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Dixon's stories, strengthened by their unity, almost have a novel's ability to develop character, to suggest a life outside the confines of the plot.
Stephen Dixon's stories and novels have an original, immediately recognizable sound and feel –a weird blend of Franz Kafka and Frank Capra. Readers of his previous work will find in 14 Stories that same wry, inventive, knife-edged humor that has come to characterize his distinctive style. With an adroit use of language and a keen eye for the quirky, offbeat side of human nature, Dixon creates a world as viewed through a fish-eye lens–slightly distorted and off-center, yet ...
Stephen Dixon's stories and novels have an original, immediately recognizable sound and feel –a weird blend of Franz Kafka and Frank Capra. Readers of his previous work will find in 14 Stories that same wry, inventive, knife-edged humor that has come to characterize his distinctive style. With an adroit use of language and a keen eye for the quirky, offbeat side of human nature, Dixon creates a world as viewed through a fish-eye lens–slightly distorted and off-center, yet recognizable and often familiar.
14 Stories is part comedy, part tragedy, part social comment and part spoof. But most of all it is a highly entertaining series of all-too-plausible vignettes that shows off Stephen Dixon's remarkable talent at its best.
Johns Hopkins University Press
Dixon's stories, strengthened by their unity, almost have a novel's ability to develop character, to suggest a life outside the confines of the plot.
These stories make a highly satisfying collection, not only for their evident craftsmanship but also because of the discriminating intelligence which underpins them.
Mr. Dixon wields a stubbornly plain-spoken style; he loves all sorts of tricky narrative effects. And he loves even more the tribulations of the fantasizing mind, ticklish in their comedy, alarming in their immediacy.
Eugene Randall held the gun in front of his mouth and fired. The bullet smashed his upper front teeth, left his head through the back of his jaw, pierced an ear lobe and broke a window that overlooked much of the midtown area. A chambermaid on the floor said to herself "What kind of noise is that—that sounds like a bullet. And a window being broke. But maybe it wasn't either." The bullet landed a block away on a brownstone roof, where a boy was watching mama-and-papa pigeons sitting in the sun. Mr. Randall fell over the end table, sending to the floor a lamp, pack of cigarillos and an ashtray that had been resting on the three notes he'd written regarding his suicide. The wind came in through the broken window, picked the letters off the floor and distributed them around the room. The chambermaid leaned on her cleaning cart and said "Yes sir, that was a shot all right. Someone's practicing on the windows or furniture or maybe gone and killed himself or someone he didn't like. It happened last month on the twenty-first. And a year before that on the eighth. All kinds of suicides and nuts end up in this hotel, and these drunken conventioneers and lonely Japanese businessmen the worst." She lifted a phone receiver. One letter landed on the couch. Another under the coffee table. The third floated out the window and higher than Mr. Randall's room on the fourteenth floor. The boy looked at the bullet that had rolled to within a foot of him. He thought it was a stone, picked it up, dropped it because it felt so rough, almost prickly, stared at it and said "Holy G, that's a bullet. Someone tried to shoot me with a bullet," and opened the roof door and ran downstairs. The pigeons flapped when the door slammed behind the boy, settled in the same positions they were in before. "This is Anna," the chambermaid said on the phone, "Anna from the fourteenth, and I think there's been a shooting on my floor." The hotel detective said maybe it was a loud car backfire she'd heard and Anna said" No sir, no backfire. I heard it while in the hallway, so you could be right if you said it came from a guest's television screen." He told her to wait for him by the center elevators and she said "Make it snappy, sir, as who's to say there isn't a lunatic loose."
Mr. Randall lay groaning on the floor. Bad shot, bad shot, he thought, he tried to say. That note out the window—which one?—he hoped not to his ex-wife or mother.
"Where's the fire?" a neighbor said, grabbing the boy's arm as he raced around the second-story landing.
"Someone tried to kill me up there—with a bullet. I was sitting watching the pigeons, minding my business, when wham, it's shot, a bullet, not an inch from my eye. If I'd been sitting where I always sit, I'd be dead, I swear."
"Now what kind of story is that?" the neighbor said, and the boy said "You want to come and see?" and they went up to the roof. The neighbor pushed open the door slowly, said it was safe, no sharpshooting assassins from what he could see, "that is, if you're telling the truth," and stepped onto the roof.
"There it is," the boy said, pointing to the bullet between their feet "Don't touch it. The police will want it for evidence." The man picked up the bullet. "I said not to touch it. You're going to get in trouble. The police don't like people fooling with their evidence."
"Don't worry." The neighbor inspected the bullet. "This is a bullet all right. No little air pellet either. It's a real bullet, real meaning from a real pistol or rifle, probably a .22. You're lucky you're alive." They went downstairs to phone the police.
"Right this way, sir," Anna said to the hotel detective who came out of the elevator. "Right down here somewhere down this hall's where I heard the bullet sound." The detective said he would check out her story with some guests on the floor and knocked on the first of the twenty rooms in this wing of the hotel.
"Yes?" a male guest said through the peephole, and the detective identified himself, said don't be alarmed but wondered if the guest had heard anything around here in the last fifteen minutes that sounded like a gun being fired.
"A gun? No, not since breakfast. No, let me correct that—not since a few seconds after the boy wheeled in my breakfast. I shot him for bringing me three two-minute eggs when I had explicitly called down for two three's."
"Thank you very much," the detective said and Anna and he went to the next door. Nobody answered. He let himself in with a passkey. No smell, no bullet, no disturbance here, he thought. And nice neat person who's renting the place also—pants hung so evenly over the back of the chair, the orderly way he put his toilet and personal articles on the dresser, all lined up like a column of soldiers. "Let's try the next one," he said.
Head, pain, help, quick, Mr. Randall thought. He tried to scream. He tried to crawl. He tried to reach for a part of the broken lamp to throw and smash so someone would hear the noise and come. But his arms and fingers wouldn't move. His lips did, but nothing came out but more blood and pain. Better in a hospital. Better under sedation. Anything better than this, this pain, this killing pain.
"Maybe I ought to tell my mom first," the boy said, stopping on the fourth floor. He didn't know whether to ring the bell so his mother could have time to fix herself or open the door with his key and maybe surprise her nude or in panties, which she didn't mind when they were alone, but with this man with him and all. "Maybe I better ring," the boy said.
"Don't you have a key to your own place? You seem old enough."
"Who said I didn't?" He unlocked the door, parted it an inch, yelled "Hey mom—you home?" though he knew she was, reading or asleep. She only went out on Fridays, to shop.
The wind died and the note drifted for a while over a busy street before it landed on the hood of a parked car. A young woman walking arm in arm with a man said "Look, Ron, a message from heaven just came." She started for the car but the man, keeping their arms locked at the elbows and spreading his feet to anchor his weight, jerked her back to his side. "Let me get it," she said. "Maybe it'll tell us where a secret city fortune is."
"Uh-uh," Ron said. "We're chained like this for life."
"For life—that's nice." She kissed his lips. "Though it also sounds horrid, like a prison term. But please let me see what it says."
"Well ... why don't we kind of slide over there together." They moved sideways, arms still locked, the woman leading, till she got close enough to stretch for the note with her free hand, but it was blown over the car hood. "This is getting exciting," she said, and they waited for the traffic to pass so they could follow the note across the street.
Mr. Randall couldn't move his body from the waist up. He was able to dig his knees into the carpet and push himself a few inches a minute that way, but even if he reached the door he wouldn't be able to unfasten the latch or turn the knob. He would be able to draw attention by banging the door with his feet, but it might take him an hour to get there. He didn't want to suddenly get stiff in his haul across the room and then suffer this pain for hours till he died. Better the telephone on the end table at the other side of the couch. He could knee himself there, knock the table over with his feet. The operator would know something was wrong when no one answered. And if he got his mouth right on the receiver she would hear him breathing.
"What is it, love?" the boy's mother said, coming out of the bedroom. "Oh, excuse me," and she turned and quickly buttoned up her bathrobe. "You should've told me you were with someone, Warren."
"It was sort of emergency—that's why I forgot."
The man was thinking And I always thought she was so flat and skinny, I don't know why. Seen her on the stairs maybe three four times in a year and always thought she had a body like a boy and even looked like one with her short hair and always sneakers and slacks. But good Christ what a figure.
"I was up on the roof watching the pigeons when someone tried to shoot me, ma."
"Something like that, Mrs. Lang. I was climbing the steps when Warren was running down, and I asked what was wrong and he said the same thing he told you. Here it is," and he opened his fist and showed her the bullet.
"You sure he didn't just plant that thing up there? You didn't, did you, Warren?"
"Well because of his frightened look when he was running down, I tended to believe him. Nobody could impersonate such a scare—not even an actor. You think you should call the police?"
"My God, what a neighborhood. Boys being shot at on roofs. Shopkeepers hiring police dogs. Addicts, these filthy addicts making us all fearful to walk into our own homes. Are you sure that's a bullet—what's your name, please?"
"William Singerton. I'm a neighbor, one floor right below you. In fact, we have the exact same apartment layout I see, though your stove and refrigerator are bigger."
"If you think his story's authentic, Mr. Singerton. I mean, even if someone was only shooting the pigeons, I suppose you should still call the police." Mr. Singerton dialed Operator.
"Hear that?" the hotel detective said.
"Hear what?" Anna said.
"Phone falling. I heard the short tingling like from the bell inside a phone when it falls. Came from one of the rooms down there," and they walked to the three doors at the end of the corridor.
"'Dear Mom,' the letter starts off with," the young woman said. "It's to this Gene fellow's mother, and the writing seems very legible and intelligent."
"Let me see," Ron said.
"First you got to let go of my arm."
"I told you, Loey: we're locked like this forever and ever no matter what adversities we face. Now let me see the letter."
"Not till you release me."
"I'll release you if you kiss me once on the cheek, once where my eyebrows meet, and once right here, smack dab on it," and he touched his lips.
She kissed him on all three spots. "Now release me."
"Not until you hand me the letter. Because what I failed to mention about me is also your main disadvantage: you're linked for life to a liar."
"Then neither of us is going to read it," and she stuck the letter into her coat pocket.
"Hello? I said, hello? I said, this is Mrs. Vega, your hotel operator, may I help you?" She signaled the operator seated beside her to remove her earphones. "What should I do? 1403's breathing pretty heavy into the receiver but not answering me."
"Maybe they accidentally knocked over the phone while they were making love. That happens. Check with Desk if it's a couple staying there, or someone with a small child."
"What should I tell the breather?"
"Say 'Hold on,' that's all. 'Hold on' and then call down and ask who's in 1403. Also ask if the guest's got a dog or cat, which could also be the problem."
"Thanks, Andrea. I only hope I can be as much help to the girl who takes over from me when I go."
"The girl who takes over from you is going to be a machine, dearie—a computer with a recorded sweet voice and perfect brain. Why do you think I'm leaving the profession after so long? Not only because you never meet anyone but the janitor, cooped up in this cell, but for another reason that the job's getting extinct. For you it's fine because you need a couple years' wages till your husband says 'Let's have a baby.' But for me, a lifetime worker—I know that, there's no family or man in my future—this profession's dying out quickly. Like the ink pen. Like the elevator operator."
"Like the elevator operator. That's true. They haven't any in this hotel, do they?" and she rang the desk clerk.
"A phone drop?" the woman guest in 1402 said. "Since when does management have to send up a detective to see about a phone being dropped?"
"It's related to something else—a possible accident on the floor."
She called out "Leonard? Did you recently drop a telephone on the floor?" and a man yelled back through the closed bathroom door "Not unless I did and didn't know about it."
"What's the trouble if I may ask?" the woman said. "I'm worried now."
"Don't be. It's only that Anna here—"
"How do you do, ma'am," Anna said.
"Anna thought she heard a noise like a gunshot go off before, though it could have been a car backfire or sound effects from a TV show."
"Leonard," she yelled, "did you hear anything like a gunshot before? Something that wasn't a car backfiring or from a television show?"
"I did," Leonard said through the door. "From right where I'm sitting. But I didn't know what to figure with this town, so I forgot about it. Why, is someone hurt?"
Over the phone the desk sergeant took down the name, address, apartment and telephone number of Mrs. Lang. "You sure someone will be home when we get there?" he said.
"We'll stay here till the police come," Mr. Singerton said.
"What's your connection with the mother and the boy?"
"A neighbor around the neighborhood, in the building or a roomer in Mrs. Lang's apartment?"
"In the building, though I don't see what bearing that has on the matter. When the questions get that personal I sort of feel I shouldn't have gotten involved."
"All right," the sergeant said. "Just stay where you are and a man will be right over. And don't touch the bullet. Leave everything in its place."
"He said not to touch the bullet," Mr. Singerton said to Mrs. Lang, opening his fist and showing her the bullet. "What do you think they'll do when they find out I did?"
"Why don't you put it back where you found it?" Warren said.
"With my prints all over it? Besides, if they find out, I'll get in more trouble that way."
"Wipe them off why don't you, but I told you not to touch it."
"Thank you. He told me. If I'd been smart I should have let him pass when he came flying downstairs. I never should have left my flat for cigarettes—never should have been smoking, in fact. Cancer I'll get, and also a jail sentence. In fact, I never should have taken my first puff when I was young and everyone said don't take your first puff, Willy, because it will lead to bad things. Little did they know. Do you smoke, Warren?"
"Me? I'm only ten."
"Well don't, you hear? Don't even experiment. Take my troubles with the police now as an example why not to."
"'Dear Mom,'" Loey read. "'I'm sorry for what sadness to you and disrespect for the family my death this way will cause you, but all I ask is that you try not to be too sad and try to understand me. I've thought about killing myself for more than a year now. I tried to work things out for myself many other ways, but everything I did always made things even worse, which you know for me is really not too hard to believe. After the business went, Sarah and the kids went soon after that and it was just too much for me. And then all my so-called friends went. I suppose they thought I'd sponge on them or else be too maudlin a person to be with, now that my business and wife and—' I can't go on," Loey said. She gave the note to Ron, began crying. He unhooked his arm from hers and said "Maybe this letter isn't a joke at all."
"You mean you still think someone could think up a joke like that?"
"But the letter writer even put his mother's name, address, city, state and phone number on top of the page. Now why would a joker go to that far extent in making a joke?"
"To make the joke seem more real?"
"He'd write a long letter like this and put all that information about a woman on top of the page and then sail it out the window hoping that someone he had never seen before and would never see unless he's now looking at us from one of those windows, would find the note and think the suicide story is real?"
"I didn't say I was positive it was a joke. I only said I maybe still think it is." He read the note: "'... too maudlin a person' etcetera, 'children were gone,' period. 'I don't know. I can't explain anything anymore. I'm sick. Blame the whole affair on my emotional sickness. I'm sorry, mom. I love you. I hate for the pain I know I'm going to inflict on you. You've been the dearest person in my life. Of course Greta and Zane are dear, but they're across the country and too young to help. This note's too long. I love you, mom. It's silly, but if I could live it would be most to spare you the pain of my death. I was almost going to say "To help you live through the pain of my death," which is why I said before "It's silly." And now I'm getting too silly for a suicide note, besides too long. Always my love. Your devoted son, Gene.'"
Excerpted from 14 Stories by Stephen Dixon. Copyright © 2012 Stephen Dixon. Excerpted by permission of Dzanc Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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