Reflecting experiences gained while teaching in England, Italy, Korea, and Turkey, author Katherine Baccaro presents an eclectic collection of twenty-four short stories. The tales delve into one family’s dysfunction, the difficulties of dating in Manhattan, and the mysteries of love.
Discombobulated explores a variety of everyday themes and pulls on human emotions. In “Borborygmus,” the prim and proper thirty-seven- year-old Dermot McGreevy feels humiliated when he develops an embarrassing ailment. In “The Department of Nosology,” two thirteen-year- old girls suffer the consequences after they begin cataloging the noses of the townspeople. “The Census” explores the feelings of tourists in Turkey as they learn they will be banished to their hotel room for a day while the country conducts its census.
From the comic to the sad, from real life to imagined landscapes, and from nostalgia and memories to suppositions and lies, Discombobulated offers a diverse collection of stories offering insight into the human condition.
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Read an Excerpt
By KATHERINE BACCARO
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2010 Katherine Baccaro
All right reserved.
At the far end of the bar at Foleys a clique of young men was competing for the burp championship of the night. Dermot's lip curled in disgust. He was a young man himself, but he could not remember ever having been that young or so lacking in proper deportment. Youth was no excuse. He considered such demonstrations to be a public affront. Yet the young men continued with their boorish contest. They had the nerve to gaze about contentedly at the other occupants of the bar, as if hoping for applause or audience participation.
Dermot himself was so averse to the kind of vulgarity and gutter language that prevailed in his daily environment that he had mounted in his office a campaign to ban the use of obscene words and indelicate expressions, and Dermot McGreevy carried some weight in the work place, too. He was the youngest executive trainee in the history of the company. With good cause his immediate boss called him Brain Boy. Everyone expected that he would soon ascend to the highest executive position. His opinion was respected. People were actually avoiding the use of four letter words now. He hadn't heard one in quite a long time.
At thirty-seven Dermot had reason to be pleased with himself and with the life choices he'd made. Polite and proper, he was a respectable member of society, the joy of his old mother's heart. His salary was adequate and likely to increase. He derived extra satisfaction from his after-hours hobby of taxidermy. This avocation also provided him with a nice little side income. He was the only taxidermist in town. Though not as beautiful as a movie star he was handsome enough to attract women and virile enough to please them. There was quite a large steno pool at his office. Dermot noticed that a satisfying stir, a kind of fluttering surrounded him whenever he passed the girls.
But no one at Foley's knew this.
Except Agnes Pflieger who was sitting next to Dermot at the end of the bar. Agnes was one of the stenographers at Dermot's office. Dermot had invited her for a drink mostly because she was one of the last girls. He had dated almost everyone else. Agnes was not a particularly pretty girl. Dermot had already used up all the prettier ones. She had a big nose and a slight turn to her left eye but he thought he'd give her a try. She had a certain something that might prove interesting. They had been having a quiet conversation before the boys began with their contest.
"Agnes, do you have a middle name?" Dermot asked her. He totally hated the name Agnes and was searching for some more palatable tag to call her by.
"Yes, I do," she replied. "It's Mabel."
This did not please Dermot. If there was a female name he hated more than Agnes it was Mabel. He would simply have to dream up an elegant nickname for her.
"My friends call me Aggie," she added.
Worse and worse, he thought.
It was at this point in the conversation that the serious belching began. Dermot could barely speak, drowned out by the ugly vibrations filling the air. Apparently the champion was not to appear this evening. They continued with some mediocre burps for some time and then they were silent, undoubtedly storing up gas for the next round. Then the silence was shattered by a bombastic interruption.
BANG! BRRRACK! BURRRACK! BANGKKGK! BRRACK!
Unexpectedly this fusillade, a positive salvo of what almost seemed like gunshot, rent the air.
Everyone looked at Dermot. He was standing by the bar. He was caught there with a horrified expression on a face that was rapidly turning bright red. There was no doubt where the noise had originated. It came from Dermot McGreevy! To make matters worse the boys at the other end of the bar, obviously misinterpreting the sound as another of their favorite bodily noises, applauded.
It was terrible. Dermot was turning redder than a radish. He thought he might faint. He glanced at Agnes Pflieger. She was doubled up, hitched over with obscene laughter. Dermot thought he might die. Feeling around for excuses, he managed to terminate the date. Under the circumstances it was easy enough to claim an illness was beginning deep inside him. He put Agnes in a taxi, simply telling her he did not feel well. She gave him a quizzical look.
But, except for embarrassment, he did feel well. Well enough. He could think of no physical reason for the eruption. As he drove home he pondered the horror of the thing. More and more he had lately become aware of the exaggerated rumblings in his gut. Tonight sound had come out loud as a pistol shot. He was ashamed and distressed by the incident. And that was not to be the end of his suffering.
The very next day in the office a meeting had been called to discuss payroll changes for the company, a very serious matter. Jules Taggert, the leader of Dermot's section, had prepared a preliminary plan that he had earlier distributed to the young executives. "What do you think of my notes, guys?" he said. "Brain Boy, I'd especially like your opinion." And just at that moment Dermot's inconstant stomach let loose a loud and flushing sound. It declaimed, "SSSCHT! SSCHSITT! SHHHCHITT!"
Mr. Taggert's face darkened. "Well, I certainly appreciate your frank and forthright opinion," the boss said insincerely, "but I must say I am rather surprised at your language." The sarcastic note was audible.
There was a long pause. Dermot grew dizzy. He felt the world whirling around his head. He looked sidewise.
Sitting in the stenographer's place was Agnes Pflieger. She was wearing an insolent smile. Dermot felt damned by it.
"Especially," Mr. Taggert continued, "since you have been the arbiter of clean language in the office for the past few months. I, personally, am relieved that all those limits are off. Now we can all talk any fucking way we feel like talking." Everyone was laughing now. Especially Agnes Pflieger.
Dermot walked out chastened and humiliated. He was uncomfortable. He began to wonder if his clothes fit right. His jacket seemed a bit large. Was it baggy? He had put on a bright red tie in the morning. Perhaps that was a mistake. Everything felt wrong. Maybe his shirt was coming out of his pants. That red tie probably just looked silly now. The memory of that audacious girl laughing at him especially riled him.
It was Friday. That night he chose to stay home pondering his problem. What could be causing this repeated embarrassment? He had not eaten anything untoward. His health was optimum. Now he listened hard. His stomach was quiet. Of course it was – no one was around to hear it.
Dermot began to feel somewhat encouraged. Perhaps the siege was over. He decided to call his mother. The world might laugh at him but she would understand. She would understand how miserable he was feeling. Perhaps she could suggest a remedy, but she was not at home. He left a greeting. He did not know what kind of explanatory words could express his actual dilemma.
Saturday morning Dermot had an appointment. Celia Cavendish was coming over. He had a pretty good idea of what the visit was about. Celia had an ancient and incredibly ugly little dog, Robespierre. Its breed was unknown. It bit. As far as Wilmot was concerned she should have named him Rasputin. He didn't like the little beast. Of late it had been sick. Dermot was sure the appointment had something to do with the animal.
Sure enough Celia Cavendish floated in on a river of tears. Robespierre had kicked the bucket. She placed the disgusting little corpse on the table. She cried so hard she was incomprehensible. As a specimen of the fair sex Celia was not very appealing. Now the waterworks had turned her pie face purple and mottled. Dermot, somewhat experienced in pet fatalities, let Celia cry. He took her hand in false sympathy. She'd want to have the mutt embalmed. He wondered if he was up to preserving the ugliness of the beast. He might stuff the cadaver but nothing could ever memorialize its pervasive stink. He patted her hand. Celia shuddered down to silent mourning when suddenly a sound issued from Dermot's ventral region. "HA HA," it said, very clearly. And then, "AH HA HA! HA HA HA HA!" Raucous laughter rang out as if someone in there was having the highest of high old times.
"Scoundrel!" Celia shouted. "What do you think you are, you deplorable, cruel, low-down excuse for a human being!" Sputtering and muttering the most devastating imprecations, Celia Cavendish picked up Robespierre and banged out the door.
Despondent, Dermot sat in the front room of his apartment staring out the window. He watched Celia stomping furiously to her car. Every few steps she looked back at his window. He could see her lips were moving in continual rebuke. He knew now that not only was he at the mercy of his stomach but that his stomach was inimical to him. The day was bright and beautiful but gloom pervaded Dermot's world.
The squeal of the phone made him jump. It was his mother responding to his previous night's call.
"Dermy," she began.
A shudder ran down his spine. He hated that nickname. "Mother, what's wrong?"
"Well, you only call me Dermy when you are angry with me. Are you upset?"
"Not at all." She laughed. "I am blissfully happy. Are you upset, Sonny?"
Oh, he so wanted to tell her. Dermot was on very good terms with his mother and on this day he would not have minded the comfort of her maternal voice. But it was so hard to begin. He lacked the vocabulary to describe his problem. "Mother, you see, I am being tortured by sounds from inside me ..."
"What, Dermot? You say you are hearing things?"
"Not hearing things, there are actual sounds. They are out to get me."
"You are hearing voices?"
"No. Sounds. Disembodied sounds. No, embodied — from the body. Of me."
"Disembodied sounds!" She did sound concerned, as if she were about to pack him off to a psychiatrist.
"No. Nothing. Never mind. I was just being facetious," he declared, trying to calm her down, and it worked. He stammered through the rest of the conversation. His mother invited him to Sunday dinner and rattled on to him about problems and situations that were of no concern to him. He listened very hard. He was not listening to his mother but to the troubles within. All was still. Silence reigned. The core of his body was quiet.
A face kept intruding on his thoughts. It was not the dappled face of Celia Cavendish, nor was it the angry face of Jules Taggert, but it was the mocking face of that sniggering girl, Agnes Pflieger. Perhaps she was a demon that needed to be exorcised.
Impulsively, he phoned her.
"Hello, Agnes. This is Dermot McGreevy. I was just wondering if you would like to go out to dinner tonight."
Most girls would have jumped at the chance. Agnes didn't answer right away. After a longish pause she said, "Oh, I'm sorry. I just can't."
"Do you have another date?"
"Well, no. Not that. I just don't want to go out with you, Mr. McGreevy."
Incredible! Agnes Pflieger was refusing him! She was putting him at a distance by calling him "Mr. McGreevy." It was unbelievable. Of course, there had to be an explanation. Could it be the gunshot episode at Foley's on Thursday evening? "Agnes, really, I'm so sorry about what happened the other night. I want very much to make it up to you. I promise, nothing like that will happen ever again." But it might. How could he know?
"No. It's not that, Mr. McGreevy. That kind of thing wouldn't bother me at all. I just don't think we have anything in common. It's not your fault, but I just don't really like you."
Dermot was shocked. How insolent she was. How unkind! Yet he was determined to have his way. He wanted to take her out. In his mind he now associated his crisis with this girl. She was in at the outset. He thought he would wine her and dine her as he had done with so many other girls. Then he would drop her, let her try being embarrassed and humiliated as he had been. In the insanity of the moment Dermot even imagined that after she fell in love with him (he'd make that happen) he would disassociate himself from her publicly and loudly and drop her in as open a place as possible, maybe even at the office. There was that, of course, the office. He was her superior there. She probably liked having a job. Suggesting subtly that her employment might be affected, Dermot continued to importune her. Finally she surrendered.
On the drive over to Agnes Pflieger's house that evening Dermot plotted her seduction. It was something he knew how to do. He had done it before. He well understood the frailty of the female heart. When he approached Agnes' front door he felt his confidence returning. He stood with feet firmly planted on the threshold of her apartment but just as Agnes opened the door his renegade stomach announced, "FWARK! FRWCK FWWWUCKM MMM! FWAAWK ME!"
"How dare you!" Agnes cried. She slapped his face. "It'll be springtime in hell before that happens. You're a pig and a hypocrite, Dermot McGreevy!" she announced as she slammed the door.
Alone and disconsolate he filled his desolate hours with brooding until the night passed and it was time to go to his mother's house for Sunday dinner.
Dorothy McGreevy was a pretty, sixty-year-old widow, active in the community. Dermot was proud of her. They were close. Now she took one look at him and gasped. "Dermot! Sonny, what's wrong with you? You look terrible."
It was true. He had looked long and hard at the mirror before coming. His color was ashy. His eyes were vacant. "I had terrible insomnia last night. I didn't sleep at all."
"What would be the reason for that?"
But he couldn't yet bring himself to tell her.
"Oggie's here," she announced cheerfully. "This will give the two of you a chance to get acquainted.
"Oh, great," Dermot said dully. He was not pleased. In spite of his impressive name Ogden George Phillip Anthony Chesterton was a rather common fellow. He was a veteran, had served as a medic during his military years. He liked to give the impression that he had practically been a doctor though Dermot suspected that he had probably done something menial in the service, driving the ambulance or emptying bedpans. Oggie also fancied himself a delightful raconteur. He loved to talk. And the meeting was strained. Oggie knew that Dermot didn't care for him but he was a jovial fellow, not used to this coldness. Both sat in facing chairs in Dorothy McGreevy's front parlor.
That was when it happened again. The machine gun rattling. Bullets! Twitterings and a viscous sea of giggles. Some mournful crying. A racket arose out of Dermot's middle. Dorothy and Ogden both sat up straight and stared at him.
"Boy, you've got one dandy borborygmus there!"
Dermot almost jumped out of his seat. "What? What did you call it?"
"Borborygmus," Oggie replied. "Yeah," said Oggie. "I ran into a few cases like that when I was in the Army."
"Oh, yeah. Oh, sure, borborygmus. One guy had such a bad case he got booted out of the confessional in his church. The priest thought he was saying, 'God damn it' over and over during the penance."
"Well, it could be. It could. Take it from me. It could," Oggie said with a knowing air. "Oh, yeah. Another guy's wife wanted to divorce him because his gut kept saying, 'I love you Josephine,' all night long. The wife's name was Maggie."
"I'm cursed! Can nothing be done?"
"Not much. Not much." Oggie smiled. He looked pleased, probably delighted to be consulted. "Borborygmus. It's a normal condition. Probably everyone gets it sometimes. It usually goes away. Not many cases are as extreme as my buddy's back in Fort Huachuca. He was the guy who managed to tame it."
"Tame it? How the hell did he do that? For the love of heaven tell me HOW!" cried Dermot McGreevy, desperation ringing in his voice.
"Well, this guy had had it. He was thrown in the brig for insubordination twice and then he got mad. You're not going to believe this." Ogden chuckled. "He talked to it."
"Yeah. Talked to it. That's all. Just talked back to it. Made friends with it. Try it, why don't you?"
Dermot's stomach had just begun babbling idiotically. It seemed to be saying, "Dontchayoudare, Youdondare." Dermot looked sternly into his lap. "Shut up!" he shouted.
"Hey! Go easy, fella. It's friendship you're after, not submission."
"Shut up," Dermot repeated, but this time more gently, coaxingly. "Please."
Excerpted from DISCOMBOBULATED by KATHERINE BACCARO Copyright © 2010 by Katherine Baccaro. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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