One Hundred Thousand Fireflies Taught Me How to Write Short Stories

I took this high-res image from an NPR article and this is how they captioned it: Detail view of Wendy Smith’s cover art for Distant Plastic Trees, The Magnetic Fields’ debut album, on which the song “100,000 Fireflies was released in 1991. Then they said “Courtesy of Merge Records”, whose permission I obviously don’t have, so everybody be cool

I have just learned of the death in 2021 of Susan Anway, who sang 100,000 Fireflies. I am moved almost beyond saying.

I learned to write in 2007 when I was seventeen. I had decided when I was sixteen that I would certainly be a writer and although I had been writing with most of my energy since I was twelve, having made up my mind at sixteen I began writing with all of my energy and all of my time. When you are very young you learn very fast, and it was in my first very serious year that I really started writing what I would presently call stories. I have never moved so quickly from one state to another.

I had a study hall period the year I was seventeen—big frigid room, astounding number of silent teenagers. One unpleasant adult like a buckle at a table at our head. White-white windowless light and my fingers were always purple. I made up an exercise. I think I thought I was becoming precious about editing. So my exercise was this: I would write without stopping from start to finish each study hall. I’d write a story for the length of each song on my playlist and when the song was done I would start a new story. As soon as I got home I would type everything. Spellcheck but no alterations.

I was unhappy in high school. By 2007 my classmates and old friends looked at me with pity and contempt—I was supposed already to have failed. I had contempt for them too but I didn’t want it back. I saw nothing for myself in the future. I had no sense that anyone would like or care about my work: but I was unhappy because I was thought badly of, and because I was lonely; I didn’t care whether people liked what I wrote or read it. I was like Orphée getting gods-music over the radio. I was also like a man building a table.

I had a funny idea of stories. I read To the Lighthouse in school and On the Road on my own. These comprised my idea of air-shaped storytelling. I knew I didn’t like a story with a Beginning Middle and End. Once or twice I read stories in Granta but none made any impression. Only by luck or the hand of God I escaped reading Miranda July or Tao Lin or any of the other internetcute no-shape authors of the 00s. I think they would have had too powerful an effect on me. It’s important when you are young not to like things which are popular right then. They hit you with the strength of other-people, your desire for love, your desire for friendship, all of that.

After a couple of months doing my exercise I got worried because I wasn’t writing about people anymore and I didn’t want to. I was worried that I didn’t like people and that this would make it impossible for me to write stories. I said something about it to my mother. “They are getting pretty abstract,” she said, meaning my stories. I showed her all or most of what I wrote.

I was unhappy when I was seventeen but also I was forced by desire. I mean desire gave me a vital force. And love, and life-drive. In general in my heart and body when I was seventeen I felt a wave-tall straining forward. I did not talk to my classmates anymore outside of school. I stayed up too late every night. I can’t remember ever doing homework. I worked very hard.

I watched a lot of movies: I ordered them in the mail and I went to the Pickwick in Park Ridge and some big theater in the city where you could see mainstream foreign movies, like Mesrine in 2008, which honest to God features a prison escape where the hardcore main character takes the time amid shooting and rioting to cut a full-on man-sized mouse-hole-shape in the prison fence—so French bourgeois that he doesn’t want to snag his prison uniform on a merely sliced fence. Amazing. 2008 was a terrible year for French movies.

So I was doing my exercise in school, then working on my big projects all evening and night, and I was very sad, and I was filled with feeling, and I had read a pick-and-mix of fiction, none of which was new, and I was watching films. I liked when movies became suddenly constrained and distracted at the very end and went off without talking to you.

This is how I heard 100,000 Fireflies. I mean that this is the state I was in when I heard 100,000 Fireflies. I will tell you about this song now, and about Susan Anway’s voice. 

There is a pink hazy wall of phonecharms. The harness-bells block of toy sounds that I liked about The Magnetic Fields. And Susan Anway, whose name I didn’t know then, with a voice like a paper streamer. She is singing like a doll, but not with the kind of porno naivete Serge Gainsbourg liked, which is what I normally think of when I think of frail female voices. This big pyranine-level room of playful color and Susan Anway’s voice singular in it. The lyrics open with some funniness about playing exotic instruments—goofy image you are not meant to take seriously. Then you learn that she is singing about love, and the music goes crafty-twinkly—but solemnized with a one-key-at-a-time rise and fall, a level glance. A call-and-response bing-bong bridge: then the important part. The end of the song. An up and down piano wave, an electronic drum, and Susan Anway’s life-and-death voice. She says three things, thoughts rising in a series like they do when you’re done crying or done having sex, and you are looking up and not really talking to be listened-to:

You won’t be happy with me, but give me one more chance; you won’t be happy anyway.

Why do we still live here in this repulsive town? All our friends are in New York.

Why do we keep shrieking when we mean soft things? We should be whispering all the time.

The words are sent off the wavy music and that’s the end of the song. Those final three lines, monumentally important, delivered off a fully-colored body of music on their own, holy with human singularity—this was the shape I resolved into for my stories. I had been thinking for a long time about the rhythms of movies, and I had an immediate, easy teenage response to music, and altogether I knew by sight the shape of the stories I wanted to write. I am as moved now as I was then by the image or idea of one human person moving off a vivid field of experience onto an invisible and entirely private plane. Maybe it is my primary concern as an artist—obviously I can’t know. At any rate I remember the gravity of my heart as Susan Anway’s voice rose off of everything else. I am amazed to think it belonged to a human and not to a thought in my head. God bless her. Godspeed.

This one is of me at age seventeen. This one belongs to me
Here is 100,000 Fireflies

Six Stories I Think About

Stuff by my bedside

An image or a line which is in reality a small rock or a sea-glass—which is not like a small rock to one reader but which is of its own power a smallest-unit of uniqueness—is a real artifact of art. It is a real shard off the meteor, so to speak. This is the good sound below art; this is the thing underneath Something Made Up. This is what I want my art to be. I want my lines and maybe someday even my drawings to be perfectly singular items, machine-heaving with their own uniqueness, sub-atomic. Folk songs get to be like this with almost no effort. Yeats did this over and over again. A thing so absolutely itself that it is almost anonymous. You almost can’t see it because it is so itself, like the Tao or the way it is difficult for some children to think about the sky.

This is the goal. You can only get there with immense labor, though maybe not much work, for a long time. You really have to be at it. But there is another, lesser spot, still good—and that is when a work of art becomes like a small rock: it sticks around amongst your events and in your mind so long that your experiences wear it down and it becomes rather a personal meme. Here are six stories which have become that to me. They have remained in my mind and amongst my thoughts for one reason or another and now they are icons in my head. I don’t like all of them. That’s not the point.

  1. Gimpel the Fool, Isaac Bashevis Singer. A simple man is taken advantage of by his neighbors. He comes up to the point of revenge. This is a theme which is of great importance to me. I love Saul Bellow’s translation—I like the way Saul Bellow talks. So I have no means of knowing if I like the sound because of Bellow or because of Singer.
  2. The Shared Patio, Miranda July. The narrator watches her neighbor seizing. She lives with a strange warm barrier between her mind and her experience of other people’s bodies and feelings. I haven’t read this in years but I think about it all the time.
  3. A Small Good Thing, Raymond Carver. A child is killed suddenly and for no reason. The grieving parents are harassed by a baker from whom they commissioned a cake they have never picked up. I have narrated this story more than once, beat by beat, over coffee. People are always amazed. 
  4. The Second Bakery Attack, Haruki Murakami. A couple robs a McDonald’s. I think about this story literally every week of my life.
  5. Poe Posthumous, Or the Lighthouse, Joyce Carol Oates. Edgar Allen Poe spends his limbo as a lighthouse keeper. At first he is pumped about it. He looks out at all the horrid underworld sub-life on the beach and thinks “I’m glad I’m not out there”. I wonder if you can guess what happens next! I fear all the time that I am Edgar Allen Poe in this story. Can’t find this one posted online.
  6. The Red Cocoon, Kobo Abe. The protagonist has no place to go, so with a pinch of imagination and a whole lotta postwar ennui he builds his own home. Can’t find this one online either.

I Hate Genre Painting

By genre I mean any among the centuries-deep tradition of the Grotesque Cozy meant to appeal to worse sensibilities

Every day for all my life I encounter and dismiss the pose which runs “haha modern art is bad”. Every part of it is gibberish, from the personality which undergirds it, to the crazily misapplied language, to the fact that at the very latest this is an idea got from approximately the year 1954. You’ll find it all over the political spectrum, especially amongst Americans, because rather than having to do with preference or interest or beliefs it is the expression of a smug, half-drunk pride in worse things—down-home things, like-folks, nobody’s-better-than-anybody else.

It is an attitude which is frankly and literally Nazi, and there’s not much more to be said about that—the originals in the game, breathless over Campbell’s Soup Kids and derisive of Chagall and Picasso. There are facts about art, and one fact is that the pure and subtle line, athletically controlled, restrained, is better in all ways than the squishy and decorative. Picasso is superior in skill, attitude, aesthetic and choice to a Nazi-commissioned painting of a grinning family at haying time.

This is so clear a boundary that there’s almost no need to say it: if you find yourself agreeing with Nazis, you’ve got to reevaluate your sensible faculties. Here is a position which causes me more concern, because it is better at talking about itself—the political alliance with the Renaissance. A casting-back to a time of balance, sophistication and beauty. Make no mistake: it is the same mind which makes this comparison. The person who in his heart prefers the pink-faced Northern genre painting of the child spilling his breakfast beer is the same person making soft overtures toward the harmony and sanity of Renaissance art compared to the degeneracy of the present day.

When I tell you about this, I will tell you three important facts—

1. The Renaissance as an art period is representative of decadence rather than flourishing; it is the tail-end of a movement and not the great height

2. When Renaissance art is beautiful it is asymmetric, odd and fine, not gargantuan, pleased and hot-faced

3. The people who appeal to Renaissance art for political ends do not like Renaissance art, cannot correctly interpret it, and are substandard lookers in the first place (that is, worse at looking than their betters)

Altogether, I hate genre painting. I hate the homely and the affectedly folkish. At one time I dismissed the people who love it; today I regard them as my enemies. They are not only subliterate visually but an active danger to art in all its forms, and for all that their position is at this point literally antique, they are continuously reinvented. I will talk more about this soon.

NB: genre painting, especially the kind I reference here, is not a Renaissance phenomenon—but the people who invoke the Renaissance for political ends are in fact more interested aesthetically in the failures of art which find their best expression in Northern genre work of the late 16th century and after, (and whose spiritual precedents are the intellectual weaknesses of the Renaissance) than they are in any actual achievement of the 15th c.

Zurbarán’s Agnus Dei

Agnus Dei, Francisco de Zurbarán, c. 1635-1640. San Diego Museum of Art (California)

In honor of Easter Weekend, following is an excerpt from my long-delayed chapbook about animal-human transformations in art. If I can arrange for even modest distribution, I will print it this summer.

Hatch of feet, 2 back through 2 front. Shadow up neck, little hedge of shadow. Neck straightened along the table, jaw nearly flat to surface, smiling mouth tucked over, the long wilted slope of the nose—the flesh of the nose beneath the flesh of its bridge; the bridge extends further than the flesh of the nose.

Looking at the light on the forefoot I recognize the painterly shorthand of strokes—before then it had seemed to me, overall I mean and in impression, like a Dutch still life, like Dutch realism. Zurbarán has more to do with slimily wet clay, fine mud from a lake’s floor than he has to do with glassine realism, cold hard hyperreality, realistic—I am referring to Dutch realism—in sense that 80s Japanese airbrush art of fruit breaching out of water is realistic.

I am looking now at a St Francis in Meditation. The weird smokey haze around his hood, like burnt pan submerged in water, shapes softened by darkness, receeding into darkness: sea glass.

Back to lamb. Its archaic smile, pulled up by the architecture of its face, like a drawing in which the brows and bridge of nose make one line, picassoid. Neck out like a dinosaur along table, and as I have said before mouth goes over edge of table. Rolling on throat so that eyelid is a canopy to the surface of the table rather than leaned back along it.

Jaw and chin and throat immediately below head are turning on the table like an unsteady object leaning back and forth as it comes to rest. Never before fully appreciated how whole, of a piece, the shape of a sheep’s head. The eye turns down in its head because the bone of the brow slides from forehead to eye socket smooth as an O’Keeffe angle of sand.

On the whole, a heap of lamb like a slouchy BoHo bag swung onto this ambient desk. I have told you about this mouth which has so often affected me. A mouth at the end of a throat-shaped whole-body. You think of how his lip feels turning his head as he does. Now his jaw and throat are on the mysterious table: the tongue is made firm and packed in the mouth. When he turns his head his lips, wide and half-exterior like a cat’s will touch the table, whatever it’s built of. 


This is a fairy tale about Southern California

Kelly walked out on a hot day. At the end of the road there was a house being rebuilt. Its driveway was turned up into corners of big gray stones. On the sidewalk out front lay two construction workers. Kelly crossed the street to give them space. One of the men lay in total sleep. He was stretched like a rabbit in a Dutch painting, with his feet long and his neck entirely extended. The other man was awake on his side, an arm triangulated for support, and he watched the screen of his phone, which was propped on its little snail-foot on the concrete. Kelly could see the blue pool through the house’s living room.

As Kelly rose slowly in the sun, past homes and their flowers, she heard a muted drumming. Down a street of houses, with horselike speed, there was a galloping animal. Its four feet curled off the road as it came. It was a coyote. Kelly paused. Its coat was Bowie-colored, burnished, clean and high. Its ears went straight up. Its mouth was open, like a human pressing its tongue to its side teeth. It swerved like a cyclist when it came near Kelly. Its head looked at her as it passed. She understood that it was afraid and that it was suffering.

The coyote moved up the hill which Kelly had meant to take. She did not want to make the coyote feel as if it was being pursued. She took the long way to the underpass.

The heat increased its pressure. Kelly stood at the light beside the offramp, waiting for the walk sign to show. The cars from the highway came down brightly. A boy’s voice called out, and when Kelly turned she saw that it was the coyote, approaching from the underpass. It looked at her like a runner with sweat in his eyes. “You were kind to me,” said the coyote. “I’m going to reward you because you were kind and didn’t chase me. If you’ll find something for me, I’ll give you a treasure.”

The coyote waited. Kelly thought, It looks exhausted. She had the sense that the coyote wanted to sound as if it were doing her a favor, but that it needed her help. It had gone up the hill, considered, and had come back for her.

“Let’s go,” said the coyote.

“You can’t cross yet,” said Kelly.

They waited for the walk sign to appear. They crossed the offramp together.

“A witch stole my face from me,” said the coyote. “I need you to get it back from her. She’s near here. Can you get it?”

“I don’t know,” said Kelly.

“You could just go in and get it. It wouldn’t be hard to find. God, it’s hot.”

“She lives nearby?” asked Kelly.

“Very close,” said the coyote. They walked along the busy street. “You’re going to get it for me, right?”

“I have no idea,” said Kelly.

“It’s my face,” said the coyote, but it was as if it was talking to itself. “I need it.”

They came to the end of the block and the coyote said they should go around the corner, behind the liquor store. On the back of the liquor store there was a big yellow banner: PSYCHIC HEALING. There was a set of stairs to a door on the second floor.

The psychic’s apartment was dim and gray and mostly empty. The psychic stood before Kelly like the blood in her body had not distributed itself yet. Her eyes were squinting. She told Kelly that she read fortunes and did energy healing and then she listed prices. There was a table and a couch and a tv on the wall. There was a galley kitchen and a blender and a microwave. There was a shut door with one sound of shifting behind it. There was a set of low shelves: a little pyramid in jelly rainbow layers, diminished by matter like dust; long smashed paper boxes of incense sticks; a Guadalupe candle; a closed drawer. The psychic saw Kelly looking at the shelves and she reached out and lifted a box of incense. “I also have things for sale,” she said.

“Do you have candles?” asked Kelly.

“Yeah,” said the psychic. She pointed at the Guadalupe candle.

“Do you have Lazarus?”

The psychic looked at the Guadalupe candle like maybe she had misread it. “Yeah,” said the psychic again, unsure.

Kelly asked if the psychic could check for a Lazarus candle. Okay, the psychic said. Also cash only, the psychic said. The psychic opened the closed door and Kelly saw a red plush blanket over the lump of a person, turning on a mattress. The psychic went into this room and closed the door and began to move things.

Kelly opened the drawer on the set of dark shelves. The handle of the drawer was soft with dust. The drawer was full. A great buttery smell of coconut. A postcard of a lucky Buddha. Kelly put her fingers into the pile of things to page through them: immediately beneath the postcard she touched hair like a horse’s neck, and although she felt horror she lifted the lucky Buddha and she saw the coyote’s face. It was small as a mask and its eyes were empty. White water line, black hard nose. It was flat.

The door opened. “What are you doing?” said the psychic.

“I’m sorry,” said Kelly. She pulled out the coyote’s face clumsily. “He needs it.”

“What?” The psychic was still holding the box of incense. She had a candle in the same hand as the doorknob. She looked confused from a great distance, like a dissatisfied person on a hill.

“I’m sorry,” said Kelly. “Sorry.”

Kelly left while the psychic said Hey. Kelly hurried down the steps, which made a lot of noise.

The coyote told Kelly where to drive. It sat on the passenger seat, so Kelly had to buckle the belt behind it to stop the safety bell. It held its face flat against the seat of the chair with its front foot. Kelly drove for a long time. The coyote explained how to get the treasure. “I’ll take you to a red cave. You’ll find a silver chain on the cave floor. Lay the chain on the table nearby and your treasure will appear.” The last town came to a gradual end.

It was late afternoon when they arrived. It was a nature preserve. There was a water bottle filling station beside the parking lot. Kelly put her head under the tap and got water on her nose as she drank.

“I can’t go the whole way with you,” said the coyote. It took its face in its mouth and walked some minutes with her into the nature preserve. The ground was wavy. There were very high stones, nubbled pillars in tall shallow alcoves. They seemed like sections of cave excerpted from the indoors and brought out for display. They arrived at a very short ridge, only the height of a step: an edge of land scalloped by water in the winter, and a wide white arroyo where the water had been.

The coyote put its face down. “Keep walking until the rocks change shape. Look for the cave in a red rock. It’s not really a cave. It doesn’t go back very far. You’ll see it. That’s where it is.”

“How long do I need to walk?” asked Kelly.

“Not long,” said the coyote. “The sun will still be out. You probably should have brought water.”

The coyote took up its face and left, a hill of animal hurrying away from Kelly. It went up a rise, into a thatch of creosote, the pebbles of its coat color rolling behind the creosote’s arms, and it swept behind a set of stones and was gone.

Kelly crossed the arroyo. The stones changed. They reached and leaned in eccentric boxes and elephant shapes. Kelly did not think she would find the cave or that it was real. High above, the pillars reappeared, grew massive, then diminished into shelves of mushroom-hatted stones. Down a slope, in a wall that was red like sauce on a chicken leg, Kelly saw the half-planet impression of a cave.

It was cool in the shadow of the cave, but it was not dark. This place was not wide, and it was clean. There was the silver chain. It was bright as if it had been polished. The walls of the cave were pocked with wind marks or snake holes. Kelly felt as if someone dear were there. There was also a cool terrible loss.

The silver chain had the look of a bracelet, fat flat links, but overbig. A link was the size of her palm. It was very nice to touch. Unwieldy, but not too heavy to lift. There was a red promontory in a shape like an ironing board. She laid the chain there. She tried to pour it down in a smooth and doubled line but it juddered, blocked in her hand and then falling in too quick a series. It hit the stone with a big soft jangle. It was like preparing the bed for a sick child. Kelly looked at the floor when she moved back because she was afraid she would stagger on a rock. Her heels along the ground made brushing noises.

The light did not change but it was as if on the ironing board a form became apparent out of some total darkness. It was a form where everything had seemed to be one shape. Then it was a form different from its table. Kelly experienced a grief in reverse, an amazing grief at the return of someone who had been lost. Its arrival was the completion of its having been away. The form became its own before the strange light which was a light in her mind distinguished its portions. At an imprecise moment, before the shoulders were articulated, before its knees or exactly its head, Kelly saw and understood the body of a man asleep.

House of Sleeping Beauties and No-heart

This was my first time reading House of The Sleeping Beauties. I bought it sometime last year but the timing was poor, since I’d just had surgery and was reading it while insomniac and full of stitches, and eventually had to put it down halfway through. I’ve just read it through now. I think it is the most perfect book I’ve ever encountered.

There is a theme in Kawabata which I’ve never seen dealt with as accurately or as cuttingly elsewhere, of people with extremely heightened aesthetic and sensual abilities, hyper-able to appreciate and study beauty, who are also completely without morals, and who mistake their genius sensitivities for goodness. I guess you see Europeans taking about this, but since Europeans fundamentally dislike and distrust beauty you can’t take them too seriously. Kawabata loves and understands beauty and clearly detests the men who replace their morality with aestheticism.

I like Kawabata for many reasons. Principally I love his technique. I am like a Kawabata protagonist in many ways. By biological settings and by cultivation I am extremely, painfully sensitive to sight and touch and all the animal gifts by which we interact with our atmosphere. What I seek in fiction is creation and sustainment of atmosphere. It is what I admire. It is what I enjoy. For me, it is the absolute art, to which all other author’s-arts aim. Kawabata is the great master of developing and galvanizing an atmosphere. I have never seen anyone better. In this story Kawabata smacks the scene and it begins to spin, deep dark and lovely and evil, hovering above earth, and doesn’t stop spinning until the last few sentences, when it blows up and kills you.

Here’s an interesting thing, and it is the impetus for my writing this. When I’d finished the story and blown up, I wanted to read the intro. My understanding was that the intro was written by the translator, Edward G. Seidensticker, who I admire enormously and whose translation of Genji I have also read. But I was puzzled reading this intro. Very prettily written, very clear-minded, and yet, apparently, missing the mark completely. “Does not impossibility of attainment put eroticism and death forever at the same point?” it asks, and claims that reading this story one “knows with the greatest immediacy the terror of lust urged on by the approach of death”, and ultimately concludes that the story paints an unusually vivid image of life. This seems to me the opposite of Kawabata’s mind—a mind in which the main character is depraved beyond self-awareness, beyond life, beyond death, and at once supremely capable of sensual appreciation. He is not an icon of the man near death (and in fact literally isn’t near death; it is important to the story that our main character is a man of early old age participating in something designed for men of actual senility)—he is an example of a man who has died morally and lives ghoulishly on. His eroticism is half-human. Could Seidensticker have translated so beautifully and yet so direly misread the story?

Well! Come to the end of the intro and see the name signed: Yukio Mishima. Mishima! I say that so often. I say it like Jerry Seinfeld saying Newman! Mishima, my demon brother. Mishima is the man Kawabata writes about. No man has ever lived who has been more able to write about the body and its sweetnesses, and no man has ever been more morally barren. Mishima was a fantastic, phantastic presentation of a man who was able to walk and talk and write while already dead.

My copy of Beacon Quarterly #14 arrived in the mail yesterday! It features my short story “The Dweller”, which is about the Health Museum and a lamassu.

It was so much fun creating art for Meat for Tea magazine‘s virtual issue release earlier this month. I also read my poem “The Fulfillment House”, originally published in MfT’s ’19 issue. I’ll always be grateful to MfT for picking up that poem, which I think is a very good one, and which I was having so much trouble placing that I was beginning to despair of seeing it in a magazine. It’s a new myth and also a Schubert lieder.

Absalom Waits for an Interview

Here is a second excerpt from the 2017 or 2018 story I excerpted in my previous post. Here, a painter named Absalom sits in a hotel room. Because this passage was originally split between two different chapters, I’ve added an ellipsis where its original break occurred.

As Palomar opened the window in Prague, Absalom asked for coffee on the phone in London. He thought himself shambly and stupid on the phone – in general and in this instance. He moved a finger over the batter-colored cord, bending and relaxing the joint at the knuckle with movements like a bird. He listened and thanked the kitchen and put the phone down.

In his mind Absalom moved over a hill. He moved through water. Absalom used his limbs to paddle through water. Absalom tried to use his arm like the spear of a canoe’s paddle, pushing with the flat of his hand and cutting the lake with the frankly mystifying physics of rowing. The sky was wan but pretty. There were some thin clouds. Instead, the sky was a brilliant stone blue and the clouds were distinct and spread as above the desert. A bee came down astoundingly, to the center of this lake from the sky, and hung before Absalom as he paused, treading. It was like a yellow spider on a web. The light caught it. The bee moved off sharply, without angles, to the right.

Absalom sat in the red chair and looked at the flowers. He thought about the apology to Pilgrim’s Progress but discarded it after only a moment. In his mind his hand moved over his books. He thought of Thomas Merton. He thought of John of the Cross and took his hand back before he was sure whether he had been in pain at the touch.

Brilliant roses the color of girls’ toys. Gigantic white roses. Red roses, ubiquitous. Big dinnerlike camellias. No one will ever see Absalom sitting here. Absalom moves like an animal entirely underground. Absalom and the stuffing, the ancient stuffing in the red chair. Absalom is the stuffing in the red chair. Absalom looked at himself as he habitually did, considering, placing and admiring or disgusted by himself. He seemed now to be a black stone, a black beryl bead or a miniature silhouette or one of Palomar’s scarabs set in an oyster-mauve slick bed, surrounded by a frame of bodyoid ivory, enclosed with a gilt lid and clasped at a woman’s throat. A blue silk bow at the end of a locket. A blue silk bow like a cat’s necklace, but very small, small as a mint.

Hundreds of flowers surrounded Absalom. The high-ceilinged room smelled of greenery but more pungently of preserved greenery and the ball-shaped food for plants. The flowers were beautiful. Absalom liked to sit with them stood out around him like this. He used to look at spools of thread in his mother’s mending box. This was like that.

Absalom thought of the camellias in the garden in Rome. Remarkably they fell still full, and lay in perfect spectrum-red blossoms, round and clean as dishes. These camellias here were blue. A good candy blue to which his eye returned and was happily surprised each return to be allowed to look, to have the time to look. The camellias beneath the trees in Rome, a remarkable fruit, so whole, so red. The blossoms on the trees bent their whiplike branches in pretty curves and the blossoms faced down. Bells. Mouths. The flowers in Stanhope’s silly love-and-the-maiden. Mostly the bounty beneath the tree, its impossible appeal, nothing of rot about it if comparable to some degree to mashed strawberries. On the whole: healthy and promising, suggestive of eternal life and movement from one stage to another in the same shape and beauty.

Absalom was enraged and the coffee arrived.

Absalom thought of Appalachia, which he had only encountered romantically, grotesquely in fiction. He’d no doubt that the real Appalachia was as various and moral as any place, and the photographs and films he’d seen of that country inspired feelings of reverence and joy in him, not the infected horror which green things seemed to suggest for others. Now he took himself through the horrible Appalachia, which compelled him.

His assumption of its real beauty – reliable enough, formed as it was by his own childhood in the North Country – and the pornographic romances of the gothics and his distinction, clarification of the hills’ real horror alongside other rural horrors he had known, all of this together provided for him a terrible, gorgeous allegory, real and unreal. He thought of inbreeding. He thought of an inbred boy. He thought with some wonderment of the possibility of genetic error. It conflicted with Absalom’s concept of the world, in which the unconscious things and the nonhuman things and the accidents of time generally harmonized on behalf of the active human. Absalom knew this was not the way of the world: this knowledge against his natural feelings were what amounted to his piety.

He reminded himself of the truth, that human misbehavior, sexual misbehavior, could result in the innocent and injured, maybe way down the line. Absalom imagined the inbred boy and dressed the scene. The boy, thin and weird-boned, jaw like a partially-melted cube of ice, sitting still as though in a state of uncommon attentiveness but eyes placid and warm like a drunk’s, mouth sad as teddy bears’ mouths suggest sadness. The boy sits shirtless, small shoulders near one another, muscular upper arms meaty as corpses, in the barn’s shady insides, face pointed that way, where you can be sure there is nothing. Sits on a crate. Without, in the sun, a rotted iron plow. The barn, the machine left to become useless, the cool silver-black of the shade, this high-romantic wretch in his symbolic idiocy spoke to Absalom. They spoke of carelessness and a lineage of wrong, unattended cruelties which did not naturally crumble. Absalom was interested to think of this evil which remains despite the changing of the seasons and the earth’s turning. Absalom placed himself in Appalachia and walked through rooms, imagining his own part in the evil of such a place.

Then said Pliable, Ah Neighbor Christian, where are you now?

Truly, said Christian, I do not know.

Palomar Takes a Bath

Here is a passage from a story I was writing in 2018, for my own interest and pleasure and never for publication. Palomar is a composer and musician. In this excerpt, he takes a bath.

The water shook itself over his feet. Silent feet. All his body silent, awoken from a dream of huge music, cacophonous or beautiful. The limit of his feet, place where his white skin stopped, seemed to also be the limit of motion and life. Before his feet there was the moving thing. His boundary was the boundary of life. He was utterly thick, entirely filled throughout all his form, and there was nothing living or alive within him. He turned the faucet and sank down.

The water was cool. The apartment was hot. The hours Palomar had fed to the pool at his school’s gymnasium, fed as you would patiently and gradually let rope down as it is needed. The vastness of the time seemed remarkable to him now. It was good time and not wasted. The noise came from the ceiling and walls, geometric calls and cracks and the slappings of steps and reverberation of railings striking and bouncing off the strings and spots of the lights on and in the pool. The lights of the water. He had gone so often to that place that they became ordinary and then indistinct and at last cosmically distinct, a daily and hourly table of information, and as these things go Palomar was made aware of how the food came to him and that it sustained him.

He had heard of men in the Himmalayas, Buddhas, who by great focus and selflessness and starvation become fully conscious of each of their breaths, to the point of being able to pause and reactivate their own blood circulation. That was probably like the sounds and lights of the gymnasium’s pool. Palomar lay in the tub, head on its rim, knees unusually relaxed if not straightened. It was a huge tub. Palomar lay in the tub and knew about himself. With his athletic habit and the other somatic qualities intrinsic to Palomar but mysterious to Palomar, Palomar knew the location of his body and its shape. He knew the distance from his shoulder to his hand, from his hand to his foot. The ceiling was white and the bath’s light covered it, moving like a snake in its new beautiful skin – the strange beauty of snakes, the sense they give you of moving while their bodies are still.

Palomar brought himself down. He lifted his feet from the water and set his ankles on the end of the tub. His body flew down like anything grabbed down underwater. Like the meat demonstratively offered to sharks in nature documentaries, grabbed by the huge blunt mouth as by a big hand badly, clumsily, & surely pulled down. His back made the huge brass-section rubbing blow against the tub as he slid. Now Palomar lay with his ears underwater. He listened. Music like none other. It visited him, whole and perpetual, and it wasn’t a question of imitating it later, or partaking in it as you would an inspiring thing, or of forgetting it was real as you forget intense feelings of early love are real, or working smoothly or indeed being inspired; though maybe it was healthy to sometimes experience and sometimes forget these things, there is a storytelling aspect to that forgetfulness: it is a story you tell yourself about how what you have seen was not seen.

It would not have occurred to Palomar to talk himself out of the memories of these sounds. To be visited by these sounds was like going definitely to the pool, and the experience he now had of being a man who had spent so many hours of his youth swimming: the visit had hard certain lines and was pleasing for the fact of its being itself, not its suggesting other things, though certainly it was pleasant in other ways and certainly it suggested other things. It was most like the year. It was like the year and the week, which Palomar synesthetically had seen as a definite location, a pale orange stripe, gradient, labeled with the days, or in the annual, a ring of places around him, its sites spent-time-at every year of his life. These, the days and year, he experienced with child good-humor, relying on it because it was reliable and unaffected by its superficial resemblance to dismal repetition, the repeating things which end people – things like Aida’s black door, which begets itself & begets itself simultaneously & forever & in this constant buzzing multiplication subsumes everything dynamic which touches it.

The air picked up through the little window; Palomar felt it move cool as a breath over his toes and inner knees. The new curtains must have been lifted into the room and up; the light in the lavatory, lain here as much as in the main room through the open door, turned green. The ceiling glowed.