Field-Tested Books: Summer Reading 2003
Thought that as a book lover you might find this interesting.
For Coudal Partners’ "Field-Tested Books: Summer Reading 2003," our 25 contributors reviewed books they read in various locations, some exotic, some mundane. The reviews are sorted by location, i.e. where the books were read, and each one is imbued with a fascinating sense of place. It’s sort of an interesting look at how locale influences what we read and how we read it.
At any rate, hope you enjoy it.
Visit CP’s journal of pop and design culture:
Q: Daddy, why did we have to attack Iraq?
A: Because they had weapons of mass destruction.
Q: But the inspectors didn’t find any weapons of mass destruction.
A: That’s because the Iraqis were hiding them.
Q: And that’s why we invaded Iraq?
A: Yep. Invasions always work better than inspections.
Q: But after we invaded them, we STILL didn’t find any weapons of mass destruction, did we?
A: That’s because the weapons are so well hidden. Don’t worry, we’ll find something, probably right before the 2004 election.
Q: Why did Iraq want all those weapons of mass destruction?
A: To use them in a war, silly.
Q: I’m confused. If they had all those weapons that they planned to use in a war, then why didn’t they use any of those weapons when we went to war with them?
A: Well, obviously they didn’t want anyone to know they had those weapons, so they chose to die by the thousands rather than defend themselves.
Q: That doesn’t make sense. Why would they choose to die if they had all those big weapons with which they could have fought back?
A: It’s a different culture. It’s not supposed to make sense.
Q: I don’t know about you, but I don’t think they had any of those weapons our government said they did.
A: Well, you know, it doesn’t matter whether or not they had those weapons. We had another good reason to invade them anyway.
Q: And what was that?
A: Even if Iraq didn’t have weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein was a cruel dictator, which is another good reason to invade another country.
Q: Why? What does a cruel dictator do that makes it OK to invade his country?
A: Well, for one thing, he tortured his own people.
Q: Kind of like what they do in China?
A: Don’t go comparing China to Iraq. China is a good economic competitor, where millions of people work for slave wages in sweatshops to make U.S. corporations richer.
Q: So if a country lets its people be exploited for American corporate gain, it’s a good country, even if that country tortures people?
Q: Why were people in Iraq being tortured?
A: For political crimes, mostly, like criticizing the government. People who criticized the government in Iraq were sent to prison and tortured.
Q: Isn’t that exactly what happens in China?
A: I told you, China is different.
Q: What’s the difference between China and Iraq?
A: Well, for one thing, Iraq was ruled by the Ba’ath party, while China is Communist.
Q: Didn’t you once tell me Communists were bad?
A: No, just Cuban Communists are bad.
Q: How are the Cuban Communists bad?
A: Well, for one thing, people who criticize the government in Cuba are sent to prison and tortured.
Q: Like in Iraq?
Q: And like in China, too?
A: I told you, China’s a good economic competitor. Cuba, on the other hand, is not.
Q: How come Cuba isn’t a good economic competitor?
A: Well, you see, back in the early 1960s, our government passed some laws that made it illegal for Americans to trade or do any business with Cuba until they stopped being Communists and started being capitalists like us.
Q: But if we got rid of those laws, opened up trade with Cuba, and started doing business with them, wouldn’t that help the Cubans become capitalists?
A: Don’t be a smart-ass.
Q: I didn’t think I was being one.
A: Well, anyway, they also don’t have freedom of religion in Cuba.
Q: Kind of like China and the Falun Gong movement?
A: I told you, stop saying bad things about China. Anyway, Saddam Hussein came to power through a military coup, so he’s not really a legitimate leader anyway.
Q: What’s a military coup?
A: That’s when a military general takes over the government of a country by force, instead of holding free elections like we do in the United States.
Q: Didn’t the ruler of Pakistan come to power by a military coup?
A: You mean General Pervez Musharraf? Uh, yeah, he did, but Pakistan is our friend.
Q: Why is Pakistan our friend if their leader is illegitimate?
A: I never said Pervez Musharraf was illegitimate.
Q: Didn’t you just say a military general who comes to power by forcibly overthrowing the legitimate government of a nation is an illegitimate leader?
A: Only Saddam Hussein. Pervez Musharraf is our friend, because he helped us invade Afghanistan.
Q: Why did we invade Afghanistan?
A: Because of what they did to us on September 11th.
Q: What did Afghanistan do to us on September 11th?
A: Well, on September 11th, nineteen men fifteen of them Saudi Arabians hijacked four airplanes and flew three of them into buildings in New York and Washington, killing 3,000 innocent people.
Q: So how did Afghanistan figure into all that?
A: Afghanistan was where those bad men trained, under the oppressive rule of the Taliban.
Q: Aren’t the Taliban those bad radical Islamics who chopped off people’s heads and hands?
A: Yes, that’s exactly who they were. Not only did they chop off people’s heads and hands, but they oppressed women, too.
Q: Didn’t the Bush administration give the Taliban 43 million dollars back in May of 2001?
A: Yes, but that money was a reward because they did such a good job fighting drugs.
Q: Fighting drugs?
A: Yes, the Taliban were very helpful in stopping people from growing opium poppies.
Q: How did they do such a good job?
A: Simple. If people were caught growing opium poppies, the Taliban would have their hands and heads cut off.
Q: So, when the Taliban cut off people’s heads and hands for growing flowers, that was OK, but not if they cut people’s heads and hands off for other reasons?
A: Yes. It’s OK with us if radical Islamic fundamentalists cut off people’s hands for growing flowers, but it’s cruel if they cut off people’s hands for stealing bread.
Q: Don’t they also cut off people’s hands and heads in Saudi Arabia?
A: That’s different. Afghanistan was ruled by a tyrannical patriarchy that oppressed women and forced them to wear burqas whenever they were in public, with death by stoning as the penalty for women who did not comply.
Q: Don’t Saudi women have to wear burqas in public, too?
A: No, Saudi women merely wear a traditional Islamic body covering.
Q: What’s the difference?
A: The traditional Islamic covering worn by Saudi women is a modest yet fashionable garment that covers all of a woman’s body except for her eyes and fingers. The burqa, on the other hand, is an evil tool of patriarchal oppression that covers all of a woman’s body except for her eyes and fingers.
Q: It sounds like the same thing with a different name.
A: Now, don’t go comparing Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are our friends.
Q: But I thought you said 15 of the 19 hijackers on September 11th were from Saudi Arabia.
A: Yes, but they trained in Afghanistan.
Q: Who trained them?
A: A very bad man named Osama bin Laden.
Q: Was he from Afghanistan?
A: Uh, no, he was from Saudi Arabia too. But he was a bad man, a very bad man.
Q: I seem to recall he was our friend once.
A: Only when we helped him and the mujahadeen repel the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan back in the 1980s.
Q: Who are the Soviets? Was that the Evil Communist Empire Ronald Reagan talked about?
A: There are no more Soviets. The Soviet Union broke up in 1990 or thereabouts, and now they have elections and capitalism like us. We call them Russians now.
Q: So the Soviets I mean, the Russians are now our friends?
A: Well, not really. You see, they were our friends for many years after they stopped being Soviets, but then they decided not to support our invasion of Iraq, so we’re mad at them now. We’re also mad at the French and the Germans because they didn’t help us invade Iraq either.
Q: So the French and Germans are evil, too?
A: Not exactly evil, but just bad enough that we had to rename French fries and French toast to Freedom Fries and Freedom Toast.
Q: Do we always rename foods whenever another country doesn’t do
what we want them to do?
A: No, we just do that to our friends. Our enemies, we invade.
Q: But wasn’t Iraq one of our friends back in the 1980s?
A: Well, yeah. For a while.
Q: Was Saddam Hussein ruler of Iraq back then?
A: Yes, but at the time he was fighting against Iran, which made him our friend, temporarily.
Q: Why did that make him our friend?
A: Because at that time, Iran was our enemy.
Q: Isn’t that when he gassed the Kurds?
A: Yeah, but since he was fighting against Iran at the time, we looked the other way, to show him we were his friend.
Q: So anyone who fights against one of our enemies automatically becomes our friend?
A: Most of the time, yes.
Q: And anyone who fights against one of our friends is automatically an enemy?
A: Sometimes that’s true, too. However, if American corporations can profit by selling weapons to both sides at the same time, all the better.
A: Because war is good for the economy, which means war is good for America. Also, since God is on America’s side, anyone who opposes war is a godless unAmerican Communist. Do you understand now why we attacked Iraq?
Q: I think so. We attacked them because God wanted us to, right?
Q: But how did we know God wanted us to attack Iraq?
A: Well, you see, God personally speaks to George W. Bush and tells him what to do.
Q: So basically, what you’re saying is that we attacked Iraq because George W. Bush hears voices in his head?
A. Yes! You finally understand how the world works. Now close your eyes, make yourself comfortable, and go to sleep. Good night.
Q: Good night, Daddy.
(c) 2003 anarchie bunker
Permission is freely granted to copy, print, and distribute this material by any means, so long as the author is given proper credit and so long as this statement is included in any and all copies made for distribution.
Please Bus Your Table
Your writing is pleasantly disarming, and that allows the reader to make their own conclusions about what they’ve read. You certainly have demonstrated that less is more sometimes, while the temptation is to elaborate ad nauseum.
No Such Thing as Coincidence
I used to be what many people would consider a pothead. I wasn’t the idiotic stoner who sits like a lazy lump watching TV all day. I wasn’t the thug-girl who cuts classes to get high or the nerdy kid who doesn’t fit in and smokes to "look cool." No one would’ve been able to tell from looking at me that I smoked all the time. But I did.
I started smoking regularly during my senior year of high school. I hated high school: the students, the pettiness, the uninteresting classes, the competition. I think I used pot as an escape from all this stuff that turned me off. I was one of those people who really denied to herself that marijuana is a drug. My justification was that it grows from the earth, it’s a plant. It’s natural, and I’m a nature-oriented girl. It seemed to make sense. Marijuana’s even used medicinally for certain diseases. Rastas use it as a spiritual aide. It can’t be that bad, I thought!
So I allowed myself to smoke. I didn’t feel guilty about it. I took a year off after I graduated, worked full-time as an administrative-assistant, and smoked almost every day. Then, instead of it being an escape, it was a reward. I work all day; I deserve to smoke when I come home. I perpetuated that mentality when I went to college. I was a totally functional pothead. I smoked every single day of my college career and made Dean’s List every semester. Three and a half years through college, my cumulative GPA was almost a 4.0. It isn’t affecting me, I told myself. I’m still intelligent; I still go to all my classes; I still go to work when I’m supposed to. I was doing great! I simply ignored all the facts about how bad it is to inhale that pungent, grey smoke, about how marijuana is more dangerous to one’s health than cigarettes.
Smoking a blunt was my way to unwind after a long day, my way to pat myself on the back after I wrote an awesome paper or aced an exam. The actual process of rolling a blunt even became sort of therapeutic. I loved it; it relaxed me. I became a perfectionist about my technique. Smoking was my only vice. Doesn’t everyone have a vice? I reassured myself. I’m a vegetarian, I exercise, I don’t drink, I don’t smoke cigarettes, and I don’t do any other drugs. One bad thing is okay, isn’t it?
Except that over winter break this year, my interest in smoking began to dwindle. It was starting to lose its excitement, and the sense of relaxation I had associated with it for so many days, for so many years. I’d roll a blunt, smoke it, eat to a point of nausea, and fall asleep-no matter where I was. I was wasting my money, lots of it. I started thinking about my lungs. I started thinking about how much I really love life. I started thinking about how I want to have a family one day and live to see my kids grow up. I didn’t want to die young with emphysema. I want to die old, after I’ve lived a satisfying life; I want to die peacefully, not painfully; I want to die in my sleep after I’ve told all the people I love that I love them. I was finally allowing myself to see that I was harming myself, that I wasn’t invincible. I finally wanted to stop, to live and be truly healthy.
But I didn’t. Wanting wasn’t enough.
Smoking was habit for me by this point, even though I no longer enjoyed it as I previously did. I started feeling disgusted by the garbage I ate when I was high, foods I never even thought about when I was sober. I was beginning to feel absolutely repulsed by myself, and I still didn’t stop. I declined my use a little; it wasn’t everyday anymore. But I wouldn’t abandon it completely, not until January 10, 2003.
I had dinner that night with my boyfriend (who doesn’t smoke at all); we had such an excellent time together. I very easily could have left the night at that, but when he dropped me off at home, a life-long friend called. Meg was still home for winter break, and wondered if I wanted to hang out. "Sure," I told her. "I’ll come pick you up."
We ended up going to my friend Jay’s house, hung out for a while, smoked a bong. I was in a great mood. We left at one in the morning, an hour during which I’m normally asleep. Before we walked out the door, however, we decided to buy a twenty-dollar gram of pot, so we could smoke a blunt-just the two of us. I was exhausted by this point, but agreed to push the night on anyway. We wanted to catch up; we hadn’t seen each other in a while. Meg and I shared the same outlook about weed, and smoking was a bonding activity for us.
The minute we got in my car to find a place to smoke, however, I developed a terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach. Something wasn’t right. I felt it. She suggested driving around; I didn’t want to (I hated driving while I smoked), so I suggested parking somewhere. A diner? Which one? We had several choices. She suggested the Grille, a diner I purposely hadn’t been to since high school because every time I go there, I run into someone from high school. "I hate the Grille," I responded, "and it’s a cop hang-out." The bad feeling became even worse. I ignored my instinct, though, and momentarily took on a careless attitude. I drove to the diner, complaining to Meg about my fear. She assured me I was being paranoid. At two in the morning, the parking lot was packed; I’d never seen so many cars there. And it was loud with teenagers blasting music. "Meg, the cops are going to come."
"No, they’re not. Relax." So she rolled a (terrible) blunt, as I nervously watched through my rear-view mirror every car that entered the parking lot, worried that a cop would show up to regulate the noise.
She sparked the blunt, passed it to me, back and forth, twice, until, suddenly, I noticed a cop car parked right behind my smoke-infested Jetta. The cop himself was standing right next to my car, talking to the kids parked adjacent to us.
My heart stopped.
"Fuck, Meg, what are we going to do? I knew this was going to happen." I saw my life ending. We stamped out the blunt (this all happened quickly), got out of the car, Meg muttered "Good evening, sir," as she journeyed past the officer, and we anxiously meandered into the diner. Now, my heart was racing; my stomach felt sick. I wasn’t even high. We sat down at the diner: me, paranoid; Meg, relaxed. "You’re over-reacting," she told me. I knew, internally, that I wasn’t.
We sat in that diner for two hours, undeniably eating each second away. The cops sat-waiting-in the parking lot the entire time. Finally, at about four in the morning, the cop cars pulled out of the lot. I breathed again for the first time since we got there. "Maybe you were right, Meg," I admitted. After all, I do have a tendency to over-react.
So we paid our bill; actually, I paid because Meg forgot her wallet. We walked out the door, rounded the corner of the building to my car, and finally Meg jumped-out of fear-when we saw two cop cars directly blocking my Jetta.
"Oh my god," I muttered. This was it. We were fucked. We walked past the barricade and got in my car, I started the engine, and the cops didn’t move. I hung my head in my hand. What are we going to do? I wondered. A minute and a half later, the cops pulled away. We were alone in the parking lot. "I don’t get this. What are they doing?" I asked the girl who had all the wrong answers tonight. Now, she didn’t know.
I pulled to the exit of the parking lot, looked across the street, and saw one of the cop cars parked with its lights off in an empty Amoco station.
He was waiting for us.
I made a right, he pulled out of his lot; he was following me. I made a left and he pulled me over. A blonde man, adorned with a military crew-cut, told me to step out of the car. I was shaking uncontrollably, convulsing.
"We found blunt guts next to your car and there is weed on the passenger seat," he lied to me. "Is there anything in the car you want to tell me about?" he asked. I told him exactly where to look, and he found exactly what I told him he would find. Despite my candor, however, he did a thorough search of my car’s interior. All my stuff was strewn about when he was finished. I stood, cold, shivering in the street while this went on; his younger side-kick cop, olive skin and dark hair, waited with me. He was nice enough and attempted to comfort me in this utterly uncomfortable situation. "Just relax. Section 36 will wipe this off your record in six months," he insisted.
When the blonde cop came back over, I pleaded with him. "Is there anything you can do? We’re not bad girls…she goes to NYU and I just got a 4.0. I’ll never smoke again," I rambled, afraid.
"Unfortunately, there’s a camera on the police car, so I have to proceed with this, but being honest was half the battle. Don’t worry," he said, like he was some saintly fellow, "you’re not going to jail."
"I don’t care about jail," I muttered dejectedly. "I care about my future." If putting me in jail for the night would have erased this, I would’ve gladly slept in a cell-naked, for all I cared.
A second cop car pulled up, and an Indian man, who was fat like a woman in his rear and his thighs, stepped out of the vehicle.
The next moment was huge.
Meg stood six feet away from me; the blonde cop stood between us.
"Which one of you wants to be arrested?" he inquired, as if we were talking about the weather or what to have for dinner.
Meg and I stood there, just looking at each other, scanning our brains for an answer. How could we decide whose life would be ruined?
"Make a decision!" screamed the fat cop. "He’s given
you long enough already. We’re not standing out here in the cold
I was worried she’d expect me to take the rap since it was my car. Much to my happy surprise, however, Meg blurted out, "Well, you should take both of us because it was both of us." Hallelujah, I thought, relieved that I didn’t have to go through this alone.
Ten seconds later we were handcuffed. They didn’t read us our Miranda
Rights, the way Cops and Bad Boys always depicted
arrests. They checked our bodies for weapons, as we stood, blinded,
in front of the luminous headlights of the police car. Then, they
pushed us into the very tight back of the car that had just blinded
us, and the evening developed into my first step toward a totally
At that moment, I thought it was the worst night of my life. I wanted to tell the policeman who pulled me over to kill me, to shoot me in the face; I thought my future had been destroyed. I was disgusted with myself for not listening to my instinct, my soul. I knew this was going to happen from the minute we got in the car. I knew it, and I ignored it. It made me sick; I made me sick.
The next morning, I told my parents that Meg and I were arrested, that we didn’t get home until five in the morning and I didn’t want to wake them; tears showered my face as I spoke, ashamed. After an enormously comforting hug, my dad told me it was the best thing that could have happened to me.
He was right.
Despite the fifteen-hundred dollar blunt I barely even smoked that night, being arrested was the force that enabled me to stop smoking. I haven’t smoked in four months and I don’t miss it at all. Plus, the dark-haired nice cop was right about Section 36: I will not have any record in six months. I’m a huge believer in the philosophy that claims everything happens for a reason; it has yet to fail me. This encounter reaffirms my philosophy; I am now able to see the positive that emerged from what I originally thought was an utterly grim situation. I had plenty of opportunities to escape that evening’s events, and I consciously avoided every sign my body and my soul gave me. Today, I’m thankful I was arrested-that’s not something I ever imagined myself saying.
I don’t believe in the "God" so many others do. I don’t even know if I believe in my own god, and if I did, I wouldn’t title it god. What I do know is that I don’t believe anything is coincidental. This seemingly horrifying event happened in order to help me do something I couldn’t find the strength to do alone…and it worked.
A little suprised
I’ve just read a couple of intervieews from the "Identity" pages and although I enjoyed the interviews, I’m a bit shocked by the editing. "It’s" for "its"? "Capitol" for "capital"?
Thanks for reading.
I’m a bit shocked that someone writing to complain about editing would misspell "intervieews" and refer to the site as "Identity" rather than its actual name, "Identity Theory." Moreover, there should have been a comma in your e-mail after "pages." That’s three mistakes in the first sentence…
Furthermore, since you don’t cite examples, I can’t fix whatever mishaps you might have come across. I can’t even confirm that there were mishaps at all, considering that "it’s" and "capitol" both have some valid uses.
But rest assured I am aware that, in general, there are quite a few cosmetic flaws in the interviews. If you tried to transcribe an hour-long conversation from a tape, you would make a substantial number of mistakes as well, inserting an unneeded apostrophe here and there. (Look how much trouble you had typing one sentence, then amplify this to ten pages.) The editors give it the old college try, but this entire site is run on a volunteer basis, and we have to have a little faith that the readers are more concerned about the content than the occasional typo. (That, for instance, was a run-on sentence, but I don’t really care to fix it.)
Anyway, thanks again for reading, and if you have any specific examples of typos you’d like me to repair, send them along.
Your friendly neighborhood CEO
Wow, thanks for responding! As a matter of fact, just as I hit
the send button, "intervieew" flashed by teasingly, and
I kicked myself. So– touché! I had typed and proof-read
hastily, in high dudgeon, and, as it happens, carelessly. (I’m being
a bit more careful now, but I don’t need a spelling-checker program,
I assure you.) Obviously, "intervieews" was a typo, not
a spelling misapprehension.
"Identity" was just shorthand.
Since you ask, and to show that I’m not a complete crackpot at least, the two interviews (or intervieews) in question are Barbara Ehrenreich’s and James Ellroy’s. About 80% of the way down Ehrenreich’s interview (judging from the scroll-bar), she’s quoted as saying:
BE: I’m a real slut when it comes to freelancing. Last year I did something for Aperture, the fancy photography magazine, about capitol punishment.
The James Ellroy interview has Ellroy saying (this is perhaps a quarter of the way through:
JE: …Hoover’s chief evil was that while ignoring the presence of organized crime and it’s cancerous growth in the United States, he put the full resources of the FBI behind hassling harmless left-wingers.
I do understand that there’s a lot of work involved in transcribing,
and I apologize for the rather poorly written screed of my own.
I think I get quite upset by this kind of thing because I see it
happening in higher and higher areas lately– numerous magazines,
even in the New York Times , which now has had some pretty egregious
things that would bother anyone who really reads carefully– things
along the line of "its’/it’s" etc. I find myself struck
increasingly often by poor editing, and in something as (potentially)
widely read as a web article, where one can easily fix things up
it seems a bit nagnified. I think this is especially true in one
where the written word is the very subject of discourse; and perhaps
it seemed the more ironic and upsetting on one’s first 7 a.m. cup
of coffee. In fairness to myself, I think that part of what bothered
me was the idea that the authors being represented deserved to look
good on paper.
Hopefully this note will amend a previous bad impression, and regardless of spelling, I thought the interviews themselves were otherwise great. — Andrew Gordon, the previously "nameless person"
Hi Andrew Gordon,
Yes, I totally understand where you’re coming from regarding the representation of the authors. Incidentally, both the interviews to which you refer were published in 2001, around a time when I was really busy and hadn’t quite figured out that it’s much easier to edit long interviews when you increase the font size to, say, 20 point type. I’ve been spending more time editing the more recent conversations, and obviously, the authors themselves see the interviews and occasionally make corrections where needed. So there is a growing collective effort between Robert Birnbaum, myself, the authors, and the readers, and hopefully it’s to a point where the conversations are clean enough that the occasional mistranscription is not too much of a bother.
We’re always willing to make corrections and of course will take care of the ones you pointed out.
By the way, are you the same Andrew Gordon who teaches English Lit at the University of Florida? The reason I ask — aside from the obvious fact that you are interested in these authors (and write like an English professor) — is that your email address seemed vaguely familiar when I first saw it, and I did have a class with that Andrew Gordon a few years ago. (It would seem quite fitting that you are still correcting me…)
Anyway, thanks again for writing, reading, etc., and let me know if there’s anything else you need.
We would be very grateful if you could post a link to Flame Books – http://www.flamebooks.com – on your excellent site and we are happy to return the favour.
Flame Books is an ethical publisher of contemporary fiction by new authors. We offer high royalties (by selling physical books solely online) and fair contracts to authors and also make a donation to various creative projects after every sale on the site. The shopping section will go live in the autumn, when we publish the first titles, and are currently looking for the most exciting new authors.
Hidden America: Washington
While in the midst of reading Anthony Giardina’s wonderful novel, Recent History, I did a google search which led me to Robert Birnbaum’s interview and that’s how I found identitytheory.
What intrigues me about your publication is that what it explores is so consistent with what I have been exploring in my work as a writer and as an artist…as you will see from "Hidden America: Washington" which I’ve attached.
My real name is L________ B__________; however, for this "Hidden America" project, I use the pseudonym, A. Lebowski. Most of the time, I’m Alex, but I’ve been Alice and I’ve remained gender-neutral as well. I don’t like to say much about myself because, for the purpose of "Hidden America," it’s best that I remain concealed.
I’ve been published online. Three times. The first time was in The Tumbleweed Review (now defunct). They published "Hidden America: Texas." Here are the links for the other two times —–> Hidden America: An Artist’s Trip Throught the Personal Columns – A. Lebowski – Eclectica Magazine v6n4 Hidden America: Vermont – A. Lebowski – Eclectica Magazine v7n1
I hope you like my work and look forward to your comments.
The Certainty of Things
When I asked the landlord about all the drawings on the walls, he told me the previous tenant never paid the rent. I wasn’t sure how the two things matched up in any logical way but I needed somewhere to live and he promised to get the walls painted if I decided to take the place.
It was a small apartment, barely the size of my last living room, but the price was right and the landlord seemed eager for me to move in. I told myself it was only temporary, anyway. Soon enough the decision to change jobs and move would pay off and I’d get something big and expensive with a nice view. After we exchanged a fake smile or two, I signed a six month lease. We shook hands. He handed over the keys.
I moved in on the first official day of winter. It rained.
I was disappointed to find all the drawings still there the day I moved my things in, but I figured I’d give it two weeks before complaining. The drawings were everywhere: faces with thick lips and sharp cheek bones in the bedroom done in charcoal, fruit and vegetables in the kitchen, strange designs and Chinese lettering all over the living room. In the hall there was a large tracing of a man’s body. The muscles on his arms and legs were sculpted and perfect like a statue. The pictures started to grow on me after a few days—especially the man in the hall—and I considered calling the landlord to tell him not to bother about painting. Keeping them would certainly have saved me the money I would otherwise spend buying prints and posters. Other than one or two pictures of my family and a small painting a friend had given me, the walls would be pretty naked. There is nothing more depressing than empty walls.
For a few days I tried to look at the drawings in a way that would help me make up my mind. I tried staring, and squinting, and looking at them out of the corner of my eyes. I tried anything I could think of to make me either love or hate the pictures, but nothing worked. In the end I realized that this was a new start and I needed everything to be new. I had a brand new job, an apartment that was all mine and bills that came addressed to me alone. I needed all the decisions to be mine, too—even the art I put on the walls. I made up my mind to call the landlord and remind him about it if he hadn’t sent anyone by Friday.
The painters came in the morning and spread large pieces of plastic over the furniture. I watched them from the kitchen table where I was eating breakfast. I’d decided to spend the day out so I asked them to lock the door when they left and leave the windows open to let in some air. They told me they would.
They said it would take about three hours to cover all the walls, and another two for the apartment to be clear of all the paint fumes. That added up to five hours that I needed to fill in a city I hadn’t yet fully explored. My plan was to go to a museum or two because they are always open on Sundays, take a walk through my new neighborhood and stop by the grocery store on the way home.
The day passed quickly. I wandered around the Ancient Egyptian exhibit at the Natural History Museum looking at the mummies and old, broken slabs of stone with hieroglyphs I wasn’t sure how anyone understood. For lunch I had a sandwich at a small restaurant downtown that a colleague had told me about. On the way home I bought some chicken and vegetables for a salad. I felt good.
The first thing I noticed was the closed windows. The painters had seemed so great, how could they have forgotten to open the windows when they left? I considered my options. I could get a hotel room and spend money that I didn’t really have or open the windows, put on my jacket and stick it out for one night.
“Typical,” I said, “I’ll probably be poisoned by the paint fumes and die in my sleep.” Talking to myself was one of the new habits that had started to grow and fester since I had been living alone. I crossed the room to open the windows and noticed that there was a very muscular man sitting on the couch. My heart started to beat faster.
“I’m sorry I closed the windows but it was freezing in here,” he said. In the dim light of the apartment, his voice was strangely calm and soothing.
“I haven’t got any money. Just take what you want and leave.”
“I don’t want any of your things. They’re not that nice.”
He was right. My things weren’t that nice. Except for the television and my books, everything was inherited or bought cheaply at second hand stores. So he wasn’t a thief, but knowing what he wasn’t was different than knowing what he was.
I couldn’t think of what else to say.
“So,” he said, “what do you think of the place?”
“The apartment. What do you think?”
“It’s a little small. Listen, who are you and why are you in my apartment?”
“I live here. I’m sorry I didn’t say anything sooner. You’ve been here a week and we haven’t met. I’m Harold.” He held out his hand for me to shake. I had a strong sense that I recognized him but couldn’t seem to remember from where. His grip was firm and masculine and he smelled strongly of paint.
“Do I know you?” I asked.
“Well, we’ve seen one another before but we’ve never been formally introduced. I live in your wall. Technically, I suppose, I should say I live on your wall. Prepositions can be very frustrating, don’t you think?”
There have been times in my life when what is going on around me is so absolutely confusing that my understanding of it seems to turn back on itself and start to make sense again. This was one of them. I should have been frightened or angry. I probably should have called the police. Instead I invited him to eat with me.
“I just picked up some things for dinner. Would like to join me?”
“I’d love to.”
“I was planning on making chicken. Is that alright?”
In the kitchen we chopped vegetables together and opened a bottle of white wine. Harold insisted on making the marinade for the chicken and I let him. He mixed spices, chopped garlic and measured out just the right amount of olive oil. I wasn’t prepared for guests but we made due. While I made a dressing for the salad he told me a little about himself.
He said he was from the Midwest and had been moving around the country on and off walls for the better part of ten years. Although he didn’t say where in the Midwest he was from, his last name was Peterson so I figured it was probably Iowa or Minnesota—somewhere where there were a lot of Scandinavians. He said he’d been in this particular apartment for a couple of years and just couldn’t seem to convince himself to leave.
Harold set the table and we sat down to dinner. The chicken was excellent but the salad dressing had too much lemon in it. Harold said not to worry about it. Learning that you are sharing your new apartment with a talking picture that can get down off the wall and have dinner with you, he insisted, must be kind of distracting.
“You should have seen how the other people reacted.”
“I bet. So what’s it like? You living in here, I mean.”
“It’s not much like anything at all. You’ll see.”
We talked late into the night about a lot of different topics. He told me about a few of the more interesting things he’d seen happen in the apartment. He was a decent story teller. But mostly I talked. I told Harold how I felt about moving to a new city and how scared I was that I wasn’t going to make any friends. He was a great listener. I really felt like I could open up to him, like he wouldn’t judge me or think I was being too dramatic or anything. I told him that sometimes I worried that I’d made the wrong decision. I asked him if he thought moving was the right thing to have done.
“Did you enjoy the museum this morning?” He asked. He seemed distracted and my face grew warm when I thought about how much I had been talking and how tactfully Harold let me know he was tired of listening to all of my problems.
“You saw the Egyptian stuff, right?”
“How did you know that’s where I was?”
“I heard you talking to yourself about it last night before you went to bed. You seemed excited about going to the museum. Are you some kind of historian or something?”
“No, I work at a bank. You didn’t hear anything else, did you?”
He explained that respecting privacy was the most important thing to remember if you were going to live in this small apartment.
“I can do that,” I said. We said good night to each other. I shut the door to my bedroom and lay in bed thinking about how nice it was to have a guy like Harold for a roommate. Naturally it felt strange to have met him under the circumstances that I did, but he was kind and warm and it seemed at that moment that although I hadn’t wanted to live with anyone, I couldn’t have found a better person to share my apartment with if I’d tried. I looked forward to getting to know him. I really wanted to find out some more details about how he got in and out of the wall.
I woke up with a headache from the paint fumes. My throat felt like I had drunk a bottle of toilet cleaner. I took a quick shower and headed to the kitchen to make coffee. It was Monday and I was due at the bank by nine.
On the table was a note written in small, precise scientist’s handwriting. It read, “Thanks again for last night. The landlord is showing the apartment at 8:15. Be careful he doesn’t see you.—Harold.” I looked at my watch. I had ten minutes until he showed up. I felt nervous before I realized that it was my apartment. Hadn’t I just singed the lease just a week before? The landlord couldn’t just show someone the apartment, I lived in it.
I was starting to get angry.
The apartment felt cool. A picture of an apple started to appear slowly on the wall next to the refrigerator. Above the toaster sketches of a tomato and a banana settled in comfortably next to one another. I turned around in time to see some Chinese characters be traced out on the wall in the living room. I grabbed my coat and headed for the front door. In the hall I stopped and looked into the apartment; I noticed that although the pictures had come back after being painted over, Harold hadn’t.
When I heard the landlord’s key in the lock, I panicked. I pressed myself hard into the wall close to where I thought Harold might be and thought about him. I heard voices and watched as the door was pushed open wider and wider never reaching me.
Jensen Whelan‘s fiction and poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in the fictionwarehouse, scrivener’s pen, eyeshot and surgery of modern warfare. He is from San Francisco but lives in Stockholm, Sweden mostly for the fine weather.