How It Was For Me

Overview

In the title story of this collection, neighborhood boys crouch in a backyard toolshed, and conspire to prove their piano teachers to be witches. In "Cannibal Kings," a disillusioned young man accompanies a troubled boy on a tour of prep schools through the Pacific Northwest, only to realize that he has lost his way in life. And in "Come Live With Me And Be My Love," a middle-aged gentleman looks back at his mannered early life as a Ivy Leaguer, married to a vivacious woman but silently yearning for his best ...

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How It Was for Me: Stories

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Overview

In the title story of this collection, neighborhood boys crouch in a backyard toolshed, and conspire to prove their piano teachers to be witches. In "Cannibal Kings," a disillusioned young man accompanies a troubled boy on a tour of prep schools through the Pacific Northwest, only to realize that he has lost his way in life. And in "Come Live With Me And Be My Love," a middle-aged gentleman looks back at his mannered early life as a Ivy Leaguer, married to a vivacious woman but silently yearning for his best friend — and the sacrifices that each made to uphold their compromising bargain.

With a classic storyteller's gift for nuance and understanding, and a poet's grace for language, Andrew Sean Greer makes a remarkable debut with How It Was For Me.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Wry and rueful.... Quirky and languorous, [Greer's] style beautifully captures his characters' wistful self-consciousness.... His stories are humane and hopeful in ways that are too rare."

-John Perry, The San Francisco Chronicle Book Review

"Refreshing and provocative...Greer's stories are self-contained and well crafted.... Subtle and poetic." -Chris Berdik, The Boston Book Review

"[An] impressive debut...There are very few flubbed lines in Greer's stark, delicate opererttas, which are as clever as they are gravely real." -Mark Rozzo, Los Angeles Times

"Crystal-like clarity...outstanding...nuanced language...Greer is a writer worth watching." -Martin Wilson, Austin Chronicle

"Impressive...Greer's descriptive talents are immense.... While these stories are thick with melancholy, their frankness is refressing." —The New York Times Book Review

Publishers Weekly
Greer reveals sensitive, unpredictable characters in direct but subtle prose. Many of these stories project that same kind of effortlessness--suggesting that more strong writing from Greer will follow.
Jerry Perry
Greer's stories are full of the kind of gentle, distracted people who pause in crowds to savor a memory or nurse a regret....His stories are humane and hopeful in ways that are too rare.
San Francisco Chronicle
Chris Berdik
Greer's stories are self-contained and well-crafted. Furthermore, it's the cagey nature of Greer's fiction that makes it so refreshing and provocative.
The Boston Book Review
DaKine
In this collection, Greer takes a moment, a feeling, or a revelation and weaves a story around it in elegant prose. The result is high art; the stories a delight.
Sicilia Parra
Greer has a knack for showing how educated, upper-middle-class characters can get engaged in well-meaning deceptions."
Los Angeles Times
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In his debut collection, comprising 11 short fictions, Greer reveals sensitive, unpredictable characters in direct but subtle prose, saving his most powerful stories for the end. "The Future of the Flynns" examines one mostly ordinary family as they venture to an Italian restaurant, describing each family member both appreciatively and ruthlessly. Of grandmother Leona, Greer writes: "Leona['s]... thin hair, dyed a believable red and teased into a dull hot-air balloon of lacquer, catches the fluorescent light. It becomes a glowing nest." "Come Live with Me and Be My Love" is a touching tale of a gay man and a lesbian, both of upper-class backgrounds, who marry for social convenience in the late 1960s. As social mores change and the pair can finally live without their charade, they find that their partnership isn't easy to abandon. These two narratives achieve an immediacy that evades the rest of the book, though each story is uniformly polished and assured. In "The Art of Eating," Bobbie, a 60-year-old recent divorc e, takes a job as a companion for an eccentric, rich older man. Her duties involve eating strange and exotic foods, then describing her gustatory experience to her employer, who is too ill to eat the delicacies himself. "The Walker," in which Furman, a widower, delights in his new practice of escorting women to fancy affairs, captures the sense of upper-class disenchantment that serves as a subtheme for the collection. Furman possesses a casual beauty that serves him well in his new endeavor: "He is handsome so effortlessly--you couldn't dress him wrong; ...you couldn't wreck his looks without a knife." Many of these stories project that same kind of effortlessness--suggesting that more strong writing from Greer will follow. (Apr.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
In his debut collection, Greer has imagined entire lives for his characters and often gives the reader a peek into the future in the midst of the narrative. This device, along with his often overwrought prose and tendency to inject his own voice into the story, results, at times, in a melodramatic rendering and keeps the reader from being fully engrossed in the momentum of the story. Still, it's hard not to care about his characters: suburban children struggling with growing up ("Life Is Over There" and the title story), gay men and the women who love them ("Blame It on My Youth," "Come Live with Me and Be My Love"). Food is a metaphor in "The Art of Eating" and "Four Bites." For larger collections.--Christine DeZelar-Tiedman, Univ. of Idaho Lib., Moscow Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Lori Leibovich
The characters who inhabit the 11 stories in Andrew Sean Greer's impressive first collection are quirky and marginalized, likable figures all...Greer's descriptive talents are immense...While these stories are thick with melancholy, their frankness is refreshing.
The New York Times Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312241261
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 4/1/2001
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 910,070
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.51 (d)

Meet the Author

Andrew Sean Greer

Andrew Sean Greer is the bestselling author of five works of fiction, including The Story of a Marriage, which The New York Times has called an "inspired, lyrical novel," and The Confessions of Max Tivoli, which was named a best book of 2004 by the San Francisco Chronicle and the Chicago Tribune. He is the recipient of the Northern California Book Award, the California Book Award, the New York Public Library Young Lions Award, the O Henry Award for short fiction and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Public Library. Greer lives in San Francisco.

Biography

Born in Washington, D.C., Andrew Sean Greer studied creative writing at Brown University (where he delivered the Commencement speech at his own graduation ceremony!) and received his M.F.A. in 1996 from the University of Montana. After grad school, he moved to the West Coast, living for a while in Seattle before finally settling in San Francisco. His work began to appear in literary magazines, and in 2000 he released How It Was for Me, an anthology of short stories The New York Times Book Review called an "impressive first collection." One year later, his debut novel The Path of Minor Planets was published to much acclaim.

However, it was his second novel, 2004's The Confessions of Max Tivoli, that proved to be Greer's big breakthrough. The title character of this bittersweet love story is a freak of nature: Born a baby with the appearance of a 70-year-old man, Max proceeds to live his entire life in reverse, ending up a wise old man trapped in the body of a helpless child. In a glowing New Yorker review, literary legend John Updike proclaimed the novel "...enchanting, in the perfumed, dandified style of disenchantment brought to grandeur by Proust and Nabokov." It was named a year-end best book by The San Francisco Chronicle, The Chicago Tribune, and the Miami Herald. His most current work is The Story of a Marriage.

In addition to his novels, Greer continues to publish short fiction, reviews, and criticism. His work has appeared in Esquire, Paris Review, The New Yorker, and The New York Times.

Good To Know

In our interview, Greer shared some fun and fascinating facts about himself with us:

"I'm an identical twin. His name is Michael Greer and he's also a fiction writer, and though our styles are very different, we love reading each other's work. We used to live a block apart in San Francisco, but he went to grad school in New York and now lives in Brooklyn, so if you think you've seen me on the streets of New York, it's probably not me, but say hi anyway. We're both very used to being greeted by strangers who think we're someone else."

"Some early jobs I had while trying to survive as a writer: reservationist at a fancy restaurant, chauffeur for a woman who couldn't drive because of a double mastectomy, sound and lighting Technician for experimental theater in New York, acting extra on Saturday Night Live, game tester for Nintendo, attendant to a woman recovering from plastic surgery, and so on. Although every writer must have a day job, I vowed at least to make mine interesting so I'd have something to write about. One of my weirdest jobs -- touring New England private schools with a Vietnamese boy and pretending to be his English tutor -- made it into the first story of my collection, How It Was for Me."

"I like dogs and burritos. I dislike direct sunlight and cantaloupes."

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    1. Hometown:
      San Francisco, California
    1. Date of Birth:
      November 21, 1970
    2. Place of Birth:
      Washington, D.C.
    1. Education:
      B.A. in English, Brown University, 1992; M.F.A . in Fiction, University of Montana, 1996

Read an Excerpt


Chapter One


Cannibal Kings


The sky is a crowded attic. Clouds at different heights look like old chairs and cushions, stuffed heads of animals, wheels, instruments, a claw-foot tub. Davis stands below, chilled on a street corner, having stepped from his bus into Seattle's Chinatown. He is sniffing the air and wondering if the patrons in that restaurant will turn and look at him, notice him, hands in pockets, on the sidewalk, sniffing. He waits for a look, but the eaters keep on earing. Most people in windows never run.

    He will, within days, be in a well-furnished room on the edge of a school campus, staring at a boy who picks his scabs and eats them, and soon enough he'll find it too much to take, somehow, the draped and fringed plaid curtains, the lacrosse sticks nailed to the walls, the framed painting of snow in a schoolyard, after these long days of snow, and soon enough he'll think of each memory in terms of scent, the way a cougar mind might function, drifting back on the wet odor of light in spring. Davis will remember this smell of humbow, catfish hot-pot grease, green onion in the moist gray air, which seems to carry scents on platters toward him, the invisible waiters of the air, the carts of soft wind.

    He must be hungry, but do not misunderstand him. Do not mistake his poverty for vanity, because it seems so in the circumstances: well-off parents, decent schooling, and a familiarity with drinks and ties and the small precious food rich people eat. He has an idea of himself so strong now that he's quit his job—such an ideahas not come often in Davis's life. He has a sense that a thing his stepmother told him as a teenager might be true—that he might "have an eye for things." For what things? He doesn't know. Better things, delicate or broad, maybe for buildings or fractal design. Who knows? The purpose of joblessness is to train his eye or, rather, to trick it into seeing its own talent. His only talent, you see. It has only just occurred to him that he might have one—and how lucky if it were true!

    He has no ready cash, though, for tricking his eye, and he doesn't know how long that will take, so he's been working in his apartment this whole January, turning the heat down by degrees until he realized, just the other day, that a vase of daisies left unattended had frozen—or that's the story he tells. This job he's heading to now is a piece of luck, then, a coin found in the street. His friend (more an acquaintance) Margaret has been tutoring young Vietnamese boys for prep school exams, teaching them the tricks to getting in, the kinds of words prep schoolers should know, the importance of metaphor—"tornado is to wind as maelstrom is to ..." Usually she also accompanies these boys on their interviews, sitting in plush rooms and convincing stern directors of the brilliance of this young mind, the quiet, amazing things the blinking boy might do. But this time, with this young boy Trung, Margaret can't be with him. Someone else has to lead him into rooms with overlapping rugs and grinningly read his soft palm aloud. A stand-in tutor. A fraud.

    So that is the job, you see. Davis is to pose as Trung's close friend, his mentor and instructor, and paint him like a hero to the committee, the principal, the dean or whomever. Three days of driving to schools and this intense lie, but Davis is at an age when lying is a common thing, something tied together intricately with all the interviewing he has done, for jobs, for grants, for college, and even for prep schools. Don't judge him—could he really say, "I'm an aimless young man who is just looking forward to lunch"? Thus his only experience for the job at hand is not a degree in English, but his acquaintance with brick towers, carillons, hazing rituals, small-brimmed cricket hats, and how to sing in a quartet.

    The interview goes well, you should know—the one with the parents. A small apartment of stiff green colonial furniture, Vietnamese health calendars tacked to the walls, a stunted, tinkling chandelier. The parents ask him few questions, and Davis asks only the ones that he prepared to seem professional. As if this were a profession of some sort, to pose as something else, to fake your way through another job. The mother is thin, smiling, her forehead creased with worry, turning always to the hidden kitchen, which makes her black ponytail flip against the wall. The father is stout and tired, wearing a red apron. He has only taken a moment off from his grocery store downstairs. Surely they are thinking this is taking too long—why is he talking so much, this young blond man? This droop-eyed young man touching pink hands to his even pinker face, babbling through his thick chapped lips? Isn't this already settled?

    Davis is not even listening to himself, however. He is looking at the head now peeking from the kitchen steam, a small boy in an oversized red college T-shirt, chewing on his palm. The skin of that palm seems soft, unathletic, unused to helping at the grocery store. There is the smudge of a birthmark on his cheek, and Trung (for it must be Trung) is staring, the kind of stare you make when you think no one else can see you, but Davis can see him. Davis waves to no response, just the gnawing mouth on the hand, the birthmark bobbing on the ripples of motion. Davis smells the raw steam and thinks of his long January.

    Cabbage, chili oil, sweet lemongrass, and chicken fat.


* * *


What follows are a series of long waits in rental-car agencies, long pauses in conversation, as if breath were being conserved, long, blinkless stares into the sky, seeing the impossible flakes of snow first appearing, the snow that rarely comes to Seattle at this point in winter, sending instead the mere cold dampness of wind or sudden sighs of rain. But we never remember pauses or silences, in the way we never notice all the bare sheets round a sleeping body. Davis has been trying on this car ride south to Centralia, to St. George's Boys' School on a plot of old farmland, trying to puzzle together some sense of this young Vietnamese boy quietly breathing from the red hood of his thick coat. The coat is too large for him, too new-looking to be a hand-me-down, too long to have been meant for his growth spurt—instead, the kind of coat that might make a child think you didn't know him, or meant it for some future him, some teenager too far off to recognize yet. Davis teases Trung with jokes, tries to learn his favorite music, his secret habits, his talents, but Trung is hopeless.

    "How about food? What's your favorite food? Mine's hamburger."

    "Human brains."

    "That's not food, Trung. How about spaghetti? Or, oh... nim chow? Is that Vietnamese?"

    Just a glance of wide, fascinated eyes from beneath the hood, a murmur too thin to make out in the heaving sound of the rental car's heater. Despite his reticence, it's clear he likes Davis. The sign is this barrage of unnerving answers to everything.

    "TV shows? Sports?"

    "My favorite sport is human brains."

    "That's becoming clear, Trung."

    "My name is not Trung. It is Davis."

    "But that's my name."

    "Now it is mine."

    On and on in this way, the snow soundlessly filling the air like summer light. Davis does not notice this, brightness on a day whose sky is taut with clouds, although summer comes to him on its own, in memory, the chalky smell of tomato vines, the scent of their warm skin pressed to his nose, the feeling of tiny hairs on the fruit, and cigarette smoke pushing through summer like an obligation. A girl comes into Davis's mind along with summer. An actress in town for a Shakespeare festival, her hair always in a braid, her voice choppy and rough, corn being husked, happy to hold hands with him, or sneak down to the lake at night to swim, or kayak into the salt water; almost anything he wanted to do, she did, without judging, giving her few spare hours of time to him, usually sunset hours, letting Davis lead her. He has been penning a letter on the surface of his brain, a letter to her, something to let her know how close to him she really got.

    At lunchtime, Davis begins to talk to Trung. About art, and how like Davis the boy is, with generous parents, a future at a boarding school, a future bright with learning and prospects and amber light and those things. Davis is filling the space between them with words, as his stepmother always does at dinner. Trung listens more intently than he should, his coat off, picking at a Salisbury steak and smiling now. He believes in Davis now, somehow, and tries to remember these important words. He is so young still.

    Corned beef salted, damp cooked greens, warm sausage gravy on potatoes.


* * *


The first interview is fine, easier than Davis thought it would be, nothing more than a visit with Trung in the office of a kindly dean of students, tropical plants potted everywhere, great cabbage roses blooming on the wallpaper, a soft pink rug. The snow outside has stopped and there is sunlight for a moment—Davis has been concerned for some time about the tires on his car, and now it looks like there is no storm coming after all, just a light film he can see covering the broad green, not even enough for the snowballing boys careening past the window. The questions are simple, broad, all about Trung's goals and favorite subjects. Whenever Trung pauses, Davis fills in the details with something he's learned on the car trip, something Margaret has taught him—for instance, the comment that Trung is excellent at art, which is half made up, but which goes over so well with the dean that Davis will always use it in the interviews.

    "He has an eye," Davis adds with a peaceful smile, and the dean shares his smile, tangling her fingers. Trung sits and says something about a superhero he admires, and this seems charming also. Davis is then asked to leave, and as he waits in the grand hall, a two-storied library ringed with balconies surely no student ever uses, he thinks how used to lying he has become. This is a pleasant thought. He sits back in the thick leather chair, not noticing the light fall of snow again, and he is relieved that he can be a fraud. So much in his life he is expected to have done; now it is nice simply to pretend.

    His school wasn't like this one. He has to admit his was even nicer. Even the most cramped first-term lodgings were of wood, with all kinds of surprising doors and cabinets, bookshelves with unreadable turn-of-the-century boys' books in them. Davis remembers his school vaguely and therefore fondly, and one reason memories have not stuck firmly is that he wasn't much of a superstar there. There were plenty of boys, rich or funny or handsome, who demanded cults, but Davis wasn't any of these things, and as time went on, he became less rich, less funny, and his looks were never boyish again except for the ruddiness of his rough skin. The friendships he made turned out to be frail things, fading outside the greenhouse of school years, so Davis is left with forced nostalgia, droll anecdotes of lonely nights and boyhood cruelties he says he "had to have" to continue into adulthood. It was all for a purpose.

    There is another drive, to a nearby rural boarding school, this one more severe, and though this time Davis finds himself having to perform without Trung there as a prop, alone with a counselor in a high attic room of the administration building, dark and woody, with a brooding man who bends over his desk, looks over his silver glasses, Davis does fine. He is riskier this time—he makes up stories about Trung, about the time the two of them went sea kayaking together on Lake Union, tossing back and forth small poems in English they had memorized. The next time he tells this story, he will smile as if it were real memory, and the time after that, when the snow has fallen so deep that drifts can hide a young boy, it will feel just like memory. Davis will barely be able to tell the difference.

    That night, in a motel recommended by the secretary, they order room service on the parents' money, an extra order of sweet-potato fries, two hamburgers oozing blood jeweled with fat. Trung eats only a third of his and watches, chewing on the fleshy mound of his palm, speaking now and then about how Davis eats too much. He even eats Trung's leftovers.

"Tell me about your friends," Davis says between bitefuls. It has not occurred to him yet to ask about this subject, which might be crucial for interviews.

    Trung, in blue satiny pajama bottoms, raises his eyebrows and spreads his words out from a jutting lower lip: "I've got two friends, Sang and Randy. We are always at Sang's house."

    "What do you do?"

    "Draw pictures." He grins at his false tutor. "Of car accidents."

     "So you like art? You like drawing, then? See, I tricked you."

    But Trung is still grinning, his birthmark bounced up near
his eye: "Cracked bones, split skulls, oozing brains!"

    "Stop it, Trung," says Davis, putting down his hamburger.

    "Once we had a party and one boy cut his fingertip off!" A rally of guffawing as Davis sits unprepared to react, cracking half a smile to seem game, wondering if this joke is meant to draw him close or frighten him.

    Davis's friends were nothing like this, prep school losers who dipped tobacco so as not to get caught smoking, one boy still wetting his bed, another full of dirty jokes and a disturbing wandering eye, all of them terribly frightened of the boys who seemed capable, athletic and sure, talented and awarded by the faculty. Davis's friends lingered, clearing their throats, in the halls after basketball games, smelling the success they would never really get, all later tripping over their own doubts into careers in disparate fields, all similar in their vague duties to help the salesmen, partners, vice presidents who really made the deals. In their youth, though, one of their favorite games was to all dress up in black, paint their faces dark, and stand in the shadow of the bell tower, seeing if people would notice the glow of their white eyes in the darkness. Few people did, and this was success for Davis and his friends. Their sorry purpose was to disappear voluntarily.

    Trung calls his parents for the first time of the trip and leans tense-mouthed against the window as he talks, turned away from Davis. He talks in a language probably no one in the building understands, but the tone is all too familiar—bored, tired answers. Long pauses, then something meaning, Okay, okay, I will. He carefully hangs up the phone and climbs into his bed. From under the wool blanket, he calls out good night in English.

    Davis thinks about himself at this age, not as mysterious at all. Bright and talkative, impressive to adults in a way Trung has not proved himself to be—but the son of academics has to be this way, has to grow up able to perform at cocktail parties, play a piano, recite a verse, show early signs of mastery. Davis thinks often about his family. His mother left before he knew her, and his father left when he was fifteen, not long after Trung's age. Just a stepmother to bring him up from there, all wooden beads and velvet hats, a woman thrilled by so much because of her deep sadnesses, a hardworking woman who once wanted to be a potter, taking up a new job to tend to him. There was no one else to watch, so she did it; she watched his different selves as they emerged—the invisible boy, the vain teenager, the opinionated young man, the graduate moving from job to job like a donkey stumbling into gopher holes. Davis thinks back on himself, not clearly—when did this "eye" of his first appear? So much of him is gone, replaced.

    The fries grow colder as Trung falls asleep, buttering his hair with their sweet smell.


* * *


Today, the sky is clenched in a fist. Overnight, snow has conquered everything, and as Davis rises to the window, he breathes twice quickly to see how everything has changed. Travel will be tough today. Despite the trouble, despite the slow pace and skidding wheels, the sight of cars abandoned in the meadows, which yesterday were green, the interviews go well indeed. Davis and Trung have to take a ferry to an island out in Puget Sound, then drive a long way to a quaint town on a peninsula, a town attached to an old abandoned fort. The houses are clapboard, pink and yellow. Snow piles in the flower boxes. Things look a bit abandoned, the people kind but desperate.

    The interviewers are impressed that Trung and Davis would survive the snow, as if it were a question of survival. In fact, the halls of both schools are packed with muffin tables and silver urns of hot chocolate, and it is clear that even faculty have been trapped here by the snow, staying the night out on this peninsula. The schoolboys look wild and excited, throwing snow everywhere, and their eyes catch Trung as if to bring him with them, make him wild again with them. Trung's head follows them as he passes into the warm offices of admissions. The interview rooms are soft and bright with light, although the sunlight has left by the time of the second interview. Both deans are in thick sweaters, rubber boots, their faces red and blazing with the thrill of imminent disaster. Both are distracted from the interview, from such a distant thing as a future student; they are instead dreaming of tomorrow, the snow three feet above the grass, the chapel bells tolling, offices locked, the cafeteria loud with impromptu talent shows, a Latin chorus, a scene from the school play. And time. Time at last.

    Davis doesn't notice. He tells his story about the kayaks and poems, about Trung's "eye," about the wonderful staring boy in the too-big red coat. Trung refuses to remove the coat, and clicking sounds keep emanating from underneath the hood, bizarre little sounds that Davis tries to cover with the tone of his voice. Yet they are there, click crack, click crack. Who is this boy? Davis rambles on about a Shakespeare festival they attended. The deans lean back, smiling, flushed with pleasure, tapping their pens softly on their blotters. Davis's voice is a lullaby to deans.

    Cafeteria noodles, glutinous, unsalted butter on hot rolls, wet wool and bleach.

    There is another ferry today, the second. The clouds shift overhead in their intricate designs, a high net for the screaming gulls, and the wind on the upper deck is incredible. Trung presses against Davis, asking to go below, but Davis pats him and says, "Another minute, just a minute." The Olympic Mountains are out in spiny glory, glowing with ice, and the Sound stretches endlessly between the banks of pure snow, snow broken by nothing, not even by docks, a landscape utterly content with itself, and there is no way to think of this as familiar anymore, as civilized. The area seems remote, as far from things as Davis could ever hope to be. Nothing is traveling along the mountain roads. No yacht sways by with Christmas lights. No seaplane leaves no growling trail.

    Around a curve, when the ferry finally docks on Whidbey Island, he and Trung run into someone Davis knows. A young woman, a friend of the girl from the Shakespeare festival. She is small and thin, her head shaved, with just the shadow of hair, everything on her striped or brightly colored: her scarves, buttons, eyes. "Davy Boy!" she calls him, and he is delighted to see how much she remembers him. He takes it as a sign that her friend, the girl he thinks now he might love, talks of him. "Davy Boy, what are you doing here? Who is this?" she asks, and then he has to explain the situation, and somehow it sounds even more ridiculous than ever, as if the job itself were the lie, a subterfuge for getting Trung across the Canadian border. Even the shaved-head girl seems doubtful. She offers no information about the girl Davis loves, says only, "You know her, into everything, like a cat!" and then the whistle sounds and she must run off to catch her boat. They wave good-bye, and Trung asks, "Is that your girlfriend?"

    "No," Davis says. "She's my girlfriend's best friend, though."

    Trung looks back and chews on his hand, his childish habit. "She is my girlfriend," he says quietly.

    "Sounds good."

    Their next hotel, their last one on this trip, is far fancier than Davis imagined when he made the reservations. Columns, a fireplace in the lobby, and the clatter of a formal dining room just closing up. It is dark outside, the air cold and curtained with snow, but inside all is warm at the Lawrence Inn. Their room sits cozily under two dormer windows, shades pulled, and everything is prim and neatly matched, woolen blankets and green-pink-striped chairs, satin curtains, bright Dutch plates hanging on the walls. They are high above the nearby boys school, in this richly furnished room, and it all seems to Davis like they are unexpected travelers from the snowbound world, shown into the attic room of a manor house while the ogre-master is off hunting.

    Trung has already unpacked his clothes into the bedside dresser. He sits on the bedsheet, smoothing the quilt, staring at the fabric. Surely he has never known a room like this, not coming from that close, steamy apartment over the grocery store, not with his poor parents saving pennies from the till for his new life in prep school. How will he explain it to his friends? The taste of it?

    Davis opens the shade. They look out on the campus, ghostly white squares. A fire is burning somewhere, and he can almost smell the smoke of it. Snow is still falling; there is no end. He turns back to Trung's fearful expression, the ever-look of adolescence.

    "I remember a snow like this, actually," Davis says matter-of-factly, filling the air again. He's been talking like this for days now, telling Trung these kinds of reminiscences. This time he stands by the window with one hand on the slick green drape, the slight smile on his pink face warping his thick lips, the soft light catching the unshaven hairs of his face, so pale that only now are they visible. He has the kind of light eyebrows that you can only assume are there when he lifts them to speak: "It was the winter of the cougar. That's what we called it, because a cougar'd been trapped down in the city by the snow." Trung giggles and puts his hand over his mouth. Arm by arm, he is finally removing his red coat. "No, really!" Davis insists, leaning his head gently and letting his mouth lines wrinkle in cloth folds. "No, it came down from the mountains somehow, before Seattle was as big as now. It still happens. But this cougar got caught in the snow with all of us, and you'd hear about it from time to time—somebody's cat got eaten, or a pair of rabbits. Usually that, pets. It was hungry, you know, out of the mountains. What I remember is that the children had to stay indoors. Because—can you believe this? The cougar had eaten a child. It had a taste for our children. Maybe it was a rumor, but we were all told we could be eaten out there. We had to stay inside, we couldn't even play in the snow! Can you believe it? My one memory of a snowstorm." Trung smiles tentatively, eyes gleaming.

    Davis chuckles, clicks his tongue, and turns back to the still scene of Lawrence School huddled in itself, remembering less laughingly now the time when he was too young, the right size for a cougar in winter. He thinks about what he has known for hours now, since the ferry ride, that the girl in braids from last summer doesn't think about him at all, doesn't miss him, that to her in California he is as distant as a meal that she once ordered. A form, a remembered odor. And that this is no surprise, that he has already known this. Love was just a story he told himself in bed.

    He can taste the glass when he touches his tongue to it, cold butter.


* * *


The last interview is at the Lawrence School. They are snowbound. There is no light in the air that does not seem to come from the snow, and no movement except its sandy drifting. Davis and Trung trudge down the hill from their hotel room, their good shoes covered in plastic bags, making their way toward the pointed chapel roof, echoes bringing the sifting noise of their steps. The world smells of nothing. After a while, Trung walks behind Davis's footprints to make his work easier. Davis does not talk much, does not prepare Trung for the interview ahead, remind him of his talents, his "eye," his fluency in English, or his hidden brilliances, which will never show up on tests. Instead, just the rasp of breath and step through snow.

    At the interview room, at the door of this room bright as a greenhouse, Davis is stopped and only Trung is allowed to enter. The dean will talk to the tutor second, says the secretary as she smiles. Davis sees Trung's glance over the shoulder of his enormous red coat, frightened, picking at the scab that has formed on his left hand. Davis makes a grinning salute and sits down himself in the waiting room. The windows are draped and fringed with plaid curtains, and lacrosse sticks are nailed opposite him. There is a gleaming urn of cider, the tower of Styrofoam coffee cups stacked, a white segmented thing. The air is all cinnamon.

    The snow entraps the room. It rises to the level of the windows. How could one sit and read a magazine with snow nosed up against the windowpane like that?

    Davis sits, hands folded, in a plastic chair as the secretary types at her low desk. He thinks of his stepmother brooding over burnt pottery projects in her cold flat. He thinks of the girl with braids ranging over San Francisco, sunlit and forgetful, eating a mango or a pear flown from the summer hemisphere. He thinks of the small boy in the red coat sitting past that wall from him, chewing his fingernails or fingers, the boy who seems so unformed to Davis, his fearful looks clashing with his unnerving comments. Who is he becoming? What was he like even a year before? Odder? More like a child? Davis thinks of the haphazard crew of people he's ended up with, how ill-matched they all are for one another, hoping it is part of some plan, these random influences, and not necessarily a grand scheme. A little plan, with tiny gears. Someone's plan for him.

    Davis is soon called in by the dean, and he enters a hallway covered with sport photographs in gilt frames, athletes and club presidents from a century of Lawrence School. He passes Trung at the doorway with a pat on his black head. Trung looks up with an open mouth, a sudden smile as he grabs for Davis, maybe for his hair, but then they've passed and Trung is off into the waiting room, dragging his coat, and Davis is suddenly sitting in a polished black chair, grinning nervously at the dean.

    "You're the boy's tutor?"

    "Yes."

    Davis shifts and looks at the man, trim and middle-aged, his hair and glasses a decade out of style, his hands large and rough as they sort papers. Half of a tongue sandwich sits damp on his desk, sloughing its wax-paper skin.

    The dean looks up again. "I should tell you that Trung just told me all about it."

    "What's that?"

    The dean smiles. "He told me you're being paid by his parents to pretend to be his tutor."

    Davis laughs, leaning his long roseate face back into the window's glare. What else could he do? "That's a funny way of putting it," he says. "But I guess that's true."

    "So you're not his tutor?"

    "Well," Davis says, still smiling, eyeing the sandwich. "Let's just say that he's not my student."

    And the young man goes on explaining, in a clear way, how he is still qualified to talk on Trung's behalf, all the time allowing his mind to sit stunned, speechless. Why has Trung said this? Has he been doing this all along, allowing Davis to spin out his stories of kayaks and poetry and art while the boy waits to whisper secretly in the deans' ears, his birthmark bobbing happily, telling them what nonsense it all is?

    "There's more he told me," the dean says, tensing his face.

    "Such as?"

    "Oh, silly things. Did you two prepare for this interview? He said his name was Davis, and that he'd been in a battle with a cougar. Clearly, this isn't true. Do you have any insight into this?"

    There is much more to tell: all the extravagant stories Trung apparently just gave the dean about his life, his white mother, his youth in a nice house in the suburbs, how it burned down, his interest in pottery, a girlfriend out in Port Townsend who shaves her head. Davis tries to picture the young boy's face. Would he be gleefully reporting his false life? Or would it be serious, the lies he never wanted to tell? How fully, though, the dean seems to enjoy this retelling, and Davis recognizes the desperation of a man trapped in a winter room. So often the boys who come in here must report the dullness of their carefully conceived young lives. How often would this man come into contact with madness?

    But as the dean, obviously a cocktail-party raconteur, goes into a giddy telling of Trung's false vacation story in Yellowstone, Davis finds that he can easily imagine someone talking in this way about him, laughing about his theory of his "eye," which he now cringingly realizes he has told too many people about, his job-hopping, his own brand of random opinion, which he yells at gatherings to get attention, the constant adoration of new women, all bad guesses, all obvious avoidances of reality, and, of course, the one woman last summer in braids. Davis even fooled himself that time.

    The fragrant smell of sandwich bread, mustard's yellow acid, tongue smelling like tongue would taste on tongue.

    The dean and Davis share a handshake and a loud laugh as the interview ends, and Davis walks out knowing that soon in the mail Trung's mother will find a white envelope, more than one surely, a thin one with a note politely stating how little room there is in their school, how well suited crazy, truthful Trung would be for some other place. Yes, this will happen soon enough. Around the corner he comes, down the hall of sepia boys in their pyramids of athleticism, grand and smiling, all with their gleaming futures bright in their eyes. What boys never made it into the gilt frames of this hallway? What boys came and went without anyone noticing at all?

    Davis enters the waiting room silently. The dean has left him with a feeling of caution, and the first thing he sees in the cinnamon-scented room is Trung, reading a magazine on outdoor sports. The boy wears his thick gray sweater, striped with red, and he looks overheated against the frosty windows. His left hand is propped awkwardly against his lips. It is the palm with the scab, and Trung is chewing it, picking flakes of blood between his teeth, touching them with his tongue, bringing them into his mouth and savoring them.

    Davis thinks, We eat ourselves alive. He remembers his friends in school, ugly or weak, chewing their nails, picking their noses, sucking at the blood of dormitory accidents, looking up with eyes that dared him to ask why, what they were doing, eating of themselves. The insect sound at night of nibbling, sleepless boys comforting themselves under the stamped sheets of their school, amid their sleeping rivals, taking these scraps for their hunger, grabbing this brief chance to tear at their awful shells, perhaps with dreams of rising like djinns from the sealed lamps of their bodies. Davis can feel even now the itch and hunger. He recognizes his own narrow indecisions and remakings, the new Davises his stepmother has patiently witnessed all these years, each failing to accomplish whatever was promised, doomed to be replaced. The product of this dull hope—as if each year that passes, he is less one being surviving than a series of rogue cannibal kings seizing a throne. Is this what everybody knows? he wonders.

    Davis takes Trung's hand from his mouth. The boy's palm is bleeding in little gems of blood, and he looks up, not happy, not grinning in his lies, but solemn and staring, with both eyes and that still birthmark, staring in the same way as the first afternoon they met, in the steam of lemongrass and chicken fat, and the memory makes Davis salivate.

    "Let's go," he says, and Trung moves, unquestioning, out into the snow. The secretary asks something, but they're gone, plastic bags left behind, their good leather shoes crunching in the damp ice, and Davis sees the boy in his red hood staring again, meaning, What happens now?

    And what does happen? Do they climb the long way, one by one, up to the hotel to prepare for a sad phone call to the parents? Do they wait for the bright golden snowplows to appear and save them from their dangling firelit cage on the hill? What does a young man do with his ward, trapped and hungry in a snowstorm? Does he lift him in his arms and run with him?

    There they are, smaller from your viewpoint, hand in hand in the wilderness of the ice glare, their false selves clattering on their chests, the faint wind passing by them, through black tangled branches and tufts of rusty weeds, bringing the smell of smoke and mittens, of whiteness melting into whiteness, into their translucent room. And if you shook this room with giant hands, what would remain?

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Table of Contents

Cannibal Kings 1
How It Was for Me 19
Lost Causes 33
Life Is Over There 61
Blame It on My Youth 73
Titipu 97
The Art of Eating 105
The Walker 129
Four Bites 145
The Future of the Flynns 169
Come Live with Me and Be My Love 179
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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 9, 2000

    Beautiful

    Beautiful writing, and very touching. I've never read anthing like it.

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