I am happy to announce that U. R. Bowie (pictured left) will be joining Dactyl Review as Contributing Editor. Bowie is the 2017 recipient of the Dactyl Review literary fiction award for his novel The Tale of the Bastard Feverfew. At DR we believe literary fiction writers make the best literary fiction reviewers. And vice versa. Bowie’s work offers substantial support for that premise.
Bowie has been contributing reviews regularly since the spring of 2016. As a professor of Russian literature, he brings special insight to novels that are touched by the Russian soul. His reviews of The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis (both dealing with Russian themes) and his most recent review of The Trick of It by Michael Frayn (a novel about novel writing) stand out as the kind of reviews literary fiction authors want and need. (Read his reviews now, if you haven’t yet.) Unlike a lot of hack reviewers working for pocket change for the prepub make-it-or-break-it publications such as Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews, Bowie, working for the love of it alone, has actually read the books he reviews, not just skimmed them. We can tell because he analyzes the actual language used by the author and does not make comments about the characters as if they were real people not literary constructs.
Bowie doesn’t like to write reviews of books he doesn’t like. Why bother? But he raised a few eyebrows last year with his critical review of The New Yorker, which was really a review of the sad state of short fiction publishing. He targeted the domestic fiction genre, which, promoted by creative writing MFA programs nationwide, has come to dominate the publishing industry.
So now to welcome Bowie to DR, we offer for your amusement, “The Armpits of Old Age,” a short fiction piece by Bowie illustrating what happens to domestic fiction when the narrator, the one who tells, runs to the convenience store, leaving the characters to show everything in dialog and action, movie-script-like. Meanwhile, the author remains pretty much absent throughout, like a dead or disinterested God, functioning in the end merely as a censoring intelligence to be feared, not unlike Santa Clause or the NSA, forcing the characters to avoid anything surreal or literary and to stick to the kind of “bland insipidity” found these days in print.
– VN Alexander, Editor, Dactyl Review
The Armpits of Old Age
by U. R. Bowie
–Listen, Clarice (said The Narrator). Do you think you and Pete could wing it for, say, twenty minutes?
–What’s up (asked Clarice)?
–Just got a craving for chocolate. I’ll pop downtown for a sec, hit the Bi-Lo-Go convenience store.
–You mean like a Snicker?
–Yeah, a Snicker.
–So you’re saying we just carry on putting together the story?
–It’s not like you ain’t already done it over and over, Clarice.
–But not without a narrator.
–Go with the standard domestic fiction plot. When I get back I’ll whip through it, make a few revisions.
–But what if U.R. drops in?
–U.R.’s busy today, fleshing out a new novel about a family from China with an autistic child. He won’t come by. You know the drill on this one. Two couples get together for social concourse.
–You mean like the gut-wrenching, at-one-another’s-throats-with-hatchets sort of thing, modeled after Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
–Oh, no, no. Nobody writes that stuff anymore. The modern-day standard keeps things at a much lower key. Flat-affect emotions.
–So you’re saying like fucked-up relationships, but without the hatchets?
–What about maybe the story of a happy couple? No complications.
–Naw. That’s just not done. Happy families are all the same.
–Well, like you say, we’ve played out that scenario a zillion times already.
–Sure you have, you and Pete both.
–Okay, I guess we can give it a shot.
–Thanks, Clarice. I’ll be right back. Can I get you anything at the Bi-Lo-Go?
–Maybe bring me a Snicker. Get one for Pete too.
–Will do. So long, Clarice. See you in a jiff.
A man named Chauncey (“Pete”) Barefield, of Miami Heights, Ohio (near Cincinnati), went off to work one fine summer day, slaving away for eight hours at his job of physicist. His work involved assisting other physicists and assistant physics insisters/assistors. With quarking and anti-quarking, splitting atoms, that sort of thing.
All appeared to be going well, but then something happened. When he came home late that afternoon to his wife Clarice, he had his head turned around backwards on his shoulders. While still turned frontwards, his bare feet were only six inches long and had toenails longer than the feet, and as he backed in the door—grinning from ear to ear out of his backwards-fitting head—he exposed big blockish front teeth. As big as those concrete slabs they use to build the interstate highways.
–Clarice! I’m home (he called out).
–So I see (said Clarice, walking up to him with a frown). How dare you come home in that kind of shape.
Chauncey kept the same grin on the blockish teeth.
–Well, where is one to go in this kind of shape, if not home?
He stopped backing and walked in frontwise, but now his head was facing the wrong way. Clarice ran around to the other side of Chauncey, so as to be up in his face as they talked.
–Pete, what happened? You look like a real character.
–Well, I am a character. So are you. That’s how we make our living.
–Sure. There’s good money in our game, but you have to stay in character.
–But you said The Narrator said, before he left, ‘don’t make it boring.’
–Well, sure, but we’re characters in domestic literary fiction, which, let’s face it, always is, to one degree or another, boring.
–Hmm. Thought it might be fun to liven things up for once.
–The market demands we do it the way it’s done. The market wants these same realistic stories that everybody writes. Because they sell. Look in, say, The New Yorker. There they are. Look in the best literary journals. American Short Fiction, One Story, Agni. Yep. There they are. Stories about ordinary people, told realistically, with no particular panache, no stylistic embellishments. Dullsville.
–Yeah, well I guess you’re right. Americans don’t read books any more, let alone creative literary fiction. If they read fiction at all it’s going to be the domestic.
–Just ask any instructor in any creative writing program anywhere in America. They’ll tell you what sells. Show, don’t tell, they’ll tell you; hone your craft and don’t get cutesy. You can’t use adverbs either.
–Well, logically and realistically, I’d say—
–You start getting wise-assed, acting out of character, Pete, and before we know it we could be fired from all our venues.
–Okay, okay okay okay. You win.
–So clip your toenails and get your head turned back around straight. Did you forget the Chichesters are coming over for supper tonight? That’s the plot.
–Urghh. I did forget. Oh, my God, an evening with the Chichesters.
Chauncey sat down on the couch. He spent a few moments moaning, wailing the blues, holding his backwards-turned head in his hands. The Chichesters.
–The story we’re doing (said Clarice), I hope you haven’t forgotten, involves a social interaction between two couples.
–Ah, yeah. Maybe we could do it the Virginia Woolf way: knock down drag out going at throats with hatchets.
–Naw. It’s not done that way anymore.
–You know the drill.
–Okay. We can do the usual. Backbiting, nasty remarks, but not taking it all the way to Virginia.
–You got it.
While Chauncey busied himself with cutting his toenails and turning his head back around, Clarice spent some quality time with her pet caterpillars. One of her favorite things was kissing caterpillars on their heads. They enjoyed the affection they received, and she enjoyed the giving of the affection. But then, suddenly, she looked up at the clock on the wall, dropped her caterpillars and panicked.
–Pete, we got to get cracking! It’s already seven o’clock and they’ll be here at seven thirty. Help me open some cans of tuna.
When he came out to the kitchen Chauncey had his head back turned around. He rummaged in the cabinets for the StarKist solid white albacore, couldn’t find it.
–Where’s the StarKist, dear (he asked Clarice)?
–We’re plumb out. Just use the Bumblebee.
–Well, all right, but U.R. is not going to be happy. U.R., whenever in his books he features tuna fish, always emphasizes StarKist, and it has to be the albacore.
–Screw U.R. Use the Bumblebee this time.
–You know what, though, Clarice?
–Just once in a story where one character says, ‘Do you know what?’ I’d like to have the other character answer something other than, ‘No. What?’
–Okay. Let’s try it again.
–You know what, though, Clarice?
–Yes, I know what. What?
–That’s better. What I just thought of was maybe, God grant, the Chichesters will call us on the phone and cancel out.
–You think so?
–Yeah. There’s a good chance. At least I’m hoping.
–Okay. Let’s wait by the phone.
The Barefields, Chauncey and Clarice, sat down side by side at the kitchen table, eyeing hopefully the phone on the wall. They waited. Time passed. It was already seven fifteen. They waited. Silence. Now the clock read seven twenty-one. The phone on the wall—like so many phones in fictions and lives—stubbornly persisted in its un-ringing. Finally, Clarice got up.
–Bother (she said). Can’t wait any longer. They’ll be here in ten minutes, and we don’t have anything done. We don’t have the Kool-Aid ready, we haven’t thawed out the popsicles, and the tuna casserole is still not made. Plus which, I need to change.
Clarice rushed out of the kitchen to her bedroom, while Chauncey busied himself with the cans of Bumblebee. We forgot to mention an important fact in the plotline of this story: Chauncey (Pete) Barefield was a man whose sole pride in life was invested in his remarkably versatile phallus. Among other talents, the phallus could sing the rounders of “Row Your Boat,” harmonizing with itself, could crack walnuts and pecans and even hickory nuts—during the Christmas nut-cracking season—and was an expert at opening tins of tuna.
Pause in the story, while imagining the opening of the tuna cans and the making of the casserole.
Ten minutes later, when the doorbell rang, the wonderful tuna casserole was on the kitchen table, steaming lusciously away, the Kool-Aid was cooling its lovely self in a beautiful cut-glass carafe, and the popsicles were thawed out. Pulling apart the sides of her mouth to plaster a huge smile on her physiognomy, maintaining the smile as she ran, Clarice rushed to open the door. Shrieking with glee, she welcomed the guests, telling them who they must be.
–You must be Bobby Lee, and you must be Edeltraut!
The Chichesters looked confused.
–Excuse me. Hold it a minute, Clarice (said Edeltraut Chichester). I think you may be almost, like, flubbing your lines.
–Yeah. We already are supposed to know each other. Remember? You tell us who we must be only when, having heard tell of us, you meet us for the first time.
–Oh, sorry. That’s right. Try for a second take.
Clarice grabbed the sides of her mouth again, pulled up the ear-to-ear grin, and shrieked:
–Hi, Bobby Lee, hi, Edeltraut! How are yeeeeeewwww? Come in, come in, come in.
The Chichesters, Bobby Lee and Edeltraut, came in, hung up their coats, while Clarice bustled around them, sketching out welcoming gestures, venting urky sounds. Then they sat down on the sofa and made apologies.
–Sorry we’re late (said Edeltraut). We set our GPS for Easy Street, but the dang thing drove us down Hard Times Boulevard.
Next Chauncey made his entrance, also having clamped a huge grin on his blocks of front teeth.
–Hello, hello, hello, welcome, welcome, lovely Chichesters! Can I get you something to drink?
–Oh, no, no, don’t go to any trouble (said Edeltraut).
–Oh, no, no, duh-duh-duh don’t (said Bobby Lee, who had a bad stammer and chronic, incurable social anxiety).
–You don’t want anything?
–No, no, don’t go to any trouble (said Edeltraut).
–No, no, duh, duh, duh (said Bobby Lee).
–We’re having root beer (said Clarice). Hires root beer. Would you have some with us?
–No, no, no, no, no, okay (said Edeltraut).
–No, no, no, no, duh, duh, duh, okay (said Bobby Lee).
The Barefields and the Chichesters sat together in the living room, drinking root beer and making conversation.
–So we’re working this thing without a narrator (said Edeltraut). Kind of risky.
–Wanna hear a luh, luh, luh, like story about a ma, ma, ma, ma, ma machine gun (asked Bobby Lee)?
Bobby Lee Chichester’s stammer hampered him in all his social interactions, except when he told a story featuring a .50 caliber machine gun. Consequently, that was the only story he ever told.
–Hold off on the machine gun, Bobby (said Edeltraut). We were talking the lack of a narrator. Sort of like circus acrobats performing without a net.
–We’ll be fine (said Chauncey). We’ve all done this drill a zillion times.
–Yeah (said Clarice), The Narrator left us with a few choice bits and pieces. We can insert them along the way.
She took out a piece of paper and read from it.
–Here’s a description of Clarice (me): “She wore her passive-aggressive passive aggression like a second skin.” Hey, wait a minute!
–No, that’s good (said Chauncey). Fits you to a tee.
–Well, I don’t—
–Read the others (said Edeltraut).
Clarice read on.
–This one’s for Chauncey, you, Pete: “He had never told a lie for the course of his whole life on earth. Pete Barefield was a pathological teller of the truth.” Well, I don’t know if—
–No, that’s good (said Pete). Read the others.
–Here’s a description of Edeltraut walking downhill: “She was a woman with full, voluptuous lips—the kind of lips Hollywood actresses sport, Angelina Jolie lips—and she pouted full steam with those lips as she moved down the hill, with the halting, knee-bent, stalking gait of someone descending a steep incline.”
Bobby Lee leaned forward to listen, flicking his right ear, the hearing one, with his forefinger. In conversation he had this way of tweaking his ear, to make it hear better, then turning it directly toward the mouth of his collocutor.
–Well, that’s not a bad description (said Edeltraut), except for the stalking. I don’t like that word ‘stalking.’ Did The Narrator leave anything for Bobby Lee?
–Let’s see . . . yeah, here it is, one line of dialogue: ‘ma, ma, ma, ma, machine gun.’
The Chichesters and Barefields went on nursing their root beers.
–We better get the conversation going now (said Pete). Anybody need a refill of the root beer first?
–How are you Chichesters liking your lovely new home (asked Clarice, smiling)?
–Fine, fine (said Edeltraut). One problem, though. We bought this condo in a quiet neighborhood, but we’ve had quiet a time finding the silence we were counting on.
–You mean quite (said Clarice).
–Quiet (said Edeltraut).
–Quite (said Clarice).
–Quiet (said Edeltraut).
–Anyway, it’s noisy I guess (said Clarice).
–Quite (said Edeltraut).
–Qua, qua, qua, qua, qua, real noisy (added Bobby Lee).
WE INTERRUPT THE TELLING OF THIS NARRATIVE WITH AN IMPORTANT MESSAGE: Given (1) the imperative of always being politically correct, and (2) the need to publish fiction that offends absolutely nobody, and given that (3) having a character with a stammer is offensive and unsafe to those readers who may walk with a limp or stammer, we (4) hereby declare that Bobby Lee Chichester will not do any more stuttering or stammering throughout the rest of this tale. Neither will he limp.
–Real noisy (added Bobby Lee). By the way, speaking of the price of eggs in China, do you know anything about birds?
Bobby Lee flicked his right ear and bent closer to his collocutors.
–Lots (said Chauncey). You got you your red birds, say, and your blue birds. Some birds are even yeller. Then again, there’s your dickeybirds. I once seen a green parrot.
–Crows are the smartest birds on earth (said Clarice), except for white-winged choughs, who even practice a form of avian slavery. They steal fledgling choughs from the nests of other choughs and make them work feeding their own chicks. But the slave-choughs are so smart that they only pretend to help out with feeding the chick choughs, while grooming their rear chough feathers on the sly.
–Did you know (said Chauncey) that the Argentine lake duck has a sixteen-inch phallus that is longer than its own body? He uses the phallus as an oar when swimming in turbulent waters.
Clarice smiled and winked archly at her husband.
–You and your phallus stuff, dear (she said laughing).
The Barefields cherished the little secret only they knew: that the Bumblebee tuna cans providing the lovely casserole—now awaiting the guests on the kitchen table—had just been can-opened by the mighty phallus of innocent-looking Pete Barefield.
Bobby Lee got up and limped around the room, quacking as he went, doing an excellent imitation of the Argentine lake duck rowing with its oar. The others applauded. He sat back down.
–The oriole family (added Bobby Lee) includes the world’s only poisonous bird, the hooded pitohui. There was once this science feller working in a museum in Lima, Peru, on a stuffed pitohui, and he worked and he worked, adjusting the feathers and smoothing down the pitohui beak, and then, WHAM, he dropped dead of the poison.
–Amazing (said Clarice). That’s an amazing story, Bobby Lee.
–Reminds me kinda of something that happened to me when I was nineteen and living in Miami Beach (said Bobby Lee). Went skinny-dipping in the ocean one day, and some badass blue crab took a chomp out of my giblets.
–Whew. That must smart (said Chauncey).
–Well, dinner’s ready (said Clarice). Let’s relocate ourselves to the kitchen. Anybody need another root beer?
Nobody did. The two couples got up and went into the kitchen, where they sat down at the table. Why, you might ask, didn’t they go into the dining room? Because the Barefields lived frugally, and they had no dining room.
–Oowee, that tuna casserole smells good (said Edeltraut). Did you make it yourself, Clarice?
–Yep, right out of the Bumblebee cans.
–I need the recipe for that (gushed Edeltraut). Oh, and you have popsicles! What flavor are they?
–Great! My favorite.
–How about you, Bobby Lee (asked Chauncey)? Are the popsicles sufficiently thawed out for you?
–Just right (said Bobby Lee, picking one up and sucking at it). Al dente.
After joining hands and saying grace, the two couples dug into the food, passing the popsicles and tuna, pouring out the Kool-Aid.
–How are your kids doing (asked Edeltraut)?
–Doing fine (said Clarice). Practically all grown up now.
–How old are they?
–Imogene is twenty, and Malachi is twenty-three.
–That can’t be (said Edeltraut). Last time I saw Imogene she was knee high to a baby grasshopper!
–Time do fly by (said Bobby Lee). What are they doing these days?
–Imogene is working for World Feminism United in Timbuctoo, educating the Shiite Muslims and the Sunni Muslims, and, well you know, all the other A-rabs, in how you got to treat women and set up American-style democracy.
–That sounds interesting.
–And Malachi is in the Air Force.
—Eew (gushed Edeltraut), is he a pilot?
–No, a bombardier. He’s over in Syria these days, dropping bombs on the bad-guy terrorists, by way of bringing American democracy to the Middle East.
–I never can get that straight (said Bobby Lee). How can you tell the good-guy terrorists in Syria from the bad-guy terrorists and the in-between-good-guy-and-bad-guy terrorists?
–Yeah, it’s hard (said Chauncey). Malachi says he never lets it worry him. They have what they call ‘smart bombs’ these days; he just pushes the buttons and lets the bombs sort out the terrorists.
–Well, that’s wonderful (said Edeltraut). You sure did a good job of raising your kids.
–Thank you (said Clarice). Here, have some more tuna. Does the Kool-Aid meet your approval, Bobby Lee?
Bobby Lee flicked his right ear and bent closer. Pardon (he said)?
HOW DO YOU LIKE THE KOOL-AID?
–Is that right (said Bobby Lee)? I never knew that LL Cool J had AIDS.
–Actually (said Chauncey), I don’t know how our children came out as great as they did. We didn’t know no more about raising kids than a goat knows how to fly a helicopter.
–Speaking of which (said Bobby Lee).
Edeltraut put a mean frown, with crisscrossed wrinkles, on her forehead.
–Why do you always do that, Bobby?
–Say, ‘Speaking of which’ and then stop. And then make people ask, ‘Speaking of which what?’
–Speaking of which (said Bobby Lee), I once knew an ole boy named Kinch Bivens, from Marietta, South Carolina, who taught his pet billy goat to fly a chopper. A Bell UH-1 Huey.
–You don’t say.
–A damn good pilot he was too. As I recall he got a job doing crop dusting. Did real fine until his girlfriend left him; after that he took to drink. Lost his pilot’s license, shaved his goatee, and went back to the kudzu fields.
–Yeah, that’s how most goats makes their living in Carolina. They hire themselves out to the farmers as kudzu chompers.
–I see (said Clarice). We’re doing pretty good, aren’t we?
–At what (asked Edeltraut)?
–At putting together this domestic fiction story without the aid of a narrator.
–I think we might be doing even better at it without the narrator (opined Chauncey). We should put in for a raise.
–I’m all in on that (said Bobby Lee). We’re barely getting by on the minimum wage salary for fictional characters. I’m having to moonlight to make ends meet.
–What kind of moonlighting job (asked Clarice)?
–I work as a target holder at the Tristate City Shooting Range in Western Hills.
–What do you do?
–I hold up targets for people to shoot at. It’s sort of like these sign-wavers you see out on the sidewalks these days. Real interesting job, and it beats working for a living.
–All I know (said Chauncey) is you better buy your firearms while you still can. They say Obama and his liberal ilk are fixing to close all the gun shows and gun shops, and then take everybody’s weapons away.
–Socialism (said Edeltraut scornfully). Well, he’ll pry my nine millimeter out of my cold, dead hand.
–Not to worry (said Bobby Lee). We got a real president now. Ain’t going to be no more Obama Yo Momma.
The others agreed.
–Course, I could go out on the road again (went on Bobby Lee), huckstering encyclopedias like I used to. I’m a first-class salesman. I could sell ten-pound red bricks to a drowning man.
Edeltraut put the same crisscrossed wrinkles back up on her forehead.
–Huh (she said).
–I could sell brand-new cracks to withered old butts.
Edeltraut said “Huh” again. Then she went on.
–Bobby, you couldn’t sell fresh, high-quality cow pies to a rosebush.
–Well, you need not have chid me so severely, my dear (said Bobby Lee forlornly), for I am a child to chiding.
–That’s good lines you’re playing there, Bobby Lee and Edeltraut (said Chauncey). You’re getting that nice tinge of conjugal strife into the fabric of the story.
An hour had gone by, and the whole tuna casserole was finished. The guests and the Barefields were chomping down on more popsicles for dessert—this time mango-papaya flavored—while the sparkling conversation continued.
–You ever wondered (asked Bobby Lee), what it means, that thing in the Constitution that reads “the right to bear arms”?
–It can mean lots of things (opined Clarice). Say you have a collection of animal parts. It means that you have the right to keep arms of bears in your collection.
–I see (said Bobby Lee, musing).
–Or (said Edeltraut), if you misspell one word it means you have the right to roll up your sleeves and get a tan in the sunshine.
–Um-hm (said Bobby Lee, cogitating).
–Or (opined Chauncey), taken in its most common usage in the U.S.A. today, it means you have the right to buy guns and kill lots of innocent people.
–Yeah, that’s the way I interpret it (said Bobby Lee).
–Me too (said all three others in unison).
–Makes me kind of wish sometimes I could just get this new Swedish disease (said Bobby Lee mournfully).
–Huh (asked all three others in unison)?
–This thing where migrants about to be deported take to their beds and lapse into a kind of coma. It’s called uppgivenhetssyndrom (resignation syndrome), but in the vernacular it’s givingupitis.
–Now now now now (said Chauncey, placing a tender hand on Bobby Lee’s wrist).
–Been writing my autobiography (said Bobby Lee). It’s called Pissing in the Wind While Grasping at Straws: The Story of My Life.
–Now now now now (said Chauncey again, and the other two joined in with the ‘nows’).
–Here’s how it is (moaned Bobby Lee, after first flicking his right ear). We’re on a merry-go-round, mounted up on a beautiful steed with red-varnished nostrils and raised-high hoofs, and we ride as five-year-olds, noses running, gaily round and round and round on that snorting and gasping, highly varnished wild-eyed horse, shouting out cries of glee to the calliope music, and getting nowhere, nowhere, nowhere.
–Now, really (said Edeltraut). She had those wrinkles up on her forehead again.
Bobby Lee glowered at his wife.
–Now really what (he asked)?
–Now really, that apostrophe to futility and ennui, it just won’t do.
–Because it’s too literary by half, too pervaded with literature, and the preeminent rule of generally accepted what-sells domestic fiction is LEAVE OUT THE LITERATURE.
–You mean dumb it down, Edeltraut?
–Exactly! Who wants to hear, for example, about the de-extinction of Neanderthal man?
–Huh (asked the other three in unison)?
–The first complete Neanderthal genome was decoded in 2013, and now it’s just a matter of time until they reanimate a Neanderthal man, or woman, bringing her or him back from the void of extinction.
–So (asked all three others)?
–I’m just saying, nobody reading domestic fiction wants to hear about stuff like that. It’s not sufficiently insipid.
–Do you know the steaming stillness of the orchid-scented glade (asked Bobby Lee)?
–Huh (all three)?
–When the blazoned bird-winged butterflies flap through?
–Huh? What is this?
–It’s poetry (said Bobby Lee). Kipling. Nice, huh?
–Hold it hold it hold it hold it hold it (said Clarice). We’ve gone way overboard in this conversation. We need The Narrator back in here. We’re losing it, people!
–You’re right, Clarice (said Chauncey). This winging-it business, it gets way too creative.
Just then there was a loud knock at the front door. Bam bam bam went the knock. Holding their breath, the characters at the kitchen table looked bug-eyed at one another.
–Who could that be (asked Clarice fearfully)?
–I don’t know (said Chauncey fearfully). Are we expecting anybody?
Clarice got up from the table, made her toes go tippy, and crept her way stealthily to the front door. Bam bam bam went the knocks. She peered through the peephole.
–Oh my God (she whispered). It’s U.R. What are we going to do?
–Calm down, Clarice (said Edeltraut). What are you so afraid of? We’re not doing anything illegal.
–She’s right, Clarice (said Chauncey). Open the door.
All the characters rushed into the living room. Clarice took a deep breath, then swung the door wide. In the doorway stood the bald-domed white-bearded litterateur, U.R. Beauvais, in his blue beret, stroking his prominent pot belly.
All the characters cried out joyously, in unison: U.R., U.R., how are yeeeeeewwwww? Come in, come in, come in.
The renowned writer of high-class art walked in and sniffed around suspiciously, like a police dog checking a room for smoked weed.
–What’s going on in here (he mumbled, frowning)?
–Nothing, nothing, U.R. (said Clarice). We’re just doing that story you ordered up.
–Good, good. That’s why I dropped in, to see how the narrative’s going.
–Fine, fine, it’s going fine (said all four in unison).
Then Bobby Lee, back in character again, flicked his ear and spoke up on his own.
–It’s go go go go (stammered Bobby Lee), I’m, I’m I’m I’m you wanna hear the thing about a ma-ma-ma-ma-ma . . .
–About a Ma (asked U.R., trying to help out)? About somebody’s mother?
–About a ma-ma machine gun?
–Oh, that. Not now, Bobby Lee. I’m working on deadline with Tin House. They needed my new story in domestic fiction by yesterday. So have you characters and the narrator got it done?
–Wha, wha, wha (said Bobby Lee, and the others joined in) whe, whe, whe well, well well well well. . .
–I smell something rotten in the state of not Denmark (said U.R.). Where’s The Narrator?
–Well, U.R., he, what he did was (said Clarice) is he kind of set the plot to going and let us run with it.
–What (said the litterateur, indignant now)!
–Yeah (said Chauncey), he went downtown, just for a few minutes, to buy himself a chocolate bar.
–A Hershey? A Snicker?
–Yeah, a Snicker (said Clarice). He said he’d bring me back one, but you can have mine when he comes.
–Where’s the copy script, dammit it all (said U.R.)? Give it here!
–Well (said Edeltraut), we don’t have it all the way worked through; needs a bit of polishing, and you know—
–Hand it over!
Clarice picked up the pages off the kitchen table, rearranged and stacked them for neatness, then proffered them to the master. The great writer sat down on the couch and began ruffling through the manuscript.
–What’s this? Head turned around backwards?
He flipped through a few more pages.
–Opening cans of tuna, cracking hickory nuts with a . . . huh? Birds taking other birds hostage and using them as slaves . . . oar phallus, goat flies a helicopter . . . de-extinction of Neanderthal man, what is all this? I demand an explanation!
The characters bustled about in front of their employer, trying to calm him down.
–It’s okay, sir, we can cut some of that out (said Edeltraut reassuringly).
–Not essential to the plot (added Chauncey).
The litterateur got up off the couch, staggered around a bit, then sat down heavily. He took his frontward facing head in his hands and began pulling out wispy white hair.
–This can’t be (he groaned). The piece is totally deficient in bland insipidity. There’s even some literature in here.
The renowned author began ripping up the pages of the script. He ripped and ripped and finally, when he had the whole thing ripped into tiny little pieces, he tossed it all up in the air. The rejected hapless bits and pieces came drifting down like confetti, sprinkling the heads of the literary personages.
–Total insubordination of narrative and characters, even some adverbs, and right when we’re past the deadline. You’ve let some ambient hostile-takeover narrative force hack into my story!
The venerable U.R. Beauvais went on moaning into his beard, bewailing his fate, while his characters gathered around to console him. Edeltraut had an arm on one shoulder, kneading, while Clarice stroked his wizened old neck. Bobby Lee murmured consoling sounds, ma, ma, ma, ma, while Chauncey took the damage control upon himself.
–Now now, U.R. All is not lost. Tell you something about domestic fiction, we all have vast experience in the genre, and, well, as soon as we get The Narrator back in here, we’ll sit down and whip out that story like nobody’s business.
U.R. stopped wailing, stopped pulling out his hair and looked up.
–How soon (he asked)?
–Soon, soon (said Chauncey).
–Today. Right now. Give us two hours maximum. The Narrator’s due back any second, he’ll bring us each a Snicker bar. We’ll all sit down and eat our Snickers—for like an energy boost—then we’ll get to it. Maybe even less than two hours. A done deal.
–That’s right, U.R. (said Edeltraut). Don’t you worry. A done deal.
–You go on back home, sir, and have yourself a vodka gimlet (said Clarice soothingly). No need for you to wrack your brains.
U.R. took several deep breaths.
–Okay (he said finally). I’m counting on you. Here. I’ll leave you with a few titles and you can extrapolate from there.
He handed the titles to Edeltraut. There were three: “The Dead Are in Thrall To Avidity,” “Such Is the Scent of Our Sweet Opalescence,” and “The Armpits of Old Age.”
The characters helped the distressed author to his feet, put his blue beret back on his head, and ushered him to the door. When he was gone Clarice gently shut the door behind him, leaned against it, breathing out a deep sigh of relief. Wheeeeeh.
–We got to get cracking (said Chauncey). No time to wait for The Narrator. That third title, the thing about the armpits, that looks to have possibilities.
–Yuh, yuh, yuh, ma-ma-ma yeah (said Bobby Lee). Let’s go with that one.
The characters went back and sat down at the kitchen table again. They cogitated.
–Where to begin (asked Clarice)?
–Where to begin (asked Chauncey)?
–What about if we just, like, borrow something somewhere (asked Edeltraut)? You got a spare New Yorker laying around?
–Sure (said Clarice).
She went out to the living room, returned with a stack of magazines, spread them out on the kitchen table. Each of the characters took a copy and began leafing through it, searching for the one brilliant fiction story published in each issue of The New Yorker.
–Okay. This looks like a good one (said Clarice). Nobody will notice if we use it. They’re all, basically, the same.
She read out the first paragraph of the story.
“It was a cold and dreary night, and Ricardo’s sinuses were dripping. Close to five hours on the train there, he thought. Then twenty minutes by taxi from the station to the university. Rowan would be waiting. He would have time to call his lawyer, work through all the options. He had the number of a consultant, in case Rowan needed help finding a rehab center. He thought of the needles in his mind. Used and reused by filthy addicts. And by his daughter Rowan. He cringed. Maybe it wouldn’t come to that. The school wouldn’t want to make anything public. What an awful time for this to happen. The same night Abigail came home early and caught him with an index finger up Jennifer Halliburton’s butt. Stupid.”
–Sounds good to me (said Chauncey). The usual stuff: the angst of the American middle class, adultery, a wayward child, the banal straightforward language.
–Yeah, we can go with this for a start (said Edeltraut). Maybe one thing there a bit too creative, though.
–What’s that (asked Clarice)?
–The finger up the butt. Kind of gets past what we need: the flat affect in the style and emotions.
–Okay, we’ll leave that out (said Chauncey).
–Ma-ma-ma (said Bobby Lee).
Clarice cleared away the empty tuna casserole dish, the melted popsicles, and the carafe of Kool-Aid. Rolling up their sleeves, the four bared their arms, took up their pencils, and set to work. Each of them concentrated intently, a tongue tip stuck out at the side of a mouth.
Less than thirty minutes later, when The Narrator—whistling Dixie through his teeth and bearing his Snickers bars—moseyed back in, they were already done. They showed him the manuscript. He put aside his Snicker and leafed through the pages.
–Nice going, guys (said The Narrator). I knew you could do it. Great title too: “The Armpits of Old Age.” Marvelous! Tin House will be ecstatic.