Black Humor

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Excerpt

ONE
Gotta Go

Those days my job was at a business that made greeting cards. Social expression products, that’s what the marketing hacks called them. I scribbled the intimate messages printed with fake handwriting inside cards of pale watercolour landscapes. “A Very Special Birthday to a Very Special Girl.” “Darling, since we have been together, every moment has been so precious.” “My heartfelt condolences on this day of sorrow.” Et cetera. Et cetera. Et cetera. My writing career.

Our boss, O’Malley, liked us to call him “the Editor.” He sported a perpetual five o’clock shadow, his black hair blown back into a helmet. His workday passed in an office with the lights off, the blinds pulled down, face pressed to the surface of a polished empty desk. Fast asleep. Drunk.

A little weasel named Isam owned the business. Given the substandard crap Harmony Greeting Cards produced, he seemed uninterested in profits. It might’ve been innocent. He could’ve been bad at business. Equally, he could’ve been up to something else altogether. Chained to my station, my thoughts were free to cast him in whatever sinister light I chose. So, I had him money laundering for Hezbollah. Trafficking sex slaves to Bahrain. Importing Lebanese hash for the Hells Angels. Something sleazy and sinful. The others didn’t think of him like that, but I’d seen him shout on the phone when he was alone in his red DeVille, his free hand smashing on the dashboard. Mad spittle sprayed the inside of the windshield.

He’d slink through the shop every morning on a cloud of jasmine-scented soap, wring his hands, and grimace more than smile at the staff, his crooked teeth bared like someone had shoved a live electrical wire up his ass. Then, into O’Malley’s office for a chat before that idiot was unable to speak. The rest of the day, Isam disappeared into the depths of the Beef Baron, a grotty strip club up near Markham and Castlemore, where he and his other business buddies plotted their next crime wave between lap dances and hot roast beef sandwiches. At least, that’s how I figured it.

I was adrift, uninterested in this business or any other. “Business” was an arena of combat, more beak and claw than fair exchange. A slippery shit pile I’d only experienced the bottom of. Exploited and underpaid with no clear way up or out, at Harmony Greeting Cards Co. the deal was hand in your copy and scan the horizon for signs of a channel deep enough to escape these shoals for somewhere better. Beyond the confines of these mouldy walls. Beyond the reach of morons like O’Malley. Head for someplace where your blood pulsed, and your eyes widened. Someplace you could feel free.

Ed Ray caught me with a joint at work one afternoon on the loading docks. A surprise. He wasn’t supposed to be there. He didn’t work for Harmony Greeting Cards. Ed Ray dated Heather Mann from marketing, which meant a couple of times a week he dropped by in the middle of the day to visit. Half the time Heather was out on sales calls. Ed didn’t care. He’d hang around anyway, talk about the Blue Jays and how hot the summer was this year. He’d use the phone on her desk, drink some of the bitter office coffee, and steal off for a smoke out back. That’s how he busted me.

“Need some inspiration?”

The rat crept up in the dark, chuckled, and stepped out from behind the rusty yellow forklift they used to move boxes around the warehouse. He paused to light a cigarette between his chapped lips. The flame illuminated his moth-eaten beard before his face fell back into shadow.

“Inspiration?” Dope smoke burned my lungs. “Fuck, no. I need a change of scene.”

“What’re your prospects?” His eyes watered and didn’t blink. ”What’s your plan?”

Hard to say if he really cared. It didn’t matter. High enough to reconfigure the world according to my own compass, I tried to sound like someone with a plan.

“I might go to Dawson. Make some cash. People can do that there. There’s still a gold rush going on.”

For fifty bucks I couldn’t have pinned Dawson on a map. Just read about it somewhere. I only wanted Ed Ray to shut up, leave me alone.

Instead, he said, “Really? Interesting. Don’t you need some basic knowledge of geology for that? I’d think so. And you need money, too. For mining equipment and such. You have money?”

We both knew the answer to that.

“You went to art school, right? You might want to consider something you’re more familiar with.”

A box of mouse poison guarded the door to keep the vermin from the offices. A futile gesture. They were everywhere.

Ed Ray’s career advice didn’t resonate. The expanse between his ambition and his ability was a harsh swim across an icy lake. Last year he’d written and self-published The Power of Intuition: A Woman’s Secret Path under the pseudonym Margaret Underhill. He had to have real books, with real pages. Hardcover. No electronic publishing for Ed. Spent all his money on paper and ink. Bad luck for Ed that no one would distribute it because his Power of Intuition was terrible. Instead, he’d dumped a thousand copies in the back of the warehouse. Isam and O’Malley never ventured there. The books went unnoticed. Ed sold them piecemeal off his website. His publishing career.

“Something I’m more familiar with? Like what?”

“Like a receptionist,” he said, “or doing research. Freelance writing. Organizing things. There’re lots of gigs out there.”

Ed had no idea how little I cared about anything he’d call a job. From his jacket pocket, he fished a business card.

“There’s a guy,” Ed said.

With a flick of my finger, the roach trailed into the weedy parking lot. A wrecked car sat on its rims by some dead bushes at the edge of the pavement. I returned to the cool gloom of the warehouse. The card read: The International Business Consultancy. Finance, Business, Arts, and Sciences since 1998. A.S. Hornsmith, President & CEO. Modern Solutions for Modern Problems.

“What’s he do?” I said, to be polite.

“These guys here would kill me if they thought I was talking to you about him, because they need you here,” said Ed, “and they’re afraid of him. Albert Hornsmith is a rainmaker. He sells people ideas. He helps them out of situations. And sometimes those situations become other kinds of situations. Which is what happened here. Which is why they’re afraid of him. He always wins.”

“What are you talking about? Situations?”

“Complicated situations.” Ed pushed my hand away when I started to hand the card back. “Keep it. A gift from me. I like you, and maybe you shouldn’t be here. Call him if you want. He might use a kid like you. Just don’t tell these guys you got it from me. Which you didn’t.”

Like most decent people, Ed Ray only wanted to be helpful.

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Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted

Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted

The Ballad of Motl the Cowboy
edition:Hardcover
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Excerpt

1
VILNIUS (VILNA)
July 1941

Motl. Jewish cowpoke. Brisket Boy. My grandfather.

As usual, he was bent over the kitchen table, his mottled and hairy nose deep in the pale valley of a book, half-finished plate of herring beside his elbow, half-eaten egg bread slumped beside a Shabbos candlestick. His old mother was out shopping for food while she still could.

So, this Motl, was he a reader?

If the world was ending, he would keep reading.

The world was ending. He was still reading.

So, what was this book he had to read despite everything?

One of the great westerns of the American frontier, of course. Even though he knew that Hitler adored them.

“The master race should be brave as Indianers,” Der Führer had said, and sent boxes of Karl May’s Winnetou noble savage novels to the eastern front to inspire his troops—those same manifest destiny soldiers crossing the country with orders to kill Motl, his mother and all the other Jews.

Did Motl intend to do something about this?

Yes. He would sit at the table, his shlumpy jacket turned up at the collar, his hat like a shroud of mice askew on his sallow head, and read.

Was Motl a man of action?

“If parking his tuches all day and all night on a chair doing nothing but reading is action,” his mother would say, “he’s a man of action. Action, sure. Every day he gets older and more in my way.”

Why was he still reading this western?

Because Motl, this Litvak, this Lithuanian Jew, this inconceivable zaidy, my grandfather, this citizen of the Wild East—that brave old world of ever-present sorrow, a sorrow that had just gotten worse—had chosen the life of the cowboy.

He would be that hombre who sits on his chair and imagines being calm and steady and manly, speaking only the fewest of well-chosen words, doing only what he wanted and what he must under that vast, unpatented western sky.

“And why not?” he would say. “Should my life be nothing but the minced despair and boiled hope of an aging Jew, too thin to be anything but borscht made by Nazis? I choose to think myself a Paleface chuck line rider of the doleful countenance, a Quixotic Ashkenazi of the bronco, riding the Ostland trail. Like my mother said when I told her I wanted to be a doctor, ‘Mazel tov, Motl. Nothing is impossible when it’s an illusion.’”

He would say, “What’s the difference between a Jewish cowpoke and beef jerky? It’s the hat. And feeling empty as a broken barrel. Jerky don’t never feel such hollowness, least not by the time it’s jerky. But the cowboy, the cowboy keeps riding. He don’t look back. Eventually, if he’s lucky, he too becomes leathern and feels only what jerky feels.”

Motl. Citizen of Vilna. Saddlebag of pain. Feedbag of regret.

At forty-five, he had a history. As a Lithuanian Jew, he was pickled in it.

But though neither he nor his mother knew it at the time, something had changed. Somewhere, deep down in the overworked mine shaft of his imagination, it had been determined that he would set out on a perilous adventure, this time of his own choosing. He would get up on his horse and ride.

And he would have a child.

At his age.

And avoid being killed. Sometimes you have to save your own bacon, when you’re a Jew.

The next day, he went to the barber’s. Even a grown man will cave in to his mother’s demands that he groom if she won’t make food for him. Eyes closed, a Texas reverie floating through his mind like the scent of campfire, Motl lay back in the red chair and awaited his shave.

But then:

“Under a hot towel, a cowpoke can think big thoughts, but to act he must stand up,” he said.

He stood up.

For a moment, the towel hung from his jowls, the Santabeard of a Hebrew god. Then it fell away.

“Barber,” Motl said. “I must seize these last days while the possibility of life remains.”

The barber said nothing, wet blade held between trembling fingers.

“The kabbalists speak of repairing the world, healing what is broken. It’s my time,” Motl said, looking round that hair-strewn palace of strop and whisker, that little shop of Hebrews. “Barber, I thank you, for I have learned much under your towel.”

Shave and a haircut.

—Did the barber, Shmuel, expect payment?—

Two bits.

Did Motl toss him these two coins before his impromptu departure?

Having had neither shave nor haircut, he only waved, then hightailed it into the bright sun of Shnipishok, that region of Vilna whose name sounds like scissor blades. He ran through its streets, feeling open to possibility and getaway.

Did Shmuel chase him with his blade?

Let’s say it was a close shave.

This day, as the towel fell from his bristly chins, Motl saw beyond his scraggy self and straight into his crimpled yet resilient heart. He understood that it could become pink and new as the callow fundament of a child. How? He recalled that there remained a means by which he could become procreator and thus begetter. In this time of murder and loss, to make new life would be to make life new. It would be a salve for the broken world. He could say, both to his child and to himself, “It is worth being born into this world. It is worth being born.”

And this fathering, would it involve the usual squirming ministrations known since our ancestors first began to beget?

It would not.

But first, he had to retrieve his old saddle of a kvetching mother and get them both the galloping Gehenna out of the Einsatzgruppening hell that Vilna would soon be.

The cavalry were coming, or—raised as they were on Karl May—they’d more likely imagine themselves Aryan elves of the plains, Rhineland braves with bellies like six-packs of strudel.

Noble cabbages.

Coming to lead their band of Lithuanian Lakota against the godless yellowstars, locals happy to have the excuse for an anti-Semitic whoop-up.

Besides, if a boychik cowpoke was going to ride off in quest of new life, who else to bring but his mama?

But first, before he even retrieved this mama, we must go back nearly twenty years and speak of the family jewels because, in the end, that’s where all roads begin.

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Bunny
Excerpt

 1.

We call them Bunnies because that is what they call each other. Seriously. Bunny.

Example:
Hi, Bunny!
Hi, Bunny!
What did you do last night, Bunny?
I hung out with you, Bunny. Remember, Bunny?
That’s right, Bunny, you hung out with me and it was the best time I ever had.
Bunny, I love you. I love you, Bunny.

And then they hug each other so hard I think their chests are going to implode. I would even secretly hope for it from where I sat, stood, leaned, in the opposite corner of the lecture hall, department lounge, auditorium, bearing witness to four grown women—my academic peers—cooingly strangle each other hello. Or good-bye. Or just because you’re so amazing, Bunny.  How  fiercely  they  gripped  each  other’s  pink-and-white  bodies, forming a hot little circle of such rib-crushing love and understanding it took my breath away. And then the nuzzling of ski-jump noses, peach fuzzy cheeks. Temples pressed against temples in a way that made me think of the labial rubbing of the bonobo or the telepathy of beautiful, murderous children in horror films. All eight of their eyes shut tight as if this collective asphyxiation were a kind of religious bliss. All four of their glossy mouths making squealing sounds of monstrous love that hurt my face.

I love you, Bunny.

I quietly prayed for the hug implosion all year last year. That their ardent squeezing might cause the flesh to ooze from the sleeves, neckholes, and A-line hems of their cupcake dresses like so much inane frosting. That they would get tangled in each other’s Game of Thrones hair, choked by the ornate braids they were forever braiding into each other’s heart-shaped little heads. That they would choke on each other’s blandly grassy perfume. Never happened. Not once.

They always came apart from these embraces intact and unwounded despite the ill will that poured forth from my staring eyes like so much comic-book-villain venom. Smiling at one another. Swinging clasped hands. Skins aglow with affection and belonging as though they’d just been hydrated by the purest of mountain streams.

Bunny, I love you.

Completely immune to the disdain of their fellow graduate student. Me. Samantha Heather Mackey. Who is not a Bunny. Who will never be a Bunny.

I pour myself and Ava more free champagne in the far corner of the tented green, where I lean against a white Doric pillar bedecked with billowing tulle. September. Warren University. The Narrative Arts department’s annual welcome back Demitasse, because this school is too Ivy and New England to call a party a party. Behold the tigerlily-heavy centerpieces. Behold the Christmas-lit white gauze floating everywhere like so many ghosts. Behold the pewter trays of salmon pinwheels, duck-liver crostini topped with little sugared orchids. Behold the white people in black discussing grants they earned to translate poets no one reads from the French. Behold the lavish tent under which the overeducated mingle, well versed in every art but the one of conversation. Smilingly oblivious to the fact that they are in the mouth of hell. Or as Ava and I call it, the Lair of Cthulhu. Cthulhu is a giant squid monster invented by a horror writer who went insane and died here. And you know what, it makes sense. Because you can feel it when you’re walking down the streets beyond the Warren Bubble that this town is a wrong town. Something not quite right about the houses, the trees, the light. Bring this up and most people just look at you. But not Ava. Ava says, My god, yes. The town, the houses, the trees, the light—it’s all fucked.
 

I stand here, I sway here, full of tepid sparkling and animal livers and whatever hard alcohol Ava keeps pouring from her Drink Me flask into my plastic cup. “What’s in this again?” I ask.

“Just drink it,” she says.

I observe from behind borrowed sunglasses as the women whom I must call my colleagues reunite after a summer spent apart in various trying locales such as remote tropical islands, the south of France, the Hamptons. I watch their fervent little bodies lunge for each other in something like rapture. Nails the color of natural poisons digging into each other’s forearms with the force of what I keep telling myself is feigned, surely feigned, affection. Shiny lips parting to call each other by their communal pet name.

“Jesus, are they for real?” Ava whispers in my ear now. She has never seen them up close. Didn’t believe me when I first told her about them last year. Said, There is no way grown women act like that. You’re making this up, Smackie. Over the summer, I started to think I had too. It is a relief in some ways to see them now, if only to confirm I am not insane.
“Yes,” I say. “Too real.”

I watch her survey them through her fishnet veil, her David Bowie eyes filled with horror and boredom, her mouth an unimpressed red line.

“Can we go now?”

“I can’t leave yet,” I say, my eyes still on them. They’ve pulled apart from one another at last, their twee dresses not even rumpled. Their shiny heads of hair not even disturbed. Their skins glowing with health insurance as they all crouch down in unison to collectively coo at a professor’s ever jumping shih tzu.

Why?”

“I told you, I have to make an appearance.”

Ava looks at me, slipping drunkenly down the pillar. I have said hello to no one. Not the poets who are their own fresh, grunty hell. Not the new incoming fiction writers who are laughing awkwardly by the shrimp tower. Not even Benjamin, the friendly administrator to whom I usually cling at these sorts of functions, helping him dollop quivering offal onto dried bits of toast. Not my Workshop leader from last spring, Fosco, or any other member of the esteemed faculty. And how was your summer, Sarah? And how’s the thesis coming, Sasha? Asked with polite indifference. Getting my name wrong always. Whatever response I offer—an earnest confession of my own imminent failure, a bald-faced lie that sets my face aflame—will elicit the same knowing nod, the same world-weary smile, a delivery of platitudes about the Process being elusive, the Work being a difficult mistress. Trust, Sasha. Patience, Sarah. Sometimes you have to walk  away, Serena. Sometimes, Stephanie, you have to seize the bull by the horns. This will  be followed by the recounting of a similar creative crisis/breakthrough they experienced while on a now-defunct residency in remote Greece, Brittany, Estonia. During which I will nod and dig my fingernails into my upper-arm flesh.

And obviously I haven’t talked to the Lion. Even though he’s here, of course. Somewhere. I saw him earlier out of the corner of my eye, more maned and tattooed than ever, pouring himself a glass of red wine at the open bar. Though he didn’t look up, I felt him see me. And then I felt him see me see him see me and keep pouring. I haven’t seen him since then so much as sensed him in my nape hair. When we first arrived, Ava felt he must be nearby because look, the sky just darkened out of nowhere.

This evening, all I have done in terms of socializing is half smile at the one the Bunnies call Psycho Jonah, my social equivalent among the poets, who is standing alone by the punch, smiling beatifically in his own antidepressant-fueled fever dream.

Ava sighs and lights a cigarette with one of the many tea lights that dot our table. She looks back at the Bunnies, who are now stroking each other’s arms with their small, small hands. “I miss you, Bunny,” they say to each other in their fake little girl voices, even though they are standing right fucking next to each other, and I can taste the hate in their hearts like iron on my tongue.

“I miss you, Bunny. This summer was so hard without you. I barely wrote a word, I was so, so sad. Let’s never ever part again, please?”

Ava laughs out loud at this. Actually laughs. Throws her feathery head back. Doesn’t bother to cover her mouth with her gloved hand. It’s a delicious, raucous sound. Ringing in the air like the evening’s missing music.

Shhhhh,” I hiss at her. But it’s already done.

The laughter causes the one I call the Duchess to turn her head of long, silver faery-witch locks in our direction. She looks at us. First at Ava. Then at me. Then at Ava again. She is surprised, perhaps, to see that for once I’m not alone, that I have a friend. Ava meets her look with wide-open eyes the way I do in my dream stares. Ava’s gaze is formidable and European. She continues to smoke and sip my champagne without breaking eye contact. She once told me about a staring contest she had with a gypsy she met on a metro in Paris. The woman was staring at her, so Ava stared back—the two of them aiming their gazes at each other like guns—all the way across the City of Lights. Just looking at each other from opposite shores of the rattling train. Eventually Ava took off her earrings, still not taking her eyes off the woman. Why? Because her assumption at that point, of course, was that the two of them would fight to the death. But when the train pulled into the last stop on the line, the woman just stood to exit, and when she did so, she even held back the sliding doors politely, so Ava could go first.

What’s the lesson here, Smackie? Don’t jump to conclusions?
Never lower your gaze first.
 
The Duchess, in turning toward us, causes a ripple effect of turning among the other Bunnies. First Cupcake looks over. Then Creepy Doll with her tiger eyes. Then Vignette with her lovely Victorian skull face, her stoner mouth wide open. They each look at Ava, then at me, in turn, scanning down from our heads to our feet, their eyes taking us in like little mouths sipping strange drinks. As they do, their noses twitch, their eight eyes do not blink, but stare and stare. Then they look back at the Duchess and lean in to each other, their lip-glossed mouths forming whispery words.

Ava squeezes my arm, hard.

The Duchess turns and arches an eyebrow at us. She raises a hand up. Is there an invisible gun in it? No. It’s an empty, open hand. With which she then waves. At me. With something like a smile on her face. Hi, her mouth says.

My hand shoots up of its own accord before I can even stop myself. I’m waving and waving and waving. Hi, I’m saying with my mouth, even though no sound comes out.

Then the rest of the Bunnies hold up a hand and wave too.

We’re all waving at one another from across the great shores of the tented green.

Except Ava. She continues to smoke and stare at them like they’re a four-headed beast. When at last I lower my hand, I turn to her. She’s looking at me like I’m something worse than a stranger.

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