|Publisher:||Small Beer Press|
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||463 KB|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The Baum Plan for Financial Independence and Other Stories
By John Kessel Small Beer Press
Copyright © 2008 John Kessel
All right reserved.
-for Wilton Barnhardt
When I picked her up at the Stop 'n Shop on Route 28, Dot was wearing a short black skirt and red sneakers just like the ones she had taken from the bargain rack the night we broke into the Sears in Hendersonville five years earlier. I couldn't help but notice the curve of her hip as she slid into the front seat of my old T-Bird. She leaned over and gave me a kiss, bright red lipstick and breath smelling of cigarettes. "Just like old times," she said.
The Sears had been my idea, but after we got into the store that night all the other ideas had been Dot's, including the game on the bed in the furniture department and me clocking the night watchman with the anodized aluminum flashlight I took from Hardware, sending him to the hospital with a concussion and me to three years in Central. When the cops showed up, Dot was nowhere to be found. That was all right. A man has to take responsibility for his own actions; at least that's what they told me in the group therapy sessions that the prison shrink ran on Thursday nights. But I never knew a woman who could make me do the things that Dot could make me do.
One of the guys at those sessions was Radioactive Roy Dunbar, whohad a theory about how we were all living in a computer and none of this was real. Well if this isn't real, I told him, I don't know what real is. The softness of Dot's breast or the shit smell of the crapper in the Highway 28 Texaco, how can there be anything more real than that? Radioactive Roy and the people like him are just looking for an exit door. I can understand that. Everybody dreams of an exit door sometimes.
I slipped the car into gear and pulled out of the station onto the highway. The sky was red above the Blue Ridge, the air blowing in the windows smoky with the ash of the forest fires burning a hundred miles to the northwest.
"Cat got your tongue, darlin'?" Dot said.
I pushed the cassette into the deck and Willie Nelson was singing "Hello Walls." "Where are we going, Dot?"
"Just point this thing west for twenty or so. When you come to a sign that says Potters Glen, make a right on the next dirt road."
Dot pulled a pack of Kools out of her purse, stuck one in her mouth, and punched the car's cigarette lighter.
"Doesn't work," I said.
She pawed through her purse for thirty seconds, then clipped it shut. "Shit," she said. "You got a match, Sid?" Out of the corner of my eye I watched the cigarette bobble up and down as she spoke.
"Sorry, sweetheart, no."
She took the cigarette from her mouth, stared at it for a moment, and flipped it out her opened window.
Hello window. I actually had a box of Ohio Blue Tips in the glove compartment, but I didn't want Dot to smoke because it was going to kill her someday. My mother smoked, and I remember her wet cough and the skin stretched tight over her cheekbones as she lay in the upstairs bedroom of the big house in Lynchburg, puffing on a Winston. Whenever my old man came in to clear her untouched lunch he asked her if he could have one, and mother would smile at him, eyes big, and pull two more coffin nails out of the red-and-white pack with her nicotine-stained fingers.
One time after I saw this happen, I followed my father down to the kitchen. As he bent over to put the tray on the counter, I snatched the cigarettes from his shirt pocket and crushed them into bits over the plate of pears and cottage cheese. I glared at him, daring him to get mad. After a few seconds he just pushed past me to the living room and turned on the TV.
That's the story of my life: me trying to save the rest of you-and the rest of you ignoring me.
On the other side of Almond it was all mountains. The road twisted, the headlights flashing against the tops of trees on the downhill side and the cut earth on the uphill. I kept drifting over the double yellow line as we came in and out of turns, but the road was deserted. Occasionally we'd pass some broken-down house with a battered pickup in the driveway and a rust-spotted propane tank outside in the yard.
The sign for Potters Glen surged out of the darkness, and we turned off onto a rutted gravel track that was even more twisted than the paved road. The track rose steeply; the T-Bird's suspension was shot, and my rotten muffler scraped more than once when we bottomed out. If Dot's plan required us sneaking up on anybody, it was not going to work. But she had assured me that the house on the ridge was empty and she knew where the money was hidden.
Occasionally the branch of a tree would scrape across the windshield or side mirror. The forest here was dry as tinder after the summer's drought, the worst on record, and in my rearview mirror I could see the dust we were raising in the taillights. We had been ten minutes on this road when Dot said, "Okay, stop now."
The cloud of dust that had been following us caught up and billowed, settling slowly in the headlight beams. "Kill the lights," Dot said.
In the silence and darkness that came, the whine of cicadas moved closer. Dot fumbled with her purse, and when she opened the car door to get out, in the dome light I saw she had a map written on a piece of notebook paper. I opened the trunk and got out a pry bar and pair of bolt cutters. When I came around to her side of the car, she was shining a flashlight on the map.
"It shouldn't be more than a quarter of a mile farther up this road," she said.
"Why can't we just drive right up there?"
"Someone might hear."
"But you said the place was deserted."
"It is. But there's no sense taking chances."
I laughed. Dot not taking chances? That was funny. She didn't think so, and punched me in the arm. "Stop it," she said, but then she giggled. I swept the arm holding the tools around her waist and kissed her. She pushed me away, but not roughly. "Let's go," she said.
We walked up the dirt road. When Dot shut off the flashlight, there was only the faint moon coming through the trees, but after our eyes adjusted it was enough. The dark forest loomed over us. Walking through the woods at night always made me feel like I was in some teen horror movie. I expected a guy in a hockey mask to come shrieking from between the trees to cut us to ribbons with fingernails like straight razors.
Dot had heard about this summer cabin that was owned by the rich people she had worked for in Charlotte. They were Broyhills or related to the Broyhills, old money from the furniture business. Or maybe it was Dukes and tobacco. Anyway, they didn't use this house but a month or so out of the year. Some caretaker came by every so often, but he didn't live on the premises. Dot heard the daughter telling her friend that the family kept ten thousand dollars in cash up there in case another draft riot made it necessary for them to skip town for a while.
So we would just break in and take the money. That was the plan. It seemed a little dicey to me; I had grown up with money-my old man owned a car dealership, before he went bust. Leaving piles of cash lying around their vacation home did not seem like regular rich people behavior to me. But Dot could be very convincing even when she wasn't convincing, and my father claimed I never had a lick of sense anyway. It took us twenty minutes to come up on the clearing, and there was the house. It was bigger than I imagined it. Rustic, flagstone chimney and entranceway, timbered walls and wood shingles. Moonlight glinted off the windows in the three dormers that faced front, but all the downstairs windows were shuttered.
I took the pry bar to the hinges on one of the shuttered windows, and after some struggle they gave. The window was dead-bolted from the inside, but we knocked out one of the panes and unlatched it. I boosted Dot through the window and followed her in.
Dot used the flashlight to find the light switch. The furniture was large and heavy; a big oak coffee table that we had to move in order to take up the rug to see whether there was a safe underneath must have weighed two hundred pounds. We pulled down all the pictures from the walls. One of them was a woodcut print of Mary and Jesus, but instead of Jesus the woman was holding a fish; in the background of the picture, outside a window, a funnel cloud tore up a dirt road. The picture gave me the creeps. Behind it was nothing but plaster wall.
I heard the clink of glass behind me. Dot was pulling bottles out of the liquor cabinet to see if there was a compartment hidden behind them. I went over, took down a glass, and poured myself a couple of fingers of Glenfiddich. I sat in a leather armchair and drank it, watching Dot search. She was getting frantic. When she came by the chair I grabbed her around the hips and pulled her into my lap.
"Hey! Lay off!" she squawked.
"Let's try the bedroom," I said.
She bounced off my lap. "Good idea." She left the room.
This was turning into a typical Dot odyssey, all tease and no tickle. I put down my glass and followed her.
I found her in the bedroom rifling through a chest of drawers, throwing clothes on the bed. I opened the closet. Inside hung a bunch of jackets and flannel shirts and blue jeans, with a pair of riding boots and some sandals lined up neatly on the floor. I pushed the hanging clothes apart, and there, set into the back wall, was a door. "Dot, bring that flashlight over here."
She came over and shined the flashlight into the closet. I ran my hand over the seam of the door. It was about three feet high, flush with the wall, the same off-white color but cool to the touch, made of metal. No visible hinges and no lock, just a flip-up handle like on a tackle box.
"That's not a safe," Dot said.
"No shit, Sherlock."
She shouldered past me, crouched down, and flipped up the handle. The door pushed open onto darkness. She shined the flashlight ahead of her; I could not see past her. "Jesus Christ Almighty," she said.
"Stairs." Dot moved forward, then stepped down. I pushed the clothes aside and followed her.
The carpet on the floor stopped at the doorjamb; inside was a concrete floor and then a narrow flight of stairs leading down. A black metal handrail ran down the right side. The walls were of roughed concrete, unpainted. Dot moved ahead of me down to the bottom, where she stopped.
When I got there I saw why. The stairs let out into a large, dark room. The floor ended halfway across it, and beyond that, at either side, to the left and right, under the arching roof, were open tunnels. From one tunnel opening to the other ran a pair of gleaming rails. We were standing on a subway platform.
Dot walked to the end of the platform and shined the flashlight up the tunnel. The rails gleamed away into the distance.
"This doesn't look like the safe," I said.
"Maybe it's a bomb shelter," Dot said.
Before I could figure out a polite way to laugh at her, I noticed a light growing from the tunnel. A slight breeze kicked up. The light grew like an approaching headlight, and with it a hum in the air. I backed toward the stairs, but Dot just peered down the tunnel. "Dot!" I called. She waved a hand at me, and though she dropped back a step she kept watching. Out of the tunnel glided a car that slid to a stop in front of us. It was no bigger than a pickup. Teardrop shaped, made of gleaming silver metal, its bright single light glared down the track. The car had no windows, but as we stood gaping at it a door slid open in its side. The inside was dimly lit, with plush red seats.
Dot stepped forward and stuck her head inside.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"It's empty," Dot said. "No driver. Come on."
Dot crouched and got inside. She turned and ducked her head to look at me out of the low doorway. "Don't be a pussy, Sid."
"Don't be crazy, Dot. We don't even know what this thing is."
"Ain't you ever been out of Mayberry? It's a subway."
"But who built it? Where does it go? And what the hell is it doing in Jackson County?"
"How should I know? Maybe we can find out."
The car just sat there. The air was still. The ruby light from behind her cast Dot's face in shadow. I followed her into the car. "I don't know about this."
There were two bench seats, each wide enough to hold two people, and just enough space on the door side to move from one to the other. Dot sat on one of the seats with her big purse in her lap, calm as a Christian holding four aces. I sat down next to her. As soon as I did, the door slid shut and the car began to move, picking up speed smoothly, pushing us back into the firm upholstery. The only sound was a gradually increasing hum that reached a middle pitch and stayed there. I tried to breathe. There was no clack from the rails, no vibration. In front of us the car narrowed to a bullet-nosed front, and in the heart of that nose was a circular window. Through the window I saw only blackness. After a while I wondered if we were still moving, until a light appeared ahead, first a small speck, then grew brighter and larger until it slipped off past us to the side at a speed that told me the little car was moving faster than I cared to figure.
"These people who own the house," I asked Dot, "where on Mars did you say they came from?"
Dot reached in her purse and took out a pistol, set it down on her lap, and fumbled around in the bag until she pulled out a pack of Juicy Fruit. She pulled out a stick, then held the pack out to me. "Gum?"
She put the pack back in the purse, and the pistol, too. She slipped the yellow paper sleeve off her gum, unwrapped the foil, and stuck the gum into her mouth. After refolding the foil neatly, she slid it back into the gum sleeve and set the now empty stick on the back of the seat in front of us.
I was about to scream. "Where the fuck are we going, Dot? What's going on here?"
"I don't have any idea where we're going, Sid. If I knew you were going to be such a wuss, I would never of called you."
"Did you know about any of this?"
"Of course not. But we're going to be somewhere soon, I bet."
I got off the seat and moved to the front bench, my back to her. That didn't set my nerves any easier. I could hear her chewing her gum, and felt her eyes on the back of my neck. The car sped into blackness, broken only by the occasional spear of light flashing past. As we did not seem to be getting anywhere real soon, I had some time to contemplate the ways in which I was a fool, number one being the way I let an ex-lap dancer from Mebane lead me around by my imagination for the last ten years.
Just when I thought I couldn't get any more pissed, Dot moved up from the backseat, sat down next to me, and took my hand. "I'm sorry, Sid. Someday I'll make it up to you."
"Yeah?" I said. "So give me some of that gum." She gave me a stick. Her tidy gum wrapper had fallen onto the seat between us; I crumpled the wrapper of my own next to hers.
I had not started in on chewing when the hum of the car lowered and I felt us slowing down. The front window got a little lighter, and the car came to a stop. The door slid open.
The platform it opened onto was better lit than the one under the house in the Blue Ridge. Standing on it waiting were three people, two men and a woman. The two men wore identical dark suits of the kind bankers with too much money wore in downtown Charlotte: the suits hung the way no piece of clothing had ever hung on me-tailored closer than a mother's kiss. The woman, slender, with blond hair done up tight as a librarian's-yet there was no touch of the librarian about her-wore a dark blue dress. They stood there for a moment, then one of the men said, "Excuse me? You're here. Are you getting out?"
Dot got up and nudged me, and I finally got my nerveless legs to work. We stepped out onto the platform, and the three people got into the car, the door slid shut, and it glided off into the darkness.
It was cold on the platform, and a light breeze came from an archway across from us. Instead of rough concrete like the tunnel under the house, here the ceiling and walls were smooth stucco. Carved above the arch was a crouching man wearing some kind of Roman or Greek toga, cradling a book under one arm and holding a torch in the other. He had a wide brow and a long, straight nose and looked like a guard in Central named Pisarkiewicz, only a lot smarter. Golden light filtered down from fixtures like frogs' eggs in the ceiling.
"What now?" I asked.
Dot headed for the archway. "What have we got to lose?"
Past the arch a ramp ran upward, switchbacking every forty feet or so. A couple of women, as well dressed as the one we'd seen on the platform, passed us going the other way. We tried to look like we belonged there, though Dot's hair was a rat's nest, I was dressed in jeans and sneakers, I had not shaved since morning, and my breath smelled of scotch and Juicy Fruit.
Excerpted from The Baum Plan for Financial Independence and Other Stories by John Kessel Copyright © 2008 by John Kessel. Excerpted by permission.
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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
John Kessel is an incredibly talented writer, and this collection serves as an excellent introduction to his work. His range as a writer is simply astonishing. This book alone contains a lunar gender study, a reformed criminal tale, and a surprisingly brilliant Mary Shelly meets Jane Austin story (despite it's groan worth title, Pride and Prometheus).There is not a dud in this collection, however it suffers a bit due to its main virtue. The collection as a whole doesn't fit together to my liking. There is just enough cohesion amongst the stories to make me feel that there should be something more in this book. It's an arbitrary failing, but it does separate this collection from some others (Kelly Link's Magic for Beginners comes to mind) that I'd consider to be truly great.
This could easily have been a 4 star book, but a few of the stories just didn't go anywhere. I'm all for ambiguity, but I have to feel like it's serving some purpose other than getting the author out of the story as quickly as possible.Still, this book blends science fiction with "straight" fiction as well as anything I've read since Vonnegut. Like Vonnegut, the sci-fi elements of his work serve to satire contemporary society and culture. What was most intriguing about this book was the way many of the stories addressed gender and power. One story imagines a world where the women of the suffragette movement formed violent gangs, ala the KKK, to terrorize abusive men into changing their ways, even going so far as to assassinate Grover Cleveland. Several other stories take place in a colony on the moon run by a society of "matrons," a colony where men live with very little power and where fatherhood is intentionally unknown. As a trade-off, men have few responsibilities, and sex is plentiful and without taboo. Girls are encouraged (and in most cases, forced) to move out at the age of 14 while boys live at home indefinitely. The ramifications of such a society cut both ways for Kessel, as the men and women struggle with the pressures of such an arrangement. In one of the stories, a comedian named "Tyler Durden" challenges the matriarchy, and faces grave consequences as a result.Fascinating stuff, and well worth a read this summer.
John Kessel does not write a lot of fiction, by the standards of his fellow SF writers, but he maintains a high level of quality, as in this collection of recent stories. He is a literature professor, and it shows in his interest in history, literary and political, in particular of the 19th century. He often examines the conflict between the individual and the social, a focus which still allows for great variety. Many of the stories start from historical characters, or existing literary works. We see how the economy really works, what a failed, violent man may do with a Power, a crucial moment in the life of director Orson Welles, and other possibilities, both straight science fiction and magical realism or fantasy. "The Red Phone" is hilarious and erotic. "Pride and Prometheus" brings together exactly the two, famous 19th century stories you think it does, respecting both - it's a treat. At the heart of the collection are four stories set in a future, utopian, feminist society. One of these, "Stories for Men", won the Tiptree award. The Society of Cousins, located in a domed lunar crater, has a gender and sexual-preference mix that seems to be about what we have today, but has social, economic and political structures which lead to generally harmonious relations between men and women - while women make most major decisions. I have the impression that this utopia might actually work. An impressive achievement, although flawed in that all the stories turn on the intrusion of male agression, or on its possibility. Must it always be about the men? However, Kessel leaves room for more stories about the Society, and I certainly hope he writes them.
Fairly strong overall. I particularly enjoyed "It's All True", set in the same time-travel universe as Kessel's novel Corrupting Dr. Nice, where the time-traveling protagonist meets with Orson Welles -- it's a very inventive universe and it's fun to see what Kessel does with it in the shorter form. The four-story cycle set on the moon are the other standouts, though interestingly enough the best-known one of the set, "Stories for Men" (which appears to have been written as an exercise to win the Tiptree for a profoundly male-focused story, and which I frankly found tedious) was perhaps the weakest. The other three in this group, however, were excellent.The final story, a sort of Frankenstein/Pride and Prejudice crossover fanfic, was far better than that description makes it sound, and certainly would have been even better had I read the Austen novel -- missing out on half of the source material didn't help matters, but the story was strong enough to not only stand alone but stand out as one of the best of the bunch.
Have you read John Kessel? Sadly, I'd be surprised to hear that. Kessel doesn't have the largest audience, and that's too bad. I suspect much of that comes from the fact that his strongest work is his short fiction, and the longer I'm around, the more I find that people aren't reading a lot of short fiction.It's too bad, really, particularly when you have such a talented short fiction writer as Kessel. He doesn't necessarily have a style that is instantly recognizable. And in fact, in this collection, Kessel works at donning the style and guise of another writer in many of its stories. He takes on writers from Flannery O'Connor to Karen Joy Fowler to Mary Shelley to Jane Austen. And it's hard to tell it's not the original author.Kessel also tackles gender roles in a quartet of stories: "The Juniper Tree," "Stories for Men" (which won the Tiptree), "Under the Lunchbox Tree," and "Sunlight or Rock." The stories are set in a lunar colony that is run by women, but told from the point of view of a man struggling to find his identity.It's been a while since I read this book, but when I go back through again, I remember how much I enjoyed reading it. It had been quite a while since Kessel's last collection, I hope we don't have to wait so long again.