A True-ish StoryThe Los Angeles police were mystified by Lenny Bruce. They listened to his routines, and felt he was baiting them, taunting the baffled territories of their brains’ language centers. What was he talking about? They hired a Yiddish-speaking detective, wagged fingers at the short man clutching a squashed hat, and told him to listen carefully to each performance, find the obscenities, please. The foreign-born detective went to each of Bruce’s shows and faithfully reported back to them the suspect used the word shtup.
The detective who knew how to pronounce the words his West Coast colleagues flattened and tripped over, returned to his East Coast city, not sure what he had accomplished. He knew some really poisonous words, and they were as easy to catch as snappers off Canarsie Pier.
What, the surfer cops asked, is shtup? What is this word that sounds like a flat tire hitting the asphalt of Route 1 up the Pacific coast because it’s hard to find a place to turn off right away? It was explained to the surf-born cops, the meaning of shtup. That’s it, LAPD said, we know how that word corrupts. To make jokes using that word was nearly a death sentence, a one-way ticket to the torture chambers of Lubyanka, you’d think. You’re done here, man, thank you very much, they said to the short detective, and sent him back. They held up the word he served to them like a great prize.
The detective who knew how to pronounce the words his West Coast colleagues flattened and tripped over, returned to his East Coast city, not sure what he had accomplished. He knew some really poisonous words, and they were as easy to catch as snappers off Canarsie Pier. Sometimes they floated by, and he could grab one and savor it before the taste turned bitter in the back of his throat. Why did the police want this word and not the string that tells you if you kiss a thief, count your teeth, or the phrase that tells you to go take a shit in the ocean. Expressions of futility weren’t yet criminal but maybe in the future, such phrases could become so transgressive they’d be whispered under the boardwalk or in basement apartments. The language was disappearing anyway. What’s one more speaker more or less? In the subway crowds hovered closer to the tracks leaning over the platform, but the tunnel remained black and impenetrable. Finally an approaching train was announced, its advance verified by the rush of wind and creaking couplings. The detective breathed the subterranean air of the F train and was happy when it emerged above ground. It was good to be home. In his house off Stillwell Avenue he told the story to his wife, and she laughed her head off.
A Fine RomanceThe illusionists worked for a studio that created special effects: rain, mist, steam, fog, snow, smoke, fire in a variety of sizes and intensities. There was a woman employed at the company who was an expert at staging mayhem with such theatricals as breakaway glass, sword canes, retractable blades, prop weapons of all kinds from Greek tridents and hoplons to futuristic propellants. Though useful in film and plays, none of them ever looked real in the least, and couldn’t fool even the most mesmerized child on a school field trip. She did not do guns or explosives. This was the province of a co-worker affectionately known as Mr. Fire Arms, and he got more work than anyone else in the studio. The envy of the company, super verisimilitude was his specialty. Mr. Fire Arms had a tarantula tattooed just inside his elbow so that when he flexed a muscle and bent his arm, it looked like he was squashing the hairy spider as it squirmed. His ears, nostrils, and eyebrows were so threaded by metal rings that you could hear him coming as he clinked down the hall. He called her Guinevere, because most of her work was antique, and liked to say too bad for you, Guin, you live in an age that has yet to discover dental work. She told him to watch out for magnets. Mr. Fire Arms liked to stroll into her studio, whistling, and put his hand on hers as she sprayed gold paint or shellac. He would run his hand along the business end of a halberd, nestle wooden sword into scabbard suggestively, grab Guin by the waist, turn her around, and pretend to kiss her while both their faces were covered by respirator masks.
Guinevere ate her lunch alone on the roof of the building. Mr. Fire Arms, afraid of heights, ate in his studio, feet up on his workbench, planning the mechanism of his next brace of pistols. If the weather was warm, she lay on her back, looking at the sky until it was time to return to work, hoping he would conquer his fears and join her.
When planes collided with buildings Mr. Fire Arms wept openly, tears that smelled of vinegar and metallic salt, and said he could no longer assemble barrel and trigger, no longer create chrysanthemums of explosion that filled screens and flattened miniature cities. Alone at her drafting table Guinevere drew a spiraling scroll of spiders on a scimitar so small no one would ever see them. A few days later she noticed his door was ajar and steam rose from a Styrofoam coffee cup near the mold for making prop bullets. He was back.
Susan Daitch is the author of two novels, L.C. (Lannan Foundation Selection and NEA Heritage Award), The Colorist, and a collection of short stories, Storytown. A third novel, The Dreyfus Book, will be published by City Lights in 2010. Her work has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Bomb, Ploughshares, failbetter, Tinhouse, McSweeney’s, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, and The Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Fiction. Her work was featured in The Review of Contemporary Fiction along with William Vollman and David Foster Wallace. She can be found at susandaitch.com.
Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics by Rebecca Solnit
How is the logging of the Sierra like a Brazilian wax? All of Rebecca Solnit’s books are great, but this one about, among other things, how we get from place to place and the kinds of footprints we leave, the connections between all kinds of strange bedfellows, stays with you long afterwards. In the essay about following Benjamin’s last walk over the Pyrenees you know the period at the end of the sentence, how it will end, but her reading of his last days is especially poignant.
The Future of Nostalgia by Svetlana Boym
Her interpretations of Berlin, in particular, help clarify a city so full of re-writings and re-inventions; she navigates several entrancing landscapes while pointing out the buried dinosaur ribs of history before you trip over them.
Berlin: City of Stones: Book One and City of Smoke: Book Two, both of which are graphic novels by Jason Lutes
Drawn with the kind of detail found in Hergé, interconnecting an enormous range of characters and factions from Communist to Fascist, misguided seductions from the personal to the political between the wars. I couldn’t put these down and hope, though they took years to write, that the third one is out soon.