May 3, 2012
It’s Short Story Month, here’s some Tao Lin
by Kevin Murphy
Dan Wickett, founder of Dzanc Books and Emerging Writers Network inaugurated Short Story Month in 2007. All month long on EWN and elsewhere, folks are reviewing, reading, and talking about various stories published in journals and collections.
Melville House publishes its share of short fiction, so in the spirit of things this month we’re running a weekly series wherein we’ll post on Moby Lives stories from some of our own collections. First up is Tao Lin’s “Sasquatch,” originally published in the Mississippi Review and subsequently collected in BED.
by Tao Lin
Though she’d begun to get a bit fat that winter, it was in February, around when her father found a toy poodle (sitting there, in the side yard, watchful and expectant as a person), and adopted it, that a weightlessness entered into Chelsea’s blood — an inside ventilation, like a bacteria of ghosts — and it was sometime in the fall, before her 23rd birthday, that her heart, her small and weary core, neglected now for years, vanished a little, from the center out, took on the strange and hollowed heaviness of a weakly inflated balloon.
This wasn’t sadness — there were no feelings of desperation or disaster, nothing like depression with its one slowed-down realization of having been badly and untraceably misunderstood — but rather a plain, artless form of loneliness; something uninteresting, factual, and teachable, perhaps, to children or adults, with flashcards of household items (toothbrush, pillow), coloring books of fleeting, unaccompanied things (hailstones that melt midair; puddles formed and unseen and gone; illusions of friends in the periphery), and a few real-world assignments (post-nap trip to the pet store in the early, breezy evening; Halloween night asleep on the sofa; Saturday night dinner in the parking lot, looking through the windshield at the pizza buffet restaurant you just got take-out from).
“I don’t want to serve those guys,” Chelsea said at Denny’s to her manager Bernadette. “You do it please?” Around a person like Bernadette, who once said to a plate of pancakes she was going to fire it, then went around telling everyone, including patrons, about that — “I fired some pancakes earlier, so watch out” — Chelsea could get pleading and playful a bit; around most other people she just felt surreally retarded or else profoundly insane all the time.
“I’m going to fire you,” Bernadette said. “Wait. I’m going to promote you.”
“Then I can fire myself,” Chelsea said. “Yeah. I’ll just fire myself.” She’d get a job wearing a hot dog suit, roadside — dancing, losing weight, holding up a vaguely controversial sign: Juicy, tender, cheap; so eat me. Teenagers would drive by and assault her. “But yeah; they went to high school with me. But we pretended no one knew each other. They wouldn’t look at me. Even them two pretended they didn’t know each other. That’s how bad it got.”
“You take big head, then. The big-headed guy. I’ll do the losers you went to high school with.”
“I hate it when people call people losers,” Chelsea said.
“Look at me. I manage a chain restaurant that sells pancakes at night. I tell my boyfriend he’s a loser every day. I did that today. Who wants to succeed in life? No one.”
“Um, I’m a waitress at Denny’s, and you’re my manager. And you’re like one year older than me, and way more successful.” Though she knew while saying it that it wasn’t going to make much sense, she said it anyway, with a sort of conviction, even, because she was not good at functioning in real-time, especially when distracted, like she was now, by how tiny and beautiful Bernadette was, like a child, almost, whereas Chelsea herself was homelier, medium-sized, and, in an obscure way that she sometimes — usually after coffee — thought, but never really believed, might be mysterious and therefore attractive, disproportioned, like a vitamin-deficient, softly-mutated, childlike sort of adult. “Why are you calling that guy ‘big head’?” she said.
Bernadette moved toward Chelsea — who, as always, when approached, began like a blowfish to feel growing and more sensitive — and hugged her. “Calm down, girl,” Bernadette said, and something behind Chelsea’s ribs that had been swinging, black and heavy like a pendulum, swung a little more, then detached and fell away, and in the unoccupied moment that followed — it was one of those moments you could go away from and relax a little and then come back as how you yourself wanted to be, rather than what the world wanted you to be — Chelsea had the thought that Bernadette was a good person, and felt like she might cry, or at least say something. But Bernadette stepped back and Chelsea hesitated, then went to the big-headed man and looked at him, the secret reality of his skull, thinking that if it wasn’t so large he would’ve made more friends as a child, wouldn’t now be eating alone on a Friday night.
She took his order, wandered around — always felt like she was ‘wandering around,’ even at work, which seemed wrong in some deep-brained way — served him, and, while seating an elderly couple, then, watched as her old high school classmates left without paying.
“Hey,” she said in back to Bernadette. “Those high school guys just ditched.”
Bernadette filled a soft drink and set it down. “Chase them,” she said. “Now’s your chance to scream at them. I’m serious. It’s an opportunity.” She pushed Chelsea toward the entrance, and Chelsea went there. “Call them names! It’ll feel good.”
Outside, they were across the parking lot, getting into a car, and Chelsea chased after them — vaguely, in a jog. She felt tired, but wanted to scream things. Maybe she should call them shitheads. She kind of wanted to wave at them. The air was warm and things were quiet, and she didn’t want to run anymore, but they’d think she was strange if she just stood there with a blank face — they’d say she stopped because of being too fat. She ran at the car and one of them put his head out a window and screamed something. His voice cracked. His mouth stayed open a moment and Chelsea looked for teeth, but there was just black space there, a hole on the face.
Back in Denny’s, Bernadette said she’d pay.
“I’ll pay,” Chelsea said. “They think I pretended I didn’t know them.”
“What are you talking about? I’ll pay.” “Fine,” Chelsea said. “You pay.” “I’ll pay half. But tell me where they live and we’ll vandalize their homes.” “I don’t know them.” “We’ll bury their mailbox in the neighbor’s yard,” Bernadette said. “This’ll be good. Causing destruction when it’s justified is good.” Chelsea’s mother left when Chelsea was in middle school. She had written a note, then one morning was standing by her car. She hadn’t ever smiled, really — they’d been a family of grinners and smirkers — but she did, that day, in the driveway, teeth white and glistening as something that in darkness would glow, and it made Chelsea, at the front doorway, smile, too; and she looked up and her dad was also smiling; and her mother drove away. It wasn’t so sad (except maybe in the way that all things are sad), as the three of them had never been close, but just mumbling and monosyllabic all the time, like an inwardly preoccupied people, distracted always by their own supposed alivenesses — how their wet hearts, placed there, behind the breezy hollows of the lungs, in the saunaish chest, warm and pressurized as a yawn, would sometimes (at night or in the afternoons, though sometimes over a few weeks, or seasons, even) feel tired and too hot, and then airy, and dry, and finally a little floating and skyward, as if wanting to leave, having realized, perhaps, wrongly or not, that life was elsewhere; or, rather, that their service was not to these lives, not to these single people, but to some history of people, already gone, faceless and sadder as some ocean in some night somewhere, not touching anything, or existing, even, but feelable, still, sometimes, cold and temperatureless, like a sudden awareness of time, of being actually alive; a sensation of falseness, really, of being lied to.
“You should be a bounty hunter, or something,” Chelsea said. “I don’t know.” In high school she got nervous around people, and spent too much time on the Internet. She began to stutter a little, and one Christmas her dad — who was a card-giver; had never bought Chelsea, or anyone, a present — ordered her tapes for social anxiety disorder and put them in her room. You were supposed to listen to them and do the assignments and become more outgoing and less afraid. Chelsea cried when she saw them. They didn’t talk about it. And though Chelsea listened carefully to all twenty tapes, and tried hard — making small talk with strangers, walking around in malls and making eye contact with people, calling stores to practice her voice — nothing really changed, and she went to college in New York City, where sometimes, in bed and unsleepy, the rest of her life would quickly assemble and disassemble, as if some faraway eye had glimpsed the entire idea of her, by accident, and had not noticed, really, but subconsciously dismissed it, as an optical illusion; and where, most days, a keen, gray energy (this deadened sort of voltage — something of faux sophistication, low grade restlessness, and, in that she often had the urge to stop walking and curl against a building and sleep there and freeze to death, a passive aggressive sort of suicidal despair) would move through her (though some afternoons around her, uncertainly, like she might be in the way, and then she’d just feel indistinct and hungry).
“We’ll chalk their driveways,” Bernadette said. “We’ll write, ‘I am inside your house and will kill you.’ Then draw a ghoul. I’d freak out so bad.” She laughed. “We did stuff like that in high school. I miss it.”
After college, with her higher-education unassimilated and separate and dully stimulating as tropical fish — darting, slowing, and then not floating to the top but just sort of self-destructing — in the light-reflecting pond of her mind, Chelsea returned home to Florida, sat around the house for about a year (eating things, mostly), and, as a way to get out more and maybe make some friends, then, got a job at Denny’s.
That was in November, and now it was March, and Chelsea — the water of her mind lately fishless and still, though occasionally something enormous and blurry like the Loch Ness Monster would roll through, in a sort of cartwheel — still got nervous at work, most days had to sit in her car, breathing deep, from the stomach (little towels of air, warm and wrapping against the heart), before going in. But she was glad to have some social interaction, so as not to lose herself completely, as one could do that, she knew, could toss one’s life in a pile, like a nail clipper, with a lot of other stuff. It could get thrown out, by accident. And then you had to get a new one. But it wasn’t as good. Or maybe it was better — maybe sometimes it was better — so good you couldn’t remember the old one anymore.
After work, Chelsea didn’t want to go home, and called her dad. “I’m going to Wal-Mart first,” she said. “I might try on clothes.” A hat. Maybe there’d be a nice hat. “I might go to the bookstore too. So don’t worry.”
Her dad said he found a white dog. He said something about the stock market, and to buy a movie for him.
In Wal-Mart, the lights were bright and everywhere like in a surgical ward, though also cheap and paneled and vaguely irradiating like in an elementary school or TV UFO. Chelsea felt disembodied and wandered deep into the clothing section, then went back to her car, and then back in Wal-Mart, to the side of the store not the clothing section, where she found a discount bin, leaned over it — kind of wanting to climb in, like a kid — searched a while, and found a foreign movie she’d seen before, in college. She had downloaded it one night in her dorm room and watched it off her computer screen. It was about a man who suffered from existential despair. He suffered and suffered, and then someone shot him twice in the chest.
“This is a movie to watch on Halloween when the kids are out trick-or-treating,” said the register person, an old lady.
“Oh,” Chelsea said. “Why?” “The film’s on sale,” said the old lady. “It is?” “First nothing’s on sale. Then five things. Then everything is free.”
“Oh,” Chelsea said, and almost said, “Cool,” as she had a thing — back in college, mostly — where she’d say, “Oh,” wait a moment, say, “Cool,” and then grin self-consciously. It was her way of saying, “I have no idea how to respond to what you just said. I have no idea, but other people, I’m sure, do. It’s my fault, not yours. I know I seem disinterested, or something. You shouldn’t trust that. I just didn’t know how to react. The grin means I’m amiable.”
In the parking lot, she drove and parked in a dark area with no other cars around. She reclined her seat, and listened to music. Outside there were trees, a ditch, a bridge, another parking lot. It was very dark. Maybe the Sasquatch would run out from the woods. Chelsea wouldn’t be afraid. She would calmly watch the Sasquatch jog into the ditch then out, hairy and strong and mysterious — to be so large yet so unknown; how could one cope except by running? — smash through some bushes, and sprint, perhaps, behind Wal-Mart, leaping over a shopping cart and barking. Did the Sasquatch bark? It used to alarm Chelsea that this might be all there was to her life, these hours alone each day and night — thinking things and not sharing them and then forgetting. The possibility of that would shock her a bit, trickily, like a three-part realization: that there was a bad idea out there; that that bad idea wasn’t out there, but here; and that she herself was that bad idea. But recently, and now, in her car, she just felt calm and perceiving, and a little consoled, even, by the sad idea of her own life, as if it were someone else’s, already happened, in some other world, placed now in the core of her, like a pillow that was an entire life, of which when she felt exhausted by aloneness she could crumple and fall towards, like a little bed, something she could pretend, and believe, even (truly and unironically believe; why not?), was a real thing that had come from far away, through a place of no people, a place of people, and another place of no people, as a gift, for no occasion, but just because she needed, or perhaps deserved — did the world try in that way? to make things fair? — it.
In the morning she looked puffy to herself in the mirror — not like a person at all, not like anything — and didn’t want to leave the house. She called in sick, went back to sleep, and woke in the afternoon. She washed her face, not looking at it, and went into the living room. Her dad was lying on the carpet, head propped up, watching the movie she’d bought him. A dog was walking around. It looked nervous and very small. Chelsea sat on the sofa and lay down and fell asleep, and then her dad was touching her shoulder and grinning. “I’m watching it again,” he was saying. “The movie made me feel good. I think I’ll watch it again.” The dog was barking somewhere and, in the vague panic and quicker learning of having just woken up, the world seemed obscure in a meticulous and exciting way, like in childhood, perhaps, and the feeling of that glided in, from some corner of the room, and filled the space in Chelsea from where once it had left. She was not really awake; or maybe was still asleep. She didn’t know. But she felt ready (for what, she couldn’t tell; just a kind of readiness), and was thinking that there were three of them, like a team or triangle, set to leave this place, safe because of the variety (man, animal, girl) and purposed because of the movie, and, liking the way she felt, then, smiled a little — prepared to travel, or whatever, to some unique and distractionless spot, thinking strange and illogical thoughts, and about to shrink into herself, to fit the small room of being asleep, the boxing-in and cardboard of it, like a shipment that stays, or a heart that goes, into a lung, and sits there, beating into itself, worldless and full.
In the spring, a few months after Chelsea’s high school classmates ran out on their check, Bernadette began to talk again about vandalizing them — “We should paint their windows black and superglue their front door” — and Chelsea looked forward to that. But after a while Bernadette stopped talking about it, then one night said she was moving to Seattle with her boyfriend, and a week later was gone. Chelsea was moved to the morning shift — her new manager was balding, with two sons at the community college — and found herself not knowing what to do each day after work. Sometimes she just drove around and listened to the radio. Then she began to sit in her room and go through all her old things, and found her social anxiety tapes, and listened to them, more out of boredom — or nostalgia, even, as sometimes she missed her teenage emotions, those moments when, alone, in her room, in the morning or at night, something in her would deepen, there would be a space and a rush, like a falls, and she would drop a little, into that depth, the secret lake of it, close and warm and wild as, she imagined, a best friend — than in an attempt to change (though of course there was a little hope; always, there was a little hope), but most days just fell asleep, anyway, before each half hour tape ended, and so after a while just took to taking naps, naturally, without any tapes. One afternoon she had a dream. She and a boy were holding hands on a bus. It was a field trip. In the parking lot there were midgets, talking to her. The boy was in the distance, tall and shy and waiting, and she felt compassionate. She petted the midget’s heads, then tentatively picked up two of them — one in each arm — and grinned at the boy, who had a video camera and was filming the movie. She had an idea and hesitated, and picked up a third midget by having her two midgets pick up another midget.
At night, the boy held her and they watched their movie in the Sunshine cinema in Manhattan.
“That was risky,” she said in the boy’s ear. “The third midget.”
“You’re risky,” he said. “I like midgets.” “I like you,” he said. And she felt vivid and nervous, and happy. Another day, a little bored after a nap, she sort of wandered into a strip mall pet-store and — in a tic of expendable income and misdirected loneliness — bought a 50 gallon fish aquarium, with an oak stand. At home, her dad put the poodle, who he’d named Wong Kar-Wai, in the aquarium, and Wong Kar-Wai lay down, unsurprised and accepting; when Chelsea went to take him out, though, she fell and knocked the aquarium off its stand and Wong Kar-Wai landed badly, and yelped, then walked around strangely, as if paralyzed a little; but after a while walked normally and then one day ran away. Chelsea’s dad put flyers in people’s mailboxes, and an old man called, said he’d found a toy poodle, but that it was his — he lived four houses down, he said, and had almost forgotten about Ronnie, who’d disappeared about half a year ago — and then it was summer and the heat and humidity made Chelsea’s skin oily and, for a few days in July, and then an entire week in August, she thought about moving to San Francisco. She felt excited. But she didn’t know what she would do there. Probably just work at another Denny’s. She wouldn’t have any friends — not that she had any now — and her dad would be alone. And she had to take care of her fish; she had a lot now. So she decided to stay, and settled into a sort of routine: working, napping, reading, taking care of her fish, and, on the weekends, eating dinner or seeing movies with her dad, who she more and more felt comfortable talking to, and who, one evening in October, then, came home from a walk and said he’d met a young man, who’d just moved here for graduate school and with whom he’d set up a date with Chelsea, and Chelsea went on it, but, driving around — she’d said something about these two parks she liked, and then he’d wanted to see them both — was so nervous and became so silent and still, like a statue, almost, though also trembling a bit, and sweating, that, finally, after twenty five minutes of driving, stupidly, from one park to the other (the parks were in different counties), staring at things, the young man, who had blonde eyebrows and had mentioned when he first got in the car that he felt great, said he felt really sick and needed to go home and sleep. Chelsea dropped him off, and ate pizza alone in her car. And felt so disappointed at herself that when she came home and her dad stood up, smiling, and asked her how it went, she thought she was going to hug him and cry, that it would be one of those scenes — like on TV, when dads say, “Now, now, hey, now,” while holding their daughters, who sob, then sniffle, then eat too many cookies and grin — but nothing like that had ever happened to her and she knew it wouldn’t now, or probably ever. She said she was sleepy and went to her room, and stood there, in the middle of it, wanting to sleep immediately but knowing she should wash her face and brush her teeth first; and being annoyed at that, and then at everything, at all of canceled and envisioning life, the darkened yearning of upkeep and practice, the sarcasm of it all, like a lie that says it’s the truth and begins and goes for a while and then stops being sarcastic and doesn’t go anymore, so that when her dad surprised her, a few minutes later, by coming into her room without knocking, catching her just standing there, not doing anything, with the lights off, she got angry, though mostly it was just dismay — a dry and lifeward sort of beating, unpulsing and everywhere as a sky; how could one cope with that? — and looked at her dad, something wild and extrasensory in her eyes, and shouted that he should knock, that he should go away and knock next time. He left and she showered, then wrote a note of apology and found him in the living room, on the sofa, and handed it to him. But at Sweet Tomatoes the next afternoon — a late lunch before an early movie — he didn’t ask about the young man, whose name was Mitchell, and she didn’t talk about him, and the knowledge of that stayed between them, like a thing that was large and trembled when approached, and they talked less, and the friendliness they’d built between them the past couple of months, like a sandcastle, was subsumed by the water of the last 22 years. In bed that night it felt to Chelsea like whatever this was would go on forever, but also just a little longer, as it was a kind of forever that was so fast and small that it blurred and seemed to be over, already, and always — to be over forever.
And then later that same week at the grocery she saw her manager and turned to go the other direction. She stepped into an instant noodle stand, knocking a few of them down, and began to walk quickly out of the aisle, but then realized that she’d see her manager the next day, at work, and so turned back. He was about twenty feet away and looking at her, and she waved.
“Chelsea,” he said.
“Hi,” Chelsea said. “I’m just here — for buying some things.” He looked a little bored, or else tired, and he gazed at her, a bit meanly, without smiling. She was holding a plum and a toothbrush. She’d been driving around, feeling a little empty, and had wanted a plum, and then had decided to buy a new toothbrush. “Okay,” she said. “I’m going to buy this — fruit.” Her face was red, and she stuttered a little — something that hadn’t happened since high school, she knew immediately.
In the car, she thought about how she’d wanted to go to San Francisco. No one knew because she hadn’t told anyone. She thought about some other things — her dad and mom and Bernadette; college and childhood; how when you were two years old you didn’t know what a friend was, but mostly just observed things, without any sadness, and didn’t feel alone, even when you were — and then wanted to cry; but it wasn’t happening, so she sort of forced herself to, and it worked. She cried a little, then stopped and ate her plum, slowly, in a daze of chewing and swallowing, and then took her new toothbrush out of its packaging and looked at it and put it in her pocket, and after that cried for a longer time and loudly, shaking a bit.
Before going home, she drove around a while — singing along to songs, not thinking anything at all, and with the windows down, to let the wind at her face — so that her dad wouldn’t see that she had been crying. In the garage, sitting in the car, she laughed a little, thinking of what she’d said to her manager, then felt nervous and afraid, anticipating when she’d see him again, but the next day he was kind and approached her first, smiling and with a small bag of plums, of which Chelsea, on her break and then after work, ate the entire thing of, as she didn’t want to have to explain all this to her dad, or else bring the plums home and have her dad not say anything about them — she didn’t want that either.
In December, for her 23rd birthday, Chelsea went bowling with her dad. It was a strange, woozy night, both of them trying for enthusiasm, but trying halfheartedly, or else too hard, or perhaps not even trying anymore — when did trying try too hard and escape itself and fly away, leaving you there, below and shrinking? — and ended up with a low-level, unwanted sort of sarcasm; the kind where you smirked a lot.
There was an arcade there, and first thing, before bowling — before bowling two games and stopping for ice cream on the way home (Chelsea’s dad insisting on buying a cone and bringing it back to the car, as a sort of surprise, as he felt bad for not getting Chelsea a real present but just a card with money in it; and Chelsea, waiting in the car, looking through the windshield, at her dad in the store looking down through glass, at all the bright and oozy ice creams, to choose something for his daughter, for herself, and feeling, then, in the bones of her face and the dusk of her chest a chill of something casual and temperatureless) — before all that, Chelsea’s dad saw the arcade and went in there and beat a teenager in a fighting game.
“That’s not right,” the teenager said. “You were lucky. Rematch.”
“Good job,” Chelsea said. There was something dark and tall in the far corner, past a few billiards tables, and she glanced at it.
“Skill,” said Chelsea’s dad.
The teenager had a hand in his pocket, low and feeling for quarters, and he looked at Chelsea, and Chelsea looked down at the teenager’s shoes — they were green — then elsewhere, and then made eye contact with her dad, by accident, and looked away. But he’d been watching her, so Chelsea looked back; he was grinning, and she felt sorry for him, for having created her — for having brought such a shy and cheerless thing into this quickly passing world — and wanted to go away, for three months (three would be enough, if she really tried, and worked hard), to learn about talking and feelings and relationships, and come back, then, confident as a friend, real and laughing as a daughter.
“I won,” said Chelsea’s dad, and went to give Chelsea a high-five, but missed, as they were standing too close.
“My fault,” he said. “That was my fault.” “Oh,” Chelsea said.
And he stepped back a little and tried again, but Chelsea, distracted now by something — maybe the plant in the far corner, standing and waiting like a person in a dream, or maybe the green shoe or some other thing that was out there and longing, to be looked at, and taken — wasn’t ready, and their hands, his then hers, passed through the air in a kind of wave, a little goodbye.
Tao Lin’s story collection BED is available from Melville House Publishers. Tune in next Thursday when we feature another great short story from one of our authors.
Kevin Murphy is the digital media marketing manager of Melville House.