Christopher Merkner is a Shirley Jackson for the contemporary Midwest, where the ties of family and community intersect darkly with suburban American life. In these stories, an enraged village gaslights unsuspecting vacationers and a young man delays a impending confession, fondling the nostrils of his mother's pet pig. Sharp and uneasy, for these inheritors of tradition, that which binds them most closely—offering stability and identity and comfort—are precisely the qualities that set them back, pull them down, burden, limit, and ruin them.
"Merkner’s first short story collection provides a voyeuristic vantage point on fractured lives. He has the striking ability to turn the familiar into the uncanny and morph the comfortable into the weird, and, clearly,
he’s at home in that strange realm. In most of the stories, we witness lives at the moment an individual’s identity begins to fray, sometimes slowly and sometimes swiftly. These changes are both painful and thought provoking to witness through the book’s unrelenting first-person perspective. At times Merkner’s prose evokes unease, but more often it encourages a chuckle, and his plot twists will leave even the most seasoned reader surprised. In each story, even those that only run for three pages, the tension mounts deliciously, many times with no foreseeable relief. The true beauty of these tales lies in their delicate endings, which manage to both tie up loose ends and leave everything hanging, so that they are simultaneously satisfying and mysterious. Such complexity makes great reading for lovers of short fiction, and for all who wish to witness a new master at work."— Booklist
Christopher Merkner teaches creative writing at West Chester University. His work has appeared in Black Warrior Review , Cincinnati Review , Fairy Tale Review , Gettysburg Review , New Orleans Review , and Best American Mystery Stories. He and his wife and kids live in West Chester, Pennsylvania.
|Publisher:||Coffee House Press|
|Product dimensions:||4.90(w) x 7.40(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Christopher Merkner teaches creative writing at West Chester University. His work has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Cincinnati Review, Fairy Tale Review, Gettysburg Review, New Orleans Review , and Best American Mystery Stories. He and his wife and kids live in West Chester, PA.
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THE RISE & FALL OF THE SCANDAMERICAN DOMESTIC
By CHRISTOPHER MERKNER
COFFEE HOUSE PRESSCopyright © 2013 Christopher Merkner
All rights reserved.
OF PIGS AND CHILDREN
* * *
Life seduces from afar. This is a French concept I believe, though I have never been to France and can speak no French and have never been exposed to any French literature that might corroborate this sensation I have about things in the world becoming more attractive, more alluring, the further away one gets from them—
And really, with every story my mother forces on me about her pig, I am happily finding myself slipping further and further away from her kitchen table. I have no interest in what she has to say about this pig; I am thinking instead of my dead uncle. I am thinking about having accidentally gaffed him in the temple with one of my musky bucktails on a very simple and heaving backcast, and the problem here, as I see it, is this: I am feeling an unexpected excitement in not telling my mother about her brother's death. It is exciting me to withhold this information. The longer I wait, the longer I sit here listening to her speak, the further away I get from her and the trauma I have undergone, the more satisfied I feel.
I could easily tell her, of course. The death was not my fault. I am not guilty of any heinous crime. I have not fulfilled some secret vendetta against my uncle. I can come away clean.
But at some point, if I continue to say nothing about having killed her brother, she will want to know how the man disappeared. She will call the police; there will be a manhunt; I will be questioned, as I am the last known person to have been seen with him, and less than twenty-four hours ago; I will confess everything I know to the police; I will appear guilty of a heinous crime; and I will be hung, or shot, or put away in a cage forever. And let me make this emphatically clear: this appeals to me, very much. I like this possibility. I find pleasure in not telling her about her brother's death because part of me—a pressing and primal and mysterious part of me—is curiously drawn to the prospect of being guilty of something for which I am technically not guilty.
This pig of hers, of which she has been talking for the past half hour, is in my lap. I am petting it. It is a Vietnamese potbelly, which were apparently very popular about seven or eight years ago in the upscale suburban circles of Madison and Chicago, but have since fallen by the wayside, for people like my mother to pick up at rural flea markets at next to no cost.
This is the type of drivel my mother is trying to meaningfully convey to me as I begin removing myself from her severe and penetrating face. She has not asked why I have arrived at her house so early on a Sunday morning. She has asked me nothing of myself. But she pauses in her steady, tightlipped monologue and expects me to respond to her.
"Well, that is an interesting thought," I say to her, though to be sure, I only have the most general sense of what she has been saying.
"You know," she replies, "it is an interesting thing to say, because the wildest thing about it is that I'm pretty sure she understands me the same way I understand her. We understand each other, you see."
"You understand each other," I repeat. She is in her thick gray bathrobe, the one she has worn all my life, pulled tightly to her neck.
"I think it's as plain as day, really," my mother confides. "Anyone with eyes and who is honest with themselves will see that she is the most demonstrative pig they have ever laid eyes on." I don't know what my mother means exactly by demonstrative, but I'd be willing to bet that if she means that this pig shows a lot of expression in its face, or that the pig wears, as the saying goes, its heart out on its sleeve, well then I guess I might rightly call my uncle Ackvund, at the moment when he understood he had a twelve-inch musky lure sticking through his eye socket, demonstrative.
Helpless, though, seems to be the more fitting adjective. In fact, I don't honestly know what helpless is, if it isn't the image of poor Ackvund swatting aimlessly at his entire face, patting his cheeks and forehead like a blind man searching the ground for pocket change until (and I'd be lying if I said that I hadn't seen this coming) he hooked one of his fingers on the same hook that was projecting out of his eye. The barb, then, if you can picture this, went right through the fingernail—
A shish kabob is what some of you city people with no conscience might call it. But I think helpless is really the word I want here.
"Well, that's another interesting point," I say to my mother, when she hesitates between sentences again.
She squints at me.
"It is," I assure her.
"What did I just say to you?"
"About the pig," I say. "About Lala. That was a really good point you made."
"Well it is a good point, because I just don't think enough people realize that these animals, and most animals for that matter, have a remarkable sense of hearing. They hear marvelously. And they listen—oh, they listen. I've seen this one turn her head to me and seriously think about, or at least look like she's seriously thinking about—"
My mother laughs at this point and looks affectionately at the warm beast in my lap. She becomes earnest again and continues. "She seriously thinks about what it is I've just told her." I am petting this pig as my mother begins another story. Her hard head (the pig's hard head) has some hairs on it that feel like metal wires and other hairs that are really quite soft. The pig's eyes are closed and it is snoring.
I am attracted to this animal in a strange and strong way. Its warm body, I think, is what appeals to me most right now. It is making my thighs sweaty. Its eyes are closed. Its head is propped against my hip with arrogance and nonchalance. It is breathing slowly.
It is snoring. It is encouraging me to relax.
And it is important that I relax, I think, because I have not done so since the moment I first stood up in the boat and looked at my uncle, and he, blood flowing down his cheek, looked helplessly back at me. Recalling this moment even now, I have to say, undoes much of what this pig has been doing for me by way of relaxation—
Oh I tried to help him, of course. I wasn't the helpless, demonstrative one. I didn't balk. I didn't blanch. Not at first. I wasn't by any means paralyzed. In fact, I moved toward him immediately and tried to calm his violent and, as I said, aimless patting of his own face. But I couldn't stop him until it was too late, until he had stuck his finger all the way through the hook, past the barb. When I finally did get my hands on him, I attempted to comfort him by rubbing his shoulders, as if he had caught a chill. This was instinctive, and for many obvious reasons it not only did not calm him down, it actually prompted a litany of anguished wails, the most coherent of which was, "Get it out. It itches. Like Jesus Christ. Get it out."
"Well," I say to my mother, when she has stopped talking again, "I don't know."
"What don't you know?"
"I don't know what to say about that," I say. I look at the gray kitchen in which I was raised. Not a basket has once been removed from the wall, not a framed picture altered or updated. Dust covers everything.
"Say about what?"
"About what you just said," I say. "About Missy. About the pig."
"I didn't say anything just now about the pig. I was telling you about my back."
"Do you have any orange juice?"
She gets up. Now, I realize, would be the time to tell her about the gaffing. We have, at long last, ended the conversation about the pig. Now would be the time, I think, if ever there was a time, to tell my mother that her brother is dead, and that I have killed him unwittingly, and that this is the reason I have come over to her house on Sunday morning and am sitting in her kitchen chair.
She pours me a glass of orange juice and sits down. She is looking at me.
"You're not a good listener," she says.
"I'm not," I say. "This is most certainly true."
"Your father wasn't a good listener, either," she says. Her lips are chapped. Her charcoal hair is pulled back tightly off her chalk-white forehead in something like a ponytail.
I say nothing. I have nothing to add to this. I don't think it wise to discuss my father, whom she has long hated, at this juncture in the conversation. From my perspective, anyway, we've got enough trouble brewing. And she must sense this too, that she has made a mistake in comparing her dead and unloved husband's name to my own, because she drops this line of conversation and points to the pig in my lap.
"This one, you know, keeps me up till all hours of the night."
I smile. "I believe that."
"My little restless lover," she laughs, not smiling.
I look down at the pig, because my mother is looking down at the pig when she says this. Its nose is wet. I think I could play with the liquid draining from its nose for a long, long time. I am not gross, I think, for admitting this. The liquid is glistening and fascinating to touch, and that the pig is letting me play with its slimy nose—letting me, in fact, stick my second and fourth fingers nearly all the way up into its nostrils, rotate my fingers in gentle supplications, slip my fingers out, and pull the slickness away from the rim of its gaping and bumpy apertures—only makes it more captivating.
This is a fascination, as I have said, that helps me realize again how universally seductive life is at a distance. Pulling at the pig's nostrils gives me the sense of doing things from a long way away. It is as if I am not, myself, even doing it. I feel as though this pig would have to be conscious of me doing what I am doing for me to be doing it at all. And this may be what the French call (and really it is just shameful that I say this at all after already admitting my complete ignorance of the French language) the motive or the instinct or the nature of the voyeur—
And how I wish I was but a voyeur at that pivotal moment when I, at length, forced myself to sit down, swallow my disbelief, grab the oars, and row my uncle and myself back to shore after the gaffing. I would give or do anything to have been then where I am right now.
And so too would have my uncle, I suspect, because when it came to rowing the boat, Ackvund knew better than anyone else (I can still hear him scoffing) that I had a lead left arm. Since childhood I have had a hell of time keeping the boat true to its course, and, as a result, Ackvund had always taken it on himself to row us in and out of the vast chop we used to call Big Lake.
There is little doubt in my mind therefore why, when I sat down to take the oars, my uncle began weeping for the first time. To this point, he had been nothing short of Norwegian royalty: not a word spoken, not a tear shed. But then I could see quite plainly that besides the crying (you really couldn't mistake it) he had just wet his pants. He was crumbling right there before me. Surely he must have thought that my taking over the oars would be the anguished end of us both—
But I will say this in my defense: I rowed hard, as hard as I could and as fast as I could, and followed as best I could the instructions I had heard all my life about rowing a boat—that is, pick a spot on the far shore (tree, cabin) and keep your eyes fastened to that landmark the entire time, so that you are always pulling away from the same place and heading, in theory, to the place directly its opposite, which, for only the most romantic northerner, would be the intended terminus.
God help me, my landmark kept switching from one tree to the next, one cabin to another (no fault of my own, really, given the dire circumstances and the uncanny likenesses of all the trees and cabins in this part of the country). What I was losing in accuracy, I was gaining in unprecedented speed—
Indeed, we might have been clipping along at more than ten miles per hour when I suddenly realized we were not headed toward our own dock, but the Halvorsteds' dock perhaps a quarter mile off the mark.
To change directions at this point seemed to me a tremendous impossibility. I looked to our dock (and mind, here, that I am craning my neck a full 180 degrees, and at times more, as my body was facing toward the opposite side of the lake, my back to the approaching shoreline and Halvorsteds' dock), and in that very brief moment in which I had turned to calculate the distance from our dock to the Halvorsteds', having established, as I say, so much water speed, we struck the oncoming dock squarely and to my complete surprise. I pitched backwards, but clung to the oars. My uncle, however, had no sense at all of what was approaching—
I heard him shout once, and it was as robust and tortured a howl as I had ever heard in my life from another human. I spun around quickly and the only trace of him I could see were his legs pointing straight up in the air, as in rigor mortis, and my bowing rod, jammed between the inner gunwale and my own seat, its line taught and crystalline and vibrating and still anchored horribly in my uncle's head—
"Just stop doing that!" my mother says to me.
"Doing what?" I slip my finger out of the pig's nostril.
"Thank you," she says. Her jaw is clenched. "Christ."
"What?" I say. "She likes it."
"No, she does not."
"She isn't moving."
As though it has been cued, the damn pig moves. It stirs in its sleep and looks up at me. It snorts. It rises shakily, because it is standing on my lap, and my thighs are proving to be a less than stable platform for its cloven, bowed legs. It wobbles and snorts. This pig is sexy, I'm not going to pretend any longer it isn't so. I'm not going to act as though its stunted proportions and its angled, little mouth do not stir in me some perverse kinship.
I grab its chubby sides and wiggle its fat. It isn't kinky, it isn't grotesque, it's just funny and vaguely erotic.
"Stop it!" my mother shouts. She gets up from her chair and leans over me, to take the pig away.
"All right, all right," I say. Gently, I push her arms away from the pig.
"What is wrong with you?" she asks. "Why are you here? What are you doing here?"
I pause. I take in the odor of this old room.
"I killed your brother," I say.
She makes a face.
"He's down in the cabin," I say. "Dead."
She says nothing. She thinks I'm kidding. I shake my head.
"He is," I say. "I killed him. It's my fault. Go look."
"Get out of my house," she says.
"Mother," I say.
"Get out," she says again.
I don't go anywhere. Where am I going to go? I have this pig in my lap and we need to call the police. I cannot run away. Running will get me nowhere except further from this situation, and frankly, I'm as far and as close to this problem as I want to get. I am in the throes of voyeur fulfillment. I am not in trouble; I am posturing as trouble. I am hovering over conflict like smoke above fire. I am the contour of wrongdoing, the specter of guilt—
And for what it's worth, I tried to call the police from the cabin, when I first got Ackvund back to his home, but by then it was too late: he was dead. And anyway the phone was dead too, because Ackvund never paid his phone bills, which was, of course, the main reason I was out fishing with him—to give the old guy, who had been losing some of his marbles, a little company and guidance, perhaps remind him very gently to pay his bills and take his medication.
It occurred to me at one point (and I can't remember if it was on the dock or up by the cabin or just after I had broken through the Halvorsteds' cabin window after I discovered no one was home) to stop and give Ackvund a more thorough looking over. I studied his face very closely. His cheeks were covered with blood, and both of his eyes were closed, sealed shut with a sheet of golden crust. He was scowling. He wasn't talking though. As I've alluded to, we are not a family of French origin; we are Norwegians, and this silence in the face of sustained anguish was not extraordinary behavior for my uncle or anyone else I know.
Excerpted from THE RISE & FALL OF THE SCANDAMERICAN DOMESTIC by CHRISTOPHER MERKNER. Copyright © 2013 Christopher Merkner. Excerpted by permission of COFFEE HOUSE 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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