Weekly Literary Supplement: Summer Fiction Sampler
Wet Metal: An Excerpt From Blame
By Michelle Huneven
Patsy MacLemoore came to on a concrete shelf in a cell in the basement of the Altadena Sheriff’s department. Her hair had woken her up. It stank.
She had said she would rather die than come back here. She’d said that both times she’d been here before.
The little jail had no windows. Fluorescent tubes quivered night and day. A fan clattered, off-kilter. Each of the three connected cells contained a seatless stainless-steel toilet and a tiny, one-faucet sink.
Lurching to the undersized sink, she drank from it sideways, cheek anchored against the greasy spout. The dribble was tepid and tasted of mold. In the next cell over, June’s haughty face loomed. Did she fuckin live here? Every time Patsy’d been in, she was, too. June’s top lip was like two paisleys touching. What’d you do this time, Professor? said the lips.
Don’t know, Patsy said. D’n’D. De-dicking some cretin. No idea.
Not what I heard, June said. And lookit your face.
Patsy’s fingers went to a ridge of scab crystallizing along her cheekbone. No wonder her head hurt.
Returning to the shelf, she noted the itchy rasp of the prison gown. Lead-blue, unrippable, it was made of 45 percent stainless-steel, according to the label. She was naked beneath, not even panties.
I hear you’re in deep shit, Professor. June’s bangs were set in a pink foam curler. How do you get curlers in jail? June had a real mirror, too, not the stainless-steel square provided before you face the judge. And a hair dryer. A zippered sack of makeup spilled open on her sleeping shelf. Like she lived here.
Hey, Professor, wanna borrow my brush? A turquoise paddle with mashed black plastic bristles slid through the bars, but Patsy knew better than to reach for it lest the brush be retracted again and again, as many times as she’d fall for the ruse, only to be offered at a price, as if she kept a twenty rolled up in her privates for such expenditures. Naw, Juney. Patsy gathered her long sour hair — the mats large and thick as trout — and wound it into a loose knot. But this proved too much tug on her scalp and she shook it free.
She couldn’t be in too deep shit, she thought, if she was still in this small-town dump. When’d I come in, Juney?
You were here when I come. Snoring in your own mess. We made ’em spray you down. What’d you do to make ’em so mad?
Who knows? said Patsy. Maybe I used too many big words, or lectured ’em on the progressive era. Hell, Juney, I have no idea. Oh, but we’ll find out.
O’Mallon was at the cage door. Hiya Bitsy, Patsy said, using the jailhouse joke about a supposedly small part of him.
He opened the door, beckoned with a curt tilt of his head.
Standing, she realized she was still quite drunk. Well, they needn’t know that. She straightened her spine, and set off at a stately pace. O’Malley, blocking her, produced cuffs.
Uh-oh. Daddy’s mad.
He drew her hands behind her back, clasped them in chrome, shoved. Goddamn, Bitsy. See ya, Juney, over her shoulder.
O’Mallon steered her by the upper arm down the floor-waxed hall to what Patsy thought of as the conversation room, another drab and battered place with a stoic oak table, and windows with chicken wire in the mottled glass. Benny, the lawyer who had represented her in other drunk-driving episodes, sat inside the door. Did I call you? Patsy asked, for she had summoned him on more than one previous occasion with no memory of doing so. She grazed his shoulder with her hip. We have to stop meeting like this, she said.
Benny ignored her — her own counsel!
Lieutenant Peterson sat across the table. Also, Ricky Barrett, who had just last year been a continuing-education student in her 20th century cultural-history course. Those continuing-ed credits had paid off; he was Detective Barrett now, as she’d learned during her last incarceration.
Everyone’s mouth was a down-turned crescent. To what do I owe such a ... summit? she said. Such a meeting of the County’s best and brightest?
Shut up, Patsy. That was the world-weary Peterson. White-haired and monotoned. Just shut the fuck up.
But then nobody else said anything.
Really, you guys. What’s up? Why the faces? I can’t remember a thing.
Try, suggested Peterson.
Patsy pulled out a chair, sat and tried. Monday morning survey, America 1865 to the present. Office hours. Personnel committee dinner at Anne Davis’ house, blankness setting in around the soup course, not her fault, the wine so cheap and bad. What day is it, anyway?
Shit. When’d I come in?
I lost Tuesday, she said.
Across from her, Ricky Barrett snapped the elastic band on an accordion file, a battered and cloudy-brown thing, the corners worn to white. Patsy couldn’t help but read the word felt-tipped on its side: Homicide.
The taste of wet metal filled her mouth.
Michelle Huneven is the author of two previous novels, Round Rock and Jamesland. A contributor to L.A. Weekly, she lives in Altadena. Blame will be published by Sarah Crichton Books/FSG in September.
The Calm: An Excerpt From Silver Lake
By Peter Gadol
And then it was autumn again, and Saturdays they would wake early, when the first clean light came up over the oak and fir at the top of the ridge and eased its way down across their glass house and overgrown slope, down to the pitched yards and shingled cottages along the street below their street, down across timber and brush and fallen limbs, across the boulevard all the way to the patient lake, where it would linger on the water, an ancient and forgiving light by noon.
These were cold mornings suddenly and so they dressed quickly in fraying clothes. One made coffee, the other swiped jam across toast. They traded sections of the paper. One started in on the crossword, the other scanned the financial pages. Then they headed out to the garage and pulled on work gloves and selected rakes and clippers, and there was little conversation except to agree the movie they had watched the night before was not sitting well with them. A simple story snapped when stretched into an epic. Actually one man fell asleep before the film ended, and the other man had to wake him only to guide him to the bedroom and back to sleep again.
Rain all week had left the air crisp but also made the ground behind their house muddy and not entirely suitable for the chore at hand, yet each man took a flank of hill as if it were his side of the bed and began pulling out the dead sage and trimming back the excess tea bush and clearing out the persistent sumac. There was nothing to be done about the thicket of rosemary, they’d long since given up. There was enough of a drop-off down to the backyard of the property below theirs so that even at the ledge of their land, they enjoyed an unobstructed vista of the Silver Lake Reservoir.
“It’s so blue today,” Robbie said.
“Too blue,” Carlo said.
“How can it be too blue?”
“It’s like something chemical has been added.”
Robbie slid down a patch of mud so he was standing next to Carlo. This was the year they would turn 40. They had been together 20 years, not counting some early semesters of undedicated collegiate messing around. Robbie pulled off his glove and inserted his forefinger through one of Carlo’s belt loops, tugging him closer, rubbing his nose against Carlo’s neck — Carlo hummed.
It was autumn again and they always looked forward to the season, to the fires they would tend in a stone hearth and the friends at a long table, to what they would roast and what they would decant. They looked forward to the colder nights and the added blanket, the conversations past midnight about new books. The truth was that even before they knew each other (if one could speak of a time before they knew each other), each man was always eager for the decline of summer and the refuge, the rescue of school — and autumn was when they met, and another autumn when they moved to Los Angeles. It was certainly for all these reasons that every fall they felt renewed, but then also because some other heat always abated, because an annual anxiety always burned off and vanished, it seemed, for good. Anxiety related to work and income and debt. Restlessness about lives not lived, the shadow histories that now and then might haunt them, haunt any two people who found each other so early in life. An alien illogical loneliness — it was a kind of ghost grief almost, although to be clear, a grief neither as strange nor ruinous as the one about to wash over them.
“You’re a silly man,” Robbie said. “A lake can never be too blue. Who’s a silly man?”
“I am,” Carlo said.
“What are you?”
“A silly man.”
Back up by the patio off the kitchen, they collected the figs about to fall from a neighbor’s vine that coiled over a high wooden fence.
“Can we remember to pick up some smelly cheese?” Carlo asked.
“Si, signor,” Robbie said.
Also in the neighbor’s yard, there was a regal liquidambar with broad, long-suffering branches, several of which reached across their terrace, and the men liked the tree because it gave them a graceful canopy and screen, and then they could enjoy the seasonal task (a joyfully nostalgic task since they both grew up back East) of raking leaves. Leaves which this year had turned early, had begun to fall early, and so there was already need to sweep off the table and chairs and the twin cedar chaises. They took turns combing a patch of lawn with their better rake, scrapping away the ochre matting to reveal grass that was surprisingly cold to the touch in the morning sun, the ground smelling like sap now, like rich, dark potting soil now, like lust itself.
In the house, in their bedroom, they stripped and threw back the blankets and knelt on the bed, facing each other. Carlo fell back against his heels. Robbie held onto Carlo’s hips, pale hands against dark skin, until he let go and fell back, too. Then they remained like this a while, facing each other without touching, grinning. It was as if they were waking a second time today. Two men together, two against the world. Astonishing.
Peter Gadol is the author of five previous novels, including The Long Rain and Light at Dusk. He teaches in the Graduate Writing Program at Otis College of Art and Design. Silver Lake will be published in August by Bleak House Books.
Henry Bay’s America: An Excerpt From The Enthusiast
By Charlie Haas
Henry Bay sees an America no one else does — a series of small, intense worlds formed by odd hobbies and extreme sports. He works for a long series of enthusiast magazines, from Row! (“The Coxswain That Comes in Your Mailbox”) to Cozy, the Magazine of Tea. “Wherever I worked, I was the civilian,” he says. “At Ice Climbing I was the only staff member who still had all ten toes, and at Metal Detector Treasures I was the only one without twenty rings on his fingers.” But when Henry gets married, he has to leave the road and get a stable job. He finds one at Clean Page, the dreaded media conglomerate that’s swallowed up even more magazines than Henry has worked for.
Clean Page had been buying magazines for five years. People at my jobs called it what people always call these things: the Death Star, the Evil Empire, the Brain Police. A Clean Page executive named Walter Denise had called me twice, making jokes and trying to hire me. I’d said no both times, but now I called him. He mentioned a salary a third higher than I was making at Wakeboarding and set a meeting for me and Tom Patrick, the founder and CEO. We agreed to meet beforehand at a Starbucks near their office.
Walter was waiting when I got there, a stocky bald guy in his thirties with an orange beard, drinking cappuccino and shaking his head over a copy of Decoupage!, which they’d just bought. We shook hands and I held out my résumé. “Jesus,” he said when he saw how long it was. “So do you know how to do all these things?”
“No, I tend to retain the wrong parts,” I said. “Like the slang.”
“No, the slang is the good part. What do you think we do for fun all day? ‘Look out, you’re going to sam.’ ‘No, I’ve got slab hicks on my downtown plate. Don’t be such a Clive of India.’ ”
He handed the résumé back to me. “Here’s the deal with Tom. Eight years ago he was going around in a Hyundai delivering PennySavers to liquor stores. He lived on Nabs. That’s the guy you don’t want to fuck with. The guy that had to wait. People call me up and go, ‘Why does he yell and scream all the time?’ That’s why he yells and screams.”
“That sounds a little scary,” I said.
“That he yells and screams all the time.”
“It’s not scary if you’re here.” He finished his coffee. “It’s scary if you’re sitting out there working for Wakeboarding.”
On the outside the Clean Page building reflected light like five stories of cop sunglasses. On the inside it had the kind of fluorescent lighting that puts a vampire in your motel mirror. Ten feet into the lobby the fresh air gave way to synthetic-fiber molecules defecting from the carpet. Walter and I took the elevator to the top floor and started past the receptionist, but she held up a finger and talked into her headset: “Walter plus one to see Tom.”
“Henry Bay,” Walter said.
“Do you have a visitor badge?”
“He can’t have anything on his nipples,” Walter said.
“Nobody likes you,” she said. Walter nodded and led me down the hall past framed covers of Spearfish, Skysurf, and Quick Raffia.
Tom Patrick was in his thirties, tall and trim, with short curly brown hair and ice-blue eyes. He wore a blue shirt, red tie, gray suit pants, and black socks, his wingtips parked in a corner.
“People hate us.”
“I don’t think —”
“Hate us. Because we came along and said ‘What if this was a business?’ We go to buy someone, the first thing they say is, ‘Gee, do we have to leave North Dakota?’ I say, ‘No, because we want to preserve that unique character.’ They say, ‘Oh, that’s great, because my brother Zeke is here, and my dog.’ I don’t want them near here. A square foot in North Dakota is free. But the product needs to meet minimal standards. So that’s you. Anything you need, Walter is here.”
I started to say something, but Walter clapped his hands on his knees, said, “And we’re off,” and stood up. In the hall he said, “That was good. So Monday,” his hands wafting me onto the elevator.
There was a vending alcove off the parking garage. I wasn’t a candy bar enthusiast but I started feeding dollars into a machine and didn’t stop till I’d bought a Payday, a Hundred Grand, a Butterfingers, a Snickers, a NutRageous, and a Dark Milky Way. I finally have a job with dental, I thought. I should use it. I ate the Snickers before I started the car but I couldn’t touch the other ones. When I got to Santa Cruz I left them on top of a newspaper machine, figuring that with all the kids and homeless guys walking around, someone would end up eating them. No one said it had to be me.
Excerpted from The Enthusiast by Charlie Haas. Copyright (c) 2009 by Charlie Haas. Reprinted by arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers.
Charlie Haas wrote the movies Over the Edge, Gremlins 2 and Matinee. He reads from his first novel, The Enthusiast, on Thursday, June 18 at 7:30 p.m.; Skylight Books, 1818 N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz.
Further reading from the Weekly Literary Supplement:
"How Fiction Works: King James and the Battle for the Novel," by Nathan Ihara
"Geoff in London, Interview in Absentia," by Tom Christie
"Henry Bay’s America: An Excerpt From The Enthusiast," by Charlie Haas
"Wet Metal: An Excerpt From Blame," by Michelle Huneven
"The Calm: An Excerpt From Silver Lake," by Peter Gadol
"Old World Meets New Age in Thriller Nowhere-Land," by Judith Freeman
"Publishing Your Novel Online," by Alan Rifkin
Get the Theater
Your weekly guide to local culture with calendar listings and theater, dance, and comedy reviews.