AN EXQUISITE CORPSE by Dan Bevacqua, Anelise Chen, Mitchell S. Jackson, and Lynne Tillman
10/20/11
 


On September 10, 2011, Gigantic presented "Gigantic Exquisite Corpse: Four Writers, Four Writers, Four New Works." The reading was our first generative reading, designed specifically for the Lit Crawl NYC festival. Each participating writer had 24 hours to write a story in 700 words or less, the last sentence of which was passed to the next writer as a prompt. The idea was of constraint, community, and time restriction. Below is the result, unedited save for formatting and the correction of one or two typos.

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BUT WHERE DO THEY COME FROM?
by Dan Bevacqua

"She purposely destroyed me," Uncle Reuben said, "that woman."

I was on a family-visit-pilgrimage inspired by the guilt of having been gone too long. We were in the walk-in closet, where he'd taken to sleeping among my aunt's purple and lavender and lilac colored dresses. I asked him where I could put the baby.

"Anywhere, Sheila," Uncle Reuben said. "Put him in the fireplace, for all I care."

He asked me where the husband was, and I explained to him that families didn't work that way anymore, and that this new system was a reaction to the immediate past, and to all of the dysfunction in America—and to the mother as both psychiatrist and best pal.

"Ah, women," he harrumphed, standing in his underwear.

I carried my baby up the stairwell, humming all the while, "la, la, la-la-la, la-la-la-la-la-laaa," which is an old family tune, something my mother used to hum to me when I couldn't go poo, or if she wanted to rhythmically tap me on the back as a means of exorcising some resentment for the life I'd stolen from her. The guest room that had always been mine was still there. Not a single thing had been changed or removed, but for my aunt's eyes. They'd been cut out of her head in each of the family photos. Noting that they were scattered on the floor, I had the sudden daydream of taking a shower with my boy later that evening, and feeling my aunt's peepers disconnect from the undersides of my bare and wet heels, watching them curlicue down the drain. I wondered if I should point them out to him? Or worse, how could I explain such a thing? Not that he would ever understand.

At dinner, Chinese take-out, Uncle Reuben said, "I lacked imagination. My love took the form of errands. I didn't know how to make her happy so I bought her paper towels. It's no wonder she fell in with the doctor… He seems to have a better approach. Older lovers submit themselves to compromise. They pretend not to mind pulling the car over if someone has to pee."

I fed the baby pureed Lima beans and applesauce and every now and then tried a quarter of a noodle. The faces he makes: sometimes, I hate him. This smirk-frown thing he does with his lip and his nose: it's a reminder. I can see why mothers make their children out to be experiments, test subjects in paternal trait eradication.

"Here's to it being everybody else's fault," Uncle Reuben toasted with his tea. "The whole desirous mess, humanity, an abomination."

I put the baby down some moments after the fortune cookies, which never seem to have fortunes inside them anymore, just obvious statements and annoying assumptions like "You are older than you used to be," or "Coincidence is fate."

"Mine read, ‘You have inherited the failures of a dozen generations,'" Uncle Reuben said, swallowing the paper.

While the baby napped, I strolled around the property. I took off my shoes and walked through the overgrown, wet grass toward the wood's edge. I tried to will myself into a feeling of nostalgia, but I do believe that I've lost the ability. I have a complicated relationship to it, at least, where the future seems to be the thing far behind me, lost and untouchable, its mind made up. A short time ago, I came to terms with my concern, my worry. It's stupid and sick, all the love in me. I finally understand crisis, civilization, going to the movies.

On the bed in the guest room, I'd made a nest for the baby out of blankets and several pillows. When I walked in, there was Uncle Reuben, muttering over him, explaining how the Earth went around the Sun, and how that stone circle framed by the window was the Moon, cold and dark, way out there. I watched and listened to my uncle until I sensed that it was time for the old man to go. There was much to do that next morning, ground to cover, family to see. Each day had a schedule. I had to keep us on task. 

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I HAD TO KEEP US ON TASK
by Anelise Chen

I had to keep us on task. The surveillance wasn't going to happen on its own. Cameras had to be installed; obstacles invented; subliminal messages thrown in Mitchell and Lynne's way to make sure they weren't slacking off. We'd voluntarily offered to come up with good, unembarrassing material in 24 hours. That's not an easy thing to do. Most writers are happy if they can come up with one sentence! And then how easy would it be to pull out some well-constructed, previously-veted, crowd-pleasing piece of flash fiction and say that we'd written just it "on the spot"? Everyone knows flash fiction is so non-sequitur. I, for one, had heroically resisted the temptation—even though I'd saved a multi-purpose .doc titled "Mistakes" which could have worked with anything—but did I have the same faith in the others? Dan, unfortunately, was out of my hands. He sent in his prompt at 11:42 pm, nine whole hours before the assigned deadline. He said, "I am sending this several hours early because I do not want to forget it in the rush to get out the door." Clearly, Dan was on task. But maybe he forgot to cc Annie as per instructions because at 10:10 am, Annie emailed me to make sure Dan was on task. I didn't receive Annie's email until 12:38pm, because that's when I woke up. I wrote back to her saying "I received it!" and tried to sound "awake," not wanting to reveal that I had already missed several hours of writing time by sleeping in. Should I have said, "Yes! I received it and I am already working on it!" I thought about this for the next two hours while I went to brunch, and the next two hours, as I went for a walk, and the next two hours, as I admired a sunset. But by 7 pm I was in a, shall I say, "panicked" state. I had not made good decisions. What would I do to ensure that Mitchell and Lynne would not fall into the same pattern of self-sabotage? This was when I decided it would do us all a great service if I took it upon myself to keep us all on task, through surveillance and preventative interventions. I was disappointed that I wouldn't get to spy on Dan, since he conveniently includes his address at the end of each email. I looked up his house on Google street view. His house looked like it was a business called "Paradise Spa." Did Dan live in a spa? Did he get to go to the spa sometimes at a discounted rate? The people walking down his street are bundled up in coats, and it looks as if it's the beginning of fall. It would be nice to go to the spa at wintertime. Did Dan think it was nice? This business of writing is so unpredictable, with characters always throwing curveballs at you, good for him if he had a place to relax. It's hard to be constantly minding other people's business, crawling into their bedrooms, recording their conversations, and making sure they're doing the right thing. One gets scrapes from rusty awnings and a bad reputation. One undoubtedly makes enemies. Sometimes one wonders: why not just stay in my own house, think about my own life, write about my own bed? Is it because I won't be happy with what I see there? The next morning, after I sent Mitchell the prompt, "I wanted to see what he was up to," I biked to Mitchell's house with a pair of high-powered binoculars. I wanted to see what he was up to.

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AFTER EVERYTHING
by Mitchell S. Jackson

You want to know what I was up to last night? I was out in Queens at this restaurant/club celebrating my homeboy's NY exodus. I was out there with, among others, my homeboy who knows everybody, the one who runs a radio station, the one who, when spotted by anyone who works in music, is treated like a long lost loved brother or the muthafuckin messiah.

But scratch that. That ain't what I came to discuss.

Before I mention what it is though, let me ask a question: if I tell you a story are you more likely to think it real or fiction?

On second thought, don't answer. Just listen.

So yesterday, before I hung with my homeboys and watched a bunch of broads with fat asses, fake bags, and bad shoes, seize upon the very-important-person-and-their-not-so-important friends' section, I was on the phone with my big homie, an old guy whose name you'd know if mentioned, but since your boy ain't with no name dropping, I won't. What my mentor told me was my craft has improved, but my work still lacks naked heart. Matterfact, what he said word for word was, "Listen man, you've got show them your wound."

Pause! You and me.

There's this incident I've been working up the balls to speak on for years, and believe it true or don't believe, though truthbetold it's likely best you don't, less you get to judging.

Yeah, I know, you're not one of those people who judge, it's those other six billion plus living breathing humans who do.

Okay, exhale. That's for me, not you.

You want to know what it feels like to be me, to be me for at least a moment?

Here's what you do: Have a baby on the one you call baby, on a woman who, by comparison, cast butterflies, lady bugs, and bunny rabbits in the same light as serial killers, the most loyal woman you could meet in eons of blessed lives. Make sure the baby is born after you help her rehab from the wreck that killed forever her mother, sister, and dearest cousin, an accident that saw her only son head-banged into a coma and she ambulanced to ICU with a ruler-long gash in her side. Make sure you have a baby on your baby no more than a few years later: a time when she's nursed back to near health and her formerly comatose son is a starry-eyed invalid. Be certain it postdates the seasons and seasons she held you down—and I mean held you down to the nth power: regular letters, weekend visits, nasty flicks, even collect call acceptance past the time the bill approached national debt status—yeah, held you down like that! Make sure it's post the wreck and judge-ordered take–this-time-and-sit-your-punkass-down vaca.

Trust, life is timing.

By necessity it can only succeed the day you approach this super-bad in a parking lot and fill her head full of the grandiose drag your uncles applaud. It must be months beyond when you and the superbad start fucking, after she claims she can't have babies—a lie you accept so you can hit raw!—and yes oh yes, it follows the night the superbad cries you're her end-all-be-all.

Timing, timing. One day while you're asleep—slumbered in a bed in which you and your sweet baby have lain, hugged, sat, laughed, cried, dreamed, conceived, bled, fought, lost, loved—while laying in that bed, you are slapped conscious. When your eyes open, there's your baby, in sky blue work digs, hovering with a letter in hand, her eyes leaking mascara, and hazardous breath.

"You dirty bastard. After everything this is what you do," she says. "To me! This is what you do," she says, "to us!"

 What can you do but plead: "Please. Let me. Explain."

Your head erupts in a world war of noise, then the alien quiet survivors say ensued atomic bombs.

Another pause—this one's for all of us.

Maybe the story of that moment is what the big homie meant by baring an open wound?

And if not that, could it be the charge of living the rest of a life mourning what became of a life?

Wait, better yet…don't answer.

Peoples, you wanted make believe, a fairytale, some fiction? Well I if so, my bad, your boy is fresh out.

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THE END OF WHAT?
by Lynne Tillman

Fresh out. Not again.

Don't go there, he says.

I'll go there, if I want, I say.

My bad, he repeats, grimly this time.

Grab a protein drink, I say. Then get your ass out...

Shit, he says. Not again.

Don't repeat what I say.

Not again, he repeats.

"Fresh out" runs both ways, I add, disingenuously.

I'd lost my job. A month ago, I had a gig with the US Post Office, as executive in charge of NYC's new "pop-mail-drop" venture. Pop up mail shops, for stamps, packages, designer chutes to throw packages into. Cool, intriguing places for mail to happen. Yes, mail happens, I told the Postmaster General. You guys just don't get it. You'd rather go under. So I urged revolutionary style change: the mail carriers, they'd have Harleys—and really cool outfits, including old-style gambling hats with green visors, if they were behind counters, so customers couldn't see their eyes.

This is about forcing consumers to be into taking chances, to live on the wild side, I told the Postmaster—like, your mail gets there or not—and if not, so what. It was the motto I floated—If not, so what. Life's like that.

Changes and chances, I'm known for that—for ideas, revamping everything from the shape of corn dogs to buildings and institutions, turning them into destinations.

I floated this idea to the Postmaster: all-night pop up mail shops—mail studios, with music, drinks. Mailing would be a reason to go there, but then you'd hang out, feel good being there, buying stamps. Easy mailing, encounters at the counter...

The Postmaster General let me open a sample store. He's a crack-head. But it got out of control. The best parties do, and what could be better to change the US Post office's rep… But it ran the 24 hour news cycle, and then I was fired. And the Postmaster.

My friend—no sympathy from him. He's too involved with himself. He's never done time upstate, not in the big house or a summer house, never commandeered a cop car, never built destination sand castles on Coney Island. Okay, he wasn't me. His life wasn't unusual, but he had a story, and like everyone else in my world, he was writing it, a fictionalized memoir. He wasn't going to get caught in a lie, he said.

So here he is, looking for ideas, totally pissing me off, he can't find his way to the end.

Do you still want me to book...? he asks.

Just sit. I'll throw something at you.

He starts twitching, with attention deficit something. Me, I tell people when I'm totally bored and walk out.

This girl you fell for, I say, the one who destroyed you and then you became a junkie, she grew up, you wrote, in a suburb outside Pittsburgh. Okay, it's over. You hit bottom. Blood on the sheets, etc. Then what about this: She visits you in rehab, you weigh three pounds, and she takes your hand, and tells you about a dream. She meets Andy Warhol. He's from Pittsburgh and he and their seven bridges, the Carnegie and coal are what Pittsburgh's known for.

Not coal, he interrupts, not for a long time.

Shut up, I say, no one cares about history.

She tells you she was going crazy, she missed you bad, and decides to walk across every bridge in 24 hours, a penitential mission. She's wandering, storm brewing. Every bridge, she has weird conversations with strangers—you can make those up—[he gives me the finger]—last bridge she sees a man about to jump off, and long story short she saves him. But it's about you. She feels total guilt about you. That night Andy Warhol appears in her dream. Andy's lying on his bed drawing comic books—and [I'm fumbling here...] and, you know, you're the hero in an action-adventure comic he's drawing... Because Andy knows when you clean up, you're going to become a great person, a famous writer... And now she knows she was wrong to...

This is a ridiculous way to end the story, he says.

You have a better idea, I say.

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Dan Bevacqua is a graduate from both Emerson College and Columbia University. His stories have appeared in JERRY: Magazine and 580 Split. He teaches at Western New England University, and lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he is at work on a novel.

Anelise Chen is writing a series called "So Many Olympic Exertions." Poetry & fiction from this series has appeared in Gigantic, Thieves Jargon, and No Dear. Her articles have appeared in the PEN America blog, the Rumpus, and other places.

Mitchell S. Jackson is a Portland, Oregon, native living in Brooklyn. He is the recipient of fellowships from the Urban Artist Initiative and the Center for Fiction as well as a Fiction Writing award from the Hurston Wright Foundation. His work has appeared in journals, anthologies, and magazines. He recently finished a novel manuscript titled The Residue Years and is hard at work on a novel in stories titled The Fast Nickel Beats the Slow Twenty.

Lynne Tillman is the author of five novels, three collections of short stories, one collection of essays and two other nonfiction books. Her last collection of short stories, This Is Not It, included twenty-three stories based on the work of twenty-two contemporary artists. Her novels include American Genius, A Comedy; No Lease on Life, which was a New York Times Notable Book of 1998 and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; and Haunted Houses. She is the fiction editor at Fence Magazine, professor and writer-in-residence in the Department of English at the University at Albany, and a recent recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. She lives in New York City.

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Art: Astronauts #2 by Maria Kondratiev.

 
 
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