Surprising and funny debut collection from a multi-talented Midwest author.
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Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Deadstories
By Alan DeNiro
Small Beer PressCopyright © 2006 Alan DeNiro
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSkinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead
Once upon a time I lived in Suddenly, a suburb bordering the Lake of the Dead, which used to be Oil City. Oil City used to be important hundreds of years ago, but it's underwater now. Now there's just Suddenly, a teenaged commuting station for Pittsburgh, about one hundred miles and an hour away on the new srails. There are also the deaders, who live on a twenty-story parking garage set in the middle of the lake.
I didn't like Suddenly much and did my best to get by. Here's one reason why, for starters: I didn't like the gold tinting they implanted in all the buildings, or the hieroglyphic billboards either, whose strobes were supposed to impart psychic wisdom on passersby. But when the New Life Gnostic party won city hall, I guess there was no stopping them.
Don't worry, I've just begun.
What else? At the time this story-all true-took place, I lived with my best friend, Owen, in a mid-rent bungalow down a shady lane. But they were all quiet, shady lanes in Suddenly, so I guess that's not too descriptive. Owen sang lead for a country band, Messenger Ash, which had ajoint contract from Federal Express and Billboard to record two hits, guaranteed Top Fifteen annuities. Have you heard them?
The story I'm going to tell takes place just this last April, when I was still in school. It begins when everything was still the same. Stories usually happen that way, don't they?
But I imagine you want me to answer the question: How did you first meet a person who changed your life? Why did this person change your life?
I met her for the first time at the Teenage Wasteland Emporium; she was Owen's new date, and I was to meet both of them there. Owen dated often, usually a girl a month. In the queue it smelled like Bibles. A crowd of Coptic Gideons in black suits did their best to press square black books into all of our hands. Standing in queue for the Emporium was strictly a hands-in-pocket affair. Peering around, I could see that people weren't just from Suddenly, my hometown; they ranged from all over Greater Pittsburgh, marked and clanned. There were guppy-hairs from Bradford and pricklers from Greensburg and basilisks costumed in rare, crinkly vellum from Erie.
Owen snuck up behind me. She moved beside him.
A girl, about our age, with sharp blonde hair and slender cheekbones. Her clothes looked ancient and gray, but her skin looked slightly damp in the tinted glass of the Emporium windows shining on us crimps standing outside. She looked back and forth between Owen and me.
Introductions were made. Her name was Jane. Jane. She was a deader, the first I'd ever met.
"Hey," she said. Her tone didn't lilt, like I half expected. Children in elementary school always mocked and imitated deaders by lilting their accents, but I realized in one of those fits of casual revelation that nine-year-olds generally have no idea what they're talking about. More like the soft rural twang that Owen approximated with voice implants when he sang his to-be-hits.
Jane and I small-talked a little while waiting. I asked her how she got over to Suddenly, and I hoped I didn't phrase that too awkwardly. She smiled easily; even though her teeth were a little bit brownish, I think I started to fall in love with her, just at that moment, when she lightly touched me on the shoulder. "Well, we have boats, you know." She squinted at me; whether from the dimness or from wanting to stare into my naked soul, I couldn't tell.
"Good to hear that. No man is an island," I said, hoping a reference to an old poem would impress her.
"I'm not a man," she said.
She sure as hell wasn't. After that exchange, Jane held Owen's hand, so to kill time I watched the tandoori chickens of Awful Arthur's across the street, the spice-pak hens frenzied and bumping against the cages in the restaurant window. And I ought to mention as well the Gnostics of an intense vegan subsect who, every night around nine, threw paint bombs against the outer wall of Arthur's restaurant. Patrons on the balcony clapped at the spectacle.
Thankfully, we whisked through the queue slightly faster than normal because of Owen's blooming superstar image. "I think I'm going to dance a little with Jane, then talk to the DJs," Owen told me, handing me my pink wrist tag. "Why don't you see the wrestling match or something and then we'll catch up to you?"
"All right," I said, sighing. I thought Owen was all right, the closest thing I had to a best friend, but he always had one compartment of his brain in the "biz." He had worked too hard to get his break to stop. Music from five different directions pierced my eardrums at the same time. "I guess I'll hang around the wrestling match a little."
"Wonderful," Owen said. "Catch you on the flip side." Whatever that meant. Jane looked around, devouring the interior landscape with her eyes, distracted, and the two of them drifted away.
I climbed the staircase two flights to the upper floor to the square circle, in a medium-sized attic with a high ceiling. I looked at the card; only a very minor match, Savage Chicken versus Electrocution Solution. It wasn't to begin for another fifteen minutes. I took my seat in one of the upper rows. Both the floor below me and that below the ring were transparent; dim white flares flickered on the dance warehouse below. I could see scores of people my age going through the motions of any other Sunday night-slithering in pairs to a new Arabian tango, groups of four lurking in candlelit corners, and couples rubbing opium patches on each other's inner thighs.
The bell rang, and the other dozen wrestling spectators mildly clapped their hands. Savage Chicken, bedecked with his razor and rubber wings, clucked his way into the ring. Phosphorous flecks raced off Electrocution Solution's arms. The screen above the ring gave essential biographical material; Savage Chicken, for example, had a PhD in paleoanthropology.
The two wrestlers locked arms, Chicken nicking the bicep of Solution. They untangled. Solution let off a bolt of electricity, which Chicken dodged; the bolt dissipated against the invisible energy soakers of the ring.
As the match droned on, I grew more and more bored. I cradled my head in my palm and looked down.
I could see Jane languidly dancing, alone. She kept staring up at me. She waved, looking mildly pleased with herself. I waved back. Owen was nowhere to be seen. Two seconds of cowlike staring was too much. I stood up and made for the stairs, just as Electrocution Solution bounded onto the corner ropes and was about to pounce elbow first on Savage Chicken's skull.
I could have sworn that Mr. Solution gave a wink of good luck to me just before he dived. I dived, too, into the fray of the music and the crowds after I bounded down the stairs and then dived into the dancing crowd, looking wildly around for Jane.
I saw her closer to the opposite side of the hall. Everyone drifted around; dancing in place was not to be heard of. I finally pushed and flowed to her side.
"Where's Owen?" I asked her, at the top of my breath.
She gave a sphinxlike shrug and didn't answer. Instead she said, "How was the wrestling match?"
"Bad. Incredibly bad." A silence came between us. She pirouetted a half step closer to me.
Cacophony from the speakers; no song particularly began, or ended, but they flowed into one another. The music had picked up; after a few seconds I realized it was a remastered, double-time version of one of Messenger Ash's ballads, "The Trouble with Trouble," complete with the new, two-hour-old lyric that I helped to coin:
Honey, your love makes me feel like Geoffrey Chaucer Stuck without a tale on a flying saucer
Owen must have just uploaded it to the DJ. The sound of my own words (with Owen's voice) blaring into the dance space with people actually dancing to it made me smile. The Balinese backbeat and slide guitar kept the song thrumming. While we danced, I told Jane that I wrote part of the lyrics, but she didn't seem particularly impressed. A mix of contradictory signals and signs, I thought to myself. I saw Owen in the DJ's box briefly as I passed by, hunkered down over the instrument board. A breeze of perfume-orangeish, maybe, or oleander, or marjoram, or all three together-wafted from the ceiling, in spray mists.
And Jane, when she bumped next to me, smelled lightly of honey.
"The Trouble with Trouble" ended and slower chant-dancing began.
"I hate slow music," she shouted above the noise.
I looked at her. She looked at me, calm. We had both stopped dancing. What could I have done in this situation? If I had only known what "this situation" was; I could only see "this situation" around the edges, the scrim.
"Let's wait outside for Owen to finish," I finally said.
Owen didn't catch us; he might not have cared. We walked out the exit; I noticed I was shaking slightly. Awful Arthur's had closed, and the Gnostics had to take the last srail back to Pittsburgh. The cool April air stung my skin. In the calmness, Jane looked like a blonde ambulance, or a bright ghost.
So we sat on a bench advertised with a parent-swapping agency, and we began talking. It's funny how a face is nothing like you remember it from the first gaze. Yes, she still had the high cheekbones and green eyes that I remembered from forty five minutes before, but seeing her up close was illuminating. My memory, the first time, got it all wrong. A shift and inflection in her features that I wasn't able to explain. It was like postcards you buy of, say, Angkor Wat or the Disney Ruins looking nothing like the places you actually visited.
"I like it here in Suddenly," she said, looking up at the clear sky poked with stars.
"Spend more time here and you'll sour." I tried to make it light-hearted, but I'm sure it came across with a bitter tinge. "What do you do on the lake?"
She shook her head. "Not much. Watch the sky a lot. Go swimming. Read. Do you like to read?"
"Sometimes, though it's hard to find good books." I leaned back on the bench, feeling more comfortable. Maybe I was a little drunk on her honey scent and her closeness. "Do you go to school?" I asked her.
"I used to." A confusion passed over her face, but only briefly, before she regarded me with an amused squint. "I studied in paleoanthropology."
"It's the study of preliterate cultures through archaeological records. Human origins. What happened in the hundred thousand years after we fell out of the trees, so to speak." I guess I nodded a lot, even though I didn't understand at that point much of what she mentioned. But that was my fault, not hers. I was beginning to learn how a person's mind could be like a nipple or an earlobe, how a person could fall in love with a person from what they say instead of how they look. Or maybe, when the two intertwined things really cooked.
"It makes me sad," she continued, "to think that so many people and places have disappeared. So many vanishings." She rummaged through her handpurse and opened a pack of cigarettes, Malaysian. She tapped the end and the tip lit. "Do you want one? Wait, I'll give you another one for good luck."
I had smoked pot before, and opium, but nothing as taboo as a cigarette. My hand shaking, I reached for the two Jane had already offered me and sucked in the smoke, putting the second cigarette in my vest pocket. My tongue tasted like bacon bits, but at least I didn't cough from the smoke. She held her cigarette balanced between her left index and middle finger, shaking it slightly to clear the ashes from the tube. A threesome ran past us in sync, holding the Belgian flag between them, probably to the Suddenly hostel. Jane peered around.
"Look, it doesn't look like Owen will be joining us tonight. Why don't we get out of here?" Her question had been entirely foreshadowed yet was completely surprising at the same time.
I finished the last of my nic-stic and stomped it out with my sandal. "Sure. Sure." Standing up, I saw that underneath the bench someone had arranged two crumpled female condoms to stand upright, like two bunny ears. "Where to?"
She turned around and walked backward slowly for a few steps, swinging both of her arms and snapping her fingers. "The Lake. All right?"
So we walked to the Lake, about two minutes, the other end of Suddenly from my bungalow. Owen's bungalow, too. In a couple of minutes we reached the edge of town and the lake shore. The water looked particularly smooth and dark, like my hair, and foggy like ... well, fog was fog. Out in the distance in the lake, I could barely see a few hazy lights from the upper levels of the parking garage, where Jane and the other deaders lived.
"Do you love Owen?" I blurted out.
Jane started laughing. She spun away from me a little, kicking up the grainy sand, holding her arms around her shoulders. "Owen? I've only known him a couple of weeks. I have a bunch of Messenger Ash discs. You can't force yourself to love someone, no matter how good it may be for you. You don't expect it where you expect it, anyways. Do you know what I mean?"
"I know what you mean." I didn't. A pair of white-bellied augmented chickens dived and skimmed near the water close to us.
She leaned closer and took my hand. Her skin felt like cool milk. We stood there for a couple of seconds in silence, hands interlocked. She leaned over and whispered, barely, "I have to go now. It's time for me to go back." I could feel very slightly her tongue touch my earlobe.
I nodded, the hurricane whirl of the past hour catching up to me.
"Can we see each other again?" I said.
She nodded. "Here, around ten-ish or so?" When I said yes, she said, "I feel like I've known you for ages already. In a way."
I nodded, not quite understanding. "How are you going to get back?"
She pointed west. "Oh, my boat's over there a little ways. It used to be a carnival ride boat. Leaky but fine. I'll see you then." She gave me a quick peck on the cheek and walked west.
I walked myself up the shore and didn't go home right away. I sat on a dingy dune and watched the fog, watched the lapping waves, and most of all, hoped to watch Jane's boat drift to the vague outline of the parking garage. But I saw no boat, even though I waited for twenty minutes. All I saw was a slightly larger wave that appeared to be moving backward, against the normal current of the lake, receding farther and farther away from me.
I finally got back to the cream-colored bungalow, with all the other little bungalows of parent-free teenagers in neat little rows on Value Street. Tomorrow was school. I looked at the Date, Time and Temperature Channel transfixed on our TV. That and the Aquarium Channel were the only two we had. Incredibly, it was barely midnight. Still an hour or two to get homework done. I entered the shower.
"Hi!" the shower said. "What water temperature would you like today?"
All I wanted was peace, to sift through the thoughts in my head like a kid would sift through shells in sand. Instead I got the talking shower. I mean, I was eighteen; I wasn't a kid anymore, right? I had a responsibility to my own introspection or something like that.
Owen didn't wake me up in the middle of the night, or secretly slit my throat, but when I woke up I found a sticky note stuck on my room's doorknob:
"Hey fuckhead! Read your mail."
Sure enough, the THANK THE GODDESS, YOU HAVE MAIL button flashed on my console, so I popped open my mailbox and started poring through Owen's message:
"Quo fucking vadis? Why didn't you wait for me? Why did you take off with JANE? Did you know that I was nearly done in the DJs booth? Could you show a little bit of compassion for the fact that I made your lyrics a part of the song? JANE is my girlfriend and I'm so upset that you might have been sleeping with JANE or holding her hand that I have been forced into writing a letter. Extremely passive aggressive behavior, isn't it? I reckon so. INsincerely, OWEN."
For some reason, in any correspondence he had to all-capitalize people's names. I had to get ready for school, so I peered around the door of my room. No sounds. I tiptoed into the kitchen. The bungalow was empty, and I started prepping for school, eating a can of Scallion Medallions for breakfast.
Excerpted from Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead by Alan DeNiro Copyright © 2006 by Alan DeNiro. Excerpted by permission.
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