Thirst

Overview

In "the story collection of the year" (Paper magazine), Ken Kalfus mines a vast terrain of geography and metaphor to create a stunning series of portraits of people caught in the seismic collision of cultures, be they real, hallucinated, dreamed, or desired. With his "magical, transformative, and captivating" (Boston Book Review) mix of fantasy and dark humor, Kalfus has crafted an extraordinary collection that is, by turns, hilarious, mysterious, and touching.

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Thirst

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Overview

In "the story collection of the year" (Paper magazine), Ken Kalfus mines a vast terrain of geography and metaphor to create a stunning series of portraits of people caught in the seismic collision of cultures, be they real, hallucinated, dreamed, or desired. With his "magical, transformative, and captivating" (Boston Book Review) mix of fantasy and dark humor, Kalfus has crafted an extraordinary collection that is, by turns, hilarious, mysterious, and touching.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
The Village Voice The most potent debut book I've read this year....The stories work something like poison: you touch them to your lips and you're instantly seduced.

David Foster Wallace Ken Kalfus is an important writer in every sense of "important." There are funny, hip writers, and there are smart, technically innovative writers, and there are wise, moving, and profound writers. Kalfus is all these at once, and the stories in Thirst manage simultaneously to delight, impress, provoke, and redeem.

The New York Times Book Review Throughout this collection, the door is open to...unsettling ambiguity; always a tantalizing "perhaps" is in play...Ken Kalfus lights his stories with fundamental strangeness. The displaced figures in Thirst drift through worlds that are at once astonishing and familiar. They'd like to wake up in their own beds after a good night's sleep, but even that blessing would, we suspect, have the word "perhaps" in it somewhere.

Salon A dazzling debut....With his amazingly eclectic story collection, Ken Kalfus emerges as a major literary talent....It's exhilarating to discover a young writer with so much range and so little self-consciousness about exploring it.

CityPages (Minneapolis/St. Paul) Kalfus' grip on the story is so gentle that the story itself, like an unruly boy soft on the inside, always stays within the author's reach. But in the end, Kalfus surprises you, transports you to a different frame of mind — a sharp, clean turn in the story and you're left holding your breath, wondering how you got there.

Robley Wilson This is a dazzle of a book...a kind of literary hit-and-run that keeps sideswiping the reader with surprise and wonder.

Miami Herald Unexpect the expected: good advice for any reader who tends to judge a book by its publicity blurbs, but particularly apropos to Ken Kalfus' first venture into fiction. I can, though, confidently vouch for one thing to expect from Thirst: delight.

Boston Book Review An intelligent and playful collection of stories that will move readers by engaging their sense of wonder and joy of exploration....Ken Kalfus resorts to fiction to accommodate what life can't accommodate — imaginary meanderings that the physical, phenomenological world makes impossible. He keeps contradictions and ambivalences in abeyance, forcing confrontation of possible and impossible worlds. He uses fiction, among other things, to address problems, without seeking to resolve them.

The New York Times Book Review The stories in Thirst come at Ken Kalfus' readers from left of center, from surprising places not located on the banks of the mainstream....The fable "Invisible Malls" is a delicious fantasy......

Paper magazine Playful, moving short stories about travel, childhood, and loss, from a writer who does almost everything well.

Patsy Baudoin
All of the 14 pieces in Thirst play out contradictions, juggle realities by juxtaposing sometimes anodyne, daily events with their more philosophicla and epistemological concerns. Narrators move in and out of contexts, inhabiting worlds nonchalantly, no matter how outrageous or fanciful the situations. The result is an intelligent and playful collection of stories that will move readers by engaging their sense of wonder and joy of exploration. -- Boston Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Kalfus veers between whimsical postmodern playfulness and a darker realism in the 14 stories of his skilled, versatile first collection. He demonstrates a sophisticated comic flair, best seen in "The Joy and Melancholy Baseball Trivia Quiz," which describes a number of entirely fictional baseball records. Sometimes, however, Kalfus's whimsy gets the best of him, as in "Invisible Malls," a reworking of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, an extended literary joke that wears thin. At the other extreme, some of his forays into more conventional fiction such as "Rope Bridge," about a man's desire for a friend of his wife's are a bit pedestrian. Kalfus is most successful when he mixes his different approaches into the original sort of magic realism he creates in the title tale, which concerns an erotically charged encounter between a virginal Irish au pair, Nula, and a Moroccan student, Henri Tatahouine, in Paris. The hallucinatory quality of Henri's account of his life leaves Nula emotionally blistered, as though she had been in the Sahara. The comic, horrifying "Cats in Space," which tells the tale of a group of kids who use helium balloons to launch a kitten into the air, is similarly effective. Though uneven, Kalfus's collection is ambitious and daring, with smart, fluid prose and an abundance of surprises.
Library Journal
Kalfus's first work of fiction, this collection of 14 tales is an interesting mix of settings, characters, and themes. In "Bouquet," we meet a young Irish au pair who comes face-to-face with her sexuality in a science museum in Paris. Then in the title story, she meets a young Moroccan who explains what it is like to be truly thirsty and exposes her to a world that she has never known. There is a story about a man living a double life - or is he? In "Rope Bridge," a husband, a wife, and their son go to New Hampshire to visit the wife's college roommate, only to have the husband constantly think about having sex with the friend. In the longest story, we meet a foreign officer and his American wife as they face the poverty and hopelessness of his home country in the form of a destitute family and their sick child. The other stories cover such varied ground as Kubla Khan and shopping malls, a young prisoner looking for a suit for court, a high school student's trip to Bulgaria, and a surreal baseball league. Well written and very moving, these stories explore the common themes of love, family, duty, and class in a fresh and open manner so that one comes away with a new perspective on age-old questions. Recommended for all fiction collections. Robin Nesbitt, Columbus Metropolitan Lib., OH
Kirkus Reviews
It's not easy to identify author Kalfus in this debut volume, since its mode, manner, and voice change as with the colors of the chameleon. Perhaps the 14 pieces vary so from having been written over a long a period; many, in any case, are notably less original or adept than others. The ghosts of O. Henry and his legions haunt simple, surprise-ending stories like "Bouquet" (an Irish au pair aghast at the licentiousness of Paris) and "Suit" (a young man being tailored for his appearance in court); others follow the same path but stroll also toward the occult, as in the Jekyll and Hyde "Night and Day You Are the One" and "The Weather in New York" (an apartment-bound man realizing that a snowstorm will never end). Kalfus's least resonant efforts are his most "realistic," as in the suburban tale of boyhood cruelty to animals ("Cats in Space") or the Hemingway-esque effort about coming home again ("Among the Bulgarians"), which lies limp on the page in spite of its echoes of classics like "Soldier's Home." The fellow who lusts after his wife's friend ("Rope Bridge") has far too little to show or tell for himself, and a Thailand-set tale of human tragedy ("No Grace on the Road") becomes clumsy and tendentious. Kalfus's stronger talent lies in less conventional directions the sparkling little essay-pieces of "The Joy and Melancholy Baseball Trivia Quiz," for example, or the simultaneously historic, surreal, and lovely "The Republic of St. Mark, 1849"). Even then, Kalfus needs to guard against a debilitating coyness of tone, as in his "Invisible Malls" (Marco Polo explains malls to Kublai Khan), but his inventiveness and lyricism here or in "A Line Is a Series of Points" (entire villages wanderacross the countryside) are his best, and often captivating. A middling mix, with glimmers of real strengths in the offing.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780671034825
  • Publisher: Washington Square Press
  • Publication date: 9/1/1999
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 1,380,963
  • Product dimensions: 0.52 (w) x 5.50 (h) x 8.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Ken Kalfus

Born in New York, Ken Kalfus has lived in Paris, Dublin, Belgrade, and, most recently, Moscow. His stories have been published in many literary magazines, some in Serbo-Croatian and Russian translation. He has recently moved back to the States with his wife, Inga, and their daughter, Sky. This is his first collection of fiction. His second collection is soon to be published, and he is at work on a novel.

Biography

Ken Kalfus is the author of a novel, The Commissariat of Enlightenment, and the short-story collections Thirst and Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, all of which were named New York Times Notable Books. His writing has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Harper's, Tin House, and Bomb. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife and daughter.

Author biography courtesy of HarperCollins.

Good To Know

My computer runs on Windows, but for my work I still use the DOS-based program XyWrite, a stripped-down Ascii processor from the 1980s. All my books have been written on XyWrite. It's the best writing program out there.
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    1. Hometown:
      Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
    1. Date of Birth:
      April 9, 1954
    2. Place of Birth:
      Bronx, New York
    1. Education:
      The New School for Social Research, Sarah Lawrence College, New York University

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: Bouquet

The young au pair had grown up only twenty minutes from Grafton Street, in the pastel-colored clapboard suburb of Finglas, and she had expected Paris to be somewhat like Dublin, if bigger. But automobiles here careened down narrow streets, a subtle and capricious grammar tied the language in knots, men and women in flowing desert robes passed her as she walked the children home from school, and everywhere, on everyone's minds, on the tips of their tongues, like a secret they could not keep, there was sex. On the way to the museum with Marie and Melanie one afternoon, Nula entered a metro station in which every billboard carried the same advertisement for a line of lingerie. The adverts were huge, reaching from floor to ceiling, and were composed entirely of a close-up photograph of two breasts gently cupped by a white lace bra. The image was repeated on nearly every inch of wall space in the station, even alongside the system map, all the way down the stairs, and then on every platform. As the train pulled from the station, the breasts flickered in Nula's eyes.

The girls, ages ten and eight, didn't miss any of it. No, they wouldn't. They stared at the advertisements and, once aboard the train, launched into a discussion about a schoolmate who had begun wearing a brassiere.

"She stuffs it with tissue paper!" cried Melanie, the eight-year-old.

The two of them fell against each other, giggling. The other passengers looked away.

Marie and Melanie knew the au pair's discomfort; this was their revenge. They hated museums. They would have preferred to spend their Wednesday afternoons, when school was let out early, in the Luxembourg Gardens children's park or at Trocadero, where they would watch helmeted youths, some just a little older than Marie, glide and spin on skateboards down the Palais de Chaillot's long driveways. Nula had taken them there once but, burdened by the knowledge that the French school authorities had thoughtfully set aside the half day for educational excursions, she now insisted on searching the newspapers for exhibitions, matinees, and recitals.

It was their first visit to this museum, a majestic block of carved stone, not like those joke structures, all glass and plumbing fixtures, that had been thrown up around the city in the last few decades. Dedicated to the diffusion of scientific knowledge, it sailed through the neatly tended, grassy square like a battleship trimmed with granite weaponry and other appurtenances: a tower, a clock, a gallery of togaed figures perched between decks. Nula swept up the steps with the girls, past a scattering of men sunning themselves at the institution's prow. Some of them squatted and spat seeds. An elder passed, dangling a single watch for sale from a rough, misshapen hand. Teeth flashed at an unkind remark.

A young man lounged by the museum door, wearing a brown leather jacket and a rakishly askew, oversized plaid cap. He stared at each woman passerby, regardless of her age or appearance, fishing for her eye, and mechanically moved on to the next one after she was gone. It was the cap that caught Nula's attention: its vulgarity amplified his projection of self-confidence. He thought he was good-looking enough to wear anything. Nula glanced at the youth for only a moment, but the moment was too long, for he smiled at her and knew that she saw him smile.

She looked away, but before she and the girls could enter the building he had reached them. "Good day," he said. His politeness just accented the tiny leer that began around his eyes and turned up the little parabolas of skin at the ends of his mouth.

"Excuse us," she replied in French, passing the children around him.

"English?" he guessed.

"No," she said, and was in the door. Melanie started to look back at the youth, but the au pair seized her and thrust her into the queue at the ticket counter.

When it was time for their baths, the girls would dodge her, running through the flat stark naked, hiding underneath the dining-room table, and once even dashing out onto the terrace to display themselves to the whole of Passy. They were hardly better behaved in their parents' company. The other night after dinner, when Nula came in from the kitchen with the coffee, she found that Marie had stuck two cups under her shirt and was playing the vamp with Melanie, who examined her sister's chest with mock lust. But Madame Reynourd had only suppressed a laugh and lightly scolded them: "Dégoûtant!"

Monsieur and Madame Reynourd were easy-going people, if a bit disorganized. They shambled through their flat either half dressed or half undressed — Nula could never be sure in which direction their disarray was heading; they left large sums of cash lying about; they could never remember what plans had been agreed for the children that day. Already in their forties and each a stone overweight, they were nevertheless enveloped in a kind of ripe, luxuriant youthfulness. Paul played rugby on Sundays and came home soaked in sweat. Elizabeth wore her blouses virtually unbuttoned. She flirted with the husbands of friends and, accompanying Nula to the butcher and baker, even with the young shop assistants, on the au pair's behalf. Nula nearly cowered behind her. At night in her room several stories above their flat, she lay awake and, against the current of intention, her thoughts drifted to the couple below and their seething sexual restlessness.

The girls' inability to concentrate descended from their parents like a congenital stain. Here on the second floor of the museum, within a glass case, a tree bloomed with stuffed tropical birds outlandishly feathered and preserved so close to the edge of life that Nula could, or thought she should, almost hear them singing, but what drew Marie's attention was the device that recorded on a rolling scroll the humidity behind the glass. Nula shooed her away from it. The two girls began to jog toward an exhibit describing the construction of the Eiffel Tower and then — in a moment of insight — realized that the surface friction of the hall's polished marble floors was less than the forward momentum of a little girl in new penny-loafers. They slid the rest of the way.

"Marie! Melanie! Stop!" Nula hissed. The young man (an Algerian? a Libyan?) approached, grinning. He had followed them into the museum and had been shadowing them through it. He had lurked near her in the dark of the astronomy exhibit, his bared teeth purple in the ultraviolet light. In the metallurgy hall, he had stared intently as she read to Marie the explanation of how an iron forge worked.

"Come here," she now called to the children, but, embarrassed in his presence, she called too softly for them to hear, or at least softly enough for them to pretend not to hear.

"Well, you are a American?" the Algerian confidently asked in uncertain English. "You are a student maybe. I am a student. Do you know Vincennes?"

"No." Her education had gone no further than her secondary school leaving certificate.

"My degree is almost finished," he said. "I am two years at Jussieu, and now I am at Vincennes, at the Department of Sexology."

rNula didn't reply. She looked past him, at the children, who ignored her.

"Do you know the sexology field? Very fascinating field. We are the most foremost department in Europe and America. We include the study of anatomy, anthropology, mass culture, economy, philosophy, human relations. The whole gamut, as it were. Every academic discipline must include a contemplation of human sex, don't you agree?"

Marie and Melanie, having exhausted their interest in nineteenth-century engineering, took another run and, squealing, slid out of the hall. Nula shook her head at the Algerian and took off after them at a brisk trot, mentally compiling a list of punishments, through one coolly lit hall after another, past the minerals exhibit and the insects and through the computer room, whose collection of computing instruments began with a Chinese abacus and ended with a model of a large punched card ordinateur dating from the Fourth Republic. Every time she thought she had lost their trail, she heard the girls giggle and shriek, and they'd skitter through the door at the far end of the room.

But then, when she was sure they had gone as far as they could into the dim recesses of the building, Nula found herself in a large, bright, completely modern hall, with the girls standing right there before her, as quiet and attentive as a pair of dolls. The au pair's face was moist. She could feel the wetness above her lips.

"Now you'll catch it," she said in English. She hunkered and roughly fastened a few buttons on Melanie's blue school uniform that had come undone. "Mama will hear of this, I promise you. No television tonight. And don't ask me to buy you cakes on the way home. You've been very, very naughty."

But the girls weren't listening. Nula turned, looked up at the object of their attention, and gasped. The opposite wall contained a floor-to-ceiling backlit color transparency of a man and woman, standing shoulder to shoulder, completely naked. Their arms were at their sides, their private parts exposed. The couple were perched on a diving board and behind them were a range of forested hills and a rich blue sky. Their smiles were placid, as if they noticed neither each other nor the camera. Nula fell silent. The man's penis seemed small in relation to the rest of him; the mossy equilateral between the woman's legs was exceptionally black. Then Marie said something — Nula didn't hear what — to Melanie, and they both giggled.

"Oh, this is biology," Nula said, her mouth dry. "Come, let's look at the rocket ships."

"We want to stay," Marie told her.

"We can't."

"Why not?"

"It's boring," Nula said.

Marie and Melanie remained where they were. Nula took a few steps toward the exit, and the girls, less tentatively, went in the other direction.

The entire hall was devoted to reproduction and sexuality. A film projection demonstrated amoebas splitting. A DNA spiral stairway climbed to the ceiling. Next to it, a plastic model the size of a school bus showed the pistil and stamens of an archetypical flower, accompanied by a softly buzzing mechanical bee suspended from wires. One display diagrammed the courtship dance of two hummingbirds; another the egg-laying strategies of frogs; a third showed two elephants mating.

Side by side were similar exhibits explaining human reproduction, as if men and women were no more than rutting animals (they're no less, Elizabeth would say). Across from the elephants was a diagram of the developing human fetus, along with a picture of the completely naked mother, her breasts splayed, her belly distended, at the corresponding stages of pregnancy. An actual fetus floated in an amber liquid in a display case below the diagram. Nula's two charges stood by it, making little trilling sounds of awe. Nula herself stared for a moment, shivered, and then remembered the girls.

"Don't you want to see the butterflies?"

But they had already moved on to the next exhibit, drawings of the human male and female at progressive ages, including labeled diagrams of their genitals. And, squatting by them, talking quickly and in earnest, was the Algerian! The tawny skin between the top of his jeans and the bottom of his shirt shone like the skin of a piece of fruit. Marie and Melanie listened attentively.

"Monsieur!" Nula cried. The girls snickered. "What are you doing? What do you want?"

He stood and offered her a warm smile as she approached. "My little friends were asking of me some few questions."

"Their questions are not for you to answer," she said. "Leave it to their mother."

"Madame — " he began, allowing a question mark to bob in the pause.

But Nula said, "I'm not their mother," turned to the children, and briskly told them, "Let's go."

Melanie danced away from under her arm. She joined her sister to stare into the next display case, their faces pressed against it. The idea of the dirt squeezing into the pores of the girls' skin disgusted Nula. She glanced inside the case. It contained a variety of devices, accompanied by a text and diagrams that described their uses. She didn't recognize a single one.

"Look, here's a playground!" she said desperately, glimpsing a patch of green outside an open door around the corner. "Don't you want to play?"

The two girls ignored her. Nula cooed, pleaded, and demanded — and finally bribed them outside with the promise of a bag of chestnuts. They held out for ice cream, and even then had to be shoved out the door. As they left, the Algerian winked at her.

In the small park and sculpture garden adjacent to the museum, old men sitting on weathered benches gazed at the statuary; couples strolled arm and arm along the park's paths. Nula bought the girls two chocolate esquimaux from a vendor. "We have a half hour," she told them. "Have fun."

She might as well have told them to do the following week's homework. "Play," she said, and finally they sulked off down a tightly manicured row of rose hedges, ice cream already dripping to their fists.

Nula was glad to be free of them for the moment. She could find a bench and relax, and perhaps enjoy an ice cream herself. The park was lovely. The flowers were in bloom, the day had turned fair. She wished they had come here from the start. The girls were too young for science.

"Canadienne?"

She turned and glared at the Algerian standing beside her. He grinned.

"You're a terrible man to fill their ears with such filth," she told him.

"Filth?"

"The way you talk and they're so young."

"But sex is part of life."

"I won't have it," Nula said, her temper rising. "There's a proper age for everything, and a proper way of learning about this."

"What age, what way did you learn it?"

"Sexology. I don't believe there is such a thing."

"Are you a virgin?"

"Yes I am," she said.

The defiant admission made her flush. She had never told anyone this before. Yet she did not regret the confession: She enjoyed its recklessness. She had told the truth as if it didn't matter.

The Algerian merely nodded his head in a professional manner.

"Have you a boyfriend?"

"Go away."

"It is best," he said pleasantly, "that the first time be with someone who understands the necessary gentleness and is also very expert."

"The first time will be with someone I love."

The Algerian's shrug was nearly Gallic. "Why begin love with anxiety and frustration?"

"Where I come from, people look for romance. You don't study that, do you?"

"On the contrary — "

"If you don't go I'm calling the police. There's a guard over there. Are your residency papers in order?"

Nula was looking directly into the Algerian's face as she said this, but she missed the moment his expression changed. He still wore a smile, but his face had hardened around it, leaving his smile not too far from a grimace. The transformation revealed that he was hardly older than she was. The ridiculous cap on his head now looked like something he had to wear because he didn't own another. The youth started to speak — a retort, a challenge, something fierce — but he interrupted himself to say, "I'm very regretful to have made a disturbance."

He abruptly turned, passed through the door into the museum, and disappeared around an exhibit devoted to venereal disease.

The au pair strolled alone through the labyrinth of hedges and abstract statuary. She was angry at herself and embarrassed by her shrillness. She wished she hadn't made the remark about the Algerian's residence permit. There were many people in Paris who didn't have the proper papers, yet had nowhere else to go. And in the end, the Algerian had been harmless, even flattering. When was the last time (she imagined Madame Reynourd asking her) a man had courted her with such persistence? Of course, she had no choice but to ask him to leave (she imagined telling Elizabeth), but (she admitted) she needn't have been unkind.

Nula turned a corner and found Marie and Melanie studying a statue, smiles of delight and discovery playing on their faces. This cheered her. No matter what ugliness and corruption there was in this world, Paris's beauty was fair compensation. She stepped beside the girls, gently running a hand through Melanie's long hair, and examined the unusual, centaurlike mass of bronze. It suddenly resolved: a man behind a woman, both on their knees, his hands firmly gripping her hips.

"It's bad!" she cried, pulling the girls away. "Bad! We're leaving now!"

Nula raced Marie and Melanie, momentarily silenced by her vehemence, down one lane and then another, past a dozen statues that only now were recognizable. Nearly every one showed a man and woman in some position of copulation-and those that didn't, well they were much worse. Prière de ne pas laisser de détritus, no littering, warned a sign along one path, and under the warning was the legend, Musée de I'Histoire Naturelle: Jardin de la Sexualité. "Don't look," Nula shrieked as they passed a grouping of marble figures demonstrating several forms of oral sex.

As soon as they reached the street, Nula furiously cleaned the girls' ice cream-smeared hands and faces with the premoistened towelettes she always carried in her purse.

"You're hurting me," Marie whined.

"Being clean doesn't hurt."

"The woman was drinking the man's pee-pee," Melanie said.

Her sister started to explain, but Nula shouted, "Shut your mouth!"

Marie replied with an obscenity.

Someone called from across the street. "Mademoiselle, Mademoiselle!" Nula, still on her haunches, didn't need to look up.

"Bloody hell," she muttered.

"Mademoiselle," the Algerian called again, dodging traffic. He approached, breathing hard. "Accept my apology please for such misunderstanding that I made."

He thrust a bouquet in her face.

Stunned, Nula rose and took the flowers, a clutch of white lilies, yellow peonies, tulips, and a single sunflower, wrapped in newspaper.

The Algerian said, "I too look for romance."

Nula kept her lips pressed together, maintaining her expression of annoyance.

"I want that you should see," the man added. He removed a black vinyl wallet from his jeans. In it was his carte de séjour, his resident permit. On the card, under his long, unpronounceable family name and his twentieth arrondissement address, was a line reserved for his profession: étudiant.

"I have right in Paris like you," he told her. There was less rancor in this statement than pride. Nula had come to France on the ferry from Rosslare; his journey had been much more difficult.

"So you do," she said evenly.

Marie and Melanie stared at the Algerian and then at the flowers. Marie sniffed at the bouquet. "They're nice," she mumbled, dazed by his gallantry.

"Well then. I now say farewell ladies. Farewell."

The Algerian, or perhaps he was a Libyan or even a Tunisian, bowed and straightened, then turned on the heels of his Adidas and hurried down the street. He didn't look back before he vanished around the corner. "Men like that," Nula began to tell the girls, but she didn't complete the sentence. She really didn't know men like that at all.

By the time they reached home, by way of a crowded, overheated train, Nula, Marie, and Melanie were exhausted. Madame Reynourd met them in the flat's foyer and asked if they enjoyed the museum. Marie said it was boring, and she and her sister trudged off to their bedroom unbuttoning their school uniforms.

"And how was your afternoon?" Elizabeth asked Nula.

"Marvelous," Nula said.

It was then that Elizabeth noticed the flowers, still in Nula's hands, unwilted and fragrant despite the crush of the metro. Elizabeth raised her eyebrows in an expression of curious amusement. But Nula, surprised by her own reply, didn't wish to answer any more questions. She pushed past her, hurriedly explaining, "I must put these in some water."

Nula found a blue cut glass vase in the kitchen cabinet and ran the tap. She removed the cellotape and unfurled the newspaper. As the flowers shifted, an object fell from between their stalks and onto the tiled floor. It was a key chain, without keys, and attached to it was a small tag with a phone number written on it in a very tight, careful print, and a charm: an anatomically correct, dusky plastic phallus.

Nula put her hands to her chest and shrieked, and she was sure the shriek reached every flat in the building, and into the concierge's office, and onto the street, frightening passersby and perhaps even stopping traffic. But when Madame Reynourd came into the kitchen, it was with an unalarmed step and, when she saw what lay on the floor, it raised a soft, pleased smile.

Copyright © 1998 by Ken Kalfus

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Table of Contents

Contents

Notice

Le Jardin de la Sexualité

Bouquet

Thirst

The Joy and Melancholy Baseball Trivia Quiz

Cats in Space

The Republic of St. Mark, 1849

Night and Day You Are the One

Among the Bulgarians

Suit

The Weather in New York

Rope Bridge

Invisible Malls

No Grace on the Road

A Line Is a Series of Points

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First Chapter

Chapter One: Bouquet The young au pair had grown up only twenty minutes from Grafton Street, in the pastel-colored clapboard suburb of Finglas, and she had expected Paris to be somewhat like Dublin, if bigger. But automobiles here careened down narrow streets, a subtle and capricious grammar tied the language in knots, men and women in flowing desert robes passed her as she walked the children home from school, and everywhere, on everyone's minds, on the tips of their tongues, like a secret they could not keep, there was sex. On the way to the museum with Marie and Melanie one afternoon, Nula entered a metro station in which every billboard carried the same advertisement for a line of lingerie. The adverts were huge, reaching from floor to ceiling, and were composed entirely of a close-up photograph of two breasts gently cupped by a white lace bra. The image was repeated on nearly every inch of wall space in the station, even alongside the system map, all the way down the stairs, and then on every platform. As the train pulled from the station, the breasts flickered in Nula's eyes.

The girls, ages ten and eight, didn't miss any of it. No, they wouldn't. They stared at the advertisements and, once aboard the train, launched into a discussion about a schoolmate who had begun wearing a brassiere.

"She stuffs it with tissue paper!" cried Melanie, the eight-year-old.

The two of them fell against each other, giggling. The other passengers looked away.

Marie and Melanie knew the au pair's discomfort; this was their revenge. They hated museums. They would have preferred to spend their Wednesday afternoons, when school was let out early, in the Luxembourg Gardens children's park or at Trocadero, where they would watch helmeted youths, some just a little older than Marie, glide and spin on skateboards down the Palais de Chaillot's long driveways. Nula had taken them there once but, burdened by the knowledge that the French school authorities had thoughtfully set aside the half day for educational excursions, she now insisted on searching the newspapers for exhibitions, matinees, and recitals.

It was their first visit to this museum, a majestic block of carved stone, not like those joke structures, all glass and plumbing fixtures, that had been thrown up around the city in the last few decades. Dedicated to the diffusion of scientific knowledge, it sailed through the neatly tended, grassy square like a battleship trimmed with granite weaponry and other appurtenances: a tower, a clock, a gallery of togaed figures perched between decks. Nula swept up the steps with the girls, past a scattering of men sunning themselves at the institution's prow. Some of them squatted and spat seeds. An elder passed, dangling a single watch for sale from a rough, misshapen hand. Teeth flashed at an unkind remark.

A young man lounged by the museum door, wearing a brown leather jacket and a rakishly askew, oversized plaid cap. He stared at each woman passerby, regardless of her age or appearance, fishing for her eye, and mechanically moved on to the next one after she was gone. It was the cap that caught Nula's attention: its vulgarity amplified his projection of self-confidence. He thought he was good-looking enough to wear anything. Nula glanced at the youth for only a moment, but the moment was too long, for he smiled at her and knew that she saw him smile.

She looked away, but before she and the girls could enter the building he had reached them. "Good day," he said. His politeness just accented the tiny leer that began around his eyes and turned up the little parabolas of skin at the ends of his mouth.

"Excuse us," she replied in French, passing the children around him.

"English?" he guessed.

"No," she said, and was in the door. Melanie started to look back at the youth, but the au pair seized her and thrust her into the queue at the ticket counter.


When it was time for their baths, the girls would dodge her, running through the flat stark naked, hiding underneath the dining-room table, and once even dashing out onto the terrace to display themselves to the whole of Passy. They were hardly better behaved in their parents' company. The other night after dinner, when Nula came in from the kitchen with the coffee, she found that Marie had stuck two cups under her shirt and was playing the vamp with Melanie, who examined her sister's chest with mock lust. But Madame Reynourd had only suppressed a laugh and lightly scolded them: "Dégoûtant!"

Monsieur and Madame Reynourd were easy-going people, if a bit disorganized. They shambled through their flat either half dressed or half undressed -- Nula could never be sure in which direction their disarray was heading; they left large sums of cash lying about; they could never remember what plans had been agreed for the children that day. Already in their forties and each a stone overweight, they were nevertheless enveloped in a kind of ripe, luxuriant youthfulness. Paul played rugby on Sundays and came home soaked in sweat. Elizabeth wore her blouses virtually unbuttoned. She flirted with the husbands of friends and, accompanying Nula to the butcher and baker, even with the young shop assistants, on the au pair's behalf. Nula nearly cowered behind her. At night in her room several stories above their flat, she lay awake and, against the current of intention, her thoughts drifted to the couple below and their seething sexual restlessness.

The girls' inability to concentrate descended from their parents like a congenital stain. Here on the second floor of the museum, within a glass case, a tree bloomed with stuffed tropical birds outlandishly feathered and preserved so close to the edge of life that Nula could, or thought she should, almost hear them singing, but what drew Marie's attention was the device that recorded on a rolling scroll the humidity behind the glass. Nula shooed her away from it. The two girls began to jog toward an exhibit describing the construction of the Eiffel Tower and then -- in a moment of insight -- realized that the surface friction of the hall's polished marble floors was less than the forward momentum of a little girl in new penny-loafers. They slid the rest of the way.

"Marie! Melanie! Stop!" Nula hissed. The young man (an Algerian? a Libyan?) approached, grinning. He had followed them into the museum and had been shadowing them through it. He had lurked near her in the dark of the astronomy exhibit, his bared teeth purple in the ultraviolet light. In the metallurgy hall, he had stared intently as she read to Marie the explanation of how an iron forge worked.

"Come here," she now called to the children, but, embarrassed in his presence, she called too softly for them to hear, or at least softly enough for them to pretend not to hear.

"Well, you are a American?" the Algerian confidently asked in uncertain English. "You are a student maybe. I am a student. Do you know Vincennes?"

"No." Her education had gone no further than her secondary school leaving certificate.

"My degree is almost finished," he said. "I am two years at Jussieu, and now I am at Vincennes, at the Department of Sexology."

Nula didn't reply. She looked past him, at the children, who ignored her.

"Do you know the sexology field? Very fascinating field. We are the most foremost department in Europe and America. We include the study of anatomy, anthropology, mass culture, economy, philosophy, human relations. The whole gamut, as it were. Every academic discipline must include a contemplation of human sex, don't you agree?"

Marie and Melanie, having exhausted their interest in nineteenth-century engineering, took another run and, squealing, slid out of the hall. Nula shook her head at the Algerian and took off after them at a brisk trot, mentally compiling a list of punishments, through one coolly lit hall after another, past the minerals exhibit and the insects and through the computer room, whose collection of computing instruments began with a Chinese abacus and ended with a model of a large punched card ordinateur dating from the Fourth Republic. Every time she thought she had lost their trail, she heard the girls giggle and shriek, and they'd skitter through the door at the far end of the room.

But then, when she was sure they had gone as far as they could into the dim recesses of the building, Nula found herself in a large, bright, completely modern hall, with the girls standing right there before her, as quiet and attentive as a pair of dolls. The au pair's face was moist. She could feel the wetness above her lips.

"Now you'll catch it," she said in English. She hunkered and roughly fastened a few buttons on Melanie's blue school uniform that had come undone. "Mama will hear of this, I promise you. No television tonight. And don't ask me to buy you cakes on the way home. You've been very, very naughty."

But the girls weren't listening. Nula turned, looked up at the object of their attention, and gasped. The opposite wall contained a floor-to-ceiling backlit color transparency of a man and woman, standing shoulder to shoulder, completely naked. Their arms were at their sides, their private parts exposed. The couple were perched on a diving board and behind them were a range of forested hills and a rich blue sky. Their smiles were placid, as if they noticed neither each other nor the camera. Nula fell silent. The man's penis seemed small in relation to the rest of him; the mossy equilateral between the woman's legs was exceptionally black. Then Marie said something -- Nula didn't hear what -- to Melanie, and they both giggled.

"Oh, this is biology," Nula said, her mouth dry. "Come, let's look at the rocket ships."

"We want to stay," Marie told her.

"We can't."

"Why not?"

"It's boring," Nula said.

Marie and Melanie remained where they were. Nula took a few steps toward the exit, and the girls, less tentatively, went in the other direction.

The entire hall was devoted to reproduction and sexuality. A film projection demonstrated amoebas splitting. A DNA spiral stairway climbed to the ceiling. Next to it, a plastic model the size of a school bus showed the pistil and stamens of an archetypical flower, accompanied by a softly buzzing mechanical bee suspended from wires. One display diagrammed the courtship dance of two hummingbirds; another the egg-laying strategies of frogs; a third showed two elephants mating.

Side by side were similar exhibits explaining human reproduction, as if men and women were no more than rutting animals (they're no less, Elizabeth would say). Across from the elephants was a diagram of the developing human fetus, along with a picture of the completely naked mother, her breasts splayed, her belly distended, at the corresponding stages of pregnancy. An actual fetus floated in an amber liquid in a display case below the diagram. Nula's two charges stood by it, making little trilling sounds of awe. Nula herself stared for a moment, shivered, and then remembered the girls.

"Don't you want to see the butterflies?"

But they had already moved on to the next exhibit, drawings of the human male and female at progressive ages, including labeled diagrams of their genitals. And, squatting by them, talking quickly and in earnest, was the Algerian! The tawny skin between the top of his jeans and the bottom of his shirt shone like the skin of a piece of fruit. Marie and Melanie listened attentively.

"Monsieur!" Nula cried. The girls snickered. "What are you doing? What do you want?"

He stood and offered her a warm smile as she approached. "My little friends were asking of me some few questions."

"Their questions are not for you to answer," she said. "Leave it to their mother."

"Madame -- " he began, allowing a question mark to bob in the pause.

But Nula said, "I'm not their mother," turned to the children, and briskly told them, "Let's go."

Melanie danced away from under her arm. She joined her sister to stare into the next display case, their faces pressed against it. The idea of the dirt squeezing into the pores of the girls' skin disgusted Nula. She glanced inside the case. It contained a variety of devices, accompanied by a text and diagrams that described their uses. She didn't recognize a single one.

"Look, here's a playground!" she said desperately, glimpsing a patch of green outside an open door around the corner. "Don't you want to play?"

The two girls ignored her. Nula cooed, pleaded, and demanded -- and finally bribed them outside with the promise of a bag of chestnuts. They held out for ice cream, and even then had to be shoved out the door. As they left, the Algerian winked at her.


In the small park and sculpture garden adjacent to the museum, old men sitting on weathered benches gazed at the statuary; couples strolled arm and arm along the park's paths. Nula bought the girls two chocolate esquimaux from a vendor. "We have a half hour," she told them. "Have fun."

She might as well have told them to do the following week's homework. "Play," she said, and finally they sulked off down a tightly manicured row of rose hedges, ice cream already dripping to their fists.

Nula was glad to be free of them for the moment. She could find a bench and relax, and perhaps enjoy an ice cream herself. The park was lovely. The flowers were in bloom, the day had turned fair. She wished they had come here from the start. The girls were too young for science.

"Canadienne?"

She turned and glared at the Algerian standing beside her. He grinned.

"You're a terrible man to fill their ears with such filth," she told him.

"Filth?"

"The way you talk and they're so young."

"But sex is part of life."

"I won't have it," Nula said, her temper rising. "There's a proper age for everything, and a proper way of learning about this."

"What age, what way did you learn it?"

"Sexology. I don't believe there is such a thing."

"Are you a virgin?"

"Yes I am," she said.

The defiant admission made her flush. She had never told anyone this before. Yet she did not regret the confession: She enjoyed its recklessness. She had told the truth as if it didn't matter.

The Algerian merely nodded his head in a professional manner.

"Have you a boyfriend?"

"Go away."

"It is best," he said pleasantly, "that the first time be with someone who understands the necessary gentleness and is also very expert."

"The first time will be with someone I love."

The Algerian's shrug was nearly Gallic. "Why begin love with anxiety and frustration?"

"Where I come from, people look for romance. You don't study that, do you?"

"On the contrary -- "

"If you don't go I'm calling the police. There's a guard over there. Are your residency papers in order?"

Nula was looking directly into the Algerian's face as she said this, but she missed the moment his expression changed. He still wore a smile, but his face had hardened around it, leaving his smile not too far from a grimace. The transformation revealed that he was hardly older than she was. The ridiculous cap on his head now looked like something he had to wear because he didn't own another. The youth started to speak -- a retort, a challenge, something fierce -- but he interrupted himself to say, "I'm very regretful to have made a disturbance."

He abruptly turned, passed through the door into the museum, and disappeared around an exhibit devoted to venereal disease.


The au pair strolled alone through the labyrinth of hedges and abstract statuary. She was angry at herself and embarrassed by her shrillness. She wished she hadn't made the remark about the Algerian's residence permit. There were many people in Paris who didn't have the proper papers, yet had nowhere else to go. And in the end, the Algerian had been harmless, even flattering. When was the last time (she imagined Madame Reynourd asking her) a man had courted her with such persistence? Of course, she had no choice but to ask him to leave (she imagined telling Elizabeth), but (she admitted) she needn't have been unkind.

Nula turned a corner and found Marie and Melanie studying a statue, smiles of delight and discovery playing on their faces. This cheered her. No matter what ugliness and corruption there was in this world, Paris's beauty was fair compensation. She stepped beside the girls, gently running a hand through Melanie's long hair, and examined the unusual, centaurlike mass of bronze. It suddenly resolved: a man behind a woman, both on their knees, his hands firmly gripping her hips.

"It's bad!" she cried, pulling the girls away. "Bad! We're leaving now!"

Nula raced Marie and Melanie, momentarily silenced by her vehemence, down one lane and then another, past a dozen statues that only now were recognizable. Nearly every one showed a man and woman in some position of copulation-and those that didn't, well they were much worse. Prière de ne pas laisser de détritus, no littering, warned a sign along one path, and under the warning was the legend, Musée de I'Histoire Naturelle: Jardin de la Sexualité. "Don't look," Nula shrieked as they passed a grouping of marble figures demonstrating several forms of oral sex.

As soon as they reached the street, Nula furiously cleaned the girls' ice cream-smeared hands and faces with the premoistened towelettes she always carried in her purse.

"You're hurting me," Marie whined.

"Being clean doesn't hurt."

"The woman was drinking the man's pee-pee," Melanie said.

Her sister started to explain, but Nula shouted, "Shut your mouth!"

Marie replied with an obscenity.

Someone called from across the street. "Mademoiselle, Mademoiselle!" Nula, still on her haunches, didn't need to look up.

"Bloody hell," she muttered.

"Mademoiselle," the Algerian called again, dodging traffic. He approached, breathing hard. "Accept my apology please for such misunderstanding that I made."

He thrust a bouquet in her face.

Stunned, Nula rose and took the flowers, a clutch of white lilies, yellow peonies, tulips, and a single sunflower, wrapped in newspaper.

The Algerian said, "I too look for romance."

Nula kept her lips pressed together, maintaining her expression of annoyance.

"I want that you should see," the man added. He removed a black vinyl wallet from his jeans. In it was his carte de séjour, his resident permit. On the card, under his long, unpronounceable family name and his twentieth arrondissement address, was a line reserved for his profession: étudiant.

"I have right in Paris like you," he told her. There was less rancor in this statement than pride. Nula had come to France on the ferry from Rosslare; his journey had been much more difficult.

"So you do," she said evenly.

Marie and Melanie stared at the Algerian and then at the flowers. Marie sniffed at the bouquet. "They're nice," she mumbled, dazed by his gallantry.

"Well then. I now say farewell ladies. Farewell."

The Algerian, or perhaps he was a Libyan or even a Tunisian, bowed and straightened, then turned on the heels of his Adidas and hurried down the street. He didn't look back before he vanished around the corner. "Men like that," Nula began to tell the girls, but she didn't complete the sentence. She really didn't know men like that at all.


By the time they reached home, by way of a crowded, overheated train, Nula, Marie, and Melanie were exhausted. Madame Reynourd met them in the flat's foyer and asked if they enjoyed the museum. Marie said it was boring, and she and her sister trudged off to their bedroom unbuttoning their school uniforms.

"And how was your afternoon?" Elizabeth asked Nula.

"Marvelous," Nula said.

It was then that Elizabeth noticed the flowers, still in Nula's hands, unwilted and fragrant despite the crush of the metro. Elizabeth raised her eyebrows in an expression of curious amusement. But Nula, surprised by her own reply, didn't wish to answer any more questions. She pushed past her, hurriedly explaining, "I must put these in some water."

Nula found a blue cut glass vase in the kitchen cabinet and ran the tap. She removed the cellotape and unfurled the newspaper. As the flowers shifted, an object fell from between their stalks and onto the tiled floor. It was a key chain, without keys, and attached to it was a small tag with a phone number written on it in a very tight, careful print, and a charm: an anatomically correct, dusky plastic phallus.

Nula put her hands to her chest and shrieked, and she was sure the shriek reached every flat in the building, and into the concierge's office, and onto the street, frightening passersby and perhaps even stopping traffic. But when Madame Reynourd came into the kitchen, it was with an unalarmed step and, when she saw what lay on the floor, it raised a soft, pleased smile.

Copyright © 1998 by Ken Kalfus

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Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Guide

Discussion Questions

1. In the two stories that make up "Le Jardin de la Sexualité," Ken Kalfus imagines Paris — through the eyes of a virginal, culturally prejudiced Irish au pair — as a city buzzing with a powerful undercurrent of lust and frank sexuality. Throughout "Bouquet" and "Thirst," chart the progress of Nula's relationship with Henri, the young Moroccan student. What images and metaphors does the author use to illustrate his vision of Paris?

2. In what ways do the characters and events in "Bouquet" and "Thirst" underscore and inform the following pairs of words: innocence and experience; West and East; science and sex; sublimation and desire; thirst and satisfaction.

3. "The Joy and Melancholy Baseball Trivia Quiz" delivers a fantastical, alternate history of our national pastime that's as dark and tragic as it is playful, comic, and absurd. What do each of these detailed recollections have in common with each other? Consider the narrator's simultaneously poignant and detached play-by-play regarding the foul-hitting champion's at-bat: "Each memory is telescoped inside another, as all would be at the end of life and, if the world of living things is lucky, as our lives would be left to us in death: remembering remembering remembering, and so on."

4. Describe the tone of "Cats in Space." What is the attitude of the narrator, whose adult job "sometimes requires brutality, in a quiet, nine-to-five way?"

5. How does the author choose to resolve Harrah's "severe sleep disorder" in "Night and Day You Are the One?"

6. What kind of a person is Tom, the protagonist in "Rope Bridge?" At one point, Lucy says that love is "the most ephemeral thing in the world. In the end, it diminishes into just another responsibility." How do the events in "Rope Bridge" support, refute, or qualify her lament?

7. For "No Grace on the Road," discuss the nature and complexities of the narrator's ambivalence regarding his heritage, his American wife, and the effects that French colonialism appear to have had on his native culture. Does the narrator have a true home? Consider how the narrator juxtaposes two explanations for why monsoons occur — one a detached Western account grounded in science, the other an ancient Eastern myth full of wonder and allegory. Why does the author do this?

8. Contrast the significance and potential after-effects of the sex act that occurs at the climax of "Rope Bridge" with the sex act at the conclusion of "No Grace on the Road."

9. In "Suit," why do you suppose the author chooses to reveal so slowly and deliberately the whole situation that has led up to the characters' shopping expedition? Discuss the techniques Kalfus uses in doing this. Have you ever read any similarly structured stories?

10. In "A Line Is a Series of Points," how does the author's economy of language serve this story's tone and theme? Why has the author chosen not to tell us the nationality of the refugees?

11. What is the meaning of home in this collection? Compare the protagonist in "A Line Is a Series of Points" with those in "Among the Bulgarians" and "No Grace on the Road."

12. The fourteen stories in Thirst comprise a wide range of styles, emotions, and geographies. What themes does it consider? When you read it, what surprised you the most? Can you compare Kalfus to other writers? Whom? Which stories do you think are the most effective? Why?

Author Questions

Q. Each story in Thirst is stylistically distinct. How do you set out creating the language or the voice in which you tell your stories?

A. In some of these stories, like "The Joy and Melancholy Baseball Trivia Quiz," the narrative strategy came to me before the story itself; for example, I wanted to write a short story in the form of a trivia quiz. The narrative style is the story, and that's true to some extent for even more conventionally told narratives. Many writers have discovered that how you tell a story — its voice and point of view — determines its effect much more than the plot does.

Q. Tell us about your travels, where you've lived, and how these experiences might have influenced your writing.

A. I've been lucky to live abroad a bit, in Paris, Dublin, Belgrade and Moscow, and have done some traveling, and all that finds itself in what I write but always a bit refracted. Years ago I worked as a babysitter in Paris, between stints as an investment banker and brain surgeon. I recall visiting a museum like the one described in "Le Jardin de la Sexualité," but, alas, have never been able to find it again.

Q. Your stories are full of magic, absurdity, innovative structure, darkness, and major leaps of imagination. Are you going to stick to the short story form, or can we look forward to a novel?

A. The short story form invites playfulness; the novel naturally allows for more character depth and complication. My new book, "PU-239 and Other Russian Fantasies," includes several longer stories and a short novel, and I hope maintains that element of play. I'm working on a full length novel now.

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