BASS 2013: Karl Taro Greenfeld, “Horned Men” from ZYZZYVA, Fall 2012

Photo by Gavin Schaefer

Photo by Gavin Schaefer

Becca once asked her father if he felt guilty about all the people who had lost their homes. … Bob had told her no, he didn’t feel guilty, not at all. He said that he had been making people’s dreams come true, but as soon as that platitude came out of his mouth, he regretted it, because he could see but Becca’s smug smile and nodding head that he had just incriminated himself.

Do you ever wonder how they sleep at night – the people who, through greed, or inaction brought about by self-interest, caused the financial crisis we’re all still coping with? I avoid matters of finance beyond the absolute basics, but I’m still trying to figure out how people could do that. How they can get away with it, how we can let them get away with it. And how they live with themselves.

Bob’s a former mortgage broker, pretty low in the ranks of those responsible, but still there. When the bubble burst, he lost his job and his home; he probably considers that punishment enough. Others would disagree.

Bob moves his family back in to his mother’s old house, the one he was renting out to the Wagonsellers, which means, of course, they have to go. It’s a great name, Wagonseller, conveying an old-fashioned touch, a 19th century air, yet connecting the tenants to Bob through commerce. They’re the Wagonsellers, after all, not the Wagonmakers or Wagondrivers; makes me wonder who in their lineage might’ve sold a wagon with a wheel he knew wasn’t perfect, but was probably good enough. They’re not at all happy about being told to move, and they put up some resistance. “Well, you’re the renter and I’m the owner, so I guess that’s that,” Bob tells them. End of discussion, right? Not so fast…

At the post office, the Asian lady who worked there told him that he asked for his mail to be forwarded to an address in Montana.
“No, I didn’t.”
“Someone filled in and signed a change of address for you,” she said, looking at a monitor. “Your mail has been going to Jericho, Montana.”
She slid him a new form.

That’s Jericho, as in “Joshua Fought the Battle of.” Wagonsellers 1, Bob, 0.

Bob’s relationship with his thirteen-year old daughter had already begun to deteriorate, but now things accelerate. He’s disappointed in her. He knows that’s a horrible thing for a father to feel, but gee, she’s sulky, and she’s getting fat, and she doesn’t have any friends. His wife is almost invisible in this story, so I’d guess she isn’t exactly a pillar of support either. But he’s got co-ax, and he’s going to wire the house. No hiring lazy bums who’ll do a crappy job, either; he’s going to do it right. No draping the cables all over the roof, no tangle of wires; he’ll get up into the crawlspace and drill the holes and thread the wires. He’ll do it himself.

We are a nation drowning in coaxial cable, Bob decided, each house on this block suffocating in unused vines of dead co-ax. Phone companies, cable companies, Internet companies, broadband companies, all of them unspooling miles of the stuff and leaving it behind them, a fiber-optic breadcrumb trail leading nowhere. A million such houses, ten million, twenty million; every time the house was sold, remodeled, flipped, foreclosed, that meant more co-ax: badly strung, high-speed tumbleweed. Nobody gave a fuck anymore, and he knew that firsthand, having been one of those well-paid for not giving a fuck, for not caring about who made how much and was borrowing how much for how much house. Not that anyone ever asked. They all wanted as much house as possible – and all that co-ax – as he had, at one point, before he walked away from his last house.

It’s a wonderful symbol, this cable. Our means of machine-to-machine communication has become our means of enhancing, or avoiding, person-to-person communication. By the way, I get into this argument a lot with people who find themselves shut out of interpersonal relationships by computers and televisions and phones; they don’t understand that for those of us who are hermits, these channels don’t replace real-life interactions, they enable them. Some of us just aren’t meant for real time. We are, I’ll admit, the minority; we are, I’ll admit, defective by nature; but technology serves as an adaptive device, much the same as a wheelchair or a service animal.

Bob’s coaxial cable, however, leads to his doom.

Now gazing through the gap around the HVAC, he saw a flash of movement, the faded brown blue of old, dirty denim, as Becca entered her room, her recently more protuberant rear end framed perfectly in the gap for an instant. He froze, suddenly ashamed. But this wasn’t spying, he assured himself. He tried to silently wiggle back through the attic, his thighs pressing down into old coaxial lines, perhaps staying too low in order to overcompensate for the occasional roofing nails that protruded down from the sloped ceiling, and then he felt something bite into his arm. Dropping his flashlight, he turned his elbow up, craned his neck, and saw two little pinpricks, as if he had backed his arm into the exposed prongs of a staple. Then he noticed, passing through the beam of the following light, scurrying away, a brown and orange, half-dollar-sized spider.

Two little pinpricks could be a staple, sure. It could be a pair of spider bites. And it might look a lot like tiny little serpent bites.

The “Horned Men” of the title refer to a couple of tiny clay figurines in the form of demons; Bob finds one in the attic while running cable, Becca finds one in her closet, and Bob’s thoughts run to curses which of course he dismisses as any reasonable person would. But, like so much in this story, there’s another connotation to “horned men” and it doesn’t take much imagination to find it. Therein lies the real curse: it’s not that Bob’s life turns against him; it’s that he turns against his life.

This is where the story shines: this weaving of cable and curses, father and daughter, double-meanings subtle and not-so, into one whole, staying in the practical present of laying cable while spotlighting the moral component of the instigating event. Terrific story design. I’ve got to read more Greenfeld; this is the third of his stories I’ve very much enjoyed (“Partisans” from One Story and “Mickey Mouse” from last year’s BASS were the others).

I happened to read this story, with its dust and spiders and demons and curses, on Halloween. I also happened to read it right after “ReMem,” another story about electronic communication replacing interpersonal interaction (and found the art for both with the same search). It’s a good example of confirmation bias that I immediately chalked this up to the universe putting things together for me; after all, I read a lot of things, and chances are I’m going to encounter something creepy on Halloween, and some things that share elements. Right?

2 responses to “BASS 2013: Karl Taro Greenfeld, “Horned Men” from ZYZZYVA, Fall 2012

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