Assorted Fire Events: Storiesby David Means
Upon its publication, Assorted Fire Events won a Los Angeles Times Book Prize, was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, and received tremendous critical praise. Ranging across America, taking in a breathtaking array of voices and experiences, this story collection now stands as one of the finest of our time.
“Assorted Fire Events is one of the best American collections of the last ten years. Means's stories are harrowing and funny and full-blooded, consistently satisfying in their narrative twists, and lyrical in a way that makes most contemporary literary ‘lyricism' sound like greeting cards. This is food for the hungry.” Jonathan Franzen, author of Freedom
“The roll-call of honor, from Eudora Welty to John Cheever, John Updike, William Maxwell, to Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, and Annie Proulx, is long and rich. Just when it seems that things could get no better, along comes David Means.” Eileen Batersby, The Irish Times
“It is Means's signature talent to view the lives of his characters, and life itself, from somewhere just beyond, in a position of maximum understanding and honorable detachment: a semidivine vantage point for the examination of hopelessly human affairs.” Jeffrey Eugenides, author of The Marriage Plot
“Achingly intelligent . . . With his jump-cut shifts, startling connections and breathtaking disconnections, the author stands among our most gifted younger writers. Distinctively, though, he anneals his cutting-edge irony into a compassionate anger that goes beyond the literary times. In a word he might disdain to use, it is timeless.” Richard Eder, The New York Times
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Assorted Fire Events
By David Means
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2000 David Means
All rights reserved.
RAILROAD INCIDENT, AUGUST 1995
THE DECLIVITY where he sat to rest was part of a railroad bed blasted out of the hard shale and lime deposits cut by the Hudson River, which was just down the hill, out of sight, hidden by forestation, backyards, homes. The wind eased through the weeds, pressing on both sides of the track, died, and then came up again hinting of seaweed — the sea miles away opening up into the great harbor of New York, the sea urged by the moon's gravity up the Hudson, that deep yielding estuary, and arriving as a hint of salt in the air, against his face, vised between his knees; he was tasting his own salt on his lips, for he'd been walking miles and it was a hot evening. He was a dainty man in a white dress shirt tucked into pressed jeans; he was the kind of man who had his jeans dry-cleaned; he was used to unwrapping his garments, chemically processed, creased, charted out, and sanitized, from long glimmering bags. Up the road five miles his dark blue BMW idled still — enough fumes to keep it going — parked far to the side of the shoulder so that it gave the appearance of being one of the many such cars, people up from the city for the summer night pausing to retrieve some lost memory or to taste the wooded air one more time before going home to the embrace of concrete. He was the kind of man who would leave his car running for the sake of appearances, to help lull an imaginary stranger into an illusionary sense of stability: all was right with the world, she would think, passing, going about her business; when he stumbled out of the car it was with her in mind — some strange woman passing on her way home — that he left it running.
Despite the aching in his feet from his awkward walk along three miles of railbed, he couldn't help but notice, hunched over as he was, the splendor of this place in the world beneath a wide-open sky, darkness broken only by the passing of a car on the road above him; during his journey night had come down upon him slowly, hardening over the course of several hours; his eyes had adjusted to the darkness and guided him safely to this place. He extended his legs and began to take his shoes off, edging the heel with the back of the other shoe. (He was the kind of man who untied his shoes first, removed one and then the other, seated on the little stepstool or else the edge of his bed; he was also the kind of man who used an ivory shoehorn to get them on in the morning, relishing the feel of his sock sliding firmly against cool smoothness, the use of an instrument for the simple task.) But this wasn't the time or the place for practiced rituals; he had come to betray himself, to rid himself of such things. He left them in the bushes, a lonely pair of fine, handmade Italians, one nestled against the other lovingly, front to front. He walked slowly.
Around the curve there was enough light — defused across the hazy sky — to make out the shards of broken bottles (if he'd been looking down instead of forward). The piece he stepped on, from an old malt liquor bottle, was as jagged as the French Alps, the round base of the bottle forming a perfect support for the protrusion, the only piece of glass for yards, seated neatly against the rail plate; it went into his heel cleanly, cutting firmly into the hard pad, opening a wound that sent him falling sideways. It was one of those cuts that open up slowly into the possibilities of their pain, widening from a small point into a cone; this was the kind of cut that gave the fearful sense of being unlimited in the pain it would eventually produce; he sat there and thought about it for a moment, not making a game plan but trying to conjure up some image from a Red Cross handbook he'd once memorized. (It was a requirement for his sailing classes.) He'd learned to make a flotation device out of a wet pair of blue jeans; he'd learned how to stanch the flow of blood from an amputated limb by using a leather belt as a tourniquet; he knew to pull the tongue away and to clear the throat of obstructions before beginning mouth-to-mouth; but here, alone in the absolute solitude of his pain, he wasn't sure what to do except to keep trying to recall a line drawing of some kind, one of those sketchy but useful diagrams of some acute human misery such as a compound fracture, the bone just a set of lines protruding out of some imaginary thigh, two swerves like a Picasso sketch; he sat there and let it bleed for a moment, hoping the tetanus might drain out. It seemed his life had become a series of such episodes, long searching silences as he tried to recall some image lost to him, a faint diagram of a circumstance and the proper manner in which to solve, to patch, to bandage the wounds until further, more professional, help could be obtained.
In the weeded suburban outback, hunched on the endless steel rail (forged in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and laid down during the late nineteenth century, and used to move limestone from the quarries along the Hudson, to build the great foundations for the great skyscrapers), he removed his shirt and fingered for the weak spot along the seam where it might give. To get it to tear he had to use his teeth.
He wished for a single clear-cut reason for walking alone half naked, the pain from his right heel burning up his leg, the makeshift bandage flapping. An explanation: perhaps the recent catastrophic loss of his wife, Margaret, her car simmering steam and smoke upside down in the wrong lane of the Saw Mill River Parkway, twisted wreckage betrayed by the battered guardrail, the outmoded roadway paved along a trail marked out originally by Indians, the taste of her red hair in his mouth when they last hugged. A soured stock-option deal — his fault. The blame placed on a computer glitch. McKinnen's firm face behind wire rims, fingers prodding his glass desktop, offering a good package. His wife's departure one morning; her words of explanation shaky in black ballpoint; the name of his betrayer an old friend, Samson, whose handshake still lingered in the palm of his golf glove upstairs. Better stories could be told if Margaret had died slowly, a long decline as her white cells submitted, the shiver of her lips as they formed her last words. It wasn't reason enough for his actions. He was certain of that. Their large house stood along the river, excitingly large when they moved in, now just too much house; perhaps all afternoon he'd walked the veranda and looked out at the flat water until, around three, a crew of yard workers arrived, shattering the poetic silence with their blowers and shrieking weed whackers, driving him up to the third-floor office where, face buried in his palms, he asked for his own salvation — salvation not from grief but from something he couldn't pin down, perhaps just things he hadn't done. Perhaps steps he hadn't taken. Maybe he fully accepted that she was nothing but void now; she was skirts hanging in the closet, the smell of her perfume on the unwashed linen piling in the laundry room, recipes torn from magazines piled on her desk in the den.
Again a faint breeze came. He moved forward along the tracks, leaving a pad print of blood behind him on each tie. Ahead of him the tracks curved farther into the darkness; to his left and overhead, the steel girders and chutes of the stoneworks.
To the guys who spotted him a quarter mile later he came out of the hazy air like a wounded animal, nothing but a shadow down the tracks moving with a strange hobble that didn't seem human. There were four of them, their own shirts off, nursing a small fire of twigs barely producing flames but lots of whitish smoke slinging in the heavy air. Even in the firelight you could see that they were all four skinny in that deprived way, knotty with muscles and the blue-gray shadows of various tattoos. The one who spotted him had just taken a long draw from a quart bottle of beer and was gasping for breath.
Jesus shit, he spoke softly, wiping back a long black clump of hair from his face.
The fuck's this? another said, parting his legs a bit as if to hold steady against an oncoming force. His jackboots crunched on the ballast. He pressed his hands flat against each side of his waist. One of the others stationed himself to the side, running his own palms over the smooth-shorn surface of his scalp in a repeated motion half fidget and half habit; each of them tingled and jittered. They could tell right away that whoever was coming, shrouded as he was in the dark, was enfeebled and in some kind of trouble, indeed, for his shirt was off and he was swaybacking from side to side, maybe drunk or tired or both and ready to be taken, to be seduced by whatever they felt like dishing up; he was all their night had offered, like a prayer answered, something to break up the tedium of dope smoking and empty chattering and cursing and everything else, and they all knew it, seeing him, and were ready.
The spot where they hung out, just before the tracks carved a dark hole in the overflowing cliffside, was strewn with old railroad debris, rails and tie plates and gobs of black tar and broken bottles; it was an outback hovel secluded and safe from everything, as purely wasted and unneeded as they felt themselves to be and, because of that, were; a bunch of rubbish and torn-away flesh, the self-made tattoos brandished on their own young flesh. They were young, tight, and eager. What they saw emerge was a man softening into middle age. In his limp was a slight residue of dignity and formality, the way he lifted his feet as if they were still shod and weighted by the expensive shoes; or maybe all of that wasn't noticed until, coming up to them, he opened his mouth and spoke, saying hello softly, the vowels widening, the cup of his mouth over those words like an expensive shell ... or maybe they didn't notice at all as they moved around him positing themselves in silence, wordlessly, the guy with the smooth head coming up behind him while the guy with jackboots took one step forward and the others moved in unison to his sides as if he might make some kind of break for it. (That was the illusion of tension their stances produced, wanted to produce, were eager to produce.)
It was later, in the dreamlike reproductions of those moments, that he realized that the silence in which they worked bespoke everything about their young bodies: muscles limber from stunts, flesh marred and bruised and burned with hard little bull's-eyes from the butts of Dad-held cigarettes; the fuck you's of bodies being twisted into lockholds and half nelsons, pinned with knees in backs and sternums; bucked tendons and double-jointed bone breaks that sucked the air from their fourteen-year-old mouths in the recessed trailer park stuck down in the shithole wastelands near the town's toxic dump. These were the singing, mocking kids that he had feared before on walks in the city. Now he was happy to stumble upon souls rising up out of the darkness next to their pathetic fire. There was behind all this, as they worked in a silence that also bespoke the kick that was to come first from the man in the foreground, only the dull sound of the insects, a sound so prolonged it was blanked from his mind and filled in with a new, higher form of silence. The kick landed in his stomach. He fell. Slowly and with grace the two boys to the side came to him and gently helped him up, feeling his lack of resistance immediately, making note of it by bending back his arms behind him far enough to produce a rainbow of pain over his shoulder blades. Their job was to fill the beating with as much dignity as possible, to uphold the ballet of the scene, to make it worth their fucking while — to produce a stasis upon which their friend, with his long swatches of clotty black hair swaying now before his bowed head, might work; and he bowed slightly, directly in front of this shirtless man, letting the little grace period well up between them — then bowing closer and closer until his forehead was right up against the stranger's forehead, touching it there damp with sweat while he mouthed to him in the hushed whispers of a confessor, a priest muttering penances, We're going to kick your fucking ass, you know, so you might as well get used to the idea ... trailing his words off and offering up a kick to the groin hard enough to double the man over, the two releasing him on cue, so that he fell to the ground, his bloodied foot swiping against the rail; the smooth-headed one removed the wallet from the back pocket and opened it, stooping into the firelight, fingering the thick bills he pulled out, flipping the rest of the black leather into the weeds, where it landed, lying open, spilling into the darkness identification cards, photographs, credit cards, and bank cards that, when slid into the automatic teller machines and offered H H M H — his initials and those of his wife — would eject neat piles of bills, as much as anyone could want or need.
Blasted out of the hillside years ago (during the previously mentioned burst of enthusiastic rail laying) through a series of explosions that loosened the rock enough to allow men with pickaxes and shovels to labor over the piles, the tunnel was a ragged affair, a gaping hole dripping with springwater and a dank sulfur smell; it was a wound in the earth and the kind of place the guys liked to smoke their dope and even sleep summer nights, lying against one another and close to the wet side in case the occasional freight decided to pass through, swaying and creaking. These were ugly, beastly trains that spewed diesel exhaust and slunk along as if ashamed of the decrepit tracks, taking the flat grade along the Hudson River at a snail's pace; boxcars blemished and dented, the seals and emblems of their ownership scarred by weather, scraped clean, sprayed over — the whole hulking mess came through a few times a day, and even if the boys were in town, drinking or hanging out at the pizza parlor, they could hear it scream along the curve near the crossing grade.
It was to this tunnel that they dragged the man, yanking him along, his heels jumping over the ties, his mouth gagged with his bloodied bandage. One might wish it were otherwise, wish that these boys in their joy had decided to release him to the elements, toss him into the ragweed, the leaning stalks of wild bamboo, to rot or crawl his way back to safety; but no. The truth is that they knew as well as anyone what they were doing; there was here a scheme in place overall; the stars were aligned in certain ways and all was going as planned; if there is a God, and later, if the man was saved and taking on the deep question of his experience, he might chalk it up to (with the guidance of Reverend Simpson) a personal state of deus absconditus, abandoned in a sense like Christ on the cross; if there is no God, then this piece of blind bad luck began when he abandoned his BMW and started his trudge with great purpose, and no purpose, into the underside of the road, 9W, a road that usually took him on Friday nights to the city, over the bridge, down the West Side Highway and off at 72nd Street, to a parking garage of cool poured concrete, the thump of his car door, rubber against rubber, sounding particularly sweet echoing in those confines. At Lincoln Center he could park substrata and rise up into the concert halls without tasting fresh air: tonight it was Brahms's Symphony No. 3 with its mysterious second theme, the Andante that fails to reappear in its expected place in the recapitulation; and the third movement, of which he was particularly fond, Poco Allegretto, so rounded and soft at the beginning it would, if he had gone, remind him of the shoulders of his wife, of a moment twenty years ago making love in a small room on Nantucket, a fall night, the wintry nor'easter blowing with a nonstop consistency that seemed to smooth the outside world away so that there was only the soft wetness beneath him, and her shoulders. Of course listening from his seat in the third tier to the right with his eyes closed he would, had he gone into the city, have idealized and sentimentalized that first night of lovemaking with the woman who was two years later to take his hand as his beloved wife. The truth of that night was different, of course: awkward kisses, teeth clicking; shame over certain deformities. He did not hear the Brahms and therefore he did not go through that particular memory. (And perhaps stepping from his car, locking and closing the door behind him, the firm crunch of his leather soles on the breakdown lane, he knew that he was avoiding this memory; perhaps, or perhaps not.) Whatever choice one makes in the matter, God or no God, the boys felt the force of chance was on their side; they had a duty to uphold, knowing as they did that this man they were yanking along still had some small trace of dignity buried in the muffled, flat cries he was making. In movies, eyes in this situation dart around, glint with fear, search the sky for something to lock on to — but his eyes wandered the darkness slowly and without resolve, as if cut loose; at the mouth of the tunnel, feeling the cool cavelike air, he became still.
Excerpted from Assorted Fire Events by David Means. Copyright © 2000 David Means. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Meet the Author
David Means was born and raised in Michigan. His second collection of stories, Assorted Fire Events, earned the Los Angles Times Book Prize for fiction and a National Book Critics Circle nomination. His third book, The Secret Goldfish, received widespread critical acclaim and was shortlisted for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Prize. His fourth book, The Spot, was selected as a 2010 Notable Book by The New York Times, and won an O. Henry Prize. His books have been translated into eight languages, and his fiction has appeared The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, Esquire, Zoetrope, The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and numerous other publications. He lives in Nyack, New York, and teaches at Vassar College.
David Means was born and raised in Michigan. His second collection of stories, Assorted Fire Events, earned the Los Angles Times Book Prize for fiction and a National Book Critics Circle nomination. His third book, The Secret Goldfish, received widespread critical acclaim and was shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize. His fourth book, The Spot, was selected as a 2010 Notable Book by The New York Times, and won an O. Henry Prize. His books have been translated into eight languages, and his fiction has appeared The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, Esquire, Zoetrope, The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and numerous other publications. He lives in Nyack, New York, and teaches at Vassar College.
Donald Antrim is the critically acclaimed author of Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, The Hundred Brothers, and The Verificationist, as well The Afterlife, a memoir about his mother. A regular contributor to The New Yorker, he has also been the recipient of a MacArthur "Genius" Grant and fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the New York Public Library. He lives in New York City.
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