One night at the AOL Writers' Club Cafe chatroom, we joked about inventing new labels, markets and genres for fiction. I suggested "Surrealist Mysteries"; my gag became so elaborate that I ended up writing this short story.
Click here for more excerpts from INTERESTING MONSTERS
featured as one of the best short story collections of the Fall 2001 book season by The Washington Post Book World
"This is experimental fiction meant for wide audiences -- very accessible and entertaining. It is also queer fiction that has grown up past adolescence; it's affectionate and funny, but reasonable."
-- City Pages (news and arts weekly of the Twin Cities in MN)
The cadaver, dead on Place de la Chemise, was found about 2:13 hours by a bunch of medical students and academy painters on their way from a night of prostitution. The officials of the Sureté called me to aid with the special investigation: I, Johnny Apollinaire, with my combined Doctor of Philosophy in Detection and Cultural Studies from the Sorbonne, ordinary murders being the franchise of ordinary detectives, and extraordinary ones being mine -- I was also deeply broke and had friends in the office and needed new shoes...anyway, I was called from easy dreams of teapots to attend to the body because the State Necrologist refused to slice up the defunct as so much fromage, since it would seem akin to destroying an eternal work of art for the sake of mere momentary justice. The corpse was exquisitely covered with bits of paper cut from newspapers, art catalogues, product labels, dissertations, advertisments, manifestoes, comic strips, manuscripts, epigrams, laundry lists, form letters, love memos, café menus and stick-it notes, not one bit of skin left exposed to the stank Paris summer atmosphere when it was found. And in that state I confronted that monument, transferred from Place to Morgue, kept under shroud of mystery from the press, who would, if press-released, make a big deal of it in the morning paper, and by noon a million poems would have been written about it, confusing the job of us poor slobs who have to wrestle with the Truth. It was hot. I hated poets and I had to work fast before this mystery got to them.
Disquisition between others.
"It is indeed a death," I said, "beautiful or not is not the issue." The chandelier in the Morgue swung to and fro, casting shadows that would not stay still. I was sore from bumping my head into it.
"But it is lovely," said the executive secretary. "Is this the way you would go, Monsieur A?"
"One wonders about the necessity of such questions," I said. We had worked before; I tolerated him only because I could boss him around, and he never asked me if I was related to that poet, or was that poet. Quelle horreur, being mistaken for someone who I am not.
"Well, won't you play with that question for a moment?" the executive secretary added. "I mean, if you were to choose your own death, how would you go?"
"We have hardly any time! The answer to this mystery before us could be of the utmost importance to France, not to mention, the world! Imagine a world where deaths like these became commonplace; we would have no idea why they happened! And we would have no idea how to stop them." I was being dramatical just for the purpose of impressing my importance upon the executive secretary, who was being far too casual to me about me. Alas, the executive secretary was deeply hurt, as if I'd slapped his face, he made big sad portrait eyes at me, and I couldn't help but at least give him a half-assed answer to his question. "Well, this way is as good as any."
"Really? Wouldn't you want to die in your sleep? Or from some noble disease? I mean, this is a rather elegant death."
"Death by collage? It's no more elegant than pthisis. Is this a collage or bricolage? I could never tell them apart."
"So much for your vaunted knowledge," said the executive secretary. "I thought that all distinctions were known to you."
"I am not here to be judged," I said. "Leave me to my work or just leave the room, I do not wish to engage any longer in spurious arguments."
"Well, damn you, what does the corpse say about its death, about itself, about us! I think the language of the collated images has something to do with it."
"Ah! The corpse has unusually large feet," I say. "Unusual enough for them to be traceable. Attend to measuring the feet and addressing every shoemaker in town. Feet this large cannot pass unnoticed. See what you can cobble with this factoid. You have until lunch, get started, you might find me at Café Semblable then."
"But the images, the words! What do they say?"
"I doubt that Plum's Potted Meat or Spam have any mimetic value," I said, inspecting the cadaver with latex gloved hands. "The letters are written in purple prose and received ideas. The manifestoes are full of indifferent contradictions and blah conceptions. The stick-it notes are inane. There is no homicidal imagination capable of constructing such meaning from such casually chosen signs. Broken guitars have more to sing than this."
"Ah..." sighed the executive secretary, "I may be too Romantic for my job."
"You are too romantic with a little 'r'. It takes a mind empty of references, allusions, resonances and connections to see things as they are. The world is sick, I tell you, sick with flecks of eternity and relevance, of importance and relation, of obsessions with some fourth dimension that is not there to be brought out from space and duration and memory and all that jazz, of goddamned art for the Truth to be really known. Now let me be with the body to observe it, unattached, selflessly, as if I were a ghost of Truth, unblemished by cultural nattering, and/or you."
The executive secretary bowed with hesitation, removed his pince-nez with one slightly chipped lens and left the room, afterimages of his cretinousness and irrelevance in his wake.
Certain representations embodied.
INNER BEAUTY KIWI FRUIT luminous photo of man with closed eyes d'immobilité, d'éternité, d'incorruptibilité A thousand household uses! you can't account for all experiences (unreadable Braille) MAN FOUND DEAD OF KNOWN CAUSES a three-dimensional postcard of the Blessed Virgin "Look behind you!" she said Liberation Sale, no payments before Thermidor mankind beats its drum, announcing the passing of an era NO SUBSTITUTIONS location, mediation, construct with mourning remember to feed the cat, you bum "that rare thing..." Landscape With Lump Of Meat (5 1/2 X 8, ink on paper, c. 1993) 2 shirts, 3 slacks, 1 handkerchief We EFUSE o live unde such unpomising culual consains as pesened by he alphabe...so, in poes, we EFUSE o use he lees T and R unil ou desies fo feedom of expession come o fuiion HISPANICS OVERINNOVATE I will always love you, my little artichoke, but please vacate the premises wafer-thin crackers the text, overdetermined, destroys its subject, you know angels with no angles SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED brains have a lasting appeal that looks only aspire to in the future, keep all memoranda to a minimum Nude Lady Looking At Fruit (8 1/2 by 11, gouache on black velvet, c. 1988) POST NO BILLS Extra-Pep! folkpolitik on the lurk Les FrEres Bouillion AErostiers: Your Access To The World Dear Mlle. La Chose, it so beautiful there is no market for it negotiations were disrupted by the appearance of MEANWHILE...
And so after a morning of inspection, I bicycled from the Sureté to my favorite café, to have a consommé devoutly to be wished, and a plate of spleen and plums. The café's specialties were elegant food made from unusual foodstuffs with much verve. This morning's specials involved dead twig salad and breaded bouncy deer steak with a side of pain. Alas, while I deeply wanted to eat and meditate, the sous-chef, a certain ex-lover of mine, came to sit down at my table. One thing I loathe about the sous-chef is how much he threatens to make my life about him. I am not interested. How could it be explained! I worship his little toes, I adore how he makes soup. But only the alone can see the Truth.
"I made the consommé thinking about you this morning," he said, "thinking it would rain."
"The clouds have yet not broken." I said. "Ah, why would I say that!? I have been indoors since six in the morning with some dead person, and I assume it has not sprinkled since the time I last saw the sky, as if it would only rain if I were there to see it fall, swiftly, to the ground."
"My window by the kitchen gave no evidence of such," the sous-chef said. "Just saw butterflies and bees dancing by, dancing for the possibility of our embrace, and of late all I can consummate with you is broth."
"Don't be pathetic," I said. "Bees have better things to do."
"How's the soup?"
"It's faboo. I am helpless with desire for me to never reach the bottom of the bowl. But I will. Such is the fate of mankind."
"I will make you ubiquitous soup, one of these days. Just you wait."
"What if there is no more water? Or chickens? Or farmers or rainclouds?"
"One can never know but hope."
"You are far too fantastic. I could only really love you if you weren't so flakey, and that's not in the croissant sense."
"You do love me, Johnny, you do. You love me because you love my soup. There, no more proof is needed."
"I hate having relations, I hate assigned meaning. I want to be known only for myself, not as the farmer's son or the sous-chef's squeeze, or even the false-fleck-revealer. Why must I be defined by what I perform? I am not a thing that is Johnny Apollinaire, the soup lover, the one who knows what's puce and what's lavender, who installs track lighting, who sings sea chanties in smoky cabarets, I want no genders, no names, no descriptions, no boundaries, I want to be me me ME! Or at least someone like me."
"You are frightening the customers."
"Then please leave my table, I want to be alone with my meditations and the soup now coming to its oblivion."
"But what about us?"
"There is nothing named us, no community, no conversation, no copulation. That was the past, banished, begone, nothing to remember us by. Rain has come! See, it melts our scripted past together. Ciao, toots."
"We'll always have soup," the sous-chef said. "Honest soup, the soup of us."
"Sentimental wretch! There are no more sincere gestures in a world exhausted by Irony. Gone with you, you have disturbed my uncompromised view of Life, passing by the café window, in the rain. What's for dessert?"
"Oh, call it créme caramel, you phoney. Don't call it something else to make it more exotic. You, you are as sick as everyone else!"
"It's YOU, you are the sick one, sick with pretensions of disconnectedness! All is related, resolute, complete, and you just cannot see it!"
"I trust nothing," I said. "Not even fragments, mon cher."
I made the sous-chef cry, and he ran crying to the kitchen, to cry into his soup. Would soup with his tears taste better? Alas, I could not chew that philosophical cud, for I had better things to think about. Poets, for example. I hated poets. Poets got on my nerves. Poets, those fleck-flacks with their whiny little voices and heads full of goddamn poetry, the way they position themselves as supreme distinguishers of difference and sameness, of the ordinary and the extraordinary, the ridiculous and the sublime, the something, the other, and that over there on the side of that other thing. It was poets who were at fault of the state of the world, with their revolutions and reinventions and mental unrest, how they imposed something of themselves in otherwise indifferent Truth which neither asked for their intrusion nor needed it. A poet must be the murderer, no doubt, I thought; someone more practical could have done the deed with less pomp and circumstance. It would have taken years to accumulate all that debris stuck on the poor deceased, not to mention the impossible chore of mucilaging the corpse piece by piece of paper. Was it humanly possible? Perhaps not, but a poet certainly had that kind of patience and inhuman resourcefulness. I had to start thinking like a poet or the case would go unsolved. What Irony! Alas, the executive secretary arrived on a bicycle, a manuscript stuck under his armpit.
"I hope not to interrupt your meal," said the Executive secretary, "but not only have we found the shoemaker who has made shoes that size, we have the appelation of the cadaver and we have found three living persons who were in contact with the deceased in the weeks before his untimely death."
"Untimely? It must have been timely for the murderer."
"That may be, but in any event, the authorities have tracked down the relatives and taken depositions."
"Without my presence?!"
"Sorry, but we had to work fast. Their stories might change by the time you meet them."
"Everything happens when I am not there. I should have had some take-out."
Fable of the deposition.
The decedent's brother made the decedent a drafting table and a tall matching chair. Built them with his own hands, finished them with bright green acrylic, the vinyl table surface flat and angled perfectly, a large, matching lamp clamped on the top edge. They hadn't seen each other in a few months, since the day the decedent's employer dropped by the decedent's cubicle and told the decedent that it looked like it was time to take some time off from work. The decedent had to cram for the Architect's Certification test, which the decedent wanted to pass to be able to execute visionary designs with his own architectural concern, so the decedent readily agreed; besides, he felt he had to make some time for a special project that he was bent on seeing through.
The decedent's back hurt from crouching over the flat desk that was stuck in the corner of the room in the clinic, not a good space on which to lay out the blueprints for the dwelling of his dreams. The brother's drafting table was an unexpected surprise, not just because it was precisely what the decedent needed, but because it was his brother who had made it for the decedent. The decedent was deeply touched. The decedent hugged and kissed the decedent's brother. The decedent's brother was stunned, he almost shook the decedent off. Feeling the decedent's brother's struggle, the decedent told the decedent's brother that the drawing table was not just a drawing table, it was sublime. It spoke for the decedent's brother, and the decedent wanted to respond to his brother. The decedent's brother then let the decedent hold him for a while. Soon the decedent's brother grew accustomed to the decedent's hugs, even to like them.
The decedent drew his brother a sports center in his castle so they could shoot hoops, swim and play tennis together. He drew his brother a large carpentry room full of power tools and heavy equipment and an expansive, inexhaustible forest from which his brother could cut down trees to build the furnishings for the house.
The employer, the decedent's only true friend at work, brought the decedent drafting paper, rulers, blue pencils and pens. When the decedent asked his employer for crayons and felt tip pens, the employer brought them without question. Brought construction paper, but refused to bring X-acto knives. The decedent's employer brought safety scissors instead.
The employer followed the development of the plans with interest, asked a lot of pertinent questions that helped the decedent visualize the concept, gave the decedent some suggestions on the design, though the employer expressed some reservations about its viability. The employer couldn't see a contractor building the decedent's castle, how the decedent could send it to the sky, how it could stay there. The decedent's anger bubbled up to his lips and he called his employer a Philistine. From then on, the decedent's employer never questioned anything. The decedent drew his employer his own section in the house, where the employer could have his computers and his drafting and maquette tables. The employer would have even a little artist's studio so the employer could paint when he got tired of designing buildings, and a museum to hang models, plans and paintings. The employer was thankful and stood still as the decedent held on to him and told his employer he was welcome, until a nurse came in and told them visiting hours were over. The employer went home with the promise of bringing over a contractor to start talking costs.
The next time the employer showed up with a watercolor he'd done of a cheap porcelain coffee cup floating in a vast, gray and desolate seascape, empty but for a coffee spoon. It was the decedent's favorite. The decedent's employer had it framed and titled it "I have measured out my life in coffee spoons." The painting hung like an open window on the wall facing the decedent's bed. They talked about Gothic cathedrals and Ayn Rand.
The decedent's girlfriend came to visit as well, and brought him plants, flowers, vegetation, a cozy, warm touch to the decedent's pad. The girlfriend read the newspaper to the decedent, discussed the engagement and wedding announcement pages in particular, and sneaked the decedent some Sylvia Plath.
The girlfriend made the decedent a crazyquilt to keep him warm. The girlfriend made him pajamas in dark purple silk, cut, sewn and embroidered without the need of a pattern. The decedent wore them often, his body wrapped tight in all the right places, loose where his shape was flabby, an attractive tuft of chest hair peeking through the V-neck. The day the decedent first tried them on he beamed, took his girlfriend very gently and cradled her in his arms. She played coy at first, then started to voice objections about their privacy and that of the neighboring rooms, which only turned on the decedent. The decedent lifted his girlfriend into the bed, asking her not to be loud so as not to wake up the neighbors, and made love to her.
The girlfriend did not resist the decedent at all but soon she started to cry. The girlfriend cried quietly and the decedent pulled himself out from inside her and asked her what was wrong. The girlfriend couldn't answer. The decedent consoled his girlfriend by whispering how the decedent's girlfriend was going to have her own large garden to putter in inside the castle. How she would have a silkworm garden, with silkworms that would weave silk in every color in the decedent's crayon box, silk that the decedent's girlfriend would stitch together in her own airy, well-lit millinery. How decedent and girlfriend would share a huge bedroom in which they could make love and scream out loud all day and no one would hear them, not even the decedent's brother or the decedent's employer. Not God, who would live in the castle, in His own personal space, inside the cupola that would be held up, by some grand mysterious plan of His, without a foundation. Not even anyone on the earth floating by underneath them.
Elaboration of the inscribed pathology.
"That soup looks good," the executive secretary said.
"What a terrible story! The locus classicus of the disease of culture."
"Very. Are you going to eat that?"
"I take it one of these three must have done the ill deed. This has all the signs of a mercy killing."
"What kind of soup is it?"
"Ah, seeing a perfectly sane architect gone sour with visions of grandeur must have been no piece of cake to live through. But which of the three is the most likely to have a grotesque imagination? The brother!"
"The brother was in one of the Paris communes, he was never alone. The girlfriend was at home, sleeping with the employer; you see, suffering unites the otherwise unrelated, besides, she is into architects. For this we have the landlady for corroboration."
And I am into chefs -- shut up, brain. "Why isn't this in the report?"
"I though the deposition had come to an aesthetically-pleasing end. Is that julienned fennel floating there?"
"What? What is ths crap about an aesthetic end??"
"Well, it was a nice place to end the report. Is that fennel?"
"Don't tell me you're a poet."
"Well, I only did not want to make it unreadable."
"How dare you express a poetic instinct in a purely representational medium! You enforced closure on the story! It should be arbitrary, like life!"
"What's poetic to you is representational to someone else. It also has a bit of ideology and eros in it. That must be fennel."
"Oh, that only makes it worse, doesn't it? Aesthetics and ideology! Eros! You poets are the end of my days! You cannot be avoided, can you? At least you did not try to slip some autobiographical narrative into it."
"Well, I did sort of identify with the deceased. If only slightly at first, because I will die too."
"You have completely contaminated the case. Now we will never know who did it. You poets, you are everywhere. You are like germs festering hidden inside the cells of otherwise pure institutions, your poetry an unending murmur in the cultural conversation like a diseased heart's."
"Mix your metaphors, will you?" he said. "Oh, don't be so sore. The original recorded statements -- we filmed them -- are in the office for your perusal. We have plenty of other materials for your use. But, I promise you, there's not much to them."
"Really. So why did you waste my time? Why did you come here and spoil my lunch? I will never understand you poetic types."
"What's there to understand?" said the executive secretary, discombobulated.
"Why make such a spectacle of yourself?"
"What kind of a stupid question is that?"
"That's it," I say. "I quit the case. If you and your Sureté cannot play with untramelled facts, with useful information, you do not need Truth, and you do not need me."
"I don't," the executive secretary said, chastened.
I threw my napkin down and left the café. I looked back as I wrapped myself in my mackintosh and put on my bowler, and the secretary was finishing my soup. The sous-chef came out with my spleen and plums, obviously looking forward to torturing me some more with cuisine, and was startled to find the secretary in my place. Then, with commonplace courtesy and good will, the sous-chef addressed the secretary regarding the oncoming main dish, and the secretary said he would eat it too and exalted that the soup was sublime. With this, the sous-chef sat down to talk with the secretary, as if the substitution of me for the secretary in the logical order of things were an ordinary occurrence. I could tell by the googly eyes that soup was only the subtext of the conversation, and perhaps the lovely main dish would emit hot moisture until it was cold, and perhaps never consumed. Indeed, what God would fabricate such a tableaux.
That is no more a mystery. All of creation did not want to cooperate with me, who knew the Truth; the slippery world only trusted poets, and thought only poets could see it. And then there's the corpse: no one would rightly know how he died and who killed him. God killed the architect, wrapped him in labels, stuck with relations the corpse could not negotiate with and reconcile into one consistent universe where everything fit in and no one or nothing was left out. Perhaps God favors, over all, poets; while it is I who should have been dead.
I could no longer watch this scene being performed for me. The bicycle had rusted in the rain, and I would have to walk home. The street vendors were out of umbrellas and sold only apples and sewing machines. I wandered lonely as a clod. I slipped and fell on my ass and died.
return to menu of selections from INTERESTING MONSTERS
Aa : Aldo Alvarez sited : ©1999-2002 Aldo Alvarez : All Rights Reserved