Saturday, 30 November 2013

Felt like having a latte with Genghis Khan

When I woke up the next morning, the pain in my abdomen was insistent; I wondered if the baby was starting to kick, which everyone said would be happening soon. I called home to complain, and my spouse told me to find a Western clinic. I e-mailed Cox to get his doctor’s phone number, thinking that I’d call if the pain got any worse, and then I went out to interview people: the minister of the environment, the president of a mining concern, and, finally, a herdsman and conservationist named Tsetsegee Munkhbayar, who became a folk hero after he fired shots at mining operations that were diverting water from nomadic communities. I met him in the sleek lobby of the Blue Sky with Yondon Badral—a smart, sardonic man I’d hired to translate for me in U.B. and to accompany me a few days later to the Gobi, where we would drive a Land Rover across the cold sands to meet with miners and nomads. Badral wore jeans and a sweater; Munkhbayar was dressed in a long, traditional deel robe and a fur hat with a small metal falcon perched on top. It felt like having a latte with Genghis Khan.
In the middle of the interview, Badral stopped talking and looked at my face; I must have been showing my discomfort. He said that it was the same for his wife, who was pregnant, just a few weeks further along than I was, and he explained the situation to Munkhbayar. The nomad’s skin was chapped pink from the wind; his nostrils, eyes, and ears all looked as if they had receded into his face to escape the cold. I felt a little surge of pride when he said that I was brave to travel so far in my condition. But I was also starting to worry.
I nearly cancelled my second dinner with the Americans that evening, but I figured that I needed to eat, and they offered to meet me at the Japanese restaurant in my hotel. Cox was leaving the next day to visit his family for Thanksgiving, and he was feeling guilty that he’d spent a fortune on a business-class ticket. I thought about my uncomfortable flight over and said that it was probably worth it. “You’re being a princess,” Cox’s friend told him tartly, but I couldn’t laugh. Something was happening inside me. I had to leave before the food came.
I ran back to my room, pulled off my pants, and squatted on the floor of the bathroom, just as I had in Cambodia when I had dysentery, a decade earlier. But the pain in that position was unbearable. I got on my knees and put my shoulders on the floor and pressed my cheek against the cool tile. I remember thinking, This is going to be the craziest shit in history.
I felt an unholy storm move through my body, and after that there is a brief lapse in my recollection; either I blacked out from the pain or I have blotted out the memory. And then there was another person on the floor in front of me, moving his arms and legs, alive. I heard myself say out loud, “This can’t be good.” But it looked good. My baby was as pretty as a seashell.

(from Thanksgiving in Mongolia by Ariel Levy)

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Komura was a salesman

Five straight days she spent in front of the television, staring at crumbled banks and hospitals, whole blocks of stores in flames, severed rail lines and expressways. She never said a word. Sunk deep in the cushions of the sofa, her mouth clamped shut, she wouldn't answer when Komura spoke to her. She wouldn't shake her head or nod. Komura could not be sure the sound of his voice was even getting through to her.

Komura's wife came from way up north in Yamagata and, as far as he knew, she had no friends or relatives who could have been hurt in Kobe. Yet she stayed rooted in front of the television from morning to night. In his presence, at least, she ate nothing and drank nothing and never went to the toilet. Aside from an occasional flick of the remote control to change the channel, she hardly moved a muscle.

Komura would make his own toast and coffee, and head off to work. When he came home in the evening, he'd fix himself a snack with whatever he found in the refrigerator and eat alone. She'd still be glaring at the late news when he dropped off to sleep. A stone wall of silence surrounded her. Komura gave up trying to break through.

When he came home from work that Sunday, the sixth day, his wife had disappeared.

Komura was a salesman at one of the oldest hi-fi-equipment specialty stores in Tokyo's Akihabara "Electronics Town." He handled top-of-the-line stuff and earned a sizeable commission whenever he made a sale. Most of his clients were doctors, wealthy independent businessmen, and rich provincials. He had been doing this for eight years and had a decent income right from the start. The economy was healthy, real-estate prices were rising, and Japan was overflowing with money. People's wallets were bursting with ten thousand-yen bills, and everyone was dying to spend them. The most expensive items were the first to sell out.

(from UFO IN KUSHIRO by Haruki Murakami)

Sunday, 24 November 2013

He must have been coming for the child

On the third day of rain they had killed so many crabs inside the house that Pelayo had to cross his drenched courtyard and throw them into the sea, because the newborn child had a temperature all night and they thought it was due to the stench. The world had been sad since Tuesday. Sea and sky were a single ash-gray thing and the sands of the beach, which on March nights glimmered like powdered light, had become a stew of mud and rotten shellfish. The light was so weak at noon that when Pelayo was coming back to the house after throwing away the crabs, it was hard for him to see what it was that was moving and groaning in the rear of the courtyard. He had to go very close to see that it was an old man, a very old man, lying face down in the mud, who, in spite of his tremendous efforts, couldn’t get up, impeded by his enormous wings.

Frightened by that nightmare, Pelayo ran to get Elisenda, his wife, who was putting compresses on the sick child, and he took her to the rear of the courtyard. They both looked at the fallen body with a mute stupor. He was dressed like a ragpicker. There were only a few faded hairs left on his bald skull and very few teeth in his mouth, and his pitiful condition of a drenched great-grandfather took away any sense of grandeur he might have had. His huge buzzard wings, dirty and half-plucked, were forever entangled in the mud. They looked at him so long and so closely that Pelayo and Elisenda very soon overcame their surprise and in the end found him familiar. Then they dared speak to him, and he answered in an incomprehensible dialect with a strong sailor’s voice. That was how they skipped over the inconvenience of the wings and quite intelligently concluded that he was a lonely castaway from some foreign ship wrecked by the storm. And yet, they called in a neighbor woman who knew everything about life and death to see him, and all she needed was one look to show them their mistake.

“He’s an angel,” she told them. “He must have been coming for the child, but the poor fellow is so old that the rain knocked him down.”

(from A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings by Gabriel Garcia Marquez)

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Do you think it would be fun

A curly-haired gloomy-looking foreigner was courting her—she said he was a Visigoth—and so were two or three quite respectable and uneasy young interns. She made fun of them all and of Grant as well. She would drolly repeat some of his small-town phrases. He thought maybe she was joking when she proposed to him, on a cold bright day on the beach at Port Stanley. Sand was stinging their faces and the waves delivered crashing loads of gravel at their feet.
“Do you think it would be fun—” Fiona shouted. “Do you think it would be fun if we got married?”
He took her up on it, he shouted yes. He wanted never to be away from her. She had the spark of life.

(from The Bear Came over the Mountain by Alice Munro)

Monday, 18 November 2013

He asked for Room 19

I saw by the clock at the little station that it was past eleven. I began walking through the night toward the hotel. I experienced, as I had at other times in the past, the resignation and relief we are made to feel by those places most familiar to us. The wide gate was open; the large country house itself, in darkness. I went into the vestibule, whose pale mirrors echoed back the plants of the salon. Strangely, the owner did not recognize me; he turned the guest register around for me to sign. I picked up the pen chained to the register stand, dipped it in the brass inkwell, and then, as I leaned over the open book, there occurred the first of the many surprises the night would have in store for me - my name, Jorge Luis Borges, had already been written there, and the ink was not yet dry.

"I thought you'd already gone upstairs," the owner said to me. Then he looked at me closely and corrected himself: "Oh, I beg your pardon, sir. You look so much like the other gentleman, but you are younger."

"What room is he in?" I asked.

"He asked for Room 19," came the reply.

It was as I had feared. I dropped the pen and hurried up the stairs.

(from August 25, 1983 by Jorge Luis Borges)

Friday, 15 November 2013

You will never see it again

"I sell Bibles," he said at last.

"In this house," I replied, not without a somewhat stiff, pedantic note, "there are several English Bibles, including the first one, Wyclif's. I also have Cipriano de Valera's, Luther's (which is, in literary terms, the worst of the lot), and a Latin copy of the Vulgate. As you see, it isn't exactly Bibles I might be needing."

After a brief silence he replied.
"It's not only Bibles I sell. I can show you a sacred book that might interest a man such as yourself. I came by it in northern India, in Bikaner."

He opened his valise and brought out the book. He laid it on the table. It was a clothbound octavo volume that had clearly passed through many hands. I examined it; the unusual heft of it surprised me. On the spine was printed Holy Writ, and then Bombay.

"Nineteenth century, I'd say," I observed.

"I don't know," was the reply. "Never did know."

I opened it at random. The characters were unfamiliar to me. The pages, which seemed worn and badly set, were printed in double columns, like a Bible. The text was cramped, and composed into versicles. At the upper corner of each page were Arabic numerals. I was struck by an odd fact: the even-numbered page would carry the number 40,514, let us say, while the odd-numbered page that followed it would be 999. I turned the page; the next page bore an eight-digit number. It also bore a small illustration, like those one sees in dictionaries: an anchor drawn in pen and ink, as though by the unskilled hand of a child.

It was at that point that the stranger spoke again.
"Look at it well. You will never see it again."

There was a threat in the words, but not in the voice.

I took note of the page, and then closed the book. Immediately I opened it again. In vain I searched for the figure of the anchor, page after page. To hide my discomfiture, I tried another tack.

"This is a version of Scripture in some Hindu language, isn't that right?"

"No," he replied.

Then he lowered his voice, as though entrusting me with a secret.
"I came across this book in a village on the plain, and I traded a few rupees and a Bible for it. The man who owned it didn't know how to read. I suspect he saw the Book of Books as an amulet. He was of the lowest caste; people could not so much as step on his shadow without being defiled. He told me his book was called the Book of Sand because neither sand nor this book has a beginning or an end."

He suggested I try to find the first page.

I took the cover in my left hand and opened the book, my thumb and forefinger almost touching. It was impossible: several pages always lay between the cover and my hand. It was as though they grew from the very book.

"Now try to find the end."

(from The Book of Sand by Jorge Luis Borges)

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

A new fridge and cooker at last

451c Chapter Road
London NW2 5NG
0208 887 8907
Dear Christopher,

We have a new fridge and cooker at last! Roger and I drove to the tip at the weekend to throw the old ones away. It's where people throw everything away. There are huge bins for three differant colours of bottles and cardboard and engine oil and garden waste and household waist and larger items (that's where we put the old fridge and cooker).

Then we went to a secondhand shop and bought a new cooker and a new fridge. Now the house feels a little bit more like home. 
I was looking through some old photos last night, which made me sad. Then I found a photo of you playing with the train set we bought for you a couple of Christmas's ago. And that made me happy because it was one of the really good times we had together.
Do you remember how you played with it all day and you refused to go to bed at night because you were still playing with it. And do you remember how we told you about train timetabels and you made a train timetabel and you had a clock and you made the trains run on time. And there was a little wooden station, too, and we showed you how people who wanted to go on the train went to the station and bought a ticket and then got on the train? And then we got out a map and we showed you the little lines which were the train lines connecting all the stations. And you played with it for weeks and weeks and weeks and we bought you more trains and you knew where they were all going.

I liked remembering that a lot.

I have to go now. It's half past three in the afternoon. I know you always like to know exactly what time it is. And I have to go to the Co-op and buy some ham to make Roger's tea with. I'll put this letter in the post box on the way to the shop.

Your Mum
x x x x x x

(from the curious incident of the dog in the night-time by Mark Haddon)

Monday, 11 November 2013

I already cut up mine

I came home from work and my wife was sitting at the kitchen table with a pair of gardening shears in front of her. She was smiling, which suggested I wasn't in too much trouble; on the other hand, she said she wanted my wallet. That didn't sound good.

Nevertheless, I handed it over. She rummaged out my Texaco gasoline credit card - such things were routinely sent to young marrieds then - and proceeded to cut it into three large pieces. When I protested that the card had been very handy, and we always made at least the minimum payment at the end of the month (sometimes more), she only shook her head and told me that the interest charges were more than our fragile household economy could bear.

"Better to remove the temptation," she said. "I already cut up mine."

And that was that. Neither of us carried a credit card for the next two years.

She was right to do it, smart to do it, because at the time we were in our early twenties and had two kids to take care of; financially, we were just keeping our heads above water. I was teaching high school English and working at an industrial laundry during the summer, washing motel sheets and occasionally driving a delivery truck around to those same motels. Tabby was taking care of the kids during her days, writing poems when they took their naps, and working a full shift at Dunkin' Donuts after I came home from school. Our combined income was enough to pay the rent, buy groceries, and keep diapers on our infant son, but not enough to manage a phone; we let that go the way of the Texaco card. Too much temptation to call someone long distance. There was enough left over to occasionally buy books - neither of us could live without those - and to pay for my bad habits (beer and cigarettes), but very little beyond that. Certainly there wasn't money to pay finance-charges for the privilege of carrying that convenient but ultimately dangerous rectangle of plastic.

What left-over income we did have usually went for things like car repairs, doctor bills, or what Tabby and I called 'kidshit': toys, a second-hand playpen, a few of those maddening Richard Scarry books. And that little bit of extra often came from the short stories I was able to sell to men's magazines like Cavalier, Dude, andAdam. In those days it was never about writing literature, and any discussion of my fiction's 'lasting value' would have been as much a luxury as that Texaco card. The stories, when they sold (they didn't always), were simply a welcome bit of found money. I viewed them as a series of pinatas I banged on, not with a stick but my imagination. Sometimes they broke and showered down a few hundred bucks. Other times, they didn't.

Luckily for me - and believe me when I say that I have led an extremely lucky life, in more ways than this one - my work was also my joy. I was knocking myself out with most of those stories, having a blast. They came one after another, like the hits from the AM rock radio station that was always playing in the combination study-and-laundry-room where I wrote them.

(from an introduction to a book of short stories by Stephen King)

I really felt like dancing

I started giving the three witches at the next table the eye again. That is, the blonde one. The other two were strictly from hunger. I didn't do it crudely, though. I just gave all three of them this very cool glance and all. What they did, though, the three of them, when I did it, they started giggling like morons. They probably thought I was too young to give anybody the once-over. That annoyed hell out of me - you'd've thought I wanted to marry them or something. I should've given them the freeze, after they did that, but the trouble was, I really felt like dancing. I'm very fond of dancing, sometimes, and that was one of the times. So all of a sudden, I sort of leaned over and said, "Would any of you girls care to dance?" I didn't ask them crudely or anything. Very suave, in fact. But God damn it, they thought that was a panic, too. They started giggling some more. I'm not kidding, they were three real morons. "C'mon," I said. "I'll dance with you one at a time. All right? How 'bout it? C'mon!" I really felt like dancing.

Finally, the blonde one got up to dance with me, because you could tell I was really talking to her, and we walked out to the dance floor. The other two grools nearly had hysterics when we did. I certainly must've been very hard up to even bother with any of them.

But it was worth it. The blonde was some dancer. She was one of the best dancers I ever danced with. I'm not kidding, some of these very stupid girls can really knock you out on a dance floor. You take a really smart girl, and half the time she's trying to leadyou around the dance floor, or else she's such a lousy dancer, the best thing to do is stay at the table and just get drunk with her.

"You really can dance," I told the blonde one. "You oughta be a pro. I mean it. I danced with a pro once, and you're twice as good as she was. Did you ever hear of Marco and Miranda?"

"What?" she said. She wasn't even listening to me. She was looking all around the place.

(adapted from the Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger)

I'm not sure what time it was

It was still pretty early. I'm not sure what time it was, but it wasn't too late. The one thing I hate to do is go to bed when I'm not even tired. So I opened my suitcases and took out a clean shirt, and then I went in the bathroom and washed and changed my shirt. What I thought I'd do, I thought I'd go downstairs and see what the hell was going on in the Lavender Room. They had this night club, the Lavender Room, in the hotel.

While I was changing my shirt, I damn near gave my kid sister Phoebe a buzz, though. I certainly felt like talking to her on the phone. Somebody with sense and all. But I couldn't take a chance on giving her a buzz, because she was only a little kid and she wouldn't have been up, let alone anywhere near the phone. I thought of maybe hanging up if my parents answered, but that wouldn't've worked, either. They'd know it was me. My mother always knows it's me. She's psychic. But I certainly wouldn't have minded shooting the crap with old Phoebe for a while.

You should see her. You never saw a little kid so pretty and smart in your whole life. She's really smart. I mean she's had all A's ever since she started school. As a matter of fact, I'm the only dumb one in my family. My brother D.B.'s a writer and all, and my brother Allie, the one that died, that I told you about, was a wizard. I'm the only really dumb one. But you ought to see old Phoebe.

(adapted from the Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger)

Who cares?

Unlike the cottages of our youth, this one did not have a maid's room. It was too new and fancy for that, as were the homes that surrounded it. Traditionally, all the island houses were on stilts, but more and more often now the ground floors are filled in. They all have beachy names and are painted beachy colours, but most of those built after Hurricane hit the coast are three storeys tall and look almost suburban.

This place was vast and airy. The kitchen table sat twelve, and there was not one but two dishwashers. All the pictures were ocean-related: seascapes and lighthouses, all with the airborne "V"s that are shorthand for seagull. A sampler on the living-room wall read, "Old Shellers Never Die, They Simply Conch Out." On the round clock beside it, the numbers lay in an indecipherable heap, as if they'd come unglued. Just above them were printed the words "Who cares?"

This was what we found ourselves saying whenever anyone asked the time.

"Who cares?"

(adapted from Now We Are Five by David Sedaris)