"Cardinal Points" litetrary journal: www.stosvet.net

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Mikhail Rabinovich

CRAIG AND OTHER STORIES


Craig

She has a complicated relationship with her husband.
“Find me someone who doesn’t,” Craig says.
She calls him when the bond gets especially tangled, like an old, rotten rope round her neck, and delivers truisms: “One has to appreciate what one’s got,” or “with age one starts seeing things clearly;” sometimes she cries. Craig mentions her first husband of three years back – nothing unites as surely as shared contempt.
“What’s there to say,” she calms down. “How could I have lived quite so long with the son of my former mother-in-law? She consumed him completely, do you understand? Devoured…” To stay impartial and precise she adds, “…figuratively speaking, of course.”
The current husband is quite a different story.
“That’s why it hurts so much – when a person so close to me… do you understand?”
Craig doesn’t know what to say – does he, or does he not? That’s the question…
If she doesn’t call for a while, Craig knows she is having a long equinox, as she calls it: the current husband plays with the daughter of the son of the former mother-in-law; a forgotten steak is burning to a crisp in the kitchen; the TV set is on, but muted, the monthly car payment has been mailed. In the evening there’s hanky-panky and giggles – like kids, although he is much older and burdened with old relationships, thoughts, children…
“Children can’t be old,” Craig says reasonably. “He has to, it’s in his nature…”
She called again, of course – a chill between them, angry exchanges during the day and even at night – what is she going to do? She understands, she understands everybody, but someone has to understand her as well! Craig understands.
When she is angry with her husband (anger is the first stage of reconciliation, for we are angry only with our own, the rest are either hated or go unnoticed), when she is angry, she reminds Craig of the day he had stubble on his face – does he remember?
Does he, or does he not? That’s the question…
It takes two hours to get to her house. There was one truly unbearable period, when she thought everything was over, that she wasn’t merely alone, but worse – she feared she had lost herself; two hours after the phone call Craig was there, day old stubble and shirt.
“Carrying boxes to the fourth floor is hard, I understand, but I did help as much as I could, I am a woman after all (“Definitely a woman,” Craig agrees wholeheartedly), and then who knew that the broken elevator will be fixed the moment he – no, we – we are still together, you know – managed to get everything upstairs. He is just using it as an excuse to step aside or inward, to close the door…
“She loves him,” Craig says (she can’t hear him), “it doesn’t happen very often.”
She cries. Craig calms her down, brimming with self-respect. She cries rarely. Craig rarely feels self-respect.
“You didn’t use the moment, Craig, you are a darling,” she whispers on the phone in anticipation of another short equinox. He is now so high in her estimation, he could use the moment. But it would complicate her life, and he, Craig, won’t keep his station; instead, he will become ordinary.
Another pause, a period of calm, the time to lick wounds, cook breakfast, run errands, her eyes start blazing – mostly pros, but there some cons too – his nasty old daughter, nasty women at work, the chess-playing neighbor across the hall…
Craig picks up the phone and hears the warm-up – her former husband pining and shriveling without her, although to others the said shriveling isn’t obvious, not at all. When she was pregnant, they had to replace a light bulb, and she was the one who climbed up and fixed it – they had high ceilings – and he stood down below bracing the ladder, you see, because he was supposed to have a fear of heights since childhood, you see, he was conditioned to be frightened since childhood, he was manipulated since childhood, like a sleepwalker, and the end he was completely consumed, devoured...
Devoured figuratively, of course, Craig already knows that.
After the warm-up comes the main event – her hubby took off in the new car without saying where to, and she hasn’t heard from him for four hours, what’s she going to do?
If she doesn’t call for a long time, Craig is happy for her, and almost forgets her, and gets angry… Angry?
She rarely, if ever asks, “How are you?”
“Married the daughter our CEO, embezzled company money, going to prison, can’t find hard tack.”
She neither listens nor understands. She is too busy bemoaning her own problems.
“You see, Craig, it isn’t about what we haven’t got, but how to be happy with what we haven’t got. I mean, with what we’ve got.”
Craig can’t contain himself any longer, “Age – yes, enlightenment - no.”
A good thing she doesn’t hear. That’s how it will always be, until it’s over.
Suddenly she disappears; life goes on, jostling him at every turn. For some reason Craig calls her himself. The husband picks up and sounds happy to hear him.
“How are you?”
“Let me get her on the phone.”
She picks up, proud, mysterious, content.
“How are you?”
“We shall ask the representative of the State Department to comment,” she jokes.
Craig gets angry, admires her from afar, laughs, “State comments, hmmm….”


Tall Tales


Feeding children is a national pastime, sport, and affliction. Getting back from work, Schwartz was, therefore, not one bit surprised to find Sandy tied to a kitchen chair and porridge-smeared Lucy weeping on his shoulder.
“He wouldn’t eat anything!” Lucy cried, paused until the dreadful meaning sunk in, and sobbed even harder.
Sandy would have cried as well, only he was afraid that if he were to open his mouth, it would be promptly filled with porridge.
Schwartz’s mother-in-law called, and Lucy spent an eternity describing the battle in a tragic whisper.
Schwartz started telling a story about a silly boy who didn’t eat a thing and as a result got so weak he didn’t even have the strength to pick up the remote. Sandy managed to untie himself, got to the remote, and tried his strength.
Having given it a thought, Schwartz asked, “Is there anything for me eat?”
“Finish his food,” Lucy replied.
“You know I don’t eat porridge,” Schwartz said after a brief pause.
“Then fix something for yourself,” she cried, “or go to the cafe across the street!”
Having given it another thought, Schwartz told a tale – to his son, of course – about a fairy, a cafe fairy. She was so kind to the clients they grew wings and refused to fly back home. Lucy immediately remembered another fairy tale featuring Cinderella, who was grimy from head to toe with the dirt her relatives left all over the place. But if Cinderella occasionally managed to get away to a ball in new slippers, she, Lucy still had to iron and launder after cleaning up, and separate wheat from lentil…
Schwartz’s mother-in-law chose a bad moment to call. On the other hand, she always chose a bad moment.
“Did he eat anything?”
Schwartz replied that nothing had changed in the five minutes since her last call… and that nothing would change in the five minutes till her next call… And then he told another tale – for Sandy, but still holding the phone – a tale of the Wicked Witch of the West who phoned Puss in Boots so often, he keeled over long before the end of his nine lives.
After that the conversation was over. Next time Lucy picked up and heard the usual greeting, “Did he eat anything?” from Schwartz’s mother. Lucy replied that she would never feed anyone in her house ever again.
Schwartz’s mother remarked that she was still a lawful grandmother and told a tale, actually, a true story of a woman stripped of her parental rights.
In turn, Lucy told the story of the Red Riding Hood, that part where the Grandmother got eaten by the Big Bad Wolf.
Sandy slumbered under the TV set, flinching in his sleep. Thus he heard neither Schwartz’s tale of a shrew left with a broken washtub nor Lucy’s yearn about a village fool, nor… Many fairy-tales were told that night, but sleeping Sandy was carried to bed by both parents.
“This rumbling – that’s his empty stomach,” Lucy sighed.
Having given it yet another thought, Schwartz looked at her. “I just remembered another tale, about a prince and princess who lived happily ever after and died the same day.”
“What, they loved each other?”
Lucy asked.
Then the night came, the fairy night.
But the morning was getting closer with every passing minute, and with it the time of yet another breakfast. Sandy would eat nothing again.


Poetic Murphy’s laws


Poetic Murphy’s law: When someone thinks he can write a poem, he always does.
Murphy’s Law of Duality: When someone thinks he can write two poems, he’ll end up with a triptych.
Corollary of Archimedes: A poem expands to fill the entire volume.
Exception to the Murphy’s law: Any fool can write free verse.
First Corollary of Guttenberg-Fitzpatrick: Any poem can be printed.
Amendment to the First Corollary of Guttenberg-Fitzpatrick: Any poem can be printed, even unprintable.
Second Corollary of Guttenberg-Fitzpatrick: All poems, however unprintable, will end up on the web.
Sequelae to the Corollary of Guttenberg-Fitzpatrick: Not a single poem will be read.
Murphy’s Law of Thermodynamics: Editing makes everything worse.
First Principle of Poetic Evolution: “…so peerless amid all the Amazons.com…”
Conclusions of the Emergency Orthodontist: Rhymes, teeth, and barstools fly Saturday nights.
First Axiom: Any poem can be set to music.
Corollary (the all-thumbs rule): Of the myriad tunes, they will invariably choose the one guaranteed to do the greatest damage.
Second Axiom: There’s a doggerel for every tune.
The Law of Poetic Frequencies: Anthologies automatically open on the page with the host’s poems.
The Cardinal Rule of Poetic Merit: Real poetry is what I and my friends write.
First Rule of Literary Criticism:: Shakespeare is dead.
First Corollary to the First Rule of Literary Criticism: Hecht is also dead.
First Law of Publishing: The shelf life of a book is inversely related to the poet’s expiration date.
Second Law of Publishing: Publishing in the vanity press is better than vain attempts at finding a publisher.
The Main Rule of Literary Criticism: I don’t like your yellow blouse.
The Law of Humpty-Dumpty who sat on Wall Street (next stop Bowery): One writes for children the same way one writes for adults, only worse.
The Law of Poetic Linearity: The author’s enthusiasm is directly proportional to the reader’s dismay.
Poetic Relativity (e=mc2): Poems travel with the speed of blight.
Third Law of Publishing: Poetic license comes with a flea and tick collar.


On Shirts


Let’s say you go to the same cleaners for five years or so, give them your dirty shirts and get the clean ones – for work – well ironed and carefully situated on hangers; for five years or so, twice a week, a dollar a shirt; then a dollar fifteen cents, but it doesn’t matter – month in and month out, and the receptionist is very polite and careful, says “Sir…” and “Allow me…,” and smiles a pure smile and tenderly proffers receipt – no longer a dollar fifteen, but a dollar twenty five; every week you hand in the dirty and get back the clean, well, practically clean – “Isn’t there a spot? A spot? Oh, there’s nothing to be done with that one…” and the receptionist starts changing gradually – she no longer stands up when she sees you, but first finishes the paragraph in the story she was reading and only then hands over the receipt – still dollar twenty five – and looks at you in an absentminded way – absentminded yet friendly; she nods warmly, silently, and speaks up suddenly and you notice not irritation but rather perplexity at your incomprehension –the new rules clearly state you should stand here, here, and enter from there, there! – the receipt falls from her hands, you bend down and see it isn’t a dollar twenty five any longer but a dollar fifty, but it doesn’t matter, although if you do it every week all year round, hmm, you can feel the difference – you notice the receptionist doesn’t use a handkerchief, but wipes her nose with her fingers; then she smiles again, and the cleaner’s is close to home, and besides – you are a regular, and regulars are never treated formally, and so one can let the guard down, besides, month in and month out she sees your face and person, which are, alas, imperfect; you didn’t have to wear the shirt out quite that much, and that greasy sandwich you dropped on your shirt – not on the pants even, but the shirt – how could you, you slob, tell her eyes the day she doesn’t come close but raises her voice – you forgot the receipt? – can’t you do without? – not without a receipt! – but it’s me, got to have them for work, it’s me, you know me – I know, her eyes tell ironically, then spill sparks – you insufferable man, five years she slaves for you, wears herself to shreds at work, makes sacrifices that you don’t bother notice, although you should have known; and you suddenly know, you see it in her eyes and expressions, and suddenly all is made clear – to run away forever, there’s another laundry just around the corner, same hangers, only a different receptionist; what if you were to start anew – five years are gone, of course, can’t get them back, but – it isn’t late yet, a little farther from home doesn’t matter; one has to cross the street carefully when upset, a new block, new faces, where they say “Sir” and “Allow me…,” and where prices are lower, only a dollar twenty; where you hand your dirty shirts and get them back clean, but torn, what is this? where did these awful holes come from? that’s it, one can’t go to work like this, these shirts are fit to be thrown out entirely; next time (guessing, knows? doesn’t know?) you go back to the old, the usual receptionist, who says dryly without turning in your direction (knows), dollar seventy five, and you agree, but say, “Later today” as not to loose face and person, and hear the firm “Only tomorrow” for an answer; from now on they can do whatever they want with you here, whatever they want, total loss – but, but suddenly everything comes to a happy, fair, and high-minded end for the pig-headed receptionist – you are fired and no longer need clean shirts.

Translated from Russian by Anna Rozenshtein