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?

PEN/O.Henry 2012: Karl Taro Greenfeld, “Mickey Mouse” from Santa Monica Review, Fall 2010, and the collection NowTrends

Mickey Mouse montage celebrating the 25th anniversary of Disney Resort in Tokyo (2007)

Mickey Mouse montage celebrating 25th anniversary of Disney Resort in Tokyo (2007)

He was dressed in a three-piece tweed suit, worsted wool from London, with a paisley pocket square peeking over the selvage and a gold watch chain dangling from another cavity into the fabric. He had always been a dandy, and now, in his new prosperity, in his high office, with his surfeit of imperial spoils, he could afford such finery. He shook an English cigarette from a box and lit it with an American lighter.
I had been seated at my drafting table, working on some pen and ink sketches, and as the ink was still wet I did not cover the illustration before answering the door. Kunugi immediately crossed the room and inspected the drawing, a mother and son, each tightly bundled in a kimono, walking on a country road, first snow falling. The mother was carrying a military uniform bound in white string. My first attempt had them walking with a crippled soldier hobbling on crutches, still in uniform but with one leg missing. In this version, I had tried it without the soldier, and it was more effective, his absence implied.
This does not inspire, Kunugi observed as he exhaled.

I can see the painting in my head: I can see Kunugi. The juxtaposition is a powerful statement, a terrific opening scene that snared me right in to this story. And the painting itself, with the emphasis on what is implied by what is not there, begins a key element of this story: the importance of what is not said.

I realized right away I’d read very little about life in WWII Japan. The same period in Germany and the rest of Europe is richly documented in fiction, biography, memoir, documentary, etc. Greenfeld, in his Contributor Note, says he hadn’t, either, so he was interested in examining the period, particularly the repression of art that did not meet national goals.

He does so by way of Ohta, a middle-aged artist and university teacher whose career is dying “by attrition” as the “liberal” magazine that published most of his work was shut down, and young people had no time or thought for art. His art school classmate, Kunugi, appears. The two weren’t friends; Kunugi was far more recognized as a student, though Ohta hasn’t seen his name in connection with art in quite some time. It was Kunugi who issued the memo shutting down the magazine, and now Kunugi comes to Ohta with an official national problem:

Mickey Mouse, he began, is on the list of enemy characters.
This did not surprise me.

Kunugi, decked in English and American finery, assigns Ohta the task of creating a character that will displace Mickey Mouse, better personify the Japanese culture, and boost morale. Ohta is a bit dubious, since he’s never done animation, but it’s work he needs, and he reports to the appropriate office.

They took my card and my identification card, filled out a form on onionskin paper, and rolled that into a leather-capped bamboo tube which they dropped into a pneumatic cylinder beside them. With a shhhhoooop, the bamboo tube was sucked away.

I love that touch of detail, the bamboo tube used in a pneumatic chute: the familiar and the exotic. It’s one of the many things that makes this story work so well. Greenfeld is very good at describing details that stand out, not because they are beautifully worded but because they are unique and resonant. It’s a story of implication.

Over the years as the war progresses, Ohta brings many sketches for his Japanese Mickey Mouse to the supervisor – “a badger, a deer, a pair of monkeys, and a sympathetic ape in a samurai headdress” – but none are acceptable. There’s a wonderfully rendered scene with Kunugi, now in uniform, the second and final time they meet. Ohta has just sketched a scene from the subway stampede where he was caught during the first bombing of Japan; Kunugi glances at it while rifling through the Mickey Mouse work, and when Ohta suggests he find someone more suited to the task at hand, Kunugi slaps him and tells him to bring one of the sketches, a cat in uniform, to the supervisor. It, too, is rejected, but Ohta continues to work on the project, as it’s a source of income and access to art materials.

Eventually the propaganda office, too, suffers from attrition, as war reverses change the tenor of things from imminent victory to waiting for defeat. Ohta is drafted, but unable to serve in combat, survives the war; Kunugi does not.

The story ends – with an ear-splitting whisper that sent me back to the beginning to re-read with a different set of eyes – with an exhibition of Ohta’s work a few years later; he was surprised it, too, survived the war, crated in the University basement; surprised there was interest in putting on an exhibition; and surprised by excellent attendance. He’s also surprised by Kunugi’s widow, who seeks him out:

He said you were a real artist. He said it was important that a real artist like you survive the war.
She looked around the gallery. I expected her to compliment my work.
But she had already told me what she came to say.

I’ve always thought of Greenfeld as a journalist, but now I’ve read three of his short stories (including “Partisans” from One Story). I think it’s time I started thinking of him as a fiction writer with a day job. Because this story reminds me that, for all our efforts to make a living and secure a future, it is art, expression, creativity, that we live for.

Karl Taro Greenfeld: “Partisans” from One Story #149, May 2011

I enjoyed this battlefield story (which I typically do not like) more and more as I read. It’s set in an unspecified desert during an unspecified time and war. Our first-person narrator is a newbie soldier, a conscript who feels all this messy guarding outposts in the desert stuff is a little beneath him (he packs lots of books so he won’t be bored in the desert equivalent of the boondocks). Minor-Leftenant Hillel is the only Regular Army in the platoon, and he’s fresh out of the Academy. As they head for their destination, first by rail then on foot, the narrator abandons some of his books, regretfully, as he can’t lug them any more. Finally he loses all of them except one, a centuries-old novel set back when his country was being formed, which is a lovely little tale in itself and figures into the resolution. Of course, adding books and an old novel into a story like this gives it great appeal to someone like me, since I’m not likely to enjoy a straight war story. The platoon finally reaches the outpost they are to guard from partisans. We never are sure who the partisans are. Some, perhaps, ride with the train, but we never see any partisans attacking or doing any violence at all: “They rode alongside us and then, only as they passed, did I wonder at the Minor-Leftenant’s description of them as “children”. They were indeed young, but as I looked around at my platoon, I realized that we were younger.”

It’s a tale loaded with ironies like that, partisans who might be there and might not, soldiers killed by friendly fire in chaos, mysterious beasts and ghosts that (like the partisans) may or may not exist. As I read, I thought it was pretty clear that the partisans did not exist, and were used as an “evil empire” to keep the country in line, or perhaps they had existed at one time and now had to be kept going to allow the power structure to retain its control. The author’s Q&A at One Story makes me doubt this (it started as a sort of bedside tale told the comfort a sick friend), but I actually prefer it to his own vision for “what happens next”, so I’ll stick with it.