Winner of FC2’s Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize
Stories that remap the world to reveal hidden places we have always suspected of existing and scenarios that show us glimpses of ourselves In these stories, readers encounter a wizened, silent child; a documentary filmmaker lost in the Amazon; a writer physically overwhelmed by the amount of content she has generated; the disappearance of the world’s cats; and an enormous houseplant that has become quietly malevolent. Through these encounters, which are presented with insightful, intricate, and often very funny writing, readers come to know the scintillating zone where fiction and reality become indistinguishable. Working in the tradition of voice impressionists like Maria Bamford, Hampton draws on a wide range of styles and voices to tell stories that seem at once familiar and strange, spoofed and invented. Readers who have enjoyed the work of Shirley Jackson, George Saunders, Lydia Davis, or Robert Walser will be at home in these pages, but so too will readers who have given up on fiction. These stories show us that insouciance can be beautiful, confusion can be intricate and ordered, and rule-breaking can be a discipline all its own.
|Publisher:||University of Alabama Press|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)|
About the Author
Evelyn Hampton is the author of Discomfort, The Aleatory Abyss, and the chapbooks MADAM, Seven Touches of Music, and We Were Eternal and Gigantic. She lives in Denver.
Read an Excerpt
Then I made fish.
I was living in the bank of a river. I'd found a small den and outfitted it simply.
I needed only a few things: work to do, a place where I could do it, and rest.
First I would decide on a design for a fish, then prepare the parts from a supply of materials I kept on shelves I'd built of wood dragged from the river.
The lining of a fish is a form of electricity.
A fish's brain can be made of almost anything, as long as it's small enough to fit inside the skull. A fish's skull can be made from windshield wiper fluid caps. These could be found in the river.
My favorite was plunging my hand into the sack of dry fish-eye lenses. The little pink ovals felt like sun-warm sand on a beach, a day of no worries. I knew the delight of a chef when finally her pantry is stocked only with the best ingredients — she can taste and touch and look at them, content that everything she makes will be delicious.
Brainstems are small white rods that become translucent as soon as they are attached to the lining.
When I ground the seeds for the paste I would cast teeth from, I added a pinch of white pepper from the shaker on my table.
On the basis of its ingredients, life shouldn't exist.
Making the eyes was a most delicate process. Sometimes, anticipating the demands of the work before me, my hands would shake so much, I wouldn't be able to take the rubber band off the bag of irises. They looked like brown mustard seeds and would take on the consistency of tapioca pearls when I placed them in eye fluid. I used a tweezers for this, after my hands had steadied.
For the blood I would make a kind of jelly. The stuff would visibly hiss when I added the final ingredient, a dash of sea salt I'd brought with me from the city.
I had lived so many different lives in so many different places, the sight of the salt shaker, this little container of crystals, gave me such comfort — seeing it day after day on its shelf was like seeing the face of a dear one who had aged gently beside me.
I liked to think of that hiss as the fish's first breath. It wasn't a sound of relief but of shock and discomfort. Life must be surprised to be so suddenly embodied.
I am old, let it be no mystery. I'm older than walls and most days I feel stiffer than a brick.
Something I learned making fish is that life isn't very good at living — it has to be coaxed and prodded to take to its next body.
And then even after it has taken and gives every sign of being a success, life tends to remain limp and dormant.
Anyone who has lived in a winter climate and watched snow falling on the first day of May knows how very far away life can get from the ones craving it.
I am so old now, I keep my skin in a zipped bag in the refrigerator. It stays fresher longer; when I put it on, I like how cool I feel, almost as if I am young again. The coolness of my skin during those first minutes out of the refrigerator reminds me of the walls of the den. Those were happy days, making fish. Even my shadow was content.
In the outer wall, I'd made a hatch to throw finished fish out of, into the river. The hatch also functioned as a window for me. I liked a certain kind of light.
It would frighten me to look into a fish's eyes the moment before I threw it out of the hatch. I would see there a dilating terror that encompassed everything. Was it knowledge?
How had knowledge gotten into the fish? I hadn't put it there. Knowledge wasn't one of the ingredients. Consciousness, never.
Usually there would be a tomcat crouched in the hatch. The look in a fish's eyes told me it already knew this cat, had seen it a hundred times, had been caught and eaten by it in lifetimes past. Please don't throw me out of that hatch!, its eyes were pleading.
But I always threw the fish out. I wasn't going to spare them from what they knew was coming. I had made them — I was much worse than that tomcat.
They should have been relieved to be tossed out of the hatch. To escape their maker — their death.
At first I resented that tomcat gobbling up my careful handiwork.
But when I watched with an attitude a little more detached than disdainful, I noticed that not every fish got caught. Only the ones life hadn't really taken to were gobbled. The ones in which life was vigorous thrashed their tails and flipped their bodies and managed to evade old Tomcat.
These fish made it into the river, where other perils worse than Tomcat awaited. The other fish, the weak ones Tomcat caught, would not have survived anyway. They were pretty fish, and exacting to make, but they were not hardy enough to be real.
In time I considered Tomcat my co-creator. His job was to test the final product.
I mentioned I liked a certain kind of light.
Indirect, reflected. The hatch let in sunlight reflected by the river. On my ceiling I could see the water's surface eddying and flowing its shadows.
Lucky me. Nobody from my old lives knew where to find me. I called myself Lucky.
Old lovers, old loves; debts and family: they had exhausted all my old haunts. I was relieved to have finally been forgotten.
Being alive is mostly a matter of believing you're alive.
Once their eyes were attached to the lining, the fish could see. Once they could see, they could believe. They blinked and blinked.
The air in my den was cool and damp, excellent for naps.
Before I became Lucky, I was no good at sleeping. I just couldn't find the right time or position. I wandered restlessly, searching for relief.
When you're happy, sleeping is easy. Counterintuitive maybe, but when you're happy, it's easier to leave your life. Relaxed, you can slip right out of it. You can always come back to it later, and if you can't, no big deal.
Maybe it's a matter of having proper lighting, happiness. Light should not impede the ascension of dreams.
Yet one day it did. Happy, I was lying on my back, preparing for a nap. I gazed up at the ceiling, and instead of riverlight flowing past, I saw a brittle, jagged kind of light, more knife than light. I could not look at it without feeling as if my teeth were going to crumble right then and fall out of my head.
Lucky I have been, and Lucky I no longer am, I thought.
I went to the hatch and looked down at the river.
So long, easy sleep. Goodbye happiness.
River? No. That mass of cracks was not what a river was.
Time to find new names for everything. Despair. Apocalypse. Old Tomcat yowled. He hissed. He moaned. He grunted. He lay down on the ledge outside the hatch and let loose a litter of kittens.
So. Old Tomcat was neither Old nor Tomcat. Figured. She would need a new name too.
And these mewling things beside her, they would need names. She licked their heads between their blind eyes. She laid her head back and let them feed on her milky body.
Below were the broken bones of what used to be called River.
Despair, I named the kitten with a white stripe between black eyes. Apocalypse, I named the one that looked vaguely at me. Two-Headed, Nobody, and Sheila were the other three.
I fed Not-Old-Not-Tomcat some of my fish ingredients. She ate them scavengingly while Despair, Apocalypse, Two-Headed, Nobody, and Sheila mewled and sucked on her. Not, I shortened her name to. She seemed to have diminished considerably from her Old Tomcat days.
I called myself Un. The Undoer. Undone.
Not ate the eyes one at a time. I let my hand reach out and pat her head. She ate a few brainstems.
My thoughts turned then to the ocean.
Sometimes things just dry up — that might make a nice, stupid ending.
and me, Un. We were a company.
In my den our business was doing nothing. Making nothing. Going nowhere.
The cracks in the mud of the river sometimes looked at me. Sizing me up. Why don't you come with us, they said in a masked voice coming from somewhere under the cracked earth. Sometimes things just dry up.
Get over it.
Two-Headed developed a strain of apathy that made him want to devour me.
He would sleep on my neck. Always this led to chewing. Even his dreams were hungry. Well, so were mine, when I managed to have one.
I sprinkled fish scales on the rug when I wanted to see pure appetite's teeth. Pure appetite's claws. Quite a lot of cat blood was shed because of my boredom.
Two-Headed always got the most of whatever it was. I named him Chief Executive Officer of Discorporation.
I made a little sign. Wrote it in cat's blood, hung it above the door to the den. DISCORPORATION.
Things were becoming squalid. Things were, shall we say, in a state of drastic decline.
The cracks would laugh sometimes. Why don't you ... they said one morning. Their voice sounded like a platter heaped with pancakes dripping with syrup. Help us, Un, they dripped. Only, the syrup was blood.
As a souvenir, I kept a little bit of fish lining in a small glass box. Blue sparks still shot through the lining. I would watch them through the walls of the box. At night I would hear crackling like the static between radio stations. It was the lining, searching for a body to light with life.
How about a song, I would hear a voice within the lining ask itself. This would be in the middle of the night. The cats of Discorporation around me howling in their sleep. This one goes out to ... and then the static would begin crackling again, this time to a different rhythm.
The fact that Two-Headed actually had two heads did not change anything.
I imagine the lining of an antelope or a dog would behave in much the same way fish lining did.
I could not have been a maker of mountain lions or of humans — I only cared about making fish.
The lining of a hawk — it would make an elegant jacket. Dark and fitted.
I am old, but I still consider the possibilities.
Though mostly what I do is look back, I still see: Sometimes there's even someone new coming toward me.
Who will she be this time? Or he. Long nights, little sleep — I'll take just about anything. Even if it's only my own past coming back. (There is only so much future. Only so much raw material for time to make its designs upon.)
Sheila was becoming more and more stunning. One of those objects which exist only once they have disappeared. Her fur had begun to shimmer. Colors undulated along her back. Would not let me pet her. Crouched all day at the hatch looking down. Did not even come down to fight Two-Headed for a bit of brain.
The less she behaved like a cat, the more stunningly beautiful she became.
Suspicious, Two-Headed would hiss at her. She was not being enough of a cat to satisfy him.
Look at me, she said one morning.
I was still in bed, static lining my drowse with its shifting frequencies.
I looked toward the hatch. I had recognized the voice as Sheila's. It sounded exactly the way I expected Sheila to sound, like a piece of purple velvet wrapped around sunflower seeds, tied off with jute thread.
Look down, Sheila's voice said.
There in the riverbed sat an old boat, decrepit, DELIVERANCE in faded paint on its keel.
A woman sat in the captain's nest. Hair black as it gets. Purple shimmer wafting off the waves of its hanks.
Later I was not surprised to find that the lining had been lifted from my little glass box. Its lid had been tipped open. Only a few shreds of the lining were left. The work — I would recognize it in my sleep — of a cat's teeth. Sheila.
She turned a key; the rudder sputtered. I saw the boat had tires.
All aboard, Sheila said.
That's how we got to the ocean. Sheila drove.
When we arrived, we rented a little cabin on the beach. BEACHCOMBERS PARADISE said the sign. The owners hadn't made the S possessive. Paradise belonged to nobody.
Which reminds me — Nobody hadn't made it. He'd leaped from Deliverance and took off into the forest with Apocalypse. Not, Two-Headed, Despair, Sheila, and me, Un — we were the only occupants of Paradise. It was the off-season.
Apparently other people were not interested in seeing how towering the waves can be in January.
They want sunsets, Mel said. Mel was one of the caretakers of Paradise. The other was Holly. She was ill; dying, Mel said. They'd come here so she could do it in peace.
I asked why we never saw Holly at the beach. Was she too sick even to sit?
Doesn't like to see the horizon anymore, Mel said. It makes her queasy. Ceiling and feet — those are the things she likes to see now. If you come to visit wear nice shoes, she'll appreciate it.
I spent days walking the beach. It is essentially a boneyard, the beach, a vast cemetery. It comforted me to be surrounded by so many possibilities. I began scheming about how I could use these washed-up pieces of life, maybe make fish again ...
I would look out at the horizon, wondering how many of my fish had made it that far.
Mine — I still thought of them that way.
The horizon is made of pure wondering, by the way. We make it distant merely by longing for it, since longing pushes away its object at the same time it reaches for it.
Sheila mostly stayed in the cabin with the cats, fiddling with lids and tea. At night we would sit together on the deck, our bodies almost touching. I would feel the crackle of the lining leaping between us, arc of energy. I wondered how long it would be before we ...
We should visit Holly, Sheila said one night.
The woman's dying, and we haven't visited yet.
Ok, say hi for me, I said. I was frightened of Holly. No, I was frightened of death. Death had nothing to do with Holly, nothing to do with anything at all; it was impersonal, that's what frightened me about it. No name can keep it away.
The crackle of the lining I liked. Even the hiss of the fish. The look in their eyes as they began to live. Life — I craved it. I wanted to make more and more of it. Gather together all the fragments on the beach, make something that would be able to see me.
The life in another's eyes verified my life. But death, it took me away from me.
No, we should both go. Out of respect. For Mel. Think of what he must be going through.
I imagined Mel actually passing through something, Holly's death a dark corridor, Mel blinking and crawling through it.
We knocked on the door of their cabin the next morning.
Mel's face was no longer Mel's face; it belonged to gray, like a soft, unappetizing cheese.
We brought you something, said Sheila as Mel let us in. I thought, We did? I didn't recall bringing anything. Yet I watched as Sheila pulled it from her pocket — the fish lining. My fish lining, from my little glass box. She hadn't devoured it after all. She'd been keeping it with us, and from me.
As she handed it to Mel, blue sparks fell to the floor and crackled for a moment at our feet like sparklers, then went quiet. In his hand the lining danced and laughed and leapt and threw flickers of blue into the room. I thought of the river again, its surface reflected on the ceiling of my den.
She'll love it, said Mel. Thank you.
He unfolded it, then folded it, then put it in his shirt pocket. I'll introduce you to Holly, he said.
We followed him to the bedroom. I hoped that when he opened the door, the room would be empty except for a chest of drawers made of dark, deeply grained wood, the kind that captures light and gives the impression that it contains all of space in its surface. Each drawer would be a different size. This is Holly, Mel would say. He would open a drawer; inside, a blue marble. In another drawer, a wind-up eye. In another, one of those birds that endlessly dips its head to drink water from a dish. In another drawer, another, smaller drawer, taking me farther from reality ...
Instead what we saw in the bedroom was a bed, and on it a woman, a real, dying one. I knew she was dying by her breath — it could hardly lift itself out of her body anymore, and the look in Holly's eyes seemed to be falling inward towards it. I had watched this happen with the fish: as they died they would disappear into their own eyes.
Scattered on the floor around her were yellow tissues, books, dishes that must have held Mel's meals so that he never had to leave her side.
Come in, Holly said when she saw us. She smiled a little and didn't lift her head off the pillow.
Mel introduced us as our guests, which I could tell he immediately regretted because Holly's face drew into itself and she said, I'm sorry there's such a mess.
We're not that kind of guest, Sheila said. She smiled. She knew how to have the right effect. Holly smiled and Mel said, They brought you a gift.
Oh! said Holly. I love gifts.
When we left, Holly's eyes were shut. The square of lining flickered in one of her hands.
Late that night, Sheila and I sat on the deck of our cabin. I was waiting for her to lift one of her hands to the back of my neck, which tonight felt too exposed. I knew the movement was coming; I could feel it weighing itself between us, making the air around our mouths ready. When we breathed, the readiness entered our heads. Now, Sheila, I was thinking. Now is the time to touch me please.
Sheila lifted one of her hands, placed it on my knee. Are you mad? she asked. I gave away your lining.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Famous Children And Famished Adults"
Copyright © 2019 Evelyn Hampton.
Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Adored, Or Red,
BB & Calla Lily,
Three Stories About My Mother,
From Documentary Filmmaker Jurgen Grossbinger's Journal,
At the Center of the Wasp,
The Slow Man,
Choo & Cream,
Since the Cats All Vanished,
7 Touches of Music,
The End of History,
I Carried My Coma,
The Art Teacher,
Every Day, an Epic,
Sag: a Saga,