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“Beautiful and terrifying. . . . M31 offers a big, bold look at the American family. It takes us far away and very close to home. . . . Stephen Wright is a . . . bright star in the literary sky.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“M31 is a devastatingly forceful accomplishment and reestablishes its author as a star of the first magnitude.” –The Washington Post Book World
“Wright’s unsparingly funny take on pop culture’s spooky and inevitable seepage into our subconscious has a hallucinative power distinctly its own.” –Newsday
“Funny, disturbing. . . . A visionary novel. . . . What gives Mr. Wright’s vision authority is the power and intelligence of his language. Every sentence is beautifully written, sharply detailed, shaped by a metaphoric imagination.” —The New York Times Book Review
"That? That there?"
Their green faces hovered balloonlike over the warm radar screen. The antique equipment popped and fizzed.
"The big blobby thing."
"Move your finger."
"Look, it's moving."
"It's getting bigger."
"It's miles and miles."
"What is that?"
"You tell me."
"I don't know."
"The mother ship?"
"Come to carry us home, yeah, and all the people who ever died, and all their luggage, too, are there smiling and waving and chewing on cotton candy."
Edsel's mouth clapped shut as suddenly as a ventriloquist's dummy's and he swung around in his seat, propped his skinny elbows in front of the screen, and leaned forward with exaggerated intent, hands clamped over his ears, scuffed sneakers dangling above the sloping floor, I hate you, I hate you, I hate you.
"Thunderstorms, herbert, remember? Fucking thunderstorms."
Tiny arms turned in the shining ovals of his eyes.
Dallas moved his lips in close, hissing wet obscenities into the back of his brother's small freckled hand. Then he pushed himself away from the table, the folding wooden chair scraping across bare boards, collapsing in an explosive slap as he stood up. His profile, the broken nose, the ECT hair, was silhouetted against a stained-glass scene of quaint kneeling figures in Friar Tuck robes lifting flat, badly proportioned eyes to a burning in a violet sky. Dallas stared down at the back of Edsel's skull, an ostrich egg pasted with dry pale hair. "Okay," he said. He stared down at the thin bunched shoulders. "Knock yourself out. I'm going to see about Poly." The screen was making a sound like tires on fresh asphalt.
Silently his bare feet descended the narrow spiral staircase from the choir loft to a floor pockmarked by clusters of screwholes and worn into a pattern distinct and gridlike. In the center of this long open room, between the facing rows of high uncurtained windows, sat an ellipsoidal metallic construction bigger than a diving bell and obviously bolted together over time by various hands employing available material, zinc plate, roof tin, brass sheeting, and other junkyard scrap. From its patchwork interior came the rustle of female voices:
"Bright and heavy, it's been like that a lot lately."
"So when my eyes came open I could see him clearly standing there bare-assed and gripping the windowsill and gaping up at the moon like he was about to turn into something awful. Scared the shit out of me. His skin was so weird. It looked like the moon and his body were made out of the same stuff."
"He used to sleepwalk almost every night when he was a kid. Sometimes Father would tie him down to the bed."
"I don't think he was asleep."
"His tube was on."
Dallas stepped behind a plasterboard partition where something was bubbling in a pot on the stove. He got a can of beer from the wheezing refrigerator and padded quietly back into the other room, his attention ambushed for a moment by the soundless television set in the corner where a woman's angry face alternated with a man's angry face in an apartment full of plants and designer furniture. He popped the tab on the beer can. "I heard that," said one of the female voices. Maryse. Her head was stuffed with kapok. He slipped quickly out the open door into the failing afternoon. A wind was beginning to stir the stalks of corn in the fields falling away under the anvil of a summer thunderhead. The sun, already buried beneath the advancing storm, continued to rise out of the stone steps under his feet in soft steady waves; it pulsed in the iron railing under his hand. He looked down. Feet. Funny word, funny parts: they were too narrow or too long or too far away. Veins slithered over them like squiggly blue worms. Everything either stayed the same too long or turned into something else too fast. A place was many places all at once. This corn was also pink and the sky a polyurethane glitter above the flashing steel wires stretched taut and parallel out into the plastic bridge horizon and his feet? ... his feet were fins. He was already there: where they all wanted to be.
He shuffled out into the middle of a scraggly patch of lawn, blades of spiky crabgrass tickling his ankles, and stood there, scratching at his navel and drinking in the dramatic atmospherics, the long drafts of cold beer. Moving in from the west was a plow of high clouds as dark as the earth it seemed to be overturning. Fissures of white opened and closed across its shifting surface. The wind made him aware of the shape of his face and drove the savory smell of warm shit deep into his nostrils. God, he loved the country. Off to the east, where plows run up against concrete, Dash and Dot were walking the same streets, eating the same food, breathing the same air! as Vic and the Vectors. He was here. Here. He tilted his head and let the beer drain down his throat, then, rearing back, heaved the empty can clattering down the gray gravel road. Behind him loomed the church, solid black from foundation to steeple where revolved the small dish antenna, a black angular shape as flat in appearance as a shadow cast from something unseen in the distant sky.
Around back in the old cemetery he found Poly, as he knew he would, munching on her favorite delicacy-graveyard grass. "C'mon Poly, let's go," his hand raising puffs of dust on her bony rump. The goat edged away, wide eyes, busy mouth. Headstones, tilted, chipped, and broken, were strewn about like loose teeth, names and dates blurring away into the discolored mossy stone. All Dallas knew was these people had all been dead a long time. Overhead the thick heavy branches of the cemetery tree began to sway, the leaves to flick back and forth like magician's cards. Around the base of the trunk he found an aerosol can of red paint. He shook it noisily, tested the nozzle in the air, and, bending over, wrote across
ALPHEUS PAGE 1821 - 1872 ON APRIL 3RD HIS SUN DID SET WHERE OH WHERE IS PA NOW AT?
the letters BOF. Similar scrawls decorated other graves: BULLOCKS, 0I, RHINO. "Hey"-he aimed the can at the goat-"wanna be an Irish setter?" Poly chewed on, oblivious. Dallas bounced the can off the tree. He hooked his fingers under the dog collar on Poly's neck and tugged her resisting bleating body around to the front door-the air now charged with ozone-and up the steps and into the church, brittle hooves exploding across the floor like firecrackers.
A woman's head popped like a jack-in-the-box out of the top of the metal egg, "What the hell!" in a shriek known to younger brothers everywhere. Trinity. His sister. Once when she was four and a beautiful Princess living in a Magic Tower, a nasty goblin left outside the castle door a basket of tears and bad smells that Mommy and Daddy actually believed was cute, and for many more nights than there were fingers and toes to count to she had wished on the star outside her window that in the morning when she awoke baby would still be sleeping and would go on sleeping forever and ever. She had no memory of this at all. She had black hair and gray eyes and wore fire-engine-red lipstick day and night, a slash of color as unexpected out here as a Porsche in a beanfield.
"It's gonna rain," Dallas said. On the television set the same pair of faces was now pressed together in an action clearly involving the use of both tongues.
"I don't care if it's gonna shit bricks."
He was fascinated by her beetle lips preparing to fly away home.
"What have you been told about that animal in the house?" It was not a question.
"Blah-blah-blah. Maryse," he called. "Hey, Maryse." Anger was a cloud twisting up.
Out popped a second head too wasted to pass for a puppet of any kind, the only coloring on her face the velvety bruise-tinged half-moon under each eye.
"Hey, Maryse, I remembered that dream."
"I don't want to hear about it." Lanky hair was tucked behind protruding ears.
"You and I, see, were on this street-no, it was this bare room, only I wasn't there, I was on night shift at the pork plant and-"
"I really don't want to hear this, Dallas."
"There were other bodies in there with you in the dark, but you were the only one who wasn't-"
"Get that goddamn beast out of here!" Trinity shouted.
Poly was eating one of the photographs off the wall, methodically pulling into her mouth a glossy image of an unfocused hubcap sailing out over the scraggly tips of a couple pine.
"And then somehow I was there and we found a broken light bulb and squatted in a corner, sharing, first you bit, then me, you, me, you, me."
Trinity's head sank from sight, leaving Maryse and her eight white fingers gripping the rim of the hatch like something growing out of a jar. She emerged from around back, moving briskly and brandishing a plastic fly swatter. Dallas reached out an arm. "Leave her alone." The swatter slapped against the side of his head. At the sound Poly darted through the space between the partitioning boards and into the kitchen, hooves clicking on the linoleum. "Stay here," Trinity ordered, going in after her. Dallas heard a shout, a crack, a brief interlude of frantic tap dancing, a bang, a crash, a curse, before an accelerating mass of fur and legs exited the kitchen at a velocity and an angle too late for him to do anything but try to protect his head with his arms as the force of a rolled-up rug whacked into his ribs, dropping his dead weight to the boards behind the stubby tail of a frightened goat flying through the open doorway like a gazelle.
"You okay?" asked Trinity, bending down over Dallas's fish-on-dry-land routine.
"Knocked," he gasped, cheeks going in and out, "the wind ... out ... of me." In between his own sounds he thought he could hear laughter from inside the egg.
"I think you might have been unconscious there for a second or two," said Trinity. She was wiping at a huge blotch of spaghetti sauce on her shirt with a blue sponge.
"It's as big as a house," announced Edsel, short tanned arms dangling over the railing above their heads. "What's going on? Dallas was saying bad words before."
"Jesus." Of course, the stain kept growing the harder she rubbed, that was a law. "Might as well be running a full-time daycare in here, too, try to turn a profit on all this damn brat tending. Tell you this, next time Mother and Father hit the road they can take you two along, help polish Zoe's football helmet or something. Because if I liked policework, I would have become a nun. How many beers have you had today, anyway?"
The stars overhead still refused to make sense. If his father had had any specific constellations in mind when he painted them up there on the ceiling, he hadn't told anyone. Upside down the silent mouths on TV opened and closed like cyclopes' eyes with teeth. "Fuck you," Dallas mumbled.
"See," proclaimed Edsel, disappearing behind the rail.
"Babies." Squatting, Trinity began to pick up the chewed bits of photograph. "This family should be driven around in a van and displayed at pro-abortion rallies."
Dallas rolled onto his side, searching along the floor for something loose to throw when his eyes flicked instinctively toward the door. Two white faces hung there like lanterns between the frame, watching. The man's smile gleamed from a tentative beardlike growth resembling stringy black mold, the woman's was metallic and fixed by rubber bands. Behind them the sky slid by thick as molten rock.
"I should number the cans," Trinity was saying, her back to the room, "and start rationing it out one can at a time like they did on the USS Dewey Dell or the Rat Fink or whatever the hell it was that Father"-and turning-"oh."
"Hi," said the man in an affable radio voice, arm half-lifted in shy greeting. "I'm Beale. This is Gwen." Gwen's smile broadened on a glitter of orthodontia and extended rubber bands that seemed to connect her jaw to the rest of her head. "She's a five-time contactee." Her dimples were deep enough to stick raisins into.
"Hi," said Trinity, cupped hand held stiffly at her waist. She caught Dallas's eye, and in an instant: These are goofs.
Grade A Prime.
Let's run 'em out.
Beale poked his shaggy head in and surveyed the interior with a paying tourist's avid curiosity. "Ohmigod," he exclaimed, pointing, "The Object!" Smiling Gwen smiled silently. "The actual Object, exactly as Dash and Dot described it. I can't believe this. It's like a living museum. And you guys must be the children."
"Their creatures," admitted Trinity. "Yes."
Dallas regarded the visitors from a prone position. They seemed to be wearing astronauts' life support units on their backs. "I'm Dallas," he said. "The ugly one."
Trinity extended an arm, opened a hand, and slick confetti sprinkled down over her brother's head. "You can probably get a better view from inside," she said.
"Thank you," said Beale. "Hate to impose." They came clinking through the door, assorted metal objects dangling from their belts. Beale nodded once at Dallas. "Here's someone who knows how to relax." He twisted his shoulders free of the straps and allowed the equipment to clatter to the floor. Clipped to the pocket of his plaid maroon shirt were several disposable pens and yellow pencils. There were salt stains under the armpits. The pants were a strange shade somewhere between green and blue. The shoes were tan work boots. "Wasn't real sure we'd ever find it."
"I could see this place in my mind all the time," said Gwen. She arranged her stuff in a neat pile by the door. One by one the high windows turned steadily grayer as though a filter were being drawn across the panes.
Trinity watched her brother watching Gwen's jeans.
"Our last ride let us off at some tiny white church outside Albert," Beale explained. "When we peeked in the window I was so excited I thought the pews were molded flight seats. Then this kid with a kite sent us walking down this road, said it wasn't far, said this'd take us right on out to where the saucer people live."
"No offense," said Gwen.
"Should I get you a blanket?" Trinity asked her brother. He had made no attempt to move. Maybe he would never move. If he passed out, no one would know it. Feet would have to step over him going to and from the kitchen, spilling nachos and cheese puffs on his chest. The crotch-eye view.
Excerpted from M31: A Family Romance by Stephen Wright Copyright © 2004 by Stephen Wright. Excerpted by permission.
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