Reinventing the folktale, the family romance, and the detective narrative all at once, the 10 stories in this collection explore the emotional and spiritual development of characters searching for meaning in life. From an insurance adjustor who has worn the same suit for 20 years to a woman mourning her thrice-dead husband, they all struggle to find themselves in these darkly comical, absurd, yet touchingly poignant short stories.
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MATCHBOOK FOR A MOTHER'S HAIR
Where do I start, my name is Gordon Ween.
I am seventeen and three-quarters. Three quarters is three fingers out of four fingers, or three fingers over four fingers. Seventeen means that I have seventeen wholes — which I learned is sixteen groups of four fingers out of four fingers.
Mother played cards. There was Mrs. Baker, Mrs. Gingrinch and Mrs. Lowell. In the afternoon, at a table in my house, they played Yuke Her. I do not know how to play Yuke Her but I watched them every afternoon. When they played they tried to yuke each other, Mother and Mrs. Baker would look at the numbers they held in their hands and add them up and sort the pairs, and Mrs. Lowell leaned over Mrs. Gingrinch and then leaned back and then someone would lay cards down and Mrs. Lowell mumbled a dirty word and Mother scolded her, not in front of Gordon, don't say those things in front of Gordon, she said. Then the cards were down and Mrs. Lowell and Mrs. Gingrinch would be happy. On the table were cards with coloured shapes and unhappy faces, the shapes of shovels and hearts.
The house? The house was my house. The table was round and pretty, there were red flowers with thick stems in a bowl. It was an eating bowl, not a flower bowl. It was low and wide, for soup, but Mother always cut the stems and sat the petals in the bowl so there were no stems. They were coloured little heads, especially when they were tulips, and they got darker and darker until they curled and new heads were on the table for Yuke Her. As the heads turned dark and sad, their smell eroded and the bowl dried out. There were four black chairs around the big table, but my chair was by the window looking at the four big chairs. The window drapes were the colour of hedges and there were no dishes in the sink.
There were always bottles on the table, green with purple labels and Mrs. Gingrinch always laughed when she said we almost don't need the flowers on the table, these bottles are flowers themselves and make us bloom when we drink she said, and she giggled as she looked at me sitting in my chair.
My chair, I sat on a chair beside the table. It was my chair, I always sat in it, and it was red. It fit my back and Mother liked it because it always makes you sit up straight, Gordon, you never sit straight enough. People will not like you if don't sit straight, Gordon, what will Mrs. Lowell and Mrs. Gingrinch think of you if you slouch, Gordon.
Oh no, Mrs. Lowell said, don't listen to her. You know I like you, you know how much I like you, I've shown you how I like you you know that. She never said that when Mother was there, when Mother was there she said nonsense, Rette, you'll hurt the poor boy's feelings. Gordon is absolutely wonderful, we all love Gordon.
Did you know the pretty parts of flowers are the reproductive organs, said Mrs. Baker.
They're certainly more used than yours, said Mrs. Gingrinch, you're ugly.
I am not, said Mrs Baker, her best friend.
Gordon, said Mrs. Gingrinch, don't listen to your mother. She's turning red because all day she loses all she has to us. Terrible. She's terrible.
Mother glared at her.
See, said Mrs. Gingrinch, she doesn't laugh at it because it's true, Gordon. Mrs. Baker and your mother never win together.
I don't cheat, and we win sometimes, said Mrs. Baker. It's not true.
You know it is, said Mrs. Gingrinch, you take from Rette too. I never won when I played with you, either. But Rette never stops playing with you and she never understands our faces.
I understand there's nothing else to understand in your faces, said Mother.
If you understood any faces, you would understand Mrs. Baker's, said Mrs. Gingrinch. Her face is so plain she cannot lie. Even when she puts on her mascara and makeup you know she is trying to hide her thoughts. When she tries to hide her thoughts you know exactly what they are. But you can't see that, said Mrs. Gingrinch, and we can so we win.
My face is not plain, said Mrs. Baker.
It is so, said Mrs. Gingrinch.
I do not wear makeup to hide things. I wear it to look pretty, said Mrs. Baker.
Hmm, said Mrs. Gingrinch.
Mrs. Gingrinch and Mrs. Baker were best friends. They fought all the time at Yuke Her, Mrs. Baker accusing Mrs. Gingrinch of cheating and Mrs. Gingrinch calling Mrs. Baker too plain, she said a face that ugly should be much better at hiding things. Mrs. Baker is ugly, she looks like a squirrel I saw a dog catch from a tree. I would never say she looked like a squirrel from my chair because I wasn't supposed to talk from the chair I was supposed to watch for cheating.
If I talked Mother always told me to stop talking. Everything was good until I talked so I didn't. That's why I never said that Mrs. Baker looked like a fly I hit with a newspaper that crawled on its broken legs or that Mrs. Gingrinch sometimes farted when she took me upstairs to show me every week. Even though I knew what she wanted to show me I wanted to see again and I wanted to tell everyone at the table that all of them, except Mother, showed me the same thing all the time but only Mrs. Gingrinch smelled when she showed me, and I thought that was funny. They looked funny when they climbed on me to show me what they called love. When I talked it was never bad until Mrs. Gingrinch, Mrs. Lowell and Mrs. Baker went home. Then Mother would drink more of the bottles with the purple labels and stand up.
Wait for me in your chair, Gordon. I mean it.
So I sat and didn't say no because it would make it worse.
There are reasons I ask you not to talk, Gordon, but you didn't listen. You remember what we do every time you do talk when I tell you not to. I would never hurt you, Gordon, but you have to understand this Gordon, even if it is the only thing you understand. You have problems, Gordon, but you're not a completely stupid boy.
For each thing I said while she yuked her friends she plucked one hair from my head and she tickled my face. Here's another one, she'd say. Her lighter was the colour of a fire engine like my chair. She held the hair up to my nose and flicked the lighter and held the lighter to the scared hair.
I do this for your good, Gordon. Other mothers will hit their kids, I only make you sit here and ask you not to talk. If you talk I make you smell your hair burning. This will teach you that I love you and will make you a smarter boy than you are. It could be worse, Gordon. Other mothers don't love their children but I love mine. We could be poor or we could die in a fire ourselves and smell like this, this is what you will smell like if you are on fire, said Mother. It could be worse. Fire would be worse.
What did it smell like? I do not like to remember, I like Mrs. Lowell, Mrs. Gingrinch, Mrs. Baker, but mostly Mrs. Lowell.
Mrs. Lowell, Mrs. Gingrinch, Mrs. Baker never burned my hair. Mother never talked about burning my hair at Yuke Her. They drank and laughed and they looked at me with eyes that made me smell smoke and matchbooks when they lit their cigarettes and drank from the bottles. They played every morning and they finished before I was supposed to eat.
Mother did this on purpose. Gordon, she said, today I want you to walk Mrs. Baker home. Then you can eat your lunch, I will make you mashed potatoes and a sandwich, a tuna sandwich, dress warm it's snowing outside, she said. I don't like tuna sandwiches but I never said that I don't like tuna sandwiches because I'm not allowed to talk in my red chair, just watch for cheating. I walked Mrs. Baker or Mrs. Gingrinch or Mrs. Lowell home every day and we walked slowly so I would not have to eat the tuna sandwich until I got home and if it took longer then it would be longer before I ate the sandwich. Mrs. Baker went home on Monday and Wednesday and Mrs. Gingrinch went home on Tuesday. I always walked fast with Mrs. Baker because on Wednesday Mother would make me mashed potatoes and no tuna and I like mashed potatoes. Mrs. Baker is ugly and I do not like to walk with her anyway so I walk fast. On Thursday and Friday and Saturday I walked Mrs. Lowell home and Mother and Mrs. Gingrinch and Mrs. Baker stayed at the Yuke Her table and drank from the bottles all day. I walked slow on these days because I did not want to go back to the house when they had the bottles empty.
Who was first? It was Mrs. Lowell who first showed me things. That day we walked fast because Mrs. Lowell was walking fast and looking at the watch on her hand. It was ten after twelve, which means that we had fifty minutes until one o'clock because there are sixty minutes in one hour and twenty-four hours in one day.
Why are we walking fast, I asked Mrs. Lowell.
Because, she said, I don't have too much time and there's something I need to show you. It's cold, Gordon. It's January. Aren't you cold?
It is wrong to be cold. Show me, I said.
I can't show you here but I will show you. It's a thank-you for walking me home.
We are walking too fast.
If we are not fast I will not be able to show you because someone will come home. Besides it is very cold and you're not dressed properly. Why doesn't Rette dress you better.
I did not know other people lived with Mrs. Lowell. I never heard about other people when they played Yuke Her. It was twelve-thirty when we got to her white house, which means we had thirty minutes to one o'clock. Inside she sat me at the kitchen table, I sat at a chair, a chair different from mine. It is not red but tall.
Can you show me what it is, I like surprises I said.
She bit the corner of my ear her brown hair smelled like mangos and she wore purple rings on her fingers ice, and there isn't any time, face icicles that fell from the roof as she touched me and shattered into pieces glass prisms her rings grey purple with red amethysts she moaned I screamed she took me upstairs to the bed lie there and don't move, there isn't any time, don't move the bed shook I shook isn't any time I never felt it before it was powerful as the hairs lit in my face does my mother do this do this I screamed don't move she screamed Mother doesn't do this to me and we both moved and then the hair split and the clock on the bedside table wasn't counting anymore and then there wasn't any time and she sped up and then I didn't move and it was finished and there wasn't any more time and I didn't move.
I didn't talk because I didn't want to make Mrs. Lowell angry. She was not angry she was glowing and her mouth didn't smell so dirty now, so much like the smoke when she was in Mother's house. She was on her back on the green sheet the colour of hedges. Her feet were sweating. She smelled like mangos and cigarettes.
Do you know what that was, she said.
I did not want to answer because I did not want to be wrong. I don't know anything.
Did you like what I showed you, she said.
She put her hand on me and rubbed her palm against me and said you are very good. I just wanted you to lie still and you did and it was wonderful. You made me feel so good.
Your feet are sweaty, I said.
Next time we walk home I will show you something else, she said. You can never tell your mother that I show you things. She wouldn't understand and then I couldn't show you anymore. You have to be quiet. You have to go because Mr. Lowell will be home and you can't be here when Mr. Lowell gets here.
Her feet were moving and rubbing me. The smell of mangos was flying out of the window and Mrs. Lowell made the clock move again.
We are lovely and beautiful but your mother has never understood lovely and beautiful. She understands nothing about faces.
I wanted to leave.
No, she was not the only one, the other women at the game too. Mother told me to walk Mrs. Gingrinch home. It was winter still. Mrs. Gingrinch never said she was going to show me anything and we walked slow so I did not know anything.
Mrs. Gingrinch lives in a small house with a garage. It is white with tiny windows. The curtains are the colour of toothpaste, red white green, you can see them through the window. The shutters are blue. It was so pretty I wanted to go inside.
Are we going inside, I said.
No, we are going to go in the garage.
I'm cold, I said, I'd like some hot chocolate inside.
No, sweetie, you can't go inside. Mr. Gingrinch is upstairs in bed, sick. You can't come inside, Gordon. But you can come warm up in the garage before you go home. We can sit in the car. The garage will be warm. You like cars, all boys like cars.
The garage was not pretty. There was nothing there I wanted to see and it was grey and the car was too small for my knees.
I said, I don't fit, my knees are too big. Why can't I have any hot chocolate and then she touched me, like Mrs. Lowell. This is different now it knows she pulled the seats back and climbed on top and it was noisy the sounds of saws and wood the sound of pain and work and effort and the vice clamps closed and it was noisy and she moaned and I screamed and it was nothing new but it was and she said move, why aren't you moving so I moved a little but the car was too small for me to move and she moved more than me it hurt like a saw might hurt like a nail like a chain like a lawnmower on my belly and 'me' parts and I screamed and she screamed louder and all I wanted was a hot chocolate and it was the sound of work and effort it was all sounds and Mr. Gingrinch was in the house somewhere and then she started making farting and she said don't laugh don't stop and it was the sound of work and effort and a lawnmower on my me parts. When she was finished showing me she fell asleep in the back seat and I sat beside her watching the clock in the garage. It was ten after one, which meant there were fifty minutes until two o'clock.
Now when they played Yuke Her it was different to me. Mrs. Baker was still ugly, Mrs. Gingrinch still called Mrs. Baker ugly. Mother still drank and burned my hair under my nose when I came home. A horrible smell, like Mrs. Gingrinch's smells but the same the same.
Rette, that's cheating, said Mrs. Lowell. She slammed the cards on the table.
I am not cheating, said Mother. I made my own son watch to show there is no cheating. If I was cheating Gordon would've said something, wouldn't you, Gordon.
I didn't say anything. If I did Mother would burn hair under my nose.
That doesn't matter, said Mrs. Gingrinch, you're taking advantage of us, you and Mrs. Baker.
I don't know what's going on, said Mrs. Baker.
That's because nothing is going on, said Mother.
That's because you're ugly, Mrs. Gingrinch said.
I'm not ugly, said Mrs. Baker.
Mother knocked the flower heads on the floor and the low wide bowl broke into pieces. Mrs. Gingrinch shook a bottle with a purple label shouting this is ridiculous, this is ridiculous while Mrs. Lowell bent over to pick up the shards of the vase.
Don't get up, Gordon, she said, you'll hurt your feet.
Get up, Gordon, and clean your mess, said Mother.
Gordon should do the work, said Mrs. Gingrinch to Mrs. Lowell. He never does anything, he just lies there.
Why should he do anything, said Mrs. Lowell, this is not his fault, he is not his fault. You leave him alone, it's not his fault who he is.
I walked Mrs. Lowell home. It was snowing it was sunny. We walked slow but when we got there we went upstairs and Mrs. Lowell told me that I was so good at lying still, she liked it best when I lay still and she moved and I liked it that she liked it. I did not want to think about Mother burning my hair there is all the time in the world she screamed and I did not I know there is a pattern a nice pattern and I lie still there is all the time in the world but I still don't move the smell I notice most is Mrs. Lowell's feet and my sweat much more pleasant than Mrs. Gingrinch in the car and much better to look all the time in the world at than ugly Mrs. Baker and I screamed and that made her scream louder and louder and the more I lay still the more she moved and when she finished I was sure there was all the time in the world.
I liked that she liked it, I liked her better than Mrs. Baker. I don't want to tell you about Mrs. Baker, with Mrs. Baker it felt dirty it was not fun then, not fun or warm it was almost as bad as the fire and hair. Mrs. Baker never took me home, we just went to a park. It was so cold and I wanted hot chocolate but knew I wouldn't get any.
Why, I don't want to talk about it. It's not special.
She threw herself under a tree, take me now she said.
I didn't understand. She grabbed me and pulled me under. The snow was soft and cold under my knees. She had a green hood and that made it better but it was so hard the sun was on my back and the wind bit my face not warm with Mrs. Lowell not work with Mrs. Gingrinch just empty like the bottles on the Yuke Her table, empty like the numbers on the cards, empty like the lighter Mother owned it was too much work and she screamed a little bit but I never said anything I knew I was doing it now and it was just doing not like Mrs. Lowell Mrs. Baker was not anything she was like Mother said ugly people are empty inside it was hard I knew what I was doing but it was empty.
I did not like when Mrs. Baker did that with me, but not because she was ugly. She was ugly, but she was empty. Mrs. Gingrinch was empty too, Mother was empty, Mrs. Lowell was not empty. And when it happened again every day it never felt better with Mrs. Gingrinch or Mrs. Baker, it felt awful and wrong, like cheating at Yuke Her.
When they played Yuke Her now it was awful. They were always fighting. I sat and did not talk while Mother and Mrs. Lowell Mrs. Gingrinch Mrs. Baker threw the flowers and the bottles and screamed and it was horrible and when it was all over I didn't get tuna any more. They didn't talk about me but they looked at me when they fought and I sat with my hands on the knees of my pants in the red chair at the window. Mother kept shouting at me, speak, Gordon, you son of a bitch, tell them I am not cheating, I just want to win and win. I win, everyone gets angry with me you dumb shit, you retard, speak.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Obvious Child"
Copyright © 2018 Matt Shaw.
Excerpted by permission of Exile Editions Ltd.
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
MATCHBOOK FOR A MOTHER'S HAIR,
TENDLE & OSLO,
ANECDOTE OF THE JAR,
DRESCHL & THE OBVIOUS CHILD,
AFTER THE DOCTOR DIED IN HIS NOVEL,
ONE TRICK PONY,