Each week on the 49th Shelf homepage, we highlight new releases. We also make theme-based lists and showcase lists from guest contributors and 49th Shelf members. This page archives these selections so they are always available to our members.
Through the only lit window on the ground floor of a dun-coloured building - the only lit window in the whole block - Jake sees an empty cupboard and a cot.
On the side of the room farthest from the window, the boy lies on the worn ticking of the mattress, reading a book. Half an hour ago the girl, astonished by the resonances between this night and the novel she's reading, made a surprised noise in her throat and handed the book to the boy. Now she leans against the cupboard, looking into the street. Overhead wires divide the dark sky from the pools of light cast by lamps hanging from every other pole. The dim buildings across the way seem malevolent presences. The well-manicured boulevard in front of the old warehouse gleams: a green plane belonging to another universe. This scene, too, reminds the girl of one of the scenes from the novel.
The boy skims through to the main action of the story, which takes place at night in a desolate area of small businesses just like this district. A tramp is struck down by a pale blue TransAm driven by some girl who, directed by her date, is going to - But the boy, hardly able to keep his eyes open after such a hectic day and less impressed by the coincidences than the girl, reads no further before falling asleep.
What is that sound? She presses her fingers against her eyes and the view before her is imprinted on her lids, the TransAm drifting out of sight, leaving the clear image of the tramp slumped in the gutter on a pile of new mown grass. An engine running, a car idling.
Tap my right foot on the gas then my left foot on the high-beam button and chew slowly, let's say thoughtfully, on a bitten-off fingernail, smoke creeping along the dash. Once I worked for a blacksmith. So that's dishwasher, gandy dancer, automobile painter, blacksmith's apprentice, cabdriver. Can't picture me young, betcha. Ten years hard labour. But I never touched her, your Honour! You're dirty, Lucy said, and I've had enough, me and the baby're moving in with Mama. So she did. Flick the fag into the night, knuckles to my mouth and blow through them into my palms. Yeah, I saw the blonde climb out of the TransAm, the boy panting at her heels. And the dirty sod peeping at them through the window, ankle deep in fresh grass. Licking his lips. Wiping his hands on the back of his pants. Stinking pisspot. They're only kids. None of my business. A fare's a fare and he left a twenty when he told me to wait. Chew the skin behind each fingernail. Ah, thank God it's spring. Things could be worse. In spring I'm never cold, though wet's possible, a good soaking, a downpour when I'm limping between the cab and some apartment block. Quick, my kingdom for a change of clothes, a fresh pair of undershorts. What's the sky doing? If it were to rain, I'd count my blessings. Once my dad gave me a rabbit called Ears. Ears came out sniffing when I called. O the pain of my back. I never get out of the taxicab if I can help it, never say boo to a passenger, not one word. Sure, they never greet me either. If one were to say howdy, then I'd say howdy back. Yeah, that's what it takes. That's a start. Anyway, I know my job - follow that car - it's pure knee jerk. Sometimes, when I turn a corner, I'm a NASCAR dude, lips set and heart like a child's. You're a beautiful baby, Papa's sunshine, that's what. So that's cab driver, peeping Tom, let's see, doesn't matter, not a tinker's cuss. Tinker, tailor. Used to know that one. I saw the kid hide the girl's keys on top of the closet, the young swine. The old fart. The sullen deadbeat. What a phony accent. What a stink! I wish- No. I have nothing to say, your Honour. Open the curtains wide, sweetheart. Let's see you. Never happen, pal. But we're mesmerized, old bastard and me. What will we do? Nothing. Where will we go? Nowhere. Count my blessings anyway. The rabbit, Lucy, our baby girl. I'm no bum. I own my own taxi, and it's warm, the meter's up to fifteen-fifteen. I could leave now and take a five-buck tip. Always ahead of myself. They wipe their little noses on the grass, rabbits, nip the blades with their teeth. Ah. She's taking her clothes off. Good. The blonde's taking off her clothes and me and the drifter and the boy watch her and soon we'll know something. Spring will change to summer and that pile of grass will turn to hay, bleached by sun, burrowed in by mice night after night. Long days will pass and the hay spawn mouse and spider and fly in the heat from the hay, hotter and hotter, till the stack explodes. We'll all know something. She leans so softly and sweetly into the room. And the boy will show her his lucky horseshoe.
Jake stares through the window at the leggy blonde he's been following. He knows this girl, knows her house, knows her car. Feels the tense veins beneath her milky skin, the highways that taper for mile after cool mile. This boy seems a thin satellite, a wisp, in her presence. When the boy's hand rises to stroke the girl's breast, the book falls from her grasp.
The boy gets up on one elbow, licks the indentation of her right thigh, his free hand clutching at her wrist, pulling her down to lie beside him. Afterwards, he walks to the window.
Is she bored? He can't tell. He watches her turn the pages, watches her eyes following the lines, left to right, top to bottom.
Keep driving. Now we're accomplices. We don't talk about it. He wants to make out. I'm so not into that. What kind of thing is hitting the old guy? I've seen him before. A creep, but he never does anything. I guess I'm okay but my neck hurts. After the dance, in the TransAm, we have nothing to say. But he gives me this look. Like we're really going to do this. I'm like okay, all right, whatever. He's shocked it's my first time, and it hurts and really, I could be anything. Anyone. No one. It's like a roll of loonies sliding in and out of me. I'm thinking wow. So strange the way it all seems to connect. This lonely business area, taxi idling across the street. He's pretty cute, though not so tough, and he's sweating like a mechanic even though the room's cool. The old man just bounces off the windshield. We warm ourselves up, but the heat doesn't last. A silhouette against the glass, is he facing me or facing outside? I can't tell. It's all right for him, he wasn't the one driving.
With a sigh, the boy returns his attention to the window in time to see a figure slip from the cab across the road toward their building. The girl flicks on the light, takes up the novel. She is reading a description of the girl at the wheel of the TransAm - the tires' screech as the car speeds round the corner. He regrets having given her the novel. This evening at the dance he felt sure he'd made the right move, but now he blames the book for the way the night's turning out. She says she's beginning to feel cold, but continues to read while he watches the fat red whiskery face outside the window. By shifting his focus he can see the girl reflected in the dirty glass just as the tramp must see her. Under a low-wattage bulb, she reclines on the bed, one hand supporting the book, the other behind her head. Her hair spills onto the floor. Her leg through the slash in the white fabric gleams. Her hair on the boards gleams.
The boy says, There's something you should know.
She says, Let me finish the chapter, will you?
I've got it, the whole thing. Her breasts. Her nipples. My hands. When she got in the car her legs flashed to her crotch. She seems sad, no, nostalgic, sort of. Check. How am I doing? Do I know what to do next? No. I am ridiculous. I am the guy outside. Her TransAm shines, a bit of azure sky. The taxi is waiting. I should do something. I just wanted her to keep driving, driving. I want her body and her car. Could smash the window -
A man walks into a bank, rubbing his throat. He is dressed in a groovy coat and humming stuff into the air. What a gas! He doesn't unwind his scarf, man, cause that's working too.
What do you do? he thinks to the head of the lady in front of him. It's a long line. He thinks questions of each of them. He thinks things like How do you do? What do you do? and Why do you do? which is just a question his old English teacher kept hammering home. Ha! Why indeed.
But the woman in front of him he really did just wonder what. What do you do? Never mind she was a kind of maid he bet. Not a maid but maybe a nanny. He met a nanny once and the nanny was about that height, which is to say, there is a height for a nanny in this poor man's mind.
Anyway, the man walks into a bank and finds himself behind the nanny who he thinks is a nanny due to her height, which he estimates by looking from her to the doorway where the measuring stick for robbers is. Because he's worked for a long time in precise measurements, he tries to calibrate the measuring stick beside the door with the world around it. He is, himself, six feet and two inches, but he had never measured from his top point to his eyes, though he estimates, correctly, the distance is 4 ½ inches. That would mean he should be at 5' 9 ½" on the ruler (and he is).
But the man is feeling so good he's a little sloppy on the swivel of his head. His neck bobs a little, man, in between his laser-like straight-edge eye measurements and the air above the back of the nanny's head. And that's because of the song on in his car, the song singing Well, when will I be back home?
Soon, man, soon. He will be back home soon. There is just this stop at the bank before the trip. The song is more mournful than the man's own celebratory mood. He's going home free and clear, with no bones to pick, no scores to settle, no money to beg, no bills of any kind. Just love there, man. Just love.
Why don't some of these beautiful creatures around him look to him with questions? Why doesn't the nanny, for instance, turn around and open up her smile? But she can't be the nanny, though she is so similar - the eyes in his swiveling head measured her too tall. She was too tall to be that nanny, but never mind she is a nanny here -they are all people in his world, man, and he loves them all.
They have the weight of the world on their shoulders. He sees it, and he knows it's because they are hanging on to their precious egos and he almost slipped, in fact, when he thought of the nanny ahead of him, the perfectly dressed little woman who reminded him of a nanny he'd dated long ago. Let's be honest; he was obsessed. She gave him a new world and he believed in all of it, man. But he lost himself. He was gone.
It still caused a little pop in his head. It still opened a little space in that hollow cage of signs. He had lost himself, but not the right way. The right way was love, man, not desire. It had taken so long for him to learn, but that's okay. This is no race. And then this small woman in the bank line had almost triggered a relapse. He wanted briefly, before the desire could form into words, that nanny to be his nanny. He knew he could love her now.
He felt like he hadn't eaten for long time, a long long time. He felt something odd on the inside of his sleeve. It was, oh yeah; he'd been to the blood bank. That's the kind of bank to be in. That's giving, man. Through his sleeve he pulled the little cotton ball from his skin, then shook his arm, trying to loosen the cotton, trying to drop it out of his sleeve and into his hand.
Looking around at the others in the bank he saw they were all on the same journey. The old guy behind him wanted new stuff for his home. He had big gold rings on his knuckles. He smelled the baby smell of old men who'd done well, clean and powdered, with nothing but time. The sharp woman walking away from the other teller, jabbering into her tiny blue and grey earpiece, somewhere deep down she must want peace. We're all the same. We're all the same.
The man in the groovy coat wanted to hug them all to him and share this journey. He smiled. The nanny-sized woman in front of him was quick. There was a flurry of paper in and out of her worn purse, then she left the counter. He was still smiling as she turned around. She was not smiling, but she was very happy. Her eyes were alive, that's it; mischievous. That's okay, he thought. You play your tricks my little nanny. We can all love you without wanting anything back. He swiveled his head on a plane perfectly parallel to the floor and kept smiling at the nanny, then turned back to the teller.
His head bobbed a little as he set his gloves on the counter. He didn't look at the teller. I love this coat, man, I love this scarf, but I wish I could've been in the rat pack. I could be as cool as any of them, watching that little nanny walk away, going home for no reason at all. He bobbed his head, then remembered where he was and smiled at the teller.
She looked at him with a closed mouth and handed him a slip of paper with precise hand-writing in blue ink: YOU HAVE A GUN. IF I DO WHATEVER YOU WANT, I WON'T GET HURT.
But this is impossible. Is it possible? He looked behind himself. Has he misunderstood the way time works? Could he be going backwards? This is his world, isn't it? He felt his back pocket for his deposit slip. The teller shrieked. Everyone was on the ground. There were screams all around.
It's not that he hadn't paid attention. There was so much of greater importance with which to occupy his mind-the good feelings, man, the vibe that he was responsible for, the shit that made him live-so it's true, there was so much of greater importance than the quick flight of papers between grabbing hands.
His hands had held each other sometimes, as he had watched the nanny he had dated, in the old days. Actually, she is the only woman he had loved. Actually, his grief at losing her was what had eventually led to his discovery of this new way to live, which was, to be honest, working beautifully.
But when he and the nanny had been together, he seldom heard her words. Instead he might watch the thin hair on the top of her lip and wonder why on her it was lovely; why could he look right at it in wonder, why he could also stare for long moments at the birthmark on her shoulder blade and feel nothing but desire, despite the way this patch of skin the size and shape of a rodent was repulsive on its own. But he knew the answer was simple - she bore it, and it tasted like skin, like her all over again. He might stare at the thin wrists holding the bowl of latte to her lips and be amazed as if she had engineered the entire fragile machine, only to reach the obvious conclusion that no, she was human, and had grown into her body as simply as he had. Still, that this delicate condition was not hers alone, that it was for us all, that bodies were being broken and destroyed every day, today, on this earth - it only made his love grow.
Of course it was unhealthy. He knew that now. Love doesn't need to know, man. Love doesn't look so closely; love doesn't need to explain. It just doesn't need. Keep your ego out of it, man. And playing it all back, looking at it all over, that's natural, but keep the word should out of it - you can't fix the past. There's no such thing as should.
He learned it all, but he couldn't forgive everything.
When he and she had spoken, now and then, her perfect smooth skin had swelled briefly below her brown eyes. It was a normal human response; it was an adjustment made on countless other faces. But because he had held the back of her neck in his hand, and because that hand had travelled down to her shoulder, to her cheek, down again to the tips of her fingers. And again, because he loved her, he wanted to take a thumb and touch that spot below her eye, and soothe it.
But it was gone so quickly, and meanwhile her voice continued its usual operations, her smile returned. Had that small look been sadness? Where did it go? Did he imagine it?
But he doesn't want to be fixed of this - he should have touched it. That sorrow should exist so physically, that it should be hidden, that its description should not love him . . . this was too much. He could not forgive her for this burden unshared. He would have worked, man, he would have worked.
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