Calendar of Regrets

Calendar of Regrets

by Lance Olsen

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Calendar of Regrets by Lance Olsen

Calendar of Regrets is a wildly inventive and visually rich collage of twelve interconnected narratives, one for each month of the year, all pertaining to notions of travel—through time, space, narrative, and death.

The poisoning of the painter Hieronymus Bosch; anchorman Dan Rather’s mysterious mugging on Park Avenue as he strolls home alone one October evening; a series of postcard meditations on the idea of travel from a young American journalist visiting Burma; a husband-and-wife team of fundamentalist Christian suicide bombers; the myth of Iphigenia from Agamemnon’s daughter’s point of view—these and other stories form a mosaic, connected through a pattern of musical motifs, transposed scenes, and recurring characters. It is a narrative about narrativity itself, the human obsession with telling ourselves and our worlds over and over again in an attempt to stabilize a truth that, as Nabokov once said, should only exist within quotation marks.
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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781573661577
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 09/06/2010
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 456
Sales rank: 425,082
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Lance Olsen is Professor of English at the University of Utah and author of ten novels, one new-media text, four critical studies, four short-story collections, and a textbook on fiction writing, as well as editor of two collections of essays about innovative contemporary fiction. He is Fiction Editor at Western Humanities Review.   

Read an Excerpt

Calendar of Regrets

By Lance Olsen


Copyright © 2010 Lance Olsen
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-57366-157-7

Chapter One

January February March April May June July August * September * October November December

Hieronymus Bosch dabs paintbrush to palette and confers with the small round convex mirror floating alone in an ocean of bonewhite wall on the far side of his studio. Sharpness of eye, thinness of lip, satirical rage, he thinks: his whole family of attributes, God willing, will be out of this mess soon enough. Rotating back to his work at hand, he touches color flecks to the insectile legs rooted in the dwarf's shoulder. Appraises.

Travel is sport for those who lack imagination. Bosch is sure of it. Take, by way of illustration, that huge hideous Groot. That huge hideous Groot does not possess a nose. He possesses a greasy vein-webbed tumor partitioning two puckered purple assholes. A homuncular likeness of him hunches in the dark sky above the rendered Bosch's raised left hand. Groot appears piggish as a gluttonous priest, ears donkey-large with gossip. The heavens churn with hell smoke. Below, the hilly countryside blazes with the firewind of belief.

Yet, despite his mass, the noisome emissary from the Brotherhood of Our Lady cannot stop moving. 'S-Hertogenbosch to Tilburg, Tilburg to Eindhoven, Eindhoven to Brussels, and back again, busying himself with business. What Groot's sort does not know, cannot fathom, is that movement is nothing more than a forgetting, foreign landscapes forms of amnesia, journeying a process of unstudying.

One must learn to stay put in order to see. Become a place. A precise address. Lot's wife, that salty pillar.

Huge hideous Groot dropped by this morning, unannounced. Bosch is still trying to figure out why. Prattle over coffee before heading to Helmond. A shared prayer for the Virgin through a cheek squirreled with sugar cubes and ginger snaps. Scuttlebutt about Brinkerhoff, the Brotherhood's banker, between slurps. Groot's sticky mouth sounded like a sea-creature oozing in a fishmonger's bucket.

Bosch knew the boob would not recognize himself in the painting. No one ever does. Every man believes it the next who is worthy of scorn. So Bosch left his easel unveiled as the two sat opposite each other like chess players on the two chairs, stiff-backed as Groot's personality, that comprised the better part of Bosch's cramped workroom.

Because behind the heavy green curtains (he has had them manufactured especially for this severity of space) hovers a window out of which Bosch is proud to say he has not peered for almost sixty-six years. His days are nights lit by eleven lamps. Beyond the window hovers a reeking market square through which he cannot at this instant remember ever having ambled, although he has done so to bring his humors into balance every day since he was thirty at precisely two o'clock with his wife, skeletal Aleyt, and every day at precisely five o'clock, alone, in preparation for the evening meal. He cannot remember the neat rows of slender two-story whitewashed and redbrick houses adorned with stepped gables, tiled roofs, glossy black highlights. He cannot remember the cobblestone lanes shiny with horseshit, wet hay, rotting vegetables, foamy piss, shabby beggars, and ballooned rats rigored under the autumnal mizzle, or, as must be the case on this warm summer afternoon, were he to allow himself the luxury of a glance, the fly-hazed heifers dumbly raising their heads not to reflect a little longer throughout the pastures beyond that slide toward infinity beneath a sky sewn from Siberian irises.

Bosch consults the mirror again. He specks ochre along the dwarf's beak sparkly with slobber.

His grandfather was a painter. His father, too. His big brother Goosen. Three of his four uncles. Yet for the life of him Bosch cannot comprehend whence his own style swelled. It resembles that of the other members of his clan not in the least. Unlike them, unlike his peers, from the instant Hieronymus Bosch kissed brush to canvas he took the greatest pleasure in leaving a faintly rough surface behind him that announces this is a picture of my mind's picture, which is, he believes, as it should be: the world alla prima, a single sketchless application.

Underpainting, he is convinced, is the technique of genius gimping.

The skin of any one of his paintings is more Bosch, more fully himself, than the graying disgrace presently stretched across his bones. This is why he has signed only seven in his career, and then only under duress, only because that is what it took to cache coins to pay bills to paint further paintings. Aleyt sometimes asks why he does not want additional wealth, a larger house, a more elegant wardrobe, although she already knows she already knows the answer. She is the one, after all, who taught it to him. It is the same reason he writes no letters, keeps no journals. Such things are paper children, and why produce paper children when one refuses to produce the screechy, selfish, reeking variety?

Sail nowhere save among the continents of your own soul, and, when your body at long last gives up its war upon you, sloughs away, returning you to infancy, the final hinged panel of the polyptych called yourself having been reached and rushed beyond, leave the useless remainder behind on the wicked midden heap it is.

Let your stunned spirit lift. Drift. Bolt. Soar. Because-


Because, in a phrase: Doeskin brown. Watermelon red. Sandy summer soil the tone of sandkage. These are the only exotic municipalities a man needs visit during his delay on earth, so long as he pays attention, keeps his inner eyes open, learns to listen to himself, which is to say to the noise light makes within the head.

Life's foe is distraction. This is why Bosch has never stepped beyond the lush pastures embracing's-Hertogenbosch. He does not see the advantage. Journey is attempted breakout, and yet, down behind the liver, the spleen, every human knows no one leaves this town, any of them, alive.

Bosch mentioned as much to Groot in passing. He could not help taking note as he did so of the pink speckles constellating the emissary's bald pate, the bad hide beneath his patchy fog of beard. Their peculiar meeting lasted less than half an hour. A rap arrived upon the front door as the town clock tolled ten. From his studio, where Bosch had been orbiting his easel, endeavoring to see his self-portrait from the vantage point of another solar system, he could hear clatter and commotion in the foyer, his wife's artificial trill, Groot's bass outshout caving into that chronic gluey cough of his. Hope cringed. Bosch could hear Aleyt usher in the intruder, offer him a cup of coffee, could hear Groot accept. Hope bit its own cheek. Aleyt called brightly to her husband that his colleague was here. Bosch watched hope hobble away.

Aleyt showed Groot into the studio where Bosch set down his brush, dabbed his fingers with a nearby rag, revolved stiffly on stiff knees, reached out, and wobbled Groot's chubby hand. Aleyt disappeared, reappeared with a hectic silver serving tray, then vanished for good, leaving the painter to fend for himself. He felt like the last soldier on a battlefield, the enemy of thousands descending.

The huge hideous Groot half-cleared his gluey throat and began boring Bosch with details concerning his imminent departure to Helmond. From what Bosch could tell, it had something to do with finance and dry goods. Bosch loathed finance and dry goods. He slipped into his mask of feigned interest while privately calculating this afternoon's labor on his piece-in-progress. Groot worried aloud about having to travel so soon after a resurgence of the plague in the region. Quarantine had been declared in Breda and Oss. The burghers had taken it upon themselves to aid the Lord's wrath upon the peasants by islanding their neighborhoods. The idea was to let the buggers cull themselves, thereby hastening their atonement. It was the least decent people could do.

Bosch stared stonily over Groot's right shoulder at his canvas in the fidgety lamplight. He would, he decided, fork a cinnabar serpent's tongue between the homunculus's lips. Alter the ears from donkey to rabbit to signify the unholy Catholic exuberance for bottomless proliferation.

A miniature nun, unclothed but for her headdress, breasts girlishly pert, rode a large mouse with horse's skull bareback and upside down across the shadowy ceiling. Bosch raised his chin slightly and studied her with interest. A portwine stain in the shape of a crucifix ornamented her bare left flank. Her tongue, a good meter long, flapped behind her like a purple scarf.

Such waking visions did not especially surprise him. They had visited ever since that night more than five decades ago when he was awakened by his mother's screams down in the street. Never till that moment had he heard raw terror tear through a voice.

Lord save us! he came to consciousness hearing his mother cry. The End Times are here! The End Times are here!

He lurched up in the bed, his muscles thinking for him, and-

And it occurred to Bosch that Groot had just asked him a question.

Bosch's thoughts had been wandering down their own paths and now they were lost. His attention flicked back to the halfwit's face. Ginger snaps crumbed the whiskers at the corners of Groot's groupermouth. His dewlap toaded him.

Silence unfolded through the studio.

Bosch attempted to follow the thread from Groot's slack expression back to what his question might have been, but came up short. Apologizing, he asked the lummox to repeat himself.

I don't suppose, Groot began again. That is, I wonder if I might, you know, entreat. If you would be so kind, that is, as to consider. Well, not to put too fine a point on it, Mr. Bosch, if you would contemplate giving up, you know ... all that.

Bosch shut his eyes and watched a small wooden ship packed with fools flirting, eating, drinking, gaming, cheating, begging, singing, carousing, and puking over the side, waft through bluegreen time, aimless, never nearing harbor.

Opening his eyes again, he reached up, scratched a wild white brow, responded, deadpan:

I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about, Mr. Groot.

Please, Mr. Bosch. You receive my meaning perfectly clearly. You know as well as I do what your neighbors and friends are, you know. What they have. Begun, that is. Behind your back.

Bosch raised his china cup, sipped, set it down in its tinkly saucer.

The ship sailed on through the years.

If they are whispering anything about me behind my back, they are whispering rumors. Rumors, as I am sure you are aware, are bad air in words' clothing. Bad air is malice in gaseous form. It disappoints me greatly that you pay heed to such bodily functions gone public.

A member of the Cathars, for Christ's sake, Mr. Bosch. Affiliate of a cult.

Clothesline comments. I should be interested to hear what tangible evidence your blatherskites and quidnuncs might have provided you in support of such accusations.

You call charges of heresy rumor?

Bosch, I'm afraid, Bosch replied, is Bosch. People trust and respect him, or they do not. Regrettably, there is nothing poor Hieronymus can do about it.

I am sorry to hear that.

I am sorry to hear you are sorry to hear. But there it is. Now, if you'd be so kind, Mr. Groot, you must excuse me. He nodded in the direction of his self-portrait. I ought to be returning to my toddler.

Bosch made to hoist himself out of his chair.

Groot's stubby arms became upturned porcine legs erect beside his ears.

But why? Tell me that, at least. Why in the world ...

Bosch paused. Bosch sighed.

He took in the brownblotched back of his hands starfished on his trouser legs, then lifted his head to meet Groot's anal eyes and answered, as if answering an imbecilic child:

Because, Mr. Groot. Because-

Because when he was thirteen his mother's panic voice shredded his sleep like a swirl of scythes. Bosch had been a cat curled on the hay mattress beside his big brother Goosen, so far submerged in unconsciousness he had left even his dreams behind. Next he was a finch flitting around his small hazy window, straining on tiptoes to peer over the sill at a nightworld swallowed by flames.

Buildings burned all the way to the horizon. Houses. The guildhall. Barns. Schools. Stables. Depots. The globe itself was ablaze. A dense umber cloud roiled above the bedlam like an inverted sea, its behemoth belly glowing orange. Ash snowed down through air thick and acrid with brimstone, cooked horsehide, clamor, clangor, whinny, bleat, bay, bellow.

Chickens flapped along the street below, hugging shop fronts, trying to gain altitude, cackling torches.

Bosch's mother, still in her nightgown and bare feet, white hair witch mad, tiptoeing among a gathering crowd of burghers, was right. This was what she had always warned Bosch about, what he could never bring himself to believe. But now, watching existence explode around him, watching his father, a goosenecked man with fierce eyes and flared nostrils, throw on his trousers, shirt, and shoes, and plunge, determined, into the throngs trying to hold back the conflagration with picks and axes and sloshy buckets of water, Bosch saw how Doomsday came calling on those who refused to take heed of its inevitability. His mother stood in the doorway, back to the boy and his brother. She refused to retire, refused to shed her nightgown for a dress, refused even to slip into her clogs. She forgot the presence of her own sons looping around her. Her thin lips just thinned a little more every minute with the recognition that what she had assumed was life, wished was life, was not, it turned out, life at all. This was life, the world whirling.

The boys clambered back up the ladder into their attic room and spent what felt like weeks at that window, staring out at reality shredding in bright strips, talking about how they had always supposed hell's upsurge on the final hour would somehow be fast as a cannonball, a lightning strike, an epiphanic burst, and over. On the contrary, its advent had come to pass as a protracted smoke-swamped scramble.

The beautiful angel with the blue eyes, it turned out, came at you, came at you, came at you.

She was everywhere at once, forever.

That evening they beheld the steeple of their church collapse into itself in a billowing rush of sparks.

The next afternoon they craned to catch sight of three large hogs gnawing at the buttocks of a charred corpse lying facedown half a block up the lane.

The following night Goosen shook Bosch awake from an exhausted doze to show him a group of men hurrying along with a naked girl carried between them in a quilt employed as a stretcher. She was eight or nine. Agony rocked her head. Her blond hair was firefrazzled and most of the tissue down the right side of her body had blackened and slipped away. To Bosch, she was nothing save glisten and blister and skinned hare. At that moment, she happened to look up briefly, or perhaps only appeared to do so. Their eyes locked, then broke, or maybe not. She was, in any case, it occurred to Bosch as he balanced there beside his big brother, the first unclothed girl he had ever seen.

When his father finally bobbed to the surface again four days later, Bosch's mother pitched forward to shawl herself around his spindly neck, and two thirds of 's-Hertogenbosch had subsided into smoldering charcoal knolls of wreckage, more than four thousand homes had been destroyed, three hundred townspeople perished, and Bosch had become himself. In an effort to comprehend what it was he had seen, he soon applied brush to canvas and realized with a jolt that he had learned how to paint. That the purpose of the act was to capture and convey the details of the soul's geography, not the world's. That the world's was worthless, was wind, because the soul was where the only bona fide cosmos breathed.


Excerpted from Calendar of Regrets by Lance Olsen Copyright © 2010 by Lance Olsen. Excerpted by permission.
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