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Short Story Prize

Runner-up VU Short Story Prize: Faking

1.1 In the spring, when Brenda’s mother falls sick, she comes to wait it out with them. The newlyweds accommodate her dying presence with a stoicism approaching grace. Irene is a Newark purebred with an avowed desire to die on Manhattan, the only borough in which she has never lived. Among her residues are a palpable sense of triumph over the old neighbourhood and a miniature schnauzer named Mel.

 

1.2 Summer now, and they snuggle almost nightly. Hardly David’s idea, but when he repairs to the couch by the balcony, hungering for the breeze, the dog spies the nook behind his knees and it burrows there. David resents Mel’s heat, longs instead (if contrarily) for Brenda’s. From the bedroom, her light and somehow pleasant snores reassure him that she is close, that he is in the right place.

A shame that summer affects him, that they sleep at different temperature.

 

1.3 Mel’s frown is permanent, verging on demented. His front paws fall in a gait that is rolling, asympathetic, and makes him seem like a destrier on the charge. His grey colour schemes, rigid bearing, luxuriant brows and whiskers: you do not need a PhD in European Military History (1815−1871) for the associations to be Prussian, Bismarckian, Junker.

 

1.4 David’s PhD is in European Military History (1815–1871), his specialties Prussian: Bismarck, Junkers. The field demands a fluency in German that he acquires the hard way, as an undergrad on exchange. The power of two languages brings a subtle heft to subsequent romantic encounters – women ascribe to him hidden depths – but then Brenda comes along with her somehow-better French.

He grimaces about it but quickly reconciles: imagine the formidable couple they will make as they honeymoon in the Paris to Berlin corridor, confounding Continental prejudices with every fluently ordered meal. At a cost of ninety-four dollars, he purchases a guide to obscure Rhineland vineyards and applies himself in secret to its study.

But then the honeymoon doesn’t happen: Brenda makes second chair on a fraud case that runs for nine months and turns her sixty-hour working weeks into quaint nostalgic fantasy. At some point the booking for the flights and hotels will lapse, though David has lost track of when.

 

1.5 Heat ravages his sleep, and different dates come gently to vivisect him. Fucking monkey mind, with its monkey mind incessance. (Incessance isn’t even a word, as the monkey mind informs him.)

The first date is future and concrete: on the 13th of November his contract of employment at Dulhurst will cease and, with it, the generous rental subsidy comptrolled by the benefaction of its board. This fiscal big deal is an earthwork upon which rests his self-conception as a serious contributor to the David & Brenda Collective.

The second date is past and approximate: on or about the 10th of April, the best he can tell, his attractive lawyer wife had begun to out-earn him.

 

1.6 By August he is the housekeeper. A de facto transition, not entirely smooth; Brenda is the better cook (that goddamn semester in France), the superior overseer of household duties and accounts. Still, it surprises David how much he enjoys planning their dinners, laundering for him and her, arranging flowers in the entry for maximum visual impact. He runs Brenda’s bath of homecoming and pours her a glass of Grauburgunder (the ’83, not the ’84), and sometimes they make love if there is energy between them. Domestic God? No – just a decent guy, solicitous of others’ needs, the maker of a home. This, indeed, is how it might be later, when children come …

But only if he leaves academia to do something else, something readily housebound. Only if he publishes the novel and wins the Pulitzer Prize, the National Frigging Book Award.

 

 

 

2.1 It is at the dog park that he falls in love with the Romanian. Maybe just lust. And maybe just the idea of the Romanian. Was she Romanian?

It is at the dog park that he falls in lust with the idea of the possible Romanian.

 

2.2 The season is supposed to signal release from the burden of teaching, a grateful swivelling to more congenial scholarly pursuits. In practice it stands for well-intentioned dawns giving way to languid mid-mornings. His brisk and focused walks with Mel to the Union Square precinct become comfortable strolls, then leisurely escapes, then digressive odysseys structured around whether or not she is in attendance.

If she isn’t, he will establish the fact from afar and retreat for coffee nearby. Usually he spends the time reading. Occasionally he will edit some work if he has been thoughtful enough to bring any.

 

2.3 He doesn’t look for her, exactly – he looks for the dog over which she exer­cises a vague uninterested stewardship. Jerry is a pedigreed Doberman who runs into stationary objects with a force and frequency that defames his immaculate Teutonic breeding.

But he has one good point. Like Mel, he is slavishly obedient when addressed in German.

 

2.4 She keeps herself apart, smoking and staring at horizons that are, he feels, different to everybody else’s. A small person, miniature in shape and ways – but more vital physical quantities than size present for his careful introspection. A toughened brand of grace: ligaments metal-fused, her balance cardinal. Gymnastics in youth, obviously … It is one of the Bitch Matriarchs, her canine toy proportionate to the milk of her human kindness, who describes the girl with passing contempt as the romanian – but subsequent study on David’s part convinces him that it is so.

 

2.5 The dogs bring them together. He knew they would. David drifts into her orbit to separate the squabbling pair, casting in her direction a smile that is mild but authentic.

‘I know you,’ she says, no fire of admiration in her aubergine eyes.

She inhales from the cigarette and breathes smoke through flaring nostrils. (Later she will throw it to the ground and walk away, leaving him to stamp it out, to look at the purple smudge of her lipstick and wonder what the world means by it – by any of it.) She elaborates: ‘You are the faker.’

David’s new smile is quizzical. ‘The ––?’

‘You are the one who does THIS.’

Her hand forms a downward-facing claw that snatches air, envelops nothing.

 

 

3.1 Once a week he meets for coffee with his dearest friend of other days, a person with whom he is close to entirely candid. That this friend is the acclaimed novelist Jonathan Safran Foer adds but a minor dimension; more important by far is their shared past and moral condition. (Certainly the jealousy David feels when gorgeous undergraduates come mumbling to bother JSF for an autograph barely registers on his index of poisons.)

He tells him carelessly, ‘I’m thinking of having an affair.’

‘I see,’ says JSF. ‘Who with?’

‘Is that what you’re going to say?’

‘Evidently.’

‘You’re supposed to talk me out of it.’

‘Please. A man is either decided on revenge or not so.’

‘Revenge?’

‘Of course. You’re convinced Brenda’s cheating and you wish to re-establish yourself. Your sense of yourself.’

‘Who said – fuck, man. Who said anything about Brenda cheating?’

‘Well … Those punishing hours.’

‘Huh?’

‘Plus you almost asked to borrow money that time. I assumed either to buy her something nice – or hire a detective.’

‘I didn’t almost ask to borrow money.’

‘No? My mistake.’

‘I don’t know why you would possibly think …’

It strikes him then, unkindly, the trapdoor logic that underpins his friend’s smooth and lubricate assumption. David asks in an empty voice if he has been a fool, if everyone in their common circle knows that which he does not.

‘No,’ his friend says, ‘nothing like that. It just wouldn’t come as a shock is all. I have no positive knowledge.’

‘Yes you do. You’re the writer, the seer. You know without trying.’

‘Don’t talk to me in that empty voice, David. That golem fucking voice.’

‘Sorry.’

‘Do you even like that dog?’

David looks down, at the small grey head beneath the table that he is absently stroking. The question comes like a line of mooring: without it he is an island aswim in nausea, a fast East River of puke. ‘I love Mel,’ he offers slowly, ‘but I don’t like him.’

‘Oh. That’s how I feel about my novel.’

‘The one that won the Pulitzer?’

‘No,’ says JSF. ‘The one that won the National Book Award.’

 

3.2 It is Aldo who lends him the money for the detective. Aldo is childless, big in carpet, a man devoted to faith and family. David even discloses to his uncle what it is for; among his secular dispensations lives a hardy ground-root sensibility of what is truly sinful, what not.

A gravid silence post-revelation. Aldo breaks it by remarking on the hunger of the animal. ‘Starvation paranoia – it’s in their souls. Food is love in the eyes of a dog. They don’t know about the supply chain!’

‘Do you know what I hate?’ says David. ‘That I can’t put my hands on five grand without her knowing.’

‘You sound resigned.’

‘Yes. No. Who knows?’

‘For five thousand, this detective I should hope.’

‘She knows where every penny goes. What kind of person knows that?’

‘Your wife is very capable, David, I thought this was the point. But now this is what – bad for you?’

David stares at the pet, feeling for the truth of some ample reply. ‘Poetry. I don’t think she has any. Not here,’ he taps his chest, ‘in the island. Am I being small?’

‘Not small. Just narrow.’

‘Narrow.’

‘Tell me, how goes the quest for tenure?’

 

3.3 That night, afterwards in the dark, David stares at the zone of her décolletage, the nerve-rich brocade of skin that covers her beautiful runner’s lungs, and he wonders again if the telltale blush is seeping through, answering the cosmos with news that he is good at it, good to her, a worthy respondent to the conjugal need. He falls backwards into a conceptual bliss, the bridge and tunnel connection between their disparate pieces of earth. Her breathlessness is possibly counterfeit, but only God could say.

At the door outside their Mel is scratching, saying come out here and be with me.

 

3.4 The love he professes for the dog is genuine. It stems from an anomaly: Mel defers to his authority but never Brenda’s. She shrugs this off as a function of the hours that husband and animal spend together.

Husband knows it to be something else, something prosaic: his necessarily deeper voice. It can’t be faked. Dogs have been taking orders from the masculine baritone for two million years. This is legacy, men and wolves, in its way profound; he strives to be worthy.

 

 

4.1 Sex with the Romanian, when it comes, is functional, intense but quickly done with. They lie in her employer’s second bedroom and she smokes, staring at a ceiling embossed with swans. From without the noises of Jerry: random bumps, idiot patterns, all his canine investigations.

‘He needs more park,’ she tells the sky. David looks intensely at her profile, a small recumbent Venus loving nothing. It is true: Jerry lives in constant need of running. Exhaustion; Sisyphus.

‘You’re beautiful,’ he tells her. ‘It’s a like a mad scientist crossed a miniature Sophie Loren with a panther. Has anyone ever told you that?’

‘Yes.’

‘Do you need me to leave? I can ––’

‘Okay.’

 

4.2 Sometimes now, when he thinks about his Brenda, he sees her in the sky of tomorrow. She will apply herself and rise, mixing with an über-elite in whose interest she dispenses wise taxation counsel until she is one of them, borne upon capital air to become a first-class citizen of a new century: chopper commutes instead of taxis, $9000 lamp bases, a live-in hair colourist from Dominica.

Where is he in that scheme? An also-ran, a left-behind. He has spent entire terms immersed in historical footnotes and this is his destiny, to be one, a first husband referenced hardly ever. Ibid, op cit, sad motherfucker living on palimony across the water, Newark last I heard, giving German lessons, translating the Shoah. Imagine it, scrabbling around in Newark … living in Irene’s old street! He will bald and fatten, accompanied by a second-rate Mel or a cat more likely, the language of a people not his own every day in his mouth. Oh yeah, hardly speaks English anymore – his mind is going, ask JSF – spends all day with Schiller and Kant. Sends love letters, not to Brenda thank Christ, some Eastern Bloc chick he got hung up on, she incinerates them on sight, took out some kind of order against the poor sonofabitch.

 

4.3 ‘So?’

‘Yes,’ says the voice of the grey man on the phone. ‘Afraid so.’

‘Jesus.’ An exhaling of air – of all the inner atmosphere that ever was. ‘Who with?’

‘just some guy. That’s her phrase, not mine. He’s a lawyer too, different company. She keeps breaking it off, but … ‘

‘But she goes back. Because the sex is so good.’

Who is speaking these words? Not David. This is not his life. This is a falsity, a gimcrack detour into farce, hoax, pantomime. The private detective says ‘listen, i see this kind of thing a lot. two people can’t ever be everything to each other. your lady —’

‘She’s not my lady.’

‘Do I have to send someone over there? Make sure you’re okay?’

‘We still love each other.’

‘Sure.’

‘We’re still intimate I mean … But maybe she pretends?’

‘Not my area of expertise. Even if it was, would you really want to know?’

‘There’s a Romanian,’ David stutters. ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.’

‘A Romanian.’

‘Women. I guessed her star sign and she got angry.’

‘You can’t do that,’ says the five thousand dollars knowingly. ‘They grew up in a police state and what have you.’

 

4.4 ‘What the hell?’

She is going through the mail while he stands at the cooktop, fucking up the ragù. Brenda reads from the notice. ‘A DNA audit of feces found at the following location indicates it was left by mel parris.’

‘What?’

‘Consequently, you are hereby fined by the Borough of Manhattan in the amount of $215!’

‘Come on,’ says David, turning away from the saucepan, ‘they can’t do a DNA test on dogshit.’ But even as he makes the claim he wonders: that elaborate registration process at the vet last time; the Patriot Act …

‘Unbelievable,’ says Brenda.

‘Tell me about it – who even knew Mel had a surname?’

Jesus, did Jerry have one? Maybe all the dogs did. Maybe they had to have one. Mel chooses the moment to trot between them, to beg, and David is grateful for the sudden obligation – ‘aussteigen!’ – to banish him.

‘I don’t get it,’ says Brenda. ‘You always clean up after him. I’ve seen you.’

David’s temples sear and burn with the abrupt image of just some guy, just some lawyer fucking her in a late-night conference room; he swoons and staggers backwards into the fridge. His reply, when it comes, is an involuntary spasm, hoarse and utterly veracious. ‘No, Brenda – I don’t.’

‘What?’

‘When Mel takes a crap I just pretend. I get the bag and bend down and do this mime thing with my hand until I think no-one is looking.’

The strobe light in his skull subsides and vision restores, filling with Brenda as she is, before him in the kitchen, framed by an authentic here and now. He expects to find censure in her expression, disapprobation, but she is looking back as though something about him is new.

‘Don’t worry, baby,’ she says and pats a cheek. ‘I’ll take care of the fuckers.’

Mel barks. David loves his wife very fiercely.

 

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