Undead Darlings #6
cut from Schadenfreude, A Love Story
There seemed to be an unfortunate confluence between needing to appeal to the bureaucracy to get anything done, and that same bureaucracy’s remarkable refusal to do the only things it was supposed to do. But in exchange I got the delightful Viennese milieu, which either sprung out of a reaction to that omnipresent incompetent bureaucracy, or caused the bureaucracy and incompetence in the first place. Perhaps that was Vienna’s answer to the chicken-and-egg conundrum. At any rate, it was just the kind of pithy, pitiless observation that might be right at home in the most Viennese of all Viennese publications: Karl Kraus’s self-published journal of cultural critique from the early 1900s, Die Fackel (The Torch—get it? Because it illuminates the truth? By setting the false on fire?). “I and my public understand each other perfectly,” wrote Kraus. “I do not say what they want to hear, and they do not hear what I say.” Another of his best: “Morality is a venereal disease. The first stage is virtue. The second stage is boredom. The third stage: syphilis.” Even though Kraus ended up being pretty peripheral to my dissertation (despite my insistence in my Fulbright application that I “needed” to be in his hometown to research his influence on Kafka), I was duly impressed with the man the Viennese lauded as the Great Hater. I’ve been a fairly devoted disciple of the complaining arts since I was a child, but I had nothing on Kraus and his city. Dare to ask any of them Wie geht’s, and what I got was generally an uninterrupted and very cleverly worded treatise on why that day—nay, that month, nay, that year, nay, the entire world—was der Allerbeschissenste allerzeit (the MOST fucked of all time)!
And yet around every corner there were still people packed into the coffeehouse, the Beisl (corner pub), or the wine tavern, having what appeared to be the time of their lives. There are two special words the Viennese use for this sort of perennially opposing mood. There’s grantig, which basically means “grumpy,” if said grump is exclusively grumping along the cobblestones, underneath a low-hanging colorless sky. The other word is Schmäh, which is a special untranslatable term for giving someone a hard time, sometimes out of indiscernible (but obviously present) affection. Freud argued in Beyond the Pleasure Principle that everyone has a version of these two competing emotional forces at war; it’s in all of us, in our unconscious selves—the survival instinct, or Eros (which makes us want to have sex, propagate and therefore survive), and Thanatos, the Todestrieb, the death drive, that which seeks to return all living matter to its original—that is, inorganic—state. According to Freud, these two drives were in everyone, but I personally think he just analyzed a lot of Viennese.
Keith S. Wilson
Teeth and gums and throat,
I am a hole rising like the moon, widening
by the weight of my want.
I am the fear. The fall.
There is no reason to me.
What to do with all these teeth,
raven and red maw,
with this hole of a wretched thing?
The ocean shivers in me.
Fire. I am fire. Everything
some shade of red.
Run a finger down the score. This is monster,
only waiting. There is no talking to me,
I am looking for a piece of you to take.
What is salvation? Can I make it bleed?
There is nothing left to do with me,
but hang. Let me hang. Hang me.
In prison Nathan Leopold got Bull Durham tobacco and three meals a day. He taught other prisoners how to read using grade-school texts with Tom Sawyer pictures, wishing the whole time for a newspaper, though he got a novel sent in each week from Kroch’s Bookstore. He went to Protestant and Catholic services and waited to be thrown out, but no one cared. No one cared that he was Jewish, college-educated, a murderer, rich. He wasn’t a rapist and so he was all right.
The prison authorities kept him far from Dick Loeb. Work assignments, cell blocks, mealtimes. Nathan tried to think about his older brother, his parents, his aunt Birdie, but at night, years and years running, he thought about Dickie. Not was he sorry, not could he sleep, not would he ever admit he was the one to crack Bobby Franks’ skull with the chisel. Nights in Joliet, Nathan curled around his bunched, ragged blanket and imagined it was his friend.
Married and dying in Puerto Rico, he kept a picture of Dickie—dead thirty years, more—next to his bed. The smartest man he’d ever known, the best lay. The person with whom he belonged. Prison had taught him that or it had taught him nothing. Maybe he was unchanged. Maybe every sadness of his life could be summed up in the line he read years after it was published, the lead to the story about Dickie’s death, not an obituary but front-page news: Dickie Loeb, despite his erudition, today ended a sentence with a proposition. Dick Loeb wanted a man who wasn’t him. Dick Loeb never loved you. The picture on the nightstand smirked its agreement. But it’s all right, Nathan thought. History will say different. History won’t burden anybody but me with you.
cut from “Designing Time: The Idea of Plot in the Lyric Essay.”
Recently, a white pickup truck followed me on my way to work. I didn’t hear the men inside call out, “Good morning.” I kept walking. “Good morning, we said!” they insisted. I tend to be in my own world when I’m walking. I like to use my walks as a kind of meditation. Getting from point A to point B, you can learn a lot, no matter how small or ordinary the distance. The men wouldn’t drive off. I realized I was being followed. They demanded I acknowledge them, say good morning. The surface of the interaction is based on a transaction of everyday politeness. But they demanded this transaction. It was not voluntary. They harassed me until I gave them the attention they wanted. “Good morning, sirs!” I yelled with sarcasm. And they sped off.
cut from the novel, Shards
Sometimes it would rain for days and we had to sit in the house with my other grandma, my cousin Adi and I. If we were lucky there was something interesting on that one state channel her antediluvian TV actually received, cartoon or a nature show. If we were not, there was only a bookcase stuffed with detective paperbacks. Adi, though, wasn’t too keen on literary pursuits and, glued to the window, he’d huff and puff at the sheets of rain outside, twisting his neck, hoping for a patch of blue in the gray brain above the village.
“You don’t get fat from eating,” he’d snarl, “you get fat from reading books.”
He knew my weight was my Achilles’ heel and he’d never hesitate to ram an arrow there to keep me in my place.
Uncle Medo told us there was a man in the village buying snails, twenty dinars a kilo, that snails come after the rain, that we could earn some money. A ten-dinar coin would buy you two scoops of ice cream.
“Who would eat a snail?” Grandma said, her face aghast.
After the rain, the paved paths around Grandma’s yard and up the hill toward uncle’s house glinted with drawn-like slime-trails in the sun. Equipped with plastic bags and up to our thighs in adult galoshes, we, the cumbersome snailers, hunted down the fleshy creatures that curled in our hands like infant’s feet, their reflexes agonizingly protracted.
Sporadically, as we walked through the grass, there were crushes of brittle coiled shells under the weight of our legs, crumbled fortune cookies left mashed with the moist, slick ground.
Still, four kilos of gastropod mollusks squirmed at the bottom of the bag in the end, worth eighty dinars or sixteen scoops of ice cream and we headed to the village store. A butcher-paper message in jagged block letters read BACK IN 1 HOUR. We read it over and over, pressed our faces into the glass, trying to perceive, through the smudges of fingerprints at our eye level, anybody in the gloom of the store’s interior.
Of course he saw us innocent, this Balkan archetype in noisy Adidas warm-up pants and an immaculate undershirt, a stout gold chain around his neck. It didn’t matter what we said. It was simple. We caught the snails and he caught us. We retreated inside our own shells, protractedly, like the creatures we were trying to sell.
He took our bag “off our hands” for ten dinars and that was us walking home with a scoop of ice-cream each and with our ears red with anger, hard learning and disillusionment.
cut from memoir-in-progress, Spilt Milk
Before I learned to be pretty I played with boys, almost believing I was one of them. Julian Jaffrey was my best friend, and his little brother Emerson was my brother’s best friend, and our mothers pushed strollers together down the shady sidewalks of Georgetown.
Sunday mornings we didn’t go to Church but to Dumbarton Oaks, roaming the botanical gardens and terraces like they were our own back yards. Dumbarton Oaks was a fancy estate built into a hillside near Georgetown’s boutiques, but within its black iron fence we inhabited another world.
The best game was Cowboys & Indians and we played it with ferocity before we knew to say Native American. I was the Indian Princess, strong and proud and wild like Tiger Lily, always inviting capture by the enemy. Julian and I staked our claim to the Bamboo Forest—a dense leafy realm that rattled in the breeze. From our fort we peered out unseen over the sunken pool, down sweeping alleys of daffodils.
We were the older siblings and could seize the choice hideout, relegate the little brothers to more exposed gardens. We schemed our war strategies then went racing through the Rose Maze where the Cowboys hid, sneaking among a thousand yellow blooms to steal their made-up treasure.
From garden to garden we sprinted, Julian by my side in corduroys and a bowl-cut, the boy I adored for his freckled grin and green cat’s eyes— my near-twin, my kindred spirit. The younger brothers could never keep up, baby-faced Emerson with blonde curls bouncing and my own brother furious and chicken-legged in baseball shorts. Greek Fountains loomed around every hedge, some hideous River God with mouth agape spitting out old water.
Where were the mothers? Sitting on a bench with coffee and the babies, exchanging secrets on a Sunday morning. When Cowboys & Indians ended (in minor bloodshed or betrayal), they would steer us calmly towards the L’Orangerie. We loved that glassed-in jungle of gardenia and oleander, steamy fragrance of orange blossom, lemon vines twining the windows and a kumquat tree growing in a terracotta pot.
My brother and I would each palm a kumquat, hide it like a marble in our pockets till we were out the door, down the sweeping drive and through the iron gates. Then we’d slip the secret globe into our mouths, biting through sour rind for the half-sweet juice, chewing pulp and seeds. The war quickly forgotten, we were partners in crime again, savoring stolen fruit.
cut perspective from a novel-in-progress
Husband, Pnina had said aloud, all she could think to say, although she did not mean to say anything at all before she had adequately processed anything. She watched Rachel from opposite the table drag her fork across the plate through an egg yolk, looking very cold, even for November. It was not as if Pnina had expected to keep Rachel entirely to herself in a city so vast, and when she had been explicitly claimed by someone; she had learned to let go, to share, having already lost her nearly each weekend of their senior year to New York, to Ian. But to have her back, to indulge in her as she had been and repair them as they had—to be stripped of it felt unfair and cruel. Purposeful and spiteful. Pnina had asked Rachel if it was what she wanted, and Rachel had asked if Pnina was going to say congratulations. Her best friend was getting married, after all.