Museum of the Weirdby Amelia Gray
Winner of FC2’s American Book Review/Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize
A monogrammed cube appears in your town. Your landlord cheats you out of first place in the annual Christmas decorating contest. You need to learn how to love and care for your mate—a paring knife. These situations and more reveal the wondrous play and surreal/b>
Winner of FC2’s American Book Review/Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize
A monogrammed cube appears in your town. Your landlord cheats you out of first place in the annual Christmas decorating contest. You need to learn how to love and care for your mate—a paring knife. These situations and more reveal the wondrous play and surreal humor that make up the stories in Amelia Gray’s stunning collection of stories: Museum of the Weird.
Acerbic wit and luminous prose mark these shorts, while sickness and death lurk amidst the humor. Characters find their footing in these bizarre scenarios and manage to fall into redemption and rebirth. Museum of the Weirdinvites you into its hallways, then beguiles, bewitches, and reveals a writer who has discovered a manner of storytelling all her own.
“Amelia Gray’s Museum of the Weirdis a cabinet of curiosities—a talking armadillo, a serial killer named God, a woman who amputates her toes for dinner, a man married to a paring knife—this collection of stories is so good and funny and wondrous that I couldn’t look away from her dark and curious imagination.”
—Michael Kimball, author ofDear Everybody
“To say Amelia Gray belongs in the hilariously inventive hallows of Ann Quin and Rikki Ducornet would be to miss her light. This book is gleaming evidence of the author as a trophy case unto herself, wrought of magic equally surprising, wicked, giddy, and loaded with a megaton of Boom.”
—Blake Butler, author of Scorch Atlasand Ever
"The opening sentence of Amelia Gray’s Museum of the Weird—'One morning, I woke to discover I had given birth overnight'—could serve as a metaphor for the creation of a certain type of story. While many stories come into being through intense authorial diligence and cogitation, others spring into existence in an instant, discharging themselves onto the page almost by magic.
"Experienced writers know to approach these latter specimens with skepticism. Inspiration has a seductive power: it wants you to believe that its products are profound and important. Sometimes, miraculously, they are. I don’t know what kind of process Gray employed to write the 24 uncategorizable stories in her eccentric and intermittently arresting new collection, but they bear the signs of having been born overnight. They feel inspired, and embody all the weird energy that word implies, even as they struggle under its burdens.
"[The] best stories in Museum of the Weird register as leaps of faith, brave excursions into the realms of the unreal — and convince me that Gray may yet prove an important voice in experimental writing."--New York Times Book Review
The New York Times
- University of Alabama Press
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Read an Excerpt
MUSEUM of the WEIRD
By Amelia Gray
FC2Copyright © 2010 Amelia Gray
All right reserved.
One morning, I woke to discover I had given birth overnight. It was troubling to realize because I had felt no pain as I slept, did not remember the birth, and in fact had not even known I was pregnant. But there he was, a little baby boy, swaddled among cotton sheets, sticky with amniotic fluid and other various baby-goops. The child had pulled himself up to my breast in the night and was at that moment having breakfast. He looked up and smiled when I reached for him.
"Hello," I said.
I bundled my sheets and my mattress pad into a trash bag and set it by the door. I got into the shower with my new baby, because we were both covered in the material of his birth and were becoming cold. I soaped him up with my gentle face soap. He laughed and I laughed, because using face soap on an infant is funny. I toweled him off and wrapped him in a linen shirt.
On the walk to the store, I called my boyfriend, Chuck.
"I had a baby overnight," I said.
Chuck coughed. "I am not amenable to babies," he said.
I looked down at the baby. He was bundled up in the fine shirt and smiled as if he was aware of the quality of the shirt, and enjoyed it. "I am in love with this baby," I said, "and that's that."
At the grocery, I bought baby powder, diapers, two pacifiers, and a box of chocolate. I walked us home, fit a diaper on the baby, and ate a piece of chocolate. Chuck came over and said that perhaps he was amenable to babies after all, and we fell asleep together with the baby between us. The baby had not cried all day and neither had I.
The next morning, we woke to discover I had once again given birth, this time to a little girl. The babies were nestled together between us on the bed, and my spare sheets were ruined. I handed the babies off to Chuck and sent him to the shower. I bundled up the spare sheets and placed them by the other bag of sheets. Then, I got into the shower with Chuck. It was a nervous fit, with the two of us and the babies.
"These babies are so quiet," said Chuck. "I love them, too. But I hope you don't have another one overnight."
We all had a good laugh. The next morning, there was another baby. And another. And another. And another.
And that brings us to today.
Roger's assigned route had him picking up medical waste at most of the plastic surgery offices in town. He smelled it on his skin by the end of the day. The plastic surgery places were less of a hassle than the hospital and worlds away from the free clinic. After a day full of sharps and used lipo tubes and ruptured implants and the weight of discarded flesh, he tried not to think about the contents of the barrels. He sometimes wore his nose-plug at home.
The long shower he took after work helped a little, and it was good to finally smell the world around him as he dried himself off. From where he stood in his bedroom he could smell the dust in the carpet, the vinegar smell of his freshly washed windows, and the wooden bed frame. He detected the slightest hint of mold in the wall, which didn't surprise him, as the duplex was fifty years old at least and sagging. After a good rain, the mold smelled damp and sweet.
Roger enjoyed his evenings when Olive, his neighbor on the other side of the duplex, was cooking. Olive worked as a line cook at a vegetarian restaurant and spent her evenings frying meat. The smells slipped under the door connecting their apartments and seeped out of closed windows to surround the house. One night, Roger smelled something new and knocked on their connecting door.
"Hello, nose," Olive said. "It's chorizo." Behind her, a sauté pan sizzled with orange meat.
"My grandmother made that in the morning," Roger said.
Olive leaned against the doorjamb. She was still wearing her hairnet from work. "Probably with eggs," she said.
"And cheese, and corn chips sometimes."
"A fine breakfast." She gestured towards the pan with the spatula. "I'm making hamburgers. I mix it with ground chuck. I have enough for another one, if you want."
They sat on the floor to eat. The meat soaked orange fat into the bread. The two of them worked through a thick pile of napkins. Olive's apron was a cornflower blue hospital gown that Roger had picked up for her months ago. Her skin looked pale next to it.
"You have a lovely collarbone," Roger said.
She looked at him. "Lymph nodes," she said. "And salivary glands." She took a bite and chewed thoughtfully. "They make chorizo with the lymph nodes and salivary glands of the pig. Cheeks, sometimes."
He swallowed. "Cheeks."
"Pig to pork," Olive said. "When does the change happen? At death, it's a dead pig. At the market, it's a pork product. But when does the grand transformation take place? After the animal's last breath? When it's wrapped and packed?"
"It would be horrible to be wrapped and packed."
Olive shrugged. "Some might think so. The pig might think so, if it wasn't well on its way to becoming pork. But it's lucky, in a way. Not everything gets to transform." Her collarbone ducked in and out of the neck of her hospital gown as she talked.
Roger returned his sandwich to its plate. "I'm going to have the rest of this at work tomorrow," he said.
She unlocked her side of the connecting door for him. "Think about it," she said. "The pig gets to become pork. The rest of us simply go from live body to dead body."
* * *
At work, Roger loaded bags into heavy drums and wheeled the drums from the loading dock to his truck using a dolly and securing straps. He rolled the drums onto the truck's hydraulic lift, operated the lift, and drove to the next office and eventually to the incinerator. The metal drums warmed in the sun in the bed of the truck.
One of the big autoclaves was broken at the sterilization plant, and he got to take his time on his last pickups. He talked to the nurses and drove aimlessly around town. He sat at a covered picnic table five hundred feet from his truck and ate a late lunch. The chorizo had solidified in the fridge overnight, giving the burger neon orange spots. Roger removed the nose-plug and clipped the lanyard to the lapel of his jumpsuit.
When he was young, one of his teachers in grade school showed the class a video of a slaughterhouse. It began slowly, the picture grainy and unclear, the storyline featuring frowning men in white lab coats and packages of meat on a store shelf, but a brief segment at the middle of the video showed the actual process of the killing; the animals screaming and bleeding between metal railings, their heads swinging.
Roger couldn't remember what type of animal was featured. He was in the fourth grade, and one of the girls in the class threw up in a trashcan next to the teacher's desk. Roger watched her. He took a pencil out of his plastic pencil case and drove it slowly into his hand. The graphite left a black mark on his palm, ringed with purple. The teacher was fired later that month.
As he ate his lunch, Roger decided that the pig never turned into pork. The pig was always pork, from the moment it was born into the world.
* * *
The hot water ran out at home that evening and Roger shivered as he rinsed his hair. He dressed and knocked on Olive's door. She was wearing her hospital gown and had a towel wrapped around her head.
"So that's where the hot water went," she said, tousling his wet hair.
"The pig was always pork," said Roger.
Olive thought about it. "I want to show you something," she said. "But you can't tell anyone. And you have to wait while I change."
"Okay," he said.
She was still wearing the hospital gown when she opened the door again to invite him in. The gown was cinched with a silver belt. She was holding a shoebox.
"You can't tell anyone," she said. "This is illegal." She opened the box. Inside was a clear plastic bag, with a small brown object that looked like a dried mushroom. Olive shook the box gently, as if it might come alive.
"Tongue," she said. "An actual tongue, from a person." Roger touched the edge of the shoebox, and then shoved his hands into his pockets. "Really," he said.
"The real deal," she said. "Cost me a fortune. It's from this freaked-out monastery where the monks cut out their own tongues to get closer to God. They dehydrate them and sell them for two thousand per. Luckily, I know a guy. I've been saving all year to get one. Apparently they're like pâté."
Roger bit his own tongue, gently, at the thought.
Olive took the box into the kitchen and set it on the counter, next to a white bowl filled with a white liquid. "Buttermilk with a dash of vinegar," she said. She opened the bag and dropped the tongue into the bowl without ceremony. "Takes the bitterness out of game. Just a little dunk before the flour. I'm not sure we're gamey but I thought I'd give it a shot." She set a pan to heat on the range and dropped two pats of butter into the pan. "I believe I shall sauté," she said.
Roger looked around Olive's apartment. There were roach motels lining their shared wall, an old city map covering a foundation crack next to her bedroom door.
"Did you hear about the Japanese cannibal they caught?" Roger asked. "He told the court what people taste like."
Olive turned and leaned on the counter.
"Sushi," he said.
She picked three bowls out of the dishwasher. She cracked eggs into one bowl, poured flour into another, and bread crumbs into a third. She sliced a clove of garlic and dropped the slices into the pan.
"Tuna," Roger said.
"You should stay for dinner." She poured him a glass of wine. "This is a really special night," she said, pouring her own glass. "I'm glad to share it with someone."
"I'm glad to be here," Roger said. He sat down on the floor, holding his glass with both hands.
"Don't be nervous," Olive said. "You can have a little bite, and if you don't like it, I'll eat the rest. Culinary adventure." She fished around in the buttermilk for the tongue, and dropped it first in the flour, then the eggs, then the breadcrumbs.
"I've never had pâté," Roger said.
He shook his head.
"You should try it," she said. "Hell of a meat. You're eating the energy of an animal. It used to be this strong, busy liver. All that energy is contained in a tiny thing."
"The tongue is a busy organ."
In the ensuing silence, Roger drank half his wine.
"That's the idea behind it," Olive said, washing her hands in the sink.
The garlic grew fragrant in the butter. Olive dried her hands and used a fork to drop the tongues into the pan.
"I feel like I should cross myself," she said.
Roger was still thinking about Olive's tongue.
When the tongue was done, she plated it simply, between lines of wasabi and chili sauces. "A little spice," she said. They shared the plate together on the floor. Her knives were sharp. Olive declared the meat to be closer to liverwurst than pâté. Roger chewed thoughtfully. His own tongue touched the tongue he was eating. He felt strange.
"A strong meat," she said, finishing the last bite.
"I was thinking we could go out to eat sometime," Roger said. "Somewhere nice."
She looked at his plate. "You didn't finish your half," she said.
"It was okay. Do you want it?"
"Two thousand dollars," she said, spearing his half. "A rare treat."
Roger put both palms on the ground and pushed himself up. "Thank you for dinner," he said.
The light was brighter on his side. He smelled the roach motels, the mold in the walls, and the dust in his carpet.
"We'll work on you," she said, through the closed door.
"I appreciate that," he said quietly, because he wasn't sure she was talking to him. She didn't respond. He turned off all the lights and did not turn them on again for three days.
The sanitizing facility where Roger collected trash could process five million pounds of waste a year. After sanitation, the waste was taken by another set of trucks to the landfill, eight tons at a time, then sanitized and shredded, then dumped and compacted and picked through by seagulls.
The rusty barrels were almost too warm to touch by sunset. He loaded each onto the dolly, wheeled the dolly to the hydraulic lift, pressed the button that lifted them into the truck, and rolled them from the lift to the truck bed. He found it difficult to work without thinking about the contents of the drums. The needles, the gauze, the hot, moving mass of lipids and grafts, of broken or rejected skin, punctuated by shards of bone. The bone was like raisins in a cake.
On the way home, he bought a roll of liverwurst and a bouquet of flowers. He wasn't sure which color Olive would like and picked white lilies because they looked the freshest. It had been a long time since Roger brought anyone flowers. The cashier covered her mouth when he passed through her line, and Roger remembered after that he must have smelled terrible.
After his shower, he put the liverwurst in the refrigerator, picked a wilted petal off the lilies, and knocked on the connecting door. At first, there was no response. He held his ear to the door and didn't hear anything. The door smelled like rot and wood and paint. He knocked again.
"Roger," she said, from the other side. "Come in."
Olive's silver belt made her look segmented. Her white legs stretched out like a child's and she was leaning against the far wall, underneath the old map of a city Roger didn't recognize. The crack in the wall, the one the map only partly covered, stretched down to her head, making it look like she was attached. Her left foot was bleeding through a wide swath of bandages onto the tarp it was resting on. The bowl next to her was full of blood.
Olive looked a little pale. "I don't think I should move," she said.
"What are you doing?" Roger shut the door behind him and stood with his back to it.
"I decided I might try and eat my toes," Olive said, closing her eyes. "But now that I've started, I don't think I should move."
Roger pushed himself off the wall and knelt down next to her. He unbuckled her silver belt and reached with it under her dress. He looped the belt around the top of her leg and tightened it. His hands were not shaking.
"Sit on the loose end," he said, pushing it under her. "I hope that works."
"You brought flowers," she said, blinking.
"Olive," he said. "You cut off your toes."
She looked down at the bowl. "Are they still toes?" she asked.
He thought about the metal drums heating in the sun, bouncing in the back of the truck as he paraded their human contents across town. "I don't want to look at them," he said.
She touched her leg. "Let's drink grapefruit juice," she said.
"We should really get you to the hospital."
The metal drums, hot blood clinging to moist gauze pads.
"I'm thirsty," she said.
"You have no toes on your left foot."
"I'm thirsty," she said. She looked at him. She seemed very reasonable.
"A little juice," Roger said. "And then straight to the hospital."
She nodded and motioned to the kitchen, where Roger filled two glasses with juice.
"I was considering a stew," she said. He put a glass of juice into her hand on her lap, wrapped her fingers around it. "Chop, braise, stew. I bought the carrots this morning. I already had potatoes and broth. You would need a bit of flour first, and butter. I have those, too."
The juice glass trembled and spilled onto her lap. "Cooking makes me feel better," she said.
He looked around for another bandage for her foot. "I don't cook," he said.
"I can't feel my leg."
"You should try it," she said. "Cooking. Then we'll go."
Roger sat back on his heels. He was worried, but proud of himself for remembering proper tourniquet procedure. He had saved her life. She might thank him once she was in a better frame of mind.
She raised her head and shook it, opening her eyes briefly before closing them again. "A stew," she said. "I promise, after stew."
"I don't know how," he said, but she didn't seem to hear him. He picked up the flowers he had brought her, ruined now, though when he put them in the sink they still brightened the room.
Excerpted from MUSEUM of the WEIRD by Amelia Gray Copyright © 2010 by Amelia Gray. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Amelia Grayis the author of AM/PM. Her writing has appeared in American Short Fiction, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, DIAGRAM, and Caketrain, among others. She lives in Austin, Texas, where she is the founder and co-host of the reading and music show Five Things.
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When Museum of the Weird came out (winner of the FC2s American Book Review/Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize) I knew I had to pick it up. Several of the stories I had read before, so it was like hooking up with an old friend, albeit a friend that likes to saw off her own toes to make a stew, the idea of eating human tongues sauteed in buttermilk not quite enough to satisfy her cannibalistic foodie needs. The collection is indeed a grouping of curiosities, but instead of a cabinet, these are human lives we're looking at, peering in the bars at the monkey house, unsure of what manner of horror or surreal juxtaposition will happen next.