King of the Hill (That Thing You Did on a Summer’s Day)

We had a stinking-old-air-mattress
(A thing you force children to sleep on when adults are visiting)
decaying in the basement.
(A place where you put the children on stinking-old-air-mattresses)
One summer my brother
(A big dumb thing that was stronger than me)
my friend Billy
(A small thing that liked to pick it’s nose)
and I
blew it up and threw it into the lake.
(A place where you can pee and not feel guilty)
We played a game called King of the Hill.
One person stands above everyone else
on the stinking-old-air-mattress.
He is the King.
(A thing like the grain of sand furthest from the tide)
Then, everyone tries to knock him off.
Once he is down,
everyone else tries to take his place.
And when someone does,
who isn’t you,
you curse yourself,
accuse someone of biting you
then jump back up
and try to take the new king down.
You do this over and over and over.
And your brother always wins.
And he stands above you,
glistening in the sun
(A thing like a rude star)
While you and Billy tread water,
breathless, bruised, and burnt
and worry about sharks.
(You don’t want to know about sharks)

***RUSSIAN TRANSLATION***

Царь горы или то, чем ты занимался в летний день.

У нас был старый вонючий надувной матрас

(тот, на котором заставляют спать детей, когда приезжают гости),
гниющий в подвале
(в том месте, где укладывают спать детей на старом вонючем надувном матрасе).

Однажды летом мой брат

(тот самый большой тупой брат, который сильнее тебя),

мой друг Билли

(тот самый коротыш, который любит ковырять в носу)

и я

надули матрас и бросили в озеро.

(то самое место, где можно писать и не чувствовать себя виноватым)
Мы играли в «Царя горы».

Один человек стоит над всеми остальными

на старом вонючем надувном матрасе.

Он то и есть «Царь горы».

(та самая песчинка, которая находится дальше всего от воды)

Затем все пытаются скинуть его.

Как только он падает,

Остальные стремятся занять его место.

И когда у кото-то это, наконец, получается,

но, конечно же, не у тебя,

ты проклинаешь себя,

выдумываешь, что кто-то тебя укусил,

снова прыгаешь

и пытаешься свергнуть нового короля.

И так снова, и снова, и снова.

А твой брат постоянно побеждает.

И он стоит над тобой,

весь блестит на солнце

(та самая жестокая звезда)

а вы с Билли барахтаетесь в воде,

запыхавшиеся, все в синяках, обгоревшие,

и думаете об акулах

(те самые существа, о которых вовсе не хочется ничего знать).

Translation by Victoria Dubrovina

An Audience of None

I met Hank in Spain and soon realized that the best way to understand him would be to never try. He let on very little as to the reasons behind anything he did. He didn’t like to talk about himself, or about other people. Some days he would look at the ground and talk of how beautiful dirt is, and others he’d look up at the sky on a sunny day and say “This world is shit”. He had so many convictions that they simply cancelled one another out. There was no way to tell when he might suddenly decide the world is a miserable place, sit down somewhere, and quietly die.

One day he decided he was going to do an open-mic reading of a story at a Spanish Salsa Bar. He didn’t seem to care whether or not anyone understood it. I had been to open mics before and I found them to be revolting, tiresome, circle-jerks. I told him so and he said.

“Okay.”

The night arrived and I had gotten drunk and decided to go anyways. The place was packed when I arrived and Hank was up second to last. There was a Spanish man who stepped up before him, put on a red bubble nose, and yelled in Spanish while the crowd laughed and cheered. Then, it was time for Hank. I was wine-blind by that point but, I focused all my attention on the stage while the crowd swam around my periphery.

When he stepped up he looked sweaty– not nervous, sweaty. He wasn’t wearing his hat and was balding slightly. He was pale white, wearing his violently blue Short-Sleeve-Hawaiian-shirt buttoned up to his nipples, and khaki-shorts with black converse sneakers. He breathed heavily and began reading.

“We loved each other, as one bulimic cannibal might love another. She had a smile that, in the wrong hands, could slaughter the damn universe. We did things you only do when you’re in love. Read each other villanelles and danced in dark streets to no music. We salted each other with a cacophony of poetic lines. I fell heavy on her chest and whispered her the world. Crap like that. And, when the music stopped, we tore holes in each other with everything but bullets. One day, in the middle of the afternoon, she grabbed me. We fell into bed and after a minute she turned to me and said “What’s wrong Love?”. I looked down and she had it in her hand, limp. And then she smiled.”

Hank took a breath, glistening with sweat and looked out into the crowd of Spaniards. They all looked back in a confused silence. Hank continued.

“The next day when we woke she stood over me holding a banana. “Eat this” she told me. “Why?” I asked. She held out her phone. On it was a picture of a banana. Beneath it read “A Hard Man Needs a Healthy heart.” And then she smiled.”

Hank paused. Someone sneezed in the corner, a young woman ordered something in Spanish to a politely mousy waiter.

“So I grabbed her. I pulled her into bed. And, like a paraplegic preparing for a walk, I kissed her neck, her collar bone, her chest. She pushed me off, reached down and began to laugh. I grew angry and grabbed her around the throat. I squeezed with all my love and I cried. She whispered up at me “You have a weak heart.” And then she smiled.”

It took a whole minute of silence before anyone realized it had ended. Hank had done nothing but read and sweat. There would have been no different outcome if he’d simply stood in a field and read to a blade of grass. He hadn’t moved his arms, paused for effect, or even raised his voice. He had simply read and he was simply done. So, he wiped away the sweat from his brow with the sleeve of his outrageous shirt, bowed, and stepped off the stage.

Jack and The Lamb Bone

Carnage was flung to the four corners of the porch and I’d never seen such joy. I was having my one allotted cigarette of the day, post dinner as usual. Marion had given Jack the lamb bone from the stew. There’d been scraps of meat on it when he’d first set his teeth to it. He slobbered and growled a joyous little growl as he pulled it to bits. He shook slightly as he chomped the bone till it cracked. I smoked my cigarette and watched, silently.

Have I ever been that happy?

Jack tossed the bone a few feet away and scampered after it. No. I decided. Who has really been so happy, really. Maybe when I was a child I had some joy that came close. But, I can’t remember.

Jack is sleeping now, among his mess. I quickly light another cigarette in the hopes that Marion will think I am smoking it slow. She knows better. She comes out to scold me.

“Shh.” I tell her and point at Jack.

“What?” She says glowering at me from the entryway.

“He’s tuckered himself out. Let’s not ruin it.”

She looks down at Jack and rolls her eyes. She goes back into the warm and well-lit house.

“You owe me Jack; people have killed for the kind of peace you got right now.”

Jack takes a deep shuttering breath and falls deeper asleep.

“There’s never been a thing so beautiful as you like this right here Jack. You got it all figured out. The rest of us are just chasing our tails to the bitter end.” I say.

Marion hollers from the kitchen “You keep talkin’ to that dog I’m gonna have you locked up in a home!”

This startles Jack awake. He leaps up and sees me. He starts wagging his tail and comes up to my thigh. I pat him gently on the head. I feel like crying. I go inside and put on the kettle as Marion is finishing up the dishes. She bustles from table to sink, table to sink.

“You ever think we are doing everything damn wrong?” I ask her.

“No.” She says and uses some steel wool to drag a few burnt pork scraps from the bottom of a pan.

“But what if things were…” I can’t think of a word.

“Different? Better? Simpler? What if this and that. What a pointless damn question.” Marion said, brushing me off. I sigh and she breaths it in and sighs with me.

“It is what it is.” She says.

I chuckle. “Write that on my tombstone won’t you.”

She stops and holds the edge of the sink. “Asshole.” She mutters. She pulls off the dish gloves and slaps them onto the counter. She turns and walks out of the kitchen.

“It was a joke! I’m sorry.” I call after her. But she doesn’t come back.

Jack comes up and presses his face into my thigh. I scoop the burnt pork scraps out of the pan and let them down to him.

He scarfs them down and stays for a while, licking my fingers.

 

Cornelius and The Magic Word

Bob Hall was a friend of my uncle’s who’d show up to large family gatherings to amuse and disgust the children. He had dentures which he’d pop out of his mouth and drop in a glass of water after eating. We’d all sit and watch the little floaties clump together as they rose. But, we put up with it for his stories.

His favorite story was about Cornelius and The Magic Word. It all began with The Council of Wizards, of which Cornelius was one.

“Cornelius was the very oldest and the very wisest. The council guided humanity into a beautiful age of peace and happiness. During this time, The Council of Wizards grew. They invited many less old and less wise men onto the council and taught them the magic word in spite of Cornelius’s warnings.

You see, he’d say, the word was the most powerful word in the universe. If you used this word you make anything happen no matter how impossible. Over time the new Wizards became more and more bold. They used the word to do all sorts of frivolous things and they became lazy. They would use it so they didn’t have to get up and do the dishes. Or they’d use it so they’d never have to go to the bathroom again!

Cornelius believed that those who knew the word were no longer worthy. So, he used to it and commanded that all but he shall forget the word. In an instant all The Council of Wizards lost their magic. No matter how hard they tried, they could not remember the word. And those men vowed to get revenge on Cornelius. But, he had disappeared. Poof!

The Council searched and searched for hundreds of years but never did find Cornelius. And it is said to this day that if anyone finds the word, on purpose or on accident, Cornelius will appear and erase it from their minds. But, as a reward, he will use the word to grant them a single wish.”

At the end he’d always ask us what we’d wish for and we’d say all sorts of outrageous things. And with each wish he’d say “You could have that!” And he’d have us try to say all sorts of crazy words like “Oggaliboogali-do-dabs” and “Hiluffinoatious” but none of them ever worked.

“What is the word!” We’d ask. And he’d say that he knew it once but Cornelius came and snatched it out of his head.

“What did you wish for?” My brother asked him. Bob Hall would roll his jaw around and narrow his eyes as though he were thinking really hard then cry “TEETH!” and spit his dentures out onto the carpet.

After telling this story, my brother and I would spend weeks saying all sorts of gibberish in an attempt to find the magic word.

It drove Mother nuts.

Yelena and The Apple Tree

There once was a girl whose name was Yelena who lived in her father’s apple orchard. All of her meals were apples. Apple pie, apple tart, baked and boiled apples. They even drank only apple juice. But, Yelena was growing tired of apples. She wanted something new to eat. So, she left her father’s orchard and went into the dark woods. In the woods she came upon a bear and she asked this bear what there was to eat the in woods and the bear told her “You can eat me, but you must eat all of me and after you must use my fur to keep you warm in the winter.” But Yelena did not know how to skin a bear and so the bear said she must find something else to eat. Further into the woods the girl found some mushrooms in the brush under a tree.

She asked the mushrooms if they knew anything she might eat in the forest and the mushrooms told her “You may eat us, but only some, the rest you must dig up and bring someplace where we can grow taller and stronger.” But the Yelena did not know where mushrooms needed to go to grow taller. So the mushrooms would not allow her to eat them.

It was growing late and the forest became full of terrifying sounds. Yelena began to run to her father’s orchard lest she be eaten herself. As she reached the edge of the orchard it was so dark she could not find her way through. She searched and searched but could not find any way out of the orchard. So, she decided to climb one of the apple trees to wait until morning and find her way home in the daylight. She climbed the closest tree and as she did she found herself looking out at a vast ocean. On all sides there was nothing but water and the night sky. She sat on the topmost branch and began to cry. “Why are you crying?” Said a passing mermaid from the base of the tree. “I do not know how to get home and I am hungry.” She told the mermaid.

“But look around you. You have so many apples to eat.” Said the mermaid.

“I do not like apples.” Yelena told her.

“I have never had an apple, if you throw three down for me I will stay here through the night so that no harm comes to you and you might sleep to forget your hunger.”

Yelena agreed and threw the apples down to the mermaid. The mermaid ate them and remained in the water beside the tree through the night. Yelena fell asleep on the topmost branch. When she awoke, it was daylight. She looked around and realized she was still in the middle of the ocean. She had been gone all night and her father must be so worried, she thought. She saw a passing albatross and she called to it. “Oh Albatross, please will you deliver a message to my father.” The albatross came down to the branch next to her. “I will do as you ask, but it is a long journey and I have no food. If you would let me have three of these lovely apples, I will deliver this message for you.” Yelena agreed and gave the apples to the albatross and told him to tell her father that she was trapped up a tree and did not know how to get down. The albatross flew away.

Yelena laid down on the branch to wait. For three days she laid under the leaves on the topmost branch until she awoke suddenly with great heaving pains of hunger. She looked about her and found the branches bare of all but brittle leaves. Yelena began to cry.

A passing whale heard her and stopped at the base of the tree. “Why are you crying little girl?” it asked. She told the whale that she had no food and she had no way to get home. The whale told her that she could crawl inside her mouth and he would bring her back to her father’s orchard. “But” the whale said “What will you do for me?” Yelena told the whale that her father had only apples to give. The whale said that he loved apples and if she would bring him five apples when they arrive at shore, he would take her there. She agreed and climbed into the whale’s mouth. It was warm and she slept.

When they arrived at shore she found her father waiting for her, crazy with worry. He picked her up in his arms and thanked the whale. The whale reminded the girl of their agreement. Her father brought the whale five whole bushels of apples as he had cut down the entire orchard in search of his daughter after the albatross had told him she was stuck up a tree. The whale thanked the father and swam away. The father sold all of the apples and cut the wood from the trees to build himself a farm. He began raising cattle and Yelena got to have warm milk and honey on bread.

They lived happily.

Two Little Ponies

Life isn’t fair. That is what Mother used to say. She taught my brother and I with a story as she cooked. She started off at the table as she mashed garlic.

“There once were two ponies. They were both beautiful strong ponies. They were raised on a nice farm far from all the poisons of city life. They were happy, they ran and played all day and they had the kindest owners.”

Mother moved on to the onions. She peeled them one by one and as she did she placed them into a large bowl.

“The ponies grew into magnificent horses who carried their owners through many competitions of which they always came in either first or second.”

Mother chopped the onions fine and tossed them into a new, smaller bowl.

“One day, the ponies were trotting along the edge of their pens, enjoying the sun and fresh air.”

Mother tapped the knife back and forth on the table as a horse’s hooves might clatter.

“All of the sudden, out of the woods leapt a wolf!”

Mother stood up and brought the onions and garlic with her. She placed a large pan on the stovetop and layered it with oil.

“What next?” asked my brother.

“Well, one of the ponies saw the wolf only a second before the other. She leapt out of the way and the wolf bit the leg of the other pony. And she let out the worst kind of noise.”

Mother said as she dumped the onions and garlic into the pan and they howled at the heat. Mother took some mushrooms and potatoes from the fridge and brought them to the table.

“When the owners heard the noise they came running with guns and shot the wolf dead.”

Mother chopped down hard on a large capped mushroom.

“But, the pony’s leg was badly wounded.”

She slowly sliced the smaller ones into thick chunks.

“The owners took the pony into the barn and called the doctor. The pony who hadn’t been bit stayed out in the sun but went to the other side of the pen. There, a bird sat on one of the posts.”

Mother peeled the potatoes and placed them in the old onion bowl.

“The bird waved as the pony approached ‘that was close’ the bird said to the pony. ‘Yes, but my friend is hurt and it is all my fault!’. ‘How is it your fault?’ asked the bird. ‘Well, my friend is bit and I am not. How unfair!’ the pony said.”

Mother did not do voices. It was hard to follow.

“The bird looked sideways at the pony and said ‘Life isn’t fair.’ But, the pony was very stupid and didn’t understand. ‘But the wolf did not eat me. Life is better to me than to her’”

Mother cubed the potatoes into clumsy chunks.

“The bird, again, looked sideways at the pony and said ‘So?’ and then the bird flew away. The pony stayed out and tried to think about what the bird meant. But, thinking hurt the pony, as thinking often does to stupid things, and so the pony continued to trot around in the sun and wait for her friend.”

Mother got up and went to the stove. She lifted the lid on the pan and smelled it. She nodded slightly and pulled a large hunk of meat from the refrigerator and slapped it into the pan. She stuffed the potatoes and mushrooms in around it, lathered it in oil, and put the top back on.

“What happened to the bit pony?” my brother asked.

“It was turned into hamburgers.” Mother said.

“EW!” We said, in unison.

“Who would eat a horse?” I asked.

Mother opened the pan top and sprinkled in some herbs. She looked at me.

“Canadians.” She said.