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Forty Stories New Writing from Harper P ERENN i AL A Fifty-Two Stories Production with fiction by ••• Jess Walter Lindsay Hunter Shane Jones Blake Butler ••• Catherine Lacey Roxane Gay Matthew Norman Jamie Quatro ••• Kyle Minor Kayden Kross Ben Greenman Greg Bardsley and more . . . F ORE W ORD B Y C AL MORG AN 40_Stories_Final.indd 3 6/18/12 5:38 PM1. Ambivalence by Ben Greenman When a girl is skinny, and calls you late at night, and you glance at the calendar, and it is four days before you are scheduled to get mar- ried, and the girl you are marrying is not the skinny girl but another girl, a girl who has already departed for the city where your wedding is to be held, it is your job, most probably, to hang up the phone. When you do not hang up the phone, you have not done your job. When you invite that skinny girl to your apartment, and then you jump into the shower so that you will be clean, taking special trouble to wash the parts that matter, and then you mess up your hair so that you will look as though you haven’t gone to any special trouble, then you are doing another job entirely. She was a painter. Panos met her through a mutual friend. She had a boyfriend, who was twenty-two years older than she, and when Panos first spoke to her, he said that he thought that the age differ - ence was an atrocity. “Like bombing Cambodia,” he said, convinced that this was a joke that she would not understand. She surprised him with a knowing laugh. They talked about his impending mar- riage, and about the week of freedom he had but doubted he’d use. She took out a Paper-Mate blue pen and used it to write his phone number on her hand. She wrote it strangely: not with numerals, but with letters “O” for 1, “T” for 2, “TH” for 3, “F,” “FI,” and so on. “So that makes your number ‘Efstooth,’” she said. 40_Stories_Final.indd 1 6/18/12 5:38 PM2 Ben Greenman “Hey,” Panos said. “That’s my street: Efstooth Avenue.” “For that joke I award you this pen,” she said, handing it over ceremonially. “I’ll get it later.” When she arrived at Panos’s apartment, “Efstooth” was still inked on her hand, but that was not the first thing he noticed. The first thing he noticed was that she was carrying a suitcase. It was small enough that she held it rather than setting it down, but large enough that it seemed to have winded her slightly on the way up to the third floor. “Are you moving in?” he said. “I don’t know how my wife will feel about this.” She set the suitcase down on the floor, unzipped it, and flipped back the top. There were white packages there, white sheets, and when she unwrapped them they were her paintings. She spread them out on the floor of his apartment. There were ten of them, each one a small landscape with a single bird flying over a marsh and a single human figure in the foreground. They were slightly different shades, one reddish, one greenish, one dunnish, and so on, across a muted spectrum. Panos looked at the paintings and asked polite questions about them that she answered smoothly. “I like to tell people that he’s trying to capture the bird,” she said. “I always feel hilarious saying that. But the bird’s not an unwitting victim. He sees the man. You can be sure about that.” When he asked if they were all pictures of the same scene, she said that she saw how he’d think so but that no, three of them were painted from actual photographs of her father hunting and the other seven were created from imagination. “My father left when I was a little girl,” she said. “I remember that he yelled a lot, and that he was mean to my mother, and that she was happier with- out him. But recently I have been looking for pictures of him. I found three and made up seven more. No one should have fewer than ten photographs of her father.” They turned the TV on but turned the volume all the way down. They ordered pizza. She sat in a chair across the room from him, and announced that she hadn’t showered that morning, because the water in her apartment was too cold. Panos told her she was welcome to take a shower if she wanted. “We’ll see,” she said, and went around 40_Stories_Final.indd 2 6/18/12 5:38 PMA mbivalence 3 the apartment ticking her finger across the spine of books. “Lots of history books,” she said. “Not mine,” Panos said. “Oh,” she said. “Too bad. I love history books.” She was wearing tight stretch pants and a tight white shirt. It was obvious to Panos that she was the skinniest girl who had ever been in his apartment. She was not wearing a bra, which put her in the company of at least two other girls who had been in the apartment, neither of whom was the girl who was, in four days’ time, going to be his wife. His wife always wore a bra, and even three years into their relationship, she gave a little involuntary gasp of pleasure whenever he unclasped it. He figured that it was, at best, a reflex. The history books were hers. The skinny girl came and stood right next to Panos. She planted her feet to make it clear that she was ready to address the issue. “Well,” Panos said. “Here we are.” “We are here,” she said. “No doubt about that.” “It’s all in the way you say it,” he said. “‘Here we are’ is more loaded than ‘we are here.’” “Is that what we are? Loaded?” she said. “Speaking of which, I’ll have more wine.” She shook her glass and sloshed out a few drops onto her shirt. “Shit,” she said. “I have extra T-shirts,” Panos said. “I’ll just take this off,” she said, and did. “Come here,” Panos said. She sat on the couch and pushed up alongside him. They watched the TV, which was showing a strongman competition. A fat Swede was jogging down a short track, the chassis of a car held on his shoul- ders. “I really stink,” she said. Panos closed his eyes for research. She was right, in a way: it was the smell of young sweat, of a black flower blooming. She unbuttoned his shirt and laid her head on his chest. “Now you’ve got me thinking about my father,” she said. “I do?” Panos said. “How?” “It’s not that hard to do.” “I don’t think I like your tone,” he said. “I’m sure you don’t,” she said. “No one ever does.” She squeezed his arm. “You know what my father did? Other than leave, I mean.” 40_Stories_Final.indd 3 6/18/12 5:38 PM4 Ben Greenman “And hunt.” “And hunt. No, I mean what he did for work. He was trained as a lawyer but about a year before I was born he quit to work on a biogra- phy of his great-grandfather, who was a British intelligence agent who specialized in code breaking. Do you know about the Zimmermann Telegram?” Panos shook his head. She didn’t continue right away. He put his hand on her stomach, and then slipped a few fingers just inside the elastic band of her pants. “Tell me,” Panos said. “What?” she said after a while. “Tell me about the telegram.” “Oh,” she said. “Why? Are you really interested?” Panos nodded and let one finger drift a little lower. “Of course you are,” she said. “Really,” Panos said. “Keep telling me about it.” “Fine,” she said. “This telegram was sent from the German foreign secretary to the German ambassador in Mexico, and it announced that the Germans were going to support a Mexican attack on the southwestern United States. The British, including my great-great- grandfather, cracked the code. When the telegram was verified, Wilson armed ships to defend against Germany, and a few days after that, we were at war. World War One.” “You know, even though the history books aren’t mine, I managed to figure that out.” “The code was a cryptogram. We cracked it partly because one of the top German spies, Wilhelm Wassmuss, had lost his codebook in Iran the year before. We picked that up and it helped with the Zim- mermann Telegram.” “We?” Now she didn’t like his tone. “We the British. We my great-great- grandfather.” The strongman competition had ended, and now the TV was showing dirt bike racing. She got up to go to the bathroom, and when she came back she started to pack her paintings back into the suitcase. “What color would you say this is?” she said, holding up a canvas. “Blue.” “And what about this one?” 40_Stories_Final.indd 4 6/18/12 5:38 PMA mbivalence 5 “Also blue.” “Right. But isn’t that ridiculous? Two colors that are so different, but they’re considered the same. It’s almost reason enough to become a painter, just to try to understand that. Colors are like a code, too.” “Oh, yeah,” Panos said. “Finish the code story.” “It was finished,” she said. “Finished enough. I was out of that and on to color. Blame your bathroom. It’s blue.” “I didn’t pick that color.” “It doesn’t look like your thing,” she said. “When are you getting married?” “Sunday,” Panos said. “It’s strange. It seems like a million years away, and also like it’s going to happen the first time I let myself breathe.” “You’re not breathing?” “Not always well.” “Is it because I stink?” “It’s because I’m not sure what message I’ll be sending if I do. Maybe my true feelings will come through.” “What are those true feelings? I assume they have something to do with the reason I’m here.” She had her chin tilted up now, and her words were falling into the space between them. “Ambivalence.” “That’s not a feeling. It’s the presence of two feelings at once. What are the two?” “Joy and fear? Happiness and hatred? Rightness and wrongness?” “Wrongness?” “The most obvious kind of wrongness. Like maybe this isn’t the right choice. Like there are a million people to love, and how can I settle on one and be sure that I’m not a fool? I have met others. I might meet others. What about Eskimos?” “The Eskimos,” she said. “Of course.” “Or the Finns or the Malays or all the other people I don’t even know about. Maybe I could be with one of them without ambiva- lence. Don’t you have these questions about your boyfriend?” “He’s a quick story. He’s older, is big like you, has a beard, helps pay the rent on my painting studio, treats me with what we’ll say is 40_Stories_Final.indd 5 6/18/12 5:38 PM6 Ben Greenman kind contempt. That often does the trick for me, as it turns out.” She slipped a hand inside his shirt and hooked her leg over his. “Will you kiss me?” “Sure,” Panos said. “But I’m not sure about more. I want to, but you know.” “Now that’s ambivalence,” she said. After they kissed, she pulled her pants down far enough to show him that she wasn’t wearing any underwear. “Put your hands on my ass.” “If you insist,” Panos said. “But I want you to know that I feel like I could stop any time.” “I’m flattered,” she said, her eyes narrowing. “What I was going to say,” Panos said, “is that it’s like when a drunk driver thinks that he’s in control of his car.” “Oh,” she said. “Maybe I am flattered. Well, do what you want, or don’t. Your hours are numbered anyway. I have told you so many state secrets that I’m going to have to kill you. Anyway, it’s not too long until morning. I’ll be gone soon.” They leaned into each other and she pretended to concentrate on the dirt bikes on TV. The sky outside was already starting to change color, from black to a weaker shade of black. There wasn’t any blue in it yet. “There’s a bird out there,” Panos said. “I rarely actually see them at night.” “The man sees the bird,” she said. “You can be sure about that.” She made birds with her hands and flew them up high so that her arms were stretching as far as they would go. She was so skinny that there was something painfully religious about that pose. It was a pose of appeal to something far beyond him. “Put your head back down on me,” she said, and he did. She stroked his neck, unbuttoned his pants, made circles with her fingers on his stomach, exhibited restraint. Taking off her clothes would have been as easy as asking. How often are things as easy as asking? At seven, it was time for her to go. Panos found her shirt and but- toned up his own. “Okay,” he said. “What’s the way to do this?” He hadn’t anticipated the need for any secrecy. He had planned to sneak her out at three in the morning or so. But now his neighbors were up, and many of them knew his wife, and he wasn’t sure what they would make of a strange skinny girl leaving his apartment early in the morning. 40_Stories_Final.indd 6 6/18/12 5:38 PMA mbivalence 7 “I’ll go down and throw out the trash,” he said. “If I buzz on the buzzer, that means the coast is clear, so come downstairs quick. The door will lock behind you.” “Okay,” she said. “Can you carry my suitcase along with a trash bag? That way I can get there fast. I won’t have to bump around on the stairs.” “It’s like being a spy,” Panos said. “It’s nothing like that,” she said. “I could tell you stories.” Did Panos take her to breakfast? Not to take her would have been rude. But he did not pay. That would have been too conspiratorial, and too high-handed, both at once. Besides, he was not hungry, just intensely thirsty, enough so that he bought a half-gallon of orange juice from the corner store and drank it straight from the carton while he stood out on the sidewalk. She stopped in a coffee shop and ordered a toasted bagel; a bit of melted butter ran down her chin when she ate it. Her chin was slick with the butter. The sky was a brilliant shade of blue. At that moment, just at that precise moment, he wanted to invite her back up to his apartment and make all the mistakes he had avoided making. Instead he changed the subject, for the last time. “You forgot to get your pen back,” he said. “You can keep it,” she said. “Remember me by it. That’s kind of nice, right, to remember someone by something totally anonymous? When you write with it, it’ll be like there’s an invisible ink message just under the real message.” “What does it say?” “You wouldn’t understand,” she said. “It’s in Inuktitut.” “What is that?” “Look it up,” she said. “You have books. I’ve seen them. Okay: I’m leaving.” “See you,” Panos said. “Or not,” she said. “Probably not.” “Well,” he said, “I hope you enjoyed your time on Efstooth Avenue.” “You’re an idiot,” she said. When she leaned in to kiss him good- bye he smelled it again, the black flower blooming under her arm. He went back to his apartment and pulled out history books until he found a listing in the index for the Zimmermann Telegram. He 40_Stories_Final.indd 7 6/18/12 5:38 PM8 Ben Greenman read a few paragraphs that he didn’t understand. They might as well have been in Inuktitut. In the front of the book, on a flyleaf, his wife had signed her name. His wife, almost. He shut the book hard, like a trap. He was trying to capture his ambivalence or kill it. Three days later, he watched his wife sign her name again, on a marriage certificate, beneath a paragraph he understood completely. The ink and sky were blue. 40_Stories_Final.indd 8 6/18/12 5:38 PM2. Amy Having a Heart Attack by Sharon Goldner When Amy hears what her father has done, she thinks she is having a heart attack. “Are you sure?” she asks her mother, who is out of state in Amy’s childhood home. Amy is talking loudly because of the din of the lawnmower going at it next door. Her mother screams “Goddamn it” and hangs up the phone on Amy. That’s when Amy thinks she feels the heart attack give birth to itself. Her whole left breast aches underneath where she suspects her heart is. Amy tries calling her mother back but she will not answer and the heart attack lightning-bolts her. It isn’t at all what she thinks a heart attack will feel like. “Let it be over quickly,” she says. When there is no response, Amy answers herself: “Okay.” Amy caresses her breast, since she can’t get to her heart, and it feels good; no, it feels better, but good that she can take care of things herself, with husband and children at school. She thinks about how things could have been so different. She could have married that rabbi, freshly ordained, he wanted to marry her, and then there was that doctor, a heart doctor, now is that some shade of apropos or what, but he dumped Amy for a famous actress person, thirty years his senior. So Amy married Ralph instead and she hates him and hates this marriage, and he is always screaming how he hates her, too, 40_Stories_Final.indd 9 6/18/12 5:38 PM10 Sharon Goldner and how that time she called 911 because he was screaming so badly and they told her that they could only send someone out if he hit her or threatened to hit her. She wondered if 911 would come out if she thinks it is a heart attack but isn’t really sure. Or if they would tell her mother to stop hanging up on her all the time. Amy likes the word “tits” but only in private, and only when she is by herself. She takes off her shirt to undo her bra and now that it is undone, she lifts it up and off her shoulders. Sensing their immedi- ate release, Amy uses two hands to caress and cajole. Her breasts are loopy and long, having stretched out beside themselves after years of expensive but essentially nonsupport bras. She considers turning some music on for mood but that would require the effort of getting up and the only effort Amy wants is the one right now on her breasts. She sings to herself instead, trying to drown out the mowers. Living in a gated community in the suburbs the lawns and gardens of the big expansive homes are always being fussed over. Amy has all but forgotten about the pending heart attack. Her fingers deftly follow the vein down the one breast that starts in the middle of nowhere. The fingers have gone this route before. She is feeling the rise of her chest and the boldness of her C-cups elongated as they hang out with her since her mother hung up on her today. She doesn’t care if Ralph wants her to have a boob job; he’s got enough D-cups in his porn collection to start a new nation. “These girls are not fixer-uppers,” Amy always says. Amy goes from the middle of nowhere vein all the way down to the nipple. When she was nursing her youngest many years ago—the swell of time bruised and bloated—her older child asked about the breast- feeding. He was precocious enough to be in a gifted-and-talented kin- dergarten class where he was learning his colors in Español. As she began to give him the beautiful explanation of the breast as nourisher, he exhaled words as if they were mucous he wanted to get rid of. “No, what’s THAT? That blue thing,” he snaked, “on your boob.” Amy looked down at the vein. “It’s gross” he screamed. “Mommy’s got blue boobs.” She had to explain to Ralph that she didn’t show him her boob, he looked. The phone rings. When she hears her mother’s voice on the an- 40_Stories_Final.indd 10 6/18/12 5:38 PMAmy Having a Heart Attack 11 swering machine, Amy’s fingers let go of the breasts. “Why did you hang up on me?” Amy asks. Her bra looks funny, hanging half on the kitchen chair. Half off. Which one is it really? “You know I don’t like when you hang up on me.” The chair almost looks like it is wear- ing the bra in a very revealing way. Amy’s daughter, the youngest, recently wondered why nobody thought to dress up furniture beyond the fabric of cushions or pillows. “It would be funny to see a sofa wearing a dress. A love seat could wear a skirt and a pair of pants because it’s a love seat and it could be a boy and a girl together. Of course, it could be a girl and a girl or a boy and a boy, too,” refer- ring to her aunt, Amy’s sister, and her wife. This child was gifted and talented, too. “What do you mean asking me,” her mother snipped into the phone, “am I sure? I’m right here. You’re not here. You’re all the way there. Exactly what part do you think I am not sure about?” “It’s just that . . . ,” Amy stutters. “Your father embezzled from a client,” her mother says, reaching pitches not previously thought possible. “He got caught. It doesn’t matter to them that he was going to pay it back before they caught him. He was going to make it right in his own time but they are going to make him make it right faster than that.” Her mother ex- hales the last few words in a stream. “Oh my God. Are you smoking?” Amy asks. She is appalled, par- ticularly since her mother’s recent cancer diagnosis. “I already have the cancer,” her mother says, “so what’s a cigarette in the big picture? It helps me relax and Lord knows I need to relax. It’s not like your father is going to take me on vacation anytime soon. And if he gets convicted, well then, that’s really no vacation. And no sex either. A double damnation. Oy.” Amy hears the tap-tap of the cigarette into an ashtray. Knowing her mother, it’s probably a soup can or a soda bottle. The china ashtrays of her childhood were considered part of the set— valuable pieces not to be desecrated in any way. Amy holds the phone a little ways from her ear during the cancer talk, convinced that maybe cigarette smoke has so advanced itself that it can travel through the phone lines right into her ear, settling in for the 40_Stories_Final.indd 11 6/18/12 5:38 PM12 Sharon Goldner night before making the pilgrimage into her brain and any other body part it damn well pleases. “What about Meg and Bob? Do they know?” While her mother extols the virtues of her siblings, Amy thinks back to a particular teenage memory with Meg and Bob. It’s the one where they were all in one of the bedrooms looking at record albums. They could hear, in the next room, their parents making love. Meg and Bob paused for a moment to listen to their parents. They had been looking at a Grand Funk Railroad album, saying “fuck, fuck, fuck” out loud a million times, which led to an argument about whether or not it had been a million times. They decided to take another hit of the joint they had been passing around before counting the mil- lion out again, and that is when they were stopped in mid-syllable by the grunting and alternate groaning of their parents in bed. Meg and Bob smiled and rolled their eyes, or for them being high, it was more like they rolled and smiled their eyes. They were lucky, they felt, luckier than all of their friends to have such cool parents. “Mom had like six abortions you know,” Meg said. “A few after Bob and then some before me. We were her chosen ones, Bob You were supposed to do a drum roll or something.” Bob, picking brownie crumbs off his lap and eating them, declared, “What we just did to those brownies is downright savage. Brownies have feelings too, you know. Amy, you should have stopped us. When the brownie police come, we’re going to say it’s your fault, okay?” Amy, against the wall, heard her parents, louder than her siblings; and found their sex sounds comforting in a way—that her parents still wanted to be together like this. Amy is thinking on this, the sounds of comfort, and doesn’t hear her mother until she hears the screaming. “Goddamn it, of course Bob and Meg know. Who do you think posted bail? Jesus Christ, Amy. As if I don’t have enough going on. Sometimes I think being a preemie affected you in ways the doctors have yet to discover.” Amy heard all the stories about how her mother had to trek back and forth to the hospital with baby Bob in tow to bond with preemie Amy. “Well, maybe if you hadn’t smoked and drank during preg- nancy . . . ,” Amy says. She sits down, her breasts jostled by the sudden movement. 40_Stories_Final.indd 12 6/18/12 5:38 PMAmy Having a Heart Attack 13 “Nobody said that was bad for the baby. Everyone did it back then. Your brother and sister turned out fine.” “Mom—I’m just saying,” Amy just says. The phone clicks. Amy has been hung up on again. In the old days, before the wireless technology, a hang-up was really a hang-up. It had power. It had oomph. It had drama. It required a physical- ity—the holding hand removing the phone from the ear, whooshing it through the air on its way to being slammed down. Now the effect of the hang-up was not quite the same. And the mowers outside seem angrier, chopping blades of grass with, ironically, blades of sharpened steel. Everything gets cut down in life, Amy thinks, drumming her fingers on the kitchen table. Her father was a respected man in their community. Everyone loved him. He gave out sage advice. He volunteered. He served on commit- tees. He went to fund-raisers and galas. He hosted dinner parties where he shamed friends into giving hefty sums for charities. He was stable. A righteous man. Of all the labels you could pitch on a man, embezzler was not one of them. Of all the labels he wore for this meeting and that event, who would ever dream he would wear ones that said arrest? Police? Bail? Trial? This was unfathomable, and the more Amy sat on the pier inside her mind fishing for explanations, she realized that maybe anything was possible because really, how well do you know anyone at all? The heart attack feeling starts again, rolling in punches of pain, threatening to explode her rib cage apart. She crosses her arms over her chest in an effort to straitjacket everything in. The last thing Amy wants on top of, under, and in between everything else is a mess. The maid isn’t coming until the following week. Still hugging herself, Amy’s crossed arms send a message up to her brain that goes some- thing like this: “Hey, don’t you see what’s happening here? Hello— remember the breasts?,” and then the rest of her goes, “Remember the breasts,” and then it occurs to Amy that she can make everything feel so much better like before. So Amy uncrosses herself and starts with the breast massaging again, vigorously and joyfully. Once the heart attack subsides, Amy finds ecstasy in her breasts, rolling and folding them. She works efficiently, as does a farmer who 40_Stories_Final.indd 13 6/18/12 5:38 PM14 Sharon Goldner knows the lay of his own land, except that Amy can close her eyes for brief intervals because she is not working with dangerous farm equipment. There is a new pattern to her breathing, and sometimes her chest stays filled with air for longer than it heaves the air out. Amy thinks that, as long as she is one with her breasts, the heart attack can always be averted. She feels full, the way she used to when she was breastfeeding her children, seemingly long ago. Taking out the small compact mirror Amy keeps in her pocket, she looks at parts of herself—it is not the right size for a full view of face or body, and so she moves it around slowly, glancing at her hair, her eyes, mouth, and neck. Just as she moves the mirror down to her chest, intending on one breast at a time, the phone rings. “I don’t think you understand the gravity of the situation,” Amy’s mother says. “Your father could do jail time for this. Can you imag- ine Daddy in jail? Your father an inmate? Wearing the same exact clothes as everyone else? That alone will kill him. You know how much he relishes style. And living with a roommate? I don’t think they are even called that. They’re cell mates. I mean, they can’t leave you with something nicer to call it? I have been your father’s room- mate for some forty-five years now. Did I tell you we were living together before it was in style? We were pioneers, I tell you. Sharing living expenses and pleasurable expenses—that’s how he put it. Way back when they talk about the good old days, well, they really were, before anything else.” Amy tugs the phone away from her ear just a little. While her mother continues to reminisce. Amy closes her eyes, taking herself back in time to her father coming home from work—she never knew exactly what he did, but he did have so many clients, and all of those clients paid for all of the nice things they did have. “Daddy-o’s home,” he would sing in the doorway, and Amy, faster than Meg and Bob, would leap down the stairs and into his arms. “You’re too heavy for me to pick you up, baby,” he would eventually say, but oh how he would let her wrap herself around him into his cologne and pinstripes. “He’s going to have to pay back everything, plus lawyer fees,” her mother says. Amy can hear the grinding of the pottery wheel as she 40_Stories_Final.indd 14 6/18/12 5:38 PMAmy Having a Heart Attack 15 talks. Her mother is known in town for her colorful, if not impracti- cal, ashtrays, mugs, vases, and things that had not been tableware- invented quite yet. “You know we’re going to have to sell Sunny.” Amy’s jaw drops. She feels it slip away from the top part of her mouth, wide open. Her tongue, wet with that elixir of life, spit, having nowhere to unload its product allows it to sluice out of her in beads, down her chin. “No, not Sunny” The expansive home of Amy’s childhood. Amy loves that house. It has always been there. Strong, reliable, safe—what a childhood home should be. Amy loves the breezy modern decor throughout, the theme of sunflowers in every room, even in her brother’s room, where they were hand-painted by their mother, camouflage, hanging over his bed. The real outdoor picnic table in the kitchen, with the umbrella that really worked. The formal dining room, with the real knotted tree bark that twisted up from the floor, flattening itself into the ex - panse of a table . . . how oddly divine the table looked when it was set for one of the many elegant dinner parties, as regular a feature of their lives as the four-tier hand-carved chandelier that drove flecked shimmers of light onto the room. The hiding annex Amy had discov- ered in her father’s study where she would sit and think and imagine. The grand entryway with the winding stairwell where Amy would pretend to be a famous megawatt movie star waving to her fans. “You can’t do this to me,” Amy says. “You can’t. That’s my life in there.” She places the phone down, turning it on to speaker. She holds her breasts up, her face down, and begins sobbing into herself. “Oh, for Christ’s sake,” her mother’s voice goes, coming through crackly on speaker. It fills up the kitchen like a noxious gas seeping into every space, sending its rebel forces all out with threats of over- throw down every path. “You’re an adult woman, for God’s sake, blubbering over a house you left long ago. When’s the last time you visited? Do you ever make it in for the holidays? Practically every month of the calendar there’s a goddamn holiday that you avoid coming home for. Your father and I beg . . . they’re our only grand- children. And NOW you’re crying. Boo hoo for Amy.” Amy knows there’s a lot more anger in her mother’s hang-up than the click will allow. She turns the phone back on, waiting for the 40_Stories_Final.indd 15 6/18/12 5:38 PM16 Sharon Goldner dial tone to die, followed by the recorded operator voice that says, “If you would like to make a call, hang up and dial again,” followed by the blast of beeps reminding Amy that the phone is still off the hook, before going completely dead. Determined to make the day go the way she wants it to, Amy starts back up with her breasts, fingers cooing on the skin freckled with perspiration, hips rocking in the vinyl kitchen chair. She reaches one hand down inside the waist of her jeans. They pop open, and her fingers scramble inside the dark denim. Outside, the edger guy on the path next door motions up and down to the lawn guy on the mower. The mower smiles, the space in between his front teeth holding a toothpick captive. He shakes his head, pushing his baseball cap firmly down, squashing bits of hair this way and that. He knows what the edger is gesturing about, and he’s interested, but no, not really. His wife at home has some really great chest. This missus here, well, hers are middle-aged and old. The edger guy mows up as close as he can to the window without seeming intrusive. He’s a professional, after all. Say what you will about their line of work, but how many jobs can boast of a little breast sightseeing on the side? A doctor, for sure. The edger guy shakes his head—too much school required for that. All he had to do was read a mower-and-edger manual. He swipes a look in Amy’s window, baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, just in case he has to say he wasn’t looking at anything— nothing at all—and it would seem like it was true. 40_Stories_Final.indd 16 6/18/12 5:38 PM3. The Anarchist of Darwin by Michael Ramberg I come from a small town you never heard of, unless you know about the big ball of string—biggest one ever done by a single man—that they keep in a big glass-wall gazebo about two miles off the main road. Used to, anyway. You probably heard that story, too, how it got burned down a few weeks ago. It was in all the papers’ News of the Weird columns and the late-night talk shows, how some freak or freaks drove in, smashed out one of the windows, threw in some gas, and tossed in a lighter. Poof. A fireball, busted glass, chaos. The whole sky turned orange, fading to a dingy black smoke-cloud that hung over the whole town before drifting off toward the Cities, eighty miles to the east. The volunteer fire crew spent forty minutes drowning it with hose-water; it was dawn before they were done and before noon the whole town knew. It hit everyone pretty hard, as you might imagine. We didn’t know what to do. One by one, folks came driving out to pay respects. They parked on the gravel median and stood shoulder to shoulder, staring at the soggy mess the fire crew left behind. Then they held a whole-town meeting at the combined high school gym. Man, everyone showed up. The grocer, the barber, the manager of the new Walmart that was driving them all out of business. Every- one wanted a piece of where the town was headed now that its most famous citizen was dead. Aside from wanting revenge on the sick bas- 40_Stories_Final.indd 17 6/18/12 5:38 PM18 Michael Ramberg tard that had done it, they couldn’t agree on much. Some wanted to rebuild what was left, which was about half the ball, and that mostly char made soggy and starting to mold already from the soaking that had put out the fire. Some others wanted to plow the whole site under and move on with being just another small town dying on the godforsaken prairie. Small-time thinkers thinking small, but at least they were trying, seemed to me. This is a pretty typical small town, and what that means is anyone with big ideas gets run out early for the Cities, leaving it for the half-wits with delusions of grandeur to run the show. After the meeting, little groups gathered out in the parking lot and talked it over. I ended up with Buddy Summers and Tank Watterman and their pinched-up little wives, who were all cross-eyed with anger over the ball of string being gone. “I think it’s a local,” said Buddy. “I think it’s one of the antis.” The antis were what we called people who thought the ball of string was a bad idea. Mostly they lived close to the ball, so they had to put up with the occasional set of kids from the Cities who drove by at three in the morning, drunk and looking for some hick, irony-laden small-town icon to make fun of. “I think it was some crazy from out of town,” Tank’s wife Mella said. “I think it was a terrorist.” Mella was four foot ten, five two if you counted her hair, which she kept piled up and curly in a style twenty years out of date. It had been really something back in the eighties, but now it was just kind of sad. I don’t know how her hus- band put up with her walking around like that, because Tank sold cars in Plymouth, which was forty miles away, out where folks from the Cities lived, so he was a little more sophisticated than Mella. “One thing’s for sure,” said Buddy. “We’re gonna find the guy. And then he’ll pay.” “I think it was an anarchist,” I said. “One of those guys who just wants to destroy stuff for no good reason.” They stared at me. “What’s a anarchist?” said Mella. “Like the devil,” Buddy said with an ignorant laugh. “That’s the anti-Christ,” I said. 40_Stories_Final.indd 18 6/18/12 5:38 PMThe Anarchist of Darwin 19 “He thinks the devil did it.” “I said anarchists, shithead,” I said. The world was turning red, and I could feel my face flushing in anger. “Okay, Spaz-o-tron. Hold your water.” I closed my eyes until the red went away. People were always saying dumb things and I was always having to calm down about it. It was why I spent so much time at home; it was the only way to avoid being around idiots and getting pissed off all the time. I said, “Anarchists believe society should be reshaped without a hierarchy of authority,” I said. “They believe all government institutions are evil, and that destruction of the current status quo is the best way to achieve a stateless society.” “Oh,” said Mella. She rolled her eyes back to think for a second. “So why burn down the string ball?” “Because it’s an irrational system,” I said. “With no proven meth- odology for implementing its core values, it strikes out at anything it despises.” “Chris the genius,” said Buddy with a sneer. “J.C. Christ.” Buddy had never liked me. Even back to grade school he’d been picking at the scab of my personality, and I was surprised we’d gone this long without him saying some ignorant, stupid thing. “Is that what you’re doing, holed up in your house all day?” “I’m in the book business,” I said. “So I read some of them.” I bought and sold books on the Internet. I’d started with the collec- tion my dad had left in the basement after he killed himself, and had bought and sold enough to be able to pay the taxes on the house that had become mine, since Mom had died off herself some years earlier. “If it helps us find this asshole, let him read whatever he wants,” Tank said. “C’mon. Let’s go out there in the morning. I bet there’s tons of clues about who did this.” “They been over and over that lot,” said Buddy. “They even called in some expert from the Cities. If there’s anything left, he’ll find it.” “There’s always clues,” said Tank. “Right, Chris?” I don’t know why he dragged me into it. They turned and looked at me. Buddy said, “You should miss it more than anyone. Your momma worked with that thing for twenty years. Put bread on the table.” 40_Stories_Final.indd 19 6/18/12 5:38 PM