Raymond Carver – “PermaDrunk” / Nathan Englander – “PermaHack”
My workshop professor (the wonderful John Weir) asked to us to write an “homage” or “cover” of the short story of our choice after reading Nathan Englander’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” (available for your reading pleasure here), which itself is a cover / homage of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” (available here). I didn’t really like either of them – but covering them was an opportunity to work on writing dialogue, which I tend to shy away from for fear of being fuc**** terrible at it. You don’t necessarily have to read the other stories to get a laff or two out of this one, but hey, let’s not be lazy eh? (Download story here [PDF].)
What We Balk About When We Caulk A Dead Dove
“For example consider the fact that you have no name.”
“What’s that supposed to mean? Since the day I was born, my parents –“
“Now you know very well that’s not what I’m talking about,” he said, deftly cracking the spine of an ice tray and snatching four cubes out of the air that they popped into. “I repeat, you have no name, dear, you’re a nobody. A lovely nobody, yes, a sweet nobody that’s good with sweet nothings and making those clever little cards of yours, but you’re off the map. Not even close to being on the map; no one knows your name outside of this little shit Chicago neighborhood of ours.” He dropped two ice cubes into each of the two glasses on the counter and pour four fingers of terrible bourbon into each glass. Gesturing broadly with both hands and adorning his face with a ridiculous expression, “And if a girl is born into the world with a name that nobody’s ever heard, does she really have a name at all?”
“Christ, Adler, you’ve not been in my apartment ten minutes and already with this? This lecture again. You’ve not a name yourself, you know – you call yourself a poet? Ha! Now that drink, give it here, you fourflusher! Give it here!”
“My my, look at you! Long day at the card table? It’s barely noon… But you know, about my being nobody, that’s neither your concern at the present moment, Claire, nor is it mine. You see, I know I’ve no name. I’ve always known it, and I work with it; I wear it, and I use it to my advantage. You’d be amazed at what you can get away with, the absurd inner transgressions and moral paradoxes you can suddenly bear like feathers, if you live your life knowing you don’t even exist.” Adler brought the bottle and a small bowl of ice over to the coffee table between them.
“You know, for all those brains and clever words of yours, you think you would be somebody, by now.”
“I’m finding that I prefer my present arrangement; I feel that I’ve really been coming into my own non-existence of late. Now what, my sweet nothing, are we toasting to?”
A shrug and a sigh, “Nothing.”
“Yes! There you go! To Nothing and Nobody!”
Claire was caught with all four fingers in her mouth when the buzzer rang, and she was barely off the couch before Trince, a buxom blonde mute nugget of a girl, was standing in the doorway, silent as a dead lamb and somehow simultaneously both chewing pink bubble gum and blowing bubbles with it. For all her jaw moved, neither Adler nor Claire nor anybody they’d ever intercoursed with had ever known Trince to pronounce so much as a syllable. Her pale skin seemed to reflect all the light in the room as though she were the moon itself, and it was night; her ample (and what with the crop top and jean shorts, amply exposed) flesh rippled like a struck pond with every stomping footfall, and her mammoth thighs rubbed together with an audible SWISH-SWISH, so that there was veritable rhythm of gum chewing, popping, feet stomping, thighs rubbing whenever she deigned to move. She ambled across the living room to the chair across from Claire and Adler, and plunked a black plastic bag down on the coffee table.
“Say, hey Trince. Penny for your thoughts?”
“Oh for chrissake Addy, give it a rest. Why’d you invite her over if you’re just going to berate her?”
“Well Claire Bear, honey, my sweet nothing, I didn’t invite her over at all. I assumed that you had.”
The happy couple gave each other a long stare before turning their heads, slowly with terribly forced smiles, to face the unspeakable Trince and probe the best they could without touching it, the black plastic bag, the one from which there was a remarkable odor emanating.
“I suppose there’s not much point in asking you what’s in the bag, eh Trincey?”
Trince blew a bubble as big as a big fist and held it here, staring at the both of them while it slowly deflated.
“Ah yes, of course. Well Claire, suppose you just ever so gingerly…”
“Oh you worthless sot. Pour me another and I’ll think about it.”
“Alllllrighty then. Maybe just let’s just have ourselves a wait-and-see about this, no? Gary and Lena will be here soon, after all, and Gary’s twice the man I’ll ever be… He’ll open it, won’t be able to help himself…” Adler mused, now at the cusp of his intoxication, tilting his glass to hear the cubes clink. “It’s starting to stink up the room but it’ll be a nice little party favor, yes? Might lubricate the whole encounter, so to speak, and I think we both know this stuff,” raising his glass slightly, “just isn’t cutting it anymore, with those two boors…”
“Good god you love to talk. Hand me that bottle, would you Trince?”
Trince stood and grabbing the bottle by the neck handed it over to Claire and began rummaging through her purse. Leaning over, her breasts hung like great eggplants; Adler, conspicuously taken with them, Claire added another finger and a thumb to her glass on top of the already generous pour. Out of her purse, Trince produced a small bag of marijuana and a glass pipe, and plunked both down on the table.
“Well, this might be just what the doctor ordered.”
Claire sat up straight and squared up to both Adler and Trince, and gesturing broadly with her glass, pronounced: “Well, I really do hate to harsh your respective mellows here, but I won’t have a thing to do with that.. that stuff of yours, Trince. Sorry, well, no. Not sorry.”
“Darling, it’d be a shame to… it’d be a shame to deny our, uh, guest here the pleasure of a friendly toke. Gary’s a straight shooter, but I imagine Lena knows her way around a… um… pipe?”
The look of incredulity on Claire’s face was aborted prematurely by the buzzer.
“I suppose we’ll see what our counterparts think about all of this then.” Adler nodded at Trince, who commenced to breaking up the plant and putting it into the pipe. “I don’t know why the hell you’re here Trince, but you’re a damn good buffer. Please now, don’t feel obliged to say anything…”
Bent over the coffee table, she looked up at him without moving her head, expression unreadable, and burst another bubble.
“Say then, who are you really, anyway?”
Gary and Lena could be heard clomping up the stairway to the third floor apartment, and Claire stood gripping the open door for stability, listening to Adler’s clipped monologues, waiting to greet the new arrivals.
Gary, just shy of six-and-a-half feet, ducked into the apartment, and Lena, his waifish wife, scuttled in just behind him, the closing door barely missing her.
“Gary!” Claire yelped as she threw her arms around him, “It’s just so damn good to see you. Did you get taller? Oh, Lena, there you are… You’re looking… healthy… come in come in, let’s have a drink – it’s a sort of whiskey afternoon, is it not? Addy’s over there on the couch, and that’s, well… that’s my friend from my old job at the corner store… her name’s Trince, but she doesn’t really talk… try and play nice, alright Gary? Oh it’s just so good to see you…”
“That’s all fine, Claire, thank you,” Gary said, trying to detach the inebriated hostess from his enormous bicep. “Lena, grab me a drink, would you? I think we’ve got some catching up to do… Oh my… Trince, is it? Has anyone ever told you… well no, I suppose that they wouldn’t… not in your crowd… but I’ll be damned if you don’t look just like the Venus of Willendorf! Lena, get a load of her… she’s really something!”
Trince glared at him without any affect at all in her face, and blew a bubble that seemed to be threatening to float her across the apartment, out the window and into skies rather more azure than the bleak air one finds in Chicago. She detached the pink sphere from her lips, tied off the end, stuck it on the wall, and finished packing the pipe.
“Yes, she is, isn’t she?” Adler chirped, fondling an unlit cigarette. “You don’t find many like her anymore, I’ll tell you that much. Not in this town, at any rate…” He lighted the cigarette and blew out an enormous load of smoke into the apartment air.
“You know I hate it when you smoke in here, Adler,” Claire lamented.
“Care for one, dear? You really should try it sometime.”
“Oh shove it, you bastard.”
“How about you Gary? Wouldn’t take you for a smoker, but… no? Lena, it’s never too late to try something new, you know.”
“You know what, Addy? I think I will! You’re very kind. Mind if I squeeze between you two gentleman?”
“Oh not at all, I imagine you could fit yourself on a windowsill… You may have noticed our friend Trince here – strange bird that she is – took it upon herself to bring some drugs into our – well, Claire’s, really, though I’m known to stay here on occasion – lovely home. Whaddya say? That is of course, Trince, if you don’t mind… Just say the word if you do. Ha Ha! I guess that settles that.”
“My my, she’s rather reserved isn’t she? Well it does remind me of my college days… How about it Gary? It’ll be just like old times in Champaign!”
Gary up-ended his full glass of well whiskey. “Well, I’ve sort of lost my taste for it… You know, with my being a cardiologist and all… Lives depending upon my fine motor skills and incomparable depth perception… But I suppose one only has so many chances to recapture the past… Claire, are you joining us? Claire?”
Claire, having consumed an enormous quantity of whiskey over the past hour, was in a bit of a trance looking at Trince.
“Trince… what’s in the black plastic bag? It smells… awful. Trince, answer me now.”
Trince didn’t look at Claire, nor did she seem explicitly aware that anyone else was actually in the room; she herself was looking at the loaded pipe, which she picked up and lit, filling the room with yet more smoke and an aroma that masked the pungent scent of decay in the room.
“Claire, if you’re just going to berate her…”
Claire drained her glass of whiskey and attempted to throw it across the room at Adler in a sort of anemic softball throw – she’d been First Team All-County at her high school in Dekalb IL (until a career ending rotator cuff tear involving a marathon prom night handjob) – but it made it all of a foot and a half through the air before shattering on the ground, nearly a yard away from Adler’s head, as the crow flies.
“Oh boy… I’m afraid Claire has overserved herself, she got up early today, you see… Honey, why don’t you come join us, it’s alright… yes that’s right, sit right on my lap here, and uh, Trince, I hope I’m not interrupting you over there, but could you pass that pipe? Here Claire, just inhale and don’t breathe out for about five seconds… Yes, wonderful! Don’t worry, everyone coughs their first time… Now go ahead and pass that there guy over to Gare Bear, or Lena, rather, wouldn’t want to fiddle with the rotation,” Adler said, trying his charming best to assuage the frayed nerves of his consort.
Things grew quiet thereafter in Claire’s modestly furnished Chicago apartment. Stoned as they all were, the rest of the day passed almost in cinematic montage, with clouds racing by and the sun setting on them all before anyone though to check their watches, especially Trince, who was completely used to this sort of thing.
“Well I suppose someone should say something,” Adler began suddenly, breaking them all out of their stupors. “After all, I mean, I do enjoy spending time here… with everyone… but…”
“Well what do you propose we talk about, Adler?” said a now reasonably sober Claire.
“I mean I was thinking we could talk about the Holocaust, to be honest.”
“God dammit, this again… Are you going to try and show them the crawlspace too? That really went over real well with my parents, for chrissake…”
“Oh Claire, I thought that little nap of yours would have cheered you up… I was only joking, after all. And your Dad really took a shine to me after that, figured me for a handy fellow I think… But really, what I want to talk about, is Love.”
“Oh fuck you to death, Addy. Gary? Lena? Can I get some help here?”
“Oh… I’m sorry… Gary, where are we? Are we home?”
“Is he OK? I mean I’ve seen that color on faces in movies, but…”
“Oh this tends to happen with Gary from time to time. Or it did, in Champaign. During our bohemian days. He’s a big man, but certain things go straight to his head, you see…”
“Right then. Well how long have you and Gary been dating?”
“Well, each of our parents subscribe to the whole arranged marriage thing, actually. We met for playdates when we were about four years old, and our folks sort of cozened us into falling in love. Lots of ‘chance’ meetings, you see – running into each other on vacations, ice cream parlors, they even set up our bar and bat mitzvah’s at the same venue, on the same day. Lots of that sort of thing really.”
“I wasn’t aware that you two were Jewish.”
“We’re not. Holiday Catholics, if anything. Our parents were just really enamored with the idea of the whole coming-of-age ritual.”
“Really the whole business was about combining family fortunes, in the end. An almost purely fiscal decision.”
“But it’s worked out, for the most part. We sort of keep… well we have an open arrangement, to be perfectly honest.”
“Oh. That’s something I’ve discussed with Claire, but, you know, we’re still very fresh in terms of considering ourselves a couple.”
“Asshole! We’ve been dating for three years! We live together now, ever since your good-for-nothing ass was evicted… Is there any dope left? I don’t usually smoke, you know, but it really took the edge off…”
“You’d have to ask Trince, honey.”
“Trince goddamimit do you have any dope? Grass? Weed? Pot?”
“And what’s in that bag? Goddammit it’s really starting to stink here, you tell me now what’s in there! Now, you hear me?”
Trince chewed no slower and no faster than she had been all night, and stared flatly back at Claire.
“Claire, maybe if you calm down just a teensy weensy bit our lovely Trince here will let us a take a peek.”
“I’ll do the honors… If you don’t mind of course; I just do love surprises,” offered Lena, placing a small, pale hand on Adler’s thigh.
“AHEM, well then, go right ahead, open ‘er up. Trince, if you have any objections, just, you know, say the word…”
Lena slowly moved her hand towards the black plastic bag, waiting for any sign from Trince that the bag was hers, and hers alone to touch. She gave no such sign, and Lena, upon opening the bag and looking inside, let out a shocked wail and threw the bag up and away from her.
“Trince! A dead bird? I mean I’m all for being avant-garde or whatever, but this…”
“It’s a dove,” said Trince.
They all became silent for several minutes, as if to make up for Trince’s sudden lapse into the communicative world.
“…Well, Trince, I for one sure am glad you came over. You really managed to freshen things up in a way that I – well perhaps I should speak for myself only, what with all the bellicosity on one end and untoward advances being made from the other, I wouldn’t want to somehow step on any more toes here – that I for one never really expected to see in this life or the next. I don’t know who you are or what you really do, but whatever it is Trince, you keep on keeping on, alright? Care to maybe chime in on this one, Gary? No? Still feeling under the weather I see, that’s alright. Well anyways, I just can’t hardly wait to see what’s going to happen next.”
“Will you just shut up already, Adler.”
“Oh Claire, don’t be so harsh on our Addy. He may be talkative, but I have to say: he sure does talk pretty.” Lena’s hand advanced slowly up Adler’s thigh.
“Let’s say we all three of us sit here for a bit and get blitzed on what’s left of this terrible bourbon, shall we? Well, Claire, we know you’re game… here you go… a little for you, Lena… and a lot for papa… Gary?”
“Maybe just hold off then, huh big guy? Trince, care to imbibe? Ah, back to not talking I see… I’ll just take care of the rest of this myself then, if no one objects…”
Trince stood up abruptly and made her human noise, her flesh toned music, as she pranced over to the closet, returned with a tube of caulk and its correspondent gun, and picked up the dead dove. Staring at Trince, the blonde now faux-pistolero bearing the caulk gun fully locked and loaded, the still-verdant Gary began panting audibly, beating his ham-sized fists against his knees in staccato fashion.
“Gary, sweetheart, are you OK?” Claire said, with a firm grip still on Adler’s upper thigh.
“Don’t fret Lena; sometimes one can get excited, under the influence of certain things… We all have our curious proclivities, no? I suppose this isn’t Gary’s first time getting all aflutter witnessing amateur taxidermy – that’s where this is going, Trince? Trince? A simple nod will do…”
“Goddammit Addy, will you stop her? It’s just unsightly, and we’re out of this terrible bourbon now besides… I can’t stand it… Though I think I have some reserves under my bed somewhere…” said Claire, putting a conciliatory hand on Adler’s previously vacant thigh.
“Claire, sweetheart, do shut up. We’re missing the show, and frankly I’m riveted.”
Trince had begun filling, through its gaping rictus, the dead dove with caulk, and it seemed to be slowly inflating, taking on an almost life-like appearance. With every brief expansion, both Lena and Claire tightened their respective grips on Adler’s legs, and Gary could only be heard to pant progressively louder, and beat his fists upon his own legs at a more rapid pace.
The dove was now inflated to almost cartoonish proportions, with the white adhesive substance spilling over and out of its mouth and rear-end, its eyes bugging out horrifically.
“Ladies, I can appreciate the tension inherent in this scenario, but I think I’m beginning to bruise. Gary… Would you say that you’re a Hunter Green now? Yes? No?”
Just when the dove seemed set to burst, Trince pivoted towards the wall next to her and began affixing the bird to it with the remainder of the caulk.
“Trince goddammit you’re going to ruin the wallpaper!”
“Now let’s just maybe see how this plays out. I do hate to jump to conclusions.”
“That poor bird. It reminds me of myself – small, trapped, and yet somehow overfull of something, some instinct that seems to spill out of me beyond my control… Trince, could you maybe twist its head around just a bit, towards us? I hate to think of myself having to stare at the wall forever, even in death…”
“Spot on Lena. Claire, don’t you think she’s got excellent taste? Maybe if you put in a few more hours at the shop this month, we can have her consult on how to make this house a home, so to speak.”
“See that stool over there Adler? Flip it over and squat. Or get a job – your choice.”
“Hmmm… Talk about a rock and a hard place… I’ll have to sleep on that one, Claire… Trince, maybe just a bit higher? A bit closer to that Kinkade painting we all love so much…”
Trince whirled around and gave Adler an impossibly hostile stare; her entire body seemed to shake violently, which, it can be said without any lack of confidence, did very little good at all for the state Gary was in. After what seemed like a brief eternity to the stoned collective, in which they all thought independently that Adler might be made to burst into flames from Trince’s gaze, Trince turned back towards to dove and began pumping more caulk into its mouth.
In a moment of intense empathy towards the bird, Lena gave out a shrill squawk just as it exploded all over the room, covering everyone present with a mixture of decayed bird innards and caulk. Lena burst into tears; Gary passed out; Adler promptly vomited all over the coffee table; Claire ran frenzied circles around the room.
Trince, however, remained silent as ever. She wiped off what gunk had gotten on her face, and with a flick of her wrist put it on Gary’s sweater. She extracted a piece of pink bubble gum from the diminutive pocket of her jean-shorts, and popped it into her comely mouth. She sat down on the floor, legs crossed in a becoming meditative pose, listening to the human noise she’d made everyone make, her eyes downcast, chewing furiously until blowing an enormous bubble that threatened to take her far, far away, then not moving once thereafter, not even when the room went dark.