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Literal as well as metaphorical monsters inhabit this book of 38 innovative fictions. Here the reader will encounter not only zombies and ghosts, but a lyrical dream braided into a brutal and sorrowful real world. Monsters’ vision embodies the heartbreakingly private and depressingly public—and the funny flipside of it all.
|Publisher:||Four Way Books|
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)|
About the Author
KAREN BRENNAN is the author of six books of varying genres including poetry collections Here on Earth (1989) and The Real Enough World (2006), both from Wesleyan University Press; AWP Award-winning short fiction Wild Desire (1990), U Mass Press; The Garden in Which I Walk (2005), Fiction Collective 2; and a memoir, Being with Rachel (2001) Norton. Her fiction, poetry and nonfiction has appeared in anthologies from Norton, Penguin, Graywolf, Spuytin Duyvil, Michigan and Georgia, among others. A National Endowment for the Arts grant recipient, she is Professor Emerita at the University of Utah and teaches at the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. She holds a PhD from University of Arizona.
Read an Excerpt
By Karen Brennan
Four Way BooksCopyright © 2016 Karen Brennan
All rights reserved.
Today, everything you can think of in the nature of a regular day is made of snow. Houses have little window shutters made of snow and trees made of snow stand proudly in front yards. There's a snow restaurant where flavored snow is served on round snow plates and the waiters, made of snow, have charcoal for eyes like snow men. We drive our snow car into a desert of snow, camels of snow leaping around snow dunes, snow cactus all bent over from the great weight of snow, thick snow snakes writhing and hissing between snow fissures. It is all so beautiful that we fall into each other's arms and, in a flurry of snow, believe ourselves dissolving — as if everything were forever joined, forever pure and whole. A snow bird trembles overhead and we recall now that it cannot last. Just one day is what they'd promised. One day in the great scheme of things.CHAPTER 2
For a while in my life, I frequented the smoking area outside a hospital trauma unit. There among a crop of skinny dust-filled palms on a concrete patio rich with graffiti, we lit up — dying people hooked to IVs, catheters banging against their hips, a few in wheelchairs, hospital gowns obscenely agape, and others like me, nervously pacing, waiting for word.
There was a woman pushing an oxygen tank. She said she was homeless and couldn't afford a new tank which cost $20. She was hitting everyone up for cash and from me she bummed a Marlboro Light.
A few gang members with gunshot wounds, arms or legs or skulls bandaged heavily, looked resigned, waiting for their release dates. They wanted to be elsewhere, but they were used to it: incarceration and boredom. They were not inclined to violence at the time. This I made sure of. I used to talk to one who'd gotten himself shot in the ear. His name was Pepe. S'up, he got to saying to me. Not much, I'd say back.
There were flowers trying to bloom in concrete beds. Zinnias whose petals had fallen into a litter of old butts. It made a kind of pathetic sight. That and the milling around smokers and the MacDonald's fifteen feet away with its long lines. It was like a bus station whose buses were permanently delayed. One of those places between real places where there always seemed to be one cloud in the sky, directly over our heads, as if it were a stage set we milled around on.
I was sitting cross-legged in the grass when a man approached me. He was small and dark and gave the impression of being so wiry he'd be able to tie his body in knots if he wanted to. He wore a bandana around his head or around his neck, I forget which. He squatted down in the grass beside me and held out a quarter. It's ok, I said. I didn't mind giving away cigarettes; I felt guilty about smoking. He lit up and inhaled deeply, as if he were smoking a joint. It amused me to see him taking so much pleasure from it. Cheers, I said. I could tell you a few things about yourself, he said. Right, I said.
My daughter was in ICU in a coma from which she might never emerge. This is what the neurosurgeon told me that morning. She might never emerge, we honestly don't know. Even if she does emerge, the consequences will be severe. The MRI will tell us more. The neurosurgeon was about twenty-five, my daughter's age. She had long permed hair and she wore a floral print dress that made her look like a Mormon wife. Still, I had to take her seriously. After she told me, I went to my daughter's bedside and held her hand for a while. Her eyes were closed but she looked peaceful. She was hooked up to a million things: IVs, intercranial pressure monitors, ventilation tubes, pulse, respiration, etc. You could look up at a screen above her head and tell how she was doing if you knew what the numbers meant. I made it my business to know and so when the numbers rose too high I grabbed a nearby nurse.
There was one nurse who couldn't stand me. Quit watching the monitors, she commanded. DON'T PANIC! she'd shout. It was her habit to slam things around Dotty's cubical. She'd open a drawer and slam in new dressings, then she'd slam the drawer closed. She even suctioned out the trach in a cold fury — jamming the suctioning apparatus too far down the trach hole so that Dotty's body would thrash and bolt in the bed and her face would turn blue. I should have reported her, but I was too overwhelmed at the time.
Seriously, said the guy with the bandana, I have psychic powers. I'm in touch with the spirits. At this he waved his little arm toward the glassed-in area with the picnic tables where a few nurses were eating enchiladas.
Huh, I said. I didn't like to be rude. Also, especially under the circumstances, I liked to think that anything was possible.
You've got to have faith, said the guy. He closed his eyes and spun around a few times. When he opened them he raised his arm and pointed at my face. They call me Coyote, he said. I go in and out. I'll bet, I said, and I wondered what he was on, booze or drugs. I noticed he had a tattoo of a shooting star on his wrist and another of a lizard on his forearm. He wore three rings made out of twine on different fingers. His nails were filthy.
The Trickster, know what I mean? He put his face close to mine and whispered, faith. His breath smelled like chocolate and smoke.
I nodded. Every Indian likes to think they're the Trickster, I knew this from living in the Southwest. Still, I told him about Dotty. I had nothing else to contribute to the conversation. He listened carefully, nodding, scratching the side of his face every once in a while, doing a bit of nervous pirouetting on the grass. This last seemed out of his control, like hyperactivity or a disease like St. Vitus Dance.
I kept talking, explained about the accident, Dotty's coma, the uncertain prognosis. I told him how she was my only daughter and that I loved her very much and that I'd feel lost without her. We're best friends, I said and then I stopped talking.
It was twilight now and against the blurred sky the moon came up like a new dime, and the people pushing IVs and those others sprawled on the concrete benches biding their time turned into silhouettes. Only their cigarette tips glowed and the occasional wavy flare from a Bic lighter. The guy who called himself Coyote had fallen asleep in the grass. I was waiting for the results of Dotty's MRI and I didn't mind sitting next to a sleeping addict. It occurred to me to say a prayer, but I couldn't seem to formulate the right words.
When Dotty was a kid, about three or four, we used to hang out at diners. While I read magazines and books of poetry from the library, Dotty liked to collect things — the paper placemats with the presidents' portraits, the sugar packets, a few straws — and put them in her yellow knapsack. In my memory of those days, the sky was always drab, the bare tree branches scrawled against it like giant, listless spiders. Even a rent in the low cloud cover disclosed more of the same grey, grey giving way to grey, an infinity of monochrome above us, composing us and directing our fates. Dotty's yellow knapsack was the one spot of color I remember from that time. In fact, Dotty was the one spot of color in my whole life, period.
If I closed my eyes, I could see her face with the freckles, her blue eyes with their fringe of dark lashes. I could see her smile.
It was unbelievable to me that it all came down to this: an MRI, a matter of intercranial fluid and blood. Whether a glowing blip went up or down on a monitor. The swarm or retreat of antibodies or the few inches from the brain stem to the first spinal vertebra. O body, I wanted to yell out, Let us not forget your certain treacheries. This might have been my prayer.
Just then Pepe sauntered by and held out his Camel straight for a light. S'up, he said as usual. Nada, I said back. He wore a fresher, tidier dressing over his ear, but now his eye was bruised and swollen.
What's up with your eye? I said. Pepe shrugged. Ain't one thing it's the other. An angular blind man was scratching his way toward us with a silver cane. I hear you brother, he said as Pepe headed off in the direction of the MacDonald's line, I hear you loud and clear. His voice had an amazing quality, like a TV newscaster's voice or a preacher's, only more sonorous, as if he carried his own private echo chamber along with him wherever he went. It sent chills up my spine.
Who is that guy? I said. The man called Coyote had roused himself and was fumbling for a smoke from my pack of Marlboros. But what you have to understand is that this didn't bother me. I was in that state of mind, produced no doubt by shock and sorrow, where I saw myself as one of millions groping along a dark, unruly plain, waiting for deliverance. Whether Coyote helped himself to a smoke or to a $20 bill from my wallet made no difference to me. In truth, it made me feel a little less lonely.
That'd be Roberto Mendez, said Coyote. Navajo, he added.
Up close, there was something courtly about Roberto Mendez. It was more than the voice. He was an elderly, slightly frail-looking gent — maybe seventy or so — and other than a grey stubble on his jaw, he made an impeccable appearance: short-sleeved sport shirt, wrinkle free and patterned with a neat geometric design, tan slacks, cowboy boots that, though old, gave off a deep, well-tended gloss. He inclined his head toward Coyote and raised one hand in a greeting. My brother, he said. Then he slid the crook of his cane over one arm and fumbled in his pockets for a fistful of quarters. A favor, if you would be so kind.
Coyote was up in a flash. Hey Roberto, my man, he said, scooping about three dollars in change from Roberto Mendez's outstretched hand. You wanna coke? 7UP? Diet Pepsi, if you would be so kind, said the blind man. And be sure to get something for yourself with the remainder. Right, I thought, with some irony. I had my doubts about this transaction.
Roberto Mendez went about settling himself next to me on the grass. This was a complex operation since he was a tall man with very long, unsteady legs. He used the cane to balance himself and lowered his torso gingerly, the toe of one cowboy boot digging a little rut into the ground. I considered offering a hand but midway thought the better of it. People like to do things for themselves.
Once down, he introduced himself. Roberto Mendez, he said in his beautiful voice. I told him my name and he inclined his head. Not an Indian, he said. That's right, I said. Portuguese? he said. No, I said. I'm not much of anything. Ah, he said. Myself, I'm an Indian. Navajo tribe. He launched into a sort of account.
One year ago, I was living in Omaha. Omaha, Nebraska. I was not living with my daughter who had gone on, the previous year, to Chicago. From Omaha I was sent to Grand Junction, Colorado. I travelled by plane. I stayed in Colorado for six months — seis mesas — here he paused and repeated the Spanish phrase — seis mesas, that would be, in Grand Junction, Colorado. I was sent to a doctor for the purpose of curing an infection in my foot. I was having trouble qualifying for social security and I did not, at the time, have Medicaid. I was then sent back to Omaha. That time I travelled by rail. It was winter and although I couldn't see the snow storms, I could hear them howling at the train windows. I could smell them too. A bad snow storm has an unforgettable smell, like boiled milk or a drawer full of nails.
The blind man seemed to be drifting off. He nodded his head and turned away from me. He appeared to be gazing into the distance with the whites of his eyes.
Every word of this is true, he finally continued. They sent me back to Omaha, Nebraska, and then they sent me here. This time I flew. The infection in my foot had cleared up. But I needed and still need a prescription for Lanoxol for my heart. Still no social security. Still no Medicaid. At present, I reside at the Gospel Rescue Mission. I am waiting for an apartment. I am waiting for social security and Medicaid. I need the heart medication in order to sleep at night. I have what is known as atrial arrhythmia, an irregular pounding of the heart.
At this point, Coyote showed up with a Diet Pepsi for Roberto. I took this surprising return as a good omen. If Coyote could come back with a Pepsi for Roberto Mendez, then Dotty could come back with good results on the MRI. That was the flavor of my thinking in those days. Coyote was drinking an Orange Crush and laughing a lot. What's up Old Man, same old troubles? Same old troubles, said Roberto cracking his can of Pepsi.
I checked my watch. In a half hour, they'd bring Dotty back from X-ray. I tried to visualize her in her coma, but I couldn't — her old face kept getting in the way: her great smile, her dancing blue eyes. The yellow knapsack with its zipper compartment where she stored the diner sugar packets she collected. Once, as we were leaving the diner, a waitress inserted her body between the two of us and the exit. Your kid stole the sugars, she told me. She unzipped that little compartment on Dotty's knapsack for proof. These cost money, she said, removing the handful that Dotty had stuffed in her pack. I could still see the stunned look on Dotty's face, as if we had fallen from a great height, down down. This was a memory that never failed to overcome me and I felt the tears welling up, making the darkness seem prismed and shot with light.
Now Coyote had taken Roberto Mendez's cane from the ground and was twirling it like a baton, only it was too big to twirl and kept slipping into the ground. He was still laughing. Life is cool, life is cool, he said. He grasped the cane at the crook and, feigning lameness, hobbled away. Where's my cane? said Roberto. Where did he go with my cane? He reached out and felt around in the air.
He'll be back, I said. Except for the yellow lights around the taxi stand and the neon from MacDonald's and the thin, hard moon, it was genuinely dark now. I watched Coyote dancing away with Roberto Mendez's cane until I couldn't see him anymore, until the shadows swallowed him up. Next to me, Roberto was pounding the ground with his hand. Come back! he cried. His beautiful voice trembled. Where did he go? he asked me.
Don't worry, I said. Those were the days when I believed that justice always prevailed — that people didn't take canes from blind men and that one's beloved daughter, contrary to the doctors' predictions, would emerge from her coma without serious consequences. In other words, I knew nothing.CHAPTER 3
and, I think, only farm I ever visited was somewhere in Virginia. My sister and I went with our nurse, who was not a medical nurse, since we were not sick, but a governess, though we didn't use that term in those days in America.
She, Nursie, was a thin woman, on the gaunt side even, with salt and pepper hair that gave off a steel-like glint. One noticed her hair particularly since it thudded to her waist and was perennially gripped by a rubber band. Imagine thick dark eyebrows, a faint moustache and knobby red hands and you've got the picture.
The farmhouse was an enormous plantation-style home, all white with a wraparound front porch replete with wicker rocking chairs and cats. The people who lived there had been former employers of Nursie and they called her Miss Delgurcio. There was a mother and a father, the former tall and blond with a brusque, stately manner and the latter an almost invisible presence among us, so absorbed was he in the daily newspaper and his cigar, except for the occasions on which he emitted a disgusting series of hacking coughs.
These were the days before obsessive TV watching and I remember playing a game on the living room rug. I think the game must have been Clue because there was a silver-colored candlestick and a tiny bottle of poison with an X on it. I remember initially losing to my sister and the boy of the house, which humiliated me.
My sister: younger, prettier, unafraid of dogs. The boy of the house: dog lover, sandy-haired, freckled. I had fallen in love with him almost immediately, but it was my sister he favored. His dog, also favoring my sister, at one point decided to bite me.
I remember the pattern on the rug. Big faded pink flowers and a green vine threaded clumsily among the stems. I remember the dinner table with its heavy silver cutlery and the bedroom with its twin canopy beds. Those beds belonged to Mrs.____ and her sister, Nursie told us, and it was a special honor to sleep in them.
This was the first time I'd been bitten by a dog (though since then it has happened a multitude of times, countless times, and I have made peace with the fact that when dogs spot me their mouths begin to water and they become enraged).
The cow that required milking was brown and white, like a cow from a storybook. I had such a book at my own home, in my own room, wherever that was. That farm cow was called Deb and her udders dragged almost to the floor of the barn which was covered in tan hay. I stood outside the wooden door, one of those half doors with the top half opened to reveal Deb and her milkers: first the boy, Joe, then my sister, who boldly reached under the cow body and grabbed a fierce hold of one appendage after an-udder, ha ha. She, my sister, was wearing plaid Bermuda shorts and a white cotton blouse. At that moment, if asked to picture my home, wherever it was, I would picture a child's drawing of a tiny house on a vast dark background because that gives you the feel of it.
Excerpted from Monsters by Karen Brennan. Copyright © 2016 Karen Brennan. Excerpted by permission of Four Way Books.
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
Snow Day 3
The First 11
Distant Nurse 15
The Rat Story 16
The Skeleton in the Closet 17
The Vanishing 24
On Longing 31
Souls in Transit, Souls at Rest 36
Mouse Choir, an Opera 59
The Couple 61
Wrong Body Type 62
The Hug 63
The Evening Visitor 64
10 Birds 72
A Theft 77
On Bliss 78
Last Quartet 85
In His Wildest Dreams 90
Home Is Where the Heart Is 91
The Cancer Card 105
Pete, Waste Lab Technician 112
Our Way to the Highway 116
Still Life 120
The Migrating Wall 122
Homeless Cat 127
Toy Dog 129
The Corpse and its Admirers 136
The New New Music 140
The Story of MS Barbara Howe 143
The Snow Queen 148
What People are Saying About This
“Monsters takes the form of an extraordinary wunderkammer filled with narraticules . . . about what can’t stay, what was probably never there to begin with, and the beauty of that, and the biting loss.”