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issue 20: september - october 2000 

spanish translation | author bio

SEA OAK
by George Saunders

JOYSTICKS
AT SIX MR. FRENDT comes on the P.A. and shouts, "Welcome to Joysticks!" Then he announces Shirts Off. We take off our flightjackets and fold them up. We take off our shirts and fold them up. Our scarves we leave on. Thomas Kirster's our beautiful boy. He's got long muscles and bright-blue eyes. The minute his shirt comes off two fat ladies hustle up the aisle and stick some money in his pants and ask will he be their Pilot. He says sure. He brings their salads. He brings their soups. My phone rings and the caller tells me to come see her in the Spitfire mock-up. Does she want me to be her Pilot? I'm hoping. Inside the Spitfire is Margie, who says she's been diagnosed with Chronic Shyness Syndrome, then hands me an Instamatic and offers me ten bucks for a close-up of Thomas's tush.
      Do I do it? Yes I do.
      It could be worse. It is worse for Lloyd Betts. Lately he's put on weight and his hair's gone thin. He doesn't get a call all shift and waits zero tables and winds up sitting on the P-51 wing, playing solitaire in a hunched-over position that gives him big gut rolls.
      I Pilot six tables and make forty dollars in tips plus five an hour in salary.
      After closing we sit on the floor for Debriefing. "There are times," Mr. Frendt says, "when one must move gracefully to the next station in life, like for example certain women in Africa or Brazil, I forget which, who either color their faces or don some kind of distinctive headdress upon achieving menopause. Are you with me? One of our ranks must now leave us. No one is an island in terms of being thought cute forever, and so today we must say good-bye to our friend Lloyd. Lloyd, stand up so we can say good-bye to you. I'm sorry We are all so very sorry"
      "Oh God," says Lloyd. "Let this not be true."
      But it's true. Lloyd's finished. We give him a round of applause, and Frendt gives him a Farewell Pen and the contents of his locker in a trash bag and out he goes. Poor Lloyd. He's got a wife and two kids and a sad little duplex on Self-Storage Parkway
      "It's been a pleasure!" he shouts desperately from the doorway, trying not to burn any bridges.
      What a stressful workplace. The minute your Cute Rating drops you're a goner. Guests rank us as Knockout, Honeypie, Adequate, or Stinker. Not that I'm complaining. At least I'm working. At least I'm not a Stinker like Lloyd.
      I'm a solid Honeypie/Adequate, heading home with forty bucks cash.

. . .

 AT SEA OAK there's no sea and no oak, just a hundred subsidized apartments and a rear view of FedEx. Min and Jade are feeding their babies while watching How My Child Died Violently. Min's my sister. Jade's our cousin. How My Child Died Violently is hosted by Matt Merton, a six-foot-five blond who's always giving the parents shoulder rubs and telling them they've been sainted by pain. Today's show features a ten-year-old who killed a five-year-old for refusing to join his gang. The ten-year-old strangled the five-year-old with a jump rope, filled his mouth with baseball cards, then locked himself in the bathroom and wouldn't come out until his parents agreed to take him to FunTimeZone, where he confessed, then dove screaming into a mesh cage full of plastic balls. The audience is shrieking threats at the parents of the killer while the parents of the victim urge restraint and forgiveness to such an extent that finally the audience starts shrieking threats at them too. Then it's a commercial. Min and Jade put down the babies and light cigarettes and pace the room while studying aloud for their GEDs. It doesn't look good. Jade says "regicide" is a virus. Min locates Biafra one planet from Saturn. I offer to help and they start yelling at me for condescending.
      "You're lucky, man!" my sister says. "You did high school. You got your frigging diploma. We don't. That's why we have to do this GED shit. If we had our diplomas we could just watch TV and not be all distracted."
      "Really," says Jade. "Now shut it, chick! We got to study. Show's almost on."
      They debate how many sides a triangle has. They agree that Churchill was in opera. Matt Merton comes back and explains that last week's show on suicide, in which the parents watched a reenactment of their son's suicide, was a healing process for the parents, then shows a video of the parents admitting it was a healing process.
      My sister's baby is Troy. Jade's baby is Mac. They crawl off into the kitchen and Troy gets his finger caught in the heat vent. Min rushes over and starts pulling.
      "Jesus freaking Christ!" screams Jade. "Watch it! Stop yanking on him and get the freaking Vaseline. You're going to give him a really long arm, man!"
      Troy starts crying. Mac starts crying. I go over and free Troy no problem. Meanwhile Jade and Min get in a slap fight and nearly knock over the TV
      "Yo, chick!" Min shouts at the top of her lungs. "I'm sure you're slapping me? And then you knock over the freaking TV? Don't you care?"
      "I care!" Jade shouts back. "You're the slut who nearly pulled off her own kid's finger for no freaking reason, man!"
      Just then Aunt Bernie comes in from DrugTown in her DrugTown cap and hobbles over and picks up Troy and everything calms way down.
      "No need to fuss, little man," she says. "Everything's fine. Everything's just hunky-dory."
      "Hunky-dory," says Min, and gives Jade one last pinch.
      Aunt Bernie's a peacemaker. She doesn't like trouble. Once this guy backed over her foot at FoodKing and she walked home with ten broken bones. She never got married, because Grandpa needed her to keep house after Grandma died. Then he died and left all his money to a woman none of us had ever heard of, and Aunt Bernie started in at DrugTown. But she's not bitter. Sometimes she's so nonbitter it gets on my nerves. When I say Sea Oak's a pit she says she's just glad to have a roof over her head. When I say I'm tired of being broke she says Grandpa once gave her pencils for Christmas and she was so thrilled she sat around sketching horses all day on the backs of used envelopes. Once I asked was she sorry she never had kids and she said no, not at all, and besides, weren't we were her kids?
      And I said yes we were.
      But of course we're not.
      For dinner it's beanie-wienies. For dessert it's ice cream with freezer burn.
      "What a nice day we've had," Aunt Bernie says once we've got the babies in bed.
      "Man, what an optometrist," says Jade.
       
       
NEXT DAY IS THURSDAY, which means a visit from Ed Anders from the Board of Health. He's in charge of ensuring that our penises never show Also that we don't kiss anyone. None of us ever kisses anyone or shows his penis except Sonny Vance, who does both, because he's saving up to buy a FaxIt franchise. As for our Penile Simulators, yes, we can show them, we can let them stick out the top of our pants, we can even periodically dampen our tight pants with spray bottles so our Simulators really contour, but our real penises, no, those have to stay inside our hot uncomfortable oversized Simulators.
      "Sorry fellas, hi fellas," Anders says as he comes wearily in. "Please know I don't like this any better than you do. I went to school to learn how to inspect meat, but this certainly wasn't what I had in mind. Ha ha!"
      He orders a Lindbergh Enchilada and eats it cautiously, as if it's alive and he's afraid of waking it. Sonny Vance is serving soup to a table of hairstylists on a bender and for a twenty shoots them a quick look at his unit.
      Just then Anders glances up from his Lindbergh.
      "Oh for crying out loud," he says, and writes up a Shutdown and we all get sent home early. Which is bad. Every dollar counts. Lately I've been sneaking toilet paper home in my briefcase. I can fit three rolls in. By the time I get home they're usually flat and don't work so great on the roller but still it saves a few bucks.
      I clock out and cut through the strip of forest behind FedEx. Very pretty. A raccoon scurries over a fallen oak and starts nibbling at a rusty bike. As I come out of the woods I hear a shot. At least I think it's a shot. It could be a backfire. But no, it's a shot, because then there's another one, and some kids sprint across the courtyard yelling that Big Scary Dawgz rule.
      I run home. Min and Jade and Aunt Bernie and the babies are huddled behind the couch. Apparently they had the babies outside when the shooting started. Troy's walker got hit. Luckily he wasn't in it. It's supposed to look like a duck but now the beak's missing.
      "Man, fuck this shit!" Min shouts.
      "Freak this crap you mean," says Jade. "You want them growing up with shit-mouths like us? Crap-mouths I mean?"
      "I just want them growing up, period," says Min.
      "Boo-hoo, Miss Dramatic," says Jade.
      "Fuck off, Miss Ho," shouts Min.
      "I mean it, jagoff, I'm not kidding," shouts Jade, and punches Min in the arm.
      "Girls, for crying out loud!" says Aunt Bernie. "We should be thankful. At least we got a home. And at least none of them bullets actually hit nobody."
      "No offense, Bernie?" says Min. "But you call this a freaking home?"
      Sea Oak's not safe. There's an ad hoc crackhouse in the laundry room and last week Min found some brass knuckles in the kiddie pool. If I had my way I'd move everybody up to Canada. It's nice there. Very polite. We went for a weekend last fall and got a flat tire and these two farmers with bright-red faces insisted on fixing it, then springing for dinner, then starting a college fund for the babies. They sent us the stock certificates a week later, along with a photo of all of us eating cobbler at a diner. But moving to Canada takes bucks. Dad's dead and left us nada and Ma now lives with Freddie, who doesn't like us, plus he's not exactly rich himself. He does phone polls. This month he's asking divorced women how often they backslide and sleep with their exes. He gets ten bucks for every completed poll.
      So not lucrative, and Canada's a moot point.
      I go out and find the beak of Troy's duck and fix it with Elmer's.
      "Actually you know what?" says Aunt Bernie. "I think that looks even more like a real duck now Because some-times their beaks are cracked? I seen one like that down-town."
      "Oh my God," says Min. "The kid's duck gets shot in the face and she says we're lucky."
      "Well, we are lucky," says Bernie.
      "Somebody's beak is cracked," says Jade.
      "You know what I do if something bad happens?" Bernie says. "I don't think about it. Don't take it so serious. It ain't the end of the world. That's what I do. That's what I always done. That's how I got where I am."
      My feeling is, Bernie, I love you, but where are you? You work at DrugTown for minimum. You're sixty and own nothing. You were basically a slave to your father and never had a date in your life.
      "I mean, complain if you want," she says. "But I think we're doing pretty darn good for ourselves."
      "Oh, we're doing great," says Min, and pulls Troy out from behind the couch and brushes some duck shards off his sleeper.
       

J
OYSTICKS REOPENS ON FRIDAY. It's a madhouse. They've got the fog on. A bridge club offers me fifteen bucks to oil-wrestle Mel Turner. So I oil-wrestle Mel Turner. They offer me twenty bucks to feed them chicken wings from my hand. So I feed them chicken wings from my hand. The afternoon flies by. Then the evening. At nine the bridge club leaves and I get a sorority. They sing intelligent nasty songs and grope my Simulator and say they'll never be able to look their boyfriends' meager genitalia in the eye again. Then Mr. Frendt comes over and says phone. It's Min. She sounds crazy. Four times in a row she shrieks get home. When I tell her calm down, she hangs up. I call back and no one answers. No biggie. Min's prone to panic. Probably one of the babies is puky. Luckily I'm on FlexTime.
      "I'll be back," I say to Mr. Frendt.
      "I look forward to it," he says.
      I jog across the marsh and through FedEx. Up on the hill there's a light from the last remaining farm. Sometimes we take the boys to the adjacent car wash to look at the cow. Tonight however the cow is elsewhere.
      At home Min and Jade are hopping up and down in front of Aunt Bernie, who's sitting very very still at one end of the couch.
      "Keep the babies out!" shrieks Min." I don't want them seeing something dead!"
      "Shut up, man!" shrieks Jade." Don't call her something dead!"
      She squats down and pinches Aunt Bernie's cheek.
      "Aunt Bernie?" she shrieks. "Fuck!"
      "We already tried that like twice, chick!" shrieks Min. "Why are you doing that shit again? Touch her neck and see if you can feel that beating thing!"
      "Shit shit shit!" shrieks Jade.
      I call 911 and the paramedics come out and work hard for twenty minutes, then give up and say they're sorry and it looks like she's been dead most of the afternoon. The apartment's a mess. Her money drawer's empty and her family photos are in the bathtub.
      "Not a mark on her," says a cop.
      "I suspect she died of fright," says another. "Fright of the intruder?"
      "My guess is yes," says a paramedic.
      "Oh God," says Jade. "God, God, God."
      I sit down beside Bernie. I think: I am so sorry. I'm sorry I wasn't here when it happened and sorry you never had any fun in your life and sorry I wasn't rich enough to move you somewhere safe. I remember when she was young and wore pink stretch pants and made us paper chains out of DrugTown receipts while singing "Froggie Went A-Courting." All her life she worked hard. She never hurt anybody. And now this.
      Scared to death in a crappy apartment.
      Min puts the babies in the kitchen but they keep crawling out. Aunt Bernie's in a shroud on this sort of dolly and on the couch are a bunch of forms to sign.
      We call Ma and Freddie. We get their machine.
      "Ma, pick up!" says Min. "Something bad happened! Ma, please freaking pick up!"
      But nobody picks up.
      So we leave a message.

. . .

LOBTON'S FUNERAL PARLOR is just a regular house on a regular street. Inside there's a rack of brochures with titles like "Why Does My Loved One Appear Somewhat Larger?" Lobton looks healthy. Maybe too healthy. He's wearing a yellow golf shirt and his biceps keep involuntarily flexing. Every now and then he touches his delts as if to confirm they're still big as softballs.
      "Such a sad thing," he says.
      "How much?" asks Jade. "I mean, like for basic. Not superfancy."
      "But not crappy either," says Min. "Our aunt was the best."
      "What price range were you considering?" says Lobton, cracking his knuckles. We tell him and his eyebrows go up and he leads us to something that looks like a moving box.
      "Prior to usage we'll moisture-proof this with a spray lacquer," he says. "Makes it look quite woodlike."
      "That's all we can get?" says Jade. "Cardboard?"
      "I'm actually offering you a slight break already," he says, and does a kind of push-up against the wall. "On account of the tragic circumstances. This is Sierra Sunset. Not exactly cardboard. More of a fiberboard."
      "I don't know" says Min. "Seems pretty gyppy."
      "Can we think about it?" says Ma.
      "Absolutely," says Lobton. "Last time I checked this was still America."
      I step over and take a closer look. There are staples where Aunt Bernie's spine would be. Down at the foot there's some writing about Folding Tab A into Slot B.
      "No freaking way," says Jade." Work your whole life and end up in a Mayflower box? I doubt it."
      We've got zip in savings. We sit at a desk and Lobton does what he calls a Credit Calc. If we pay it out monthly for seven years we can afford the Amber Mist, which includes a double-thick balsa box and two coats of lacquer and a one-hour wake.
      "But seven years, jeez," says Ma.
      "We got to get her the good one," says Min. "She never had anything nice in her life."
      So Amber Mist it is.
       
      
WE BURY HER at St. Leo's, on the hill up near BastCo. Her part of the graveyard's pretty plain. No angels, no little rock houses, no flowers, just a bunch of flat stones like parking bumpers and here and there a Styrofoam cup. Father Brian says a prayer and then one of us is supposed to talk. But what's there to say? She never had a life. Never married, no kids, work work work. Did she ever go on a cruise? All her life it was buses. Buses buses buses. Once she went with Ma on a bus to Quigley, Kansas, to gamble and shop at an outlet mall. Someone broke into her room and stole her clothes and took a dump in her suitcase while they were at the Roy Clark show. That was it. That was the extent of her tourism. After that it was DrugTown, night and day. After fifteen years as Cashier she got demoted to Greeter. People would ask where the cold remedies were and she'd point to some big letters on the wall that said Cold Remedies.
      Freddie, Ma's boyfriend, steps up and says he didn't know her very long but she was an awful nice lady and left behind a lot of love, etc. etc. blah blah blah. While it's true she didn't do much in her life, still she was very dear to those of us who knew her and never made a stink about anything but was always content with whatever happened to her, etc. etc. blah blah blah.
      Then it's over and we're supposed to go away.
      "We gotta come out here like every week," says Jade.
      "I know I will," says Min.
      "What, like I won't?" says Jade. "She was so freaking nice.
      "I'm sure you swear at a grave," says Min.
      "Since when is freak a swear, chick?" says Jade.
      "Girls," says Ma.
      "I hope I did okay in what I said about her," says Freddie in his full-of-crap way, smelling bad of English Navy. "Actually I sort of surprised myself."
      "Bye-bye, Aunt Bernie," says Min.
      "Bye-bye, Bern," says Jade.
      "Oh my dear sister," says Ma.
      I scrunch my eyes tight and try to picture her happy, laughing, poking me in the ribs. But all I can see is her terrified on the couch. It's awful. Out there, somewhere, is whoever did it. Someone came in our house, scared her to death, watched her die, went through our stuff, stole her money. Someone who's still living, someone who right now might be having a piece of pie or running an errand or scratching his ass, someone who, if he wanted to, could drive west for three days or whatever and sit in the sun by the ocean.
      We stand a few minutes with heads down and hands folded.
       

AFTERWARD FREDDIE TAKES US to Trabanti's for lunch. Last year Trabanti died and three Vietnamese families went in together and bought the place, and it still serves pasta and pizza and the big oil of Trabanti is still on the wall but now from the kitchen comes this very pretty Vietnamese music and the food is somehow better.
      Freddie proposes a toast. Min says remember how Bernie always called lunch dinner and dinner supper? Jade says remember how when her jaw clicked she'd say she needed oil?
      "She was a excellent lady," says Freddie.
      "I already miss her so bad," says Ma.
      "I'd like to kill that fuck that killed her," says Min.
      "How about let's don't say fuck at lunch," says Ma.
      "It's just a word, Ma, right?" says Min. "Like pluck is just a word? You don't mind if I say pluck? Pluck pluck pluck?"
      "Well, shit's just a word too," says Freddie. "But we don't say it at lunch."
      "Same with puke," says Ma.
      "Shit puke, shit puke," says Min.
      The waiter clears his throat. Ma glares at Min.
      "I love you girls' manners," Ma says.
      "Especially at a funeral," says Freddie.
      "This ain't a funeral," says Min.
      "The question in my mind is what you kids are gonna do now" says Freddie." Because I consider this whole thing a wake-up call, meaning it's time for you to pull yourselfs up by the bootstraps like I done and get out of that dangerous craphole you're living at."
      "Mr. Phone Poll speaks," says Min.
      "Anyways it ain't that dangerous," says Jade.
      "A woman gets killed and it ain't that dangerous?" says Freddie.
      "All's we need is a dead bolt and a eyehole," says Min.
      "What's a bootstrap," says Jade.
      "It's like a strap on a boot, you doof," says Min.
      "Plus where we gonna go?" says Min. "Can we move in with you guys?"
      "I personally would love that and you know that," says Freddie. "But who would not love that is our landlord."
      "I think what Freddie's saying is it's time for you girls to get jobs," says Ma.
      "Yeah right, Ma," says Min. "After what happened last time?"
      When I first moved in, Jade and Min were working the info booth at HardwareNiche. Then one day we picked the babies up at day care and found Troy sitting naked on top of the washer and Mac in the yard being nipped by a Pekingese and the day-care lady sloshed and playing KillerBirds on Nintendo.
      So that was that. No more HardwareNiche.
      "Maybe one could work, one could baby-sit?" says Ma.
      "I don't see why I should have to work so she can stay home with her baby," says Min.
      "And I don't see why I should have to work so she can stay home with her baby," says Jade.
      "It's like a freaking veece versa," says Min.
      "Let me tell you something," says Freddie. "Something about this country. Anybody can do anything. But first they gotta try. And you guys ain't. Two don't work and one strips naked? I don't consider that trying. You kids make squat. And therefore you live in a dangerous craphole. And what happens in a dangerous craphole? Bad tragic shit. It's the freaking American way-you start out in a dangerous craphole and work hard so you can someday move up to a somewhat less dangerous craphole. And finally maybe you get a mansion. But at this rate you ain't even gonna make it to the somewhat less dangerous craphole."
      "Like you live in a mansion," says Jade.
      "I do not claim to live in no mansion," says Freddie. "But then again I do not live in no slum. The other thing I also do not do is strip naked."
      "Thank God for small favors," says Min.
      "Anyways he's never actually naked," says Jade.
      Which is true. I always have on at least a T-back.
      "No wonder we never take these kids out to a nice lunch," says Freddie.
      "I do not even consider this a nice lunch," says Min.

. . .

FOR DINNER JADE MICROWAVES some Stars-n-Flags. They're addictive. They put sugar in the sauce and sugar in the meat nuggets. I think also caffeine. Someone told me the brown streaks in the Flags are caffeine. We have like five bowls each.
      After dinner the babies get fussy and Min puts a mush of ice cream and Hershey's syrup in their bottles and we watch The Worst That Could Happen, a half-hour of computer simulations of tragedies that have never actually occurred but theoretically could. A kid gets hit by a train and flies into a zoo, where he's eaten by wolves. A man cuts his hand off chopping wood and while wandering around screaming for help is picked up by a tornado and dropped on a preschool during recess and lands on a pregnant teacher.
      "I miss Bernie so bad," says Min.
      "Me too," Jade says sadly.
      The babies start howling for more ice cream.
      "That is so cute," says Jade. "They're like, Give it the fuck up!"
      "We'll give it the fuck up, sweeties, don't worry," says Min. "We didn't forget about you."
      Then the phone rings. It's Father Brian. He sounds weird. He says he's sorry to bother us so late. But something strange has happened. Something bad. Something sort of, you know, unspeakable. Am I sitting? I'm not but I say I am.
      Apparently someone has defaced Bernie's grave.
      My first thought is there's no stone. It's just grass. How do you deface grass? What did they do, pee on the grass on the grave? But Father's nearly in tears.
      So I call Ma and Freddie and tell them to meet us, and we get the babies up and load them into the K-car.
      "Deface," says Jade on the way over. "What does that mean, deface?"
      "It means like fucked it up," says Min.
      "But how?" says Jade. "I mean, like what did they do?"
      "We don't know, dumbass," says Min." That's why we're going there."
      "And why?" says Jade. "Why would someone do that?"
      "Check out Miss Shreelock Holmes," says Min. "Someone done that because someone is a asshole."
      "Someone is a big-time asshole," says Jade.
      Father Brian meets us at the gate with a flashlight and a golf cart.
      "When I saw this," he says." I literally sat down in astonishment. Nothing like this has ever happened here. I am so sorry. You seem like nice people."
      We're too heavy and the wheels spin as we climb the hill, so I get out and jog alongside.
      "Okay, folks, brace yourselves," Father says, and shuts off the engine.
      Where the grave used to be is just a hole. Inside the hole is the Amber Mist, with the top missing. Inside the Amber Mist is nothing. No Aunt Bernie.
      "What the hell," says Jade. "Where's Bernie?"
      "Somebody stole Bernie?" says Min.
      "At least you folks have retained your feet," says Father Brian. "I'm telling you I literally sat right down. I sat right down on that pile of dirt. I dropped as if shot. See that mark? That's where I sat."
      On the pile of grave dirt is a butt-shaped mark.
      The cops show up and one climbs down in the hole with a tape measure and a camera. After three or four flashes he climbs out and hands Ma a pair of blue pumps.
      "Her little shoes," says Ma. "Oh my God."
      "Are those them?" says Jade.
      "Those are them," says Min.
      "I am freaking out," says Jade.
      "I am totally freaking out," says Min.
      "I'm gonna sit," says Ma, and drops into the golf cart.
      "What I don't get is who'd want her?" says Min.
      "She was just this lady," says Jade.
      "Typically it's teens?" one cop says. "Typically we find the loved one nearby? Once we found the loved one nearby with, you know, a cigarette between its lips, wearing a sombrero? These kids today got a lot more nerve than we ever did. I never would've dreamed of digging up a dead corpse when I was a teen. You might tip over a stone, sure, you might spray-paint something on a crypt, you might, you know, give a wino a hotfoot."
      "But this, jeez," says Freddie. "This is a entirely different ballgame."
      "Boy howdy," says the cop, and we all look down at the shoes in Ma's hands.

. . .

NEXT DAY I GO back to work. I don't feel like it but we need the money. The grass is wet and it's hard getting across the ravine in my dress shoes. The soles are slick. Plus they're too tight. Several times I fall forward on my briefcase. Inside the briefcase are my T-backs and a thing of mousse.
      Right off the bat I get a tableful of MediBen women seated under a banner saying BEST OF LUCK, BEATRICE, NO HARD FEELINGS. I take off my shirt and serve their salads. I take off my flight pants and serve their soups. One drops a dollar on the floor and tells me feel free to pick it up.
      I pick it up.
      "Not like that, not like that," she says. "Face the other way, so when you bend we can see your crack."
      I've done this about a million times, but somehow I can't do it now
      I look at her. She looks at me.
      "What?" she says. "I'm not allowed to say that? I thought that was the whole point."
      "That is the whole point, Phyllis," says another lady. "You stand your ground."
      "Look;" Phyllis says. "Either bend how I say or give back the dollar. I think that's fair."
      "You go, girl," says her friend.
      I give back the dollar. I return to the Locker Area and sit awhile. For the first time ever, I'm voted Stinker. There are thirteen women at the MediBen table and they all vote me Stinker. Do the MediBen women know my situation? Would they vote me Stinker if they did? But what am I supposed to do, go out and say, Please ladies, my aunt just died, plus her body's missing?
      Mr. Frendt pulls me aside.
      "Perhaps you need to go home," he says. "I'm sorry for your loss. But I'd like to encourage you not to behave like one of those Comanche ladies who bite off their index fingers when a loved one dies. Grief is good, grief is fine, but too much grief, as we all know, is excessive. If your aunt's death has filled your mouth with too many bitten-off fingers, for crying out loud, take a week off, only don't take it out on our Guests, they didn't kill your dang aunt."
      But I can't afford to take a week off. I can't even afford to take a few days off.
      "We really need the money," I say.
      "Is that my problem?" he says. "Am I supposed to let you dance without vigor just because you need the money? Why don't I put an ad in the paper for all sad people who need money? All the town's sad could come here and strip. Good-bye. Come back when you feel halfway normal."
      From the pay phone I call home to see if they need anything from the FoodSoQuik.
      "Just come home," Min says stiffly. "Just come straight home."
      "What is it?" I say.
      "Come home," she says.
      Maybe someone's found the body. I imagine Bernie naked, Bernie chopped in two, Bernie posed on a bus bench. I hope and pray that something only mildly bad's been done to her, something we can live with.
      At home the door's wide open. Min and Jade are sitting very still on the couch, babies in their laps, staring at the rocking chair, and in the rocking chair is Bernie. Bernie's body.
      Same perm, same glasses, same blue dress we buried her in.
      What's it doing here? Who could be so cruel? And what are we supposed to do with it?
      Then she turns her head and looks at me.
      "Sit the fuck down," she says.
      In life she never swore.
      I sit. Min squeezes and releases my hand, squeezes and releases, squeezes and releases.
      "You, mister," Bernie says to me, "are going to start showing your cock. You'll show it and show it. You go up to a lady, if she wants to see it, if she'll pay to see it, I'll make a thumbprint on the forehead. You see the thumbprint, you ask. I'll try to get you five a day, at twenty bucks a pop. So a hundred bucks a day. Seven hundred a week. And that's cash, so no taxes. No withholding. See? That's the beauty of it."
      She's got dirt in her hair and dirt in her teeth and her hair is a mess and her tongue when it darts out to lick her lips is black.
      "You, Jade," she says. "Tomorrow you start work. Andersen Labels, Fifth and Rivera. Dress up when you go. Wear something nice. Show a little leg. And don't chomp your gum. Ask for Len. At the end of the month, we take the money you made and the cock money and get a new place. Somewhere safe. That's part one of Phase One. You, Min. You baby-sit. Plus you quit smoking. Plus you learn how to cook. No more food out of cans. We gotta eat right to look our best. Because I am getting me so many lovers. Maybe you kids don't know this but I died a freaking virgin. No babies, no lovers. Nothing went in, nothing came out. Ha ha! Dry as a bone, completely wasted, this pretty little thing God gave me between my legs. Well I am going to have lovers now, you fucks! Like in the movies, big shoulders and all, and a summer house, and nice trips, and in the morning in my room a big vase of flowers, and I'm going to get my nipples hard standing in the breeze from the ocean, eating shrimp from a cup, you sons of bitches, while my lover watches me from the veranda, his big shoulders shining, all hard for me, that's one damn thing I will guarantee you kids! Ha ha! You think I'm joking? I ain't freaking joking. I never got nothing! My life was shit! I was never even up in a freaking plane. But that was that life and this is this life. My new life. Cover me up now! With a blanket. I need my beauty rest. Tell anyone I'm here, you all die. Plus they die. Whoever you tell, they die. I kill them with my mind. I can do that. I am very freaking strong now. I got powers! So no visitors. I don't exactly look my best. You got it? You all got it?"
      We nod. I go for a blanket. Her hands and feet are shaking and she's grinding her teeth and one falls out.
      "Put it over me, you fuck, all the way over!" she screams, and I put it over her.
      We sneak off with the babies and whisper in the kitchen.
      "It looks like her," says Min.
      "It is her," I say.
      "It is and it ain't," says Jade.
      "We better do what she says," Min says.
      "No shit," Jade says.
      All night she sits in the rocker under the blanket, shaking and swearing.
      All night we sit in Min's bed, fully dressed, holding hands.
      "See how strong I am!" she shouts around midnight, and there's a cracking sound, and when I go out the door's been torn off the microwave but she's still sitting in the chair.
       

I
N THE MORNING she's still there, shaking and swearing.
      "Take the blanket off!" she screams." It's time to get this show on the road."
      I take the blanket off. The smell is not good. One ear is now in her lap. She keeps absentmindedly sticking it back on her head.
      "You, Jade!" she shouts. "Get dressed. Go get that job. When you meet Len, bend forward a little. Let him see down your top. Give him some hope. He's a sicko, but we
      need him. You, Min! Make breakfast. Something homemade. Like biscuits."
      "Why don't you make it with your powers?" says Min.
      "Don't be a smartass!" screams Bernie. "You see what I did to that microwave?"
      "I don't know how to make freaking biscuits," Min wails.
      "You know how to read, right?" Bernie shouts. "You ever heard of a recipe? You ever been in the grave? It sucks so bad! You regret all the things you never did. You little bitches are gonna have a very bad time in the grave unless you get on the stick, believe me! Turn down the thermostat! Make it cold. I like cold. Something's off with my body. I don't feel right."
      I turn down the thermostat. She looks at me.
      "Go show your cock!" she shouts. "That is the first part of Phase One. After we get the new place, that's the end of the first part of Phase Two. You'll still show your cock, but only three days a week. Because you'll start community college. Pre-law. Pre-law is best. You'll be a whiz. You ain't dumb. And Jade'll work weekends to make up for the decrease in cock money. See? See how that works? Now get out of here. What are you gonna do?"
      "Show my cock?" I say.
      "Show your cock, that's right," she says, and brushes back her hair with her hand, and a huge wad comes out, leaving her almost bald on one side.
      "Oh God," says Min. "You know what? No way me and the babies are staying here alone."
      "You ain't alone," says Bernie. "I'm here."
      "Please don't go," Min says to me.
      "Oh, stop it," Bernie says, and the door flies open and I feel a sort of invisible fist punching me in the back.
      Outside it's sunny. A regular day. A guy's changing his oil. The clouds are regular clouds and the sun's the regular sun and the only nonregular thing is that my clothes smell like Bernie, a combo of wet cellar and rotten bacon.
      Work goes well. I manage to keep smiling and hide my shaking hands, and my midshift rating is Honeypie. After lunch this older woman comes up and says I look so much like a real Pilot she can hardly stand it.
      On her head is a thumbprint. Like Ash Wednesday, only sort of glowing.
      I don't know what to do. Do I just come out and ask if she wants to see my cock? What if she says no? What if I get caught? What if I show her and she doesn't think it's worth twenty bucks?
      Then she asks if I'll surprise her best friend with a birthday table dance. She points out her friend. A pretty girl, no thumbprint. Looks somehow familiar.
      We start over and at about twenty feet I realize it's Angela.
      Angela Silveri.
      We dated senior year. Then Dad died and Ma had to take a job at Patty-Melt Depot. From all the grease Ma got a bad rash and could barely wear a blouse. Plus Min was running wild. So Angela would come over and there'd be Min getting high under a tarp on the carport and Ma sitting in her bra on a kitchen stool with a fan pointed at her gut. Angela had dreams. She had plans. In her notebook she pasted a picture of an office from the J. C. Penney catalogue and under it wrote, My (someday?) office. Once we saw this black Porsche and she said very nice but make hers red. The last straw was Ed Edwards, a big drunk, one of Dad's cousins. Things got so bad Ma rented him the utility room. One night Angela and I were making out on the couch late when Ed came in soused and started peeing in the dishwasher.
      What could I say? He's only barely related to me? He hardly ever does that?
      Angela's eyes were like these little pies.
      I walked her home, got no kiss, came back, cleaned up the dishwasher as best I could. A few days later I got my class ring in the mail and a copy of The Prophet.
      You will always be my first love,
she'd written inside. But now my path converges to a higher ground. Be well always. Walk in joy Please don't think me cruel, it's lust that I want so much in terms of accomplishment, plus I couldn't believe that guy peed right on your dishes.
      No way am I table dancing for Angela Silveri. No way am I asking Angela Silveri's friend if she wants to see my cock. No way am I hanging around here so Angela can see me in my flight jacket and T-backs and wonder to herself how I went so wrong etc. etc.
      I hide in the kitchen until my shift is done, then walk home very, very slowly because I'm afraid of what Bernie's going to do to me when I get there.

 . . .       

MIN MEETS ME at the door. She's got flour all over her blouse and it looks like she's been crying.
      "I can't take any more of this," she says. "She's like falling apart. I mean shit's falling off her. Plus she made me bake a freaking pie."
      On the table is a very lumpy pie. One of Bernie's arms is now disconnected and lying across her lap.
      "What are you thinking of!" she shouts. "You didn't show your cock even once? You think it's easy making those thumbprints? You try it, smartass! Do you or do you not know the plan? You gotta get us out of here! And to get us out, you gotta use what you got. And you ain't got much. A nice face. And a decent unit. Not huge, but shaped nice."
      "Bernie, God," says Min.
      "What, Miss Priss?" shouts Bernie, and slams the severed arm down hard on her lap, and her other ear falls off.
      "I'm sorry, but this is too fucking sickening," says Min. "I'm going out."
      "What's sickening?" says Bernie. "Are you saying I'm sickening? Well, I think you're sickening. So many wonderful things in life and where's your mind? You think with your lazy ass. Whatever life hands you, you take. You're not going anywhere. You're staying home and studying."
      "I'm what?" says Min. "Studying what? I ain't studying. Chick comes into my house and starts ordering me to study? I freaking doubt it."
      "You don't know nothing!" Bernie says. "What fun is life when you don't know nothing? You can't find your own town on the map. You can't name a single president. When we go to Rome you won't know nothing about the history. You're going to study the World Book. Do we still have those World Books?"
      "Yeah right," says Min. "We're going to Rome."
      "We'll go to Rome when he's a lawyer," says Bernie.
      "Dream on, chick," says Min. "And we'll go to Mars when I'm a stockbreaker."
      "Don't you dare make fun of me!" Bernie shouts, and our only vase goes flying across the room and nearly nails Min in the head.
      "She's been like this all day," says Min.
      "Like what?" shouts Bernie. "We had a perfectly nice day."
      "She made me help her try on my bras," says Min.
      "I never had a nice sexy bra," says Bernie.
      "And now mine are all ruined," says Min. "They got this sort of goo on them."
      "You ungrateful shit!" shouts Bernie. "Do you know what I'm doing for you? I'm saving your boy. And you got the nerve to say I made goo on your bras! Troy's gonna get caught in a crossfire in the courtyard. In September. September eighteenth. He's gonna get thrown off his little trike. With one leg twisted under him and blood pouring out of his ear. It's a freaking prophecy. You know that word? It means prediction. You know that word? You think I'm bullshitting? Well I ain't bullshitting. I got the power. Watch this: All day Jade sat licking labels at a desk by a window. Her boss bought everybody subs for lunch. She's bringing some home in a green bag."
      "That ain't true about Troy, is it?" says Min. "Is it? I don't believe it."
      "Turn on the TV!" Bernie shouts. "Give me the changer."
      I turn on the TV I give her the changer. She puts on Nathan's Body Shop. Nathan says washboard abs drive the women wild. Then there's a close-up of his washboard abs.
      "Oh yes," says Bernie. "Them are for me. I'd like to give those a lick. A lick and a pinch. I'd like to sort of straddle those things."
      Just then Jade comes through the door with a big green bag.
      "Oh God," says Min.
      "Told you so!" says Bernie, and pokes Min in the ribs. "Ha ha! I really got the power!"
      "I don't get it," Min says, all desperate. "What happens? Please. What happens to him? You better freaking tell me."
      "I already told you," Bernie says. "He'll fly about fifteen feet and live about three minutes."
      "Bernie, God," Min says, and starts to cry. "You used to be so nice."
      "I'm still so nice," says Bernie, and bites into a sub and takes off the tip of her finger and starts chewing it up.
      

JUST AFTER DAWN she shouts out my name.
      "Take the blanket off," she says. "I ain't feeling so good."
      I take the blanket off. She's basically just this pile of parts: both arms in her lap, head on the arms, heel of one foot touching the heel of the other, all of it sort of wrapped up in her dress.
      "Get me a washcloth," she says." Do I got a fever? I feel like I got a fever. Oh, I knew it was too good to be true. But okay. New plan. New plan. I'm changing the first part of Phase One. If you see two thumbprints, that means the lady'll screw you for cash. We're in a fix here. We gotta speed this up. There ain't gonna be nothing left of me. Who's gonna be my lover now?"
      The doorbell rings.
      "Son of a bitch," Bernie snarls.
      It's Father Brian with a box of doughnuts. I step out quick and close the door behind me. He says he's just checking in. Perhaps we'd like to talk? Perhaps we're feeling some residual anger about Bernie's situation? Which would of course be completely understandable. Once when he was a young priest someone broke in and drew a mustache on the Virgin Mary with a permanent marker, and for weeks he was tortured by visions of bending back the finger of the vandal until he or she burst into tears of apology.
      "I knew that wasn't appropriate," he says. "I knew that by indulging in that fantasy I was honoring violence. And yet it gave me pleasure. I also thought of catching them in the act and boinking them in the head with a rock. I also thought of jumping up and down on their backs until something in their spinal column cracked. Actually I had about a million ideas. But you know what I did instead? I scrubbed and scrubbed our Holy Mother, and soon she was as good as new. Her statue, I mean. She herself of course is always good as new."
      From inside comes the sound of breaking glass. Breaking glass and then something heavy falling, and Jade yelling and Min yelling and the babies crying.
      "Oops, I guess?" he says. "I've come at a bad time? Look, all I'm trying to do is urge you, if at all possible, to forgive the perpetrators, as I forgave the perpetrator that drew on my Virgin Mary. The thing lost, after all, is only your aunt's body, and what is essential, I assure you, is elsewhere, being well taken care of."
      I nod. I smile. I say thanks for stopping by. I take the doughnuts and go back inside.
      The TV's broke and the refrigerator's tipped over and Bernie's parts are strewn across the living room like she's been shot out of a cannon.
      "She tried to get up," says Jade.
      "I don't know where the hell she thought she was going," says Min.
      "Come here," the head says to me, and I squat down. "That's it for me. I'm fucked. As per usual. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride. Although come to think of it I was never even the freaking bridesmaid. Look, show your cock. It's the shortest line between two points. The world ain't giving away nice lives. You got a trust fund? You a genius? Show your cock. It's what you got. And remember: Troy in September. On his trike. One leg twisted. Don't forget. And also. Don't remember me like this. Remember me like how I was that night we all went to Red Lobster and I had that new perm. Ah Christ. At least buy me a stone."
      I rub her shoulder, which is next to her foot.
      "We loved you," I say.
      "Why do some people get everything and I got nothing?" she says. "Why? Why was that?"
      "I don't know," I say.
      "Show your cock," she says, and dies again.
      We stand there looking down at the pile of parts. Mac crawls toward it and Min moves him back with her foot.
      "This is too freaking much," says Jade, and starts crying.
      "What do we do now?" says Min.
      "Call the cops," Jade says.
      "And say what?" says Min.
      We think about this awhile.
      I get a Hefty bag. I get my winter gloves.
      "I ain't watching," says Jade.
      "I ain't watching either;" says Min, and they take the babies into the bedroom.
      I close my eyes and wrap Bernie up in the Hefty bag and twistie-tie the bag shut and lug it out to the trunk of the K-car. I throw in a shovel. I drive up to St. Leo's. I lower the bag into the hole using a bungee cord, then fill the hole back in.
      Down in the city are the nice houses and the so-so houses and the lovers making out in dark yards and the babies crying for their moms, and I wonder if, other than Jesus, this has ever happened before. Maybe it happens all the time. Maybe there's angry dead all over, hiding in rooms, covered with blankets, bossing around their scared, embarrassed relatives. Because how would we know?
      I for sure don't plan on broadcasting this.
      I smooth over the dirt and say a quick prayer: If it was wrong for her to come back, forgive her, she never got beans in this life, plus she was trying to help us.
      At the car I think of an additional prayer: But please don't let her come back again.
       

W
HEN I GET HOME the babies are asleep and Jade and Min are watching a phone-sex infomercial, three girls in leatherjumpsuits eating bananas in Slo-mo while across the screen runs a constant disclaimer: "Not Necessarily the Girls Who Man the Phones! Not Necessarily the Girls Who Man the Phones!"
      "Them chicks seem to really be enjoying those bananas," says Min in a thin little voice.
      "I like them jumpsuits though," says Jade.
      "Yeah them jumpsuits look decent," says Min.
      Then they look up at me. I've never seen them so sad and beat and sick.
      "It's done," I say.
      Then we hug and cry and promise never to forget Bernie the way she really was, and I use some Resolve on the rug and they go do some reading in their World Books.
      Next day I go in early. I don't see a single thumbprint. But it doesn't matter. I get with Sonny Vance and he tells me how to do it. First you ask the woman would she like a private tour. Then you show her the fake P-40, the Gallery of Historical Aces, the shower stall where we get oiled up, etc. etc. and then in the hall near the rest room you ask if there's anything else she'd like to see. It's sleazy. It's gross. But when I do it I think of September. September and Troy in the crossfire, his little leg bent under him etc. etc.
      Most say no but quite a few say yes.
      I've got a place picked out at a complex called Swan's Glen. They've never had a shooting or a knifing and the public school is great and every Saturday they have a nature walk for kids behind the clubhouse.
      For every hundred bucks I make, I set aside five for Bernie's stone.
      What do you write on something like that? LIFE PASSED HER BY? DIED DISAPPOINTED? CAME BACK TO LIFE BUT FELL APART? All true, but too sad, and no way I'm writing any of those.
      BERNIE KOWALSKI, it's going to say: BELOVED AUNT.
      Sometimes she comes to me in dreams. She never looks good. Sometimes she's wearing a dirty smock. Once she had on handcuffs. Once she was naked and dirty and this mean cat was clawing its way up her front. But every time it's the same thing.
      "Some people get everything and I got nothing," she says. "Why? Why did that happen?"
      Every time I say I don't know.
      And I don't.

2000 George Saunders

"Sea Oak" appears in the short story collection Pastoralia (Riverhead Books, 2000). This electronic version is published by kind permission of ICM literary agency and the author.
Book ordering available through amazon.com

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George Saundersauthor bio
                          
George Saunders is the author of the story collection CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, a finalist for the 1996 PEN/Hemingway Award and a New York Times Notable Book for that year; and a second collection Pastoralia (2000), from which "Sea Oak" is reprinted. He teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Syracuse University.           

 

photo Thomas Mason

navigation:                         barcelona review #20                 september - october 2000
-Fiction

George Saunders: Sea Oak
Anthony Bourdain: Bobby At Work
Robert Antoni: How Iguana Got Her Wrinkles...
Anne Donovan: Hieroglyphics
Yvonne Vera:
excerpt from Butterfly Burning
Clayton Hansen: A Box for the Sand Country
Nuria Amat: excerpt from Intimacy

-Essays

Carole Maso: Rupture, Verge, and Precipice...
Lawrence Norfolk: Being Translated...
Translators' Replies to Norfolk

-Poetry

John Ashbery: 3 Poems
Jonathan Monroe: 3 Poems

-Interview Carole Maso
-Article September and October in Barcelona
-Quiz

Harry Crews
Answers to last issue's Toni Morrison Quiz

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