpose.” A man doesn’t grow a beard by mistake or by accident. Or does one? Anyway, he arrived on a March afternoon—or was it February? I remember it was very cold. The heat wasn’t working properly in the building where I rent my office. I remember that. I wore my coat all day and kept drinking hot tea. I must have drunken a dozen mugs. Just to keep warm. I kept going to the bathroom. I was on my way back from the john when I saw him enter the building. For some reason I knew right away it was him. I suppose his looks must have matched his voice on the phone in some way, though it doesn’t work that way, always or even usually, does it? Anyway, I knew. I didn’t see the open fly right away. Only later, as he sat on the sofa facing my desk, that’s when I noticed it. He wore corduroy slacks with a black turtleneck and a leather jacker. Like me he kept the jacket on. I apologized for the lack of heat and asked if he cared for some tea. He looked around fifty, fifty-five. In fact he was older, in his early sixties. An impressive-looking man. Quite handsome, with his gray beard. Impressive, I thought. Substantial. I’m not saying I liked him. Not at first. At first, I couldn’t have said. But he was attractive, of that I could be certain. I felt attracted to him, so much so I found myself thinking almost at once, ‘This could be a problem.’”

Etc.

 

Insomnia

Story: “Insomnia,” about a man and woman, otherwise of two different worlds, linked by insomnia. Somehow they discover each other online, and, during intervals of sleeplessness, communicate via Facebook Messenger or by email. Perhaps they live on opposite sides of the world, so when he’s awake in the middle of the night it is daytime for her. He is a tax accountant, a Norwegian in his mid-forties but looking and often feeling much older, short and ugly with extremely bad teeth. She is a young and very attractive Indian or Pakistani medical student doing her internship on a psychiatric ward in San Francisco, engaged to be married to a man in her native country an arranged marriage. The emails they exchange get more and more personal and existential/confessional until finally she cuts off the exchange with the news that she is pregnant with her first child—not by her fiancé, but by a fellow medical student. The story ends with the Norwegian man wandering the streets of his town at night; or no, not at night, but at any rate in darkness, since he lives in Tromsø, above the Arctic Circle, and it happens to be winter.

Alternative title: “Damn It All to Hell.”

Alternative alternate title: “Too Close to Home.”

 

Autobiographer

Long story or novella: “Autobiographer.” Malcolm August Linney has life down to a science. Up every morning at seven (with no help from an alarm clock; he detests alarms of all kinds); a corn muffin and coffee on Broadway (always the same: a corn muffin, lightly toasted and buttered and two cups of coffee, black, ingested while reading the NY Times); then a long, slow walk down to 72nd Street, where, at nine o’clock, he enters the subway station to catch the first downtown express. Though the world rushes and bangs all about him, Malcolm August Linney scarcely notices, so concentrated is he on his thoughts and their ultimate purpose: for he is in the midst of his autobiography, the story of his life from cradle to grave, holding every experience, perception, reflection, awareness, insight, opinion, and word ever uttered by him: an autobiography to end all autobiographies. One stop on the express brings him to Times Square, where he walks past street performers, souvenir and flower stalls of 42nd Street, then through Bryant Park to the side entrance of the research library just as a security guard opens the door. He climbs down two flights of grand marble staircase to the soaring, cavernous, echoing varnish-scented space that is the Main Reading Room. There, at seat # 246, at the far end of one of the long wooden tables with green shaded lamps, amid sounds of coughing and paper shuffling, he drapes his coat on a nearby chair, sits, snaps open his briefcase, and spreads its papers out before him. Here he will spend the rest of his day, working without pause until dusk, advancing his autobiography, the book he has been working on daily for over fourteen years. Fourteen years working five days a week (except Sundays and Tuesdays, when the library closed), always the exact same routine. In all that time, he had yet to arrive beyond the note-taking phase: over 15,000 notes (so far!), each handwritten on a separate index card, the cards color-coded for easy reference, with opinions pink, reflections robin’s egg blue, uttered expressions canary yellow, actions mint green, feelings orange, and so forth. The cards filled seventy-two shoe boxes, stacked neatly throughout his 87th Street brownstone, where they took over every room: indeed, he had given away most of his furniture to make more room for them. Then there were the white index cards: these held hard facts, notes on places and people, dates, names, addresses, phone numbers, items purchases, bank and other transactions, and so on. Since Malcolm rarely interacted with others, nor was he in the habit of talking to himself, the canary yellow cards were the scarcest, followed in degree of scarcity by the pink cards (for he had as few opinions as he had friends) and orange (feelings, too, tended to be scarce in him). And though he had been following the same routine now for fourteen years, still, it could not be said that Malcolm lead an inactive life, for where is it written that our actions must be unique in order to them to qualify as actions? And so there were hundreds of mint green cards saying (for instance) “Rode Downtown #2 to Times Square” or “Ate corn muffin with two cups black coffee for breakfast.” As time went on, Malcolm’s interactions with others grew fewer and farther in between, to where he had virtually no contact with other human being, and so the yellow cards grew so scarce he considered dropping them altogether, but then there were always exceptions (“To waiter at coffee shop: “A corn muffin, lightly toasted with butter. Coffee, black.”). Each day, he brought with him to the library one pack each of cards in all pertinent colors; by the time he left the library at dusk, most of them would have been filled—or not filled, but written upon, some with a single word (“Pigeons”), others with long paragraphs that threatened to burst out of them, his handwriting growing more and more minuscule in its advance toward the bottom of the card. The day’s session completed, Malcolm would snap a thick red rubber band around each stack of cards of the same color, place them back in his briefcase, snap it shut, put on his coat, and make his way out of the library and back along 42nd Street to the subway, which he would ride back uptown, to 72nd street, and walk from there to his apartment, where his neighbor would sometimes greet him, and where he would nod or smile but not say a word, since an uttered response would have meant filling out another card—and not just any card but a yellow card, and he had come to resent the yellow cards. And here was the great lesson of Malcolm’s life: that no matter how simply and regularly one lives, no matter how few one’s contacts or how limited one’s experiences, the cards keep coming and coming; apart from the ending offered by Death, there is no end to the Endless Autobiography that is a human life.

Alternative card categories/colors:

  • Experiences (grey)
  • Feelings (pink)
  • Opinions (purple)
  • Fantasies (orange)
  • Reflections (chartreuse)
  • Prejudices (mauve)
  • Memories (green)
  • Uttered words (yellow)
  • Hard Facts (white)

 

Boy & Dog

Story: “Boy & Dog.” How once there was a little boy who had a little dog. How this little dog barked day and night. Because the dog barked day and night, the boy’s parents wanted nothing to do with it. They forbid him from keeping the dog at home during the day. And so the boy had no choice but to take the dog out of the house and out of the neighborhood, as far as possible, since the neighbors, too, had complained. How he did this, day after day, and yet everywhere he took his little mutt dog, people complained about the dog’s incessant barking. There seemed to be nowhere on earth far enough removed from the complaints of miserable, dog-hating people. At last, the boy found a rock underneath the highway bridge by the river, with the nearest building a thousand yards away on the other side of the water. “Here, at last,” he said to himself, “my little dog can bark in peace.” Not only was the rock far from any building or house, it offered both the boy and his dog a magnificent view of the wide and beautiful river, with its heavy traffic of sailboats, freighters, and barges. The dog barked incessantly as the boy gazed out at the roiling green river and for the first time in months—since he’d gotten the dog—he felt content. What the boy did not know, what he could not for his life have imagined, was that the sound of his barking dog would carry so thoroughly across the wide body of water into the ears of one Gayton Eppley, a retired church organist living in the red brick apartment building across the river, on the other side of the highway bridge. He could not have imagined that Mr. Eppley was trying to write a novel, that the writing studio he had created for himself in the former bedroom shared by him and his recently dead wife (of a mole that turned cancerous) looked out onto the river, and that the sound of the dog barking carried straight to his window, through the layer of glass, across the room to its far side, where Mr. Eppley kept his arts and crafts oak writing desk, straight into Mr. Eppley’s ears, which worked very well in spite of his being eighty-three years old as of that October. The boy could not have imagined any of this. Nor could he have imagined the lengths to which Mr. Eppley would go to get to the bottom of the incessant barking, which he held completely to blame for the lack of progress on his novel, which sat in a twelve-inch thick, dog-eared, unfinished pile next to his manual typewriter (Continue to trite/bittersweet/implausibly violent conclusion).

 

Le Pigeonniere

Story: “Le Pigeonniere,” about a divorced and failed American screenwriter living in a Parisian garret in the 5th Arrondisement during the coronavirus pandemic lockdown. He is allowed to leave his small apartment only before 10:00 a.m. and after 7:00 p.m. He has trouble sleeping, his sleep harassed in part by memories, in part by the pigeons that occupy the rooftop area near his skylight, and whose coos keep him awake much of every night. He tries by various means to get rid of them, not successfully. Meanwhile, between bouts of wakefulness, he dreams. In his dreams—and finally out of them—too, the pigeons take on human voices, women’s voices, specifically the voices of his ex-wives and girlfriends and lovers, including several who were arguably if not certifiably insane, all talking about him, gossiping, berating and upbraiding him, mainly. All of which is to say, he goes mad.

 

True Omniscience

Story: “True Omniscience,” about a newlywed couple with their infant son searching for a motel vacancy along the freeway in the middle of the night. The story begins with a disclaimer by the author, or the narrator, explaining he has no business telling the story that follows: no wisdom, no advice, no insight, no particular gifts of empathy or sympathy, no philosophy or worldview, no detachment, and no special passion for his subject (then again, he’s unconvinced he has any subject). But then slyly, masterfully, mysteriously, this “worthless” third-person narrator disappears, abandoning us to the viewpoints of the story’s principal characters: the mother, the father, the sleeping child…also other characters, the cop who pulls them over for a minor traffic violation, the clerks at various motels. We even get the viewpoints of things: the highway, the car, a piece of luggage, an elevator, a stretch of motel carpeting. The story could also be called “Empathy,” since ultimately it would demonstrate that not only is everything around us, animate or otherwise, invested with a point-of-view, by extension the entire universe is invested with feelings, attitudes, and opinions, and—by further extension—with pity, therefore with pain. Having arrived at this idea for a singular story, I formulated the following two similar essentially identical yet in crucial ways crucially divergent candidates for its opening sentence:

  • “In a sense, I’ve become another man.”
  • “In essence, I have become another.”

 

A Visit to the Gallery

Story: “A Visit to the Gallery.” Accompanied by his best friend’s father, a young man visits an art gallery. The best friend’s father is a corn-cob-pipe-smoking New England conservative, the sort of person who collects L.L. Bean catalogues, subscribes to Yankee magazine, wears plaid flannel shirts on weekends and whose Sunday paintings are Winslow Homer-esque ones of sloops heeling under sail. (That his preferred brand of pipe tobacco is “Sail” should go without saying.) At any rate, he and his son’s best friend are alone in the art gallery. Though the location of the art gallery is neither important nor specified, indications are that the gallery is somewhere in New York City—peculiar, given the best friend’s father’s aversion to that city and to all large cities in general. As to what circumstances have brought the young man and his best friend’s father together in the absence of the best friend, that, too, is left to the reader’s imagination, though hanging over the story is a suggestion—or maybe whiff would be a better word—that something medically tragic has befallen the best friend, something midway along the continuum between a kidney stone and cancer, such that these two less-than-kindred spirits find themselves thrown together in what may be best qualified as dismaying comfort.

So, anyway, they are looking at these paintings on display, moving side-by-side from one to the next as people do in art galleries, commenting in hushed, intelligent, deferential voices. As for the paintings, it is neither possible nor necessary nor even advisable to attempt to describe them adequately, though there is a certain Southwestern flavor to them, you could say, a certain Navajo influence: the earth, sand, turquoise, and sunset colors, the symmetrical geometrics. They are oils on canvas, and by no means unattractive: they have, if nothing else, decorative potential. Retrospectively, the narrator, the no-longer-quite-so-young-man, will recall liking them, appreciating their calm, soft, orderly ornamental nature, the graceful charm of their subtly assuring colors, etc., though at the time, on first viewing, he had no opinion of them, really. As for the best friend’s father, he eyed the pictures coolly, seeming to take at least some interest in them, though not without a skeptical elevation of his right eyebrow, which like its equal opposite was gray and bushy. The story proceeds with the two of them making their way through the first of several gallery rooms, then the second.

It is in the third room of the gallery that things go awry. While standing in front of a painting in that third room, the best friend’s father suddenly reaches the tip of a finger toward its surface and touches it—gently at first, with no apparent intent to do harm, but still enough to arouse the concern of his son’s best friend, who fears that one of the gallery workers will notice and castigate them, or worse, throw them both out. Then, to his horror, with the same fingertip, using the edge of its deftly manicured nail, the best friend’s father scratches the painting’s surface, a two-to-three-inch scratch. “Mr. Rowland!” says the man’s son’s best friend, tapping him his plaid shoulder. “You’re not supposed to—!”  Before he can finish the sentence, his best friend’s father has rushed over to the next painting. Wasting no time, he scratches it, too: a jagged, deep, six-inch, two-fingered scratch. My God, his son’s best friend thinks, watching him. “My God!” his son’s best friend says under his breath while tugging his best friend’s father’s plaid shirtsleeve. “Stop! You—you can’t do that!” At the same time, he wonders what in the world has possessed his best friend’s father. No sooner does this question occur to him than his best friend’s father zeroes in on the next painting, scratching it, too, and the next one, and the one after that, each scratch deeper, longer, involving more fingernails, and more jagged and ruinous than the last, until finally his best friend’s father proceeds to attack the paintings less discretely, tearing them from the gallery walls, spitting on them, ripping them free of their stretcher bars, hurling them to the floor, kicking them, cursing, muttering, red-faced, spraying spittle, growing increasingly apoplectic as his son’s best friend, joined by the gallery’s most physically fit and courageous employees, tries to pull him away.

So the story ends, with this proviso: that the boy’s best friend, the one suffering from something on the continuum between kidney stones and cancer, almost certainly never understood his father, and never would. And vice-versa.

 

Peter Selgin is the author of Duplicity, Drowning Lessons, Life Goes to the Movies, The Inventors, Confessions of a Left-Handed Man: An Artist’s Memoir, Your First Page. His writing has also appeared in Glimmer Train, Gettysburg Review, Ploughshares, Best American Essays 2009, Best American Travel Writing 2014, and elsewhere. He teaches at Antioch University’s MFA in Creative Writing program in Los Angeles and is Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia College & State University.

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