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Alfredo Batista has some worries. Okay, a lot of worries. His older brother, Jose—sorry, Tariq—is returning from a stretch in prison after an unsuccessful robbery, a burglary that Alfredo was supposed to be part of. So now everyone thinks Alfredo snitched on his brother, which may have something to do with the fact ...
Alfredo Batista has some worries. Okay, a lot of worries. His older brother, Jose—sorry, Tariq—is returning from a stretch in prison after an unsuccessful robbery, a burglary that Alfredo was supposed to be part of. So now everyone thinks Alfredo snitched on his brother, which may have something to do with the fact that Alfredo is now dating Tariq’s ex-girlfriend, Isabel, who is eight months pregnant. Tariq’s violent streak is probably #1 worry on Alfredo’s list.
Also, he needs to steal a pit bull. For the homecoming dogfight.
Burgess brings to life the rich and vivid milieu of his hometown native Queens in all its glorious variety. Here is the real New York, a place where Pakistanis, Puerto Ricans, Haitians, An glos, African Americans, and West Indians scrap and mingle and love. But the real star here is Burgess’s incredible ear for language—the voices of his characters leap off the page in riotous, spot-on dialogue. The outer boroughs have their own language, where a polite greeting is fraught with menace, and an insult can be the expression of the most tender love.
With a story as intricately plotted as a Shakespearean comedy—or revenge tragedy, for that matter—and an electrically colloquial prose style, Dogfight, a Love Story establishes Matt Burgess as an exuberant new voice in contemporary literature. The great Queens novel has arrived.
Burgess: DOGFIGHT, A LOVE STORY
Little Round Pills
In the middle of Alfredo Batista’s brain there is a tall gray filing cabinet, frequently opened. The drawers are deep, the folders fattened with a lifetime of regrettable moments. There is, tucked away toward the back, a list of women whose phone numbers he never asked for. There are the debts accrued. In the bottom drawer, in separate folders, there are the things he never learned to do: drive an automobile, throw a knuckleball, tie a knot in a cherry stem using only his tongue. What else? In the top drawer, there is a file recounting the evening he left the Mets game early, thinking the run deficit insurmountable. There is the why-didn’t-I-wear-a-condom folder. There is—this one’s surprisingly thin—the crimes-against-my-brother folder. Alfredo is only nineteen years old, and already his cabinet overflows with files, none of them collecting dust, each one routinely inspected. All it takes is a random word, a face in passing, and a memory blooms, a cabinet drawer slides open. An intracranial research librarian—Alfredo imagines him bespectacled, with frayed pant cuffs and dandruff on his shoulders—waddles over to the open drawer, plucks out the appropriate file, and passes it on to the brain’s well-staffed and efficiently run Department of Regret. Here, unable to help himself, Alfredo scrutinizes the folder. He re-creates the event’s sensory details. He goes over, with sick and meticulous precision, exactly what was said and, of course, what was not said. He relinks the chain of events.
A new folder is to be added. It will be labeled with today’s date, June 14, 2002, and above that, in blocky capital letters, a name: SHIFRIN, VLADIMIR.
“Who’s Vladimir Shifrin?” Alfredo says.
Winston—a dark-skinned Haitian with long, delicate fingers—pulls down on the brim of his Spider-Man hat. He looks over his shoulder. Drops his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “From what I understand,” he says, “Vladimir is a drug dealer.”
“This is why you call me?” Alfredo says. “Why you wake me up? Drag me over here?”
They sit close together on a wood-slatted bench in Jackson Heights’ Travers Park. There are other parks in Queens—like Astoria Park or Flushing Meadows—where you can snooze under a tree or stick your nose in trumpet-shaped flowers. These parks are pastoral, as the guidebooks might say. They’ve got grass you can yank right out of the ground. But here in Jackson Heights, the parks, like Travers, are asphalt parks, blacktop playgrounds. There aren’t any flowers or butterflies, and that keeps exactly nobody away.
It’s two o’clock in the afternoon right now—it’s a nice, unseasonably cool, late-spring Friday—and Travers is packed. Everyone is out. Everyone and their mother is out. There are games of soccer, handball, freeze tag, skilo, and skully. Look around. Shirtless men play netless basketball. A father snaps pictures of his little girl, while a Chinese woman dances to the water-like rhythms of tai chi, while teenagers bum cigarettes off the neighborhood schizo, while bees, drunk with pleasure, swarm the bottoms of trash cans. The swings squeak. An old Jewish man—Max Marshmallow, Alfredo’s friend—checkmates another old Jewish man whose body deflates like a popped bag of potato chips. A little white boy, oddly calm, has his head stuck between the vertical bars of a fence, and Alfredo can’t help but think of his own brother, the newly named Tariq, spending his last hours up at the Fishkill Correctional Facility. On Travers’s softball field, Pakistanis play cricket. On a bench in the sun, the Mexicans who didn’t get picked up by this morning’s work truck take swigs from their brown paper bags. And in the middle of the park, over by the sprinklers, squats a giant and inexplicable stone tortoise, as if for thousands of years he’s been making the trip north from the Galápagos, and he’s decided to stop here, in the middle of a park in western Queens, so much does he favor the company of little children and the intermittent splash of sprinkler water. Alfredo understands. He likes it here too. He feels a particular affinity for the father snapping pictures of his daughter. But, all things considered, Alfredo would rather be home, asleep, his face in a pillow.
“Vladimir’s a drug dealer,” he says. “That’s great. Good for him. But hey, sorry, why do I give two shits?”
“Wow,” Winston says. He scoots over on the bench, puts some extra space between them. “I guess you give two shits because you told me to go find a drug dealer who—”
“I asked you to find a dog, actually.” Well, to be fair, Alfredo asked Winston to find both, a dog and a new neighborhood drug dealer, maybe even a two-for-one, a new neighborhood drug dealer walking a dog. But Alfredo is going to outlay some shit here anyway because he’s tired, because his feet are blistered, because—most of all—Winston is wearing that red and blue Spider-Man hat. Alfredo keeps looking at it, his eyes narrowing. “But instead of a dog, you’re talking about—”
“You’re talking about Vladimir. Any chance he’s a drug-dealing dog?”
“He is a drug-dealing fifteen-year-old boy. Slinging outside the Catholic school on Thirty-first Ave—”
“Please. Don’t get too interested. He slings outside McClancy’s. He attends McClancy’s. Him being a fifteen-year-old boy and all. And maybe he’s holding down exactly the kind of package we need to pick up for Jose.”
“Tariq,” Alfredo corrects.
“Sorry. Maybe he’s holding down exactly the kind of package we need to pick up for Tariq. Oops. I’m sorry. Maybe he’s holding down exactly the kind of package you need to pick up for Tariq.”
“God damn, you’re in a bitchy mood. Maybe I should just go over to Gianni’s.” Winston stays right where he’s at. He’s about to walk away like that stone tortoise is about to hop over the fence. “Do you have any idea how rude you’re being right now?” he asks. “I’m telling a story here, and you’re not even trying to listen. You’re looking all over the park. At God knows what. And I can’t get into a good storytelling rhythm, you know what I mean?”
“Where’s your Mets hat?” Alfredo says.
Winston looks away. “Oh.”
Either due to stress or drug abuse, Winston suffers from alopecia, a condition that causes his hair to fall out in clumps. Coils on his pillowcase. A nest in the drain. Alfredo feels bad for him, genuinely sorry, and he makes all the requisite clucking noises of sympathetic friendship, but he does not downplay the problem, does not tell Winston that it ain’t that bad or that it’s nothing to worry about. Business is business, and Alfredo considers Winston’s quilt-like scalp to be a professional liability. The poor guy—overweight, bulging eyeballs, ashy skin—is already eminently punkable, and the alopecia just makes it worse. Shave your dome, Alfredo argues. You’re a big black Haitian. This is a post-Jordan era. But Winston says nah. He thinks he has dents in his skull. He thinks he got dropped too many times as a baby and he’d look ridiculous now with a completely bald head. He thinks he maybe doesn’t have alopecia at all, and the patches will grow back starting tomorrow, or possibly the next day. In the meantime, he wears his red and blue web-speckled Spider-Man hat. The only problem, however, is that the superhero endorsement makes Winston no less vulnerable. The red antagonizes the Crips; the blue, the Bloods. (Winston’s skin—black—does him no favors with the Latin Kings or the Vice Lords or the Netas or MS-13.) So Alfredo buys him new, more imposing, and yet more color-neutral hats. Wool knits in the winter. Baseball caps when it’s warm. But within days these hats get misplaced, left behind on a rooftop somewhere, or lost under the cushions of a customer’s couch. On Monday, Alfredo gave Winston one of the new black Mets hats, and now, on Friday, Spidey’s back.
“I think maybe I left it on the subway last night.”
“On the subway,” Alfredo says. “Let me ask you something—”
“I don’t know,” Winston says. He picks at the splintered wood of the bench. “You buy these hats for me, and I appreciate them. Seriously. And I swear to God I’m not trying to lose them. It’s just, I don’t know. I don’t know what’s the matter with me.”
On the lam from the handball courts, a Sky Bounce blue ball skips past their bench. Alfredo bends over, scoops it up. Doesn’t even bobble it. He feels tempted to bring it up to his nose—he loves the sharp, summery, rubbery smell—but that might look awfully strange, and so he tosses it back toward the courts unsniffed. The ball sails over the heads of the players, but park etiquette demands that they shout out thanks anyway.
“It was a cool hat, too,” Winston says.
“It’s okay,” Alfredo says. “Tell me about Vladimir.”
“All he sells is Ecstasy. Nothing else. No pot, no coke, no heroin. Just E. Just a straight-up E pusher. Like this is 1997 or something.” “Is that the end of the story?”
“You’re mad about the hat still? Ask me how much he sells the E for.”
“Ten dollars,” Winston says. He leans back on the bench, stretches his legs out in front of him. “Ten dollars for an entire pill. That, my friend, is what he’s selling it for.”
“Terrible,” Alfredo says. “You can’t even get crack for ten dollars anymore. Me and Isabel wanna go see a movie, it costs us twice that. A movie.”
“Ask me who his connect is. His brother. That’s who. I don’t know his name, but let’s call him Boris.” Winston’s feet tap out a happy rhythm as he talks. “This so-called Boris? He’s a chemist. Boris the Chemist. You can’t make this shit up. The two of them are fresh off the boat, Boris and Vladimir. Been here like three weeks. Maybe more—I don’t know. Boris, from what I understand, makes the X right in the apartment. The kitchen, I guess. That’s not factual, though. That’s just us speculating. The rumor is that he gets in his lab coat, rocks out with his beakers, and however many hours later he’s brewed up some X. Doesn’t even know he’s supposed to stamp it, so the pills go out logoless.”
Alfredo shakes his head. He says, “They’re not branding their product.”
“They don’t know what they’re doing. So then Boris gives the pills to Vladimir, and little bro stands outside the school gates at three sharp every day. And he undersells the whole fucking neighborhood. Because what do they care?” Winston’s ass is now hovering above the bench. “There’s no middleman. From the kitchen to the street. Ten-dollar Ecstasy.”
“You’ve tried this Ecstasy? It’s good shits?”
Winston grimaces. “I haven’t done E in a serious minute. You hear about those lab monkeys? Going brain-dead?” He picks at the cuticle around his thumb. “Matter of fact—not that I want to make a big deal or anything—but I am quitting all drugs. Including weed. Starting tomorrow.”
“Starting tomorrow,” Alfredo says. He watches two little Indian girls march past the bench. With their shoulders hunched forward, they clutch dollar bills in their little brown fists.
“But the preppies,” Winston says, elbowing Alfredo. “Over at that Catholic school? They’re buying Vladimir out. Rolling on X five, six, seven days a week.”
“Those poor nuns,” Alfredo says. He hears a familiar jingle coming from around the corner: the patented, crazy-making doo-doo-dee-doo of Mister Softee, the ice cream man. Kids run into one another, grab at their parents’ wallets, snap their heads back and forth in a lactose frenzy. The ice cream truck pulls up in front of the park’s entrance. The jingle is louder, the children palsied. Alfredo takes off his glasses and breathes fog onto the lenses. When he puts them back on, he grins—pleased to see those two little Indian girls at the front of the ice cream line.
“You got any of that money you owe me?” Winston says. “I could really go for a cone.”
“How much of this is fact?” Alfredo says. “You know what I mean? This Vladimir kid. The kitchen. The ten-dollar E. Boris. How much do we know for sure?”
“Nothing,” he says. “Never even seen the kid. These are things I’ve heard over at Gianni’s. A couple of times. From different people. But still.” He puts his hands in the air, exposes for inspection the cool whites of his palms. “This is just shit I’ve heard.”
Alfredo turns away and looks around the park for his favorites. The picture-snapping father is gone. And the little boy—where’d he go?—has somehow slipped his head free from the metal bars. At least the tortoise is still here. And Max Marshmallow over by the stone chess tables, harrumphing and kvetching toward another checkmate. He’ll be here as long as I will, Alfredo thinks—forever. And ah, here come the numero supremo favorites, the little Indian girls, walking past Alfredo’s bench now. They hold their ice cream cones high, the first children to return with bounty.
“How’d you know Mister Softee was coming?” he calls out to them. “You got his schedule memorized?”
They hasten their steps. Don’t talk to strangers, their mothers have warned. Don’t go into vans, or pet somebody’s dog, or accept candy from an outstretched hand, or discuss ice cream with strange men sitting on park benches. It disturbs Alfredo to see himself through their eyes: a menace. He fingers his mustache, wondering if it makes him look like a child molester. His jeans begin to vibrate. It’s his phone, humming inside his pocket—it’s either Baka, his drug connect, looking for the money he’s owed, or it’s Isabel, his girlfriend, calling to confirm that Alfredo will have his Boricuan ass home by four o’clock, so they can walk over to Elmhurst Hospital together. She may cap this reminder with a threat—If you’re late, expect a frying pan upside the head—or she might hang up with some sweetness, sing him a snatch of whatever Spanish love song she just heard on Mega 97.9. Could go either way. Isabel is seven months swollen with the tentatively named Christian Louis Batista, and Alfredo, while trying to be a sensitive guy about the whole thing, is having some migraine-inducing difficulties negotiating the minefield of her moods. Pregnant! Third trimester! Alfredo wants to chase those Indian girls down and shove his phone in their faces. You see this? This is my girlfriend calling. My baby’s mama. A woman who loves me. See? I’m not some scary chester. I am a Puerto Rican, an American citizen, a father-to-be. But Alfredo also understands that chasing two little girls in a city park is not the best way to prove one’s own innocent intentions. He stays on his bench and lets the phone vibrate. If Isabel needs him home by four, then he doesn’t have time to be taking calls. He doesn’t have time to hear about frying pans or Enrique’s “Experiencia Religiosa” or little Christian karate kicking the walls of her uterus or the latest shit Alfredo’s mother pulled. Alfredo’s got work to do.
“Look at you,” Winston says. “You’re deliberating on this Vladimir situation. You’re saying, ‘Hey—hey.’ You’re going, ‘My man came through with some info that’s not too shabby this time.’ ”
“This kid. He’s going to have much drugs on him?”
“You know what today is? Today is the last day of school for all the private-school kids. Get out a week early so they can beat the traffic out to the Poconos. Remember when we was in high school? Last day before summer vacation? Kids lining up for drugs. Dealers coming correct.”
“And our man Vladimir is gonna have his pockets full of pills. Make his money for the long summer ahead. Know what I mean?”
A Conversation between Matt Burgess (author of Dogfight: A Love Story, a 2010 Discover selection) and Ethan Rutherford (author of The Peripatetic Coffin and Other Stories)
Matt Burgess: So The Peripatetic Coffin is pretty much my Platonic ideal of a short story collection. (Although, full disclosure, I had to look up what peripatetic means.) There's a wonderful range of subject matter here—with stories about a civil war submarine, behemoths that live under the sand, contemporary couples under stress, and the aching summertime friendship between young boys—and yet it's obvious reading them that they've all come from the same heart and mind. There's a question here, I promise. So you're a musician. And the experience of reading these stories as a collection, from the first story all the way through to the last, is like listening to the kind of record where you can just put it on and press play. So are there similarities there, between structuring an album and putting together a collection? How do you order the stories? Did you ever lay them all out and realize you needed to write a certain kind of story to fill a gap or provide some kind of glue?
Ethan Rutherford: Well, that's really nice of you, and you'll be happy to know you're in good company with "peripatetic" (heck: I had to look it up). I promise, though: it's not just me being fancy. "The Peripatetic Coffin" was the nickname given to the H.L Hunley, the first Confederate submarine, during the Civil War. The first story in the collection is set aboard that ill-fated and unlucky (though ultimately successful?) submarine, and when it came time to name that story, as a writer you sort of go: well, the title is sitting right there in front of you isn't it? And when it came time to title the collection—which is very very hard, by the way, or at least, I found it to be so—after many terrible ideas, someone pointed out that "the peripatetic coffin" in many ways works for a lot of the stories, as sort of a catch-all caption, a thematic umbrella, if you will. And so: voila!
As for the overlap between writing and music—nothing makes me happier than imagining people approaching this book like an album, because I think you're right: the concerns in putting a collection of stories and an album together are similar. Ideally you want to end up with a whole that is somehow greater than the sum of its parts—an album is more than just a bunch of songs thrown together, and the same goes for a collection of stories—and the magic, if there is any, is in the arrangement. The point is to keep people interested in moving from one story to the next, and to build toward something without repeating yourself. So you know you have to start with a hook, an ear-bug, to get the whole thing off the ground with some momentum. You know that there's some weird mystical pressure on track 3 and track 7. You know you have some room at the end to do something like "Moonlight Mile," a longer, weirder song than all the rest, but also, secretly, your favorite—because if people have stuck with you till the end, they'll follow you a little further afield. As for organization, there are three "boat" stories in this book—one set aboard the first Confederate submarine, one set aboard a ship locked in Arctic ice, and one that takes the shape of a futuristic whaling expedition—and it seemed important to keep those stories away from each other. So they go first, middle, last, and I think of them as sort of propping up the collection. The process of putting the collection together, for me, was the process of deciding which stories to leave out.
MB: I know we're both Raymond Carver fans, and he always said he wanted to keep things moving in his stories. "Get in, get out," he said. "Don't linger. Go on." Now obviously I don't really agree with that don't linger business—it seems to me that so many writers lately are abandoning scenes just as things are getting dangerous—but I am interested in this idea of getting in and getting out of stories efficiently. The Peripatetic Coffin is full of killer beginnings and endings. One of the real pleasures of reading a story collection like this is how all the last lines made the hairs on my arms stand up, which can only happen once in a novel. How do you get readers in the door? And then once you got them inside, how long do you want to hold onto them? When and how do you toss them out the window?
ER: That's an interesting question, and not one I think I can really answer, though I'm glad you liked the last lines. I am, somewhat shamefully, a last line reader. If I'm unsure about whether I'm going to read a book or not, I'll take a look at the last page, and if that's interesting enough, I know I'll go ahead and read the whole thing. One of the things that Carver often did was end his stories mid-gesture, and it had a way of opening up his stories right there at the end, just as they should be winding down. The result is that each story feels larger than it, in fact, is: suddenly in looking at one small and definitive moment, you understand that you are looking at many moments in this character's life, and the result is that as a reader you feel as if you've arrived at some sort of revelation, or, less heavily, some sort of understanding regarding what the story has been about all along. Endings like this—that end with action, with characters doing something—simultaneously herald finality and cling to the hope that perhaps this time, this time things will end differently. So, if and when I pull back on a scene, that's the idea there. To let some light in. To give a sense of finality without being final about it.
MB: There's a great balance in the collection between contemporary and historical stories. What sort of research did you for both?
ER: Oh the research! I'd say the research was equivalent for the historical and contemporary stories, which is to say that for as much time as I spent researching Civil War submersibles I spent even more time reading up on Brian Bosworth's football career. Reading is the real pleasure for me. But research tends to work slantwise in my stories. I think I'm writing a story about one thing, then I do some research, and that new information grabs the wheel for a bit, and then the story comes out very differently than I'd expected. I spent a summer reading nothing but the logbooks of whaling ships directly following the golden age of American whaling, thinking I'd write the Second Great American Whaling Novel, but rather than a white whale, the monster would be a giant squid. I really thought that was going to happen, and that I was the guy to do it. That project was thankfully scrapped, but later on, all that research found it's way into the science-fiction story that closes this collection. All of this is just a long way of saying: all of my ideas and stories come from reading and research like this, but it's often hard to tell at the time how it will all shake out.
MB: One of my favorite things about the book is your careful attention to plot. These stories are simultaneously character-driven and page-turners, and in that way harken back to the roots of the American short story with Hawthorne and Poe. But despite the crazy things that are happening—behemoths under the sand!—there's a real restraint in the way you present the material. I want to get better at that in my own work. I want things to be exciting in my fiction, but fiction is most exciting for me when it's telling the truth. Otherwise, why bother? How do you strike that balance? How do you know when to pull back in a scene? There are so many moments in this collection where I thought, 'I would've plucked the wings off the fly here, but Rutherford doesn't, and it's a better story because of it.'
ER: Can we just talk about plot for a second, since one of the things I admired most about your novel Dogfight was the propulsion that novel had? I've always loved eventful books—my first favorite book was The Twelve Labors of Hercules, and I loved comic books, and movies, and choose your own adventure stuff—and so that's the farm team for me, if you know what I mean? I learned to love reading because that's where you went when nothing was really going on in your life—that's where things were happening. So when I sit down to write my attention immediately drifts toward action and causality (which is to say: plot).
But the danger there for me is that it's so easy to get wrapped up in the plot—getting all the gears to turn, the pieces to fall, the action to rise—that at the end a reader will go: well, I know what happened in the story, but what's it about? It's taken me a long time to understand the ways in which plot can be used as a delivery mechanism for the real work of fiction, which you call "truth" in your question. For me, it's even more simple than that: all I'm trying to do is evoke an emotional state that might resonate with a reader. But you can't just say to someone: here, feel this way. You have to build a world for the reader to enter, before he or she will be receptive to whatever emotional information you're trying to pass on. So, to your question: I pull back in a scene is when I feel like the plot is in danger overwhelming the story, and obscuring what the story is about—to signal to the reader that there is important stuff happening underneath the plot, that what I'm trying to get across is more than just: this happened, then this, then this. Which is not to devalue the fun stuff. And all the fun stuff—characters going on adventures, finding themselves in untenable and dangerous situations, wondering whether to stay with the boat or walk across the ice—it shouldn't be overlooked.
MB: One of the major life changes for you between the writing of these stories and the publication of them is that you're a dad now. Looking forward, how do you see that influencing your work? Your approach to fiction? What's next after this? What do you want to get better at?
ER: Well, I'm deep into a novel now, which—perhaps not coincidentally—has to do with the anxiety of losing a child to a cause that you yourself don't understand. As for the way becoming a dad has influenced my work, it's hard to say. Maybe ask me in a few years? I can tell you that the long days of uninterrupted writing are gone. More interesting to me, though, is that I seem to have lost my taste for violence, and it happened almost overnight. For years I've operated under the assumption that tension in a story came exclusively from the threat of violence, but here I am, a dad now, and I no longer find the thought of dying terrifying in an interesting way, I just find it terrifying in a terrifying-and-what-a-waste sort of way. My goal now is to live forever, and to just be able to watch my son as he grows up and encounters all the things that will come his way in life. As for what I'd like to get better at as a writer, I'd like to be able to write a story where nothing unpleasant, really, happens, but still be able to make it riveting, and resonant. And if that doesn't quite pan out, then I guess I'll just throw in a giant squid, for good measure, and for plot's sake.
MB: Who have you discovered lately?ER: Looking backward: Richard Hughes, who wrote In Hazard and A High Wind in Jamaica. NYRB Classics has reissued them, with wonderful forewords. Go read them; they're great. Looking forward, I'm excited to read Necessary Errors, a novel by Caleb Crain, which will be out in August. I've admired Crain's criticism for a while now, and I'm excited to see what the novel will be like.
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