I bought a do-it-yourself kit, on sale. I didn’t know what it was a kit for, as all the writing on the package was in a foreign language I didn’t understand, but the price was right, so I bought it. When I returned home from the store I opened the package and, as I suspected, the instructions were in the same foreign language, but other than the instruction sheet there was nothing in the box. I could have gotten upset, but rather I was intrigued. Now, more than before, I had to know what the instructions said. I wasn’t about to throw two dollars out the window. So I went to the library with the instruction sheet. I assumed the language was Asian, as the script itself was unfamiliar, so I went straight to the Asian languages section and started perusing the books on the shelves. Before long I discovered that the language was Tamil. That was the easy part. The hard part was learning the language. I spent months teaching myself Tamil, and when I was confident I had mastered the rudiments of the language I once again looked at the instruction sheet. But the “instructions” gave no clue as to how to make anything. In fact, the sheet consisted of nothing more than several short passages, with such titles as “School Days,” and “Loyalty,” written in the simple style of a child’s primer, followed by one word at the bottom of the sheet, the Tamil equivalent of “Congratulations!” I finally understood what was going on when I looked again at the box the instructions had come in and translated the big red letters, the name of the kit: “TEACH YOURSELF TAMIL.” Not bad for two bucks.
Peter Cherches is the author of two volumes of short prose: Condensed Book and Between a Dream and a Cup of Coffee, as well as several limited-edition artist’s books. His work has recently appeared in the anthologies Poetry 180 and Up Is Up, But So Is Down: New York’s Downtown Literary Scene, 1974-1992. His fiction and short prose work has been featured in a wide range of magazines and journals, including Harper’s, Semiotext(e), Transatlantic Review, Fiction International, and Bomb. Sonorexia, the avant-vaudeville music-performance group he co-led with Elliott Sharp in the 1980s, appeared at such legendary venues as The Mudd Club and CBGB. Cherches is a two-time recipient of New York Foundation for the Arts fellowships in creative nonfiction.
“Look,” Mullins said — we were by that time crossing the very busy and wide intersection at Van Ness and Market Streets, a trolley clunking and wheezing by us, cars speeding in all directions, like pinballs gone berserk — “I don’t know what it means. You understand me? I’m a writer, and if I don’t write, I don’t feel good. You know, I read somewhere Dylan said if he didn’t work he didn’t feel good.”
“Oh?” I said, in an uninflected tone befitting the sheer banality.
He went on. “I suspect it’s that way with a lot of writers. I mean, you can’t do much with it, can you? Maybe a job teaching in a two-bit college. A sinecure.”
He said the word contemptuously. We had reached the other side of the street in one piece, and I found I was dusting myself off, literally. It was a brutally hot day for San Francisco. The illuminated, flashing thermometer on the side of the bank building read “92.” I mopped my brow, my dripping wet, uncharacteristically so for San Francisco, brow.
“God! There are too many damn writers in this town,” he said. “I bet you every fifth person we’ve passed today is some kind of writer. Or wants to be.” He turned to me. “Why is that?”
I had no answer. Instead I thought about my first sinecure.
It was 1967 and I was hired on the telephone, wham, bam, interview and job offer in under fifteen minutes, that’s how it was back then. My call came early in the morning, around 8:15 San Francisco time, but it was 10:15 out there in the Midwest. I had just completed my masters at San Francisco State, which at the time had one of the most respected English faculties in the country. And it was in San Francisco, damn it, the adopted home I had fallen in love with.
Well, I found myself in September of 1967 living in a new apartment on the middle floor of a three-story concrete apartment building in a godforsaken university town in the northern Midwest, a town whose main distinction was that barbed wire had been invented there. The mansion of the inventor had become a museum, dually honoring the man’s life and his greatest achievement.
It didn’t last very long, that first sinecure in the town with the barbed-wire museum. One year. Nine months, actually, and those nine months were the longest year of my life, and the winter the coldest.
After that, a short stint at a small college in Pennsylvania, in a not unpleasant town, and this one with a museum dedicated to Little League baseball. But I wasn’t cut out for two-bit sinecures, I guess, and I returned to San Francisco where I worked a succession of jobs over the years, some good, some bad, some awful. Eventually, though it took quite a number of years, I found my way back into teaching, and without leaving the Bay Area. In all that time I had never quit writing.
“I don’t know,” I told Mullins, finally, without inflection, as I mopped my brow again, a Sisyphean task, it seemed, especially in San Francisco.
by Don Skiles and Peter Cherches
Download the MP3 (Reading by Don Skiles)
The fetchingly lithe and charmingly disheveled Ms. Tetley-Pringle was well into the third hour of her daily asanas when truth called down to her like a thunderclap:
A clock has a floor and a ceiling and four walls. A clock also has a window. Some, but not all, clocks have doors.
A telephone, not unlike a clock, has four walls, a floor and a ceiling. All telephones also have doors. Some, but not all, telephones have windows.
She forgot her 13th or 14th Downward Facing Dog of the day and hit the sticky mat belly first. In considerable pain she considered her prosthetic limb. She preferred the old-fashioned wooden sort to the lighter and infinitely more wieldy synthetic variety, believing this choice gave her practice a better chance of finally attaining true liberation.
Ms. Tetley-Pringle tried again to empty her mind but found herself considering the startling similarities among disparate objects such as prosthetic limbs, bowls of breakfast cereal, and the books of the Old Testament. She now understood with utter clarity that all have four walls, windows, a floor and a ceiling. Each also has a door. And one day one of these doors will open into a post office and a young man with snow on his shoulders will rush up to a clerk, with an urgency he never knew he was capable of and shout, “My grandmother has broken her hip. You must go to her at once!”
For process notes, see “Found Photo.”
When you live with something long enough I guess you get used to the odor and then it’s no odor at all, it’s part of the room, maybe it’s just a dead mouse behind the wall and there’s nothing to be done unless you want to take a hammer to the wall one hot, grey afternoon when it feels like ants are crawling up and down your legs, getting right into your underpants.
So here we are, all dressed up and left all alone in the shaking woods. Why did they leave us out here like this, all alone? Drive away in that brand new automobile we helped them to buy? Sure, Pop’s lost a bit of his left leg, the diabetes chewed his foot right up to the shinbone, but that’s no reason to throw us out here without so much as a drink of water. A smell, sure, but not a stink. And weren’t they the ones always pushing sugary things at him anyway? He never was one to say no.
When you live with something long enough it’s really no odor at all.
We knew it had to come off when even the dogs wouldn’t go near him.
Thinking helps to pass the time.
He never did talk much, and it’s especially hard to be sitting here on a bench in the absolute dead center of nowhere with a one and a half-legged man who won’t say a word. Thank the Lord they didn’t drive off with the crutches.
When you live with something long enough I guess you get used to it.
So here we are, left alone in the woods by our own children, and not a soul to help us, and not a drop to drink. My mouth must look like a flattened mattress by now. Or an old and faded photograph.
It’s all part of life, I guess. You bring them into this world, you do your best to make a life for them, and then they have to up and leave you one day, go off on their own. I just never thought it would be like this! It’s like there’s a dead mouse behind the wall and there’s nothing to be done unless you want to take a hammer to the wall one hot, grey afternoon when it feels like ants are crawling up and down your legs, getting right into your underpants, out in the woods, all alone, thinking to pass the time, sitting on a bench with a one and a half-legged man who won’t say a word.
An old and faded photograph has an odor, but not a stench.
They had collaborated once before, about eighteen years earlier, but the piece they wrote then was published for the first time only recently. That publication led to an invitation to submit to the present collection. They agreed that it would be nice to work together again, and they started tossing ideas back and forth via email. Time constraints wouldn’t allow the two of them to get together in a room and compose a piece from scratch through give and take, as they had done before. They’d have to work differently this time. One of them suggested that they each write independent sections of a prose piece, or intertwined sentences, with different typefaces to differentiate the two voices (though they would not identify which typeface matched which contributor). The other wasn’t happy with that idea, didn’t want the individual contributions to be so clearly delineated. This one suggested a process whereby each would submit a piece to the other, a piece the first writer felt was unfinished, perhaps, or just not up to snuff, and the second would work with it: edit it, change it, complete it, rewrite it, whatever seemed appropriate, whatever seemed in order. The version completed by the second writer would be the final version. The writer who started the piece would have no veto power and no rights to further edit or rework it. The writer who suggested this method saw this as an exercise in trust. Two writers with different but compatible voices and visions would have their way with each other’s pieces. They would not reveal which of them started which piece. The other writer was skeptical at first, felt that their individual voices would be flattened or neutralized by the process. But the writer who suggested this method didn’t see it that way at all. This writer believed that the process could unleash a compelling third (or third and fourth) voice, a product of the two. The other ultimately agreed to this approach. The two writers submitted old, long-abandoned (or shunted aside) pieces to each other, and they went to work. Two pieces, by two writers. (Look for the second piece to appear later in this issue. —Eds.)