Merry Christmas

From the first moment he saw the sign, he felt aggrieved on their behalf:

“Open Christmas Day 24 Hours.”

He was not overly fond of the holidays. In fact, he mostly resented the days overstuffed with his wife clattering around in the kitchen while he talked to portly second cousins about their peculiar interests–one was especially fond of beach volleyball and always had predictions for the upcoming Olympics.

Yet, this, this was a bridge too far. Fast food workers consigned to laboring all day and night on Christmas!

The plan was cemented in his mind as the brown-toothed woman who always served him his morning McMuffin and McCafe deluxe chanted cheerily, “Merry Christmas” on the 23rd. He had to do some last minute shopping anyway, he thought, finding that perfect something for his wife–the cranberry colored purse she had picked out and put on hold at the mall–so he had ample opportunity to do his own little part to put things right.

He did not explain the package to his wife when he got home. (Perhaps she thought it was something extra for her.) After watching his two children dig, ferret-like, through the glittering vistas of pre-printed snow scenes on the three hundred square yards of wrapping paper his wife had used on their various presents, he excused himself and snuck to the garage. Before his wife could even protest the grinding of the garage door, he was off on his own personal Santa mission.

As he’d feared, there were customers making the employees’ Yuletide drudgery even worse. Seeing the cars in the parking lot made him feel even more righteous about his Christmas errand.

He strolled in with the over-size gift basket under his arm. Pretzels and truffles, cheese and crackers, some peppermint sticks and durable, blackberry scones. A little knot tightened, though, as he approached the counter and faced the bepimpled young man at the register.

“Hello…may I take your order.”

“Actually,” he told the boy. “I don’t need anything. I, um, I actually wanted to give you guys something. I felt bad for you all having to work through the holiday, so…”

“Oh, okay, sir,” the register jockey said, raising his stick-like pasty arm to point. “Thank you, you can leave it with the others.”


He turned and noticed the cornucopia of pre-packaged and baked goods piled on the largest of the dining tables behind him.

“Um,” he muttered to himself as he nestled his shrink-wrapped care package between a long dish with a fresh fruit cake and a white Merry Christmas bear holding a box of caramel candies.

Confused, he bowed his eyes as he inched away from the pile of gifts and back toward the exit.

“Thank you, sir,” he heard the boy call after him mechanically. “And Merry Christmas.”

Transfigurations (Murakami IV)

The lights came up and she sauntered onto the stage.

“Josephine!” someone wailed from the dark recesses of the room. She knew the voice, but not his name. He was there at every show and never failed to make some violently passionate outburst.

Anticipation, it would seem, had driven him to his climax early tonight.

“Thank you, thank you,” she cooed into the mic. “I’m glad ya’ll could come out and join us.” Her sequined gown swept the floor about her as she glided in small, interlocked circles before the band. “I think tonight we’re going to start with a number that a certain other Josephine once sang,” she said. “This came off her album, Siren of the Tropics.” A hoot of ascent from the darkness. “Let’s see if we can do it justice.”

So she began.

The band swung up its tinny rhythm and the horns laid in the foundation. Invisible beneath the long hem of her dress, she tapped her foot, waiting for the moment to pick her up and carry her away.

It came and she opened her mouth.

She knew—on some level—that the notes were now coming out of her, but she was never actually conscious of the song, or of the sounds she was making. When she bent back her neck and her eyes slipped closed, she was always somewhere else—something else.

It varied, but she always saw herself suddenly as some kind of animal. Usually something ungainly and mammalian, something that would smell. Most importantly, it was always a creature with a noxious bleating as a call.

Never a song bird.

Once, through an entire Ella Fitzgerald revival she had seen herself as a yak. Gargantuan, with mottled and knotted hair. Lips like writhing snake bodies and eyes as dull as unused coal.

Tonight, she was something more slender, like an alpaca or a llama.

She saw herself from the outside in exquisite detail as the ecstasy of her own singing was lost to her. She was just hooves and a long, pink tongue.

To Annabelle

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The thing I don’t think you realize is that I’m only your father when you’re around.

It was that way with your mother, too. I was her husband. Felt like her husband, believed in the fact of my husbandhood–but only when we were together.

When she’d bundle you up in those thick, puffy jackets and wrap your little face in scarves so she could drive you to her mother’s house for the day, and I was left alone in the house, left walking up and down the creaking stairs, left sitting on the sofa by myself, I’d sometimes look up at that photo from JC Penney of the three of us and kind of marvel at it, be stunned that, yes, that was me in a picture with a woman and her daughter.

It would take me a minute to remember.

You’ll understand someday. Someday when you’re all grown up and you have a marriage and a family and a life that technically you chose through the inertia of little things you did, but which, in a larger sense, you never really chose in that way that people hold other people responsible for their “choices,” you’ll sit down somewhere and just be shocked that the world thinks you’re who you are.

Because inside, you’re not that person. Or you are, but you’re other people, too. You’re all your younger selves, too, I guess. And those kids living inside you, they can’t freakin’ believe in this other you.

That’s how it is when you’re gone, when I’m alone in the house. I can’t believe you exist. Can’t believe in this father-person that you believe in.

You’ll see, you’ll understand. It’ll all make sense to you–eventually.

An Affliction

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Of course, when the night of the recital came, there was no thought of him actually attending–at least, not for his parents.

For the last six weeks whenever his scheduled session with his instructor had come near, he had buckled over with sharp, piercing pain in his abdomen. The first night they’d been sympathetic. It had been so sudden that they had had no time to call off the lesson. They politely met his tutor–a matronly crone with an unmoving face and a sterling reputation on the Upper East Side–at the door with her requisite fee in hand and a mouthful of apologies. “Too ill to practice?” she had said dubiously, but they assured her that they would make sure he did practice on his own as soon as he was better.

But the second time this occurred, they forced him to endure the lesson anyway, with disastrous results. “Now, Michael,” they said–and actually failed to finish the sentence. They simply set up his sheets on the piano and poured his tutor the glass of water with no ice that she always expected waiting for her.

Michael marched up to the ivories with a grimace and sat down for his lesson. They left the room, convinced they’d done the right thing.

Fifteen minutes later, however, the tutor summoned them. With the same didactic tone they heard echo through the hall while she instructed the boy, she told them to tuck him into bed and to monitor his temperature carefully and not to let him drink for at least an hour and which name-brand soda to give him when he finally was ready. Then she left, the lesson incomplete. To her credit, she did not insist on payment that time. She did though say, “Not to force the boy to endure something like this again.”

So when the next week came and Michael once again complained about his stomach, they placed a hasty phone call to the tutor and, with quick glances at one another, said they would take him to the doctor and let her know when he could resume his lessons.

The doctor, though, seemed unnecessary. By the morning, he was spritely and game for adventures in the tiny garden behind their brownstone or a romp over to the park. They thought they had his number pretty squarely down at this point and decided that, admitting defeat, they might as well just pay out the rest of the contract with the tutor and not renew for the next year. The piano, after all, had been mostly a decorative item before they’d thought to have him instructed on it; it could be simply that again.

But on the night of the big recital, Michael dressed himself and came downstair two hours before, nervously flexing his fingers and bobbing his head to an inaudible melody.

“What are you doing?”

“It’s the recital.”

“But Michael, you haven’t practiced in weeks. You’re not ready for the recital?”

“You didn’t tell Mrs. Gerbacher to take me off the program, did you?”

“No, but we…”

So they dressed and caught a cab to the recital hall.

And he played beautifully, growing greener with every strike of the keys, and just before the end of the second movement, he vomited upstage and finished the piece with an orange smudge on his shoulder.


When he entered, crossing from the doorway toward the empty seat at the table just outside the open entryway to the kitchen, she could not be sure he was real.

She was confused for a moment by his clothing, which–besides looking nothing like what he had been wearing when he had disappeared three years earlier–seemed to be hewn entirely from rough, burlap-like cloth.

“Where have you been?” she asked in a gasp.

When he sat–like some creature from a Gabriel Garcia Marquez story–he sloughed off a drizzle of vermin to twitch and struggle in the fibers of the carpet.

His voice, when it emerged, was dry and course. “It’s a fair question.”

She stepped toward him, still holding the soapy skillet that she had been washing when he had come in.

“What should I call it?” he asked, not looking at her but at the diffuse glow of the remaining daylight behind the crinkled venetian blinds. “A quest?” He shook his head. “I was tested, though. Given an opportunity,” he said with a nod.

Shaking her own head, she came closer to him, mouth agape.

“I was put in one of those situations when I had the chance to prove myself. A moment when all my beliefs and principles were tested, when I could demonstrate I was able to put others before myself, to rise above selfish, petty desires and serve the greater good. A moment,” he repeated. “To be more, to be better. A chance to do the right thing.”

“But,” she stammered. “It’s been so long…what…what happened?”

He ran his hand through his matted, gunky hair.

“I failed,” he said.



As he passed the tall windows that constituted the long wall spanning both the living room, the dining room and the kitchen of the apartment that clung to the outer edge of its building, he thought suddenly that it felt like weeks since she had gone out, leaving only a short note on one of the self-adhesive sheets they kept near the phone on the marble counter. The phone that they hardly used and which never, ever rang save for occasional telemarketers plumbing out-of-date registries bought on the cheap.

It had actually only been a few hours, he was sure, but it felt as though whole days had been passed in solitude there in the empty apartment, still and alien without the movement of her feet across the dark, dark wood of the floor or the bellowing of television voices or clattering of keys as she fiddled about on the Internet.

Then, pausing in the white glow of the diffuse afternoon light from without, he wondered if this might not be his best self. The him that existed when she was gone, but when he was still alive and in love with the idea of her, just as at that moment–with only the solid white wall of nothing visible from the windows and no sounds of the bustling streets below able to rise up like heat cushions to his ears–there was only an idea of the city outside.

Any other state would require him to engage his too-too sensitive gaze or attention on the reality of one or the other, such as the red blotches at the back of her heels where her overly tight shoes rubbed raw the underpink of her naked feet or the vague rotten meat flavor of the air on a summer day when the city’s thermostat had been rifled up too high. And then, in confronting those bits of reality, his temper might grow short, or he might make some offending remark that would reveal to her and to the city that he was just a cad at heart, that all sorts of pettiness stirred inside him, making him unworthy of either.

And there would be quarrels and bickering, and sheepish grins to try to ingratiate himself again.

But not now. With both remote and only remembered, he regarded them in perfect majesty, in the beauty of absence.

Plato said that the/democratic man was a/ship adrift at sea

I’m thinking about doing everything in haiku.

You know, spend six months, maybe a year really just doing haiku. Not just in writing. I thought perhaps I’d try to make everything I say fit a 5, 7, 5 syllabic pattern. I’m not quite sure about that, though. I don’t mean that strictly speaking some of what I’m likely to say would be senryu instead of haiku, I mean that I may, in the interests of maintaining my prosaic flexibility in this new mode of communication branch out to tanka.

You know what else would be really great? Only sonnets for a week or two. Imagine giving next month’s sales report in 14 line chunks with a volta in each section. That would turn heads at corporate, I’m sure.

Or maybe just haiku after all. For consistency’s sake. That’s what Sheila always said about me, that I lacked consistency.

So maybe if I do this and she gets wind of it—maybe Brenda down in accounting would mention it to her when they have yoga class together—then she’ll think twice about having left me.

Of course, if I was really serious about this, I guess this line would’ve already been 5-7-5.

Wait, maybe it is. Is it? I’m terrible at scansion.


Murakami III

The new car has keyless entry.

The dealer gave us a doohickey (I know that the technical name is a “fob” for this small, semi-ovular, semi-rectangular device that uses microwaves or some other kind of science that pretty much is voodoo as far as I’m concerned to communicate with my car, a thing I still tend to feel, if not “think,” one should not communicate with in any sophisticated manner; meaning that one should only communicate with automobiles through gearshifts and steering wheels and pedals and receive communication in return with nothing but guttural engine noises) that allows us to simply walk up to the car, pull the handle and then climb inside.

But I am afraid of this thing, this fob-derived power to instantly open the doors.

Somehow the car knows that this fob (where did they come up with this word, “fob?” It sounds like it should be an acronym, but what for? “freely open…” What? It confounds me. Seriously, I often find myself lying awake, with the spectral shapes of all the acronyms in my life circling above me like spirits of the dead, and then there, among them, is “fob,” wickedly indeterminate in its origin and meaning.) is in my pocket. But how much can this car know about the whereabouts of this fob?

What if I should find myself in one of those situations–like always happens in the movies–in which there is a psychopath chasing after me and I need to lock myself into the car in order to protect myself and all my bodily organs from harm? Will the car know that I am inside and that it should no longer open just because the dookickey–er, fob–is proximal? Will it know when I am in desperate need of doors that simply lock?

And what if, on some occasion, I wanted to be locked out of my car, as sometimes people wish to be. After all, things cannot always go our way. Hardships are inevitable and it is far preferable to face the inconvenience of being locked out of a car than, say, come down with tuberculosis or be chased by a psychopath.

I really wonder if the engineers at Toyota have thoroughly considered all of these things.


Franklin set the onion ring down and looked out at the gray mist behind the buildings in the distance.

“Mark,” he said to his friend sitting across from him. “Do you ever feel like you might be done?” His friend chomped a bite of his half-pound burger with slow, grinding motions and looked at him, eyes set narrowly in an inquisitive gesture. “You know, like ever take a look at your life and say to yourself, ‘You know what, I’ve peaked. I’m never going to do anything better than what I’ve already done. My life is pretty much as complete as it’s ever going to be.’ And maybe, maybe when you answer that, you realize that you could’ve answered that way a long time ago. Maybe really, your whole contribution, whatever you’re going to add to the world was pretty much as good as it was ever going to get like, maybe five or six years ago. Like at work–all your best ideas were when you were young, climbing up. Now, you’re pretty much just a manager, sorting out other people’s ideas. So, really, anybody could do that. Had kids, and in the early years, maybe you didn’t inspire them to be Beethovens or whatever, but you kept them from turning into serial killers or anything like that. So now, if you were gone, then they might be sad for awhile, but things would pretty much turn out the same for them as if you were there. So, you know, that’s about it. You’ve done what it was for you to do. And really, you could drop dead or just sit on the couch munching every kind of Pringles you can get your hands on, and the march of time and the universe and all that would go on pretty much unchanged. Do you know what I mean? Feeling just kind of done? Over?” Franklin picked up the onion ring again. “Do you ever feel that way?”

Mark, still holding the burger, leaned to his left enough to reach the straw of his soda with his mouth and took a sip. With the chunk of meat, bun, lettuce, mushroom, bacon and everything else washed down, he opened his mouth again and said, “No.”