After the Plains queered him, Dave Madden decided to return the favor. This outstanding collection of short stories tells the tale of a different kind of differenceone not set in the glittering lights of New York or Los Angeles, but in the grand and wide American Midwest. For Madden’s characters, their queerness is part of the environment, like the soil, the sky, and the supermarket: an HIV-positive chemist uses football to connect with his brothers; a 17-year-old girl tussles with a cartoon cobra to avoid thinking about the mother who abandoned her; and a hotel concierge starts attending Mass even though his partner was molested by a priest. In seeking out the ordinary struggles of extraordinary people trying to figure out their place within families and communities, Madden masterfully explores what it means to be an outsider always looking in.
About the Author
Dave Madden is author of The Authentic Animal: Inside the Odd and Obsessive World of Taxidermy. His shorter work has appeared in Harper’s, Prairie Schooner, The Rumpus, DIAGRAM, The Normal School, Denver Quarterly, and elsewhere. He is the recipient of the Sherwood Anderson Award in fiction, an AWP Intro Journals Award in nonfiction, a Bernard De Voto Fellowship at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and a Tennessee Williams Scholarship at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. He teaches in the MFA program at the University of San Francisco.
Read an Excerpt
If You Need Me I'll be Over There
By Dave Madden
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2016 Dave Madden
All rights reserved.
MY DAD BOUGHT ME A CAR AND HE WOULDN'T LET ME touch it until I could type sixty words a minute, because he said that computers were the wave of the future. This was back when saying that sort of thing still sounded prophetic, back when responsibility was only a word I'd hear now and again on the radio, so I didn't have any means of arguing with him. "Fine," I said. "What kind of car is it?"
"Alfa Romeo," he said. He stood tall in my doorway, wearing high shorts and a T-shirt with holes around the collar, the keys dangling from the dealership's complimentary keychain. "You can looky but no touchy."
I went outside and lookied. Charcoal grey. Black ragtop. I stood in front of it at the head of our driveway with my hands on my hips like I used to when I was a little girl bossing boys around the grade school's blacktop, and the Romeo looked like a face that was grinning as it met me for the first time. Hello, there. We eyeballed one another and I did the math, and we came to the conclusion that pecking out one word a second couldn't be that difficult. I would be driving this car by the end of the month.
In the meantime, she needed a name.
"What about Romeo?" Bridget said.
I held the phone away from my head and looked at it in wild disbelief. "That's a boy's name and this car is a lady. A Beautiful Lady. She deserves a beautiful name."
Bridget was a natural blonde. Her curls hung off her head like fern fronds. Of the two of us, I was the creative one, but still I gave her a month to come up with something perfect. Now we both had projects to get us through to college.
The next day my dad and I drove to the mall in Mission Viej o to find some typing software compatible with our Apple IIe. I asked why we couldn't take my car. "If you can find a way to ride without touching it, sweetheart, I'll be glad to," he said. So I sat in his boring Lincoln, slouched the whole way there, trying to envision what the wide California sky would look like over our heads. At the computer store they had not one but two programs that taught Apple IIe users to type, each with a cartoony guide.
"Which do you like?" my dad asked. "The donkey or the cobra?"
"Aren't donkeys slow?" I asked. I needed speed and I needed it soon and I didn't want any impediments.
"Erica, just pick one."
I picked the cobra. It was my boyfriend's favorite snake. At least I thought it was. When we got home I called him and let him know a computer cobra would be teaching me to type, and he said, "Sweet. Did they have a python?"
"No," I said. "Just a donkey and a cobra."
"A python would've been sweet."
I didn't have a response for this, so I let the line go silent for a bit and played at a kink in the phone cord. "I'm sad," I said after a while.
"Huh?" he said. "Why?"
"I'm sad you're going to be gone so long." He was leaving the next day on a monthlong Outward Bound trip.
"Aw, babe, I'll be back soon. It's like ... twenty-eight days. Or twenty-nine, with travel."
All those days lined up in a row somehow made it worse, made the time seem longer than one simple month standing all alone. "Can't I come see you tonight?"
"I gotta leave at six in the morning," he said. "My mom won't let you."
I breathed slowly and deeply so I wouldn't end up crying. My mom would've let you, I wanted to say, but instead I told him I loved him and hung up the phone, picturing a python strangling his mother at the neck. Attack! Then I pictured her struggling in the backseat of my new car, my boyfriend and me laughing up front with the wind ribboning our hair and the sun beating down on us like hellfire.
That night after dinner my dad installed the software and I got to work. I'd used computers before but never in a timed setting. Never under pressure. When it started, the cobra told me his name was Conrad and then asked me what my name was. So I started typing.
Then Conrad introduced me to the shift key and asked for my name again.
I wasn't going to relinquish control this early.
Greetingsssss, eeeee! he said, like a cobra would if it could talk, and I slowly learned about the home row, irritated that it included the semicolon because I had no intentions of using the thing. Just as well that it sat under my right pinky as I had no intentions of using that, either. The first thing I learned as Conrad fed me banal sentences about regular exercise and floppy diskettes is that typing took four eyes, or at least a keen third. Because I couldn't see the screen and the keys at the same time, I had to move my head a lot, and as I typed I felt like some Japanese businessman bowing emphatically at everything Conrad was saying. By the time I was done with the first round, my neck was tight and squashed like putty. He calculated my score and it was twenty-two words per minute. Not even half. So I went on to round two with the clever plan to hit the keys as fast as I could, but Conrad was cleverer. He didn't let me advance in the sentence until I backspaced and corrected mistypes. End of round two: seven. Conrad deducted wpm for each error.
Enough. I escaped Conrad and his program and went to the den to watch Knots Landing. My dad was there nodding off in his La-Z-Boy, his hand cradling a dewy tumbler of something on ice. I woke him up by mussing his hair and he pulled sharply away from me. "You're serious about this typing thing?" I asked.
"Sure am," he said, rousing and shifting his heft around. "I've got to look out for your future. What kind of job can you expect to get with no typing ability? Shopgirl? Streetwalker?"
I rolled my eyes and tutted my tongue, playing the part of a teenager. "Wasn't mom a shopgirl?"
"That was a different time. You can be anything. What do you want to be?"
I sat next to him on the floor and wetted a thumb along his glass and then tried to write my name in the chair's leather. I got to i before my thumb went dry. "I'm waiting for it to come to me. Like I'll be driving down the street — in the car, of course — and I'll see a billboard that'll click. Or I'll take some class to fulfill a requirement and the professor will say something very profound sometime in
the third or fourth week, something about the cosmos, maybe, and he'll be looking at me when he says it and I'll just know."
Now it was Dad's turn to roll his eyes. "It never happens that way," he said, raising the lever next to me and lifting himself out of his chair. "You'll see."
I said good night and sat there on the floor staring at the television, and I wondered how many words, exactly. How many would I have to type tomorrow, and the next day, and the next until I'd get to sixty a minute? And then thereafter, how many words did I have yet to type before I died quietly in my nineties? Millions? Trillions? Given what they said about monkeys and Shakespeare, I knew it was probable that I could type out enough words in the right order to really impress someone someday, but would that someone ever be me? If my future was meant to be tied to a machine, I wanted it to be tied to a car, to something mobile and fast, and not something that offered only keys with letters printed on them against which I could press my fingers millions of billions of times. Even if I became a writer, even if I chose art over wealth, I would write by longhand. That night in bed, I promised myself this before falling fitfully asleep.
Bridget called later that week with her first idea. "What about Connie?"
I was drinking a grapefruit-juice spritzer and nearly spit it out. "Oh my god, that's so weird that's almost the name of the snake on my program."
I explained the situation and asked her how she knew.
"I didn't," she said. "I just thought it would go well with the car."
"Well, try again." Connie was the name of some nebbishy woman from the 1950s, some head of the town's temperance league. That wasn't my car. I wanted my car to be more subdued, even if it was a showy Alfa Romeo. Even if it would catch the sun in winking glints as I'd speed it around corners. So subdued, but also fierce. Like a cobra.
That day with Conrad was no better than the day before. What he'd do, as I'd type, was slither underneath the words, letter by letter. Then he'd coil up vertically at the end and say something sibilant and encouraging like Niccccce job! or Sssssuper! And then he'd tell me I was typing in the low twenties, and we'd start all over again. The problem as I saw it was the sentences I had to type. I understood that they were meant to exercise my fingers, force them through habit into certain patterns of motion, but I wasn't the type to divorce myself from reality, and when typing out The sad fed dog was ready for care, I had to think, What dog on the planet is sad after being fed? What kind of care, psychiatric? That afternoon Conrad told me that Jill may pick an onion in July, expecting me to care half as much about this pending decision as Jill must have. "I'll never type that sentence in my ganze leben," I said out loud. "You're being stupid."
And then Conrad's next sentence — Don't cry, try another voyage — was so full of cheek I shut the machine off without booting down first.
I called Bridget but she wasn't home, and I wished I could have hung out with my boyfriend, but of course he wasn't home either. He was out in the desert somewhere learning to follow orders. I suppose it was better than the alternative. To spend six months in Juvenile Hall amid a bunch of street thugs and gang-bangers would probably put a lot worse strain on your skinny little body than a month of bare-bones hiking and camping would. And James's body was terribly skinny — wrists I could wrap a thumb and pinky around, ill-fitting clothes that hung on his frame like a scarecrow's rags, a butt the size of a blueberry muffin. Maybe when he got back he'd be stronger and thicker, a tough guy. Maybe instead of a pinky I'd need to use my middle finger.
Even before we had graduated from high school Bridget and I had graduated from getting shitfaced at keggers on the beach. Beer made me bloated and gave me an awful time in the bathroom the next morning, whereas wine rose up to my head and nested there like canaries ready to take flight, so for fun we stopped going to other people's parties and started hostessing parties of our own. Tonight it was her turn and we had an odd number of guests because of my boyfriend, and to remedy the punched-gut feeling of his absence I found some paper in the study and drew his face from memory, including the little scar that sliced his left eyebrow in two and the tendrils of hair at the base of his neck that curled up toward the ears. Underneath I wrote "(James)" for clarity and taped it to the back of the chair that should have been his. The empty chair next to mine.
When the doorbell rang, I was shuffling through Bridget's dad's jazz records looking for the one with the blackest man on the cover. I put it on and opened the door and there was everyone, clumped in a mass on the porch.
"We carpooled," Nathan said. "I sat on Robbie's lap." Robbie nodded like a good boy and in filed the Beautiful Prettys — the art-rock combo for which Nathan was drummer — with their silent girlfriends in tow. I handed these girlfriends wine glasses. The boys drank the beer they brought. Bridget came in and kissed Nathan hello and stood right next to him, which was always cute because they were both five-two.
"Well, here we all are," Nathan said, but here we all weren't, because my boyfriend was sweating out his guilt in the middle of the desert. And then he said, "Uh, not James, I suppose."
"He's here in spirit," I said and led us all to the table, pointing out the drawing and demanding everyone say hello.
Bridget served the food restaurant-style, delivering fully plated meals of cauliflower curry with couscous and chutney to the table. "Shouldn't we be having rice with this?" Robbie asked, and Bridget said no we shouldn't be, and conversation commenced from there. Where were Bridget's folks tonight? They were at another restaurant opening. Which one was this? Some Brazilian place out in Irvine, where they brought huge skewers of animal flesh to your table, which obviously was a personal assault on everything Bridget believed in, and she didn't plan on eating another meal of her mother's again, not that she ever cooked. When were the Beautiful Prettys playing next? Some house party in El Toro next weekend. It'd been a slow month. Wouldn't it be great if they could play a wedding? No one they knew was getting married, and this last comment of Nathan's caused enough tension among the couples that we swallowed the conversation along with our bites of Bridget's dinner. Maybe desperation eventually led Bridget to tell everyone I had a new car waiting for me, one I couldn't touch until I learned to type, which rustled up so much stupid boy-commotion that I threw a cardamom pod at her head. Those days we'd say anything just to see what happened next.
"He want you to be a secretary?" Robbie asked. All eyes fell on me. I chewed extra slowly to make them wait.
"He thinks computers are the wave of the future."
"What do you think?" This was Alan, the Beautiful Prettys' vocalist, who once tried to sleep with me and whom I didn't like to look in the eye.
"I don't even know what 'wave of the future' means."
"If computers are the future," Alan said, still staring at me, "then we're all destined to become mindless fucking robots."
By this point everyone was sufficiently bummed out and I saw Bridget elbow Nathan, who disappeared in the kitchen and came out with a tray of cookies. These were his trademark at dinner parties, fortunes written on small pieces of paper and pierced like hors d'oeuvres with fancy toothpicks, which then got implanted into a snickerdoodle, the only cookie he knew how to make. In the end they looked nothing like fortune cookies, but more like flat white ships sailing off to our mouths. We passed the tray like people did at church and each took a cookie. Nathan suggested we read aloud in alphabetical order, so Alan went first: Three varieties of cheese lie on your path: Roquefort, Limburger, Wensleydale. Absurdism was Nathan's whole thing. He wrote the lyrics whenever the Beautiful Prettys decided they needed some. Robbie's girlfriend, Amy, spoke up for the first time all night to read hers: Onward, fighting through the hoar, the dogsled of your deepest hopes is making record time. Many people sighed in admiration at this. Bridget got the curt one that seemed requisite: Facsimilate platitudes.
"I hate this one like I hate you," she told Nathan and balled it up and dropped it in his beer.
Then it was my turn. I picked the paper up with two fingers and pulled the pick out with my teeth, which I pushed over to the side of my mouth like a trucker. I read the thing quickly to myself — There's a tremor in the timbre of your mother's voice as she calls you in for dinner from the front porch of your current hardship/ obstacle. — and all of a sudden I felt a hard, hot gripping around my heart and lungs.
"I don't want to read mine."
"C'mon," Robbie said. "You have to."
"I don't, actually," I said and left the fortune lying in the last of my chutney.
* * *
Bridget called the next morning and passed the phone to Nathan, who said, "I didn't mean, like, your actual mother. It was a figurative mother. Like a metaphorical one. It was the idea: mother. You know?"
I assured him I did and told him what I told everyone when the subject of my mom came up, which was that she'd left when I was so young that I barely had any memory of the woman, and that she'd done such a great job of disappearing that I hadn't the foggiest where she was or what she was like. All this was true. What I didn't say is that her absence still carved an emptiness out of me, opening up dark caverns of wants more painful than My Boyfriend Back and The Keys To My New Car In My Pocket because of their ambiguity, because what in fact did I want? My Mother Back wasn't quite it, because I didn't even know my mother and by that point in her life she could have been a terrible person. A Mother Like Everyone Else Has wasn't right either, because I didn't even like most people's mothers. Even now, the closest I can ever get to pinning it down would be Not To Have To Want A Mother In The First Place, and the only way I knew back then to make this happen was to keep the whole thing out of my mind, which Nathan's fortune suddenly didn't allow. "I overreacted," I said on the phone, which was true. By the time I got home I was more ashamed than anything else.
Excerpted from If You Need Me I'll be Over There by Dave Madden. Copyright © 2016 Dave Madden. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Karl Friedrich Gauss
Smear the Queer
If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There
An Uneven House
If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There
Another Man’s Treasure
We All Have Difficult Jobs
If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There
Reading Group Guide
What People are Saying About This
While jaggedly comical and charming, Dave Madden’s fiction is a sharp reflection of our darker moods, a rich skewering of domestic life, of workplace perversities, of misguided therapy. These portraits of families, lovers, and friends are smart, moving, and funny.
This is a fiction debut brimming with wisdom and wit where characters are forced into the periphery of their own lives and struggle to overcome the impediments they pose to their own happiness. Dave Madden renders these characters with the fond and exacting accuracy of a mathematician plying a notoriously unsolvable problem. These are people who might have given in to desperation were it not so impractical and who live with a moving fastidiousness of spirit in an effort to overcome "the chasms and imbalances we create."
These unforgettable, beautifully crafted stories are narrated in a voice that is among the very best of this generation of young writers. Madden is a brave, canny, bold writer who walks unafraid into lives that are marginalized, damaged, ridden by grief and loss and sometimes held up by only a thread of reality. Anything is possible in a Madden story, which move effortlessly between worlds where people misstep into tragic loss and end up in a circus act, or maybe even in love.
A wry, deliciously smart sensibility presides over the magnificently multi-tentacledIf You Need Me I’ll Be Over There. The title storyalone is worth the price of admission, delivering the book to a place of exquisite, wondrous tenderness. Dave Madden is a protean talent and his story collection is a treasure trove.
Dave Madden has again given us a wonder of a book. These charismatic stories, as funny as they are sad, are attuned to the possibility of disorder beneath every human aspiration.