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Prize-winning author Benjamin Hale’s fiction abounds with a love of language and a wild joy for storytelling. In prose alternately stark, lush and hallucinatory, occasionally nightmarish and often absurd, the seven stories in this collection are suffused with fear and desire, introducing us to a company of indelible characters reeling with love, jealousy, megalomania, and despair.
As in his debut novel, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, the voices in these stories speak from the margins: a dominatrix whose longtime client, a US congressman, drops dead during a tryst in a hotel room; an addict in precarious recovery who lands a job driving a truck full of live squid; a heartbroken performance artist who attempts to eat himself to death as a work of art. From underground radicals hiding in Morocco to an aging hippy in Colorado in the summer before 9/11 to a young drag queen in New York at the cusp of the AIDS crisis, these stories rove freely across time and place, carried by haunting, peculiar narratives that form the vast tapestry of American life.
Hale’s work has earned accolades from writers as disparate as novelist Jonathan Ames, who compared discovering his work to watching Mickey Mantle play ball for the first time; Washington Post critic Ron Charles, who declared him “fully evolved as a writer,” and bestselling author Jodi Picoult, who simply called him “brilliant.” Pairing absurdity with philosophical musings on the human condition and the sway our most private selves and hidden pasts hold over us, the stories in The Fat Artist reside in the unnerving intersections between life and death, art and ridicule, consumption and creation.
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Benjamin Hale is the author of the short story collection The Fat Artist and Other Stories and the novel The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared, among other places, in Conjunctions, Harper’s, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Dissent, and has been anthologized in Best American Science and Nature Writing. Originally from Colorado, he is a senior editor of Conjunctions, currently teaches at Bard College, and lives in a small town in New York’s Hudson Valley.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Fat Artist and Other Stories
When they became outlaws they gave themselves new names. He chose Miles Braintree: the first part after Miles Davis, the second after Braintree, the T’s southernmost stop on the Red Line. She chose Odelia Zion: Zion for the Promised Land, and the baby name book said Odelia means “praise God,” but mostly she just liked the sound of it. Hamlet’s Ophelia but not quite. Lives of the Saints tells of the murdered virgin Odilia, patron saint of the blind. Can be shortened to Delia, Ode, O. A martyr, a lyric, a letter.
· · ·
Miles had had his disagreements with SDS, split the organization before it crumbled, and formed the Obscure Reference Collective with a handful of other radicals disgruntled with the direction the movement was taking. The bloodhounds were sniffing from day one, ORC’s plot to firebomb the New York Stock Exchange was botched by inside treachery, and the remaining true believers went into hiding. Odelia followed Miles to Paris, where they stayed for a few months, and then to Tangier. Money wasn’t a problem. Miles had money.
· · ·
In Tangier they spent two years sitting on woven mats in cafés, eating roasted dates and drinking coffee as thick as motor oil, smoking kief from hookah hoses, sometimes holing up in their second-story two-room flat for two, three, four days at a stretch without putting on clothes, drinking wine, smoking, tripping, making love, friends sometimes dropping by to join in, the daily rising and setting of the sun as inconsequential and amusing and unreal as a TV show.
They burned incense and lit candles at night, and the days were bright blue, blinding bright, their flat acrid with the smoke of goat meat crackling below their unglassed windows. Bare-footed brown legs pattered in dirt streets and in blue alleyways resonant with voices squabbling in Arabic and French. The streets were a jumble of North African and Western clothes: It wasn’t uncommon to see a man wearing a keffiyeh and a double-breasted pinstripe suit. The call to prayer echoed across the city at dawn. That’s why they’d come here, in part; to do the William Burroughs thing, do the Paul Bowles thing. The sunlight was sharp and harsh and made every shadow look as if it were painted on with ink. They took hashish and heroin and acid and opium and other, more exotic drugs, the names of which Miles told Odelia and Odelia forgot. Miles learned to fish for octopus: You dive down in the shallows, stick your arm under a rock, and let the octopus wrap itself around your fist, then you swim to the surface and beat it against a rock till it lets go, which also tenderizes the meat; then hang the octopus to dry on a clothesline. Dead tentacles dangling from strings. For a while they had a pet monkey, but it got sick and died. Miles and Odelia were married in a ceremony conducted in a language neither of them understood, officiated by a poet from Rhode Island in a turban with half his face painted red. Odelia gave birth to a boy they named Abraxas, after a Gnostic deity mentioned in a Hermann Hesse novel, who simultaneously embodies all eternal cosmic dualisms: life and death, male and female, good and evil. But soon they began to itch with paranoia. Strangers were following Odelia in the streets. A tall man in a gray suit and a gray hat showed up everywhere she went. Letters from friends in the States arrived with pages missing, the seals of the envelopes broken and taped back together. Miles thought he could hear the ghostly-faint feedback signal of a wiretap whenever he picked up the phone, so one night he ripped it out of the wall and threw it in the fire. It melted and stank, and then they had no phone.
· · ·
Miles contacted a guy he knew in Lisbon who hooked them up with some artfully forged Canadian passports, and that August, Miles, Odelia, and their girlfriend, Tessa Doyle, sold or abandoned everything they owned except for what fit in suitcases, and they traveled, the three of them and the baby, under blandly fake names they had trained themselves to answer to, by boat from Tangier to Algeciras and by train from Algeciras to Madrid to Paris, where they would board Pan American World Airways Flight 503, with a brief layover in Miami, to Mexico City, where a contingent of former ORC were hiding and could offer asylum.
It worried the hell out of Odelia to set foot on American soil, even for a forty-five minute layover.
Miles said: “Relax, O, we’re gonna be in International. We won’t even leave the tarmac. Trust me. It’ll just be flip flip flip, stamp stamp stamp, enjoy your flight.”
· · ·
They conscientiously dressed down for travel. No hippie freak shit, no saris, no serapes, no leather knee-high boots with frilled tops. Just normal drab white people in vacation clothes, nothing to see here, folks.
Miles wore cowboy boots and a yellow-and-blue Hawaiian shirt with parrots on it tucked into his tight stonewashed jeans. He’d shaved the Zappa mustache he used to have, the one he wore in the old mug shot that was on all the wanted posters, and sported a pair of yellow-tinted shooting glasses that turned his eyes as pink as a white rabbit’s. Sheer vanity kept him from shaving his furry sideburns or cutting the blond hair that hung down to his jaw. Odelia pinned her hair up and wore no makeup, minimal jewelry, and a frumpy blue dress with white polka dots that buttoned down the middle so she could breastfeed Abraxas. Tessa had her long brown hair down and wore jeans and a blouse, but had a decorative bindi stuck like a little red-and-gold teardrop on her Ajna chakra, right over her third eye. Tessa Doyle was nineteen years old. Her parents probably assumed she was still in Cuba cutting sugarcane with the comrades, and had no idea she’d been sharing a bed with Miles and Odelia in North Africa for eight months.
Odelia said: “Please take off the bindi. It makes you look like Linda Kasabian. People will think we’re a cult.”
“Don’t freak out about it,” said Miles. “She’s cool. She won’t get us in trouble.”
Tessa kept it on. Miles rubbed Odelia’s knee and thigh with his hand. The hand felt firm and heavy on her leg. His hands were wide and strong. He gave each a kiss, first one and then the other. He took away his hand.
The plane began to accelerate up the tarmac and Odelia’s stomach tightened. Odelia sat in the window seat with four-month-old Abraxas asleep in her lap, Tessa sat in the aisle, and Miles sat between them. An eight-hour flight from Paris to Miami, and then the layover, and then another five to Mexico City, to Tenochtitlán, where the Aztecs cut out hearts and burned them still-beating on the altar, and rolled the bodies down the steps of the pyramid, and the smoke of burnt blood swirled in the blazing New World sun. Peyote, mystery rituals. Blood running down pyramid steps. An eagle perched on a cactus with a rattlesnake thrashing in its mouth. Worship of birds, worship of snakes, worship of the sun, worship of water, worship of human blood, and worship of death. Mexico City.
The plane tipped its beak skyward, Odelia felt the wheels push off the screaming runway, and now there was nothing beneath them. Fluid sloshed around in her gut as gravity’s familiar tug was suddenly waving up and down, and they were climbing, traveling along axes both vertical and horizontal, midmorning Paris rapidly expanding in scale below them, the twelve grand avenues spidering outward from the Arc de Triomphe, the tiled rooftops, the sidewalk cafés where Odelia imagined people were smoking cigarettes and eating dainty little desserts and discussing philosophy, second by second growing smaller and smaller and less real.
As the plane climbed steeper and higher Abraxas woke up and started crying. The pressure throbbing in his head. Odelia held him to her chest and rocked him as he struggled. His pink monkey face was contorted in a grimace. She kissed the top of his head.
How confused, how exhausted he must be. They had already been traveling by boat and bus and train for days and were ragged and dirty and tired before they even got on the plane. Sleep, sleep, sleep, sleep, she thought-projected to the baby.
“Nnn nik ik eeaaah,” said Abraxas.
“Hey, kiddo,” said Miles. “Be cool.”
Abraxas quit crying and flopped his head into the nook of Odelia’s body where her neck met her shoulder. His tiny hand fingered the edge of her dress.
“It hurts him,” Odelia said to Miles, whispering. “The pressure.”
“Poor baby,” said Tessa, talking across Miles’s lap. “He doesn’t know how to pop his ears.”
“God, I hope he’s not gonna cry the whole flight,” said Odelia.
“No shit,” said Miles. “Eight hours, Jesus. He’ll be all right. Won’t you?”
Miles reached over and tugged on a plump pink foot, which almost set Abraxas crying again. He uttered a couple of starting-up noises—“uk! uk!”—that could have been the prelude to a shrieking fit. Odelia saved it by kissing the top of his head and blowing on him with her lips brushing his skin. A trick she’d discovered by accident. She didn’t know why it worked, but it usually did. She would kiss the top of his head and blow on his skin and say, intoning it again and again like an incantation:
“I will keep you from harm. I will keep you from harm. I will keep you from harm.”
His head was downy and soft and he smelled good, sweet—he smelled new. The incantation worked. He slumped back into a zonked-out daze.
Miles produced three chocolate candy bars from the luggage under his seat, wrapped in a plastic bag and wrapped again in foil. He offered one to Odelia.
“No thanks. Not right now.”
“Suit yourself. It’s here when you want it.”
He gently put the candy bar in her lap. Miles smiled. Miles smiled his billion-kilowatt smile, a jester’s grin that could have hovered disembodied in midair, a sly smile full of fun and sex and mischief. God, how Odelia loved it. She liked to imagine what Miles must have been like as a child. She hoped he’d been a neighborhood menace, running through gardens, shooting bottle rockets at beehives. Life was a cartoon to him—Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner, explosions and music and silly sound effects and a surreal plasticity to time and space. She loved it. She loved him.
Miles and Tessa ate their candy bars. They were giggling. The chocolate muddied their teeth. The soporific purr of the jet engines put Odelia to sleep. She and the baby fell asleep together almost as a single entity melting into the corner, Paris vanishing beneath them, behind them.
· · ·
The baby’s squirming woke her up.
He cried a little—“uk! uk! eh!”—meaning I’m hungry. She unbuttoned the top three buttons of her dress and Abraxas groped frantically for her breast.
A middle-aged woman walking up the aisle slowed her gait as she passed their seats. She was wearing purple and had pearl earrings, and her brown hair was piled on top of her head like a loaf of bread. She cast a look of revulsion at Odelia.
Miles turned to her and said: “Whatcha lookin at, honey? It’s nature.”
The woman didn’t answer and clipped away up the aisle.
“How long was I asleep?” said Odelia.
“I dunno. A while.”
She blinked and smeared the ivory mucus from the corners of her eyes. The air in the cabin had become denser and mustier with cigarette smoke.
Odelia squished Abraxas to her chest. The nipple inflated into his mouth and he pulled at it with his gums, his tiny wrinkled hands hugging her breast. He latched onto her nipple. She felt the milk surge through her glands and into his mouth. One eye peeled open languidly and peeked up at her. His eyes were the same green-gold as Miles’s eyes. To feed a creature who came from your body with your own bodily fluid: Odelia pondered this, its philosophical profundity, while she took the candy bar in her lap and picked back the foil with her fingernails. She was onto a deep truth. She was searching her mind for the next step in the thought, in the way you search over and over for a lost object in the place where it should be but isn’t. She thought about the things she’d been reading lately: The Golden Bough, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and the Seven Sermons to the Dead. She had a feeling that things were coming together in her head; that this jigsaw puzzle of interconnected ideas was almost in place. She was thinking about magic and religion and love and birth and sex and death and eternal returns and the circles of myth. She looked out the window and ate the candy bar and fed her son.
Five miles below them lay the Atlantic Ocean: blue-black and vast, its crashing waves diminished to ripples. She could see the shadow of the plane on the surface of the water, and a beaming circle of light. She thought about all the animals swimming in the ocean below them. Eels and stingrays and giant squid and fish with bioluminescent lamps dangling from their heads so they may see in the dark, who live near the bottom where we cannot go because the pressure would crush us. And whales—blue whales, these animals a hundred feet long each that glide under the surface of the water like massive phantoms and speak to one another in low haunting songs across fathoms and fathoms.
The word fathom would always make her think of Miles. He had been an actor in college, where they met, before they dropped out to join the revolution. He had always played spirits, sprites, tricksters, the lords of misrule. He had played Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, Ariel in The Tempest. She looked out the window at the sea below, thinking of mystery and whalesong and deep beautiful darkness, and thought, Full fathom five thy father lies . . . but could not remember the rest. Without looking away from the sea, the plane’s shadow, its iridescent halo, her forehead resting on the windowpane that was warm from the sun, she said softly, knowing if she gave him the first line Miles would finish it:
“Full fathom five thy father lies—”
Miles immediately answered: “Of his bones are coral made, those are pearls that were his eyes: nothing of him that doth fade, but doth suffer a sea-change into something rich and strange.”
She looked at Miles and smiled. Here we are in the sky, moving westbound fast enough to chase the sun over the curvature of the earth, and the sea is full of mysterious creatures and I am feeding my child with the milk of my own body. She was in love with the beauty and mystery of life on Earth.
“Miles,” she said. “I love you.”
She reached out her face to kiss him. Miles kissed her back. His lips felt sticky and strange. She pulled back and looked at him. His grin was crazily stretched across his face like a rubber mask. He put his wide, strong hand on her shoulder and tried to massage it a little, but the angle was awkward and his skin felt wet and bloodless, and his touch, although it was meant to be comforting, felt all wrong, like when you see a little kid petting a cat backward. His pupils were dilated.
“Oh,” said Odelia. “Did you take ...
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